The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged culture
The ties that bind jihadists

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education -- written several months ago  -- about the culture of Islamic extremists, the kinds of activities that jihadis engage in in their spare time and that very likely contribute significantly to the appeal and narrative of jihadism. It was fascinating to talk to the scholars working on this (most of the work is on ISIS' predecessors). Many make the point that without understanding the cultural practices and rewards of jihadism it is hard to counter-act its appeal or to assess its staying power. Here is an excerpt:

By Hegghammer’s definition, jihadist culture includes activities that do more than fulfill basic military needs. Some of those are quite unexpected. Public displays of weeping are an aspect of jihadist culture that intrigues Hegghammer, who notes that the practice is so common that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq until his death, in 2006, was known as "the slaughterer" but also as "he who weeps a lot." It’s a well-respected sign of piety to weep during Quran recitations, when watching propaganda videos and reflecting on the suffering of Muslims around the world, and when talking of martyrdom and one’s desire to achieve it. It is not, however, appropriate to cry over the death in combat of comrades — the correct response is to rejoice.
There are other surprises besides the frequency with which jihadist leaders burst into tears. Iain Edgar, a professor of anthropology at Durham University and a contributor to Hegghammer’s volume, has been researching the role of dreams within jihadist groups.
Edgar is a specialist in dream cultures around the world. Dreams are taken seriously by many Muslims as potentially divine messages.
In Pakistan, Edgar learned that the late Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was widely credited with acting upon his premonitory dreams. Osama bin Laden, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, would often start the day by asking if any of his followers had had a significant dream, Edgar says. Jihadist leaders use dreams to legitimize their decisions — to carry out an attack, for example — as divinely inspired, and to emphasize their close connection with the Prophet and his companions.
"The idea that dreaming was still part of contemporary politics and of the biggest conflict today — I found that really fascinating," says Edgar.
Other scholars are interested in the stories that jihadist movements are crafting about themselves. Haykel and Robyn Creswell, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University, have written a paper on the poetry of Islamic radical groups (a version of which appeared in June in The New Yorker). The scholars examine the pre-eminent role of poetry within Muslim culture generally and jihadist groups in particular, where most other forms of art are proscribed. Poetry, they argue, is "a window on the movement talking to itself."
Jihadists write poems lamenting the hardships they suffer (but explaining why they are worth it), winning rhetorical arguments against their critics, elegizing fallen comrades, taking political and theological stances, praising leaders, and memorializing battles. The poetry is rec­ondite, says Haykel, often modeled on early Islamic forms, because while jihadists are bent on creating a radical new reality, they cast themselves as the inheritors of Islamic tradition.
Syria Speaks

This summer, while the young men of the organization-formerly-known-as-ISIS -- men whose inner lives I find it hard to fathom -- were marauding across what is left of Iraq and Syria, I was reading the powerful anthology Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline. I just reviewed it for the blog of the London Review of Books. 

Untitled by Khalil Younes. One of many works of visual art included in the book. 

Untitled by Khalil Younes. One of many works of visual art included in the book. 

Much of the work in Syria Speaks seems to have been written a year or two ago, and what a difference that time makes. Most of the more than fifty contributors are outside Syria now; their hope and defiance seem out of date. Yet the book is a valuable reminder that the early protests against Assad were both peaceful and democratic. It also sheds light on the way the protesters’ aspirations were ground into irrelevance.

In the opening piece, the journalist Samar Yazbek travels though the countryside around Aleppo, Idlib and Hama:

The sun was blazing down, so intense that it was impossible to cry. Everyone spoke with granite-like solemnity; a brief sigh was enough to occupy the whole space… It was as though we had uncovered Syria’s true identity after all this time: a country made of earth, blood and fire, where explosions never ceased.

You can read the rest here

The new Arab capitals
The way of the future? The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

The way of the future? The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Earlier this month, Sultan Sooud El Qassemi wrote an op-ed in Al-Monitor that has stirred considerable controversy. El Qassemi, a writer, active Twitter presence, businessman, art patron, member of Sharjah's ruling family and friend, argued that the capitals of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have become

..the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. While these Gulf cities may be unable to compete with their Arab peers in terms of political dynamism, in almost every other sense they have far outstripped their sister cities in North Africa and the Levant. 

Needless to say, the claim that Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become what Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo once were to the Arab world raised many hackles. The Angry Arab replied: 

What contribution to Arab culture have those cities made, unless you are talking about sleaze, worship of the European, denigration of the Asians, promotion of singers purely based on breast sizes and lip thickness, prostitution mentality (literally and figuratively), gender segregation and repression, the culture of measuring humans by the size of their bank accounts, etc.  Culture, what culture? Cairo and Beirut were known for hosting a culture that allowed (often despite desires of the ruling governments) various political and cultural trends to co-exist and to clash, and for the expression of divergent political viewpoints.  Cairo and Beirut were cities that allowed artists and writers to seek refuge and to express themselves artistically and creatively, and there is none of that in the Gulf.  Yes, academics and journalists are flocking to the Gulf but what have they produced there? What ideas? They go there and they work as assistants and propagandists in the entourage for this prince or that prince.  If anything, the impact of that Gulf oil and gas culture has been quite corrosive on the entire Arab world and its culture.  In that sense alone, yes, Gulf cities do play a role. 

Al-Monitor also published a response by Abbas Al-Lawaty that rightly highlighted the single most distinctive feature of the Persian Gulf cities: their system of imported, caste labour: 

Millions of workers flocked to the Gulf. Everything from people, ideas, academic institutions, museums, athletes and even bottled water flown in from tens of thousands of kilometers away was imported. In an effort to develop at a breakneck speed and become competitive with Western hubs, they have become replicas of those cities with little more of their own to offer foreign visitors and tourists than the clichéd desert safaris packaged with belly-dance shows.
Today, in each of the cities that were cited as the new Arab centers, foreigners vastly outnumber citizens. Like the traditional Arab capitals, they have become hubs for migrants. The difference is that migrants in the Gulf have residency cards with expiration dates. It is therefore unrealistic to expect Gulf cities to grow to the level they wish if the majority of the population is transient and continuously reminded that it will one day have to leave. Someone who does not feel a sense of belonging will not invest his or her full potential in such a city.

I'm pretty sure that Sultan did not intend it this way, but it strikes me as in somewhat poor taste to celebrate the advent of Gulf cities when the capitals they are supposedly superseding are suffering from such damaging conflicts, losing lives and losing history. 

Our own occasional contributor Bilal Ahmad makes the interesting argument, at Souciant, that the chaos that besets cities like Cairo is not a symptom of their irrelevance but quite the contrary:

al-Qassemi forgets that cities are a convergence of human experience, and desire. They’re settings in which millions of people arrive at different times, for similar goals of self-betterment, and work. At times when the dreams of their residents, and society as a whole, are not being realized, they also become the main engine by which their residents can better conceptualize, and make manifest, their yearning for emancipation.
 The reason that Cairo is in shambles is because it’s a city that has been galvanized by attempts to envision the new. For me, that’s what a center of the Arab world is supposed to do: fight for the future. Cairo is still one of the centers of the Arab world, because its current difficulties are a result of the fact that the Cairo that will be hasn’t been born yet. It’s still lost in the fighting of the Arab Spring. That goes for many cities across the region.
The fact that the Khaleeji cities are not dealing with such unrest is not something of which to be proud. It means that they’re absent from critical discussions of what Arab cities will come to mean. How can they be leaders if they’re so conspicuously missing? It’s also worth noting, once again, that their relative tranquility came at a violent price.
The Gulf states only avoided the unrest of the Arab Spring because they’re controlled by morally-bankrupt monarchs, who are backed by investors armed by the West, and who successfully pressed for a peaceful democratic revolt in Bahrain to be crushed. This is because the idea of embracing the new, in any serious way, was too much for the leaders of these alleged centers to bear. As a result, we’re at a point where not only is the new still in the process of being born in cities like Cairo, but it has also been sterilized against in the Gulf, following an induced miscarriage in Bahrain.
Out with the old? A street in Damascus

Out with the old? A street in Damascus

I'm happy Sultan raised this debate, although I disagree with his general argument (or wish it had included many more nuances and caveats). The hydrocarbon-rich emirates of the Arabian peninsula are undoubtedly a force in the Arab world, and as such they need to be understood, not just reflexively bashed. They are a facet of the future, and important one -- centers of economic, political and yes cultural influence. But to claim that a city is "a cultural center" implies that it is engaged in a kind of sustained, unique cultural production that so far hardly takes place in the Gulf. It's not just that there are very few local artists, writers or scientists. It's that what is produced there, culturally, by locals or expats, has a very tenuous connection to or engagement with its context. When it is relevant, like the politically engaged poetry of the Qatari poet Mohamed Al-Ajami, it ends with 15-year jail sentences

Dubai has a booming art market, but it's just that, a market -- art is one of the many forms of capital that circulates there. The art exhibitions, international museums and publishing and translation ventures being generously hosted in the Gulf are a positive development, but this is largely culture for hire, for show, or as a form of international diplomacy. The foreign universities have an agenda to work on issues relevant to national development, but they cater to a minority of the population and are there under the patronage of individual rulers -- they have no solid existence in society, from which to act as independent centers of learning.

And these gleaming, air-conditioned cities remain ones in which the population is divided into precise professional-ethnic castes that are constantly recycled, so that the majority of foreign workers can't and won't develop a stake in the place. Physically and socially, they are cities with no public, shared spaces, because they are designed to keep their residents segregated, to prevent them from mingling, gathering, and participating in free and open debate. And how can cities without centers of their own become the centers of something bigger?  





From slaughterhouse to art house?

Here is another post about culture in the Arab world. When I was last in Morocco, I discovered Casablanca's Culture Factory, an amazing project to re-purpose the city's abandoned old slaughterhouse as a cultural center. I went back recently and was surprised to discover that although artists have continued to hold all sorts of activities there, the project remains in legal limbo, because the city won't grant it any formal recognition. I wrote about it here

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Culture protests

We have a guest post from occasional (and valued) contributor Parastou Hassouri on the protests by artists and intellectuals that have been going on for some time now at the Ministry of Culture in Cairo.  



Over the past week, I have been attending, with some regularity, the protests that are being staged in front of the Culture Ministry in Zamalek. 

The protests/sit-in have been taking place on a daily basis since June 5th, when the demonstrators, many of them members of the artistic community, broke into and occupied the Culture Ministry building to demand the removal of the newly-appointed Minister of Culture, Alaa Abdel Aziz, whom they see as trying to “Ikhwanize” the arts.  Alaa Abdel Aziz, who was appointed by President Morsi during a cabinet shake-up in early May, promptly alienated the artistic community (often referred to as the muthaqafeen, literally “the cultured”) by firing the heads of the General Egyptian Book Organization, the Fine Arts Sector, the Cairo Opera House, and the National Library and Archives.  His firing of the Opera House Director Ines Abdel Dayem, in particular, aggrieved the artistic community and catalyzed them into action.  On May 27, the opening night of Aida, the Opera House curtains lifted on performers and staff in full costume holding anti-brotherhood signs and chanting for the downfall of the regime. 

The protests, which are part sit-in and part street festival, feature different performances each night, with interludes of anti-regime chanting.  The performances take place on a make-shift stage in front of the ministry, though with each passing day, the set-up and light and sound system gets more sophisticated. 

There have been a wide range of performances, with figures like singer Ramy Essam, who catapulted to fame during the original 18 days of protest in Tahrir Square, performing with some regularity.  The largest audiences have gathered to see members of the Cairo ballet troop perform to the music of Zorba.  The ballet performance was prompted by statements made by Islamist Shura Council member Gamal Hamed, who referred to ballet as indecent and proposed that it should be banned.  Before their first ballet performance, Hani Hassan, principal dancer of the Cairo ballet, made an impassioned speech in favor of the arts, and stated that he is an Egyptian citizen, like any other, who should have the right to make a living and express himself.  At the end of the performance, someone took the microphone and stated:  “if this is apostasy, then I am an apostate.” (لو دا كفر، انا كافر) His statement drew wild cheers from the audience. 

There have also been readings of satiric poetry, mocking the Ikhwan and denouncing their efforts to dictate morality for all.  Also, different performing artists and actors make appearances and sign the petition for early presidential elections being circulated by the Tamarrod (“Rebel”) campaign.  Some prominent authors have attended the protests and made speeches, including Bahaa Taher. Even politicians have made appearances, including former People’s Assembly member Ziyad al-Uleimi, as well as presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Khaled Ali. (Interestingly, Hamdeen Sabahi was jeered and heckled some by the spectators, who expressed frustration with the National Salvation Front, called him an opportunist, and asked him about justice for martyrs of the revolution and since the revolution). 

In interludes between performances, there is quite a bit of chanting against the Ikhwan and many invoke the Tamarrod campaign and the 30th of June as the day of reckoning with the Ikhwan. 

One day when I went to the protest, I noticed author Ahdaf Soueif in the audience and spoke to her for some time about the importance of keeping a space for such expression open and the fact that by and large, the sit-in has been proceeding peacefully and without disruption (there have been two incidents in which FJP supporters have come to counter-demonstrate and disrupt the protests, but in both instances they were pushed back by the demonstrators and now security is present at the scene). 

When I told Soueif that I was originally from Iran, she raised her eyebrows knowingly, in that way many activists I have met, whether in Egypt or in Tunisia, do when they learn I am from Iran.  To them, Iran is the nightmare scenario they do not want to see develop in their own countries. 

I am always amused by these thoughts/expressions because the reactions often reveal to me how much of a disconnect there is between the manner in which Iran is portrayed in media and the reality on the ground.  Also, in the context of discussing cultural expression, I find worries about turning into Iran ironic, since some would argue that the cultural scene in Iran has actually flourished since the revolution. 

In the immediate aftermath of 1979, much that would be considered entertainment was deemed unacceptable by the Islamic Republic and most popular singers, dancers, actors, fled Iran and went into exile (and from exile they continue to produce their art).  However, the art that was then produced in Iran, due specifically to the restrictions of censorship, became more refined, more subtle, more sophisticated.  Cinema has been the prime example of this.  But also, since pop music was initially deemed unacceptable, Western, and decadent, more and more artists began to focus on traditional Persian music.  Many Iranians began to embrace traditional arts, be it calligraphy or painting, or learning to play traditional instruments. 

This is not to say that there have not been problems. Artists of all stripes are always trying to second-guess the censors, and everyone knows that there are lines and if they are crossed, they will be punished (as filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been). 

What I mean to say is that the revolution didn’t lead to the death of cultural production in Iran and most obviously it will not in Egypt either.

This is also not to say that the artists expressing concerns about the stifling of artistic freedom and the “Ikhwanization” of culture are not right to stand their ground. 

The vehemence with which the sit-in participants object to Abdel Aziz and decry the Brotherhood are interesting, given that I do not recall, during my time in Egypt, any protest of similar length and intensity against the Mubarak-era culture minister, Farouk Hosny.  Hosny was the subject of much international controversy when his name was put forth as a candidate to head UNESCO, and his detractors revealed anti-Semitic statements he had allegedly made in reference to the collections at the library in Alexandria.  However, even prior to that, many artists had grievances against Hosny, whose friendship with Suzanne Mubarak ensured his tenure (most notably when his offer of resignation was rejected by Mubarak after a fire at the Beni Soueif Cultural Center which resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries) and protected him from allegations of  corruption. 

It was inevitable that after Mubarak’s resignation, Hosny would have to step down.  And since his departure, there have been four Culture ministers. As far as I can tell, Abdel Aziz’s predecessor, Professor Emad Abu Ghazi, was respected by the artistic community.  And perhaps this is why the appointment of Abdel Aziz has caused such anger. 

Though it is clear that in any post-revolution environment, there will be shake-ups and transfers of power, it seems that what is aggrieving the artists is the fact that Abdel Aziz’s selections are political and will not necessarily advance and promote culture. 

However, the protests have gone beyond culture.  The chants are increasingly against the regime as a whole, and chants from 2011 and 2012 are being revived and adjusted, calling for a downfall of the regime.  One common chant is “Wake up Morsy, the 30th of June will be your last day.” 

The protests are increasing looking like a dress rehearsal for the 30th of June, past which date, no one knows what exactly will happen.

In the meanwhile, though, everyone’s singing, dancing, and occasionally crying, but in general reviving the spirit and camraderie of Tahrir’s 18 days, for which there is already a great deal of nostalgia. 

Note: For a different, critical take on the protests, see this post by Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha 

Art in Cairo

The radio program The World just ran a piece I did on the Cairo arts scene and particularly on how artists are taking advantage of the current chaos/freedom to use public spaces they were barred from before and to connect with new audiences.

The piece discusses the recent Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival and an installation by Ganzeer and Yasmine El Ayat.

I also spoke to several other artists, but due to time constraints, those conversations didn't make it into the piece. 

Artist Hady Kamar, for example, took time to chat with me about the difficulties of defining "revolutionary" art and the reasons behind the (modest but noticeable) increase in new arts spaces and initiatives in Cairo. 

"I think a lot of people are doing more now on their own because a lot of the promises of the revolution weren't fulfilled, " Kamar said. "For example, openness -- societal openness or just a political openness. You can only rely on yourself and you can't sit around relying on [the fact that] the government is going to assist with this or we're going to become a place where there are going to be a lot of cultural spaces,  without people taking it on themselves and doing it themselves. "

Kamar is one of the artists behind the charming new Nile Sunset Annex, a one-room exhibition space (in an apartment/studio in Garden City) that puts on a monthly show of physical (as opposed to digital) work and that, in my view, plays with the boundaries between professional art-making and other forms of creativity and craftsmanship, as well as those between genres (in the two shows I've gone to I've seen drawing, music, furniture replicas and embroidery).

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The other artists I had the pleasure of meeting recently is Amira Hanafy, who did a piece entitled Mahdy's Walk for the gallery Art Ellewa (in the informal neighborhood of Ard Ellewa). In fact, I am part of Hanafy's piece, an aural portrait of the area made up of conversations with residents and visitors, recorded while following a circuit through the neighborhood. The walk took in one of the remaining open fields in the area, a patch of emerald-green barsoum that will undoubtedly be gone in a few years (there are already half-built apartment blocks standing on its edge) and the sound collage features conversations about the area's history, break-neck development and problems: land speculation, security, garbage collection. 

Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa

Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa

While not all art can (or need) be socially or politically engaged, this particular moment in Egypt is such that many artists are both looking for new models to organize and sustain themselves and for ways to break out of Cairo's small alternative gallery scene and engage wider audiences. Hanafy's piece and the work at Art Ellewa generally is a great example of art that is embedded in, and relevant to, the community that surrounds it. 

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