A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Two Posts on Diglossia in Algeria

A common theme here has long been diglossia, the problems created by the dichotomy between the spoken Arabics learned at one's mother's knee, and Modern Standard Arabic, the "Classical" or literary language used for writing and formal speech.

This is deadline week for our Spring issue, so in my own absence let me link to two more on that familiar subject from Algerian linguist Lameen Souag:

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

After Palmyra: What Next?

Now that Syrian forces have recovered Palmyra, where do they go from here? The campaign to retake Palmyra benefited from the inactivity on other fronts as a result of the ongoing cessation of hostilities (which excludes operations against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra), and certainly the Syrian government and Russia are claiming a significant victory. The Institute for the Study of War has an analysis of the Palmyra campaign as well as a useful map:
But once control of Palmyra is consolidated, where does the war against ISIS go from here? Syrian pro-government media are pointing in two directions from Palmyra: toward Qaryatayn to the southwest, and toward reopening the road to Deir al-Zor to the northeast in an effort to lift the ISIS siege of the Syrian Army garrison there.

Syrian forces were already pushing toward Qaryatayn from the west; a column from Palmyra could provide additional pressure.

But Syrian reports also say that forces from Palmyra are advancing in the direction of Sukhna, which would suggest an effort to clear the road to Deir al-Zor. It is also claimed that the besieged forces in Deir al-Zor are pushing westward.
If Syrian forces could clear the motorway to Deir al-Zor, they would end the siege, and open a route to the Euphrates, and also find themselves 140 kilometers downriver from the IS capital at Raqqa. Raqqa would then be vulnerable from the expanding area of regime control around eastern Aleppo, the YPG forces already threatening Raqqa from the northeast, and a potential column advancing upriver from Deir al-Zor.

That will not be accomplished overnight. The distances are substantial, though mostly across open desert. The Palmyra campaign relied heavily on elite Syrian Army forces, Hizbullah allies, and Russian air cover. (As part of the Palmyra campaign, Syria has recovered the Tadmur Air Force base, giving Syrian and Russian aircraft a forward operating base.)

As an aside they have presumably also recovered the notorious Tadmur Prison, once the regime's most notorious.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Palmyra Destruction is Not Complete, But Bad Enough

Now that the Islamic State has been driven out of Palmyra, there have been some reports suggesting that the damage to the ancient site is not as bad as had been feared.

Insofar as it proves to be true, that's good news, of course, but let's not sound too optimistic. We know the once beautifully well-preserved Temple of Bel was razed:
Temple of Bel (my photo, 1972)
And we know little was left:

Triumphal Arch (My photo, 1972)
We also know that the Temple of Baalshamin and the Great Triumphal Arch (above) were also turned to rubble.  ISIS also destroyed several tower tombs which, like the temples, they considered idolatrous. But the amphitheater received little damage, though it reportedly was used for executions, and while some exhibits in the museum were smashed, others are said to be intact.

Russia has released drone footage showing the site from the air. The first version, from RT, is in English without commentary; the second has fuller commentary in Russian, which I don't speak but some readers will.

Finally, I add an ASOR aerial shot of the site before ISIS for comparison.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Egyptian Police Say Regeni Killing Was Done by a "Criminal Gang" Disguised as Police, But the Gang is All Dead Now, So, Case Closed?

From the time Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni was found tortured and killed, the police have offered several explanations, but most have been dismissed or denied by prosecutors investigating the case.

The latest explanation goes like this: Regeni was kidnapped by a gang who dressed as policemen to abduct and rob foreigners. (Are other foreigners missing?) The police raided the gang's hideout and found Regeni's passport and other belongings. Conveniently the gang were all killed in the resulting firefight. Therefore, case closed, right?

The fact that the police have produced Regeni's passport could, of course, be just as easily explained if, as many suspect, they were responsible for his death. The Ministry of the Interior, which supervises the police, has given confused accounts of whether the gang was responsible. Blogger Zeinobia raises some of the obvious questions.

Nor is Italy satisfied. The whole thing seems too convenient, and now the Interior Ministry says the investigation is ongoing.

I don't think this case is closed, however much the police may want it to be.

Belated Purim and Early Easter Wishes

I'm a day or two late with Purim wishes and two days early with Easter wishes for those celebrating on the Western date. (Orthodox Easter is not until May 1 this year, five weeks, the maximum distance apart the calendars permit I believe.) Greetings for both occasions.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Aiming for the PETA Vote? Rouhani Replaces Nowruz Goldfish with an Orange

Traditionally the Persian New Year Nowruz is celebrated with the Haft Sin table of seven items beginning with the letter "s," plus other traditional items such as the poetry of Hafiz and a live goldfish in a bowl. The goldfish are usually released into the wild at the end of the feast, where they are unlikely to live long. Many have called for a symbolic substitute, such as using a plastic fish.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's Nowruz greetings on Twitter included a photo of himself standing next to a Haft Sin table adorned with a goldfish bowl containing what appears to be an orange in place of the goldfish.
On her Twitter feed, Vice President Massoumeh Ebtikar also called attention to the substitution, and to the fact that the bowl contains very little water.
Rouhani will be eligible for a second term in the 2017 Presidential elections.  Is he vying for the PETA and Save Water vote?


The Struggling Lebanese Press: Al-Safir Ceasing Publication as Al-Nahar Considers Going Online Only

Al-Safir, one of Lebanon's two biggest newspapers, announced just a week ago that it was considering major cutbacks; yesterday it announced that it is ceasing publication altogether, print and online, on April 1.

Lebanon's other big paper, Al-Nahar, has previously said it might consider going to an online-only version and dropping the print version. The two have been rivals: Christian-owned Al-Nahar, founded by the Tueni family in 1933, was a liberal-centrist paper staunchly opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon, while Al-Safir, with a leftist orientation, long supported Syria.

The Lebanese media are suffering from Lebanon's economic woes and political paralysis (symbolized by the failure to elect a President or even collect garbage in Beirut), as well as the decline of print journalism worldwide.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Syria: Regime Forces Say They are on Verge of Retaking Palmyra

Syrian state media are reporting that Syrian Army elite troops and their Hizbullah allies are on the verge of recapturing the city of Tadmur and the ancient ruins of Palmyra.

Tadmur/Palmyra have been controlled by the Islamic State since May 2015, and their capture of Palmyra also cut the regime's supply line to the last regime garrison in eastern Syria, at Deir al-Zor. The subsequent destruction of ancient temples at the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Palmyra by ISIS provoked international outrage.

Deir al-Zor has been besieged by ISIS and resupplied only by Syrian and Russian air drops, but the fall of Palmyra could open the possibility of a rapid advance to open the road; the distance is 200 kilometers across generally open desert.

According to pro-regime reports, the attacking force of the Syrian Army includes the Tiger Forces and Desert Hawks units of Special forces, and Syrian Marines and Hizbullah allies. They claim to have surrounded Palmyra on the south and west and to have cut ISIS' line of supply and communication, including the Deir al-Zor road.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

In the Shadow of Brussels

The Brussels attacks have been met with several disturbing responses from US Presidential candidates, particularly Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, raising questions about Muslim communities in the West. It is perhaps a good time to repeat that the whole purpose of terrorism is to spread terror, that Muslim countries are struggling with terrorist bombings as well (consider Turkey), and that if we descend into fear and suspicion we are doing exactly what the Islamic State wants. ISIS has lost much territory on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq, and these overseas terror attacks are a means of minimizing the effect of that. Let's stay level-headed, vigilant but not panicked.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Forgotten, Silenced Uprising: Bahrain Five Years Later

Five years ago last week, Gulf Cooperation Council troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE poured across the causeway into Bahrain, the only GCC state to experience a large-scale outbreak of protest during "Arab Spring." Within a week, demonstrators had been cleared from the Pearl Roundabout, center of the protests. Although protests have never completely disappeared, the Bahraini Spring was over. The GCC had made clear that if one of their member states is threatened internally, the others were prepared to intervene in favor of the status quo.

The Pearl Monument in 2011
The intervention was, at the time, a rare case of GCC military assertiveness except in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Today, with GCC forces (except for Oman) engaged deeply in Yemen and having flown missions in Libya,the Bahrain intervention seems, in retrospect, to have been something of a turning point.

On March 18, 2011, the Pearl Monument in the roundabout, which had become the rallying point of the protests, was torn down by government forces. Soon after, the roundabout itself was replaced with a junction with trafic lights.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Nowruz Greetings

Nowruz greetings to all readers who celebrate the ancient Persian new year, Iranians, Kurds, Central Asians, Turks, and others.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

My Annual Saint Patrick's Day Post on the links Between the Early Irish Church and the Coptic Church of Egypt

Happy Saint Patrick's Day in this centennial year of the Easter Rising.
Coptic Wheel Cross
Every year since 2009, I have reposted or linked to my original 2009 post on the faint but apparently real links between the Coptic Church of Egypt, where monasticism was invented, and the early Irish church.
Celtic Wheel Cross

It's the sort of thing you do when you're a specialist on Egyptian history also named Michael Collins Dunn, but it's also been a popular post. Herewith, with some added illustrations, corrections and updates,  the original text:

Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone, an appropriate wish here since the Irish Church Patrick founded seems to have been the religious and monastic daughter of the Church of Egypt (the Coptic Church).

Coptic Ankh Cross
Ah, you're thinking: he's really reaching this time, trying to find a way to work Saint Patrick's Day into a blog on the Middle East. My name is, after all, Michael Collins Dunn, and I'm therefore rarely assumed to have Greek or Japanese ancestry, but actually it's not a reach to find a reason for a Saint Patrick's Day post on the Middle East, since Irish Christianity has ancient, if somewhat hard to document, links to Egypt, and Saint Patrick himself may have studied alongside Egyptian monks. They say everyone's Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, but I'm going to explore how Egypt and Ireland have links dating back to the earliest days of Christianity in the West. And while some of the evidence is a bit hazy, none of this is crackpot theory. I warned you that I started out as a medievalist, and still have flashbacks sometimes. Forgive me if I can't footnote every statement here.

Irish Standing Wheel Cross
Anyone who has ever seen one of the standing crosses that are a familiar feature of medieval and post-classical Irish Christian sites will know what the Celtic Cross or "wheel cross" looks like; anyone who has ever set foot in a Coptic Church will know what a Coptic Cross looks like; unfortunately the illustrations at Wikipedia's Coptic Cross site don't include a precise example, but the wheel cross is common among Egyptian Copts as well, and can be seen on many churches in Egypt today. [Illustrations added after original post.] The wheel cross is not an obvious derivation of the Christian cross, and many think it is an adaptation of the ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol, so what is it doing on those Irish standing cross towers?

Sure, iconography can repeat itself: both Indians in India and Native Americans used the swastika long before Hitler did, and so on. But the Celtic Cross/Coptic Cross similarity is not the only link. There is pretty decent evidence that Christianity in Ireland, if not immediately derived from Egypt, was closely linked to the Egyptian Church. An ancient litany in the Book of Leinster prays for "the seven holy Egyptian monks, who lie in Desert Ulaidh." The place mentioned is somewhere in Ulster, with many placing it in Antrim: perhaps suggestively, "desert" or "disert" in Irish place names meant a place where monks lived apart from the world as anchorites, modeled on the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. "Ulaidh" just means Ulster.Who these seven holy Egyptian monks were is unclear, but they died in Ulster and were sufficiently venerated to be remembered in a litany.

See also my post on "The Faddan More Psalter: More Evidence of the Coptic Links to Early Irish Christianity," posted about an Irish psalmbook with a cover stiffened with Egyptian papyrus.

St. Mena ampulla, the Louvre
It is often said (I haven't got a firm cite though) that holy water (or holy oil for anointing)  bottles found in Ireland carry the twin-camel emblem associated with the Shrine of Saint Menas (Mina) west of Alexandria. (Menas was one of the major patron saints of Egypt, his shrine a major pilgrimage center, and his cult extended far beyond Egypt.) If so, I don't think the Irish were using local camels as models. While I can't find the specifics on the Irish find, these ampullae of terracotta marked with the emblem of St. Menas have been found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. The photo shows one in the Louvre.

 There are also said to be tombstones in old Irish ogham writing that refer to the burial of so-and-so "the Egyptian." The earliest Irish forms of monasticism included anchorite communities who withdrew from the world and venerated the tradition of Saint Anthony of Egypt; the early Irish church used an Eastern rather than a Western date for Easter; some aspects of ancient Celtic liturgy resemble eastern liturgies, and there are archaeological evidences (mostly probable Egyptian pottery in Ireland and British — Cornish? — tin in Egypt) of trade between Egypt and the British Isles. "Double" monasteries — where a monastery for monks and a convent for nuns were adjacent — first appeared in Egypt, and were common in Ireland. The evidence may be circumstantial, but there's a lot of it.

In the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin there is a pilgrimage guide to the Desert of Scetis, the Egyptian desert region of Coptic monasteries today known as the Wadi Natrun. That, along with the Saint Menas holy water bottles, suggests Irish monks made pilgrimages all the way to Egypt. And obviously those seven holy Egyptian monks in Ulster made the trip the other way.

But do these connections between Egypt and Ireland, tenuous as they may seem, really connect in any way with Saint Patrick, justifying this as a Saint Patrick's Day post? I'm glad you asked.

Saint Patrick's life has been much encrusted with mythology (the snakes, the Shamrock, etc.) and all we can really say for certain is what he himself told us in his autobiographical Confession: he was born somewhere on the western coast of Roman Britain (so the Apostle of Ireland was British, but before there was such a thing as an Englishman since the Angles and Saxons were not yet present: he probably spoke old British, an ancestor of Welsh), was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland, later escaped and joined the church, and returned as the apostle of Ireland. But very ancient biographies (though not his own autobiographical account, one of the few vernacular Latin works to survive from the period) say that he studied for the priesthood at the Abbey of Lérins off the south coast of France. This was a Mediterranean island abbey much influenced by the church of Egypt and the rule of Saint Anthony of Egypt, and according to some accounts, many Coptic monks were present there. There's no certainty that Patrick ever studied there, but then, he studied somewhere, and this is the only place claimed by the early accounts. So Patrick himself may have had direct links to the Egyptian church. (And remember that until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD — by which time Patrick was already a bishop in Ireland, himself dying in 461 by most accounts — the Coptic Church and the rest of Christendom were still in full communion.)

There may be even more to it than this. A few linguists believe that the Celtic languages, though Indo-European in their basic structure, have a "substratum" of some previous linguistic element that is not found in other Indo-European languages, only in Celtic, but some aspects of which are also found in Afro-Asiatic languages, particularly Berber and Egyptian (of which Coptic, of course, is the late form). I'm certainly not qualified to judge such linguistically abstruse theories, and know neither Irish nor Coptic, and they seem to have little to do with the question of Egyptian-Irish Christian influences. But it helps remind us that the ancient world was more united by the sea than divided by it, and that the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia.

While the links are tenuous, they appear to be real. Irish historians accept some level of Egyptian influence in the Christianization of Ireland, and Coptic historians love to dwell on the subject, since it lets them claim a link to the earliest high Christian art and culture of Western Europe. If Irish monasticism preserved the heritage of the ancient world and rebuilt the West after the barbarian invasions, and if the Irish church is a daughter of the Egyptian church, then the West owes more to Egypt than most would imagine.

I first heard a discussion of this in a presentation by the Coptic Church's bishop in charge of ecumenical outreach, Bishop Samweel, back in the early 1970s. I later ran across several references to it in British orientalist literature (Stanley Lane-Poole seems to have been particularly fond of it, and I think he places Desert Ulaidh near Carrickfergus), and continue to find it intriguing, if never quite clear enough to nail down precisely.

Bishop Samweel, mentioned above, met an unfortunate end by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the way. When Anwar Sadat deposed Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 1981, Sadat named Samweel — considered one of the Coptic church's leading figures after Shenouda — head of a council of bishops to run the church while the Patriarch was in exile. Due to this appointment, Bishop Samweel was seated on the reviewing stand behind Sadat on October 6, 1981, and died in the volley of fire which killed the President.

Like much of the earliest history of any culture or country, the links between Irish and Egyptian Christianity are fairly well-delineated but their precise origins are untraceable, but tantalizing. Since this is little known to most Westerners or even to Egyptians who aren't Copts, it seemed appropriate to mention it on Saint Patrick's Day.

Erin go bragh. Misr Umm al-Dunya

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Several Takes on the Syrian Withdrawal

Here are several interesting reads on the Russian withdrawal in Syria:

Then There's This ...

The first word seems to be "Mission" so I assume the banner reads Mission Accomplished."  But Putin's not in a flight suit.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Hossam Bahgat on Why Parliament was Won by Pro-Sisi Forces

Hossam Bahgat, the Egyptian regime critic who was jailed for a time and recently reused permission to travel, has a rather daring article at Mada Masr documenting the direct role played by Egyptian General Intelligence in creating the pro-Sisi coalition that dominates the new Parliament. This article is unlikely to sit well with the government. I think this article is essential and will be widely cited.

Monday, March 14, 2016

This is Making the Rounds ...

Hello? Hello?

Putin Says Russia Beginning Withdrawal from Syria: Mission Accomplished?

I know blogging has been light the past couple of weeks due to deadlines for our Spring issue. I hope to do more this week.

What are we to make of Vladimir Putin's surprise announcement that Russia is beginning to withdraw its military forces in Syria?

Well, obviously no one knows since everyone was caught off guard. Putin did say that Russia would maintain its air base and naval base, which implies that airstrikes, much reduced in the present ceasefire, might be resumed. Until we see what residual force remains, judging the meaning of the move is difficult. Meanwhile, Russia can claim to be supporting the peace talks.

Arguably, the gains made by the Syrian Army and its allies with Russian air cover have sufficiently transformed the battlefield to permit withdrawal, but I think a suspension of judgment until the scope of the withdrawal is clearer, would be well-advised.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Two Articles on Egypt's Predicament

Two recent articles by two skilled observers capture aspects of Egypt's current predicament and Cairo's malaise. I recommend both.

Joshua Stacher at MERIP: "Egypt: Running on Empty."

Ursula Lindsey at The Nation: "Cairo: A Museum of Ghosts."

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

And Bernie Sanders Carries Dearborn

The big surprise in yesterday's US primaries was the surprise victory of Senator Bernie Sanders in the Michigan Democratic Primary, where polls had predicted a strong victory for Hillary Clinton. One of the factors that has drawn a lot of comment is the fact that Sanders, who is Jewish, strongly carried Dearborn, the most Arab and most Muslim city in the US. (Even more Arab than Muslim, as there is a considerable Arab Christian population.)

I don't find it surprising, though it may defy some popular stereotypes. At a time when the other party's leading candidate advocates banning Muslims from entering the US, Sanders openly courted Arab-American support and denounced Islamophobia. This at a time when anti-Muslim hysteria is reaching record levels.

A case in point, though I didn't write about it at the time, occurred on Valentine's Day, someone put up a banner on a building in Lubbock, Texas reading, in Arabic, "Love for All."

The Mayor called in the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and blocked off several streets.

Recently a teenager in California was stabbed, apparently for speaking Arabic, and in December I noted other incidents.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Irbid, Ben Guerdane, Hilla: Signs ISIS is Resurgent, or on the Ropes?

Within a matter of days, we have seen a cross-border raid from Syria into Jordan at Irbid, another cross-border raid from Libya into Tunisia at Ben Guerdane, and a deadly bombing at Hilla in Iraq (a largely Shi‘ite city). ISIS and its subsidiaries are certainly prime suspects.

But given ISIS' battlefield setbacks of late, I would raise one question: is ISIS showing a resurgence, or are these the desperate attempts of a movement in retreat lashing out in an attempt to appear still relevant? I suspect it may be the latter.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Hasan al-Turabi (1932-2016)

I rarely post on weekends, but the passing of Hasan al-Turabi demands comment. From the 1970s until today, in power or sometimes in prison, he was a major figure in Sudanese politics and society, and a major figure in the spread of Islamist ideology, especially in Africa. Educated in law in Khartoum, London, and Paris with a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne). He was active in the Sudanese wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, In the 1960s he transformed that into the Islamic Charter Front, becoming its Secretary-General. With the 1969 coup by Ja‘far al-Numeiri, Turabi was jailed and later exiled. He returned under a national reconciliation agreement in 1977, and in 1979 became Numeiri's Justice Minister/Attorney General. After Numeiri was overthrown in 1985, the democratic parties united to keep Turabi out of power.

But not for long. After four years, in 1989,  another military coup brought President ‘Umar al-Bashir and a military regime to power. It was soon clear that the ideology behind the coup was that of Turabi's movement, now known as the National Islamic Front (NIF).

The NIF was essentially the real power throughout the 1990s. In various roles, including Speaker of Parliament,  Turabi was the chief ideologue of the Bashir regime.

In the 1990s, Turabi founded the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress as a sort of Islamist International, and Sudan was soon hosting a number of radical organizations, most famously including Usama bin Laden, but also Abu Nidal. This in turn led to international sanctions and an ostracism of Sudan, including a US air attack in 1998. In 1999, Turabi had a falling out with Bashir, and spent the following decade in and out of prison, and as an open critic of Bashir.

Out of power he advocated democracy, but when in power in the 1990s he was part of a ruthless and oppressive regime and supported radical jihadis like Bin Laden.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Juan Cole on the Candidates

I didn't watch last night's Republican candidates' debate, but Juan Cole did, and he summarizes their Middle East policy with one of the best headlines ever: GOP Candidates up ante, Promise 4 Major Ground Wars, murder of Innocents, Large Genitalia.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Syrian Situation

Several days into the quasi-ceasefire (officially, the "cessation of hostilities") in Syria, the fragile truce is holding despite multiple accusations of violations. The fact that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are excluded from the cessation has meant that US strikes against ISIS and Russian strikes against both ISIS and Nusra have continued unabated.

One irony is that, as the Presidential candidates in the US argue over who would be most effective against ISIS, ISIS is steadily losing territory. In Iraq estimates say it lost 40% of its territory on 2015, and in Syria 20%.

Following the capture of Ramadi,  Iraqi and Kurdish forces are preparing, with the help of US air power and allied militias, for the hard challenge of recapturing Mosul.In Syria and Iraq both, Kurdish forces have largely cut ISIS' supply lines from Turkey. Both the YPG from the north and the pro-regime alliance in the Aleppo area seem to be maneuvering for a campaign against the ISIS capital at Raqqa. I'm not saying there is light at the end of the tunnel, Mosul and Raqqa are not yet directly hreatened, but ISIS seems a far less potent threat than it did last year.