Tag Archives: Sinai

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

The Usual Suspects

If you are an armed group of any extrapolation, Sinai is the place to go. Everybody and their AK-47 toting moms go there. It’s what the kids do nowadays. The place is hot. Or so they say. And who are they, you may ask? Well, everybody and their mom, give or take. About 1000 Egyptian troops are currently engaged in Operation Eagle, aptly named, for if said bird of prey is known for one thing it’s reestablishing state control over rugged lands by means of checkpoints, tanks, helicopters and intensified ID controls.

Al-Qaeda has taken up residence in the Sinai. Or so media-security pundits say. A bunch of dudes in pickup trucks attacked a police station, passing out Al-Qaeda flyers and destroying a statue of Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor and signatory to the Israeli-Egyptian treaty that returned the peninsula to its rightful owner. Some point to the Bedouin, but the Bedouin point to former regime thugs smuggling drugs, weapons and other mischief. No, not Al-Qaeda, say others. These are merely Takfir Wal Hijra groups, folks who believe everyone but themselves are full of shit, Islam-wise, and hence subject to violent and, needless to say, righteous retribution.

Recently a mysterious suicide bomber blew himself up, along with three soldiers manning a checkpoint. No one has claimed the attack. Perhaps a case of very spontaneous human combustion. After an attack on Israeli security forces in Eilat last year, Israel has blamed Palestinians tunneling in and out of Sinai from Gaza. Some mused of establishing a security perimeter on Egyptian turf to ward off future shenanigans. Sources in Al-Arish suggest Muhammad Dahlan, security bigwig in Gaza prior to the Hamas takeover, in addition fallen out with his Fatah chums in the West Bank, might be roaming the area. Or at least some of his buddies.

And then we’re back to the Bedouins, whose brethren are currently being uprooted en masse from the Israeli Negev, and have always gotten a raw deal from the Egyptians. Plenty of reasons to be pissed off. Before the Israeli invasion in 1967 they had legal authority to maintain security within their own tribes in the Sinai. After Camp David all they got from the state was the baton and touristic development the benefits of which are largely siphoned off to Cairo. Will the new regime take their rightful demands for at least a piece of the cake into account? What role are they to play in the security architecture of the ‘new’ Sinai? Will the new regime countenance at least a semblance of indigenous rights like some generals have intimated they might?

In ‘Sinai’ the usual suspects are not quite what they seem. The hardcore Muslims are far from hardcore. Nor, strictly spoken, very Muslim. The new old regime is back to the bad old ways, or are they? And who is paying for those gleaming new hummers? Last but not least, the Bedouin find themselves in thrall to a native from another epoch. 

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Indigenous Rights, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes

Muslims and stuff..

I was eleven years old when I spotted my first Muslim. I didn’t actually know that he was one, or if I did, what it meant. The Flemish countryside wasn’t exactly rife with newcomers back in the days. It was the late eighties. Ronald Reagan had just past the torch to the first of the Bushes. MacGuyver was the coolest man alive, and I dreamt aloud of owning a double tape-deck radio while my peers elsewhere were switching to CD. Like I said; Flemish countryside. And from its deepest recess I moved to a new school. A bigger town. Still bum-fuck “Limbourg” but hey, 60.000 souls and counting, changing, diversifying. Come to think of it, I might as well have landed on Mars.

His name was Chaglar. To me the word ‘Turk’ by dint of, let’s call them uncles and aunts who had seen one or several, carried somewhat of an odor. For some reason the teacher sat me right next to him too. I remember the boy’s constant chewing, inseparable from the small bags of sunflower seeds like Gorbachev from that thing that lived on his forehead. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” I asked. Just making conversation. “Six.” Shit. I was not in Kansas anymore. Both my parents hailed from larger families, but in this day and age? Gosh. We became friends in the manner of a bunch of suburban kids chaperoning a stranded alien. Looking back I think –I know that I was the E.T.; unworldly, withdrawn, preferring Lego over social interaction.

We sort of just walked around the play ground. Other kids played soccer I guess. Outside, baddies tore by on Piaggio scooters, lighting firecrackers, not giving a damn. More a George Lucas than Steven Spielberg type of thing. Now these… this was a different ball park. Moroccans! Muslim. They might as well have been Stormtroopers. Without any reflection I gave them my Jedi middle finger. I don’t know why. Neither of my parents were ever overtly racist in any transmittable sense, not counting ‘innocent’ prejudices or simply not any non-white-Belgian-Catholic friends. Perhaps a slight, hardly perceivable bias eludes the conscious mind. Subliminal, its obvious logical flaws unchallenged, nest in a child’s brain. Then, when you least expect it, you’re shouting an Arabic obscenity some Turkish kid just whispered in your ear.

There I stood, a fence separating my enemies from a coward. The 11 year-old brain has a way of seeing a fence, but not the unguarded entrance in the middle of it. “We eat Belgians raw,” they’d said in response to my taunts, proving my point exactly. Before I knew it I was running for my life. Onto the playground. Safety, and where is a teacher when you need one? Twelve-hour stints of building 747’s, Knight Riders and castles don’t quite prepare one for battle, let alone running away really fast. My bigotry had caught up with me at last and I could feel the cold hand of Islamic justice on my neck. This was it. I was done for. Life had been good for me so far. It was only going to go downhill from here anyway. High school, college, jobs, wife, kids, taxes and old age. I was ready. My formidable opponent, mid-teen, wispy mustache and all, looked me in the eye and said: “Don’t do that.” I agreed.

Sinai is a fictional story of ignorance in the face of “Holy shit, what the hell is going on here? I just came for the snorkeling.”  

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Filed under Belgium, Brussels, Islam, minorities, Sinai

Democracy in the Middle East

Sinai is not a political treatise. Or maybe it is. Depends on your definition of ‘is’ perhaps. It’s a bit of a silly story of a dude lost in an Alice in Wonderland type of strange land. But even silly stories are set in a time and place. Sinai’s is a recent democracy, it’s foibles and turmoil.

It’s been a year since the revolutions began. It’s been a year since western pundits started wondering what’s next. Can there be such a thing as Arab or Muslim democracy? Will Islamist forces seize the opportunity to try and impress upon a volatile society its patriarchic and misogynistic views? Will the West be forced to reassess long-standing relationships, scramble to save contracts, jostle for new ones, and pragmatically pander to whichever regime or constellation of forces arising from the chaos? The answer to all of these questions of course is ‘yes’. Unfortunately the answer to all of these questions means nothing much at all.

Winston Churchill once said “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” The same can be said of the Middle East. The past couple of years have been especially prolific. So much has happened in fact, and is happening, that to draw ANY kind of conclusion today about the Arab Spring is not only futile, but very much at peril of sounding silly. The generals of Egypt are trying to claw back the power and influence lost in the process of removing their much-hated figurehead Mubarak. Hence, democracy is lost. Islamists are winning important democratic elections. Hence, the future will look like Iran. In lieu of finely-tuned sarcasm, I’ll just put it bluntly: It’s stupid! Fuck off!

Sinai’s main character, like a lot of newly-minted Mid-East pundits, isn’t well-versed in the matters at hand. Linus isn’t versed at all actually. He was looking for a beach, and found a war zone. Talk about great, dashed expectations. He has to learn the hard way that things don’t really end -no spoiler alert: the book does end! In reality, no such clear-cut narratives exist. Everything is a process. History is not a collection of periods that begin and end. It’s an oscillating wave. Likewise, democracy is not a point of arrival. It’s a conductor like copper wiring. Democracy allows for a society to communicate, first and foremost with itself. Suffrage allows for ALL ideas to be heard, however smart or retarded, and for a (often disappointing) common denominator thereof to percolate as collective action. Competing forces in a society can wage battle without actual blood flowing on the dance floor. Democracy is an imperfect means to an end that no one knows.

Buy Sinai here.

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

A scene from Sinai…

“Sinai” is a tongue-in-cheek thriller set in post-Mubarak Egypt. Intrigue, bombs, and breathtaking vistas ensure a riveting read for all. The story, needless to say, is entirely fictional. In real life, as opposed to Sinai’s 2007 etch-a-sketch prediction, the military doesn’t seem to be waiting until after elections to stage a coup..

The police and military hovering close by in APCs can’t reach the swelling scene until it reaches them.  The crowd moves between the motionless vehicles like waves on a pebble beach.  Hundreds now.  Thousands.  More.

Warning shots are fired, but the multitudes swarm, and the poor and destitute join the vexed and jaded; the night bulks with opportunity and danger.  Warning shots are fired and some rookie cop forfeits his sidearm to quicker wit.

A patrol car catches on fire.  Regular cars follow suit like it’s the new black; others are overturned, beyond help like dung beetles, burning tires in vain seeking purchase on the throbbing air.

New arrivals can only guess as to what caused the disturbance.  Bread prices surely.  Perhaps the recent hike in metro fares, or the cancellation of petrol subsidies?  Who cares?  Youth improvise slogans against the junta and hastily smeared banners dance above the undulating faces.  The fire spreads.  The hated ‘Mugamma’ is sacked and a blizzard of paper trails down on the square.  Smoke billows up from improvised bonfires; descending paper and smoke meet halfway along the facade.

Hot town, summer in the city.  Shots ring out through the night.  The Nile Hilton burns.  The Semiramis is saved by a hair’s breadth.  Can you believe the weather?

***

Gamal was proud to be part of the televised address.  He didn’t have to say anything.  Just being there next to the general was enough for him.  They had prepared diligently for this day, a day that belonged to all the people.  The general performed admirably, statesmanlike.

Gamal brought to mind the days when he first met Abdul Hakim.  They were marching all the way from Port Said to Cairo after the disaster of ’67, in rags, mentally and physically.  Abdul had always been the leader, decisive and somehow untarnished, unbroken by defeat.  Unlike so many others.  “It’s only just begun,” he’d said.  “It’s only just begun.  Y’Allah!”

They joked about how they would run things, fix things.

Gamal had forgotten all about such youthful boasting until the general called him up six months ago.

“You remember those things we used to talk about?” he asked.  Before Gamal had had a chance to answer he said: “I can’t talk about it on the phone, let’s meet up.  26th of July Bridge.  In 45 minutes?  Ok?”

“Ok.”

Only as he slammed the battered taxi door had Gamal begun to suspect what this was about.  As if the gunshot clonk of steel on crumpled steel brought back, by Pavlovian reflex, memories of the war and its tumultuous aftermath.

Today Abdul Hakim spoke more or less as he had that day.  So much conviction and vigor.  Here was a leader.  A man with an iron will.  A hero.  Gamal was proud to be there.

“We wish to stress that this is a strictly internal affair.  There can be no pressure or interference from outside on the people of this proud nation.  Our forces are ready and capable of resisting any attempt to change the path that our sovereign will has decided upon.”

The plan was genius, as they say, because of its simplicity.  Tried and tested formula.  No need to reinvent the wheel, here.

“As to the situation on the peninsula, things are once again firmly under our control.  The terrorists, who are responsible for the massacre, whoever they may be, and wherever they may hide, will be found and brought to justice.  The Sharm El-Sheikh airport has closed again for now, but will reopen as soon as we are able to guarantee everyone’s safety.  From that point on we will facilitate the evacuation of foreign nationals to the best of our capabilities.  But before that, we wish to ask everyone in the area to stay where they are and await further instructions.  We ask the people to be patient.”

Today they had really done it, Gamal thought.  Rulers of Egypt.  There was a Pharaonic pride there, an intoxication he found hard to resist.

Sinai is available here.

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

Everyone and their mummy.

Silly play on words aside, yes “Sinai” is an Egyptian story but no, there isn’t a pyramid in sight, let alone the wrath of their long-deceased occupants. “Sinai” is a tongue-in-cheek thriller set in post-Mubarak Egypt. It’s not for political scientists, orientalists, or folks who habitually tear through a Noam Chomsky in a week. It’s for you, and everyone, and their mum.

Linus hasn’t a clue, and nor should you. Kind of. Actually, he is looking for a pyramid or two. That’s about what we know of Egypt these days. Thank you Hollywood. To Linus’ credit he knows a fair amount of snorkeling goes on in the warm waters of the Red Sea too. He actually gets to dip in -to a lot more than he’s bargained for. As much as ‘Sinai’ features Islamists, brutal (secular) dictators, meddling Americans, Israelis, not to mention a maniacal, semi-mythical sorceress, the book pits the layman against a couple thousand Wikipedia entries. What are the chances of, forgive my French, the ignoramus in a world even specialists cannot agree upon?

A deluge of contradicting information makes it tough to make the right choice. 99% of us, in the parlance of our times, don’t have to make life-or-death choices. Luckily. The toughest deliberations are outsourced to the 1%. Which foreign ruler(s) best represents our own economic and political interests? That sort of thing. Specialist advisers whisper to elected ears, and all is well in the end. Right? That’s what Linus figures in any case. But lo as he might, he cannot escape the chaos closing in on him. With very little to go on, his fingers rest nervously on the switch at every turn. Visibility: zero. The outcome is very uncertain.

It could happen to you. Scant media attention is given to abducted tourists -lest it drive up the ransom. In 2003 a German adventure trek in Algeria got waylaid by extremists / entrepreneurial tribesmen (one does not exclude the other). They were released six months later. It is every government’s policy not to pay ransom to kidnappers. At the same time, every government pays ransom to kidnappers. We don’t get to hear what goes on in the background: frantic diplomacy, the threat of force, attempted freeing operations. As far as he knows, none of that is happening for Linus. Then again, he hasn’t been kidnapped, strictly speaking. Yet everything he does seems to take him further and further away from home.

It’s a small world. And shit, it’s shrinking by the minute. What happens in the Middle East, no longer stays in the Middle East. In a crude way, our governments’ actions there might impact whether some families are able to pay their heating bills this winter. Our governments’ wars means airport personnel gets to see your junk every time you fly. It means you, an innocent, moderate cool cat, are subject to more electronic surveillance than the average dissident in communist East-Germany. You have not been kidnapped. Your life is no adventure tale. And yet, it is happening to you. You don’t know how, but you feel that you’re entitled to a choice. There’s a right and wrong out there somewhere that’s graspable for you, and everyone and their mum. Or ought to be at least.

Sinai offers no shortcuts. It is not a ‘Middle East for Dummies’. In stead it zooms in and out, weaving broad strokes and intimate detail into a narrative of choice. Where do you stand? The story might have happened in Chili, Argentina, South-Africa, Northern Ireland, or Occupied Belgium. Do you stand your ground or, as the Dahab T-shirt salesman eloquently stated? “Just go with the flow, man.” 

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Filed under Arab Spring, Egypt, end of oil, Middle East, Revolution, Sinai, Uncategorized

The Big Kahina

“Sinai” is a tongue-in-cheek thriller set in post-Mubarak Egypt. Intrigue, bombs, and breathtaking vistas ensure a riveting read for all. The story, needless to say, is entirely fictional. And yet reality, present and past, inspires a lot of the story line and characters. One of the latter borrows heavily from a very special, and very real 7th century warrior princess. 

The term “warrior princess” undoubtedly conjures up images of Xena, the famous and, let’s face it, hot guerillera from TV. The real Dahiyah (or Dihiyah, Kahya, or Damiya -there are literally dozens of different names for the very same lady) was not so different from her televised peer. Actually not a whole lot is known of Dahiyah, which, admittedly, lends credence and leeway to one’s imagination. There is however a broad consensus that she was a Berber, and that she proved a big headache for the invading Arab armies from the East. Based somewhere in contemporary Algeria she roundly defeated an Umayyad commander, forcing him to cower and whimper for four long years in the deserts of Cyrenaica, known today as Libya. They thought she was a sorceress, and imaginatively they proceeded to call her The Sorceress, or Al-Kahina in Arabic. Eventually backed into a corner she resorted to scorched earth tactics, which didn’t impact the desert and mountain tribes, but lost her the support of well-heeled oasis-dwellers, and hence in the end, the war.

Dahiyah swallowed a poison to avoid capture, or went down in a blaze of glory, depending on the historical or hagiographical source. A lot of competing claims have been made about her life. Some say the fierce leader was a pagan who worshipped the god Ba’al. Ibn Khaldoun seemed to think she was Jewish although Algerian Jews speak of a terrible persecutor of Jews named ‘Kahya’. Ibn Khaldoun also recorded a legend wherein she liberated an enslaved people by marrying their tyrant and slitting his throat on their wedding night. In more recent times Dahiyah was hailed by French colonialists, Arab nationalists, North-African Jews, and Arab feminists. In short, she must have been one seriously cool momma. It was all I could do to sip from the Kool Aid, and slip her into ‘Sinai’. Or rather, someone not even remotely like her. I’ll let you be the judge.

Whichever way, you simply have to meet her!

Sinai is available in all Amazon stores, Barnes & Noble, Espresso Book Machine, and many more online shops. In Brussels you can buy Sinai at Sterling Books, Waterstones, and Passa Porta. Antwerp: De Groene Waterman. iBook Store, Kindle, FNAC and Standaard Boekhandel to be announced. Overview of all online and offline shops.

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Filed under Algeria, Feminism, Judaism, Libya, Middle East, Sinai, Tunisia