The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World (Review)

August 22, 2010

Book cover for "The Sheikh's Batmobile" by Richard Poplak.Title: The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World

Author: Richard Poplak

Publication Year: 2009

Pages: 389

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Borrowed from Zaid

From the cover:

What happens to our pop culture when it meets another culture head-on – especially one that according to some is completely at odds with our own?

In The Sheikh’s Batmobile, pop-cultural commentator Richard Poplak sets out on an unusual two-year odyssey. His mission is to see what becomes of his, and North America’s, obsessions — pop songs and sitcoms, Hollywood movies and shoot-em-up video games, muscle cars and punk music — when they make their way into the Muslim world.

Over the course of his journey, Poplak is body slammed by WWE fans in Afghanistan, hangs out with hip-hop artists in Palestine, head bangs to heavy metal in Cairo, discovers a world of extreme makeovers in Beirut, bowls with the chief of police in small-town Kazakhstan, and encounters a mysterious Texan building rocket-propelled batmobiles for a clientele of sheikhs.

With uproarious humour and keen cultural insight, Poplak asks some vital questions: How is American pop culture consumed and reinterpreted in the Islamic world? What does that say about how we are viewed by young Muslims? And can Homer Simpson bridge the differences that are tearing our world apart?

I spotted this book on a shelf many months ago, but didn’t buy it – instead, Zaid bought a copy, and then I promptly forget to get around to reading it until now.

Now that I have, I’m sorry that I waited that long. The Sheikh’s Batmobile was a myriad of things – fun, serious, introspective, and deeply thoughtful – all while taking a closer look at the phenomena of American pop culture as it exists in the “Muslim world”. For this, Poplak writes about his travels to a variety of Muslim-majority countries, and the people he meets in his search to find out more about how pop culture tidbits such a metal music and The Simpsons have been assimilated – or not – into the lives of locals.

Early on in the book, Poplak identifies one of the problems with translating American pop culture to Muslim-majority countries:

Many in the Muslim world are used to scouring popular art for codes because so much of their art has existed in disguise – written or filmed or sung in what amounts to an analogical style. (The convention in Arabic popular songs sung by men is to address them to other men, because singing to a woman one hasn’t seen or met would be an obvious impropriety, as well as impossible.) Culture – high, low or in-between – is not received passively; the hidden message must be deciphered.

This duplicity of meaning is apparent in many of the interviews he has with singers, activists, and everyday citizens throughout The Sheikh’s Batmobile. I really enjoyed the way that he looked at the re-interpretation of pop culture, especially through the lens of this dichotomy; what is the surface meaning? what is the meaning hidden deeper below the surface? It was as though Poplak just kept searching, not really knowing when he had found the “real” answers to his quest for understanding, or even if such discoveries were possible.

The only negative thing that I can really say about this book was that it sometimes seemed like he was coming at the subject from a negative perspective, as if he already had pre-conceived notions of what people believed or would say. For example, there were a lot of moments where Poplak would assume anti-Jewish sentiment, without actually giving evidence for his assumption or belief about how someone he was interviewing felt. Along the same vein, it seemed like he wanted to be able to juxtapose American pop culture with devout Islam and with stereotypical images of the Middle East, and was disappointed when he was unable to do so:

Metal lyrics in the Muslim world are almost always allusions to the geek-noir imagery of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. One must dig deep to find even a hint of Islam. There is an odd, loopy, overblown poetry to them: Anne Rice meets Edgar Allan Poe by way of Elvira, garnished as they are with a Christian-Goth sensibility: I pictured knights, swords, horses with burning eyes, demure babes with ruby-red lips. Where were the Saracen warriors, the veiled chicks, the flapping green banners? Middle Eastern metal was a fantasy space, borrowed from scenes in Norway, Britain and the United States. It was an effective way to conjure life here, this moonless, agonized lyricism.

On the whole, though, The Sheikh’s Batmobile was a really interesting look at modern pop culture in the Middle East, from an outsider’s perspective. Since it’s a very new book – I believe it was just released in the United States this month, though it came out last year in Canada – the issues are still very much relevant and current to what is going on in the world, and to the people he interviewed and the societies they are a part of. I definitely recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about the rise of North American pop culture in the Middle East.

Rating:


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

4 Comments

  • Helen Murdoch August 23, 2010 at 8:13 am

    This topic is so interesting! Whenever I travel I am amazed at the blending of the various cultures, sad to see all the American fast food restaurants, and love it when the blending works.

  • Amy August 23, 2010 at 8:23 am

    What an interesting premise for a book! Sounds really interesting, and I’m glad you enjoyed. The pre-conceived notions would be annoying at times though, I would imagine.

    • Carina September 1, 2010 at 4:13 am

      At least they were easy to spot!

  • zibilee August 23, 2010 at 9:11 am

    You know, I have never really thought about the influence of pop culture in the Middle East, so this book sounds very interesting to me. I think it would make a really enlightening read and will have to see about grabbing a copy. Thanks, Carina for the great review on this one!

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