The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Reviews
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. 


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. 

 

Book review: The Iraqi Christ

A few months ago I finally got around to reading a short story collection by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. I was impressed by the wit, originality and punch of his writing, their well-balanced mix of very dark humor, brutality and pathos. 

Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, ‘set up after the fall of the dictator’, to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are ‘stranger, crueller and more crazy’ than everyone else’s. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may ‘turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’.
Blasim’s book was published in 2013, when Iraq had already suffered a decade of violence after the US invasion. Since then, the country’s very existence has been called into question by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. How to hold the pieces of one’s identity and humanity together is, unsurprisingly, a major theme of contemporary Iraqi fiction.

You can read the whole review here

Charles Glass on the CIA's Arabists

Charles Glass reviews a new book on the history of the CIA's Arabists for the TLS:

In 1947, two American intelligence operatives, Miles Copeland and Archie Roosevelt, flew from Washington to the Levant together to take up posts in, respectively, Damascus and Beirut. Copeland described the pair at that time as "me a New Orleans jazz musician and Tennessee riverboat gambler, he a member in good standing of what passes for nobility in America". The two became friends and co-conspirators, who, together with Archie's cousin Kim Roosevelt, did more to mould the modern Middle East than the so-called policy-makers in Washington. Hugh Wilford tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency' s three musketeers in this absorbing account of romantics enchanted by Kiplingesque myths and the Lawrence of Arabia legend, who cynically harboured the self-contradictory ambition of democratizing the Arab world and Iran while arrogating all decisions to themselves.

. . .

When Copeland arrived in Damascus in 1947, Syria had an elected parliament and prime minister under a democratic constitution similar to that of the Third Republic in France. It did not take Copeland long to strike up a friendship with the Syrian Army's chief of staff, the Kurdish Colonel Husni Zaim, and turn his thoughts to politics at a time when the civilian government was delaying a treaty to permit an American oil pipeline through its territory from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Lebanon. Roosevelt had been cultivating what he called the "young effendis" and Copeland the "right kind of leaders" to drag the Arab world away from Britain and France and into the American century. Zaim seemed perfect. As Wilford writes, he told Copeland that there was "only one way to start the Syrian people along the road to progress and democracy", pausing to slash at his desk with a riding crop, "with the whip".

Worth a read. This story has been told many times, and in this book from Glass' description it is told through the lens of CIA operatives being pro-democracy romantics. Dubious proposition to say the least...

The misgovernment of Iraq

In April, Iraqi lawyer Zaid Al-Ali wrote a remarkably prophetic article arguing that Nouri al-Maliki, who had convinced many Iraqi voters in the just-concluded elections that he was a strong man, was actually presiding over a rapidly weakening state. The armed forces were a "paper tiger," he argued, sapped by corruption and politicization and unwilling to fight. Six weeks later the Islamic State struck and proved Al-Ali right, as Maliki's forces in the north melted away.

The full details of just how badly Maliki governed Iraq can be found in Al-Ali's book, The Struggle for Iraq's Future, an account of misrule in the country since 2003. One particularly cutting anecdote, in which Maliki kept in use a demonstrably fraudulent bomb detector, apparently to save face, at the cost of hundreds of lives, is excerpted on The Arabist here. Read in light of the fall of Mosul, the accounts dramatize how the same instincts that propel a political leader to extend control over all the institutions of state leave those very institutions fragile, led by opportunists and functionaries. That a ruthless leader does not make for a strong state is a lesson that the Arab world should have had ample opportunity to learn, yet many here still keep falling into the same trap.

Pressure is building on Maliki to go, with some even within his own party saying a new leader is needed. This will obviously not in itself roll back the Islamic State and its allies from its newly won conquests, but is probably a minimal prerequisite for building a more professional army and, more importantly, a signal to Sunnis that the new government won't repeat Maliki's vindictive policies against them.

But if Maliki is removed, the question of who will replace him, and whether they can forge a more effective army and a more effective state, will remain. For Al-Ali, Maliki is just part of a much larger problem - the political class, mostly exiles, that came to power in 2003-2005. Al-Ali goes looking for the original sin of Iraq's fragility in the hurried push to get an Iraqi government in place. When the Coalition first selected a governing council, he says, they opted primarily for exiles who imagined that Iraqis' sense of political identity was one-dimensional, determined entirely by their sect, and thus chose people who they imagined would be considered sectarian advocates: "The more extreme their position, the more likely that they would be seated at the head of the table." A second error was the rush to get a constitution approved by all the existing sectarian blocs, leaving it rife with loopholes that Maliki later exploited to stack ministries with loyalists, subordinate the military for his personal control, and, like other politicians, to buy votes with the expenditures of public funds. The occupation chose opportunists who cast themselves in sectarian terms, he argues, and the constitution neglected to take away the tricks they would need to maintain their hold on power.

Very few general historical overviews have been written on the Iraq war, and particularly not from an Iraqi perspective. Al-Ali was involved in the transition, and it's extremely valuable to have his insider view of what went wrong. Most of Al-Ali's observations ring true, and all of the reforms he recommends would probably be a step forward. But indicting opportunism, clientalist politics and the advantages of incumbency does not suggest a solution; what is really indicted is politics - dysfunctional and disheartening, but not uniquely to Iraq. Contemporary India, to take one example, has equally dismal horror stories of corruption, opportunism, playing with sectarian fire, and other forms of political misbehavior, yet still has held together as a democratic state. He's right that the 2005 constitution was a rush job: but Iraq in 2005 was already on the verge of a civil war, plagued with bombs and death squads, and given the mutual suspicion, it is remarkable that all the major factions agreed on any document at all.

By focusing on political dysfunction, Al-Ali seems eager to rescue Iraq from the charge of being haunted by eternal sectarian divisions. Much of what has been written about those divisions is a caricature, but Al-Ali sometimes takes his argument too far. Take for example that opening anecdote of Maliki and the fake bomb detectors: “a perfect illustration of how Iraqis' problems were caused not by religion or race, but by misgovernment." The failure to prevent bombs was deadly incompetence, but the bombs themselves were what killed people. They did not plant themselves, and it is hard to attribute them to misgovernment – the radicals who would later be the Islamic State started to plant them only four months into the occupation, when an Iraqi government even began, and almost immediately began hitting Shiite religious targets, not the occupiers. Car bombs are not unique to Iraq, but as far as I am aware, a decade-long offensive involving scores of bombs are year trying to kill as many civilians as possible is unprecedented in history, and it is the foundation of Iraq’s subsequent civil war. And it is difficult to maintain that this has nothing to do with “religion,” or at least with religious identity. Although most people in Sunni communities did not support the bombs, they were willing to turn enough of a blind eye to them to welcome the radicals as potential allies against the Americans and later, against the Shia-led government.

Al-Ali is right to point out that Iraq’s record of sectarian bloodletting is comparatively recent, that most people react with horror to the idea of dividing the country along sectarian lines, and that there are plenty of instances of cross-sectarian solidarity. But the country he describes – a population wanting to rise above the sectarian identity imposed on them by their leaders – is not the country I recognize from my years in Iraq. My young Shia friends, mostly secularists with many Sunni friends, were eager for "our chance" to rule the country, even if that meant voting for reactionary clerics. Sunnis, although they were friends with Shia, often found Shiite clergy and religious rituals to be horrifying and alien, almost a form of penetration by archenemy Iran. A country cannot emerge from decades of dictatorship without deep polarization, particularly not when you’re emerging into the uncertainty of the power vacuum brought by foreign invasion. The Iran-Iraq war in particular left deep wounds - many Shia had experienced persecution on account of religious or family ties with Iran, whereas many Sunnis still considered Iran an existential foe. Both Sunni and Shia may have in theory felt a sense of kinship with ordinary citizens from the other sect, but they felt threatened by leaders they considered to be “Iranians” vs “Baathists” or “Wahhabis.” Yet often enough they turned to their equally sectarian leaders, largely because they felt they would be the most likely to defend their interests.

Al-Ali has written in the Washington Post that the current crisis requires a “new idea” that must “break out of the ethno-sectarian paradigm.” He suggests appointing ministers outside the “current crop of corrupt political elites who have been running the country into the ground since 2005.” It is unquestionable the Islamic State is rolled back, Iraq cannot return to the status quo before the fall of Mosul, reinserting Baghdad's incompetent and brutal security forces back into the communities from which they were routed. A new political arrangement, either informal or formalized through an amended constitution, will need to be agreed upon.

But we cannot simply cannot wish into place a leadership that is infused with civic spirit. Iraq has a parliament, elected only two months ago. These politicians – many of whom are from the old sectarian elites – cannot be simply told to go home. They are currently scrambling to form a government that may or may not include Maliki, perhaps as early as Tuesday. While it may be an improvement on past Cabinets, it is difficult to imagine that they will put aside the instincts of a lifetime and stock it with competent technocrats.

It may be that the Islamic State's onslaught is the shock that transforms Iraq's political culture. But, just as much as new blood in government, what is needed are safeguards that prevent these politicians from considering each other to be threats, to prevent whichever bloc holds power in Baghdad from using the security forces and judiciary to target other groups. Such safeguards may well involve extending federalism to Sunni areas. This need not be seen as a reinforcement of the principal that Iraq's sectarian groups were destined to live apart, rather an acknowledgement that sometimes history causes rifts that, once they've emerged, take on lives of their own.

Cairo 2050, Desert Fantasia
Freddy Deknatel reviews David Sims' Understanding Cairo in the LARB:
This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”

Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”
Great review of a great book.
Review of ElBaradei's "The Age of Deception"

I must have been traveling when it came out, but I have a  review of Mohammed ElBaradei's new book, The Age of Deception, out in The National. The book is entirely about his time at the IAEA, so don't look for commentary on Egyptian politics here, but it does tell us about the man's character. That character has undergone several waves of assassination, from the propaganda of the Mubarak-controlled press in 2010 to those who see ElBaradei as some kind of Trojan horse for secularism post-revolution. Consider the lawyer who is currently trying to strip him of his Egyptian nationality (alongside Gamal Mubarak):

Meanwhile the lawsuit accuses ElBaradei of turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear weapons during his term as IAEA director. “ElBaradei had a stake in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which makes him unworthy of carrying Egyptian nationality”, it said.

ElBaradei's book is not the most riveting read — at the end of the day, it's a company man's diary — but it certainly puts to rest any notion that ElBaradei did not try to prevent (within his abilities as IAEA chief) the invasion of Iraq and the sexing up of its WMD dossier, or try to broker a negotiated outcome to the Iranian nuclear issue. From the review:

"Early on, I often got the feeling that the Arab world - and many westerners - expected me, as an Egyptian Arab and a Muslim, to show bias in favour of Iraq. Of course, I also heard that I was being tough on Iraq to prove my lack of bias. My only bias was that of an international civil servant: an insistence on independence, professionalism and treating all parties with equal respect."
Although ElBaradei's views are fairly well known among those who followed the last decade of nuclear diplomacy, he reiterates them in this book lest there be any doubt. He was adamantly opposed to the invasion of Iraq even as the agency came under extreme pressure to find evidence of a non-existent nuclear programme. He could not intervene on the matter of Israel's nuclear arsenal because it is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, although he raised the issue nonetheless. On Iran, he felt that Tehran was ready to negotiate on its nuclear programme in exchange for economic and political concessions from the West, but that mistrust reigned and the domestic politics of Iran and the United States perpetually vexed a resolution.
In one particularly memorable incident, shortly before he meets the president, George W Bush, Cheney informs him matter-of-factly that if he doesn't lean towards the US position on Iraq, the administration will personally discredit him in the media. Bush comes across as affable but not particularly sharp - in meetings, they talk about baseball. At a later point, ElBaradei states his belief that the former president and his administration should face charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Court and is criminally responsibly for manipulating the WMD dossier to provide a pretext for the war.
Read the rest here.

 

Review: The Black Nile

My review of Dan Morrison's The Black Nile came out a few days ago in The National. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn about South Sudan in particular, it's wonderfully written and provides some insight most of us rarely hear about and will never get to. It's also a lot of fun.

Update: Speaking of the Nile, Jeffrey Fleischman of the LAT has a nice piece looking at the debate over the river's use from two places, Egypt and Ethiopia. We're familiar with the Egyptian alarmism over the Nile, so here's an excerpt that looks at what dam projects are bringing to the Ethiopians:

Ethiopia's new Tana-Beles hydroelectric plant on the banks of Lake Tana was built without Egypt's approval. But Meles has insisted that his country, where blackouts are common and half the children younger than 5 are malnourished, will build whatever it pleases along the river and tributaries. His government has enticed investors to the newly irrigated farmland with dirt-cheap leases.

That's what drew Addis Belay, a wealthy businessman from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, who leased 1,060 acres irrigated by the Tana-Beles project. This spring he planted his first crop of rice, sesame seeds, soy and corn, food he hopes one day to export to neighboring Sudan. Belay's stone-crushing factory in Addis Ababa is also profiting from cheaper electricity generated by the new $520-million hydroelectric plant.

Belay's sister-in-law, Liyou Feleke, said Egypt has profited from the Nile while Ethiopia has languished in poverty. In 2008 the per capita gross national income in Egypt was $1,800, according to the World Bank. In Ethiopia it was just $280.

"The Egyptians have been using it for generations," she said. "The Ethiopians, we have never used a bit. But it's time."

A good argument for getting away from the zero-sum view publicly favored by Egypt.

ReviewsIssandr El AmraniBooks
Garbage Dreams

Last night, Ursula and I went to see Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander's documentary about Cairo's trash collectors (and recyclers), the Zabbaleen. I had wanted to see this movie for months, but it was impossible to obtain on DVD, there were no screenings in Cairo and no one had put it up online — even though it won over 22 awards and, judging from the overflow crowd at Darb 1718, the great cultural center in Old Cairo where it was being shown outdoors in stifling weather, there is much demand for it.

Garbage Dreams follows the lives of a few boys from Mokattam, the hill East of Cairo near which many of Cairo's 60,000 Zabbaleen live and work handling the city's prodigious garbage output. The story of the Zabbaleen is a familiar one, so I'll just briefly repeat here for those who won't know it: they are a mostly Coptic Christian community of dispossessed peasants from Upper Egypt who settled in Cairo in the late nineteenth century and, as a community, became the trash collectors for about 60% of the city. Originally, contracts for trash collection were actually controlled by Bedouins who subcontracted the work to the Zabbaleen. In recent years, not only have they continued to collect trash, but they have also made additional cash from recycling what they collect, impressively reusing about 80% of the trash after sorting it. They live in filthy conditions, amidst their work, but with dignity and, until recently, regular income.

In recent years, the government began contracting foreign companies to use modern trash collection methods. These take Cairo's garbage to landfills and recycle much less of it — only 20% according to the film. This has eaten into the income of the Zabbaleen and is threatening their community, even if some of the workers for the company have been recruited from it. This is an interesting story, but unfortunately Iskander does not tackle it with sufficient diligence: we are given plenty of the Zabbaleen's side of things, but no explanation from the government or the companies about their strategy (which, I'm fairly sure, would have been even more incriminating — the ridiculousness of needing foreign expertise for trash collection is pretty self-evident.)

But perhaps this doesn't matter that much. The heart of the story are the lives of Adham, Nabil and Osama in the context of this threat to the community. They give poignant testimony about their awareness that they are at the bottom of the social ladder, there desire for both mundane and grandiose improvements to their lives, their attachment to their community and pride in its essential work. There are some pretty hilarious scenes, too, such as when the boys are taken to Wales in a NGO-funded trip to look at recycling methods in Europe. In their almost cruel exposure to a clean, green and prosperous Wales (hardly the reputation the country has, say, in London) they see ideas to take back home, but also great waste — there's a great scene in which Nabil lectures the operators of recycling center that they need to be more thorough about separation — essentially by doing the type of manual sorting done in Cairo that is simply impossible under European labor and safety regulations. "Here they have technology, but they don't have precision," he finally scoffs.

The greatest laugh of all for the Cairene audience came when one boy turns to the other at a road crossing, and says with wonder: "Did you see that car? It stopped to let people cross!" That is one other meditation on why Cairo came to be such a badly run city, saved from the total chaos by the hard work and good humor of its underclass.

You can now get the DVD on the film's site or soon on Amazon — highly recommended.

 

Review: A Mosque in Munich

 

My review of Ian Johnson's recent book A Mosque in Munich is out in The National's Review. I enjoyed the book's multi-tiered history, notably its starting point among Central Asian Muslims who joined Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union and the background of some of the characters who would later dominate the Munich Islamic Center who were closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include Said Ramadan, father of Tariq, and the famous MB financier Youssef Nada (who we learn has an amusing obsession with processed cheese, which he exported from Europe to Libya in the 1970s with the winning argument that it was less messy than oily canned tuna and thus idea to help students keep their textbooks clean.)

For these reasons alone it's worth a read, which is why it's disappointing that Johnson's view of Islamism is rather skewed and appears chiefly informed by right-wing sources, which cause him to over-emphasize the "Islamofascist" view of things. Here's the last part of my review:

As interesting as this all is, a major flaw of A Mosque in Munich lies in its superficial treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism in general. The ideological convergence between the Nazis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is overstated, notably in their hostility to Jews. It is true that Nazi anti-Semitism found a willing audience among the Brothers and that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s played an important role in disseminating European anti-Semitism in Egypt. But the Brothers were not the only group that lent a willing ear; one of their rivals at the time was the Misr al-Fatah (Young Egypt) group, which like fascist sympathisers in Europe and the Americas found much to admire in Hitler’s movement. The Brothers’ anti-Semitism certainly existed, but it was hardly the group’s top ideological priority, alongside anti-colonialism, as Johnson suggests: surely their project for a Muslim renewal came before that.

There is a similar lack of nuance in Johnson’s understanding of Islamism – which he defines early on as “not the ancient religion of Islam but a highly politicised and violent system of ideas that creates the milieu for terrorism.” Just as Central Asian refugees’ nationalism embraced Islam as a cultural marker of identity, groups like the Muslim Brothers have been marked as much by nationalism as much as theology. Furthermore, they have not been intellectually static, having for instance abandoned founder Hassan al-Banna’s rejection of partisan life and embraced electoral, rather than vanguard, politics. To paint the Brotherhood merely as a precursor of al Qa’eda, an argument usually made by those with an ideological axe to grind, is profoundly misleading, no matter how unpleasant some of its views may be.

One argument that runs through much of the book is a warning against Western engagement of Islamists, an idea popularised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as a way to recruit “moderate” Islamists against the nihilism of salafist jihadist groups like al Qa’eda. The Brothers have actually needed no such encouragement to have a public tiff with al Qa’eda’s Ayman Zawahri, who hates the Brothers as much he does the “Crusaders”. But if Johnson makes a good point in cautioning against paying undue attention to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe – where it is after all a vanguard group that is not necessarily representative of the European Muslim experience – he often does so for the wrong reason. A more compelling reason for governments and spies to steer clear of the manipulation of religious groups is that, as the West has learned at a great cost, it can so often backfire.

A question for Jeffrey Feltman

Not too long ago I wrote about Lee Smith's terrible book, The Strong Horse, which I noted is not just bad but actually hysterically racist in its essentialism. In the comments to the post, reader Lubnani alerted me that the Hudson Institute will be hosting the book's launch tomorrow. Guess who the guests are:

For over half a century, the United States has established itself as the Middle East's dominant "strong horse." Yet, with war raging in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the possibility of conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran — does America have the resolve and the resources to maintain its status?
 
Please join Hudson Visiting Fellow Lee Smith to discuss his new book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday). Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and Elliott Abrams, former Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy in the Bush administration, will offer commentary. Hudson Institute CEO Kenneth Weinstein will introduce the event. 

Now, I'm not surprised Abrams would endorse such a book by appearing at this event — it fits the bill perfectly. But how about a currently serving head of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs bureau? Does he share Lee Smith's opinion that:

To be sure, a significant part of the Middle East, including Osama Bin Laden, is expressly at war with the US.

Or:

September 11 is the day we woke up to find ourselves in the middle of a clash of Arab civilizations, a war that used American citizens as yet another venue for Arabs to fight each other.

Or:

The Arabs hate us not because of what we do or who we are but because of who we are not: Arabs.

Or:

[In the Middle East] Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringes, but represents the political and social norm.

Or:

Anti-Americanism is an Arab constant, the region's lingua franca, from Nasser to Nasrallah it has not changed in over 50 years.

These are all from Smith's book. Now here's the question:

Does Jeffrey Feltman feel these sentiments to be his own, or those of the administration he represents? Does he want his office to be associated with such spurious and incendiary material? 

I do not expect Feltman to only attend events for people or publications that he entirely agrees with. If he attends, I certainly hope he'll at least speak out on the matter. The topic of the conference — US power in the Middle East — is excellent; its title and promotional material most unfortunate.

Lee Smith's book on Arab culture
The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.jpeg


Much fun has been made in recent years of Weekly Standard Middle East correspondent (whose work has appeared in Slate, The Nation and elsewhere) Lee Smith's tagline that he is "writing a book on Arab culture." Well, that book is now out. I've read it, and it's horrible. I did not expect much from Lee Smith, whose articles repeated neocon bromides about the region and always put partisanship above analysis. But I had never expected a book so appallingly racist, disjointed, full of factual error and borderline psychotic.

Max Rodenbeck reviewed "The Strong Horse" for The National, his sentiments are mine:

For Lee Smith, none of this really counts. The Arabs, in his view, simply have the misfortune to be guided by something he identifies as the “strong horse principle”: an apparently unique, ancient system whereby one tribe, nation, or civilisation dominates the others by force, until it too is overthrown by force. The “strong horse”, he says, represents the fundamental character of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. This is a perennially violent, xenophobic place where, in his words: “Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe, but represents the social norm.”

[. . .]

Smith explains elsewhere that although Arabs constantly bicker, “Perhaps the more serious concern is that the Arabs will not fight each other, and choose instead to bind together… in order to focus their energies elsewhere, like against the United States, again.” That last word is what really gives pause. To what past event exactly is Smith referring? Might he mean that dark day when the joint Arab high command sent veiled storm troopers on black helicopters into Wyoming? Or is he just subtly reasserting his sweeping charge that the Arabs as a whole were responsible for September 11 – and hinting that they might do the same again unless America spanks them regularly?

This disregard for reality appears to be prompted by two things. One is an attitude towards Arabs that may be delicately described as anachronistic and patronising. How else can one explain lapses into what sound like 19th-century depictions of barbarians? In one departure from constant praise of Bush-administration policy, for instance, Smith sneers at its naivety in thinking democracy might have flourished here when this great American gift was presented, “like an iPhone left out for the Arabs to figure out on their own.”

Elsewhere Smith informs us sagely that Arab women “hold men in contempt if they are not willing to kill and die for Arab honour.” Arabs, we discover, regard any man who says he wants peace with his neighbour, “not a peace that comes through destruction and elimination, but a real peace,” as a traitor. No wonder, for this is a people so tribally ferocious, he insists, that they hate Americans, “Not because of what we do or who we are but because of what we are not: Arabs.”


I would only add that it's a great shame that a reputable publisher, Doubleday, put out this book. I don't think that would have been the case if its subject matter hadn't been Arabs.
The Time That Remains
Le-temps-qu'il-reste

Yesterday I saw Elia Suleiman's latest, "The Time that Remains," at the European Film Festival at CityStars (the festival runs through Tuesday), and really enjoyed it--better than his last, "Divine Intervention."

The film chronicles Suleiman's own family's experience of the Nakbah and the Israeli occupation of Nazareth, up to the present. It's largely filmed in the house he grew up in, and based on interviews he conducted with his dying father. It is a very touching tribute to his parents, among other things.

The film has Suleiman's typically deadpan humour (a foul-mouthed, alcoholic neighbour who--ever since getting a job at a gas station, and hence access to copious amounts of gasoline--regularly threatens to set himself on fire; a school principle who scolds the young Suleiman: "Who told you America is Imperialist?"). But it's dominated by sounds and silence, more than dialogue, by wittily orchestrated scenes, poignant and hilarious visual gags. Rendering Palestinian history as a stripped down, stylized tragi-comedy, a series of personal/historical vignettes, turns out to be particularly effective. There is a great attention to visual and auditory details, which accumulate to create increasingly moving patterns and rhythms.

For me the film faltered a little in its third half, when Suleiman himself entered the scene. The way he acts--as a cardboard cutout of himself, basically--suggests his total alienation, his current position as a "mute observer," as one critic observes, but is also so disaffected it drains the scenes of any emotion. His take on contemporary Palestine--as opposed to that of his childhood--also seemed less specific and original.

But it is a fascinating, moving, witty film. Here is a nice round-up of critical reactions.

Suleiman was also on hand afterwards for a question and answer session. He noted that for him every time he can remove dialogue from the story it's a "victory," because silence is the most troubling thing for power--"even words of opposition comfort power," whereas "silence frightens it." He also mentioned that he had to get permission to use an Israeli tank for the film and that, ironically, the the only part of the film the Israeli authorities objected to was the scene in which Israeli soldiers rob a Palestinian house (there are more serious crimes committed). They also wanted a thanks in the film credits for letting him use the tank--now that sounds like something out of one of his films.
Birds of the Nile
Fathi Abdel-Waheb and Abeer Sabry Fathi Abdel-Waheb and Abeer Sabry

My last foray into the Cairo Film Festival was to go see عصافير اانيل ("Birds of the Nile") last night. The film is based on the work of the novelist Ibrahim Aslan, which already inspired a great Egyptian film, the 1991 Kit-Kat.

"Birds of the Nile" is no Kit-Kat, however. At least from what I saw: I didn't stay through the film. I'll admit that extraneous factors may have made me impatient, yesterday: I'd gotten up at 6am to go to Alexandria and back, and the Good News Cinema at the Hyatt for some reason played the film with the volume turned up to ear-splitting levels. In a more tolerant mood, I might have staid through the film--but I doubt my final opinion would have been different.

From the trite and obvious sound track (funny music for funny scenes; sad music for sad scenes), to the indifferent cinematography, to the melodramatic clichés, to the voice-over narration, it all reminded me of a soap opera rather than a film. There was none of the lightness, irony and surprise of Alsan's work. Unfortunately, because I'd really been looking forward to this one.

The poster for the 1991 Daoud Abdel-Sayed film Kit-Kat The poster for the 1991 Daoud Abdel-Sayed film Kit-Kat
The Mummy
The_Night_of_Counting_the_Years

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Fund recently helped restore the 1969 classic المومياء\ ليله ان تحصی السنين ("The Night of Counting the Years/The Mummy") by Shady Abdel-Salam, and the film was shown at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and, last night, at the Cairo International Film Festival. (Apparently, Scorsese saw "a completely pink" 16 millimeter version of the film, in 1976, at a home screening, and never forgot it.)

The film is based on the true story of the discovery of an incredible cache of Pharaonic mummies, in the late 19th century, in the mountains near Luxor. The cache had been found by a local tribe, who kept its location secret and slowly sold its contents on the black market. But the authorities discovered the cave, and transferred its contents to the Egyptian Museum, where they are today. Framed by these true events, the film tells the story of two brothers, sons of the tribe's dead chief, facing their inheritance.



The film is famously beautiful. Abdel-Salam paid great attention to costumes and scenery, and he used the Pharaonic temples in Luxor, the desert, the Nile river, the tribesmen and women and in their flowing black garments and the soldiers in their bright red tarboushes, to compose shot after breath-taking shot. The pace is slow, solemn, dream-like. The dialogue is all in Formal Arabic, much of it is close to prose poetry--and it's declaimed like poetry. A friend I saw the film with compared it to Greek tragedy.

The film raises the question of nationalism versus tribalism, of historical identity, and of how one lives with and what one makes of the past. None of this is resolved neatly: the final scene, which is truly stunning, shows the young tribal chief--who has made the "right" decision and handed over his tribe's pilfered patrimony to the state's modern, knowledge-seeking archeologists--in a state of evident pain, loss and fear.

It's a very slow film, and the acting can seem stilted. But the deliberate pace allows images to grow unforgettable, and the film's solemnity is what gives the story its power, its aura of legend.