Category Archives: Egypt

This shit is really happening.

Good lord. I mean that literally. And by literally I mean as an incantation to someone or something to please, stop this from happening. Or maybe just cut out the bad bits, the stuff that actually kills people. The Hollywood way, as perceived by a seven year-old version of yours truly: innocuous A-Team jeeps flipping over and worst-marksmen-of-the-world gunfire. And if some anonymous border guard does have to get hurt, no more than a sprained ankle please, let there be less kin to wail and scream to the heavens in vicarious ligamental agony. As in, no one was injured in the writing of this book.

And yet, eerily, Egyptians, Israelis, and penumbrous groups are following the script. A year and a half after the revolution the battle still rages. In many ways, it hasn’t yet begun. The generals have sacrificed the big cheese, but the kidney stones are still there. Any nurse will tell you: stand back when old men prepare to pee. Meanwhile, somewhat less metaphorically, the Sinai/Israel border heats up. “We gave up this land, and for what?” Israelis lament. Egyptians clamor to amend the Camp David accords that prohibit their army from deploying on the peninsula in a meaningful way. The Bedouin tribes of the Sinai, not just neglected but actively discriminated against during the Mubarak years, claim to be on top of things. Eking a living from scrape-barrel tourism and yes, smuggling, the tribes have maintained a balance amongst themselves, maintaining a semblance security, tolerating and at times pushing back state authority. However, cracks are beginning to show.

The old generals, eager to show up their erstwhile foes and current holders of the scepter, didn’t have to look far for the new rulers’ achilles heel. Israeli contingency plans have long been drawn up. They too had rather see the Muslim Brotherhood gone. The Palestinians of Gaza meanwhile, kettled in and desperate, will do what kettled in and desperate people do. They will find a way. Wouldn’t you?

The dice are rolling. And man, this book is alive in a way I wish I entirely wished it wasn’t.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Indigenous Rights, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Revolution, seismic changes

Bab el Hadid

When Youssef Chahine authored “Bab el Hadid”, known in English as “Cairo Station” in 1958, it was promptly banned for 20 years. People and censor alike were shocked by its realistic portrayal of a troubled society. Chahine introduces us to Qinawi (played by himself) a poor, perverted newspaper vendor, and Hanuma (played by Hind Rostom, Egypt’s erstwhile Marilyn Monroe), as the beautiful woman constantly chased by police for peddling soft drinks illegally. Abu Serib is Hanuma’s soon to be husband who desperately tries to form a union opposing an old crony who calls the shots in and around the station. Trains arrive and leave every minute, spewing out and absorbing people from all walks of life. Like the place, the movie is a microcosm of the country and times. Not just then, but acutely, today still.

Chahine weaves in a women’s protest march, and a band of young musicians reveling in a fusion of rock n roll and, well, Egypt. Delectable Hanuma sells them Pepsi and a smile. Passersby disparage this infliction to native culture. “It’s all those new-fangled ideas. They lead us straight to hell,” says a man, funnily enough with a Sabena poster behind him. Headscarves are few and far in between. It seems like a different epoch altogether. And yet, men’s attitudes to women, not just the perverted Qinawi, are a grim reminder of how little has changed. The economics of frustration -no job means no house means no wife means no sex means exploding thirty year-olds- remains as it was in 1958.

The film itself also remains as it was back then; a masterpiece of human cultural achievement.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Middle East, seismic changes

Salafists R us

Make that; salafist! Even as I write this my faithful WordPress spelling minder suggests I write ‘falsify’ in stead. As in; they are out to make you believe muhammadan fruitcakes are taking over the whole goddamn place. Your place or my place? From Sinai to the shittier neighborhoods of Brussels. In Egypt they are the ghosts of the tortured let out the box after the demise of Hosni -at least he was our kind of dictator- Mubarak. Disappointed in the Muslim Brotherhood, who are fast becoming a Muslim-Democrat version of Angela Merkel’s CDU, salafists seem to espouse ideas about women comparable to the American Republican Party.

In Belgium, salafists are called Sharia for Belgium, and are represented by a wheeler-dealer car mechanic with a penchant for mixing a thick Antwerp accent with Koranic catch phrases. In one memorable Youtube video the bearded, long-robed clown stood in front of the Atomium, a fifty year-old building that consists of nine giant aluminum balls connected by stiff rods, calling it un-islamic and hoping, in sh’Allah, it would some day crumble spontaneously. Belgians; Christian, Muslim, and non-believer alike all had a good chuckle about that. And by chuckle I mean, irresponsible politicians facing municipal elections later in the year lined up to call for the zealot’s expulsion to a country his parents were born in shortly after World War II. Special laws were mulled to, well, out-law Sharia for Belgium and the kind of burlesque exaggerations a Flemish party representing twenty-five percent of voters gets away with every day.

Salafism is a problem indeed. Every country has them in some or other manifestation. With the good comes the bad they say, and Egypt’s going through some bad shit right now. They; the country, its democrats, women, middle class, poor and unemployed, its youth will deal with these newly-unleashed conservative forces or be consumed by them. Europe has a pretty good idea of what that looks like, however much it chooses to forget. Salafists ‘r us, bearded, with a little mustache, or suited up like, say, the CEO of FN Herstal.

In ‘Sinai’, what appears to be an attack by religious wackos is exactly that, or rather, something else entirely. 

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Belgium, Brussels, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes

A chard of Um Kalthoum..

A chard of Um Kalthoum flies across the water, supplanted in a heartbeat by the noise of traffic. Chaos reigns out here, more than ever. Unease, contention, leaflets. This experiment, this fad of democracy is getting out of hand. Doomed from the outset. Didn’t they see it coming? Right when the old man was sent packing, may God have mercy on his soul. So predictable. What’s fair about elections in the end? Money can buy you an office, but not the acumen or charisma, yes, the brutality required to hold on to it. They knew the Brotherhood would ride it home, hands down. And now what? Things haven’t exactly come close to improving, and when things are as bad as they are now, ‘equal’ equals ‘worse’.

Colonel Gamal Deir Shams (Sinai, chapter 6)

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes

A lot to learn..

Egypt’s parliament dissolved. “What is this, 19th century Europe?” I said to Jalal. “Dissolving is not a solution.” Then again, maybe it is. I never paid much attention in high school chemistry. Jokes aside, it’s not like the parliament was very active. In fact, the Brotherhood was fast losing street cred over its elected members’ laisser-gouverner attitude. “There’s something fishy about the whole thing,” Jalal opined. Lord knows who’s plotting what against whom. Is Mubarak’s heir apparent Shafiq planning to rule by decree should he win today’s presidentials? Will a Mursi Brotherhood victory overturn the high court’s decision, further complicating the constitutional quagmire?

Lord knows I haven’t a clue. Egyptians are slogging it the hard way it seems. As is their right. But what is right in the stark floodlight of might, be it noun or verb? If all this sounds confusing it’s because your humble host has been evaluating French development aid to Palestine, drinking too much coffee, and sleeping way too little. This aid business is a tough racket. I’m not even talking about the deserving, downtrodden beneficiaries. Of which, one hastens to add, there are many. Just ask the sandwich guy catering the workshops, board meetings, steering committees, wrap-up sessions, and focus groups. Cynicism aside, these things are unavoidable, if at times a bit annoying. A bit like Parisians when the rent is late, if you’ll excuse my French.

What has all this to do with Egypt, or the Sinai, you may ask? Well, the Hebrews crossed the latter before falling on the Canaanites, did they not? And, if I may quote the ever grandiose Lebowski: “Given the nature of all this new shit, that, uh, instead of running around blaming me, this whole thing might be a whole lot more uh, uh complex. It might not be, you know, just such a simple– You know?”

I blame the coffee. Especially the iced derivative so liberally domed with whipped cream by Jerusalem’s Austrian Hospice’s hirelings. And if not the coffee, I’ll denounce time itself, or the scruffy cat at the restaurant that may or may not have been a shapeshifting time traveler from the Andromeda Galaxy bent on inter-civilizational tomfoolery. Did I mention it’s 35 degrees in the shade? Perhaps the Temple Mount security people were temporarily suffering from melting eyeball syndrome (unknown in medical circles as M.E.S.) when they unwittingly let a certain falafel sandwich-munching foreigner onto the grounds this afternoon. Relaxing in the shade, watching kids kick around a pigskin,  parents relaxing hither and tither, I could feel ten days of endless, horribly essential palaver subside.

“Muslim, in sh’Allah?” the waqf guy inquired politely. “No,” I answered in truth. Just a person looking around, trying to learn a thing or two about this crazy place we call the world, understanding ever less.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Middle East, Palestine, Sinai

Mother of the world

Egypt’s is often described as a patriarchal society. Guys call the shots. Prior the revolution the men running the secular dictatorship slowly but surely traded women’s rights and general liberal tenets in exchange for tacit support from an Islamic movement that officially didn’t exist. But guys have always called the shots, even before the Brotherhood and more recently Salafi influence could be felt. Save for Cairo’s mini-skirted fifties and sixties, it is believed that peering into the past is equivalent to looking at male-dominated troglodyte gloom. Europe might have taken a head start on the whole women’s rights fad, but it took a few Swiss Cantons until the eighties to grant women suffrage and to this day a sizable male-female wage gap persists.  Patriarchy appears ingrained in the human genome, or at least a quasi-universal habit that’s hard to stamp out. Or is it?

Matriarchy is often wrongly interpreted as the opposite of patriarchy, i.e. a political and/or social system where women rule over men. History cites the Cretan civilization, Hopi Indians, and, to this day, the Iroquois Confederacy and Mosuo Chinese as examples. However these are rather characterized by the sharing of power equally, not one gender lording over another. What are guys so afraid of then?

Classical (need I say male-dominated) anthropology has gone from considering matriarchy an early stage of human development, to holding it never existed at all. To some early researchers Neolithic female cult-figures suggested most ancient societies might have been matriarchal. During the sixties and seventies some went even further, theorizing a kind of prehistoric global matriarchal society, a golden epoch of equality in balance with nature with which enlightened denizens communicated by means of hallucinogenic mushrooms and trance-inducing rituals. Mankind, awakened once more, would return to that state in the coming age of Aquarius. Obviously, this non-materialistic war-less Shangri-la, would ruin the economy, not to mention many a male CEO’s end of year bonus.

Hipster cynicism aside, it makes plain sense for one gender not to enslave/underpay/overdress/underdress another. Many countries have come a long way, and yes, the Middle East is lagging behind on many fronts. Howe’er… Things are not all as they seem. A secular dictator is not necessarily a women’s rights champion. And banning a movement that espouses patriarchal views deprives women of the opportunity to expose and combat enduring silliness. Democracy, despite auguring the rise of Islamizing political parties, is a precondition to blooming Arab women’s rights movements. And move they will. As indeed they have in the past, before and after the advent of Islam. Read, if you’ll excuse my French, the friggin’ history books.

Even the ancient Egyptians knew where it was at. Hathor, a type of early goddess, took the place of earlier idols in much the same way as the Virgin Mary replaced local mother-divinities in Europe. At Wadi Maghara in Sinai she appears on one tablet wearing a pair of horns supporting the orb of the full moon, and described as mistress of the turquoise land.

In Sinai the book, there comes a woman wielding unfathomable powers. She takes on the old secular generals as well as the new Muslim guard. Fatally, not democracy but the sword is her weapon of choice.  

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Islam

Oriental- and other isms

It was 1999. Hitchhiking home from ancient St. Anthony’s Monastery in the Egyptian Eastern Desert, I had made myself a couple of brand-new friends. From the merry band of Coptic pilgrims, a bunch of youngsters timidly inquired if they could be my friend. I said “Sure” and that was that. There was Girgis, or George, Myriam, and Hannah, if I remember correctly. Myriam wanted to marry me, no doubt about it. George just wanted to hang out, and inquire about job prospects in Belgium. Hannah didn’t leave a stone unturned pointing out how singularly unimpressed she was with me and everything I represented. Together we rode the metro, ate kushari, and frequented St. Marc’s Cathedral, and the Muallaqa or hanging church, labeled so for its uncanny ability  not to sink into the swamp underneath.

At some point George introduced me to an uncle who ran a market stall in Attaba square. “My fried from Belgium,” George beamed. The man scoffed. “Mustashriq!” he spat. I knew the word, and nodded. “Yes, I’m an orientalist.” George whisked me away, a scrap of a smile covering up the brouhaha. I didn’t, however, know the actual meaning of the word. I loved the orient, studied it. What’s not to like? Somehow I hadn’t yet heard of Edward Said, renowned Palestinian scholar, who’d redefined the term to connote a Western imperialistic attitude toward its quaint, child-like subjects. In a contemporary incarnation, scholars hauled into TV studios to explain the Arab spring, are heard bemoaning Arabs’ lack of democratic traditions, the unique entanglement of Islam and politics, or, most painfully, the uneducated masses’ need of a strong hand.

The charge, once leveled, is difficult to refute, threatening to void any critical conversation between ‘westerners’ and ‘easterners’. A radical overhaul is needed, not of the dialog, but of the entire frame within which it takes place -or should take place. First and foremost, there is no such thing as ‘the’ West, let alone ‘the’ East or Middle East -whatever the kids call it these days. The two cultural spheres are interwoven to the point that you cannot understand one without the other. One of the reasons I studied Arab or Islamic history, in addition to the rich heritage per se, was to gain a broader, more accurate understanding of my ‘own’ history, warts and all. Some things can only fully be appreciated from the outside. Ask any astronaut peering down on earth from orbit. That said, over the years I have come to appreciate the ‘East’ not as outside, but as part and parcel of the same cultural and historical stream.

And yet, Sinai juxtaposes a somewhat bewildered ‘European’ with a world that is at once the scene of cynical interests and semi-mystical confrontation. The latter is not presented as diametrical to a rational west. The picture, both in the fictional ‘Sinai’ and the real world, is rather muddled, from American evangelical rapture-seekers to Machiavellistic Egyptian generals. The story presents an esoterically-inclined foe that chooses nefarious action over intellectual fancy. She -indeed- exemplifies a German Weltschmerz of unaccomplished, in this case religious rather than nationalistic, aspirations. Three seemingly identical faiths worshipping an identical God quarrel. Like 19th century Germany’s unfulfilled  promise eventually a darker, rationalistic streak takes hold. A claim to human mastery over nature and historical events and yes, righteous destiny, seed ominous plans. There is no west, and there is no east. Only the crazy things people do.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, Christianity, democracy, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Revolution