Pork rinds, known in the American South and the English North as crackling, are a delicious beer snack consisting essentially of the roasted skin of pigs. In the video below, the Muslim owners of deli in New York receives a consignment of the snack and ponders and whether or not they should sell it. A particularly interesting point is that the pork rinds appear not to contain any pork (indeed most ¢99 renditions of pork rinds consist of salt and flavorings imprinted on a soy wafer). Before this ontological conundrum can be resolved, the package of pork rinds is recalled... and taken to the Jewish deli across the road.
The latest episode of the brilliant radio program This American Life ventures outside America to look at stories that happen around bridges and other passage-ways around the world. The second segment is about the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. I'm not sure how up-to-date the interview with the forthright and loquacious owner of a Gaza tunnel is (there is no mention of the undgerground barrier) but it has lots of great details, including how much Hamas requires tunnel operators to pay the families of workers who are killed by collapses (or by gas pumped in by the Egyptians); the fact that profits from tunnels decreased (from $10,000 to $1,500 a month) as more and more people got into the business; and the smuggler's claim that most weapon smuggling takes place from Gaza to Egypt.
The first story in the show--about a man in China who patrols a bridge where suicides are common--is also great.
I've been traveling and then had trouble logging into the blog, so it's been a while since I posted. But here's a collection of interesting culture links from the last weeks.
1. Beirut 39 -- an event that selected 39 writers under 39 from the region, and aimed at raising the profile of emerging Arab writers -- came to a close. I'm eager to read the anthology that came out of it (even though I am not really a fan of anthologies...) Here's an article about the event in the Daily Star, but I haven't found many reviews yet.
2. The latest edition of the Palestinian Literary Festival -- a literary festival that travels around the Occupied Territories, because it is so hard for audiences to all gather in one place, and whose participants regularly face long waits at checkpoints and harassment by Israeli security forces -- also came to an end. Not before Ethan Bronner could lament, in the NYTimes, that it hadn't held some joint events with a concurrent Israeli festival.
Again, it seemed like the two groups of writers could benefit from hearing one another’s reflections. Should the festivals meet? Should Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, A. B. Yehoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn, all of whom were speakers in Israel, join Geoff Dyer, Victoria Brittain and Raja Shehadeh, the writers on the other side?
Yes, said Anthony David, an American biographer and professor at the Bard Honors College of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. “It is ridiculous to have writers from all over the world in the same city and not meeting each other,” he said as he waited in Ramallah for a reading to begin. “The boycott thinking here among Palestinians is so entrenched that people are threatened by meeting people from the Israeli side. Building networks is the only way to undermine nefarious forces.”
But Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian-British author who runs the Palestinian festival, disagreed. “I feel that Palestinians are too often seen as an adjunct or reverse side of another coin,” she said. “Palestine is an entity in its own right and it deserves its own festival. If the day comes when Jerusalem is a shared capital, then we can reconsider.”
Yeah, the Palestinians don't get to keep their olive groves or their home in "contested" East Jerusalem, can they have their own literary festival, for #*@*'s sake?
3. At the Guardian, Jack Shenker gave the Cairene publishing house Merit the kudos it so amply deserves.
Mohamed Hashem's office seems an unlikely home for Egypt's nascent literary revolution: to find it you have to ascend a shabby set of stairs in a downtown Cairo apartment block shared by, among others, the Egyptian Angling Federation and an orthopaedic surgeon. It's a far cry from the slick headquarters of Egypt's biggest publishing houses. Yet on any given day it's here on Hashem's threadbare sofas that you'll find the cream of young Egyptian writing talent, chain-smoking cigarettes, chatting with literary critics and thumbing through some of the thousands of books stacked from floor to ceiling.
4. At the National Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reviewed the latest edition of the home-grown Lebanese art event Home Works, and wonders if it hasn't fallen victim to its own success:
And this is the thing. Home Works was never meant to be a sprawling international art event, a spectacle divorced from its context. When Ashkal Alwan began in 1994, its mandate was to engage the city and create artworks that tackled urgent social, economic and political issues inextricably linked to the experience of Beirut and its relationship to the region and the world.
Home Works was an alternative to big-budget biennials and splashy arts festivals well before either of those models was even plausible or desired in a place like Beirut. For better or worse, in its fifth incarnation, Home Works became the very thing it never needed or wanted to be: an art-world power summit, an occasion for lavish lunches, dinners and after parties, an event with little to no local audience or consequence that rolls into town, makes a lot of noise, blows a lot of hot air and disappears.
5. At Al Ahram Weekly, novelist and critic Youssef Rakkah reviewed AUC Professor Samia Mehrez's just-out-in-English Egypt's Culture Wars: Politics and Paradise.
By juggling straightforward political commitments with bookish frameworks in which they do not always obviously fit -- freedom of expression and gender awareness, for example, with Pierre Bourdieu's notion of literary autonomy -- Mehrez manages, for better or worse, to bring depth to arguably shallow cultural products like Alaa Al-Aswany's phenomenal bestseller, The Yaqoubian Building ; by the same token, she takes purely academic topics -- the family in Egyptian literature of the 1990s, say -- out of the narrow parameters of literary criticism. And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or "intellectual" achievement, what makes Egypt's Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.
6. And at Al Masry Al Youm English, I reviewed the latest collection of short stories (actually written before his novels) from Hamdi Abu Golayyel and the recently translated Drumbeat by Mohammed El Bisatie.
- South Sudan's biggest ethnic group: On your tractor, if you can | The Economist
On the Dinkas.
- Al-Ahram Weekly | Opinion | Islamist shortcomings
Hamzawy on the limits of Islamist participation when politics remains closed off.
- Haim Saban, producer, in Hollywood, Washington, Israel : The New Yorker
Profile of key Israel lobby funder.
- Postcard from Tehran - By Hooman Majd | Foreign Policy
An informative piece.
Maati Monjib is a writer and political activist who paid dearly for his views: he was exiled from Morocco for years under the late King Hassan II. A humble and highly perceptive man, his recent piece for the Arab Reform Bulletin subtly highlights the perils of a regime that seeks to co-opt everything: sooner or later, it will find itself with no credible mainstream political opponents.
This is what is happening to Morocco's "historic" opposition party, the left-wing USFP, whose leaders have been pried away from a reformist position on a democratic reform of the constitution by the peddling of cabinet positions and other advantages to its leaders. It's a sad statement on the much-touted transition of the last 15 years, with the USFP forming a "government of alternance" (I can never find the right English word for this) in 1997 only to be thoroughly discredited by the process:
In an April 21 letter published in local newspapers, three of the top leaders of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) informed party leader Abdelwahed Radi that they were freezing their membership in the political bureau until the next party congress was held. One of the three was Ali Bouabid, the forty-something son of USFP founder Abderrahim Bouabid, who represents a youthful faction within the party that believes that the policy of unconditionally backing the monarchy has stalled democratic reforms. The three were upset at Radi’s statement, upon his election as speaker of parliament’s lower house, that constitutional reform was in the hands of the king alone. They argued that Radi was renouncing one of the most important decisions of the last USFP party congress, namely to seek “political and constitutional reform to extricate the country from the crisis of its struggling democracy.”
This controversy within the USFP is emblematic of problems inside other political parties as well, which struggle with how to pursue their principles in light of Morocco’s patronage based system and the centripetal force of the monarchy. Changes inside the USFP—which has participated in every Moroccan government since 1998—over the last decade also are at the heart of the current problems.
As they say, read the whole thing.
From a new ICG report on Sudan and its neighbors:
Sudan is of utmost strategic importance for Egypt, which maintains a large presence in Khartoum, including a sizeable and active embassy that is often better informed about the host country’s dynamics than any other foreign presence. Cairo’s foreign ministry operates a department dedicated specifically to Sudan policy. It is one of only two such separate departments in the ministry and is reportedly a gateway to career advancement and prominent positions within the government. The intelligence bureau also plays a prominent role on Sudan policy and has the ear of the president.
. . .
My favorite political film of all time is Costa Gravas' "Z", an allegory about the political situation in Greece in the late 1960s made shortly after the Colonels' Coup there. It was shot in recently liberated Algeria, with a smattering of great French actors like Yves Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant and the fantastic music of Mikis Theodorakis, who mixed martial beats with the ticks of an IBM Selectric typewriter in a fantastic final scene in which military coup plotters are charged with the murder of Montand's assassinated politician. Trintignant's prosecutor who investigates the assassination, with his hyper-chic graduated shades, stays icily cool as he is put under pressure to bury the case. It is a case study in how dictatorships and police states work.
For me, "Z" is not only a perfectly executed political thriller, but a fantastic testimony of the political solidarity that existed across the Mediterranean against a series of takeovers by reactionary forces in the 1960s, often with the backing of the CIA. (Indeed, for much of the world, the 1960s were not a period of great liberation and free love as Westerners tend to remember, but of the establishment of tyrannies.) The irony of course is that "Z" was itself shot in Boumedienne's Algeria, the product of a coup against Ben Bella which rid the country of any democratic, constitutional institutions.
Many of the scenes in "Z" will seem eerily familiar to Egyptians and others in this region, from the use of plainclothes thugs against democracy activists to the ubiquity of police and army officers and their plots against any challengers. (Right now, an Egyptian might replace "Z" with "B"...)
I mention this because AUC is hosting Costa Gravas tonight (details after the jump) in a panel discussion with veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and French journalist and diplomat Eric Rouleau.
Today the New York Times pointed out that Hosni Mubarak turned 82 yesterday, and is still bunkered in Sharm al-Sheikh where he is recovering from his operation and receiving foreign dignitaries.
The president’s continued convalescence far from the capital underscored the frailty not just of the man but of a nation with no clear political plan for who will govern should he die or step down, political scientists here said.
The president has been back to work, meeting with foreign leaders and even giving a national address on Sinai Liberation Day. But he did not give his annual Labor Day speech last week, and has not yet returned to Cairo, where protests rage daily about low wages. He continues to look relatively frail and his health remains the focus of intense speculation.
“The issue is not about his health today,” said Wahid Abdel Meguid, deputy director of the state-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It is about the ambiguity of the future with regards to the transfer of power, be it in the near or far future. There is increasing anxiety, which used to be prevalent among limited circles of intellectuals and elites, but now it has spread throughout society.”
To address that concern, the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram ran a front page paean to Mr. Mubarak on Tuesday that not only flattered, but also offered an indication of what the public should expect. The headline beneath a picture of Mr. Mubarak said, “The Maker of the Future.”
“We shall not forget to say to him ‘happy birthday’ on this grand day that is dear to our souls,” wrote the newspaper’s chief editor, Osama Saraya. “We say it to him and our hearts flutter with happiness for his recovery after a therapeutic trip after which he returned to arduous work inside and outside to protect Egypt’s ability and place and pivotal role in the interest of all Arab brothers to prevent wars and resume peace for the sake of building nations.”
I think this fairly summarizes the issues at stake — the uncertainty over succession, the expectation that he won't step down soon (or ever) but that we are nearing the end of the Mubarak era, as well as the anxiety of state newspaper editors and others over the coming year or two. Hosni Mubarak, as I've briefly hinted before, is almost certainly seriously ill. It may be complications from the stroke he allegedly suffered from after the death of his grandson, when he disappeared from public view for a month. A recent post by the highly perceptive Zeinobia yesterday, showing partial paralysis of his left hand, would lend credence to the stroke theory. Here are the pics Zeinobia put up:
The lack of movement and position of the left hand is certainly striking.
Since the operation in Germany, however, the rumor mill in Cairo has largely focused on whether Mubarak may have cancer, and that his operation was to remove a tumor. According to the most elaborate and plausible version I've heard, Mubarak does indeed has cancer, but not of the pancreas as many have speculated. It's a nearby area that was affected. He had been treated in Egypt for a while for this, but the German medical team decided it would be best to conduct the operation in Germany, with its own tools. This scenario would give him 12-18 months to live, conveniently close to the deadline for the next presidential elections. If it had been pancreatic cancer, a particularly nasty form of the disease, the prognostic would be six months.
To me, the issue is not so much as to what Mubarak suffers from exactly (the rumors may be wrong, although tellingly some high-level foreign sources agree with the above analysis), but rather that it raises question about who rules Egypt today, as well as who has governed for the last few years of diminishing health. It's known among diplomatic circles in Cairo that Mubarak has been taking fewer meetings, leaning more and more on his chief aide Suleiman Awad as an aide-memoire in the last few years. It's been generally acknowledged that foreign policy, the one area where Mubarak is most active, is today largely in the hands of Omar Suleiman, and most domestic policies in the hands of the cabinet and Gamal Mubarak. The fragmentation of power in recent years is now common wisdom because the recent operation made it obvious; the question raised is how long has this been the case?
There are other factors that suggest that the operation may have precipitated either a conflict within these centers of power, or that the lack of an effective president to be final arbiter is having an effect. In recent months we've seen a backlash on the economic ministers and, implicitly, Gamal Mubarak coming from presidential chief of staff Zakariya Azmi and other regime grandees. We've seen that the Gang of Six, the senior members of the NDP who appear to have key decision-making power, are an important but not necessarily united force. We've heard continuous rumors about Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif being replaced, although that may have been because the last time Mubarak was operated he dismissed Nazif's predecessor, Atef Ebeid, three days after he returned to business (and that signaled a major change in economic policy).
The research firm Stratfor, in one of its largely unsubstantiated missives, recently wrote about the rumors that Nazif will go and that a vice-president will finally be appointed, after 29 years of Mubarak refusing to do so:
Upon his return to Cairo, Mubarak is expected to announce his replacement for the premiership, as well as his choice for vice president. According to the STRATFOR source, Mubarak is selecting from three individuals for the prime minister’s post. The first is Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief and long-rumored successor to Mubarak. The second is Zakaria Azmi, a prominent member of the People’s Assembly and close friend of Mubarak. The third is Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, Egypt’s minister of Civil Aviation and former commander of the Egyptian air force.
It's interesting that Ahmed Shafiq's name is increasingly mentioned, as is Azmi's, and that these elder statesmen of Mubarakism are expected to be one-term presidents before Gamal Mubarak is elected. Maybe Stratfor knows something I don't, but the idea of a puppet strongman being the midwife to Gamal seems ridiculous to me. What possible incentive could he have after he becomes president?
I don't know who Stratfor's source is, but I doubt it's better informed than a guest at some of Heliopolis' finest tables. But the question of to what extent is succession being planned by Mubarak (never mind Gamal's pretty obvious ambition) and to what extent there is overt competition to replace him is one of the most important in Egypt today. Competition inside the regime is perhaps one of the most dangerous outcomes of the lack of a clear, generally accepted, successor — especially as factions would be tempted to manipulate pockets of the public that are eager for change. Egypt has seen such populist manipulations many times before, and the recent attacks on the "economic reformists" are unusual (after all it's not like their policies weren't endorsed by Mubarak or like anyone opposed them publicly before). Unfortunately, this now appears more likely that any kind of reasonably democratic transition, since there has been very little done to prepare for that.
So the outlook for Egypt in the next two years isn't great: unless there's a dramatic change like the appointment of a vice-president, Mubarak is likely to run again and stay in power until he dies or, now marginally more likely, step down but only at the last moment possible. In the meantime, tension is growing — not only between the regime and its opponents, but also within the regime itself. Nature abhors a vacuum, and while Egypt does not yet have a vacuum of authority, security, or governance, it does have a vacuum of information.
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Here's an odd story:
Algerian authorities have arrested an Israeli Mossad agent carrying a fake Spanish passport in the city of Hassi Messaoud near an Egyptian office providing service for oil companies, Algerian Ennahar El Djadid newspaper reported on Tuesday.
According to the Algerian sources, the Mossad agent entered Algeria under the fake identity of a 35-year old Spanish man named Alberto Vagilo, and spent over ten days in the country prior to his arrest.
The report came a week after an Israeli citizen who went missing for several days in Algeria, who was also carrying a Spanish passport, raised suspicions that he might have been kidnapped by al-Qaida.
The man notified the Foreign Ministry that he contacted his family and that he was safe.
The Algerian paper also reported that the Mossad man received entry visas through a European embassy before traveling to the country via Barcelona.
According to the Algerian sources, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), John Pistole visited Algeria last Thursday to negotiate on behalf of the Israeli citizen, as there are no diplomatic relations between Israel and Algeria.
Ennahar El Djadid went on to report that the man has a good command of Arabic, is well acquainted with the city, and even participated in the Muslim prayers in the Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque.
There are reports elsewhere that up to six Israelis have been arrested in Algeria, and that the affair is causing an inter-regime raucus. It's all extremely strange — what would an Israeli operative be doing in Algeria, why would he be in oil-producing areas, what's the role of the Egyptian firm involved, and how come this is all happening as Algeria's state-owned oil company, Sonatrach, gets a new CEO after months of corruption investigations and apparent attempts at political destabilization? And how does it fit in the looming succession crisis over Bouteflika's success, for now, in creating a relatively strong presidency? And what does it have to do with the War on Terror in the Sahel?
I've made no secret in the past that I'm a huge fan of the late Egyptian writer Albert Cossery — who wrote in French and lived most of his life in France but whose works are obsessed with the Egyptian mezzeg. Al-Jadid, the literary review, has a fine essay on him:
Born in Cairo in 1913 to bourgeois parents of Syrian origins, Cossery was educated in French schools in Egypt, and was introduced to the classic—Balzac, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Stendhal—by his older brothers. In his early 20s, he became involved in an art collective by the name of Art et Liberte, which defined itself by its allegiance to the Surrealist movement, as well as by its opposition to the Third Reich’s condemnation of Expressionist art. After a good deal of travel, he moved to Paris in 1940 – motivated in part by a desire to see the Second World War in the flesh. He lived first in Montmartre, and then, after the war ended, in Saint-Germain des Pres, where he passed the rest of his life in one room on the 5th floor of the Hotel de Louisiane. Cossery thrived in the intellectual climate of Paris, of which Saint-Germain was then the epicenter; he knew Sartre, Camus, Durrell, Henry Miller, Giacometti, Tzara, Vian and Genet, amongst others. He was not as productive a writer as his colleagues were, delivering on average only one slim novel for every decade of his life (“only imbeciles write every day” he once said in a French television interview), but each book is carefully crafted in a French that is at once masterful, concise and trenchant in its humor.
I suppose I owe a serious blog post after the previous not so serious one. I intend to return to the succession issue in Egypt shortly, but before that wanted to note that the Muslim Brothers have recently announced they will participate in the upcoming Shura Council elections by fielding 15 candidates.
In the last Shura Council elections, none of their candidates were allowed to run, though many tried. Now, they intend to have current MPs try to run for the upper house, hoping that they will benefit from parliamentary immunity during their campaign. Of course that immunity won't be extended to their campaign staff, but they are used to that. It's interesting to see this sign, however minor, of a willingness to continue the project to broaden the Brothers' electoral participation launched in 2005/06 by the former guide, Mahdi Akef. They almost certainly won't get elected, but they are putting a marker out there saying "we are entitled to contest it, and won't stop trying."
In other words, this suggest that they consider the last few years of intense repression a temporary setback, and still have in mind the post-(Hosni) Mubarak endgame of either formalizing their political role or ensuring their growth on the political scene. Food for thought after months of Brotherhood-regime negotiations about succession and the elections: even if these rumors were true, it does not mean they'll stop hedging their bets. Today's demonstration in Midan Tahrir, which included Brotherhood MPs, also suggests that part of the Brotherhood is still making political calculations — i.e. ones based on continued political participation rather than a retreat for which, in counterpart, the regime would give greater it influence on social and religious affairs.
Cairo - Egypt's musician's union on Sunday rejected plans for British singer Elton John to perform at a private concert scheduled for May 18, because of his "controversial remarks attacking religions".
"How do we allow a gay, who wants to ban religions, claimed that the prophet Eissa (Jesus) was gay and calls for Middle Eastern countries to allow gays to have sexual freedom," head of the Egyptian Musician Union, Mounir al-Wasimi told the German Press Agency dpa.
The pop superstar, 63, stirred controversy after his remarks to US celebrity news magazine Parade in February, where he said: "Try being a gay woman in the Middle East - you're as good as dead," after saying he believed Jesus was "gay".
By the way, there is something quite hilarious about how some Egyptians, when speaking in English, refer to homosexual individuals as "a gay," as in, "he is a gay."
A friend sent this picture, which is quite funny:
Here are the links:
- Why Aren’t Democracy Dissidents as Famous as Their Predecessors?
Good question from POMED. I suspect, for some, because they're Arab.
In truth-as International Crisis Group argues in its new report Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints-Turkey's rising profile in the Middle East is a complement to and even dependent on its ties to the West. The attempts to grow the regional economy, create interdependence and foster peace have the potential to stabilize an area that has been threatening to it in the past. And Turkey's main motivation for doing this is not the resurrection of an Ottoman-style caliphate, but the fact that its interests are directly damaged by instability in the Middle East, and secondly its desire to secure and encourage new markets for its rapidly expanding industries.