Ryan on Gruber and Haugbolle, 'Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image'

Christiane Gruber, Sune Haugbolle, eds.
James Ryan

Christiane Gruber, Sune Haugbolle, eds. Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. Illustrations. xxvii + 343 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-00884-8; $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-00888-6.

Reviewed by James Ryan Published on H-AMCA (May, 2015) Commissioned by Sarah-Neel Smith

"Moving" Images: Relocating Visual Analysis in the Modern Middle East

Christiane Gruber and Sune Haugbolle's recent edited volume Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East pulls off an impressive trick of dual timeliness. First, the primary theme of the volume emphasizes reflections on a growing interdisciplinary subfield—sensory studies—that has enjoyed a fair amount of attention in certain disciplines like anthropology for some time, but is now making its case for greater attention in fields such as history, media studies, and art history. Second, because it treats as its subject the modern Middle East, the volume broadly contextualizes recent conflicts over image making in the region—conflicts that are seemingly, and tragically, evergreen given the globalized discussion of attacks on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in February 2015. What readers will certainly take away from reading this volume in and after 2015 is a wider understanding of the great variety of images that are fought over, consumed, and relayed in the Middle East, including those of the prophet Muhammad but also more current figures like martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war or clerical leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr. The volume goes a long way to accomplishing what the editors set out to do in their introduction, which is to account for the place of the visual in a culture that has historically been classified as primarily auditory while also privileging, rightly or wrongly, religious culture above all else.

The contributions to the volume are divided into four roughly equal parts: “‘Moving’ Images,” “Islamist Iconographies,” “Satirical Contestations,” and “Authenticity and Reality in Trans-National Broadcasting.” The contributors come from a wide range of disciplines, including media studies, history, sociology, art history, and anthropology, and the geographical and temporal scope encompasses Turkey, Iran, and the Arab lands between Egypt and Iraq stretching roughly from the late Ottoman period to the recent past. Taken together the source material for the volume is equally varied, forcing readers to contemplate the place of reality television, public murals, ephemeral tchotchkes, popular magazines, children’s books, monumental statues, and satirical cartoons. Although this catholic approach is certainly welcome since it keeps readers on their toes from chapter to chapter, it should be noted that one seemingly formidable form of visual culture—social media—is left mostly unaddressed. Surely the typically long run-up to publication for such volumes accounts for this oversight, and many of the questions probed by the contributors, Christa Salamandra’s and Marwan Kraidy’s contributions on Arab television in particular, will translate well to future discussions of Twitter, Facebook, and the like. 

For readers who have followed recent debates in Europe and the Middle East over the appropriate use of images in Islamic society, the first group of essays, with pieces by Christiane Gruber, Stefan Heidemann, Pamela Karimi, and Patricia Kubala, will serve as key contributions to the scholastic understanding of the way modern ideological movements—in these cases, from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt—have utilized figures and ideas of the classical period of Islam through images. In a time when the term “medieval” is thrown about with abandon in the pundit sphere to describe the practices of various Islamist political movements, these entries might serve as a helpful antidote by elucidating how explicitly modern media have served as a way of regenerating Islamic thought in complex ways that can hardly be described as “traditional,” even when the messages they sometimes convey seem out of step with conventional Western definitions of “modernity.” As an opening to the volume, these essays disrupt stereotypes that are typically generated around events like the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo by showing the diverse and complex engagement with images and ideas from various touchstones in Middle Eastern political and cultural history, including but not limited to those of the prophet Muhammad.

The following two groups of chapters, “Islamist Iconographies” and “Satirical Contestations,” represent a fascinating combination of vantages from which the reader can assess the struggle between the secular and the religious through visual culture. Contributions from Yasemin Gençer and Ibrahim al-Marashi consider two extremes in that struggle. Gençer’s chapter provides a history of the early years of Kemalist reform in Turkey (roughly 1923-28) through satirical cartoons that depict sharp distinctions between modern, secular life and traditional, Islamic life. These cartoons tell a fairly familiar story of the paternalistic implementation of Western-oriented Kemalist modernity, but Gençer is keen to point out that the derision of Islam in all of the cartoons is squarely focused on authority figures that held tremendous power under the Ottoman regime, such as mullahs or “old laws.” As she demonstrates, these cartoonists' investment lay in replacing such emblems of outdatedness with “modern” authority figures and practices represented by the person of Mustafa Kemal, who is often depicted operating modern machines. Al-Marashi trains his focus on the figure of Muqtada al-Sadr, the putative leader of the Iraqi Shi’i community following the 2003 American-led invasion of that country. The kitschy memorabilia produced by supporters of al-Sadr, which range from dramatic posters to Valentine’s Day key chains to stickers for children’s books, reflect a fascinating connection between a conservative, anti-imperialist, and often radically violent Islamic political movement, and the very stuff of Western consumerist modernity. Al-Marashi reveals that both Sadrist militant groups and American infantrymen deployed images cut from the American film Blackhawk Down (2001) to motivate themselves, as it inspired survival in the face of incredible odds for the Americans, and a rare instance of American defeat for the Iraqis. This might be the most striking example of the visual paradoxes addressed across the volume, but the fact that similar examples crop up across the wide expanse of time and space that the book addresses suggests that images emanating from Middle Eastern cultures are more cosmopolitan in their provenance than they may initially appear.

The closing essays by Salamandra and Kraidy provide a fitting conclusion to the volume by addressing the explosion of satellite television in the Arab world over the last three decades. Both chapters stand as important signals to the myriad disciplines studying visual culture, since they grapple with a medium that, along with social media, has become the dominant platform in the contemporary Middle East. As a historian, I found Kraidy's argument that the contention over authenticity, morality, and modernity in television, and the visual world more broadly, has "widened the circle of participation and illustrate[d] the important public role that popular culture can take in the absence of public debate and deliberation" especially important (p. 289). Kraidy's analysis is a critical indication that the culture has rapidly shifted away from the debates over modernism in the Middle East, which crystallized in Albert Hourani's 1962 classic work Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, and were so closely tied to the rise of print media in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Gruber and Haugbolle have provided a helpful and engaging introduction to the study of visual culture in the Middle East. For lay readers, this volume could provide a starting point for a deeper understanding of the relatively crude discourse over the use of images in these cultures, and inspire a more determined engagement with the visual production of the Middle East. One hopes that the popular element of each of the images under study in this volume might signal to all of us that the study of the visual can enable us to more easily make connections across cultures that up to this point have been alienated from one another by the often violent dynamics of twentieth- and twenty-first-century geopolitics.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=43951

Citation: James Ryan. Review of Gruber, Christiane; Haugbolle, Sune, eds., Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image. H-AMCA, H-Net Reviews. May, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=43951

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.