Playing chess in Damascus

This is a story I wrote from Damascus in 2009, during the year I lived in Syria. It originally appeared in Wunderkammer Magazine:

They lived well in Baghdad; their eldest daughter had two cars. Six years later, the Iraqi couple moves their mattresses out of the bedroom each night to sleep on the living room floor. The only bedroom is left for their daughters while they live in this concrete refugee suburb of Damascus.

It was Friday and quiet on the balcony above the street. The fried fish lunch was over and the mother was reading fortunes in the bottom of coffee cups. The father skulked past the couch and flashed his pack of cigarettes. He didn’t smoke before the war. He was a chain-smoker by the time he arrived in Damascus. He shrugged when his wife explained his new habit—“he’s always with a cigarette, always, but he never smoked before.” She brought her index and middle finger to her mouth and mimed puff after puff.

The father talked of his construction company in Baghdad. “We sold huge pistons for Caterpillars and other large machines,” he explained. “I can know just by putting my ear to the gears or the engine if it’s working well or not,” he grinned behind his cigarette. “I’m very clever.”

A few weeks later in their living room, the table was cleared for a gorging of rice, grilled fish, kibbeh stuffed with egg, and salad eaten by plucking the cheese-draped lettuce from the bowl by hand. The family’s hospitality is typical of Syria, but their food is much better.

A wealthy Christian family, they became refugees when Shia militias began enforcing a fanaticism of piety in Baghdad’s streets and thieves started roaming their neighborhood. Their son’s fatal kidnapping and a younger daughter’s death drove them to Damascus.

“But we are here,” he said, as he always said in response to his wife’s war stories. “We are here, with new friends”— he calls us, two Americans, his children, extending an amount of kindness that circumstance should have blunted— “so thank God.”

Then he launched into jokes, spurred by the dessert of sugary cardamom tea and date cookies covered in sesame seeds. With the help of his wife, he explained Uday Hussein’s speech impediment and its lethal effect on the players of the Rashid Football Club. Saddam’s elder son meant to say “congratulations” to his players after a big win, but what came out was a command to line them all up to be shot. And we heard of the man from Ramadi, a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, who was asked to name the color of his wife’s underwear and needed a life-line: “Can I phone a friend?”

The last joke they told involved the church. A pauper goes to the alter every week, but instead of dropping a few coins in the donation box, he asks the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus in her arms, if it’s alright if he takes the money. She always says yes. Eventually the priest grows suspicious, until one day he waits behind the statue for the pauper, who arrives and pleads his usual request, expecting the same silent consent.

“No!” comes a male voice in response.

“Shh!” the pauper replies. “I’m not stealing from you! Just your mother!”

They could joke about Iraq as they sat in their small one bedroom apartment, the television on in the background showing American cooking shows and Dr. Phil. They are another once-prosperous family from Iraq displaced in Syria.

The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs counts 1.2 million Iraqis living here with valid visas, designating them “Arab guests and visitors.” The number of illegal residents is unknown but pushes the total number above 1.5 million, as Syria has hosted the bulk Iraq’s refugees. In the fall of 2007, the government effectively closed its borders, though many refugees still arrive, including a wave of hundreds of Christians who fled violence in Mosul last fall. There is a slow trickle of Iraqis returning home, mostly for financial reasons: they cannot legally work in Syria and, when the money runs out, going back is the only option.

The insistence on eating helping after helping of grilled fish – “Iraqi food combines all the spices of Indian, Persian, and Turkish food,” the eldest daughter said – and the seemingly endless amount of family jokes reveal what the fall of Baghdad, the occupation, sectarianism, and callous American adventurism cannot erase: a sense of humor, of food, of hospitality and humanity that go widely unreported in so many stories from Iraq and its new diaspora.

“When Saddam’s statue fell, I knew Iraq was finished,” the father said. Weeks earlier, on the balcony after the fish lunch talking about his pistons, he said emphatically that he was not a Ba’athist.

That same afternoon the mother talked about an old friend who was Sunni. “We were in university together,” she said. “Our children were schoolmates.” Then, after Saddam fell and the occupation worsened, “all of sudden, she was speaking of me as a Christian and she as a Muslim. She started scolding relatives – an uncle and his niece – for kissing when they greeted each other in an apartment. ‘A man and woman should not kiss like that,’ she would say.” The mother stirred her tea with force. “This is crazy.”

Before the table had been set for dinner and bowl after bowl of salad and rice and fish had been placed on the folding table before the couch, the father’s phone rang as we finished a game of chess. A friend had just gotten the call from the United Nations and was going be resettled in America. They all cheered congratulations, and the father blessed his friend on the phone.

Then he turned back to the chessboard. We were playing slowly, smoking cigarette after cigarette, barely speaking. His daughter sat next to him and was whispering strategies. “Come on Fredo, move!” he said. He told me he had loved playing chess in Baghdad, though it was hard for me to imagine him sitting in a café there, over a chessboard like this, and not smoking. But I easily imagined him playing with his son while his third and youngest daughter whispered her own strategies in his ear.

I looked through the haze and down at the ashtray and pictured their smoke-free house in Baghdad and unlimited games of chess. Then he took a long drag and, exhaling, made a move and put me in checkmate.


Life in the Ruins

deknatel_lifeintheruins_ba_img_0How the destruction of architectural treasures became a weapon in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Assad’s staging of a soft-focus victory lap in Krak des Chevaliers represented more than a culture war unfolding in the civil war’s cross-fire. Targeting historic architecture for destruction or co-opting it for propaganda exercises are both regime tactics, to be added to an arsenal that also includes barrel bombs—metal drums filled with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from helicopters onto rebel-held territory. Many of the bombs fall on Aleppo, whose covered medieval markets were burned by regime forces in 2012. “That was totally punitive,” Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist and member of the Syrian opposition who teaches history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, told me. “When Aleppo rose up, the regime had constantly reminded and threatened the city’s merchant classes that if they did not control their local population—if they did not support suppressing any protest and the city was allowed to become a hotbed of demonstrations—there would be a great price to pay.”

As a warning in 2011, al-Azm said, the regime sent tanks into the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, on the Euphrates River, which has close commercial and cultural ties with Aleppo, and besieged it. “If you want to make a demonstration of force without destroying Aleppo itself, burning the commercial center of Deir ez-Zor would be a good way to remind the people of Aleppo: ‘This is what I will do to you if you also start protesting.’” When the protests finally took off there in 2012, “the regime burnt the souks down—wanton destruction just for the sake of destruction.”

It was only the start. When the eleventh-century minaret of Aleppo’s grand Umayyad Mosque collapsed from a mortar strike in April 2013, the Syrian government and the rebels traded accusations over who was to blame. Satellite images show that a corner of the mosque’s rectangular courtyard is missing. Where the minaret stood, there is only a pile of stones. But as Diana Darke states in her memoir, My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, much of the destruction of Aleppo’s mosque involved strategic terror tactics focused on symbolic and historic places. “Before leaving, the regime soldiers scrawled the same chilling graffiti on the mosque’s water dispenser that was starting to appear all over the country,” Darke writes, “Al-Assad aw nahriqhu, ‘Assad, or we will burn it.’”

Read the rest at The Nation.

Not just branches – on the Syrian and Egyptian Brotherhoods

review cover, brotherhood

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


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


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


“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


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


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


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


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.”


Read the rest at The Nation.

Baghdad, city of mirages and artifacts


Alvar and Aino Aalto, Project for the Fine Arts Museum of Baghdad within the Civic Center, 1957-1963, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)

Last spring I saw a show of modernist architectural plans for Baghdad in the 1950s at the Center for Architecture in New York. I tried to cover the exhibition, but I caught it too late to make it timely. Now, home for the holidays, I came across the show again; it’s traveled up to the Boston Society of Architects.

From the curators:

City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952–1982 presents built and unbuilt work by 11 architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Josep Lluís Sert, Alvar and Aino Aalto, and Robert Venturi FAIA. Models of various scales of the built and unbuilt work by these and other architects are accompanied by a large-scale model of Baghdad.

The history of modern architecture in Baghdad is not well known and remains relatively underexplored. Specialists in Iraq and in exile throughout the world have undertaken detailed analyses of the topic, but many of the studies have been difficult to access in Europe and the United States, and the destruction of war has made it impossible to recover the complete modernist record of Iraq. The exhibition describes an era in which Baghdad was a thriving, cosmopolitan city, and when an ambitious program of modernization led to proposals and built work by leading international architects. 

The show is really about speculative modernist architecture and unbuilt urban plans in the Middle East. Frank Lloyd Wright in Baghdad? Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli? The latter was recently brought up in the International Herald Tribune, on the occasion both of Niemeyer’s death at 104 and Syria’s war spilling over the border into Lebanon. I wrote a similar, but more personal piece in The National in 2010, reflecting on a visit to Niemeyer’s unfinished fairground in northern Lebanon. That piece included some thoughts on Baghdad:

As we left Niemeyer’s park at dusk, the guard was gladly opening the gate for a wedding party in a black Mercedes SUV. They had come to take photos with the sunset. Against which concrete background we did not know. The pyramid? The Lebanese pavilion? The arch? Earlier, standing below the arch, following the uneven bend of one side, I didn’t think of Lebanon. As a visitor from Cairo, I thought about other cities in the region a half-century ago that looked to modernism to stage their national and urban aspirations. A few years before Lebanese bureaucrats were consulting with Niemeyer on what he imagined would “become for Tripoli a centre of attraction, of cultural interest, artistically and recreationally of the greatest importance with its theatres, museums, athletic and leisure centres”, Frank Lloyd Wright visited Iraq at the behest of King Faisal II, who sought a Western architectural remaking of his capital not unlike Dubai and Abu Dhabi today.

But Wright’s sweeping development for “Greater Baghdad” was never built. The coup leaders who killed Faisal II and his family at their palace in the summer of 1958 also killed Wright’s overblown plan for a university, museums, opera house and an outsized statue of Harun al Rashid at the tip of an island in the Tigris that Wright had renamed Edena. Wright died anyway the next year. Walter Gropius – who, unlike Wright, was affixed to cubic modernism of the International style – was selected by the new government to build the new University of Baghdad in a suburb outside the city centre. Le Corbusier worked on a sports complex until his death in 1965. Sixteen years later, a version of his gymnasium finally opened, named after Saddam Hussein.

One of the themes of City of Mirages is that these plans and buildings, so many of them unrealized, represent the city’s and state’s bygone cosmopolitanism. Sometimes that word elicits groans, if the nostalgia is misplaced, like the Alexandria imagined and memorialized by Lawrence Durrell. But the show doesn’t long for the days of monarchy, even if Wright’s plans, along with Gropius’s and Corbusier’s, were commissioned by the king on the eve of his brutal, bloody overthrow. The models and plans are their own kind of artifacts — even if the models were reconstructed by architectural students in Spain — of a city whose recent  urban history is about destruction, and not development.

Artifacts ran through the late, great Anthony Shadid’s fantastic essay in Granta last year on Baghdad College, a prep school for Iraqi boys founded by American Jesuits in 1932. The school was shut down by the Baathist government in the late 1960s. Shadid’s essay excavates the history of American missionaries in Baghdad in decades when America had a decidedly different role and presence in the Middle East. The title, appropriately, was “The American Age, Iraq.” “A moment has been lost, and that’s what I was trying to write about: an intersection that we did once see between America and Iraq and an idealized vision both had of the other,” Shadid said in an interview about the piece. Here here is talking about it on NPR.

I had this passage in mind as I looked over drawings and models of an unrealized modernist dream for Iraq’s capital.

Unlike Beirut or, closer to home, Fallujah, Baghdad was never destroyed by its war. The city here feels more like an eclipsed imperial capital, abandoned, neglected and dominated by the ageing fortifications of its futile defence against the forces that had overwhelmed it. Think of medieval Rome. An acquaintance once described all this refuse of war as athar, Arabic for artefacts, and I thought of the word as I drove down the road to Baghdad College, past piles of charred trash, to see a teacher there.


Walter Gropius, TAC (The Architects’ Collaborative) and Hisham A. Munir, University of Baghdad Campus, 1957-, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)


José Luis Sert, The U.S. Embassy, Baghdad, 1955-1959, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)


Frank Lloyd Wright, Plan for a Greater Baghdad, 1957-1959, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)


Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, Project for the Competition for a National Mosque of Baghdad, 1982, Baghdad, Iraq. Image Credit: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

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.

Eyal Weizman and Books of Destruction

Eyal Weizman in the LRB on Israel’s strategies of spatial control over Gaza — and Israel’s cynical, shocking legal acrobatics to consider a Palestinian civilian in Gaza as a “voluntary ‘human shield.'”

We will learn more about the way Pillar of Defence was conducted when, over the coming weeks, it becomes possible to start reading the rubble. Some of what we know about the 2008-9 assault comes from an archive – the Book of Destruction – compiled by the Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing. The archive contains thousands of entries, each documenting a single building that was completely or partly destroyed, recording everything from cracked walls in houses that still stand, to complete ruins. The ministry will no doubt put together a new archive following the latest attack. Its list will be a close parallel to the one contained in a document owned by the Israeli military. This is the Book of Targets in Gaza, a thick blue folder that the outgoing chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who presided over Operation Cast Lead, passed to his successor in a televised ceremony at the beginning of 2011: ‘I want to hand over something I carry with me all the time,’ he announced.

Now that the bombing is over, evidence will be accumulated (and allegations made and contested), not only by speaking to survivors and witnesses but by using geospatial data, satellite imagery of destroyed buildings and data gathered in on-site investigations. But investigation is difficult: in Gaza ruins are piled on ruins, and it isn’t easy to tell them apart. The wars of 1947-49, the military incursions of the 1950s, the 1956 war, the 1967 war, the 1972 counterinsurgency in the refugee camps, the first intifada of 1987-91, the waves of destruction during the second intifada of the 2000s, and now the two attacks of 2008-9 and 2012, have each piled new layers of rubble on top of those produced by their predecessors.

The Book of Destruction is also a haunting publication by the excellent photojournalist Kai Wiedenhöfer, published after the last war on Gaza in 2008-09. Get it. Both photos in this post are from Wiedenhöfer’s book.


The bible of gentrification was a book that would come to be assigned in every urban history course in the country: Jane Jacobs’s brilliant TheDeath and Life of American Cities. But in the new urban context, it seemed lost on everyone that Jacobs was writing about the lingeringly industrial, racially mixed (if not exactly integrated) city of 1961, before the crisis. She had not imagined white collars replacing blue ones, and white people driving out black neighbors. But over the next generations, as liberal policy abandoned poverty reduction and the poor were pressed to the frayed edges of city centers, Jacobs’s vision of self-regulating communities and small neighborhoods gave ideological cover to a version of city life she had explicitly rejected: white-collar, service-economy cities oriented almost entirely toward consumption. In place of Jacobs’s supersubtle network of human contacts, we would get demographically homogenized cities that celebrated absolute simplicity as hominess. (Witness the proliferation of restaurants with single, “folksy” names: Egg, Can, The Farm, Home, Spoon, and—of course—Simple.)

I’m back in Brooklyn, coincidentally, and came across this passage in an old issue of N+1.  Trivia: ‘The “landed gentry” alluded to in “gentrification” emerged as a new class in England in the late eighteenth century—a group of petit bourgeois possessed of country estates, but lacking the economic clout of the true aristocracy.’

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).

Egyptorama, or desert highways

“A lonely door built in the middle of the desert, a forest of lampposts, a mosque shaped like a spaceship; emptiness turns brutally into strangeness, creating a tension between people and their environment. This is Egyptorama—a road trip that leads nowhere.”

Stark photos by Julian Chatelin on Guernica that capture the Egyptian military’s role in the transformation of the country’s physical (and political) landscape. Abandoned tracts of desert are either unused military installations or, more often on the fringes of Cairo, state-military land sold to speculators close to the regime, to build an unsustainable and largely unrealized suburban dream in the desert. Via Arabist.

Aerial Views 1919

A young English painter born in Oxford joined the British air force during World War I and became an “Official War Artist,” sketching battlefields and cities from above, some of which he turned into oil paintings in his studio after the war. From an airplane Richard Carline’s views are realist but flat, distances shortened and the horizon stretched. The views suggest the compactness of some of the area’s landscape. High above Damascus, at 10,000 feet, you can see over the Anti-Lebanon range to Jebel Sannine and the Mediterranean.They are also an artifact of an imperial era, since the views are from an RAF plane over lands that the British and French had taken during and would occupy after the war. A perspective of domination, maybe, or at least of framing Damascus, Baghdad, and Jerusalem from above, as a British airplane saw them.

The BBC has a gallery of his paintings, all of which are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Above, Baghdad. Below, Jerusalem:

Waguih Ghali’s character, Ram, on old Cairo

“Font has two rooms behind the Citadel in old Cairo. His neighbors are barrow-keepers, servants, and sometimes beggars. It is the prettiest and most colorful part of Cairo and anywhere else the arties would have flocked to it, but not in Cairo. The Cairo arties, if not slumming in Europe, are driving their Jaguars in Zamalek. I would like to live in that part of Cairo; I genuinely would prefer to live there. But with me it would be gimmicky. There is a touch of gimmick in whatever I do.”

from Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, p. 31