INTERVIEW: And then came the cassette: From Oum Kalthoum to local mix tapes and audio letters

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 1 May 2023

Andrew Simon, historian of media and popular culture in the Middle East, talks to Ahram Online about a dear element of Egypt's intangible cultural heritage, the audio cassette.

Media of the Masses

In his book, Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt (Stanford University Press 2022), Andrew Simon takes us on a sweet journey down memory lane before SoundCloud and YouTube, where original and mix tapes could be bought from special local kiosks every summer and before New Year.

Simon holds a BA in Arabic, Middle East, and Islamic Studies from Duke University.

The world's first cassette

At the Philips Museum in Eindhoven in the Netherlands is the world’s very first compact cassette, first created in 1963 by Dutch Engineer Lou Ottens. "Now that you are the proud owner of this handy pocket recorder," the opening lines of the manual read, "you can record and play back wherever or whenever you wish.”

When the compact cassette hit Egypt, it was truly the media of the masses. "Audiocassette technology decentralised state-controlled Egyptian media and empowered countless people to create culture, circulate information, and challenge ruling regimes long before the internet entered our daily lives. Cassettes and cassette players, accordingly, did not simply join other mass mediums, like records and radio; they were the media of the masses," explained Andrew Simon.

The impact of cassette culture in Egypt

Indeed, the cassette gave room to Sheikh Imam's political songs to roam Egypt and the Arab world during the 1960s and 1970s. It also allowed local singers and chanters to flourish outside the state-owned radio and television's selective criteria. Lots of Egyptians used cassettes to communicate with loved ones abroad, instead of sending written letters.

The cassette player was a popular commodity that was usually brought from the Gulf Countries, that it was even depicted on the traditional Hajj graffiti.

Independent radio stations in Egypt

However, the audio cassette was not the first independent media in Egypt.

"As for independent radio stations, run by individuals, prior to the start of state-controlled Egyptian radio in 1934, this small community of broadcasters reached local listeners, but their audience, like the number of stations, was limited and their existence short-lived.”

“Cassettes, conversely, were a dominant mass medium for decades in Egypt and permitted an unprecedented number of Egyptians to become cultural producers, as opposed to only cultural consumers, for the first time," noted Simon.

The book follows the rise of popular shaaby (folk) singers during the late 1980s and early 1990s mix tape boom until the rise of digital media made the medium obsolete.

Why Egypt?

“From the very first trip I took in 2007, Egypt's acoustic culture captivated me. Everything from car horns and the call to prayer to music videos and outdoor concerts made an immediate impression. Upon completing a fellowship at the Centre for Arabic Study Abroad in downtown Cairo in 2011, I returned to the US for graduate school, where I dove deeper into popular Egyptian culture. I wrote papers on everyone from Sheikh Imam to Ahmad Adawiya, and at the centre of these stories was a common thread: audiocassettes. When I returned to Egypt, I poured over popular magazines, such as Ruz Al-Yusuf and Akhir Saa, where I encountered cassettes and cassette players in surprising places, from court cases to crime reports to advertisements for the modern home. As a result of these discoveries, what started as a history of cassette technology became a history of modern Egypt through the window of the country's cassette culture. In tracing the extraordinary impact of an ordinary object, Media of the Masses invites us to reimagine the past through the everyday things around us," noted Simon.

Media of the Masses is the product of a decade of research. "In many ways, this book is a labour of love and a story I wrote with a wide audience in mind, from anyone who once made mixtapes to those who enjoy learning about the recent past," he concluded.

Media of the Masses has been quite popular; it appeared on Ahmed El-Ghandour's popular show Al-Daheeh and is currently being translated into Arabic. The author will visit Cairo this summer to give several talks about Egypt's cassette culture and discuss his project of digitalising old cassettes in an online archive.

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