Links 29-30 December 2010

Last links of the year — I won't be back till early January. Happy new year!

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Book review: The Puppet

I just reviewed The Puppet, by Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al-Koni (recently translated by University of Texas Press). I'm a great admirer of Al-Koni's work but was not particularly impressed with this book:

Perhaps one of the reasons The Puppet disappoints is that, for the most part, it doesn't take place in the desert. The novel is the middle instalment of a three-part trilogy al-Koni penned in the late 1990s, charting the decline and moral corruption of a nomadic tribe after its settlement in an oasis and the subsequent shift towards more sedentary and commercial ways. The puppet of the title is the would-be leader Aghulli, who is manipulated and betrayed by the tribe's noblemen and traders.

In his introduction, the translator William M Hutchins (who has translated al-Koni's Anubis and The Seven Veils of Seth, as well as Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy) connects al-Koni's work to the medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun's theory of cyclical social expansion and disintegration. The book is also reminiscent of the Saudi writer Abdul-Rahman Munif's masterful Cities of Salt trilogy, which charts - with much greater nuance and historical specificity - the disorienting transformation of a nomadic population into a sedentary work force.

The rot of society, the temptations of settled and "civilised" life - as opposed to the purity of the traditional nomadic existence - is a recurring theme in al-Koni's work. In The Bleeding of the Stone, the shepherd Asouf lives as a hermit in the mountains. The arrival of two modern hunters represents the eruption of human evil into his innocent natural world. In Gold Dust, the hero chooses his camel companion over his family and reputation. The opposition between the corrupting demands of society and nomadic freedom is romantic and sometimes simplistic, but al-Koni imbues his characters' longing for the desert as a spiritual homeland with pathos and urgency.

The Puppet unfortunately retreads this familiar territory without adding anything new. There is no tension about the oasis' future, no ambiguity over the characters' natures and motivations. One of the general charms of al-Koni's work is that his characters are both archetypal and sui generis. Here, they are just archetypes: the puppet, the hero, the merchant, the lover.

Nonetheless, this is a writer very much worth discovering. There are several other works by Al-Koni available in English and I'd recommend starting there (in particular with The Bleeding of the Stone). 


Links 18-27 December 2010

Not Cairo.

Activity will be slowly returning, but don't expect regular blogging until the new year...

Links 15 December 2010

  • Rob Malley and Hussein Agha argue that the peace process is over. A depressing read.
  • George Weyman has some interesting insights from Fikr9 forum.
  • Gary Sick on the main Wikileaks revelation: US still seen as "indispensable nation" by allies.
  • Wikileaks cable on Aminatou Haidar case in Western Sahara: Morocco's "stunningly maladroit diplomacy"
  • Tons of Morocco-Spain cables in today's Wikileaks release.
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    Links 14 December 2010

    Click for the Economist article

    Paradise Lost: the original Gulfies

    A fascinating paper by British anthropologist Jeffery Rose suggests that, about 8,000 years ago, what we know as the Persian or Arab Gulf was home was above water and inhabited. A kind of Middle Eastern Atlantis, if you will, where an original Gulfie civilization prospered away from the deserts.

    Veiled beneath the Persian Gulf, a once-fertile landmass may have supported some of the earliest humans outside Africa some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago, a new review of research suggests.

    At its peak, the floodplain now below the Gulf would have been about the size of Great Britain, and then shrank as water began to flood the area. Then, about 8,000 years ago, the land would have been swallowed up by the Indian Ocean, the review scientist said.

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    Le Monde releases cables on US-Egypt relations, Egyptian military, and Gamal

    Le Monde — and as far as I can tell, only Le Monde — has published two articles on the Egyptian military based on Wikileaks cable that have not yet been released, even on the French newspaper's site.

    WikiLeaks : l'armée égyptienne est "en déclin" mais reste "puissante" -

    WikiLeaks : l'armée égyptienne ne veut pas que le fils succède au père -

    Here is a short summary of key points raised in the cables for those who don't read French, plus some context not in the articles: 

    • US sees Egyptian military as "in decline" and a difficult ally. "The generals long were our best allies but the situation has changed," a cable from August 2007 notes. This is shortly before the US Congress decides to withhold $100 million in military aid. Nonetheless they remain guarantors of regime stability.
    • US sees Egyptian military as unwilling to adopt strategic reforms, instead concentrating on acquisition of hardware. US would like to see the Egyptian military more engaged in regional counter-terrorism operations, but it is refusing to do so.
    • Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi is seen as the chief obstacle to US ideas for strategic reform, but is trusted by Mubarak. "Since his nomination, the extent of tactical and operational preparedness has been degraded. But Mubarak has confidence in him and he could still remain in place for years." 
    • Army is major economic player with interests in water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotels and gas stations, as well as a major land owner in the Nile Delta in on the Red Sea coast. (Sept. 2008)
    • Obama Deputy Defense Sec Colin Khal met with three retired generals with high-level positions in the Egyptian Ministry of Defense — Mohamed Al-Assar, Ahmed Moataz and Fouad Arafa — on 31 January 2010. They told him that US military aid to Egypt was part of the Camp David accords and therefore not up for negotiation, and that the accords had been breached by allowing the ratio between military aid to Israel and military aid to Egypt to go from the agreed 3:2 to 5:2. US military aid is considered "untouchable". (This is probably still reaction to the 2007-2008 attempts to cut military aid by Congress, which were blocked by Condoleeza Rice.)
    • In May 2007, then US Ambassador in Egypt Francis Ricciardone calls Egypt a "dictatorship" (Le Monde says he is the only one who dares do so) and says that the NDP is ready to run a campaign that would install Gamal Mubarak as president.
    • Ricciardone says that Omar Suleiman had hopes "until a few years ago" of being nominated vice-president. He also adds that Suleiman "hates the idea of Gamal being president."
    • Ricciardone writes that, in the case of Mubarak's death before he can install Gamal, a military coup is possible.
    • Gamal promised US the end of the Emergency Law in 2006 (it is still ongoing.) It's also casually mentioned that Egyptian security services employ 1.4 million people.
    • Gamal told US that opening presidential elections to a wider range of candidates (presumably by making independent candidacies easier) would be "a recipe for chaos."

    Note that I am re-translating from the French, and that I have not seen the complete cables — let me know if you have seen them online elsewhere.

    Update: The relevant cables are now out on Wikileaks' site.


    A few links on the EU and Israel/Palestine

    Some interesting recent developments in the Israel/Palestine issue, notably in terms of EU-Israel relations. The letter cited at the end from European heavyweights who were formerly deeply involved in EU policymaking is quite important.

    EU stops short of outright recognition of Palestinian state - but final statement is weak and limp, as usual (I guess the usual suspects — UK, Netherlands, France, Germany and some of the newer Eastern states — provided protection for Israel.)

    Hamas reiterates 'all of Palestine' claim - Mixed messages from Hamas, as always.

    US envoy returns to grasp nettle of Mideast peace - Mitchell resurfaces.

    Palestinians express doubts over 2-state future - No kidding.

    Letter from European Former Leaders Group (EFLG) [PDF]

    Excerpt from the above letter:

    It is now one year on and we appear to be no closer to a resolution of this conflict. To the contrary, developments on the ground, primarily Israel’s continuation of settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) including in East Jerusalem, pose an existential threat to the prospects of establishing a sovereign, contiguous and viable Palestinian state also embracing Gaza, and therefore pose a commensurate threat to a two-state solution to the conflict.

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    Links 12 December 2010

    Saddam Hussein and US Ambassador April Glaspie

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    The view from my window

    Cairo Dust Storm 2010-12-12 from arabist on Vimeo.

    A great storm is ravaging through the Eastern Mediterranean:

    In Egypt at least three people died when a factory collapse in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, officials said. Five people were seriously injured, they say, blaming the accident "on bad weather and heavy rains."

    Twenty-six ships were barred from entering the Suez Canal and 29 vessels delayed for three hours. The waterway was hit by poor visibility and winds of up to 40 knots an hour, said an official at the canal, which is Egypt's third-largest source of foreign revenue after tourism and remittances from expatriate workers.

    Red Sea and Mediterranean ports were closed for a second day on Sunday, while an Italian container ship, Jolly Amaranto, was stranded off the north-western coast after its engines broke down.

    Visibility at Cairo airport was reduced to 300 metres.

    As a long drought that affected the region came to an end, temperatures plummeted and storms hit Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel:

    • In Lebanon seaside roads and ports have been closed after a 45-year-old woman was killed by a falling tree hitting her car – the year’s first snowstorm hit the country’s mountains;
    • Off Israel a Moldovan freighter went down near the port of Ashdod but its crew of 11 Ukrainians was rescued.
    • Syria’s capital Damascus was hit by snowstorms;
    • Jordan suffered sandstorms and was braced for heavy rain and snow, which could lead to flooding.

    Links 10 December 2010

    Yesterday I linked to the blog Kim Jong Il Looking At Things and suggested a Middle Eastern version is necessary. And lo, reader Evan sends me Laugh In With Hosni. I am contributing the pic on the right - not sure when it was taken, perhaps during a fateful military parade in 1981? 

    And special extra Mubarak pics gallery after the jump.

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    Links 9 December 2010

    From the excellent Tumblog "KimJong Il looking at things", which deserves a Middle Eastern version.
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    Links 8 December 2010

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    How the Saudis control their media

    Through a clever system of disincentives, according to a US Embassy cable from Riyadh:

    //The Stick//

    20. (S/NF) Although all chief editor positions in Saudi Arabia must be approved by the Minister of Information, it is the job of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to take action against editors and writers who refuse to follow government directives and policies. In the past, the MOI played a largely reactive role in this regard through its Supreme Information Council, which would discuss questionable material and order editors to be scolded or fired, or at times ban publication of the paper for a certain period of time.

    21. (S/NF) According to our contacts, however, a more effective system is in place. Instead of being fired or seeing their publications shut down, editors now are fined SR 40,000 ($10,600) out of their own salaries for each objectionable piece that appears in their newspaper. Journalists, too, are held to account. Instead of the Supreme Information Council in Riyadh taking the lead in tracking what journalists write, there are now MOI committees in each Saudi city that know their community well and have a keen ear for who is talking about what. If these MOI operatives detect a problematic pattern in a journalist’s writing (or even hear through channels that he or she is heading down a certain line of inquiry), they will invite the journalist for a chat, during which they will discuss the origin of these perspectives, suggest alternative approaches, ask after the family, etc.,.. These mechanisms, our contacts say, have been very effective in reining in media opinion that the SAG doesn’t like.

    SAG, by the way, is the very appropriate shorthand for "Saudi Arabia Government." There's more in there about media ownership, Rupert Murdoch's plan to launch an Arabic version of the Wall Street Journal, and a softer touch on religious channels. 

    Update: Commenter Alexandra points out that this cable has mostly gotten attention for its claim that Saudis are being mellowed by shows like Friends and Desperate Housewives. It's true that Saudi-owned channels show a remarkable range of American TV culture, usually the worse of the range (the reality shows about fat people, wanna-be celebrities, incredibly vapid teen sitcoms, etc.) that exists in the You Ess of A. I suppose that there might be a soporific benefit from this, or at least an effect whereby such shows slowly melt the brain cells of those who watch them.

    But, watching them from time to time as I do, I am shocked at the extent to which a) these shows and that TV and mall culture appear to be becoming a substitute for indigenous culture for foreign-educated middle classes and others; b) much of the material shows America in a poor light; and c) much of it must reinforce the ultra-conservatives' view that America and the West are culturally and socially doomed and will end up something like the movie Idiocracy. A show like Desperate Housewives, in fact, could induce some people to have their very own Sayyid Qutb moment, without ever having to visit Greeley, Colorado or Wysteria Lane.