A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 31, 2013

Weekend Nostalgia: When Talaat Harb Street and Square were Suleiman Pasha

The old Suleiman Pasha Statue, pre-1954
Perhaps the Cairo Midan best known to Westerners, after Tahrir Square, is Talaat Harb, which like Tahrir is not a "square" but a circle; the street of the same name, which runs from Tahrir through Midan Talaat Harb, is also named Talaat Harb. The circle contains the famous Groppi's tea room and other landmarks, and the Cafe Riche is just off it; it's well-known as well as a secondary gathering place for protests in the past two years, often the starting point for marches to Tahrir. The street is one of the major downtown shopping venues.

When I first went to Cairo 40 years ago, no one called it Talaat Harb, though that was its name, and his statue stood in the center of the circle. Many Egyptians of the older generation still call it by its older name: Suleiman Pasha.  Readers of Alaa al-Aswany's novel The Yacoubian Building (and viewers of the movie made from the book), which is set in a building on the street, will note that the characters almost invariably call the street and Midan Suleiman Pasha.

Suleiman Pasha (Col. Sève)
The name was changed in 1954, and the statue was changed.  The old name, Suleiman Pasha, honored a European, a French officer in Muhammad ‘Ali's Army. Colonel Joseph Anthelme Sève served as a commander in the Egyptian Army and married an Egyptian; he was known as Suleiman Pasha al-Fransawi ("the Frenchman"). One of his descendants was Queen Nazli, wife of King Fuad I and mother of King Farouq. In the Nasser era he was doubly anathema: a foreigner and an ancestor of the ousted King. The statue and the name had to go.

The Midan with the Talaat Harb Statue
It was renamed in honor of Talaat Harb (Tal‘at Harb), economist and founder of the Bank of Egypt. The statue was changed as well, though the old name continued to be used by Egyptians for decades.

So what happened to the statue of Suleiman Pasha? Apparently (or so I've heard: the angles of the photos make it hard to be sure), it's the same statue now on display outside the Military Museum at the Cairo Citadel, shown below.

Istanbul Park Clashes: Symbolic but Important

UPDATE: A court has now ordered the suspension of the development project in the park, which could either defuse or escalate tensions depending on the government's response.

UPDATE II: An English-language live blog from the protests here.

Clashes between police and demonstrators in an Istanbul park mark the latest conflict between the ruling AKP's party's ambitious plans for Turkish expansion and those who oppose those policies. The demonstrators are trying to preserve Gezi Park in Taksim from government development plans. The demonstrators are fighting to preserve the green space where the government wants to reconstruct a former Ottoman-era barracks complex as a potential tourist draw. Dispersing the protesters, police announced arrests and some injuries.

The history of the site and pictures of the planned development can be found here. (Hat tip to Managing Editor Jacob Passel for this and other links.)

The AKP, capitalizing on Turkey's recent prosperity, has been engaged in a broad range of development schemes, from building projects such as a new airport and a third bridge at Istanbul, dedicated on the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople and named for the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim. Critics of the AKP see the projects as a sign of creeping Islamization and the "Neo-Ottoman" policies of Prime Minister Erdogan. This article addresses some of the controversies. There is also a critique of the new construction projects here. And a photo gallery of the police raid here.

The development projects, along with such social issues as the recent restrictions on alcohol,
reflect the growing culture clashes between traditional and Islamic elements tapped by the AKP and the secular urban elites which have dominated Turkey in the past. The head of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the secularist opposition, visited the demonstrators at the park earlier in the week.

Taksim is also a traditional area for public protest, and the protesters see development of the park as  a government effort to reduce protest space.

Taboo Words About the Man "Improving Every Day": " L’après-Bouteflika"

It's been over a week since we were last assured that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, rumored to be in a coma, was in fact "improving every day." So it's presumably still true, right? Right? You wouldn't want French-based Algeria-watching websites to start talking about " L’après-Bouteflika," would you?

That's what I thought.  A simple hospital photo in which the man looks conscious might stop all this ugly speculation, hmm? And help the 2014 campaign. I'm not sure even Algeria could manage to rig the election of a comatose man, so let's reassure the folks a bit? Hmm?


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hizbullah and Palestinian Backlash: Paying the Price for Syrian Intervention

Hizbullah used to justify its continuing armament by insisting it was resisting Israel. Now, it's reportedly told Hamas, which claims to be doing the same thing, to get out of Lebanon immediately.

And in a Palestinian refugee camp at Ain  al-Hilweh in Lebanon, Palestinians burned humanitarian aid sent by Hizbullah, protesting the latter's role in Syria.

Of course, Lebanon has been feeling the impact of the Syrian civil war for some time. With Hizbullah's open engagement on the side of the Syrian regime, we're likely to see more blowback in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Qifa Nabki considers the risks and calculations Hizbullah is taking.

The Syrian Muddle

Clearly, the muddle over what to do about Syria is, if anything, getting more muddled. The battle of Qusayr is being claimed by Bashar al-Asad as a victory, one won on Syrian territory with the aid of combatants from Hizbullah in Lebanon. As the West still argues over greater involvement on the side of the rebels, Hizbullah has plunged in head first. MEI Adjunct Scholar Charles Dunne asks the hard question, "What Happens if Al-Assad Prevails?"

The US-Russian brokered agreement to hold talks in Geneva ("Geneva 2," they're calling it) isn't spurring much optimism.  Bilal Saab isn't terribly optimistic about "Supporting the Syrian Rebels in Geneva." And elsewhere, Aaron David Miller, who's been to quite a few, warns of "The Perils of Peace Conferences."

Walter "Pat" Lang brings a career intelligence analyst's opinion to the debate:
"You  have to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold'em..."
The US policy towards Syria is a total muddle, conceived in ignorance of the human facts on the  ground and motivated by "dogooderism" that thinks all the world is a graduate school seminar in which professors and students can re-design the fate of humanity to taste.
Tell us what you really think, Pat.

While I respect the deeply held opinions on both sides of the intervention question, I think we nneed to realistically assess what is happening on the ground. First, the battle for Qusayr is, if not won, at least tilting towards the Syrian regime, and Hizbullah's open and unapologetic involvement is a major challenge to the rebels.

Secondly, what about the S-300s? If the US and Russia are really trying to broker peace, the decision to sell sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to Syria underscores Russia's continuing commitment to the Syrian regime. While Israel's recent air strikes inside Syria may be the overt justification for the S-300 sale, one of the main elements in the potential intervention package advocated by supporters of the rebels, a no-fly zone, could be undermined once the missiles are in place. Calling it a game-changer is not an exaggeration.

I do think the situation is shifting at the moment, and not in favor of the rebels. While intervention has some eloquent advocates, who insist the model is not Iraq but Libya, where a no-fly zone worked. But Syria is not Libya and the geopolitics are totally different. I sense little real domestic will in the US and Europe to support military intervention. The tragedy of Syria seems to be deepening, but it is far from clear that any of the proposed approaches is going to end the killing. I wish I could be more optimistic.

Morsi and Al-Azhar

I have already referred you to the Middle East Institute's Arab Transitions Project and its current focus on Egypt, but I particularly wanted to call to your attention this piece by Ahmed Morsy on "The Grand Sheikh and the President," which I found a useful assessment of the assertiveness of al-Azhar in the age of Muslim Brotherhood government.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

It's Official: Femen's First Topless Protest in Tunis Itself Has Finally Made Nudity Boring

Oh, okay, I admit that like so much of the Western media, I've paid lots of attention to Aliaa ElMahdy's "nude blogger" case in Egypt and the more recent Amina Tyler flap in Tunisia. but hey, Tunisia's new constitution is about to be debated, and all you can find on the Internet is the fact that Femen, the Ukrainian topless protest group, staged their first protest in the Arab world today in front of a courthouse in Tunis. This has passed the point of silliness. Previous protests had been in front of Tunisian embassies in Europe. But to get topless activists in the Arab world, Femen imported them from Europe.

Up to now, actual female nudity in public in Tunisia has been limited to the tourist beaches, but this whole story has long since run out its 15 minutes of fame. Over a month ago I posted on what I called "The Last Word (I Hope) on Femen's 'Topless Jihad,'" but no such luck.

I suppose Femen, a Ukrainian femnist group, may have some points to make in Europe, but their whole approach to the Arab world has been askew from day one. They were shouting "Free Amina" when Amina was free, though perhaps under family constraints. They alienated, rather than reinforced, most women's activists in Tunisia. Many Muslim women saw their denunciation of Islam as directed not just at male domination but at believers like themselves. The neocolonial theme was frequently raised by Femen's Arab feminist critics.

Now, Amina is actually under arrest, though not for appearing topless on the Internet: she was arrested during the recent confrontations in the religious city of Kairouan between government forces and the Ansar al-Shari‘a Salafist movement. While many suspect she planned to disrobe, she never got that far: she is charged with carrying a dangerous object (reportedly pepper spray) and may also be charged with cemetery desecration for writing the word "Femen" on a cemetery wall.

Those may seem like relative misdemeanors, but they are legal violations and have nothing to do with nudity.She appears in court tomorrow. That provoked today's demonstration at the court. As usual, they wrote slogans on their bare torsos, in this case "Breast Feed Revolution," though Tunisia's revolution is healthier than most from the Arab Spring. What does "Breast Feed Revolution" even mean? They also chanted "Free Amina!" and "Fuck your morals!," a slogan Amina had written on her body.

Today's demonstration got plenty of attention, AFP here; The Guardian  here, Tunisia Live here.

The three women arrested for protesting topless today were one German and two French Femen activists. No locals. As I think I've pointed out before, they are hardly the first French and German women to appear topless in Tunisia; it's just that the others do it at tourist resorts and the authorities say nothing. Oh, and France was the colonial power: a little imperial condescension perhaps?

All they've done at this point is make the subject somewhat tedious, which takes some doing. For the curious there is a slideshow at Huffington Post (from which the obscured, PG photo above comes) and a YouTube video here; needless to say, Not Safe for Work, but not exactly interesting, either. Femen has finally succeeded, I fear, in making nudity boring. (YouTube usually bars toplessness but didn't here; maybe they were also too bored to care.)

Femen has made nudity boring enough that YouTube lets it on. They've made bare boobs boring. The constant repetition of 'fuck your morals," which they shout there, has also made "fuck" boring.

560 Years Ago Today, a City Fell ...

Constantine XI
To the Byzantines it was often simply "the city," a capital that had endured for 11 centuries since its foundation by Constantine the Great. Western Europe mght hold that the Roman Empire had fallen  centuries before, but Emperors still reigned at Constantine's  New Rome on the Bosporus. It had resisted sieges by Arabs, by Tamerlane, and its walls were landmarks, running from the Golden Horn to the Bosporus, protecting the city from the landward side. It had endured a period of Latin rule under the Fourth Crusade, and for centuries had watched as its Anatolian hinterland first, and later its European hinterland as well, came under Ottoman rule. The Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus, seeking aid from the West and seeking to rally his people against the big siege guns of the Ottomans, still reigned in Constantinople until a date that echoes in the history of all the Orthodox Christian countries, and of Turkey: May 29, 1453, 560 years ago today. (Leaving out some pesky calendar changes.)

Mehmet II (Fatih Sultan Mehmet)
In many European countries, 1453 was once considered the end of the Middle Ages; certainly the Fall of Constantinople, followed in 1492 by Columbus' discoveries and soon after that by the Protestant Reformation, all served to draw a line under the centuries preceding. And the fall certainly underscored the lesson that siege cannon would mean an end to the static fortification of walled cities. Another invention, the printing press, came to the West at the same time, fueling change.

Constantine XI died on that fateful Tuesday 560 years ago, to be venerated by many Orthodox as a saint, and as the "Marble Emperor" to become a figure in Greek folklore who will come again when Constantinople is Greek again, and Orthodoxy returns to Hagia Sophia.

His adversary, Sultan Mehmet II, was only 21 when the city fell, but is still remembered as Mehmet Fatih, Mehmet the Conqueror. Though the city of Istanbul is no longer Turkey's capital, it is still the country's metropolis and historic heart, and even its Turkish name is said to preserve the medieval Greek phrase εἰς τὴν Πόλιν, "to the city," remembering the days when it was the city par excellence.

A trailer from the recent hit Turkish film Fetih 1453, a dramatization of the fall (from the Turkish point of view, of course):

Back to the Future? The French Mandate's Confessional Partition of Syria

On several occasions we've looked at "vanished states"of the 20th century Middle East, among them some in Syria: including the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria, and the briefly independent Republic of Hatay. As the Syrian tragedy continues to unfold, we are hearing talk of a disintegration into ethnic/confessional enclaves, including a possible ‘Alawite enclave in the northwest.

As a much older Middle Easterner once put it, there is nothing new under the sun. When the French mandate was first created after World War I, they partitioned the hell out of Syria:
Initially, in 1922, there were actually five separate states in what would be the French Mandate: a Syrian Federation consisting of two states, Aleppo (including after 1923 the Sanjaq of Alexandretta, the later Hatay, which had briefly been autonomous) and Damascus; a separate ‘Alawite ("Alaouite" in French) state in the northwest, initially (1922-24) part of the federation but thereafter autonomous, a Druze state in the Hawran (Jabal al-Druze State), and Greater Lebanon (Gran Liban), combining the Maronite and Druze Mount Lebanon, the Sunni north around Tripoli, and the Shi‘ite south and Baqa‘a, creating the mix that would become the republic of Lebanon.

Flag, State of Syria
Each of these "states" had its own flag, with the French tricolor in canton. The "State of Syria" was formed in 1924 out of the federation of the states of Damascus and Aleppo. The Alaouite State did not join.

Flag, State of Damascus
This "State of Syria" was created in 1924, but the next year a full-scale revolt broke out, led by the Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash in the Druze state, but becoming Syria-wide. The French crushed it with aerial bombardments and sieges of cities, including Damascus.

Flag, State of Aleppo
The Syrian revolt would ultimately lead, in 1930, to the French renaming the State of Syria as the Republic of Syria, though still under French mandate.

Flag, Alaouite State
As for the Alaouite state, it had been less affected by the uprising, though in 1930 it was renamed the District of Latakia. Finally in 1936 it was merged into the "Republic" of Syria. Lebanon always remained a separate entity. Efforts toward independence were sidetracked by World War II and Vichy control, but after Britain expelled Vichy Lebanon and Syria declared their independence and had secured it by 1946.

Flag, Jebel Druze State
In short, Syria has been partitioned before, under colonial divide-and-rule strategies, but nationalism ultimately overcame internal division in the name of fighting a common enemy. Whether that will happen again is of course another question entirely.

Flag, Gran Liban

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Saudi King Raises SANG to Cabinet Rank

Saudi King ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who before his ascent to throne was the longtime head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), has elevated the National Guard to Ministerial Rank, and has elevated its commander, the King's son Prince Mut‘ib bin ‘Abdullah, to be the first National Guard Minister.

This move appears to disprove a wild report in Iran's totally unreliable Press TV which claimed the King had been clinically dead for several days. Though most people know better than to rely on Iranian propaganda channels for Saudi news, this reportedly was repeated for a time on Britain's Daily Mail website.

Back in the real world, the promotion of the National Guard to a separate ministry serves to solidify kthe control of the King's immediate family over the Guard, retaining its independence from the Ministry of Defense.

Culture Wars: Turkey's Crackdown on Alcohol, and a Kissing Protest

UPDATE: See also this article.
 After a campaign by Prime Minister Erdogan, the Turkish Parliament has passed legislation banning alcohol advertising and sharply resisting the hours during which alcohol can be sold, barring restaurants from displaying alcohol where it can be seem from outside, and barring sales near schools and mosques. The move, inspired by the Islamic orientation of the ruling AKP party, has provoked controversy and some mockery among Turkey's secular, Kemalist elites. It has also caused stocks in Efes, the Middle East's  largest brewing company, to take a dive.

At Foreign Policy, Marya Hannun adds some perspective by asking "Did Turkey Just Become a Little More Like Texas?," reminding us that the US has some strange blue laws in some areas when it comes to alcohol as well.

Nor is the is the only recent battle in the emerging Turkish culture wars. As Juan Cole notes, after a subway conductor on the Ankara subway scolded a young couple for kissing in public, a flashmob-style public kissing protest was staged by protesters. The protest is shown in the video below.

These culture wars seem to be the wave of the future in the Middle East, where the polarization of attitudes between Westernized elites and traditional populations is often quite marked.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Shereen El Feki's "Sex and the Citadel": a Landmark Book, and a Few Quibbles

[This post on a book about sexuality in the Arab world deals with mature themes and quotes some explicit language, so be advised. It's also a somewhat longer post than usual.]

Shereen El Feki's recent book  Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World is getting a lot of (deserved) attention lately, and for good reason. I'm a little late in joining in because I decided to finish the book before commenting (I'm old-fashioned), and my comments here are meant as a supplement to, rather than a reiteration of, the previous reviews. It aspires to be a tour d'horizon of sexuality in the Arab world, and given the formidable obstacles to researching that subject, it largely succeeds. It does not claim scholarly credentials as sociology or anthropology, but offers raw data for those fields; as its perhaps too cute title invoking Sex and the City and its suggestive cover art (more on this below) suggest, either the author or her publisher are trying to draw a Western audience. But it deserves a Middle Eastern audience as well.

I don't usually "review" books here (lest my personal comments be confused with The Middle East Journal's  proper scholarly reviews), but this one is making a lot of waves and, while I generally can just say you should read it, the pedant in me wants to raise a few quibbles about some historical and linguistic points, as well as review it in the broadest sense.

It's certainly not the first book on sexuality in the Arab world. There are general works such as Salah al-Munajjid's Al-Hayyat al-Jinsiyya ‘ind al-‘Arab [Sexual Life Among the Arabs] (Beirut 1975) (in Arabic); Abdelwahab Bouhdiba's La Sexualité en Islam (1975; English edition Sexuality in Islam, 2004); Joseph A. Massad's scholarly but contentious Desiring Arabs on homosexuality (Chicago 2007); a number of works by Samir Khalaf on prostitution, sexuality, and related issues; and numerous shorter studies by sociologists and anthropologists. But most of that material is aimed at an academic readership, or is difficult to access, in languages other than English, or burdened with social science jargon-speak (arguably, also a "language other than English"): and to her credit, she quotes al-Munajjid and Massad and interviews Bouhdiba at some length.

She has not aimed this book at a strictly academic audience. El Feki, who is half-Egyptian and half-Welsh, but was raised in Canada, holds a doctorate in immunology and has worked in HIV/AIDS education and was a Vice-Chair of the UN's Global Commission on HIV and the Law,  but has also been a journalist for The Economist  and Al Jazeera English, and has been a TED Global Fellow. She brings her communication skills to bear in explaining this complex subject to a non-academic, mostly Western, audience. Though her fieldwork is mostly in Egypt and Tunisia (with a bit on Israeli Arabs, the Palestinian territories, and a dash of the Gulf), her breadth is rather comprehensive: marriage, temporary or "summer" marriages, divorce, virginity,  spousal abuse, female genital mutilation, sex education, birth control, abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, and so on. It's engagingly written with wit and even humor (where appropriate, and anger when required), and a keen eye for the illustrative anecdote. She uses her expertise as a health professional but mediates it to a popular audience through her background as a journalist. The book is accessible and readable, though I have a few qualms that certain features (the topic most of all, but also the cover art and some of the language), will unfortunately guarantee the book's unavailability in the countries that most need to read it.

I'm not sure I need to argue, or El Feki needs to prove, that the Middle East is hardly a sexually well-adjusted place. Young people find themselves as mature, educated adults with few job prospects and therefore little prospect for marriage or, if they do marry, any hope of affording an apartment to start a family life on their own. Hence marriage is deferred well into adulthood, but other outlets for sexual expression are taboo. Virginity for women is sacrosanct, homosexuality criminalized. Society may look the other way on male use of prostitutes, but that too is taboo. If young elites are frustrated, more traditional classes suffer from older and more disturbing practices: child marriages, "temporary" marriages, female genital mutilation justified as "female circumcision." Most of us in the field know this, but like Middle Eastern societies themselves, we don't talk about it much, leaving that to the activists. She  addresses all these issues, and her role as a health educator gives her access to interview and sample real experiences not accessible to most of us.

An important sub-theme of the book is the great contrast between the candor of Arabic erotic literature in the Classical Age and the prudishness of today;  the theme recurs throughout the book and is of course not all that new, as she is well aware: she herself relies on Al-Munajjid and Bouhdiba (heavily on the latter, whom she interviews). She has brought it up in many book tour interviews. It also is a major theme of Salwa Al Neimi's 2008 novel Burhan al-‘Asal (2009 English translation The Proof of the Honey), a bestseller in Europe and in Arab countries where it wasn't banned (the Francophone Maghreb  and Lebanon: banned everywhere else). El Feki does not cite Al Neimi, at least in her bibliography or index, but the novel was an account of the erotic life of a female Arab librarian fascinated by the richness of Arab erotic literature of the classical age. I want to return in some detail to this question of the contrast between classical Islamic literature and today, since it's an area where I think that I may possibly have some comments to contribute as a onetime classical Islamic historian.

The book is a serious if at times subjective piece of reporting and analysis; but the tone is not heavy for the most part, except for the more depressing subjects like female genital mutilation or the grim prospects facing many prostitutes. gays, and other sexual outsiders in the Arab world. A blog post can't really do justice to the breadth of the coverage.

This is not a dour piece of social anthropology or feminist theory. This engaging accessibility of the book is one of its strengths, in a field where much of the literature is scrupulously academic and detached, and I emphasize it here lest readers be put off by a review like this one (supposedly a positive one, and [language warning]  using NSFW language) by  Rachel Halliburton in The Independent,
Sex and the Citadel is not, as El Feki – a trained scientist – warns, either peep show or encyclopedia. It owes as much of its zing to Foucault as to fucking. Taking the French philosopher's assertion that sexuality is "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power," El Feki has meticulously analysed what makes Arab society tick. The sexual climate, she declares, "looks a lot like the West on the brink of sexual revolution." Many of the same "underlying forces" are there, not least the struggle toward democracy, and a large youth population with different attitudes from their parents.
She's right that it's neither peep show nor encyclopedia,  but I fear the "owes as much of its zing to Foucault as to fucking" is inspired more by clever word play on the part of the reviewer than by the book itself. Foucault is only mentioned two other times in the book, other than for the quoted remark, neither time particularly substantively. Of course El Feki is not responsible for Halliburton's characterization, and I guess Halliburton was saying this is a "serious" book; but if, like me, your eyes glaze over when someone brings up Foucault, don't worry. It's much more about fucking. (Hell, it's a book about sexuality. What else would it be about?)

Like her reviewer above El Feki herself is not reticent about calling a spade a spade, or in this case fucking, fucking, and she also uses explicit language in quotes or when the context seems to justify it. In what follows I'm not censoring her: I'm an editor, not a censor. If such language offends you, please feel free to go put on some pleasant music (maybe madrigals: definitely not rap) and return after the post is done. My apologies to those offended, but dashes and asterisks cheat the author of the power of her word choice (for words do have power), and look silly to most everyone who reads modern literature or watches films and cable TV. Occasional NSFW language from this point on.

The strong language is used sparingly and judiciously but unapologetically. It's by no means omnipresent, but because it's sometimes used for rhetorical or shock effect it appears in some of the passages most quoted by reviewers. 

I can't begin to summarize all the information and anecdotes in the book, so let me turn to the area where I actually have some kind of knowledge: her discussion of the classical era of Arab literature and its erotica. She laments the lost era of Arab erotic literature, an age when sex manuals were written by religious scholars. In this she echoes Bouhdiba, whom she interviews at length. As she notes:
There is a long and distinguished history of Arabic writing on sex— literature, poetry, medical treatises, self-help manuals— which has slipped out of sight in much of the Arab world. Many of these great works were by religious figures who saw nothing incompatible between faith and sex. Indeed, it behooved these men of learning to have as full a knowledge of sexual practices and problems as they did of the intricacies of Islam. There is nothing academic about their writing: with surprising frankness, and often disarming humor, these works cover almost every sexual subject, and then some. There is precious little in Playboy, Cosmopolitan, The Joy of Sex, or any other taboo-busting work of the sexual revolution and beyond that this literature didn’t touch on over a millennium ago.
Bouhdiba sees this sexual open-mindedness as part and parcel of the intellectual blossoming of the age. At their zenith in the early Abbasid period, the Arabs were a confident and creative people, and open thinking on sexuality was a reflection of this. “It was not a coincidence that at the height of Islamic culture there was a flowering of sexuality,” Bouhdiba says. “It is a synthesis of all domains. The rehabilitation of sexuality is the rehabilitation of science within the rehabilitation of Islam.” Today, however, there is a deep vein of denial that these elements are connected, and plenty of people who want to pick and choose their history, taking what is now considered the respectable face of the Arab golden age— science and technology, for example — and leaving the rest behind. But Bouhdiba believes these facets are inseparable.
It’s easy to read too much into Arabic erotic literature. Did its openness really represent society at large, or just the notions of the sexually sophisticated elite? After all, many of the most famous books of Arabic erotica were written for rulers. Bouhdiba is convinced that these books say something more broadly about the spirit of the age. He invokes religion to illustrate his point: “These elites were never denounced by the masses; their societies accepted them more or less, maybe not actively but passively. It’s a little like Sufism, which represented an elite but was eventually accepted. (pp. 13-14: all page numbers are to the US edition.)
But the passage on this subject which has been most quoted by far (by many of the British reviewers, by the Atlantic, and a few other American reviewers willing to print "bad" words) is the last paragraph of the following passage, which I quote in its fuller context:
For example, new participants will use min orali (Hebrew for “oral sex”) and orgazma instead of the respective Arabic terms, jins fammii and nashwa jinsiyya. “When you say the word, to be able to say the word freely, it’s fifty percent of the work,” says one woman, a social worker from Haifa.“Why [do] I choose to speak about a dick in Hebrew not in Arabic? It must show something about my attitude toward things.”
Some participants lack even this choice, because they simply do not know the Arabic for many of the topics under discussion. Part of Muntada’s name— Jensaneya, which translates to “sexuality”— is a relatively new coinage that is not widely used, or even understood, by Arabic speakers. Even more basic terminology is problematic; until attending Muntada’s training courses, some participants were simply unaware that there are, indeed, Arabic words for female genitalia, having been taught to consider such subjects shameful beyond discussion. Even for those who do know some terms in Arabic, it is often in language so crude as to be unusable off the street.

This is a far cry from the days of the Encyclopedia of Pleasure and the golden age of Arabic writing on sex. One tenth-century book, The Language of Fucking, for example, mentions more than a thousand verbs for having sex. Then there are the seemingly endless lexicons for sexual positions, responses, and organs of every size, shape, and distinguishing feature. That linguistic wealth is long gone. (p.151.)
She has herself cited this in interviews as well, and while her point is absolutely correct, the pedant in me wishes she'd chosen a different book to cite. Not out of prudishness, but out of accuracy. My own discussion is going to require some scholarly discussion of Arabic words for sex. In fact, I feel an obligation to do this at some length. I'm not trying to titillate here, but if you are likely to be offended please stop reading. And bear in mind I'm doing some pedantic nit-picking here; the book still deserves the widest readership possible.

 This particular book is described thus in her footnote:
23. In Arabic, this book is known as Kitab al-Nikah fi al-Lugha, by Ibn Al Qatta’ (as detailed in Al-Munajjid, Al-Hayat al-Jinsiyya ‘ind al-’ Arab [The sexual life of the Arabs], p. 142.)
First, if this book survives at all, it is unpublished. Secondly, while she has clearly chosen a translation into English that grabs the reader's attention, her own notes translate Nikah differently elsewhere. For example, in her bibliography we find:
“Kitab al-Nikah” [Book of marriage]. In Translation of Sahih Muslim. Translated by A. H. Siddiqui. Available at http://www.iium.edu.my/deed/
Indeed, Nikah is the standard word in Islamic law and elsewhere referring to sexual intercourse, within or outside of marriage. She herself says elsewhere in her text:
The same word in classical Arabic, nikah, applies to both marriage and sexual intercourse; in Egyptian street slang, niik, an abbreviated form, means “to fuck.” Sex outside these regulated contexts constitute zina, that is, illicit relations— an offense that crosses the line of acceptability (hadd) in Islam.  (p.32)
The definitions are basically right, though nik is not "Egyptian street slang" but a classical Arabic word with cognates not only in other Semitic languages and also in Ancient Egyptian and Berber. But let me come back to that. [And strictly speaking, nik does not mean "to fuck"; it's either the imperative form of the verb or a participle, "fucking."] If she really needed to cite a work with "fucking" in its title one could suggest one by none other than the great medieval polymath Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, author of one of the most respected commentaries on the Qur'an, who wrote (among several works on sex), one that survives, has reportedly been published in Iraq (though I haven't seen it), and that is known as Kitab al-Ik fi Ma‘rifat al-Nik, which can be translated as something like "Book of the Thicket in the Understanding of Fucking," with none of the ambiguity about nik vs. nikah. (Bear in mind: El Feki's translation of nikah as "fucking" is not wrong; it's just not the only choice. Nik would be another matter, since today at least, it implies a taboo word and is best translated as such, while nikah could as easily have been translated as "intercourse" or "sex" or the like.)

The assumption that nik is a "slang" version of nikah seems fairly common among many Arabic speakers. Much work still needs to be done on Arabic etymology, but these are two different words, though semantically related. The root of nikah (نكاح) is ;نكح that of  nik  نيك  is naka ناكَ.

And the latter has its own entry in Ibn Manzur's 13th century classical lexicon Lisan al-‘Arab لسان العرب which means it certainly isn't slang. While the entry says it is equivalent to nikah, it has a full grammatical structure, even a form VI (reciprocal) verb تَنايَكَ (roughly, "fuck each other"):

نيك  النَّيْكُ: معروف، والفاعل: نائِكٌ، والمفعول به مَنِيكٌ ومَنْيُوكٌ، والأَنثى مَنْيُوكة، وقد ناكَها يَنيكها نَيْكاً.
والنَّيّاك: الكثير النَّيْك؛ شدد للكثرة؛ وفي المثل قال: من يَنِكِ العَيْرَ يَنِكْ نَيّاكا وتَنَايَكَ القوْمُ: غلبهم النُّعاسُ. .وتَنايَكَتِ الأَجْفانُ: انطبق بعضها على بعض. الأَزهري في ترجمة نكح: ناكَ المطرُ الأَرضَ وناكَ النعاسُ عينه إِذا غلب عليها. 

So there.  I'm already using enough four-letter words here not to try to translate the whole thing, and I hope the Arabic doesn't set off blockers across the Arab world : it's from the Lisan al-‘Arab, found even in Saudi libraries! [I will note that ناكَ المطرُ الأَرضَ literally means "The rain fucked the earth" and is a nice fertility image. The second example, ناكَ النعاسُ  عينه "Sleep fucked his eye," doesn't work as well, in English at least.]

Added later: I should have noted the well-known coloquial though grammatically formal common obscene proverb نيك واستنيك ولا تعلم زبك الكسل which is a X form verb and means something like "Fuck and seek after fucking and do not teach your penis laziness."

What's more, while the similarities between nik and nikah might mean they descend from different dialects of pre-Islamic Arabic, nik is probably the older root: a proto-Semitic or proto-Afro-Asiatic root something like N-[vowel]-K, with the vowel usually or i. In Semitic languages, it seems absent in Hebrew and Aramaic, but it is found in Akkadian/Assyrian/Babylonian, with meanings relating to copulation and illicit sex. It occurs in Old South Arabian and modern South Arabian languages such as Mehri. (Not sure about Geez or Amharic: anyone?) Beyond the Semitic languages, it's found throughout the Afro-Asiatic group. N-vowel-K (probably NAK) was the standard word for copulation in Ancient Egyptian from the pyramid texts down through Demotic and is found as late as in Coptic in the sense of fornication. (The hieroglyphic includes an erect phallus, but I figure I'm in enough trouble in this post for so much strong language without reproducing it here.)

[Much later: If I got away with saying "fuck" so much I may as well show the hieroglyph. In for a penny, in for a pound (or in other words fuck it)]:

Cognates appear in Berber and, I'm told, Chadic. So one might argue that not only is nik not "slang," it has a reasonable case to be made for being the oldest "dirty word" on earth, at least that's still in use. There's a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written. I'm sure people had words for fucking long before the invention of writing (or none of us would be here), but this one looks very old. Really fucking old.

Perhaps I'm overreacting or showing off here, probably a bit of both. I'm fairly sure El Feki was mainly aiming for shock effect with translating the title as The Language of Fucking. While she doesn't use profanity excessively, she does use it for effect on occasion. Sometimes it's a play on words as (p.111): "Across the Arab world, female virginity — defined as an intact hymen — remains what could best be described as a big fucking deal." That works by playing on the double meaning of the word, in both its sexual and intensive sense, and sticks in the mind. As early as page 7, referring to Gustave Flaubert's visit to Egypt (a perhaps dubious choice, rather like using Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a typical example of travel writing in America), she notes that "Flaubert proceeded to fuck his way up the Nile." It makes the point memorably, and Flaubert's own description of his travels fully supports the characterization. In context the language is appropriate to the theme and used for effect. (He documents his whores in some detail, and with apparent pride and explicit detail). To be blunt, in an age when "fucking" is often used by many speakers merely as a sign that a noun will follow or just as a place filler, she only uses it in its original sense, to mean, well, just plain old-fashioned fucking. (With the arguable exception of the just quoted remark about virginity still being a "big fucking deal," but that still partakes of the original meaning in a double entendre.) It's almost refreshing in a curious way. (And maybe not all that "old-fashioned," but still used in its original sexual, not multiple other meanings.) There's an ancient story about someone who was shocked to hear  "bitch" used for a dog; these days some innocents may be surprised to hear "fucking" used for copulation.

While I don't think most mature adult Western readers will find the book's contents or language that  objectionable (at least if they've read this far without calling the Religious Police), there are a few qualms that I should note, since they will turn some readers off without even opening the book. Like the (sometimes) strong language, the title, Sex and the Citadel, while it is a clever enough play off Sex and the City, may be off-putting for some readers, and may seem clever to some and flippant to others. The cover art will deter sales of the English edition in the Arab world. This is the American cover:
As Brian Whitaker noted in his review for the Lebanese website Now:
Discussion of Arab sexuality today is often over-simplistic and when I first saw Sex and the Citadel on Amazon's website I feared the worst. Its title – a play on the popular TV series, – seemed awkwardly contrived and its cover showed a pair of Islamic crescents arranged to look like female breasts (though I'm assured that's only for the American edition).
He's quite right: the stars and crescents shown as breasts only appear on the American edition, and the image just seems gratuitous, using what is usually understood as a symbol of religion to imply female breasts. (Imply? More like portray.)  But I'm really not certain the other covers are much better:  (Or are they worse?)  Umm ... yeah. Okay. One's a woman's naked body in calligraphy (apparently of various rude words) and the other is ... (clears throat, blushes) also pseudo-calligraphy.To my perhaps dirty mind, it is perhaps the most offensive of the three.

See what I mean? They're probably more offensive than the crescents/breasts, but at least took an artist's time to create. Of course, El Feki may not have chosen the cover art, or may have preferred an in-your-face message, giving the finger (or other body parts) to the Arab patriarchy. (But I don't get that sense from her text.) If an Arabic translation ever appears (and it's needed) none of these covers is going to pass muster. But then, the explicit subject matter is also going to be an obstacle in the Middle East market.  Since we're already using candid language: In an effort to draw a Western audience, and given her clear disdain for Middle Eastern prudishness, covers which essentially send a resounding "Fuck You!" message to the audience who most need to read you are not well advised.

I do hope you'll understand these quibbles as just that: quibbles, and forgive the sexual and linguistic candor I don't normally use on this blog. This is an essential book that deserves a wide readership. But this book needs an Arabic edition that (even if censored, euphemized and sanitized) makes its message acceptable to those who need it most.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Weekend Nostalgia Video: King Farouq's Succession, Two Weddings

We're going into the three-day Memorial Day weekend here in the US; I may have a post or two later, but let's do a weekend nostalgia post in case I don't. Here are some videos of key moments in King Farouq of Egypt's life, in brief clips (apparently previews) of British newsreels (not responsible for the narrator';s commentary):

Farouq's return to Egypt from the UK after the death of his father, Fuad I, in 1936:

Farouq's marriage to Queen Farida (Safinaz Zulfiqar), January 20, 1938 (Farouq divorced Farida in 1948:

Farouq's second marriage, to Queen Narriman (Narriman Sadek,a commoner), May 6, 1951:

Tunisia's Crackdown on Ansar al-Shari‘a

Over the past week the Tunisian government has pursued a active campaign against the Salafi Ansar al-Shari‘a movement, having moved to break up the movement's attempt to hold its annual conference in Kairouan, Tunisia's historic religious center. After clashes between the movement and security forces, the government arrested hundreds, though some of these were subsequently released.
The government, dominated by  the Al-Nahda (Annahda) Party, itself moderate Islamist, has in the past been accused of being soft on some radical Salafi movements, but that is clearly no longer the case. The government has declared Ansar al-Shari‘a an illegal organization, blocked its meeting in Kairouan, and claimed that some plotters arrested for planning terrorist attacks had links to the movement.

The clashes in Kairouan between authorities and followers of the movement appear to mark a new determination on the part of the government to check the growing assertiveness of Ansar al-Shari‘a, a Salafi movement sometimes described as a jihadi movement.

Adding to the explosiveness of the situation last week in Kairouan, during the confrontation Femen activist Amina Tyler was arrested in Kairouan, allegedly for planning to disrobe in front of the Ansar al-Shari‘a.

Today's Iran Election Comment

Another good comment on the Iranian election

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What the ...? Elizabeth Taylor and Anwar Sadat

Elizabeth Taylor and Anwar Sadat.

That's all  I know. Don't know where; don't know when. Certainly don't know why. It looks like during his Presidency, which was long after she played Cleopatra.

Parsi on Iran's Elections

Amid all the commentary being produced about the Iranian elections and the culling of candidates, I've linked to some previously, but wanted to note this by Trita Parsi at the Huffington Post: "Iran's March to Naked Dictatorship."

Pisa Has Nothing on Morocco

Via this site (H/T Bill Lawrence):

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

After the Fall: Zahi Hawass, Modest as Always, Compares Himself to Osiris

He was always self-effacing
In the days before the Egyptian revolution, whenever you surfed the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, or the History Channel (before they abandoned history entirely for pawnshops, ghosts, and "Swamp People"), you could be sure of one thing: if the program dealt with Ancient Egypt, Zahi Hawass, then the Director of Antiquities, would appear in it, wearing his signature Indiana Jones hat, which you could also buy through his personal website. He may have been the first real celebrity TV archaeologist; when my daughter learned I'd met him many years ago and we had friends in common, she was more impressed than by my meeting actual heads of state. He was controversial, flamboyant, self-promoting, but he also interested a great many people in Ancient Egypt without invoking Ancient Astronauts or Secrets of the Great Pyramid. He brought money to Egypt, though the fact that he made quite a bit for himself raised hackles, as did allegations that he tended to hog the credit for discoveries made by subordinates. This blog used to post about him quite a bit, sometimes seriously, sometimes in fun. Came the Revolution: and then he was gone. He was convicted of corruption, though the verdict was later overturned.

Well, he hasn't gone far. Smithsonian has an interview: "The Rise and Fall and Rise of Zahi Hawass." He doesn't like Morsi of course, or his successors at the Antiquities Ministry, and he talks of a comeback. Modest as always, he compares himself to the dying and resurrecting God Osiris:
Today, Hawass finds parallels between his fall and that of Osiris. “I had lots of enemies—the enemies of success,” he says. “They are the friends of the god Set, the evil desert god in ancient Egypt.”
(As an Egyptologist he surely knows that when Isis put Osiris back together, there was one body part she couldn't find because a fish had eaten it.  You can look it up. I suspect, however, this was not the image he wanted to convey, but rather that of resurrection.)

Like many of the old guard of the Mubarak era, he's survived various charges and seen convictions overturned, and he's still in the wings, promising a comeback. If Osiris can do it ...

Anticlimax: Kidnapped Egyptian Troops Freed

Nearly a week after seven Egyptian security forces were kidnapped in Sinai (one soldier, four State Security, two Port Security), followed by days of confusion and uncerta8nty, growing speculation about growing tensions between Morsi and the Army, stepped up warnings that the Army was about to move and would not negotiate, at least one accidental firing on a bedouin funeral, the whole drama ended anticlimactically today with the peaceful release of the seven captives. Ahram Online's account is, well, obscure:
The details of the hostages' release have not been officially confirmed. A senior military source said that the Egyptian army used a diversion strategy to secure the release of the hostages.
"The armed forces executed a diversion strategy by sending out mixed information through news agencies," the source told Al-Ahram Arabic news website.
"They (tribal leaders) were also the ones who persuaded the kidnappers to release the soldiers in the desert."
According to military spokesperson Colonel Ali, military intelligence officials played a key role in the operation to free the soldiers, who were abducted in North Sinai's capital, Al-Arish.
Whatever that means. I suspect the key line is the one about the tribal elders. This sidebar story suggests that this was more of a retaliation by local tribes than a planned terror operation; as usual, President Morsi is making promises to develop the Sinai and improve life there.

Bouteflika's Health: Rumors and Denials

Nearly a month after Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffered a small stroke (excuse me, "transient ischemic attack," he remains out of the country and unseen in public. With Presidential elections due next year, the 76-year-old President's health remains a matter of speculation, especially since many expected him to seek a fourth term.

Now rumors are swirling, as are denials. Bouteflika has reportedly been moved from the Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris to the Invalides Military hospital, but with his health unclear. A number of French publications have reported that he is in precarious health, possibly in a coma.

For the first time in some years two Algerian newspapers, Mon Journal and its Arabic version Djaridati, have  been censored and been blocked from publication for publishing the rumor that Bouteflika is in a coma and has returned to Algiers. Publisher Hichem  Aboud was quoted as saying:
“According to my sources -- I personally did not see anything,  but I have my sources, which I cross-check and verify -- the president is in Algeria,” Hichem Aboud, head of both newspapers, told FRANCE 24.
“My sources say that he’s neither in Geneva, Switzerland, nor in the Val-de-Grâce hospital in Paris. He is in Algeria. He arrived at dawn on Wednesday [May 15], after leaving Paris at 3am,” specified the former member of the military who now opposes the regime.
“His health is declining, which is why they transferred him to Algiers,” said Aboud. “The Val-de-Grâce hospital could no longer help. We’ve been told he’s in a deep coma that can go on for days or weeks. That is what we put in those two pages.”
The government denies these reports. Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sallal has said he is "improving every day," but his doctors have ordered a "complete rest."

Rumors about Bouteflika's health have persisted for years. After surgery for a gastric ulcer (officially) in France in 2005, rumors spread that he had stomach cancer, and this was denied; he subsequently won a third term.

He has not yet announced for a fourth term but so long as the issue is open his party allies are reluctant to declare their own candidacies.

Usually during past health crises, Bouteflika has taken pains to make a public appearance; when he was rumored on the Internet to have died in 2012, he was promptly shown on television meeting people. His absence from appearing even in photographs from the hospital after a month is doubtless fueling the rumors of a coma.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

...And the Last Eight Men Standing Are ...

 After the disqualification of Hashemi-Rafsanjani and hundreds of other candidates by the Guardians council, the eight remaining men (no female candidates made the cut) standing in the Iranian Presidential elections (round one June 14, round two if needed June 21) are:
  • National Security Council chief and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili
  • Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf
  • Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati
  • Former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Commander (now Secretary of the Expediency Council) Mohsen Reza'ie
  • Former Oil Minister and Information Minister Mohammad Qarazi
  • Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a former Speaker of Parliament whose daughter married Supreme Leader Khamenei's son
  • Mohammad Aref, one of former President Khatami's Vice Presidents
  • Hassan Rowhani, the nuclear negotiator under Khatami 
The last two, with their links to the Khatami era, are the only "reformers" still in the running.

I think Karim Sadjadpour sums it up best:

Guardians Bar Rafsanjani, Others

Of the 686 registered candidates for President in Iran, only eight have been cleared to run by the Council of Guardians, and that eight does not include former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani or current President Ahmadinejad's ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The exclusion of Rafsanjani, once one of the most powerful men in the country, who was seeking to run as a reformist, more or less guarantees that no one in the race can be called a reformer. While Leader Khamenei can overrule the decision, that may be unlikely; though Rafsanjani helped engineer Khamenei's succession to Imam Khomeini in 1989, they have long since become rivals. But this move may guarantee that the elections lack even limited credibility.

Egypt's Two Greatest Belly-Dancers, Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal, Together

Samia Gamal (l.); Tahia Carioca (r.)
I've posted frequently on the dramatic change in attitude towards raqs sharqi or belly-dancing in Egypt in recent decades and especially since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the bulk of the 20th century, however, belly-dancing was recognized as a major cultural expression, and other Arab countries looked to Egypt to provide the best talent. Egypt's most popular (though not necessarily its most critically acclaimed) films often included scenes with its best belly-dancers performing, either as an integral part of the plot or just to please the audiences. Its best belly-dancers also doubled as actresses; its most popular actresses who weren't dancers often did a dance if the plot required it, as was the case with Suad Husni in Khali Balak min Zouzou. Even Egyptian cinema's first recurring cartoon character, Mish-Mish Effendi, had a girlfriend named Baheya who was a belly-dancer. (You can see a Mish-Mish cartoon and watch Baheya dance at this earlier post.) As Islamist pressures increasingly limit this traditional art and restrict it to expensive tourist venues, I feel a cultural obligation to occasionally remember the golden age.

Most Egyptians and many other Arabs would agree that the greatest dancer and actress of them all was Tahia Carioca (1919-1999). Rising to stardom at Madame Badia Masabni's legendary Casino Opera, she achieved her greatest fame in the late 1930s and 1940s, dancing for King Farouq and beginning a movie career. A supporter of the 1952 revolution, she fell out with Nasser and was even jailed. She continued to act in films long after she stopped dancing, and lived to the age of 80. Unlike modern Western celebrities, she was a firm believer in marriage, marrying 14 times.

There is perhaps less agreement on the second greatest, but many would endorse Samia Gamal (1924-1994) for the title; she too came from Madame Badia's troupe, and was often seen as a slightly younger rival of Carioca.

Though often seen as rivals, one can find publicity pictures like the one at the top showing them together. But there's also this (1940s?) film clip showing Samia listening to an old style gramophone and imagining Carioca dancing on the lid as on a TV screen; then she imagines herself dancing with her. It's not necessarily the only film of them dancing together, but it's one I can play here:
It is neither a high-quality nor a particularly good clip, but it shows the two greats together. Both were enormously glamorous stars in their day: a "pinup" photo of Carioca, perhaps early 1940s(?):
And a stop-motion shot of Samia performing in her prime (1940s/early 1950s):

And both played love interest to the most popular romantic male star of the era, actor/singer/oud player Farid al-Atrash; Samia and Farid were rumored to be lovers though they never married.  Photos of Tahia (first) and Samia (second) with Farid:

If things keep going the way they're going, we shall not gaze upon their like again.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Maloney on Why Iran's Election Matters

No one confuses Iran with a genuine democracy, but its curious political system does make for genuine rivalries and occasional surprises. Suzanne Maloney of the Saban Center at Brookings offers a well-done explanation of "Why Iran's Presidential Election Matters."

Morsi's Latest Sinai Problem

The kidnapping of seven Egyptian security forces (one from the Army, four from State Security and two from Port Security Forces) in the largely lawless Sinai last Thursday has created a quandary for President Morsi: it underscores the weakness of the central government and its apparent inability to control its national territory, while also embarrassing the Army, which has lately been issuing reminders of its role as a supporter of legitimacy and a guarantor of stability. While Hamas in Gaza, allies of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, has reportedly stepped up border security, it's the Wild West lawlessness of northern Sinai that really is the issue.

But there is also the deeper issue of security nationwide, which has been severely degraded since the revolution. Growing incidents of mob violence, locals taking justice into their own hands, and lynchings have occurred in many rural areas of the Delta and Upper Egypt. The growing insecurity adds to the overall impression that the Muslim Brotherhood government is adrift and bereft of ideas.

The Figthing in Qusair and Hizbullah's Role: Will this Spur More Outside Intervention?

There has been heavy fighting over the weekend and today in the Syrian rebel-held town of Qusair, as Syrian government forces, alongside Hizbullah fighters, have claimed to have retain much of the town. If they retake Qusair, they could block the overland supply of arms to the rebels from Sunni militants in northern Lebanon, as Qusair controls the approaches to the border.

The open involvement of Hizbullah (and, reportedly, of Lebanese Sunnis fighting on the rebel side), is now openly acknowledged; Hizbullah admits that at least 13 "martyrs" have fallen in the battle for Qusair. This fact, and the prospects of a significant tactical victory for the Syrian regime, may spur those calling for greater Western involvement in the Syrian conflict. The recent reports of Russia supplying new missiles to the regime are also likely to supply advocates for intervention with new ammunition. The Syrian war had seemed somewhat stalemated; sudden new advances on the regime side could tilt the balance.

At the very least I suspect the fighting in Qusair deserves the attention it is receiving in the Middle Eastern media, as opposed to the near silence about it here in the US, which I suspect may change given the role of Hizbullah.

Friday, May 17, 2013

TGIF! Weekend Nostalgia: Atatürk on a Swing

TGIF. It's Friday. Time to relax, let one's hair down, and ... wait: isn't that Kemal Atatürk on that swing?

Atatürk has become such an iconic image in modern Turkey that I at least find it a little hard to picture him actually kicking back and having fun. As the deck chairs give away, the swing is on shipboard, aboard the steamer Ege during a voyage to Antalya in February 1935. (Picture is from here).

If the father of modern Turkey, usually portrayed on stamps and money with a stern, dignified visage, can kick back and enjoy a swing, well, all of you have a good weekend, too.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days: The Middle East 50 Years Ago

For no particular reason other than my training as a historian and my always looking for good blog topics, I was thinking about the Middle East 50 years ago, 1963. The world was in the midst of the Cold War, John Kennedy President of the US (until November) and Nikita Khrushchev running the USSR (with only a year to go). But in the Middle East there were still some real giants in the scene: some of the founders if the modern states and/or the prophets of a new era. They weren't all good men, and certainly they weren't all good leaders. Most were kings or dictators, and even the rare elected leaders leaned towards autocratic preferences.

Not all the leaders are memorable. Yemen was in the early days of its civil war. King Saud in Saudi Arabia was an embarrassment, soon to be deposed (the next year) by Prime Minister Prince Faisal. The Gulf was still under British rule, except for Kuwait. Iraq and Syria both had Baathist coups that year and new leaders had not yet emerged. Fouad Chehab in Lebanon is mostly remembered for steering the country out of the 1958 civil war, an early foreshadowing of what was to come in 1975-1990. Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü was a man of an earlier era, a nationalist hero brought back after a 1960 coup. Sudan's Ibrahim Abboud is largely forgotten. King Idris I in Libya was no power player.

But the big names seem, somehow, bigger in retrospect than their counterparts today, whether for good or ill: Nasser, Ben Gurion, the Shah, Bourguiba, and two relative newcomers in the Maghreb in 1963, Hassan II and Ben Bella.

Though he was President of Egypt only half as long as Husni Mubarak, Gamal Abdel Nasser's career is iconic: though he created the national security state that protected Mubarak and was no democrat, his message of Arab nationalism and his symbolic defiance of Britain, France, and Israel at Suez made him a hero for the Arab world and a villain to many in the West. His "Arab socialism," despite dubious results, made him popular at home. His leadership was at its height between the wars of 1956 and 1967; Egypt's crushing defeat in the latter war dimmed Nasser's reputation, and he died just over three years later in September 1970, only 52 years old.

I've run this clip of Nasser making fun of the Muslim Brotherhood before (it has subtitles in English, but the delivery is what matters, and you probably can get a good sense of Nasser's way with the crowd even if you don't know Arabic):

Declaring Independence 1948
Nasser's frequent adversary, Israel's David Ben-Gurion, is another figure whose reputation still vastly overshadows the country's more recent leaders. Founding father and first Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion read the declaration of Israel's independence 65 years ago and was still politically active almost until his final illness in 1973. He served as Prime Minister from 1948-1954 and 1955-1964 (Moshe Sharett's Prime Ministership is remembered mostly by history buffs).
Ben-Gurion feuded with his successor, Levi Eshkol, split with his old party Mapai (ancestor of Labor), started a new party, Rafi, and eventually split with that as well. After retiring to his Negev kibbutz, Ben-Gurion remained active in politics, meeting with political figures before and during the 1967 war as if he were still in charge. He lived to see the 1973 war as well. Though in his last years he had withdrawn from political office he remained a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Many Egyptians still venerate Nasser; Ben-Gurion has the country's major airport, a university in his beloved Negev, and streets in most cities named for him. In contrast, another dominant figure in the region 50 years ago, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah and Aryamehr (Light of the Aryans), lies buried in a mosque in Egypt, after dying in a troubled exile; he is excoriated in Iran. The second and last of the Pahlavi dynasty was installed by the allies in place of his father in 1941, restored to power after the coup against Mossadegh, and ruled until 1979, when, a few years after celebrating 2500 years of monarchy in Iran, he was driven from the Peacock Throne. But in the 1960s the Shah was reaching the height of his power; revolution and exile seemed remote possibilities.

In North Africa, Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia was already 60 years old in 1963, founding father of his country. A hero of the national independence effort against the French, and famously a vigorous secularist and Westernizer. He was widely respected and influential regionally at the time. Bourguiba would increasingly prove intolerant of opposition, jailing rivals and even disowning his own son and political heir; he had himself named President-for-Life, and clung to power stubbornly long after his faculties were badly impaired; finally deposed by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on grounds of senility in 1987, he lived on until 2000, dying at the age of 98 (officially: some think he was older than admitted and may have been 100 or 101). His reputation would be healthier had he not hung on to power so long; but while his successor Ben Ali is disgraced and in (admittedly comfortable) exile, the most elegant boulevard in Tunis remains Avenue Bourguiba.

The other two leaders in the Maghreb were still new to power. King Hassan II of Morocco became King in February 1961 after the sudden death of his father during supposedly routine surgery at the age of only 51. He was still something of an unknown quantity in 1963, but his reign was to last until 1999, surviving plots and assassinations, crushing real or suspected rivals, and dominating the Kingdom. His son now sits on his throne.

The third Maghreb leader would serve for only two years, but he was a powerful symbol: after its bloody 12-year struggle against France, Algeria had finally won its independence in 1962, and Ahmed Ben Bella became its President in 1963. One of nine historic leaders of the FLN, based in Cairo during the war of independence, France notoriously intercepted his plane in 1956 and held him prisoner until 1962. He defined himself as an Arab Nationalist and an ally of Nasser's, but in 1965 he would be overthrown by his military chief, Houari Boumedienne.

Ben Bella in old age
Ben Bella spent decades in exile, eventually returning to Algeria. He survived to the venerable age of 95, dying just over a year ago in April 2012,  and was given a state funeral by an Algeria whose population were mostly born after his overthrow and who did not remember him: but an Algeria still ruled by his old comrade-in-arms and first Foreign Minister, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Powerful figures. Their heirs and successors today, I would venture to say with confidence, remain in their shadows, though many of them ruled with an iron hand.