09.18.09

Sharing a program with John Grisham at the NC Literary Festival  -  @ 23:08:05
The North Carolina Literary Festival was last weekend: three glorious Fall days on the gorgeous UNC campus in Chapel Hill, with keynote speakers John Grisham (practiced), Kathy Reichs (hilarious), Anna Deveare Smith (mesmerizing), Elisabeth Strout (cool and low-key), on top of readings, musical performance and author receptions at which the household names and the hopefuls mingled. My own latest book, Love is Like Water, arrived literally on the eve of the festival, so it was launched at my reading on Sunday morning. Sunday morning is a notoriously tricky time-slot in the church-going South, but my friends, bless them, showed up in force. And that was a good thing, because it was also my launch as a North Carolina author. I've called the state home now for twenty years, and that is as long as I've lived in Egypt, and much longer than I've lived anywhere else. But although I wrote my novels while living in Chapel Hill, I wrote about Egypt, about London, about France, about the frozen north of the U.S., about Boston- about anywhere but North Carolina. It was my quotidian but not part of my imaginary; some essential sense of distance or perspective was missing. In Love is Like Water, I finally write about the South, and so I am now a North Carolina writer in the complete sense of the world. The later chapters of the book are set in Chapel Hill, and the last three I wrote- sometimes in one sitting- in the weeks immediately following 9/11. I found it surprisingly difficult to talk about those chapters at the book reading, even so many years later, even with so many friendly faces in the audience.
The next festival will be in two years time; but I wonder if I will be on the same program as John Grisham again. His daughter just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, and his wife is graduating this year, so perhaps it won't be as easy to lure him down here next time around...

09.12.09

Love is Like Water- just in, my third book!  -  @ 09:09:34
Thrilled that copies of my latest book, Love is Like Water, just arrived, in the nick of time for my reading tomorrow at the North Carolina Literary Festival at UNC-Chapel Hill!

09.03.09

Obama's Iftar: no dessert?  -  @ 10:36:03
President Obama hosted an iftar, the breaking of the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, for ambassadors of Muslim countries, a few cabinet and congressional figures, and some members of the American Muslim community. But then, so did George W. Bush for all eight years of his administration. President Obama's was politically significant though for two things: he honored an American schoolgirl who won the right to wear hijab (a headscarf), affirming America's freedom of religious practice in contrast to France's banning of the headscarf in schools and discrimination against the niqab (face veil) in public.
The other thing I found remarkable was a description of the menu listed on the a website that tracks the Obama's White House meals: the iftar started with dates and nuts, then salad, chicken with potato-leek puree- but no mention of dessert! What, no baklava or konafa? Or my favorite Om Ali? I hope it was just an oversight of the website, not the kitchen.

08.23.09

Obama, Swine flu, the Haj, and Bonaparte in Egypt  -  @ 09:52:21

Watching President Obama's address to the Muslim world on the occasion of Ramadan encourages one to believe in a day, hopefully not too far into the future, when Islam and its practices will be understood and accepted along with other religions in America. His reference to the concern of Muslims over the spread of swine flu during the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca in a couple of months brought to mind the efforts of the French to contain the outbreak of plague in Egypt during Bonaparte's occupation in 1798-1801. The French imposed severe measures that saved lives but were at first viewed with suspicion by Egyptians: isolating the sick from his family, burning his beddding and clothes, banning funerals and mourning. And, for fear of the epidemic spreading during the Haj, the pilgrimage caravans from Egypt were banned entirely. Hardest of all, perhaps, was the cancelling of the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the five pillars of Islamic practice, and quarantining the sheep traditionally marked for slaughter.
President Obama alluded in his address to the concern about a shortage of swine flu vaccine for the potential three million Muslim pilgrims. The French in Egypt too had to grapple with limited resources. Only Europeans and Syrian Christians were treated at the three hospitals set up by the French in Cairo, and no pharmacist could dispense the drugs used against the plague to Egyptians except by special prescription from a European physician.
But the most draconian of all measures taken by the French was the warning that any Egyptian prostitute caught soliciting the troops would be executed; in spite of that deterrent, thirty prostitutes were drowned in the Nile in a single day for defying the order!
History repeats itself, as I found out in my research for The Naqib's Daughter- but thankfully, there are limits to the parallels!

07.17.09

Cronkite's Last Stand: his Most Controversial  -  @ 23:21:48
Walter Cronkite took courageous, contested stands right through his career, but his last stand was the one so controversial it is pointedly ignored in the elegies that greet the news of his death today. Cronkite was against the Iraq War. Sadly, his legendary stature was inadequate to weigh in the balance against the headlong rush to war.

07.09.09

Dresden court killing: even more disturbing aspect  -  @ 10:23:18
There is an even more disturbing aspect to the Dresden court killing of the young Egyptian woman, Marwa El-Sherbini, who was in court to testify against the German man who had harrassed her on a playground and called her a terrorist and a slut. The man, "Axel W.", attacked her in court, stabbing her to death 18 times, and stabbed her husband, who came to her defense, several times. Then the husband was shot in the leg by the police, who assumed that he was the attacker. The Egyptian genetic engineering scientist, 34, is now in hospital in critical condition, unable to travel to Egypt to bury his wife.

And that is the disturbing aspect that is fueling so much anger in the Arab and Muslim world. One German's act of fanatical race killing can perhaps be explained as just one man's problem, not an issue with broader societal implications. But the fact that the police not only didn't intervene in time to save the woman, and then assumed that the husband was the attacker and shot him, rather than the bloody knife-wielding German, is more disturbing.

Moreover, the perception that there was little coverage, let alone ourtrage, in the German media- and none to mention in Europe or the US- is exacerbating the outrage in Egypt and beyond in the Middle East. It's very sad.

07.08.09

Time to Stop Demonizing the Veil  -  @ 11:05:24
This morning, a news item on BBC radio set me to thinking that it's time to stop demonizing the Islamic headscarf. An Egyptian woman was stabbed to death in a Dresden courtroom by a German against whom she was testifying for insulting her as a "terrorist" earlier, apparently because she was wearing a headscarf. Her husband, an Egyptian academic, was critically stabbed in his attempt to defend her, and shot in the leg by mistake by a German policeman trying to subdue the attacker. The couple's three-year-old son was in the courtroom and witnessed the murder of his mother. She was thirty years old, and three months pregnant with a second child. The German man had come up to her in the playground earlier and called her a "terrorist" for wearing the hijab. She reported him, and he was given a stiff fine, around a thousand dollars. He appealed, and in the court of appeals in Dresden, he attacked the woman and stabbed her to death, and her husband critically, before he was subdued.
Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, made an emotional statement about the failure of the efforts to overcome the clash of civilizations. In the BBC interview, he was challenged to defend his statement.
For those of us- and I confess I am one- who are ambivalent about the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women, particularly in Western countries, this incident is something of a wake-up call. We need to stop demonizing the hijab. Seriously. We need to stop saying Muslim women in hijab will be unwelcome in France, as Sarkozy has. We need to disassociate what a woman choosed to wear on her head from terrorism. It's time. Before there are more murders in European courtrooms. Before the Arab League's Secretary General's emotional overstatement becomes a fact.

07.04.09

This July 4, I'm thankful for digging out my flag aerobics top...  -  @ 08:59:52
This July 4th, I'm thankful I can wear my Ralph Lauren flag-print aerobics top for the first time since the Iraq war turned it into an (unwitting!) symbol of militarism. This July 4th, I'm more than ever thankful for my liberal hometown's patriotic parade, and living close enough to ride a bike downtown to watch it. I'm thankful for the costume contest, the pie-eating contest, the local bands, and the firework display over the university stadium at night. This July 4th, I'm taking it all in.

06.29.09

Douthat, Nehring, and the French Solution to the Passionless Marriage  -  @ 19:32:08

Douthat's lament over America's loveless unions joins the voices, like Cristina Nehring's, that claim that marriage and passion are mutually exclusive. Safe is the opposite of sexy. Americans either live in drab but responsible and productive marriages, or take fatal risks to have wild illicit affairs on the side, like Governor Sanford and the long list of scandalous public figures whose indiscretions end their marriages and their careers.
But certain sophisticated civilizations, like the French, have long had a tradition of having it all: the ideal marriage, with companionship, a healthy child-rearing environment, career and social-status enhancement; and also the romance and the passion of an affair. Monogamy is not a natural state, that attitude maintains; the solution is simply to separate the roles of spouse and lover. As long as this arrangement is conducted in a mature, civilized and consensual manner, it works.
In fact, public men often complicate their lives further: from Louix XIV with Madame de Pompadour to President Mitterand whose mistress and illegitimate daughter attended his state funeral, they often maintain simultaneously an "official" mistress while conducting a series of lesser affairs.
From that pragmatic perspective, the spectacle of American politicians with their humiliating public confessions and embarrassing displays of sturm and drang, is incomprehensible.
The difference between the French model and the harem model, traditional in eastern civilizations from China to Morocco, is crucial: the harem model sanctions only men's right to multiple sex partners, whereas the French model accommodates the wife's equal right to seek an alternative to ennui in her marriage- although she usually has to be more discreet. There was nothing discreet about Cecilia Sarkozy's openly shopping for an apartment in New York with her American lover while married to the president of France!

06.26.09

Sarkozy, the Niqab and human nature  -  @ 08:22:57
This post received so many thought-provoking comments that it deserves a revisit. It's a complicated issue, no doubt about it. Personally, when I see a woman in a niqab, whether in France or in Egypt- where women have a choice, unlike Saudi Arabia- I am torn between irritation and pity. But I am trying to be "logical" here: either we assume adult women in a free society to have agency, or we allow the state to appoint itself their guardian. Either we assume civil liberty includes religious expression, or we find ourselves, like France, trying to explain why a French schoolgirl wearing a scarf on her head violates French societal norms but a Sikh man wearing a turban does not. It's not logical.
Not to mention that, human resistance to rules being a constant, to legislate "secular" dress is just as counterproductive as legislating "religious" dress. When the Shah of Iran in the twenties forbade Iranian women from wearing the chador they had worn all their lives, many of them stayed home for thirty years rather than go out "naked." When the Mullahs forced Iranian women into the chador after the revolution, they spent their time testing the limits of that restriction until, as you can see today, they wear a token scarf Audrey-Hepburn style. As I said, counterproductive. Something there is in human nature that does not like a law...

06.24.09

Sarkozy, the Niqab, and why there is no straight line  -  @ 15:06:27
It's a complicated issue. Personally and politically, I tend to lean, with Montaigne, toward tailoring one's behavior to the mores of the country. But from there, to legislating how people may not, or conversely must, dress, is not a straight line. To some extent, all societies have minimal standards of decency they enforce by law: European tourists sunbathe topless on the Red Sea beaches of Egypt, but they would be arrested for the same behavior on a North Carolina beach. But where the minimal standards of decency are not violated, where do you draw the line between the comfort zone of the majority and the liberty of the minority?
In the case of women wearing the niqab in France, there is no violation of minimal standards of decency, only of the cultural comfort zone of the majority. The argument Sarkozy makes, for protecting Muslim women who allegedly wear niqab against their will, assumes coercion on the part of their communities, an assumption that does not hold up to reality. To assume that, even if the women choose to wear it freely, they are in effect subject to "false consciousness" or to the influence of their community's culture, is to deprive these women of agency and to impose the state as their guardian. That is exactly the role the state assumes for itself in monitoring women's dress in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Banning women who wear niqab from public space in France by law only serves to express the discomfort and distaste of the majority culture, and will have the unintended consequence of forcing the more obstinate women to become housebound or submit to harassment. Short of legislation, however, there is much society can do to impose its standards of cultural comfort. Employers can be given the discretion to refuse to hire niqab-covered women, although the line should be drawn, perhaps, at endorsing businesses' refusal to serve them. The goal should be integration, not isolation and stigmatization.
There is no doubt that the niqab is an affront to French self-image as a secular, elegant, sexy society. But when the cultural ideals of a society come into conflict with its higher ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, the latter should prevail.




06.23.09

Freedom vs Justice  -  @ 10:16:53
The thought-provoking perspectives of the comments I'm receiving on my last post deserve a fuller response. I agree that Iran's electoral process- democracy is too loaded a word- is more advanced than that of most of the countries in the Middle East. For one thing, assembly in itself is not illegal in Iran; under Egyptian martial law- operative for the past 30 years- an unauthorized assembly of more than 5 people is prosecutable.

Which is one of the reasons the Muslim Brotherhood are the best organized opposition; the government cannot prevent assembly in a mosque. By law, there are no religious-affiliation parties allowed in Egypt, specifically to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from contesting elections. That has not prevented them from organizing and fielding "independent" candidates.

On the other hand, the official, secular opposition parties have been completely emasculated by the regime; from the secular, like my late uncle's Wafd party and Ayman Nour's Ghad, to the left wing. As a result, only the Islamists offer a credible opposition, and they draw their appeal to the masses from that credibility even more than from Islamic symbolism.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs leads to one of two outcomes: the paralysis of a status-quo where the bogey-man of Islamist takeover prevents democratic reform; or a radical change to electoral reform that does indeed lead to an Islamic party coming to power. In the latter case, it is possible that an Islamic party in Egypt would be no more fundamentalist or oppressive than that of Turkey, and that it might yield in due course to other, secular parties. Possible, but there is no guarantee. And in Egypt's case, there is a sizeable Coptic minority that would be understandably nervous about such an outcome. It's also possible that a secular party mihgt win in a free election. At the moment, though, there is none that looks poised to take advantage of free elections.

"Freedom" means different things in the context of Arab/Muslim culture. Justice is the concept that embodies all the virtues of government. Justice means rule of law; security and freedom from chaos; freedom from the arbitrary exercise of power by the ruling class; a minimal standard of living to maintain the dignity of the man in the street. The ballot box, in this concept of freedom, is never an end, and not always a means.



06.21.09

Iran and Egypt...why it's different and why it's the same  -  @ 13:23:51
Before the demonstrations started, I admit I watched the Iranian elections with something like envy: in Egypt since the 1952 coup d'etat, there are no presidential elections per se, just a yes/no referendum on a single candidate- the one in power- and the results are a foregone conclusion: approval by 99.98%. By comparison, Ahmedinejad's 65% win seemed positively modest. For elections to the Egyptian National Assembly, dominated by the president's party, and for municipal elections, the process is more contested but equally predictable, given the level of corruption and outright intimidation of voters. Women in particular have been harrassed and molested in order to make their husbands or fathers prevent them from participating.
The last time I had illusions to lose about the democratic process in Egypt was in 1978, when Sadat briefly opened the door to multiparty elections, and my uncle at the head of his newly-launched Wafd party fought a quixotic electoral campaign before Sadat clamped down on all opposition and threw its leaders in jail.
So watching the Iranians go to the polls with such earnestness, watching them protesting the results with such passion and conviction, I am still envious. They, at least, have the outrage of disillusion: they actually expect their votes to count; they actually believe- whether or not it can be proved- that they won; they have the courage of their convictions.
On the surface, Iran and Egypt are a contrast: Mouussavi's supporters in Iran are secular; and in Egypt the best-organized and most credible opposition comes from those who declare that "Islam is the answer." The slogans may be different but the reality is the same: a people yearning to be free. Only the Iranians, at least, believe in their dreams.

06.09.09

Egypt's Jews: What Aciman's article lacks  -  @ 16:19:15
I read Andre Aciman's opinion piece in the New York Times today with mixed emotions. If any Muslim Egyptian can empathize with the dispossession and displacement of Egyptian Jews, it is I and families like mine. I can understand Aciman's bitterness, and yet, as I read on, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the blind spots in the article and the absence of generosity of spirit. He calls into question the tradition of tolerance in Islam that President Obama referred to in his speech. Really? Beginning with the Catholic Reconquest of Spain, the history of Jews is one of migration from Christian Europe to the Muslim East. It was in Muslim Spain that Jewish scholars flourished, and it was in the Ottoman Empire that they sought refuge from the Spanish Inquisition after the fall of the Moors. Even Bernard Lewis, that harshest and most critical historian of Islam, acknowledges that its history of tolerance for religious minorities compares more than favorably with that of other religions.
And when Aciman writes of the expulsion of "Jews whose ancestors had been living in Arab lands long before the advent of Islam", he is making a problematic generalization: with the notable exception of the Karaites, most of the Jewish community in Egypt, and certainly Aciman's own Alexandrian Jewish community, were recent immigrants from the nineteenth century. This wave of Jewish immigrants to Egypt from other parts of the Ottoman Empire came to take advantage of the economic opportunities afforded, under the "concessions", to the nationals of certain European powers. Ottoman Jews who managed to obtain French or Italian passports were able to take advantage of a privileged status regarding trade, tax, and legal jurisdiction.
It is very likely true that the flourishing Jewish communities of Cairo and Alexandria were the "wealthiest Jewish communities on the Mediterranean," as Aciman claims, and there is no doubt in my mind that they enriched every aspect of the cosmopolitan life of those cities. Unlike the native Karaite Jews, who spoke Arabic, held Egyptian passports and were not disproportionately wealthy, the flourishing community of mostly Livornian Jews kept their foreign passports, rarely bothered to learn the language of the country in which they lived, and generally held themselves aloof from the Muslim majority, as Aciman’s memoir, Out of Egypt, makes unapologetically clear. They continued to identify as foreign nationals rather than native Egyptians, if Aciman's description of his family's reaction to the Suez War is an indication. During the air strikes by British, French and Israeli forces, his family prayed for the success of the invasion and the return of British rule.
In the aftermath of the Suez War, when most of the Jewish community of Egypt left or were driven out, their property was indeed confiscated. His grievance is legitimate, but a sense of perspective is necessary here: he fails to mention that many Egyptian Muslim families targeted by Nasser's sequestration decrees- including mine- also lost their land, their properties, their factories and every penny they had in their bank accounts; the men were imprisoned for extended periods in internment camps, to boot.
Over the past 50 years since the Suez War, it is regrettably true that there has indeed been a rise in anti-Semitism in the Arab world, particularly over the past two decades, with the exacerbation of the situation of the Palestinians and the Iraq war. Perhaps President Obama, by reminding the Muslim world of its more tolerant history, was exhorting it to return to a prouder heritage.
But Aciman's targeting of the Library of Alexandria as an example of this anti-Semitism could not be wider off the mark. The Protocols of the Elders are not "on display" at the library, as he claims; they are kept under lock and key in a safe room and available only for consultation and only by appointment. So are Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, as inflammatory to Muslims as the Protocols are to Jews. In fact the Library since its inception has been a beacon for tolerance in Egyptian society, and has come under criticism for carrying books by Israeli authors.
There is much about Aciman's article that I find troubling, but I can personally relate to his grievances. His father died of a broken heart, he says, and so did mine, as I wrote of the fictionalized father in The Cairo House. So did Lucette Lagnado's father in her heart-breaking memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, a far more balanced view of Jewish life in Egypt. There is a common thread there somewhere, if only we could all look beyond our own personal stories to find it…

06.05.09

A Voice of America interview that didn't go according to plan...  -  @ 16:52:36
An hour ago Voice of America called for the program "l’Amerique et vous"; I was on a panel about Obama's Cairo speech, with the Washington correspondent for Middle East Times. A Georgetown professor who called in with a short opinion piece surprisingly found fault with President Obama's speech for emphasizing too sharply the divergence of opinion between the West and the "Muslim world;" according to the professor, it could be misunderstood as confirming a clash of civilizations. Callers from the target audience, in this case francophone Africa, seemed to hit on the thorny question: how can President Obama exert pressure on the two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict- especially on Israel- to make compromises? Both the Middle East Times journalist and I had to admit that although the President, or rather Congress, can exert the power of the purse, his hands could well be tied by the influence of internal interest groups. I suggested that perhaps if the Arab world mobilized in such a way as to create momentum for a peace process, and European governments backed Obama with all their weight, it might help him to counterbalance the resistance he is sure to meet from certain sectors of Congress.
The VOA moderator provided the de rigueur upbeat slant on every comment, one of two reasons these VOA interviews invariably leave me dissatisfied; the other is my dissatisfaction with my own performance!

06.04.09

Obama's Speech in Cairo: the pitfalls he avoided and the woman he failed to mention  -  @ 18:20:36
As an Egyptian American who attended Cairo University in the early seventies when there was nary a headscarf in sight, my first reaction as President Obama strode onto the stage in the grand auditorium of Cairo University was pride in the impressive setting. Then I held my breath as he launched into his much-anticipated speech, wondering if he would manage to pull off the nearly impossible tightrope act of speaking truth from power, rather than to power.
Quite apart from the policy issues toward Egyptian lack of democracy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are so many cultural pitfalls he could fall into. Nikita Kruchev famously came to Egypt to inaugurate the Soviet-financed Aswan Dam, but instead of reaping gratitude, he reaped everlasting ignominy by taking off his shoe- an insult in Muslim societies- and banging on the podium with it as he exhorted Egyptians to abandon their "superstitions", i.e. Islam and religion in general.
President Obama is far too sophisticated for this sort of blunder. He won the audience over right off the bat with citations from the Koran. But so did Napoleon Bonaparte, who had prepared meticulously for his invasion of Egypt, and who proclaimed to the Egyptians that he was a friend of Muslims who respected Islam and its Prophet. Like Obama in his speech, Bonaparte cited the Koran repeatedly. All the same, he immediately committed an irredeemable gaffe by trying to impose a badge in the colors of the French Revolution, which the Egyptians mistook for a religious emblem, or at the least a badge of servitude. It was only the first of the miscues that doomed Bonaparte's expedition, as I found out when I researched the period for my book.
So I continued to watch with trepidation, even as the applause from the crowd, and text messages from friends in Egypt, reassured me that Obama’s speech was playing well. I did note, when he evoked his own multicultural background, that he avoided saying his Kenyan father was a Muslim, saying instead that there were many Muslims in his father’s family. In Islam, religious affiliation is patrilineal, so Obama, a Christian, presumably wanted to steer clear of that particular hornet’s nest.
The lines in which the President invoked Islamic tradition and tolerance drew grateful applause. But other initiatives and promises addressing the situation of Muslims in the West did not seem to resonate with the Cairo audience, as when he upheld the right of Muslim women in Europe to wear a headscarf, or when he promised to make it easier for Muslims in America to tithe to Islamic charities. But one must remember that Obama’s speech was addressed, not to the few thousand in the auditorium of Cairo University or even the 80 million Egyptians in the country but to the some 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, Arab and non-Arab, in Indonesia or in Los Angeles.
Like many Egyptian-Americans or other members of Muslim minorities in the West, I was asked to give my opinion of Obama’s speech; I will be interviewed tomorrow for a Voice of America French-language program. The thorniest question is likely to be: Do you feel that Egypt was the wrong choice of venue for this historic speech to the Muslim world, given the country’s problematic history with democracy and human rights? The answer, for this Egyptian-American who has been critical of many aspects of the Egyptian regime in her writing, is a resounding no. Egypt is not Mubarak, any more than America was George Bush. You can be a proud Egyptian, or a proud American, even if you disapprove of a government’s policies. And President Obama’s choice of Egypt as the heavyweight of Arab and Islamic tradition and scholarship is a source of pride to the vast majority of Egyptians, even those who protest its government.
More importantly, perhaps, Obama’s speech, in spite of the hard truths of some of its passages, has gone a long way in turning the tide of anti-Americanism that had been swelling at an alarming rate over the past eight years. No, he didn’t say everything the “Muslim world†wanted to hear, nor did he mean to, but he pulled off the impossible tightrope act.
He did, however, miss an opportunity, when he was speaking of female empowerment through education, to mention one woman who had everything to do with the Cairo University in which he stood. Last January I attended a centennial gala commemorating the inauguration of Cairo University in 1909, honoring an Egyptian princess whose role was critical in achieving the dream of a national university. When the state ran out of funds to complete the construction of the university, the princess stepped in, selling some of her own land and jewelry to pay for the necessary funds. I wish someone had thought to tell President Obama that history; I am sure he would have found a way to weave into his speech.

06.03.09

Will Obama prove more brilliant than Bonaparte in Egypt?  -  @ 13:20:06
All eyes on President Obama in Egypt tomorrow. As an Egyptian American who attended Cairo University in the seventies when there was nary a headscarf in sight, I am holding my breath in anticipation of the tightrope act the president must pull off in his speech. Quite apart from the policy issues toward Egyptian lack of democracy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are so many cultural pitfalls he could fall into. Nikita Kruchev famously came to Egypt to inaugurate the Soviet-financed Aswan Dam, but instead of reaping gratitude, he reaped everlasting ignominy by taking off his shoe- an insult in Muslim societies- and banging on the podium with it as he expressed the wish that Egyptians would lay aside their "superstitions", i.e. Islam and religion in general. Obama is far too sophisticated for this sort of blunder. But Napoleon Bonaparte had prepared meticulously for his invasion of Egypt, and proclaimed repeatedly to the Egyptians that he was a friend of Muslims who respected Islam and its Prophet. All the same, he soon committed an irredeemable gaffe: he tried to impose the wearing of the French Revolution symbol, the tricolor cockade, which the Egyptians mistook for a religious emblem, or at the least a badge of servitude to the French. It was only the first of the miscues that doomed Bonaparte's expedition, as I found out when I researched it for my newest book, The Naqib's Daughter. Now Obama may be brilliant- but so was Bonaparte!

05.25.09

What do you say on Memorial Day?  -  @ 09:51:20
I am invited to give a talk later this afternoon at the Orange County Peace Coalition's commemoration of Memorial Day. I feel honored to be asked, but a little overwhelmed. What can you say on Memorial Day? What can you say that is not divisive on such a solemn and painful occasion? I've decided to say it anyway: that ideals that are worth dying for, and killing for, should be worth living by: ideals of freedom of thought and of conscience; of the equal value of a man's life, regardless of the shade of his skin or what he choses to call his god; of holding America to a higher standard than that of "the end justifies the means."
"We would like you to read some poetry," the organizer suggested when she contacted me, "by an Arab poet if possible."
Poetry brings to mind T.S. Eliot's "April is the cruelist month." Perhaps May should be called the cruelist month, since it is when we choose to honor our war dead in America. I leaf through a hundred and one poems about war and against war, and finally settle on three that represent three particular kinds of victims of war. The first is by a Polish poet, called The Survivor, that makes me mourn for the walking dead who survive this war with devastating injuries to their bodies and minds. The second is by an Iraqi refugee from Saddam Hussein's regime, called "America, America", about the civilian victims of war. The third is by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, called "The Land", about the environmental devastation that is wrecked by modern warfare on the very earth, air and water.
I will end with a prayer that this war be the end of a cycle, and not the beginning of one. What else can you say about war?
We'll see how my little talk is received.

05.14.09

Love is Like Water: my third book now in Syracuse Press' Fall Catalogue!  -  @ 11:57:12
FALL 2009 CATALOG
Love Is Like Water and Other Stories
Samia Serageldin

Cloth $24.95 | 978-0-8156-0921-6 | 2009
Avail. September

Reviews
"I admire the irony, sophistication, and smoothness of the narrative voice; we automatically like, and-more importantly-trust this narrator."
—Lee Smith, best-selling author of The Last Girls

Description
Like the author of this remarkable collection of thirteen linked stories, the protagonist, Nadia, was born and raised in Egypt, educated in England, and immigrated to the United States. Samia Serageldin draws her characters out with subtlety and control, moving from the narrator’s grand-mother’s garden house in Cairo to the suburbs of North Carolina, yielding powerful portraits of cultural dislocation, faith, and multigenerational conflicts.

As the narratives shift in time and place, they unfold through memory. In "The Zawiya," Nadia reflects on the change in women’s space from the coiffeur’s salon to a religious pulpit as she revisits a childhood ritual. In the title story, Nadia offers a vivid sketch of her grandmother Nanou, "a force of nature" who, as an early widow, single-handedly raised six children and ran the household. At a time when few women experienced such independence, Nanou had a potent influence on the young narrator. Told with compassion and clarity, Serageldin’s stories reveal one woman’s exploration of identity, finding it in both the sweeping backdrop of Egyptian history and the quotidian exchanges with friends and family.

Author
Samia Serageldin was born and raised in Egypt, educated in England, and immigrated to the United States. She is the author of an autobiographical first novel, The Cairo House (Syracuse University Press) and a historical novel, The Naqib’s Daughter, as well as short fiction and essays on Islam, women, and Arab-American literature. Serageldin divides her time between North Carolina, Egypt, and London.

5 x 8, 176 pages, glossary















05.09.09

The French journalist and the most explosive issue in the Mideast  -  @ 12:49:50
This week we hosted a French foreign correspondent and Mideast expert, Christian Chesnot, one of two French journalists who were taken hostage in Iraq in August 2004. For four months, the two men were held hostage by Baathist diehards while they negotiated with the French government over their demand for the abrogation of the law forbidding Muslim girls to wear a headscarf in school. I asked him why Iraqi Baathists would care about the so-called "Secularity Law" in France. They didn't, Christian explained, the kidnappers were simply opportunistic, and once they had caught their hostages they then googled them- yes, they are media-savvy- and since France had been against the Iraq war, they had to come up with some other justification for holding Frenchmen hostage; the headscarf controversy provided an excuse.
Chesnot, who speaks Arabic, having been based in Cairo for several years, was able to follow the negotiations and fraternize with his kidnappers, which ultimately improved his chances; he and his colleague Malbrunot were released four months later.
By then the two Frenchmen were household names, but Christian Chesnot was already known as a Mideast expert who had published several books on the Middle East crises in Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon. Perhaps the most significant is his work on the crucial role of water, or the lack of it, in the Arab/Israeli conflict.
As Chesnot explained, at a talk I organized with Alliance francaise at UNC Chapel Hill Thursday, Israel has an intractable problem: its sources of water are either in the Golan, the West Bank, or other watersheds under Arab control. This complicates any chance of Israeli withdrawal from its colonies in the Palestinian terrritories, unless a peace agreement guarantees its water supply.
The lack of public awareness of this potentially explosive issue is a stumbling block to any peace process.

04.30.09

Nine Parts of Desire...that having nothing to do with desire, or the 4th Califph  -  @ 15:31:48
Went to see Heather Raffo's one-woman play "Nine Parts of Desire" at UNC Playmakers a few days ago. The title is taken from the possibly apocryphal and always quoted-out-of-context remark attributed to the fourth Caliph, Ali, who is supposed to have said that God created desire in 10 parts and gave 9 to the woman, and one to the man. Be that as it may, the play has nothing to do with the fourth caliph and very little to do with desire, but the title, along with the adverts showing a nude woman's back, no doubt helped market the play. It is actually a montage of 9 characters' stories, all contemporary Iraqi women, some young, some old, some trapped in the war, some immigrated to the West. In the production I saw, all 9 were played by the same indefatiguable actress, a solidly-built woman in her forties who whirled in and out of character with just a flick of an abaya or a scarf. Some of the characters are based on real persons, most are compilations of familiar types: Layal is based on Saddam Hussein's favorite woman artist, who made the mosaic of Bush's head on the floor of the Rashid hotel, and who was killed during the American bombing; there is also the cynical expatriate in her sixties, the schoolgirl who inadvertently betrayed her father by repeating his remark criticizing the Saddam regime, the Bedouin woman mistreated by a series of feckless Arab husbands, and more. The shortest cameo was the one that affected me most: the indomitable woman doctor despairing before the horrible abnormalities in newborns, depleted uranium ammunition around which children play, and trying to treat the sick without medecine or basic equipment.
In the end, what I found worth retaining from the play was the message that, whether or not we approve of the Iraq war, we should humanize the Iraqis who are living it.

04.29.09

The Sunday Times Book Review of Naqib's Daughter- Aspects of Love?  -  @ 08:01:41
From The Sunday Times
April 12, 2009
Aspects of love
The Sunday Times review by Elizabeth Buchan

The Naqib’s Daughter by Samia Serageldin (Fourth Estate £14.99) promises and delivers the straightforward delights of an unpretentious historical novel. It is 1798, and Napoleon’s navy is sailing to Egypt in order to bring civilisation and tolerance to the rich lands of the East. On board is Nicolas Conte, the director of the first engineering school in France, who is impatient to fathom the secrets of the sphinx. In Cairo, the beautiful, wealthy and powerful Lady Nafisa shudders for the safety of her people, while 14-year-old Zeinab is informed by her father that she will be offered in marriage to Napoleon in order to save her family. Culture clashes with culture, and occupier feeds off the occupied — until the tables are turned. But at what cost? And do the innocent always suffer? A little short on characterisation, but crammed with terrific detail, it is to be enjoyed for its mise en scène and colour.

04.01.09

who's Watching "We're Watching you?"  -  @ 08:28:09
Last night I watched a documentary about three appealing, educated, middle-class Egyptian women who take up a stand against the corruption of elections and the intimidation of the judiciary in their country by founding an election monitoring group they call Shayfeen "We are watching you." The fact that the women are articulate and Westernized, with free-flowing hair and trendy clothes, is crucial: they make the point, over and over, that they are looking for an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood who has dominated the opposition to the Mubarak regime, and who has been repatedly invoked as the bogeyman who would take advantage of any free elections in Egypt.
The documentary follows the women in their frustrating attempts, armed only with their cameras and internet diffusion, to challenge the authorities and rally protestors. We follow one of the women when she attends the international "Why Democracy" conference in New York, presided by the American president, where she has a hilarious encounter with George Bush, who hails her with "Ola, Muchacha!" She enlightens him that, despite her dark looks, she is Egyptian and not Hispanic.
Who's watching "We're Watching You?" Clearly the Egyptian governmemt is. But at the screening of the documentary last night at Duke University, there were only a dozen people in the huge auditorium. This morning, I tried to open the shayfeen.com website; it's off the web.

03.31.09

My Cairo...in Traveler Magazine  -  @ 12:30:07
It was an appealing but challenging assignment, relayed by my publicist at HarperCollins, my UK publisher for The Naqib's Daughter. "Traveler Magazine want you to write some text about your Cairo, nostalgic and evocative and free-form, a love note to your native city. It will run alongside some drawings by an artist, a sort of two-for-one article." "Great!" I responded. Then I saw the drawings my text was supposed to tie-in with. They were beautiful, but of a Cairo that was not mine, either in place or time: a man in native dress smoking a hookah; a felucca on the Nile; a peasant driving a donkey-cart on a country road-the last not Cairo at all.
Eventually, though, I was able to tie it all in with my Cairo of villas in Garden City and high-rises in Zamalek. The felucca on the Nile is a scene I have seen many times from balcony windows; the man with the hookah brought back memories of visits to the older, populous neighborhoods of Cairo, where I myself tried a hookah at a cafe in the souk; and the girl on the cart reminded me of the old days when garbage collectors came at dawn on donkey-carts to collect the garbage by hand.
Now the article will appear in the Spring quarterly Traveler Magazine "the magazine for the intelligent traveler", and I can't wait to see the (I am sure edited!) final version!

03.01.09

The Mystery Strongman in Post-War Iraq  -  @ 13:20:49
In her New York Times column today, Maureen Dowd quotes military correspondent Tom Ricks predicting that post-war Iraq will be "not a democracy, not an American ally, and run by a strongman, probably tougher, smarter and more adept than Saddam."
My resarch for The Naqib's Daughter shows that history bears Mr. Ricks out: in the prototypical military adventure by a Western superpower in the Middle East in modern times, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798 and withdrew, unsuccessful, in 1801, leaving behind a country in chaos contested by multiple militias backed by competing world powers. Four years later, an obscure Albanian militia officer by the name of Mehmet Ali seized power, and soon after disposed of his remaining rivals by inviting them to a banquet in the Citadel of Cairo and promptly killing them. Mehmet Ali's dynasty continued to rule Egypt till his last descendant, King Farouk, was deposed in 1953.

02.27.09

Reviews of The Naqib's Daughter  -  @ 11:16:22
Reviews are coming in of The Naqib's Daughter, which had a stormy birth during the worst snowstorm in London in 20 years earlier this February. The Daily Mail calls it "thrilling", and ends its great review with "this book leads us evocatively through the sights and sounds of Cairo, and through the dangers of life under the occupation." Time Out Magazine's long review gratifyingly considers me "clearly well placed to address an audience too often dismissive of the region's complex history. The 1798 Napoleonic invasion of Egypt offers a rich seam of literary potential for her second novel." "She offers us such a plethora of character and detail as she sweeps through the streets and marble palaces of eighteenth century Cairo that the reader is soon panting in her wake." "There is a fascinating novel here struggling for air- in fact there may be several of them" but, in the reviewer's opinion, it is overwhelmed by "research's heady delights."
The Naqib's Daughter has been released in the UK and Commonwealth, which means the North American edition is not yet published, but readers in the U.S. have ordered it through amazon.co.uk or The Book Depository.

02.16.09

John Grisham and Sex and the Oma- all in a day at UNC  -  @ 22:33:38
Today was a busy day for literary events, even by the high standards of our university town. First I attended the Orange County Literacy fundraiser, an elegant luncheon in the buttercup yellow dining room of the Carolina Inn, where John Grisham- whose daughter is a UNC student- John Grisham headlined a roster of literary lights. Then in the evening, Mohja Kahf, Syrian-American poet best known for her provocative blog "Sex and the Oma", gave a spirited performance before a packed auditorium to celebrate her first novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.

02.11.09

A Snowbound London Debut for The Naqib's Daughter  -  @ 13:27:22
The Monday morning of the London launch of my new novel, The Naqib's Daughter, I drew open the blinds and looked out on a surreal scene of winter wonderland. Overnight, the heaviest snowfall in nearly 20 years had fallen and blanketed London's rooftops, streets and parks in soft fluffy snow. It rarely snows in London, so there was major disruption: the red buses stopped running for the first time in their history, and even the London underground lines with some above-ground stations, like the District and Circle lines, were closed. Phone calls to my publishers, HarperCollins, revealed that most people had been unable to come in to work and that my appointments, tapings, interviews, etc, had had to be cancelled or postponed.
That left me with a clear day to stroll in chilly but snow-enchanted Hyde Park; to buy cashmere knit cap and gloves from Harrod's, and to enjoy a quiet dinner at Montpeliano's in Knightsbridge, a restaurant where it is often hard to get a table but where we were one of only two tables occupied that night.
The general atmosphere of crisis-induced giddiness and camaraderie reigned for the rest of the week as snow turned to slush, enhanced, perhaps, by relief that the temporary crisis of weather had fleetingly knocked the long-running crisis of the economy off the front pages of British news.

01.27.09

My Literary Cafe book launch at the Cairo Book Fair  -  @ 11:11:22
The opening of the Cairo Book Fair coincided with a family emergency that had me spending every night on a torture-instrument of a hospital cot by the bedside of the patient, so I was able to attend very few events prior to my own "Literary Cafe", a talk-show interview format in a Starbucks-like setting, with cafe tables and a barrista-staffed bar. I had been told by Deborah Moggach- of "Being Jane Austen" fame, that there were only 4 people at the last one. Luckily for me, I could count on my cousins and friends in Cairo, who loyally showed up- a few even on time!- complaining about the traffic all the way out to the Fairgrounds in Heliopolis. So the tables with their umbrellas- indoor umbrellas, mall style- were nearly all taken. David Swarbrick, international marketing director at HarperCollins, my publisher, was there also. My interviewer was Nadia Wassef, owner of a successful bookstore chain and a major sponsor of the British Council's events.
So far, so good. The interview went along fairly predictable lines, but when it was time for questions, there were some politely disguised challenges: did I feel exploited as an Arab woman writer? Was the cover image, of an odalisque, not stereotypical? I was happy to be able to disclaim any input on the cover; in my experience with large trade publishers, the author's input on cover design is disregarded entirely. Political correctness, or the lack of it, does not factor at all in the design department's choices. Eye-catching appeal is all, and that is often decided by the feedback from focus groups.
The same goes for what we have come to know by Edward Said's term "Orientalism." Ther is mcuh less ideology involved than one might suspect; everything is sales and market-driven.
After my interview, I was guided over to the signing table to sign copies, and that took a while, because when I was signing for people I knew, I naturally had to include a personal comment, and even when I didn't, I asked for a name and some detail that would help me personalize the dedication. I was touched by the students, girls I didn't know, who bought a copy for themselves and one for their mothers! Also sorry I didn't get to find out more from the American woman who told me that she had moved to Cairo on the basis of having read The Cairo House.

01.22.09

The Naqib's Daughter makes her debut, fittingly, at the Cairo Book Fair!  -  @ 06:13:15
Finally, my new historical novel, The Naqib's Daughter, will make a (soft) debut this week at the Cairo International Book Fair, a few days ahead of its official launch by HarperCollins in London, UK. It is a fitting venue for a book set largely in Cairo during Napoleon's three year occupation of Egypt, and the aftermath. And this year's 41st Cairo International Book Fair is particularly appropriate since the United Kingdom is the guest of honour, and my publisher, HarperCollins UK, is British. In fact the British Council in Cairo is celebrating 75 years of cultural relations by organizing a major series of events at the Book Fair, to which it has invited a list of literary luminaries from both the writing and publishing ends of the spectrum. I am probably the most hybrid writer on the list: an Egyptian-American, UK-based author.
At last night's opening event at the Zamalek Opera House, we were entertained by an English Renaissance a capella ensemble, and today the actual book fair opens its doors at the Fairgrounds in Heliopolis. Updates to come...

01.20.09

A great day to be an American.  -  @ 02:48:54
I woke up this morning thinking: there must be an embassy party somewhere. Today, this historic inauguration day, I have this sudden, unprecedented urge to celebrate America among Americans. It feels like the New Year's Day to end all new year's days: to celebrate a new beginning, and bid an unfond farewell to eight years during much of which America wore an unrecognizable mask of fear and bigotry.
Tomorrow will be time enough for a sober assessment of the Herculean task of cleaning up the mess we inherited, but today- today is a day for celebrating: only in America!

01.16.09

Cairo through a glass, darkly...  -  @ 05:56:34
The "black cloud" as Egyptians call it, is particularly thick over Cairo today. Everyone coughs, nearly everyone comments, but only the Japanese tourists wear cotton masks.
In Cairo hospitals, injured evacuees from Gaza get treated, many requiring amputations. Everyone shakes their head, nearly everyone is quietly outraged, many seek out the victims' kin to offer them help: prepaid phonecards, winter clothes, toys for children. The evacuees come with nothing, and there are no Ronald McDonald houses here.

01.01.09

New Year under fire...  -  @ 07:22:28
This past week in Cairo was the week of two new years that never were. First there was the Islamic or Hejira new year, on December 29th, which, paradoxically, tends to pass nearly unobserved in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. Then New Year 2009 was officially more or less cancelled by the Mubarak government, in response to popular anger over the continued bombing of Gaza; all public celebrations, even of a purely cultural nature like concerts, were cancelled. Add to that the general economic doom, and even the private parties or small restaurant dinners were pervaded by a sense of forced cheer. So the new year was rung in, not with a shout but with a whisper...

12.22.08

Cairo University celebrates its centennial...and the princess who made it all possible  -  @ 09:32:10
Yesterday evening I attended the Centennial celebration of Cairo University, my undergraduate alma mater, but I could hardly recognize the place. The buildings were as grandiose and impressive as ever with their massive architecture and huge domes, but I had never seen them given the Hollywood treatment: bathed in technicolor lights, dry ice fog, and the best efforts of the sound and light department of the Arts School, Cairo University was a magical place of glamor for one evening of salmon canapes and orchestra music. Inside the giant rotunda, on the crimson draped stage, to music from the opera Aida, one after another Egyptian Nobel laureate and world-famous scientist were honored, including Magdy Yacoub, the British-based heart surgeon.
And there was one woman who was posthumously honored above all: Princess Fatma, the daughter of Egypt's Khedive Ismail, during whose reign the Suez Canal was built. When the university project stalled for lack of funds in the early 20thC, the princess contributed her vast estates in Egypt and even her personal jewelry to fill the empty coffers of the construction fund, and thanks to her generosity the dream of a national university was realized. It was good to see the princess' role recognized, particularly since I knew her direct descendant, Prince Abbas Helmi, was in the audience- I had met him earlier in the evening.
For one evening, at least, Cairo University relived its past, and forgot its overcrowded and shabby present.

12.10.08

Two holidays: Eid and Thanksgiving  -  @ 02:32:00
This year, Thanksgiving and the Eid, the Feast of the Sacrifice, fall within 20 days of each other. They have much in common: they are both communal celebrations of blessings. But whereas Thanksgiving is still an intensely family-oriented affair in North America, the Eid has changed a great deal over the past couple of decades. Growing up in Cairo, I remember it for the sheep to be sacrificed, which were brought to the city several days ahead: some were destined to end up on the family table while the rest ended up as packets of freshly-butchered meat distributed to a steady stream of retired domestics and charity cases who lined up at the door. The sacrifice of the sheep took place on the first day of the feast, and the following two days were consecrated to a round of visits to relatives, some of whom we only saw on feast days, weddings or funerals.
When I wrote The Cairo House eight years ago, these traditions were already under attack, and when I described the Feast of the Sacrifice, it was partly in the nostalgic vein. Today, the sacrifice of sheep within the city limits of Cairo is banned, but that decree is openly flouted: take a back street in even upscale residential neighborhoods in the days leading up to the Feast and you will see not only sheep but cows tethered to trees or lamposts in anticipation of the butcher's knife. But the majority of Cairenes who can afford to leave on holiday will not be around on the day of the Feast: they will have delegated their duty of sacrifice to a butcher and high-tailed it out of Cairo, to the popular winter resorts on the Red Sea. The government encourages this great boon to domestic tourism by extending the official Eid vacation as long as possible, this year to five days instead of the original three, which effectively means to two weeks when weekends and "bridge" days are tagged on. The frantic pulse of Cairo life is disrupted as everything from banks to schools and businesses is closed; you cannot find a contractor or a repairman; domestics take a long vacation and leave for the Nubia or the Sudan or the Philippines.
And what of the tradition of families gathering around a laden table to give thanks for their blessings, just as Americans do for Thanksgiving? That essential part of Eid has become a thing of the past, ironically, for those Egyptians best able to afford it: they gather with friends and family instead around a swimming pool overlooking the Red Sea in a cookie-cutter resort. Even I, who as a child was horrified at the idea of slaughter and nauseated at the sight of lamb, who avoided the back door where the charity cases lined up for packets of meat, who yawned through some of the mandatory round of family visits, find myself nostalgic for all of it.

12.03.08

Why it takes the First Lady's clout to tame an Egyptian wedding  -  @ 04:23:24
Over the past couple of decades, Egyptian weddings have been taken over by the tastes of the young: pounding, head-splitting disco music from start to finish, and a very late dinner served well after midnight. The "adults" in the company complained but shrugged with resignation; it was, after all, a day for the young people to celebrate as they wish.
Not so at the recent wedding of the Prime Minister's son, thanks to the attendance of Suzanne Mubarak, the Egyptian president's wife and the security implications it imposes. The wedding started promptly at the unheard of early hour of 7:30, as the guests were warned the doors to the event would be locked once she arrived. Romantic music at a temperate volume was played throughout, with the bride and groom taking to the dance floor to the tune of "You fill up my senses." The affair was markedly subdued, as there was far less of the uninhibited table-hopping for which Egyptians are notorious, and everyone at the First Lady's table, including the bride's parents, were instructed to stay put in their seats rather than run about greeting their guests. Dinner was served early, at 10:30 pm, and an hour later the First Lady and the entire Egyptian cabinet filed out discreetly.
And what of the bride and groom and their hordes of young friends and cousins, whose irrational exuberance had been damped down for four hours? The minute the officials left, the DJ switched to pounding disco music, and they took to the dance floor in wild abandon.
For the older guests, however, most of whom slipped out shortly after, the civilized wedding was a rare boon!

12.02.08

Thanksgiving in Cairo...  -  @ 13:36:39
Thanksgiving in eighty degree Cairo is slightly disorienting, not to mention a challenge. I have never tried to observe the holiday when away from the States before, but this year feels like a year to give thanks for renewed faith in everything wonderful about America, beginning with the great display of the power of the people's voice on November 4.
So, a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, in 80 degree Cairo. Great big Egyptian turkeys are available, of course, but the American-style popper-prepared frozen ones are a little harder to find. I snag the only one at a gourmet supermarket. Also cornmeal for Southern-style cornbread, although only white cornmeal, not yellow, is available. Cranberries I knew I wouldn't find, so I had brought dried craisins with me, and experimented making cranberry sauce by simmering them in cranberry juice- perfectly presentable. I had not anticipated having trouble finding pumpkin, or some kind of gourd, but it turns out they are out of season, and I am out of luck. On the other hand, no trouble with sweet potatos for a sweet potato puree casserole with bechamel.
The Egyptian guests, not to mention the kitchen help, are bemused by the fuss over the occasion and the menu, but the turkey is done right, the cornbread and cranberry sauce are a great success, or at least a great curiosity. But for me, and the Americans in the group, including my son, it is Thanksgiving celebrated.

11.10.08

Carolina baby blue for Obama..  -  @ 23:45:37
Two days after election night, after each state in turn had rapidly turned bright red for McCain or deep blue for Obama, only North Carolina stayed "too close to call, leaning Obama," which translated to palest blue on the electoral map. Appropriately enough, the baby blue called "Carolina blue" for the color of the University of N. Carolina at Chapel Hill- my home town. Every so-called battleground state north of N. Carolina turned blue, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, just as every state in the southeast south of NC turned red for McCain, from South Carolina on down. The battle line was drawn, it turns out, somewhere across the middle of the old North state.
Long after the nation had moved on, with Obama firmly elected, North Carolinians avidly followed the latest count of the provisional votes as if they were watching the outcome of a fight for the soul of their state. Democratic challenger Kay Hagan defeated incumbent Elizabeth Dole; Democrat Bev Perdue was elected governor. The very county Sarah Palin had congratulated for being "the real America, the pro-America parts of the country", went for Obama with a double-digit margin. Still, NC remained "too close to call" for the top of the ticket.
Finally, three days of counting provisional votes later, NC was declared for Obama by 14,000 votes- blue, but only the palest Carolina baby blue.

11.04.08

Only in America...  -  @ 23:38:58
Only in America can the son of an immigrant African with a funny name be elected to the leadership of the most powerful nation on earth. It's a good night to be an American, a good night to be proud to be an American. A night when no one could help thinking of the rest of the world watching, and wondering, and admiring, what America has done.
A good night to be a North Carolinian: my state soundly repudiated and defeated incumbent Senator Elisabeth Dole, who ran a despicable senatorial campaign ad, attacking her Sunday-school-teacher opponent of being "Godless."
A good night for John McCain: after running a divisive, xenophobic, negative campaign, Senator McCain in his concession speech seemed relieved to put this hate-mongering behind him and graciously endorse his Democratic rival.
Tomorrow morning there may well be a hangover, and even buyer remorse, and certainly it will be a rude awakening to the sober realities of a global economy in freefall and two endless wars in the Middle East and a helath care system in shambles. But tonight is a good night!

11.01.08

Holier than thou? And the Eva Perrone moment  -  @ 16:19:57
Latest nadir in this vitriolic campaign: North Carolina's absentee senior senator, Elisabeth Dole, accuses her Democratic rival, Kay Hagan, a white Episcopalian former Sunday school teacher, of being godless. Now it isn't only a Barak Obama who can be undermined by false accusations of secret Islamic sympathies; the WASPiest of candidates can be accused of secret aetheistic associations. Kay Hagan is suing for defamation and defending her "Christian faith." The point is, she shouldn't have to. A religious litmus test should not be part of the qualifications for public office.
On the other hand, Republican tactics backfire when Sarah Palin's 150K makeover is exposed. Apparently, the American public is not ready for an Eva Perrone moment: Perrone notoriously defended her personal extravagance by inviting the masses to live vicariously through her. "I do it for you," she claimed. Joe Sixpack and Hockey Mom don't seem to be carrying their identification with Palin that far.
Three..Two..One...Election Day! Some optimistic Democrat friends can't wait. More pessimistically, I suggest they enjoy the prospect of an Obama presidency while the hope is yet alive; if it turns the other way, they will have a long four years of disappointment.

10.30.08

It's not the Bradley Effect, it's the Kerry effect.. and lessons from Plato  -  @ 10:44:14
A friend of mine is starting a new job on election day Tuesday- Ginny welcomes the timing because she hopes being busy will blunt the suspense of waiting for the outcome. "I can't stand it!" she frets, fingering her "Older White Women for Obama" button.
Everyone I know is suffering from the suspense. The Democrats aren't comforted by Obama's reported lead in the polls- we all remember 2004. It's not the Bradley effect that worries us; it's the Kerry effect: it seemed in November 2004 as if no one we knew was voting for Bush/Cheney Part II, and yet...
The Obama supporters are almost as worried about a win as about a loss. With the challenges ahead, two endless wars and an economic meltdown, how can a President Obama help but fail? And how will those disappointed expectations translate into an imptatient condemnation of Democrat and African-American leadership in office?
Why would any wise man wish to take on this overwhelming responsibility at this critical moment? If you were a 72 year old Senator McCain, you have nothing to lose; but if you were a young Senator Obama, why not wait another four or even eight years? The answer must lie in Plato's insight: when asked why the virtuous man (the wise, the good) would ever choose to spend his time governing, he replied: to avoid the fate of being ruled by the less wise and less good.

10.22.08

Confession: I was a (Muslim) hockey mom  -  @ 11:57:31
The last thing anyone might guess about me is that, twenty eight years ago when I first arrived with my family to the U.S., I spent several years as a hockey mom in the frozen north of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It is a gross understatement to say that it was a culture shock to come from London and Cairo to the land of snowmobiles on the far shores of Lake Superior; or to say that I came across as an exotic creature with my tight skirts and high heels among the locals. The university faculty, like us, were mostly transplants, but the local population was Finnish, copper miners where the men, a generation out of work since the mines closed, tended to drink, and the women were hardworking and solid. They tended to be taciturn and slow-spoken, with a soft Finnish accent, and when they heard my name, they often commented: "Oh, a name from the old country, eh?" which surprised me till I realized that Saima (not Samia) was a common Finnish name.
No one locked their doors, and it was a safe place to raise children. My son played hockey from the age of four on, and we made a practice skating rink in the backyard by hosing hot (not cold!) water onto the freshly smoothed snow after the endloader had cleared it off. On the bleachers at the hockey rinks, I learnt to stamp my feet and clutch cups of hot chocolate for hours to keep warm while I watched my son play, but I never learnt to stop cringing when I heard another hockey mother shout: "Kill him!" "Hook him!" or "Sieve! Sieve!" I took that last chant personally, as my son often played goalee.
I learnt to love cross-country skiing, and to put up with shovelling snow off the driveway every morning, and to carry my dress shoes in a bag when I went out to dinner. But I never really got used to the isolation and the endless winters. When we moved to the suburbs of Boston, it was a fresh start for me. But my son the hockey player was happy to be able to continue to play hockey. It was only when we moved to North Carolina, where no one had even heard of Wayne Gretzky, that I encouraged him to drop hockey and take up soccer, and that was the end of my career as a hockey mom.
So ever since the Sarah Palin nomination, I have nursed my private perspective on hockey moms. By now I turn off the television whenever the oversaturated subject of the Palin phenomenon comes up. So why am I writing about it now? Because of something General Colin Powell said to explain his endorsement of Barak Obama. He said he was moved to do it by the sight of an American mother grieving at the graveside of her soldier son, killed in Iraq: a boy by the Muslim name of Kareem. Muslim Americans die for their country just like other denominations, Powell was saying, and the ugly rhetoric surrounding Islam in this campaign should be denounced. Obama is not a Muslim, Powell said, but the point should be made that there is nothing wrong with an American Muslim child today aspiring to be president one day. Perhaps that would be easier for Americans in general to accept when they realize that their Muslim neighbor may also be a hockey mom.

10.19.08

W, we hardly knew you...  -  @ 15:54:32
Oliver Stone's film, "W", seems to be both too early and too late. Too early for a biography of a sitting president; too late because he seems almost irrelevant at this point, as the nation tries to find out who Barak Obama and John McCain are. When reporters such as Bob Woodward and political operatives like Paul Begala can describe Bush in such strikingly different terms, the question is: who is the real George W Bush? Stone's atypical even-handedness does little to answer the question. Even more perplexing: how can a two-term president who has left such a dramatic mark, for good or for ill, on the awesome office of the American presidency still remain a mystery to his own people?
Battleground state? What are the unregistered voters waiting for?  -  @ 15:20:08
Here in North Carolina we keep hearing this is a battleground state; the fact that it's in play at all is is a first; NC has not gone to a Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson. But here in liberal Chapel Hill/Durham, it's Obama nation, at least on the surface. Obama fundraisers are full of over-educated white liberals who have already voted early; the challenge is turning out the unregistered African American vote. Yesterday at a Durham rally featuring some of NC's best-known writers, including Lee Smith and Alan Gurganus, the writers showed up but the unregistered voters they were intending to lead to the one-stop voting stations did not. Of the two African American faces there, one was a well-known writer himself and the other an elegant organizer. The Obama volunteers were baffled and frustrated. Where is this upset vote going to come from?
Perhaps from the student vote. James Taylor, NC's famous native son, is giving a free concert at UNC Chapel Hill to rally the vote for Obama.
Meantime, outside of the college town enclaves, red state America holds sway. Battleground state it is.

10.12.08

Perhaps John McCain remembered history....  -  @ 22:21:12
At a campaign rally at which an elderly woman whimpered that she was afraid Senator Obama was an "Arab", John McCain took the microphone from her and finally refuted the allegation his campaign has worked so hard to spread ever since he started losing ground in the polls. "No Ma'am," McCain shook his head, "he's a decent, family-man, citizen." Was that the real McCain, finally disgusted with the fear-mongering campaign strategy he has so far condoned? As much as what McCain said is what he didn't say. That an Arab, or even a Muslim, is not the same thing as a terrorist. He understood that in that old lady's mind, the conflation was complete; at least he exculpated Obama.
Perhaps John McCain was remembering that Obama was the first African-American to run for president. Or perhaps he was remembering history at that moment. That Leah Rabin, after her husband's assassination, blamed his enemies in the Likud who called him a traitor to Jews for trying to make peace with Egypt. Or that Anwar Sadat's assassination was incited by the ulema who quoted dubious fatwas justifying the assassination of a tyrant.
Perhaps McCain remembered all this, and heard the crowds at his campaign rallies yelling "Treason! kill him!" in response to the incendiary rhetoric from him and from Palin about Obama, and maybe John McCain finally decided that he didn't want blood on his hands.

10.07.08

Now it's official, the sky is falling  -  @ 22:17:13
Since this financial meltdown started, I wondered when we would know that this was it: the Great Recession, 1929. Did they know then, or did they only know when the bankers started to jump out of windows on Wall St? A little-noticed item on the news yesterday: a financier, out of a job for several months, shot his wife and children and then committed suicide. So I guess now it's official.
And if there was any doubt, today Fed chairman Bernanke made a speech that was the opposite of irrational exuberance, and as he spoke, on the split TV screen of CNBC, the DOW fell with every word he uttered.
Bernanke's address was incomprehensible to almost anyone outside of the circles of finance, and perhaps as a result, "Joe Sixpack" is still focusing on Sarah Palin's hairdo. Apparently Main St America has completely lost the distinction between the qualifications for an "American idol" and those of an American president. This is the result of the policy of teaching "self-esteem" run amuck: Ms. Everywoman Hockeymom is as qualified as anyone to step into the shoes of the most powerful leader on this planet.
Or is it the other America that will prevail on election day? What role will racism and xenophobia, "values" and militarism play in this election? At recent Obama fundraisers in my liberal enclave of the South, the participants were enthusiastic- and all white.
Meantime, on the other side of the world, Nero fiddles while Rome burns: the NYT had a video report on Egypt, and the over-the-top spending on luxury goods by a tiny fraction of the population while runaway inflation makes it hard for the poor to put bread on the table.

09.18.08

Toxic propaganda "gift" in your morning paper  -  @ 09:04:31
Last Sunday, millions of unsuspecting subscribers to the New York Times, to the Wall St Journal, to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and to regional newspapers, in swing states like my own North Carolina, received a toxic "free" DVD inserted in their morning paper. When it was played, it turned out to be an appalling piece of hate-mongering against Muslims and Arabs titled: "Obsession: radical Islam's War against the West". Despite the qualifier, the video tars Islam and Muslims in general with a broad fascist brush. The paid advertisement, funded by the usual Islam-bashing sources, implicitly endorses the McCain/Palin ticket as the best defense against this Islamic menace, according to most commentators who note that it is being distributed in swing states 50 days before the election.
Presumably this kind of toxic propaganda is protected under free speech, but it is deeply disappointing that a newspaper like the NYT that prides itself on its responsible, liberal position, would lend itself to this kind of base bigotry in the name of "paid advertisement."

09.09.08

A rare model of interfaith generosity  -  @ 15:52:39
The Arab American Writers Association is collecting books to donate to an auction for a synagogue in Arkansas- there's an interesting story behind this.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - A Jewish synagogue is rising in the hills of Arkansas, in large part because of the generosity of the project contractor: a Muslim immigrant from the West Bank.

Since 1981, members of Temple Shalom have practiced their faith where they could. The congregation bought a home to convert into a temple, but members abandoned their plans after residents complained that the synagogue would bring traffic to their neighborhood.

The Reform congregation then bought new land - and Fadil Bayyari got involved. The Springdale, Ark., general contractor agreed to waive his regular fee, saving Temple Shalom at least $250,000.

"Abraham is our forefather," Bayyari said. "We're first cousins. How we got to hate each other is beyond me."

Bayyari, who built the mosque in Fayetteville, said his kinship with the Jewish congregation also stems from the fact that his faith community, too, lacked its own building until the mosque was completed.

Jeremy Hess, a founding member of Temple Shalom and the building project coordinator, said the synagogue will be open to all. He said working with Bayyari taught him that "you can't judge anyone except by the character of who they are."

09.08.08

Re-entry pains and pleasures  -  @ 11:26:49
Whenever I come back to the States after a two or three month trip, it is always disorienting, rather like an astronaut re-entering Earth's atmosphere. This time I have been gone the whole summer. After the relentless glare of the sun reflected off the Mediterranean, when I landed in cool, drizzly London, I felt as if I had fallen into Autumn in a matter of four hours and change. The first thing I did was to run out to a boutique on Old Brompton Rd to buy a long-sleeved grey twin-set, having nothing remotely appropriate for the weather in my suitcase. The second thing I did was to go for a walk in Hyde Park, drizzle or no drizzle. There is such pleasure in rediscovering public space: it does not exist in a poor country like Egypt. The well-to-do enclose themselves in well-appointed private space- resorts, compounds, clubs- but there is no public space- park, garden- that would not immediately be overrun by the poor and the homeless seeking shelter.
Speaking of public space, London in August- Harrods in particular- is overrun by Gulf Arabs. You don't have to be English to be taken aback by the hordes of black-abaya-clad women jostling in front of the Hermes counter.
Now back home in North Carolina, another disorienting move. It is still summer in September, and hurricane season to boot. The world is suddenly a much quieter, calmer place. The first day, running errands, I find myself wondering at the pharmacy check-out clerk who smiles at me and makes small talk and wishes me a nice day. Then I realize that I am the one who is out of sync; I must have seemed odd to him, rushing in and out.
A summer, a lifetime in the American electoral season. People ask me what do "they" think of Obama and McCain in the Arab world. The disappointing answer is that they think of them very little; like people everywhere, they are engrossed in their own politics and economic woes, and they don't believe that the choice of American president will make a substantial difference in U.S. policy in the region.
Egyptians, in particular, are focused on the alarming hyperinflation of the price of everything from bottled water to construction cement, and occasionally distracted by a major local scandal. The last day I spent on the beach here, the talk was all of a billionnaire Egyptian real estate mogul who had paid a hit man in Dubai 2 million to assassinate a beautiful Lebanese starlet, his former mistress. That particular local scandal made it to the pages of this week's Economist in an article about Ramadan, somewhat incongruously.
Speaking of Ramadan, this year the entire Islamic world seems to have agreed to start the Muslim holy month on the same day, September 1st. Yet there is no awareness of it in the media here in the States; nor do people seem to think of wishing their Muslim friends a happy Ramadan season, althought they take it for granted that those same friends will remember to wish them the best on Christian or Jewish holidays. President Bush did think of it, to the credit of whoever reminds him of these matters. But the days are long gone when Arab-Americans in the majority voted for the Bush/Cheny ticket in 2000.

07.23.08

Here and there- the view from the Med  -  @ 03:09:38
The semi-official newspaper of Egypt, Ahram, looks like a real estate advertising supplement: every other page carries a full page, color ad for vacation homes in one of the new compounds on the Mediterranean coast, the Red Sea, or the new outer suburbs of Cairo. Much of the copy sounds stilted and translated: "You deserve your place in the sun"; "The symbol of your success;" "Spoiling your family is what it's all about." The ads seem to be targeting a new kind of Egyptian consumer, the "success story."
Nowhere is the conspicuous consumption of the "success story" more conspicuous than in Haciendas, the resort dreamed up by a group of Egyptians nostalgic for the secular, bikin-wearing Egypt of the Egyptian cinema up to the end of the seventies. The developer of the project is Mubarak's son's father-in-law, essential in a country where contacts are everything. The ostensible raison d'etre for Haciendas is for its homeowners to find themselves "entre nous", and the corollary of that is that this is the exclusive club for business contacts and matchmaking, equally important priorities.
Outside the walls, the world roils on, with sticker shock doubling the price of everything from eggs to beach chairs in three months. The newspapers acknowledge but downplay the inflation and economic crisis, but everyone feels the pinch.
On the other hand, the papers are full of the International Court's condemnation of Sudanese president Omar Bashir, a crisis provoking ambivalence: on the one hand, it is seen as an infringement on a sovereign nation, and as hypocritically selective against an Arab country. On the other there is frustration with Bashir's inability to equitably solve the problems of Darfur and the South; the gloomy expectation is that the Sudan, thanks to Bashir's wrong-headed and heavy-handed repression, will fall victim to Western plots to divide the country.
The contrast with the Western press could not be more complete: it is Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Obama all the time, with nary a mention of the Sudanese "crisis" that looms so large in the Arabic media.

07.16.08

Mubarak, Sarkozy, Omar Bashir, Omar Sharif, and more....the Egyptian papers  -  @ 13:15:11
The Egyptian papers are full of carefully calibrated reports on the current hotspots in the Middle East: the Mediterranean Union with Sarkozy and Mubarak as inaugural co-heads; the International Court’s condemnation of Sudanese president Omar Bashir; the bloody bombings in Iraq; domestic sectarian strife.
Coverage of the inaugural Mediterranean Union conference in Paris plays on the pride of Egyptians: President Mubarak of Egypt is the first co-host, with Sarkozy of France, of this new union of countries on the northern and southern rims of the Med. Cooperation between the two sides is proclaimed to be global, with the Arab members emphasizing economics and a resolution to the Arab Israeli conflict, and the European members emphasizing the environment and cooperation against Islamic terrorism. Both sides reiterate that the Med Union is not intended to sideline the Barcelona process, but the two initiatives clearly overlap.
Coverage of the current crisis in the Sudan is hedged with caveats: international interference to arrest or oust President Bashir can backfire and ignite another civil war in the region.
The latest bloody bombings in Diala province in Iraq add to the consistently gloomy coverage of the American occupation, with a photo of an American soldier, one foot on the neck of an Iraqi boy face-down in the dust, at the same time pointing his gun at a screaming woman on her knees.
A recent incidence involving a monastery and some Bedouin in Egypt is explained as a conflict over property rights and not an example of sectarian strife. Not that the media ignore the persistent tension between the Muslim majority and the Coptic minority in Egypt, a relatively recent and ugly tension on the rise over the past two decades. In fact the big movie of the month is “Hassan and Markosâ€, starring international star Omar Sharif and Egyptian comedian/producer Adel Imam. In the political drama, Omar Sharif plays a moderate Muslim scholar, and Adel Imam a moderate Coptic priest, who are forced to exchange identities in order to protect their lives from threats by extremists in their own communities. The message is as clear as the irony: the message is that Muslims and Coptic moderates must stand together and stand up to the extremists in their communities; the irony is that in real life, actor Omar Sharif is a Christian by the real name of Michel Shalhoub, and actor Adel Imam is a Muslim.

07.10.08

Egypt's Riviera...  -  @ 14:25:46
Egypt's Riviera, the minister of tourism calls it, and the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria has its pretensions: a couple of hundred kilometres of turqoise sea and relentless sun dotted with resort village after resort village, some upscale, some not so much. Summer temperatures hovering around 33 degrees C, warm, humid air, redeemed by a constant sea breeze, a lazy summer schedule of shops and restaurants open till 1 a.m., endless choices of food and entertainment, children tanned to a crisp...young women in shorts and halter tops walking arm in arm with young women in headscarves. That's Egypt: too many anomalies to ever be postcard pretty, too many anomalies to ever be a tourist-dream Riviera.

07.06.08

The city of good spirits and good appetites: what recession?  -  @ 15:20:09
I suppose the same goes for places as for people: we are often attached to them more for the sake of the memories of our youth than for their own. My first experience of life as an adult took place in London, and perhaps that is part of the reason it is my favorite city; but objectively, it is one of the most attractive cities in the world.
In spite of much of the same recession woes and fears in Britain as in the U.S., London seems full of incurable high spirits and good appetites. Shoppers jostle to snap up designer bags and bangles at Harrods' "there is only one sale"; afterward, laden with the trademark dark green bags, they squeeze into Mister Chow's banquettes for dinner, laughing and talking as if there were no clouds on the horizon. Around the corner a new superluxury apartment complex is rising in Knightsbridge overlooking Hyde Park; the top apartments go for 75 million pounds, and Russian billionaires seeking to shelter their money from their government are offering to pay cash. The new complex will now be the expensive in London, boasting the ultimate in unprecedented security installations, including a water supply system that senses any introduction of a toxic pollutant.
The new Heathrow Terminal 5, after a disastrous inauguration, is now up and running smoothly, a vast light space that is a delightful contrast to the cramped, crowded Terminal 4. The security personnel are positively relaxed and pleasant, and the idle vendors in the duty-free shopping galleries are happy to serve complimentary raspberry Green Goose cocktails.
The British don't speak of a recession- yet- only of a downtick, as if there were a chance that the gathering storm might never materialize. And indeed, the predicted rain holds off on Wimbledon weekend while one Williams sister beats another. So for another day at least, the doomsayers are held at bay.

06.26.08

The city of roses and politeness and early hours  -  @ 19:45:09
Portland, Oregon, is officially the Rose City- more on that in a minute- but unofficially, it's a toss-up between the Polite City and the Clean City. The streets are of Singaporean immaculateness, as a simple comparison between impeccable Pioneer Square and funky Harvard Square will attest: not even a leaf off a tree seems to be allowed to settle on the ground. That is all the more remarkeable given the number of panhandlers on the streets, both young later-day hippies and genuine older homeless. But even the panhandlers, annoying as they are, are polite: they thank you even when you turn them down. Everyone is mellow and accommodating, even by my Carolina Southern standards.
The honor system is the rule on the TriMet light rail and bus services, and I have yet to see a conductor ask for a ticket. On the Washington Park shuttle that shuttles between the zoo, the Japanese Gardens and the Rose Garden, the driver/conductor welcomes all comers whether or not they hold a ticket.
The International Rose Test Garden that earns Portland its Rose City name is stunning: a vast terraced garden of thousands of rose bushes of every conceivable color, size and configuration, against a majestic background of gigantic Douglas firs and snowy Mt Hood in the distance. I am lucky enough to be visiting when the blooms are at their absolute perfect peak. Whoever said "a rose is a rose is a rose" never visited the Portland Rose Garden. And it is all free and open to the public, who bring children and dogs and picnics.
In contrast to the disorganized over-abundance that is the Rose Garden, the Chinese Garden in Chinatown is a study in design, balance and symbolism: yin & yang, plant and rock, water and wood, enclosed and exposed space, all linked by clever "leak" windows. A miniature imitation of an actual scholar's garden in China, it is designed to encourage reflexion and repose.
Downtown is a mecca of upscale shopping, contrasting rather oddly with the ubiquitous pandhandlers. But if there is a fault to find with Portland, it is that the (impeccable!) sidewalks are rolled up around 8 pm, when the shops close, or 9 pm, when most restaurants stop serving. Even Borders closes at 9 instead of 11 pm!

06.04.08

The Primaries and Random thoughts on the end of the beginning..  -  @ 16:21:15
As of last night, Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. I have mixed feelings for Hilary Clinton: on the one hand, sympathy and admiration, because all the other (male) candidates basically had to do was shave, choose a tie, and show up, whereas she had to appear beautifully turned out and made up, perfectly groomed, perfectly accessorized, and above all fresh as a daisy, day after day, hour after hour of an endless, grueling campaign. As someone said of Ginger Rogers, she did everything Fred Astaire did, only in high heels and in reverse.
On the other hand, there is great disappointment because of the way Hilary Clinton played the race card and the gender card. She is no Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel, rising through the ranks of the party on her own merits; she owes her candidacy to having been President Bill Clinton's wife. There is some hypocrisy there in taking full advantage of her position as First Lady, and at the same time claiming discrimination on the basis of her gender; and contradiction between touting her experience gained as First Lady and at the same time claiming to represent change.
It's also hard to watch what her campaign has done to Bill Clinton's legacy. View the clip of a much younger Bill Clinton making a speech: "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be righted by what's right with America." That was charisma, that was glamor, there was "the natural" communicator. Skinny, big-eared Obama cannot compare with Bill Clinton at his age. It's hard to reconcile candidate Hilary's husband, who shamelessly plays the race card, with that Clinton. Or with the President Clinton whose post-presidency work includes a foundation, The Clinton Global Initiative, that supports so much good in the world, including a risk insurance program to encourage foreign investment in the Palestinian territories.
Speaking of which, I spoke with a very clever woman who is involved in the Clinton Initiative at a party in Massachusetts last weekend; a Hilary supporter, naturally, she told me she had heard that a conference of Arab media concluded that the American presidential candidate "the Arabs" would least like to see in the White House would be Obama, because he agreed to negotiate with Iran. Baffled, I asked her which Arabs she was referring to: Egyptians, Moroccans, Iraqis, Saudis? "The Arabs" speak with as many voices as there are states, and the governments rarely speak for their peoples. It was disconcerting to find my interlocutor, otherwise well-informed, under the impression that "the Arabs", or at least Sunni Arabs, would automatically be averse to direct diplomacy with Iran.
But as of last night, Obama is the nominee, and it is the end of the beginning of the real race to the White House.

05.30.08

Sad and counterproductive policy  -  @ 21:05:26
The plans of scores of Palestinian Fulbright scholarship recepients were abrubtly dashed when they were prevented by Israel from leaving Gaza to travel to the United States to study. Nothing could be sadder, or do more to reinforce the reality that Israel is turning Gaza into a prison and following a policy of collective punishment. Sad and counterproductive: these students were the hope for much-needed mutual understanding between the beleagured Palestinians and America.

05.29.08

1968: A year by any other name  -  @ 22:31:18
What was it about the year 1968? The May student revolution in France; the "Prague Spring"; anti-war student demonstrations here in the United States, and- as Senator Clinton memorably reminded us- the twin traumas of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. A sort of collective madness that seized the world, and youth in particular.
In Egypt too, the young had their 1968. It followed the shock of the unimaginable, utter and humiliating defeat of the Arab armies at the hands of Israel in the Six Day War of June 1967. A sizeable chunk of Egypt, the Sinai, was now occupied territory. In the months that followed, when it became apparent that the promised reforms were not materializing, that the public was being fed the same pablum as before, students at Cairo university and high school demonstrated and organized sit-ins on campus. Professors, walking into auditoriums to find a few students sitting patiently waiting for the lecture, admonished them to get out and demonstrate with their classmates.
President Nasser cracked down with police barricades and and tear gas and closed down the bridges, effectively shutting down Cairo. I remember being caught in Giza, on the far side of town from my home in Zamalek, and having to cross the bridge on foot to walk to a relative's house in Garden City. I remember stones flying about, and a student gallantly handing me a chair to hold over my head as protection. Students were not so much angry as high on the headiness of revolt, of a breath of freedom, having lived their whole lives under a regime that brooked not the slightest whiff of dissent. But the regime handled the student revolt with unusual restraint, wisely creating no martyrs, and making vague promises of reform. Nothing changed.
That was forty years ago. Egypt regained the Sinai, at the cost of a peace treaty that left the problem of a home for the Palestinians untouched. Today that problem is more intractable than ever, and an ugly wall separates Israelis and Palestinians. But today, as well, an Israeli/Palestinian web start-up has found a way to virtually penetrate that wall and link the two sides, Israeli and Palestinian, of the venture. The more things change, the saying goes, the more they stay the same, but I believe, the same in a different way.

04.14.08

Marketing the "Muslimwoman"  -  @ 21:03:56
Against a background of tulips in full bloom across the April-green quads of Duke University last weekend, an international cohort gathered for the second annual conference on "Marketing Muslimwoman". The term, and the conference, are the brainchild of miriam cooke, Arab and Islamic Studies professor at Duke. "Muslimwoman" refers to the politicized, stereotypical image of women of Islamic heritage in the media, academia, literature and politics. The "Muslimwoman" is both subject and object of marketing: the image of the woman in the burqa is used to sell everything from books to political positions; and on the other hand marketing is directed to Muslim women, whether it be fashion in Gulf State glamour magazines, or Indonesian billboard ads for pocket-sized prayer robes that fit as easily into a woman's bag as her blackberry.
Conference speakers included international feminist figures from as far afield as Egypt and Iran, and the topics were varied, but the focus on image unavoidably led to the circular discourse of the veil. The irony cannot have been lost among this hyper-selfconscious cohort of academic intellectuals that, good intentions notwithstanding, a conference on Marketing Muslimwoman does just that.

04.13.08

The Message of the first Iranian woman Nobel Prize winner  -  @ 23:04:46
Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner, was the keynote speaker at a conference on human rights at Duke University last Friday. The venue, White Auditorium on the lush East Campus, was packed beyond capacity, with an overflow crowd of students, faculty and community members, including Iranians, sitting on the floor along the aisles. Ebadi is a small and undramatic woman who speaks no English. She launched into her speech in Farsi, ably interpreted by an elegant Iranian woman of about the same age. Ebadi impassively recited a long and occasionally shocking litany of human right abuses by the mullah regime, particularly against women. But it was towards the end of her speech that Ebadi's voice and gestures suddenly became emphatic and she practically pounded on the podium; before her interpreter had time to translate, a roar of applause broke out from the Iranian contingent in the audience. The rest of us had to wait for the translation: We love Iran, Ebadi was saying, and we won't allow anyone to invade Iran under any pretext, including human rights. This time, it was the entire audience who cheered.

04.08.08

Civil liberties and basic American decency  -  @ 17:52:44
At a Duke University screening of the documentary "US vs Al-Arian" by Norwegian film-maker Line Halvorsen, one theme emerged, from the film itself but also from the panel discussions with director Halvorsen, the Arian family, and civil rights lawyers. The documentary chronicles the case of Palestinian-born Florida University professor Sami Al-Arian, who was arrested on charges of allegedly "supporting terrorism" (through his support of a Palestinian organization considered terrorist by the US,) and who was then held in solitary confinement for two years, tried and acquitted by a Florida jury, had his acquittal reversed by the judge and is still being held in jail two years after his trial ended.
To Al-Arian's supporters, and more crucially, to the jury that examined the evidence and acquitted him, the case is a First Amendment case of freedom of speech, and whether or not an alleged or potential "thought crime"- as in the movie "Minortiy Report"- should be justification for incarcerating a man indefinitely- even in the post 9/11 Ashcroft-fueled atmosphere.
The heartening answer, from the Florida jury and from the many ordinary citizens who demonstrated on Al-Arian's behalf, is a resounding no. A no, unfortunately, that is being ignored by the administration.
One striking remark by Nahla Al-Arian, the professor's wife, is worth repeating. She lamented the fact that the Muslim-American community is afraid to help the Arians for fear of being associated with terrorism, but that it has been the Christian church groups and the African American civil rights groups that have been most supportive. Asked about the reaction of the Jewish community of Tampa- her husband had been a harsh critic of Israeli policy- Nahla Al-Arian volunteered: "There are many beautiful people among the Jewish community who want to help us, but they are silenced by the loud voices of some of their leaders." She added: "One of the jurors in the film, Than, a recently converted Jew, told us she asked her Rabbi what she should do, and he told her she should follow her conscience and do the right thing. That juror voted for acquittal."
It is indeed true that the Muslim American community has been silenced and paralyzed- not least by the example of the fate of Sami Al-Arian- and that it will need to turn for help, in protecting its civil rights and those of all Americans, to right-minded Americans of all faiths, Christian and Jewish especially.

03.10.08

The ugliest bigotry..  -  @ 10:40:08
A New York Times article (March 9) by Nicolas Kristof is stunningly frank about the U.S. electoral campaign: "..the most outrageous bigotry in this campaign is not about either race or sex. It's about religion. The whispering campaigns allege that Mr. Obama is a secret Muslim planning to impose Islamic law on the country...These charges are fanatical...They are less a swipe at one candidate than a calumny against an entire religion. They underscore that for many bigoted Americans in the 21st century, calling someone a Muslim is still a slur."
Very much worth reading.

02.24.08

Two weddings and an engagement party  -  @ 10:19:34
Went to yet another wedding two days ago, this one at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza. I noted some anomalies: there is no longer a traditional "zaffa"- the equivalent of a walk down the aisle with bellydancers and musicians. The bride came down on her father's arm to the sound of Abba's "She's the Dancing Queen." She then proceeded to prove it by dancing non-stop with her bridegroom from 10:30 pm to 2:30 am, along with a horde of young friends. (In my day, bride and groom were condemned to sit on gilded thrones for most of the wedding.) The bride had been to Paris to buy her lovely lace strapless wedding gown, but being conservative, she wore it with a white body-stocking underneath.
The guests were served massive amounts of "appetizers", with the result that, although no one went hungry before the buffet was inaugurated at half past midnight, most of the guests were too full to partake of the lavish dinner, or had already left by then. This happens so regularly at weddings now that there is a "food bank" that collects the leftovers from the hotels and distributes them among the poor.
Yesterday evening, I attended an "intimate" (60 or 70 people) family dinner for the families of two young fiances at the girl's grandmother's house. The groom's father is the current prime minister, and that brought up a small matter of protocol: politics is the default topic of conversation among Egyptians, and the presence of the PM, otherwise delightful, put a damper on the customary political carping.

02.20.08

Coming soon to a Cairo near you...  -  @ 02:59:26
Yesterday I bought some almomd macaroons- pistachio, coffee, chocolate- from Fauchon, the iconic Paris patisserie, and had tea- scones and clotted cream and jam- at Le Richoux, the landmark tea shop known to every tourist who ever visited Harrods across the street in London. But I wasn't in Paris or London, I was in Cairo. The great purveyors of luxury are opening branches in this city of 16 million, where the appetite for luxury, and the disinclination to travel for it, are creating a niche market.

02.19.08

This and that: the missing poverty dividend in Egypt, democracy in Pakistan, Obamania in Chapel Hill  -  @ 02:31:21
The New York Times runs a video-article on "Egypt's Youth, stifled by poverty, turns to Islamic fervor", nothing original there, but the report makes the argument that marriage is unaffordable for the majority of youth, who cannot afford apartments or weddings, and are forced to postpone marriage till their thirties or not at all, creating a troubling social limbo often assuaged by seeking relief in religion. Fair enough, but if so, should not postponed marriage lead to fewer children per couple? Where is the dividend in population reduction?
Musharraf loses big- democracy actually works in Pakistan. Despite the assassination of Bhutto and expectations of rigged elections, democracy actually works in Pakistan, as it does in Turkey, perhaps better than in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Worth noting in the context of the ongoing debate about whether Islam is incompatible with democracy.
Richard Brooks in today's NYT begins an article about Obama-mania by citing three cities he uses as shorthand for the liberal outposts of the nation: Berkeley, Cambridge and Chapel Hill, where I live-and coincidentally, where John Edwards does as well. Not for nothing did the late Senator Jesse Helms of N.C. suggest fencing Chapel Hill off from the rest of the red state like a "zoo"- a distinction Chapel Hillians tend to wear as a badge of honor.

02.11.08

Women-only public transport: an accommodation between modesty and machismo  -  @ 03:17:29
Mexico City now runs women-only buses, a measure to protect women from the groping and sexual harrassment to which they are subjected in the body-to-body crush of public transport. In Egypt, that principle has long been applied in women-only queues (at government offices, train stations, even check-out registers) and women-only cars in the Metro and women-only buses. This policy is uncontroversial, welcomed not only by Egyptian women but also by the men in their families; but to Western eyes it can seem regressive and sexist and, in a word, "Islamic." Now, however, Mexican society seems to have discovered segregated transport as a good accommodation between modesty and machismo.

02.10.08

February madness...  -  @ 15:44:05
Pundits and philosophers have pondered the insanity that descends on the human spirit in pack mode: what is it that makes men- and some women- paint their faces, wave flags, scream their loungs out, and- in the Southern part of the world- honk in tune for hours on end? But there it is: March Madness in the U.S., and February madness in Africa, where the Africa Cup in football (soccer to Yanks) just played its final match today in Ghana: Egypt vs Cameroon. If you were anywhere in Cairo today, even if you tried your best, you couldn't avoid knowing when the Egyptian team scored a goal: a muffled roar rose from the city. Egypt won the Africa Cup, a couple of hours ago, but the interminable celebratory honking in the streets shows no sign of abating. No one gets to sleep tonight.
Everyone watches football in this country: the Sudanese chauffeur pleads a toothache to take the day off; the cabinet minister at one dinner party I attend insists his hostess serve dinner during half-time, at the risk of ruining her Beef Wellington.
But then again, I live (most of the year) in North Carolina, home of the legendary Duke/Chapel Hill basketball rivalry, where students light bonfires in the street and leap over them post-game, while the police watch.
There is something, perhaps, about the simplicity of sports, the finality of the outcome, that satisfies the soul in a world of complexities and irresolution. Hence, perhaps, the sympathy with which the Iraqi victory in the Asia Cup was greeted.
After February madness comes March madness, but they are nothing as to November madness, when the real contest takes place, out there in the real world of U.S. electoral politics, where nothing is simple, not even, sometimes, the outcome.

02.04.08

Alarms in Egypt: when barriers fall and internet cables are cut..  -  @ 03:02:44
The past ten days have witnessed alarms in Egypt on two unconnected fronts. First Hamas bulldozered down the barriers between Gaza and Egypt, and thousands of Palestinians poured across, starved for every conceivable goods and necessities. The reflexive sympathy for their plight among the Egyptian masses became tinged, as the days wore on, with the beginning of paranoid alarm: three thousand Palestinians, it was reported, had made their way to Cairo and had melted into the teeming millions of that city; what if this continued? Most of all, there was resentful refusal to be trapped into taking over Israel's responsibility to supply the citizens of Gaza. The agreement reached between the various parties seemed to relieve that alarm.
But hot on its heels came the sudden troubling failure of the internet networks, soon explained by the cutting of two undersea internet cables in Egyptian waters and one off Dubai. None of the explanations seemed convincing: surely such cables were built to withstand bad weather, and there was no record of any ship in Egyptian waters at the time that could have accidentally cut the cables with its anchor. The third possibility, a deliberate act of terrorism, floated about. The cables, it was said, would take two weeks to repair, and alarm grew at the prospect of disruption of services and news. But the speedy restoration of nearly full service- thanks to the cooperation of the undamaged networks- calmed spirits and dispersed paranoia- until the next alarm.

01.20.08

Sex, Sedition and the Egyptian Censor  -  @ 06:32:48
An Egyptian film that is much discussed in Egypt today is "The Chaos": a rambling two-hour social critique cum tragicomedy cum soft porn, it follows the unrequited passion of a graceless, greedy hustler of a police sergeant for a lovely, pure young girl, his neighbor. When she refuses his advances in favor of a handsome, pure young prosecutor, the brutish police sergeant abducts and rapes her. The allegorical reference is clear: the thuggish policeman represents the corruption of the police state, and the pure young girl is Egyptian society, brutalized by government thugs. The censorship board allowed scene upon scene of gratuitous nudity and even simulated sex in the film, but balked at several sentences of dialogue, presumably of political criticism, which it excised clumsily and brutishly with rumbling white-out sound. So much for the priorities of the Egyptian state censors...

01.19.08

Ashoura: Barley Pudding and Martyrdom  -  @ 02:01:21
Yesterday I had some traditional Ashoura barley pudding with nuts and raisins, and it reminded me why Ashoura is such a contradictory commemoration. For Shiites around the world (15% of Muslims), it is the day to lament and atone for the killing of Imam Hussein, the Prophet's grandson, at Karbala, in Iraq; his martyrdom marks the founding story of the sect. For the overwhelming majority Sunnis, it is a day to celebrate the salvation of Moses and the Israelites from the army of Pharaoh. When the Prophet Mohamed migrated to the city of Medina, he found among the inhabitants Jewish tribes that celebrated that occasion by a grateful fast; Mohamed declared that Moses was a prophet to Muslims as well, and they also would celebrate by fasting, and feasting on barley pudding. Both traditions, the fasting and the barley pudding, persist among Sunnis to this day, whereas for Shiites, the commemoration of the day is superceded by the killing of Imam Hussein, fifty years after his grandfather Prophet Mohamed declared it a day of celebration.

01.18.08

Taming the Desert  -  @ 15:34:49
Head east from Cairo on the new super highway to the Red Sea resorts, and within minutes you find yourself in the stark desert, flanked on each side by forbidding fjords of sheer rock, no life form for mile upon mile, under the malignant glare of the sun even on a January day. Suddenly you feel oppressed, as insignificant, as vulnerable, as an ant, with nothing but a tank of gas between you and certain death. The desert, like the ocean, inspires a spirituality born of awe; you begin to understand why mystics, prophets and madmen seek the unknowable in the nothingness of desert.
Two hours and change from Cairo along the desert highway, you see the Red Sea, a cobalt blue, and you come upon the first of a string of resorts with names like Porto Sokhna, Stella de Mare, Laguna Beach(!) Resort after resort after resort, all the way to Hurghada, feeding the bottomless appetite of Cairenes for vacation homes on the Red Sea. The desert has found its match.

12.29.07

And so it ends...Benazir Bhutto  -  @ 03:12:33
Does it matter who was behind Benazir Bhutto's shocking but predictable assassination? Could it be General Musharraf, so humorous and likeable on Jon Stewart's Daily Show earlier this year? Or some elusive "Al Qaida" figure? The depressing conclusion is the same: if the invasion of Iraq was intended to have a "democracy domino" effect on the Muslim world, it has backfired.
So I am left to contemplate the surface of things, the burial of this polarizing woman who was my contemporary as a student in England, and who, like me, came from a political, landowning family with cotton-estates. Pakistan is culturally very different from the Arab world, but Muslim funeral rites are the same everywhere. The prompt burial; the simple coffin, born on the shoulders of men to the family mausoleum; the mass public demonstration that accompanies a political figure's journey to the crypt: all are familiar. The male hands jostling to touch the coffin, as for the passing of a saint; the male mourners weeping openly: the funeral procession is a matter for men, even when the deceased is a woman.
The seething, wailing crowd that accompanied Benazir Bhutto to her grave seems so alien to Western eyes, so different from the dignified state burials of Western politicians. But at the end, when it reaches the mausoleum, the undisciplined funeral procession gives way to the sudden silence before the open grave, the awe that grips all hearts, and all you hear are the prayers repeated in solemn, quavering tones on behalf of the dead man or woman: "I hereby bear witness that there is but one God, and that all Muslim men are my brothers, and all Muslim women my sisters.."
And so it ends for Benazir Bhutto...

12.21.07

Cairo weddings and the irresistible forces...  -  @ 03:34:34
I attended a wedding in Cairo recently, a lavish affair at the sumptuous Mena House Hotel, an Arabesque-style palace near the Pyramids. The bride and groom are both Americans of Egyptian parentage, and forty guests had come from the States, some expressly for the occasion. The wedding incorporated some traditional Egyptian rites and some innovations: the bridal procession down the stairs to the bower of flowers set up in the celebration hall was traditional, but minus the belly dancer.
Another departure from tradition: the actual signing of the marriage contract, "writing the book" as it is called in Arabic, was done at the wedding, in the presence of the guests, rather than earlier and off-stage. Two huge projection screens projected the ceremony live to every corner of the hall, so everyone was able to see the groom and the father of the bride join hands under a handkerchief while they repeated the set sermons: "I give to you in marriage my virgin daughter who is of age..."
The DJ and later the orchestra played a mixture of American and Egyptian pop songs; the highlight was a famous singer in the Egyptian "country style." As with all weddings in Cairo for years now, the entertainment is kept at nightclub disco volume, in keeping with the wishes of the younger set. A lavish buffet dinner was served at half past midnight, again in keeping with the new tradition. Some of the American guests at our table questioned both the volume and the late hour of the dinner, but were answered with the "that's just the way it is" shrug that passes for an answer to most such questions, as if there were supernatural irresistible forces behind phenomena..

12.17.07

My Alexandria in the New York Times  -  @ 04:30:59
Today's New york Times (December 16th 2007) featured a travel section on Alexandria, Egypt, one of my favorite cities, and one which has figured in everything I've written. It was delightful to read such an uplifting article about the revival of Alexandria, and especially about the role of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in that revival- a cousin, Ismail Serageldin, is Director of the Bibliotheca and the driving force behind it. I have yet to visit the splendid new Four Seasons Hotel that has risen over the ashes of our much-mourned, venerable San Stefano Hotel, where I have such lovely childhood memories: strolling down the Corniche of a summer evening to attend the three-feature outdoor cinema in the garden of the San Stefano, in the company of a hive of cousins and, of course, the nanny. The three-feature films progressed from what we would rate "G" today through "PG" to "R", and I still remember that a much older cousin insisted we stay to watch the "R" movie, and that I squirmed through the whole film- starring Kim Novak and William Holden, though I can't remember the name- in terror of the retribution that my mother was sure to visit on our heads for this transgression. As it turns out, the older cousin, quite rightly, was held accountable on her own. R.I.P., old San Stefano!

12.15.07

What's wrong with this picture?  -  @ 03:46:25
I was complaining to an international investment banker who had just landed in Cairo that the notorious traffic congestion was 50% worse, ditto the attendant noise and pollution; that the prices of foodstuffs had gone up 44% in the past 3 months, according to the government's own estimate; that inflation in general was rampant, closing the gap in prices with the U.S., inspite of the vast disparity in average income between the two countries; that Mega McMansions were sprouting up all over the new gated compounds around Cairo; that the real-estate bubble pattern looked ripe to burst. To all of which the money man commented: "Yup, the economy is good."
That took me aback. Of course, if you look at it that way, he is right: the growth rate last year was 8%. But does a rising tide lift all boats? What you hear from most people living this inflationary boom are complaints. The traffic congestion and stratospheric real estate prices are vaguely blamed on a half million Iraqi refugees, just as the 50% overflow of international students at the AUC is blamed on the Lebanon crisis. Even the Egyptian upper classes complain of soaring prices, although that does nothing to dampen their diehard "keeping up with the Joneses" ethos. Doctors and university professors assert that the higher education system is broken and that they are sending their children abroad for college. As for the economically disadvantaged, their lot is increasingly hard, and the disparities in wealth with the rich ever more blatant and disquieting. Meanwhile, a few billionaires are making out like bandits.
It all depends, I suppose, through which side of the telescope you look.

12.11.07

Revising history...and the national mood of Mubarak's Egypt  -  @ 09:45:07
I attended a seminar recently with Dr. Lamis Khattab, the historian/screenwriter of the wildly successful 'King Faruk' docudrama, followed for 33 episodes by millions around the Arab world on MBC T.V. I was particularly intrigued by the prominent role assigned to my uncle Fuad Serag Eldin in a dozen episodes, one of which dealt with the controversial Cairo fire of January 1952 that, in retrospect, precipitated the events that led to the coup d'etat and the end of the monarchy in 1952. My uncle, Minister of the Interior at the time, had been held responsible for failing to stop the incendiaries. I had heard his version- now I wanted to hear the historian's.
Dr. Lamis is a dark, chain-smoking, middle-aged woman with a dry sense of humor. Before an audience of university students and faculty, her answers segued into amusing anecdotes and long historical footnotes.
It was encouraging to hear once taboo subjects broached, and the coup d'etat of 1952 called what it manifestly was, an army coup, and not a popular uprising. But depressing to realize what passes for freedom of speech in Mubarak's Egypt!
I finally got the chance to pose my question, without identifying myself as Fuad Serag Eldin's niece- as to the ultimate responsibility for the terrible fire of Cairo. The historian substantiated my uncle's version of events, but would not point the finger openly, as he had, at either the Palace or the Army Chief of Staff. Several times she referred to conversations with my uncle and cited him as source as well as player. It occurred to me that there are dividends to longevity- my uncle, only 42 in 1952, was the only one of the players of the day to have lived into the beginning of the new millenium. He outlived the King, Nasser and Sadat. History may be written by the victors, as the saying goes, but it is also revised by the longest-lived.

12.07.07

The "silent" Muslim moderate speaks...  -  @ 04:44:51
This is the text of the comment I posted on today's New York Times Op-Ed by Hirsi Ali condemning the three cases of human rights abuses in Muslim countries currently in the news, and condemning the "silence" of the so-called Muslim moderates.
I posted: "As a Muslim moderate, this is the first, and may be the last, time I agree unconditionally with Hirsi Ali's take. Let me add that the "silent" majority of Muslim moderates would be more vocal in condemning specific abuses in specific Muslim countries were they not reluctant to be amalgamated to those critics who subscribe to a wholesale anti-Islamic agenda widely perceived as extending far beyond human rights to military and economic hegemony over the Muslim world."

12.06.07

Paradise, without people...  -  @ 13:16:16
Seaside resorts have their rythms in the off-season. Here on the north coast of Egypt, the lower lip of the Mediterranean mouth, the resorts stretching from Alamein to the Libyan border have an air of abandonment that borders on the anarchic. The weather is still mild, the sea is turquoise and calm, the sun splendid; the bougainvillae spills over the gates of the vacation homes and the Indian jasmine perfumes the air above the neglected swimming pools. But there is no one to enjoy them: Egyptians are herd creatures, moving en masse in response to seasonal cues, with an anxious aversion for any deviation in the rythm of the year and, most especially, for solitude. As the axiom goes here: paradise, without people, you wouldn't set foot in it.
But that is just what I have done. I have been spending three or four days a week at a villa on the coast, in December- unheard of!- often with no one but a chauffeur as driver and bodyguard. I enjoy my long walks along the deserted beach, in the morning and at sunset, and sitting in the garden in the afternoon, and reading or writing in the evening.
But this off-season world is not entirely deserted; it is peopled by the gardeners, caretakers and security staff who live here year round, and who make themselves at home in the villas and "chalets" abandoned to their care. So you might come back from a walk and find your driver in the back yard sharing his lunch with the gardener's toddler nephew. Along the beach you might find a caretaker on the pier fishing in the tranquil waters at sunset. And here and there, raucous music emanating from some direction indicates, as it does everywhere, that a group of construction workers or handymen are remodelling someone's house nearby. Curiously, there is never a woman around, anywhere, in any capacity.
If you speak to some of these security staff and resort caretakers, you often hear the unexpected guttural tones of the desert, and it reminds you that just across the highway from the resorts lie the Bedouin towns of Sidi Abdel Rahman, Alamein, EL-Hammam; that the smiling man in the security uniform sitting behind his desk is a member of a particular tribe, and belongs to an entire world you know nothing about, a slightly troubling world that does not share the average Egyptian's dread of the long-arm of the law.
When the summer crowds arrive, these people disappear into the background, but now in the off-season, it is their world.

11.30.07

Where driver's licenses go to die...  -  @ 01:52:42
In Egypt, the consequences of a speeding violation are not what the uninitiated would expect. Say you are driving along the nearly deserted coastal highway toward one of the resorts West of Alexandria, and you get stopped at one of the speedtrap checkpoints. You are told you were doing 120 kilometers/hour, the speed limit being 100, i.e. a ridiculously impractical 60 miles/hour. You can attempt, tactfully, to offer to pay the fine on the spot (in other words to bribe the highway patrolman) but expect to be rebuffed- the days are long gone when it was routine to bribe your way out of a speeding ticket. You can attempt, mildly, to question whether you were really doing 120 k, but you will be told he has you on radar camera.
He will then write up the fine and ask you to give him your driver's licence which you may only retrieve on payment of the fine at one of two black-hole traffic centers in Cairo. What actually happens is that he tosses your license into a sack full of confiscated licenses, as practically every car on the road is guaranteed to be similarly guilty of speeding. What happens to these sacks full of licenses? It's a mystery, but the best guess is that they are destroyed at some point. Trying to actually retrieve your driver's license from the black hole centers is impossible, so what you actually do is claim to have lost your license and ask for a replacement. You repeat this process as needed, often several times a year.
So what happens if your driver's license happens to be American? The patrolman will tell you it is no good in Egypt, and that he cannot accept it as a gage against payment of the fine, and that he must confiscate the car license instead- an even more complicated process to retrieve.
And so it goes with laws and regulations in looking glass societies.

11.29.07

Egypt through the looking glass  -  @ 13:32:20
There are few societies were it is easier to fall through the looking glass into an alternative universe than Egypt. One moment you are at a fashion show (Italian designer Balestra) at the Ramses Hilton, surrounded by ladies in their best diamonds and designer duds, and the next- because you were unable to communicate with the driver who is supposed to pick you up- you find yourself in a smelly, bumpy little taxi taking you down a disreputable alley too narrow for a tiny Fiat car to negotiate, and inches away from men standing in their doorway in their underpants while they iron their trousers. If you are lucky, your taxi driver is not ill-intentioned, only using poor judgment in trying to take a back alley short-cut under the overpass, and when you ask to be taken back to the Hilton, he complies promptly and apologetically. That, perhaps, is the saving grace about Egyptian society, for all its ills: falling through the looking glass is usually not fatal.

10.31.07

King Farouq: nostalgia or futures?  -  @ 12:16:08
The Egyptian television channel, MBC, recently ran a thirty-three episode miniseries (now available on the internet) chronicling the life and times of King Farouq from his birth to his deposition in 1953. A harmless exercise in nostalgia? Or, as with anything in the speculation-rife Egyptian political climate, is there more there than meets the eye?
The past few years have witnessed a concerted movement to reclaim the pre-revolutionary past, the history of the first half of the twentieth century, with its pashas and palaces and political parties. It's gratifying to think that when I wrote The Cairo House, I was ahead of the curve.
Today, the tremendously successful King Farouq miniseries, following on several books about pre-revolutionary figures, have ratcheted interest in the period. But whose agenda does that serve? That was the question on every viewer's mind as they followed the Farouq mini-saga, a combination of party politics history, family soap opera and palace intrigue.
I found it compelling in part, no doubt, because for me it was an exercise in 'people spotting.' There was my uncle, Fuad Serag Eldin- or an actor playing my uncle who did not resemble him in the least, but who had used the caricature shorthand- bulk, cigar, mole- to represent him. There was Prime Minister Nokrashy, my sister-in-law's grandfather, assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood over the Palestine issue. And so on...
It is revisionist history, rehabilitating figures the 1952 Revolution had long branded as degenerate monarchs and corrupt or traitorous politicians. I was relieved to see my uncle- the actor playing him notwithstanding- shown as the patriotic, loyal man I knew him to be.
But that brings up the question, whose agenda does the show further? It is clearly sympathetic to King Farouq, as a misguided young king rather than a degenerate; does this mean the Egyptian public is being primed for the virtues of dynastic rule, at a time when the President's son is the heir apparent? On the other hand, the series extolls the ideals of democracy and the party system- but at the same time it exposes the infighting, the constant changing of the guard, and the instability of party politics; does this mean it is for or against democratization of the Egyptian system?
With Egyptians, speculation is second nature..

10.23.07

Of Nightmares and Arab Women  -  @ 14:48:43
Today's New York Times featured an article about the results of a California research study of nightmares, which includes this surprising conclusion:
"Cultural specifics can also tweak universal themes. Dr. Bulkeley and his colleagues have found that nightmares about falling through the air are common among women in Arab nations, perhaps for metaphorical reasons. "There's such a premium in these countries on women remaining chaste, and the dangers of becoming a 'fallen woman' are so intense," he said, "that the naturally high baseline of falling dreams is amped up even more."
I suppose one would have to have access to the entire study before questioning how the researchers reached this remarkable insight, and what population it is based on? I will be in Egypt in a few weeks and will be sure to run a little focus group research of my own: how many of the women I ask will report having nightmares about falling through the air? I know that I, for one, cannot remember a single instance.

10.19.07

Celebrating bigotry?  -  @ 16:46:31
This week has been declared "Islamofascism Awareness Week" by David Horowitz' organization, a general celebration of Islamophobia that leaves one wondering whether the proper response is to ignore it- hoping that my Jewish friends are right when they reassure me that he is discredited as a fringe element by their community- or to respond, but how? As a woman of Muslim heritage, I particularly resent Horowitz' urging university students to mark the occasion by organizing protests at the Women's Studies departments to denounce the "silence of feminists before the oppression of women by Islam."
But it's not just Horowitz' organization, there are others, and they all target impressionable young minds in the sanctum of academic settings. Recently, in a North Carolina high school, a professor opened his class to an anti-Islam preacher to launch an unopposed attack against the religion. Today, it elicited a response by a friend of mine, Judith Philpot, whose children are long grown, but whose experience raising her family Jewish in the South gives her a unique perspective; so with her permission I am quoting part of her letter to the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer- I hope the full text will be published.
"After many years of experience with public schools in both Tennessee and North Carolina, I am quite certain that we would never allow a Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Buddhist lecturer the same latitude to criticize Christianity as was given to Mr. Solomon, and I agree with that position. Intolerance against any religion ought to be unacceptable in our public schools, along with one-sided presentations."

10.14.07

This year was supposed to be different: Eid, Garrison Keliior, and Thomas Friedman  -  @ 20:16:00
Every year, in the run-up to the Eid, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan, there is the same heated debate over whether the Muslim world should agree to celebrate on the same day- the day that astronomical calculations predict the new moon- or continue the age-old practice of relying on naked-eye sightings. The real contention is about unity, or rather disunity. If the Muslim world could agree on astronomical calculaton, all Muslims would celebrate on the same day, rather than the current chaotic practice where half celebrate on one day, and the other half the next.
This year was supposed to be different: this was to be the year of rational calculation and Muslim unity. What actually happened was that the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Egypt prevailed once more: Saudi Arabia announced the Eid for Friday, with 14 Mulsim countries following suit, while Egypt held out for Saturday, followed by the rest. Even North America was inconsistent: Muslims in Canada celebrated Friday, and those in the U.S. Saturday.
This frustrating phenomenon is jus the kind of irrational behavior that Thomas Friedman loved to point out in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree as proof that the Arab-Muslim world was not ready for modernity. But perhaps it can be understood as a form of clinging to the last mysteries of religion and of life, just as some of the most privileged and wealthy Americans today prefer NOT to be told the gender of their unborn baby in order not to spoil the surprise, ultrasound images not withstanding.
And this year, there really was something different; I switched on the radio today to hear Garrison Keillor on the Lake Woebegone program singing in his quintessential Midwestern tones: Eid mubarak ot our Muslim friends. Now that's a first.

09.30.07

Nafisi, Ahmed and I: victim, activist or neither?  -  @ 22:41:42
Friday afternoon I drive to the charming coastal town of Wilmington, North Carolina, where I have been invited to give a book club reading organized by a professor at the university. We meet in the historic Cape Fear River district of Wilmington, minutes from Wrightsville Beach, where the Wright brothers flew the first plane. The view across the river is dominated by the grey hulk of Battleship Carolina, contrasting with the wedding-cake steamboats moored along the boardwalk. Inside I am greeted by the hostess and a dozen book club members, all women, all very well-read, and nearly all Southern.
This year, under the guidance of the UNC professor, they are reading Middle East women authors, starting with Leila Ahmed's Border Passage, then my Cairo House, then next month Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran.
It is a very lively dialogue: How much of the novel is fact, how much fiction? why does the cover not look anything like the photos of the actual house they have googled or seen on my website? Why did I write in English rather than French or Arabic? How did reactions to the book differ from country to country? What are the pitfalls of identifying the narrator to the author in autobiographical fiction? Perceptive readers, they had missed nothing, even connections I thought too subtle to notice, like the verse of the Koran in which the evil eye is mentioned, echoing the evil eye of the Om Khalil character.
Then, inevitably, as is the case in any serious discussion with thoughtful readers, there surfaces the issue of the Muslim woman writer as a representative of her faith or her community: in the aftermath of the national trauma of the Setempber attacks, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is it possible to avoid subscribing to, or being co-opted for, one agenda or another? In response I read the excerpt from the interview I gave French Elle magazine, in which I positioned myself as "ni militante ni victime de l'Islam." Neither activist nor victim. Which positions me in the middle between Leila Ahmed and Azar Nafisi- just where I am in the order of the book club reading list.

08.23.07

God's Warriors on CNN  -  @ 22:47:11
Christian Amanpour's three-day special report on religious activists- and some extremists- from all three Abrahamic faiths, is totally compelling but not totally satisfying. Unavoidably, given the time limitations, the coverage is more wide-ranging than it is deep; just as unavoidably, the attempt at even-handedness is not entirely successful.
But reservations aside, there are powerfully eye-opening moments: the hair-raising report on the immemorial rites of the Shia cult in Iran makes the implicit point, for those who might doubt it, that the consequences of an invasion of that ancient country would be unthinkable. On the other hand, the section devoted to Islamist terrorism disappoints by the lack of a serious attempt to relate the phenomenon to political history. The role of the invasion of Afghanistan in radicalizing the mujahedeen is mentioned, but not the genocides in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya; nor is there a serious attempt to explore the role of the invasion of Iraq in radicalizing a later generation. A Jewish historian reiterates, but does not get to elucidate, that Islamic radicalism cannot be understood apart from the continuing crisis of the Palestinians; scholars like Bruce Lawrence and Karen Armstrong are given mere seconds in which to try to relate suicide bombing to despair or the Iranian Islamic revolution to earlier Western intervention.
A minor but telling caveat; when specific verses of the Quran are cited, legitimately or otherwise, the camera pans across pages of the book, dramatically highlighting bits of text- except that the text is entirely random and unconnected to the verses that are ostensibly being cited. The language of the Quran, Arabic, is a live language read by hundreds of millions worldwide who also watch CNN. This bit of gratuitous sloppiness by CNN sends the message that they are being slighted as viewers, and as participants in the debate.
The three-day program is much stronger when it comes to relating religious fundamentalist movements in the US, and abroad, to their influence on American foreign policy. God's Warriors is a program that raises questions rather than offers answers; that is sensational enough to hold the attention of the most restless of viewers, but is deadly serious at the core; that leaves one with a sense of despair at the rising tide of intransigeance on all sides. A sense of despair, perhaps, that leaves nowhere to turn but prayers for a return to rationality in time to turn the world back from the brink of the next great conflagration.

08.03.07

Plus ca change...and the more it stays the same  -  @ 15:44:55
Writing of the post-invasion fissures that split the country under occupation, bringing long-simmering factional hatreds to a boil and leading to a civil war, this observer writes:
"The smell of corpses sickened me less than the miasma of egotism breathing from every mouth. The sight of the ruins is nothing compared to the immense stupidity...With few exceptions evreyone looked barking mad. Half the population wants to strangle the other half, and vice versa. You can see it clearly in the eyes of the people in the streets."
This was Gustave Flaubert, speaking of Paris under the Prussian occupation after France's defeat in 1870. The French turned against each other, the Paris "Communards" or Reds- the proletariat- waging war against the bourgeois and the official government of Napoleon III that had surrendered to the Prussians. The French under occupation were more afraid of each other than of their conquerors. They split along class lines rather than sectarian as in the case of Iraq, but it is instructive to see how any society in any epoch, under the pressure of defeat and invasion, can turn against itself in civil war.
Where were the voices of the historians in the Spring of 2003?

08.02.07

Voice of America and the Apostasy Debate  -  @ 10:56:24
Yesterday I participated in a panel discussion for voice of America's French broadcast on the apostasy debate in the Muslim world. The catalyst for the discussion was the recent pronouncement by the High Mufti of Egypt that apostasy from Islam carried no juridical or other penalties. That is, in fact, the law in Egypt and the vast majority of Muslim countries, but apostasy is prosecuted in Saudi Arabia and Iran. As you can imagine, it made for a lively debate.
The other two panelists were Yassin Tageddin from Cairo- the undersecretary of the Wafd party, the party my uncle led until his death in 2000, and still the most secular party in Egypt; and Walid Faris from the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. The callers ranged from Burundi to New Jersey, but were mostly from French-speaking West Africa.
The other two panelists and I agreed on some points and disagreed on others. We were all agreed that Islam is categorical in stating: "There can be no coercion in matters of religion." I added that, since free will on the part of the individual soul is the basis of God's judgment- a doctrine indisputably repeated in the Koran- then there is absolutely no point in forcing anyone to adhere publicly to a religion he has renounced in his heart.
I also cited the well-known incident that occurred during the reign of the second caliph, Omar, known as the Just. A Copt from Egypt came to the caliph in Mecca and complained that the son of the Muslim Governor of Egypt had struck him- the Copt- when he had won a horse race against the Governor's son. The Caliph Omar then ordered both the Governor and his son to appear before him in Mecca, and before the assembled chiefs of council, told the Copt to flog the Governor's son nearly to death, repeating: "How dare he abuse those whom God has created free?" The moral being that the rights of religious minorities were to be respected in all things.
In the particular case of the recent fatwa by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, the panelist from Cairo put the controversy in context by pointing out that there are very few conversions by either born-Muslims or born-Copts; what is more common is that Copts, who are not allowed by their church to divorce, sometimes convert to Islam for purely pragmatic motives in order to end bad marriages and then immediately re-convert to Coptic christianity, arousing the resentment of some Muslims who disapprove of the abuse of a revolving-door conversion.
Two points I made were, first, that Islam, unlike many religions, allows for salvation outside of Islam, and specifically cites Jews, Christians, and others; therefore the imperative to "convert" is absent. The final point was that Islam had nothing to fear from fair competition- there is no mass movement to convert out of the religion- and that those Muslims who think apostates should be punished should study their religion better, and have more faith in it, and leave judgment- if they believe there is judgment- to the Hereafter.

07.30.07

Flaubert. Egypt, and jouneys of self-discovery  -  @ 14:37:23
Flaubert's letters from Egypt- brutally frank about his pettiest or most lascivious thoughts- are supremely revealing, particularly of the new syndrome of the 19C European bourgeois's journey of self-discovery in "the Orient," as the Middle East was called. One common thread: the antipathy and avoidance of one's own compatriots among the expatriate community.
Like Florence Nightingale, Flaubert and his traveling companion Maxime Du Camp flee the large colony of their countrymen making a living in Egypt as doctors, engineers, and commercial consuls. When, however, he cannot avoid them, Flaubert turns the affliction into cruel sport: the amazingly inept Dr. Chamas with his ludicrous literary pretensions provides Flaubert with an inexhaustible source of comic relief. In a precursor to the "Diner des Cons" (Dinner of the Suckers) scenario of the smashhit film, Flaubert encourages and cultivates the poor dupe Chamas for weeks until the day the exasperated Du Camp exposes the charade: "We're making fun of you," Du Camp tells the crushed doctor, "We think you're boring." Flaubert was furious at being deprived of a source of character study for future literary exploitation.
He even talked of writing a great picaresque novel set in the modern "Orient", full of vagrant and shady Europeans, to be called "Harel Bey" and playing on the contrast between "the Oriental who was becoming civilized and the European who was returning to a state of savagery." Flaubert never wrote the novel, and by the time he returned to Naples, he felt obliged to shave off his big oriental beard and renounce his "tarbouche" (fez) for a European hat, but only because he was attracting too much attention- from the police.
In Italy, he felt the return to the constraints of European civilization in more than just the discomfort of proper Western attire: he became aware of the intrusiveness of the police state. Customs officers in Brandisi found his Arab-looking beard and his worn travel clothing suspicious, and he was harrassed and his baggage searched. Touring the palaces and monuments of Italy he was aware of the King's spies following him around as a possible anti-regime conspirator, and looking over his shoulder as he made his notes in the museum at Naples.
Plus ca change, et plus c'est la meme chose...

07.17.07

Cairo traffic in the NYT: chaos and spirituality  -  @ 12:09:09
An article in today's New York Times, about Cairo traffic, reprised almost exactly the themes of an essay I wrote over seven years ago, but takes them a hallucinatory step further. In a long passage in the chapter "Cairo Revisited" of The Cairo House, I wrote: "Cairo traffic is a microcosm of Egyptian society. Rules are only observed when they are enforced with the active presence of the authorities. Stop lights are ignored, a policeman directs traffic with a whistle and a wave of the hand." And also: "The Cairene is the worst of motorists, in that he observes no law but that of the jungle, and at the same time the most talented, in that he for the most part miraculously manages to avoid collisions. This requires hairline judgment, peripheral vision, nerves of steel, and a strategy of yielding with good grace when unavoidable and forging ahead with blind faith when an opening presents itself."
The New York Times article reprises these themes, and takes the one of "miraculously" and "blind faith" a step further. It does not claim that Cairo traffic is responsible for Islamic Revival in Egypt, the article states- perhaps with tongue in cheek-, but it certainly contributes to a feeling that only divine intervention gets one through a day on the Cairo streets, and that may well contribute to religious fervor!
I wouldn't go that far, but it is a fact that Muslims know this familiar phenomenon as "towakul", or relying on God, and many people automatically mumble "I rely on God", as they get into their cars and switch on their engines. Whatever gets you through the day....

07.15.07

Remembering Doug Marlette, Osama, and I  -  @ 08:32:28
Before I ever had a conversation with Doug Marlette, I was a big fan of his comic strip, Kudzu. Not particularly because it was set in a fictitious small-town "South", but because of its fierce, twisted humor, epitomized in the personnage of the Reverend Will B. Dunne, with his cowboy hat and boots, his demonic grin, his hypocritical pronouncements at weddings and funerals- and his pious if often self-serving prayers. One of the classics: the Reverend, in an attempt ot attract a "hip" young congregation, adopts their language as he kneels in prayer. "Yo, Lord," begins the Reverend, and is instantly struck by lightning, and the realization that: "Never address the God of Abraham as Yo, Lord."
When Marlette published his first novel, "The Bridge," I was writing a regular book review column for The Chapel Hill News. On the occasions when the writer was a local figure, I sometimes interviewed him. Doug Marlette was living in Hillsborough, North Carolina at the time, not far from Chapel Hill, where he had bought the mill owner's house in the mill town where his mother had been a mill worker- and that's where Bin Laden comes in.
But bear with me. I thought it would be a good idea to interview Marlette, as a local author, and we had a long conversation, during the course of which he brought up how far he had come from his humble roots: "Only in America, can a mill worker's son grow up to have all this success and to buy the mill owner's house." So far I agreed with him whole-heartedly. Then he added: "Someone should tell that to Bin Laden."
Marlette's lack of perspective surprised me; it was common knowledge that Bin Laden's own father, a Yemeni immigrant, had risen from an illiterate porter on the docks of Jedda to become a billionaire in Saudi Arabia. I made no comment, naturally, and moved on to a matter of greater interest to the readers of the local paper: how seriously was he taking the rift with his fellow writers in the Hillsborough community over his supposed caricatures of several of them in his novel "Bridges"?
As it turned out, the controversy was serious enough for Marlette to make himself scarce around Hillsborough, and he left the mill owner's house he had been so proud of owning.
In the years that followed, he published one particularly savage cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad, and defended it by pointing out his record of offensive cartoons about religion in general. I never had another conversation with him. Last week he died in a car collision with a loblolly pine- a Southern pine, probably somewhere in the vicinity of some Kudzu vines. May he rest in peace.

07.09.07

Sickness, security- and freedom in a free society.  -  @ 15:12:35
Having recently seen "Sicko", and having lived in Europe, I may have some reservations about the perfectly rosy picture it paints of Britain and France's national health systems, but on the whole, these systems work better than adequately. It's hard not to be convinced that we can do better for health care across the board here in America. There is something wrong when the richest, and most creatively problem-solving, society on earth is beset with the inexplicable shame of millions of uninsured snd under-insured, an obesity epidemic, and medical and pharmaceutical costs completely out of proportion to comparable care in other industrialized countries. Most of all, "Sicko" left one indelible message, one confirmed by any extended familiarity with European societies where health and job precariousness are cushioned by a societal safety net: the citizens of a society cannot be truly free, politically and in every sense, unless they have a modicum of security about their future in the case of illness or economic reversal.

07.04.07

Celebrating the revolutionary month of July, each his own way  -  @ 17:39:23
What is it about July that makes it such a revolutionary month? July 4th is American Independence Day, hot on the heels of Canada Day, and followed ten days later by July 14, the French Fete Nationale, best known in the US as Bastille Day. Even Egypt's Revolution Day is July 26th.
So many ways, traditional and non, to celebrate July 4. Friends in Gloucester, MA, give a big party on their lawn overlooking the marina, so their guests can enjoy the town's annual yacht parade against a backdrop of fireworks. In Chapel Hill, at the traditional street parade, activists celebrate their freedom of speech by handing out- with a smile- flyers protesting war, torture, and extradition. And two of my son's college friends decided to celebrate this year in the spirit of "the pursuit of happiness", by biking across this gorgeous continent of ours from Kitty Hawk, NC, to San Francisco, CA, in one month.
What is typically American about this "Lifelist" challenge, is that Lee and Brent felt that the personal challenge wasn't enough; it was also necessary to do it for a good cause: Lance Armstrong's cancer foundation. They set themselves a goal of eighty miles a day, and on day three, they arrived at our house in Chapel Hill, where my son Ramy drove over from Charlotte to meet them. They had a shower and a big dinner and went to watch the Durham Bulls play at the ballpark. But that evening Brent had a pulled muscle and Lee was sore and both were worried about the next day's trek to Winston-Salem. The "cars", or trailers, they were pulling behind them were proving heavier than they expected.
Ramy offered to pack their trailers in his car and drive to Winston with their gear to give them a day's respite from tugging their stuff. Another classmate, Brian, made the round trip from Fayetteville that evening to lend them a computer that was lighter than the one they had brought along- essential for the blog they mean to keep up. http://elifelist.weebly.com/
And so, with everyone pulling for them, so to speak, off they went, smiles restored, penants flying, wheels spinning, and- I hope- eyes open to the beauty of the country as they whizz through.
.

06.20.07

Elephants in Gaza  -  @ 19:05:07
Like so many, I watch the internecine carnage in Gaza with incomprehension and disgust. How can the Palestinians, who have suffered so much at the hands of others, turn on their own? And then I remembered the reports of entire herds of elephants engaging in violent and unnatural acts: killing humans, fighting and killing among themselves and even raping rhinoceri. These herds, it turns out, had been subjected to such trauma over the years, being confined to increasingly tighter habitats by human encroachment, being culled and being poached upon, that they no longer behaved like normal elephants; they turned violent against other species and against themselves. Entire generations of young males were growing up without older male patriarchs- culled for their mature ivories- and had grown into rogues.
The people of Gaza have been subjected to such trauma for forty years, confined to an increasingly more crowded, tiny strip- 1.5 million men, women and children imprisoned on a sliver of land- and more recently starved by the cut-off of funds of every means of livelihood, mobility and self-determination- that they have finally started behaving like the mad elephants.
 -  @ 18:49:50

06.18.07

Fathers and Daughters  -  @ 18:26:43
Father's Day didn't exist when I was a girl in Egypt, or even when my own father died at the age of fifty, so this is my chance to write the Father's Day thoughts I never had a chane to express. It makes me smile to think the greaest sacrifice he ever made for me was to take me to see the Beatles film "A Hard Day's Night." For a man of his generation, raised on big-shouldered icons of manliness like Gable and Grant, it bemused him to see his adolescent daughter enraptured by the antics of men dressed and coiffed to look like asexual schoolboys.
A few years later, he took my proffered high-school autograph book seriously enough to write in elegant Arabic: "I recommend to you purity of the tongue, of the hand, and of the body."
I have a schoolfriend who likes to tell a story that shows, in her eyes, her father's devotion: on the night of an important exam he sat up all night revising her books with her. I think my father showed his devotion, in my eyes, by doing the exact opposite: I had been getting poor marks in math my first year in high school, and he sat me down to help me with my Algebra. After a few moments he stopped. "You can do this on your own," he said. "You're a bright girl. If you're not doing it, it's because you're not trying. Tell me why that is." He had guessed, correctly, that I did not want to do well in math so I would not be under any pressure at my girls' school to choose the Science & Math concentration as opposed to the Arts & Letters. He promised me that if I pulled good marks in Math, he would let me choose whichever concentration I wanted. That year I received the best grade in Math in my class- unassisted- and he kept his word.
That was the kind of father he was, and I know I was lucky.

06.12.07

President Bush, the Albanian connection, and postwar Iraq?  -  @ 13:01:41
Albania is one of those remote, vague places you never hear about unless an American president is being hailed there as a hero- not, N.B., for anything that happened during his own administration, but rather that of his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.
But Albania also has a strong, and largely forgotten, connection to the modern Middle East. When Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801, turned sour, the evacuation of the French army of occupation left a power vacuum in the country that various superpowers and their surrogate militias rushed to fill. The Ottoman Empire, a regional power not unlike Iran today, attempted to re-establish the titular authority it had long ceded to the Egyptian Mamluks before the invasion. A motley crew of militias from the far reaches of the Ottoman empire were sent to support Turkish regular troops in Egypt. The most unruly and vicious of these Ottoman mercenary irregulars were the Arnauts or Albanians, headed by their wily if illiterate officer, Mohamed (Mehmet) Ali. This cunning officer was able to play the various forces against each other so brilliantly that he rose to the rank of Governor, then Viceroy, of Egypt, in short order, and founded the Albanian dynasty that was to rule the country for nearly a century and a half, ending when King Faruk was deposed by the coup d'etat of the Colonels in 1953.
Mohamed Ali was nothing if not ruthless, but he was also a great modernizer, and it is thanks to his educational reforms that Egypt, followed by the rest of the Muslim world, launched into modernization and opened up to Western arts and sciences.
And the connection to post-occupation Iraq in the 21st Century? The end of the American occupation there is likely to leave the same sort of vacuum, and to plunge the country into the same chaos and civil war, as the evacuation of the French left in Egypt. The various super and regional powers will attempt to influence the course of events, as they did then. And as was the case back then, the power to emerge from the rubble, the strongman of the hour who takes the reins, may be someone whose name no one has heard today, and would never imagine.

06.05.07

An anniversary of war, forty years and counting....  -  @ 14:14:38
Today is the fortieth anniversary of the Six-Day War of 1967; and all the retrospectives I have read, especially those presented from the point of view of the victors, are somber. Israel's victory was stunning, swift, complete, and redrew the map of the Middle East drastically. Forty years later, the region is further than ever from peace.
1967 was my first and last experience of coming under bombing: I was still a schoolgirl in Egypt at the time; by the 1973 war I was already a student in London. We each mark anniversaries our own way, and my way, as a writer, is the excerpt below, from a short story "It's Not About That", first published in an anthology, Dinarzad's Children.

I remember where I was in 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out. It was June, and unusually hot, even for Cairo; I was sitting in the bathtub, studying for junior high finals, holding up my book to prevent it from slipping into the water. I had my own system of mnemonics to memorize international treaties: Bismarck, Balfour Treaty, Pax Britannica.
Then the air raids over Cairo began. In the living room my father was listening to the radio. "Ten Israeli fighter planes shot down!" The announcer exulted. A few minutes later: "Five more planes down!" My father was looking grim.
"But that's good, isn't it, Papa?" I asked. "I mean, that we're shooting them down so fast?"
He looked at me impatiently, something he almost never did. "Use your head. If we're shooting down ten planes in ten minutes, how many must be coming at us at once?"
Then he saw the expression on my face and added: "Don't worry, the announcer is exaggerating, they always do. Let's try to get the BBC on the short wave radio."
In those days, in Egypt, there was zero confidence in any announcement made by government officials- even about something as innocuous as the weather. The temperatures in summer seemed to be consistently under-reported by several degrees, as though people could be manipulated into feeling the heat less, or as if they would blame the government for the weather.

You could be arrested for listening to short-wave radio, but we did it anyway. The Israelis were attacking with overwhelming force, and the Egyptian air force had been obliterated before it ever got off the ground.
We followed the black-out instructions, papering over our window panes with the navy wax paper with which we covered our copy books at school. I had stopped studying for finals completely, and so had all of my school friends. We were in a state of feverish excitement, waiting to be called upon to do something, we had no idea what. Only one girl in the class went right on studying. "Whether we win, or whether they do, there will be exams anyway. Even under enemy occupation, there will be exams eventually. And I'm going to be the only one who's prepared."
We looked at her the way you do when someone utters blasphemy or unspeakable obscenity.
The war was over almost as soon as it began. Israeli forces swallowed up the Sinai and stopped short just the other side of the Suez. When President Nasser announced the total defeat of our much-vaunted armies, we were disbelieving. We were so used to the spin, as you would call it today, that it was devastating to realize that this defeat was beyond even Nasser's ability to spin or obfuscate.
Later that year the song that was top of the pop charts all over the world went:
Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
Those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.
We sang it over and over, stressing "we'd fight and never lose," defiantly; it could be construed as subversive. In those days, in Egypt, you had to watch what you said and did.


05.31.07

Tracking the Alpha and the Beta in the media  -  @ 16:11:52
According to the current isssue of Newsweek, there is a new trend in American values, a shift away from admiration of the blowhard Alpha male to appreciation of his more thoughtful Beta counterpart. Case in point: the recent rise of Al Gore. But also, according to the article, the current crop of antihero, non-threatending male stars of film and television comedies. Has that message not yet filtered down to the advertising industry, or is it actually more in tune with the average consumer than Hollywood?
I remember a series of advertisements for a cell phone company in the summer of 2001. I can't remember the name of the company, but they were arresting. They showed a prototypical American Alpha male in various foreign countries- sitting in a rickshaw while a subservient Asian pulled him along, astride a camel while an Arab ran alongside, and variations on that theme, always with the American in a dominant position, berating his clueless rickshaw runner or camel driver for taking the wrong turn, all the while speaking into his cell phone to a compatriot back home. The punch line, the slogan, was even more arresting: letting Americans be Americans everywhere. The message was not particularly subtle: Americans are masters of the universe and can be as obnoxious as they like, anywhere in the world. I remember being struck by the ads, and wondering how they went down in Japan or Korea or the Arab Gulf.
These days, I notice advertisements that seem to promote the image of the husband and father as an awe-inspiring, strict disciplinarian type, a radical departure from the usual hapless husband/father of sitcoms. In an advertisement for peanut butter, a little girl seems to need to be encouraged by her intimidating father to sit beside him on the couch. She then admiringly imitates his way of folding his peanut butter sandwich, just, he tells her, as he learned to do from his father.
In another ad, this time for cereal, the wife changes her husband's cereal to a healthier one, not in the bossy way you might expect, but in a deferential, almost apprehensive manner, and the husband, after trying the cereal, approves and condescendingly compliments her on her blouse. It is a very fifties moment.
In yet another ad, this time for heartburn medication, a militaristic father strides about the house, snapping orders to his children to finish their plate, their homework, their phonecalls, and boasts: "Around here they call me the Finisher."
It will be interesting to see if the advertising industry is taking its cue from the mainstream, or whether it is behind the curve in appreciating the kinder, more reasonable appeal of the Beta male.

05.25.07

Iran, nationalism, and the Suez crisis of 1956  -  @ 11:40:55
An opinion piece in the New York Times two days ago called for taking a tough line with Iran, and cited the unjustifiable arrest and incarceration of an Iranian-American director at the Wilson Institute as proof that the Iranian regime only understood what is called in the language of diplomacy "les rapports de force." In an NPR interview yesterday, the woman's husband, also Iranian-American, pleaded that American policy abroad- in essence arresting and incarcerating foreign nationals without charges- should not be used as an excuse to victimize his wife.
Friends of mine, an American couple, the Ernsts, happened to be in Iran at the time, in conjunction with Carl Ernst's research on Sufism; he is a professor and distinguished scholar of Islamic Studies at UNC-Chape Hill. When they returned to the States I congratulated them, half-seriously, on their safe return, but the Ernsts apparently experienced their trip very differently. Judith Ernst sent me an article she wrote, titled "What is it that you fear, Mr. Bush?" (www.commondreams.org) in which she attempts to humanize, through their personal stories, the Iranians she met in Shiraz. She felt it was important to counteract the dangerous trend in America to demonize all Iranians.
The fact is, Iranians are divided about their administration, just as Americans are. Many are viscerally against President Ahmedinejad, but threats from abroad are likely to make them close ranks with their countrymen. Even the Iranians in America, almost all of whom are refugees from the regime of the Ayatollahs and virulent and vocal critics of the current regime, are adamant that a military intervention against Iran would be a terrible mistake. That is one of the many unintended consequences of the invasion of Iraq.
It is a mistake, always, to imagine that Americans have a monopoly on nationalism. It is a mistake to underestimate the nationalism of Iranians or Iraqis. I know this from personal experience. I don't remember the 1956 Suez crisis, but I remember what my father told me about it. At the time of the attack on Egypt by Britain, France and Israel, if anyone had reason to wish for the toppling of Nasser's regime and the restoration of the status quo ante, it was my father. He and his family had been stripped of their land and his elder brother was imprisoned. It might have seemed reasonable to expect that he would hope for the success of the invasion. What my then thirty-year-old father actually did was to volunteer for the civil defense.

05.20.07

Sarko l'Americain and his Condi?  -  @ 08:28:06
Conversation at dinner last night with a group of French friends revolved around the recent French elections, naturally. Many were miffed that the elections were not covered more extensively on American television; many were heartened by Sarkozy's victory, unsurprisingly, since French expatriates in America are the ones who left their country to seek opportunity elsewhere, finding the French system of employment and taxation economically non-viable. They hoped Sarkozy would bring economic reform but were aware of the limits in a unionized nation.
Few of them reflected on the issues of immigration or foreign policy, and yet Sarko's new cabinet includes two ministerial appointments intended to deliver strong messages on these two issues. Sarkozy, accused by the minorities of being racist, and campaigning on an anti-immigration platform, appointed Rachida Dati, a woman lawyer of Algerian immigrant parentage, as minister of Justice- the first ethnic face in a French cabinet ever, despite the fact that ten percent of France's population is of (mostly Arab) ethnics. A powerful gesture, no doubt, but will she prove to be Sarko l'Americain's Condoleeza Rice? Or, more likely, his Alberto Gonzalez?
Another surprise appointment, former Medecins Sans Frontieres chief Bernard Kouchner as Minister of Foreign Affairs, was unexpected because Kouchner is a caviar leftist and disagrees with Sarkozy on two issues: Kouchner was for the Iraq war, and he is for Turkey's admission in the European Union. Like Sarkozy, he is of East European Jewish immigrant grandparents. Kouchner says of himself that he "continues, continues, is obstinate, is obstinate." In other words, stays the course. That has a familiar ring; time will tell if it turns out to be a good thing or the opposite.
 -  @ 08:11:57

05.18.07

 -  @ 08:26:22

05.17.07

Wolfie, Shaha, and labeling...  -  @ 12:55:13
The New Yorker magazine recently referred to World Bank President Wolfowitz's girlfriend, the focus of the current nepotism scandal, as "a secular Muslim woman in her fifties." What does that mean, exactly? Can you imagine Hilary Clinton being referred to as "a secular Christian woman in her fities?" Or, more analogically, Monica Lewinsky, the focus of that other presidential scandal, being referred to as "a secular Jewish/Christian (whichever it is) woman in her twenties"?
Shaha Ali Riza's nationality- British citizen of Libyan parentage, apparently- may be relevant, but her religion? Why has that artificial construct, "Muslim woman" become so charged that if it is used for any of the millions of ordinary women of Muslim heritage, the New Yorker feels it must be qualified by the adjective "secular"? And what is a "secular" Muslim woman anyway? A non-practising woman? Or simpply one who does not wear a headscarf? And what value does the term have when a Hirsi Ali is referred to as a "secular Muslim woman", although she has openly renounced Islam and has no claim to speak for Muslims?
And what do the vast millions of women who happen to have been born into a Muslim family around the world think of this designation? The term Muslim woman, and the feeble attempts to qualify it as "secular", are equally meaningless to those to whom it is applied, and correspond only to the confused notions and inchoate fears of those who do the labeling.

05.15.07

The American Dream against a Carolina blue sky  -  @ 20:30:12
Only in America do we have college graduations with cap and gown and balloons on the quad and every restaurant and hotel in town festooned with banners reading: "Welcome Graduates!" Other countries have perfunctory diploma distributions; only in America do we have a full-blown season of ceremonies and celebrity guest speakers. In Chapel Hill last week, May madness was multiplied by three: the graduations of UNC-Carolina, Duke University, and Mother's Day all coincided on Sunday. Reservations at restaurants were wait-listed months ahead; hotels even earlier. The pale, sky-blue gowns of Carolina graduates billowed about town in droves, proud camera-toting parents in tow. This particular Sunday, I was a proud camera-toting parent of a graduate myself, for one glorious day of hope and pride and gratification.
"That America: the American dream. American democracy," a friend lamented. "Why can't we export that? Why can't the world see that?" I know what he means: the American democracy of success. And he knows it's not that simple. But for one glorious day in May, it can seem that way.

04.30.07

Marketing Muslim Women, and beauty salons as salvation n Kabul?  -  @ 09:44:32
This weekend I attended a conference at Duke University on "Marketing Muslim Women," in which one of the papers addressed the American-sponsored effort to open beauty salons in Kabul, post-invasion, in order to introduce "newly-liberated" Afghan women to makeup and hair dressing as a form of salvation. The scholar raised a legitimate question: whether subjecting Afghan women to the artifices of makeup, hair dyes, bikini-waxing and hot curling irons might not, in effect, simply substitute one form of cultural "veiling" for another.
Today's New York Times ran an article on the latest best-selling book to exploit just this story, one of those dubious "memoirs", this time by an American hairdresser, who purports to have single-handedly brought the first beauty salon to Afhghanistan and, in the process, saved several unnamed Afghan women from violence at the hands of male relatives. That the NYT, and other media, are finally beginning to question the veracity of such self-serving stories does nothing to mitigate their popularity, and exploitability, with the less-discerning public- the notorious "Reading Lolita in Tehran' being the most egregious example.
Will the day come when the American public begins to see much of this literature exploiting "Muslim Women" as analogous to the fabrication of the Jessica Lynch and Tillman stories? The truth would have been enough, no make-up and artifice required.

04.27.07

Richard Gere, Roger Moore and...cultural clashes thirty years apart  -  @ 09:28:53
The current brouhaha in India over the "kiss' actor Richard Gere publicly planted on Bollywood starlet Shilpa Shetty is too ridiculous to merit comment, except that it reminded me of a similar incident of cultural tone-deafness thirty years ago. At the Cairo Film festival, which in those days attracted major international stars, actor Roger Moore (007) decided to make a skit, on live television, of his presenting a trophy to Egyptian actress/singer Shadia; he pretended to be General DeGaulle honoring her with a succession of kisses. This was back in the days when Egypt was a far different country, not remotely as conservative as it is today, and the incident, broadcast into every Egyptian home, elicited no more than a wince at the cultural faux pas.
Fast forward to Gere in India today, and it is Hindu conservatives- not Muslim, N.B.- who are rioting and burning in effigy the actor for violating the Bollywood actress' modesty- although, to be fair to Gere, he might have been confused by the fact that she was wearing a scanty outfit that bared her hips and belly.
It just goes to show that cultural assumptions are a minefield, and the well-meaning Westerner abroad should beware of crossing an invisible line in trying to pay 'homage' to a woman's beauty.
The other side of the news...on the Virginia Tech massacre  -  @ 09:14:48
Since 9/11, most Arab Americans would confess to having an initial reaction to any man-made mayhem in the news: pray God the perpetrator is not an Arab or a Muslim. In the case of the Virginia Tech massacre, the killer was not. But three of his victims were: a graduate student from Egypt, Waleed Shaalan; and two Arab-Americans, Ross Abdullah Alameddine and Reema Samaha. This time, the Arab names were on the other side of the news, a different sort of horror.

04.13.07

The Duke Lacrosse case, and higher principles.  -  @ 11:42:04
I confess when the Duke Lacrosse team rape allegations first broke into the news, I was dismayed. I live within twenty minutes of Duke and taught there for several years, but even more, my reaction was conditioned by the fact that my older son was himself a varsity athlete on the crew team at Yale. I couldn't believe that these young men of privilege were capable of such horrors, but at the same time I was torn with sympathy for the young woman who might have been a legitimate victim. One thing I had no doubt about: given the socio-economic status of the accused, and the army- literally, fifty lawyers for three defendants- hired to defend their case, if they were innocent they would be exonerated.
As it turned out, they were, and all charges were dropped. And there was a lesson to be learned from this: justice is not blind in our system, or any system. As one of the exonerated Duke players said at his press conference: "This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can't imagine what they'd do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves. So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes and creating political and racial conflicts, all of us need to take a step back from this case and learn from it. The Duke lacrosse case has shown that our society has lost sight of the most fundamental principle of our legal system: the presumption of innocence."
I'm sure everyone listening thought of other young men, less fortunate by birth and race and socio-economic standing and family support, who are railroaded every day. But I wonder how many people listening spared a thought to the men in Guantanamo, or other, secret prisons, who are denied habaeus corpus and the most elemental means of defending themselves? In a just society, or at least one with a proud history of striving toward justice, no one should be declared without the right to justice, no matter who the accuser or what the charge.

04.02.07

The Quran: A Biography by Bruce Lawrence  -  @ 12:41:42
Books that Changed the World: The Quran, a biography, by Bruce Lawrence

In the new series of Books that Changed the World, which includes the Bible and Das Capital, arguably the hardest slot to fill must have been an author to take on the Quran. It can be a thankless task: for many in the West, post 9/11, the image of the Quran is that of a manifesto for violence; on the other hand, for Muslims, the idea that they might learn anything from a "biography" of the Quran may need explaining. This book addresses both these challenges brilliantly, striking the right balance between scholarship and sensitivity.
Bruce Lawrence's name must have been at the top of the list for the editors of the series; Karen Armstrong, he points out modestly, had already signed on to do a biography of the Bible. Lawrence- well known as the director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center and a prolific author of books on Islam, Muslims, and Osama Bin Laden- is also a practicing minister and a former Marine.
The greatest challenge, it would seem to me, would be to condense, in 200 short pages, the fourteen centuries of the history of the Quran. Which of the thousands of verses to quote, and which of the many historical figures associated with Islam's long history to highlight? But the answer, it turns out, is that the approach of Books that Changed the World is not to attempt a history, but rather a "biography": and a biography is always selective, and always reflects the biographer's interests and strengths in scholarship, as well as the zeitgeist of the times in which it was written. This is the case here.
The book is divided into five concise parts. Following the introduction, Lawrence begins with two chapters on Mohamed, the Messenger of the Quran. Next comes a chapter on Aisha, his wife, as a primary source for the interpretation and dissemination of the Message during his lifetime and especially after his death, and chapters on other early Arab exegetes of the Quran. One part of Lawrence’s book is devoted to later interpretations by scholars as diverse as Robert of Ketton (the first Western translator of the Quran) and the poet Rumi. The next part concentrates on Pakistani scholars, reflecting, accurately, the weight of Asian Islam, but also Lawrence’s own interest in Asian contemporary Islamic scholarship. Finally, the last part, titled Global Accents, is the one most likely to reflect the target readership and the times in which it was written. It includes a chapter on African-American Islam and one on Osama Bin Laden, subtitled Quran as Mandate for Jihad. Negatively as most Muslims will react to the inclusion of that chapter in a brief history of their Holy Book, the rationale for it in the current zeitgeist is apparent, and Lawrence, who is an authority on Bin Laden's writings, attempts to put the latter's distorted claims to Quran-justified jihad in context.
Lawrence's The Quran, a Biography, is that necessary and rare book, a fair-minded, scholarly, informative, and sensitive window into the history of one of the books that is most widely disseminated, interpreted, and misinterpreted, in the world. If it quickens the reader’s appetite for more, Lawrence- ever the professor- includes a solid section on further reading; but as it is, his book stands on its own.

03.28.07

Chapel Where? When it takes a Presidential candidate to be put on the map...  -  @ 22:22:11
When leading American presidential candidate Senator John Edwards of North Carolina bought a hundred-acre estate in Chapel Hill, my primary residence for the past sixteen years, I immediately had one thought: would people in London and Cairo and Paris finally stop asking me: “Chapel where?â€
In the South, Chapel Hill is known as “the Southern part of Heaven,†and all over the United States it is recognized as the university town that is home to the Tar Heels, the perennial top team in the annual college basketball championships. The heart of the town is the sprawling, gracious 200-year-old campus of UNC, the oldest public university in the nation, with its green quads and historic bell tower and its Spring riot of white cherry blossoms and pink azaleas.
There are more Ph.D.s per capita in Chapel Hill than any other town in the U.S., including Boston, making it a liberal enclave in the middle of the reddest of Republican conservative states, North Carolina- so much so that the arch conservative senator from NC, the late Jesse Helms, threatened to put a fence around it like a zoo to isolate it from the rest of the rural, military-base state.
Chapel Hill is a town where, for one month of every year, all that urbanity and liberality evaporate in a fever of basketball mania called March Madness, culminating in one night of unparalleled intensity when the entire town comes to a complete standstill: the night of “The Game.†The Game, which needs no qualifier for North Carolinians, is the one night when Chapel Hill’s Tar Heel team meets its perennial rival and arch-enemy up the road, Duke University’s Blue Devils. Police clear the roads and line the streets in anticipation of the moment when the fans pour out of the stadium and the sports bars at the end of the game; win or lose, Tar Heels or Blue Devils, victory or defeat are greeted with near-riots, vandalized cars and students risking immolation by jumping over bonfires.
But although most of the population of Chapel Hill seems to be composed of students or transplants from elsewhere, it retains the leisurely rhythm and courtesy of a southern town. It is still a place where, when I go to the hairdresser on a Saturday, I might run into a devoted middle-aged man sipping a glass of wine while he “waits on†his octogenarian mother, “Miss Mary†while she has her hair done, after which he assures her she is the prettiest girl in town and takes her out to brunch at the Carolina Inn.
It is still the sort of town where any local handyman or contractor or house painter you hire will consider it normal courtesy to engage you in long conversations in which he inquires about the details of your personal life and volunteers in return long-winded, charming stories about his grandmother or his grandchildren or both.
Once the 2008 presidential campaign takes off in earnest, if John Edward is a front-runner, hordes of media will descend on Chapel Hill, and residents like me will grumble, no doubt- but at least I won’t have to deal with the puzzled looks of: “Chapel where?â€

03.26.07

Of God, good intentions, and Enloe High School  -  @ 12:52:30
Time Magazine's cover story this past week made a (cautious) case for teaching about the Bible in public schools, not only as the doctrine of the overwhelming Christian majority of the country, but also as the most influential book in Western civilization and as a literary text. A good case, was my first reflex.
But then I began to have second thoughts, more about the implementation than the principle. Yes, the article acknowledges, there are bound to be teachers who misuse the opportunity to teach about the Bible and engage in evangelism or denigration of other religions, but objections could be raised on a case by case basis, and taken to court. Really? And in the meantime, what about the children who have to endure being the target of a teacher’s misguided proselytizing, or worse, have their own religious traditions denigrated before their classmates?
A recent local incident at Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a case in point. Teacher Escamilla, known for his proselytizing bent, invited Kamil Solomon of Kamil Solomon Ministries to address his class. Solomon used the opportunity to launch an attack on Islam and urge Muslim and other non-Christian students to convert to Christianity. Do we really want this sort of scenario repeated across the nation?
When I think back to my own school days in Egypt- admittedly private school, but the same would have applied to public school- I remember that during the one hour of religion study per week, the Muslim girls (this was a girls school) took Quranic studies, and the Coptic girls- Egypt is a little over 10% Coptic- took Bible study. Now the Quran is not only a religious text and cultural touchstone, but also, being in Arabic, a live language, the ultimate literary standard and reference for Arabic speakers, of whatever faith, so an argument could be made for teaching it in a secular context. Yet it was not required reading in Egypt for non-Muslims.
My last thought harks back to a conversation last summer in which my interlocutor suggested that the tradition of religious freedom for minorities in America must be one of the strongest positive aspects of America’s image abroad. Absolutely true, and hard won, and not worth compromising for an experiment, however well-intentioned.

03.06.07

Egypt without the Egyptians?  -  @ 13:31:24
A recent article in Le Monde about the grand new Museum of Egyptian Antiquities optimistically planned to open in 2011 in Giza outside of Cairo, made me think, paradoxically, of Florence Nightingale's Letters from Egypt written in 1849.
Egyptians, Egyptologists, and most tourists are familiar with the venerable, Belle Epoque, domed and rose-colored Museum in downtown Cairo that currently houses the inestimable treasures of ancient Egypt, including Tutankhamen's golden chariot and jewelled caskets. It's true that the Museum is overcrowded with the riches of the past, and that priceless artificats lie forgotten in shoeboxes in dusty storerooms. But the real problem with the current Museum, the reason the decision was made to build an enormous new building miles away in Giza, near the site of the Pyramids, is that its current location in the heart of Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square, with its traffic snarl, its pollution, its noise, and most of all its throngs of pedestrians, has turned the Museum from a must-see stop on the tourist agenda to one that is too often skipped as too insecure or too much sheer hassle.
The prospective new Museum in Giza, touted to become perhaps the largest in the world, is being constructed in an isolated location in the desert plateau near the Great Pyramids, and will be built like a fortress and designed to thwart not only a car bomb but also an aerial bombardment from above, mindful of the lessons of the devastation of Iraq's museums under U.S. bombardment. The tourist will be able to skip frantic Cairo altogether, and explore the treasures of Egypt's grand past without the distraction and annoyance of its current chaos.
So why does that remind me of Florence Nightingale's Letters from Egypt? Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the English bourgeoise tourist reiterates, almost on every page, her fervent wish that the Egyptians of that time- whom she dismisses as Arabs, a race entirely disconnected from and inferior to "the Egyptians" of Antiquity- her fervent wish that these "Arabs" would simply disappear from the scenery and not interfere with her enjoyment of the splendors of Ancient Egypt. She stresses over and over that the current inhabitants of Egypt can have no relation to the race that built the pyramids and the temples, that indeed, they can have hardly any relation to humans at all, but are as lizards that survive on a deserted sun after all its human inhabitants have become extinct.
Today's modern tourist will come closer to experiencing Florence Nightingale's dream, of experiencing Egypt without the inconvenience of Egyptians. And who can seriously quarrel with that? Even native Cairenes find Tahrir Square frenetic. But that will soon change. The Museum will move away, and even before, by 2008 the neigboring 150-year old American University in Cairo will be moved to a brand new campus out in the Eastern desert.
Will the grand hotels on the Nile, like the historic Shepheard's, follow the tourists away from the downtown? Will the embassies follow suit, abandoning the graceful villas in Garden City? And what will happen to my Cairo House?

03.05.07

Beyond Reading Lolita in Teheran  -  @ 15:44:36
Last Friday I met the author of "Jasmine and Stars: Reading Beyond Lolita in Teheran" at UNC Chapel Hill. I felt a particular obligation to go, not only because the publisher, and the editors, are the same- UNC Press' series on Islamic Civilization- that published an anthology to which I contributed, but also because I felt an obligation to support any author, particularly a Muslim woman, who invites the Western reader to look beyond the cliches of Lolita in Teheran and other such facile exercises in exoticism or even outright Islamophobia. Fatemeh Keshnarz's essays on Iranian literature and society, both before and after the Revolution, are timely and worth reading if only because, before we contemplate launching a war against an ancient civilization, the least we can do is look its people in the eye, metaphorically speaking.

02.23.07

Of oceans and jelly fish  -  @ 13:22:15
In the past two months, I've dipped a toe in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Pacific, my own personal trifecta, and the Atlantic is always a couple of hours drive from home. Great bodies of water have such different personalities. My old familiar Mediterranean, for so long the Middle Sea, the womb of civilizations, crisscrossed and fought over, the sea for merchants and conquerors, a sea for swimmers, lazy and warm in summer, bright and unforbidding in winter. The Red Sea, a desert sea, hard blue and sunny and dry, hardly wide enough to call a sea, an Ali Baba's cave for divers.
So different from the gray Atlantic, a male ocean, for sailing and fishing and war. And then there is the sublime Pacific, none to match it for the sheer beauty of its breathtaking vistas around every wind of the road along the cliffs, for the crashing waves and the mountains in the background.
And on their shores, all of them, the jelly fish, odious transparent blobs washed up by the tideon the beach, or invisible stinging traps underwater for unsuspecting swimmers. And yet, to see jelly fish alive, in their natural habitat, or rather in an artificially created habitat in the Monerey Aquarium on Steinbeck's Cannery Row, is to be stunned by their loveliness. To see them gracefully drifting in huge tanks, glamorously backlit like Hollywood stars, lovely pulsating umbrellas delicately streaked with red or pink, trailing undulating organza ruffles and long, fine tentacles- constantly pulsating, pulsating, sucking their tiny prey into the inviting hollow of that soft mouth, the deceptively playful tentacles ready to sting and immoblize the captive. So beautiful, and so cruel, like so much in nature.
And like so much in nature, ugly and unimaginable out of its natural state. The colors of the jelly fish are created by the constant movement of tiny combs that break up the light; immobile, in death, it is a blob like a plastic bag- but also, harmless.

02.21.07

What we don't want to know and when we don't want to know it.  -  @ 12:02:55
An article in the New York Times today, about an Iraqi Sunni woman who went public on television about her rape at the hands of Nouri al-Maliki's National Guard, made me think of an interview I did with an Iraqi woman two years ago. The woman, a Sunni whose brother had been killed for collaborating with the American occupation, was in North Carolina as a guest of the US State Dept. Since she spoke little but Arabic, I was invited to meet her, and found her story so fascinating and so eye-opening that it should be heard. So I contacted the News and Observer and offered to write up my notes into an article for them. What happened next was eye-opening for me in an entirely different way.
But to return for a moment to the New York Times article, and the link to the woman I interviewed. One of the worst aspects of the chaos into which Iraq descended immediately after the American invasion- remember this interview was two years ago- is the insecurity, the woman told me. Before, she used to be able to go around Baghdad in jeans and a tank top, her hair in a pony tail; now she dared not go to market uncovered and without a male relative for chaperone. She has to drive her fifteen year old daughter to school- now a two-hour trip because of American roadblocks- and wait in the car to bring her home; as a result, she cannot take her daughter to school every day. But she has no other choice. "Girls get raped every day," she told me. "Baghdad used to be the safest place in the world; in Saddam's day, a dog didn't dare to bark." This thoroughly secular, modern woman was concerned that the growing insecurity was shutting women up in their homes. "That's how the Taliban originally came to power," she reminded me, "by guaranteeing security from the warlords."
This is part of the story I wrote up for the Raleigh News and Observer. They couldn't publish that, I was told; essentially, their readers weren't ready to hear this. I argued that ready or not, perhaps we needed to know the reality of ordinary Iraqis. In the end, I had to shelve that entire story, and write a fluffy, upbeat piece about the Iraqi woman's visit to Durham, North Carolina.
For me, it was a revealing insight into the limits of freedom of information that I had always thought was boundless in this great country of ours. But isn't there a price to pay for not wanting to know what we don't want to know, until we are forced to know it?

02.20.07

Bird's Eye View  -  @ 23:13:12
Flying to the west coast, in daylight, on a clear day, brings home what one knows but does not quite absorb: the sheer vastness and emptiness of endless swathes of the country. Nothing but expanses of brown and tan, crisscrossed at sharp right angles by manmade roads leading from nowhere to nowhere, not a habitation or a vehicle in sight. Who built them, and why? Who bothered to mark out the smaller squares within the grid, and lay a claim to dust? Further west and north, an endless desert of white snow with snowy peaks for dunes, stretching on and on. Absolutely forbidding, unimaginable to climb or ski or hike; a plane that crashes there would never be found.
And it's a bit of a shock, only a two-hour flight from snowy Salt Lake City, to come upon the breath-taking beauty of the Montery Bay country, the green rolling hills, the mansions and ranches lording from the top of their long, winding driveways, and then the Pacific, blue and brilliant and like no other ocean. "Upon a peak in Darrien." Unorginal, but so true.

02.02.07

Snow, Cardinals...and Ideological Exclusion  -  @ 12:15:36
Snow comes with an oddly festive air here in the Southern United States, where it is so rare. Schools are closed, events cancelled, everybody sleeps in. You are woken in the morning to the joyful cries of children "sledding" in their driveways, and you look out your window, and there they are: two scarlet Cardinals, a crested male and a female, against a backdrop of white. By noon, though, it has all melted into sleet and the treacherous "black ice."
I was relieved the snow had melted early enough yesterday not to have to cancel the ACLU-sponsored reading on "Ideological Exclusion" in which I'd been asked to participate that evening at a Raleigh bookstore. But I had serious doubts, on the thirty-minute drive, that the audience would outnumber the five panelists and the moderator.
I needn't have worried; the place was packed: overwhelmingly white, a few scattered Middle-Eastern faces. The theme was scholars who had been denied entry to the United States on the basis of their political views. The most current case, presented by the ACLU organizer, was that of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss professor prevented from taking up his post at Notre Dame after he had moved his wife and children there. All the readings that followed were from poets or writers or political figures who had at one time or another been persona non-grata. The first reader, a Turkish-born professor of Engineering, read from turkish poet Nizam Hikmat; the second, an Iranian-born professor of Social Science, read from Nelson Mandela; a blonde young ACLU lawyer read from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had been my first choice, but the organizers suggested I read instead from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whom I had not read at all.
Finally I read from his description of waking up to bombing and shelling, and praying for five minutes grace, five minutes only, to prepare himself for life or death, whatever came next. Five minutes, not to pray, but to make a cup of coffee.

02.01.07

The Tenth Day...A Holy Day Bloody or Joyful?  -  @ 12:13:02
Ashura was commemorated by Shiites in Iraq and Iran two days ago, a bloody commemoration with a procession of men and boys re-enacting a ritual self-flagellation in some atavistic expiation of the guilt of having killed the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in Karbala in Iraq, some fourteen centuries ago. It always reminds me of scenes of Latin Catholics carrying crosses or even crucifying themselves on Good Friday.
Although the Prophet's grandson Hussein is a revered figure to all Muslims, the Shia ritual of Ashura is one of the very few denominational particularities that set them apart from the Sunni majority. Growing up in a Sunni country, Egypt, my associations with Ashura were very different. I remember my grandmother sending over her driver with a white-napkin covered dish of barley and raisin pudding, decorated with pistachio nuts, a very festive dish. Ashura- literally, the Tenth Day, that is the 10th of the month of Muharram- was a happy occasion, although I had no idea what was celebrated. How, I wondered, did that fit in with the Shia mourning of the martyrdom of Hussein?
A little fact-checking reveals that according to tradition, Muhammad found the Jews of Medina fasting on this day, in gratitude for Moses' deliverance, and decided that it would be a day of celebration for Muslims as well, since Moses is one of the greatest prophets to Muslims. Some sixty years later, Hussein ibn Ali, Muhammad's grandson, was killed in the battle of Karbala, and the Shia of Ali, or Ali's party, turned the day into a day of mourning and self-flagellation.
For my grandmother, raised in the Sunni tradition, Ashura remained a day of celebration, even if she may not have known the origin of the barley-raisin pudding custom.
A couple of years ago I gave a talk at First Presbyterian Church of Durham, aroung the time of Ashura, and I suggested that there was a moral to this: if Jews and Muslims looked beyond their differences, they might glimpse their common origins.

01.24.07

Plantu and cartoonists for peace in the Middle East  -  @ 17:38:21
I had a good reason to return to North Carolina last weekend after a two-month absence: Plantu, the world-famous editorial cartoonist of Le Monde, would be arriving a day later, and I needed to be there to pick him up at the aiport. After all, I was organizing his visit, co-sponsored by Alliance francaise and Duke University. When I juggled the dates last Fall, it seemed as though the scheduling would be tight, but feasible. In fact, of course, it turned out to be very hectic, but worth every minute.
Plantu, alias Jean Plantureux, has for thirty years now drawn the editorial cartoon that takes up half the front page of Le Monde, France's foremost daily newspaper, and the only one owned by its journalists and staff, and therefore independent and bold in its opinions. I was very familiar with Plantu's positions- on everything from the war in Iraq to the controversy over the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad- and they are usually progressive, never comfortable, and invariably sharp, carried off with the suave signature of his trademark mouse. In person he is curious, considerate, modest in spite of the accumulation of international awards and world recognition. He is quick-thinking and speaking, a man who finds it easier to illustrate his thought with a pen than with his tongue; he went through a prodigious pile of transparencies during his lecture at Duke, which he gave in a combination of rapid-fire French and slower English.
His passion, his dream legacy, is to bring about peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict: he sees that as key to peace not only in the region, not only between the West and Islam, but in the world. To that end he is organizing, under the aegis of the United Nations, an on-going series of conferences bringing together cartoonists from around the world but especially from the two sides of the Middle East conflict, in venues as far apart as Genoa and Kuala Lumpur. If we can stop seeing the "Other" in cartoonish terms, we can stop dehumanizing the enemy and perhaps come to see him as a fellow human being and a potential neighbor.
At the private dinner that followed the lecture, I was seated between Plantu and Hodding Carter Jr, who, as President Jimmy Carter's undersecretary of State, had stood on the lawn for that historic picture with Sadat and Rabbin. Hodding Carter seemed less sanguine than he had been in those days about the chances for a resolution. Plantu, on the other contrary, told me he would bet on peace in our time. That is one bet I hope I will live to lose.

01.21.07

Charlotte airport, and Big Brother...  -  @ 14:42:50
Charlotte is one of my favorite airports. Especially after the crowded, claustrophobic airports of Europe, it is such a relief and a pleasure to land in Charlotte's wide-open central concourse, with its sunlight, its spaciousness and its white rocking chairs lined up in front of the long stretch of windows. Charlotte airport represents everything I miss about the States when I'm abroad: the sense of air and space and the smiling faces. Once more my theory about American men holds up: as a woman traveling alone with baggage, you will find that they are by far the most gallant, helpful and friendly of any nationality.
I nab one of the white rocking chairs by the windows, and lean back with a cup of cappucino to wait for my connecting flight. And that is when I hear it: the whispery message repeated over and over at five minute intervals, warning travelers not to leave baggage unattended and to report any suspicious-looking people or behavior. It is Big Brother personified in that mechanical, whispery female voice over the loudspeaker, over and over, and it sours my moment of joy in home-coming. Until, that is, I notice that people are going about their business, hurried and unhurried, and paying no attention to the exhortation to beware of "suspicious-looking people and behavior."

01.20.07

London: the Big Brother furor  -  @ 20:59:27
There were many things going on in the world when I arrived in London, indeed many things going on in the UK and in London itself, including a gale-force storm in the offing- not to mention an ongoing war in Iraq. But every headline of every paper and every television newscast blared out the same story: "Big Brother racism scandal! Shilpa Shetty attacked! India erupts in riots over Big Brother and treatment of Shilpa Shetty!"
Shilpa Shetty, as the UK now knows and no one outside of India knew before, is a glamorous young Bollywood star who is currently taking part in the "Big Brother house" television program in the UK. Over the past few days, several of the other inmates, all Anglo-Saxon and foul-mouthed, have been calling her names. Thousands of spectators called in protesting "racist" treatment of the Indian actress, and demonstrations broke out back in India. The political classes sat up and took notice: sponsors of the program withdrew, members of Parliament called for sanctions, and, in a moment of supreme surrealism, Tony Blair himself made a statement on the issue.
Meanwhile, paradoxically, the two big winners were the producers of the program, who doubled their audience, and Tony Blair, who welcomed the distraction from the daily attacks on his Iraq policy.
Since the story was inescapable, I took the pulse, so to speak, of the London cabbies I encountered. One, a regular beefeater type Brit, dismissed the whole thing as all trumped up for publicity, and was more interested in exclaiming over David Beckham's obscene contract with a Los Angeles team. The other cab driver, an unusually thoughtful North Indian, felt that the issue had more to do with class than racism, and that the Bollywood actress was to be faulted to some extent for not knowing how to deal with the rough backgrounds of some of the other inmates. Young Brits of that background, he said, gloried in being "rude"- their word- because the economy was good and they knew the welfare state would take care of them, even if they were on the dole.
The economy in the UK is indeed so good there are alarming predictions of skyrocketing inflation.
The whole silly Big Brother row made me think of flying high up in a plane, looking down at the earth below, and wondering, if there was a God, whether he, like Big Brother, had locked us all up together on this small planet, and watched us fight each other like so many mindless inmates?
This small planet that is getting smaller every day; I could hardly believe that this was mid-January in London: green, green everywhere, flowers in bloom in the gardens, nature confused as to the season, and the English mumbling about global warming, with a wry smile: "Mind you, nice while it lasts, isn't it?"
But the weather didn't last, after all, and Thursday saw the predicted gale-force winds, with disruptions in travel, and eleven dead of the storm. I rode out the weather in the infinite world of luxury that is Harrods, where the January sales had not missed a beat.
Meanwhile, the British media engaged in soul-searching re the Shilpa Shetty affair: is this what young Britain has come to?

01.05.07

A New Year resolution from a paradise manque  -  @ 05:22:51
What with a raging flu and chills, I almost didn't make it on the small, black, two-propeller plane at all, and there were moments during the two-hour trip south to the Red Sea when I wished I hadn't: it was the smallest, noisiest, most cramped aircraft I had ever boarded, a thirty-passenger private plane belonging to the developer of the new Red Sea airport of Marsa Allam, one of the new airport/resort ventures that foreign investors launch in Egypt to jumpstart tourism on the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts. The investment comes from Gulf petrodollars, and the tourists come from Europe, along with occasional Egyptians like the group I was traveling with.
When the little plane lands in the desert, though, we are immediately transported into a world of all-inclusive luxury, carefully studied to cater in every detail to the proclivities and sensitivities of the Western tourist. No Tipping, the sign proclaims at the airport, a radical departure from the culture of the bakshish.
At Coraya Beach, the Arabesque-inspired, lush resort, not only is there no tipping, but everything is included, from the extravagant open buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, to the bars and coffee shops for snacks in between. The rooms are bungalow-style, with a view on the sea, and the beach is a few steps away.
But the crucial element- the weather- refuses to cooperate: it is unusually blustery and cool, the palm trees on the beach sway wildly in the whistling wind; the guests wander about gamely swathed in layers of sweaters and coats instead of swimsuits. The two huge outdoor pools are deserted, and the one indoor pool, the gymnasium, the jacuzzi and sauna are busy, as are the two (male) masseurs and the pedicurist, all inclusive. (The few Egyptian guests tip, out of cultural compulsion, inspite of the signs.)
Everyone avoids staying in their room and watching the satellite news, dominated by images of Saddam hanged on the Feast of the Sacrifice.
The tourists at the resort are predominantly Italian, raising the glamor and joie de vivre quotient of the ambience considerably; the rest are German or Russian, plus the rare Brit.
The New Year's Eve party, held under a gigantic heated, tented pavillion, starts abnormally early by Egyptian standards: it is already in full swing by eight in the evening, whereas Cairo New Year celebrations do not get under way till just before midnight. The buffet is spectacular, the entertainment typical- Middle-Eastern exotic- but for the Lord of the Dance sequence.
Day after day, the multilingual staff try their hearts out, but the weather, the main event for a tourist at the Red Sea, remains stubbornly uncooperative.
On my last morning at the resort, I wake up and look at the view out of the French doors of my room: the palm trees are immobile, the sea is dead calm, the sun shines down like lead. I jump up and walk down the beach all the way to the pier that jutts out into the coral reefs to look down at the glorious mauve and purple corals and the stunning, freakish fish flitting through the rocks. I don't join the snorklers and scuba-divers, in deference to my still-inflamed sinuses, but I take a dip in the shallow, clear water of the bay.
On the flight back on the little black plane, the noise precludes all conversation, and I am finally free to reflect on my New Year's resolution: to let go of what I can't control in life, like the weather, the flu, or the debacle in Iraq; to enjoy the day at hand, and not wait for the perfect moment of sunshine, blue seas, clear sinuses, and peace in the Middle East.
Saddam and the Feast of the Sacrifice: symbolism gone awry  -  @ 04:14:46
There is tone-deafness to cultural sensitivities, there is symbolism gone awry, and then there is the hanging of Saddam Hussein on the Feast of the Sacrifice, the holiest day of the Muslim calendar. The day when millions of pilgrims from all corners of the planet stand on a mountain outside Mecca, and pray for forgiveness. The day when a billion plus Muslims around the world observe Abraham's sacrifice in the emulation, sacrificing an innocent beast in exchange for the safe-guarding and blessing of their innocent children.
Executing Saddam on the Feast of the Sacrifice is like the execution of a criminal on Easter morning. No matter how richly deserved, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It leaves a question mark, why the rush? A question mark apt to be answered with the most cynical of knowing nods, depending on people's politics, when the news is closely followed by the release of unprecedented figures of American casualties in the Iraq War. We should have been spared this.

12.29.06

An auspicious coincidence of dates, in troubled times..  -  @ 11:17:02
It's the eve of the Feast of the Sacrifice, the most important day of the Muslim calendar, memories of which formed a focal point in my novel. This year it coincides with the New Year's Eve weekend, followed soon after by the Coptic Christmas, January 7th. Suffice it to say that pretty much the whole country will be on holiday, officially or unofficially, for the next ten days at least, and it will be useless trying to get anything done.
Many Cairenes are heading out of town, some to Europe, most to Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea or the North Coast. The traditional visits to family and friends, such a strong ritual of my childhood, have been reduced to phone calls. The once-ubiquitous sound of sheep baa-ing in backyards is a thing of the past: performing the mandatory ritual sacrifice is now prohibited in Cairo proper, and city folks either have it done on country estates, if they have them, or order prepackaged, pre-weighed portions of meat delivered by a licensed butcher. The poor who used to line up before dawn at the gates of the homes of the rich, waiting for their share of the freshly-butchered meat, now have to make do with cash handouts.
Meanwhile the Coptic pope Shenouda pays a visit of well-wishing to the director of the Azhar University, Shaykh Tantawy, and the shaykh takes the opportunity to pray for guidance for the presumably misguided Muslim Brotherhood associations which supported the recent student demonstrations.
President Mubarak, for his part, takes the dissidence-free opportunity of schools and universities being out of session for the extended holiday, to announce "radical amendments" to the constitution: the fact that these "democratic reforms" are imposed by the president, and that the Parliament and the people have no say in the matter, is sufficient indication that business as usual continues with the regime. Only the lawyers' and judges' syndicates dare to protest one amendment, the abolition of the Supreme Court, a "reform" they see as intended to eliminate the last bastion of resistance to the government.
Most people simply shrug off the headlines and prepare for the holidays. But social solidarity is still a priority for many: before they fly off for a Red Sea resort, friends of mine make the long drive to an orphanage they patronize to take the children on a shopping trip for new clothes for the Feast.
Every little bit helps: there is a crisis in orphan care in Egypt, and some orphanages are closing their doors for lack of funding. Meanwhile the man in the street, not easily shocked, is nevertheless shocked to read that in those very same streets roam 3 million homeless children, according to the estimate of an opposition paper. Many of those children, the ordinary citizen reads, are drawn into organized gangs, and there is no denying that lawlessness in the streets is increasing. Part of the problem is that the police forces see their mission, not as the protection of law-abiding citiziens, but purely to protect the state from dissidents. The police themselves are currently on trial in the opposition papers for acts of brutality against the same law-abiding citizens they fail to protect.
And so it goes. Headlines in government newspapers trumpeting economic good news and democratic reforms, headlines in the opposition press warning of homeless children on the streets, and the harassed Cairene paying his dues before he escapes the city for the limpid waters and white sand of the seacoasts.

12.19.06

Heads or tails? That is the question.  -  @ 08:57:19
The Financial Times published its special report on Egypt December 13th, and got most of it remarkably right: "A nation moving at different speeds," one headline read, and "Cairo inhabitants driven further apart" read another. Every article highlighted the anomalies: on the one hand, impressive economic growth over the past two years, driven largely by foreign investment, especially from the Arab Gulf, and on the other hand, a dismal informal economy in which the poor are getting poorer and more desperate. The well-to-do flee the crowded, polluted, noisy chaos of central Cairo to plush new suburbs and vacation resorts, while the beleagured poor turn an open ear to Islamist rhetoric. What any Cairene can attest is the alarming rise, in a country that was once a byword for safety, in insecurity and crime, from robberies to sexual harrassment in broad daylight.
Last night at the Four Seasons Hotel in Garden City, arguably the most sumptuous of Cairo's new hotels and a stone's throw from the venerable Shepherd's and my Cairo House, lavish parties were in full swing, attended by local and foreign investors. The newspaper headlines that morning in the Egyptian press- not a whisper in the international- were of the arrest of a crowd of Islamist student protestors at the Azhar University, who had demonstrated, wearing black ski masks, against the current regime and its monopoly on political and economic power. The Azhar University, a millenial religious university and a global authority on Islamic thought, is directed by a president who adheres strictly to the government hardline on the student demonstrators: he refuses to intercede for their release and instituted surveillance of professor/student encounters to prevent future deviations from what he terms "the line of moderation."
Lavish parties for investors at grand hotels, student unrest at an Islamic university; all in a day's headlines, two sides of the same coin in Egypt. Whether the country will come up heads or tails is the great question on everyone's mind.

12.14.06

Always running late and sometimes never  -  @ 02:47:10
Bulgari, the famous jewelers, gave an invitation-only party at First Mall at the Giza Four Seasons yesterday. The invitation specified "Christmas brunch" at noon, but Cairenes in the know warned me not to show up before 1 PM and also urged me to join them for lunch after as there was never any real food served at such affairs. They turned out to be right on the first count, wrong on the second: we found a very lavish buffet piled high with smoked salmon, sushi, sashimi, etc, not to mention mounds of my favorite macaroons from La Duree. Waiters circulated with trays among the guests standing at little tables just in case the ladies were too lazy to serve themselves from the buffet. The only men there were the somewhat beleagured-looking Bulgari executives, French and Egyptian. Many of the women wore the latest designer fashions, fur, leather, and long, coiffed hair predominating; a handful wore headscarves, but they were the ones most likely to be able to afford Bulgari jewelry.
Later that evening, I was to participate in a television program called: "My Family", in which a personality hosted the television crew at her home and introduced her friends and family, moderating a discussion on a particular topic. I had never before met the lady whose family I would be presented as part of, so, at her suggestion, I went a little early, 5:30 for a 6 PM appointment. I had no trouble at all finding her house, since it is practically across the street from my family home in Garden City, the Cairo house of my novel. My hostess is a philanthropist/political persona who hoped to put in a plug for her favorite educational charity. Her "family" included her young nephew, who would introduce her, and about seven women: some friends, some acquaintances, all more or less related to the theme of education. It turned out I knew or had met all but two of them- that's Cairo. The proceedings could not get started until we were served tea with chocolate cake and petits-fours- that also is Cairo.
Some of the original guests had dropped out, others replaced them, and we went from having too few to having too many participants, at which point everyone offered to cede their place. The hostess was very stressed and kept rehearsing over and over with her nephew how he would introduce her and her work. The television crew showed up a couple of hours later and were served tea and chocolate cake, after which they began to set up lights and take down names and particulars. After about an hour in which the hostess sat on the sofa perspiring under the lights, the crew decided there was a technical problem with one of the lenses on one of the cameras and the lights were turned off. There was some discussion about sending for a replacement lense, but by then several of us, including me, were running late for other engagements and begged off, and the whole program was shelved.
That's Cairo: always running late, and sometimes never.

Some guests

12.07.06

Rain in a dry climate  -  @ 02:58:16
Rain in a dry climate is disruptive. So for two days and nights now, Cairenes have been battling the complication of off-on showers added to their regular commutes and traffic chaos. The main bypass, or Periphery Road, as it is called, that links the new suburbs to the city proper, was shut down yesterday evening on account of accidents.
Yet nothing stops the Cairene from her appointed rounds- not even when an unexpected, but mandatory, memorial service, intervenes just before the Givenchy fashion show at the Ramses Hilton. The cars pile up three deep in front of the Shazliya Mosque, disgorging hundreds of mourners, men and women, there to pay their condolences to the extensive family of a lady of ninety-some years. Half an hour later the harried women reappear, cell phones to ear, calling their chauffeurs, who are circling round the block, to pick them up.
Many of the women go directly from the memorial service to the Rotary dinner/Givenchy fashion show gala at the Ramses Hilton; it helps that the invitation ticket suggests: Black and White. Some of us bring a change of clothes on a hanger and go change at a friend's house, only to be stuck in rain-disrupted traffic.
But not to worry, this is Cairo: the dinner that precedes the show and the show itself are held up till the guests arrive. The dinner is heavy on smoked salmon and avocado. The Givenchy winter collection is sober and luxurious, in tones of espresso and blond caramel, the models European but for two fresh-faced girls who look Egyptian. Many of the women in the audience pay only intermittent attention to the show, greeting each other across the room, waving and blowing kisses and calling on their cell phones; they barely interrupt their socializing to applaud perfunctorily when the business sponsors are announced and the show comes to an end.
The next morning we wake up to more rain. I wonder about the engagement party I am invited to that evening in one of the new suburbs; it is planned to be held out on the lawn under a tent. Rain in a dry climate is disruptive but welcome: it washes the dust off the leaves of the trees. The real concern for the future is the inevitable water shortage that will affect those sprawling new suburbs, the gated compounds built around non-sustainable golf courses and green swards. When I went on a guided tour of one of these compounds seven or so years ago, I remember looking at the huge, lavish villas standing in the desert around a golf course and thinking it was madness to think anyone would want to go live out there. I was wrong. Build it and they will come. In droves.
Come evening, under a light rain, we head for the engagement party in Qattamiya; the villa is big enough to accommodate the guests indoors, but the hosts stick to the original plan: the party is held under a white tent set up over the lawn overlooking the pool, around an elegant buffet beautifully catered by the Four Seasons hotel. You could have been in Beverly Hills, except for the fact that half the women, young and old, wore filmy hijabs coordinated to their outfits.
Like rain in a dry climate, the agreeable round of Cairo social events is a welcome, but deceptive, diversion from the realities of coming drought and economic unsustainability...

11.29.06

The other Riviera  -  @ 13:21:16
The sea is electric blue, the sky at sunset mauve, the bougainvilla red and yellow, the palm trees on the white sand beach gently dishevelled and heavy with the hard, ruby-red dates of the season. The Mediterranean coast of Egypt, stretching for two or three hundred miles west of Alexandria toward Libya, is idyllic at this time of year: temperatures in the low to mid-twenties Celsius, clear skies flirting with puffy purple clouds on the horizon at sunset, deserted beaches, soothing quiet broken only by the lapping of the waves.
And "the North Coast", as Egyptians call it, is no longer a well-kept secret: it is being built up as fast as it can be. The Minister for tourism announced that it would be "the other Riviera" of the Mediterranean, the Southern shore, and that Europeans would flock to it as they once did, and to some extent still do, to the Red Sea. But meantime Cairenes, fleeing the crush, chaos and pollution of the capital, are building summer homes there, villas or condos in resorts with names like Marina and Haciendas. In summer, the beaches will be crowded, there will be lines at the check-outs of the one supermarket in a hundred miles; the cinemas and hotels, the ice-cream shops and the hairdressers, will be bustling. And that's the way most Egyptians like it: they are nothing if not gregarious.
But for now, it is deserted, and, from my point of view, perfect.

11.26.06

A city of odd juxtapositions  -  @ 11:56:43
Cairo is a city of odd juxtapositions: looming over the downtown overpasses, a huge billboard advertises a new clothing line: "Style is a matter of instinct", next to a huge billboard advertising a relgious radio channel:"If you seek compassion and tenderness, turn to the Ikraa channel." Appealing to "tenderness" is novel in Islamic ministry, as opposed to justice and mercy, traditionally the two complimentary aspects of the Divine. The next billboard features Benjamin Franklin on a dollar bill, placed like icing on a rectangle of cake, and the logo: "Hard currency made easy."
Twenty minutes from downtown Cairo and its billboards, at a weekend "farmhouse," a lawn party is in full swing, and we might almost be at a modest English country house: about a hundred people mill about a green lawn dotted with white-slipcovered chairs and tables decorated with potted roses. The buffet is twenty yards long and features family favorites like stuffed pigeon and chicken in lentil sauce. The party is in honor of three recent appointments: two cabinet ministers and one opposition party chairman; one of the cabinet ministers and the opposition party chair are brothers. The party, the New Wafd, is the one with which my family has been associated since its inception in the 1920's- notably my uncle, deceased six years ago- but he has been succeeded by new blood.
Succession is the topic of the day: succession to the presidency of the country, that is; and while no one is particularly enthusiastic about the current regime, no one is enthusiastic either about the prospective options: the "Bambino", the Islamists, or the Army.
The subjects of Iraq and Lebanon elicit expressions of sorrow, but also frustration with the Iraqis and Lebanese for engaging in destructive internecine conflicts instead of pulling together to extract their countries from these messes.
Mostly, though, people speak of business, of real estate, of the price of currency...and the upcoming holidays, with New Year coinciding with the first day of the Bayram Feast, in a particularly awkward juxtaposition...

11.25.06

Existential musings on the baggage of life  -  @ 03:06:59
Living without your luggage is one of those experiments you never wish on yourself, but when it happens to you it's a learning experience: just how little can you make do with? I arrived at London Gatwick early in the morning a week ago, but my one piece of checked luggage didn't. The agency to which several U.S. airlines outsource their lost luggage complaints had me fill out a form, and I left for Central London, confident that the inconvenience would last only a day or so till the next USAir flight.
Since new hand luggage regulations were in effect, I was carrying nothing with me but my computer and a one-quart plastic zip-lock bag's worth of toiletries. I had left a few emergency article at the friend's I usually stay with in London- lingerie, toiletries, hairbrush- but those had also gone missing. So I ran down to the shops and bought PJ's, etc, just for the night; at the hotel, there was a bathrobe and slippers, at least. That evening, I was invited out to dinner, and I improvised by wearing my black cashemir cardigan as a top instead of an extra layer.
Going to the shops in London is never a bore: La Duree tea shop at Harrods had several new flavors of cream-filled almond macaroons to try: rose, rose-anisette, mint...and Harvey Nichols had Marie-Antointette mannequins decked out imaginatively in "dress" made of plastic forks, spoons and wrapping bows. Nowhere was there any vestige of the my favorite American holiday, Thanksgiving.
The next day, I called the number I was given by USAir, and the unhelpful person at the other end told me there was no flight that day, and that they knew that when I spoke to them yesterday, but for some reason chose to mislead me. His general attitude was more than unhelpful, rather as if it were my fault for "losing" my luggage. Tomorrow, he told me, I could check again.
At this point I ran down to Harrods and bought a new shirt to go to dinner at Mr. Chow, as I had been wearing the same pair of pants and shirt I had travelled in. I contemplated buying a new outfit to go out to dinner, but- as men rarely realize- for women it is a complicated matter, since buying a dress or skirt and top also means buying the coordinating dressy shoes, pantyhose, underthings, accessories, etc, and that takes more time than I had to spare that day.
To cut a long story short, only by circumventing the unhelpful luggage-handling agency and appealing directly to the airline, did I finally manage to have my luggage- mysteriously misdirected to Manchester- sent by courrier to London twenty minutes before I took a taxi to Heathrow to fly to Cairo.
The moral of this: one can survive on a one-quart zip-lock bag's worth of toiletries for several days (although I missed wearing perfume); and never travel without a change of nightwear and one dressy outfit in your handluggage, even in this age of carry-on restrictions.

11.18.06

chameleon farewells  -  @ 12:41:52
It's time to go away again for a couple of months, change continents and climates and lifestyles, and every time, although I do this regularly, I go through a ritual of farewells. There is much I will miss about my life in Chapel Hill, and some things I will not miss. I will miss Thanksgiving: the walk in the forest in the crisp autumn air, while the turkey takes it time in the oven; I won't miss the cooking, or the leftovers. I will miss the interfaith Thanksgiving service at a local church, and the sight, from the window, of the turkey-bowling contest a neighbor across the street holds in his driveway. (Bowling with frozen turkeys, literally.)
I will miss the thoughtfulness of my fellow yoga-class members at the gym, who accommodate my claustrophobia by leaving the door of the room open; while I am away, they will be able to shut out the distracting noise from the squash court. I won't miss the obliviousness of a neighbor who blows his leaves onto my yard, year after year.
I will miss the John Stewart show and National Public Radio's "Wait, wait, don't tell me." I won't miss the "War Room" or "Situation Room" type of 24-hour news cycle. I will miss the Christmas concerts, many free, that proliferate in every chapel and church; I won't miss the maddening "holiday" shopping jingles that assault your ears in every commercial space, including the airwaves.
I will miss driving; I don't drive in Europe and only when absolutely necessary in Cairo.
I will miss peace and quiet and time alone with my thoughts; I won't miss the occasional loneliness. I will be happy to go, happy to shift into high gear, to wear different clothes and a different skin, to speak different languages and lead a different life. And I know I will be just as happy to return.

11.17.06

What's in a name?  -  @ 08:28:11
Last night, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunis, was a guest on the Jon Stewart television show. The Bangladeshi is a Muslim Santa who deservedly won for revolutionizing banking for the poorest of the poor, yet not a single article or television interview I am aware of- not even the sympathetic Jon Stewart- mentions that he is Muslim. Is it irrelevant? I wish it were, and before 9/11 it might have been. But today, having a clearly Muslim name and nationality are certainly not irrelevant: not at airport security checks, nor at job applications and interviews, nor even in the U.S. congress; yesterday, Congressman Keith Ellison, an African-American convert, was asked on television if his religion made it reasonable to suspect him of being in league "with our enemies."
So when the story about a Muslim is a positive one, as is the case of Muhammad Yunis, perhaps his affiliation- not necessarily faith- should be mentioned, as it surely would be if it were a negative story. Particularly since, in this case, he won the Nobel prize for helping the poor, and whether or not Yunis is a man of faith, he was fulfilling the strongest moral imperative in Islam.

11.11.06

Profiling revisited, sadly  -  @ 11:31:16
It's so sad that the issue of profiling Arab and Muslim travelers is being revisited, this time by the U.K. Understandable too, as increasingly arbitrary, irrational, and arguably unnecessary restrictions are being imposed on travelers at airports, with the net effect of sustaining the climate of fear. But, as I wrote earlier on my blog, and as I reiterated recently to the State department's representative at Duke University during an informal lunch, one of the most important reasons that consistent discrimination and profiling are counter productive, is this: the real breakthroughs in unmasking terrorist plots have never come from airport security, and have always come as the result of good intelligence. Good intelligence relies on good relations between intelligence agents and Arab/Muslim communities abroad, and alienating those communities by systematic discrimination would compromise this critical cooperation.

11.09.06

Nothing like it!  -  @ 10:38:09
Isn't democracy wonderful when it works? Like a minor miracle to those who were losing faith. But more than faith in the system, optimists hope to find in these election results a reassertion of the fundamental decency and rationality of the American people and a rejection of the demagoguery and terror tactics intended to control the masses like so many Pavlovian dogs trained to respond with paralyzing fear to the shadowy, omnipresent threat of "terrorism", and with silence to the ready charge of "unpatriotic" flung at questioning or dissent.

11.07.06

Notes from a Blue Moon Election Day  -  @ 14:02:23
I meant to walk over to the church across the road to vote today; it's that close to home. I'm used to voting in churches now, but when I first started voting in the U.S., some twenty years ago, the location came as a surprise. And I have never missed voting at a presidential election since I became a citizen, even when the stakes were low; coming from Egypt- where my family had been disenfranchised of the vote after 1952 for belonging to the "old order"; where presidents ran unopposed and always announced referendum results of 99.9% approval; where thugs beat voters at polling stations;- the privilege of voting in real elections where my vote would count was one I never took for granted, and always honored by showing up at the polling booth come rain or snow. In 2004, the first time the stakes were so high for me, I even voted early, waiting in a long line on the campus at the University of North Carolina.
But this year is a "Blue Moon Election Day", a non-presidential election in which, at least for N. Carolina, there are no Senate seats contested. So I had meant to vote at leisure, taking a five minute stroll to my voting station, the church across the road, in what had been perfect Fall weather: brilliant skies and a burst of fuschia, magenta, gold and pumpkin-colored leaves. But this morning turned out to be relentlessly rain and chill, so I drove over instead.
The evangelical church across the way is a huge building with a vast auditorium and plenty of parking spaces, almost all empty when I arrived at 11 am. There was no line, in fact no wait at all. One of the poll workers looked up my name on her list of registered voters, verified my address- no paper I.D. required, as usual- and handed me a paper ballot. I went and stood for a moment at the booth, filling in the ovals with black pen, turned around and took two steps to the machine that reads the ballots and slipped mine in; I had the satisfaction of seeing the counter move from 386 to the 387 as my vote was counted. Had the rain kept people away, I asked the poll worker as she handed me a "I voted" sitcker. No, she said, it had been ticking right along.
Nothing about the process could have been smoother; voters in my district are lucky compared to elsewhere in the country: no punching holes, no hanging chads, no electronic voting machines so easily vulnerable to human error or abuse. And of course, no intimidation or deliberately long waits.
And yet, in the run-up to today, there were things I should have done, would have done six years ago, but did not dare to do in this divisive and ugly national mood. I did not put up on my lawn the party signs sent by my congressman, whom I support, because no one else in our neighborhood puts out signs, and I don't know how they would feel about it- or if, in fact, there is an ordinance against it in the homeowners covenant. I didn't host a "bring out the vote" party, because I was afraid to have strangers in my house. I cringed when I saw the ugly attack ads on television aimed at a N. Carolina congressional candidate who was tarred with having the support of the Muslim Association for Public Affairs, but there was nothing I could do about it.
And like so many others this election season who were turned off, or intimidated, out of doing everything they could, I wonder if, when election results are announced tonight, I will have only myself to blame.

11.03.06

Rhetoric and Reality behind the push for democracy in the ME  -  @ 10:50:05
I attended an interesting talk yesterday by Ambassador Diana Negroponte at Duke University: "Rhetoric and Reality behind the foreign policy push for liberal democracy in the Middle East." Negroponte works for the U.S. Institute for Peace History Project, and Freedom House, institutions established to promote democratic transitions around the world. The Middle East part of the title of her talk was slightly misleading; in fact most of her examples came from her long experience in Latin America and the former Soviet republics, but that, to my mind, made her point more valid by removing from it any reference to "Isamic exceptionalism." In fact, to her credit, I only heard her mention the world "islamic" once; in referring to 9/11, for instance, she spoke of the need to confront and eradicate "Arab malignancy."
But her thrust was this: "democracy", both as a term and as an ideal, is being invalidated and rejected around the world at the moment, as the tide rolls back and reverses the Orange revolution of Ukraine and the Rose revolution of Georgia, to give only two- deliberately non-Muslim- examples. Whether in Latin America, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, the historical, cultural, and ethnic soil does not lend itself to wholesale implantation of Western-style "democratic" values.
The solution, to Dr. Negroponte's thinking, is to disassociate "Liberal" from "Democracy" as a goal for the developing world, in U.S. foreign policy. She reminded the audience that the two ideologies were not always linked, and that this fusion happened in the late 1880's. Our foreign policy should aim to promote "Liberal", i.e. rule of law, women's rights, economic liberalism, and leave aside "Democracy", i.e. electoral, representative, free speech, majority rule.
An interesting hypothesis.

11.01.06

Another talk, but was it dialogue?  -  @ 15:28:39
I just gave a talk- one of many since 9/11- about Women in Islam, this time to a group of Duke Learning in Retirement members, at Judea Reform in Durham, all women who were as civil as they could be. Towards the end of the hour and a half long talk, though, I felt a little defensive and slightly disheartened. I was getting the same questions I was asked five years ago: the fixation with the hijab, implicitly or explicitly expressing their discomfort with seeing a woman in an Islamic headscarf; the impression they seemed to be under that Muslim leaders and ordinary people did not condemn the World Tower attacks, when, of course, they did. I wonder though, if anyone was listening.
Back to the future, and lessons unlearned  -  @ 09:39:00
The fiftieth anniversary of the Suez crisis was marked by the media worldwide, with some essays more thoughtful than others. My father had just turned thirty years old in October 1956, when Egypt was attacked by Israeli, French and British forces. Nasser's 1952 coup d'etat had stripped him and his class of landowners of their property, and his oldest brother, a politician and party leader, had been tried and condemned to death (later freed) as ancien regime enemy of the people. It might have been reasonable to assume that a man in my father's position would have welcomed, or at least stayed neutral about, the foreign invasion that promised to topple Nasser's regime and return the status quo ante. He did nothing of the sort: he took his family to the safety of the countryside, and returned to Cairo to volunteer for the civil defense. That's human nature: when your country is invaded, you close ranks. That is one of the lessons of Suez, perhaps, that it would have been well to remember three years ago. Along with this: Suez made Nasser a hero, not to my father, but to the vast majority of Arabs.

10.23.06

The Face Veil, revisited  -  @ 12:42:25
I have a confession to make. The few times I run into women wearing the face veil, my first instinct is hostile. After all, your face is your identity, and covering it is effacing your identity. I am all the more resentful because I know such face-masking will be laid at the beleagured door of Islam; in effect, only one country, Saudi Arabia, with a small population of 20 million or so, mandates veiling, whereas the remainder of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims do not.
So it is inexplicable to me that a few women in England are militantly demanding the right to veil their faces everywhere in public, and that these women are British-born and/or converts. Clearly, they are making a statement of separation, as British officials from Tony Blair on down have deplored. And it is just as clear, to me at least, that in the case of the teacher who went to court for the right to teach with her face covered, that the court made the right decision in putting the interests of the children first: children have a right to learn from a teacher whose expressions they can read. The same would be true for any profession where face-to-face interaction is expected.
And yet, and yet...I hope the British goverment does not go a step further, and enforce laws against veiling in public, as the French have done with headscarves in the schools. Your right to cover your face in public should come before my right not to be made uncomfortable by the sight of your face mask. Because where does it stop? What if I am made uncomfortable by the sight of a doctor in a sari, or a surgeon in a Sikh turban, or an accountant with sidecurls and a tall black hat?
There is another reason it would be a mistake to enforce legislation- which is quite a different thing from the courts ruling on a case by case basis that an institution or a business has the right to fire, or refuse to hire, a woman who insists on covering her face when it interferes with the normal execution of her duties. That reason is that such measures invariably target Islamic symbols; in France, Sikh turbans were not outlawed, only Muslim headscarves. In other words, it is Islam, as a religion, that is perceived as threatening and whose outward symbols of dress are perceived as creating discomfort. That is a dangerous road to follow. Better to let such demonstrations of alienation run their course and peter out for lack of attention.

10.17.06

Inconvenient Truths  -  @ 21:55:41
With alarming frequency over the past five years, journalists are paying the ultimate price for daring to try to report war outside of the framework and monopolized message of "embedding"; in Iraq, in the Palestinian territories, but last week also in Russia, where a Russian journalist was killed for reporting army atrocities against Chechen rebels.
Governments are also increasingly passing measures to monopolize the truth: the new, supposedly democracy-inspired, Iraqi government has passed a law criminalizing criticism of it in the press; in France, the original bastion of freedom, the lower house of parliament has passed a resolution criminalizing the denying of Armenian genocide; the Turkish government in turn has attempted to prohibit "unpatriotic" speech, specifically regarding massacres against Armenians a hundred years ago. In America, the press was banned from showing coffins of fallen servicemen returning from Iraq; criticism of the war or the administration's conduct of it, is denounced as unpatriotic by their supporters, including those in high office.
What kind of truths need to be protected by coercive measures from all challenges? Thomas Jefferson set down in 1799, as one of the founding priciples of America: "that truth is great and will always prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to terror, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate."

10.13.06

Anna Politkovskaya and the price of speaking truth to power  -  @ 09:56:27
Toby Eady,whom I know both as a friend, and through Toby Eady Associates, my agent, will be reading this tribute to the murdered Russian journalist at the House of Lords today. As is his wont, Toby does not mince words.

"Anna Politkovskaya would have been alive today had she chosen to join the
clique of journalists within the confines of the plutocracy that our world
leaders live behind. But she travelled without protection, and she wrote of
how ordinary people live and the price they pay for the wars they are
encouraged to fight in. Anna wrote 'I live in the present, noting what I see
and hear.' She spoke to and touched those who were wounded, hostages, and
the bereaved. She spoke for the dead, not just in Chechnya but in all of our
wars. She hoped for human justice.
In the last conversation that we had, when we discussed the book she
intended to write, I suggested that she might leave Russia. She replied 'I
would only leave after Putin is gone' and then asked if she was killed,
would her children have to pay back her publishing advance. It's fitting
that many of the publishers in Europe who brought Pasternak and Solzhenitzyn
to western reader were her publishers, and will be. So we can read what Anna
was murdered for: telling the truth."

10.09.06

This week, and historical perspective  -  @ 10:29:51
I was looking at a timeline of the administration of the legendary British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, whose tenure coincided with the turbulent times of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars; prominent on the timeline, in the debit column of his legacy, was the year he (temporarily) suspended haebus corpus and introduced the Sedition Act, an over-reaction to the perceived threat from the ideology of French Jacobinism and the very real threat of invasion by Napoleon.
One wonders which events of the past week will figure prominently in a historical timeline of the current American administration: the suspension of haebus corpus at the Chief Executive's discretion; the compromising on the Geneva Conventions; the Republican commission report on the dire situation and undeclared civil war in Iraq; the four school shootings in a country that refuses to regulate gun ownership;- or the perfect storm of Oprah-style scandal known as the Foley affair.
The Republican administration must be relieved for the diversion of a manageable-sized sex pecadillo, this close to the elections, to take the focus off the more intractable issues. But history? That will be another story.

10.05.06

Identity Lost and Found  -  @ 09:58:59
I've sometimes wondered, with a shudder, what it would be like to be a victim of identity theft. Now I know: I've just had a virtual experience of it. Yesterday morning I went on The Cairo House website and got a shock: it had been taken over by a tour operator. Frantic calls to my webmaster, followed by negotiations on his part, and twenty four hours later, I had my page back. Apparently I had neglected to renew the domain name in time, and it had been appropriated, quite legitimately, by someone else.
Relatively minor in the scheme of things, but still, even a virtual loss of identity can be highly disruptive, not to say traumatic.

09.28.06

Of what is and isn't Mozart  -  @ 10:08:27
I felt a little let down yesterday by the New York Times, a paper I read religiously and usually, as the humorist put it, to confirm my own opinion. The disappointing article was about the controversy over a German production of a Mozart opera that was modified to add a scene in which selective prophets are beheaded: Jesus, Mohamed, Budha, and Poseidon. (No Moses? No Zarathustra?)The director is considering cancelling the production because she had been warned that in the current charged climate- post-Iraq, post-cartoon and post-pope- it might be strongly offensive to Muslims. The article closes with the quote: "I never heard of something like this, or even similar to it." Really? It's a pity the Times chose to end on that note instead of providing some much-needed perspective. In London last year, a play was cancelled, at the request of the authorities, because it was likely to be offensive to Sikhs. In New York this year, a play, The Rachel Corey Story, was cancelled because some directors on the board of the theatre reported that their rabbis had objections to its depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where was the shock and the outrage in those two cases? If we are going to get on our moral high horse about freedom of speech, there has to be consistency. It's truly disappointing that the NYT chose not to provide perspective.

09.27.06

Celebrating Mahfouz at UNC this afternoon  -  @ 08:39:29
I will be participating on a panel of writers and scholars celebrating the literary heritage of the late Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, at UNC Chapel Hill this afternoon, Wednesday the 27th, at 4:30, Room 205. The event is free and open to the public. I'm looking forward to sharing my perspective on Mahfouz's Cairo and even more to hearing the other panelists.

09.24.06

Of almanacs, reconciliation and bloodshed  -  @ 18:43:08
Yesterday marked the coincidental beginning of two religious holidays: millions of Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hoshana, and millions of Muslims around the world celebrated the first day of Ramadan. Something of the same spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness animates both observances, whether it be with God or one's fellow man. One glaring anomaly, however: it was the first day of Ramadan for millions of Muslims, but for millions more, it was not. Saudi Arabia declared for Saturday, Egypt for Sunday, and the Ayatollah in Iran held out for Monday. This, when the sighting of the new moon- the harbinger of the new lunar month of Ramadan- can be astronomically ascertained with great precision. Most disturbing of all: Iraq's Sunni community chose to follow the Saudis, and the Shia to follow Iran. Sectarian affiliation was never remotely this divisive before the American invasion. On this holy month for all Muslims, Sunni or Shia, Iraqis continue to tear each other apart in a bloody fratricidal civil war. There could be no worse symbol of what is wrong with the Muslim world today.

09.19.06

Perspective, and the language of violence  -  @ 15:11:13
Sometimes it is only with the perspective of comparison that the full stature of a historical figure becomes apparent. Pope John Paul II was a man of such international stature, such global vision, that he saw, and played, his role on the world stage as a spiritual leader to all Mankind, regardless of religious affiliation. It is a credit to his persona and his policies that he was accepted in that role by people around the world, and particularly in the Islamic world. The sincere forgiveness he extended to his would-be assassin went far to earn him his aura of saintliness. He was the first Pope to enter a mosque; the first for whom Muslims lined the streets, hoping for a baraka- a blessing- from his passage; the first who was appealed to as an honest broker in conflicts, including the intractable Middle East. These days, he is doubly mourned, for with his passing we seem to have entered an era of narrow, divisive partisanship in religion, a return to medieval confrontation and competition and triumphalism. John Paul, we did not know how much we would miss you.
Karen Armstrong said that there can be violence in language, and she is right. It is as dangerous to let the language of Islamophobia go unprotested as it is to let the language of anti-Semitism go unchallenged. But the protests must never degenerate into violence of action. As for those deluded criminals who vandalized churches in Palestine, if their response to Islamophobic provocations is allowed to drive a wedge between Christian and Muslim in the Middle East, it will be a tragedy for all concerned, and Muslims first of all.

09.10.06

Of Jefferson and Wolves and Iraq  -  @ 21:20:11
The highest peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia offer a grandeur of perspective that hushes the voice and dizzies the mind. Far, far below lies the Shenandoah Valley, the setting of Stonewall Jackson's battles. Around the mountain the Apple Butter festival is in full swing, with bearded men stirring huge copper kettles of fragrant apples under the trees, and sweet-voiced women singing and playing music. It is easy to see in them the descendants of the Confederate soldiers who fought under Jackson or escaped conscription in these mountains; and it is hard to see them- and their cousins on the other side of the Blue Ridge- as the troops sent to fight in Iraq: sent unprepared, in a land so far, and so alien, where it is not hard to imagine that they would lose their moorings.
Because Iraq is inescapable, even here in this lovely corner of Virginia, and so, more agreeably, is Jefferson, everywhere in the state. In Richmond, where the historic Jefferson Hotel boasts a statue of its namesake at the top of the gracious staircase leading to the rotunda with its stained glass ceiling. At Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, of course, which Jefferson founded. At Monticello, his country estate, so unpretentious to be the home of such a great man. At Monticello the full impact of Jefferson's contradictions as a man and a founding father are inescapable. A slave owner who never freed his slaves, he was fully aware of the evil of the institution. He said of slavery in America: "We are holding a wolf by the ear, we can neither safely hold it nor let it go." And that made me think, immediately, of Iraq: we are holding a wolf by the ear, and we can neither safely hold it nor let it go. Jefferson's solution- which wasn't one- was to postpone dealing with the problem of slavery for another generation. It did take another generation, but it also took one of the bloodiest civil wars in history. With Iraq, we don't have the luxury of time to wait for another generation, and the civil war has already started.

09.02.06

Mahfouz and I and the Insatiable City  -  @ 12:12:30
Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's, and the Arab world's, premier novelist and sole literary Nobel laureate, died earlier this week at the age of 94, having survived a knife attack by Islamic terrorists when he was 80. I never met Mahfouz, but I have had an evolving literary relationship with him. As a teenager in Egypt, my father urged me to read Mahfouz's novels, to improve my Arabic, but also to broaden my mind; Mahfouz's world, his Jamaliyya backstreets in the densely populated inner city neighborhoods, remained alien to me. My acquaintance with that world was limited to a Ramadan ritual: during that month, holy to Muslims, a group of us would venture out in the evening to the Khan Khalili souk and have Turkish coffee and pretend to smoke a hookah at the Fishawi Cafe, immortalized in Mahfouz's novels. Many of the customers around us would be European tourists, and although at the time we didn't realize it, my friends and I were tourists too, in our own city, seeking a bit of "local color", seeking the "Ramadan spirit" too absent in our own more genteel neightborhoods of Garden City and Zamalek. Today, that sense of alienation and exoticism has taken a quantum leap: all the grand hotels on the Nile in Garden City recreate their own version of a "Mahfouz Ramadan", along the lines of a "Dickens Christmas." Tourists, both foreign and Egyptian, no longer actually need to go to the Hussein quarter; a facsmimile is brought to them, courtesy of transformed hotel lobbies and "Ramadan tents."
Fast forward to November 2003, and I was invited to speak to about 500 students at Butler University in Indiana; the students had been assigned Mahfouz's Palace Walk and my novel The Cairo House. The logic behind this pairing- so flattering to me- was that they represented two contrasting Cairos: far apart in generation, in neighborhoods, in socio-economic reference points. Another difference: Mahfouz never left Egypt; I have lived abroad, with interludes in Egypt, since the age of twenty.
One thing remains constant: Cairo, a city perpetually bursting its seams and expanding beyond its city walls, over and over. Mahfouz's popular Jamaliyya and Khan Khalili were once, at the time of Napoleon's invasion, the heart of Cairo; today, Cairenes whizz by them on overpass bridges and the Azhar tunnel, on their way to Giza or Heliopolis; tomorrow, the outer suburbs of "October 6" in the West and "New Cairo" in the East will continue to expand, reclaiming the desert for the insatiable city. But that is what a great, millenial city is: an insatiable mistress and muse, rushing blindly on, indifferent to the pens of those who would try to capture it, in a moment of time and place, and fix it on the page, as Mahfouz did his beloved Cairo, for so very long.

08.18.06

A good day for those who still hold a dream of America in their hearts  -  @ 11:58:57
Growing up in Egypt under the Nasser regime, it was taken for granted that phones were wiretapped, especially if, as in my case, you belonged to one of the families considered under suspicion: political, ancien regime, pro-Western reactionaries, feudalist/capitalist, what have you. The wiretapping was so much a fact of life that we would occasionally forget about it until a discreet cough on the line from the surveillance man reminded us to switch back to Arabic, if we had strayed into English or French and he couldn't follow; or to alert us that we were speaking of personal matters (some of these surveillance agents had sensibilities about decorum) or simply to indicate that he needed a bathroom break and that we should wind up the conversation and get off the line.
There were comical moments like these because the surveillance was low-tech, but the overall effect, make no mistake about it, was a terrifyingly chilling effect on freedom of expression and all aspects of public life, everywhere. An entire generation grew up afraid to speak its mind, afraid of "the authorities," afraid of the "mukhabarat", the intelligence services. Fear corroded the civic virtues of responsibility, integrity and personal striving.
That was one of the main reasons I left Egypt and chose to live in the United States. America was the land of freedom, and especially freedom of expression. My children would never grow up looking over their shoulder or wondering who was listening in on their conversations.
If you have never lived in a surveillance society, you don't know what it is like to lose your privacy, your freedom to speak and move and live without Big Brother watching you. And with today's terrifying technology, the loss of privacy can reach unprecedented, nightmarish proportions. Nothing is worth it. Ask anyone from a surveillance society who looked to America as a beacon of freedom and she or he will tell you nothing is worth it.
So today, when Judge Ann Taylor ruled on the unconstitutionality of warrantless surveillance, is a good day for those who still hold that dream of America in their hearts- a beacon of freedom.

08.16.06

Risk, morality and fear of flying  -  @ 10:18:40
Growing up in Egypt under the Nasser regime, it was taken for granted that phones were wiretapped, especially if, as in my case, you belonged to one of the families considered under suspicion: political, ancien regime, pro-Western reactionaries, feudalist/capitalist, what have you. The wiretapping was so much a fact of life that we would occasionally forget about it until a discreet cough on the line from the surveillance man reminded us to switch back to Arabic, if we had strayed into English or French and he couldn't follow; or to alert us that we were speaking of personal matters (some of these surveillance agents had sensibilities about decorum) or simply to indicate that he needed a bathroom break and that we should wind up the conversation and get off the line.
There were comical moments like these because the surveillance was low-tech, but the overall effect, make no mistake about it, was a terrifyingly chilling effect on freedom of expression and all aspects of public life, everywhere. An entire generation grew up afraid to speak its mind, afraid of "the authorities," afraid of the "mukhabarat", the intelligence services. Fear corroded the civic virtues of responsibility, integrity and personal striving.
That was one of the main reasons I left Egypt and chose to live in the United States. America was the land of freedom, and especially freedom of expression. My children would never grow up looking over their shoulder or wondering who was listening in on their conversations.
If you have never lived in a surveillance society, you don't know what it is like to lose your privacy, your freedom to speak and move and live without Big Brother watching you. And with today's terrifying technology, the loss of privacy can reach unprecedented, nightmarish proportions. Nothing is worth it. Ask anyone from a surveillance society who looked to America as a beacon of freedom, and she or he will tell you nothing is worth it.
So today, when Judge Ann Taylor ruled on the unconstitutionality of warrantless surveillance, is a good day for those who still hold that dream of America in their hearts- a beacon of freedom.

08.14.06

Turn back the madness...  -  @ 08:41:12
Yesterday was a perfect Carolina day, a rare, brief reprieve from summer heat and humidity: a clear, sunny, temperate Sunday, a day for people in this part of the world to wear their Sabbath best and go for brunch to gracious southern mansions turned into elegant hotels with smiling waitstaff. It was also the day set for community prayers for peace in the Middle East, a day to remember those whose daily reality was Baghdad or Tyre or Haifa. And enough people chose, after worship and brunch, to forgo the afternoon tennis game or walk, to fill most of the seats in Raleigh's huge Meymandi Hall. The event was a study in diversity: white and black, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Catholic, Jewish, B'hai. The two Muslim speakers were a contrast: one a burly African American in suit and tie, the other a frail white-haired Afghan in native dress; wisely, neither ventured to read from the Koran in Arabic- not their native language. One large, red-haired lady rabbi genially insisted on shaking hands with the Imam onstage, apparently having forgotten the note on our programs urging sensitivity to different cultures regarding shaking hands with the opposite sex; he did not seem perturbed. The other rabbi began somewhat inauspiciously: "Imagine that Jesus, Allah and Adonai walk into..."The Baptist minister asked the audience to hold hands. Raleigh mayor Meeker somehow slipped in a plug for John Edwards. It was left to the Monsignor to remind us that "we hold these truths to be self-evident: all men are equal in the sight of God." And the Budhist to remind us that, prayers aside, it is up to humans to make the change.
And so, for someone who finds it difficult to suspend her hypercritical faculties and funny bone during public demonstrations, the moments of real reflection and emotion imposed themselves during the silences between the words, the moments of silent prayer. And one phrase kept repeating in my head: Turn back the madness of the world, turn back the madness.

08.12.06

Dangerous analogies  -  @ 22:04:47
There is considerable controversy over what "Islamic fascism" is, and what it isn't. Daniel Vernet's analysis in the August 9th issue of Le Monde is relevant and thoughtful. The essay ends with this paragraph: "Analogies can be misleading. Islamic fundamentalism may be a totalitarian ideology, sometimes resorting to terrorism, and as such must be fought, but it does not have at its disposal the apparatus of State that the great totalitarianisms of the 20th century put at the service of their ambitions. Classic military means will not put an end it. A wrong diagnosis leads to an error in prescription and new catastrophes. See:Iraq.

08.07.06

Interfaith Prayers for Peace  -  @ 10:11:46
An interfaith community prayer for peace will be held on Sunday, August 13, at 3:00 PM in Raleigh, NC; the Prayer Service will be at Meymandi Hall, Progress Energy Center For Performing Arts. It is sponsored by the News & Observer and other media, by religious organizations of several faiths, and by the Martin Luther King Center; the list is an interesting reflection of the political dynamics of communal prayer in American society. But the implicit organizing principle, that there are no greater and lesser gods, is worth supporting.

08.02.06

Lebanon, Katrina, and Laboratory Mice  -  @ 10:32:46
Lebanese President Fouad Signiora cried out in bafflement against the indifference of those in the international community who refused to call for an immediate ceasefire and pushed for more time to continue the bombing of Lebanese innocents, even after the carnage of Cana: "Are we children of a lesser God?" Signiora wailed. It is a question he is not alone in asking, and in the Middle East, many Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, have come to their own bitter conclusions. It is the question many African Americans asked in the face of the initially casual response to the suffering of their fellow Americans in the aftermath of Katrina.
That brings us to the laboratory mice. One study shows that mice who have spent time together respond with anxious behavior when made to witness the distress of other mice in their community, whereas they betray indifference when witnessing the distress of mice who are strangers to them. Perhaps that is what is operating on the world stage today: empathy strictly delimited by tribalism, and indifferent to the primordial principle that we are all God's creatures, and that there is only one scale in which lives and sufferings are to be measured.

07.28.06

Fear, fair play, and humanitarian aid  -  @ 19:32:56
Today's New York Times, in an article on the response of American communities, Jewish and Arab, to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, reports that: "The Council on American Islamic Relations is encouraging American Muslims to send boxes of lentils, powdered milk and diapers, rather than money, to Life for Relief and Development, a charity based in Southfield, Mich. It is discouraging direct financial contributions because many American Muslims fear they will be investigated by the American government if they donate to a Muslim charity." That fear is powerful and nearly ubiquitous, and it is founded in the realities of today's America. That is a shame. Fair play should apply to humanitarian aid, if nothing else.

07.27.06

Flamenco and the universal cry of suffering  -  @ 10:58:36
When the news around the world and the scenes of carnage are particularly hard to bear, few distractions offer relief, but last weekend I found one of them in a Flamenco performance at the American Dance Festival. I'd pretty much passed up the annual Festival at Duke this year- one too many Pilobolus acrobatics- but I caught this one performance, the very last of the 2-month season, and it was a revelation. I had been introduced to Flamenco during a trip to Spain years ago, but this was different. The drama was there, the passion was there, the incredible atheleticism was there; but there was also an intellectualization of the drama and the passion and the temporary relief of explosive motion- at the end of each piece, a hesitant stillness, a probing of the air, to gauge what had changed, and what hadn't. What resonated most with me was the singing of the male cantatores; in Spanish, but universally intelligible and expressive: haranguing, pleading, explaining...and most of all crying out in impotent suffering and anger, the raw "Aiii.." ubiquitous in Arabic singing, and just now, so resonant.
Back to the Future..the Espresso Book Machine  -  @ 10:25:24
It's finally here: the most significant revolution in publishing since Guttenburg. You could go to a bookstore, choose a book online, and a magic printing machine can print the text of a 300-page book in three minutes, with color binding, for a penny a page, in the time it would take for your order of capuccino to be ready! The Espresso Book Machine exists and is being tested at the World Bank in Washington,D.C. If it becomes ubiquitous, that will mean breaking the closed circuit of the publishing industry and its bookseller end point, as no inventory would need to be kept on site- and that, of course, would be precisely the reason the publishing industry might resist it. Libraries, however, are already on board. I am particularly excited that one of the first two libraries to order the Espresso Book Machine is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt (the other is the New York Public Library.)It's very fitting that today's Library of Alexandria should be at the forefront again, as its forerunner was in the days of the Ptolemies.

07.19.06

The long hot summer...  -  @ 22:01:26
It began as a long, hot summer everywhere, as if to provide irrefutable proof of global warming. Then the tsunami hit Indonesia again, as if to prove that lightning strikes in the same place as many times as it pleases. A frightening reminder for the post-Katrina South Eastern coast of the U.S., with hurricane season only a month away. Then, just when we seem to have become numbed to obscene daily death tolls in Iraq, the conflagration in the Middle East spreads to Gaza, then Lebanon, like a tsunami that strikes again, and again.
When world events take a turn for the unconscionable, one's reaction, paradoxically, can be a stunned silence.

07.06.06

Why the Green Zone reminds me of Napoleon  -  @ 10:27:22
Those who do not study history miss a disturbing sense of deja vu in the dynamics of occupation and particularly civilizational conflicts. Yesterday's news bulletin about American plans to create a "Green Zone" in Ramadi along the lines of the Green Zone in Baghdad made me think of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign of 1798-1801, when the French established a fortress-like "Green Zone" of their own in Cairo's Ezbekiah quarter; after the first insurrection of Cairo, especially, the Ezbekiah was evacuated of its remaining Egyptian residents and the French regrouped in the designated safe zone.

07.05.06

Why I follow the "Bleus" FIFA cup although..  -  @ 15:43:30
although I can't tell an offside from a penalty shot. I've always been completely bemused by the passion for watching sports- any sport- in spite of having a father who, like most Egyptians, was so passionate about football (soccer) that his doctor forbade him to watch matches live on television for fear of bringing on one of his heart attacks. But I confess to watching the Bleus of France. I remember the public euphoria at their first triumph in 1998, the outpouring of national adulation that politicians tried to co-opt in photographs with the team, provoking sarcastic comments on the part of the press who noted that the patrician Jacques Chirac had probably never watched the declasse sport of football before in his life.
But this team captured the imagination with their diversity- the captain, Zidane, is of North African extraction and many of the best players, Thierry Henri, Thuram- are African. The national embrace put the lie to Jean-Marie Le Pen's racist diatribes. The Bleus were endearing by their very lack of flash; not a glamor boy or a metrosexual Beckham in the lot, just workmanlike, baldheaded Barthes and Zidane and the team from all over, playing together with the best esprit de corps and near-ESP collaboration.
This year, this FIFA, more is riding on the Bleus than a world cup. When they headed for Germany their own countrymen no longer believed in them; the stars of 1998 were aging, washed-out; Zidane had already announced his retirement. The national mood was sour and divisive after the winter riots in the suburbs that exposed the racial divisions in the country. But as the Bleus beat Spain and continued on to the semi-final with amazing grace, their fickle supporters found their faith again. And whether the Black/Blanc/Beurs team make it past the semi-finals or not, they have already begun to heal that gaping wound, and that is as good a reason as any to watch this match.
Somber thoughts on Independence days Across the Border  -  @ 15:04:07
Canada Day happened to fall on the weekend before Indepence Day, and in Toronto some things were familiar and some were a contrast. The taxi stand at the airport was monopolized by a fleet of black cabs driven by black-turbanned, black-bearded Sikhs. Downtown, every other face was Asian or Indian, with a few headscarves sprinkled around. There were fireworks, and cheerful crowds boarding the ferries on Lake Ontario, but there was a somber undertone as well: the first Canadian casualties had come back from Afghansitan in body bags, and the Prime Minister had taken the position, upon reflection, that he would not meet the plane, indicating resignation: this sad ritual was expected to re-occur regularly enough to make it impractical for the PM to meet the bodies at the airport each time. It makes me wonder, now that Canadian troops are involved in active warfare instead of peacekeeping, how that will affect the traditional national characteristics of tolerance and pacifism.

06.16.06

Abroad Thoughts from Home  -  @ 08:05:47
On long trips like this most recent one I try to sniff l'air du temps in each city I visit. New York on Mother's Day, everyone seems relaxed and helpful...London and Paris have such different auras. Certain streets in Paris, like Avenue Montaigne in the Golden Triangle, radiate a chic chill, whereas London's toniest addresses retain a superficially democratic openness. Although London, of course, seems nearly twice as expensive as Paris...The French still maintain a certain intellectual snobbery in their popular culture, whereas the British have completely disassociated the two. Both cities gripped in football fever, with scalper tickets going for 3000 euros for a single game.
Cairo in summer now increasingly more climate-conrolled everywhere: it used to be mainly hotels and restuarants, but now also offices, hospitals, businesses, banks, gigantic malls, even homes, although central air is spottier in homes. As Cairo becomes more livable in summer, conversely, the minister of tourism, himself a major tourism entrepreneur, announces that the Mediterrranean coast will be "Egypt's new Riviera", and indeed it has been developing rapidly for several years now, with resorts springing up from Alamein to Marsa Matrouh.

04.20.06

Two Incidents of Rape, Worlds Apart  -  @ 11:00:55
Yesterday evening I attended a gathering at the home of a UNC professor to meet Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani woman who was gang-raped in retaliation for a transgression by her brother, and who has fought back and defied cultural expectations of silence to bring her attackers to justice.
Her visit to the Durham area happens to coincide with a local accusation of rape that could not be more different and yet has disturbing parallels- the infamous Duke Lacrosse rape accusation that has become an obsession with the media, for good reason: it lies at the intersection of the hot-button issues of race, class, gender, north vs south, sports jock culture. Regardless of whether or not it turns out to be true, the allegation of gang rape of a black student stripper and single mother of two, brought against privileged white Duke University students from the northeast, has exposed deep fault lines in American society, and not only in the Durham community.
The Mukhtar Mai case took place on the other side of the world, literally as well as figuratively, in a remote village among illiterate peasants. But at the reception for Mukhtar last night, rape victim support voices made the parallel that in both cases, cultural expectation was that the victim- or alleged victim- would not dare to bring charges against such overwhelming odds of being vindicated.
I might add that both incidents share an intense degree of politicization: the Duke case for its racial and class overtones, and the Mukhtar case because it happened in a Muslim country. Identical gang rapes are just as common elsewhere, but it is doubtful if Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times would have taken up that particular crusade in column after column if the incident had happened in a Hindu community.

03.27.06

Democracy and the Political Culture of Islam  -  @ 09:22:23
I'm giving a talk this Thursday on the Compatibility of Democracy with the Political Culture of Islam, and it makes me think that when commentators in the media speculate on this topic, there is never a historical context, as if the current experiments in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq were without precedent. And yet in Egypt there was a multiparty democracy of a sort-imperfect, to be sure, but so is India's- that lasted from the 1930's to the Revolution of 1952, and a second brief experiment in the late 1970's under Sadat. My family, through the Wafd party,was intimately involved with the party process in both periods, and that is a large part of the story of The Cairo House, the reason I have always felt that, much more than the story of a family clan, it is the story of a relevant era in Egyptian politics.

03.25.06

La Maison du Caire  -  @ 11:31:14
The French edition of The Cairo House is coming out this May with Rivages. I am delighted to have a translation in a language I can read and appreciate!

03.16.06

Taking scripture to court  -  @ 10:25:11
The Quran might be the first scripture to be taken to court- in Berlin, for violation of the German constitution, as of a few days ago, according to web reports. The argument is that it is not a historical document but a political manifesto. The plaintiffs in Germany are asking for an outright ban or at least excision of the offending passages. So one can envisage a sanitized, slightly abridged, official version of the Quran that would be the only legal version in Europe, and perhaps the West in general.
It would be interesting to know how other scriptures adapted, if at all- some of the thornier passages of the Old Testament, for instance.

03.04.06

Senseless act of violence at UNC  -  @ 16:49:39
In one of those ironies one can do without, I was at the University of N.Carolina's conference on the "Globalization of the South" yesterday afternoon, giving a talk on the portrayal of Arab/Muslim characters in Southern fiction, when at the same time across campus a deranged Iranian graduate student drove an SUV into a crowd at the student hangout called The Pit. Mercifully- a hundred times mercifully!- no one was seriously hurt, and only a handful of students were treated for minor cuts and bruises. But by going postal the way he did, the damage this deeply disturbed individual did to the image of Muslims nation-wide is incalculable. A loner with no ties to any group, he chose to attract the attention his sick mind craved by calling the police to surrender- all ready for his photo-op in coat and tie- and allegedly claiming revenge for Muslims as a vague motive. He even prodded the police to search his apartment, which they duly did, vacating the complex for seven hours, finding nothing, unsurprisingly.
The local police and media have been admirably restrained in their pronouncements, but the damage is done. Frustratingly, the inarticulate response of the local Muslim community spokesperson was inadequate to effectively disassociate this senseless act of violence from the beliefs of Muslims everywhere.

02.28.06

East is East, and South is South  -  @ 13:03:58
This Friday, I am giving a presentation on 'Arabs and Asians in Literature from the American South' at a UNC-Chapel Hill conference on Navigating the Global American South; my talk is titled 'East is East and South is South'. In recent American fiction, characters of Middle Eastern extraction are beginning to turn up in the most unexpected places, including such anthologies of quintessentially Southern writing as the venerable New Stories from the South series published by Chapel Hill's own Algonquin Books. Muslim and Indian characters appear, stereotypically or sympathetically, as the exotic other in fiction by Southern writers: the Pakistani doctor in the upscale suburb of the New South, the Sudanese refugee family among the Cajun working class of the Old South. This development reflects not just the increasing globalization of the South, but also the post-September 11 awareness in the country as a whole of the presence of Muslim or South Asian immigrants.

02.09.06

The Cartoon Controversy redux  -  @ 12:47:02
Bruce Lawrence- Duke professor, prominent scholar of Islamic Studies, and ordained minister- writes to me regarding the fallout from the republication of the Danish caricatures- and I hope he won't mind my quoting him:
"There is one angle you don't mention that I'd like to suggest, especially if you decide to write a piece about this. There is some one in Christianity who could be seen as equivalent in pious and iconic value to the Prophet. It is the Blessed Virgin Mary, precisely because she is mentioned in the Qur'an. Suppose that an Italian atheist were to revile her in a major daily, with, let us say to complete the parallel, with cartoons of her as a street woman or, even worse, a harlot. Would that not unleash the stormgates of Catholic piety, and would Muslims not also be offended? The point is: free speech does have boundaries, and there are limits of sensibility beyond those cited by the wimpish Danish Foreign Minister."
Bruce Lawrence's "Messages to the World" is reviewed in this week's Sunday New York Times.

02.03.06

The cartoon controversy  -  @ 10:20:01
The cartoons linking Islam's prophet to terrorism in the European press, and the subsequent up-in-arms protests around the Muslim world, are as sad a spectacle as they are a predictable one. The proponents of a clash- a war!- of civilizations, on both sides, keep up their relentless volleys and counter-volleys. Naked religion-baiting on the Western side, followed by Pavlovian outrage on the Muslim side. The irony, of course, is that the Muslim side cannot respond by reviling Christian or Jewish beliefs: both Jesus and Moses are highly revered prophets to Muslims.
It's easy to see, and to say, that by far the best reaction on the Muslim side would be to ignore these petty outrages as beneath contempt. But there is some inconsistency and hypocrisy, too, in the Western stance of unlimited freedom of speech. Many Western countries have "hate speech" and "incitement to violence" laws that are selectively applied. And the United States and Israel regularly protest unflattering cartoons or articles in the Egyptian and Arab presses, and pressure the governments of those countries to ban such expressions of free speech.

12.14.05

fear-mongering advertisement  -  @ 03:15:46
It's disheartening to be more than half way across the world and to read that back home in North Carolina, a billboard advertisement aimed at limiting driver's licenses is resorting to the lowest form of fear-mongering: using the image of an "Arab" in a kafiyeh, holding a grenade in one hand and a driver's license in the other, with nonsensical Arabic script on one side, and the line: "Don't license Terrorists!" Below is my letter to the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer.

It is a sad sign of our times that an ad drawing so blatantly and cynically on fear-mongering stereotypes should see the light of day. Conflating two unrelated issues- illegal immigration and terrorism- insults the intelligence of the public. The question to ask is this: would an analogous ad playing on racial prejudice against any other ethnic group- African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews- be tolerated?

11.12.05

In hopeful news...  -  @ 23:18:06
In case you missed this story, it was on European and other news. A few days ago a twelve-year-old Palestinian boy was shot and killed by Israeli troops that claimed he was carrying a toy plastic rifle they mistook for real. The Palestinian child's father donated his organs to save the lives of five Israeli children. He said he hoped his son's organs would carry some of his spirit and sow the seeds of peace.

11.01.05

Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures  -  @ 23:41:33
I have been asked to write an essay for the seven-volume Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures (EWIC) published by Brill. My own limited assignment is to write about Mulsim Women Fiction writers in North America. I would be very interested in any input from writers or editors as to the following topics: social roles, personal and creative motivations; cultural importance; relevance or irrelevance of being Muslim or women.It would be valuable to hear input from RAWI members.In this context, the assignment is to focus on the broader outlines of trends, themes and characteristics of the genre, citing writers as they illustrate these trends.
Welcome  -  @ 23:34:45
Hello! This site will have regular updates, not only on personal publications or projects, but also occasional reviews of books or comments on news of particular interest. One project at the top of the list right now is the essay I am writing for the Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures- see above. Input by or about Muslim women writers of fiction in N.America, or trends in that genre, is very welcome. Another project is an upcoming book tour in Germany for the German edition of Das Kairohaus. Also look in the next few days for a review of The Yacoubian Building, by an Egyptian novelist, which I have just read in Arabic, rather than the English translation.

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