This weekend, we try to understand where we are in life: an invitation to individually explore our relationships with the people and ideas and different layers of reality that surround us. This is why we decided to have a little chit-chat with anthropologist Mai Amer, who is also the creator of a new show titled Tuk Tuk, aiming to make anthropological concepts more accessible for a wider audience. Our colleague Mostafa Mohie, a journalist and an anthropology graduate himself, speaks to Amer about her work, the genesis of her show, and how a better understanding of anthropology can help us navigate the woes of daily life in the city.
Anthropology is the “science of documenting people,” as Mai Amer has put it, and its role is to help us understand “where we stand in life: who exploits us, who we exploit, when we are performing and who we are performing to, and when other people are performing for us.”
Three weeks ago, the first episode of Amer’s show, Tuk tuk, produced by Al-Nahda Scientific and Cultural Association, was posted on their Facebook page. The show discusses various topics from an anthropological angle. In the first episode, Amer provides a brief explanation of what anthropology is, the evolution of the field, and why it matters. The second episode delves into the issue of women’s bodies and how culture defines the standards of femininity, including what women should or shouldn’t wear.
In this chit-chat, we learn more about Amer’s journey on her tuk tuk, and her relationship to the fuel that drives it: anthropology.
In academic circles, I am known as “the mahraganat lady,” because my master’s thesis was about mahraganat songs. Right now I’m working on my PhD, and the topic is gender in pop songs. I also work as a researcher and coordinator at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in Jesuit Cairo, where I developed Tuk Tuk.
Jesuit is a cultural institution with a focus on alternative education in different fields; it has a theater school, a cinema school, and a school for humanities. The main idea is that artists must have a sociological background; they must know about the street, about popular culture — to explore questions like: when we make art, are we creating culture or using culture? The aim is to dissolve what is referred to as the “cultural elite,” because at Jesuit they are firmly against the notion that the artist is a separate entity from society. The School of Human and Social Sciences was established fairly recently, and it used to host a bi-monthly meeting called Sekket Maaref (A Pathway to Knowledge) to discuss various topics related to the humanities and daily life, before the meeting was moved to the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies. Currently at the Jesuit School of Humanities and Social Sciences, we host a translation lab, an initiative to translate significant texts in the humanities and social sciences, and we’re also planning on starting a three-month program dedicated to the study of such seminal texts.
When I failed to use any media theories in my research, I felt that I needed a more sociological approach. But sociology didn’t work either, because it’s about the masses — about the people as one unit. Mahraganat, however, stemmed from individuals and smaller communities within the society at large. For instance, I discovered that there is a community in Dar al-Salam with a completely different story and set of values than their neighbors in Nahda City, and both are entirely different from a third community in Matareya. People living in different spots on the same street, if it’s a big one like Faisal Street for example, can be different. So anthropology — understanding people through smaller units, like the individual or more specific groups — felt like a better fit.
Later on I met with professors at the American University of Cairo and the Faculty of African Studies at Cairo University, and when I explained what I was trying to do they introduced me to various theories that could help me unlock the topic of my thesis. And that’s when I decided I would not continue my thesis until I studied something different, and so I enrolled in the Introduction to Anthropology program at AUC. I kept reading and I finally finished my thesis, which I consider a cultural anthropology study, as is my doctoral thesis, which I am currently working on.
In my PhD I am exploring different images of gender in songs: what qualities they deem good or bad when it comes to men or women. I interview groups of teenagers to understand how their relationship to songs and the mental images they create evolves, how they develop certain ideas about masculinity or femininity, whether they listen to artists who belong to their same social class or to other classes, and so on. It is mostly focused on gender and class.
We usually go through life with pre-made judgments, deeply rooted biases and values instilled by the social class in which we were raised. We’re unaware of our privileges, unaware of others’ privileges, and we’re oblivious to our prejudices and how they affect our everyday behavior. We don’t realize we are prisoners of ourselves and of our class. So as members of the middle class for instance, we are convinced that rich people are corrupt, the poor are kind, and those who live in the slums are criminals, and so on. We don’t stop to think how the thoughts that were planted in our subconscious so long ago affect our behavior and our whole perspective of life. What anthropology does is it reveals all of this to us; how such processes take place. It helps us figure out where we stand in life: who exploits us, who we exploit, when we are performing and who we are performing to, and when other people are performing for us.
I really hope the show encourages viewers to read things differently, and to understand that anthropology isn’t that complicated; it’s more than its weird-sounding name and pretentious people saying big words or 2,000-page books. At the end of the day it is a science that documents human life. So I wish people could begin reflecting on and critiquing certain things they think, say or do by posing questions or opening up ideas for discussion.
This season, I hope the show does exactly what the tuk tuk does: you get on and from your seat you watch everything going on outside in that neighborhood you don’t know, while the driver knows everyone and keeps greeting people he passes by. And you’re discovering all this from the perspective of your seat in the tuk tuk — not your car or an Uber with the windows rolled up. The tuk tuk means you’re part of the street.
For me, Sekket Maaref was very important, a crucial turning point in my life. It is organized by a group of professors at AUC who are interested in linking the humanities to our lived reality and the changes that occur in our world. They work with texts relating to current issues, and that was the first experience that showed me how anthropology is part of our daily lives, not that distant discipline — you can use it to study who eats at KFC, for instance.
Another thing that helped is that unconventional websites such as Mada Masr and Al-Manassa started to create a different definition of journalism. Articles published on such websites made me feel that people are willing to read pieces that are half-academic, half-journalistic. Pieces that are not written in an academic style per se, but stem from an academic place. Not only did people read such articles, they also created a conversation around them on social media platforms. With all our misgivings about Facebook for instance, the truth is it has created a state of constant intellectual exercise. Every day there’s a new trending topic on Facebook and you form an opinion and argue with others, and while some agree with you, others will call you names — it’s a daily practice of some kind. This might have a lot of negative aspects, but it forces many people to think and engage and be analytical.
Another factor is our main partner in the production of Tuk Tuk, Qira2at — a website edited by the translator and researcher Amr Khairy that publishes Arabic (and sometimes colloquial) translations of some of the most significant texts in the humanities and social sciences. Because I wanted it to be easy for viewers to engage with the topics we discuss on the show, I had to make sure we relied on essays that were available in Arabic, rather than complete books, so things wouldn’t be too heavy — so Tuk Tuk is mostly informed by the articles posted on Qira2at.
One last thing: there are several shows on YouTube that offer similar content. For instance there is a channel called Macat that provides book reviews with catchy visuals, and the show Anthropology in Arabic presented by Farah Halaba, where she tackles different issues from an anthropological perspective. All of these things made me feel that Tuk Tuk could work.
The theme of the third episode will be men’s bodies (particularly the use of Viagra and Tramadol); the fourth will be about social media: how it shapes and how we shape it; the fifth is about mahraganat; and the sixth tackles the popular religious imaginary.