Archive for category Contributors
Old travel books never cease to delight me. While century-and-more books used to be available mainly in rare book collections of major libraries, the magic of archive.org brings digital life to the genre. Take, for example, the travel account of Claudius James Rich, whose 1820 trip from Baghdad, where he was posted as a British diplomat, to Kurdistan is a fascinating account of the Kurdish area almost two centuries ago. Born on March 28, 1787 near Dijon in Burgundy, the lad grew up in Bristol, England. He was tutored in Greek and Latin, but at the age of eight or nine he saw a book in Arabic and his appetite was whetted. By the age of fifteen, he had made great progress in Arabic, Hebrew, Syria, Persian and Turkish. Rich came of age when “Oriental Studies” carried no stigma. In 1804 he made his way through Malta and Italy to Istanbul and Egypt.
Like Burton, who would follow, Rich dressed as a Mameluke and left Egypt for Palestine and Syria. In Damascus he visited the Great Mosque. Then on he trekked to Aleppo and Baghdad before continuing on his way to India, where he arrived in 1807. A year later he married and set off to be the British Resident in Baghdad. He was an avid collector of manuscripts, many of which ended up in the British Library, coins and antiquities. He was one of the first Englishmen to describe the ruins of Babylon. His health began to deteriorate in 1813 and by 1821 he died of cholera in Shiraz.
Among the people he met in Kurdistan were important members of the Jaff family, as he describes below:
The Rise of the Sufis
by Matthew Barber—This story first appeared on Syria Comment
Newly-elected to the Syrian National Coalition, Sheikh Mohammad al-Yaqubi is moderate, influential, and ready to go to work
From the beginning of the uprising, mainstream Syrian Sunni ‘ulema—the traditional scholars who have spoken for Islam for centuries and who most Syrians recognize as the quintessential voices for religious interpretation—have been marginalized in the Syrian opposition, as Islamists of Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood persuasion steamrolled their way to dominance in both the SNC and the National Coalition. But an emerging Sufi current within the Syrian resistance could soon provide an alternative to Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and change the dynamics of the political opposition.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi has just been elected to the National Coalition, the first figure of the Sufi ‘ulema to break through the Islamist exclusivity that has kept them out until now. His appointment will be announced shortly at a National Coalition conference. Along with other Sufi sheikhs, al-Ya’qoubi is heading up efforts to solidify a Sufi bloc of political leadership and nationalist-oriented rebel groups fighting in Syria who give allegiance to the leadership of Sufi ‘ulema. He also supports efforts to train Syrian rebels in Jordan.
Early on in the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood worked to dominate the political opposition. The SNC primarily consisted of parties loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. The National Coalition was later created to break this one-sided disparity, but ended up being dominated by others with Muslim Brotherhood connections, as well.
While this was the reality of the external opposition, an imbalance also formed on the ground inside Syria, as Islamist rebels received more foreign support and rose to prominence. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi feels that the U.S. made the mistake of “leaving of the ‘Syrian file’ to the regional powers,” which allowed this trend to intensify as Gulf powers targeted Islamist groups with their aid. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been primarily involved in arming rebels, but the Saudis recently pulled back their level of support. They have an ambivalent relationship with Islamist movements; on the one hand, they support the proliferation of one of the most extreme and anti-Sufi forms of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world. Simultaneously, they fear Islamist movements such as the MB who pose a political threat to monarchy. As the character of the militarized opposition has evolved increasingly toward Islamism, with a recent climax of Jabhat al-Nusra announcing allegiance to al-Qaida and declaring an Islamic state in Syria, reports suggested that the Saudis decided to cut off support they had been offering.
Declining aid, however, has ironically resulted in the end of much of the support that nationalist-oriented rebels were receiving, and many rebels have complained that the remaining contributions from Qatar are reaching only the Islamist fighters. Continuing trends solidifying Islamist domination of both the political and military oppositions have further weakened the desire of the international community for intervention in Syria, though the fact that several regions are now controlled by al-Qaida-linked groups has prompted some to call for the preparation of a drone strategy for Syria, prompting fears that it will end up looking like another Afghanistan.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi’s entrance into the political opposition marks a development running counter to the dominant Islamist trend. Al-Ya’qoubi is respected as one of the leading scholars and Sufi clerics in Syria, and has been ranked as the second-most influential Muslim religious figure of the country. The brand of Islam he represents is expressed in a statement of sympathy he issued following the Boston Bombing. He studied in the West and is fluent in English and Swedish.
Traditional ‘ulema like Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi served for centuries as the interpreters of Islamic sources and traditions, but after the fall of the last Islamic empire, the process of modernization that accompanied the rise of the nation state presented a challenge to their role of traditional authority. The erosion of their power was further aggravated by the emergence of Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood who introduced new interpretations of Islamic texts, contrary to the classical traditions that had existed for centuries.
Under the Ba’athists, some of Syria’s ‘ulema became seen as coopted figures who stayed close to the regime and lent it legitimacy. Others however, remained at arm’s length from the regime, and when the uprising began, they asserted their criticism of it, as did Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi. In addition to his widespread recognition among Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims, his credibility is bolstered by being the cleric who issued the first fatwa against Bashar al-Assad, in July of 2011.
After publically criticizing the regime’s violence against demonstrators in two sermons delivered at mosques in April and May 2011, he fled Syria and issued his fatwa against the regime. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi represents the kind of moderate, traditional Islam that most Syrians are familiar with, the Islam challenged by both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Though taking an unambiguous stance against the regime’s violence, injustice, and terror, he also continues to exert his influence encouraging rebels to avoid terrorism through fatwas condemning tactics such as car-bombings, kidnapping, landmines, the killing of prisoners, and violence against non-combatants politically aligned with the regime. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi has combatted the fatwas of extremist clerics who have called for the targeted sectarian killing of Alawite women and children by issuing his own fatwas prohibiting the killing of civilians of the Alawite minority. He maintains a very clear position defending the rights of all minorities, including those condemned by extremists as heterodox.
Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi also differs with the Islamist agenda to “Islamize” Syria’s laws. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups promote a kind of activism that seeks to implement a greater degree of Islamic law in the state. The growing use of “Islamic law” by Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups in territory controlled by rebels likely prompted the announcement by Mu’az al-Khatib of an effort to introduce a “code” of Islamic law sanctioned by the opposition that the rebels could implement—an apparent attempt to assuage this desire manifesting in a stampede toward “shari’a” while ensuring that such a law would be relatively moderate. Where does Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi stand on this issue? He thinks Syria’s current family laws are just fine, and are already sufficiently compatible with the shari’a. He also believes that legal reform should not be pursued before a constitutionally-based committee can be formed which would tackle any needed changes, after the regime has fallen and a new Syrian government has been created.
Despite being well-known in Syria and playing an important role in the history of the uprising, Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi ‘ulema like him have been excluded from the political opposition. Desperation following the slow, groaning crisis of the opposition’s ineffectiveness, as well as fears that figures like al-Ya’qoubi may band together and form an alternative opposition have led to his appointment to the National Council, following a letter he drafted to Mu’az al-Khatib, signed by 25 Sufi sheikhs and containing an ultimatum about the need for their participation in the political process.
One obvious question is: what level of real influence will the Sheikh have? Does his participation mark the beginning of a trend, or will he merely be the NC’s token member of the ‘ulema?
In addition to having already played an important role throughout the uprising, Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi leaders have been building influence lately, working together for about six months to form an umbrella organization for rebel groups comprised of Sunnis and Sufis aligned with Syria’s mainstream values, rather than Islamist agendas. The organization is called the Movement for Building Civilization. He and his peers have produced a charter document which rebels groups can sign, pledging agreement with a set of foundational principles, including:
- Removing the regime while not destroying the state—protecting public institutions;
- The rejection of revenge, retaliation, and execution during the uprising, keeping the trials of war criminals for after the collapse of the regime and the establishment of a new government;
- After the collapse of the regime, rebel groups should cease to carry arms and their members should return to civilian life or join the national army;
- All ethnic and religious communities are to be defended as equal citizens under the law;
- No ethnic or religious group is to be held responsible for the crimes of the regime;
- A future Syrian government must operate according to a separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers;
- The future government must be a democracy of political multiplicity and the 1950 Constitution should be in effect during the interim period until a new parliament is elected and a new constitution is agreed upon.
Many young sheikhs who joined the Syrian uprising are frustrated with their lack of options regarding conservative political movements to be aligned with. The three main options are Salafis, Hezb al-Tahrir, and Muslim Brotherhood movements, none of which well-represent mainstream Syrian Sunnis who look for the legitimacy of ‘ulema leadership. This concern was a primary motivation for the creation of the Movement for Building Civilization. Al-Ya’qoubi and the sheikhs he works with are in contact with over 200 rebel groups who consult them regarding principles, goals, and methods, but many of these groups are disillusioned with the inability of the Sufi and ‘ulema leadership to offer them any kind of practical monetary support. Lacking funding, groups that would like to follow moderate figures of the ‘ulema will remain vulnerable to recruitment by Islamist forces.
The formation of a Sufi bloc within the opposition could provide an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, one that would represent far greater numbers of Syrians. Sheikh Ya’qoubi has stated that he supports a government in which the Muslim Brotherhood can operate, but that he opposes a monopoly of any one faction. He told me in a recent conversation: “We may have to deal with an Ikhwaani prime minister in the future Syria. That is democracy. But the real question is: will the government be of all one color, or will it be inclusive?”
There’s no question about which demographic will win this war: the next power in Syria will be Sunni. And the question goes beyond “how big” a Sunni win will occur. The real question is: which Sunni group’s brand of Islam will define the political paradigm of the new state? The influence of ‘ulema who respect Syria’s diversity, promote a tolerant social sphere, and support an inclusive government structure will be extremely important in the nation’s future, and the international community should be in conversation with them.
The post Sheikh al-Yaqoubi Elected to the NC—its first non-Brotherhood-aligned religious figure appeared first on Syria Comment.
by Aron Lund for Syria Comment
There’s been some very interesting reports about conflicts within Jabhat al-Nosra, the salafi-jihadi rebel group that has been designated an al-Qaida-connected terrorist organization by the USA and several other countries.
If you follow Syria, you’re already familiar with the outlines of this, but here’s the very short version:
In a recorded voice statement released online on April 10, 2013, Jabhat al-Nosra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani confirmed that his group had been created with assistance from the Iraqi al-Qaida wing (called the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI). He also ”renewed” his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the international al-Qaida leader, leaving little doubt that he had been a sworn al-Qaida member all along. At the same time, Abu Mohammed distanced himself from the suggestion that a total merger had been agreed between Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI. This was in response to a statement put out on the previous day (April 9) by the ISI emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had said that both groups would now merge into something called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (let’s abbreviate it ISIS).
In sum, there was no dispute between the Syrian and Iraqi leaders about the fact that Jabhat al-Nosra is an al-Qaida faction ultimately loyal to Zawahiri, but they differed on whether it would be absorbed into a regional umbrella (ISIS) constructed from the Iraqi franchise (ISI) or retain its own separate identity within the international al-Qaida framework.
Syrian opposition groups reacted negatively, including the main Islamist formations, although most tempered their criticism by stressing the positive contributions of Jabhat al-Nosra to the uprising so far. For some responses to the Abu Mohammed and Abu Bakr statements by Islamist groups in Syria, see a previous post of mine on Syria Comment, and these translations on Hassan Hassan’s site.
After Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s strange semi-rebuttal to Abu Bakr on April 10, both groups fell silent, and everybody seemed to be waiting for an explanation. None came. Now, suddenly, several media reports have been published, suggesting that the dispute hasn’t been resolved but is in fact growing worse. In some of these reports, purported Jabhat al-Nosra fighters even talk about the group splitting apart or losing members, although they differ on who is leaving and for what reason.
He quotes a Jabhat al-Nosra member from Damascus as saying that ”everyone I know was surprised by the statement; it was more than we’d expected to hear”, meaning the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri. The Jabhat al-Nosra member now worries that there will be clashes between Jabhat al-Nosra and the Western/Gulf backed factions grouped under the FSA label, after Jabhat al-Nosra came out of the closet as an official al-Qaida franchise.
The gist of Sands’s article is that locally recruited and/or pragmatic fighters are upset with Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and al-Qaida, because it will make it harder for them to focus on fighting Assad. (They’re probably right about that.) There’s no claim of an open split in the group, yet, but it does indicate internal tension between locally-minded grassroots fighters and the globalist, Qaida-connected leadership.
Writing for Reuters, Mariam Karouny has a much more spectacular take on what is going on. She also quotes people in and close to Jabhat al-Nosra, as well as some rivals to the group.
The narrative that emerges is one of a full-blown split within the group, threatening to unravel the Syrian al-Qaida network. According to this version, Jabhat al-Nosra is now torn between the adherents of Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and his Iraqi counterpart and self-styled superior, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In this version, the ISIS project is going ahead despite Abu Mohammed’s objections, and has already incorporated a significant chunk of Jabhat al-Nosra’s organization. Abu Bakr is said to have moved into the Aleppo region to rally his own adherents, while fighters loyal to Abu Mohammed refuse to submit to his dictates or surrender the Jabhat al-Nosra brand. Karouny quotes a Nosra source close to Abu Mohammed al-Joulani as trying to minimize the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and saying that it came about in an “attempt by [Abu Mohammed al-Joulani] to keep his distance from Baghdadi.” According to another Nosra source quoted in the article, ”The situation has changed a lot. Baghdadi’s men are working but Nusra is not working formally anymore”.
If this is true, we’re talking about a Fukushima-level ideological meltdown in one of Syria’s most important rebel groups.
ISIS vs. Jabhat al-Nosra?
Phil Spencer in the Daily Telegraph makes a similar claim, based on Aleppo sources outside of Jabhat al-Nosra, and says that its fighters are withdrawing from the Aleppo frontlines. An opposition activist in Raqqa is cited by the AFP. He makes the same case, depicting an Iraqi takeover that is being resisted by a rump faction of Jabhat al-Nosra:
The activist said that in Raqa, even within jihadists’ ranks there is division.
“The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is becoming more powerful than al-Nusra Front in some areas,” he said.
He said the [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] had tried to bring the jihadist al-Nusra Front under its full control, but could not.
“Now they are two groups, competing against each other for influence,” said the activist, who is well-informed on political developments in rebel-held areas.
al-Manara al-Beida clams up
Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nosra’s only approved source of public communications, the online media organization al-Manara al-Beida, has fallen silent since the April 10 release by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani. The ISI’s media wing, al-Furqan, is also out of commission since the April 9 statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (I’m thankful to Aaron Zelin, who helped me check this. His invaluable site Jihadology provides a full list of Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI statements in PDF format, drawn from the main jihadi web forums.)
Jihadi communications can be very irregular indeed, for all sorts of reasons, but the total shutdown of both these media offices simultaneously is such a striking coincidence that of course it is no coincidence. al-Manara al-Beida used to publish a batch of field reports about their (oh! glorious!) victories almost weekly, with occasional video releases and the odd media statement in between. But now, when it seems they would be most eager to explain what is going on, there’s been nothing but ghastly silence for a month and a half.
The only thing we’ve heard from Jabhat al-Nosra since April 10 has come through unofficial channels, like leaders speaking to the media, contrary to their own stated policy. There’s also been two statements purportedly from Jabhat al-Nosra’s section in the Deraa region, published on May 7 and May 22. But they didn’t arrive through al-Manara al-Beida. The Deraa statements aren’t reporting attacks either. Rather, they are an odd-sounding laundry list of complaints and sharia rulings about stuff that the Deraa jihadis are fed up with, such as people spreading rumors, fence-sitting Druze people, out-of-control salafi clerics posing as Jabhat al-Nosra representatives, swindlers scamming jihadis for money, and low-quality recruits from Jordan. As if fighting Assad wasn’t enough! But they include nothing directly related to the al-Qaida brouhaha.
Confusion all around
In the absence of any clarification from the actors themselves, nobody seems sure about what is actually going on. Does ISIS exist? Has there been a split in Jabhat al-Nosra? If so, is it between Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and his locally recruited followers, who take issue with his declaration of allegiance to Zawahiri? Or is it between Abu Mohammed and the Iraqi emir Abu Bakr, who has mounted an internal coup against his leadership? And to whom would Zawahiri give his blessing, as supreme commander of al-Qaida?
Maybe it isn’t a nation-wide Syrian split, but a division which plays out differently in different parts of the organization? Maybe it’s just a little local rebellion? Or maybe it’s a huge deal, and the undertow from an ISI thrust into Syria will seep back across the border, and onwards through the global Qaida network?
Maybe. Maybe! Or maybe this is all a simple misunderstanding, a little communications mishap which will be sorted out once the three leaders involved – Abu Mohammed al-Joulani of Jabhat al-Nosra, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the ISI, and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaida’s general command – have decided on the proper language for a joint statement.
Despite the fact that both the Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI media wings seem to have been knocked out cold by the April 9-10 controversy, the fighters themselves are still soldiering on. Some Jabhat al-Nosra members are said to have died in the battle in al-Quseir just the other day. And bombs are still going off at an impressive pace in Iraq, leaving little doubt that ISI is still around. Meanwhile, a thin trickle of videotapes in the ISIS name has started to show up online, although not through “official” channels, making it doubtful what or who they really represent. (On the fine Brown Moses blog, Aymenn Al Tamimi writes a guest post about this.)
So what to make of it? Oh, I have no idea. And my guess is that no one else does either, despite the tsunami of speculative hypotheses that is already starting to build at the far end of the Internet.
As far as I’m concerned, the only thing we can assume with a reasonable degree of certainty is that (1) the contradictory statements, and (2) the sudden interruption of Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI communications, and (3) the flood of reports about internal discontent and splits is means that there actually is or has been a significant internal disagreement between two or more of these Qaida factions.
And whatever it is, because of (2) and (3), they will now have to deal with rumors and hostile propaganda too. Even if they’ve now sorted it all out, they have a serious public relations crisis on their hands. That’s no small matter in a situation as media-driven as the Syrian conflict.
Perhaps we will now simply get a statement setting the record straight by affirming that Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI either have or haven’t merged into ISIS. And if so, maybe they’ll shutter al-Manara al-Beida and al-Furqan and present a new media wing for them both, explaining the long silence.
If, on the other hand, there are indeed irreconcileable differences between two or more of the players involved, then I guess there will be several statements, which will make for very interesting reading. Zawahiri should have the final word, but he’s off in Pakistan somewhere, and who knows how long he can keep his Mashreqi lieutenants in line after they’ve outgrown him politically and militarily.
At some point we’ll certainly know more about what’s happening, and then we can start to draw conclusions. But right now, we don’t, and we can’t. So let’s just sit here and listen to the eerie silence of al-Manara al-Beida – the sound of one of the worst Syrian communication gaffes since March 30, 2011.
— by Aron Lund
I’ve just taken on the ambitious goal of writing poetic renderings of the Biblical Psalms – one every day.
Those of you who have read my other blog, Yedid Nefesh, know that I enjoy writing my own version of “Biblical free verse.” It’s my own way of commenting on these texts – by shaping them into a poetic format that broadens (and often subverts) their literal meaning. I’ve done new versions of several Psalms in the past and have often flirted with the idea of taking on all 150. So here I go!
I’m going to do my level best to hold to my one a day quota (except for Shabbat/Saturday). For maximum impact, I recommend reading them together with a more traditional translation (or if you read Hebrew, obviously, the original text.) They will all be posted on Yedid Nefesh – I hope you enjoy reading them and would love to hear your thoughts and responses!
Click here for Psalm 1.
The documentary series follows a family of Syrian refugees over the course of a year, from their arrival to Za’atari camp in Jordan in December 2012. Selim and Leila were farmers in Der’aa, southwest Syria, until the day their village was shelled by government forces and they decided to leave the country. After a terrifying nighttime journey on foot through government-held territory, escorted by the Free Syrian Army, Selim, Leila and their eight children arrived in Za’atari, a sprawling tented camp which is now home to more than 110,000 refugees.
The series provides an intimate view of their struggles to adjust to camp life and the traumatic effects of the conflict back home, as well as the pressure felt by Selim to return and join the rebellion.
Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
The radio program The World just ran a piece I did on the Cairo arts scene and particularly on how artists are taking advantage of the current chaos/freedom to use public spaces they were barred from before and to connect with new audiences.
I also spoke to several other artists, but due to time constraints, those conversations didn't make it into the piece.
Artist Hady Kamar, for example, took time to chat with me about the difficulties of defining "revolutionary" art and the reasons behind the (modest but noticeable) increase in new arts spaces and initiatives in Cairo.
"I think a lot of people are doing more now on their own because a lot of the promises of the revolution weren't fulfilled, " Kamar said. "For example, openness -- societal openness or just a political openness. You can only rely on yourself and you can't sit around relying on [the fact that] the government is going to assist with this or we're going to become a place where there are going to be a lot of cultural spaces, without people taking it on themselves and doing it themselves. "
Kamar is one of the artists behind the charming new Nile Sunset Annex, a one-room exhibition space (in an apartment/studio in Garden City) that puts on a monthly show of physical (as opposed to digital) work and that, in my view, plays with the boundaries between professional art-making and other forms of creativity and craftsmanship, as well as those between genres (in the two shows I've gone to I've seen drawing, music, furniture replicas and embroidery).
The other artists I had the pleasure of meeting recently is Amira Hanafy, who did a piece entitled Mahdy's Walk for the gallery Art Ellewa (in the informal neighborhood of Ard Ellewa). In fact, I am part of Hanafy's piece, an aural portrait of the area made up of conversations with residents and visitors, recorded while following a circuit through the neighborhood. The walk took in one of the remaining open fields in the area, a patch of emerald-green barsoum that will undoubtedly be gone in a few years (there are already half-built apartment blocks standing on its edge) and the sound collage features conversations about the area's history, break-neck development and problems: land speculation, security, garbage collection.
Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa
While not all art can (or need) be socially or politically engaged, this particular moment in Egypt is such that many artists are both looking for new models to organize and sustain themselves and for ways to break out of Cairo's small alternative gallery scene and engage wider audiences. Hanafy's piece and the work at Art Ellewa generally is a great example of art that is embedded in, and relevant to, the community that surrounds it.
To quote Joseph Conrad’s Captain Kurtz on his deathbed: “the horror!”
Yisrael HaYom conveys (English translation thanks to Sol Salbe) the dismay and consternation with which residents of the Gush Etzion settlement woke up one morning to find that they no longer lived in the State of Israel, as they’d thought. But rather in…the State of Palestine! Or so Google told them. A shockwave as great as the Oklahoma tornado traveled throughout the settler kingdom as they lost their status as chalutzim on behalf of the Jewish state and were relegated to second class status as citizens of Palestine.
Amir Schiby, in his inimitable ironic way, has captured the nuttiness of it all with his graphic image of the Google Mountainview campus under price tag attack. I’ve even heard that settlers have threatened to launch such a campaign unless the internet giant immediately renounces its decision and restores them to their former residency in the Davidic kingdom of Judea.
New political powerhouse, Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, a “moderate” settler leader, has appointed former IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Ronsky to be chief of a little outfit he’s calling the Jewish Identity Administration. Currently, the rabbi is rosh yeshiva in the Itamar settlement. It is one of the most virulent and violent of all the settlements in promoting mayhem against Palestinians. A number of local villagers have been murdered by Itamar residents. So much so that it was the target of a heinous terror attack a year ago in which the Fogel family was murdered.
Though Bennett’s goal is to strengthen Jewish identity, I can’t help thinking it’s an Israeli political-religious correctness regime. Ostensibly, the minister says the new body’s goal is to model and promote Jewish values. But I can’t help thinking of previous regimes in world history who promoted their own vision of national purity.
I believe strongly in Jewish values. They are what led me to create this blog. My Jewish values are compassion for the sick and downtrodden; justice for the weak and oppressed; making the world a better place. And not just for Jews, but for everyone. Including Israel’s ostensible enemies, the Arabs. Naftali Bennett’s version of Jewish values is something altogether different. This Jewish Identity Administration isn’t that far removed from the vision of racial purity offered by both the Nazis and Meir Kahane.
Here are a few of the “greatest hits” that Amir Schiby has dug up from the sainted rabbi’s “vaults” which he features under the heading “Jewish Strength:”
“I hate the State of Tel Aviv.”
“Rabbi Ronitsky: Collective punishment against residents of Awarta in revenge for Itamar terror attack”
Former IDF Chief Rabbi: Fire on terror suspects in their beds.”
“IDF military rabbinate against the homo-lesbo community”
These are Naftali Bennet’s “Jewish values.” Not mine. These are values of hate and racism. These are values of racial supremacy and purity.
It appears Ronsky bestows his blessings and beatings liberally on his own ideological camp as well. When a young man whom the Shabak had forbidden from entering the West Bank under administrative order told Ronsky he would disrupt a memorial service for the Fogel family murdered at Itamar because an IDF commander would be speaking, Ronsky threatened that he would have the boy’s “arms and legs broken” if he showed up.
This is definitely the sort of saintly figure I want teaching Jews how to be better Jews.
I just wrote something for the NYTimes' Latitude blog about the Tamarrud ("Rebel") campaign -- a petition calling for early presidential elections, which according to the youth groups behind it has gained 3 million signatures.
In my piece I noted that the petition has no legal power to end Morsi's term. I consider it part of the ongoing tug of war between revolutionary and conventional politics, and evidence of how dissatisfying and alienating the political process of the last 2 years as been for so many. I did note how extraordinary it is that "Egyptians today can organize a street campaign to dismiss the president — a president they freely elected last year."
I may have spoken too soon, however. This morning there are reports that Rebel campaigners were shot at in Beni Suef (several others have already been detained and attacked) and that Morsi's prosecutor general has opened an investigation into whether the organizers are "inciting and mobilising people to overthrow an elected government, inciting hatred against the regime, and promoting a group suspected of violating the law."