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Brian Edwards on US Culture in Iran

Young Iranians today have more access to American cultural products than ever before, from Shrek dubbed in Farsi to a Gap knockoff store in Tehran. In his new book, After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, Brian Edwards writes how popular, cinema, literary, digital, and academic culture from the U.S. reaches North Africa and the Middle East, is stripped of its Americanness, and is recontextualized in a different light. Edwards sat down with World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman to discuss the geopolitical implications of this global morphing of American culture and how it affects diplomacy. Edwards is a professor at Northwestern University, where he is founding director of the Program in Middle East and North African Studies. 

DAVID ANDELMAN: Let's start by talking about the role American culture is playing in Iran, especially among young people and their view of the American system.

BRIAN EDWARDS: What’s interesting about the way American culture and other global cultures play in Iran, Egypt, Morocco, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa is that it's part of the landscape that is recognizably coming from the United States, but doesn't always carry the overwhelming mark of Americanness. Younger people, especially in urban centers, are consumers of popular culture of the United States—and also of Europe, India, East Asia—through digital means that allow them much easier access to our cultural products than during the pre-digital age, even in places like Iran where digital culture is reportedly blocked. I'd been told about illegal literature like Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses or Reading Lolita in Tehran being banned, and yet I found that I could get access to pretty much any of these things when I was in Iran.

DA: Even The Satanic Verses, that's extraordinary. The author was under a fatwa for decades.

BE: I gave a talk at the University of Tehran and one of the students asked me if I could help get a copy of The Satanic Verses; he'd heard so much about it and was interested. A professor who was standing nearby overheard the request, and said to the student, "Oh, I've got a copy, I'll let you borrow it." Another time in Tehran, in the apartment of a scholar who always wore robes and a turban indicating he was a seyyed (descended from the Prophet), I thought I noticed a satellite TV receiver. Quite naively, I asked if it was in fact a satellite TV receiver; he moved the fabric covering it a little and said "Oh no, it's not." Or hearing what's supposed to be illegal music playing on the radio in taxis. I remember I was staying in Tehran at a university guest house, and on the television in the lobby, you could see pretty much anything, including pornography, since the satellite signal wasn’t filtered. Sometimes at cyber cafés in Tehran you’d get a screen that indicated you were being blocked by the Islamic Republic, but people would tell you, "Oh, we have a proxy server. We can get around that." What's interesting to me is that within what I refer to as the digital age, access to foreign and American culture is so much more immediate and rapid. Blocking websites seems to me a very 20th century means by which to inhibit access to global culture, but there are numerous ways around that, and blocking doesn't last very long. The digital age has absolutely and fundamentally transformed the way cultural products move through the world.

DA: I have the sense that the years of isolation, sanctions in Iran weren't all that wrenching in terms of implanting a deeply entrenched American culture that seems to have taken root and hasn't been rooted out during all those years of America being the great Satan.

BE: My research focused on three parts of the MENA region, chosen because they're quite different from one another with respect to attitudes toward the U.S. What I was struck by in Iran was how much more fascination with and awareness of American popular culture, cinema, literary culture, even academic culture there was, even though sanctions limited official or legal access. That could mean, for example, easy access to Hollywood movies; new releases that were in the cinema here in the U.S. were easily accessible on the streets of Tehran for about a dollar apiece through digital pirating. I had a number of young people tell me that they were more familiar with American popular culture than Americans. Then there were the knock-offs. You couldn't find Pepsi Cola, but you could find Farsi Cola with a logo that emulated Pepsi’s; you couldn't find McDonalds but you could find Boof, a fast food chain that looked American down to the uniforms. In a little shopping mall on Gandhi Street in Tehran, I found what looked like an outlet of Gap. This was during the Ahmadinejad administration when sanctions were very strong. They were taking merchandise from real Gap outlets in Dubai and bringing it back to Tehran and selling at a big markup. The American “look” was prevalent.

DA: You suggest that Shrek, the cartoon character, played, and continues to play, a tremendous role in Iran.

BE: Your question helps me segue to a major question of the book—what does this fascination among many young Iranians mean? Does it mean that they secretly aspire to leave Iran and go to the United States? Sometimes I've had young Iranians tell me that they hoped the United States would overthrow their government, but more often I found the opposite. Iran’s a very cinema-focused society. I was surprised to see a fascination, at times almost an obsession, with the character of Shrek.

DA: The advantage of cartoons is that you can put whatever words you want in the mouths of these characters, so are you confident that these are the kinds of expressed feeling, emotions, and thoughts that were in the original?

BE: What happened with Shrek is that there were multiple dubbings in circulation—competing versions of Shrek in Iran. And so I started tracking them down. I had a research assistant, a young Iranian woman who's also a journalist, and she helped me look for different versions of Shrek. Anything from official-looking stores, bookstores, or DVD stands and we'd go in and I'd say, "Do you have copies of Shrek?" and they'd say, "Well, which Shrek?" I’d reply, “I don't care, Shrek I,” and they'd say, "Well, which version of Shrek I?" because there were two, three, or four different competing versions that people felt very strongly about. Some were relatively close to the original film, just dubbed and translated, but with some Persian word play. But in others they started to make Shrek into a very Iranian product with regional accents that had a lot of meaning and humor for Iranians, playing up stereotypes within Iran. It got to the point where my research assistant on this project said to me, "Why is it that you're so obsessed with finding Shrek?" I tried to explain, "Well, it seems like it's a window into something.” I asked her, “How many times have you seen the film?” She replied, "Oh, I don't know, 36 or 37 times. Not very many; not like most people." I said, "Well, that seems excessive." But she countered, “It is not really an American film we're watching anymore, it's an Iranian film. The Shrek we are watching is an Iranian Shrek.” That was a revelatory moment in the research of the book.

DA: But do you think that was purely because of political correctness and of never knowing who's overhearing them, or do you think that's genuine?

BE: I don't think Shrek seemed to anyone to be especially dangerous. I do think there was a bit of reluctance to give too much credit to the U.S. for this excellent cultural product. During my time lecturing at the University of Tehran, I'd heard students debate why they didn't learn CGI (computer-generated imagery) technology better so that their studios could make what they called “Islamically correct” films that looked like Shrek. There's no question that this was a foreign product that was coming from the United States, and there was some stubbornness on the part of this young woman for not wanting to give credit to the U.S. for making it. But really she was saying, “Look, we don't think of this product as evidence of American superiority or an example of cultural diplomacy. We're just having fun with it and playing with it and making it our own thing. And you won’t understand what we do with it.” It's like trying to explain a joke. The jokes in the Iranian Shrek are lost on Americans because they are not simply a translation of our product.

DA: What specifically do you think they were trying to bring across with any particular Shrek movie?

BE: It’s still entertainment, of course, so we go back to the very premise of the book, which is that American popular culture, cinema culture, digital culture, social networking software, YouTube, all products that are associated with the United States have never been more popular around the world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, at the same time that the political reputation of the United States has hit a low point in the same region. Is that a paradox or not? The title of my book, After the American Century, refers to Henry Luce’s premise that within the so-called American century, our popular culture could be useful for creating what he called a world environment within which the United States might thrive. During the Cold War there was an expansion of what we now call cultural diplomacy: the harnessing of the charisma of American popular culture to help somehow smooth the way for U.S. policies, to make them more attractive. During the 1950s, developmentalists like Daniel Lerner and his team of researchers were interested in what the arrival of media such as radio and cinema meant for democratization of the Middle East. During the Cold War there were State Department projects that emerged from Luce’s “American century” logi, including jazz tours, traveling painting exhibitions, author tours, and so on, paid for by the state because it seemed to be useful on a Lucian premise. If we move to the 21st century, and back to the paradox that I started with, that American popular culture is massively popular in places like Iran, Egypt, and Morocco just as our political reputation is plummeting, I ask: Is the Lucean framework still relevant? That's the question that motivated the entire book. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, there were prominent voices, such as Alan Riding of the New York Times, who said we should "rerun our Cold War cultural diplomacy." The Bush administration hired marketing experts and videographers and the State Department revamped a lot of the cultural diplomacy that they'd just taken apart in 1999 with the defunding of the USIA [United States Information Agency]. Here we were, just three years later, and people were calling for the rerunning of the Cold War apparatus we’d just dissembled. I went back to many of the places that had lost their funding and watched them as they were getting some of it back. The question that motivated the entire project was, does this work? Does the Iranian fascination with Shrek, or the Egyptian use of Facebook and love of American superhero comics or cyberpunk fiction mean anything? Is “culture,” from a policy standpoint, worth the investment? And from a descriptive standpoint, what does it look like when young people in the Middle East or North Africa have this encounter with American popular culture?

DA: Let's look at the worst-case scenario: Donald Trump. He's talked about walking away from the nuclear arms treaty with Iran. If this were to happen, what do you think would be the effect on the role of American culture in Iran?

BE: I did a couple of pieces for Salon this past winter about the effect of Trump in North Africa and the Middle East. There are obviously particular policy questions such as undoing the treaty with Iran, but the damage that Trump has done precedes particular policy decisions precisely because of the conditions that we're talking about. I was in Morocco this past September, when Trump first started making his comments about Muslims and how to restrict Muslims in the United States. I was in a university in Fes and students were eager to talk about Trump's message. First of all because it was immediately known to them, they had seen it on television, or the Internet. Like a good cultural historian, I started to give context for the rise of Donald Trump. I said, "Well, you know, a lot of people got to know him first via reality television." And they said, "Oh, we know, we know, Celebrity Apprentice, we know all about it." What was interesting was that American TV had already brought this character to places like Morocco. Because of Trump’s place in and facility with entertainment culture, one of the effects of his candidacy is that the space between popular culture and political culture are collapsing—this is an innovation in the last year or so. So his message of hatred, which is how it was understood by these young Muslims in Morocco, was circulating immediately and registering quickly. We often talk about the relationship between soft power and hard power from the United States, and that space is collapsing because of the Trump campaign. I recall how, during a particularly fraught moment between the U.S. and Iran, an Iranian sociologist commented to me, “The United States is much more effective politically and much more dangerous to Iran in terms of its influence within a ‘culture of peace’ than a ‘culture of war.’” In other words, soft power was more effective than hard power, popular culture was more effective than political threats.

DA: If he becomes president, I assume among youths in Iran who gravitate toward the Revolutionary Guard movement, and the extremes it represents, might be inclined to take serious action.

BE: When our political leaders talk in this sort of aggressive or threatening tone, what happens is the Iranian middle, those who find American culture charismatic and admire many things about the U.S. political system, tend to retrench and feel more patriotic or protective. They feel bullied or threatened. Then, what the Iranian social scientist called an American culture of war becomes less effective for U.S. interests than what he called a culture of peace, where the threat of the hard power becomes ironic or paradoxically less effective than the soft power.

DA: Do you have any contrast in the role of American culture and how deeply it's been embedded in Egypt and Morocco as opposed to Iran? Particularly since they are relatively quite open in terms of their ability to deal with the United States and American culture.

BE: During the many years I have researched in Morocco, people have frequently come up to me to remind me that Morocco was the first nation to acknowledge the sovereignty of the United States. I lived in Morocco in the 90s and spent a lot of time there in the 2000s and watched with dismay and sadness a place which was very friendly to the United States change over the course of the Bush administration, particularly as a new generation was listening to the hostile rhetoric that was coming from U.S. political discourse. I consider the most globally influential American cultural product of 2012 to be the low-budget “Innocence of Muslims” video, made in Southern California by a marginal character in the United States but which led to world-wide protests. Very few people in the United States actually saw the video, but increasingly it gave young Moroccans a sense that Americans were hostile to them. As a result, the message that political leaders were trying to spread—that the so-called “war on terror” was not a war on Islam—was becoming harder and harder for young Moroccans to accept. I don't think Morocco is hostile to the United States right now, but it certainly is not the same environment that it was.

DA: Your book, which is marvelous, After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, suggests it was somehow in a post-American century era. So what's next?

BE: After the American Century, as a title, refers to the logic of how we think of how culture circulates globally. The American century was Luce’s shorthand way of talking about what I call a logic of broadcasting—broadcasting our message out to the world. The Lucean logic assumes that people will simply receive American cultural products as they are exported and imagine that everything about life is attractive in the United States. I don't actually think that was true during the Cold War—I think people were a little bit more sophisticated then, too—but certainly in the digital age, with the arrival of easy and instant access to our cultural products, those conditions don't work anymore. We see it close to home too: the strange, unpredictable and head-scratching political campaign that we're in. None of us expected to go this way. There are many reasons for it, but surely one is the way in which people get their news and interact with the candidates. This campaign has altered the common understanding of what happens in political campaigns. Any number of things Donald Trump has said or done would have been the end of him in previous campaigns, but somehow they aren't. That’s in part because of the way people actually access the news; they're not reading long-form newspaper articles or analyses. They are seeing little snippets. This is the basis of what I call the changing epistemology of the digital age, the way that we know the things we know. We know things differently now because of the digital means by which we access “knowledge.” So my title “After the American Century” means that within the digital age, the fragmentary way in which people in the Middle East—but also in the United States and around the world—are getting access to popular culture and political culture, which is becoming increasingly aligned with entertainment culture, means that their relationship to some of the traditional patterns of political loyalty, of sustaining their own leaders, are different. That can be scary. The fragmentary way that existence can operate during the digital age means that political alliances may shift quickly. What does that mean as far as defining a period “after” the American century? Well, we will have the opportunity to experience this together and all signs are that it’s going to be quite the ride.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[Photo courtesy of Mehrad Watson]

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