A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 30, 2014

Elias Muhanna Asks: Why is Disney's "Frozen" Dubbed in Modern Standard Arabic Rather than Colloquial?

An old theme revisited: Colloquial versus Modern Standard Arabic and the diglossia issue. Elias Muhanna, Professor at Brown but perhaps better known as Qifa Nabki for his blog, has a contribution at The New Yorker, "Translating Frozen Into Arabic,"
The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.
Indeed, he notes that earlier Disney products were dubbed in Colloquial Egyptian Arabic, widely understood due to Egyptian films, and much less formal sounding.
Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.
It;s a good question, and apparently many are complaining. The movie will draw lots of kids, being a Disney product, many of whom have only begun to study Modern Standard Arabic in school, so I suspect there is a constituency. (Though of course there's a certain irony in the fact that Elias' nom de blog, Qifa Nabki, alludes to the opening words of the most famous poem in pre-Islamic Classical Arabic.)

The links in the first paragraph above go to various examples on YouTube, but for convenience, here's the megahit "Let it Go," in a formal language no one would actually speak naturally:

Schleifer Challenges the Wesern Conventional Wisdom on the Elections

While I have some doubt about President-elect al-Sisi's prospects, based on the vagueness of his program, the problems of the country and the excessive expectations of his supporters, I also know that the apparent low turnout does not automatically mean, as some Western pundits seem to be concluding, that there is widespread support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Abdullah Schleifer knows Egypt very well, and he makes this point forcefully in his column at Al Arabiya: "Sisi wins, the turnout is low, and critics reign supreme."

While he's more optimistic about Sisi than I am, he rightly notes the fragility of the Brotherhood's 2012 victory, which it then treated as a solid mandate, overplaying a weak hand. While he recognizes the Brotherhood and leftist boycott was a factor in the turnout, he also notes:
But among the abstainers, far, far greater in number were two other constituencies that actually overlapped into one. A large number of prospective voters who remained pro-Sisi but were convinced that Sisi would win so overwhelmingly, that there was no need for them to spend hours standing in lines to vote. And secondly there were a large number of voters who remained pro-Sisi and anti-MB, but now lacked the passion, after the passage of more than ten months, that had inspired the earlier super enthusiasm. Add to that mix of overconfidence and complacency the unbearable heat wave that swept over Egypt for all three days of voting, but particularly on Tuesday with temperature around 40 C or higher. The voting centers remained open till 9pm but these past few nights the heat wave did not ease up until several hours later in the night. And when the government declared Tuesday a holiday for public sector employees and for the banks, it became a national holiday and few of the many who were over-confident and complacent felt compelled to leave their homes, however modest, to stand in line in the far hotter streets.
His piece is a useful corrective to the conventional wisdom.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Egypt Claims Turnout Matched 2012. Oh, and Sisi Won

The unofficial results in Egypt show Sisi winning with 96.93% of the vote. For all those nostalgic and hoping he's a new Nasser, it's a Nasser style election result.

On the turnout issue, unofficially total votes were 25,597,380.

In the 2012 Morsi runoff, the total was 25,577,511.

The desire to beat the 2012 turnout was achieved with under 20,000 votes to spare, (If you accept the turnout numbers, which are sure to engender much skepticism. On Tuesday there was panic at the low turnout, so presumably everyone came out on day 3?)

Supposedly, Sisi had to match the 2012 turnout to claim credibility. But many will question whether the results themselves are credible. And even though the gross number of (claimed) votes is higher, the turnout percentage, around 46% isower than the 52% in 2012 due to more eligible voters.

Trying to Match that 26 Million: Midnight DC Time

You may believe it if you wish, but that magic 26 million turnout in 2012 looks like a result Egyptian authorities are determined to reach by any means necessary (midnight Wednesday DC time):

At the moment, the "spoiled ballots" category is reportedly challenging Hamdeen Sabbahi for second place.

The first column below is total registered voters;the second is total votes cast:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Perils of Google Translate

Via Ajam Media Collective, from a hotel in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan:

Now what has happened here is obvious if hilarious. I presume what is in the pan are some sort of meatballs; someone has transliterated "meatball" into Arabic or Kurdish as mit bul, and someone else has run that through a computer translator to find out how you say "meatball" in English. It has read it as Arabic (I don't know if it would work in Kurdish or not) and come up with "Paul is dead."

Either that or it's another hint in a supposed conspiracy that gave rise to a 1960s urban legend (today it would be an Internet meme) that Paul McCartney of the Beatles secretly died back in 1966. If you played a record backwards it allegedly said "Paul is dead," just like the meatball sign. Sir Paul is feeling much better now.

Don't rely too much on computer translation.

Did Egypt's Added Day Increase Turnout?

After the added third day of voting, election officials are claiming close to 40% turnout or 21 million people, still sharply down from the 26 million in 2012. On the other hand, The Egyptian Center for Media Studies and Public Opinion (Takamol Masr)  is claiming that only 7.5% of the electorate actually turned out.

Whichever is accurate, clearly, Sisi's hopes for a turnout at least as big as 2012 were not fulfilled.

Disappointing as the turnout my have been, there are no surprises in the vote count; as the results are gradually announced, Ahram Online is posting the totals live. This was the count just a few minutes ago:

Memorializing Queen Victoria in the Gulf

An interesting historical aside has been posted by the British Library: correspondence with British Resident Agents around the Gulf at the time of the death of Queen Victoria in 1901: "The Death of Queen Victoria: the Politics of Mourning and Memorialisation in the British Persian Gulf."

Headline of the Week? "Nude Wife of Saudi Football Coach Sparks Anger."

From Al-Arabiya: "Nude Wife of Saudi Football Coach Sparks Anger."

A grabber of a headline. Did a Saudi coach's wife attend the game stark naked instead of in full abaya? Well, no. The coach isn't himself Saudi, and the wife isn't always nude (I assume) and may not be coming to the KSA. Still, female nudity and Saudi Arabia being the matter and antimatter of the Middle East, an explosion was predictable.

Here's the story. The most prominent and popular Saudi football (soccer to us Yanks) club, Al-Hilal just hired Romanian Laurenţiu Reghecampf as its new coach. His contract is reportedly worth $2.5 million. But it has been learned that his wife (and reportedly his agent), Ana Maria (or Anamaria) Prodan, has a profile not typical of Saudi women. As Al-Arabiya puts it:
Prodan is reportedly the first female FIFA-licensed agent in Romania. A Las Vegas resident, she supplements her income through gambling and modeling. Her latter work includes a photo-shoot for Playboy.
Professional woman who gambles, models, and poses for Playboy? Pretty much a trifecta for the Hay'a, the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as the Religious Police. There is no confirmation she is even planning to relocate, with her husband, to the Kingdom (she lives in Las Vegas, a place somewhat different from Riyadh), but that hasn't prevented an uproar that may jeopardize Reghecampf's brand-new contract. (The fact that many Saudis resent the replacement of the previous Arab coach is also a factor.)

Among other things, tattoos are taboo
As far as I can tell through extensive research (aka looking on Google), she has only appeared in the Romanian edition of Playboy, which I assume does not circulate widely outside Romania and maybe Moldova, and quite certainly is not readily available in Saudi Arabia. The PG-13 photo at right seems to be from this shoot, and the (concealed) nudity is compounded by another no-no to strict Muslims: tattoos.

Whatever the Saudis do, my image of sports agents is changed forever.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Egypt's Election Mess: Which is More Damaging, the Low Turnout or the Desperate, Panicked Response?

A polling place

The decision to extend voting another day in order to increase turnout in Egypt, fearing that low turnout will undercut the credibility of Field Marshal al-Sisi's election, has been accompanied by such seemingly desperate efforts to get out the vote as to give the impression of panic on the part of the government. Business owners have given workers time off and demanded to see their inked fingers to prove that they voted; fines are threatened against boycotters. Coptic Pope Tawadros II appeared on TV to urge all Copts to vote, and a group of sheikhs said the Prophet himself opposed electoral boycotts. (I want to check the hadith on that one.) TV commentators were frantically trying to get people to vote, denouncing boycotters as traitors and such. But if turnout is below 50%, does that mean most of the country are traitors?  One urged women to deny their husbands their favors if the husbands didn't vote.

Few are likely to assume that they are being urged to vote for Hamdeen Sabbahi. Sisi is going to win, but if the turnout is below that Morsi received in 2012 (26 million, 52% of eligible voters), his claims to enormous support will seem hollow. After the second day of voting today, officials said turnout had reached 37%, but that is still disappointing, and the Sabbahi campaign had been citing much lower numbers. (Nor did it help that Sisi publicly expressed hope in one of his last pre-vote inrerviews for a turnout of 40 million, which would be 80% of the electorate, setting the bar impossibly high.)

Muslim Brotherhood supporters are the most obvious group boycotting, but reports also suggest young people are not voting, perhaps disillusioned by the foreordained result.

In the Nasser, Sadat, and most of the Mubarak years, turnout numbers were routinely inflated or just invented. But that was before everyone had a video camera in their pocket and the ability to tweet photos worldwide in an instant. Photos and videos of empty polling places, like the one at the top of this post, are all over the Internet. And social media is full of direct testimony:
The return of Bassem Youssef's satirical TV show, which was put on hiatus so as not to unduly "influence" the vote, has now been postponed again. Obviously, the auhorities are sensitive about what is looking like an electoral debacle.

I suspect the panicky, desperate responses today are going to make the authorities look worse than the poor turnout will.

Here's a subtitled selection of talk show hosts and commentators, most of whom blame the public for shirking their civic duties:

Pope Corrects Bibi on Jesus' Language

From the Pope's meeting with Prime minister Netanyahu: when Netanyahu says that Jesus lived yhere and spoke Hebrew, the Pope corrects him by saying he spoke Aramaic, but knew Hebrew.

In the video, Netanyahu is speaking Hebrew, and the Pope (though a native Spanish speaker) is speaking Italian.

Egypt Extends Presidential Election to Third Day Due to Low Turnout

In an extraordinary move, apparently driven by low turnout on the two days of the Egyptian Presidential elections, Egypt has extended the election for a third day.

After day one, it was announced that day two would be a public holiday, to enable workers to vote; after day two, the extension to a third day was announced. Although there was no clear rationale given, other than to allow persons who for residence reasons might need to travel from Cairo to their own hometowns to vote (some also cited extreme hot weather), both of these rationales suggest that the goal is a larger turnout.

Both Field Marshal Sisi's and Hamdeen Sabbahi's campaigns objected to the extension, though the Sisi objection may be raher pro forma.

In the 2012 Presidential runoff between Muhammad Morsi and Ahmad Shafiq, turnout was officially about 26 million, slightly more than in the first round and constituting a turnout of about 52%. Field Marshal Sisi, who is clearly seeking not just a win but a high turnout to legitimize his rise to power, has been quoted as saying he hoped for 40 million voters to turnout. A turnout below that of the 26 million who voted in he 2012 runoff would be read as a setback. It would imply the boycott by th Muslim Brotherhood and other groups is having an effect, despite threats of fines for not voting.

And that, presumably, is what is happening: many believe turnout is running well below 2012. Therefore, the electoral commission changed the rules and moved the goalposts late in the game.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Today is the Memorial Day Holiday in the US

Accordingly, I have family-related plans and won't be blogging. It is also the first day of the Egyptian elections. If by chance Hamdeen Sabbahi surges to an early lead I will immediately jump on the first passing flying pig or rainbow-colored unicorn and post something. Barring that or an alien invasion, see you Tuesday.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Politics and Logistics of the Pope's Holy Land Visit

Pope Francis I's visit to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel beginning tomorrow has already stirred some controversy, though the Vatican seems intent on avoiding political controversy.As I noted earlier today, the visit marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's then-unprecedented visit to the Holy Land in January 1964 (videos at my earlier post), and Paul's meeting then with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I. The current Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, will be meeting with Francis in Jerusalem.

The three-day trip is shorter than the visits of John Paul II in 2000 or of Benedict XVI in 2009. Francis has a packed three-day schedule meeting political religious figures in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel (in that order). One result is that unlike all three previous papal visits, he is not visiting Nazareth, and this has annoyed Christians in Galilee, which has many religious sites associated with Jesus' life. But that is only one of many controversies already sparked by the trip even before it begins.

The Pope insists on traveling in an open vehicle, so Israeli security is going to be tightened; this has already led to complaints by Palestinian Christians that they won't be able to get close to the Pope, and by shopkeepers in Jerusalem's Old City that they won't be allowed to open. There is also concern about radical Jewish extremists who have defaced Christian churches recently. This is especially sensitive because the Pope is celebrating a Mass in the Cenacle or Upper Room, traditionally identified with the site of the Last Supper, which shares the same structure with the Jewish sitte venerated as the Tomb of King David and with a mosque. (Pilgrims might wonder why the Gospels don't mention that yhe Last Supper was upstairs over David's yomb, but perhaps few pilgrims notice this, or the Gothic architecture.) Jewish groups have protested the planned service.

Papal trips usually involve meeting with local Catholic prelates, and another controversy has erupted over the plan by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Rai to visit Jerusalem with the Pope. No Maronite Patriarch has visited Jerusalem since before 1967, when Israel took East Jerusalem from Jordanian control. Rai's predecessor, Cardinal Sfeir, joined other Papal visits only for the Jordanian leg. Rai has said he will not meet with Israeli officials, and the Vatican has said the decision was Rai's personal initiative, not Rome's.

 Much of the criticism in Lebanon has been in the media; one reason may be that all parties in Lebanon are struggling to find a compromise candidate for President (who must be a Maronite); even Hizbullah has not raised a major fuss.

There has also been comment on the fact that the Vatican is referring to the "State of Palestine" and to Mahmud "Abbas as "Prsident of the State of Palestine, The Vatican recognizes the UN General Assembly's recognition of Palestine. On this visit the Pope will be visiting the Palestinian Authority before Israel; he arrives in Jordan on a Saturday, the Israeli Sabbath, so the calendar partially determined the order, but he will helicopter directly from Amman to Bethlehem rather than going via Israel.

From Vatican Radio, the official and very packed itinerary:

Pilgrimage of His Holiness Pope Francis in the Holy Land on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras .(May 24 – 26, 2014) – Program, 27.3.2014

Saturday, May 24, 2014
08:15 Departure from Rome Fiumicino Airport for Amman
13:00 Arrival at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman
13:45 ARRIVAL CEREMONY in the al-Husseini Royal Palace in Amman
16:00 HOLY MASS at the International Stadium in Amman. Homily of the Holy Father
19:00 Visit to the Baptismal Site at Bethany beyond the Jordan
19:15 MEETING WITH REFUGEES AND DISABLED YOUNG PEOPLE in the Latin church at Bethany beyond the Jordan. Discourse of the Holy Father

Sunday, May 25, 2014
8:15 FAREWELL FROM JORDAN at the Queen Alia Internal Airport in Amman
8:30 Departure by helicopter from the Queen Alia Internal Airport in Amman for Bethlehem
9:20 Arrival at the helicopter port of Bethlehem
9:30 ARRIVAL CEREMONY at the presidential Palace in Bethlehem
10:00 MEETING WITH THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY – Discourse of the Holy Father
11:00 HOLY MASS in Manger Square in Bethlehem. Homily of the Holy Father
REGINA COELI PRAYER. Allocution of the Holy Father
13:30 Lunch with families from Palestine in the Franciscan convent of Casa Nova in Bethlehem
15:45 FAREWELL FROM THE STATE OF PALESTINE at the helicopter port of Bethlehem
16:00 Departure by helicopter from the helicopter port of Bethlehem for Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv
16:30 ARRIVAL CEREMONY at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Discourse of the Holy Father
17:15 Transfer by helicopter to Jerusalem
17:45 Arrival at the helicopter port of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus
18:15 Private meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople at the Apostolic Delegation in Jerusalem. Signing of a joint declaration.
19.00 ECUMENICAL MEETING on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. Discourse of the Holy Father
20:15 Dinner with the Patriarchs and Bishops and the Papal suite at the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem

Monday, May 26, 2014
8:15 VISIT TO THE GRAND MUFTI OF JERUSALEM in the building of the Great Council on the Esplanade of the Mosques. Discourse of the Holy Father
9:45 Laying a wreath at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem
10.00 VISIT TO YAD VASHEM in Jerusalem. Discourse of the Holy Father
10:45 COURTESY VISIT TO THE TWO CHIEF RABBIS at Heichal Shlomo Center in Jerusalem, next to the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. Discourse of the Holy Father
11:45 COURTESY VISIT TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem. Discourse of the Holy Father
13:30 Lunch with the Papal suite at Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem
15:30 Private visit to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople at the building next to the Orthodox church of Viri Galileai on the Mount of Olives
16:00 MEETING WITH PRIESTS, MEN AND WOMEN RELIGIOUS AND SEMINARIANS in the church of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Discourse of the Holy Father
17:20 HOLY MASS WITH THE ORDINARIES OF THE HOLY LAND AND THE PAPAL SUITE in the room of the Cenacle in Jerusalem. Homily of the Holy Father
19:30 Transfer by helicopter from the helicopter port on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv
20:00 FAREWELL FROM THE STATE OF ISRAEL at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv
20:15 Departure from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for Ciampino Airport in Rome
23:00 Arrival at Ciampino Airport in Rome

50 Years Ago: Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem, 1964

I'm working on a major post on Pope Francis impending visit, to Jordan,  Palestine and Israel (in that  order) this weekend. But let's lso remember what Francis intends to commemorate: the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's visit to Jordan and Israel in January 1964. Unlike the peripatetic Popes of recent years, Popes then rarely left Italy; Paul VI was the first to break with that tradition. He was also the first Pope since the early days of Christianity to visit the Holy Land. It has since become rather expected, but it was extraordinary then, and also remembered for the meeting of the Pope with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I and the subsequent cancellation of the mutul excommunications exchanged by their Catholic and Orthodox predecessors in 1054.

In 1964, Jerusalem was still divided, and the Pope  had to cross from Jordan-controlled Jerusalem to the Israeli side via the now-vanished Mandelbaum Gate. Video of Paul VI's visit in 1964:

Lebanon: Still No President as Suleiman's Term Expires; Paul Salem on the Issue

What with the impending Papal visit to the Middle East and Egyptian Presidential elections, it's relatively easy to overlook the fact that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman's six-year Presidential term expires this weekend, and that just yesterday the Lebanese Parliament failed once again to elect a successor. As a result, just months after finally cobbling together a Cabinet, Lebanon faces a vacuum in the Presidency. (Earlier blogpost here.) Here to shed some light is MEI's own Paul Salem, in a recent Q&A, and in this more recent video:

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How the Mighty Have Fallen? Ahmadinejad Riding a Bus

It's reported that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has returned to his original career as a college professor of civil engineering, and what's more, he rides the bus to work daily,

BBC Guide to Libyan Militias

You can't tell the players without a scorecard, and if you find yourself confused by all the feuding militias in Libya during the recent events, you may want to take a look at this from the BBC: Guide to key Libyan militias.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Is General Haftar Channeling Field Marshal Sisi?

Libyan General Khalifa Haftar is sounding a lot like his next-door neighbor. Consider:

1. His intervention, he keeps saying, is "not a coup."

2. He is acting to "stop terrorism" in Libya.

3. Though his  original targets were Jihadist militias, he is also denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood and promising to eliminate it from politics..

4. He keeps talking about a new constitutional "road map."

5. He says he wants to restore security and stability.

6. Though he disclaims any personal ambition, he conceded in one interview that he might run for President if the Libyan people insisted.

Admittedly the parallels only go so far. Sisi had the Egyptian Deep State behind him; over 40 years Qadhafi destroyed any power center that might threaten him; the anarchy since his fall attests to that.

But Haftar does seem to have tapped into a yearning for order. In just the past day, much of the Air Force, air defense forces, Navy, and the Intelligence service and at least some of the Interior Ministry have rallied to Haftar's "Operation Karama."

24 Asian Ambassadors Meet with One of the Two Egyptian Candidates.(Hint: Not Hamdeen Sabbahi)

(Ex-) Field Marshal Sisi's Campaign has reported that the (ex-) Defense Minister has met with 24 Asian Ambassadors. I'm too lazy to count Asian countries, but it would appear that two dozen diplomats, who must be most of them, chose to meet with a technically unemployed retired Army officer. Now, admittedly the press keeps using terms like "President Sisi" in headlines and perhaps the diplomats were just confused. The elections start June 26 and June 27. If neither candidate wins a majority (why are you laughing?), a second round will be held in June (really, the laughter is distracting) and only then will Sisi one of the two candidates become President. Stop that giggling.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What a Truce Looks Like in Homs

Over 10 days ago I already noted the state of Homs after the truce by citing Tacitus' "Where they make a desert, they call it peace," in my post Homs: "Ubi Solitudinem Faciunt, Pacem Appellant."

This appalling picture draws this comment from Human Rights Watch:" "Hiroshima after the bomb? Dresden after the firestorm? No, Homs today."

More Newly Available Online Resources

Two recent pieces of good news for researching online:

From a Shahnameh (British Library)
The British Library has announced that it has uploaded 15,000 images from Persian manuscripts  in its collection. Go to Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts to access.

And the Dutch Institute for the Near East is digitizing its out-of-print backlist and making them available online. At least so far it's all the Ancient Near East. A few titles are in Dutch but the bulk are in French or English.

More and more material for the Ancient Near East is turning up online. I've noted in the past that the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago is particularly generous in this respect. The massive 21-volume Chicago Assyrian Dictionary can grace your bookshelves if you have a couple of thousand dollars to spare, or it can grace your computer for nothing at all if you're patient enough to download the PDFs here. Ditto the Demotic Dictionary for Demotic Egyptian, only completed recently And you might as well download  a Demotic grammar while you're at it, before rubbing elbows with the Ptolemies..

Sisi Wins Over 90% of Overseas Vote as Campaign Nears End

Field Marshal Sisi reportedly won 90% or more of the vote among Egyptians abroad, according to preliminary numbers cited by Ahram Online. Some places supposedly reached 97% or more (97.6% in Los Angeles, 96.1% in New York, but squeaking by with a mere 92.8% here in DC. Asia is less enthusiastic: a mere 75.8% in Beijing (spelled Peking in the link) and 76.9% in Manila.

Not quite the 99% claims of the Nasser era, but of course here are two candidates today, and somebody had to vote for Hamdeen Sabbahi. Sill, slightly less inflated figures might inspire more confidence in the results. UPDATE: I must start having my 8th grade daughter vet the math. Ahram Online  says the New York results were "New York, USA: El-Sisi 96.1% (8987), Sabahi 8.9% (362)." 96.1%+8.9% = 105%.  Saddam Hussein once claimed 100% and Nasser may have had at least one 99%, but even they never got 105% turnouts.

Nor did this help inspire trust: the website Rasd (admittedly sympathetic to if not run by the Muslim Brotherhood), discovered that Al-Masry al-Yawm (a privately-owned daily but very pro-Sisi) reusing a photo from the 2012 elections showing Egyptians lining up to vote (note the boxed dates):
Not that the numbers matter, since everyone assumes Sisi will win. Give Hamdeen Sabbahi credit: while Sisi's campaign has mostly consisted of TV interviews and press conferences (and a lack of details about his platform), Sabbahi has actually been campaigning around the country. But even he seems resigned to the inevitable.

One person who isn't, or at least seems trying to convince himself, is Omar Kamel in this blogpost: "Sabbahi, the Next President of Egypt?"  His conspiracy theory is essentially that the Army wanted to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood and let Morsi serve for a year, screw things up, and destroy the Brotherhood's credibility. He claims the Army might let Sabbahi win in order to discredit the Nasserist/Leftist opposition as they did the Brotherhood. Huh?

The first proposition, that the Army wanted Morsi to fail, is quite likely true. But the Brotherhood was nationwide and had  national support network that could challenge the state apparatus; it carried Upper Egypt easily. The Nasserist/Leftist opposition is mostly limited to faculty clubs, sections of the Bar Association, and the salons of Zamalek. If the Egyptian Army is scared of those guys,  I hope no one invades Egypt. It's a diverting theory, but keep your money on Sisi.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Is the Momentum Shifting to General Haftar?

Since my post earlier today the momentum seems to be shifting, with support for General Haftar's movement growing. The air base in Tobruk, which joined Haftar's movement earlier, was followed by the Special Forces Commander in Benghazi, and more recently, the Thuwar Fashloom militia(Revolutionaries of Fashloom, a southern suburb of Tripoli) in Tripoli.

Meanwhile the interim Libyan Cabinet suggested that the General National Congress, the Parliament, should suspend itself until after new elections. Haftar has demanded it be replaced by a constituent assembly to prepare a constitution.

Internationally, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey have pulled out their diplomats for security; the US is positioning Marines in Sicily if needed; and Algeria has recalled SONATRACH (Algeria's stat oil company) workers from Libyan oilfields, and also closed its land borders.

The US has also announced it is sending veteran diplomat David Satterfield to offer to help political reconciliation.

The interim government seems to have lost ground today with more defections to what Haftar has called "Operation Karama (Dignity)" and the spreading international concern. Those who laughed at his fizzled "coup" in February (including me) are not laughing now.

Confusion Spreads in Libya after Parliament Attack

Yesterday's attack on the Parliament building in Tripoli by militias from the northwestern city of Zintan appears to have spread a version of the clashes which broke out Friday in Benghazi, since the Zintan forces apparently have aligned themselves with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who led the attacks in the east. The government in turn has called out Islamist militias to defend against the anti-Islamist rebels, threatening a broader secular vs. Islamist civil conflict. Libya has lacked a stong central government since the fall of Qadhafi, and Haftar claims he wants to remedy that, but the recognized government insists he is staging a coup. Meanwhile the Tobruk Air Force base has openly backed Haftar, while the government has declared a no-fly zone around Benghazi (*apparently aimed at its own air force).

In addition to the longstanding rumors about alleged links between Haftar and the CIA, which I noted in my post on Friday, you can add rumors that he is being supported by Egypt. (Also see here.)

It's probably too soon to make sense out of the chaotic events, let alone the rumors and accusations. But it seems fairly clear that  the sort of low-level disorder (with militias calling the shots, regular kidnappings and violence) that have characterized Libya since 2011 have escalated into more open civil conflict, and that, given the role of jihadi groups in Libya, the Egyptian government could find itself drawn in if it has not been involved already. There are also reports that Algeria, which has closed its land borders with Libya, may be considering intervention.

This Headline Does Not Mean What it Seems to Mean

No, Saudi Arabia is still a Kingdom. This refers to expatriate Egyptians working in KSA voting absentee for Sisi their choice for President.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Who is General Khalifa Haftar? And Is (or Was) He America's Man in Libya?

Gen. Khalifa Haftar (Wikipedia)
The man who led the attack on Islamist militias in Benghazi today, former (or perhaps just renegade)  Lieutenant General Khalifa Haftar, is an enigmatic figure who played an important role in the fight against Qadhafi. (His name is variously transliterated as Haftar, Hifter, and even Hefter. I'm sticking with Haftar as that's what this blog has been using in the past.)

Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is a member of the Farjani tribe, and around 65 years old. In the 1980s, as an officer in the Libyan Army, Qadhafi named him as commander of Libyan forces in Chad. He was captured at the Battle of Wadi Doum in 1987, and Qadhafi, who denied Libyan troops were in Chad, disowned the captives. This turned him against Qadhafi. There are conflicting reports as to  whether he was jailed in Libya or remained in Chad,  In Chad and joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) in 1988, and created its military wing, the Libyan National Army (LNA). They operated in Chad with the blessings of Chadian President Hissene Habre. When Habre was overthrown by Idriss Deby in 1990, the LNA moved to Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

He subsequently moved to the United States, reportedly with some LNA fighters. The 20 years of exile Haftar spent in the United States gave rise to much speculation that the LNA was receiving support and funding from the CIA. It is frequently pointed out that during that time he lived in the DC suburb of Vienna, Virginia.

It doesn't prove anything, but those of us who live in Northern Virginia are well aware that Vienna, which is just a few miles west of CIA headquarters in Langley, is a popular bedroom community for mid-level CIA employees. During this period the LNA reportedly kept a Virginia postal address.

Newsweek, July 20, 1981
Let's say that the LNA's funding, or the exact mechanism by which Haftar and 300 fighters were moved from Zaire to Kenya and then the US, remains somewhat unclear,  and you may draw your own conclusions. If you choose to believe he lived for 20 years up the road from the CIA, opposing Qadhafi at a time when the latter was labeled the most dangerous man in the world (right) and somehow he never had links with the CIA, go right ahead and believe that.

In March of 2011, after the outbreak of fighting against Qadhafi, Haftar returned to Libya, and quickly was named to a senior command in the rebel army. many reports suggested that he was the US candidate to lead the rebellion, perhaps due to his opposition to Islamist groups in the rebel coalition. Initially a spokesman claimed he was named the overall rebel military commander but subsequently it was clarified that he had he third-ranking post, Commander of Land Forces. He was given the rank of Lieutenant General. He reportedly built up excellent  contacts in eastern Libya from that time, and is also given much credit

Some time after the defeat of Qadhafi, Haftar apparently retired, though it's not clear when exactly; when he called for a coup in February of this year, he government said he was retired but he seemed to think he was still active.

Then, on Valentine's day this year, came the Haftar "coup" in which Haftar posted an online video declaring that "the national command of the Libyan Army is declaring a movement for a new road map," and proclaiming the suspension of Parliament. The military stayed in its barracks and the whole thing became a laughingstock. This blog quipped "Libya:What if They Gave a Coup and Nobody Came? And this made the rounds: "Haftar announces an inqilab," punning on the fact that inqilab, the Arabic word for a coup, has as its root mening "turning over."

The government ordered Haftar's arrest, but given the chaotic situation in Libya he remained free, and today he demonstrated that he can indeed deploy troops and at least one Air Force aircraft.

During the February incident Haftar explicitly said it was not a coup and rejected military rule. For Arabic speakers, here's the February video:

Today's events suggest Haftar is still a man to be reckoned with. Is he still (if he really ever was) America's man in Libya? Or is he just a loose cannon? Note that today his troops attacked some of the same Islamist militias in Benghazi accused of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Payback?

Some of the  sources used for this post:

Wikipedia, Khalifa Belqasim Haftar

Bashie El-Baker, Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 28, 2011: Libya's New Generals (I): Conflicting Loyalties. Part I: Khalifa Haftar, Washington's Wager.

Brian Todd, Tim Lister and Katie Glaeser, CNN, April 4, 2011:Khalifa Haftar: The man who left Virginia to lead Libya's rebels.

Reuters, April 1, 2011: Rebel army chief is veteran Gaddafi foe--think-tank  (Summarizing a Jamestown Foundation study which is only available to subscribers.)

Heavy Fighting in Benghazi as Rogue General Attacks Militias

 Libya has been increasingly chaotic lately, struggling to elect and install its fifth Prime Minister since the fall of Qadhafi, but now things have taken a dramatic turn.

Veneral Khalifa Haftar (also spelled Hifter), who in February called for a coup and drew no support (and much derision), has launched a military assault against the two Islamist militias controlling the eastern city of Benghazi.The troops he is commanding appear to come from the national Army, and Air Force aircraft have reportedly been bombing militia positions. The Chief of Staff in Tripoli has denounced this as a coup attempt and illegitimate, but local Army forces in Benghazi may be participating.

At this moment the situation is extremely confused, but it seems clear that whether Haftar or the militias win, or reach a stalemate, the fighting underscores the inability of the General National Congress and Cabinet in Tripoli to control events in the east. When Haftar's February call for a coup fizzled, the government ordered his arrest. Not only is he not under arrest, he now seems to have troops and aircraft.

Is this a coup or a split in the army, or something else? Nothing is very clear yet.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Nakba Day: The Palestine Mandate Ended on this Date in 1948

The British Mandate over Palestine ended on May 15, 1948, 66 years ago today. As the British withdrew, the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan (now Jordan) and Iraq prepared to enter the territory, transforming what had been a conflict between the Jewish Yishuv and Palestinian Arabs into an international conflict, the first Arab-Israeli War. (Lebanon only participated in border skirmishes.) It is a day Palestinians still mark as Nakba (Catastrophe) Day.

Since, in 1948, May 15 fell on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, the leadership of the Jewish Yishuv declared the independence of the State Israel the previous afternoon, May 14. Further confusing matters is the fact that Israel celebrates its Independence Day (Yom Ha-Atzma'ut), according to the Jewish calendar, on the 5th of Iyar. So given the different calendars, the Israeli celebrations and Palestinian commemoration can fall several weeks apart; Israeli Independence Day fell on May 6 this year.

The Major Saudi Defense Reshuffle

Yesterday, despite coming during the first consultative meetings of the GCC's Joint Defense Council and a visit by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel, Saudi Arabia carried out a major reshuffle of its defense establishment, including new faces in the posts of the Deputy Defense Minister, Assistant Defense Minister, Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff, and commanders of the Army and Navy,

A new Governor of Riyadh was also appointed as part of the reshuffle. See Arab News and Saudi Gazette reports at the links.

The extent of the reshuffle and its timing are unusual, although it comes in the wake of other senior recent reshuffles, including the retirement of Prince Bandar bin Sultan as Head of Intelligence, and the appointment of Prince Muqrin as second in line to the throne.

Simon Henderson at WINEP suggests that all the reshuffles may be related to succession to the throne when 90-year old King ‘Abdullah leaves the scene.

Deputy Minister of Defense: Prince Khaslid bin Bandar replaces Prince Salman bin Sultan, who had served less than a yearr/. Khalid is a former Land Forces commander who had been serving as Governor of Riyadh, in which post he will be replaced by his deputy, Turki bin ‘Abdullah, the King's son.

Assistant Minister of Defense: Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah al-‘Aysh was named.

Chief of General Staff: Gen. Husayn al-Qabil has retired, eplaced by his Deputy, Lt. Gen.‘Abd al-Rahman al-Bunyan, promoted full general..

Deputy Chief of General Staff: With Bunyan's promotion, the new Deputy Chief of Staff is Lt.Gen.Fayyad al-Ruwaili, previously Air Force Commander.,

Air Force Commander: Replacing Gen. Ruwaili as Air Force Chief is his Deputy, Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Sha‘lan, promoted to Lt. Gen.

Navy Commander:‘ Vice Admiral Dakhilallah al-Waqadani has been retired by his Deputy, Rear Admiral ‘Abdullah bin Sultan, promoted to Vice Admiral.

Good News for Dog Lovers: Former Mufti Says "Dogs Are Not Impure"

 Via Egyptian Streets: "Dogs are not impure, says prominent Islamic scholar."

Traditionally, dogs have been seen as unclean and impure, with Islamic thinkers warning Muslims to avoid contact with the loyal animals.

Despite the Prophet Muhammad’s kindness to animals, including notable stories of the Prophet caring for puppies, it has often been considered that dogs are unclean and are incompatible with those that practice Islam.

Yet, a new fatwa by Egypt’s former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa challenges this traditional view, stating that there is a misconception about dogs being impure and ritually unclean (najis).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Will Erdoğan Pay a Political Price for Tone-Deaf "Accidents Happen" Remarks on Soma?

The horrific coal mine disaster at Soma in Turkey was not caused by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But his response to it (essentially "accidents will happen"and then citing 19th century examples in Victorian England and America), seemed to provoke a firestorm of criticism, and booing of the PM on his visit to Soma. Demonstrations have now spread throughout Turkey. At a time when the country is shocked and morning, Erdoğan's words seem completely off-key:
“I went back in British history. Some 204 people died there after a mine collapsed in 1838. In 1866, 361 miners died in Britain. In an explosion in 1894, 290 people died there,” Erdoğan said on a visit to the grieving town of Soma.

“Take America with all of its technology and everything ... In 1907, 361 [miners died there],” he added. “These are usual things.”
1838? 1866? 1894? Things were bad in Dickensian workhouses too, but they aren't usually used to defend contemporary working conditions. Yes, I know Hurriyet Daily News  is an opposition newspaper, but no one is denying he said it.

Adding insult to injury, this photo is said to show an aide or bodyguard of the Prime Minister kicking a protesting relative of a dead or missing miner:

Lending credibility to the tale is another photo showing the same man wearing apparently the same tie, walking with Erdoğan.   Social media are saying he's a senior aide. UPDATE: He's Yusuf Yerkel, a Deputy Chief of Staff in the PM's office.

Kicking a mourner.

I don't claim to be an expert on Turkish politics, but if Erdoğan encounters obstacles on his route to becoming President in a more powerful Presidential system,  this might be the reason. Here's video of the unusual Soma booing and attacks on his car in Soma today. (Yes, it's from Russia Today, but it's in English.)


The Endangered South Arabian Languages of Oman and Yemen

This may be my only post today, but it's a very long one on a complex subject, and with a lot of links.

In March, the irregular Exploring Oman's Linguistic Treasures blog had a post, "The Harsusi Language in Oman: Another Treasure Slipping Away?" This is as good a reason as any to do a major post on the surviving pockets of Modern South Arabian languages, spoken in Oman and Yemen and in some Gulf diasporas of their peoples.

I realize the vast majority of my readers have never heard of Harsusi, or probably of Hobyot or Bat'hari either, but they are real, living, if endangered languages of Oman (with Hobyot extending into Yemen). Along with the Soqotri and the much healthier and widely spoken Mehri (or Mahri) and Shehri (or Shahri or Jebali/Jibbali/Jibali) in Oman, these are the surviving Modern South Arabian languages, . They are quite distinct from Arabic, and are usually classed as part of the Southern Semitic subgroup of Afro-Asiatic, while Arabic is more closely related to Northwest Semitic. Even if you've never heard of these six languages, this post will not only make sure you hear of them, but will give you a chance to actually hear three of them.

A seventh language may deserve inclusion. Razihi, spoken in the Jabal Razih in the extreme north of Yemen, is sometimes classified as the only direct survivor of Old South Arabian, rather than as Modern South Arabian. UNESCO lists it as an endangered language, but others consider it an Arabic variant; Ethnologue doesn't list it.

The Modern South Arabian languages have many affinities with the Ethiopic languages, including Classical Ge'ez and Amharic, but they are also distinct. Though it was long assumed the Modern South Arabian languages were descended from Old South Arabian, some linguists say they are distinct even there; I'm not qualified to judge.

Let's start with some maps from Wikipedia and the language reference site Ethnologue.com:



Endangered languages are a key issue in the 21st century. This may be, for example, the fatal century for Native North American languages. Of 3000 or more languages spoken when Columbus landed, only about 175-200 survived at the turn of the 21st century, mostly in Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii. In the "lower 48" US states, the scene is bleak, except for Navajo, Cherokee, and Cree. In 1997 it was estimated that 55 languages in North America had between one and six native speakers. That was 17 years ago, and many of those are likely now extinct.

Linguists around the world are racing to record endangered languages before the last native speaker dies. Today we usually know even their names. Ned Mandrel, the last native speaker of Manx, died December 27, 1974. Wikipedia lists close to a dozen languages that have only one living native speaker. 

And UNESCO says that one half of some 6000 languages in the world today will be extinct by the end of the century.
When any language dies, a part of its culture is lost; not everything translates. When a written language dies, it doesn't die forever; there are still web pages published in Latin, and we have learned to read Ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic and even Linear B Mycenean Greek again, awakening long silenced voices. Even Mayan is now re-emerging. There are efforts to revive Manx and Cornish, and many on the Isle of Man and in Cornwall are learning them, but they are not native speakers and it will never be their first language.

The Middle East, of course has seen what is as far as I know the only example of a language that once had no native speakers not just revive but become a language which is the only language of many: Hebrew. But it's a unique case: it was always the liturgical language of Jews everywhere,a nd Israel was created from immigrants whose first languages were as different as Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic and many others. Israeli Hebrew is not just an exception; so far it's the only exception.

Some languages that once seemed moribund like Irish, Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Provencal etc. have had a new lease on life, while others that once were endangered by a dominant language have strongly rebounded (notably Catalan and at least up to now, Ukrainian). In the Middle East, Amazigh (Berber)  has been one of the big winners in the Libyan and Tunisian revolutions; if "Arab Spring" has withered, "Berber Spring" survives. Kurdish has always held on, and Aramaic continues to survive. But (with asterisks on Amazigh) those are all written languages.

But when an unwritten language dies, its words are gone forever, except what anthropologists or explorers may have written down. All of the Modern South Arabian languages (unlike Old South Arabian), lacked a writing system, though Arabic, English transliteration systems, and the International Phonetic Alphabet have been used to record them. This is a disadvantage.

Though the largest of the surviving South Arabian languages, Mehri, has over 100,000 speakers, all of them are endangered. As with Native American and other minority indigenous languages, as rural, mountain, or nomadic peoples move to the cities, or as central governments provide schooling, there is great pressure to adopt the dominant language to succeed. The younger generation are likely to prefer Arabic, and literacy is only possible in Arabic. All the languages are already heavily influenced by Arabic vocabulary.

Before providing some comments and examples of the six Modern South Arabian languages, here are some resources dealing with them as a group:
Except for Soqotri, separated by sea from the others, there is reportedly some mutual comprehensibility among these languages.
For the individual languages themselves  many of the published grammars and such are published by E.J. Brill or other high-end publishers and are only found in specialist libraries. Leaving aside the uncertain case of Razihi, mentioned above, here are brief descriptions for he other six, along with estimates of the number of speakers from 1) UNESCO, 2) Ethnologue, the language reference work by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (a Christian missionary endeavor),  3) the SOAS Endangered Languages Archive cited earlier, and 4) Wikipedia. I also include related links,  and videos where I found them. I am taking the languages alphabetically.


One of the most endangered is Bat'hari, spoken by a few hundred fishermen along the Bay of Khuriya Muria on the coast of Oman. UNESCO  estimates 300 speakers, Ethnologue 200, and Wikipedia "about 200." SOAS gives no estimate.


Spoken in the Jiddat al-Harasis area of Central Oman. Estimates of speakers vary dramatically: UNESCO says 3000 in 1996, 3500-4000 today, both based on fieldwork by Dawn Chatty; Ethnologue says 600; SOAS says between 600-1000; Wikipedia says 1000-2000.

Some further reading on Harsusi:
Hobyot (or Hobyót)

Hobyot is spoken on either side of the Yemen-Oman border. It may have fewer than 100 speakers today. UNESCO puts it at 400; Ethnologue says 100 in Oman, not citing Yemeni figures; SOAS says under 1000; Wikipedia says 100 in Oman.

Jibbali/Jibali/Jebali or Shehri/Shahri

The two sets of names are respectively from the Arabic and Shehri words meaning "of the mountains." The second largest of the Omani South Arabian languages, Jibbali or Shehri is spoken in several areas off Dhofar, including the capital Salalah, and on the Khuria Muria islands. UNESCO, Ethnologue, and Wikipedia all put the number of speakers at 25,000, based on the 1993 (21 years ago!) Omani census, while SOAS puts it at 30,000, and the previously cited blogger Susan Al Shahri, a Dhofari whose name is the same as the language, says
Contrary to what our ever-so-useful Wikipedia says, general consensus seems to be that Shahri (Jebbali) is spoken by approximately 50,000 or more Dhofaris from mountain tribes as well as a large number of individuals from town tribes. Mahri is also spoken by a decent percentage of the Bedouin population of Dhofar.
Other materials on Jibaali/Shehri: Lameen Souag, "Plural-Breaking in the Mountains of Oman."
The two videos below show general scenes of Oman (not just Dhofar, but the background audio is recordings of Jibbali speakers, including a recitation of numbers.


Mehri, or Mahri, is by far the most widely spoken of the surviving South Arabian languages, and by dar the most studied. Though unwritten historically, it has a rich poetic tradition (see songs below). It is spoke on the coast and inland in the Mahra Province of eastern Yemen and in Dhofar in Oman. UNESCO puts its speakers at 100,000; Ethnologue at 115,200, of whom 50,000 are in Yemen and the rest in Oman; SOAS estimates 180,000; and Wikipedia gives 120,000.

Lameen Souag has noted in "Why They Thought Berbers Came From Yemen" a tradition in Arabic that Berber and Mehri were linked due to some common features not shared by Arabic. Though both part of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages, Mehri belongs to  the Semitic group, not the Berber.

Some Mehri songs:


Last alphabetically but no means least is Soqotri.  It is spoken on the Yemeni island of Soqotra in the Yemeni island of Soqotra, and while is second only to Mehri in number of speakers, being hundreds of miles from the others and insular, there is said to be no mutual comprehensibility with the other languages.

UNESCO says 50,000 speakers; http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/en/atlasmap/language-id-1949; Ethnologue 64,000 overall, 57,000 in Yemen; and Wikipedia 64,500. SOAS does not appear to have an entry for it.

Soqotri Poems:

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Apparently Ahram Didn't Mean This Headline Ironically: "As Long as the Army is Good, Egypt is Good -- El Sisi"

 Older Americans may remember "what's good for General Motors is Good for the United States." But Ahram Online,  a state-run site, presumably actually meant this: "As Long as the Army is Good, Egypt is Good -- El Sisi."

Not, I fear, meant ironically.

Aswany on Belly-Dancing in Egypt Today for NYT

Alaa Al Aswany, the novelist (The Yacoubian Building) and critic, has a piece at The New York Times on attitudes towards belly dancing in Egypt today. Much of what he says is familiar ground: despite socil disapproval it is highly popular. He cites the famous Tahia Carioca (see my posts here and here for videos)

He notes:
In just one recent month, a video by the Egyptian-Armenian dancer Safinaz was viewed by Egyptians more than four million times. The Lebanese star Haifa Wehbe’s dance video got more than 10 million hits. Oriental dance evidently provides light relief from the general state of tension, but there is more to it.
Oriental dance has always been controversial in Egyptian culture. Egyptians love belly dancing, as it is commonly known in the West. Tahia Carioca, a legendary belly dancer, declared to the newspaper Al Hayat in 1994, “Go to any wedding party and once the music starts up, you’ll see all the girls in the family suddenly get to their feet and dance like crazy.”
The NYT may provide "All the News That's Fit to Print," but it didn't post the videos. Where the NYT fails, I step in. I believe the Haifa Wehbe video is this one (the movie from which it comes, Halawet Rouh, is banned in Egypt at the moment (the censors cleared it vut the PM stepped in), doubtless fueling the popularity of the video:

I'm less confident about which Safinaz video he's referring to, as there are many this year to choose from, but I rather suspect it may be this one, which is, shall we say, one where her, um, bouncy parts, are very bouncy:

Syrian MiG-21 Dropping its Bomb Near the Cameraman

Ealier I posted a Syrian rebel video of what it's like to be on the receiving end of a Syrian Mig-29 strafing you with its cannon.

Via the same website, here's a glimpse of what it's like when the cameraman is the target of a regime MiG-21 on a bomb run.

Monday, May 12, 2014

What is This Campaign Photo Trying to Say?

I really don't know what to make of some of the photos of Sisi being posted by his campaign. Is that a computer screen or a television? If a computer, where's the mouse? (Admittedly, he might be left-handed.) But in any event, he watches or surfs with his hands folded? If the message is that he's tech savvy or something it doesn't come through to me.

The sign behind him carries his campaign slogan, تحيا مصر, ("Long Live Egypt") and then repeats it over and over again. Sisi's TV interviews and speeches so far are pretty vague about how he would fix the economy or most of Egypt's other endemic problems, but this poster endlessly repeating "Long Live Egypt" may pretty well sum up the specifics of his campaign so far.

Sisi will likely stroll to victory; an online poll that recently put him only 4% ahead of Hamdeen Sabahi does not, I suspect, reflect reality so much as the fact that the sort of people who respond to online polls are likely to be young, tech savvy, and disillusioned with the increasingly eroded outcome of the "Revolution." A case in point: the latest Metro Map reinstates the name "Mubarak" for the stop near Ramses Station; after the 2011 uprising, it had been renamed "Martyrs" (shuhada').

Rare Photos of Late Ottoman Palestine

From The Times of Israel: "The Beauty of Ottoman Palestine, Lovingly Explored and Documented."

It's about a collection of early 20th century photographs held by the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology (DEIAHL) and taken by its first director, Gustaf Dalman. The article reproduces quite a few of them, some of which have been hand-colored. For the nostalgia and history buffs.

Headline of the Day: "Jumblatt Welcomes Clooney to Druze Community"

The inimitable Walid Jumblatt produced the headline above in Beirut's Daily Star, citing a report in The Weekly Standard, whose own headline was good as well: "But is it Good for the Druze?" In that Lee Smith article, Jumblatt is quoted as saying in an email, "“Tell me when George Clooney will be coming to Lebanon so I can greet him in Moukhtara. I will bring a delegation of Druze sheikhs,' Jumblatt gushed. 'As for Amal Alamuddin, well, she is lucky.'"

As most of you not currently in a coma probably know, actor George Clooney is planning to marry Lebanese-born, British-based attorney Amal Alamuddin, who is of Druze origin.

A Sisi Booster Who Has All the Bases Covered

This gentleman, recently photographed at an Egyptian rally supporting Field Marshal al-Sisi, really seems to have covered all the bases:
  • Shirt with Egyptian flag and Eagle of Saladin. Check.
  • Round shield-like object covered with Sisi pictures. Check. 
  • Holding Qur'an in right hand. Check.
  • Holding Christian cross adorned with picture of Coptic Pope in left hand. Check.
  • Scale model of Army tank perched atop head.  Of course, doesn't everybody?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Homs: "Ubi Solitudinem Faciunt, Pacem Appellant."

"Where they make a desert, they call it peace."
— Tacitus, Agricola

Civilians are re-entering the Old City of Homs after the truce and the evacuation of rebel forces. It will be claimed as a victory by the Syrian regime and certainly be welcomed by the civilian populace whatever their allegiance, but at huge cost.

It may take some time to fully count the cost. This ancient city, dating back to Seleucid times (as Emesa), has borne the brunt of fighting for some time now. The Old City has been under government siege since the beginning of the year and has reportedly been devastated.

The human loss is devastating, but the losses to Syrian heritage are also tragic. As early as 2011 I noted that the great mosque-mausoleum of Khalid ibn al-Walid had been damaged by artillery.

2011 Damage to Mosque of Khalid ibn al-Walid
Khalid, the great general of the Arab Conquests who became known as "the Sword of God," took Homs in AD 637 and was buried there. t is claimed that Homs was the first city in Syria to become majority Muslim. (His present mosque, which contains his grave, dates from the late Ottoman period, but is a gem of Ottoman architecture. Or was.)

This video shows the main body of the mosque-mausoleum under artillery fire in 2013:

Each side blamed the other. Here's a 2013 Free Syrian Army video of some of the damage.
I suspect that as more photos and videos emerge from Homs, we'll have a clearer idea of the extent of the damage to heritage sites, which have also suffered heavily in Aleppo, Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers, and elsewhere.

Conspiracy Theories Run Wild: Did :"The Simpsons" Plan the Syrian Civil War in 2001?

Sometimes it seems the more outrageous a conspiracy theory, the more quickly it spreads. Egypt is sometimes the epicenter; the idea that the Arab Spring revolts were an outside plot (usually attributed to the US and/or Israel but sometimes including such improbable allies as Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Shi‘ites, not to mention the Freemasons).

But now it has all become clear: it was The Simpsons all along.

Yes, the TV cartoon show.You may have already read about this: it's made the NYT Blog, and here are stories from Egypt Independent and Al-Arabiya.

The Egyptian TV channel Tahrir anchor noted that in a 2001 Simpson's episode, Bart Simpson's boy band makes a music video called "Drop da Bomb" in which they are shown bombing an unnamed Arab country, and the Arab soldiers shown, looking rather generic, have a flag on their vehicle:
As the anchor noted:
“The flag that appeared on the vehicle on which the bombs were dropped is the flag of the Syrian opposition. This is from 2001 – before the existence of the ‘Syrian opposition,"
So, presumably the CIA or someone uses The Simpsons to send messages, and in 2001 sent out the design for a flag that wasn't created until 10 years later. That makes perfect sense.

Now, as Robert Mackey noted for the NYT (linked above), the song references "Saddam," so the idea that it was a sloppy attempt to suggest the Iraqi flag, or a generic Arab flag, seems reasonable. And the idea that the Syrian opposition flag "did not exist" yet in 2001 isn't true; like the Libyans before them, the Syrian rebels chose the original independence era flag, the green-white-black tricolor was the Syrian flag from 1945-1958, though I doubt if The Simpsons knew that; apparently the TV anchor didn't. Note too that the 2001 broadcast was before 9/11.

Here's the smoking gun itself:


So it seems to me there are two possible explanations. Sharpen your Occam's Razor and choose:
  1. It was a generic Arab flag but probably intended to suggest Saddam's Iraq. Its similarity to the Syrian Independence flag is a coincidence. It's a fucking satirical cartoon.
  2. The CIA (or perhaps Bart Simpson) planned the Arab Spring a full 10 years ahead of time, including the flag of the Syrian opposition, and used its normal operationally secure means of spreading the secret: broadcasting it openly on an internationally distributed TV show.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

69 Years Ago Today: The Sétif Massacre in Algeria

Sixty-nine years ago today, on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany formally surrendered. In French-ruled Algeria, a Muslim march celebrating the victory in the town of Sétif near Constantine also displayed banners critical of colonialism and supporting independence. The marchers came into conflict with local gendarmes; while France  and Algerian Muslims would dispute who fired first, the clashes worsened and spread to the nearby town of Guelma. Algerian Muslims began attacking French colons in the streets, and the settler pieds noirs fought back. Over a hundred Europeans died in a five-day period, after which France struck back hard, using troops, aerial bombing, and even naval shelling. There were systematic killings and vigilante actions as well. Though the French claimed 1,020 deaths in toto, most estimates place the actual death toll several times higher, many of them villagers unconnected to the original clashes..

As Mohammed Harbi notes in a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique marking the 60th anniversary in 2005:
There were many repercussions: any hopes of a deal between the Algerian people and the European colony were off. In France the political forces of the wartime resistance movement failed their first test on decolonisation, allowing themselves to be taken over by the pro-colonial party. The architect of the repressive measures, General Duval, warned: “I have secured you peace for 10 years. If France does nothing, it will all happen again, only next time it will be worse and may well be irreparable."
In fact, he had bought only nine years; it was indeed worse, and indeed irreparable. On November 1, 1954 (All Saint's Day, later known as Toussaint Rouge) the Algerians rose up in the bloody war that led to independence in 1962.

Sétif was conveniently forgotten in France, but it became  major inflammatory moment in the growth of Algerian nationalism, sometimes described in Algerian revolutionary rhetoric as a "genocide."