A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Galbraith Out as UN No. 2 in Afghanistan

The United Nations has fired Peter Galbraith for accusing his superior of covering up fraud in the Afghan elections. Galbraith is not likely to find himself out on the street (I suspect Richard Holbrooke can find a place for him again), but it's reassuring to see an American diplomat in the UN willing to call BS when it's necessary. The Afghan elections are really becoming a major embarrassment.

But, on the day when Obama was holding his big Afghanistan brain trust sessions, it's actually refreshing to see someone willing to resign in protest/force his own dismissal by saying the Emperor has no clothes. Afghanistan is enormously important and the Taliban are pretty appalling, but we don't exactly have a great alternative in place just yet.

Aluf Benn on a Possible Attack on Iran

Since the death of Ze'ev Schiff, Aluf Benn, the defense analyst at Ha'aretz, has been one of Israel's most reliable defense journalists. His "Cries of 'hold me back' may lead Israel to strike Iran" is most assuredly worthy of your attention.

I think the Israeli realists, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak and many in the IDF general staff, understand both the fundamental problems of an attack on Iran if the US isn't on board (logistics, refueling, violation of airspace) and the potential blowback through Hizbullah, Hamas, Sadrists in Iraq, and potential disruption of tanker traffic in the Gulf. But that still does not completely reassure, and I hope that the negotiations with Iran later this week can find a modus vivendi, even if it's only a temporary figleaf. The fact that Israel's nuclear arsenal is rarely part of the debate is, of course, a bit bizarre. If no on else in the region had nuclear weapons, why would Iran need them? But Pakistan does, Russia does, India does, and Israel does. And Americans sitting in Iraq and Afghanistan have them too, though not necessarily in theater. If I were sitting in Iran's seat, I'd want a deterrent too. Oddly enough, we weren't nearly this worried about the Shah's nuclear ambitions in the 70s.

I'm not defending Iran here, but I'm saying something I've said many times before: whoa, let's not start the nonproliferation regime with "okay, Israel, Pakistan, and India have the bomb, but you can't have it." Let's suggest instead, can we all dial this back a bit? Proliferation did not begin with Iran. And it still insists that it is pursuing a peaceful program. (Okay, I don't believe it either.) But let me also remind everyone that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allow signatories (of which Iran is one, but Israel, India and Pakistan are not) to break out of the treaty on six months' notice. That means Iran could simply withdraw from the treaty and develop nuclear weapons without violating any treaty obligations,

Oh, sure, I see the problems. But I also see that much of the Arab and Persian and Turkic speaking worlds see a real European/American double standard at work here.

Let's hope we can all find a modus vivendi here. I think Khamene'i and Larijani and others have been saying some pretty hopeful things. (Ahmadinejad doesn't control the nuclear program: he's just grandstanding and demagoguing.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

MEI on YouTube: The Debut

The Middle East Institute has been podcasting its various events for some time, and is now beginning to post videos as well, on YouTube. The YouTube channel is here, and our first offering is of Qubad Talabani talking on August 11, though we've just gotten it up. I had linked to the podcast earlier, but now you can see Talabani talking about Iraqi Kurdistan after the recent Kurdish elections. (Yes, he's the son of Jalal.) I won't embed them all on the blog, but am doing so with this one to lure you in. It's in six parts (that pesky YouTube 10 minute rule) but I hope that's not too much of a deterrent.

More Pressure on Bloggers at Cairo Airport

The Egyptian authorities are continuing to pressure bloggers, both domestic and foreign. Wa'el ‘Abbas had his departure delayed in yet another incident, after previous incidents where his computer was seized, he was detained, etc. And the Swedish journalist Per Bjorklund, whose blog is Egypt and Beyond, who had been living in Egypt, has been denied re-entry and apparently will be deported.

The Al-Aqsa Fracas

Generally speaking, when a fire is already burning, throwing gasoline on it is contra-indicated. Iran's launching of long-range missiles on Yom Kippur was pretty much a case of spraying gasoline on the grill, but the troubles on Sunday on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif are also an indicator of potential explosion. Remember that it was Ariel Sharon's visit to the platform on which stand the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock that provoked the entire second intifada.

I've been cautious about writing anything so far because the events occurred just hours before the Israeli media (and Israel generally) went into the 26-hour blackout that is Yom Kippur. I didn't want to comment purely based on Arab media, such as this Al-Jazeera report or this one in the Daily Star. Now we're starting to see more Israeli reports on the events. Also here and here and here. Some of the early accounts may have been exaggerated. What's still not clear to me from the Israeli reports is who the Jewish visitors who went to the Mount accompanied by police actually were; the Palestinians obviously believed they were a settler group, and saw this as a provocation.

And there is, certainly, no more explosive 35 acres on the planet than the one Jews call Har ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount, and Muslims call Al-Haram al-Sharif, usually translated as "the Noble Sanctuary." Along its western face lies the Western Wall (Ha-Kotel ha-Ma'aravi), the remnant of the wall of the Second Temple Platform and the holiest site in Judaism, and on its surface lie the Masjid al-Aqsa (the "Farther Mosque," believed to be the site of Muhammad's isra' and mi‘raj or Night Journey to Jerusalem and vision of heaven), and the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra, often misnamed "Mosque of Omar" in Western guides), together the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. (Christians of course have plenty of Gospel references to Jesus at the Temple, but perhaps fortunately don't have any acreage on the Mount at the moment.)

Sorry. There are multiple issues when it comes to holy places. There's the question of free access on the one hand, and of respect on the other. I frankly don't know who's at fault here: were the Jewish visitors seeking a provocation, or were the Palestinians overreacting to a rumor? It's not clear from the reports, even a couple of days after the fact. I've always been scrupulous about complying with everybody's rules at holy sites: shoes off in mosques, kipoh on in synagogues, both in places like Hebron where both religions share a single building, no shorts in churches, etc. etc.. After decades of spending timein the region I can flip from Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Muslim to Jewish custom in an instant. But most folks in the region aren't trying to respect the other, they're trying to one up the other.

What worries me is that this may have been a deliberate attempt to provoke a confrontation by settlers or an unwarranted overreaction by Palestinians. Honestly, I still can't tell. But you don't throw gasoline on a hot stove. Everybody should calm down and back off.

I know there's a lot of nonsense out there, from the Palestinian clerics who keep insisting, against all evidence, that there's no evidence the Jewish Temple ever stood there, to the Temple Mount Faithful who want to blow up the Dome of the Rock and build a Third Temple. It used to be — probably still is — pretty easy to buy a photoshopped picture of a new Temple on the Temple Mount, if you looked in certain parts of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. And of course if there's a Palestinian cafe anywhere from Jerusalem to DC to Michigan that doesn't have the Dome of the Rock on the wall I've yet to see it. This is high-octane, weapons-grade emotional religious explosiveness, here. Everybody needs to step back a bit.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Isma‘il Khan Escapes Assassination

Isma‘il Khan, the powerful warlord of Herat and a good part of western Afghanistan, has escaped an assassination attempt. Don't be misled by the BBC headline about an "Afghan Minister": he's a lot more powerful than that. He's also freezing his participation in the Karzai Cabinet. Juan Cole is much better on the background: this looks like the senior members of the Karzai Cabinet are starting to revert to their own satrapies. Note the quote that the US fate in Afghanistan will be worse than the Russians: that's coming from a member of Karzai's Cabinet, and a staunch bastion of the old Northern Alliance. He has maintained good ties with Iran — Herat is a Dari (Persian)-speaking region, with close links across the border. Isma‘il Khan has been warlord of Herat and seems intent on returning to that duty. After all, he looks the part, as you can see.

Nasser's Death, 39 Years On

When Aeschines finished speaking, people said, "what a great orator." But when Demosthenes finished speaking, people said, "Let us march against Philip."

— Classical proverb. (In Roman times often quoted as "Cicero" instead of "Aeschines," Demosthenes' actual historic opponent.)
On September 28, 1970, I was beginning my second year of graduate school. I had not yet visited the Middle East. An Arab summit had been taking place in Cairo. To the surprise and shock of everybody, we suddenly heard that Gamal Abdel Nasser had died. (Though the Journal still likes to call him Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, I'm going to write this so you know who I'm talking about.) It was stunning. Nasser had been the central figure in the Arab world, and I was just beginning my studies of Arabic and had no real memories of a pre-Nasser Arab world. (I also recall that this was the exact same day, in the evening, that an old friend from college called from the Andrews AFB hospital to inform me that he'd been evacked after being shot in Vietnam.)

Nasser dominated the Arab world for his generation. Egyptians born in that era are often named Gamal, and I suspect that's how Gamal Mubarak got his name. My July 23 post noted the ambiguities and uncertainties with which Egyptians and others view the 1952 revolution today, but Nasser was an extraordinary figure, though an ambiguous one. He had that charismatic power that Demosthenes had in the quote above, but of course, so did Mussolini and Hitler. He had that ability to embody a national identity that we see in Atatürk, de Gaulle, and a few others. He was the first Arab leader to master a rhetorical skill of beginning his speech in Modern Standard Arabic and shift into more and more colloquial Egyptian as he got deeper into rallying his audience. He used the radio as later leaders have used television. He saw to it that transistor radios, and later, TVs, showed up in every coffeehouse up and down the Nile, so that the fellahin could be rallied and informed of what their leader was doing.

Was he a dictator? Of course. A demagogue? Par excellence. Did he make mistakes? Enormous ones, including the 1967 war, for which he resigned and, while not entirely spontaneously, his people demanded that he stay. And he created the first true national security state in the Middle East, the mukhabarat state that remains, unfortunately, more the norm than the exception still today. Each of his successors has begun office by trying to dismantle it, but retained office by reinforcing it. Nostalgia for the great days of Arab nationalism may cloud the memories of the "dark side" (plus the fact that today most Arab states have all the bad elements of Nasserism and few of the good ones).

While he has never been an "unperson" in the Orwellian sense in Egypt, he faded a great deal in the Sadat era (Sadat even, in his second version of his autobiography, insisted he, not Nasser, actually founded the Free Officers), but enjoyed a limited renaissance under Husni Mubarak. But elsewhere in the Arab world one can still find his picture widely pinned to bulletin boards or taped to walls. He made the Arab world feel like they could stand up to the outside world, the Britain and France and Israel at Suez, to Israel over Palestine.

Nasser was a phenomenon of his time, but he died young, at 52, though he looked older. His legacy was soon sullied by a De-Nasserization effort by Anwar Sadat, but Egyptians did not forget him, and other Arabs mourned his passing. His October 1 funeral brought an estimated five million mourners into the streets of Cairo (Anwar Sadat's funeral was held in a restricted military zone, attended by foreign dignataries — rare in Nasser's funeral except for the East Bloc and the Arabs — with only selected Egyptian invitees). Here's the video of Nasser's funeral:

I opened this with the quote about Aeschines and Demosthenes. Demosthenes' "Philippics," though they became a synonym for personal attacks, did not stop Philip of Macedon, and of course, Philip's son conquered an enormous empire. But while Alexander is remembered, so is Demosthenes (though Alexander's fame is far greater), but not Aeschines. When Nasser spoke, people said, "let us march." But when they marched, they were defeated. Nasser is still warmly remembered, but his legacy, like that of his revolution, is mixed.

But on September 28, 1970, the Arab world was shocked in ways that can scarcely br imagined today. Nasser had no real precedents, and few real successors, though many have aspired to that position. I suspect those coming to Middle East studies today will have trouble understanding exactly what his appeal was.

Yom Kippur

I've consistently wished my readers of various faiths and backgrounds greetings on major holidays, so naturally I must do so for my Jewish readers on the holiest day of the Jewish year. But there's an irony here: for those who are observant in the Orthodox tradition, I'm pretty sure surfing the web on Yom Kippur is out of the question, so they probably won't know about it till tomorrow. For those of more secularist inclination who are checking the Internet anyway, best wishes.

Yom Kippur is an ancient and solemn holy day, a day of Atonement for all one's sins, particularly those of the year just ended, since it falls on the tenth day of the new year. It is called a "sabbath" in Leviticus, but the things abstained from are even greater than those on the sabbath, so I'm pretty sure reading blogs is included.

Although today it is hard to discern some of the close links between Judaism and Islam, given the heritage of political and ethnic conflict, it is also worth remembering that the Muslim feast of ‘Ashura also falls on the tenth day of the new Muslim year, and before it became a major Shi‘ite day of mourning, it was already a day of recommended fasting; the Prophet fasted on ‘Ashura, and recommended that other Muslims do so; Islamic tradition identifies it as the day when Moses fasted to give thanks for the liberation from Egypt. (The Jewish tradition is linked to Moses as well: it is the fast in honor of God's showing his forgiveness for the Golden Calf by replafing the tablets of the law that Moses had broken in his fury at discovering the apostasy of the Children of Israel.) Since the Imam Hussein was martyred on ‘Ashura, however, it has become so profoundly identified with a Shi‘ite day of mourning (Atonement?) that it has become less marked in the Sunni tradition, though not forgotten.

I hope no Jewish readers take offense at my linking Yom Kippur with ‘Ashura. Yom Kippur asks believers to reflect on their sins and atone through fasting, and it is worth remembering that atonement (Arabic ghafur and Hebrew Kippur are seemingly cognates) is common to the Abrahamic religions. It is a reminder of the common origins of so much of the Abrahamic heritage.

Iran: Not Exactly Subtle Diplomacy

Iran is not, shall we say, playing well with others. Even as the West has upped the ante a bit by revealing a new enrichment plant in Iran, Ahmadinejad has returned to his homeland to see the launch of a couple of short-range missiles and the announced intention of launching a long-range missile today, Monday.

Today is Yom Kippur.

Class act, Mahmud. You really like to stick it in everybody's eye, don't you? You know, I think Israel would be foolish to attack Iran unilaterally, and it would be a disaster for world peace, but by gosh, if you keep poking that tiger with a sharp stick, you might find out I'm not the guy who makes the decision. And Netanyahu is not me.

Now the pictures bother me not at all even if they're not photoshopped like an earlier Iranian picture. . It looks like short-range artillery rockets or perhaps early SAMs of the SA-2 or SA-3 class, though it could be something more potent. But launching a longer range missile on Yom Kippur will be a challenge to Israel, and you know, that might not be smart.

"Engagement is Still On" with Syria

UPDATE: As commenter Al-Farabi of Dispatch from Damascus notes in a comment to my original post, things are already moving on this front.

There've been a lot of pessimistic reports lately about the state of the US-Syrian rapprochement. Josh Landis at Syria Comment (the essential site for Syria watchers) makes the case that engagement is still on. Maybe I'm grasping at straws, and maybe Landis is too, but I think this is a very important and encouraging post. Please read it. Key paragraphs till you do:

Engagement is still on. Washington’s desire to improve relations with Damascus has not come to an end, despite the claims of several Kuwaiti and Lebanese papers which have been insisting that US engagement with Syria is over. Their false reports have been accompanied by a barrage of articles produced by Bush era diplomats proclaiming the failure of Obama’s engagement with Syria. They insist that Damascus only understands force and cannot produce anything positive because its DNA matches that of … well, the Devil. I kid you not. They really say things like this. Read Nicholas Noe’s excellent article: “Revenge rules for Middle East hawks.” He shows just how silly their logic is.

The spark that set off this cycle of spin designed to scotch engagement with Syria was the accusation by Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki that Syria was behind the mid-August car bombs that targeted several ministries in Baghdad. No regional leaders seem to take Maliki’s accusations at face value. Indeed, most top Iraqi officials have discounted their own Prime Minister’s claims. Andrew Lee Butters of Time Magazine explains why Iraqis believe that Maliki’s accusations are “politically” motivated.

Friday, September 25, 2009

J.B. Kelly, 84: The Last Imperial Briton

My last posting was about the last Ottoman prince born under the Empire passing on. In a strange sense of irony, or synchronicity, the last real enthusiast for the British Empire in the Gulf is now gone as well. Here's the Daily Telegraph obituary for J.B. Kelly, dead at 84. He apparently died August 29 but this obit appeared yesterday. With him an age passes, in a sense, not one that needs much mourning, I fear. He was the last of the true defenders of British Empire in the Gulf.

As is so often the case with last-ditch defenders of defunct empires, he was a colonial himself: a Kiwi born in Auckland, New Zealand, and a British scholar by choice until the Reagan-era US beckoned and he spent considerable time on this side of the water. Oxford had become too soft for him. I'll let the Telegraph obit cover the details of the man; my own comments follow.

I only met Kelly once, having lunch with him in Washington once in the mid-1980s sometime. I forget why he was in Washington, though the obituary says he did a lot of work in the National Archives. I also forget who got us together, a mutual friend if I recall correctly, who may have joined us, but in retrospect I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet a true anachronism.

While I hardly agreed with his nostalgia for imperial Britain, he was so much a relic of a different age (though not that old at the time) as to be fascinating in his own right. As the Telegraph obit notes, those who lump Kelly in with Elie Kedourie or Bernard Lewis miss the point, because he was no apologist for Israel either: in his view, none of these foreigners could govern themselves as well as they'd been governed by Britain. (Or at least with British advice: he himself advised some of the local rulers after independence, though they didn't publicize it over much.) Unlike Lewis or Kedourie, I'm sure he yearned for the Palestine Mandate. I politely listened and discussed some of his particular specialties — he understood the bizarre little border disputes of the Gulf better than anyone, knew the tribes and their marital alliances and feuds as well as the old record-keepers of the palaces — and I felt, in a way, as if I'd met Curzon or Churchill or Percy Cox or maybe Sykes and Picot together, but totally out of the proper time frame. This was already the age of the Islamic Republic in Iran.

Since Edward Said's Orientalism has been under discussion recently what with our recent publication on the subject and other works, it's worth noting that J.B. Kelly could have been the poster villain for the book, though in fact his most egregious declaration of his views actually appeared after Said's book, in his 1980 Arabia, the Gulf and the West, published just after the Iranian Revolution and the other events of 1979. In true classic orientalist fashion he was, of course, a solid scholar; he knew every dispute over every palm tree in the UAE, understood Buraimi and the other disputes of the 1950s better than anyone, but never let his profound knowledge undercut his conviction that the West needed to continue to exercise imperial supervision over the Gulf.

I don't know what he thought of the Iraqi adventure. I'm not sure he ever really believed Americans were up to what Britain had done: I also knew a few of the last British civil servants who served on secondment to Oman, the UAE or other Gulf states in the independent period (a class largely gone now), and never met a one of them who liked Americans very much. Too nouveau, you know.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum: he's gone now and I won't criticize him in death. (Although much of what I've said here seems critical to most of us today, I don't think he'd have objected to a word of it. He was straightforward in his beliefs.) He was indeed the last of a breed. I'll let him speak for himself. The concluding paragraph of Arabia, the Gulf and the West was something of a valedictory to empire, but a yearning for a renewed determination. (And let me note that while some modern Islamophobes may seem to say something similar, they never do it with the profound knowledge of the region the old Imperials had.) The last few words may be the most outrageous of the whole book. The paragraph is long, but here are the key parts:
How much time may be left to Western Europe in which to perceive or recover its strategic inheritance east of Suez is impossible to foretell. While the pax Brittanica endured, that is to say, from the fourth or fifth decade of the nineteenth century to the middle years of this century, tranquility reigned in the Eastern Seas and around the shores of the Western Indian Ocean. An ephemeral calm still lingers there, the vestigial shadow of the old imperial order. If the history of the past four or five hundred years indicates anything, however, it is that this fragile peace cannot last much longer. Most of Asia is fast lapsing back into despotism — most of Africa into barbarism — into the condition, in short, they were in when Vasco da Gama first doubled the Cape to lay the foundations of the Portuguese dominion in the East . . . Oman is still the key to command the Gulf and its seaward approaches, just as Aden remains the key to the passage of the Red Sea. The Western powers have already thrown away one of these keys; the other, however, is still within their reach. Whether, like the captains-general of Portugal long ago, they have the boldness to grasp it is yet to be seen.
The captains-general of Portugal long ago! RIP J.B. Kelly, and an era. With your passing, may we truly sound Last Post for Empire?

In fact, let's just play Last Post — the British equivalent of Taps, which they played every time they ran the flag down in a colonial outpost, right now, for those Yanks who don't recognize it, and for all the flags run up when the Union Jack was run down; it's also a suitable farewell for a man who treasured an Empire now gone:

Last Ottoman Prince Born Under Empire Dies at 97

The BBC reports that the last Ottoman Prince actually born in Istanbul has died at age 97 after living quietly for decades in New York. There are apparently other Ottoman descendants but none who were actually born under the Empire.

More UN Speeches

Continuing the UN General Assembly speech parade I began last night, here are more:

From last night after I posted:
And from today so far:
The last ones don't have video yet, just prepared text. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan should be up later tonight. If you go to any of these pages linked above, and click on list of speakers, you'll find those that go up after I sign off for the weekend. (My daughter has a tennis lesson tonight and, frankly, that takes precedence over listening to the Kazakh President.)

Qadhafi's Interpreter Gave Up?

The New York Post, admittedly a tabloid fond of shouting headlines, says that Qadhafi's translator gave up (the paper says "collapsed") 75 minutes into Qadhafi's speech and a UN interpreter had to finish the job. Simultaneous translation of such a long, ranbling speech must be a challenge indeed.

Recent MEI Events

An in-house roundup (more outside links later, if I have any), catching up with some recent links to MEI publications and podcasts:

A Different Take on Qadhafi: The West as Enablers

The superb Mahgreb blogger The Moor Next Door — who originated the description of Qadhafi's "Stream of Consciousness Foreign Policy" — gives a rather different take on Brother Leader's UN speech: he's at least as hard on the West as he is on the Guide of the Revolution, or more precisely, he sees the West's hunger for Libyan oil as an enabler and legitimizer for Qadhafi's typically Qadhafi-esque behavior (unedited, some typos in the original):

Libya is full of oil and gas and so Western states are willing to abandon most of their principles to get it, he is quite capable of saying and doing most of what he pleases rhetorically, without any real threat of consequence. Qadhafi, who purports to speak for a thing called “Africa,” which used to mean something to big dreamers, was perhaps most successful in drawing world attention away from that continent and offered the African Union’s leaders only a reason to look to their nearest fellow African heads of state and call each other “dunces” for allowing a man who wears outfits in immitation of Michael Jackson videos on state videos, who speaks of “traditional kingdoms” on a continent where such kingdoms barely survive and who uses his country’s wealth to outfit his sons like perfume ads while funding upheaval in all the areas he possibly can. And Americans and Europeans speak with indignation that Qadhafi has been allowed to vomit forty-years worth of rhetoric (for this was his first address to the UN) and to offer a “hero’s welcome” to Meghrahi: this is the result of Western policy. It can be attributed nowhere else but to the greed of the most powerful Western states who have sought to reintegrate him into the world system, in exchange for gas and his abandonment of his nuclear program. To paraphrase a saying of another North African leader, who spoke of reordering the world system, but who lacked the vanity and flamboyance of Qadhafi, the West has sought Libyan oil and cooperation at any cost. And it must be said, though, that Libya is, to the West, not much of a threat, given its complete military incompetence (in its war with Chad, more than twenty colonels were captured by Chad; Colonel is the highest rank in the Libyan armed services) and its enduring marginality in the world beyond Africa, where it would easily be displaced by any reasonably powerful outside power.

No one in the French, Italian or British Foreign Ministry should be surprised with what they’ve got from the Brother Leader. No American leader should be confused. This is Qadhafi and it is what one gets when he deals with Libya. Western gaming on Libyan oil and cooperation has done untold damage to the credibility of the African Union, for it made his leadership acceptable in the eyes of the outside and on the continent; it has deeply dented the moral standing of multiple Western countries, the United States, Italy, France, Britain and others, though it would be curious to find that the leaders of those countries actually cared on either count. the process of “normalizing” Libya, a place that cannot be called “normal” regardless of how much oil or gas it exports, to whom those exports go or however quietly Western leaders make their deals with Qadhafi, has been one that has been beneficial to no person in need: not to the Lockerbie victims, not to the hungry peoples of Africa, not to the Palestinians, not to the Philippine Muslims and not to the Libyan people. It has benefited Qadhafi, his delinquent sons, Western money grubbers and those who commit terrible crimes while the Colonel blusters, Westerners react and Libya sends them money with which to sow mischief. As a wise man once put it: everyone “involved in it should be ashamed” Congradulations to Mr. Qadhafi for getting himself out of the dog house without consequence.

The spectacle of 24 September is that a world of misery will go without any meaningful attention from Western presses, leaders or diplomats and it will have been the fault of everyone involved that serious issues were ignored in favor of continual stupidity and bluster. While the rich may laugh, in rewording Qadhafi for his despotism, murder and gas, Western states have ensured that many peoples’ plight will go without advocacy. Dominated by Libya, Africans will not be heard. As miserable as many African leader may be, few in the biggest and most important states come as close to Mr. Qadhafi in their vulgarity and destructiveness. By letting Qadhafi out of his cage, the wealthiest nations have taken from the peoples of the South any opportunity for a credible and serious admonition of the North and those who continually make times rough for common people. African leaders, too, should be ashamed, but Qadhafi’s horror show could not have happened on their initiative alone. And no African state would be capable of the kind of empowerment that British and American firms have offered the Colonel by their lobbying and fetish with Libyan hydrocarbons. In the West, some commentators will snigger in warm homes and secure societies. But there is nothing to laugh at in any of today’s goings on, lest one finds humor in human suffering and inequality, and the predatory depravity that characterizes the way powerful men in Europe, America and Africa have hidden their greed and lust behind Qadhafi’s mischief. But this, after all, is politics.

Strong stuff. But I suspect at least partially deserved.

Netanyahu and the Holocaust

Many op-eds are praising Netanyahu's "calling out" the United Nations and holding up pictures of Auschwitz to prove the Holocaust occurred, and it was, surely, a dramatic moment and a confrontational one, but Gideon Levy at Ha'aretz is suggesting that this isn't the right approach at all:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cheapened the memory of the Holocaust in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday. He did so twice. Once, when he brandished proof of the very existence of the Holocaust, as if it needed any, and again when he compared Hamas to the Nazis.

If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, Netanyahu cheapens it. Is there a need of proof, 60 years later? Or, the world might think, is the denier right?nd it is doubtful that any historian of stature would buy the comparison the prime minister made between Hamas and the Nazis, or between the London Blitz and the Qassam rockets on Sderot. In the Blitz, 400 German bombers and 600 fighter planes killed 43,000 people and destroyed more than one million homes. Hamas' Qassams, perhaps the most primitive weapon in the world, have killed 18 people in eight years. Yes, they sowed great terror - but a Blitz?

And if we can compare a poorly equipped terrorist organization to the horrific Nazi killing machine, why should others not compare the Nazis' behavior to that of Israel Defense Forces soldiers? In both cases, the comparison is baseless and infuriating.
On Internet news groups, there's the famous rule called Godwin's Law: the first person in a discussion thread to compare someone they disagree with to the Nazis, loses. Far too many Arabs and Iranian polemicists have compared Israel to the Nazis, and Israel is often quick to do the same with its opponents. As Levy notes, though, it really cheapens the Holocaust. And why respond to Holocaust deniers with photos of Auschwitz? This suggests there's actually a real historical debate. There isn't. It happened. It's playing Ahmadinejad's own game. And I wouldn't want ot live under Hamas rule, by any means, and I don't know what they might be capable of if they had the power Germany had under the Third Reich, but as they exist today, walled up in Gaza, they are not comparable to the Nazis as overlords of Europe. I think Levy has a point: Netanyahu descended to the rhetorical level of Israel's enemies and dignified the crazier Holocaust denials with a response, and cheapened the real horror of the Shoah in so doing.

Egyptian Press Miffed on Hosni

I've already commented on the Farouq Hosni failure to be elected head of UNESCO; I feel he dug his own grave and is not being a sore loser. But Egyptian pride has been wounded, and the Egyptian press is miffed; I think they'd be better advised to let it go, but then they haven't asked my opinion. This is probably going to go on for a while longer.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Links to UN speeches

From the UN website, Webcasts of the Middle Eastern speakers for the first two days (Real Player files):
  • Obama (not a Middle East leader but he addresses the subject.)
  • Qadhafi (summary page links to video of the speech; remember it runs an hour and a half).
More still to come. Saakashvili of Georgia and Gonzi of Malta also are speaking in the evening session today, but their webcasts aren't up as I post this.

Saudi-Syrian Summit

The opening of Saudi Arabia's new King ‘Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which I blogged about earlier, has also been the pretext for a visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to the Kingdom, where he met with King ‘Abdullah and also with interim Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Seniora. So it also may be a step in the long-predicted but slow to emerge Syrian-Saudi rapprochement.

Farouq Hosni and UNESCO

Okay, I'm going to keep this one short because I've been deliberately ignoring it. It doesn't reflect well on anyone in the Middle East region and I'm glad it's going to now go away.

Egypt's Culture Minister, Farouq Hosni, was a major candidate to be the next head of UNESCO. A lot of Egyptians despise him, since he's the sort of Culture Minister who spends a fair amount of his time banning books rather than promoting them. When he was nominated as a major candidate for UNESCO, someone pointed out that as recently as a year ago he had publicly stated that he would like to burn every Israeli book in Egyptian libraries. Now, Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel and there actually
are Israeli books in Egyptian libraries. But for some odd reason, some folks around the world got the idea that advocacy of book burning might not be a good quality in a head of UNESCO. I share that odd idea.

Well, Hosni of course did the old I mispoke/was misquoted/didn't mean it/can't recall thing and announced that
of course he wouldn't actually burn books, ha, where did you get that crazy idea? And of course he'd treat Israel equally and all that.

Then the UNESCO balloting went through five ballots and, finally, Hosni lost narrowly to a Bulgarian scholar who will be the first woman to head UNESCO.

So what did Hosni do next? Claim that the UN was "politicized" (well, duh) and, oh this could be a problem, blamed the world's Jews for conspiring against him. Uh, you know, that let's burn Israeli books thing might have biased them a little, Farouq? And the whole Jewish conspiracy thing doesn't exactly open up new avenues for your future international reputation, either?

Okay, this saga's over and I ignored it till the end because I really had no dog in this fight. But now there comes another issue: during the campaign for the UNESCO job, Hosni supposedly said he was going to resign the Culture Ministry whether he won or lost. He lost. Will he resign?

There was already something of a cottage industry in predicting his successor. That link may be pure gossip but it includes some high-octane folks: Zahi Hawass, who at least may head a separate Ministry of Antiquities big enough for his ego and his Indiana Jones hat, and Muhammad Kamal, the National Democratic Party's education expert and the political scientist who's apparently Gamal Mubarak's equivalent of Karl Rove or David Axelrod. (Muhammad Kamal is also, by the way, a former Adjunct Scholar at MEI, so he's sort of extended family as well. If Gamal becomes President, we'll hear more of him.)

Of course, now that Farouq Hosni has lost the UNESCO post, these other changes depend on whether he actually does resign his Culture Ministry post. Since his opinion of Israel and world Jewry seems to have dramatically shifted at least twice in recent months, his commitment to his resolution to resign, win or lose, may be a bit different since the coin came up "lose".

Culture Ministers and UNESCO remind one, to some extent, of the old line about how academic politics is the nastiest form of politics because the stakes are so low. That's why I stayed out of this particular fight. But now that the international battle is over, there will be domestic Egyptian political repercussions, and
that does interest me.

KAUST: The Saudis' New Tech University

While we were all watching the Q and A (Qadhafi and Ahmadinejad) show yesterday, the Saudis were opening the King ‘Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Operated by Saudi Aramco, it's meant to be the tech school of the future, and it's coeducational (BBC calls it "mixed-sex" which may be a Britishism but probably exaggerates the mingling: only 15% of the students are female). But women won't be required to veil. Press coverage here and here and here and here and here and here and here. (And I'm being conservative: no Arabic sites, and for some reason the Saudi Gazette hasn't updated for several days.) It has the "world's 14th fastest supercomputer" according to one report. The new university is about 50-some miles/80 km north of Jiddah on the Red Sea Coast at a place called Thuwal. The 71 faculty members so far include 14 from the US, seven from Germany and six from Canada; I'm guessing that means English is the language of instruction.

It's an ambitious move and an apparently well-founded one, and the liberal approach to women seems innovative. Let's wish it well.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not Exactly a Packed House

Ahmadinejad is not packing them in. The headlines note the US and Canada walked out, but from this picture it looks like a lot of people suddenly felt the need to be somewhere else. Needed to take a call? Potty break?

At least Qadhafi is entertaining because he's unpredictable. Ahmadi is all too predictable.

Qadhafi on Taliban, Vatican, US Civil War, Saving Humanity, etc., etc. [UPDATED]

I think it was either The Moor Next Door or one of the other Maghreb bloggers who once referred to Libya as pursuing the world's only "stream of consciousness foreign policy." (Yes, it was he.) I think this is what he meant (clip from YouTube):

And this is just a short clip from a much longer speech. (To be precise, a minute and a half from a 95-minute speech.)

Despite the rambling nature of the speech, I should at least give Qadhafi credit for one thing: he is wearing real clothes other Libyans might actually wear, including the traditional North African cap that Tunisians call chechia (Libyans may use the same term but I don't know for sure) and a reasonable traditional outfit, rather than, say, the upholstery he wore when he met Obama. In all honesty, this is the most relatively normal outfit I've seen him appear in in a long while. If it weren't for the content of the speech, you might think he'd mellowed. Nah.

UPDATED: Since Qadhafi's allocated 15 minutes ran 95, and since he seems to have been improvising as he went along (stream of consciousness indeed), as of now even the Libyan News Agency site (Arabic and English both) has only a series of excerpts and hasn't gotten them all assembled into a single text.

Does Qadhafi realize that, coming immediately after Obama (whom he called "our son") that people will naturally compare Obama's speech with his rambling, conspiracy theory riddled, Castro-length outpouring? I guess "Does he care?" is the real question.

And of course his speech bounced everything else far down the schedule. As a result Ahmadinejad will be speaking late. How terribly disappointing. (Kidding.)

UPDATED YET AGAIN: Don't miss The Guardian's take, with classic British wit. Best parts:
It was meant to be a day of global reconciliation, when the new leader of the free world put all the rancour of the past eight years behind him and heralded an era of unity. And so it might have been were it not for a short man, swathed in saffron robes and a black felt hat waving his arms around and shouting: "Terrorism!"
Muammar Gaddafi - for it was he - grabbed his 15 minutes of fame at the UN building in New York today and ran with it. He ran with it so hard he stretched it to an hour and 40 minutes, six times longer than his allotted slot, to the dismay of UN organisers . . .
He tore up a copy of the UN charter in front of startled delegates, accused the security council of being an al-Qaida like terrorist body, called for George Bush and Tony Blair to be put on trial for the Iraq war, demanded $7.7tn in compensation for the ravages of colonialism on Africa, and wondered whether swine flu was a biological weapon created in a military laboratory. At one point, he even demanded to know who was behind the killing of JFK. All in all, a pretty ordinary 100 minutes in the life of the colonel.
To be fair, this was a man suffering from severe sleep deprivation. The US state department, New York city council and Donald Trump had prevented him from laying his weary head in an air-conditioned tent in New Jersey, Central Park and Bedford respectively, and the resulting strain was evident.
"I woke up at 4am, before dawn!" Gaddafi lamented about an hour into his speech, adding for the benefit of the jetlagged diplomats seated stony-faced in front of him: "You should be asleep! You're all tired after a sleepless night!"
Except that other reports indicate that the JFK remark carried a hint of Israeli involvement, that report seems to do the speech justice, though I still haven't listened to the whole thing, not having had 95 minutes to spare so far today (or perhaps ever). (Another quibble: it wasn't Trump who prevented him sleeping in Bedford, but the Bedford town authorities who claimed the tent violated local zoning laws. Westchester county apparently discriminates against Bedouin tents. Perhaps they never felt they needed to zone for them.)

Ironies: Lieberman Compliments ‘Erekat's Hebrew

This would actually be funny if it weren't also so much a crystallization of a major problem. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's Foreign Minister, reportedly said that he was surprised to be greeted by Palestinian negotiator Sa‘eb ‘Erekat in excellent Hebrew. So Lieberman tells reporters: "Erekat — I didn't know he had such good Hebrew."

Here's the irony: ‘Erekat was born in East Jerusalem (then Jordanian) in 1955. From the age of 12, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, he has been surrounded by Hebrew speakers. As a professor at Najah University in Nablus and in his many other positions related to the peace process he has had to interact regularly and constantly with Israelis. He studied in the US and has a PhD from Bradford in Britain. He has been a senior negotiator with the Israelis since Madrid in 1991.

Avigdor Lieberman was born as Evet Lieberman (hence his popular nickname "Yvette" in Israel) in Kishinev in the then-Soviet Union, now Chisinau, Moldova. His education was mostly in things like agriculture, though he also famously worked as a bouncer. He came to Israel in 1978, eleven years after Sa‘eb ‘Erekat found himself under Israeli occupation. Lieberman now lives on a settlement in the West Bank. So Hebrew is a second language for both men, but ‘Erekat got a head start. I wouldn't be shocked if ‘Erekat's was actually better than Lieberman's, but that would be far too ironic.

Sa‘eb ‘Erekat speaks good Hebrew, as a great many Palestinians do. I'm glad Lieberman is impressed. How's your Arabic, Mr. Lieberman? You are the Foreign Minister.

Coptic Presidential Candidate: His Own Party Not So Sure?

Remember Egypt's landmark first Coptic Presidential candidate? Remember how Husni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party welcomed his candidacy? Well, um, he seems to have forgotten to discuss it with his own party first. This story indicates that his party of choice, the Free Socialist Constitutionalist Party (no, I'm not familiar with it either) had not endorsed his bid. The linked article also includes qualifying comments by George Ishaq, head of the opposition movement Kifaya, (and a Copt) that the candidacy was not a "substantive" one. And Yousef Sidhom, Editor of the newspaper Al-Watani (a newspaper that has been a Coptic voice since the early 20th century) called the announcement "premature."

Oh, well, Mamdouh Ramzy: at least the NDP likes you. Maybe if Gamal Mubarak decides not to run . . .


Egypt and the Pig Cull: Now, Garbage in the Streets

Because I don't post on weekends I didn't comment on this New York Times article on the second thoughts in Egypt about the pig cull earlier this year. But since I posted plenty of comments on the absurdity of the cull at the time — a classic case of letting bureaucracy and public panic (about the name "swine flu") drive policy — it's worth noting the aftermath as the (Pig ghosts?) come home to roost.

The problem: the garbage in Cairo has always been hauled by the zabbalin, which just means garbagemen, who lived in slums out at the foot of the Muqattam hills. They hauled the garbage, fed it to their pigs, and raised the pigs accordingly. Without the pigs, they have no real use for the garbage. The zabbalin are Copts, naturally (no Muslim will deal with pigs) and not the most popular social group. But they performed an essential service.

Now, both in protest of the pig cull and for other reasons, the garbage collectors are not picking up the garbage. So we have poor parts of town drowning in garbage and the better quarters piling up with stink. We get headlines like "Cairo Schools Inundated with Refuse". I'm not even going to try to link to all the stories. Garbage is piling up in Giza, in Heliopolis, in the best neighborhoods, and the poorer neighborhoods are just swamped.

The NYT article has a picture of fat-tailed sheep (originally identified as goats; lovely NYT correction at the end of the story, though I think two of them are goats) who aren't doing nearly as good a job as the pigs.

Perhaps the world needs to ship a new resupply of pigs to Egypt, but oh, my, that would raise problems with the religious authorities.

Think before you act. Deeds have consequences. You cannot remove a species entirely from an ecosystem without effect. The pigs ate the garbage. Bureaucrats killed all the pigs. Nothing is eating the garbage. (Should we make the bureaucrats eat ... no, that would be wrong.)

I love Cairo. It deserves smarter governors.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

You Can't Make This Stuff Up: Qadhafi at Trump's?

Is Qadhafi staying with Donald Trump? Or at least planning to entertain there, in his tent?

You really can't make up anything as bizarre as some of the news that really appears, especially when Brother Leader is in the mix. It transcends satire.

Stay tuned.

Clayton Swisher Gets Israeli Opinions of Obama

Here's an interesting piece from Al-Jazeera English. Before he was a correspondent for Al-Jazeera English, Clayton Swisher (the reporter on this piece) was the Programs Director at MEI, so it's sort of an alumnus report. He's interviewing Israelis on Ben-Yehuda street in West Jerusalem, and the opinions are mostly pretty negative: several insisting Obama's a Muslim, etc. Anyway, here's Clayton's report:

The Big Show: On to Tomorrow's Events

I think my initial reticence about over-analyzing the Obama-Netanyahu-‘Abbas summit has been borne out; most of the early reports indicate that Obama expressed the need for urgency and everybody shook hands for the cameras, but I can't find any proclamations of breakthroughs in the aftermath. Not that I think anyone was expecting any.

So Act One of the Big Show is over; on to Act Two: in the center ring: Ahmadinejad! And warming up in the wings: Qadhafi!

Will the General Assembly hoopla produce any progress on any front? It seems unlikely. A and Q will no doubt do their usual grandstanding, with various countries walking out and all; and perhaps the meeting today will at least move things a little in Israeli-Palestinian issues, but it seems more circus than diplomatic conference.

On the Meeting

I am holding off any commentary on the Obama-Netanyahu-‘Abbas summit until after it's over and the announcements are made. I don't expect any major breakthroughs, though I'd be glad to be surprised; I just see little point in spending time speculating when we'll know what happened soon.

Saudis Release Isma‘ili Leader

A leader of Isma‘ilis in Saudi Arabia has been released after being jailed since May of 2008; his release was part of an ‘Id al-Fitr amnesty. An English account is here; Al-Watan's account of his statement is here (Arabic). The story in itself is related in part to King ‘Abdullah's general attempts to improve treatment of Saudi Shi‘ites generally, though they are still considered heretics by the religious establishment. But most Saudi Shi‘ites (and most Arab Shi‘ites) are "Twelvers," followers of the mainstream form of Shi‘ism dominant in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and the northern Gulf generally. Isma‘ilis are another matter altogether. This story gives me an opportunity to explain who they are, since they are now rather scarce in the Arab world but have large communities in Pakistan, East Africa, and elsewhere. After all, it says up there at the top of the page that I'm "putting Middle Eastern events in cultural and historical context."

Whereas Twelver Shi‘ites await the return of the Hidden Twelfth Imam, Isma‘ilis split with the other stream over the seventh Imam, but one line of modern Isma‘ism still has a living Imam as leader of the community — that's who the Agha Khan is — while the other branch awaits a returning Imam

In the ninth and tenth centuries, under the Fatimid Caliphate, Isma‘ilism was momentarily dominant from North Africa to Syria and even, briefly, held Baghdad. But with the fall of the Fatimids Isma‘ilis increasingly became isolated communities in the Arab world, but continued to sway followers farther afield: in East Africa, around the Indian Ocean, and in the subcontinent, including what is now Pakistan, as well as Central Asia.

To oversimplify a bit, there are two main streams of Isma‘ilism today, those who follow a continuous line of living Imams, who are called the Nizaris or Agha Khanis and follow, of course, the Agha Khan; and the Musta‘li (also called "Bohra"), who await the return of an occulted Imam but are divided into various groups over which Imam was occulted; both descend from post-Fatimid imams. The Druze, who are usually considered a separate religion altogether, originated as well from Isma‘ilism.

The Nizaris are mostly in the subcontinent or Central Asia; various Bohra groups are found there and also in Yemen and adjacent portions of Saudi Arabia. This is where the subject of the story above comes in: if you look at the Al-Watan article you'll note that it is datelined Najran (for those who read Arabic). Najran is in ‘Asir, an area that was Yemeni until the 1930s when Saudi Arabia annexed it. These are Bohra or Musta‘li Isma‘ilis. There are more details on the various subdivisions in the Wikipedia article.

Some of this I know from my own studies of medieval Islam (especially of the Fatimids), but quite a lot of it I know from conversations with Abbas Hamdani, a distinguished scholar of Isma‘ilism whose daughter, now a professor in her own right, once took a course from me in my teaching days.

I know, little of this has to do with the release of the Saudi figure, but I thought the background could be useful. Since Isma‘ilis are rare today in the Arab world (a smattering in Syria I think, along with those mentioned in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, or among Pakistanis and Indians working in the Gulf), they aren't that well known to Arabs either.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Think Tankers Behind the McChrystal Report

An interesting point in relation to my earlier remarks on the McChrystal report: via a link on Marc Lynch's critique, the list of the think tankers who participated in and, apparently in effect, wrote the report. As Spencer Ackerman notes in the post, all are national security types, none are particularly Afghanistan experts, though local expertise is usually the first principle of counterinsurgency theory. Some of them are good, some know the region well — Exum, Cordesman, Biddle — they are all first and foremost security types, some of them (the two Kagans) with well-known leanings. I think as the debate proceeds, it's fair game to discuss the choice of the think tankers who apparently did much of the work for McChrystal's report. It doesn't change my thinking that the report is rather nuanced and sophisticated and not just a more-troops-now call, but it does raise some methodological issues.

Bloggers versus Journalists: A Debate

An interesting exchange at the Columbia Journalism Review website; to oversimplify: First Larry Pintak and Yosri Fouda argue that bloggers in the Middle East are not necessarily journalists and that defending bloggers who are arrested may undercut the ability to defend "real" journalists when they come under fire. Unsurprisingly, that view has not gone unchallenged: a response by Robert Mahoney at the site. I suggest you read both viewpoints. I see Pintak and Fouda's point (sort of) but I think I'm with Mahoney on this one, but you can make up your own minds after reading both.

Syrian-Turkish Rapprochement

Syria and Turkey, which were at daggers drawn as recently as the 1990s, are rapidly moving towards greater integration. Most recently they've dropped visa requirements for their nationals traveling between the two countries. This is potentially a very important evolution. Josh Landis at Syria Comment examines some of the potential benefits and quotes several Turkish newspaper analyses.

One role Turkey has played, of course, is mediation between Syria and Israel. This article suggests that IDF Commander Gabi Ashkenazi feels that an opportunity has been missed for a Syrian-Israeli deal, one that could do a great deal to move Syria away from its Iranian alliance. Needless to say, the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement can potentially have a favorable impact on both the Israeli and Iranian relationships for Syria.

How to Read McChrystal's Strategic Assessment

The big news of the day, of course, is the leak by The Washington Post of General McChrystal's Strategic Assessment. Most of the gist of the report had already leaked over the past couple of weeks, but the publication of it in detail is news. [I call it a leak because the Post was prepared to published a leaked, classified version, but instead agreed to publish a redacted version the Pentagon cleared last night for the purpose.]

I'm hardly the first to comment. Of the Middle East bloggers, Lynch and Cole already have their early takes up, while Exum actually worked on the report itself. Virtually all the policy bloggers outside the area studies realm have also been commenting, and since I took a sick day today working at home, I was also able to watch the various shouting heads on the news channels. So I'm hardly eager to just rehash what everybody else is saying.

Instead, it seems to me, it might be useful to make a few points as to how to read and think about this report. It has already become a political football, inevitably, but some of the simplistic narratives that are emerging are not, I think, what's important about the assessment itself. So my first strong suggestion on how to read and think about the report is pretty basic:
  • Read the report, not the headlines on a newspaper story or a website. Although the two main stories in today's Washington Post, one by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung and the other by Bob Woodward, are a good place to start, they are no substitute for reading the whole nuanced report (minus a few redactions). It's an unusually candid report, sort of a think tank report channelled through General McChrystal's prism. It is not just a call for more troops, as some headlines would seem to imply, nor is it a Vietnam-style "just some more troops and the light at the end of the tunnel will be reachable" either. As the "Commander's Summary" puts it:
    Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or "doubling down" on the previous strategy. Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way that we think and operate.
  • This is a nuanced report. It deserves a nuanced debate, though it probably won't get one. There's a danger here that the debate is becoming much more polarized than anything the authors of the report have said. It's not just a "more troops" versus "out now" choice. An attempt to win would require much more than more troops: it would require a new strategy (essentially a counterinsurgency one), and there are difficulties in achieving this. Again, the report itself is 66 pages with all the appendices, and doesn't lend itself to easy summary. I'm still reading the later parts, but it's clear there are no guarantees. For one thing, the nature of the Karzai regime and the quality of the Afghan forces are not necessarily well suited to classic counterinsurgency theory. This isn't going to be easy, and the report acknowledges that. This isn't your father's Vietnam: there are no rose colored glasses here, no gung-ho brass hats urging unlimited commitment. It's a brutally realistic assessment, along with conclusions of what is necessary if the political leadership decides it is worth the investment.
  • Try to avoid the "Obama versus the professional military" narrative. I think it's pretty clear what McChrystal is actually saying: the professional military has plenty of doubts about Afghanistan, too. But if our assignment is to assess what is needed to win it, this is our assessment. Whether that is a practical policy, whether the investments outweigh the potential risks, is a political decision; they've spelled out the military realities.
  • Don't trust the "failure is not an option" argument. No military man makes such arguments, at least not since the fall of Imperial Japanese militarism. Suicide in the name of a cause is not rational strategy. Some of the supporters of the war come close to that argument: we can't afford to lose. But if you also can't afford to win, you bleed unendingly, as we did in Vietnam and the Soviets did in Afghanistan. That's not what McChrystal is saying, and those who make such arguments are not supporting the careful analyses of the generals. They've watched the opening of Patton too many times. Patton really did give that speech, but he was being a cheerleader, not a strategist (and he was at least as good an actor as George C. Scott).
The report itself makes me think that the military is seriously analyzing the difficult questions posed by a war like Afghanistan. The initial responses, unfortunately, make me think that the public policy debate is nowhere near as sophisticated as McChrystal and his panel. Do read the report carefully before you join the debate. It's acronym-heavy, but worth it.

Iran and Afghanistan: More on the Way

The two biggest stories out there — the McChrystal report's leak and the Iranian demonstrations on Friday — both need some time to digest and write. I'm a little under the weather today anyway, and catching up from the weekend. Later this afternoon I'll have some more extended thoughts to post.

Cairo, Black Saturday, 1952

Monday mornings start slow since I usually have E-mail and other things to catch up on in the morning, so to hold you over until I get back to blogging pace, I thought I'd offer some links dealing with the famous "Black Saturday" in Cairo in 1952, when Shepheards Hotel, the Turf Club, and other British institutions (and much besides: cinemas, bars, cafes) were burned in a day of rioting. An old friend looking for photos to illustrate a lecture asked me last week if I knew where he could get such photos, and after providing them to him, I hope he won't mind if I share them with you. All are from sites belonging to the blogger who blogs as "Zenobia" at Egyptian Chronicles. I've linked to her before a time or two.

First, here's a very interesting Flickr photostream of the fires and their aftermath. Secondly, one of her blogposts which includes a number of photos plus a couple of embedded videos. You don't need to buy into her interpretation (blaming the British rather than the Palace) to find the illustrations interesting.

I'll be checking in with more later today after I get caught up with the day job, but that gives you something to start with.

Friday, September 18, 2009

‘Id Mubarak!

‘Id Mubarak! Depending on sighting the moon, the ‘Id al-Fitr (or ‘Eid if you prefer) will most likely begin at sundown Saturday, though it could begin as early as tonight in some countries. Coming right on the heels of Rosh Hashonah (see previous post), there will be much going on this weekend in the Middle East, though for differing reasons.

‘Id al-Fitr — the holiday of Fast-breaking — marks the end of Ramadan. It is sometimes called the "lesser ‘Id" compared to the ‘Id al-‘Adha, the feast of sacrifice in conjunction with the hajj. It has many other names (Ramadan Bayram among them) and celebrations differ from country to country. The Wikipedia entry has some descriptions, of uneven quality depending on the country. It marks the end of the fast, and usually involves public celebrations.

Shonah Tovah 5770!

Shonah Tovah to my Jewish readers. Rosh Hashonah (or Rosh Hashanah if you prefer) begins at sundown today. In one of those ironies of the Middle East, the ‘Id al-Fitr also begins this weekend, most likely overlapping with the second day of Rosh Hashonah (in those communities that recognize a two-day celebration: a few observe one day only), though I suppose there are few families that celebrate both Jewish and Muslim holidays. Though Jews and Muslims have many differences these days, even their names for the new year (though not the dates) are nearly the same: Rosh Ha-shonah, Ra's al-Sana.

So a happy 5770 as the High Holy Days begin. I'll be posting a second post for ‘Id greetings.

Breaking a Stereotype

Here's a story that's just in time for both Rosh Hashonah and ‘Id al-Fitr: "Virginia Synagogue Doubles as Mosque for Ramadan." The story is from Ha'aretz dated yesterday. Northern Virginia, where I live, is increasingly a mosaic of nationalities, but it seems that when the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society needed more room for Ramadan, the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation volunteered the space.

As the story notes:
On Friday afternoons, the people coming to pray at this building take off their shoes, unfurl rugs to kneel on and pray in Arabic. The ones that come Friday evenings put on yarmulkes, light candles and pray in Hebrew.

The building is a synagogue on a tree-lined street in suburban Virginia, but for the past few weeks - during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan - it has also been doubling daily as a mosque. Synagogue members suggested their building after hearing the Muslim congregation was looking to rent a place for overflow crowds.

"People look to the Jewish-Muslim relationship as conflict," said All Dulles Area Muslim Society Imam Mohamed Magid, saying it's usually disputes between the two groups in the Middle East that make news. "Here is a story that shatters the stereotype."
Encouraging news that two congregations can separate themselves from events in the Middle East to practice a bit of communal charity. It's a Reform Synagogue, of course, but the Muslim Imam is Sudanese.

And I can't help but wonder what John Foster Dulles and Alan Dulles would have thought of the name All-Dulles Area Muslim Society. (The area takes its name from the airport, which was named for John Foster Dulles.) (UPDATED: Perhaps I should clarify that the Dulles brothers came from an old-line Presbyterian, very Calvinist background. Their reputations may be long forgotten by the younger generations.)

New MEI Viewpoints: Orientalism

There's another of MEI's Viewpoints series available: Orientalism's Wake: The Ongoing Politics of a Polemic. The descriptive page is here and the entire publication in .pdf is here. Edited by Daniel Varisco of Hofstra, it has contributions by eight scholars. As you may have guessed, it's about the ongoing debate over Edward Said's Orientalism, published in 1978.

The eight contributors include a number of prominent figures, and include Robert Irwin, whose Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents has been getting some attention recently. I haven't yet read it, but The Moor Next Door posted his own review recently, and there was some give and take in the comments to the post.

The fact that we're all still arguing about Said's Orientalism over 30 years later suggests that whatever one's approach, it was a work that greatly affected our field.

The Tel Aviv Centennial

Up to now I haven't mentioned Tel Aviv's centennial. I guess I should do so in honor of Rosh Hashonah. Here's a page with some links.

There's the usual amount of celebration going on, and it started earlier this summer; currently, in preparation for the High Holy Days, 500,000 flowers have been laid out in a carpet of flowers in Rabin Square, the city's ceremonial center. That report prompted me to post on the subject.

Tel Aviv was founded on some sand dunes north of Jaffa in 1909, at least according to the received version (there are others that note there were Arab villages in the area too), and thus it's 100 this year. It eventually incorporated the ancient city of Jaffa into its municipality, though most of Jaffa's Arab population left in 1948. Old Jaffa does still have a different feel to it.

Not everyone shares in the celebration. Over at History News Network, a piece by Mark LeVine on Tel Aviv's centennial. [A little background: LeVine is one of those scholars who particularly infuriate some Israelis and their American allies, who already consider the University of California at Irvine, where he teaches, as an enemy camp, since he obviously has a profound knowledge of Israel; but he also brings a left-wing but sometimes quite challenging interpretation to issues. He's written a book on Tel Aviv and Jaffa which I haven't read, but I have edited an article of his (one of those let's-throw-the-fox-in-the-henhouse-and-see-what-happens moves every editor does once in a while, because it was iconoclastic), and he is certainly a maverick in the field: this website profiles him and has a link to his new book, Heavy Metal Islam, a title I rather suspect has never been considered before.]

The varying approaches to Tel Aviv aside, Israel's two biggest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, have always seemed to be polar opposites in so many ways. Jerusalem is the city whose past seems so ancient: seat of the three Abrahamic religions, traditions as deep as Genesis (Melchisedek is a "priest of Salem"), old stones that seem to echo the millennia. Tel Aviv is a new place. Sure, Jaffa is part of the same municipality today, but Jaffa, unlike Jerusalem, feels more like an old town that's had a Yuppie makeover. And while a lot of Tel Aviv is early 20th century, it never feels all that Middle Eastern. (Jaffa does a bit more.)

Tel Aviv has better restaurants, more ethnic ones, and of course it has beaches where people are sunbathing in clothing that would get them stoned in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim.

Sometimes you're not sure where you are. Not because — as in Jerusalem — you're liable to stumble on an Ethiopian monk or an Armenian procession, but because the city seems so insistently European. I haven't been to Tel Aviv for a while and I'm told Dizengoff Street isn't what it used to be, but it always seemed some sort of blend of Vienna and New York, recreated by immigrants to seem cosmopolitan and echo their origins. Sometimes it is almost funny for an American to see all the signs for genuine New York deli food, or genuine American bagels. Once an executive of Israel Aircraft Industries took me to dinner and I expected something nice, but got a little New York style deli where he swore by the matzoh ball soup. I guess he thought (despite the Irish name) that this is where you take Americans. (Katz's on the Lower East Side has better deli than Tel Aviv, trust me. But Tel Aviv has a lot more ethnic restaurants than Jerusalem.)

Walk through Jerusalem and I'll guarantee you'll probably be approached by a proselytizer, Christian or Jewish depending on the neighborhood. Walk unaccompanied down HaYarkon street in Tel Aviv, it's more likely you'll be approached by young ladies offering an entirely different kind of services.

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem really do, however, despite such stereotypes (and they are stereotypes) offer a window into the enormous differences within Israeli society, the huge disconnect between the haredi religious communities (who are increasingly dominant in Jerusalem) and the old, European Asheknazi secularist elites who still dominate in much (not all) of Tel Aviv. I haven't been there for a while and I understand it's changing. Most centenarians do. But in a part of the world where Jericho is perhaps the oldest still occupied walled human settlement, Damascus is the oldest major city in the world, Jerusalem has been fought over since the late Bronze Age and Cairo looks out on the pyramids, and even Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv) goes back to the Bronze Age apparently, Tel Aviv at 100 is the new kid on the block, still.

Of Course They Do

Egypt: Ruling Party Welcomes Coptic Candidate: Say Sign of Freedom. Well, of course they welcome him. The NDP is going to win anyway, so he's a useful symbol of tolerance, democracy, diversity, and other Good Things. (More on Coptic candidate Mamduh Ramzy here.)

Now, the real dog-bites-man headline will be when we see "Ruling Party Welcomes Muslim Brotherhood Candidate." Be sure to let me know when that happens.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Edward William Lane's Birthday

Today's my birthday. I'm not trolling for presents or congratulations by mentioning this (though at 62 I gather I can start to get some "senior" discounts), and that's not a picture of me either, but I'm using a coincidence to introduce one of the great figures of Arabic scholarship in the West, with whom I happen to share the date. The guy in the picture is 208 today.

Everybody shares their birthday with something or somebody: there are at most 366 possible dates, after all, and the February 29 folks don't get a lot of birthdays. September 17 happens to be the date of the completion of the US Constitution (September 17, 1787, "Constitution Day"), the date of the bloodiest single day in American military history (Antietam, September 17, 1862), and it also has — this is how I get to introduce my birthday into a Middle East blog — a couple of Middle Eastern resonances as well. One was September 17, 1948, my first birthday, but since nobody knew I'd have anything to do with the Middle East at the time, the main event was the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN's peace envoy, in Jerusalem by LEHI (the "Stern Gang"). The other Middle Eastern connection is the reason for this post.

On September 17, 1801, in Hereford, England, Edward William Lane was born.

Generations of English-speaking Arabists have used Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, an immense dictionary of the classical language based on the classical Arabic Qamus. He died while working on the letter qaf (someone I knew once joked he might have been working on the word qadr: only the Arabic-speakers will get it), and his nephew finished the eight-volume work, but it's much weaker after the qafs. At one time his translation of the Arabian Nights was widely read; it is more readable than Sir Richard Burton's, but Burton's has generally superseded it in popularity. (Burton, unlike Lane, kept the dirty parts in, but he wrote in a style that at times verges on the unreadably pretentious, and, being a late Victorian, made up his own dirty words to translate the Arabic ones, since the standard English ones couldn't be printed. Off the top of my head, I remember "futter" if you want an example. It helps if you know French.) Lane's Nights notes are a fantastic treasure of Arab daily life, while Burton's notes have a whole lot of detail on less savory aspects of the culture. Read both. Or read both their notes, and a modern translation of the text.

But Lane's first work is the one that will always endear him to me, and I think, to anyone who loves Egypt, umm al-dunya. This is The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.

Lane was an "orientalist" before Edward Said taught us that that was a bad word, but he was also one of the earliest, and one of the best and most scrupulous in his scholarship.

Manners and Customs
is a great book: dated to be sure, after a century and three quarters; quaint at times in its attitudes and curious in its transliterations of Arabic, but still a gem of description of another culture by a man who managed to learn a great deal by living within it. It was first published in 1836, after years of gestation. I still have, and often refer to, the Everyman's Library edition I picked up in Beirut in 1972; the paper dust cover is even still intact. An earlier version of the Everyman's edition is available in full text on Google Books, as are some other editions, so you don't need to rely on a paper copy as I did. (Though if you want a paper copy, it's still in print.)

It is one of those books that cannot be excerpted with any utility: it's the small joys that make it so interesting, and it may be a complete wash for those who've never been in Egypt. It's the flashes of recognition of continuities and the clear evidence of change and evolution that make it interesting. I have favorite sections and passages, but can't find one that would represent the whole. But there are few, if any, other works of the period by Western orientalists that so neatly encapsulate a country and its culture. There are, certainly, plenty of descriptions of Damascus and Istanbul and other cities by diplomats and historians and linguists, but Lane was more of an anthropologist than anything else, although I don't think the word had been coined then, except perhaps for physical anthropology: this is cultural anthropology before the words existed. He captured Egypt in the later years of Muhammad ‘Ali's reign, but also provided descriptions of practices and habits that long predated his era, and many of which survive today. But he also captured a great deal that does not survive today, and that is part of the book's charm and importance. Most Arabic authors of the time were recording the events and institutions of the ruling classes; Lane was out there with the folks in the coffeehouses and local gathering places and mosques. He captured Egypt at the human level better than any Arabic author of the 19th century that I know of: probably better than any author prior to Naguib Mahfouz, who finally gave an Egyptian voice to ordinary Egyptians.

Lane also was part of a dynasty of sorts. His sister, Sophia Lane Poole, wrote a work on women in Egypt (some at least of which was provided by her brother, apparently), and his nephew, Stanley Lane-Poole (he added a hyphen apparently), an Arabic scholar in his own right, finished the Arabic-English Lexicon and wrote many popular historical and cultural works on the Middle East, some of which still have value, but none of which equal his uncle's contribution.

So happy 208th birthday, Edward William Lane, and thanks for Manners and Customs, and the indipensable Lexicon of course, and your version of the Nights. But it's Manners and Customs that makes me happiest to share your birthday.

Oh, yes: if posts are few today, it's both my birthday and I've got a ton of work (you know, the kind they actually pay me for) to finish. Click on the Google Books link and read Lane for a while, if you get bored. Believe me, it's worth the journey.