Cairo 2050, Desert Fantasia

Freddy Deknatel reviews David Sims' Understanding Cairo in the LARB:
This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”

Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”
Great review of a great book.

Review of ElBaradei's "The Age of Deception"

I must have been traveling when it came out, but I have a  review of Mohammed ElBaradei's new book, The Age of Deception, out in The National. The book is entirely about his time at the IAEA, so don't look for commentary on Egyptian politics here, but it does tell us about the man's character. That character has undergone several waves of assassination, from the propaganda of the Mubarak-controlled press in 2010 to those who see ElBaradei as some kind of Trojan horse for secularism post-revolution. Consider the lawyer who is currently trying to strip him of his Egyptian nationality (alongside Gamal Mubarak):

Meanwhile the lawsuit accuses ElBaradei of turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear weapons during his term as IAEA director. “ElBaradei had a stake in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which makes him unworthy of carrying Egyptian nationality”, it said.

ElBaradei's book is not the most riveting read — at the end of the day, it's a company man's diary — but it certainly puts to rest any notion that ElBaradei did not try to prevent (within his abilities as IAEA chief) the invasion of Iraq and the sexing up of its WMD dossier, or try to broker a negotiated outcome to the Iranian nuclear issue. From the review:

"Early on, I often got the feeling that the Arab world - and many westerners - expected me, as an Egyptian Arab and a Muslim, to show bias in favour of Iraq. Of course, I also heard that I was being tough on Iraq to prove my lack of bias. My only bias was that of an international civil servant: an insistence on independence, professionalism and treating all parties with equal respect."
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Review: The Black Nile

My review of Dan Morrison's The Black Nile came out a few days ago in The National. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn about South Sudan in particular, it's wonderfully written and provides some insight most of us rarely hear about and will never get to. It's also a lot of fun.

Update: Speaking of the Nile, Jeffrey Fleischman of the LAT has a nice piece looking at the debate over the river's use from two places, Egypt and Ethiopia. We're familiar with the Egyptian alarmism over the Nile, so here's an excerpt that looks at what dam projects are bringing to the Ethiopians:

Ethiopia's new Tana-Beles hydroelectric plant on the banks of Lake Tana was built without Egypt's approval. But Meles has insisted that his country, where blackouts are common and half the children younger than 5 are malnourished, will build whatever it pleases along the river and tributaries. His government has enticed investors to the newly irrigated farmland with dirt-cheap leases.

That's what drew Addis Belay, a wealthy businessman from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, who leased 1,060 acres irrigated by the Tana-Beles project. This spring he planted his first crop of rice, sesame seeds, soy and corn, food he hopes one day to export to neighboring Sudan. Belay's stone-crushing factory in Addis Ababa is also profiting from cheaper electricity generated by the new $520-million hydroelectric plant.

Belay's sister-in-law, Liyou Feleke, said Egypt has profited from the Nile while Ethiopia has languished in poverty. In 2008 the per capita gross national income in Egypt was $1,800, according to the World Bank. In Ethiopia it was just $280.

"The Egyptians have been using it for generations," she said. "The Ethiopians, we have never used a bit. But it's time."

A good argument for getting away from the zero-sum view publicly favored by Egypt.

Garbage Dreams

Last night, Ursula and I went to see Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander's documentary about Cairo's trash collectors (and recyclers), the Zabbaleen. I had wanted to see this movie for months, but it was impossible to obtain on DVD, there were no screenings in Cairo and no one had put it up online — even though it won over 22 awards and, judging from the overflow crowd at Darb 1718, the great cultural center in Old Cairo where it was being shown outdoors in stifling weather, there is much demand for it.

Garbage Dreams follows the lives of a few boys from Mokattam, the hill East of Cairo near which many of Cairo's 60,000 Zabbaleen live and work handling the city's prodigious garbage output. The story of the Zabbaleen is a familiar one, so I'll just briefly repeat here for those who won't know it: they are a mostly Coptic Christian community of dispossessed peasants from Upper Egypt who settled in Cairo in the late nineteenth century and, as a community, became the trash collectors for about 60% of the city. Originally, contracts for trash collection were actually controlled by Bedouins who subcontracted the work to the Zabbaleen. In recent years, not only have they continued to collect trash, but they have also made additional cash from recycling what they collect, impressively reusing about 80% of the trash after sorting it. They live in filthy conditions, amidst their work, but with dignity and, until recently, regular income.

In recent years, the government began contracting foreign companies to use modern trash collection methods. These take Cairo's garbage to landfills and recycle much less of it — only 20% according to the film. This has eaten into the income of the Zabbaleen and is threatening their community, even if some of the workers for the company have been recruited from it. This is an interesting story, but unfortunately Iskander does not tackle it with sufficient diligence: we are given plenty of the Zabbaleen's side of things, but no explanation from the government or the companies about their strategy (which, I'm fairly sure, would have been even more incriminating — the ridiculousness of needing foreign expertise for trash collection is pretty self-evident.)

But perhaps this doesn't matter that much. The heart of the story are the lives of Adham, Nabil and Osama in the context of this threat to the community. They give poignant testimony about their awareness that they are at the bottom of the social ladder, there desire for both mundane and grandiose improvements to their lives, their attachment to their community and pride in its essential work. There are some pretty hilarious scenes, too, such as when the boys are taken to Wales in a NGO-funded trip to look at recycling methods in Europe. In their almost cruel exposure to a clean, green and prosperous Wales (hardly the reputation the country has, say, in London) they see ideas to take back home, but also great waste — there's a great scene in which Nabil lectures the operators of recycling center that they need to be more thorough about separation — essentially by doing the type of manual sorting done in Cairo that is simply impossible under European labor and safety regulations. "Here they have technology, but they don't have precision," he finally scoffs.

The greatest laugh of all for the Cairene audience came when one boy turns to the other at a road crossing, and says with wonder: "Did you see that car? It stopped to let people cross!" That is one other meditation on why Cairo came to be such a badly run city, saved from the total chaos by the hard work and good humor of its underclass.

You can now get the DVD on the film's site or soon on Amazon — highly recommended.

 

Review: A Mosque in Munich

 

My review of Ian Johnson's recent book A Mosque in Munich is out in The National's Review. I enjoyed the book's multi-tiered history, notably its starting point among Central Asian Muslims who joined Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union and the background of some of the characters who would later dominate the Munich Islamic Center who were closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include Said Ramadan, father of Tariq, and the famous MB financier Youssef Nada (who we learn has an amusing obsession with processed cheese, which he exported from Europe to Libya in the 1970s with the winning argument that it was less messy than oily canned tuna and thus idea to help students keep their textbooks clean.)

For these reasons alone it's worth a read, which is why it's disappointing that Johnson's view of Islamism is rather skewed and appears chiefly informed by right-wing sources, which cause him to over-emphasize the "Islamofascist" view of things. Here's the last part of my review:

As interesting as this all is, a major flaw of A Mosque in Munich lies in its superficial treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism in general. The ideological convergence between the Nazis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is overstated, notably in their hostility to Jews. It is true that Nazi anti-Semitism found a willing audience among the Brothers and that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s played an important role in disseminating European anti-Semitism in Egypt. But the Brothers were not the only group that lent a willing ear; one of their rivals at the time was the Misr al-Fatah (Young Egypt) group, which like fascist sympathisers in Europe and the Americas found much to admire in Hitler’s movement. The Brothers’ anti-Semitism certainly existed, but it was hardly the group’s top ideological priority, alongside anti-colonialism, as Johnson suggests: surely their project for a Muslim renewal came before that.

There is a similar lack of nuance in Johnson’s understanding of Islamism – which he defines early on as “not the ancient religion of Islam but a highly politicised and violent system of ideas that creates the milieu for terrorism.” Just as Central Asian refugees’ nationalism embraced Islam as a cultural marker of identity, groups like the Muslim Brothers have been marked as much by nationalism as much as theology. Furthermore, they have not been intellectually static, having for instance abandoned founder Hassan al-Banna’s rejection of partisan life and embraced electoral, rather than vanguard, politics. To paint the Brotherhood merely as a precursor of al Qa’eda, an argument usually made by those with an ideological axe to grind, is profoundly misleading, no matter how unpleasant some of its views may be.

One argument that runs through much of the book is a warning against Western engagement of Islamists, an idea popularised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as a way to recruit “moderate” Islamists against the nihilism of salafist jihadist groups like al Qa’eda. The Brothers have actually needed no such encouragement to have a public tiff with al Qa’eda’s Ayman Zawahri, who hates the Brothers as much he does the “Crusaders”. But if Johnson makes a good point in cautioning against paying undue attention to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe – where it is after all a vanguard group that is not necessarily representative of the European Muslim experience – he often does so for the wrong reason. A more compelling reason for governments and spies to steer clear of the manipulation of religious groups is that, as the West has learned at a great cost, it can so often backfire.

A question for Jeffrey Feltman

Not too long ago I wrote about Lee Smith's terrible book, The Strong Horse, which I noted is not just bad but actually hysterically racist in its essentialism. In the comments to the post, reader Lubnani alerted me that the Hudson Institute will be hosting the book's launch tomorrow. Guess who the guests are:

For over half a century, the United States has established itself as the Middle East's dominant "strong horse." Yet, with war raging in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the possibility of conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran — does America have the resolve and the resources to maintain its status?
 
Please join Hudson Visiting Fellow Lee Smith to discuss his new book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday). Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and Elliott Abrams, former Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy in the Bush administration, will offer commentary. Hudson Institute CEO Kenneth Weinstein will introduce the event. 

Now, I'm not surprised Abrams would endorse such a book by appearing at this event — it fits the bill perfectly. But how about a currently serving head of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs bureau? Does he share Lee Smith's opinion that:

To be sure, a significant part of the Middle East, including Osama Bin Laden, is expressly at war with the US.

Or:

September 11 is the day we woke up to find ourselves in the middle of a clash of Arab civilizations, a war that used American citizens as yet another venue for Arabs to fight each other.

Or:

The Arabs hate us not because of what we do or who we are but because of who we are not: Arabs.

Or:

[In the Middle East] Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringes, but represents the political and social norm.

Or:

Anti-Americanism is an Arab constant, the region's lingua franca, from Nasser to Nasrallah it has not changed in over 50 years.

These are all from Smith's book. Now here's the question:

Does Jeffrey Feltman feel these sentiments to be his own, or those of the administration he represents? Does he want his office to be associated with such spurious and incendiary material? 

I do not expect Feltman to only attend events for people or publications that he entirely agrees with. If he attends, I certainly hope he'll at least speak out on the matter. The topic of the conference — US power in the Middle East — is excellent; its title and promotional material most unfortunate.

Lee Smith's book on Arab culture

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Much fun has been made in recent years of Weekly Standard Middle East correspondent (whose work has appeared in Slate, The Nation and elsewhere) Lee Smith's tagline that he is "writing a book on Arab culture." Well, that book is now out. I've read it, and it's horrible. I did not expect much from Lee Smith, whose articles repeated neocon bromides about the region and always put partisanship above analysis. But I had never expected a book so appallingly racist, disjointed, full of factual error and borderline psychotic. Max Rodenbeck reviewed "The Strong Horse" for The National, his sentiments are mine:
For Lee Smith, none of this really counts. The Arabs, in his view, simply have the misfortune to be guided by something he identifies as the “strong horse principle”: an apparently unique, ancient system whereby one tribe, nation, or civilisation dominates the others by force, until it too is overthrown by force. The “strong horse”, he says, represents the fundamental character of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. This is a perennially violent, xenophobic place where, in his words: “Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe, but represents the social norm.” [. . .] Smith explains elsewhere that although Arabs constantly bicker, “Perhaps the more serious concern is that the Arabs will not fight each other, and choose instead to bind together… in order to focus their energies elsewhere, like against the United States, again.” That last word is what really gives pause. To what past event exactly is Smith referring? Might he mean that dark day when the joint Arab high command sent veiled storm troopers on black helicopters into Wyoming? Or is he just subtly reasserting his sweeping charge that the Arabs as a whole were responsible for September 11 – and hinting that they might do the same again unless America spanks them regularly? This disregard for reality appears to be prompted by two things. One is an attitude towards Arabs that may be delicately described as anachronistic and patronising. How else can one explain lapses into what sound like 19th-century depictions of barbarians? In one departure from constant praise of Bush-administration policy, for instance, Smith sneers at its naivety in thinking democracy might have flourished here when this great American gift was presented, “like an iPhone left out for the Arabs to figure out on their own.” Elsewhere Smith informs us sagely that Arab women “hold men in contempt if they are not willing to kill and die for Arab honour.” Arabs, we discover, regard any man who says he wants peace with his neighbour, “not a peace that comes through destruction and elimination, but a real peace,” as a traitor. No wonder, for this is a people so tribally ferocious, he insists, that they hate Americans, “Not because of what we do or who we are but because of what we are not: Arabs.”
I would only add that it's a great shame that a reputable publisher, Doubleday, put out this book. I don't think that would have been the case if its subject matter hadn't been Arabs.
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The Time That Remains

Le-temps-qu'il-reste Yesterday I saw Elia Suleiman's latest, "The Time that Remains," at the European Film Festival at CityStars (the festival runs through Tuesday), and really enjoyed it--better than his last, "Divine Intervention." The film chronicles Suleiman's own family's experience of the Nakbah and the Israeli occupation of Nazareth, up to the present. It's largely filmed in the house he grew up in, and based on interviews he conducted with his dying father. It is a very touching tribute to his parents, among other things. The film has Suleiman's typically deadpan humour (a foul-mouthed, alcoholic neighbour who--ever since getting a job at a gas station, and hence access to copious amounts of gasoline--regularly threatens to set himself on fire; a school principle who scolds the young Suleiman: "Who told you America is Imperialist?"). But it's dominated by sounds and silence, more than dialogue, by wittily orchestrated scenes, poignant and hilarious visual gags. Rendering Palestinian history as a stripped down, stylized tragi-comedy, a series of personal/historical vignettes, turns out to be particularly effective. There is a great attention to visual and auditory details, which accumulate to create increasingly moving patterns and rhythms. For me the film faltered a little in its third half, when Suleiman himself entered the scene. The way he acts--as a cardboard cutout of himself, basically--suggests his total alienation, his current position as a "mute observer," as one critic observes, but is also so disaffected it drains the scenes of any emotion. His take on contemporary Palestine--as opposed to that of his childhood--also seemed less specific and original. But it is a fascinating, moving, witty film. Here is a nice round-up of critical reactions. Suleiman was also on hand afterwards for a question and answer session. He noted that for him every time he can remove dialogue from the story it's a "victory," because silence is the most troubling thing for power--"even words of opposition comfort power," whereas "silence frightens it." He also mentioned that he had to get permission to use an Israeli tank for the film and that, ironically, the the only part of the film the Israeli authorities objected to was the scene in which Israeli soldiers rob a Palestinian house (there are more serious crimes committed). They also wanted a thanks in the film credits for letting him use the tank--now that sounds like something out of one of his films.
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Birds of the Nile

Fathi Abdel-Waheb and Abeer Sabry Fathi Abdel-Waheb and Abeer Sabry My last foray into the Cairo Film Festival was to go see عصافير اانيل ("Birds of the Nile") last night. The film is based on the work of the novelist Ibrahim Aslan, which already inspired a great Egyptian film, the 1991 Kit-Kat. "Birds of the Nile" is no Kit-Kat, however. At least from what I saw: I didn't stay through the film. I'll admit that extraneous factors may have made me impatient, yesterday: I'd gotten up at 6am to go to Alexandria and back, and the Good News Cinema at the Hyatt for some reason played the film with the volume turned up to ear-splitting levels. In a more tolerant mood, I might have staid through the film--but I doubt my final opinion would have been different. From the trite and obvious sound track (funny music for funny scenes; sad music for sad scenes), to the indifferent cinematography, to the melodramatic clichés, to the voice-over narration, it all reminded me of a soap opera rather than a film. There was none of the lightness, irony and surprise of Alsan's work. Unfortunately, because I'd really been looking forward to this one. The poster for the 1991 Daoud Abdel-Sayed film Kit-Kat The poster for the 1991 Daoud Abdel-Sayed film Kit-Kat
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The Mummy

The_Night_of_Counting_the_Years Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Fund recently helped restore the 1969 classic المومياء\ ليله ان تحصی السنين ("The Night of Counting the Years/The Mummy") by Shady Abdel-Salam, and the film was shown at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and, last night, at the Cairo International Film Festival. (Apparently, Scorsese saw "a completely pink" 16 millimeter version of the film, in 1976, at a home screening, and never forgot it.) The film is based on the true story of the discovery of an incredible cache of Pharaonic mummies, in the late 19th century, in the mountains near Luxor. The cache had been found by a local tribe, who kept its location secret and slowly sold its contents on the black market. But the authorities discovered the cave, and transferred its contents to the Egyptian Museum, where they are today. Framed by these true events, the film tells the story of two brothers, sons of the tribe's dead chief, facing their inheritance. The film is famously beautiful. Abdel-Salam paid great attention to costumes and scenery, and he used the Pharaonic temples in Luxor, the desert, the Nile river, the tribesmen and women and in their flowing black garments and the soldiers in their bright red tarboushes, to compose shot after breath-taking shot. The pace is slow, solemn, dream-like. The dialogue is all in Formal Arabic, much of it is close to prose poetry--and it's declaimed like poetry. A friend I saw the film with compared it to Greek tragedy. The film raises the question of nationalism versus tribalism, of historical identity, and of how one lives with and what one makes of the past. None of this is resolved neatly: the final scene, which is truly stunning, shows the young tribal chief--who has made the "right" decision and handed over his tribe's pilfered patrimony to the state's modern, knowledge-seeking archeologists--in a state of evident pain, loss and fear. It's a very slow film, and the acting can seem stilted. But the deliberate pace allows images to grow unforgettable, and the film's solemnity is what gives the story its power, its aura of legend.
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Heliopolis

Hanan Motawe' in Heliopolis Hanan Motawe On Thursday evening, I went to the (very crowded) premiere of the new film Heliopolis--the Egyptian entry in the Arab film competition at the Cairo International Film Festival. The film is the first feature by Ahmad Abdalla, who was the editor on Ibrahim Al Battout's Ain Shems. Like Battout's film, Heliopolis is independent, in the sense that it was made on a shoestring, with actors and crew volunteering their time (unlike Ain Shems, it did get the Censor's approval before starting to shoot). My impressions after the jump... The film stars some well-known actors like Khaled Abul Naga and some relative unknowns. It follows five parallel stories in contemporary Heliopolis. There is a university student doing research on the neighborhood; an engaged couple looking for appliances and an apartment; a Christian man thinking about emigrating to join his mother and brother; a hotel receptionist whose family thinks she's working abroad; and a conscript sitting all day in his guard box. When I spoke to him last week, Abdalla told me the film was about people "whose lives don't change." None of the characters advance towards their goals, and several of them describe their day as "wasted." The conscript--whose name we never learn, who never says a line, and who managers nonetheless to elicit our interest and our sympathy--is a particularly affecting example of this. (How many times have you walked past these poor kids scattered around official buildings like so much human baggage, dropped off from police trucks in the morning, and picked up late at night?) The theme of emigration, of wanting to be somewhere else, is linked to this sense of waste and present throughout--particularly in a surprising but effective dream sequence. I was pleasantly surprised by Heliopolis. It's a slow film, and it doesn't try to do anything ground-breaking. But I appreciated the naturalistic dialogue, the smooth editing and plotting, the slow accumulation of details, and the mostly subtle treatment of its points. (There were a few good jokes, too). Heliopolis is a cautious but polished effort by a first-time director. Some of the friends I saw the film with disagreed with me, but I thought it struck a convincing balance between its larger point about the stasis of Egyptian society and the need, nonetheless, for a narrative framework. I'd like to see Abdalla keep his understated style but tell a story where things do happen next time.
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(Very dark) "Tales from Dayrut"

Many years ago, our dear friend Robin Moger (a translator and Arabic professor today) came bounding out of his room in the Arabist household, waving a book and raving about an Egyptian writer he's just discovered and who he described as funny, dark, twisted and utterly original: Mohamed Mustagab. He made such a fuss over the guy that I never forgot the name. Last year, AUC Press put out the first translation of Mustagab's work into English, by the (seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent) Humphrey Davies. "Tales from Dayrut" includes stories from the collection "Dayrut el-Sherif" (Dayrut was Mustagab's hometown) and "The Secret History of Nu'man Abd al-Hafiz"--it's hard to know if the works have included in their entirety or have been excerpted (I suspect so) because there is no introduction. The late Mustagab, one of Egypt's great satirists, was born in Asyut in 1938 (he died in 2006). Mustagab was largely self-educated (he only had a high school degree). He moved to Cairo, found employment at the Academy of the Arabic Language, and published his first short story in 1969. Mustagab's work is indeed original to the point of being queer; dark to the point of being terrifying; and often wickedly funny. Some of the stories have mythical, magical elements, perhaps inspired by the way events are explained or recounted in the place of Mustagab's childhood. In other stories, the author takes life in his small, rural, upper-Egyptian home-town and exposes a fantasmagorically dark underside. In "Bughayli Bridge," a village policeman decides he wants to actually solve a murder, and has the river dredged--which leads to dozens of bodies, all the murder victims of recent memory, being fished out in front of the assembled and increasingly hysterical village. That story opens with this citation (from the back cover of the book), one of my favourites:
"From the beginning--and even long before the beginning--we have had to put our faith in the fact that fish dwell in water, bats in ruins, teachers in schools, peace of mind in death, foxes in fields, monks in monasteries, falsehood in books, seeds in cracks, poison in menstrual blood, and wisdom in the aftermath of events; and the best of you, good gentlemen, is the one who is spared either the wisdom or the events."
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Arabic lit, recently translated and reviewed

Several interesting reviews of recently translated Arabic fiction: In The National, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reviews the latest by Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, a book about her own mother's dramatic life. Wilson Goldie writes that al-Shaykh's works "walk a fine line between what could be considered prototypical chick lit and enduring literary fiction." Also at The National, John O'Connel reviews Bahaa Taher's "Sunset Oasis," now out in translation (from the consistently good Humphrey Davies) and getting a lot of attention. I liked Taher's "Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery" but I hesitated to read "Sunset Oasis"--even after it won the first International Prize for Arabic Fiction (often referred to as the Arabic Booker)--because of bad memories from his novel "Love In Exile", which drove me crazy with its clichés and self-indulgence, and which also featured a relationship between a Western woman and an Arab man. And the Complete Review looks at a recent translation of the novel The Hedgehog by the Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer.
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Reviews of books on Egypt: Bradley and Rutherford

Only two books have come out in the last few years describing Egypt in the late Mubarak era: John Bradley's journalistic Inside Egypt and the more academic Egypt After Mubarak by Bruce Rutherford. I have looked through both (Rutherford's book I did not read in detail yet.) Although parts of Bradley's book are vividly written, I did not like it and found much of it over the top or too narrowly focused. I won't enter into a detailed critique here, but want to point out that Jason Brownlee (an Egypt expert at the University of Texas, Austin) has written a scathing review in Middle East Journal accusing Bradley of plagiarism: Brownlee on Bradley Read the whole review here [PDF]. You can also read Robert Vitalis' review of Rutherford here [PDF], also in MEJ. I think the Rutherford book, from what I've read, even if quite dry at times makes a good contribution to the understanding of the judicial system in Egypt and a thought-provoking argument about liberalism and Islamism in contemporary Egyptian politics.
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Review: A Child in Palestine

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Review of A Child in Palestine: The Cartoons of Naji al-Ali
Published by Verso, 2009
Introduction by Joe Sacco
Text by Abdul Hadi Ayyad



Most people familiar with Palestine are familiar with the work of Naji al-Ali, the creator of Hanthala. The cartoon of a ten-year-old refugee boy facing away from us, his hands behind his back, is the ubiquitous visual symbol of Palestinians expelled from their homeland and living in camps, silently witnessing the tragedies of Palestinian life since 1948. You can find al-Ali's iconic drawing spraypainted on walls not just around the Arab world but in European and American cities, as a pendant worn around the neck, on tee-shirts, sewn into keffiyehs, animated and all over the internet, and, just for example, on a cut-out sheet of paper taped to the back of the laptop on which I write this essay. Within Palestine and the Palestine solidarity movement internationally, Naji al-Ali's presence is equal perhaps to that only of Mahmoud Darwish as a cultural unifier and voice for the voiceless.
 Naji Al-Ali Israeli tank shoots dove.jpgSo it is shocking to consider that it is not until now, 22 years after al-Ali was assassinated in London (he was shot by unknown assailants on July 22, 1987) and more than 48 years since he was first published by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, that the first English-language collection of his cartoons is making its appearance. Despite several online galleries, tracking Hanthala down in print in the West has been quite difficult. Therefore we can all thank and praise the editors of Verso Books for their decision to create a slender introduction to al-Ali's graphic work for the Angolphone world. They have selected 100 cartoons and arranged them roughly by theme in five chapters: Palestine; Human Rights; US Dominance, Oil and Arab Collusion; the Peace Process; and Resistance. There is a brief introduction to each chapter, and each cartoon is accompanied with a short caption providing translation and explanation. The whole book is furnished with an introduction by cartoonist Joe Sacco, probably al-Ali's heir as the single person most associated with the crossroads of Palestine and comics. cartoon_naji_al-ali.gif
 
The work itself is as powerful as one can imagine for a cartoonist who's voice was so threatening to those in power that he had to be silenced with bullets. These are not funny cartoons, not even in the sense of the droll sarcasm associated with editorial cartoons in America. Al-Ali's work is replete with bloody struggle against ghoulish enemies; maimed bodies of children and bullet-ridden adults are wept over by wailing mourners under skies of solid inky black. It is frequently black night in Hanthala's world, without stars and only a crescent moon to see by. Bodies and landscapes transform surreally into bullets, keys, barbed wire, bombs. The leaders of the Arab world become grotesque slugs, fat and corrupt; the Israelis are vampiric goblins. The recurring representative  of the "commoner," the Arab peasant or worker who becomes a militant is stabbed, hung, and shot all the while a little boy watches silently (usually). They are a cri de couer of horror and resolute endurance. 
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Technically, al-Ali's line is usually called "simple" and at times even "crude"--shaky, without variation in weight, using cross hatching or grey ink wash to give the figures roundess and shading without detailed rendering. This style is not dissimilar to other cartoonists and animators internationally of al-Ali's generation working in the 60s and 70s, especially those associated with the underground or hippie movements in the West, like Fred Wolf or Bruno Bozzetto. But the power of al-Ali's work can be seen in the endless creative variation of the visual metaphors used. Recurring elements are recombined and reimagined to produce inventive new ways of reiterating al-Ali's consistent and unwavering message, which is as stark as his images. The Arab commoner (Palestinian, Lebanese, or other), man and woman, thin and starving, is faced with multiple enemies who are in fact in collusion: the U.S., the Israeli soldier, and the leaders and "fat cats" of the Arab world (whether dressed traditionally or in Western business suits), who will always betray the armed struggle that is necessary for Palestine to be reclaimed. An analysis of the Arab ruler's simultaneous repression of their people, dependence on oil wealth and obeisance to the U.S. is neatly summarized in a single, striking, wordless composition. 
 NajiAlAliPalestine.jpg 
Al-Ali's images also provides a quick and easy way to debunk some common Western myths about the history of the struggle for Palestine. Human rights and democratic discourse were a part of Palestinian demands from the beginning, and were blocked by the Israelis. The objection to settlements is not new or recent, but dates to their inception in the 1970s, and from the beginning were recognized as an obstacle to peace by al-Ali. The Arab states and the leaders of the PLO are not "moderate" but in fact capitulate too readily to U.S. and Israel demands and have been doing so for decades. 

Still, one is left feeling that this book only represents the barest beginning for exposing al-Ali and Hanthala to English-speaking audiences. Obviously, 100 cartoons selected from a body of work that includes tens of thousands can only serve to pique the interest of those seriously interested in Naji al-Ali. Strangely, Verso did not credit an editor for this collection, nor is any explanation or rationale for the choice of cartoons given. I know from browsing Arabic-language collections, for example, that many of al-Ali's cartoons do include much text and dialogue despite his reputation as a wordless cartoonist for largely illiterate masses. One can only presume that these cartoons were left out for ease of translation, but they are precisely the ones least accessible to the non-Arabic audience.
 naji_al-ali_1222692589_03.jpg 
More importantly, and disappointingly, there is no critical biography of al-Ali or attempt at cogent analysis. The written material, credited to Abdul Hadi Ayyad only in the copyright errata inside the book, is generic and prone to platitudes and hagiography, and no more informative about al-Ali's life or work than his Wikipedia entry (actually slightly less). Its attempts at translation and explanation for the cartoons frequently overdetermine what appears to me to be deliberate ambiguity of images. I am left feeling that one of the most influential  and important cartoonists of the second half of the 20th century, of the non-English-speaking world, and of the global decolonization struggle, is still without a compendium that will be of use to more than casually interested audiences.  One hopes that with enough interest in this book it will be forthcoming. 


Ethan Heitner is a member of Adalah-NY: The Coalition For Middle East Justice and a student of cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has previously written for TomPaine.com and Cairo magazine. His cartoons will be available at www.freedomfunnies.com soon.
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Londonstani on "The Islamist"

Londonstani, a former Cairo drinking buddy and journalist who blogs over at our counter-insurgency obsessed friends Abu Muqawama (they who speak of themselves in the third person - just teasing, guys), has a great review of Ed Husain's The Islamist, a book about the radicalization of British Muslims. Londonstani makes a very good point about its superficial treatment of "traditional Islam" vs. modern Islamism (whether radical or not) and the importance of understanding the rigid traditionalist socio-cultural concepts that are perpetuated among migrant communities (sometimes even when these things evolve in the "home country"):

"This ‘traditional’ outlook is in general terms shared by most (if not all) immigrant Muslim communities. Husain comes from a Bengali family background, but the cultural outlook he describes is shared by Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Somalis and Nigerians. That’s not to say all these cultures are exactly the same, but in the main they exhibit large measures of racism (often against each other), sexism, tribalism and a quietist approach to dealing with the outside world that fail to meet the challenges their children experience in reconciling their backgrounds with their everyday lives.

In a depressingly high frequency of cases, these ‘traditional’ outlooks result in harmful and exploitative practices. Two years ago, I got to know several young men from Bengali backgrounds who lived in housing estates in Husain’s old stomping ground. One of the guys, Fasial, I knew from the local gym. He was bearded and religious, and an upstanding member of his community. Three times a week he helped organise a bus that took elderly residents of his housing estate to their local church. And could be found most afternoons teaching football to pre-teens in the estate’s playground.

After knowing Fasial for about six weeks, he started telling me how he had been a gang member until a visit to Bangladesh, where he found religion. A couple of weeks after that initial conversation, he told me how he had ended up in Bangladesh against his will because his father wanted him to marry his cousin. At his extended family’s village, Faisal had been poisoned by relatives angry that his intended bride had chosen him instead of another cousin who lived in the village. Faisal was sick for weeks and thought he might die. He found religion on what he thought would be his deathbed. When he got better, his newly acquired religious persona allowed him the gravitas to resist community pressure and reject his father’s plans.

The other friends I had made had equally horrific stories. And some were plain surreal involving severe beatings as part of what can only be described as a voodoo ritual to banish the evil eye.

Islamism addresses the questionable ‘traditional’ practices of the families its raw recruits come from. This is a large part of its appeal. If you find yourself in a lecture hall where young Muslims are told the way of life they struggled to follow is actually itself ‘un-Islamic’, you will be able to hear the collective intake of air and the surprised mumblings of the crowd."

Go read the rest. Abu Muqawama recently became an official blog of the Center for a New American Security (the old security sucked should be their motto) and their comment counts have been going through the roof lately.

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Shukair's "My cousin Condoleeza"


"Ma cousine Condoleezza : Et autres nouvelles" (Mahmoud Shukair)

Click below for Le Monde's review of Palestinian writer Mahmoud Shukair "My cousin Condoleeza and other stories", originally released in Arabic and now available in French. And here's a review of his previous collection of stories, Mordechai's Mustache and His Wife's Cats.
Ma cousine Condoleezza de Mahmoud Shukair Kazhem Ali ne laisse personne s'asseoir sur le siège avant de son taxi parce que c'est la place de son idole Ronaldo. Abd-el Ghaffar veut créer un comité pour faire taire les chiens errants. Nômane " le cinglé " rêve d'épouser Nahla, et Nahla voudrait échapper à cette galerie d'imbéciles... Ecrivain et journaliste, Mahmoud Shukair met en scène, dans ce recueil de nouvelles et de poèmes en prose, des Palestiniens qui se cherchent, avec un brin de folie, dans une société ballottée par ses contradictions, microcosme villageois où les grandes guerres se transforment en petites batailles du quotidien. Les personnalités publiques subissent aussi des transformations. " Shakira " devient " Shakoura ", " Moustafa'annan " sonne mieux que " Kofi Annan ", et Naomi Campbell devient la fille du commis boulanger " Ne'meh Kamel ". Nous voici perdus dans les réseaux d'un gigantesque téléphone arabe. Tandis que la planète entière regarde cette région du monde, le nouvelliste renverse les situations. Cette vision de l'intérieur est à la fois comique et bouleversante : le regard de nos Palestiniens sur le monde sent un peu le renfermé. Ma cousine Condoleezza offre une tendre caricature de la situation régionale et mondiale. Leïla Pailhès Traduit de l'arabe par Stéphanie Dujols, éd. Sindbad, 154 p.
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New book on Egypt, "Egypt between democracy and Islamism"

Another new book about Egypt in the twilight of the Mubarak era has come out:


"L'Egypte entre démocratie et islamisme : Le système Moubarak à l'heure de la succession" (Jean-Noël Ferrié)

I haven't gotten a chance to read it yet, but from the blurb it looks at how the "Mubarak system" works and its success in preventing a much-anticipated social explosion. For a look a Ferrié's approach to Egypt, see this article [PDF], from November 2006.
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On Hichem Djait

I read this Angry Arab post this morning and could not agree more:
Hichem Djait: Probably the most important and original scholar on Islam. I have been reading about the origins of the Great Fitnah in Islam. It is easy to discover that the best book there is on the subject is by the brilliant Tunisian scholar, Hichem Djait: La Grande Discorde, which appeared in an excellent Arabic translation but not in an English translation. Djait is largely unknwn in US academia although he is in my opinion one of the best contemporary scholars on Islam. This is a man who is equally fluent in German philosophy--in German--and in French historiography--in French--and in Arabic writings--in Arabic. Only one of his books is available in English, L'Europe et l'Islam. That book should be read along with Said's Orientalism and Rodinson's La Fascination de l'Islam as the essential readings on the subject (and Irwin's latest Dangerous Knowledge, albeit as a critical counterpoint). In the introduction to his book on Fitnah, Djait points out (with surprise) that there are no studies about the subject, with the exception of a book by Taha Husayn which is literary in nature. Husayn (contrary to his reputation) was quite apologetic in his writings on Islam. Djait is great in being critical of Orientalist literature and critical of the early Islamic sources. Politically, Djait surprises me: this brilliant scholar has Saddamist Arab nationalist sympathies.
Hichem Djait's Fitna is incredibly rich, detailed history and the best book on the subject I know of. Whatever you do, don't get the book with the same main title by Kepel. Djait's book is the real thing, and considering the creepy anti-Shiism rising in the Sunni Arab world it's probably worth re-reading.
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