Writing and reading about Qatar

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I profiled a young literature professor, writing instructor and novelist, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who works in Qatar and finds the emirate a great setting for fiction -- even though her own last book was banned. The article is behind our paywall but here is an excerpt:

A daughter of Indian academics who emigrated to the United States, Ms. Rajakumar, 36, arrived in Doha in 2005, to serve as assistant dean of student affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. A few years later, while working at Bloomsbury Qatar, a branch of the British publisher, she decided to try her hand at writing. "I thought: Wait a minute, I’m as good as some of these authors," she says.
While pursuing her literary goals, she also encouraged others to do the same. She started teaching writing and founded the Doha Writers’ Workshop, the first group of its kind in the country. Its meetings made her aware of the many stories Qataris were interested in telling.
With support from the U.S. State Department and from Qatar University, she established the Qatar Narrative Series, with an open call for essays by female residents of Qatar. At the time, says Ms. Rajakumar, "People said, ‘It’s such a private culture, they value anonymity, they don’t want to lose face. You’ll never get them to sign their name.’" But the series was a success. From 2008 to 2011, Ms. Rajakumar co-edited four anthologies of Qatari writing.
She uses the collections in the writing classes she teaches. It helps to show students "a book of published essays by people they can relate to," says Ms. Rajakumar, who has also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar campus.
Ms. Rajakumar herself has written half a dozen books, published on Amazon. In the spring of 2014, she released Love Comes Later, the novel about young Qataris trying to find the right partner.
"All of my books are built around a question," explains Ms. Rajakumar. A major one for the young Qatari would-be writers she’d spent time with was: "Who are we going to marry? Is there any chance for love?" With Love Comes Later she imagined an answer.
When her distributor’s agent let her know the book was banned in Qatar, Ms. Rajakumar was surprised. She had anticipated being asked to make some changes for the Qatari edition (a common requirement for local publication and distribution), and was prepared to do so. "As a writer," she says, "if you don’t have readers, you might as well not be writing."
Neither Virginia Commonwealth, where Ms. Rajakumar was working at the time, nor any of the other Western universities publicly questioned the ban. Responses from faculty colleagues varied, she says, with some giving her "high fives" and others asking, "How are you still here?"
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King Abdullah's mourners

It's been quite something to watch governments across the middle east -- and beyond -- pay tribute to Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah. Egypt cancelled the January 25 anniversary celebrations (the symbolism here is heavy as lead) and the UK flew flags at half-mast. Most Arab countries declared several days (or even weeks) of national mourning -- something they generally don't do when dozens of their own citizens are killed in tragic accidents or terrorist attacks. I guess Saudi military acquisitions (for the West) and investments and subsidies (for Arab neighbors) are worth that much. 

Western media has largely parroted the claim that the king was -- in the Saudi context -- some sort of moderate and reformer. This is really a stretch. While Abdullah did not seem to be as repressive and hidebound as other members of the royal family, he never put that family's power-sharing deal with the kingdom's fundamentalist religious clergy in question.

The idea that the house of Saud is being held hostage by religious extremists...they empower and fund those extremists, whether we're talking about the kingdom's own religious establishment or jihadist groups abroad. Yes there are tensions with the clergy sometimes -- tensions within an established alliance.

Not to mention Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, on which the late king presumably had some input: the kingdom has bankrolled and led a regional counter-revolution, going to great lengths to roll back the Arab uprisings, and to bury both mass social movements and political Islam. 

Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobia

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about Michel Houellebecq's latest, in which he imagines France electing a Muslim president and its intellectual classes cravenly converting to Islam and adopting Sharia. This gives an idea of the current French zeitgeist.

I haven't read this book, but I've read most of Houellebecq's previous works. I don't agree with Gopnik that he is not a provocateur. And I find Gopnik's definition of satire bizarre. He writes that "Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what's happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening." But that assumes that "what's happening right" now is the ascendancy of French Muslims to power. On the contrary, French citizens of Arab origin remain a small minority, economically marginalized, targeted by rising right-wing parties, and not at all homogenous -- hence the problem of discussing France's "Muslim community" (many of them are not practicing Muslims) or using the even more condescending category of Frenchmen and women "issus de l'immigration" ("offsprings of immigrants") -- for how many generations must French citizens with Arab names be categorized this way? I would argue that satire is a way of revealing a truth -- about an argument, a point of view, the world we live in -- through its gross exaggeration. 

Houellebecq is an interesting writer; he can be funny and thought-provoking. But he's not a satirist. He's a reactionary -- his seeming cynicism is masked, depressed romanticism. What Gopnik gets right is how much the hysterical discourse on identity in France is based on personal nostalgia, the inability of a certain class of French intellectuals to accept that France is a different country now. Here he is on Eric Zemmour (another writer whose fixed preoccupation with the cultural, sexual, political threat posed by Muslim men is just ridiculous). 

"In the back of Zemmour’s mind, it seems, is an oddly singular and specific place to long for—the Gaullist France of the booming sixties, when Zemmour was a kid. Society held together, authority was firm and essentially benevolent, each man had a role, each woman could choose to stay home if she wanted, and Catherine Deneuve was in every other movie. This is a nostalgia that Houellebecq, who was also a kid then, shares."

I'll never forget reading a column by another French writer in which he lamented the sight of halal butchers and Arab internet cafes in Paris, as if it were the end of the world. It was the end of his world, I guess, since he had too little imagination to make room in it for historical and social change, for anyone different. Or to reflect for one moment on how much more drastically the French colonial presence once altered and alienated the reality of other peoples. 

Reactions to the attack on Charlie Hebdo

  • Buzzfeed rounds up cartoons of solidarity from around the world. 
  • "Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike." This is from a piece by a radical London-based cleric published on the USA Today site entitled Why Did France Allow the Tabloid to Provoke Muslims? To which I would ask: Why the Hell Do You Think You Have The Right to Go Through Life Unprovoked?
  • Of course the overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics and thinkers condemn the attack. 
  • Juan Cole argues that this is a sophisticated operation aimed at alienating French Muslims and increasing recruitment. "Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination [...]Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites."

  • Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun makes a similar point, arguing that the attacks express "a fierce and radical intention to prevent Muslims from observing their faith in a secular land, while respecting the laws of the Republic, [an intention] to isolate them and make them France's enemies." 
  • "The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists. They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades." George Packer in the New Yorker. But how can we disassociate that ideology from history and politics, from Western interventions , conflicts and dictatorships in the Middle East, or from the current debate in Europe over the integration of its Muslim minorities? How can we explain its spread and virulence without any context? 
  • From Jacobin magazine: "Now, I think there's a critical difference between solidarity with the journalist who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow 'legitimate targets,' and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication."  Thanks for not conceding that we journalists are "legitimate targets." Does that really need to be said? 
  • Scott Long questions the "I Am Charlie" online meme in a nuanced and thought-provoking way. "I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club [...] This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of#JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. " Long also discusses the myth that satire is a weapon always directed by the weak against the strong, and reminds of the anti-Semitism of the father of French satire, Voltaire. 
  • Here is a counter-vailing argument regarding Charlie Hebdo's offensiveness. "....the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed." 

 In other words, a violent threat to censor a particular form of speech can only be countered by exercising that very speech. When some Muslims threaten to kill those who depict the Prophet, liberals must depict him on principle. This is a sharp argument, although one problem is that it requires us to evaluate the intentions of satirists and provocateurs.  In a piece we linked to recently, Adam Shatz showed how Islamophobia in Europe (and before that, anti-Semitism) has long covered itself in the mantle of a defense of free speech and liberal values. And how much does context -- Muslims in France are a minority from once colonized territories who continue to face discrimination -- matter in evaluating whether Charlie Hebdo was standing up to a totalitarian threat or picking on a marginalized minority? Could they have been doing both? 

I didn't read Charlie Hebdo, so while its covers were tasteless, I don't know if its editorial line was racist. Many, including some  former contributors, have argued so. But that does not matter. I defend the right of its staff to do their work in safety. I have no problem whatsoever expressing solidarity with a racist publication -- I'm not expressing solidarity with their views, but with their right to not pay with their lives for the expression of those views. I also defend everyone's right to call them out on those views, then and now.  I am so tired of these false and furious debates on the middle east, Islam, terrorism, in which everything is obscenely simplified (for or against terrorism? Islam? racism? satire?) and people cannot acknowledge more than one principle, one position, one idea, at a time. 

On "idiots"

Someone wrote in to express their anger that I called the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo "idiots":

"Murderous idiots????... Idiots???... This is the best you can do? Knowing that you have a much sharper pen when it comes to others who commit similar atrocities why don't you take a moment to read Christopher Hitchens on religious fanaticism and stop hiding behind your Arabist veneer?"

I have read some Christopher Hitchens, but his best writing is not, in my opinion, on religious fanaticism. Let me just say this: calling the terrorists "idiots" was not intended to make light of their terrible act. But the men who did this are deeply stupid; and I say this as someone convinced (partly from recent personal experience) that stupidity can be one of the most devastating and poisonous forces unleashed in a society. I also say this to put these guys in their place. They are not evil geniuses; they are not holy warriors; they are not terrifying avengers. They are nasty little murderers who make a mockery of the religion they purport to defend and who outdo Islamophobes' worst stereotypes. They are hateful, harmful idiots. 

"It's hard to be loved by idiots.."

The Egyptian deposed dictator email scam

A friend received this in his email inbox yesterday. It seems the Nigerian 419 email scam has evolved. Love the reply-to address:

From: "mubarak"web0202@hlbbnk.com
Date: January 8, 2015 at 7:27:34 PM GMT+1
Subject: HEI
Reply-To: suzane.mmubarak@aol.com

Hello,

I am Mr Hosni Mubarak   former leader of Egyptian   am  currently  released from  prison charges of complicity resulting from political turmoil during the 2011  the government has seized everything i have here and prevent us from traveling out of Egypt because  the released is conditional.

As a result of this, I need somebody outside Egypt to represent my interest to manage our reserved funds value (25,000,000.00 [U.SD] in long-term business venture especially in public and private business (including real estate investment,

I am willing to negotiate with you how much I will offer you to handle this for me after your acceptance. And all needed to proceed the legality and movement of the (25,000,000.00 [U.SD] shall or will be duly obtained in due course.

Yours Faithfully,
Mr Hosni Mubarak


At least 12 dead in terrorist attack on French satirical magazine

Murderous idiots have killed at least 12 members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine famous for its offensive humor. The publication had particularly angered some Muslims with its disrespectful depictions of Prophet Mohamed. The masked gunmen who shot the magazine's staff as well as two policemen this morning in central Paris reportedly yelled that they were "avenging" the Prophet. The attackers we able to flee. This is awful -- part of the awfulness that seems to be growing all around us these days. The attack suggests the French police is pretty hapless (there have been attacks and threats towards the magazine before) and will very likely exacerbate fear and hostility towards Europe's Muslim minorities. 

Egypt in TV: Of revolution and conspiracy

It is finally over. The debate over whether or not the January 25 revolution was indeed a revolution or a Zionist/Iranian/US/Turkish/Serbian conspiracy has finally ended. Kinda.

The limbo over the final classification of the 2011 uprising had raised an awkward question for propagandists, which is if you both truly trust President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and think people who call Jan 25 a revolution are traitors – doesn't that by extension make Sisi a traitor for calling it that and writing as much in the constitution or worse someone who is fooled by them? Or do you, lowly latenight television host, know something the former head of military intelligence and current president does not know? It also raised the awkward question of why Sisi, who claims to think it is a revolution, never made the effort to correct his supporters.

In addition to raising awkward questions, the revolupiracy (or was it a conspolution?) sparked fights.

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Arab world rejects Ridley Scott's Exodus as inaccurate, Zionist, blasphemous

At least three Arab countries have banned Ridley Scott's movie Exodus, featuring Christian Bale as Moses. Egyptian censor Abdel Sattar Fathy explained that: "the movie contains misleading information, including that the Jews helped build the pyramids and are God's chosen people.". The Egyptian Minister of Culture has described the film as  "Zionist," and a statement from the Ministry said that censors found "intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film." There are truly quite a few historical inaccuracies in the film, but not more than in your average Hollywood movie. 

Scott's choice to give the Biblical miracle of parting of the Red Sea a pseudo-scientific explanation, ascribing it to an earthquake and undercutting its divine nature, was not appreciated.

The United Arab Emirates also banned the film. In Morocco, it was reportedly Minister of Communication Mustapha El Khalfi, a member of the governing Islamist Justice and Development Party, who pushed to have the film banned (after the Al Jazeera satellite channel raised the issue) even though it had been approved by the Centre Cinematographic Marocain.. But in fact it's unclear where the decision originated. The main objection in Morocco was not to the Jewish people getting credit for the pyramids but rather to a scene in which God may be personified as a small child who speaks to Moses. Depicting God is forbidden in Islam (and even depicting his prophets is frowned upon). Much of Exodus was actually filmed in Morocco, which is used as a backdrop for many films set in the Middle East, and which is trying to expand its cinematographic industry (and had just spent millions of dollars to hold the International Marrakesh Film Festival). 

Scott had previously come in for some criticism for his all-white cast of lead actors (subalterns are of color, as far as I understand), and responded by saying that he couldn't get the financial backing to make a block-buster film like this if he cast "Mohamed so-and-so." Rupert Murdoch, who owns the film's distributor, was surprised to find out that all Egyptians weren't white.

Saudi Arabia sentences Shia cleric to death for "sedition"

This is from Amnesty International's report on the death sentence handed down to a senior cleric from Qatif, in Saudi Arabia's eastern, oil-rich and largely Shia region. 

A death sentence passed today against a dissident Shi’a Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia for “disobeying the ruler”, “inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations” after a deeply flawed trial is appalling and must be immediately quashed, said Amnesty International.
“The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Here is a short video clip  of Sheikh Nimr, arguing for justice rather than sectarian loyalty: "You're Shia; don't oppress Sunnis. You are oppressed. If you oppress anyone, even Sunnis, Allah doesn't love you. […] The oppressed should gather together against the oppressors. El Khalifa [the ruling family in Bahrain] are oppressors, but Sunnis are not responsible for them. El Assad is an oppressor, but Shias are not responsible for him. The oppressed cannot defend oppressors."

The sheikh supported the protests that have been ongoing in the Eastern province for several years. The prosecutor in his case has asked that he be crucified. From the BBC:

Officials said he rammed a security forces vehicle, leading to a gun battle. However, his family disputed the allegation that he resisted arrest and insisted that he did not own a weapon.
The cleric was held for eight months before being charged and reportedly spent the first four in an isolation cell at a prison hospital in Riyadh.
Activists and relatives say Sheikh Nimr, who has a wide following among Shia in Eastern Province and other states, supported only peaceful protests and eschewed all violent opposition to the government.
In 2011, he told the BBC that he supported "the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons... the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons".
His arrest prompted days of protests in which three people were killed.
Human Rights Watch said more than 1,040 people had been arrested at Shia protests between February 2011 and August 2014. At least 240 are still believed to be in detention.

Hey Baghdadi!

The barbarity of the so-called Islamic State has inspired a new wave of "What is wrong with Islam?" hand-wringing. On American television it is as simplistic and disconcerting as one would expect. Muslims around the world meanwhile have predictable bristled at begin told they should immediately condemn or apologize for terrorism. 

There is a serious conversation to be had about the lack of freedom of religion and expression in Islamic countries. The richest countries in the region use oil wealth to spread a noxious, bigoted, ultimately self-destructive version of Islam. Although many Islamic scholars have condemned IS, there is very little space for open, tolerant debate on matters of religion. 

But terrorists remain on the fringe of Arab and Muslim societies. And Islamists are hardly the only ones who are illiberal in the Middle East. Discrimination against women and minorities is as rampant under "secular," military, US-backed regimes (it's not exactly hard to find in America either). Islamism and jihadism are modern, political phenomenon that have as much to do with oil wealth, despotism, and Western military interventions as they do with religion. 

I want to share this video of the Lebanese band El Rahel El Kebir ("The Great Departed"), performing in a small cabaret in Beirut, to a laughing audience, sometime in August. This jaunty song  is addressed to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr El-Baghdadi, whose claims to religious legitimacy it effortlessly demolishes.

 

The song starts out showering traditional blessings and titles on el-Baghdaid, but quickly takes a turn into mockery. It has lines like this:

علشان الإسلام رحمة، رح ندبح ونوزع لحمة، وعلشان نخفف زحمة، حنفجر في خلق الله

عشان لا إكراه في الدين فلنقض عالمرتدين والشيعةوالسنيين والنصارى يا خسارة

(In Arabic it rhymes. My awkward translation is "Because Islam is merciful… we'll butcher and hand out meat/To make it less crowded/We'll blow folks up/Because there's no compulsion in religion/we'll kill unbelievers..and Shia and Sunnis and Christians, what a loss!")

It's a catchy, brave little fuck-you. The Islamic State wants to be feared, to be taken seriously, and to pass for the representative of pure Islam. The US media is all to happy to oblige. Others in the Muslim world show it the contempt it deserves. 

(Thanks to Karl Sharro for the tip). 

Help translate The Confines of the Shadow, an Italian-Libyan novel

We recently received this message, regarding an effort to crowd-fund the translation of what sounds like a fascinating series of novels set in Libya during and after the Italian colonial occupation. 

We are currently trying to raise £8,000 to underwrite the production costs of Alessandro Spina's Libyan-Italian epic The Confines of the Shadow, which will be translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely. A 1300 page multi-generational series of novels set in Benghazi, The Confines of the Shadow is a sequence that maps the transformation of Libya from a sleepy Ottoman backwater in the 1910s to the second capital of an oil-rich kingdom in the 1960s.

Called “the Italian Joseph Conrad” and a “20th Century Balzac” by the Italian press, Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite born in Benghazi in 1927, and he lived in Libya for most of his life, until he was forced to leave the country during the darkest years of Gaddafi's rule. He passed away in 2013, but not before his masterpiece was awarded the Premio Bagutta in 2007, Italy's highest literary accolade.

In the run-up to our publishing Volume 1 of this epic, The Nation published Naffis-Sahely's essay 'Spina's Shadow' in their August 18-25 issue. Banipal also featured the essay on their website to help promote our fundraising effort: Who is Alessandro Spina?

As this sort of project requires extensive financing, we are asking you to help contribute to the production of the remaining two volumes. This is the link to our Indiegogo site. The pledges range from £5 to £300, and we are grateful for all of them. 

Please consider making a pledge today to help support the work of Darf Publishers. We are offering, among other perks, exclusive advance excerpts from Volume 1, a chance to put your name down for a deluxe hardcover edition of the book, as well as a limited edition of prints featuring the cover art. Once you’ve pledged, please help spread the word online.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/alessandro-spina-s-the-confines-of-the-shadow

I grew up in Italy but had never heard of Spina. I searched in vain for his books in bookstores there during a recent visit (they could be ordered but there wasn't time). After being forced to leave Libya, he lived in Italy as a comfortable recluse, entirely devoted to his writing, the friend and correspondent of several prominent Italian authors. He appears to have had a reputation but a very small audience. I don't know yet if his writing is as good as his publisher and translator claim, but I do know I'd like to find out. 

 

What makes the (un)Islamic State monstrous?

“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” David Cameron said on September 14 of the so-called Islamic State, after it released a video showing the execution of aid worker David Haines. 

What is it that makes the group monstrous? First of all how it compels us to look at it. 

The word monster derives from the Latin monstrare, which like montrer in modern French and mostrare in Italian means to show. Monsters attract our attention. During the middle ages in Europe, monsters -- deformed children, conjoined twins -- were put on display for the entertainment and religious edification of crowds. 

It is both hard to watch and hard to turn away from the nightmarish spectacles IS shares online. Young Shia men plead to camera; their prone bodies twitch as they are shot one by one. YouTube and Twitter’s decision to block these videos shows how anxious we are about their power. Regardless, the image of a man in orange and kneeling before a black-clad executioner, mouthing well-rehearsed propaganda as a hand with a knife dangles in the background, is etched in our minds now. 

The word monster may also derive from another Latin verb, monere, meaning to warn or advise; a monstrum was something people pointed out to each other but also a “supernatural being or object that is an omen or warning of the will of the gods.” This is quite close to how IS sees itself: the bearer of a dire divine message. Even to those of us who do not share its religious beliefs, the group may seem a dark portent of our times. Its existence is a remonstration, divine or not -- how could we let this happen? 

Ancient monsters were freaks of nature. Modern monsters are reflections and composites, created by men from parts of themselves (think of the doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein). The more they resemble us, the scarier they are. 

Osama Bin Laden was partly created by US support to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and by the Western media after 9/11. But, lecturing in Arabic from a cave, with his beard and his funny clothes, he seemed exotic. 

The Islamic State is creepily familiar -- speaking to us in our language and on our terms, Tweeting about how great living under Sharia is. Some of the parallels seem purposeful on their part: Carrying stolen US-made weapons, they water-board their prisoners and put them in orange jumpsuits. They make the men they are about to kill into mirrors, faces we can’t help imagining as our own. 

The members of the Islamic State bear full moral responsibility for their crimes. But the organization could only have arisen out of a particular, devastating vacuum. The forces that converged to bring this gang of zealots and murderers to prominence includes the US invasion of Iraq; the Assad regime’s limitless brutality; the Gulf States’ oil-fueled bigotry; the paranoia of the Russians. On some days I let my imagination run away with me and think of IS  as a compendium of all the worst tendencies and motivations of Arab regimes and their foreign backers; of every sordid calculation, every feckless decision, every strain of arrogance and intolerance and injustice. Above all of the inconceivable cruelty and stupidity it has taken to push two entire countries into their graves, their cities turned to dust and their people, for years now, bombed, butchered, terrorized, and driven from their homes. 

Who else could we expect to thrive there but these monstrous young men (and women), these children of our age? 

Show Sisi the money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

We'll Always Have Cairo

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

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

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

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

Having fuul for breakfast from a cart in Garden City.

 

The time-lapse pyrotechnics of flame trees slowly blooming. 

Mangoes, fresh pomegranate juice and molokheyya.

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

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

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

One view from Bab Zuweila

One view from Bab Zuweila

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

Our friends.  

Graffiti on a cinderblock wall blocking an entrance to Tahrir Square

Graffiti on a cinderblock wall blocking an entrance to Tahrir Square


Arabs Without God

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

In a blog post announcing the book, Brian writes:

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the so-called Islamic State

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

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

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

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

Syria Speaks

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

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

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


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

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

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

You can read the rest here

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

Alaa Abdelfattah decides to go on hunger strike:

Statement from the Family of Alaa Abd El-Fattah

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

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

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

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

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

His family's full statement is here.