On a recent trip to Upper Egypt, Andrew Leber went into a shop near Sohag train station. He wanted to take some photos for a project that started a few months ago. A bystander, leaning against his motorcycle, took exception to this and strode purposefully over to Leber. Producing a pistol from his belt, he demanded to know what was going on. Frantically both Leber and the shopkeeper told the man what this project entailed. His manner changed completely. Breaking out into a broad grin, he insisted Leber take another photo.
The project: a Tumblr website called “SpongeBob on the Nile.” Run by American students Andrew Leber and Elisabeth Jaquette, it attempts to document every appearance of SpongeBob SquarePants in Egypt and the region at large. If you’re not familiar with modern American children’s cartoons, SpongeBob SquarePants is a small, yellow, anthropomorphic sponge who lives at the bottom of the sea with a group of marine chums. More importantly for Leber and Jaquette, his popularity in Egypt and across the Arab world has exploded over the past two years. A recent Vice article even asked: “Is SpongeBob SquarePants the new Che Guevara?” SpongeBob on the Nile, with the help of Egyptian and international contributors, collects photos of this cartoon character’s appearances in Egypt and the wider region. These range from the prosaic (t-shirts, stickers, stuffed toys) to the bizarre—SpongeBob’s perfume range is a personal favourite.
In Egypt, the response to the site has been almost universally positive. Since its inception on 10th December, it has already been featured in three Egyptian online newspapers and dubbed “the best blog in Egypt” by Cairo360, a lifestyle website. Leber tells me, “I’ve been amazed at the reaction. People are mostly amused by the whole thing and have often gone to lengths to find every single SpongeBob-related item in their store for me to photograph.”
Leber and Jaquette have run photos of the happy-go-lucky sponge and his pals in Palestine and of a man in a full SpongeBob costume in Libya, amidst celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution in Martyrs’ Square. But they have only scratched the surface. In Saudi Arabia, the columnist Saleh al-Shihi complained that a SpongeBob float was one of the only entertainments at Eid celebrations. In Bahrain’s Northern Province, a team of children’s entertainers called “SpongeBob” appeared at a national festival in February. There are joke campaigns in Syria and Egypt to get SpongeBob elected president. He has even been declared haram (forbidden) by Kuwaiti Sheikh Kamil al-Awadi because he acts like a girl.
I wanted to know why SpongeBob has become ubiquitous. Is he really the new Che Guevara? I asked Jaquette why she thought the children’s character was so popular, trying to elicit revolutionary fervour. “I don’t really have the reasons why people think SpongeBob has become such a phenomenon,” she says. “Most people are just as dumbfounded as us.”
Undeterred, I get in touch with a man who sells SpongeBob products from a shop on the West Bank. I call him up and ask if SpongeBob really is a symbol of revolution and resistance—subjects he must know about. He pauses for a while. “SpongeBob’s revolution? I’ve never heard that one before. Maybe in America but here I just sell stuffed toys to kids.” That’s when I realised that SpongeBob’s popularity is interesting because it is so banal. People in the Arab world like SpongeBob SquarePants for much the same reasons as people everywhere else: because he is a fun, charming character.
Even if he isn’t a revolutionary icon, SpongeBob is huge in the Middle East. Ignoring conflicts and national borders, he skips happily across the Arab world and is popular with almost everyone. At the moment the British foreign office advises against all travel to Syria, Yemen, Gaza, Somalia and parts of Libya. But a quick internet search reveals SpongeBob dressed in Yemeni clothes, SpongeBob on t-shirts in Somalia and SpongeBob gifts for sale in Gaza. In Syria, he has popped up on the wall of a bombed-out building, next to graffiti that says, “tomorrow will be better.” This sponge does not respect national boundaries. That is his revolutionary act.