About hiddencities

Freelance journalist and writer.

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

Muizz Street Flood

The Egyptian antiquities authorities have long asserted ownership (or at least exclusive caretaker status) over historic “monuments” in Cairo, for their tourist value. But how does that square with everyday infrastructure? Yesterday Muizz Street flooded when sewage water overflowed — photos posted on Facebook show the historic architecture and urban fabric of Fatimid Cairo inundated with waste water. Apparently the flood was contained after six hours, as Ahram Online is reporting. Their story includes revealing quotes from Mohsen Sayed, head of the Islamic Antiquities Department, who blames the flood on a water pump operator. From the article:

“This is not the antiquities’ fault,” Sayed said, adding that according to the street’s development project, the Antiquities Department is paying an annual fee to operate a pumping machine that has been installed to prevent the leakage of water into the street and to pump it out if neccessary.

Regretfully, Sayed continued, sometimes the person who is in charge of the machine has left it without supervision. “This is the third time in a year that drainage water leaked into the street due to the irresponsibility of the person in charge of the machine,” Sayed told Ahram Online.

There is so little transparency and so much bureaucratic obscurity that it’s almost impossible to understand who is responsible for maintaining Muizz Street — which was “restored” in a very costly intervention by the Egyptian government, led by the Ministry of Culture with the Ministry of Housing and the Cairo Governorate, that was basically street-level beautification. The antiquities head Mohsen Sayed is from a government institution that in matters of tourist promotion, ticket sales, and restoration (for the sake of tourism), asserts control over the historic buildings on Muizz. But when sewage water overflows around those 700-year old buildings… blame the pumping machine operator.

Management and upkeep is as important to preservation and restoration as the physical projects themselves — and here the antiquities authorities have failed.