This is Israel

Dead Palestinian babies and bombed mosques - IDF fashion 2009 - Haaretz - Israel News:
"Dead babies, mothers weeping on their children's graves, a gun aimed at a child and bombed-out mosques - these are a few examples of the images Israel Defense Forces soldiers design these days to print on shirts they order to mark the end of training, or of field duty. The slogans accompanying the drawings are not exactly anemic either: A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription 'Better use Durex,' next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A sharpshooter's T-shirt from the Givati Brigade's Shaked battalion shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull's-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, '1 shot, 2 kills.' A 'graduation' shirt for those who have completed another snipers course depicts a Palestinian baby, who grows into a combative boy and then an armed adult, with the inscription, 'No matter how it begins, we'll put an end to it.' There are also plenty of shirts with blatant sexual messages. For example, the Lavi battalion produced a shirt featuring a drawing of a soldier next to a young woman with bruises, and the slogan, 'Bet you got raped!' A few of the images underscore actions whose existence the army officially denies - such as 'confirming the kill' (shooting a bullet into an enemy victim's head from close range, to ensure he is dead), or harming religious sites, or female or child non-combatants. "
Oh but they do try so hard to avoid civilian casualties...
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Links March 19th to March 20th

Links from my del.icio.us account for March 19th through March 20th:

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Muezzins on stage

The New York Times has an article on a play by a Swiss playwright featuring Egyptian muezzins, spurred by the Ministry of Awqaf's attempt a few years back to synchronize/standardize the call to prayer in Cairo (not sure how much it was ever implemented, actually..) I'm also a little skeptical, as always, of the claim that this play was "too politically touchy" to be performed except once in Cairo, but I don't know the details. The title of the article "A CAll Silenced in Cairo..." invokes the usual trope that interesting art is always problematic/taboo in the Arab world. (Ironically, it's in Switzerland that recently there were calls for banning minarets. And as the article mentions, mosques in Germany have been targeted by far-right protests).  On a separate note, I'll be traveling for the next 10 days, so no posts till the end of the month.
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Links March 17th to March 19th

Links from my del.icio.us account for March 17th through March 19th:

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Links for March 17th

Links from my del.icio.us account for March 17th:

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Jajouka

The National has an article about the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a village of Moroccan musicians who have been playing for hundreds of years and were "discovered" in the 1960s by Western musicians and beatniks (Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones kicked it all off when he recorded a CD of their music). The article does a very good job of discussing the way this Western interest has expressed itself and affected the group, and the way their music has been treated by Western producers--although I wish there had been more focus on the kind of music they play, its history and form (they say they were the "house band" of the royal house of Morocco for centuries).  I heard the Master Musicians of Jajouka at a Moroccan music festival several summers ago, and then visited Jajouka to do a radio piece about them. Rather than try to describe their really entrancing music, I'll just direct you to their website. At Jajouka Issandr and I met Bashir Attar, the strange and funny and very rock'n'roll head of the Master Musicians of Jajouka (it's an inherited position, from father to son). We were his guests for one long day and night. We wandered the village (which has spectacular views and no running water), looked at all the pictures of Bashir with various visiting foreign musicians, listened to him tell a lot of rambling stories, had dinner (a whole goat was killed for us--we were served at about midnight, outside, under a full moon). All evening people trickled in, musicians and young men from the village who sat smoking kif pipes--and then people started humming, tapping on tables, and instruments started appearing one by one, and at about four in the morning some great music was played. It was a memorable night, to say the least.  The article mentions that today there are two groups billing themselves as the musicians of Jajouka (you can see from the comments that this issue remains a contentious one). Clayton makes a good point that "One of the defining aspects of folk music is openness: if you can play it, it’s yours. Like speaking a language, the ability to perform unwritten music confers – is – its own legitimacy. But the two groups lay claim to the same list of recordings, the same history of musical collaborations, and certainly these are facts that can be established. The two Jajouka bands is a complicated story, involving a split of some sort within a fluid, multi-generational musical tradition (and the pressures and enticements of a Western market). As far as I can tell, Bashir's group (or his father's) is the one that did most of the famous recordings and collaborations, and that's invited to festivals, etc. That doesn't mean other musicians from Jajouka are "inauthentic," as Clayton points out. But to raise this issue and then dismiss it as beside the point--without doing a bit more research, without comparing the music put out by the two groups, without bothering to talk to the musicians themselves--seems a bit facile.
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Stacher on the Brothers and the Wars

Friend of the blog and academic Joshua Stacher, who focuses on authoritarianism, Islamist movements and other fun things (and thus knows a lot about Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brothers) has a new piece out in Middle East Report. It's about the Brothers' behavior during the Gaza war, and more widely the diverse theories about the divisions that may or may not exist within the group. He argues that the havioc wrought on the region by the Bush administration, and its encouragement of Israeli adventurism such as Operation Cast Lead, has weakened the credibility of "pragmatists" among the Brothers who sought a less confrontational approach with the West than is the usual staple of the movement, which after all was founded as an anti-colonial project:
The Gaza war was an enabler of the anti-engagement trend among the Brothers. It bolstered the credibility of the group’s more conservative leaders when they lobby the base that the pragmatic wing’s participatory spirit has led the Brothers to a dead end, where they are just as powerless to affect Egyptian foreign policy as they were when underground. Instead of contesting the regime in the widest domain possible, the conservatives argue that the Brothers should prioritize peaceful “resistance” to the US-Israeli military order, in solidarity with those who have taken up arms against it.
He also criticizes the generational approach to explaining rifts among the Brothers, taking to task Egyptian analyst Khalil al-Anani who developed in his book "The Muslim Brothers: Gerontocracy Racing Against Time" (loose translation of the Arabic al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun: Shukhukha Tussari3 al-Zaman) a theory of four generations fighting it out. (Personally I think al-Anani deserves more credit - his view is more nuanced than this.) Instead, Josh says a division according to political orientation, notably pragamatist politicians vs. conservative ideologues, may be more useful. I like his take on the General Guide being a CEO rather than an eminence grise and emphasis on consensus that has kept the group together. He also looks at another rift, that of "peasants vs. city slickers" that helps explain different attitudes and the conservative bent of the mostly Delta-based bulk of the movement, as well as possible class explanations for the divisions, since many of the leaders are after all middle-class professionals. I have differences with Josh over his analysis - for instance, it's not clear to me that Essam al-Erian is perennially losing entry into the Guidance Council because he is too "moderate" rather than because he has annoyed many with his dilettantism and frequent media appearances claiming to represent the MB on controversial issues. But this piece shows how complex a movement the Egyptian Muslim Brothers are, and that no single framework of analysis is in itself convincing: the MB is a big tent no less diverse than, say, the Republican Party (and no less likely to shift ideologically over time, as the Republicans have from the party of Lincoln into the current morass). Most importantly, it is another important reminder of the crucial importance regional developments can have in the internal developments of political movements and the role they play within their societies. In this turbulent Middle East of ours, it is good to be reminded that things change - sometimes very fast.
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Links for March 16th

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Links for March 15th

Links from my del.icio.us account for March 15th:

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Londonstani on "The Islamist"

Londonstani, a former Cairo drinking buddy and journalist who blogs over at our counter-insurgency obsessed friends Abu Muqawama (they who speak of themselves in the third person - just teasing, guys), has a great review of Ed Husain's The Islamist, a book about the radicalization of British Muslims. Londonstani makes a very good point about its superficial treatment of "traditional Islam" vs. modern Islamism (whether radical or not) and the importance of understanding the rigid traditionalist socio-cultural concepts that are perpetuated among migrant communities (sometimes even when these things evolve in the "home country"):

"This ‘traditional’ outlook is in general terms shared by most (if not all) immigrant Muslim communities. Husain comes from a Bengali family background, but the cultural outlook he describes is shared by Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Somalis and Nigerians. That’s not to say all these cultures are exactly the same, but in the main they exhibit large measures of racism (often against each other), sexism, tribalism and a quietist approach to dealing with the outside world that fail to meet the challenges their children experience in reconciling their backgrounds with their everyday lives.

In a depressingly high frequency of cases, these ‘traditional’ outlooks result in harmful and exploitative practices. Two years ago, I got to know several young men from Bengali backgrounds who lived in housing estates in Husain’s old stomping ground. One of the guys, Fasial, I knew from the local gym. He was bearded and religious, and an upstanding member of his community. Three times a week he helped organise a bus that took elderly residents of his housing estate to their local church. And could be found most afternoons teaching football to pre-teens in the estate’s playground.

After knowing Fasial for about six weeks, he started telling me how he had been a gang member until a visit to Bangladesh, where he found religion. A couple of weeks after that initial conversation, he told me how he had ended up in Bangladesh against his will because his father wanted him to marry his cousin. At his extended family’s village, Faisal had been poisoned by relatives angry that his intended bride had chosen him instead of another cousin who lived in the village. Faisal was sick for weeks and thought he might die. He found religion on what he thought would be his deathbed. When he got better, his newly acquired religious persona allowed him the gravitas to resist community pressure and reject his father’s plans.

The other friends I had made had equally horrific stories. And some were plain surreal involving severe beatings as part of what can only be described as a voodoo ritual to banish the evil eye.

Islamism addresses the questionable ‘traditional’ practices of the families its raw recruits come from. This is a large part of its appeal. If you find yourself in a lecture hall where young Muslims are told the way of life they struggled to follow is actually itself ‘un-Islamic’, you will be able to hear the collective intake of air and the surprised mumblings of the crowd."

Go read the rest. Abu Muqawama recently became an official blog of the Center for a New American Security (the old security sucked should be their motto) and their comment counts have been going through the roof lately.

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Links March 5th to March 15th

Links from my del.icio.us account for March 5th through March 15th:

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Choking on my chapattis

No posts this week as I have been attending a wedding in Goa, India for the last few days. Having been almost completely unplugged from my usual internet addiction, I had missed the news that Chas Freeman has been forced into withdrawing his nomination to head the US National Intelligence Council. And that the man leading the campaign is the AIPAC staffer who is on trial for espionage (and unfortunately will probably not be convicted.) More here. I did not like the fact that Freeman had ties to the Saudi lobby but find it a bit rich that he was attacked by the most powerful and malicious foreign policy lobby in the US for this, especially considering the Israel lobby's responsibility for 20 years of failed US Middle East policy. I hope the new nominee will be someone just as (or more!) outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Normal ranting and links will resume next week.
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Arabesque and Expat Arab literature

The other event I attended last weekend was the enormous cultural festival at the Kennedy Center in DC celebrating Arab arts and culture. I was simply shocked to see how well-attended the events were--many of them were sold out. The Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, the Moroccan hip-hop group Hoba Hoba Spirit and the Somalian-Canadian rapper K'naan, among others, performed to full, overflowing houses. And there were large crowds even for panels on Arab literature! I had the pleasure of attending one particularly good one, on expatriate Arab literature, moderated by my friend Moroccan author Laila Lalami, and featuring the regal Ahdaf Souief, the charming, charming Algerian writer Anouar Benmalek (his work is now on my ever-longer wish-list). Soueif told how she learned to read English at 5 because her mother, working on her PhD dissertation in London, needed to keep her occupied. She also mentioned how when her novel "In the Eye of the Sun" came out a British friend started his review with the words "Hated and reviled in her own country..," thinking he was doing her a favour by suggesting she was a "dissident" writer! In general, the panel addressed the very difficult position of Arab writers who write in other languages, and find themselves in a treacherous no-man's-land, exoticized by the West and suspected  of traitorous tendencies in their homeland. Soueif mentioned how her efforts  to translate her work and her newspaper articles into Arabic, and to remain engaged with the Egyptian cultural scene, have defused many of these suspicions. Benmalek, who writes in French and left Algeria for France in 1992 after death threats, told of how one Algerian journalist asked him ("comme si c'etait une evidence") how he had accepted to be manipulated by Western publishers? "Even if I chose to be manipulated, I couldn't find anyone interested in manipulating me!" Benmalek joked.  The panel dealt with complicated issues of identity and of the way post-colonial politics reverberate through cultural debates. The fact of the matter is that literature is often approached, both in literary studies and in publishing, on a national basis--we use geographical boundaries to classify authors and organize canons. So authors who don't fit neatly into these categories are in a very interesting, sometimes challenging, position.
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Arab Prison Literature

Over the past week I've been busy attending a whirl-wind of talks and cultural events and I'm just getting around to writing about them now. One of them was a symposium on Arab prison literature at NYU, which allowed me to finally meet Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim, who mentioned that his first writings were on cigarette papers while in prison between 1959 and 1964. (He also explained that his habit of saving newspaper clippings--on which his novel "Zaat" for example is very dependent--started when he was an adolescent and, he says, would clip pictures of "half-naked" ladies from the papers. "As my consciousness expanded other material made its way into my archive," he said.) I also got to hear Moroccan author Fatna Al Bouih read from her beautiful prison memoir حديث العتمة (My unsure translation is "Talk of Darkness"), as well as from dissident writers such as the Iranian Monireh Baradan and the Turkish Feride Cicekoglu. These women's courage and grace cannot be overstated.
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Shooting Film and Crying

I've already written about my reaction to the Israeli animated film "Waltz with Bashir." If you're interested in a more in-depth analysis, you can check out a longer piece I have just published at MERIP. Here's the opening paragraph:
Waltz with Bashir (2008) opens with a strange and powerful image: a pack of ferocious dogs running headlong through the streets of Tel Aviv, overturning tables and terrifying pedestrians, converging beneath a building’s window to growl at a man standing there. It turns out that this man, Boaz, is an old friend of Ari Folman, the film’s director and protagonist. Like Folman, he was a teenager in the Israeli army during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And the pack of menacing dogs is his recurring nightmare, a nightly vision he links to the many village guard dogs he shot -- so they wouldn’t raise the alarm -- as his platoon made its way through southern Lebanon. The pack of growling dogs -- animal Furies -- is a striking embodiment of the violence of repressed memories, the fear and anger involved in confronting a shameful past. The rest of the film tries to answer the question posed by this opening nightmare -- what memories is this former soldier, and by extension Israeli society, pursued by? What is he guilty of?
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The economics of Egyptian media

There is a storm brewing among the biggest editorialists of Egypt's press scene. It has been reported that a few days ago, Salama Ahmed Salama, the doyen of reasonable, non-partisan commentators at al-Ahram, had a violent clash with the chairman of the board of the august newspaper, Mursi Atallah. Atallah wanted Salama to stop his involvement in Shorouq al-Gedid, the new independent daily that, by going for a highbrow audience and staid style, is trying to place itself in competition to the flagship state-owned daily. Salama is said to have resigned immediately and walked out, depriving al-Ahram of one of its most respected icons whom for a long time ran the central desk (correct me if I'm wrong) that is so central to the way Egyptian newspapers tend to be run. (Although lately, due to illness, Salama had been a lot less present.)

Now Atallah has apparently issued a directive to some other frequent op-ed writers who are part of the al-Ahram stable asking them to stop freelance contributions to other papers. But these - for instance the good people at the al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies like Abdel Moneim Said Ali, Amr Chobaki and Dia Rachwan (who each come from quite different political trends, respectively NDP-liberal, left-liberal and Nasserist) - are rather pissed off about this. It would be rather odd, say for a British or American editor, to see the names of his employees appear in other papers. For instance Abdel Moneim Said writes for al-Ahram, Masri al-Youm and Nahdet Misr. But this practice is widespread in Egypt, offering these public intellectuals a platform across different media and of course diversified income. Considering al-Ahram still clings to a salary model that is highly reliant on bonuses (which themselves vary according to the chairman's whim), I can't say I blame them. This particular trio appeared on TV last night (on 'ashira masa'an, Dream 2) to protest the new directive from Atallah, which comes in the context of a long-running feud between the chairman and al-Ahram editor Osama Saraya.

More generally, this kerfuffle involving some "big names" in Egyptian political commentary points to a wider problem in the industry: bizarre salary scales, and for ordinary journalists the fact that it is a poorly paid profession that offers for the most part little prospects of career and social advancement, which in tuns contributes to a tolerance of low-quality journalism and (especially in al-Ahram and state papers) pages filled with repetitive commentary by people just filling in their weekly allocation of column inches.

Several years ago, when Mubarak sacked most of the chairmen and editors (often they were the same person) of the big government publishing houses, it was noted that these would need serious reform to survive in a more market-centered industry. Salama was one of the most important advocates of this reform. That reform still has to come - no one wants to let go of some of al-Ahram 1400 journalists, a major voting bloc for the politically hyperactive Journalists' Syndicate - but the distortions and wide-ranging freelancing of many of its writers suggests that many are simply taking matters into their own hands. The question will inevitably come: does Egypt really need al-Ahram, al-Akhbar or al-Gomhouriya? Or are these dinosaurs of Nasserism mostly serve today the function of keeping a large staff employed, providing the government with an outlet for its point of view, and perhaps slowing down the expansion of independent media by mopping up a lot of premium advertising income? The problem is, are we even sure that independent media can do better in terms of editorial quality and political independence? Not necessarily, and certainly not unless the everyday reporters are paid a living wage.


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Links March 4th to March 5th

Links from my del.icio.us account for March 4th through March 5th:


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Web 2.0 silliness

Unlike Hossam, I am slightly skeptical about Web 2.0 social software technology. It's true activists in Egypt and elsewhere have made good use of Twitter and Jaiku to update each other about demonstrations and such, but I can't quite shake off the feeling that over time using these things too much reduces your brain to mush. I've already given up on Facebook, never found Doppler very useful, haven't used LinkedIn in months, and only keep up to date with Jaiku because Hossam forced it upon me, although I don't really post myself (in any case it would be along the lines of "having sardine and toasted cheese sandwich LOL!" I'd rather spare people.) But yesterday someone registered a State Security account on Twitter, and this morning I received this:
Hi, arabist (arabist). Habib El-Adly (ElAdly) is now following your updates on Twitter. Check out Habib El-Adly's profile here: http://twitter.com/ElAdly
Habib al-Adly, of course, is Egypt's interior minister.

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