Melodramas of Nationhood

  • Lila Abu-Lughod
Part of the St Antony’s Series book series (STANTS)


Suspecting that I might be the first anthropologist to give the distinguished Antonius lecture, and most probably the first feminist scholar to do so, I felt keenly my responsibility to show the value of anthropological research (making it clear that it offers more than quaint folklore and something other than colonial ventriloquism) and to convince you that considering women’s lives as well as men’s is important. These burdens were nothing, however, compared to the challenge of justifying the seriousness of the subject of my lecture, and of the ethnographic research I’ve been engaged in for the past five years: television melodrama — what you might call soap opera.


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  1. 1.
    For a discussion of television and Islamism, see Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘Dramatic Reversals,’ in Political Islam, eds Joel Beinin and Joe Stork (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On state feminism and its demise in Egypt, see Mervat Hatem, ‘Economic and Political Liberalization in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism,’ International Journal of Middle East Studies 24 (1992):231–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    My own hunch is that they do offer alternative models of the acceptability of emotional expression—especially of sadness or misery—to women and men like those I knew in the Awlad Ali community for whom public expression of these was culturally restricted. See Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Feminist critics have done for television soap opera what Brooks did for literary melodrama—forced a reevaluation of a genre dismissed as pap—as well as developing some critical ideas about female pleasure through its serious analysis. The feminist literature on soap opera is extensive and much of it quite good. Some key texts are Robert Allen, Speaking of Soap Opera (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Ien Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (London and New York: Methuen, 1985) and ‘Melodramatic Identifications’; Mary Ellen Brown, ed., Television and Women’s Culture (London: Sage, 1990); Charlotte Brunsdon, ‘The Role of Soap Opera in the Development of Feminist Television Scholarship,’ in To Be Continued …, ed. Robert C. Allen (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 49–55; Christine Geraghty, Women and Soap Opera: A Study of Prime-Time Soaps (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1991); Lynne Joyrich, ‘All that Television Allows: TV Melodrama, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture,’ in Private Screenings, eds Lynn Spiegel and Denise Mann (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 227–51; Tanya Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1982); Laura Mulvey, ‘Melodrama in and out of the Home,’ in High Theory/Low Culture, ed. Colin McCabe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 80–100; Laura Stempel Mumford, Love and Ideology in the Afternoon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Ellen Seiter et al., Remote Control: Television, Audiences, and Cultural Power (London: Routledge, 1989). Robert Allen’s recent edited collection on the global reception of soap opera, To Be Continued … is also an excellent resource.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Catherine Lutz, ‘Emotion, Thought, and Estrangement: Emotion as a Cultural Category,’ Cultural Anthropology 1, no. 4 (1986): 405–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Tanya Modleski, ‘The Rhythms of Reception: Daytime Television and Women’s Work,’ in Regarding Television, ed. E. Ann Kaplan, American Film Institute Monograph (Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1983), 67–75.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ann Cvetkovich, Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 6.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure (New York: Random House, 1985); ‘Technologies of the Self,’ in Technologies of the Self, eds L. Martin, H. Gutman, and R Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 16–49; ‘About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,’ Political Theory 21, no. 2 (1993): 198–227.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Walter Armbrust’s Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge-Cambridge University Press, 1996) is a serious contribution to our understanding of modernist cinema. Lizbeth Malkmus and Roy Armes in Arab and African Cinema (1991) also give some background. The background of Muhammad Fadil, Egypt’s preeminent television director, hints at the kinds of influence on those in mass media. He describes having been exposed to theater in university and having pursued his interests through wide reading not only at the public library in Alexandria but at the United States Information Library (interview 17 June 1993). Many television writers have backgrounds in literature. For general background on radio and television in Egypt, see Anciens et nouveaux medias en Egypte: Radio, television, cinema, video. Bulletin de CEDEJ 21, première semestre (1989).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Dwight Reynolds, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes: the Ethnography of Performance in an Arabic Oral Epic Tradition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); Susan Slyomovics, The Merchant of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). My experience has been that many men and women in their sixties, at least in the Awlad Ali Bedouin community in Egypt’s Western Desert where I have spent the most time, can recite verses. Men of the next generation who grew up in cities around the Arab world have boyhood memories of listening to traveling poets reciting the tale in the coffee shops.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Susan Slyomovics, ‘Praise of God, Praise of Self, Praise of the Islamic People: Arab Epic Narrative in Performance,’ in Classical and Popular Medieval Arabic Literature: a Marriage of Convenience, eds Jareer and Farida Abu-Haidar (London: Curzon Press, in press).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Susan Slyomovics, ‘The Death-Song of Amir Khafaji: Puns in an Oral and Printed Episode of Sirat Bani Hilal,’ Journal of Arabic Literature 18 (1987): 62–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    All translations from Susan Slyomovics, ‘The Birth of Abu Zayd: the Epic of the Bani Hilal Tribe in Upper Egypt,’ in Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent, eds John William Johnson, Thomas A. Hale, and Stephen Belcher (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, in press).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    As Foucault puts it, ‘The disciplines mark the moment when the reversal of the political axis of individualization—as one might call it—takes place. In certain societies … it may be said that individualization is greatest where sovereignty is exercised and in the highest echelons of power. The more one possesses power or privilege, the more one is marked as an individual, by rituals, written accounts or visual reproductions. The “name” and the genealogy that situate one within a kinship group, the performance of deeds that demonstrate superior strength and which are immortalized in literary accounts… all these are procedures “ascending” individualization. In a disciplinary regime, on the other hand, individualization is “descending”: as power becomes more anonymous and more functional, those on whom it is exercised tend to be more strongly individualized.’ Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1978) 192–3.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    See Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘Islam and the Gendered Discourses of Death’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 25 (1993): 187–205 for a discussion of some of the literature on lamentation.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 17.
    Elizabeth Wickett, ‘“For Our Destinies”: the Funerary Lament of Upper Egypt.’ Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1993, 166.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    The televised version of the Hilali epic was preceded by a revival through commercial audiocassette for mass consumption. Listened to in Cairo as well as back in the Upper Egyptian villages where people had enjoyed poets’ performances at weddings, it has taken on a new and different life, entering a cultural field where it can be deployed as a marker of the Egyptian ‘heritage’ as well as a source of regional pride for Upper Egyptians. Similarly, in the Western Desert, the Awlad Ali ghinnaawa has moved out of its context of the wedding and the oral recitation onto the commercial cassette, in the process excluding women reciters and being turned into a nostalgic form that marks regional or ethnic identity and an acceptable medium for the rebellion of young men against their elders. See Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘The Shifting Politics of Bedouin Love Poetry,’ in Language and the Politics of Emotion, eds Catherine Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    Ruth Behar, ‘Rage and Redemption: Reading the Life Story of a Mexican Marketing Woman,’ Feminist Studies 16 (1990): 223–58; Laurel Kendall, The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lila Abu-Lughod

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