A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beyond Parody: Brazil Has Not Just One, But Several Usama bin Laden-Themed Bars

No, really. From The Guardian:
Of the many strange sights awaiting England football fans in Brazil, a Sao Paulo bar named after Osama bin Laden – and run by a Bin Laden lookalike – may be the most unexpected.

According to his tumblr page, Ceará Francisco Helder Braga Fernandes, a Sao Paulo resident since 1978, renamed his bar soon after 9/11. With a long grey beard and thick dark eyebrows, he had been a lookalike without knowing it. But when Osama bin Laden became the world's most wanted man, appearing on TV screens around the world, one alarmed customer called the police to report he was lying low as a downtown barman.
Police arrived, laughed, and posed for pictures with him. He appeared on local TV and became a local celebrity. After he changed the name of the bar to cash in on his newfound fame, it became a hub for local goths and rockers. British blogger and Sao Paulo resident Andrew Creelman says the bar has become a home for metal fans, who spill out on to the pavement on weekends, listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
Bin Laden's favorite bands. Also see a similar report in Al-Arabiya.

Too weird? Also from The Guardian story:
There are others too. Among them, in the seaside city of Niterói, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, a pool hall and bar named the Caverna do Bin Laden – Bin Laden's Cave; and in Juiz de Fora to the north, another Bin Laden's Bar, with a lookalike of its own behind the counter. Mac Margolis, of online news site Vocativ, searched online and found "nearly a dozen Brazilian establishments" named after the former Al-Qaida leader, "including bars, luncheonettes and one sit-down restaurant called Bin Laden and Family". 
Some of those might be peoole's real names I suppose, of course.

Part 2 on Fustat is Coming

If you're wondering what's happened to Part 2 of my posting about the concern over protecting the Fustat excavations:  I should have it up sometime this evening. Sorry for the delay.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Now THIS is How to Leave Afghanistan

From the UK Forces Afghanistan:

Today, His Majesty's Armed Forces of Tonga, also known as the Royal Tongan Marines, ended their involvement in Op Herrick with a spectacular ceremony. The Tongans have provided a vital Force Protection role to Camp Bastion since November 2010 providing approximately 10% of their Armed Forces for each tour. A remarkable commitment for such a small country. In this short movie you can see them performing the Sipi Tau, a traditional War Dance of Tonga.

Bassem Sabry 1982-2014

UPDATE: This young man who died far too soon wrote this on turning 30: "Eleutheria (Almost Everything I Have Leaned in My Life)" Let it stand as a reminder of our, and most of all, Egypt's loss.

Egyptian columnist and blogger Bassem Sabry, whose columns have often appeared at Al-Monitor and Huffington Post in this country, has reportedly died from a fall from a balcony after falling into a diabetic coma.

I knew him only through his work and social media, but this is a loss for analysis of Egypt.

The Ban on the April 6 Movement

Even as Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy was mking the rounds in Washington yesterday, a court in Egypt was ordering the dissolution of the April 6 Movement, one of the protest movements well-known for its role in the protests against Husni Mubarak. It is is accused of "espionage," "defaming Egypt,"  plotting against state institutions, and other charges.

The movement says it will appeal the order. The court also ordered confiscation of the Movement's "headquarters," though it generally met in coffeehouses or private homes.

April 6, though it opposed the Muslim Brotherhood rule of Muhammad Morsi and initially supported the June 30 protests and the July 3 intervention, has since grown critical of the present government. Founder Ahmad Maher and some other members are already jailed for illegal protests.

April 6 has also suffered from internal divisions.

Are the Fustat Excvations Threatened by the Egyptian Government Itself? Part I

UNESCO's World Heritage Day was 11 days ago, on April 18,  and we all are aware that the wars, revolutions, and insecurity in the Middle East have been devastating, with many UNESCO World Heritage Sites damaged or even destroyed. The looting of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War is well known, and the Syrian civil war has damaged or destroyed heritage sites in many places including Aleppo and Homs, while the "Arab castle" overlooking the ruins of Palmyra and the Crusader Krak des Chevaliers have become fortresses again in a modern war. Some material from the Egyptian Museum was looted during the Revolution, and in the insecurity in Egypt since there have been encroachments on some of the less-visited pyramid groups and an extensive looting of the Mallawi Museum with its collection of relics of the Amarna era. Many ancient Coptic churches suffered damage last summer, and the terrorist bombing of a police headquarters in Cairo's Bab al-Khalq caused extensive damage to the Museum of Islamic Art and the Old Dar al-Kutub with its manuscript collection, which share a building across the street.

But those damages were all products of war, civil war, revolution, looting or terrorism.The latest threat to a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, emerging right around World Heritage Day, is reportedly coming not from terrorism or looters, but from the Cairo Governorate itself.

The reports are a bit inconclusive because the Egyptian authorities are evasive, but there is a fea r tha the excvations in at last part of the site of Egypt's first Islamic capital, al-Fustat, the nucleus from which Cairo evolved, may be tuned into a public garden, with uncertain consequences for the archaeological site.

First I want to give you some readings on the present crisis, then, in part two later today or tomorrow. a bit of historical context.

For a summary of the arguments in English, the state-owned Ahram Online  has a report sympathetic to preservationists: "Islamic Egypt's First Capital Under Threat."

It spells out the basic controversy. Cairo blogger Zeinobia, who has strong preservationist instincts, has chimed in with "#Save Fustat: How Did We Master the Art of Destroying Our History?"; "#Save Fustat: Save the Excavation Works," and "#Save Fustat: The Landfill Started Already!"

And if you haven't figured it out already the Twitter hashtag is #SaveFustat (or in Arabic انقدوا_الفسطاط#).

Zeinobia has also posted photos by Omneya Abdel Barr showing what's going on, including the pic above and others of which I'll post in Part II.

Those posts will bring you up to speed on the controversy in English. For those who read Arabic, much of the key documentation is appearing at the Facebook page SAVE CAIRO  انقذوا القاهرة.

The historical and archaeological context of all this will appear in Part II, later today or tomorrow.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Major Discovery of Egyptian Royal Mummies

What may be the biggest discovery of Egyptian Royal Mummies since the late 19th century has been announced in Egypt: the discovery of nearly 60 mummies of princes and princesses of the 18th Dynasty. some of them children.

The discovery was made by the Egyptian antiquities authorities with a Swiss Archaeological Mission from Basel University.

The 18th Dynasty is one of the best known, including such pharaohs as Ahmose I, Hatshepsut, Thutmose I through III, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and Horemheb.

Minya's Hanging Judge Strikes Again

The Egyptian court in Minya has struck again with a death sentence for 683 people, on top of the 529 previously sentenced in what was at the time, the largest death sentence in the history of the modern Egyptian judiciary. The Minya Criminal Court under Judge Sa‘id Yusuf seems determined to make a name for itself in any way possible. These sentences are being appealed (even the prosecution is appealing some of them) and death sentences require approval of the Grand Mufti. The country's international reputation, already declining, is in real jeopardy.

As I noted at the time of the earlier verdict, only four people were executed for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

Though a newly elected President might find Presidential pardons a useful way to start his term, as well.

Gause on the US-Saudi Tensions

Today's postings are coming soon. Meanwhile, Greg Gause, who usually has wise things to say about the Gulf, puts the supposed US-Saudi differences in perspective in a perceptive essay.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Today is Also Sinai Liberation Day

April 25 is not just Anzac Day; in Egypt it is also Sinai Liberation Day, the date in 1982 when Israel completed its withdrawal from Sinai (except for Taba, which went to arbitration). Israel occupied all of Sinai in 1967; after the 1973 war and the Kissinger shuttles it withdrew from the zone along the Suez Canal. Only in the 1979 peace treaty did Israel agree to withdraw completely by 1982.

The Egyptian patriotic video below touches most of the key points: the crossing of the Canal in the 1973 war;  Sadat in wartime command; Sadat at he Knesset in 1977; Sadat, Carter, and Begin signing either the Camp David Accords or the peace treaty; lowering the Israeli flag and raising the Egyptian one.

Anzac Day at 99

It has been 99 years today since the landings at Gallipoli. After nearly a century, all the soldiers on both sides that day are now gone.

I have posted so frequently on Gallipoli that I risk merely repeating myself. My Anzac Day posts in 2011 and last year probably sum up the main points of the importance in developing  the national identities not just of Australia and New Zealand but also of the Turkish Republic.

See also my Veteran's Day/Remembrance Day post of last year, on the Atatürk monuments in Australia and New Zealand, and this post about the Arab (mostly Syrian) regiments who fought at Gallipoli.

I will therefore refer you to those links for my previous musings, pictures, and music, on this Anzac Day.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Busy Day: Posts are Coming

Both work and home issues have kept occupied all day, but several posts are being worked on; stay tuned for late tonight and/or tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More Old ME Newsreels from the British Pathé Archives

I previously noted the fact that British Pathé, the famed newsreel company, has made what it describes as 85,000 historical films available online at YouTube. I'm looking for Middle East-relevant ones, and here are several up front. (Warning: may contain assumptions from the days of the British Empire.)

Feisal of Iraq visiting his brother Abdullah in Transjordan, 1923:

The death and burial of T.E. Lawrence, 1935:

Two videos of the end of Vichy rule in Syria (1941): evacuation of Vichy troops; de Gaulle's arrival in Syria (no soundtrack on the second):

Wartime tensions between Lebanon and France,1943:

How Pathé reported the 1952 coup in Egypt:

To No One's Surprise, Lebanese Parliament Fails to Agree on a President

It should come as little surprise given Lebanon's persistent political deadlock that the Lebanese Parliament failed to elect a new President in its first round of voting today, with Samir Geagea falling far short of the necessary two-thirds vote. Geagea got 48 votes; Henry Helou (Backed by Walid Jumblatt) got 16; one went to former President Amin Gemayel; there were 52 blank ballots and seven void ones. In subsequent rounds a simple majority can elect.

Here's the Daily Star report, and MEI's own Paul Salem offers a Q&A backgrounder on the elections on the MEI website. These sorts of deadlocks have become standard in recent years, and eventually there will emerge a compromise candidate. Or perhaps Karl Sharro will prove prophetic: "Stapler Accidentally Elected President of Lebanon."  A sample:
The stapler's lack of involvement in the country's long civil war worked in its favour, and as someone put it 'at least it's not a war criminal'. Another person we spoke to said that the stapler represented 'a symbol of unity because it joins papers together', which is more than could be said of all the other candidates.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Eve of Saint George's Day, BBC Reminds Us of His Links to Palestine

Tomorrow, April 23, is Saint George's Day; St. George is of course a patron saint of England (and many other places including Georgia), and the BBC notes "Why St. George is a Palestinian hero." I suspect my readers may already know what the BBC may assume its listeners do not: because he was a local boy, of course.

The early martyr and reputed dragon-slayer was traditionally born to a father from Cappadocia and a mother from Roman Palestine, and closely associated with the town of Lydda (today known as Lod).

He is said to have been martyred under Diocletian in 303 AD, but remains a popular saint in Palestinian Christian tradition, and also venerated by Muslims due to a popular identification with al-Khidr.

Sorry, the dragon story seems to have come along later.

And I guess I should quote Henry V:
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Syria Sets Presidential Election Date

Yesterday Syria announced that it will hold Presidential elections on June 3. I am not making this up; Bashar al-Asad plans to hold elections in the midst of the Syrian civil war.

Bassam Haddad has an interview with NPR which you can listen to at Jadaliyya.

Meanwhile, this is making the rounds on social media:

"Déjà vu All Over Again": Lebanese Presidential Hopefuls Include Amin Gemayel, Samir Geagea, and Michel Aoun

Not Actually a Wanted Poster: Gemayel, Geagea, Cardinal Raï, Aoun, Frangieh
For those of you nostalgic for the good old days of the 15-year Lebanese civil war, or to horrify those of you who don't, definitely read Maya Mikdashi piece at Jadaliyya: "Let Us Now Praise Murderous Men: Lebanese Presidential Candidates, Considered." As Michel Suleiman's presidential tenure reaches its constitutional limit, candidates expressing interest in the job (which must go to a Maronite), include former Presidents Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun, and former militia chief Samir Geagea. Also shown in the photo and a potential candidate is Suleiman Frangieh (grandson of his namesake President and son of Tony Frangieh) all shown  in the photo (Jadaliyya via marada.com). All four are posing like one big happy Maronite family with the Maronite Catholic Patriarch, Cardinal Boutros Raï.

For those who came in late: in the bad old days, the younger Suleiman Frangieh's father Tony was killed in a raid commanded by Samir Geagea and presumably ordered by Amin Gemayel's younger brother Bashir (who was President-Elect when he was assassinated. Michel Aoun was driven from office by Syrian troops but eventually returned from exile to make up with Syria and become Hizbullah's main Christian ally. (Samir Geagea, overachieving, was also involved with Sabra and Shatila.)

Really, is this the best the Maronites can do this year? They're baaack ...

The good news is that most of these would be unacceptable to non-Maronites or perhaps to each other. I hope.

Monday, April 21, 2014

British Pathé Posts Archives to YouTube

British Pathé, the famed newsreel company, has made what it describes as 85,000 historical films available online at YouTube.

This is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in history (at least, history filtered through British Imperial lenses), and for a blog like mine. A few quite random Middle East selections from the searchable site are blow (the first one, from 1922, is silent of course.)

It's Officially a Two Candidate, "Nasser vs. Nasser" Race

Over the weekend, Egypt's recently declared third Presidential candidate, Mortada Mansour; withdrew from the race, saying God had revealed to him that Field Marshal Sisi is going to win.

That means that, as I noted last week, it's a two-candidate race in which the motto might be "Vote for the Nasser of your choice". Sisi, widely praised as the New Nasser, will be running against Hamdeen Sabahi, who actually defines himself as a Nasserist.

The filing period is now past, so may the best Nasser win. Those of us who remember the original Nasser aren't so sure.

Sham al-Nassim

Today is Sham al-Nassim, the ancient Egyptian spring holiday celebrated on the Monday following Coptic Easter Sunday. It is not a Christian holiday; its origins are said to be with the Ancient Egyptian Shemu or spring holiday, later in the Christian period localized around Easter; Muslims celebrate equally with Christians and, until their exodus in the Nasser era, Egyptian Jews.

It's usually said that only two Egyptian holidays date back to the days of the pharaohs:  Sham al-Nassim and Wafa' al-Nil in mid-August, which marks the Nile flood (though the Aswan High Dam ended the annual inundation in the 1960s.) Both, like so much of Egyptian history, center on the Nile. On Sham al-Nassim Egyptians picnic on the river, stroll in parks, gardens, or the zoo, and eat seasonal foods: a dried salty fish called fassikh, green onions, lettuce, tirmis (lupinis), and (a borrowing from Easter? Or vice-versa?) they dye colored eggs. (See the photos below.) Even the foods may be ancient. Supposedly Plutarch somewhere wrote that the Ancient Egyptians had a spring holiday involving dried fish, lettuce, and onions, but I've never found a citation to confirm that story, beloved of Egyptian websites, even government ones..
Sham al-Nissim delicacies (Al Kahira-Cairo-LeCaire)
Even the name is interesting. In Arabic sham al-nassim means "smelling the breezes," a delightful description of a spring day on the river. But if it is truly a descendant of Shemu, that Ancient Egyptian word meant "harvest." In Ancient Egypt, the harvest was not in the fall as in most agricultural societies; it was in spring and summer, before the Nile rises in August. Shemu is presumably the origin of the Coptic word for "summer," Shom, and despite the appropriate "smelling the breezes" meaning in Arabic, likely the origin of the Sham part of Sham al-Nassim. This should of course in no way deter anyone from using the day to smell the breezes.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Greetings When East and West Coincide

This is one of those years when both the Eastern and Western churches, Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Oriental Orthodox (Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians, Syriac, some Assyrians), the Church of the East (other Assyrians), the Indian churches and everybody celebrate Easter on the same day. To the troubled Eastern Christians in particular, greetings!

Christ is Risen! 

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! 
!المسيح قام
ⲠⲓⲬⲣⲓⲥⲧⲟⲥ ⲁϥⲧⲱⲛϥ! 
Քրիստոս յարեաւ ի մեռելոց՜!
 !ܫܪܝܪܐܝܬ ܩܡ
!ܒܗܩܘܬܐ ܩܡܠܗ

Pardon me if I got anyone's Paschal greeting wrong. Or if my spellings are wrong; I don't know all these languages.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter Greetings (to East and West Together, This Year)

Most years I have to do two sets of Easter Greetings since some Middle Eastern and most Western Christian readers celebrate on the Latin date, while most of the Middle East observes the Eastern date.

This is one of the years when the dates coincide, however, so I can offer Easter greetings to Christian readers everywhere on the same date.

And since today is Good Friday, I thought I'd link to an earlier post about an Egyptian musical historian who claims that the Coptic Good Friday hymn Golgotha is a survival of the tune used to bury the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt and thus may be "The Oldest Tune in History." That is debatable at best, but here is the hymn with Coptic and English subtitles:

Trager on Getting Middle East Jobs in DC

Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has a piece at Foreign Policy with the title "How to Get a Job in the Middle East (in Washington, D.C.)" It's useful advice for aspiring college students, including such obvious advice as visit the region, study a language, do an internship, etc. Recommended reading for college students, interns and others trying to build a career in the policy field.

Egypt: Governor Fired for Endorsing Sisi, But Religious Establishment Continues to Join the Enthusiasm

Egypt has sacked the Governor of Wadi al-Gadid Governorate for openly endorsing Field Marshal Sisi, when government instructions had promised strict neutrality in the Presidential campaign,

The official neutrality is doing little to dampen the enthusiasm of the media and other institutions, however. The latest instance is an endorsement from Egypt's most influential Sufi order, the Rifa‘iyya. (Link is in Arabic.) Sufi institutions came under attack during the Muslim Brotherhood control, so this is hardly surprising, but adds to the support already expressed by Christian and Establishment Muslim leaders. At the announcement of military intervention last July 3, the Coptic Pope and the Sheikh al-Azhar both stood with Sisi, and have continued to voice support for him:
Pope Tawadros II's open support has also drawn some sharp criticism within the Coptic community following recent remarks that seemed to disparage discussion of human rights in the present crisis.

To the Surprise of No One, Bouteflika Wins

Everyone including his enemies expected Abdelaziz Bouteflika to win a fourth term, and he has done so, with 81.5% of the vote. It is perhaps telling that this is down from the 90% margin claimed in he 2009 elections.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bouteflika Votes from Wheelchair; Algeria Claiming 51.70% Turnout, Much Down from 2009

Algerian television and media made no effort to conceal the fact that 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, still affected by last years's stroke, voted from a wheelchair today, even showing him being wheeled in to the polling place, casting his ballot, and being wheeled out again. Previous press photos usually showed him seated and did not usually show him entering or leaving. (Remember too that in the US during WWII. the media never showed FDR in his wheelchair.) Narrative is in Arabic:

Throughout the day, international media reported generally low turnout, suggesting boycott efforts by many smaller parties were having an effect.The authorities announced after the last polls closed that turnout had reached 51.70%, which is markedly less than the claimed turnout in 2009 (74.54%, but widely suspected to be inflated) and down even from 2004 (58.1%). So the claimed turnout, whether inflated or not, acknowledges a dropoff in participation.

A Portrait of the Syrian Port City of Tartus

From Jadaliyya, an intriguing profile of the ‘Alawite-majority Mediterranean port city of Tartus in Syria, by Khedar Khaddour: "Tartus in the Present Crisis: A Mirror of the Syrian Regime."

Women with Head Veils Are Being Denied Access to Bars in Egypt

An interesting if somewhat unfair trend if true:"Why are veiled women denied entry to bars in Egypt?"

Nightclubs included, apparently.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Algeria on the Eve: Some Thoughts

Algerians go to the polls tomorrow. There will be six candidates on the ballot, five men and a woman, of varying ideological orientations and ages. Then they will elect an ailing 77-year-old man who made no public campaign speeches.

But you knew that already.

Some analyses seem to see the Algerian situation as a reminder of the worst features of Arab authoritarian republics: the lack of a mechanism for succession and the unwillingness of autocrats to give up power, despite increasing disabilities. Those are no doubt factors. Others see it as a symptom of the fact that Algeria did not go through the ferment of Arab Spring. That's true, too, no doubt, to some extent.

But I also think that whether or not tomorrow's polls are freely held and fairly counted, Bouteflika would win anyway. One reason is that the Algerian establishment, from the military and security service generals Algerians call le pouvoir to the two big parties, the government bureaucracy, and the business and energy sectors, don't have anywhere else to go. Lately profound fissures have been visible within the establishment, but there is no agreed alternative to Bouteflika.

That is one side of the "stability at all costs" argument. The other side is the risk aversion of Algerians who fear  repetition of the violence of the 1990s. Even the half of all Algerians in their 20s and younger bear some scars of the troubles of the 1990s, when some 200,000 died. Older generations remember the eight year war of independence from 1954 to 1962, when perhaps a million died.I suspect this, and the sobering memory of the civil war in Libya next door, are one reason why there has been  so little turbulence in Algeria.

Bouteflika did not end the troubles single-handedly, but he presided over reconciliation, and the absence of any obvious successor means the alternative to another term might be renewed carnage.

Bouteflika will win, though perhaps not by the 90% he got in 2009 or the 85% in 2004. But we can hope that he, or at least le pouvoir, can find a solution to the succession question before Bouteflika is even less able to govern than now: a Vice President with real power perhaps, and a clear succession mechanism.

Two Notes on Arabic Dialects

We often discuss Arabic dialects here, and here are a couple of additions:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Allegation: Tamarod was Manipulated by Army All Along

This is getting attention from Egyptians: a member of the Tamarod Movement that launched the June 30 protests appears to acknowledge that the movement was bring manipulated by the Army.

If true, I doubt if this will have much effect on the overall enthusiasm for Sisi, and it may be typical Middle Eastern conspiracy-mongering, but it adds a certain irony to all the protest e-mails I received last summer insisting it was "not a coup."

Reuven Pedatzur Dies in Motorcyle Accident

Dr. Reuven Pedatzur, national security correspondent and commentator at Ha'aretz and a lecturer at several academic institutions, has died in an accident after stopping his motorcycle on the coast highway.

A Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University, in addition to his media commentary Prof. Pedatzur had published numerous academic articles, including in The Middle East Journal.

Bandar Relieved of Intelligence Post

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been relieved of his post as Director of Saudi General Intelligence, the Kingdom announced today. The announcement of the Royal Order indicated that Bandar had been relieved "at his request" and that General Yusuf bin ‘Ali al-Idrisi would act as head of General Intelligence.

The move follows reports in February that responsibility for Syrian affairs had been transferred from Bandar to Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef.

Bandar has also been abroad for several months recovering from medical treatment.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hardliners Step Up Protests Against Frye Burial in Iran

Even former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had welcomed Richard N. Frye's request to be buried in his beloved Isfahan, and had given Frye a home there. But the hardliners in Iran, whose opposition I noted a few days ago, have stepped up their attacks on the idea of burying Frye on Iranian soil. (Also see here.)

Probably no Westerner (and certainly no American) has done more to promote knowledge and understanding of Iranian culture and society in the West, yet now the mortal remains of the great Harvard expert who died recently at the age of 94,  have become a political football in Iran, a surrogate I suspect for the nuclear talks with the US and those who seek to scuttle them. (To their credit, serious scholars in Iran are supporting the burial).

I wish I knew more Persian. Surely Hafiz or Rumi must have a few appropriate lines for this travesty.

Google Marks Averroes' 888th bithday

The Birthday Boy
Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd was born April 14, 1126 (in the western calendar), at Cordoba in Al-Andalus, so he turns 888 today.

The great Andalusian philosopher/scientist/mathematician, the defender of philosophy who wrote the great response to al-Ghazali's attacks on it, may have had as much or even more influence on the intellectual tradition of Western Europe, which knew him as Averroes and received much of medieval Europe's knowledge of Aristotelianism through his work. He influenced Jewish philosophers including Maimonides) as well as Christian (Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and the so-called Latin Averroists.

Dante could not bring himself to put Muslims in Purgatory or heaven, but he at least put Averroes and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) in Limbo, which was his outermost circle of hell.

And today, for his 888th, Averroes received perhaps the ultimate contemporary accolade: Google gave him one of its trademark "Google Doodles" (and explained it here):

Passover Greetings

Passover begins at sundown today, and since Jewish readers will be otherwise occupied then, let me wish them best wishes in advance on this night that is different from all other nights.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

We Have Lost Patrick Seale (1930-2014)

Patrick Seale (PatrickSeale.org)
Journalist/historian/scholar and so much else Patrick Seale has died of a brain tumor at age 83. He would have been 84 next month.

I believe I first met Patrick Seale in 1981, when we were both covering the first GCC Summit meeting in Abu Dhabi. I found it refreshing, as an academically trained Ph.D. then working as a journalist/analyst,  to encounter journalists like Seale, the late Peter Mansfield, and Eric Rouleau, who had a deep academic and personal familiarity with the Middle East when that was rare (and considered rather suspect) among American journalists. I crossed paths occasionally with him after that, but not for some years.

The Belfast-born, Oxford-educated Seale had spent some of his youth in Syria, where his father was an Arabist and missionary. Though he covered and wrote about many regions of the Middle East, he had a lifelong identification with Syria. His two best-known books (among his many works) were The Stuggle for Syria, the standard work on Syria in the 1940s and 1950s, and Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, a biography of Hafiz al-Asad. His second wife, from whom he was reportedly separated, was the London-based Syrian journalist Rana Kabbani.

For decades he was The Observer's Middle East correspondent, a position previously held by the Soviet spy Kim Philby, about whom he wrote a book Philby, the Long Road to Moscow. (Philby was also, of course, the son of another veteran British Arabist, H. St.John B. Philby.) In recent years Seale has written columns for a variety of newspapers including several in the Middle East.

In the past three years, Seale has sometimes been criticized for being too supportive of Bashar al-Asad (though he moved away from that position), and some felt his biography of Bashar's father had traded some objectivity for access to regime sources. But it remains the standard work, and no academic historian has yet rivaled The Struggle for Syria for its analysis of Syria in its era of revolving-door coups. (Note that later editions carried an introduction by the great Albert Hourani, if you doubt its academic credentials.)

Seale was a scholar-journalist of the first rank, without question, whether you saw him as an Asad apologist in his later years or not.

Friday, April 11, 2014

US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is Retiring

Deputy US Secretary of State William Burns is retiring from the Foreign Service this year. His career has been a distinguished and varied one, but no small part of it dealt with the Middle East. Although the linked article does not mention it, he served as Ambassador to Jordan (where I crossed paths with him a time or two), and also (which is mentioned) as Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs. He also was Ambassador to Russia, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and most recently was Under Secretary, only the  second career Foreign Service Officer to hold that post; most recently he handled the backchannel contacts through Oman that led to the US-Iran nuclear talks. Bill Burns has had a distinguished career, though many Americans won't no his name, and he will be missed. I suspect though, we'll be hearing more from him in retirement.

Teaching Arabic Post-9/11

Due to deadlines, a bug, and my dughter's birthday I didn't post yesterday. To keep you busy, here's a thoughtful post at Jadaliyya on "Teaching Arabic in the US After 9-11"
by Chris Stone, an Arabic teacher stabbed in Cairo in 2013.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Are We Looking at an "I'm More Nasser Than You Are!" Campaign?

Is there such a word as "Nasserer" or is it just "more Nasser"?

While Egypt's third Presidential contender is running on a "war with Ethiopia" platform (which would seem to raise some logistical issues, especially in Sudan and Eritrea), the other two candidates are running on which one of them is actually Gamal Abdel Nasser. Anthony Eden and John Foster Dulles, be grateful you didn't live to see this. (Maybe include Anwar Sadat, too.)

Hamdeen Sabahi, who ran third back in 2012, calls himself a Nasserist and a socialist, an ideological twin of the late President. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, sometime Field Marshal (though Nasser never promoted himself above colonel), and though Sisi never served in a war, promotes himself as a Nasser-style savior of the nation whether in uniform or track suit, and has the sunglasses thing down to a science. As Sarah Carr noted:

Paul Mutter has noted something similar at The Arabist.

So far we have two Nassers and a foul-mouthed lunatic (though I didn't mention  Mortada Mansour's penchant for profanity before, it's a standing joke in Egypt.).

Egyptians: Vote for the Nasser of your choice, but vote!

Vandals Desecrate Arab Graves at Deir Yassin on Eve of Anniversary

The Arab-Israeli conflict has seen plenty of blood and atrocity on both sides; one of the most notorious took place 66 years ago today at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, when the two extremist militias the Irgun and Lehi (the so-called Stern Gang) massacred 100-200 civilian villagers.  Though known to all Palestinians and found shocking by most Israelis,  I note this anniversary of the atrocity, not to resurrect an ugly past, but to note an ugly present: yesterday, according to Israeli reports,  someone scrawled "Death to Arabs" on two Arab graves at Deir Yassin (a village long since obliterated and absorbed into the western suburbs of Jewish Jerusalem).

And this comes as the peace process has failed yet again. It has been said that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it, but in our part of the world too many people remember the past far too clearly, I fear, and choose to repeat it.

The Politics of Interment: Iran Debates Richard Frye's Request to Be Buried There

When the great Harvard scholar of Iranian history and culture Richard N. Frye died recently at the age of 94, many obituaries noted his often-expressed desire to be buried in Iran, in Isfahan. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had reportedly supported the idea, but now as if honoring Frye's will has hit a snag: hardliners are opposing it, with Kayhan allegedly calling him as "CIA Agent."

Scholars are urging the will be honored, but Dushanbe in Tajikistan has already reportedly offered to bury Frye there if Iran refuses.

Richard N. Frye probably did more than any other person, through his own books and teaching and those of the generations of scholars he trained, to instil a love of Iranian culture in the West. Iran has an opportunity to return the favor.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Two Links on Syria; Two Very Different Deaths

The Syrian tragedy is so vast, so seemingly beyond solution, as to make it very difficult to comprehend. Here are two links that put a human face to it, though they deal with the deaths of two utterly different men:
  • "Memories of Father Frans," by Rima Marrouch at the Rasif  blog, remembering Father Frans van der Lugt, the Dutch Jesuit priest killed yesterday in his monastery in Homs, a man who had lived in Syria since 1966, said Mass in fusha and preached in Syrian colloquial, killed by unknown gunmen but likely jihadis.
  • And a very different sort of man entirely: "Who was Hilal al-Assad?," by "Mohammad D." at Syria Comment," anout the recent death in Latakia, the family stronghold, of a cousin of President Bashar al-Asad.
Vignettes of two very different deaths in a war that has killed untold thousands.

Egypt's Latest Presidential Candidate

Well, Egypt now has a third candidate in the Presidential race, besides Field Marshal Sisi, and Hamdeen Sabahi: lawyer Mortada Mansour. And he's outspoken: "Presidential hopeful Mansour 'will declare war on Ethiopia,' ban alcohol, social media."

 OK: He's running to make sure people vote for Sisi, right?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Egypt's April 6 Movement Marks Another April 6

Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement, created in 2008 as a movement in solidarity with striking workers in the textile plants in al-Mahalla, eventually became one of the core protest movements that created the Revolution of 2011. Like other opposition groups it has seen splits within its ranks and has watched the heady enthusiasm of 2011 fade.

Yesterday, April 6,  it marked the anniversary of its founding with a press conference. Writing at Mada Masr, Sarah Carr sees it as emblematic of the Egyptian opposition generally:
April 6 sums up what is wrong, and what is right, with Egypt's political opposition. They are a group of highly motivated young people working towards a vaguely defined goal. They are plagued by in-fighting, and have split into two fronts as a result. Their presence has been amplified by both social media and state vilification, the latter of which has worked both for and against them.
In six years, their activism has not matured, and largely still revolves around street action organized in reaction to the latest outrage committed by the state. Yesterday, when the organizers (very sensibly) called off the march they had planned to avert the inevitable blood and arrests, the kids did a bit of chanting on the steps of the Journalists Syndicate and then (God help us) some street theatre entitled, "The verdict after the phone call.” In an act of painful symbolism they released some doves, half of which could not fly and dropped down back to earth. And then everyone went home.

Vintage Photos of a Lost Egypt

The Egyptian Streets website,drawing on the Vintage Egypt site, has put together a collection of  "23 Vintage Photos of Egypt's Golden Years," mostly magazine covers and ads from the 1950s and 1960s, contrasting them with today. For the nostalgia buffs among you ...

Friday, April 4, 2014

Meet the Little Turkish Minelayer that Decided the Outcome of the Gallipoli Campaign a Month Before the Landings

This morning, I posted a photo quiz of this vessel and asked about its importance in Middle Eastern history:
Nusret (all photos Wikipedia)
The first commenter guessed either the Goeben or the Breslau, which did change a great deal but which were respectively a battle cruiser and a cruiser, serious capital ships. I've written about them before. But this is no big-gunned dreadnought. The second commenter, labeling himself or herself "The Turk." got it right: this is the little Ottoman minelayer Nusret, which laid 26 mines that may have decided the Gallipoli campaign several weeks before the landings on April 25.

Winston Churchill, at the time First Lord of the Admiralty, had a thing about the Mediterranean that would persist into the next World War as well. He conceived a daring plan to break the stalemate on the Western Front, knock one of the Central Powers out of the war, and provide a warm-water supply line to Russia by forcing the Turkish straits, and taking Constantinople/Istanbul. The Royal Navy still controlled the seas, and a British and French flotilla was duly sent to try to force the Dardanelles.

The plan seems crazy in retrospect, especially in view of the ten months of carnage in which British commanders kept throwing Australian and New Zealand troops against entrenched Turkish positions, the latter commanded in part (and eventually entirely) by Mustafa Kemal. If it ever had any hope of success, that surely lay in a quick naval victory, not in infantry landings. And that, originally, was the plan. The flotilla arrived off the Dardanelles in February and began shelling the Turkish forts on both sides of the strait, and using minesweepers to clear the minefields that filled the passage. The plan was, after softening up the forts and clearing the mines, the Royal Navy and its French allies would force the straits and sail right up to the Topkapi.

As daring as it seems, the Ottomans took it seriously. The US Ambassador to the Porte, Henry Morgenthau, recorded that archives and critical documents were being crated up to be moved deeper into Anatolia. (Note that just a few years later, the capital was moved to Ankara.) The Ottoman forts were nearly out of ammunition, the minefields were largely cleared, and there seemed to be little standing between the Allied flotilla and the Golden Horn.
The Allied Flotilla in the Dardanelles, 1915
Except for the little minelayer that could. Nusret would become a legend in Turkish naval history. Only 40.2 meters (131 feet) from stem to stern,she was no match for the battleships in the Allied flotilla.

And it's said that the 26 mines she carried were the last mines available to the Turkish Navy.

On March 8 (a month and a half before ANZAC Day), Nusret slipped down the Dardanelles by night into areas controlled by the Allied fleet, and laid those 26 mines close inshore in Eren Köy Bay on the Asian side where she hoped the Allied minesweepers wouldn't find them. It's said that at the end of her mission her captain died of a heart attack from the stress.

Ten days later, the Allied naval assault began. On March 18, the attempt to run the straits began.

Line No 11 is Nusret's Minefield
Now, the Royal Navy had a low opinion of the Turkish fleet and the Admiralty insisted on keeping all the most modern, Dreadnought-class battleships in home waters in case the German High Seas Fleet came out. The flotilla in the east were older, pre-Dreadnought vessels, slower and less thickly armored. As if that wasn't enough, the commander, Admiral Carden, took ill the day before and his deputy, Rear Admiral John de Robeck, who had serious doubts about the venture anyway, took command.

Bouvet Afire
As the flotilla moved into the Çannakale Strait, the narrowest part of the Dardanelles, the French battleship Bouvet suddenly exploded. Within minutes she capsized and sank with the loss of her captain and all hands.

It soon got even worse. The battle cruiser HMS Inflexible and the battleship HMS Irresistible struck mines; the first was beached, the second evacuated and left adrift; both apparently sank. Several other ships were damaged. For a total Turkish loss of 118 men, Nusret's mines and the shore guns had sunk three Allied capital ships and crippled another.

Bouvet Capsizing and Sinking
Though the Turks were still bracing for a renewed attack, de Robeck was shocked by the losses, and at this point London made what was arguably the decisive mistake that transformed Gallipoli from a daring naval raid that failed into a symbol of the meat-grinder tactics of the Great War: they decided to suspend the naval operations until ground troops could be landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

HMS Irresistible Proves it was Misnamed
That would not take place until the date we  today know as Anzac Day: April 25. The naval battle was March 18. In the intervening weeks, Turkey would rush ammunition, artillery shells, mines. and troops (and Mustafa Kemal) to turn the Galipoli Peninsula into a hardened fortification. A campaign aimed at bypassing the carnage of the trench warfare on the Western Front would recreate that carnage on a barren peninsula in the Aegean.

The element of surprise had been lost. The Turks were ready.

As for little Nusret, whose 26 mines sank three men of war and arguably saved the Ottoman Empire for another three years, not to mention derailed Winston Churchill's political rise for some time, she stayed in service for years, spent some time at the bottom of the sea but was later raised; as she was much remodeled through the years. a better sense of what she looked like in 1915 is provided by this modern reconstruction at a museum in Çannakale:

Collecting Algerian Darja

Algerian linguist Lameen Souag was recently visiting his home town, Dellys, and made a busman's holiday of it by collecting undocumented usages in the local Algerian colloquial Arabic, or Darja. For those with an interested in Arabic colloquials, or just in words generally, he has two Darja posts up at his Jabal al-Lughat: "Random Darja Notes" and "More Darja: sea creatures,folk tales, etc."

A Quiz for Friday: What is this Vessel and Why is it Important in Middle Eastern History?

My attempts at trivia photo quizzes usually don't get much response, but let's try one anyway. The answer will appear in a historical blog post late today. This relatively small vessel, 40.2 meters (131 feet) in length, belonged to a Middle Eastern Navy. It managed to change the course of a major war, decide the outcome of a battle that had not yet begun, and derail the career of  major political figure. Please post only if you recognize it; Google Image Search really isn't playing fair, and there are no prizes other than a mention on the blog.  I deliberately chose a photo without a visible flag.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The 99th Anniversary of the "Battle of the Wasa‘a"

Yesterday was the 99th anniversary of the so-called "Battle" of the Wasa‘a (or as they pronounced it Down Under, "Wozzer"), when Australian and new Zealand troops stationed in Cairo and about to ship out for Gallipoli, systematically trashed the Red Light district of Cairo. It resulted in fires, destruction, and the British Army intervening to stop the largely inebriated ANZACs.

Back in 2011 I wrote a lengthy discussion of this notorious event, placing it in the context of  the toleration of prostitution, the history of Cairo and the locations involved. It includes photos, quotations from memoirs and diaries, and a newspaper clip. Though I'm a day late in marking this 99th anniversary, those unfamiliar with the story may want to take a look at that account.

Could the Pharaohs Read and Write? Yes, Says a Polish Egyptologist

A bit of ancient history for a change of pace:

In a society in which only a tiny minority were literate, could the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt read and write?  According to one Polish Egyptologist, there is considerable evidence that they could.

The article cites some anecdotal evidence, as well as the fact that many princes, had held administrative positions; as kings, they also had ritual duties that required knowledge of hieroglyphics, and there are scribal tools in Tutankhamun's tomb. By contrast, he suggests Mesopotamian rulers were not literate.

Bouteflika Appears Again; Meets Kerry

It's certainly unusual when a candidate for the Presidency of a major country is rarely seen during the campaign, even on television, but today we did get another glimpse of Algerian President Bouteflika, this time receiving John Kerry on his North African tour. The opposition in Algeria had been warning that a visit so close to the Presidential election on April 17. Algerian TV showed Bouteflika speaking to Kerry through an interpreter about intelligence cooperation in counter-terrorism, and even showed him standing to greet Kerry; most photos of him sense his stroke have shown him seated.

Speaking of Bouteflika, you should check out this look at his career by kal at The Moor Next Door: "A Pillar of the Regime and among the Younger Ministers of His Generation." The quote in the title is not a recent one, but refers to the Boumedienne era in the 1960s.

The tendency of Arab leaders to cling to power even when they are physically impaired (and Bouteflika is far from the exception here). Bouteflika is much younger than some incumbent Arab leaders, but his stroke has clearly impaired him.

Charles de Gaulle once famously remarked that "La vieillesse est un naufrage": "Old age is a shipwreck." He was referring to Marshal Pétain, and blaming the fall of France on the onetime hero's age (84 in 1940) for the surrender. Ironically, by the 1960s some of de Gaulle's critics, though he was only in his 70s, would quote the same lines about de Gaulle.

Ironically, though, there is probably no other candidate that the Algerian establishment could agree to unite behind.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What on Earth Does Jonathan Pollard Have to Do with the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?

Back in the 1980s, when Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage, I happened to have a lot of contacts in the US intelligence community who dealt with the Middle East. While they never shared classified details, everyone from Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger on down was appalled by the magnitude of the security breach. Israelis and others claim that his life sentence is excessive for a US citizen. Perhaps, but the judge had access to classified data we don't, and the law permits stiff sentences if the betrayal led to loss of life (not known to be a factor in this case) or if "nuclear weaponry [...] war plans; communications intelligence or cryptographic information" were involved.  While I have no direct knowledge, several American and one or two Israeli sources have suggested to me through the years that all of those areas were compromised,and that several US allies in the Arab world had secure information passed along. Weinberger opposed any leniency towards Pollard as long as he lived, When Bill Clinton considered trading Pollard for peace concessions in the '90s, the CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign. Some in the US intelligence community think Pollard's massive leaks were the biggest security breach between the nuclear secrets cases in the 40s and 50s, and Aldrich Ames, whose betrayal led to a number of executions in the Soviet union/Russia. Israel may be an ally, but you don't tell even your allies your deepest secrets.

At the time of his espionage, Pollard was a US citizen only, not a dual national. Only in the 1990s did Israel grant him citizenship and begin agitating for his release.

Pollard will be eligible for early release in a year or two, I believe, and that is an issue for the courts. But the current talk about releasing him in exchange for concessions in the Israel-Palestinian peace process strikes me as odd indeed. What has one thing got to do with the other? Spies are usually exchanged for spies, and if Israel is sincere about making progress with the Palestinians, what does Pollard have to do with it? It's mixing apples and oranges, demanding John Kerry make a concession on a bilateral US-Israeli issue in order to achieve progress between Israel end the PA. (And once you give up Pollard, how do you assure those concessions persevere? How do you know there won't be more demands?)

I believe, without having any direct knowledge, that some in the US intelligence community fear that Pollard still has sensitive information which could, even  quarter century later, be harmful to US interests  if divulged. Trade spies for spies, not for evanescent negotiating concessions. The man egregiously betrayed his oath, his trust, and his country, and was convicted in a court of law. He's not a hero.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Be Careful Where You Put That Campaign Poster

I can see two possible explanations for the positioning of this Bouteflika poster in Algeria. Obviously, an opposition supporter may have got hold of a Bouteflika poster and posted it here as a comment. Or perhaps an oblivious and/or illiterate supporter posted it without noticing what he was posting it on.

Moroccan Higher Education Minister: Promote English over French

Morocco's Minister of Higher Education Lahcen Daoudi has urged that Moroccan Universities emphasize English instead of French, particularly as a language if instruction in the sciences.
Talking to Al-Yaoum 24, Douadi declared that the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research will impose English in engineering and medical programs. The ministry is to make‘ “English proficiency a condition for obtaining a doctorate.’’
“Thus, students who want to have access to science departments at Moroccan universities must be proficient in English,’’ Daoudi explained.
Daoudi declared that the ministry’s policy of adopting French Baccalaureate in the country is “a dubious solution”, to Morocco’s ailing education system explaining that “French is no longer useful”.

A Revival of Nasserism, or More Nostalgic "Nasserism®"?

Amr Adly has a piece at Jadaliyya called "The Problematic Continuity of Nasserism."
It's a thoughtful piece and raises some interesting points about how Nasser's picture and symbols and evocations of the Nasser era have been used in protests before and after the Revolution, not to mention how the Sisi campaign seeks to identify the general with Nasser. Adly's piece is dealing mostly with the role of Nasserism as a political tradition among the opposition to Husni Mubarak and, later to the Muslim Brotherhood.

But while he surviving Nasserist parties may seek to restore the Nasserist social experiment, I think a great deal of the symbolism when demonstrators wave portraits of Nasser or Sisi posters pair him with Nasser, I think in many cases what people are really yearning for is a sort of nostalgia for certain aspects of that era, not (except for the ideological Nasserists). That does not mean the whole package of Nasserism, including the nationalizations, the political prisons, and the pervasive security state (though of course, those last two have never gone away).

Instead, there is a nostalgia, though felt by a population the vast majority of whom were not even born at the time, for the pride that came from ousting the British from Egypt, for the populism of the early land reforms and the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

One irony is that many demonstrators have also been waving pictures of Anwar Sadat, and pictures of Nasser and Sadat linked with Sisi are frequent. But Sadat abandoned most of Nasser's socialist programs, and in some cases privatized companies Nasser had nationalized.He also made peace with Israel. The roots of many Mubarak policies began in the Sadat era. When a demonstrator waves photos of both Nasser and Sadat, it is less to support specific programs so much as to advocate a return to a style of leadership remembered through the lens of nostalgia as rather rosier and more successful than it actually was. Sisi is unlikely to return to the socialist experiments of  Nasser, or to upset the peace with Israel. He may, then, prove to be more a Sadat than a Nasser.

Though Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, now age 90, is reported to be advising Sisi, don't think we are likely to see a rebirth of Nasserism as such, so much as a symbol-rich evocation of nostalgia. Not so much Nasserism as such, but rather Nasserism®.