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.

In Palestine

I'm a very honored guest of the Palestine Literary Festival this year. The festival brings writers from around the world for a week of readings and events in Palestine. Here is the festival's program and here is its Flickr account. And below are some pics. 

Ramallah

Ramallah

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

The crossing

The crossing

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Election Day

And so Egypt's decidedly anti-climactic presidential election  -- the sixth vote in 3 years, and the first contest since Mubarak's time in which the result is such a foregone conclusion -- is underway. 

For excellent coverage, check out Mada Masr site, where Sarah Carr has her take on the Sabbahi campaign:

Sabbahi's campaign has been far more plebeian, and if he earned points for miles covered he would have earned enough by now to claim a small yacht. So vigorously has he rubbed shoulders with the common man it is a wonder that he has any shoulders left. His campaign caravan has traveled the length and breadth of the country and wheeled out Sabbahi in rural backwaters so that he can bellow about justice and the revolution and freeing unjustly detained prisoners. He did this on the last day of official campaigning in Abdeen, Cairo, mostly preaching to a small crowd of the converted, a bunch of excitable teenagers who lit flares and chanted and banged drums next to more sedate Dostour Party members and non-aligned citizens. The mood felt very 2011, what with all the talk about the martyrs and the revolution and social justice.

Dalia Rabie reports on Abdel-Fattah El Sis's disturbing rapport with the Egyptian female public

“I will take a picture with each of you, it is my honor,” Sisi told the cheering attendees. As the women continued to relentlessly chant, “We love you Sisi,” he responded jokingly that they would “create problems with the men at home.”

Sisi’s speeches and interviews address women as housewives, mothers and sisters. Rarely does he allude to them as more than catalysts, and he generally refuses to acknowledge that they are political players in society.

After around six minutes of Sisi pleading with the women to settle down, asking them to allow him to talk to them because he “needs their help,” and after one of the organizers instructed the audience that “when the leader speaks, everyone should be quiet,” the candidate continued.

And Jano Charbel has a very interesting piece about the Sisi posters that have blanketed the country, and the individuals and businesses behind them:

According to Sheikh Abdel Rahman Hassan of the Islamic Jurisprudence Center, “We are campaigning for Field Marshal Sisi’s presidency because he is a pious and religious man. Moreover, we trust that he will be able to root out terrorist groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, Ajnad Misr, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other armed extremists.” 

Sheikh Hassan’s center has a number of posters around Tahrir Square with the image of Sisi and the words, “May I kiss your head please?” The center’s phone number is on these posters identifying them.

Similarly the private ETAF advertising company has hung-up Sisi banners around the Abdeen neighborhood, with the name of their company, and their phone numbers on them. 

The company’s spokesman did not comment as to how much his eight-foot-long banners cost or why they have the company’s contact information on them. 

Mohamed Lotfy, owner of a bookshop in downtown Cairo commented, “These [private] banners hanging outside our shop are not ours. They belong to other businesses and political parties in the area.” 

“Nobody forces these businesses to put up campaign banners. They put them up out of their own freewill. It’s their way of showing their support for their candidate, and their love for their country.” 

A novel about political exile, and the brutal passage of time

I've just reviewed a beautifully written, beautifully translated novel, by the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain. The story, which seems to be quite autobiographical but has none of the self-indulgence that can mar that genre, concerns a middle-aged writer returning to the fictional Arab dictatorship he fled as a young poet and revolutionary. The protagonist, Adham, has lost the sharp convictions of his youth. 

Adham's irrelevance is further proven by how innocuous he now seems to the regime he once tried to overthrow. Upon his return to Hamiya, his interrogation by the National Security Agency (its star-shaped headquarters "like a spaceship just landed from another planet," where once "even birds dared not fly overhead") is pro-forma, just a matter, as the polite and diligent officers tell him, of completing his dossier. But where in his file, wonders the narrator, "are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, the dancing lights of return?"

Do the mixed emotions of homecoming ever live up to its tense anticipation? Adham finds his homeland almost unrecognizable. It is still un-free, but in new and different ways. His parents have died in his absence. His old flame married and had children. He can only confront his own ghostly younger self, who never left, changed, or aged. This Jolly Corner-like conceit works well, although the proliferation of doubles (multiple characters bear the same name), and the use of the second person singular, in which the narrator addresses himself, can be a bit precious. But then there are disorienting scenes such as this, in which the narrator dematerializes into his former self:

"The man who looked like your teacher at the Upright Generation Secondary School disappeared and was replaced by a solidly built man with an enormous mustache of the kind worn by truck drivers. Your son Badr disappeared. The gold ring disappeared from the ring finger of your left hand. You heard a voice repeating, insistently and annoyingly, a name that had an unsettling resonance: Younis, Younis. You turned to where the voice came from."

Egypt's next president

Now that campaigning for Egypt’s presidential election is well underway and Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi has made several media appearances, some observations can be made about the man who is expected to be Egypt’s next president. 

The former military commander is running a very controlled campaign, one in which he does not open himself up to any impertinent back-and-forth. In his media coming-out a few weeks back, he immediately bristled when would-be interviewers Ibrahim Eissa and Lamees Hadidi even gently pushed him, warning Eissa “I won’t allow you to use that word again,” about the apparently derogatory terms “askar” for the army, and admonishing them: “Are you going to talk or you going to listen?” The interview was pre-recorded, and glaringly failed to include what might have seemed like obvious questions (such as, given El-Sisi now oft-professed love of Egyptian women, how he defended forced virginity tests for female protesters two years ago). 

The field marshals’ electoral program remains shrouded in mystery. In an unorthodox move, his campaign has simply decided not to burden themselves with explaining how his vision might actually be implemented. His own campaign manager has told the press that presenting a program at this point “would provoke a discussion and debate that we don’t have the time to react to.”  His few policy proposals (giving young men refrigerated trucks to deliver vegetables to market; encouraging the use of LED lightbulbs to face the electricity shortage) seem risibly modest, and when pressed on how he would actually implement them, the mushir simply says that the state will “make” people adopt them. 

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Egypt in TV

Another entry in our contributor Nour Youssef's avidly followed Egypt in TV column. 

"El Sisi just doesn’t want to disclose any information about his plans. He is not stupid. He is smarter than you and your father," the red-faced, middle-aged woman seated next to me in a restaurant told her son, who coolly alternated between sipping Pepsi and asking if she was done talking, provoking her to throw dripping straws in his face.

What caused the fight across the table was a discussion of the nearly four-hours-long interview Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave Lamis el-Hadidi and Ibrahim Eissa on CBC last week, where he repeatedly expressed love, admiration, respect and all things synonymous for the straw-thrower’s demographic.

"(I don’t want) anyone to get me wrong, but I love the Egyptian woman," he told Ibrahim Eissa, who wanted to know why the Marshal’s metaphors are always related to or directed at women. This followed el-Sisi’s request for caution from the public while choosing their representatives in parliament and the president -- the same caution an Egyptian mother exercises when checking the backgrounds of her daughter's suitors.

To be fair, el-Sisi’s flattery was not limited to women. The rest of the population is also exceptionally smart and more patient than any other nation.

When not complimenting the population, el-Sisi ducked numerous questions -- literally. Questions about the nature of his policy towards Hamas and Qatar were met with a lowered head and a close-lipped smile. And when he depended on words to answer questions, the Marshal made certain that they were so vague that I had to re-watch segments of the interview multiple times to make sure I was not missing some vital transitions that would put things in order and reassure voters about our future president's attention span.

When they asked about the weapons deal with Russia and whether or not the next parliament will monitor the military and its budget, el-Sisi dispensed words about "leaving the army alone." After a long pause, he said: "The army is a very great institution, to an extent that Egyptians can't imagine. God willing all of Egypt could be at that level." The two journalists sitting across from him smilingly accepted his answer without further questions.

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Israel won't stop spying on US, which won't stop it

Some interesting reporting on Israel's extensive spying on the US in two pieces by Newsweek's Jeff Stein this week - Israel Won’t Stop Spying on the U.S. and Israel’s Aggressive Spying in the U.S. Mostly Hushed Up. From the first piece:

“I don’t think anyone was surprised by these revelations,” the former aide said. “But when you step back and hear…that there are no other countries taking advantage of our security relationship the way the Israelis are for espionage purposes, it is quite shocking. I mean, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that after all the hand-wringing over [Jonathan] Pollard, it’s still going on.”

And this anecdote from the second, follow-up report:

When White House national security advisor Susan Rice’s security detail cleared her Jerusalem hotel suite for bugs and intruders Tuesday night, they might’ve had in mind a surprise visitor to Vice President Al Gore’s room 16 years ago this week: a spy in an air duct.

According to a senior former U.S. intelligence operative, a Secret Service agent who was enjoying a moment of solitude in Gore’s bathroom before the Veep arrived heard a metallic scraping sound. “The Secret Service had secured [Gore’s] room in advance and they all left except for one agent, who decided to take a long, slow time on the pot,” the operative recalled for Newsweek. “So the room was all quiet, he was just meditating on his toes, and he hears a noise in the vent. And he sees the vent clips being moved from the inside. And then he sees a guy starting to exit the vent into the room.”

Did the agent scramble for his gun? No, the former operative said with a chuckle. “He kind of coughed and the guy went back into the vents.”

To some, the incident stands as an apt metaphor for the behind-closed-doors relations between Israel and America, “frenemies” even in the best of times. The brazen air-duct caper “crossed the line” of acceptable behavior between friendly intelligence services – but because it was done by Israel, it was quickly hushed up by U.S. officials.

And the reason it goes on unchecked, of course, is that American lawmakers are protecting Israel:

Always lurking, former intelligence officials say, was the powerful “Israeli lobby,” the network of Israel’s friends in Congress, industry and successive administrations, Republican and Democratic, ready to protest any perceived slight on the part of U.S. security officials. A former counterintelligence specialist told Newsweek he risked Israel’s wrath merely by providing routine security briefings to American officials, businessmen and scientists heading to Israel for meetings and conferences.

“We had to be very careful how we warned American officials,” he said. “We regularly got calls from members of Congress outraged by security warnings about going to Israel. And they had our budget. When ... the director of the CIA gets a call from an outraged congressman–’What are these security briefings you're giving? What are these high-level threat warnings about travel to Tel Aviv you're giving? This is outrageous’ – he has to pay close attention. There was always this political delicacy that you had to be aware of.”

The Carter Cables

Wikileaks has released the now declassified record of State Dept. dating from President Jimmy Carter’s first year in office, which were obtained through FOIA requests. The Carter Library had also released earlier this year a range of administration documents, but Wikileaks makes them searchable through its (much-improved) database. The cables cover 1977, including the January bread riots in Cairo and Alexandria. One early take on the protests sounds strikingly similar to the protests seen in 2011-2013:

3 - OUR IMPRESSION IS THAT VIOLENT ELEMENTS WHICH LAST EVENING THREW ROCKS IN TAHRIR SQUARE AND ROAMED IN SMALL GANGS THROUGHOUT CENTRAL CAIRO WERE ALMOST ENTIRELY COMPOSED OF YOUNG BOYS OF HIGH SCHOOL AGE. SIGNIFICANTLY, OLDER PEOPLE DID NOT CONTRIBUTE TO MOST OF VIOLENCE. WE UNDERSTAND, HOWEVER, THAT OLDER WORKERS CONTRIBUTED TO VIOLENCE WHICH ERUPTED IN WORKING CLASS SUBURBS, ESPECIALLY SHUBRA.

4 - SITUATION AT 1030 LOCAL (0830Z) JANUARY 19: WHILE TAHRIR SQUARE STILL CLEAR, THOUSANDS HAVE BEGUN DEMONSTRATE TO NORTH AND EAST, ESPECIALLY NEAR CENTRAL BANK. ROCK THROWING AND PROVOCA- TION OF POLICE ARE PRIMARILY BY MOST YOUTHFUL OF RIOTERS. POLICE CHARGING CROWDS USING TEAR GAS. MOST SHOPS ARE CLOSED AND PRIVATE CARS ARE BEING KEPT OFF STREETS. POLICE HAVE SEALED OFF MOST OF DOWNTOWN CAIRO. ALL UNIVERSITIES AND SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED. MOST BUSES AND TAXIS ARE OFF STREETS. FOR FIRST TIME SINCE DEMONSTRATIONS BEGAN, ARMY UNITS WITH RIFLES ARE SPOTTED THROUGHOUT METROPOLITAN CAIRO AND WE HAVE HEARD LOUD REPORTS WHICH MIGHT BE RIFLE SHOTS. WE HAVE NOT, HOWEVER, SO FAR SEEN CRACK SECURITY RESERVE FORCES.

There are also some amusingly laconic Cold War artifacts, such as the following:

1 - CAIRO PRESS REPORTS THAT KHALID MUHI AL-DIN, LEADER OF EGYPT'S NATIONAL PROGRESSIVE UNIONIST PARTY (MARXIST), HAS LEFT FOR MOSCOW TO ATTEND PEACE COUNCILS MEETING AS HEAD OF EGYPTIAN COUNCIL.

2 - AS NOTED PARA 2 REFTEL, KHALID HAS BEEN DOING WHAT HE CAN BOTH TO BURNISH SOVIET IMAGE HERE AND TO PRESS FOR IMPROVEMENT IN RELATIONS. AS EGYPT'S "RESPECTABLE" COMMUNIST HE HAS KEPT HIS COMMENTS IN CHARACTERISTICALLY LOW KEY. MATTHEWS

Probably worth digging through if you have a specific enquiry about events taking place in 1977. Of course I chose Egypt as a search term but the cables are worldwide. Can't wait till they get to 1979 and those on the Iranian revolution, hostage crisis and siege of Mecca are released.

Last week in Egypt in TV

This is a sporadic column by Arabist contributor Nour Youssef. 

Lately, a rekindled hate for repetition has prevented me from watching television and not fighting with taxi drivers. Little has changed in the media scene since July 3. The West, led by the US, the Ottomans and the matchbox that is Qatar, is still intimidated by Egypt's potential for greatness and so it continues to plague it with corruption, poverty and injustice, giving the protesters it pays to paralyze traffic something to chant about. Only thing that has changed is that the narrative is no longer funny.

Even Tawfik Okasha is sick of repeating it. The owner of the Faraeen channel gave his viewers an ultimatum: if they don't join him on April 11 in al-Abbasiya Square to -- well, he hasn't really specified what, but he knows that if the population doesn't show up, the terrorists win, and he will quit the whole nationalism thing and punish them with BBC-like uncaring professionalism because it is not worth it anymore. It's worth noting that Okasha's good friend, lawyer Mortada Mansour -- the man who has cursed and slandered more people on air than Okasha himself -- is running for president.

It may come as a shock, but Okasha is not the only TV host in Egypt who is aware of the existence of professionalism and his deliberate failure to meet its standards. Others like Lamis el-Hadidi admit to it too, only passive-aggressively to silence critics. (After yelling on air at a former Egyptian colleague for “selling himself” and being a “traitor” for working for Jazeera, Hadidi grumbles sarcastically about those who would reign in her patriotic fervor by holding her to a journalistic code of ethics..) 

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