Friday, July 29, 2005

Death in Afghanistan

Over a dozen people were killed in the most recent fighting in Afghanistan, including an American soldier.

I don't normally post updates like this, but I'm in the middle of company for whom the conservative line is law, and I'm feeling depressed and feel the need to speak out about what's happening in the real world. Yes, there is still violence in Afghanistan, and no, I don't think a major terrorist attack on Paris would be a good thing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Anti-Terror Demonstrations

Last weekend's attacks on Sharm al-Shaykh have prompted a number of anti-terror demonstrations in Egypt. Baheyya notifies us of these two, Abu Aardvark has links to other responses, and Juan Cole (scroll way down) joins several sources I encountered while travelling who mention a major anti-terror demonstration in Sharm al-Shaykh itself including both locals and tourists.


I have now returned to Madison. My time in London was marred by the fact I somehow lost my passport. Fortunately I was in a capital city and already had the documentation I needed as back-up, so I didn't have to eat my plane ticket or anything, but I'm still left with a sense of shame and stupidity. Take care folks, and always travel with a photocopy of your ID page in case of trouble.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Sharm el-Shaykh

My comments on the terrorist attack at Sharm el-Shaykh are here.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Now What?

This is just what I want to read right before I spend a day in London.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Tancredo's Comments

Via Matt Bruce, I find a Hugh Hewitt post I fully agree with.

UPDATE: Let me echo the very conservative Pejman here:
"We know a great many Muslims--as you might expect, given our background. Many--if not all--of the Muslims we know and know well are people we don't primarily think of as 'Muslims.' We think of them as 'friends.' Dear friends. Good friends. Cherished friends. Friends we would trust with our lives and the lives of our loved ones without fear that we will be let down.

"So when I see comments in the Blogosphere saying that you basically cannot trust Muslims in light of the War on Terror, when I see comments implying--if not outright saying--that all or most Muslims wish us ill and when I see transcendentally stupid comments about nuking Mecca . . . well . . . I tend to get displeased. Not only are people taking their eyes off of actual terrorists and instead being distracted by an entire religion, they are being incredibly offensive in the process. And I do not make these statements lightly. Because when I see those comments, I imagine my friends and my family's friends being affected by them. That tends to enrage me. When I am enraged, my anger is not easily soothed. Sometimes, it never is."

There are, of course, personal stories here that I won't go into, and the fear I'll have more when I get back from Egypt. Suffice it to say that many otherwise good people from, shall we say, less diverse backgrounds have no idea how to behave in public, and what tends to happen is that they see people who are non-white or non-Christian or whatever as some strange, unique foreign category which they try to talk about with me and because I'm both White and Christian they assume I'm part of their world and share the same assumptions. The fact I get annoyed by their assumptions, most of which could be avoided if they paid more attention to the world than the average turnip, tends to make them see me as some sort of academic snob or worse, because for them the issue is one of abstract politics rather than flesh and blood humanity.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Misr al-Qadima, Cairo, Egypt/Wadi Natrun, Egypt

Christianity's roots in Egypt run very deep. I've mentioned before how according to tradition the religion was brought here by St. Mark during the 1st century, and how many Christians here proudly claim credit for being the nation to which the Holy Family fled during King Herod's persecution. Lots of early Christian theologians studied other at least passed through here. One could also mention that most of the oldest Christian documents we have, such as the Gospel of Thomas, have been found in the dry sands of the Egyptian deserts. In the Egyptian Museum you can see Roman-era papyrus copies of an Egyptian hymn in Bohairic, as well as a copy of an epistle of St. Shenouda to a local notable arguing against sun-worship.

A place to begin exploring Egyptian Christianity is Misr al-Qadima in Cairo. Literally meaning "the old city," this was the site of the Roman city of Babylon-in-Egypt, which Lonely Planet suggests is a corruption of the Egyptian name "Per-hapi-en-on." Much of this area is today under restoration, but behind some scaffolding the great Roman towers in the year 98 still loom over the entrance to the Mar Girgis Metro station, with a chasm drop from street level to their bottom revealing just how much the ground has rised in the past 1900 years. Just to the north is the Eastern Orthodox Monastery and Church of St. George, dedicated to one of Egypt's most famous saints, as well as the Convent of St. George where, I am told, you can be wrapped in chains by nuns in memory of St. George's sufferings. Entrance to the monastery is forbidden, but a monk is usually on hand to bless people who come seeking benediction. There is also an extremely large and peaceful Eastern Orthodox cemetery with large graves dating back centuries spreading around both north and south within the walls.

As stated before, however, most of Egypt's Christians are Copts, and for that reason this part of Misr al-Qadima is commonly called "Coptic Cairo." Nestled near its center is actually a Jewish site, the Ben Erza Synagogue, restored in the 12th century by the rabbi for whom it is named. Originally a church built in the 4th century, tradition claims it is the spot where Jeremiah gathered the Jews after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, where pharaoh's daughter found the basket with Moses, and where the infant Jesus once had a bath. More reliably, however, it was the place where they discovered the Geniza, a collection of 250,000 medieval documents buried here because they had the name of God somewhere on them and so could not be destroyed, and which together give us the best picture we have of daily life anywhere in the Middle Ages. (S.D. Goitein used them for his five-volume study A Mediterranean Society.) Security there was pretty tight - you have to go through a metal detector to enter. We went with an Egyptian Muslim friend whom they stopped and questioned aggressively, though after ascertaining his innocence they welcomed him profusely.

The various Coptic churches in Misr al-Qadima are each interesting in their own way. One is the Church of St. Barbara, which houses the relics of St. Barbara in a small side chapel. Coptic saints' relics are generally kept in cylinders wrapped in red fabric stored being glass below an icon of the saint in question, usually with a place for prayer candles in front or to the side. Copts who come to the churches will touch the icon and/or reliquaries and then kiss their hand - before entering, they will also usually cross themselves very deeply, with their hand almost touching the floor. When I was in St. Barbara's, a janitor was cleaning the candle place, and offered me a candle. I sort of saved it away, but he said in English, "Pray." Again, I indicated my "No, thank you," but he kept insisting, "Pray! It is good to pray!" So I took the candle, lit it with another, made a cross with it in the air before me facing the icon, and then set it with the others.

Nearby is Coptic Cairo's oldest church, the Church of St. Sergius, with pillars dating from the 3rd century. The most famous church here, however, is probably the Hanging Church, which you reach through a Islamic-style courtyard and small entrance shop filled with souvenirs and religious paraphenalia. Built over the old Roman water gate (not really viewable through a plastic panel in the floor), this was the residence of many medieval Coptic popes after the Fatimids made them move to Cairo from Alexandria for political reasons. The barrel-vaulted ceiling has wooden crossbars which, as I learned when researching my master's thesis, some people were hung from during a wave of anti-Christian prejudice by those who suspected the Copts might secretly be a fifth column for the Crusaders. As in the other Coptic churches, there are narrow wooden benches and lots of red velvet carpeting. The Hanging Church also had a special ivory pulpit which, again according to Lonely Planet, is used only on Palm Sunday.

Coptic Cairo may have many important Coptic places, but it is not really central to the modern Coptic religion. The central church these days is the Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo's Abbasiyya neighborhood, built in the 1950's, which I'm pretty sure I've seen from the street while whizzing by in a taxi. To find a more interesting place, however, you'll have to go two hours northwest of Cairo to the valley of Wadi Natrun, home to the most important Coptic monasteries. Monasticism is an ancient Christian tradition which began right here in Egypt during the 3rd century with St. Anthony the Great. His monastery, Deir Mar Antonios, lies in the Red Sea Mountains. After deciding not to do Sinai on this trip I decided to go there instead, but it's so out of the way from everything it wasn't going to be economically feasible without other people, and they didn't materialize.

Desert monasteries are a major reason why Christianity has such a continuous tradition in Egypt, as they made great refuges, especially during the Roman period when thousands of people would flee here. During the Middle Ages Muslim governments (or at least the Ayyubids, but I'm guess it was true of most dynasties) granted the monks tax exemptions, and the monasteries were fortified to protect against Bedouin raids. Although only four of several dozen monasteries remain today, the number of monks is increasing as part of the general Egyptian religious revival. Wadi Natrun is also significant as the Coptic popse is traditionally chosen from its monks - an odd sense while I was there was looking around thinking of these guys could be pope someday.

The monastery I chose to visit was the Monastery of the Syrians, so called because for several centuries it was actually controlled by Syrian Christians. It was right next to the Monastery of St. Bishoi, and I wound up spending about 20 minutes there, too. To get to the monasteries, you take a bus to the village of Wadi Natrun, a bus you will most likely share with lots of Coptic pilgrims. I was a little unsure how I would get from the village to a monastery, but there turned out to be trucks at the bus station waiting to take people, and I rode out on a blue and orange flatbed with two Copts one of whom spent most of the short ride singing, though he stopped to inquire where I was from and inform me he thought President Bush was pretty much the same as Osama Bin Laden.

My visit to the monastery was probably somewhat atypical. Based on my advance information, a standard visit involves showing up and going to the reception, where you will be assigned a monk to show you around. Little did I realize I was showing up on the weekend of the Feast of St. Bishoi - technically July 17, but since most Egyptian Christians go to church on Friday (when I was there), it was busy then, too. St. Bishoi died in the early 5th century, and his cult seems to involve themes of respect for the weak - he himself was physically weak, and there are a couple of stories in which he stopped to help frail old men who turned out to be Jesus in disguise. An icon sold in the monastery gift shops shows the saint washing the feet of Jesus, reflecting one of the stories. His body rests in the usual red wrapping in the Monastery of St. Bishoi, protected by a special sealed container. The Monastery of the Syrians has next to their church a small cave where he stayed as a hermit.

The parking lot outside was filled with lots of tour busses containing Egyptians rather than westerners, as well as busses from various church groups that had organized trips out here for the day. There was also a large group of Sudanese women wearing dressy white garb, several of whom had sashes that said "Archdiocese of Khartoum." The monks, ranging from middle-aged to old, all had beards, black robes, and black hoods embroidered with small Coptic crosses, though the color scheme of the crosses varied. They were stretched pretty thin. I entered the church, where they had lots of excellent icons, and which was packed with people doing the usual Coptic devotional things, as well as napping in the shade until a monk came through to snap his fingers at them and get them to stop. People were also packing the cave - the contrast between their religious devotion and my intellectual curiosity felt really awkward.

Outside there was a small garden where people had gathered to eat food they had brought while the monks went around visiting earnestly with as many people as possible. One of them spied me while he was talking to someone, and after a couple of false starts due to his walkie-talkie going off, came over to greet me and ask if I wanted tea. I said sure, and was drug over by the monastery, where another monk appeared over the railing. The two conversed briefly, and I was led upstairs to an indoor hosting room where more monks were making sure everyone was properly filled with tea, as is Egyptian custom.

I was shown to a table where a younger monk was talking to a middle-aged professional-looking couple with three children clustered around age 10 or so, and so far this has been the point where I most regretted my occasional problems with Arabic because while the couple seemed to understand me, the monk couldn't make head or tail of what I was saying, nor could another monk who came over later. (My Arabic this trip has been unusual. First of all, I haven't spoken nearly as much as I did in Morocco, just because everyone I can talk to in MSA is pretty much fluent in English and prefers that. I don't think I had a single noteworthy Arabic conversation between Farafra and Wadi Natrun. When I have spoken Arabic, either the other person can't understand a word of it, or they come to the conclusion I have wonderful Arabic and keep praising me. Sometimes I blame this in colloquial/formal issues, but since I assume Coptic monks know MSA, I don't know what the deal was here.)

Anyway, I'd been told a benefit to going on a Friday would be seeing how Copts interact with the monasteries. I somehow pictured this as being intense devotional stuff, but it wasn't. Everyone just sits around and relaxes. When the younger monk at the table asked where I was from and I told him I was from the U.S. (you always wind up saying "America" in Egypt), the woman cut in obviously telling the monk something that connected London and the Cairo airport - I've since deduced this must have been about the capture of the alleged bombing masterming there - the conversation went on to weave through Zarqawi and violence in Iraq (the massacre of the children last week really upset a lot of people), a something about their family computer rules, and other stuff. One of the kids had bought a new toy - I think it was an airplane - which he eagerly showed the monks. Dutifully impressed - the monks seemed to really love the kids - they managed to include me in that, inquiring about whether didn't I think it was neat, as well, and I joined their enthusiaism.

As the afternoon wound down, I took my leave, and wandered back to the parking lot wondering how one left these places, since there were not trucks taking people back to the village as I had expected. After inquiries I found out that you just told them at the information desk you wanted to leave and where you were heading and they would find a ride for you. I would have settled for the village and taking a bus back to Cairo, but they figured they could just get me to Cairo, and began canvassing the remaining church groups for one headed that direction.

Unfortunately for me, most of those left were from Alexandria. I wound up waiting outside by the entrance with a young man of perhaps 16 who also needed a ride somewhere. We were able to talk for about 20 minutes - as I noted above, my Arabic feels hit and miss, and fortunately this was a major hit episode. I asked him what the monasteries meant to Copts, and he said something that seemed to speak directly toward the mood I'd been picking up from the place, telling me that just as America was my home, so Wadi Natrun was theirs. That is something that makes a great deal of sense. Copts are a minority in Egypt, and when you are a minority, you often derive comfort from being with others like you in your own cultural space away from the majority culture in which you spend your days. Wadi Natrun is a thoroughly Coptic Christian space, their spiritual heartland within an easy drive of Egypt's two largest cities, and most of them seem to make some connection with it at some point in their lives. In fact, I've noticed Copts treat their papacy with a much more personal relationship than do American Catholics (not sure about Rome or Italy as a whole), and it occurred to me some of that might come from the bonds they form with the monks when they are still kids.

The guy I was talking to also spoke to the issue of Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt, which is of course something everyone wants to know about. When he found out I was American, he claimed to love George Bush and Ariel Sharon because Muslims are always fighting against Christians, and now they are joining together to fight a war against Islam. This is not, I think, a line which Karen Hughes should employ in her public diplomacy efforts in the region - I quote it mainly to contrast with the people on the truck to show how there is never just a single opinion from any group in the Middle East.

But on the main point, I think the position of Copts in Egypt sort of resembles that of African-Americans in the United States. During the 1970's, there was a lot of scattered violence and open discrimination against Copts. Pope Shenouda III protested, and Anwar Sadat confined him to the Monastery of St. Bishoi for his trouble, though Mubarak let him out. Although there has been little or no anti-Coptic violence lately, I have to think that all the people who had anti-Coptic opinions didn't just reform, they've just faded into the woodwork. Muslims I've talked to all deny that there is any discrimination against Copts, and a woman who works with Copts told me she thought most of what got reported as sectarian tension were really arguments over other things in which the participants and their friends happened to be from different religions. At the same time, the inclusion of Copts in everything seems just a little too deliberate. You see this even with the Kefaya protests - they do one at a mosque, so they have to go find a church, too. This is a manner of inclusion which suggests people are not as comfortable with the truth of the "Copts are not discriminated against" line as they might claim, and emphasizing the point remains necessary.

But at root, both Islam and Christianity are "just religions." The monk working on my transportation found me a car headed to Cairo, which I shared with a man and his young son who judging by their clothes and the fact they were basically hitch-hiking there and back were from the working classes. Despite this lack of wealth, they still carried a sack of icons and other religious paraphenalia as something vital in their lives, and the people in whose car we rode were more than happy to have us with them. And to be honest, you get the same sort of thing when you visit most mosques - there was a bit of a financial shakedown at Ibn Tulun, but people at al-Azhar were very welcoming, as were those at a few of the smaller Mamluk-era mosques I went to. Furthermore, Egypt today is the site of a lot of dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Yesterday I learned that All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, the main British religious presence in Egypt, had on Saturday hosted a joint Christian-Muslim service to denounce terrorism, one which was later broadcast on TV and discussed on an Egyptian morning show. In the end, people of all religions have far more in common with each other than they do differences, and in today's world, we need that to shine through as much as ever.

(NOTE: By the way, I don't wander around Egypt interrogating people about their opinions of President Bush, lots of people just tell me when they find out I'm an American.)

Monday, July 18, 2005

Gulf Labor

Those seriously interested in Arab politics and society should read Joseph Braude's post on attempts to organize labor in the Persian Gulf.

Iraqi Insurgency

The past few days have reminded us once again that the situation in Iraq is extremely bad, and whatever happens with the political process, government authority is weak and violence endemic in much of the country. Just to add some information to the pile, over at Liberals Against Terrorism I've noted a new report based in Syria suggesting the insurgents don't even feel pressed. That report is from the Jamestown Foundation, which also has a good discussion of the situation, especially in Anbar province.

This part especially caught my eye:
"The second development relates to calls by the new Iraqi President, Jalal Talebani, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to deploy Kurdish and Shi’a militias against the insurgents. [6] This call comes at a time of worsening sectarian tensions in the country, with Hareth al-Dhari, the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, accusing the Badr organization (the armed wing of SCIRI) of assassinating Sunni Muslim clerics. [7] Despite subsequent denials that there are any plans afoot to deploy the militias, the initial announcement by Talabani and al-Hakim is profoundly important. It points toward the eventual deployment of the Badr organization (originally established and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the early 1980s) against the insurgents. The Kurdish militias are unlikely to be deployed outside the Kurdish regions, for fear of igniting a wider ethnic conflict in Iraq.

"The Badr organization is already involved in counter-insurgency operations, albeit indirectly. For instance al-Liwa al-Dheeb (Wolf Brigade), widely believed to be the only effective and motivated component of the new Iraqi security forces is largely led by former Badr organization commanders. Despite their profound misgivings toward SCIRI and the Badr organization, the U.S. authorities in Iraq are reluctantly incorporating the latter in the country’s security structures. As the extent of insurgent penetration of new Iraqi military and security structures become more apparent, with recent reports that top officials in the interior ministry had been passing highly sensitive information to the rebels [8], calls will inevitably grow for the direct deployment of the Badr organization in counter-insurgency operations. In any case, the Badr organization remains a primary target for the insurgents; a senior officer in the organization was assassinated just over a week ago. [9]"

Longtime readers know that I've spoken emphatically against the idea that the present conflict in Iraq represents a resurgence of long-suppressed religious hatreds, and quoted a number of informed sources as describing urban Iraqis as highly secular in their political identifications. However, developments like these are nonetheless leading to a civil war based off religious identification. As power in the new Iraq is partitioned on an ethnic and religious basis, so people are driven to identify with their religious community. Nothing makes you aware of your Shi'ism like a bunch of people looking at the government and complaining about how the Shi'ites are all collaborators.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Midan al-Qala'a, Cairo, Egypt/Abdeen, Cairo, Egypt

To see some of the most famous sites in Cairo, you can walk from Garden City through Mounira to Midan Sayyida Zaynab, then follow along Abd al-Maguid and as-Saliba streets into the medieval city. This area is south of Bab Zuwayla and was not part of the original Cairo founded by the Fatimids, but it forms part of the medieval city anyway - just to the southwest is Fustat, the garrison town founded by the Arab conquerors in the 7th century next to the old Roman city of Babylon. This neighborhood, while today filled mostly with mosques and madrasas founded by random Mamluk notables, contains also the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the city's oldest mosque still in use today. The building impresses with its scale and uniformity rather than aesthetic beauty, as it forms a perfect square with the standard fountain in the center.

Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the ruler who built this mosque, was a Turkish agent of the Abbasids who in the late 9th century established an independent rule in Egypt while retaining nominal loyalty to Baghdad. It was the centerpiece of a whole resplendent capital - when the Fatimids spoke in the sources of conquering Egypt, they are portrayed as wanting to "dwell in the ruined abodes of Ibn Tulun." One story highlighting this wealth is how Ibn Tulun's son used to receive visitors reclining on a mattress floating in a pool of mercury pulled by slave girls. Today, however, only the mosque remains, the rest having been destroyed by the Abbasids when they reasserted control in the early 10th century.

Further down as-Saliba Street, one arrives as Midan al-Qala'a, or Citadel Square, which for centuries served as the political heart of Egypt. One one side of it, on either side of Muhammad Ali Street, are two huge mosques, one built during the Mamluk period, the other during the 19th century in imitation of Mamluk architecture. The former is the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, built during the 14th century at great human cost - several hundred people were killed when one of its minarets collapsed into a crowd. The newer structure in the Mosque of ar-Rifa'i, named in honor of a 12th-century Sufi mystic whose moulid is still celebrated there annually - in fact, I wandered into it the day I visited, with dozens of worshippers gathered in the mosque performing a dhikr, in this case a musical incantation designed to bring them to a direct mystical experience of God.

The main attraction in the square, however, is the citadel itself, which sprawls atop part of the Muqattam heights as one of those structures the scale of which can only be conveyed by seeing it in person. It is immense, though the effect is ruined by its development as a significant tourist trap, filled with lots of small gift shops and minor museums reflective of the present rather than the past. First built in the 12th century by Salah ad-Din (Saladin), it served as the residence and chief fortress of both the Ayyubid and Mamluk sultans, as well as the Ottoman governors and later the Egyptian kings.

Today its most impressive structure is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, built in the 19th century by the Albanian soldier who established Egypt's independence from the Ottoman Empireand whose marble tomb lies behind a grate to the right of the entrance. Its interior is strung with lanterns, and the outside boasts a huge clock sent as a gift from the French, but which has never actually worked. Muhammad Ali, considered by many as the founder of the modern Egyptian nation, hated the Mamluks, who had perpetuated themselves as a noble class under the Ottomans. In the citadel's lower enclosure, closed to the public, is a path leading to the gate which opens onto the square. One day Muhammad Ali invited all the Mamluks to a celebration in honor of his son; as they were leaving through this entrance, he had his soldiers shoot them all in the narrow passage. That was the end of the Mamluks, and in fact he razed all their structures in the Citadel save the Mosque of an-Nasir Muhammad, which the Ottoman conqueror Selim the Grim had used as a stable for horses, anyway.

Today most of the citadel's attractions serve to commemorate Egypt's modern governments. Muhammad Ali founded a dynasty that provided Egypt with rulers for over a century. It was they who, when the north blockaded the south during the American Civil War, benefitted from the spike in world cotton prices, and spend tons of money on various projects both useful in terms of infrastructure - such as the Suez Canal - or simply items of luxury, such as the palaces scattered around northern Egypt. Several of these kings are buried in the ar-Rifa'i mosque across the square - as is, incidentally, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, last Shah of Iran.

The citadel pays respects to Egypt's current set of rulers, as well. Past the museums dedicated to Egypt's firefighters (mostly a bunch of old fire engines) and police forces (containing articles and artifacts from high-profile cases in the 20th century) is the Egyptian Military Museum. Outside are busts of important Egyptian rulers - in addition to modern ones they went back and nabbed medieval figures such as Saladin and even a few pharaohs. There are also three stone plaques, one of which is written in Korean because, as they inform you, the museum was built with the aid of consultants from North Korea, and highlights the friendship between Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

Inside the exhibits aren't that much to get excited about except as a study in subtle government propaganda. As you approach the modern period, past the weapons and uniforms of Egyptian soldiers from ancient Egypt onward, you start to get exhibits commemorating the rise of Egyptian nationalism. The "great man" school of history is in full evidence - only once was a popular outpouring mentioned - the rest was all various leaders standing up to foreign occupation and interference in Egyptian affairs. The 1952 revolution of the Free Officers that deposed the monarchy and ultimately brought Nasser to power was well marked with busts of all the Free Officers and a mural showing key events of the revolution outside Abdeen Palace. The trumpeting of official achievement continues through the tenures of Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak, and perhaps reaches its fever pitch with its commemoration of the 1973 war with Israel, which according to everything here Egypt won, due at least partly to the brilliance of an air force commander named Husni Mubarak.

This propaganda effort is perhaps more insidious than the exaggerated personality cults you find in places like Syria. It consists, not of a bunch of empty slogans most people recognize as just an expression of government power, but rather an official view of history in which the Egyptian government exists largely as an expression of national strength and independence, and which - when taken in context with the other museums in the citadel - appears also as the benevolent provider of public services and guarantor of the general welfare. This view is not imposed by force - it follows naturally, I think, from Egypt's historical experience of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the socialism which the revolution saw as the antidote to exploitation by the foreign powers who were most equipped to compete in an open capitalist system.

This is a necessary context to the political protests taking place in Egypt today. That democratic discourse has strong roots in Egypt can be seen in the faux-democratic nature of the regime itself, with its competing officially licensed opposition parties, referendums, and relatively outspoken media. However, I don't think the democratic mindset that sees a government as a shifting expression of popular will with regard to policy preferences has deep roots, and I think this as much as anything is part of what the Kefaya types are trying to shift - their protests are not aimed at the regime, but rather at people whom they think should be anti-regime yet aren't.

The latest chapter in this battle took place last Thursday outside Abdeen Palace, on the side of a vast square in front of the huge white palace built in the 1870's which replaced the Citadel as the residence of Egyptian rulers, and which formally continues in that function today, though Mubarak prefers a palace out in Heliopolis. This gathering was the largest I've been to, with crowd estimates ranging from about 500 to over 1000.

Judging its size is difficult because it was often divided into a number of subgroups. When a protest takes place, there is, quite literally a sort of Cold War on the streets of Cairo. Often the protestors will trying to break through the CSF security barriers, and the security forces keep some fluidity to their ranks so they can address these challenges to their lines. Last Thursday this strategy game was taken to a new level, as groups of protestors would set up in different areas, looking for ways to stretch the security lines thin, while the security forces would strategically give here and there, trying to manage the protest without attacking anyone. The media plays a role in this, too - they are the reason the government wishes to avoid violence, as in the current geopolitical climate the Mubarak regime wishes to avoid potential stains on its image. Some protestors, meanwhile, will often provoke things - taunting and shoving CSF recruits only to shout for press attention when somebody raises a truncheon.

One reason for the size of this protest may have been thematic - I don't know the details of the advance advertising, but a lot of the signs focused on unemployment - again, government as guarantor of economic welfare - and Cairo certainly has plenty of unemployed people. Another reason may have been the return of the Kefaya movement proper under its official name of "Egyptian Movement for Change." The past few weeks have all involved splinter groups - we have Doctors for Change, Writers for Change, a Popular Front for Change, several types of Youth for Change, and bunches of other people for change, all of whom for one reason or another decided they'd just rather form their own group. At Abdeen, however, you had all the Kefaya brass, with George Ishaq himself, the Coptic founder of Kefaya, walking around with his slicked-back thin gray hair and a large yellow ribben around his neck and down his front that said "Kefaya" giving passionate interviews to the TV media, which was the largest I've ever seen. (Incidentally, I've gained a great appreciation for reporters in all this. When confronted with a literal mess of events, they have to sift through it all and tell a coherent and meaningful story to people with no background on the situation whatsoever, and it's really no easy task, especially with everyone trying to manipulate you.)

The protest itself was done in much the same way as the others, with people shouting slogans - in this case one of the slogan leaders was a guy in a wheelchair often placed front and center by the protest organizers. Among the new chants was "Where are the terrorists? They are the terrorists!" directed at the CSF and another blaming Mubarak for the death of the Egyptian ambassador to Iraq, which made serious waves in this country. The crowd was political diverse, featuring some Islamists, nationalists, and even people wearing the orange ballcaps of the Tomorrow party, the group associated with President Bush's chosen opposition leader, Ayman Nour. Some people also went and painted Kefaya graffiti on the sidewalk, about which the people in the flats above seemed quite unenthusiastic.

The protest also got more intense than others in terms of scuffling. I somehow forgot to mention this in discussing Imbaba, but several people there witnessed the protestors drag a CSF guy into their midst and began beating him - he had to be rescued by one of the officers. Often it is the younger protestors who are most aggressive with the older ones trying to restrain them and keep everything within bounds. Last Thursday this became somewhat serious toward the end - while I was looking at the sidewalk paintings a group of protestors who took me for a reporter all said "Fighting! Fighting!" and pointed me toward the other end of the event, where I saw a forest of truncheons in the air being wielded against a group of protestors - shortly after two young men with their shirts off were carried over near where I was standing while people shouting for water which, when procured, was poured over them to cool them off and assuage their bruises.

My group left shortly after that to make our way to a social gathering, but the protest turned out not to end there. After its ostensible conclusion, the protestors reformed and starting marching downtown and shouting slogans again. This of course drew the attention of the security forces, and according to people there who followed the whole thing, there was scuffling all along the march.

The effects of all this on Egyptian public opinion are difficult to determine, and of course there's not a single opinion to describe anyway. At Shubra and Zaytun I definitely felt that public opinion was mostly with the protestors, while in Sayyida Zaynab it was more a sense of bewilderment. Here at Abdeen for the first time I felt the people around were actually hostile to the protestors, and in fact one protestor told me later that people in apartments were dropping Ziploc bags filled with water on their heads as they marched. I don't know the political demographics of Cairo, nor can I understand colloquial Egyptian, but you can take that for what it's worth. Much will become apparent next week, when the Muslim Brotherhood finally enters the fray on the side of Kefaya.

UPDATE: Charles Levinson has a real expert take on the events.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hockey Returns

This is, I suppose, cause for celebration, though the relief I feel is tinged with guilt that I'm being an enabler. This lockout was pathetic, with the two sides not even negotiating for most of its duration. Of course as a fan of particular games rather than sports in general, the NHL will have my attention whether I like the way it's run or not. Still, I'll probably be more up for UW hockey and the Olympics, at least until the play-offs - the league will have to do something before my full enthusiasm will return. I've been wearing my St. Louis Blues hat around Egypt precisely because I don't care much whether it gets ruined over here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Meccan Landmarks

Reuters has a good article on the destruction of Meccan landmarks under the Saudi regime. The Wahhabi brand of Islam forbids everything that could be seen as idolatry, and fears sites associated with Muhammad and the origins of Islam because people could come to see them as blessed or sacred. Economics and urban development also play a role.

Dean Nation

Dean Nation is slipping into the blog-ether. I'm not sure why I merit a mention, as I only posted about one item a month, and then never the thoughtful "purple politics" posts I had in mind last winter. Still, it was good to be a part of, and I'm curious to see what new plan emerges from the mind of its founder.

George Ishaq Interview

The new Arab Reform Bulletin is out, and includes an interview with Kefaya founder George Ishaq. Noteworthy to me was his statement that the movement isn't that interested in the Presidential elections, and just wants to end the regime. He also stated that their immediate goal was to delegitimize the May 25 referendum. But isn't the referendum tied directly to the elections? Does he just mean they're not interested in supporting candidates for the election, or even noting its passing? And what is Kefaya doing to delegitimize the amendment - I confess I haven't noticed much that ties to it directly.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Zaytun, Cairo, Egypt/Imbaba, Cairo, Egypt

From talking to Egyptian Christians, you would get the impression that the Holy Family sheltering in Egypt during the reign of King Herod was the single most important event in the history of Christianity. A stone monument in the courtyard of the Anglican cathedral where I've been a couple of times is inscribed with the quote, "Out of Egypt did I call my son," which, although in the Old Testament clearly refers to the Exodus, Christians took to refer to Jesus. The Nile valley is littered with site supposedly associated with the Holy Family's time here, and in bookstores you can find an English-language account from someone who tried to write about their time in Egypt based off these stories, giving the impression that Jesus's toddler years were spent productively smashing idols and working other sorts of miracles.

Egypt today is about 10% Christian. A very few of these are Protestant. I met some at All Saints, and was struck by their fervor - giving a hard sell on trying to get people to Bible study sessions, referring to Jesus with a loaded "He" with the Bible being "His Book," and in one case deeply disturbed by the fact that the used cell phone I bought happened to have the Muslim profession of faith as its intro screen when you turned it on. Someone who teaches at a Christian school told me that they were Evangelicals, which in Egypt is considered a denominational name, and followers of Billy Graham who had made several trips to Egypt.

The overwhelming majority of Egyptian Christians, however, belong to one of the Eastern churches. Some are Eastern Orthodox, of which there is an autocephalous church based in Alexandria, though most of its members today are in sub-Saharan Africa. The overwhelming majority, however, are Copts. The Coptic Church, which claims as its founder the evangelist St. Mark, broke from the main body of Christians that would evolve into the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox church during the 5th century, though today that divide is being healed as the 82-year-old Pope Shenouda III, 117th successor of St. Mark, has built much of his papacy around the idea that unity of the basics of faith is more important the theological differences, and that in any event the main difference - whether Jesus has two natures, one fully divine and the other fully human, or just one nature which is both divine and human - probably isn't that big a deal.

I'm waiting to deal more with the historic landmarks of Coptic Christianity until after I visit Wadi Natrun (assuming I make it out there), but the church today is undergoing a signficant revival. When Bishop Maurice he was here he suggested I go to the Muqattam cliffs, where huge churches with were in recent decades carved out of the rock and are filled with congregations of thousands of working-class and poor Copts. (I actually haven't done this yet.) Many Copts have a fish emblem on their cars, and almost all will proudly display on their wrists black tattoos of the Coptic cross, with the four bars all equal length, each ending in three dots for the three persons of the Trinity. They also follow a very conservative morality with regard to gender issues. The three-hour worship services are segregated by gender (men and women on different sides of the church), and when you see the courting couples all hanging out along the Nile corniche the women almost all have headscarves because with Copts you need a chaperone of some kind if you want to meet someone of the opposite gender, and if you decide to get engaged, it is forbidden to see your fiancee between the proposal and wedding day.

Now a couple of weeks ago I indicated that the next protest would be in Coptic Cairo - that was a mistake. I read a bunch of stuff about being in a Coptic location to balance the Sayyida Zaynab protest, and thought I read "Misr al-Qadima," which is basically Coptic Cairo, when in reality it was "Misr al-Jadida," a region in the northeast which incorporates Heliopolis and Zaytun, the latter a neighborhood with a large concentration of Copts. The latter is where the Kefaya-inspired splinter groups held their protest the week after the march through Shubra, and where a friend of mine and I made our way by Metro to find the Church of the Virgin Mary where it was taking place.

In terms of the security presence, the Zaytun affair was the exact opposite of what happened in Shubra - the CSF was out in force - there were at least a thousand of them, more than I've seen since my first day here - and the streets were all completely closed down even to pedestrians for about two blocks in any direction. My friend and I got there late, and so couldn't get near the proceedings - you could see them in the distance down the street, the usual array of protest signs and banners supplemented by crosses, and the chants I later found out, sprinkled with calls to the Virgin Mary to intervene against Husni Mubarak, but as the people in the neighborhood (several showing off their cross tattoos as we met made introductions) gathered at the security barricades to check out the action the police and security people kept telling them to move along, raising the question of how valuable freedom of speech is if no one is permitted to listen.

Seeking a way in, we went down a side street lined with CSF trucks, the recruits within fairly relaxed and happy, perhaps because there were in the shade rather than lined up at attention along the hot street. Some were enjoying playing with some neighborhood children, bouncing an inflatable ball back and forth while laughing and smiling. Near the end of the lane, the squad in the last truck got called away by an officer - they jogged into an alley where we saw them talk to a plainclothes policeman, who gave them some directions and then they jogged off again, presumably to suppress some dissent somewhere, undoubtedly believing as they did so that they were acting in the right, brave soldiers off to protect the future of the country for the children who had just been bringing a light to their eyes. The entire scene made me think of Faramir's words to the dead Haradrim in The Two Towers film, about what lie had brought you so far from home, who are undoubtedly good men.

The protest ended, and the usual crowd adjourned to the Greek Club. After the press left there was violence, for someone - we don't know how - beat up some of the protestors when they tried to march again. Some of the protestors also took the Metro back downtown, where they sang protest songs between stops, for which they were later asked to pay a small fine for causing a disturbance on the Metro.

The next week - last Wednesday - the protest was held in Imbaba. This is a very different neighborhood from Zaytun, found on the west bank of the Nile opposite the north side of Zamalek. A poor district, during the early 1990's it was taken over by Muslim fundamentalists who declared it an independent Islamic Republic, a fact which those savvy in Cairo politics still find amusing ("It's the Islamic Republic, baby!") despite the fact that the Mubarak regime, somewhat offended at the attempt to establish an independent country in its capital city, sent in an army of 10,000 to restore order.

The Imbaba protest had a smaller security presence than usual - a couple of rows of CSF guys with arms locked together in a circle directly around the protestors. There were also few protestors than usual - only about 150 according to most estimates - and fewer people watching, perhaps because having had the army showing up in your neighborhood once during your lifetime is enough to kill off any more urges toward political activism. What was new was the greater Islamist presence, and the appearance of more open divisions among the protestors. The Islamists, for example, added "Allahu akbar," or "God is great" to the chants, which drew objections from the Trotskyites, until they agreed to go with, "Down with America!" instead.

Some plainclothes cops conjured up a pro-Mubarak protest of youth from the area, and the fact they were so close to the anti-Mubarak crowd made the scene a little tense at times. At one point the group I was with noticed were were standing directly between the two protests as they began to shout at each other, and someone suggested we find a better location. I made a quip to whomever was behind me about whether they didn't want to be in the center of the action; the reply was a curt, "No." Later the pro-democracy protestors made a concentrated effort to break through the CSF lines, which ultimately drew a bunch of regular police to form another arm-in-arm barrier around them all just in case, but the government lines held, and the protest remained contained.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Quincy and Martin Luther King

My native city has made the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a controversy over whether to rename a street after Martin Luther King. What the article doesn't quite pick up on is the sort of neighborhoods the street selected goes through. North 8th Street runs through the heart of Quincy's majority-African-American neighborhood. The middle section around Broadway is right downtown, where there are mostly businesses and apartments with a very mixed population. South 8th, on the other hand, runs right through what I guess you might call the area of town least likely to welcome a street by that name.

I think having a street named after Martin Luther King is probably a good idea, though for some reason choosing 8th bugs me just because it disrupts the numbering system. What they could do instead is rename one of the presently named streets, such as Oak or Locust, that also cuts through the traditionally African-American district. Or, if that still wouldn't work, just pick one of the streets on the north side that's only now starting to see development. I've lost track of the city's development plans, but they were always talking about new strip malls and stuff off to the north. This might seem out of the way now, but given a couple of decades it will be decidedly within the city.

One last point that struck me is an apparent contradiction between two common beliefs among White Quincyans, though not stated openly in the article. One is the belief that having a street perceived as African-American causes a drop in property values; the other is that the problem of racism in society has been pretty much solved. Can anyone reconcile these two beliefs?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Alexandria, Egypt/Cairo, Egypt

Egypt is not all work, politics, and sight-seeing. The city of Cairo has more nightlife than any other Arab city I've seen, most of which shut down well before midnight. People are still hanging out around the Corniche and the bridges across the Nile until well after midnight. I've seen signs for hotel bars and clubs that don't even open until 11:30 p.m. Starting up somewhat earlier is the Cairo Jazz Club in Muhandiseen (Engineers' City), which despite the name has lives acts in genres other than jazz, but which is so incredibly crowded that once on the dance floor you can hardly even move.

I also ran into entertainment of a modern sort in the distant Cairo district of Heliopolis. The name comes from its location on the same site as the ancient Egyptian city of that name, but today's region was founded about 100 years or so ago by an eccentric Belgian baron whose palace, built in the form of a Hindu temple, can still be seen today. On the grounds of this palace I went to a rock concert along with a few thousand other people, noting how odd it seemed that when the lead singer of the Spanish band which was a main attraction shouted out all the standard rock concert phrases ("Let me hear you, Cairo!" and the like), he did so in English rather than Arabic.

One of the best get-aways from Cairo, however, is Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea. As the name suggests, it was founded by Alexander the Great, one of the dozens of cities he founded and named after himself, though the only other one I know of which still retains the memory of that name is in Afghanistan and has evolved into "Qandahar." Under Egypt's Greek Ptomelamic dynasty it became the capital, and under the first two Ptolemies one of the chief centers of learning in the Mediterranean basin. Its Great Library is well known, and it was also the leading center of world Judaism from shortly after its founding - the Septuagint, or standard Greek edition of the Old Testament that went on to influence Christian interpretations of Jewish Scripture - was also produced here, possibly at the request of Ptolemy II for includion in the Great Library.

This Great Library of Alexandria was, alas, destroyed, most likely when the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great sought to destroy all the pagan temples in the empire during the 390's. Attempting to recapture its glory, however, modern Egyptians have built a new Great Library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, on the shores of the Mediterranean near the heart of the city. On the outside, it has the shape of a giant semicircular slab of granite inscribed with symbols from 120 different writing systems. Inside, it has an antiquities museum, and manuscript museum, an exhibit dedicated to the history of printing in Egypt, a children's library, and a library for the blind. Its main body has room for 8 million volumes, and from a plastic-enclosed viewing platform you can see countless computer terminals all lined up in rows on cascading levels arranged by the Dewey Decimal System.

The only thing the Bibliotheca Alexandrina needs to become an elite research facility is books. Although it has space for 8 million volumes, it holds only a mere fraction of that number, and most of those are of low quality. While browing in the history section I found a copy of the Beirut edition of Vol. II of al-Baladhuri's Ansab al-Ashraf slapped on a shelf next to a bunch of baby naming guides in English that looked like they had been purchased from a Waldenbooks clearance rack. I don't know what should be in the 920's and 930's, but whatever it is, two whole rows of shelves with those call numbers were empty.

Some of you will be suspecting my own preferred solution to this dilemma - simply transferring all the contents from the Dar al-Kutub in Cairo here, and perhaps organize it along the way. I suspect many of my fellow Western scholars wouldn't mind, because Alexandria is a much nicer city that Cairo. Perhaps because the population is only 5 million and the Mediterranean forms a wide open expanse to the north, the air smells so fresh and clean that when I first arrived my lungs felt odd as they adjusted to the absence of whatever it is they're breathing around Midan Tahrir. From my hotel room overlooking Midan Saad Zaghloul, an important square, you could see the whole plaza, including actual grass and people using it as a public space in which to socialize, as well as much of the Mediterranean with the Bibliotheca gleaming in the distance.

Although most of the sites from ancient Alexandria are now under the ocean, there is still history to be seen, and a nice tram system to take you around the city. Those who are really into literature will find houses and place associated with works such as Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. A pillar falsely attributed to Pompey stands behind a wall, but I didn't think it was worth paying the entry fee for, as it was just a pillar. Further inland is is the Kom ash-Shuqqafa, a three-level Roman catacombs of which the bottom level is flooded, but the top two of which make for a break from the late afternoon heat as you see the ancient 3rd-century burial chambers and tomb paintings which show such interesting examples of syncretism as Anubis, the Egyptian god of embalming, in the costume and pose of a Roman soldier.

For many, the highlight of the city is probably Qaytbey's fort, built partly with the ruins of the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the original seven wonders of the world but destroyed in an earthquake around 1300. Qaytbay, a Mamluk sultan of the late 15th century, built here a citadel to guard the entrance to the harbor, which today is the centerpiece of a scenic waterfront walkway which also includes an aquarium and fish museum. I was around at the same time as an elementary school field trip, which several dozen kids of around 10 or 12 being herded around by a beleaguered band of adult chaperones who, within the confines of the citadel itself, would frequently have to check to make sure no one had wandered off into a side passage. The views from the walls were awesome, with the sea to one side and a bunch of fishing boats and the Alexandria shoreline on the other.

It was also in Alexandria that I took a break from my usual culinary routine. Almost all of my meals since coming here have been of some Egyptian fare. Schwarma and felafel are still schwarma and felafel, and although the latter is more commonly called ta'amiyya here, menus show both terms. Shish kabob and shish tawook are also common, depending on whether I'm in the mood for lamb or chicken. A really cheap meal is fu'ul, fava beans soaked and ground into a paste, mixed with condiments (I like "Alexandrian fu'ul with salsa and onion") and stuffed into a pita pocket. The quintessential cheap Egyptian food, however, is koshari, commonly eaten in restaurants that do nothing but whip up koshari, and consisting of rice, lentils, some sort of pasta, and chickpeas which you stir together with some sort of salsa sauce and lemon juice - you can get a filling medium size portion for about 50 cents and count it as your main meal of the day. That said, after six weeks of this I was ready for a change, and went to the roof of a five-star hotel next door to mine (which during the last century was apparently a base for British secret agents) and ate Kung Pao chicken at a Chinese restaurant for about what I pay for cheap Chinese food in Madison, while the next day having a turkey caesar salad in the garden of a boat restaurant for slightly less.

During my two days there, I did not get to know what I guess you would call the "real Alexandria." There are poor areas to the city, and apartment buildings which have the highly unfortunate habit of collapsing. In addition, there is the rich farmland around Lake Mariout, a large body of water where you see lots of boats being rowed or poled along, though I don't know why or by whom. Nonetheless, even the parts of Alexandria that I did see play a role for many Egyptians, as lots of people from Cairo make the 2-3 hour trip up here for a weekend or longer summer vacation - when you look at the bag for an Egyptian fast food chain like Bon Appetit a couple of their north coast locations say "summer only," telling you when certain areas reach their peak.

UPDATE: I should add to my comments on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina that only some rows of shelving in the 920's-930's were completely empty, specifically in the late 920's and early 930's. Reader MT has noted that the 930's include ancient history, and they did in fact have some books on ancient Egypt.