Working Class Heroes: How Cassettes Changed the Game in Modern Egypt

Peter Holslin speaks to author Andew Simon about his book diving into cassette culture in modern Egypt, why they horrified the government, his extensive research process and much more.
By    March 2, 2023

Image via Andrew Simon

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Peter Holslin ate all the fuul.

Believe it or not, there was a time and a place where you could make a profit running a DIY cassette label.

That’s one of the revelations I took away from Andrew Simon’s recent book, Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt. Published last year by Stanford University Press, this meticulously-researched study takes an academic look at the pop culture scene in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s—a time when the boom of the oil industry in the Arabian Gulf and a change in Egyptian economic policy known as the infitah (or “opening”) gave way to a rise in consumer culture and a radical reshaping of the country’s musical landscape. Cheap, easily reproducible cassettes proliferated across Egypt by the millions, weakening state controls over music production and ushering in a new guard of populist artists that didn’t adhere to government-sanctioned ideas of culture and taste.

Simon is a historian of Middle Eastern media and pop culture at Dartmouth College, and he spent nearly a decade working on the book. Picking up a book like this, I would have expected a more straightforward history of influential Egyptian labels that mostly put out music on cassette, like SLAM! and Sout El-Hob. That or maybe some glossy scans of plastic cassette shells and colorful J-cards à la the Syrian Cassette Archives.

Simon takes a different approach, though. Relying mostly on media and government sources (including Facebook memes, old news clippings, magazine ads, newspaper comics, and state records), he shows how the humble cassette turned into a lightning rod in a country undergoing major changes. Since tapes could be manufactured and copied with relative ease, practically anybody could become a label owner or pop star overnight—a utopian/dystopian scenario that government authorities and cultural gatekeepers saw as a dire threat to the public order. “According to critics, ordinary citizens, from carpenters to butchers to kiosk owners, had no business making Egyptian culture,” Simon tells me. “For local gatekeepers, the usability of cassette technology was not an asset. It was a liability.”

Even though they were banned from state radio and TV, artists like shaabi pioneer Ahmed Adaweya could build audiences and thrive. The blind, oud-toting songwriter Sheikh Imam managed to grow into an underground legend thanks to the hand-to-hand dissemination of lo-fi live recordings that captured him performing folk songs full of rebellious fervor and archly sardonic anti-government mockery. Egypt today remains under control of a military regime, and the cassette today has lost much of its relevance, both in Egypt and in the United States. Debates over public taste continue to swirl in Egypt, now centered around the festival rap known as mahraganat (which proliferates over YouTube and other streaming channels). Still, Simon argues that tapes like Sheikh Imam’s continue to play an important role, in part by offering a crucial counternarrative to official sources and state-sanctioned discourse, giving curious listeners a glimpse into the people’s point of view.

Recently I got in touch with Simon over email to talk more about the book—read on for our interview. (I’ve made some edits for length and clarity.)

This is a unique topic for a historian to get into, and your take on Egyptian cassettes is much different from what I would normally expect when I hear “book about cassettes.” How did you first get on this topic?

Andrew Simon: I was studying Arabic in Cairo during the downfall of Husni Mubarak, a dictator who ruled over Egypt for three decades. The rise of new voices, the revival of older artists, and the centrality of slogans during mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square—the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution—all made an immediate impression on me and directed my attention to the power of sound, the politics of popular culture, and the significance of mass media. Upon completing a fellowship at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, I returned to the US eager to further explore Egypt’s acoustic culture. In graduate school, I wrote papers on particular artists, musical genres, and religious currents, and at the center of all of these investigations was a common thread: cassettes.

Coming from an academic background, what was your mandate as you waded into the world of Egyptian cassettes? What questions were you trying to answer or insights were you looking to uncover?

Andrew Simon: From the very start of my research, I tried to let the sources speak to me and inspire questions. One of the items upon which I rely in the book is the popular Egyptian press. I perform a close reading of weekly Egyptian magazines, which covered a wide array of cultural, political, economic, and social affairs, and offer a window onto Egypt’s recent past in the absence of the Egyptian National Archives—which are inaccessible to researchers studying this time period. In reading through these weekly periodicals, I saw cassettes and cassette players surfacing in surprising places. They appeared in letters to the editor concerning noise pollution, investigative reports on the “contamination” of public taste, advertisements for the “modern home,” and crime reports praising the security sector and showcasing the falls of thieves.

The technology’s unexpected presence in all of these settings motivated me to consider how media technologies and the stories told by them may assist us in radically reimagining the making of modern nations. In the course of exploring a wide range of materials that exist in the shadow of the Egyptian national archives—from magazines, memoirs, films, and social media sites to guidebooks, photographs, cassette recordings—and the places that continue to contain tapes in Egypt, a series of broader questions took shape. How might the impact of cassettes and their users lead us to question the “newness” of new media like the internet? How might popular culture not only complement what we already know about the past, but radically alter our understanding of it? How might we write the history of a nation without its national archives and challenge the attempts of authorities to monopolize the past in the present? In what ways might sound serve as an avenue of inquiry to capture the complexity of people’s multi-sensory worlds? These are some of the questions I set out to answer in the book.

Image via Peter Holslin

You mention a few times in the book how people would run tape labels out of their homes and also out of street kiosks. I get the idea of running a label out of your house, but I never imagined that a humble corner stall selling cigarettes and newspapers could also serve as the headquarters of a DIY cassette label. Am I reading that right? How did this work?

Andrew Simon: In Egypt, the mobility, affordability, and usability of cassettes and cassette players enabled countless people to play an active part in the creation and circulation of Egyptian culture for the first time. According to one estimate, before 1975, there were 20 well-known cassette labels in Egypt. Thirteen years later, this number increased to 365 and, by 1990, it skyrocketed to 500 enterprises. Egyptians with little to no experience in the recording arena ran a number of these ventures, which, in reality, likely far exceeded the aforementioned figures. After all, one only required a dual cassette player to create and copy a tape, which then had the potential to reach a mass audience. In this sense, cassette technology did not merely join other mass media in Egypt, such as records and radio. Cassettes and cassette players [really] were the media of the masses.

From the perspective of cultural elites, this development inspired no shortage of anxiety, and here is where we see the question of class come into stark relief. According to critics, ordinary citizens, from carpenters to butchers to kiosk owners, had no business making Egyptian culture. For local gatekeepers, the usability of cassette technology was not an asset. It was a liability.

The proliferation of cassette labels—including many profitable ones—horrified the Egyptian government, which had (and continues to have) a keen interest in shaping public culture and art according to official narratives and mores. But from an artist’s standpoint, this seems revolutionary, even utopian. What were the economic and social forces that helped create this flourishing of cassette culture in Egypt in the 70s and 80s?

Andrew Simon: The advent of Egypt’s cassette culture coincides with the dawn of mass consumer culture. Two key developments that make both of these things possible are the oil boom and infitah, or Egypt’s “economic opening,” where we witness a shift from state-sponsored socialism to open-door capitalism.

In the 1970s and 1980s, an unprecedented number of Egyptians traveled abroad in search of higher wages. Among the myriad places members of this highly mobile community ended up are Libya, Iraq, and the Gulf. Once abroad, many migrants not only sent money back home, but also purchased consumer goods. Among the most common items they acquired were cassette players, which found their way back to Egypt. The origins of Egypt’s cassette culture, then, are in part transnational. At the same time, we have more and more cassette manufacturers working with licensed agents in Egypt. Toshiba, Samsung, National, and Sony, along with Phillips, whose Egyptian branch was nationalized by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1961, contributed to the creation of Egypt’s cassette culture nationwide.

It’s at this moment, too, when we see the idea of the “modern home” gain ground in advertisements. In the past, modernity was very much tied to education. As mass consumer culture takes off, however, a home’s modernity has less to do with its occupants than its objects, with cassette technology becoming one of the most coveted commodities for Egyptians from all walks of life.

One of the challenges I imagine of writing a book like this is that a lot of cassettes that came out during this period were basically unofficial releases. There were tons of pirated tapes in circulation. Sheikh Imam’s entire discography consisted of lo-fi recordings of live performances at university lecture halls and in peoples’ living rooms. There’s a lot of history that seems yet to be canonized here. How did you map your way through this sprawling industry and decide what to focus on?

Andrew Simon: Great question! In terms of pirated tapes, yes. Piracy becomes a popular practice for the first time courtesy of cassette technology, and proves to be pivotal for artists like Sheikh Imam, who [relied] on non-commercial cassettes, created and circulated by individual listers, to reach a wider audience beyond the confines of his apartment and political protests, where people often recorded him.

In terms of what I decided to explore, I mainly let the tapes I found, magazines I read, and conversations I had with Egyptians, guide me. One of the outcomes of these exchanges was the decision to focus on several individuals who have yet to merit the attention they deserve from historians, including Sheikh Imam, who challenged the stories told by Egypt’s ruling regimes; Ahmed Adaweya, a pioneer of shaabi music who critics accused of “polluting” public taste, and Sayyid Ismaʿil, an artist and cassette label founder who Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez (two iconic Egyptian performers) took to court for reportedly stealing their music.

The word “vulgar” (haabit, which also means descending or falling) comes up a lot in your book—it’s used by media critics and government officials almost constantly in reference to the shaabi music often released on cassette at the time. There are lots of other degrading terms that come up too, but vulgarity seems to be a common theme. What did the media and authorities mean by this word and why do you think they used it in reference to cassettes so often?

Andrew Simon: “Vulgar” carries multiple meanings. It could refer to something that is obscene, unrefined, or of the masses. In the case of Egypt’s cassette culture, “vulgar” was an adjective often wielded as a weapon by cultural critics against working-class citizens contributing to the creation and circulation of Egyptian culture courtesy of cassette technology. Underlying many criticisms of cassette content, then, was not merely a concern for aesthetic sensibilities, but a broader struggle over what Egyptian culture was and who had the right to create it during a time of immense change.

I’d really like to get your take on Ahmed Adaweya. The government and the state-backed press hated Adaweya, but many people loved him, including major music figures who wouldn’t want to admit it publicly. What was it about him that inspired such enormous waves of adoration and backlash?

Andrew Simon: A pioneer of popular (shaabi) music, he sang about everyday issues in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, the language of daily life. [He] gained traction at a point in time when several state-sanctioned stars passed away, and [he] mobilized cassettes to reach a wider audience outside of state-controlled Egyptian radio, which refused to broadcast his music. All of these elements contributed to Adaweya’s popularity, which inspired a wide range of reactions, from adoration to ire. One of the most intriguing responses, which you allude to above, is that of Mohammed Abdel Wahab and ʿAbdel Halim Hafez, two leading, state-sanctioned stars and the co-owners of Sawt al-Fann, a major recording label.

The same year that Abdel Wahab suggested Adaweya’s songs were a passing phenomenon in the Egyptian press, he tried to bring the performer aboard his label! ʿAbdel Halim traveled to London, where Adaweya was performing, offered him a recording contract, and even sang with him before an audience. Adaweya’s label countered this offer and when ʿAbd al-Halim was attacked by Egyptian critics for singing with Adaweya – a photo of the two of them appeared in the Egyptian press – he denied the performance ever took place.

Loved by some and detested by others, Adaweya, inspired no shortage of strong reactions. In fact, perhaps the one and only thing everyone could agree upon was the centrality of cassettes to Adaweya’s career.

Scandalous: Abdel Halim Hafez (right) performing alongside Ahmed Adaweya

How many cassettes do you have in your collection currently? Any faves?

Andrew Simon: I have a few hundred cassettes in my private collection, which I will be making publicly available later this year in a digital archive, where anyone will be able to access, enjoy, and explore Egypt’s acoustic culture. The recordings on this platform will range widely, from professional productions to amateur mixtapes. Everyone from Madonna and Michael Jackson to Anwar Sadat and Shaykh Kishk to Ahmed Adaweya and Abdel Halim Hafez will appear, including several other voices who are less well-known and have not made the jump from audiocassettes to the internet.

As for favorite tapes, I have a few! There is a cassette recording of Beethoven’s “Most Beloved Classics,” which have since been [taped over] by the songs of Hassan al-Asmar, a shaabi singer, who was attacked by critics for his “vulgar” lyrics; a cassette recording of Shaykh Antar Saʿid Mussallam, who was banned from reciting the Qurʾan by al-Azhar, the preeminent seat of Islamic learning in Egypt, for his unorthodox style; a tape intended to teach Egyptian children basic vocabulary, like “dog,” “zoo,” and “tree,” but also key concepts, including “God,” “generosity,” and “cleanliness”; and a cassette starring two performers, who have long since been forgotten by listeners, but circulated [a few decades ago] on microbuses in Cairo—a “cheap” form of advertising according to its producer.

Were there any tapes or artists that really stood out to you during your research that you couldn’t fit into the book?

Andrew Simon: Yes! Courtesy of cassette technology, countless people, who were merely cultural consumers, became cultural producers for the first time. Among these artists are those whose cassettes enjoyed relatively limited runs, released by smaller recording labels that operated out of apartments or curbside kiosks. There are also the personal messages, recorded by ordinary people, for friends and family members outside of Egypt. The 1970s and 1980s is a period of unprecedented migration against the backdrop of the oil boom, and many Egyptians relied upon cassettes to stay in touch with loved ones. These mobile tapes, which traveled near and far in the mail, were all the more necessary in the absence of reliable phone lines. There are then informal mixtapes, playlists crafted and curated by individual listeners from several sources, including the radio, films, and other tapes. These personal mixes contained multiple artists, whose names often appear in handwriting on cassette cases, and speak not only to what music was popular but what certain songs meant to those making such tapes. All of these recordings merit further attention.

Your book came out around the same time that there’s been a lot of discussion around other efforts to archive tapes from the Middle East, including the Syrian Cassette Archives and Mo’min Swaitat’s reclaimed treasure-trove of Palestinian music. Why do you think all this attention is focusing around tapes right now?

Andrew Simon: Media of the Masses has been in the making for nearly a decade, so I cannot take credit for the renewed interest in cassettes coinciding with its publication, but I do believe that a few factors are at work. First, cassette recordings are a source of immense nostalgia. Several people, for instance, reached out to me after reading the book to share their fond memories of making mixtapes in Egypt and at a distance from it in the US and elsewhere. One of the reasons behind the enduring emotional resonance of cassettes, I think, concerns the technology’s usability, and the fact that audiotapes afforded anyone the ability to record and circulate whatever they desired.

Additionally, at a point in time when we listen to so many things online, the physicality of cassettes is appealing. Unlike albums on Spotify, Anghami, or other streaming platforms, we can hold tapes in our hands. This tangibility, I believe, is meaningful. Lastly, when it comes to the increased attention to cassette recordings from the Middle East, in particular, it’s important to recognize that much of the material on them is simply not available elsewhere. Efforts, like the ones you mention, then, promise to not only preserve the region’s acoustic culture, but to radically expand what comes to mind when so many of us think of Middle Eastern culture.

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