Friday, December 7, 2007

At Home in the Exurbs - A Review of Peter Lawler's Homeless and at Home in America

“We Americans are the most homeless and the most at home people of the West today.” This is the central paradox of Peter Augustine Lawler’s latest book, Homeless and at Home in America: Evidence for the Dignity of the Human Soul in Our Time and Place (St. Augustine’s Press, 2007). The book is a collection of essays (often published elsewhere) on a wide variety of topics, from Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons and bioethics to Casablanca and Tocqueville. The chapters, though, fit well together and are linked by a set of related themes. The book, written in Lawler’s usual engaging and often humorous style, presents a fascinating argument from one of the chief proponents of what he calls the “‘crowd’ of American faith-based, non-libertarian, Strauss influenced thinkers.” This group is part of a growing school of thought Lawler refers to as “conservative postmodernism – postmodernism rightly understood,” which “…is associated with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and American literary Thomists such as Marion Montgomery, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor.” Tocqueville is one of their favorite authors. This line of thought is a reaction against modernity for its failure to comprehend what it means to be truly human; that is, as creatures that occupy the ‘middle class’ between beasts and God.

The first chapter, which sets up the framework for the rest of the book, explores how Americans are at home and how they are homeless by contrasting Heidegger’s view of America with that of G.K. Chesterton. Heidegger, according to Lawler, sees the American middle class as being “…in the thrall of a technological utopianism that is making human beings everywhere ever more displaced or homeless.” This process of Americanization leads to an obsession with science and technology insofar as it can prolong our lives. “But that means,” Lawler says, “that we are more defined by our working against death than ever before: our material prosperity has done the opposite of freeing us middle-class beings from the need to work.” Americanization has also altered what it means to be human: “The ‘soul,’ for example, means less and less to us, and we have nothing to say about death. Anything that eludes the technological thinking of calculation and control is nothing, an illusion, we say. In that sense we are nihilists.”

For G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, America is “…a nation with the soul of a church.” Like a church, America is an asylum for the homeless and a place where the individual is not rootless, but “newly rooted as a free and equal citizen.” On this view, atheism is un-American and “our technology is subordinate to our real souls and our real God.” Chesterton also recognized the influence of modern technological thinking on America and the consequent sense of homelessness. This, though, is not necessarily at odds with a Christian understanding of the world since “…no Christian can experience himself as completely at home in this world.” For this reason Americans are the most at home and the most homeless people in the world.
For Lawler, this uneasy tension in fact mirrors “…the truth about our middle-class existence under God.” Against the technological view that sees the world in terms of mathematical and solvable problems, Lawler recognizes that “[t]he moral and spiritual conflicts or at least tensions that constitute the human soul aren’t problems to be solved, but just part of our being.” The heroes of Lawler’s book are church-going middle-class natalists (those who have large families) who live in the exurbs (those indeterminate places beyond the suburbs), who probably shop at Walmart and who see themselves as created beings rather than evolved animals. These exurbanite natalists are the real core of America and the only thing that really distinguishes Americans from Europeans, who are not at home with their homelessness and are “losing themselves in postpolitical, postreligious, and postfamilial fantasies.”
In chapters dealing with the work of Thomas Pangle and Allan Bloom, Lawler explains why Leo Strauss and his followers were wrong to view Americans simply as relativists who have not yet succumb to some form of totalitarian thought only because of a blind and uninformed preference for liberal ‘values.’ In fact, Lawler claims, in large part because of this religious backbone, Americans are “the least Americanized or least technological or least hopelessly homesick and nihilistic nation in a Heideggerian sense today.” American ‘values’ therefore, are not simply the result of blind choice but the reflection of a truer way of life than that of Europeans.

Part of this truth is that we are creatures with souls and are not reducible to either bodies or minds. The tendency to identify ourselves primarily with our bodies leads to “…an increasingly paranoid, puritanical, and prohibitionist attitude toward health and safety,” while the tendency to understand ourselves somehow as minds apart from our bodies allows us to treat our bodies, and even our moods, as property to be sold and manipulated technologically (Lawler discusses the latter in his excellent chapter, “Is the Body Property?”). Part of understanding ourselves as creatures with souls means rejecting the premises of “Darwinian sociobiology” and its reduction of man to drives and instincts. One of Lawler’s strongest arguments for the untruth of this doctrine is that those who do not believe in it are often much happier than those who do. Ironically, as he points out, this means that in evolutionary terms, those who reject Darwinism have a competitive advantage over those who do – they have larger families and are more willing to make sacrifices for their children and thus are more likely to perpetuate the species.

Lawler’s argument for changing our view of what it means to be human is a strong one, as is his argument that we are in need of manly virtue (in Harvey Mansfield’s and Tom Wolfe’s terms). On the other hand, it seems to rely on belief in a personal God – many of the chapters end with an appeal in this direction. But what about those readers who recognize the power and to some extent the truth of this argument, but who are not religious believers? If Pangle has “…propped up [revelation] to be stronger than he really thinks it is on its own,” Lawler might be accused of neglecting the side of reason to an even greater degree. Although Lawler claims that “…we students of political philosophy really live the tension…between reason and revelation insofar as we’re not perfect philosophers,” the implication of the work as a whole seems to be that belief in Christianity and a personal God is fundamental to living well for all but the true philosophers. This seems to be a rather limited account of the resources available to human beings when it comes to understanding that they are more than matter in motion.

Lawler claims that his is a “very pro-American book.” But it doesn’t take long to discover that what he really means is that it is a very pro-red-American book. The criticism that he levels against Europeans could just as easily be leveled against great swaths of ‘blue’ Americans. As he says, “Remove our observant religious believers from the American scene, and our birthrate is the same as that of the demographic time bomb France.” But this raises a question about the book’s aim: is it intended solely as an intellectual justification of a way of living and thinking that already exists, or is it meant to influence a wider audience that may not accept Lawler’s starting premises? The book may be more successful at the former. For those who do not accept these premises, however, it remains an enormously thought-provoking book.

An edited version of this review will appear in the March 08 edition of the Canadian Journal of Political Science

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Living Among the Dead

According to al-Jazeera's story, there are thousands of homeless in Cairo, and "Many in fact are being forced to live among the dead." One would think that this is a new phenomenon from the story - in fact, Egyptians have been living in these very large cemeteries for centuries. Some parts have electricity, running water and sewers. Those interviewed in the story show a lack of uneasiness about living where they do and this is presented as a shocking testament their plight. The truth is that Egyptians are just not particularly put off by this. At least the Muslims aren't - no one lives in the large Christian cemeteries in Cairo's Coptic neighbourhood. These places are poor, no doubt, but they are not the poorest or the last resort of the homeless. There are many impressive tombs (such as Sultan Qaitbey's mosque - depicted on the one pound note)) in the Northern cemetery and these cemeteries are well-worth visiting.

UPDATE: Here is a more recent article which says that Egyptians are now being forced to live in cemeteries - despite interviewing people who have lived there for 30 years. According to the article, the government is now trying to stop tourists from entering and taking pictures of the inhabitants. They've also closed Qaitbay's mosque. Below is a picture of the mosque (hard to photograph in the close quarters) with a four storey apartment building beside it - with air conditioning. Although it is true that Cairo is constantly expanding, the cemeteries are not the last resort of the poor - the city is expaning outward into the valley's farmland ([picture below) and the desert.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reading Mein Kampf in Cairo

My article in the Jerusalem Post can be found here. The Introduction to Mein Kampf is here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

Spoiler Warning It would be better to watch the movie before reading this post.

According to the description on the Netflix envelope, The Lives of Others (a title evoking Vasari's Lives of the Artists), set in East Berlin in the 1980s, is “…a nuanced portrait of life under the watchful eye of the state police as a high-profile couple is bugged. When a successful playwright and his actress companion become the subjects of the Stasi’s secret surveillance program, their friends, family and even those doing the watching find their lives changed too.” What this movie is actually about is art and the role of the artist in society.

In one of the opening scenes, a Stasi officer and the minister of culture discuss the playwright Georg Dreyman, who is supposed to be the only non-subversive writer in the country “who is also read in the West.” Why are there so many subversive artists in totalitarian regimes? Artists are always troublemakers to some degree and the lack of freedom in these states is particularly grating. There is something more at work, though, than a simple desire for freedom. These regimes force a materialist understanding of what it means to be human onto their citizens - even the Stasi prostitutes work on a tight schedule. This understanding implicitly denies the very reason art exists in all civilizations and societies.

At the heart of this movie is the question of what it means to be a human being, and, more importantly, a good human being, and the role art plays in this.

Wiesler, the agent in charge of the surveillance of Dreyman is part of the Stasi. The Stasi’s goal is to ‘know everything.’ This knowledge though is limited to what can be written down, quantified and recorded with the various machines that surround Wiesler throughout the film. In one scene, two Stasi agents discuss a system for classifying artists into five types with matching prison conditions for each. Of course, what an artist attempts to convey cannot be captured in these terms.

One of the central themes of Dreyman’s plays is that people can change. This is a claim that the minister of culture denies. This story, though, is of the transformation of Wiesler through art. At Dreyman’s birthday party, his former director, who has been blacklisted, gives him a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man.” Later, when the director hangs himself, Dreyman plays this piece of music. Wiesler is listening through hidden microphones, and, despite his usual stoic demeanor, is profoundly moved by the piece. At this point, Dreyman says to the actress Christa-Maria, “You know what Lenin said about Beethoven’s Appassionata. ‘If I keep listening to it, I won’t finish the revolution’. Can anyone who has heard this music – I mean truly heard it – really be a bad person?”

Wiesler is not an artist, but he has become part of the true audience. When he sees Christa-Maria at a bar, torn between continuing her forced affair with the minister of culture and staying with Dreyman and jeopardizing her career, he responds when she asks whether she should sell herself for art that she already has art, “I’m your audience,” he says, “You’re a great artist. Don’t you know that?” She replies, before returning to Dreyman, “And you’re a good man.” It is through contact with art that Wiesler finds the strength and inspiration to defend Dreyman from his own organization. In doing so he takes a great risk and the result is that his already dreary life is made even worse. After his promotion ban, Wiesler, without his uniform and powerful position, appears smaller but more human.

Chris McClure

Monday, September 24, 2007

Trastevere and the Colosseum

The Colosseum
Erica Alini
Trastevere, the 'heart of Roma'

Chris McClure

Saturday, September 15, 2007

DC Anti-War Protest, September 15, 2007

These are some pictures from the anti-war protest (and counter protest) in Washington DC on September 15, 2007. As usual, all sorts came out of the word-work for this one.

Many of the counter-protesters were veterans. Despite heated arguments, the two groups never came to blows (not that I saw, anyways).

The most popular chant was, "This is what democracy looks like!" Did that include all those protesters wearing masks? Some of those wearing masks were chanting 'jihad, jihad' at one point (see below, 16 seconds remaining). I'm not sure why they were chanting this - maybe it's some sort of new 'Hamas-chic?' What is clear is that even though many of the protesters might have had something valid to say and were serious about it, they were somewhat discredited by the large number of oddballs promoting all sorts of fringe issues - everything from veganism to the notion that Hillary Clinton and Obama are trying to outdo each other in a race to invade Iran (there was an effigy of Hillary with 'blood on her hands').

Chris McClure

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Middle East Radio

Perhaps the most common thing one hears on the radio in Egpytian taxis, buses and internet cafes is Quran Radio - recitations from the Quran and other religious programming.

In Israel, the most popular radio station is Galgalatz - Israeli Army Radio. It's run by soldiers and is meant in part to alleviate the tedium of long bus rides. It's also quite fun. The word 'Galgalatz' is derived from the Hebrew acronym for IDF (Israeli Defense Forces).

Quran Radio Cairo


The picture above is of a speaker at a friend's place in Jerusalem. Wrapped around the speaker is a headband taken from a Hamas member by my friend's roommate (a paratrooper in the IDF).

Chris McClure

Sunday, September 2, 2007


In my last post, I wondered what it means to appreciate a work of art and whether this can be done when the work is surrounded by noisy tourists. One of my favorite experiences in Italy was visiting Paestum, the site of an ancient Greek colony south of Naples where several well-preserved temples still stand. Somewhat off the beaten track, there were few visitors and it was a beautiful day - dark storm clouds were gathering but the temples were still in full late-afternoon sunlight, as were the wild flowers that surrounded them. I left Paestum without any of the sense of guilt I felt at the Trevi Fountain. I was surprised then, to read the following in Heidegger's "Origin of the Work of Art":

The Aegina sculptures in the Munich collection, Sophocles' Antigone in the best critical edition, are, as the works they are, torn out of their own native sphere. However high their quality and power of impression, however good their state of preservation, however certain their interpretation, placing them in a collection has withdrawn them from their own world. But even when we make an effort to cancel or avoid such displacement of the works - when, for instance, we visit the temple in Paestum at its own site or the Bamberg cathedral on its own square - the work that stands there has perished.
For Heidegger, Anitgone could only be appreciated properly by ancient Athenians and the temples of Paestum were only living works of art when they were filled with worshipers. Whether or nor this is entirely correct needs more thought. I was truly moved by Bernini's sculpture's in the Villa Borghese - but these have always been housed in the same building. What I do know is that I enjoyed being at Paestum. I also know that I enjoyed being at the Colosseum with Erica. Even in its dilapidated state the building is still impressive and it was somewhat possible to imagine what it must have been like there (despite overhearing the worn-out exaggerations of a nearby tour leader - 'as the gladiators tried to climb up the walls, the soldiers would slice off their fingers...'). Both the Colosseum and the even more ruined Baths of Caracalla had some sort of elevated air about them that was conducive to very good conversation (as was the Villa Borghese). Maybe just enjoying our time at these places is enough. As Plato observed (in a comment on my last post), enjoying a slushy with his girlfriend turned out to be more important than being locked out of the Acropolis.

Perhaps, even if we can't appreciate these works the way they were supposed to be appreciated (in Heidegger's sense), it is enough that we can experience them as they are now and think the thoughts they evoke even in their 'perished' state.

The engravings in this post depict one of the temples at Paestum and were made by Piranesi, a cicerone who made these as souvenirs for tourists in Rome in the mid-eighteenth century. He made engravings both of fantastic ideas for buildings and interiors as well as images such as those posted here. If Heidegger is right, Piranesi is making living art in these images of 'perished' art.

Chris McClure

Did You See the Trevi Fountain?

As I turned the corner I could see it - there was the Trevi fountain; well, behind that giant mass of other tourists. I had read about it in the guide book and knew a few facts about it. I waded closer to get a better look, but I was hungry, hot, tired of the paparazzi and in any case, on my way to meet someone. I left after a couple minutes with a nagging sense of guilt - both for thinking myself insensitive and for somehow offending the work of art. Did I really see the Trevi fountain? How long do you have to look at such a thing before you can claim to have really 'seen it?' Do you have to feel something and understand the significance of every detail? Whatever it means to have seen and appreciated a work of art, I was sure that I hadn't done it.

Later, as I was waiting to see the Sistine Chapel in a line that I'm certain could be seen from outer space, I began to wonder if I wasn't alone in this. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, but it seems to me that a large number of tourists are are on a frantic crusade to check of as many boxes as possible on some sort of checklist. This is, I suppose, good for conversation when one returns - no one would want to admit to having been in Italy for two or three weeks and not having seen the Sistine Chapel! But this isn't the only reason people make the effort to see these things. One also learns a great many astonishing facts about these sorts of works from tour guides and the Lonely Planet - not to mention the disembodied voice that comes from those strange audio guide devices. These bits of information really are useful, and often deserve the gasps of astonishment they receive, but the fact that Michelangelo had a hard time painting on a ceiling can't be the most important thing about the Sistine Chapel. But I'm left wondering - is it still possible to appreciate something like the Trevi fountain in these circumstances?

Chris McClure

Monday, August 27, 2007

The October War Panorama

I visited the October War Panorama in Cairo, which celebrates the October War (or the Yom Kippur War of 1973). This was a large building designed by North Koreans after a suggestion to Mubarak by Kim Jong Il. There were several groups of school kids and families with their children there and there was a festive atmosphere. People were selling ice cream and toys outside and inside there was a place to have one's picture taken with cut outs of Nasser, Sadat and various Egyptian movie stars. A couple of times people came up to me and pointed to the various Egyptian tanks, jets and statues of soldiers in heroic poses n display and give the thumbs up sign and say things like "Egypt number one!"

There were three presentations - two dioramas and a movie. For the first I was escorted in and placed in the first row. I wa surrounded by a group of seven or eight year-old girls. The room filled with the soothing voice of Phil Collins:

All of my life, I've been searching
for the words to say how I feel...

Maybe it was a mistake, I'm not sure. After this was a rousing military song to which all the girls sang. Then the presentation began. The diorama was a depiction of the Sinai with little radar dishes rotating and planes flying across on wires and flashing lights.

The narrator explained that what had been taken by force could only be regained by force. The war was proclaimed "the greatest victory in modern times." The guns opened fire at 2:05 on October 6, and the air force started its bombing runs. There were such an astonishing success that the second round of bombings that had been planned were canceled. Then the feared Israeli air force tried to strike back but, "one by one the Israeli planes with their blue stars of David were brought down by our heroic armed forces...The glorious hours passed quickly," until, a few days later, the Israeli prisoners of war bowed their heads as the Egyptian flag was raised high all over Sinai. Everyone in the room began clapping and we moved on to the next presentation in which a similar account was given.

My ticket had a description of the war which concludes that, "The epic witnessed the greatest firepower preparation since the Second World War, the greatest tank battles in the modern history, and the crossing of the most difficult water barrier in the world. Thanks to our strong belief in God and our just cause, we achieved a decisive victory which lead to the liberation of Sinai on the 25th of April 1982, from the banks of the Canal to the international borders and in March 1989, restoring the last inch of the motherland when the Egyptian flag was hoisted over Tabu [sic]."

Chris McClure

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Egyptian Election Poster

This is an example of an Egyptian election poster (I saw it at the bus stop in the Baharyia oasis). There is a lot of information contained in a simple picture and name such as this. It says "Al Haj / Abd Al Tawab Abu Faraj. Your candidate for membership in the Shoura Council. 'Haj' (Hag in Egyptian dialect) means that he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The callous on his forehead from repeated contact with the prayer mat implies piety, while the mustache without a full beard means that he is likely not an Islamist. 'Abu Faraj' means that he is the father of Faraj (the same way 'Abu Mazen' means 'father of Mazen') and is thus a family man.

Chris McClure

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building, a novel by Alaa Al Aswany, recently made into a movie (which I have yet to see), is set in Cairo around 1991 in a building which really exists (pictured below) at 34 Talaat Harb street. Despite the often dark subject matter, the book is never heavy and is hard to put down. The story follows several characters who are connected somehow with the building and who represent various extremes of Egyptian society: corrupt politicians, radical Islamists, pre-revolution pseudo-aristocrats and gay lovers among them. The book, regarded by many Egyptians as too exaggerated to be taken very seriously, attempts to portray a cross-section of society. In this, it is an attempt to follow the same approach by Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, which, despite many critics's comparisons, is a far more subtle and powerful work. Most reviews of The Yacoubian Building take it to be an expose of the violence and corruption of modern Egypt, and an exploration of various taboo subjects. This is not a surprising reaction to the work from Western reviewers given our propensity to focus on these sorts of issues (as I've mentioned before), and the author's tendency to play into this tendency (as in this interview).

The book no doubt is partly about these issues. However, like any book that can be considered a candidate for being a truly good book, this one is really an attempt to understand something fundamental about human nature and how people relate to each other. When people have their hearts broken, their dreams crushed or come to realize their powerlessness in the face of forces they can't control, how do they react? Is it a sign of weakness to become cynical and 'play the game' and a sign of strength to fight against injustice tooth and nail? Or is it in fact the other way around - is it a sign of strength of character to make the best of a bad situation and to remain, perhaps even despite oneself, a good person and a sign of weakness to fall prey to an enchanted world view that leads one to see everything in overly simple terms of good and evil?

Another major theme of the book is the difference between those who go through life trying to manipulate others and act out of complete selfishness and those who retain their compassion and humanity. In a corrupt society it seems impossible to try to manipulate others without being taken advantage of oneself and one's only chance for happiness is finding some shelter and weathering the storm and hopefully finding others who are trying to do the same.

It is worth asking how much a role fate plays in peoples' lives according to the author and what we are to make of the clear moral of the book in light of this.

Overall, this book is worth reading both for its (perhaps exaggerated) look at modern Egyptian society and for the thought provoking moral issues it raises. One thing is sure - you won't ever look the same way at the veiled girls standing outside the many clothing stores in downtown Cairo...

Chris McClure

Friday, August 10, 2007

Leaving Cairo

After several fascinating weeks, I'm leaving Cairo again.

Chris McClure

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Introduction to Mein Kampf

Hitler's Mein Kampf is on sale at bookstores and on the street in downtown Cairo. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) it was first published in 1963 in Lebanon and translated by Luis al-Haj. Although there is a partial translation on MEMRI's website, it omits important passages and is therefore misleading. The following is a complete translation of the introduction by Alex Orwin. Images of the Arabic original are below (click to enlarge).

"Adolph Hitler was not just some ordinary man that the passage of time has obscured, but he scattered behind him dust that left its footprints throughout the wide world. Adolph Hitler was not merely the possession of the German people alone, but he was one of the great few who almost stopped the course of history, changed its direction, and altered the face of the world, and he is therefore a possession of history. And if indeed Hitler the soldier has not left behind him anything but legend tarnished by a tragic reality, a tragedy of a state whose dreams have been shattered, a governmental organization whose pillars have collapsed, and a party whose foundations were torn apart by the four corners of the globe, Hitler as an ideologist has left behind him an inexhaustible intellectual heritage, and this intellectual heritage includes politics, society, science, art, and war as a science and art.

"The main features of the national [wataniyya] socialism which Adolph Hitler proclaimed were explicated in Mein Kampf, and its principles were explained in speeches, both before he assumed the reins of government and during the thirteen years in which he ruled at the head of the German nation. This national socialism did not die with the death of the man who proclaimed it: indeed its seeds grew under every star, and the promoters of radical nationalism [qawmiyya] take it up as a weapon with which to combat Third Internationalism and the principles of Karl Marx. Even those who fought socialism and nationalism [wataniyya], and went to great lengths in cooperating with communism to crush Nazism, began to understand the importance of the principles which Hitler set down, even at a time when he was still struggling politically and of softer disposition, as an effective agent in stopping the extreme leftist tendency, and from their application of these principles arose dictatorships and one-party states, in which the governing party employed force, violence, and Machiavellianism in order to attain its goals.

"Whoever follows today the development of the struggle between the communist and democratic camps senses the confusion of the second camp in opposing the tendency [based] on the principles of Karl Marx, whose dissemination grew after the second world war. And [the democratic camp] has endeavoured to do this sometimes by providing financial, economic, and technical assistance to the nation, and sometimes by developing methods of organization which are parallel to the communist methods but do not imitate them. It is obvious that the efforts of the democratic camp remind us of what Hitler did to oppose the communist tendency in his country, and nevertheless we are not able to understand the true efforts of this man without grasping the principles elaborated in the book Mein Kampf, which the Nazis made the gospel of national socialism.

"The translation of Mein Kampf which we have set down before the reader has never before been presented so faithfully to Arab speakers, since it is taken from the original copy which the author Adolph Hitler composed, that is, the copy to which the hand of censorship has not been extended through editing or omission. We wish to present the opinions of Hitler and his reflections on nationalism, the organization of governments, and races without the slightest alteration, because this in an issue whose poignancy does not diminish, and because we in the Arab world continue to fumble about in the dark in these three areas."

Chris McClure

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

You Got Veiled, Bravo!

In this month's Campus Magazine, an English language publication based in Heliopolis, several readers voiced their opinions of the following video, "You Got Veiled, Bravo" by Hussam Hag. In it, a teacher, clearly impressed, gives the only veiled girl in class a chocolate bar. Also, an unveiled woman watching music videos is interrupted by a youger, veiled sister, who mutes the TV so she can pray. This prompts the woman to don a veil as well. Her super-model boyfriend, initially appearing sullen at the change, decides to put a ring on her finger as if proposing marriage. The 'ring' is in fact a string pulled from her veil.

Several readers' comments were published in the article - almost all negative. Many felt that the message was insulting to Islam with its suggestion of "commercial religion," which uses the veil as a tool for marriage. As one young woman put it, "All the song did is stereotype the veil and place the veiled girls exactly where they have been initially striving to get themselves out of!! I pity all the girls out there who took ages to think about the veil; how to take the decision and how to face the world, only to discover that it's all about marriage and a bar of chocolate!" Another, who'd been to school in the UK and US and returned without a veil, and who was therefore "...immediately labeled by everyone as a whore..." says, "I am not against the veil in principle, but I am completely against the way it is getting promoted for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately this applies to Islam as a whole , as part of a disturbing phenomenon that is on the rise in Egypt at alarming levels. I'm starting to fear the day that I get stoned to death in a public square."

The magazine, with ads for BMW and Burger King, is written in English and so excludes most Egyptian readers. 80% of female respondents were unveiled, while a large majority of Egyptian women are veiled. For those who read the article, the issue of whether or not to wear a veil was a personal decision. For many poor women in Egypt, however, the veil is not a matter of personal choice about religion and spirituality. These women do not have the option of telling their families and husbands that the veil does not fit with their own personal convictions and that they have chosen not to wear it. In these cases the veil is a matter of tradition rather than religion (if we understand religion as something in which there can be no compulsion); two issues that are often confused, as those who deny that the veil is required by Islam claim.

So why are so many women returning to religion or tradition? As I understand it, the veil has become increasingly popular since the 70s and especially since the first Gulf war and this popularity has followed a general rise in religiosity in the region. How much of this is a reaction against the West and Western materialism? And why does the suggestion that women should wear the veil for the material benefits this will confer hit such a nerve? According to one male respondent, " have to admit that a considerable majority of girls in Egypt do have nothing on their minds but marriage..." - implying that many women will adopt the veil if they believe it will increase their chances of getting married. And another woman observes, "The majority of Egyptian women are veiled, but let's look closely at the 'veil'; brightly colored long, multi-layered, multi-hued scarves flying in the wind, tight tops and jeans, short pants, full makeup, and heavy musky perfume...I'm sorry, but I do not see how that is more modest than a girl who's simply not covering her hair."

So, do women who have a choice in the matter don the veil because of broad social trends, as a means to a worldly end, or as the result of deep meditation on religious matters? Certainly the reasons defy easy explanation. What strikes me though, as a non-expert in Islam, is the preoccupation with physical appearances in spiritual matters - especially when these matters are supposed to be a counterweight to materialism. Less surprising is that it seems to be a preoccupation focused exclusively on the appearance of women - something shared by many cultures and epochs. My favorite response was the following: "Are there any videos promoting men to grow their beards and wear pantacours?!?"

Chris McClure

Monday, August 6, 2007

Egypt's New Laws

In this month's Community Times, a Cairo-based English language magazine, there is an article announcing that Egypt has now banned the sale of cigarettes to those under 18 as well as smoking in many indoor areas. On the same page, they announce that the practice of female circumcision has also been banned (in the past it had been allowed in 'exceptional circumstances,' whatever that means). Hopefully the police will be as aggressive when enforcing these laws as they are when taking down dissident bloggers...

Chris McClure

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Pantheism and the Mosque

I was reading a post by James Polous about the fact that, while churches have gone from being the most beautiful buildings in town, they are now among the most offensive, mosques remain truly impressive.

This, I think, can be linked to Tocqueville’s fear about the homogenizing effect of pantheism in democratic societies. As we begin to think of everything in terms of equality – the equality of all people, all peoples, all religions and cultures – it becomes more difficult to see why this place should be more important than that place – or why we should spend much time or energy on making any place particularly beautiful. A church is no longer the House of God. It is, rather, simply a meeting place for people.

The increasingly popular humanist cosmopolitanism school of thought James speaks about seems to misunderstand that the parochial cultures they wish to mediate among and reconcile with each other, in fact, despite their particularity, have visions which are just as universal as that of the UN, and may well prefer to subsume the cosmopolitan horizon under their own rather than the other way around.

Not only are these visions universal, they are opposed to other universal visions in ways that the Kantian inspired desire for a peaceful federation of republics seems to have no resources to deal with. How to deal with those cultures that do not feel that all places are equal, but that one place in particular is of the utmost importance and must be under their control? And what if that one place is right on top of a place about which another group has the very same beliefs (see picture above)? This is especially a problem when these beliefs are bound up with the current state system (see picture of the Jordanian 20 dinar bill below). The only solution would seem to be the relinquishing of these unfounded beliefs, which are, after all extraneous to what C.S Lewis calls the Tao, and what many scholars refer to as 'thin morality.' On the other hand, maybe we should think harder about what Tocqeville says in the concluding lines of his chapter on pantheism:

Among the different systems by whose aid philosophy endeavors to explain the universe I believe pantheism to be one of those most fitted to seduce the human mind in democratic times. Against it all who abide in their attachment to the true greatness of man should combine and struggle.

Chris McClure

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Foreign Movies?

While walking downtown yesterday I found a copy of the movie "Nasser 56" on sale on the street for only 2$. I'd only seen this movie once before as part of a class on Middle Eastern history. When I got it home, it didn't work on my laptop. I found out that this was not a DVD, but a Video CD, something that doesn't exist in the US or Canada. Eventually I figured out how to get it to work, but it had none of the subtitles promised by the guy who sold it.

The movie itself was very popular in Egypt, breaking all box-office records when it was released in 1996. Highly patriotic and not necessarily historically accurate, the film portrays a brief moment in Egyptian history when things looked brighter than they had for some time, or would again for the foreseeable future. This movie is now available on (on VHS, only 4 copies left as of today), but I've never seen it in a rental store (it's not on Netflix either). Nor have I ever seen "al-Ard," which many say is the best Egyptian movie ever made.

So why is it so hard to find these movies outside the Arab world? I thought we liked foreign films in North America. We might shed some light on this by first asking another question - just how foreign are the movies we get from the Middle East? Let's look at a few recent examples:

"Osama", number one on Amazon's "Best of Middle Eastern Cinema" was filmed in Afghanistan (maybe not quite the Middle East, but close enough) and written and directed by Siddiq Barmak. From the list of countries involved, though, it seems that the film received funding from the Netherlands, Ireland, Japan and Iran. Similarly, "Secret Ballot" was first released in Italy and IMDB lists it as an Iranian/Italian/Canadian/Swiss movie. This is the story of a well-meaning woman who comes face to face with a harsh reality - rural Iran isn't ready for Western style democratic elections - Take that Bush! Also recall the famous Algerian/Italian movie "The Battle of Algiers." In fact, very few of these movies are entirely domestic. This makes sense for many reasons - less affluent nations can't necessarily devote much money to supporting movie production, and there are obvious political reasons why some of these movies may need outside funding. A recent review makes this point about European support for Palestinian film.

I'm not a film expert, but it seems to me that there is often an important difference between domestically made Middle Eastern movies and those that attract European funding. The latter often focus on the most negative aspects of Middle Eastern countries, have a specifically Western political bent and thus mirror Western concerns and assumptions - anyone who would be interested in watching "The Circle" probably already knows that Iranian women are oppressed. Domestically made movies, by contrast, while often critical politically (and frequently banned - see "The Lizard" - if you can find it), approach their subject matter in a refreshingly non-Western way. Nasser 56, for example, with its praise of a strong autocratic leader, is driven by intense national pride at standing up to the West both politically and militarily. There is a deep loathing for England, France, the US and the World Bank - from the music we hear when the crooked English politicians at 10 Downing street are shown, we might expect Darth Vader to appear on the screen. Nasser's children show him absolute respect and his wife knows her place is standing behind her man. So, although many of these European-backed movies are very good, it's important to keep in mind that they might not be the sources of deep cultural insight many take them for.

Chris McClure

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

More Pictures

Now that's a shawarma!

Who's Black Label?

Chris McClure

Sunday, July 29, 2007

An Antique Land

I went to the Mummy Room at the Egyptian Museum today. Photography was not allowed in the room of course, ‘out of respect for the dead.’ Anwar Sadat thought the whole concept of displaying dead royalty was blasphemous and closed to room for many years. But we are people of science, and know that the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians were just so much silly superstition. So, in the name of science and curiosity about the dead (are these related?), the mummy room is again open to the public. It’s a good thing the religion of these Egyptians has died out, and that science has taught us the truth about these things, or else we might have to respect their beliefs and leave these people in their graves. Just for the record, I am also, despite my agnosticism, a ‘man of science’ in this regard. We should be aware, however, that our so-called respect for diversity and other religions and ‘value systems’ is done from a standpoint of what we believe to be certain knowledge about the truth of these claims and beliefs.

It was still quite early when I left the mummies so I headed to the Tutankhamen room, where it struck me that the works of the human mind are far more impressive than the remains of the human mind…This reminds me of Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” which was in fact inspired by a statue of Ramses II (whose mummy I had just seen):

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Among the many things going on in this poem is the fact that the work of the artist has outlived everything else - even though it too seems destined to perish. So who was greater? Ozymandias who ruled the kingdom and perhaps made it possible for the sculptor to work, or the artist, without whom not even this meager trace of the kingdom would exist? And why should we despair? Clearly this was meant as a warning to potential enemies while the king lived, but is now a warning against the futility of striving to make anything lasting on earth (compare Ecclesiastes 1:11). Part of what distinguishes human beings from other creatures is the awareness of our own mortality, and, more importantly, our reaction to this knowledge. The striving for eternity is what drives poets and artists and what, at the beginning of human civilization, built the pyramids. No wonder so many people are fascinated by mummies.

Chris McClure