Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic

Great piece by Elias Muhanna for The New Yorker, on why Disney's Frozen has been translated into Modern Standard Arabic:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.

Muhanna goes on that there isn't much of a constituency calling dialect dubs of hit Hollywood movies, in contrast to what he describes as "an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region." I'd be curious to test out that theory – for instance see if the Moroccan film board would reject a dubbing of Frozen in darija. I suspect it has more to do with the low profitability of Arabic dialect market segments (because of high rates of piracy, etc.) and the dominance of the GCC market in business decisions about entertainment – and that market being used to MSA being used as a standard for dubbing (they finance it, after all).

Election Day

And so Egypt's decidedly anti-climactic presidential election  -- the sixth vote in 3 years, and the first contest since Mubarak's time in which the result is such a foregone conclusion -- is underway. 

For excellent coverage, check out Mada Masr site, where Sarah Carr has her take on the Sabbahi campaign:

Sabbahi's campaign has been far more plebeian, and if he earned points for miles covered he would have earned enough by now to claim a small yacht. So vigorously has he rubbed shoulders with the common man it is a wonder that he has any shoulders left. His campaign caravan has traveled the length and breadth of the country and wheeled out Sabbahi in rural backwaters so that he can bellow about justice and the revolution and freeing unjustly detained prisoners. He did this on the last day of official campaigning in Abdeen, Cairo, mostly preaching to a small crowd of the converted, a bunch of excitable teenagers who lit flares and chanted and banged drums next to more sedate Dostour Party members and non-aligned citizens. The mood felt very 2011, what with all the talk about the martyrs and the revolution and social justice.

Dalia Rabie reports on Abdel-Fattah El Sis's disturbing rapport with the Egyptian female public

“I will take a picture with each of you, it is my honor,” Sisi told the cheering attendees. As the women continued to relentlessly chant, “We love you Sisi,” he responded jokingly that they would “create problems with the men at home.”

Sisi’s speeches and interviews address women as housewives, mothers and sisters. Rarely does he allude to them as more than catalysts, and he generally refuses to acknowledge that they are political players in society.

After around six minutes of Sisi pleading with the women to settle down, asking them to allow him to talk to them because he “needs their help,” and after one of the organizers instructed the audience that “when the leader speaks, everyone should be quiet,” the candidate continued.

And Jano Charbel has a very interesting piece about the Sisi posters that have blanketed the country, and the individuals and businesses behind them:

According to Sheikh Abdel Rahman Hassan of the Islamic Jurisprudence Center, “We are campaigning for Field Marshal Sisi’s presidency because he is a pious and religious man. Moreover, we trust that he will be able to root out terrorist groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, Ajnad Misr, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other armed extremists.” 

Sheikh Hassan’s center has a number of posters around Tahrir Square with the image of Sisi and the words, “May I kiss your head please?” The center’s phone number is on these posters identifying them.

Similarly the private ETAF advertising company has hung-up Sisi banners around the Abdeen neighborhood, with the name of their company, and their phone numbers on them. 

The company’s spokesman did not comment as to how much his eight-foot-long banners cost or why they have the company’s contact information on them. 

Mohamed Lotfy, owner of a bookshop in downtown Cairo commented, “These [private] banners hanging outside our shop are not ours. They belong to other businesses and political parties in the area.” 

“Nobody forces these businesses to put up campaign banners. They put them up out of their own freewill. It’s their way of showing their support for their candidate, and their love for their country.” 

A novel about political exile, and the brutal passage of time

I've just reviewed a beautifully written, beautifully translated novel, by the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain. The story, which seems to be quite autobiographical but has none of the self-indulgence that can mar that genre, concerns a middle-aged writer returning to the fictional Arab dictatorship he fled as a young poet and revolutionary. The protagonist, Adham, has lost the sharp convictions of his youth. 

Adham's irrelevance is further proven by how innocuous he now seems to the regime he once tried to overthrow. Upon his return to Hamiya, his interrogation by the National Security Agency (its star-shaped headquarters "like a spaceship just landed from another planet," where once "even birds dared not fly overhead") is pro-forma, just a matter, as the polite and diligent officers tell him, of completing his dossier. But where in his file, wonders the narrator, "are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, the dancing lights of return?"

Do the mixed emotions of homecoming ever live up to its tense anticipation? Adham finds his homeland almost unrecognizable. It is still un-free, but in new and different ways. His parents have died in his absence. His old flame married and had children. He can only confront his own ghostly younger self, who never left, changed, or aged. This Jolly Corner-like conceit works well, although the proliferation of doubles (multiple characters bear the same name), and the use of the second person singular, in which the narrator addresses himself, can be a bit precious. But then there are disorienting scenes such as this, in which the narrator dematerializes into his former self:

"The man who looked like your teacher at the Upright Generation Secondary School disappeared and was replaced by a solidly built man with an enormous mustache of the kind worn by truck drivers. Your son Badr disappeared. The gold ring disappeared from the ring finger of your left hand. You heard a voice repeating, insistently and annoyingly, a name that had an unsettling resonance: Younis, Younis. You turned to where the voice came from."

The Mubarak mansions

Mubarak and his sons were just handed three- and four-year sentences on embezzlement charges. To understand the case, and get a detailed example of how the ruling family routinely stole from the public coffers, read this excellent piece of investigative journalism by Hossam Bahgat. Sifting through the court documents and talking to a whistle-blowing investigator, Bahgat reconstructs a decades-old scam that also involves the ubiquitous Arab Contractors company and the current prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb.  

Egyptian citizens have unknowingly paid millions of pounds for refurbishments, furnishings, appliances, utilities bills and maintenance of the two offices that Gamal and Alaa Mubarak used to conduct their profitable investment business on al-Saada Street in Roxy, Heliopolis. Alaa’s wife Heidi charged the state for every last expense in the renovation of a new villa in the posh Golf Area on Qattamiya Heights in New Cairo. When Gamal and his wife Khadiga had their first daughter in 2010, the Arab Contractors company paid the bill to design, build and furnish a separate wing for the newborn in the Uruba Palace in Heliopolis. 

At some point, first lady Suzanne Mubarak wanted to have a private office in the new, glamorous City Stars Intercontinental hotel and mall – Egyptian citizens paid for its interior design and every piece of furniture. When Mubarak’s 12-year-old grandson Mohamed died in a tragic playground accident in 2009, Arab Contractors used the telecom towers budget to fraudulently cover the costs of building a new private mausoleum. Many of the receipts describe expenses on the five villas that Mubarak and his sons privately owned in the el-Sheikh Red Sea resort and on a 25-feddan farm jointly owned by Gamal and Alaa on the road from Cairo to Ismailia.  

Other expenses covered by the state budget include an elevator to the roof of Alaa and Heidi’s Qattamya villa “to be able to adjust and maintain the satellite dishes on the roof,” a Jacuzzi pool in the Heliopolis residence, and a giant tent and candles for a party in one of the Sharm el-Sheikh villas. 

Egypt's next president

Now that campaigning for Egypt’s presidential election is well underway and Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi has made several media appearances, some observations can be made about the man who is expected to be Egypt’s next president. 

The former military commander is running a very controlled campaign, one in which he does not open himself up to any impertinent back-and-forth. In his media coming-out a few weeks back, he immediately bristled when would-be interviewers Ibrahim Eissa and Lamees Hadidi even gently pushed him, warning Eissa “I won’t allow you to use that word again,” about the apparently derogatory terms “askar” for the army, and admonishing them: “Are you going to talk or you going to listen?” The interview was pre-recorded, and glaringly failed to include what might have seemed like obvious questions (such as, given El-Sisi now oft-professed love of Egyptian women, how he defended forced virginity tests for female protesters two years ago). 

The field marshals’ electoral program remains shrouded in mystery. In an unorthodox move, his campaign has simply decided not to burden themselves with explaining how his vision might actually be implemented. His own campaign manager has told the press that presenting a program at this point “would provoke a discussion and debate that we don’t have the time to react to.”  His few policy proposals (giving young men refrigerated trucks to deliver vegetables to market; encouraging the use of LED lightbulbs to face the electricity shortage) seem risibly modest, and when pressed on how he would actually implement them, the mushir simply says that the state will “make” people adopt them. 

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Bassem Youssef on Sisi's austerity program

Our friends at Industry Arabic (where you can get all your translation needs met) have translated a recent reaction by satirist Bassem Youssef (who was taken off the air recently in case he might "influence" the presidential vote) to presidential candidate Abdel Fattah El Sisi's seeming austerity program for the Egyptian people. 

How am I Supposed to Provide for You?

By Bassem Youssef

No sooner did I finish watching Field Marshal al-Sisi's speech to young people than I jumped out of my chair with a determination to go to the nearest gathering of doctors and dissuade them from their partial strike. Al-Sisi has managed to completely change my ideas about Egypt and its ungrateful people who just want to take and not give anything to their dear mother, Egypt.

Al-Sisi tells us in a voice replete with tenderness and affection that only a traitor or foreign agent would quibble with: "You have to give more than you take." He said that this is what he told his officers to encourage them in discharging their duties towards the people. Then he cited the lovely example of poor parents whose son graduates from university and goes on to pay them back. Al-Sisi wished that such behavior would become common.

In fact, I could use this lovely example to convince the ungrateful doctors who just ask, "What will I get from Egypt?" while not one of them stops to consider, "What will I give to Egypt?"

The ungrateful doctor studied and crammed, then went to spend his residency in remote areas, then was appointed as a physician in the Ministry of Health, spending long hours in the hospital. He is forced to chase after dispensaries and decrepit hospitals just to get enough to pay his telephone bill. The state bestows upon him an exorbitant salary, as you know. So to hell with those doctors who dare to ask for anything from Egypt.

 

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Egypt in TV

Another entry in our contributor Nour Youssef's avidly followed Egypt in TV column. 

"El Sisi just doesn’t want to disclose any information about his plans. He is not stupid. He is smarter than you and your father," the red-faced, middle-aged woman seated next to me in a restaurant told her son, who coolly alternated between sipping Pepsi and asking if she was done talking, provoking her to throw dripping straws in his face.

What caused the fight across the table was a discussion of the nearly four-hours-long interview Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave Lamis el-Hadidi and Ibrahim Eissa on CBC last week, where he repeatedly expressed love, admiration, respect and all things synonymous for the straw-thrower’s demographic.

"(I don’t want) anyone to get me wrong, but I love the Egyptian woman," he told Ibrahim Eissa, who wanted to know why the Marshal’s metaphors are always related to or directed at women. This followed el-Sisi’s request for caution from the public while choosing their representatives in parliament and the president -- the same caution an Egyptian mother exercises when checking the backgrounds of her daughter's suitors.

To be fair, el-Sisi’s flattery was not limited to women. The rest of the population is also exceptionally smart and more patient than any other nation.

When not complimenting the population, el-Sisi ducked numerous questions -- literally. Questions about the nature of his policy towards Hamas and Qatar were met with a lowered head and a close-lipped smile. And when he depended on words to answer questions, the Marshal made certain that they were so vague that I had to re-watch segments of the interview multiple times to make sure I was not missing some vital transitions that would put things in order and reassure voters about our future president's attention span.

When they asked about the weapons deal with Russia and whether or not the next parliament will monitor the military and its budget, el-Sisi dispensed words about "leaving the army alone." After a long pause, he said: "The army is a very great institution, to an extent that Egyptians can't imagine. God willing all of Egypt could be at that level." The two journalists sitting across from him smilingly accepted his answer without further questions.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

I recently wrote something for the New Yorker's site about the last winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a pretty riveting Iraqi novel.

In the opening pages of Ahmed Saadawi’s novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a suicide bombing shakes a neighborhood in the Iraqi capital:

They all turned towards the explosion at the moment a mass of flame and smoke ate up the cars and human bodies surrounding them, cut several electricity lines and perhaps killed a number of birds—with the shattering of glass, the caving in of doors, the cracking of nearby walls, the sinking of some old roofs in the Bataween neighborhood, and other unforeseen damages that all burst forth at once, in the same instant.

Eruptions of violence, as unavoidable and mysterious as storms, are part of the atmosphere of the book, which just won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Matter-of-factly, Saadawi sets out a reality—Baghdad in 2005—so gothic in its details (a man is troubled after seeing “a blood stain and bits of hair from a scalp”; after another explosion, a man dies alongside his donkey, “their flesh mixed”) that, when the novel makes a turn to the supernatural, it barely shocks.

In the explosion’s aftermath, a man named Hadi al-Attag, a middle-aged, hard-drinking scavenger and antiquities seller, loiters at the scene, smoking a cigarette. As firemen hose away the last human remains, he reaches down and picks up a nose, the last thing he needs to complete a body, made up entirely of discarded parts of bombing victims, that he has been assembling in secret. A storm hits the city and the body disappears. Following a strange chain of events, the creature comes to life and starts taking revenge on its killers. It learns that its body parts belong to criminals as well as innocents; its vigilantism is complicated by a need to continue killing simply to replenish itself.

Israel won't stop spying on US, which won't stop it

Some interesting reporting on Israel's extensive spying on the US in two pieces by Newsweek's Jeff Stein this week - Israel Won’t Stop Spying on the U.S. and Israel’s Aggressive Spying in the U.S. Mostly Hushed Up. From the first piece:

“I don’t think anyone was surprised by these revelations,” the former aide said. “But when you step back and hear…that there are no other countries taking advantage of our security relationship the way the Israelis are for espionage purposes, it is quite shocking. I mean, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that after all the hand-wringing over [Jonathan] Pollard, it’s still going on.”

And this anecdote from the second, follow-up report:

When White House national security advisor Susan Rice’s security detail cleared her Jerusalem hotel suite for bugs and intruders Tuesday night, they might’ve had in mind a surprise visitor to Vice President Al Gore’s room 16 years ago this week: a spy in an air duct.

According to a senior former U.S. intelligence operative, a Secret Service agent who was enjoying a moment of solitude in Gore’s bathroom before the Veep arrived heard a metallic scraping sound. “The Secret Service had secured [Gore’s] room in advance and they all left except for one agent, who decided to take a long, slow time on the pot,” the operative recalled for Newsweek. “So the room was all quiet, he was just meditating on his toes, and he hears a noise in the vent. And he sees the vent clips being moved from the inside. And then he sees a guy starting to exit the vent into the room.”

Did the agent scramble for his gun? No, the former operative said with a chuckle. “He kind of coughed and the guy went back into the vents.”

To some, the incident stands as an apt metaphor for the behind-closed-doors relations between Israel and America, “frenemies” even in the best of times. The brazen air-duct caper “crossed the line” of acceptable behavior between friendly intelligence services – but because it was done by Israel, it was quickly hushed up by U.S. officials.

And the reason it goes on unchecked, of course, is that American lawmakers are protecting Israel:

Always lurking, former intelligence officials say, was the powerful “Israeli lobby,” the network of Israel’s friends in Congress, industry and successive administrations, Republican and Democratic, ready to protest any perceived slight on the part of U.S. security officials. A former counterintelligence specialist told Newsweek he risked Israel’s wrath merely by providing routine security briefings to American officials, businessmen and scientists heading to Israel for meetings and conferences.

“We had to be very careful how we warned American officials,” he said. “We regularly got calls from members of Congress outraged by security warnings about going to Israel. And they had our budget. When ... the director of the CIA gets a call from an outraged congressman–’What are these security briefings you're giving? What are these high-level threat warnings about travel to Tel Aviv you're giving? This is outrageous’ – he has to pay close attention. There was always this political delicacy that you had to be aware of.”

When a Kidnapped Journalist Is a Freelancer

Good piece on the risks freelancers take covering conflicts, by Jaron Gilinsky for Medium:

A dirty little secret of news publishing is that most of the pictures and videos we see on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines are taken by freelancers. The digital disruption of print news media has led to a staggering number of cuts in journalism jobs. With limited resources, publishers’ reliance on freelancers is at an all-time high. Working with freelancers has huge economic advantages, especially in conflict zones. Publishers don’t have to pay for salaries, travel expenses, insurance, lodging, safety equipment, first-aid or hostile environment training. On occasion, some publishers do pay for accommodations or expenses, but this is rare. Generally, they buy or license the content when they need it on an a-la-carte basis without any add-ons or advance commitment.

Publishers reap all the rewards of working with freelancers, but assume none of the risks. If something terrible happens at any point leading up to, or following the transaction, the publisher bears no responsibility.

Gilinsky gives tons of examples of journalists and especially photographers risking their lives, with little protection, under this system. This, regrettably, is the typical example of photographer Ali Mustafa, who died in Syria:

Nobody called Ali’s family to notify them of his death. His sister found out through a photo uploaded by an activist on Facebook. His face was charred, but unmistakably his. Ali had no liability or life insurance policy when he was killed. The Turkish and Qatari Red Crescents recovered the corpse and transported it back to Turkey. His mother, who runs a small cleaning service, paid the Canadian government 6500 Canadian dollars to coordinate the repatriation, plus another 8000 for a flight, and 7000 for the funeral. When all was said and done, Ali’s family was more than 20,000 dollars in debt. The photo agencies, on the other hand, incurred zero costs. They did not offer the Mustafa family a single penny. They did not offer their condolences or even acknowledge Ali’s death. Miraculously, Ali’s camera had survived the blast and was sent home with his body. It was covered with blood. The memory card was missing.

Is Egypt one of Obama's worst foreign policy failures?

A worthwhile editorial in the NYT on Obama's foreign policy that I largely agree with – and where one of the most critical bits is not about Ukraine or Syria, but Egypt:

More than anything else, perhaps, the revolutions in this region have demonstrated the limits of American influence when countries are in turmoil. Egypt is the most important and difficult case. While it is an example of the realpolitik that some of his critics say Mr. Obama lacks, Egypt is Exhibit A in the case against his claim to be supporting democracy in the Middle East. The Obama administration finds itself defending and continuing to finance a repressive military government in Cairo that comes nowhere near to fulfilling the promise of the Arab Spring and that recently ordered more than 1,000 political prisoners put to death.

It may not last (in fact I doubt it will), but the sentiment these days is does appear to be shifting in the American establishment. Also worth reading is a partial defense of Obama by Tom Friedman

April 6 tells EU to cancel election observer mission

From a letter written on behalf of April 6 to the European Union:

On 10 February 2014, the Foreign Affairs Council Meeting concluded in point 8: "The EU also reiterates its readiness to observe the upcoming elections, if conditions are met, and calls on the Egyptian interim authorities to ensure an environment conducive to inclusive, transparent and credible elections, including a level playing field for the election campaigns. In view of the recent developments, the Council recalls that no political groups should be excluded or banned as long as they renounce violence and respect democratic principles".

 

In times in which more than twenty thousand prisoners are detained since the military intervention/coup on 3rd July, political movements, Islamist and Secular, are being banned, extreme nationalistic propaganda are widely diffused through the State apparatus, it is quite evident that the "conditions are hardly met". It is certain that Mr. Sisi will win the show, whether in presence or absence of the EU elections observation mission. Suspending the mission, however, would send a clear message to Mr. Sisi as well as to the European and Egyptian public opinions that the EU can hardly accept and even participate in legitimizing the current practices in Egypt.

More on this at Middle East Eye.

Saudi Arabia's insecurity

From an essay by Alain Gresh titled "Saudi Arabia's great fear", in Le Monde Diplomatique:

L’appui aux rebelles syriens fait consensus dans l’opinion saoudienne (sauf au sein de la minorité chiite) ; en revanche, le soutien au renversement du président égyptien Mohamed Morsi, en juillet 2013, suscite plus de controverses. « Pour la première fois, nous entendons des critiques, confie, sous couvert d’anonymat, un journaliste influent. “Pourquoi soutenons-nous le renversement d’un président qui se réclame de l’islam ? Pourquoi engloutissons-nous des milliards de dollars en Egypte à l’heure où nos problèmes de logement ou de pauvreté sont si importants ?” » Naguère inaudible, ce malaise s’exprime sur les réseaux sociaux que les autorités cherchent, sans grand succès, à brider. « Dans un monde arabe où les puissances traditionnelles que sont l’Irak, la Syrie ou l’Egypte s’effacent, absorbées par leurs problèmes internes, de plus en plus de forces se tournent vers nous. Et nous ne sommes pas capables de leur répondre. Nous sommes impuissants à régler les crises en Irak ou à Bahreïn, sans même parler de la Syrie », poursuit notre interlocuteur.

The article is also available in English, here. The article notes intra-GCC tensions (not just with Qatar) and the hesitation in much of the region with the Saudi position on the MB, as well as the Iran and US issue.

Patrick Seale: A Remembrance

A tribute of Seale by Adam Shatz for MERIP, as fascinating as the man: 

After his studies with Albert Hourani at St. Antony’s, he moved in 1963 to Beirut, where he befriended Philby. (Philby later claimed that Seale worked for MI6, which Seale denied.) It was the Mad Men era of Middle East reporting, a time of high living and high-stakes intrigue. The “Arab cold war” was at its height, and there was no better, or more pleasurable, listening post for a foreign correspondent than Beirut. The correspondent’s calendar was marked by revolutionary conspiracies; many were first reported as rumors, sometimes overheard at the bar of the St. George Hotel, where spies, arms dealers, diplomats and other adventurers gathered at the end of the day.

Great details in there (I never realized he was married to Mahmoud Darwish's ex-wife, who is also Nizar Qabbani's sister) and a fair appraisals of his failings too.