Travel reading

I packed several books in Arabic when I left Cairo on vacation. While I haven't gotten that far with them, I'm greatly enjoying reading the classic "Maalak al Hazeen" (The Heron) by Ibrahim Aslan. I'd tried to read this book in English several years back and (as often happens to me when reading Arabic literature in translation) hadn't really gotten caught up in it--something in the language seemed stilted, a song drained of its rhythm. But this time around, in Arabic, I can appreciate all the novel's charm and humour, its nimble and inspired weaving of anecdotes and characters to give a picture of a neighborhood--Kit Kat--going through irreversible changes. This is the novel that the classic film "Kit Kat" (a must-see) is based on. For an excellent in-depth discussion of Aslan's work, see this post by Baheyya.
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Sacred Objects

I quite liked this short essay by Sophia Al Maria in the last issue of Bidoun, about the proliferation of miraculous appearances of Allah's name spelled in baby's ears, fishes scales, etc. (sort of reminds me of the many appearances of Jesus in the vegetables and washing machines of suburban American moms, as reported by the News of the World). I haven't gotten my hands on a hard copy of the magazine, and only a few essays are available online, but this issue--full of short essay about various "objects" in the Middle East--looks good.
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Final credits for Youssef Chahine

Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine passed away the day before yesterday. You can find many elegies online. Personally, I consider "Bab Al Hadeed" one of the best movies I've seen--on a par with classic post-war Italian neo-realist films. His documentary on Cairo--"Al Qahera munwwara bi Ahlaha" ("Cairo Illuminated by its People") is a lovely, subtle, complex tribute to the city.  And he's authored many classics, like "Al Ard" and others I have to admit I haven't seen yet. But Chahine's later career has always struck me as a story of talent somehow squandered--I'm not sure why. None of his later films are on a par with his early, brilliant work--some are positively bad. While I enjoyed "Heyya Fauda" ("Chaos"), his latest feature film, it had none of the insight, naturalism or originality of his earlier work. On the contrary, it bears all too much the mark of his protege Khaled Youssef, whose heavy-handed, sensationalistic and formally mediocre work has reaped a recent--and to me, utterly confounding--success.
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AUC's new campus: a mirage in the desert?

First off, apologies for the slow posting (traveling outside Egypt at the moment). I meant to link to a story I did before I took off on AUC's new campus. In September, the American University in Cairo is leaving its location on central Tahrir Square and moving to a brand new campus in the desert suburb of New Cairo.  The AUC is quite an institution in Egyptian cultural and intellectual life, and in the life of Downtown Cairo. The move is a dramatic change for the university, which is basically suddenly going from being an urban to a suburban university. What I find particularly interesting about the move is how it fits into a broader pattern of (not to sound alarmist) the abandonment of Downtown in favour of sprawling desert suburbs.  Living in Cairo, it's impossible not to understand the desire to move to less congested, less polluted areas. But personally I fear that this move (of the elites) to the edges of the city is yet another sign of the total lack of foresight and vision that is so endemic to the administration and planning of Cairo. And the role of real estate speculation--the fact that the construction of new suburbs is much more profitable than the upkeep of central neighborhoods--can't be underestimated. Anyway, here's what I wrote:
Last month, students and faculty at the American University in Cairo bade farewell not only to each other but to their campus. Over the summer, the university is abandoning its historical downtown location and moving to a new campus on the outskirts of the city. The offices of professors and administrators are cluttered with packed boxes. The library shelves are empty. And workers are toiling day and night in the desert outside Cairo to have the new campus – which will be 29 times bigger than the old one – ready by the time classes start in September. “It’s a very rare opportunity for a university to rebuild itself and upgrade to extraordinary levels all at one time,” says Phil Donoghue, vice president for planning and administration, of the move to the new state-of-the-art campus. But others are concerned that by leaving Cairo’s downtown and moving to the suburbs, the university will lose an important connection to the city and a cornerstone of its identity. You can read the rest of the piece here.
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Links July 16th to July 17th

Links from my del.icio.us account for July 16th through July 17th:

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More Al Aswany

A profile I did of Alaa Al Aswany just ran in The National. To be honest, when I was asked to do this, my first reaction wasn't enthusiastic--Al Aswany's been covered so much already, arguably at the expense of other Egyptian writers whose work deserves attention. But as it turns out I enjoyed tagging around with Al Aswany to various events (he's a hard fellow not to like), and by interviewing others--editors, publishers--I think I was able to put his success in context, and to touch on some of the domestic and international dynamics that have played a part in it. I've actually been planning a lengthy "Yacoubian Effect" post, about the impact the book's success has had on the literary and cultural scene here, and the way Al Aswany and his work has been covered and used in the West, but I'm going on vacation in 2 days and won't be back till August 5th, so it'll have to wait till then. 
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Links July 9th to July 13th

Links from my del.icio.us account for July 9th through July 13th:

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Props

The Review is the cultural supplement of the Abu Dhabi daily The National. They're only about two months old (maybe three, time flies) and I've been writing for them this summer. I still haven't formed an opinion on the daily paper; I simply haven't been reading it often enough. But I read The Review online yesterday and was impressed--I feel like it's really coming together. Youssef Rakha, formerly of Al Ahram Weekly, reviews Sonallah Ibrahim's new novel. Rakha emphasizes the importance and originality of Ibrahim's debut autobiographical novel تلك الرائحة (translated as "The Smell of It") and gives what strikes me as perhaps too short shrift to later works such as "Zaat" and "Sharaf," but he has his arguments, and he's very enthusiastic about Ibrahim's latest, a historical novel set during the French invasion of Egypt and entitled "The Turban and the Hat."  Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, who used to write for the Daily Star and whose work I've been impressed with for years, writes about Palestinian conceptual artist Emily Jacir, whose latest work re-constructs and explores the assassination of Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter in Rome in 1972; the work opens a discussion about the assassinations of many Palestinian artists, writers and intellectuals in that period. Wilson-Goldie also discusses previous works by Jacir, all of which show how relevant and thoughtful conceptual art can be. Finally there's a very nicely written piece by Suleiman Din about the homesick musical gatherings of Pakistani construction workers in Abu Dhabi. 
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Sectarianism on and off screen

Two Egyptian movie legends, Omar Sharif and Adel Imam, are starring in a new movie that addresses sectarian tensions. In "Hassan and Morcos," Adel Imam plays a Christian and Omar Sherif a Muslim who struggle against the extremists within each of their religious communities. As incidents of sectarian violence occur at a seemingly weekly rate, this is a promising and relevant topic--although I fear the film tows the government's tired "national unity" line, ignoring real grievances and power imbalances. The trailer does show some pretty dramatic and realistic depictions of sectarian riots.  Of course, the film has been deemed "controversial." Imam, a Muslim, has been criticized for playing a Christian onscreen. The Al Ahram Hebdo reports that a few geniuses have started a Facebook group entitled "Call to Muslims: Boycott the Christian Adel Imam."   
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Iran-Egypt culture wars

The naming of a Tehran street after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassin, Khaled Eslamboli, has long been a source of diplomatic tension and the object of repeated negotiations. Now comes news of a documentary, by the Committee for Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement (the Iranians always have the best committee names), celebrating Eslamboli. It's called "The Execution of a Pharaoh." This has not gone down well in Cairo. One Egyptian columnist has suggested erecting a statue of the Shah in a Cairo square. There's an article on this is this week's Al Ahram Weekly, but I can't find a link. 
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Links July 7th to July 8th

Links from my del.icio.us account for July 7th through July 8th:

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Market Islam

I was asked a while back to contribute a guest post to Washington Post reporter Jack Fairweather's blog "Islam's Advance" (about "Islam influencing and adapting to the modern world"). I ended up writing on a phenomenon that has interested me for a while, every since I read Patrick Haenni's great book "L'Islam de Marché" ("Market Islam"), which I think unfortunately has never been translated into English: Islamic "branding" and Islamic consumer lifestyles. I also got to use one of my own all-time favourite interview anecdotes: the time a young Islamic TV preacher quoted Brian Adams to be to explain the concept of submission to Allah. The post just skims the surface of what is a complex and interesting subject. (And this should go without saying, but my discussion of the intersection of capitalism and Islam is not meant as a critique of the Muslim faith).
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From the pharmacist's counter

I went to an interesting book signing yesterday at Dar Al Ayn (I think it's a new independent publisher--I hadn't heard of it before). The book was Karima Al Hefnawy's يوميات صيدلانية ("Diaries of a Female Pharmacist"), a collection of anecdotes and recollections from the decades she chose to spend working as a pharmacist in a small Egyptian village. It reminded me of course of Tawfiq Al Hakim's "Diary of a Country Prosecutor" (which has some great stories)--although Al Hakim was miserable being banished as a young prosecutor to the countryside whereas Hefnawy chose to go work there to put her socialist beliefs into practice. The book (I've only read the first few stories in it) also strikes me as a very similar project, in its documentary nature and its insistence on "passing along" the voices of Egyptians who are often ignored, to Khaled Al Khamissi's Taxi. The underlying intuition seems to be that there is no need to invent stories these days--the average day of the average Egyptian has its full share of comedy, pathos and drama.  The book signing took place on the same day as Abdel Waheb Al Messiri's (the leader of the opposition Kifaya movement) funeral. Hefnawy is a founding member of Kifaya, and the room was packed with opposition figures, from judge Hesham Bastawisi to author Alaa Al Aswany to editor and activist Abdel Halim Qandil. State security officers made a brief appearance as well. 
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Links June 23rd to July 4th

Links from my del.icio.us account for June 23rd through July 4th:

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