Category Archives: Revolution

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

It’s the army, stupid.

When you talk to pacifists, and I consider myself one, you often hear: “Well, we don’t want to abolish the army of course. You need them for peacekeeping missions in silly countries that need peacekeeping missions. Oh, and a guy in uniform can fill up a sandbag better than anyone in case a levee breaks.” What they forget to mention, obviously, are zombie outbreaks, large disgruntled apes, and bad-ass aliens. No, not immigrants, I mean actual beings from outer space that have come to pop a straw in your neck and drink your blood like a juice box. Armies are great. In addition, whereas a country’s police protects ordinary citizens against each other, armies protect a country’s institutions in case said citizens disagree a little too enthusiastically with the way things are going. And by ‘things’ I mean ‘money’.

Sometimes the army itself becomes so much a part of a country’s institutions and economic fabric, that you can’t really trust citizens to offer any meaningful critique as to its workings and goals. Of course nothing instills a wary public of an army’s raison d’être than the occasional war. In that sense, the Cold War has been the most elaborate attempt at having your cake and eating it. Out of control defense spending without the all-out destruction of civilian infrastructure. As good as anyway, barring the silly countries that were simply clamoring to host the odd proxy war. They’re fucked now, and in dire need of peacekeeping missions. Just the thing our guys are good at. You break it, you buy it, sort of. Too cynical, anyone? Must be the rain pouring down in buckets as Brussels prepares for tomorrow’s Fête National, scripted and organized by, you guessed it. Thinking about our boys in Afghanistan who are doing such a brilliant job saving Afghans from themselves and the accrued results of 200 years of Western altruism.

Meanwhile on 23 July Egypt will look back on the 60 years that have elapsed since the army removed king Farouk from office. Evil tongues called him a puppet. If that was the case, I wouldn’t want to have been the guy pulling the strings. King Farouk was somewhat on the chubby side. Anyway, what a wonderful 60 years it’s been. One has to credit this band of military brothers for their unfailing business savvy, changing horses mid-stream, and thus riding out the cold war on the right side of history, pocketing billions in support from the greatest army on earth called the United States.

Believe everything they say.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Middle East, Revolution

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

North of Sinai

‘Sinai’ is a book about the Arab Spring, or an imagined aftermath thereof. Last year’s revolution didn’t leave a single Arab nation untouched. That is, except the lands north of Sinai, commonly called Israel and Palestine, or as some would have it, Israel or Palestine. Formerly region-wide champions of the Arab cause, Palestinians seem to have decided to sit this one out. Or have they?

The problem perhaps is one of fact mixed with perception. The context is entirely different and no, Palestinians on the whole have not attempted to overthrow the Palestinian Authority, let alone the Israeli government which, unelected by the 3,5 million Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, controls their lives more than ever. But Palestinians have been and still are protesting every week against the barbed-wire fences occasionally cutting them off from the objects of their rabid hatred, but mostly just from other Palestinians and agricultural lands. A mass prisoner hunger strike, hardly reported about in the West, challenged Israel’s system of detaining men, women, and adolescents for years without charges.

After living in Ramallah between 2004-08 and briefly visiting in the summer of 2010, I’m currently back in the holy land, the land of milk and cookies, I mean, honeys. In the coming weeks I will be in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Gaza, more than a little curious to take the pulse of this contentious sliver of beautiful dirt. I’m looking forward to some fresh ‘taboon’ bread with olive oil and za’tar spice, a dip in Ramallah’s legendary Snobar pool, and let’s not forget -let’s not forget!- a fresh pint of Taybeh beer. Yes, Palestinians drink beer. They also wear bikinis, short skirts, dance, have jobs, and enjoy life. You might have picked that up from the umpteenth ‘astounded’ journalist reporting from the fancy nightlife of Bethlehem and Ramallah, which is only a problem of perception if it’s quasi the only thing say, the BBC, reports about.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Middle East, Palestine, Revolution, seismic changes

The Arab Spring… some awkward questions

If Al-Qaeda supports the Syrian armed opposition, as Iraqi journalist and writer Hamid Alkifaey asserts in a Bitter Lemons op-ed, have they in fact, unlike the abstemious western powers, achieved the moral high ground, reminiscent of international jihadi fighters supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serb atrocities in the nineties? Or was it never that black and white? Is it today?

Was Bin Laden’s aim really to strike at the American freedoms he so despised, or did he in fact mean to destroy the Saudi-American duopoly holding back the freedoms Arabs have had to live without ever since the rise of the global petro-economy? Concomitant to that question, do Arab revolutions form the apogee of political islam or the beginning? If political islam is a problem for western observers, why have western observers and actors to this day condoned and supported the worst examples of such regimes like Wahhabi Saudi-Arabia, ever-regressing Pakistan and pre-9/11 Taliban?

Did the American invasion of Iraq, the rhetoric of which at least was premised on Arabs’ readiness for western-style democracy, augur the Arab spring, or delay it? As bloody as the Syrian uprising is and undoubtedly will be, will it ever be as costly in human lives as the American wars against Iraq and the American-sparked Iraqi civil war was?

When the Arab spring arrives in Palestine, and it seems finally to be doing just that, which regime will it topple? The glorified municipal committee called the Palestinian Authority, or the real determinant of Palestinians’ everyday lives? Will Arabs living inside Israel stay on the sidelines? In other words, will the revolution transcend the multiple administrative strata imposed on Palestinians, to wit: Palestinians inside Israel -almost the same rights as Jewish Israelis, Palestinians in annexed East-Jerusalem -significantly less rights than Jewish Israelis, Palestinians in the West Bank -right to receive foreign aid, Gaza Palestinians -full rights to do whatever they please except to leave the 360 square kilometer ghetto by sea, land, or air? Have fears regarding the coming storm played a role in the surprise shaping of Netanyahu’s national-unity government?

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, democracy, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai

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