At the Cairo Book Fair

I just got back from another quick visit to Cairo, where I visited and wrote about the annual book fair for Al Fanar

 

Unlike the well-known Frankfurt Book Fair, the Cairo fair is not a networking event for publishers but rather an opportunity for individuals and institutions to find new books at the best prices. Many buyers are students, professors and university administrators stocking up on textbooks and reference books. At the outlet of the Egyptian Book Organization, a government-owned publisher that releases deeply discounted no-frills editions of hundreds of classics and works of history, sociology and literary analysis, the staff can barely keep the shelves stocked. This year the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity has also introduced an initiative to allow less well-off Egyptian families to use their food-subsidy cards to buy some books at reductions of 90 percent off the usual prices.
For many, the fair is also an opportunity for an inexpensive, pleasant outing. By the late afternoon, the streets surrounding the fairgrounds in the suburb of Nasr City are packed with traffic, and families carrying food are coming in to picnic on the grass between the book stalls and listen to free evening concerts.
The theme of the fair this year is “Culture on the Front Lines”—the implied front lines being those of the country’s ongoing crackdown on the ousted and outlawed Islamist party the Muslim Brotherhood, and of the military conflict with terrorist groups taking place largely in the Sinai peninsula.
The fair also commemorates Egyptian writer Gamal El Ghitany, who passed away in 2015. Collections of El Ghitany’s works—including acclaimed novels such as Zayni Barakat, which is set in medieval Cairo and based on extensive archival research by the author—are some of the fair’s new releases.

The article also covers the many, seemingly daily, violations of freedom of expression that are taking place at the same time as events as these. One of the latest was the detention of cartoonist Islam Gawish -- although that allowed many more of us to discover his work.  

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

I've just published  a review in The Nation of the first two volumes of French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future (volume 1 is out in English). Sattouf grew up in Ghaddafi's Libya and above all in Hafez Al Assad's Syria and has penned a disturbing, affecting and darkly funny childhood memoir. 

It’s 1983, and a family has landed at the Damascus airport. The father, who has avoided military service, bribes his way into the country. Accompanying him are his foreign wife and small blond son. Outside the airport, Syria assails them. A scrum of screaming cab drivers fights over the startled new arrivals. Cabbies abandon the brawl and compose themselves on the sidelines, combing their hair and smoking cigarettes, until the last one left shouting—and close to keeling over from his exertions—hustles the family into his taxi. He ashes his cigarettes through the moving vehicle’s missing floorboard.
This scene of homecoming and culture shock falls about halfway through the first volume of The Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir by the French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf. The book delivers a vision of childhood that is both extreme and familiar: its terrors and painful revelations, the utter mystery and absolute power of adults, the sensory details that lodge forever in the memory. But Sattouf’s vision is also of the unusual childhood he lived in Moammar El-Gadhafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, as well as in the shadow of his father and his delusions. The Arab of the Future blends a rueful backward glance at the early days of two dictatorships that finally imploded in the Arab Spring and an intimate indictment of the way boys were taught to be men.
Sattouf, who is 37 and lives in Paris, has directed two movies and written dozens of graphic novels, many of them focused on adolescence and sexual losers (one is called Virgin’s Manual, another No Sex in New York). Other work is drawn from life: For one piece, he spent 15 days in an elite French high school. Between 2004 and 2014, Sattouf contributed a weekly comic called “The Secret Life of Youth” to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Based on scraps of life seen and heard on the streets and subways, it was preoccupied, like much of Sattouf’s work, with observing those moments of cruelty, violence, or strangeness that happen in plain sight but are generally passed over in silence, purposely ignored.

 

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.

All of Bidoun online

Bidoun, a ground-breaking magazine about the arts and culture of the middle east -- and much more -- is celebrating its tenth anniversary by making available a huge digital archive. (Issandr and I have contributed several reviews articles and interviews over the years). You can browse by issues, articles or authors.  Under "Collections" you can see specially curated tours of the archive by the likes of Etel Adnan, Lynne Tillman, Orhan Pamuk and Hans Ulrich Obrist. 

 

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: Five Years On.. Did the Egyptian Revolution Fail?

The Egyptian authorities were so worried about the anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak that they reportedly inspected hundreds of apartments Downtown and forced young people to show their social media accounts. They also shut down many cultural venues that are gathering places (being young, being online, and hanging out Downtown are now explicitly grounds for suspicion). 

A lot of media is publishing eulogies of the 2011 Egyptians uprising, asking those who supported it to reflect on its disappointing denouement. It can be painful and a bit frustrating to read these pieces (I think media professionals themselves -- and I include myself -- as well as pundits and Western politicians, could just as well be asked what they got "terribly wrong"). That said we have one of our one, translated as usually by the professional team of Industry Arabic

Rabab El Mahdi is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. She was also an active participant in post-2011 politics, notably when she acted as an advisor to the presidential campaign of moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (El Mahdi herself is a staunch leftist). This piece takes a brooders view at the current moment of crisis, not just in the middle east but in the world's economic and political systems. 

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The future of the Egyptian revolution

From The Guardian, an excerpt of our friend Jack Shenker's forthcoming The Egyptians: A Radical Story:

Egypt’s revolution has been misunderstood, and a great deal of that misunderstanding had been deliberate. An upheaval that began on 25 January 2011, and will continue for years to come, has been framed deceptively by elites both within Egypt’s borders and beyond. Their aim has been to sanitise the revolution and divest it of its radical potential. Over the past half-decade the Arab world’s most populous nation has been engulfed by extraordinary turmoil, the result of millions of ordinary people choosing to reject the status quo and trying instead to build better alternatives. Their struggle – against political and economic exclusion, and against the state violence that is required by both for enforcement – is not separate from struggles that are playing out elsewhere, including in Britain, America and right across the global north. In fact, they are deeply enmeshed. At the heart of Egypt’s unrest are forms of governance that structure all our lives, and modes of resistance that could yet transform them.
In the last five years, headlines about Egypt have been laden with insta-emotion: awe at an uprising against one of the Middle East’s longest reigning and best-armed dictators, joy at its success, confusion in its aftermath, sadness that the young protesters were seemingly defeated in the end, that elections were overturned, and that autocrats rose once again. At times, far from being a political inspiration, events in Egypt have felt like a textbook example of why mass protest is doomed to failure; a study in how “business as usual” always wins out in the end. This narrative is profoundly misleading. The revolution, and counterrevolution, has never been just about Mubarak, or his successors, or elections. It is not merely a civil war between Islamists and secularists, nor a fight between oriental backwardness and western liberal modernity, nor an “event” that can be fixed and constrained in place or time. In reality, the revolution is about marginalised citizens muscling their way on to the political stage and practising collective sovereignty over domains that were previously closed to them. The national presidency is one such domain, but there are many others: factories, fields and urban streets, the mineral resources that lie under the desert and beneath the seabed, the houses people live in, the food they eat and the water they drink.

Hamas, the Islamic State, and the Gaza–Sinai Crucible

Interesting summary, by Benedetta Berti and Zack Gold, of the quandary Hamas finds itself in with regards to the Islamic State's supporters in Gaza and Sinai:

In sum, the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip is actively involved in keeping the broader Salafi-jihadi camp from stirring up internal trouble or goading Israeli action against the strip, which includes preventing strong ties between Gaza- and Sinai-based jihadis. Likewise, to end its isolation, Hamas’s political leaders also hope to reverse a deterioration of relations with Egypt, even though the group’s military leaders are deepening their relations with some figures within the very same Salafi-jihadi camp that is fighting Egypt—and which Hamas is fighting in Gaza. This is because the ongoing economic restrictions and aggressive campaign against the tunnel economy have given Hamas’s military wing a powerful incentive to deal with any group—jihadi, criminal, or both—that could provide the weapons and financial resources it needs. In this sense, the Hamas–IS relationship is primarily driven by economic transactions. Such ties, however, also result in ad hoc cooperation, and according to Egyptian and Israeli intelligence sources, the Qassam Brigades are selling or providing weapons and offering training to IS-linked fighters with the goal of clearing its “lifeline” passage. 

So much of the mess in Sinai (and of course Gaza) is due to this disastrous blockade.

Dispatch from Tunis, January 2011

Five years ago today, Zine al-Abideen Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Shortly after, I spent a week in Tunis reporting on the revolution - personally for me an unforgettable moment, and one that burns just as vividly in my memory as the Egyptian uprising that would come a few days later. Looking from through my archives, I found the fragment of a long piece I had planned to write on Tunisia before having to rush back to Cairo; as result of the drama unfolding there, I had to abandon that Tunisia piece. It is reproduced below, with only minor stylistic editing and no correction of facts that were, back then in January 2011, very fresh and still uncertain.

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They Won’t Miss You When You’re Gone

In  The American Interest, a funny and well-written piece by (former official) Eliot Cohen on the last year of an American presidency:

An administration in its last year resembles a small woodland creature reaching the end of its life, seeking only a quiet burrow in which to meet its demise. Like that moribund animal, an administration will exhibit pointless twitches of frantic activity before the very end. These mostly involve extensive foreign travel to nice or particularly interesting places, which gets you away from the polite yawns of Congressmen and Senators (and worse, their staffs) that meet your opinions back home. But sooner or later you return to Washington, and there realize that your unglamorous duty consists chiefly in leaving the dog’s breakfast of a policy in the least-desperate shape you can for the next team.

Five years

One of my favorite Bowie songs (there are so many to choose from) and oddly appropriate as we prepare to commemorate five years since the 2011 uprisings. Reminds me of many Cairo evenings at home with friends who would ask me to play The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which begins with this track. 

RIP.

(For fans and non-fans alike, I heartily recommend Simon Critchley's wonderful essay, Bowie.)

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The ties that bind jihadists

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education -- written several months ago  -- about the culture of Islamic extremists, the kinds of activities that jihadis engage in in their spare time and that very likely contribute significantly to the appeal and narrative of jihadism. It was fascinating to talk to the scholars working on this (most of the work is on ISIS' predecessors). Many make the point that without understanding the cultural practices and rewards of jihadism it is hard to counter-act its appeal or to assess its staying power. Here is an excerpt:

By Hegghammer’s definition, jihadist culture includes activities that do more than fulfill basic military needs. Some of those are quite unexpected. Public displays of weeping are an aspect of jihadist culture that intrigues Hegghammer, who notes that the practice is so common that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq until his death, in 2006, was known as "the slaughterer" but also as "he who weeps a lot." It’s a well-respected sign of piety to weep during Quran recitations, when watching propaganda videos and reflecting on the suffering of Muslims around the world, and when talking of martyrdom and one’s desire to achieve it. It is not, however, appropriate to cry over the death in combat of comrades — the correct response is to rejoice.
There are other surprises besides the frequency with which jihadist leaders burst into tears. Iain Edgar, a professor of anthropology at Durham University and a contributor to Hegghammer’s volume, has been researching the role of dreams within jihadist groups.
Edgar is a specialist in dream cultures around the world. Dreams are taken seriously by many Muslims as potentially divine messages.
In Pakistan, Edgar learned that the late Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was widely credited with acting upon his premonitory dreams. Osama bin Laden, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, would often start the day by asking if any of his followers had had a significant dream, Edgar says. Jihadist leaders use dreams to legitimize their decisions — to carry out an attack, for example — as divinely inspired, and to emphasize their close connection with the Prophet and his companions.
"The idea that dreaming was still part of contemporary politics and of the biggest conflict today — I found that really fascinating," says Edgar.
Other scholars are interested in the stories that jihadist movements are crafting about themselves. Haykel and Robyn Creswell, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University, have written a paper on the poetry of Islamic radical groups (a version of which appeared in June in The New Yorker). The scholars examine the pre-eminent role of poetry within Muslim culture generally and jihadist groups in particular, where most other forms of art are proscribed. Poetry, they argue, is "a window on the movement talking to itself."
Jihadists write poems lamenting the hardships they suffer (but explaining why they are worth it), winning rhetorical arguments against their critics, elegizing fallen comrades, taking political and theological stances, praising leaders, and memorializing battles. The poetry is rec­ondite, says Haykel, often modeled on early Islamic forms, because while jihadists are bent on creating a radical new reality, they cast themselves as the inheritors of Islamic tradition.
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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.

Magical Thinking about Isis

Best piece I've read about the aftermath of the Paris attacks thus far, by Adam Shatz. Deep thinking throughout but I think this is one of the important points:

In a recent interview with Vice, Obama described IS as a child of the Iraq war. It’s true that if it weren’t for the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and its replacement by a Shia-dominated sectarian system, IS would probably not exist. And in its war against the Sykes-Picot frontiers, IS has paid a peculiar homage to the neoconservatives who have always viewed the post-Ottoman borders as artificial constructs, a map to be redrawn in blood, with multi-confessional states replaced by ethnically exclusive, weak statelets: Christian Lebanese, Kurdish and Shia.
But the problem of IS can’t be laid exclusively at the door of Bush, Blair et al. The war in Libya, and Obama’s accommodation with the Sisi regime in Egypt, have encouraged the spread of IS well beyond Iraq. It is, however, the US’s dangerously incoherent Syria policy that has perhaps done the greatest damage. When Obama called for Assad to step down, apparently confident that his days were numbered because an American president had said so, he raised the expectations of the opposition that the US had their backs, in the event that Assad began firing on them. But Obama had no intention of sending troops, or imposing a no-fly zone. His determination to will the means for Assad’s removal has never matched Russia’s or Iran’s determination to keep him in power. The result was to leave the Syrian opposition exposed to Assad’s war.

 But read the whole thing.

To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

The following is a guest post from Nathan Field, an entrepreneur and commentator on Middle Eastern politics. While Western governments weigh which military actions to take against ISIS, Field looks at the long-term economic reforms that could introduce greater employment, development and therefore stability to Arab countries, and weaken the appeal of extremist ideologies. 

The ultimate outcome of the military struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is certain. ISIS will land some blows but has too many enemies. Eventually, it will lose a war of attrition. The territory it controls in those countries will be reclaimed.   

The bigger, long-term challenge is the spread of Islamic State’s ideology in the broader Middle East, as opposed to the presence of the group in Syria and Iraq. This ideology of extreme utopian populism is caused at a most fundamental level by the socioeconomic stratification of Middle Eastern societies, a problem that is aggravated by the weakness of Arab economies in the global marketplace.

This has created a division between roughly the top 20% of societies, which is in a position to thrive and obtain status, and the vast majority that can mostly only hope to achieve the same. While such gaps have always existed, they are now being amplified by the explosion of the internet, social media and smartphones. For a growing number of young men, Islamic State’s utopianism offers a sense of purpose, meaning and masculinity that they don’t believe they can obtain by playing according to the conventional rules of society.

Economic reform, therefore, will be the key to undermining the group’s broader ideological appeal throughout the Muslim world-- with one major caveat. To succeed, it must not be a mere intensification of the neoliberal reforms that have transformed Arab economies since the 1980s. Those efforts generated unprecedented macro-economic growth, but failed to distribute the gains to different segments of society in a socially optimal way. Socioeconomic stratification increased, and that has directly contributed to the ongoing surge of radicalism.   

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Paris, Beirut, Raqqa

I lived and studied in Paris during and right after my university years. I'm particularly shaken by the attacks on a city that I've had a deep crush on since I was 20.

Although I really think FB should keep out of the business of deciding which massacres deserve their own branding. 

More importantly, fuck every US right-winger using this horror as a pretext to mock gun control. Fuck every fascist European politician using it as a chance to smear refugees. Fuck the US invasion of Iraq and the cynical all-around manipulation of the Syrian uprising. Fuck this butcher. Fuck ISIS' criminally ignorant, life-despising young murderers. 

Solidarity to the innocent inhabitants of Paris, of Beirut, of Sinai, of Syria and Yemen, of ISIS-controlled Raqqa -- of everywhere that people aren't able to live in basic safety, dignity and freedom. Which is getting to be so many places. 

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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.

High art and hard labour in the Gulf

This is form my review in The Nation of the book The Gulf: High Art/Hard Labour (edited by NYU professor Andrew Ross) which chronicles the boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum by the artist-activist collective Gulf Labour, in solidarity with the constructions workers building the museum. Below is some of the artwork included in the book. 

 

By asking, loudly and repeatedly, “Who’s Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?,” Gulf Labor punctured a convenient silence. Its other accomplishments are less clear. The Guggenheim pledged to respect workers’ rights and to house its laborers in a purpose-built model facility on Saadiyat. A field visit by Gulf Labor members in 2014 found that the camp was outfitted with Ping-Pong tables and a pristine cricket pitch, but it was also isolated and sinisterly regimented (the workers also complained that the food was terrible). Thanks to Gulf Labor and other groups, there is much greater, if superficial, international awareness of the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf, with newspapers regularly reporting, for example, on the number of Nepalese workers dying in Qatar on future World Cup construction sites. But as the artist-activist collective itself notes, despite meetings and assurances, the Guggenheim and the Emirati development company building Saadiyat “have yet to deliver any tangible results on behalf of workers,” who “continue to pay recruitment fees, to be forced into different jobs at lower pay than they signed up for, and to be controlled through the kafala system,” in which they are beholden to all-powerful local “sponsors.” 
In the spring, Raad, Ross, and the Indian artist Ashok Sukumaran, another member of Gulf Labor, were banned from entering the UAE. Western cultural institutions with branches in Abu Dhabi expressed no indignation over these bans, seeming to justify Ross’s claim that “far from promoting liberalization of speech, the presence of the museums and the university appeared to be generating exactly the opposite effect.”
The construction of the Guggenheim itself has been delayed, but not derailed. Given the creaky state of Western economies and public spending on the arts, Qatar and the UAE are clearly set to become significant patrons of international culture. It’s a good investment for them, one that will burnish their image and create strategic links with the West. And the new prizes, museums, and other cultural institutions recently established in the Gulf provide an important support to Arab writers and artists, especially as traditional cultural capitals like Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo totter or collapse. For many young academics, artists, and other white-collar professionals from the West, taking a job in the Gulf is also an opportunity that, in a spotty academic job market, can be hard to pass up. Defenders of -Saadiyat and similar ventures will say that art has always been patronized by elites, that it faces and weathers censorship everywhere, and that there’s a whiff of Orientalism behind the endless denunciation of oil sheikhs buying “our” culture. 


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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.