Inverted Worlds: Cultural Motion in the Arab Region, Eds. Syrinx von Hees, Nadia von Maltzahn, Ines Weinrich (Orient Institute Studies, 2)


By Syrinx von Hees, Nadia von Maltzahn, Ines Weinrich


The wave of popular uprisings taking place in several countries in the Arab region since early 2011 launched a socio-political transformation process that is ongoing. While each country in the region is living a very different experience of what has come to be known as the Arab spring, most countries share the fact that diverse social players are asking themselves anew about their role in society. Established worlds have been inverted by reversing deep-seated orders and bringing new players to the fore, players whose voices existed but were often not heard and rarely appeared en masse before 2011. In these inverted worlds, the metaphor of inversion also relates to the momentum carrying cultural change in the region, in which for instance street murals become “not only ‘memorial spaces’ for remembering the dead and the injured, but they also become spaces of visual narratives with unfolding plots between the enemies and the defenders of the revolution” as Mona Abaza argues in her contribution to this volume. The revolutionary momentum in the region has invigorated various forms of expressing protest, be it through rap, graffiti and street murals, new media and video, or by using humour and non-linearity in visual and narrative forms.


This volume deals with arenas and manifestations of cultural motion in relation to revolution and transformation processes. The political vagueness of popular unrest and of its various backgrounds, as well as the complexity of the ensuing political itineraries, encourage inquiry into the broad cultural resonances and diverse expressions which feed the aspirations for change and inspire resistance. Inverted Worlds: Cultural Motion in the Arab Region thus considers both regional and cross-cultural aspects of recent events in the Arab world, and relates back to dynamics at hand prior to the uprisings. Cultural Motion here signifies the move of people and ideas towards a revision of power structures, social setups and cultural configurations, both on the home stage and in the international arena. The Arab drama of renewal and the movement towards diversified and globalized cultural orientations are closely interrelated.


The contributions in this volume are the documentation of a congress the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) organised in light of the above in Beirut in October 2012. The articles represent three of the four main themes of the congress, namely the position of music as a vehicle for political, social and cultural ideas (conceived by Stefan Knost), the role of humour in coping with political, social and cultural oppression in the Arab world (conceived by Thomas Scheffler and Monika Halkort), and debates about the use of non-linear narratives in relation to current revolutions (conceived by Syrinx von Hees and Ines Weinrich).

Popular music and its role in political and social transformation

Music can be a vehicle for political, social and cultural ideas using critical, polemical or subversive lyrics. Messages circulate more or less freely, especially today through the use of the Internet. Recent and not so recent popular songs have been inspired by Arab nationalist ideology or the Palestinian struggle for liberation. At the dawn of the Arab uprisings, the dream of the Arab nation seemed to have vanished. What have artists of the young generation set out to fight for? How do they reflect upon their own role regarding social transformations and the impact of their songs? What positions do they take vis-à-vis the moral standards and politics of the twenty-first century? Outside the focus of mass media, young singers display their independence. They use social networks and free Internet platforms to broadcast themselves.


Not long ago, musical refrains were developed on the fringe of society. Today, they piggyback on their audience, and street singers strike up popular songs or those that have become popular in the demonstrations. Whether amateurs or professionals, do the singers represent the voice of the opposition? Does the writing of new songs or simply new lyrics for the refrains of folk songs play an active part in the current uprisings? Who are the authors and under what conditions are the songs developed? The “air” of rebellion has spread throughout the Arab world, each country and region with its own political, confessional and ethnic particularities. What are the themes recurrent in the revolutionary songs, and what insights into social dynamics do they reveal?


Yves Gonzalez-Quijano debates the question of modernity in cultural production in “Rap, an Art of the Revolution or a Revolution in Art”. He questions the recurrent notion that “rap is the voice of the Arab revolution” and criticizes France and other Western countries for simplifying a scene that is much more complex in its social, political and ideological reality, reflecting only their political agendas while ignoring local realities. He also discusses in which sense rap can be described as a new form of cultural production.


Ines Dallaji in “Tunisian Rap Music and the Arab Spring: Revolutionary Anthems and Post-Revolutionary Tendencies” focuses in particular on two rappers during and after the revolution and argues that rap music served as a medium strengthening the awareness for the causes of the outbreak. People could not only relate to critical lyrics, but singular singers provided the Tunisian revolution with a face. However, she reminds that music reflects social realities rather than driving them.


In “The Voice of Freedom”, Stephan Procházka on the contrary attributes a more active role to music during the Egyptian revolution. Selecting songs from the Internet including different genres like pop, folksongs, rap and hip-hop and analysing their language, he shows that the themes of freedom, rights, Egypt, dignity and honour appear frequently, often juxtaposing a bright future with a dark past, but rarely mentioning Mubarak or other opponents by name.


Simon Dubois in “Street Songs from the Syrian Protests” analyses four protest songs chanted by adult singers during demonstrations in interaction with the audience between October 2011 and March 2012, in which the direct call for Bashar [al-Asad] to leave and insults against him like “donkey”, “butcher”, “murderer”, “killer”, “liar”, “screw you” are pronounced. External enemies, namely the United States and Israel, are also mentioned in the songs, protesters using the same arguments as the government.

Humour, Suffering and Resistance

Humour, a multifaceted and ubiquitous phenomenon, may serve different and sometimes contradictory functions in dealing with authorities and norms. Depending on the particular political situation, jokes, sarcasm, irony, and other witticisms may serve as a “security valve” of authoritarian regimes by helping the oppressed to “let off steam” without changing the situation that makes them suffer. On the other hand, humour may also serve as a tool of resistance by publicly defying authoritarian rule through ridicule and laughter.


Humour is articulated through various types of media (such as Internet, TV, radio, personal communication), various genres (such as jokes, mocking, comedy, cartoons, satire, graffiti), by many types of actors (from spontaneous individuals to professional humourists), and in various interpersonal situations, ranging from intimate conversation to mass riots. Part of intentional acts as well as of comical situations, humour may convey its subversive potential by breaking the “rules of the game”, suspending established norms of self-conduct and exposing the contingency of power by confronting it with its own rhetoric and performative grammar, even if only temporarily.


Nader Srage focuses in his linguistic study “The Protest Discourse” on “The example of ‘Irhal’ (Go/Get Out/Leave)” being one of the key terms of the Arab uprisings, crossing boundaries. He shows how Egyptians have used great ingenuity in using “Irhal” and alternative expressions inspired by their daily lives, appropriating available local references to shape their rhetoric.


Sara Binay in her article “Where are they going?” considers jokes as one kind of narrative that can be used to express disobedience and subversion. Drawing parallels between Syria, Lebanon and the former Soviet Union and German Democratic Republic, she argues that while jokes may not change realities, they can express a desire for change. Jokes are good indicators of social and political change, since through their informal nature they reveal dynamics at play within a society.


Mona Abaza in “Satire, Laughter and Mourning in Cairo’s Graffiti” explores the role of street art in revolutionary Egypt, focusing on the fact that humour and satire remain one of the dominant features of resistance. Her account, rich in images, is also an attempt to chronicle the walls, constantly painted over and whitened by the authorities. While perceived as an underworld clandestine art, graffiti is an ideal medium to spread dissenting ideas anonymously. Abaza provides an insight into the appropriation of public spaces as spaces of contestation by younger artists.

Linear and non-linear narratives in the context of Arab revolutions

It can be argued that Tweets, Facebook status updates, Blackberry messages, and other html related material were a major catalyst in the recent uprisings. Digitalization in its multifaceted dimensions can be regarded as one of the pre-conditions of these societal motions. In his essay “Deep Remixability” Lev Manovich describes software as species within the common ecology. Once released software, like species, start interacting, mutating, and making hybrids. To explain, he uses the example of the designer who, by the end of the 1990s, was able to combine operations and representational formats such as a bitmapped still image, an image sequence, a vector drawing, a 3D model and digital video specific to these programmes within the same design – regardless of its destination media. He finally compares the production of software to the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution, where a whole system was uprooted in an almost invisible pace. At this point in the Arab world, we are witnessing the change that is a recipient of this deep remixability.


In the digital era, narrative has lost its body to become volatile and viral, making its way to fluid transitions between different states of materiality. Narrative is manifested through information spaces that allow random access; the sequential is no longer a must. The elements of the linear narratives (script, scenario, scene, and the like) are now highlighted, tagged, mapped, annotated, thus accompanying the narrative to its deciphered realm. A narrative is today searchable, browsable, and mutable in most cases. On another note, narrative owes its current form to the inherited strictly linear form. The polemic in the narrative is derived from its swinging between the strictly linear that embeds a hierarchical structure and the non-linear’s seemingly infinite possibilities to reproduce and reconfigure the information contained in these aforementioned structures.


Lev Manovich, who presented his work at the congress, raises the question of how to take advantage of the gigantic amount of digital culture that is surrounding us. For about twenty years, institutions have been digitizing films, television shows, videos, newspapers and more. The narrative of history has become available to us as databases. In 2005, social media enlarged the source of digital information even more; tracking history has become easier, at least theoretically speaking. Manovich’s initiative in his lab of software studies tried to develop tools that allow us to look at large image collections – with often surprising results. His software studies initiatives and articles are available online ( and


Marwan Kraidy in his article “A Heterotopology of Graffiti: A Preliminary Exploration” approaches graffiti in Beirut from a theoretical angle, convincingly applying Foucault’s concept of “heterotopia”, or other space, to graffiti’s status in the Lebanese media system. Focusing on graffiti reflecting media, he explores the latter’s place in relationship to other media and its place in the media ecosystem in Lebanon and the Arab world. Kraidy highlights the intertextual and dialogical nature of graffiti.


The sound artist Matthias Kispert has created a collage of sounds recorded at different protests in London between 2001 and 2012. This way he gives audible evidence how riot sound effects may not create protests in the first place, but can amplify and motivate people in a tense situation finally provoking an actual riot.


Hassan Choubassi in his contribution “The Arab Masses: From the Implosion of Fantasies to the Explosion of the Political” argues that the use of mobile social media in Syria made it possible for the private/virtual/free/anonymous and public/real/restricted spheres to become more and more interrelated, creating an augmented reality – with reference to Jean Baudrillard and Lev Manovich – that finally led to street protest and personalized open criticism.


In her contribution “Counting versus Narration – On the Database as Political Form”, Monika Halkort reconsiders the relationship between database and information taking into consideration their openness and infinite variability. Starting from the experience of a grassroots initiative during the process of reconstructing the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el Bared after its destruction in 2007, she argues that the database can be used as a technology of resistance rather than a technology that imposes taxonomies in order to govern the other.


Lotte Laub focuses on two video works by two Lebanese artists that were produced as immediate artistic reactions to the ongoing conflict in Syria and to the 2006 war in Lebanon respectively. She analyses their replacement of linear structures with circular ones, comparing them to a rhizome, a conception of knowledge that works against linear connections. She shows that collapse and recovery occur simultaneously, expanding indefinitely. Regarding the lyrical dimension of the video works she argues that narration is focused on the level of mediality itself. Finally she develops the idea that these art works need to be interpreted as a performative attempt to emphasize the human aspect.


The journalist and novelist Sahar Mandour analyses the stories and their inherent narratives of a range of different Egyptian newspapers belonging to the ‘national’ and to the ‘independent’ press as they appeared on January 25, 2011. She explores the interrelatedness of all narration lines, grasping the overall picture through newspapers’ yesterday’s stories, arguing that the revolution was the intersection of a multitude of factors and contexts.


Taking advantage of the digital age, Inverted Worlds: Cultural Motion in the Arab Region incorporates an array of audio-visual material in its contributions, ranging from YouTube clips to sound-files to still images. This raises issues of longevity, however. While images and sound-files will be accessible to readers in years to come, the user-content-generated nature of YouTube does not allow for any predictability, since any content-provider may decide to withdraw his contribution at any time. Therefore YouTube files are incorporated into the text to add an audio-visual dimension to the reader as long as the files exist, while ensuring that the authors’ arguments are still valid without access to the files.


To conclude, let us turn to the Lebanese writer and intellectual Elias Khoury who opened Inverted Worlds: Congress on Cultural Motion with the following remarks: “The revolutions are still in the midst of formation, in the midst of a change which is very complicated and which obliges people like me to be humble. What is happening in the Arab world makes intellectuals like me, who have struggled all their lives for democracy, freedom and social justice, feel like we really were surprised by what happened. We must go back to the school of history, and to learn history from the young people who occupy the streets of the Arab world.” (The full keynote address is accessible here: This volume attempts to capture some of the narratives of cultural motion in the Arab region at a time of change and inverted worlds. Due to the nature of events, many of the contributions are work in progress and invite further inquiry into the subject matters at hand.


Table of contents

Syrinx von Hees, Nadia von Maltzahn and Ines Weinrich: Introduction

Yves Gonzalez-Quijano: Rap, an Art of Revolution or a Revolution in Art?

Ines Dallaji: Tunisian Rap Music and the Arab Spring: Revolutionary Anthems and Post-Revolutionary Tendencies

Stephan Procházka: The Voice of Freedom: Remarks on the Language of Songs from the Egyptian Revolution 2011

Simon Dubois: Street Songs from the Syrian Protests

Nader Srage: The Protest Discourse: The Example of “Irhal” (Go/Get Out/Leave)

Sara Binay: “Where are they going?” – Jokes as Indicators of Social and Political Change

Mona Abaza: Satire, Laughter and Mourning in Cairo’s Graffiti

Marwan Kraidy: A Heterotopology of Graffiti: A Preliminary Exploration

Matthias Kispert: The Sound of Discontent

Hassan Choubassi: The Arab Masses: From the Implosion of Fantasies to the Explosion of the Political

Monika Halkort: Counting versus Narration – On the Database as Political Form

Lotte Laub: Circularity versus Linearity: Immediate Artistic Reactions to Periods of War and Political Upheaval

Sahar Mandour: قصة الأمس | Yesterday’s Story

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