The Sheikh’s Batmobile is the product of pop-culturalist Richard Poplak’s two-year search for hallmarks of North American culture – “pop songs, sitcoms, Hollywood movies, shoot ‘em up video games, muscle cars and punk music” – in the least likely of places: the Muslim world. Perhaps that is the point though. Poplak finds that it’s not all that unlikely after all. And when one considers how widespread the influence of western pop culture is across the globe, why would the Muslim world be any different?
Poplak has quite the journey over the two years he spends crossing the vast lands from the ‘Stans of Central Asia to the Mediterranean shores of the Muslim world trying to find globalized pop culture in local contexts. This, of course, is not a new notion, but he manages to expand the conversation by finding some interesting interpretations of the icons and symbols with which he’s familiar.
When we saw an ad for The Sheikh’s Batmobile, we were pretty curious about the rendering of the tastes of Muslim youth by a dude who’s never lived in the Muslim world. Of course, we’re always delighted to speak to anyone who challenges ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ theory and is out there attempting to uncover a world that’s not glossed over with glittery American references or polarized as absurd and disconnected. We speak to Richard Poplak about his journey and what becomes of “fluffy” Americana when it travels.
Worldtown: In this book you travel to the Muslim world and look for the overlaps between cultures in that part of the world and in North America. Why did you think going to the “Muslim world” was what you needed to do? Is it because the Muslim World is characterized as the polar opposite of all things “American”? How did you feel about that notion before you went, and what would you say to some one who feels that way now?
Richard Poplak: When I started my journey, the Iraq war was in full swing, we were going to orange terrorist alerts on a constant basis, and Iran was the centre of the axis of evil. In other words, the ‘Muslim World’ was the source of all our troubles. How times change! But there has always been this ‘Us and Them’ notion when it comes to America and the Muslim world, and that was something I really wanted to undermine. There are links. I knew that before I left, and I wanted to explore them further.
WT: Did you have a set list of icons you were going to present to the people you met, and if so, how did you come up with this list?
RP: In a way, the icons presented themselves. I just showed up for my interviews, and there were The Golden Girls or Batmobiles or Eminem just staring me in the face. Of course, I knew what I was getting into – I made the accidents, if you will – but while I did make lists, I didn’t really need them.
WT: How did people receive you when you presented them with a “recognizable icon” such as Lionel Richie? Could you share some of your favourite anecdotes?
RP: To young Libyans, where I researched the Lionel Richie portion of the book, Lionel Richie is pretty unhip. Like most of us, these kids wanted to look cool. So they thought I was a bit of a twit chasing down something as seemingly arbitrary as Lionel Richie. Indeed, my guide in Libya was like, “what kind of idiots do you take us for?” But the point was not making anyone look like an idiot. I just wanted to know why Lionel Richie is so damn popular in the Muslim world.
WT: You are pretty convinced that pop culture icons, usually from the “Western” world, i.e., North America, can be universal symbols of human understanding. Were there icons you discovered along the way that made you feel differently?
RP: Let’s be clear: I’m not convinced of anything. This book was an exploration of what American popular culture – which is usually derided as garbage – can mean to people who are supposedly at war with us. Many of the people I met, however, believed that Homer Simpson can help explain the world, regardless of what nationality or religion one happens to be. And I don’t think that’s so far off from the truth.
WT: How about the forms of expression coming out from the countries you visited; are they some pseudo-North Americanized versions of culture, or do you feel they are authentic expressions all on their own? Do you want to talk a little bit about what you discovered?
RP: No, I don’t believe that the forms I encountered were ‘pseudo-North Americanized versions of culture’ — far from it. They may use North American pop culture as a starting point, but what is so new about this? Humans have always traded cultures. This is how we work. Did The Beatles become a “pseudo-Indian band” when George Harrison discovered how beautiful the sitar sounded? Nope, [they were] still The Beatles from Liverpool. But by encountering Indian culture, no matter how superficially, they enriched our own. In other words, when I came across a sitcom made in Dubai, based in part on The Golden Girls and Pixar movies, I found it to be utterly, authentically Arab.
WT: What you found along the way clearly left an impression on you. What do you think it would take for people, so persuaded by fear and suspicion, to start seeing the vast lands of the Muslim world and acknowledge the rich cultures and civilizations that come out of there?
RP: More books and conversations like The Sheikh’s Batmobile. However, it is so much easier taking the line that, (a) this is a ‘Clash of Civilizations’, and (b) American culture is killing Arab/Persian/Pashtu/whatever culture. In other words, we are still thinking in terms of opposites. Is Persian culture truly an “eastern” culture, given how much of a hybrid history it has? I don’t think so. Persian culture is Persian culture. It needs no more tags. We need to acknowledge the reality that cultures have always been traded, and we need to start embracing that fact.
WT: What was that it like growing up in Apartheid-era South Africa? How did you envision yourself in South African society, as a kid?
RP: Growing up during the Apartheid era was notoriously wonderful for a white kid. But as I grew older, I got the sense that something was horribly wrong. And I got that sense, at least in part, from watching American movies and TV. However silly this may sound, I liked to think of myself as American, which I considered to be a universe where everyone lived in harmony. Oops!
WT: Has identity and culture always played a big part in what you’ve wanted to do? Why do you think that is, if it is the case?
RP: It has, because these are things I’ve struggled with my whole life. When I left South Africa, I had trouble identifying as South African because of what that meant at the time. And I knew that pop culture played an enormous role in my make up. I’ll never leave these subjects.
WT: What are you working on next?
RP: A graphic novel on alleged bike thief Igor Kenk.
WT: Any theories you’re looking to prove in a big way?
RP: Nope. But I like to prove blanket assertions wrong. And it’s the easiest job in the world to do so.
Information about The Sheikh’s Batmobile: Published by Penguin Canada. Available in Paperback. $24.00