The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged translation
Fawazeer in translation

Our partners at Industry Arabic are rolling out a daily translation of classic Ramadan TV riddles throughout the holy month:

But there was another form of Ramadan programming that somehow managed to combine all these themes in one surreal mix: the fawazeer (فوازير). In essence, the fawazeer programs were a short 10-minute variety show containing dance numbers and sketches that present an affectionate pastiche of Egyptian popular culture of the pre-satellite TV era. The core of each fawazeer episode revolved around a riddle that the audience was asked to solve, usually anchored to a specific theme for the entire 30-episode season.
Although the tradition of fawazeer stretches back to the 1950s and continues even to this day through occasional efforts at revival, the peak of the fawazeer programming is widely considered to be the series presented by Nelly and then Sherihan in the 1980s and 1990s. Above all in Egypt, but also in other parts of the Arab world, they form part of the childhood nostalgia of the generation that would grow up to lead the Arab Spring.
Industry Arabic is celebrating this Ramadan by translating the full collection of riddles from the 1981 season starring Nelly, titled “al-Khatba” (الخاطبة). Considered one of the best seasons of the fawazeer, this series presents Nelly in the role of the professional matchmaker. In each episode, Nelly proposes a new potential suitor to an aspiring bride and her family in the form of a riddle describing his profession.

You read read more about this here (with an example) and follow them on Twitter or Facebook to get the daily riddle.

In Translation: A modest proposal to fix Egypt's economy

Economist, former government minister and rare voice of reason Ziad Bahaa Eddin presents a list of sensible suggestions for what Egypt should do, undo, and not do to right its sinking economic ship. Pity that they will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. This installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the professional translation team at Industry Arabic

Recommendations for Dealing with the Economic Crisis

El Shorouk newspaper, October 20 1015

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin

One cannot describe the current economic situation as only a minor bump, one that we can deal with using the same tools and methods the state has grown accustomed to using over the past years, and which exacerbated the crisis in the first place. I am not referring here to the disturbances in the exchange market that recently grabbed the media’s attention: they are a symptom of an underlying sickness, the expression of deeper problems in the management of the economy. The principle of these problems are weak levels of investment, exports and employment and the rise in both internal and external public debt. The most important of these problems, though, is the government’s lack of clarity in its economic policy and the direction it intends to pursue. For citizens, the steady price increases, especially in food, the continuing decline in public services and the scarcity of employment opportunities are the real indicators of the Egyptian economy’s performance. For them, these issues are more important than figures for growth, reserves and the public debt.

We can, of course, blame the slowdown in world trade, global conspiracies, or the regional situation. None of these, though, are sufficient to explain the rapid worsening of the economic situation over the past few months. We can also demand that minister after minister step down or cabinet after cabinet be replaced every time there seems to be a slowdown or a failure or every time the media calls for an immediate change. However, the gravity of the current situation requires us to stop and reassess our position and to build a minimum of consensus around certain important priorities instead of searching for a scapegoat or trying to satisfy the media’s thirst for a new victim. Here is what I propose:

Over the short-term, the government must make decisions on various issues that remain unclear and that cause persistent anxiety within the investment community. Most importantly, the government must explain what taxes and fees it intends to impose in the short and medium term, the future of energy pricing, what the forthcoming agreement with the World Bank contains and, last but not least, what measures it plans to adopt to deal with the exchange rate. Even if some of these are hard choices with a high social cost, lack of clarity is, in all cases, is more damaging than decisiveness. Lack of clarity leads one to imagine the worst possibilities and paralyzes investment and production. Furthermore, it is necessary for there to be complete agreement on a shared position among members of the government. Contradictory statements made by officials causes the government to lose credibility. As for the exchange rate, no statements or forecasts should be made, except by the Central Bank, as it is an issue that is negatively effected by any rumor or poorly thought-out statement.

In the short-term, as well, there is a great need to review many recent faulty decisions and to courageously acknowledge their shortcomings rather than stubbornly persisting in them. It is no longer up for debate that the Investment Law issued at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference was a big mistake. It further complicated the investment environment, opened up space for corruption and manipulation of land allocation and promised investors things that it could not guarantee. There is agreement among experts in law, economy and business that this law set us back ten years. So why do we not repeal it? The same applies to the policy of promoting global investment without giving sufficient, let alone similar, weight to small and medium-sized national ventures, older industrial zones and local investors’ associations that represent tens of thousands of small producers.

In the long-term, it will be useful to reexamine the utility of large national projects in light of the continuing lack of clarity and of contradictory statements made by officials about their cost, economic impact, funding and mechanisms of implementation. No one hates the idea of a new capital for Egypt, nor of adding millions of acres to the available agricultural land. Yet, due to the scarcity of resources, urgent needs in all areas of social expenditure and the need to upgrade existing public utilities, we must reconsider our priorities. There must also be dialogue within the community about the utility of such projects: which should be implemented now and which should be delayed or even set aside entirely.

Likewise, we must return to the issue of social justice, which has been neglected recently despite remaining, over the past four years, the Egyptian people’s clear, repeated demand. Though it represented for a time the core concern of the entire state, social justice has become again an overlooked issue, only pursued by the Ministries of Social Solidarity and Supply through the tools available to them. These tools -- pensions and social security through the Ministry of Social Solidarity, and ration cards and food subsidies through the Ministry of Supply -- are not enough to achieve the prosperity that people seek. We must transition from a concept of “social solidarity,” achieved by means of granting additional pensions and subsidized food supplies, to a concept of “comprehensive social protection” that gives all citizens proper education, the chance to become qualified for the labor market, healthcare and the opportunity to compete and advance. After this comes the role of social security: to protect the weak and those who cannot compete in the work market. Successive governments have made substantial efforts in this area, but a political decision needs to be taken to reinvigorate interest in completing this process, begun many years ago.

Finally, both in the short and long-term, there is a need to broaden the circle of discussion surrounding decision makers both in the Presidential Palace and the Cabinet. I speak here not only of the need to ask for assistance from Egyptian experts both inside and outside the country who could make valuable additions. More importantly than that, there must be an institutional dialogue. Economic policy should not be set solely by the group of people that surround the president, no matter how competent they are. Instead, it should be set through dialogue between the government, the Federation of Egyptian Industries, the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, investors’ associations, professional associations, workers’ unions, political parties and civil society organizations. Each of these bodies represents a force in society and an interest that we must listen to and involve in the decision-making process so that they do not become spectators waiting to see what surprises the government throws their way. A sound economic policy should be designed with their support and participation and should represent a balance between their various interests.

In Translation: Egypt's president reads the constitution, sees a problem


Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recently dismissed the country's constitution as founded on unrealistic "good intentions" (this same constitution was celebrated, when it was approved in January 2014, as basically the best in the world). In the latest installment of our In Translation series, brought to you as always by the translation professionals of Industry Arabic, Shereef Azer imagines what might have led the president -- now that a parliament that will share some of the powers he has monopolized for the last two years is finally on the horizon -- to change his evaluation. 

Shereef Azer writes: I’ll Show You “Tinkering with the Constitution”!

Online magazine 18+, Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Long ago, we were told that “constitution” is a Persian word that means “father of the law.” Yet it appears as though its current meaning in the corridors of the Egyptian government is “to hell with the law.” The regime’s approach is obvious, as it manipulates the law and the legislative process as it pleases, in the absence of a working parliament. Even so, to now hint at amending the constitution is both extremely provocative and unacceptable.

In his speech at the opening ceremony of University Youth Week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that “the constitution granted broad powers to parliament, and with good intentions, but the country cannot run on good intentions alone.” Of course, these words represent a great insult to the Committee of Fifty that drafted the constitution. They presume that this committee had no idea what it was doing and that its members merely wrote, with good intentions, what was in their hearts. This is not something that a proper president of the republic should be saying.

The problem is that when you get to thinking about this statement, you necessarily arrive at the conclusion that the president fears something in this constitution and that he wishes he could change it in order to serve some goal. It becomes clear that the president wants to run the country according to his whims and without anything standing in his way. Well then, let’s see what in the constitution might be angering our president and getting his knickers in a twist.

First off, it’s clear that the president has gotten into a jam with all this parliament nonsense – even though he had tried to avoid it for quite some time – and he has finally been forced to take a look at the constitution and its meaning. If there’s going to be a parliament one way or another, he figured, then at least he should see what it’s all about. He opened the constitution and (Oh God, please let it be good!)…there right in front of his face was an absolute disaster. This upcoming parliament has the power to remove the president. Now, I’m not claiming to be a mind-reader, but I’m certain that the president reacted to this particular article of the constitution with a certain four-letter word. Surely, certain thoughts began to cross his mind, but thank goodness he said “good intentions” instead – otherwise, he would already have had the Committee of Fifty arrested and tried on charges of planning to overthrow the government.

Of course, a military ruler who has no interest in democracy, in legislative branches, in the rule of law or in any such talk cannot quite swallow this. “After all, we’re doing fine without a parliament. The people are happy. This measly little constitution would only cause me a headache, or possibly even put me out on the curb – when we are only just getting started!”

Then the president took another look at the constitution and found another stab in the back. What sort of constitution is this? It allows the parliament to be involved in the formation of the government alongside the president of the republic, and even allows it to review the president’s selection for prime minister and to withdraw its confidence from the prime minister as well. You mean to say that after the president has worked tirelessly to find ministers that he can actually put up with, the parliament can simply come along and send them packing? I’m afraid not!

The third thing that the president had no desire to hear is that the constitution states that the parliament must review all laws issued by the president of the republic, even those which were issued when there was no working parliament. What’s more, they must approve these laws or else they become null and void retroactively. Meaning that after all the effort of issuing these lovely laws, like the anti-protest law, the counter-terrorism law and the terrorist entities law, some amateurs can come along and amend them! It’s positively scandalous.

Since one way or another we’ll end up amending the constitution in order to extend the presidential term or to make it open-ended altogether, then why not fine-tune it from the get-go? This way we won’t have to keep making small amendments and we can just put out a whole new package at once.

Unfortunately, no one seems to learn from history. The more the president plays with the constitution, the faster his time will come to an end. In this regard, Sadat’s “extensions” and Mubarak’s amendments of 2007 offer a lesson: In matters such as these, tinkering with things leads to disaster. So I ask, please, that no one mess around with the constitution. Whoever does tamper with it is bound to get seriously screwed.



Below is the second installment of a two-part piece (see part one for a longer introduction) by the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel -- an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. Upon reflection, one trigger for this jeremiad might have been the recent focus on conspiracy theories, notably in Egypt where a military official recently spoke on television of fifth-generation warfare plots to cause earthquakes and alter weather, which an increasing number of commentators are slamming.

Brought to you as always by the great professional translation team at Industry Arabic

Arab Civilization Has Lost Its Purpose

 Khaled al-Dakheel, Al-Hayat, Sunday 6 September 2015

To deny the facts of history is a form of stubbornness that may lead to a departure from history altogether. This is what seems to be happening in the Arab and Islamic world (with the exception of Malaysia and Indonesia). If the Arabs reject wholesale the civilizational superiority of the West, they are doing so on the basis of moral and political arguments, some or all of which may be correct, but which in reality have no connection to the issue of civilizational superiority. On the other hand, the Arabs are clinging to an Arab-Islamic civilization that ruled the world until the end of the 13th century. In both cases, the Arabs are guilty of an unjustified obstinacy. The facts of history say that Arab-Islamic civilization has come to an end and its aims are exhausted, while Western civilization has inherited from it and replaced it through an unprecedented superiority.

The first testimony to the decline of Arab civilization appeared at the end of the 14th century in the famous Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun. He writes: “In this age, the end of the 8th century (Hijri), the situation in the Maghreb, as we have witnessed, has been turned upside down and completely altered…This was the situation until, in the middle of the 8th century, civilization both in the Arab East and Arab West was swept by a plague that devastated nations and carried off an entire generation. It swallowed up and obliterated many blessings of civilization. It overtook nations when they had grown decrepit and reached their utmost limit. It lessened their influence, undermined their power and led to their extinction. Civilization declined with the decline of mankind. Cities and buildings were destroyed, roads and landmarks vanished, estates and homes became vacant, nations and tribes began to falter.” 

This is what was happening to the Arab West at the time. And what about the Arab East? Ibn Khaldun says: “The Arab East seems to have suffered the same fate as the Arab West, though in in a degree and manner proportionate to its civilization. It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for apathy and gloom, and the world obeyed. God inherits the earth and whoever is upon it.” (Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun, v. 1, p. 325-326).

Leaving aside the plague that swept the region at the time, it would seem that the author of the Muqaddima was describing the current situation in the Arab world, particularly Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen, not to mention the threats the rest of the region is facing. But hold on a moment. Our own age suffers from its own plagues, such as extremism, sectarianism, dictatorship, corruption and terrorism. It is as if in our own age the Arab East and Arab West were complying with the voice of existence when it calls for “apathy and gloom,” albeit for factors and reasons that did not exist in Ibn Khaldun’s time.

What does this mean? It means that the process of decline described by this historian in his lifetime was completed long before our own time. The Arab world is now living through its aftermath and repercussions, and it is still paying the price. And why? Because Arabs and Muslims are resisting the fact that history has advanced, and that Arab civilization reached its peak before the 14th century. Since that time, history has progressed to an age of a different nature and aspect, and with different motives, requirements and variables. The features of decline are still with us and beset us on every side: the same religious thought, sectarianism, tribalism, crisis of governance and absence of scientific thinking. The Arab refusal to acknowledge the superiority of the West acts as a psychological defense mechanism against the fear of Western superiority, rather than being born of conviction. Without a doubt, the Crusades and later the Western colonization of many Arab countries, as well as the question of Palestine, helped solidify this complex. Although the attitude toward these Western incursions is justified, it is really strange that after centuries, we have yet to realize that fear is the weakest and worst defense mechanism, particularly on the level of nations and civilizations. Fear is a natural reaction at the beginning, but afterwards it should be an incentive to create a real defense mechanism that leads to innovation and does not remain a defense mechanism for its own sake. However, this is impossible without first admitting that a decline has taken place, that the aims of Arab civilization have been exhausted, and that history has passed into a new era that emerged in the garb of a different civilization: Western civilization, with its capitalist foundations. Moreover, it is necessary to recognize the technological superiority of this civilization not only on the scientific and material level, but on the cultural and moral level as well. It does not help and will not help to cling to the opposite contention -- that this new civilization suffers from cultural and moral decadence -- since this involves judging the culture of a civilization on the basis of cultural standards that belong to a different civilization whose logic and standards have already collapsed.

What are the features of the cultural and moral superiority of Western civilization? It consists of just about everything: the various branches of art, literature, political, social and philosophical thought, and the scientific method. It also consists in the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the inviolability of constitutions, a political system based on the principle of participation and that governing is not a privilege but rather a service and responsibility that is in theory open to all. The cultural and moral superiority in all this is the framework by which Western civilization as such should be judged – by the standards and logic on which it rests – rather than according to external standards and logic. It was within this framework that the foundations were laid for the achievements of this civilization in various fields: administration, education, architecture, engineering, medicine, technology, space exploration, physics, civil and military industries, etc. Admitting the superiority of this civilization by no means requires copying it, especially the details of its culture and values, in order to apply it in a different cultural and historical context. In any case, this would be impossible. Nonetheless, such an admission is the first step to a true awareness of the actual Arab situation: that the Arab world has departed from its civilizational context and entered a different one that it is no longer wise to deny. To admit this fact is to accept the challenge posed by the end of Arab civilization and its passing from history, and the challenge of the current civilizational framework with its never-ending achievements.

It is startling that the Arabs have neglected Ibn Khaldun’s observation. More than 700 years ago, this Muslim Arab thinker, historian and jurist recognized that in his time Arab civilization had fallen into stagnation and collapse. The Arabs, however, did not recognize this. They did not realize that their history continued from that time in a state of never-ending regression and breakdown. This being the case, is the situation in the Arab world after the Arab Spring any surprise? These revolutions did not achieve their desired goals, but their opponents were also unable to stop them or offer an alternative to supplant their underlying rationale. All they could resort to were conspiracy theories and talk about external plots to divide the region. Do you think that the Arab East and Arab West were victims of the same conspiracies and plots in the time of Ibn Khaldun? If that were the case, there would be no Arab civilization in the first place! In any case, the Arab world in our day has reached a state similar to that sketched by Ibn Khaldun in his own time. When you place this continued regression of the Arab world side by side with the emergence of a new civilization, it can only mean one thing – that Arab civilization as it was before the 14th century entered into a state of continuous decline and regression, and all that remains of it is what we are seeing now. Meanwhile, since the 16th century, the West has not ceased to grow and develop. That century was the start of a new civilizational era that came to be called “capitalist civilization.”,

When you realize this transformation -- that the Other is superior to you and outpacing you -- over time you become victim of the delusion that you are equal to him or close behind in accomplishment, on the pretext of moral superiority. The effect of this delusion is to prevent you from understanding the real challenge posed by the Other’s superiority, and to eliminate the internal inclination to face this challenge and respond to it as necessary. The aspiration to equality with the Other, and the attempt to vie with him in accomplishmen, is a poisonous goal. But when this goal turns into a delusion, then the real disaster begins.

In Translation: Clinging to power with your teeth

The crack translation team at Industry Arabic brings us this week's installment of our In Translation feature, in which we translate a representative op-ed from the Arab press. This column in the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper by its editor, Ghassan Charbel, blames the conflict in Yemen on former Yemeni president (and erstwhile Saudi ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh's unwillingness to step down and includes quotes from several previous interviews Charbel conducted with Saleh. The introductory paragraphs, on the discourse of false humility and sacrifice of leaders who can't conceive of relinquishing power, apply pretty much to every ruler in the Arab world. 

The General Doesn’t Love the Palace

By Ghassan Charbel, Al-Hayat, 1 April 2015

The master of the palace embarrasses me when he tells me that he does not love the palace and that he awaits impatiently the date of his departure and that he suffers from a tortured conscience with regards to his family, since the concerns of the nation have distracted him from the First Lady and his children. He flabbergasts me when he tell me that he did what was necessary and will allow history to judge, that the decision to depart is final even if the masses cling to the hem of his jacket, and the time has come for him to have time to play with his grandchildren. The master of the palace disconcerts me when he says that power is a torment, and satisfying people an impossible task. He points out the white hair he has gotten from over-taxing himself for the needy and poor, and that he didn’t really intend to run in the last election but the people insisted. It disconcerts me that he says he remains in office based on election results. When he tries to portray the elections as free and fair, my mind immediately jumps to the intelligence chief and the vote-rigging factory in the Interior Ministry.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not a naïve enough journalist to believe all this. This profession has taken me to many capitals and I have interviewed many figures. Politeness forces me to suppress my chuckles so as not to jeopardize future interviews. Sometimes I have felt that the recording device itself will object to the expressions of humility voiced by a ruler who came to power on the back of a tank or the like.

Usually I humor the speaker, as if  saying that we are both from a region where rulers believe that they have no choice but the palace or the grave. And usually the coy response comes that rulers must learn from the experiences of others, and that some days you’re up, and some days you’re down…and if someone else lasted forever in power, you would never get a turn. Sometimes I say that journalists do not find an interesting story in modest people but in those who cling to power with their teeth.

The Houthis would not have taken over Sanaa and besieged the president there and then pursued him to Aden if Field Marshall Ali Abdullah Saleh had not put most of the Yemeni army at their disposal. It reeks of revenge. Saleh left the presidential palace burned and injured – when he reached Saudi Arabia after the explosion that targeted him, he could do nothing more than blink his eyes. He felt as if he had been kicked out of his house, where he should have stayed until he passed the palace down to his son Ahmed.

Journalists may forget facts, but computers are petty enough to remember. Yesterday I went back to three interviews with Saleh.

In 2006:

Q: Do rulers retire in the Arab world?

A: Of course.

Q: You don’t think that the title “former president” would be hard for you to bear?

A: Why would it be hard? The best title I hear now in Lebanon is “former president.” Why can’t we be like our brothers in Lebanon?

Q: Doesn’t the idea bother you?

A: Not at all, to the contrary.

In 2009:

Q: There’s talk of a possible agreement for you to serve another term?

A: I abide by the constitution. As far as I’m concerned, I will not run. I will not accept to be nominated by anyone.

Q: Why?

A: You have time and you use up your youth and use up your experiences over thirty years. If God grants me health, I will finish the remaining constitutional period. God willing, Yemen will produce many men like Ali Abdullah Saleh to take the place of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Q: You don’t want to hold on to power?

A: No, no.

Q: Is it tiring to be president in Yemen?

A: I always say that ruling in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes.

In 2010:

Q: You said last year that ruling in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes: did the snakes wake up now?

A: If you want to change the expression, you could say vipers.

Q: Aren’t you scared of the vipers’ sting?

A: The snakes have grown up and become vipers. Me and my people, God willing, are able to deal with them and tame them. We’re not afraid.

Q: Is it possible that there will come a day when we see you allow someone else in the presidential palace?

A: (Laughs) A Yemeni president, of course.

Before bidding farewell, Ali Abdullah Saleh said that he would like to play with his grandchildren. Would that he would do so.