Category Archives: Judaism

Wanderers of the Desert

A young teacher arrives at a village in the middle of the desert. His task is to, well, teach the children. Only problem is, the entire village is cursed, and the children disappear one by one to join a group of ‘wanderers of the desert’. Before leaving, a well speaks, urging them to break all mirrors in the village, and use the shards in an unexplained ritual. The story-telling of this beautifully shot film is both loose and low-paced, in step with recent Arab history. Torn between the mystical, anecdotal past, nostalgia for Andalusia -a paradise lost, and modernity in the guise of the wrathful police officer, the youth vanish into an aimless existence.

Tunisian director Nacer Khemir’s ‘Al-Haimoune’ or ‘Wanderers of the Desert’ perfectly captures the soul of the Arab World pre-revolution. Not in detailed exegesis, but as a broad metaphor for homelessness. A representative of the national state inspires confidence nor inspiration. The past offers a mere labyrinth of illusion, fairy tales, and unsubstantiated longing. The village itself, ruins of beautiful courtyards and crumbling arabesque walls, are reminiscent of so many abandoned villages formerly inhabited by Jews, the archetypal wanderers of the desert whose exile ended half a century ago but only in name, and not without displacing another people.

Whence from here? As the era of oil draws to a close, so must the Middle East’s subservience to the West that actually began long before the discovery of crude. The ballot box can only be the start of the end of wandering. Both Arabs and Jews have a long road ahead crafting a new symbiotic identity. Out of the desert and into a modernity that is not premised on the sword.

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Filed under Arab Spring, end of oil, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Palestine, Tunisia

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

The drums of war.

Tensions are running high in the region. Tautology aside, a volatile mix of lawlessness, the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and wider geopolitical rumblings keep everyone guessing on what’s next. The draw of milk and honey keep Ethiopian Jews flocking to the North, up through the Sinai like Mo’, as friends called him, once did, promised the end of the bondage of hunger and poverty. And so the demand for people smugglers, and the dough to be made undermines law and order on all sides of the border.

It isn’t a giant leap from a bit of moneymaking to politics. If you can smuggle people, you can smuggle weapons – exactly what some Palestinians groups in Gaza think they require to throw off their yoke. To be fair, it’s hard to envisage a successful sit-in against living in an open-air prison, staring at mainly unmanned gun turrets on all sides, if even fishing beyond 3 nautical miles is prohibited. An as good as hermetically sealed area no bigger than 360 square kilometers can and should be called a ghetto. But the best analogy for Gaza in 2012 is Guantanamo Bay, times 14.000. If you box in 1.4 million people, something’s gotta give. And the weakest link in the chain penning in the 99% unarmed, un-convicted and innocent civilians, is Sinai.

As the high-tech fence around Gaza extends southwards between the Israeli Negev and Egyptian Sinai deserts, that avenue too will close. The root causes meanwhile remain unaddressed. Sinai Bedouins stay marginalized, and Gaza’s population suffers from the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Will the Sinai, as so many observers predict, become a failed peninsula, home to Al-Qaeda offshoots and assorted scofflaws? Will Israel become tempted to quell rocket launchers and production facilities on the Egyptian side of the border, sparking what might be the end of the Camp David peace accords between both states? Could a kidnapping of Israeli tourists ignite an ever-shrinking fuse?

Sinai, the Egyptian thriller for all, explores just such a scenario. 

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Cairo, Egypt, Indigenous Rights, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, minorities, seismic changes

Revolution and the imagination deficit

Another week, and another house-hold name added to our library of fears. Mohammad Merah, a.k.a. the shooter of Toulouse, Al-Qaeda member, lone wolf, disenchanted youth, anti-Semite, Fox News’ Buddhist madman of Toolooz. Read all about it. Chances are you have come across some foaming-at-the-mouth tabloid bullshit-mongering, as well as the odd intellectual we-feel-for-the-victims-and-nothing-excuses-violence-but investigation into the social marginalization of France’s Muslim minority. Not to mention the cluster-fuck that is NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan. And all that jazz… At times I find it hard not to grow cynical to the point where I want to shut myself in a room and watch Star Trek reruns until my eyes bleed. This is one of those times.

There must be something we can do. There must be something we can agree on. ‘We’ as in ‘everyone from Mohammad Merah to Anders Breivik to Baruch Goldstein’. Right? Like, killing leads to more killing. Every time. I’m not saying that. History does. There are no mathematical equations to back this up, which can lead some to revel in implausible denial. “Sometimes killing can be a good thing. Like, if they would have, like, killed Hitler when he was a little toddler.” Pubescent fantasies aside, we can back up with mathematical equations the fact that killing is big business. Something close to two thousand billion government dollars a year worldwide, and rising -economic crisis be damned. We’re still on the same page, right? Mohammad? Anders? Baruch?

Perhaps cynicism isn’t such a bad thing after all. So much injustice, so many killings every day. Perhaps the only sane reaction, if somewhat lacking in imagination, is to go after ‘the others’. The guys who did this -whatever ‘this’ is. And there you have it: your two options. Rise up in anger, or resign to your Playstations, Kardashians or Klingons. Either way, business will go on as usual. Trillions are turned over, and millions die. That’s not an exaggeration by the way. Google it. That’s what it’s there for.

Unless… there is a middle way. Something to do with the Arab spring, education, and peaceful activism. Standing up to the global Mubarak that is the international arms trade. But that’s not for today. I currently lack the imagination, and the sun is out. I could do with a breath of fresh air. To be continued…

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, minorities, Revolution, seismic changes

Religions of the cross-road

The Sinai, bridge between Africa and Asia, has always held a strategic position. Countless wars were fought here. Countless armies past through it on their way to victory or defeat elsewhere. The north east boundary, a 200 kilometer stretch of Mediterranean coastline, also known as the ancient Via Maris, was a route used by conquerors, traders and travelers. And with those conquerors, traders, and travelers the beliefs that shape the world to this day, moved back and forth, shaped and re-shaped by the endless tides.

It all starts with the name of the place. ‘Sinai’ is derived from one of many ancient Sumerian gods called ‘Nanna’ or ‘Sin’, a.k.a. the moon god, father of Shamash, the sun, and Ishtar, Venus. A sort of holy trinity if you will. The Sumerian pantheon, containing numerous other deities, dates back to the third millennium BC. Perhaps early inhabitants likened the Sinai’s desolate rocky scapes to the distant lunar terrain. Between c.2600-2400 BC, when the city of Ur (literally: the abode of ‘Sin’) held sway over the Euphrates valley, Sin was regarded as head of the pantheon. It is to this period that we must trace such designations as ‘father of the gods’, ‘chief of the gods’, ‘creator of all things’, and the so on and so forth. In other words, an early form of the three monotheistic faiths had arisen. The Sinai itself is named after the prototype of the one true God that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship to this day.

Later, the crescent moon came to symbolize not only the stretch of fertile land formed by the Euphrates and Tigris river and the coastal areas of the Eastern Mediterranean and Nile valley, but Islam itself. The stringent monotheism of Islam -there is no God but [the one] God- as well as Judaism can be construed as a necessary effort to distance themselves from the original large cast of divine entities. When Israel fell into idolatry, it was usually to the cult of the moon god, subject of constant rebukes in the Old Testament. Muhammad too scarcely left a sura of the Qur’an untouched by vehement condemnation of those who continued to worship the hundreds of pre-Islamci gods of the Kaaba in Mecca, chief of which had always been the moon god, represented as an old man with a flowing beard, wise and unfathomable.

Christianity was always more accommodating to the god-like status of other than the one true god himself. Beside the holy trinity, followers of Jesus borrowed a host of pre-monotheistic concepts. The Egyptian god Horus for instance was born from a virgin, announced by angels and heralded by a star in the East, baptized at 30, had a foster-father called Joseph, fled out of Egypt (through the Sinai of all places) from a homicidal king called Herut, and performed miracles including raising a man from the dead. The list of parallels goes on by the way. And on. Later the Sinai would once again, ironically perhaps, figure as a place of refuge, this time for heretics from Byzantine orthodoxy.

In ‘Sinai’ a new heretic will try to forge a new syncretism, (re-)uniting all of the monotheistic faiths. Her premise is a shaky one indeed. Not to mention very dangerous. 

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Filed under Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, Middle East, Sinai

Sinai-Fiction

“One hundred and fifty years from now, in a world where Africa is the dominant technological and economic power, and where crime, war, disease and poverty have been banished to history, Geoffrey Akinya wants only one thing: to be left in peace, so that he can continue his studies into the elephants of the Amboseli basin.” 

This is a story outline by Jonathan Dotse from Accra, Ghana, who blogs under the name of Afrocyberpunk about the future of African science-fiction. If indulging in (self)reflection about the future of society impacted by scientific development signifies a forward look, in fear or hope, then Africa has come into its own. In the wake of District 9, which mixed distinct Afro-centric backdrop and themes with an audacious inversion of such common sci-fi notions as ‘advanced’ and ‘earthly’, a bevy of African books and movies jostle for attention.

It’s not a stretch to connect these leaps of the imagination to a continent buoyed by a thriving resource trade, enormous but often unequal economic growth, and the advent of the 100 Gbit/s Wasace fibre-optic cable connecting Africa with the rest of the world. While authoritarian-run Rwanda aspires to become the next India, Silicon Valley and Japan all rolled into one, Nigerian cyber-scammers leave no gullible inbox unspammed. Throw in rare earth metals and pirates and you’re left wondering how any writer can resist the lure of the continent’s infinite possibilities.

But I’m drifting off. This blog is about plugging ‘Sinai’, an Arabian tale of old powers, nostalgic dictators and oil, not to mention 3000 years of Abrahamic lunacy. The contrast couldn’t be greater. Here’s a land looking back. Back to Islam as Muhammad meant it. Back to the secular, progressive fifties Middle East where skirts were short and the sky was the limit. Back to the glorious thirteenth century when Arabs invented science-fiction for crying out loud. Not that this is a new lament. Arabs never recovered from the discovery of America and the global trade shift toward the Western water ways. Only a handful of elites reaped the dividends of the oil age. Everyone else got fucked. No need to envision a dystopian future when that future is now.

Sinai is not science-fiction. While questioning the past, the future has largely caught up with it. The old order is thrown out, reluctant. Shackles are broken, that sort of thing. The future is left untouched, and is in any case not for me, a closet orientalist, to envision. 

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Filed under Arab Spring, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Revolution, Sinai, Uncategorized

Camp David

I remember my first time in the Sinai. After zigzagging the jagged road for what seemed like an eternity the Red Sea beckoned. Newbies armed with nothing but flip-flops and an outdated Lonely Planet my friends and I perused the coastline for a place to crash. From the Southern tip at Sharm el-Sheikh all the way up to the Israeli border you’ll be hard-pressed to see a beach without a beach camp. From a few reed huts to actual brick and plaster rooms you’ll find them in all stages of (dis)repair. Some have electric power from a diesel generator a few hours a day. Most have none. Here the backpacker’s heart throbs. Basic accommodation can be had at such poetic places as Blue Dolphin Camp, Red Sea Paradise, and yes, more than one Camp David.

What surprised me most was the sight of Israeli youth and Egyptian kids singing songs together around the camp fire. “But this is all wrong,” I was almost tempted to interject. Ever since the Camp David accords returned the Sinai back to Egypt, the peace with Israel has been anything but warm. “We go there all the time. Why don’t they come here?” an Israeli friend would ask me later. Me! Me! Me! Like front-row pupils a bevy of answers jostle. On a very basic level: You simply wouldn’t believe the shit that they and anyone suspected of sympathy for them get at border crossings, above and beyond the call of prudence. But that’s another matter. Israelis cross easily into the Sinai -as stipulated by the treaty. And a merry microcosm it is. That’s not meant ironically by the way.

The Camp David peace was a failure in that it never lead to an actual economic and cultural exchange. It established a security framework, an Israeli-Egyptian tandem geared to maintain a status-quo at all cost. Egypt was castigated from the Arab League because the deal did not include any guarantees regarding the important stipulation that it entail the start of a process to end the occupation of the Palestinian West-Bank and Gaza and return the Golan Heights to Syria.

The peace treaty has worked wonderfully for the Sinai, and for the Sinai only. Up on the mountain there Mozes established a set of laws that would form the basis not just of Judaism, but also Christianity and to an even greater extent Islam. You don’t have to be a believer to believe that these things are important to a whole lot of peaceful folks. An avenue toward coexistence and peace doesn’t necessarily demean these cathedrals of the mind, regardless of whether the object of veneration exists or not. The accord grants Israelis access to a spiritual stomping ground. As such it essentially separates the cultural and religious sphere from that of another, lesser edifice of the human mind; national sovereignty, barbed wire and the thing where you show a piece of paper to get a stamp after lifting your arms a number of times for the metal detector. It could be a model toward Palestinian self-determination.

Sovereignty 2.0

Israelis often point out how the word ‘Jew’ itself is linked to ‘Judea’, an area inhabited by Palestinians, and  under no interpretation of International Law a part of the sovereign state of Israel. Sighing under a Draconian and more often than not absurd and cruel security apparatus Palestinians watch as soldiers provide Israelis with access not only to their spiritual stomping ground, but also the excellent real estate and water resources. Even before the installation of close to half a million Israeli citizens on Palestinian land, tearing asunder a viable and contiguous future state, a ‘rump’ Israel and Palestine were never going to become the clear-cut and separate entities as envisioned by 19th century people-nationalism. A new Camp David for these arch-foes needs to radically pursue the separation of ‘national’, economic, and cultural sovereignty. The logical conclusion of this idea will necessarily resemble a bi-national or even one-state solution. Sound crazy? You forget that ‘crazy’ was invented here…

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Filed under Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai