On Wednesday, Brian Edwards, a Northwestern professor of Middle East studies and English and comparative literature studies, held a conversation about his recent book on the reinterpretation of American media in the Middle East at the Seminary Co-Op. Edwards discussed the book, titled After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, with University of Chicago Associate Professor of English Deborah Nelson. The event was co-sponsored by the Co-Op and the University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES).
Edwards’ book, which he worked on for about ten years, considers how American media and popular culture are circulated in the Middle East, and how works frequently lose their original associations with the United States. In particular, Edwards highlights the way in which Hollywood movies and other works are reinterpreted via practices like dubbing and bootlegging.
According to Edwards, reinvented media are often enjoyed by people who hold strongly negative views of the American government but have disassociated the country from its cultural products.
“You could consume American culture and not feel guilty about it even if you’re very critical of the foreign policy of the United States, as a young Egyptian, let’s say,” Edwards said.
He argued that this is part of the reason cultural diplomacy, or using American culture to win over the “hearts and minds” of people in the Middle East, is often ineffective.
Edwards has published multiple books about America’s role in Morocco and around the world. Recently, Edwards wrote a pair of articles for Salon about how Donald Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric is hurting perceptions of America abroad. The articles incited angry responses over social media, as well as a critical counter piece by Breitbart Media.
After a brief discussion of the book, Edwards answered questions on topics ranging from the role of language to the Cold War. Responding to a question about the role American wars had played in bringing about the titular “ends” of the United States’ role in the Middle East, Edwards clarified that his title refers to more than just the literal conclusion.
“The ‘Ends’ is a bit of a pun: ‘where does it end up, where does it go, how does Shrek end up in Tehran?’” Edwards said, referring to an anecdote from his book.
After the Q&A, Edwards signed copies of the book. Speaking later about the event, Edwards said that he enjoyed being able to interact with his readers.
“What you hope to get out of the event is having a conversation around the work, because ultimately writing a book is about having a conversation, even though it seems that it’s a passive object,” he said.