The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Links 5 March - 10 May 2016
From the archives (June 2012, Cairo): "Down with the next president"

From the archives (June 2012, Cairo): "Down with the next president"

We have let the blog lie fallow a little for the past month or two. Maalesh, more to come soon.

LinksThe Editors
Links 19 February - 4 March 2016

Link'em if you got'em.

LinksThe Editors
Cairo: Unreal City

I have a long piece in The Nation about writing and freedom of expression in Egypt these days, the role of the country's intellectuals and the regime's attitude to public space, culture and young people. Needless to say it is not an upbeat read (although I am always impressed when I go back to Cairo by folks' wits and guts). I started reporting it last December -- in the meantime, the writer Ahmed Naji, who was on trial for obscenity, was acquitted in his first trial and then handed a 2-year sentence in a retrial. It is a ridiculous, unprecedentedly harsh sentence for a novelist. 

Graffiti on a blockade put up by the authorities in March 2012

Graffiti on a blockade put up by the authorities in March 2012

Here's an excerpt: 

Naji’s novel is a surreal tale of Cairo’s future obliteration and features illustrations by the cartoonist Ayman al-Zurqani. The narrator, speaking from the future, reminisces about the impossible city he lived in as a young man. In the chapter that landed Naji in court, the narrator recounts staying up all night smoking hashish and drinking with his friends; the next day, he meets his lover for brunch and mid-afternoon sex. Then two female friends pick him up and they drive through streets empty of the usual traffic, to drink a beer at sunset on cliffs overlooking the city:

Mona’s wearing a long skirt of some light fabric. I stick my head between the seats and see she’s bunched up her skirt in her lap and is rolling a joint. I’m distracted by the glow of her knees, and Samira’s turning up the music. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieks like a hen laying its first egg. I open the window as we pass over the Azhar Bridge, and imagine I catch a whiff of cumin, pepper and spices. As we exit the bridge and enter the Husayn district, I smell some burnt coffee beans that, without being an expert, I can tell are of poor quality. The scent fills my nostrils. Among the tombs in the City of the Dead, the smell of liver fried in battery acid lingers like a rain cloud.

In describing the sex scene between the narrator and his lover, Naji uses the Arabic words for “cock” and “pussy.” In August of 2015, a middle-aged man from Cairo’s Bulaq neighborhood filed a claim against Naji. In his complaint, Hany Salah Tawfiq spun a lively tale himself, one designed to appeal to the most paternalistic and moralistic impulses of Egypt’s judicial system. He claimed that reading the story after his indignant wife pointed it out to him, and before his innocent daughters could be exposed to it, caused him such consternation that “his heartbeat fluctuated and his blood pressure dropped.” The prosecutor who took the case to trial that November seemed to treat the novel as a factual description of Naji’s own immoral behavior. To restrained titters from the author’s friends in the audience, the prosecutor delivered a long indictment tinged with religious rhetoric and mixed metaphors on the poisonous effect of such filth.

The prosecutor spoke entirely in fusha. Traditionally, there has been a divide between fusha—formal Arabic—and amiya, colloquial Arabic. Although they’re derived from the same sources, the first is closer to the Arabic of the Koran; different forms of it are used in religious and official discourse, the media, and literature. Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s 1988 Nobel laureate, wrote his dialogues in fusha even though amiya is what everyone actually speaks. Ahmed Naji is part of a generation of younger Egyptian writers whose work increasingly includes dialect, allusions to pop culture, profanity, and the funny neologisms created by the Arabicization of foreign words. The spread of this new, young, colloquial, “vulgar” Arabic is a democratic phenomenon linked, in part, to the online world, where people tend to write as they speak. Using slang is a way to puncture the disingenuousness of official discourse. The use of profanity can also be deeply political. For many of the online activists writing in the years before Mubarak fell, it was a purposeful choice to insult his regime in the foulest terms possible—to deny figures of authority the linguistic deference that, no matter how unpopular they may be, they expect to be shown in public forums.

Naji argues that the terms he uses for the male and female anatomy not only can be heard on every street corner in Cairo, but also appear in classical Arabic literature. It was only in the 19th century, he says, that “middle-class Egyptian intellectuals,” fresh from visits to Victorian England, popularized the euphemisms that became common in literature. Nasser Amin, Naji’s lawyer, argued the point in his trial, presenting the judge with books of classical Arabic literature and Islamic exegesis containing the vulgar terms in question.

You can read the rest here

US "meh power" in Libya

This two-part New York Times feature (one, two) on US policy in Libya is to a large extent about Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for an intervention in 2011 and her subsequent disengagement as other priorities took hold. It in an indictment of Clinton that should give anyone want to vote for her some pause, but it is an even bigger indictment of the policy process in the Obama administration and the lack of thinking-through the Libya issue. Clinton thinks of the 2011 Libya intervention as "smart power" (the most overused and meaningless foreign policy cliché of the last two decades) but it looks more like "meh power": apart from short-bursts of activism (by Clinton mostly) driven by political ambition, there is mostly lack of sustained interest. They just don't care that much about what they started.

It actually lets off fairly easily the cheerleaders for intervention on Clinton’s team, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, who advocated for intervention but did not press on the aftermath. It makes a rapid mention of the fact that the US scuttled potential negotiations with the Qadhafi regime, not giving them a chance to see what they could deliver (arguably the worst decision in the whole episode). Allies that act in a duplicitous manner to railroad the US into certain actions or to create facts on the ground, like France or Qatar, are never pushed back. It reveals that there was a US program to provide weapons to the rebels – in other words, that Washington joined Paris, Doha, Abu Dhabi and others in flooding Libya (and hence its neighbors) with weapons – but does not dwell on it. So much more could be made of the abundant material in these pieces, but what is most odd is that it suggests that both Obama and Clinton have drawn the wrong conclusions from the Libya debacle.

Still, excellent reporting and contains some scoops.

Links 1-18 February 2016

Your every-once-in-a-while, small batch, artisanal, handcrafted link dump. OK, this time it's meager returns, we've been distracted and have neglected this a bit.

LinksThe Editors
Obama Proposes Removing Human Rights Conditions on Aid to Egypt

Ziad Jilani writing for The Intercept

The budget proposal released by the Obama administration Tuesday seeks to roll back restrictions Congress has placed on foreign aid to Egypt’s military regime and the sale of crowd control weapons to “emerging democracies.”
Under current law, 15 percent of aid to Egypt is subject to being withheld based on human rights conditions — although even that can be waived if it is deemed to be in the national security interest of the United States, as it was last year.
Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, says the administration probably doesn’t want to go to the trouble of justifying its waiver this year. “They had to basically do an assessment. … Here’s how they’re doing on political prisoners, here’s how they’re doing on freedom of assembly, and so on,” Bockenfeld explains. Last year’s report “infuriated the Egyptians … it was a pretty honest assessment of how things had deteriorated in Egypt.”
The assessment, for instance, took the Egyptians to task for the “impunity” their security forces operate under and restrictions on due process.
“I think what they’re trying to do is avoid a repeat of that scenario,” concludes Bockenfeld. “Because that upset the Egyptians as much as it did, we’d rather handle those things privately.”

In short, the Obama administration does not want in any way to publicly chastise the Sisi regime. At best – and let's face it this is a stretch – it's because it feels taking up these issues privately with Cairo is more effective. Yes, because that has worked so well in the past. It would be nice if the administration just came out publicly and said it can't be bothered, does not want headaches, and is fully supportive of the regime in Egypt no matter what it does. It would have much greater success in pleasing the Egyptians, which appears to be the chief goal, and put an end to the distracting and dishonest debate about supporting democracy or human rights. The damage here is not just the refusal to take a public political stance on what's going on in a key ally and major recipient of US largesse, but perhaps chiefly the ongoing abandonment of previous commitments to keep an eye on these issues and the making of concession after concession to the Sisi regime with apparently nothing in return. It's a small thing in the big scheme of things (see Russia and Aleppo), but exemplifies the amateurish, bureaucratically-driven, and irresolute aspects of Obama's foreign policy at its weakest.

Israel’s Putinisation

In the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz on Israel's anti-NGO legislation and the unsustainability of its democracy-for-Jews-only system. An excellent overview of changes in Israeli society and politics, but I have a quibble with the last part:

But the unbridled, insular nationalism of Netanyahu’s Israel is also reminiscent of Sisi’s Egypt and Erdoğan’s Turkey, where there is constant talk of foreign plots hatched in Washington and Brussels, and a toxic mix of resentment and entitlement vis-à-vis their Western patrons. As Diana Pinto suggests in Israel Has Moved (2013), the Jewish state has tended to see its neighbours as ‘so many vaulting poles with which to catapult itself into a peaceful because distant globalisation’. Economically, it has succeeded in escaping the region; politically, that goal has proved far more elusive. ‘Israel is now just another Arab regime,’ the Syrian poet Adunis once said to me, and the proposed legislation against ‘moles’ is scarcely different in kind, if not degree, from anti-NGO campaigns in Cairo. The repression of Jewish dissent is the latest phase of what Pinto describes as the ‘turning inward of a state in the process of its own ghettoising’. As if it preferred to remain in that ghetto, Israel has stubbornly carried on a colonial project at the risk of harming its relations with Europe and the United States, both of which are finally realising that Israel has no intention of making a genuine peace with the Palestinian people.

The debate and partial disenchantment with Israel among American and European Jews aside, is there really any signs that Europe and the US care or are willing to do anything about the realisation above?

AsidesThe Editors
Inside Hillary Clinton’s Massive Foreign Policy Brain Trust

Interesting piece by John Hudson at Foreign Policy on a candidate who should not be running on her foreign policy past:

But free advice isn’t the only advantage to having a big foreign policy team. One expert said the system helped ensure loyalty for Clinton by creating “the illusion of inclusion.”
“Even though you’re one of hundreds, you feel like you’re part of the team,” said one prominent think tank scholar.
It’s the type of dynamic that can make an outside expert think twice before tweeting a snarky reaction to a Clinton gaffe or offering a less-than-flattering quote to a reporter. The end goal for many experts is to parlay a stint on an advisory group into a plum job in a future Clinton administration.

I suspect that Bernie Sanders' lack of experience on foreign policy is a lot less of a negative in a country with a YUGE permanent national security establishment than Hillary Clinton's liberal interventionism and disastrous handling of Libya as Secretary of State. The character and general inclination of the president is clearly more important than his or her direct foreign policy knowledge or even the people they would recruit.

AsidesThe Editors
At the Cairo Book Fair

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

 

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

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

The Arab of the Future

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

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

 

Links 15-31 January 2016
LinksThe Editors
All of Bidoun online

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

 

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