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Performing Piety

Performing Piety: Singers and Actors in Egypt's Islamic Revival

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    Performing Piety
    Book Description:

    In the 1980s, Egypt witnessed a growing revival of religiosity among large sectors of the population, including artists. Many pious stars retired from art, "repented" from "sinful" activities, and dedicated themselves to worship, preaching, and charity. Their public conversions were influential in spreading piety to the Egyptian upper class during the 1990s, which in turn enabled the development of pious markets for leisure and art, thus facilitating the return of artists as veiled actresses or religiously committed performers.

    Revisiting the story she began in"A Trade like Any Other": Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, Karin van Nieuwkerk draws on extensive fieldwork among performers to offer a unique history of the religious revival in Egypt through the lens of the performing arts. She highlights the narratives of celebrities who retired in the 1980s and early 1990s, including their spiritual journeys and their influence on the "pietization" of their fans, among whom are the wealthy, relatively secular, strata of Egyptian society. Van Nieuwkerk then turns to the emergence of a polemic public sphere in which secularists and Islamists debated Islam, art, and gender in the 1990s. Finally, she analyzes the Islamist project of "art with a mission" and the development of Islamic aesthetics, questioning whether the outcome has been to Islamize popular art or rather to popularize Islam. The result is an intimate thirty-year history of two spheres that have tremendous importance for Egypt-art production and piety.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-74587-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    After conducting research in Egypt among singers and dancers of the Cairene street of entertainment, Muhammad ʿAli Street (Van Nieuwkerk 1995), I occasionally returned to visit friends. I particularly kept in contact with the family of my assistant Sayyid and my favorite dancer Ibtisam. After finishing fieldwork in 1989 I visited Ibtisam again in 1991. She was still active as a dancer in clubs and occasionally at weddings. She had tried to find other ways of earning money, for instance by opening a little shop for soft drinks in the basement of her house in the new district of Pyramid...

  5. PART ONE. The 1980s:: Celebrating Piety

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 13-20)

      Celebrities reflect, reinforce, and have the power to transform the social, political, and cultural context in which they live. They are icons and trendsetters. Stars are not only entertainers, but also idols, models, and educators. They celebrate and legitimate certain lifestyles. Celebrities thus have a great impact on public consciousness and debate. Celebrities and celebrity culture have a cultural pervasiveness and have become integrated extensively into daily life (Turner 2004, 17). The huge importance of celebrities for everyday life is expressed in the concept of celebrification. Initially developed by Gamson (1994) to indicate the use by politicians of Hollywood presentational...

    • ONE Dreams, Spirituality, and the Piety Movement
      (pp. 22-43)

      In this chapter, I will present the life story of former actress Shams al-Barudi. Her story exemplifies a spiritual trajectory toward a pious lifestyle in which dreams and visions play a key role. The role of visions and dreams in the pietization of everyday life more generally will be dealt with in the second section. The final section provides background information on the development of the piety movement in Egypt in the early 1980s.

      Shams al-Barudi was the first famous performer to step down and veil in 1982.¹ I tried to interview her and went to the Islamic film company...

    • TWO Repentance, Daʿwah, and Religious Education
      (pp. 44-66)

      In this chapter, I will introduce the story of former dancer Hala al-Safi, who left her “sinful profession” and opened a religious school. Her story of remorse will be used to analyze an important aspect of piety: repentance, which will be the central concept in the second section. In the final section, I will describe the development of core activities of the piety movement in the 1980s:daʿwah, Islamic outreach, and religious instruction.

      As I mentioned in the volume Introduction, it was not easy to reach the stars. Despite my connections with musicians of the Muhammad ʿAli Street, who worked...

    • THREE Veiling and Charity
      (pp. 67-88)

      In this chapter, I will start with the life story of former singer Yasmin al-Khiyyam, who now runs a large charity organization. In the second part, I will discuss an important aspect of the trajectory toward piety for women—that is, veiling. Finally, I return to larger trends in the piety movement in Egypt and discuss the development of the Islamist parallel sector that provides religious service and charity.

      I obtained Yasmin al-Khiyyam’s phone number from the veiled actress ʿAfaf Shoʿib, and she was immediately willing to talk to me.¹ I was invited to Gamaʿiyya al-Sheikh al-Hosari (Hosari Association), her...

  6. PART TWO. The 1990s:: Debating Religion, Gender, and the Performing Arts in the Public Sphere

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 89-96)

      The early 1990s, and particularly 1992, were a turbulent period in Egyptian history. Egypt was targeted by a series of terrorist attacks on Copts, policemen, and foreign tourists. The writer Farag Fuda was assassinated in 1992. The moderate Muslim Brotherhood moved from the periphery to the center and enhanced its influence through electoral victories in professional groups such as the Lawyers Association, over which the Brothers won control in 1992. The Mubarak regime began to hunt down “Islamists,” “extremists,” and “terrorists” and blurred distinctions among them. The government’s tolerance of the public activities of the Brotherhood came to an end...

    • FOUR The Islamist (Counter)public
      (pp. 98-120)

      In this chapter, I will open with the spiritual journey of actress ʿAfaf Shoʿib. Her story and those of other “repentant” artists became part of the Islamist press campaign against “ the enemies of Islam.” The Islamist debates about art, gender, and religion will be the focus of the second part. In the third part, I will describe the relationship of Islamist actors and movements with the state in the early 1990s.

      “Your decision to step down has shaken the earth.” In this manner Shahira, a former actress who retired and veiled in 1991, congratulated her friend, actress ʿAfaf Shoʿib.¹...

    • FIVE The Secular Cultural Field
      (pp. 121-145)

      This chapter features the life story of actress-comedienne Soheir al-Babli. The second section will follow the debates on the “repentant” artists, but now from the side of the secular press, which articulated its secular nationalist discourse by attacking the veiled artists. In the third section, the relationship between the Egyptian state and the secular cultural field, and the secularists’ co-optation by the state in the struggle against Islamists, will be discussed.

      The retirement of the famous comedienne Soheir al-Babli in 1993 appeared to be the final blow in the face of the secular cultural field (for a picture of her...

    • SIX Changing Discourses on Art and Gender
      (pp. 146-174)

      In this chapter, I will present the life story of actress ʿAbir Sharqawi. In the second section, the religiously committed artists’ own views on gender, art, and religion will be central. In the final section, I will highlight the changing discourse on art within the Islamist movement more generally, which resulted from the fragmentation of religious authority and the emergence of young preachers.

      The artistic career of ʿAbir Sharqawi started where that of Soheir al-Babli had abruptly ended, in 1993. When Soheir al-Babli decided to veil and to quit the playʿAtiyya, the Terrorist, the director, Galal al-Sharqawi, was in...

  7. PART THREE. The New Millennium:: Performing Piety

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 175-182)

      In Part Two, we have seen the immense debates that ensued in the public sphere about art and gender in the 1990s. It became a crucial way to discuss the imagined direction for the Egyptian nation. Also, Islamists realized the enormous power of art in transforming society and individuals. They reformulated ideas on art and started to use it as a mobilizing tool to reach out to people, particularly youth. In the process of instrumentalizing art, they formulated specific ideas about what would count as suitable art forms. It should be different in message and format from “lowbrow” art. It...

    • SEVEN Art with a Mission and Post-Islamism
      (pp. 184-205)

      In this chapter, the story of actress Miyar al-Bablawi will be portrayed. In the second section, the new discourse that developed around the turn of the century on “art with a mission,” which opened up the possibility of returning to art, will be detailed. In the last section, the transformation of the piety movement into “post-Islamism” and the emergence of new forms of religiosity among the upper middle class will be central.

      When I visited Miyar al-Bablawi in February 2006 for a second time,¹ we watched the announcement for the opening of a new TV channel, al-Risala, which was to...

    • EIGHT Halal Weddings and Religious Markets
      (pp. 206-231)

      In this chapter, I will focus on the trajectory of male artists by presenting the story of singer Mustafa Mahmud. In the second section, I will present one of the ways the artists have come back to the field of religious art by examining the development of religious wedding bands and religious songs. In the final section, I will discuss the emergence of religious markets and the influence of globalization in Egypt in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

      When I did my research about popular weddings in the late 1980s, there were some incidents of “sunniyyin,” breaking the...

    • NINE Ramadan Soaps and Islamic Aesthetics
      (pp. 233-258)

      In this final chapter, I will go into some of the ambivalences and contradictions in the field of moral artistic practices. In the first section, I will present the life story of actress . Abir Sabri, who not only returned to art but eventually unveiled as well. In the second section, I will discuss the emergence of another genre of religious art production, that is, Islamic and “clean” soaps. In the final section, I will discuss the way religious ethics are translated into multifarious forms of Islamic aesthetics.

      While the artists who feature in this chapter started the trajectory to...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 259-274)

    Egypt is presently going through a turbulent time, full of potential and tensions. During the time of writing this book, I was only able to visit Egypt for a few days in October 2010 and December 2011. For that reason, I cannot go into all the current transformations in Egypt and what they mean for the Islamist movement and its art project, because the upheaval postdates the period I collected my material. Yet I managed to interview the media man Ahmad Mursi Abu Haiba during my last two visits shortly before and after the revolution.¹ Ahmad Abu Haiba was in...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 275-290)
  10. Glossary
    (pp. 291-296)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-310)
  12. Index
    (pp. 311-320)