A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 31, 2012

For the Three Day Weekend: A Scene from Lawrence of Arabia at 50

This is the beginning of the three-day Labor Day weekend in the United States; I won't be back till Tuesday, barring major developments. For a diversion, note that this year marks the 50th Anniversary of David Lean's classic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. It's a film that was banned in some Arab countries and it hardly provides a good guide to the history of the Arab revolt. I'll post more on the film at a later date. But it is still a superb film, and having posted about Faisal ibn al-Hussein just a week ago, and being convinced that Alec Guinness' portrayal of Faisal was brilliant (including looking like him), (and of course, Guinness is also the only real Obi-Wan Kenobe, which is why the Star Wars prequels don't count), I thought I'd share the scene in Faisal's tent. The "one of those desert-loving English" scene, as I think of it. Enjoy the three-day weekend.

Lynch on the Resilience of the Monarchies

Just last month we talked about reasons for the resilience of Arab monarchies; today Marc Lynch offers some cogent thoughts on the subject. Read him and follow his links.

Joplin, MO Rallies to Rebuild its Burned Mosque

I have previously noted the response my home town of Joplin, MO has demonstrated in the wake of the burning of the local mosque, the only one in a 50 mile radius, in posts here and here.

While I don't want to overemphasize this story because of my personal link to the place, I think it's an encouraging sign at a time when opposition to the building of mosques is getting a lot of attention in the US and Europe; here, in the heart of the Bible Belt, are local citizens who have rallied to raise money to rebuild the mosque, with the Christian churches and the one synagogue joining in and one of the organizers coming from the local Bible college, who arranged a "Neighbors" rally last Saturday. A clip from that rally:

The story has been picked up many places; here's a piece from Al Jazeera, and another from a peace group. More links are to be found on the Islamic Society of Joplin's Facebook page. While I'm angry and ashamed that the arson could occur in my hometown, I'm delighted at the response of the people there, responding as they did to last year's devastating tornado, to stand up for their neighbors.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The First NAM Summit, Bandung 1955: Nasser Takes the World Stage

India's Nehru, Ghana's Nkrumah, Nasser, 
Indonesia's Sukarno, Yugoslavia's Tito in Bandung 1955
In his speech at the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi (who, as a Muslim Brotherhood member, is no admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser), acknowledged Egypt's role in the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement, which also marked Nasser's emergence onto the world stage as a vocal opponent of colonialism.

At the founding summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, Nasser joined with leadrrs of the "Non-Aligned" states — what we would come to call the Third World — to create a supposed middle ground between the West and the Communist Bloc (though the presence of Communist Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai led the West to suspect it as a Communist front). Nasser, who had only fully supplanted Muhammad Naguib the year before, had not played a major role in the international limelight before, though in the next few years he would emerge as the leader of the Arab world. With the host, Indonesia's Sukarno,  Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Yugoslavia's Tito, and Zhou, Nasser became a spokesman for the non-European states emerging from colonial rule. The following year, he would nationalize the Suez Canal and face Britain, France and Israel in the Suez War.
Nasser at Bandung
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) may seem rather outdated so long after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, and the end of conventional colonialism. But in 1955 the idea was a popular one in the countries that had recently emerged as independent states. It helped propel Nasser to popularity not merely in the Arab sworld but among the other Non-Aligned leaders.

Mr. Morsi's Iranian Adventure

Muhammad Morsi's decision to become the first Egyptian leader to visit Iran since the 1979 Revolution (for the Non-Aligned Summit) raised concerns in the West, which along with Israel had been trying to persuade prominent figures not to go. But Morsi's decision to attack the Syrian regime from the podium — leading to a Syrian walkout — suggests that his visit will be not so much a legitimizing move for the Iranian regime, as it is a challenge to Iran for the regional leadership of Islamist movements. While Morsi did not directly attack his hosts, he did go after their sole regional Arab state ally, Syria.

Not so much friends as rivals?
On reflection, it makes sense. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, though it has evolved in many different ways from its Egyptian counterpart, is a key player in the resistance to the Asad regime. The Egyptian Brotherhood is hostile to Shi‘ism and would like to provide leadership for a Sunni Islamic revival in place of Iran's Shi‘ite efforts. And at least in part, the longstanding conflicts between Egypt and Iran are based on a natural rivalry as two regional power anchors in the region.

While Morsi made a reference to the family of the Prophet, a gesture towards his Shi‘ite hosts, he also referred to the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs, the first three of whom are cursed and denounced by the Shi‘a as usurpers. Those references, which were neither traditional nor necessary, seemed to point up the sectarian disagreements. In another interesting point, he referred favorably to Gamal Abdel Nasser's role in the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s. Given Nasser's role in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, that too came as something of a surprise.

There has been a lot of speculation and a certain amount of alarm about the direction of Egypt's new foreign policy. Many questions still remain, and it is likely the West will not agree with many aspects of it,  but the visit to Tehran seems to have been less a granting of legitimacy than a challenge for leadership.

Lamenting the Fate of Books in Egypt

Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy has a thoughtful piece about what he calls "The Tragedy of Books in Egypt,"  lamenting the fact that early editions of Egyptian books are so little valued they have disappeared from the Dar al-Kutub (the national library) but can be found in foreign libraries, and also the rather arbitrary temporary banning of an innocuous history text. It is an important statement from an accomplished academic who also writes contemporary commentary.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

To My Political Scientist Readers: The APSA Cancellation

I know many of my readers come from the political science field. Let me commiserate with you on the literally last-minute cancellation of the American Political Science Association (APSA) Annual Conference in New Orleans, which was due to begin tomorrow. None of us can predict the weather, though it is hurricane season.

My own field is history. Interestingly enough, the American Historical Association is holding its annual meeting in New Orleans as well this year. Of course, AHA is doing it in January. I could make a joke about how historians know how to look up when hurricane season is, but that would be taking unfair advantage. Sorry about APSA. And best wishes to all in Isaac's path.

The Old Town in Umm al-Qaiwain

In over three and a half years of blogging, and over 3,000 posts, a search suggests  I have had only one story about Umm al-Qaiwain. which, along with ‘Ajman, competes for the title of least well known of the seven Emirates in the UAE.

Good news for you Umm al-Qaiwain enthusiasts: my second UAQ post! The National  has an interesting article on the "old town" of Umm al-Qaiwain, the old quarter now primarily a market, Often there is so little to be found of the pre-oil Gulf in most Gulf cities — mostly an old fort, or an old mosque — that I find such articles informative. rather like browsing through Lorimer's Gazeteer.

The article concludes:
Other buildings, particularly the rundown and abandoned ones, receive far fewer visitors, at least of the human kind.
"They are haunted by jinn, so we don't go near them," says Ahmed, an Emirati in his 20s shopping at a grocery store, as he looks towards one such house.
The store owner nods his head in agreement. "Old towns always have one or two haunted houses," he says. "It is part of their charm."

Eric Rouleau on Cairo, Hasan al-Banna, Nasser

Eric Rouleau, longtime Middle East expert for Le Monde and Le Monde Diplomatique, onetime French Ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey, was born in Cairo in 1926 as a member of Egypt's once-flourishing Jewish community; leaving Egypt after 1948, he became one of France's greatest Middle East experts. He is without question, in my mind, one of the two or three greatest journalists working on the Middle East in the past half century or so, as well as an accomplished diplomat. His memoir, Le Moyen-Orient au-delà des mythes,will be published in French this year.
Nasser and Rouleau, 1963 (from the article)
The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, the relatively new journal published by the American University in Cairo's School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (its Dean is Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, former Ambassador to Washington) has an excerpt from Rouleau's memoir dealing with his exile from Cairo after 1948 (labeled both a Zionist and a Marxist, and doubly damned) and his return in 1963 with Nasser's blessing, as well as a reminiscence of his interviewing Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna for The Egyptian Gazette in the 1940s, and interviewing Nasser for Le Monde on his first return to his native land in 1963.

A good read from a great writer: the whole memoir should be worth reading as well.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Planning for "The Day After" in Syria

A group of 45 Syrian opposition figures, in a project sponsored by the United States Institute for Peace and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), have proposed an outline for charting a transition to democracy in Syria when and if the Asad regime falls. Called "The Day After Project," a summary of the report can be found here in a USIP/SWP "Comment," (PDF) while the full report from the Syrian group is here (PDF). The Day After Project's website is here; and a New York Times report is here.

Having some sort of blueprint for the day after the fall is essential; the experiences of Iraq and Libya show the problems of ad hoc responses (though plans existed for Iraq, but were not followed). The project report appears promising, but of course reaching the Day After will be neither easy nor quick, and the greater the violence in reaching that moment, the more difficult implementing even the best laid plans may be.

Aswan in Color Video from 1911

Zeinobia posted this on her blog while I was on vacation, but if you haven't yet seen it it's fascinating: a rareearly color film using the Kinemacolor technique, from 1911, of Aswan, Egypt:

Morsi's Presidential Team

President Morsi in Egypt named his Presidential advisory team yesterday, and it's a subject of considerable debate. While he has named a smattering of liberals, the overwhelming coloration is Islamist, in various forms.

The most important posts (presumably: all the job descriptions are a little vague) are the four Presidential Assistants. Morsi had originally seemed to promise that he would name a Copt and a woman as Vice Presidents, but his one Vice President so far, Muhammad Mekki, is a respected jurist. He has, however named a woman and a Copt among his four Presidential Assistants. The Copt is Samir Morqos, a respected writer, who is the assistant for "democratic transition"; the woman is Prof. Pakinam AL-Sharqawi, a political science professor who is assistant for political affairs, and who is considered a moderate Islamist with sympathies for, but not a member of, the Muslim Brotherhood. The other two assistants are Imad Abdel-Ghaffur, head of the Salafi Al-Nour Party, who is in charge of "national dialogue" or "social communications" (your guess is as good as mine), and Essam Ahmad al-Haddad, a member of the Brotherhood, who will be in charge of foreign affairs and international cooperation. Only Morqos is not an Islamist.

The 17-member Advisory Board is also heavily weighted towards Islamists, with a few technocrats. The sole Christian is Rafiq Habib; I've written about him before. He's not a Copt, but an Evangelical Protestant in the Presbyterian tradition, and he is a Vice President of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political front; he's not taken seriously by most Egyptian Christians. Other members of the council include Essam al-Erian, head of the FJP and a prominent Brotherhood figure who recently infuriated leftists by a Twitter posting denouncing them.

Reports on the appointments here, here and here; The Arabist's assessment here; Zeinobia's here; the Atlantic Council here.

With continuing concerns about the directions Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are moving, especially in the field of press freedom but also foreign policy, this set of appointments offers at best a few grains of hope intermingled with an overly Islamist cast of characters. As The Arabist does note, man liberals have reportedly declined offers from Morsi, so it may be that he simply can't recruit anyone else, but that's far from clear.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Henderson on Saudi King's Health

Simon Henderson at the Washington Institute has a new piece on "Fresh Concerns About Health of Saudi King," following news that King Abdullah has left the country for medical treatment. The Kingdom aving lost two Crown Princes eight months apart and with uncertainty about where the succession will go after present Crown Prince Salman, he  analyzes some of the questions raised by the King's uncertain health.

Elias Muhanna on Bicameralism in Lebanon

Prof. Elias Muhanna of Brown University (better known here in the Blogosphere as Qifa Nabki) has a new paper out at the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford. He talks about it at his blog here, and you can download the English PDF here or the Arabic PDF here. Here's the abstract:
The Ta’if Accords, which ended Lebanon’s civil war, called explicitly for the dismantling of political confessionalism through the election of a Chamber of Deputies on “a national, non-confessional basis” and the formation of a Senate representing all of Lebanon’s various sects. Lebanese leaders from across the ideological and confessional spectrum have declared their support for this idea, and it is routinely raised whenever questions of institutional reform and “de-confessionalism” are discussed. However, the Ta’if Accords provide no details beyond the basic description of two legislative chambers elected on different bases, a fact which prompts a wide range of questions about the architecture and implementation of such a system. This paper explores these questions and proposes several bicameral models based on a comparative political analysis.
To which he adds on the blog:
As you’ll see, I’m considerably less bullish on the idea of a senate as I’ve been in the past, and that has to do with extensive conversations with many people in Lebanon, as well as conversations we’ve had here on the blog (see here, here, and here). Still, I think this is a discussion worth having if only because it offers a useful pathway into the larger de-confessionalism debate.
No, I haven't read it myself yet. But knowing his work and reading his abstract and comment, it looks like a useful contribution to a (somewhat latent but important) topic.

An aside, as a medievalist working on the contemporary Middle East: Elias is known to most of us in his Qifa Nabki identity as a superb, talented and witty commentator on modern Lebanon, but as his nom de blogue ought to tell you (the famous first two words of the qasida of Imr' ul-Qays, but you knew that, right?), he's a professor of comparative literature, and his doctoral work was on one of the great encyclopedic works of the Mamluk era, Nuwayri's Nihayat al-Arab fi Funun al-Adab. The Mamluk encyclopedists (I've worked with Qalqashandi a bit more than Nuwayri, but same idea) were ambitious collectors of knowledge. I'm not sure if Elias/Qifa has ever commented on this (but wouldn't be surprised if he has), but today Nuwayri would probably have had a blog. Or a wiki of some kind. An he'd tweet and post to Facebook every three or four minutes till everybody unfollowed and unfriended him. Come to think of it, Nuwayri probably had to write all those books. Eventually, someone would read them. even write a dissertation on them ... Actually, all kidding aside, the Mamluk encyclopedists are treasure troves for the literary types like Elias as well as historians like me: if you try to collect everything, someone's going to come along and ask the questions.

Some Things Never Change: Lebanese Diva Rivalry

A little Monday morning superficial celebrity news: Lebanon may be suffering spillover violence from the Syrian civil war; Egypt and Tunisia may be undergoing multiple debates about women's role in society, but some things never change: we still have the Arab entertainment pages filled with catty rivalries between Lebanese celebrity divas.

From Al-Bawaba:
Lebanese double-talent singer-actress Cyrine Abdel Nour has come out and said that she is not threatened by Lebanese queen of pop Haifa Wehbe. Cyrine, who does not consider the sultry beauty her competition insists that she is concerned with being a good actress and a success in her trade, while Haifa focuses more on her looks and putting on a good show. . .
In a further comparison of herself with her 'non-arch-rival', Cyrine firmly denies rumors of being on the plastic surgery bandwagon, adding that she is not against cosmetic improvements or touch-ups if a person feels that enhancement would make them a happier person. No doubt, the diplomatic celebrity would describe Haifa as a happy woman. Miaowww!
Cyrine Abdel Nour
Haifa Wehbe
While both ladies sing and act, and both are big in the Arabic equivalent of the tabloids, no one seems to confuse them with earlier generation singers like Umm Kulthum or Fairuz. Cyrine's catty remarks that Haifa "focuses on her looks" and her remark about plastic surgery (and I don't think she meant a nose job) is indeed a bit snarky given the fact that, as these two publicity photos suggest, neither diva is exactly shy about displaying her considerable, um, forward-deployed assets. While both may be welcome exceptions in an era of hijab and niqab, as these photos show, the "double talent[s]" the article refers to may not mean singing and acting.

This is your cheesecake, double-entendre and gossip quota for the week.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Vanished States: The Four Month Life of the Syrian Arab Kingdom

A couple of months back I posted about the short-lived (slightly over a year) Republic of Hatay in 1938-39. Today I thought I'd talk a bit about an even more evanescent 20th century Middle Eastern state.
The photo at left may be recognizable to many of you. That is Faisal ibn al-Hussein (1885-1933), and since he was King of Iraq from 1921 until his death, the crown leads one to assume this shows him in that role. But look closely at the flags. Those are not Iraqi flags. One's first instinct is to assume that they are Jordanian flags, due to the seven-pointed stars in the triangular field. But the Jordanian flag's horizontal stripes are black-white-green with white in the middle; these have the white stripe at the bottom (they are in fact black-green-white). In fact, they predate the creation of [Trans-]Jordan. So what are the flags and why are they adorning a portrait of Faisal?

These are the flags of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, which crowned Faisal as its King in March of 1920 and collapsed under French conquest four months later. Here's the Royal Standard version of the flag:
Arab Kingdom of Syria Royal Standard

After the fall of Damascus in World War I, General Allenby allowed Faisal's forces to proclaim an Arab state, though the Sykes-Picot agreement had reserved Syria as a French sphere of influence.  Throughout 1919 Faisal, Britain, and France sparred over the future at the Paris Peace Conference, which Faisal attended. The US set up the King-Crane commission to determine the will of the inhabitants; and found they wanted independence. But the British and French cut a deal: Britain got the Mandate over Palestine/Jordan and added Mosul to Iraq, in return for unrestricted influence for France in Syria and Lebanon. Faisal was left hanging to cut whatever deal he could with the French. British forces, which had protected Faisal in Damascus, were to be withdrawn from Syria.  In January 1920, Faisal negotiated an agreement with the French but had to scrap it when his Syrian nationalist supporters rejected it.

In March of 1920, the Syrian National Congress declared the Arab Kingdom of Syria, a constitutional monarchy with Faisal as King and  Hashim al-Atassi as Prime Minister. Though it did not control all the territory, it claimed to embrace today's territories of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and the Hatay and Cilician regions now part of Turkey. Meanwhile the San Remo conference confirmed Syria as a French Mandate.
Proclamation of Faisal as King of Syria, March 1920
The Syrian Kingdom was more or less doomed from the start. The League of Nations, Britain and France had all aligned against it, and despite the King-Crane Commission, Faisal's hopes that the United States might come to his aid were disappointed; President Wilson's illness had left the US without clear leadership, and rejection of the League by the US had sent the US back into isolationism. Though it managed to issue some coinage, and remains a point of pride for Arab nationalists and supporters of the Hashemites, it was doomed.
Coins of the Syrian Kingdom

Gen. Yusuf al-Azma
The Franco-Syrian War of 1920 was the result. The French forces under Henri Gouraud met the Syrian Kingdom's Army under Defense Minister Gen. Yusuf al-Azma  on July 23, 1920 at Maysalun west of Damascus. The French easily defeated the Syrians, and General al-Azma was killed. The next day the French besieged Damascus, which quickly fell.
Gouraud reviews French troops at Maysalun

Syrian Kingdom troops at Maysalun

Maysalun became a symbol of Arab resistance to colonialism; Sati al-Husri wrote a well-known book about it. The short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria became a symbol of emergent Arab nationalism and a rallying point during uprisings against the French in the 1920s.

The British, of course, found a consolation prize for Faisal by making him King of Iraq. When his brother Abdullah showed up in Amman intending to fight the French, the British created Transjordan for him. The Hashemites, having lost the throne of Syria in 1920, lost the Hejaz in 1925 and Iraq in 1958, but Abdullah's great-grandson still rules in Jordan.

Morsi Ends Preventive Detention for Journalists

There's been growing alarm recently about the increasing pressures on the media — both the state media and the independents — in which complaints filed by the Muslim Brotherhood (often using Mubarak-era laws to do it) seemed to augur a new. restrictive era in Egypt. President Morsi, who was getting a lot of the blame for the new pressures, has issued an order reversing the most controversial move to date, the arrest of Al-Dostour Editor-in-Chief Islam Afify, held in detention for his reports on Morsi. Morsi has ended the detention of journalists for "publication offenses," including that of offending the President of the Republic.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its Guidance Committee have been increasingly aggressive against critics of the Brotherhood and Morsi, leading to alarm among secularists that the Brotherhood will impose rules as authoritarian as those under the old regime. So far Morsi seems to be keeping some distance between himself and the Guidance Committee, but in the absence of a Parliament and with SCAF's power reduced, there are few checks on Morsi at the moment. Today there were secularist demonstrations against the Brotherhood, and a few clashes, though most liberal and Revolutionary groups boycotted the protests, seeing them as essentially organized by the fallul, the "remnants" of the old regime.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Here's an article for the Cairo hands on Groppi, the classic Italo-Swiss patisserie and tea room in Cairo. Other, and I think more accurate, accounts here and here and here. I'm pretty sure alcohol disappeared from Groppi's in the mid-70s, for example, not the 80s. I'll try to write more another time. Still playing catch-up from vacation on the day job, so brief posting today. More posts tomorrow though.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mysteries of Cairo Traffic Explained

Writer Nadia El-Awady seeks to do what few have attempted: codify the rules of Cairo traffic. (Many of my readers are already calling foul on the grounds that there are no rules to Cairo traffic, which of course is part of her point.)

Nonetheless she ventures where angels fear to tread (or drive) and codifies 17 rules. She explains her reason:
My British khawaga husband Colin is spending a full month in Cairo for the first time. We both decided it would be good for him to learn how to drive here. In the process, I’ve discovered that it is possible to put our unspoken rules into words that are inevitably shouted out. I thought it would be useful to share my all-encompassing wisdom on Cairo traffic with a larger audience so I jotted the rules down.
Colin has an odd tendency to drive in one lane and to stay in it. He’s a khawaga. What can I say? His natural inclination is to keep driving at the same speed as long as he believes he has the right of way. With my eyes rolling, I have had to teach him rules number 1 through 3.
 She offers 17 rules in all, and the wonderful photo above. Read the whole thing.

Tamazret Celebrates its Amazigh Heritage

The Amazigh revival throughout North Africa continues apace, and Tunisia, though it has the fewest actual speakers of Tamazight languages in the Maghreb, is among them: the southwestern Tunisian town of Tamazret (or Tamezret) is holding its 20th Annual Festival of Tamazret, emphasizing the town's ethnic heritage.

The Festival's Facebook page is here;  the webpage of the sponsoring Association for the Protection of the Heritage of Tamezret is here (mostly in French, some Arabic); the Festival's program (in Arabic) is here.

Tamazret and other villages in the Matmata area speak a form of Zenata, a division of the Berber or Tamazight languages. A website in French on the Tamazret dialect can be found here.

Israel and Iran: Is the Danger Past?

I'm back from vacation and my pre-written postings are over; my comments may be brief (or mostly links) for a few days while I catch up on the day job. A lot has been  going on  — Iran and Israel as always; the debate over Syrian chemical weapons; Egypt in Sinai; Syria spilling over into Lebanon — and I can't cover it all. Let's start with Iran and Israel. Shai Feldman had a piece on Monday in which he claimed "The Israeli Debate on Attacking Iran is Over." The open opposition of Israeli President Shion Peres, who departed from the traditinal apolitical stance of the Presidency to wield his influence as Israel's eldest elder statesman and longtime defense expert is just one of the turning points Feldman identifies.

I'm a bit less confident that Netanyahu has realized he lacks the national consrnsus to go forward; like Gary Sick's earlier "Please Exhale" article, which concluded that an attack would be a disaster for the region, and not least for Israel, there is still the nagging possibility that it might occur, that the inner logic and dynamic has taken control. Shaul Mofaz' recent diatribe against Netanyahu and Barak explicitly drew links to the US election campaign, and there may be pressure to do something in case an Obama re-election pre-empts Israel's freedom of action. (Or is perceived to do so.) The old specter in US electoral politics of an "October surprise" could tempt Netanyahu to action,though we might see even more open opposition from military and intelligence professionals.

While I suspect Feldman, Sick and others are right that the balance is shifting against an attack (if it ever really favored one), and if it does come it will be the most telegraphed "surprise attack" in history, I'm still a bit nervous. There are too many loose cannon flailing about (Syria, Hizbullah, Iran's own divided leadership) to rest confident that the danger is past.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aramaic vs. Coptic: Language Survival vs. Fossilization, Part III: When DID Coptic Cease to Be Spoken?

I'm on vacation until tomrrow. This is the last of my vacation postings. Part I of this post appeared August 10. Part Two appeared on Friday. 

In our previous discussions we've tried to talk about some of the factors that have kept Aramaic a living language (if a minority one) while Coptic, the late version of one of the world's oldest languages, has been reduced to merely a liturgical language in the Coptic Church. It's an important question, and I hope our discussion has been informative, but it also begs another question: when did Coptic cease to be spoken on a daily basis?

Language survival is a major issue these days, and linguists are struggling to record disappearing languages before they die. Sometimes one can be quite specific about when native speakers ceased ti exist. Thus the death of Ned Maddrell on December 27, 1974 is recorded as the passing of the last native speaker of Manx.  Of course, written languages never really die. Manx has its enthusiasts, and though they did not grow up speaking it, they hope to revive it. The Vatican has an agency that coins new terms in Latin as needed for ecclesiastical use, and people still publish in Latin. Similarly, since the 19th century there has been something of a revival of Coptic, and some enthusiasts can speak it for communication, not just for liturgy. But that's not what is meant by a "living language": when, exactly, did Coptic cease to be a tongue that people learned at their mother's knee, spoke as their first language for daily affairs, even if they also spoke Arabic? 

The question is actually not easily answered. If you go to the "Coptic Language, Spoken" entry in The Coptic Encyclopedia, you'll find a string of evidence coming as far down as the 19th century, but there are skeptics about how some of this evidence should be interpreted. No one doubts that Coptic was in widespread use down to Fatimid times when, as noted in the last entry in this series, the Caliph al-Hakim sought to forbid its use. Coptic was often used alongside Arabic down to the 11th or 12th centuries, when Coptic inscriptions start to disappear. From the 13th century or so, the picture is more obscure. From that article:
In the fourteenth century, a remarkable work entitled Triadon, a didactic poem in Sahidic Coptic, appeared by an anonymous writer, possibly an Upper Egyptian monk. The original poem was in 734 verses, of which only 428 survived, with an Arabic translation that is somewhat artificial and not always clear. It was an attempt to glorify the moribund Coptic language and eulogize biblical personalities and Coptic saints.
In the fifteenth century, the Arab historian al-MAQRIZI (d.1441) points out in his famous work Al-Khitat wa-al-Athar (On History and Geography) that women and children in Upper Egypt knew almost no other tongue for communication but Sahidic Coptic (Vol. 2, p. 507). Again in the same work (Vol. 2, p. 518), while discussing the region of Durunkah in the province of Asyut, he mentions that the inhabitants of the Upper Egyptian Christian villages were all conversant with the doctrines of their faith, as well as with the Coptic language.
In the sixteenth century, according to statements made by the famous Egyptologist J. MASPERO in 1909, the Copts still spoke Coptic. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), it is tradition that a priest and an old Coptic woman were introduced to a seventeenth-century French tourist as the last Egyptians who were thoroughly acquainted with Coptic as a spoken language. Afterward, Coptic survived only as the language of the liturgy. Moreover, the Dominican traveler J. M. VANSLEB points out in the account of his
travels in Upper Egypt in 1672-1673 that Anba Yu‘annis, archbishop of Asyut, introduced to him a certain Mu‘allim Athanasius, who was the last Copt to be conversant with the Coptic language as a speaking medium in the country. Nevertheless, the English writer James E. Quibell reports in the year 1901 that the Reverend David Strang of the American mission at Bani Suef informed him that when he first came to Egypt some three decades before that date, Coptic had been spoken in Upper Egypt within living memory. As a concrete example, a certain Jam Estephanos, an old man from Qus, stated that he remembered as a boy hearing his parents converse in Coptic, which was probably true of the
inhabitants of both Qus and Naqadah (Worrell, 1942, p. 306). W. H. Worrell quotes an oral tradition about Coptic in the village of Ziniyyah, a village in the same neighborhood. A carpenter by the name of Ishaq is credited with the importation from Asyut of Coptic to Ziniyyah. One Tanyos, a Coptic-speaking person, came to Ziniyyah from Naqadah, where he died a centenarian around the year 1886. Another by the name of Muharib, who also spoke Coptic, came from Naqadah at the age of eighty. Khalil abu Bisadah, who knew spoken Coptic from his parents at Ziniyyah, is said to have been taught written Coptic by both the aforementioned Tanyos and Muharib. He continued to live at Ziniyyah until his death around the year 1910. From Naqadah again, a certain Mityas came to share the teaching of Coptic at Ziniyyah with Khalil abu Bisadah. At Farshut in the nineteenth century, the cantors and priests spoke only Coptic within the church sanctuary. Yassa ‘Abd al-Masih, who died in 1959, reported that his grandfather used only Coptic within the church. The Ziniyyah tradition of the use of Coptic as a speaking medium does not mean that Coptic had survived in Egypt as a spoken language that late, but only that it was employed in spots for the glorification of a defunct institution (Worrell, 1942, pp. 301-304).
After the two well-known citations to Maqrizi, about which more momentarily, most of these citations are anecdotal and it is not entirely clear what they may mean. Introducing someone as the last person conversant in Coptic, or an old man remembering his parents could converse in Coptic, does not mean it was still a true living language: people can converse in Latin, or Sanskrit, but that does not make them living languages; some people can converse in Coptic today, but they have learned the language as adults, not as children. And the anecdotes from travelers like Vansleb, and the modern anecdotes with their tendency to cite old people's memories of long dead ancestors, seems fairly weak evidence. Coptic may have survived into the 16th century or even the 17th in parts of Upper Egypt, but the evidence seems pretty anecdotal. The 18th and 19th century stories may refer to learned clergy who could converse in Coptic, as some can today, and clearly references traditions of speaking only Coptic in church,

The Maqrizi references (the page numbers cited above are to the two-volume Bulaq edition of his Khitat) are the most commonly cited evidence that Coptic was in routine spoken use in Maqrizi's day. But the section is part of Maqrizi's discursus on the Copts, and his discussion of the Coptic towns and monasteries of Upper Egypt. Much of that section is derived from the works of earlier historians. Sometimes Maqrizi names his sources, sometimes not; sometimes the source can be recognized. Some critics have said the passages on Coptic refer to a period earlier than the time of Maqrizi.

Certainly, Coptic disappeared as a spoken language in the Delta and Lower Egypt long before it did in Upper Egypt. There is little evidence for everyday use of Coptic in Lower Egypt much later than the Fatimid period, but traces of it in Upper Egypt centuries later. Assuming Maqrizi really is providing a contemporary witness, we can assume it was still spoken in the early 1400s. The 16th and 17th century attestations are a lot more dubious, at least as evidence of any widespread use outside of religious contexts.

Coptic experienced a revival of sorts in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the teaching of Coptic in the church schools and a growing emphasis on training of the clergy in the language, whereas in previous centuries they had sometimes merely committed the liturgical formulas to rote memory. While there have been attempts to revive it as a spoken language, like most other such attempts at revival for national or religious reasons (Welsh among non-native speakers, Irish outside the Gaeltacht), has had only limited success. People already speak Arabic, the language needed for daily life. The great exception in the history of language revival, Hebrew in Israel, remains exceptional because there was no other common language to turn to.

I don't know if I've contributed anything to scholarship in these postings, but I at least hope these reflections will have been of interest to some readers.

An Algerian Coffeehouse, 1931

This is my last day of vacation. Part III of the Aramaic/Coptic series will appear later today. I'll be back at work and normal blogging tomorrow. 

Again via Antika, a great photo (a postcard) from 1931 of an Algerian coffeehouse.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Lost World: Egypt's President Celebrates Jewish New Year in 1953

Via the nostalgia site Antika, a photo from September 10, 1953: Egyptian President Muhammad Naguib celebrates Rosh Hashona at the Adly Street synagogue in Cairo.

Does anyone know if this has happened since? Did it continue until the exodus of much of the Jewish population in 1956 (and if so, did Nasser go)? Did Sadat after his Jerusalem trip? Or was this the last time?

I may be going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing it's not on Morsi's calendar.

Remember the Kangaroo at the Pyramids? How About Samurai at the Sphinx?

I'm still on vacation (and on the road today) so posting is light and the main posts were prepared ahead of time. I'm back on the clock Wednesday, but there will be posts today and tomorrow. Part 3 of the Aramaic/Coptic series will appear tomorrow.

 My post a few months back of a photograph of a kangaroo at the Pyramids (apparently the mascot of some Aussie troops in WWI) garnered a few links, so perhaps there's an interest in odd juxtapositions. Certainly that would include Japanese samurai posing in front of the Sphinx.

The folks at the io9 website called their post "A Strong Contender for the Most Bad-Ass Photo Ever Taken." That I consider hyperbole to say the least. Samurai at the Sphinx are certainly cool, but "Most Bad-Ass Photo Ever Taken?" Please. They aren't even swinging their katanas at each other.

Nicholas Reeves' website has the explanation: 
Following the Emperor Komei`s "order to expel barbarians" in 1863, a Japanese embassy left for Europe on 29 December 1863, led by Ikeda Nagaoki, governor of Chikugo Province (Fukuoka Prefecture). Its aim was to persuade France to agree to the closing of the port of Yokohama to foreign trade, and allow Japan to retreat into isolation once more. The mission inevitably failed.
In 1864, en route to Paris, the Ikeda mission visited Egypt. The stay was memorialised in one of nineteenth-century photography`s most extraordinary images - the embassy`s members, dressed in winged kamishimo costume and jingasa hats, carrying their feared long (katana) and short (wakizashi) swords, standing before the Giza Sphinx. The photograph was taken by Antonio Beato (c. 1825-1903), brother of the photographer Felice Beato. Extant prints of this image are today extremely rare.
Intriguing if nothing else. For the heck of it, here's the kangaroo again:

Friday, August 17, 2012

‘Id Mubarak

One day this weekend will mark the end of Ramadan for everyone, though the exact day may differ. For this ‘Id al-Fitr, may I wish my Muslim readers ‘Id Mubarak wa Sa‘id.

Aramaic vs. Coptic: Language Survival vs. Fossilization, Part II

I'm on vacation. As I did last year, I've prepared a series of posts in advance on historical, cultural, and linguistic topics that are not time-constrained. If events warrant, I will add current posts, but at least one new post will appear daily in my absence. Enjoy. Part I of this post appeared a week ago.

Other events having intruded, it has been a week since Part I of my discussion of the question of why Aramaic is still a spoken language (in limited islands) while Coptic is merely a liturgical language among the largest body of Middle Eastern Christians. Part I is here. I hope to get more into the meat of the "why" in this second part, and then in a third part early next week, to address a question that is itself controversial: when, exactly, did Coptic cease to be spoken on a daily basis? Even this has answers ranging from the 14th century on down to the 17th or even later.

Let's begin approximately where we left off. "Coptic" properly refers to that late version of the Egyptian language written in a variant of the Greek alphabet with some letters added from Demotic Egyptian. It emerged in the wake of the Roman conquest of Egypt and, over the next couple of centuries, became transformed in content by Egypt's transformation under Hellenistic culture, Roman administration, and the Christian religion.

Coptic was the spoken language of everyone in Egypt, other than members of the Helleno-Roman administrative elite, but it is worth noting that it was not the language of administration; that was Greek. (Ironically, it took the Muslim conquest for Coptic to become, for a while, the language of administration.) That would seem to have little to do with its survival as a spoken language, but Aramaic was the language of administration in several places, including places (like Iran) that were not even Semitic-speaking. Still, I'm not sure what this might have to do with its survival: people don't generally speak the language of bureaucracy, and this was the golden age of Coptic as a language of theological and religious discourse.

The role of  Greek was reinforced at the official level by the split with Rome and Constantinople over the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, but the Christological controversy actually reinforced the role of Coptic since the official imperial church was rejected by the Egyptian populace and the Coptic (non-Chalcedonian) patriarchs, sometimes from underground, represented the popular will.

The Arab conquest of Egypt in 632 AD did not at first have much impact on Coptic; in fact it began to replace  Greek in administration, though that was short-lived. In 706 AD the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik made Arabic the language of administration. The administration had been dependent on Coptic clerks and secretaries, and to keep their jobs, many Coptic clerks began to master Arabic. In the following Abbasid period, a series of taxpayer revolts by Coptic populations, especially in the central Delta region of Bashmur, led to deportation of the rebels to Iraq and the settlement of Arab tribesmen in the Delta. Up to this time most Arab/Muslims were located in Fustat or other cities, with some tribal groups settling in Upper Egypt. Arabic settlement in the Delta was an important factor in Islamization of the Delta. Or so I argued in a doctoral dissertation a long time ago.

Another major turning point came in Fatimid times with the rule of the bizarre Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1020), sometimes characterized as mad for his persecution of Christians but also his exactions on Muslims. Prior to his mysterious disappearance he banned the use of Coptic in public places and even forbade private conversations in the language. Though Hakim's restrictions were limited to a short period, they certainly deterred the daily use of Coptic. Declining education among the clergy, a problem only truly addressed in the 19th century, certainly contributed to the problem.

An external indication of the decline of Coptic is the increasing use of Arabic, even in works with a religious content. Though saint's lives and religious works continued to appear in Coptic, key works seeking a general audience increasingly had to appear in Arabic. The single most important work on church history (and a critical source for the history of Egypt as a whole), the History of the Patriarchs, a compilation of works by many hands, but with the compiling attributed to Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa (Severus of Ashmunain) in the 10th century, is entirely in Arabic. Even the biographies of early patriarchs which must have originally been written in Coptic, often survive only in Arabic. Another major work, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt by Abu al-Maqarim (wrongly attributed to "Abu Salih the Armenian" and so translated into English), appeared only in Arabic, in the 13th century. Bilingual dictionaries and wordlists became common, implying that increasing numbers of the faithful no longer spoke or even understood Coptic; already in the 12th century Pope Gabriel II had permitted the use of Arabic in the liturgy and for reading the gospels, because of the decline of Coptic. There are complaints (sometimes attributed to saints of an earlier age) about the decline of Coptic, but little doubt about its reality.

But this is the decline of Coptic as a literary language. The spoken tongue certainly died out more gradually, but when? There is considerable dispute. That it was still spoken in many places in the 14th century seems pretty well established though even that has had its doubters; claims are made for the 16th and 17th centuries and even some outliers for the 19th century. When it died may not be as important as that it died (though as we'll see there were 19th century attempts at revival), but the "when" question will be addressed in Part III  early next week.

To the historical sketch above I'd like to add some comparisons with Aramaic which I think help address the  "why did one survive and the other is fossilized as a litrugical language?" question:

The Geography: Most of the survivals of Aramaic are found — or were preserved in — mountainous areas; it survived in Tur Abdin in Turkey, in parts of the Kurdish mountains, in the Anti-Lebanon north of Damascus, etc. When it survived in non-mountainous regions it was either a recent introduction (Assyrian refugees from Turkey to Iraqi cities) or there was another geographically isolating factor, such as the Iraqi marshes for the Mandaeans.There are exceptions, but geography was certainly a factor. While there were remote Coptic isolated communities such as the Wadi Natrun or Saint Anthony's in the Eastern Desert, monastic communities obviously cannot reproduce themselves. The Coptic population was located in the Nile Valley and the Fayyum, areas where they were integrated with their Muslim neighbors and the main geographical fact (the River) was a uniting factor.

The lack of speakers beyond the core area, or the broader "installed base". Despite the antiquity of the language and the fact that all Egyptians once spoke it, Egyptian and Coptic were not spoken outside Egypt except by Egyptians abroad, or in a few cases perhaps in  the Nubian kingdoms. Aramaic, by contrast, though initially only the native tongue in the Levant, was the lingua franca of the Iranian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and later Seleucid and other successor states across southwest Asia (and liturgically still among India's Saint Thomas Christians), and had currency as far as India and even (in the case of the "Nestorian stele") China. This greater "installed base" provided more speakers across a broader geography, if not more speakers total.

The broader liturgical base. Coptic is the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church and has some use in the liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches of Egypt. Aramaic is at least partly the liturgical language of Syrian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Maronite, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Malankara Syriac Catholic, Syro-Malabar Catholic,  Malankara Syrian Orthodox, Mar Thoma Syrian Church, and perhaps some I've never heard of; in the Judaic realm it is used in some normative Jewish liturgies, by some Kurdish Jews, as well as in the liturgies of Middle Eastern Karaite Jews and Samaritans (who spoke it until recent centuries); and beyond the Judeo-Christian faiths, it is both the liturgical and to some extent the spoken language of the Mandaeans. For most of these faiths it is preserved only in a limited way in the liturgy and is not a spoken language, and none of the Christian groups rivals the Copts in number, but it is a reminder of how widespread Aramaic was.

Part III will appear early next week.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mofaz Attacks Bibi and Barak over Iran

Israel's Kadima Party chief Shaul Mofaz, a former Chief of Staff of the IDF, and once again leader of the opposition after his brief stint in the coalition government, is back to his opposition role in full vigor.. He has launched a blistering attack on Prime Minister Netanyah and Defense Minister Batak for promoting a military strike against Iran,
You are headed for a rash confrontation at an unnecessary cost while abandoning the home front . . . Over the past few months, Israel has waged an extensive and relentless PR campaign with the sole objective of preparing the ground for a premature military adventure.
This PR campaign has deeply penetrated the 'zone of immunity' of our national security, threatens to weaken our deterrence, and our relations with our best friends. Mr. prime minister, you want a crude, rude, unprecedented, reckless, and risky intervention in the US elections. Tell us who you serve and for what? Why are you putting your hand deep into the ballot boxes of the American electorate?  
It isn't the defense chiefs who are covering their asses for the next investigative commission. You, Mr. prime minister and the decision-maker are covering the backside of the Israeli public. Ass-coverers and wipers. Making threats and sowing the seeds of fear and terror. Mr. prime minister, you are playing a dangerous and irresponsible game with the future of an entire nation.
"The piano player from the 35th floor is playing and you are dancing to his martial march. Please explain to us, Mr. prime minister, who is the real decision-maker? Will the next minister in your government also dance to the chords of this music?,
After more of the same he concluded,
Under your scepter, your subjects cannot afford to buy a loaf of bread, vegetables for salad, visit the doctor, or buy a tank of gas. There is no pity or mercy, only a blind and stiff-necked king who is losing his power.
Come on, tell us what you really think.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Iran in the 1970s

I'm on vacation. As I did last year, I've prepared a series of posts on historical, cultural, and linguistic topics that are not time-constrained. If events warrant, I will add current posts, but at least one new post will appear daily in my absence. Enjoy.

The Antika nostalgia site, though in Arabic, has a whole Album on Facebook of "Iran in the 70s." It's worth a browse, especially for those of you who were born since the 1979 Revolution. Though in order to have this:
and this:
we must also remember that they had to put up with this:
Not that I'm suggesting I prefer the present regime, either.

Wafa' al-Nil

I'm on vacation. As I did last year, I've prepared a series of posts on historical, cultural, and linguistic topics that are not time-constrained. If events warrant, I will add current posts, but at least one new post will appear daily in my absence. Enjoy.

Herodotus called Egypt the Gift of the Nile, and still in formal Arabic the Nile is not called Nahr, like every other river, but Bahr al-Nil,  the Sea of the Nile. As the picture above shows, the Nile in flood did form a sort of sea in the river valley. The Nile was the central reality of life in Egypt from the beginnings of civilization to the 1960s, the source of life and civilization. In Egyptian mythology the tears of Isis, weeping for Osiris, gave birth to the annual flood.

The flood nearly to the Pyramids, 1927
August 15 marks the beginning of a two-week festival in Egypt known as Wafa' al-Nil,  the "fullness of the Nile," the traditional date of the Nile flood. From the earliest times in Egyptian civilization — perhaps literally, since the Ancient Egyptian calendar was dated from the rising of Syria before the sun, used to date the flood — until 1964-65, the Nile rose every summer to flood the arable land of the Nile Valley. Completion of the High Dam at Aswan ended this most ancient and literally vital cycle. In 1964 the floodgates of the High Dam were closed, and the floods ended. (The High Dam was not finished until 1970, but the floods stopped when the reservoir began to fill.)  Having first lived in Egypt in 1972, I never saw the Nile in flood, but those just a bit older than I did.

Muslims and Copts alike preserved folk customs derived from Ancient Egyptian propitiation of the flood: throwing small dolls called "brides of the Nile" into the rising waters, or in the case of the Coptic church, throwing a relic into the river (in a ceremony called isba‘ al-shahid, "the finger of the martyr").

Along with another ancient feast, Sham al-Nassim in the spring, Wafa' al-Nil marks a survival of the ancient rhythm of the Egyptian year into modernity. Though the Nile no longer floods, the holiday remains.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Caption Contest: President Morsi Hands General Enan His . . .

. . . State Medal, apparently, but that wasn't my first thought, and you're welcome to provide your own caption. Keep them reasonably clean and remember that Morsi is jailing his critics.

Gary Sick on Israel and Iran: "Please Exhale"

Gary Sick offers a calming bit of common sense: "Please Exhale: Israel is Not Going to Attack Iran." Of course at the very end of his explaining how the move would produce a disaster for the world, the region, for Israel itself, its alliances, and long-term interests, he concedes that despite all this Netanyahu might do it anyway. But generally it's a good effort to calm the furor.

Update on the Joplin Mosque Story

Shortly before I left on vacation I noted that the professional and personal had intersected when the mosque in my home town of Joplin, Missouri was destroyed in a suspicious fire (after two earlier acts of vandalism); arson is suspected.

The spirit that the town showed in last year's F5 tornado showed itself again in this instance. The mosque had hoped to raise $250,000 by the end of Ramadan for rebuilding; they're now at $350,000 and counting. the Christian churches and the synagogue in the town have come together to help, and  a student at the local Christian Bible College is organizing a rally in support. On that rally, see here; the Islamic Society of Joplin's Facebook page is here.

A couple of news clips;

Though I've been live-posting yesterday  and today, I'll be retreating to the pre-prepared posts as I resume my vacation. The second part of the Aramaic/Coptic discussion will appear later this week.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Some More Notes on the Egyptian Situation

Before I return to vacation postings, a few follow-ups to the developments in Egypt:
  •  Ahram Online offers a profile of the new Defense Minister, General Sisi. Having covered Egyptian defense in the 80s and 90s, I find occasion to correct Al-Ahram on one point: they say General Al-Sisi will be the first Egyptian Defense Minister not to hold the rank of Field Marshal. Actually Tantawi's predecessor, Gen. Yusuf Sabri Abu Taleb, who served as Defense Minister for two years in 1989-1991 following the dismissal of Field Marshal Abu Ghazala, also was only a full General. There may be other cases, but I know of that one.
    • Also courtesy of The Arabist,Wael Iskander passes along a take by Hesham Sallam [attribution corrected] that sees this as a pre-emptive coup aimed at preventing a coup by senior military against Morsi, perhaps on August 24. There will be plenty of conspiracy theories, but this one might explain a lot. The younger officers went along to prevent the high command from doing something that might have spelled doom for the Army institution.
    More to come, I'm sure.The pre-written posts resume tomorrow.

    Morsi and SCAF: The Stunning Move

    I'm on vacation, and a long way from Washington (or Cairo), in both geography and mental attitude. But Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi apparently isn't taking time off. Accordingly, I'm bumping the pre-prepared vacation postings I had ready, including Part 2 of the Aramaic vs. Coptic series, by a day or so in order to comment on the developments in Egypt. All of the pre-prepared posts, which were deliberately not time-constrained, will appear soon.

    Where to begin? As I note above, I'm writing this on vacation, holed away in a cabin in the mountains of northern Georgia, and I'm not even getting a cell phone signal unless I go to the main road, though I do have stable Internet. So I hope what follows hasn't missed some major piece of information that invalidates my impressions. 

    Let's start with the short version:

    The Good News:  Morsi has directly challenged the military's neutering of the President's powers and, if he gets away with it, as he seems to be, subordinated the military to elected civilian authority. Even for those opposed to Morsi's agenda, that is a victory for an elected civilian over the un-elected military. Liberal figures (including many who don't trust Morsi) are praising him for that.

    The Bad News: Again if he gets away with it, in the absence of an elected Parliament and with no constitution clearly in force, a victory over SCAF could leave Morsi with no checks or balances to Presidential power. He may be a fairly elected President, but if given unrestricted power he could be as dictatorial as Husni Mubarak, though with a very different agenda.

    Now some further thoughts. As of this morning the indications are that this is proving to be a popuilar move. That makes it more likely it cannot be reversed through some sort of military intervention. More to the point, Morsi — whose tenure so far had been full of fumbles — seems to have finessed this one, apparently moving only after preparing the ground by negotiating with the younger members of SCAF. And, as Issandr El Amrani cogently notes, he has maintained the normal order of promotion, so that the second echelon has little to complain about from the retirement of the first.  In short, he did not attack the military institution, or the officer corps as an institution,  he only retired the individuals in senior command, Defense Minister Tantawi, Army Chief Enan, and the commanders of the Navy, Air Force and Air Defense Forces.

    Generally he did not promote out of normal order, so he cannot be accused (though he will be anyway) of favoring Muslim Brotherhood officers. On the other hand, some of the promotions do show forethought. The promotion of Military Intelligence chief  Gen. Abd al-Fattah Sisi to the Defense Ministry only days after retiring General Intelligence chief Murad Mowafi, may show a tilt away from the once powerful General Intelligence Directorate and towards Military Intelligence, And the fact that one key SCAF member, Gen. Muhammad al-Assar, was retained and promoted is of interest, as he is the Defense Ministry's American liaison. His retention may help assure the US supports the changes. (It will also fuel the conspiracy theorists — a mix of the American right wing and the Egyptian left wing — who think that the US supports the Muslim Brotherhood).

    It was a stunning move and still may lead to a confrontation with the Supreme Constitutional Court, though the appointment of a respected jurist as Vice President may be intended to pre-empt that. Morsi has apparently kept the Army as a whole on board by retiring the senior generals with respect (Tantawi and Enan get the Order of the Nile, jobs as Presidential Advisers, and, implicitly, immunity from prosecution for actions during the transitional period; the second echelon stays loyal as they become the first echelon, speeded by the long-overdue retirement of Tantawi and the early retirement of the others; but the military has clearly been subordinated to the civilian sphere.

    Or at least that's how it looks so far.

    Sunday, August 12, 2012

    A Note on a Partial Post

    A partial post intended to post later in the week as part of my pre-prepared vacation postings was mistakenly posted for a while on Sunday. The full post will actually appear during the coming week. I regret any confusion that may have been created.

    Friday, August 10, 2012

    Aramaic vs. Coptic: Language Survival vs. Fossilization, Part I

    I'm on vacation. As I did last year, I've prepared a series of posts in advance on historical, cultural, and linguistic topics that are not time-constrained. If events warrant, I will add current posts, but at least one new post will appear daily in my absence. Enjoy.
    This is Part One of a multi-part post which, I hope, will be of interest not just to those interested in Coptic and Aramaic, but to anyone interested in the survival or non-survival of minority languages throughout the Middle East.  It seeks to answer, or explore the elements of an answer, to this question: Aramaic today still has over half a million speakers; Coptic, though one of the most ancient languages on earth, and the Copts being the largest Christian group in the Middle East, has been reduced to a liturgical language for centuries. Why?

    During my vacation postings about this time last year, I had several posts about Aramaic and Syriac through the centuries, spoken Western Aramaic today, and spoken Eastern Aramaic today. Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the whole Middle East, with inscriptions found from Egypt to China and India, still lingers in a few islands of speakers — some 15,000 speakers of Western Aramaic, in Syria,  and perhaps half a million speakers of Eastern Aramaic in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and a Western Diaspora. Most of these speakers are Christian, but there are Muslim speakers in Syria, and others are Jewish, Samaritan, or Mandaean. It is also of course the liturgical language of several Eastern Christian denominations, Karaite Judaism, Samaritanism, and Mandaeanism.  See last year's posts, linked above, for more.

    When Coptic Pope Shenouda III died earlier this year, a commenter raised an interesting question: why does Aramaic still survive as a spoken language, however scattered, while Coptic is reduced to only a liturgical language? The Copts are by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and their language, which is merely the last form of Egyptian, has an unbroken lineage of some 4500 or more years. Yet it has been several centuries since anyone learned Coptic at their mother's knee; it is today a religious and scholarly, not a native, spoken tongue. Why did Aramaic survive (if hanging by a thread) as a spoken tongue while Coptic did not?

    It's a great question. I'm not sure there's a single answer, and it also requires us to delve into some controversial debates (like, exactly when did Coptic cease to be spoken natively? 14th century? 17th century? 19th century? All have their advocates). And since my doctoral dissertation was on the ‘Abbasid period in Egypt, the eighth and ninth centuries,  a key period of Arabization and Islamization, it brings up some memories of my own historical research. (And contrary to my younger colleagues' claims, I did not write my dissertation during the ‘Abbasid period.)

    Though perhaps too many of my posts tend to focus on Egypt, I think this one actually has considerable interest beyond that. What has preserved other non-Arabic languages across the Arab world, not just Aramaic but bigger languages like Kurdish and the Amazigh/Berber tongues, Nubian, Armenian, Circassian, Mehri and the other surviving South Arabian languages, etc?

    This map from the Gulf 2000 site (click here or on the map to see an enlargeable version) doesn't even include North Africa, but is a reminder that the Arabic-Persian-Turkish-Hebrew image most of us carry in our heads is a gross oversimplification.
    If the Caucasus, Sudan, and North Africa were included, the map would be even more colorful.

    But these islands of minority languages, ranging from big ones like Kurdish to tiny enclaves like the three towns north of Damascus that speak Western Aramaic, all have survived, for various reasons, in the sea of Arabic.

    Yet Coptic, with 4000 years of history and a cohesive minority that outnumbers many of those whose languages endure, is only a liturgical tongue today? Why?

    Bear in mind that I don't know the answer, but I intend to spend several posts considering the evidence.

    A Short History of Egyptian

    The earliest evidence of proto-writing in the Nile Valley is gradually being pushed back, but seems to date from around 3200 BC or even a couple of centuries earlier. By the time a language can be discerned through the proto-writing, that language is Egyptian. That language, after millennia of evolution, is still used in parts of the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and may have been in daily use as a spoken language as recently as three centuries ago. That is nearly 5000 years of a living, if changing, language. The earliest Chinese writing dates from the second millennium BC, and Hebrew was reduced to a liturgical language for some 1500 or more years before its revival; neither can approach Egyptian in terms of probable, documented endurance as a language. (Though, like Chinese, that language changed enormously through the millennia.) The hieroglyphic writing system had a simplified form known as hieratic, and eventually evolved a more cursive system called demotic, and the language evolved through multiple changes.

    Coptic is merely Egyptian in its latest form. It was written in the Greek alphabet, with an additional six (or in one dialect, seven) characters taken from demotic. Coptic was Egyptian transformed through Hellenization and Christianization, and thus was influenced by external elements, while remaining Egyptian. Though it had a lengthy history of its own which I'll discuss next time, it also was very much the tongue of Egypt, and was spoken for more than a millennium in its own right. 

    Check in after the weekend to see where I'm going with this. Since not everyone will be interested, other posts will be interspersed.

    Thursday, August 9, 2012

    Easy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown: Why Are the Monarchs Surviving as the Republics Fall?

    I'm on vacation. As I did last year, I've prepared a series of posts ahead of time on historical, cultural, and linguistic topics that are not time-constrained. If events warrant, I will add current posts, but at least one new post will appear daily in my absence. Enjoy.
    Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
    To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
    And in the calmest and most stillest night,
    With all appliances and means to boot,
    Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
    Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

    Henry IV, Part II

    For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
    And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
    How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
    Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
    Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
    All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
    That rounds the mortal temples of a king
    Keeps Death his court and there thE antic sits,

    Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2

    Shakespeare's troubled kings do not find models among the crowned heads of the Middle East (though in an earlier era the late King Hussein of Jordan, or his ghostwriters, wrote a book entitled Uneasy Lies the Head). In the last decade, the heads of almost every mainstream Arab republic has been toppled or is on the verge of it:
    Iraq: Saddam Hussein, toppled 2003, subsequently executed
    Tunisia: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, toppled 2011, in exile
    Egypt: Husni Mubarak, toppled  2011, imprisoned
    Libya: Mu‘ammar Qadhafi, toppled 2011, killed while fleeing
    Yemen: ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, negotiated out of office
    Syria: Bashar al-Asad, fighting a civil war he appears to be losing
    Sudan: ‘Umar al-Bashir, engaged in the early stages of an Arab Spring-type revolt
    With the exception of Lebanon, the debatable "Algerian exception," and rather marginal states like Mauritania and Djibouti, Arab republics have either undergone dramatic transitions or are in the process of them.

    The Kings, Amirs and Sultan are another matter. One might edit Shakespeare: in the Middle East, Easy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown. Not one monarch has fallen, at least not since the overthrows of the Libyan monarchy in 1969 and the Iranian Shah in 1979. Only Bahrain's throne has truly been in jeopardy, saved by Saudi intervention. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Iran have faced some demonstrations and challenges, but of these only Jordan, and the aforementioned Bahrain, seem to have even had much worry. A fair amount has been written about a "Moroccan exception," but it's true of the other monarchies, again Bahrain excepted, as well.

    Of course everyone knows that some of the richer states, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, have all used their oil revenues to provide lavish welfare states for their people, and have increased the flow whenever protest reared its head. But not all the Gulf states, and certainly not Jordan or Morocco, can turn on the oil largesse at will. So is the common ground really monarchy? Does the Divine Right of Kings (and Amirs and a Sultan) trump popular will?

    If you're reading this expecting a clear cut answer, I don't have one. The monarchies are enormously different from each other. Morocco has had a unified state since the Middle Ages, was never under Ottoman rule, had only a brief colonial period (1911-56 ), and the present Alaouite dynasty has ruled since the 1600s. The first two statements and to some extent the third are also true of Oman, and the ruling Al Bu Said dynasty has ruled since 1749. Both have historical depth, national identity, and dynastic legitimacy working for them. Moroccan Sultans and, more recently, Kings have long been called "amir al-mu'minin" (commander of the faithful), a traditional title of Muslim caliphs, and have historical religious leadership claims.

    The other monarchies have differing claims on legitimacy. Most of the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula, other than Oman, emerged from local ruling families (in the Saudi case, local rulers in the Najd, but with alliance with the Wahhabi religious establishment). Many of the families have roots in the 1700s, often under British protection during the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Jordan's Hashemites have an impeccable descent from the Prophet and were hereditary Sharifs of Mecca, but only achieved political rule in the 20th century, under British patronage, in the Hijaz, (briefly) Syria, Iraq and Jordan. Today they cling only to Jordan.

    It is no coincidence that Bahrain, where a Sunni family rules a Shi‘ite majority, has been most unstable during the present upheavals, dependent on Saudi intervention. Other states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai) have Shi‘ite citizens but in the minority. Moroccan Kings have long finessed the Arab-Berber split in Morocco by at various times portraying both identities (many Kings, including Hassan II, took both Arab and Berber wives). The Sultan of Oman is an Ibadi so the country's historic majority, though increasingly eclipsed by Sunnis, share some identification with the ruler.

    So legitimacy is a factor. So is the ability of the oil states to buy off their populace. And so to some extent is the fact that in Jordan and Morocco at least, there are enough of the trappings of a constitutional monarchy to allow the King to deflect blame to a Prime Minister (as Jordan tends to do) or to allow the opposition a role (as in the creation of an Islamist PJD-dominated ministry in Morocco). Of course these may prove to be temporary solutions, but they've worked so far.

    If you were expecting profound answers or theoretical ones, ask some political scientist. I'm a historian and I examine the context without trying to fit the facts to some Procrustean theoretical bed. (Sorry, political scientists, forgive the zinger.) But I thought I'd leave you with my ruminations on the matter, though with no answers.