DUBAI: In an age where online music streaming dominates, American historian Andrew Simon is old-school. His office is lined with books, a retro boombox, and an impressive archive of cassettes, bought from his forays into Egyptian kiosks. Their content is varied; ranging from Madonna’s Eighties hits to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s political speeches.
The Dartmouth College professor, who specializes in Middle Eastern studies, has released a new book — “Media of the Masses” — examining diverse cassette culture in modern Egypt, a pioneer of cultural production in the Arab world.
The author hopes his book will be translated into Arabic and intends to digitize his collection for public usage.
“Anyone in the Middle East, or outside of it, will be able to listen to the tapes,” he said. “The audio quality is not as bad as you might expect. It feels less filtered, more raw and grainy.”
Simon, who studied Arabic, first visited Cairo in 2007. “In Cairo, sound inundates and overwhelms you,” he told Arab News. “There’s such a rich soundscape, when it comes to the noise of traffic, the music videos emanating from sidewalk cafés, and my exposure to all those sounds, even prior to the 2011 Revolution, piqued my curiosity when it came to cassette culture as well. I was hearing Islamic sermons, popular shaabi music, the Spice Girls, and Amr Diab. I was hearing these different noises around me and wanted to make sense of that.”
In his book, Simon explores the huge impact of affordable cassette tapes, as opposed to more-expensive vinyl records, on Egyptian society, politics, and culture during the Seventies and Eighties.
“The real power of this technology, to me, is how it enabled countless people to transform from being cultural consumers to producers,” he said. “For the first time, anyone could contribute to the creation of culture, circulate cultural content, challenge cultural gatekeepers or political authorities. . . The Internet is like an iteration of the cassette tape.”
There is also an emotional element to the medium. “What struck me was seeing how so many people I met had held onto their tapes — even if they don’t necessarily listen to them on a daily basis anymore,” said Simon. “There are so many memories attached to them.”