Thursday, June 30, 2005

Linguistic Profile

Your Linguistic Profile:

80% General American English

10% Dixie

5% Upper Midwestern

5% Yankee

0% Midwestern

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Giza, Egypt/Saqqara, Egypt/Memphis, Egypt/Bulaq, Cairo, Egypt

So, the Pyramids.

The hardest thing to realize about ancient Egyptian ruins is how truly old they are. The city of Memphis, first capital of a united Egypt, was founded about 3100 BC, while the three pyramids of Giza were built in the 25th century BC. If all time were laid out as a single road and you wanted to travel it to witness Memphis's founding, then you would have to go past the industrial period, past the age of colonialism and the early modern period, past the Reformation and Renaissance and the long centuries of the Middle Ages, see the fall of Rome and its transformation from republic to empire, watch the conquests of Alexander the Great and the golden age of the Greek city-states until you reach a point just before the rise of Athens, when the legendary emperor Jimmu is said to have ruled Japan and Buddhism was being founded in India, you could stop to rest because you were at the halfway point. The Exodus is traditionall dated to Egypt's 19th dynasty; when they looked back on the builders of the Pyramids at Giza, it would have been at the same remove as we look back at the early years of Islam and the Tang dynasty in China. This stuff is old.

What to say about Memphis today? As Praktike noted on the bus, it is interesting to think that in 5000 years it has been the world's largest city, capital of an empire, major religious center, and tourist attraction, and yet they still have not gotten around to paving their main street. Memphis today is basically a small Arab town with an open-air museum where you see a few statues of the 19th-dynasty pharaoh Ramses II and an "alabaster" sphinx made of limestone, but little to indicate its august origins. To find true ruins of that period, you must go about three kilometers west to Saqqara, part of what amounts to a continuous 35 km-long ancient Egyptian cemetery originating in the First Dynasty and continuing until near the end of "ancient Egypt," though in later periods such as the New Kingdom most pyramids would be built elsewhere, such as the Valley of the Kings in the south.

The main site at Saqqara is tomb of the 3rd dynasty pharaoh Zoser. Before him, Egypt's rulers were buried in simple rectangular mastaba tombs; however, according to what has reached us from that time, his vizier, architect, and physician Imhotep, who was later deified and identified with the Greek Asclepius, thought up the scheme of stacking successively smaller mastabas on top of each other to make a gradually narrowing tower pointing toward the sun. (Imhotep, incidentally, is also the alleged author of a papyrus which contains the first known instance of the saying, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.")

The resulting "Step Pyramid," located today next to Zoser's funeral temple, which has been rebuilt using the original rubble, was only a bridge to what would become the most enduring of the Seven Wonders of the World. Around the year 2600 BC, Sneferu came to the throne as the founder of Egypt's 4th dynasty, and thought it might be cool if the towers had smooth sides. He first built a pyramid at Meidum, near Fayyum, but it collapsed - we don't know when. His engineers, however, improved on the design in building a new pyramid at Dahshur, but they got th angle wrong, and because they changed the angle about halfway through, it is called the "Bent Pyramid." To their credit, its still there, but Sneferu had them build a new one anyway, and this, the first true, stable Egyptian pyramid, is the Red Pyramid.

Both the Bent and Red pyramids are visible from near the Step pyramid at Saqqara, as are a number of other Old Kingdom pyramids, most of which have collapsed into piles of rubble - building these things wasn't that easy. The art reached its height, however, with Sneferu's immediate descendants, whose monuments stand today at Giza immediately outside the Cairo neighborhood of the same name. Getting there is easy - the combined subway or bus trip and price of admission from downtown Cairo is about $4, and the heavy presence of the tourist police mean that hustling is under control - the only people who can really become a hassle are the guys trying to interest you in horse or camel rides and/or pictures near the south of the pyramids with the open desert beyond.

The basics of Giza, with the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the slightly smaller but more elevated one of Khafre, and the relatively small one of Menkaure, as well as the Great Sphinx with its missing nose poised in front of Khafre's pyramid looking out at one of the two entrances, near a cafe and restaurant frequented by tour groups, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Pizza Hut. Originally, all the pyramids were encased in limestone, so that they shone white in the sunlight. In addition to these are lots of smaller pyramids called "Queens' Pyramids" and funerary temples. When you go inside a pyramid, you find yourself in a passage so narrow you have to bend over significantly as you descend deep inside to the burial chamber, where you can, at least in the one I was in, then stand up and enjoy the cooler air while looking at actual, live, original hieroglyphics, early versions of the Pyramid Texts that may be the world's oldest known collection of writings.

This is just a small sampling of the ancient monuments still around in Egypt - one could do a whole trip here just focusing on antiquities, taking in not only those around Cairo, but the newer stuff at places like Luxor and Abu Simbel far to the south. Alas, I have decided it's going to be too hot down there for me to truly enjoy it, and figure that if I succeed in my evil plot to spend 2006-07 in Israel, I can just swing through then on the tourist track. For this trip, I occupy myself with Lower Egypt, the northern region to which the Nile descends before reaching the Mediterranean, most of which is easily accessible from Cairo itself.

Time to spend on such things may finally be freed up, as my research in the Dar al-Kutub has reached a point where I would be content to leave even if I got nothing else done. (A friend here commented that graduate student trips to the region could be called the "legitimacy tour," and that I think is a good way to understand what I'm up to here.) The Dar al-Kutub, literally "House of Books" and Egypts National Library, is along the Nile River in a district called Bulaq which in the Middle Ages was a port of Cairo before being swallowed by the city itself. A large, oblong white building, a little ways to its north is a shopping mall I've been to mostly for its food court, while a little ways to the south is the market for used car parts, where you find sellers of mufflers, front numbers, and all manner of other pieces of automotive equipment hanging in peoples shops just like they would shoes or something.

About the Dar al-Kutub, I can say only that it is not one of the world's great research facilities. On the 5th floor, where you find actual books, there is a card catalog with about 300 drawers which are, alas, not arranged sequentially, making finding the drawer you want extremely difficulty. I work on the 4th floor, home to the manuscript archive, where after a fairly redundant number of signings-in you can search for your manuscript on either an incomplete computerized catalog or in a old-fashioned card catalog which thankfully is better organized than that for the books. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the archive itself is well-organized - the first manuscript I requested they couldn't find - but it is something.

Initially communicating with the staff was a problem, due both to my ignorance of library terminology and difficulty with colloquial Egyptian speech, but this has steadily improved. I have discovered I can usually talk to other researchers about periods of history and the basics of academic interests, so the problem, as always with me, is mostly vocabulary. (This morning I finally figured out the Arabic for "positive" and "negative" when dealing with microfilm - it turned out they just use the English.) Manuscripts are available to researchers on microfilm, which you can view on microfilm readers of very low quality; the fact they don't rewind means you usually have to move around in the text by hand, which can't be good for preservation.

The key text I wanted here was al-Awtabi's Ansab al-Arab, which I found, though the nature of my finding it led to confusion about positive and negative images and what was what that I won't bore you with. The situation was also complicated by the lack of any secondary sources which could help orient me in what I was looking at, or even the unreliable edited version. None of this was available in ARCE or AUC, and the things I bothered to check the Dar al-Kutub for weren't there either. Nonetheless I requested a copy of the complete manuscript - my fear was that it was too short, and I wondered if there should be more - which I obtained today on a CD of all things labelled with the title and my name and nationality, "Brian Ulrich the American." Now all I need is a place to look at it and see what exactly I have.

(Like all my travel posts, this was originally a message to friends and family. In this case, I cut off some stuff at the end that I didn't want to post but that contributed to the optimism expressed above. It's not just that I got a CD with unknown contents =))

UW Controversy

One of the benefits of being in Cairo this summer is that I get to miss this.


I haven't had time to comment much on the Iranian election outcome, but Simon Kitchen at the Arabist Network has a must-read post on where Ahmadinejad came from. He's apparently part of a movement called Abadgaran, which sounds kind of like a Khomeinist Opus Dei, only with political ambitions and mixed with economic and political populism. One should not dismiss them as a political force out of hand, as Iran is still a more conservative country than you would think if your only impressions were from today's student movement and Pahlavi-era expats and their offspring. Which is not to say that the regime is actually popular, only that some of its pillars still have a lot of support, and for many social freedoms are not the most important issues.

This is also not to say that Ahmadinejad's victory was clean, even by Iranian rules. I haven't looked over all the evidence on that one.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Kefaya Assessed

My early assessment of the Kefaya movement is now up at Liberals Against Terrorism. Egypt isn't my forte, but being here quickly inspires you to get up to speed.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Rice's Visit

My friend Greg says I should blog about this. Because it's his birthday, I will. Basically, due to what I'm sure was an oversight, I wasn't invited. It did, however, mess up downtown traffic, which I didn't realize was possible given its normal chaos and confusion. It sounds like she took a forceful line, and I find it more significant here in Cairo than back in Washington. However, Rice has always seemed to be one of the more outspoken members of the administration on issues of democracy, and it remains to be seen whether Bush will apply any pressure to Mubarak to achieve all this openness. Given our other goals in the region, goals for which Egyptian cooperation would be highly useful, I'm not betting on it.

Rigged Election

Continuing my too-loose following of Iran's Presidential election, I see this which probably explains how Ahmadinejad wound up in the run-off against Rafsanjani. Iran's elections are already problematic because of the vetting process, but could fairly be called democratic because they allow for open debate over a wide range of issues and whomever wins the vote actually assumes office. If these vote rigging accusations are true, the Iran has sunk to yet another low since things seemed to be looking up in the late 1990's. This also shows, however, that the hard-liners are worried about something, either within the Reformist camp or from Rafsanjani, who now becomes to the reformers what John Kerry was to Democratic activists in 2004.

Sayyida Zaynab, Cairo, Egypt

Among my favorites spots in Cairo is Midan Sayyida Zaynab, just the other side of Mounira from where I live in Garden City. Its centerpiece is the large mosque which purports along with sites in Damascus and Medina to be the last resting place of its namesake, the daughter of Ali and Fatima and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. While the first mosque on this site was built by the Fatimids, the building today dates from the 20th century, and is beige in color with a large green neon sign that says "God" over one of the entrances.

As the call to prayer flows into the dimming light of sunset, you notice that the Midan itself is a bustling Cairo plaza, lined with ahwas some of which actually have outdoor seating, though you still can't work in them because the tables are only big enough for your tray of tea or coffee - the setting is meant for socialization only. Along the north side of the square strings of small multi-colored lights form catenaries between poles, and while a bunch of stands and shops sell all manner of goods from plaques with Qur'anic inscriptions on them to clothing the cut of which would undoubtedly meet with the disapproval of the mosque's more devout patrons which young women in headscarves examine nonetheless with amused or mischievous looks on their faces.

While hanging out in one of the ahwas here I met a George Bush fan. I was sitting at my table having the standard conversation about being from the United States and studying medieval history, when hoping to start a political conversation I made some bland comment about being opposed to President Bush. The old sheesha-smoking man I was talking to said, "Oh, no, no, no....George Bush good, very good." Intrigued, I asked me. The man had enough trouble with English that he quickly just ran with my Arabic, but what he was clearly trying to say was, "He says and wants good things for our region." This is, while present, a minority opinion in Egypt, where most people's thinking is represented by a black T-shirt I've seen a few times featuring black-and-white pictures of George Bush and Osama bin Laden side by side under the white heading "The Twin Terrors."

It was, however, history and politics of another sort that occupied my longest visit there last Wednesday. Now is not the time to recount the full story of Sayyida Zaynab, the tale of how, after the assassination of Ali, last of the rightly guided caliphs, the leadership of Islam passed the Umayyads under Mu'awiya, of how Mu'awiya, in the eyes of traditional Islamic historiography, perverted the caliphate into a monarchy by having his tyrannical son Yazid acknowledged as heir in his own lifetime, the story of how Husayn, son of Ali, sought to oppose Yazid, of how Husayn and his small band of followers were massacred by the Umayyads at Karbala, and of how his sister Zaynab, preserved from the massacre, bore witness to it before the world, despite being a prisoner of the Umayyads who among other humiliations forced her to dress immodestly despite her lineage.

One might, however, wonder how much of this was on the mind's of the Kefaya organizers who for the first time chose this spot for a protest against the regime which President Mubarak seeks to pass on to his son Gamal, and which on Referendum Day responded to the protests by attacking the women ripping off clothes in an apparent attempt to humiliate them into silence. Undoubtedly they thought of most of it, as several hundred showed up in the early evening ready to continue their uphill struggle for democracy. Most carried signs made simply with a laser printer and white paper, featuring slogans such as "The streets are for us" or the word "kefaya" (enough) followed by something they had had enough of. There were also brooms in a reference to local folklore surrounding Sayyida Zaynab, meant to symbolize putting a curse on the regime.

A number of news outlets showed up, from reporters for print papers jotting things down on notepads to TV networks with their cameras - I was jostled by both CNN and Abu Dhabi TV while Orbit, MBC, al-Jazeera, and several others also milled around, continually angling for the most dramatic shots or dragging people aside for interviews, with the most popular being an attractive young woman holding the sign about "the streets are for us." The protest site was on the grounds of the mosque, which was ringed with barricades and shoulder-to-shoulder Central Security Forces all standing at attention wearing helmets with visors raised and often looking upon the protestors with acute disgustor hate, while most observers stood back in the middle of the street on a median that tailed off from the planted area in the center of the plaza.

After about half an hour, the protest really got going with the passionate chanting of slogans. They were led by a number of people - first a middle-aged woman in yellow with a long orange headscarf, later a clean-cut man in dapper suit and pants, later still a than unshaven young man with a ragged angry voice - who would shout a slogan that would then be repeated by the crowd all shaking their fists. I didn't understand most of them and remember fewer still, but two that stood out were the pointed "Usqut, Usqut, Husni Mubarak!" - "Fall, Fall, Husni Mubarak!" and over and over again the word "hurreya," "freedom," rolling from the protest like a series of small waves into the streets where people driving by looked on like they wondered what they'd just stumbled into. Near the end they also honored one woman dressed in black who has become the symbol of those attacked on Referendum Day, in retrospect a propaganda gift from the regime the opposition has been playing for all it's worth.

At one point attention turned to the other side of the street, where beneath elaborate banners praising Mubarak for his supposed reforms a crowd of pro-government demonstrators was shouting pro-government slogans, though admittedly with less enthusiasm than the Kefaya people. They were, however, a bit rowdier overall, and the only real drama of the evening seemed to occur when they busted past the barricade to run chanting down the street, earning the attention of a squad of reserve CSF troops who jogged in about a three-by-twelve formation somewhat-in-step after them. My associates and I decided to wander down to see what was happening, though we got suddenly distracted by somethig and didn't actually see much - in any case, I suspect that whole incident was more staged than anything else. Someone said they thought the spot they ran to was where the pro-Mubarak demonstrators got paid. I didn't see any of that, but one of my friends did ask for and receive a pro-Mubarak sign as a souvenir.

While demonstrations like this are new to Egypt, it needs to be kept in mind that they are still really small. Less than 1000 people isn't much in a city of 15-20 million. On the other hand, as they themselves would tell you, simply creating an environment in which protests happen is a huge step in itself. I think what it would take to really create change is for the Muslim Brotherhood with its greater grassroots base to get heavily involved in this sort of thing - since I've been here they've mostly held press conferences - or for some sort of spark to ignite more people into joining.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Iranian Elections II

I forgot the first rule of predicting Iranian politics - don't try to predict Iranian politics.

How did this happen?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Iranian Elections

This has me wishing I'd gotten around to writing up my vague immediate pre-election feeling that Mo'in could take this thing. What would happen in his administration is unknown, of course. He might just be another Khatami, though as Edelstein notes, he comes across as feistier. Given my overall take on Iran, I'm most intrigued by his closer ties to the student movement. Long-time readers know the consider the failure of the political and protest leadership to work together the most reason for the reform movement's failures.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Fatwas in Egypt

Cairo Magazine has a fascinating article about debates over who can issue a fatwa for Egypt.

Sayyida Zaynab

Once I have time - most likely Sunday - I'll write more impressions of last night's Kefaya protest. For now, though, let me say just how struck I was by the historical symbolism of its location. Sayyida Zaynab was the sister of Husayn, the son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet martyred at Karbala. This event, while crucial for Shi'ites, also carries emotional resonance for Sunnis.

The historical context of Karbala itself shouldn't be left out of this. Husayn was preparing to lead a rebellion against Yazid I, or Yazid b. Mu'awiya, the second Umayyad caliph who is portrayed as a dissolute tyrant. In the Islamic historiographical tradition, his accession marks the most decisive break between the practices of the rightly guided caliphs and the Umayyad period because whereas previous caliphs had been chosen by acclamation or by a consultative council known as a shura, Mu'awiya had people take an oath to Yazid as heir during his lifetime, thus introducing the dynastic principle into the Islamic community.

Anyway, Husayn was martyred at Karbala. His sister Zaynab was travelling with him, but survived off to the side. This is important for two reasons. One, which you can read about in the account of Abu Mikhnaf (whom for dissertation purposes I'm about to start reading up on), is that she saved Husayn's heir Ali from the massacre, thus ensuring the continuation of the line of Shi'ite imams. More directly relevant to Kefaya symbolism, however, are probably the way she was treated by the regime - being forced to wear fewer clothes than were proper given Islamic modesty - and the fact she bore witness to the tragedy and eloquently told the world of it so all would know of Yazid's tyranny.

There's more symbolism local to Cairo, which thanks to the Shi'ite Fatimid dynasty is one of the claimants to be the final resting place of both Zaynab and Husayn. Zaynab is considered a significant wali in the city, and an important moulid is celebrated in her honor every year. I believe the broom stuff Josh mentioned is connected to that, and I saw a sign that read, "Madad, ya sitt" or "Help, O Lady!" which was clearly invoking her here. Others, however, are better qualified to discuss her importance to Cairo.

One last point - Zaynab was an important figure to the Muslim community even more Karbala, and gained fame as a teacher and scholar in both Medina and Kufa. As such, she has become a key element of Muslim feminists' campaign to do what they see as reclaiming the undeniably important status of women in early Islam. I'm not sure, however, how much that plays into contemporary Egyptian politics.

UPDATE: An account of the protest and its environment is now here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Iran Presidential Poll

OK, here I've finally seen a comprehensive poll by a respected group:
"In face-to-face questioning of more than 4,500 people nationwide, ISPA teams found that support for front-runner Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has dropped from 35 percent to 21.7 percent in recent weeks.

"Mr. Rafsanjani's closest challenger, former national police chief Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, stands at 14.4 percent, while the reform candidacy of Mustafa Moin has jumped from 5.5 percent support to 11.5 percent.

"The results spell a second-round run-off with more than 21 percent of voters undecided. ISPA estimates a low turnout of 50 percent, that could grow to 66 percent on Friday."

In watching all this, however, keep in mind that Iranian voters have a way of not behaving as expected. For example, Mo'in could easily catch Qalibaf based on these numbers, and then we'd have a liberal vs. conservative pragmatist run-off as opposed to a conservative pragmatist vs. hard-liner. That could make things fairly interesting. At the same time, I don't want to underestimate Rafsanjani's ability to underperform on Election Day, as he did when he snuck in Parliament.

Qalibaf and Blair

This is of minor interest:
"But the campaign has been more remarkable for the expanded use of modern electioneering techniques, including the use of focus groups by Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, the leading conservative challenger and a former national police chief.

"Members of his campaign team said they took Tony Blair's New Labour election machine as a model, saying that, while they did not agree with Mr Blair's policies, his methods of targeting particular voters and issues were important. They have also organised large rallies and walkabouts."

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Bahariyya, Egypt/Farafra, Egypt

As I discovered on my bus ride last weekend to the western oases, much of Egypt's Western Desert is simply empty. Whereas in Morocco and Jordan the terrain was broken by powerlines, occasional buildings, and patches of small shrubbery, along the road through the desert in Egypt there was almost nothing, kind of like Kansas without wheat and intersections. On one side there was a railroad track running parallel with the road, but aside from that there was beige sand in every direction, as far as the eye can see, just like one thinks of a desert before actually seeing one.

At one point, perhaps an hour into the trip, the bus stopped and someone got off. I am at a loss to explain where he was going or what landmarks were used to determine he had reached his destination; perhaps if he comes back in a few decades to found a new religion, I can claim to have seen a bit of history. Aside from that and the extremely rare building surrounded by various machinery, the only civilization for about five hours consisted of a rest stop selling soda, tea, sheesha, and snack foods that redefined by perception of "the middle of nowhere." Clearly the only reason it existed was because it was halfway between Cairo and the first oasis, but it did a booming trade for that, as two tour busses stopped there during our own rest stop.

Eventually we reached my destination, the Bahariyya Oasis in the northern fringes of the Black Desert of western Egypt. Here millennia ago, before there was an ancient Egypt, the Nile had flowed before its course changed to the present route in the country's east, leaving a series of springs to provide enough water for agriculture and more recently tourism. The latter industry is a recent development, for about 12 years ago its main town of Bawati didn't even have electricity, though today everyone has a television, telephone, and often a cell phone to stay in touch with the outside world. Aside from the desert, tourism has picked up with the discovery in the late 1990's of the "Golden Mummies" dating from the Ptolemaic period of the 4th-1st centuries BC and a Temple of Alexander the Great outside of town. It was, however, the first place I've ever visited that didn't have an internet cafe, though several hotels had their own internet access.

Arrivals in Bahariyya always attract the interest of the Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Police. In Cairo these guys wear clean white uniforms and sit around all the hotels and museums; out here in the desert they have all the trappings of a frontier posting, wearing beige uniforms less well kept, or sometimes no uniform at all. One wearing a blue shirt and jeans got on as entered the oasis to ask after the nationalities of me and a guy I met on the bus who was basically a drifter from Baltimore. According to the real-life Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy known as the Lonely Planet guidebook, his purpose was to escort us to the tourist information center where we would be presented with an array of hotel options by the authorities. As it happened, however, the drifter and I had already gotten an idea where we were going, so we simply went there directly.

Most of the budget hotels in Bahariyya are really safari camps scattered a few kilometers outside the city, and when we got to ours we met two more new arrivals, an early-30-ish heiress-adventuress from New Zealand who, when asked if she had been to South America replied no but that when she returned home to "buy more land" she might learn Spanish in preparation for going there, as well as a slightly older Irish woman whose story I never got. The heiress-adventuress had been travelling since February and the Irish woman since April - they had been when they both signed up for a 15-week Cairo-Capetown truck trip that would be starting in a few days.

The place where we stayed showed clearly that a lot of the traditional desert hospitality still survived in Bahariyya, as the four of us were all made to drink tea and talk about where were from and how our trip had been before we got down to questions about whether we would like to see a room or go on an overnight safari. In fact, much of the hotel's organization was fairly ad hoc. At every other place I've stayed in the Arab world I've had to provide my passport number so they can report my presence to the authorities; I don't think anyone at this place even learned my surname. I also learned that lots of desert guides know each other. The two women had done a safari in Farafra to the south, and one person asked who their guide was. They said it had been Hamdy Ali, and the guy indicated he knew him and that he was good; someone else said he was the best guide in that area.

After each getting a room, we assembled for lunch in the dining room. They offered a meal of a quarter chicken, rice, potato soup, and salad, but all of us wanted some lighter and had pasta instead. We had the place to ourselves - this is low season for Egypt as a whole, and even more so for the desert, as even the safari guide said he refused to leave the shade until early evening. Someone came back to report on the day's new arrivals, and it was something like ten people split among over a dozen hotels.

That evening we all went on a local trip around the area. The first stop was a spring, where the women went swimming in a concrete pool, while the drifter and I settled for hiking around in the shade. There was great diversity in the flora, with palm trees and something that looked like a thinly leaved conifer - I asked one of the workmen by the spring what the names of the trees were, but could not later find them in my Arabic-English dictionary. There were also some purply flowers and old firepits that had probably been used for burning trash.

After that we went to a place called English Mountain, really a large hill in the Black Desert on which the British had built a fort during World War I. The fort is now in ruins, but the vantage point still affords stunning views of the area. As you hike up to it you climb through numerous small slabs of either basalt or some metamorphic rock (I need to start travelling with a scientist) which the wind wears away, leaving everything coated in a layer of black so that the hills look like slag slabs over a sea of rusty iron.

The last place around Bahariyya we went to was a salt lake, similar to the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel where locals would still go to get their salt from the shores. The heiress-adventuress wanted to watch the sunset there, so we did while talking to the guide about the changes which he'd seen in the oasis. He grew up a farmer, and while there was more money now, he sometimes missed the old days, saying it was a "natural life."

The next morning, I headed into town to catch the bus to Farafra. The "bus station" in Bawati was really a small cafe. I sat down and ordered a tea while waiting, and a bunch of men sitting in the cafe immediately asked where I was from and where I was going, and upon learning my destination indicated I shout just sit there, while one gestured to his watch indicated the bus would come. After finishing my tea I went to buy a bottle of water - the instructions to sit were repeated until they realized what I was doing. While there, I got to observe some of the life of the oasis. Because this was the main road, I saw several trucks go by, but the most common means of transportation within Bahariyya was still by donkey. That morning around the hotel, I had seen many people riding donkeys or carts being pulled by donkeys, and the night before saw what I guess you'd call a donkey headlight - as we came back from the salt lake we suddenly saw a light in front of us to the side, revealing a donkey with a sort of miner's hat which the rider had just turned on as we approached.

As the bus pulled up across from the cafe, people indicated that it was, in fact, the bus to Farafra, and as it finished its rest stop I got on headed south. The Black Desert continued on for another hour or more before giving way to the region's real attraction, the White Desert, made mostly of chalk and quartz with rock formations that looked a lot like pale version of pictures I've seen of a national park in Utah or crystalline forms that glinted in the relentless sunlight like stars fallen to earth but retaining their twinkle.

As you went south, the tourist police also became more of a presence. About 2/3 of the way to Farafra we stopped at a police station. An officer got on, made his way to the back of the bus where I was, asked if I had any problems, and, when assured, got off and we continued the journey. I must admit it felt really weird. On the outskirts of Farafra another officer got on to ask where I was staying. I had a couple of places in mind, one of which turned out to be closed. The other was on the main road; when the bus reached it two officers were there to tell me I could just get off there while making sure I had all my stuff. It still felt weird - most of the Egyptians on the bus were looking on benignly, a few younger people appeared frustrated at the delay. (Something similar would happen the next day - the place was slow enough that I had four tourist police whose only real job all morning was making sure I caught the bus back to Cairo.)

Perhaps with this as the introduction, I didn't like Farafra as much as Bahariyya. The hotel staff was less enthusiastic, though whether from lack of competition or the sudden spike in temperature I couldn't say. They were also more expensive - my lunch of a quarter chicken, rice, potato soup, and salad was over twice as expensive as the same meal the day before. Farafra was also, despite its tiny size, much more modernized in terms of infrastructure. I had come there mainly to see an art museum, which was the home base of a local painter and sculptor famous for his scenes of Bedouin life. Turning down the offer of a police escort, I found it, but the museum was locked. When I went across the street to ask a tourist cop when it might open he stepped into a cafe, said something that caused a flurry of activity, then told me that they were looking for the artist to tell him someone had come to see his museum. I waited for a couple of hours before giving up. I did eat in a local 4-seat restaurant, where for less than half of what I paid for supper in Bahariyya I got a standard "dinner meal," which included a quarter chicken, rice, potato soup, and salad.

What didn't change in Farafra was how friendly the people were, all waving at me and making conversation. One stark change, though, was more people speaking English and more politics to the conversations. I'm going to run three or four distinct conversations together here (2 English, 1 Arabic, 1 short one in a little of both), but a lot of people were really upset about Iraq. They all assured me they liked Americans (one even added that he thought Israelis were perfectly nice people), but were completely unable to understand why we were letting our government do what it was doing in Iraq, with stories of civilian casualties that had stuck in their minds from the media coverage, such as an old man being shot in a raid on a mosque, and why we had re-elected President Bush. This was not support for Saddam Hussein - one person called him a "filthy animal," which is pretty much the lowest rung to the Arab ladder of profanity, but they were wondering if Bush and Co. might actually be worse. They were also upset at the Egyptian government - with reference to the May 25 protests, one guy said, "We couldn't believe it when we saw what they did to the women," and then got so upset he couldn't go on. But the comment someone made that linked the two themes together was about American support for Arab democracy - that person said he'd love to have democracy, and that he'd welcome American support and guidance, but he felt what the U.S. wanted to do was control everything like in a chess game and force our own changes rather than let Egyptians do things themselves.

I was thinking about these sorts of issues talking to one of the staff in a small sitting room near the front of the hotel. This guy was really into history, though he went for ancient rather than medieval. He made the common analogy that the U.S. was becoming the new Rome, tossing in the opinion of many Arabs that our own democracy is under attack from within. Thinking the Rome analogy a stretch, I was speaking in analyst mode as an observer and participant in American politics, when one of the tourist police stopped by to ask about my plans for the next day, which he dutifully reported over his walkie-talkie to whomever it was had to know such things.

After he was gone, I thought I'd change the subject a bit, asking why the tourist police kept monitoring everything. "It is to keep you safe," the guy said. "Am I in danger?" I asked. "No," replied the guy. "It is so that you feel safe." I still didn't think we'd pegged it, and so pressed on with how there seemed to be absolutely nothing in Farafra that could threaten me, and the guy agreed that there wasn't, but said that out here in the middle of the desert far away from everything, some people were just comforted by having them there.

I stopped for a moment to consider it, then thought of another angle from which to ferret out an explanation for what was bugging me. I spoke of the cop who had come all the way to the back to ask me if I needed anything, when anyone else on the bus could have been having problems, needed to find a place to stay, or any of the other functions the tourist police served.

The guy I was talking to paused - my mind might have falsified its present memory of him dumping ash out of a cigarette. Then he spoke. "I just told you that you are the new Romans. You know that in the Roman Empire, there were the Romans," here he made a circle in front of him with his hands, before pulling them apart again, " and the...the..." I stopped to indicate I knew what he was getting at with pre-Caracalla concepts of Roman citizenship. He then said,"It is like the Roman citizen - you always travel under the protection of the empire."

That stopped me. As I expressed admiration for the analogy his cell phone rang and he had to go. Not yet ready to turn in, I made my way upstairs to the roof, where behind the low sandstone walls of my villa-like hotel the only sounds in the pleasant desert night were the walkie-talkies of the tourist police out front as I looked down on the short road into town illuminated by streetlamps that seemed out of place in such a remote location and the shadows of White Desert formations off in the distance.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


My nerve batteries have been recharged. Comments on a couple of oases will be coming soon. Farafra was more political than I expected.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt/Garden City, Cairo, Egypt

If ever a city were tailor-made for me to hate, it might be very much like Cairo. There is an old saying that once you have drunk from the Nile you will never leave Egypt; when I first heard that here the Cairene who told it to me added that it was because the water was so dirty you would die. The water, however, is not the worst of Cairo's environmental problems. When you first arrive, the air feels like an unseen malevolent entity which wraps around choking you, for although Mexico City has the privilege of being the world's most polluted metropolis, Cairo's atmosphere has the highest volume of suspended lead particles, and every day living here is supposedly equivalent to smoking a whole pack of cigarettes.

The organization of the city, I think, also leaves much to be desired, for amid the countless high-rise apartment buildings and skyscraper luxury hotels there is very little open space. The frequent plazas along the narrow streets are all so small you hardly notice them, and there is no real place to sit and just take things in like there was in Morocco. You can sit down outside along the Corniche el-Nil, but the crowds make it hardly worth the walk over there. The coffeehouses I've seen so far fall into two categories - the small, traditional ahwas, all set indoors and generally so smoke-filled from cigarettes and sheesha pipes I try to avoid them, and the more modern western-style coffeehouse chains such as Cilantro, Arabica and Beano's, also indoors and pricier but also air-conditioned.

The cramped lay-out of the city is actually aggravated by the huge, elevated overpasses which shepherd traffic even through the city's upscale neighborhoods. And in a further note on traffic, I should say that whereas life in the developing world is stereotypically conducted at a more laid-back pace, this does not appear true of Cairo drivers, who with horns blaring will seek every last advantage, trying to nose around each other and speed through intersections whenever they can get away with it, and if the seconds or minutes they gain thereby were necessary to save the life of their dying grandfather. And all these things I've mentioned combine to convince me that those people running around places like AUC that muse on how they could live in Cairo the rest of their lives must be totally insane.

Yet my opinion is evidently not universal, for in addition to the 5 million or so tourists who turn up here every year, there are perhaps thousands of expats actually living here, mainly in the embassy districts of Zamalek (an island in the Nile) and Garden City (just south of downtown), as well as the more distant Ma'adi in the southeast. They form a rather curious collection of individuals which a German girl I was hanging out with compared to the Lost Generation after World War I. Some of these, are, of course, business types who were sent there by their corporations to manage whatever projects or branches for a few years. Others better fit the profile - you meetlots of people working with NGO's seeking to save the world or institutes and think tanks which talk about saving the world. There are also students, both undergraduates studying abroad for a year or so and graduate students doing research, as well as artists - before I left I talked to a man who had a musician friend who would occasionally grow bored with life and move to Egypt for a few months. And, not to be ignored, a significant population of drifters who weren't quite sure what to do with their lives, found some excuse to go to Egypt, and haven't left, or in some cases hit a dead end of not being able to leave for lack of money or trouble with the authorities back home.

This expat population also creates something of a service network catering to itself. For example, if after crossing onto Zamalek from the east and walking down the steps from 26th of July Street onto ground level you head south for a block or two, you soon find yourself outside the All Saints Anglican Cathedral, a light brown building capped by what looks like a sandstone haystack, though I'm fairly sure it's supposed to be some sort of Egyptiany crown. Led until this week by an elderly English bishop named Maurice Sinclair, it has separate congregations in different languages, with the three most important being English, Arabic, and Dinka. Leaving aside the Arabic and Dinka for the moment, the English congregation, made up partly of people from Commonwealth nations in Africa and partly of expats from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, throws up all these types, from the guy passing through to work at a hospital in Ethiopia to another sent here by his company for a year, as well as a few stray AUC students and older people I've never spoken to. All Saints, known to some locals as the "English church," shares religious turf with the "American church," a Lutheran-run outfit somewhere to the west, and multi-denominational church in Ma'adi, and a handful of Western-oriented Catholic churches, as well.

There are also lots of English-language publications, such as Egypt Today and Cairo Magazine, and a visit to certain Zamalek coffeehouses will show you their writers and readers hard at work, often themselves drifters or students who showed up in Egypt a few years ago and still haven't gotten around to leaving or don't plan to, along with other expats doing things like trying to get together community organizations and activities which I suspect are born and die in ever-changing patterns that stand in relation to the rest of Cairo like the life cycle of certain-shortlived flies, just stretched out over months rather than hours.

I, of course, fit most naturally into the expat community, and it is they who form most of my social circle here in Cairo. I live in Garden City, though just barely - my quest for an apartment wasn't proceeding as well as I'd hoped, and I wound up accepting discounted rate to stay at a hotel for my time here - apparently there's always a summer rush for flats, and people weren't willing to give one up for someone only going to be here for nine weeks. The best thing about where I do live is the spacious balcony overlooking the Midan Simon Bolivar in one direction, and the Nile in the other, where at night you can see the lights of the small passenger ferries cruising around and the larger craft which are homes to businesses such as the Cairo Chili's. Garden City is also one of the most tree-filled districts in Cairo, with its shady streets making lots of loops around the embassies and past patisseries and other businesses before it peters out to the south opposite Manial near the Galaxy Theater where last weekend some o us watched Kingdom of Heaven. (Some Egyptians apparently get emotional about their movies - there was a group of five hijabi girls behind us, all of whom started crying when Baldwin died.)

This is my first real experience with an overseas expat culture, though I suspect they're fairly common in many cities scattered around the globe. The social positioning is interesting, far closer to mainstream Egypt than the tourists who see everything almost as a movie through the lens of a bus window, but yet distinct, as well, inevitably upscale compared to the vast mass of Cairene society and having its own distinct patterns and rhythms affected but not determined by those of citizens and natives. There's probably a whole research project there if someone wants to write it, but for me, I think I'm ready to split town for a few days to recharge my batteries instead.

Qatari Constitution

Qatar's new semi-democratic constitution has now gone into effect. Two-third of Parliament will now be elected by universal suffrage, equal rights for men and women are guaranteed, and legislation will be "inspired by" shari'a. I am curious, however, about what the practical effects will be of combining the civil and religious court system, and whether these sorts of reforms will simply allow the government to more subtly manipulate the system.

Candlelight Vigil

Reports of last night's Kefaya protest are available from Praktike and Josh.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Gerda Lerner

Hey - Hebrew University in Jerusalem is honoring someone from my department.

Muhammad Baqir Qalibaf: Feminist

Conservative Iranian Presidential candidate Muhammad Baqir Qalibaf now says women managers are superior to male ones. In light of this, I have a question for Aqaaye Qalibaf: Where do you stand on women's right to run for President?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


You know its election season in Iran when conservative President candidate Muhammad Baqir Qalibaf says the U.S. is not to blame for Iran's problems and that he wants to work to improve the status of religious minorities while reformist Mehdi Karrubi vows that he will never establish relations with Israel. RFE-RL has updates.

Iran Jamming

The Brisbane Courier-Mail reports an interesting story about regime attempts to jam opposition channels:
"Experts believe that while Iran may be unable to totally block the signals, they can beam so much noise over the city's grey-brown skyline that broadcasts suffer lengthy drop-outs.

"The main targets are around six channels run by sympathisers of the ousted monarchy. These stations, mostly based in Los Angeles, spend their time trying to convince Iranians that the rule of the late shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was a golden age, and that Islamic Iran is not.

"Other channels teasing the turbans include the MTV-inspired Persian Music Channel, which shows far too much flesh for the regime's liking.

"But there are also possible side effects of the battle of the frequencies.

"The local signals of state television, busy trying to drum up interest in the elections, have also suffered.

"The mobile telephone network, already subject to overcrowding and poor service, is another apparent victim, given that the coverage zone has reportedly shrunk in parts of the capital."

Judging from this story they appear to be targetting the exile opposition rather than reformist groups inside Iran, though I don't even know if the latter have TV stations. Because these foreign groups have little or no grassroots support in Iran, this shows how insecure the rulers there have gotten - any discussion of the system's legitimacy is a threat.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Midan Husayn, Cairo, Egypt

Liberation Square - aka Midan Tahrir - may be the geographic and political heart of modern Cairo, but its historic and spiritual heart lies further east, at Midan Husayn. There, past streets that are throughout the day as crowded as a major university during class change and more so during rush periods, streets lined with shops beneath countless high-rise apartment buildings, you find one major thoroughfare, al-Azhar Street, rising briefly above the fray via an unsightly express overpass before passing through what it today known as "Islamic Cairo." There, just a bit to the north on al-Muski Street you find the Midan Husayn, what passes for an open space in Cairo, surrounded on one side by cafes and restaurants and on north and south by the two great mosques al-Azhar and Sayyidna al-Husayn.

The story of Cairo begins here at al-Azhar, perhaps with a white marble monument found in small chamber off to the side of a madrasa. This is the tomb of one named Jawhar, sometimes said to be a Jawhar who donated to the mosque during the 15th century, but perhaps instead that of Jawhar as-Saqilli, who founded both Cairo and al-Azhar over a thousand years ago. At that time the Fatimid dynasty of western North Africa was growing in strength, and their foremost goal was to conquer the rich lands of Egypt. For years, however, they were blocked by the power of Egypt's ruler Kafur, a Nubian eunuch who was also the patron and later satirical victim of al-Mutannabi, greatest of the medieval Arabic poets. In the late 960's, however, Kafur died, and the Fatimids, deciding their moment had come, turned to this Jawhar, a Slavic general who had already proven his worth by conquering Morocco and sending the Fatimid ruler a giant water-filled jars with living fish from the Atlantic as a sign of his success.

Jawhar conquered Egypt in 969, and that same year founded as a new capital al-Qahira, "The Victorious," beginning construction of al-Azhar the next year. Jawhar became popular in Egypt, but when the Fatimids themselves moved there several years later, he fell from favor and spent his final years in religious studies and charity work. Meanwhile, the Fatimids made his city their own. Now is not the time to count the long years of Fatimid rule, known as caliphs to their mostly Sunni subjects but who to their fellow Shi'ites were imams, descendants of Imam Ali and the Prophet's daughter Fatima and God's living guides for the world in the light of his revelation. Eventually they claimed to have the head of Husayn, the son of Ali and Fatima martyred at Karbala, which they placed in the other great mosque across the street from al-Azhar, though the building there today is more modern, with three gray spired out front and an array of multicolored strung lights covering the outside.

As happens, however, the Fatimid dynasty fell into decay, and real power passed from the hands of the caliphs to their viziers, until the whole structure became rife with squabbling among different factions and internal coups and counter-coups made and deposed both viziers and caliphs who were little more than puppets, until in the 1160's there came to the throne al-Adid, a rather plump teenager who comes down to us as both somewhat rebellious against his handlers and still surrounded by the trappings of Fatimid ceremony, receiving visitors behind a curtain which could then be raised, giving way to a slow ritual in which he ceremonial gloves might be removed and his face veil pulled aside.

At one point, as Egyptian political factions squabbled while the Crusader threat loomed over all, this al-Adid conspired for aid with Nur ad-Din, the Sunni ruler of northern Syria and Iraq, who dispatched to Egypt an army which when its commander died would fall under the leadership of Salah ad-Din Yusuf b. Ayyub, the Kurd known to the west as Saladin. Saladin took control of Egypt and became al-Adid's new vizier, though not for long, as the youth fell ill and died shortly before his 21st birthday. At this, Saladin declared the Fatimid dynasty at an end, for his program was the promotion of Sunni Islam, both against internal problems such as factionalism and what was seen as the Shi'ite heresy and external ones, as represented by the Crusader states he would almost completely destroy.

By the middle of the 13th century, Saladin's Ayyubid descendants would give way as sultans to their Mamluk soldiery, and it is during this period that Cairo achieved its greatest medieval prominence. With the fall of the Fatimids al-Azhar, originally the centerpiece of Shi'ite learning, was converted into a Sunni institution, and countless more madrasas were founded by the Ayyubids and Mamluks. When the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258, the Abbasid caliphs were also brought to Cairo to provide legimacy for the Mamluks, while Cairo itself swelled to absorb what had been other, neighboring cities which pre-dated the Fatimids.

Walking the streets of Islamic Cairo today one finds bustling suqs such as the famous Khan al-Khalili, perhaps built over the old Fatimid garbage dump, and quiet dirt lanes where the omnipresent traffic noise becomes as faint as it ever does while an occasional sheep or chicken stands in a doorway. At the same time, the historian in me gets an odd, wistful feeling passing the monuments of a past age such as the mausoleums, mosques, and madrasas bearing the names of the sultans who built them. Qalawun. Barquq. An-Nasir Muhammad. Qaytbey. I remember them all, each the ruler for a time in this city which in their day already had apartment buildings a dozen stories high and public hospitals where the poor were given first priority.

But, alas, the Mamluk era, too, would meet its end, for as time passed rulers came to value their own honor and glory more than the well-being of their country, public works became simply a chance to maintain their own family's wealth and the concerns of staying in power absorbed all their energy. As even greater problems, Europeans found their way into the Indian Ocean, breaking the Mamluk monopoly on trade with India and China, while Egypt came to be decimated by plague, for the Black Death which struck Europe in the mid-14th century also came here, where it would recur again and again. As the wealth of the land failed, the Bedouin began incessantly raiding the rural areas, and the sultans were powerless to stop them, preferring to try and hold the hearts of the capital by ever more gruesome spectacles such as creative executions in the front of the city's main southerm gate, Bab Zuwayla.

If Ibn Khaldun was right that dynasties have a life cycle, then the end of the Mamluk era was symbolic, for it was a man in his 70's, Muhammad al-Ghawri, who in 1516 as sultan rode out to meet the advancing Ottoman Empire under the rule of Selim the Grim. The Ottomans won, for the Mamluks had never adopted modern armaments, taking the attitude that gunpowder was for the weak. In 1517, Tunanbey, the last Mamluk ruler, was himself hung from Bab Zuwayla, and the city once called "the mother of the world" became just one more provincial capital in the Ottoman Empire, a dark planet reflecting the light of the sun of Istanbul.

The reader will have to forgive me the historical excursus above, for after all, this is what I do for a living, and here I am at the center of it. But it should not be thought that Islamic Cairo today is just a set of historic monuments. Far from it, there are just as many shops and the like here as anywhere else. And al-Azhar itself has only gained in stature throughout the centuries, so that today it is far and away the most important center of learning in Sunni Islam, claiming to be the world's oldest university with thousands of students studying their religion, mostly from the Arab world, but with a noticeable element of south and southeast Asians and presumably some Africans and others from around the world, as well.

In walking around the mosque today, you cannot help but notice that it is alive. Although little instruction actually takes place today beneath its five minarets around the pillars in its prayer halls, there was still posted what looked suspiciously like a course schedule, with times noted for fiqh, hadith, philosophy, and other fields of interest to the Islamic religion. Students, mostly young but many middle-aged, as well, are studying alone or in groups all over the place, some industriously, others bored and fiddling with their cell phones. I saw one guy half asleep over a German textbook, which calls to mind my advisor's oft-repeated story about when he was here many years ago and, stumbling across a group studying philosophy, and when he assumed it would be some classical Islamic philosopher, they said it was the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger. Al-Azhar's curriculum is not modern in the Western sense, but it is not medieval either.

This might seem a lot of time to spend talking about a single place, but in the world today there are few more important, for it is the students of al-Azhar who will spread out into the world as "Azharis," spreading the learning of this place throughout the Islamic world just as they have been doing for the past thousand years. And they, too, while I haven't seen them as a group active in current Cairene politics, will in the long run have just as much say in Egyptian and Arab attitudes as the Kefaya protestors who last Wednesday took part in the "Day of Black," wearing black and gathering downtown to protest the government violence on the day of the referendum. Meanwhile, I must cut this short, for soon others will be arriving here in Egypt, and I have work I want to do before meeting them.


It says something about just how many antiquities Egypt has that they can find a rare 3600-year-old statue and consider not worrying about fully excavating it.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

I am Odd

The Viking Name Generator has declared me "Odd the Serial Arsonist." Thanks to Eystein the Angry for the link!

Khatami (B) Attacked

Muhammad Khatami's brother, Muhammad Reza Khatami, was attacked while campaigning yesterday. Incidentally, could someone fill an apparent gap in my knowledge of the Iranian political system. I've seen Khatami described as Mustafa Mo'in's "running mate." What does that mean exactly? Iran has a system with a bunch of Vice Presidents for different things, kind of like an American corporation. Is there an official #2 that's announced during the campaign?