In his new book Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture In Modern Egypt, Andrew Simon recounts how, on 12 June, 1974, US President Richard Nixon landed in Cairo for a “tour of peace” in the Middle East. Embroiled in the Watergate scandal at home, many American media outlets branded Nixon’s tour as an escape from the turmoil in Washington, dubbing it Nixon’s Hijra, a reference to Prophet Muhammad’s forced flight from Makkah (Peace Be Upon Him).
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat laid on a big welcome for his American guest with celebrations in the Egyptian media and a throng of crowds lined up in Cairo to greet the US President. Cries of “Welcome to the man of peace!”, “We believe in Nixon!” and “Long live Nixon” rang out. It is still regarded as one of the warmest receptions that Nixon ever received during his presidency.
However, while — officially, at least — Egyptians were celebrating the US president’s visit, in the shops and streets of Egypt, a song was circulating which painted Nixon’s visit in a different light. Sung by one of Egypt’s most popular and subversive composers and singers Shaykh Imam, it was a hit: Nixon Baba (“Father Nixon”) welcomed the US president with mocking and satirical lyrics. As Simon observes, “Imam… points to Nixon’s then ‘frail’ state and comments on the possibility of him being ‘no longer around’.”
Imam’s song not only demonstrated that not everyone welcomed Nixon to their country, but that a medium also existed which enabled discontented and dissident voices to express their opinions when blocked from traditional media channels. That medium was the cassette tape, an important archival resource for looking at Egyptian social history, argues Simon, because it offers us a glimpse into popular culture and politics.
The rise of the use of cassette tapes coincided with Egypt’s economic liberalisation, or Infitah (the opening) in the 1970s under Sadat, when the country experienced greater levels of globalisation, migration and the import of foreign goods. Control of the media has always been a central feature of Egyptian regimes since the 1920s and 1930s, when Cairo controlled and regulated radio stations. According to the author, the easy availability of cassette tapes was a source of anxiety for the Egyptian state and its elites. “Cassette technology decentralised state-controlled Egyptian media long before the advent of satellite television and the internet, enabling an unprecedented number of people to participate in the creation of culture and the circulation of content.”
The idea that cassettes could be dangerous features throughout the book. One way used to police the content in circulation remains references to “high class” material opposed to the more common and “vulgar” tastes.
In 2020, the Egyptian Musicians’ Union outlawed music called Mahraganat, a do-it-yourself genre popular with the urban working class, who largely produced it too. The genre has always been of concern to the Egyptian authorities; one MP said that it is more dangerous than the coronavirus. Critiques of the music have deep roots with cultural commentators going back to the 1970s and 1980s and bemoaning that Mahraganat represented the decline of Egyptian culture. However, as Simon argues, “From the perspective of many local observers, audiotapes empowered anyone to become an artist, resulting in the diffusion of suspect voices that degraded the ears, the morals, the taste of Egyptians.” This led to frequent attacks on both the genre and the technology that enabled it. The “democratising” aspect of cassette tapes was exactly what cultural critics did not like.
Andrew Simon has produced something that is truly niche and yet tells a much broader story. Media of the Masses… enables us to see how what is today regarded as an antiquated medium unable to generate the same kind of cultural fixation that, say, smart devices or even the internet does, can offer an insight into social anxieties at the heart of the development of modern Egypt.
The sense that a country opening up to the world and in some ways opening its soul to global trends while having something it wishes to hide is an all too familiar story. The cassette tapes are archives in their own right of the hopes, fears and desires of late 20th century Arab, Islamic and Egyptian society. Because their content is not a written record in some government-controlled archive, cassette tapes are in danger of being overlooked as a resource. Moreover, they are disappearing due to a lack of adequate preservation. Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt is a wake-up call about the potential utility of cassettes in the search for a deeper understanding of the past.