The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Uncategorized
NYU in Abu Dhabi
The Review at The National has a feature on NYU's John Sexton and his hyper-ambitious plans for the university's new Abu Dhabi campus. It's a two-part articles, so I'm hoping the next section takes a tougher look at the university's claims about its mission. I had a wonderful time getting my masters at the Hagop Kevorkian Center at NYU, but I became very skeptical of the administration--their treatment of any student demands for greater participation in the university's running was always condescending and quite ruthless. The articles mentions the way Sexton crushed the grad student union; it also mentions a sit-in that took place when I was there--what it doesn't say is that the students were forcefully evicted by police, expelled from university housing, and charged with vandalism in disciplinary hearings. The sit-in's main demand was greater accountability of the university's finance and greater student participation in its decisions. The Review piece raises interesting questions about how well Western academic standards will withstand the pressures of Gulf politics and religious sensitivities; it should also ask how well Western academic standards have withheld the pressures of the modern American market. NYU is a good university but almost more than that, at this point, it's an efficient conglomerate.
Like many, I think, I've been watching the footage of the massive demonstrations and state brutality and the internet updates (Now here's a real use for Twitter, to put all the banal, compulsive over-sharing of politicians and correspondents to shame) coming out of Iran over the last few days. It's all worrying and exciting and very confusing to me--how and to what extent were the elections rigged? Is there any chance that this outpouring of indignation will have an effect? 

I do think President Obama struck the right tone. Since we are (thankfully) not currently planning on bombing and invading Iran, there is no point is making strident ultimatums or threats--they will just be used by the clerical regime to tar their opponents; they're already accusing the U.S. of interference.
Swine flu makes Americans pariahs?
Interesting first-person essay in the Daily News Egypt (which jives with a few other anecdotes I've heard) about how swine flu hysteria--I know it's a serious health threat, but the reaction has been out of proportion--is affecting the treatment of foreigners in Cairo. I also read in the Egyptian press today that Saudi Arabia may not allow pilgrims from countries where cases have been found to come to Mecca this year.
June 2nd I moved back to Cairo from New York. Despite all of New York's attractions, it's a move I've been looking forward to with anticipation--I've missed my home, my work, my future husband, and my friends. 

I hear there's been lovely, temperate weather the last month, but by the time I arrived the city was already broiling. The blooming flamboyants--the flame trees, my favourite trees here--with their feathery leaves and masses of blood-orange blossoms, seem to actually be catching fire under the sun. But I don't mind the heat--it's familiar, and everything familiar is pleasurable right now. 

I got here just ahead of Obama. I walked around Cairo's eerily empty streets, watched the speech on TV in my neighborhood awha, and did a short radio piece on it you can listen to here. Audiences here--as audiences the world over--were impressed with the new American president; they're disposed to like him. (A few of the ahwa patrons watching the speech were particularly impressed by his Koranic quotations and by his apparent enjoyment of his visit to the Sultan Hassan mosque). But everyone wants to see what he'll actually do next.
Body in Beirut
Yesterday's Washington Post had an article about a new cultural magazine in Beirut dedicated to the body (It's called  جسد, "body"). The first issue included "fiction, essays and other literary works about foot fetishism, homosexuality and cannibalism."

The magazine was launched by poet and an-Nahar editor Joumana Haddad.
Haddad said her magazine doesn't have an equivalent, not even in the Western cultures she is familiar with."It doesn't exist there simply because they don't need it. In the West, people own their bodies. In the Arab world, our bodies have been stolen from us," she said.

That's a pretty stilly and debatable generalization. And I just can't get any sense from the article as to what this magazine is actually like. (I'm curious why it has a lot of subscribers in Saudi Arabia--did they order it just based on the title?) It all seems pretty gimmicky.
The National has an article about the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a village of Moroccan musicians who have been playing for hundreds of years and were "discovered" in the 1960s by Western musicians and beatniks (Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones kicked it all off when he recorded a CD of their music). The article does a very good job of discussing the way this Western interest has expressed itself and affected the group, and the way their music has been treated by Western producers--although I wish there had been more focus on the kind of music they play, its history and form (they say they were the "house band" of the royal house of Morocco for centuries). 

I heard the Master Musicians of Jajouka at a Moroccan music festival several summers ago, and then visited Jajouka to do a radio piece about them. Rather than try to describe their really entrancing music, I'll just direct you to their website.

At Jajouka Issandr and I met Bashir Attar, the strange and funny and very rock'n'roll head of the Master Musicians of Jajouka (it's an inherited position, from father to son). We were his guests for one long day and night. We wandered the village (which has spectacular views and no running water), looked at all the pictures of Bashir with various visiting foreign musicians, listened to him tell a lot of rambling stories, had dinner (a whole goat was killed for us--we were served at about midnight, outside, under a full moon). All evening people trickled in, musicians and young men from the village who sat smoking kif pipes--and then people started humming, tapping on tables, and instruments started appearing one by one, and at about four in the morning some great music was played. It was a memorable night, to say the least. 

The article mentions that today there are two groups billing themselves as the musicians of Jajouka (you can see from the comments that this issue remains a contentious one). Clayton makes a good point that "One of the defining aspects of folk music is openness: if you can play it, it’s yours. Like speaking a language, the ability to perform unwritten music confers – is – its own legitimacy. But the two groups lay claim to the same list of recordings, the same history of musical collaborations, and certainly these are facts that can be established. The two Jajouka bands is a complicated story, involving a split of some sort within a fluid, multi-generational musical tradition (and the pressures and enticements of a Western market). As far as I can tell, Bashir's group (or his father's) is the one that did most of the famous recordings and collaborations, and that's invited to festivals, etc. That doesn't mean other musicians from Jajouka are "inauthentic," as Clayton points out. But to raise this issue and then dismiss it as beside the point--without doing a bit more research, without comparing the music put out by the two groups, without bothering to talk to the musicians themselves--seems a bit facile.
Al Koni on translation
A little item at the Literary Saloon recently about Lybian author Ibrahim Al Koni caught my eye. Al Koni was talking about translation at the Dubai literature festival recently. This reminded me that his novel "Nazeef Al Hajar" ("The Bleeding of the Stone") was one of the great discoveries and pleasures of a language-cum-literature class I took last year with Professor Hussein Hamouda, of Cairo University. A number of his other novels--mostly set among tribes in the Lybian desert--have also been translated. I can't describe how powerful and original his work is.
Censorship snafu at Dubai lit festival
The Guardian reports that: 
Margaret Atwood has pulled out of the inauguraul Emirates Airline international festival of literature in the wake of a novelist being blacklisted for potential offence to "cultural sensitivities".

The book in question is former Observer journalist Geraldine Bell's "The Gulf Between Us," a romantic comedy set in the Gulf. It appears that a minor gay character--a local sheikh with a foreign boyfriend--may be the cause. You can read the author's take here.

I am so bored with these "homosexuality/art/censorship" controversies in the Arab world. As the director of the festival himself points out at the end of the following statement he released, the controversy will only help the book's sales.
I have lived in Dubai for forty years. Based on my knowledge of who would appeal to the book-reading community in the Middle East, and having read 150 pages of Bedell’s manuscript I knew that her work could offend certain cultural sensitivities. I did not believe that it was in the festival’s long term interests to acquiesce to her publisher’s (Penguin) request to launch the book at the first festival of this nature in the Middle East.

We do, of course, acknowledge the excellent publicity campaign being run by Penguin which will no doubt increase sales of her book and we wish Ms Bedell the very best.

But I do think this snafu points to larger problems with the Gulf states' increasing patronage of the arts--from the many literary festivals they are organizing to the gigantic new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum. The Emirates want to put themselves on the world map as art and culture patrons, but they are out of step with international expectations about an artist's right to express herself and to tackle all manner of provocative subjects. 

(P.S. Thanks for the tip, Sumita)
Al Aswany to Obama: You should speak out on Gaza
Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt's best-selling novelist and international phenomenon) recently penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times. Not bad, actually.

We saw Mr. Obama as a symbol of this justice. We welcomed him with almost total enthusiasm until he underwent his first real test: Gaza. Even before he officially took office, we expected him to take a stand against Israel’s war on Gaza. We still hope that he will condemn, if only with simple words, this massacre that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, many of them civilians. (I don’t know what you call it in other languages, but in Egypt we call this a massacre.) We expected him to address the reports that the Israeli military illegally used white phosphorus against the people of Gaza. We also wanted Mr. Obama, who studied law and political science at the greatest American universities, to recognize what we see as a simple, essential truth: the right of people in an occupied territory to resist military occupation.

But Mr. Obama has been silent. So his brilliantly written Inaugural Speech did not leave a big impression on Egyptians. We had already begun to tune out. We were beginning to recognize how far the distance is between the great American values that Mr. Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law.
It had to happen
Well, I have held out forever, but this morning I finally did it...I joined Facebook.

I had to, after reading yet another article (in the New York Times Magazine) about the way social networking software is sweeping across the Middle East. 

The story focuses on the April 6 Facebook group that was established last year to plan a general anti-government strike, and currently has about 70,000 members. While this is clearly an interesting development, the article's title--"Revolution: Facebook Style"--promises more than it can deliver: last April, despite the Facebook mobilization, there was no strike to speak of. (Meanwhile, like almost all US media coverage, the piece barely discusses the numerous labour protests that have been going on in the country for years, and that did culminate, on that day, in anti-government rioting in the city of Mahalla.)

I enjoyed the article because of the lively portraits of the online activists and of "Facebook Girl" Esraa Rashid, and some of the details about their relationships and disagreements. 

That said, I wonder why they don't send someone who speaks and reads Arabic to do a story of this kind, since the #1 thing it requires is hours and hours of reading posts and comments online, getting a sense of the tone and scope of discussions. I for one would have liked it if the piece had quoted the online-discussions more.
Egyptian art divide
The divide between the official (state-sponsored) and "independent" (mostly foreign grant-sponsored) cultural circles in Cairo is a common trope for analyzing the art scene in the city. But Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes on the subject with her usual thoughtfulness and eye for detail in a just-out article  in The Review comparing PhotoCairo 4 to the Cairo Biennale.
Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language
My interest has been very piqued by references on several lit blogs to Moroccan author/public intellectual AbdelFattah Kilito's new book  "Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language," on the vagaries and challenges of translating from Arabic. There's a good review at The National but the University of Syracuse's own press release seems to be unavailable and I couldn't find much other coverage online.

The book is a series of historical anecdotes and ruminations on the translation process and the politics that surround it. Kilito's observation that "the process of reading and writing [in Arabic today] is always attended with potential translation" is true not only of the Middle East but of all national literatures. Yet reviewer Kanishk Tharoor gently questions the "whiff of the parochial" in Kilito's view that one can only be loyal to a single language (a view he ascribes to the politicization of the French-Arabic divide in the Maghreb). 

My own view is that translation is always an imperfect process-you strive toward an ideal, the perfect translation, which can never be reached. And of course it's deeply inflected with the cultural, historical and political relations between the two languages and countries across which this imperfect transfer of meaning is taking place. But it's a nonetheless a worthwhile and often fascinating activity. A great translation of a great book is a gift to the world--a kind of gift I've been thankful for many times.
New Arabian Nights
Just in time for Christmas, Penguin recently came out with a new English edition of the Thousand and One Nights. It's a beautiful object, three big off-white books with blue metallic designs. Yet in her review in the London Review of Books (no more than the opening paragraph is available online), Marina Warner accuses the new edition of an unfortunate lack of decisiveness--it can't quite make up its mind whether to be a scholarly work or a literary entertainment, she argues, just as it can't quite make its mind up whether to revel in or discard alltogether the period language of its predecessors. Warner ranks the French Pleiade well above it.

Warner also reviews a new book of essays, "The Arabian Nights in Historical Context: Between East and West," which she argues engages (implicitly) with the legacy of Said's "Orientalism." I find this kind of a discussion--are the Thousands and One Nights the products of Orientalism? Can they be reclaimed by the East?--reductive and a little boring, but I admittedly haven't read the book (and won't, as long at it retails at 55 Pounds Sterling).

One big quibble I had with the review: at one point, discussing the Thousand and One Nights' repercussions on modern Arabic literature, Warner writes:
"The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany...continues the process: an enthralling piece of storytelling as well as a brave and straight-dealing account of Cairo, al-Aswany's novel adopts the urban labyrinth of The Arabian Nights while containing its cast of intricately connected characters within a single, many-chambered building."

I really struggle to see what in particular relates The Yacoubian Building to The Thousand and One Nights, other than the fact that they are both Arab works of literature. Other authors (Elias Khoury come to mind) have drawn much more explicit inspiration from the nestled, circular, divagatory narration of the Nights. To say that the Yacoubian Building "continues the process" is to say, really, nothing--it does so as much as any other work of Middle Eastern literature does, and just as any contemporary work of English literature "continues the process" of Shakespeare, or Dante. The automatic comparison of any work of Arabic literature to the 1001 Nights--just like the inevitable description of any Middle Eastern female narrator as a "Sheherazade"--is a bad habit that reviewers should lose. After all, as the rest of Warner's review makes clear, the Nights as we know them are in great part a European invention, and have influenced Western literature as much if not more than that of the East.
Goodbye Madbouli
Hagg Madbouli, the owner of one of Cairo's iconic bookstores, passed away on December 5th. Any one who has spent some time in Cairo has also spent some time, at some point, at Madbouli's, a small packed bookstore on Midan Talat Harb (so small and packed, in fact, that it was impossible to browse--you had to ask one of the men who worked there to find you the book you wanted.) 
Cairo cover issue 25 - Hagg Madboulli Cairo cover issue 25 - Hagg Madbouli

But Madbouli's always had a wide selection of books, and always promised to get you the one you wanted if it wasn't available at the moment. (I recently asked an Egyptian friend to look for some books in Beirut for me and she came back laughing, saying the Lebanese clerks had told her "You have to look for this at Madbouli's, in Cairo, in Midan Opera"--wrong address, but close.) 

Hagg Madbouli has a quite striking story of personal success: he started out as a child selling newspapers on the street, and ended up running one of Cairo's main book stores, and eventually, publishing houses. We did a profile of  him [PDF 6.8MB] years ago at the now-defunct Cairo magazine, and there have been articles the Hebdo and the Daily News recently. Despite the anecdotes about him providing intellectuals with censured or hard-to-find books under Nasser and Sadat, I have to say that I have a less idealistic view of the Hagg than most of this eulogizers--he usually struck me as a grouch and, as far as literature was concerned, a philistine. I suspect he saw book-selling merely as a profession and that his choice of books to sell and publish were dictated by a cunning reading of the market more than by any literary principles of his own. And the outpour of articles about him just goes to show, in a way, how small the cultural and publishing scene in Cairo remains.

Still, we need successful and entrepreneurial publishers, and the Hagg will be fondly remembered as a Cairo institution.