Lunch with the FT: Sir John Sawers

Says the man who relentlessly cozied up to Mubarak wih his chum Tony:

Sir John, who was British ambassador in Cairo between 2001 and 2003, says the Arab spring shows that revolutionary change is impossible to manage and will normally end up worse for western interests and values. “We saw it in Tehran in 1979, and we’ve seen it in Egypt over the past few years.”

Buying books in Cairo

 Do read this great essay by Elliot Colla on buying (and reading, and discussing) books in Cairo, over the span of many decades. 

When you go into Dar Merit, you will be asked whether you would drink coffee or tea. If you stay long enough two things will happen. First, Muhammad will roll a fat joint and pass it to you. Second, back in those days, the great Egyptian poet Ahmad Fouad Negm would probably come over around nightfall for an impromptu literary salon. I count myself very fortunate that those two things happened to me as often as I wanted that summer.
In January 2011, Dar Merit became something of a forward base of operations for young revolutionaries. Any poet or critic or artist or singer or stagehand who needed tea and a place to rest would find it at Dar Merit. Were it not for Dar Merit, we might not have any serious literary accounts of the 2011 uprising. In recent months, Mohammad Hashem has spoken about moving away from Egypt for good.

I have similar fond memories of Dar Merit, where I was always seemingly welcome to drop in. (Which was all the more gracious as often when Ustez Mohammad arrived there in the late afternoon I had the distinct impression that this was the beginning of his day. He once called a friend and writer I was meeting at his office and told him: "Hurry up! There's a khawaga here you wants to give you tons of money!" Followed by a wild cackle). As for the Cairo Book Fair, I visited last year for the first time in a long time and wrote this.  

Iraq: The Outlaw State

An excellent essay by Max Rodenbeck on recent writing about Iraq. 

In short, the country that is now Iraq—although alas not, perhaps, for much longer in its current shape—is no stranger to the ghoulish and macabre. The Mongols, famously, built pyramids of skulls when they pillaged and razed Baghdad in 1258 and again in 1401. It was in Iraq in the 1920s that Britain introduced newer, cheaper methods for keeping unruly natives under control, such as chemical weapons and aerial “terror” bombings. Saddam Hussein’s three-decade-long Republic of Fear, with its gassing of Kurdish villagers, grotesque tortures, and mass slaughter of dissidents, made the later American jailers of Abu Ghraib look downright amateur.

[…]

Against this background it is not surprising to find contemporary Iraqi writers responding, like others before them in countries fated to prolonged periods of extreme stress, with a mix of black humor and gloomily whimsical fantasy.

Max mentions the novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, which I wrote about earlier here

Show Sisi the money

A great story in Mada Masr about the mysterious, unaccountable funds to which Egyptians are being strongly encouraged to donate.  

Driven by curiosity, rather than patriotic sentiment, I also decided to donate to the Tahya Masr fund. Rather than promise Sisi my vital organs, I settled on a humble LE100 and accepted that I would be outdone by an 8-year-old.

When I arrived at the National Bank of Egypt, one of four banks that accepts donations, I quietly stated that I was here to donate to the Tahya Masr fund. The security guard and the policeman sitting next to him greeted me with excitement and respect.

“That’s it?” the policeman asked cheekily as he handed me a number and asked me to wait my turn.

After my number was called, I walked up to the desk, bolstered by my two new friends at the door, and stated that I would like to donate to the Tahya Masr fund, to which a busy bank teller shook his head and asked for my ID.

First, however, as a contributor to the fund, I had a few questions: how much money has been collected so far, where will the money go, and how soon?

The bank teller responded impatiently with “I don’t know” to every question.

I then asked what the difference was between account number 306306 and 037037. He went into a discussion with his neighboring colleague, and finally came back with an answer: “306306 is called Support Egypt, while 037037 is called Long Live Egypt.”

Both accounts were active at the same time, and people can still donate to either one, I learned.

“Now, are you going to give me the money?” the teller asked, as I handed over my LE100 bill, not knowing where it would end up

 

 

We'll Always Have Cairo

This summer, The Arabist household relocated from Egypt to Morocco, after well over a decade living in Cairo. It wasn't an easy step to take. 

We left at a low point (even as we fear that things will be getting worse still). There are many things I won’t miss about Egypt, especially Egypt of late: the hypocrisy, the violence to bodies and to truth, the staggering waste. I won't miss the conspiracy theories and the mock trials; or the way people lower their voices again now to talk about politics; the smug smile of the new president or the anxious, endless diatribes of his sycophants. 

But Cairo is also where Issandr and I met, spent most of our twenties, and became journalists. It’s where we witnessed tens of thousands of strangers dancing a conga line all night around Tahrir Square. So I want to write about the things we will miss.

Driving home on the Kasr El Nil Bridge with a good song playing on a crackling taxi stereo, wishing a silent goodnight to the bronze lions who guard the bridge. Windows rolled down, watching the newlyweds taking their pictures, the young couples in intense negotiations, the teenage boys sitting on the railing laughing, the families out for a midnight stroll. The great black river carrying a rare breeze and full of reflected light, small open motor boats skimming its surface like electric water bugs, draped in colored lights and pulsing with pop music. As you think: There's no city quite like this. 

Having fuul for breakfast from a cart in Garden City.

 

The time-lapse pyrotechnics of flame trees slowly blooming. 

Mangoes, fresh pomegranate juice and molokheyya.

Egyptian dialect in all its inflections and registers, from the cynical to the lyrical, the melodramatic to the bombastic. The stream of jokes and anecdotes and delightfully surprising things you hear every day in a city this big and loquacious. 

The many kind, funny, graceful, ridiculously optimistic, incredibly forbearing, brave people we've met. 

The grimy glory of Islamic Cairo and Khedival Cairo. Especially on Friday mornings. 

One view from Bab Zuweila

One view from Bab Zuweila

Getting deliveries of everything at every time of day and night. 

Our friends.  

Graffiti on a cinderblock wall blocking an entrance to Tahrir Square

Graffiti on a cinderblock wall blocking an entrance to Tahrir Square


Arabs Without God

I just bought my copy of Brian Whitaker's new book on atheism in the Arab world, Arabs Without God. This is the third in a series of books Brian – a veteran Guardian reporter and the man behind one of the oldest blog and websites on the region, al-Bab –has written over the last several years that deal with freedom of conscience and/or lifestyle in the Middle East, and they've always been interesting.

In a blog post announcing the book, Brian writes:

The aim of Arabs Without God is not to make a case for atheism but to argue for the right of Arab atheists to be treated as normal human beings. The first half, based on interviews with non-believers, looks at how and why some Arabs choose to abandon religion. Chapters in this section also explore the history of Arab atheism, arguments about the divine origin of the Qur'an, and the way atheism relates to gender and sexuality.

One of the more unexpected discoveries was that Arab atheism is somewhat different from atheism in the west: "scientific" arguments about the origin of the universe are much less prominent. In interviews, the issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational Deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity.

There is an excerpt of the book here. I am a fan of such publishing efforts on issues that may not find a wide commercial audience (especially ones that can bypass the publishers), so if you have an interest in these issues I'd encourage you to get a copy of the book.

When Arab regimes confront terrorism

From Abu Aardvark:

The U.S. is currently in the process of lining up a regional coalition to confront ISIS. Depending on how this coalition is formed and the goals to which it is devoted, it could be extremely useful for shutting down the flow of funds, guns, and fighters to jihadist groups in Syria. I'll have a lot more to say about that in another venue.

But there's just one point I want to throw out there now, because it doesn't seem to be getting much play: when Arab regimes set out to fight "terrorism" they almost always use it as pretext for political repression. When I hear an Arab leader talking with the United States about confronting terrorism these days, what I see is the journalist Mohammad Fahmy and the dedicated activists Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Mahienor al-Masry rotting in an Egyptian prison on trumped up charges while Secretary of State John Kerry opines on Cairo's path to democracy.

On James Foley, Steven Sotloff and freelance journalism in the Middle East

It is impossible, as a journalist working in the Middle East (albeit one who never ventures into war zones) not to take the murder of James Foley, and then Steven Sotloff, -- and the alleged torture that preceded it -- personally. I didn't watch the videos; the still photo of each man kneeling next to his executioner was enough. How sickening to see a human being reduced to a prop in his own gleeful murder. 

These men's killings have been followed by some lovely remembrances and many reflections on our vulnerable, hard-scrabble profession. My first reaction to Foley's murder was incomprehension and indignation at the idea that anyone should be freelancing from such a dangerous place at all.

Foley was apparently a "freelance correspondent" -- isn't that a contradiction in terms? -- for Global Post. Also reportedly, that organization's CEO was very personally (and financially) committed to doing right by him and trying to bring him back. Both he and Sotloff seem to have been determined to go to Syria, despite having little to no institutional backing. 

There have been plenty of articles and personal essays in recent weeks about the erosion of real jobs in the media and the toll that freelancing from the Arab world's uprisings and wars can take. (One doesn't have to be on the front lines of war to experience post-traumatic stress order). It's worth remembering, of course, that local fixers for Western news outlets have been getting kidnapped and killed on a regular basis for the last decade.

In the past few weeks there have been some interesting debates on the paying of ransoms and the keeping quiet about abductions (a report on the radio program On The Media suggested that the media blackout on kidnappings by extremists meant we were unaware of the extent of the phenomenon in Syria). What I haven't seen is editors, publishers or media owners clarifying what their policy on accepting freelance work from conflict zones is; or making a commitment to remunerate and protect freelancers better. In piece after piece, freelancers describe the ridiculous conditions under which they report, while those with salaried jobs wring their hands and say things like: "This is a sad reflection on the state of foreign reporting today."

Freelancing is fine when you are young, starting out, and not reporting from somewhere where you are putting your life at risk -- but isn't it high time that the US and Western media actually took greater responsibility for the safety and fair pay of those providing it with content? (If you know of any discussions/new policies being instituted, please share in the comments). 

On the so-called Islamic State

Ramy Khoury argues in the Daily Star that the extremist movement is the nearly inevitable result of the region's (often foreign-backed) authoritarianism. 

But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find – generation after generation – that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity; or, in many cases, obtain basic life needs for their families.
The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why the Islamic State rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the Islamic State threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, the invasion of Iraq, and total support for Israel).

Peter Harling, in Le Monde Diplomatique, looks to Sunni resentment and the "void" of good governance and international diplomacy. 

At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.
IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism — all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?

Syria Speaks

This summer, while the young men of the organization-formerly-known-as-ISIS -- men whose inner lives I find it hard to fathom -- were marauding across what is left of Iraq and Syria, I was reading the powerful anthology Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline. I just reviewed it for the blog of the London Review of Books. 

Untitled by Khalil Younes. One of many works of visual art included in the book. 

Untitled by Khalil Younes. One of many works of visual art included in the book. 


Much of the work in Syria Speaks seems to have been written a year or two ago, and what a difference that time makes. Most of the more than fifty contributors are outside Syria now; their hope and defiance seem out of date. Yet the book is a valuable reminder that the early protests against Assad were both peaceful and democratic. It also sheds light on the way the protesters’ aspirations were ground into irrelevance.

In the opening piece, the journalist Samar Yazbek travels though the countryside around Aleppo, Idlib and Hama:

The sun was blazing down, so intense that it was impossible to cry. Everyone spoke with granite-like solemnity; a brief sigh was enough to occupy the whole space… It was as though we had uncovered Syria’s true identity after all this time: a country made of earth, blood and fire, where explosions never ceased.

You can read the rest here

Links August 2014

Clearing the holiday backlog...

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"Palestinians Live What Israelis Fear"

The emails filling my box about Israel function as a remarkable document. They are a record of seemingly reasonable people who have completely lost track of basic moral reasoning. And that represents itself nowhere more consistently or powerfully than here: treating what could possibly happen to Israelis as more important than what already is happening to Palestinians. It’s such a profoundly bizarre way to think, that only this maddening issue could bring it about.

“Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist!”

Indeed– and Israel not only denies Palestine’s right to exist, it has achieved the denial of a Palestinian state in fact. What kind of broken moral calculus could cause someone to think that being told your existing state should not exist is the same as not having a state of your own?
— The Daily Dish

“I will no longer play the role they’ve written for me”

Alaa Abdelfattah decides to go on hunger strike:

Statement from the Family of Alaa Abd El-Fattah

Alaa is on Hunger Strike: “I will no longer play the role they’ve written for me”.

At 2 o’clock on the morning of Sunday August 17, Alaa visited his father, Ahmad Seif, in the ICU Unit of Qasr el-Eini hospital, after Seif had become unconscious.

Three days earlier we’d been on our latest visit to Alaa in Tora Prison. His father’s health at that point had been relatively good. Since then there had been no way for us to inform him that his father had gone into crisis. And so Alaa arrived at the hospital in the small hours of Sunday happy to be visiting, carrying flowers, looking forward to talking with his father. He found him unconscious in an ICU cubicle.

That spectacle crystalised matters for him. By the end of the few-minute visit Alaa had decided that he would withdraw co-operation with the unjust and absurd sitution he had been put in – even if this cost him his life.

For context, Alaa had previously taken the view that he would cooperate with the judicial process and authorities, hoping for an eventual acquittal on a retrial (since his conviction was the result of an absurd trial he was not allowed to attend.)

His family's full statement is here.

Please spread the word

Getting emails like this -- and knowing this is hardly newsworthy in Egypt, and this death like so many others will not get the attention or indignation it deserves  -- is the sickening part of being a journalist.  

Hasan is a 15 yo student that was detained on the past 15th of August driven to Al Bastin Police station where he was bing tortured systematically since then till his death today, here is the number of his relative Ayman :+ ………….

Please spread the word as it will help in stopping Human Rights violations here in Egypt.

Best Regards,

M Mourad

UPDATE: According to Human Rights Watch, the person in question died during a Rabaa anniversary protest, not in a police station. Not that either death is warranted, or that deaths in custody are uncommon

Egypt in TV: Mubarak was a nice guy, Rabaa was inevitable

Egypt in TV: Mubarak was a nice guy, Rabaa was inevitable

Another entry in our Egypt in TV series from our correspondent Nour Youssef

Recently, a college-educated friend asked me to explain how 9/11 could not be a Zionist conspiracy when all the Jewish employees of the World Trade Center were told to take the day of the attack off. This was a sincere question. And a sad reminder of how easily a ludicrous lie can be instilled in a mind (with IQ points and access to the Internet) when repeated enough times. 

Following the broadcasting of the Mubarak trial, there has been a perceptible increase in the frequency and temerity of such lies in the Egyptian media. It is not enough to believe Mubarak is innocent and that the Muslims Brothers and the West are the source of all evil. One must wish to kiss the sand beneath his hospital bed because under his leadership, Egypt was the best it could have possibly been -- considering that he was busy battling The Source this whole time without telling us, so as not to worry us. The same way he opted for selflessly falling and breaking a leg in the bathroom instead of waking up his nurse to help him limp to it, according to Al-Faraeen’s Tawfik Okasha, who wonders how we don't feel shame allowing the trial of this gentle soul to go on -- a dangerous rhetorical question since it implies the judiciary is conducting a farcical trial that could be stopped if enough people wanted it to.

"But why air the trial now?" CBC's Khairy Ramadan asked. Are they trying to elicit sympathy for Mubarak or agitate people? Are they going to air MB trials too? Ramadan continued to skirt the obvious reason, which is that people were angrier before and would have made a fuss seeing the judge go out of his way to accommodate the Mubaraks and offer to move the trial to anywhere they like to allow their father to defend himself outside the usual defendant’s cage, and profess his personal desire "to give them back their freedom” if only for a few moments.

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HRW: Deadly protest dispersals in Egypt a crime against humanity

Human Rights Watch -- whose senior members were prevented from entering the country yesterday -- has just released a report arguing that the dispersals of pro-Morsi protests in Egypt last summer (the most deadly of which, in the Rabaa El Adawiya Square, may have killed over 1,000 people) amount to crimes against humanity. This because they involved the premeditated (government officials openly discussed how many thousands of protesters they expected to be killed)  use of widescale violence against civilians. You can read the full report -- which calls for the indictment of the Minister of Interior and of President Sisi -- here

Israel/Palestine: Equality or ethnic cleansing

The following piece is by Omar Robert Hamilton, a film-maker and a founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature. A version of it was also published on the Egyptian news site Mada Masr. 

August 4th 2014

What has become clear during the latest assault on Gaza is that cycles of violence are perpetuated and reinforced by cycles of rhetoric. The Israeli PR machine works by constantly shifting the parameters of the discourse. Arguments are made and forgotten. Inquiries are held and dismissed. First principles are ignored and histories are erased by carefully trained spokespeople who excel in double-speak and a logic of empathetic violence audience-tested for optimum American palatability. Their mantra: it’s not what you say that counts. It’s what people hear.

The facts are all there to make, together, a damning case against Israel. The statistics, the photographs, the captured anguish do not lie - and yet it is the spin that gathers quickly around them that dominates the agenda. Since the beginning of this assault, the raison d’etre of the Israeli campaign has changed three times - each time centering around a buzz word that is repeated until there is no room for any other concept. The words have been: “kidnapped” (June 12th to July 2nd), “rockets” (July 7th onwards) and now “tunnels” (July 17th onwards), a word and concept which only seriously entered the discourse alongside the announcement of the ground invasion. The following day the death toll spiked, with 60 people killed in 24 hours, and a fourth buzz term entered the discourse: “human shield.” Now that the tunnels are all allegedly destroyed, if another word is needed it will be “disarm.”

KIDNAPPED: the Israeli government has now admitted that Hamas did not kidnap the three boys. They even knew they were dead after only a few hours but trumpeted the manhunt to enrage the public and instigate the pre-prepared operation “Brother’s Keeper” to dismantle Hamas in the West Bank. Why? Because eight days earlier, after eight years of schism, a unity government between rival groups Hamas and Fatah had been signed.

ROCKETS: Israel boasts of its Iron Dome defence system, claiming it is a prime specimen of Israeli engineering that keeps its civilians safe. Yet Israelis also claim they live in a state of terror because rockets "rain down" on them. This contradiction cuts to the heart of the constructed national psyche of Israelis as a fearsome warrior people who live in constant terror. Ben Ehrenreich describes the rockets as “more like the ones you might have learned to build in high school shop class than any sort of 21st-century artillery: thick metal pipes with fins welded on, an engine at the base, a few pounds of explosive at the head, the latter usually insufficient for much by way of destruction. What little damage they do is caused mainly by the momentum of their impact.”  To date, two Israelis and one Thai civilian have been killed by these rockets, giving them a kill rate of 0.1%. The Palestinian death toll has, today, passed one thousand eight hundred.

HUMAN SHIELDS: From the hardest hawks to the softest of Israeli doves, the same justification is being proffered for the massive numbers of Palestinian fatalities: Hamas uses human shields. Even Amos Oz, the great conscience of liberal Zionists, could only muster this simplistic scenario

Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?

Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!

Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

If this is the thinking of a great intellectual heavyweight of the Israeli left, then a truly toxic atmosphere has been successfully engendered, one in which regular soldiers need not think twice before pulling the trigger. The fact is that the UN’s Goldstone Report into Operation Cast Lead found Israel had killed civilians "while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags" and documented multiple instances of Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as human shields. But the Goldstone Report, so thoroughly damning in its findings of multiple and wide-ranging war crimes, has been all but forgotten. 

TUNNELS: The BBC, ever mindful of the approved Israeli lexicon, refers to a series of "attack tunnels." So who are these tunnels attacking? They are, we are told, designed to penetrate Israel and kidnap Israelis. In 2006 Gilad Shalit, a soldier, was captured and held as a prisoner of war. He was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners - many of whom were rounded up again during Operation “Brother’s Keeper”. No civilian has ever been abducted through the tunnels. Clearly, their primary purpose is an economic one, born of the crippling, medieval siege that Israel maintains against Gaza. Along the Egyptian border it is not Hamas that builds the tunnels; They merely tax the goods being moved through by the entrepreneurs that dig and own them. Israel talks of a “terrorist organization [that] deliberately embeds its terrorist infrastructure inside civilians neighborhoods” when actually a system of loosely regulated capitalism is what governs the tunnel industry. If you own a house near the border you are very likely to get into the tunneling business because there’s nothing else you can do. Furthermore, if Israel’s operation is about destroying these tunnels, why has it cost 1,800 lives? There were thought to be over 1,000 tunnels between Egypt and Gaza which the Egyptian regime - not widely known for its ability to carry out security operations without slaughtering its citizens - destroyed with no loss of life.

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Links 1-30 July 2014

A long overdue link dump. From the first link:

“In all the suffering and death,” wrote a friend from Gaza, “there are so many expressions of tenderness and kindness. People are taking care of one another, comforting one another. Especially children who are searching for the best way to support their parents. I saw many children no older than 10 years old who are hugging, comforting their younger siblings, trying to distract them from the horror. So young and already the caretakers of someone else. I did not meet a single child who did not lose someone – a parent, grandmother, friend, aunt or neighbor. And I thought: If Hamas grew out of the generation of the first intifada, when the young people who threw stones were met with bullets, who will grow out of the generation that experienced the repeated massacres of the last seven years?”

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George Scanlon: An Appreciation

I am known to night and horses and the desert, to sword and lance, to parchment and pen.
— Al-Mutanabbi

(George T. Scanlon, noted historian of Islamic art and architecture, was born April 23, 1925 and died July 13, 2014)

George Scanlon entered my life well before I actually met him in 1999. It was at a party on the balcony of an old Citadel flat where the minarets of Rifai and Sultan Hassan rose like masts from the sea of the Old City. I told him I’d followed his work while ghostwriting a Gulf princeling’s papers for the Islamic art and architecture graduate course George taught at the American University in Cairo. His tutelage, even second-hand, inspired a fascination with the medieval city that confirmed what I’d always suspected: Cairo was not a city but a universe.

georgescanlon

I will not detail George’s long and distinguished academic career, but highlights include Swarthmore, where he studied history and literature, Palestine, where he taught at a boys’ school for two years, Princeton where he obtained his doctorate and conversed with Albert Einstein, and Egypt, where he directed the American Research Center and conducted excavations in Nubia and at Fustat. Suffice to say that George’s research, writing and teaching (he was a tenured professor at AUC from 1975-2011) helped ignite scholarly and public interest in the study and conservation of Egypt’s Islamic treasures, a legacy long overshadowed by its pharaonic ones. In time I understood that George saw Egypt as a consummate teacher, possessing an inexhaustible store of knowledge and infinite ways of conveying it.

Like many of us, he admired in others the qualities he felt that he possessed. George respected indomitability which is why he loved Egyptians. ‘We lived in the Depression, we didn’t have it’ he said of his childhood in Pennsylvania. He held his mother’s fortitude (and that of women in general) in high regard. When his father died of cancer, she raised six children and taught them to read by circling letters on a newspaper. His brother Will was blinded in an accident aged six but nonetheless went on to complete university. George found the notion of pharmaceutical remedies for sadness both fascinating and facile and called the blues ‘an easy road to a desired failure’. ‘Tell me Maria’ he asked, with a friendly scowl, ‘did you ever for a minute think that the world owed you a living?’  I confessed I had, but only for a minute.

Not everyone’s death heralds the end of an era, but George’s does, and he knew it would. He was looking scampish one night in 2007, with a bit of a beard and his arm in a cast, at a dinner in the Zamalek home of Salima Ikram and Nick Warner honoring Elizabeth and John Rodenbeck, his old friends and colleagues. ‘I won’t be around much longer’ he said matter-of-factly, looking at John, with whom he’d been reciting a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem a moment before, ‘but when we go there won’t be anything like us. It ends here.’

This remark was neither vain nor sentimental. George belonged to an ever-receding era when intellectual accomplishment meant learning both deep and broad, of history, philosophy, science and the arts. Erudition mattered nothing if unmatched by self-examination alongside the penetrating observation of one’s culture, surroundings and companions. Students of humanity of this caliber have grown understandably rare in a world that barely values them. Far from old-fashioned, George was the prototypical action-hero scholar/archeologist, an equestrian, student of war, bon vivant and intrepid traveler with a poetic sensibility, an astonishing memory and a wicked wit. Although gallant and declamatory, George did not perform so much as participate in his encounters with an enthusiasm that made his company deliciously provocative. ‘I am a spectator’ he said, ‘Show me something to applaud.’

I looked forward to our luncheons at the Bistro downtown or the Pub in Zamalek where he ordered for us both (as if preparing the meal himself) consulting me only on the color of the wine. Conversation during those three or four hour feasts might range from the 1001 Nights to a documentary about ballet he’d seen or something he’d read or heard at the Cairo opera. Politics came up. In 2005, shortly after Hosni Mubarak became president for his fifth term, he asked, ‘When do you think it will explode?’, nor was he surprised or put out when it finally did. George had no desire to leave Egypt. He wanted to see how things turned out.

George exalted in beauty, whether he found it in Maria Callas’ voice, the curve of a dancer’s neck or the soffit of a noble arch. He was something of a dandy, always handsomely turned out. The last time we met, he wore a grey pinstripe seersucker suit. What did we talk about that day? His 89th birthday was coming up and wishing to congratulate him, I said he’d never know the influence he’d had in others’ lives. He modestly changed the subject. But I nonetheless managed to insert a few fervent, if playful words, regarding how I felt about him, his spirit, its place in my world and in history. We didn’t speak about death per se, but adventure: our adventurousness in life as preparation for the greatest of all adventures, the beauty of belonging, once and for all, to eternity, of seeing all history spread out in a singe flash of comprehension. His pale blue eyes sparkled. I left him heading towards Bab el Louk beneath a blazing sun where he intended I think, to buy coffee.  I intended to go home and nap.  I looked back at him thinking: indomitable.

Now I will miss how he said my name, punching out the syllables like the title of some defunct deity: Myrhh-Ri-Ah. I will miss his essence, something finely human that is slipping through our hands; I believe it is called ‘civilization’. He left a message on my answering machine before flying to America earlier this year. ‘While I’m gone’ he said ‘be sure and try to have a good time. I know it will be difficult. But we must take the world in stride.’

AMIN, dear friend, and Godspeed!