A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 30, 2012

Egypt: Some Readings for Your Weekend

I know I talk about Egypt a lot, mostly because so much is happening there, but I still don't manage to touch on everything. Here are a few readings for your weekend, covering some ground that I haven't:

    Lebanese Singer on Keeping Syriac Alive

    Last summer in a series of posts on Syriac/Aramaic I talked about the survivals of the language today, both in the Western variety of "Neo-Aramaic" spoken in a few Syrian villages, and the eastern variety which survives in various communities in Iraq, Turkey and neighboring countries. Though linguists call these Neo-Aramaic they generally call themselves Syriac.

    The current issue of World Policy Journal deals with issues relating to language, and has an essay by Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir, who sings in Syriac, on efforts to keep the language alive.

    So add this to my occasional posts on minority languages and on the rich legacies of Aramaic/Syriac. When  Pope Shenouda died, one of my commenters asked in a comment why spoken Coptic had disappeared except as a liturgical language, while other minority languages survived (like these islands of Syriac, or the larger blocs of Berber/Amazigh, Kurdish, Nubian, etc.). The short answer is that's a very good question and one that I've wrestled with occasionally. The long answer will show up one of these days in a blog post.

    Moroccan Belly Dance Festival With Israelis Provokes Islamist and Political Complaints

    Just the other day I was joking about an "emerging Islamist/belly dancer axis," after several incidents involving Islamists and belly dancers. But things are quite different in Morocco. There are Islamist complaints, and also political complaints, about the "Mediterranean Delight International Belly Dance Festival" in Marrakech in May. The festival has apparently been around for several years, but even in Morocco an Islamist party, the PJD, is now leading the government, and many Islamists object to belly dancing on moral grounds.

    But there's another element in this case. At least two of the key participants featured on the website (one female, one male) are Israelis. Now, Israelis actually visit Morocco regularly, both in official capacities and as tourists; the two countries have a de facto equivalent of relations even if not formal. (Their security services have also been known to work together, but that's a tale for another time.) In fact, the Israelis involved in this — one of them is apparently one of the organizers — also participated in last year's event, and perhaps earlier ones as well. So what's the big deal?

    I suspect it's that somebody noticed, setting off both political critics of the modus vivendi with Israel, and Islamists, who object both to Israelis and to belly dancing and thus doubly to Israeli belly dancers.

    Here's an Arab view of the issue from Al-Arabiya, and to balance that a report from the Jerusalem Post offering the Israeli reaction and also noting that an Israeli diplomat was recently hustled out of Morocco as soon as his meetings ended, and a Jewish man was recently killed in Fez, possibly due to his identity. So there's a serious side to this, and a potential threat to Moroccan-Israeli (unofficial) relations.

    And there do seem to be some issues here that may have inflamed opinions more than were strictly necessary. For instance, if you go to the entrance page for the festival's website, you'll find buttons to take you to pages in no fewer than eight languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Hebrew and Japanese. Do you notice anything missing? Yes, though Morocco is an Arab country, there's no page in Arabic, though there is one in Hebrew. That seems undiplomatic, to say the least.

    The frieze of international flags does include Egypt, Morocco and Turkey along with Israel, but there's no page in Arabic. Here's the English site and here's the Hebrew.

    Now, I'm not trying to suggest this is the most important issue in Morocco at the moment; it's a distraction and a bit frivolous; whether one festival is held or not doesn't matter much given the problems the region, including Morocco, face. But it's a reminder that these cultural flashpoints, like the "booze and bikinis" debate over tourism in Egypt, are going to be an issue as political Islamists test their strength. Even so Westernized a country as Morocco is not immune, and the tourism industry may well be affected. Admittedly, it's easy to make too much of this, but it's the Islamists who are bringing it up, though it draws attention because it gives the media an excuse to show pictures of bikinis or belly dancers.

    No such sensationalism here, of course, though I do have a duty to demonstrate that there is in fact a precedent for these Israeli belly dancers appearing in Morocco. Here's Simona Guzman, who's quoted in the Jerusalem Post article and who is apparently an organizer of the festival as well, performing at last year's Mediterranean Delight Festival in Marrakech:

    Thursday, March 29, 2012

    Cairo Graffiti Gets More Attention, its Own Panel

    I've noted multiple times how the graffiti walls on Muhammad Mahmoud Street in Cairo have become a major artistic phenomenon. Now the American University in Cairo (on whose walls much of the art is painted) is holding a panel of the artists themselves, on Monday at the downtown AUC campus, to discuss the art,as part of its "In Translation" series. More on the panel here, and flyer at left if you're in Cairo.

    Meanwhile the suzeeinthecity blog has yet another of her collections of the graffiti, focusing largely on the Pharaonic themes. Even CBS News has gotten on the bandwagon. And recently, murals went up on the concrete block walls used by the authorities to block off the key streets between Tahrir and the Interior Ministry.

    The SCAF/MB Maneuvering: No Presidential Candidate=Forming Cabinet?

     The recent verbal and communique duel between Egypt's SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood continuyes, and now Al-Masry Al-Youm is reporting that SCAF has said it would allow the Brotherhood to form a new Cabinet provided it does not decide to run a candidate for President. Like many recent rumors it will be denied, and you can make up your own mind whether to believe it (let's see what the decision on a candidate turns out to be).

    Another report, that at first glance seems to contradict the above, in Ahram Online says  that SCAF may pardon Brotherhood Deputy Leader Khairat al-Shater, who is considered a possible Brotherhood candidate for President if they choose to field one. He spent plenty of time in jail and is thus technically barred from running, but SCAF could pardon him, as they did Ayman Nour yesterday, to let him run. But the two reports aren't mutually exclusive, since Shater could be a Brotherhood choice for Prime Minister in a new Cabinet, and would need a pardon to take that job, as well, since he's barred from holding public office.

    Conspiracy theorists will no doubt try to put various spins on these reports. Does the military have a favorite in the race? If so, who? They're not exactly transparent. Why would they oppose a Brotherhood candidate? Because they couldn't count on controlling him?  Did the Ayman Nour pardon actually send some sort of subtle signal? Is SCAF ever subtle?

    Meanwhile the Constituent Assembly is a mess.The liberals have walked out. The Islamists have elected People's Assembly Speaker Katatni it's chairman, with a quarter of the seats vacant. The liberals are talking about writing their own constitution. SCAF is calling meetings to talk about things, and others are challenging the Assembly in the courts.

    Nobody said democracy is easy, but I must say, Tunisia's post-revolutionary experience is a world away from Egypt's. But even in Egypt, some interesting dynamics are going on.

    A Summit without Kings

    Fewer than half of all Arab leaders are attending the Arab Summit in Baghdad. All the Gulf monarchs except for Kuwait failed to show, as did the Kings of Jordan and Morocco.  And note the irony in the previous sentence: except for Kuwait. Which, 21 years ago, was occupied by a rather different Iraq.

    So the summit designed to mark the new Iraq's acceptance by the Arab world, isn't. The bloc of Sunni monarchies sent lower ranking figures. The Sunni jitters over Iran and conviction that Shi‘ite Iraq is a stalking horse for Iran is clearly showing.

    Wednesday, March 28, 2012

    Rami Khouri on the Baghdad Summit

    Tomorrow's Arab League SAummit in Baghdad will be a showcase moment for post-occupation Iraq, but despite its focus on Syria and the importance of the moment following a year of dramatic change in the Arab world, it's a rare observer who gets excited over Arab Summits. Even the once-dependable entertainment value once provided by the late Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi, with his penchant for denouncing his hosts, attacking the Saudi King, and making outrageous statements is no more, and missed, I'm sure, by none of the surviving attendees.

    But one commentator who can usually be counted on for intelligent comment is Rami Khouri, in "Four Arab Worlds Will Meet in Baghdad," (differentiated by the effects of the Arab Awakening on them), so read what he has to say. I probably won't post on the Summit again unless something actually happens, which would be precedent-shattering in its own right.

    Ayman Nour Pardoned

    Ayman Nour, who as head of the Al-Ghad Party ran against Husni Mubarak in 2005 and was subsequently jailed, has been pardoned by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and is therefore eligible to run for

    Nour was an important figure in 2005, but in the very new Egypt that is emerging I suspect he will prove a rather peripheral figure, one more liberal competing for a small segment of a much broader political spectrum. But his conviction was patently trumped up by the Mubarak regime and it is good that his record has been cleared.

    Al-Akhbar: Musa al-Sadr Died in Libya in Early 2000s

    Lebanon's Al-Akhbar is reporting that Libyan authorities have made available information to Lebanese authorities indicating that the charismatic Lebanese Shi‘ite leader Musa al-Sadr, who vanished after a trip to Libya in 1978, lived on until his death from diabetes in a Libyan prison in the early 2000s. The story also claims to offer alleged details of the fate of Libyan opposition figure Mansur Kikhia, who was last seen in Egypt in 1993.

    If the details here are true, Sadr lived for more than two decades in Libyan captivity. His disappearance from Lebanon deprived Lebanon's Shi‘ites of a charismatic leader, and may arguably have led yo tje emergence of Hizbullah to fil the vacuum.

    Mu‘ammar Qadhafi always insisted that Sadr left Libya on a flight to Italy, while Italy insisted he never arrived there.

    Hazemania: Candidate Abu Isma‘il's Poster Overkill Invites Parodies

    Hazem Salah Abu Isma‘il is a popular Salafi preacher who is running for President of Egypt. To the surprise and alarm of many, his rallies are drawing large crowds and he is showing considerable charismatic skill in public speaking, despite taking rather extreme positions on hijab and other social issues. (See Khalil al-Anani's "The Advent of Informal Islamists.") Although his popularity may be overshadowed if the Muslim Brotherhood does field a candidate, he is enjoying his moment of fame. And now, he os enjoying his moment of being the butt of Internet jokes. He's become a meme in his own right.

    Although the official campaigning period is still a few weeks away, Abu Isma‘il's supporters put up campaign posters this week. No, I mean they really put up campaign posters this week. Everywhere:

    Before I start stealing the great creations of a lot of clever people, I should note that the phenomenon has been written up in the last couple of days by Global Voices and by The Egypt Independent, both of which have many illustrations, and there's a Facebook  page (in Arabic) for mock Abu Isma‘il posters. Of course there's a Twitter hashtag, #AbuIsmail (and perhaps others). There's also a Tumblr of "Abo Ismail Doing Stuff," which is slightly different but in a similar vein. Many of these that follow appear in several of those sites, so I credit them collectively.

    Though this has swept the Egyptian social media in a little over 48 hours, there are dissenters: someon Twitter are alarmed that the Abu Isma‘il mania is giving the man free publicity and may even help his campaign. Needless to say, the creators of these parodies are not likely to vote for the man,

    The sometimes ingenious, sometimes hilarious (and often neither, which I'm not including here) include the fairly predictable:

     ... Obama's complaining someone put a poster on his car, and of course the George Washington painting on the oval office wall has changed a bit ..

    Then there are historical references:  the cornerstone of the Qasr al-Nil bridge ...

    and cultural ones ...

    Then there's the new design for the Egyptian one pound note:

    Some of the jokes are a bit meta, in that they invoke other Internet themes. Some readers may remember a bit over a year ago, just before and after the fall of Husni Mubarak, all the talk about "the guy behind ‘Omar Suleiman." "The guy" was a military officer who stood behind the then Vice President in his last few appearances, including the announcement of Mubarak's departure. Not identified at the time, it wasn't clear if he was Suleiman's bodyguard, or his minder, to make sure he said what he was told to say. He seems to have been SCAF's man.

    Well, yes, you guessed it. The Guy Behind ‘Omar Suleiman is back:

    Nor has Field Marshal Tantawi been forgotten:

    If you browse through the sites linked above, you may be mystified by a large number of them involving Pepsi Cola: Pepsi bottles, Pepsi cans, versions of the Pepsi logo, etc. These all refer to one of Abu Isma‘il's more dubious achievements: a TV talk in which he asserted that "Pepsi" was an acronym for "Pay Every Penny Saving Israel." No, I am not making that up. I don't like quoting MEMRI since they tend to cherry-pick the Arab broadcasts they translate in order to show the most offensive, most lunatic, and most anti-Israeli, but since this talk is all three of those things and let you hear Abu Isma‘il's discussion in the original and with subtitles, I'll make an exception:

    That should help explain this:

    And one of my own favorites, this:

    Actually, if you watch the video, he doesn't approve of Coke either, but it's funny.

    So will this ridicule help puncture Abu Isma‘il's rising political balloon, or is all publicity good publicity?

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012

    Shaul Mofaz Beats Tzipi Livni for Kadima Leadership

    Maybe the whole "Israel Loves Iran" fad isn't just an Internet meme: Israel's main opposition party, Kadima (technically the largest party in the Knesset by one seat over Likud), has just elected an Iranian-born leader. Former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, born in Tehran (of parents from Isfahan) in 1948, defeated Tzipi Livni for the party leadership in today's primary.

    Shaul Mofaz
    Mofaz, who followed Ariel Sharon into Kadima from Likud, had challenged Livni in 2008 but lost; this year he assembled a number of key allies and won a hard-fought race. Although Kadima won more seats than Likud in the 2009 elections, it was unable to form a coalition, while Likud under Binyamin Netanyahu formed the current strong rightist bloc.

    A third candidate for the Kadima leadership, former Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter, recently withdrew and threw his support to Mofaz.

    Vali Nasr Named Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS

    MEI's neighbors across our back ally, John's Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), has named a prominent Middle East specialist, Vali Nasr,  as its new Dean. Just before the weekend Vali had told me he was just to busy to peer review an article I'd asked him to look at. Now I know why.

    MEI and SAIS have long had a neighborly relationship, and back in the early 1950s had an organic one; Vali Nasr has emerged as one of the leading experts on Southwest Asia, particularly Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, on Shi&lquo;ism in politics, and related fields. He's been at Tufts most recently but will take over at SAIS July 1. I congratulated him by e-mail but let me do so in a more public forum here. I think it will strengthen SAIS, give Vali Nasr greater visibility, and spruce up the neighborhood.

    Tunisia's Al-Nahda: No Shari‘a Clause in Constitution

    As the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt flexes its muscles with talk of running a Presidential candidate and controlling the writing of the Constitution, Tunisia's Al-Nahda (Ennahda) Movement is taking a different tack, declining to support efforts to insert a clause in the Constitution that would declare Shari‘a the major source of legislation. Al-Nahda has long said that it is content with the existing first article, which declares that the religion of the state is Islam and its language is Arabic.

    Reaffirming the "Arab Muslim identity" clause gives centrality to the role of Islam in Tunisian identity without writing Shari‘a into the constitution, and is in keeping with Al-Nahda's efforts so far to maintain peace with secular parties in the highly Westernized country, while more extreme Salafi groups are agitating for a Shari‘a clause. The "Arab Islamic identity" formula is generally uncontroversial in Tunisia, which lacks has only a small Jewish population and no real indigenous Christian population. Though Amazigh/Berber activists would prefer to downplay the "Arabic" identity, retaining the existing clause is clearly the line of least resistance.

    Monday, March 26, 2012

    Now, the "Nose-Job" Islamist MP and the Belly Dancer, and the Growing Islamist-Belly Dancer Axis

    Headline of the Day: "'Nose Job' MP Files Complaint Against Belly Dancer Who Says She's His Wife."

    The story refers to this fellow. He is an Islamist, so the belly dancer bit adds to his already compounded scandal, More on the alleged wife here; also here. Just a little over a week ago, she was threatening to picket the press syndicate in her belly dancing garb,  regarding a new film she has out, so the words "publicity stunt" just might be appropriate here, too.

    This raises new questions about the emerging Islamist/Belly Dancer axis. I earlier posted about how the belly dancer known as Lucy was donating some of her TV revenues to a Salafi sheikh raising money to replace US aid; that post included both a video of one of the sheikh's sermons and a video of one of Lucy's performances; I haven't checked to see which is drawing more viewers. Though I didn't link to it, actress Ghada Abd al-Razaq, who has sometimes belly danced in her films, announced she had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood. So there may be an emerging pattern here.

    Is this a sign that Egyptian Islamists, like some US TV preachers, have an eye for unveiled women? Or a sign belly dancers are attracted to political Islam despite its general disapproval of their profession? Or what?

    Late Entries in the Egypt Presidential Race Could Change Calculus

     Over 1,000 Egyptians have already put forward their names as potential Presidential candidates. The overwhelming majority will never put together the signatures needed to register them as formal candidates (30,000 voter signatures from at least 15 governors or the support of 30 members of Parliament), but perhaps hope springs eternal. The serious candidates had seemed to emerge some time ago: former Arab Leagues Secretary General Amr Moussa, former Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Abu'l-Futuh, Salafi figure Hazem Abu Ismail, young liberal Khalid Ali, former Air Force Commander and Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, Mansur Hassan, etc. etc. But in the past few days two new names have (so far unofficially) appeared in speculation, and they could dramatically transform the field.

    One of these is former head of General Intelligence and (briefly) Mubarak's only Vice President, ‘Omar Suleiman. After dropping from sight after the revolution he has re-emerged and is making public appearances amid reports he will run. He may represent a coalition of the intelligence and security establishment; he may have little real support at all. But no one knows what broader constituency his renewed prominence may indicate.

    Perhaps more important is the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate. The Brotherhood has a plurality in the People's Assembly and dominates the newly named constituent assembly, The Brotherhood had said it would not run a candidate, and when Abu'l-Futuh announced his candidacy, the Brotherhood expelled him and said it would expel members supporting him.

    But now the Brotherhood is reconsidering, and there's much speculation it might put forward Deputy General Guide Khairat al-Shater. He runs the Brotherhood's business interests, spent years in prison under Mubarak, and some say he is the real power behind General Guide Muhammad Badie. (See a New York Times piece on Shater here, and Shater's webpage here (Arabic). Until the past week or so Shater was generally tipped to be the Brotherhood's candidate for Prime Minister in a coalition Cabinet. Now there's talk of his running for President instead. His entry would reshuffle the deck and reopen the betting.

    The registration process closes April 8, so things should become clear this week and next.  Shater would transform the race; Suleiman would at least complicate the question of who the "establishment" candidate is.

    UPDATE: The Brotherhood will reportedly consider Shater, Parliament Speaker Katatni, and Freedom and Justice Party leader Muhammad Mursi tomorrow, and announce a result by Thursday.

    Egypt's Constituent Assembly: Islamists' Predominance Stirs Protests; Growing Quarrels Between MB and SCAF

    Egypt has now announced the 100 members of the Constituent Assembly which will draw up the new Constitution. A mix of members of the People's Assembly, the Shura Council, and non-Parliamentarians of prominence, they will write the new Constitution.

    Provoking comment and alarm is the fact that, depending on how you define an Islamist and how you count, somewhere between half and by one estimate up to 65 of the 100 may be defined as Islamists, with he Muslim Brotherhood predominating. That suggests that the Brotherhood and its allies, and the more extreme Salafi al-Nour Party, will be able to shape the new constitution on their own image.

    Will they draft a constitution that entrenches their power and makes it difficult to ever reduce their strength? The Brotherhood has talked a good line so far, but secularists are alarmed. Many might be willing to let them govern for a term so long as, if they fail, it is possible to vote them out of office. But Egyptians are too familiar with constitutions deliberately written to maintain a ruling party in power forever, as they've had one for the past half century.

    Not surprisingly, there are already protest movements urging a "Constitution for All Egypt." The Brotherthood has repeatedly said that it wants that too, but now that it dominates the constituent assembly, its opponents are not confident it means it.

    The Brotherhood is also testing its strength in other ways. Though it backed off an initial effort to force the replacement of the existing Cabinet, it is increasingly critical of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It recently questioned the fairness of the upcoming Presidential elections, leading Field Marshal Tantawi to strike back by criticizing the Brotherhood. This growing SCAF/Brotherhood feud has long been predicted; the initial "honeymoon" between the Army and the Islamists was always likely to break down when the Islamists found the Army was not prepared to hand over power completely to them.

    Adding to this is growing talk that the Brotherhood, which has insisted since the early days of the revolution that it will not run a candidate in the Presidential election, is talking about choosing one, raising questions about other assurances it has made.

    The credibility of the new Constitution may be riding on how non-Islamists perceive it: if it emerges as an obvious attempt to entrench Islamist power, tensions may rise rapidly.

    Man Bites Dog

    Man bites dog. No, really. The old journalistic axiom has it that "dog bites man" is not news, but that "man bites dog" would be news.

    There was news over the weekend. In Israel, a suspect brought in for breaching a restraining order bit a police dog.

    More serious stuff is coming soon.

    Friday, March 23, 2012

    Kuwait Plays Borat Theme Instead of Kazakh Anthem

    Oops. At a shooting competition in Kuwait, a Kazakh athlete won the gold medal, and as she prepared to receive it, the band struck up a fake anthem from the movie Borat, which made fun of Kazakhs and is banned in that country.

    This must have been awkward. The BBC report says they also got the Serbian national anthem wrong. I'm reminded of a story of a US political convention some decades back. When each state delegation rises to speak, the orchestra plays a song associated with that state (California Here I Come, Sidewalks of New York, Missouri Waltz, etc.) When the state of Georgia's turn came, they played Marching through Georgia. It's about Georgia all right: but it's about General Sherman's March to the Sea during the US Civil War. It's about burning Georgia.

    I never actually saw Borat, but this does sound undiplomatic.

    The Sinister Soccer Plot Against Syria

     Syrian television is not noted for its satirical wit, so one possible explanation of this story is ruled out. It is definitely not from The Onion. This leads to the possibility that Syria's official media is descending into some sort of tinfoil-hat paranoid lunacy that defies parody. (More so than usual, I mean.)

    Syrian state-run al-Dunya television has charged that in a recent soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, Barcelona — well, let James Dorsey's The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog tell it: 
    Al Dunya charged that Barcelona’s tactical formations represented a map of routes from Lebanon to Syria used to smuggle weapons to the Syrian rebels. It said projecting the map on a Barcelona Copa del Rey quarter final match against Real Madrid that players in the club’s formation on the soccer pitch were the equivalent of smugglers while the ball represented weapons as they were moved along the smuggling route.

    Al Dunya asserted that midfielder Andres Iniesta operated at the beginning of a smuggling route while a late game pass by player of the year Lionel Messi constituted the successful handover of an arms shipment in Deir al-Zor at the end of the route. In Al Dunya’s apparently doctored version of the match a mysterious, unidentified player appears as Messi passes the ball. The shadowy player somehow ends up in the Real Madrid goal. Midfielder Sergio Busquets Burgos was also part of Barcelona’s international intrigue, Al Dunya said. ...

    Al Dunya charged that the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television network was repeatedly broadcasting clips from the Barcelona match in a bid to weaken the Assad regime.
    Lest you think Dorsey is making this up, here's an Al-Arabiya report on it. And one from Yahoo sports. nd the broadcast itself has been posted by someone to YouTube and as of last night had been viewed by 663,000 people. I suppose the video could be a clever hoax, but no one seems to have denied that Al-Dunya broadcast this. In the video you'll see that they prove (?) the plot by projecting a map of Syria (in Arabic) over the football maneuver. Yes, as shown the action moves from Lebanon to Homs to Deir al-Zor, two cities where the rebels have been heavily engaged, but the map seems to move with the players, so, call me a skeptic, I don't actually buy the plot. And it's not like the map is high enough scale to actually convey routes.

    Thursday, March 22, 2012

    Mali Coup: Qadhafi Still a Problem for Africa, Even Posthumously

    Yesterday's military coup in Mali would not at first glance be of concern to this blog: Mali is not part of the Middle East by any usual definition, and not part of the region covered by the Middle East Institute or The Middle East Journal. But it does border Algeria and Mauritania, and its large northern region is part of the Sahara, unlike the more populous Niger River Valley to the south. And this coup seems to have direct resonances to the overthrow last year of Col. Mu‘ammar Qadhafi of Libya. Ironically Qadhafi, who fancied himself the leader of Africa and regularly meddled below the Sahara, is still meddling despite being quite dead for some months now.

    This particular coup seems to have been provoked by a Tuareg revolt in the north,which the (now apparently ousted) President failed to respond to adequately. The Tuareg revolt periodically, but this one has occupied considerable territory and apparently the Army felt their honor besmirched.
    MNLA Emblem (Wikipedia)

    Beyond the fact that the Tuareg are a Berber (Amazigh)-speaking people, speaking a language known as Tamasheq, what merits a mention of Mali here is that many of the Tuareg supporting the revolt are said to be tribesmen who formerly fought to support the lat Mu‘ammar Qadhafi in Libya. Qadhafi recruited not only Libyan Tuareg but Tuareg from Mali and Niger as well; on his defeat, these crossed into northern Niger, reportedly well-armed and equipped; the Malians among them eventually made their way home. They seem to provide many of the arms for the MNLA, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, The group seeks independence for Azawad.
    Azawad (Wikipedia)
    their name for the large Saharan region of Mali and the neighboring Tuareg areas in Mauritania and Niger. (MNLA website in French, here. General background on the revolt here.)

    It's too early to know the implications of the coup for the Tuareg revolt, In another Middle Eastern resonance, however, the Mali government has of course invoked al-Qa‘ida to characterize their enemy, claiming that the MNLA is allied with al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a charge the MNLA strongly denies. The jury seems to be out on the relationship, but AQIM certainly has operated in northern Mali.

    So Colonel Qadhafi, though dead these five months, is still making trouble in continent of which he once declared himself king; some, like this Economist article, go even farther and link the outflow o former Libyan arms to issues much farther afield, like the Boko Haram in Nigeria. link

    Qadhafi: still dead, and still a troublemaker..

    Still More on Revolutionary Graffiti in Cairo, Well-Illustrated

    Another piece at Jadaliyya, this one by Soraya Morayef and called "The Seven Wonders of the Revolution," adds to the growing wave of posts devoted to the revolutionary art and graffiti that have sprung up around Tahrir Square, in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, Kasr El Aini and others. Three of my earlier posts on the theme can be found under my graffiti tag. Note that the newest article is one of the most lavishly illustrated yet.

    That Was No "Mystery Woman," That Was His Wife (Maybe)

    I want to start this post with a few preparatory remarks: What is going on in Syria is both a tragedy and a crime. Whether you equate the Syrian rebels with the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord or with something more sinister and violent, the response of the Syrian government against its own people has been savage and amounts to a crime against humanity for which President Asad and his regime need to be held accountable.

    Amid all the carnage it was perhaps inevitable that the media, both Middle Eastern and Western, might be diverted a bit by a scandal, a sort of bread-and-circuses amid the horrors, and The Guardian's  publication of the "Asad E-mails," which I blogged about a week ago, provided that diversion. At the time they began to appear I noted the natural fascination with the mundane concerns about music and amusements, shopping and everything but the tribulations of the country, which I compared to the fascination with Nero fiddling while Rome burned, or Imelda Marcos' shoes.

    The continuing publications of the E-mails, the validity of which no one officially seems to be credibly denying, has continued to add a frisson of scandal and to make the Asads seem even more callous and out of touch, even with a touch of what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil."

    Up till a few days ago, though, there was no real sex in the scandal, mostly just shoes and iTunes downloads.

    Then London's The Telegraph ran an article with the headline, "Bashar al-Assad Email Reveals Near-Naked Woman." That's not The Sun or some other tabloid, mind you, but the stuffy old Telegraph. Various interpretations have turned up: an admirer throwing herself brazenly at the President, a mystery mistress or something scandalous. The unnamed woman E-mailed the photo to Asad with either no message at all, though the same account had previously sent the President the message "Hi," to which he replied "Hi and a half." Speculation appeared all over the place about who she was, and what her relationship was with Asad, including in the Israeli media. The woman has her back to the camera and appears to be wearing only a bra and a thong.

    The "Mystery Woman" Photo
    The original Telegraph story stated outright: "The photograph was sent to Mr Assad on December 11 last year by a woman who is not his wife. The email contains no words and it is not known who the woman in the photograph is." Note they state a fact it is "a woman who is not his wife."

    But the scandal may not really be that scandalous. The website Al-Bawaba, after scrutinizing the photo, concludes that it may be none other than Syria's First Lady Asma, flirting with her husband. They say:
    Employing advanced image analysis together with techniques of facial scanning and consultation with skin specialists, the striking conclusion has been drawn that this tall, lanky, small limbed physique, complete with cropped dirty blonde to mousy brown hair, belongs to one and the same Asma al Assad. 
    Okay, you can return to serious matters now, like the carnage in Syria. Asad is still both a callous out-of-it leader and likely a war criminal, but he's apparently not a philanderer. Those of you with too much time on your hands may want to do your own "advanced image analysis," but I think this scandal has lost a lot of its bite. Let's go back to trying to figure out some action that the world can take that stops the killing without making things worse, shall we?

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012

    Grandson of Two Ottoman Sultans Getting Married at 72

    Often I can't resist the sort of story that reminds us that an older and different Middle East was not all that long ago. A grandson of Ottoman Sultan Murad V (deposed 1876), and through his maternal line also a grandson of Mehmed Reşad V, the next to last Sultan (1909-1918), is about to get married. Admittedly, Osman Selahaddin Osmanoğlu is 72 and it's not his first marriage, but it been a while since we've had any social news of the Ottomans.

    The "Coptic Mount Athos": Wadi Natrun, Shenouda's Last Resting Place

    Anba Bishoi Monastery (Wikipedia)
    Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church was laid to rest yesterday at the Monastery of Anba Bishoi in the Wadi Natrun. Both the monastery itself and the monastic region in which it is located play central roles in the history and tradition of Christian Egypt, and probably deserve notice while world attention has been focused on the Coptic world.

    Although Shenouda's home monastery, where he had labored as a monk, was the Suriani, also in the Wadi Natrun, he liked to retreat to Bishoi to meditate or to protest political developments; ironically (or perhaps not) it was also the monastery to which Anwar Sadat exiled him when he deposed the Pope in 1981. Of the four monasteries still in use in the Wadi Natrun, Bishoi is the easternmost and the first to be reached coming from the Cairo-Alexandria road.

    Monastery, Wadi Natrun 1978 (Dunn)
    Like several of its neighboring monasteries, Bishoi is a fourth century AD foundation, dating from the earliest days of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, who developed monasticism, at least in its group form, and later saw it spread to the rest of Christianity East and West. Along with the even older Monastery of Saint Anthony in Egypt's Eastern Desert, the Wadi Natrun and neighboring areas became centers of the monastic life in Egypt, analogous to the comparable (but younger) Greek Orthodox center of Mount Athos.

    Scene, Wadi Natrun, 1978 (Dunn)

     Known to the Greek world as the Scetis, the place of ascetics, or as Nitria for the natron that gives the Wadi Natrun its Arabic name, the region and adjacent areas once harbored dozens of monasteries, separate areas of monastic cells where monks lived in solitary, and other religious institutions. Often subject to depredations by bedouin tribes, the monasteries developed fortress-like walls in many cases. Many of the Coptic Popes have come from these monasteries, of which four survive today: Anba Bishoy, Anba Maqar or Saint Macarius, associated with the reform movement led by the late monk Matta al-Maskin, Suriani (the monastery of "the Syrians";
    Wadi Natrun, 1978 (Dunn)
    Shenouda's home monastery), and Baramos.

    So the Wadi Natrun is a fitting resting place for a Coptic monk, even one who reigned for 40 years as Pope. And Anba Bishoi, so often a haven (or exile) from the political world during Shenouda's life, will host him in death.

    Internet Arabic: "The Mixed Language of the Third Millennium"?

     I've noted many times (check my Arabic language tag for a collection of posts) the frequent laments of Arabic linguistics and literature professors about the imminent demise (if it's not dead already) of the Arabic language. Usually this falls onto one of two categories: (classical, literary) Arabic is moribund because of the influence of colloquial dialects (which have been around from earliest days, of course), or because of the influence of foreign language vocabularies entering pure Arabic. These days the complaint is usually about English (mostly) and French (especially in North Africa and Lebanon). A few hundred years ago (Arabic has been dying for a long time, it seems), it was Persian and Ottoman Turkish.

    Well, here's a piece, more about how the language is changing than a lament of its demise, about the influence of the Internet on Arabic. Obviously anyone who reads Arabic posts on Facebook or Twitter knows that a mix of languages, jargon, and sometimes alphabets is routine. The article — which is in French, unfortunately for those who don't read it — contains an introduction and a translation of an Arabic article in Hayat by one Abu Wazen on the "mixed Arabic of the Internet, the language of the third millennium." The article does not see the changes wrought by the Internet as a necessarily bad thing.


    Tuesday, March 20, 2012

    Haft Sin

    A Haft Sin table setting to mark Nowruz. Haft Sin — seven items beginning with "s" — is one of the traditions of Nowruz; Wikipedia offers an account here.

    Video of Cairo 1938

    Nursing a sick wife and working on manuscripts so posting will be occasional at best; meanwhile, via the excellent CairObservera video of Cairo scenes from 1938:

    Nathan Brown on SCAF

    Nathan Brown offers some optimism about Egypt in "Midnight for the SCAF's Cinderella Story."  Not everyone shares the optimism, and I'm sure some are hoping SCAF stays around, but I think he has some important points here.

    Monday, March 19, 2012

    Nowruz Mobarak

    Although most of us think of the spring equinox as March 21, this year the astronomical equinox is at 1:14 AM Eastern Daylight Time Tuesday morning. That also makes it Nowruz. I've gone into various aspects of Nowruz in my Nowruz posts for previous years, so let's just say that while it is, of course, the ancient Persian New Year, it is celebrated far beyond the borders of Iran: In Iranian-influenced areas well up into Central Asia on the one side, in Turkey and parts of the Balkans on the other; also among Kurds, Syrian Alawites and others in the Middle East, as well as members of the Zoroastrian and Baha'i faiths everywhere, and of course the broad Iranian diaspora. Nowruz means "New Day," a fine note to sound for spring, so a happy Nowruz to all.

    How the Copts Will Choose their Next Pope

    With the death of Pope Shenouda III this weekend (see my appreciation of Shenouda here), the Coptic Church of Egypt embarks on a process for choosing the next Pope, who will be the 118th successor of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Since Shenouda reigned for 40 years, it has been a long time since the process of succession has been implemented, so even Copts may need to familiarize themselves with the process.

    It is a process likely to take several months at least. There are reports suggesting the Church may delay the election until after the election of an Egyptian President, no excessive delay may be required: the President should be chosen by July 1, while in 1971 the interval between the death of Pope Kyrillos VI and the election of Shenouda was eight months. (It can take even longer; in 1956-59 it took more than two years.) The basic rules currently in force were laid down by a Presidential decree of 1957 by Gamal Abdel Nasser, (link is in Arabic), prior to the election of Kyrillos VI.

    Acting Pope Bp. Pachomius
    The first step in the transition is the election of a locum tenens or Acting Pope who will preside over the Church during the transition. The holder of this post is considered ineligible to be elected Pope since he will have overseen the electoral process, though in the last century there were exceptions to this. The Acting Pope has already been named, Bishop Pachomius (Bakhomious), Metropolitan Archbishop of Buheira.

    The Holy Synod — the body of Coptic bishops — is the Church's man ecclessiastical body; the Millet Council (Al-Maglis al-Milli) is the lay body of prominent Copts who have provided a voice for the laity since 1874. These two bodies play a key role in the creation of the electoral council to choose the Pope. Each nominates nine of its members, presided over by the Acting Pope to form a 19-member Council, which receives nominations. These are then voted on by the Holy Synod, the Millet Council, and a third body, created by the 1957 decree, which consists of prominent Copts from each diocese, former Ministers and MPs, and other notables. This body may be the way the state maintains some oversight in the selection process.  At the end of a vetting process, the Electoral Council announces the names of no fewer than five and no more than six or seven candidates. This process can easily occupy three months, so once again little delay is required to postpone the papal election past that of the President.

    Under the Presidential decree, the only specified requirements are that the candidates be 40 years old, never married, and have spent at least 15 years as a monk. However, an ancient tradition of the church was to choose the Pope directly from a monastery, not from the bishops (though the bishops themselves are all drawn from the monks, in the Eastern tradition). This was relaxed in the 20th century and several Popes wee elected from the bishops. Shenouda himself was a general bishop (administering a Church-wide department, not an individual diocese). There are some who favor returning to a monks-only rule; others who accept election of a General Bishop but not a Diocesan Bishop, and others who believe precedent allows the election of Diocesan Bishops as well. At least one prominent figure, Bishop Bishoy, is both a General Bishop as Secretary of the Holy Synod and the Diocesan Metropolitan Bishop of Damietta. This eligibility issue is likely to be argued within the Church in the coming weeks and months.

    In the Acts of the Apostles, when the eleven remaining Apostles sought to replace Judas Iscariot, they chose a new Apostle by lot. The final decision in the election of a Coptic Pope is still carried out, by ancient tradition, by what is known as the Altar Lot. The Coptic faithful, including their children, gather at the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Abbasiyya. A young boy is randomly chosen from the congregation, blindfolded, and draws a name from a box on the altar. The name drawn becomes the successor of Saint Mark.

    Just as Italians love to speculate on the papabile or papal candidates when it is time to elect a Roman Catholic Pope, so Copts speculate about the candidates for their Papacy, and the question of whether Diocesan Bishops are eligible comes into play.  But that will be the subject of a separate post in the coming weeks.

    Shenouda's Last Viewing

    Front Page, Al-Tahrir: "The Last Viewing"
    Yesterday tens of thousands of the Coptic faithful flocked to Saint Mark's Cathedral in Abbasiyya to pay final respects to Pope Shenouda III. In an ancient tradition, rather than viewing the deceased laid out in an open casket as in Western funerals, the last viewing takes place with the pontiff on his papal throne for the last time.

    That paragon of journalism, The Daily Mail, seems to find this particularly unusual.  I think it's done in other Eastern Church traditions as well, and frankly I don't see how it differs greatly from any viewing in which the corpse of the deceased is publicly displayed: and that is regularly done in most Western traditions. Perhaps I'm more multiculturally attuned than The Daily Mail, but then you can probably say that of just about everybody.

    I have already offered my own initial obituary, but Al Jazeera English's video obit may be of interest, particularly for its historical film clips:

    Sunday, March 18, 2012

    Coptic Pope Shenouda III, 1923-2012

    His Holiness Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa and the Preaching of Saint Mark, died Saturday at the age of 88. He has long been ailing from back and kidney problems and appeared extremely frail at the Christmas liturgy in January and in more recent appearances, so his passing is not a surprise, but coming at a time of rising Islamist political influence in Egypt and recent tensions between Copts and their Muslim neighbors, the succession of the See of Saint Mark is of considerable political importance to Copts and other Egyptians alike.

    Shenouda's reign of over 40 years, 1971-2012, was an unusually long one (though Pope Kyrillos V, 1874-1927, at 52 years holds the record), and his papacy has many accomplishments to boast of: the enormous growth of the Coptic diaspora, and the creation of bishoprics in Europe, the Americas, and Australia; the great expansion of Coptic education and improvement of seminaries at home and abroad, the building of new churches, improvement of ecumenical links with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and much more. But he also created controversies throughout his reign as well. He emerged as something of a protégé of the popular and saintly monk Matta al-Maskin, who had once been his confessor, but with whom he had a theological falling out, leading to the banning of some of Matta's work. Beyond such internal Coptic theological issues, most of the controversy surrounding him involved his role in politics, and his very different relationships with the two Presidents whose presidencies coincided almost exactly with his papacy, Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak. (Shenouda came to power only a few months after Sadat assumed the Presidency, and survived just over a year after Mubarak's fall.)

    His predecessor, Kyrillos VI, had been a close ally and friend of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which I discussed in this post last year.Sadat initially saw Shenouda as an ally, but Shenouda became increasingly critical of discrimination against Copts, attacks on churches, and other issues. When the Coptic diaspora in Europe and America began agitating for Coptic rights just as Sadat was being hailed in the West for his visit to Israel, he blamed Shenouda and the two men became increasingly antagonistic. When Sadat cracked down on all his critics shortly before his assassination in 1981, he deposed Shenouda and sent him into internal exile in the desert monastery of Anba Bishoi in the Wadi Natrun. After Mubarak succeeded Sadat, the restrictions on Shenouda were relaxed, and in 1985 he was fully restored to his papacy. (A Council of Bishops had governed the church in his absence.)

    If Shenouda had had a confrontational relationship with Sadat, he had a very different one with Mubarak. Perhaps chastened by his deposition and exile, or genuinely grateful for his restoration, he was an outspoken supporter of Mubarak, even when many of the faithful at home complained of government neglect and tacit toleration of attacks on Copts. Many Copts abroad became critical of the Pope, at least of his political support of Mubarak. In recent years, he even appeared supportive of the project for Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father. Many supporters of the Revolution, especially among Copts, felt the Pope was too cautious too long, though in the end he was cautiously supportive.

    The timing alone assures that the choice of his successor will be an important one, not just for Copts but for Coptic-Muslim relations as a whole. A new Pope will, in fact, once again begin a papacy almost at the same time as a new, elected President.

    A locum tenens  will be named to run the church during the transition. I will be posting soon on the complex unusual process for choosing the next successor of Saint Mark, and will no doubt find I have more to say about the legacy of Shenouda III. Whatever one's verdict on his reign, it was one of the more eventful in the recent history of the ancient Church of Saint Mark.

    Friday, March 16, 2012

    The Annual Saint Patrick's Day Post on Early Irish Links to Egypt

    Tomorrow is Saint Patrick's Day, when traditionally since 2009 I repeat my posting on the faint (but real) traces of early links between the Coptic Church of Egypt and the early Irish Christian Church. The original post, unchanged except for fixing typos, is below. One update appeared in 2010 when an Egyptian papyrus was dug up in an Irish bog, further strengthening the evidence.

    Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone, an appropriate wish here since the Irish Church Patrick founded seems to have been the religious and monastic daughter of the Church of Egypt (the Coptic Church).

    Ah, you're thinking: he's really reaching this time, trying to find a way to work Saint Patrick's Day into a blog on the Middle East. My name is, after all, Michael Collins Dunn, and I'm therefore rarely assumed to have Greek or Japanese ancestry, but actually it's not a reach to find a reason for a Saint Patrick's Day post on the Middle East, since Irish Christianity has ancient, if somewhat hard to document, links to Egypt, and Saint Patrick himself may have studied alongside Egyptian monks. They say everyone's Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, but I'm going to explore how Egypt and Ireland have links dating back to the earliest days of Christianity in the West. And while some of the evidence is a bit hazy, none of this is crackpot theory. I warned you that I started out as a medievalist, and still have flashbacks sometimes. Forgive me if I can't footnote every statement here.

    Anyone who has ever seen one of the standing crosses that are a familiar feature of medieval and post-classical Irish Christian sites will know what the Celtic Cross or "wheel cross" looks like; anyone who has ever set foot in a Coptic Church will know what a Coptic Cross looks like; unfortunately the illustrations at Wikipedia's Coptic Cross site don't include a precise example, but the wheel cross is common among Egyptian Copts as well, and can be seen on many churches in Egypt today. The wheel cross is not an obvious derivation of the Christian cross, and many think it is an adaptation of the ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol, so what is it doing on those Irish standing cross towers?

    Sure, iconography can repeat itself: both Indians in India and Native Americans used the swastika long before Hitler did, and so on. But the Celtic Cross/Coptic Cross similarity is not the only link. There is pretty decent evidence that Christianity in Ireland, if not immediately derived from Egypt, was closely linked to the Egyptian Church. An ancient litany in the Book of Leinster prays for "the seven holy Egyptian monks, who lie in Desert Ulaidh." The place mentioned is somewhere in Ulster, with many placing it in Antrim: perhaps suggestively, "desert" or "disert" in Irish place names meant a place where monks lived apart from the world as anchorites, modeled on the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. "Ulaidh" just means Ulster.Who these seven holy Egyptian monks were is unclear, but they died in Ulster and were sufficiently venerated to be remembered in a litany. [2012 Update: See also here.]

    It is often said (I haven't got a firm cite though) that holy water bottles found in Ireland carry the twin-camel emblem associated with the Shrine of Saint Menas west of Alexandria. (Menas was one of the major patron saints of Egypt, his shrine a major pilgrimage center, and his cult extended far beyond Egypt.) If so, I don't think the Irish were using local camels as models. There are also said to be tombstones in old Irish ogham writing that refer to the burial of so-and-so "the Egyptian." The earliest Irish forms of monasticism included anchorite communities who withdrew from the world and venerated the tradition of Saint Anthony of Egypt; the early Irish church used an Eastern rather than a Western date for Easter; some aspects of ancient Celtic liturgy resemble eastern liturgies, and there are archaeological evidences (mostly probable Egyptian pottery in Ireland and British — Cornish? — tin in Egypt) of trade between Egypt and the British Isles. "Double" monasteries — where a monastery for monks and a convent for nuns were adjacent — first appeared in Egypt, and were common in Ireland. The evidence may be circumstantial, but there's a lot of it.

    I've also heard (but can't Google up the reference just now) that somewhere in the Irish monastic literature there is a pilgrimage guide to the Desert of Scetis, the Egyptian desert region of Coptic monasteries today known as the Wadi Natrun. That, along with the Saint Menas holy water bottles, suggests Irish monks made pilgrimages all the way to Egypt. And obviously those seven holy Egyptian monks in Ulster made the trip the other way.

    But do these connections between Egypt and Ireland, tenuous as they may seem, really connect in any way with Saint Patrick, justifying this as a Saint Patrick's Day post? I'm glad you asked.

    Saint Patrick's life has been much encrusted with mythology (the snakes, the Shamrock, etc.) and all we can really say for certain is what he himself told us in his autobiographical Confession: he was born somewhere on the western coast of Roman Britain (so the Apostle of Ireland was British, but before there was such a thing as an Englishman since the Angles and Saxons were not yet present: he probably spoke old British, an ancestor of Welsh), was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland, later escaped and joined the church, and returned as the apostle of Ireland. But very ancient biographies (though not his own autobiographical account, one of the few vernacular Latin works to survive from the period) say that he studied for the priesthood at the Abbey of Lérins off the south coast of France. This was a Mediterranean island abbey much influenced by the church of Egypt and the rule of Saint Anthony of Egypt, and according to some accounts, many Coptic monks were present there. There's no certainty that Patrick ever studied there, but then, he studied somewhere, and this is the only place claimed by the early accounts. So Patrick himself may have had direct links to the Egyptian church. (And remember that until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD — by which time Patrick was already a bishop in Ireland, himself dying in 461 by most accounts — the Coptic Church and the rest of Christendom were still in full communion.)

    There may be even more to it than this. A few linguists believe that the Celtic languages, though Indo-European in their basic structure, have a "substratum" of some previous linguistic element that is not found in other Indo-European languages, only in Celtic, but some aspects of which are also found in Afro-Asiatic languages, particularly Berber and Egyptian (of which Coptic, of course, is the late form). I'm certainly not qualified to judge such linguistically abstruse theories, and know neither Irish nor Coptic, and they seem to have little to do with the question of Egyptian-Irish Christian influences. But it helps remind us that the ancient world was more united by the sea than divided by it, and that the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia.

    While the links are tenuous, they appear to be real. Irish historians accept some level of Egyptian influence in the Christianization of Ireland, and Coptic historians love to dwell on the subject, since it lets them claim a link to the earliest high Christian art and culture of Western Europe. If Irish monasticism preserved the heritage of the ancient world and rebuilt the West after the barbarian invasions, and if the Irish church is a daughter of the Egyptian church, then tbe West owes more to Egypt than most would imagine.

    I first heard a discussion of this in a presentation by the Coptic Church's bishop in charge of ecumenical outreach, Bishop Samweel, back in the early 1970s. I later ran across several references to it in British orientalist literature (Stanley Lane-Poole seems to have been particularly fond of it, and I think he places Desert Ulaidh near Carrickfergus), and continue to find it intriguing, if never quite clear enough to nail down precisely.

    Bishop Samweel, mentioned above, met an unfortunate end by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the way. When Anwar Sadat deposed Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 1981, Sadat named Samweel — considered one of the Coptic church's leading figures after Shenouda — head of a council of bishops to run the church while the Patriarch was in exile. Due to this appointment, Bishop Samweel was seated on the reviewing stand behind Sadat on October 6, 1981, and died in the volley of fire which killed the President.

    Like much of the earliest history of any culture or country, the links between Irish and Egyptian Christianity are fairly well-delineated but their precise origins are untraceable, but tantalizing. Since this is little known to most Westerners or even to Egyptians who aren't Copts, it seemed appropriate to mention it on Saint Patrick's Day.

    Erin go bragh. Misr Umm al-Dunya.

    New Stanford-Brookings Doha Joint Democratic Transitions Project

    The Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford's Center for Democracy, Drevelopment and the Rule of Law and the Brookings Institution's Doha Center have announced a new joint "Project on Democratic Transitions." Their first paper, "Drafting Egypt's New Constitution," by Tamir Mustafa (summary at link, full PDF here) is available.

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    Jadaliyya Celebrates M. Mahmoud Street Graffiti/Murals

    Mona Abaza at Jadaliyya has a well-illustrated piece about the increasingly famous murals on the AUC walls along Muhammad (Mohamed, Mohammad) Mahmoud street just off Tahrir Square. The increasing fame certainly helps efforts to preserve the folk art murals. Earlier posts by me on the artwork are here and here.

    The "Asad E-Mails"

    The Guardian has published excerpts of what the Syrian opposition claims to be e-mails of Bashar al-Asad, his wife Asma, and other senior officials. The picture painted is one that tracks with the traditional stereotype of the out-of touch despot: Nero fiddling while Rome burns, Marie Antoinette saying "They have no bread? Let them eat cake!"; Imelda Marcos buying warehouses of shoes. Of course, of those three examples, historians have real doubts about the first two ever having happened, and there may be cause for caution in this case as well.

    Genuine or a clever forgery, it's still fascinating. The document texts are here. The Guardian explains what it has done to verify the genuineness of the e-mails here. The Asads exchange country music lyrics and discuss getting the latest Harry Potter movie (do the Asads cheer for Lord Voldemort?); Asma shops and shops and shops, including for, yes, shoes. And complains about paying VAT. All while the country burns. Asad even lampoons the "reforms" he is publicly promising.

    I linked above to The Guardian's statement of why it believes the e-mails to be genuine, and they are a serious newspaper, not a tabloid. Still, major media have been hoaxed in the past (the Hitler Diaries, the Howard Hughes Memoirs), and one has to wonder if Bashar al-Asad really signs himself as "Sam." And at the moment, disinformation is flowing on both sides in this conflict.

    So do read the e-mails, either as a sign of the out-of-touch aloofness of the besieged tyrant, or just gossip, or perhaps a brilliant hoax. Make your own judgment; I'm suspending mine for the moment.

    Libya: Still Time to Book for Summer

    MSNBC asks: "Could Sun-Soaked Libya Be the Mediterranean's Next Tourism Hot Spot?"

    Why not? Unspoiled beaches, sun, spectacular Roman ruins like Leptis Magna, rival militias shooting it out . . . well, it may take a little time yet. Maybe next year. And if the folks threatening to leave Egypt if they ban booze and bikinis are thinking of Libya as a replacement, they may want to check the new rulers' intentions on those issues.

    But hey, it's a country I've never visited, and I'd love to see Leptis Magna.

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012

    Nothing to See Here, Folks: "He Could Not Explain the Afghan's Motives or Explain Why He Was On Fire."

    Great moments in press spin: Elizabeth Bumiller in The New York Times on the incident that took place when Leon Panetta's plane was landing at a British air base near Kandahar:
    [Pentagon Press Secretary] Mr. [George] Little said the stolen vehicle never exploded, counter to some earlier reports, and that Mr. Panetta was never in danger. But he could not explain the Afghan’s motive or explain why he was on fire. “For reasons that are totally unknown to us at this time, our personnel discovered that he was ablaze,” Mr. Little said. “He ran, he jumped on to a truck, base personnel put the fire out, and he was immediately treated for burn injuries.”
    "He could not explain ... why he was on fire."

    Unauthorized  (and stolen) truck driven by unauthorized Afghan on runway as US Secretary of Defense is landing, Driver emerges from truck and bursts into flames. No, nothing suspicious here. Keep moving.

    The Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel

    From the Oxford University Press Blog: a conversation with an author of a book about Egypt's grand hotels in the golden age: The Grand Hotels of Egypt: In the Golden Age of Travel. (Note: "Travel," not "Tourism." There was a difference.)  Of course with Shepheard's burned in 1952 the grandest of the grand is long gone, but some of the others still survive: it's neighbor the Windsor, now known mainly for its barrel bar, and the once grand Cecil in Alexandria, Old Winter Palace in Luxor and Old Cataract in Aswan; the book apparently uses lots of old photographs and such. It should be worth a look. I'll confess a lingering romantic attachment to the leftovers of Empire; the tendency to feel that Agatha Christie (or is it Somerset Maugham?) is having tea across the way, or some other echo of a lost era. I also know, of course, that the Imperial visitors were blind to the countries around them and the people who served then their tea. Besides the great ones in Egypt there are other relics I've visited such as the King David in Jerusalem, the Peninsula in Hong Kong or Raffles in Singapore, and doubtless many more in the Subcontinent that I don't know. Anyway, it sounds like a book worth seeing.

    Prisoner Masters Hieroglyphics

    Here's a nice human interest piece from the LA Times on a self-taught prisoner who has made himself something of an expert on Egyptian hieroglyphics.

    Reporters Without Borders "Enemies of the Internet" List

    Reporters Without Borders has issued their annual "Enemies of the Internet" list, and once again it is heavily weighted toward the Middle East and Central Asia. This year Bahrain has been added as an enemy, and Libya has been dropped from the "under surveillance" category. Read the report at the link.

    Jumblatt, Druze Clergy at Odds over Syria

    Eternal Lebanese political weathervane Walid Jumblatt has been denouncing Syria lately, and supporting the uprising. As this piece in Al-Akhbar notes, however, that isn't selling well to the Druze elders in Lebanon, who are determined to stay out of Syrian internal affairs. The Druze clergy appear to be at odds with their hereditary feudal lord/Socialist politician leader, in part out of concern for the Druze in Syria.

    Though the Syrians were most likely behind his father's assassination, he was long a staunch defender of Damascus, though he also went through an anti-Syrian  period when he became the only member in good-standing of the Socialist International to be feted by US right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. After another round of pro-Syrian alignment, he's now firmly (for now) on the side of the uprising.

    Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    Chahar-Shanbe Suri

    Iran is reporting one dead and others injured in the fire celebrations of Chahar-Shanbe Suri, the "Red Wednesday" celebration on the eve of the last Wednesday of the old Persian year. The ancient Persian celebration,k which precedes Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is closely watched by the clerical regime, both for the feast's pre-Islamic Persian content and Zoroastrian echoes, and as a possible outlet for political protest.

    Greetings to Iranians and all who celebrate Iranian culture everywhere for Chahar-Shanbe Suri and the approach of Nowruz.


    An Echo of Al-Andalus: Tunisia's Ma'luf

    Tunisias Online has a post about the Tunisian Ma'luf,, a traditional musical form originally brought to North Africa by refugees from Al-Andalus, Islamic Spain. (The city of Tunis became a major gathering place for those driven from Iberia; the fairly common tunisian surname Mourou is said to be Spanish Moro.) Along with the related term muwashahat and other terms applied to Andalusian survivals in Morocco (Andalusi) and Algeria (Gharnati, of Granada), the Ma'luf  is both a proud symbol of Tunisian tradition and an echo of a more distant time. Another article with a bit more technical information may be found here. And a Wikipedia piece here. But you don't need to read about it:

    Turkey's Outreach to Eastern Christians: FM Meets with Greek and Armenian Patriarchs; Woos Syriac Return

    The photograph above shows Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu meeting with his All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, symbolic spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches. It would seem to be a typical political courtesy call with one exception: nothing of the sort has previously occurred since the foundation of the Turkish Republic. In the past week or so, Davutoglu has met with not only the Ecumenical Patriarch but with a senior Archbishop at the Armenian Patriarchate (the Patriarch is ailing) and other Christian leaders. and Turkey has expressed hope that two Syriac patriarchates of Antioch, now based outside Turkey, will return.

    The Ecumenical Patriarchate, traditionally known as the Phanar in Greek (Fener in modern Turkish), today has primarily symbolic importance among the world's Eastern Orthodox, but the Ecumenical Patriarch under the Turkish Republic has largely been ignored when not being harassed. It has essentially been treated as one more local religious body.Thus the meeting is extraordinary.. That a basically Islamist-oriented government is reaching out to the Christian Patriarchates where the secular Kemalist regimes never did is of course of interest, though Kemalism's hostility to religious establishments is at least in part involved, along with historic nationalism and ethnic resentments. Turkey has traditionally rejected the title of "Ecumenical" in the Patriarchate's title, and a similar usage in the case of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

    I doubt if I need to elaborate on the awkward position of the Armenian Patriarchate in modern Turkey.

    In presumably related news, Turkey is reaching out to churches once based in Turkey but now headquartered in the Arab world. Last year in my discussion of the "Lost Cities of Northern Syria," I noted how Antioch, once the city where Christians were "first called Christians" and one of the powerful sees of the early church, had so declined. There are still five Christian prelates with the title Patriarch of Antioch, but not one resides in the ancient city, now Antakya in Turkey. The Orthodox (Antiochean) Patriarch, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, and the Melkite Catholic Patriarch all reside in Damascus; the Syriac Catholic Patriarch in Beirut and the Maronite Catholic Patriarch in Bkerke, Lebanon. (There will be a quiz.) Now, the Turks are apparently making a bid to persuade the Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox to return to Turkey; Davutoglu has met with their officials inside Turkey.. (The Syriac Catholics split from the Syriac Orthodox and joined Rome in the 1700s. The Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate was in Mardin, Turkey, until 1933, when it was forced to relocate to Homs, Syria. In 1959 it moved to Damascus.) While neither church seems eager to jump at the offer (the Syriac Orthodox have some very unpleasant memories of their treatment in the early part of the last century), they are also extremely nervous about their future in a post-Asad Syria, which may be part of Turkey's calculus.