Writing and reading about Qatar

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I profiled a young literature professor, writing instructor and novelist, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who works in Qatar and finds the emirate a great setting for fiction -- even though her own last book was banned. The article is behind our paywall but here is an excerpt:

A daughter of Indian academics who emigrated to the United States, Ms. Rajakumar, 36, arrived in Doha in 2005, to serve as assistant dean of student affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. A few years later, while working at Bloomsbury Qatar, a branch of the British publisher, she decided to try her hand at writing. "I thought: Wait a minute, I’m as good as some of these authors," she says.
While pursuing her literary goals, she also encouraged others to do the same. She started teaching writing and founded the Doha Writers’ Workshop, the first group of its kind in the country. Its meetings made her aware of the many stories Qataris were interested in telling.
With support from the U.S. State Department and from Qatar University, she established the Qatar Narrative Series, with an open call for essays by female residents of Qatar. At the time, says Ms. Rajakumar, "People said, ‘It’s such a private culture, they value anonymity, they don’t want to lose face. You’ll never get them to sign their name.’" But the series was a success. From 2008 to 2011, Ms. Rajakumar co-edited four anthologies of Qatari writing.
She uses the collections in the writing classes she teaches. It helps to show students "a book of published essays by people they can relate to," says Ms. Rajakumar, who has also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar campus.
Ms. Rajakumar herself has written half a dozen books, published on Amazon. In the spring of 2014, she released Love Comes Later, the novel about young Qataris trying to find the right partner.
"All of my books are built around a question," explains Ms. Rajakumar. A major one for the young Qatari would-be writers she’d spent time with was: "Who are we going to marry? Is there any chance for love?" With Love Comes Later she imagined an answer.
When her distributor’s agent let her know the book was banned in Qatar, Ms. Rajakumar was surprised. She had anticipated being asked to make some changes for the Qatari edition (a common requirement for local publication and distribution), and was prepared to do so. "As a writer," she says, "if you don’t have readers, you might as well not be writing."
Neither Virginia Commonwealth, where Ms. Rajakumar was working at the time, nor any of the other Western universities publicly questioned the ban. Responses from faculty colleagues varied, she says, with some giving her "high fives" and others asking, "How are you still here?"
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Revolution and Despair

I have great respect for Asef Bayat's work and there are insights in this essay published on Mada Masr, but I find it hard reading on a day when people are being chased and killed in Cairo for celebrating the anniversary of the January 25 uprising:

Truth be told, there is a limit as to how much states, even authoritarian ones, can control societies without turning totalitarian, such as the likes of Communist East Germany where the secret police Stasi kept files on one third of the total population. There are ironically more favorable spaces to pursue this strategy, ["active citizenship"] in such settings as Egypt, than under the liberal democratic states like the US, where the apparatuses of surveillance, legal or technical, seem to be much more pervasive and detailed than our repressive but soft states. In our region, there remain vast informal sociascapes, the free zones within which alternative norms counter to state logic may be instituted. Eric Garner, the black American who was apprehended and choked to death by a police officer, was selling cigarettes illegally on the streets of New York City. Millions of Eric Garners work on the streets of Middle Eastern cities informally and illegally without states being able to do much about them.   
Informal life, the relations and institutions that lie at the margin of state control, make up a vast swath of social existence, where some of the most creative (as well as anti-social) endeavors take shape, as shown in the circles of family, kin members, friends, or among those who operate in the localities, communities, and informal worksites. Spaces from among the art world, intellectual circles, book publishing, cultural production, new social media, independent journalism, legal and architecture profession, or social work may produce alternative speech and unorthodox ways of being and doing things. Even the state-regulated institutions such as schools, colleges, municipalities, neighborhood associations, city councils, student clubs, workers’ unions, and professional syndicates often turn, by critical and creative users, into spaces where some of the core social and political values are contested.
Active citizenry of this sort, in the meantime, is bound to subvert the ability of the authoritarian state to govern, because the state usually rules not from above or outside the society, but from within, by weaving its logic — through norms, relations, and institutions — into the social fabric. Challenging those norms, relations, and institutions would by definition diminish the state’s legitimacy and impair its ability to govern. In fact, active citizenry could go even further to possibly impel and even acclimatize the state to behave in line with the values that subaltern citizens may cultivate in society. No wonder the prohibition law in the US looked absurd when by the early 1930s so many citizens were unlawfully consuming alcohol; the law had to change. The absurdity of preventing women from driving should be clear even to the Saudi rulers who cannot help  but see women as capable of doing more or less what men can. An authoritarian state cannot govern with peace and for long a democratic citizenry.

But who says the state has or will govern "with peace"? And disturbed as one may be by surveillance and policing in the United States, isn't it ridiculous to argue that there is more space to oppose and organize in Egypt?

I appreciate the desire to offer some encouragement to Egyptian citizens who supported January 25, and I agree that it is important to keep thinking of how to be active, even under these terrible circumstances (the site Mada Masr itself is a great example of this). I also agree that we are not just back to the old days -- there was a huge rupture, and even if the hopes it raised were defeated, the repressive techniques employed to achieve this (media propaganda; Saudi subsidies; massive repression; a shameful politicization of the judiciary) are destabilizing and seemingly untenable in the long-term. But I take a much darker view of the kind of days we're in. People used to say that the revolution had brought down the wall of fear and it could never be back up; I think the army and police have done a great reconstruction job. Virtually every institution in Egypt is worse off than it was four years ago; a big segment of society has been complicit -- out of fear, ignorance, self-interest -- with the falsification of its own history and with granting impunity for state injustice and violence. 

One also cannot assume -- as a certain school of academic writing does -- that every bit of economic informality is an act of political subversion or active citizenship. Is there any evidence that informal vendors in Cairo are challenging the norms of society (rather than replicating them by, say, harassing women and taking the state's side against protesters?). Let's not romanticize the margins and the people who live there. The fact that they are resourceful and determined to scrape together a living or navigate a corrupt, repressive state is not a victory -- it's normal human behavior, and it's a waste (think what they could accomplish if given better, fairer chances). Keeping big swaths of the population on the margins -- invisible and illegal -- is an effective strategy of social and political control. The avenues for active citizenship are violently barred. 

I was moved by this reflection by Yasmine El Rifae on memory and violence in Egypt these days:

The gunmen and their bosses have made it clear that unauthorized memory will not be tolerated. Neither will grief. Public language, thought, and opinion is either legal or illegal, patriotism or treason.
What we have been authorized to do is to spend a week mourning the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, whose Wahabi tradition teaches those in grief not to demonstrate it in public. Perhaps the regime would prefer this of us.
We have been authorized to mention the word “martyr” in the context of January 25 as long as we agree that what they died for is what lies in front of us. We can speak of Egypt’s youth in the context of political participation, meaning participation in parliamentary elections. We have not yet been authorized to speak about the dead of June 30 and its bloody summer in any tone other than gratitude.

King Abdullah's mourners

It's been quite something to watch governments across the middle east -- and beyond -- pay tribute to Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah. Egypt cancelled the January 25 anniversary celebrations (the symbolism here is heavy as lead) and the UK flew flags at half-mast. Most Arab countries declared several days (or even weeks) of national mourning -- something they generally don't do when dozens of their own citizens are killed in tragic accidents or terrorist attacks. I guess Saudi military acquisitions (for the West) and investments and subsidies (for Arab neighbors) are worth that much. 

Western media has largely parroted the claim that the king was -- in the Saudi context -- some sort of moderate and reformer. This is really a stretch. While Abdullah did not seem to be as repressive and hidebound as other members of the royal family, he never put that family's power-sharing deal with the kingdom's fundamentalist religious clergy in question.

The idea that the house of Saud is being held hostage by religious extremists...they empower and fund those extremists, whether we're talking about the kingdom's own religious establishment or jihadist groups abroad. Yes there are tensions with the clergy sometimes -- tensions within an established alliance.

Not to mention Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, on which the late king presumably had some input: the kingdom has bankrolled and led a regional counter-revolution, going to great lengths to roll back the Arab uprisings, and to bury both mass social movements and political Islam. 

Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobia

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about Michel Houellebecq's latest, in which he imagines France electing a Muslim president and its intellectual classes cravenly converting to Islam and adopting Sharia. This gives an idea of the current French zeitgeist.

I haven't read this book, but I've read most of Houellebecq's previous works. I don't agree with Gopnik that he is not a provocateur. And I find Gopnik's definition of satire bizarre. He writes that "Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what's happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening." But that assumes that "what's happening right" now is the ascendancy of French Muslims to power. On the contrary, French citizens of Arab origin remain a small minority, economically marginalized, targeted by rising right-wing parties, and not at all homogenous -- hence the problem of discussing France's "Muslim community" (many of them are not practicing Muslims) or using the even more condescending category of Frenchmen and women "issus de l'immigration" ("offsprings of immigrants") -- for how many generations must French citizens with Arab names be categorized this way? I would argue that satire is a way of revealing a truth -- about an argument, a point of view, the world we live in -- through its gross exaggeration. 

Houellebecq is an interesting writer; he can be funny and thought-provoking. But he's not a satirist. He's a reactionary -- his seeming cynicism is masked, depressed romanticism. What Gopnik gets right is how much the hysterical discourse on identity in France is based on personal nostalgia, the inability of a certain class of French intellectuals to accept that France is a different country now. Here he is on Eric Zemmour (another writer whose fixed preoccupation with the cultural, sexual, political threat posed by Muslim men is just ridiculous). 

"In the back of Zemmour’s mind, it seems, is an oddly singular and specific place to long for—the Gaullist France of the booming sixties, when Zemmour was a kid. Society held together, authority was firm and essentially benevolent, each man had a role, each woman could choose to stay home if she wanted, and Catherine Deneuve was in every other movie. This is a nostalgia that Houellebecq, who was also a kid then, shares."

I'll never forget reading a column by another French writer in which he lamented the sight of halal butchers and Arab internet cafes in Paris, as if it were the end of the world. It was the end of his world, I guess, since he had too little imagination to make room in it for historical and social change, for anyone different. Or to reflect for one moment on how much more drastically the French colonial presence once altered and alienated the reality of other peoples. 

Reactions to the attack on Charlie Hebdo

  • Buzzfeed rounds up cartoons of solidarity from around the world. 
  • "Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike." This is from a piece by a radical London-based cleric published on the USA Today site entitled Why Did France Allow the Tabloid to Provoke Muslims? To which I would ask: Why the Hell Do You Think You Have The Right to Go Through Life Unprovoked?
  • Of course the overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics and thinkers condemn the attack. 
  • Juan Cole argues that this is a sophisticated operation aimed at alienating French Muslims and increasing recruitment. "Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination [...]Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites."

  • Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun makes a similar point, arguing that the attacks express "a fierce and radical intention to prevent Muslims from observing their faith in a secular land, while respecting the laws of the Republic, [an intention] to isolate them and make them France's enemies." 
  • "The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists. They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades." George Packer in the New Yorker. But how can we disassociate that ideology from history and politics, from Western interventions , conflicts and dictatorships in the Middle East, or from the current debate in Europe over the integration of its Muslim minorities? How can we explain its spread and virulence without any context? 
  • From Jacobin magazine: "Now, I think there's a critical difference between solidarity with the journalist who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow 'legitimate targets,' and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication."  Thanks for not conceding that we journalists are "legitimate targets." Does that really need to be said? 
  • Scott Long questions the "I Am Charlie" online meme in a nuanced and thought-provoking way. "I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club [...] This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of#JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. " Long also discusses the myth that satire is a weapon always directed by the weak against the strong, and reminds of the anti-Semitism of the father of French satire, Voltaire. 
  • Here is a counter-vailing argument regarding Charlie Hebdo's offensiveness. "....the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed." 

 In other words, a violent threat to censor a particular form of speech can only be countered by exercising that very speech. When some Muslims threaten to kill those who depict the Prophet, liberals must depict him on principle. This is a sharp argument, although one problem is that it requires us to evaluate the intentions of satirists and provocateurs.  In a piece we linked to recently, Adam Shatz showed how Islamophobia in Europe (and before that, anti-Semitism) has long covered itself in the mantle of a defense of free speech and liberal values. And how much does context -- Muslims in France are a minority from once colonized territories who continue to face discrimination -- matter in evaluating whether Charlie Hebdo was standing up to a totalitarian threat or picking on a marginalized minority? Could they have been doing both? 

I didn't read Charlie Hebdo, so while its covers were tasteless, I don't know if its editorial line was racist. Many, including some  former contributors, have argued so. But that does not matter. I defend the right of its staff to do their work in safety. I have no problem whatsoever expressing solidarity with a racist publication -- I'm not expressing solidarity with their views, but with their right to not pay with their lives for the expression of those views. I also defend everyone's right to call them out on those views, then and now.  I am so tired of these false and furious debates on the middle east, Islam, terrorism, in which everything is obscenely simplified (for or against terrorism? Islam? racism? satire?) and people cannot acknowledge more than one principle, one position, one idea, at a time. 

On "idiots"

Someone wrote in to express their anger that I called the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo "idiots":

"Murderous idiots????... Idiots???... This is the best you can do? Knowing that you have a much sharper pen when it comes to others who commit similar atrocities why don't you take a moment to read Christopher Hitchens on religious fanaticism and stop hiding behind your Arabist veneer?"

I have read some Christopher Hitchens, but his best writing is not, in my opinion, on religious fanaticism. Let me just say this: calling the terrorists "idiots" was not intended to make light of their terrible act. But the men who did this are deeply stupid; and I say this as someone convinced (partly from recent personal experience) that stupidity can be one of the most devastating and poisonous forces unleashed in a society. I also say this to put these guys in their place. They are not evil geniuses; they are not holy warriors; they are not terrifying avengers. They are nasty little murderers who make a mockery of the religion they purport to defend and who outdo Islamophobes' worst stereotypes. They are hateful, harmful idiots. 

"It's hard to be loved by idiots.."

At least 12 dead in terrorist attack on French satirical magazine

Murderous idiots have killed at least 12 members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine famous for its offensive humor. The publication had particularly angered some Muslims with its disrespectful depictions of Prophet Mohamed. The masked gunmen who shot the magazine's staff as well as two policemen this morning in central Paris reportedly yelled that they were "avenging" the Prophet. The attackers we able to flee. This is awful -- part of the awfulness that seems to be growing all around us these days. The attack suggests the French police is pretty hapless (there have been attacks and threats towards the magazine before) and will very likely exacerbate fear and hostility towards Europe's Muslim minorities. 

Arab world rejects Ridley Scott's Exodus as inaccurate, Zionist, blasphemous

At least three Arab countries have banned Ridley Scott's movie Exodus, featuring Christian Bale as Moses. Egyptian censor Abdel Sattar Fathy explained that: "the movie contains misleading information, including that the Jews helped build the pyramids and are God's chosen people.". The Egyptian Minister of Culture has described the film as  "Zionist," and a statement from the Ministry said that censors found "intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film." There are truly quite a few historical inaccuracies in the film, but not more than in your average Hollywood movie. 

Scott's choice to give the Biblical miracle of parting of the Red Sea a pseudo-scientific explanation, ascribing it to an earthquake and undercutting its divine nature, was not appreciated.

The United Arab Emirates also banned the film. In Morocco, it was reportedly Minister of Communication Mustapha El Khalfi, a member of the governing Islamist Justice and Development Party, who pushed to have the film banned (after the Al Jazeera satellite channel raised the issue) even though it had been approved by the Centre Cinematographic Marocain.. But in fact it's unclear where the decision originated. The main objection in Morocco was not to the Jewish people getting credit for the pyramids but rather to a scene in which God may be personified as a small child who speaks to Moses. Depicting God is forbidden in Islam (and even depicting his prophets is frowned upon). Much of Exodus was actually filmed in Morocco, which is used as a backdrop for many films set in the Middle East, and which is trying to expand its cinematographic industry (and had just spent millions of dollars to hold the International Marrakesh Film Festival). 

Scott had previously come in for some criticism for his all-white cast of lead actors (subalterns are of color, as far as I understand), and responded by saying that he couldn't get the financial backing to make a block-buster film like this if he cast "Mohamed so-and-so." Rupert Murdoch, who owns the film's distributor, was surprised to find out that all Egyptians weren't white.

Cairo's moral panic

On December 7, the police raided one of Cairo’s few working hammams, a run-down bathhouse in the center of the city where gay men sometimes cruised. They marched over twenty nearly naked, cowering patrons out into the street. A female reporter, Mona El Iraqi, and her investigative team instigated and filmed the raid for a program called “El Mustaghabi” (”The Hidden”). She defended her actions by saying she was trying to raise awareness on World HIV Day. The men have been subjected to anal examinations, which supposedly can determine if they are gay. They have been charged with prostitution and debauchery. 

This is just the latest, most shocking instance of what has now become the biggest crackdown in years on gay and transgender people. 

The authorities have also shut down some noisy street-side cafes in Downtown. A month after one venue was closed an official described it as an “atheists’ café,” whose customers also allegedly worshipped Satan.  Presumably said this was said to aggrandize the raid and to justify it. It also sustains a politically useful narrative about the kids hanging out Downtown — those same “revolutionary” ones — being troublemakers and worse. Some of the local media was happy to expand on the theme. A special report by El Watan about “The Street of Apostates’” in Cairo was sub-titled: “Violence and Drugs and Politics and Atheism.” Meanwhile, inviting (presumably terribly naive) atheists on TV only to yell at them, threaten them, kick them off the platform, call their mothers, or diagnose them as psychologically imbalanced remains prime entertainment. Men of religion recently got in on the act, announcing their concern over Egypt’s alleged 886 atheists (a mysteriously precise number that elicited a certain amount of skepticism and hilarity).

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In Cairo and Doha recently

Mint condition bus passes, spawning decades, owned by one obsessive-compulsive Egyptian citizen, and now by my friend and collector Amgad Naguib. 

Mint condition bus passes, spawning decades, owned by one obsessive-compulsive Egyptian citizen, and now by my friend and collector Amgad Naguib. 

In Amgad's antiquarian's shop in Downtown Cairo

In Amgad's antiquarian's shop in Downtown Cairo

One of my interviews in Doha. The first female president of Qatar University, Dr. Sheikha El Misnad

One of my interviews in Doha. The first female president of Qatar University, Dr. Sheikha El Misnad

For National Day in Qatar: special paint job and a portrait of Sheikh Tamim on the window.

For National Day in Qatar: special paint job and a portrait of Sheikh Tamim on the window.

The Mubarak verdict

An abridged version of the Mubarak verdict (still hundreds of pages long) was released earlier this week and according to this press report, the judge includes the following "historical context" for the benefit of "future generations," based on the testimony of former Field Marshall Tantawi (President Sisi's mentor), general Sami Anani, former intelligence chief Omar Suleyman and others. These leaders explained in their depositions how the United States, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Qatar all collaborated to implement the American Greater Middle East initiative, a plan to fragment and weaken the Arab world that started with the invasion of Iraq. Because of the costliness of that operation, the foreign conspirators then turned to "fourth generation warfare" (a term that has become integral to Egypt's most popular conspiracy theories) and began "training a small group of young people to protest and strike and engage in civil disobedience and demonstrate, to bring their countries to a halt." The former intelligence officer Amr Afifi supposedly directed the Egyptian demonstrators from abroad.

The demonstrators themselves were criminals, poor people and misguided youth; they were infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, who shot both protesters and police.  And of course , the judge writes that "The United States funded the Muslim Brotherhood from abroad, to enflame the country whenever the situation was calming down." 

As human rights activist Hossam Baghat put it on Democracy Now recently

Initially, the charge was that [Mubarak] had ordered or failed to stop the killing of protesters. The judge decided to throw out that charge on a technicality, saying that prosecutors did not follow the right procedure in adding him to that ongoing case in 2011. But really, what’s truly astonishing about this decision is that after the judge is done exonerating everyone and addressing every charge, for about eight pages then, the judge goes into what he calls, literally, the historical context of this verdict. He says, again literally he says, so, I’m not going to rule on the merits of these charges because of these procedural errors, but let me tell you what really happened in 2011. And then he goes on to repeat everything that the propaganda machine of Sisi and the current regime and the Mubarak people have been advancing about a global conspiracy.

Mubarak: "I didn't do anything."

It is really no surprise that the charges against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- for being responsible for the killing of protesters in January 2011 -- have just been dismissed on an unpersuasive technicality. There is apparently quite a bit of indignation in Egypt at this latest evidence of judicial integrity, although I find it shocking that anyone is shocked. The same message has been delivered loud and clear, for months now: We're back, and none of us is going to be held accountable for anything. 

Anyway, if you want to hear Mubarak chuckle, and a fawning interviewer call him "Mr. President," listen to the video below. 


Egyptian media: a shameless parallel dimension

Unbelievable. This sentence (among others) in a  New York Times article by David Kirkpatrick about Sisi's speech to the UN:

What viewers back in Egypt could not see was that during the General Assembly, almost all of the diplomats present watched in amused silence as Mr. Sisi’s small entourage did the clapping in response to his chant.
becomes this assertion in Al Ahram newspaper:
Kirkpatrick pointed out that all the diplomats were in a state of silence and enjoyment throughout al-Sisi’s speech.

Saudi Arabia sentences Shia cleric to death for "sedition"

This is from Amnesty International's report on the death sentence handed down to a senior cleric from Qatif, in Saudi Arabia's eastern, oil-rich and largely Shia region. 

A death sentence passed today against a dissident Shi’a Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia for “disobeying the ruler”, “inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations” after a deeply flawed trial is appalling and must be immediately quashed, said Amnesty International.
“The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Here is a short video clip  of Sheikh Nimr, arguing for justice rather than sectarian loyalty: "You're Shia; don't oppress Sunnis. You are oppressed. If you oppress anyone, even Sunnis, Allah doesn't love you. […] The oppressed should gather together against the oppressors. El Khalifa [the ruling family in Bahrain] are oppressors, but Sunnis are not responsible for them. El Assad is an oppressor, but Shias are not responsible for him. The oppressed cannot defend oppressors."

The sheikh supported the protests that have been ongoing in the Eastern province for several years. The prosecutor in his case has asked that he be crucified. From the BBC:

Officials said he rammed a security forces vehicle, leading to a gun battle. However, his family disputed the allegation that he resisted arrest and insisted that he did not own a weapon.
The cleric was held for eight months before being charged and reportedly spent the first four in an isolation cell at a prison hospital in Riyadh.
Activists and relatives say Sheikh Nimr, who has a wide following among Shia in Eastern Province and other states, supported only peaceful protests and eschewed all violent opposition to the government.
In 2011, he told the BBC that he supported "the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons... the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons".
His arrest prompted days of protests in which three people were killed.
Human Rights Watch said more than 1,040 people had been arrested at Shia protests between February 2011 and August 2014. At least 240 are still believed to be in detention.

Hey Baghdadi!

The barbarity of the so-called Islamic State has inspired a new wave of "What is wrong with Islam?" hand-wringing. On American television it is as simplistic and disconcerting as one would expect. Muslims around the world meanwhile have predictable bristled at begin told they should immediately condemn or apologize for terrorism. 

There is a serious conversation to be had about the lack of freedom of religion and expression in Islamic countries. The richest countries in the region use oil wealth to spread a noxious, bigoted, ultimately self-destructive version of Islam. Although many Islamic scholars have condemned IS, there is very little space for open, tolerant debate on matters of religion. 

But terrorists remain on the fringe of Arab and Muslim societies. And Islamists are hardly the only ones who are illiberal in the Middle East. Discrimination against women and minorities is as rampant under "secular," military, US-backed regimes (it's not exactly hard to find in America either). Islamism and jihadism are modern, political phenomenon that have as much to do with oil wealth, despotism, and Western military interventions as they do with religion. 

I want to share this video of the Lebanese band El Rahel El Kebir ("The Great Departed"), performing in a small cabaret in Beirut, to a laughing audience, sometime in August. This jaunty song  is addressed to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr El-Baghdadi, whose claims to religious legitimacy it effortlessly demolishes.

 

The song starts out showering traditional blessings and titles on el-Baghdaid, but quickly takes a turn into mockery. It has lines like this:

علشان الإسلام رحمة، رح ندبح ونوزع لحمة، وعلشان نخفف زحمة، حنفجر في خلق الله

عشان لا إكراه في الدين فلنقض عالمرتدين والشيعةوالسنيين والنصارى يا خسارة

(In Arabic it rhymes. My awkward translation is "Because Islam is merciful… we'll butcher and hand out meat/To make it less crowded/We'll blow folks up/Because there's no compulsion in religion/we'll kill unbelievers..and Shia and Sunnis and Christians, what a loss!")

It's a catchy, brave little fuck-you. The Islamic State wants to be feared, to be taken seriously, and to pass for the representative of pure Islam. The US media is all to happy to oblige. Others in the Muslim world show it the contempt it deserves. 

(Thanks to Karl Sharro for the tip). 

Help translate The Confines of the Shadow, an Italian-Libyan novel

We recently received this message, regarding an effort to crowd-fund the translation of what sounds like a fascinating series of novels set in Libya during and after the Italian colonial occupation. 

We are currently trying to raise £8,000 to underwrite the production costs of Alessandro Spina's Libyan-Italian epic The Confines of the Shadow, which will be translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely. A 1300 page multi-generational series of novels set in Benghazi, The Confines of the Shadow is a sequence that maps the transformation of Libya from a sleepy Ottoman backwater in the 1910s to the second capital of an oil-rich kingdom in the 1960s.

Called “the Italian Joseph Conrad” and a “20th Century Balzac” by the Italian press, Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite born in Benghazi in 1927, and he lived in Libya for most of his life, until he was forced to leave the country during the darkest years of Gaddafi's rule. He passed away in 2013, but not before his masterpiece was awarded the Premio Bagutta in 2007, Italy's highest literary accolade.

In the run-up to our publishing Volume 1 of this epic, The Nation published Naffis-Sahely's essay 'Spina's Shadow' in their August 18-25 issue. Banipal also featured the essay on their website to help promote our fundraising effort: Who is Alessandro Spina?

As this sort of project requires extensive financing, we are asking you to help contribute to the production of the remaining two volumes. This is the link to our Indiegogo site. The pledges range from £5 to £300, and we are grateful for all of them. 

Please consider making a pledge today to help support the work of Darf Publishers. We are offering, among other perks, exclusive advance excerpts from Volume 1, a chance to put your name down for a deluxe hardcover edition of the book, as well as a limited edition of prints featuring the cover art. Once you’ve pledged, please help spread the word online.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/alessandro-spina-s-the-confines-of-the-shadow

I grew up in Italy but had never heard of Spina. I searched in vain for his books in bookstores there during a recent visit (they could be ordered but there wasn't time). After being forced to leave Libya, he lived in Italy as a comfortable recluse, entirely devoted to his writing, the friend and correspondent of several prominent Italian authors. He appears to have had a reputation but a very small audience. I don't know yet if his writing is as good as his publisher and translator claim, but I do know I'd like to find out. 

 

Book review: The Iraqi Christ

A few months ago I finally got around to reading a short story collection by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. I was impressed by the wit, originality and punch of his writing, their well-balanced mix of very dark humor, brutality and pathos. 

Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, ‘set up after the fall of the dictator’, to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are ‘stranger, crueller and more crazy’ than everyone else’s. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may ‘turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’.
Blasim’s book was published in 2013, when Iraq had already suffered a decade of violence after the US invasion. Since then, the country’s very existence has been called into question by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. How to hold the pieces of one’s identity and humanity together is, unsurprisingly, a major theme of contemporary Iraqi fiction.

You can read the whole review here

What makes the (un)Islamic State monstrous?

“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” David Cameron said on September 14 of the so-called Islamic State, after it released a video showing the execution of aid worker David Haines. 

What is it that makes the group monstrous? First of all how it compels us to look at it. 

The word monster derives from the Latin monstrare, which like montrer in modern French and mostrare in Italian means to show. Monsters attract our attention. During the middle ages in Europe, monsters -- deformed children, conjoined twins -- were put on display for the entertainment and religious edification of crowds. 

It is both hard to watch and hard to turn away from the nightmarish spectacles IS shares online. Young Shia men plead to camera; their prone bodies twitch as they are shot one by one. YouTube and Twitter’s decision to block these videos shows how anxious we are about their power. Regardless, the image of a man in orange and kneeling before a black-clad executioner, mouthing well-rehearsed propaganda as a hand with a knife dangles in the background, is etched in our minds now. 

The word monster may also derive from another Latin verb, monere, meaning to warn or advise; a monstrum was something people pointed out to each other but also a “supernatural being or object that is an omen or warning of the will of the gods.” This is quite close to how IS sees itself: the bearer of a dire divine message. Even to those of us who do not share its religious beliefs, the group may seem a dark portent of our times. Its existence is a remonstration, divine or not -- how could we let this happen? 

Ancient monsters were freaks of nature. Modern monsters are reflections and composites, created by men from parts of themselves (think of the doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein). The more they resemble us, the scarier they are. 

Osama Bin Laden was partly created by US support to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and by the Western media after 9/11. But, lecturing in Arabic from a cave, with his beard and his funny clothes, he seemed exotic. 

The Islamic State is creepily familiar -- speaking to us in our language and on our terms, Tweeting about how great living under Sharia is. Some of the parallels seem purposeful on their part: Carrying stolen US-made weapons, they water-board their prisoners and put them in orange jumpsuits. They make the men they are about to kill into mirrors, faces we can’t help imagining as our own. 

The members of the Islamic State bear full moral responsibility for their crimes. But the organization could only have arisen out of a particular, devastating vacuum. The forces that converged to bring this gang of zealots and murderers to prominence includes the US invasion of Iraq; the Assad regime’s limitless brutality; the Gulf States’ oil-fueled bigotry; the paranoia of the Russians. On some days I let my imagination run away with me and think of IS  as a compendium of all the worst tendencies and motivations of Arab regimes and their foreign backers; of every sordid calculation, every feckless decision, every strain of arrogance and intolerance and injustice. Above all of the inconceivable cruelty and stupidity it has taken to push two entire countries into their graves, their cities turned to dust and their people, for years now, bombed, butchered, terrorized, and driven from their homes. 

Who else could we expect to thrive there but these monstrous young men (and women), these children of our age?