The Sheikh’s Batmobile:
In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World
(Soft Skull Press, 2010)
Richard Poplak’s quick-witted survey of U.S. pop culture throughout the core of the Muslim world functions as a meaty, detail-laden addendum to Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s famed pop culture book. The latter claims to be a secret history of the 20th century, but nearly forgets that everyone has had a 20th century, not just a subculture of white people worshipping at the feet of Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren. Punk rock is hard to take as anything other than really good rock-and-roll, and its so-called “philosophy of negation” is hard to take seriously when the music’s chief adherents are a bunch of white, middle-class kids shocked to discover that society is hypocritical. Really? It is?
The Sheikh’s Batmobile takes a step in the right direction, focusing on how U.S. pop culture, especially punk, heavy metal, and hip-hop, impacts upon and co-mingles with the cultures of the Middle East. The author is a Canada-based, white, South African journalist and director of music videos and commercials; he has a particularly keen eye and ear for the U.S.’s cultural influences, having been raised on a full diet of it himself.
During his two years of travels, Poplak dines with the Muslim world’s top TV moguls and their surgically-perfect wives one week, and slums it with Palestinian rappers in bombed-out apartment buildings the next. From the titular sheikh—who will spare no expense to three custom-built Batmobiles from the eras of Adam West, Michael Keaton, and Christian Bale—to self-mutilating, Indonesian punk rockers slam dancing in their Doc Martens, to screaming metaliens at an Egyptian death metal music festival, Poplak takes readers on a frenzied, colorful journey. He finds pretty much what he expected: that they love us, they really love us. Still, his anecdotes are alternately amusing and tragic.
Despite the ever-present danger of embracing all things American, Dewa frontman Ahmad Dhani, “Indonesia’s Bono,” is such a devout worshipper of U.S. culture that he waxes downright eschatological: “[W]hat you call pop culture, this will save us. It’s very easy to make this place more Western. We need more good Hollywood movies. Otherwise we are finished. We are lucky here. We have malls, movies, music. It is a start. It will be hard to topple that. I often thank God for these things.”
To his great credit, Poplak does his damnedest not to seem condescending, or to paint his host countries as quaint or backward. In Indonesia, where the punk scene is apparently the number-one youth subculture, “Western pop has...been ransacked for what worked... It’s tempting to call the Indonesian way imitative but that wouldn’t be quite right, because it’s absorbative—Indonesian punk is punk...as Indonesian an art form as it is an American or British one.”
The reader can also take comfort in feeling that the writer knows his stuff, and didn’t stop his prep work at back issues of Rolling Stone or the often incomplete allmusic.com. “[My] iPod was no stranger to rap made by Muslim artists. The subgenre took shape in France’s riot-ridden banlieues where young immigrants found corollaries between their situation and that of blacks in urban North America. From there it spread to Lebanon...Hip-hop had also made it to North Africa where Moroccan rappers like Salah Edin (who raps furiously in the Moroccan dialect of Darija) built a hardcore local fan base.”
In another instance, Poplak doesn’t just tell you that Tupac is popular in Palestine; he looks under the hood to tell you what makes the engine purr. “Tupac’s legend runs deep: his mother was one of twenty-one Black Panthers arrested in 1969 under suspicion of planning terrorist activities. She had links to the Nation of Islam, her adopted last name is a derivative of the Arabic shukran meaning ‘thank you,’ or in this case, ‘thanks to God.’ In prison, she wrote a rather uncompromising epistle to her captors promising ‘a war—a true revolutionary war—a bloody war. And we will win.’”
However, the author’s historical leaps to depict a world in which everyone can trace their musical roots to Islam would make Evel Knievel envious. “Hip-hop traces back definitively to the rhythm of Qur’an recitation,” he tells us without a blink. “Its poetic cadences, when properly rendered, are both sharp-edged and liquid...It flows...The Qur’an means, literally, ‘recitation’: it is meant to be performed, called from the ramparts.” That means it can be claimed as hip-hop’s grandma? The much older poetry of the Vedas and Upanishads was also meant to be spoken and sung. Does this mean one can claim that punk rock traces back definitively to Hinduism? Unlikely.
It is also disappointing that music other than punk, heavy metal, and hip-hop is ignored. Poplak’s smugness in differentiating these musical subcultures from what he apparently considers inconsequential is embarrassing at times. Visiting the Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, he tells us with an eye roll that “a stage had been set up for a French/Syrian jazz concert promoting ‘dialogue’—a quaint, officially sanctioned piece of cultural back and forth far removed from the trenches.” Jazz music isn’t pop culture, despite its roots in the African-American experience, alongside hip-hop? Aside from a mocking examination of superstar Lionel Richie’s popularity in Libya and a fleeting allusion to the legendary Johnny Cash, the international popularity of mainstream American pop music feels oddly cast aside.
Poplak eventually leaves music behind and introduces the reader to controversial and wildly-popular talk show host Zaven Kouyoumdjian, Lebanon’s father of reality TV who once had a deaf guest host speak in sign language with deaf guests before an all-deaf studio audience, a huge hit with viewers. Explains Zaven, “So once a year you don’t understand the TV. Big deal.” But, the author infers that “[i]n deliberately staging a show that is incomprehensible to most of his audience, Zaven was posing a punk-like query: we are talking, but are we saying anything that counts?” Here Poplak makes the same mistake as Greil Marcus, seeing only a world in which all roads lead to and from punk. Has he never heard of Theatre of the Absurd?
A glaring omission throughout the book is the influence of the East on North America’s own pop culture, which is then fed back to them, and back again to us. The book feels stuck in a monologue rather than a dialogue. We may not have our antidote to all the biased books on U.S. pop culture until an Eastern-born Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, or Hindu writes a book in Arabic, Hindi, or Farsi about how fascinating and quaint and “absorbative” we North Americans are in our appropriation of Eastern mores.