Performing Piety Singers and Actors in Egypt’s Islamic Revival By Karin van Nieuwkerk (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. 320 pages.)

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Kendra Salois



Anthropologist Karin van Nieuwkerk’s latest book-length study addresses the
phenomenon, widely discussed in Egyptian media since the 1990s, of celebrated
singers, actors, and dancers who withdraw from their professions to live
according to what they believe are Islamically sound principles. The author of
“A Trade Like Any Other”: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1995), van Nieuwkerk draws on experience and
contacts from over two decades of research. But this project, as well as its subjects
and issues, presents new challenges for the ethnographer.
Each of the three main sections describes the trends of a particular decade.
The first wave of famous women to retire began in the late 1980s, and thus
the first section focuses on the shared rhetorics, ideologies, and activities of
“repentant” artists. From the beginning, artists cannot be read as simply adopting
wholesale Salafist ideologies, since their personal turning points bore as
much influence from “popular” or “Sufi” religiosity as from the “rationalist”
tendencies of Islamists (p. 30). In the early 1990s, as retirements peaked,
Egyptian media became central to both celebrities’ and fans’ understanding
of this new trend. In this section, the author focuses on debates over secular(ist)
aesthetics and changing discourses on women’s participation in public life.
Two generations of preachers offer different rationales for women’s retirements
or re-entry into art, reflecting the sea change incited by a generation of
Muslim Brotherhood-allied “lay preachers” such as Amr Khalid during the
The 2000s are depicted as a time of experimentation. Some veiled women
choose to return to entertainment on their own terms; their productions cater
to a growing market for entertainment that reflects elite consumption habits
and piety, overcoming a longstanding association of overt piety with impoverished
Cairenes and villagers. Noting other authors’ commentaries and terminology,
van Nieuwkerk follows Asef Bayat in calling this market
“post-Islamist” – explicitly pious but unconnected to an Islamist dream of remaking
the state (p. 203). I particularly appreciated how her insights into the
simultaneous influence of American and Gulf consumer culture dislodge easy
readings of globalization as synonymous with Americanization (pp. 227-28).
The full sweep of all three sections provides a cultural history of the Islamic ...

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