Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hurricane Relief

The United States is now receiving foreign aid offers.

Instapundit is coordinating a Carnival of Hurricane Relief.

Akaka Bill

I wish this were getting the attention it deserves.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Like many people, I was caught off guard by the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf coast. The situation was clearly getting progressively worse, but what really made things sink in was this catch by Josh Marshall. Assuming something similar holds for New Orleans, gradually sinking under a toxic lake, we will be looking at the evacuation of a major American city for one month. This means we will likely have cramped refugee camps for Americans on American soil. While the quality of our infrastructure and early warning systems saved countless lives and insurance will mitigate the damage for many people, this ranks with the types of devastating tragedies we often see in the developing world. We still don't know how many have already died, as I gather no one really understands the scale of the human situation in New Orleans itself, where even among the living the awesome power of nature has transformed one of the most famous outposts of our civilization into a post-apocalyptic Hobbesian urban jungle.

In the wake of this tragedy, some people are suggesting the media is at fault for crying wolf about possible disasters in the past. Daniel Drezner seems fated to become the blogosphere's poster boy for people who fell into this trap initially, but I freely admit I didn't really expect to see what we're seeing today, despite having read articles like this one. Perhaps, however, we would do well to take this as an example of why we should warn of and prepare for worst-case scenarios. They don't occur often, but when they do, the resulting catastrophe can be mitigated only by what we do in advance.

Excluding Commanders

The BBC reports that over a dozen militia leaders will be barred from running in Afghanistan's Parliamentary elections next month. This move arises from the fear that even if they don't interfere directly during the election, the influence of armed groups has an intimidating effect on voters. This is probably true - I've argued it before, during the Presidential election - but I don't think this move will do much to solve the problem, as the commanders can simply use puppets to overcome the regulations. Also, check out the last few paragraphs to see just how large a role the U.S. is still playing in Afghanistan. I pass no judgement on this one way or the other, but it's the sort of thing we should be aware of.

Just a Constitution

I think Michael Totten is probably on the right track with his views of the Iraqi constitution. As many have pointed out, creating an Arab Germany in just a few years was never a serious possibility in Iraq, and there are going to be a lot of serious issues to work out in the coming years and decades. What we can hope for, however, is that we create a situation in which leaders rise and fall in a peaceful manner which bears some resemblance to the popular will, and which ideally doesn't follow the pattern of the harsh liberal/conservative splits that tore apart 19th-century Mexico. While its true that the people putting concepts like "Islam" and "democracy" in the Constitution mean particular things by them right now, possible contradictions are not a reason for total panic. At the risk of offending genuine originalist Dave Milovich, any Constitution will be something of a living document, and Iraqis can contest the meaning of these terms in future political debates. Even shari'a, it must be remembered, is not a law code handed down on stone tablets but rather a field of study which is often troublingly conservative at present but which can develop in any number of possible directions. The important thing for now is to decide who will rule and how they will come to power, and if possible to get all Iraqis agreeing on the same format.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Election Good for Business

Gulf News has an interesting article about how the Egyptian Presidential election is great for calligraphers and other craftsmen.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Plans for Gaza

Imshin directs attention to the New York Times report on Palestinian plans for the Gaza Strip:
"Where the Israeli settlement of Netzarim once drew rage and mortar fire, Palestinian planners envision a cultural center and museum. In place of the settlement of Morag they see an agricultural research facility.

"Looking ahead 10 years after the Israeli departure from the Gaza Strip, they picture this isolated, conflict-blown strip of sand transformed into a tidy place linked internally by light rail and a coastal parkway and connected to the world by an airport and seaport."

As the article notes, however, planning is a lot easier than implementing. Nothing serious can develop as long as the conflict destroys infrastructure while scaring off investors. Furthermore, all this development is in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, and a lot could get consumed by corruption. Oddly, this is where a strong Hamas in Gaza could actually be a blessing in disguise, as they can and will hold the PA's feet to the fire on the corruption issue.

Incidentally, late in the article some experts questioned whether Gaza needed a port given its proximity to those in Egypt and Israel. I don't know all the economic arrangements, but I suspect if the Palestinians ever won a fully independent state they wouldn't want to deal with customs issues. Second, I can see situations in which land borders would be sealed, but the port wouldn't. The only other thing you could really develop there is tourism, and we're still a long time from when the Gaza Strip has the same lure as Hurghada or Sharm al-Shaykh.

UPDATE: Worth linking to here is Lisa's photo account of the Netzarim evacuation.

The Saga Continues

Irineos I, perhaps realizing no one is paying attention to him anymore, is proposing a deal:
"Irineos I, the ousted patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land is negotiating with the Greek government over terms that would allow him to retire honorably. The matter has become urgent since the election on Monday of a new patriarch.

"An agreement has been reached over the conditions of Irineos' retirement and pension. The bone of contention is Irineos' request for immunity from any legal proceedings which might be initiated against him in Greece.

"This demand is seen as controversial by Greek officials, who want to put the embarrassing affair to rest as quickly as possible, but hesitate to confer immunity on the ousted patriarch, who has been demoted to the rank of monk."

This guy would be right at home in the modern corporate world. The Orthodox response is interesting, though, to one used to the Catholic hierarchy's instinct to protect their own from secular authority. This might have to do with learned habits throughout history, as religious and secular governing authorities have historically had a far more competitive relationship in Western Europe than the east.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Turkmenbashi in Space

The writings of Turkmenistan's president Saparmurat Niyazov have now been blasted into outer space.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Replacing Paper

While searching through faculty pages for a work project today, I came across Greg Downey's blog, led off by this post about how administrations try to cut down on paper costs can be short-sighted even if the only goal is to save money. I especially liked this paragraph:
"With regard to syllabi, we need to think of them not simply as equivalent material artifacts where one has physical costs and one is virtually free, but artifacts that are produced and used in particular ways for particular purposes. For example, I'm a professor at a big state university who prints out paper syllabi for all of his students on the first day of class -- whether that class has 500 students or 5 students. I believe students will be able to follow along with my explanation of the class purpose, method, and details better with a physical piece of paper before them. I believe they will be able to better decide whether to take my class if they have that piece of paper to regard over dinner that night. And I believe that if they take my class, that piece of paper will serve as a valuable reminder of what they learned later. I've kept paper syllabi from classes I took two decades ago in college."

Later on he explains why it probably doesn't save the university that much money. This is probably true in the aggregate, but at least at a school the size of UW-Madison, these kinds of decisions are often made at department level, and those administrators don't care what costs are incurred by other campus units. This can also be a hidden way of cutting programs while not seeming to, as you can start charging those programs for things that weren't charged for previously.

Incidentally, further down Greg blogs about a proposed "student bill of rights" that seems even worse than the usual legislative fare in that area. He's right that most of this is grandstanding on common sense, but one provision would require student government approval for textbooks under certain common circumstances. And isn't the proposed penalty for misadvising a student pretty steep? And on issues like textbook weight and parking guidelines, we've entered micromanagement city. I'll look into this bill's current status.

Sheehan Not in Madison

A little while ago I mentioned that Cindy Sheehan was supposedly coming to Madison to introduce George Galloway. Her part of that has now been cancelled.

Just didn't want to leave a false impression!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Alternate Library Uses

I wonder what Manan Ahmed would make of the University of Wisconsin, where one of our libraries - Steenbock, I think - was rated by some magazine as one of the top non-alcoholic pick-up joints in the midwest?

I do think libraries are going to be changing in the future. It's too much more cost-effective for them to give on-line access to web-based resources than actually subscribe to tons of academic journals. As far as the social situation goes, I agree with him that libraries shouldn't be worrying about whether people use them as a meeting place, as opposed to the quality of resources. College Library at UW-Madison - the main undergraduate library - has a large room with a small cafe and lots of seating for people who need to meet for study groups and the like. That much makes sense, as you have the resources and everything right there. But I wouldn't want things to spread much beyond that, and I shudder at the notion of "chill-out music" where once shushing librarians held sway.

Tribes in Constitution

Thanks to RFE-RL, I learn of an Iraqi constitutional provision committing the state to the revival of tribal confederations. Somebody fill me in - why are we doing this? Is it an attempt to get tribal leaders to support the political process so there will be at least some Sunni representation? If so, it seems problematic, as the tribal leaders are threatening to boycott unless language is struck stipulating that tribal practices must be "in harmony with religion, law, and noble human values."

(Cross-posted to Liberals Against Terrorism.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Over at Abu Aardvark's site, there is a debate over the importance of research in an academic institution. I agree with Stacey that research is valuable even to scholars whose primary vocation is teaching. For one thing, submitting research for peer review and publication is the best way to ensure that you're keeping up with the latest developments in our field. Otherwise, it's too easy to fall out of touch, especially if you can't make it to conferences and the like. Furthermore, research is, at root, learning. The best way to learn about a field is to dive in and try to do something with all the raw information around us, much like we ask students to do on a regular basis. I know some administrations like to see them as part of a zero-sum game, but a top educational institution will recognize that research enhances educational possibilities, even if the institution's top priority is the latter.

UPDATE: I do like what John Penta has to say. While I don't think abandoning research in universities is desirable or even feasible, I know the sorts of situations he describes and worse, and am glad to see someone actually mad about it rather than just accepting it as their lot.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Via Kevin Drum, I find this Washington Monthly survey which ranks the University of Wisconsin #12 in the country, ahead of both Harvard and Yale. Meanwhile, we've also been declared the top party school. "Wisconsin - Where Liberals Party" - sounds about right.

Patriarch of Jerusalem

The Eastern Orthodox Church of Jerusalem now has a new patriarch.

UPDATE: Jonathan Edelstein has an analysis of this development.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Harry Potter in Saudi Arabia

Via The Leaky Cauldron, I find an article about Harry Potter's popularity in Saudi Arabia. The market for English fiction in that part of the world is greater than one might think, for in addition to those Arabs who start learning English at a young age, there are many guest workers from places like India among whom English becomes a lingua franca. This is especially prominent in the smaller Gulf states where citizens are actually a minority of the inhabitants, but I'm sure you get it in Saudi Arabia, as well.

MB Says Vote

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is calling on everyone to vote in next month's Presidential elections. I wonder what they're getting in return?

Saturday, August 20, 2005


This is the Pyramid of Menkaure, smallest of the three royal pyramids at Giza, though still taller than the Queens' Pyramids.

Incidentally, I may not post pictures as often as I have in the past. This was not a great photography trip. For one thing, photography is restricted a lot of places, such as churches and indoor ancient stuff. In other places, it was simply hard to get good shots given the angles available to me. As icing on the cake, I had camera problems at both Giza and the Citadel. But we'll see what happens.

Sadr Update

Zarqawi may or may not be tanking in popularity, but as Matthew Yglesias notes, Muqtada Sadr is doing quite well these days. Someone notes in the comments that Casey Sheehan was killed in the violence which began when we went in to try and shut him down. I wonder if that will start to filter into Sheehan coverage, leading to a greater public realization of just how things have developed in Iraq during the past year. Of course, whether such understanding will lead ultimately to better policy or greater pandering is another question.

Friday, August 19, 2005


During the past week I've slipped further into becoming a Wisconsinite. I've always found the Milwaukee Brewers to be a fairly "meh" team - not old enough to have much tradition, not new enough to get expansion points, and not inspiring enough in the present to win my support in the present. However, I've been feeling downright giddy about their 2-0 win at Coors Field, and then the triumph over Roger Clemens last night that has them within 5 games of the Wild Card. This last is especially striking as I've been sort of hoping to see Biggio and Bagwell get into a World Series and I like dominant pitching. The only thing I can really trace this to is watching the FSN broadcasts which make the Brewers into a hometown team.

Meanwhile, as a fan of certain sports rather than sports as a whole, I often find myself in a dilemma when I get angry over off-field situations. I'm pretty much an enabler for whatever happens in Major League Baseball simply because I love baseball, and couldn't simply switch over to soccer or something with the same level of enjoyment. The situation in hockey is different because of the Badger option, but I really don't feel pressure to ignore the NHL as a statement because in cancelling an entire season the NHL has clearly reduced themselves to a state where they don't need any more punishment. I mean, their national TV contract is now with the Outdoor Life Network.

Of course what really interests me about the NHL TV situation is the fact that NBC will get most of the Stanley Cup finals. NBC's ratings expectations are higher than a cable networks. Can the NHL satisfy them without major ratings draws in the finals, like maybe the Avalanche and Flyers? This might actually lead to a situation in which a salary cap, by making the playing field equitable for different market sizes, costs the sport national TV money by significantly raising the possibility that the teams competing for the championship will be from areas with small numbers of potential viewers - I can't see casual viewers flocking to watch Buffalo vs. Edmonton.

Zarqawi in Decline?

My latest Liberals Against Terrorism offering involves speculation about Zarqawi's declining status in Iraq.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Brother Roger

Brother Roger of Taize prayer fame has been murdered at age 90.

Gaza Stuff

There's plenty of good stuff being blogged about the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, which so far has gone very well. One piece I'll add a link to is Martin Kramer's:
"In leaving Gaza and putting up a high barrier there and in the West Bank, Israel has spurned the messianism of the far right and the universalism of the far left. It's still inspired by the model of the classic nation-state, in which the dominant nationality enjoys a clear majority and lives behind impermeable borders. Today Israel is reaffirming its faith in that model.

The problem is the weakness of Palestinians who share that faith. In leaving Gaza to the Gazans, Israel hopes to compel the Palestinians to mirror Israel. It's a gamble: people like Haj Rashad don't call the shots. Israel will soon find out whether, in the person of Abu Mazen, it has found someone who does."

The more I think about this, the more I think it's likely to be more significant for Israeli self-definition than as a means of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Galloway and Sheehan

I just found out that George Galloway and Cindy Sheehan will be in Madison this September, as part of an event of which the International Socialist Organization are the local organizers.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

University of Wisconsin

What is it with the news out of my university lately? First this, then this, and now this!

And no, I'm not trying to equate all these stories or comment on them in any way. I actually know nothing about them not in the linked pieces. I'm just struck by the way we've been generating national bad news on a monthly basis.

More Disengagement

More thoughts on the disengagement come from Imshin.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Disengagement Thoughts

So, the long-awaited disengagement is underway. Now that the moment has arrived, I feel strangely underwhelmed by it all. In theory, it is a beginning. The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip will no longer have Israeli settlements in their midst, no longer be confronted daily with the specter of government-supported colonists many of whom look forward to the day when Palestinians are reduced to a minority even there. The Israeli government may undertake further withdraws, seeking to retreat within borders more secure both militarily and demographically than those they presently seek to defend.

Yet today it is far from clear whether peace between Palestinians and Israelis is much closer at all, and in fact, it may start moving further away. On the one hand, there is the danger of a Hamas takeover in Gaza, which coupled with any sort of decline in the present political situation could lead to the area's becoming a de facto terrorist enclave. With their own local North West Frontier Province just a few miles from Tel Aviv, Israelis may long for the slovenly governance of Yasser Arafat. Meanwhile, for many Israeli militants, disengagement represents their government turning its back on the religious concept of Greater Israel, and already the battle is on as some place the realization of their religious vision above the nation in which they claim citizenship. It is certainly possible that Hamas's Israeli soulmates, no longer confident they can eventually push the state in their chosen direction, might continue and intensify the violent tactics they have previously deployed against Palestinians around them, and that if the Israeli military continues to interfere, that body which once protected and served their interests will become a target for more than just harassment.

Only time will tell the course events will take, a course that has much to do with the popular interpretations placed on events and political will within a democratic society and the much more clandestine yet forceful political manuevering of a society which has in recent decades known little beyond corrupt gang rule. What will not change, apparently, is the perception of the conflict in the American media, where from what I've seen CNN seems intent on portraying the pain of the settlers being evicted and the noble quest for peace by Israel with nothing significant said about how those settlers got there, a process which involved much more forceful evictions not so long ago. And, from that perhaps, comes the one certainty I have in all this, for this week it is the settlers who are losing out, and while sociological factors render their actions different, the most militant among them are no different in spirit from the Palestinian terrorists who make them the good guys in the eyes of many who see a struggle between good and evil defined nationally rather than the complexity of two societies which seem sentenced to perpetual fear and bloodshed. With such an agenda being thwarted, one can root for the disengagement, even as one fears mainstream Israeli society might be creating the beginnings of an enemy within to go with those without.

Cairo Protest

Speak of the devil (not literally). Several thousand protestors blocked an unknown Cairo street yesterday. Most were apparently Muslim Brotherhood, though the mention of other opposition groups makes it sound somewhat National Front-ish. Eventually Cairo-based people will return from vacation to fill us in!

Disengagement Watch

The Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip has begun. Hopefully I'll have time to say something substantive later, but for now I'll refer you to Jonathan Edelstein (see main page as well) and Lisa for their insights.

There is one reaction I do have now: Egypt gave me just enough taste for being around interesting events instead of just reading about them that I wish this were happening a year from now when I hope to actually be in Israel. Of course something else will probably happen then - the Israelis are usually doing something interesting.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Cairo, Egypt/London, England/Quincy, Illinois

It is from a feeling of obligation more than enthusiasm that I sit down to write this last travel write-up related to my recent trip to Egypt. This is not to say that I do so reluctantly, for despite being there before I feel that I gained a better understanding of the contemporary Middle East during the past two months than I had in the past several years - my advisor was right to send me there. Instead, the lack of enthusiasm springs from the nature of what I gained from the trip, an amorphous mass of knowledge and impressions which I still haven't found words to describe accurately in some neat little essay form, but which especially when capped off with the events of July 30 have left me in at least a few ways darker and more humorless than before. Enough of that, however. If what I say below seems a neat and coherent picture, fine, and if it doesn't, then it doesn't to me, either.

There is, as usual, much I could describe if I had time. The experience of sailing the Nile on a felucca, which we did on my friend Greg's birthday, will have to wait for the live "director's cut" version some of you have access to, as will mention of the free hospital in Manial with poor people all sitting on the sidewalk outside waiting for a chance to receive care. I can, however, briefly pass over the City of the Dead, Cairo's vast cemetery to the east of the medieval city north of the Citadel where for centuries - at least since the late Mamluk period - the city's homeless have made homes within the walled gravesites, using the graves and monuments themselves as furnishings and turning it into a neighborhood with everything one would expect of life in Cairo, just a little creepier than most. I went there one morning to see the 15th century Mosque of Qaytbey, and think I missed the heart of it, but what I saw was interesting enough. Several of the structures had different types of vehicles painted on them - Lonely Planet said of such drawings in Farafra that they meant the place belonged to one who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and used that to show it, though if this was the same thing whether the hajjis were the people living there now or the ones buried I don't know.

For the most part, however, enough has happened during the nearly three weeks since I left that my most salient memories already seem disconnected from one another, as though experienced through a pensieve in a Harry Potter novel, and it is in that spirit that I ask you now to step with me to the Anglican cathedral I went to in Zamalek. Despite the impression I may have given, I wasn't really a regular, but I did go several times in my first two weeks when I was trying to meet people and several in the last two when I realized time was slipping away and there were things I wanted to learn. All Saints, as it happens is the center of a program known as Refuge Egypt, one of the main charities working with Sudanese refugees in Cairo, originally Dinka and other Christian groups from the south, more recently people from Darfur.

The services provided by Refuge Egypt are the ones usually associated with charity groups - emergency nutritional and medical services, self-help programs, and legal advocacy. Apparently they're violating some sort of Egyptian government regulations in the way they operate, but the government (often known in my writings as the "Mubarak regime") turns a blind eye to and often even supports their work and that of similar organizations. Bishop Mouneer, the guy who runs it, told me that sometimes get accused of proselytizing, but that those allegations were false, and anymore (presumably since Darfur heated up) they serve more Muslims than Christians. A number of southern Sudanese were at the English-speaking services, and the liturgical fusion of the English high tradition and Anglicanism as adopted to the livelier religious culture of sub-Saharan Africa was...really weird, if interesting in places.

The experience I have two relate is from one evening when I had arranged to go out for coffee with two German girls I had met there, and we were to meet at the church after an evening service they were attending. I show up to find the service was actually a long way from over, for there is a special united service of all three congragations (English, Arabic, Sudanese) related to the visit of some pastor from California. For a while I hang out in the courtyard between the gate and the actual church building. The place is filled with Sudanese, for to them the church is a social gathering place where they are more than just refugees - when I went there one weekday morning to grab a couple of things from the craft shop the African-style cafe was filled with people socializing and watching TV. This night, however, the crowd outside is smaller.

I talk for a time with a 50-something Arab who, it turns out, is actually Catholic, but there working with the refugees. Soon he is called away, and I find myself face to face with a Sudanese man in his early 20's in jeans, and red shirt, and large yellow sash around his neck and down his front that marks him out as an usher. Now despite feeling the need to know, I have never really talked much with any Sudanese about the past - if they had happy life stories, they wouldn't be refugees in Cairo. For the first time, however, I decide to take the plunge, and after answering his questions about how long I'll be here for and why he hasn't seen me before, ask how he came to be in Egypt. He looks away briefly, saying "Ahh, my life story..." Then, after a pause, looks back at me and begins to speak.

G grew up in a Dinka village in southern Sudan. During the war, his parents were killed, then all his siblings, leaving him the sole survivor of his family. Shortly thereafter he was captured, forced into the military, and hauled up to Darfur to fight in the war there. What happened next is vague - he says, "Then, when I was often praying to be saved, Jesus came and brought me to Egypt." I blink and ask what he means by that; he makes a brief thinking sound, then goes on as if I hadn't said anything. He came to Cairo, found a place to live in Ma'adi (where I was invited to go to his church), and while putting up with the hidden racism of many Egyptians who view people from sub-Saharan Africa mainly as people who will take jobs by working for really cheap wages sought ways to occasionally eat, ideally once every couple of days.

Despite all this, G radiated an intense optimism and hope for the future. He has a plan - to open a school to educate people in the village where he grew up. With this in mind he has gotten the aid of Refuge Egypt in trying to get a college education, a project which involved a lot of time spent begging at the British Embassy. He also had a certain urgency about this because the UNHCR, in light of the recent peace deal which led to southern Christian leader John Garang's becoming Vice President, had determined that the war in the south was over and all the refugees could go home now when he and many others felt the lull was temporary and fighting would resume as soon as there was sufficient spark. As of our conversation in late July, however, he was very optimistic that he would be going somewhere before the end of August - I think he mentioned Leeds. His ultimate goal, however, is to live in Chicago, which he believes is the world's greatest city. He asked about the cost of living there and was stunned when I told him, but recovered and figured he'd deal with it. His view of the United States was very idealistic - we allegedly have no racism whatsoever, for example - but there was absolutely no way I could have disabused him of any of these notions, for when he said that stuff his face changed, and he looked desperately into my eyes with what I can only call need - this was something I picked up from a few other Sudanese refugees, the need to believe in a United States that was a sort of earthly heaven, even if they had no ambition or hope of ever seeing it, I think because if such a place did exist somewhere, there was in a way hope for them, too, that people anywhere could eventually be happy and at peace.

There are times when travelling the world outside the usual tourist track can feel morally overwhelming, and upon learning that he had last eaten the day before yesterday easily conceived the idea of inviting him to eat with us, but there was somehow an awkwardness in that as well, and he seemed to sense it, too, brushing the offer aside firmly and repeatedly and turning the focus to the friends I was meeting - when I told him who they were he said he knew them and knew where they were sitting inside and offered to take me to them. This offer I accepted, and we went inside where the they quietly but eagerly greeted me as I sat down, thanking G who replied only, "God bless you" before disappearing.

Inside the service has just reached communion, though that still took awhile given the huge crowd. There was also a point where Sudanese would go up somberly in groups of 3-5, each gathered in a circle with one of the priests all with arms on each other shoulders. One of the Germans asked the woman next to her what they were doing, and was told it was confession. Then they finally got to the benediction, which gave me a taste of what the service had been like - the main All Saints priest involved was the one who worked with the Arabic congregation (previously noted as followers of Billy Graham), whose demeanor was totally that of a fundamentalist TV talk show host as he thanked the Californian visitor, a large man with thinning brown hair dressed casually in blue shirt and khakis and a huge silver watch; when the visitor went to say his final words to the congregation, it was a heartfelt reminder that they should never forget that there were people all across America praying for them. While the Europeans seemed generally not to think to much of the fellow, the Sudanese ate it up, responding to his words as medicine, for while they have a lot of pride, their emotional need is also great, and I think clearly Mr. American Pastor made far more of a connection and inspired far more hope and confidence than someone like me could have with whatever I might babble.

That is all I have to say about that night, though for flavoring let me add that even here in Egypt the war to the south follows them. Once I talked to an All Saints priest who was actually from Sudan and now ministering to refugees there. He told me that among the Darfur refugees several had asked to convert to Christianity, so he helped them do so. Islamic militants, however, threatened to kill him for aiding converts - someone later told me they had followed him from Sudan into Egypt for a similar charge. He went to the UNHCR, but like most people in those parts he seemed to find them utterly useless, and in any event at the time of my departure was about ready to flee to Oklahoma. (He asked me about Wisconsin, but decided it would be too cold, especially when he found out I was describing May and not January.) He, presumably, has escaped, but those he baptized are still in danger, meeting secretly in apartments on weeknights while often publicly pretending to still be Muslims. Officially in Egypt anyone can choose their own religion, but government power in these cases is far from absolute, and there is no special security force to protect refugees.

The issue of Sudan would deserve a separate trip, but that is all I can say based off this one, and I must hurry on - this is already shaping up as one of my longer write-ups and there's a lot of ground to cover yet. So briefly let me situate you in the AUC courtyard, a reasonably pleasant space where foreign students and the children of Egypt's elite frolic behind the guarded gates and walls which are the university's face to the city. I had made my last trip to the Dar al-Kutub a few days before, and was spending my one of my last days there reading a book by Kemal Karpat while sipping a latte purchased from the coffee stand.

In this I was interrupted by a tall girl wearing gray-blue jeans, a pink shirt, and light blue headscarf asking if she can sit down. I assent, and after brief introductions we talk for a time on topics ranging from Harry Potter to Sudanese refugees to the weather. She was a business student who recently reconfirmed her Islam after spending much of her teenage years as an agnostic save for a brief period as a Buddhist. Her critique of Christianity was typical for Islam - the Trinity makes no sense - though she also expressed sympathy for the view of another Muslim friend who when my friends Greg and Joanna tried to explain the concept of original sin responded with a shocked incredulity. (Islam's view of human nature is that we all have a fitra, or internal compass driving us to always do what is right.)

The girl I was talking to, though, despite her recently rediscovered Muslim piety, was unhappy with some of the Islamic revivalism currently sweeping Egypt. I actually ran into some of the consequences of this in my professional work - there were a few standard books on early Islamic history I couldn't find in the library, and I later read that they had been banned by the Ministry of Higher Education at the insistence of students and parents as contrary to the teachings of Islam. She was more troubled by certain among her peers who tried to force everyone to be their version of a good Muslim. I asked if she meant people connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, but she said: "No, though they might say they are. The Muslim Brotherhood are professionals, and they have studied their religion and how to promote it. These people really haven't." And here one of my stereotypes was exposed, for I was picturing bearded young men wandering around campus trying to intimidate people, but her example was women in the locker room lecturing everyone who didn't wear all black and veil themselves.

That was short, but I include it mainly for introduction into the Egyptian social context among the educated classes of society who, thus far, are what matters most politically. And with that in mind, let us look at the last protest I went to, the one spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood under the banner of their "National Front," an attempt to unify all the opposition groups going into the elections. The MB is different from most of the other groups protesting over the summer. For one thing - they're actually illegal, having been banned and suppressed by Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1950's - Youth for Change and Co. in the Kefaya movement haven't really become important enough to ban. Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood is larger, more professional, and more disciplined than any of the other groups which have sprung up during the past couple of years, and because of that they've developed an uneasy understanding with the government that allows them to function, albeit with a certain level of harassment and within certain red lines.

It is this relationship, perhaps, which led them to negotiate with the government in the days leading up to the protest, coming to an agreement over the location and size of the protest. The location selected was the Syndicate of Lawyers near Midan Ramses, where the security forces could more easily close off the street than they could at the original site outside Abdeen Palace. With the Kefaya leftists, too, they came to an understanding - the Muslim Brotherhood would eschew Islamist slogans as long as the Kefaya people agreed not to criticize Husni Mubarak.

I arrived at the protest somewhat late, as I had trouble finding out the site, and when I got there it was already in full swing. This was easily the most impressive of the lot. Much of this impression sprung from its size - estimates ranged as highas 5000 instead of the usual few hundred. Muslim Brothers were arranged all out in front and along the roofs and balconies of the syndicate building, ironically under a picture of Gama Abdel Nasser. Their slogans were different in style as well as content - regrettably I can't remember them, but in any case the impression comes from the fact they were longer and impressed you with their sense of verbal power rather than the cleverness Kefaya usually went for. What's more, they were chanted in much better unison than Kefaya was usually able to achieve, with the total effect being that the MB leaders had brought out this small street army which was firmly under their command, and at any time they could bring out not just a few thousand but tens of thousands if not over a hundred thousand who would be just as disciplined.

Several people commented on how relaxed the CSF was - because of this MB discipline, they didn't have to worry about lone leftist activists deciding to try and start something, nor was the MB inclined to direct any verbal fire at them - they had bigger fish to fry than calling miseducated farmboys terrorists and trying to attack them because they can't attack anyone meaningful. Many of the leftists, however, were unhappy with their agreement, feeling that not criticizing Mubarak defeated the purpose of holding an anti-Mubarak protest. Some tried to sneak in their slogans - when this kept failing, the whole lot of them went next door to the Syndicate of Journalists to hold their own protest with all the usual Kefaya slogans.

Not all the Kefaya activists stayed there, however - a few snuck over to the try and infiltrate the MB crowd and bend it to their will. They failed, and it back-fired, as the Muslim Brotherhood leadership decided they'd had enough. An order was given, and in neat and orderly rows their thousands of people filed out - the total crowd went from 5000 to 500 in about 5 minutes. The Kefaya crowd then started moving toward the Lawyers' Syndicate building with obvious ambitions of breaking out and holding another march. The CSF guys, relaxed no longer, leapt into action - quite literally, as they jumped over the sidewalk fences to confront them more directly. There were a few minor shoving matches as younger activists challenged the security forces before being restrained by older ones - for the most part the protest just drifted along like a large fish trying to find a hole in a fishing net before it finally began to dissipate, at which point CNN showed up. (Note: I didn't find out a couple of these details until later from friends in the Greek Club. Which brings up my usual obligation to credit all the people whose insight and experience went to enhance my own during this trip, most especially Josh Stacher, Praktike, and many others who hang out in the Greek Club, but also the UW-Madison undergraduates studying abroad in Cairo, who had been there for a year and were especially helpful in my understanding of the Coptic community, several of the clergy I met at All Saints, as well as the two German girls mentioned above, the staff of the Garden City House Hotel, and a few Egyptian AUC students whose acquaintance I was fortunate enough to make in my limited time there.)

For all intents and purposes, that was the finale to my Cairo trip. I remember feeling like my nerves were shot the last few days - in particular, on Thursday or so strange psychological forces drove me into a fit of neatness that had me picking up litter around AUC and its immediate environment in a futile attempt to clean downtown Cairo. The last day, too, was marred by the terrorist attack in Sharm al-Shaykh that as of my departure had killed 75 Egyptians and 8 foreigners. It was Revolution Day - Egypt's national holiday - so I really can't ascribe anything different I observed to the attack itself, but the words "Sharm al-Shaykh" were spoken somberly on a lot of tongues gathered around televisions. It was a somber thematic segue to the next leg of my trip, for in an economically unwise decision, I had elected to spend a day and a half in London rather than take my fourth layover there without actually seeing the city.

My trip to London was itself marred by the fact that I managed to lose my passport there, and the full day I allowed was spent at the embassy getting a replacement. (Do not lose your passport overseas - it is a significant problem. Furthermore, always carry a photocopy of your data page just in case you do - I think mine is what saved me from a lot of hassle.) Despite all that, I got the feel of the place, on the carefully-watched-by-police tube from Heathrow to my "cheap" hotel in Belgravia near Westminster, within walking distance of pretty much everything I wanted to do. The Thames riverfront was wonderful - everything Cairo could have been had not successive Muslim dynasties moved their urban core further away from it instead of along it. Most sites were closed on Sunday, but I did get to see the two main cathedrals, St. Paul's where I attended a free organ recital, and Westminster, where a number of stations had candles for the victims of July 7 - I decided to light one, then added another for Sharm.

It was after my return home, I think that my perceptions of the trip were sealed. After a brief time in Madison I went down to Quincy for my brother's wedding. It was fun, hanging out with some new people and playing at salsa dancing. One person there was a marine, talking eagerly in macho marine style about his forthcoming tour in Iraq - I wondered vaguely how much he understood of the U.S. in the world, it's sources of strength and weakness, and the perceptions of all involved, and further how much he might come to perceive in his time in Baghdad, a city with issues all its own yet tied inexorably to the rest of the region, a city our occupation of which led to the Kefaya movement in its embryonic form as an anti-Iraq War movement, yet in which our project is the same as what Kefaya and others like them want to do in Egypt.

But it was also on the day of the wedding when I felt the pull my emotional connection to the people I had met overseas. I forget when I learned what, glancing at news in between events. I know in one matter I mistook the significance because I hadn't realized the exact status of the situation, but I quickly came up to speed, for that was the day a helicopter crashed somewhere in Sudan, taking the life of Vice President John Garang and threatening the still tender peace between north and south. CNN had pictures from the air of gangs in Khartoum out seeking blood - whether they were Christians seeking Muslims or Muslims seeking Christians no longer mattered. Even more directly troubling were the reports of the Kefaya protest that day near Midan Tahrir, where the security forces decided they could go ahead and crack down on the protestors even more than they had in May, with CSF officers directing plainclothes people in beating the activists, and when beaten hauling them into the backs of security trucks and taking them away, all the while confiscating the film and notes from journalists in hopes that word of the deed would not spread far. I knew no one in Khartoum; I did Cairo, and now when I look through my pictures of that trip I'll be able to notice one in which a girl sits holding a beer while looking at a cake, and know that just two weeks later she would be one of those attacked, though she escaped with little more than shaken nerves. I have read of no protests since - I'm sure no one's given up, but it can be hard to organize something when distracted by your own kangaroo trial.

Life, or perhaps I should say history in this case, is a story that never ends. The fact I am writing this now instead of three weeks ago or a year from now doesn't mean that the final word is in on the civil war in Sudan or the politics of Egypt. In fact as a medievalist I sometimes can't help but take the long view and look at everything as a blip in the pan unless it still stands out a few centuries from now. But this is travel writing, not history or politics, and the story of this trip, like all those of all true travellers, is one of gaining understanding. The understandings I have gained in Egypt are not happy, optimistic ones, but nor do they embed a deep cynicism. In an LAT blog post I suggested parallels between the Youth for Change and the Friends of the ABC Cafe, but I am not yet ready to give up the fight. Rather, I have internalized that life and the issues of the world are serious business, and easily slip out of attempts to capture them through the relatively simple ideas and values which characterize my own life. As I said at the beginning, I feel it has altered me some, though I still can't put my finger on how or why. But if as a student of the world I am to learn all I can that I might serve the world, then I can claim to have gained new tools and understandings, and am better prepared for more.

Palestinian Sandwich

I'm still trying to figure out if there's a moral to this story, in which a Palestinian effort to make the world's longest sandwich was called off due to health concerns, leading a chef to blame a conspiracy of their competitors.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Explanation and Mystery

I fully agree with Dave Milovich's critique of this Slate article on evolution and atheism. At the same time, though I think Weisburg is intuitively on to something when he claims that evolution represents a threat to religious belief. This is not necessarily true on the level of the individual, for as Dave and I are both examples of, the two can co-exist quite well. On the broader social level, I think Weisburg has a point, though, and here's why.

There are really two core views of religion in society today. One group, consisting of fundamentalists and many atheists, sees religion primarily as an explanatory device for the world. Moral guidance is part of this, but only part - for these people religion also contains Truth about all human experience and the workings of the universe. I've seen this in my field - try bringing up the idea that the Old Testament is one primary source for ancient history among others in a class of people not quite prepared for the idea, especially if they're still in high school. Some people I've met - and socially I'm nowhere near serious fundamentalist territory - view the question "Do you believe The Bible?" as an all-or-nothing proposition, and an assault on one part of it, even whether someone named Ham really had a son named Canaan, is an assault on all.

The other group - and I admit this is not a dichotomy across all society so much as a description of two common types of people with lots of other lying between and around them - sees empirical evidence and human knowledge as the main explanatory device, with God as one of the mysteries we struggle to understand. For them, a belief in evolution doesn't challenge their belief in God, it simply shows that when He created the world it was a more complex process than the ancients who first struggled to understand Creation thought it was. The Bible for these people is not so much a tool to explain life, though it certainly does some of that, especially in the moral realm, but rather a record of faith and writings by people who were in a position to understand a great deal, such as Paul and other early Christians.

Now it is certainly possible to simply move from being a "religion explains" person to a "religion is explained" one, but first you have to know of and understand the second position. I'm not convinced that happens as often as we might assume - if it did, there wouldn't be so many people convinced that a belief in evolution is is tantamount to a rejection of God. Maybe it's not that simple - I think it more likely that people come to question many elements of the fundamentalist worldview during a short period of time and gradually lose all religious belief that way. But you can see it happening every time someone declares themselves an atheist and justifies it by demanding to know what sort of God would demand all the stuff in Leviticus.

That last also explains why in my theological views I take the position that claiming The Bible is the inerrant Word of God is not only wrong, but probably dangerous, and in any case I don't see why in Christian theology we need an inerrant holy text to represent God's Word when the first chapter of the Gospel According to John clearly directs us elsewhere for that. (Well, I understand on the historical and sociological level, but not in terms of theological argument.) That, however, is a discussion for another time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Over at TPM Cafe, Iceland-bound Matthew Yglesias posts on the evolution of the morality of war, contrasting our present campaign in Iraq with World War II. It might be the most thought-provoking piece I've read in quite some time, though this Tim Burke offering is also good.

Free and Democratic Iraq

Don't look now, but Baghdad's mayor was deposed in what was essentially a military coup by the Badr Brigades. The Badr Brigades, let us remember, are the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and officially on our side. According to the New York Times, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is not expected to stop the move, like he could anyway. The previous mayor was not democratically elected, of course - he was a Bremer appointee. But on a day to day basis politics is still usually conducted via the gun, apparently even in the capital.

UPDATE: Juan Cole says SCIRI had a right to do this after winning provinical elections.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Egyptian Activist Shot

A member of Ayman Nour's al-Ghad party was shot by security forces while putting up posters. Coming in the wake of the July 30 violence, this shows a serious uptick in government repression heading into next month's Presidential elections.


In the West, madrasas conjure up images of religious extremism, and that is certainly a problem with some. However, all you're really talking about is a type of educational institution. A good parallel for people who speak out against madrasas in general would be if liberals condemned churches because of the likes of Fred Phelps. With that in mind, RFE-RL profiles the madrasa revival in Central Asia, which provides many people with the only real education they have access to.

Monday, August 08, 2005


Cliopatra today posted a symposium on empire. While I haven't read the works they're commenting on, I was struck by Manan Ahmed's comment, "From the colony, it is easy to spot an Empire, even an empire starkly missing in its own metropole" That reminded me of my recent trip to Farafra and the episode near the end when the guy in the hotel suggested Americans (or perhaps Westerners in general) were the new Romans. The context was the Egyptian state's special interest in protecting us, moreso, in fact, than its own citizens. I came away with a similar impression in Morocco last summer.

When you consider that the current Egyptian regime bases much of its legitimacy on the struggle against colonialism, this notion that it really plays the role of quasi-imperial agent seems striking, though of course many within the Arab world would take it for granted in their own political worldview. The reasons for this are not entirely political - this is not the old extraterritoriality of the unequal treaties - but rather economic. If Westerners with all our economic power stopped going to Egypt, it would devastate their economy. Terrorists know this, and it is one reason they attack tourists, whether in the Sinai or in Cairo itself.

The United States is obviously not the Roman Empire in the sense of conquering and annexing territory, but then the Aztecs did not formally rule much of central Mexico, and their dominion is still often called the "Aztec Empire." "Empire" is not a concept handed down from heaven, but one we invent to describe various similar phenomena in the human experience, and as such we can consider it wherever it might be useful. Are Americans imperialist colonizers out to conquer and loot the planet? Not generally. But when currency and many streets and buildings in Egypt have both Arabic and English labelling, when there is an entire security service the public face of which is primarily the protection of largely Western tourists, when the premiere institute of higher education is "American University," and when the Egyptian government tries to control many gatherings of its own people while protecting an embassy-sponsored Fourth of July celebration, there are definitely elements of an imperial hegemony in play.

Ancient Monastery

A new discovery in a place I almost went in Egypt:
"The remains of an ancient church and monks' retreats that date back to the early years of monasticism have been discovered in a Coptic Christian monastery in the Red Sea area, officials said Saturday.

"Workers from Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities found the ruins while restoring the foundations of the Apostles Church at St. Anthony's Monastery. The remains are about 2 or 2 1/2 yards underground, said the head of the council, Zahi Hawass.

"The monastery, which is in the desert west of the Red Sea, was founded by disciples of St. Anthony, a hermit who died in A.D. 356 and is regarded as the father of Christian monasticism. A colony of hermits settled around him and he led them in a community."

Friday, August 05, 2005

Al-Qaeda in Palestine

Count me unimpressed by this. Even if a new terrorist group in that area has chosen to take the name al-Qaeda, that's not the same as "al-Qaeda expanding into Palestine." Osama bin Laden and Co. has talked a lot about the Israeli/Palestinian question, but has never really moved much to deal with it, being more concerned with existing Muslim regimes they see as heretical and their supporters. By this M.O., one might almost expect an al-Qaeda-inspired Palestinian terrorist group to spend all their time attacking the Palestinian Authority, much like al-Qaeda-linked groups in Pakistan target the government there rather than India.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Wafd in the Ring

Munir Fakir Abd al-Nur of the New Wafd party will run for President of Egypt. Since the Wafd is not really about pushing boundaries and trying to reform the system no matter what it takes, I can only conclude that Abd al-Nur is content being co-opted, and doing this to help preserve the system by allowing Mubarak to claim he had opposition. After all, it's better to rule the Wafd party and its patronage network than not to rule anything at all.

Sudanese Abroad

IWPR reports on Sudanese living in Iraq. According to the article, most of them were guest workers who went in the late 1980's to help rebuilt after the war, but are refugees in the sense that they are afraid to return to Sudan even though they might want to. Now, unfortunately, they're caught in the middle of the growing Iraqi civil war.

The fear of returning home is something I also ran into among Sudanese in Egypt. When I get time I'm going to do one final write-up of that trip, including Sudanese refugees and the Muslim Brotherhood protest, but for now let me just say that one person I talked to was a little afraid of the UNHCR, as they were taking the position that as the peace deal had ended the war, everyone could go home again. This young man was convinced that peace was only temporary. Unfortunately, as the aftermath of the death of John Garang shows, he was probably right. Let's hope the eerie parallels to the death of Rwanda's Juvenal Habyarimana end here.


In 2003-04, I had only basic cable, not the expanded basic you need to get ESPN and FOX Sports. In 2004-05, there was a lockout. So pardon me for wondering, "Who are all these people?"

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Saudi Politics

Soj at Daily Kos has a great analysis of Saudi politics (thanks Dave!). I think the people saying it doesn't matter much are looking mainly at the fact Abdullah was running things even when Fahd was alive, so this business about how the Sudayri Seven are now only a quick assassination away from power was as true a year ago as it is now. It's also worth mentioning that the Saudi government is always a balance among many factions each with its own power center. King Abdullah will continue to employ people who are essentially his rivals, not because he wants to adopt their agenda, but because they have independent sources of power which he needs to co-opt into the regime to survive.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Terrorism in Africa

The always interesting Jamestown Foundation has a new article on terrorism in Africa:
"It is this extra-regional dimension that is currently informing the threat perceptions of Western governments and intelligence analysts. In the United States there is a growing appreciation that terrorism in North and West Africa could pose a serious long-term threat to American national security interests. Economically, the region remains important, both with regards to oil – roughly 17 percent of Washington’s non-gulf petroleum imports come from the Central/West African basis – as well as in terms of overall trade and investment on the continent. Outbursts of extremist political violence obviously hold direct implications for ensuring the protection of these strategic energy supplies and otherwise providing a safe and stable environment in which to conduct macro-economic business. Just as importantly, the Bush Administration has become concerned that the combination of autocratic governance, economic degradation, political corruption and disregard for human rights will radicalize Islamic sentiment in West Africa and possibly avail the emergence of a new al-Qaeda front that could be used as a base from which to plan and execute future attacks on American global interests."

One thing that struck me as I was reading this was that the problem of terrorism in Africa is connected to failed and weak states, not rogue states. The one exception was probably Charles Taylor's Liberia, which was dealt with two years ago, though most of the media missed the al-Qaeda connections there. Terrorist organizations are far more likely to pick up significant funding or even weapons of mass destruction in the black market than they are from a government seeking to use them for its own ends, especially since they openly oppose almost every government on the planet.