Adam Shatz: Writers or Missionaries?

This is an important essay by Adam Shatz in The Nation, in which he reflects on how his own writing on the Middle East has developed over the years and, more broadly, how the region is written about: 

I still stand by most of the positions that I took when I was starting out. But when I re-read the articles I published then, I find the tone jarring, the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect. I have the same reaction when I read a self-consciously committed journalist like Robert Fisk, who seems never to doubt his own thunderous convictions. I recently re-read Pity the Nation, his tome about the Lebanese civil war, and I was struck by how little Fisk tells us about the Lebanese, a people he has lived among since the mid-1970s. For all his emoting about the Lebanese, their voices are never allowed to interrupt his sermonizing. That I agree with parts of the sermon doesn’t mean I have the patience to sit through it. Fisk’s book, which once so impressed me, now strikes me as a wasted opportunity, unless journalism is understood as a narrowly prosecutorial endeavor, beginning and ending with the description of crimes and the naming (and shaming) of perpetrators. And yet Fisk’s example is instructive, in a cautionary way. It reminds us that immersion in the region isn’t enough: it’s how you process the experience, the traces that it leaves on the page. The Fiskian cri de coeur substitutes rage for understanding, hang-wringing for analysis.

A fascinating read, especially in how he explains his initial approach to the region was through the prism of Algeria – "Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism."

The baltaga state

Andrea Teti, writing for the indispensable MERIP, gets it – this is precisely how I see the Egyptian state and its actions:

The arrest, trial and often torture of journalists, activists and students from across the political spectrum has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice or security. Even comedians are harassed. These actions are best understood as a mafia-style warning, the content of which is fairly obvious: For anyone opposing the regime installed since the 2013 army coup, there is no safety in the law, nor in Western governments, nor in the international media. The use of violence to repress or stir up conflict useful to the regime is nothing new. The regime wants it to be clear that it can imprison anyone, any time, no matter how absurd the charges, how surreal the evidence or how great a travesty of justice the trial. In fact, the absurdity of the evidence and the Kafkaesque legal process are not an aberration. On the contrary, the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.

. . .

Every criminal gang worth its salt knows it needs to keep the local population dependent and scared enough to believe there is no alternative, and duped enough into thinking that there is at least a veneer of morality covering what the racketeers do.

Egyptian nationalists don't like to hear it, but the leadership of their beloved military – whatever the merits it once had – has devolved into a mafia, no more, no less. Understanding that is the beginning of understanding what is happening in Egypt, and the risks it entails considering the region's other mafia states were the Assads' Syria and the Husseins' Iraq. And look where they are now.

Why the US stuck with Maliki

Pretty fascinating account by an insider of the arguments and interests that led the US and the Iraqi political elite to stick with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is now being largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq. 

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

Finkelstein: The US and Egypt one year after the coup

Norman Finkelstein his usual acerbic self:

The first thing to note is the oddity of a democratic transition that begins with an anti-democratic coup. It’s not every day that the overthrow of a democratically elected government, the jailing of the democratically elected president, and the mass slaughter of the unarmed supporters of the democratically elected governing party constitute stepping stones to democracy.

. . .

To assess Egypt’s recent election, it might be useful to conduct a simple thought experiment. As is well known, President Barack Obama’s popularity has plummeted among the American people. A majority do not approve of the job he’s doing, and many among them positively detest him. Let’s imagine if the Republican party, capitalizing on this popular discontent, orchestrated an army coup to remove Obama from office, slaughtered his unarmed supporters in a series of bloodbaths, declared the Democratic party a terrorist organization, banned it and jailed its leading members, then arrested the other opposition leaders and prohibited any and all public dissent. Finally, to appease international opinion, Republicans held an “election” in which the only other candidate was Jesse Jackson. 

Jesse Jackson? Surely one would choose a unelectable Republican rather than an unelectable Democrat – Ron Paul perhaps?

It's a pretty shallow piece but US policy certain gets the skewering it deserves. 

Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic

Great piece by Elias Muhanna for The New Yorker, on why Disney's Frozen has been translated into Modern Standard Arabic:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.

Muhanna goes on that there isn't much of a constituency calling dialect dubs of hit Hollywood movies, in contrast to what he describes as "an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region." I'd be curious to test out that theory – for instance see if the Moroccan film board would reject a dubbing of Frozen in darija. I suspect it has more to do with the low profitability of Arabic dialect market segments (because of high rates of piracy, etc.) and the dominance of the GCC market in business decisions about entertainment – and that market being used to MSA being used as a standard for dubbing (they finance it, after all).

The Mubarak mansions

Mubarak and his sons were just handed three- and four-year sentences on embezzlement charges. To understand the case, and get a detailed example of how the ruling family routinely stole from the public coffers, read this excellent piece of investigative journalism by Hossam Bahgat. Sifting through the court documents and talking to a whistle-blowing investigator, Bahgat reconstructs a decades-old scam that also involves the ubiquitous Arab Contractors company and the current prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb.  

Egyptian citizens have unknowingly paid millions of pounds for refurbishments, furnishings, appliances, utilities bills and maintenance of the two offices that Gamal and Alaa Mubarak used to conduct their profitable investment business on al-Saada Street in Roxy, Heliopolis. Alaa’s wife Heidi charged the state for every last expense in the renovation of a new villa in the posh Golf Area on Qattamiya Heights in New Cairo. When Gamal and his wife Khadiga had their first daughter in 2010, the Arab Contractors company paid the bill to design, build and furnish a separate wing for the newborn in the Uruba Palace in Heliopolis. 

At some point, first lady Suzanne Mubarak wanted to have a private office in the new, glamorous City Stars Intercontinental hotel and mall – Egyptian citizens paid for its interior design and every piece of furniture. When Mubarak’s 12-year-old grandson Mohamed died in a tragic playground accident in 2009, Arab Contractors used the telecom towers budget to fraudulently cover the costs of building a new private mausoleum. Many of the receipts describe expenses on the five villas that Mubarak and his sons privately owned in the el-Sheikh Red Sea resort and on a 25-feddan farm jointly owned by Gamal and Alaa on the road from Cairo to Ismailia.  

Other expenses covered by the state budget include an elevator to the roof of Alaa and Heidi’s Qattamya villa “to be able to adjust and maintain the satellite dishes on the roof,” a Jacuzzi pool in the Heliopolis residence, and a giant tent and candles for a party in one of the Sharm el-Sheikh villas. 

Frankenstein in Baghdad

I recently wrote something for the New Yorker's site about the last winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a pretty riveting Iraqi novel.

In the opening pages of Ahmed Saadawi’s novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a suicide bombing shakes a neighborhood in the Iraqi capital:

They all turned towards the explosion at the moment a mass of flame and smoke ate up the cars and human bodies surrounding them, cut several electricity lines and perhaps killed a number of birds—with the shattering of glass, the caving in of doors, the cracking of nearby walls, the sinking of some old roofs in the Bataween neighborhood, and other unforeseen damages that all burst forth at once, in the same instant.

Eruptions of violence, as unavoidable and mysterious as storms, are part of the atmosphere of the book, which just won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Matter-of-factly, Saadawi sets out a reality—Baghdad in 2005—so gothic in its details (a man is troubled after seeing “a blood stain and bits of hair from a scalp”; after another explosion, a man dies alongside his donkey, “their flesh mixed”) that, when the novel makes a turn to the supernatural, it barely shocks.

In the explosion’s aftermath, a man named Hadi al-Attag, a middle-aged, hard-drinking scavenger and antiquities seller, loiters at the scene, smoking a cigarette. As firemen hose away the last human remains, he reaches down and picks up a nose, the last thing he needs to complete a body, made up entirely of discarded parts of bombing victims, that he has been assembling in secret. A storm hits the city and the body disappears. Following a strange chain of events, the creature comes to life and starts taking revenge on its killers. It learns that its body parts belong to criminals as well as innocents; its vigilantism is complicated by a need to continue killing simply to replenish itself.

When a Kidnapped Journalist Is a Freelancer

Good piece on the risks freelancers take covering conflicts, by Jaron Gilinsky for Medium:

A dirty little secret of news publishing is that most of the pictures and videos we see on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines are taken by freelancers. The digital disruption of print news media has led to a staggering number of cuts in journalism jobs. With limited resources, publishers’ reliance on freelancers is at an all-time high. Working with freelancers has huge economic advantages, especially in conflict zones. Publishers don’t have to pay for salaries, travel expenses, insurance, lodging, safety equipment, first-aid or hostile environment training. On occasion, some publishers do pay for accommodations or expenses, but this is rare. Generally, they buy or license the content when they need it on an a-la-carte basis without any add-ons or advance commitment.

Publishers reap all the rewards of working with freelancers, but assume none of the risks. If something terrible happens at any point leading up to, or following the transaction, the publisher bears no responsibility.

Gilinsky gives tons of examples of journalists and especially photographers risking their lives, with little protection, under this system. This, regrettably, is the typical example of photographer Ali Mustafa, who died in Syria:

Nobody called Ali’s family to notify them of his death. His sister found out through a photo uploaded by an activist on Facebook. His face was charred, but unmistakably his. Ali had no liability or life insurance policy when he was killed. The Turkish and Qatari Red Crescents recovered the corpse and transported it back to Turkey. His mother, who runs a small cleaning service, paid the Canadian government 6500 Canadian dollars to coordinate the repatriation, plus another 8000 for a flight, and 7000 for the funeral. When all was said and done, Ali’s family was more than 20,000 dollars in debt. The photo agencies, on the other hand, incurred zero costs. They did not offer the Mustafa family a single penny. They did not offer their condolences or even acknowledge Ali’s death. Miraculously, Ali’s camera had survived the blast and was sent home with his body. It was covered with blood. The memory card was missing.

Is Egypt one of Obama's worst foreign policy failures?

A worthwhile editorial in the NYT on Obama's foreign policy that I largely agree with – and where one of the most critical bits is not about Ukraine or Syria, but Egypt:

More than anything else, perhaps, the revolutions in this region have demonstrated the limits of American influence when countries are in turmoil. Egypt is the most important and difficult case. While it is an example of the realpolitik that some of his critics say Mr. Obama lacks, Egypt is Exhibit A in the case against his claim to be supporting democracy in the Middle East. The Obama administration finds itself defending and continuing to finance a repressive military government in Cairo that comes nowhere near to fulfilling the promise of the Arab Spring and that recently ordered more than 1,000 political prisoners put to death.

It may not last (in fact I doubt it will), but the sentiment these days is does appear to be shifting in the American establishment. Also worth reading is a partial defense of Obama by Tom Friedman

April 6 tells EU to cancel election observer mission

From a letter written on behalf of April 6 to the European Union:

On 10 February 2014, the Foreign Affairs Council Meeting concluded in point 8: "The EU also reiterates its readiness to observe the upcoming elections, if conditions are met, and calls on the Egyptian interim authorities to ensure an environment conducive to inclusive, transparent and credible elections, including a level playing field for the election campaigns. In view of the recent developments, the Council recalls that no political groups should be excluded or banned as long as they renounce violence and respect democratic principles".

 

In times in which more than twenty thousand prisoners are detained since the military intervention/coup on 3rd July, political movements, Islamist and Secular, are being banned, extreme nationalistic propaganda are widely diffused through the State apparatus, it is quite evident that the "conditions are hardly met". It is certain that Mr. Sisi will win the show, whether in presence or absence of the EU elections observation mission. Suspending the mission, however, would send a clear message to Mr. Sisi as well as to the European and Egyptian public opinions that the EU can hardly accept and even participate in legitimizing the current practices in Egypt.

More on this at Middle East Eye.

Saudi Arabia's insecurity

From an essay by Alain Gresh titled "Saudi Arabia's great fear", in Le Monde Diplomatique:

L’appui aux rebelles syriens fait consensus dans l’opinion saoudienne (sauf au sein de la minorité chiite) ; en revanche, le soutien au renversement du président égyptien Mohamed Morsi, en juillet 2013, suscite plus de controverses. « Pour la première fois, nous entendons des critiques, confie, sous couvert d’anonymat, un journaliste influent. “Pourquoi soutenons-nous le renversement d’un président qui se réclame de l’islam ? Pourquoi engloutissons-nous des milliards de dollars en Egypte à l’heure où nos problèmes de logement ou de pauvreté sont si importants ?” » Naguère inaudible, ce malaise s’exprime sur les réseaux sociaux que les autorités cherchent, sans grand succès, à brider. « Dans un monde arabe où les puissances traditionnelles que sont l’Irak, la Syrie ou l’Egypte s’effacent, absorbées par leurs problèmes internes, de plus en plus de forces se tournent vers nous. Et nous ne sommes pas capables de leur répondre. Nous sommes impuissants à régler les crises en Irak ou à Bahreïn, sans même parler de la Syrie », poursuit notre interlocuteur.

The article is also available in English, here. The article notes intra-GCC tensions (not just with Qatar) and the hesitation in much of the region with the Saudi position on the MB, as well as the Iran and US issue.

Patrick Seale: A Remembrance

A tribute of Seale by Adam Shatz for MERIP, as fascinating as the man: 

After his studies with Albert Hourani at St. Antony’s, he moved in 1963 to Beirut, where he befriended Philby. (Philby later claimed that Seale worked for MI6, which Seale denied.) It was the Mad Men era of Middle East reporting, a time of high living and high-stakes intrigue. The “Arab cold war” was at its height, and there was no better, or more pleasurable, listening post for a foreign correspondent than Beirut. The correspondent’s calendar was marked by revolutionary conspiracies; many were first reported as rumors, sometimes overheard at the bar of the St. George Hotel, where spies, arms dealers, diplomats and other adventurers gathered at the end of the day.

Great details in there (I never realized he was married to Mahmoud Darwish's ex-wife, who is also Nizar Qabbani's sister) and a fair appraisals of his failings too.

Al Jazeera sues Egypt for $150m

Clever strategy by Qatar, and an interesting case – might go further than simply claiming censorship, although a state's ability to retain control of broadcasting or to control what it sees as hateful or incitement speech on its airwaves is unlikely to be challenged. One might also ask why al-Jazeera has not filed suit with other governments that have temporarily banned it, such as Morocco: 

Lawyers for Al Jazeera on Monday notified the Egyptian government that they would be seeking compensation under the investor/state dispute mechanism included in a 1999 investment treaty between Egypt and Qatar.
The lawyers argue that by arresting and attacking Al Jazeera journalists, seizing the broadcaster’s property and jamming its signal, the Egyptian government has violated its rights as a foreign investor in the country and put the $90m it has invested in Egypt since 2001 at risk.

Read the rest at the FT.

It Wasn’t Just a European War

Shehryar Fazli, in the LA Review of Books, looks at new books commemorating the anniversary of World War I and highlights the war's Middle Eastern importance:

Certainly, World War I was a European war in its authorship, and it is true that the number of dead in Europe far exceeded casualties anywhere below the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire played a crucial role in the way the war began and its outcome. If Europe was to be recast, so too was the Middle East. If the war and its aftermath prepared the ground for Hitlerism and a second world war, so too did it beget the Arab-Israeli and other Middle Eastern conflicts.
In one sense, the story of the First World War begins with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Not only did this decline produce the vital game piece of an independent Serbia, but Italy’s successful 1911 war with Turkey over Libya, a major Ottoman province, left the bleeding empire vulnerable to further attack, and ultimately inspired the Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece to launch what came to be known as the First Balkan War in October 1912. This in turn led to a Second Balkan War in June 1913. The resulting new order in southern Europe created, in Clark’s words, “a set of escalatory mechanisms that would enable a conflict of Balkan inception to engulf the continent within five weeks in the summer of 1914.” As for the war itself: the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, launched in June 1916, became anything but “a sideshow of a sideshow.”

Rais 2014

Here's an interesting new project by Hend Aly and Moritz Mihatsch – Rais 2014, a website devoted to news about Egypt's presidential race and its two candidates. It's in English and Arabic and contains news and background information about the poll. All in a neat design that reminds me of 1980s Mac computers. Bookmark it (and for your convenience we'll have their logo on the sidebar of this blog for the rest of election season.)

Middle East Eye

This is a new website with broad coverage of the Middle East and a range of new and established talent that has launched with the following manifesto: 

Too often, websites are launched in a blind haze of optimism. They will speak truth unto power. They will bridge increasingly entrenched lines that criss-cross the political landscape. They will be honest, transparent. And too often, after a gallant run, they fail. Owners make their agendas felt and journalists collectively know when and where not to ask the questions they know their readers expect to be answered.

Over some key event, they too fall silent or look the other way. It's only a matter of time before every media outlet discovers its red lines and no-go areas. The Middle East Eye will be different. It serves no political master, movement or country. It has no agenda other than the belief that what happened three years ago in Tunisia and in Egypt was not an abberation. It was not a spring that turned to winter, but the first stirrings of a fundamental change that will affect every country and every people in the Middle East.

The TV presenter who was proud of working for security

Quite a remarkable intervention by Egyptian TV presenter Ahmed Moussa, responding so some allegation by journalist Hamdi Qandil (if someone has a link or can explain in the comments, I'd be grateful) in which he says he is proud of working for security, that it's not a shame of working for the police of your country but the real shame is working for "foreign embassies."

I think more people like him should come out, or perhaps to make it easier, they could present their shows in uniforms.

[Via Elijah]