The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Asides
Lindsey Hilsum on Marie Colvin

Lovely piece by Lindsey Hilsum for the Financial Times, who has written a biography of the journalist Marie Colvin, recently immortalized on film, that does not hide her personal turmoil:

I wrote at length about Marie’s problems with alcohol. Although she was professionally successful, had a supportive network of close friends and a life she enjoyed in London, she was often unhappy and at times despairing. Her last boyfriend, Richard Flaye, told me that sometimes when he stroked her, he would feel tiny, sharp pieces of shrapnel accumulated over a lifetime working their way out of her skin. It was as if her body was trying to rid itself of all the horror she had experienced.

That, then, is the danger of the myth of Marie. What bothers me is not that she went too far to get the story but that she was careless with herself, both her body and her mind. Her story is not just exemplary, but also cautionary. These days, editors are far more aware of the dangers of PTSD, but young journalists, often freelance, determined to make their name, may still underestimate the toll the life may take on them. Not all war correspondents are traumatised or injured, but many find it hard to maintain stable relationships. Marie’s private life was a war zone, just like the conflicts she covered — there was nothing glamorous about her suffering.

Amro Ali on Arab Berlin

Amro Ali, writing on his blog (and originally in al-Sharq):

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings and its innumerable tragic outcomes, Berlin was strategically and politically ripe to emerge as an exile capital. For some time now, there has been a growing and conscious Arab intellectual community, the political dimensions of which to fully crystalize is what I wish to further explore.

When the storm of history breaks out a tectonic political crisis, from revolutions to wars to outright persecution, then a designated city will consequently serve as the gravitational center and refuge for intellectual exiles. This is, for example, what New York was for post-1930s Jewish intellectuals fleeing Europe, and what Paris became for Latin American intellectuals fleeing their country’s dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

Against those historical precedents, the Arab intellectual community in Berlin needs to understand itself better, moving away from an auto-pilot arrangement, and become actively engaged with political questions that face it. In effect, there is a dire necessity for this community to acquire a name, shape, form and a mandate of sorts. With a vigorous eye to a possible long-term outcome, this may include a school of thought, a political philosophy or even an ideational movement – all cross-fertilized through a deeper engagement with the Arab world.

This is certainly not about beckoning revolutions and uprisings, nor to relapse into the stale talk of institutional reforms. If anything, there needs to be a move away from these tired tropes of transformation – away from quantifiable power dynamics that do not address matters that go deeper, into the existential level that shores up the transnational Arab sphere. This is the very area where the stream of human life animates a language of awareness and the recurring initiative helps to expand the spaces of dignity for fellow beings. Yet, this area is currently ravaged in a torrent of moral misery and spiritual crisis.

Having travelled to Berlin multiple times in the last few years, and knowing quite a few Arab exiles there and the wider German community that often hosts them – think-tanks, stiftungs, universities, etc. – I am struck by the emergence of the city as a genuine hub for quite varied Arab intellectual activity and political activism. For Egyptians in particular (Amro is Egyptian), it has been a sometimes difficult host: the Egyptian embassy is unusually active in following the diaspora community, sending its goons to disrupt gatherings, defend the Sisi regime at conferences, and I’ve heard reports of harassment of certain activists there.

Angela Merkel’s government has been usually craven (for Germany, that is, which unlike say France or Italy has tended to defend human rights more consistently in the past and have fewer economic interests in the Arab world) in pandering to the Sisi regime, staging state visits and at the EU level refraining from much criticism. Part of this is driven early bets Sisi made on German business, including very lucrative contracts for Siemens and for the German defense industry, but also by Merkel’s need to watch her right flank after her (admirable) intake of mostly Syrian migrants in 2015: she has sought to present Egypt as a partner in countering migration flows across the Mediterranean, although one might be skeptical about Egypt’s minor role in the migration crisis of the last few years and its ability to contribute.

But it has been welcoming to a wide array of people escaping their home countries, and Berlin has become a hub of sorts: as Amro argues, it is less politically tendentious, easier to access, and cheaper than other major Western cities with large pre-2011 Arab communities. It also more diverse and is a city that has, due to its peculiar history and relatively cheap rents, been welcoming to artists, students and bohemian life more generally. Amro’s essay is as much about the particular of appeal of Berlin as a city, rather than Germany, as it is about the condition of Arab exiles in the ongoing current great Arab exodus (perhaps not seen as region-wide as it is today since the 1970s) . An interesting essay that meanders through the history of the city, the status of exile, and the role of intellectuals in political activism; well worth reading.

Levy on 25 years of Oslo

Daniel Levy – who was involved in Oslo negotiations on the Israeli side in the late 1990s the 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, in Foreign Policy:

What is presented today as the peace process is in fact little more than a tag-team bullying effort by the powerful parties—Israel and the United States—against the stateless Palestinians.

He adds:

Yet the alternative path still exists. It harks back to the simple and universal formula of demonstrating to the powerful and inflexible party—Israel—that the occupation and the new realities that have been created (settlements, displacement, closures, discrimination) will not continue to be cost-free.

That will require the kind of popular and nonviolent mobilization in Palestinian society that has proved largely elusive for the last quarter century, alongside some combination of externally imposed sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and legal accountability—all of which Israel has invested heavily in averting.

Only when Palestinians regain some leverage as they did during the First Intifada will Israel begin to rediscover the need to seek common ground and what it means to think in terms of win-win scenarios rather than zero-sum equations.

Buttu on negotiating with Israel

Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the PLO since the Oslo years, in Haaretz:

I am often asked why the negotiations process failed. It is easy to point to the rise of right-wing Israeli governments, poor leadership or weak or uninterested U.S. presidents. But the real reason for failure lie beyond these factors.

It is because the parties should not have started negotiating in the first place. To demand that Palestinians - living under Israeli military rule - negotiate with their occupier and oppressor is akin to demanding that a hostage negotiate with their hostage taker. It is repugnant that the world demands that Palestinians negotiate their freedom, while Israel continues to steal Palestinian land. Instead, Israel should have faced sanctions for continuing to deny Palestinians their freedom while building illegal settlements.

Must-read: Nathan Thrall on BDS

Wonderful long read in the Guardian by Nathan Thrall – a really good exploration of how BDS emerged and how Israel and its supporters are seeking to counter it, including in ways that are deeply dangerous to freedom of speech. Here's a sample but set aside some time to read the whole thing:

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has outsourced much of its anti-BDS activity in foreign countries, helping to establish and finance front groups and partner organisations, in an attempt to minimise the appearance of Israeli interference in the domestic politics of its allies in Europe and the US. Kuper said that anti-BDS groups were now “sprouting like mushrooms after the rain”. He and a number of other former intelligence and security officials are members of one of them, Kella Shlomo, described as a “PR commando unit” that will work with and receive tens of millions of dollars from the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. In 2016, Israel’s embassy in London sent a cable to Jerusalem complaining that the strategic affairs ministry was endangering British Jewish organisations, most of which are registered as charities and forbidden from political activity: “‘operating’ Jewish organisations directly from Jerusalem … is liable to be dangerous” and “could encounter opposition from the organisations themselves, given their legal status; Britain isn’t the US!” Last year, al-Jazeera aired undercover recordings of an Israeli official working out of the London embassy, who described being asked by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs to help establish a “private company” in the UK that would work for the Israeli government and in liaison with pro-Israel groups like Aipac.

To Israeli liberals, the gravest threat from BDS is that it has induced in their government a reaction so reckless and overreaching that it resembles a sort of auto-immune disease, in which the battle against BDS also damages the rights of ordinary citizens and the organs of democracy. Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs has utilised the intelligence services to surveil and attack delegitimisers of Israel. It called to establish a blacklist of Israeli organisations and citizens who support the nonviolent boycott campaign, created a “tarnishing unit” to besmirch the reputations of boycott supporters, and placed paid articles in the Israeli press. Leftwing Israeli Jews have been summoned for interrogation or stopped at the border by agents of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, who described themselves as officers working against delegitimisation. Israel has banned 20 organisations from entry for their political opinions, including the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that won a Nobel peace prize for helping Holocaust refugees and that now supports self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians while also endorsing BDS.

Last year, the Israeli intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, called publicly for “targeted civil assassinations” of activists such as the BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, a permanent resident of Israel. Barghouti was also threatened by Israel’s minister of public security and strategic affairs: “Soon any activist who uses their influence to delegitimise the only Jewish state in the world will know they will pay a price for it … We will soon be hearing more of our friend Barghouti.” Not long after, Barghouti was prevented from exiting the country, and last year Israeli authorities searched his home and arrested him for tax evasion.

Amjad Iraqi on anti-BDS legislation

This is an outrageous attack on freedom of speech and political organization:

Late last month, the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee approved the latest version of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which is now one step closer to becoming law. The bill was introduced to Congress in March 2017, with the aim of prohibiting American companies from assisting international governmental organisations with boycotts against Israel. These organisations include the UN, whose high commissioner for human rights was tasked two years ago with drawing up a database of companies doing business in the illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and the EU, whose trade regulations discourage business with settlements but fall short of prohibiting it. Even an individual in the US who supplies information about infringing companies to these bodies could be liable to a civil fine of up to $250,000, or a criminal penalty of up to $1 million. The original version of the bill, which was amended after considerable pressure from civil society groups, would also have imposed prison sentences of up to twenty years.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which enjoys the support of more than half the members of both chambers of Congress, is part of a wave of US legislation aiming to counter the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Twenty-five state legislatures have enacted some form of anti-BDS law, with more bills being considered in all fifty states and at the federal level. State governors are currently considering whether or not to issue executive orders that prohibit state agencies from entering into contracts with companies and institutions – including universities, which led the way during the anti-apartheid boycott in the 1980s – that are involved in boycotts of Israel. Maryland, Louisiana, Wisconsin and New York have already issued such orders. After signing his, in June 2016, Andrew Cuomo declared in the Washington Post: ‘If you boycott Israel, New York will boycott you.’ It isn’t just that those who participate in or help enable boycotts are boycotted themselves, or criminalised; people with no connection to activism are also caught up in ludicrously punitive interpretations of the law. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last year, residents in the city of Dickinson had to declare – as a condition for receiving relief grants – that they did not or would not boycott Israel.

AsidesThe Editorsbds
The unbelievable gall of Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy, who is currently on trial (among many corruption charges) because he may have used Gulf (Qatari) or Libyan money to finance his electoral campaign, embarked his country on ill-thought out foreign adventures (Libya) and is the architect of a policy of mainstreaming far-right populist memes for his party's electoral purposes, said this:

The axis of power is shifting from West to East as visionary leadership is surpassing democratic governance as key to stability and prosperity, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy told the Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend forum.

Mr Sarkozy was the final speaker to address the forum hosted by Tamkeen and The Aspen Institute at New York University Abu Dhabi, touching on themes of globalisation, leadership and Brexit.

“Where you see a great leader, there is no populism,” said Mr Sarkozy, who was president of France from 2007 to 2012. “Where is the populism in China? Where is the populism here? Where is the populism in Russia? Where is the populism in Saudi Arabia? If the great leadership leaves the table, the populist leaders come and replace him.”

Modern democracy “destroys” leaderships, he said, noting some of the world’s greatest leaders today come largely from undemocratic governments.

“How could we have a democracy and at the same time accept leadership?” Mr Sarkozy asked the audience. “How can we have a vision that could look into 10, 15, 20 years and at the same time have an election rhythm in the States, for instance, every four years? The great leaders of the world come from countries that are not great democracies.”

And he does this in a country that is almost entirely dependent on Western (and incidentally, democratic) military backing for its own regime security, including defending the "vision" of its leaders.

Robert Caro handwrites to slow down

Claudia Dreyfus interviews Robert Caro, the author of the monumental biography of LBJ, for NYRB - I found this bit fascinating:

Is it true that you write your books by hand?

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don’t believe this about me: I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

Later, in the early 1960s when I was at Newsday, my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting The Power Broker, I realized I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. I said, “You have to slow yourself down.” That’s when I remembered Blackmur’s admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down.

Nasser at 100

Maged Atiya on Nasser's legacy:

If great theater is catharsis for the audience, then Nasser provided a partial version for all the Egyptians, regardless of how they felt about him. This giant shadow forces a question: Does today’s Egypt represent Nasser’s success or his failure? An answer is difficult to come forth because the relationship between the man and his nation is fundamentally that of betrayal. Nasser’s errors betrayed the unreserved trust Egyptians placed in him. Similarly, Egyptians failed to rise to Nasser’s exhortation of their innate greatness, most of all by failing to hold him to account and to limit his power and hence the consequent damage of his errors. Nasser longed to be a great hero and he needed a great people to lead, while the Egyptians hoped for national greatness and signed up with the man who promised it. This is hardly a unique arrangement in the history of nations, and on many occasions such arrangements either work well or fail disastrously and thus force a reckoning and subsequent improvements. In Egypt’s case neither happened. Nasser’s project of national greatness was too farcical to be a tragedy and too grim to be a comedy. The drama he put forth provided no resolution, only an abrupt end. Nasser’s catharsis was incomplete, failing the Emile Durkheim final stages of integration and renewal of self-confidence and internal strength.

Five decades after the actor left the stage the theater lights have come on. The audience members stare at their neighbors scarcely able to discern what relations they might have with each other and what might have brought them together in the first place. They stare blankly at the empty stage and try to decide if this is merely an intermission or if the performance is truly over, in which case they should rush the doors and explore the freedom and chaos of the world outside them.

Nasser is responsible for his (many) failures, but Egyptians bear a collective responsibility for the failure to get out from under his long shadow. That they have willingly surrendered to a wannabe Nasser like Sisi since 2013, almost grateful to be relieved of any responsibility (beyond wanting to be saved from uncertainty or the Muslim Brotherhood), is part of that failure. And that many have not is what gives one hope.

What makes for good writing

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, commenting on Ulysses Grant's memoirs, on what makes for good writing:

The essence of all good writing is clarity. Style seems like a separate attribute of good writing. But it’s not. Style is really just a byproduct of clarity and concision. It is the personality or other uniqueness of the writer coming through on the page because they write clearly.

So how does one write clearly? The writing is the easier part of it. Once you know precisely what you mean to say, writing it is usually straightforward if not always easy. At least 90% of poor writing stems from the writer not knowing exactly what it is they mean to say. We’re all lazy like this. Half-formed thoughts pop into our heads and we push them out as words that have some relation to the hazy ideas and feelings in our minds. This may do in talking to your coworker or spouse about simple topics over the course of the day. The points are simple. In speaking we have physical cues and intonation. If you’re not clear the first time you can try again.

Writing is different. If you are writing it down the ideas must be significant or else you wouldn’t be writing them down. You only have one shot to make your meaning clear. There is no follow-on interaction to fill in the gaps. Often what you mean to say is still more a feeling than a thought or a not fully worked through set of ideas and connections between them. Jargon and vaguenesses are added to the mix to cover spots in the writer’s thinking that aren’t clear in their own head. Or they paper over things the writer means but is not ready to say.

Take a wordy or clumsy sentence you may write. Examine it and you will almost always see that it is wordy or clumsy because the idea is unclear in your head. Fuzzy parts of your thinking, connections that don’t fully bear out or don’t connect in a clear way end up on the page in fuzzy or vague groupings of words. If you work at the idea in your head long enough that you know exactly what it is, precisely how one idea or action connects to the idea or actions that came before and after it, the language can be direct, brisk and clear. It all but writes itself … once you know precisely what you mean to say. Absent that clarity it never can because the language you use to express your ideas can never be clearer than the ideas or thoughts as they exist in your mind. Work over the ideas, how each connects to each other, the order and progression that connects them and the words will, largely, take care of themselves.

Clarity is simply taking the meaning in the writer’s head and conveying it as clearly as possible in words. This kind of directness is the power and force driving Grant’s Memoirs.

This is the point that every good editor I've had and every writing guide I've read comes back to.

“a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic”

Eric Hobsbawn, writing about leadership in the LRB, in 1991:

A rapid glance at the history of the USA also suggests scepticism about the impact of individual leaders. That great country has, by general consent, probably elected to its Presidency – the post of chief executive and (as we have been reminded recently) commander-in-chief – a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic. It has indeed evolved a political system that makes it almost impossible to elect to the Presidency persons of visible ability and distinction, except by accident and, just possibly, at moments of national crisis. More than this, in the USA Presidents have quite frequently had to be replaced at short notice, whether because of assassination or malfeasance or for other reasons, by Vice-Presidents, who have usually been chosen for every reason other than their leadership potential. And yet the great US ship of state has sailed on as though it made very little difference that the man on the bridge was Andrew Johnson and not Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and not McKinley, Mrs Wilson and not Woodrow Wilson, Truman and not Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and not Kennedy, Ford and not Nixon, or even that there was nobody in the White House at all – as under Reagan.

Sisi's "non-regime"

Already over a year ago Hisham Hellyer has described Sisi's Egypt as a "non-regime". Ashraf Sherif uses the same term in this POMED interview [PDF], describing an increasingly dire situation:

You have written that al-Sisi’s regime is a “non-regime.” What do you mean?

Under Mubarak, the state was corrupt and vastly inefficient, but it was more predictable. It had a coherent decision-making process and some degree of order to its public policies.

By contrast, the system over which al-Sisi presides is too chaotic to qualify as a modern authoritarian regime. It is a complicated structure of competing patrimonial, self-centered, and oligarchic Mafia-type institutions that act more like the gated fiefdoms of the Mamluk age than modern state bodies. Their incompetence and inefficiency is matched only by the viciousness of their conspiracy-mongering discourse.

Sherif doesn't hold back on other political actors, from Islamists to leftists and liberals, either. And the conclusion is bleak. Worth reading.

Is the State Dept. losing patience with KSA/UAE over Qatar?

There was a statement yesterday by the spokesperson of the State Department, Heather Nauert, whose language and tone seemed to be shifting blame/responsibility for the continuing Qatar crisis on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. See the video below at 01:00.

Transcript here:

Since the embargo was first enforced on June the fifth, the Secretary has had more than twenty phone calls and meetings with Gulf and other regional and international actors. The interactions have included three phone calls and two in-person meetings with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, three phone calls with the Foreign Minister of Qatar, and three calls with the Qatari Emir. Numerous other calls have taken place with the leaders of UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and others.

**Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf States have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

At this point we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long, simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?**

The Secretary is determined to remain engaged as we monitor the situation. He has been delivering the same message to other diplomats overseas. We are encouraging all sides to deescalate tensions and engage in constructive dialogue.

We once again call on all parties to focus on the core, regional and international goal of fighting terrorism, to meet the commitments that were made in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and to constructively resolve this dispute.

Sara Roy on Gaza

In the LRB:

Need is everywhere. But what is new is the sense of desperation, which can be felt in the boundaries people are now willing to cross, boundaries that were once inviolate. One day a well-appointed woman, her face fully covered by a niqab, arrived at the hotel where I was staying to beg. When asked politely to leave by the hotel staff, she aggressively refused and insisted on staying, obliging the hotel staff to escort her off the property with force. She wasn’t asking to beg but demanding to. I had never seen this before in Gaza. Another day a teenage boy came to our table quietly pleading for money for his family. By the time I got out my wallet, the staff had approached and gently ushered him out. He didn’t resist. He was educated and well-dressed and I kept thinking he should have been at home studying for an exam or out with his friends by the sea. Instead he was asked to leave the hotel and never return.

Perhaps the most alarming indicator of people’s desperation is the growth of prostitution – this in a traditional and conservative society. Although prostitution has always been present to a small degree in Gaza, it was always considered immoral and shameful, bringing serious social consequences for the woman and her family. As family resources disappear, this appears to be changing. A well-known and highly respected professional told me that women, many of them well-dressed, have come to his office soliciting him and ‘not for a lot of money’. (He also told me that because of the rise of prostitution, it has become harder for girls to get married – ‘no one knows who is pure.’ Families plead with him to provide a ‘safe and decent space’ for their daughters by employing them in his office.) Another friend told me that he had seen a young woman in a restaurant trying to solicit a man while her parents were sitting at a nearby table. When I asked him how he explained such incomprehensible behaviour he said: ‘People living in a normal environment behave in normal ways; people living in an abnormal environment do not.’

And this is something that is backed, made possible, even celebrated by not only Israel, but also every member of the Middle East Quartet and their Arab allies in the Gulf and elsewhere. What it reminds one of are the sanctions the UN Security Council imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, paving the way for the destruction of society and abberations we see today.