The battle for culture, the conquest of space, the re-interpretation of heritage and the competition for writing Bahrain’s collective memory are well under way in an island roughly half the size of New York City.
More widely known as breaded pieces of edible, chicken-like substance, ‘chicken nuggets’ in the Gulf may also refer to a generation of individuals born since the 80s and 90s who have generally adopted English as their first language and have – until recently that is – lingered at the margins of social and cultural life within their countries. Today, in opposition to the Arab uprisings, this phenomenon has occupied the centre stage, particularly in Bahrain as part of the middle and upper-middle class’s response to the culture of contestation that has become popular in this part of the world.
Since chicken nuggets are typically served ‘brown on the outside but white on the inside’, the term was borrowed as a metaphor for young Gulf Arabs who share common phenotypic Arab features but have nonetheless embraced western values and lifestyles as their own. Also known as ‘McNuggets’ (in Kuwait particularly), they are the quintessential products of western and especially American cultural hegemony, spoon-fed to them through satellite TV as well as western private school and university education.
Deliberately naïve, fundamentally political and deeply reactionary, the ‘chicken nugget’ as a cultural phenomenon has become an integral part of the social and cultural mainstream as a counter to the counter-culture of contestation espoused by working and low-middle class, village-dwelling Shiites in Bahrain which surfaced in mass protests in February and March 2011.
Deliberately naïve, since the chicken nuggets religiously embrace their founding myth which erroneously portrays their cultural ascendancy as essentially apolitical. Accordingly, chicken nuggets refuse to acknowledge their fundamentally political role in formulating an alternative to the radically nativist, religious and revolutionary zealous identity that has helped mobilize angry youths against the monarchy.
Tellingly, the protagonists behind the newfound prominence of the chicken nugget phenomenon are the Ministry of Culture and an art gallery owned and run by a member of one of the country’s wealthiest merchant families. As one friend pointed out to me, the former of the two has recently financed a market for local artsy talents to showcase their work at one of the most hotly contested and symbolic locations in Bahrain, known as Bab Al-Bahrayn (lit. “Gateway of Bahrain”). Clashes between protesters and police within the Bab Al-Bahrayn area are a common sight; protesters are keen to protest at, if not paralyze, the heart of the country’s commercial district, while the government under pressure from business is resolved to stop them.
Granted, the group consciousness of the chicken nuggets crystallized sometime during the past decade, and many of their collective activities chronologically precede the Arab uprisings. Some who classify as chicken nuggets have also been known to be quite sympathetic to opposition groups; a few are well-known opposition activists. But overwhelmingly their presence and activism as a cultural phenomenon took on a new social significance and political usefulness following the Arab uprisings: they are testimony to the notion that Bahrain’s cultural life need not grind to a halt as has its political scene to a great extent. These people compete with the opposition – advertently or otherwise – in re-appropriating the country’s heritage and icons, and they provide an optimal platform for the government and merchant elite to reassert themselves as legitimate actors within the cultural sphere.
In so doing, the chicken nugget as a cultural phenomenon has proven rather reactionary, as none of the events that have shaken Bahrain since 14 February 2011 have been factored into their narrative. As a matter of fact, the chicken nuggets’ act of negligence is at heart an active one that inevitably translates into an act of erasing. One can sense a degree of unspoken nostalgia yearning for the brief post-sectarian moment that the country witnessed at some point during the last decade, largely as a result of the King’s reconciliatory political reforms.
And although genuinely non-sectarian (at least not intentionally), the phenomenon is certainly classist in nature. Chicken nuggets constitute a community of typically middle and upper-middle class individuals who would have attended one of the four or five most expensive private schools, covered the minimal amount of air miles in holiday travel that their social prestige entails, and topped it off with a privately-funded university education usually in the UK or, even better, the US. Their flagship events, namely Market 338 and Alwan 338, are held at one of the pricier locations on the island, somewhat inaccessible to individuals of a more humble socio-economic background.
The current aesthetic articulation of the chicken nugget in its cultural form exemplifies this social conditioning. The chicken nugget movement has tended to focus on the picturesque – loosely put – and on the objects and habits of everyday bourgeois life: renovated traditional houses in the historic quarters of Muharraq and Adliya, Starbucks paper cups, a t-shirt imprinted with a silhouette of legendary Arabic singer Um Kolthoum, and the latest aberration of a meal invented by a home-grown local burger joint. These are typical examples.
By contrast, oppositional art tends to primarily portray the graphically grotesque, where blood and violence are casually employed, often shrouded in religious symbolism. These serve a vital social and political function, namely to shock, offend and mobilize in favour of the cause, be it ethno-sectarian, messianic, revolutionary or any combination thereof.
The contrast almost exemplifies the comparison that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu draws in his book Distinction (Routeledge, 2010, p. 41) between the bourgeois notion of art as a self-legitimizing, self-referring pursuit (“art for art’s sake” as Proudhon pejoratively puts it) and the notion adopted by the working class and petite-bourgeoisie of art as a function of values, morals, utility...
The battle for culture, the conquest of space, the re-interpretation of heritage and the competition for writing Bahrain’s collective memory are well under way in an island roughly half the size of New York City. The chicken nugget phenomenon is one to be reckoned with; its strongest appeal lies in its ability to transcend sect. As a cultural reality, it offers a powerful way out for those who do not identify with the omnipresent communitarian and religious divide.