Not just branches – on the Syrian and Egyptian Brotherhoods

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The irony of these parallel accounts is that, with Egypt’s current disorder and Lefèvre’s analysis, which privileges the Brotherhood’s early pragmatism and democratic participation over their violence in the 1970s and 1980s, the Syrian Brotherhood – long considered more radical – comes across as more of a political moderate than its Egyptian relative. Lefèvre insists that “today, there is little doubt left about the organisation’s commitment to ideas and concepts such as democracy and political pluralism,” even if it still remains doctrinally “embedded in the ideological substance of political Islam”. Its internal history is far more contentious, and reflective of the broad social and political wounds of decades of single Baath Party rule, than is often framed. In Egypt, meanwhile, where the Brotherhood’s history was never so violent, the group instead participated in what Wickham calls “a political process warped by authoritarian rule”. That didn’t liberalise the organisation so much as entrench hardliners who kept it as a closed coterie. Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood knew it couldn’t reasonably hold power, so it was free to advocate democracy while leaving major doctrines and policies vague. But political power changed all that, and exposed their doublespeak. It ran a presidential candidate after pledging it wouldn’t; it deflected criticisms with canards, and refused to admit mistakes.

Until the Syrian Brotherhood runs in elections and realises similar political aspirations, the organisation will be held up to its Egyptian counterparts and their penchant for saying one thing while pursuing only narrow group interests. The interviews Lefèvre cites give voice to his broad claims about the Syrian Brotherhood’s newfound restraint and accommodations. But if the Egyptian Brotherhood has proven anything after Mubarak, and after Morsi, it is that its words are hardly sacrosanct. Exiled Syrian Brothers such as Attar or Salem, whether they want to be, will be associated with Khairat Al Shater, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s senior strategist and chief financier, who told the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper last year: “There must be as much integration and cooperation as possible, with alliances and coalitions among the various political stakeholders … There is no possibility of a power monopoly. It simply is not part of our strategy or our culture.”

Read the whole story, on the cover of The Review, at The National.

Current Stories

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The Nile has no shortage of stories or storytellers, which might discourage most writers from undertaking “a biography of the world’s greatest river”. Not British travel writer and self-described adventurer Robert Twigger, who at the outset of his lively, zigzagging, often oddball tome, Red Nile: The Biography of the World’s Greatest River, declares his goal “to uncover the best stories, in all their light and darkness, the stories red in tooth and claw, the more bizarre the better, the blood and the guts of this river which spills into history”. If you’re going to write another book about the Nile – a river whose chronicles begin with the Pharaohs and whose history, whether ancient or modern, is always being rehashed and reiterated – how else could you do it? To his credit, Twigger brings some self-restraint and humility to this epic, acknowledging he is less an original storyteller than a curator, collecting and rearranging tales and characters in order to say something new.

Twigger’s Red Nile refers, initially, to the moment in early summer when, north of Khartoum, the sediment-rich Blue Nile, at the height of its flood, flows into the White Nile and clogs its clear waters, turning them briefly red. But this is only the most literal version of the Red Nile. As Twigger writes, “the stories that remain are always the most highly coloured, the most passion-filled or the most blood curdling. Naturally, their colour is red.” Often he leans on the latter; among the most bloody stories retold is that of the Delta town of Mansoura, where in 1250, Baibars, Egypt’s future Mamluk Sultan, slaughtered French Crusaders led by Louis IX, and their blood was said to clog the Nile south to the Mediterranean.

Read more at The National.

Egypt’s Conscience: The Genius of Sonallah Ibrahim

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From a prison camp in Egypt’s western desert in 1963, a young dissident, Sonallah Ibrahim, recorded in his diaries that he “must write about Cairo after studying her neighborhood by neighborhood, her classes, her evolution.” A year later he was out of prison, having served five years of a seven-year sentence for being a Communist. He smuggled his diaries back to Cairo by copying them onto cigarette rolling papers. But Egypt’s capital was its own kind of prison, as the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser kept him under house arrest from dusk until dawn. He tried working on a novel of his childhood, but focused instead on a bleak, honest record of his days in a city browbeaten by Nasser’s omnipresent police. “The new reality consumed me,” Ibrahim later wrote, and so his work had to engage “the struggle against imperialism, the effort to build socialism, and all the difficulties these efforts brought in their train: terror, torture, prison, death, personal misery.”

The outcome was his first novel, That Smell, published and quickly banned in 1966. Its nameless narrator is a recently released political prisoner and writer living under house arrest. He roams Cairo when he’s not checking in with a police officer every night, visits old friends and family, smokes, spies on his neighbors, and otherwise fails at writing and sleeping with a prostitute. The book, devoid of much plot, captures the debilitating effects of police repression under Nasser, but also anticipates a mood of decline and looming disaster brought by Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, followed by Nasser’s death in 1970. State censors decried Ibrahim’s portrait of a listless Egyptian society, singling out its few brief sexual scenes. At a Ministry of Information interrogation, a zealous officer demanded to know why Ibrahim’s narrator fails to sleep with a prostitute. “Is the hero impotent?” he asked, taking more offense to the perceived insult to Egyptian masculinity and, it seems, national prowess, than to the book’s portrayal of torture.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast.

Beirut, Alive but Dead

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“Beirut was, and is, a very real place,” journalist Samir Kassir wrote in his mammoth history of Lebanon’s capital, “whose playfulness and love of show and spectacle fail to conceal its inner seriousness.” Kassir was killed in a car bombing in June 2005, three and a half months after the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s own assassination, along with 22 others, in a massive blast along the city’s Corniche on Valentine’s Day. Uncertainty and terror followed Hariri’s death, as the United Nations launched a high-profile investigation while car bombs and assassinations persisted, and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and security forces – and thousands of others rallied around Hizbollah and its sponsor in Damascus. The mood and psychology of this moment in recent Lebanese history is the nominal plot of The Mehlis Report, the English-language debut of Rabee Jaber, the 2012 International Arabic Fiction Prize winner.

Architect Saman Yarid wanders Beirut, investing hopes for peace and answers to his city’s turmoil on the release of the UN investigation led by the German judge Detlev Mehlis. Saman is the last member of his family left in their sprawling home in Achrafieh; his sisters have moved abroad, save for Josephine, who was kidnapped in the civil war, and never found. But his story – late nights, long walks, and different girlfriends – leads into an imaginative excavation of the city’s brutal past and present, and the toll of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with 150,000 dead and an estimated 17,000 missing. In Jaber’s novel, Kassir’s “inner seriousness” of Beirut is, in fact, a parallel city of the dead, where those lost in the war wander a nearly empty city, always thirsty, and sit down to write their memoirs. And the “real” Beirut in the months after Hariri’s assassination, as the translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid told an interviewer, is really that “Beirut of the dead superimposed on the Beirut of the living”.

Read the rest at The National

Distance Resistance

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Arwa works out of a walk-up office in Heliopolis, near Cairo’s international airport, amid the din of low-flying passenger jets overhead. The 27-year-old former state television producer, who declined to give his last name, left Damascus in late 2011 to avoid being drafted into the army. After months of inactivity in Egypt, he and another Syrian friend founded SouriaLi, an internet radio station focused not on news of the brutal government crackdown and uprising devastating his country, but Syrians’ common history and culture (the name means “Syria is mine”.)

“We try to remind people of our connections,” said Arwa, his cigarette nearly done. “We’re speaking about how to build our society, how we can live together tomorrow. Like Mahmoud Darwish wrote, ‘we love life’.”

The opening lines of that Darwish poem – “And we love life if we find a way to it. We dance in between martyrs and raise a minaret for violet or palm trees” – is an unlikely elegy for Syria today, where the death toll, according to the United Nations, exceeds 70,000. One million Syrians have fled abroad, most to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, bringing the realities of war across a region that has known too many refugee crises.

The trauma of displacement is often captured in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to some 146,000 people, or similarly squalid camps in the mountains and valleys of Lebanon and Turkey. Cairo has no refugee camps. But new Syrian communities, displaced by war, have formed in its urban sprawl, from the city centre to the desert satellites, just like the Sudanese and Iraqi ones before them. For many young Syrians who joined the earliest protests against Assad and then were forced to flee, Egypt’s capital has become both an activist base and a refuge.

Read the rest at The National. To read the piece as it appeared in print in The Review, click here. And check out more of Bridgette Auger’s great photographs here.

The Prophet of Aleppo

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Syria’s leading novelist makes his English-language debut—at last.

A popular writer living under dictatorship refuses to join the regime’s propaganda machine, and so he goes silent. His novels are banned and he cannot work or write. This is Fathi Sheen, the narrator of Syrian writer Nihad Sirees’s scathing, absurdist, and powerful novel The Silence and the Roar—but it is also Sirees himself, who fled Syria last year for Cairo after decades of writing to resist the cult of the ruling Assads—Hafez and now Bashar (whom he writes about in this issue of Newsweek). Sirees’s novels promote the individual’s power of free expression under an authoritarian regime that demands the masses’ blind adherence and for three decades has silenced people with what Sirees calls “an expansive roar”—of rallies, secret prisons, and now artillery, tanks, and jets—“that renders thought impossible.”

On a recent afternoon in Providence, Rhode Island, Sirees sits at a table in a Greek restaurant near Brown University, where he is a visiting fellow, and toiled with what to call the civil war devastating his country, where the death toll exceeds 70,000. It mimics a scene in his novel, in which Fathi meets a doctor in a hospital overwhelmed with the bodies of people trampled by hysterical crowds celebrating the Leader. The doctor begs Fathi to tell him “what we should call what’s going on here. Naming can satisfy a need.” Fathi’s answer—“surrealism”—was Sirees’s initial reply, too. But then he conceded, “No one could give a name or a title to this. It’s only criminal.”

Read the rest of my profile at Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

The Syria I Knew – On the Fall of the House of Assad

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I have a piece in the LARB on David Lesch’s Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, that includes some reflection on my time in Damascus in 2008-09. The photo above is the view from my apartment in the Old City, which I wrote about here:

At the apartment I lived in for most of a year in Syria between 2008 and 2009, in the Old City of Damascus, I had Arabic lessons with one of my tutors in a small kitchen. Whenever I brought up politics with my tutor — like the potential for negotiation with Israel to return the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967 — he got quiet, removed the SIM card from his cell phone, then mine, and chose his words carefully. If it seemed paranoid — so your phone is being tapped, but how can they listen when it is off? — taking out the SIM card was the preamble to any vaguely sensitive discussion in Syria. The feeling of being monitored was always present. Neighbors and grocers knew your schedule, your friends, and their schedules.

The apartment was on the top floor — the roof, really — of a modern, five-story walk-up on Straight Street. The kitchen peered down into the courtyard of a traditional Damascene house below, which had been renovated, like many others, into a boutique hotel, and which is now likely empty or boarded up while the city fears the fight to come. My kitchen window looked east, past the Roman-era Bab Sharqi, the eastern gate of the Old City, to the Ghouta suburbs that today are slowly falling, by fierce firefight, into rebel hands.

From my roof looking west across the city, I’d stare at Mount Qassioun, which looms over Damascus even as housing creeps up its steep, arid slopes. The mountain is reportedly now being fortified by the Syrian military, a final redoubt in the regime’s defense of the capital. Qassioun is celebrated as the mountaintop from which the Prophet Muhammad first saw Damascus. He didn’t climb down and enter the city, though; you could only enter paradise once. Now, regime artillery on the mountain is used to shell restive suburbs below.

Read the whole piece at the LARB.

The Revolution Added Two Years: On Cairo

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I have a long reported essay in the new issue of The Nation on the neoliberal urban development schemes of the Mubarak regime, which have found new life under the government of Mohamed Morsi and the increased political role of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the magazine the story is running with two of my photos; I put some others in this post. Here is the opening:

In Cairo, there is a street named after the Arab League. It’s a grand boulevard that cuts through Mohandiseen, a neighborhood built in the 1950s to house engineers and other civil servants, whose ranks swelled during the 1960s with the guarantee of employment under the state socialism of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These days, the boulevard is lined with luxury car showrooms, drab mid-rises and fast-food chains, all forming the commercial spine of an upscale area too expensive for most clerks and bureaucrats. Last December, on one of the quiet streets that radiates off the boulevard, I visited the office of an architect named Dina Shehayeb. A professor at the Housing and Building National Research Center in Cairo, Shehayeb also runs her own firm, which focuses on community-based development and the revitalization of historic areas. The deadly street battles of late November between the police and unarmed protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square had ended, and the attacks on protesters by military police outside the People’s Assembly near Tahrir were a week away. Cairo was relatively calm. But in her office, Shehayeb spoke heatedly of a city transformed during the reign of the recently deposed president, Hosni Mubarak.

“We had thirty years of the government pushing us to informality,” she said, alluding to Cairo’s vast “informal” areas: dense urban districts built without official planning or permits, often in cheap red brick and concrete on agricultural land that once formed the Nile’s flood plain. Some two-thirds of Cairenes live in informal areas, the urban reality in a country where the government has never provided enough housing; during Mubarak’s three decades of power in Egypt, state assets and land were sold off in a costly dream of turning Cairo’s desert outskirts into satellite cities and gated suburbs. But Shehayeb was also talking about Mohandiseen, where someone with money and connections can skirt lax planning guidelines and build a tower on a street of low-rise buildings. “It was governance by informality, articulated and made ambiguous on purpose,” she said. “Things were always done with vagueness, uncertainty and contradiction.”

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Read the rest at The Nation.

Revising the history of Egypt’s regime

I have a review in The National on Hazem Kandil’s new revisionist history of Egypt’s post-1952 regime, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. The book explains Egypt’s evolution from a military to a police state from Nasser through Mubarak, and the internal rivalries over decades between the military, the various branches of police and security services, and the political apparatus. Kandil argues that this history explains the military’s quick support for the millions of Egyptians in the streets calling for Mubarak’s end and the fall of the regime (hardly realized yet). Here’s the opening:

In October 1972 Anwar Sadat met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to discuss plans to retake the Israeli-occupied Sinai. The generals suspected Sadat was planning a limited war – to cross the Suez Canal and then dig in – rather than advance to retake the strategic Gidi and Mitla passes. The deputy war minister objected; it would be a military disaster. When he pressed his point, Sadat erupted, according to the minutes cited by Hazem Kandil in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. “Make one more objection, and you will be asked to stay home,” Egypt’s president shouted. “Learn your place! You are a soldier, not a politician.”

Days later, Sadat dismissed those opposing Scaf members and purged a hundred other high-ranking officers. Sadat called the military council “a group of childish pupils, [composed of] a deceived leftist, an ailing psychopath, a mercenary, a traitor to Egypt, a conspirator.”

This is hardly the lofty rhetoric used to describe Egypt’s military, especially by a president who was among the Free Officers that seized power in 1952. But it illustrates the complexities and internal rivalries of the Egyptian regime that are the subject of Kandil’s bold, revisionist history, which disputes the “misguided belief that the Egyptian regime has maintained its military character.” To Kandil the regime is not a monolith but “an amalgam of institutions” – the military, the police and security services, and the political leadership – “each with its own power-maximising agendas”.

Read the rest here.

On Samar Yazbek’s Syria diaries

In late April 2011, as news of heavy gunfire and rooftop snipers leaked out of the southern town of Daraa, besieged by the Syrian army and security services, Samar Yazbek received a text message from a childhood friend. “Dear traitor,” it read, “even God’s with the president and you’re still lost.” Yazbek’s diary entry for that day, April 29, records 62 peaceful demonstrators killed, mostly in Daraa, where the government blocked flour shipments as part of its siege. “Why are they doing this?” she asks. “After the electricity and the water and the medicine, they’ll even cut off the bread?”

The entry is one of more than 40 written between March 25 and July 9, 2011 that together form A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, a personal document and definitive account of the first 100 days of a once-peaceful uprising that is now a civil war. The diaries catalogue the bravery, confusion, torment and mounting brutality as the violence took over Syria, from the perspective of a prominent novelist (she was one of the three Syrian authors whose work was featured in 2010′s Beirut39 anthology), screenwriter and journalist whom the Al Assad regime tried to silence.

From a notable Alawite family in Jableh, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Yazbek was compelled by kin and community to back the government. Her early, outspoken criticism of Bashar Al Assad’s suppression of peaceful protests that began in Daraa 18 months ago – when children were detained and tortured for scrawling anti-regime graffiti on their school – instead brought public denunciation and personal threats.

Three times in those first 100 days of Syria’s uprising, Yazbek was brought to a security office in Damascus, where she was beaten, berated, condemned as a traitor and pawn of Salafi militants, and dragged through an underground prison below the office where tortured demonstrators hung in chains and in heaps on the floor to be stomped on (the calm, sinister officer told her it’s “just a short trip, so you’ll write better”.)

Read the rest of my review at The National.

On Qatari history, oil, and Doha’s skyline

Late posting my review of Allen Fromherz’s Qatar: A Modern History, which ran in the National last month. The book fills a vital gap in scholarly accounts of Qatar’s political and economic history, beyond what is mostly superficial media coverage (which I highlight at the outset of the piece). In particular Fromherz offers a compelling reading of the historical roots of Gulf authoritarianism through the 19th century British imperial treaties with what were known as the Trucial States. British agreements created the kind of political rule that persists today; the Anglo-Qatari Treaty enshrined Sheikh Abdallah and his family as Qatar itself, legally inseparable. In their effort to find reliable political allies, the British eliminated rivalries and empowered the Al-Thani tribe internally while forcing them to cede their foreign affairs to the British government. In this way, Fromherz writes, “the British elite’s understanding of the sheikhdoms as authoritarian, desert aristocracies created the legal foundations of present-day authoritarianism.”

Here is the opening:

Qatar is captured in images. A favourite is the new and expanding skyline of Doha, variously described by The New York Times as “medieval Baghdad crossed withBlade Runner” and “a cluster of spaceships about to blast off”. The Baghdad connection is never really explained, but that’s the point: Qatar is what you want it to be, as long as you have a good metaphor and a picture to back it up. Foreign Policyrecently attempted to amend some of these rhetorical flourishes – what it derided as the “rank hyperbole” of much western media coverage of Qatar – but produced its very own. The Sheraton Hotel, the go-to diplomatic meeting spot and 1980s-era landmark on Doha’s redeveloped Corniche, was likened to the bar scene from Star Wars, “with French paratroopers strolling by as djellaba-clad Darfuri rebels and western oil executives sip tea in the hotel’s towering lobby”.

With its newness, wealth and diplomatic attempts to be all things to most people, Qatar is compelling. What seems most impressive (and perhaps most familiar for anyone who has spent any amount of time in this part of the Arabian Gulf) is the nation’s quick ascent from “a penniless swatch of sand and rock inhabited by nomads and fishermen”, in the words of one of those recent New York Times articles. The impression of such descriptions is a place without history. But was it really so different, the spaceship skyline aside? And who were those nomads and fishermen?

Read the rest at the National. Photo by me, from a visit to Doha in 2009 (the skyline has changed since then).

Letter from Cairo – LARB

“Why are we destroying our own city with our own hands?” the architect Nairy Hampikian asked last month in Magaz, an Egyptian design magazine. She was speaking of the decades of poor planning and infrastructure in Cairo under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the same publication, architect May al-Ibrashy wrote, “Cairo, always fast, has now become furious. Stadiums as battlegrounds… buildings as burning effigies (the list is endless but the unrivaled favorite seems to be Ministry of Interior buildings)…” Both writers may have been anticipating the urban conflict to come: in the battle for Egypt between protestors determined to be heard and a military determined to silence them, space, and who controls it, is as much the focus of the contest as anything else.

This month’s battles between military police and protesters outside the cabinet and parliament buildings, just south of Tahrir Square, are a prime example. In the early morning on Friday, December 16th, regime thugs and military police threw furniture, plates, bricks, and cement blocks onto a few hundred protesters who for three weeks had been sitting-in peacefully outside the cabinet building. The ensuing street battles were contests of space. At least thirteen people died and hundreds more were injured over the first three days, as they fought to control Qasr al-Ainy Street, a central boulevard that houses many government buildings and connects to Tahrir from the south. Like the violence of late November, when over forty protesters died fighting the Central Security Forces for control of Mohamed Mahmoud Street (one of the main arteries leading out of Tahrir Square), this latest spasm of violence was not just about freedom or human rights: it was about urban control.

In the battle of Qasr al-Ainy Street, the fight was directed against specific buildings, most of all the cabinet building from which uniformed soldiers and military police attacked protesters (one, caught on camera, even urinated on them). The buildings became symbols as well as tools of oppression, with the military attacking civilians from the rooftops. Detained protesters were dragged into the parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, where they were beaten. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown both at and from the cabinet building, an adjacent government office, and the Ministry of Transportation, just up the street. Regime toughs and military police attacked from the roof of the Institut d’Égypte, a valuable national archive built after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

Molotovs hit the institute — exactly who threw them is not clear — and the military allowed the building to burn, along with its vast collection of two-hundred year old books and manuscripts. Soldiers didn’t try to save the volumes of national heritage housed inside; protesters did. A photo quickly spread on Twitter of a man cradling a stack of old books rescued from the burning building, his head covered with a plastic chair to protect him from rocks thrown and bullets fired by military police. The Big Pharaoh, an Egyptian blogger, posted the photo with the message: “I just want u to look at this pic closely. Look & contemplate. Look & feel proud.” According to al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s largest independent daily, young men who ran into the still-burning building on Saturday to save the books were shot at and hit with rocks. “They fired at us with shotguns,” a man named Ahmed told the newspaper. “A little kid was hit with 11 pellets in the neck.” Al-Masry al-Youm reported that a man carrying books from the smoldering institute had his back broken by a rock on his way out.

A salvage operation began days later outside a state archive building along the Nile, where academics, specialists, and other volunteers sifted through the charred remains of the institute’s 192,000-volume collection. “When the government wants to protect something, they do,” Ahmed el-Bindari, one of the volunteers, told the Associated Press. “Try to reach the Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry buildings. You won’t be able to.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Shelf Life

I have a piece in the current issue of The Nation, reviewing two recent Middle East books by American think-tank analysts: Andrew Tabler’s In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria and Steven A. Cook’s The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. I was critical of Tabler’s book. While billing itself as part memoir, it neglects much discussion of the author’s own shifting views and politics about Syria. As a journalist in Damascus who founded the English-language magazine Syria Today, Tabler technically worked as a consultant under first lady Asma al-Assad; now he advocates what American sanctions “can teach Assad” from a job at a think-tank that was founded to be Israel’s lobbyist in the foreign policy circles of DC. He used to advocate the benefits of engagement; now he talks about America’s ability to change regime behavior and domestic affairs in Damascus simply through sanctions and tough talk — a foreign policy view shaped by conservative think-tanks and Congressmen in the capital who have little experience and knowledge of Syrian, let alone broader regional history and politics.

The two books make for an interesting pair for how the authors see America’s role in a changing Middle East. Tabler writes of his time in Syria, and the current crackdown and threat of civil war there, from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think-tank whose Middle East analysis hinges on how things in the region affect Israel, particularly Israel’s security, and the American-dictated status-quo. Cook, meanwhile, ends his book on a surprising, refreshing note, that “The United States should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship.” While US pressure on the ruling Scaf is needed — especially in light of rising military crackdowns in the street, and the recent raid of NGOs in Cairo — Cook says that to “salvage its position in Egypt,” the Obama administration should say the right things about “democracy, tolerance, pluralism, accountability, and nonviolence—and then take a hands-off approach as Egyptians build a new political system on their own terms.” Cheers to that.

The piece is behind the subscriber wall, so here is the beginning. To read the PDF as it appeared in print, click here.

In 2003 Andrew Tabler met Asma al-Assad, the young, glamorous wife of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. A black Honda whisked him away from his apartment in Damascus to the hills above the city, and then to a secret location guarded by sweeping low branches, an iron gate and men cradling machine guns. He remembers the visit as being surprisingly casual. Nobody bothered to check his ID before he entered Asma’s office. When he left, he almost called Syria’s first lady, a former hedge-fund analyst and investment banker in London, by her first name. Then one remembers what he says her secretary had told him: “We know where you live, Mr. Tabler.”

From 2001 to 2008 Tabler was the only Western journalist permanently based in Damascus, partly because of the rarest of things: a multiple-entry press visa. In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria (Lawrence Hill; $16.95) is his account of that time, but it neglects to answer some obvious questions. Why was Tabler granted such access? And what of his career change, from observer and consultant in Damascus—he worked for Asma as media adviser for a quasi NGO that she patronized and through which he founded Syria’s first English-language magazine, Syria Today—to his present post at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? The narrative is a maze of opaque remarks, like this one about a colleague from Damascus: “While Leila didn’t like the Washington Institute’s position on Syria and was critical of my work, she understood that I was leaving Syria behind.”

2050 or Bust

This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”

Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Sharia al Muizz Li Din Allah in Cairo, from the Sabil-Kuttab of ‘Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda, August 2011.

The Embassy Fortress

So it seems the State Department’s office that regulates embassies’ design standards is once again returning to, well, design principles. Though for the US government that means much more than just architectural style: “design” for the bureau of Overseas Building Operations also means security issues, costs, and other factors that have made American embassies so drab and so evocative of tone-deaf, aggressive, and bunker-mentality foreign policy. But look at their website! The future London embassy might not be Edward Durell Stone in New Delhi, but it’s better than Baghdad… and certainly Cairo too.

I’m reminded of a paper I wrote as a modernism-loving undergraduate in Poughkeepsie, where I took up the challenge of not only defending, but praising the most ostracized building on campus: the 1959 foreign language building designed by Paul Schweikher. Here it is in its heyday. The building has aged badly, lost the purity of its concrete, vaulted barrel roofline, lost an Alvar Aalto-inspired auditorium, had AC units put in all the windows, and the Erwin Hauer-designed sculptural screens have been neglected. What does this have to do with American embassies? The building — a self-promoted island for foreign language study removed from the campus — was of a headier era of American design principles and international aspirations, often expressed through modernism. The building was raised on a plinth, the image of modernist (elevated) separation. English was not to be spoken inside; only foreign languages, especially Russian, sitting at booths in a state-of-the-art electronic language lab.

The ideas behind a facility dedicated to modern language learning techniques grew out of the design competition and construction of the new United Nations Headquarters in New York. The expression of these aims through modernist architecture had been set with the new “world headquarters” in New York, drafted by an international team of architects led by American Wallace Harrison and constantly prodded and berated by Le Corbusier. In addition, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which boosted high school and higher education funding for mathematics, sciences and foreign languages, pointed to the political age of high-minded American ideals, like training for the foreign service and prosperity through modernization and development.

The foreign language building in question was inspired by an unrealized design for a new American embassy in Amman, Jordan in 1954, by Paul Rudolph. Rudolph’s Amman embassy was a kind of modernist tent, and not nearly the modernism-meets-the-Orient of Josep Lluis Sert’s American embassy in Baghdad. But Rudolph’s design was rejected, apparently for being designed too much like a “fortress.” In 1954 an embassy in Jordan could not be removed from the city; in 1959 the foreign language building that it inspired opened on the edge of a prestigious women’s college campus, asserting its concrete separation from all the brick, ivy, and quadrangles.

All this is to say that I have a soft-spot, or maybe a misplaced nostalgia, for concrete modernism, or at least for the illusion of American foreign policy ideals that they might represent. Or maybe I just like the irony of Rudolph’s Amman embassy being rejected for the very reason that has dictated American embassy design for decades. But before I get carried away with this bit of news from the State Department: a change toward design does not mean that good architecture will prevail. Just look at the runners-up for the London embassy contest. Eager praise for unforgiving, 1950s high modernism aside, would the US ever approve a great embassy design like this, today?

Designed by Richard Meier & Partners Architects.

On Cairo: Histories of a City

Histories of a City: the many hands that shaped today’s Cairo

Frederick Deknatel, The National, September 16, 2011

One of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s most famous Orientalist paintings, Prayer on the Rooftops of Cairo, is backwards. The men in the scene are facing north in prayer, not south-east towards Mecca. Under the shadow of two Mamluk minarets with the mosque of Mohammed Ali in the distance, perched atop the Citadel, the Cairenes on the canvas pray just after sunset, with a sliver of the moon in the sky. It’s an idyllic, invented scene that Gérôme, one of the most accomplished Orientalists of his day, painted in his studio in France, embellishing it to suit his viewers’ desire for the exotic. Its inaccuracy was beside the point. This painting, like so many that Gérôme made in the late 19th century, captivated its European audience.

Nezar AlSayyad includes a large detail of this painting spread over two pages in Cairo: Histories of a City. AlSayyad’s book, a colourful sweep of over 3,000 years of urban and architectural history, is as much a short genealogy of Cairo’s many commentators and portraitists as it is of its buildings. He narrates a broad history of urban development from the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, “the first Cairo”, on the Nile’s west bank, to the Ptolemaic, Roman-Byzantine and Arab-Islamic cities that developed on top of and adjacent to each other on the river’s east bank. Each chapter begins at an iconic Cairo landmark and tells a history of the building’s era, bringing in both neighbouring architecture and contemporary voices. Gérôme’s work is among those accumulated impressions of the city, from ancient scribes and medieval chroniclers to colonial-era artists and modern historians. But in reversing the direction of the men in prayer, Gérôme’s painting suggests the role of imagination and misunderstanding not only in explaining and portraying Cairo, but in planning and developing it too.

Read the rest at The National.

YA5

YA5 is a new arts journal from Portland, Oregon. One of its founders and editors is David Knowles, a Vassar crony and artist and book designer. YA5′s first issue was released in April, “The Art Issue.” “The Music Issue” has just been released. There will be five issues a year, the others being Food, Design, and Film. I had a piece in issue 1 on Iraqi artists in Syria, a reflection on my time in Damascus in 2009, where the best times were long evenings in the apartment of a Baghdad artist and his friends.

Follow the link to download the Art Issue in pdf from YA5′s site.

Baghdad Chassis

On the second floor of the Imperial War Museum in London, on a back wall near the stairs, is a large tiled eagle from Baghdad. Its caption is simple: “Built into the wall of a German residence facing the Tigris. Removed on the order of Lt General Sir William Marshall, commander-in-chief of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force after the capture of Baghdad, 11 March 1917.” Below, in the ground floor atrium full of polished, 20th-century military hardware—much of which never actually saw combat—is a car destroyed in Baghdad in 2007. The car’s title, “Baghdad, 5 March 2007,” refers to the day a suicide bomber drove a truck down Mutanabi Street and blew it up, killing 38 people and injuring over 100 others.

Mutanabi Street is Baghdad’s book souq, a center of literary trade and activity since the time of the Abbasids, the Islamic dynasty that founded Baghdad in the 8th century. Modern Mutanabi Street is home to bookshops, a busy Friday book market and al-Shahbandar, a storied café that opened in 1917. Down the street from al-Shahbandar is the Serai, the former administrative officers of the Ottomans, who ruled Baghdad from the 16th century. In the Serai in 1921, the British crowned Faisal as the first king of the new mandate state of Iraq. In 2008 the restored book market on Mutanabi Street reopened, but without cars and with fewer book stalls.

Read the rest at Guernica.

On Saudi Arabia’s eastern province

With protests spreading to Bahrain, a Shia majority country ruled for two centuries by a Sunni monarchy, media attention is again fixed on a sectarian split to explain unrest. It isn’t simply a matter of sectarianism, though, but a broader, popular movement against a palace and its orbit that prospers while the majority does not. From The Econonist: “the protests have not been exclusively Shia. Bahrainis of both sects have inveighed against corruption, inequality and their toothless parliament. But the Shias are the angrier, saying they are generally excluded from the army, the police and the higher ranks of the civil service.”

Bahrain sits just off the coast of Saudi Arabia’s oil frontier, the eastern province, home to a large, restive Shia population that has long been alienated and oppressed by Riyadh and excluded from the great oil wealth in the area. In my latest piece for The Nation, I reviewed Toby Craig Jones’s book Desert Kingdom, about the politics of oil and water in Saudi Arabia. Jones argues that technology, development and the control of nature, paid for by oil wealth, underlie Saudi authoritarianism. In 1979 Shiites in the eastern province rebelled against this techno-political order; Jones tells the story of the revolt in one expert chapter, “The Wages of Oil.” With speculation about protests spreading to Saudi — today there are reports of small protests in the eastern province — I wanted to highlight part of my Nation piece, about uneven development that sparked revolt:

Among the Saudi government’s costly and unsuccessful engineering schemes was a huge irrigation project in the oil-rich eastern province completed in 1971. The region, known as al-Hasa, is also home to a wealth of oases that are a verdant contrast to the sand and brown mountains of the Hijaz, in western Arabia, and the Najd, the central heartland of Ibn Saud and his followers. Before the discovery of oil, al-Hasa was more than a way station for caravans and desert travelers. It was a center of date agriculture and settled commerce near the shore where hundreds of thousands of mixed Sunni and Shiite farmers and merchants lived—a level of diversity not found anywhere else in Sunni Arabia. The Shiites were a slight majority but were mostly part of the working class of a sectarian hierarchy; many of the large farms with access to the best springs were owned by Sunnis.

The al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Project (IDP) was meant to redirect precious oasis water and maximize date farming. The IDP was a technical failure—the amount of arable land actually shrank—but it also further ostracized an already marginalized, mostly landless class of Shiite date farmers who blamed the government’s drainage scheme for their environmental plight. Though the completion of a huge oasis canal system in a land of deserts was touted by the international press and the government’s public relations machine, it enflamed the Shiites of al-Hasa. They directed their ire at the government and Aramco, the engineer of uneven economic development on the oil-boom coast. In 1979, the same year that hardline Sunni rebels led by Juhayman al-Utaybi took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca to challenge Saudi religious authority, which in their minds had been corrupted by oil wealth and close American ties, the Shiites in the eastern province rebelled. It was an uprising, Jones writes, “fueled by a combination of revolutionary fervor, environmental activism, and anger at having been left behind in the age of great oil wealth.” An Aramco consultant had carried out the survey of al-Hasa that underpinned the drainage scheme, and it duly noted the sectarian tensions of the oasis. The consultant, Federico Vidal, was a member of the company’s Arabian Affairs Division, an intelligence arm of the oil giant modeled on the Cairo branch of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. These foreign technical advisers, Jones writes, “lent themselves to the project of legitimizing Saudi political authority because of the claim that science and expertise were, in fact, apolitical.” With the IDP, the state was not only trying to secure needed water supplies but to control a restive religious minority that threatened its absolute, authoritarian rule.

After the unrest of 1979, however, the kingdom adopted a more outwardly religious mantle to justify political rule. The seizure of the Grand Mosque by Sunni rebels signaled a shift in internal Saudi opposition away from Pan-Arab nationalists who rejected Wahhabi rule in Arabia, and the Saudis responded accordingly. In 1986 King Fahd officially adopted the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to stake out his legitimacy against mounting Islamist critics. After all, the Arab nationalist opponents of the ’50s and ’60s had been replaced, in the words of historian Timothy Niblock, by “Wahhabi militants whose social base was in the Najdi heartland and whose fathers and grandfathers had formed the backbone of the Ikhwan who had fought for ‘Abd al-‘Aziz” in founding the modern state. With these critics seeing science and development as materialist threats to the kingdom’s Islamic values, the royal family has responded, as it did in the ’60s, by claiming to be “both the agent of progress and the custodian of tradition,” as Jones writes. “What is old is new again in Saudi Arabia.”

Read in full at The Nation (subscriber wall).

Update: Toby Jones was quoted by Robert Worth in the NYT, on the rumors that Saudi has come to al-Khalifa’s aid: “Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. “It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”

Turning Oil Into Water – The Nation

This article appeared in the February 28, 2011 edition of The Nation.

A little-known fact about Saudi Arabia: it was until recently the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat. From 1980 to 2005, the Saudis spent some $85 billion, nearly 20 percent of the total oil revenue accumulated during the period, on subsidies for wheat farmers. In a country with a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves but no natural rivers or lakes, the environmental cost of cultivating wheat was extraordinary. The Ministry of Agriculture and Water had by the 1980s built some 200 dams, seeking to trap and redirect precious, finite water from oases and ancient underground aquifers. One economist estimated that the irrigation cost for Saudi wheat farms from 1980 to 2000—more than 300 billion cubic meters of water—was “the equivalent of six years’ flow of the Nile River.” An American delegation to the kingdom likened “the growing of cereals at an exorbitant cost in the desert” to “planting bananas under glass in Alaska.”

Desert Kingdom
How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.
By Toby Craig Jones.
Buy this book

Another little-known, but more fantastic, fact about Saudi Arabia: in the late ’70s the Saudi government entertained the idea of wrapping a 100 million-ton iceberg in plastic and towing it from Antarctica to the Red Sea, where it would melt and provide much-needed fresh water. One of the king’s nephews, Mohammad al-Faisal, spearheaded the project, and his consultants included French engineers and a polar explorer. He invested millions of his fortune in a start-up called Iceberg Transport International, “a company whose sole purpose was to haul icebergs to the water-poor,” as Toby Craig Jones writes in his provocative book Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. The company didn’t last. Its high point came on the campus of Iowa State University, where in 1977 Faisal, “at considerable personal expense,” successfully displayed a 4,785-pound “mini-berg” shipped from Alaska for “a conference on iceberg utilization.” At the conference, the berg was crushed into bits used to ice delegates’ drinks. But no amount of capital or limelight could make towing icebergs feasible. “Once you get north of the equator,” an American engineer told Faisal in Iowa, “you’ll have nothing but a rope at the end of your tow.” As it turned out, higher-ranking royalty in government had already abandoned Faisal’s iceberg scheme and committed their oil wealth to building dozens of expensive desalination plants for watering the kingdom.

Saudi authoritarianism may be founded on the Al Saud family’s “grand bargain” with the Wahhabist clergy, Jones writes, but religion has not been the sole instrument of state power. It has often been complemented by the government’s management, manipulation and control of natural resources, most of all water. “Over the course of the twentieth century, capturing, controlling, engineering and even making freshwater have been just as important to Saudi political authority as controlling oil,” Jones writes, even though the ability to do the former is funded by the latter. “The process has virtually turned oil into water.”

On the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts, more than twenty desalination plants, at a cost of billions in oil revenue, make seawater fresh for the country’s 28 million people. Today four cities are being built from scratch in the desert, hopeful future job hubs for the kingdom’s younger generation. Their names may be banal, but at least they reveal intent: King Abdullah Economic City, Knowledge Economic City, Prince Abdulaziz bin Mousaed Economic City, Jazan Economic City. Rather than invest in the crumbling, historic center of the port city of Jeddah, or the slums in the sprawling capital, Riyadh, the government has elected—in keeping with urban planning trends across the region—to build anew, on the desert periphery, in drab suburban tracts and glass towers that are thought to signal progress. The first coeducational university in the kingdom, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, recently opened on the Red Sea coast north of Jeddah, with an endowment of roughly $10 billion. The scale of development suggests that the Saudi government has solved its water crisis. Otherwise, how else could high-rise cities reliant on air-conditioning and potable water sprout in the desert?

Read the rest at The Nation. It’s behind the subscriber wall, so why not subscribe?