A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Hannukah, Happy Thanksgiving, and May Your Turkey Not Be Mummified

Platter pf Fowl Left as Food for the Afterlife in an Egyptian Tomb
Since as I noted earlier, tomorrow marks a rare convergence of the US Thanksgiving holiday with the first day of Hannukah, let me wish my Jewish readers a Happy Hannukah and my American readers a Happy Thanksgiving and also, May Your Thanksgiving turkey not be mummfied like the fowl shown above from an Egyptian tomb.

I repost again this year this photo of an embalmed fowl of some sort on a platter from an Egyptian tomb which the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago posted as their Thanksgiving greeting on their Facebook page last year.

Barring something major, I'll be off for the holiday (the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, not the eight days of Hannukah) and will be back Monday.

FDR's Thanksgiving Dinner in Cairo, 1943: The First Cairo Conference, Part IV

This will be the last of my posts on the First Cairo Conference 70 years ago; next week we'll talk about the Tehran Conference and the Second Cairo Conference.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was aware that he would be away for Thanksgiving, which in 1943 fell on November 25. He had brought two turkeys from the United States: one was a gift of Under Secretary of State Edward L. Stettinius, and one donated by Joe Carter of Burnt Corn, Alabama.

Because the primary subject of the Cairo Conference was the war against Japan, I've primarily focused on the Middle Eastern sidelights, but there had been days of hard negotiations, particularly among the Combined Chiefs of Staff but also between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, especially over the war in the Burma theater. After much hard bargaining, all concerned were apparently ready for a party. Roosevelt threw a Thanksgiving dinner for Churchill (whose mother was American). It was a purely British and American affair; earlier, at 5 pm, the President had entertained .Generalissimo  and Madame Chiang Kai-shek for tea. Relations between Chiang and the others had been difficult. He made extravagant demands for Western aid an his lack of understanding of the outside world (unlike his Americanized wife and translator) was commented upon by other participants. But the Thanksgiving day tea seems to have been cordial and friction-free. Col. Elliott Roosevelt, the President's son, appears to have been the only other person present.

After the tea, Roosevelt conferred at 6:30 with Maj. Gen. Donald H. Connolly, Commander of the US Persian Gulf Service Command about the plans for the imminent visit to Tehran. At 8 pm the President's Thanksgiving guests were welcomed to the President's villa (which as I have previously noted was that of the US Ambassador to Egypt). This is the guest list from Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, p.350:

The invitees' identifications: the Americans: Presidential aide/friend/adviser Harry Hopkins; Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to the President; US Ambassador to Great Britain John Gordon Winant; US Ambassador to Turkey Laurence Steinhardt; US Ambassador to the USSR W Averell Harriman; US Ambassador (Minister) to Egypt Alexander C. Kirk (in whose villa Roosevelt was staying); Maj. Gen. Edwin "Pa" Watson, friend, crony, and Appointments Secretary to FDR; Rear Admiral Wilson Btrown, FDR's Naval Aide; Rear Admiral Ross T. McIntire, personal physician to FDR; Col. Elliott Roosevelt, the President's son; Major John Boettiger, husband of Anna Roosevelt and the President's son-in-law; Harry Hopkins' son Robert Hopkins.

The Churchill party: Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden; Churchill's personal physician Lord Moran; John Martin, Churchill's personal secretary; Commander Charles R. "Tommy" Thompson, Churchill's aide-de-camp; "Mrs. Oliver" is Churchill's daughter Sarah, the only woman along, who was serving in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).

For the dinner, there are several reminiscences, including this one from FDR's personal diary in his own hand, from the FDR Library:
Fri Nov 26
Yesterday was a real Thanksgiving Day. The Chiangs to tea -- had the [next word unclear?] British to dinner - WSC - Sara - Etc. with 2 Turkeys I brought from home. It is an enormous satisfaction to have my mess crew from the Potomac and Shangri-La. Music by an Army band and later WSC cakewalked with Pa Watson.
Today I have wound up all that we accomplished
The Potomac was FDR's Presidential yacht. Shangri-La was the retreat now known as Camp David.

Here is Churchill's version from The Second World War, Volume V, Closing the Ring, pp. 340-341 of the American edition:
Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November, is a feature in American life. Every soldier in in th American Army is supposed to eat turkey on that day, and most of them did in1943. Ample supplies of turkeys for all the United States Staffs at Cairo had been brought out in the President's ship. Roosevelt invited me to join him at dinner in his villa. "Let us make it a family affair," he said. So Sarah was asked too, and also "Tommy" (Commander Thompson), to whom he had taken a great liking. The President's guests included his personal circle, his son Elliott, his son-in-law Mr. Boettinger, and Harry Hopkins and his son Robert. We had a pleasant and peaceful feast. Two enormous turkeys were brought in with all ceremony. The president, propped up high in his chair, carved for all with masterly, indefatigable skill. As we were above twenty, this took a long time, and those who were helped first had finished before the President had cut anything for himelf. As I watched the  huge platefuls he distributed to the company I feared that he might be left with nothing at all. But he had calculated to a nicety, and I was relieved, when at last the two skeletons were removed, to see him set about his om share. Harry, who had noted my anxiety, said, "We have ample reserves.'' Speeches were made of warm and intimate friendship. For a couple of hours we cast care aside, I had never seen the President more gay. After the meal was over we returned to the big room in which we had held so many conferences. Dance music — from gramophone records —  began ta play. Sarah was the only woman present, and she had her work cut out, so I danced with "Pa" Watson (Roosevelt's trusted old friend and aide), to the delight of his chief, who watched us from the sofa. This jolly evening and the spectacle of the President carving up the turkeys stand out in my mind among the most agreeable features of the halt at Cairo.
Roosevelt told the story of Thanksgiving to the British and he and Churchill exchanged toasts. At 9:30 Gen. Joseph Stilwell (US Commander in the China theater) arrived for a meeting with FDR. He was greeted by Harry Hopkins. Stilwell found the party still going strong and many of the guests already drunk, including Hopkins, so Stilwell talked with Churchill (who had an enormous capacity) until the guests left at 10:30, when Stilwell met with FDR.

There was another party that night, held by the American and British Combined Chiefs of Staff. General H.H. "Hap" Arnold, head of the US Army Air Forces describes it as a "merry party, tells an anecdote or two, on p. 463 of his memoir Global Mission, and notes that the chiefs then attended a special service put on by the British for the Americans at the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo. FRUS nites that there are no details on where or at what time the dinner was held. The Chiefs were mstly stayinbg at Mena House and it may may be been there; the cathedral then was on the corniche in Cairo, where it stood until torn donn in1978 for the new October 6 bridge,  so this would seem to suggest the dinner was in late afternoon or early evening.

Technical Notes on the Great "Thannukahsgiving" Convergence This Year

Most of my American readers probably know this already, but my foreign readers (even my Canadian readers who celebrate Thanksgiving in mid-October and on a Monday to boot for reasons understood only north of the 49th parallel) may not be aware of it yet, but this year the US Thanksgiving holiday coincides with the first day of Hannukah. This has not happened since 1888 and this precise combination may or may not ever occur again in the foreseeable future depending on some variables. (Our present rules for dating Thanksgiving only date from 1942, and before that the variables were different. Under the present rules, even 1888 wouldn't count.)

As this post at chabad.com, in an explanation called "Chanukah and Thanksgiving: A Brief History,"
puts it: 
Is it true that . . .

  • Thanksgiving falls on Chanukah this year,
  • it’s never happened before, and
  • it will never happen again?


Yes, no, and maybe.
Now, Chabad is a Lubavitcher  Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement, and my Irish Catholic self is not about to argue with them on the finer points of the Jewish calendar. Nor do I think more liberal Jewish movements would disagree. and I know I should stay away from calendar issues. In 2012 I did a post called "Why are Eastern and Western Easter on Different Dates? Don't Expect to Figure it Out from this Post."

Despite the obvious caveat in the headline, I was taken to task in the comments, one beginning with
The Zonaras proviso is not a rule. It is an after-the-fact explanation for the inaccuracies of the Julian lunar calendar. If it were a rule, it would have precise mathematical content which would enter into the computation of Julian Easter. It has no such mathematical content.
And it went on from there. I have no doubt the commenter was right, and I will never try to sound authoritative about the Zonaras Proviso again. (Even if I still remembered what it was.) So I know I am risking abject humiliation if I pontificate about calendars, so I'm just going to assume the Chabad folks have the Jewish one more or less right (see another of their articles here and there are many others to be found around the Internet) and will talk more about the date of Thanksgiving. I'm fairly sure on that I can talk turkey.

I will throw in one clarification: The statement that this has not occurred since 1888 and cannot be certainly predicted in the coming thousands of years is technically true of the exact coincidence occurring tomorrow.when Thanksgiving exactly coincides with the first day of Hannukah. But Hannukah is an eight-day feast and Jewish religious days do not coincide with midnight-to-midnight Western days. Apparently, in 1899 Thanksgiving coincided with the fourth day of Hannukah, and in 1918 it coincided with the eve of Hannukah. Because Jewish days begin at sundown the night before and days are short in November, in 1918 the first candle could have been lighted before the turkey was carved. That coincidence is predicted to recur in 2070 and 2165, but there is no predicted recurrence of tomorrow's exact coinciding of Thanksgiving with the first day. Or so the Chabad folks say: complain to them if they're wrong; I couldn't even get the Zonaras Proviso right.

Thanksgiving also complicates matters. The date has moved around. In 1777 the Continental Congress proclaimed a Thanksgiving on December 18 after the victory of Saratoga. (December 18 is unthinkable today as it would leave only a week for Christmas shopping!) Various dates were celebrated thereafter.

Abraham Lincoln established the tradition of the last Thursday in November. But Thanksgiving still had to be proclaimed by a Presidential proclamation; it was not set in law. In 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt used the fact that there were five Thursdays that November to proclaim it on the fourth Thursday instead of the last. With the country emerging from the Great Depression, Roosevelt hoped to extend the Christmas shopping season. In 1940 and 1941, each of which had the usual four Thursdays instead of five, Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving on the third Thursday.  His Republican opposition acted as if he'd moved Christmas to July; he was insulting the memory of Lincoln (Republicans still were proud of Lincoln then) and they dubbed the new date "Franksgiving."

Finally in 1942, Congress split the difference and passed a law making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of every November, which differs from the traditional date only when five Thursdays occur in the month. It was also the first legal codification of the date. A few states held out and Texas (always marching to a different drummer) celebrated the fifth Thursday as late as 1956 (accorfing to the Chabad calculations, giving it two more coincidences of Thanksgiving with the eve of Hannukah in 1945 and 1956).

To clarify, until 1942 Thanksgiving could occur as late as November 30 under certain circumstances. Since 1942 it cannot occur later than November 28, tomorrow's date.

Now the punchline: the only previous time tomorrow's exact coincidence of Thanksgiving with the first day of Hannukah happened, in 1888, it was on November 29, 1888, a date that would be impossible under the 1942 law!

So, unless the date of Thanksgiving changes again (retailers would probably welcome a longer shopping season: but the vagaries of the Jewish calendar mean Hannukah will occur later and later into the Gregorian year), enjoy tomorrow's "Thannukahsgiving" convergence: you (probably if the calendars don't change) will not gaze upon its (precise) like again.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Slick Iranian Rouhani Video Includes Singing in Kurdish and Arabic

My post about FDR's Thanksgiving in Cairo will appear tomorrow along with other postings. Meanwhile, you should note this story from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's "Persian Letters" called "Rohani's 'Yes We Can' Moment":
The beautifully made black-and-white clip,  which includes segments of the Iranian president's August 3 inauguration speech mixed with music, singing, and sign language, has been released to mark the first 100 days of his presidency.

Obama's 2008 "Yes We Can" clip was created with the participation of some 30 Hollywood actors and singers.

Rohani's video was posted on his website and shared on Twitter by the unverified account of the Iranian president, which is said to be maintained by his media team . . .

The clip, which features a well-known singer and actor, Amir Hossein Modaress, was produced by Iranian documentary-maker Hossein Dehbashi, who also worked on Rohani's election campaign videos. Dehbashi has been quoted by Iranian media as saying that the video was created "spontaneously."

In the clip, unprecedented for an Iranian president, people of all ages play musical instruments and sing to Rohani's words in Persian, but also in the languages of Iran's minorities, including Kurdish and Arabic.
Somebody has media savvy in Rouhani's camp (and remember, this is an RFE/RL report, so it must be working.) I have almost no Persian, unfortunately, but for those who do, here's the video:

First Cairo Conference Part III: Newreels of the Cairo and Tehran Conferences

Continuing my series on the three summits in Cairo and Tehran and Cairo again in November-December 1943, 70 years ago: I'll be discussing FDR's Thanksgiving dinner for Churchill later today. Meanwhile here are some period newsreels of the First Cairo and Tehran Conferences. (More on Tehran is coming up tomorrow.)

The two-part video below starts with a newsreel about the two conferences, then goes on to include Roosevelt's own report in his Christmas address to the Armed Forces, which is continued in the second video.

This one from the FDR Presidential Library has no narration but lots of scenes of Cairo and Tehran as well as the leaders:

Speaking of Mena House: Fifi Abdou Dances There in 1986

The third installment of my series on the First Cairo Conference will be up later this evening. We talked a bit about Mena House, the grand old hotel near the pyramids, in the first post, since it was the main venue of the summit. While digging a bit on the history of the hotel, I also stumbled on some video that directly addresses another topic this blog occasionally has discussed: decline and fall of the Cairo tradition of raqs sharqi, the "Eastern dance" that Westerners call the belly-dance, in the age of political Islam. The few remaining venues for the art in Cairo are luxury hotels or dinner boats where the clientele is mostly foreign tourists and Gulf Arabs priced beyond the reach of regular Egyptians; more and more performers are American or Eastern European, with fewer and fewer Egyptians. Fifi Abdou, one of the last of the greats, was at her peak in the 1970s and 1980s, dancing at several of the most prominent hotels, and was the regular star at Mena House in the 1980s, before shifting to the Sheraton Al-Gezira in the 1990s. She retired in 2006 though she has also had a career in film and is now about 60. Last year she made the news for arguing that belly-dancers should not be taxed for customer tips, turning a tax case against her into an opportunity to defend the profession.

Already in her day the dance was under fire from Islamists and at one point the Grand Mufti barred her from making the hajj to Mecca. She was reportedly harassed occasionally by police.

These two videos show Fifi Abdou dancing at Mena House in 1986; it is a classic performance that shows why they call it belly-dance; rather than the bump-and-grind sometimes substituted in the West the muscles do the work. This is especially evident in the second of the two videos.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Why King Farouq Missed the Conference: The First Cairo Conference, 1943, Part II

King Farouq Earlier in 1942
This is my second post on the 70th anniversary of the First Cairo Conference of 1943, the first of three continuous World War II summits held in the Middle East (First Cairo, Tehran, and Second Cairo). But this one is not about the conference itself, but about the absence of King Farouq. Although the local rulers were not participants in the Allied Conference, at the Casablanca Conference earlier in 1943, FDR had hosted a dinner for Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco, where he openly seemed to support Moroccan independence, in the presence of the local French authorities (most of whom were Vichy holdovers). But FDR did not meet Farouq on this trip to Egypt. (He did later though, on his way home after the Yalta Conference in 1945, when he met with Farouq and King "Ibn Saud" of Saudi Arabia aboard a ship in the Red Sea.)

Ahmad Hassanein Pasha
Instead, on November 24, Roosevelt received the Chief of Farouq's Royal Cabinet and Royal Chamberlain, Ahmad Hassanein Pasha (a powerful figure in his own right who may be the subject of a future blogpost) and with the Wafdist Prime Minister, Mustafa Nahhas Pasha. It is unclear if they also called on Winston Churchill; he doesn't seem to mention it in his memoirs.

So where was the King? Improbably enough, he was in an ordinary Army hospital bed in an obscure British Army field hospital at a British camp in the small town of Qassasin on the eastern edge of the Delta, midway between Cairo and Ismailia, and had been there nearly 10 days.

Needless to say, therein lies a good story, and needless to say, I'm going to tell it.

But first let me set the political context of the time. In 1936, Egypt and Britain signed a treaty which was supposed to end Britain's military occupation of Egypt, except for the Suez Canal Zone, and make Egypt (nominally independent since 1922) recognizing Egypt as fully sovereign with a right to join the League of Nations. The treaty was also a treaty of alliance, allowing Britain to reoccupy the rest of Egypt in order to protect its Ally Egypt and the Canal in time of war. And in 1939, Britain found itself at war. With first the Italians and then Rommel threatening Egypt from Libya, the British built up their forces in the country, and became concerned by what they perceived as a pro-Axis tilt in the Palace itself.

Sir Miles Lampson's title was Ambassador to Egypt and High Commissioner of the Sudan, but once the British had reoccupied Egypt he, with the backing of the British Army, began acting much more like a colonial viceroy. The King had surrounded himself with a number of Italian cronies who were, in British eyes, enemy aliens and perhaps Mussolini's spies; Lampson demanded the King get rid of them. (He never did. Lampson's own wife was the daughter of an Italian aristocrat, and the King supposedly quipped, not to Lampson's face, that "I'll get rid of my Italians when he gets rid of his.")

I did a post last year on the ‘Abdin Incident of February 4, 1942. After the fall of Prime Minister Hussein Hussein Sirri Pasha's pro-British government, the British decided to insist on a Wafdist Prime Minister. It's conventional to analyze Egypt in this period as a three-way power struggle between the King, the British, and the nationalist Wafd Party; usually the British were anti-Wafd, but this time they insisted on the King naming Wafd leader Nahhas Pasha as Prime Minister. When the King resisted, Lampson and his military counterpart showed up at the gates of ‘Abdin Palace accompanied by tanks and carrying an instrument of abdication drawn up by Sir Walter Monckton. who had done the same for King Edward VIII and was now at the Embassy in Cairo. He offered the King a choice: abdicate or appoint Nahhas.

Lampson and Nahhas in 1936 
The ‘Abdin incident is notorious among Egyptians to this day; at least in folklore, Lampson asked, "Where's the boy?" (Farouq was 22) and "I know the way" when someone tried to lead him to the King. Any British hope that forcing the King to name Nahhas would strengthen their own popularity was misguided; instead, Egyptians considered that the once nationalist Nahhas had been installed in power by British arms. And the King despised both Lampson and Nahhas.

In the 21 months between the ‘Abdin Incident and the First Cairo Conference, the once svelte young King of the late 1930s had begun to put on weight and indulge his appetites, both gastronomic and sexual, and had reached nearly 250 pounds. He had continued to feud with Nahhas, seeking to replace him, but unable to do so. Though Rommel had been stopped at El ‘Alamein, the British still suspected the King's real sympathies.

Meanwhile, Sir Miles Lampson's popularity in Egypt might be nil, Britain felt otherwise and had elevated him to the peerage as Lord Killearn. (One of those perhaps apocryphal stories that has to be told, even if untrue, claims that Noel Coward supposedly told Lord Killearn that "I understand that you are much more popular than your predecessor, Lampson.")

That brings us to November 1943. Now the King loved cars. Like some other royalty he loved fast cars. (King Ghazi of Iraq had died in a car accident in 1939 at age 29.) And Farouq loved red cars, so much so that he's reported to have banned importers from importing and selling red cars in Egypt except for the King. He had hundreds of cars at various times. All seem to have been red, though a Mercedes given to him for his 1938 wedding by Adolf Hitler seems to have started out black and been repainted a dark shade of red. (Even in his post-1952nEuropean exile, Farouq's cars would be red.)

Now back to our story. On November 15, 1943, the King decided to get out of Cairo and head to one of his other palaces, gathered some of his aides and cronies, and got one of his red Cadillacs ready, and headed out on the Cairo to Ismailia road. In open country the King was said to drive normally at least 80 mph, and along the way apparently became frustrated by finding himself stuck behind a British Army lorry (truck). apparently, the King decided to pass the truck on the two-lane road and, once in the other lane, saw oncoming traffic, and veered into the truck. (Or, if you prefer conspiracy theories, the whole thing was of course a British plot.) The car swerved off the road and hit a tree.

The King suffered two cracked ribs and a cracked pelvic bone. (There are stories the stretcher-bearers dropped the overweight King, which wouldn't have helped.) There was no concussion. Nothing life-threatening, but the pelvic injury would keep him off his feet.

An Egyptian Magazine Visits the Hospital
The nearest hospital was Military Hospital Number 6 at a British Army camp at nearby Qassasin. The King was treated by both British and Egyptian doctors; his weight seems to have been one obstacle to his being moved immediately to Cairo, but as the days went on, he seems to have been recovering well. For whatever reasons, however, the King decided he was going to enjoy a leisurely recovery in a military hospital rather than a Palace in Cairo. He was still there at the time of the First Cairo Conference; he was still there during the Second Cairo Conference; he only returned home December 7, three weeks after the accident. Why? He claimed, supposedly, he wanted to be sure he was in good shape. Some have suspected he wanted to stay well away from the Court (and perhaps his mother, Queen Nazli.) Perhaps he was even avoiding the Cairo Conferences?

This being the Middle East, the long delay fueled conspiracy theories. After the accident, the King's descent into obesity and libertinism continued, and though there was evidence of these before the accident, a theory emerged that either the pelvic accident or the British treatment had altered the King's hormonal balance and perhaps his mind in some way. The doctors said that wasn't possible, but conspiracy theories never need evidence, do they?

And that is where the King was during the Cairo Conference.

The Iran Deal

I'm not going to spend much time commenting on the Iran nuclear deal, since every talking head and blogger is already doing so. The deal has outraged Israel (or at least its Prime Minister, though there is no shortage of Israelis willing to give it a chance, including some senior security people) and Saudi Arabia (where alternative opinions tend not to get expressed), as well as both countries' allies in the US Congress and media. Israel, the Saudis, and the US Congress constitute a formidable opposition with the ability to screw up implementation, but the agreement of the P5+1 also constitutes a powerful lobby. There are also, obviously, competing factions inside Iran.

My own response is cautious optimism. During the Reagan Administration, I was not fond of quoting Ronald Reagan, but in retrospect, "Trust, but verify" seems a good motto for any disarmament negotiation. Iran has sought to conceal aspects of its program in the past, but the new agreement calls for intrusive inspections which, if implemented, should guarantee compliance. And this is an interim agreement, initially for six months but with a goal of a final agreement within a year.

A lot can go wrong: internal opposition in either the US or Iran could block the deal; a longer-term agreement could remain elusive; an Israeli preemptive strike could derail the deal and lead to regional war.

The deal faces enormous, perhaps insurmountable obstacles. But I personally feel that it's better than any available alternatives. Let's give it a chance.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Great Powers Gather at Mena House: 70 Years Since the First Cairo Conference, Part I

Chiang, FDR, Churchill, Madame Chiang in Cairo
Unless you spent the day in a coma or an alien solar system, you know that today was he 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. But this November 22 (late as this post is) marks another anniversary as well: November 22, 1943, 70 years ago, was the first day of the First Cairo Conference, the first in a string of three World War II summits one after the other, all involving Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill: First Cairo (Churchill, FDR, China's Chiang Kai-shek), Tehran (Churchill, FDR, Stalin), and Second Cairo (Churchill, FDR, and Turkish President İsmet İnönü). Though all were held in Middle Eastern cities, they were, like the Casablanca Conference earlier in the same year, in but largely not of the region or even about it.  Of the three, only the third actually addressed an issue substantively involving the Middle East (attempting to persuade İnönü to bring Turkey into the War on the Allied side).

As I did with the earlier summit in Casablanca, this will be the first of a number of posts about First Cairo, followed by discussions of the two subsequent conferences, over the couple of weeks to come. This first post sets the scene and context of the summit. Subsequent posts will deal with why King Farouq did not meet the foreign leaders (whereas FDR hosted a dinner for Sultan Muhammad V at Casablanca) (hint: Farouq was in the hospital, but that is a tale of its own worth retelling in the next post), followed by details of the proceedings, including FDR's hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for the attendees.

Meanwhile this post will introduce the setting, context, and dramatis personae.

The reasons for having three summits rather than one were diplomatic. With the invasion of Europe looming in 1944, Roosevelt had never yet met with Soviet Premier/General Secretary Stalin. Stalin had missed Casablanca because the Battle of Stalingrad was still under way. Roosevelt Churchill and their military staffs had also not held a full-scale conference on the strategy against Japan.

Meanwhile, after a mostly-forgotten border war in 1939 (known to Japan as Nomonhan and the Russians as Khalkhyn-gol) along the Russian-Manchurian-Mongolian border areas, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Japan at the time of the German invasion in 1941. Accordingly, unlike his British and American allies, Stalin was not at war with Japan. As a result, he chose not to attend the Cairo summit, mostly devoted to the war against Japan and including Chiang Kai-shek (Stalin was of course a supporter of the Chinese Communists, though they were in a truce with the Nationalists to fight the common Japanese enemy.). So it was decided to split the Cairo Conference (codenamed SEXTANT) from the one with Stalin in Tehran (EUREKA). first Cairo Conference ran from November 22-26; Tehran from November 28-December 1, and Second Cairo December 4-6. Roosevelt brought Ambassador Harriman, a trusted friend, down from Moscow to interpret Russian intentions. Russia sent no official delegate for the reasons stated, but its Assistant Foreign Minister Andrei Vishynsky was in town en route to Algiers to join an Allied commission on post-Mussolini Italy, and did take the opportunity to make courtesy calls on the principals.

The inclusion of Chiang was at Roosevelt's insistence. He was seeking to build up Chiang's image as an ally against Japan. Roosevelt was also much more determined to push the British to do more in the China-Burma-India ("CBI) Theater. Churchill was clearly unhappy (even in his memoirs after the war) with the American focus on Chiang. To Churchill, Britain's interests in Asia were the recovery of Hong Kong and Singapore (and Malaya) from Japan, and the protection of India (the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire) against Japanese invasion. To him, the war in Burma was to protect India; to the US, it was a bridge via the Burma Road to supply Chiang.  (Fortunately for both countries, the British had one of their very best generals in the war, William Slim, in Burma, though Churchill underestimated him).

You may note, above, that the photo above includes not only the three leaders but also, seated alongside them, Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong Mei-ling), while Eleanor Roosevelt and Clementine Churchill are not only not in evidence, but were back in Washington and London.
Only one person here speaks no English
Officially, she served as her husband's translator. She was definitely that: she spoke fluent, colloquial and American accented English (having spent some years in Macon, Georgia, it's said she had a pronounced Georgia accent, though she later attended Wellesley), while Chiang, even in his long years in American-protected exile on Taiwan, never bothered to learn any. Note, in the photo at right, that she is chatting up Churchill animatedly while Chiang is staring straight at the camera, perhaps unsure what's going on.

But she was much more. The three Soong sisters married well: one married H.H. Kung, the richest businessman in China; the other became the second wife of Sun Yat-sen, leader of the 1911 Chinese Revolution. The latter remained in China under Mao, rising to senior posts in the Communist Party (mostly for who she was), even while her sister was the First Lady of Taiwan.

While Chiang spoke no English, Madame Chiang was thoroughly Americanized. Raised a Christian in American Methodist missionary schools in China, she studied in the US from 1907 through her graduation from Wellesley in 1917. She was not just the interpreter of Chiang's words but of his ideas, and probably more. Many believed that Chiang, the military officer trained in military schools, speaking only Chinese and largely ignorant of the outside world, was protected by Mei-ling, who filtered out his more naive and ignorant notions from his conversations, Many Westerners were convinced she was the brains of the outfit. Madame Chiang lived until 2003, dying at the age of 105, outliving, well, most everybody (105!). The Soong sisters were formidable, and forgive this long aside, but that's why Madame Chiang is in the photo.

The Venue
Mena House Hotel
The primary venue of the Cairo Conference was the Mena House Hotel at the foot of and just across the road from the pyramids of Giza. It's one of the grand old colonial hotels, a longtime favorite of Churchill's, though he stayed in a private villa and only attended several sessions at the hotel on this trip. The Mena House is a grand old hotel in the British colonial manner, and still operating, though the Indian-owned  Oberoi chain which had run it for several decades ended its ownership in 2012. Currently undergoing renovation and run by Egypt, it is nevertheless still open, according to its website. Though they bill their Churchill Suite online as where he stayed during the Cairo Conference, he was sleeping in a private villa; perhaps he kept this suite for his own use during his private visits, or stayed there on his many other trips.
The View from Mena House

By the testimony of Churchill's own war memoirs, he stayed at a villa. Churchill had sailed from Plymouth in HMS Renown on November 12, not to return to Britain for nearly three months. He stopped in Algiers to meet with Eisenhower and British General Alexander, then sailed on to Malta, where he learned Roosevelt had proposed Khartoum instead of Cairo as less susceptible to air attack. Churchill was having none of that and considered Malta instead (overlooking that it was much more susceptible to air attack than Cairo?) He sailed from Malta on the 19th arrived in Alexandria November 21. From there he flew to "the desert landing ground near the pyramids," (presumably the Cairo West airfield, still a major Egyptian Air Base, and where FDR would land the next morning). He took up residence for the duration at a villa near the pyramids occupied by Richard Gardiner Casey, the British Minister of State Resident in the Middle East (not to be confused with the British Ambassador, Lord Killearn, until recently Sir Miles Lampson).

Chiang Kai-shek was already there. He had left his wartime capital at Chungking on November 18 and was already in  Cairo by the 21st, staying at a villa a half mile from Churchill's, though I'm unclear about his air route from Chungking to Cairo (obviously not nonstop) or in whose villa he stayed.

Roosevelt for his part sailed on November 13 from Hampton Roads (Norfolk), Virginia, on the new  USS Iowa, lead ship on a new US battleship class and only just commissioned earlier in 1943. (She was only finally decommissioned in 1990. She was the only battleship to have both a bathtub and an elevator aboard, both added specifically for FDR.  On the second day out there was a tricky moment during a submarine drill when an American destroyer, USS William D. Porter, mistakenly launched a torpedo towards the Iowa, which thankfully was able to outmaneuver the torpedo. Almost accidentally sinking the Navy's newest battleship would be bad enough; at least at the time the escort ships did not yet know that the President was aboard. That didn't last long: for the first time (Note in US Navy history, the entire officers and crew of the  Porter were placed under arrest).

Having survived what may be the ultimate "oops" moment, the Iowa sailed on while the Porter crew were hauled off to Bermuda. On November 20, Iowa arrived at Mers el-Kebir, the naval base at Oran in Algeria. Roosevelt then flew on in his favorite C-54 (military version of the DC-3), dubbed the "Sacred Cow," to Tunis, where he met with his sons Elliot and FDR Jr., serving in the theater, and toured the Tunisian battlefields.

Then the President flew on to Cairo. The second plane in the President's party arrived at Cairo West some two and a half hours before the President's plane (which the official log shows as landing at 9:35 AM). Two groups of fighter escorts scheduled to accompany the plane never saw it, and there was obviously conceen about the President's safety. In fact the :President's plane had dropped southward to around 28 degeees of latitude, intercepting the Nile well south of Cairo, and finally following the Nile Valley northward, bringing the President in right over the pyramids and Sphinx.

Roosevelt's villa belonged to the then US Ambassador to Cairo, Alexander C. Kirk, known for his elegance of style, rich taste in interior decorating, but not apparently for his diplomatic skills. Egypt was not a major US interest.

We now have the dramatis personae assembled.  Enjoy your weekend and we'll tell more stories on Monday.

History Textbooks and Arab Spring

There's a major historical post coming up later today, but meanwhile, here's an interesting post at The Economist's blog on the struggle over the contents of school history textbooks in handling the events of Arab Spring.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lost in the Dueling Nationalist Mythologies: The Forgotten Syrians at Gallipoli

When I posted my November 11 post and mentioned Mustafa Kemal's 19th division at Gallipoli, a commenter reminded me that a lot of the fallen on the "Turkish" side were actually Arabs. In fact, two of the three regiments constituting Kemal's famous 19th Infantry Division, the 72nd and 77th Infantry Regiments, were recruited in Syria. The division that would help propel Kemal to great fame and the title of "Father of the Turks" may have been as much as two-thirds Arab and Kurdish. The third of the regiments in Kemal's Division, the 57th, was apparently recruited in European Turkey and may have included minorities of Balkan background. Because Kemal took command of the 19th Division during the battle, it is justly famous, but apparently at least one other regiment on the Gallipoli Peninsula was raised around Aleppo. (Much of the literature, both in print and online, is in Turkish, which I do not, alas, read at all.)

Kemal at Gallipoli
Now, I have deliberately referred to these troops as "Syrian," in the title rather than as Arabs. Many seem to have been Kurds. Since there is reason to believe at least the 77th Regiment and perhaps the 72nd as well were from northern Syria, still an area with Turkish, Turcoman, and Kurdish population as well as Arab. I've seen statements I can't confirm that the 77th included many Yazidis and Nusayris (what we today call ‘Alawites). The latter are Arabic speakers, but most Yazidis speak Kurdish; both are religious minorities. Ottoman Complaints that the 72nd and 77th were hard to train (some from Kemal himself) may relate to the conscripts' poor command of Turkish.

There also appear to be no records detailing the ethnicity of Ottoman conscripts. It is known that the Ottomans, even before the Arab Revolt broke out, preferred to station troops from the Arab provinces in Anatolia, the Caucasus, or European Turkey, and put ethnic Turks in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Arabia, for fairly obvious reasons. (Many were forcibly rounded up and were hardly serving willingly.) Though there were exceptions.

Some modern Turkish historians have begun to take an interest in this subject, but for decades it has been buried under Kemalist mythology: The Turkish Republic glorified the Turkish language and ethnicity, sometimes to ridiculous extremes (the "sun language" idea, claiming all languages descend from Turkish; or insisting on calling Turkey's Kurds "mountain Turks"). Mustafa Kemal began his rise up the high command ladder commanding the 19th Division at Gallipoli: after he became Kemal Atatürk, "Father Turk" himself, it was unthinkable to mention that his own division was two-thirds non-Turkish.

You might think that while Republican Turkey naturally dropped this fact down the memory hole, Arabs would have sought to preserve it. But not so. It did not fit with the mythology of Arab nationalism, either. The Great Arab Revolt was a universal Arab uprising against their Ottoman oppressors which (with maybe just a little help from the British) brought down the Ottoman Empire. Though this originated essentially as a Hashemite version of history, it became pretty general, and nobody was going to glorify Arabs in Ottoman service.

The Ottomans were proud of their multi-ethnic empire which, like Austria-Hungary's, was doomed to fall in that war, though from 1905 the "Young Turks" had been emphasizing Turkish ethnicity. Perhaps as many as a third of the Ottoman Army came from the Empire's Arab provinces, and right up to the Mudros Armistice there were more Arab troops in Ottoman uniform than the Arab Revolt could ever command, but their service fell victim to the dueling nationalisms of Turkish and Arab national myth, and so they were too inconvenient to be remembered.

The Arab role in the Ottoman Army has been a particular interest of Salim Tamari, the Palestinian historian, though his work is not focused on Gallipoli. His book Year of the Locust: A Soldier's Diary and the Erasure of Palestine's Ottoman Past (which I have not read) translates three war diaries, focusing on that of a private from Jerusalem (publisher's page here; Amazon link here; also see an article by Tamari in The Jerusalem Quarterly called "The Short Life of Private Ihsan: Jerusalem 1915"). For articles dealing more directly with Gallipoli, see Al Jazeera English, "The Forgotten Arabs of Gallipoli," and Robert Fisk in The Independent, "Great War Secrets of the Ottoman Arabs."

I intend to do more research on this subject, and will share what I learn.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sorry, I Missed a Religious Holiday: General Sisi's Birthday

Although I'm usually good about greeting readers on major religious holidays, I spent yesterday discussing the Mohamed Mahmoud Street anniversary and missed the newest holy day: it was General Sisi's Birthday!
 Photo credit to the Sisifetish Tumblr.

Lina Attalah, formerly of Egypt  Independent and now of Mada Masr, has clearly retained some perspective in this "Happy Birthday, General" piece. An excerpt:
Today, when Sisi’s image is raised alongside that of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser it forces reflection about Egyptians’ lust for strong military leaders at tumultuous times, in a moment of conflated histories. But beyond their shared battle with the Brotherhood — which is naturally different for each of them — the similarity between the two figures can at best only hold on rhetorical levels: They are saviors of the state. But what state was Egypt imagined to be back in the 1960s and what contract did it have with the people then? And what is that state today and what contract can it afford to have with its people now? The answers differ deeply. Back then, a new republic was being born and it had its own promises to the people. Today the remnants of this republic stay on in the form of a series of consolidated and incumbent institutions that hold no vision beyond their own individual survival. Beyond populist rhetoric, Sisi’s Egypt needs to carve out some new promises to survive. But does it have any to offer?
While checking out SisiFetish, I noticed that in addition to Sisi chocolates and Sisi sandwiches, you can now get "Sisi oil" (photo below). It's obviously cooking oil (either made from lions or for cooking lions, I guess, as there's a lion in the ad), but can it also be used for anointing royalty?

Cairo: "The View from Shubra"

I'd like to urge you to take a look at an article at Muftah by Sofia Fenner and Mohamed Talaat, called "Shaabi Cairo After June 30: The View from Shubra."  The opening paragraphs explain the rationale:
Since June 30, most Western media coverage of Egypt has focused on dramatic events unfolding in some of Cairo’s best-known districts: sit-ins in Nasr City and near Cairo University; sporadic outbreaks of violence in Zamalek and Doqqi; and the closures of streets, squares, and metro stations in the city’s downtown area.

While foreign journalists are quick to admit that their Egypt coverage has been Cairo-centric, readers are often unaware that even this coverage rarely reaches beyond a few exceptional Cairene neighborhoods.

Thwarted by curfews, rising xenophobia, and an uncertain security environment, most foreign journalists neither live nor regularly work in shaabi (“popular” or “working class”) areas like Imbaba, Boulaq al-Dakrur, or Manshiyet Nasr.

This leaves some of Cairo’s least representative and most exclusive districts – such as Zamalek, downtown, and Maadi – to stand in for the rest of the city.

But how have events since June 30 played out in other parts of Cairo, and what can these stories tell us about the city as a whole?

An exploration of one under-reported neighborhood, the Medinat al-Taawon district of Shubra al-Kheima (home to the authors), suggests that the events of this summer are changing the city in ways more subtle – but potentially more far-reaching – than coverage of protests and crackdowns in well-known neighborhoods might suggest.

In particular, patterns of circulation that once brought diverse Egyptians into contact with one another are deteriorating in the face of rising security concerns and economic pressures.
I recommend you read the whole piece.

The Answer to Monday's JFK Trivia Question: Bouteflika the Inevitable

On Monday, I posted a trivia question relating to the JFK funeral 50 years ago. Though a commenter got the solution within a couple of hours of the posting (first credit to the commenter known as Michal), I've waited till today to let others ponder if they choose to. Now I'll offer the answer, though it's been in the earlier comments thread since Monday night.

This was the original question, referring to the delegations from 90 countries that attended the funeral. First of all, I said I thought that only two were still in public office, and said:
One of these is HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II, now 92. He is still in the same job and has held it continuously.

The other is an Arab, senior then and now but in a higher-ranking job today. He is not a member of a royal family. Who is he?
Well, first of all, I am obviously not well-informed about some of the smaller European countries' royalty. I then posted an update on two of these: King Harald V of Norway, who was Crown Prince at the time, and ex-Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who was then Princess Beatrix and reigned as Queen from 1980 until her abdication earlier this year. Whether an abdicated monarch is actually still "in public office" is arguable, but she's still a public figure at least. And if you count Beatrix, my own Managing Editor found me another comparable case: Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, who was the heir at the time, ruled 1964-2000, and abdicated in favor of his son, but is still alive. I obviously am not up on European royals. (I wondered if someone might try to argue that Caroline Kennedy, the new US Ambassador to Japan, attended the funeral and is "still in public office," though she wasn't at the time, but I clearly limited this to the foreign delegations.)

Bouteflika in 1964
Now to the actual answer: it is, of course, the Arab leader who keeps going and going and going: Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was Algeria's first Foreign Minister and attended the funeral when Algeria had only been independent for a year.

Still Going, and Going, and Going ...
And he's not merely still in public office, he's indicated that despite his stroke earlier this year, which led to a long recovery, he's planning to run for a fourth term.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

For Those of You Wondering What the Ottomans Are Up To Lately . . .

. . . The English website of Turkey's Sabah has some answers:
The last 77 members of the Ottoman dynasty, which are spread out throughout a wide geography spanning from the United States to Jordan, are now in communication with one another through a group formed on the popular social networking website Facebook.
Some were forced to get by through selling pages of gold-engraved Korans. Others were forced to sleep on the coast and to travel by coal trains. Then there were the ones who died before being able to scramble up the money for a ticket to return to their homeland when Turkey finally granted permission for the members of the Ottoman dynasty to return after being forced to spend 50 years in exile. The remaining members of the dynasty who were forced into exile following the downfall of the Ottoman Empire gathered for the first time ever in the London Embassy in February in an event hosted by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
SABAH went and knocked on the door of one of the remaining members of the Ottoman family who resides in England. The oldest remaining member of the dynasty, Osman Selaheddin Osmanoğlu, who is the grandson to Sultan Murad V, relayed to us his experience of being one of the remaining members of such a legacy:
It goes on to quote several surviving members of the family about their life in exile.

Two Years Since the "Battle" of Mohamed Mahmoud

Today marks the second anniversary of the "Battle" of Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, one of the bloodiest days in the post-Revolutionary period of SCAF rule, with 47 dead, plus many lost the sight of one or both eyes from being targeted with teargas canisters. Today's anniversary was marked by demonstrations and counter-demonstrations by three competing groups: young revolutionaries versus pro-military versus pro-Morsi demonstrators, though nothing like the carnage of two years ago seems to have occurred (though one person reportedly died): reports here and here.

Mohamed Mahmoud runs out of Tahrir Square's southern side, and runs to ‘Abdin Palace. In the process it passes the Interior Ministry, which ran the hated State Security forces (now renamed National Security); the demonstrators were trying to march to the Interior Ministry.

The November 19 clash brought about a revival of revolutionary fervor and became iconic. It became a continuing center for protests, clashes, and eventually, famous graffiti.

As I have noted more than once on this blog, I lived for a year at the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud and Yusuf al-Gindi streets, across from the old AUC campus and a block from Tahrir; though much changed since then, this was my old neighborhood.

Yesterday, on the eve of the anniversary. demonstrators occupied and partly destroyed (the headline says "defiled" but they seem to have done rather more) a monument being built in the heart of Tahrir Square to the martyrs of the revolution; the young revolutionaries see it as an attempt by the military to co-opt and arrogate to itself the credit for the revolution.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Trivia Question Involving the JFK Funeral and the Middle East

Back in August I posted a nostalgia photo quiz  as a contest, and posted the answer later that day. I guess that was too soon, since there was only one guess and they got it wrong. But as I assume you are all aware (since if you're illiterate or in North Korea you're probably not reading my blog), this Friday, November 22, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Thankfully, the assassination had no obvious Middle Eastern links. Even the crazier conspiracy theories blamed the CIA, FBI, Soviet Union, Cuba, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, or some combination of the above. (How many people were on that Grassy Knoll, anyway?) Jim Garrison charged an unknown New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw, and pretty much ruined his life, though a jury acquitted him easily. Oh, yes, and Lee Harvey Oswald. (On reflection, I suspect somebody, somewhere, has blamed "Zionists," but not among mainstream conspiracy theorists.)

So for a Middle Eastern connection, I'm turning to JFK's funeral on November 24. A stunned world (these were more innocent times, though not for long) sent delegations: 90 countries were represented, almost all the independent countries with which the US had diplomatic relations at the time (thus mainly excluding Communist China, North Korea, North Vietnam Mongolia, Cuba, and perhaps a few others).

De Gaulle & Haile Selassie at funeral
Many were heads of state or government, monarchs or foreign ministers. Others sent their Ambassadors to Washington. Those arriving in time for the November 24 funeral marched in the procession; those arriving late attended a reception held by President Johnson the next day. One of my own vivid memories of the day was that France's Charles de Gaulle and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie marched side by side  and stood side by side at the funeral; they may have been the tallest and shortest adult persons there, and the contrast was striking. The long and the short of it. Photo at left.

The Middle East, being farther away, mostly was represented by their Washington Ambassadors, but some sent Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, etc. I think the only Middle Eastern head of state was Israeli President Zalman Shazar, a figurehead, but Foreign Minister Golda Meir was also there, and I suspect the most senior female not a member of royalty.

Now here's my trivia question: of those 90 delegations half a century ago, most of the members are deceased or at least retired. So far as I can tell (please correct if there are others) [Two additions below], only two of these held senior public office then and still hold senior public office now, 50 years later.

One of these is HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II, now 92. He is still in the same job and has held it continuously.

The other is an Arab, senior then and now but in a higher-ranking job today. He is not a member of a royal family. Who is he?

You can cheat and figure it out by using Google, with little effort. I at least urge you to think about it without searching, to check your knowledge of the modern Middle East. (Don't read the comments first, either.)  [Update: Add current King Harald V of Norway, then Crown Prince, and Princess Beatrix of the  Netherlands, who reigned as Queen from 1980 until April 30 of this year. I'm not sure if "Ex-Queen" is a senior public office, but I missed these. I add them now so you won't check the comments, which give away the answer already.] I'll post the answer in a couple of days or on Friday in the highly unlikely event no one responds.

The "Saudi-Israeli Alliance" Story is Hardly New and Dubiously Sourced

You may have heard of the UK Sunday Times' story about an alleged Saudi-Israeli alliance to strike Iran. The whole article is behind a paywall, but based on the part showing, the real take-away may be the line "Riyadh is understood already to have given the go-ahead for Israeli planes to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran." That isn't quite an "alliance," but of course there's no denying that the Saudis and the Israelis share a fear of Iran's nuclear program and worry about the upshot of a Geneva deal. The Saudis have, of course, vehemently denied the story, saying it "has no relations or contacts with Israel of any kind or at any level." While that may ignore unofficial back channels that most of us know have been used in the past, any official cooperation is highly unlikely. (I'll leave out the question of of the route Israel took on the 1981 Osirak raid and certain undisclosed US operations during the 2003 Iraq War: there is some reason to believe that Saudi Air Defenses can be, well, inattentive when they choose to be.)

Mahnaimi’s [the source of the story] corpus of “scoops” for the Sunday Times over the past decade include well over a dozen reports that an Israeli military strike on Iran is imminent. Mahnaimi has also provided fanciful depictions of secret high-tech weaponry Israel might deploy in an attack like “the gamma pulse that could send Iran back to the stone age” and a bacteriological ethnic bomb Israel had developed that would only harm Arabs.
Two previous Sunday Times reports have alleged that the Saudis were comfortable and cooperative with the prospect of an attack on Iran through their air space.
On July 5, 2009, in an article titled, “Saudis Give Nod to Israeli Raid on Iran,” Mahnaimi quoted a diplomatic source who claimed that “The Saudis have tacitly agreed to the Israel air force flying through their airspace on a mission which is supposed to be in the common interests of both Israel and Saudi Arabia.” According to Mahnaimi, then Mossad chief Meir Dagan had held secret talks earlier that year and had assured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.”
On Jun. 12, 2010, a very similar report by the Sunday Times‘ Hugh Tomlinson alleged — citing an unidentified US “defense official — that Saudi Arabia had practiced standing down its anti-aircraft systems in order to allow Israeli warplanes passage on their way to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. He added that the Saudis have allocated a narrow corridor of airspace in the north of the country. Saudi sources denied the report. Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, the Saudi envoy to the UK, declared that any such move “would be against the policy adopted and followed by the Kingdom,” and that Saudi Arabia would not allow any violation of its territories or airspace.
Mahnaimi reported on May 13 of this year that Israel was preparing to join Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in establishing “an early warning system to detect Iranian ballistic missiles.” The American-brokered proposal, Mahnaimi wrote, “may eventually lead to technicians from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan working alongside Israelis in joint command-and-control centres.”
Israeli news sources, including Haaretz, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Israel Today and Y-Net are today uncritically reporting the Sunday Times‘ claim that an Israeli-Saudi attack is in the works, without mentioning the almost identical stories of 2009 and 2010, or the plethora of predictions of an Israeli attack on Iran during the course of the past decade that never happened.
Among Mahnaimi's other headline-makers was a 2010 report, also in the Sunday Times, that all three Israeli Dolphin-class subs were armed with nuclear missiles and all sitting off the Iranian coast. You remember the nuclear holocaust of 2010, don't you? (For the record, the Dolphins do carry ship-to-shore cruise missiles that could carry nuclear warheads, but they don't have the range of SLBMs. Also, all submarines, even Egypt's and ours, must pass the Suez Canal on the surface as it's too shallow to submerge. As far as I am aware, that only happened once, in 2009, with one sub, and it later returned. The subs could go around Africa, though they would need a submarine tender on the surface, and likely a friendly fueling base since they are diesel, not nuclear-powered, though they may have such facilities available in Eritrea or Djibouti. But they sure haven't all three been sitting off Iran with their nukes locked and loaded since 2010, that's for sure.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

While I'm Busy, Old Cairo Videos

I'll be out all day at the Middle East Institute's Annual Conference.  Those of you in the DC area should come on down. (Admission to the Conference is free; only lunch is a paid event and there are plenty of dining options nearby.) If you're not around these parts it will be online fairly soon, and to keep you engaged I thought I'd drop in some YouTube videos of Cairo from the 1920s to 1979 or so. Enjoy.

1920s (caption says 1930s but it looks  earlier to me):



1950s, probably early in the decade:

1956, with a view of the old Opera House before it burned:


This video has dropped off twice so I'm excluding it for now.

And a documentary on early Helipolis which, amid the talking head memories and a slightly hokey time-travel-by-train framing story, has some old stills and videos interspersed.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Déjà vu All Over Again: Is it 1955-1956 Yet?

I'm about to disappear for the MEI Annual Conference
through tomorrow, but may have a post or two to occupy you if I can. But first, I wanted to comment on the visit today of a senior Russian delegation to Egypt (the Foreign and Defense Ministers) to discuss new aid. The move is seen as a direct response to the growing coolness between the US and Egypt and the recent suspension of parts of the US aid package.

Déjà vu, anyone? In 1955, after an Israeli raid on Egyptian-occupied Gaza, Gamal Abdel Nasser asked the West to sell him arms and was offered conditions he couldn't accept. He turned to Czechoslovakia instead. In retaliation for this and other tilts towards the East Bloc (recognizing mainland China, attending the Bandung Conference), first Britain and then the US withdrew their previously offered aid for the building of the Aswan High Dam. In 1956, the Soviet Union stepped in and offered aid for the dam. Then Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal . . .
Nasser & Khrushchev Divert the Nile Waters

It's not quite the same; the Cold War is over and the zero-sum bipolar perceptions of those days have been replaced by a multipolar world. But then, given all the Sisi-is-the-new-Nasser hype, there are some parallels.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lebanon's Forgotten Rocket Program from the 1960s: Cedar 3

I thought I was pretty conversant with rocketry and missile programs in the Middle East, which at one time I covered, but this one is completely new to me: a BBC report on Lebanon's Forgotten Space Programme, back in the 1960s, long before Hizbullah's rockets. Now I find that there was a lot of coverage of the 50th anniversary of the first launch of the Cedar 3.  And Haigazian University notes its role in the program. These were nominally sounding rockets, but the Lebanese military did help support the program, and the US and Soviet "cultural attaches" attended the launches. A Google search turns up a lot more. (Note: the BBC report refers to "President Chebab." That should, of course, be President Chehab.)

UPDATE: Video trailer for a recent film documentary:

Hat tips to Laurie King for the BBC link and Ted Swedenburg for the trailer link.

Why Did Al-Masry al-Youm Print This Picture Now?

The independent Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm ran this picture with a very short news story a couple of days ago. The headline of the story reads "Watch of King Farouq Reveals the Borders of Egypt,"

Perhaps I'm reading too much into what could just be a picture Egyptian readers might find interesting, but obviously the King's specially made watch show the borders of what is now Egypt and the Sudan together. This is not news: the King's title was always King of Egypt and the Sudan, though Sudan was then a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, until its independence. That's a given, though the short article with the picture makes no reference to the British, and refers to the watch as showing the borders of Egypt at that time.

Is there some sort of message here? Irredentism? Monarchism? Something to do with the Nile waters dispute? Again, I may be trying to read more meaning into this than was intended.

‘Ashura AH 1435

The Shi‘ite holy day/day of mourning and fasting, ‘Ashura, the 10th of Ramadan, bean at sundown and continues tomorrow.  Many Sunnis also observe ‘Ashura, but not with the mourning rituals for Imam Husayn associated with Shi‘ism. There have already been sectarian attacks against Shi‘ite targets in Iraq. Egypt's small Shi‘ite community have announced their intention of praying tomorrow individually at the Sayyidna Hussein Mosque in Cairo, a shrine to Hussein founded during the (Shi‘ite) Fatimid Dynasty. In the past Salafis have sought to prevent the Shi‘ites from praying at the mosque.

My 2009  ‘Ashura post explained the background of the holy day.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tunisians, Others Cry Foul Over Women's Status Poll

You may have already heard about the Thomson Reuters Poll that asked experts on gender rights to rank Arab countries' performance on women's rights; the main headlines have noted that Egypt ranked dead last, even below Saudi Arabia. That, predictably, raised some eyebrows:
Some activists expressed shock that Egypt scored worse than conservative Saudi Arabia, where women's access to public space is limited and women need a male guardian's permission to work, travel abroad, open a bank account or enrol in higher education.
But some insights into the curious rankings may be gained by the uproar created by the original report's ranking of Tunisia as only sixth. Tunisians were puzzled by the reasons given: as noted by Tunisia Online:
The survey which was released on Monday erroneously stated that “polygamy remains widespread and contraception is illegal” in the country.
Tunisia was the first country in the Arab region to ban polygamy under the 1956 Personal Status Code. Abortion has also been authorised since 1973 and contraception is legal and available.
The survey which was released on Monday erroneously stated that “polygamy remains widespread and contraception is illegal” in the country.
Tunisia was the first country in the Arab region to ban polygamy under the 1956 Personal Status Code. Abortion has also been authorised since 1973 and contraception is legal and available.
- See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/11/12/reuters-errs-on-polygamy-contraception-in-womens-rights-poll/#sthash.ydyWIqqW.dpuf
The survey which was released on Monday erroneously stated that “polygamy remains widespread and contraception is illegal” in the country.
Tunisia was the first country in the Arab region to ban polygamy under the 1956 Personal Status Code. Abortion has also been authorised since 1973 and contraception is legal and available.
- See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/11/12/reuters-errs-on-polygamy-contraception-in-womens-rights-poll/#sthash.ydyWIqqW.dpuf
The survey which was released on Monday erroneously stated that “polygamy remains widespread and contraception is illegal” in the country.
Tunisia was the first country in the Arab region to ban polygamy under the 1956 Personal Status Code. Abortion has also been authorised since 1973 and contraception is legal and available.
- See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/11/12/reuters-errs-on-polygamy-contraception-in-womens-rights-poll/#sthash.ydyWIqqW.dpuf
In fact, contraception is not only legal, it's free. The Tunisia Online story notes some of the Twitter commentary:
And sure enough, the original Reuters story has been "updated" to read:
In Tunisia, ranked best among Arab Spring nations, women hold 27 percent of seats in national parliament and contraception is legal, but polygamy is spreading and inheritance laws are biased towards males.
Thomson Reuters responded to Tunisia Online's queries by saying:
“The survey is an expert perception poll and as such is only based on the opinions of respondents, who were chosen for their general expertise on gender issues,” Thomson Reuters said.
To respect respondents’ anonymity, the foundation declined to give names of the gender experts surveyed on the situation of women’s rights in Tunisia. They did, however, give a statement regarding their updated article.
“Tunisia did not allow polygamy but after the revolution and the rise of Islamists, polygamy has been secretly practiced by Salafis – though never officially recognized,”

“The survey is an expert perception poll and as such is only based on the opinions of respondents, who were chosen for their general expertise on gender issues,” Thomson Reuters said.
To respect respondents’ anonymity, the foundation declined to give names of the gender experts surveyed on the situation of women’s rights in Tunisia. They did, however, give a statement regarding their updated article.
“Tunisia did not allow polygamy but after the revolution and the rise of Islamists, polygamy has been secretly practiced by Salafis – though never officially recognized,” Thomson Reuters explained.
Ah. So it was "an expert perception poll and as such is only based on the opinions of respondents," as opposed to a non-expert poll based on, oh, let's say, actual facts.

So who ranked first in the Arab World, you may ask, if Tunisia only ranked sixth?

Why, the Comoros Islands, of course.

Wait, you may say, aren't they down off the coast of Madagascar somewhere?  Well technically, yes they are. But they're really avid joiners: As the Comoros Wikipedia page notes:
The Comoros is the only state to be a member of the African Union, Francophonie, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Arab League (of which it is the southernmost state, being the only member of the Arab League which is entirely within the Southern Hemisphere) and the Indian Ocean Commission.
Also the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Cub Scouts, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, for all I know. (My apologies to any Comoran readers, though Google Analytic tells me that in nearly five years of blogging, I haven't had a single one. The closest I come is five visits from Madagascar.)

I do not know how many Comorans think of themselves as Arabs, but I suspect few Arabs outside the Arab League Secretariat do.

It's sort of comparable, I suspect, to when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposed admitting both Jordan and Morocco. Morocco, in particular, is not noticeably near the Gulf, nor does it even share a continent with it, but that's being picky. 

Thomson Reuters should have checked a few facts, I suspect.