A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

So We're Told Mullah ‘Omar Died Two Years Ago ...

It was widely reported today that Mullah ‘Omar, the rarely seen, one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban, died in 2013 in a Pakistani hospital; Afghan officials have indicated that Pakistani officials confirmed this to them recently.

Given the memory of Usama bin Ladin's hide-in-nearly-plain-sight final years, this raises some Was his sanctuary in Pakistan officially authorized, or otherwise?

Or will we ever find out?

"Khalli Balik min Zouzou" Online

Yesterday's post made reference to Suad Husni's 1972 film Khalli Balik min Zouzou. I have now learned the entire film is available on YouTube. If you know Arabic and have a couple of hours to spare, here it is. Note that the dress of university students at that time would be quite different today.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Follow-Up on the Reda El-Fouly Case

Here's a follow-up to my Friday post about the arrested belly dancers. particularly the ce of Reda El-Fouly. Veteran Egypt hand Jane Gaffney has passed on some additional notes and given me permission to quote them here:
[A mutual friend] was over last night and we caught said "belly dancer" trying to defend herself on Wael Ibrashy's talk show 10PM.  Also present was her accuser, seemingly a member of the public who took offense at the lady's work. She tried to use her government license to practice her trade as evidence that her work was professional, not criminal. El Fouly also claimed that SHE had not posted the videos on YouTube and had no means to have them taken down. As you know, anyone in Egypt can lodge a complaint with the prosecutor's office and if this officer of the court finds that the case has merit, the government pursues a criminal case.  From Yousef Chahine to Adel Imam, many an artist or writer has found him or herself in this predicament.
But here's the kicker: While "Hands Off" was condemned, the real outrage it seems among many Egyptians is her rendition of a song-and-dance number performed by the late beloved Suad Hosny in the wildly popular 1970s film, Khalli Balik min Zouzou, a light-hearted tale of a college girl who captures the heart of the most handsome guy on campus.  Jealous co-eds conspire for him to find out that after school, she performs along with her mother, a professional belly dancer at weddings.  Hosny's song, Ya wed, ya ta'il, was cute and her dancing very modest.  Ibrashy's is also a call-in show, and among the callers was none other than the late performer's sister, who lambasted El Fouly for dishonoring her sister and a song that is emblematic of 1970s youth culture in the form of an innocent love story.
 And furthermore:
I forgot to mention one thing about the good lady [but it is too snarky to put into your blog?][My answer: no.] In addition to her horrible outfit on the talk show, she had blue eyes that looked fake!  Blue or green tinted contact lens are all the rage among Arab entertainers these days [along with hair extensions and bad nose jobs.]  This is likely the latest "Turkish drama" effect!  Turkey, I read somewhere, has the highest rate of green eyes in the world.
The lenses are also, it seems, a big fad among American teens in some places.  They are dangerous, because they are purchased without a doctor's exam/advice.  The worst of them are bigger than the normal eye, which can seriously harm the surface of the eye. I saw one Kuwaiti actress with what were clearly these outsized lenses.  Ah, what price "beauty?"
Now, the Suad Husni/Khalli Balak min Zouzou connection is very interesting. The late Suad Husni was one of the most popular actresses in Egyptian history. I have blogged before about the mysteries surrounding her death in London in 2001. Her 1972 film  Khalli Baliak min Zouzou (Watch Out for Zouzou) is perhaps her most famous film, and the song referenced above its most popular song. So this may account for some of the outrage. Don't mess with the sweetheart of Egyptian cinema. (The film also included the aging Tahia Carioca, in fact.)

Suad's rather restrained dance in Khalli Balak min Zouzou:

Monday, July 27, 2015

Video of Beirut in the 1920s

Via the blog Hummus for Thought, here's a video (silent, with French title cards), showing Beirut in the 1920, during the French Mandate:

Turkey Bombs Both the PKK and ISIS: What a Tangled Web . . ., .

The good news of the past few days seems to be Turkey's new aggressiveness against ISIS in the wake of the Suruç bombing. But this is the Middle East, and Turkey is also bombing the PKK inside Iraq, where he PKK has been actively fighting ISIS, while the PKK's Syrian affiliates, the PYD and their YPG military wing, have been successfully pushing ISIS back in Syria. Certainly, too, many Kurds suspect the proposed "safe zone" inside Syria might be rendered not just ISIS-free but PYD-YPG free as well.

The multi-factored equation in northern Syria and Iraq has now taken on a whole new dimension. Turkey is now fighting against both sides in a conflict. If they were to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter, I wonder if he United States would be obligated to bomb itself?

I'm just kidding, but the tangled web of allegiances is so complex that before pulling on one string, one needs to compute what others will be affected. In military terms, a true Coyote Foxtrot.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Bad Year for Belly Dancers as Egypt Charges Two More for "Inciting Debauchery"

 It's proving to be a difficult year for belly-dancers in Egypt,  two years after the Muslim Brotherhood lost power.. Late this week two more were charged with "incitement to debauchery" (التحريض على الفسق) (link is in Arabic; for English accounts see here), based on videos they had posted. Just a short time ago (though I didn't mention it here) another dancer and her manager were charged with the same crime, and earlier, the dancer Safinaz (also known as Safinar) was sentenced to six months in prison for "insulting the Egyptian flag"; that sentence was recently upheld by a court.

Safinaz' Flag Outfit
I had posted about the Safinaz case in March; be sure to read the two comments by commenter "anonymous," on the political context.) Insulting the flag is a crime in Egypt, and I guess incitement to debauchery must be, too, though I don't know what the legal definition may be. (American courts would call it "unconstitutionally vague," but in Egypt vagueness may be the intention.)

Earlier this month, dancer Reda El-Fouly was charged with incitement to debauchery, along with her partner Wael Elsedeki (who some reports say has fled the country), posted a YouTube video  that soon went viral; she's facing a year in prison. The video, Sib Eddi (Hands Off) is suggestive but pretty mild by Western music video standards; yes, she shakes her assets in a low-cut dress and teases the viewer, including closeups of bouncing cleavage, but nothing that couldn't play even on puritanical US broadcast TV:


OK, it's suggestive (and the still is focused right down her cleavage), and the cleavage closeups  are meant to titillate (pun intended), but there's no nudity. It's a tease. Mild by Western standards, but is this really a belly dance, or a shake-your boobs-at-the camera-dance? The true Eastern Dance or raqs sharqi is about controlled movement of the whole body, by all means including but not limited to the breasts.The video is not a crime punishable by law in my view (though Egyptian prosecutors disagree) but it may be a crime against a longstanding tradition of genuine artistry and control.

Now, before I discuss the two latest arrests, let me pause to note that to call this "belly dancing" in the land of Badia Masabni and Tahia Carioca suggests the debasement of the art in modern times. I've touched on the classical age of belly dancing before, and posted videos showing the classic works by great artists of the 1940s and 1950s such as Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal (or even better, Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal together) not to mention the masters of the 1960s through the 1980s such as Nagwa Fuad and Fifi Abdou, dancers who really put the belly in belly dancing with amazing muscular control, rather than dancing around bouncing halfway out of a low-cut dress. Reda El-Fouly is weak tea indeed, by those standards. Incitement of debauchery? Nah, not really. (If this is illegal, why is superdiva Haifa Wehbe, who regularly shakes her generous assets, not doing hard time?) El-Fouly is relying on a single (well, obviously double) asset rather than the coordinated skill of her whole body. Compare this video to the Fifi Abdou clips above. There may be a belly dancing Gresham's Law at work here. I don't think either the classics or El-Fouly clips "incite debauchery," but the former are erotic and the latter just suggestive unless you're a horny 17-year-old male, in which case you consider everything, including moss on a north-facing rock, somehow sexy and masturbate to it.

End of rant. The two arrests this week were of two dancers who go by the names of Bardis and "the Egyptian Shakira" (obviously to distinguish her from the international singing star). They were arrested at a club, or two separate clubs depending on the report, in the Giza neighborhood of Mohandeseen, but again for videos posted online. Here's a news clip of them being loaded into a paddy-wagon

They were initially ordered held for four days, but may be sentenced to much longer. It isn't clear what videos produced the objections in these two cases. Some of their dance videos can be found on YouTube, though I don't know if they're the offending ones. You can search for them if you like, but if you;re in it for the art search for Samia Gamal or the others mentioned earlier instead or check out the links above. I may not consider their dancing up to snuff, but I don't really think jailing young women for dancing what was once a respected (if now declining and somewhat debased) art form is really Egypt's biggest problem right now.

The Coups of Summer, Revisited

Back in 2010, I did a post called "Summertime Arab Coups of he 50s, 60s, and  70s: Was it the Weather?" As we noted yesterday, Egypt's coup in 1952 was on July 23; in 1958 the Iraqi Monarchy was overthrown on July 14. While noting that coups were no longer common in the Arab world (except for Mauritania, which upholds the tradition) one has to wonder why coups were so common in the hottest months:
This is not as frivolous as it sounds. Last year the North African blogger who calls himself The Moor Next Door took the time and trouble to actually do spreadsheets and graphs of all Arab coups and attempted coups, and sure enough, he found a lot in the summertime: in fact, he found seven in July and five in August. These were by far the most except for the outlier November, which also had seven. (See his post here; a spreadsheet of coups here; and graphs of the data here.)
It does make you wonder. The Free Officers' coups in Egypt and Iraq are not alone: the Ba‘athist coup of July 17, 1968 was the key to the long rule of Saddam Hussein; in Syria, Husni Za‘im was overthrown in August 1949; in July 1963 a Nasserite counter-coup was put down bloodily; in Iraq Bakr Sidqi, who launched the first modern Arab coup in 1936, was assassinated in August 1937; a July 1971 coup in Sudan succeeded until Egyptian troops intervened to restore Ja‘far Numeiri; Sultan Qaboos of Oman deposed his father in July 1970; and so on. Mauritania, the only Arab country that still has coups these days, has had them (among others in other months) in July 1978, August 2005, and August 2008.
 But at the time, I was limiting myself to the Arab world. If we expand to the rest of the region, the "Operation Ajax" Anglo-American backed coup against Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953 occurred on August 19. The 1960 coup in Turkey was on May 27 and the 1980 coup on September 12, nicely bracketing the summer.

And of course, returning to the Arab world, we have the Definitely-Not-a-Coup of June 30-July 3, 2013.
So I return to the earlier question, was it the heat, or what?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

What Did and Did Not Happen on July 23, 1952


I've posted about the Egyptian coup/Revolution of July 23, 1952 every year since this blog began and don't want to repeat myself over much, but I thought I'd note for the record that not everything happened at once. Most modern Egyptian coverage of course focuses on the roles of Nasser and Sadat, although Egypt's first President Muhammad Naguib, has been rehabilitated from the "unperson" status to which he was subjected during the Nasser years.

‘Ali Maher Pasha
But if you look at the front page of al-Ahram above, you will note that neither Nasser nor Sadat nor even the Free Officers  as a whole are shown, but General Naguib standing next to a man with a mustache. That man is ‘Ali Maher, a civilian politician the Free Officers named as Prime Minister. ‘Ali Maher Pasha (the old honorific titles would go soon, but the headline refers to Nagub as Naguib Bek as well) had served as Prime Minister in the past, and the Army was not yet ready to govern directly, though Naguib became Minister of War and Navy.

Ex-King Farouq holds King Ahmad Fuad II
As I've noted here many times, the Free Officers also did not abolish the monarchy  right away. King Farouq was forced to abdicate on July 25 in favor of his six-month-old son, Ahmad Fuad II, who thus became Egypt's last King. Now living in Europe and in his early 60s, he still visits Egypt quietly from time to time.

The Regency Body: ‘Abd al-Mon‘eim, Barakat, Muhanna
Farouq sailed into exile on the royal yacht on July 26, taking the infant King Ahmad Fuad II with him, with sovereignty nominally vested in a three-man Regency Council appointed August 2,consisting of Prince Muhammad ‘Abd al-Mon‘eim, a son of Khedive  ‘Abbas Hilmi II and a collateral member of the Royal Family, Bahi al-Din  Barakat Pasha a former Speaker of Parliament, and Col. Rashad Muhanna, as the Free Officers' representative. This Regency Body (not formally a Council), would be short-lived.

Both the retention of the monarchy and the appointment of Maher were largely cosmetic, aimed at presenting the officers as reformers rather than revolutionaries, and the fig leaves were soon discarded, and at not giving Great Britain an excuse to intervene. (The Free Officers were in close touch with the Americans, as well.)

The Prince Regent
On September 7, the Regency Body was dissolved, and Prince ‘Abd al-Mon‘eim was named Prince Regent.

Ten days later, on September 17, ‘Ali Maher Pasha was also forced out, and General Naguib became the Prime Minister. By now it was cear that the Free Officers' Revolution Command Council (RCC) were running things, with Naguib at their head.

On June 18, 1953, nearly 11 months after the coup, the RCC announced the abolition of the monarchy, and Ahmad Fuad II's nominal rule was ended and Egypt declared a Republic. Naguib became Egypt's first President, while also retaining the titles of Prime Minister and Chairman of the RCC.

Nominally, holding those three titles gave Naguib much power, but the RCC took decisions by majority vote. Naguib, the only general officer in the group at the time of the coup and a man in his 50s, saw many things differently from a collection of colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors in their 30s. The younger men tended to align with Col. Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser, now a Deputy Prime Minister.

The rest of the tale is fairly well known. By February 1954 Nagub sought to demand real power and was briefly ousted by the RCC. The crisis was resolved after popular protests and Naguib was restored to the Presidency, but with Nasser as his Prime Minister and Chairman of the RCC. Nasser now held the real power and Naguib was mostly a figurehead from then until November of 1954, when he resigned. As the Nasser era evolved and propaganda intensified, Nasser was increasingly portryed as the sole author of the coup. Though Naguib was rehabilitated in the end and now has a subway stop named for him, the roles of ‘Ali Maher, the Regency Body, and the Prince Regent are largely forgotten.
Naguib and the RCC, 1952

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Historical Mystery: What Movie(s), at What Theater, Did Anwar Sadat Attend the Evening of July 22, 1952?

As many of you will be aware, tomorrow, July 23, will mark 63 years since the Naguib/Nasser coup against King Farouq in Egypt.  It will be the seventh July 23 since I began this blog in 2009, and even a historian of Egypt starts to run out of ideas without repeating himself. I've read most though probably not all of the Free Officers' memoirs, but there are still some lingering mysteries. One involves the evening of July 22, the night before the coup, so I'll post it today rather than tomorrow.

Anwar Sadat's memoirs (or at least some of them; he retold his life several times), those of his wife Jehan, and most other standard accounts of the coup agree on one thing: Anwar Sadat, later Egypt's third President, nearly missed the coup because he was at the movies when his co-conspirators were trying to locate him. I am not the first person to wonder: what movie or movies were they watching, and at what theater? (Let me warn you now: at the end of this post, neither one of us will know the answer for certain.)

I can't answer the question, because Sadat, the old revolutionary and underground conspirator, never told us more than he wanted us to know, and he often told different stories, In the summer of 1981 on his last visit to Washington before his assassination, US media reported (I don't have the citation at hand but remember the event) that Sadat reportedly told President Ronald Reagan that he'd been attending one of Reagan's movies. I thought then and think now that Sadat, who had been lionized in the US media for the peace with Israel and was probably more popular in Washington than Cairo, was flattering Reagan and again rewriting his autobiography, though I suppose I could be wrong. Anyone with access to Egyptian newspaper files from 1952 who can check the cinema listings for July 22 might be able to confirm if any Reagan movies were playing that night.

The Sadat Autobiography Problem

I've never bothered because Sadat retold his life several times and each time told it a bit differently. I have sometimes wondered if by that summer of 1981, when he was lionized in America but jailing former allies in Egypt, if he was even certain of the truth of what happened in 1952: it's well known (ask NBC's Brian Williams) that if you keep telling the same story often enough you will believe it yourself.

In the 1950s when Sadat was editor of the popular revolutionary paper al-Goumhuriyya, he wrote his first round of memoirs: Al-Qissa al-Kamila min al-Thawra (The Complete Story of the Revolution, 1954), which must not really have been complete since in 1955 he wrote Safahat Majhula (Unknown Pages [of the Revolution]); and in 1957 the English-language account Revolt on the Nile, which is not in fact a translation of either of the Arabic works but does not contradict them. Then in 1958 came  Ya Waladi Hadha ‘Ammak Gamal: Mudhakirat Anwar al-Sadat (My Son: This is Your Uncle Gamal: The Memoirs of  Anwar al-Sadat).

That amounts to four memoirs of himself or the revolution in the Nasser era: the mere title of the last (the one I've never seen) indicating Sadat, as Editor of al-Goumhuriyya, was doing his job as a sycophantic propagandist for Nasser. Then. in 1978 after his trip to Jerusalem, came his official autobiography, called in Arabic Al-Bahth ‘an al-Dhat and in English, where it was a bestseller, In Search of Identity.

That's still not all. Sadat often retold stories of his life in speeches and, before his death in 1981 was retelling his life in a weekly feature in his National Democratic Party's weekly magazine Oktober. I have some of these in a file but not all, and have no idea if they were ever compiled.

Sadat may have come to believe his own retellings, or they could have been true and those written in the Nasser era mere sycophantic propaganda. Or, as I suspect is true of many political memoirs, they could be a melange of truth, self-justification, recycled and improved memories, inventions, and just plain bullshit. I'm guessing the Reagan tale falls in that last category, but may be wrong.

But to Return to July 22 . . .

Most biographical and autobiographical accounts agree that Sadat returned from deployment in Sinai, taking the train to Cairo because he had learned the coup was imminent. As no one from the Free Officers met him, he resolved to go with the family to the cinema. There is some confusion about who was along. Earlier accounts said his wife and children; In Search of Identity said his wife; Jehan Sadat's autobiography says her parents were invited and implies they attended. Sadat was late returning home, various accounts putting it at 11 or 12 pm.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, whose Autumn of Fury appeared after Sadat's assassination and repeats every scurrilous rumor he could find about the man who imprisoned him, alludes to an alleged tale that Sadat got into a public argument at the cinema, implying he was creating a public alibi if the coup failed, though even Heikal doesn't go so far as to insist the tale is true. There is no question that Sadat did join the plotters later that night, and broadcast the first announcement on he radio the next morning.

Many accounts suggest that the cinema in question was one of the outdoor "summer cinemas" common in Cairo in the days before widespread air conditioning. These open-air theaters (like American drive-ins but with folding chairs instead of car parking) were summer-only, opened at sundown, and ran two or three features, usually not first-run films. There were once dozens around Cairo. (A 2006 Egypt Today article by film director Mohamed Khan remembered these as well as the indoor downtown cinemas of the classic era; that site is no longer online, but you can find the text through the Wayback Machine, here.)

A few years ago a mailing list of old Cairo hands to which I belong was waxing nostalgic about these outdoor cinemas when an Egyptian contributor expressed the opinion that Sadat had attended either the old Cinema Rio in the Bab al-Luq/Midan Falaki neighborhood, or one of two open-air theaters on Manyal Roda, the names of which I don't recall, and I can't now find the post. (Anyone knowing please chime in in the comments.) I have no idea if that has any basis in fact, but I do remember the Cinema Rio, which was still in business in the 1970s. Back in 2011 CairObserver posted photos of the ruined hulk of the Rio today, for those who remember its glory days.

Does it matter which theater Sadat attended, or what film(s) he saw? Perhaps not in the greater scheme of things, but given the fact that Sadat nearly missing the revolution is a key bit of mythology about the 1952 coup, the inconsistencies in the accounts (and the story he told Reagan), it's an interesting little historical question. Anyone with answers, please comment below.

Theodore Bikel, 1924-2015: Folksinger for the Ages


A rather long post is coming this afternoon. Meanwhile: When the irreplaceable folk singer Pete Seeger died early last year, I ran a couple of posts about Seeger and the Middle East. One of these was to note a collaboration, as I described it then: "Pete Seeger, that other great [Jewish] folksinger Theodor Bikel, and Palestinian-Israeli poet Rashid Hussain sing about peace in Hebrew on Seeger's Rainbow Quest show in 1965. The song is "Hineh Mah Tov," meaning "How good and pleasant it is to sit as brothers together" (taken from Psalm 133). Unfortunately it's audio only."

The great Theodore Bikel has now left us at the age of 91, He could reportedly sing in 21 languages and was a great raconteur in several of them, so I must repeat it, again crediting my Managing Editor Jake Passel for introducing me to this:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Multiple Takes (Mostly Favorable) on the Iran Deal

With opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement being quite vocal right now,  I thought I'd collect some of the more reasonable discussions, especially by Iran experts and Israelis who back the deal.
Finally, if all the heavy reading starts to get to you, Lebanese satirist karl Sharro explains it all at The Atlantic: "The Confused Peron's Guide to the Iran Deal: How the Arab Street Views the Agreement, in One Simple Diagram." [I'll let you click through to see the one "simple" diagram, but the fifth paragraph quoted below summarizes it in one extremely run-on sentence]:

In recent days, some Arab leaders have warned darkly about the consequences of the new nuclear agreement with Iran. But how controversial is the deal in Arab countries, really? How do Arabs feel?

As ever in situations like this, the media has proven indispensable in capturing what the “Arab Street” thinks about the deal. In The Independent, Robert Fisk went a step further and tried to imagine what Arabs think based on his long experience in the region, arguing with typical nuance and subtlety that “the Arabs at least will suspect the truth: that the Americans have taken the Shia Muslim side in the Middle East’s sectarian war.”
To investigate these portrayals of the Arab view of the deal, journalists affiliated with the Institute of Internet Diagrams spent hours in the legendary Arab Street itself. As every foreign reporter in the region knows, the best way to get to the Arab Street is to get in a taxi anywhere in the Arab world and ask to be driven to “the street.” (Don’t say the “Arab Street,” because it’s assumed.) 
The Arab Street is not as grand as you might imagine. It’s quite narrow and crowded, but it’s full of life, and the scent of spices wafts across it at regular intervals to ensure foreign correspondents are in the right frame of mind. Head straight to the busiest café; booking a table in advance will give customers time to put on traditional clothes for a more authentic feel.
Word on the Arab Street is that Barack Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran so that he can extract concessions over Syria in return for Iran being allowed to control Iraq and for which it has to rein in the Houthis in Yemen to pacify the Saudis and simultaneously restrain Kurdish ambitions thus easing Turkey’s anxiety about Kurdish independence as an incentive for it to cooperate regionally allowing both Saudi Arabia and Turkey to come on board with Obama’s plan for Israel/Palestine which will also appease Egypt allowing it to play a bigger role in Libya to control the southern shores of the Mediterranean reducing migrant flows into Europe to ease the pressure on Greece and Italy for which Europe agrees to soften its stance against Russia allowing for a solution in Ukraine that allows NATO to maintain a presence in the East without threatening Russia which will be rewarded by removing the international sanctions against it allowing it to increase its trade with Europe.

Is Saudi Arabia's Hay'a Outlawing Rainbows?

Saudi Arabia's powerful Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, popularly known as the Hay'a ("Committee") or the Religious Police, is apparently determined to ban rainbows.
As Brian Whitaker notes at al-Bab:
Recent night-time pictures of the White House illuminated in rainbow colours, plus millions of rainbow-tinted profile photos on Facebook, have alerted Saudi Arabia's religious police to a previously unrecognised peril in their midst: the discovery that "emblems of homosexuality" are on public display in the birthplace of Islam.
But fear not. The haia (or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, as it is officially known) is swinging into action to obliterate them.
The first casualty appears to be Talaee al-Noor International Schools in Riyadh, whose building proved a bit too gaily painted for the religious police:

It has now been repainted in the colour of a blue rainbow-free sky.

Strictly speaking, the offending colours were not quite those of the customary rainbow flag or, for that matter, an actual rainbow, but they seem to have been close enough to set alarm bells ringing. According to one of the haia's Twitter accounts, the school (which it hastens to point out is a "foreign" one) has been fined 100,000 riyals ($26,650) for "placing the emblem of the homosexuals" on display.
It adds that the person in the school who was responsible for the emblem has been taken to prison to await prosecution.
Whitaker illustrated his piece with a picture of a rainbow-colored Qur'an, which apparently is real and has proven popular in Southeast Asia.

Suruç and the Turkish Political Stalemate

The Suruç bombing in Turkey, which killed 31 has exacerbated the uncertainties about the country's political future, since there is still no coalition in sight and the possibility of new elections remains an option. The opposition to the AKP is already blaming that party's alleged tolerant attitudes toward the Islamic State for the Suruç bombing, and clashes between police and pro-Kurdish demonstrators in Istanbul after Suruç are a reminder that the fighting between Kurdish factions in Iraq and Syria against ISIS can have repercussions inside Turkey. With no clear coalition in sight weeks after the June 7, the Turkish government's freedom of action is also limited. Turkey's rather ambivalent attitude toward the Islamic State may be coming home to roost.

Monday, July 20, 2015

ISIS' "Archaeology Book Club Reading List"

The Conflict Antiquities blog has for some time now been documenting (and occasionally debunking) allegations of the Islamic State destruction of antique sites and also its efforts to sell on the international black market those antique artifacts small enough to transport.

Now it offers evidence that appears to show that Islamic State fighters have been systematically collecting a reading list on Syrian antiquities and especially ancient coins: "Islamic State archaeology book club reading list – deliberately acquired and transported in conflict."


Friday, July 17, 2015

‘Id Mubarak wa Sa‘id!

May peace and happiness embrace my Muslim readers and the Muslim world among the blessings of ‘Id al-Fitr. ‘Id Mubarak wa Sa‘id!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Whatever You Think of the Iran Deal, Why are so Few Mentioning that Today was the 70th Anniversary of the Trinity Test?

Seventy years ago today, on the appropriately named Jornada del Muerto of New Mexico, the world's first nuclear explosion, codenamed Trinity, burst, in Robert Oppenheimer;s words, "brighter than a thousand suns." As we still wrestle with putting that genie back into its bottle, it seems worthwhile noting the anniversary.

‘Id al-Fitr Expected to Begin Tomorrow

Today is the 29th or Ramadan; by astronomical calculation ‘Id al-Fitr is expected to begin tomorrow for most countries in the Mideast and the West, though those countries which require  visual sighting of the new moon, or due to time zone differences, may begin a day later and tomorrow will be considered the 30th of Ramadan rather than the 1st of Shawwal. (But there are reports the new moon has been seen in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia already.) It appears most mosques in the US are beginning the ‘Id tomorrow, so let me wish ‘Id Mubarak in advance to my Muslim readers.

Islamic State's "Sinai Province" Claims Credit for Setting Egyptian Naval Vessel Afire


An Egyptian Naval patrol boat has been set afire after being hit by an apparent missile in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sinai. The Islamic State's affiliated "Sinai Province" (wilayat Sina') has claimed responsibility. See reports here, here, and here. Official reports said the crew were evacuated by other vessels without casualties.

The attack comes as Egypt announced it had completed dredging of the new channel in the Suez Canal and prepares for its grand opening, adding to fears of a possible attack on the Canal.. It also came as the Interior Ministry fired the Director of Security for Cairo Government, apparently due to recent attacks and bombings in the capital.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

July 14, 1915: Sharif Hussein of Mecca Writes a Letter to Sir Henry McMahon and Begins a "Correspondence" with His new Pen Pal

Sharif (Later King) Hussein
A century ago today, Sharif Hussein of Mecca wrote a letter in Arabic to Sir Henry McMahon, British "High Commissioner" (but effectively, Viceroy) in Egypt.

This was somewhat unusual, since Hussein was the traditional ruler of Mecca under the Ottomans, who were at war with Great Britain.

McMahon (Seven Pillars)
If you have ever taken a course on the Modern Middle East or the Arab-Israeli Conflict you will have had to study the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (if you studied in Britain you may know it as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence). Most of the controversy arises from an October 24, 1915 letter in which Sir Henry spelled out the exceptions Britain was making to the promise of Arab independence. (The Sykes-Picot Agreement would undermine it anyway, but did they include or exclude Palestine?) But that's a tale for another day, which most of my readers probably already know. The Correspondence led directly o the Arab Revolt in 1916, and whether Britain betrayed the promises made to Hussein became a major topic of postwar debate.

But the Correspondence began with Hussein's first letter, dated a century ago today. (Note that McMahon was a product of the Raj, not an Arabist, and the McMahon Line between India/Pakistan and Afghanistan, and India and China, are named for him. The McMahon letters to Hussein were probably mostly produced through Oriental Secretary Ronald Storrs and the British Foreign Office, though McMahon signed them.) The whole correspondence can be found a number of places online, such as here.

The first letter, proposing an alliance, in full except for the florid Arab greetings:

Whereas the whole of the Arab nation without any exception have decided in these last years to accomplish their freedom, and grasp the reins of their administration both in theory and practice; and whereas they have found and felt that it is in the interest of the Government of Great Britain to support them and aid them in the attainment of their firm and lawful intentions (which are based upon the maintenance of the honour and dignity of their life) without any ulterior motives whatsoever unconnected with this object;
And whereas it is to their (the Arabs') interest also to prefer the assistance of the Government of Great Britain in consideration of their geographic position and economic interests, and also of the attitude of the above-mentioned Government, which is known to both nations and therefore need not be emphasized;
For these reasons the Arab nation sees fit to limit themselves, as time is short, to asking the Government of Great Britain, if it should think fit, for the approval, through her deputy or representative, of the following fundamental propositions, leaving out all things considered secondary in comparison with these, so that it may prepare all means necessary for attaining this noble purpose, until such time as it finds occasion for making the actual negotiations:
Firstly.- England will acknowledge the independence of the Arab countries, bounded on the north by Mersina and Adana up to the 37th degree of latitude, on which degree fall Birijik, Urfa, Mardin, Midiat, Jezirat (Ibn 'Umar), Amadia, up to the border of Persia; on the east by the borders of Persia up to the Gulf of Basra; on the south by the Indian Ocean, with the exception of the position of Aden to remain as it is; on the west by the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea up to Mersina. England to approve the proclamation of an Arab Khalifate of Islam.
Secondly.- The Arab Government of the Sherif will acknowledge that England shall have the preference in all economic enterprises in the Arab countries whenever conditions of enterprises are otherwise equal.
Thirdly.- For the security of this Arab independence and the certainty of such preference of economic enterprises, both high contracting parties will offer mutual assistance, to the best ability of their military and naval forces, to face any foreign Power which may attack either party. Peace not to be decided without agreement of both parties.
Fourthly.- If one of the parties enters into an aggressive conflict, the other party will assume a neutral attitude, and in case of such party wishing the other to join forces, both to meet and discuss the conditions.
Fifthly.- England will acknowledge the abolition of foreign privileges in the Arab countries, and will assist the Government of the Sherif in an International Convention for confirming such abolition.
Sixthly.- Articles 3 and 4 of this treaty will remain in vigour for fifteen years, and, if either wishes it to be renewed, one year's notice before lapse of treaty is to be given.
Consequently, and as the whole of the Arab nation have (praise be to God) agreed and united for the attainment, at all costs and finally, of this noble object, they beg the Government of Great Britain to answer them positively or negatively in a period of thirty days after receiving this intimation; and if this period should lapse before they receive an answer, they reserve to themselves complete freedom of action. Moreover, we (the Sherif's family) will consider ourselves free in work and deed from the bonds of our previous declaration which we made through Ali Effendi.

Now Comes the Hard Part

So the P5+1 finally got a deal with Iran. But opponents in both the US and Iran are poised to undermine it, as are Israel and Saudi Arabia. I suspect every comma is going to be analyzed thoroughly in the weeks to come. I hope supporters of the deal are ready to defend it, and that the inspection regime is intrusive enough to convince the skeptics.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Wassmuss, Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari, and the Tangistanis: The Attack on Bushire (Bushehr), July 12, 1915

Yesterday, July 12, marked another centenary of a little-remembered sideshow of the Great War in the Middle East, one involving German espionage, international intrigue, and one which would provoke a British intervention and military occupation of the Iranian port city of Bushehr (then normally spelled Bushire in Western languages).
Anglo-Russian Spheres of Influence
Iran (then still known as Persia in most Western languages) under the later Qajar Shahs had a weak central government. Following an Anglo-Russian Entente agreement in 1907, the Russian and British Empires carved up Iran and Afghanistan into "spheres of influence," with Russia free to seek concessions and influence in northwestern Iran and Britain in the southeast, separated by a neutral area. Iran remained nominally independent.

But Britain also had separate agreements with various local rulers on both sides of the Gulf, We already discussed its relations wih the Sheikh of Muhammara (now Khorramshahr) in context of discussing the British occupation of the Abadan oilfields late in 1914, and subsequent occupation of Basra. In addition, it had agreed with Tehran that Britain could keep small detachments of troops along the telegraph line running down the Iranian side of the Gulf, in order to maintain communications Though Iran was technically neutral in World War I, both Russia and Britain (and the Ottomans as well) felt they had a free hand to protect their interests.  Russia and the Ottomans both sent troops into Iranian territory in the northwest, and the events that began on April 12 would provoke a British landing and occupation of Bushire and the hinterland.

The Ottomans of course were busy defending their own Empire against the British advance in Mesopotamia and the Russian in the Caucasus. But there was another power that sought to manipulate the situation in Iran in order to undercut both Russia and Britain: Germany.

Wassmuss in Persian Garb
Wilhelm Wassmuss was a German diplomat, first sent to the consulate in Bushire in 1909 and again in 1913. He was fascinated by Iran and persuaded his superiors that Iranian tribes were ripe for revolt and resented Russian and British intrusions on Iran's sovereignty. Kaiser Wilhelm II personally endorsed the project, and Wassmuss was provided with gold to raise allies.

(Though sometimes called "the German Lawrence," in July of 1915 T.E. Lawrence was still an unknown second lieutenant drawing maps in the British Military Intelligence Section in Cairo, but Wassmuss was ready to strike his first blow. The diplomat and explorer had transformed himself into a master spy.


By the summer of 1915, Wassmuss was operating out of the German Legation in Tehran, and his agent in Bushire was the new Consul, Dr. Helmuth Listermann. The German network had identified potential allies in the Tangistan tribal region of Delvar (most British documents use the Arabic spelling Dilwar), some distance southeast of Bushire. (It is shown a "Dilbar" on the map below.)

Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari
The Tangistani tribesmen of Dilbar or Delvar were led by a charismatic tribal leader, known as Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari, who though viewed by the British as a rebel and brigand, would come to be seen by Iranians as a nationalist fighter against foreign domination. Born in 1882, he had been cultivated by the German spy network but was presumably against foreign imperial presence for nationalist reasons.

It was a force of these tribesmen led by Delvari which, on July 12, 1915, attacked he British consulate and residency at Bushire.

The British had a small garrison at Bushire under the agreement allowing them to protect the telegraph line. Already in May of 1915 the local Persian governor in Bushire had asked for British help in finding off a tribal attack, and Britain had reinforced its small garrison,  The vessel HMS Lawrence was sent to Bushire. The garrison was primarily composed of Indian Army troops of the 96th Berar Infantry.

British Consulate,  Early 20th Century
Delvari with Tangistani fighters
Informed of the likelihood of the Tangistani attack, the local British commander, Major Edward Havelock Oliphant, rode out to reconnoiter. With him were the Assistant Political Officer, Captain G.J.L. Ranking, five sowars (Indian cavalry) and 27 sepoy riflemen. In a clash with the Tangistanis, Oliphant, Ranking, and one of the sepoys were killed, and two sepoys wounded.

The next day, July 13, the Tangistanis attacked again, but were thrown back.

Meanwhile, the German consular officials in Bushire are said to have removed themselves to Shiraz.

This being the height of British naval power and Imperial reach, not to mention gunboat diplomacy, the death of two British officers prompted the immediate dispatch of naval vessels to Bushire. The troopship HMS Dalhousie arrived three days after the battle. By July 16 the British had decided to demand reparations from the Persian government, and in their absence, to occupy the port of Bushire indefinitely and to attack Dilwar and punish the Tangistanis.

The operation would begin August 8, and at that time I'll return to this story and cite sources and more detail.

If You're Looking for Comic Relief on the Vienna Talks . . .

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Patricia Crone (1945-2015): Innovative Historian of Early Islam

Patricia Crone (Princeton)
Patricia Crone, Professor Emerita of Islamic History at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, died on Saturday, July 11, after a lengthy battle with cancer. In a distinguished if at times controversial career, she challenged us to reshape and rethink many of our assumptions about early Islamic history. (Sometimes, in my personal view, more successfully than others, but her legacy is undeniable.)

This excerpt from her Institute for Advanced Study listing summarizes her career a bit:

School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Ph.D. 1974; Warburg Institute, University of London, Senior Research Fellow 1974–77; University of Oxford, University Lecturer and Fellow of Jesus College 1977–90; University of Cambridge, Faculty of Oriental Studies and Fellow of Conville and Caius College 1990–94, University Reader 1994–97; Institute for Advanced Study, Andrew W. Mellon Professor, 1997–2014, Professor Emerita, 2014–; American Philosophical Society, Member; British Academy, Corresponding Fellow; Makers of the Muslim World, Founder and Editor 2002–; Aarhus University, Faculty of Theology, Honorary Professor 2007–; University of Copenhagen, Honorary Doctorate 2009; University of Cambridge, Honorary Member of Gonville and Caius College 2013–; Leiden University, Honorary Doctorate 2013; The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Honorary Doctorate 2014; British-Kuwait Friendship Prize 2005; Giorgio Levi Della Vida Medal for Excellence in Islamic Studies 2013; Middle East Studies Association, Albert Hourani Book Award 2013; Houshang Pourshariati Iranian Studies Book Award 2013; Central Eurasian Studies Society Book Award 2013; American Historical Society, James Henry Breasted Prize 2013,
But her books were her real legacy. In 1977 she and her colleague Michael Cook began their careers by provocatively tossing a fox into the henhouse of early Islamic history with their work Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, It did nothing less than question the entire early Islamic narrative of the Prophet and the origins of Islam. I'm also an early Islamic historian (though not a Professor Emeritus of the Institute for Advanced Study), but I had a lot of problems with Hagarism. I still do.

But no scholar should be judged solely on her first book, now nearly 40 years ago. Later contributions (and the list is far from complete) include Slaves on Horses: the Evolution of the Islamic Polity (1980); with the late Martin Hinds, God's Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam and the Rise of Islam (1986); Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987), and other works including the broadly  based Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (2003). Her last major work, the 2012 The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism is particularly relevant to some recent developments in the region.

See here for a memoir, published prior to her death, by a friend and colleague.

Though often controversial, no historian of the first centuries of Islam cannot engage with the body of Crone's work. RIP.

Omar Sharif's Funeral: Did Media Outnumber Mourners?

Actor Omar Sharif's funeral at the Mushir Tantawi Mosque in Cairo was mostly attended by close family and friends. and the world media. These two photos raise question about who outnumbered whom.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Do You Know These Men? Setting the Stage for a Series of Posts Coming Soon

Beginning Monday I'll be discussing the centenary of yet another little-known sideshow of the Great War in the Middle East. I thought I'd bait the hook by giving a hint: the two men below were deeply involved. No prizes for knowing them as many of you probably will.

Remember Omar Sharif (1932-2015) had a Career Before "Lawrence"

Hamama and Sharif
Most of the brief obituaries I've seen in US media for Omar Sharif, who has died at age 83, understandably begin with 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, his breakout role in the West, and mention his starring role in another David Lean epic, Doctor Zhivago. (His first appearance in Lawrence is a great moment in cinematography), but let's not forget he was already a star in Egypt for nearly a decade before Lawrence.

Poster, Nahr al-Hubb (1960)
He became famous for not just his acting but for his romance and marriage to actress Faten Hamama, who died earlier this year. They separated in 1966 and divorced in 1974,  in part due to Sharif's long absences in Europe or Hollywood. Within Egypt, Hamama was originally at least the better-known member of the couple. In the film poster at right, she has first billing.

Shaif (born Michel Chalhoub in Alexandria), died in Cairo. In May, his son revealed that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

The Newspaper al-Tahrir: "Farewell: Omar Sharif, 83 years from Alexandria to Hollywood to Helwan."


Army Responds to Renewed Ethno-Religious Violence in Ghardaïa, Mzab

The Algerian Army has deployed in the Mzab Oasis towns pf Ghardaïa, Guerara, and Berriane following renewed ethno-sectarian violence between the Arab Sunni and Amazigh Ibadi communities. At least 22 people died in violent clashes over the past week. President Bouteflika ordered the Army in and Prime Minister Sallal has visited the troubled region

Ironically, in my first week or two of writing this blog back in 2009, I was reporting on clashes in Berriane. (Kal at The Moor Next Door wrote a detailed response to that post, from which I learned much.) In late  2013, violence was renewed after desecration of a cemetery, and has broken out sporadically sense. What were once mostly Amazigh towns are now mixed, and the language split (which as Kal noted is not like in the Kabyle, where French was more entrenched in colonial times) is reinforced by the fact the Arabs are Sunni and the Berbers Ibadi. As Lemeen Souag pointed out in 2014, even the etymology and spelling of Ghardaïa are matters of dispute.

The government is apparently blaming the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), a Berber-based opposition party whose main strength is in the Kabyle, and has arrested a local FFS activist in the Mzab, Kameleddine Fekhar,

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Saud al-Faisal (1940-2015)

Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal has died at the age of 75, just months after retiring from an extraordinary 40 year as the world's longest serving Foreign Minister.

The son of the late King Faisal took office as Foreign Minister in 1975, the year the Lebanese civil war began, and held the office for four turbulent decades. He retired due to worsening health in April.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

"Frankenstein Nefertiti" is Gone


Samalut's Nefertiti  at left, and the original


Connoisseurs of really bad public art have lost one that deserves a place in the annals of godawful ugly. That it was meant to echo the most elegant depiction of female beauty in the Ancient World adds to the irony.

The famous bust of Queen Nefertiti, now in the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the most famous images of Ancient Egypt, and one the Egyptian government would love to repatriate. Souvenir busts of Nefertiti are widely available in the Khan al-Khalili and other suppliers of souvenirs. Some actually resemble the original.

The bust was discovered in 1912 in Amarna, the ancient Akhetaten, capital of Akhenaten and Neferititi. Samalut is an Egyptian city in Minya Governorate, which also contains Amarna, though Samalut is not that close to Amarna. For whatever reason, Samalut decided it needed a sculpture of Nefertiti where the Cairo-Aswan highway enters the town.

The results are at left above. The outcry was immediate, with he press and particularly social media denouncing it as the "Frankenstein Nefertiti."

Ahram Online says it has now been removed. For other coverage see this piece in The Guardian.

Ahram Online says it will be replaced with "a statue of a peace dove." i hope they use a different sculptor so it won't look like a vulture.