The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Interviews
Christopher Davidson's "Shadow Wars"

Christopher Davidson is a British academic and the author of several books on the Gulf (generally quite critical of the petro-monarchies there.) Longtime reader Amjad compiled together an interview Davidson gave on Twitter on the occasion of the release of his new book, Shadow Wars. We are reproducing the interview below – with light editing for punctuation etc. – as it may be interest readers for its out-of-the-mainstream approach to the Arab Spring. It’s not an endorsement of the book, which we have not read, but looks interesting if it sheds light on the policies of Gulf states during the last six years.

In the long view, to what degree are Western governments responsible for the ongoing conflict in Syria?

The Western powers have repeatedly sought to interfere in Syria for a number of decades - the latest conflict is born out of using 'Arab Spring' as diplomatic coverage for the overthrow of an antagonistic regime to the interests of the West's allies While UK had plans pre-2011 to use Syrian Muslim Brotherhood & 'armed men', in 2011 strategy shifted to West's allies funding proxies.The latter (Saudi, Qatar, etc) expected a Western airstrike intervention (as with Libya), and, frustrated, had to push US's 'red lines'.

Did the West have a part to play in the failure of the Arab Spring?

The nationwide revolutions in Tunisia & Egypt saw discomforting overthrow of dictators who had opened up their economies to Western investment & had played the game of the 'War on Terror'. Their overthrow wrong-footed the US govt. But very rapidly a series of counter-revolutions began (or rather 'reactions') as the West's key regional allies began to sponsor (1st) Islamist parties that could continue to prevent formation of inclusive, democratic (& secular) societies, & could uphold capitalist structures and (2nd) hard-man 'deep state' military dictatorships, when Islamist parties proved unable to keep people off the streets. The 'Plan B' was then to re-direct the 'Arab Spring' to states antagonistic to West (Libya, Syria, etc) & willfully foster revolutions. Saudi, UAE, Qatar, etc., all played key roles at govt level in destabilizing these long targeted Arab states, under Arab Spring banner. As 'revolutions' in Libya/Syria failed to garner full national support, a mix of direct interventions (Libya)& indirect (Syria) was needed.

Why don't we hear much about Yemen?

Yemen is commonly perceived as a problem for the US/UK, as their key ally Saudi is haplessly bombing civilians. But in many ways the conflict helps keep the two main regional powers (Saudi & Iran) in a useful stalemate behind their proxies. The US can now trade freely with both sides (since the Iran deal), & can keep Saudi arms spending high, even at a time of low oil prices. Saudi is no longer the world's oil swing producer thus has lost its centrality in US foreign policy. The Yemen fiasco/tragedy puts Saudi in a very difficult position, as it still relies on US protection (as evidenced today), and has nowhere else to really turn to. A good comparison would be the costly Iran-Iraq stalemate of the 80s: the US's Arab allies supported Saddam, while the US found a secret means of supplying Iran with what it needed (Iran Contra) so as to keep it 'in the game' & prevent neither side from winning.

Do you think the Russians think we are as bad &corrupt as we think they are? Are we just as bad as each other?

In Syria, Russia has responded to a formal govt request for assistance. It is constrained in being able to bomb ISIS As the US-led coalition effectively operates no-fly zone over most of ISIS's territory. Russia/Syrian/Iran aircraft cannot fly there The US even has an airbase in far north-east of Syria, barely miles from easy ISIS targets. But turning to the bigger question Russia is rightly anticipating that any further intervention (e.g. ground troops) could lead to a repeat of an Afghanistan situation where in the 80s it intervened to help the People's Democratic Party against an Islamist extremist uprising backed by the US/UK in cooperation with Saudi/Pakistan, which eventually led to Soviet forces getting their own taste of a Vietnam (the US's objective) Today in Syria (& Iraq) we see many of the same characteristics of the 80s jihad in Afghanistan, with heavy accompanying propaganda.

What did you hope to achieve when you set out writing this book?

By drawing on recently declassified documents, leaked correspondences, interviews, and court subpoenaed files, the aim was to tackle an entire 'regime of knowledge' that largely depicts the Western postcolonial involvement in Arab world as being benign.

Moving beyond the obvious examples of the 2003 Iraq invasion, it aims to show how an elaborate network of proxies & clients have helped ensure access to cheap resources & cheap labour for foreign companies and (e.g. in 2011) have been co-opted to remove threats More broadly, it used comparative historical analysis to demonstrate that fingerprints of earlier counter-revolutions from 20thC can be found all over the Arab Spring counter-revolutions. Including the UK-US actions in Russia (post revolution), Malaya, Kenya Guatemala, Iran (1952), Syria, Iraq (1950s-60s), Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua (great example), Afghan jihad, jihadists in Balkans, etc.... And in terms of aims for the book: if one wants the MidEast to recover, one must identify the real root causes of its afflictions

And if one wants the essentially peace-promoting Islamic faith to be saved, one must identify how it is being co-opted by external powers (with local, reactionary allies) to generate extremist cults capable of stifling (and fighting) progressive/nationalist forces.

Q&A: The Tentmakers of Cairo
Lawrence Underhill 2013.

Lawrence Underhill 2013.

For three years, film-maker Kim Beamish hung out with the tent-makers in the Khaimiya district of Cairo. Three turbulent years, spanning the aftermath of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of Mohamed Morsi, and the protests and coup that led to the presidency of military leader Abdel Fattah El Sisi. In Beamish' film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, all of this unfolds in the background -- most often, on a TV screen.  Although their contempt for the Muslim Brothers is palpable and their relief at the ascendancy of a strongman who can restore order is clear, the men in the alley focus largely on thei craft and their business. This is a movie in which very little happens, whose highlights are snippets of overheard conversation (my personal favorite is a father yelling at his young son, while the usual nationalist anthems blare on the TV: "Put down that book and watch TV! Don't you love your country?"). The ease with which these middle-aged, reasonable, well-intentioned men can be down to earth and funny, and then repeat silly rumors or put forth nonsensical arguments, is quite dispiriting. And as the film patiently documents their largely non-eventful lives, some may hanker for a bit more narrative, a bit more drama. But for those who are interested in what the January 25 uprising felt like to the majority in Egypt who watched anxiously and rather suspiciously on the side lines, this understated film offers many insights. 

The film will have its world premiere this Tuesday, 21 April in Nyon, Switzerland at the Visions du Reel Film Festival. Beamish is also hoping to organize screenings in Cairo in June or July. What follows is an email conversation between Beamish and myself. 

The Arabist: How did you end up in Cairo and focus on the Khaimiya neighborhood in the first place?

Kim Beamish: I came to Cairo with my wife and kids after she had taken a job here. I had initially been very keen to look at something a little more "frontline," shall we say. Something with a bit more of the revolution in the foreground, and I was excited by what I might find. However I have always been interested in the effects these big historical events have on those who have not taken part in them and yet are effected by their outcome, sometimes more than those that have taken part. 

I came across the story of the Khaimiya before I arrived in Egypt when I was speaking with a professor at the Australian National University, Professor Bob Bowker, who had told me about some work his wife had been doing with the Tentmakers. I wasn't all that interested to be honest, it did not fit the "frontline" idea I had in my head. However I felt somehow obliged to keep it in mind and met Jenny Bowker only three days after arriving in Cairo, as she coincidently was also in Cairo for a visit, and she took me to meet the Tentmakers.

Because of the years Jenny had previously spent working with the guys there was a lot of trust already established and I was, on the back of this trust, able to walk straight in and pretty much start filming straight away. I was still not sure but the golden rule is "access, access, access" and I had just got it in buckets.

All of the men in the street, more than just the five characters in the film, let me into their shops, work shops and in several cases their homes. As soon as this started to fall into place I decided to concentrate 100% on the Tentmakers.

You said you didn't speak much Arabic when this project started. Yet many of the footage you use has been chosen because you overhear folks saying particular things. How did the translation/editing process work? (Where you translating all along or at the end; did you translate everything?) How did you select the footage to use in the end?

This was a major issue in regards to production and filming. I really had no Arabic when I started filming, and lets be honest I only have a small smattering of Arabic now.

I had initially started teaching myself through some books and Ahmed, one of the characters, started teaching me for a short while but most of my Arabic was picked up by listening to the guys and just asking questions. Most of them have a little English, enough to talk to tourists, and then it was a lot of back and forth. In the end I think it was because of this lack of a common language that I was able to capture what I did, as it meant that I was not intruding as much on the situation by asking questions or predicting what might come next. 

As I got to know them more I also learnt that they generally talked about the same things almost every day; money, politics, security issues and then the ongoing rivalries of the street. Also there was so much happening outside of the street that they were watching on television I could pretty much work out what they were going to talk about by making sure that I kept up to date with the events of the day. 

In regards to editing I feel upon a young Syrian filmmaker, Ali Sheik Kadr, who found out about my work as he passed by my room in a communal office we shared in Dokki. This was almost at the end of shooting so he had many, many hours of footage to go through but by talking a lot he soon worked out what I wanted as well as finding a lot of scenes I had no idea I had filmed. Ali was really instrumental in getting the film finished and was really on the same wave length when it came to finding what I needed to tell the story.

Almost at the same time I found Jason Reeder, an American who was studying translation at the American University in Cairo and so between Ali and Jason we were able to translate and subtitle all of the footage we needed.

Were there particular works that were models or influences for you?

I have always like observational or verité film and had always wanted to have the time and the subject to be able to make one. Two major influences would be the work of Kim Longinotto, especially her film Divorce Iranian Style, and Abbas Kirostami, no particular film but just his style and use of long shots, scenes and not a rapid rate of editing. There are lot of European films and British filmmakers like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and of course Werner Herzog that I have always admired. Again, I think that the lack of language actually gave me more time to concentrate on the shot and the ability to think through the edit of a scene while I was shooting, as I did not have to think as much about what everyone was saying. I would film very long takes so as not to cut half way through sentences or subject matter.

There are some prominent characters in the film, but you don't pick one or two of the men and follow them home, tell their biographies, etc. It is really a portrait of a neighborhood, a collective portrait, with an almost anthropological approach. Did you always plan this? 

I suppose I did. And it has become a slightly ethnographic film because of it. I found the street to be this microcosm of what was happening throughout Egypt, especially Cairo. Rumour and mis-information would blow through the street like small dust storms: You could almost see it start at one end of the street and then finish up at the other end. Everyone in the street knows everyone else; they have all grown up together. In the end it is exactly as you say, a portrait of neighborhood. I think if I had left it, the street, the film would have become something very different and possibly like many of the other films which have looked at the past few years in Egypt.

Also, there is not a lot of drama in the film – no climactic confrontation, no defined narrative arc. The revolution happens in the background (mostly on TV). How much was it a conscious choice to make a non-sensational, very "ordinary" film about this extraordinary time? And to make a film with very little "story"? 

In some way it was probably an experiment in regards to the story arc. I wanted to break it. I was sick of seeing all these documentaries of prominent moments concentrating on single heroes whilst at the same time being bored to death by historic films which never showed the individuals outside of historic figures, presidents, activists and signed documents. I'm always wanting to know what the lives of the people who surround the hero are like.

What did you learn -- about film-making, or about Egypt -- from this project? 

I have learnt a lot about filmmaking on this film as I have produced, directed, filmed, edited, fund raised, marketed and catered on the film. Not intentionally but just due to circumstances. So I have learnt a fair deal. The biggest lesson is I would prefer not to have to do this alone again but on the flip side I know that I can if I have to. 

About Egypt – there is so much to say and there are so many far more educated people than me who have already said a lot. I think Egypt could be so much more than what it is. However I do not see that happening any time soon. I think this revolution, this story, has a lot more to play out. I don't have advice and sometimes I feel that even if I did it would not be listened to. There is a great future for Egypt but there is a lot of growing up and taking a good hard look at oneself that needs to happen before that future becomes a reality. And before all that can even start to happen, Egyptians just need to stop killing each other.

How and when did you know you were finished? 

I initially thought I was finished when Morsi was elected. I saw that as a good ending until everything started falling apart again and so I kept filming. The rise and rise of Sisi then became interesting and the whole coup/not coup thing. But it was literally as I was filming the last shot of the film that I said to myself, "this is it!", the election was over, Sisi was now President and everything was now going to be great? I literally finished the shot, put my camera away, drank some shay and said goodbye. I still visit the street a lot, but not with my camera.

Have you shown the documentary in the neighborhood it was filmed? If so, what have been the reactions? If not, do you plan to?

I have shown the film to the main characters, who have then told the rest of the street about it. I have also given each of the main characters a DVD of the film so it may have been watched a little more widely. They are happy and only had two remarks and requests, one of which I was able to do and the other I could not but I explained why and they were OK with it in the end.

I am hoping to get a screening in early May in Cairo and to invite the street. It will be interesting to see who turns up and what their thoughts are.  

Yemen: Quitting Qat
Ahmed Bilal

Ahmed Bilal

Yemen has recently become the focus of increased media attention as a result of the proxy war there being fought between the US, Saudi Arabia, the government of Yemen and multiple tribal and Islamist insurrections. But in an environmentally marginal country such as Yemen, the popularity of the narcotic qat ranks high among the country’s difficulties. Heavy qat use not only consumes its users’ teeth and income, but also constitutes the lion’s share of Yemeni’s agricultural water usage. This is a serious problem in a country where water poverty is endemic and population growth is high: “[a]lmost 45% of all water in Yemen is used to cultivate a plant that feeds no one, in a country where almost half of the population is food insecure,” notes The Guardian. Demand for water is expected to exceed supply by the early 2020s, and due to Yemen’s poverty and geography, building desalinization plants is impractical.[1]

Local activists have frequently targeted the widespread use of qat, but their impact has been limited. Qat is not only exceedingly popular, but “one in every seven working Yemeni is employed in producing and distributing qat”. Its economic importance to both poor and wealthy, and the social status that chewing it confers on users, have made official attempts to limit its consumption extremely unpopular in the past. Government officials in the hinterlands are also uprooting qat trees and promoting cultivation of other cash crops.

In the past few years, however, grassroots energies have been revitalized, with activists focusing on organizing “qat-free” events, media campaigns and getting merchants to stop selling the leaf.

We interviewed Hind Aleryani, who is attempting to expand her weekly silent protests and other efforts to persuade users, farmers and vendors to abandon the crop in favor of other ones:

What would the exact process be in replacing qat with other crops, such as coffee and olives?

In the district of Haraz , they are replacing qat with coffee and almonds, the northern [region] of Haraz will be qat-free in three months. There is a firm that is buying the almond and selling it outside Yemen. The farmers there said that they are gaining more money now, they plant almond. There is a law that has a long-term strategy (to be implemented over the next 20 years) that would give the farmers alternative crops and uproot 10% of all qat trees [annually]. Besides banning the chemicals farmers are applying to qat trees to make it grow the whole year (the trees must be specially treated to produce leaves all year round) and protesting for bans on qat use by government officials, many of whom use it during work hours.

Does qat present an obstruction to Yemeni women entering the labor force?

Yes. And not only that, but [addicted] mothers are not taking care of their kids; they spend the morning sleeping and wake up in the noon because they are chewing qat the whole night and suffer insomnia from it. Women meet together to chew qat just as the men do. Kids are either in the streets or – increasingly – chewing leaves with a parent. It’s a sad reality.

Because the drug is a staple of social life, and has become a part of professional life too, do people risk being socially excluded and their own career advancement if they don’t use the drug?

Yes. We have tried bringing those who’ve quit it together and introducing them to others who don’t chew. We will try to work with the cafés in Yemen and entertainment venues to gather people and give them discounts if they do not chew the leaves at these establishments.

How does qat affect overall health in the country, particularly dental health?

The average adult eating three meals a day chews food for approximately one and half hours of that day. In Yemen, though, many qat users chew on the leaves for seven hours a day! This has detrimental effects on the jaw and the teeth, not including the fact that the processing chemicals in qat can cause gum and esophageal cancers. I made an appointment with a dentist in Yemen who is going to show me some of his worst cases and we will make a video about it [to raise awareness].

How would your campaign curve consumer demand?

So far we are working firstly on awareness (visiting schools and hosting press conferences), and we hold a silent protest every week at a qat shops for awareness. Secondly, we are working on giving alternatives to the farmers who want to uproot qat trees. And we are also giving the youth alternatives to sitting around and chewing. We are changing the society by doing qat-free weddings, which we believe is developing into a trend. Every other day I see someone writing on Facebook that he will quit qat, which makes me very happy. Some of them are well-known writers, politicians or people who work in media.

As qat requires a certain level of freshness, qat growers must be in Yemen and the capital it generates therefore stays in the country. Can you describe how the capital fits in to the Yemeni economy, and who benefits most from the industry?

Those who benefit most from qat are actually VIP figures in Yemen: tribal leaders, and MPs (who are also tribes leaders). In 1972 Prime Minister Mohsin Al-Aini thought about uprooting qat trees en masse, and this was the reason he had to step down!

How much of household income is spent on qat? How does this affect overall nutritional consumption in Yemeni households?

Yemenis on average are spending US$4 on qat daily [when the average weekly income is US$14]. Addicts prefer buying qat to spending money on buying food or clothes or taking their kids to school. Many end up borrowing money to fund their habit. At one qat vendor’s stall, people were leaving their cell phones as collateral because they couldn’t afford to pay for their daily purchases.


  1. Most Yemenis must make do with 100–140 m^3 of water per annum, or less than 10% of the per capita average enjoyed by their neighbors.  ↩

InterviewsGuestyemen, qat, drugs