A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 29, 2016

Thoughts on the Iranian Elections

I don't claim great expertise on Iran, and I fully recognize the limitations of Iranian democracy, where the Council of Guardians can bar candidates from the ballot. I acknowledge the limitations of terms like "moderates" or "reformists" when applied to Iran. Nonetheless, the success of pragmatists and supporters of President Rouhani is a welcome sign. 

All 30 seats in Tehran went to pragmatists. Of potentially greater importance, centrists did well in the elections to the Assembly of Experts, which will choose the successor to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Among those defeated were the extreme conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and the Assembly's incumbent chairman, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who defeated former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani for the leadership in the last round of elections. Rouhani and Rafsanjani were among the biggest winners for the Assembly this time around.

See also Juan Cole's take on the elections.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Youssef Nabil's "I Saved My Belly Dancer": An Homage to the Golden Age with Salma Hayek

The Golden Age of Egyptian belly dancing, say from the 1930s to the 1960s, has been an occasional subject of this blog; from the era of Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal to that of Nagwa Fouad and Fifi Abdou. Islamists and state puritanism have soured the art and reduced it to a bump-and-grind shadow of itself at its artistic peak.
Egyptian artist and photographer Youssef Nabil has evoked the period in a series of photographs and a video entitled "I Saved My Belly Dancer." A selection of photos here, and articles reviewing it here and here. To add to the appeal, the photos and the video star actress Salma Hayek. The Mexican actress is, of course, of Arab ancestry as her name reveals.

It's artsy and the Western theme seems a bit forced. The full video doesn't appear to be online, but a four minute excerpt is below. That is, for those who are still reading and didn't just jump to the video when they read the words "Salma Hayek."

Gary Sick: "A Plague of Black Swans"

I'm swamped right now with the day job, so let me recommend Gary Sick, "A Plague of Black Swans in the Middle East."

Tomorrow we have the Iranian elections, Gary's area of expertise, and Syria is evolving rapidly, so it's worth a read.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Harsh Realities on the Ground in Syria

I'm going to begin a series of posts about the military realities on the round in Syria: not what we would like to see in terms of policy, but what we are likely to see in terms of fact on the ground. I increasingly fear, whether the ceasefire takes effect or not, the US is increasingly falling victim to an old, bad habit of focusing on our hoped-for policy goals rather than what is actually happening. We have a bad habit, from Vietnam to Iraqi WMD, of policymakers skewing and cherrypicking intelligence to favor a specific policy even if the intel does not support that policy.

I am no defender of the Asad regime, which is murderous, but it is winning. If the US-Russian ceasefire actually happens, it won't change that reality. It may delay (or buy time) but it will not change the fact that Russian intervention has transformed the battlefield. I want to take a hard look at the military realities, strategic goals, and potential outcomes, with as little wishful thinking as possible. Please stay tuned.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Ahmad Naji Case: The Offending Text

Amid the many unpleasant things happening to the arts in Egypt, a recent one is the decision a few days ago by the Bulaq criminal court in Cairo to sentence novelist Ahmad Naji to two years in prison for "publishing obscene sexual content" in the publication Akhbar al-Adab.

Now, in a country attempting to sentence  a four-year-old child to life in prison (though they now say that was a mistake), this may seem mild, but the article in question was an excerpt from a previously published novel, by an "experimental" modem novelist. The novel itself was neither banned nor prosecuted. But the state censors seem to feel that novels have more leeway since no one reads them; a periodical available on newsstands might actually be read by someone. The publisher was also fined.

As a publisher, I despise censorship, and this sort of hypocrisy (the words are fine in a book but deserve a jail term in a literary paper) is even more senseless than most.

The best way to deal with censored material is to publish it. Last month the Arabic Literature (in English) blog published the excerpt translated by Ben Koerber, and I link it here so you can read it yourself.

The article notes that
Specifically, the original accuser complained that his “heartbeat fluctuated and blood pressure dropped” while reading the chapter.
The excerpt won't seem strange to anyone familiar with modern literature: the alienated youth of every novel for the last 60 years since Catcher in the Rye, a Sartrean ennui and world weariness, and the sex and drugs of 60s lit. But in today's Cairo.

Again, the book was published; the excerpt produced the problem. Is this so offensive in a
modern novel?:
In this city, you’ll be lucky if you can get over your sexual tension, and appreciate sex as just one of the many facets of a friendship.  Otherwise, your horniness will make you a testy bitch.  Kiko rubs my back, and I feel a heat between my legs.
This is admittedly much more explicit (potentially NSFW):
I gave her knee a parting kiss, and continued my tongue’s journey up her thigh.  I planted a kiss, soft as a butterfly, on her thinly lined underwear and pulled it away with my hands.  I plunged my tongue into her pussy.  I drank a lot that night.  I drank until I felt thirsty.  I gave her a full ride with my tongue before she took me into her room, where we had slow and leisurely sex.  She turned over, and I put my fingers in her mouth.  Wet with her saliva, I stuck them in her pussy.  Slipping and sliding.  I stuck them in from behind.  I grabbed her short hair and pulled it towards me.  I humped her violently and then lay on top of her for a few seconds.  I got out of bed and threw the condom into the trash.  As I gave her a smile, the phone rang.
OK, strong stuff for a Muslim country, but then why was it OK in a book? If you don't like this sort of thing, don't read it, don't buy it, or even ban the book, but why jail the author?

It seems to me the proper response to censorship is to make the censors work harder: so go read the excerpt and oh yes, Fuck Censorship.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sabratha's Long History

Today's US airstrike against ISIS at Sabratha in Libya offers an opportunity to note the deep history of this Libyan town. The attack, the US  says, was aimed at an ISIS training camp and particularly targeted Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian terrorist accused of plotting the attacks on the Bardo Museum and the beach at Sousse last year.
Roman theater, Sabratha
Sabratha, in northwestern Libya not far from Tunisia, is  a mid-sized city on the coast. But near the town are the ruins of ancient Sabratha, originally founded by the Phoenicians, later a major Roman city flourishing under the Severan Emperors, who were of Libyan origin.

Founded around 500 BC by the Phoenicians, later under Numidian rule, Sabratha with the arrival of Rome began a rise to become one of the "three cities" (Tripolis) from which Tripolitania would take its name: from west to east Sabratha, Oea (the modern Tripoli), and Leptis Magna.

The Emperor Septimius Severus was from Leptis Magna, and the Tripolis reached its golden age under the ensuing Severan Emperors. In the Byzantine era, Justinian built a basilica there, but after the Arab conquest, trade shifted in favor of Oea, to which the broader name Tripolis (Tarabulus in Arabic), became applied exclusively, and Sabratha to its west and Leptis Magna to its east declined. One result is that the Roman ruins at Sabratha and (especially) at Leptis were better preserved.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, 1923- 2016

In his 93 years, some 70+ of them as a journalist and pundit, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal went through several incarnations, made powerful friends (Nasser), powerful enemies (Sadat), and outlived them all. And then played a major role in recording the history of his times. He was often as controversial as he was prolific. But he remained to the end a major voice in Egypt and the Arab World as a whole as a journalist and author, and in the past decade in a lecture series for Al-Jazeera.

I've known enough of the players in those years to know that many of them felt Heikal's books distorted facts and claimed greater knowledge than he possessed, and they may be right, but he wrote so many books that he may well control the narrative. Most people write only one memoir (Sadat is an exception), but Heikal wrote many. Al-Ahram, which he long edited, remembers him here.

He cut his journalistic teeth covering the Battle of Al-Alamein in 1942; he started out with the English-language Egyptian Gazette. He later moved to the weekly Akher Saa and then to Akhbar al-Yom. He first met Gamal Abdel Nasser during the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, and was with the Free Officers on the night of the 1952 coup.

With Nasser at Al-Ahram
His golden age was the Nasser era. His 17 years as Editor of Al-Ahram (1957-1974), and his reported role as a ghostwriter for Nasser's Philosophy of the Revolution cemented his role as the public interpreter of Nasserism. To some, he was an apologist, though he liked to portray himself as a trusted adviser. He straddled the line between journalism and government.

After Nasser died, Heikal never enjoyed as close a relationship with Sadat. He remained at the helm of Al-Ahram through the 1973 war, but in 1974 Sadat replaced him as Editor. He fell out further over the peace with Israel, and in 1981 Sadat jailed him in a widespread crackdown on his critics. After Sadat's assassination and Heikal's release, he wrote a book, Autumn of Fury (Kharif al-Ghadab), ostensibly about the Sadat assassination but really a scathing treatment of Sadat's whole career, retailing every scurrilous rumor, with or without evidence.  Though the book was banned in Egypt for years, the jailed journalist had his revenge.

Heikal was a frequent critic of Mubarak. He never took a full-time newspaper post again but wrote columns and articles for a variety of papers and magazines across the Arab world. In 2003, at age 80, he announced he was stopping writing. But he continued his commentaries in interviews, two "lecture series" on Al-Jazeera, and after Al-Jazeera became anathema in Egypt, with the Egyptian satellite channel CBC.

Whatever else one may think of Heikal as a reporter, analyst, and commentator, no other Arab journalist enjoyed so long and prominent a career.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

On the Pre-UN Career of Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1922-2016)

Most of the obituaries and appreciations of the late Boutros Boutros-Ghali focus on his 1992-1996 term as Secretary-General. But he should also be remembered for his role as an Egyptian diplomat during the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks in the 1970s.

When Anwar Sadat announced his trip to Jerusalem in 1977, his Foreign Minister, Ismail Fahmy, opposed the initiative and resigned. The number two man at the Foreign Ministry was the Minister of became Acting Foreign Minister, but was not offered the job on a permanent basis, probably because he was a Copt (though his grandfather, Boutros Ghali, had served as Prime Minister in 1908-1910, and who I discussed in a post on the Dinshawai incident a while back). Boutros-Ghali was de facto Foreign Minister through the early months of negotiations.

With Moshe Dayan, 1979
In December 1977 Muhtammad Ibrahim Kamel became Foreign Minister and Boutos-Ghali reverted to the Minister of State role. Kamel and Boutos-Ghali worked together through the negotiations at Camp David in 1978, but Kamel felt the Accords went too far and promptly resigned. Boutros-Ghali again served as Acting Foreign Minister but without the permanent title, until Mustafa Khalil became Foreign Minister in 1979.

Boutros-Ghali would never be Foreign Minister, but he remained a loyal diplomat through the Sadat era and into the Mubarak years. In 1991 he was given the improved title of Deputy Foreign Minister, still short of the ministerial post (again, probably due to an unwillingness to name a Copt), a few months before he was elected to the UN job as Egypt's candidate, arguably an award for his loyalty.

Monday, February 15, 2016

As Turkey, Russia, and the Saudis Teeter at the Brink, an Uncomfortable Coincidence (?)

Today was the President's Day holiday in the US and I normally wouldn't be posting, but want to note something about the rapidly escalating tensions between Turkey and Russia as Turkey (and Saudi Arabia, which has moved troops and aircraft to the Incirlik Air Base near Adana) both threaten to cross the border if the YPG Kurds take the town of A‘zaz along the border, and Turkey has been shelling the Minaq (Menakh) airfield south of A‘zaz for the third straight day, that airfield having been taken by YPG fighters a few days ago. After a day when two hospitals were bombed in A‘zaz (and two more in Idlib), it's easy to come up with nightmare scenarios involving a direct clash between Turkey and Russia. The YPG already controls Tal Rif‘at and the Menakh airfield between that town and A‘zaz.
If you weren't already worried about worst-case scenarios, take a look at the map at left. Imagine a triangle with one side formed by the line from A‘zaz to Tal Rif‘at. And about 20 kilometers to the east, you will find a town called Dabiq.

Sound familiar? You may recognize it from the name of ISIS' English-language magazine, Dabiq. I also did a post back in 2014 on the subject, noting that while the field of Dabiq (Marj Dabiq) near the town was the site of two key battles in 717 and 1516, it also plays a role in Islamic apocalyptic eschatology, as the site of a final apocalyptic battle between the "Romans" and the Muslims, according to a tradition attributed to the Prophet. In a version from the Sahih Muslim: "Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A'maq or in Dabiq" and going on to describe the last battle. Al-A'maq is identified with a valley near Antioch (Antakya) in the Turkish Hatay near the Syrian border.

Both sites were along the dividing line between Byzantium and Islam during the rise of Islam, just as both sites lie along the Syrian-Turkish border today. So it's all just a historical coincidence and not a sign of the imminent apocalypse, surely.

Isn't it?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Egypt's Doctors' Revolt

In what appears to be the largest demonstration since 2013, some 10,000 Egyptian doctors demonstrated outside the Doctors' Syndicate headquarters, demanding action against police accused of attacking two doctors, a nurse, and an administrator inside a hospital in Matariyya.

The growing concern about  police abuses in Egypt in the wake of the death of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni seems to be deepening. Now police abuses have produced a major outpouring of protest, in direct challenge to the virtual ban on demonstrations, not by students or Islamists but by the professional syndicate of one of the most respected professions in Egypt. And the threat of a doctors' strike, especially if carried out, could spread the protests to a broader population.

Others may disagree, but I think this could prove to be the beginning of a new wave of protests as the sense that the police are abusing power begins to spread..

Thursday, February 11, 2016

February 11, 2011: Two Songs for a Lost Revolution

Five years ago today, Husni Mubarak stepped down. Of those days when everything seemed possible I continue to think of Wordsworth's lines about the French Revolution, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven." I was young neither then nor now, but the revolutionaries were, and they have learned hard lessons since.

To recapture the moment you can visit the archives (I've never blogged as intensively as in 2011), but in memory of that day, two musical reruns; the National Anthem and the revolutionary song Sawt al-Hurriya:

In an odd bit of synchronicity, the chorus is said to be adapted from a speech by Mustafa Kamil, Egyptian nationalist and independence activist, who died on February 10, 1908: 103 years ago yesterday. This anthem has been sung constantly in Tahrir these past weeks.

From Wikipedia, the lyrics in English, Arabic, and transliterated Arabic (compared to the sung version on the video, the second and third verses are flipped and the last verse differs in a couple of lines):

My country, my country, my country.
You have my love and my heart.
My country, my country, my country,
You have my love and my heart.

Egypt! O mother of all lands,
My hope and my ambition,
And on all people
Your Nile has countless graces

My homeland, my homeland, my homeland,
My love and my heart are for thee.
My homeland, my homeland, my homeland,
My love and my heart are for thee.

Egypt! Most precious jewel,
A pearl on the brow of eternity!
O my homeland, be for ever free,
Safe from every foe!

My country, my country, my country,
My love and my heart are for thee.
My country, my country, my country,
My love and my heart are for thee.

Egypt, land of bounties
You are filled with the ancient glory
My purpose is to repel the enemy
And on God I rely

My homeland, my homeland, my homeland,
My love and my heart are for thee.
My homeland, my homeland, my homeland,
My love and my heart are for thee.

Egypt! Noble are thy children,
Loyal, and guardians of the reins.
Be we at war or peace
We will sacrifice ourselves for you, my country.

My homeland, my homeland, my homeland,
My love and my heart are for thee.

بلادي بلادي بلادي
لكِ حبي و فؤادي
بلادي بلادي بلادي
لك حبي و فؤادي

مصر يا أم البلاد
انت غايتي والمراد
وعلى كل العباد
كم لنيلك من اياد

بلادي بلادي بلادي
لكِ حبي و فؤادي
بلادي بلادي بلادي
لكِ حبي و فؤادي

مصر انت أغلى درة
فوق جبين الدهر غرة
يا بلادي عيشي حرة
واسلمي رغم الأعادي

بلادي بلادي بلادي
لكِ حبي و فؤادي
بلادي بلادي بلادي
لك حبي و فؤادي

مصر يا أرض النعيم
سدت بالمجد القديم
مقصدى دفع الغريم
وعلى الله اعتمادى

بلادي بلادي بلادي
لكِ حبي و فؤادي
بلادي بلادي بلادي
لك حبي و فؤادي

مصر اولادك كرام
أوفياء يرعوا الزمام
نحن حرب وسلام
وفداكي يا بلادي

بلادي بلادي بلادي
لك حبي و فؤادي

Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī
Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī

Miṣr yā umm al-bilād
Anti ghāyatī wal-murād
Wa ‘alá kull al-‘ibad
Kam liNīlik min āyād

Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī
Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī

Misr Anti Aghla Durra
Fawqa Gabeen Ad-dahr Ghurra
Ya Biladi 'Aishi Hurra
Wa Aslami Raghm-al-adi.

Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī
Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī

Misru ya Ardi-nna`eem
Sudti bil majdil-qadeem
Maqsidee daf`ul-ghareem
Wa `ala-llahi-`timaadi.

Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī
Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī

Misr Awladik Kiram
Aufiya Yar'u-zimam
Nahnu harbu'n wa' salam
Wa fidakee ya bilādī.

Bilādī, bilādī, bilādī
Lakī ḥubbī wa fū’ādī

And the revolutionary song Sawt al-Hurriya:

"In every street of my country, the voice of freedom is calling!" One of the first folk anthems of the Revolution of 2011. It helps to know Egyptian Arabic, but there are English subtitles.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Hard Realities of the Military Situation in Syria

I want to talk about the situation in northwestern Syria, where he military situation is developing rapidly. From a US perspective and that of many European chanceries, it is deteriorating rapidly. The perspective from Moscow, Damascus and Tehran is quite different. Put bluntly, the Asad regime is about to win a decisive victory in the Aleppo and Idlib regions of northwestern Syria, exacerbating the refugee and humanitarian crises. Russian air power has taken command of the battlefield. What is already a devastating humanitarian disaster of historical proportions is, probably about to get much worse.

I have generally supported current US policy in many parts of the Middle East, but in Syria the problem is discerning what that policy is. We're against ISIS. We're against Asad, though he's also against ISIS. We like the Free Syrian Army but not Jabhat al-Nusra, though they support each other. We generally like the Syrian Kurds but our NATO ally Turkey doesn't, Some of them are coordinating tactics against ISIS with Asad; others are fighting him. I'm oversimplifying, of course. But we are seeing several layers of progress by regime and regime-allied forces. Rebel supply lines north to Turkey have been cut, and the pincers are closing around Aleppo. Some pro-Russian, pro-Asad reports suggest only a few hundred meters may remain before the pincers lose. Even if that is an exaggeration, it is clear that Aleppo will soon be surrounded. A city already largely under siege of years is soon to be cut off entirely. Besides the closing pincers around Aleppo itself,  all of Idlib province is also largely cut off from most supplies, including food.

It's said that in Aleppo itself 300,000 people could find themselves trapped with no means of exit.

In military history, one of the goals of strategic planners has always been to achieve a double envelopment of the enemy in which he has no means of escape. From Cannae to Stalingrad, it has been a means to decisive victory, but when a major city is surrounded and besieged, it is not just enemy soldiers but innocent civilians who will be destroyed.

The German theorists of war called the battle that results from a double envelopment a Kesselschlacht, a "cauldron battle" in which the surrounded forces (and civilians) have no outlet. And that's what appears to be coming.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Giulio Regeni Case

The death, apparently under torture, of 28-year-old Italian Ph.D. candidate Giulio Regeni in Egypt continues to send shock waves in Italy, which is  one of Egypt's major trading partners, and also throughout the academic and research communities. As any have noted, Regeni's death, widely assumed to be at the hands of the police or security services, is only unusual in that it involves a foreigner living in Egypt; Egyptians disappear every day. But the killing is a reminder of the increasing threat to academic freedom. This piece by Khaled Fahmy is important.

From the beginning, the Egyptian government has seemed unable to keep its story straight, with a police statement saying he died in a traffic accident despite investigators indicated signs of beatings and torture.. Egypt needs to cooperate fully with Italy and explain what happened. Assuming state institutions were involved, someone should be held accountable.

Anisa Makhlouf, Mother of Bashar al-Asad, 1930-2016

Anisa Makhlouf, widow of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Asad and mother of President Bashar al Asad, has died at the age of 86. Syrian state media announced her passing on February 7.

Friday, February 5, 2016

More Resources for Arabic Colloquials

After my post yesterday about a language learning blog, reader Mohammad Taha commented that the University of Maryland National Foreign Language Center has an online portal with language learning materials, including Arabic dialects. Though access is by subscription, you can browse the available courses.

While we're on the subject, it's worth noting for those who may not know that the old Foreign Service Institute (FSI) language courses are public domain and that they include books and, on some online sites, tapes for learning a wide variety of languages,including, for Arabic, Written Arabic, Levantine Arabic, and Saudi Arabic (Urban Hijazi Dialect). There are also courses in Spoken Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew,  and some online sites include audio files of the tapes.

You can also find online courses from the Peace Corps and the Defense Language Institute online, offering an even broader range of dialect studies.

And speaking of  FSI, let me plug two little FSI booklets from the 1970s by Margaret K. Omar (Margaret K. Nydell) that I personally found valuable back in the day.

One, from 1974, is called From Eastern to Western Arabic, a 47-page guide for persons familiar with either Egyptian or Levantine Arabic and are tying to learn Moroccan, which at first seems impenetrable to those familiar with eastern dialects. As an introduction, it can be quite useful, and I used it before my first trip to Morocco.

The second, by the same author, is the 1976 Levantine and Egyptian Arabic: Comparative Study. Again it is only 50 pages but is intended for someone familiar with either Levantine or Egyptian and seeking to approach the other. Neither of these little books is a course or a descriptive grammar, but they are useful beginner's guides for those tying to navigate between dialects.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Blog with Useful Material for Learning Arabic Dialects

I've stumbled across the blog of this language learning website and discovered  number of posts useful to students of Arabic, and particularly of the various colloquials. It probably deserves deeper exploration, but meanwhile a few selections:

How different is Moroccan Arabic to the other Dialects, Really?

Learning Arabic in Qatar and the UAE is Easy. Here's Why . . .

If I Stated Learning Arabic Again, This is How I'd Do It

and particularly, a selection of online Arabic TV and YouTube channels: 40 Excellent Arabic listening Resources in All Dialects

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Culture Wars and Cultural Appropriation: Israeli Designer Eroticizes Palestinian Keffiyeh

Cultural  appropriation of indigenous cultures by the mainstream culture is a worldwide complaint, from Native Americans complaining about fashion designers using sacred eagle feathers (or everything about the Washington Redskins) to affluent young whites adopting African American culture: those doing the appropriating usually assert that they mean it as a compliment and an honor to the appropriated culture, but far too often the appropriated culture fails to see the compliment.

I am virtually certain that will be the case here: As the article notes, Israeli high-fashion designer Dodo Bar Or has designed a line of women's clothing drawing its inspiration from the iconic Palestinian (male) headdress, the keffiyyeh or kuffiyah. The keffiyeh is an icon of Palestinian nationalism:  Yasser Arafat wore his draped in the shape of the map of Palestine, and I'm sure I'm not the only foreigner who learned the trick of keeping one visible in your car in the West Bank so it wouldn't be attacked if it had Israeli plates.

I don't want to be a prisoner of gender stereotyping. If a female Palestinian designer derided to feminize and even sexualize the keffiyeh, that might be a suitable protest to the dominant patriarchy. But this is not a Palestinian or Israeli Arab designer.

But when an Israeli designer takes a well-known symbol of the Palestinian national movement (and a distinctly masculine one) and both feminizes and eroticizes it, one has to wonder if the intentions were generally benign but the realization disastrous, or something else. The collection can be seen on Bar Or's website; the two photos reproduced here (one topless but from the rear, the other with some "sideboob") are probably the ones most likely to raise hackles. Neither is overtly offensive as fashion poses go; but each seems deliberately provocative given the cultural context..

Endgame Coming in Northwest Syria as US Preoccupied with Primaries?

At the very moment the United Nations is putting the Geneva peace process on Syria on hold until February 25, the military situation on the ground is evolving so rapidly in favor of the Asad regime forces on the Idlib and Aleppo fronts that the issue may prove moot. Meanwhile the US, which has failed for years to articulate a clear policy in Syria, is so caught up in domestic political navel-gazing in this caucus and primary season, that the media is largely oblivious to the dramatic shifts of fortune on the Syrian battlefield.

With the Syrian Arab Army's success in lifting the siege of the Shi‘ite towns of Nubl and al-Zahra after four years has cut a major supply line between the Jabhat al-Nusra and allied forces in Idlib and key supply areas along the Turkish border, isolating Idlib, regime forces have also been closing the pincers on rebel and ISIS-held territory in eastern Aleppo and also northwest of that city. Supported by heavy Russian airstrikes, recent advances have dramatically shifted the balance in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. Now, with fuel and food supplies threatened, the goal of cutting off Idlib from the outside world is nearly complete. The rebels could quickly wither on the vine.

Meanwhile as the pincers close around Aleppo, it seems even more unlikely that the Syrian opposition will be in a position to demand concessions when (if) the suspension on the talks is lifted at the end of the month. the endgame may be near in Idlib and Aleppo. If it comes, the rebel threat to the ‘Alawite heartland will be eased and Asad and his allies will have little incentive to negotiate.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

When an Ottoman Sultan Sent Aid to the Irish Famine

The Great Famine that ravaged Ireland beginning with the potato blight of 1845 killed a million people and sent another million or more  into exile in America, Canada, or Australia. As a descendant of famine immigrants myself, I realized I haven't blogged about one of the less well-known aspects of what the Irish call the Great Hunger; the effort of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I (reigned 1839-1861) to send aid to Ireland. The subject of a forthcoming film, the tale is better known in Ireland and Turkey than elsewhere. The tale of a Muslim country with problems of its own sending aid to a Catholic country abandoned by its colonial overlords fascinated the Irish. As Joyce put it in Ulysses, "Even the Grand Turk sent us his piastres. But the Sassenach [Saxons, i.e. English] tried to starve the nation at home while the land was full of crops that the British hyenas bought and sold in Rio de Janeiro."
Sultan Abdülmecid I

As the tale is usually told, the Sultan offered to send £10,000 sterling for Irish relief. But because Queen Victoria herself had only contributed £2,000, the British government requested that the Sultan reduce his contribution to only £1,000. (See Joyce's comment above.) But the Sultan did send up to five ships carrying food, and while the records aren't clear, Irish newspaper and other reports say Ottoman sailors landed the food at Drogheda on the River  Boyne  in 1847. (Drogheda is ironically the site of a notorious massacre by Oliver Cromwell, another Sassenach not well remembered in Ireland.)

The Irish still remember.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Is the Geneva Process Doomed?

The UN's negotiator on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, had been struggling the past several days to keep the Geneva peace process on Syria from collapsing in complete disarray. The High National Committee (HNC), representing the anti-Asad side, is balking at talking unless the government side demonstrates sincerity by taking measures to alleviate civilian suffering. That's admirable, but there's little incentive for the government side to comply. (If you're not current on the Geneva process, this excellent guide by Aron Lund is a good briefing.)

I wish I could be as optimistic as de Mistura and Secretary Kerry are trying to be. The facts on the ground are not on the side of the HNC. Hard negotiating is possible only when neither side thinks it can win outright. But in fact the regime forces and their Russian, Hizbullah, and Iranian allies are pushing forward steadily on the Idlib and Aleppo fronts and around Der‘a south of Damascus, and Russian air power is clearing the hinterland along the Turkish border. Assuming the Asad regime would define "victory" not as full control of Syrian territory, but rather as controlling a contiguous corridor of "useful" Syria including the main population centers of Damascus-Homs-Hama-Aleppo and the ports of Latakia and Tartus, the Russian intervention is making that seem like a real possibility. Why make concessions when you're winning? I'm not defending the Asad regime, but where's their incentive to compromise? I wish I could be more optimistic.