A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 31, 2014

Geneva 2 Ends

The Geneva talks on Syria have ended with mutual accusations and recriminations, though some limited ceasefire agreements have allowed some aid to get through; and there's another round due February 10, but it's not clear if the regime will attend.

Meanwhile I'm still wrestling with a bug and not very creative. I'll blog when I have something.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


I've been hit by some kind of unpleasant winter bug, and may not have much to blog today. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Bonapartist Temptation, The Man on the White Horse: But is Sisi Napoleon I or Napoleon III?

The Original (Wikimedia Commons)
Several months ago, I noted that despite the tendency of many of General Sisi's critics  to misuse the word "fascist," for the mix of populist enthusiasm and yearning for a strong military leader we see in Egypt today, "Bonapartist" was probably the more appropriate term. At that time, one of my commenters suggested that if Gamal Abdel Nasser was Napoleon I, General Sisi was likely to be Napoleon III.

Indeed, there is a big difference between Napoleon I, the victor of Austerlitz who conquered most of Europe, and his nephew Louis Napoleon, the loser at Sedan who lost Alsace and Lorraine for half a century.

Juan Cole takes up the theme in a post brilliantly titled (paraphrasing Karl Marx), "The 18th Brumaire of Gen. al-Sisi in Egypt." That of course is a reference to Karl Marx's famous "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," analyzing Napoleon III's accession in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848 ("18th Brumaire" refers to the coup in which the original Napoleon overthrew the Directory in 1799). (That is also the work that begins with Marx's famous lines, "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.") Cole:
Marx, who saw the government as a managing committee for the business classes, viewed the accession to power of Napoleon III after the failed revolutions of 1848 as an investment of power in dictatorship by threatened entrepreneurs and financiers.
The anointing of al-Sisi as the candidate of the officer corps and his popularity with the Egyptian wealthy points to a similar configuration. He is a symbol of order and authority at a time when the foundations of society have been repeatedly shaken. But above all he is the great hope of the social classes that had gotten wealthy off the public sector and off of government licenses. They had been deeply threatened by the revolution. Al-Sisi’s function from their point of view is to continue to shore up the public sector companies, protect the wealth of the government-tied entrepreneurs, and attract more foreign investment and Gulf rent.
The Fallul, to use a non-Marxist term.

Masrawy (via Zeinobia)
You may also have seen  the controversy over pro-Sisi demonstrators holding military boots on their heads at the Morsi trial, a highly dubious choice of symbolism indeed; Zeinobia posted many of the pictures and like other observers she was reminded of Orwell's line at the end of 1984 "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever " 

I suspect these young Sisi enthusiasts have read neither Marx nor Orwell, but the be-careful-what-you-wish-for rule should be kept in mind. Napoleon I, even in defeat, made a comeback from Elba for 100 days; but not all Bonapartes are the same:
Not his Uncle: Napoleon III (left) with Bismarck after the Surrender

Smithsonian: First Photos of Jerusalem, 1844

Smithsonian Magazine's website has a piece on the first photos taken of Jerusalem, dating from 1844 and taken by pioneering French photographer  Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey. Take a Look.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Another Memory of Pete Seeger

Thanks to MEJ Managing Editor Jake Passel for this as we all remember Pete Seeger: Pete Seeger, that other great folksinger Theodor Bikel, and Palestinian-Israeli poet Rashid Hussain sing about peace in Hebrew on Seeger's Rainbow Quest show in 1965. The song is "Hineh Mah Tov," meaning "How good and pleasant it is to sit as brothers together" (taken from Psalm 133). Unfortunately its audio only.

Pete Seeger and Israel

Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94. Besides being one of the founding fathers of the American folk music revival of the mid-20th Century, he was a lifelong activist even during the depths of the McCarthy Era, and an avid advocate for peace, opposing the US wars in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan. As various Israeli and Jewish appreciations of his career are noting, however, his views on Israel remained somewhat ambivalent. As Ha'aretz notes:
Three years ago, Seeger came out in support of a boycott against Israel, according to a press release from the Israel Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD).
He later clarified his position, telling JTA that his position on Israel was constantly evolving.
Seeger told JTA by phone in 2011 that he “probably” made comments that supported a boycott of Israel, but added that he was still learning a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his opinions wavered "with each piece of information.”
Seeger also took part in a 2010 online peace rally “With Earth and Each Other,” in support of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel.
The Times of Israel also notes Seeger's shifting views.

He seems to have been attracted to the socialist ideals of the early Israeli state, but opposed to the occupation after 1967.

Ironically, as Richard Silverstein reminds us, one early 1950s hit by Seeger and his group The Weavers was an Israeli song, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena; there was subsequently a court battle over the rights in which the original Israeli author was vindicated. It was released as the flip side of Good Night, Irene, which rose to the Number One hit in the US.

Seeger (second from left) and The Weavers:

Today Marks Five Years of This Blog

Five years ago today, on January 28, 2009, I posted my first substantive post on this blog, about Hisham Melhem's interview with president Obama. I posted two other posts that day, one of them about ‘Omar Suleiman, who's still making news posthumously. (Strictly speaking I put up  a "placeholder" "Watch This Space" announcement on January 27, so I could have marked five years yesterday, but the January 28 posts were the first with content)

In those five years, if I'm adding right, I've posted 4,080 posts; this one is number 4,081.

I know some readers are very loyal and others just drop by now and then, but thanks to all of you, and thanks for the many compliments, including those quoted in the right column under "kind words from others." And thanks to the Middle East Institute for giving me the opportunity. Somehow I sill haven't run out of things to say, so stick around and see what comes next.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sisi Promoted Field Marshal; SCAF Approves Run

Things are moving quickly. Sisi has been promoted to Field Marshal, though historically that rank was reserved for generals who had seen combat; and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has approved his running for President.

Is the Sisi Bandwagon Starting to Roll?

Adly Mansour (Ahram)
Now that the Egyptian Constitution has passed, giving the Interim President (Adly Mansour, if you've forgotten, as I frequently do) the power to decide when to schedule the first Parliamentary and Presidential elections, Mansour has announced that he has been told decided to move Presidential elections ahead of Parliamentary elections, after "several dialogues with political groups, which saw a majority in favour of holding presidential elections first." This departs from the "roadmap" announced last July, and most observers think it would lead to an opportunity for the new President to entrench himself in power before having an elected Parliament to deal with.

The decree said that "procedures" for the polls must begin within a minimum of 30 to a maximum of 90 days of the adoption of the Constitution, which means February 17-April 18; an Ahram Online report assumes the vote itself will take place within that window.

Assuming General Sisi plans to run for President himself, which isn't exactly a daring assumption, all this guarantees an election while he is still enormously popular and before the growing violence can get out of control.

Meanwhile General Sisi, whose only job at the moment is Defense Minister and head of the Armed Forces, is performing such normal command functions as meeting with Coptic Pope Tawadros II and a senior delegation of Coptic bishops on the occasion of the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution.
At least he took off his sunglasses. Looking for the Coptic vote? Or asking the Pope for military advice? You decide.

Shulamit Aloni, 1928-2014

Shulamit Aloni (Wikipedia)
It's been a busy weekend in the Mideast and I have some catching up to do.On Friday, Shulamit Aloni died in Tel Aviv at the age of 85. Her passing will get a lot less attention than the death two weeks earlier of Ariel Sharon, and that is, in my definitely biased opinion, too bad.  The inveterate warrior for peace will be less remembered than the warrior with arms. May her name be a blessing.

This veteran political leader of the Israeli Left and advocate of peace with the Palesinitans had good Zionist credentials: in 1948 she served with the Palmach in the battle for Jerusalem and was taken prisoner by the Jordanians. Elected to the Knesset as a Labor MK in 1965, she left Labor in 1973 to form the Citizens' Rights Movement (Ratz). She opened dialogue with the Palestinians and in 1992 Ratz joined with  Mapam and Shinui to form a new Left/Peace Bloc known as Meretz, and held several ministerial posts in governments in the 1990s, including Education and Communications. In 1996 she was replaced as leader of Meretz by Yossi Sarid. She retired from the Knesset but remained an active advocate for peace.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Tunisia Has a Constitution at Last

More than three years after the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia's Constitutional Assembly has adopted a new constitution, hammered out with difficulty and compromise among the major political parties, including hard bargaining between Islamists and secularists. Unlike Egypt's recently adopted charter, this was hammered out by an elected constituent assembly chosen in November 2011.

The Assembly voted overwhelmingly to adopt the Constitution; if the vote had not been by two-thirds majority it would have gone to a referendum. The vote was 200 yes, 12 no, with four abstentions.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Collateral Damage: Islamic Art Museum and Old Dar al-Kutub Damaged in Police Bombing

Museum Facade Damage (Ahram)
Today's massive car bombing at Cairo's Central Police Headquarters in Bab al-Khalq also apparently did significant damage to two key repositories of Egypt's heritage across the street: the Museum of Islamic Art and the old building of the National Library and Archives (Dar al-Kutub), shich houses many of the Library's rare manuscripts and papyri. (The Library has another building along the Nile.)

[Update: This photo gallery at Egyptian Streets suggests the damage to the recently renovated museum is really devastating. More as it becomes available.]

Ahram Online:
TV footage showed wrecked floors of the multi-storey building and a damaged facade of the nearby Museum of Islamic Art. The minister of state for antiquities told journalists in a statement after touring the site that some artefacts and items inside the museum had also been damaged. He said the 19th-century museum building, which was recently rennovated in a multimillion-dollar project, will need to be "rebuilt." Photos show that the building's roof has caved in, floors are covered with shattered glass and wood debris, and the display cases housing the museum artefacts have been smashed.
Library Damage (Ahram)
Another Ahram Online piece on the Dar al-Kutub:
The car bomb which gutted Cairo's central police headquarters early on Friday morning has also caused severe structural damage to Egypt's National Library and Archives (NLA), located across the street from the security directorate targeted in the blast.

Minister of Culture Saber Arab told Ahram Online that all the NLA's lighting and ventilation systems were completely destroyed, while the decorative facade, representative of Islamic architectural styles, had collapsed. He added that all showcases and furniture inside the building had also been badly damaged.
NLA head Abdul Nasser Hassan told Ahram Online that seven unique manuscripts and three rare scientific papyri had also been damaged. Hassan estimated that the losses will cost the government at least LE50 million in repairs.
Let me also share a memory from back in the late 1970s of the Police Headquarters building at Bab al-Khalq. I spent a lot of time among Cairo's medieval monuments on foot, and whenever I was headed to the Bab Zuwaila or Darb al-Ahmar areas, I would walk via Bab al-Khalq, passing right by the fortress-like police station. I remember that the rear of the building contained high, barred windows and apparently contained holding cells; there would always be wives out back, shouting up at their jailed spouses. Later visits to Cairo never took me back to Bab al-Khalq, I don't think.

On a Bloody Morning: January 25, 1952 (Police Day), 2011 (the Revolution) and Now

The latest car bombing in Cairo, at Police Headquarters in Cairo's Bab al-Khalq neighborhood,  which augurs no good, reminds us that Saturday is January 25. It is Egyptian Police Day, the 62nd anniversary of a landmark day in Egypt's struggle against the British, and also the third anniversary of the beginnings of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 (inspired by the Tunisian Revolution, Egyptian protesters deliberately chose Police Day to launch their protests).

The original Police Day celebrated the Police confrontation, not with Egyptian protesters, but with the British. As I noted in last year's post:
The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 had provided for British withdrawal of its troops from Egypt, except for bases in the Suez Canal Zone for the protection of the Canal, but with the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain had invoked a clause allowing it to reoccupy Egypt. After the war British troops did withdraw to the Canal Zone, but kept force levels well above the 10,000 troops allowed in the treaty. After the Wafd Party, Britain's traditional nationalist rivals, won the 1950 elections, the Egyptian government in October 1951 unilaterally abrogated the treaty and demanded that Britain negotiate for its withdrawal.

The Cold War was in full swing and Britain (and behind it the US) were already engaged in a struggle with Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq over Iranian oil, and now faced a challenge to the Suez Canal. The Wafd, and its other traditional rival the King, were both losing influence in Egypt to growing social and economic dissatisfaction and the growth of movements with their own disciplined and sometimes armed militias, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Communists, and others.

The Egyptian government decided to sanction the creation of "Liberation" squads, recruited from vlunteers (many from the Brotherhood), who began a guerrilla war against the British in the Canal Zone. The British responded with proactive moves against the "terrorists," and on January 21 entered Egyptian quarters of Ismailia seeking to uproot the Liberation squads. After coming into conflict with Egyptian police, on the 25 the Lancashire Fusiliers surrounded the Ismailia police headquarters.

The Egyptian Interior Minister, Fuad Seraggedin Pasha (who would survive to head the New Wafd in the 1970s and 1980s), ordered the police in Ismailia to resist the British Army, a dubious decision which, after a six hour siege, left some 50 policemen dead. This video, apparently a British newsreel (there's no sound at least in this version), shows aspects of the British operation, including rounding up prisoners:
Let me also rerun that video:
The next day, the 26th, was Black Saturday. More on that later today or perhaps Monday.

Why is a Taboo Word Taboo? The Curious Case of أحا (a7a)

I've been thinking for some time about writing about one of the most distinctive words (or interjections, or expressions, or inarticulate grunts) in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, which most Egyptians consider profane at best and obscene at worst, but can't really explain why, since it has no clear etymology in any language. This is the word أحا (aḥa in the most common scholarly transliteration, a7a in the popular Internet form): the Arabic  ح , a pharyngeal "h", should not be confused with ه (equivalent to simple English "h") or the fricative خ kha guttural kh like German Bach or Scottish Loch. ح is a raspier "h" in between these two. You can hear examples below.

Arabic, for all the social conservatism prevalent in society today, is a language rich and full of linguistic profanity and obscenity. But the vast majority of those are of obvious meaning, usually relating to damnation, sex, or bodily functions, and most stem from Classical Arabic (one or two from Persian or Turkish). But not this word. It's sui generis.

As Adel Iskandar put it in an article in Egypt Independent, "Egypt's Deafening Three-Letter Yell,"
Yet the term, whose etymological roots are very difficult to disentangle, remains a salient part of Egyptians’ expression of disdain, shock, agony, anger and a plethora of other hyperbolic emotional states. Whether it is a verb, noun, adjective or onomatopoeia is inconsequential because its meaning is understood.
In a personal conversation with writer and blogger Ahmed Nagy back in February 2008, he lashed out against the culture of conformity and the high premium paid to those who speak in polite euphemisms about the state of their lives and country. “So what if I say a7a! It is how we speak in this country! We hide behind politeness and accept what is happening around us!”
But the term is not a newcomer to the Egyptian vernacular. Anecdote and testimony suggest the masses pleading with former President Gamal Abdel Nasser not to abdicate after the humiliating defeat of 1967 shouted “Aha, Aha, la tatanaha!” (A7a, a7a, don’t abdicate!). Since the revolution, it has been used publicly to reflect on the deterioration of the country’s political arena, from songs like “Aha ya thawra” (A7a, oh, revolution) by Ahmed al-Sawy to songs by the Ultras football fans.
Historically, the fissures between socioeconomic classes in the country were maintained not only by access to authority and power but rather through the admonishment of the masses, on the grounds of what is often described as “vulgarity.”
A7a was once the explosive, screeching, unnerving, alarming and deafening yell of the “vulgar” poor. But as class consciousness was shaken to its core under the feet of a mass revolutionary movement, so has its vernacular. A7a now permeates all social classes with fervor, shattering social norms and elite mores.
UPDATE 2/26/14:  documenting the "a7a! a7a! La tatanaha!:" anecdote: a photo from the 1967 demonstrations against Nasser's resignations, with the chant clerly spelled out on the sign (right).

Here's the song "A7a ya thawra" he mentions, in Arabic of course:

Though أحا is not clearly profane since no one knows what its origins are, most efforts to explain it in English, even in scholarly dictionaries,  do resort to profanity. As a result I will issue one of my rare language warnings here since we'll be venturing into NSFW four-letter territory a little bit here.

I had been collecting notes on this for a good part of the past year, but I was moved to finally write about أحا  (for simplicity, hereafter a7a) this past weekend while watching Jehane Noujaim's wonderful The Square on Netflix. Like any film of ordinary Egyptians under stress "a7a" occurs frequently. The folks who did the English subtitles, who seemed quite good, treated it many different ways. I wasn't taking notes so this is unscientific, but I think they may have ignored it a time or two, and after that translated it (in roughly ascending order of objectionableness) as "damn!," damn it!," "shit!," "bullshit!," "fuck!," "fuck it!," and "fuck [insert name, subject, or situation here]." There may have been other translations. And yes, the subtitles are NSFW if you watch the movie. Whether the Arabic is also objectionable depends on how offensive you find a7a.

I thought all those translations were dead on in terms of conveying, in English, the meaning of the Arabic expletive in various differing contexts. A7a is that kind of word. But it doesn't mean, in the sense of semantically equate with or translate, any of those words. So what does it mean?

Answer: nobody knows.

Of course, when nobody knows, folk etymology takes over, so there are plenty of self-contradictory explanations. Among them:
  • It's the sound women make during orgasm. This is the only folk etymology that comes remotely close to explaining its taboo nature; the others are pretty anodyne. But does anyone believe this? Though some women may make similar sounds in ecstasy, why then use it as a sound expressing disgust? Does anyone believe this, though it's the most often cited?
  • It's short for أنا حقاً اعترض or "I truly oppose," said to date to the Fatimid era. Acronyms as etymologies are always suspicious and usually folk creations: "posh" does not come from "Port Out, Starboard Home,"; "wog" does not mean "Wily Oriental Gentleman", and surely you know that "fuck" comes from neither "Fornication Under Consent of the King" or "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge."  Arabic is even less fond of this kind of thing than English, except in modern political movement acronyms.  There's a rather encyclopedic literature on the Fatimid and Mamluk eras. One source, just one, would be really nice. No one cites any. In fact, I'm having trouble locating my own source for this factoid! I saw it on the Internet so it's obviously true ...
  • Article in Al-Ahram: "The most believed theory of the origin of the word was that during the Fatimid era in Egypt the word "to object" (Ahtag) was banned, so Egyptians started using the word "A7ta", which later turned into "A7a."" أحا (a7a) Most believed by whom? I've never seen this anywhere else. Why would the Fatimids ban "I object"? Huh? And why does everything get attributed to the Fatimids? They're pretty well documented, and no one has a source.
I have one comment on all the etymologies, after due scholarly consideration:  أحا 

So what do the lexicographers say? Well, there aren't that many dictionaries of Egyptian colloquial to begin with, and many of them don't touch it. The go-to authority, Martin Hinds and El-Said Badawi's A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic, Arabic-English (1986) is the ultimate authority; when I was in Egypt for the first time in 1972, work on the dictionary was dominating attention at AUC's Center for Arabic Studies, and the team helping Hinds and Badawi included such later familiar names as Humphrey Davies (translator of The Yacoubian Building and much else). The late Martin Hinds was a fine historian and El-Said Badawi was (is, as I hope he's still around) a fine Arabic linguist; he was also a nice and gentle man, but Hinds and Badawi have to resort to a four letter word to explain it in English:
To "Fuck that!" you might add the American "fuck this shit!" and just plain unadulterated "Fuck!" or "Fuck it!" as an expletive/interjection. But there's no obviously sexual context in a7a, though the same may be increasingly true of "fuck!,"which rarely refers these days to sex. But you can't translate a7a as "fuck" or "shit" or anything else without the context.

The other possible lexical reference in English I could locate is in Socrates Spiro's An Arabic-English Dictionary of the Colloquial Arabic of Egypt (about 1895) offers a definition of a word it spells with a خ kha instead of a ح ha, and which it spells without the final vowel,  but which otherwise seems to be in the right semantic territory.

But this may be just a simple interjection. Ach!

We;ve already seen several examples of its everyday use. Let me offer several more, from the artistic to the humorous to the vulgar.

First, the artistic. In March of last year a Cairo gallery did an exhibition of photographs centered around photos of people saying a7a, apparently intended to more or less gentrify the word. It was written up in Al-Ahram  and also and more pretentiously on art critic sites:
Offensive words’ social stigma often have no known origin. The meaning and acceptability of linguistic expressions evolve together with society, however, and new uses appear. In Egyptian colloquial Arabic, the word A7A, a common transliteration of the Arabic letters alif, haa, and alif, is prohibited from being broadcast, published, printed, or distributed in any formal way because of its perceived vulgarity. But for a generation questioning social norms, socio-economic hierarchies, and political passivity, this word commonly meant to evoke a sense of objection, frustration, and contempt is being used more than ever. 
There's also a video of the exhibition. (You can set the closed captioning for English, if you don't mind computer translated approximations.)

The name Hor-Aha
On the lighter side, it has long been known that one of the earliest kings of a united Egypt bore the Horus name of Aha, or Hor-Aha. Some think the king was the unifier known as Menes or Mina; some think it was his father Narmer. Hor-Aha means Horus the fighter and has nothing to do with the modern expletive. And King Aha has been known since the 19th century.

Last year, however, the BBC wrote up a popular account of a new finding from the Royal Society. The BBC report is no longer online, at least the link is dead, and in typical popular journalism form it presented the new findings as if everything in them, including the names of the kings, was new, when in fact the only new thing was the precise dating. The Royal Society abstract, which is still online,is "An absolute chronology for early Egypt using radiocarbon dating and Bayesian statistical modelling."  (Aren't academic titles so enticing?)  The BBC report, now seemingly gone, made it seem as if  everything in the story was new. The Egyptian Twitterverse, assuming King Aha was a new discovery. had a lot of fun (and need I remark that #a7a is a popular Twitter hashtag among Egyptians?); this selection only from the English tweets:

So a7a is pervasive, increasingly transcends class, and has been the subject of snooty art gallery exhibits. But it's also still a one-size fits all vulgarity to express anger, disgust, rage, and the like.

So I will end this by quoting a decidedly not-safe-for-work rant by a columnist for the online site Cairoscene (a sort of what's-on-in-Cairo English language site with a Yuppie/hipster feel and a definite attitude). Their columnist Sally Sampson writes a column called "Bitch," so you may guess this isn't going to be an exercise in scholarly linguistics, but I do feel it gives a real sense of the versatility of a7a. Last March she launched a rant, "Swear it all over again," arguing that women should be allowed to cuss as freely as men. It is both elegant and profane as hell, and it's impossible to extricate the a7a examples from the other obscenities without doing great violence to her message, so here is an extensive quote; very NSFW:
I’m not supposed to be vulgar or crude. I’m not supposed to know these words, never mind speak them. My mother looked at me yesterday and screamed, “If your grandmother were alive and she had heard the things you say, she would’ve taken off her slipper and hit you in the face with it!”
I get it…It’s considered impolite and of course, there is a time and a place for everything, but surely, societal codes of conduct should apply to everyone equally! There shouldn’t be a certain lee-way granted to specific persons by virtue of their genitalia! I mean, why are we cutting slack for the dude, jumping out of his car screaming “A7A!!!’”at the microbus driver when the thought of a woman doing the same thing is enough to send tremors and mini-convulsions shooting through our bodies?
And BY THE WAY, I like the word A7A! In fact, I fucking LOVE IT! In Arabic, NOTHING, in my opinion, is more expressive of frustration!
When that car cuts you off: A7A!
When the prices go up: A7A!
When the President goes on live television and publicly scratches his balls: A7A, A7A, A7A!
Why can’t I say A7A when someone fucks me off? Why do men get rights to that word in Egypt, without sharing that privilege with women who have just as much of a reason to let off steam?! Why must we be eloquent and recite sonnets when we’re aggravated by something or someone?I don’t have time or patience when a car cuts me off to be like, “Truly, kind sir, you have indeed wronged me. For your ways are an abomination of sorts to the overall order that has been set in stone before the foundation of our civilisation to ensure that we may co-exist harmoniously together!”
NO! I’m gonna scream:  “A7A! FUCK YOU, MOTHERFUCKER!” and then it’ll be over and out of my system. To try to channel my inner Jane Austen, however, when I’m about to ‘bust a cap in someone’s ass’ as 50 Cent, 2Pac, Snoop Lion (formerly known as Dog) and all my other ‘homies’ would say, is almost criminal!
And I can't really think of any way to follow that in explaining the usage of a7a, except to offer the warning I would give to any learner of another language: never use profanity unless you are utterly sure of its meaning, of the attitudes of those around you and even nearby, and whether or not they are drunk and/or carrying bladed weapons.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The National Gets Nostalgic About Alexandria

Abu Dhabi's The National has a piece about Alexandria which indulges a lot in the "good old days were better" nostalgia that city often inspires: "Alexandria, once a glamourous seaside resort, now a crumbling city."

It starts by lamenting the city's present problems, which are real enough:
Together they can tell stories of a once-multicultural city that was considered a jewel of the Mediterranean until it gradually degraded into the overpopulated, anarchic cement sprawl of budget holiday flats, slums, cement high-rises, exposed sewers, regular power cuts and – since the 2011 Revolution – 27,000 new buildings, the majority of them illegal.
But then it goes into full-blown Lawrence Durrell/Cavafy nostalgia:
Indolent days were spent on beaches populated by beautiful women in two-piece swimsuits or riding the tram from San Stefano to Ramla on a double-decker carriage where “you’d hear spoken every language in the world: English, French, Armenian, Greek ...”

In the dying days of Alexandria’s heyday, the tram would pass dainty patisseries frequented by the poet of Alexandria, C P Cavafy, and raucous bouzoukia joints where Greek captains danced with plates in their mouths. His archival photographs contain candid, personal pictures of princesses of the Egyptian royal family at play. The only remaining trace of his family’s villa by the sea is a grainy black-and-white photograph of a substantial neoclassical building with a columned portico.
Of course, as many have noted, one element that stands out about the romantic cosmopolitan Levantine society of The Alexandria Quartet and similar portrayals is the near invisibility of ordinary Egyptians, except as servants. Look at that quote above again:  “you’d hear spoken every language in the world: English, French, Armenian, Greek ...” No Arabic in Egypt's second city?

The author's name is Iason Athanasia.

I do think Egypt lost something of real value when the Greek and Italian and Lebanese and Jewish communities were dispossessed in the Nasser era, but that was itself a reflection of a nationalist sense that the old Alexandria of Levantine cosmopolitanism was in, but not part of, Egypt. It may well have been a delightful place if you belonged to the elites, but it's also worth understanding why it was swept away with the monarchy that reflected it so well.

Sisi Watch: On the Brink of an Announcement?

General Sisi seems poised to run for President. Egypt Independent, citing al-Hayat, claims "Sisi will Resign within Days," [from the Army, to run as a civilian].

Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi said of Sisi:
“Sisi is under popular pressure to run. This is like De Gaulle, like Eisenhower,” he said, referring to the French and US war heroes who later took political office.
“Those that are pushing Sisi to run are not the military camps, they are people in the streets, women in the first place,” Beblawi said. 
“Don’t forget he is a handsome man,” he added.
Meanwhile, Interim President Adly Mansour was telling a Police Convocation gathered for Police Day that "The Police State is Over." That may come as news to Amr Hamzawy, Emad Shahin, Alaa Abdel Fattah and other critics now jailed or facing charges.

Tunisia Completes its Constitution

Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly has finally voted on each of the articles of the new constitution, completing the draft document, including the much debated Article 6 on religious freedom. It still must vote on the overall document as a whole, and must be adopted by a two-thirds majority to avoid going to a national referendum, which might prove divisive.

The constitutional process has been long, but one which saw much compromise between secular and Islamist parties, and has produced a document genuinely hammered out through negotiation, in contrast to Egypt's newly-adopted charter.

You can find an English translation of those articles that had been adopted up to a couple of days ago here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Day One of "Geneva 2"

Today's much-anticipated meeting in Montreux marks the beginning of the "Geneva 2" negotiations over Syria. Like most observers, I don't see a high probability of a major breakthrough that leads to an interim government and the removal of Bashar al-Asad; his Foreign Minister ruled that out yet again today. A best-case scenario might be a ceasefire, even a temporary one, that could allow for relief efforts to aid suffering refugees. (Though of course one could hope for more.) The absence from the table of most of he actual rebel groups who control he battlefield makes even a ceasefire hard to achieve, and day one seems to have mostly been a predictable one, with the two sides denouncing each other.

A solution creating an interim government my be achievable in time, but I fear that the Asad regime's internal support may need to crumble a lot more than it has so far, and recent battlefield successes may have actually reinvigorated it.

The curious dance in which Iran was invited and then disinvited may not have helped that much, either, since Iran is a player and probably would need to be involved in any real breakthrough.

First They Came For ... and Now, Hamzawy and Shahin

Just days after prominent analyst and former Parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy was charged in Egypt with "insulting the judiciary" (for a Twitter post!), comes word that AUC Professor of Public Policy Emad Shahin has been charged with, of all things, espionage. Apparently, just studying the Muslim Brotherhood as an academic is an offense now.

This is simply outrageous and is already stirring up a lot of social media response among academics. And rightly so.

Saturday is January 25, the third anniversary of the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution; some of the activists involved from the start are now in jail.  January 25 is also Egypt's Police Day, so that's grimly appropriate.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Talk About a Dark Horse: Promoting ‘Omar Suleiman for President?

If you thought some of the conspiracy theories making the rounds in Egypt were rather bizarre, Zeinobia's blog brings us news of the strangest movement yet: a movement to promote the candidacy for President of former General Intelligence Chief and Vice President ‘Omar Suleiman. Now mind you, the longtime spymaster's qualifications are real enough, but most people assumed his death in July of 2012 would have disqualified him.

The Deep State, indeed. So deep you have to disinter your candidate?

The campaign, which has a Facebook page (of course) which had 9000 likes when Zeinobia posted but has 20,000 as I post this (Arabic link), may be a joke, but Zeinobia takes it seriously and there were plenty of conspiracy theories when he died unexpectedly in an American hospital. Most of those were either that the US and/or Israel killed him (even though those were the two countries with which he had worked most closely) or that he'd really died in the Damascus bombing that killed Asad's security chiefs.  I suppose the idea he's not really dead and is awaiting a messianic return is only a step or two loonier.

Or is this a subtle parody of the return of the mukhabarat state and the talk of Sisi as the reincarnation of Nasser? The fact that it's increasingly hard to tell what's parody and what's not says something right there.

Algeria: Ali Benflis is Running, but is Bouteflika?

Former Algerian President Ali Benflis has announced his candidacy for the April 17 Presidential elections; the official electoral period started Friday. But the looming question remains whether President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is going to run for a fourth term despite his stroke last year, and so far that remains unclear. Benflis, who was Prime Minister in 2000-2003 and ran against Bouteflika in 2004,  may be hoping to present himself as an Establishment candidate if Bouteflika doesn't run, but Bouteflika likely has a preferred candidate of his own if he decides to step aside. It's less than three months until the elections and it's still unclear.

"The Square"

Yesterday was the Martin Luther King Day holiday here in the US, and I didn't blog. But one thing I did accomplish over the three-day weekend was to watch The Square (Al-Midan), Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-nominated documentary about the Egyptian Revolution. I won't review it here but will say it deserves the attention it is receiving and is beautifully done. At least in the US it's available for streaming on Netflix, and is also in theaters. If you haven't seen it, do so.

Or do so if you can. I'm aware that its release in Egypt has been held up by the censors who haven't licensed its public showing.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Archaeological Updates: "New" Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh; Mesopotamian Sex

A couple of updates from the Ancient Middle East for this three-day weekend:

1. A New Pharaoh from an Unknown Dynasty?

Archaeologists from the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered a previously unknown Pharaoh (no, this is not a General Sisi joke) named Senebkay:
Giant Sarcophagus Leads Penn Museum Team in Egypt To the Tomb of a Previously Unknown Pharaoh:
Archaeologists working at the southern Egyptian site of Abydos have discovered the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh: Woseribre Senebkay—and the first material proof of a forgotten Abydos Dynasty, ca. 1650–1600 BC. Working in cooperation with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, a team from the Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania, discovered king Senebkay's tomb close to a larger royal tomb, recently identified as belonging to a king Sobekhotep (probably Sobekhotep I, ca. 1780 BC) of the 13th Dynasty.
Senebkay (Penn Museum)
The tomb had been plundered and the mummy unwrapped but the King's bones were found. He apparently belonged to a regional Abydos-based dynasty, the existence of which was only hinted at previously:
The discovery provides significant new evidence on the political and social history of Egypt's Second Intermediate Period. The existence of an independent "Abydos Dynasty," contemporary with the 15th (Hyksos) and 16th (Theban) Dynasties, was first hypothesized by Egyptologist K. Ryholt in 1997. The discovery of pharaoh Senebkay now proves the existence of this Abydos dynasty and identifies the location of their royal necropolis at South Abydos in an area anciently called Anubis-Mountain. The kings of the Abydos Dynasty placed their burial ground adjacent to the tombs of earlier Middle Kingdom pharaohs including Senwosret III (Dynasty 12, ca. 1880–1840 BC), and Sobekhotep I (ca. 1780 BC). There is evidence for about 16 royal tombs spanning the period ca. 1650–1600 BC. Senebkay appears to be one of the earliest kings of the "Abydos Dynasty." His name may have appeared in a broken section of the famous Turin King List (a papyrus document dating to the reign of Ramses II, ca. 1200 BC) where two kings with the throne name "Woser...re" are recorded at the head of a group of more than a dozen kings, most of whose names are entirely lost.
Not everyone will think this is super-cool, but given the other recent archaeological discoveries I noted just a week ago,  a new Pharaoh is as good as it gets.

2. Israel Museum Proves Ancient Mesopotamians Had Sex

As near as I can tell from the museum website this isn't even a specific exhibit at the Archaeological Wing of the Israel Museum (which has a spectacular collection, by the way), so much as a focus on one issue by The Times of Israel: "4,000-year-old erotica depicts a strikingly racy ancient sexuality." (Let me note that the image below may be considered NSFW despite being a thousands-of-years-old terra-cotta tablet.)

 Terra-Cotta Tablet (Times of  Israel)
While this will be news to anyone who thought sex was invented in the 1960s and humans reproduced like amoebas before that, or who have never read The Epic of Gilgamesh (the most prominent female character in the early part is a temple prostitute and the description is pretty explicit, though the quote from the Times of Israel article must be from a Victorian translation) or, for that matter, The Book of Genesis with all its "knowings" and "begattings," I don't think historians of Ancient Mesopotamia will find a lot new here, but if it gets people to visit the Archaeology Wing of the Israel Museum, great. It'll draw a lot more young folk than the Code of Hammurabi (though that's in the Louvre).

I wonder if they've ever heard of the Turin Erotic Papyrus.

Friday, January 17, 2014


It's been a busy day and I'm tired, so though tomorrow is a weekend I'll post then as I do have some things to say.

Bouteflika Returns, Signs Election Decree

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has returned from his Paris hospital checkup so it was just a checkup, I guess and has signed the electoral decree for the April Presidential elections, in which many expect him to seek a fourth term. The latest Paris hospital visit fueled speculation about his health.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Results: "Yes" Vote High But Turnout Not So Much

The official results of the Egyptian referendum are in. The "Yes" vote was reportedly 97.7%, but overall nationwide turnout was only 38.5%, lower than many estimates. Ahram Online has detailed results. Turnout was higher than the 2012 referendum, and was generally much higher in the Delta and Cairo, and lower in Upper Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is stronger.

Let's see what the NGO observers have to say.

Nasser Lives! And He's Counting the Votes

We all know we saw this coming:
As I've already said, I don't even think it's that bad a constitution. It's the Old Style Middle East referendum process that bugs me. These are Nasser era results. Sadat scaled down to the low 90s sometimes because 98% was, well, incredible.  Mubarak might have had one or two down in the mere upper 80s. (On the other hand Saddam Hussein, in the last referendum before his fall, threw caution to the wind and claimed the full 100%.)

In 2012, Morsi won the Presidency with 51% of the vote. Many who voted for him came to regret it and support his overthrow, but this many? I think most voters do want stability, order, and a period of calm. But these numbers defy belief. Maybe they'll dial it back a bit in the final, official results.

Turnout is also an issue; it's being estimated in the 50% range, which is probably realistic and may not be inflated. The results could even be credible if all the "no" voters were intimidated into staying home or boycotting.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Egypt: Never Say No to Panda the Constitution

The new Egyptian Constitution being voted on yesterday and today is a lengthy and complex document. Many polls and voter interviews show that most of its supporters have not actually read it. I've skimmed it and read multiple analyses and, given the realities of Egypt today, it may even be a fairly decent document. If I were Egyptian I might very well vote yes.

But what bothers me is that in a supposedly democratic referendum, calling for a boycott got you branded as suspicious and calling for a "no" vote has actually gotten some people arrested. On day one the well-known 2011 revolutionary and April 6 Movement activist Israa Abdel Fattah was reportedly attacked at her voting precinct by women hitting her with slippers, and was escorted away by security guards. Despite the fact that the day opened with a bombing of  a courthouse in Imbaba, most accounts say the crowds in the streets were ecstatic and celebratory. If it hadn't already been a referendum said to be about the "June 30 revolution" (though really about the "July 3 coup," though the two are not identical), General Sisi's recent remarks about a Presidential run if there's a decisive result sent the Sisi cult into high gear.

As I was trying to figure out how to comment on this, my teenage daughter in a totally unrelated context brought up the "Never Say No to Panda" TV commercials for Panda Cheese on Egyptian TV which went viral on YouTube and were shared by lots of people who had no idea they were from Egypt. In them, if someone declines Panda Cheese, a rather menacing panda variously smashes car windows, destroys an office, or even pulls out a hospital patient's IV tubes. A curious way to sell cheese, but selling the constitution isn't that much more subtle. The concluding line in each commercial is la tala'hasha (colloquial Egyptian for don't say no to it," translated as "Don't say no to the Panda." Or the constitution.

YouTube's best 7 Panda Cheese ads:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Egypt's 1923 Constitution

As Egypt votes on yet another new Constitution, the second in less than two years, it may be worth remembering Egypt's experience in the "liberal age," the period between the World Wars.

Egypt has had multiple constitutions in its history, and during the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak eras the ruling party always assured itself of enough seats in Parliament to amend the Constitution at will; though Sadat's 1971 Constitution theoretically remained in effect until 2011, it had been tinkered with so often as to be much altered.

After the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and the (limited) British recognition of independence in 1922, the 1923 Constitution was written in a moment of nationalist enthusiasm. The 30-man committee that drafted it is shown above. It called for universal male suffrage and elections were held in January 1924, which the Wafd under Saad Zaghloul won. It created a representative system with a division of powers between the legislative and the executive: but not an  equal balance. Though Egypt was a constitutional monarchy, the King retained much power, and would show a readiness to dissolve recalcitrant Parliaments.

Though imperfect, the 1923 Constitution worked for a while, but as the 1920s wore on there was increasing deadlock. In 1930 Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi pushed through a much less liberal constitution with a sharply restricted and property-based franchise, indirect election of deputies, and more power to the King. The 1930 Constitution proved unpopular and there were widespread demonstrations demanding a return to the 1923 charter.

Demonstration against 1930 Constitution
At the end of 1934, the King suspended the 1930 Constitution, though it was a year later, in December 1935, before the 1923 document was restored.

The 1923 Constitution remained in effect until the Free Officers' coup of 1952.

Bouteflika Hospitalized Again in France: Will He Run?

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika isonce again at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in France, reportedly for a routine checkup; but this year's Presidential election campaign process was supposed to be set in motion beginning January 17; if Bouteflika really is planning to announce his candidacy for a fourth term, he will presumably either have to return or consider announcing his candidacy from abroad.

Some have wondered all along if the clearly infirm Bouteflika's flirtation with a fourth term was in fact aimed at assuring he could maneuver his own designated successor into place, rather than hang on to power himself. Perhaps this will be clarified shortly..

Lindsey on Egypt's Constitutional "Winding Path"

As the referendum gets under way in Egypt, Ursula Lindsey traces the circuitous route since the revolution and the various constitutional efforts along the way.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mawlid al-Nabi Greetings

Best wishes to my Muslim readers on the occasion of the Prophet's Birthday, Mawlid al-Nabi, which began at sundown.

Sisi Comes Closer Than Ever to Linking Candidacy to the Referendum

For those of you still unpersuaded that Egypt's General Sisi may run for President, first I have some bad news about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, and second, he came closer than ever this weekend to linking a candidacy with the results of the constitutional referendum, which takes place this week. Saying the Amy follows "democracy," he indicated it would take a successful referendum to persuade him. Now, as for democracy, parties that campaigned against the referendum have found their supporters being arrested, and both the media and public figures are denouncing "no" voters as traitors to Egypt, and the early returns from Egyptians voting abroad are showing many results above 90%, and some higher (Jidda in Saudi Arabia was reported at 98% "yes"), which means either 1) Sisi really is the reincarnation of Gamal Abdel Nasser, or 2) they hired Nasser-era vote counters. I find it hard to believe that 98% of any constituency would vote for anything, even a kindergarten vote on free chocolate. (One of my oldest friends is observing for an NGO; I hope after the fact he'll offer some not-for-attribution insights.)

Perhaps I'm wrong. At least about the Tooth Fairy.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What to Say About Ariel Sharon?

De mortuis nil nisi bonum: in the commendable effort to speak no ill of the dead, many of the remembrances of Ariel Sharon are struggling to talk about his achievements rather than his controversies, though few men have drawn more controversy around themselves in their careers than he. After many years in a deep coma, many may have forgotten, or may be too young to have known, the extent to which the man was a lightning rod not only in Israeli-Palestinian relations but in domestic Israeli politics as well. But he was a contentious figure, and whitewashing him after death would probably not have pleased his own combative and aggressive personality.

History has a way of sorting out reputations, but Sharon's is a complicated one to interpret. A brilliant battlefield tactician who fought in all the wars Israel fought in his productive lifetime, his campaigns in 1967 and especially across the Suez Canal in 1973 were extraordinary. But he also had a reputation for being a loose cannon, from the Qibya Massacre by his Unit 101 in 1953 to, most notoriously, Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Though the Kahan Commission that investigated those killings absolved any Israeli of direct involvement, it did conclude that Sharon, as Defense Minister in charge of the Lebanese operation, bore "personal responsibility" for not anticipating the violence by Israel's Lebanese Forces militia allies. And his political patron Menahem Begin supposedly was convinced that Sharon deliberately deceived him about the military objectives of the Lebanese operation.

His political career was stormy as well. After the Kahan Commission he held a series of lesser portfolios but remained as a strong supporter of the settlement movement (yet in the end he pulled settlements out of Gaza). He feuded with Yitzhak Shamir and others in the Likud leadership, but finally took over the party after Binyamin Netanyahu's loss to Ehud Barak in 1999. His provocative visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on September 28, 2000, was widely seen as derailing the already faltering Camp David II process, and directly provoking the Second Intifada, but it also led, at last, to the top job as he became Israel's 11th Prime Minister.

As Prime Minister, his determination to disengage from Gaza (while maintaining a land and sea blockade, in effect), led to divisions with his Likud colleagues and with his old allies in the settlement movement; in the end in 2005 he broke with Likud and started the Kadima Party. But that same December he suffered a stroke, and in January 2006 an even more severe one. That ended his career and began the eight-year coma that has now ended. What Sharon's course would have been had he not been incapacitated is hard to predict; some feel he planned unilateral disengagement in the West Bank as well.

Israelis will disagree about him; Arabs have long since demonized him. But from 1948 until his stroke, there is no denying that he was a towering, if divisive, figure in Israeli history.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Some Breaking News on the Pharaonic Front

Some recent discoveries relating to Ancient Egypt if you're tired of modern Egypt news:

1. Tomb of chief beer-maker discovered in Egypt's Luxor, from Ahram Online:
A Japanese mission from Waseda University uncovered the tomb of Khonso-Im-Heb, who was the head of beer production for goddess Mut and the head of the galleries during the Ramesside era.A Japanese mission from Waseda University uncovered the tomb of Khonso-Im-Heb, who was the head of beer production for goddess Mut and the head of the galleries during the Ramesside era.
Mut was a mother goddess. Did he get his job in a personal interview?

2. Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb discovered by American archaeologists; The Art Newspaper:
The tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh King Sobekhotep I, believed to be first king of the 13th Dynasty (1781BC-1650BC), has been discovered by a team from the University of Pennsylvania at Abydos in Middle Egypt, 500km south of Cairo.
Since new royal tombs are rarely discovered, and as only ten from the 13th Dynasty are known—all at Dahshur, just south of Cairo—this is an important find. King Sobekhotep I ruled for only about three years, at a time when Egypt was entering a period of decline. In fact, the chronological evidence for this period is so complex that scholars are still debating the order of the 13th Dynasty kings.
3. And last but not least, from livescience: "King Tut's Mummified Erect Penis May Point to Ancient Religious Struggle."

The latter story suggests the unusual features of Tutankhamun's embalming were meant to identify him with Osiris (who was famously resurrected with a golden version of the organ in question), to distinguish the break with his presumed father Akhnaton's religious heresy. It's a serious piece. Though as an Editor I'd suggest that in writing headlines, if your subject is "erect penis," having it followed immediately by the words "may point to" could create the wrong image in the reader's mind.
Egypt's King Tutankhamun was embalmed in an unusual way, including having his penis mummified at a 90-degree angle, in an effort to combat a religious revolution unleashed by his father, a new study suggests.
The pharaoh was buried in Egypt's Valley of the Kings without a heart (or a replacement artifact known as a heart scarab); his penis was mummified erect; and his mummy and coffins were covered in a thick layer of black liquid that appear to have resulted in the boy-king catching fire.
- See more at: http://www.livescience.com/42290-king-tut-mummified-penis-explained.html#sthash.O4WQucxz.dpuf

King Tut's Mummified Erect Penis May Point to Ancient Religious Struggle

- See more at: http://www.livescience.com/42290-king-tut-mummified-penis-explained.html#sthash.O4WQucxz.dpuf

So, Is Berber New Year January 12 or January 14?

Just when you thought the holidays were finally over, more are about to hit: Amazigh ("Berber") New Year, and also by coincidence this year the Prophet's Birthday, Mawlid al-Nabi, both in the next few days.

But in the case of Yannayer, the so-called Amazigh New Year, there's some disagreement about the date, with some in Algeria celebrating on January 12, and others insisting on January 14.

Now, as I've explained at greater length a couple of years ago, Yannayer is part genuine traditional observance, and part a modern creation, a product of the contemporary Berber Revival. North African farmers traditionally followed a solar calendar or planting, since the Islamic calendar,being purely lunar, moves around the seasons and cannot be used as a agricultural calendar. This is the practice throughout the Middle East: In the Levant the old Syrian months are used, and in Egypt the Coptic calendar. North African agriculturalists kept the nmes of the old Roman months and followed the Julian calendar; New Year's is called "Yannayer," from "January." The Julian calendar is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, so the Julian New Year falls on January 14 under the Gregorian calendar.

Amazigh Flag
But many of the trappings of the modern Berber celebration are what the late historian Eric Hobsbawm called the "Invention of Tradition," modern creations aimed at reviving national identity. This includes the fact that this new year will be 2964 in the Berber Calendar. This calendar was a creation of the Académie Berbère, a group of young intellectuals, mostly Algerian Kabyles, who introduced the common Berber flag often seen today and popularized he use of the ancient Tifinagh alphabet to write Tamazight; it was somewhat arbitrarily decided to date th Berber calendar from 950 BC, when Pharaoh Shoshenq I ascended the throne of Egypt. Shoshenq (or Sheshonq) was Libyan, and that was good enough to persuade the Académie Berbère to consider him the first Berber in history. So the era does not really date from 950 BC but from Paris around 1968 AD.

And apparently the tendency of many Algerian Amazigh to celebrate Yannayer on January 12 instead of 14 also dates from 1968, though it isn't clear why the two-day difference from the Julian calendar occurred; some accounts suggest a simple error in calculation, though as Eastern Christmas jusy reminded us, many religions and cultures retain the Julian calendar for some purposes. Maybe it was the political ferment in Paris in 1968, or something, but the January 12 date seems to have stuck for some Algerian Amazigh, while elsewhere the January 14 date is followed. Given the post-2011 revival of Amazigh identity in Tunisia and Libya, which last year held a big concert for Yannayer, they also obsrve the holiday formerly limited mostly to Morocco and Algeria.

A happy new year to Amazigh readers, on whichever date you prefer.

Lynch on Egypt

If you haven't yet seen Marc Lynch's piece earlier this week on Egypt, you should. While recognizing the humor in absurdities like the furor over puppets, he also sees the grim reality of the growing number of political prisoners, and what that may augur for the future:
Right now, Egypt's roadmap leads not towards anything resembling democracy or even stability but towards greater repression, escalating insurgency, and continuing political failure. Egypt's current leadership may dream of becoming a something like a big United Arab Emirates, devoid of Muslim Brothers, street protests, or democratic politics. Instead, it is turning Egypt into a new Bahrain: dependent on Saudi Arabia, controlled by unaccountable security services, riven by increasingly irreconcilable polarization, and with political opponents branded as a vast international conspiracy of terrorists. Meanwhile, the military government seems to think that its problems are best met with public relations campaigns rather than genuine political engagement. Can a highly publicized visit by Kim Kardashian ogling the Pyramids be far behind?
Washington cannot do much right now to shape the deep, intense political struggles inside of Egypt, and there is no space whatsoever for it to support traditional democracy promotion programming. But the juxtaposition of the Egyptian government's intense desire for international approval of its constitutional referendum and its imprisonment of manifestly non-terrorist political activists provides an unusual opportunity to exercise a more limited kind of leverage. The United States should make clear that it considers the release of political prisoners and an end to the persecution of political opponents a necessary part of any positive view of Egypt's progress.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Some Promising Signs in Tunisia

Some good news for once. Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, member of the Al-Nahda Party, announced his resignation (as expected), preparing to hand over power to Mehdi Jomaa during a transitional government. Laarayedh's resignation formally ends the Al-Nahda (Ennahda) dominated government, and marks a rare transfer of power by an Islamist political party. Compared to the polarized situation in Egypt, it's promising news indeed, a realase of Islamists and secularists finding a way to work together (though by no means smoothly).

Meanwhile the National Constitutional Assembly is completing work on the new constitution, approving a key provision guaranteeing freedom of conscience and banning takfir or declaring someone an apostate, and even voting to call for gender parity in elected bodies. (Somewhere Habib Bourguiba is smiling, except maybe about the "elected" part.)

Progress is also being made on forming the committee to oversee elections.

Tunisia isn't there yet, and violence, assassinations and other social strains have been apparent. It will likely adopt its new constitution next week, three years after the Revolution,  the same week Egypt will vote for its second new constitution in that same period.

Egypt Humor Watch: Fake Internet Constitutional Referndum Ballots, Then and Now

Another Egyptian Constitution is coming up for a vote, and Egyptian humor comes through as usual on social media. When the Muslim Brotherhood's preferred constitution was rammed through in 2012, this fake referendum ballot went the rounds:

The choices are "Agree" and "Kafir" (Infidel).

Now, with the anti-Brotherhood constitution up for a vote, this is going around: on the right, "Agree," on the left, "Do Not Agree."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Does Arabic Have More Words than Other Languages?

An interesting post from Lameen Souag, "Does Arabic have the most words? Don't believe the hype."

An excerpt:
For some time, I've been hearing rumours (from Arabs, of course) that Arabic has the largest number of words of any language. Recently I found one vector for this rumour: Comparison of the Number of Words in Languages of the World, a poster put together by Azzam Aldakhil which has the merit of at least giving the sources for its figures, namely Muʕjam ʕAjā'ib al-Lughah by Shawqī Ḥamādah, 2000. (In a follow-up comment he gives the page numbers, 83-84.) This poster claims that "Arabic has 25 times as many words as English".
Unfortunately for this claim, if you go to the book cited, what you actually find is a calculation of the number of possible roots in Arabic, without regard to whether or not the root actually has a meaning. Such a count includes huge numbers of unused roots such as بزح bzḥ or قذب qðb, while at the same time lumping together all words derived from the same root; كتاب book, كاتب writer, and مكتب office are three words, but only one root. The result of such a calculation might tell us something about the potential for expanding Arabic, but absolutely nothing about the state of the Arabic language. And since in practice both Arabic and the languages it is being compared to on that poster allow arbitrary long words without real roots, if only in loanwords, it doesn't even tell us much about its potential.
Short answer: it depends on what you're counting. If you don't know Lameen's Jabal al-Lughat, get acquainted.

Applause for the Man Who Wasn't There

On Coptic Christmas Eve, Pope Tawadros II thanked those Egyptian figures who had sent the Church Christmas greetings. According to a rather sycophantic account in Ahram Online, this is what happened when he got to General Sisi:
"Why is he delaying El-Sisi? He should have thanked him ahead of everyone else," whispered one middle-aged lady to another at the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassiya, as Pope Tawadros II expressed his gratitude to the statesmen and public figures who had wished "Egyptian Copts" well on the eve of Coptic Christmas.
The very instant that the Coptic patriarch uttered first the title, then the name, of the head of the military -- whom the vast majority of Egyptians, certainly Egyptian Christians, credit for having acted ever so promptly to remove president Mohamed Morsi in under three days once the 30 June protests demanded an end to his rule -- worshippers raised their hands to ready for a long and certainly sincere applause.
It may be worth noting that last year there was widespread criticism of Morsi for not attending the Midnight Mass.Now Ahram merely notes that the General "missed the Coptic Christmas Mass for obvious security concerns." (Is the Army not supposed to ensure security?) Ahram also includes in the headline, "All eyes on tomorrow."

Let's just say if the General doesn't run for President it will be a surprise. Assuming, as seems inevitable, that the Constitutional Referendum passes next week, we might well hear an announcement.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

For Eastern Christians, a Very Merry Christmas!

For my readers who celebrate Christmas today and those Armenians who celebrated yesterday, best wishes and a Merry Christmas.

For My American Readers This Morning

Something called a "Polar Vortex," which apparently usually hangs out at the North Pole and is just as James-Bond-Villain-sinister as it sounds, has settled over most of the US other than the Southwest and Florida, including deep down into southern Georgia and Alabama. Temperatures are in the negative range (Fahrenheit, not Celsius!) and if half the flights weren't canceled people would be flocking to Alaska just to warm up. Atlanta was colder yesterday than Moscow, and today will be worse.  I thought this picture of The Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia might at least remind you of what warmth looks like:

Monday, January 6, 2014

For Eastern Christmas Eve: From the Syrian Tradition

I have already noted some of the Christian traditions of two of the currently beleaguered Christian communities of the Middle East, the Copts and the churches of Iraq. The Syriac or Syrian Christian tradition is particularly threatened today, and deserve a note on Eastern Christmas Eve.

Syrian Christianity in its varying forms embraces most of the Christians of the present states of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and adjacent parts of Turkey and Iraq. The Syriac form of Aramaic is the usual liturgical language. The historical centers are Jerusalem and Antioch; both were among the Pentarchy of early Christian Patriarchates, with Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. (Only Rome was in the West. Antioch, modern Antakya in Turkey, was a major center fr the spread of Christianity; St. Peter was the first bishop (preceding his move to Rome), and, according to Acts 11:26, "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch."

Today, here are five Patriarchs of Antioch (the Antiochian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Melkite, Syriac Catholic, and Maronite Catholic. There used to be a Latin Catholic as well but three Catholic Patriarchs of Antioch may have been enough, and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem remains.

Not one of the five Patriarchs of Antioch has his seat in Antioch/Antakya today:
  1. The Antiochian Orthodox Patriarch (or Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch) is in the Eastern or "Greek" Orthodox tradition linked to Constantinople; Patriarch John X Yazigi took his throne in 2012 and has his seat in Damascus.
  2. The Syrian Orthodox (the Church today prefers "Syriac Orthodox" in English) Patriarch of Antioch  represents the  Oriental Orthodox ["Jacobite," "Miaphysite,"  or to other denominations, "Monophysite"] tradition, along with the Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians and Eritreans. Ignatius Zakka Iwas has held the post since 1980; his seat is officially Damascus but he resides in Beirut.
  3. The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch, the analogue of the Antiochian Orthodox but in union with Rome, is Gregorios III Laham since 2000; he is based in Damascus.
  4. The Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch is the Catholic Uniate analogue of the Syriac Orthodox; he is based in Beirut and since 2009 has been Ignatius Joseph III Younan.
  5. The Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch is of course highly influential in Lebanon; his seat is at Bkerke near Beirut. Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Raï was chosen Patriarch in 2011 and made a cardinal by the Pope in 2012.
From several Syrian traditions: a Syriac Orthodox service in Aleppo  a few years ago (though with "Silent Night" in the processional):

An Antiochian hymn:

A Maronite Hymn Medley:

Al-Ahram Comments on 115 Years Since First Egyptian Pound, Still Doesn't Explain Bactrian Camel

Yesterday Ahram Online noted the 115th anniversary of the first Egyptian pound note. Though the Egyptian pound was first authorized in 1834, it circulated as specie until 1899, when the first Egyptian paper pound appeared (January 5 marked its anniversary).  I noted the same thing a year ago, 

People called it Abu al Gamalayn for its two camels, but Ahram still ignores my question from last year:  why is one of the camels a long-haired, two humped Bactrian from cold countries much further East? The only Bactrians in Egypt are in zoos.