A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Happy New Year to You All!

I can't compete with Dubai, but then who can? Let me wish all my readers a Happy New Year!

An auld Scots song as only Scots can do it:

Happy New Year, Dubai Style

Dubai, restrained and self-effacing as ever, modestly decided to mark the new year with a fireworks display that would break all world records. They say they did it:
The show began with a dazzling falcon conjured through pyrotechnics, flying around Palm Jumeirah. Thousands joined the countdown in unison, reflecting an atmosphere that could be seen at big football matches.
The show lasted for six minutes, but it took only one minute for the 200 technicians to break the record held by Kuwait as over 100,000 shots were fired in just sixty seconds compared to Kuwait’s record of 77,282.

Overall around 400,000 shots were fired, with the show broadcast live on Dubai TV and Youtube to millions of spectators.
It was a huge show and stretched for miles, but most shots are of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Note on the Remaining Christmas(es)

If you're thinking Christmas is over, you're obviously steeped in a Eurocentric perspective. Even in the Western tradition, Christmas isn't over. Remember the "Twelve Days of Christmas"? While you already have several partridges in pear trees and are scrambling to find recipes for roast partridge in pear sauce, the maids-a-milking and my personal favorites, the lords-a-leaping, are still in your future, for even in the Western Christian tradition Christmas lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany (in the Eastern tradition. the Theophany), known in older times as Twelfth Night and marking the visit of the Magi and also, in the East. Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist; our Hispanic neighbors call it Three Kings Day. And the day you get those twelve drummers drumming, so it may be hard to sleep.

But Epiphany, January 6 in the Western (Gregorian) calendar, is not the same as the Eastern Churches' date for Christmas, though several centuries the date coincided and many still confuse them. Eastern Christmas (for the Eastern Orthodox ["Chalcedonian"], Oriental Orthodox or Miaphysite ["Jacobite" or "Monophysite"], Church of the East ["Nestorian"] and some Eastern Catholic churches), is also December 25, actually, but in the Julian Calendar, now falling on January 7 of the Western calendar. Most of the names in quotes and brackets are appellations used by those outside the faiths in question, used here for clarity only.

Thus most Easterners will celebrate Christmas on January 7, and Christmas Eve, when most Eastern traditions hold the primary or only Christmas Liturgy, coincides with the night of the Gregorian Epiphany.

Then there are the Armenians, who traditionally celebrate their primary Christmas celebration on the Epiphany. Most Armenians outside the Holy Land celebrate January 6, but most in the Holy Land region do so 12 days after Julian Christmas on Julian January 6 (Julian Theophany) on Gregorian January 19. So folks in Jerusalem and Bethlehem can, if Ecumenically minded, get three celebrations over more than three weeks.

Few do; turf wars often trump ecumenism, as in this clip of a broom fight between Greek and Armenian clergy in the Church of the Nativity in 2011 over who gets to clean the Church:
Ah, the spirit of Christmas. Since Christmas for so many beleaguered Christians in the Middle East is still coming, I'll be posting Christmas music from most of these traditions, especially those facing major challenges in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, and other reflections on Eastern Christianity from now to January 7.

Those posts will mostly try to stay within the culture and liturgical traditions of those faiths, but the large and increasing diasporas of Middle Eastern Christians mean the ancient Christian East and the modern commercial Christmas West tend to merge in the diasporas. There will be enough bad news ahead, so to start on a lighter note, here's a truly multicultural Armenian Christmas pageant: dancing Santas and female Santas (or elves?), a full nativity scene reenactment, traditional Armenian Christmas music, Western carols in Armenian, Silent Night  in Armenian and English, and a ballet dancer. I didn't spot the dancing mice from Nutcracker, but there's so much going on here I may have missed it. Christmas isn't over in the Middle East!

Never Post Your General Sisi Post Early in the Morning ...

...as I did today, because it will surely get worse:
Egypt's Al-Wafd (not a state-owned paper!) headline today
2014 Year of Destiny
Egypt Awaits the Word of Al-Sisi
The People Want a Hero in the Ittihadiyya [Presidential] Palace
And the Yearners Await the General's Decision on Presidential Candidacy

Egypt's Deepening Splits as the Year Winds Down

Egypt's year is ending badly; key figures from Al Jazeera English's Cairo Bureau have been arrested for "reporting false news" and meeting with members of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood. And while Al Jazeera's Arabic services have already been suppressed, leftist and secular critics are also under fire, as are Islamic charities. The violence at Al-Azhar and other universities during final exams and the recent wave of bombings is not reassuring to those of us who keep telling ourselves that "Egypt is not Algeria in the 1990s."

So has everybody associated with Morsi and the Brotherhood been arrested? Well, no, not quite, but you won't see this picture in the state media these days.

The Sisi cult continues to reach levels not seen since the Nasser era, aided and abetted by people who used to be reformers, liberals, and even revolutionaries.

As will be seen in in this, via The Arabist,  not a great way to start a week, let alone a new year:

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Speaking of Fethullah Gülen . . .

Just yesterday I was talking about the feud between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen; now here's a background piece at The New Republic: "A Guy Who Lives in Pennsylvania May Be Taking Down the Entire Turkish Government."

Friday, December 27, 2013

Remember Aliaa Elmahdy? Apparently Der Spiegel Still Does

Remember Aliaa Elmahdy? In 2011 she was the "naked blogger" who briefly rocked the Middle East and feminism and then was overtaken by more serious events; her daring and courage, while in Egypt, demanded admiration whatever you might think about her judgment. (Early posts here and here.) It once seemed exciting:
She had put her career and perhaps her life on the line for a cause, and paid the price of voluntary but perhaps wise exile. Exactly a year ago I posted a piece on "Aliaa Elmahdy Revisited: The First Time as Tragedy, the Second as Farce?", after she stripped down in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm, where the heroism seemed less daring and the exhibitionism more obvious. (None of these links include the photos, but the dirty-minded among you will find links there to the photos.) My comments included:
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 . . .

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.)
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.”
. . . 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.
But perhaps not entirely; nearly a year after that last post the German newsweekly Der Spiegel (once the Time of Germany, now, I'm afraid, still the Time of Germany after 40 years of deterioration of both magazines, has published an article called in English, "From Icon to Exile: The Price or a Nude Photo In Egypt."

I thought it was sensationalist and exaggerated, exploitative as well. Apparently I wasn't alone;
From the Der Spiegel piece:
When this story is published, Aliaa Elmahdy will have wiped away the traces of her former life and will be living in a location unknown to us. She will continue to flee and fear the day when one of the men from her native Egypt tracks her down and stands in front of her to take her back.
Meanwhile, she maintains an active social media presence, periodically demonstrates herself or with the topless Ukrainian protest group Femen, and doesn't seem intimidated by anybody.
For the last two years, 22-year-old Egyptian Aliaa Magda al-Elmahdy has been a hunted woman because she used the delayed-action shutter release of her digital camera to take a photo of herself, which she then posted online. She is only wearing stockings and shoes in the photo.
...Most recently, she lived in a Swedish village that could be reached after driving for an hour through a coniferous forest. It's a place that rarely sees outsiders. It was difficult to contact Elmahdy. Many people have attempted to write her emails or messages on Facebook. But Elmahdy ignores messages from strangers, because most strangers berate her.
Did they try her Facebook page? (Well, yes, they say they did.)  Her Twitter account? Her English and Arabic conversations on Ask.fm? Maybe she didn't answer because she thought they'd sensationalize it?

Now, at least, she says on Facebook that she lives in Gothenburg, which is the second largest city in Sweden, not "a Swedish village that could be reached after driving for an hour through a coniferous forest," and is involved in a relationship with a Norwegian  musician, so if she's really deep in hiding she could learn a few things from, say, Ayman al-Zawahiri (and wouldn't you like to imagine that meeting?).
After fleeing from Egypt, Elmahdy applied for political asylum in Sweden, where she hardly left her apartment for six months. She kept the curtains drawn, and whenever she heard a loud noise, she was afraid that her pursuers had come to get her. Sitting behind her closed curtains, she wondered what would become of her.
She no longer had a family, was no longer a student, and she had no job or home to return to. She had no friends in Sweden. Her boyfriend, who she sees only occasionally, lives in Norway. Her life is in tatters.
But this follows immediately and with no obvious irony:
It would be understandable if Elmahdy were to change her name and try to forget the past. Instead, she decided to do the opposite. She searched for an organization to join and found the group Femen, which originated in Ukraine and fights against religion and for more equality for women. The women of Femen became famous for their topless protests. They are trying to construct icons in series.
Elmahdy joined the Femen women in a topless protest for the rights of homosexuals in Russia. On another occasion, she snuck into a Stockholm mosque disguised in a burqa, undressed and staged a protest against Sharia. Elmahdy had learned that only a small group of people knew about these protests in advance, which made her feel safe from her pursuers . . .
Nor has she stopped her public protests:
On a fall day in 2013, Elmahdy made an appearance at a book fair in the Swedish city of Göteborg. Security guards had been hired for protection. There was a panel discussion on a small stage in which four women talked about feminism. The moderator asked whether bare breasts could be hiding the real message. Elmahdy placed her microphone on the table, pulled up her sweater and stood topless in front of the moderator and the audience. The audience members held their smartphones above their heads and snapped her picture. "The body is merely a symbol," Elmahdy said to the moderator.
Flashing a book fair press conference does not suggest she's living in terrorized anonymity.
When asked what she achieves with her protests, Elmahdy replies: "People become more courageous and express their feeling. The goal is to break the taboo."
I must give her credit for continuing to make her point, though in a country where her exposing herself poses few risks other than goosebumps; the Spiegel account seems over dramatized to say the least, and her continued self-exposure (which is her right) hardly suggests she is cowering in terror of Islamist assassins;  if anything she's flashing her boobs at them in defiance. In fact, she seems hardly to be someone frightened of vengeance, but rather someone who wants to throw down the gauntlet. (Language below NSFW, and my words though she's said similar things):  This isn't a scared young girl hiding from Islamists: she may not be in Egypt but she still has an "in-your-face, fuck-you-for-your-fucking hypocrisy, as you gawk and drool over my boobs you fucking hypocrites" message, not that of the terrorized exile the Der Spiegel article implies. (Pardon the language, but that's the message I think, not one of timidity.) A girl on the run from Islamist assassins doesn't strip down publicly in the Stockholm mosque, painting anti-Sharia slogans on her breasts, and give interviews to Der Spiegel. Her denunciations of Islam and all religion put her beyond yet another pale if her sexual views hadn't already done so. She may not be in Egypt but she's not shy about revealing either her opinions or her body. She may or may not be relevant but she hardly seems frightened.

True, it's not as daring sending that message from Sweden, but even if Morsi's gone, she's cut her links to Egypt for a long time. So is she irrelevant now, just an exhibitionist in Sweden where nudity isn't that much of a shock, or still an (exiled) voice in Egyptian affairs? I think Egyptians need to decide that, and many Egyptian women activists see Aliaa as an embarrassment, not a Joan of Arc.

Der Spiegel again:
After the conversation in the café, Elmahdy is standing on the shore of a lake outside the Swedish village. She watches the ducks, and when she discovers a playground, she climbs onto a jungle gym and sits on a swing. The icon of the Arab Spring giggles as she swings back and forth. What was the meaning of her gaze in the photo? "It means that I am not ashamed to be proud to be the woman I am."
From now on, Elmahdy could very well change her address every few months. Fleeing from others threatens to become the focus of her life. But unlike the screaming child on the photo from Vietnam, little of Elmahdy's deed will remain in the world's collective memory. The symbolic power of the image will gradually fade away. The photo hasn't changed anything -- not Islam, not Egypt, not the city of Cairo and not even Elmahdy's parents. Before long, her naked breasts will be nothing more than naked breasts.
Except maybe for Der Spiegel, I think that's all they've been for a couple of years now. The original message was sent in 2011 and, as I noted at the time, it was not just her breasts: it was her full frontal nudity that broke all the taboos.  And since her breasts are not the only ones on the Internet (or so I'm told), I find the Der Spiegel article sensational. I've seen her breasts;  much of the world has seen her breasts, and unless you're blocked by your national carrier, prudish, or can't click a mouse, so have you. Women have mammary glands and nipples, as any art museum will display. What's new here, and why raise fears for a 22-year-old girl who is already in exile and apparently found the article inaccurate? Those who need to hear her message are hearing it; let's the rest of us let it go. Her message is out there.


Is Erdoğan's Invulnerability Unraveling?

Because of the holidays I haven't posted anything about the latest Turkish corruption crisis, which seems a fitting conclusion to a rough year overall for once-untouchable Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. From the demonstrations in Gezi Park through the open feud with his one-time allies in the Fethullah Gülen movement, to this latest corruption scandal resulting in dismissals and cabinet resignations, Erdoğan's seeming political invulnerability (and even the unity of his AKP Party) seem in jeopardy.

Erdoğan has been lashing out at the danger of a "foreign plot" aimed at Turkey (or his grandiose vision of Turkey), blaming his onetime allies in the Gülen Movement (who shared the AKP's emphasis on a greater role for Islam and helped him scale back the Army's power, but have now fallen out with him), and hinting that somehow Israel and the US are linked to Gülen (who lives in self-imposed exile in the US).

For the past decade, Erdoğan has enjoyed a sort of political invulnerability at home and an international reputation for increasing democratic freedoms in Turkey; the latter has been unraveling since Gezi Park, and now even the former could be threatened; there is growing pressure on the media and opposition and Erdoğan's control of his own party seems less certain than before; the liras and stock market are suffering and there is even murmuring about new elections, despite the AKP's overwhelming dominance in the Grand National Assembly.

It may not be the end of the Erdoğan era, but he does seem to be challenged as never before.

Mohamad Chatah

Qifa Nabki remembers Mohamad Chatah, the Lebanese political figure assassinated in Beirut's latest car bombing. To say that the deepening violence in Lebanon is a spillover of the Syrian conflict is trite by now, though of course Lebanon had a long history of assassinations dating back to the civil war era. Since Chatah was a close ally of the Hariri family, Hizbullah and the Syrian regime would appear to be the prime suspects.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Business as Usual in Our Region

Now that Christmas (at least the Western one) is past, I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday as you try to figure out what to do  with all those partridges and lords-a-leaping and other gifts, but I fear the Middle East does not spend very long focused on peace on earth,

Egypt has, of course, banned the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in the wake of the bombing of the Reichstag Security HQ in Mansura, even though credit for that attack was claimed  by the Jihadi Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and the referendum on the new constitution is being pushed as a test of loyalty; in Iraq, Christmas saw multiple attacks on churches; and South Sudan is coming apart.

Back to business as usual.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Better Turnout in Bethlehem?

For those readers who celebrate Christmas on the Western or Latin date, Merry Christmas! Since most of the Middle East's Christians celebrate on the Orthodox date, Christmas-related posts will continue into January, but for those of you on the Gregorian calendar, Christmas greetings.

A number of reports suggest a larger Christmas Eve turnout for Bethlehem than in some recent years, which is good news for the town. Since the bulk of the pilgrims come from Jerusalem they, plus the Latin Patriarch and his procession, have to pass through a checkpoint in the Israeli separation wall, leading to lots of dramatic pictures, since the barrier between Jerusalem and the Bethlehem and Bait Jala areas is marked by some of the most formidable parts of the wall and watchtowers, leading to plenty of commentaries along these lines:

As Robert Frost put it, "Something there is that Doesn't Love a Wall ..."; but while I find the barrier deeply disturbing, I should note that Bethlehem is not actually walled in, just walled off from Jerusalem and Israeli settlements nearby:

On the other hand, the separation barrier has some strange routing, such as running down both sides of a road and then enclosing Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish holy site on the northern edge of Bethlehem, as shown in this Google Earth shot from a few years ago:

Monday, December 23, 2013

Mikhail Kalashnikov has Died; His Creation Survives Him

Mikhail Kalashnikov has died at the age of 94 after a long career.

His most famous creation lives on, The Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 (more commonly, the AK-47) and its variants, the AK-74, AKM, and the like, have sold in the hundreds of millions; variants and clones are produced in many countries (Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan among them) or copied (Israel's Galil is an unofficial derivative). It is by far the most  widely-used weapon in the world.

The rifle was inexpensive, easy-to-use, and became a symbol of  guerrilla and liberation movements around the world. One national flag, Mozambique's (right) carries an AK-47 on it, and a well-known flag from our own region, Hizbullah's, carries it as well:

More Fairuz for the Holidays

An Arabic version of "Go Tell it on  the Mountain":

And of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlmen":

A Christmas Rerun: Why Do Western Christians So Often Forget Eastern Christianity?

The Middle East Institute will be closed through January 1, but this blog will not. I'll be posting both original posts and a few seasonal reruns from nearly five years of blogging; this month and next will mark my fifth Christmases (Western and Eastern dates) on the blog. Here's a rerun from last year on the tendency of many Western Christians to forget (or never have known) the traditions of the East, though the earliest Christians (including the Jesus, the 12 Apostles, and Paul) came from Palestine, the term "Christian" was first used in Antioch, and even Saint Nicholas was an Anatolian bishop. I have left in dated references to the 2012 elections of the new Coptic Pope and Antiochian Orthodox Patriarch.

In a year [2012] in which both the Coptic Pope and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch 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 (Şanlıurfa, 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 Xi'an, 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, Antioch, 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.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Yalda and the Winter Solstice

Most everyone who has had any exposure to Iranian, Kurdish, Turkish, and Central Asian cultures or to adherents of the Zoroastrian and Baha'i faiths knows about Nowruz/New Year's/the Spring Equinox in March. Those outside the Irano-Persian cultural sphere may be less familiar with the Winter Solstice festival. As I noted last year,
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.
I ended last year's post with "Take that, Mayans." (Some of you may have already forgotten that the Mayan Calendar, and the world with it, ended a year ago, although personally I hardly noticed.)

Saturday is the solstice, so Yalda greetings to those who mark it.

The Wikipedia article offers the following:
Yalda (Persian: یلدا‎), Shab-e Yalda (Persian: شب یلدا‎), "Night of Birth", or Zayeshmehr (Persian: زایش مهر‎) "Birth of Mithra", or Shab-e Chelleh (Persian: شب چلّه‎, Azerbaijani: چیلله گئجه‌سی; lit. "Night of Forty") is the Persian winter solstice celebration which has been popular since ancient times. Yalda is celebrated on the Northern Hemisphere's longest night of the year, that is, on the eve of the Winter Solstice. Depending on the shift of the calendar, Yalda is celebrated on or around December 20 or 21 each year.
Yalda has a history as long as the religion of Mithraism. The Mithraists believed that this night is the night of the birth of Mithra, Persian angel of light and truth. At the morning of the longest night of the year the Mithra was born.
Following the fall of the Sassanid Empire and the subsequent rise of Islam in Persia/Iran, the religious significance of the event was lost, and like other Zoroastrian festivals, Yalda became a social occasion when family and close friends would get together. Nonetheless, the obligatory serving of fresh fruit during mid-winter is reminiscent of the ancient customs of invoking the divinities to request protection of the winter crop.
I think that may be a little confused since Zoroastrianism is much older than Mithraism, and the feast relates to both faiths.

The traditional fruits:
 The traditional watermelon:
 The Mithra imagery:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Armenian Churches of India

The Armenian Diaspora is broad and in some cases quite ancient, but were you aware of the network of Armenian churches in India? I certainly wasn't. From the website of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in Kolkata (ex-Calcutta). They do get around. I'm not sure now where I got this link (though probably via an Armenian friend on social media somewhere), but thanks, and in time for Christmas.

From the site:

2 Armenian Street, Kolkata – 700 001, WB, India

Among all the Armenian Apostolic churches in India, The Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, the oldest Armenian church in Kolkata, plays a unique and important role as it is considered to be the Mother Church of the Indian Armenians. St. John’s Church, the first Armenian church was built by the contribution of the people, on June 22, 1688. But, unfortunately, being a wooden structure, the church was completely destroyed by a devastating fire in 1707. Seventeen years later, in 1724, The Holy Church of Nazareth was built on the old burial ground of the Armenian community by Agha Nazar, hence its name, Nazareth’s church. The architect was an Armenian from Iran named Mr. Levon Ghevond. The belfry and the steeple were added ten years later in 1734 by Mr. Manuel Hazarmall. In 1763 the church was repaired and renovated by Khojah Petros Arratoon, who also embellished the church and built two altars, one on the right hand side of the main altar, in memory of his brother Gorgin Khan, the Minister and Commander-in-Chief of Nawab Mir Kasim of Bengal (1760-1763) and the other on the left hand side, in his own memory. Khojah Petros Arratoon was called “the earthly god of the Armenians in Calcutta” by Joseph Emin. In 1789, Agha Catchik Arakiel presented an English clock to the church which he had ordered from the firm of Alexander Hare of London. The clock arrived in Kolkata in 1792 and was fixed in the clock tower, but Arakiel, who built the surrounding walls and added the houses for the clergy, did not live to see it as he passed away on July 25, 1790. A special feature of the churchyard is the tomb of Rezabeebeh, the wife of the late Sookias. This tomb, dated July 21, 1630 is said to be the earliest Christian tomb in Kolkata.

Three Takes on Syria and its Regional Repercussions

The recent snows made a bad situation so much worse for the roughly one-third of Syrians who are now refugees that I find it hard to bring myself to write about it, so I'll let some people who know the country better than I do, anyway, pick up the slack:

Janet L. Abu-Lughod, 1928-2013

 It has been announced that Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod died December 7. Though she wrote widely on an amazing variety of subjects, students of Cairo and of Egypt will always remember her for her magisterial Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious (Princeton, 1971), which I discussed in my 2011 post on essential readings on Cairo. It was and is an essential study down to 1970, and should be read with David Sims' 2010 Understanding Cairo: The Logic of  a City Out of Control, for which Abu-Lughod wrote the Foreword and which continues the narrative. Her 1981 study Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco dealt with the Moroccan capital, and her 1991 Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 rounded out her studies of Middle East interest; she also studied several American cities. Her teaching career was spent at Northwestern and later at the New School of Social Research. A New School colleague remembers her here.

She was married for 40 years to the late Palestinian academic Ibrahim Abu-Lughod; one of their four children is the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Three Years Since Mohamed Bouazizi Set Himself on Fire

Mohamed Bouazizi
Three years ago yesterday, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor with a college degree, set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. The fire spread to all of Tunisia and then to much of the Arab world (yes, "Arab  Spring" began in December.)

Three years later, Tunisia is still struggling to make democracy work. Egypt is still; trying to write a constitution. Libya is in disarray and Syria destroyed. The monarchies, except Bahrain, remain largely unscathed.

The Arab World has surely changed, but the course is far more muddled than it once seemed.

Another Fairuz Christmas Song

More for the season: a clip of a young Fairuz singing Silent Night in Arabic:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

For the PR "Oops" Hall of Fame: 3 of the 5 "for all Egyptians" Poster Models Aren't Egyptian, and they Misspelled "Egyptians"

According to this Daily Telegraph article, as well as this NYT blogpost, three of the five "Egyptians" on the poster behind the press conference promoting the January referendum on the new constitution "a constitution for all Egyptians" are, in fact, stock photos from American advertising sites. Only the soldier at right and the elderly lady in the middle are clearly Egyptian.

Oh, and, ya know, when you're appearing in front of a poster with "a constitution for all Egyptians" on it, you might, ya know, want to spell "Egyptians" right, maybe?
It should read المصريين: It reads المصرين.

I fear this tells us something about the constitution as well, but perhaps I'm wrong.

UPDATE: An anonymous commenter thinks of a worse case I'd missed:
Anonymous Anonymous said...
On the bright side it didn't say
(Morsiyyin, supporters of Morsi,) Wish I'd thought of that!

The Arab World and Internet Porn

There's little to surprise in what follows, but here's another piece about how the Arab world is so eager to defeat the scourge of pornography on the Internet, that they spend more time debating that than, say, saving the Egyptian economy; and yet when it comes to actual searches for porn, the Arab world seems to lead the pack. I have no brief for hard-core pornography but know that every new medium from hieroglyphics and cuneiform to woodcuts, daguerreotype photography, early movies, and so on down the line, the dirty stuff is often among the early adopters. One  can stand at the shore and tell the tide to recede, or actually teach people to avoid the viler stuff. But that's harder than passing laws telling the tide it's illegal (Acts of King Canute I, 1.)

This piece tells us what everybody knew already, but with cooler charts: "Porn in the Middle East – The Elephant in The Room."

The Arab world undoubtedly has a mixed relationship when it comes to the Internet’s vast treasure trove of adult material. A recent survey conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar found that, from a sample of 10,000 respondents across eight Arab states, the majority was in favour of tighter Internet regulation. Meanwhile, the regular cautionary tales fabricated by local media wheel out a motley selection of ‘experts’ who warn that viewing explicit images will lead to a rise in mental illness, violent crime, and the spread of “sexual deviancy”, for which read homosexuality.

And, undeterred by the overwhelming evidence that such policies are always destined to fail, governments continue to announce plans to block access to X-rated websites, often with large scale public support. In 2011, when many thought the days of Ben Ali-style censorship were coming to an end, a Tunisian court decreed that porn sites would henceforth be banned, as they “contravened the values of Arab Islamic society.” And just a few months before its overthrow, the Islamist government of Muhammad Morsi in Egypt thought nothing of dedicating endless hours to discussing a new $3.7 million anti-porn initiative. Clearly they didn’t think their country had bigger priorities.

But while people may publically express their aversion and opposition to Internet pornography, their private viewing habits suggest something quite different. Put simply, porn is BIG in the Arab world. According to Google AdWords, the 22 Arab states account for over 10% of the world’s searches for “sex”; A total of 55.4 million unique monthly Google “sex” searchers in the 22 (ignoring a further 24 million searches for “sex” transliterated into Arabic) that matches both the United States and India, two countries often cited as world leaders in porn consumption. . . .
. . .It also seems to be the case that viewing porn in the region is not simply big in absolute terms, but also relatively to all other things people search. Data obtained from the Internet analytics company Alexa shows that adult-themed sites account for seven of the 100 most visited websites in the US, a figure that is trumped by at least six Arab states – Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Meanwhile, Google Trends, which shows how many searches for a particular keyword are made relative to all searches on Google, suggests that people in the region are more likely to search for “sex” than almost anywhere else in the world, with the exception of the Indian Sub-Continent.

. . . Even more revealing is the breakdown of the actual keywords people are searching for. While fairly generic searches for “tits” (including البزاز) and “lesbians” (including السحاق) amount to around 895,000 and 718,000 times per month (with the highest number on a per user basis again coming from Iraq) more extreme fetish keywords appear to be far more popular.  Searches for “animal sex” and “incest” (in both English and Arabic) occur on average 1.03 million and 1.18 million times per month across the region, equating to more than one search per 100 Internet users.

And by searches:

Of course, the article notes the obvious hypocrisy, the tendency by Salafis to blame the West for trying to corrupt Islam, quotes Shereen El Feki and otherwise tells us what pretty much everybody knew or suspected.

Sexual frustration tends to encourage a search for any outlet. While I won't say that no one with a healthy sex life ever goes trolling for porn (even couples may, I suppose), I suspect the frustrated do so in greater numbers.

King Canute is still waiting for the tide to obey him.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Fatima Oufkir, 1935-2013, Has Died

In 1972, General Mohammed Oufkir, Morocco's Minister of Defense, tried to overthrow King Hassan II; several attempts by the Air Force to shoot the King's plane down failed, and Oufkir "committed suicide." The quotes are most likely merited.

General Oufkir's career was over, but his wife and children had a couple of decades of hell ahead of them. They were kept under house arrest in desert prisons until 1991; some of the children grew to adulthood in detention, before pressure from human rights groups led to their freedom.

His widow, Fatima Oufkir, has died at the age of 78. (Link is in Arabic.) She had written a memoir (book and links are in French), and a memoir by her daughter Malika (who was a prisoner from age 9 to 28) has appeared in English.

More on the family at Oprah Winfrey's website, probably my first link to Oprah in nearly five years of blogging. But for the English-only readers, there you go.

RIP for a lady who suffered with her family through no clear fault of her own.

Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence, 1962

T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) was about five feet four inches tall. The late Peter O'Toole, who just died at age 81, was six feet two inches, about nine inches taller than the diminutive original Lawrence. Yet of despite O'Toole's many other roles, to many he will always be T.E. Lawrence.

In one of my favorite scenes, O'Toole is meeting privately with Obi-Wan Kenobe Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal in Feisal's tent:

Tunisia Gets a Prime Minister Nobody Knows

After months of deadlock, Tunisia's political negotiators agreed over the weekend on a compromise candidate for interim Prime Minister: Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa. Who?
Apparently, many Tunisians are wondering just that:

The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians.
A businessman by background, the 51 year old Jomaa may be seen as a technocratic figure for the transitional period. His appointment came hours after yet another deadline had passed.
The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.pFdkWmJx.dpuf

The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.W0rM8Upv.dpuf
The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.W0rM8Upv.dpuf
The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.W0rM8Upv.dpuf

The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.W0rM8Upv.dpuf
The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.W0rM8Upv.dpuf
The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.W0rM8Upv.dpuf
The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.W0rM8Upv.dpuf
The selection of Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister has come as a surprise to most regular citizens, most of whom had not heard of him before this weekend’s announcement. The decision appears to have further divided politicians. - See more at: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/12/16/prime-minister-announcement-baffles-tunisians-divides-political-parties/#sthash.W0rM8Upv.dpuf

Friday, December 13, 2013

More from the Snows

Besides the snow shots I ran in my previous post, you'll find a lot more shots from around the region here. They're saying it's the first snow in Cairo in 112 years.

Also, apparently last week, the two chief rabbis of Israel asked the faithful to pray for rain. I guess it worked. Some parts of Jerusalem are alleged to have gotten half a meter.

A camel at St. Catherine's in Sinai; a pious snowman at the Western Wall in Jerusalem:

Snow in Much of Middle East; Even Cairo Suburbs

A winter storm  that has hit the Middle East has disrupted air travel and created major hardships; Syrian refugees in unheated caps in Lebanon have to cope with ice, cold, and snow along with all the other privations. Photographers as usual are coming up with shots of the Western Wall and other familiar scenes (for the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, see my post Wednesday), and of course, a snowman at the Dome of the Rock (left).

Egypt has also been hit by snow,rain, and sleet. Snow in Alexandria or at St. Catherine's in the mountains of Sinai are not that unusual, but snow has even fallen in the outer suburbs of Cairo. Al-Ahram published these photos of Madinaty, a new town on the eastern outskirts of Cairo:

And looming, threatening clouds over some well-known structures:

And then there's this amazing shot from the Internet:
Update: They say the sphinx pic is fake, a photo from a Tokyo outdoor model. But it did snow in Cairo.

During the blizzard of December 2010, everybody commented on how rare it was to see snow in Damascus and Amman and such. Only two years later, in January 2013, those lacking short-term memories wrote again about how rare snow was. That was 11 months ago . . .

Thursday, December 12, 2013

You May Find This Amusing Though I Feel it Needs Some Explaining First

This is going around. It's funny in one of those "the joke is great after you have it explained to you" ways:
This should be obvious to anyone who has been following Egyptian social media the past few days, and also is pretty familiar with the iconography (in the literal sense of the symbolism of icons) of Eastern Christian saints. (Though the Coptic label is a big clue there. If you know some Coptic of course.) And that's an Omega watch, of course, and Sigmund Freud in the role of Saint Basil of course, and ...

Just in case a few of you are still a little puzzled or don't fit all the above, let's start with General Sisi's dreams.

An audiotape appeared on a YouTube video yesterday, posted  by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. It purports to be (though it's not confirmed genuine) an interview between Egypt's General Sisi and the Editor of Al-Masry al-Youm. In it Gen. Sisi allegedly reveals (though he goes off the record to do it) that for the past 35 years he has had dream visions, in which he saw himself as ruler of Egypt wielding a sword with the slogan "There is no God but God" in red, and wearing an Omega watch.

First, the Arabic audio (transcript in Arabic), followed by an English transcript from this website:

Interviewer: Had you expected to take on the leadership of the Egyptian Army?
El-Sisi: The leadership of the Egyptian army, or something greater than that?
Interviewer: Fullstop.
El-Sisi: I am of the people who’ve had a long history of visions. This is only for you.
Interviewer: Okay, I’ll listen, I’ll only write later.
El-Sisi: 35 years ago…well, I’ve stopped talking about visions 7 or 8 years ago, from 2006.
Interviewer: I understand this part…
El-Sisi: I stopped talking about these things. I said I wouldn’t talk about it again. But I’ve always had visions…
Interviewer: You see yourself on the throne of Egypt?
El-Sisi: No, that’s not it. I’ve seen a lot of things…
Interviewer: That happened?
El-Sisi: That happened afterwards…nobody could explain it. For 35 years, nobody could explain it.
Interviewer: Like what?
El-Sisi: But this won’t be said.
Interviewer: Not in this interview, but whenever God wishes.
El-Sisi: For example, many years ago, I saw in a dream, that I was raising a sword, on which was written “No God but God” in red…this was 35 years ago…
Interviewer: “No God but God” colored red…?
El-Sisi: In red, yes – on the sword, raised like this. Another in which I had on my wrist, a watch, with a very big green star on it…and Omega, and people are asking “Why you? Why do you have this watch?” and I said this watch is named for me, it’s an Omega, and I’m Abdel Fattah, so I put the Omega, with…the global nature, with Abdel Fattah. Not me, the dream, that’s just an example. In another dream, I was told I would be given what nobody else had been given…
Interviewer: Who?
El-Sisi: In the dream, we’ll give you what nobody else had been given. In another dream, I was with Sadat, and I was talking to him, and he told me “I knew that I would be the president of the republic”, and I said to him “I also know that I’m going to be the president of the republic.”
Interviewer: What do you feel when you see your pictures raised next to pictures of Abdel Nasser, and when Abdel Hakeem said you are an extension of the leader, and that you are the most capable of leading the country?
El-Sisi: There’s a prayer I always say, that I could be that.
Okay, that explains (in so far as it is explicable) the red-labeled sword and the Omega watch, and offers at least a clue to the presence of Sigmund Freud. And the spear of course is poking at Muhammad Morsi, and has knocked off his crown.

Now for the rest of the imagery. Despite resembling the typical images, it does not represent St. George and the Dragon (with Morsi as the dragon), but rather the dream of Saint Basil, in which Freud is Basil and Sisi is Saint Philopater Mercurius (a Coptic version of whose name is the label, but the twin swords also give it away).  Here is a non-Sisi version of a similar icon:

Saint Philopater Mercurius  was an early Christan soldier-saint and martyr. Legend has it that the Archangel Michael came to him and gave him a divine sword to go with his physical sword as a Roman soldier: in Arab Christian tradition he is known as Abu Saifain, he with two swords; hence the sword in each hand. He was martyred in 250 AD by the Emperor Decius, the same Emperor he had previously served.

A Cappadocian, he was buried there, but years later the Armenian Church gave some of his relics to the Coptic Church, and he became the subject of popular veneration.

But you can't keep a good saint down. Over a century after his death, in 363, Saint Basil the Great, also Cappadocian, was imprisoned by his former schoolmate Julian, now the notorious Emperor Julian "the Apostate," who had reverted to paganism and started persecuting Christianity anew. Legend says he prayed for deliverance, and in a dream was told he would be President of Egypt with an Omega watch had a vision in which St. Philopater Mercurius appeared and told him that he had struck the Emperor Julian with a lance. Julian was indeed pierced through the liver with a lance in a battle with the Sassanid Perisans, and soon died; Christianity was restored and St. Basil freed.

So that's the rest of the imagery: Morsi is the despised Julian; Sisi wields the twin swords of the saint, but bearing an Islamic slogan. It falls apart a bit in that Freud is Saint Basil, since despite the connection with dreams, it wasn't Freud's dream here, it was Sisi's. And then there's the Omega watch. (At least he didn't dream of a Rolex.)

But you all knew this already, right?

So Sisi's not just Nasser. He's Saint Philopater, but with the Muslim shahada on his sword.

I still don't get the Omega/Abdel Fattah link though.