Dubai has glitz but no real sewage system


Quite astonished by this:

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It's located in Dubai, a city with a lot of other skyscrapers. What Dubai doesn't have: A central sewage infrastructure that can accommodate the needs of a bunch of skyscrapers.
You see the problem.

To solve the issue trucks come and collect wastewater from separate buildings, and then can queue for up to 24 hours to deliver it to treatment plants. Perhaps before building the next mega-mall, Dubai might invest in the unglamorous basics.

Egypt's filthy canals

This always astounds me when I'm in the countryside — the simply horrendous condition of the canals in a country where government long meant, essentially, the maintenance and upkeeping of irrigation canals. I don't think there's a better illustration of the extent to which Egypt has been badly run for decades.

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,

Climate change and the Syrian uprising

Climate change and the Syrian uprising | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a fascinating piece on climate change and drought as a cause of the Syrian uprising by Shahrzad Mohtadi:

From 1900 until 2005, there were six droughts of significance in Syria; the average monthly level of winter precipitation during these dry periods was approximately one-third of normal. All but one of these droughts lasted only one season; the exception lasted two. Farming communities were thus able to withstand dry periods by falling back on government subsidies and secondary water resources. This most recent, the seventh drought, however, lasted from 2006 to 2010, an astounding four seasons -- a true anomaly in the past century. Furthermore, the average level of precipitation in these four years was the lowest of any drought-ridden period in the last century.

While impossible to deem one instance of drought as a direct result of anthropogenic climate change, a 2011 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regarding this recent Syrian drought states: "Climate change from greenhouse gases explained roughly half the increased dryness of 1902-2010." Martin Hoerling, the lead researcher of the study, explains: "The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone. This is not encouraging news for a region that already experiences water stress, because it implies natural variability alone is unlikely to return the region's climate to normal." The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global warming will induce droughts even more severe in this region in the coming decades.

It is estimated that the Syrian drought has displaced more than 1.5 million people; entire families of agricultural workers and small-scale farmers moved from the country's breadbasket region in the northeast to urban peripheries of the south. The drought tipped the scale of an unbalanced agricultural system that was already feeling the weight of policy mismanagement and unsustainable environmental practices. Further, lack of contingency planning contributed to the inability of the system to cope with the aftermath of the drought. Decades of poorly planned agricultural policies now haunt Syria's al-Assad regime.

[Thanks, J.]


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,

A Revolution of the Thirsty

✚ Egypt's Arab Spring: A Revolution of the Thirsty

Great article by Karen Piper in Design Observer on Egypt's water crisis and the disparities in access to clean water between slums, gated communities, and everyone in between:

When Tahrir Square erupted in the winter of 2011, the international news media proclaimed a “social media revolution” spurred by pro-democracy Egyptians seeking to overthrow the repressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak. To a large extent unreported was the fact that the country was also in a water crisis, having dropped below the globally recognized “water poverty” line of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, down to 700 cubic meters per person. It is no exaggeration to say that the January 25 Revolution was not just a revolution of the disenfranchised; it was also what some have called a “Revolution of the Thirsty.” In a land almost without rain, the Nile River supplies 97 percent of renewable water resources, and these days an increasing share of that water is being directed to the posh suburban compounds — where many of Egypt's political elite lives — to support that "greener side of life." Meanwhile, in the years before the revolution, the state water utilities had dramatically hiked rates for residents in downtown Cairo, where some 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

All of this stems from the policy to develop exurbs  — and especially gated communities based around golf courses — that began in the 1990s, with the state subsidizing the cost of bringing water to the new developments while neglecting existing settlements. These new communities, almost always developed in the desert, often advertised themselves as green areas away from the dusty town centers. 

All the while, as water was flowing and taxpayer money shifting to the exurban oases, millions of residents of old Cairo struggled with little access to sanitary facilities. The ostentatious water wealth that made possible the "greener side of life" was becoming a symbol of government corruption. The Revolution of the Thirsty was gathering strength.

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,

Tuaregs, climate and guns in the Sahel

Strife in the Sahel: A perfect desert storm | The Economist:

"Low precipitation may seem normal near the Sahara. In fact, much of the Sahel normally gets enough rain to allow modest farming. But a rise in water temperatures in the nearby Gulf of Guinea has shifted the flow of rain clouds southwards, meteorologists say. Livestock have died in droves. Long-term overgrazing and fast population growth have made the problem worse.

Oxfam, an aid agency, warns of a humanitarian disaster, with more than 1m children facing severe malnutrition. Villagers in Chad already dig up ant hills to gather grain the ants have stored. But the worst-affected place is now Niger, a landlocked country of 15m people which, even in normal times, accounts for a sixth of global child deaths from malnutrition. Save the Children, another aid agency, says that the situation in Niger has worsened since September, when a lack of rain led to crop failures of up to 80%.

Misery has made the Sahel’s thousands of unemployed an easy target for recruiters from extremist groups. Their main base lies across Niger’s badly patrolled border with Algeria, where the Sahel becomes outright desert. A two-decade-old Islamist insurgency there has adopted the mantle of global jihad and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Having failed to dislodge the military regime along Algeria’s densely populated Mediterranean coast, these extremists are increasingly focused on the sandy hinterland.

In January they kidnapped a provincial governor near Niger’s border with Libya. They also hold at least 18 Europeans hostage. Several of these are in the custody of a new splinter group that announced itself in December. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa is led by black Africans, rather than the Arabs who typically dominate jihadi circles. To set themselves apart they strive to be even more radical. Modern weapons flow to them from Libya. After the collapse of its government last summer, some former rebels have been selling off the contents of looted armouries."

Great rare piece on the complex range of factors that are making the Sahel more explosive than ever. If course the spread of weapons from Libya was something many warned about before the civil war there. But impact of climate change may be more serious in the long run.

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,

The big picture for Egypt's future

Maria Golia's latest al-Masri al-Youm column, on developmental choices Egypt faces, makes a case for prioritizing environmental considerations. It's a sobering reminder that there are so much more important things at stake that the micro-debates over elections or constitution first and how much Sharia law there should be in the constitution:

Egypt’s scientific community has finally jump-started the debate over the country’s post-Mubarak developmental direction. Several high-profile figures have proposed large-scale projects -- Farouk al-Baz’s “Corridor of Development”, Mostafa Amer’s “Map of Hope” and Ahmed Zewail’s “Science City” – each with its features and drawbacks.  The ensuing critique of these projects has raised issues whose importance cannot be overestimated, including land and water use, energy production and education. Significant arguments have been raised; some are reaching the ears of the public and transitional government.  

Read More

Amer Group and the threat to Fayoum

Fayoum seen from the desert

Environmentalists currently represent a small subsection of activists in Egypt, but like everybody else they've received a boost from the revolution, as well as more problems to deal with. The former comes in the sense that people are generally more willing to pay attention to the kind of political, economic, ecological and community problems environmentalism attempt to deal with — everyone is more empowered and has a great sense of community belonging. Yet, at the same time, the partial collapse of the state has led to many abuses (most notably illegal construction) and many people prioritize security or party politics ahead of environmentalism. Many are trying to bring attention to this issue oin political gatherings, on Twitter and blogs, and elsewhere.

Hopefully they'll be able to achieve more than they ever could have under Mubarak. This could be the case of Nature Conservation Egypt, a NGO that is currently focusing on plans for the Amer Group, a major developer, to build a resort on Lake Fayoum, an area of outstanding natural beauty that is a major waypoint for bird migration between Africa and Europe. It's also geologically very rich, with the desert plateau behind the lake full of fossils. The Amer Group has been in the news lately as part of the investigation into corrupt land deals under Mubarak — it has already returned some of the land it has acquired. But what it threatens to do to Fayoum's desert shore may be worse than what it has already done to the North Coast with its gaudy resorts:

The Amer Group, the Egyptian real estate developer responsible for Porto Marina and Porto Sokhna, massive tourism developments along Egypt’s North and Ain Sokhna coasts, plans to build “Porto Fayoum” on 650 acres in the Lake Qarun Protected area near Fayoum Oasis.

Former President Hosni Mubarak’s government sold the Amer Group this land for only $28,000 ($.05 per square meter), according to Egypt’s American Chamber of Commerce. This is the first development of such huge proportions to be allowed in an Egyptian protected area.

This and other tourism developments planned for a 10-kilometer stretch of coastal land along the northern part of Lake Qarun will undoubtedly wreak untold damage to this pristine, scenic desert area, known as Gebel Qatrani. This area contains one of the world’s most complete fossil records of terrestrial primates and marshland mammals and remains critical to our understanding of mammalian–and human–evolution.

Read more about it here, where you can listen to a podcast featuring NCE activists.

The Arabs and nuclear energy

A few years ago, nuclear power was all the rage in the Arab world. Gamal Mubarak tried to boost his own statesman credentials by announcing that Egypt would build its first commercial nuclear plant. Soon most of the GCC followed suit, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria began feasibility studies, and it looked like the entire region would get on the nuclear bandwagon. Much of this nuclear talk had a whiff of nationalism about it, as if nuclear plants were as much prestige projects as an answer to skyrocketing electricity consumption (that for instance caused rolling brownouts last summer in Egypt and could very well do so again). The context of Iran's nuclear weapons program led to a spate of stories about how this was a preliminary to a region-wide nuclear arms race, even though the two issues are quite separate.
Read More

Is Egypt's Delta going to drown, or not?

Yesterday was too packed a day to continue the short post I put up.

But I do want to report on one highlight of yesterday's conference at the Biblioteca Alexandrina on the UNDP's latest Arab Human Development Report, on human security, and specifically the challenge of climate change and water management in the Arab word.

For a few years now scientists have warned that rising sea levels in the Mediterranean threaten the sea's coastline, and Egypt's Delta in particular. We've seen dire predictions — 4500 km2 of land flooded, 6-14 million people displaced — as well as the threat of infiltration of seawater into aquifers, making agriculture in areas not affected by the floods more difficult.

What I had not quite realized is that while some have said the predictions are a bit too alarmist, there is actually quite a healthy debate among the specialists about the nature of the threat. Two diametrically opposed views were presented yesterday, delving into issues of sea level rise, currents patterns, erosion patterns, possibilities for mitigation and a lot more stuff that a non-specialist like me can't fully appreciate.


The first view, endorsed by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says that the threat is very real and good parts of the coastline (mostly around and Alexandria and towards Port Said) are at risk. It also stresses that the impact on aquifers is extremely serious, and that climate change will almost certainly have a devastating impact on Egypt's agricultural heartland, with 15% of the country's arable land affeted. It proposes the construction of a LE20 billion (about $3.5 billion) underground wall by the shore, made of a substance called plastic concrete, that will protect underground freshwater from seawater, as well as as protection for land, and other drastic measures to face the possibility that seawater may rise by up to 1.5m by the end of the century. 

The other view says that the data that IPCC endorsed is flawed, and that newer and more complex models exist that suggest that while a rise in sea levels is a real prospect, its impact on Egypt's coastline can be much more easily controlled. It points out that there are a lot of natural defenses, most notably dunes, on the coastline and focuses on preserving them and funding research to understand them better. It argues that one (overground) wall near Port Said built in 1820 by Muhammad Ali still exists and has done its job fine. It says there are a few problem areas, and these need to be addressed, but that the focus of efforts should be understand patterns of erosion, currents, etc. on the coastline and have more systematic monitoring to be able to address the problem.

I can't evaluate the science of either claim. The IPCC regularly reviews new data as it becomes available, and the next review of this question will be in a few years. Perhaps new data will change the prediction, or confirm them. Either way there is a serious problem to deal with, and there is general agreement about risks of groundwater penetration. What the first view has in its favor right now is its endorsement by the IPCC, and that the alternative scenario has yet to be peer-reviewed. 

But the conference was a really good example of real debate about climate change, away from the recent controversy over emails by IPCC scientists. It's grounded in a very specific area, and the researchers on both sides are Egyptians who have a real, direct concern for their country's environment.

There is also growing civil society involvement around this, trying to mobilize the government to dedicate appropriate resources to the problem. The problem is also being internationalized institutionally (naturally the problem is international by definition), with a Mediterranean Action Plan backed by the EU about to go in action for coordination between the 21 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. One way or another, the time to act is now, first with more research, and then with solutions. We may be a few years away from starting a megaproject of dikes and underground walls, but efforts to preserve natural defenses (for instance by stopping construction companies from taking sand from the shore) can be implemented now. And that means tackling issues of corruption and governance — Egypt's perennial, overarching problem.

In Alexandria

For a conference on the latest Arab Human Development Report, which focuses on the environment. Hope to blog about it, but I'm already seeing some interesting papers on global warming and overpopulation.

Some interesting and worrying stats:

- there are 369 million Arabs today; in 2050 there will be 598 million.
- 90% of land in the region is classified as arid or dry sub-humid.
- 15 of the 22 arab states are among the world's. Most water-stressed countries.
- Temperature increases in the region due to global warming will be of 2C over the next 15-20 years and up to 4C by the end of the century.
- Droughts have already become more frequent, notably in Morocco.
- Mediterranean will rise by 30cm to 1m and will flood parts of Egypt's north coast.

More later.


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 Jan.06.10 to Jan.07.10

Video: Egyptian police clash with Gaza aid convoy | | Another good video about clashes between Viva Palestina and Egyptian security. ✪ Rebuilding Afghanistan « London Review Blog | Narcotecture = Drug-financed ugly houses in Kabul. ✪ Israeli television confrontation is ‘a metaphor of the moral crisis in which Zionism is found today’ | Fascinating video argument - must watch. ✪ Israel to deploy Gaza rocket interceptor by June - Haaretz | So no more need for blockade, I guess? ✪ Ainsi disait Laroui à propos de la politique. Extraits politiques « min diwan Assyassa ». « Des maux à dire | On new book on M6 era in Morocco. ✪ Security Experts: Administration Overstates Domestic al-Qaeda Threat « The Washington Independent | Sounds familiar. ✪ Pro-ElBaradei campaign seeks collective proxies | Al-Masry Al-Youm | Interesting list of backers for ElBaradei campaign, includes Amr Moussa! ✪ Palestine Vivra! The French Heroes of the Gaza Freedom March | A nice account. ✪ Jerome Slater: On the US and Israel | New blog by academic. ✪ The Settlement Freeze That Isn't | The American Prospect | "The freeze is really a very thin layer of ice atop the river of settlement growth." ✪ BBC News - Egypt police clash with Gaza aid convoy activists | Unbelievable - Viva Palestina convoy sent through Kerem Shalom. ✪ Egypt to import natural gas from Iraq | Al-Masry Al-Youm | I wonder how much it costs compared to the gas sold to Israel. ✪ Saudi Arabia backs Egyptian plan for renewed peace talks - Haaretz | This peace plans sounds dodgy, esp. in its treatment of settlements. ✪ t r u t h o u t | Egypt: Rooftops Empower the Poor | Nice story on clean energy for the poor on Cairo's rooftops. ✪ Support the Cairo Declaration of the Gaza Freedom March Petition |
Read More

Links for Dec.10.09 to Dec.12.09

Daily News Egypt - Editorial: The Illusive Metal Barrier | On Egypt's denial that a wall is being built.

BBC News - Egypt starts building steel wall on Gaza Strip border | Video report has some more details, but the whole thing is rather hazy.

Israel National Survey | Survery of Israeli attitudes on various topics.

Libya still jailing dissenters: Human Rights Watch | New HRW report.

'Egypt is one of the freest states in the entire Arab world' - The Irish Times - Sat, Dec 12, 2009 | Ismail Serageldin engages in apologia.

Palestinian leader speaks from prison - | Interview with Marwan Barghouti.

Swiss Man Builds Minaret to Protest Ban - WaryaTV | Good for him.

Israel court: Deported Palestinian student can't return - | Everyday misery from Gaza blockade.

ENVIRONMENT: Darkness at Noon Clouds Cairo Skies - IPS | On the black cloud - which I thought was not as bad this year.

The Language of Food | Ceviche and Fish & Chips | Fascinating on the Persian and Arab origin of escabeche, ceviche, and fish and chips.

The Language of Food | Ceviche and Fish & Chips | Fascinating on the Persian and Arab origin of escabeche, ceviche, and fish and chips.

‘Sultan wants children to be God-fearing’ | The ridiculousness of the al-Sauds.

No real "freeze" on settlement: Israeli minister - Yahoo! News | No kidding: "JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank could grow by 10,000 in the coming year despite a declared "freeze" on Israeli building in the occupied territory, an Israeli Cabinet minister has said."

On Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Lobby: A response to Peter Beinart | Walt on Obama's Afphan policy and the lobby.

Middle East Report 253 contents: Apartheid and Beyond | New issue.

Read More

E-Agrium and environmental-social protest in Egypt


It's great to see that someone has written an analysis piece about the protests against the E-Agrium plant in Damietta, and put it in the context of Egypt's diffused wave of social protest. Where else but MERIP:

The Damietta protests may well mark a watershed for environmental mobilization in Egypt. The coalition that emerged to oppose the EAgrium plant crossed class and occupational lines, and included representatives of voluntary associations, members of Parliament, businessmen, university professors, landowners, and members of unions and professional syndicates. These groups employed a diverse repertoire of protest tactics and mobilizing strategies, including coordinated statements, petitions, marches, vigils, litigation and strikes. The coalition also framed its concerns in ways that resonated with the vast majority of Egyptians struggling to cope with the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the Delta. Mobilization against the factory emphasized the health threats posed by polluting industries, the subsidy of foreign investors, pervasive government corruption and the lack of environmental enforcement. These concerns were diffused through Egypt’s increasingly lively public and media sphere, including new independent newspapers, private TV stations and well-known regional satellite channels such as al-Jazeera.

The diverse protest tactics employed in Damietta are part of a larger wave of social protest that has washed over Egypt in recent years. Strikes, sit-ins, petitions, road closures and demonstrations of all kinds are increasingly employed by a dizzying array of actors, including textile workers, ambulance drivers, public sector employees, syndicate members, farmers and others. Egypt’s authoritarian regime has responded with a mixture of repression and accommodation. While the regime has ringed striking workers with security personnel, often leading to arrests and skirmishes, it has also sought to placate them with wage increases, bonuses and other economic benefits. In stark contrast, protesters making political demands have invariably been met with force.

The Damietta protests proved effective in part because they did not simply pit civil society against the state. Local economic elites and politicians played key roles in articulating a different developmental vision for the city and its environs than that promoted by the central government. To wit, they argued that the area’s economic development should rest on its natural advantages of sun and surf, capitalizing on the traditional status of Damietta and Ra’s al-Barr as premier summer resorts for Egyptians. This case was bolstered by the input of respected environmental scientists, whose opinion was solicited as part of a broader government commission of inquiry. And the movement was not merely local. When the idea of relocating the plant to Suez or Port Said surfaced in the press, protests erupted in these cities as well.

For reporting on the E-Agrium, see this BT piece.

Read More

Links for 08.21.09 to 08.22.09

Survey of Business Environment for Small and Medium- Sized Enterprises in Egypt | Survey of Egyptians SMEs, focuses on corruption perception. ✪ Who Should Rule Egypt? | Baheyya lays out an argument between three possible types of rule in Egypt -- hereditary succession, military rule, and parliamentary rule -- and makes the point that Hosni Mubarak has unwittingly opened up the debate over how Egypt should be ruled. ✪ Libya and Muammar Qaddafi, 40 years on: How to squander a nation's potential | The Economist | Poor Libya. ✪ Nile Delta: 'We are going underwater. The sea will conquer our lands' | Environment | The Guardian | Jack Shenker has a great story on rising salinity levels and the impact of global warming in the Nile Delta. ✪ Hilo Hero: H.P. Lovecraft | Happy Birthday H.P. Lovecraft. I highly recommend the essay on him by the French reactionary writer (and one of my favorites, to be honest - I don't care about his views on Islam) Michel Houellebecq.
Read More

Groundwater resources in MENA

whymap_125_pdf.jpg The map above is a part of a recently released world map that shows, in blue, the presence of the underground water. I've cropped the part that shows the Middle East and North Africa. The part that are shaded in red show aquifers that have been infiltrated by seawater, i.e. where the water salinity is high. This may be for different reasons, although generally (and specifically in Egypt's case) it is because overuse of underground freshwater is drawing in seawater. Link to full world map. Link to World-wide Hydrogeological Mapping and Assessment Programme (WHYMAP) site.
Read More

Egyptian anti-smoking warning labels

Egyptian health officials have been gearing up for anti-smoking campaign for a few months, and a few weeks ago new warning labels appeared on the humble Masri pack of Cleopatras and other local and international brands. It's a big marketing shift in a country of permanent smokers where the state-owned monopoly cigarette manufacturer, Oriental Tobacco, has never had to deal with any real pressure on public health issues and the price of cigarettes is almost as politically strategic as the price of baladi bread, and where illnesses that can be caused or exarcebated by smoking, such as heart disease, are a major cause of deaths. The AP has a story out on the new labels, and the gory labels themselves are after the jump.
CAIRO, Egypt - Offering a cigarette is as common as a handshake in Egypt, where the culture of smoking is so entrenched that patients and friends sometimes light up in hospital rooms. But now, the government is finally getting serious about the health risks, launching a new campaign of stark visual warnings about tobacco's dangers. Starting Aug. 1, cigarette labels in Egypt will be required to carry images of the effects of smoking: a dying man in an oxygen mask, a coughing child, and a limp cigarette symbolizing impotence. It's a major step in Egypt's fledgling anti-smoking campaign and a dramatic change in a country where public discussion of smoking's health risks is nearly nonexistent. . . . For the new label requirements, authorities field-tested a variety of images. They found that warnings linking tobacco with death were not particularly effective with Egyptians, since dying is perceived as inevitable anyway. Also, images of diseased lungs left people confused about what was being shown. Instead, the new warnings focus on threats to health and, particularly, to family, like the effect on children and pregnant women and the risk of impotence. Numerous studies, including a 2003 report by Tulane University researchers, have found that smoking can be a major cause of erectile disfunction, in part because it constricts veins and arteries, reducing blood flow. "We need something to give the smokers a shock that they are in great danger," said Dr. Mohammed Mehrez, head of the tobacco control department. There are many myths to overcome. Some Egyptians are convinced only light cigarettes lead to impotence. Earlier this year, the state-owned manufacturer Eastern Tobacco Company voluntarily put pictures of diseased lungs on some packs — but smokers just figured those packs were the ones that were harmful and switched to others, which some shopowners promptly started selling at a higher price. [From Egypt's new tools in war on smoking: Stark warnings on impotence, disease]
Read More

Links for November 24th

Automatically posted links for November 24th:

Read More

Rural Egypt's Return to the Ancien Regime

Middle East Online has a translation of a Monde Diplomatique article I'd previously linked to on the reversal of agrarian reform in Egypt. This excerpt deals with the new law passed in the 1990s that has led to many farmers losing land and helped former landlords regain land they had been forced to sell under Nasser:
The 1992 law changed farmers’ lives profoundly. Average rent values have risen 10-fold, and now represent between a third and a half of gross annual income. Perhaps three-quarters of the farmers renting in 1996 have given up because of debts. Farmers have had to indebt themselves to pay rent, and households sell jewels and livestock, reducing expenditure (less meat in the diet, fewer children at school). As the number of very small holdings has declined, those over 10 feddans (4.2 hectares) have improved in number and surface area. It is clear that inequalities in the distribution of agricultural land are again rising, despite the advances between 1952 and 1980 and the relative immobility thereafter. Over the past 10 years there have been social explosions over land in the governorate of al-Minufiyya, where Kamshish lies. They are the result of manoeuvres by former landowners and have been ignored by the media. Dispossessed families used the new legislation to recover their previous holdings, or obtain more attractive parcels. There have been violent clashes between farmers and the police or hired agents working for these families. Villagers have been intimidated, illegally imprisoned (and tortured), or summarily tried and heavily sentenced. The Land Centre for Human Rights considers that between 2001 and 2004 there were 171 deaths, 945 injuries and 1,642 arrests.
Read More

Plug: "With/Without"

Withwithout Cover 2 A little over a month ago, With/Without: Spatial products, Practices and Politics in the Middle East, a collection of essays about contemporary Arab urban issues, was released at the Dubai International Design Forum. Published by Middle Eastern cultural magazine Bidoun and the Forum's organizer, Moutamarat, it has contributions from writers across the Arab world, including two writers who contribute to Issandr El Amrani on Cairo's al-Azhar Park and Ursula Lindsey on The Yacoubian Building. And tons of other fine people too, such as the great Moroccan photographer Yto Barrada, Director of the Iraqi National Archive Saad Bashir Eskander, renowned Dutch po-mo architect Rem Koolhaas and Lebanese historian Fawwaz Trabulsi to list only a few of the contributors who wrote the 14 essays on themes such as suburbia, shopping malls, public parks, street life, universities, or skycrapers. I've just received my copy (which had been intercepted by the Egyptian Postal Service and inspected at length for subversive material, apparently) and it's a handsomely designed volume, printed on archival paper with lovely photography. Where can I acquire this gem of a book, I hear you say? Well, although distribution deals are still underway, you can start by visiting the Bidoun site for ordering info or read the press release after the jump. Press release: WITH/WITHOUT Spatial Products, Practices and Politics in the Middle East Edited by Shumon Basar, Antonia Carver and Markus Miessen Featuring: Mauricio Guillen, Yto Barrada & Simona Schneider, Brian Ackley, Issandr El Amrani, Pelin Tan, Richard Allenby-Pratt & Celia Peterson, Kevin Mitchell, Hugh Macleod, Deena Chalabi, Dr Saad Bashir Eskander, Rem Koolhaas, Kai Friese, Ursula Lindsey, Senan Abdelqader, Clare Davies, Stephan Trüby, Markus Miessen, Shumon Basar, Erandi de Silva, Antonia Carver, L.E.FT, Nader Vossoughian, Keller Easterling, Lara Almarcegui, Philipp Misselwitz, Susanne Schuricht, Armin Linke, George Katodrytis, Fawwaz Traboulsi Designed by Jana Allerding, 9714 A Bidoun Book published by Bidoun and Moutamarat As Dubai builds unprecedented realms of new newness, other parts of the Middle East grapple with physical and symbolic histories. Relics come up against re-invention and revolution. Micro-mutations in Middle Eastern politics or economics are part of our shared ‘local’ news around the globe. With/Without is an anthology that casts an eye across the broader swathes of the Middle East today. Featuring an archival design, this hardback book is essential reading for anyone interested in the social makeup, design and architecture of Middle Eastern cities. Each of the fourteen chapters takes an obvious architectural or institutional typology (the museum, the villa, the street, the skyscraper, etcetera) and illustrates it with essays, interviews, and documentary photographs. Subjects range from the redevelopment of Martyr’s Square in Beirut; gated communities in Istanbul; Dubai’s mall culture; bridge building in Mecca; and the creation of a new Iraqi flag in the post-Saddam era. The underlying question in all of these inquiries is: how do spaces and territories form fundamental ideas about individuals, communities, and worlds? Co-published by Bidoun and Moutamarat, With/Without is edited by London-based architects/critics Shumon Basar and Markus Miessen, with Bidoun editor Antonia Carver, and designed by the award-winning Dubai agency 9714.
Read More

The khamseen

100 0403.1 Today, one of the nastiest Khamseen in years is blowing through Cairo. My balcony is covered in dust, and the old doors and windows of my 1940s apartment are letting the fine red sand carried by the wind blow in, covering everything in the house with a thin sliver of dust. Your mouth feels dry and mealy, your nose congested, and their a vaguely rancid odor of hanging in the air. The above picture, taken from the balcony at Arabist HQ (at an undisclosed location in Garden City) shows that you barely see the outline of the tall buildings in the distance, such as the new Four Seasons hotel. In fact, you barely see across the road. Seeing all of this made me think about finding out more about the khamseen. Wikipedia informs us the term can be used generically, and is used commonly in at least Egypt and Israel:
Hamsin (from Arabic:خمسين, khamsīn or khamseen) is a Middle Eastern term for the dry, hot wind that blows in from the desert. It can refer to the wind that blows from the Sahara across Egypt in the spring, typically from March through May; or in Israel, for the easterly wind that brings dust from the Arabian desert to cities and oppressive pressure on the people.
I found this explanation rather unsatisfactory and turned to Cassandra Vivian's The Western Desert of Egypt, the ultimate guide to Egypt's main desert. It has a short chapter on Saharan winds, describing the possible variants:
In the spring, from March to May comes the special sandstorm, the khamasin, (the 50). The season lasts for 50 days, and most storms are a few days in duration. Called siroccos in Morocco, qibli in Libya, cheheli in the northern Sahara, irifi along the coast and ouahdy in the central Sahara, the storms of North Africa each have their own special personality. Some, like the khamasin, are hot winds, others cold winds, but all are laden with sand and dust. The khamasin blows from the south to the northwest, in opposition to the prevailing winds. The harmattan in West Africa is a cold northeasterly wind that blows in November through February. The simum, 'poison wind,' is hot and dry and temperatures reach 55C or 130F. The habub is hot and moist and is prevalent along the southern edges of the Sahara and in Sudan. It carried sandstorms and duststorms, but can be the harbinger of thunderstorms and small tornadoes. With each storm lasting about three hours, the habub is mostly a summer affair. Its wall of sand and dust can be as high as 900 meters (3,000 feet).
Looking at some more academic sources, you find out some rather amazing facts. Did you for instance know that 40 million tons of dust are transported annually from the Sahara to the Amazon, providing the main source of sediments that fertilize the Amazon basin across a distance of 5,000km? A Google search also yielded this language column in the Forward by Philologos:
The hamsin is probably called “50” because this is, on a rough average, the number of days per year that it blows. These days can be divided into two equal periods, one in springtime, as Ondaatje writes, from March to May, and one in autumn, from September to November. (A cold, dry wind like the hamsin, known in Arabic as a sharkiyya or “easterly” — our English word “sirocco” derives from it — blows in much of the Middle East in winter.) In Israel the hamsin, while it strikes from the east or northeast, has two possible points of ultimate origin far to the west. One is North Africa, Egypt or even the Sahara, from which the wind whirls around cyclonically in a great circle through Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria; the other takes the form of an anti-cyclonic high-pressure front moving across the northern Mediterranean through Turkey and again wheeling, first southward and then westward, across Mesopotamia. In either case, the wind reaches the end of its land journey over Israel — particularly, over the northern part of it — before petering out at sea, so that many of the desert storms that will continue to bedevil the allied forces in Iraq for the next month and a half will rage across the Galilee a few days later. The word hamsin comes from Egypt and has spread throughout the Arabic of the Middle East. Israelis use it colloquially too, although in more formal language, such as that of weather forecasts in the newspapers or on TV, it is replaced by the more “proper” Hebrew term sharav. And in the book of Exodus, the hamsin is called quite simply ruah. kadim, an east wind. Back in those days, it caused military problems too. When Pharaoh’s chariots, the equivalent of a modern tank brigade, pursued the Israelites to the Red Sea, “the Lord,” the Bible tells us, “caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind, all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” Then the Israelites passed through, the violent hamsin that had rolled back the water died down, and the sea returned to drown the Egyptians.
Of course it's not only in the Bible that the khamseen is referred to. Many travelers wandering through North Africa mention it. For instance, the BBC has gathered an extensive collection of memoirs from British soldiers who fought Rommel's Afrika Korps in Egypt's Western Desert. One is a testimony, titled "Hell Alamein," of a soldier who arrives in Egypt in August 1942 and is sent out to a place in the desert called Kassassin to face the Nazis and the unbearable heat:
Not many days after we had been at Kassassin, this cauldron seemed to boil over. That was the day the dreaded Kahmseen dropped like a blanket. I shall always remember my first experience of this terror from the interior wastes of Africa. The air came from the desert far inland, not from the Mediterranean as it usually did. Blistering not air, with minute particles of sand floating in their millions, floated through the sky, shutting out the perpetual blue, and turning the heavens into a mass of grey. The first time it hit me, I felt as if someone had placed a smothering pillow over my face. It was almost impossible to breathe. I felt the red-hot air going up my nostrils and making me choke as it reached back of my throat. Huge sand-spouts wended their way from the earth to the sky in darkening wavy pillars, and when I saw them coming, I hurriedly dived out of their path. On one occasion I was too late, and was caught in a whirling column of sand, which torched me like the blast from a furnace, making me gasp frantically for breath. In the evenings during Khamsen, it was torture trying to get to sleep. I’d lie naked as the day I was born, with only a blanket below me to keep the sand off my body, and close my eyes, firmly determined to get some sleep. I’d sweat and sweat, the liquid oozing from the pores of my body like a slowly-pressed sponge and running in rivulets down the side of my stomach. Eventually, I’d manage to drop off for a few hours, only to awaken at dawn to find myself in a pool of my own perspiration, and so exhausted that I’d feel as if I hadn’t slept in years. Once this terrible Khamseen arrived, I soon learned that it was certain to last for at least three days. That was the minimum. That then was the country that my comrades and myself encountered and, consequently, our first battle was not against the Germans but against Mother Nature. A few days of sand swirling through tents, hitting our faces and bodies, and sticking to every nook and cranny, it was little wonder that dysentery set in, in its worst form. We just couldn’t avoid it. Sand was everywhere. It blew in our food and we ate it with bully beef, stew, wretched sweet potatoes, melons, or whatever was on the menu. The flies, too, lent their dirty, disease-ridden feet and gobbling filthy mouths to the daily misery. These were not like the flies back home which disappeared when you aimed a blow at them. These merely got out of the way when the blow fell and returned next second as if to attest their total disdain for the human race. It was a contest at meal-time, you versus the flies, with the nasty fluttering creatures winning nine times out of ten. I used to take a newspaper with me to every meal, to place over the top of my mug of tea while I ate the rest of the repast. Then I’d prepare myself for the battle ahead. With one hand, I would quickly snatch the newspaper away, while, with the other, I practically threw my mug to my mouth. In all, the swift motion took me about a second --- but the insects took only half second --- and before a single drop of the tea got over my throat, my mug was rimmed with buzzing flies. How then could dysentery be prevented in stomachs not yet acclimatised to the desert hazards?
Sir Edwin Arnold, an English poet and orientalist most famous for his translation of the Baghavad Gita, used the khamseen as a backdrop for a poem on the theme of mercy. One of his poems is reprinted in The Dog's Book of Verse (available at Project Guttenberg), a collection of poems about the canine species, tells the story of how a woman condemned to death is saved by Saladin because she relieves a hound's thirst during the khamseen:
MERCY'S REWARD Hast seen The record written of Salah-ud-Deen, The Sultan--how he met, upon a day, In his own city on the public way, A woman whom they led to die? The veil Was stripped from off her weeping face, and pale Her shamed cheeks were, and wild her fixed eye, And her lips drawn with terror at the cry Of the harsh people, and the rugged stones Borne in their hands to break her flesh and bones; For the law stood that sinners such as she Perish by stoning, and this doom must be; So went the adult'ress to her death. High noon it was, and the hot Khamseen's breath Blew from the desert sands and parched the town. The crows gasped, and the kine went up and down With lolling tongues; the camels moaned; a crowd Pressed with their pitchers, wrangling high and loud About the tank; and one dog by a well, Nigh dead with thirst, lay where he yelped and fell, Glaring upon the water out of reach, And praying succour in a silent speech, So piteous were its eyes. Which, when she saw, This woman from her foot her shoe did draw, Albeit death-sorrowful, and, looping up The long silk of her girdle, made a cup Of the heel's hollow, and thus let it sink Until it touched the cool black water's brink; So filled th' embroidered shoe, and gave a draught To the spent beast, which whined, and fawned, and quaffed Her kind gift to the dregs; next licked her hand, With such glad looks that all might understand He held his life from her; then, at her feet He followed close, all down the cruel street, Her one friend in that city. But the King, Riding within his litter, marked this thing, And how the woman, on her way to die Had such compassion for the misery Of that parched hound: "Take off her chain, and place The veil once more about the sinner's face, And lead her to her house in peace!" he said. "The law is that the people stone thee dead For that which thou hast wrought; but there is come Fawning around thy feet a witness dumb, Not heard upon thy trial; this brute beast Testifies for thee, sister! whose weak breast Death could not make ungentle. I hold rule In Allah's stead, who is 'the Merciful,' And hope for mercy; therefore go thou free-- I dare not show less pity unto thee." As we forgive--and more than we-- Ya Barr! Good God, show clemency.
So if you happen to see those yellow baladi dogs (my favorite dogs of all) wandering the streets their throats parched, it might be a good idea to put out a little water for them to drink.
Read More