Culture in Middle East and North Africa Research Paper

Academic Writing Service

Sample Culture in Middle East and North Africa Research Paper. Browse other  research paper examples and check the list of research paper topics for more inspiration. If you need a religion research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Feel free to contact our research paper writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.

Culture in the postcolonial Middle East and North Africa is the ensemble of literary and artistic production that reflects and shapes the norms and values of daily life. Fiction, drama, film making, and art play a greater role in the people’s lives than they do in Western Europe and the United States. Because they are often viewed as spokespersons for the people to the regime, public intellectuals have a moral authority that promises influence, imposes responsibility, but also invites manipulation by those in power. In this research paper the evolving relationship between cultural producers, society, and the state is examined.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

1. The Impurity Of Postcolonial Authenticity

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have come to be conjoined as the Arab world, with Turkey, Iran and, more recently, Israel as non-Arab neighbors. Scholars have traditionally treated the region as a separate and more or less isolated block, yet it never was. What is significant about this area is that it frames the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. It is thus geographically, historically, and culturally connected with Europe. Edward Said argues convincingly in his influential Orientalism (1978) that eighteenth and nineteenth century military and political incursions from the northern rim were accompanied by an equally violent discursive campaign. Apparently objective orientalist scholarship in most disciplines in fact served the political ends of their governments and shaped domestic practices and policies. Portrayals of MENA as a landscape empty of people, sexually available and civilizationally fertile if carefully husbanded, have come to be understood as colonizing projections. Yet orientalists’ analyses had the force of truth at the time, and they were remarkably influential. Arab, Turkish, and Iranian intellectuals writing during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often built on such positivist foundations. ‘Progress’ became the leitmoti . Failure to construct an active national subject was predicated on lack of knowledge and the inability to borrow creatively from the West.

Contact with the cultures of Western Europe in the modern period came through various channels. French, British, and Italian colonizers brought new technology and new ideas which highlighted the difference between advanced cultures and those which world processes were bypassing. MENA rulers sent scholarly delegations to Europe to study science and to translate key documents. Exposure to French, English, Russian, and even American literature during protracted stays in the European capitals changed intellectuals’ notions of the writing and function of literature: it should reflect the new realities in the people’s lives. By the early twentieth century, MENA writers were beginning to publish their own works of fiction and drama. Egypt provided the regional milieu for literary experimentation and excitement. Literary salons convened men and sometimes even women to discuss the new trends in politics and literature. At a time when middle and upper class women were confined to their homes, these gatherings of intellectuals were almost the only places where women could appear with men.

The 150 years stretching from the French occupation of Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century until World War II, known in the Arab world as the nahda or renaissance, has been the subject of much research by those within the region. More recently, scholars of colonialism and postcolonialism, many of whom come from MENA but have been educated elsewhere, have subjected this period of initiation into a Western-style modernity to careful scrutiny. Their insider–outsider perspective provides a new lens through which to analyze the texts of orientalists like the linguist William James and to view the process of Westernization.

After World War II, most MENA countries achieved their independence. With the exception of Palestine, which was transformed into the home of Jews who had been flooding into the region out of fascist Europe, liberation struggles gave birth to autonomous regimes throughout the region, but always under the watchful eye of the former rulers and in the shadow of globalization, a new form of UScentered imperialism.

The historical fluidity of connections across the Mediterranean fostered persisting ties and facilitated the formation of new ones from further afield. Analysts from with the region articulated this moral tug-of-war with Western Europe and the US existentially; questions concerning authenticity, modernity, and tradition became central to the assertion of a new identity. However, the dream of a postcolonial return to an authentic, pre-European past was shattered by the reality of independence. MENA intellectuals came to the realization that cultural authenticity was not a pure haven but rather a present reality that involved an acknowledgment of all the strands of past experience, however painful.

2. Westtoxification

European imperial rule had introduced European culture and its values and, like a poison, it was coursing through the veins of the people. How to find an antidote? During the 1930s, some writers began to look for an indigenous, premodern greatness that might rival the cultures and power of the Europeans and thereby instill pride in their people. The Pharaonic, Babylonian, Ugaritic, and more recent Ottoman civilizations enjoyed a cultural revival in the 1930s and 1940s. Intellectuals questioned where MENA fitted in the modern world. In The Future of Culture in Egypt (1938), the Egyptian writer and educator Taha Husayn (1889–1973) connected his native land with a Mediterranean future. Arab critical schools such as Diwan (1920s) and Apollo (1930s) brought together poets and critics schooled in England and France who saw the need to knit Western theory together with local literary traditions. The publications of these schools produced a new space, that of the public sphere. Discussions about national identity and the new roles women and men should play in the future became matters of general concern.

European scholarship has made much of this period of intellectual ferment which many tried to organize through clear periodization according to genre categories such as neoclassical, romantic, and sociorealist. Some MENA intellectuals turned their attention to the negative effects of rapid change. The Saudi exile Abd al-Rahman Munif (b. 1933), who now lives in Syria, situated his five-volume novel Cities of Salt (1980s) in the recently oil-rich desert states. A petroleum economist, he understood the environmental and demographic impact of oil. The lure of easy profit has displaced tribal solidarity with individual enterprise. This multivolume book earned its author the displeasure of his Saudi government which deprived him of citizenship.

Then, there are those who absolutely reject Western cultural influence. The Iranian writer Al-e Ahmad (1923–69), the son of a Muslim Shiite cleric, coined the term ‘westtoxification.’ The title of a book he wrote in 1962, it was used as a slogan against the Shah. For him, as for many of his contemporaries, the cultural, economic, and political subordination of MENA countries to the West was anathema. The future had to be modern and Islamic, it must not be Westernized. It was this anti-occidentalism that led to the Islamic Revolution of 1978 (Talatoff 2000). Scholarship of this period spanning the independence struggles and the Islamic Revolution has emphasized growing self-confidence and identification with movements opposed to Euro-American neocolonialism worldwide.

3. War Stories

Conflict and violence are so much a part of MENA history and culture that no consideration of its culture can afford to ignore them. The Palestinian struggle against Israeli hegemony since 1948, the Algerian war of independence (1954–62), the Lebanese civil war (1975–92), the Iranian Revolution (1978–9), the Iran– Iraq war (1980–8), the Gulf War (1991) are only the best known of the MENA conflagrations. Each war produced its own coherent body of literature with women as actively engaged as the men. Women’s versions of their experiences of national violence have challenged the familiar frame narrative that characterizes men’s war stories. They have insisted on the importance of their contributions to the national welfare. In the 1980s, the Algerian novelist and historian Assia Djebar (b. 1938) started to publish her semi-autobiographical quartet. Through the eyes of women she radically revises Algerian colonial history, linking the stories of neglected nineteenth century women resisters with those of living women who had been active and then silenced during the war of independence from the French, with her own story. The recent attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on intellectuals, and particularly women, in the Algerian capital seem to perpetuate a war that was not resolved in the early 1960s.

In Lebanon, the Beirut Decentrists, a school of women writers, wrote about the civil war. Some analysts have argued that political anarchy relaxed social norms so that the prohibition of women writing about war, an experience they have always been said not to have had, was lifted. Beirut became emblematic of postmodern wars that erase the boundaries between binaries, like home and front, that have been so necessary to the effective telling of the War Story (Cooke 1997). Critical of those who participated in the senseless fighting, they also exposed the literary recklessness of those who wanted to represent the war as having any moral sense. Emily Nasrallah (b. 1938) wrote about the devastating effects of the civil war and the massive emigration it precipitated. Hanan alShaykh’s (b. 1941) The Story of Zahra (1980) traces the growth in consciousness of a woman whom the war empowers. She fights in her own limited but intense way to do something to end at least part of the madness.

While the war in Lebanon was at its height, the Iran–Iraq war broke out. Scholars from the region as well as those from outside have pointed out that Saddam Hussein, like many dictators, has had an ambivalent relationship with the intellectual elite of his country. He needed them and therefore he feared them. Throughout the war, he coerced the writers and artists to glorify the war in ink and paint. The Ministry of Culture established literary series and organized festivals in honor of the war to which scholars of Arabic literature from all over the world were invited. Many Iraqi writers and artists did as they were told. Some did not. Under the eye of the censor, some writers managed to articulate criticism of a war they were supposed to praise (Cooke 1997). Not only writers and artists, but literary critics also were commissioned to describe and analyze the cultural effects and products of the war. So prolific were they that by the late 1980s books of criticism about the literary criticism of war literature were being published.

Ironically, the Islamic government of Iran was doing exactly the same as its enemy, namely sponsoring praise of the war and censuring whatever was seen to be oppositional to its specifically Islamic interests. The case of Salman Rushdie and the 1989 fatwa pronounced against him for his ‘heretical’ Satanic Verses (1988) has entered the annals of world history. Within Iran, some writers complied with the government’s will; others protested. A. Rahmani’s Short Hike acts out a moment of defiance between an Islamic guard and the woman he has just reprimanded for revealing a strand of hair. Restrictions forced women to speak out (Milani 1992). Many went into exile. London, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York have become MENA exile capitals. Observing their native lands from a distance, creative artists and critics are publishing works of political, social, and cultural analysis as well as fiction and memoirs.

4. Moral Authority

Political independence in MENA countries demanded political and moral vision that would owe as little as possible to European norms. Intellectuals set out to ‘revolutionize the revolution.’ In 1946, the Iran-Soviet Society sponsored the first congress of Iranian writers which called for the centrality of ideology to literature. Seven years later in Lebanon, the first editorial of the influential monthly periodical Al-Adab declared that all forms of writing must be politically engaged. The time of art for art’s sake had passed to be replaced by a revolutionary ethic in all creative activities.

MENA writers, and more recently filmmakers, have a moral authority rarely found in the US and Western Europe. Since books, plays, paintings, and films may assume the force of a political manifesto, governments as well as nongovernmental associations such as Islamist groups try to monitor cultural production before, during, and after its completion. Intellectuals judged to be dissident may be eliminated, exiled, or coopted. For most MENA intellectuals prison is a badge of honor, exile a terrible necessity, co-optation an ever-threatening possibility.

Co-optation is a widespread phenomenon in MENA, making arduous the decision to stay in one’s country. Filmmaking is particularly susceptible. Like theater, film watching is a communal experience and as such it allows individuals to share with an anonymous group a sense of justified anger, or to laugh at the expense of oppressors. The power of such cathartic moments has not been lost on repressive regimes: national film institutes sponsor, censor, and retain monopoly of the finished product. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian filmmakers, like the internationally recognized Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have had to submit their scripts, rushes, and final films to the government censors, who are especially concerned with Islamizing the representation of women. During the latter part of Hafiz Assad’s rule, Syrian filmmakers were sponsored to produce films that were remarkably critical of the regime but that were rarely shown.

Films like Muhammad Malas’ The Night (1991) are only shown during international film festivals. People know of their existence and long to watch them. In the meantime, the dissenting individual may be given a government post or some other form of visibility that demands a measure of criticism of the government that is sponsoring the criticism. Such ‘commissioned critics’ provide an outlet for the people’s frustration and anger with a repressive regime, thereby helping to fashion a facade of democracy. In his Historical Miniatures (1993), the Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannus (1941–98) examines the triangular relationship between state, society, and public intellectuals through the controversial meeting of the fourteenth century Mongol tyrant Tamerlane with the North African historian Ibn Khaldun.

The project of cultural production from inside authoritarian regimes is fraught with danger: just how much criticism is too much, how much too little? Nevertheless, despite the dire consequences for articulating opposition, public intellectuals rarely flinch from what they consider to be their responsibility. Some are killed for their words. Many are imprisoned. So many have published books about their prison experiences that it is possible to talk about a body of MENA prison literature that is beginning to receive the critical attention it deserves (Abrahamian 1999, alMusawi 1999). The fact that intellectuals have had such experiences and that they then publish them gives them a moral authority that others, whose writings may be as ‘good,’ may never achieve. Research on intellectuals’ prison experiences and writings has tended to be conducted outside the country. The dictates of Aesopian language demand that the text not be decoded in the place where it is produced for fear of further political repercussions. Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1977) has influenced scholarship on prison writing throughout the MENA region.

5. Exile

For some the cost of staying at home is too much to bear, and so they leave. Citizens of repressive regimes flee in order to find a place where they might breathe and speak freely. They have congregated in major cities like Paris, London, Buenos Aires, New York, and Los Angeles, where they have founded publishing houses and launched newspapers and magazines.

The Palestinian case has become emblematic of the dilemma of many MENA intellectuals: they cannot live at home, they scarcely survive outside. Should the committed intellectual fight or write or do both or neither? In 1963 Ghassan Kanafani (1936–72) published his Men in the Sun, which was turned into a film entitled The Dupes. This novella explores the possible outcome of the decision to leave one’s home and to seek refuge in Arab countries. The fugitives suffer multiple humiliations before they perish on their way to Kuwait.

After the Arab defeat by the Israelis in 1967, Arab as well as Turkish and Iranian intellectuals tried to understand what had gone wrong. Scholarship in the region focused on a loss of spiritual purpose and guidance. Literary production echoed this existentialist trend. The Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz immediately abandoned his long, sociorealist novels to write short stories and novellas that exposed the angst of a tortured hero in a kafkaesque world.

Some Palestinians tried to stay in Israel where they were promised that all who lived on the land of Israel and spoke its language were its citizens. Anton Shammas’ (b. 1941) autobiographical Arabesques, hailed by some as a masterpiece of Hebrew prose, has not yet been accepted as part of the canon of Hebrew literature. No matter how hard they tried to assimilate, or how excellent their command of Hebrew, Palestinians could never become Israeli citizens in the full sense of the word.

In a world whose borders are increasingly porous, where migration is a necessary part of many people’s lives, indigenous scholars, writers, and artists are imagining a new kind of cultural nationalism that allows those who are living far from their land of birth or ancestry to retain very real ties of identity. Literary associations in MENA are slowly recognizing that their writers may not live in the country that they claim as their nation.

6. Globalization And Islamization

Since the late 1980s there has been a shift in the relations between the people and MENA governments as global pressure forces an acknowledgment of human rights and civil society. Western governments have predicated aid on demonstrable attention to individual and group rights to life, freedom, and to nongovernmental political participation. Although the motivations of the human rights enforcers are often questionable, they have contributed to changing the norms of interaction between state and society.

Religion has come to play an increasing role in MENA societies as Islamist groups have assumed responsibility for social welfare from below. The outcome is not always benign. Islamist groups are struggling against their governments but also against secular intellectuals to impose an Islamic state. In 1990s Algeria, Islamists increasingly targeted intellectuals who they charged with secularism and perversion of the people’s morals. In 1992, Egyptian fundamentalists assassinated Farag Foda, a journalist, for his critique of their discourse, especially in his Before the Fall (1992). In Iran, public intellectuals are under constant attack by the government and vigilante groups. Moral censure of literature has escalated to sanction for deadly assaults on the authors.

Although the most visible aspects of the Islamization of local institutions have been the violent reordering of society according to so-called Islamic norms and values, this is not the whole story. A corollary development has been a shift in public discourse. In countries whose regimes follow Muslim law, this discursive transformation has been imposed by fiat. Elsewhere Muslim ideologues have been the catalysts. Scholars, especially Western-trained anthropologists, have asserted that the wide distribution of cassette tapes of charismatic preachers’ Friday sermons provide even the illiterate with a new vocabulary and syntax. Whether the Islamization of the public sphere is regarded as a good or a bad thing, it has created a new kind of public sociability that entails a mandate for public intellectuals, even the most secular of them, to learn its language.

The most radically affected by this development have been women, and particularly those with a feminist agenda. Feminists from within the region are analyzing the situation, forming contingent coalitions and proposing new ways to challenge the policing of women’s actions, behavior, and speech. They have recognized the dangers inherent in Islamists’ declarations that women are the symbolic and moral center of their society. What they do and how they act have become men’s affairs. It is within this context that the veil, abandoned, or even banned in most places during the first half of the twentieth century, has re-assumed such central importance. In places like Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria, and Sudan, the unveiled woman may be reflexively labeled wanton. Although the veil is not Islamic, it is seen by many to be highly recommended. There are several problems with this highlighting of the veil as an emblem of the society’s moral rectitude. Feminists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century fought against the veil as a symbol of men’s ownership of women. To go back to wearing this patriarchally loaded symbol is to renounce the gains of their grandmothers. Another problem with the blanket mandate that women veil is that not all women in MENA countries are Muslims.

Women scholars and activists from the region are responding to Islamist pressure. Even when they do not accept the label of feminist because of its over-determined connection with Westernization, they are learning the rules of Islamic discourse and legal practice so as to challenge them effectively. In The Veil and the Male Elite (1987), the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi (b. 1938) reveals the weakness at the heart of the most trusted religious and legal texts. The Egyptian writer, physician, and activist Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1930) has called for the ‘Lifting of the Veil from the Mind’ in her Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (founded 1982), in her lectures given all over the world, and in novels like The Fall of the Imam (1987), which earned her a place on the Islamists’ death list. At the other end of the political spectrum are Islamist women like Zaynab al-Ghazali (b. 1912) whose prison memoirs, Days from my Life (1977), enact a model of women’s empowerment within orthodox Islam. These Islamic feminists have learned how to respond to the silencing gestures of men in power by developing a multiple consciousness of how they are perceived, named, and controlled. From these discontinuous vantage points they are producing a multiple critique that keeps incompatible audiences in tension with each other in such a way that the speaking subject can hold on to her agency (see Cooke 2001).

7. Translation And Recognition

MENA literature, art, and films are now enjoying international recognition, as they enter the mainstream of world culture. In 1988, Mahfouz became the second MENA writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature having been preceded by the Israeli Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970) in 1966. In 1989, the Moroccan Tahar Benjelloun won the Prix Goncourt, the first Arab to be awarded this coveted French prize. In 1997, the Turk Yashar Kemal was awarded Italy’s most prestigious prize, the Nonino Literary Award. In that same year four Iranian films were awarded major prizes at Cannes, Locarno, Tokyo, and Montreal.

Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish fiction and poetry are being translated into European languages. In 1981, the Palestinian poet and literary critic Salma al-Khadra’ al-Jayyusi founded her Project for Translation from Arabic (PROTA) in the United States. Whereas the first translations found homes in marginal presses dedicated to publishing works by writers from the global South, by the late 1980s major European, American, and even Japanese publishing houses started to adopt literary series as well as individual authors.

The growth of the translation industry is significant for the readers who now have unprecedented access to the cultural imaginary of people they had previously known through the stories of scholars and travelers only. It is important above all for the intellectuals who are writing with the awareness that their works will be translated, that what they say about their culture is being consumed far from the local readership they had originally targeted. Writing thus entails consequences that must be anticipated. MENA intellectuals are seeing their work becoming part of a global project in which they should play an increasingly visible role.

8. Conclusion

The legacy of the twentieth century in MENA countries is a whirlwind of conflicting realities and emotions: colonialism, independence, wars, spiritual search, religious self-assertion, despair, defiance, hope, capitulation, resistance, incorporation into the global system, and marginalization from its benefits. MENA cultural producers have had to shoulder a huge responsibility as they confront the contradictions marking their era and imagine different futures. Many have paid the price of articulating their conscience in the belief that sacrifice is necessary and may even be productive. Culture in the MENA region is a political arena where women and men strive to contest the actions, ideologies, and policies of oppressive regimes and world systems. It remains to be seen what will be the effect of the information revolution on MENA countries which have committed themselves to resisting Westernization and who now find themselves compelled to go on-line.


  1. Abrahamian A 1999 Tortured Confessions. Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  2. Badawi M M (ed.) 1992 Modern Arabic Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  3. Barakat H 1993 The Arab World. Society, Culture, and State. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  4. Cooke M 1997 Women and the War Story. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  5. Fanon F 1967 Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, New York
  6. Halman T S (ed.) 1982 Contemporary Turkish Literature. Associated University Presses
  7. Milani M 1992 Veils and Words. The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. Syracuse University Press, New York
  8. Modern Turkish drama 1976 An Anthology of Plays in Translation. Bibliotheca Islamica
  9. al-Musawi M J 1999 Infirat al-‘aqd al-muqaddas. Mun‘atifat alriwaya al-‘arabiya ba‘da Mahfuz (The Dissolution of the Sacred Contract. Trends in The Arabic No el after Mahfuz). Al-hay’a al-misriya al-‘amma li al-kitab, Cairo
  10. Said E 1978 Orientalism. Pantheon, New York
  11. Talatof K 2000 The Politics of Writing in Iran. A History of Modern Persian Literature. Syracuse University Press, New York
  12. Women claim Islam 2000 Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature. Routledge
  13. Yudkin L I 1984/1948 and After: Aspects of Israeli Literature. University of Manchester Press, Manchester, UK


Cultural Aspects of Networks Research Paper
Lewis Mumford Research Paper


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get 10% off with the 24START discount code!