Category Archives: Feminism

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

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

Liberalz

Liberals aren’t doing very well in the Middle East. Islamist parties have swept the ballot in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya is just a plain mess. Coptic Christians are fretful for their already tenuous position in Egyptian society. Women fear a patriarchic backlash implied in Islamists’ conservative programs. The latter use newly-won democratic freedom to gain power, but will they abide by the rules of the game once in power?

First of all, liberals -and with few caveats I consider myself one- are a bunch of wining cry-babies. Quite often we are prone to jitters in the face of dangerous trends like islamization, global warming, or the new, abhorrent indulgences of youngsters. How often do we really look in the mirror and admit that, ah yes, we too were once young and dangerous, and liberals also drive cars, use power-guzzling iPads, eBooks and er, wAshing Machines. By and large, liberals gave nary a peep when ‘secular’ and hence perceived as ‘liberal’ regimes beat, jailed, tortured, and killed their Islamist opponents, be they AK47-toting maquisards or moderate anti-totalitarian believers of the Eighties Polish priest variety.

During the Mubarak years liberal Egyptians either left the country or more or less went with the flow, enjoying the economic privileges of an economic pyramid heavily skewed in favor of an internationally mobile elite and business-savvy military brass. The few who did stick their necks out know why the rest didn’t. Western liberals, who are able to bathe in bikinis and -God forbid- Speedos on Sharm El-Sheikh’s beaches, didn’t see a problem. Mubarak was pro-women, as would be his son, they assumed. As long as the Egyptian economy grew, who needs democracy? And grow it did. The ones that profited though were those that knew someone that knew someone. You guessed it, liberals.

Geert Wilder

When liberals forget that liberalism and its enabler; material wellbeing, is for everyone, they cease to be liberals. They ought to stop yammering and acting all surprised at the electoral success of Islamic movements that have for years provided social services and healthcare to those who needed it most. The revolutions sweeping the Middle East are an opportunity to establish a level playing field where all the currents of a society can vie for attention, approval, and influence. Liberals haven’t had a veritable opponent in decades. Ideas are crusted over with neglect and complacency. It’s time for some soul-searching and re-inventing. Arab liberals can do better than a simple copy-paste job of their European or American peers. Challenged by xenophobic rabble-rousers the latter have done a lot of caving in and Chamberlain-ing, and not a lot of self-criticizing and looking to a different future.

In ‘Sinai’, a tongue-in-cheek thriller, a Muslim Brotherhood-led government isn’t doing so great. The challenges are great, and the people’s patience threadbare. The ‘liberals’, represented by a pair of wily old generals, are more than yearning for a simpler past. A doofus backpacker winds up in the middle of this tug-of-war. Suddenly a lot more is at stake than the soul of Egypt… 

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, Christianity, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai, Uncategorized

Democracy in the Middle East

Sinai is not a political treatise. Or maybe it is. Depends on your definition of ‘is’ perhaps. It’s a bit of a silly story of a dude lost in an Alice in Wonderland type of strange land. But even silly stories are set in a time and place. Sinai’s is a recent democracy, it’s foibles and turmoil.

It’s been a year since the revolutions began. It’s been a year since western pundits started wondering what’s next. Can there be such a thing as Arab or Muslim democracy? Will Islamist forces seize the opportunity to try and impress upon a volatile society its patriarchic and misogynistic views? Will the West be forced to reassess long-standing relationships, scramble to save contracts, jostle for new ones, and pragmatically pander to whichever regime or constellation of forces arising from the chaos? The answer to all of these questions of course is ‘yes’. Unfortunately the answer to all of these questions means nothing much at all.

Winston Churchill once said “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” The same can be said of the Middle East. The past couple of years have been especially prolific. So much has happened in fact, and is happening, that to draw ANY kind of conclusion today about the Arab Spring is not only futile, but very much at peril of sounding silly. The generals of Egypt are trying to claw back the power and influence lost in the process of removing their much-hated figurehead Mubarak. Hence, democracy is lost. Islamists are winning important democratic elections. Hence, the future will look like Iran. In lieu of finely-tuned sarcasm, I’ll just put it bluntly: It’s stupid! Fuck off!

Sinai’s main character, like a lot of newly-minted Mid-East pundits, isn’t well-versed in the matters at hand. Linus isn’t versed at all actually. He was looking for a beach, and found a war zone. Talk about great, dashed expectations. He has to learn the hard way that things don’t really end -no spoiler alert: the book does end! In reality, no such clear-cut narratives exist. Everything is a process. History is not a collection of periods that begin and end. It’s an oscillating wave. Likewise, democracy is not a point of arrival. It’s a conductor like copper wiring. Democracy allows for a society to communicate, first and foremost with itself. Suffrage allows for ALL ideas to be heard, however smart or retarded, and for a (often disappointing) common denominator thereof to percolate as collective action. Competing forces in a society can wage battle without actual blood flowing on the dance floor. Democracy is an imperfect means to an end that no one knows.

Buy Sinai here.

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

Why the Arab Spring was no surprise.

“Nobody saw it coming!” they say. Among others the White House, whose business it is to know who’s hot and who’s not among its Arab satellite regimes, found itself flabbergasted, not to mention discombobulated. “A complete surprise,” muttered many a well-paid analyst, often expounding their ignorance on national TV. “Told you so,” gloated a few -ahem- prescient observers. One might arguably pop the latter’s bubble by saying that if you predict enough things, some are bound to come true. Winning the lottery is difficult, but it happens nonetheless. And yet, while playing the lottery is purely a game of chance, history accords the astute observer quite a few threads to see what’s ahead. In that sense, it’s more like playing black-jack while a voluptuous blonde woman befuddles your opponent.

The Arab Spring, in other words, was always in the cards. Without delving too much into the past, Egypt under Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) was a police state run under emergency law instated after the previous president’s assassination at the purported hands of Islamist militants. While in the streets of Cairo and the sugar cane fields of the Nile valley and Delta a low-intensity war raged between Saudi-financed terror groups and brutal American-armed security forces, Egyptian society grew poorer, and evermore conservative. The nominally secular regime yielded the religious forum to the invisible (because illegal, yet non-violent) Muslim Brotherhood. I.e. certain conservative aspirations were met while the root of the Brotherhood’s success was left unaddressed; pervasive state corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and a lack of social services that the Brotherhood was more than happy to make up for.

Meanwhile the Egyptian middle-class, whose women in the Sixties and Seventies happily wore mini-skirts, bikinis and jeans, was all but decimated after the costly wars of ’67 and ’73, and the neoliberal “Opening” policy begun by Sadat just before the start of the Eighties. Egyptian cinema, a rich and artful platform to discuss social change, women’s rights and existential musings, withered. Although the incisive Egyptian sense of humor and keen observation is difficult if not impossible to suppress, the Eighties and Nineties were a time of ‘loud and camp’, and such finely chiseled imports as Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. On the romantic side, perhaps no movie embodied the crux and end of that era better than “Titanic”. Among Egyptian, and indeed Arab youth, always dreaming of a better life, an American life, the message really sunk in. “Get rich, or die trying,” to paraphrase a Mr. Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent.

This American orientation, already badly wounded by US support for arch-enemy Israel, ended with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died there. No weapons of mass destruction were found. Al-Qaeda followed the US army into Iraq, not the other way around, while democracy, hardly worthy of the name, stumbled. The Egyptian and other Arab regimes, by association, stood bare.  Justice would not come from the West. John Rambo wasn’t going to set things straight. Egyptian cinema of the Nilties in turn took on a sharper tone. Movies like “Hasan and Marcos” discussed Christian-Muslim relations. The scandal flick “The Yacoubian Building” based on a novel by Alaa Al-Aswany set in an Art Deco building by the same name, offered a piercing review of Egyptian society. Even high-rolling action films like “Tito” and “Fatah Ainaik” (Open your Eyes) bathed in a political undercurrent, pitting young men against the political and economic 1%.

Already in 2004 a vocal political movement came to the fore. The Egyptian Movement for Change, or Kefaya (Enough) was born from solidarity committees with Palestinians’ 2000 Intifada against Israeli occupation, and from the huge protests against the US invasion of Iraq. Rumors that Mubarak’s son Gamal was being groomed for dynastic succession further galvanized the opposition. In December of 2004 between 500 and 1000 protestors surrounded by riot police demanded Mubarak step down. Cowed and beaten by pro-regime thugs, and failing to expand beyond an intellectual Cairo elite, the movement did manage to wrest some token reforms from the state. Moreover, one of the movement’s founders Hany Anan, declared: “We are showing Egyptians that we can challenge the ruler, we can tell him we don’t want you, that’s enough, you go, and we can do this in public and still go back to our homes, maybe with some wounds or some bruises, but we still go home.”

It would take another five years, and the inspiring Tunisian example, for the rest of Egyptians to pinch themselves and open their eyes to a startling possibility. ‘Wait a minute… You can do that?” The surprise, perhaps, was all theirs.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, Egypt, Feminism, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai, Uncategorized

The Big Kahina

“Sinai” is a tongue-in-cheek thriller set in post-Mubarak Egypt. Intrigue, bombs, and breathtaking vistas ensure a riveting read for all. The story, needless to say, is entirely fictional. And yet reality, present and past, inspires a lot of the story line and characters. One of the latter borrows heavily from a very special, and very real 7th century warrior princess. 

The term “warrior princess” undoubtedly conjures up images of Xena, the famous and, let’s face it, hot guerillera from TV. The real Dahiyah (or Dihiyah, Kahya, or Damiya -there are literally dozens of different names for the very same lady) was not so different from her televised peer. Actually not a whole lot is known of Dahiyah, which, admittedly, lends credence and leeway to one’s imagination. There is however a broad consensus that she was a Berber, and that she proved a big headache for the invading Arab armies from the East. Based somewhere in contemporary Algeria she roundly defeated an Umayyad commander, forcing him to cower and whimper for four long years in the deserts of Cyrenaica, known today as Libya. They thought she was a sorceress, and imaginatively they proceeded to call her The Sorceress, or Al-Kahina in Arabic. Eventually backed into a corner she resorted to scorched earth tactics, which didn’t impact the desert and mountain tribes, but lost her the support of well-heeled oasis-dwellers, and hence in the end, the war.

Dahiyah swallowed a poison to avoid capture, or went down in a blaze of glory, depending on the historical or hagiographical source. A lot of competing claims have been made about her life. Some say the fierce leader was a pagan who worshipped the god Ba’al. Ibn Khaldoun seemed to think she was Jewish although Algerian Jews speak of a terrible persecutor of Jews named ‘Kahya’. Ibn Khaldoun also recorded a legend wherein she liberated an enslaved people by marrying their tyrant and slitting his throat on their wedding night. In more recent times Dahiyah was hailed by French colonialists, Arab nationalists, North-African Jews, and Arab feminists. In short, she must have been one seriously cool momma. It was all I could do to sip from the Kool Aid, and slip her into ‘Sinai’. Or rather, someone not even remotely like her. I’ll let you be the judge.

Whichever way, you simply have to meet her!

Sinai is available in all Amazon stores, Barnes & Noble, Espresso Book Machine, and many more online shops. In Brussels you can buy Sinai at Sterling Books, Waterstones, and Passa Porta. Antwerp: De Groene Waterman. iBook Store, Kindle, FNAC and Standaard Boekhandel to be announced. Overview of all online and offline shops.

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Filed under Algeria, Feminism, Judaism, Libya, Middle East, Sinai, Tunisia