A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Profile of Libyan Rebel Leader

A concise profile of the NTC leader, Mustafa ‘Abdel Jalil.

The Telegraph on British Role in the Fall of Tripoli

This dates from Sunday, but I only just found it: Britain's Telegraph on the role of British SAS and other elements in the fall of Tripoli.

Will Sirte Hold Out, or Fall as Quickly as Tripoli?

Pro-Qadhafi forces in Sirte have rejected the National Transitional Council ultimatum to surrender, meaning the NTC forces (:"rebels" seems a bit overtaken by events, given widespread international recognition) will presumably have to mount a full campaign. But two weeks ago, everyone expected Tripoli to require a long, hard, slogging battle against last-ditch defenders, but the city fell with surprising speed.

Certainly the exp4ected resistance in Tripoli evaporated quickly. The hollowness of support for the regime, despite brutal measures to hold the line, saw resistance crumble. Sirte may be a tougher nut to crack: Qadhafi's native town, with tribal allegiances to him, and a town that has benefited from government largesse (as a small town that has come to host African summits regularly), and with a lot on the line.

The question, I suspect, is whether the regime's dwindling support has reached a point of no return, where (as happened first with Russia in 1917 and then with Germany in 1918) the army simply melts away.  Qadhafius African mercenaries have no incentives to fight tot he last man; but some of the regime's elite forces may still have fight in them.
 Meanshile,  the explosion of a car bomb in Tripoli is a reminder that, as was the case in Iraq, the capture of the capital does not assure an end to violence.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

‘Id Prayers in Tahrir Square Today

‘Id prayers in Tahrir Square: the first since the Revolution.

A photo gallery at Al-Ahram Online.

The SCAF Balance Sheet

At Al-Ahram Online, a balance sheet on the promises made by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and which have been kept, broken, or remain unfulfilled.

And on the subject of SCAF, if you missed Michael Wahid Hanna's piecr at Foreign Policy the other day, you should take a  look at it.

Qadhafi Has a New Granddaughter

Qadhafi's daughter Aisha, who is now in Algeria, has given birth to a baby girl in that country, according to Algerian reports.

Other than those members of the Qadhafi family known to be in Algeria, the whereabouts of the others are still a mystery, though you can take your pick of rumors: the Leader is rallying resistance in Sirte, or Sabha, or somewhere. And over the past couple of days there were several reports (all quoting each other) that Khamis Qadhafi had been killed. I believe that's at least the third time that Khamis has been killed so far.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Moon of Shawwal: ‘Id al-Fitr al-Mubarak

Saudi authorities have sighted the New Moon of Shawwal, so Ramadan ends at sunset in most of the Middle East (and sunset has passed). I understand South Asia may wait one more day, but for all of those for whom Ramadan has ended or will end as the sunset moves westerly (as in the US), ‘Id al-Fitr al-Mubarak.

Qadhafi: The Last of the 1960s Rulers

Since I was away last week, my posts today naturally have a heavy Libyan slant, since I was unable to comment at length at the time.

One of the ironies of the Libyan revolt is that this Thursday, September 1, would mark the 42nd Anniversary of the "Great Fatih September Revolution," the coup that brought Qadhafi to power in 1969. If there are any 42nd anniversary celebrations, they'll presumably be limited to Sirte or other holdout enclaves. Perhaps it will  all be over by his famous Revolution Day.

Since I missed much of the commentary I'm not sure if there's been much emphasis on the fact that Qadhafi, before his fall, had served in office longer than any other Arab leader. (Sultan Qaboos in Oman is next, in power since 1970 but he's a hereditary monarch. The Asad family as a whole have also ruled Syria since 1970.) Having come to power in 1969, Qadhafi was not only the longest-serving Arab leader, but the last to survive from the late 1960s.

In 1969, when Qadhafi and his Free Officers overthrew King Idris, Gamal Abdel Nassr ran Egypt to his east, and Habib Bourguiba ran Tunisia to his west. King Hussein of Jordan was a major player; King Faisal was on the Saudi throne; and that same year Golda Meir became Prime Minister of Israel. It was also the year of Woodstock, for those old enough to have heard of it.

Many of the figures who seem to have been there forever were not yet known in 1969. Saddam Hussein was the number two man in the Baathist government of his kinsmen Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, but Husni Mubarak was a little-known Egyptian Air Force officer.

And 1969 was the year I got my undergraduate degree.

In short, 42 years is a long time in office, even if "Brother Leader" is not exactly a formal position. I've previously noted the Picture of Dorian Gray aspect of Qadhafi; while I don't look like my college graduation picture, I hope I've held up better than he has:

One would like to think that the days when Arab leaders, other than hereditary monarchs at least, serve 42 years is behind us. That may be too much to wish for, but this is proving to be a year when even the longest-serving.cannot count on job security. After Sultan Qaboos, and the Asad family considered as a family business (in which case all the monarchies would count), I believe the next in seniority is ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen, in power since 1978. And he's not even currently in his own country.

I guess the sixties really are over.

A New Burst of Commentary on Qadhafi's Name

The reported discovery that the (now former) Libyan Brother Leader's passport spells his name "Kathafi" has provoked a new wave of postings on the perennial, and easily overdone, issue of the multiple transliterations of Qadhafi's name.  Kal at The Moor Next Door and Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist have both addressed the question. I commented a long time back on this and other issues of Arabic transliteration,  quoting T.E. Lawrence's inimitable exchange with his proofreaders.

I would like to make the point that both Kal and Issandr make. Editors and commenters should stop saying there's a lot of confusion over how to spell Qadhafi's name. There is no confusion about how to spell Qadhafi's name: it's spelled معمرالقذافي. The debate is how to transliterate this Arabic name into other languages and writing systems and it is complicated by the fact that some of the letters are pronoounced differently from dialect to dialect, even within Libya.  But there's no doubt about how to spell it, since it's an Arabic name and is spelled only one way in Arabic.

Libya: Moving on Sirte

I'm back from vacation, and MEI having survived an earthquake and a hurricane, am back at work. Besides missing the earthquake and the hurricane, I only commented briefly last week on the dramatic events surrounding the fall of Tripoli. But with Qadhafi's whereabouts still unknown and pro-regime forces entrenched in his home town of Sirte, it's beginning to look as if Sirte, not the capital, may be the Last Act, or nearly so, of this drama.

The rebels, quite rightly I think, know they haven't really consolidated their victory until they take Sirte and the oases, but particularly Sirte, which threatens the linkage between rebel forces in the east and west. The enthusiasm of looting Qadhafi's residences and uncovering secrets should not distract from the fa ct that the war goes on, or the memory that the fall of Saddam Hussein was the beginning, not the end, of a long insurg4nt war in Iraq.Qadhafi is probably finished, but all the tribal,regional, secular/religious, and other fissures dividing the rebels may become more pronounced once the common enemy is removed. But even for that, they'll need to take Sirte.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Aramaic Part 2b: Spoken Aramaic Today: Eastern Neo-Aramaics

This is the last of my pre-cooked vacation posts from my undisclosed location. Back to normal bloggery on Monday whether I have caught Qadhafi by then or not. Assuming Washington is still there. They've already had an earthquake and broken the Washington Monument, and have a Category 3 Hurricane waiting for the drive home. Was it something I said?

Yesterday's post dealt with the Western variety of spoken Aramaic today. Today I'm going to deal swith the eastern. They are not equal; although far better known to Western feature-writers and tour organizers as "the last speakers of the language Jesus spoke," Western Aramaic speakers today number only some 15,000 (generally bilingual in Arabic); speakers of the eastern variety (also usually bilingual in Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Hebrew, or a Western language depending on where they live) may number over half a million in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Israel, Georgia, and a diaspora in Europe, the US, Australia and beyond. Most are Christian, but there are Jewish and Mandaean speakers of Aramaic as well.(I'm using Wikipedia a lot here, which seems to depend heavily on Ethnologue, though I have some limited personal experience of these communities.) Nor do I deal here with Aramaic as a liturgical language, which it is in multiple forms of Christianity from the Middle East to India, normative Judaism, Karaite Judaism, Samaritanism, and Mandaeanism.

The largest number by far speak what is classed as "Northeastern Neo-Aramaic," a group of closely related languages usually calling themselves Suret, Surayt, Suroyo, or Suryoyo. All of these mean "Syriac." They are sometimes divided into Turoyo, Assyrian, and Chaldean. These are not linguistic divisions but sectarian ones. Turoyo, taking its name from Tur Abdin in Turkey, is mostly spoken by members of the Syriac Orthodox ("Jacobite") Church; Assyrian is applied to the language of followers of the Assyrian Church of the East (the "Nestorian" Church in Western Christian terminology, once the Church of Asia from Iran to India to China), while "Chaldean" refers to those Christians who, in 1830, left the Assyrian Church of the East and accepted the primacy of Rome, becoming an "Eastern Rite" of the Catholic Church.

These Christian languages, really minor variations of the same language, are all spoken by a people driven from their traditional homelands in eastern Turkey and dispersed int Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and usually subsumed under the term "Assyrian." Their complex and tragic history is a topic for another day. "Assyrian" and "Chaldean," of course evoke two great ancient Mesopotamian Empires, and modern adherents try to claim continuity (as the Copts do for Ancient Egypt). Neither the Assyrian nor Chaldean ("Neo-Babylonian") Empire spoke Aramaic as their native language, but both used it as their administrative language, so the claimed identities, if a bit fanciful, are not pure fantasy.

There are still some remnants of Jewish Aramaic speakers in the Middle East (particularly among Kurdish Jews, many now in Israel, but also in small, disappearing islands around the region and up into the Caucasus). There is also the outlier case of Mandaic. Most Mandaeans speak Arabic or Farsi, swith the Classical Mandaic liturgy used in their rituals, but there is a relic community still speaking it, mostly around Ahvaz in Iranian Khuzistan. It is not mutually intelligible with other forms of Eastern Neo-Aramaic.

To end this lecture, an interview with a man in northern Iraq who's been teaching "Assyrian" for 38 years. No, I don't know what he's saying, but if you wish to hear the sound:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Will Not Comment . . .

I will not comment on Qadhafi having a picture album devoted to Condi Rice. I will not . . . That would be beneath me . . . That would be too easy . . . Must . . . not . . . comment . . .

Aramaic Part 2a: Spoken Aramaic Today: Western Neo-Aramaic

 I'm still on vacation but will make no more jokes about "if something dramatic happens," since it already did. Here's one of my pre-prepared posts.

Yesterday's post on the long and geographically vast history of Aramaic and Syriac treated it as a fascinating historical artifact. It is nearly that, but not quite yet. Both Western and Eastern forms of Aramaic are still spoken. The latter is spoken by far more people. The former is better publicized. Let's deal with it first.

Modern Western Neo-Aramaic, as the linguists call it, is spoken today in only three villages north and west of Damascus: Ma‘alula, Bakh‘a, and Jubba‘din. Ma‘alula is the best known, a dramatically situated town perched high on the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon range, with two ancient Greek Catholic monasteries; it does (at least when Syria is not in revolution) a brisk tourist business since it's scenic, near Damascus, and promotes itself as "still speaking the language of Jesus." Western Neo-Aramaic descends from a version of Christian Syriac that was probably rather different from the language of Jesus, which was doubtless closer to the Aramaic in which the Jerusalem Talmud was written a bit later, though both the Gospels (when Peter is accused in Matthew 26:73 of being Galilean because "even your speech betrays you") and the Talmud note that Galilee had a very distinctive dialect.) But yes, it's closer to the language of Jesus than any other spoken language today, since the more widely spoken varieties of Eastern Neo-Aramaic are very different, At best, 15,000 speakers of the Western variety survive.

Western Neo-Aramaic, despite its limited survival in only three towns, has a distinction that, so far as I know, none of the various Eastern survivals do. Many of the speakers are Muslim. Bakh‘a and Jubba‘din are overwhelmingly or completely Muslim towns. All speakers of Eastern Neo-Aramaic are non-Muslim: Christians of the Assyrian Church of the East or the Chaldean Catholic Church (in Turkey, Iraq, and the Diaspora, Jews (especially Kurdish Jews, though a few other groups exist), or Mandaeans (mostly in Ahvaz, Iran today; Iraqi Mandaeans speak Arabic).

Even odder, the Muslims of the three Aramaic-speaking towns apparently Islamized without Arabizing. Like other peoples in the core Middle East who became Muslim without adopting Arabic, such as Kurds and Berbers, their mountain fastnesses helped isolate and preserve their language. But unlike Kurds and Berbers, they were near the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, Damascus. (Other religious minorities such as the Samaritans retained Aramaic speech longer than their neighbors and still use it liturgically.)

Oddest of all, the linguists say the least-Arabized of the three villages, retaining the most conservative Aramaic of the three, is Bakh‘a — which is entirely Muslim in religion.

Eastern forms of surviving spoken Aramaic are less well known because they do not have Ma‘lula's claim of "speaking the language of Jesus" (though they do in the broader sense); there may be half a million or so speakers of Assyrian, Chaldean, Mandaic and other forms. They differ a lot among themselves. They're tomorrow's post.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Fall of (Most of) Tripoli

My vacation, combined with the fact that "free WiFi" in certain mountain areas appears to mean "every so often" has meant that a running commentary on the dramatic events in Tripoli hasn't been practical (and I've got better things to do than work), but clearly the speed of events has been far faster than anyone, I'm pretty sure including the rebels themselves, could have anticipated. Except for a few parts of Tripoli, and the inland oasis of Sebha, and the Qadhafi stronghold of Sirte, the victory seems nearly complete.

Of course as long as there are still loyalists, and Brother Leader himself, out there, the drama isn't over. I will post longer comments next week. My pre-prepared posts should continue to appear.

Aramaic Part 1: Aramaic and Syriac Over the Millennia

I'm on vacation this week. Lest my loyal readers waste away or be driven to watching reality television, I've prepared, ahead of time, a series of rather lengthy posts on historical and cultural subjects unlikely to be overtaken by events, one or more of which will automatically go up daily. Should something really earth-shattering happen (Mubarak's hair turns gray), I may check in live, but otherwise I hope these posts entertain and inform.

If you ask the average educated Westerner today what he/she knows about Aramaic, you might be told by a Christian that it's the language that Jesus spoke; a Jewish respondent might say that it's the language of the Talmud (both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds) and also used in many Jewish prayers and rituals.  An educated secularist might know either, or both. Both statements are absolutely true. If you told them that the illustrations above and at left are bilingual inscriptions in Syriac (late Aramaic) and Chinese, found on a stele at the old Chinese capital at Xian and dating from 781 AD during the Tang Dynasty, you might get a little confusion. (Especially since the Syriac, in its Estrangelo alphabet, has been written top to bottom Chinese style, rather than right to left.) If you then showed them bilingual Akkadian/Aramaic inscriptions from the decline of the Assyrian Empire a millennium earlier, or the official correspondence of the Persian Court of Darius the Great (in Aramaic), or bilingual Egyptian/Aramaic inscriptions in Saqqara, Egypt, you might raise an eyebrow. So then pile on a bilingual Aramaic and Greek inscription erected in Kandahar, Afghanistan, by the Indian Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire, and you'd probably find even a well-informed person will be surprised.

Then introduce them to a native speaker of Aramaic today.

Recently I had a couple of  posts about Syriac,one ancient (the first question mark?) and one modern.

I noted then that I should post about the various modern survivals of Aramaic, small islands surrounded by a sea of Arabic (and Kurdish, Turkish, and Persian). That will be the "Aramaic Part Two" post, my vacation post for tomorrow. But first I need to emphasize how this near-forgotten language once was a lingua franca from Egypt to Afghanistan, and why a stele in China and a pillar erected by an Indian Emperor would use it. For over 1,000 years, this was an international language; for another 500 or so, an important spoken language of the Middle East. Today it is restricted to those small islands, though it is still the language of the liturgies of several Eastern Churches (Antiochian [Eastern] Orthodox, Oriental Syriac Orthodox, several Eastern Catholic rites, Assyrian Church of the East, and Indian Christians of Saint Thomas). It is also of course a necessary language for Talmudic scholars.

Aramaic originated as the language of the Aramaean people, who lived in Syria from Hittite times onward. They have walk-on parts in the Bible and other ancient sources, and the Hebrews seem to have considered them not just kin, but ancestors:  Deuteronomy 26:5 famously says "And you shall declare before the Lord your God, 'My father was a wandering Aramaean ...'" It's referring to Jacob and Joseph, for its says he "went down into Egypt," but by extension to the Patriarchs back to Abraham. The Old Aramaic Language is attested in some small inscriptions as early as he 900s BC (and it was doubtless spoken long before it was written); that Chinese/Aramaic bilingual inscription is from the 8th Century AD, (please substitute BCE and CE if you prefer), and Syriac (which is just late Christian Aramaic) was still a major literary language as late as the time of the Crusades. Since it is still spoken and written, it is sometimes claimed to have 3000 years of attested written evidence. Its prominence for so long can't (quite) challenge Ancient Egyptian or the many stages of Chinese for longevity, but it makes English and French look pretty puny. Its only rival in the region since the demise of Ancient Egyptian would have to be its close cousin, Hebrew.

What took Aramaic from being a local Syrian language, just one other Semitic tongue in a welter of them, was its adoption as the lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire, though the Assyrians themselves spoke Akkadian. In the late or "Neo-Assyrian" Empire it was the lingua franca

In 2 Kings18: 26-27, the role of Aramaic in the Assyrian Empire is captured during the siege by Sennacherib of Jerusalem under King Hezekiah {when, in Byron's words, "The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold/And his cohorts sere gleaming in purple and gold"), this conversation reportedly occurred (and I guess I should say "Language Warning," even though it's Holy Scripture). In the King James version it reads:
26. Then said Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna, and Joah, unto Rabshakeh, Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall.

27. But Rabshakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?
Tough negoiator. Isaiah 36: 11 tells the same story in the same words. what the King James Version translates as "the Syrian Language" is aramit (Aramaic), while "Hebrew" is yehudit (the language of the Jews). A century or two later, the "men which sit upon the wall" would be speaking Aramaic, but at this time, apparently not.

When the Neo-Babylonians or Chaldeans replaced the Assyrians, Aramaic remained the administrative language, and the Judaeans carried off into exile by the "waters of Babylon" soon learned Aramaic. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and sent the Jews home, Aramaic went with them. Though the books of Ezra and Nehemia are mostly in Hebrew, the official correspondence is in Aramaic; from that point on, Aramaic creeps into the late Biblical books, especially Daniel.

Meanwhile, Cyrus the Great's new Achaemenian Empire of the Medes and Persians continued to use, and solidify, Aramaic as its language of bureaucracy and administration. This spread Aramaic as far west as Egypt and deep into Central Asia. Though I simply cannot allow any reference to the Medes and Persians to go by without quoting the immortal S.J. Perelman's "One man's Mede is another man's Persian." (For non-native English speakers: there's a proverb, "One man's meat is another man's poison.")

When Alexander conquered Persia, Aramaic and Persian got a new competitor: Greek. Greek became the administrative language of Syria and points east, and Aramaic lost ground, but it remained the spoken language of Syria and the Levant, including Judea.

The Christian gospels are written in Greek, though many think Matthew and perhaps others had an Aramaic original; when they quote Jesus in the original language, a few of the quotes are in Hebrew, but several are in Aramaic. Some could be either; the languages were intermingled by then, and are close to begin with. Aramaic was the language of the eastern varieties of Christianity from teh beginning. Aramaic had always had many dialects, and was always written in many scripts; soon its Jewish religious forms evolved into the somewhat differing vocabularies of the Palestinian (or Jerusalem) Talmud and the Iraqi (or Babylonian) Talmud, while the language evolved among Christians into the late Aramaic form known as Syriac, with a distinctive writing system. The Syriac translation of the gospels known as the Peshitta became the accepted scripture not only among Syriac-speaking Christians but among Persian-speakers and even the far-away St. Thomas Christians of India, not to mention the eventual Nestorian colonies in Central Asia and China. Aramaic in its Syriac form, though displaced by Greek as an administrative language, remained the common vernacular in the Middle East east of Egypt and west of Iran (though still in use in both) up to the rise of Islam. Arabic, whose writing system derives from Syriac via Nabatean and whose grammar is not that far removed from Aramaic, eventually supplanted its older cousin, but the languages were close enough kin that the transition in Syria must have been easy. Certainly it would have gone more smoothly than the shift from Coptic to Arabic in Egypt, where the two languages, though both in the "Afro-Asiatic" family, have vast differences.

But Aramaic never died. It did not even go into a period (as Hebrew did) of being only a liturgical and learned language, until revived anew. Many people just kept on speaking it, often for religious or ethnic reasons (though oddly, not always: of the three towns in Syria that still speak it, one is Christian but two are mostly  Muslim, and some say one of the Muslim village's Aramaic is less Arabized than the other two!).

But modern Aramaic will be the subject of Part 2.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cairo in the 19th Century: Essential Readings

 I'm on vacation this week. Lest my loyal readers storm the Bastille, I've prepared, ahead of time, a series of rather lengthy posts on historical and cultural subjects unlikely to be overtaken by events, one or more of which will automatically go up daily. Should something really earth-shattering happen (e.g. Ayman al-Zawahiri decides to practice medicine again),  I may check in live, but otherwise I hope these posts both entertain and inform.
From Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians

When I introduced my Cairo History Series of posts last month, I did so with a list of what I deemed five essential books for understanding the overall history of Cairo, from its pharaonic predecessor cities to its hectic present. Now I intend to move on to closer looks at essential works on earlier periods, beginning with the 19th century.

This is not intended as an exhaustive bibliography. In the 19th century Cairo became a stop on the European Grand Tour, especially after the Khedive Isma‘il spruced the place up for the opening of the Suez Canal. Memoirs and letters of one's "Oriental" tour to Egypt and the Holy Land were legion; everybody from British Maiden Ladies to Gustave Flaubert passed through, and after 1882 we also have a whole series of British civil servants' memoirs. That's not what I'm talking about here; that was European Cairo, the city of Imperial administration. Those works mostly are filtered through the conversations at High Tea in the European hotels and clubs (the maiden ladies and the civil servants at least; Flaubert was recording the brothels); that's not the essential Cairo I'm talking about here. If you're interested in their Cairo, you can check out Trevor Mostyn's 2006 Egypt's Belle Epoque: Cairo in the Age of the Hedonists (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2006) for a good account, though there have been many. For the multiple travelers, the Travelers in the Middle East Archive website is useful. That literature is entertaining and important for imperial history, and is a part of the city's past. But I want to drill down to the street level.

I am also making`an assumption that all my readers read English (if not, what do you think this is?), and that substantial numbers read Arabic and French, the native language and the cultural language of 19th century Egypt respectively. (Well, there was also the Court Language, Ottoman Turkish, but it wasn't used in books in Egypt at the time.)  If there are any great works by Hungarian or Japanese visitors, they are opaque to me, but I also haven't heard of any.

So here are my (again five, but I may vary the number in the future) "essential" selections:

1. The Déscription de l'Égypte. Conveniently, I just blogged about the Déscription de l'Égypte earlier this month, and linked to the Biliotheca Alexandrina's wonderful if somewhat clunky online access to the text and plates. It isn't particularly Cairo-heavy; it includes a lot of botanical, astronomical, and other descriptions, but the Atlas volume contains a great map of Cairo and environs, and the plates include the first really well drafted plans of many of the mosques and monuments. Based on the information gathered in Napoleon's expedition of 1798-1801, it appeared in 20 volumes from 1809 to 1829. (Other artists also recorded the life and monuments of Egypt in subsequent years, perhaps most famously David Roberts.)

Edward William Lane
2. Edward William Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Longtime readers may know that every September 17 (which I'm sure you all honor as the birthday of Edward William Lane), I put up my original post from 2009 on the man who created one of the great classics of cultural description. He was a pioneer Orientalist before that became a bad word, a pioneering cultural anthropologist at a time when the word anthropologist meant only physical anthropology. I post every year on his birthday because I am proud to say we share the same birthday. Lane also wrote the huge and irreplaceable Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon and a once-popular translation of the 1001 Nights (far more readable than Sir Richard Burton's better known version, but without all the salacious notes), but Cairo-lovers know him for Manners and Customs, which was published in the 1830s..

If you didn't already click through to the link, here's the real take-away from that post on Manners and Customs:
Manners and Customs is a great book: dated to be sure, after a century and three quarters; quaint at times in its attitudes and curious in its transliterations of Arabic, but still a gem of description of another culture by a man who managed to learn a great deal by living within it. It was first published in 1836, after years of gestation. I still have, and often refer to, the Everyman's Library edition I picked up in Beirut in 1972; the paper dust cover is even still intact. An earlier version of the Everyman's edition is available in full text on Google Books, [2011 Note: This link now takes you to a free online Google e-book] as are some other editions, so you don't need to rely on a paper copy as I did. (Though if you want a paper copy, it's still in print.)

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

3. Lane, Cairo Fifty Years Ago. Manners and Customs, though Holy Scripture to some (well, mostly me), is a description of just what its title says: a great picture of daily life in Egypt, from home life to trade to religious practices to superstition. It is not a description of Cairo per se, but a picture of how Egyptians lived in the reign of Muhammad ‘Ali. Lane intended to expand it (he did update his first edition once I believe), and had written several chapters describing the city, its streets, neighborhoods, markets, etc. He didn't see it published in his lifetime, but in 1896 his nephew and literary heir, Stanley Lane-Poole, published it as Cairo Fifty Years Ago. Though not as polished as Lane might have liked to see it, it's a valuable work, and it, too, is available as a Google E-book free of charge, if you don't mind reading online.

6. The Lane Extended-Family Franchise. Lane wasn't just a great man; he was a franchise. Just as a lot of novels today with Tom Clancy's name on them are written by somebody else "with" Tom Clancy, Lane's extended family first wrote with him and later succeeded him. I mentioned Stanley Lane-Poole above. His mother, Sophia Lane Poole (no hyphen; that was born with Stanley apparently), also spent time in Egypt and wrote The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo During a Residence There in 1832, 3, and 4, With E.W. Lane, Esq., Author of the "Modern Egyptians." Note, in keeping with my Clancy comparison, the "with." Sophia's work, originally in two volumes and available free as a Google e-Book for online reading, is about women's lives in Cairo. The "with E. W. Lane, Esq." has led some critics to conclude that parts of the book may contain information that Lane acquired in his researches but which neither Muslim Egyptian nor early Victorian English mores would have seemed proper for a man to publish; or perhaps Sophia really did all the research herself. Stanley, once he had acquired that hyphen, became a prolific literary heir to his uncle. He finished the Arabic-English Lexicon after his uncle died while working on the qafs, edited Cairo Fifty Years Ago,  and wrote numerous works on Egyptian history, on Cairo (also a free Google e-Book), on Islam, and other topics. He remains both a scholar in his own right and an important popularizer, but not the pioneer his uncle was. Many of his works have been supplanted by later scholarship; Manners and Customs cannot be.

5. ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak, Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya al-Jadida li-Misr al-Qahira. This is for the hardcore Cairo buffs. First, it's never been translated from Arabic; second, I doubt it ever will be. (Modern Arabic editions don't sell well: even Cairenes aren't this interested in the history of their city.) It is, however, a document that may rank even above the Déscription de l'Égypte and Manners and Customs. It's not for everyone. It's for the obsessives. For the hikers, the walkers, the monument stalkers, the people who want to know what's down that alley, and why it's there, and what's that little shrine/tomb thing at the end? It works for me, but it won't work for everyone.

‘Ali Mubarak Pasha
Let's start with the title. The author(s) of the current Wikipedia entry on Mubarak Pasha translate Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya as "Tawfiq's New Plans." This is a bit like some of those Chinese machine translations everyone likes to make fun of: it's a literal translation of the words in contemporary Arabic, but it misses the Pasha's point entirely. Actually, "Tawfiq's New Plats" would come closer, since in this case it doesn't mean a plan in the future planning-sense, but in the mapping sense (the basic root has to do with drawing lines); but even that misses the real point. ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak was evoking the greatest work ever written on the topography of Cairo (and coming up in this series, you can bet on it), 14th Century Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi's indispensable Al Mawa'iz wa al-I‘tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar. As usual the title is burdened with words to create a rhyme, but it's usually just called the Khitat al-Maqrizi, with Khitat here being the old word used for the laid-out-quartered (thus both planned and platted) in the foundation of Cairo. Maqrizi described medieval Cairo in elaborate detail. ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak set out to do a new Khitat for the era of Khedive Tawfiq, hence, Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya.

If you don't read Arabic there's little I can do. The work is divided into those parts that were there in Maqrizi's day and those that were newer, and describes the city street by street. The organization is not geographical exactly, but deals with each area's streets, alleys, (various subsets of alleys), mosques, etc. It is both a catalog and a wondrous record of an age.

But for those who do, it's a marvelous resource. The old original Bulaq edition, in several volumes, can even be found at archive.org and other places on the Internet. (Google الخطط التوفيقية. Cut and paste if you need to.) The Bulaq edition, however, is awfully hard to read as it has only topic dividers, not paragraph breaks. If you can find one of the 20th century editions (Dar al-Ma‘arif did one in the 1980s, and I understand there's a more recent one), you'll find it much easier to read.

Monday, August 22, 2011

End Game

I iinterrupt my vacation only to say, It ain't over till it's over, but the end game in Libya has evolved more quickly than anyone, even the rebels, expected. Of the four men above, two are gone, one is going fast, and the fourth is outside his country.

I just hope the end isn't protracted and bloody.

The Lost Cities of Northern Syria

I'm on vacation this week in an undisclosed location (though not with Dick Cheney). Lest my loyal readers wither away and desert me for a younger blogger, I've prepared, ahead of time, a series of  posts on historical and cultural subjects unlikely to be overtaken by events, one or more of which will automatically go up daily. Should something really earth-shattering happen (e.g. a war or, even more unlikely, a peace), I may check in live, but otherwise I hope these posts entertain and inform.

A handful of my readers may be weird erudite enough to recognize the photo at left, but if you don't, you're going to have to read this post to get to the big reveal later on.

The deepening violence in Syria and growing ostracism of the Asad regime by the world needs little comment. But thinking about Syria, and the fact that much of the current violence has been centered in the north, where sectarianism seems to be driving matters, this seemed like a good time to talk about some interesting aspects of that part of Syria: the remarkable number of "lost cities," once important towns and cities now abandoned to the desert. These are especially dense in the northwest, where some estimates speak of  more than 700 "lost towns," though UNESCO lists 40. For two of the best preserved, Sarjella and Afamea, go here; and here's Wikipedia on Afamea (Classical Apamea).

Most of these cities once flourished in the valley of the Orontes River (Nahr al-‘Asi today); many of them were prominent cities from the Seleucid period, through the Roman, and into the Byzantine eras.

So what happened? Other nearby cities such as Aleppo continued to prosper, so it was not a major disaster such as desertification;  they're in a river valley after all, While all cities tend to rise and fall in influence, it usually takes a bit more to make a lot of towns disappear. Several factors were in play here.  One factor was the fact that these cities along the Orontes lie not far from what is known as the East Anatolian Fault, shown in the map, running along and under the Taurus Mountains and up into the Caucasus; it is, and has long been, one of the world's most active earthquake zones. Many of these cities were destroyed multiple times by earthquakes.

Another factor was the rise of Islam. By the end of the Islamic conquests, this region of Syria was captured by Islam; the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius reportedly said, departing Antioch for Constantinople, according to the Arab historians at least, "Farewell Syria! And what a wonderful country this is for the enemy." Under the Umayyad Caliphs, Damascus became the capital of the Caliphate, shifting the center of gravity in Syria from the north, Antioch, to the south, Damascus.

And therein lies the real key: with the dimming of Antioch's star, the hinterland of Antioch, once a rich country, declined. Antioch was a city of half a million in Classical times, one of the four largest in the Roman Empire after Rome, Alexandria, and Ephesus (later eclipsed by Constantinople). At the gateway to Anatolia (on the route to the Cilician Gates), it also stood at the western terminus of the Silk Road to the East. It was one of the great Patriarchates of early Christianity, where Peter was the first bishop (preceding his move to Rome), and where, according to Acts 11:26, "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch."

Overshadowed by Damascus, Antioch declined; it was still a great city at the time of the Crusades, but a series of earthquakes and the disruption of the Silk Road during the Mongol Conquests helped seal its eclipse.

Antioch is not a "dead city," but it is a shadow of its former self. Part of Turkish territory since 1939, after the French Mandate in Syria first declared the former Sanjaq of Alexandretta, known to Turks as the Hatay, as an independent Republic of Hatay in 1937, annexed by the Turkish Republic in 1939. Known as Antakya in Turkish, it is still the seat of Hatay Province, though overshadowed by the seaport of Iskenderun (Classical Alexandretta). Today it has a couple of hundred thousand people, fewer than half its population two millennia ago. It is also cut off from its traditional hinterland by the Turkish-Syrian border, which is not far to the east of Antioch. It is a quiet town on the Orontes,

To add insult to injury, even its once dominant role in Christianity has been diluted. Not only is there still a Patriarch of Antioch, there are five. But three are based in Damascus, one in Beirut and one in Bkerke, Lebanon: in other words, none of them in ancient Antioch, though they all still bear the title.

The Patriarchs of Antioch represent the Eastern (Antiochene) Orthodox (whose present see is in Damascus), Syriac Orthodox (sometimes called "Jacobite") (Damascus), Maronite Catholic (Bkerke), Melkite Catholic (Damascus), and Syriac Catholic (Beirut) Churches. The last three are all in union with Rome, the Antiochenes are "Eastern Orthodox" in communion with Constantinople, and the Syriac Orthodox are Oriental Orthodox in loose communion with the Copts and Armenians. There used to be a Latin Catholic Patriarch of Antioch as well, but the title lapsed in the 20th Century.

While we are on the subject of  Antiochene Christianity, I guess I should reveal what the photo at the top is.  One of the best known figures in this part of Syria in late Antiquity was Saint Simeon Stylites, a pious monk who lived roughly 390-459 AD, and is renowned for living for 39 years sitting at the top of  a pillar. It was a new form of asceticism, and his followers would bring him bread and goat's milk. Not content with his first pillar, he acquired higher and higher ones, the last being some 15 meters tall, the food raised by some sort of block and tackle mechanism.

The image at left, a 6th Century depiction from the Louvre (from the Wikipedia page) may not be precisely historical. I have my doubts about the snake. But apparently Simeon Stylites became so famous on his pillar in the desert east of Antioch that pillar-sitting became quite the fashion among anchorites for a time. And of course, once he passed on, his pillar became a pilgrimage site, with the town of Telanissos flourishing from the pilgrimage trade. But the monastery and shrine built around his pillar is still there, in ruins, between Aleppo and Antioch, inside Syria only a few kilometers from the Turkish border. Saint Simeon Stylites is known in Arabic Chtistianity as Mar Sem‘an al-‘Amudi, and the Church of Saint Simeon complex is known as Deir Sem‘an (the Monastery of Simeon) or Qala‘at Sema‘an (Castle or Citadel of Simeon). That pedestal with a round rock on it at the top is what remains after 15 centuries of pilgrims chipping away for souvenirs of the Saint's pillar. (Also see Ibn Battuta's link from the comments.)

All photos from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Word About Next Week's Vacation Posts

Some readers may have noticed that over the past two or three weeks there have been few if any of my (I hope trademark) posts on obscure historical, cultural, or linguistic issues. The reason is, I've been "saving them 'in the can'" until I go on vacation next week. A post on, say, 19th Century Egypt will not be overtaken by events.  I do this out of a desire to keep my loyal readers coming here every day, lest you spend too much time playing Angry Birds or watching cats playing the piano on YouTube, and abandon me forever. I do not claim the wisdom of the ancients or the perspicacity of Thomas Aquinas, but I do want to keep you reading me instead of devoting your day to lolcats. There will be at least one post a day here, most of them rather lengthy and educational (but I hope in an entertaining, not a pedantic, way); some days may have more than one and I do not rule out a live post if the region gets really tense.

I won't say more about the subjects of the posts, to retain the element of surprise and keep you coming back even if you find it more boring than cats playing the piano. My dachshund is much more fun to watch, but I haven't yet made a video of him.

Of course, if something big happens, I'll check in with a comment.


Rumor of the Day: Venezuelan Plane in Djerba to Evacuate Qadhafi Family?

Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, is quoting a Tunisian radio station as reporting that a Venezuelan plane has arrived on the southern Tunisian island of Djerba, in order to evacuate members of the Qadhafi family to Caracas.

A Qadhafi departure may still be wishful thinking, but the rumors are certainly intensifying. Of course, Hugo Chavez' own future is looking a little cloudy at the moment, too.

UPDATE: I may have called this the "rumor of the day" too quickly. as it's also rumored that 1) Qadhafi had a heart attack; 2) Qadhafi has a terminal illness; 3) former number two man ‘Abdel Salam Jallud has gone over to the rebels. Allegedly some rebel Facebook page has a picture of Jallud in the Jebel Nefusa, so that one might even be true.

Tensions Still High in Sinai as Egypt Protests to Israel

Several Egyptian policemen have been killed along the Egyptian-Israeli border; it's still not clear whether they were killed by Israeli fire aimed at militants inside Sinai, or by militants when they tried to block their retreating back into Sinai; but Egypt has strongly protested to Israel; in addition to three border police killed in this clash, another policeman was killed by militants eyesterday as well. Tensions have rarely been this high in recent decades.

Egyptian-Israeli tensions are rising, but the real problem is the growing instability in Sinai, which Egypt blames on  Al-Qa‘ida elements.

Tahrir Documents

There's a website called Tahrir Documents which strikes me as particularly worth  noting, since it purports to be an attempt to document and archive the history of the Egyptian January 25 Revolution. But I must confess that I have not had the time to read more than a few of their posts, and it may have an ideological or other bias I do not immediately detect. But I call it to your attention.

UPDATE: One of the Editors has posted a detailed comment below for my readers' attention, so I incorporate it here:
I'm one of the editors of Tahrir Documents. I wanted to point out for your readers that your initial assessment is indeed correct, and we have no ideological underpinnings with the project. We translate and post any material we find from in and around Tahrir Square (and other areas of Egypt) that has to do with the events of the past 7 months. Anything sent to us by activists that we post is noted as such. We make no distinctions regarding our translations and have done our best to assemble a catalogue of the political developments occurring in Egypt. It is at times a rather eclectic mix, and I encourage your readers to explore our website by category of interest as we have recently put much time into reorganizing all of our materials. We hope the site can serve as an archive for future students and scholars of Middle Eastern affairs, and we continue to post new translations every day. For updates, readers can follow us on Twitter @TahrirDocuments.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is Qadhafi Looking for an Exit Strategy?

NBC News is saying cautiously that Qadhafi may be preparing to flee Libya; citing some similar reports in the Arab world, Juan Cole remarks:
This report is plausible if only because Qaddafi’s performance on Sunday, in which he released a jumbled and mostly inaudible speech to state media for broadcast, raised questions as to whether he is all there.
Despite my snarky tendency to say, "how does that differ from any other Qadhafi speech in recent months?," these reports may be real this time, but they may also be deliberate disinformation, rebel propaganda, wishful thinking, or fantasy. An incoherent Qadhafi speech is hardly new. Remember the umbrella?

For the sake of his own people and the city of Tripoli, I hope it's true. But experience tells me (actually, fairly screams at me), that the opera isn't over till the strange colonel scrams.

Are Today's Attacks in Israel Spillover from Sinai?

A series of terror attacks against a bus and other Israeli targets along the Egyptian-Israeli border near Eilat has led to Israeli retaliation against Gaza, but also seems likely to be linked to the ongoing Egyptian efforts to re-establish authority in Sinai. Israel says the attackers originated in Gaza but infiltrated via Sinai. Hamas in Gaza is claiming they were not involved.

Egypt has claimed pro-Al-Qa‘ida  terrorists are operating in Sinai, and is likely to blame them for this incident, while Israel is blaming Hamas in Gaza. Cross-border incidents involving Egyptian territory are particularly explosive since it underscores Egypt's difficulties in controlling its own border. (The border between the Sinai and the Negev is just a line drawn across the desert, and hard to secure.) It also raises the tension between Egypt and Israel and a time Egypt hardly wants a crisis.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Noose Tightens

I want to be cautious about being overoptimistic, as some seem to be, that the end is near in Libya. The rebels now claim to have cut several pipelines leading to Tripoli, and are talking about having "encircled" it, but the facts remain that they have only tenuously taken Zawiya and are hundreds of kilometers away in the other direction; unless the rebels have acquired a blockading fleet I'm not aware of, Tripoli is a seaport anyway and is hard to besiege if  you don't control the sea. But at least the momentum is in the right direction.

Qadhafi's firing of a Scud missile the other day made little military sense; not only did it not hit anything but it's hardly the weapon to use against insurgents. It had a slight air of desperation, or saying, hey, we still have missiles.

On a more positive note, the Libyan Embassy in DC has reopened, but under the rebel's old flag, not Qadhafi's green banner this time. The old Ambassador, having switched sides, is back. The broadening recognition of the rebels, and the unfreezing of Libyan funds held in the West, has no doubt helped the rebels to acquire arms and ammunition, while the continuing fighting has improved their training and experience. The sense that Qadhafi's inner circle is shrinking fast — his Interior Minister took his whole family to Egypt on what he described as a "holiday" though the Libyan Embassy in Egypt reportedly was unaware of it beforehand — is no doubt helping fuel the talk of an early end. But I suspect Qadhafi will fight to the bitter end. Remember Nicolae Ceausescu?

The STL Indictments

Qifa Nabki reads the Special Tribunal for Lebanon indictments, just unsealed, so you and I don't have to. After all the noise and shouting, his "Is this all?" reavtion to the evidence is worth noting. But don't just take my word for it: go read his analysis.

Landis and Commenters on Minorities Issue in Syria

Josh Landis' blog at SyriaComment has been one of the few to take the minorities/sectarianism issue in Syria seriously, but it [sectarian insecurity, not Landis' blog, since I seem to have confused a commenter] is the primary reason so many of Syria's Christians are still supporting the regime: they see the ‘Alawites as an ally against a Sunni majority. That's an oversimplification, but Landis and his commenters show the intensity of the feelings.  The core supporters of the regime also have a lot of tacit allies who fear change, or the Muslim Brotherhood,

Egypt's Campaign in North Sinai

Is there anything that both the Israeli Government and Hamas agree upon? Why yes: they both are supportive of Egypt's current military operations in Northern Sinai.

In the wake of a series of bombings of Egyot's gas pipeline to Israel, an outburst of militant violence recently in al-‘Arish, and the apperarance of flyers in Rafah claiming to speak for "Al-Qa‘da in Sinai," Egyptian Army units have moved into northern Sinai, restoring order and arresting militants.

Egypt had to obtain prior consent from Israel, since under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, eastern Sinai is demilitarized. Hamas in Gaza reportedly has also approved the operation.

There are also reports that Ramzi Muhammad al-Mowafi, "the chemist," a former personal doctor of Usama bin Laden, escaped from prison during the Revolution, and has since been spotted operating in Sinai.

Leftwing activist Hossam al-Hamalawy has wondered if this is a "Wag the Dog" operation to increase support for the Army; noting that as recently as June, the Head of the National Security Sector (State Security's replacement) told reporters there were no al-Qa‘ida supporters anywhere in Egypt. (Report at link is in Arabic.)

But there's no doubt that her has been escalating violence in Sinai, the bloodshed in al-‘Arish, and the attacks on the pipeline, and that Islamist militants of some variety are involved. Nor is Mowafi believed to be the only militant to have escaped prison in January.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Liberal and Leftist Parties Form Bloc in Egypt

In the wake of the muscle flexing of the Islamist bloc recently, 15 Egyptian political parties of liberal and leftist tendency have  created a new bloc, "the Egyptian Bloc," to stand in the upcoming elections. Given the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood standing behind its new Freedom and Justice Party, and the alliance of the old secular Wafd with that party, there is concern that the parties of the center and left will divide votes among them and win few seats. The new bloc, if it can hold together, seeks to avoid that.

Others Are Noting the Amazigh Awakening

This blog has been talking about the Berber or Amazigh awakening and the new assertiveness of teh Tamazight language in the Maghreb, and particularly in Libya's Jebel Nefusa, for a long time.  Others are starting to notice. Recently we've seen The Economist with "Springtime for Them Too? The Berbers Join the Arab Revolt," veteran war correspondent for the New York Times, C.J. Chivers, writing on "Amid a Berber Reawakening in Libya, Fears of Revenge,"  and Moez Zelton at The Guardian  writing on "In a Liberated Libya in the Year 2961."

As they say, nothing succeeds like success, and the fact that the Nefusa rebels have been running the table on Qadhafi means they're getting a lot of attention.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Now San Francisco is Acting Like an Arab Dictatorship

As I was telling David Cameron the other day, (and no, I don't think he was listening), in the case of his threats to shut down access to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks during the British riots, such tactics remind me of the Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian and Libyan shutdowns of the Internet and cellphones to block protest organizers. It's now spread to another city, one previously, like London, not particularly known for its Gestapo inclinations: San Francisco. Yes, the birthplace of hippies and the Haight-Ashbury, the proudly liberal city with no visible Republicans, is joining the club. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, their subway, decided to shut down cellphone service in the subway to block planned demonstrations. Of course they got the demonstrations anyway and made a lot of people furious; and now BART itself has been hacked by the "Anonymous" people, who, when I'm being rational about it, I consider a public menace, but then there are times when you need a Robin Hood out there. I expect this of Husni Mubarak or Bashar al-Asad, but London? San Francisco?

The Dying Art of the Ramadan Lantern

According to this Washington Post feature, Cairo has only a handful of remaining craftsmen makkng the fanoos, the Ramadan lanterns, in the traditional way. Most of those sold today are made in China.  I suppose it's no surprise; Zeinobia's blog noted earlier in Ramadan (along with a photo gallery) that this year one of the Chinese lanterns is in the shape of a tank.

It made me recall how back in the 1970s there were still two tarbush-makers in Cairo making and blocking the fez in the old-fashioned way; both were in the Ghuriyya suq, the cloth merchants' suq. They had elaborate old brass instruments for blocking the hats; I imagine they too have faded away since even then no one except waiters at Groppi's was wearing the fez.

New Momentum for Libyan Rebels?

Following a weekend in which Libyan rebels disputed control over Zawiya with the Qadhafi forces and claimed to have taken Gharyan in Jebel Nefusa, there are reports today that they may be on the verge of taking Brega, the key oil0-shipping port.

While some of these reports may seem premature, they do suggest that, despite the internal stresses recently on display, the rebels are gaining some momentum once again. (This at a time when Bashar al-Asad has reportedly become the second Arab leader, after Qadhafi, to send his Navy to shell one of his own cities.

No Longer a Show Trial

I've already noted that it was a good sign that the Mubarak trial was being conducted, not by some drumhead revolutionary tribunal, but in the regular civilian court system. Now (to his credit in my opinion), Judge Ahmad Rifaat has banned further television coverage of the proceedings after what was apparently a rather chaotic session. He's also merged the trial with that of ex-Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adly and adjourned it till September 5.

So people got to see the old man in a cage, but now the show part of the trial is over, at least until sentencing.

Friday, August 12, 2011

New MEI Publication on Arab Revolutions

Since yesterday marks six months since the fall of Husni Mubarak, MEI is using it to release its newest Viewpoints collection (the first of three dealing with Arab Spring), "Revolution and Political Transformation in the Middle East: Agents of Change."

The contributions are:
  • The Power of Strategic Nonviolent Action in Arab Revolutions, by Stephen Zunes
  • The Real Force Behind the “Bad Year for Bad Guys," by Srdja Popovic and Kristina Djuric
  • Yemen’s Spring: Whose Agenda?, by Charles Schmitz
  • The February 17th Revolution in Libya, by Ronald Bruce St John
  • An Egyptian Summer, by John Jackson
  • Egypt’s Revolutionary Elite and the Silent Majority, by Thanassis Cambanis
  • A “Cute” Facebook Revolution?, by Basem Fathy
  • The Syrian Revolution: The Role of the “Emerging Leaders," by Radwan Ziadeh

The above link is to the descriptive page. The full document in PDF is here.

No, Prime Minister

My brief here is the Middle East, and I'm not going to involve myself in any lengthy analysis of events elsewhere. Like anyone who loves London, I'm distressed, alarmed, and angered by the anarchy in London in the past few days. But I have no comments on the politics of the issue. But yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that it may be necessary to put restrictions on Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Messenger posts, in order to limit the ability of the bad guys to plan new looting attacks.

No, Prime Minister. I know the UK doesn't have the First Amendment with its protections of freedom of assembly and expression, but somewhere between the Field of Runnymede in 1215 and Fleet Street today, it has developed a tradition of free expression. Yes, there are limits. Shouting "fire" in a crowded theater and all that. But don't shut down or control media most people are using innocently. Then you start to look like you're rolling down that slippery slope towards Syria on July 3:

or towards Egypt on January 27:

I know,of course, you aren't suggesting that. But the country that wrote Magna Carta is also the country that invented the Court of Star Chamber, and even the US and its sacred First Amendment has been diddling at the margins in the name of counter-terrorism. I don't like tampering with the freedom of social networks, at least until the bombs are falling on Pearl Harbor.

Let me clarify that I have no qualms about the idea of using Facebook and Twitter posts to prosecute somebody. Monitor them, sure. (Of course, they're monitoring you. It's the Internet, a relatively open system.) Use their posts to prosecute them: fine. Did they really think that posts on a semi-public network would not be accessible to the authorities? Well, Duh. If they preach rebellion, go after them. If they advocate violence, there are laws against that.

My problem is the idea that you might need to shut down or restrict non-inciting but dissident speech, or that these laws could be used to read everybody's E-mail, or censor Twitter.

Enforce the laws, but let's think seriously before we advocate scrapping some of our most ancient traditions. Ben Franklin said something like, those who give up fundamental freedoms for a little temporary security deserve neither freedom nor security.  Britain, "Mother of the Free," deserves both. Don't go there, Mr. Cameron.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mahmoud Salem on Recent Egyptian Events

The frequently provocative and acerbic blogger who blogs as Rantings of a Sandmonkey, but who no longer has to blog anonymously,  has a lengthy, sort of portmanteau post up which he calls "Bits and Pieces," and which deals with a wide range of issues preoccupying Egypt in recent weeks, from the SCAF to the Islamist Friday to the Mubarak trial.to the future course of the revolution, to demonstrating during Ramadan. It's wide-ranging and worth reading, whether you share his particular views or not.

Read it all, but I think his take on the Mubarak trial is probably pretty close to the mark::
Did you watch the Mubarak trial? Didn’t you like how they added the Mubarak Case and the MOI case together for the first day, so you can see all the people you despise in one Holding Cell? Yeah, that wasn’t done to psychologically manipulate you at all.

Also, please watch it every day. It will only take 3 years, and if Mubarak isn’t dead by then, he will face house-arrest until he dies and will never see the inside of a jail cell. His sons, on the other hand, will get 3-5 years sentences topsand then leave the country to retire in Switzerland or something. Habib Aladly will be executed, of course.

Personally, after the first day, I am done with it. What will happen next will be a legal fiasco and a political circus. Not interested in either.
(Habib al-Adly is the former and much-hated Minister of the Interior.)

The Syrian Problem: Some Other Voices

Since I don't claim to be an expert on Syria (well, not since the fall of the Umayyads, at any rate), I offer you a roundup of intelligent comment, and perhaps some other:
and, for something a little more Byzantine:

UAE: The Other Emirates

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are of course international superstars; the other five Emirates tend to get little attention, abroad or, to some extent, at home. Jenifer Fenton at The Arabist has a useful post on "The United (But Not Equal) Arab Emirates.  (Sorry, link was missing for a while. It should work now.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Déscription de l'Égypte Online

The Déscription de l'Égypte, the immense 20-volume work produced by the 160 savants who accompanied Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, is a massive work of pioneering scholarship, producing eleven volumes of plates (including an Atlas volume which included the first scientifically surveyed maps of many parts of the country) and nine volumes of text, and is one of the truly great products of the Enlightenment. The surveys and sketches were collected by the civilian scholars during the French Occupation of 1798-1801, and published over the period of 1809-1829. Wikipedia offers a good description of the history of the work, which appeared in various editions with the volumes numbered differently in some. Only about 1000 sets were printed, and the work is hard to find.

Modern digital technology, however, has come to the rescue. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has digitized 11 volumes of plates in its collection and the nine volumes of text owned by the  Institut de l'Égypte and made it available online. It's not the easiest site to use; I find the zoomed-in function for reading the pages a little slow loading, but unless you are one of those lucky collectors with a set on your shelf, it's a wonderful contribution. (My link is to the English homepage for convenience; there's also a French homepage. But whichever gateway you choose, the work itself is of course entirely in French.) This was Europe's first real exploration of Egypt, the beginning of modern study of the country both ancient and modern, and most people have never had access to it.  Now we do.

Deliberately Targeting the Mosque?

So many dramatic videos have been coming out of Syria that I haven't tried to post many of them. But this one, via the EAWorldview Blog which has been closely watching Syrian events,is not only dramatic; it's hard to interpret as anything other than the deliberate targeting of a minaret of the ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan mosque in Deir al-Zor by artillery. The multiple strikes on the minaret before it falls suggests this wasn't collateral damage; this was the intended target. 

A Reflection on the Mubarak Trial in NYRB

Yasmine El Rashidi has a good piece on the Mubarak Trial and its Broader Meaning — "A Revolution Stalled? Scenes from Mubarak's Trial" — in The New York Review of Books. Useful perspectives.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Some More Nuances in Saudi Arabia's Turn Against Asad: Iran and Maybe the King's Tribal Links

I noted on Monday that Brian Whitaker at The Guardian had emphasized the role of Saudi Arabia's concern about Iran as a key element in Saudi Arabia's recall of its Ambassador from Damascus, as oposed to some sudden Saudi enthusiasm for democracy and human rights. Today's post at Foreign Policy by one of our best and most nuanced Gulf analysts, Greg Gause, takes the idea further and with greater subtlety.
But besides this Sunni/Shi‘ite issue, and its related geopolitical concerns about Iran in the Gulf, there's another issue that's got to be noted as well: the tribal one.

To give credit where it's due, in a comment on my first post on Monday on the subject, Ambassador David Mack, noted:
Timing of Saudi action makes me wonder whether there are important ties between the Syrian tribes in the Deir Azzour area and Saudi tribes on the other side of the border. Some of the latter are key sources of loyal personnel for King Abdullah's pillar of internal security, the Saudi National Guard.
Indeed. I think this is an overlooked key. Many have commented on how it was not the bloodshed in Hama or Homs or Jisr al-Shughur that alienated the Saudis: it was the assault on Deir al-Zor.  There are indeed many tribes that sprawl across the Saudi=Jordanian-Syrian borders and have marital and trade links across the border (the Ruwalla, the Nuaim, the Shammar for example). The main tribe around Deir al-Zor, and apparently a mainspring of the revolt there, has been the Shammar. (Oops: At first I said "Saudi-Syrian border" but Jordan is in between of course. They're in Jordan too.)

That may mean nothing to the media generally, but as everybody in Saudi Arabia is quite well aware: King ‘Abdullah's mother was from the Shammar.

 Blood feud, anyone?

Summer Issue of Middle East Journal is Online

The Summer Issue of The Middle East Journal is now online.

Subscribers should already have (or will soon have) their hard copy issues, but the online access is here. (For subscribers wishing to access the electronic edition, instructions are here. You can find information about subscribing here. Non-subscribers can purchase individual articles for a fee.)

The articles, which range from dance to narcotics smuggling,  (click through to read the abstract or order a download copy if you're not a subscriber) are:
Two articles on Lebanon:
And also:

And as always there is our extensive Book Review section,introduced by a Book Review article by David S. Sorenson on “Lebanon: Untangling the Web”, and our quarterly Chronology, which has appeared in every issue since 1947.

One Fifth of Congress Headed for Israel

Since it's August and nothing is going on at home (except the meltdown of the global economy), the US Congress is taking its summer recess. And a total of 81 House members, or nearly 19% of the whole, will be visiting Israel in the next three weeks. There will be 26 Democrats and 55 Republicans.  Of the 81, 47 are freshmen (first term Congressmen) elected in 2010, and they represent half of all freshmen.

It must be the beaches. After all, suggesting Israel's influence on the Hill is unusually strong for a country its size is an anti-Semitic slur, spread by irresponsible people like — well, in this case, The Jerusalem Post.

Tisha B'Av

It's Tisha B'Av, a fast day in Judaism marking the fall of the First and Second Temples. It's a tense one in Israel following the enormous protest marches of unprecedented size over the weekend, protesting housing prices and the economy generally. As always, I try to note the holidays and holy days celebrated in the region and greet my readers on them.

Salih Out of Hospital: Will He or Won't He Return to Yemen?

Now that Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih is out of the hospital, there is much speculation about his future. The official SABA news agency says he will return to Yemen "following a specified period of convalescence" (specified to him perhaps, but not specified to us, apperently); butSaudi Arabia's Al-Sharq al-Awsat claims that American diplomats have said that he has been persuaded by the US not to return.

Take your choice. We will find out in due time.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Whitaker on Saudi Motives

 Brian Whitaker at The Guardian has a somewhat different take on the message that Saudi Arabia is sending Syria:
Which brings us to Syria and the question of Saudi intentions there. King Abdullah's call for swift reform and an end to the killings is unlikely to be heeded, but perhaps it is not meant to be. Perhaps it's meant to do nothing more than distance Saudi Arabia from the Assad regime, in preparation for its fall.

Saudi Arabia has no interest in promoting democracy or human rights in Syria; it does have an interest in promoting Sunni Muslim influence and combating Shia influence (as embodied at the international level by Iran). Considering the Assad regime's ties with Iran, this suggests a motive for Saudi Arabia to become involved now – in the hope of driving a wedge between Iran and a post-Assad Syria.
I think Iran certainly plays a role in most Saudi decisions, but a realization that Asad is alienating most of the world is likely to play a role as well.

The Saudis Bail on Asad

 UPDATE: A roundup at Syria Comment.

Saudi Arabia has recalled its Ambassador to Syria, saying Syrian actions are unacceptable to the Kingdom. Kuwait and Bahrain have since followed the Saudi lead. This is fairly important I think, since the Kingdom supported Ben Ali and Mubarak to the bitter ends. (Libya was another story, but there is personal bad blood between Qadhafi and the King, so there was a getting-even element there.) King ‘Abdullah has personal ties with Syria, so his move is a sign the Saudis are very uncomfortable with the course of events there and possibly cutting their losses.

It may not deter Asad, of course, but it's a pretty interesting signal.

Sufis, Copts, Liberals Plan Big Rally for Secular State on Friday

Seeking to counter the big Islamist rally a week ago last Friday, egypt's influential but formerly political quiescent Sufi orders are planning a big rally Friday in favor of  secular state. Subsequently they've been joined by Copts and liberal parties and most recently by the April 6 Movement. They're calling it a Million Man march (as usual), and it will be held in Tahrir Square (where else?).

Iftar is Later for Those on Upper Floors of Burj Khalifa

In case you missed this over the weekend, the Grand Mufti of Dubai announced that for those living in the the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building (until the Saudis build this half-mile high one), has announced that during Ramadan, residents of the 160-storey-tall building must observe three different times for iftar (breaking their fast), dependent for when the sun sinks below the horizon at their altitude. Those up to the 80th floor may break fast when the ground-dwellers do; those on floors 80 to 150 must wait two minutes after the muezzin's Maghreb prayer call; also after the evening call; and those above the 150th floor must wait three minutes. The same in reverse for the Fajr prayer at dawn, since the high-dwellers can see the sun earlier. It all makes perfect sense, since Ramadan is always regulated by when one actually can discern the dawn. It's just refining the rules for those who live at unprecedented heights.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Libya Denies Rebel Claim That Khamis Qadhafi Was Killed in NATO Raid

Libyan rebels have claimed that Col. Qadhafi's son Khamis, commander of the elite 32nd Brigade, was killed in a NATO airstrike on a command center in Zlitan; but the Libyan government has denied the story, saying it is propaganda aimed at covering up the bombing of a civilian  area. NATO has not made the claim itself, however. Another account here. Loss of Khamis would be a major setback for the regime if it were to prove true, but the quick denial suggests the claim was premature.

Cairo's Cafe Riche: a Classic or Living Off its Reputation?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far,far away, when Anwar Sadat was President of Egypt and Husni Mubarak was only Vice PresidentCairo's Cafe Riche was my "local," whether in need of a coffeehouse or a bar. But the Riche was founded in 1908, so its history was already old when I was there. I probably was there most days other than Fridays and during Ramadan, when it was closed.

My Riche was, by all accounts, rather different from its present incarnation. Then it was open to all comers, and everyone from Egyptian intellectuals to everyday Egyptians to backpacking Westerners to travelers from the region reading Algerian or Saudi newspapers could be found there. I continued to visit regularly throughout the 80s, when I would find myself in Cairo. But then came the 1992 Cairo earthquake, which damaged the Riche and put it out of business for the bulk of the 1990s. I have not been there since its reopening a few years ago, but its current proprietor seems to be trying to profit from its reputation, perhaps a bit inflated, to lure tourists rather than locals. Some of the online reviews by tourists who read about it in Fodor's or Lonely Planet are full of disappointment; complaints of disappointing service and food (well, the food was never its strong point), even of the owner letting only tourists in and charging accordingly. You wouldn't guess that, admittedly, from this evocation of the Riche by Hassan Ibrahim:

I actually have one of those old fashioned, red-and-white Stella Beer tablecloths on the table in my downstairs party room, but don't tell anyone because it was acquired through bribery (though not at the Riche).

Now, the Riche has genuinely always been a hangout for the intelligentsia. I don't doubt that Naguib Mahfouz went there (though I never saw him there and he was one of Egypt's most famous faces); until the Sphinx Bar/Cafe farther up Talaat Harb Street (which everyone then called Suleiman Pasha Street) closed somewhere in the mid-70s, I understand he preferred that. Was the 1919 Revolution plotted at the Riche? Damned if I know. But I've read most of the memoirs written by the 1952 Free Officers, and if any of them mention plotting at the Riche, I never saw it. I'm sure Nasser had at least had coffee there (who hasn't?), but I'm also sure King Farouq's spooks were eavesdropping on conversations there just as Sadat's certainly were in the 70s. You don't plot a coup in a coffeehouse. Well, not a successful one anyway. (I do remember loud discussions at the Riche when Sadat announced he was going to Jerusalem in 1977.)

None of this is meant to denigrate the Riche. I haven't visited its present, post-earthquake incarnation. It's mentioned in Wikipedia and you can find its usual sort of travel-literature reviews here and here, but I gather from the comments to those and other reviews that what was once simply a hangout is now trying to be some cross between the Cafe les deux magots and Elaine's in the 70s.

I'll remember my Riche. I knew the waiters by name.