A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur and ‘Ashura

This year, like last, both the Jewish and Muslim New Years coincided. And since each tradition marks the tenth day of the New Year, the observation of Yom Kippur and ‘Ashura also  coincide.

Though Sunni Muslims do acknowledge ‘Ashura as the tenth day of the new year, it is of central importance to Shi‘ite Muslims, marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Third Imam, at the Battle of Karbala'

Both observances began at sundown.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Kurdish Referendum is Tomorrow

The Iraqi Central Government has demanded that the Kurdistan Regional Government turn over border positions to the Central Government; Iran has suspended all flights to the KRG; Turkey is increasing its warnings to the Kurds. But despite last-minute efforts to cancel the Referendum, the Kurds seem determined to go ahead with it. The US and most Western countries have warned of the dangers of holding the Referendum. Every country in the region, except Israel, opposes the Referendum. Only Israel is supportive. (Russia is ambivalent.)

But President Barzani has so far refused every entreaty, and it now seems too late to postpone the Referendum. Whether Iraq's Kurds are engaged in a foolish gamble that could ignite a broader conflict, or are about to strike a blow for independence, depends on which side one asks. If the expulsion of ISIS from Mosul raised hope for stabilizing Iraq, the timing of the Referendum suggests Iraq's agony will be prolonged.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

L'Shona Tova

Rosh Hashanah greetings to all my Jewish readers.

Monday, September 18, 2017

"A Pub Crawl in Ottoman Cairo"

In an attempt to resume my past efforts to highlight the occasionally offbeat, here's a link to "A Pub Crawl in Ottoman Cairo," which uses a 1904 ultra-detailed insurance map of Cairo to highlight the numerous drinking establishments in and around the Ezbekiyya Gardens.

 While the choice of "Ottoman Cairo" is arguable (though technically correct) since 1904 was the later years of Lord Cromer's ascendancy and Ottoman suzerainty was merely theoretical, I won't quibble. The formal Ezbekiyya gardens had emerged in the 19th century around an earlier lake, and had become a center for elite European hotels (including the original Shepheard's and the Grand Continental) and polite society. (Ironically, Cairo's most notorious red light district lay just a few blocks to the north, where the modern European quarters blended with and abutted the more "traditional" quarters.)

As the detailed map, which can be found online via the Harvard library, shows, there was no shortage of places to drink. (At least a small number of these survived into the 1970s, when highway flyovers and a tunnel pretty thoroughly transformed the neighborhood.)

If you like Cairo, or old maps, or bars,or if, like me, all three, take a look.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

It's Edward William Lane's Birthday Again

On September 17, 1801, in Hereford, England, Edward William Lane was born. 146 years later, I was born. I believe I have noted this annually since 2009, when this blog began. If I must share my birthday, I could do far worse.

Generations of English-speaking Arabists have used Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, an immense dictionary of the classical language based on the classical Arabic Qamus. He died while working on the letter qaf (someone I knew once joked he might have been working on the word qadr: only the Arabic-speakers will get it), and his nephew finished the eight-volume work, but it's much weaker after the qafs. At one time his translation of the Arabian Nights was widely read; it is more readable than Sir Richard Burton's, but Burton's has generally superseded it in popularity. (Burton, unlike Lane, kept the dirty parts in, but he wrote in a style that at times verges on the unreadably pretentious, and, being a late Victorian, made up his own dirty words to translate the Arabic ones, since the standard English ones couldn't be printed. Off the top of my head, I remember "futter" if you want an example. It helps if you know French.) Lane's Nights notes are a fantastic treasure of Arab daily life, while Burton's notes have a whole lot of detail on less savory aspects of the culture. Read both. Or read both their notes, and a modern translation of the text.

But Lane's first work is the one that will always endear him to me, and I think, to anyone who loves Egypt, umm al-dunya. This is The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.
Lane was an "orientalist" before Edward Said taught us that that was a bad word, but he was also one of the earliest, and one of the best and most scrupulous in his scholarship.

Manners and Customs
is a great book: dated to be sure, after a century and three quarters; quaint at times in its attitudes and curious in its transliterations of Arabic, but still a gem of description of another culture by a man who managed to learn a great deal by living within it. It was first published in 1836, after years of gestation. I still have, and often refer to, the Everyman's Library edition I picked up in Beirut in 1972; the paper dust cover is even still intact. An earlier version of the Everyman's edition is available in full text on Google Books, as are some other editions, so you don't need to rely on a paper copy as I did. (Though if you want a paper copy, it's still in print.)
It is one of those books that cannot be excerpted with any utility: it's the small joys that make it so interesting, and it may be a complete wash for those who've never been in Egypt. It's the flashes of recognition of continuities and the clear evidence of change and evolution that make it interesting. I have favorite sections and passages, but can't find one that would represent the whole. But there are few, if any, other works of the period by Western orientalists that so neatly encapsulate a country and its culture. There are, certainly, plenty of descriptions of Damascus and Istanbul and other cities by diplomats and historians and linguists, but Lane was more of an anthropologist than anything else, although I don't think the word had been coined then, except perhaps for physical anthropology: this is cultural anthropology before the words existed. He captured Egypt in the later years of Muhammad ‘Ali's reign, but also provided descriptions of practices and habits that long predated his era, and many of which survive today. But he also captured a great deal that does not survive today, and that is part of the book's charm and importance. Most Arabic authors of the time were recording the events and institutions of the ruling classes; Lane was out there with the folks in the coffeehouses and local gathering places and mosques. He captured Egypt at the human level better than any Arabic author of the 19th century that I know of: probably better than any author prior to Naguib Mahfouz, who finally gave an Egyptian voice to ordinary Egyptians.
Lane also was part of a dynasty of sorts. His sister, Sophia Lane Poole, wrote a work on women in Egypt (some at least of which was provided by her brother, apparently), and his nephew, Stanley Lane-Poole (he added a hyphen apparently), an Arabic scholar in his own right, finished the Arabic-English Lexicon and wrote many popular historical and cultural works on the Middle East, some of which still have value, but none of which equal his uncle's contribution.
So happy 216th birthday, Edward William Lane, and thanks for Manners and Customs, and the indispensable Lexicon of course, and your version of the Nights. But it's Manners and Customs that makes me happiest to share your birthday.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

95 Years Ago: the Great Fire of Smyrna (İzmir) Begins

On September 13, 1922, fire broke out in the ancient city of Smyrna (İzmir), days after Turkish Army forces had entered the city, ending the Greek occupation of western Anatolia after World War I.

Greece, as part of the postwar occupation of Ottoman territory under the Treaty of Sèvres, had landed troops at Smyrna in 1919, and occupied parts of western Anatolia. Turkish forces under Mustafa Kemal challenged them in the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, which effectively ended on September 9, 1922, when Turkish forces occupied the city. Four days later, the Great Fire broke out, burning until September 22.

By the time it was over, the Greek and Armenian quarters of the ancient city had been destroyed and Greek and Western ships evacuated tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of refugees, including a young Aristotle Onassis.

Beyond that, there is little agreement on anything. Estimates of Greek and Armenian deaths range from 10,000 to 50,000 or more, estimates of total refugees as high as 400,000. Greeks, Armenians, and most but not all Western historians blame the Turkish Army either for setting the fire or not extinguishing it once it began; most Turkish sources blame the Greeks and/or Armenians.

What is certain is that without Western military support, the quixotic Greek attempt to occupy Western Anatolia was probably doomed, and Smyrna's history as a Greek city ended in the flames of 1922.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ticking Time Bomb: The Kurdish Referendum

Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas‘oud Barzani was in Kirkuk today, a reminder of the potential explosiveness of the September 25 Kurdish independence referendum, now less than two weeks away. For if the Kurdish independence referendum is a ticking time bomb that could provoke a broad regional conflict in a region already home to several, then Kirkuk is the likely detonator. The town, a mix of ethnic Turkmen, Kurds, and Arabs, located in the heart of the northern Iraqi oilfields, will participate in the referendum, though the Iraqi central government disputes the Kurdishness of Kirkuk (and also the right to declare independence). Barzani promised to respect the decision of Kirkuk voters.

Most neighboring states and some of the smaller Kurdish political parties have been urging postponement of the referendum, and a postponement may still happen. The major political parties have agreed to reconvene the suspended Kurdish Parliament on Thursday in anticipation of the referendum, and it is not impossible that a postponement will occur. But the two main parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, seem in agreement on holding it, and virtually all observers expect an overwhelming vote in favor of independence. What happens after that, we'll see.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Strange Expulsion of Moulay Hicham from Tunisia

Moulay Hicham
Morocco's so-called "Red Prince," Moulay Hicham, first cousin of King Mohammed VI, was arrested by Tunisian authorities on September 8 at the Movenpick Hotel in Tunis and put on an Air France flight to Paris. Moulay Hicham was in Tunis for a conference on governance and security in Morocco, Egypt, and Yemen.

Though neither Tunis nor Moulay Hicham commented on the reason, the move was unusual given Tunisia's reputation as the one functioning democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring. French and Arab media have speculated that because Hicham had been scheduled to attend a conference in Doha, Qatar, and that Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE brought pressure on Tunisia to expel the prince, who is known as an advocate of democratic reforms.

Moulay Hicham has a Saudi connection and is related to Prince al-Walid bin Talal, whose mother is a sister of Hicham's wife, Lalla Lamia Solh. Both are daughters of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Riad al-Solh.

Various reports in English, French, and Arabic are linked here.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Şerif Mardin (1927-2017)

I will start with the good news: I intend this post to mark the resumption of regular, possibly daily, blogging. I'm back.

The bad news is I must start with bad news: Şerif Mardin has died at the age of 90. The Turkish sociologist and public intellectual made a name for himself studying the social institutions of the late Ottoman Empire, and his work on he sociology of religion in Turkey has resonated in the debates of recent years. Mardin spent his career at a variety of institutions in Turkey, the US, Britain, and France.