The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts by Ursula Lindsey
On feminism in Tunisia

I visited Tunis last month and one thing I was interested in finding out more about was what kind of discussions Tunisian feminists are having in the aftermath of the Ben Ali regime -- and of the detailed and horrifying revelations of human rights abuses against women (particularly Islamist women) that took place in this most "feminist" of Arab countries, one that does have the most progressive legislation on women's rights in the region. I find the questions raised by state feminism and the divide between secular and Islamic feminists fascinating. I wrote about it for Al Fanar

Meanwhile, independent female activists who criticized the regime faced harassment and vilification. And, as has been revealed by recent testimony collected by the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission, women associated with the Islamist movement were subjected to shocking abuse, including rape, torture in detention and forced divorce.

“Was the Tunisian regime ‘feminist’ out of political necessity and to mask a democratic deficit…or out of modernist conviction? Does it even deserve to be called feminist?” writes Bessis. “What’s certain is that the regime was masterful in its ability to use women.”

It was also successful in dividing women. Under Ben Ali, says Mahmoud, Islamist and secularist women “might as well have existed in two different universes.” Secularist leftist women “were engaged in a political struggle with Islamists” and “did not do much to document or help Islamist women with what they were going through.”

“The dictatorship broke relations between women,” Abdellatif told me.

On the protest movement in Morocco's Rif

The protest movement (known as Hirak Shaabi or hirak for short) that has been going on in Morocco's northern mountainous Rif region for the last eight months was met with a police crackdown over the Eid holiday. In response for calls to protest in the town of Al Hoceima, police blocked roads between Al Hoceima and other towns and imposed what one observers called a "de-facto daytime curfew." Videos filmed by activists circulated online showing larger crowds marching on side streets, and being chased and beaten by riot police. You can see a number of such videos and photos embedded in this coverage by the local independent site Le Desk.

I've written a few things on this lately. For Al Fanar last week, I wrote about the reaction of Moroccan social scientists, who say the Rif region remains misunderstood and that the divisive coverage of the protests and the heavy-handed response of the authorities have missed an opportunity for a serious debate about unequal development among other topics. 

For the New York Times Sunday Review, I wrote about what has sparked the protests -- going back to the death of a local fish-seller last Fall, and then much further, to the Rif's long history of revolt and violence. The historian Paul Vermeren calls the Rif’s history “a succession of tragedies.”

One could also say that it all started at least a century ago. In the 1920s, Abdelkrim el-Khattabi led the tribes of the Rif in an insurrection against Spain, establishing an independent territory. After the Spanish and the French -- Morocco's two colonizers -- launched a brutal attack on the region, bombing, gassing and burning villages to the ground, Khattabi was defeated and ended his days in exile in Cairo.

In the late 1950s, after Morocco's independence, the region rose up again. Then Prince Hassan II, future king and father of Mohammed VI, led a bloody military crackdown. He held a lifelong grudge against the region, calling its inhabitants "savages" in a televised speech and withholding public investment in services and infrastructure for four decades.

Mohammed VI reversed that policy. He initiated huge infrastructure projects -- a container port in Tangier, a high-speed train -- in the north of the country. Many other projects and investments have been promised or are underway. But so far the benefits have largely failed to reach the locals, even as they have raised their expectations.

Conversations in Cairo

Bidoun is back! And it has published a series of interviews with folks in Cairo. I know most of the people in these conversations, at least a bit, and I found them all well worth reading.

But my favorite is Lina Attalah -- editor of the independent news site Mada Masr, which has just been blocked -- interviewing Laila Soueif, professor, activist and mother of an extraordinary clan that includes Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Mona Seif and Sanaa Seif. Some of the other exchanges are clouded by a pained ambivalence over the uprising, its aftermath and its meaning. Whether you agree with Soueif's analysis or not, these two women talking to each other both have a hard-won, warm-hearted lucidity. 

Here is Soueif on her children:

LS: I don’t think children eat up your career. Your free time, but not your career. But I didn’t mind. When Alaa was born, he became my primary source of entertainment and relaxation. I would only go to social events if I could take him along. Otherwise, I just didn’t go. You lose some freedom, of course, but it’s worth it. If Alaa hadn’t been with me in France, I would have gone mad.

For me, children are a source of emotional satisfaction in the face of distress. I knew of that at the time — once it was clear that Seif would be going to prison again, during that year that I was away from my PhD, I made sure to get pregnant. I knew I wanted to have another child to keep me busy, emotionally.

LA: Alaa always talked about his unique relationship with you, something far deeper than the traditional mother-and-son relationship. 

LS: The fact that Seif was in prison when Alaa was very young created a very special relationship between us. Alaa came with me to France when I did my PhD. I had to explain things that you should never have to explain to a child — why his father was in prison, that there are bad police and good police — the good ones, who catch thieves and organize traffic, and the bad ones, who arrest people who oppose the government. You don’t usually need to know these things when you’re four or five.

But Alaa was always sensitive to things. When we were in France, there was a wave of discrimination associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front. There were anti-immigrant ads with nooses, and it touched Alaa. He knew that the ad was addressing him somehow. Later, anytime someone said something negative about Christians, I told him that people who say bad things about Christians are like the ones who posted those ads. He became aware.

I think our relationship is also a function of Alaa’s character, though. I’ll never forget — one day, when Mona was a baby in France, I overslept. I’d had a cold. When I woke up I was frantic. It turned out that Alaa had taken Mona from her bed and made her breakfast. He just did this automatically. When Sanaa came along, it was the same. He took care of her, too. Of course Sanaa was extremely headstrong from the beginning. She still is. But when we fought with her, Alaa would take her aside and deal with her.

And on the political situation in Egypt: 

LS: Well, some things have changed. What happened in 2011 has changed the country. Where we will go is a different story. Sometimes, I think my life has had three stages. There’s everything before 2000, everything between 2000 and 2011, and then the period after 2011. Before 2000, you were always part of a small group. It might have had a certain significance, but you were always aware that you were in the minority — not only in relation to the authorities, but in relation to the people, too. Those were the years of the Islamists’ ascent. Then from 2000 to 2011, we began to see a movement in the streets that was not Islamist. Of course, the Islamist movement was bigger and stronger, but there was a non-Islamist movement as well.

LA: The era of Kifaya, March 9, and the April 6 Youth Movement.

LS: Yes. And then 2011 expanded that into a real popular movement, which succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and then suffered major defeats. But it was a real popular movement. There’s a big difference between being part of a defeated movement and being part of a defeated popular movement.

LA: What does that difference mean for you? For us?

LS: While our movement is defeated, it has an audience of sympathizers in the hundreds of thousands, if not in millions. It is scattered and confused; it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s leaderless, it has every problem in the universe… but it exists. We’ve never lived anything like this before. As someone who lived what feels like an entire lifetime in which there was no movement at all, I wouldn’t call this a desperate place. I wouldn’t call this situation we’re in, where we’re discussing real issues of human rights, a desperate situation. It’s a very developed situation. We’re fighting for the equality of women, against torture, against homophobia. It is a problem that these are tools that were developed in the last stage, when we were a minority dealing with a more careful regime, as opposed to the current one that beats everyone with abandon. But the situation has changed, and it changed because we became dangerous. That’s the significance of being a popular movement, even in defeat. The regime is lashing out because the regime itself is desperate. So the fact that we haven’t been able to develop new tools for the new situation doesn’t mean we haven’t progressed. 

LA: What would you point to as evidence of progress?

LS: I find it odd when I hear people say that conditions for women were better in the past. Maybe things looked nicer on the surface, but the situation of women on the ground today is deeply different from the 1960s and 1970s. Try to make women stay at home today. No way! 

Or people are always saying that the youth are apolitical — they’re disrespectful, they won’t listen to grown-ups, they just do what they want. When you get on a toktok in Boulaq al-Dakrour [a low-income area], you will hear rebellious, political songs. And then there are the informal settlements, the so-called ashwa’iyat where so much of the population lives. People have been forced to deal with their own matters, by themselves. They’re effectively outside the authority of the state. It’s not ideal, but this is the better-case scenario.

LA: So people’s relationship to authority is changing?

LS: I would say that the authorities are losing their grip on power. We’ve witnessed the collapse of the legend of the glorious national army; that can’t be reversed. We have more possibilities today than ever. But also more opportunities for a complete breakdown.

LA: You say that the problem is that we need new conceptualizations, new tools. But tools to do what, exactly? What does it mean to be politically engaged? What’s the purpose? Is it to create autonomous institutions, outside the system? To take power? To build power? To cause discomfort to those in power? 

LS: It depends on when we are talking about, but I think the least we can do is give the bad guys a hard time. If you have any kind of public profile, this is the very least you can do. I get so angry at people who have audiences who choose to remain silent. They tell you it’s pointless, but that’s just not true. If your words can have an echo for people, how can you be silent? I like to think that we are sitting like Banquo’s ghost for them. Even when we fail… like in the case of Tiran and Sanafir, the islands the government gave to Saudi Arabia last year — we mobilized, organized protests, filed lawsuits. And okay, so we may not have been able to screw the marriage, but we definitely screwed the wedding. It was not a political win for the authorities.

But real politics is not about this. It’s about giving people more control over their own lives, making people’s lives better. It’s about development — making it so that people aren’t dying from curable diseases. Of course, at that level, what can be done in power is much more significant than what can be done from the outside.

I used to think that our worst nightmare would be for our revolution to end up like the Iranian revolution, but I think it turned out even worse for us. In Iran, the Islamists were part of the fight that ended the old regime, and then they turned against their allies on the Left and took power. And of course, there is oppression, and it is a terrible regime that we have to keep fighting. But there was development, too. Iran today has less poverty, more and better universities, greater industrialization. In Egypt’s case, I honestly thought there was going to be a period of reform when the Brotherhood came to power. But they didn’t have any sort of plan for development. It just wasn’t a priority. So we experienced the worst.

A letter from Marseille: politics and identity in France

In March I spent a little time in (and fell in love with) Marseille, France's poorest, most diverse major city, trying to figure out the election that would eventually witness the implosion of the country's Socialist party and the election of the 39-year-old, party-less candidate Emmanuel Macron. I was particularly interested in the debate over identity, immigration and Islam that has dominated French politics in recent years, in part due to terrorist attacks and in greater part due to the fear-mongering of the far-right Front Nationale. I think the election of Macron is the best outcome one could have hoped for in this particular election, but the FN isn't going anywhere and we'll have to see what the new president can accomplish to address the economic issues, mistrust of the political system and identitarian divides the country is struggling with. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

I wrote this for The Point, an excellent Chicago-based magazine on politics and culture I strongly suggest you subscribe to. It will be included in the next print issue. 

I stayed with an old friend, M., who lives at the top of the Canebière, an artery that descends in a straight line to the old port, where sailboats bobbing in the water are watched over by the gleaming statue of Mary atop the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde—which everyone refers to as “la Bonne Mere.” The historic center of Marseille, unlike that of Paris, has not gentrified. I heard Arabic everywhere, and the busy central market of Noailles—where downtown residents buy their produce—was full of halal butchers, veiled female shoppers, men sitting in cafés, and shops selling olives, spices and pastries from North Africa.

This kind of bustling neighborhood seems to be the worst nightmare of many in France, who lament that in such areas, which they may never set foot in, their country has turned into “a foreign land.” The election was taking place in the wake of several terrorist attacks (beginning with the bloody assault of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015), carried out in great part by French citizens of immigrant origins. One of the front-runners in the election, Marine le Pen, was the candidate for the Front National (FN), an isolationist, populist far-right party that has campaigned on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. Le Pen is adept at mixing concerns about terrorism with fears of other “threats” to the Republic, such as burkinis, veils, halal meat and Arab rappers. But wringing one’s hands over the imminent imposition of Sharia law has become a political gambit, an intellectual industry and a literary genre common across France’s political spectrum.

“France’s obsession with identity is symptomatic of a crisis of the political system, of France’s place in the world,” Thierry Fabre, a prominent Marseille intellectual, told me. Fabre is a specialist in Mediterranean studies and a champion of cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. Twenty-three years ago he founded Les Rencontres de Averroes, a prominent annual series of public talks with scholars, artists and writers from both sides of the Mediterranean. “From the point of view of living together,” he said, Marseille, despite its divides, flaws, and contradictions, “is an emblematic city of the 21st century,” an example to be followed. Yet he admitted that France’s “machinery for integration has broken down. We are witnessing the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic.”

Indeed, a feeling of hopelessness, indignation and restlessness hung in the air in Marseille: the sense, which seems common to so many countries these days, that things can’t go on as they are. To some extent, this has to do with the economy. Growth has been stagnant for years in France, public services are strained, and unemployment hovers at around 10 percent. Yet a concern with shrinking opportunities and unfairness has morphed into a much larger malaise. France suffers from a debilitating obsession with identity, and has nothing but disgust for the country’s politicians, who are viewed as corrupt, out of touch and out of ideas. From people on the left I heard the word “catastrophe” more than once. “The point you have to make in your article,” M. told me, “is that we don’t know who to vote for.”

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Islamophobia in France

In the run-up to the incredibly unpredictable French presidential election, I took a look at some of the books being written by prominent (and not-so-prominent) French scholars, and wrote about the vitriolic debate over Islamophobia, Islamic radicalism and the alleged creeping Islamization of France. It is hard to over-state both how complicated, personal and over-the-top this debate can get. 

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I found Gilles Kepel's book Terror in France interesting as an overview of jihadism in France and of major political developments for France's Muslim minority since 2005 (including some analysis of political participation and of the question of a Muslim vote). Kepel is very critical of the idea of Islamophobia – not because he denies that there is discrimination against Muslims in France but because he says that Islamophobia has been politically instrumentalized to forbid criticism of Islam (Kepel is, not coincidentally, at loggerheads with the Comité Contre L'Islamophobie en France). Yet while I am sure that there are Islamists who use the victimization of Muslims as a means to set themselves up as leaders and spokesmen (always men) and to accrue political influence, there is plenty of criticism of Islam in France these days -- it's practically an intellectual and media industry. 

Which brings us to one of the other books I discuss, which is representative of the genre. Below is an excerpt:

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"That is one of the arguments of a book published this year for which Bensoussan was the lead editor: Une France Soumise, Les Voix du Refus (A Vanquished France, the Voices of Refusal). A collection of essays and interviews with public employees and officials, the book paints a dire picture of France turning into "a foreign land," its culture, identity, and rule of law threatened by the advance of Islamism. France faces a choice, a passage in the books warns, between civil war or "Houellebecquian" submission to Islam (a reference to the best-selling 2015 satire by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, in which the country elects a Muslim president and adopts Shariah law).

As evidence of creeping Islamization, the book cites demands for prayer rooms and halal meals; husbands who will not allow their wives to receive medical care from male doctors; reports of Muslim high-school students’ refusing to observe the moment of silence after terrorist attacks or expounding conspiracy theories. Many of the interviews are anonymous or do not specify when and where particular incidents took place. Bensoussan admits that it "is not an exhaustive investigation and does not have scientific pretensions." Yet he insists that it exposes a reality that France’s elites refuse to acknowledge."

Another book, now out in English, I strongly recommend is Olivier Roy's Jihad and Death, a beautifully written analysis of the narcissism and nihilism of jihadis and a critique of the paranoid view of Islam as an imminent threat to France. Also, although I don't write about it in this piece, French journalist David Thomson's book Les Revenants ("The Returnees"), a collection of interviews with young French jihadis (and their female supporters/partners) who have returned from Syrian, is also a riveting work of reportage. 

The Anti-Cairo
The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

Like many who have lived in Cairo, I remain obsessed with the city -- its squandered potential, its exhausting dysfunction, its liveliness and its charm. I've written something for the excellent Places Journal about the Egyptian government's proposal to move the country's capital to a new administrative city in the desert 45 Kilometers outside Cairo. I'm still not sure how seriously to take the fantastical announcements and graphic renderings of this future city (the authorities in Egypt are not exactly reliable, and the project seems preposterous) but something is already definitely being built. I analyzed the plans for the city as a key to understanding how the Sisi regime views the real, existing capital and public space. I also took a look back at Cairo's history and at the few years after Mubarak's ouster when activists, urbanists and citizens shared so many initiatives and proposals to make Cairo the city it should be. 

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

The last report from Egypt's El Nadeem Center

The El Nadeem Center is an extraordinary Egyptian NGO that documents police torture and counsels its victims. After a long period of groundless legal harassment, the center has now been forcibly closed by security forces. Just a few weeks ago it issued the following statement, alongside its annual report on torture -- which as its authors note is culled from media reports and statement on social media, and therefore under-estimates the phenomenon.   

"We release this Archive on the 6th anniversary of the 25th of January revolution, when the so called Police-Day turned into a day of revolution against that same police force and against all the atrocities it committed and continues to commit. We have no doubt that the news items we have managed to collect from the various media channels are but the tip of the iceberg.. below the surface or out of our reach and that of the media are many more crimes which we failed to access news about. For that we apologize for the people afflicted by them.

This archive begins with some official quotes made during 2016, beginning from the head of state to one of its main media spokespersons.. Most of which are quotes that deny and condemn those who oppose that denial.. According to those officials Egypt lives its best democratic eras, its prisons are akin to hotels to the extent that prisoners sometimes do not want to be released.. talk about forced disappearance is a lie that targets to defame Egypt's image in front of the work.. No torture is practiced in prisons or police stations.. and detainees are receiving the best medical care!!!

This media archive testifies to the opposite. The archive does not include testimonies taken by doctors working at El Nadim clinic, but includes only testimonies published on the various media channels, including social media. At the end of each testimony there is a link to the original publication for whoever would like to check.

We have classified statistics into killing (extrajudicial, although we oppose all killing even if ordained by law), death in detention, individual torture, collective maltreatment and torture, medical neglect in detention, forced disappearance, reappearance and finally acts of state violence outside places of detention.

Although we believe that every case of forced disappearance is most likely a victim of torture (for why else would security forces would deprive a detainee from every contact with the outside world if not to seize confessions under duress) the listed number of torture cases does not include those who have disappeared unless they have spoken about their torture after reappearing. In addition, we have also published the numbers of those who have reappeared according to the collected news. All of them reappeared in state institutions, none in Syria or with ISIS, as some claim.

The archive also has sections of letters sent from prisons, testimonies of former detainees as well as testimonies of their families during their time of detention. Those sections, we believe are the most valuable part of this archive. They testify to an era as well as to the resilience of individuals who, although deprived of their freedom, hold on to their humanity and belief in human values and solidarity.

2016 was a heavy year. At about this time in 2015 El Nadim released its 2015 archives of oppression, upon which the government made two attempts at its closure.. the only clinic - unfortunately - that provides psychological help to survivors of violence and torture. Some state institutions, in Egypt as well as some of our embassies abroad, claimed that the clinic is closed and that it no longer received clients. Despite the heaviness of the year and the challenges facing El Nadim and other civil society organizations and especially human rights organizations, we assure our constituency and supporters that the clinic has not closed, not for a single day. As long as there is a need for the service provided by the clinic it will continue providing it, even if it is forced to take other formulas and continue receiving survivors of violence and torture. Until then 3A Soliman el Halabi street, 2nd floor remains open.

This archive is not produced by the clinic. It is produced by an independent Egyptian NGO, El Nadim.

Let us hope that 2017 be more merciful to us all. "

PostsUrsula Lindseyegypt, torture
Taking a page from Cossery on Trump and Bannon

There are reports that Donald Trump is annoyed by Steve Bannon’s high profile (the jokes about #PresidentBannon, the SNL skit, the Time magazine cover etc.) 

The idea of our pathologically narcissistic president being troubled by the prominence of his lieutenant seems very plausible. It also reminded me of the plot of Albert Cossery’s La Violence et la derision (translated as The Jokers). Cossery was born in Cairo to a Greek Orthodox Levantine family. He left Egypt for Paris in 1945. But all of his brilliant, satirical novels — whose antiheroes are vagabonds, dandies, thieves and hashish smokers — are set in the Arab world (mostly in Egypt). 

InThe Jokers, a group of men in Alexandria, annoyed by the city’s stupid and incompetent governor, decide to undermine him by heaping inordinate praise on him, printing flyers that glorify him and writing letters to the newspaper full of over-the-top compliments. The idea is that such praise will render him ridiculous and that he will be forced to resign for seeming to aggrandize himself. 

There have been a number of comparisons between Trump and Arab dictators (the love of gilded fixtures, the contempt for the press, the allegations that all protesters are paid stooges). Another resemblance is the way he loathes being mocked and being upstaged. The Resistance should take a page from The Jokers and work to put Bannon on the cover of many more magazines.

J.M. Coetzee in Palestine

Nobel Literature Prize winner J.M. Coetzee spoke in Ramallah recently as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature, an event I cannot recommend following and (if you are as lucky as I was a few years ago) participating in enough.  

Free Ahmed Naji

Today is an international blogging day on behalf of imprisoned Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji, who has unfortunately become the latest poster child for the ruthless, petty and seemingly endless crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt. Jailed on charges of offending public morals for a few scenes featuring drugs and sex in his novel "The Use of Life," Naji has just received the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award

The blog Arabic Literature in English is the place to start to read abut Naji's case and the solidarity efforts on his behalf. I interviewed him several times for an article on writers in Cairo published in The Nation a few months back and was as shocked as everyone else by his conviction. 

Here is a link to the offending chapter -- simply a rather charming description of a weekend spent partying with friends and lovers, in that most difficult of cities, Cairo -- in Arabic.  There are also excellent English and French translations available, and I strongly recommend reading them. 

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

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.

 

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. 

 

PostsUrsula Lindseyarts, bidoun
In Translation: Five Years On.. Did the Egyptian Revolution Fail?

The Egyptian authorities were so worried about the anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak that they reportedly inspected hundreds of apartments Downtown and forced young people to show their social media accounts. They also shut down many cultural venues that are gathering places (being young, being online, and hanging out Downtown are now explicitly grounds for suspicion). 

A lot of media is publishing eulogies of the 2011 Egyptians uprising, asking those who supported it to reflect on its disappointing denouement. It can be painful and a bit frustrating to read these pieces (I think media professionals themselves -- and I include myself -- as well as pundits and Western politicians, could just as well be asked what they got "terribly wrong"). That said we have one of our own, translated as usually by the professional team of Industry Arabic

Rabab El Mahdi is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. She was also an active participant in post-2011 politics, notably when she acted as an advisor to the presidential campaign of moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (El Mahdi herself is a staunch leftist). This piece takes a brooders view at the current moment of crisis, not just in the Middle East but in the world's economic and political systems. 

FIVE YEARS ON.. DID THE EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION FAIL?

Rabab El Mahdi, al-Shorouq, 21 January 2016

A mixture of suppressed anger, sorrow and fatigue engulfs the city known as “victorious,” [Ed. Note: One of the meanings of Cairo] a rough but vibrant city. Over the past five years the city has changed – and, to my mind, not necessarily for the worse, as the followers of the “good old days” school of thinking like to put forth. However, it has changed and I am almost certain that it will never be the same. Those who supported the revolution and thought that something better was possible have become frustrated and dispersed; those who followed the revolution with interest and anticipation have become fatigued; and those who opposed the revolution and continue to do so, believing it to be a conspiracy, are still afflicted by the fear caused by that earthquake in 2011, whose consequences, though they have temporarily subsided, remain present. The question shared by all these groups, whatever their political orientation, is: What next? This question is on everyone’s minds, even if it is not spoken aloud. But the question that remains of particular concern to the majority of those who dreamed of and believed in the 2011 revolution in Egypt is: Did the revolution fail?

I do not think that any one of us, whatever they claim, can definitively answer this question, and anyone who attempts to do so is just showing that they are not aware of the limits of their knowledge. However, there are in my opinion some necessary starting points, even if they are not enough for us to be able to understand what happened and therefore—most importantly—what can happen in the future.

We must realize that what Egypt has been going through over the past five years is not just a political movement or even an aborted attempt at a revolution, it is a historical process of change that involves society as a whole, including its political and even its cultural structures. Therefore, this process could last for decades. The post-colonial state that was formed in the middle of the last century has reached its end. In its current form, it is no longer able to fulfill its various roles managing society or even to achieve the requirement of being accepted by new generations, who are no longer satisfied with the idea of exchanging freedom for a non-existent economic security or to relinquish their personal dignity in a police state under the pretext of security and national autonomy. We are in the midst of a battle to redefine and to question what had previously been a given.

The fervor surrounding the idea of national independence and international conspiracies is no longer enough to subdue the generations of the new millennium, especially those whose political awareness was formed by the revolution, even if they did not participate in it. The concepts of the nation, pride and dignity have become part of the public debate and are linked to personal lives and no longer merely abstract concepts. Thus, the famous song lyric: “Don’t say, ‘What has Egypt done for us?’” is no longer a sufficient response to their questions and aspirations to a better individual and public life. Just as the project of the independent state was the dream of  20th century generations, the dream of a free society is the project of 21st century generations. From another perspective, the welfare state capable of providing social advancement through education and employment—even if that state is authoritarian—has ended. With the crisis of global capitalism and of the ambitions to build of the Gulf states, the Egyptian state is no longer able to meet the needs of its citizens. It cannot do so by way of an “industrial renaissance,” as in the era of Nasser, by offering a model like Sadat’s “Infitah” or even by way of the rentier state model (exporting labor to the Gulf and relying on their remittances), as was the case during the Mubarak era. For global and regional reasons, all of these economic models have been exhausted.

At the same time, society is experiencing these labor pains not only at the level of the relationship to the state, but also at the level of social and cultural patterns and individual relations. Towns and villages have evolved into small cities; the state’s domination over local media, education and cultural institutions is being confronted by the ungovernable openness of the internet and the diversity of resources for self-education; control by the religious establishment is being confronted by the rise of religious currents that may be worse and more extremist, but that are disrupting the idea of religion being monopolized or dominated by a single institution. The struggle among these views is reshaping society and the individual in a historic sense not seen since the late 19th and early 20th century with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the concept of Arab nationalism and the emancipation of women, etc. This is a struggle that surpasses the idea of a political movement, which has become merely the outer layer of the deeper changes that society is experiencing.

Furthermore, the region and the world are witnessing rapid transformations that affect us, though some had thought that they didn’t. The regional scene has come to resemble what Europe and the world went through during the period of the first half of the 20th century: world wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the end of the old colonial powers and the Ottoman Empire, the rise of national movements, the drawing of borders for new states and the beginning of the Cold War. With the rise of non-state actors, such as ISIS and even Hezbollah as regional actors and the shift in the network of state alliances -- with the emergence of Iran and Turkey and the rise of China and Russia as states with international ambitions particularly focused in the region -- the set and the nature of regional actors has changed, as has the game itself. Thus, it is no longer possible to restrict oneself to long-term, low-level conflict management. On the contrary, what we see is an intensification and escalation, up to the moment of an imminent explosion that will redraw the map of the region – that may redraw even the nature of the states and their borders as we have known them over the last century and the concept of the state’s control over the instruments of legitimate violence and fixed territorial borders, which we studied in political science.

At the same time, the world has been witnessing successive crises, beginning with the 2008 financial crisis and through the recent crisis in Greece. These crises threaten the nature of the global economic system as we know it or at least indicate the scale of the crisis created by the global capitalist system. In parallel, we see the rise of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the demise of political parties as the principal instrument for managing conflicts and political competition as well as the rise of far-right discourse in Europe and the Arab world (though their tools and motivations differ). These variables reflect the magnitude of the change that is overtaking to the world as a whole, and even those ideas and concepts the world had thought settled, such as the optimal political form and the meaning and administration of democracy.

In sum, we are at the beginning of the end of a historic phase domestically, regionally and globally, even if that does not mean that this phase will end tomorrow. The starting point is to understand the nature of this phase and then to begin to pose questions about what we, as individuals and as groups, hope for in order to shape the future and to draft preliminary plans for how to achieve it, while keeping in mind that both state violence and non-state violence are an unsustainable situation. In this sense, judging the outcomes of the Egyptian Revolution or what is called the Arab Spring is premature. We are witnessing the beginning of the final chapter of a stage in the evolution of human society, but how this final scene will end has yet to be decided. May God have mercy on all the martyrs, refugees, prisoners and all those who came out and took action, only wanting a better future for humankind.