New Arabian Nights

Just in time for Christmas, Penguin recently came out with a new English edition of the Thousand and One Nights. It's a beautiful object, three big off-white books with blue metallic designs. Yet in her review in the London Review of Books (no more than the opening paragraph is available online), Marina Warner accuses the new edition of an unfortunate lack of decisiveness--it can't quite make up its mind whether to be a scholarly work or a literary entertainment, she argues, just as it can't quite make its mind up whether to revel in or discard alltogether the period language of its predecessors. Warner ranks the French Pleiade well above it. Warner also reviews a new book of essays, "The Arabian Nights in Historical Context: Between East and West," which she argues engages (implicitly) with the legacy of Said's "Orientalism." I find this kind of a discussion--are the Thousands and One Nights the products of Orientalism? Can they be reclaimed by the East?--reductive and a little boring, but I admittedly haven't read the book (and won't, as long at it retails at 55 Pounds Sterling). One big quibble I had with the review: at one point, discussing the Thousand and One Nights' repercussions on modern Arabic literature, Warner writes:
"The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany...continues the process: an enthralling piece of storytelling as well as a brave and straight-dealing account of Cairo, al-Aswany's novel adopts the urban labyrinth of The Arabian Nights while containing its cast of intricately connected characters within a single, many-chambered building."
I really struggle to see what in particular relates The Yacoubian Building to The Thousand and One Nights, other than the fact that they are both Arab works of literature. Other authors (Elias Khoury come to mind) have drawn much more explicit inspiration from the nestled, circular, divagatory narration of the Nights. To say that the Yacoubian Building "continues the process" is to say, really, nothing--it does so as much as any other work of Middle Eastern literature does, and just as any contemporary work of English literature "continues the process" of Shakespeare, or Dante. The automatic comparison of any work of Arabic literature to the 1001 Nights--just like the inevitable description of any Middle Eastern female narrator as a "Sheherazade"--is a bad habit that reviewers should lose. After all, as the rest of Warner's review makes clear, the Nights as we know them are in great part a European invention, and have influenced Western literature as much if not more than that of the East.
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Who throws a shoe? Good ole shoe, that's who.

Via POMED. I won't point to all the shoe stories out there, which mostly point out the obvious: "shoe incident highlights cataclysmic perception of Bush administration," which doesn't even begin to do justice to this strange little grinning man who decided he would wreak havoc thousands miles away from where he lives and whose country (or at least its leaders) still believe they have a right to do just that. Yankee, will you just go home? Personally, as a funny aside on shoegate, I much prefer this clip from the great, prophetic movie Wag The Dog - which let's remember preceded much of the Clinton and Bush era warmongering. Watch the rest here.
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Links for December 15th

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Goodbye Madbouli

Hagg Madbouli, the owner of one of Cairo's iconic bookstores, passed away on December 5th. Any one who has spent some time in Cairo has also spent some time, at some point, at Madbouli's, a small packed bookstore on Midan Talat Harb (so small and packed, in fact, that it was impossible to browse--you had to ask one of the men who worked there to find you the book you wanted.)  Cairo cover issue 25 - Hagg Madboulli Cairo cover issue 25 - Hagg Madbouli But Madbouli's always had a wide selection of books, and always promised to get you the one you wanted if it wasn't available at the moment. (I recently asked an Egyptian friend to look for some books in Beirut for me and she came back laughing, saying the Lebanese clerks had told her "You have to look for this at Madbouli's, in Cairo, in Midan Opera"--wrong address, but close.)  Hagg Madbouli has a quite striking story of personal success: he started out as a child selling newspapers on the street, and ended up running one of Cairo's main book stores, and eventually, publishing houses. We did a profile of  him [PDF 6.8MB] years ago at the now-defunct Cairo magazine, and there have been articles the Hebdo and the Daily News recently. Despite the anecdotes about him providing intellectuals with censured or hard-to-find books under Nasser and Sadat, I have to say that I have a less idealistic view of the Hagg than most of this eulogizers--he usually struck me as a grouch and, as far as literature was concerned, a philistine. I suspect he saw book-selling merely as a profession and that his choice of books to sell and publish were dictated by a cunning reading of the market more than by any literary principles of his own. And the outpour of articles about him just goes to show, in a way, how small the cultural and publishing scene in Cairo remains. Still, we need successful and entrepreneurial publishers, and the Hagg will be fondly remembered as a Cairo institution.
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Is this Obama's Middle East strategy?

I've been loathe, aside from the quick links, to comment on Barack Obama - the man, his election, his policies and picks. After all, he's not even president yet. Like most people I cannot but be impressed by his charisma and talent, but overall I never really bought in to Obamania and he was not my favorite Democrat in the primaries (I fully recognize I was wrong in my choice of John Edwards, though, since his sex scandal would have lost him the race had he been the Democratic candidate). My basic position on Obama's Middle East policy during the elections was that he would deliver little different, even if one could hope that he would pick different people to work on it than the ones we've had for two decades, and that on the Israel question specifically not only did he fail to distinguish himself (aside perhaps from his speech to Jewish-American in Columbus, OH) but bent over backwards to reassure the lobby, all the while neglecting to highlight its responsibility in the warmongering of the last eight years. (I also found his lack of strong reaction to the economic crisis during the election quite shocking, which is my other major beef with him.) So basically, I already am skeptical that we will see a fundamentally different US Middle East foreign policy than the Clinton and Bush years, which were not that different apart from Bush's hyper-militarism (before we had more discreet militarism). I was unhappy about Hillary Clinton being picked as SecState, because I associate the Clintons as one of the worst developments in American politics in the past quarter-century, and did not see the political necessity of appointing his ex-rival rather than a more dour and wonky choice. But I don't really care that much, think that all of the vapid editorializing about the Arab world expecting change from Obama is complete bullshit driven by a US news framing agenda rather than any Arab reality, and am sadly resigned to yet another administration that will miss the point about the centrality of the Israel-Palestine issue in this region (which every elder American statesman has made for years) and the extremely pernicious impact it has had on the US foreign-policymaking process. I just hope Obama can/will/wants to do good on other issues, such as the environment or healthcare - although I remain fundamentally convinced he's miss one of the most important issues of our time. Even so,I was surprised to read this albeit speculative article in Haaretz/a about the Obama-Clinton Middle East strategy:
However, senior government sources in Jerusalem said that the information they have received indicates that the new administration is planning a hierarchy of about five special envoys to various regions, overseen by a kind of "super coordinator," who would answer directly to the president and the secretary of state. The sources said that the new policy is part of Obama's and Clinton's understanding that all the conflicts in the Middle East and Southeast Asia are to some extent connected to the Iranian nuclear program and withdrawal from Iraq. Therefore, it is important to operate in a number of parallel but coordinated channels to attain achievements on all fronts. The most prominent name in consideration for the top coordinator post is Dennis Ross, who served as President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Middle East. Ross' name has also come up as a possible senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. The envoy to the Middle East would oversee the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, negotiations between Syria and Israel and the situation in Lebanon. Short-listed for this job are Colin Powell, who was President George W. Bush's secretary of state during his first term; Dan Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005; and Martin Indyk, who is close to Hillary Clinton and who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and from 2000 to 2001.
All conflicts in the Middle East are connected to Iraq and Iran?!!?! If they see it that way, it's because they've decided the priority will be Iraq and Iran, which is to say it'll be Iran. Fair enough, the Israeli-Palestinian process does appear at a deadlock with inter-Palestinian rivalry and the prospect of a new Netanyahu administration in Tel Aviv. Nonetheless, considering the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, continued ethnic cleansing and settlement expansion in Jerusalem and the West Bank, one would think the US could have other priorities on its mind (indeed, since a good part of the US defense establishment thinks it can live with a nuclear Iran, one wonders whether this isn't an Israeli priority). It's also extremely depressing to see the list of names for top coordinator (Dennis Ross - nuff said) and for Middle East Envoy: Martin Indyk is AIPAC's man and Colin Powell was a failure as SecState and obviously overwhelmed by his bureaucratic opponents. Even with Dan Kurtzer, the most palatable and professional of these choices, we have the slight problem that his brother is an Israeli settler. Now one might put this down to the idea that these are the only acceptable names to Israel, which largely calls the shots with regards to US peace process policy, at least since the first Clinton administration. But it also shows a staggering lack of imagination: in all of the talent pool of Washington, DC, these are the only men one can think of for the job? Where's the change we can believe in, Mr Obama?
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Links December 13th to December 14th

Links from my del.icio.us account for December 13th through December 14th:

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The No. 1 Sun Engine

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The 11th Cairo International Biennale kicks off in a few days, and while I'll unfortunately miss the opening I will be back in a few weeks to check out this intriguing project I was emailed about. The No. 1 Sun Engine was operational in Maadi, a posh southern suburb of Cairo, in 1913 and was among the first serious experiments in solar power. Its American inventor, Frank Shuman, raised funds to deploy the bizarre contraption (which works by powering a low-pressure steam turbine) in London before visiting sun-drenched Cairo to build it. Its first use in to power a water-pump for irrigation with water from the Nile.
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You can read more about the history of the sun engine at project page, where there's a timeline that tracks Shuman's movements alongside with prominent historical events, such as Lord Kitchener's arrival in Cairo and the start of World War I. The juxtaposition of this early venture into solar power and major geopolitical developments is fascinating, if only because WWI ushered in the era of oil (and the systematic sabotage of alternative energy projects), while Shuman developed his machine because he (as a Pennsylvanian) was worried about reaching the exhaustion of then-recoveroble coal, the Victorian age's equivalent of peak oil. Of course, coal (control of which was a key objective of WWI and which is now undergoing a revival in China and the US among others) powered the war effort and shaped European societies, notably by making industrialization possible, much as after WWI control of oil (and specifically Middle Eastern oil) would help make possible massive social change and an unprecedented age of plenty in America.

I've always found this interconnection of social organization, imperialism and technology fascinating - such as in some of the recent work of Tim Mitchell, who has looked at the differences in social organization of coal and oil-based societies (because of the distribution model for each resource) and their role in making Western democracy possible (and therefore also perhaps impossible in other conditions). In this respect I highly recommend his short article n the subject (to my knowledge the only one available), which is in Word format here: Tim Mitchell's article on carbon democracy

But I'll go see this exhibition for the sheer cool steampunk aspect of it.

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Links for December 12th

Links from my del.icio.us account for December 12th:

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Links December 11th to December 12th

Links from my del.icio.us account for December 11th through December 12th:

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Links December 9th to December 10th

Links from my del.icio.us account for December 9th through December 10th:

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Links December 8th to December 9th

Links from my del.icio.us account for December 8th through December 9th:

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Palestinian prisoners' release is delayed - but why?

Are the Israelis trying to destabilize Mahmoud Abbas with this leak?

JERUSALEM – Israeli officials said Monday they would delay the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners until next week because of a request by Palestinian officials. They said the Palestinian officials had asked for the delay because President Mahmoud Abbas is out of the country and wants to be back in the West Bank to greet the freed prisoners.
Note that if they were immediately released they could spend eid with their families. [From Israel to delay Palestinian prisoner release - Yahoo! News]
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Links for December 8th

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Links December 3rd to December 8th

Links from my del.icio.us account for December 3rd through December 8th:

  • ICOS - Struggle For Kabul: The Taliban Advance - ICOS report: "The Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan, up from 54% a year ago. Taliban forces have advanced from their southern heartlands, where they are now the de facto governing power in a number of towns and villages, to Afghanistan’s western and north-western provinces, as well as provinces north of Kabul. Within a year, the Taliban's permanent presence in the country has increased by a startling 18%. Three out of the four main highways into Kabul are now compromised by Taliban activity. The capital city has plummeted to minimum levels of control, with the Taliban and other criminal elements infiltrating the city at will."
  • Dar Al Hayat | The Mystery of Arab Impotence - Patrick Seale: "Egypt -- constrained by its peace treaty with Israel, enfeebled by its dependence on American aid, terrified of Muslim Brother activism, overwhelmed by internal problems and obsessed by the question of the succession to President Husni Mubarak's tired regime - seems wholly incapable of action to relieve the misery of Gaza, on its very borders. A generation ago, the troika of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria carried some weight in the world. Today, Egypt is - politically, at least - a shadow of its former self, while Saudi-Syrian relations are strained because of the Damascus-Tehran alliance."
  • Sudan's Leaders Brace for U.S. Shift - "In the Sudanese capital of Khartoum these days, political elites are bracing for what they expect will be a major shift in U.S. policy toward a government the United States has blamed for orchestrating a violent campaign against civilians in the western Darfur region. "Compared to the Republicans, the Democrats, I think they are hawks," said Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer and member of the Southern People's Liberation Movement, which has a fragile power-sharing agreement with the ruling party. "I know Obama's appointees. And I know their policy towards Sudan. Everybody here knows it. The policy is very aggressive and very harsh. I think we really will miss the judgments of George W. Bush."
  • Obama team's warring Middle East views - Ben Smith - Politico.com - Story tries to depics Kurtzer vs. Ross war at State over Israel. As if.
  • ELIZABETH WARNOCK FERNEA, 1927-2008 - Elizabeth Fernea, anthropologist who did ethnography of Iraqi an tribal village, passed away. I met her in Cairo around 2002.
  • Henry A. Kissinger - Barack Obama's Team of National Security Heavyweights - washingtonpost.com - Kissinger likes Obama's national security team, offers advice.
  • Qatar, an oil-rich gulf state has asked Kenya if it can lease land to grow food | Environment | guardian.co.uk - Another Gulf states plans a mega-farm in sub-Saharan Africa.
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Rachid Khalidi interview in Haaretz

Haaretz' Akiva Eldar has a long interview with Rachid Khalidi, I believe the first since the storm over his relationship to Barack Obama. Here are a few choice excerpts: On the situation in Palestine and prospects for peace:
"Both the occupation regime and the settlement enterprise have gotten constantly stronger since the negotiating process began in 1991 - after being weakened by the first intifada. These twin processes went on steroids after the second intifada started in 2000. If these two bulldozer-like endeavors are not rapidly reversed - not halted, reversed - then there is no possibility whatsoever of a two-state solution. These processes - the consecration of the occupation regime and the expansion of settlements - have been ongoing for 41 years. I suspect that because of them, combined with the blindness of Israeli leaders and the weakness of Palestinian leadership, there is little chance for a two-state solution to be implemented. And anyone who wants to implement a real, equitable two-state solution would have to explain in detail how they would uproot all or most of the settlements. Equally difficult will be overcoming the powerful interlocking complex of forces in Israeli society that have extensive material, bureaucratic, political and ideological interests in the Israeli state's continued control over the lives of 3.5 million Palestinians, a control that is exercised under the pretext of security."
On what change Obama will bring:
"In any case, much will depend on who is chosen for the key positions relating to the Middle East. If some of the unimaginative, close-minded and biased advocates of conventional thinking who bear a major share of the responsibility for the mess we have been in for over 20 years - from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations to that of Clinton, even before George W. Bush made things even worse - are appointed to important posts, my expectations will be low. I was involved in the negotiations as an advisor to the Palestinian delegation from Madrid in 1991 until June 1993, before Oslo. Those American officials who helped get the Palestinians and Israelis into the mess they are in via a deeply flawed negotiating process, and a cowardly refusal to confront occupation and settlement head-on when it would have been far easier to do in the 1980s and 1990s, do not deserve another chance to ruin the future of the peoples of this region."
On the situation in Gaza:
"Although the responsibility of Israel in this matter is paramount, the efforts of Palestinians and of outsiders have been insufficient as well, and we will all be affected by such an outcome, so we all have an urgent responsibility to act. More immediately, targeting a civilian population of 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip with hunger, deprivation and effective imprisonment, whatever the nature of their leaders, is criminal and is a violation of international law, as are all attacks on civilian populations, Jewish or Arab - something I have said repeatedly in talks here. That people, whether in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, the Arab countries, or the capitals of the world, can remain silent while Gazans are punished on this scale is beyond belief."
Eldar makes it clear in the introduction of the interview that when Khalidi is talking about "close-minded and biased" appointees, he is talking about Dennis Ross. I am surprised that no decision has yet come out about what, if any, position Ross will have in the Obama administration. There have been rumors that he may become involved in policy towards Iran rather than the peace process, and Dan Kurtzer's recent appointment [edit: I meant rumors that he would be appointed, see comments] would suggest he may be kept away. But I wonder whether there is any debate about bringing Ross in in the Obama camp.
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Book recommendation: Abdel-Hakim Kassem's "The Seven Days of Man"

This is part of new, hopefully ongoing, completely arbitrary series of book recommendations. Abel-Hakin Kassem's "The Seven Days of Man" (available in a good English translation from Hydra Books, Northwestern University Press) was written in 1969 and is largely autobiographical. It is in some senses a classic tale of the shocks of modernization--it sets a rural milieu (in which the narrator's father is the head of a local Sufi tareeqa and a prominent man in the village) against an emerging urban environment (in this case Tanta, where the narrator eventually goes to study and where his father and his friends go every year for the Mulid of Ahmad al-Badawi). But this is to simplify a novel that is both formally and conceptually sophisticated. The novel's structure is made of, yes, seven parts, which coincide with seven stages in the trip from village to city and back, but also with seven different points in time. There are some cliches and some melodrama (particularly the narrator's near-hysterical repulsion at the habits of his rural acquaintances after he has become more "modern") but there are also many lovely evocative descriptions, from the economies of the village households to the atmosphere of the moulid. For anyone interested in the spiritual/religious life of Egyptian rural life at the time it's invaluable. A pointed description of state violence--villagers getting beaten by police as they arrive at the Tanta train station, for no discernible reason other than the assertion of authority--seems as relevant as ever. And the author ultimately resists a  pat resolution or an appeal to nostalgia, closing his story on an ambiguous and open-ended note.
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Abou Trika overooked for Ballon d'Or?

The latest international conspiracy against Egypt:
Scandalously, the France Football editorial team who selected the 30 players for whom their worldwide panel of journalists are allowed to vote overlooked the Al Ahly and Egypt playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika. Fifa won't compensate for this offensive anomaly. Their shortlist doesn't include Aboutrika either. Nor anyone else from Egypt's recent vintage. Hardly surprising given that Fifa doesn't even rank Egypt, winners of the last two African Cups of Nations, as the best team in Africa. Not enough Europe-based players, perhaps.
[From Football: Paul Doyle on the nonsense of the Ballon d'Or] (Thanks, X.)
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Links November 30th to December 2nd

Links from my del.icio.us account for November 30th through December 2nd:

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