Arts & Culture COVID-19

GIFs and memes: Are we witnessing a golden age in the making?

In our increased time online, we are witnessing a golden age in the making.

By Alyazia bint Nahyan Al Nahyan

A statue of Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, in Cordoba, Spain. He was a polymath, and jurist, who wrote on many subjects including philosophy, physics, and astronomy. Image: Shutterstock.

Golden is also an expression, not just a colour. We use it to refer to hearts, rules, and ages.A museum in Amsterdam’s recent banning of the word ‘golden age’ from its exhibits, has not stopped us from idolising these stages in history.

A ‘golden age’ refers to a time of prosperity in a particular field(s), and it is marked by a phenomenon or unique direction that results in new heights of development.

Closer to home, the golden ages of Arab sciences spanned approximately five centuries, and encompassed different fields, from astronomy and philosophy in Andalusia, to literature, glass-making, and medicine in the Abbasid era.

In the Abbasid era, literary trends peaked. Of those arts were scholarly poems, as well as denotation letters known as tawqee’at; scholarly, or educational, poems comprised of long verses that recorded various lessons. The lessons were written in hundreds of verses, compiled to explain the science or politics of the day in the form of a poem. One figure whose work outlasted the time period is Aban al-Lahiqi. He is a popular court fixture who re-wrote the classics like Sinbad and ‘Kalila w Demna’ in a record breaking, five thousand versed poem.

Unusual skills and un-breakable records, illustrate our fascination with golden eras.

These trends also extended to the palace courts. In the art of tawqee’at, or denotation letters, often written on behalf of the caliph or an official, few were able to upstage the female writers and poets of the Abbasid era. Tawqee’at are brief notes, and their art lies in their brevity, and the use of limited words to express a situation, or draft a response. Al-Khayzuran, Um Jafaar, and Fa?l al-Sh??irah, were female writers who wrote letters of lesser words that extending to many meanings. Fa?l al-Sh??irah perfected this literary art, in the name of the palace. As one of the caliphs’ correspondents stated, “all my official letters are entirely by her pen”.

In our increased time online during this challenging period, I believe that we are witnessing a different golden age in the making.

GIFs and memes- animated and still images with short commentaries that are shared via social media channels- are often hysterical, but also historical. This recent fad is a modern form of worldwide, mass correspondence that is fun, popular, and relatable. In the current COVID-19 crisis, GIFs and memes are increasingly providing comic relief in our shared isolation through satirical social commentary. And they are available in abundance. For example, the well-known Giphy database currently boasts more than 1 billion GIFs.

What’s different in comparison to the previous golden ages, is that the world of GIFs and memes borrows figures from past golden eras of film. GIFs frequently feature Hollywood stars of the early decades of the 20th century such as Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo ,and the list scrolls on.

GIFs freuqently feature Hollywood stars such as Judy Garland. GIF:

Egyptian movies and TV shows are also popular in Arabic memes, with Egyptian stars such as Naguib el-Rihani and the comedian Fuad el-Mohandes, are common choices. But the top choice amongst designers nowadays seems to be Egyptian actress Abla Kamel.

Memes of Egyptian actress Abla Kamla are very popular nowadays.

A popular meme features a compilation of nine different moods of the actress, ranging from a tense Abla to an ecstatic Abla, followed by the question, ‘today, which Abla defines you?’

Egyptian actress Abla Kamel is popular in GIFs shared nowadays. GIF:

In the past, the early golden ages were a product of innovative people. Now, those same people, those iconic figures, are becoming a product or feature of this new fad.  GIFs and memes are effectively reviving golden figures of the past eras and presenting them in a new way.

Alyazia bint Nahyan Al Nahyan is an Emirati artist and founder of Anasy Documentary Productions.

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