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Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image

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This timely book examines the power and role of the image in modern Middle Eastern societies. The essays explore the role and function of image making to highlight the ways in which the images "speak" and what visual languages mean for the construction of Islamic subjectivities, the distribution of power, and the formation of identity and belonging. Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East addresses aspects of the visual in the Islamic world, including the presentation of Islam on television; on the internet and other digital media; in banners, posters, murals, and graffiti; and in the satirical press, cartoons, and children’s books.

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13 Chapters

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1 Images of the Prophet Muhammad In and Out of Modernity: The Curious Case of a 2008 Mural in Tehran


FIGURE 1.1. Mural of Muhammad’s ascension, located at the intersection of Modarres and Motahhari Avenues, Tehran, Iran, 2008. Author’s photograph, 2010.


Images of the Prophet Muhammad In and Out of Modernity: The Curious Case of a 2008 Mural in Tehran


A colorful mural appeared at the busy junction between Modarres Highway and Motahhari Street in central Tehran in 2008, gracing the wall of an otherwise unremarkable five-story cement building (fig. 1.1 and plate 1). This mural does not depict what one would expect to see in Iran’s post-revolutionary mural arts program: Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei or the portrait of a martyr who died in the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88). These other mural subjects, which have graced and given meaning to the capital city’s urban landscape over the past thirty years, represent a genre of public portraiture that stresses both the Islamic Republic’s Shi‘i-Persian identity and governance and the duty of all Muslims, both at home and abroad, to sacrifice themselves to a greater cause by fighting and dying in war.1


2 Secular Domesticities, Shiite Modernities: Khomeini’s Illustrated Tawzih al-Masail



Secular Domesticities, Shiite Modernities: Khomeini’s Illustrated Tawzih al-Masail


The extensive use of propagandist imagery by the Islamic Republic and the subsequent scholarly attention paid to this phenomenon has somehow eclipsed the use of visual imagery published by religious scholars and activists prior to Iran’s 1979 Revolution. Of the hundreds of publications disseminated by religious groups before the revolution, Nabard-i Millat—the widely distributed weekly newspaper of the religious fundamentalist organization Fadaian Islam published in the first half of the 1950s—is particularly striking. This periodical is filled with political cartoons that portray the cleric-founder of Fadaian Islam, Navvab Safavi (1924–55), juxtaposed with “demonized” images of political figures from the West and the East.1

An image from a 1951 issue of Nabard-i Millat shows Navvab Safavi’s portrait rising above the horizon in larger-than-life guise (fig. 2.1); light pours into the dark space of the picture from below Navvab’s chin. The light emanating from Navvab overcomes the darkness of the world, leaving no space for “imperialist” powers. England, Russia, and the United States are personified, accompanied by other, less identifiable, world leaders, escaping the watchful gaze of the ascending Navvab. The caption reads: “Fadaian Islam: These sturdy and powerful eyes will follow the criminals’ journey to hell.”


3 Memory and Ideology: Images of Saladin in Syria and Iraq



Memory and Ideology:
Images of Saladin in Syria and in Iraq


Through its cultural heritage a society becomes visible to itself and to others. Which past becomes evident in that heritage and which values emerge in its identificatory appropriation tells us much about the constitution and tendencies of a society.

—JAN ASSMANN, “Collective Memory and
Cultural Identity,” 133.

Since the Middle Ages, Saladin has been one of the most influential figures of historical memory in Eurasia. He was used as a symbol of the noble enemy, of war with the West and Israel, and of peace.1 In various incarnations he was also a national hero. During the Lebanon War of 2006, even Nasrallah, the Shi‘i leader of the Hizbullah in Lebanon, was eulogized by Syrians as the “Saladin of the modern age.”2 Moreover, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Kata’ib Salah al-Din in Iraq chose Saladin as the eponym for their guerrilla war against the Shi‘i government and American troops.


4 “You Will (Not) Be Able to Take Your Eyes Of It!”: Mass-Mediated Images and Politico-Ethical Reform in the Egyptian Islamic Revival



“You Will (Not) Be Able to Take
Your Eyes Off It!”: Mass-Mediated
Images and Politico-Ethical Reform
in the Egyptian Islamic Revival


At the beginning of 2005, Rotana—a major album production company and multi-channel satellite television network in the Middle East owned by Saudi Prince al-Walid bin Talal—added a new channel, Rotana Cinema, to its bevy of channels for music videos, entertainment programs, concerts, and religious programming (added in 2006). The Rotana channels began to run advertisements for the new cinema channel featuring one of the company’s most famous and controversial music video stars, the voluptuous Lebanese pop singer Hayfa Wahbi. Set to the music of one of Hayfa’s latest hits, “Hayat Qalbi” (Life of My Heart), the ad juxtaposed scenes of such sultry film icons as Nadia Lutfi and Hind Rustum, from Egyptian cinema’s golden age, with shots of Hayfa batting her eyes seductively and proclaiming, “Rotana Cinema: Mish Hati’dar Tighammid ‘Aynayk!” (you will not be able to take your eyes off it!). The ad was clearly designed both to capture viewers’ attention as well as to compare Hayfa’s sultry performances, which many Egyptian critics and audiences find scandalous, to those of some of the most famous and beloved stars of the national cinema industry. Many Cairenes instantly began to imitate Hayfa’s eye batting and to incorporate the slogan into their repertoire of pop-culture references, used to poke fun at any number of daily situations, and for months after, it still provoked laughs.


5 The Muslim “Crying Boy” in Turkey: Aestheticization and Politicization of Suffering in Islamic Imagination



The Muslim “Crying Boy” in Turkey:
Aestheticization and Politicization of
Suffering in Islamic Imagination


A group of paintings known as Crying Boys—attributed to Italian painter Bruno Amadio (1911–81), also known as Bragolin—gained widespread popularity in many parts of the world in the 1980s. Portraying the tearful faces of children, these works have inspired various popular cultural practices, including the establishment of fan clubs and the telling of urban legends devoted to the subjects’ “curse.”1 In the 1970s and 1980s one of these paintings became especially popular in Turkey (fig. 5.1 and plate 11). Initially, Crying Boy was in vogue in the private realm, displayed in many working- and middle-class homes—reproductions even served as a salient wedding gift. The face of Crying Boy later appeared in public spaces, including shops and coffeehouses, as well as in rear windows of long-distance buses and trucks; the striking image also was reproduced on postcards, paintings, and posters sold by street vendors. With tears in his eyes, Crying Boy used to gaze at people everywhere, from homes to cafés to highways.


6 The New Happy Child in Islamic Picture Books in Turkey



The New Happy Child in Islamic Picture Books in Turkey


As elsewhere, Islamism in Turkey has been a political and cultural project that challenges the dominant dichotomies of traditional/modern, public/private, and Islamic/non-Islamic.1 Studies of the cultural transformation and the emergence of new subjectivities brought by Islamism demonstrate the high significance of “visibility” to the Islamist project,2 which has altered the public sphere to emphasize the “Islamic” difference—often through dress codes for women. According to Nilüfer Göle, since 1990 Islamism has experienced a second phase, in which its cultural program has become more apparent. The movement’s first phase was characterized by militant and revolutionary politics. In this second phase of Islamism, she suggests, “it is new social groups such as Muslim intellectuals, cultural elites, entrepreneurs, and middle classes that more greatly define the public face of Islam, thinking and acting in more reformist terms. Their social profiles are an outcome of the Islamist movement and modern secular education, market values, and political idioms. They are hybrid and embody to the extreme the ambivalence between Islam and modernity; they make a claim for Islamic difference, and yet accept certain imperatives of modern life.”3 As the vehicle through which a modern Islamic social imaginary and new Muslim subjectivities have been constructed and mediated to masses, the publishing sector has been the locus of this hybridity.4 Çayır’s study of Islamic novels that were widely read during the 1980s and 1990s demonstrates the ways in which these publications reflected the transformation of Muslim subjectivities from a communitarian self toward a more pluralistic and individual self in the context of increasing urbanization and globalization.5 The most intriguing dimension of these publications is their representation of gender relations, providing idealized sex-role stereotypes that are promoted by the Islamist cultural project. The Islamic intellectual and literary field was also enriched by the growing influence of female Islamist intellectuals who could also contest the conventional gender roles adopted by Islamists.6


7 Sadrabiliyya: The Visual Narrative of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Islamist Politics and Insurgency in Iraq



Sadrabiliyya: The Visual Narrative
of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Islamist
Politics and Insurgency in Iraq


Since the 2003 Iraq War, religious figures in Iraq have employed various forms of visual media, from satellite television to the internet, to reach followers in national and transnational settings. The visual narrative of Muqtada al-Sadr in post–2003 Iraq provides a vibrant case study of the relationship between Islamist political elites (clerical politicians and lay figures) and their strategies for political communication in the Arab world. After 2003 the Sadrists emerged in post–Ba’athist Iraq as a religious elite that sought to protect the interests of the Shi’a masses, particularly their urban poor in Baghdad, and engaged in a religious and political competition with the returning exiled Shi’a parties Al-Da’wa and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC)1 for the loyalty of this constituency. In this elite formation process, the Sadrist movement has sought to shape the Iraqi religious and political space through a syncretic visual discourse that combines political Islam and Iraqi nationalism.


8 The Martyr’s Fading Body: Propaganda vs. Beautification in the Tehran Cityscape



The Martyr’s Fading Body: Propaganda vs. Beautification in the Tehran Cityscape


In 2008 a new mural was painted on the wall that borders the eastern side of Tehran’s Najmiye Hospital courtyard, situated on the southern side of Jomhuri Avenue just west of where it crosses Hafez Avenue (fig. 8.1 and plate 17). The new mural replaces an old, fading image whose background depicted a blue sky poetically strewn with drifting clouds, framed on two sides by lines of poetry executed as an aesthetically appealing exercise in traditional calligraphy. The older mural’s primary subject was a realistic portrait, set off against the background in a separate frame, of a man whose name was given as Doctor Mohammad-Ali Rahnamun. It was fairly obvious that this person had died as a “martyr”—a word that in the current terminology of the Islamic Republic of Iran denotes a man who has given his life to defend the country and, by extension, the country’s ideological and political system. Since the martyr’s death was a given fact, it was here only symbolically indicated by a red rose; moreover, a minaret of the mosque of Emam Hosein in Karbala served both to allude to the territory of Iraq (and thus the Iran–Iraq War) and to suggest the basic tenets of Shiism.


9 Pushing Out Islam: Cartoons of the Reform Period in Turkey (1923–1928)


FIGURE 9.1. Ramiz Gökçe (1900–1953), Conservative Reaction gets caught in the Republic’s Machine, Akbaba, front page, March 3, 1924, Atatürk Kitaplığı, Istanbul.


Pushing Out Islam: Cartoons of the
Reform Period in Turkey (1923–1928)


A cartoon published in 1924, on the front page of the Turkish satirical journal Akbaba (Vulture), depicts a machine and as its operator, Mustafa Kemal, the president and leader of the recently founded Turkish Republic (fig. 9.1).1 A second man, identifiable by his long cloak and turban as a mullah, is caught in a grinding machine. The machine is identified in the register below the cartoon as “the Republic’s Machine” (Cumhuriyet Makinesi). Further clarifying the cartoon, its caption reads, “Conservative Reaction gets himself caught in the Modern Machine, whose meaning he did not understand.” The text equates the concept of the republic with modernity, represented by the machine, and, by extension, its opposition with “Conservative Reaction,” personified by the mullah figure.


10 Blasphemy or Critique?: Secularists and Islamists in Turkish Cartoon Images


FIGURE 10.1. Murat Süyür (b. 1984), Darkness,, February 19, 2009.


Blasphemy or Critique?: Secularists and Islamists in Turkish Cartoon Images


Two iconic images used in Turkish political debates, the light bulb and the headscarf, can be read as representing political opposites: thought and enlightenment versus fanaticism and obscurantism. But what does it represent when the two are joined in an image, as in a depiction in which the light bulb, the symbol of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Parti, or AKP), wears a headscarf (fig. 10.1)?1 Is this the smothering of critical, enlightened thought by fanatics determined to impose rigid religious dogma, or is this the liberation of the human mind from the rigid secularist dogma imposed by the Kemalist state? The juxtaposition of two competing icons reflects the contentious issues at the forefront of Turkish political debate in the twenty-first century.


11 Naji al-Ali and the Iconography of Arab Secularism



Naji al-Ali and the
Iconography of Arab Secularism


You put yourself in his shoes when you see his drawings.

—a fan of Naji al-Ali, Ramallah, February 2010

Art can do a very simple, but very powerful thing: it can mirror our lives by creating poignant stories, images, and sounds that are at once familiar and strange. Or, as a dedicated fan of the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali explained his popularity to me: “Naji avoided clichés” (the un-strangely familiar) and instead “held on to the one broken image he had in his head when he left his house” at the age of ten. “He took that boy, who was himself, and placed him in front of the injustices of the Arab world,” as the one who observes and archives what others ignore and forget. The character Handhala, he explained, is a condensation of the pain, longing, and love experienced by millions of Palestinians and Arabs in the late twentieth century. “He never left that image of a boy leaving his village. And you put yourself in his shoes when you see his drawings.”1


12 Arab Television Drama Production and the Islamic Public Sphere



Arab Television Drama Production
and the Islamic Public Sphere


Syrian drama creators find themselves at the forefront of a pan-Arab satellite television industry with a global reach. Their key product, the dramatic miniseries (musalsal) dominates public culture in the Arab world. This is particularly true during Ramadan, which has given the genre its form and has in turn been shaped by it. In the months leading up to this peak broadcast season, the city of Damascus becomes a film set, as producers rush to finish their thirty-episode series. Every evening of holy month, streets across the Arab world empty as families gather around television sets in homes, restaurants, and cafés, partaking in what has become known as the “drama outpouring” (al-fawra al-dramiyya). Dramatic depictions of Arab and Muslim politics and society, traditions and values, customs and practices—past and present—are discussed and debated in conversation and in the media. Drama series have become sites where Islamic revivalism, terrorism, and takfir are invoked and criticized.1


13 Saudi-Islamist Rhetorics about Visual Culture



Saudi-Islamist Rhetorics
about Visual Culture


In The Transparent Society, the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo writes that in late modernity “reality . . . cannot be understood as the objectives given lying beneath, or beyond, the images we receive of it from our media,” concluding that “reality is rather the result of the intersection . . . of a multiplicity of images, interpretations and reconstructions circulated by the media in competition with one another and without any ‘central’ coordination.”1 Vattimo’s vision of social reality as a constellation of colliding and intersecting images is relevant to contemporary Arab societies that, since the early 1990s, have been bombarded by a plethora of images emanating from a global array of sources and beamed by a growing satellite television industry that by late 2009 numbered approximately five hundred Arabic-language channels.2 Privately owned, eclectically themed, and mostly unregulated, the pan-Arab satellite television scene also echoes Vattimo’s claim of the absence of central coordination of the myriad processes of reality construction. A visual and visible proof of the declining role of the state in controlling the production and flow of images, the anarchy of the pan-Arab airwaves has led to wide-ranging debates about the impact of visual media on Arab societies, often centering on the notion of authenticity.



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