x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fighting for supremacy: how WWE could save the world

If recent history has cast society in binary terms, then popular culture offers the possibility of greater understanding.

The Flying Man, based on American superhero Shazam, swings a punch at a villain high above Istanbul in 1973.
The Flying Man, based on American superhero Shazam, swings a punch at a villain high above Istanbul in 1973.

"This," says the boy, as he hurls me over his shoulder into the dust, "is body slam." Foolishly, I expect the ground on this hill high above Kabul, to be more forgiving. The boy does not seem quite so young - he is 11 years old - when he tries to cinch my knee up to my nose. "This," he continues, in the manner of both competitor and commentator, "is half-nelson".

His knowledge of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) terminology is impressive for someone who has lived most of his life in rural Logar province, far away from the urban environment below us. "Stand," he commands, before he launches himself into the air, this time aiming his feet at my chest.

We are engaging in an activity related to an ancient Persian sport - Varzesh-e-Pahlavani, Farsi for "sport of heroes" - the wrestling discipline that helps explain the passion for WWE in Afghanistan. But this isn't really Persian wrestling, it's American, through and through.

Two years before this episode, I had set out from South Africa looking for precisely these sorts of moments. My travels would eventually provide enough material for a book called The Sheikh's Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World. Indeed, it was precisely these fleeting seconds of a lingua franca - the meaning between the lines of a global language called American popular culture - that I believed pointed a way out of the often one-dimensional debate that seems to encircle much of the discussion of the cultural clash between the Muslim world and the West.

"Hoof!" I exclaim, as the boy's feet connect with my upper thighs. Dusting myself off, I consider something I had heard that morning. "This is a pop-cultural war," said Shahir Zahine, the chief executive of a nascent Afghani media empire called Killid. "On one end, the pop culture of the Taliban - and believe me, they are a pop culture, not an ideology. On the other, pop culture from elsewhere. Which one will win?"

"This powerbomb," says the boy, preparing for his coup de grace, as I hear the cackle of gunfire from somewhere far away. Meanwhile, Zach, as the boy refers to himself for our mock-WWE showdown, makes for my neck.

In recent years it has been increasingly convenient to define our world in binary terms, to cast it simply as a "clash of civilisations". Yet, I cannot help wondering if American popular culture contains the aperture to a much wider worldview.

Take, for instance, the beginning of my long journey, in 2006. Idly surfing the internet in Johannesburg, my hometown, I chanced upon a headline "D'oh! Arabised The Simpsons not getting many laughs" in The Wall Street Journal. Reading on, I learnt that the Saudi-owned MBC television network, had recently commissioned an Egyptian production company to adapt The Simpsons television programme into an Arabic show.

"Arabisation [of American animated television] is going to boom in these next few years," Sherine El-Hakim, head of Arabic content at VSI Ltd., a London-based dubbing service, promised The Wall Street Journal. "We're such an impressionable people and we aspire so much to be like the West, that we take on anything that we believe is a symbol or a manifestation of western culture. The Americans are taking over."

Those living in this region at the time will recall Al Shamshoon, mostly for how awful it was. Homer, now, Omar, no longer drank Duff Beer and did not eat bacon. Arabisation had gone a step beyond dubbing. This was a reordering culture.

The blogosphere was abuzz. "It means that we have won the culture war," posted The National Review. "Ten years from now, we'll be looking at this as a turning point in Arab culture." Arabic viewers were not so salutary. "They've ruined it! Oh yes they have, sob…Why, oh why?" wrote Noors, in Oman.

I was sure that in the vast cultural space between those two blog posts that you could find an explication of our era.

I have what some might describe as an ecstatic view of popular culture's reach and possibilities. Growing up an Orthodox Jew in South Africa during apartheid in the 1980s, my way into the wider world was through the successive waves of American popular culture that washed up on our shores.

Any pluralistic notions I hold today, I owe to Magnum PI and his black helicopter pilot pal, TC, among others. I found rationalism in pop culture's irrationality. The liberal humanism I have come to swear by, I must attribute, at least in part, to Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson and David Hasselfhoff. This was a product, but encoded into it was that glorious sense of American optimism, the understanding that within half an hour, including commercial breaks, of course, an individual could overcome adversity. Equally important, American popular culture was fun. It made me human, and it left me with the belief that popular culture can act as a catalyst for social transformation.

Not everyone agrees with me. It is an article of faith among the enlightened, wherever one may find them, that the spread of American popular culture is a bad thing, the most obvious and garish example of encroaching globalisation. Industrial mass culture has commodified leisure time. And, as a young Jew whose negative stereotyping of Muslims had been reinforced by films like Chuck Norris's The Delta Force and Navy Seals, I couldn't help thinking that popular culture created a fraught paradox, a kind of "longsighted myopia."

When I came across The Simpsons Arabisation, ideas that I had been battling with for a decade clashed with one of the big questions of our age. I resolved that I would travel north and east, throughout the Muslim world, chasing down my old obsessions. I wasn't so much interested in fundamentalists - they have every mainstream news outlet in the world as a rostrum for their views. No, I wanted the Bahraini Bruckheimers, the Saudi Shakiras. I wanted to find my spiritual brethren, united by popular culture.

Which is how I found myself standing on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, on the unhappy eve of the North American release of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

I was about to follow the path of Islam as it made its way from Arabia into Central Asia circa AD 700. Kazakhstan, which is 70 per cent Sunni (even if religion is tacitly banned), was perched at the confluence between the West's old bête noire, communism, and its new one, Islamism.

The Kazakh regime was, however, most concerned at that time with how to deal with Borat.

Blind to basic marketing mechanics, they denounced the film, affording it millions of dollars worth of free publicity. The rest of us got the joke - America was Baron Cohen's comic piñata; Kazakhstan was merely collateral damage. But for many in the regime, the film was a terrible insult. A crisis.

This spoke plainly of the power of popular culture, and I thought of the still seeping wound inflicted on Turkey by the Oliver Stone-penned Midnight Express. Stone recently apologised for the movie, admitting that he "over-dramatised the script." On my first visit to that country in the 1990s, I encountered young Turks who, without prompting, would assure me that, "Turkey is nothing like this movie." A film, mere celluloid flashing through a projector, had tarnished an entire country's image.

This was certainly top of mind as I travelled through Kazakhstan looking for someone who'd talk to me about Borat. The official reaction was angry dismissal.

"This film is nothing," an apparatchik told me in Astana, the capital. We both knew he was lying. The following day, foreign minister Kasymzhomart Tokayevgot got into the game. "Apart from the name of our country and our flag, [the film] has nothing to do with us. I also hope the people in your country will not laugh at us, but that the film will arouse their interest."

Four days into my trip, I arrived in the small town of Bolkash. I met Yevgeni Kallikin, the local chief of police, and his 12 year-old daughter, Misha at a town hall function that evening. The chief insisted we go bowling afterwards.

The alley was situated in the bowels of a vast communist-era building, where Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit played in the background. I felt a profound disorientation, the feeling that I could be anywhere in the world, at any point in the past two decades, because this space - like so much of the space in the world - was defined by American popular culture.

I'd spoken at length with Misha, whose English was close to perfect, but what surprised me was her grip on popular culture, albeit that it lacked one obvious reference.

"No," she said, "I have never heard of Borat." Her father nodded his approval gravely.

But late that night, before I could make an escape to my digs, Misha ran up to me, flipped open her mobile phone and scrolled hurriedly through her pictures with a practised thumb. It took several seconds before I realised she was showing me a picture of Borat. Misha winked conspiratorially.

I travelled southeast from Kazakhstan and into the Middle East. I recalled scenes from Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, in which an oft-hapless protagonist butts up against the limits of his world. In particular, I thought of Augie's days in the Mexican desert, wrangling a recalcitrant, ornery hunting eagle, in an effort to parse some larger meaning from it all. Feeling much like Augie must have, I would speak to experts, pundits and reporters, most of whom considered my quest at best a curiosity, at worst an absurdity.

And yet, the further I searched, the more I began to understand the links between the Muslim world and America. Here's the thing we seem to forget: the history of our species is defined by cultural exchange. That is the consistent narrative. The process is often the result of some tumultuous unpleasantness, and the exchange is never an even one, but there is no such thing as a pure culture. That's not the way it works.

In Libya, I chased down an apocryphal Lionel Richie story, in which the artist, who has sold millions of records worldwide and has nothing at all to prove, had told GQ Magazine that a gaggle of children had followed him through Tripoli's medina while re-enacting the Hello video, the one in which a blind woman sculpts a perfect representation of his face. That this turned out to be false did nothing to diminish the poignancy of its telling. Richie needed to believe that his music could act as a bridge, as a link. And indeed it does. There is something in the outsized representation of emotion in his music that resonates with Libyans and others in the Arab world. This is foreign music, but it plays as indigenous.

In Dubai, I found deep connections between the generation of Baby Boomers that came of age in America in the 1960s, and their Gulf contemporaries. Thousands of Emiratis had been educated in America during that era, absorbing its culture, bringing it home, and were ultimately forced to reconcile it with their traditions and religion. Mohammed bin Sulayem, the region's champion rally driver, told me: "[America] was very conservative in those days. Maybe that's why we loved them so much. Because they were conservative, like us."

I spoke with bin Sulayem because some days before, I'd met Wayne Stewart, a Texan based in Dubai who made bespoke American muscle cars for the elite, including three working Batmobiles for a client - the original version, the Tim Burton edition, and the Christopher Nolan tank. At first , this sounds preposterous, until we pause to consider the fact that Boomers the world over are buying up their pop cultural obsessions. This nostalgia is a powerful driving force. And it's universal, a cultural reconciliation, if not a political one.

So here I am, high above Kabul, wrestling with Zach. Oddly, the poet W.H. Auden comes to mind. "We must love one another or die," he wrote in September 1, 1939. He disavowed the poem because of that line. Later in the same poem, Auden called the 1930s a "low, dishonest decade". So too were the Noughties. How, then, to address this dishonesty?

The key, I believe, lay with Zahine, the head of Killid. "Right now," he told me, "we have a problem. Military campaigns necessarily restrict freedom of movement, and they also restrict the space for genuine members of a civil society to do things properly. The one tool the West has for winning this quote-unquote War on Terror is culture, popular culture and it has not invested in that [tool] properly."

Zahine wanted American money to fund the development of a genuine local cultural scene. "Not with pure American sensibilities, and not by watering everything down and policing it. But with genuine voices from the region, voices that have been allowed the space to develop."

As Zach prepares himself for a new assault, I think of the last thing Zahine said to me. "Popular culture does a funny thing, even if you don't know it's doing it.

"It gets into your consciousness, and you start to see yourself in others. It gives you empathy. It saves you."

Popular culture had, indeed, saved me from apartheid. Did the dumbest professional sport of them all have the means to enlighten Zach in the same kind of way, to keep extremism at bay? I thought it might.

"Yahee!" yells Zach. I brace myself for the worst he can throw at me.

Richard Poplak is the author of The Sheikh's Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World. He is currently working on a book about the Chinese in Africa.