Show Sisi the money

A great story in Mada Masr about the mysterious, unaccountable funds to which Egyptians are being strongly encouraged to donate.  

Driven by curiosity, rather than patriotic sentiment, I also decided to donate to the Tahya Masr fund. Rather than promise Sisi my vital organs, I settled on a humble LE100 and accepted that I would be outdone by an 8-year-old.

When I arrived at the National Bank of Egypt, one of four banks that accepts donations, I quietly stated that I was here to donate to the Tahya Masr fund. The security guard and the policeman sitting next to him greeted me with excitement and respect.

“That’s it?” the policeman asked cheekily as he handed me a number and asked me to wait my turn.

After my number was called, I walked up to the desk, bolstered by my two new friends at the door, and stated that I would like to donate to the Tahya Masr fund, to which a busy bank teller shook his head and asked for my ID.

First, however, as a contributor to the fund, I had a few questions: how much money has been collected so far, where will the money go, and how soon?

The bank teller responded impatiently with “I don’t know” to every question.

I then asked what the difference was between account number 306306 and 037037. He went into a discussion with his neighboring colleague, and finally came back with an answer: “306306 is called Support Egypt, while 037037 is called Long Live Egypt.”

Both accounts were active at the same time, and people can still donate to either one, I learned.

“Now, are you going to give me the money?” the teller asked, as I handed over my LE100 bill, not knowing where it would end up

 

 

We'll Always Have Cairo

This summer, The Arabist household relocated from Egypt to Morocco, after well over a decade living in Cairo. It wasn't an easy step to take. 

We left at a low point (even as we fear that things will be getting worse still). There are many things I won’t miss about Egypt, especially Egypt of late: the hypocrisy, the violence to bodies and to truth, the staggering waste. I won't miss the conspiracy theories and the mock trials; or the way people lower their voices again now to talk about politics; the smug smile of the new president or the anxious, endless diatribes of his sycophants. 

But Cairo is also where Issandr and I met, spent most of our twenties, and became journalists. It’s where we witnessed tens of thousands of strangers dancing a conga line all night around Tahrir Square. So I want to write about the things we will miss.

Driving home on the Kasr El Nil Bridge with a good song playing on a crackling taxi stereo, wishing a silent goodnight to the bronze lions who guard the bridge. Windows rolled down, watching the newlyweds taking their pictures, the young couples in intense negotiations, the teenage boys sitting on the railing laughing, the families out for a midnight stroll. The great black river carrying a rare breeze and full of reflected light, small open motor boats skimming its surface like electric water bugs, draped in colored lights and pulsing with pop music. As you think: There's no city quite like this. 

Having fuul for breakfast from a cart in Garden City.

 

The time-lapse pyrotechnics of flame trees slowly blooming. 

Mangoes, fresh pomegranate juice and molokheyya.

Egyptian dialect in all its inflections and registers, from the cynical to the lyrical, the melodramatic to the bombastic. The stream of jokes and anecdotes and delightfully surprising things you hear every day in a city this big and loquacious. 

The many kind, funny, graceful, ridiculously optimistic, incredibly forbearing, brave people we've met. 

The grimy glory of Islamic Cairo and Khedival Cairo. Especially on Friday mornings. 

One view from Bab Zuweila

One view from Bab Zuweila

Getting deliveries of everything at every time of day and night. 

Our friends.  

Graffiti on a cinderblock wall blocking an entrance to Tahrir Square

Graffiti on a cinderblock wall blocking an entrance to Tahrir Square


Arabs Without God

I just bought my copy of Brian Whitaker's new book on atheism in the Arab world, Arabs Without God. This is the third in a series of books Brian – a veteran Guardian reporter and the man behind one of the oldest blog and websites on the region, al-Bab –has written over the last several years that deal with freedom of conscience and/or lifestyle in the Middle East, and they've always been interesting.

In a blog post announcing the book, Brian writes:

The aim of Arabs Without God is not to make a case for atheism but to argue for the right of Arab atheists to be treated as normal human beings. The first half, based on interviews with non-believers, looks at how and why some Arabs choose to abandon religion. Chapters in this section also explore the history of Arab atheism, arguments about the divine origin of the Qur'an, and the way atheism relates to gender and sexuality.

One of the more unexpected discoveries was that Arab atheism is somewhat different from atheism in the west: "scientific" arguments about the origin of the universe are much less prominent. In interviews, the issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational Deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity.

There is an excerpt of the book here. I am a fan of such publishing efforts on issues that may not find a wide commercial audience (especially ones that can bypass the publishers), so if you have an interest in these issues I'd encourage you to get a copy of the book.

On James Foley, Steven Sotloff and freelance journalism in the Middle East

It is impossible, as a journalist working in the Middle East (albeit one who never ventures into war zones) not to take the murder of James Foley, and then Steven Sotloff, -- and the alleged torture that preceded it -- personally. I didn't watch the videos; the still photo of each man kneeling next to his executioner was enough. How sickening to see a human being reduced to a prop in his own gleeful murder. 

These men's killings have been followed by some lovely remembrances and many reflections on our vulnerable, hard-scrabble profession. My first reaction to Foley's murder was incomprehension and indignation at the idea that anyone should be freelancing from such a dangerous place at all.

Foley was apparently a "freelance correspondent" -- isn't that a contradiction in terms? -- for Global Post. Also reportedly, that organization's CEO was very personally (and financially) committed to doing right by him and trying to bring him back. Both he and Sotloff seem to have been determined to go to Syria, despite having little to no institutional backing. 

There have been plenty of articles and personal essays in recent weeks about the erosion of real jobs in the media and the toll that freelancing from the Arab world's uprisings and wars can take. (One doesn't have to be on the front lines of war to experience post-traumatic stress order). It's worth remembering, of course, that local fixers for Western news outlets have been getting kidnapped and killed on a regular basis for the last decade.

In the past few weeks there have been some interesting debates on the paying of ransoms and the keeping quiet about abductions (a report on the radio program On The Media suggested that the media blackout on kidnappings by extremists meant we were unaware of the extent of the phenomenon in Syria). What I haven't seen is editors, publishers or media owners clarifying what their policy on accepting freelance work from conflict zones is; or making a commitment to remunerate and protect freelancers better. In piece after piece, freelancers describe the ridiculous conditions under which they report, while those with salaried jobs wring their hands and say things like: "This is a sad reflection on the state of foreign reporting today."

Freelancing is fine when you are young, starting out, and not reporting from somewhere where you are putting your life at risk -- but isn't it high time that the US and Western media actually took greater responsibility for the safety and fair pay of those providing it with content? (If you know of any discussions/new policies being instituted, please share in the comments). 

On the so-called Islamic State

Ramy Khoury argues in the Daily Star that the extremist movement is the nearly inevitable result of the region's (often foreign-backed) authoritarianism. 

But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find – generation after generation – that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity; or, in many cases, obtain basic life needs for their families.
The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why the Islamic State rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the Islamic State threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, the invasion of Iraq, and total support for Israel).

Peter Harling, in Le Monde Diplomatique, looks to Sunni resentment and the "void" of good governance and international diplomacy. 

At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.
IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism — all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?

Syria Speaks

This summer, while the young men of the organization-formerly-known-as-ISIS -- men whose inner lives I find it hard to fathom -- were marauding across what is left of Iraq and Syria, I was reading the powerful anthology Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline. I just reviewed it for the blog of the London Review of Books. 

Untitled by Khalil Younes. One of many works of visual art included in the book. 

Untitled by Khalil Younes. One of many works of visual art included in the book. 


Much of the work in Syria Speaks seems to have been written a year or two ago, and what a difference that time makes. Most of the more than fifty contributors are outside Syria now; their hope and defiance seem out of date. Yet the book is a valuable reminder that the early protests against Assad were both peaceful and democratic. It also sheds light on the way the protesters’ aspirations were ground into irrelevance.

In the opening piece, the journalist Samar Yazbek travels though the countryside around Aleppo, Idlib and Hama:

The sun was blazing down, so intense that it was impossible to cry. Everyone spoke with granite-like solemnity; a brief sigh was enough to occupy the whole space… It was as though we had uncovered Syria’s true identity after all this time: a country made of earth, blood and fire, where explosions never ceased.

You can read the rest here

“I will no longer play the role they’ve written for me”

Alaa Abdelfattah decides to go on hunger strike:

Statement from the Family of Alaa Abd El-Fattah

Alaa is on Hunger Strike: “I will no longer play the role they’ve written for me”.

At 2 o’clock on the morning of Sunday August 17, Alaa visited his father, Ahmad Seif, in the ICU Unit of Qasr el-Eini hospital, after Seif had become unconscious.

Three days earlier we’d been on our latest visit to Alaa in Tora Prison. His father’s health at that point had been relatively good. Since then there had been no way for us to inform him that his father had gone into crisis. And so Alaa arrived at the hospital in the small hours of Sunday happy to be visiting, carrying flowers, looking forward to talking with his father. He found him unconscious in an ICU cubicle.

That spectacle crystalised matters for him. By the end of the few-minute visit Alaa had decided that he would withdraw co-operation with the unjust and absurd sitution he had been put in – even if this cost him his life.

For context, Alaa had previously taken the view that he would cooperate with the judicial process and authorities, hoping for an eventual acquittal on a retrial (since his conviction was the result of an absurd trial he was not allowed to attend.)

His family's full statement is here.

Please spread the word

Getting emails like this -- and knowing this is hardly newsworthy in Egypt, and this death like so many others will not get the attention or indignation it deserves  -- is the sickening part of being a journalist.  

Hasan is a 15 yo student that was detained on the past 15th of August driven to Al Bastin Police station where he was bing tortured systematically since then till his death today, here is the number of his relative Ayman :+ ………….

Please spread the word as it will help in stopping Human Rights violations here in Egypt.

Best Regards,

M Mourad

UPDATE: According to Human Rights Watch, the person in question died during a Rabaa anniversary protest, not in a police station. Not that either death is warranted, or that deaths in custody are uncommon

HRW: Deadly protest dispersals in Egypt a crime against humanity

Human Rights Watch -- whose senior members were prevented from entering the country yesterday -- has just released a report arguing that the dispersals of pro-Morsi protests in Egypt last summer (the most deadly of which, in the Rabaa El Adawiya Square, may have killed over 1,000 people) amount to crimes against humanity. This because they involved the premeditated (government officials openly discussed how many thousands of protesters they expected to be killed)  use of widescale violence against civilians. You can read the full report -- which calls for the indictment of the Minister of Interior and of President Sisi -- here

Israel/Palestine: Equality or ethnic cleansing

The following piece is by Omar Robert Hamilton, a film-maker and a founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature. A version of it was also published on the Egyptian news site Mada Masr. 

August 4th 2014

What has become clear during the latest assault on Gaza is that cycles of violence are perpetuated and reinforced by cycles of rhetoric. The Israeli PR machine works by constantly shifting the parameters of the discourse. Arguments are made and forgotten. Inquiries are held and dismissed. First principles are ignored and histories are erased by carefully trained spokespeople who excel in double-speak and a logic of empathetic violence audience-tested for optimum American palatability. Their mantra: it’s not what you say that counts. It’s what people hear.

The facts are all there to make, together, a damning case against Israel. The statistics, the photographs, the captured anguish do not lie - and yet it is the spin that gathers quickly around them that dominates the agenda. Since the beginning of this assault, the raison d’etre of the Israeli campaign has changed three times - each time centering around a buzz word that is repeated until there is no room for any other concept. The words have been: “kidnapped” (June 12th to July 2nd), “rockets” (July 7th onwards) and now “tunnels” (July 17th onwards), a word and concept which only seriously entered the discourse alongside the announcement of the ground invasion. The following day the death toll spiked, with 60 people killed in 24 hours, and a fourth buzz term entered the discourse: “human shield.” Now that the tunnels are all allegedly destroyed, if another word is needed it will be “disarm.”

KIDNAPPED: the Israeli government has now admitted that Hamas did not kidnap the three boys. They even knew they were dead after only a few hours but trumpeted the manhunt to enrage the public and instigate the pre-prepared operation “Brother’s Keeper” to dismantle Hamas in the West Bank. Why? Because eight days earlier, after eight years of schism, a unity government between rival groups Hamas and Fatah had been signed.

ROCKETS: Israel boasts of its Iron Dome defence system, claiming it is a prime specimen of Israeli engineering that keeps its civilians safe. Yet Israelis also claim they live in a state of terror because rockets "rain down" on them. This contradiction cuts to the heart of the constructed national psyche of Israelis as a fearsome warrior people who live in constant terror. Ben Ehrenreich describes the rockets as “more like the ones you might have learned to build in high school shop class than any sort of 21st-century artillery: thick metal pipes with fins welded on, an engine at the base, a few pounds of explosive at the head, the latter usually insufficient for much by way of destruction. What little damage they do is caused mainly by the momentum of their impact.”  To date, two Israelis and one Thai civilian have been killed by these rockets, giving them a kill rate of 0.1%. The Palestinian death toll has, today, passed one thousand eight hundred.

HUMAN SHIELDS: From the hardest hawks to the softest of Israeli doves, the same justification is being proffered for the massive numbers of Palestinian fatalities: Hamas uses human shields. Even Amos Oz, the great conscience of liberal Zionists, could only muster this simplistic scenario

Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?

Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!

Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

If this is the thinking of a great intellectual heavyweight of the Israeli left, then a truly toxic atmosphere has been successfully engendered, one in which regular soldiers need not think twice before pulling the trigger. The fact is that the UN’s Goldstone Report into Operation Cast Lead found Israel had killed civilians "while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags" and documented multiple instances of Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as human shields. But the Goldstone Report, so thoroughly damning in its findings of multiple and wide-ranging war crimes, has been all but forgotten. 

TUNNELS: The BBC, ever mindful of the approved Israeli lexicon, refers to a series of "attack tunnels." So who are these tunnels attacking? They are, we are told, designed to penetrate Israel and kidnap Israelis. In 2006 Gilad Shalit, a soldier, was captured and held as a prisoner of war. He was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners - many of whom were rounded up again during Operation “Brother’s Keeper”. No civilian has ever been abducted through the tunnels. Clearly, their primary purpose is an economic one, born of the crippling, medieval siege that Israel maintains against Gaza. Along the Egyptian border it is not Hamas that builds the tunnels; They merely tax the goods being moved through by the entrepreneurs that dig and own them. Israel talks of a “terrorist organization [that] deliberately embeds its terrorist infrastructure inside civilians neighborhoods” when actually a system of loosely regulated capitalism is what governs the tunnel industry. If you own a house near the border you are very likely to get into the tunneling business because there’s nothing else you can do. Furthermore, if Israel’s operation is about destroying these tunnels, why has it cost 1,800 lives? There were thought to be over 1,000 tunnels between Egypt and Gaza which the Egyptian regime - not widely known for its ability to carry out security operations without slaughtering its citizens - destroyed with no loss of life.

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George Scanlon: An Appreciation

I am known to night and horses and the desert, to sword and lance, to parchment and pen.
— Al-Mutanabbi

(George T. Scanlon, noted historian of Islamic art and architecture, was born April 23, 1925 and died July 13, 2014)

George Scanlon entered my life well before I actually met him in 1999. It was at a party on the balcony of an old Citadel flat where the minarets of Rifai and Sultan Hassan rose like masts from the sea of the Old City. I told him I’d followed his work while ghostwriting a Gulf princeling’s papers for the Islamic art and architecture graduate course George taught at the American University in Cairo. His tutelage, even second-hand, inspired a fascination with the medieval city that confirmed what I’d always suspected: Cairo was not a city but a universe.

georgescanlon

I will not detail George’s long and distinguished academic career, but highlights include Swarthmore, where he studied history and literature, Palestine, where he taught at a boys’ school for two years, Princeton where he obtained his doctorate and conversed with Albert Einstein, and Egypt, where he directed the American Research Center and conducted excavations in Nubia and at Fustat. Suffice to say that George’s research, writing and teaching (he was a tenured professor at AUC from 1975-2011) helped ignite scholarly and public interest in the study and conservation of Egypt’s Islamic treasures, a legacy long overshadowed by its pharaonic ones. In time I understood that George saw Egypt as a consummate teacher, possessing an inexhaustible store of knowledge and infinite ways of conveying it.

Like many of us, he admired in others the qualities he felt that he possessed. George respected indomitability which is why he loved Egyptians. ‘We lived in the Depression, we didn’t have it’ he said of his childhood in Pennsylvania. He held his mother’s fortitude (and that of women in general) in high regard. When his father died of cancer, she raised six children and taught them to read by circling letters on a newspaper. His brother Will was blinded in an accident aged six but nonetheless went on to complete university. George found the notion of pharmaceutical remedies for sadness both fascinating and facile and called the blues ‘an easy road to a desired failure’. ‘Tell me Maria’ he asked, with a friendly scowl, ‘did you ever for a minute think that the world owed you a living?’  I confessed I had, but only for a minute.

Not everyone’s death heralds the end of an era, but George’s does, and he knew it would. He was looking scampish one night in 2007, with a bit of a beard and his arm in a cast, at a dinner in the Zamalek home of Salima Ikram and Nick Warner honoring Elizabeth and John Rodenbeck, his old friends and colleagues. ‘I won’t be around much longer’ he said matter-of-factly, looking at John, with whom he’d been reciting a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem a moment before, ‘but when we go there won’t be anything like us. It ends here.’

This remark was neither vain nor sentimental. George belonged to an ever-receding era when intellectual accomplishment meant learning both deep and broad, of history, philosophy, science and the arts. Erudition mattered nothing if unmatched by self-examination alongside the penetrating observation of one’s culture, surroundings and companions. Students of humanity of this caliber have grown understandably rare in a world that barely values them. Far from old-fashioned, George was the prototypical action-hero scholar/archeologist, an equestrian, student of war, bon vivant and intrepid traveler with a poetic sensibility, an astonishing memory and a wicked wit. Although gallant and declamatory, George did not perform so much as participate in his encounters with an enthusiasm that made his company deliciously provocative. ‘I am a spectator’ he said, ‘Show me something to applaud.’

I looked forward to our luncheons at the Bistro downtown or the Pub in Zamalek where he ordered for us both (as if preparing the meal himself) consulting me only on the color of the wine. Conversation during those three or four hour feasts might range from the 1001 Nights to a documentary about ballet he’d seen or something he’d read or heard at the Cairo opera. Politics came up. In 2005, shortly after Hosni Mubarak became president for his fifth term, he asked, ‘When do you think it will explode?’, nor was he surprised or put out when it finally did. George had no desire to leave Egypt. He wanted to see how things turned out.

George exalted in beauty, whether he found it in Maria Callas’ voice, the curve of a dancer’s neck or the soffit of a noble arch. He was something of a dandy, always handsomely turned out. The last time we met, he wore a grey pinstripe seersucker suit. What did we talk about that day? His 89th birthday was coming up and wishing to congratulate him, I said he’d never know the influence he’d had in others’ lives. He modestly changed the subject. But I nonetheless managed to insert a few fervent, if playful words, regarding how I felt about him, his spirit, its place in my world and in history. We didn’t speak about death per se, but adventure: our adventurousness in life as preparation for the greatest of all adventures, the beauty of belonging, once and for all, to eternity, of seeing all history spread out in a singe flash of comprehension. His pale blue eyes sparkled. I left him heading towards Bab el Louk beneath a blazing sun where he intended I think, to buy coffee.  I intended to go home and nap.  I looked back at him thinking: indomitable.

Now I will miss how he said my name, punching out the syllables like the title of some defunct deity: Myrhh-Ri-Ah. I will miss his essence, something finely human that is slipping through our hands; I believe it is called ‘civilization’. He left a message on my answering machine before flying to America earlier this year. ‘While I’m gone’ he said ‘be sure and try to have a good time. I know it will be difficult. But we must take the world in stride.’

AMIN, dear friend, and Godspeed!

Rape in Egypt

Hend is not a Brotherhood member or supporter. But in the run-up to June 30 and Morsi’s removal by the military following mass protests, she said publicly that Egypt was in store for a coup, and that she feared Brotherhood rule would be replaced by what she described as Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brand of  “military religious fascism.”

She publicly denounced the clearing of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in in August 2013 as a massacre. At this point, she says, the telephone threats started again. On social media, she was called a “Brotherhood whore." Someone tweeted her telephone number and described her as a Brotherhood supporter. Surveillance by plainclothes men, which had started under SCAF but stopped under Morsi, intensified.

Three men on rotating four or five-hour shifts stationed themselves outside her home, she says. They followed her. On one occasion one of the men followed her to a café, sat at the table next to her and ordered coffee.

“Then he looked me in the face and photographed me,” Hend says.

“The monitoring isn’t about keeping tabs, it’s a threat to tell me that they’re watching me,” she adds.

Matters worsened at the end of 2013. She has long known that her phone was tapped, but then printouts of her emails and private online chats with her partner were slipped under her door. At the beginning of December 2013, she was asked to go to the headquarters of the National Security Agency.

“They played good cop, bad cop with me. An officer said, ‘You’re educated, you can travel. Why don’t you leave the country?’ Then they told me that they had recordings of me speaking about the military during the SCAF era and that they would hand them over to the media and claim that they were made recently. ‘The people will eat you alive,’ he told me.”

Hend says she then received threats of violence ahead of a march to parliament the same month. She was told by security personnel that she would be arrested under the newly passed Protest Law which made protests held without permission from the Interior Ministry illegal.

On December 26, Hend was alone late at night in a secluded, non-residential, street of central Cairo. She remembers that it was icy cold. As she was putting things in a car she had borrowed from a friend, three men appeared from behind and grabbed her.

This story by Sarah Carr in Mada Masr is a very hard and very important read. It shows the lengths to which Egypt's new regime is willing to go -- the kind of unchecked brutality it's allowing if not encouraging. Reports of sexual violence against men and women -- always a feature of repression and detention here -- have been increasing in recent months, despite official denials. (There are also unverified reports on social media of Islamists taking revenge on officers who have committed sexual attacks).

This story reminded me of the plain-clothes creeps who threatened a female Egyptian colleague during the 2011 uprising, in an eerily similar way -- using a knife, very foul language, and threats of sexual assault. Except back then they didn't follow through with it. 

 

 

A Ramadan poem: Mobile Mosque

Mada Masr is publishing a series of three poems by Sherif S. Elmusa on Ramadan. They are lovely. Here is the first. Ramadan Kareem. 

The metro in Ramadan is a mobile mosque.
The dry lips recite verses
from plastic-covered Qurans.
They say prayers,
like the prayers of the Ancients,
“easy on the tongue, vital for the scale.” 
Their eyes are kept ajar, as if to shield
the mystery from too much light.

In this blessed month our pleas pass,
without inspection,
through the wide open gates of heaven,
and the angels fly, on high alert,
grandmother would say, then turn
to me and ask why I didn’t fast.

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Killing Israeli and Palestinian children

After the bodies of three abducted Israeli teenage settlers were discovered on June 28, Palestinians have been targeted indiscriminately by "extreme rightist" Israeli mobs and now there is news that a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was killed, almost surely in retaliation. 

Before that latest piece of news had broken, Israel had already launched "retaliatory strikes" on Gaza and "sweeps" in the West bank, bombing over 30 locations, arresting hundreds and killing at least 8, including a 14-year-old boy. Hamas had denied involvement in the attack, although Israeli officials say it is responsible and "will pay."  

And Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa had this to say:

No mother should have endure the murder of her child. No mother or father. That does not only apply to Jewish parents. The lives of our children are no less precious and their loss are no less shattering and spiritually unhinging. But there is a terrible disparity in the value of life here in the eyes of the state and the world, where Palestinian life is cheap and disposable, but Jewish life is sacrosanct.

This exceptionalism and supremacy of Jewish life is a fundamental underpinning of the state of Israel. It pervades their every law and protocol, and is matched only by their apparent contempt and disregard for Palestinian life. Whether through laws that favor Jews for employment and educational opportunities, or laws that allow the exclusion of non-Jews from buying or renting among Jews, or endless military orders that limit the movement, water consumption, food access, education, marriage possibilities, and economic independence, or these periodic upending of Palestinian civil society, life for non-Jews ultimately conforms to the religious edict issued by Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, saying "a thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail."

Israeli violence of the past few weeks is generally accepted and expected. And the terror we know they will unleash on our people will be, as it always is, cloaked in the legitimacy of uniforms and technological death machines. Israeli violence, no matter how vulgar, is inevitably couched as a heroic, ironic violence that western media frames as “response,” as if Palestinian resistance itself were not a response to Israeli oppression. When the ICRC was asked to issue a similar call for the immediate and unconditional release of the hundreds of Palestinian children held in Israeli jails (which is also in contravention of international humanitarian law), the ICRC refused, indicating there’s a difference between the isolated abduction of Israeli teens and the routine abduction, torture, isolation, and imprisonment of Palestinian children.

Here is the whole piece. 

Shame on Al Masry Al Youm

The degradation of public discourse in Egypt continuous its spectacular course, a spiral of falsities, smears, and calls for vigilantism from supposed "intellectuals."

Here -- thank to our friends at Industry Arabic, a great professional translation service -- are excerpts from two op-eds published recently in the privately owned Al Masry Al Youm (a newspaper that back when it was launched in 2005 was celebrated as "opposition" and "independent" and that broke some genuine scoops regarding voter fraud). In the first, playwright Ali Salem -- invoking the antecedent of a mysterious splinter group in 1970s France that called itself "L'Honneur de la Police" and claimed several assassinations -- calls for the police in Egypt to form extra-judicial death squads. In the second column, which was taken down after an outcry (and a strongly worded protests from the Brazilian ambassador in Cairo), a certain Dr. Nassar Abdallah argues that Egypt should learn from Brazil's example, claiming that country's decision to hunt and kill street children was part of its economic miracle. Neither column is in the least bit satirical. 

The Honor of the Police Group, Ali Salem, Al Masry Al Youm, May 30

An "Honneur de la Police" organization working in complete secrecy would have greater ability to obtain the required information. Human beings have a natural inclination to help the strong, provided that they guarantee their safety. Ultimately, the important thing is that anyone who sets fire to a police APC finds will find his house set on fire the same night by unknown actors. If you monitor a police officer's movements in order to kill him, you and your family should know that you will be killed the very same night.

Am I inciting the police to imitate their peers in France to protect themselves and defend their personal honor? Yes, I am inciting them to do that. I am inciting the men of the Egyptian police to kill any vile murderer who thinks that no one will pursue him and exact punishment.

Is what I am calling for an infringement of the law? Yes, by all means. "Raise your voice a little so I can hear you." Yes, what am I calling for is not legal, but it is just by every standard. The greatest and most sacred human right is the right to self-defense. What I am asking is to allow police officers – of which my father was one – to defend their lives and honor as members of the most honorable profession, and let conventional legal forms have their due afterwards.

Street Children: The Brazilian Solution, Al Masry Al Youm, Nassar Abdallah, June 20

Due to these considerations, the Brazilian security apparatus at the time resorted to an extremely cruel and outrageous solution to deal with the street children phenomenon. It consisted of widespread hunting and cleansing campaigns in which thousands of them were executed like stray dogs in order to prevent the harm and risks they presented! The other forces in Brazilian society realized that what the police were doing was a crime in every sense of the word, that these children were in reality victims, not criminals, and that it is horrendous to execute people for crimes that they did not commit. Everybody realized that, but almost all of them turned a blind eye to what the police were doing because they all stood to benefit from it. The political leadership did not officially announce that they backed the police's actions, but they did not try to put any security official on trial because they knew that the alternative to executing street children was to rehabilitate them. The problem with that was that it would require a huge budget that would necessarily come at the expense of providing job opportunities for citizens who had lost their jobs, and this would put their economic reform plan at risk of failure.

Average citizens – even those who openly denounce the execution campaigns, deep down appreciate the seriousness of the government's reform program and feel relieved that the street children are disappearing from the streets of the main cities, where they can now go out with their sons and daughters without fear. Although some media outlets denounce the campaigns, they still keep reminding citizens of the street children's aggressive nature and the crimes that they will no doubt commit in increasing number if they are left to their own devices. Meanwhile, the human rights organizations that have heroically defended street children's right to life have been attacked for applying a double standard in that they do not take into account the right of average citizens to safety.

In this way, the Brazilian solution succeeded in clearing the main streets of major cities from street children and driving the ones who remained into the slums. However, this success should not be attributed to the cruelty involved, but first and foremost to the fact that the will to reform existed among Brazil's political leadership, which fought corruption and provided millions of job opportunities to Brazilians, and then was able to transform an economy on the brink of bankruptcy to one of the most important global economies. This is the lesson that should be heeded by anyone trying to learn from the Brazilian experience.

Egypt in TV

Sometimes when one does not get enough attention, one is pushed to strange things to get it. This is presumably what motivated Gaber el-Karmouty to give up thirteen minutes of his talk show to play the national anthems of all the Egyptian-regime-friendly Arab states while sporting a dishdasha (complete with a shemagh,a keffiyeh and the Egyptian flag one on top of the other at minute 11) and holding up the flags of said countries, except for Jordan’s. "(They) tried to send someone to the Jordanian embassy to get a big flag but failed." Hence, the print out.

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Palfest, part two

The second installment of my diary of the Palestine Festival of Literature went up at Bookforum over the weekend:

The daily life of Palestinians is constrained by an intricate complex of physical and bureaucratic barriers. Nowhere are the divisions and inequalities more dramatic than in Hebron. In 1994, after a far-right Israeli named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque that surrounds the patriarch Abraham’s tomb and killed twenty-nine Palestinians, the holy site was divided into a mosque and a synagogue. Muslims and Jews look at the same tomb from separate barred windows, bullet-proof partitions between them. Four hundred ultra-Orthodox settlers live in the city proper, alongside nearly 200,000 Palestinians. To accommodate and protect them, the government has shut down the main commercial thoroughfare, putting thousands of people out of work. Billboards explain that the street was closed due to the violence of the Second Intifada. Fifteen years on, settlers harass Palestinians, throwing bleach on the wares of shops and attacking children on their way to school. While we holders of foreign passports make our way past checkpoints down the ghostly street, Palestinians must take a much longer and more circuitous route to get from one side of the city to the other.

In a place this segregated, one is forced take sides. (The Jewish or the Muslim entrance? The settler road or the one open to Palestinians?) By the end of the week everyone at Palfest is overwhelmed, not just by the touring schedule and the flow of dispiriting details, but by the constant effort of positioning oneself—one’s work, one’s words—in relation to this terrible, lopsided fight.

The first installment is here. I also wrote something on all the lines that criss-cross Israel-Palestine (segregating Israelis and Palestinians, but also dividing Palestinians from each other, and from their Arab neighbors) for Mada Masr. 

Below is a performance by the very talented British-Egyptian playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz, who composed this after a visit to Hebron and performed it two days later in Ramallah:



Maliki's most solemn hour

Maliki's most solemn hour

As the Baghdad government reels from the humiliating loss of Mosul to insurgents this week, ISIS resolves to succeed where al Qaeda failed in Iraq.

Some analysts said during the Second Gulf War that al Qaeda would be trading up from Afghanistan if it secured a base in Iraq. It was a prescient thought, but perhaps premature: between 2007 and 2010, Iraqis by and large rejected that fate for their country and dealt a body blow to the foreign Sunni jihadists who entered the country. But then the Syrian Civil War began. Non-Syrian jihadists entered Syria in numbers - though so too did foreign brigades sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah - and many of the Sunnis among these fighters came from nearby Iraq to fight in solidarity. Ironically, some had once been agents of Syrian state-sponsored terrorism. The most significant of these "new" groups has been the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which over the past year has spent as much time fighting other Syrian rebels groups as the Syrian Arab Republic's forces. ISIS was once aligned with al Qaeda's central command, but has since gone its own way. Though increasingly a multinational conglomeration after absorbing many of the Nusra Front's foreign fighters, it has only one strategic goal today: that of gathering all Sunnis living in "Greater Syria" under its rule. 

"Many [ISIS fighters] have come from Afghanistan and Iraq," says Syrian activist Abu Ibrahim Ar-Raqqawi, describing their rule in his country's northern reaches as an effort to build a state, "cleanse" it (especially of rival anti-Assad actors), and only then begin the fighting against Assad in earnest. "Our Syrian fighters are farmers and masons, they don't have that experience." Indeed, and ISIS has delivered on what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could not. It has set down foundations for an emirate in the Sunni heartland abutting Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Caucasus Mountains. ISIS is not al Qaeda. And because of this difference in priorities, it has done what al Qaeda failed to do: secure, as Aymenn Al-Tamimi tweeted, "contiguous territory, [a] series of linked strongholds, [and] provision of services." For much more than mere shakedowns of rich merchants and handing out candy to children is planned for northern Iraq in the coming weeks.

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Tunis: "Things are bad, but that's normal"

Last month I was in Tunis for a conference on Arab intellectuals and historical transformations in the region.  I wrote up something about it for the LRB blog:

On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. ‘He’s been there ten days,’ a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. ‘He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.’ The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.

I was in Tunis last month for a conference entitled Intellectuals and the Historic Transformations in the Arab World. The first speaker was the historian Hichem Djait. He gave a brief history of Arab intellectuals and their persecution by authoritarian regimes, before concluding that they have lost influence across the region. ‘The Arab world took a step towards democracy, but one has the painful impression that it is not ready,’ he said. Instead, the uprisings have ‘exacerbated very strong and very violent tensions’. In countries that are tearing themselves apart, what role is there for intellectuals?

Must watch: Egypt's lost power

Al Jazeera English does a great first dig into the EMG gas deal between Egypt and Israel –theft from the Egyptian people involving many who are still in power in Egypt today, and with the blessing of the United States. It underplays the extent to which Hussein Salem was a key member of the Egyptian intelligence establishment, close to Field Marshal Abu Ghazala (Mubarak's chief rival in the early 1980s) and granted some protection from the Reagan administration after being caught in one of the scams in the US-Egypt military aid relationship. It's a story at the heart of how corruption, power, and strategic interests interact in the Middle East – very much worth watching.