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. 

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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.

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.

A review of the film Timbuktu

I had the pleasure of seeing the movie Timbuktu recently at the Cinematheque of Tangier (a beautifully restored old movie theater). It's not to be missed. A film full of grace and depth. I wrote about it for the LRB blog

In his film Timbuktu, Abderrahman Sissiko shows a traditional Muslim society overrun by outsiders claiming they have the God-given authority to tell everyone what to do. The film is inspired by the 2012 takeover of much of Northern Mali by jihadist and other rebel groups. It is both specific to its setting and raises questions about struggles playing out across the Muslim world. I can’t think of another creative work that takes such an imaginative, subtle, assured look at Islamist militancy and its effects.
The landscape that Sissiko films, dramatic and simple as a stage, is naturally abstract: a lake with perfectly flat shores; a hillside of dunes with a few tents and a few trees; a city of narrow sandy lanes and earth-colored rooftops (Oualata in Mauritania, standing in for Timbuktu).
At first the masked outsiders with their flags and announcements seem bumbling and almost ridiculous, actors playing their part with fragile confidence. A veteran jihadi tries and fails to coach a young member into recording a convincing recruitment video. Fighters track forbidden music floating over the rooftops, only to have to call their superiors for instructions, at a loss when they realise the criminals are singing the praises of the Prophet.

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.

Justice in Egypt

The latest mass death sentence handed down in Egypt received a fair amount of press. (Enough to incense Egypt's Foreign Ministry, which has released its usual ridiculous statement sniffily calling for the respect of non-existent "international conventions" not to ever question the ruling of any judge anywhere). 

I wrote about mass sentences and the role of the Egyptian judiciary over a year ago. Since then the sentences have continued apace. The only reason this one has received particular attention, in fact, is  because the convicted included former president Mohamed Morsi. Those sentenced to death also include Freedom and Justice Party spokeswoman Sondos Asem and Professor Emad Shahin who having fled the country is currently teaching at Georgetown. The Atlantic Council's EgyptSource blog has an excellent round up of the cases, charges, and reactions here

As I've written before, I can think of few things more destructive to a social peace than the belief that there is no possible recourse to justice. All judicial systems are imperfect, but citizens must at least harbor the hope, the delusion even, that there are avenues for redress. 

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The Fight For Yemen, Continued

The Fight For Yemen, Continued

In 1962, shortly before their own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen began, Egyptian advisors who had been stationed there to reform the ruling Imam’s army spoke respectfully of how the locals had managed to defeat all of the Ottoman forces sent to the region in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this respect was absent at the highest levels of command back in Cairo when it launched its own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen. The Nasserists by and large regarded Yemen as a backwater led by a medieval despot and populated by superstitious primitives, much as Western publications did during the 1934 Saudi invasion.

Major General Saladin al-Hadidi, as recounted by Jesse Ferris in Nasser’s Gamble, was so dismissive of the Yemenis he told a colleague who had just returned from North Yemen that given enough whizz-bangs and smoke machines, he could put on such a display as to freeze royalists guerillas in their tracks. Mr. al-Hadidi’s military intelligence directorate could not supply the Egyptian armed forces with accurate maps of the countryside immediately outside of Sana’a. Cairo quite literally did not bother painting an accurate picture of the place it went to war over.

Believing that North Yemen was the weakest link of the Arab monarchies, Egypt’s leaders enthusiastically greeted a September 1962 coup against the country’s hereditary Zaydi leader, Imam al-Badr, by a military faction led by a lower class Zaydi named Abdullah al-Sallal (later “President-Field Marshal” Sallal). Sallal’s co-conspirators styled themselves as “free officers” like those who had deposed Egypt’s King Farouk in 1952, proclaiming an end to slavery and a reign of terror against the Imam’s supporters. As soon as they took over the capital, Gamal Abdel Nasser rushed in arms, advisors, money, and “Free Yemeni” émigrés (one of whom was married to Anwar Sadat’s sister) that had been on standby for just such an occasion. Never mind that al-Badr had been more favorably inclined towards the Egyptians and Soviet bloc than his mentally ill father Ahmed (d. 1962) had been.[1] Or that Nasser himself had let this weakest link, “medieval” monarchy and all, join Cairo in a defense pact in 1958 to spite the Saudis.

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On migration in the Mediterranean

There has been an odd meme spreading around since the tragic deaths of hundreds of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean over the last week. The idea, widely spread by the press and politicians, is that Libya is the source of all these problems. For example, in Politico:

One EU migration official spelled out just what would be needed to stop the flood of people seeking refuge in Europe.

“You have to stabilize the situation in the countries of origin,” she said. That means figuring out a way to return order to Libya, which has descended into civil war and chaos following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in 2011. That was the result of a NATO bombing campaign led by EU countries.

Libya is not the country of origin or the source of the migration, for the most part. It is a largely a transit country, and if you look at the country of origin of migrants you will see that many of them are not just economic migrants. Many, perhaps most, appear to be fleeing conflict zones or repressive regimes – Syria, Gaza, Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea (where many migrants say they are escaping military service). So surely EU officials should be thinking about addressing the conflicts themselves, or at least the humanitarian crisis they engender? This seems to be particularly the case in Syria, since the humanitarian response (with chronic recurrent shortfalls in funding for refugee camps) has been largely inadequate.

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Omar Bashir, Iran's ally, woos GCC over Yemen

Contributor Paul Mutter writes about an overlooked participant in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen: President Omar Bashir's Sudan. The isolated regime has been happy to win some legitimacy through its token participation. Gulf countries meanwhile appear eager to move it out of Iran's sphere of influence. 

Compared with the Emirati and Saudi contributions to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Sudanese contingent is a mere token force. Yet the four Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-24 bombers now operating out of King Khalid Airbase carry weight well in excess of their bomb loads. Khartoum did not send over its ramshackle, barrel-bombing Antonov transports. It sent a full third of its most modern air assets to fly against the Houthis. Many of their victims will probably be civilians, as has been the case back home in the Nuba Mountains since the Su-24s were deployed two years ago, according to Nuba Reports and National Geographic.

Their presence serves little military purpose, given the firepower available to the GCC. Instead, by committing to the campaign, Omar al-Bashir’s clique has once again demonstrated the adaptability that has kept it in power since 1989. Focused on wooing their partner away from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi-led coalition has surely promised the ostracized president military, diplomatic, and economic aid in exchange for his assistance. Already, the Saudis have lifted banking restrictions against Khartoum, imposed in 2014. For the Sudanese regime, which seems to uncover coup plots within its ranks every few months, pours 25% of the national budget into fighting insurgencies it cannot decisively beat, and still cannot cope with the loss of most of its oil fields, such help is quite welcome

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Media in the Arab world

Northwestern University in Qatar has just released its latest survey on media use and attitudes in the Middle East. It finds, among other things, that: 

Egypt, the most politically tumultuous of the countries surveyed, is the only country in which there was an increase in support for tighter internet regulation.

People don’t necessarily think the “democratizing” effect of the internet is a good thing: People who think online activity can increase political influence are more likely to want tighter regulation of the internet.

Fewer people are comfortable expressing their own political opinions, especially in Egypt.

The survey is full of nifty graphics and has a lot of interesting findings. Folks say they support freedom of expression and internet regulation. They are increasingly worried about surveillance and hesitate to share their views online. Egyptians have a low opinion of their media, Emiratis think very highly of theirs. A majority of Saudis and Lebanese believe the international media is biased against them. The most in-demand content is comedy. The #1 media source remains television. (Unfortunately, given what  TV talk shows in the Arab world are). There is a section just on Qatar (in which citizens are asked if they are comfortable criticizing "powerful institutions" rather than, as with other countries, "the government" -- and of course forget about the emir). 

 

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.

American Qur'an

The artist Sandow Birk spent 9 years handwriting and illustrating an American Quran, featuring scenes from his native California. From the artist's site: 

At a time when the United States was involved in two wars against Islamic nations and declared itself to be in a cultural and philosophical struggle against Islamic extremists, American artist Sandow Birk’s latest project considers the Qur’an as it was intended – as a universal message to humankind. If the Qur’an is indeed a divine message to all peoples, he ponders, what does it mean to an individual American in the 21st Century? How does the message of the Qur’an relate to us, as Americans, in this life, in this time? What is this message that we have spent so much blood and treasure fighting against, and how can the message of the Qur’an be applied to a contemporary American life? In short, what might the Qur’an mean to contemporary Americans?

 I love this, and you can see it all here. HT Simon. 


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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.

Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi on blasphemy, homosexuality, equality

In a new book, Au sujet de l'Islam ("Speaking of Islam"), Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda party in Tunisia, give his opinions on a number of contemporary issues. Here are a few quotes translated from a press summary:

On blasphemy: "It's forbidden in Tunisia, although freedom of conscience and opinion are protected by the Constitution. You have the choice to be Muslim or not, but you don't have the choice to mock the beliefs of others." 
On homosexuality: "We don't approve it. But Islam does not spy on folks. It preserves privacy. Everyone leads his/her life and is responsible before his/her creator." 
On equality: "Inheritance does not reflect the value of women versus men. They are equal in terms of their human value, but don't have the same rights and responsibilities in society." 

 

I wonder if the seemingly liberal position on homosexuality is a reaction above all to the pervasive spying under Ben Ali and the way the intelligence services used people's private lives, including real or false sexual allegations, as ammunition against them. On the old Islamist chestnut that men and women don't need to be equal in everything, just to have an equitable distribution of obligations -- What about the many men who live off their wives' work, or systematically refuse to pay alimony? Shouldn't they lose the rights of "breadwinners" when they shirk their obligations? 

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.

Weekend read: Kamel Daoud's counter-investigation

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud's Meursault, contre-enquete is one of the best books I've read in a while. Inspired by Camus' The Stranger, it is a brilliantly written, sharp, sad, angry look at colonialism, religion, and the limits of "liberation." It is narrated by the brother of the unnamed Arab killed and quickly forgotten in Camus' novel. Adam Shatz has a great profile of Daoud, the city of Oran, where he lives, and the Algerian literary scene in the New York Times magazine.

After college, Daoud took a job as a crime reporter for a monthly tabloid called Detective. (“What made ‘The Wire’ so great,” he told me, “is that it’s a collaboration between a writer and a policeman, the dogs of the world.”) It was through traveling to small, remote towns, where he wrote about murder trials and sex crimes, that Daoud discovered what he calls “the real Algeria.” When Detective folded in 1996, he went to work for Le Quotidien d’Oran. While other journalists complained of the danger they faced from Islamist rebels, Daoud rented a donkey and went out to interview them. He reported on some of the worst massacres of the civil war, including the 1998 killings in the village of Had Chekala, where more than 800 people were slaughtered. His work as a reporter, Daoud told me, left him suspicious of “hardened positions and grand analyses,” and that sensibility infused the column he began writing for Le Quotidien. Daoud upheld no ideology, spoke in no one’s name but his own. To his new admirers, this was something to celebrate: the emergence of an authentically Algerian free spirit. To his adversaries, Daoud became the face of an Algerian Me-Generation: selfish, hollow, un-Algerian.

The New Yorker has also just published a short interview with Daoud and more importantly an excerpt from the forthcoming translation of his novel. 

Musa was my older brother. His head seemed to strike the clouds. He was quite tall, yes, and his body was thin and knotty from hunger and the strength that comes from anger. He had an angular face, big hands that protected me, and hard eyes, because our ancestors had lost their land. But when I think about it I believe that he already loved us then the way the dead do, with no useless words and a look in his eyes that came from the hereafter. I have only a few pictures of him in my head, but I want to describe them to you carefully. For example, the day he came home early from the neighborhood market, or maybe from the port, where he worked as a handyman and a porter, toting, dragging, lifting, sweating. Anyway, that day he came upon me while I was playing with an old tire, and he put me on his shoulders and told me to hold on to his ears, as if his head were a steering wheel. I remember the joy I felt as he rolled the tire along and made a sound like a motor. His smell comes back to me, too, a persistent mingling of rotten vegetables, sweat, and breath. Another picture in my memory is from the day of Eid one year. Musa had given me a hiding the day before for some stupid thing I’d done, and now we were both embarrassed. It was a day of forgiveness and he was supposed to kiss me, but I didn’t want him to lose face and lower himself by apologizing to me, not even in God’s name. I also remember his gift for immobility, the way he could stand stock still on the threshold of our house, facing the neighbors’ wall, holding a cigarette and the cup of black coffee our mother brought him.
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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.

Two very good books

The finalists for the International Man Booker prize have been announced. Two names on the list have written wonderful books that have meant a lot to me. Amitav Gosh's In An Antique Land is a book I would place on my Ideal Egypt Reading List. I have just been searching my shelves for it and am distressed not to find it. This is a work of creative historical research and reconstruction and of deft and very amusing sociological observation. Gosh did doctoral research in two Nile Delta villages in the early 1980s (and then returned for a visit at the end of the decade). He memorably sketches the personalities of his hosts; his interactions with the villagers -- who mock him for his Hindu beliefs but call on him to fix their Indian-made water pumps -- are deeply funny. In his book he also imagines the life of a 12th century Jewish trader based in Egypt and his Indian slaves. He uses the Geniza documents, an incredible trove found in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo (since throwing away paper with God's name on it is forbidden, the Jewish community there had been using the space between two walls in the synagogue as a giant waste paper basket for centuries). To me In An Antique Land was a lovely, personal reflection on Egypt's layered, multi-cultural past and on its submersion (some would say erasure) by the modern nation state. It's told  by a writer with great empathy, insight and intellectual curiosity about folks around him and ones who lived centuries ago. 

The Libyan writer Ibrahim Al Koni is also one of this year's list. I read Al Koni's نزيف الحجر The Bleeding of the Stone when I was studying Arabic in Cairo in the Spring of 2008. A wonderful literature professor from Cairo University assigned it to us and it electrified the class. I have read a few more books of his in translation since, but none have struck me as much as this one. Like so many of al-Koni's books it takes place in the Libyan desert, where the writer is from. 

Elliott Colla, who has translated and written some of the best commentary I've found on Al Koni, writes:

Taking the Twareg aspect of Al-Koni’s writing seriously allows us to recognize a radically redrawn map of the world—one in which the Sahara is a full, rather than empty space; one in which the Twareg lie not at the edges, but the center of history. Al-Koni’s novels take place in a desert world that is, despite its desolation, surprisingly rich in the sense that everywhere there are living beings struggling to live. In Al-Koni’s fiction, the meaning of life is always tied to struggle. Thus, Al-Koni’s novels paradoxically suggest that only here—in the harshest corners of the desert waste—does life emerge in its richest sense.
While each of Al-Koni’s novels has a different focus, they invariably sketch a richly detailed Twareg landscape whose heart is located somewhere between Aïr and the Hamada Hamra, Ghadamès and Agadez, Sebha and Tamenrasset. Indeed, it is the Acacus range, Al-Koni’s birthplace, which forms the geographical center of this fictional universe. The inbetweenness of this geography is not accidental, for center of this world is deliberately situated between two diametrically opposing social and philosophical forces. To the South lies a world of myth, magic and superstition. It is the place where the caravans carrying blue cloth, slaves and gold originate. To the North lie the distant Arab cities of the coast and after that the sea—a place associated with mechanized technology and warfare. Truth emanates from neither—rather, it is in the struggle between them, the struggle in the Twareg center, that meaning is to be found.

The protagonist is the lone, simple Asouf, a herdsman who lives deep in the desert, in precarious and often dangerous balance with nature. Then evil hunters -- who have already wiped out the gazelles of the area -- arrive, on a hunt for the waddan, a nearly mythical mouflon (a horned wild sheep) with whom Asouf has already had run-ins. Everything about the book is strange and unique: the setting (the Arabic novel is generally extremely urban, just think of the relationship between Mahfouz and Cairo); the agency given to animals (when a late chapter is told from the point of view of a gazelle we are hardly surprised); the unique spiritual universe in which imagery and symbolism from many different religions is combined. This is a world in which nature is cruel, but human are much crueler. The original Arabic is also beautiful. I can only speak to the laborious pleasure I got, sentence by sentence (the labour added to the pleasure -- reading in a second language is often very close reading), but Colla points out how it harks directly back to early Arabic literary tradition. 

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.

ISIS: Conspiracy theories in the Arab media

Not everyone in the Arab media thinks ISIS is part of a larger Western-backed conspiracy, but the view is depressingly widespread (even by those who in the same breadth demand retaliation against these apparently fabricated terrorists and their atrocities). In many of those theories, two reasonable points -- ISIS is in some sense a creation of regional and international powers, its rise a consequence of their terrible policies; and what they do is "un-Islamic," or horrifying to most Muslims -- are quickly pushed into the territory of non-thinking absurdity. Nour Youssef shares another of her expert round-ups. 

While Egyptian singer Sha’ban Abdelrahim was advising ISIS to plant cabbage and taro instead of bombs, Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhy analyzed the terrorist group’s filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. 

Like Abdelrahim and essentially everyone who is not an MB-affiliated TV host, Sobhy asserted that the video is "an American film" with a joint “Turkish/Qatari/US/Israeli production.” The most obvious proof of this, Sobhy says, is that “Jihadi John”  who leads the beheadings, holds prayer beads, symbolizing Islam, in the same hand as a knife, symbolizing violence. “They” are trying to send a subliminal negative message about Islam. This is why the man spoke English: to reach the West and tarnish the image of Islam, he argued. 

Since the majority of Egyptian journalists subscribes to the belief that the US, Israel, Turkey and Qatar are out to destroy Islam, the Middle East and most importantly Egypt, little attention was given to ISIS itself. 

Also thinking it is all about them was Dubai’s former police chief, Dahi Khalfan, who believes the US “unleashed” ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on the Gulf, just like it once used Saddam Hussein. 

Videos and more after the jump. 

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The Arab of the Future

Here is a review I wrote for the LRB blog of the comic L'Arabe du Futur, by Syrian-French comic artist Riad Sattouf. It's a very accomplished, very troubling, work (and should be out in English soon). 

In Libya, where his father accepts a teaching post, the family lose their university housing immediately to squatters who invoke Gaddafi’s ban on private property. Sattouf’s mother, Clementine, nearly gets into trouble after she breaks into hysterical laughter reading out propaganda on the radio. Sattouf remembers the crowds jostling to buy unripe bananas and Tang, the afternoons spent playing unsupervised with the children of other foreign professors. In a child’s worldview, the strictures of a dictatorial regime are no more bizarre than most other rules.
When Sattouf’s father decides to take his family back to Syria, things turn almost farcically awful. He didn’t do his military service, so has to bribe his way past army officers at the airport. The family waits as a group of cab drivers has a brawl over who will take them. Back in the village, at the family home, the women sit in a separate room and eat the men’s leftovers. Sattouf’s father discovers that his brother has sold his land. The village is full of rubbish and feral little boys who wave sticks and threaten Riad.


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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.

Social media and the Arab uprisings

Depressing at the state of things may be, I found researching and writing this article about the questions scholars are asking today about the role of social and digital media in political mobilization in the Middle East, for The Chronicle of Higher Education, very interesting. 

"It’s difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about social media," says Philip N. Howard, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. But "after years of excitement and effervescence," he notes, "we’re in a much more jaded or critical stage of inquiry."
Working on his book (with Muzammil M. Hussain) Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab SpringMr. Howard developed a causal model that weighed access to new communication technology in Arab countries alongside other socioeconomic factors. He concluded that that access was part of the basic infrastructure needed for collective action to take place.
But by the time the book was published, in 2013, those mass mobilizations for change had seemingly collapsed. Today, out of half a dozen Arab countries that witnessed uprisings, only Tunisia has managed to see its democratic transition through. Across the region, the bloggers and activists who helped plan and publicize protests were sidelined by Islamist parties and military regimes. They have been silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Scholars are now asking a different set of questions: How did these huge and hopeful social movements fizzle? Why were they unable to achieve political gains? How is social media being used today by resurgent autocratic governments and by terrorist groups? 
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, argued in a recent paper that the ability to "scale up" quickly that social media offers to protest movements means they don’t have to do the hard and necessary work of building traditional organizations that know how to make decisions collectively, change strategies, and persevere. In a TED talk she gave in October, Ms. Tufekci compared today’s social movements, in the Arab world and elsewhere, to "start-ups that got very big without knowing what to do next."

You should also read this article on the topic by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, "Social media in the Era of ISIS."  

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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.

Making fun of ISIS

Uh-oh, don't tell all the folks who are indignant over SNL's ISIS sketch, but people have been making fun of the group for a while in the Arab world. 

To mock ISIS is not to disrespect their victims. It is a way of challenging their self-important, grandiose, hypocritical thuggery and their determination to frighten us. 

The hostage in this video is being punished for a Playstation infraction. At the end there is a dance party. 

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.