The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Egypt in TV

Sometimes when one does not get enough attention, one is pushed to strange things to get it. This is presumably what motivated Gaber el-Karmouty to give up thirteen minutes of his talk show to play the national anthems of all the Egyptian-regime-friendly Arab states while sporting a dishdasha (complete with a shemagh,a keffiyeh and the Egyptian flag one on top of the other at minute 11) and holding up the flags of said countries, except for Jordan’s. "(They) tried to send someone to the Jordanian embassy to get a big flag but failed." Hence, the print out.

The purpose of this abuse of symbolism, el-Karmouty tells us, is to thank Gulf states for their support of the July 3 coup and take the opportunity to contrast that with Qatar’s pro-MB stance and ask their royal family about the origins of their malevolence towards Egypt -- something he has done virtually every day since July 3, but suddenly requires a costume and flags to do.

That was not the last time el-Karmouty did something strange for no good reason. Earlier last week, he rode a bicycle around his cramped studio on air to demonstrate to his viewers how General AbdelFatah el-Sisi’s rode his in last Friday’s cycling marathon. When not ringing the bike bell, el-Karmouty pointed out his helmet, his backpack, his bottle cage and listed various presidents who rode bicycles in public before.

The weirdest presentation el-Karmouty has given so far, however, was reenacting the latest group sexual assault in Tahrir via standing up, occasionally hiding his crotch and drawing circles in the air to show where her attackers stood surrounding her. Next to el-Karmouty, on the desk, was a bouquet of red roses identical to the ones el-Sisi gave the victim during his televised hospital visit because apparently that too required illustration.

The Tahrir rape has inspired more explanations from other TV presenters. By explanations I mean conspiracy theories, of course. The Muslim Brotherhood did it to spread terror in society and punish women for voting for Sisi. Could that be why the pro-MB Rassd network had the best footage of the assault, OnTV’s Youssef el-Husseiny encouraged us to wonder. The Stepford Wives of Egyptian TV, Hala Sarhan, Lamis el-Hadidi and Ahmed Moussa, however, were even less subtle than him.  

Sarhan reported that one of the assailants called the victim’s daughter an infidel and put out a cigarette in her face (after she was in police custody, I might add), according to the victim’s friend, Soha Hosny, who was at the scene. The victim Ahmed Moussa interviewed, Rania Abdel-Nasser, also said her attackers referred to her as a Sisi supporter and said they would show her. This was taken as proof of an MB conspiracy. 

But it does not necessarily mean these attacks are politically motivated. My sister was sexually assaulted earlier this week by a group of men in the virtually empty streets of New Cairo; one of her attackers stopped to recall out loud how el-Sisi said recently that men who so much as let their eyes linger too long on a woman will be arrested, and to wonder what he was doing to do about it now. Surely, that does not mean that Khairat el-Shater is plotting away in prison to orchestrate random sexual assaults on women in New Cairo. Could the Tahrir attacks have been organized? Yes. But could they also be the natural result of a sexual harassment problem that has gotten worse and has never been seriously addressed? Yes.

It is worth noting that the other Tahrir victim, Hosny, told el-Hadidi in a separate interview that the Presumed Brother later said that he only extinguished his cigarette with a girl's face because he was under the impression they were beating up a Muslim Sister, not a fellow Sisi supporter. It's all just a misunderstanding. Anyway, who hasn’t burned the face of someone they mistook for a demonized political opponent?

Something else, Amany el-Khayat and all other TV presenters didn’t appreciate last week were the flyers that now dot Cairo asking people: Have you prayed for the Prophet today? They all believe it as a sign that the MB is gearing up for the parliamentary elections and is trying to win people over with religious slogans again. Ibrahim Eissa likened the flyers to an annoying chain mail asking you to pray 70 times or become one of the 3% who go to hell. Eissa then put his microphone up to the camera for the viewers to defy physics and tell him what to do if Christians start putting up flyers of their own (hence igniting a sectarian flyer-war). 

On the other hand, Ahmed Moussa shared a video of uniformed Caucasian people stripping and restraining a woman as evidence of the US police's disregard for human rights, while Hala Sarhan, Lamis el-Hadidi and Amr Adeeb used comparisons between Morsi and his successor to fill air time with comic relief. Morsi used to eat on the floor in the presidential places and wipe his hands clean on the curtains and the furniture with his friends like the savages they were, according to Sarhan. El-Sisi probably uses cutlery and napkins. Morsi touched his crotch on TV. El-Sisi didn’t. Morsi gave notoriously boring speeches and said the word ‘legitimacy’ 58 times in one of them. El-Sisi gave – well, he didn’t say the word ‘legitimacy’ 58 times. One time Morsi had a security detail that consisted of 36 cars – Adeeb counted – as opposed to the handful of bodyguards el-Sisi had with him in his cycling marathon. Though one could argue that all the participants in the marathon count as bodyguards given that they are students from the military and police academies. 

Meanwhile in the MB camp, Al Jazeera’s Ayman Azzam butchered a stolen Bassem Youssef joke – the one where he begins a swear word and ends with a regular one, eg: "Ayman Azzam’s mother is a whor...rible painter". And aired this very, very weird song (45:17).

PostsNour Youssefegypt, tv
Palfest, part two

The second installment of my diary of the Palestine Festival of Literature went up at Bookforum over the weekend:

The daily life of Palestinians is constrained by an intricate complex of physical and bureaucratic barriers. Nowhere are the divisions and inequalities more dramatic than in Hebron. In 1994, after a far-right Israeli named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque that surrounds the patriarch Abraham’s tomb and killed twenty-nine Palestinians, the holy site was divided into a mosque and a synagogue. Muslims and Jews look at the same tomb from separate barred windows, bullet-proof partitions between them. Four hundred ultra-Orthodox settlers live in the city proper, alongside nearly 200,000 Palestinians. To accommodate and protect them, the government has shut down the main commercial thoroughfare, putting thousands of people out of work. Billboards explain that the street was closed due to the violence of the Second Intifada. Fifteen years on, settlers harass Palestinians, throwing bleach on the wares of shops and attacking children on their way to school. While we holders of foreign passports make our way past checkpoints down the ghostly street, Palestinians must take a much longer and more circuitous route to get from one side of the city to the other.

In a place this segregated, one is forced take sides. (The Jewish or the Muslim entrance? The settler road or the one open to Palestinians?) By the end of the week everyone at Palfest is overwhelmed, not just by the touring schedule and the flow of dispiriting details, but by the constant effort of positioning oneself—one’s work, one’s words—in relation to this terrible, lopsided fight.

The first installment is here. I also wrote something on all the lines that criss-cross Israel-Palestine (segregating Israelis and Palestinians, but also dividing Palestinians from each other, and from their Arab neighbors) for Mada Masr. 

Below is a performance by the very talented British-Egyptian playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz, who composed this after a visit to Hebron and performed it two days later in Ramallah:

Links 30 May - 13 June 2014

A lean couple of weeks...

LinksThe Editors
Maliki's most solemn hour

As the Baghdad government reels from the humiliating loss of Mosul to insurgents this week, ISIS resolves to succeed where al Qaeda failed in Iraq.

ISIS fighter in Mosul, via @vijayprashad

ISIS fighter in Mosul, via @vijayprashad

Some analysts said during the Second Gulf War that al Qaeda would be trading up from Afghanistan if it secured a base in Iraq. It was a prescient thought, but perhaps premature: between 2007 and 2010, Iraqis by and large rejected that fate for their country and dealt a body blow to the foreign Sunni jihadists who entered the country. But then the Syrian Civil War began. Non-Syrian jihadists entered Syria in numbers - though so too did foreign brigades sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah - and many of the Sunnis among these fighters came from nearby Iraq to fight in solidarity. Ironically, some had once been agents of Syrian state-sponsored terrorism. The most significant of these "new" groups has been the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which over the past year has spent as much time fighting other Syrian rebels groups as the Syrian Arab Republic's forces. ISIS was once aligned with al Qaeda's central command, but has since gone its own way. Though increasingly a multinational conglomeration after absorbing many of the Nusra Front's foreign fighters, it has only one strategic goal today: that of gathering all Sunnis living in "Greater Syria" under its rule. 

"Many [ISIS fighters] have come from Afghanistan and Iraq," says Syrian activist Abu Ibrahim Ar-Raqqawi, describing their rule in his country's northern reaches as an effort to build a state, "cleanse" it (especially of rival anti-Assad actors), and only then begin the fighting against Assad in earnest. "Our Syrian fighters are farmers and masons, they don't have that experience." Indeed, and ISIS has delivered on what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could not. It has set down foundations for an emirate in the Sunni heartland abutting Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Caucasus Mountains. ISIS is not al Qaeda. And because of this difference in priorities, it has done what al Qaeda failed to do: secure, as Aymenn Al-Tamimi tweeted, "contiguous territory, [a] series of linked strongholds, [and] provision of services." For much more than mere shakedowns of rich merchants and handing out candy to children is planned for northern Iraq in the coming weeks.

Just days ago, ISIS pushed forward from its safehouses and camps in the Nineveh Governorate, which it had won control over in the past months, to take over the city of Mosul. It has attacked several other cities in northern Iraq as well, and disrupted the siege that federal forces in Iraq brought against it and its allies in Al Anbar Governorate this Spring. Mosul was living under a state of siege with the government resorting to an air bridge due to the danger ISIS ambushes posed to highway traffic. The group has for over a year now been following a strategic campaign it dubbed "Soldier's Harvest": the aim has been to retake the territories lost by al Qaeda-aligned jihadists during the final years of the U.S. Occupation by terrorizing the local authorities into quitting the fight. ISIS would then fill the resulting vacuum caused by their retreat. "This started in rural sections of Iraq such as the desert regions of Anbar and the Hamrin Mountains that stretch across Diyala and Salahaddin [Saladin]," wrote Iraq watcher Joel Wing, and "now ISIS is moving into urban areas." 

Its other effort - "Breaking the Walls," so termed because it involved freeing captured Sunni militants from Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's jails - is also doing well in Mosul, with over 1,000 detainees freed this week after their guards fled. With Mosul mostly secured - its banks and military depots have been emptied by the jihadists for redistribution to its forces in Iraq and Syria - and tens of thousands now jamming the roads out of the region, ISIS is simultaneously staging offensives into the nearby Saladin Governorate and points further south, heading towards the capital. There has as yet been no significant armed government response to the crisis in Nineveh, a province that is also home to many of Iraq's remaining Assyrians and other Christian minorities. In Syria, ISIS has closed down churches to set up indoctrination centers (Da'wah) for youth: darker charges of kidnapping and execution have followed.

Disillusionment with Maliki's sectarian agenda, power-grabs, and refusal to reign in the abuses of federal forces has been coupled with a worsening economic situation in the area as ISIS and its sometimes-allied fellow insurgents milked Iraq's second largest city for all it was worth: Iraq is, after all, the treasury of several Islamist militias fighting in Syria thanks to smuggling, Islamic charities, and plain old-fashioned extortion, theft, or ransom demands. Local media reported that, trusting less in the Iraqi Army than in protection money, Mosul's well-to-do chose to pay ISIS not to attack over paying the security services to defend. Unfortunately for them, ISIS's Mosul organization was not the Italian 'Ndrangheta. The local governor, Adheel al-Nujaifi, did not acknowledge such unpleasant details in his post-loss tirade against the security forces. But mass desertion and retreat was the result of this ill-advised trade off: the roads out of the city are littered with discarded army and police uniforms. 

The Mosul area is home to Kurdish peshmerga now gearing up to fight ISIS where the security services have not. Despite an announcement from ISIS that it has no beef with the Kurds, clashes have been reported and the road to Kirkuk is in ISIS's hands. The Kurds are not fighting for Maliki's sake, though, but for their own autonomous region. Militarily, the federal government may only really be able to rely on the U.S.-trained Special Operations brigades - which did force ISIS to retreat from the city of Samarra, hometown of ISIS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with heavy losses - air force, and a handful of regular army divisions.

None of these well-trained and politically reliable units were on hand in Mosul this week, though, and a large chunk of the Iraqi military is tied up in Al Anbar in a reprisal campaign against anti-government militias that took over the major towns there earlier in 2014. Shortages plague the regular army, and the national police have little stomach for enduring the constant assaults on their stations. The city effectively fell overnight: the main government offices, the northern dams supplying power and water to central Iraq, the airport, and the oil fields are all in ISIS's hands now. Watching the loss - and the militants parading around in captured Humvees - must be especially galling for the U.S. military because the 101st Airborne Division's initial occupation of Mosul a decade ago was hailed as an exception to the rule of anarchy in the rest of the country. Mosul was actually a "model" for the Surge and the "Awakening" that followed the worst of the internal violence in Iraq under the U.S. Occupation (2003-2011), especially in Fallujah, to the southwest. 

For its part, Fallujah - site of two bloody battles after 2005 - has been outside of Baghdad's control for some months. Not that it was ever fully under federal or even U.S. authority during the Surge. Though ISIS is present, the city's loss is far more the result of the "Awakening's" politics being well past their sell date in the region. The Sunni Arab "Sons of Iraq" tribal movement could have been a significant moment in Iraqi state building there. But it was ultimately compromised by the inability of Maliki's government to accept the legitimacy of the movement. Prior to the Sons' formation, the incessant attacks on Sunni communities by Shia militias and terrorists meant that many Sunnis decided not to trust the new authorities: as Phil Williams wrote in 2009, "the very force that was designed to protect them [the Iraqi national police] preyed on them instead, engaging in sectarian killings, extortion, robberies, and kidnapping." In response to this, and the depredations of al Qaeda, Iraqi Sunnis began organizing themselves into self-defense leagues and soliciting U.S. assistance (mainly in the form of air support and monies that Iraqi officials either did not have or were hoarding). Eventually, these militias were turned on the nebulous "al Qaeda in Iraq" jihadists, men who were led by foreigners and had displayed again and again a complete inability to govern the Sunni areas they took over. By 2011, when the U.S. left the county, most Iraqis had turned on this bandit coalition and (with sufficient U.S. "inducement") many influential tribal leaders put their men on the barricades to repulse the terrorists, rather than ordering them to mortar checkpoints alongside them. 

When Sunni leaders went to Baghdad cap in hand to obtain official blessing for their militias during the Surge, the Maliki government very reluctantly granted it, and then stalled on implementing the understandings that had been reached. This was due to the Shia leaders' fears of arming groups that only weeks before had been fighting in the anti-government camp, something that the U.S. did not seem to grasp on its way out of Iraq. This federal recalcitrance, in turn, convinced some of the Sons of Iraq that they were better off keeping their arms and rejecting vague promises of official recognition and salaries. And after the contested 2010 elections that returned Maliki to power - before the U.S. even left the country, it is worth noting - Al Anbar found itself heading back to where it was before the "Awakening" began. 

The catalyst for the (third?) Battle of Fallujah in January 2014, though, was not spillover from Syria but a disastrous raid on a Sunni protest camp by federal forces. The two "Arab Spring-style" protest camps set up in that city and nearby Ramadi were set upon by the federal authorities; Sunni clerics began calling for open revolt against Baghdad to defend the protestors. ISIS took advantage of the chaos to organize in the city, yet the initial revolt - and the people the government and local sheiks have been trying to talk down from the barricades - was staged by fed-up local militias who had formally been the guarantors of a cold peace. Maliki's deputy PM Saleh al-Mutlaq contends that the typical heavy-handed response of Baghdad to an assassination in the province - unrelated to the demonstrations - killed the cold peace that had been maintained by the "Sons of Iraq."

Sunni grievances against the government are real and legion: job discrimination, undue prosecution of activists, human rights violations by the police, welfare cuts that "punish" the Sunnis for their collaborationist role in past dictatorships. Well before this uprising, "the Sunnis [had] lost faith in the political process and the jihadists were once again able to make inroads among them." Hence the castle-building Iraqi political factions all continue to engage in, because it is one death squad or another if you try to play honestly by constitutional rules the Maliki government itself doesn't respect. "State collapse produces sectarianism - not the other way around," as James Fromson at the Middle East Institute writes. ISIS and the federal government agree on one thing implicitly: there is an Iraqi nation, but there is only a weak state grafted onto it, and representatives of different factions should seek to capture it for their own in-group. This mistrust, and not the Syrian Civil War alone, ultimately collapsed the uneasy power-sharing arrangements the "Awakening" had brokered between local (predominantly Sunni) and provincial authorities. Sunnis are also angered by Maliki's alliance with Iran, which in practical terms allows the IRGC to fly men, material, and money over the country into Lebanon or into Syria to back Assad.

Iraq's Shia leadership, on the other hand, generally accepted such crackdowns on the Sunni community leaders because they saw the virulent rhetoric aimed at them by some Sunni politicians or media personalities (notably Al Jazeera's Arabic service, now banned in Iraq), rhetoric which evoked the worst promises Saddam Hussein and al-Zarqawi made to destroy them. The Shia see their association with Iran as necessary to counter Saudi and Gulf influence among Sunni insurgents. Yet Sunni politicians like the Mosul governor, says Kirk. H. Sowell of the Uticensis Risk consultancy, have been "feckless": Sowell notes that he and army command in Mosul spent more time fighting each other than ISIS or other anti-government groups such as the (pro-ISIS) General Military Council and Naqshbandi Army or (anti-ISIS) Jamaat Ansar al-Islam. Such incitement and infighting, and the ongoing car bombings and shootings carried out by antigovernment terrorists, was taken as cause enough to disregard Sunni complaints about Shia heavy-handedness. So, in Fallujah, ISIS was able to set up a sphere of influence - but one it has had to share with local groups, including many who are uninterested in grand Levantine designs, but instead want more local autonomy. 

In Mosul, it seems ISIS has the stage more to itself, the work of diligent base-building in the previous months. Al-Tamimi notes that in the north, ISIS dominated the military effort (its casualty figures suggest as much as well) and gained the most ground and material, unlike in Fallujah. Surely, then, ISIS will consider power-sharing arrangements in Mosul only by promising unity now and later entrenching itself at the expense of its so-called "friends," many of whom - like the Free Syrian Army - realize too late why the armory doors are now locked and guarded against them. As Ar-Raqqaqi chillingly notes of his experience with them in Syria, "ISIS found its place by dismantling the rebels there one by one." This will be their immediate aim, as it has been in Fallujah, even before they finishing mopping up what is left of the security services in the north.

A diary of the Palestine Festival of Literature

All last week I was traveling through the West Bank with PalFest. It was an exhausting, moving, enlightening experience. I was introduced to many great writers, poets and performers and to half a dozen cities: Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Haifa, Akka and Nablus. I've written a diary of the trip for Bookforum; the first of two installments is here

Graffiti on the wall of a community center in Hebron

Graffiti on the wall of a community center in Hebron


June 1

We’re on the move again. Because so many Palestinians can’t travel, Palfest brings writers from around the world to them. And because Palestinians can’t even move freely from one West Bank city to another, the festival travels every day, to reach as many people as possible.

We take the Qalandia Crossing from Ramallah to Jerusalem. After passing through the checkpoint’s narrow metal chutes and heavy turnstiles, we emerge on the other side of the giant cement wall that Israel began building twelve years ago, and that zig-zags across the West Bank. The Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana is reminded of checkpoints in Baghdad, and marvels at how easy it is to “make things familiar that are unacceptable.”

Jerusalem’s Old City is beautiful and bitter. Little by little, day by day, its Muslim residents are stripped of land and homes and residency permits. Israeli settlers have occupied about eighty buildings in the Muslim and Christian quarters, covering them in flags and barbed wire.

In the evening, on the esplanade of the Burj Al-Luqluq Social Center, the local poet Najwan Darwish reads from his collection Nothing More to Lose, recently published by NYRB Classics. His poem “Jerusalem (I)” opens:

“We stood on the Mount

to raise a sacrifice for you

and when we saw our hand rise


we knew

that we were your sacrifice”

The reading is nearly drowned out by the sound of nearby fireworks, set off to celebrate a neighborhood resident’s release from prison.

To learn more about the festival, see here and here

Tunis: "Things are bad, but that's normal"

Last month I was in Tunis for a conference on Arab intellectuals and historical transformations in the region.  I wrote up something about it for the LRB blog:

On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. ‘He’s been there ten days,’ a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. ‘He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.’ The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.

I was in Tunis last month for a conference entitled Intellectuals and the Historic Transformations in the Arab World. The first speaker was the historian Hichem Djait. He gave a brief history of Arab intellectuals and their persecution by authoritarian regimes, before concluding that they have lost influence across the region. ‘The Arab world took a step towards democracy, but one has the painful impression that it is not ready,’ he said. Instead, the uprisings have ‘exacerbated very strong and very violent tensions’. In countries that are tearing themselves apart, what role is there for intellectuals?

Must watch: Egypt's lost power

Al Jazeera English does a great first dig into the EMG gas deal between Egypt and Israel –theft from the Egyptian people involving many who are still in power in Egypt today, and with the blessing of the United States. It underplays the extent to which Hussein Salem was a key member of the Egyptian intelligence establishment, close to Field Marshal Abu Ghazala (Mubarak's chief rival in the early 1980s) and granted some protection from the Reagan administration after being caught in one of the scams in the US-Egypt military aid relationship. It's a story at the heart of how corruption, power, and strategic interests interact in the Middle East – very much worth watching.

Penalty card for Qatar
Construction of a new stadium near Lusail in the desert of Qatar. December 16 2013 in Lusail, Qatar. Philip Lange /

Construction of a new stadium near Lusail in the desert of Qatar. December 16 2013 in Lusail, Qatar. Philip Lange /

A "plot to buy the World Cup" comes to light, but will raking FIFA over the coals make a difference for Qatar's overheating guest workers?

During the Cold War, Taiwan and the People's of Republic of China routinely threw money at smaller countries in order to get them to switch their recognition from one China to the other at the UN. It was the most blatantly bullion-based diplomacy one could observe then, in a world of it. The World Cup bid involves some dynamics, except - since it is the World Cup - the stakes are even higher than the Two Chinas Policy. Brazil is hosting the next one; then Russia will do so in 2018, and to Qatar goes the 2022 honor. Some football officials have complained about the poor climatic prospects for players in the Gulf's summer heat on that date - yet the heat is even worse for the guest workers barred from organizing unions to protest the policies Qatar exercises over them. As the current controversy in Brazil shows, for the prestige of the World Cup, there are few prices that host countries politicians and their lobbyists won't pay to win that honor. 

So far, assertions that "football cannot tolerate a World Cup built on the back of workers’ abuse, misery and blood" have failed to derail the massive Qatari effort. Whether the latest round of scandal will make a difference is yet to be seen. And it is one whale of a scandal, even by FIFA's poor reputation. According to The Sunday Times, Qatar bought up votes from Confederation of African Football (CAF) member associations and important football executives worldwide ahead of the World Cup 2018/2022 vote with lavish junkets and "donations" cumulatively worth millions of dollars.† Potentially compromised parties in Asia, Europe, and Latin America have also been named in the Times, including the infamous (and now censured) Trinidadian ex-FIFA executive Jack Warner. Football associations in Somalia, Cameroon, Djibouti, Sudan, Burundi, the Gambia, Sao Tomé, Zambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Swaziland, Togo, and Nigeria were all specifically named in The Sunday Times' expose. 

So far, concrete proof of Qatari malfeasance in the run up to the 2010 bid for 2022 been hard to come by, though at least one associate of Qatari football supremo Mohammed bin Hammam was previously suspended and fined when he was caught bragging about the "millions" of pounds he was being offered by two unnamed countries to influence the vote. It is the sort of strategy straight out of the Soviet playbook for the non-aligned countries in the second twentieth century. But if the Times' allegations - drawn from a trove of emails leaked to the paper detailing all of this horse-trading - prove true, then that proof will finally exist. And none too soon for Qatar's competitors, since it is theoretically possible to redo the executive committee's vote or 2022, stripping Doha of its victory.

Bin Hammam, formerly the Qatari head of the Asian Football Confederation and owner of the Kemco construction company, is described as the point man for this effort, disbursing payments and promises here and there ahead of the voting - from personal kickbacks to weekend getaways to promises to back certain associations' pet projects in exchange for their support. Kemco allegedly helped pass some of the coney along, but much of it is said to have delivered personally to the recipients in cash payments of several thousands dollars a head, and via "10 slush funds" he set up for the campaign. Bin Hammam denies such charges, as do all of the people the Times says he wined and dined with in Kuala Lumpur (or elsewhere) to influence the bidding process several years ago. 

Once one of the most influential members of FIFA's executive committee, bin Hammam was banned for life from football in 2011 by FIFA after being convicted of bribing the Caribbean Football Union to support his campaign against Sepp Blatter, the incumbent President of FIFA. Mr. Blatter is no fiscal angel himself - the subject of past inquiries about his finances have gone in his favor, though - and even tried to make light of Qatar's human rights record by suggesting that LGBT fans "should refrain from any sexual activities" at FIFA 2022 in Doha. Like the rest of FIFA's executive committee, he now finds himself in hot water over the allegations that a disgraced official, acting behalf on the Government of Qatar, played FIFA like a flute. And strangely, despite his earlier support for the vote (and aforementioned flippancy) even before this scandal broke, Mr. Blatter conceded to persistent criticism that awarding the Cup to Qatar was actually a "mistake."

It goes without saying, but both FIFA and bin Hammam are denying The Sunday Times report, and further follow-up reporting. Qatar's own FIFA team denies any formal relationship with the blackballed bin Hammam. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce, though, said the body should re-vote if FIFA's top legal counsel, Michael Garcia, finds a paper trail for the alleged bribes in the coming months (Garcia was in fact the lawyer who signed off on the findings that torpedoed bin Hammam's FIFA career, so has a good reputation in this regard).

A second vote would be a PR disaster for Qatar, and if it did not win back the cup in the process, Doha will have sunk millions into the planned city of Lusail and other venues to little gain. One can imagine all of the other Gulf states laughing derisively at the sight of vacant lots and roads to nowhere should this come to pass (construction has not yet advanced very far). That, according to Australian football officials, the United States could secure the 2022 bid if Qatar loses it would be the final insult.

The charges do little to help Qatar's international image since reports began airing over a year ago that hundreds of guest workers, almost all of them from South and Southeast Asia, have died on the job since the bid was won. These have not been for FIFA-related worksites, but general totals: over the past decade, thousands of guest workers have perished in the wider Gulf region. The deaths are not so obvious as fatal falls and electrocutions from high towers, but a combination of long hours in difficult climatic conditions with inadequate housing and healthcare. And there is the matter (difficult to quantify) of a general malaise among workers resulting from their isolation and impoverishment relative to full Qatari citizens. Not to mention their anemic legal rights in-country. But given the amount of work the World Cup is set to generate for foreigner laborers, there has been no slowdown in applications (legal or not) to come and build up Lusail despite the risks.

Qatar has not been handed a red card by FIFA. At best, it's been handed a yellow card, if even that. So, for now, Doha gets to stay on the field.

†Much of the effort was apparently concentrated among CAF members, who control four of the 24 executive committee seats which vote on bids. At least 12 votes are needed to win, and there are unofficial backdoor campaigns going on throughout the process to prevent voters from switching their support (this was a bitter point of contestation between Qatar and the UK, apparently). The 2022 vote actually involved only 22 committee members: 2 had lost their voting rights due to corruption scandals and were not replaced during the process.
In Palestine

I'm a very honored guest of the Palestine Literary Festival this year. The festival brings writers from around the world for a week of readings and events in Palestine. Here is the festival's program and here is its Flickr account. And below are some pics. 



Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

The crossing

The crossing

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic

Great piece by Elias Muhanna for The New Yorker, on why Disney's Frozen has been translated into Modern Standard Arabic:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.

Muhanna goes on that there isn't much of a constituency calling dialect dubs of hit Hollywood movies, in contrast to what he describes as "an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region." I'd be curious to test out that theory – for instance see if the Moroccan film board would reject a dubbing of Frozen in darija. I suspect it has more to do with the low profitability of Arabic dialect market segments (because of high rates of piracy, etc.) and the dominance of the GCC market in business decisions about entertainment – and that market being used to MSA being used as a standard for dubbing (they finance it, after all).

Links May 3-29 2014

Belated link-dump so we can clear the joke election stuff.

LinksThe Editors
Election Day

And so Egypt's decidedly anti-climactic presidential election  -- the sixth vote in 3 years, and the first contest since Mubarak's time in which the result is such a foregone conclusion -- is underway. 

For excellent coverage, check out Mada Masr site, where Sarah Carr has her take on the Sabbahi campaign:

Sabbahi's campaign has been far more plebeian, and if he earned points for miles covered he would have earned enough by now to claim a small yacht. So vigorously has he rubbed shoulders with the common man it is a wonder that he has any shoulders left. His campaign caravan has traveled the length and breadth of the country and wheeled out Sabbahi in rural backwaters so that he can bellow about justice and the revolution and freeing unjustly detained prisoners. He did this on the last day of official campaigning in Abdeen, Cairo, mostly preaching to a small crowd of the converted, a bunch of excitable teenagers who lit flares and chanted and banged drums next to more sedate Dostour Party members and non-aligned citizens. The mood felt very 2011, what with all the talk about the martyrs and the revolution and social justice.

Dalia Rabie reports on Abdel-Fattah El Sis's disturbing rapport with the Egyptian female public

“I will take a picture with each of you, it is my honor,” Sisi told the cheering attendees. As the women continued to relentlessly chant, “We love you Sisi,” he responded jokingly that they would “create problems with the men at home.”

Sisi’s speeches and interviews address women as housewives, mothers and sisters. Rarely does he allude to them as more than catalysts, and he generally refuses to acknowledge that they are political players in society.

After around six minutes of Sisi pleading with the women to settle down, asking them to allow him to talk to them because he “needs their help,” and after one of the organizers instructed the audience that “when the leader speaks, everyone should be quiet,” the candidate continued.

And Jano Charbel has a very interesting piece about the Sisi posters that have blanketed the country, and the individuals and businesses behind them:

According to Sheikh Abdel Rahman Hassan of the Islamic Jurisprudence Center, “We are campaigning for Field Marshal Sisi’s presidency because he is a pious and religious man. Moreover, we trust that he will be able to root out terrorist groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, Ajnad Misr, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other armed extremists.” 

Sheikh Hassan’s center has a number of posters around Tahrir Square with the image of Sisi and the words, “May I kiss your head please?” The center’s phone number is on these posters identifying them.

Similarly the private ETAF advertising company has hung-up Sisi banners around the Abdeen neighborhood, with the name of their company, and their phone numbers on them. 

The company’s spokesman did not comment as to how much his eight-foot-long banners cost or why they have the company’s contact information on them. 

Mohamed Lotfy, owner of a bookshop in downtown Cairo commented, “These [private] banners hanging outside our shop are not ours. They belong to other businesses and political parties in the area.” 

“Nobody forces these businesses to put up campaign banners. They put them up out of their own freewill. It’s their way of showing their support for their candidate, and their love for their country.” 

A novel about political exile, and the brutal passage of time

I've just reviewed a beautifully written, beautifully translated novel, by the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain. The story, which seems to be quite autobiographical but has none of the self-indulgence that can mar that genre, concerns a middle-aged writer returning to the fictional Arab dictatorship he fled as a young poet and revolutionary. The protagonist, Adham, has lost the sharp convictions of his youth. 

Adham's irrelevance is further proven by how innocuous he now seems to the regime he once tried to overthrow. Upon his return to Hamiya, his interrogation by the National Security Agency (its star-shaped headquarters "like a spaceship just landed from another planet," where once "even birds dared not fly overhead") is pro-forma, just a matter, as the polite and diligent officers tell him, of completing his dossier. But where in his file, wonders the narrator, "are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, the dancing lights of return?"

Do the mixed emotions of homecoming ever live up to its tense anticipation? Adham finds his homeland almost unrecognizable. It is still un-free, but in new and different ways. His parents have died in his absence. His old flame married and had children. He can only confront his own ghostly younger self, who never left, changed, or aged. This Jolly Corner-like conceit works well, although the proliferation of doubles (multiple characters bear the same name), and the use of the second person singular, in which the narrator addresses himself, can be a bit precious. But then there are disorienting scenes such as this, in which the narrator dematerializes into his former self:

"The man who looked like your teacher at the Upright Generation Secondary School disappeared and was replaced by a solidly built man with an enormous mustache of the kind worn by truck drivers. Your son Badr disappeared. The gold ring disappeared from the ring finger of your left hand. You heard a voice repeating, insistently and annoyingly, a name that had an unsettling resonance: Younis, Younis. You turned to where the voice came from."