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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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

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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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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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