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.
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.
- How to rescue Egypt - The Washington Post
Amr Hamzawy and Michael McFaul
- Saudi Arabia and UAE rethink their relationship with Egypt
- More Is Needed to Beat ISIS, Pentagon Officials Conclude - NYT
Capt. Obvious just promoted at Pentagon.
- Did the Arab uprising destroy the Muslim Brotherhood? - The Washington Post
Another good piece by Steven Brooke.
- Contrary to popular opinion, Egypt’s transition wasn’t always doomed to fail - The Washington Post
Very much agree with Michael Hanna here.
- [TIMELINE] Morocco: Political Repression in the Era of Social Media · Global Voices
- China’s Stance on East Jerusalem | MERIP
Interesting background on China's Arab policy.
- Vice Asked Refugees in Denmark to Show Their Most Valuable Possessions
Shame on Denmark
- The Future of the Arab
Ursula on the graphic novels of Riad Sattouf
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.
In addition to this week's In Translation article, today has been the day of "five five years since..." articles. Here's a few out today:
- Five Years Since Tahrir Square: Egypt's Revolution Behind Bars - The Atlantic
- Egypt Adrift Five Years After The Uprising (PDF)
- Unmet Needs, Tenuous Stability - The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy
- The Egyptian revolution: What went wrong? - Al Jazeera English
- “This Land is their Land”: Egypt’s Military and the Economy
(If you're wondering why the title, it's a reference to Private Eye's Colemanballs.)
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.Read More
Post-holiday link dump:
- The Obama Administration & the Middle East: An Insider's View
Colin Kahl interviewed in the War on the Rocks podcast
- Immigrés, souvent clandestins, les invisibles d’Algérie
Photo essay on sub-Saharans in Algeria
- Des vies de migrants en Algérie (1/7) : arriver
First part of series on sub-Saharans in Algeria
- A Tumultuous Housing Program in Algeria - The New York Times
Telling of state-society dysfunction.
- Deciphering Algeria: the stirrings of reform? | ECFR
A counterpoint to prevalent doom and gloom on Algeria
- Jeremy Harding reviews ‘Who is Charlie’ by Emmanuel Todd · LRB
- In Syrian Town Cut Off From the World, Glimpses of Deprivation - The New York Times
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.Read More
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.
(For fans and non-fans alike, I heartily recommend Simon Critchley's wonderful essay, Bowie.)
Slim pickings this month, but here it is anyway:
- Fatema Mernissi, a Founder of Islamic Feminism, Dies at 75 - The New York Times
- Death Toll From Hajj Stampede Reaches 2,411 in New Estimate - The New York Times
And a blackout on it in Saudi.
- A New Moroccan University Press Aims to “Open Windows in People’s Minds”
Ursula Lindsey on a great collection of interviews with Moroccan intellectuals
- Negotiate With ISIS - The Atlantic
- By Jonathan Powell (who negotiated the Good Friday accords)
- Inside Raqqa: voices from the terrified city — FT
Scared of airstrikes more than IS.
- Muslim Brotherhood books pulled out of Saudi schools | GulfNews
- With US help, Saudi Arabia is obliterating Yemen | GlobalPost
Great long piece of reporting by Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
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.