Tag Archives: Egypt

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

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 Evolution Love

Like all fiction, Sinai offers analogies, a metaphor to help understand past, current, and future events. Sinai’s is a revolution, an attempted clawback of the ‘ancien régime’, and the sectarian means at their disposal. And then some.

Revolutions are a perilous affair. Like a horse and carriage they go hand in hand with counter-revolutions, persistent chaos, or even; hardly any change at all, as was the case for Romania the first decade after Ceausescu. 1790’s France tumbled headlong into a decade of atrocities with wily Bourbons dreaming and scheming of an ultimately fatal come-back. The European Revolutions of 1848, in some places known as the Springtime of the Peoples, was quickly rolled back by the aristocracy and armies. Action, reaction. The 1968 Spring of Prague: ditto.

Then again, plenty of revolutions succeed. If not immediately, then in the long term imprint left in the collective conscience that survives the waxing and waning of momentary political currents. While the Spring of Prague failed miserably and, needless to say, bloodily, it arguably sowed the seeds for the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Obviously, the deeper-seated the disgruntlement, the more turbulent the upheaval. The cold war had contained a Vesuvius of ethnic grievances in a deep freezer called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Shit, at room-temperature, was bound to hit the fan.

Egypt’s follows a similar period where history wasn’t allowed to follow its natural path of the least resistance. Islamic reformers cum nationalists of the late 19th and early 20th century who aimed to wed Islam to modern society faced the wrath of colonial overlords suspicious of all things reeking of local empowerment. After WWII Nasr and his Soviet palls were even less inclined to allow political Islam to exist, let alone evolve. Government crackdowns continued under Sadat and Mubarak. During the eighties and nineties Egypt’s Western-backed security apparatus came under siege by ever smaller, ever more extreme armed groups long after the then still illegal Muslim Brotherhood itself had abjured violence. The state eventually won its war on terror, but failed to provide jobs, development, and popular participation in the decision-making process. Something had to give. Egypt’s climate ensures two things: fans in every room, and year-round sunshine to melt the coldest, hardest shit.

Mubarak’s gone. His cronies and the men of steel haven’t budged. Given an inch they are certain to try and roll back the tides of freedom. However last week’s Tahrir 2.0 gives them little reason to rejoice. Then again, they’re not exactly the types to want or need to rejoice about anything. They just are, and they will do what they will do. It’s too early to say whether they will succeed in the short run, but try they will. With or without outsiders’ help.

This is what happens in “Sinai”. It’s not a book about the future, nor of the present as such. It’s of and for all times. The people too will do what they do.

Buy it here.

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

Gadhafi, the Middle East, and Western interventionism.

Sinai is a tongue-in-cheek fictional thriller set to the backdrop of a chaotic post-Mubarak Egypt. Intrigue, bombs, and breathtaking vistas guarantee a riveting read for all. This blog burrows into the political context, a guide to the inscrutable Middle East, cradle of civilization, and yes, many a confused bout of head shaking.   

Even John Stewart couldn’t quite help himself. A measure of self-congratulatory glee got the better of the feted talk-show host as he painted “No’Amor” Gadhafi’s expiration a grand U.S. foreign policy success, much to Obama’s Republican opponents’ chagrin. A pinch of redemption came for Mr. Stewart in the cynical shape of a short historical overview of U.S.-Gadhafi relations that read like a Facebook timeline. Friended. Unfriended. Refriended. Unfriended. Refriended. Unfriended. Replace “unfriended” with “bombed” and “refriended” with “sold bombs to” and you get the idea more or less. Donald Trump, the gazelle-coifed tycoon, put it more succinctly. “Big deal,” opined the one-time presidential candidate. “What do we get out of it?” To reduce the Middle East to a playground and juice box of Western Powers, more or less since the slow wane of the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 17th century,  might be a slight exaggeration. And yet, the Arab Spring phenomenon -for phenomenal it is- should be seen as much as an assertion of national sovereignty as well as a popular emancipation against corrupt dictators. The two are inextricably linked.

Western interventions in the Middle East, regular as clockwork, started long before the discovery of oil. Back then, European nations were interested in expansion, one would almost be tempted to say, for the heck of it if by “heck” you mean “filthy lucre” i.e. trade and a territorial cushion to absorb fast-expanding populations at home. France and Britain pretty much carved up the Arab lands among them with some scraps left for Italy, the Giovanni-come-lately of colonialism. Germany, the Heinrich-not-only-missed-the-bus-but-locked-himself-out-wearing-slippers-and-had-to-wait-for-the-locksmith of the great scramble for land, attempted and failed utterly to gain any traction among the Arabs. Which is not to say the English and French had a jolly ride of it. Au contraire. Restive natives, rabble and rebel intellectual alike, required heavy policing, gunboats, and financial ‘tutelage’ to be subdued, again and again. The discovery of ‘Arab’ oil in the 1930’s only upped the stakes. However, European nationalism, now very much en vogue among its soon to be former subjects, necessitated a different model of control for the post WWII era. Direct rule was out. Divide and conquer was the new-old name of the game. Not to mention a fair and fun amount of whack-a-mole.

Countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, and others gained nominal independence long before national movements actually asserted the full array of their countries’ sovereign powers. They remained, in other words, puppet states until champions, more often than not army men, kicked out Western ‘advisers’, ‘administrators’, and army ‘trainers’, mainly in the 1950’s. Libya maintained a very close relationship with its former colonial masters, and hosted an American military airfield until a bloodless military coup brought to power Mu’ammar Gadhafi in 1969.

The new, real independence of Libya and other Arab countries didn’t last. The latter-half of the 20th century can broadly be charted as a reconquest of Western influence over Arab states. The naughty ones; colonels, generals, and presidents who didn’t ‘play ball’ were by no means spared the rod. Attacks on overly independent realms happened, and still happen, either directly or through local proxies. A balance was, and is to be maintained at all cost. Examples abound. Iraq clobbers Iran. Iran clobbers Iraq. Iraq clobbers Kuwait. The world clobbers Iraq. Syria clobbers the PLO. Lebanese Falange clobber Palestinians. Israel clobbers all. Egypt clobbers, then makes peace with Israel. Arabs ostracize Egypt for making peace with Israel. And so on and so forth. The Merry-Goes-Round. And round, and round. At the end of the day the oil gushes out of the Middle East. Dollars gush in. Dollars are then repatriated through arms purchases. A balance of payments is maintained as well as a balance of terror.

In the end Gadhafi had switched sides one too many times. As the Arab spring reached Libya French president Sarkozy and British PM Cameron quickly called for his ouster. But the tables turned as Gadhafi successfully employed all the weaponry sold to him by the west against his own civilian population. Embracing the man once more proved too cynical a prospect, even for Sarkozy and Cameron. The crazy man had to go. Better be very friendly to the new guys. Cut a deal. What’s in it for us? Fifty fifty on the oil? Rebuild infrastructure, replenish weapons stock piles? That way you’re set for the next round when the black gold once more reduces the minds of men to a viscous dark goo. The Merry-Goes-Round. And round, and round.

“Sinai” explores the dangers confronting a soon-to-be elected post-Mubarak Egyptian leadership. From wistful old regime elements, western powers’ attempts to claw back lost influence, to religious zealotry -no, not the kind that you think… 

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Filed under Arab Spring, Egypt, end of oil, Gadhafi, Libya, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai, Uncategorized

Et maintenant on va où?

“Et Maintenant on va où?” is a film by Lebanese movie maker and actress Nadine Labaki. The story portrays a Lebanese village where two communities, Muslim and Christian, try to resist the ineluctable draw of ill tidings tiptoeing in over a creaky satellite dish and a narrow bridge that separates them from the outside world. While the men quarrel and, increasingly, come to blows, the women do everything in their considerable power to avoid bloodshed. The opening scene shows them black-clad and bereft at the cemetery. United in grief, they perform a strangely alluring synchronized dance of mourning before laying flowers on the graves of young men. Christians on the left, Muslims on the right. They will go to great lengths to avert a repetition of untold earlier events, and don’t shy away from subverting the holiest of taboos…

About the same time that I left the cinema, pensive but happy having seen an esthetic and thoughtful work of art, the streets of Cairo erupted in an eerily parallel, but very real world. Egyptian Christians, known as Copts that make up about 10% of the country, marched to demand state protection after a number of sectarian clashes saw churches go up in flames. Confrontations between Egyptian Muslims and Christians are endemic although demonstrations against Mubarak’s now-defunct regime showed wide-spread solidarity between the two groups. Copts guarded against police and regime thugs as Muslims prayed, and vice versa. This weekend’s marching Christians found themselves assailed by non-uniformed agitators wielding machetes and throwing stones. The army, guarding the television building and epicenter of the demonstration, claims they were shot at. In the ensuing chaos at least 25 people died. Hundreds were wounded. Most of the victims were run over by armed personnel carriers.

“Hassan and Marcos”, an Egyptian movie from 2008 starring Omar Sharif and the unavoidable Adel Imam, deals with the same sectarian tensions as “Et Maintenant on va où?” It too delivered a very necessary reflection on what differentiates people as worshippers and what unites them as plain humans. The story’s main protagonists engage in the same upending of established mores in an attempt to stave off a conflagration. Neither film however thoroughly addresses the unique political exploitability of creed in mixed societies. S0-called islamophobic populists make electoral hay in Europe stressing the incompatibility of Islam with Western societies. Currently exited or exiting Middle East dictators long fanned and maintained the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to avoid political concessions at home. Israeli politicians more or less ditto.

Recent events in Cairo indicate that communal peace and stability are still being used as a bargaining chip by remnants of the Mubarak regime. ‘Work with us. Accept our limited idea of democracy or risk chaos.’ Which is not to say of course that explosions of hatred between groups don’t or cannot occur spontaneously. They do. And they are far from rare actually, West and East, North and South. Choices in policing tactics however make all the difference. For an organized and well-trained police force like Egypt’s chance plays but a marginal role between fanning or dousing the flames. Plowing a ten-ton truck through a crowd of unarmed demonstrators can hardly be construed as an ambiguous act.

“Sinai” opens up a exactly such a Pandora’s box of ungodly politicking. Not two, but all three monotheistic faiths are implicated. The peninsula has three sides to it, mind you, and each page of the book has you guessing as to which side you’re on. There are no easy answers. But the crazies must be held accountable.

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Filed under Cairo, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Revolution, Sinai

Mubarak’s gone.

Sinai is a thriller first and foremost, however at times a bit tongue-in-cheek. Stuff gets blown up. A car is chased down a vermillion sunset highway. There’s some craziness with a forklift in an abandoned warehouse. And of course a damsel in distress needs rescuing. As do a number of guys, mind you, hardened wielders of steel and powder as well as someone who has trouble bringing a simple snorkeling venture to a successful end. In other words, Sinai is a story you can read next to a swimming pool. Depending on the pool obviously. You probably want to steer clear of the splashier, noisy types. If only because books have a tendency to take up a lot more space after they’ve gotten wet a few times.

If you happen to be reading in a quieter, dryer environment, say a desert, or your living room, a few other elements might jostle for your attention. Any story has a backdrop, a time and place if you will. For Sinai the place, obviously, is Sinai, Egypt. The time is more or less two years from today. Sitting down to write Sinai back in 2005, I wondered what would happen if the old man finally kicked the bucket. Mubarak was already looking a bit frail at the time. His young, Raybanned face plastered on billboards all over the country contrasted starkly with the grayish skin and dyed hair shown on increasingly rare television appearances. I thought it likely he die before ever being deposed. On the other hand I never believed in a million years Egyptians would abide his son Gamal to simply scoop behind the wheel. It was going to get messy whichever way the cookie crumbled.

As January 2011 became February and the masses swelled shouting “Down with the regime!” my heart skipped a few beats. It was finally happening. Not by nature’s force of entropy but good ole’ people getting up out of their chairs and being mad as hell and not taking it anymore. The historic events that unfolded in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East necessitated changing a comma left and right, but the basic premise of ‘Sinai’ stood. Egypt is facing an exciting new epoch. Lots of challenges await. A lot of stuff can go wrong. Sinai is a cautionary tale: Elections have brought to power a moderate Brotherhood government. Due to their relative inexperience many socio-economic issues remain untackled. Protesters line the avenues and fill the squares. Some long for the good old days of law and order. Two generals receive a quiet endorsement from abroad to bring about just that… And the story begins.

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Cairo… A scene from “Sinai”

Closed shutters all around, crusted-paint and padlocks. At Ramses Square, as is his wont, Tariq curses at the vacancy from which the antiquities people have removed his beloved statue, the old Pharaoh slash god. “They will rue the day,” he mutters to himself.

A quiet day is one thing, but this? Tariq counts the cars. Counts them! Can you believe it? He figures he’s still dreaming. Has to be. There can be no other explanation. Unless Ramses the Third is busy exacting his long-plotted payback, and ate, as an opening salvo, the entire populace save half a dozen taxi drivers and his biggest fan, Tariq.

The train station: empty, whereas around this hour the Aswan-Cairo should be spewing out its weary cargo by the hundreds, make that thousands.

At Bulaq, Tariq takes Ibn Khaldoun Street off the main roundabout. From there he can see a ghostly trickle from the metro stop, not the usual frothing geyser of hustlers and commuters. Not a lot, but people! Finally.

Then, a distant rumble yanks his attention the other way. Countless trucks, jeeps, you name it. Army green, and uncharacteristically brand new.

Tariq gets off his bike to watch the convoy roll by. He begins to worry. Ever since the elections a lot has changed. Mostly in a good way. But things haven’t exactly been normal either. There can always be found a reason to protest, strike, or make a general mess of things, but then, Tariq figures, that’s the whole point of a democracy. Sure, no one is exactly in love with the new guys, and none of the Western countries bothered to congratulate them either, but you would be hard-pressed to find a single sad face when the old man was sent to die in Sharm el-Sheikh. Good riddance.

Nah, a little chaos is only natural. People just aren’t used to being able to talk and not get beaten up. At least these new guys talk about unemployment. They don’t yet know what to do about it, but they talk at least. A lot more than the old man ever did.

When Tariq arrives at the bakery, Ahmad stands on his toes, craning out to pull down the shutters.

Tariq rings the heavy bicycle double-bell, which is a lifesaver in normal, noisy traffic but, lacking that, rattles the world.

Ahmad jolts, leaving the shutter to roll back and disappear overhead. “Ya Allah, khawwifni, you scared me, boy.”

“Good morning,” Tariq crows. “Did you have a good weekend?”

“Funny guy. What are you doing here?” Ahmad rises up on his toes again, hooking the gate into the wooden tentacle.

“What do you mean, what’s going on? Why is there no one on the streets? Does this mean I get the day off?”

Ahmad crouches, beating the padlock: its only defense a soft “click”. He turns his head, an incredulous eyebrow in charge. He says, “W’Allah, Tariq, habibi, you really need to get out more…”

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Filed under Cairo, Middle East, Sinai