The Sheikh’s Batmobile

By Richard Poplak

Contemporary cultural criticism and immersive journalism often takes the form of a road trip, albeit to visit places and meet people a little off the beaten tourist track. In The Sheikh’s Batmobile author Richard Poplak scores some serious frequent flier miles as he visits a series of countries that fall under the vast umbrella of the “Muslim world” in an entertaining travelogue that observes the impact American popular culture has had on the local cultural scenes.

The itinerary is impressive. Poplak goes bowling in Kazakhstan (and incidentally finds out what the kids really think of Borat), listens to metal in Cairo, punk in Indonesia, and hip-hop in Palestine, watches The Simpsons in Dubai, plays video games in Syria, and even tries some bruising backyard wrestling action in Afghanistan. The writing is colourful and punchy, giving plenty of scope for Poplak to display his talent for dramatic, on-the-spot reportage. He often has occasion, for example, to describe how loud music feels: the bass that “nestled in my gut like a fat slug, writhing, looking for an exit of its own,” the concert hall that “heaved forward in a single movement, like a gag reflex before puking.”

Where the book has limits is in describing a big picture. Given the range of activity Poplak investigates, as well as the diversity – economic, religious, political, geographic – of the Muslim worlds he visits, this isn’t surprising. It’s hard to generalize from such a collection of data. Any connections between the chapters hang by very thin threads. One relative constant derives from the fact that pop culture is largely youth culture, and this is mainly the world Poplak explores. But even this tells us something about the places he visits, as most of them have young demographics. And since Poplak is of the same general cohort, and a fan of much of what he hears and sees – though admitting to some feelings of ambivalence and occasional reservations over things like the link between metal music and terror – he relates well with all of the people he meets.

Another guiding principle is Poplak’s abiding optimism, seeing American pop culture, despite being undeniably trashy most of the time, as playing a beneficent role, building a cultural wall against Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism while forging relationships with the wider world. He only briefly mentions critiques of the American entertainment-industrial complex and concerns over global cultural homogenization, and has little time for those who see any kind of agenda beyond the commercial behind the projection of American “soft power.” But while some promising openings to be more critical are passed by, overall this is an excellent informal tour of a complex and rapidly evolving cultural terrain.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2009.

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