An excerpt from a film about the sacking of Palestinian libraries in 1948.
60,000 Palestinian books were systematically looted by the newly born State of Israel during the 1948 war. The story of the stolen books is not only at the heart of our project but also the launching pad of a much bigger and wider endeavor: We intend on communicating the scope and depth of the Palestinian tragedy through the destruction of Palestinian culture in 1948.
The filmmakers are looking for distributors and financial support, find out more at their site.
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.
Max Robenbeck, in an interview with the excellent new Economist literary blog Prospero, notes the relative dearth of books on contemporary Egypt — especially non-academic ones. (There are quite a good range of highly focused academic books, however.
I'd like to mention my friend Sanna Negus newly released Hold on to your veil, Fatima! as a quite good general introduction to many issues, particularly on women. Sanna lived in Cairo for years, and her books was quite successful in her native Finland. This is an updated translation. If you don't know much about Egypt and want a broad look at some of the most salient political and social issues the country has to face, it seems like a good bet. More on the book when I finish it...
Marc Lynch has a fantastic essay review of Paul Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals up on Foreign Affairs. He goes on at length on how Berman misses the point of what Islamists like Tariq Ramadan are about:
Berman gets Ramadan's struggle backward. Ramadan's primary adversaries are not liberals in the West but rather literalistic Salafists whose ideas are ascendant in Muslim communities from Egypt and the Persian Gulf to western Europe. For Salafists, a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood is too political, too accepting of civil institutions, and insufficiently attentive to the formalistic and public rituals of Islam. They urge Muslims to separate from Western societies in favor of their own allegedly pure Islamic enclaves. The Muslim Brotherhood has encouraged women to wear the veil, but only so that they can demonstrate virtue while in universities and the workplace. The Salafists, meanwhile, want women at home and strictly segregated from men. True liberals should prefer Ramadan because he offers a model for Muslims of integration as full citizens at a time when powerful forces are instead pushing for isolation and literalism.
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.
When in New York recently I saw this book around and was tempted to buy it. I now regret not doing so! But Gilbert Achcar has a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique, highlighting the (mis)use of the sorry affair of the Mutfi of Jerusalem's pro-Nazi leanings by Israelis, usually to tarnish all Palestinians with some kind of responsibility of the Holocaust. I had read about the Mufti's generally terrible politics (on Palestinian as well as Jewish issues) in the 1930s and 1940s in Rachid Khalidi's excellent The Iron Cage so this came as no surprise, but I didn't know the extent to which Israel had exploited him:
But the Zionists claimed the mufti was an official representative of the Palestinians and Arabs and in 1945 demanded (without success) that he be handed over to the international military tribunal at Nuremberg, as if he had been a key part of the Nazi genocide machine. Articles, pamphlets and books were produced to present Husseini as a candidate for prosecution. The mufti served a symbolic purpose, allowing the Zionists to claim that the Palestinians shared responsibility for the genocide, and justify the creation of a “Jewish state” on the territory of their homeland.
This motive became a constant in the propaganda of the state of Israel. It explains the extraordinary importance accorded to the mufti in the Holocaust memorial museum, in Jerusalem. Tom Segev observes that the wall dedicated to al-Husseini gives the impression of a convergence between the Nazis’ genocide plans and Arab hostility towards Israel. Peter Novick points out that the entry on the mufti in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, published in association with Yad Vashem (the Holocaust remembrance authority), is much longer than those on Himmler, Goebbels or Eichmann, and only a little shorter than that on Hitler.
That last bit is quite incredible!
On a related note I am currently reading Ian Johnson's A Mosque in Munich, which is about American recuperation of Muslim allies of the Nazis (mostly from dissident Soviets from the republics that are majority Muslim — the Stan countries). It's fascinating so far, although Johnson's grasp of Islamism is weak when he discusses the Egyptian Muslim Brothers. More about that later.
P.S. Achcar also did a podcast for the Diplo.
This morning I read this piece by Christopher Hitchens on Animal Farm, George Orwell's classic work of political satire. It's always great to read Hitchens on this kind of stuff, because of his Orwell fetishism, and well because he's such a great writer when he writes about what he knows well, as opposed to endorsing late fascist1 dictatorships in the Arab world.
I have two issues with the piece. One is trivial. Hitchens offers this tantalizing morsel, but no interpretation:
There is, however, one very salient omission. There is a Stalin pig and a Trotsky pig, but no Lenin pig. Similarly, in Nineteen Eighty-Four we find only a Big Brother Stalin and an Emmanuel Goldstein Trotsky. Nobody appears to have pointed this out at the time (and if I may say so, nobody but myself has done so since; it took me years to notice what was staring me in the face).
That's fascinating, I had never noticed it. It's hard to believe that Orwell would have spared Lenin. But perhaps it's that Stalin and Trotsky emerged rapidly as the prime engines of the Bolsheviks, each carrying out acts of mass violence (first Trotsky as army commissar during the civil war, then Stalin in his own military decisions during the civil war and later as architect of command center economics and permanent political terror.) Too bad Hitchens doesn't elaborate.
(Update: a commenter points out that there is a Lenin pig, Old Major, who's the one who has the idea for the revolution. He dies at the beginning of the second chapter (just like the real Lenin!) but before the animals take over, so it's not quite chronologically accurate — or perhaps he's meant to represent not Lenin but something between Marx and Lenin.)
The second thing comes at the end of the article, where he hopes that Animal Farm will come to the countries it is currently banned in, such as China, North Korea, Burma or Zimbabwe. He also writes:
In the Islamic world, many countries continue to ban Animal Farm, ostensibly because of its emphasis on pigs. Clearly this can not be the whole reason – if only because the porcine faction is rendered in such an unfavourable light – and under the theocratic despotism of Iran it is forbidden for reasons having to do with its message of "revolution betrayed".
I don't think this has been fact-checked. The Wikipedia entry "List of banned books" says:
In 2002, the novel was banned in the schools of the United Arab Emirates, because it contained text or images that goes against Islamic and Arab values.
There's nothing on other countries. Reading Hitchens' article, you'd think that there are no Arabic editions of Animal Farm. In fact you can get a bilingual Arabic-English edition here (or download a digital version) and, I would assume, the regular Arabic one in bookshops in most countries (hopefully not all editions have as ugly a cover as the one on the right.) You can find an extensive Arabic wikipedia entry here. Amazon.com sells an "Egyptian Animal Farm" in Arabic, by Mohamed Morsey, adapting Orwell to an Egyptian setting.2 If you're a fan of the cartoon version3, you can get Arabic subtitles here.
I'd be willing to bet that Animal Farm is used in schools in various countries, too. If anyone has information on whether it is banned elsewhere, do let us know.
1. "Late fascist": A term I use to describe the political systems most of the Arab republics, in comparison to Franco's Spain or Salazar's Portugal in the late 1970s or similar regimes based on public mobilization where the original ideological edifice of the regime is spent. Will have to elaborate someday, but today it applies to Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Also in some respects Iran. I think it may well have applied to most Eastern bloc countries in the 1980s.
2. It's self-published, you can get more details here.
3. Watch it on YouTube or get it on torrent sites.
I've just started reading Hugh Pope's journalistic memoirs, Dining with al-Qaeda. It's really good fun so far, and the second chapter — covering Pope's first job with UPI in Beirut — has a great story of his disenchantment with Robert Fisk, who always magically had more exciting stories than anyone else. His secret: he made them up. Pope went to great length later on to investigate claims by Fisk, in his Independent reporting and in his magnum opus, about Turkish "starving" of Kurds that nearly got the Independent banned there and caused Turkish authorities to blow a gasket, almost kicking Pope (a lowly stringer for the Indie) out of the country. He's calls all this "Fiskery" — others call it Fisking, especially when Fisk goes after individuals — and while he's not bitter about it there's a real sense of disappointment that Fisk jeopardizes his position of authority and emotional power on these made-up stories. He writes:
Fisk's writings, more than almost anyone else's, manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle Eastern reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of U.S. policies But facts are facts, indispensable legitimizing agents of readers' emotional and political responses.
The thing is, Fisk's over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting, for instance when Fisk refers to getting onboard an Apache helicopter even though they don't have passenger seats. If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It's a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.
In any case, do pick up this book, especially if you have an interest either in foreign correspondents in the Middle East. I'll do a proper review later, but I see that the Economist loved it (and if you read the review, you'll note a mea culpa about the paper's support for the Iraq war at the bottom).
I also highly recommend watching the documentary about Finkelstein, American Radical. Finkelstein is an incredibly courageous figure, he has payed dearly for his engagement on the Palestinian cause and against those who manipulate the Holocaust for political purposes. It's really heart-wrenching to see what this principled and stubborn man has endured at the hands of powerful academics and pro-Israel activists like Alan Dershowitz, who appears to have single-handedly orchestrated the campaign to get him fired from DePaul University.
Finkelstein also appears briefly in Defamation, an Israeli film about the ADL, at his best: intense, scathing about the likes of Abe Foxman, and almost self-destructively forthright. Defamation is excellent, by the way, at showing the manipulation Israeli children endure. One of my favorite lines was from a rabbi arguing that an unreasonable obsession with anti-Semitism was the secular Jews' way of being Jewish.
A couple friends have forwarded me this article in the latest New Yorker, about the increasing availability of Arabic literature in translation. This is how it opens:
What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? There are, of course, newspapers to keep responsible Americans up to date when trouble looms, and public television or even the History Channel to inform us about the occasional historic battle or archeological discovery or civil war. What else do we need? The ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and make enemies and sometimes make revolutions is the stuff of novels, and Arabic novels, while not yet lining the shelves of the local bookstore, have been increasingly available in English translation, offering a marvellous array of answers to questions we did not know we wanted to ask. On such subjects as: the nature of the clientele of the elegantly crumbling pre-Islamist bars in downtown Cairo, straight and gay (“The Yacoubian Building,” by Alaa Al Aswany); what it felt like to live through the massacre in the Shatila refugee camp, in 1982, and how some of the people who still live there have been managing since (“Gate of the Sun,” by Elias Khoury); the optimal tactics that a good Saudi girl should use to avoid being married off, which appear to require that she study either medicine or dentistry (“Girls of Riyadh,” by the twenty-something Rajaa Alsanea, who has herself completed an advanced degree in endodontics).
The article analyzes Mahmoud Saeed's Saddam City, Sinan Antoon's I'jaam, Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, Ghassan Kanafani's short stories Men in the Sun and Return to Haifa; Emile Habiby's The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, and, briefly, a few others. The discussions of the individual works are interesting; I particularly liked Pierpoint on Kanafani--whose talents ignite her own writing--and on Khoury--whose ambitions and shortcomings she deftly sketches. But as usual trying to discuss the simultaneously broad and sparse category of "Arabic literature in translation" is nearly impossible to do with resorting to some awkward transitions and generalizations.
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.
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.
The Arabs hate us not because of what we do or who we are but because of who we are not: Arabs.
[In the Middle East] Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringes, but represents the political and social norm.
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.
Incidentally, this is very funny.
Yet in the years spent lugging sacks of cement, smashing walls, pouring foundations and sleeping in empty buildings at night – building the residences of others without a home to call his own – Abu Golayyel found both material and metaphor. The novel’s resonant title in Arabic, Al Fa’il, is derived from the verb “to do”. It means “the doer”, “the actor” or, used as an adjective, “the efficacious, efficient”. In a grammatical sense, it means “the subject” – but in common parlance the world simply means “the labourer”. The English title is derived from a quip in the story, and works well enough. But the original Arabic title is particularly fitting for a book about the unstable edifice that is identity and the constant act of construction that is writing.The novel was translated by our good old friend, and one-time member of the Arabist household, Robin Moger. Mr. Moger did an above-par job, his translation is a pleasure to read, and I expect we'll see more from him soon.
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.
Suleiman said Egypt had promised Hamas it would address the terror group's reservations vis-à-vis the reconciliation deal "after they sign and begin to implement it." He said Hamas' concerns "lacked substance," adding that the agreement would not be revised. "If it will (be changed), I'll resign," said Suleiman.