The Sheikh’s Batmobile
Preparatory to setting out across 17 Muslim countries in search of American pop-cultural infiltration, Richard Poplak initially threatens to write a completely unreadable book of endlessly overexcited proper-noun metaphors. Describing driving through Kazakhstan’s “Fruit Loop-hued gloamings,” he says, was like traveling “through a one act by Beckett, translated by Chekhov, with a soundtrack by Prokofiev.” A whole book of this kind of thing, sentence after bludgeoning sentence, would be wearisome (and Poplak never does stop making awkward three-part hybrid comparisons), but bear with it: The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit Of American Pop Culture In The Muslim World soon settles down to describing Poplak’s actual travels, leaving little time for those kinds of flourishes.
Poplak will appeal most to readers who always want to know what music’s on in the background in a given setting, what’s on TV, and what videogames are popular in the area. But Poplak isn’t just compulsively taking notes: He wants to see whether American mass culture, far from being a catastrophic homogenizer, can act as a force for good, breeding tolerance and understanding between America and the Arab world. So he attempts to explicate Lionel Richie’s unlikely Libyan popularity, why The Simpsons’ dubbed introduction to the UAE failed, the nuances of dubbing Disney animation into classical Arabic in Egypt, and so on. Where the Western product fails to stick, local alternatives flourish: Indonesia has flourishing indigenous punk and twee scenes, while UAE-based designer Radwan Kasmiya makes first-person shooters for the Palestinian perspective.
Poplak is the kind of overeducated pop-culture true believer who can knowledgeably cite Edward Said to support his fervor. The bottom line is simple: “There are two great equalizers: death and pop.” And though Poplak has his own reasons for loving mediocre, corporate-manufactured culture—he claims it was thanks to products like The Cosby Show that he emerged from apartheid-era South Africa with “any pluralistic notions” at all—the questions he’s asking matter even for people not instantly riveted by whatever’s on the closest screen.
His utopian raptures can be a bit much: A closing vision of an Iranian/American delegation establishing cultural detente by trading albums for each other’s kids is over the top. But his on-the-ground reporting is colorful and detailed, building a portrait of the ways mass culture mutates to the specific needs of whoever’s consuming it, in ways that are simultaneously unexpected and hopeful. The conclusion—American pop dreaming is slowly eroding violent hatred of America and anti-Semitism, one bootlegged sitcom and hip-hop release at a time, even as Hollywood has yet to respond in kind—is surprising, yet plausible.