Cheer up, Israel

The international community has imposed an “emotional blockade” on Israel that has prevented the world from sympathizing with Israeli citizens, according to France’s Ambassador for Human Rights Francois Zimeray.

“World compassion has not gone to Israel,” said Zimeray, noting that both Israelis and Palestinian have suffered as a result of the conflict. “The world does not realize how intense this [Israeli] suffering can be.”
Quick, quick, let's have something that'll cheer up those Israelis. I can only think of the following as adequate to the task — its sophistication and elegance mirrors that of the arguments of Israel's apologists:
Incidentally, having listened obsessively to the above masterpiece for the past week and done quite a lot of digging into the careers of the incomparable Delfin, the sultry Tigresa Del Oriente and undeniable prodigy that is La Pequena Wendy, I must report that this video is not their work alone. If you're a Spanish speaker you will have noticed that the video starts with Delfin's lament that Israel is not accurately portrayed on television. (As any Delfin afficionado will tell you, every Delfin video starts with an ugly truth revealed by the tube, like in his first hit, the tasteful commentary on 9/11 that is Torres Gemelas.) But the production quality of this song — En Tus Tierras Bailares, or "In Your Land I Will Dance" — is actually far above their previous hits. Yes, yes, that includes La Tigresa's unforgettable Anaconda and Wendy's classic ode to beer, Cerveza Cerveza.
The simple reason for this is that it is produced by the quite talented Gaby Kerpel, a Jewish Argentinian folk musician. Why did he decide to recruit Ecuadorian and Peruvian Indians specializing in Andean trucker music for this piece of hasbara? Who knows. I don't even know whether it's exploitative or actually deeply subversive. But I think we are all deeply in his debt.

God Only Knows

No doubt powered by a serious cocktail of amphetamines, Hosni Mubarak undertook his first trip abroad this week since he was hospitalized in Germany — a sign that he is gradually returning to business as usual, or at least that he wants to be seen as doing so. His regimen these days seems to be a meeting a day, and one major speech in two or three months. During his trip abroad — a summit with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he is said to be plotting to corner the hair dye futures market (a hot commodity from the Mediterranean region to the Gulf to South Asia) —Boss Hozz came out with the following pearl:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Wednesday that only God could know who would succeed him following his 29-year-old rule, the official MENA news agency reported.
Dogging a question on his possible successor by an Italian reporter, Mubarak spontaneously said that “only God could know that.”

It reminds me of something a friend of mine who's often sought for commentary on succession used to frequently say about Egypt's post-Mubarak future and the deliberately cultivated ambiguity about it: "not even God himself knows what Mubarak is thinking about succession." This might be an apt time to reflect a to why Mubarak has never designated a successor or appointed a vice-president who would be seen as such. As I see it, there are three main reasons:

  1. In the early Mubarak period, there was a clear alternative from within the regime in Field Marshall Abu Ghazala, who was ousted from his position as minister of defense in 1989 and remained under house arrest (more or less) for the rest of his life. By not appointing a vice-president, Mubarak refrained from formalizing that alternative. After he consolidated power, Mubarak never saw a need to anoint anyone else with the vice-presidency, since even personalities not thought to be presidentiable (such as himself and Anwar al-Sadat) obtained legitimacy from the position. Cultivating a strategic ambiguity about succession has kept attention where Mubarak likes it best: on himself as kingmaker and ultimate decider.
  2. A second related reason has to do with threats from outside Egypt rather than inside it. Had there been a vice-president, it would become tempting for a certain major power (you know who you are!) looking to influence Egypt's domestic and foreign policy to meddle in regime politicking. Just look at Pakistan's history. It would have also been tempting for peer powers in the region — Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Israel — to also have another point of contact within the Egyptian regime that could present a credible alternative.
  3. A final and more speculative question that has to be asked, considering Gamal Mubarak's rise in influence over the past decade, is whether Mubarak pere has been plotting to install his son for years. It's probably more organic than that — Gamal's rise stems from his father's reluctance to share room at the top of the pyramid; a son is a natural trusted proxy (although not always, as deposed sultans of Oman and Qatar know). But one of the more interesting questions in today's Egypt is how Hosni Mubarak feels about tawreeth: is he fully on board, reluctantly so, or even very ambivalent about in a "King Lear" elderly paranoid way? 

 While you think about that, listen to this track (dedicated to Mystic Mubarak):

And then go on to read Adam Shatz masterful portrait of late Mubarak Egypt at the London Review of Books, Mubarak's Last Breath:

Under Mubarak, Egypt, the ‘mother of the earth’ (umm idduniya), has seen its influence plummet. Nowhere is the decline of the Sunni Arab world so acutely felt as in Cairo ‘the Victorious’, a mega-city much of which has turned into an enormous slum. The air is so thick with fumes you can hardly breathe, the atmosphere as constricted as the country’s political life.

Frustration, shame, humiliation: it does not take much for Egyptians to call up these feelings. It’s still often said that ‘what happens in Egypt affects the entire Arab world,’ but nothing much has happened there in years. Egypt has fallen behind Saudi Arabia – not to mention non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran – in regional leadership. Even tiny Qatar has a more independent foreign policy. Egypt is by far the largest Arab country, with 80 million inhabitants, yet it’s seen by most Arabs – and by the Egyptians themselves – as a client state of the United States and Israel, who depend on Mubarak to ensure regional ‘stability’ in the struggle with the ‘resistance front’ led by Iran.

Read the whole thing.

Don't go breaking my heart

Elton John should come to Egypt, because he'll find plenty of people as nuts as he is here:

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."

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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,

Musical notes

1. Notes from Palestine is a blog and video documentary project following a group of Palestinian musicians teaching music in the West Bank. Through that, it explains a lot of the restrictions imposed by the occupation, from the wall to ever-expanding settlements, as well as the difficult choices the musicians must make to follow their calling. Below is the latest video installment in the series, which is being filmed by Finnish researcher Eero Mäntymaa.

A place to call home from eero mäntymaa on Vimeo.

2. Lately I have been obsessed with this great early/mid seventies track by the virtuoso Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid, who played in Abdel Halim Hafez's and Oum Kulthoum's orchestras as well as his own band.

Here's the track, which is a kind of psychedelic funk meets Arabica:

Rakset al-Fadaa

That album cover comes from a recent compilation by the fantastic label Sublime Frequencies (which also put the great Omar Suleiman we mentioned before) which is reviewed here.

3. On a different register, I never listened much to Natalie Merchant, but came across her latest collections of songs based on children's nursery rhymes at the TED podcast. I really like this one:

The Sleepy Giant 

Do watch the TED podcast which had that song and other great performances:

4. Shaaban Abdel Rahim is really getting rather tiresome and unimaginative, but here is his latest track for the return of Hosni Mubarak.

 Welcome Back Mr President


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,

Shish Kebab


 Ernest Gellner, Culture, Politics and Identity.

L'Odeur du Shishkebab

(By 1960s Quebecois band Les Marcassins du Val)

[Thanks, E.]


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,

Abdel Halim's "Ahwak"

Abdel Halim Hafez, because I have no time to blog properly this morning. Lovely song.


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,

Cherie je t'adore... comme la salsa de pomodore

I am a complete sucker for these things — so I'll just lift this video from Zeinobia and post it here.

The singer is Bob Azzam — a Palestinian Greek Orthodox crooner whose family took refuge in Cairo after 1948.


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,

Nightboat to Cairo - Madness

Having come down with a nasty cold, I don't feel like blogging. Here's the substitute.

1 Comment

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,

Links for Dec.08.09 to Dec.09.09

Les voix de la nation : chanson, arabité et caméléonisme linguistique | Culture et politique arabes | Very interesting post on Arab singers adopting accents and styles of different countries -- has great clip of Abdel Halim Hafez trying out a traditional Kuwaiti song.

✩ Comment l’Algérie a exporté sa « sale guerre » au Mali : Algérie-Maroc | How Algeria exported its dirty war to Mali: AQIM conspiracies.

Fatwa Shopping « London Review Blog | On Nakheel and Islamic finance.

The women who guard other women in conservative Egypt | On female bodyguards.

Yemen’s afternoon high - Le Monde diplomatique | On the drug Qat.

US Congress frets over anti-Americanism on TV in Mideast | The leading inciter of anti-Americanism in the ME is Congress itself, when it keeps voting for wars for Israel.

Baladna English | New newspaper launched in Syria, but nothing on its site yet.

EU Action Plan on combating terrorism | Document on EU CT strategy.

What the US Elite Really Thinks About Israel « P U L S E | Most Council of Foreign Relations members think US favors Israel too much - v. interesting analysis of foreign policy expert poll by Jeffrey Blankfort.

‘The Battle for Israel’s Soul’ – Channel 4 on Jewish fundamentalism « P U L S E | British documentary on Jewish fundamentalism.

BBC News - Dubai crisis sparks job fears for migrant workers | On South Asians in Dubai. / Comment / Opinion - Israel must unpick its ethnic myth | Tony Judt.

The Interview Ha’aretz Doesn’t Want You To See « P U L S E | Interview Ali Abunimah not published by Haaretz.

Attention Christmas Shoppers: Top Ten Brands to Boycott | Sabbah Report | Brands to boycott at Christmas. / Middle East / Politics & Society - Egypt’s media warn ElBaradei off politics | On the campaign against ElBaradei.

✩ Flourishing Palestinian sex trade exposed in new report - Haaretz | Amira Hass: "Young Palestinian women are being forced to into prostitution in brothels, escort services, and private apartments in Ramallah and Jerusalem..."

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Links for 11.16.09 to 11.18.09

ضغوط أمريكية لزيادة الغاز المصري لإسرائيل وخفض أسعاره - بوابة الشروق | al-Shurouk reports that US is asking Egypt to increase gas deliveries to Israel, and at cheaper price. ✪ US rebukes Israel on settlement plans - Yahoo! News | ... but will do nothing about it. ✪ Nubian fury at 'monkey' lyric of Arab pop star Haifa Wehbe | World news | The Guardian | The Haifa Wehbe / Nubian scandal. ✪ The Obama admin is selling the peace process, but the press is not buying it. | Phil Weiss has surreal transcript from State Dept. over new settlements. ✪ Readability - An Arc90 Lab Experiment | Very nice bookmarklet for reading long articles. ✪ Palestinians say they will ask UN to recognise state - Yahoo! News | Doesn't the UN already accept previous resolutions with the 1967 line? Regarding my previous comment on US senators' call for a veto, the Palestinians do appear to want to take it to UNSC, not UNGA. ✪ Le Figaro - Conjoncture : Le grand Monopoly mondial des terres agricoles | Nice chart accompanying this article on the sale of arable land to food importing nations. ✪ U.S. "would veto" Palestinian state move: Senators - Yahoo! News | I suspect recognition by the UN would take place by the General Assembly, not the Security Council, so that turncoat Lieberman can take his veto and shove it... ✪ The pro-Israel lobby in Britain: full text | openDemocracy | Report on UK Israel lobby by documentary filmmaker Peter Oborne. ✪ - Inflation rears its head again in Egypt | Mostly affecting food prices ahead of Eid. ✪ Egyptian Blogger Beaten | "During the mayhem of a major soccer match, Egyptian blogger Kareem el-Shae’r was kidnapped and beaten. El-Shae’r moderates the Free Egypt blog and is a member of Ayman Nour’s el-Ghad party and the April 6 Youth movement. For his activism, el-Shae’r has been arrested several times and beaten before. The Egyptian interior ministry refused to comment on the incident." ✪ Gaddafi hires 200 young Italian women – to convert them to Islam | And tries to convert them to Islam. ✪ Israel must end Gaza blockade, evictions, alleged abuse of Palestinian children - Ban | "Israel should end the blockade of Gaza, cease evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes, and ensure that the rights of children are respected and that all allegations of torture and ill-treatment are promptly investigated and perpetrators prosecuted, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an annual report released today." ✪ Yemen Finds Dreamland of Architecture - | On Yemen's traditional architecture. ✪ The Arabs by Eugene Rogan | Book review | The Guardian | Robert Irwin reviews this book, which I am currently reading.
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The Other Omar Suleyman

Bjork was the guest DJ on the NPR music show "All Songs Considered" and she chose a Syrian wedding singer as one of her favourite musicians. Omar Suleyman is apparently a phenomenon in Syria, although I couldn't find much on him online (and the Egyptian intelligence chief kept popping up instead). The singer mixes pop and traditional folk music--his lyrics are backed by an electronic keyboard and plenty of synthesizing. They are incredibly high energy, and like nothing I've heard before. You can watch some kitchy-but-catchy videos on YouTube--I highly recommend it. Here's one:  You'll notice that in the video, at around 50 seconds in, there is a rather grave (not to say sinister) looking man whispering in the singer's ear. Apparently (according to Bjork) that's his collaborator, a poet who suggest verses improvised on the spot. You can also listen to two excellent songs from the album "Dabke 2020: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria" on the NPR program's web site (just scroll down), and the album is available on Amazon.
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Get it Right

Two new discoveries: the excellent French site "Culture et Politique Arabes" (there is an English version, and they are both in my blog roll now), which discusses the politics of cultural production in the Arab world with great detail and insight. And thanks to that site, the new pop album Arabology, just out in France. Check out the video to the single "Get It Right," set in Cairo, and full of great footage of the city. Get It Right on YouTube
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Heavy Metal Umm Kulthoum

Via AvantCaire via Fustat. Pretty impressive heavy metal rendition of the classic Umm Kulthoum song "Enta Omri" considering this is an amateur recording of a live gig. The studio version could be quite polished, and the song lends itself quite well to melodic metal. They would have to shorten considerable to the ultimate original version, which lasts about an hour (but it's an hour extraordinarily well-spent.) Umm Kulthoum's Enta Omri [61.2MB]
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Homeland Hip-Hop

Had the great pleasure of seeing the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM live in Brooklyn last night (alongside the fantastic Rebel Diaz and many other talented artists). The show was a fund-raiser to send a delegation of Native American and Chicano youth activists to Palestine this summer; it was very interesting to me to hear the way in which US rappers from different ethnic backgrounds related their struggle against racism and oppression to that of the Palestinians. What was even more interesting was just to hear the music. Listening to DAM was humbling of course--I understood about 1 word out of 50--but their website offers a great feature where you can listen to the songs in Arabic and read the lyrics in English. One show-stopper they did was to rap the Arabic alphabet--each letter got a few lines using only words that started with that letter-- forwards and back. And they were just great performers--funny, gutsy, charismatic. They're featured prominently on the documentary Sling Shot Hip-Hop, which everyone I talk to says is fantastic, and which has just been released on DVD (but I think its availability is still limited). I will be watching this film soon, hopefully, as several friends picked up copies at the show.
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The National has an article about the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a village of Moroccan musicians who have been playing for hundreds of years and were "discovered" in the 1960s by Western musicians and beatniks (Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones kicked it all off when he recorded a CD of their music). The article does a very good job of discussing the way this Western interest has expressed itself and affected the group, and the way their music has been treated by Western producers--although I wish there had been more focus on the kind of music they play, its history and form (they say they were the "house band" of the royal house of Morocco for centuries).  I heard the Master Musicians of Jajouka at a Moroccan music festival several summers ago, and then visited Jajouka to do a radio piece about them. Rather than try to describe their really entrancing music, I'll just direct you to their website. At Jajouka Issandr and I met Bashir Attar, the strange and funny and very rock'n'roll head of the Master Musicians of Jajouka (it's an inherited position, from father to son). We were his guests for one long day and night. We wandered the village (which has spectacular views and no running water), looked at all the pictures of Bashir with various visiting foreign musicians, listened to him tell a lot of rambling stories, had dinner (a whole goat was killed for us--we were served at about midnight, outside, under a full moon). All evening people trickled in, musicians and young men from the village who sat smoking kif pipes--and then people started humming, tapping on tables, and instruments started appearing one by one, and at about four in the morning some great music was played. It was a memorable night, to say the least.  The article mentions that today there are two groups billing themselves as the musicians of Jajouka (you can see from the comments that this issue remains a contentious one). Clayton makes a good point that "One of the defining aspects of folk music is openness: if you can play it, it’s yours. Like speaking a language, the ability to perform unwritten music confers – is – its own legitimacy. But the two groups lay claim to the same list of recordings, the same history of musical collaborations, and certainly these are facts that can be established. The two Jajouka bands is a complicated story, involving a split of some sort within a fluid, multi-generational musical tradition (and the pressures and enticements of a Western market). As far as I can tell, Bashir's group (or his father's) is the one that did most of the famous recordings and collaborations, and that's invited to festivals, etc. That doesn't mean other musicians from Jajouka are "inauthentic," as Clayton points out. But to raise this issue and then dismiss it as beside the point--without doing a bit more research, without comparing the music put out by the two groups, without bothering to talk to the musicians themselves--seems a bit facile.
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