At the Cairo Book Fair

I just got back from another quick visit to Cairo, where I visited and wrote about the annual book fair for Al Fanar

 

Unlike the well-known Frankfurt Book Fair, the Cairo fair is not a networking event for publishers but rather an opportunity for individuals and institutions to find new books at the best prices. Many buyers are students, professors and university administrators stocking up on textbooks and reference books. At the outlet of the Egyptian Book Organization, a government-owned publisher that releases deeply discounted no-frills editions of hundreds of classics and works of history, sociology and literary analysis, the staff can barely keep the shelves stocked. This year the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity has also introduced an initiative to allow less well-off Egyptian families to use their food-subsidy cards to buy some books at reductions of 90 percent off the usual prices.
For many, the fair is also an opportunity for an inexpensive, pleasant outing. By the late afternoon, the streets surrounding the fairgrounds in the suburb of Nasr City are packed with traffic, and families carrying food are coming in to picnic on the grass between the book stalls and listen to free evening concerts.
The theme of the fair this year is “Culture on the Front Lines”—the implied front lines being those of the country’s ongoing crackdown on the ousted and outlawed Islamist party the Muslim Brotherhood, and of the military conflict with terrorist groups taking place largely in the Sinai peninsula.
The fair also commemorates Egyptian writer Gamal El Ghitany, who passed away in 2015. Collections of El Ghitany’s works—including acclaimed novels such as Zayni Barakat, which is set in medieval Cairo and based on extensive archival research by the author—are some of the fair’s new releases.

The article also covers the many, seemingly daily, violations of freedom of expression that are taking place at the same time as events as these. One of the latest was the detention of cartoonist Islam Gawish -- although that allowed many more of us to discover his work.  

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The Arab of the Future

I've just published  a review in The Nation of the first two volumes of French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future (volume 1 is out in English). Sattouf grew up in Ghaddafi's Libya and above all in Hafez Al Assad's Syria and has penned a disturbing, affecting and darkly funny childhood memoir. 

It’s 1983, and a family has landed at the Damascus airport. The father, who has avoided military service, bribes his way into the country. Accompanying him are his foreign wife and small blond son. Outside the airport, Syria assails them. A scrum of screaming cab drivers fights over the startled new arrivals. Cabbies abandon the brawl and compose themselves on the sidelines, combing their hair and smoking cigarettes, until the last one left shouting—and close to keeling over from his exertions—hustles the family into his taxi. He ashes his cigarettes through the moving vehicle’s missing floorboard.
This scene of homecoming and culture shock falls about halfway through the first volume of The Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir by the French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf. The book delivers a vision of childhood that is both extreme and familiar: its terrors and painful revelations, the utter mystery and absolute power of adults, the sensory details that lodge forever in the memory. But Sattouf’s vision is also of the unusual childhood he lived in Moammar El-Gadhafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, as well as in the shadow of his father and his delusions. The Arab of the Future blends a rueful backward glance at the early days of two dictatorships that finally imploded in the Arab Spring and an intimate indictment of the way boys were taught to be men.
Sattouf, who is 37 and lives in Paris, has directed two movies and written dozens of graphic novels, many of them focused on adolescence and sexual losers (one is called Virgin’s Manual, another No Sex in New York). Other work is drawn from life: For one piece, he spent 15 days in an elite French high school. Between 2004 and 2014, Sattouf contributed a weekly comic called “The Secret Life of Youth” to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Based on scraps of life seen and heard on the streets and subways, it was preoccupied, like much of Sattouf’s work, with observing those moments of cruelty, violence, or strangeness that happen in plain sight but are generally passed over in silence, purposely ignored.

 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

All of Bidoun online

Bidoun, a ground-breaking magazine about the arts and culture of the middle east -- and much more -- is celebrating its tenth anniversary by making available a huge digital archive. (Issandr and I have contributed several reviews articles and interviews over the years). You can browse by issues, articles or authors.  Under "Collections" you can see specially curated tours of the archive by the likes of Etel Adnan, Lynne Tillman, Orhan Pamuk and Hans Ulrich Obrist. 

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Dispatch from Tunis, January 2011

Five years ago today, Zine al-Abideen Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Shortly after, I spent a week in Tunis reporting on the revolution - personally for me an unforgettable moment, and one that burns just as vividly in my memory as the Egyptian uprising that would come a few days later. Looking from through my archives, I found the fragment of a long piece I had planned to write on Tunisia before having to rush back to Cairo; as result of the drama unfolding there, I had to abandon that Tunisia piece. It is reproduced below, with only minor stylistic editing and no correction of facts that were, back then in January 2011, very fresh and still uncertain.

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Five years

One of my favorite Bowie songs (there are so many to choose from) and oddly appropriate as we prepare to commemorate five years since the 2011 uprisings. Reminds me of many Cairo evenings at home with friends who would ask me to play The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which begins with this track. 

RIP.

(For fans and non-fans alike, I heartily recommend Simon Critchley's wonderful essay, Bowie.)

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy

The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy

This essay was contributed by Peter Harling and Alex Simon.

To outsiders, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object—a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loath and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has become futile: what is there to say that they do not already know? The ideals and hopes we could once believe in have disintegrated as a bewildering array of players wrought destruction, seemingly teaming up in the region’s devastation rather than fighting each other as they claim—let alone seeking solutions. 

With suffering and complexity relentlessly on the uptick, even well-intentioned observers are tempted to simplify what we cannot fully understand, focusing excessively on the distraction of daily news and drifting toward some convenient intellectual extreme. It is a constant struggle to rebalance one’s positions, resume analysis of meaningful, underlying trends, and attempt to contribute responsibly. At the heart of this ambition is a need for honesty and humility rather than partisan hackery and hubris—acknowledging our failures and our limitations and our inability to fully comprehend, let alone effectively correct, the course of events in the Middle East. From there we may step back and appraise how best to play a positive rather than destructive role in shaping the region’s trajectory. 

The dominant trend, however, has been in the opposite direction. Most conversations are self-centered and reductive. This reality is starkest in the debate about the Islamic State (hereafter “Daesh”) and the Iran nuclear deal, but the tendency is pervasive: the Russian intervention in Syria, a mushrooming refugee crisis, pulverizing wars in Libya and Yemen, only enter the discussion inasmuch as they disturb our “national interests” as we narrowly and shortsightedly define them. In Washington, the brutal execution of one American journalist has approximately the same galvanizing potential as the large-scale persecution and enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority. Both are more compelling than the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees on the shores of Europe, who are in turn of far greater concern than the millions more stranded in their own countries and those throughout the region who are routinely bombed into nothingness.

More than well-defined interests, the Western response to a given Middle Eastern tragedy is often dictated by knee-jerk, emotional factors—cultural affinities (or lack thereof) with the victims, an enduring obsession with “terrorism”, and sheer visual potency (whether Daesh’s horror-movie barbarism or the occasional heart-wrenching image of a drowned child) are but a few. While understandable, these are not a basis for strategy. 

The United States, of course, is not the lone culprit. Key players across the board are acting less on the basis of interest than obsession, pursuing ad hoc and reactive means in support of amorphous and ill-defined ends. While Washington proposes to destroy the mind-bogglingly complex socio-economic-political-military entity that is Daesh through airstrikes (and a dash of social media evangelism and tepid support to whomever appears willing to pitch in), Moscow seeks to restore its prestige and cut Obama down to size by pummeling what remains of Syria’s non-jihadist opposition; Tehran works its way to regional leadership by pumping more weapons, money and hubris into whichever proxy is most expedient at a given moment in a given country; Riyadh clambers to head off presumed Persian scheming by whatever means necessary, while Cairo does the same toward the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman. And so on and so forth.

Behind all of this posturing are incoherent binaries of good versus evil—typically euphemized in the language of “stability versus terrorism”—whereby states attempt to reduce the pandemonium to one or two irreconcilable enemies, one or two overarching goals and however many direct or proxy wars appear necessary to suppress the former and achieve the latter. In other words, keep it simple: pick your mania, ignore all else, and it will finally make sense. 

The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite. In a region so chaotic and fluid, monomaniacal policies will unfailingly make matters worse, compounding polarization when success rests on building bridges. The result has been a dizzying spectrum of overlapping and ever-shifting alliances, rivalries, and proxy wars that regional and international players continue to escalate despite usually lacking an end game. 
 
Increasingly, this state of affairs feeds into self-enforcing loops where governments seek to reverse or simply distract from their past failures by doubling down on the most belligerent aspects of what were initially ambivalent, multifaceted postures. Iran has shifted in Iraq from a relatively balanced approach to overt, unqualified support for Shiite militias that further alienate Sunnis, divide Shiite and Kurdish constituencies, undermine what is left of a state, and will leave a lasting and dangerous legacy of nihilism; the same can be said of Iranian policy in Syria. Russia has evolved from exercising and imposing restraint in Syria to throwing its lot in with one camp and escalating the war in a manner that almost automatically invites one-upmanship from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Yemen and the Sinai, Riyadh and Cairo have filled their own political vacuum by adopting war as a policy by default. In all cases, fresh escalation makes pulling back all the more difficult.

Western states have veered in the opposite direction, attempting to cut their losses and save face in the process. The White House, for all its posturing toward Daesh, has in reality come to view the Iranian nuclear deal as the one issue where it can hope to make a difference, resulting in a largely unintelligible withdrawal from the region that has sucked others into the void—exacerbating the deadly confusion it struggled to grapple with in the first place. In Europe, half-baked attempts at pursuing democratization, sanctioning human rights abuse, engaging Islamists, developing a humanitarian response, resorting to diplomacy and articulating a refugee policy are being eclipsed by one idea: accepting whatever power structures exist that might protect against the Islamic State.  

Underlying all of these tendencies is the disturbing reality that the Middle East has reached a state of such abject convolution that quite literally no one can altogether grasp the dynamics at play, let alone articulate a constructive path forward. In this milieu, everyone seems to be nurturing his own illusory, revisionist vision of a region where his own views would ultimately dominate. Listen to the various parties, close your eyes, and imagine a Middle East that would stabilize through the embrace of Western values; or submit to rising Russian influence as the only sensible alternative; or accept inevitable Iranian leadership; or roll back Persian hegemonic designs decisively; or rid itself of the Islamist cancer; or finally reinvent its true self by bringing the secular anomaly to an end. Now open your eyes, shake your head, and take another Valium.   

Our challenge is to resist two temptations. The first is the comfort of our own hopes, fears and biases, which we are tempted to substitute for hard-headed analysis, in the process compromising any chance of a coherent and far-sighted policy. The second is the desire to retreat altogether in the face of the Middle East’s complexity, washing our hands of problems that we helped create and that will continue to affect us profoundly and unpredictably. 

The rehabilitation of Western policy in the Middle East will, therefore, rest upon a paradigm shift. Its potential contours are outlined in this essay’s conclusion, but a first step is to explore the dynamics that have brought the Middle East to its current state and will continue to shape the region for years to come.

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To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

The following is a guest post from Nathan Field, an entrepreneur and commentator on Middle Eastern politics. While Western governments weigh which military actions to take against ISIS, Field looks at the long-term economic reforms that could introduce greater employment, development and therefore stability to Arab countries, and weaken the appeal of extremist ideologies. 

The ultimate outcome of the military struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is certain. ISIS will land some blows but has too many enemies. Eventually, it will lose a war of attrition. The territory it controls in those countries will be reclaimed.   

The bigger, long-term challenge is the spread of Islamic State’s ideology in the broader Middle East, as opposed to the presence of the group in Syria and Iraq. This ideology of extreme utopian populism is caused at a most fundamental level by the socioeconomic stratification of Middle Eastern societies, a problem that is aggravated by the weakness of Arab economies in the global marketplace.

This has created a division between roughly the top 20% of societies, which is in a position to thrive and obtain status, and the vast majority that can mostly only hope to achieve the same. While such gaps have always existed, they are now being amplified by the explosion of the internet, social media and smartphones. For a growing number of young men, Islamic State’s utopianism offers a sense of purpose, meaning and masculinity that they don’t believe they can obtain by playing according to the conventional rules of society.

Economic reform, therefore, will be the key to undermining the group’s broader ideological appeal throughout the Muslim world-- with one major caveat. To succeed, it must not be a mere intensification of the neoliberal reforms that have transformed Arab economies since the 1980s. Those efforts generated unprecedented macro-economic growth, but failed to distribute the gains to different segments of society in a socially optimal way. Socioeconomic stratification increased, and that has directly contributed to the ongoing surge of radicalism.   

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Paris, Beirut, Raqqa

I lived and studied in Paris during and right after my university years. I'm particularly shaken by the attacks on a city that I've had a deep crush on since I was 20.

Although I really think FB should keep out of the business of deciding which massacres deserve their own branding. 

More importantly, fuck every US right-winger using this horror as a pretext to mock gun control. Fuck every fascist European politician using it as a chance to smear refugees. Fuck the US invasion of Iraq and the cynical all-around manipulation of the Syrian uprising. Fuck this butcher. Fuck ISIS' criminally ignorant, life-despising young murderers. 

Solidarity to the innocent inhabitants of Paris, of Beirut, of Sinai, of Syria and Yemen, of ISIS-controlled Raqqa -- of everywhere that people aren't able to live in basic safety, dignity and freedom. Which is getting to be so many places. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Repression and suspicion for scholars in the middle east

I have a piece on the Al Fanar site looking at the problems scholars face conducting research on sensitive topics (which can be almost any topic) in the middle east. After hopes were raised of greater access to and circulation of information after the Arab Spring, academics seem to be facing more repression than ever now. Foreign scholars are worried about getting in trouble or losing access to the countries they study. But I came across some cases of young scholars persevering in their work under extreme circumstances. 

Lynch says he knows many scholars working “under the radar” and respects their decision to do so. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths. A European Ph.D. student who requested anonymity has been working in Egypt since 2010, researching labor relations. In 2012 he was questioned by the security services and told to “choose another country.”
The young researcher went on visiting a factory town, hiding in the back seat of a rented car when it passed police roadblocks on the way there. But “It’s been tricky to make new contacts,” he says. “People are extremely afraid of talking.” He also suffers from “the mental part of all this—the stress and anxiety and the feeling you’re a criminal when you’re not.”
“I’ve wondered every day if it was worth it,” he says. But “you don’t want to risk being excluded from the one place where you’ve invested so much time and effort, the geographical focus of all your academic endeavors.”
It’s hard to measure the extent to which Middle East specialists face intimidation because many prefer not to draw attention to any difficulties they have. “When a scholar gets into trouble, he or she thinks: if I can cast it differently, if I do it in a different country etc,” says Brown.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The Islamic State and the Arab media: violence and ridicule

I was in just in Rome for a conference put on at the foreign ministry there by Reset, a publication dedicated to inter-cultural dialogue, and the Arab Media Report, an excellent Italian observatory. The conference was about media, censorship and dialogue in the Arab world, Iran and Turkey. Olivier Roy, Fawaz Gerges, Donatella Della Ratta and I spoke about various aspects of the Islamic State's propaganda and about reactions in the Arab media.

Cartoon in egyptian newspaper al masry al youm following assassination of egyptian coptic christians in libya in february 2015. "american products: daesh, al qaeda, apple laptops." (courtesy mada masr press review)

Cartoon in egyptian newspaper al masry al youm following assassination of egyptian coptic christians in libya in february 2015. "american products: daesh, al qaeda, apple laptops." (courtesy mada masr press review)

Professor Roy emphasized that the Islamic state is a youth movement more than a social movement or an Islamic movement and that those who join are in rebellion against their families (rather than participating in a socially recognized form of militancy). Professor Gerges warned that the side-effect of the focus on the savagery of the Islamic State is the legitimation of "good" salafi-jihadist movements like Al Qaeda and Al Nusra. Professor Della Ratta argued that the media of Sunni Arab countries has not been able to condemn the Islamic State fully because it views it as its deplorable but necessary proxy in the regional Sunni-Shia (KSA-Iran) war. 

Everyone agreed that it is much too soon to measure the impact of ISIS propaganda on recruitment and public opinion -- the data just isn't there, and the question is complicated by how much media of different kinds for different audiences they produce. And that one shouldn't rush to try to craft a "counter-narrative" to the Islamic State before even understanding what their narrative is (and that in any case that narrative cannot come from the West, and that it will not be enough unless political and material conditions in Syria and Iraq change as well). 

"what ISIS?" by Andeel, published on mada masr

"what ISIS?" by Andeel, published on mada masr

I spoke a bit about the spectacular violence of the Islamic State and the way it is designed to capture and dominate the imagination. The responses meanwhile have ranged from retribution (retaliatory strikes and executions by Egypt and Jordan after their citizens were murdered) to conspiracy theories (a very common claim, based on some elements of truth, is that ISIS is a Western creation) from condemnation to ridicule. The Islamic State is already a joke in many editorial cartoons and TV sit-coms. This satire ranges from a healthy subversion of the sick mises-en-scene of which ISIS is so obviously proud, to a more disturbing sort of denial. One very interesting example of depictions of the Islamic State in Arab popular culture is the Saudi sitcom Selfie, in which a father travels to find his jihadist son and pretends to join ISIS to get close to him and persuade him to leave. Lots of of fun is poked at the Islamic state, but the intergenerational conflict is played straight; the satirical show ends in tragedy. The main comic actor who plays the father has of course received death threats from ISIS. 

"Selfie" aired on MBC satellite TV channel last Ramadan

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Remembering Gamal al-Ghitani

I have been thinking about the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani, who passed away this week. Then a friend in Milan sent me the picture below, of a signed copy of his novel Zayni Barakat, which has somehow ended up in her library in Italy rather than mine in Morocco. 

The Mahfouz Dialogs
By Gamal al-Ghitani

When I became the culture editor of a little independent weekly called Cairo magazine, back in 2005, one of the first things I did was visit al-Ghitani in his office as editor of the well-known literary magazine Akhbar El Adab. I can't remember how I got the appointment in the first place. He was very kind, patient (with my poor Arabic), helpful (with my questions about contemporary Egyptian literature) and mildly flirtatious (in an unthreatening "if only I was 40 years younger" way). I made it a habit after that to come see him now and then.

Zayni Barakat
By Gamal al-Ghitani

Zayni Barakat, which is based on his knowledge of Egyptian medieval texts, is a complicated political allegory about power, surveillance, propaganda and torture -- a very good, disturbing novel.

I also quite enjoyed the premise of The Zaafarani Affair: An alley in Cairo is struck with impotence, and shunned by the rest of the city out of fear it may be contagious.

The other book of his that is lovely -- a book I struggled through when teaching myself to read Arabic -- is Magalis Mahfouzia (later translated by Humphrey Davies as The Mahfouz Dialogs), his collection of anecdotes and quotations by his beloved mentor Naguib Mahfouz, gleaned from the many years he spent attending Mahfouz's various regular "salons." (It was also thanks to El Ghitani that I was able to attend one myself, and meet Mahfouz before he died). 

I never visited al-Ghitani after the 2011 uprising in Egypt (although I think we spoke on the phone once). His healthy was poor, and I was very busy. I'm afraid that, as with many leftist/nationalist intellectuals of his generation, his a view of the "second revolution" that put Abdel-Fattah El Sisi in power would have differed from mine and disappointed me. But I will always remember him as a one of my first and most charming encounters with Cairo's world of letters. 

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Why Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet worked

I have a blog post up on Crisis Group's In Pursuit of Peace blog about the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which won the Nobel Peace Prize, explaining in a nutshell why it was able to accomplish what it did in 2013:

There are several reasons the National Dialogue succeeded, including strong popular and international pressure to avoid the Egyptian scenario. A key factor was that the Quartet had real support in Tunisian society. The UGTT, despite years of dictatorship, had managed to build a national network of over 400,000 members and today has the ability to call for massive general strikes that can paralyse the economy. While the UGTT represents labour, the UTICA represents capital, the influential and moneyed business elite. The human rights league and the lawyers’ syndicate are veterans of the opposition to the Ben Ali regime and played an important role in the 2011 revolution. Together, these four organisations had both moral clout and political brawn; they could mobilise public opinion and steer the national debate. The UGTT and UTICA, precisely because they are often at loggerheads on labour issues, made for a particularly compelling duo in jointly pushing an agenda of compromise.

Read the full thing here.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

A Libyan novel you should read

Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite who grew up in Ben Ghazi, was educated and wrote in Italian, and over the course of 40 years penned an extraordinary cycle of novels about the bloody establishment, brief flourishing and troubled aftermath of the Italian colony in Libya. I had the pleasure of writing about his work in the latest issue of The Nation

Benghazi in 1938, under Italian rule (image from Wikipedia)

Benghazi in 1938, under Italian rule (image from Wikipedia)

Spina belonged to a set of privileged, wandering, mercantile minorities whose identities could not be reduced to nationalities, and who have been all but swept out of the Middle East by xenophobia, conflict, and ethnic cleansing. Spina aspired to cosmopolitanism but inverted its usual polarities: He liked to shock his Italian friends by telling them that he had “un-provincialized” himself by moving from Milan to Benghazi. His influences and references range from Proust to The Thousand and One Nights to the fifth-century Greek philosopher and bishop Synesius of Cyrene. But for all his cosmopolitanism, Spina was not interested in universalism. What he valued, above all, was being unique. He was a Catholic moved by the daily presence of the divine in traditional Muslim society; a successful industrialist who viewed modernization with skepticism and melancholy; a critic of colonialism who was also dismissive of superficial tiers-mondisme; and a scathing critic of the silence of all Italian political factions regarding the country’s colonial crimes. The nom de plume he adopted—spina means “thorn”—suited him perfectly: The Italian he wrote in is exquisite but prickly. His sentences are thickets, dense and erudite, demanding to be reread. But his sharp, poetic images lodge instantly in one’s memory. “The cold hand of that old man an unbreakable dam” is how he describes the severe and orthodox teacher who curbs the young Sheikh Hassan’s flowing curiosity in The Nocturnal Visitor. Spina abhorred shortcuts and banality—journalists, whom he viewed as purveyors of the commonplace, were his bêtes noires. And he didn’t think of difference as something to be dismissed or overcome. “Nothing is more fruitful and more vital than the irreconcilable,” he wrote.
TCOTS-Front-Cover-729x1024.jpg

A translation of the first three novels that make up Spina's magnum opus The Confines of the Shadow, by poet André Naffis-Sahely, is out from Darf Publishers. Hopefully there is more to come. 


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

More attacks on the press in Turkey

Press freedom in Turkey has taken a beating in recent years, driven by efforts to detain and expel journalists with ties to the Kurdish PKK. The journalist Frederike Geerdink was recently expelled from Turkey while covering the PKK. And three reporters associated with VICE News were detained for “supporting terrorism” – that is, interviewing PKK members. The government’s logic here is eerily similar to that of the Egyptian court that passed judgment on Al Jazeera reporters for the “crime” of interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are quite a few other “off-limits” topics in Ankara’s eyes today. After the Kurdish Question, the most taboo one is government corruption, whether it is in the form of sweet deals for friends and family of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the diversion of war matériel into Syria.

The most recent episode in this drama was a police raid on the offices of the Kopa Ipek conglomerate. The raid followed a report in the Koza Ipek-owned Bugün newspaper on the transfer of weaponry and construction material into Syria from a Turkish border post. Warrants have since been issued for the firm’s executives on the grounds that Kopa Ipek is allegedly providing material support to Syrian terrorists. 

Examining the record of arms transfers into Syria – ostensibly to fight against Assad and build influence among the rebel forces – is a particular sore spot these days, with the government going so far as to arrest the forensics experts and prosecutors who were originally tasked with investigating arms transfers … until their higher-ups decided to kill the probe and punish those whose routine police work exposed a major clandestine operation. Erdogan himself has even demanded that reporters from Cumhuriyet face maximum jail time on the grounds that their reporting is part of a conspiracy by his former Islamist allies, the Gulenists

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Helping the Syrian people

As the bodies of those trying to reach Europe continue to be found piled in trucks or washed up on shores, are we finally acknowledging the almost unfathomable magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, and our responsibility to help? Many ordinary citizens are doing more than their governments.

German train stations are overwhelmed by donations for arriving refugees. An online fundraising campaign has raised $150,000 to benefit a Syrian father of two selling pens on the streets of Beirut. Over ten thousand Icelanders took to Facebook to volunteer to host Syrian refugees (after their government announced it would take 50).

If you are an American, you can sign this petition to resettle more Syrian refugees in our country (we have taken less than 1,000 so far). The suffering of these people is a historic calamity, and a shame on us all. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

What's in a veil

Our friend Sarah Carr opens a blog post about the Egyptian government's latest misguided, ineffectual attempt to legislate what women wear on their heads ("Secularisn't") with some reflection on her own distaste (and doubt over the validity of that distaste) for the niqab, the full face covering. 

I mean there are a million ways to abuse a child on the abuse spectrum. Perhaps allowing/encouraging her to wear neqab isn’t that bad. I think why it bothers me is that it sexualises a child, since for women who wear it, the neqab is an interpretation of the veil, which ultimately is about modesty. No child should have to think about that, and no one should be thinking about that while looking at a child.

I think a lot of people struggle to explain why they feel so differently -- why they feel a line being crossed, or draw a line -- about the hejab (head scarf) and the niqab (full face covering). I like to keep the criminalization of fashion to a minimum, and I think the French ban on the headscarf is ridiculous and discriminatory. But there is more than a difference in degree between covering your hair and covering your face. What's troubling about the niqab is a very obvious thing: it's dehumanizing. We anthropoids acknowledge each other by looking each other in the face and in the eyes -- doing so is one of the most powerful, most meaningful and sometimes uncomfortable (as we've all experienced on public transportation) interactions we can have. To become faceless is to erase yourself and to greatly limit your capacity to relate to others and for others to relate to you. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Egypt in TV: terrorism in Sinai, the need to "liquidate" Brothers, Sisi's 100% successful presidency

“Tell me, respectable president Sisi, why you didn’t secure the checkpoints when you knew they were targeted?” the bitter father of one of the 17 (according to the military) or 70 (according to medical sources) soldiers, who were killed in last week’s coordinated North Sinai attacks, tried to ask the camera as the CBC reporter next to him continued to talk over him. 

CBC was not the only channel to choose the wrong guest in last week’s mess. Dream TV’s Wael el-Ebrashy looked regretful in his stony silence as he heard former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi say that the state’s oppression (of activists and the MB) breeds terrorism. 

Politely critical voices like Sabahi’s, however, were lost in a sea of calls for revenge and conspiracies theories, with the double chin of former deputy head of the Supreme Constitutional Court Tahani el-Gabali and the wagging finger of Sada el-Balad host Ahmed Moussa taking the lead. 

The former demanded that all human rights activists be silent forever and that the Egyptian government stop considering the condemnation of the international community when cracking down on its opponents (implying they ever did), while the latter all but ordered judge Nagy Shehata to find a way to legally kill deposed president Mohamed Morsi and senior members of the Brotherhood in their cells. 

“It is very simple,” Shehata replied with confidence, being the reliable source that he is on the subject of killing Brothers. (Shehata has handed down over 500 death sentences to MBs.) Transfer their cases to the State Security Criminal Court, he said,  so that there can be no appeals. 

Impressively efficient, the fuming Moussa then showed a picture of a man he said was a former military officer, whom he said was the behind the assassination without shedding light on how he happened across this information so quickly. If it is true, shouldn’t the government make some kind of announcement and if it isn’t, shouldn’t the patriotic Moussa know better than to spread false information? 

Also giving legal advice on TV lask week was el-Gabali, who told el-Ebrashy that anyone who is happy or celebrates the death of Barakat is a partner of the terrorists and should be arrested. “Don’t you want the rule of law? This is the rule of law,” she said. 

 

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Media, the regime, and censorship in Egypt

Our own Nour Youssef has a piece in the Guardian about the Egyptian media, the role it has played in the events of recent years, and the complicated system by which it stays in alignment with regime interests. It has interviews with a who's-who of prominent TV hosts and is chock-full of incredible quotes. 

“I would say anything the military tells me to say out of duty and respect for the institution,” says Ahmed Moussa, one of the most popular TV presenters inEgypt.
Moussa has no qualms admitting on air his relationship with the authorities – and his vocation to serve them. He claims he would also extend the same courtesy to the police, he said but he “might stop and think a little first”.
Sharing Moussa’s sense of duty towards the military is the veteran talk show host Mahmoud Saad, from Al-Nahar TV. “The military should never, ever, ever be covered,” he says, shaking his head. “You have to let them decide what to say and when to say it. You don’t know what will hurt national security.”
But it’s also the power to influence people that appeals to him, he says. “It’s a beautiful feeling knowing that when you swing right,” he says as he swivels his upper body right, “the people will swing right. “And when you swing left,” he goes on, swivelling in the opposite direction “the people will swing left.”

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Much Loved, Much Hated: a Moroccan film about prostitution is banned

The number one topic of conversation in Morocco in the last few weeks has been the film Much Loved, by director Nabil Ayouch. The film tells the story of prostitutes in Marrakesh; it premiered at Cannes and some scenes were leaked -- and widely viewed -- online. These include a scene featuring a gay prostitute, rich Gulf clients who mock the Palestinians as a bunch of parasites, some explicit dancing, and some more explicit dialogue (I believe the words the women speak are the most shocking element in fact). 

Judging from the snippets I've seen, the movie's style is naturalistic, almost documentary; the  dialogue is reportedly based on research the director and lead actress carried out with sex workers. 

Before the director even presented his official request to screen the movie in Morocco, it was banned here, for being "une atteinte a l'image du Maroc," ("an insult to Morocco's image"). The lead actress has received death threats. 

The director's protestations of shock sound hollow to me; you don't screen a movie with this style and subject at Cannes and expect no blowback back home. But of course the ban is ridiculous. Those who support the director -- like the editorialists of the liberal magazine Tel Quel -- have pointed out that as usual decision-makers and public opinion are much more concerned with the representation of social problems than with the problems themselves (an attitude that is frequently found in the Arab world). There is a significant amount of prostitution in Morocco, and Moroccan women have a reputation of being both terribly attractive and immoral in other more conservative Arab countries (whose men come here to take advantage of these qualities). But as Omar Saghi writes in Tel Quel, Moroccan women are considered "loose" only by the standards of Gulf Arabs, and why should they interiorize these views? He writes that "Egypt, close to the Gulf, has long paid dearly for this comparison: after having veiled its women, decreased salaried female employment, and lowered a lead cloak on its beaches, Egypt remains, for the Gulf, a pagan country with shameless women who speak too loud and have the regrettable tendency to go out in public. To fix the problem of prostitution in Morocco, we should abandon an apocalyptic vision and come back to our senses: end the prostitution of minors, punish pimps and trafficking networks, spread information about health hazards...As far as defending the image of Moroccan women, let's stick to two things: keep demagogues out of this, and stop comparing ourselves to Yemenis." 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

How teaching in English divides the Arab world

I have a new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the spread of English at universities in the middle east. This is a world-wide phenomenon, and the main reason for it is that working in English helps academics access the latest research and to publish (because most journals are in English). It also often helps students land better jobs after graduation. And there are other more ambiguous gains to English: access to Western culture generally, a different and often more open teaching style (since more professors might be foreign), and a general aura of "modernization." 

New private colleges that teach in English are popping up, while public universities have made English the language of instruction for certain fields — particularly scientific ones — or sometimes on the whole campus.

But the enthusiasm for English isn’t universal. Skeptics note that switching to English does not solve all the underlying problems of troubled educational systems. Some see the turn away from their native language as a threat to Arab identity. Others worry that English-language education exacerbates the divide between the haves and have-nots. For a small minority of graduates, like Mr. Hamdy, English is the gateway to the global economy. But millions more are left behind.

”English is a divider but also a dream,” says Deena Boraie, dean of the School of Continuing Education at the American University in Cairo.

The hopes and misgivings about the spread of English in the Arab world illustrate the tensions that surround the world’s most widespread lingua franca. Even universities in the United States have something to lose, says Rosemary C. Salomone, a professor of law at St. John’s University, in New York, who is writing a book about the spread of global English. The complacent belief that the whole world speaks English leads to less study of foreign languages and less curiosity about the rest of the world.

The English language is “washing over the world,” says Ms. Salomone. Many countries fear an “erasure of [their] culture and loss of global status.”

I reported in Qatar, Egypt and Morocco, and there are some big variations -- in the Gulf the concerns regarding English are tied up with anxieties about identity, being a minority in one's own country and the pace of change. In Egypt English has theoretically been part of the curriculum and a language of instruction for decades but the real problem is the abysmal quality of education, growing privatizations, and the gap between rich and poor (which foreign language universities and programs can exacerbate). In Morocco there is a growing interest in introducing English -- something that is somewhat surprising given that the country is already dealing with a very complicated post-colonial linguistic tangle, with the educational system divided between Arabic and French and with the place of darija (the local dialect) and Berber languages (recently recognized) to be ascertained. In all countries the feelings about languages taught and used at schools are of course passionate, because they are feelings about identity and the future opportunities of one's children. 

The piece is behind the paywall. For those interested (in this and other coverage of scholarship, ideas, academia, including my own reporting on the Arab world and the debate over rules on sexual conduct, feminism and freedom of speech on campus triggered by this essay), think about subscribing. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.