Category Archives: seismic changes

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

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

Conspiracy of convenience

I just love me a conspiracy. Don’t you? I bet you do. I bet people who believe in conspiracies make up the vast majority of any population. Something THEY don’t want you to know. And if you don’t believe me, well, that just proves my point exactly, doesn’t it? Kanye West says “I know the government administers AIDS”. Just prove the man wrong if you can. In ‘Sinai’ wily old generals plot to take over from a democratically elected Egyptian government. Israelis scheme to get Moses’s old stomping grounds back while American evangelicals sing Haleluja to the Rapture. Far-fetched, right? Perhaps I’ve eaten too much humus in my life. On the other hand, as a man more eloquent than myself put it, the question is not are you paranoid, it’s are you paranoid enough?

Welcome to the Middle East, where nothing is as it seems. Conspiracy, by definition a secret action by at least two people to produce a tangible outcome, rules supreme. In this world Bin Laden is CIA, 911 was an inside job and all the Jews had mysteriously taken that day off. Fiction often sits on a comfy couch holding hands with fact. Sometimes one or the other even gets to second base. Of course, Bush and Blair did lie about Saddam’s nukes. Bin Laden really was on an American payroll at some point. And we don’t know why the American military was holding an exercise on that sunny September morning simulating an attack by means of hijacked airliners. I mean, what are the odds?

But sometimes another principle might be at work. Call it ‘laziness’, or ‘inertia’. I like to call it ‘convenience’. “As the Arab Spring remakes the fabric of the Middle East, Israel has been torn between support for democratic change and a surprising comfort with the established order,” write Josef Federman and Karin Laub for Associated Press. The Assads, while terrible tyrants, former hosts to Hamas and keeping Syria in an official state of war with the Jewish state, never fired a shot for close to forty years. Arab dictators were a known quantity, mostly weak and controllable. Again, that last word, ‘controllable’, implies evil schemers subverting the sovereign will of the people. And of course, governments wield all the instruments of power and rarely -I mean never- tell everyone about everything they’re doing.

Misanthropists simply deny that people are capable of dreaming up complex new arrangements and at the same time keeping everyone else in the dark. And yes, history more or less confirms this. At least partly. For instance, yes, American neocons toppled Saddam, but the place is a stinking mess today, oil has never been more dear, and U.S. oomph is on the fritz. The world is a dynamic system, and long-term change unpredictable as ever. It’s just a terrible place for even the ablest of conspirators.

However, people are very adept at coping with adverse situations. In other words, we make the best of things. Governments conspire after the fact. They don’t invent the new, larger constellations. They just deal with them. Israel’s coming into existence was fought tooth and nail by inept Arab governments. When the latter realized they were unable to change this new fact, not only did they accept it, they worked the ‘Zionist entity’ to their benefit. Domestic opposition was muzzled thanks to the external enemy. In turn the Israeli nation was forged -in the metallurgic sense- in the crucible of Arab hostility. During the latter half of the twentieth century a precarious power balance came to be. The setup turned out to be very beneficial to and in time actively nurtured by oil-consuming America and Europe. The conspiracy, in short, arose after the fact. Israel was not created to help bring about cheap oil. European anti-Semitism was not created to one day bring about Israel. But they did more or less.

Arab populations took so long to revolt against horrible leaders because revolting is a serious drag, and I for one can think of a million zestier afternoons than getting shot in the face by gas-masked shock troops. The revolution wasn’t planned. It took a single man to set himself on fire to ignite the hearts of millions, the outcome of which everyone is still grappling with, including said millions. Israelis sure weren’t looking forward to dealing with a bunch of angry revolutionaries in stead of the predictable pashas of yore. Western ‘security architects’ surely didn’t come up with the idea. Why spend an entire day doing serious thinking when you can copy-paste in the morning, and play racket ball in the afternoon. To put it more succinctly, people are lazy cunts. Prove me wrong why don’t you.

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, democracy, end of oil, Middle East, seismic changes