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