The cover of Fatima Butto’s New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Hollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop (courtesy of Columbia Global Reports)

Iran was once held up as a model by modernization theorists. The Shah’s White Revolution promised a cultural counterpart to his economic modernizing program. Instead, it brought large scale urban migration, growing inequality, and a deepening sense of cultural alienation. Tehran’s upscale northern neighborhoods had boutiques selling Pierre Cardin, cinemas showing Hollywood films, restaurants serving French food, and dance clubs playing Abba, while the southern stretches of the city were crowded with impoverished slums. In 1962, Jalal Al-e Ahmad published his seminal book, Gharbzadegi [Westoxification] decrying cultural mimicry of the West that was eroding Iranians’ own cultural character. 

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This notion of gharbzadeghi serves as an epigraph to Fatima Bhutto’s latest book, New Kings of the World. In the opening pages, Bhutto describes walking through the bazaar in Peshawar along the Afghan-Pakistan border, to find the home in which Shah Rukh Khan’s father was born. From these humble origins, the younger Khan is now among the world’s most famous actors, “one of the icons of a vast cultural movement emerging from the Global South…[that is] the biggest challenge to America’s monopoly of soft power since the end of the Second World War.”

This decline in American soft power, Bhutto suggests, is coterminous with changing patterns of cultural production and consumption that are reframing Western-dominated paradigms of globalization. The cultural flows that Bhutto traces in her book are shaped by and respond to both local and global historical exigencies. They operate within the matrix of domestic politics, neoliberalism, and “communal yearnings.” The communication revolution wrought by modernity enables a global audience, while its heavy toll — displacement, dislocation, and dispossession — create the very desires that make Bollywood, dizi, and K-pop so appealing. 

Bhutto points to changing demographics as a major factor in this shift in cultural consumption. By 2008, for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population became urban, rather than rural. And by 2015, more than a billion people had emigrated from their homes, searching for a better life. Mass migration, hyperconnectivity, and global branding have created both the means and the need for a new kind of cultural production. Increasingly, global audiences find Turkish TV serials, Bollywood films, and K-Pop more relatable, more attuned to their lived realities, their values and aspirations.

Bhutto’s book is part memoir, part ethnography, and part cultural analysis. She recalls watching pirated Hollywood films during her Damascus childhood. But she also describes meeting Syrian refugees living in a camp wedged along Lebanon’s northern border. Bhutto finds they prefer to spend their evenings watching dizi, Turkish serials: “They are a reminder of what the refugees once had the good fortune to experience before fate brought them here, to this converted garbage dump cum camp; family, love, bonds of brotherhood, and friendship.”

In Istanbul, Bhutto watches a dizi being filmed. Turkey is now second only to the US in global television distribution. Viewers in Russia, China, Korea, and Latin America tune in to the dramas. In 2008, the final episode of Noor was watched by an estimated 85 million people across the Middle East. Woven into sagas of love and betrayal, there is a push and pull between nationalism and religion, between historical tradition and modern consumerism. “This country is torn between two pieces of cloth — the flag and the headscarf,” the writer Eve Temelkuran explains. Of course the circulation of television dramas can get embroiled in regional politics. In March 2018, the Saudi owned cable station MBC took dizi off the air. In November 2019, a new series, “Kingdoms of Fire”, depicting a darker perspective on Ottoman history began airing on MBC.  Historical dramas on television parallel growing political tensions between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and the Saudi Crown Prince.

In Dubai, Bhutto meets Shah Rukh Khan for an interview in an opulent Versace furnished hotel suite. But she also speaks with South Asian laborers in the UAE, for whom Khan is a symbol of hope, success, and pride. “Dislocated from home, displaced and dispossessed as they toil invisibly toward maintaining wealth that will never be their own, relegated to the periphery of the city, they are lifted from some of the train of their lives for the three hours that they watch Khan dance and sing,” she writes. 

Bhutto later describes her travels to Lima, which has several Bollywood fan clubs. “All the fans that I meet are indigenous Peruvians,” she notes. “Not one person is white. Bollywood in Peru is not an elite interest. It belongs to the struggling and the aspirational who see their battles mirrored in the brutal, unforgiving landscape of India’s classic cinema…” Yet recently, Bollywood has become more flashy, though this shift hasn’t dimmed cines Hindu’s popularity in Peru. Because the wealthy characters living in the lap of luxury are brown people, their imagined success is somehow aspirational. But Bollywood’s glitter isn’t just benign song and dance. Indian Prime Minister Modi has been effective in tapping into the entertainment industry to extend the reach of his power. “Recent films,” Bhutto points out, “push a jingoistic, cultural nationalism in step with the governing political chorus. Today, films increasingly tout government propaganda.” 

K-Pop, Bhutto writes, “is a perfect storm of colonial history, heavily Americanized culture, and neo-liberalism.” The musical genre is rooted in histories of American military presence in South Korea. But it was the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 that propelled the worldwide phenomenon. It became imperative to completely reimagine the Korean economy. Pop culture became a solution. Music production didn’t require a massive infrastructure, and YouTube helped extend K-Pop’s reach across borders. By 2008, Korea was a net exporter of culture. K-Pop is the ultimate product of “glocalization” —– Western music repackaged in Korean style and exported back to the West. It’s not American pop songs, Bhutto shows us, but K-Pop that has become the soundtrack of globalization.

New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Hollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop by Fatima Butto (2019: Columbia Global Reports) is now available on Amazon and via local indie booksellers