A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 31, 2012

When "Wretched Excess" is Your National Motto, Just Dropping a Ball Would Be, Well, Dropping the Ball

In about an hour and a half, 2013 will arrive in the Eastern time zone of the US, but it has already swept across the Middle East. In New York City, they're going to drop a shining ball in Times Square and the crowd will go wild. But New York City hasn't had the world's tallest building in years, and actually has budget constraints and such. To see it done right you need to go to Dubai, city of the world's temporarily tallest building (the Burj Khalifa, which appears to explode in this video), city of indoor ski slopes in the desert and flagrant wretched excess. A report here.

Okay, Times Square, the ball's in your court.

A Happy New Year

I'm preparing a number of pieces dealing with the old year and prospects of the new, which should start to show up tomorrow. In the meantime let me wish all my readers best wishes for 2013.

New Year's Eve, 1942/43: FDR's North African Inside Joke

Seventy years ago today, December 31, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt prepared to celebrate New Year's Eve in the White House with a gathering of family and close friends. The festivities included the showing of a new film that had had its premiere but was not yet in general release, so few would have known of it beforehand.

Meanwhile, in the previous week plans had been firmed up for what had to be one of the closest-held secrets of the war: in the coming weeks Roosevelt was to leave on his first wartime trip outside North America. He was planning to travel secretly in a roundabout way by seaplane and aircraft to recently liberated North Africa, Winston Churchill would also be there, as would the US and British Chiefs of Staff. Security of the secret summit, code-named SYMBOL, had to be absolute. Germany would love to intercept either of the two men.

General Eisenhower, the Allied Commander in North Africa, had been asked to find a suitably secure place (in territory held by Vichy only weeks before). Two days before New Year's Eve, Eisenhower reported to General Marshall:
Reconnaissance by Churchill's secretary and [Gen. Bedell] Smith's representative have found a very suitable site for operation "Symbol." It consists of a hotel surrounded by a group of excellent villas situated five miles south of Casablanca and one mile inland. Area is detached and lends itself to segregation and can be guarded easily. Airfield is two miles away and is suitable  for B-24s except in very rainy weather . . .
The site, at a resort area known as Anfa, was chosen, and thus once it became public, SYMBOL would be better known as the Casablanca Conference.

Roosevelt, of course, could not reveal any of this to most of his New Year's Eve guests. Some did notice that his New Year's Eve toast, usually "To the United States of America," added the phrase, "and the United Nations" [that is, the Allies]. Some guests may have noted this, but few of them could have been aware of his little inside joke. The new film he screened that night, not yet in general release, was a wartime romance with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It was called Casablanca. You may have heard of it.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Nostalgia for the Last Weekend of 2012: A Royal Alliance Between Two Dynasties (Both Now Defunct)

This photo was taken in Cairo in 1939, celebrating an engagement that also marked an alliance of two royal dynasties. 
The happy couple (second and third from left on the upper side of the table) are Princes Fawzia of the Muhammad Ali dynasty of Egypt, sister of then-King Farouq and daughter of King Fuad I, and Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, son and heir of the then ruler, Reza Shah.

The couple were married in 1939. In 1941, when his father was deposed, Mohammad Reza became the new Shah.  The marriage produced one daughter but was not a happy one; Fawzia returned to Egypt in 1945 and obtained an Egyptian divorce; an Iranian divorce was granted in 1948 on condition her daughter remain in Iran. She married again after returning to Egypt; the Shah married two more times. He, of course, was overthrown in 1979 and died the following year, ironically, in Egypt. He is buried in the same Cairo mosque as many members of his onetime in-laws, the Muhammad Ali dynasty.

Princess Fawzia, who was styled Queen Fawzia in Iran (only the Shah's third wife, Farah, was given the title of Empress), is at age 91 the oldest surviving member of the Egyptian dynasty. A 2005 report of her death confused her with her niece, Farouq's daughter Fawzia.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. (1934-2012)

H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. who died yesterday at age 78,  won fame as the commander of US forces during Operation Desert Storm in 1991,the liberation of Kuwait. Two decades later, his fame may seem bit of a mystery to some, but at the time the US was still mired in the legacy of the defeat in Vietnam: the image of the evacuation of the Embassy on Saigon in 1975 (the iconic image of people clinging to the runners of helicopters leaving the Embassy roof). Other than small-scale operations against weak opponents (Grenada 1983, Panama 1989), the US had not had a combat success ins recent memory. That, plus his photogenic and colorful press conferences, made him an instant military hero in the US, where the press dubbed him "Stormin' Norman."

Schwarzkopf, as Commander of US Central Command (CINCCENT), had an interesting bsckground in the Middle East. His father. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Senior, had been head of the New Jersey State Police and Chief Investigator on the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping in 1932. Subsequently, after (re)joining the US Army at the beginning of World War II, the older Schwarzkopf was tasked with taking over the Iranian National Police after the US and Britain deposed Reza Shah and placed his son on the throne. Young Norman joined his father in Tehran at the age of 12. After West Point, the young man served in Airborne units.

Like his senior during Desert Storm, Colin Powell, Schwarzkopf was a product of Vietnam, and had s "never again" attitude towards that war: both had risen to senior commands in the era when the US Army was rethinking its entire doctrine and emphasizing mobility, deep attack, and air-land-battle doctrines, which came to fruition in Desert Storm. It was a totally different training and mindset that Schwarzkopf the Vietnam leader and 1956 West Point graduate brought to warfare than that, say. of David Petraeus, who graduated from West Point in 1974 after US forces were no longer engaged in combat in Vietnam. Schwarzkopf had extensive tactical combat experience in Vietnam, initially as a captain, and won three silvers stars in that conflict. Few US generals since his time have had that kind of infantry experience.

Schwarzkopf's execution of Desert Storm was very much by the book. a result of the new doctrines the Army had hammered out after Vietnam. His most distinctive maneuver, the "Hail Mary pass" or "left hook" to outflank the Iraqi Army, captivated American imagination at the time, though Napoleon would have found it in his own playbook. His choice of title for his memoir, It Doesn't Take a Hero, may have been an attempt to downplay some of the hero worship. He was not politically ambitious.

I think, however history may remember Desert Storm for its motivations and results, Schwarzkopf will be remembered by military historians as a highly competent practitioner of the military art as defined by the Army of his day. He was popular with those who served under him and successfully executed the most important military operation of his career. He was also called "The Bear," which may have been a better characterization than "Stormin' Norman," however fond the press may have been of the latter.  Like other West Pointers who took the phrase "Duty, Honor, Country" more seriously than their own fame, may he rest in peace.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Diana Buja Gives us a Much Fuller Account of the Ramses Harem Plot

 Last week, during an outburst of newsmaking by long-dead pharaohs, I noted the apparent confirmation that Ramses III had indeed been murdered by a plot in his harem. For those of you wanting to know more about these palace intrigues, Diana Buja, who actually has degrees in Egyptology among other things, offers the much fuller version, including the papyrus text of the investigation an links to the medical findings. She calls it Ramesses III and the Great Harim Conspiracy, Part I.

And for you Royal scandal fans, please note that it's subtitled, "Part I."

John Limbert Reflects On Iran

A Baltimore website has a piece by John Limbert, onetime hostage, later Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran, on Iran then and now. Do read it.

Aliaa Elmahdy Revisited: "The First Time as Tragedy, the Second as Farce"?

Karl Marx' famous line (riffing on Hegel in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, seems appropriate to this story. Remember Aliaa Elmahdy? She’s been back in the news again (and back in the nude again) by demonstrating at the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm.

Anyone who has been following the Middle East, through this blog or any other media, for a little over a year, may remember Elmahdy, who a bit over a year ago shocked Egypt and energized many Middle Eastern women by posting a full-frontal nude portrait of herself on a blog. She became known as the "nude blogger"; and she was praised by Egyptian and Arab feminists and Westerners, denounced, of course, by Islamists, and avoided by male secularists who feared she would increase the Islamist vote in the then-imminent Parliamentary elections, She was only 20 at the time; I wondered  then about the wisdom of her act while recognizing the real courage it took. (This blog covered the issue solely for its sociological and anthropological importance, of course.)  Later there were various copycats such as a Pakistani and a Tunisian actress who sought fame by showing a bit of cleavage or a striptease-like pose, but Aliaa showed it all and did it while living in Egypt. But this time, it's in Stockholm.

Yes, Stockholm. It just doesn’t seem quite the same. The first time she risked life and limb; this time she mostly seems to have risked frostbite. (It’s December, after all.)

Before discussing her latest return to the limelight, let's review the giddy days of last year:
At the time it was a bombshell: in part, certainly, for the prurient aspect, but also because, in the heat of the Egyptian Revolution, as Mona Eltahawy put it in a famous column in The Guardian:
When Mohammed Bouazizi, fed up with humiliation, repression and poverty, set himself on fire in Tunisia last January, essentially taking state abuse to its logical end, he ignited the revolutionary imagination of the Middle East and north Africa. Aliaa Mahdy, fed up with hypocrisy and sexual repression, undressed. She is the Molotov cocktail thrown at the Mubaraks in our heads – the dictators of our mind – which insists that revolutions cannot succeed without a tidal wave of cultural changes that upend misogyny and sexual hypocrisy.
Cartoonist Kaveh Adel caught the mood of the time:
Her daring was not without consequences: feeling harassed and threatened, she has apparently spent the past year outside of Egypt, mostly in Eastern Europe and more recently in Sweden.  She has apparently fallen in with a Ukrainian feminist protest group known as FEMEN, whose signature (?) form of protest seems to be demonstrating topless or naked in various European capitals, often with protest slogans written on their bodies in markers. It's no doubt an effective attention-getting device, but its political effectiveness is not as clear to me. Apparently they tried to get Aliaa to Paris at their expense, intending to protest the new Egyptian constitution at the Egyptian Embassy there, but she was denied passage at the boarding gate, so they held the protest at the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm instead. Aliaa and two other protesters, carrying mock books labeled "Bible," "Qur'an," and "Torah," appeared in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm and stripped to reveal anti-religious slogans written on their bodies. Aliaa raised an Egyptian flag above her head but was otherwise fully naked. She is of course free to protest as she sees fit. But that's part of the point: in Sweden, she's free to protest. And this protest is different, I think, in another way. It seems to have gotten more coverage in the Gulf press and the West than in Egypt, where the current issues engaging women's activists are a lot more urgent. And it seems to send a different sort of message. One much more in your face.

Here's the (censored) version of the photo; a video is linked below:

Appearing nude on the Internet in Egypt clearly risked not only her reputation and employment but even life and limb; in the present environment in Cairo, she might well be in even more danger were she to return. Appearing naked, even in public, in Stockholm is rather a different matter. Her demonstration in front of the Egyptian Embassy there might subject her to some misdemeanor charges: trespassing, disorderly conduct, maybe indecent exposure if that's even a crime in Scandinavia. I’d be more worried about the frostbite. The video shows snow on the ground. The video also shows no guards or other people on the street (weekend?) and only one passerby who glances at the naked ladies as if it's a not uncommon sight. It's also a brief protest, mostly for the cameras. (They were going to stand around all day naked in December in Stockholm?) This is no "Molotov cocktail thrown at the Mubaraks in our heads": it's a self-indulgent protest from the safe asylum of Sweden at the emerging dangers in Egypt. There is still violence in the streets of Cairo; getting goosebumps in Stockholm is not the same thing.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't want her going back and doing this in Egypt: her survival could be in serious doubt. And I know far too little about FEMEN to know whether they are real revolutionaries or self-indulgent exhibitionists, but having come of age in the 1960s I also know how quaint this sort of thing can appear a generation or so later, however wonderfully transgressive it appeared at the time.

I never posted an uncensored version of her original photo (NSFW, nudity) which she posted to her website in October 2011 and so I won’t post an uncensored photo of the current protest, not out of prudishness but so as not to be blocked all over the Arab world. I will, with all the usual warnings (Not Safe for Work; contains nudity; mature viewers only etc, link to an uncensored version of the censored photo above, and to another shot from a slightly different angle,) so that, with due warnings (NSFW, contains nudity) those who wish to may judge for themselves (and so the rest of this commentary makes sense). The original photo was ostensibly protesting the unavailability of nude models to art students, as well as women’s oppression generally. But what still strikes me is the innocence of the photo, though it is full-frontal. The fishnet stockings and red shoes may seem daring, but this is not a "seductive" photo: if anything it seems reticent, uncertain, a young woman unashamed but far from brazen in her sexuality. In the age of the uncensored Internet it never seemed the "Molotov cocktail" it was to Egyptian readers. Though in interviews she spoke of her unbelief, there was no overt attack on religion. There was little message beyond her feeling she was unashamed of her body. Its mere existence was enough to stun many Egyptians, especially since she posted it while still in the country and intending to remain.

The new photo certainly is not "seductive" either, but it is loud, and it's rife with messages. Messages written on the women's bodies; messages held in front of their privates; and the whole scene is a message. The first photo can be seen, I think, as a personal protest of sorts, though only due to its public posting: her body is her body, no more, no less. But this is a political protest that also attacks religion: in an age when sex is regularly used for advertising, this is advertising a political/religious message using sex. And the female body: Aliaa, in the center, has "Sharia" written across her breasts as if to make sure no one can miss it. (In that respect I suspect she’s quite right. [Link is also NSFW/nudity.] The whole message reads “Sharia is not a Constitution.”) But the message seems different. The first photo seems to say, "This is just me. Make of it what you will, or not." It suggests the body is natural and normal and not shameful. The second says, "my body is a megaphone: read my angry message as you ogle it." Instead of a natural, ordinary thing, her body has become a billboard, a placard. In the first picture she is seemingly simply saying "this is who I am." In this one,  her main political message has become, to be a little bit crass about it, “Read my tits.”

If anything, the FEMEN video of the demonstration (same NSFW/nudity warnings on this link as on the still photos above) adds to the sense of how different this is from last year. It shows pretty clearly how few people were present and how brief the demonstration seems to have been. (The one passerby barely looks up. Perhaps you see naked women on snowy streets all the time in Stockholm?) The video of the girls returning to their hotel giggling and laughing adds to the sense that if the original post was speaking truth to power and defying the patriarchy, this was just a lark. (Though the floral headbands add to the sense of 1960s déjà vu.) This seems to add to the sense that her message has shifted from "This is who I am and I'm not ashamed to show it as it's my body to do with as I please," an opinion I share, to a message to religious believers that boils down to "Fuck You." That's an entirely different message.

Transgressive, certainly. Offensive to religious believers, obviously. (For those who did not watch the video or felt obliged to avert your eyes, if that applies to any of you, the other young ladies convey the messages "Apocalypse by Mursi"/"No Religion" and "No Islam Yes Secularism"/"Religion is Slavery": clearly intended to outrage Islamists even if the messages were not, uh, strategically placed.) Indeed a different message I think, from last year. Last year she seemed a genuinely transgressive protester, proud of her body but not flaunting it, just displaying it. This year she's a FEMEN exhibitionist, not just denying religion but attacking it. Yes, I and lots of others have reported on her both times. But while I recognize the shock-waves she created last year,  I fear her 15 minutes were up some time back. And I doubt if she'll be returning to Morsi's Egypt anytime soon.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

And A Special Christmas Surprise for Bethlehem ...

Late on Monday night. as Christmas Eve was cranking up in Bethlehem, the Israeli Interior Ministry's Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee voted to approve 930 new housing units in the Gilo neighborhood, with options for 300 more.

For those of you unfamiliar with Jerusalem, Gilo is, as the Jerusalem Post notes, "over the Green Line," which means most of the world considers it an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. It lies on the other side of the Separation Wall from Beit Jala and Bethlehem. Another story here.

Excellent timing.

One Reason Egypt's Liberals Lose Elections

I plan to write at some length soon about the Egyptian Constitutional referendum, but this is an inital comment. As expected, it passed: most voters want stability and are not terribly concerned about turns of phrase in a constitution. Turnout was low, opposition high in Cairo and major cities, but Upper Egypt carried the day. Like other countries I could name (I live in one), the views of urban elites are often not very compatible with those of the less urban hinterland. In a democracy, though, winning candidates need to appeal to a broad spectrum of opinion. You do not say to the voters what you may say to your inside-the-Beltway drinking buddies. Not if you want to win.

Now, Mohamed ElBaradei is an extremely popular Egyptian liberal among Western journalists and some of the intelligentsia, though he has spent more of his time abroad than in Egypt for decades: he's a key figure in the liberal (not the revolutionary) secular side.  Days before the second round of the referendum, the former IAEA head tweeted:
The Arabic goes a bit beyond the English, indicating that poverty and illiteracy create fertile soil for trading in religion.

Now, illiteracy is a big problem in Egypt and in many emerging democracies, as is poverty.

But the thing is, Dr ElBaradei, you just called the people whose votes you need in order to win illiterate, and probably offended their religious beliefs to boot.

Ah, you may say, but if they're illiterate and poor, they can't read you on Twitter. True enough. But the Muslim Brotherhood can; the Salafis can; the preachers these folks listened to on Friday before voting on Saturday can. Do you think they don't quote this and similar comments to their flocks?

Democracy 101: telling the voters they're illiterate rubes is generally a bad way to win votes, even if it happens to be true.

The Himyarites are in the News Again

 A piece by Spiegel Online about new archaeological work at Zafar in Yemen which has unearthed some clearly Christian depictions is worth reading. Unfortunately it lapses into the gee-whiz revelation that there were Christian and Jewish Kingdoms in South Arabia before the coming of Islam, which was breaking news 1500 years ago but pretty well known among anyone familiar with early Islamic history. I doubt that the archaeologists in question presented that part of the story as a revelation,but it was news to the journalist writing the story. We last discussed the Himyaritic kingdom and related states in this blog back in February, so you may want to read that post along with the Spiegel article,

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Oh (Not So) Little Town of Bethlehem

Greetings for Latin Christmas to all who celebrate today; of course for much of the Middle East, Christmas is still in the future, and my discussion of Middle Eastern Christmas customs will continue. Last night the Latin Patriarch celebrated in Bethlehem and Manger Square was filled with pilgrims and tourists, as it will be again on January 6-7. But Bethlehem's once flourishing pilgrim trade is not what it once was, as least when it isn't Christmas..

Bethlehem's location just south of the "Green Line" and the proximity of the Israeli neighborhoods/settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, as well as the presence on the edge of town of the shrine known as Rachel's Tomb, means that few parts of the West Bank feel the presence of Israel's Separation Wall as profoundly as Bethlehem. As the struggle to control the future of the Jerusalem region intensifies, Bethlehem remains caught in the middle.

Each year we see variations on these cartoons:

It's not my purpose here, today,  to rehash the whole Israeli-Palestinian debate; we aren't going to solve it here. on Christmas. Merely to note the profound impact that conflict has had on a city we sing about but far too many never think about.

I still wish everyone Christmas greetings.


Monday, December 24, 2012

A 70-Year-Old Cold Case: Assassination in Algiers

Today, Christmas Eve, marks the 70th anniversary of an assassination in Algiers in 1942 that still is veiled in mystery, speculation, and conspiracy theories: though there has never been any dispute about who pulled the trigger. And though set in an Arab country, these conspiracy theories are not the product of Arab coffeehouse gossip at all. All the players are European or American.

Christmas Eve, 1942:  only a few weeks after the Allied Operation Torch landings in French North Africa in November, the Allies have consolidated their hold on Morocco and Algeria, and are gearing up to battle the Germans for Tunisia. They had gained control of Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria in part by cutting deals with the local Vichy leadership and with Admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan, former head of the French Navy and until the Torch landings Vice President of the Council in Vichy France, second only to Marshal Petain and Minister of Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. By sheer chance Darlan had been visiting his ailing son in Algiers when the Allies landed, and he proceeded to maneuver to proclaim himself as High Commissioner of North Africa. In that capacity he won recognition from the Allied commander, General Eisenhower. Instead of becoming a prisoner of war, he found himself running the place with the Allies' blessing.  This infuriated the local French resistance, it infuriated Charles de Gaulle and the Free French, and it did not sit well at all with Winston Churchill and the British,who unlike the Americans had never recognized the Vichy regime.

Admiral Darlan
By Christmas the Germans had occupied the unoccupied, Vichy-run portions of France, but Darlan survived in North Africa thanks to his deal with the Americans. Actually, not quite until Christmas.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, a young 20-year-old French monarchist named Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle waited in the corridor near Admiral Darlan's office until Darlan returned and shot him once in the face and once in the stomach.

That much everyone agrees upon. Bonnier de la Chapelle was arrested. The next day — Christmas Day — he was tried and convicted. The day after that, December 26, he was executed by a firing squad. He struck many people as confident he would be freed until close to his execution. Churchill's memoirs include the enigmatic comment, "He was surprised when they shot him."  Nothing at all suspicious about a 48-hour rush to execution, right?

Though no one doubts that Bonnier shot Darlan (there are no grassy knolls in this case), that's about all everyone agrees on. The clues and links can be read as pointing toward any of several countries/agencies behind the plot. That's not the only way in which it resembles a classic murder mystery: as in an Agatha Christie mystery, pretty much everybody had a convincing motive to remove Darlan. (Perhaps, like Murder on the Orient Express, everybody did it? But Hercule Poirot has yet to show up with the solution after seven decades.)

I have no solution to offer and there are book-length recitations of the evidence, so I'll just give a few examples of the confusing clues.

Let's start with his fellow French. As suspects go, the Gaullists seem to be the most likely to have been involved though perhaps with help from their allies. Several key Gaullist figures had links to Bonnier, and those who drove him to the scene of the shooting. And the Gaullists certainly saw Darlan as the devil incarnate.

On the other hand, General Henri Giraud, de Gaulle's rival and the favorite of the Americans, would succeed Darlan on his death as the French leader in North Africa. And Bonnier was a member of a movement called the Corps Franc d'Afrique, a Giraudist resistance movement in North Africa. And of course Vichy itself and their Nazi allies were none too happy with Darlan's cooperation with Eisenhower.

While Darlan's deal with the Americans, with Eisenhower and General Mark Clark, would seem to make the US the least likely culprit, the US was never comfortable with Darlan. The French and the British seem more likely, but there's the awkward fact that the gun used by Bonnier to shoot Darlan had belonged to a local OSS agent, the OSS being the World War II predecessor of the CIA. He had been Bonnier's superior during a training camp run jointly by the OSS and the British, and though he insisted his gun had been stolen, some claim he was near the palace when Darlan was shot. Just to show how bizarre this story is, the OSS agent in question was the famous physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon. The OSS chief for North Africa, Col. Bill Eddy, moved Coon out of Algiers in disguise. Of course, another agency might have stolen the gun to point the finger at the Americans. Coon's anthropological views on race or out of fashion today, but he was a highly respected academic in his lifetime.

So far, the French look likely suspects, particularly the Gaullists, and the Americans less motivated but with some suspicious links. That brings us to the British. De Gaulle was the chosen Frenchman of the British, not the Americans, who were promoting Giraud. Churchill never liked the Darlan deal. If anybody was involved in this (likely along with the Free French), the British are a popular choice with many conspiracy theorists. In fact, there's a story (spread by the French) that after Darlan was shot, his last words were "The British have finally done for me."

Ah: but which British? At one point Bonnier, as part of the Corps Franc d'Afrique, had received some weapons training from Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE), Churchill's own specially created special operations force. So the SOE had links with Bonnier, did Churchill's bidding, and were the likeliest agency for such an operation. (Not to make this too easy, though: as noted earlier the training camp was jointly run with the OSS.)

But the continuing puzzle of this story is that just when you think it's too confusing, another complication turns up. The SOE had a rivalry going with Britain's traditional overseas intelligence agency, the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6. The head of MI6 at the time was the legendary Sir Stewart Menzies, though he was not legendary at the time, when he was known only as "C." If this reminds you of something, it's probably because a young Royal Navy Commander named Ian Fleming, who worked under Menzies, later invented a spy called James Bond who worked for an MI6 chief known only as "M " and seemingly based on Menzies (whose real name, curiously, begins with "M"). Menzies remains a legendary spymaster. He is known to have been fiercely hostile to Darlan, as revealed in Alexander Cadogan's diaries..

Now, "C" rarely left England during the war, and usually not at holidays, and generally for operational reasons. Yet at Christmastime 1942 he made a secret visit (so secret his own Personal Assistant returned from the holidays without realizing his boss had been gone) to, of all, places, Algiers. (Ostensibly, to meet a French counterpart on Christmas Eve.) He was lunching in Algiers (with multiple witnesses, of course) when Darlan was killed. If MI6 was responsible, the fingerprints seeming to implicate OSS and SOE could be meant as a diversion. Or maybe all were involved.

Rivals the sort of conspiracy theories we often hear in the Middle East, doesn't it? Perhaps it really was all of the suspects, as in Murder on the Orient Express. Other than the drum-head conviction and immediate execution of Bonnier, basically nobody else was ever punished. And if any of the people mentioned in this account spent a moment  mourning Admiral Darlan, it doesn't seem to appear in the record.

Again, I'm not pointing the finger anywhere. After 70 years, if there is a paper trail somewhere, it is buried mighty deep. (And Menzies was known for not leaving paper trails.)

A Rerun for Christmas Eve: The Coptic Traditional Tales of the Flight into Egypt

Though the Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on the Eastern date, January 7,  I thought I'd start the week of Western Christmas this year with this rerun from back in 2009, on the folklore surrounding the Flight into Egypt in the Coptic tradition. The Copts have taken the brief Biblical mention of the Holy Family's sojourn in Egypt and elaborated it into a tale of three years of wandering, tales little known, I suspect, outside Egypt. This remains one of my more popular posts, and one of my personal favorites. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas from the Eastern Tradition (in Part)

Now that another End of the World has come and gone, we can go back to talking about Christmas. And Syria: here is a Christmas service in the Syriac Orthodox tradition, filmed in Aleppo,Syria in happier times (2007-2008). After the expected Eastern style hymn they launch into "Silent Night" (I think in Syriac):

Among the End-of-the-Year "Best of" Lists . . . a Serious Iran Piece Unexpectedly Makes a "Best Sex Stories of 2012" List

I didn't expect to be blogging about this post, from Slate, of "Longform's Best Sex Stories of 2012." Hell, I didn't even expect to be reading it. But in fact, one of their selections is an article I've linked to previously: "The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets)" by Carnegie Endowment Senior Associate Karim Sadjadpour. Congratulations (I think?) on the selection: so few of us DC Mideast policy wonks ever get credited with one of the "Best Sex Stories" of any year.

It appeared in another unexpected product of 2012, Foreign Policy Magazine's "Sex Issue" (May/June 2012), which I blogged about here. Though perhaps overshadowed in publicity by Mona ElTahawy's "Why Do They Hate Us?" piece in the same issue, it was a worthy read. Even without the accolade (?).

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Yalda Greetings

For Iranan readers, the Iranian Diaspora and those from countries whose cultural traditions derive from Iran (in Central Asia and the Caucasus), greetings for Yalda, or Shab-e Yalda (شب یلدا, Yalda Night) the ancient Iranian celebration of the Winter Solstice. Originally marking the Birth of Mithra (that is, the annual "rebirth" of the sun at the solstice), it survives, like Nowruz in the spring, as a seasonal celebration of winter, marked by pomegranates, watermelon, and other traditional foods.

Take that, Mayans!

Zunes on Nonviolence in Syria

Stephen Zunes, Professor of Middle East Studies at the University of San Francisco and also a specialist in Nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution, has a piece at Foreign Policy called "Supporting Nonviolence in Syria." Neither the major powers nor the various sides of the conflict in Syria are likely to heed his advice, but it is a timely reminder (at a time when many of us try to imagine peace on earth and goodwill among men, before we resume our usual habits) that there are still voices crying in the wilderness who believe in nonviolence and peace. I wish I thought it would happen, but I'm glad there are those still determined to remind us of the option.

More Fairuz for the Holidays

As Christmas approaches, a few more Fairuz Arabic versions of Western Christmas carols (don't worry: Eastern musical traditions will be represented before Eastern Christmas). First, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen":

And an Arabic version of "Go Tell it On the Mountain":

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Long-Dead Egyptian Kings Continue to Make More Interestng News than President Morsi Does

These are interesting times in Egypt, but they're in danger of being upstaged by the news from the New Kingdom, some 3200 to 3400 years ago.

Just last week we learned that Egyptian King Amenhotep II, seventh pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, was in the news when his toe fell off, and then again when his toe was reattached.

Normally two stories involving a King (or his mummified remains anyway) who's been dead for 3400 years would be enough for a week or even, say, most years. But NO! An even better-known New Kingdom Pharaoh, Ramses III, has also been in the news. And this time it's not just a body part dropping off, but the sort of court intrigue worthy of a soap opera or an HBO mini-series. Egyptologists have reportedly discovered he died of a slit throat, and the Queen is the prime suspect.

The second Pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty, Ramses III (1186-1155 BC, more or less) is well known for his wars, his battles with invading Libyans and "Peoples of the Sea" in the disruptions marking the end of the Bronze Age, and his elaborate monuments memorializing his victories, incorporated into the temples of Luxor and Karnak and in his funerary temple at Medinet Habu.

Actually, archaeologists have long known that there was a conspiracy in Ramses' harem in which a subordinate wife, Queen Tiye, was accused of plotting to overthrow him and install her own son as his successor in place of the designated heir, later Ramses IV, who was the son by a more senior wife. (This Tiye should not be confused with the more famous Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten in the 18th Dynasty.)  But the documents were unclear about whether the plot succeeded: the cause of his death was unknown.

The Victim
The mummy is wrapped around the neck (picture) and archaeologists could not unwrap it without damage, but now a CT Scan has shown that in fact, the King's throat was slit. and an amulet placed in the wound. Another cold case file cleared, though a bit late.

As for the presumed culprit, it is uncertain what became of Queen Tiye after the plot, but her son was forced to commit suicide, and she may have been executed. In any event, she is beyond the reach of the law.

Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak (1944-2012)

Lt. Gen Amnon Lipkin-Shahak former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, advocate of peace with the Palestinians and Syria, founder of the Center Party and holder of ministerial posts  in Ehud Barak's government in the late 1990s, has died of cancer at the age of 68.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1944, he served as a Paratrooper in the 1967 War, fought in the Battle of Karameh against the PLO and in the 1995 commando raid on Beirut. In 1995 he succeeded Ehud Barak as the 15th IDF Chief of Staff,

Leaving the IDF in 1998, he became a strong critic of then (and  current) Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, helped found the Center Party and, when his new party won six seats, joined Ehud Barak's coalition coalition with Ehud Barak. He served as Minister of Tourism and then Transport in Barak's Cabinet.

In 1999 he was elected to the Knesset as a member of the Centre Party, which won six seats. Shahak was appointed Minister of Tourism and when Yitzhak Mordechai resigned, he took on the additional role of Transport Minister.He left the Knesset after Barak's defeat in 2001. He continued to be active in peace issues, signing the Geneva Initiative in 2003.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Oops: I Almost Missed World Arabic Language Day

Oops: though it's now 11 pm I just learned that today was declared by UNESCO as World Arabic Language Day. Over at the Arabic Literature (in Translation) Blog, M. Lynx Qualey prefers "Arabic Language(s) Day."

Perhaps I'll throw in my two cents over the next few days; meanwhile please check out the UNESCO and Arabic Literature links, and I'll chime in later.

Wilson Center's Assessment of Two Years of Arab Spring

As I previously noted, yesterday marked two years since Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation that began what we call "Arab spring" (though it may be feeling a bit wintry these days). The Wilson Center has published a collection of commentary from a variety of scholars, asking, "Has the Arab Spring Lived Up to Expectations?"  (That link is the home page; full text in PDF is here.)

New Antiochian Orthodox Patriarch Elected

I only just posted about Eastern Christianity when there's major news. Archbishop John Yazigi, Antiochian Orthodox Archbishop of Western and Central Europe, based in Paris, was elected yesterday at the Balamand Seminary in Lebanon as the new Patriarch of Antioch and All the East for the Orthodox churches. He will be known as John X Yazigi.  His predecessor, Ignatius IV Hazim, died recently.

Ignatius was 92 when he died and had been on the Patriarchal throne for 33 years. By contrast, John X is only 57, born in 1955. The Economist offers comments on his election.

The new Patriarch's biography can be found here. Like his predecessor, he is Syrian born, in Latakia,  and on his election pledged that Christianity must survive in Syria. He is surely aware of the challenges: his younger brother Paul is Metropolitan of Aleppo.

Monday, December 17, 2012

As Both Christmases Approach: Why Do Western Christians Forget The Eastern Churches Exist?

In a year in which both the Coptic Pope and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch (misspoke as Alexandria earlier, but posted on it earlier and correctly here)  have died, it may be useful to repeat a story I know I've told before. I once had a friend, a devout Palestinian Christian, who back in the day would encounter, in various American Christian communities in which he moved, well-meaning ladies and gentlemen who, on learning he was a Christian Arab, would naively ask, "which missionary group converted your people?" He would respond (knowing his sense of timing, I presume after waiting a couple of beats):  "Perhaps you've heard of them: Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles."

Over the next week or so most US news organizations will have at least one clip from a city in the West Bank known as Bethlehem. They will show the Church of the Nativity, interview a few olive-wood souvenir sellers about the decline in the tourist trade due to the stalled peace process, and, because it is almost impossible to show pictures of Bethlehem without it, show how the Israeli Separation Wall cuts along the side of town. It will be the only report from Bethlehem you see until next December. There are fairly good odds it will also be the only picture of the Separation Wall you see until next December.

If it had not been for the election of the Coptic Pope, which got some limited coverage, it might be the only Western media coverage all year of Christianity in the region where the faith began.

The Real Saint Nick was Known to slap Heretics: Ho, ho, ho!
If the Gospels are to be believed, the central figure of the Christian faith was born in Bethlehem, spent some time in infancy in Egypt whither his parents had fled (for three years in the Coptic tradition, which provides a detailed if apocryphal itinerary), was raised in Nazareth in Galilee, now northern Israel, and ventured no further afield than across the Jordan, north to Tyre and Sidon, and into what are now the Golan Heights. Saul of Tarsus became Paul after a vision on the road to Damascus. Christian apostles and early missionaries spread the faith further, and Christ's followers were first called "Christians" in Antioch (Antakya, Turkey), while Alexandria, Edessa (Sanliurfa, Turkey) and other cities of the east were citadels of the early faith. The first ruler to become a Christian may have been in Edessa but the first major Kingdom to officially become Christian was Armenia, which preceded Rome. Within a few centuries the Roman Empire had converted, but so had Ethiopia, and Christian missionaries had reached Xian, the capital of the Chinese Empire, and left an inscription there in Syriac. (But they were "Nestorians," and so forgotten by Western Christians.) Of the five ancient patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Antoch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem), only one was in the West.

Saint Nicholas of Myra (shown above) reportedly gave secret gifts to needy Christians, including dowries. He is also said to have slapped Arius, leader of the Arian heresy, at the Council lf Nicaea. (Coal in Arius' stocking? [Rephrased from earlier reference to whipping pagans, That may be untrue, Not taking any chances so close to Christmas.] It's a fair bet he never heard of a reindeer. But he lived in what is now Turkey.

In 400 AD Christianity was not only the dominant faith in the Roman Empire (including southern Europe, North Africa, and the whole Middle East), as well as Armenia and Ethiopia, but had many adherents in the Persian Empire, Central Asia, coastal India and China. There were almost certainly more Christians in Arabia than in England. [Sorry, I meant Britain. No Angles there yet.]

All that changed with the rise of Islam, but Islam was mostly (with massive and tragic exceptional interludes) tolerant of Christianity as a fellow "people of the book." Though tolerated in most of the Islamic world, Christianity was not permitted in Arabia proper, but survived and sometimes flourished elsewhere. (Its disappearance in North Africa while thriving in Islamic Spain and Sicily is a subject for a much longer discussion at a later time.)

Yet many Western Christians still mentally divide the Christian world into Catholic and Protestant. There may be a general understanding that the Eastern Orthodox exist (at least the Greeks and Russians anyway, who are in Europe); some Latin Catholics (but by no means all) may know the Eastern Catholic churches with their different rites and married priests at least exist, but Oriental Orthodox churches like the Copts or Armenians or the separate traditions of the Assyrian Church of the East remain largely unknown. Readers who've read me through previous Christmas seasons will be aware that I try to illuminate the traditions of the Christians who live in the region where Christmas began. I'll be doing so again, through both Western and Eastern holidays.

What did Round One Mean?

The first round of Egypt's Constitutional referendum, it seems to me, accomplished little other than to confirm that the country is deeply divided, and that the proposed Constitution is dividing it further.  Some reports suggest that people voted "yes" or "no" based on the impressions gained from the media rather than from reading the text itself, but Cairo reportedly voted decisively atainst the charter, wh8le overall the document was approved by about 56% of those voting in half the country's governorates. Expatriate votes are now being counted; the remaining governorates vote Saturday.

Whatever the final results, the fact that the capital voted against and that only a relatively narro majority support the Constitution so far guarantees that the divisions in the country have been exacerbated by the way President Morsi has forced it through. (Khaled Fahmy's piece in Ahram Online expresses his own disillusionment with Morsi and the Brotherhood.) (Also see Khalil Anani here.) Ironically the new prosecutor recently named by Morsi (overriding the judiciary) has now resigned.

Two Years Ago Today, Mohamed Bouazizi Couldn't Take it Anymore

Two years ago today a young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, who despite a college degree was employed as a street vendor, responded to police harassment by setting fire to himself in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid. He died a few weeks later, but the fires he lit are still burning.

Given the agony of Libya, the carnage in Syria, and the ongoing uncertainties in Egypt, we don't hear the phrase "Arab Spring" quite so frequently. But the sheer extent of change in the Arab world in only two years means that Mohamed Bouazizi deserves to be remembered, as do many others in many countries who decided they couldn't take it anymore,

Friday, December 14, 2012

Holiday Spirit for a Black Friday: Fairuz Singing Jingle Bells and Silent Night in Arabic

It's been a terrible Friday in the US, given the horrific elemntary school killings in Connecticut. For your weekend, I'll try to restore a bit of holiday spirit with these videos of Fairuz singing "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night" in Arabic.

I'm not sure when these clips were made, but given that  Fairuz is now 77, I imagine it's been a while.

Referendum Eve

Because for the first time for a referendum, the Egyptian Constitutional Referendum will be held in two stages, it will be over a week before we know the results. Voting tomorrow will be 10 governorates:Cairo, Alexandria, Gharbiyya, Sharqiyya, Daqahliyya, Asyut, Sohag, Aswan, and North and South Sinai. These represent roughly half the voting population but are a mix of Upper and Lower Egypt; of the three Metro Ca9ro governorates (Cairo, Giza, Qalybuiyya) only Cairo is voting.tomorrow. The other 17 governorates vote December 22.
Al-Ahram notes that of those voting tomorrow, Cairo, Daqahliyya, Sharqiyya and Gharbiyya went heavilly against president Morsi and for Ahmad Shafiq in the Presidential runoff.
Most of the liberal and secular parties have dropped the idea of a boycott in favor of urging their supporters to vote "no." The likelihood of a majority "no" vote seems remote, however.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The King's Toe Has Been Repaired

Only yesterday we were discussing the distressing news that King Amenhotep II's mummy had suffered the loss of its right big toe. you'll be pleased to know that the toe has been repaired.

Apparently a poor seal  in the case caused the leakage of nitrogen, which led the damage to the toe. The article does not explain how the toe as reattached.

Moroccan Islamist Leader Sheiikh Abdessalam Yassine, 1928-2012

Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, Moroccan Islamist opposition leader and founder of the ‘Adl wa'l-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) movement, which has been prohibited from organizing a political party, has died at age 84.

A more moderate Islamist movement, the Party of Justice and Development, or PJD, is legal and leads the current government, but ‘Adl wa'l-Ihsan remains banned from politics.

Rather unusually for a political Islamist leader, Sheikh Yassine had roots in Morocco's Boutchichia Sufi Order. He broke with it over its avoidance of politics however, and formed a movement somewhat reminiscent of the Muslim Brotherhood (with himself referred to as the "Guide" by his followers). After he wrote a letter to the late King Hassan II, he was sent to a mental institution; he was held under house arrest until released by King Muhammad VI.  He also sent a lengthy letter to the new King.

Sheikh Yassine's Arabic website is here.  The ‘Adl wa'l-Ihsan Arabic website is here.

Tunisian Bus

It's a busy day so here's a little nostalgia from Tunisia.  A bus between Gafsa, Sfax and Sousse, date not specified:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

King Amenhotep II Has Lost a Toe

It's a tense week in Egypt, and things are rough even for long-dead royalty. King Amenhotep II (1427-1401 BC, seventh Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty) has lost the big toe on his right foot. This has occurred, we are told, "four months after maintenance was carried out on the royal mummy." (I do not know, and am by no means sure I want to know, what "maintenance" on a mummy  may involve.)

Al-Ahram Online
The toe has apparently fallen off. and the authorities in the Egyptian Museum (where the royal mummies reside) intend to investigate what may have caused the toe to fall off.

Amenhotep II in younger days
Amenhotep II may not be the most prominent of the pharaohs on display, and even the dates of his reign as given above vary according to some chronologies, but I've often felt that the display of the royal mummies is pretty much unique in that they allow us to look at the great rulers lf antiquity — not just at their portraits or statuary, but at their actual faces, if rather dessicated —something we cannot do with the Emperors of Rome or China. The great warrior pharaohs of the 18th and 19th dynasties (Thutmose III, Amenhotep II's father, and Ramses II among them) still stare up at us thousands of years after their death. Doubtless a case in the museum is not quite the eternal resting place they expected, but there they reside.

Marrakesh is Far From Damascus

FEISAL:  Yes, Lieutenant? What do you think about Yenbo?
LAWRENCE: I think it is far from Damascus.
BRIGHTON: We'll have you in Damascus and never fear.
FEISAL: Have you been in Damascus, Mr Lawrence?
LAWRENCE: Yes, my lord.
FEISAL: It is beautiful, is it not?
BRIGHTON That'll do, Lawrence. Dreaming won't get you to Damascus, sir, but discipline will. Look, sir, Great Britain is a small country; it's much smaller than yours; a small population compared with some; it's small but it's great, and why?
ALI: Because it has guns!
BRIGHTON: Because it has discipline!
FEISAL: Because it has a navy; because of this, the English go where they please and strike where they please and this makes them great.
Dialogue from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, (1962), which opened 50 years ago this month,

Marrakesh is a wonderful place, but it is far from Damascus. The Djemaa al-Fnaa is just the sort of place to appeal to tourists seeking a glimpse of the "mysterious East," and Winston Churchill loved to retreat to the Mamounia hotel to paint. But is Marrakesh the right place for the "Friends of Syria" to be meeting today? It is in the Arab world to be sure, but far from Damascus, The "Friends" will offer recognition to the Syrian opposition, but like Feisal above, they are asking for guns.

I'm not eager for intervention, but I think Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhanid gets things more or less right in this commentary:
While President Obama’s interview with ABC did not exactly come as a response to my call made yesterday that he should “justify” himself to the Syrian people, the fact that he chose to recognize the National Coalition himself and not do it through Secretary Clinton might indicates that there are those in the Administration who understand the need for striking a positive note with the Syrian people at this stage. Still, the move might be too little too late.
Irrespective of how things will develop in the future, the U.S. now has very few friends in Syria. While America was busy with her elections, the wrong forces were filling up the void left by her absence with their lies, their conspiracy theories and their Jihadis. When Jihadis couldn’t fit, a lie or a conspiracy theory did. The net result – a pervasive sentiment that says: America doesn’t really care about us and her interests are not necessarily commensurate with ours, so there is no reason for us to trust her.
Still, America’s best bet at this stage is to keep supporting the Coalition she just recognized, and has helped form. It’s no less dysfunctional and Islamist-dominated than its predecessor, but it’s the only game in town at this stage, and will remain so until developments on the ground make it obsolete, which they eventually will.
More importantly, the U.S. should work more closely with the new military command recently established by rebels in Antalya, Turkey. Most rebel groups recognize the authority of this new council, and should it be enabled to deliver on their expectations, it will become more legitimate, more relevant and more capable of directing operations on the ground.
Meanwhile, Al-Nusra and its myriad affiliates and sympathizers on the ground is emerging as a third force, that will complicate everyone’s calculations. But don’t expect rebels to clash with Jihadis anytime soon. Whether the U.S. likes it or not, barring some unforeseen development, the two forces will continue their ongoing cooperation against Assad, at least until he is pushed out of Damascus. Then, mayhem will unfold, because by now, the dynamics favoring it are too strong.
Whatever happens in Marrakesh, and however long this tragedy goes on (Josh Landis is now saying it could last through the summer), what happens on the ground is going to be niore important than what happens in Marrakech.