Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Israel/Jordan/Oman: Getting Around, Getting into Trouble

Shortly after arriving in Egypt, I remembered why it's often a bad idea to be in a hurry when traveling in the Middle East. Unfortunately I didn't apply this lesson on my recent trip to Oman.

As you might imagine, flying to the Arab world from Ben Gurion isn't easy, and more importantly, isn't cheap. For that reason, I head to the Gulf from Amman's Queen Alia. Options from there are plentiful, as just in the years since I first went to Jordan in 2001, the city has clearly developed as a business hub, perhaps a sort of poor man's Dubai for those who can't afford the original. This trip, I wound up on Qatar Airways, which is the best of the normally priced airlines in the region, and apparently one of the world's fastest growing. To Bahrain I took Bahrain's national carrier, Gulf Air, which is fine if a little quirky, while to Dubai I was one Royal Jordanian. When I flew with them in 2001 I was in awe of how miserable the experience was; since then, they've upgraded as part of joining the Oneworld Alliance, and as of last year had risen to the level of just a normal bad airline, though they still haven't mastered the complexity of the seat map. All of them (and Turkish Airlines, for that matter) have better in-flight service than do most American airlines. A two-hour flight always has a meal, while even a short hour-long hop will merit breakfast or time-appropriate snack.

In any case, getting to Queen Alia means going to Jordan, and since I didn't get around to picking up a visa, I had to go to northern Israel to cross at the Shaykh Hussein bridge and then head back down to Amman. Because my flight wasn't until 4:30, I figured I had plenty of time to do all of this catching the first bus from Jerusalem at 8:45, as the total travel time was less than four hours, not counting a bit of time crossing the border and waiting for the frequent buses involved in cheaply getting from Irbid, the Jordanian city near the border crossing, to the airport. Some of the buses could also be skipped in favor of private taxis if I were running seriously behind. Israel's national bus company, Egged, is almost always on time and the Shaykh Hussein crossing is usually deserted, so I really wasn't concerned.

All of that changed shortly after I arrived at the bus station to find that all departures were being delayed due to a suspicious package. Israel, as you might imagine, takes those seriously. With a steadily increasing crowd of other travelers, I waited somewhat nervously. While I did have time to spare in case things went wrong, I didn't actually want to use it, especially this early. Finally at 9:30 the all-clear signal was given, and shortly thereafter I was on the standard green Egged bus that plowed route 966 to Ketzarin via Bet She'an, where I pressed the signal button and got off at about 11:20, and arrived by local taxi at the border crossing about 10 or 15 minutes later.

Leaving Israel by land is much easier than flying out through Ben Gurion, though usually not quite as easy as it was with Taba last month. The trick is that for added security at the Shaykh Hussein and King Hussein bridges, and perhaps at the Wadi Araba crossing in the south, you have to actually cross in a special bus which stops for security checks at both an Israeli and Jordanian checkpoint. [Incidentally, Shaykh Hussein and King Hussein are officially the Jordanian names, but because these days Arabs and tourists are the only ones who use them, you never hear the official Israeli names of Jordan Valley (for the north) and Allenby (by the Dead Sea). This does mean you always have to check to make sure you're on the same page with whomever you're talking to about which bridge you want.]

I was once the only person on such a bus, though normally there are several others. I was not, however, prepared for what awaited me at the bus station that day, and a steady stream of Palestinian-Israelis pushing whole carts of luggage were making their way to Jordanian universities for the start of the new academic year. This meant that not only could I not cram onto the first bus which came and had to wait for a new one, but when you did get on a bus, it took forever to get everyone officially ticketed, and then the checkpoints took forever as not only were there more passports to check, but all the people standing in the aisle had to pile off the bus and then pile back on so that the security official could get on board to check them.

I had hoped that all these students had Jordanian multiple-entry visas they used to go back and forth a lot, but such was not the case, so I also had to stand in line for awhile to get my visa. The upshot of all this was that I emerged from the crossing at about 2:00. I was out of options, and so forked over a whopping $90 as the going rate for a direct taxi from the border to Queen Alia. (The distance itself wasn't worth, but taxis from borders are always more expensive, as are taxis to airports.) The driver drove like a Cairene heroically enough that, even though the trip is normally about 2 hours, I arrived outside the airport's departure gate at 3:22, just before it closed an hour before flight time. In theory. What I had not realized is that, while Daylight Savings Time ended in Israel in mid-September, it didn't end in Jordan until late October. It was actually 4:30 when I arrived at the counter, and I had, for the first time ever, missed my flight.

There wasn't anything to do except get a hotel room for the night, which fortunately is incredibly cheap in Amman, as I've noted many times before. This involved taking an express shuttle into Amman, so I went over to the arrivals end of the terminal where, near the airport taxi stand, there was a sign for this express shuttle, together with a schedule noting that it came every half hour during the day. There I waited, being joined shortly by some students from other Arab countries arriving in Jordan for the start of the academic year. At one point a shuttle flew by us without stopping. That was annoying, but in theory, another would come. As it began to get dark, none had. Finally one of the baggage handlers who had been noticing us for awhile came and told us that even though it was marked as such, where we were standing was no longer used as a bus stop, and we had to cross the street to the other terminal, where we did, in fact, find a shuttle, which soon departed with us aboard.

The next morning I went to the Qatar Airways office, where the woman was very understanding, and told me that everyone coming from Jerusalem had missed that flight. I was a little surprised that there would be enough people to be called an "everyone," but apparently Qatar Airways even has a Jerusalem office which serves mainly Palestinians and some Israeli businessmen with business in the Gulf. I then chilled until about noon, when I hailed a taxi for the bus station. This, unfortunately, proved somewhat more complicated than it should have been. Amman's characterful but crowded downtown bus station, Abdali, closed a few weeks before I arrived, it's traffic being divided between the small North Bus Station and another one on the outskirts of the city and now nobody knows where anything is. The upshot of this was that I actually stopped at a certain place along the freeway where the airport shuttle stopped en route. A nearby taxi driver offered to drive me to the airport for 12 dinars. The standard price is actually 10, but I didn't bother haggling, as I had plenty of time, and just indicated I would just wait for the bus. Unfortunately, the bus declined to wait for me, and about 15 minutes later sped by without stopping despite my waves. I quickly reckoned that I could wait for the next bus and still make it reasonably if not comfortably, but...I looked back at the taxi driver, who just said "10 JD," at which we set off.

I had a great time in Oman, as I will relate later. Travel within the country is pretty easy. There's a national bus company, ONTC, but it seems entirely superfluous, as there are minibuses and shared taxis which go everyone more quickly than the bus, depart far more frequently, and cost the same or only a little more. A place I came to know well was the Rusayl Roundabout, marked by a huge clocktower in the Muscat suburb of ar-Rusayl and the place where the roads to Sohar and Nizwa diverged. This is a major transport hub, and shared taxis and minibuses depart from here not only on an intercity basis, but for the main roads and suburbs within the Greater Muscat area.

While in Oman, I also spent time hanging out with my old Arabic conversation partner, her husband, and their 8-month-old baby girl, who was working at standing up. The latter is a skill that can be difficult to learn at first, but is absolutely necessary to lead a fulfilling life, and an important precursor to walking. She succeeded one time while I was around, albeit with a bit of help from mom and dad, to general applause. In between this standing up business, however, she was actively crawling, true to the traditions of her nomadic ancestors. The crawling led to her parents getting a great deal of exercise, not only because there are lurking dangers such as occasional sharp objects and my potentially toxic shoes, but because she is also at a stage where she is unable to tell the difference between food and, well, anything else. Anything that entered her hand would quickly start heading for the mouth unless snatched away. Still, I gained insight into the mother-child bond from the continual care which the female parent in particular generally takes in caring for their offspring.

According to the Qatar Airways information, Jordan's Daylight Savings time ended while I was in Oman, and my flight landed at 2:30. I figured out that this left enough time to get back to Jerusalem that night. The key time was 7:30, when the last bus passed through Bet She'an heading south, which I could make because the Shaykh Hussein border crossing was open until 8:00. I quickly passed through passport control and customs, to emerge next to a sign and schedule for the airport shuttle. I waited a few minutes, but I was getting savvy at this, and asked a taxi driver if this was the real bus stop or the fake one. It was the fake one, so I ran to the other terminal and got on the bus at 3:25, thinking it would leave as scheduled at 3:30 and I'd be at the Amman bus station at 4:15. For some reason, however, the bus did not leave until 4:05. On the way back, I considered getting off at the same stop where I had been passed by 10 days earlier, but realized I would definitely need a taxi straight from Amman to get to the border. I figured it was just as much to pay for that as for a decent hotel room, $40 at most. That, I figured, would be easiest at the bus station, and so alighted there at 4:50. Half of my five hours was gone, and I had advanced all the way from the Amman airport to Amman.

I quickly found a taxi who agreed to go for about $35, and off we went. About five minutes later, however, we began to realize a small problem. Despite my efforts to be clear, specifying the "Shaykh Hussein Bridge, in the north, near Irbid," he thought I meant the King Hussein Bridge which is closer to Amman. An additional point leading to the confusion was that, because the bridges are so similarly named, Jordanians usually call the Shaykh Hussein crossing the Jordan Valley crossing, leaving the King Hussein bridge as the only Hussein. The price was ridiculous for that, but of course he thought he was over-charging a foreigner. What's more, there was no way to exit the freeway in sight, so if we called it off and he returned me to the bus station, he'd have wasted valuable gas and I'd have to give up on getting home that night. He haggled the price up a bit more, then agreed to go, though he said he normally didn't go up that way.

That admission was definite clue regarding what was to come, and it sort of was, but I didn't act on it. Even though the Shaykh Hussein bridge is always referred to as "by Irbid," coming from Amman you actually cut diagonally toward the Jordan through Salt and never enter Irbid, leading to a trip of 90 minutes. I didn't pick up on it in time, but my quiet fear was correct: He went to Irbid and tried to find the road from there, circling the city for about half an hour looking for directions. At some point therein I pretty much gave up on getting home that night, and so got used to the rather adventurous spirit of the whole affair, since to a certain extent we bonded in our frustration and the fact we were lost. (I gave him a couple of Nizwa dates, while he bought me a coffee.) Eventually we found the right road, and at about 7:00 picked up a guy working in one of the security services who lived by the crossing and knew exactly where it was. When he found out I was actually planning to cross the border, though, as opposed to just go somewhere near it, he took out his cell phone and said he thought there might be a problem, because the border closed at 8. I turned around and looked at him, and I wonder now what my facial expression was. Apparently it was 8 p.m. Jordanian time, and they'd changed Daylight Savings Time so that it now goes until the end of October.

Fortunately the Jordanians just kept the border open until 9 p.m., or 8 p.m. Israeli time, so I made it across. Once there, you need another taxi to go anywhere, but none were hanging around that late, so I had to call one and wait for it. While I was there, the border post started to shut down, and various security guards inspecting everything kept asking me why I was still hanging about. I've closed down several types of establishments in my life, but this was my first border crossing. Finally the taxi came, and shortly thereafter I had an over-priced hotel room in Bet She'an, where I promptly fell asleep.


More Islam in Azerbaijan Stats

In an article about the possibility of Islamist political activism in Azerbaijan, RFE-RL reports that the country now has over 1400 mosques, compared with just 40 in 1991. That stat definitely supports my argument that Islam is a stronger presence in Azerbaijan and Central Asia now than some would have it based on Soviet-era expertise. However, that doesn't mean the country is some developing extremist hotbed. For one thing, I suspect you do have tons of people with Soviet-era educations who see Islam-tainted politics or an overtly Islamic lifestyle as suspicious.

The article talks about government control of mosques as a means to fight religious extremism, but the real question, I think, is a broader one of filling out the spiritual dimension of Azeri culture. Any political taints only make that process more difficult, and perhaps ensure the growth of extremist ideas away from the government-supported mainstream ones.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Presidential Campaigns

One benefit of being in Jerusalem is that I can avoid the details of campaign season back in the U.S. I love this Hunter post laying out how silly it all is. Here's a sample:
"The system we now use for electing the President of the United States is, in bare form, almost no different from the television game show, which in turn is little more than an electronic pie eating contest. Each contestant has an extraordinarily limited amount of time to come up with a correct answer, in which 'correct' in this case means short, punchy, and devoid of controversy. The goal for each contestant is to make the audience laugh, cry, or applaud within the alloted time. The questions, roughly: 'In two minutes, how would you solve the security problems of the Middle East? Do you like guns the sufficient required amount to be considered manly? Your campaign has the momentum of a runaway freight train: what makes you so popular?' We consider these tiny snippets to be the height of campaign wisdom, and have structured our entire campaign process around them. This is in part because any more nuanced exploration of candidate positions and abilities and thought processes would require effort.

"In principle, televised national debates could be great things, for a democracy. It is a way for each candidate to be known by the entire country, regardless of the constraints of travel. But a 'debate' between six, or eight, or nine candidates is not a 'debate', it is Democracy Pong. Tiny, glancing answers to urgent and overwhelming problems is a measure of something, but it is not necessarily thoughtfulness or leadership. (Take Rudy Giuliani, for example. He is the messiah of the id, and a Knight Templar of the unfocused revenge fantasy, his campaign based entirely on giving the most aggressive and primal answer to any possible question. He needs no thought or actual knowledge to frame his answers: doing violence to bad people is the entire frame of his campaign. How violence, or which people, or how to define bad: these are meaningless details to be scattered to the wind -- the primal and unspecified do is the only thing of import. In any campaign which required the expression of actual complex thought, Giuliani would be eaten alive, gutted like an alley trash bag by New York City rats.)"


Monday, October 29, 2007

Evaluating al-Wefaq

Jane Kinninmont has a good piece in the latest Arab Reform Bulletin assessing al-Wefaq's record in the Bahraini parliament. She notes they do have some achievements:
"The government is increasing investment in public-sector housing, a priority for al-Wefaq’s constituents in a country where land and mortgage financing are scarce. The government is also trying to reduce unemployment, disproportionately high among the Shi’a. It will soon introduce the country’s first ever unemployment benefits, which will be funded with an unpopular 1 percent levy on salaries--essentially Bahrain's first income tax. Pressure from al-Wefaq MPs also seems to have contributed to the recent dismissal of Health Minister Nada Haffad."

She notes, however, that movements such as al-Haqq also have successes through direct action, and my sense is that most Bahrainis see al-Wefaq as stumbling as an opposition force.


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Omani Elections

Before my recent trip to Oman, I made some disparaging remarks about Oman's shura council. I see no reason to change my views about the constitutional arrangements, but after spending some time there it seems fair to add that Sultan Qaboos is not just popular in the sense that citizens approve of the job he's doing, but popular in the sense that they are downright enthusiastic about his rule. I often suspect Arab monarchs of trying to make themselves accessible and responsive to the population in part to stave off demands for institutional changes that could erode their power. In his case, it has worked tremendously, and the personal bond many Omanis feel with him should not be under-estimated.

Back to the shura elections the country held today, my Omani friends expressed amazement at how much campaigning was going on leading up to them. This seems to have stemmed from a desire of various Omani centers of power to increase turn-out, a desire found especially within the tribes which form the backbone of Omani social organization and can use the channels to the ruler. This campaigning has been followed by high turnout, especially among women. While intellectuals and pro-democracy activists may resent the council's insignificant role in formulating national policy, I suspect to the Omani people it represents an important channel for procuring services and what in the United States would be called pork barrel projects, all made possible by the country's oil wealth.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Monday, October 15, 2007


I am now leaving for the Gulf. Posting will resume later this month.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Egypt: The Refraction of Invisible Light

Aswan is absolutely gorgeous. As I mentioned in talking about my cruise, the Nile in Upper Egypt is exactly as you picture it in your daydreams, with a thin band of fertile farmland set against a background of sand hills. At Aswan, there is the added element of the cataract, which is as much a boon to the nature lover as it is a bane to Nile rivermen. The stretch of deep blue water which flows past the city slips effortlessly past deep green, grassy islets, while the gray rock formations which rise throughout the channel serve as perches for dozens of white river birds who nest in the nearby palm groves. Even the ancient ruins in the city, most notably the cavelike Tombs of the Nobles on the West Bank, seem as if they were deliberately understated, a sort of mood music for the setting rather than the main attraction in and of themselves.

Aswan does, however, play host to other attractions which the curious traveller can find. On the south of the West Bank, there is no fertile land, and the ferry dock juts right up against the dry sand and rock of the desert shore. Few tourists come here, though I did see a tour group being led away on camels, apparently tricked into believing that riding a camel was a pleasant experience. Those who do often come to see a single small, rectangular building with an onion dome at one end. Built of the same brown material as the houses of the ancient Egyptians, it sits on the slopes of the highest bluff, looking out over the beauty of the cataract below. This is the Mausoleum of Aga Khan III, who for 72 years was the spiritual leader of the Nizari Isma'ili Shi'ites, along the way serving as President of both the All-India Muslim League and the League of Nations. When I got there it was closed, so I could only see from beyond the wall which rose with the hill in a steep arc above a small tentlike enclosure where two of the camel owners fried something in a small kettle.

Further up the hill, perhaps half a mile from the river, are two other buildings. Both are incomplete, but whereas one is in ruins, the other is being built as a rest house for those who flock to it. The ruined building is the Monastery of St. Simeon. I know nothing of its history, but its location speaks to something of the Coptic heritage of monasticism, set apart from the town as it was in a sea of rolling sand dunes where rains falls only once or twice in each decade, so close to the Tropic of Cancer that one of the islands in the Nile below was where Eratosthenes came to calculate the circumference of the earth during the Ptolemaic period. One can easily imagine the life of the monks here, and their relationship with the town nearby as holy men much like those in Wadi Natrun are to the Copts of Cairo and Alexandria. As the rising rest house indicates, the Coptic spirit is very much alive in Egypt, including in Aswan, where the past few years have seen the completion of the new Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. On the East Bank of the river opposite the mausoleum, the huge white church topped with Coptic crosses dominates the region of Aswan's skyline, while inside a friendly woman at the gift shop will rattle off information about its construction the most memorable of which was that the iconostatis had been made of an imported exotic North American wood called "oak."

From Luxor I took the train north to Cairo. As a foreigner, there were only certain trains I was allowed to ride, thanks to the regulations of the ever-present tourist police. I talked about them when I was in Cairo in 2005, but Middle and Upper Egypt are really where they exert control over movements, mainly because during the 1990's that was where anti-tourist terrorism was concentrated, and many regulations remain left over from that time. Sometimes, however, it leaves a state of affairs that is downright comic. Tourists must go from Aswan to Abu Simbel in one of two daily military convoys. Once we left Aswan, however, our convoy was just a plain convoy since there was no military presence, which they apparently only bother with if they have reason to believe there's a threat. One hopes they know what they're doing, as the net effect of all this is to gather half the day's tourists in the same places and predictable times.

As I mentioned earlier, I took a separate train from Aswan to Luxor. My seat there was across from a man dressed in a white galabiyya who spoke only Egyptian colloquial, and across the aisle from a young guy with a short beard rather loudly reciting from a Qur'an. When I first started travelling in the Middle East I would have found that a noteworthy cultural experience; now that I'm older and more jaded, I just found it rather annoying, especially as he kept glaring at everybody who wasn't keeping a strict Ramadan fast, apparently oblivious to the fact travelers are exempt. Eventually two well-dressed, perfectly groomed men came and started talking to me, asking me lots of questions about who I was and what I was doing, and seeming to want to be perfectly clear that I was really an American and not Israeli down for Sukkot. The guy in the white galabiyya joined in the conversation, and wound up muttering about unpronounceable foreign names, particularly "Craig." At one point the guy across the aisle angrily complained that we were disturbing his holy Qur'an recitation, at which point both one of the well-dressed men and white galabiyya guy said some stuff that presumably amounted to telling him what he could go do with himself. Based on the reactions of nearby passengers, I think some had been waiting for someone to have that confrontation.

The two guys eventually left, but came back about half an hour before we got to Luxor and said I had to go with them. I really didn't see why I should, particularly since in Egypt harmless friendly chatter can be the start of a set-up, but one flashed an ID badge and declared them tourist police, and I wound up following them three cars back where I was ultimately surrounded by six tourist cops, all of whom proclaimed that they just wanted to make sure I got off at the right stop. It was then I finally decided that while the tourist police might serve a useful purpose, Egypt simply had too many of them.

In any case, I suspect the real purpose of all this was to make sure I got off at Luxor rather than one of the cities of Middle Egypt such as Minya or Asyut, which is where I suspect the problems really lie. Last spring I met a backpacker who together with an American friend he met on the road got off at Asyut, and he said that everywhere they went they had eight bodyguards determined to get them out of town as quickly as possible. The guarding sounded pretty intense, as in when they went to an ahwa making sure they sat against the wall and then sitting in a semi-circle around them. However, the guy also told me he felt a lot of the people in Asyut looked at the two travelers with a definite hatred, and because this same person had spent Ashura in Mashhad and had a good time, I don't think he was the type to exaggerate or imagine that sort of thing.

I had exactly one full day in Cairo before my return trip to Jerusalem, a trip that was more annoying than it had to be because East Delta Bus Company got me into Sharm al-Shaykh two hours late after I discovered that the bus straight to Taba left half an hour before I thought it did. I really didn't do much during that day, in part because Cairo has a way of sapping my will to live, let along to see things, and in part because I was coming down with a cold that was going around Upper Egypt. In the morning, however, I did set out to see an important site I hadn't realized was there two years ago, the tomb of Imam Shafi'i, called the Father of Islamic Law for his role in systematizing its development. He was buried large mosque/mausoleum complex with its own gate at the end of Imam Shafi'i Street, a thoroughfare lined with other mausoleums and small grocery stores south of the Citadel below the Muqattam cliffs. As seemed appropriate for visiting a sacred site well off the itineraries of most tourists, I behaved with exaggerated respect, but none of the people where seemed to take my presence amiss as they went about their business.

Some of the people there were praying, while others sat quietly on benches and a few homeless slept in the back, temporarily out of the heat in a building of God. I wasn't sure where the actual mausoleum was so I asked someone, who pointed out a door in the wall opposite the main entrance which turned into a small corridor. At the other end of that corridor was another chamber, in which Imam Shafi'i lay buried in a sarcophagus covered with fabrics with calligraphy all over them, presumably relevant sections of the Qur'an. As is usual, the sarcophagus was enclosed in a wooden structure with windows tinted Islamic green. Around him were smaller tombs, presumably of later scholars of his school, or perhaps notables who had endowed the complex. Somehow people had also gotten money inside Imam Shafi'i's tomb, along with scribbled notes which are probably much like those stuck in the Western Wall by Jews. There were also several beggars around the room's walls, and a few people reciting the Qur'an quietly next to the tomb.

Having gotten a feel of the place, I left quietly, though I wasn't quite done with my travels yet. As I said in the beginning of my first note about this trip, I was told Egypt had the best Ramadan Iftar parties of anywhere in the Arab world. The holy month had been part of the background of my journey from the moment I crossed the Taba border, where one of the taxi drivers immediately gave us the price I had read would be good, saying he had given up charging high prices for Ramadan. (This stance did not seem to endear him to one of his colleagues.) All throughout the land, mosques and a few private dwellings were lit up with strings of lights, much as happens in the United States at Christmas, and as the sun set, people wherever they were dropped whatever they were doing to lay out communal meals, breaking together the fast they had kept together.

That night I hiked over to Bab Sharqiyya, where pictures of dissident politician Ayman Nour were still posted everywhere. However, I was only there because I had taken a wrong turn. I corrected my path, and soon found myself at Midan Hussein in front of the Sayyidna Hussein Mosque, the lesser claimant to have the head of the grandson of the Prophet who was killed at Karbala and is commemorated by Shi'ites, who believe him the third imam, on Ashura. There again, you saw huge tables with extended families feasting together: What people don't realize about Ramadan is that despite being a fasting month, it's also a time of celebration when Muslims have their biggest feasts. The whole square was lit up beautifully, with banners commemorating the season, and the tallest minarets of al-Azhar across the street made the perfect backdrop for the occasion.

If someone asked me what I gained from being there, I wouldn't really know what to tell them. You probably get a more direct experience of the season when you're on a bus or train at sunset at people who have brought celebratory foods to share with whomever's around make a point of including you as a non-Muslim foreigner. Still, sometimes you just need to sit and take in a scene, and let it become part of a montage of scenes through which we come to understand humanity's relationship with the sacred, a sacred we can find in the natural world around us, in churches and monasteries, in the sukkas I found back in Jerusalem, white cloth outdoor structures meant to recall the years of wandering in the wilderness, and at shrine to memories of a light which monotheists believe was once glimpsed in pure form at certain moments in history, but which through that invisible energy which is possessed by the sacred is refracted through ourselves in both our good and bad aspects, presented to the world only in the diverse forms of an imperfect, struggling humanity.


Egypt: Lost Realms

Egypt's most famous monuments are the pyramids and Sphinx at Giza. Culturally, however, we know little about the Old Kingdom which produced them. The Golden Age of ancient Egypt was the Middle Kingdom, after the breakdown of order had spawned a questioning which expressed itself throughout literature and the arts. It was the Middle Kingdom which produced works such as The Tale of Sinuhe, who flees after learning of a conspiracy against the king and becomes the leader of a nomadic tribe in Syria. Then also legends of the Old Kingdom rulers took the form of moral fables, leading to the image of Khufu as a proud tyrant, for example.

The primary capital during much of the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom which came later was at Thebes in Upper Egypt, where Luxor is today. With that status, its main local deity, Amun, also assumed a commanding place in Egyptian mythology, being merged with Ra, the primordial self-creating sun god worshiped at Heliopolis since before the Old Kingdom. Today his main temple, located at Karnak about a mile north of Luxor, is the largest ancient temple discovered anywhere in the world and the Egyptian monument which draws the most tourists after the Giza pyramids. Indeed when I look over my pictures, tourists are everywhere in them, a human river flowing past banks of sphinxes and emptying through the entrance between two huge edificial walls to fill out a maze of pylons, columns, statues, and obelisks built and renovated continuously from the start of the Middle Kingdom through to the age of the Ptolemies the last of whom was Cleopatra.

Describing all the details of Karnak would bore anyone but an Egyptologist. What really strikes you is its monumental scale. In one section, the Great Hypostyle Hall, there are rows of columns 80 feet tall. This is not, however, as tall as the hieroglyph-covered Obelisk of Hatshepsut which you see rising in the background as you pass through one hall. Near the back is an area dedicated to Ptah, with a sacred lake where the priests would perform their ablutions before rituals, and bleachers for tourists who come to see the nightly sound-and-light shows found at most major ancient Egyptian sites. Few places carry as much culture and history as Karnak, which for almost 2000 years was a center of politics for one of the ancient world's greatest powers, a focus of laborers who, contrary to the often-repeated stereotype of being slaves seem to have engaged in something like collective bargaining, and definitely took pride in their work, and the center of worship for the gods who ran the universe, the key to the understanding of everyone from the king to the lowest ranks of society.

The crazy thing about Karnak is that it manages to be this impressive despite being mostly ruins. The only completely preserved ancient Egyptian temple is the Temple of Horus at Edfu, one of the stops on my cruise. After getting off the ship you either walked through the town or haggled a fare with the driver of a caliche, the horse-drawn carriages used by both tourists and locals to get around cities in Upper Egypt and which, presumably due to gas prices, are now cheaper than the broken-down black and white taxis. Eventually you came to another huge structure which took the Ptolemies 180 years to build. Aside from its overwhelming presence, the thing I remember most was a small darkened chamber with a small ark, which I think had to do with the pharaoh's journey to the afterlife. Another Ptolemaic temple we stopped at was the Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo. Sobek was the crocodile god, and the temple stands on a ledge right next to the river where there used to be a lagoon filled with crocodiles. When you arrive just after dusk the sky is still a bluish-black and the yellow lights on its facade of brownish Hellenistic columns makes for a spectacular site while docking.

After returning to Luxor from Aswan, I had hoped to see some of the sites on the West Bank, such as doing a horseback tour of the Valley of the Kings or taking in the colossal funerary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu. However, an ill-timed gap in the train schedule meant I didn't get there until just after 4 in the afternoon instead of around noon as I had planned, and the next day I had to press on to Cairo so as to be back in Jerusalem when I wanted to. Therefore, the last ancient Egyptian site I saw was Abu Simbel, home to two colossal temples carved out of a mountain in the days of Ramses II. The larger of the two temples has on the outside four 70-foot tall statues of Ramses II seated and records the peace he made with the Hittites after the Battle of Kadesh, the first peace treaty in recorded history. The smaller one is dedicated to Hathor as personified by Nefertari, Ramses II's favorite wife. The six statues on its facade are only half as large, at just over 30 feet.

One of Ramses II's alternate names translated into Greek is "Ozymandias," and as such he became the subject of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley with the famous last lines:
"'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

The power of the pharaohs as expressed in their monuments has long led people to thoughts of the passing of ages and earthly power. The kingdom of the pharaohs, however, is not the only lost realm one finds traces of in this land. The site of Abu Simbel is gorgeous, looking as it does out over the vast expanse of Lake Nasser, product of the Aswan High Dam through which the Egyptians finally gained control of the Nile's annual flooding. Beneath its placid waters, however, lies the lost realm of Nubia. Aswan the city is located at a short stretch of water known as the First Cataract, which is not a waterfall, but rather a place where the river's channel is littered with small islands and boulders. This historically marked the boundary between Egypt and Nubia. In a country like Upper Egypt, however, life is only along the Nile, and when the building of the Aswan High Dam led that river to swell miles beyond its banks, Lower Nubia was destroyed, its people relocated to development towns most of which were in the deserts around Aswan.

Much of the population of Aswan is Nubian, including the felucca captain whom I hired for a spin around the islands one hot afternoon. The most striking thing about the Nubians to me was that they all spoke with what was clearly the same accent as Jamaicans, and some even had Bob Marley flags on their ships or in their shops. There are two schools of thought on the effects of the relocation. One sees the dam project as leading to cultural annihilation. The Nile was really central to a lot of Nubian culture, and being moved into the desert isn't the same. In addition, the land they have to farm is far worse than that along the riverbanks, which some say is what leads many Nubian men to have to leave their families to seek employment in the north. The other school, however, argues that once the olive and palm trees begin producing the economy will be better than it ever was, the different Nubian communities now have a much higher standard of housing and infrastructure than they did, and points out that Nubian men have always gone north to seek employment. About dusk one evening I took a ferry across to Elephantine Island, site of a relocated Nubian village. The buildings were colorful, and among them were irrigated fields closed in by stone walls. The people were also friendly. As the sun set and the day's Ramadan fast ended one man standing outside invited me in for tea, but I demurred. He didn't really press the issue, suggesting it was just a pro forma invitation to go with the season when a stranger was about.

The next day I went to Aswan's Nubian Museum. One exhibit was called "Nubia Submerged," which I thought might deal with the modern Nubians and their relocation. Instead, it talked about all the ancient Egyptian temples that were now under Lake Nasser. Several of these were relocated, such as Abu Simbel, but many more are now beneath the waters. The main exhibits of the museum dealt with Nubia as Nubia, but it was all historical. On some level, the actual Nubians were missing from this. There was a small ethnographic section, but nothing in it of memory; the Nubians did not speak, but were represented. Nubian culture is not lost in the sense ancient Egypt is. The people remain, from two thin children paddling a rowboat around the cataract to an old lady walking down a quiet Aswan street in the heat of the afternoon with a face was blacker than the black of her headscarf as the sun caused one to sweat and the other to fade. It seems to me, however, that the Nubians are in a sense lost in the world, a once-great historical artifact misplaced out of the way while its intellectuals look for a way back and its young people slowly assimilate into the Egyptian mainstream. One can see the day where a culture now living may within a century be more lost than the imposing ruins of Karnak.


Saturday, October 13, 2007


This is a bit of the Nile between Edfu and Kom Ombo, in Upper Egypt.


Egypt: A Relaxing Interlude

Between Rosh Hashanah and the end of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, life in Israel really slows down. For that reason, much like last year when I went up to the Caucasus, I decided to use it as a travel season. A problem, of course, is that also like last year, the High Holy Days tracked closely with Ramadan, when the Islamic world is also on what you might call limited professional duty. After thinking about it, I decided to head to Egypt, on the assumption that thanks to tourists and Copts there would still be plenty of stuff open. I'd also heard that Egypt had the best Ramadan celebrations in the Arab world. Finally, I've become convinced I really need to relax more, which dovetailed well with the conclusion I reached in 2005 that the easiest way to see Egypt is to go ahead and stick to the tourist track. My fellowship is generous enough that I could certainly afford what by my normal standards would be a bit of splurging.

However, things really didn't get off to the best of starts. My initial plan was to reach the Red Sea resort town of Dahab the first day, do the overnight climb of Mt. Sinai the next, head to Sharm al-Shaykh for the day after said overnight climb, then take a ferry to Hurghada to see the monasteries of the Red Sea Mountains before cutting across to the Nile Valley. The trick came right after I crossed the border at Taba. I was initially wondering if this was an incredibly difficult border to cross, a concern amusingly worsened by the fact it had its own Hilton and snack bar between the two immigration checks. Instead, it was so ridiculously easy I felt like I hadn't really crossed an Israeli border at all. The problem was that I arrived in late afternoon, which is apparently late in the day for most public transportation options. In order to get to Dahab cheaply, I was dependent upon sharing a chartered taxi with a Japanese backpacker who, coming from the extreme penny-pinching school of travel with which I am well acquainted, insisted on taking a minibus to Nuweiba and then get a taxi from there to Dahab for a projected savings of $2.

If it was getting late to find transportation to Dahab from Taba, it was even later when we got to Nuweiba after sunset just over an hour later, after dropping clumps of Israeli tourists at several resorts and beach camps along the way. Incidentally, while Sinai Bedouin have been implicated in anti-Israeli terrorism in Sinai, the ones who actually work along the tourist track were, as usual in the Arab world, extremely friendly, chatting with the Israelis in conversational Hebrew, addressing the guy who was going to the five-star Marriott as "caliph," making fun of me because of President Bush and the Japanese guy because of the alleged poor quality of Japanese vehicles. On to the point, however, in Nuweiba the Japanese backpacker decided the onward costs were too expensive, and since the only ATM I could find was out of service, I didn't have the cash to do anything except join him in the Hotel Zahra, which quickly made the list of worst places I have ever stayed. It wasn't so much the moody electricity and water than came out of the faucet brown until you had let it run for a few seconds, or the rusty pipes and bare walls, all of which meet a bad hotel standard I have seen before. What set the Hotel Zahra apart was the bug-infested dead fish on the stairway leading up to the second floor.

While there, I decided to change my plans. Basically, I decided I was trying to do too much in too short a time, as I wanted to be back in Israel before the end of Sukkot to see what went on there. In addition, something about the Hotel Zahra made me eager for the splurging and relaxing to begin. Climbing a mountain didn't really fit that model. I decided to skip Sinai for now and cut straight to the Nile in Upper Egypt, working my way back as I chose. This plan, however, also got off to a slow start, as I needed to take a bus to Sharm al-Shaykh and get one from there to Suez, which I decided would be a good place to break the journey. I wound up getting stuck in the Nuweiba bus station for 45 minutes, as the bus was broken, and they had to track down a mechanic who could come in on a Friday morning (mosque day) to fix it. This meant that I missed the bus to Suez. The guy at the ticket office told me I needed to go back to Dahab and catch one to Suez from there, because even though Sharm is on the road from Dahab to Suez, the bus apparently doesn't stop there. What's more, the busses to Dahab left from a different station. There was just enough time to do that, and I got an (over-priced) taxi to go to this other bus station. While he was starting the car, the taxi driver asked where I was headed, and with a frown expressed his opinion that Dahab busses left from the station I was at, and that in any case there was another bus to Suez leaving in about half an hour. Becoming somewhat irritable, I insisted on my plan, only to be told by the ticket guy at the other station that Dahab busses left from where I had been. The same taxi driver drove me back, and this time I followed him to the ticket counter, where he ascertained that a bus was about to leave for Cairo that could drop me off in Suez. This I finally wound up boarding, thinking that I had perhaps gained an insight into how the Hebrews had wound up wandering Sinai for 40 years, as well as why in traditional translations they went from the Delta to Israel via the Red Sea: They were travelling via the East Delta Bus Company.

I finally arrived in Suez. Because my Lonely Planet didn't sound enthusiastic about any of the budget hotels, and because of my previously mentioned willingness to splurge and relax, I forked over about $45 to stay at the three-star Red Sea Hotel, where I took dinner and breakfast in a restaurant overlooking the Suez Canal. The guidebooks assertion that most guests were sailors proved spot on, as that was the definite impression I got from the all-male restaurant clientele, the fact that before seeing my face hotel employees always addressed me as "Captain," and the fact one Japanese guy in the elevator asked me what ship I was going to join. Perhaps because I grew up watching barges pass through the Lock and Dam along the Mississippi, I found the ship-watching to be only a mildly diverting, as opposed to falling into the multi-day hypnosis many report. Suez is reportedly not a scenic as Port Said at the northern end. Still, I can now say I've seen ships pass through the Suez Canal.

The next day East Delta managed to get me from Suez to Luxor without hassles or difficulty. Because my overall plan was still to get to the points furthest away and work my way back, thinking it would be easier to get to the closer stuff some other time if I chose, my main goal in Luxor was to book a cruise to Aswan. That proved easier than I expected. I met a travel agent during the bus's dinner break in Hurghada, who referred me to a contact in Luxor. That contact offered me $65 a night full board for two or three nights as I chose. As that was half or less of most posted prices, I didn't even bother haggling, and asked for two days. I spent the rest of the day visiting Karnak, about which I'll say more later, and wandering Luxor's corniche, where to my surprise I was hassled much less than I was in Cairo: People would try to get you on their feluccas or to buy their souvenirs, but they don't follow you around the way they do in the capital. The Luxor Temple was gorgeous sitting right on the Nile, and as I hoped there were plenty of good restaurants open, though the cheaper places were usually closed. The main concession to Ramadan is that restaurants all wanted you to sit out of sight.

The cruise itself was definitely worth the money, and one of the best times I've ever had. The only catch was that I was the only native English-speaker on the ship, which was mainly taken up with two French tour groups and some independent travellers from Germany and Mexico. The Nile was simply gorgeous down there, the way you see it in pictures and documentaries, with a thin band of green fields or palm groves separating the river from sand hills towering behind, with the route interspersed with small towns and villages where minarets and an occasional steeple lent a cultural framing also seen in the kids doing farm chores along the banks. In places there were also groups of younger kids waving to the cruise ships, cheering when they got a response from the people relaxing on deck. I also need to mention the food, which consisted of all-you-can-eat buffets with a variety of well-prepared dishes. The ship made two stops at towns with important Egyptian ruins, and it was a little amusing the way the tourist police starting giving you a spiel about hustlers and the like anyone who's been in Egypt for a day should know, though I guess if some rich yet exceptionally naive package tourists just flew straight to Luxor or Aswan and hopped on a boat it might be news. Finally, on the morning of the third day, I disembarked at Aswan.


Al Gore

Via Daniel Drezner, John Dickerson writes of Al Gore:
"Al Gore is a winner. Al Gore was right. One of the best things for Al Gore about winning the Nobel Peace Prize is that the sound bites are finally all on his side. For decades the two-term vice president has been championing environmental causes and until recently often received public scorn and derision. Now he's been rewarded with one of the most coveted prizes on the planet.

"This reversal in Gore's fortunes is extraordinary. He's not only seen a rolling vindication of his environmental activism as the world becomes more consumed with combating global climate change, but his prewar warnings about the conflict in Iraq now look prescient. Meanwhile, George Bush—the other political scion with whom Gore will forever be linked because of their bitter election fight in 2000—has followed almost exactly the opposite trajectory. Unpopular and increasingly criticized by many in his own party, Bush's legacy will be the broken war. While Gore is lauded for his prescience and insight, Bush will for some time—perhaps forever—be best known for lacking those same qualities."


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing

I admit I've never paid much attention to Doris Lessing, the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. I also try not to pay much attention to Harold Bloom, who has already voiced his contempt for the choice. She sounds interesting enough that I'll have to give her work a try at some point.

Labels: ,

Coptic Christology

The Coptic Encyclopedia, a seven-volume authoritative reference work published in 1991 with the distinguished Coptic historian Aziz Atiya as its editor-in-chief, defines "monophysitism" as, "the doctrine that the incarnate Christ is one Person, and has one divine nature as opposed to the orthodox doctrine that he is one person and has two natures, one human and one divine. The rift between the Monophysites, including the Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Armenian churches, and the Orthodox church has divided Eastern Christianity since the sixth century." The Coptic Church, however, maintains that they are not monophysites but miaphysites, believing that Christ has a single nature that is both human and divine, and furthermore that this has always been their teaching.

Despite this, an alleged Coptic monophysitism has become a given in the scholarly literature. Maged S.A. Mikhail probed this question in the introduction to his 2004 dissertation, "Egypt from Late Antiquity to Early Islam: Copts, Melkites and Muslims Shaping a New Society." I don't know Greek, and can't even transliterate the Greek script he includes in his discussion, but he notes that writings from the period he studies refer to Christ as "out of two natures" instead of the "in two natures" of the Council of Chalcedon, which became the standard for western and most eastern Christianity. The idea of Coptic monophysitism comes only from the pro-Chalcedonian polemical literature. The dispute, as discussed by Mikhail, turns on whether "nature" refers to a concrete entity or a generic essence, and whether "prosopon" refers to a guise or a person. The Copts, and similar eastern churches such as the Syrian Jacobites, used "nature" in the sense of a concrete entity, and so saw the Chalcedonian formula as a form of Nestorianism, accusing its proponents of dyophysitism, a effectively splitting Christ into two beings.

Mikhail's case is convincing, but leaves some mystery as to why even Coptic scholar such as Atiya have passed on the idea that Copts are monophysites. It may be that Atiya simply wasn't that interested in doctrinal issues, being more concerned with social, cultural, and political developments. I dealt with the Copts in my master's thesis, and remember thinking that his scholarship used an anachronistic nationalism in explaining the prevalence of non-Chalcedonian views in Egypt, so he may simply have had other interests. Assuming Mikhail is write, the real explanation is linguistic differences current based on historically shaped schools of thought and usage in different parts of the Christian world.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Still a Dictatorship

I don't understand speculation that Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is some sort of secret proponent of Central Asian democracy. He's replacing members of the old guard because they threaten his own power, not because of a quiet crusade to completely remake the regime, as with Katherine Kurtz's Rhys Michael Alister Haldane. Are there really grounds to believe otherwise? Berdymukhammedov, after all, was produced by the same political system that gave us Niyazov, even if he doesn't share the latter's paranoid and isolationist tendencies.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dividing Jerusalem: Poll

Here's another poll showing Israelis might be willing to negotiate on Jerusalem:
"When asked whether or not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could achieve a public mandate allowing him to change Jerusalem's status as part of a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians, 52% of those taking part in the poll said they would lend their support to such a move if 80% of the ministers were behind it."

However, the same poll found this:
"Should Israel compromise Jerusalem's statues as part of any future peace agreement with the Palestinians? Sixty-three percent of those asked said they think Jerusalem should not be included in a peace agreement, 21% thought it should and 16% would agree to it only if the motion was carried out by referendum."

It's possible, of course, that Israelis are really attached to Jerusalem's statues, and don't wish to harm them in any way. More likely, however, Israelis just don't see peace as in the cards right now, and aren't willing to make concessions as part of an agreement that won't work.


IRGC Changes

When Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i tapped Ali Ja'afari to head the Revolutionary Guard, Bernd Kaussler interpreted it as a prelude to a reassessment of Iranian strategic planning. Ja'afari, however, is already shaking up Iran's internal politics by merging the IRGC with the basiji vigilantes:
"Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said on September 29 that the 'main responsibility' of the corps now is to counter 'internal threats.' He added that the IRGC will confront any threat that might undermine the achievements of the Islamic republic...

"Jafari, who was appointed commander of the IRGC in early September, also said that the all-volunteer Basij militia will fall under the IRGC's command. The Basij has reportedly been involved in a number of attacks on students and intellectuals. Jafari said those forces will adapt to meet current threats. Jafari said the threats against Iran have become increasingly complex, adding that, 'We don't have the right to remain silent.'"

This move continues the centralization of power in Iran in the hands of the regime's leaders, a trend we've seen for several years now, at least as far back as the introduction of a vetting process for local as well as national elections. Now the regime is making clear it plans to move attacking internal dissent from the realm of unofficial hired thugs to an official part of national defense.

What this means from a broader Iranian strategic standpoint is unclear. The Iranian government has frequently linked internal dissent to American and British efforts to undermine the regime. This may be a way of building on that foundation: I read the reference to "complex threats" as suggesting the regime is portraying itself as being victimized by a global conspiracy with tendrils inside the country, which would certainly fit Iran's traditional strategic cast. At the same time, the fact attacking internal dissent is now agenda item number one suggests that the Iranian government is not worried about being deposed in an assault such as the Anglo-British invasion of Iraq, but rather by internal reform movements, perhaps at a time of national crisis.

A final point is that Kaussler's article suggested Ja'afari might place more weight on Iran's capability for asymmetrical warfare. The basiji certainly bring that capability, and the IRGC could now theoretically deploy them to fight an internal guerrilla war against for invaders, or use them in a guerrilla war against American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in retaliation for an American air campaign. I sense the ideologically charged vigilantes are ready for such orders. Last spring I spoke with someone who had recently been in Mashhad, and he said he talked to several basiji types who were actually looking forward to the prospect of a war against the United States, which they considered a certainty.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Monday, October 08, 2007

Discussing Concessions

I'm skeptical about Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's ability to get a peace proposal acceptable to the Palestinians through the Knesset, the ongoing debate in Israel can only be constructive. Yesterday, left-wing Kadima member Haim Ramon indicated that the summit planned for November would include discussion of Jerusalem's status. Plans to do so, however, were sharply criticized within Kadima, with some members favoring a unilateral demarcation of Israel's borders. To me, however, unilateralism in the West Bank doesn't sound like a viable option. Unless the Palestinians recognize whatever borders emerge, the territory from which Israel withdrawals will simply serve as a base from which they will try to liberate the rest, ensuring the conflict will continue.

Meanwhile, Charles Levinson notes that Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman favors withdrawing from Jerusalem's outer Arab neighborhoods. I don't know if that contradicts earlier statements, but it is in line with his broader proposals for handing over Arab areas of Israel to a Palestinian state as part of a separation of peoples. The right is going ballistic, which is predictable but still irritates me simply because most Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem only became part of the city when they were annexed to it in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War. In any case, the real question is whether Lieberman is willing to move on his current stance regarding the Old City. If he does, then he could probably bring his party with him, which might be enough for Olmert to squeak something through after all.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Bahraini Rhetoric

I'm too worn out to think seriously right now, but on a non-serious note, is it just me or is there something amusing about Bahrainis warning about dividing the Arab world into rival statelets? I'm not saying this because Bahrain is a small country. Some countries are small. However, when the British announced they were pulling out of the Gulf in 1968, the original plan was to have all nine of their dependent states form a new independent country. Bahrain, however, wouldn't go along because at that time they were the most developed Gulf country, and didn't want the other emirates dragging them down. In this they were later joined by Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates was left with just seven members.

I'm going to bed.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Labour Welfare Memorandum of Understanding

India and Oman may sign an agreement on fair treatment for those who seek work in the sultanate:
"The Labour Welfare MoU, put forward by the Indian government for its workers in Oman would be signed in December after a top level Omani delegation visits India, said Ahamed.

"The visiting Indian minister revealed that the draft of the MoU was already handed over to Oman's Ministry of Manpower for consideration.

"Regulating and guaranteeing the rights of Indian workers abroad, including the Gulf, where a large number of Indians work, has been a long-pending issue.

"'The Omani government has positively viewed our concern to protect our Indian workers from exploitation at the workplace,' he said, adding that the Omani government have always been considerate, sympathetic and supportive."

Unfortunately, the article doesn't say what is actually in the MoU.


Desmond Tutu Banned

Via Issandr, I see that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been disinvited from speaking at the University of St. Thomas for his criticism of Israel.

Labels: ,

Kyrgyz Constitution

IWPR goes over the new constituion for Kyrgyzstan proposed by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, which will probably soon be the law of the land. Unsurprisingly, the document creates a very strong presidency, and in some ways reminds me of the system by which Husni Mubarak has maintained power in Egypt. A key is the centralization of opposition forces into national political parties, achieved in this instance by institution a party list system similar to that in Iraq and Israel. This will make it much easier for Bakiev to co-opt parties individually, as well as neutralizing deputies by freezing the parties to which they belong. I suspect one target of such manipulation will be ensuring no non-Presidential party is able to gain a majority of the seats. That, in turn, will leave it up to the President to nominate the prime minister and government.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

RSS Feed

By the way, motivated by ongoing discussion elsewhere, I finally got around to making my RSS feed full posts. There is also a long-standing LiveJournal feed here.


Algeria Awakening?

It sounds like the GSPC leadership's decision to sign on with al-Qaeda may lead to the group's dissolution:
"A battle is underway for control of the leadership of Algeria's last major armed Islamist group. A country exhausted by violence has used a combination of amnesties and military action to reduce the once powerful Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) to a few hundred fighters. Under the leadership of Abu Mus'ab Abd al-Wadoud (also known as Abdelmalek Droudkel), the commander since 2004, the GSPC has been reorganized into Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Droukdel's decision to align the group with Osama bin Laden and adopt al-Qaeda-style tactics has led to a further loss of personnel. There are now reports that the GSPC leader has been deposed by a three-day meeting of group leaders in the Lakhdaria region east of Algiers. GSPC amirs loyal to Droukdel have already been replaced, but the congress was unable to decide on a new leader (Liberté, September 18).

"Several factors were involved in Droukdel's dismissal, including the controversial transformation of the GSPC into a regional branch of al-Qaeda without consultation with the rest of the movement (as required), the inequitable distribution of funds from extortion and kidnapping rackets, the adoption of suicide bombings and the recruitment of teenagers to carry out such attacks (Terrorism Monitor; September 13; Terrorism Focus, September 18)...

"Droukdel, however, has rejected appeals from former comrades and religious leaders to abandon his struggle: 'We will not surrender to apostates and bad scholars' (Ech-Chorouk, August 29). The change of leadership could signal an end to the close ties with al-Qaeda and a refocus on the national insurgency. In terms of tactical doctrine, Hattab and Droukdel have been at odds for years, each claiming support from the Quran and Sunna for their methods. Hassan Hattab has already admitted being in contact with Algerian government officials regarding the possibility of his own surrender and suspension of the outstanding death sentence against him. It is possible that dismantling the Algerian wing of al-Qaeda might be the price of a presidential pardon for Hassan Hattab."

I count this as a positive development. I don't have a strong opinion on Algerian politics, but I do harbor enmity for al-Qaeda over its attacks on the United States, and that extends to anyone who identifies with it.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Labels: ,

Oman's Shura Council

Later this month, Oman will hold elections for its shura council. This body, however, has far less power and is certainly less effective than the elected legislatures of Kuwait, Bahrain, and even Qatar. I think Ta'iba al-Ma'awali has it right:
"Activist and former Shura member Taiba al-Maawli says that the Council’s presidency is an obstacle to its development, and that the government should grant the Council political and financial independence. Having served two consecutive terms in 1994-1999, she argues that the Council has not only not gained power since then but has regressed. She says that the Council’s role is not even truly consultative; the government refers proposed laws and projects to the Council merely to inform rather than to consult it. Al-Maawli is not optimistic about the upcoming term, because although the Shura Council has the right to express its views, those views are simply ignored. The Council is paralyzed, unable to legislate or hold anyone to account. Al-Maawli believes the Council will not have any role unless there are external pressures affecting economic interests."


Nobel Prizes

Who will win the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature? Laila Lalami, who nailed Orhan Pamuk last year, thinks it will be Cormac McCarthy. She also links to this site, which in turn highlights the Ladbrokes odds favoring Claudio Magris. I've never heard of Claudio Magris, but he sounds interesting. I could see Adonis winning, but doubt the committee will pick from the Middle East twice in a row. My own guess is that Chinua Achebe's Booker will put him over the edge.

The Nobel Peace Prize has recently gone for sustainable development work, honoring Wangari Maathai and Muhammad Yunus, with the IAEA sandwiched in between. Unfortunately, I really don't know any grassroots activists who might come up in that vein this year. Al Gore could win in the wake of Live Earth and An Inconvenient Truth, but I suspect the committee will put that off until after the presidential election. They could try for the "Save Our Selves" umbrella group, or perhaps Gro Harlem Brundtland. In the dissident category, we have Morgan Tsvangirai. I think the Karabakh conflict actually needs to be resolved before the negotiators involved in that win anything.

UPDATE: Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think Peace has to go to Tsvangirai this year. Anything else can wait.

UPDATE: In further thinking about the Literature prize, I followed this Literary Saloon thread to Croaking Marley, who also correctly predicted Pamuk's 2006 award. He lists David Grossman, who is probably a more likely Israeli winner than A.B. Yehoshua, as well as the choice most directly related to current events. In the course of his thoughts, however, he also suggests that we're due for a poet, a woman, and an Asian. You could get two of the three with Ko Un, though we're more due for a Latin American writer than an East Asian. I'm sticking with my Achebe guess, though. Pablo Neruda eventually won.

Labels: ,


I'm not sure what to make of the inventory of this spice shop in the Aswan suq.