Links March 21-April 3 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Two very good books

The finalists for the International Man Booker prize have been announced. Two names on the list have written wonderful books that have meant a lot to me. Amitav Gosh's In An Antique Land is a book I would place on my Ideal Egypt Reading List. I have just been searching my shelves for it and am distressed not to find it. This is a work of creative historical research and reconstruction and of deft and very amusing sociological observation. Gosh did doctoral research in two Nile Delta villages in the early 1980s (and then returned for a visit at the end of the decade). He memorably sketches the personalities of his hosts; his interactions with the villagers -- who mock him for his Hindu beliefs but call on him to fix their Indian-made water pumps -- are deeply funny. In his book he also imagines the life of a 12th century Jewish trader based in Egypt and his Indian slaves. He uses the Geniza documents, an incredible trove found in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo (since throwing away paper with God's name on it is forbidden, the Jewish community there had been using the space between two walls in the synagogue as a giant waste paper basket for centuries). To me In An Antique Land was a lovely, personal reflection on Egypt's layered, multi-cultural past and on its submersion (some would say erasure) by the modern nation state. It's told  by a writer with great empathy, insight and intellectual curiosity about folks around him and ones who lived centuries ago. 

The Libyan writer Ibrahim Al Koni is also one of this year's list. I read Al Koni's نزيف الحجر The Bleeding of the Stone when I was studying Arabic in Cairo in the Spring of 2008. A wonderful literature professor from Cairo University assigned it to us and it electrified the class. I have read a few more books of his in translation since, but none have struck me as much as this one. Like so many of al-Koni's books it takes place in the Libyan desert, where the writer is from. 

Elliott Colla, who has translated and written some of the best commentary I've found on Al Koni, writes:

Taking the Twareg aspect of Al-Koni’s writing seriously allows us to recognize a radically redrawn map of the world—one in which the Sahara is a full, rather than empty space; one in which the Twareg lie not at the edges, but the center of history. Al-Koni’s novels take place in a desert world that is, despite its desolation, surprisingly rich in the sense that everywhere there are living beings struggling to live. In Al-Koni’s fiction, the meaning of life is always tied to struggle. Thus, Al-Koni’s novels paradoxically suggest that only here—in the harshest corners of the desert waste—does life emerge in its richest sense.
While each of Al-Koni’s novels has a different focus, they invariably sketch a richly detailed Twareg landscape whose heart is located somewhere between Aïr and the Hamada Hamra, Ghadamès and Agadez, Sebha and Tamenrasset. Indeed, it is the Acacus range, Al-Koni’s birthplace, which forms the geographical center of this fictional universe. The inbetweenness of this geography is not accidental, for center of this world is deliberately situated between two diametrically opposing social and philosophical forces. To the South lies a world of myth, magic and superstition. It is the place where the caravans carrying blue cloth, slaves and gold originate. To the North lie the distant Arab cities of the coast and after that the sea—a place associated with mechanized technology and warfare. Truth emanates from neither—rather, it is in the struggle between them, the struggle in the Twareg center, that meaning is to be found.

The protagonist is the lone, simple Asouf, a herdsman who lives deep in the desert, in precarious and often dangerous balance with nature. Then evil hunters -- who have already wiped out the gazelles of the area -- arrive, on a hunt for the waddan, a nearly mythical mouflon (a horned wild sheep) with whom Asouf has already had run-ins. Everything about the book is strange and unique: the setting (the Arabic novel is generally extremely urban, just think of the relationship between Mahfouz and Cairo); the agency given to animals (when a late chapter is told from the point of view of a gazelle we are hardly surprised); the unique spiritual universe in which imagery and symbolism from many different religions is combined. This is a world in which nature is cruel, but human are much crueler. The original Arabic is also beautiful. I can only speak to the laborious pleasure I got, sentence by sentence (the labour added to the pleasure -- reading in a second language is often very close reading), but Colla points out how it harks directly back to early Arabic literary tradition. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Houellebecq's Submission

Adam Shatz reviews Michel Houellebecq's Soumission in the London Review of Books.

Soumission derives its name from the original meaning of the Arabic ‘al-Islam’ – voluntary submission, or surrender, to the will of God. In that sense, the novel is a faithful rendering of Islam’s meaning. François is under no compulsion to convert, other than the usual inducements of professional ambition and sex, the typical motors of the French novel. Ben Abbes’s arrival is greeted with relief, the war between theidentitaires and the jihadists is brought to an end, and Islamisation proceeds not so much by conquest as by persuasion. The national patrimony – the Sorbonne, the Paulhan hôtel particulier – now belongs to the Gulf sheikhdoms, and on campus the miniskirt has given way to the burqa, but otherwise France is unchanged. In fact it’s even a bit better off. As Houellebecq says, the entire novel unfolds in an ‘ambience of resignation’.
Is Houellebecq condemning the French for capitulating to Islam, or worse, accusing them of ‘collaboration’? His critics have pointed out that the structure of Soumissionresembles narratives about Vichy: a confused period of civil unrest; an exodus to the countryside; and accommodation to the new regime. But really, far from damning the French for embracing Ben Abbes, Houellebecq is suggesting that they could do much worse: indeed, that they are already doing much worse. And, as Houellebecq reminds us, ‘moderate Muslims are not Nazis.’
Perhaps this is all just a Swiftian stunt. Perhaps Houellebecq is saying that France has sunk so low that even Islam would be preferable to the state religion of laïcité. But I don’t think so. Soumission is too ambiguous to be read as satire – or, for that matter, as nightmare. There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation. Yes, civilisation, that word evocative of the longue durée, religion, tradition, shared values and, not least, clashes with civilisational rivals. But the word is unavoidable. What has always made his writing so perverse is the way it jumps between microsociology and the aerial view of history. (His novels almost always take place at some point in the future, allowing the present to be depicted as a just vanished past.) Houellebecq has an unerring, Balzacian flair for detail, and his novels provide an acute, disenchanted anatomy of French middle-class life: TV dinners, petty intrigues at the workplace, tourism, sex. But since his characters are never more than sociological types, without much of an interior life, he needs to find another narrative for them: hence the role played by history. For Houellebecq, history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations. The only lasting civilisations, as he sees it, rest on a solid foundation of shared religious values. Once those values disintegrate, a civilisation slides into inexorable decline, and becomes susceptible to what, in Atomised (1998), he called a ‘metaphysical mutation’, a sudden and decisive transformation of its values. These metaphysical mutations are the engine of history. Politics and economics – the stuff materialists get worked up about – are of secondary importance. (By any objective measure, France isn’t doing so badly: people work less and make more, and have a higher life expectancy than the OECD average. The ‘crisis’ of the French model is partly phantasmagorical.)

I'm reading this book now. It has some entertaining bits, some nice phrase assassines on French academia, politics and media. But generally it disappoints, mostly because of how much it repeats familiar themes and scenes. Once again there is the morose view of a culture corroded by individualism, materialism and humanism. Once again explicit, porn-like sex scenes meant to convey the opposite of intimacy. Houellebecq seems to have reached the point in his career where his style is becoming a pastiche of itself. As Shatz notes, "At the beginning of Soumission, Houellebecq says that while the style of a novel matters and ‘the musicality of phrases have their importance,’ ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books.’ He is distressingly present in Soumission."

Because Soumission came out the day before the Charlie Hebdo attack (the magazine featured Houellebecq on its cover) it has been treated as not only relevant -- the author is certainly gifted at hitting on nerves -- but somehow prescient. But the scenario it unfolds is political science fiction. This is not a book about Islam or Muslims at all; it is a book about a decades-long French malaise and, as usual, about Michel Houellebecq himself. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In prison in Egypt

Part of a testimony published on El Bedaia web site by Ahmad Gamal Ziada, a journalist being held in Abu Zabal prison. 

Still the soldiers try to provoke me. They push me with their sticks and laugh. "Move journalist, ha ha ha, you complain of your masters?!" I did not reply to avoid problems. But one of them said: "Son of a bitch"! I protested in a loud voice so that the warden would hear me. I told him I wanted to report the insult. The warden laughed and told the masked soldiers and the officer Ahmed Omar: "Take him and make the report." The signs of that report are still on my body. I took my share of beatings and instead of making the report I requested, the warden made a report against me and accused me of individual excitement (Thank God it was not one of sexual excitement against an ignorant man who described my mother as a whore). He wrote that my punishment was 24 hours in disciplinary detention. I told the chief investigating officer what happened and he said: I tried to convince the warden and Ahmed Beh not to put you in disciplinary detention, but they seem annoyed with you. And because their highnesses were annoyed with me they put me in disciplinary detention for seven days instead of 24 hours and wrote a report that I refused to enter the cell!! I entered the death chamber: A cell, 3 times 5 feet big, half a blanket, a rotten smelling plastic box to use as a toilet, since it is forbidden to open the cell throughout the duration of the punishment, a dirty bottle of water, a rotten loaf of bread and an equally rotten piece of cheese. No air, no light, no life! I declared a hunger strike, but no one cared. "We did not bring you here to eat", said the officer. I said tell the prison administration that I shall not end my hunger strike except after a human rights visit to these inhumane graves.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The war in Yemen (in 1963)

Patrick Seale reported for The New Republic on the war in Yemen in 1963, which saw Egypt intervening to prop up a new republican regime, against the monarchy supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. 

President Nasser's armed intervention in Yemen is the most ambitious and dangerous foreign adventure of his career. It has brought him to the brink of war with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and provides American diplomacy in the Middle East with possibly its greatest challenge since Suez. By recognizing, in December, the republican regime of Marshal Sallal--Nasser's protege in Yemen--the United States has clashed with her British ally and has taken sides in the inter-Arab struggle for power. Why did Washington do it, and what are the military facts?
For the last three months, an Egyptian expeditionary force--put at between 12,000 and 15,000--has been fighting a savage guerrilla war in north and east Yemen against tribes loyal to the Imamate who will not accept the republican couip d'etat by which Sallal overthrew the royalist government. These Egyptian forces--Nasser's crack combat units--were trained for desert not for mountain warfare. Their expensive equipment, their Soviet-built tanks, armored personnel carriers and Ilyushin jet bombers, are not ideally suited for operations in the crazy maze of narrow defiles and boulder-strewn mountains of northern Yemen.
A main road in these parts is a barely discernible single-file, pencil-line camel track linking two waterholes across a moon-landscape of black surging rock threaded by pale dry watercourses. Clumps of white thorn, dry as tinder, spring into flame at the touch of a match to warm the night marches. In this terrain, the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.
But quite apart from individual fighting qualities, it was evident (at least to this correspondent from conversations with Egyptian prisoners) that whereas the Egyptians seem uncertain why they are there, the Yemeni tribes are fighting a foreign invader in the name of Islam and of their traditional way of life and form of government--and are enjoying opportunities for loot on a scale probably unparalleled since the incense caravans of Sheba. I met a man who had acquired 80 Egyptian blankets; another had a couple of hundred cans of excellent Egyptian beans; children were dressed in rags of parachute silk and every royalist camp was littered with captured weapons, bazooka bombs, boxes of grenades and Egyptian cigarettes.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links March 14-20 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

What Happened in Homs

The New York Review of Books publishes an excerpt of Jonathan Littel's Syrian Notebooks:

Ever since the beheading of the journalist James Foley, Da‘esh has become the overwhelming obsession of Western governments, clouding all other issues. The regime and its Russian friends can be proud: their goal of, if not quite rehabilitating, at least bringing al-Assad back into the game as a key player, is now within reach. Even more than the fate of the broader Middle East, it is the fear, even to the point of psychosis, of another jihadi backlash against Western interests—of another September 11 or July 7 or January 7—that is driving European and US decision making. From there to working with al-Assad is only a step, no matter how much our leaders deny it. Sadly, this won’t benefit the Syrian people much.
A recent set of statistics published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, usually considered one of the most reliable independent observer of the conflict, might serve as a useful reminder even if the figures are probably underestimated: as of March 2015, the regime had killed 176,678 Syrian civilians, including 18,242 children, as opposed to 1,054 civilians (of which 145 were children) killed by Da‘esh. Our new enemy should not make us forget who is at the root of the disaster; the Syrians certainly haven’t. The French journalist Sofia Amara cites, in her recent book, the new slogan chanted, with their eternal dark humor, by Syrian activists seen in a video marching through devastated streets: “What is left of the Syrian people wants the fall of the regime.”


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Translation: Standing on Saddam's Grave

Courtesy our friends at Industry Arabic -- a professional translation service that can fulfill your every Arabic need -- a column on the battle to liberate Tikrit from ISIS, Iran's prominent role there, and the way it may undermine the fragile equilibrium in Iraq. 

Suleimani, on Saddam's Grave

By Ghassan Charbel

El Hayat, 12 March

ISIS is a cancer that can only be treated by excision. Its removal is a patriotic, national and humanitarian duty. Successful treatment to ensure that a relapse will not occur requires involving the community that it has infiltrated in uprooting it, and insulating this community against ISIS' lies and claims. It is not out of place at this juncture to consider in advance what the patient’s condition will be after the malicious tumor is removed.

It is not insignificant for ISIS to control Tikrit, a city with much resonance in recent Iraqi history -- not because Saddam Hussein’s tomb is in the nearby village of Awja, but because it is symbolic of the Sunni Arab role in Iraq. The Iraqi government could not leave Tikrit in the hands of ISIS, but the conditions of the current surgery raise concerns that if Tikrit falls into the hands of its attackers – which is the necessary outcome – this could lead to the collapse of balance required for Iraq to remain united and part of the Arab world.

These concerns would not have been prompted if the Iraqi army was the one leading the charge to retake Tikrit and had adopted measures to quell the concerns of the inhabitants of Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh. But what is happening now is that “popular mobilization” is playing the main role in combating ISIS, and “mobilization” means an alliance of Shiite militias. The attack is also marked by an American refusal to provide air cover and an increasing tendency by Iran to openly admit that it is managing the campaign.

Iran has intervened in the countries of the region over the past two decades and has skillfully found many covers for this activity. What is remarkable in recent weeks is that Tehran has openly avowed these interventions through images of General Qassem Suleimani in the field in both Iraq and Syria and statements by Iranian officials about their solid influence in four Arab countries, not to mention talk about the Mandab Strait and an entrenched presence on the Mediterranean.

Why has Tehran abandoned its previous reserve? Does it wish to say that it has seized its regional role in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen before any potential nuclear agreement with the US has been signed? Does it wish to make decisive changes that cannot be reversed? Does it wish to signal that the above countries are a vital extension of Iran and that the inhabitants of the region ought to get used to seeing Iranian generals left and right? Does it wish to unequivocally declare what it used to whisper to its visitors, which is that it is not just an important country in the region, but the most important country? And that the most important country has the right to recalibrate the balances in the region in a manner that accords with its new role? It is not a trivial matter for Ali Shamkhani to be declaring that Iran has prevented the fall of Baghdad, Erbil and Damascus.

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Egypt's new capital

At the economic conference Egypt hosted last weekend, officials had a surprise announcement: they plan to build the country a new capital. And it is going to be fantastic

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The scale of the plans certainly defy historical norms. If completed, the currently nameless city would span 700 sq km (a space almost as big as Singapore), house a park double the size of New York’s Central Park, and a theme park four times as big as Disneyland – all to be completed within five to seven years.
According to the brochure, there will be exactly 21 residential districts, 25 “dedicated districts”, 663 hospitals and clinics, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 1.1m homes housing at least five million residents.

The plan has unsurprisingly generated some skepticism. Egypt has a long history of failed, delusional, top-down urban planning:

I won’t dwell on the fascination with Dubai as a model for urban development and how unsuitable this model is for Egypt whose GDP per capita is 8% of that of the UAE. Nor will I dwell on the deep political and social inequalities that lie beneath the glittering veneer of Dubai, and the serious political implications that this model bodes for the new proposed capital of Egypt. I also won’t dwell on the meaning and significance of announcing such a momentous decision not in front of parliament (for we have no such institution due to a legal fracas that delayed the elections to an unspecified future date) and not to the local media (despite the fact that whatever independence this media might have once enjoyed has evaporated in thin air), but to a group of word leaders and foreign investors who claim to be  “focus[ing] on efforts to promote shared prosperity in Egypt and the region” (in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry).
I just wonder what will happen to Cairo, Egypt’s capital for more than a thousand years? What will happen to the metropolis that is home to close to 20 million inhabitants? Where do they fit in the government’s plans for the new capital? The website says that it is hoped that the new city will attract 5 million inhabitants when it is finished. Assuming that the aim of building a new administrative capital is to alleviate the pressure from downtown Cairo where the majority of government offices are located, and assuming, for argument’s sake, that the 5 million inhabitants will actually be moved from overcrowded city, what will happen to the rest of us?

It has also garnered quite a bit of genuine support, driven, I imagine, by the undeniable fact that central Cairo is such a brutal, and worsening, urban environment. It's not that the capital doesn't urgently need drastic new measures to solve its pollution, transportation problems, traffic, overcrowding, poor public services. I spent a year after the uprising going to weekly meetings at an Egyptian NGO where experts and activists from dozens of different fields talked knowledgeably about the city's problems, argued over solutions, and proposed many creative, worthy ideas. But none of these ideas ever get anywhere near government offices, where denial (of the 2/3 of the city that consists of informal housing, to star with), bad taste and bad faith reign supreme and no one can admit the obvious:  Cairo's fundamental problem is governance. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Translation: Civil wars in the Arab world

In the latest installment of our In Translation series -- brought to us courtesy of the diligent translation professionals of Industry Arabic --  we look at this extremely bleak assessment by a Saudi columnist writing in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat. The columnist quotes Thomas Hobbes and presents all attempts at contestation and demand for democracy in the MIddle East today as doomed, because of what he deems the pre-existing frailty of Arab society. The argument raises more questions than it answers, though -- is "society" really non-existent in Arab countries? And if so, why? Is the author referring to his own homeland or to places like Syria where society has been submitted to unbearable, inhuman strain? Is the point that there is no alternative to the authoritarian status quo? 

Civil Wars…and “pre-society”

By Fahad Suleiman al-Shigeran, Al Sharq Al Awsat, March 9

The slogans that have filled squares across the Middle East reflect a variety of concepts. What they have in common is the search for the key to deliverance, for a way to reach the dream of democracy and freedom and lose oneself in its bliss. However, all the current attempts to gain freedom have led to is bloody civil war, or symbolic social warfare between one individual and another. The Spring of Dreams has led to the rallying to ISIS, the rise of Boko Haram, the spread of extremism, the dismantling of the state, proposed partition schemes, economic crises, environmental pollution, overcrowded mass graves, and a sea irrigated with the blood of recently severed heads.

There is nothing strange in the fact that such furious, chaotic events should lead to what we are now witnessing. What is strange is that there are people who are betting – even now – that the revolutionary movement will reach “inevitable victory,” on the basis that what is happening is merely  “dialectic” that will sweep everybody along to a “historical inevitability” in the Hegelian manner.

In our region we are not witnessing civil wars of a conventional kind. Events have superseded the formulation of “war” and have reached a level of brutality that includes images of severed heads, disembowelments, and brutal revenge. We abuse the word “war” when we use it to describe what is going on now. Throughout history, civil wars were the bugbears of theorists, philosophers, and intellectuals, because they are not legitimate wars against a particular enemy – since wars have their particular circumstances and legitimacy; they have an art, as Machiavelli would say. However, the Arab world is sinking into brutality, through its painful unleashing of arbitrary civil wars that have opened up sectarian wounds, shredded the patrimony of minorities, and revived the phenomenon of organized tribal purges. Everyone has retreated into their caves; no one trusts even their own shadow. This absolute breakdown, constant doubt, radical condemnation, and suspicion all makes the lived environment nothing but a massive jungle that contains masses of people that do not compose a society in the scientific sense, but rather a random assemblage of people in a single geographical location, because “society” is what exerts pressure to transition from desire to reason. Among the foundations of this transition is establishing the rule of law and building institutions in preparation to drafting a constitution, and thence to constructing a state and propagating its prestige.

 

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On Israel's elections

Yonatan Mendel in the London Review of Books:

All Jewish parties in Israel (except Meretz, which is against the occupation and is as progressive as its Zionist boundaries allow it to be) share a desire to show that they have the guts to stand up for Israel vis-à-vis international law, and that they are anti-Arab. Netanyahu is a maestro at the first, with his great effort to demonstrate that he doesn’t give a damn about the Israel-US relationship. He insisted on speaking to Congress when no one from Obama to Aipac wanted him there, because back home it meant the world to him: the message was that he is tough and doesn’t answer to anybody. Bennett is quite good at this too. He recently released a video in which he walks through Tel Aviv dressed as a hipster with a long fake ginger beard. Everywhere he goes he says: ‘Oh sorry, I am so sorry, oh sorry, indeed, forgive me, I am so sorry’ – a joke at the expense of Israeli leftists who apologise too much to the international community for Israel’s ongoing violations of international law. Lieberman did his best to follow the act, but his performance was too blunt. Following an attack by Hizbullah on Israel’s northern border (a response to an Israeli attack that killed 12 people, among them an Iranian general and Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of a former Hizbullah commander), Lieberman said that ‘Israel’s response should be harsh and disproportionate.’ Livni and Herzog also wish to be seen as being as patriotic and Zionist as possible. They’ve all but dropped the name of Herzog’s party and are campaigning as the Zionist Union. This evocative name both alienates Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and signals to the world that the Israeli ‘alternative’ has nothing new to offer, not even its vocabulary. To make sure of being properly anti-democratic, Livni and Herzog decided to join the usual game of trying to disqualify an Arab MK, in this case Haneen Zoabi, from running for parliament. Knowing the proposal would never be approved by the Supreme Court not only figured in their calculations but encapsulated a hidden dream. They knew that in Israel in 2015, if the Supreme Court throws you off the staircase, it can only do you good.
Displays of anti-Arab sentiment are a vital part of any election campaign. A straightforwardly anti-Semitic video was recently released by the Samaria Residents’ Council, a settler group, in which money-grabbing Jewish-Israeli leftists are seen receiving donations from Europeans depicted as Nazis. ‘For them you will always remain a Jew,’ the video says, trying to show that the Europeans who support human rights movements and joint Jewish-Arab initiatives in Israel are neo-Nazis. In another election video, Sharon Gal, a candidate for Lieberman’s party, is seen dressed as a gardener uprooting weeds from the Israeli garden. He calls the weeds by the names of Arab MKs: ‘Here I uproot an intrusive Tibi … and here I uproot a poisonous Zahalka.’ Lieberman himself came up with a fine uprooting slogan: ‘Ariel for Israel, Umm al-Fahm for Palestine’ (in other words, annex the city-settlement of Ariel to Israel and ‘in return’ uproot fifty thousand Arab citizens of Israel and transfer them to Palestine). Danny Danon from Netanyahu’s Likud released a video in which, dressed as a sheriff, he turns up in a bar in the Wild West and throws out an Arab MK (Zoabi), who ends up motionless on the ground. In another Likud video, Isis militants drive jeeps into Israel; the slogan says that the Israeli ‘left’, that anonymous and mysterious entity, will lead Isis into Jerusalem. (The video had loud Arabic music, which is intimidating for Israelis, and that’s what’s important.) Herzog released a video in which friends from his military intelligence unit tell of his heroism in the army:

Herzog grew up in military intelligence, which means he knows the Arab mentality. He saw Arabs on different occasions; he saw them on the other side of the gun-sight, and behind the gun-sight … The most important man in this business is the person who knows what the state of Israel needs to do with a piece of information. Whether this means firing a rocket, or sending troops forward, or wiping out these people.

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links March 7 - 13 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The Arab of the Future

Here is a review I wrote for the LRB blog of the comic L'Arabe du Futur, by Syrian-French comic artist Riad Sattouf. It's a very accomplished, very troubling, work (and should be out in English soon). 

In Libya, where his father accepts a teaching post, the family lose their university housing immediately to squatters who invoke Gaddafi’s ban on private property. Sattouf’s mother, Clementine, nearly gets into trouble after she breaks into hysterical laughter reading out propaganda on the radio. Sattouf remembers the crowds jostling to buy unripe bananas and Tang, the afternoons spent playing unsupervised with the children of other foreign professors. In a child’s worldview, the strictures of a dictatorial regime are no more bizarre than most other rules.
When Sattouf’s father decides to take his family back to Syria, things turn almost farcically awful. He didn’t do his military service, so has to bribe his way past army officers at the airport. The family waits as a group of cab drivers has a brawl over who will take them. Back in the village, at the family home, the women sit in a separate room and eat the men’s leftovers. Sattouf’s father discovers that his brother has sold his land. The village is full of rubbish and feral little boys who wave sticks and threaten Riad.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On Yarmouk

Excellent Guardian Long Read on the Palestinian neighborhood of Damascus and its infamous siege. 

This was how Yarmouk entered the world’s consciousness: a refugee camp designed as a safe haven for the Palestinian diaspora that had become the worst place on earth. No electricity for months. No piped water. No access for food. Worse still, no chance for people to leave or return, except for a handful of emergency medical cases or the few who had the means to pay people-smugglers to get them through the multiple checkpoints. Some called it Syria’s Gaza, but its plight was even worse, because the siege was more comprehensive; Yarmouk was a prison from which there was no escape.

But notoriety can be short-lived.

The opening in the siege that UNRWA had negotiated in January 2014 applied only fitfully throughout the year: food deliveries were only possible on 131 days, and often less than half the amount required got through. Since 6 December, the siege has once again become impassable. UNRWA reports that it has not been able to deliver any food at all for the past 12 weeks. “We are getting new reports of people dying of malnutrition and of women dying in childbirth, but nothing can be confirmed,” said Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesperson. Unlike in Gaza, where UNRWA has several offices, the organisation cannot enter Yarmouk at all.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Social media and the Arab uprisings

Depressing at the state of things may be, I found researching and writing this article about the questions scholars are asking today about the role of social and digital media in political mobilization in the Middle East, for The Chronicle of Higher Education, very interesting. 

"It’s difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about social media," says Philip N. Howard, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. But "after years of excitement and effervescence," he notes, "we’re in a much more jaded or critical stage of inquiry."
Working on his book (with Muzammil M. Hussain) Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab SpringMr. Howard developed a causal model that weighed access to new communication technology in Arab countries alongside other socioeconomic factors. He concluded that that access was part of the basic infrastructure needed for collective action to take place.
But by the time the book was published, in 2013, those mass mobilizations for change had seemingly collapsed. Today, out of half a dozen Arab countries that witnessed uprisings, only Tunisia has managed to see its democratic transition through. Across the region, the bloggers and activists who helped plan and publicize protests were sidelined by Islamist parties and military regimes. They have been silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Scholars are now asking a different set of questions: How did these huge and hopeful social movements fizzle? Why were they unable to achieve political gains? How is social media being used today by resurgent autocratic governments and by terrorist groups? 
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, argued in a recent paper that the ability to "scale up" quickly that social media offers to protest movements means they don’t have to do the hard and necessary work of building traditional organizations that know how to make decisions collectively, change strategies, and persevere. In a TED talk she gave in October, Ms. Tufekci compared today’s social movements, in the Arab world and elsewhere, to "start-ups that got very big without knowing what to do next."

You should also read this article on the topic by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, "Social media in the Era of ISIS."  

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

review: Drawing his way to freedom

Amazigh, itineraire d'hommes libres ("itinerary of free men") is a graphic novel by the Moroccan artist Mohamed Arejdal (written with Cedric Liano). It tells the story of Arejdal's long, tortuous, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to emigrate illegally to Spain. It captures the teenage rebelliousness and nonchalance that lead to the decision to make the trip; and the casual mistreatment that takes place along the smuggling route. Much of the story takes place in the Canary Island, where Arejdal ends up in a succession of detention centers. It is there that a social worker gives him some art supplies. When he is forcefully repatriated to Morocco, he ends up studying at the Fine Arts Institute in Tetouan; his long trek in search of European opportunity ultimately becomes material for some of his art projects. His book concludes with him being granted the much-sought-after  European visa to attend a biennale in Italy.

 

Regarding the title: Arejdal is Amazigh, meaning that he belongs to the country's indigenous Berber population (the word means "free man" or "rebel"). Most Moroccans do, ethnically, but only some identify as Amazigh. At least a third of the country speaks Amazigh languages-- which have historically been marginalized -- as their first language rather than Arabic. The issue of language and identity here is a fraught and complicated one. 


Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Arabist book review: Women's Burdens in Morocco

“Dos De Femmes, Dos de Mulet” (“Woman's Back, Donkey’s Back”) is a proverb in the mountain villages of Morocco. The Moroccan journalist Hicham Houdaifa chose it as a title for his first book of reportage, which focuses on the most vulnerable of Moroccan women — women who are illiterate, legally non-existent (because their births were never registered), single mothers (with no rights because their marriages were never registered) or vulnerable seasonal workers. With the help of some of Morocco’s impressive NGOs, Houdaifa criss-crossed the country last Fall interviewing underage brides; waitresses in Casablanca bars; some of the tens of thousands of women who pick the fruit that is exported to Europe (and are sexually exploited by their male superiors and the wealthy families that own farms)'; and others. Avoiding condescension or sensationalism, Houdaifa presents a picture of hard work and terrible unfairness, of the way — despite Morocco’s supposedly progressive family code and its economic development — rural uneducated women remain a reservoir of cheap, vulnerable labour. Most of these women are brutally cut off from any chance of improving their lot, but spend their lives toiling to try to offer a slightly better chance to their children. 

The book is the first in a series of investigative books to be published by the independent publishing house, En Toutes Lettres, run by Houdaifa and his wife, the cultural reporter Kenza Sefrioui — both veterans of Morocco’s quashed independent press. 

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links February 28 - March 6 2015

One of many videos mocking ISIS, with a re-mixed version of one of its anthems.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On ISIS' Iconoclasm

Elliott Colla puts ISIS' recent destruction of Assyrian antiquities in historical context, and explains the extremist group's view of why their display was sacrilegious. This is an interesting read, although I don't see how a modern statue of Saddam Hussein (which Colla rightly points out the US toppled after its own victory in Iraq) has a comparable historical (let alone aesthetic) value to those antiquities. 

It was not just that Europeans arrived to tell everyone that these rocks were sacred (albeit in a non-religious sense), although that happened. It was also that, as Europeans gained control of the region, these same sites and objects were redesignated as excavation sites and museums then cordoned off into 'no-go zones.' It was under the new antiquities laws -- designed to protect and conserve the objects for civilization -- that local peasants were conscripteden masse to work under slave conditions for the great White archaeologists making great 'discoveries' about the ancient past.
Champions of antiquities preservation need to take these colonial and autocratic legacies into consideration as they grapple with the form of iconoclasm practiced by ISIS. And for the record, because there seems to be a doctrinal element to ISIS's practices, it does seem right to think of it as iconoclasm rather than vandalism. The austere Sunni ideology of ISIS (like that of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) is one that thinks of itself as iconoclastic in the most basic sense of the word. It is a form of monotheism obsessed with the issue of shirk (the worship of false gods), and finds evidence of it everywhere. It opposes the veneration of objects -- whether in temples or in museums -- on the grounds that such veneration is a threat to monotheistic worship. Like the Wahhabis of the 18th century, we can expect them to attack objects where people worship in a way that threatens their monotheistic conception of Islam, be it at tombs where Shia venerate saints or temples where non-Muslims worship other gods. In this context, it is natural that they would also target museums, since for them these also represent places of false worship.
This aspect is missed by those who focus solely on the pagan provenance of the artifacts, and think that ISIS is fighting a ridiculously old and anachronistic battle. It is true that the Assyrian objects destroyed in the Mosul Museum are of pagan origin, but that is not the only reason why ISIS targeted them. They were not only or primarily targeting theobjects in the museum, but rather the form of veneration -- the attitude of sacred appreciation -- represented in the institution of the museum itself. They are also, much like the gunmen in Paris, attempting to "sharpen contradictions" in an effort to create a conflict of civilizations. 
Most museum goers and appreciators of ancient artifacts do not think of their practices as a form of religion. But it is not so hard to see how the iconoclasts of ISIS imagine "false religion" when see the trappings of veneration that pervade museums. Nor are they entirely wrong to cry 'religion' when they hear absolutist claims about transcendent value, even those made by secularists and self-professed atheists. 
Finally, before Americans issue more blanket condemnations of ISIS's ugly form of iconoclasm, we might do well to put our own selves back into the history of toppling statues in Iraq. Weren't we championing iconoclasm and broadcasting it on our own television screens not so long ago? Didn't we, as victors, begin our celebrations by toppling the sacred objects of our enemies?Is it that we, the civilized, abhor the wanton destruction of all objects and histories, or just some?
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Democracy in Egypt: Always A Reason to Wait

The Atlantic Council translates a recent column by Amr Hamzawy -- one of the very few true liberals in Egypt --  in Shurouq newspaper:

From the mid-1900s until now, many different issues have been used to complete the argument that democracy must be postponed because “nothing is more important than such and such issue.” The issues that have completed this argument have included: national independence, development and preparing the people to practice democracy, socialism, the liberation of Palestine, confronting Zionism and imperialism, the battle to liberate the territory of the nation, economic well-being, stability, the preservation of the national state, and the war against terrorism. 
...
In turn, these tactics are used to propagate a third illusion that contributes to the current siege on the concept of democracy in Egypt: the illusion of “national necessity.” Through this illusion, authoritarianism can effectively ensure its continued grip on power.  Prior to and following the summer of 2013, my writings consistently warned of the authoritarian trend behind the claims that the military intervention in politics on July 3 was an “act of necessity” and that the former Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was participating in the presidential elections as the “candidate of necessity,” later to become the “president of necessity” following the announcement of the election results. These claims of “necessity” are truly authoritarian, as they – in the best of cases – justify departing from democracy, based on the pretext that there was no alternative to an intervention by the military establishment in politics, even when the alternative of holding early presidential elections certainly was possible. In the worst of cases, such claims of “necessity” effectively strip citizens of the right to freely choose their leaders through elections by legitimizing the presidential candidate backed by the system of rule (or its lists and candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections) as a matter of “national necessity.”
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.