A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Happy New Year: Some 2009 Highlights

Happy New Year to All!

So 2009 draws to a close and this blog, which debuted at the end of January, ends 11 months of life. Marc Lynch already did a People of the Year 2009 post for the Middle East, so I won't go there. But there is the Iron Law of Reporting which says everybody must do an end of year roundup. I've already done my top five hits (previous post), but need to do something more.

So, as I look back over the year's posts, how about some superlatives:
  • Man of the Year: Nobody really stands out. Maybe the late Hossein ‘Ali Montazeri or Mir-Hossein Moussavi.
  • Winners: Oddly, both Bashar al-Asad and Sa‘d Hariri. Also: Crown Prince Sultan (for the comeback), and depending on what happens next, maybe Nuri al-Maliki.
  • Losers: Dubai, Al-Qa‘ida, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mahmud ‘Abbas, possibly Nuri al-Maliki (see also "Winners"), and perhaps Gamal Mubarak.
  • Most Over-Reported Story: Gilad Shalit is about to be released. (As I write this, have you heard: the release is imminent! Again.) Also the flurry of fervor about Mohamed ElBaradei and ‘Amr Moussa's bids for President of Egypt, unless you can explain how they stand a constitutional chance. And the Afghan decision.
  • Most Under-Reported Story: Human rights just about everywhere. Also minority rights in Iraq: Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shi‘ites in Sunni areas and vice versa. And, as always, the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
  • Stupidest Story: Egypt's mass hamicide. Swine flu isn't spread by swine; killing Egypt's pigs further impovished the already-impoverished zabbalin, who depended on the garbage they collected to feed their pigs, and . . . oh, you've heard this from me already.
  • Best Election: Hard one. Israel or course went smoothly if I didn't love the results. For the Arab world, Lebanon I guess, since it seems to have been fair, but it took forever to form a government.
  • Worst Election: Need you ask? Unless you count farces like Algeria and Tunisia, obviously Iran's.

2009's Greatest Hits: The Top Five

As we end 2009 I' ve been playing with Google Analytics to see what my readers found the most interesting posts. For the first two months of this blog (until late March 2009) I had no metrics on it, so this is only dealing with the period since March. Since many readers read the whole post on the home page, it's also a little deceptive (unlike some blogs, you don't have to click through to read the whole text), but the five individual posts with the highest traffic are these:

  1. The Marwa al-Sherbini case.
  2. Those Qatari Coup Rumors. Posted, oddly enough, while I was on vacation, and purely derivative, but it still gets hits.
  3. "She was a Splendid Beast": The Arabic Transliteration Problem. One of my own favorites; glad others agree.
  4. More Mousavi Fever: Rafsanjani Attacks Ahmadinejad. Nothing brilliant here; just commenting on Iran, but at the height of the furor. Later addendum: and Gary Sick linked to this on the Gulf 2000 listserv, which is a real draw, and at his blog.
  5. Fun with Google Earth: Middle Eastern Airbase Recon. I had fun doing this, and I'm glad many of you liked it.
I may post other greatest hits later, but here's a start. Only two of the top five (nunbers three and five above) are really my own work, but that's the way it goes.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Coptic Stories of the Holy Family in Egypt

Since we're in between Western Christmas and Eastern Christmas, I thought it might be a useful time to call to your attention the extremely detailed traditions Egypt's Copts maintain about the Holy Family and the Flight into Egypt. There is hardly a Christian church in Egypt — and there are some mosques, too, since Jesus and Mary are highly venerated in Islam — that doesn't claim that Jesus, Mary and Joseph dropped by for a while. They must have been constantly on the move to have covered so much ground, but you can't build up a good pilgrimage trade if you don't stop frequently.

Now, the Flight into Egypt gets only a couple of verses in the Bible and is only mentioned in one Gospel, Matthew, so the extremely detailed accounts of the Coptic stories have more to do with pious elaboration — or pilgrimage tourism — than history, but the stories can be quite charming. Some are based on an apocryphal Armenian infancy gospel, some on local traditions, etc. The Coptic traditions hold that the Holy Family spent three years in Egypt.

I am shamelessly cribbing this from Chapter XXXI of the late Otto Meinnardus' Christian Egypt Ancient and Modern, (Cairo: AUC Press, 1965; Revised Edition 1977). Meinardus was a major figure in Coptic studies; German-born, he wrote mostly in English or French, taught at the American University in Cairo, and was an ordained Lutheran pastor. (Judge for yourself what Martin Luther would have thought of some of these stories.) He died in 2005. But I have to condense all the details considerably; his chapter runs over 40 pages. There's also a detailed online site, with pictures (text approved personally by Coptic Pope Shenouda, they say), for those interested. And tours are available.

It seems the Holy Family traveled with a midwife named Salome who isn't mentioned in the Gospel but plays a role in the Coptic stories. Instead of heading straight to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, they seem to have zigzagged to the Plain of Jericho, then Ashkelon, then Hebron (at least according to the various churches and monasteries situated in those places), then proceeded to enter Egypt via the Land of Goshen, en route to the town of Bilbays. Along the way they had an encounter with a dragon in a cave, and were approached by wild lions, but of course they all bowed down to the Baby Jesus. At Bilbays they rested under a large tree, which was venerated in the Middle Ages by both Muslims and Christians as the Virgin's Tree, which stood until 1850. Then they headed to Samannud, where there is a church on the site of a well blessed by Jesus. (Early Christian apocryphal infancy Gospels, as well as the Qur'an, have Jesus talking while still in the cradle.) Then they detoured northward to the Mediterranean coast at Burollos, stopping there according to the monks of the place. Then, perhaps at Basus or Sakha in Gharbiyya (Meinardus speculates on the place), Jesus left his footprint on a stone.

Needless to say, they could not ignore the Wadi Natrun, the Coptic version of Mount Athos, where the four great monasteries of the Desert Fathers still stand (but of course didn't then as Christianity hadn't been founded yet), though why they were wandering in the desert instead of the delta in those days isn't explained. Passing by from a distance, Jesus said to his mother, "Know O my Mother, that in this desert there shall live many monks, ascetes and spiritual fighters, and they shall serve God like angels." (Apparently Mary would have known what a "monk" was, though it's hard to know why.) Anyway, you can ask the monks if you doubt any of this.

Even though Cairo wasn't there yet, you know Cairo isn't going to let all these other towns have a claim and not find some of its own, don't you? First they went to On, the ancient Heliopolis, not on the site of the modern suburb of that name but on the site of Matariyya. There Jesus took Joseph's staff, dug a well, and planted the staff, which grew into a tree which became a goal of pilgrimage and was venerated by Muslims as well as Christians. (The Qur'an has a story of Mary resting under a palm tree, and this and the Matariyya tree became conflated in later folklore.)

From there, the Holy Family went to a site where, centuries later, the Harat Zuwaila quarter of Cairo would rise; the Church of the Virgin there is one of the oldest in Cairo proper, and the convent has a well blessed by Jesus.

(If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned their stop in the Fortress of Babylon, in a church many tourists visit today, it's because they stopped there only after their tour of Upper Egypt. Trust me, it's coming.)

Next they went to Ma‘adi, today an elite southern suburb of Cairo, and attended a synagogue. Joseph got to know some Nile boatmen, who offered to take them to Upper Egypt. (You're wondering how an exiled carpenter and family fleeing from King Herod can afford all this Grand Tour? Don't be so cynical: the legend has it covered: using the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi.)

I'm going to condense a bit here since every Church of St. Mary up the Nile seems to mark a site where the boat stopped and they visited a well or a palm tree. But since Upper Egypt remains one of the more Christian parts of the country, they couldn't skip such Christian centers as Sammalout, Asyut, al-‘Ashnmunein, or the great monastery known as Deir al-Muharraq.

One of the legendary sub-stories here deserves telling, though. Up near al-‘Ashmunein, two brigands who had been pursuing the Holy Family since Matariyya (must be the gold, frankincense and myrrh again) tried to rob them. They grabbed Jesus and Mary cried, and one of the robbers repented, and they left them. And — as any folklorist should have figured out by now — these were the same two thieves, including the same Good Thief, who would be crucified alongside Jesus! How could it be otherwise?

The constant travels were finally relieved when the Holy Family were taken in by a devout Jew and lived for six months (and ten days: I told you the stories are detailed) at the Monastery of Deir al-Muharraq, south of al-Qusiya. The monks of the monastery say it was the first monastery in Egypt, built just after the arrival of Saint Mark as the Apostle of Egypt. If you doubt that, take it up with the monks, not me.

Then the angel came to Joseph and told him it was safe to go back to Palestine. (That part actually is in the Gospel of Matthew, unlike everything else in this post.) They stopped at pretty much every Coptic village that would ever have a Church of the Virgin on their way back down the Nile, and feeling they had not yet done enough for future Cairo tourism, they stopped inside the Roman fortress known as Babylon and, perhaps having run out of gold and frankincense, stayed in a cave that is today the crypt of the church of Saint Sergius (Abu Sarga), conveniently adjacent to the Coptic Museum and included on many Cairo tours.

I hope I don't sound too cynical here: the stories are charming and are clearly a pious attempt to elaborate on a brief reference in the Gospel in order to make the Christian link to Egypt more tangible to believers. On the other hand, the sense that every Church of Saint Mary in Egypt actually sheltered the Virgin and Child seems a bit credulous.

I hope my Coptic friends recognize that I am helping spread knowledge of your tradition, even if I may not accept every detail as historically attested. I'd really like to know more about that dragon.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pope Shenouda's Health, Again

With Western Christmas behind us (though the 12 days of Christmas are still running), but Eastern Christmas still ahead, there's some concern about the health of Coptic Pope Shenouda III. A few months ago I posted on questions about the health of Shenouda III. Now there is a new question: the Pope apparently "swooned" or fainted on December 24 (not Christmas Eve for the Copts, who use the Julian Calendar and celebrate January 7).

On the other hand, a word of caution here. I've been Googling in both English and Arabic and haven't found much in the way of reportage of this outside of Al-Masry al-Youm. English Google brings up only this article; Arabic brings up a lot of articles on the Pope's supporting the government effort to ban illegal organ trafficking (a "well, duh" story as we call it in the scholarly community), and not much else. This may be a gross overreaction, but then, Al-Masry al-Youm, despite a fairly good track record for an independent newspaper, did help turn the Swine Flu into the mass hamicide earlier this year.

Probably nothing to see here. Keep moving.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Next in Iran?

The violence that tore through Iran on ‘Ashura certainly suggests that the discontent that has been rising since the Presidential election has not abated; the fact that the crowds are now denouncing the Rahbar, Ayatollah Khamene'i, rather than Ahmadinejad and that there are reports of some police and security forces refusing to fire on the crowds or even joining them shows that the legitimacy of the regime is crumbling. But does that mean it will fall? Here I think there are a number of reasons for caution, despite the clear levels of discontent.

First, I would agree with Juan Cole that while the legitimacy is shredded, there is no clear revolutionary alternative, at least at the moment. While the protestors are denouncing the fundamental principle of clerical rule (velayat-e faqih), the leaders of the movement, Mir-Hossein Moussavi (whose nephew was killed yesterday) and Mehdi Karrubi, are still very much within the clerical system, and denounce Khamene'i for betraying it. There is no obvious rallying center for an alternative system, no leader analagous to the role of the exiled Khomeini in the previous revolution. The only alternative leader I can think of other than Moussavi or Karrubi is Rafsanjani, and he's very much in and of the system. A moderate coup bringing Rafsanjani and his allies in might be conceivable, but at this stage, I don't think the overall clerical system is about to collapse. (But in 1978, the Shah wasn't obviously on the verge of collapse either: an escalating cycle of protests and repressions transformed the situation.)

As others have noted, the protestors are mostly urban, middle-class, often students and young professionals. Many who know Iran better than I claim that there is still a lot of support in the rural areas and among the poor for the Islamic Revolution, with which Khamene'i and Ahmadinejad still identify. The regime has lost the intellectuals and the middle classes and many of its own moderate faction. An Iranian professor of my acquaintance who recently returned to the country was visibly nervous about going home. Clearly things aren't well.

Sometimes authoritarian states — and Iran seems to have become one even if you didn't class it as one a few years ago — can last a long time after legitimacy is lost. There are still aspects of the government's policies that are popular in many quarters of Iranian society — and the nuclear project is one of these, though not all US policymakers get that fact — and the lack of a charismatic leader, and continuing solidarity of the Guards Corps, mean the government can weather a lot of protests at this point.

The question is: can any of this change, as it did for the Shah?

First, the leadership issue: there is no exile figure to play the role of Khomeini in the 1970s; the internal opposition is obviously under enormous pressure. Moussavi and Karrubi and former President Khatami and their allies are vulnerable to pressure, even to arrest and prosecution. Rafsanjani is probably immune to those things, but his wealth and alliances make him an unlikely Robespierre. Perhaps he will prove to be a behind-the-scenes manipulator who outmaneuvers the present leadership: that I think would be the likeliest scenario for change, but it's leadership change, not regime change.

I don't see an external rallying figure emerging. Who would it be? The noisiest of the exile groups, the People's Mojahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e Khalq, are still classed as a terrorist group by the US despite their propaganda successes with some members of Congress, and they are a bizarre personality cult whose rallies look more like Nuremburg than a popular movement, and they're disarmed and surrounded by US and Iraqi forces anyway. (Also, lots of Iranians who dislike the present regime will never forgive them for siding with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.)

Who else? There are quite a few Iranian groups in the West but they tend to be headed by academics, not charismatic leaders. Reza Pahlavi? The Pahlavi dynasty had awfully shallow roots anyway, and I don't think many Iranians want a monarchy. He could possibly win election if only the Iranian community of southern California (and only they) were voting, but otherwise, nah.

Now, sometimes vacuums can be filled. Khomeini was an unlikely figure to become the icon of a revolution, and lots of other forces thought they could use him to bring down the Shah, then do things their way: instead he used them. In 1770 a few Americans had heard of Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Patrick Henry, but only the first was a real activist, and today is more remembered for the eponymous brewery than his actual revolutionary agitation. When the Bastille fell Danton and Robespierre were still rising figures and Bonaparte unknown outside Corsica. So there may be someone waiting in the wings.

And sometimes revolutionary leaders emerge from the strangest places. Boris Yeltsin drank too much and sometimes behaved buffoonishly, but when he got up on that armored personnel carrier in August 1991, he brought an empire down. But the moment was right. (And that example reminds us that no system is impervious to change, no matter how rigid.)

The other big question is the military, and in Iran that really means the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the IRGC or Sepah-e Pasdaran. So far, their ranks haven't cracked. Khamene'i is their patron, Ahmadinejad their creation. (But then, Rafsanjani is their father, so to speak, and may still have some clout there.) Gary Sick has called our attention to a piece by Ali Ansari at The National Interest called "The Revolution will be Mercantilized," which notes the IRGC's involvement in the economy. The IRGC has way too much invested in the current system to turn on it: they are it. Anwar Sadat made Egypt coup-proof by giving the military control of huge sectors of the economy (Amira Sonbol has compared it to the Mamluk iltizam system); Iran has done something similar. It makes it far less likely that the men with the guns will change sides. The handwriting on the wall for the Shah was when his "Immortals," the military elite, refused to fire on demonstrators. On ‘Ashura, some police did the same, but until and unless the IRGC does so, the cycle will continue to erode the regime's legitimacy, but probably won't bring it down.

But then, revolutions do sometimes surprise us. I think the Administration's criticize-but-don't-directly-get-involved response is the right approach: almost all Iranians would rally behind a regime under American pressure or, unquestionably, American military assault. Let them play out their own revolutionary scenario, win or lose.

Santas at the Wall

A photo for the season from the Gulf Times: Palestinian Santa Clauses demonstrating at the separation barrier near Bethlehem.

Added later: as an aside, the one time I was in Israel/Palestine at Christmastime I saw equally skinny Santas showing up in both Ramallah and Bethlehem. They seem to have adopted the red suit and white beard meme from the West (mostly the US, but then most of Ramallah's Christians have kin in the US), but they didn't adopt the bowl-full-of-jelly plumpness. Or can't afford padding, I'm not sure which.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

‘Ashura 1431

[Oops. Sorry: for a while the headline said 1381. Perhaps conflating 680 AD, the year of Karbala', and 61 AH. It is, of course, 1431.]

Today was the Shi‘ite mourning day known as ‘Ashura; or rather, more precisely, it ran from sundown last night to sundown tonight, so it's over as I post this. It was a day of massive demonstrations in Tehran, as expected, since ‘Ashura coincided with the one week period of mourning for Grand Ayatollah Hossein ‘Ali Montazeri.

‘Ashura is observed in Sunni Islam as well, since the Prophet recommended fasting on the day, and some hadith indicate that he was directly emulating the Jewish practice of fasting on Yom Kippur. (‘Ashura is the tenth day of the first month, Muharram, and thus is an analog of Yom Kippur, but since the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, it moves arolund the calendar.)

The Shi‘ite practice came about because the Battle of Karbala' in 61 AH (680 AD), in which the Third Shi‘ite Imam, Imam Hussein, died along with most of his family, took place on the day. His martyrdom is the most mourned of all the Shi‘ite Imams, at least after Imam ‘Ali himself. During the reign of the Shah some of the more extreme practices, such as self-flagellation, were banned, but they returned after the Islamic Revolution. The emotion and redemptive symbolism of ‘Ashura make it a particularly explosive moment for Montazeri to have died.

For a number of posts relating to ‘Ashura, including pictures of some of the art associated with it, check the last several posts at View from the Occident. One of them, of ‘Abbas bin ‘Ali, Hussein's half-brother and a hero of Karbala who also died there, appears above.

As I've noted previously, MEI's closed all week and posting will be light, but will occur.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Merry Christmas, But Also a Reminder of Bethlehem's Wall

   Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long,
And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed, and so gracious, is that time.
(Hamlet 1.1.158-64)
It's Christmas Day for the Western churches (still the Orthodox and Armenians to go, though), so let me wish those who celebrate today, or even those who simply observe the secular feast, a Merry Christmas. I'm going to let YouTube do most of the work today:

Fairuz doing four Christmas songs, a couple of which appeared in earlier videos:

Fairuz singing "Go Tell it on the Mountain" in Arabic:

And one those my age may remember, the first (and to date, only) Christmas message from lunar orbit, Christmas Eve, 1968:

On a more somber note, many will disagree with this rather country-ish song and the video that goes with it, but it reminds us that Bethlehem today is cut off from Jerusalem by the separation wall:

Merry Christmas. The Psalmist asked us long ago to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Still seems like a good idea.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Just in Time for Christmas: Marian Apparitions in Egypt

I was going to post (still am in fact) some time over the coming three Christmases about the rich Coptic traditions of the "Flight into Egypt" and the many Egyptian towns and villages, churches, monasteries (and mosques) associated with the presence of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Until I get around to that I thought I should note that, as Christmas approaches, there has been a new wave of appearances said to be of the Virgin Mary in the Cairo area.

I have to tread carefully here because one does not wish to express skepticism or cynicism on the eve of Christmas, and because I have no desire to tread on anyone's toes. Since 1968, Cairo has had several waves of reported apparations of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or to use the more eastern term, the Theotokos). The latest round has been building recently. And these apparitions always draw not just Copts but Muslims too. The first round back in 1968 was marked by the fact that a great many of the witnesses were Muslim. (Remember that Islam considers Jesus Son of Mary — ‘Isa bin Maryam — a Prophet in both the nabi and rasul sense of the term, who brought the revelation known as the injil, the Gospel or evangel, and even calls him Al-Masih, the Messiah; Mary is so venerated that one of the 114 Suras of the Qur'an, the 19th, is named Maryam.)

The earliest wave, in 1968, got a lot of attention because of the number of Muslim witnesses. The church at which the supposed apparition took place, Al-Sayyida al-‘Udhra' Maryam (The Lady Virgin Mary) in the Cairo suburb of Zaytoun, has a website with photos of the apparitions, and several languages available (including Russian; link is to the English site).

In 2000 there were claims of an apparition of Mary at Asyut in Upper Egypt. There's a video of it, which doesn't allow embedding, and this one I think is Saint Elmo's Fire, unless it's fake. Unlike the newer ones, it acts like Saint Elmo's fire on the church cross. You'd need to know the weather conditions to be sure.

That brings us to the latest outbreak of Marian sightings, at Warraq on the Nile in Giza Governorate. Here's the LA Times. Here's an American religious account. Here's a video, and while I must admit I see nothing I can't explain by light reflection or lens flare, and bad cell phone video (and some others have suggested Saint Elmo's Fire here, though unlike the Asyut video linked above, it doesn't seem to act like it): at best there's a slightly human looking shape in light. It could be anything from lens flare, to a fake, to some electrical discharge. But I wasn't there, though, so judge for yourself:

Some other YouTube videos of the Warraq apparition:

That one is stranger than the first, but it's still, essentially, light. And clearly, the crosses are lit electrically. Some kind of arcing effect?

But it's Christmas. Perhaps I shouldn't be so skeptical: it's making Egyptian Christians appreciate the season. And people are seeing something, since they're photographing it. How they interpret what they see is a subjective matter. Like UFOs, lights in the night sky are hard to interpret. There is, of course, already a Facebook group following the story.

And if it really is a miracle, the matter is above my pay grade.

Bigotry in the West Bank (No Arabs Involved)

Israelis have been known to joke that if the Arab world disappeared, or made real peace, Israelis would proceed to tear each other apart. This Ha'aretz piece suggests they might be right. In a West Bank settlement, Ashkenazi Jews, apparently Hasidim or haredis of some stripe, are resisting a court order to end segregation in the school between Ashkenazi and Sephardi/Mizrahi students. (Ashkenazi Jews are those of European heritage; Hasidim are mostly eastern European pietist Jews; haredis are ultra-Orthodox rigorists. Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are those whose heritage lay in the Mediterranean world, either in Spain or Italy or the Arab world.)

Some quotes:
A group of Ashkenazi schoolgirls who approached the institute's side gate on Wednesday were driven away by a number of ultra-Orthodox men, who noticed Haaretz's photographer.

"The court and media don't understand that this is another world," a mother who is keeping her daughter out of school said. "The Hasidic program was created because of a different religious outlook. Only pure children attend it."

"The Mizrahi students' families don't belong with the other families," another parent said. "They have a television at home while the [Ashkenazim] speak Yiddish. The Mizrahi girls have a bad influence on our girls. No court will change anything," he added. "It's better for everyone to have separate study programs. This way each student keeps his identity - just like you wouldn't play Mizrahi and classical music on the same radio show," another resident said.

The school has 215 students from first to eighth grade, 35 percent of whom are Sephardi.

"It's a disgrace to this place, the ministry must intervene to stop the segregation once and for all," the father of one Mizrahi student said. "The Ashkenazis think they're more intelligent than we are, but what really bugs them is our skin color."
I offer no further editorial content. The article speaks for itself.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Note on Holiday Blogging

The Middle East Institute will be closed from tomorrow (Christmas eve) until January 4. I'll be fairly busy with family things during the period, but I do intend to continue blogging, especially on the subject of Christmas in the Middle East. (And also ‘Ashura, which is coming up.) Posting may be a little lighter than usual, however.

He's Tanned, Rested, and Online

Now that Saudi Crown Prince Sultan has returned to his own Kingdom after nearly a year in American hospitals and his palace in Agadir, Morocco, he's got his website going. Can a Twitter account be far behind?

Also, has he got a new PR person? I've seen more broad smiling pics of Sultan in the last week or two than I can remember previously, and for some reason he seems to look 20 years younger than his early 80s age. (Maybe he has the Mubarak/Qadhafi gene under which your hair can't grey, but this pic doesn't look like a guy recovering from a serious cancer in his 80s. Oh well, welcome home.

If it's a case of Sultan versus Nayef for the throne, I'll toss in with Sultan.

I make no comparisons and suggest no parallels to the Saudi situation, but a decade or two ago in Louisiana, which has the most baroque politics in the United States, Edwin Edwards, a governor who, despite spending much of his gubernatorial salary and perhaps some of the treasury in Las Vegas and otherwise basically corrupt as hell, and who famously said he'd always be re-elected unless he was caught in bed with "a dead girl or a live boy," was challenged for the governorship by David Duke, a former Grand Dragon (or whatever) of the Ku Klux Klan and a racist with no qualifications for any known office, but who was doing disturbingly well in the polls. A bumper sticker quickly appeared: "Vote for the Crook: It's Important." Louisianans did.

Clayton Swisher Reporting from Afghanistan

Clayton Swisher is a reporter for Al-Jazeera English, but before he was that, he was the Director of Programs for the Middle East Institute (and author of The Truth About Camp David), so I consider his reportage sort of part of the extended family's news. He's embedded in Afghanistan and sent me a couple of links to reports, one December 21 northwest of Kandahar, the other December 22 in Helmand.

Merry Christmas, Clayton; Glad I'm Not There [Update: he e-mails he's back in Doha now]:

And thanks again to Al-Jazeera for being savvy enough to put their reports on YouTube and allow embedding. It gets their reportage a much broader audience.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hasan al-Tuhami, RIP

Some people prefer the cloakrooms and back channels of history to the front pages. One of these has died recently: Hasan al-Tuhami. His Wikipedia entry in English is as "stub" as they come; his Arabic one is better, if you read the language. It doesn't seem to know he's dead, but apparently he died last week.

I've never gotten Tuhami, and never met him. He was one of those odd, secretive, and seemingly rather eccentric figures who doesn't fit stereotypes. He tended to dress like an Islamist, even like a Muslim Brother, even while being a Deputy Prime Minister under Sadat. His meetings with Moshe Dayan in Morocco set the stage for Sadat's trip to Jerusalem. In the Nasser era he was in the intel business, and is said to have been the man behind the CIA bribe that led to the building of the Cairo Tower. (Link is in Arabic.)

That and other intrigues apparently involved him, the various sources say, closely with Miles Copeland, a legendary rogue (and I think maybe the bagman on the Cairo Tower) who was an early CIA operative (and, trivia buffs, father of Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police). In my younger years and Miles' later years, when he combined a personal fondness for drink and his native Alabamian fondness for talk, I had the pleasure of knowing Miles and of sharing a lot of his conversation, but I don't think he ever mentioned Tuhami. Miles deserves his own post (if I knew more, he might deserve a separate blog), but that's for another time. (The early CIA guys, raised in an age when drinking was a macho thing, tended to get talkative in their later years.)

Don't worry that you've never heard of Tuhami. Ninety percent of his countrymen hadn't either.

RIP Hasan Tuhami. He may be the real father of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and Google has trouble finding out that he died. Shadowlands. I think there are more pictures of Tuhami in Moshe Dayan's memoirs than in any Egyptian book. Though I gather he wrote one of his own, though I haven't seen it.

A Musical Bank Shot: Why the Internet is So Darned Cool

A lot of folks of my generation claim to be bewildered by the Internet, but I love it, having spent a career in earlier forms of publishing and communication and knowing improvement when I see it, and one reason has recently been driven home by a comment that makes me think I've just watched Minnesota Fats or some other great pool player do a bank shot that runs half the table. (Non-native-English speakers: something really cool happened.)

I know a lot of my readers don't regularly read the comments to the posts: this isn't the sort of blog where huge, intense debates go on in the comment threads, and a post that generates 10 comments is pretty good. But sometimes my commenters provide essential information that I didn't have.

And sometimes, the sheer networking of the Internet becomes apparent. Case in point: My Blizzard of '09 post over the weekend, with all the examples of Arab bagpipes (another post for which YouTube can claim a lot of the credit, another cool thing about Web 2.0), included a YouTube video of Moroccan bagpipes in a Moroccan group, a video which I noted was captioned in a language I did not know (but suggested might be Hungarian). In a comment to that post, one I. Warner said:
The Kobza Vajk Group does indeed have Hungarian subtitles - Szentendre is an adorable little town up the Duna (Danube) from Budapest. Being a piper in the US (with a friend in Saudi who reads your blog), I enjoyed all the videos.
Now let's look at the play-by-play here, or what a Muslim hadith scholar would call the isnad, or chain of authorities. I post a jeu d'esprit sort of thing about Arab bagpipes. One video is of a Moroccan bagpiper. I note the captions look maybe Hungarian. An American bagpiper who is familiar with the group knows the "adorable little town" in Hungary where they are based (though if his name is "Warner" he doesn't sound Hungarian). How did an American bagpiper find my blog? Via "a friend in Saudi who reads your blog."

Bank shot. Try that with a dead-tree newspaper.

Eastern Christmas Music in Several Languages

As we count down to Christmas, it's one thing to listen to Fairuz singing Jingle Bells or Silent Night in Arabic. Those are in Arabic by a great Arab vocalist, but they are Western carols. Christmas is not, however — whatever WalMart may think — a Western invention. Bethlehem is in Palestine, not Europe. Western Christians and the West generally tend to be ignorant of and uninterested in the Eastern Christian traditions. But these are ancient and rich. First, a Byzantine nativity chant in Arabic:

From the tradition of the Church of the East (the Christian tradition that evolved outside the Roman Empire, and is often labeled "Nestorian" by Westerners, though the Chaldeans are Catholics now), a Chaldean Christmas chant in, I presume, Eastern Aramaic (Aramaic being, as Aramaic speakers usually tell you in the first 30 seconds, the language Jesus spoke)*:

And lest Western Aramaic be neglected, a rousing Christmas song in Syriac:

Or for a more liturgical and reverent Syriac hymn ("Suryoyo" is Syriac for Syriac):

For a faster tempo, some Armenian Christmas songs and dances, complete with both the nativity scene and dancing Santa Clauses (no, really):

* And if modern Aramaic interests you, by all means see this article in the Sunday Washington Post travel section on the Syrian town of Ma‘alula. I never got to visit it.

(The Copts aren't represented but as an old Egypt hand I promise they'll have their own Christmas moment.) I'll have more. As I've noted previously, in the Middle East, you get three Christmases in a row.

Sometimes, YouTube does all the work anyway.

Montazeri's Seventh Day will Coincide with ‘Ashura: Critical Mass?

I didn't post much on Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral, which got pretty extensive general media coverage. There was little likelihood the government would crack down too violently on the funeral of a Grand Ayatollah revered as a major source of tradition. But the real test may be, as many have noted, the fact that the traditional mourning on the seven-day anniversary of his death, will coincide with ‘Ashura, the Shi‘ite day of mourning for Imam Hussein. That's going to be critical mass. Gary Sick comments that "It is possible that Ayatollah Montazeri will prove to be a more influential figure in death than he was in life."

Egypt's Wall

I haven't yet posted about the outrage over the Egyptian security wall along the Sinai/Gaza border because, first, Egypt denied it, and second, this is a crazy time with deadlines, massive blizzards, and the holidays. But sometimes events overtake intent. Here's The Arabist's post on this; this in a recent Ha'aretz, a piece suggesting "business as usual" for smugglers despite the wall; and there's a lot more out there.

On the one hand, I understand that smuggling from Sinai into Gaza has been a big issue between Egypt and Israel; and the Egyptian government is no friend of the Hamas regime now in Gaza, since they are the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt in their genealogy and genesis. Some kind of barrier has been inevitable, and it's not entirely clear that this is a major departure from what already existed.

On the other hand:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it

and if I'm going to complain about the Israeli "security barrier" as a new Berlin wall (and with Christmas coming to walled-off Bethlehem, I am), I really need to be consistent and say that a deeper, more impenetrable barrier between Egyptian Rafah and Palestinian Rafah really is troublesome. Like the Berlin wall: are you walling Gazans in, or outsiders out? Or both?

I know there is no easy answer here outside of a peace settlement. I want Jerusalem to be the capital of two states, but I don't want the return of the Mandelbaum Gate. One Jerusalem for two peoples (three if we count the Armenians), three religions, two states, and the world. That may be the heavenly Jerusalem and may be unachievable. (Though I recall someone once noting that the ideal Jerusalem would have a three-day work week, since you'd get Thursday off for the Druze, Friday for the Muslims, Saturday for the Jews and Sunday for the Christians.)

I'd like to tear down all these walls. If you'd asked me if the Berlin Wall would fall in my lifetime I'd have said no (until 20 years ago, of course). I hope the separation wall falls, the Rafah wall falls, and everything that cuts people off from each other falls.

But it's Christmas and I'm being altruistic. I imagine myself as Ronald Reagan (and believe me, I've never done that before, except possibly during Pride of the Yankees) saying, "Mister Netanyahu, Mister Mubarak, tear down these walls!"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Counting Down to Christmas: Fairuz Does "Silent Night" in Arabic

If you enjoyed Fairuz' performance of Jingle Bells in Arabic, here's her Arabic Silent Night (Sawt al-‘Eid):

Once again, she's in her 70s now, which dates these clips. But as part of the whole Middle Eastern/Christmas season runup, here's another entry.

Fairuz was born Maronite and became Greek Orthodox when she married into the Rahbanis, so she's entitled.

Conservatives Win in MB Guidance Council Elections

The conservative wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has carried the internal elections for the Brotherhood's Guidance Council, with some key reform figures (though not all) failing to win seats. Marc Lynch has a good summary, and Khalil Anani has some older background on the internal rivalries at his English blog, though nothing as recent on his Arabic blog. Here's the official announcement from Ikhwanweb (link is sluggish for some reason), the Brotherhood's official English website. Here's a straight news account.

The next big question is who the new Supreme Guide (literally, General Guide) will be. Mahdi ‘Akef declined to run again, starting a succession debate and creating considerable factionalism. I'll try to write more at some point.

Later: for the Arabic readers, the Al-Masry al-Youm article on the "White Revolution" in the Brotherhood. And their English site for their take on the same story.

After Hariri's Damascus visit

Sa‘d Hariri finally took the road to Damascus yesterday, ostensibly to offer condolences on the death of Majd al-Asad but also because it was expected of him. Thoughtful comments as usual from Qifa Nabki, while Josh Landis posts on Hariri's poor Arabic.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ayatollah Montazeri

Grand Ayatollah Hossein ‘Ali Montazeri, once the heir apparent to Imam Khomeini until he fell out with that leader, has died in Qom at age 87. The leaders of the Iranian protest movement (for whom Montazeri had become a patron) have called for a national day of mourning.

It should be noted that he died in the first 10 days of the month of Muharram, a period of Shi‘ite mourning that culminates in the feast of ‘Ashura, when mourning for Imam Hussein reaches its peak. That could make his funeral even more explosive.

For the Still Snowed-In: More Arab Bagpipes and Bagpipe Scholarship

Still stuck in the snowed-in East. My Friday post on Bagpipes in Bethlehem provoked fairly scholarly comments from LJMarczak and The Moor Next Door, so, what the heck, here's more:

The Qatar Army Pipe Band at an Arabian horse show:

Dubai Pipe Band playing in the UAE at Zayed University:

An Egyptian bagpipe band (I think the first group are doing the Grand March from Aida, but my ear isn't that great and I've never heard Verdi on Bagpipes; then they're at the Pyramids briefly):

On second viewing I think they may be in front of the Sphinx, though it doesn't show except for the paws. If so, perhaps this is part of the Sound and Light Show.

This one claims on YouTube to be "The Best Palestinian Bagpipe Player." I doubt that, and the pipers who've commented on the video disagree. Lone pipers only work if they're standing in mist covered mountains piping a lonely air. It's not an indoor instrument. Massed pipes are better, but heck, the Palestinians seem to really love the pipes:

Wikipedia's "bagpipes" article notes the pipes are known in the Middle East but doesn't go into it in any detail. The comments on the earlier post are, right now, my best source of data for origins: pipes in one form or another seem to be known in the Arab world, North Africa, Turkey and the Caucasus, many predating any British or Celtic influence in the region. Some regional bagpipes are not on the Scottish model. (Neither are Irish pipes, as I understand it.)

You can catch a Moroccan version of the bagpipe in this video, though the captions are in some language (educated guess: Hungarian? See Comment Below) I don't know (wait till the oud player's winding down at 1:01 or 1:02):

Now that's a Middle Eastern sound.

For a traditional Tunisian pipe known as the mezoued which looks nothing like a Scots pipe, and sounds different too, try this:

And just to round things out in the Maghreb, the Algerian raï singer known as Cheb Mami: the bagpipes kick in about two minutes in (2:19 or so) and the photo looks a lot like the Tunisian mezoued. Catchy tune, too. I don't know much about raï, but this song's definitely listenable.

And while the Arab contribution to piping is obviously important, a reader has reminded me quite clearly that there is a highly famous Scots pipe tune on a Middle Eastern theme: "The Barren Rocks of Aden." Here's the tune:

And, while many online sources say there are no known lyrics, somebody linked to the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders has a gent with a convincing Scots burr singing lyrics:

So there. I may play it while I try to find my car under the giant snowball it has become.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Some Links for the Snowed-In

I don't post on weekends normally, but if you, like me, are anywhere on the eastern seaboard of the US north of Florida, then you, like me, are snowed-in by a record snow. Somewhere between one and two feet in the DC area, and still winding down. So I thought I'd post a few links from recent days for those who can't get out of their homes yet. The only plow my street has seen was last night, and we've had 24 hours of steady snow since then. So in the meantime:
  • I haven't posted some recent MEI podcast links: the whole list is here; some good presentations, among them Tom Lippmann on Saudi Arabia, former hostage John Limbert and Trita Parsi (separately) on Iran, Claude Salhani on the Bush years, William Polk on Israel, Palestine, and the US.
That should keep you busy till the plows come. (For those of you lucky enough to be in the Middle East, never mind.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different: Bagpipes in Bethlehem

My second seasonal posting:

In case it hasn't occurred to you to search YouTube for "Arab Orthodox Scout Troop — Bagpipes Band" and "Christmas Day Bethlehem", for our current Christmas season, here they are:

The Palestinian love of bagpipes is something I must blog about someday, if I can ever figure it out. (Why are bagpipes so big at weddings? Does anyone know? Did some Scotsman or Irishman do this, or is it the tradition of military pipers from the British days? Sometimes it occurs in Egyptian weddings, too.) Don't get me wrong: my Celtic DNA loves pipers, but it always seems a little, shall we say, out of context when you see it in the Arab world? Anybody that knows, please post comments. [UPDATE: Read the comments. We're learning more. Sadly Wikipedia says they're widespread in Europe and the Middle East but doesn't talk much about the Middle East.]

If you think I'm making this up (Palestinians and Jordanians won't for a moment), how about this bunch of Jordanian pipers (actually pipes and drums) walking in circles in a Roman amphitheatre in Jerash, Jordan, playing Yankee Doodle? (In case you also forgot to Google "Jordanian bagpipes" and "Yankee Doodle" together.)