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Episode 21: Andrew Simon Listens to History

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Host Kate Carpenter interviews historian and writer Dr. Andrew Simon, who studies media, popular culture, and the modern Middle East and teaches at Dartmouth University. His first book, Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt, was published in 2022 by Stanford University Press. Andrew also holds the distinction of being the first Drafting the Past guest who hoped to become a professional baseball player before his career as a historian. We had a great conversation about how to write about sound in history and translate it to the page, the challenges and thrills of creating archives outside of official channels, and how a candid remark from Andrew’s grandmother impacted his writing.

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TRANSCRIPT

Kate Carpenter:
Welcome back to season two of Drafting the Past, a podcast all about the craft of writing history. I’m Kate Carpenter and I am so excited to bring you another year of interviews with historians and writers, all about how they tell stories of the past. Before we dive into the first episode of the new season, I just wanted to take a second to say a big thank you to everyone who has listened to, shared and messaged me about the first season of the show. I am so glad it’s been so helpful and inspiring to so many of you as it has to me. And a huge thanks to those of you who are financially supporting Drafting the Past with the monthly donation on Patreon. You’re helping me to create the show and keep it free for everyone who wants to learn more about writing history. I want to give an extra shout-out to those who have supported the show at the top sponsorship tier, Spencer A, Michael S, and Jason Lee G. Thank you guys so much.
My first guest this season is historian and writer Dr. Andrew Simon, who studies media, popular culture and the modern Middle East and teaches at Dartmouth University.

Andrew Simon:
Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here, Kate. Drafting the Past has served as the soundtrack to many of my walks over the past year, so it’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Kate Carpenter:
His first book, Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt was published in 2022 by Stanford University Press. Andrew also holds the distinction of being, I believe, the first Drafting the Past guest who hoped to become a professional baseball player before his career as a historian. We had a great conversation about how to write about sound in history and translate it to the page, the challenges and thrills of creating archives outside of official channels and how a candid remark from Andrew’s grandmother impacted his writing. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Andrew Simon:
Unlike perhaps some prior guests, I in no way, shape or form saw myself as a writer early in life. I actually wanted to become a professional baseball player, and then I ended up as a professor almost by accident, simply by pursuing questions that piqued my own curiosity. So maybe the first time that I started to somewhat see myself as a writer would’ve been my senior year in college. I ended up writing a thesis on Coptic Muslim relations in Egypt that drew on interviews I conducted for a faculty member at the time, this gentleman, Bruce Lawrence, who was writing a book on religious minorities and then permitted me to use the interviews I did for his book and what would become my thesis. So it was in the course of working on that project that I regularly locked myself in a library cubicle on campus, which we could check out for four hours at a time.
I still remember it being four hours because I pleaded with those at the front desk to rent it to me for an additional four hours on multiple occasions. So it was after spending all too much time in that very small room writing in complete silence that I submitted what was the first chapter of the thesis to my advisor, Miriam Cook, who oversaw the project, along with Bruce. And I still remember this to this day, I went to retrieve that first chapter from Miriam. She started to slide it over her desk to me, and she asked me what I wanted to do after due. I told her that I was thinking of grad school. She swiftly pulled the paper back, told me to return the next day. I go back the next day and it is covered in red ink. I’m talking saturated in red ink, which at the time was quite overwhelming. But something that happened was I really came to see her feedback as a challenge and this constructive criticism she was offering me as a sign of care.
And that’s something that I tried to impart even when I’m teaching a writing class right now. That’s how I frame my comments to students. So that thesis turned out to be a great experience. A couple of weeks after graduating, I went to Cairo for this Arabic fellowship that coincided with the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which actually is the 12th anniversary today, January 25th. And so I found myself standing in Tahrir Square during these mass demonstrations that led to the downfall of this dictator who had been in power for 30 years. And it was that experience at Egypt that really motivated me to look further into things like sound and mass media and pop culture in grad school. That’s when I ended up writing more and more in the form of seminar papers. I saw that cassettes were at the center of all of them in different ways.
I would ultimately then return to Egypt to write what I thought was going to be a history of a technology that kind of turned out to be a history of Egypt through the window of that technology. And it was in the process then of crafting that first book that I really came to see myself as a storyteller for the first time.

Kate Carpenter:
How do you like to do your work? When and where do you do your writing?

Andrew Simon:
I think for me, everything from sentences to titles come to me at very random unexpected times. So when I’m sleeping, I’ll wake up with an idea. When I’m in the shower, when I go out on a run, when I’m driving. And I think that the best ideas I feel like I’ve had have originated when I’m not in front of a screen, when I’m not actively writing on my computer. So I rely quite a bit on voice memos, on my phone to record things. I have a sticky notepad next to my bed that I’ll jot down ideas on. I’ll often be on a walk, an idea will come to mind and my phone will die, and then I kind of have to pick up a pace to make it back home to remember a sentence that I thought of half an hour earlier.
Even the other day, I was driving up from Connecticut to Vermont and I was invited to moderate this event on the protests that are taking place in Iran. And I found myself thinking of all these questions when I was on this snow covered highway, and I was recording these voice memos to write those ideas down later. So I think that those are kind of where those thoughts come from. In terms of writing schedule, in graduate school, I used to view all writing that took place before noon as a bonus. Those were like my bonus hours in the day, but I’ve been doing more and more writing in the afternoon and in the evening of late, especially with teaching. And I think that I tend to write in a very immersive way. I don’t know if this is the case with those people, but I’ll be working on something for hours at a time.
I’m not the person that could knock out a section in 30 minutes. I have a lot of respect for people that can do that. I’m not a subscriber of the Pomodoro method, where it’s 25 minutes on and this time off, I will write for several hours at a time. I remember one colleague I had was asked, “What’s the difference between writing in grad school and writing afterwards?” And they said that you don’t run back to the computer to write when you’re microwaving something. I think I’m the exception to that rule in terms of my own writing.

Kate Carpenter:
I also wanted to know how Andrew organizes his research, especially when he works with so many different kinds of sources.

Andrew Simon:
I’m the type of person that collects a ton of things, and then I gradually begin to work my way through them and I start to see themes emerge. So in the case of this book, for instance, I have around maybe 20,000 images in an iPhoto library of cassette tapes of those popular Egyptian magazines. And I guess the writing begins by keyword tagging every image. So writing things like police, noise pollution, smuggling, customs, home, migration. And then I’ll start writing up photos around one of those ideas or that share the same keyword, which will become something like a section in a Word document that starts as bullet points and then moves the sentences then to paragraphs, then to a complete section with something like transitions and everything like that. And then it’s part of, I’m an extensive outliner, so it’ll be part of a very long outline, ultimately organized around a particular theme.
So something like consumption or the law or circulation. And so that’s how the writing unfolds slowly and painstakingly over time. In terms of the organization, I think it plays out in a couple different ways. So in addition to the images in that iPhoto library, God forbid if my computer ever crashes, I also have physical audio cassettes, several hundred of them that are just on the shelves of my bookshelf. I’m actually planning to digitize all those later this year in a public archive so anyone can listen to those and access them. And then also just really relying on Word. I’m kind of old school in that way where most of my writing takes place in those large files. I’m not using Zotero or any of those other platforms where I could probably much more easily and efficiently move things around.

Kate Carpenter:
What then does your revision process look like? Do you sort of revise as you go? Do you come back once you have a complete draft?

Andrew Simon:
I would say in one word, extensive. For me, writing is revising, I think. And one thing that I’m remembering just now when it comes to making revisions is even at my dissertation defense, so one of the members of my committee and the dissertation became this first book after being extensively revised. I remember this particular person whose name I will not mention, who I’m friends with till this day. When they were offering feedback, the first thing they said was something along the lines of, “Wow, this dissertation was a real page turner. I found it so engaging. It was just brilliantly written, which I found to be quite surprising because I usually don’t feel that way about something that doesn’t have an argument.” And it’s one of those moments where you’re just nodding, nodding, and then you pause and you think, “Wait, what is that some backhanded compliment?”
And so that remark though really inspired me to step back from that project and think about further what’s really going on there. And so over the course of the years, then following graduate school, that’s when I completely rearranged or remixed chapters entirely. I pulled out something that was a sectional one chapter and made it its own standalone chapter on cassette piracy. And something that really helped that I would encourage anyone to do if you have the opportunity to do this, would be to have something like a manuscript workshop. I had this chance to bring in other people and ask them questions like, how does the manuscript read as a book? Is the voice accessible? Is it engaging? What would you say the audience of this is? What did you think of the narrative arc? Basically all things that I was not thinking about when I was writing the dissertation, and something else on the revising front is the ability to work with, the privilege to work with amazing editors.
So I worked with Kate Wahl at Stanford University Press. And one of the first things that she encouraged me to do was to think about the project as a book, which may seem intuitive, but wasn’t necessarily. So for me, because you don’t think of things like in addition to books have indexes and front covers unlike a dissertation, but how do chapters build on one another? What type of story do you want to tell? Are we moving small to large, large to small? How are these parts speaking to one another? What’s the reader’s experience going to be? And so all of those things really significantly influenced how I ended up revising things. And it was in that revision process too that some completely new ideas came to mind. One of them is organizing the book as a mixtape. This is something that I thought of only prior to submitting page proofs, where I kind of recognize each chapter is almost like a track, and the book has two parts, like side A and side B of a cassette.
So if it’s moving thematically then, it’s almost mirroring the very tapes that I’m studying in terms of the different songs that are being included there. I think too, when it comes to revising, being open to being very flexible and to making those changes based on my case on discoveries during field work, that also happened on trips when I was actively rewriting parts of the book. I mean, one of these is the cassette collection at this kiosk in Cairo that opens the whole book. That collection when I returned to it three, four years later had vanished. And so I took an image, the same exact photo, but no tapes are there. And then kind of figuring out, what does that say about the traces of Egypt’s cassette culture? Or there was this other thing I found where, on the topic of cassette piracy, there was this artist, Mohammed Abdul Wahab, who was known as this very iconic state-sanctioned performer who we often imagine as being someone in complete control of their career.
But in reality, he was powerless to stop cassette piracy of his own music and then also the music that he was releasing as part of his label. And something that really brought this to the fore for me, brought this idea home was I found this audiobook and this faux snake skin kind of binding in his honor released by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. And I opened it up and there’s a series of maybe six or eight tapes, and all of the tapes are from one of those state controlled labels. And then one of the cassettes had been switched out for a tape that was from the label pirating his music during his lifetime. So here, this is something that I was completely unaware of when I was initially writing this project, but really tied everything together when it came to this topic.

Kate Carpenter:
That’s a perfect lead in to the next question I want to ask you, because so many of your sources are not text. We’ve talked about cassettes already, popular magazines, this amazing example that you have here, field work. How do you take notes on those things and analyze them as a writer? I guess my question is how do you convert those very physical objects to the written word?

Andrew Simon:
One of the things that I really tried to do when it came to the story was to offer a multisensory history. Something where sound was not just a sort of narrative detail in popular culture in the form of those cassette recordings or those magazines or those other sources is not something that just confirms what we already know about the past. Something that can radically change how we think we understand things already when it comes to the Middle East. And so all of those materials, I mean, one of the things for me that I had to kind of grapple with this project is to tell the story of this time period in Egypt’s history. It was necessary to draw upon things like that because the National Archives for Egypt are not accessible to scholars after 1952. There are no documents to access. So that’s why there are really very few books on Egypt at this point in time, which motivated me to think about what about all the stuff that exists outside of that inaccessible archive?
And then that is what inspired me to go to paper markets and to look into personal collections and to conduct those oral interviews and then to approach all those materials. I would a lot of other more conventional historical sources, looking at them critically and trying to look at them creatively as well. Because I think a lot of those items, it’s not only that they aren’t in that national archive, they tell stories about the past that we wouldn’t know otherwise through things like more official documents.

Kate Carpenter:
Is it difficult when you’re working from a formal archive, you have sort of the structure of the archive guiding the way you structure your own archive, the notes and filing systems. Is it difficult to start from scratch, so to speak, with this kind of assembled archive?

Andrew Simon:
I think it’s two things at once, overwhelming and inspiring and energizing. Because I mean, one of the things… One thing to kind of think about is it’s difficult also in the sense of writing grant applications, another form of writing. Because if you say, “Oh, I’m going to…” I mean, I had an instance where I wanted to look at an archive that I had just a collection of materials that I had heard about that existed in a building in downtown Cairo that had something to do with radio. It’s kind of hard to write about that in a compelling way when you’re asking for funding. And one of the reviewer’s comments on this proposal I submitted was something like, “Great, but what are you going to be looking at there specifically?” So this isn’t like I’m working in the British National Archives where I can name particular files. I didn’t even know what floor the building that archive was on. When I asked the doorman about that archive, he didn’t even know if it existed in the building.
And so I think that working with this shadow archive, this collection of formal informal sites, everything that exists outside of the Egyptian National Archives, it’s something that there’s a lot of stuff to sift through, but it’s also something that I really enjoyed doing. Like cataloging cassette collections in antique stores that were vanishing; like going through photographs that I found in garbage bags that once belonged to family albums that had fallen apart over the years. Going on even things like Facebook groups, where we have tens of thousands of images that are being uploaded by ordinary people like you and I that offer kind of a different window onto Egypt’s past. That was something that also was very important for me to do, frankly, because if we don’t end up doing work like that, we end up really handing over control of the past to people that are trying to monopolize it in the present, especially in the case of Egypt. So that was something that I wanted to push back on through this shadow archive.

Kate Carpenter:
To talk more about how this research and analysis plays out on the page, I asked Andrew to talk me through a short excerpt from the book. Here’s Andrew Simon reading from Media for the Masses.

Andrew Simon:
Approaching the end of his rule, Anwar Sadat issued a series of decrees intended to curtail traffic and to combat noise pollution in Cairo. The ordinances, which officially went into effect on the 8th of November 1980, remained a topic of conversation for weeks to come. Outlawed the use of car horns and criminalized blaring loudspeakers, televisions at high volumes and impromptu tape cassette sidewalk concerts. Courtesy of the president’s executive actions, audio cassettes enjoyed loudly by many Egyptians and public spaces were no longer simply a nuisance. Noisy cassette recordings were now illegal. Sadat, to be certain, was not the only citizen to stress the part played by tapes in the alleged contamination of Egypt’s soundscape. The unwanted clamor generated by cassettes is readily evident in Egyptian magazines from the 1970s and 1980s. On the pages of the popular Egyptian press, we see a bandaged and beaten down beggar praising a cassette’s capacity to record his street calls. No longer was it necessary for him to accost passersby for cash. The customized recording did it for him.

Kate Carpenter:
One thing I’m really interested in here, and I’m often interested in writing like this, is that there are a lot of different kinds of sources that went into creating just this paragraph. How do you pull that all together? How did that come together in this section?

Andrew Simon:
I think one thing that I really consciously tried to do when I’m researching anything is to read very widely. So in the case of this paragraph, looking at foreign international coverage of what was taking place in Cairo in terms of the report of those executive actions that President Sadat is taking. Those are commentaries that I encountered in things like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, but then also turning to the popular Egyptian press and seeing how noise pollution and the politics of noise pollution, something that we often think about, I think in this very environmental sense, but it’s very much about class in the case of what’s happening here. And some voices, it’s impossible to ever play them too loudly, whereas others are always written off as noise.
And so placing that foreign coverage into conversation with the press, looking at things like editorials, investigative reports, but also those illustrations. And so taking those images seriously and trying to figure out what was happening there and recognizing that when it came to those cartoons, in the case of Egypt, those arguably were perhaps even played a bigger part in public perception of things because they weren’t dependent on literacy as much as the articles that they accompanied. And so taking those items seriously, placing all those things into conversation with one another and trying to read those items against the grain to figure out what was happening there. Because the press that I’m looking at when it comes to Egypt is also state controlled. And so looking at those items and really trying to read between the lines.

Kate Carpenter:
You touched on this a little bit earlier, but I want to talk about it here in sort of a practical sense, which is that one of the challenges and also the interesting things about sensory history is that you as the historian have to translate the sense into text in the hope that in the reader’s mind, it will translate back into that sense. And I think here we start to get to see that you can kind of get a sense of what it might have been like to walk down the street at this time, or at least how some people felt walking down the street. Do you have any practical tips for bringing senses to life?

Andrew Simon:
I think one of the things that has surprised me as someone that is trying to treat sound seriously as this avenue of inquiry is just how many people write about the past in a very silent manner. It’s as if people in the past live their lives quietly or something. Whereas in reality, they, along with us, what we’re doing right now made sense of the world around them through all of the faculties at their disposal. And so sensory clues and elements are in all the sources, that all of us are already working with when it comes to our work. It’s really just about listening more closely and foregrounding those aspects in our analysis of things. And then also recognizing, I mean, something I tried to do in the book is to really consider what the sounds I’m exploring meant to people at that time. And so I’m not trying to write in an Epcot type manner, where I’m recreating a soundscape that we could ever personally completely understand the meaning of.
I really wanted to, for instance, in one chapter, I look at one song and how it flips the script on a story the government was telling about Richard Nixon’s visit to Cairo in the summer of ’74 during Watergate. So looking at the creation of that song, how it’s circulated on non-commercial tapes, how people at the time heard it, what the lyrics meant to them at the time. And really then sticking with sounds, and I would say seeing them through, but that’s like a visual metaphor. Rather than just using them as embellishments to the narrative that we’re writing. And I think something that… It is challenging too, because it’s not as if this book has an accompanying CD or something at the end of it that you could pop in if anyone still had access to a CD player to listen to something like that to begin with.
But I think I have been seeing in other forms of writing the increasing use of QR codes, which is something that I find pretty intriguing, where there’ll be the introduction to the song, the code along the side, scan it, and you could hear it as you’re reading. I think this form of multisensory history too lends itself perhaps even more easily to other formats. To things like podcasts, to something like an audiobook, which is something that I was also really interested in when it comes to this project. Perhaps even an audiobook that would appear on cassette. How cool would that be when it comes to this? But it’s a challenge, but I think it’s something that’s important in order to develop the most nuanced perspective of the past, to take the census seriously and into account.

Kate Carpenter:
Want to take a slightly different tack here, but I noticed in the acknowledgements that you mentioned earlier the sort of your awareness of yourself as a storyteller. And in the acknowledgements, you thank one of your grandmothers for challenging you to “write a book that would hold her attention from the first few pages.” I wondered if you could tell me more about how she did that.

Andrew Simon:
So one thing that was quite amusing for me is everyone in my family, of course, is aware that I’ve been working on this project for, I don’t know, 10 years. This first book. So they’ve heard extensively about it, and now they’re all kind of secondhand experts when it comes to Egypt’s cassette culture. I think one day I was saying something to my grandma like, “Oh, when the book finally comes out, I can’t wait for you to read it.” And she very kindly but candidly responded, “Well, I’m only going to read it if it really grips my attention right from the very start.” And that’s something that honestly, kind of this offhand comment stuck with me because I feel like so much academic writing is very often, let’s say, unreadable. And after working on this story for so long, I actually want it to be read by people, my grandma included. So whether or not I succeeded on this front, I need to give her a call.
I don’t even know if she’s reached the book yet. She had a very long reading list. She’s 93. She’s a voracious reader. I do remember though, when I gave her, presented her with a copy of the book, there were two other books on her coffee table. One of them was Little Fires Everywhere. The other one was Where the Crawdads Sing, both of which have made the jump to television and theaters and have sold countless copies and I think are in Reese Witherspoon’s book club. So I have some pretty stiff competition. I am proud though that some of my relatives at least have not only purchased the book in support of me, but also have actually read it. And one kind of very funny encounter is I was at this family gathering in Virginia, and one of my in-laws comes up to me and says, “Oh, by the way, I really enjoyed the book.”
And I was like, “Oh, great, thanks so much.” And he is like, “Yeah, so on page 139 when you’re talking about the circulation of Shaykh Imam’s music on non-commercial cassettes.” And then I was like, “Oh, you really read the book.” And those are the moments that motivate me to keep writing and that really make me passionate about telling stories and trying to craft stories for a wider audience.

Kate Carpenter:
You mentioned to me as we were scheduling this interview that you had also just found out that there is an Arabic translation of the book coming out, which is very exciting. Congratulations. And I’m curious to know what that means to you as a writer.

Andrew Simon:
It means everything. I mean, the Arabic translation is a dream come true for many reasons. I think in terms of my writing and even my teaching, something that I try to do is really examine and discuss things that matter to people in the Middle East, which is so often reduced to things like oil, war, terrorism in terms of people’s popular perceptions. Rather than the cultural and social history of the region. So I think seeing that the book is going to be translated into Arabic has been so encouraging because people have found this story in Egypt and in the Arab world really resonating with them. And I mean, following the book’s release, I can’t tell you the number of people that reached out to me just sharing their personal memories with cassettes growing up. Like, “Oh, I remember the time that I made a mixtape for this love interest, or I sent a tape in the mail to a relative that was working in Saudi Arabia.” Because audio messages before the iPhone were recorded on cassettes and mailed in envelopes because phone lines were so unreliable at that point in time.
So that was a common practice or hearing about people pirating songs off of the radio or circulating songs that were banned on the radio through cassettes in Egypt. So hearing all those memories and seeing people relating to the story and connecting with it has been awesome. And then in terms of the press, like Dar El Shorouk itself, it was one of the very first bookstores, if not the first, that I went to in Egypt as an undergraduate. So to see a copy of the book on their shelves, and hopefully even on sidewalks in Cairo where people frequently sell books, it’s going to be surreal moment.

Kate Carpenter:
Have there been any particularly influential pieces of writing advice you’ve gotten?

Andrew Simon:
I think a couple come to mind. So one of them, this is something I’ll never forget that I tell my students at the start of every term. It’s something that Bruce Lawrence, one of my undergraduate, advisors, mentors, close friends. He attended my wedding this past fall. One of the things that he said to me, I don’t even know if he remembers this, was that there are two types of writers. Those who write about complex things in a simple manner and those who write about simple things in a complex manner. And he told me, “You always want to be the former.” And that is something that has stuck with me many, many years later, and something that I consciously try to do, to talk about multifaceted topics in a very straightforward, intelligible way. I’m not trying to outsmart or out theorize anyone when it comes to what I’m writing.
I think another thing is writing is revising. I mean, in the case of this book, one of the remarks from a reviewer that I received was, “Oh, you should look more into the transnational origins of Egypt’s cassette culture. This is something that you talk about on a page. I think it could be a really intriguing angle for you to further explore.” So that then became maybe five pages that took me three months to write, because I found myself looking at everything from World Bank reports on the number of Egyptians migrating to the Gulf in the seventies, and the money they were transferring back home. To those illustrations and popular Egyptian periodicals that showed Egyptian migrants returning home with things. To Egyptians that were going on the Islamic pilgrimage, returning to Egypt to the countryside. There’s this practice where people paint the exterior of their houses to depict the journey that they went on.
And I found some hash paintings on the walls of houses that had Egyptians holding cassette players that they purchased in Saudi Arabia, and then also photographs of Egyptians returning to Egypt from Kuwait during the Gulf War following Iraq’s invasion. All these people coming back on boats across the Red Sea, and some of them are holding cassette boom boxes because that’s the only object they could escape with that was meaningful to them at the time. So then, finding all these different things, trying to place them in dialogue with one another, and even though it turns out to be five or six pages in this project, it’s something that I really enjoyed exploring that I feel really adds to the story. So it’s a revision that I was happy to make.
I think another thing, and this may be encouraging to at least some listeners out there, I was told that nothing you ever write goes to waste, even if you end up deleting a paragraph, a page, an entire chapter from something you’re working on. All of those things have a funny way of continuing to shape our perception of something or resurfacing later on in a different project. So I don’t think one should ever necessarily feel discouraged in terms of removing part of their writing.

Kate Carpenter:
I’d like to know more too about your own influences. So are there other writers you read that you see as great examples of writing, or are there things you watch or listen to?

Andrew Simon:
One of them is anyone who writes for the New Yorker, I feel like. So one person that comes to mind for me is Peter Hessler. He’s someone who is… I just find him to be a very skilled storyteller. He was based in China for a while, and then he came over to Cairo and experienced the Arab Spring at the same time I was there. And I will forever remember an article he wrote on Chinese lingerie dealers in Egypt. It is just a brilliant piece of writing that’s a commentary on globalization at the same time.

Kate Carpenter:
Andrew also mentioned Heather Cox Richardson, a historian whose wonderful Letters from an American daily posts have built an astonishing readership on Facebook and Substack.

Andrew Simon:
I find that the stories not only fascinating because I feel like I oddly know much more about Middle East history than American history, but also because she makes American history matter to so many people. It’s unbelievable to see the hundreds if not thousands of comments that those posts receive. So I’m interested in how that happens and kind of the craft, the thought that goes into that. Another thing that I think was mentioned on a past episode actually is Anne Helen Petersen. Her culture studies Substack, which I just… It’s so engaging. I’m a pop culture person, so this media popular culture, it’s something that I love waking up and reading in the morning. And then also podcasts. Podcasts like Kerning Cultures, which is kind of like This American Life, but in the Middle East, Accused, true crime, Throughline on NPR. I frequently listen to podcasts in the car, and I think just how they go about telling a story and cultivating these cliffhangers that make you want to go to the next episode.
And then also providing a very sensory rich experience for listeners, embedding audio, whether in the form of recent interviews or historical recordings. So all of those things provide me with a lot of inspiration, especially recently because the thing I’m working on now, it’s going to be a biography of an Egyptian performer and a political dissident. He surfaces just in one chapter of this book. He’s someone like loses his sight after birth, becomes an icon of the Arab Left, is revived during the 2011 revolution, and just really challenged the stories that the government was telling in Egypt. And I want that to be a very public facing project, something that is read in my mother-in-law’s book club as opposed to being reviewed in solely academic journals. And so I think all of those writers and all of those different mediums have played a key part in impacting my thinking of how to go about telling a story like that.

Kate Carpenter:
So normally the last question I ask is, what are you working on next? Which you’ve kind of answered, so I’m going to go a different way and ask you, how are you approaching that project differently now to try to achieve that goal? Do you have a different mindset about it from the beginning? Does it change the way you research?

Andrew Simon:
Yes. So I think it’s a very different approach. I mean, it’s a historical actor who appears in this first project, but I think the way I’m going to frame it, is very different in the sense that it will be much more panoramic. I mean, to give an example, one of the, maybe chapter one that I’m currently envisioning, which due to revisions can change five minutes after this call ends is rather than just saying, “Okay, [inaudible 00:38:06] this artist was born in this Egyptian village and so forth.” Really putting him into conversation with World War I in the Middle East and the remapping of the region as a whole. What is happening on a more regional or even global scale that his birth and early life then offers a window onto? And so I think the framing expands way out and then making it relevant also to the widest audience possible. So drawing a lot of connections. So if I have one chapter on cassette culture, it’s not going to be about just cassette technology in Egypt or the Middle East.
It’s also going to be, what is happening with jazz in the US? What is happening with hip hop here? What is happening in other places at similar points in time? Another thing is, when it comes to that project, this idea of misinformation is going to be a key theme, and I think something that’s really fascinating in the case of this one figure is that we often, I think, tend to think of misinformation in relation to social media, kind of closer to the present narratives of different events. Something that we see in his case is he’s actually challenging all of these official stories decades before the advent of the internet through something like cassettes. So what then… How does that change our perception of misinformation? And so expanding out the scope, trying to draw those connections and then making it relevant to as many people as possible are things that I have on my mind when it comes to that book. Then also, should it be a book or should it take the shape of something like a podcast or a graphic novel or some other format that it could lend itself to as well?

Kate Carpenter:
Sounds amazing. I can’t wait to either read it or listen to it or watch it, however it might go. Dr. Andrew Simon, thank you so much for joining me on this episode and chatting more about writing history with me.

Andrew Simon:
Thank you. It was a lot of fun.

Kate Carpenter:
Thanks again to Dr. Andrew Simon for joining me on this episode of Drafting the Past. You can find a transcript of the episode as well as links to the books, podcasts, and other resources we mentioned at draftingthepast.com. While you’re there, you can also check out some new merchandise for sale, information about how you can support the show or get in touch with me. So check it out. Thanks for listening, and until next time, happy writing.

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