A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 30, 2012

Cairo's Other Island: Gazirat Warraq and Why it Votes Islamist

Warraq Island is at the top (Google Maps)
Ahram Online has an interesting geography lesson for all the Cairo hands. Everyone who visits Cairo gets to know the elite suburb of Zamalek, on Gezira Island (which means "island island," so most people just say Zamalek); the smaller Roda Island to its south is home to luxury hotels and old palaces. But the biggest island in the Nile at Cairo is Gezirat Warraq, the big one at the top of the map at left, and tourists don't go there; neither do most Cairo residents. A rural, agricultural island, there are no bridges, and only a single ferry. Yet it's officially home to 40,000 people (the locals say 80,000). On the island, the choice of transport is Toktok vehicles which charge more than taxis in Zamalek, according to the locals, or donkeys.

Sarah El-Rashidi at Ahram Online has gone to Warraq to find out what the people there are thinking. They think they're neglected, for one thing, and they wish they had a bridge. Several residents call the place a "living hell" and are ashamed to admit they live on the island. Poverty, inflation and government neglect have made it a stronghold for Islamists, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour.

It's a reminder that there is much more to Egypt, and to Cairo, than most people see. And it helps explain the appeal of the Salafis, that bewilders so many people in the salons of Zamalek, on another island just upriver.

Video: The Last Ottoman Sultan's Coronation

Mehmet VI (Wikipedia)
As Ottoman Sultans go, Mehmet VI Vahittetin will never be conrused with Selim Yavuz or Suleiman the Magnificent. Nor did he particularly look the part of the Sultan/Caliph/Padishah (right). But he does hold the distiction of being the last Sultan, deposed by the new republic in 1922. (A relative remained Caliph for a bit longer.) For our periodic nostalgia fix, though, and via Antika, here's an old clip of his coronation, July 4, 1918, as the Allies' noose was tightening around the Ottoman Empire (the Ottomans left the war with the Mudros Armistice on October 30, 1918).

Going Into Exile (Wikipedia)
When the Sultanate was abolished in 1922, he was sent into exile in Malta aboard a British warship (left).

Just a few weeks ago I noted that his granddaughter, said to be the last Ottoman princess born under the Empire, had died at age 91.

Benzion Netanyahu (1910-2012), Father of Bibi, dies at 102

Those who know Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu have long said that by far the greatest influence on his life was his father, Benzion Netanyahu. A corollary to that statement that is sometimes heard is the assertion that the younger Netanyahu might be more amenable to political compromise if not for the fact that he would not do anything his father disapproved of while the elder Netanyahu was alive. Whether that is true is unclear and has been untestable until now.

Benzion Netanyahu died today at the venerable age of 102.  He died early in the day and was buried in Jerusalem in the afternoon in conformity with Jewish tradition. The Prime Minister gave the eulogy.

The elder Netanyahu was a well-known historian who spent much of his career at Cornell University. Born Benzion Mileikowsky in Warsaw in 1910,he took the name Netanyahu with his parents on going to Palestine in 1920. Benzion went to the United States in 1940 to work with Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, and after the death of Jabotinsky reresented the New Zionist (Revisionist) movement in the United States.

He took a Ph.D. in the US and during his academic career, culminating at Cornell, he edited encyclopedias in both Hebrew and English. His enormous historical masterwork, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th Century Spain, was published in 1995. It reflects his lifelong preoccupation with persecution of the Jewish people.

Obituaries and appreciations by The New York Times here; Haaretz here (and the father's influence on the son here), and The Jerusalem Post here.

I plan to comment on the growing criticism of Bibi Netanyahu's Iran policies from military, security and political figures in Israel shortly, but this news took precedence.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Anatomy of a Hoax and Media Credulity: The "Egypt Necrophilia Law" Story

A quote attributed (dubiously) to Mark Twain has it that "A lie can go halfway around the world while truth is getting its boots on." And that was before the Internet. There was a classic example of this yesterday, when a story so grotesque, bizarre, and appalling that you'd think no one would believe it without evidence (and there was none) managed to turn up in print media and all over the Internet before a few intrepid souls noticed that there was no credible sourcing to the story. It's a case study in the down side of instant 24/7 reporting, and it tells us something about the tendency for Western media to believe absolutely anything about Islamists. Even this, from the (usually) respectable, liberal, Huffington Post, which is less sensational than some of the reports:
Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated parliament is preparing to introduce a controversial law that would allow husbands to have sex with their deceased wives up to six hours after death.
Known as the “farewell Intercourse” law, the measure is being championed as part of a raft of reforms introduced by the parliament that will also see the minimum age of marriage lowered to 14 for girls.
After an inevitable "WHAT!!!???" response, which of the following options do you think was the reaction of many (thankfully, not all) of the media?:
  1. Traditional journalistic due diligence: Who has introduced this outrageous law in Parliament. What are the sources of the story? Where is this supposed bill in the Parliamentary process? When was it introduced? Why would anybody believe this outrageous story without even citing the name of one Member of Parliament supporting such a bill? Or:
  2. Just reprint it without checking with anyone. After all, I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true. 
Yes, a lot of folks who should know better chose door number two.

It's such an outrageous story that one is reminded of Josef Goebbels' famous dictum that "the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it." This story, improbable as it ought to have seemed to anyone with common sense, somehow went halfway round the world before truth could get its boots on. Several Egyptian reporters/bloggers and an American or two have gradually reconstructed where this grotesque report came from, and I am trying to summarize all their findings here.

I'll cite specific instances below, but this story turned up in English first, I think, in the English website of Al-Arabiya, was picked up by the tabloid The Daily Mail, and then started to turn up all over the place: in rabid right-wing Islamophobic sites, of course, but also in liberal venues like The Huffington Post. For the right, it proves the morbid perversity of Islam; for the left, it proves the repression of women. Both points might be well taken if anyone had the slightest evidence that any such law exists. No one has produced any.Yet by the time it gets to The Daily Mail, the story has become:
Egyptian husbands will soon be legally allowed to have sex with their dead wives - for up to six hours after their death. The controversial new law is part of a raft of measures being introduced by the Islamist-dominated parliament.
Now it "will soon be legally allowed" under a law "introduced by the Islamist-dominated parliament." It sounds like it's a done deal, about to be rammed through a pliant parliament. Very alarming, except for the minor detail of not being true

There were a few voices who actually used their heads and called BS early on. Several Egyptian journalists and bloggers, notably journalist Sarah Carr and blogger Zeinobia, who I'll quote in discussing how this bizarre thing got started below, and Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor, in a piece entitled "Egypt 'Necrophilia Law'? Hooey, Utter Hooey.  Murphy's response should have been the first reaction of any serious reporter, or of anyone familiar with Egypt. It was pretty much mine, which is why I didn't mention the story. (Well, my reaction wasn't precisely "utter hooey," because I'm not sure I've ever actually said, or even thought, "hooey," but apparently you can't say "bullshit" in The Christian Science Monitor.)

As Murphy put it:
There's of course one problem: The chances of any such piece of legislation being considered by the Egyptian parliament for a vote is zero. And the chance of it ever passing is less than that. In fact, color me highly skeptical that anyone is even trying to advance a piece of legislation like this through Egypt's parliament. I'm willing to be proven wrong. It's possible that there's one or two lawmakers completely out of step with the rest of parliament. Maybe. 
No one has proven him wrong. Although Murphy and the Egyptian blogosphere were raising red flags, the story made its way around. Gossip sites and sensational sites joined the Islamophobic sites in repeating the tale.

Andrew Sullivan, whose widely-read blog at The Daily Beast is usually above this sort of thing, but who distrusts fundamentalism whether Christian or Muslim, quoted The Daily Mail (since he's British, I doubt if he had it confused with The Economist as far as reliability goes), and had some harsh words for Islam. ("One wonders: what part of Islam requires fucking your dead wife?") Admittedly and to his credit, he has since noted and quoted the evidence that the story's untrue, but it's further evidence of how far this story went and how respectable media bought it for a while.

So how did this story go so far? The following reconstruction is based on others' work, mostly 1) Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr, who posted a response to the Daily Mail article (which is now buried in a comments thread that runs to more than 800, but which she posted to Facebook for the record) and has since pursued the issue, blogger Zeinobia, who was also on the case early, and Murphy's previously cited CSM article. Carr, I think, nails the unspoken presumptions that helped spread the story:
While I appreciate that the Daily Mail sifts the Internet daily for news pieces that will confirm to its readers that Muslims are all book-burning, wife-incarcerating, turban-wearing lunatics, and while I appreciate that this item is particularly attractive because of its salaciousness, if Lee Moran had troubled himself to do a little bit of research beyond translating an op-ed and a TV talking head, he would have discovered that in fact, a draft law to allow men to bonk their deceased wives does not exist. This may seem remarkable, given that Egyptians (i.e. scary mooslems) revolted in 2011 for PRECISELY this right, but there we are.
If Mr Moran's googling had been more thorough he would have discovered that this rumour was started by a local wacko who, alas, has a public platform by virtue of the fact that he owns a satellite channel.
This is what seems to be the timeline:

1. The only named person who is known to have actually claimed that Islam supports this bizarre idea is a Moroccan sheikh, Zamzami Abdelbari, a fringe figure, and even he apparently said it was a repulsive practice. I've spoken before somewhere on this blog about my reluctance to indulge in the latest "crazy sheikh/crazy fatwa" report, in which the media focuses on a so-called "fatwa" from some self-proclaimed "sheikh" with a following that may include his immediate family, and treat this as some sort of "official" ruling. This guy has nothing to do with Egypt.

2. Next, the plot moves to Egyptian satellite TV owner/talk show host/conspiracy theorist Tawfiq Okasha. Okasha has been a critic of the revolutionaries, a conspiracist who sees the US and Israel behind everything, a rabble-rouser last mentioned on this blog as being blamed for promoting attacks on the US Embassy. Zeinobia compares him to the US' Glenn Beck. This broadcast (Arabic) seems to be the first appearance of this idea  of "Farewell intercourse"  (مضاجعة الوداع) in Egypt:

3. Next, the story moves to the state-owned Al-Ahram where a secularist, anti-Islamist columnist named Amr Abdel Samea edtorialized that the Egyptian National Organization for Women were protesting this and a proposed law reducing the marriage age (which actually is advocated by some Islamists.) The link is in Arabic. It doesn't clearly cite a specific bill or any advocates of such a bill. It refers to "talk about" such a bill, but not specifying by whom. It's more a case of  a rhetorical "if the Islamists have their way they're liable to do something this crazy."

4. Abdel Samea's op-ed then provokes in turn a sensational TV commentary from Gaber al-Qarnouty on the channel ON TV. He quotes Abdel Samea but talks as if there is actually a draft law under discussion. It has gone from nightmare scenario to stated fact:

5. It's this Qarnouty broadcast that was picked up by the English website of Al-Arabiya, in the post that was then picked up throughout the West:
Egyptian prominent journalist and TV anchor Jaber al-Qarmouty on Tuesday referred to Abdul Samea’s article in his daily show on Egyptian ON TV and criticized the whole notion of “permitting a husband to have sex with his wife after her death under a so-called ‘Farewell Intercourse’ draft law.”

“This is very serious. Could the panel that will draft the Egyptian constitution possibly discuss such issues? Did Abdul Samea see by his own eyes the text of the message sent by Talawi to Katatni? This is unbelievable. It is a catastrophe to give the husband such a right! Has the Islamic trend reached that far? Is there really a draft law in this regard? Are there people thinking in this manner?” 
Of course, the answer to Qarnouty's rhetorical questions are "No, no, and no." But the next step is the jump to the Daily Mail report that "Egyptian husbands will soon be legally allowed to have sex with their dead wives." The fact that there's no basis for the report that anyone has yet found, is of course lost in translation.

Sarah Carr again:"Conclusion: It's a load of bollocks." That's the British equivalent of Murphy's "utter hooey." It's a crock.

Once again, at the end of the day there no "there" there, there's no story. Most of the respectable media that reported the story yesterday have put up hedging clarifications, but this is a story that didn't need to spread so widely to begin with. There may be a Moroccan sheikh who's this far over the edge, but there's no necrophilia bill in the Egyptian Parliament.

Copts Begin Papal Nomination Process

Egypt's Copts have just completed the 40-day mourning period following the death of Pope Shenouda III, and now the nomination process for selecting a new Pope has begun, with a committee now receiving nominations for the post. This begins a nomination process which will eventually narrow the field to three candidates, with the next Pope chosen by "altar lot" when a young boy draws lots among the three final candidates. See my earlier post here for more on the process.

The Lucky (?) 13

Egypt's bizarre Presidential circus is finally (supposedly) official: there are 13 approved candidates. When I last touched on the story, Ahmad Shafiq was being disqualified. He was in fact disqualified, but then a court ruled he was back in the race. Assuming that stands, the 13 are profiled here by the BBC.

Frankly, the ups and downs of the race so far have undercut at least some of the credibility of the election, and it's only just now officially beginning. Egyptians have a long history of elections conducted with the government's thumb on the scale, so skepticism is natural. The elimination of three popular front-runners, even if many are relieved to see them gone, doesn't help the credibility. Let's see what happens.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jordan PM Resigns Amid Electoral Law Debate

Jordanian Prime Minister ‘Awn Khasawneh has resigned, after just six months in office; he was appointed in October. He resigned while out of the country, apparently because of a decision to extend the term of Parliament to debate a much-criticized new electoral law. In his resignation letter and the King's response, both men indicated they were firm supporters of electoral reform. The complicated new electoral law has alienated both Islamists in the opposition and democracy activists, and some analyses, such as this short reaction from Marc Lynch, suggest Khasawneh was frustrated by the Royal Court's unwillingness to let him pursue genuine reform. For a critique of the electoral law, see this piece by Curtis Ryan for Foreign Policy from a couple of weeks ago, and also this account from the Jordanian "alternative news" site AmmonNews.

The King has designated Fayez Tarawneh, a veteran figure who served as the late King Hussein's Prime Minister in 1998-99, to replace Khasawneh.

Walking the Line: Around Israel's 1949 Borders

I meant to note this earlier but am just remembering to do so. Yuval Ben-Ami has been doing an interesting ongoing photo essay at +972 Magazine, the liberal/dovish Israeli site, documenting a trip around Israel in its 1949 borders. The whole thing is called The Round Trip, and its posts can be accessed here. Great photography and astute political and social observations. As of this post he's gotten to Eilat in 18 stages and still has a way to go. A good sample is his post on following the old dividing line through Jerusalem.

Do take a look; if you know Israel or just want to know more, I think you'll find it worth the time.

Nostalgia Website: Egypt Before the Hijab "Obsession"

This Facebook collection  is called "A look at women and Egyptian society before the Wahhabi invasion and obsession with hijab and niqab  رصد للمرأة والمجتمع المصري ما قبل الغزو الوهابي وهوس الحجاب والنقاب

Egyptian Miss World, 1954
It's old pictures of an Egypt before the hijab was so widespread even among elites; I think the title shows the host's viewpoint. It's also a great nostalgia collection.

It's definitely worth a browse.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Nostalgia: Video of Iraq in 1950; Beirut and Damascus in 1951

Via Antika, a couple of nostalgic traelogues, both predictably cliche-ridden (bedouin shepherd at Arch of Ctsiphon look at modern airplane, "Cradle of Civilization," etc) but worth a look:

 Iraq in 1950

Beirut and Damascus 1951:

Firestorm of Debate on Mona Eltahawy's "Why Do They Hate Us?"

If you've been on any social media in the last day or two, you're probably aware that Mona Eltahawy's powerful indictment, "Why DoThey Hate Us?," which I blogged about on Monday, has stirred up a hornet's nest of commentary. Any journalist ought to consider it a triumph to have everybody talking about his/her article and to generate multiple Twitter hashtags, but at times the controversy has gotten a bit harsh. I think the use of the term "hate" may be what proved most provocative, in its implication that Middle Eastern (she';s really mainly talking about Arab) societies hate their women. Perhaps another word (fear?) might have been less controversial, but I think controversy is the whole point of an article like Eltahawy's: you want to engage debate, so you throw a fox in among the chickens.

I'm sure I haven't seen all the responses, even all of those in English. (She says her article is being translated into Arabic and will appear, as some have criticized her for publishing in a Western publication n English). But here's a selection of responses from the last day or so: Foreign Policy itself, in whose "Sex Issue" the article appears, asked five (now six with Leila Ahmed) commentators, male and female, for their reactions, which are here.

Others who have posted essays in various places are Mona KareemSamia Errazzouki, Dima Khatib, Roqayah Chamseddine, Nahed ElTantawy, Zeinobia, and a couple of male voices, Karim Malak, and Philip Brennan.

Al Jazeera English summarizes the debate as well.

UPDATE: Add Nesrine Malik at The Guardian.

A blogger visually graphing the responses here.

UPDATE II: Too  many responses to keep updating this post. As needed I'll add other links in a new post. 

I will only briefly engage this debate here: I'm not Arab, Muslim, or female, so my standing in this debate is as an outsider, though one who's spent a career in the region (and who, as the father of a daughter, thinks about these issues). As I already said, I think the word "hate" provoked much of the response; to many it seemed too strong, though it's hard to look at things like the "virginity tests" and the "blue bra" incident in Egypt (the photo of which is used to illustrate Tahawy's article online) can be explained as anything but contempt for women. Many also have taken her to task for the cover photo on the issue: a woman in black body paint to resemble a niqab, seen by many as playing to multiple Western sexist stereotypes, managing to get suggestions of nudity and full veiling into the same illustration. As an Editor, I'm well aware authors don't usually get a say in the cover art, but not everyone appreciates that.

Everyone needs to read the original article, a powerful indictment as I have said, but as the word implies, also very much a prosecutorial statement. It stands to reason there would be briefs for the defense as well, and much that lies somewhere in between those adversarial positions.

Whatever you think of Mona Eltahawy's article (and I was struck by its sad truths from the beginning), she got our attention. She threw down a gauntlet and managed to get the whole Middle East commentary community talking for a couple of days. That is what opinion journalism, informed by fact, does at its very best. And that should please the author and her editors.

A New Blog on Eastern Berber Languages

For those of you interested in the Berber (Tamazight) languages, there's a new blog concentrating on those spoken in Libya and Egypt (Siwi in the Siwa Oasis, the only Berber language spoken in Egypt). The author calls it Oriental Berber, (I can see the name may raise questions, since "Oriental" carries a lot of baggage when "Eastern" might have done fine, and "Berber" may annoy some activists. It's a collaborative blog by three authors, one of them Lameen Souag of the Jabal al-Lughat and more recently the blog on Algerian Dardja etymology, الأصول التاريخية للدارجة الجزائرية, which I introduced here recently. Souag's post about the new blog is here. His other collaborators are Marijn van Putten of Phoenix's Blog, and Adam Benkato.

They helpfully describe the Berber languages they plan to cover:
We will finish off with a short overview of some of the languages to be discussed on this blog:
  • Aujila Berber (Aujili) is spoken in the oasis of Aujila, Libya. From a historical point of view, it is a fascinating language, as it is one of the few that retains Proto-Berber (as v). Other languages that have retained this consonant are the Tuareg languages (as h) and Ghadamès (as β). Syntactically and morphologically Aujila is an interesting language, as it has lost much of the typically Berber features such as ‘state’, clitic fronting and has quite a different verbal system from other Berber languages.
  • The only Berber language that is spoken in Egypt is Siwa Berber (Siwi), in the oasis of Siwa in the western desert. Like Aujila, it has undergone intensive restructuring of the grammatical system, and fascinatingly, seems to share several of these grammatical features with Aujila.
  • Ghadamès, an oasis in western  Libya on the border with Tunisia, is the home of Ghadamès Berber (Ghadamsi), the other Libyan language that retains the Proto-Berber Ghadamès is a fascinating language for historical linguists as it also shows some traces of the long lost Proto-Berber consonant . Patterns in the oriental Berber languages are the lack of ‘state’ marking, and a radically different verbal system than the more familiar Berber languages of western North-Africa. The verbal system of Ghadamès may just be the most exotic reconfiguration of all the languages of this region.
  • North of Ghadamès, still in western Libya, we find the Nefusa Berber (Nefusi) languages spoken around the Nefusa mountains, in the cities of Nalut, Jadu, Kabaw, and Yefren (to name a few). These languages have received quite substantial academic attention, from the perspective of oriental Berber. Nevertheless, further research, especially into its linguistic history, will be well worth it.
  • High up north on the coast of Libya, we find Zuara, where the Zuara Berber language is spoken. This language has received quite considerable attention due to the recent publication of Mitchell’s work, edited by Harry Stroomer and Stanley Oomen (Mitchell et al. 2009). The Zuara language is not generally considered to be part of the Eastern Berber languages, and is sooner associated with the Northern Berber languages, similar to Tunisian Berber. Nevertheless, this language could use more attention, and maybe in the future of this blog we will focus on it.
  • Sokna Berber (Sokni) was (or is still) spoken in the oasis of Sokna in west-central Libya. Our only record of Sokni comes from 1924, when only a few dozen people were reported to still speak the language. Though distinct from Fogaha Berber, there is some historical relationship between the two.
  • El-Fogaha Berber, traditionally considered to be the same language as Sokna Berber, seems to be lexically quite divergent. A more in-depth study of this language, will definitely give a clearer indication of the underlying relations between these two languages.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Translating James Joyce Into Arabic . . .

. . . isn't easy. But then I think you knew that. This Egypt Independent article notes that Joyce's style has been emulated (especially stream-of-consciousness), by Naguib Mahfouz among others. But translation is more of a challenge. Some of the stories from Dubliners have been translated, but two efforts to translate Ulysses have gone unfinished. (Did they get to Molly Bloom's soliloquy and give up?)

It's funny: they don't even mention Finnegan's Wake. I wonder why?

Kemalism Strikes Back: Second Strange Ataturk Story in a Week

Late last week I shared with you the story of children "moved to tears of joy" when meeting a Kemal Ataturk double. Now we learn that one of the hottest things in Turkey is downloading a font based on Ataturk's handwriting.

If you absolutely insist on having a cult of personality for a leader, it's generally a lot less bloody if you have it for a long-dead one. Ataturk hasn't been gone as long as, say, Washington and Lincoln, but he's not likely to have you shot if you don't download his font, as Saddam might credibly have done. (He did put his handwriting on the flag.)

As this article notes, this is presumably a Kemalist reaction to the AKP Party's non-secularist ways, as old-guard Kemalists cling to their hero's image and handwriting.

Bernard Lewis on Bernard Lewis

There's an interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: "'Osama bin Laden Made Me Famous: Bernard Lewis Looks Back.'"  Lewis will be turning 96 soon and is about to publish his 32nd book. The concluding paragraph captures part of the problem in assessing Lewis:
The conversation turns to his legacy. Does he worry that his wading into current affairs has tarnished his reputation as a scholar? "No," he says flatly. "My scholarship is evaluated for what it's worth. People agree with me and people disagree with me, but that's on scholarly grounds." What about his standing as a public intellectual? Lewis flashes a smile. "Oh, that's easy," he says. "For some, I'm the towering genius. For others, I'm the devil incarnate."
Indeed, the man's scholarly work, in fact almost everything he produced until the age of 75 or so, stands apart from the active politically-weighted writing of more recent years. Having become the darling of many neoconservatives, this claim in his new book will surprise many:
But it is Lewis's relationship with Vice President Dick Cheney that will most intrigue readers. And on that score, Lewis drops a small bombshell. The war in Iraq, Lewis writes midway through the book's last chapter, is "sometimes ascribed to my influence with Vice President Cheney. But the reverse is true. I did not recommend it. On the contrary, I opposed it."
News to me. Whatever you think of Lewis (and I think the first quote above pretty much sums up the two main opinions), he's one of the towering figures of the 20th century in Middle East studies, and a scholar whose scholarship deserves to be remembered when his current-affairs political polemics have faded.

New Law Likely Eliminates Another Major Candidate

Egypt's SCAF has ratified a Parliament-passed Disenfranchisement Law aimed at disqualifying from public office key figures in the Mubarak regime from the past few years. Originally aimed at blocking &lquo;Omar Suleiman, who was subsequently blocked on other grounds, it is likely to have the effect of disqualifying Ahmad Shafiq, the former Air Force Chief and civil aviation head who was also the last Prime Minister of the old regime. Shafiq was once considered a favorite of the military council.

Though many welcomed the disqualification of some of the candidates already blocked, the effect is that, of 23 candidates who appeared to have gathered the requisite amount of support, at least 11 have been disqualified, or nearly half. This seems a bit like the regular rule manipulation of the old regime, which was used to guarantee the "right" people always won. It helps Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abul-Futuh, but it may strike many as a curious approach to democracy.

Of course the assumption that Shafiq will be disqualified may prove wrong. This Presidential election has been a case of making it up as you go along, and is likely to continue so.

Archives of King-Crane Commission Digitzed Online by Oberlin

The King-Crane Commission in Damascus, 1919
If you remember your modern Middle East history course, you probably learned about the American Section of the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey. You won't remember it under that name, however, since everyone then and since has called it the King-Crane Commission. It took its name from Henry Churchill King, President of Oberlin College, and Charles Crane, a Chicago businessman, who were designated by President Woodrow Wilson to visit the defeated Ottoman territories at the end of World War I in 1919, as the Peace Conference was planning League of Nations Mandates in the region. Idealist that he was, Wilson had the crazy idea to actually ask the people who lived in the area what they wanted their future to be. Long story short, the Armenians wanted either independence or a mandate under the US, while the inhabitants of the Levant preferred independence, or, failing that, anything other than to be under the British and French. (I'm oversimplifying, but not by much.) Of course the Peace Conference divided the Levant between British and French mandates, and the aftermath of the war saw a resurgent Turkey and Russia divide the Armenian lands. King and Crane wrote a report on their findings when they returned to the US, but it was not released until 1922, when Wilson was out of office and the British and French were ensconced securely in the Middle East.

Oberlin (King was President of the College, remember) has joined with other repositories and is hosting an open-access digitized archive of the papers of the commission (including petitions and testimony by locals throughout the region), combining holdings from several different locations and intending to add other collections that relate tot he Commission in the future. The home page is here; the overall history and background of the Commission is here; and there is an interactive map showing the Commission's travels and with links to the documents relating to those localities.

One would have had to travel to multiple repositories to access these documents; now they're digially available with a few mouse clicks.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Kenner on the Demise of Daily News Egypt

David Kenner at Foreign Policy offers a eulogy for and appreciation of Daily News Egypt following its abrupt shutdown which I discussed earlier today.

Eltahawy and Sadjadpour in Foreign Policy's "Sex Issue"

Foreign Policy's May/June issue is labeled their "Sex Issue." Yes, at first encounter it seems an unlikely publication to have a sex issue, but it turns out to have some important content, not least on the Middle East. Anyone even slightly familiar with the region hardly needs to be told that the role of women is a central thread in all the culture wars now roiling the region, and that sexuality and sexual harassment are among the taboos often met with denial. So Foreign Policy has a sex issue.

In their introduction they say:
When U.S. magazines devote special issues to sex, they are usually of the celebratory variety (see: Esquire, April 2012 edition; Cosmopolitan, every month). Suffice it to say that is not what we had in mind with Foreign Policy's first-ever Sex Issue, which is dedicated instead to the consideration of how and why sex -- in all the various meanings of the word -- matters in shaping the world's politics.Why? In Foreign Policy, the magazine and the subject, sex is too often the missing part of the equation -- the part that the policymakers and journalists talk about with each other, but not with their audiences. And what's the result? Women missing from peace talks and parliaments, sexual abuse and exploitation institutionalized and legalized in too many places on the planet, and a U.S. policy that, whether intentionally or not, all too frequently works to shore up the abusers and perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity. Women's bodies are the world's battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.
Two of their articles are particularly noteworthy for anyone dealing with our region:

There's much more in the issue, but these two powerful articles are a good place to start.

These issues will not go away, and it's refreshing to see them addressed directly and not sensationally.

RIP Daily News Egypt, a Loss for Independent Journalism

Egypt's independent English-language print daily, the Daily News Egypt, has closed for financial reasons after seven years. The editors were apparently told only on Thursday that the weekend edition would be the last.  And, though the editors offered to fund keeping the website online themselves, the website was offline by Sunday evening. Eulogies are pouring in for an investigative voice that was widely heard because it was in English.

This leaves only the state-owned Egyptian Gazette as a print daily in English, though the Egypt Independent, the English product associated with Al-Masry al-Youm, is an online daily that briefly tried a print version and hopes to do so again at some point. (State-run Al-Ahram also has a weekly English edition in print and a daily online site.) English dailies in Egypt often have an influence outside their actual circulation due to being read by businessmen, tourists and others who do not know Arabic. This blog often cites English media in preference to Arabic ones except when a story is available only in Arabic.

The editors bade farewell to readers this weekend in a post called final words. That link , though I left it in, no longer works; it stopped working sometime late Sunday. The editors had expressed concern about the future of the online archive and had indicated a willingness to finance it themselves. The fact that the site seems to be offline is not encouraging. The Deputy Editor confirms it's now offline, and reproduces the farewell post. There's clearly seems to be an implication that there's more to the story, perhaps more than just finances. Why take the site down so quickly? Surely the fact that Friday's paper had an editorial that blasted SCAF has nothing to do with it, right? A copy of that editorial survives here, for now, since of course the DNE site has vanished. (Though to be fair, since the editors say they were told of the closure on Thursday, the editorial may simply have been a parting shot, not a provocation.)

Here's  The Arabist's tribute, and  another blogger on the subject.

New Blog on Foreign Words in Arabic

 A relatively new blog has just come to my attention, with the earliest posts seeming to date from the first of the year: Words Without Borders/كلمات بلا حدود

It concentrates on foreign words that have come into Arabic — not the modern borrowings like television that everybody can figure out, but the older ones. (Everybody knows "Efendi" comes from Turkish, but I didn't know the Greek from which the Turkish was derived: that sort of thing.)

The first several posts are just in Arabic but the recent ones have both Arabic and English explanations. For the language buffs out there.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Yet More Pics of the Cairo Graffiti

I keep posting the Internet's many sites celebrating the graffiti on Muhammad Mahmoud Street in Cairo; click on graffiti for the earlier ones. This one is a slideshow from Zeinobia.

Overdue Guide: Jillian C. York on Middle Eastern Internet Memes

This blog has occasionally excerpted some of the funnier Internet humor on Middle Eastern politics and society, but somebody needed to do this post, and Jillian C. York at The Guardian has done it: "Middle East Memes: A Guide."

One example from the #SalafistMovies hashtag:

Formula Wrong: Is Bahrain's F1 Grand Prix Race Backfiring?

The decision to go ahead with Bahrain's Formula 1 Grand Prix race this weekend may have seemed like a good idea at one time: try to show that the country is back to normal after last year's disturbances; give Bahrain some positive PR instead of the negative ones engendered by clashes with the opposition, and so on. It isn't quite working out that way. Major protests have erupted demanding cancellation of the race, and of course the media eye is focused on Bahrain precisely because of the race, so the protests are getting coverage. Jane Kinninmont at Foreign Policy recently went into some detail about the complexities of the situation (it's not just a government vs. opposition thing as some in the opposition supported the race), but whatever happens in the race itself, today's demonstrations have made sure that the world is reminded of the situation in Bahrain.

The Crown Prince says the race will go on, but now the race itself has become a lightning rod, and the PR strategy may have backfired.

Coptic Pilgrims', Egyptian Mufti's Jerusalem Visits Stir Up a Hornet's Nest

Thirty-five years ago, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem and spoke to the Israeli Knesset. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, regular flights between the two countries were inaugurated. I believe it was in 1983 that I first took an El Al flight from Cairo to Ben Gurion Airport.

Israeli tourists regularly go to Egypt; few Egyptians reciprocate. There are government delegations, businessmen who travel regularly, and so on, but few private Egyptians visit; it's still stigmatized. Though Jerusalem is holy to both Christians and Muslims, neither group has traditionally made pilgrimages. The late Pope Shenouda III banned Copts from making pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and while some have done so (including at least one bishop a few years ago), the Church does not approve. (For the Copts there are two issues: Israeli occupation of the occupied territories, but also the fact that Israel has supported the Ethiopian Church in a controversy over access to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, claimed by the Copts. This issue, the Deir al-Sultan, is worthy of a post in its own right, but let's leave that for another time.)

First, the Coptic taboo was challenged. With the approach of Easter, regular flights began carrying Coptic pilgrims to Jerusalem; some 2000 had gone by Easter. The Church still disapproves, but Shenouda is gone, and many Copts feel the ban is now collapsing.

Then the Mufti of Egypt went to Jerusalem and all hell broke loose. The senior Egyptian cleric paid a quick visit on Wednesday, prayed at the Al-Aqsa mosque, and was accompanied by the Mufti of Jerusalem and other religious figures as well as a Jordanian prince; the Mufti, Dr. ‘Ali Goma‘a,  explained on Twitter that it was an "unofficial" visit aimed at showing solidarity with the Palestinians and the rights of Jerusalem:

No official meetings with any Israelis have been reported (or even alleged), but there has been a huge uproar from Egyptians who consider such a high-level visit as somehow recognizing Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, despite his Jordanian host. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has  denounced it as a "gross mistake" that imposes normalization with Israel on the Egyptian people.

Zeinobia rounds up much of the debate and print pictures. Meanwhile, The Arabist puzzles over what Gomaa was thinking while also feeling the ban on travel is a mistake.  Salafis in Parliament want him fired, which is the President's prerogative (that currently being interpreted as SCAF)..

I have never understood why a religious figure visiting a religious site in Jerusalem, and having no official contact with Israelis other than what is absolutely necessary, is somehow "normalization" or recognition of the occupation. But I also recognize that coming at a time when on the one hand the Coptic taboo seems to be eroding but on the other, Egyptian-Israeli relations are extremely fragile, the Mufti's "unofficial" visit was certain to create an uproar. And it has.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why Do I Find This Story a Bit . . . Odd? Just Odd.

Hurriyet Daily News Online
I'm not completely sure about my reaction to this otherwise straightforward story, but I think it's the headline and the overall tone of the story: "Children Moved to Tears of Joy by Ataturk Look-a-Like." 

I mean, I have friends involved in the living history reenactment hobby, and if you go to Mount Vernon you sometimes see people dressed as George and Martha Washington, so an Ataturk lookalike visiting schools is not all that strange (unless as a sign that Kemalism still lives in the age of Erdogan). But "Children Moved to Tears of Joy"? Really? We are assured that the kids
went into a frenzy of joy and confusion. Some cried, embracing him in tears while others were frozen in their spots.
"Aren't you dead?" one of the students asked Kaya.
Turkish schoolkids must be a lot more easily moved than my own daughter's classmates would be. ("Nothing much happened at school today. Some guy dressed up as Abe Lincoln, that's all.") Perhaps I'm too cynical. I will admit, from the photo (taken from the story), he's quite a good likeness, at least based on the photos you see everywhere in Turkey.

MB's Popularity Declining?

Would the Muslim Brotherhood do as well in Egypt's Presidential elections — at least if Khairat al-Shater rather than the less inspiring Muhammad Morsi was its candidate — as it did in the Parliamentaries? Steve Negus at The Arabist argues probably not, citing polls showing significant drops in the Brotherhood's popularity. I can't speak for his conclusions but it does seem clear that Parliament, so far, seems to have done little to address the country's real problems, and the  Brothers may get the blame. Worth a read.

Still More on the Cairo Graffiti Walls

I've posted a lot about the graffiti walls around AUC in Cairo; you may recall that AUC was organizing a panel on it earlier this month. Ebony Coletu, one of the organizers, has a well-illustrated piece at Jadaliya under the title "Visualizing Revolution: the Politics of Paint in Tahrir." The pharaonic themes are emphasized, among others.

Read it of course, but most importantly, look at the pictures.

New Blog on ME Arms Control and Regional Security

There's a new blog in the Middle East blogosphere, and it looks like it's off to an impressive start. It's called Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East, and it's about, well, what do you think it's about with that title? It's run by Bilal Y. Saab and Chen Kane, both of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The initial articles are by the two of them but they also say they'll welcome outside contributors. Both are accomplished specialists in the field.

I will note that though many of you will be familiar with the work of Bilal Saab on security issues either in is present or his previous positions, if you drill down in his resume (there's a link on his blog profile to the fuller one, which is the one you need), you'll see that he was once (way back when, though I was there at the time) a researcher  at the Middle East Institute. He has since passed through several great universities on several continents, not to mention some major think tanks, but I'll nevertheless assert my profound conviction that MEI taught him all he knows. I hope he will be gentleman enough not to contradict me since I am plugging his blog. It's my story and I'm sticking with it.

It should be worthy of a bookmark, from the looks of early indicators.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Khamsin Blowing in Cairo Today

Tahrir Square is Said to Be in There Somewhere
It's April in Egypt, the time of year when the Sahara desert sometimes drops in to the Nile Valley for a visit.The caption — the photo's from Zeinobia's blog — claims the above shows Tahrir Square. I'll have to take their word for it. It's the Khamsin, the sandstorms that blow in spring from the West, and this looks like one of the really bad examples.

Edward William Lane's great Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians says the Khamsin (Arabic for "fifty") can blow from the day after Coptic Easter until Pentecost, hence the name. There are other etymologies, but that one will do. The day after Coptic Easter (Sham al-Nasim) was Monday.

My first year in Egypt we experienced a really bad Khamsin like the one in the photo, exacerbated by the fact that one of my flatmates thought it was stuffy and decided to open the windows. Sand, of course, was everywhere.

At least it should cool down the political heat over the Presidential disqualifications. Who's going to demonstrate in that?

The War Between the Sudans

 I haven't said anything yet about the nasty little border war that has simmered for the past couple of weeks on the still disputed border between Sudan and south Sudan, but with a new front being claimed west of the Heglig oilfield that has been the focus of most of the fighting to date, and African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki warnig that the two Sudans are "locked in a logic of war," perhaps I should.at least acknowledge what's going on.

I'm in no position to judge the rights and wrongs in the case; border disputes between countries that were once united, especially when fueled by oilfields along a still-not-fully-resolved border, usually are not a straightforward question. Since South Sudan's independence last July, little progress has been made in negotiations on the outstanding issues. Like much of the world, I have major reservations about the Khartoum regime due to Darfur and much else, and wish the new kid on the block well; but there seems to be some indication that South Sudan is responsible for upsetting a delicate balance here by occupying the disputed oilfield at Heglig. There are the usual ambiguities: are attacks in South Sudan carried out by local rebels or by Sudan? Whose claims are to be believed about aerial bombings, aircraft shot down, etc.?

The United Nations and the African Union are trying to bring things under control, and both have a lot invested in the peace process that saw the birth of an independent South Sudan. If I don't comment in greater detail for now it is because I fully acknowledge my own ignorance of the rights and wrongs in this case. I am confident of one thing: after decades of warfare starting as far back as the 1950s and with only brief respites, the last thing South Sudan needs after less  than a year of independence is another war. I hope they realize that.

Tunisia Seeks to Restore Tourism, Reassure Beachgoers, Jewish Pilgrims

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has told a conference on tourism in Djerba that the new Tunisian government, though Jebali's own Al-Nahda Party is the largest party, it intends to continue to encourage tourism to Tunisia's beaches and other destinations:
"We will respect the traditions of our visitors in their food, and clothing and lifestyle," Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said at a conference to promote tourism held on the island of Djerba, known for its white sandy beaches and luxury spas.
Though the news story refers inaccurately to the "Islamist government" (Nahda lacks a majority), it also notes:
As if to reinforce his message, a wide selection of alcoholic beverages was on offer at the opening ceremony of the tourism conference on Sunday night.
I guess that's what he means when he refers to "their food." Anyway, it's been clear all along that Tunisia was not — whatever its hardcore Salafis might prefer — about to pursue the bans on "booze and bikinis" Islamists in Egypt keep discussing.

Tunisia, like the whole region since the "Arab Spring," has suffered from a decline in tourism, and is trying to get out the message that the beaches are open and welcoming. This from the Tunisia Tourist Board Site:
The Tunisia Tourism Board is On Message

They seem to be having some success: earlier this month the first cruise liner of the season docked at La Goulette outside Tunis.

Some may recall that last year Tunisia stirred controversy over what many thought were overly suggestive ads on the sides of London buses, such as this one:
That may indeed have raised some eyebrows, but it also got a lot of attention for Tunisia, and made its point.

Another tourism element the new government appears intent on holding on to is the international Jewish tourism/pilgrimage trade to the medieval synagogue on the island Djerba. This, too, is being continued and encouraged by the government. Djerba, where the tourism promotion conference was held, is known for both the ancient synagogue and its beaches.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Egypt's Election Mess Stays Messy: Now What?

Despite rumors and speculation that one or more of the candidates excluded from Egypt's election campaign over the weekend would be reinstated on appeal, the Elections Committee has reaffirmed the ban on all ten, including the "big three" of Khairat al-Shater Hazem Abu Isma‘il, and ‘Omar Suleiman.

The Arabist has responded with a "thank God" reaction which I understand (each of the three, he feels, is a destabilizing factor), but am not sure that knocking out the three front runners is going to convince anyone that democracy is taking hold. In fact, Hazem Abu Isma‘il's supporters have already been taking to the streets, and that's likely to continue. The Muslim Brotherhood had a backup candidate in place, Muhammad Morsi, who may not be as divisive within the Brotherhood ranks as Shater. Suleiman was a late starter, and there are allegations the security services were rallying support for him. So while the candidacies may be destabilizing, depriving these constituencies of their candidates will be equally so, I should think.

In a recent piece, Nathan Brown referred to the present increasingly murky mess as "Egypt's Transition Imbroglio." He noted:
There are, to be sure, some rules. In the seven weeks following former President Hosni Mubarak's forced departure last year, a series of policy statements by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a set of constitutional amendments developed by an ad hoc committee appointed by the SCAF and approved in a referendum, and a "constitutional declaration" drafted secretly and proclaimed by the SCAF collectively laid out a set of procedures for rebuilding the Egyptian political order. Those procedures have largely been followed. But they have led Egypt into a state of complete confusion.
Indeed. "Imbroglio" is much too mild: the situation is currently [fouled] up beyond all recognition.Ten of the 20-odd candidates for President have been disqualified. Perhaps more critically, the Constitutional Assembly has been suspended by the courts, while SCAF and Field Marshal Tantawi are now saying that the constitution must be in place for SCAF to hand over power to the elected President on June 30, which is only a month and a half away and with no constitution-writing body in being. Is that an implied threat to stay in power on the part of the military? It sounds like one to me, raising the possibility that the return to the barracks will be postponed even further.

Brown adds, "But if the word 'process' has any meaning left, it cannot be applied to Egyptian politics today." His article carefully traces how the present mess evolved, for those who came in late.

While, like The Arabist, I wasn't eager to see either a Muslim Brotherhood candidate win or ‘Omar Suleiman return, and Hazem Abu Isma‘il would be arguably worse than either, the mass disqualifications here are reminiscent of the Mubarak era, where the rules were constantly manipulated to produce the desired results. Some have suspected all along that the Egyptian Establishment (though that itself seems fragmented these days) had decided on Amr Moussa as the next President: but he would not get there without clearing aside these other "front-runners" (if, in fact, that's what they were). Abdel-Mouneim Abu'l-Futuh, who has appeal to both liberals and Islamists, is probably the other major alternative to Moussa, assuming the disqualifications stand.

From the beginning, many objected to the idea of holding Presidential elections before writing the new Constitution. Or perhaps have a weak (but civilian) interim Presidency like Tunisia has, while the constitution is written. But it's too late for that now (or is it?). The next few weeks will be turbulent. Will they also be violent?

The Wilson Center's "The Islamists Are Coming"

The Woodrow Wilson Center has a new guide, The Islamists are Coming: Who They Really Are, edited by Robin Wright and written by a star-studded array of experts,* and providing a useful reference and guide; and to make things even better, it's all available online.

*Wright and Olivier Roy on general subjects, Samer Shehata and Khalil Anani on Egypt; Christopher Alexander on Tunisia; Marial Omar on Libya; David Ottaway on Algeria; Thomas Pierret on Syria; Nathan Brown on Palestine; Abdesalam Maghraoui on Morocco; Jillian Schwedler on Jordan; Nicholas Blanford on Lebanon; Leslie Campbell on Yemen; Omar Taspinar on Turkey.

Lameen Souag Starts a Blog on Algerian Darja (Colloquial Arabic)

I've linked several times to Lameen Souag's Jabal al-Lughat linguistics blog; Souag is the Algerian SOAS-trained language specialist who studies Berber and other Saharan/Sahelian languages and often discusses them in conjunction with Arabic. So who better to start a blog on the origins of Algerian darja (colloquial Algerian Arabic)? It's called   الأصول التاريخية للدارجة الجزائرية  (The historical sources of Algerian Darja) and is primarily in Arabic; only two posts so far. He explains at Jabal al-Lughat:
I've often talked about why it's not enough for developing countries to use English or French as a working language for research and leave the majority of their own citizens in the dark. So I'm putting my money where my mouth is (so to speak) and starting a blog in Arabic focused on dialect etymology, a subject rife with popular misconceptions: الأصول التاريخية للدارجة الجزائرية (Historical Origins of the Algerian Dialect). Some of this blog's readers may be interested.
Since diglossia and dialects are a frequent subject here, so may some of this blog's.

And at least a few of you may well find his other links of interest:
I've written up a finding first posted here - Songhay words in El-Jadida, Morocco - as part of a recently submitted article on sub-Saharan loanwords into North African Arabic. (There aren't many, but more than you might think: one of them, شطة šaṭṭa "Cayenne pepper" from Hausa cìttā, has even made it into Modern Standard Arabic via Egyptian dialect, and another, كابوية kābūya "pumpkin" from Hausa kàbēwā̀, is quite widespread in Algeria.)

MNAMON have posted a video of my talk about Libyco-Berber at Pisa - if you can stand the poor delivery, the content may be interesting. Among other things, I discuss the question of where LB fits into the Berber family tree.
He's amply demonstrated his linguistic qualification to blog on Algerian darja. It should be interesting, especially if he can post frequently.

Monday, April 16, 2012

UAE-Iran Tensions Still Rising Over Ahmadinejad Visit; Ambassador Recalled, Soccer Game Canceled

Mahmoud Ahmidinejad's provocative recent visit to the disputed but Iranian-occupied island of Abu Musa infuriated the UAE (which claims Abu Musa and the Tunb islands, occupied by Iran), has led to heightened tensions across the Gulf just as there was a glimmer of hope for a breakthrough on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. The UAE recalled its Ambassador to Tehran, and has been calling for an international resolution of the longstanding dispute. Lest you doubt the seriousness of the tension, the UAE has now canceled a "friendly" soccer match scheduled with Iran.

The timing of Ahmadinejad's visit, seemingly counter to the general thrust of Iran's more conciliatory recent tone, is still a mystery.

Links: Odds and Ends

Here's a  Monday grab bag of the interesting, the odd, the funny, and stuff I can't find anyplace else for:
  • Hurriyet Daily News: "Turkey 'Acquitted' of 1915 Incidents in Malta."  (Hat tip to Abu Reyhan al-Biruni via Facebook.) I'm not making this up: Turkey's EU Minister says Ottoman officials were investigated by the British on Malta after World War I and werte "acquitted" of the Armenian Genocide (the latter two words in quotes of course in a Turkish paper), so that proves it didn't happen. Well, now that that's finally settled . . .

Sham al-Nassim

Today is Sham al-Nassim, the spring holiday celebrated in Egypt (and Sudan) on the Monday after Coptic Easter, though it is a holiday celebrated by Muslims as well as Christians, and said by some to be a survival of the ancient Egyptian festival of Shemu. (Despite the similarities of the name, "Sham al-Nassim" is Arabic for "smelling the breeze," and since everyone near the Nile goes to picnic by the river, it's a perfectly descriptive and appropriate name.) I've posted on the questions of origins before, but it seems to me that what makes this Sham al-Nassim worth mentioning is that, at a time when Muslim-Christian relations are tense, and Islamist-secular relations as well, this is a holiday celebrated by all Egyptians, not specific to one religion, or the creation of the modern state like National Day, Military Day, and various anniversaries. It shares that distinction with one other Egyptian holiday that is definitely of Ancient Egyptian origin: Wafa'a al-Nil, the mid-August celebration of the Nile flood, still celebrated though the High Dam has ended the annual floods.

[UPDATE: Some Islamists called for boycotting Sham al-Nassim as "un-Islamic." It isn't working: turnouts are as big as ever according to Ahram Online.]

So for Sham al-Nassim I send greetings to all Egyptians and Sudanese, Muslim and Christian and Jewish, secular and Islamist, whether they are near the Nile today or anywhere else in the world. It's also a holiday associated with certain foods: with coloring eggs (sound familiar?), eating the dry salt fish called fasikh, and other foods such as green onions and other vegetables. Here's a photo celebrating the symbols of Sham al-Nassim:

Sham al-Nissim delicacies (Al Kahira-Cairo-LeCaire)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

I'm Guessing This Isn't Over Yet

I'm jumping in between a 12th birthday party for 6 12-year-old girls and a sleepover for 3 of them to add a brief comment on today's news: a panel of judges has disqualified 10 of the candidates, including the Big Three of Khairat al-Shater, Hazem Abu Isma‘il, and ‘Omar Suleiman. They have 48 hours to appeal and all are doing so.

I'm guessing it ain't over till it's over, but it's sure an entertaining campaign. I wouldn't vote for any of the three, but I can't vote; still I think this will provoke too broad a swath of the electorate.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Greetings for Orthodox/Eastern Easter

Greetings this weekend to all Christian readers who celebrate Easter this Sunday instead of last: most of the Eastern Orthodox (Antiochian, Alexandrian, etc.) and Oriental Orthodox Churches (including Copts, Armenians, and Syrian Orthodox), and the Assyrian Church of the East. A Happy Easter.

The Obligatory Titanic Centennial Post: the Arab Passengers on the Titanic

Unless you have spent the past week or two in a monastic cell, you are no doubt aware that this weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic. The loss of the world's largest liner on its maiden voyage, the "unsinkable" ship sinking quickly, the loss of some of the richest men of the gilded age, occurring as it did on the eve of a war that was to shatter that age forever, has fascinated people for a century. Unsurprisingly, even without the 3-D re-release of the movie, the media is filled with Titanic memorabilia.

And, since one rule of journalism is always "look for the local angle," the Middle Eastern press is reminding us of the Arab passengers aboard the Titanic, who tend to fade into the background in most accounts, but were definitely present.

It's even briefly in the movie, the mother calling "Yalla, yalla" in Arabic to hurry the children as the father seeks an escape route:

The exact numbers are trickier. All but one of the Middle Eastern passengers carried Ottoman documents indicating they came from "Syria," which then would have included modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel; the names were recorded haphazardly. There was one Lebanese in the crew. The one non-"Syrian" was an Egyptian. But the "Syrians," of whom many can be identified as Lebanese, numbered anywhere from 80 to 145 depending on who's counting, and constituted perhaps 20% of the third class passengers. One article suggests the Arabs were the fifth largest nationality aboard after British, American, Irish and Swedes, but its estimate is also lower than some.

There's actually quite a lot out there on the subject, but two English-language articles that go into some detail for the centennial are a three-part report from Al-Arabiya (Part I; Part II; Part III), which primarily focuses on the Lebanese and notes that several villages lost multiple citizens (Kafr Mishki lost 13 dead, Hardine 11, and so on); it also contains one list of dead and survivors. The other report, in The National, mostly focuses on the research of Palestinian-American journalist/writer Ray Hanania, but also offers more discussion of what the real total may have been.

The third part of the Al-Arabiya report also discusses the one Egyptian aboard, Hammad Hassab, who escaped in Lifeboat 3 and may appear in a photo taken of the lifeboat, reproduced with the article.

When Tangier Was British

Pursuing one of my non-Middle Eastern interests I was reading a bit in colonial Virginia history, dealing with the well-known colonial governor Alexander Spotswood, who was much involved in the expansion of the Old Dominion beyond the mountains in the early 1700s, and tried to name every river in the colony for his sovereign, Queen Anne. Hence we still have the North Anna, the South Anna, the Fluvanna, the Rivanna, and the somewhat disguised Rapidan, which started life as the Rapid Ann. Yes, he was a bit of a brown-nose, though he did name Spotsylvania County after himself, though Latinized. But I also noticed something in his biography that I don't recall encountering before: he was born in Tangier in 1676

Why was an Englishman of semi-aristocratic background born in Tangier? Because his father was Surgeon to the British Garrison in Tangier. What British Garrison in Tangier? Well, that's the occasion for one of my obscure historical diversions. The beautiful Moroccan city of Tangier was indeed a British colony from 1661 to 1684.

It seems when Charles II married the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, he got Tangier as part of the dowry, along with Bombay. Portugal had held Tangier since 1471. The colony proved expensive to maintain, and Parliament suspected the whole venture as part of the Stuarts' Catholic leanings. And to make things interesting, the British took over just as Morocco was being reunited under the reign of the Alaouite Dynasty, which still rules today. The second Alaouite Sultan, Moulay Ismail, besieged the town, and eventually the British evacuated (Samuel Pepys was along for some reason), destroying the harbor as they left.

Spotswood was not the only one to end up in America after Tangier became Moroccan again: one senior official went on to become governor of a new colony the Stuarts had just seized from the Dutch. They renamed it New York.



Thursday, April 12, 2012

Your ‘Omar Suleiman Joke of the Day

From The Arabist, via Twitter, your ‘Omar Suleiman joke of the day.
Much as I hate to explain a good joke and perhaps ruin it, for those who came in late, the beating death of Khaled Said by police in Alexandria in 2010 became a major provocation for the protests that led to the revolution; then the Facebook  page "We are all Khaled Said" (originally started by Wael Ghonim) became a major rallying point. As a revolutionary slogan, "We are all Khaled Said" became famous.

Some Classical Nabia Abbott Scholarship Available Online

 Via The Ancient World Online, word that the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago's efforts to make older, out-of-print scholarly publications of the Institute available free online continue, with several important works on the Islamic period by the late Nabia Abbott. These include all three volumes of her Studies in Arabic Literary Papryi (Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III); also her "The Rise of the North Arabic Script and Its Kur'anic Development, with a Full Description of the Kur'an Manuscripts in the Oriental Institute."

These are classic works of early Islamic literary scholarship and not for everyone, but for those interested, it's great to know they are readily available.

How Rural Villagers Saw the Egyptian Elections in One Village

There's a very interesting piece at the Egypt Independent: "Who do Egypt’s villagers vote for? And why?"  The author, Yasmine Moataz Ahmed, is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Cambridge University, and has apparently been doing her fieldwork in a village in the Fayoum. She studied local reactions to the elections, and found the locals favoring the Salafi Al-Nour Party over the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. But the reasons will surprise: they found the  Salafis less rigid than the Brotherhood. Read it all, but here are key excerpts:
Salafis, on the other hand, are seen as religiously flexible. “Aren’t we all Salafis?” many Nour supporters often repeated to me. For them, Salafis represent a religious understanding that seeks to closely follow the times of the Prophet and his followers — the Prophet was married to a Coptic woman, his neighbors were Jews, he dealt with each situation on a case-by-case basis, hence the perception that Salafis are, believe it or not, lenient. This was reflected on the ground; Salafis, at least in the village where I worked, appear to be more laid-back compared to the Ikhwan, and hence, more sensitive and open to the local context.

Class was also a factor that often worked against the Brotherhood’s candidates. Due to being the most educated cluster, Ikhwani leaders are strongly present in professional occupations in village-level bureaucracies; they are the teachers, the lawyers, the engineers, and more importantly the personnel of the most funded NGO: Al-Jam’eya al-Shar’eya. Ikhwan leaders often use their positions, particularly in the NGO, to promote the Freedom and Justice party through coercing the poorest of the village into long-term charity and debt relations; they fund kidney dialysis operations, pay monthly stipends for orphan children, and distribute money and goods for ad-hoc lists that they prepare once they get orders from their leaders in Cairo.
And note that for the villagers, the only options seemed to be the Brotherhood or the Salafis. Liberals may draw votes in Cairo and Alexandria, but not, apparently, in the rural hinterland that is still much of Egypt.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ahmed Ben Bella, 1918-2012

Ben Bella then ...
The first President of independent Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, has died at the age of 96.
...and recently. (El Watan)
(Though that's the age given in the Algerian media, I suspect it's in hijri years, as his birthdate is generally given as 1918.) He was one of the very last of the independence generation, who fought against colonialism, one of the last of the old Arab nationalists of the Nasser generation, and he missed by only a few months living to see the 50th anniversary of an independent Algeria this July. Yet,having been deposed in 1965, for most Algerians living today he was a name in the history books, or an old man now considered an elder statesman after returning from years in exile

Le Monde's obituary is here. The report in El Watan here. Both are in French, a language Ben Bella spoke better than Arabic. Born in a town near Tlemcen in western Algeria, of parents of Moroccan origin, Ben Bella was an early supporter of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and became one of its leaders in Cairo in the 1950s, where he forged a friendship with Gamal Abdel Nasser. With other FLN leaders,his plane was intercepted by the French in 1956 and he was taken prisoner, held until 1962. With independence he soon emerged as one of the key leaders, first replacing Prime Minister Benkhedda, and then being elected Algeria's first President.

Ben Bella was a key figure in the anticolonial movement, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the heyday of Arab nationalism. He was also an autocrat ruling the typical ideological one-party state of the time, and had established his control of the FLN in part through the support of the Army. But in 1965 his friend and ally, Army chief Houari Boumediene, deposed him and took the presidency.

Ben Bella was held under house arrest throughout Boumediene's Presidency (Boumediene died in 1978), but in 1980 was allowed to go into exile in Switzerland. A decade later he returned to Algeria, where he has periodically expressed his political views and otherwise played the role of an elder statesman. Though no democrat when he was in power, he has supported greater democracy in Algeria in his retirement. It's known that he had been hospitalized at least twice earlier this year.

While there may be a few aging second- or third-tier leaders from his generation still living, I believe he was the last of that generation of post-colonial heads of state. RIP, and with him an era from which the Middle East is still trying to emerge.