Archive | January, 2012

Syria on My Mind

30 Jan

I have Syria on my mind because the 3zmeh there is so pressing, and violent. Egypt is always with me as well — on the phone today to Ashraf trying to understand what’s really happening and why he minimizes the impact of the revolution so we won’t worry.

I have Syria on my mind, as I read one upsetting news article after another. As I read Jonathan Shannon’s blog, Mohja Kahf’s posts, and think about cold weather food. For my Egyptian married-to-family, cold weather food is bisara – I made it last night. This is a white bean soup made with large amounts of parsley, dill, and coriander, then onions and garlic, and blended. For me, cold weather food is fatteh. Syrian fatteh is not the same as Egyptian fatta. And my favorite place to eat fatteh may not exist any more in Damascus, with its little tables, wooden chairs and plastic tablecloths. Fatteh with chicken, or with egg, or with meat.

Syria is on my mind throughout our musings about the government’s claims that these revolutions are all by “foreigners.” Whether regime change is achieved or not yet – how is that people see all power as being outside themselves? There’s a great example here in this description of the mood in Syria

My memories of truly crazy interactions with authorities include a similar entry at the airport. My printer was seized because, of course, it must be a fax machine. Even though it wasn’t a fax machine – but they were forbidden. So the official demanded that I turn it on and show him how it was not a fax machine. Without a stepdown (volt converter) how could I? And I was very, very suspicious, even with all of my introductory documents, and letters and so on, and my little daughter holding my hand. Copiers were tightly controlled then too. There was no email service. And in those days, if you went to a news shop, one could see the articles about Syria, or sometimes the Arab world had been cut by hand out of the newspapers and magazines.

It took about six weeks to get an iqama. Each time I visited the appropriate office, I could see my passport still sitting at the top of a pile in a battered old grey metal cabinet – doors ajar. Somehow I fell extremely ill with a high fever. The agent who had helped us find our flat came to call, and returned with a neighborhood doctor. No bottled water was available in that period of the summer, yet water was probably the carrier of this particular summer fever. I knew I had to visit the government office and check on the iqama or I’d never be able to travel down to the south of the country where I wanted to carry out interviews, since one had to carry a passport when traveling (a copy wasn’t sufficient). It must have been the fever, but I was so irritated to see that no-one had even touched the passport pile, that I muttered something in the office. Instantly, I was pushed into another office with an officer screaming at me at my insolence, and how he ought to this, and this and that. And amazingly, he shoved the passport with the iqama in it, into my hands.

My basement level flat was located underneath Syria’s Constitutional Court in Abu Rumaneh, a pleasant area of Damascus. The flat had a huge formal living room with an oriental carpet atop white marble floors surrounded by white couches and a separate entrance. The interior had two bedrooms, a small kitchen littered with the numerous empty wine bottles of the previous tenant, and a small sitting/dining room with a television. Buzzers were located near each doorway next to the light switches so the women of the household could signal that they were entering; many households still observed segregation of women from men who might call or visit. The Constitutional Court was one of the least-used governmental buildings; most people did not know that it existed. I wouldn’t have know it was there either, except that a few days after I moved into the flat, someone knocked on the door. He was a clerk from the court upstairs. “Telephone for you” he told me. My face was wrinkled up in questions. After, I took the phone call upstairs, and returned below. I spotted two men out on the pavement, near a box cemented into the ground. They were attaching something into the contents of the box. A few hours later, they were still there, smoking cigarettes. The next morning, I received a phone call intended for the court, so I went upstairs to call the clerk. Apparently, when the authorities installed the phone tap, they crossed our telephone wires. He promised to call someone to try and get them uncrossed.

When I went to the Ministry of Agriculture to submit my AIDS test, the waiting area was teeming with agricultural laborers, mostly from Iraq. The AIDS test completed in the United States was irrelevant; after all “the country is run by criminals and homosexuals are everywhere.” I had brought my own needle. Waiting went on for hours and then we were told to return on another day for results . The place was incredibly crowded on the return date too, and then suddenly, a voice barked at me in Russian. It was a woman, with short hair and she gestured for me to sit on a chair. I was grateful for the special treatment and she punctuated her delivery of my results with a little speech, in Russian which made the Syrian officials laugh, but none of the rest of us had a clue.

Successful paperwork meant that I could board a bus for Suwaida, in southern Syria in the Jabal Druze, renamed by the Ba3thist government, the Jabal 3Arab. My daughter and I were questioned for about 10 minutes before boarding the bus, passport number written down and then, we disembarked in the sleepy summer provincial town. I inquired about staying in the hotel in Suwaida where they explained that there were no guests, there had been no guests for ages, yes, there were guest rooms, but the hotel was used for weddings only. Then we made our way to the mudhafah of the al-Atrash family which was just opposite one of the Atrash homes. And my interviews began. At that time, the government cut electricity service on a rolling schedule in Damascus, but in this area, the cuts amounted to 10 hours a day without electricity. At the mudhafeh, the family was accepting condolences for one of their senior members, a lady. The women had gathered elsewhere and then men presented their statements in verse. They were amused that an American had come all the way to Suwaida to inquire about Asmahan. “Not about Farid?” “For he is the ambassador of the Druze! Asmahan, she, well, we were harsh on women, then, and she should not have been singing [in public]. “Not about Sultan al-Atrash? He was the leader of the revolution (of ’25) – you must meet his son. You’ll have to go to al-Qrayya.”

Most of the information about Asmahan is in my book. But not the delightful experience of interviewing the older family members who decided that they would quite enjoy helping me and reminiscing about their own youthful days, when quite a few had lived in Egypt, and traveled more freely from there to Syria and Lebanon.
We ate at the hotel the first evening, after all, they had not anticipated my visit. As there was no electricity, the food was cooked over charcoal.

Among the other highlights of these interviews was one that I held with Fahd Ballan, whose star had fallen after too much wild living, I believe. He met me at the musicians’ and artists’ building and of course, the electricity went out just as we arrived. He had little to say about Asmahan, but Farid al-Atrash had been his friend and mentor, and he had plenty to say about the demise of Arabic music, both technically and conceptually.

Enough, enough! I had meant to stick with the theme of Syrian authorities. Who did not intrude on my time in the Jabal, but on each return to Damascus, I learned more. The pockmarked buildings where suicide bombers had killed themselves in 1980-1981. The visits by “the friends” – who arrived at 4:00 a.m. The funniest question the mukhabarat posed me was “how many Jewish academics are there in the United States?” “Well, I don’t know,” I said, “I think there are thousands and thousands of them, as they are SO smart!” My answer was so wrong and so unexpected, that the interview soon terminated after more inquiries about what I was REALLY researching. “Asmahan.” Impossible. “No, really, Asmahan.” Just to be sure that I got the point, the next day, the younger brother of a Syrian friend arrived home with his ribs broken – he’d been viciously beaten and kicked. Vicarious cruelty is effective. I was more careful about what I said, and where I said it. Not as careful as I should have been. Not as careful as friends who cannot even speak within their own homes.

Mabruk Masr! Happy 25th of January Revolution!

24 Jan

Tomorrow, the 25th of January, 2012 marks the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. The impact of last year went far beyond Egypt to reshape the world’s expectations of the role of “the people” in politics. To quote Nelly Hanna, who I ran into at MESA – “we [Egypt] are changing the world!”

The revolution in Tunisia was shocking and exhilarating — and then, for Hosni Mubarak to fall in only 18 days … there is absolutely nothing I can write that can convey the jubilation of February 11, 2011, and the roller-coaster ride of emotions ever since for all those watching with bated breath. Revolution broke out in Libya and in Yemen – and two more dictators fell – Qaddhafi slain after his mad campaign to destroy his own people, and Saleh — wheeling, dealing, lying and manipulating to obtain the immunity that Mubarak did not (formally) receive. The Syrian dictator and his cruel regime will likely be dismantled in the coming year, and then the fate of autocracy in the region remains to be seen.

In Egypt, Police Day always recalled the huge number of people employed by the police and the security forces (the latter estimated at 1 million – larger than any army). And yet, once the Egyptian people joined the ongoing demonstrations, it was fairly clear that they outnumbered the army and police, and while there were casualities, the violence could have been so much worse. The military assumption of power was intended to be temporary. And indeed, the elections for the Majlis al-Sha`b have taken place, not perhaps with the outcome that some wish, but in all, a much more democratic procedure than in any of the previous electoral charades carried out under Mubarak. Presidential elections will be scheduled and the Constitution will be rewritten, not least because Mubarak had sullied it with changes to bolster his own executive power and these must be removed.

There is much to hope for and much room for anxiety. Not a day goes by without my receipt of a bitter comment or message castigating the Muslim Brotherhood or the salafis for “stealing the revolution.” Well, it was their revolution too. They withstood detentions, arrests, torture, political machinations for years. Islamists are now more popular than most other political groups throughout the region at this particular time in history. Get used to it. Islamism is here to stay and we can hope and work for enlightened, intelligent power-sharing and cooperative solutions. Liberals, anti-Islamists, or those who oppose religious parties really need to stop engaging in takfir – just as others must not employ takfir against them. Liberty means the pursuit of differing political visions and democracy means learning how to compromise on, or bide one’s time to address these differences.

One might dream of seeing a bayan issued by the Freedom and Justice Party or the MB movement itself to the women of Egypt. Something to the effect of “we recognize the oppression that the women of Egypt have suffered, the legal discrimination they have sought to reverse and that their representation in Parliament is hardly fair for 51% of the population. We recognize oppression within the family, and that violence against women and girls is a serious matter. We don’t intend to undo legal reforms that have benefitted women.” One is not heartened to hear those voices that called for undoing the legal reforms of 2000 … Surely women’s future is as important as sending a message about the solidarity of Egyptians – Christians and Muslims together.

It was reported today that the Mushir (Tantawi) will cancel the emergency law. At long last! This is terribly important as the law buttresses the system of security courts and detentions without charge and the entire system of punitive, suspicious regard by security personnel of the public. It should impact free speech. There is a catch – he said it would be cancelled, except for instances of “thuggery.” Let’s hope that means attacks by the thugs on demonstrators.

Many scholars and experts have stated that the “revolution is not complete.” Well, duh. How could it be? The old regime is so well ensconced in business, financial and intellectual institutions, like, I hate to say it, but the American University in Cairo where the President’s representative, a retired general, called one day to tell my colleague not to use a particular book (you know the book I mean, some of you). And where Tom Friedman and Martin Indyk recently were guest speakers (why?) Of course there are lovers of freedom at that faculty and in others — but the networks of power and influence are not so easily dissolved.

Let us hope as well that in the new Egypt, there will be a new domestic approach to the problems of poverty and development for democracy does not necessarily mean capitalist democracy where a country with a huge low-income population and income gap can ignore the consequences of privatization and rising prices. Let us hope that it will mean a new foreign policy, where actions match rhetoric. For too long, hollow support of Palestinian rights has been juxtaposed with doing the bidding of Israel – closing the border, bombing the tunnels, and ensuring the safety of a regime at the behest of the Quartet. Perhaps the Egyptian people need a voice – at least a referendum on some of these issues.

Mabruk Egypt! Mabruk!

My Taxi Story

22 Jan

It was June of 2010. I had just returned from Egypt (and Morocco) on a long Egypt Air flight and then two buses and five hours on Amtrak from New York City. I was quite tired and it was about eleven o’clock in the evening.

Protests had been ongoing in Egypt but had received no coverage at all in the United States or Europe. The first protests over Khaled Said’s death had taken place; also el-Baradei’s supporters were protesting, there was a labor dispute out below Qatamiyya which interefered with traffic as the CSF forces arrived, and another demonstration in Abbasiyya. I was trying to get the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to speak to me over an visa issue to no avail. If anything their procedures were worse than ever – although I was the petitioner, I have no rights to speak to anyone. Although that was my main business, punctuated by several lovely visits with friends and family, I couldn’t help note the atmosphere of uproar and I couldn’t help being struck by the arrogant confidence of Gamal Mubarak’s posturing statements in the press.

There were only two cabs outside the train station and one appeared to be driven by a man closely resembling the imam of the Harrisburg mosque. It was not he, for this was an Egyptian, with a long beard and white galabiyya. I rubbed my eyes. Maybe I had not taken my flight back to the U.S.? No, this was possible. I got in the taxi and began a conversation about Egypt and mentioned the various protests. My driver grew agitated, and summer thunder and lightening unleashed along with pouring rain when I began speaking of Gamal Mubarak. “We won’t let that piece of trash succeed!” “Mark my words! You will see – It will all collapse, no-one will stand for him to succeed. Everything in that criminal Hosny Mubarak’s government will change!” In the months leading up to the revolution, this oracle was in the back of my mind. ‘No,” I said to myself, “Egypt’s been close to collapse for so long, and somehow the regime always manages to retain the emergency laws which permit it to repress and manage any uproar.” I was wrong. And I have yet to see that taxi driver again.

Ghonim’s Taxi Story

22 Jan

وائل غنيم
كنت راكب مع سواق تاكسي وقعد يحكيلي إزاي إن الثورة مؤامرة والدول الخارجية زي أمريكا جندت ناس عشان تعملها وأغوتهم بالفلوس .. قلتله: هو حضرتك واخد بالك مين اللي راكب معاك؟ .. قال لا والله .. قلتله: وائل غنيم .. الراجل تقريبا ذهل كأن نتنياهو معاه في العربية 🙂 .. سألني هو انت بتركب تكاسي؟ أمال فين العربيات اللي مدينهالكم؟ وبعدين مش أوباما بيجهزك للرئاسة في مصر؟ ونزل علي بسيل أسئلة تقريبا كلها مستقاة من الأفكار اللي بيتروج ليها في القنوات الصفراء .. بعد حوار طويل وهادئ اعتذر لي ووعدني إنه هيدافع عني لو ذكر اسمي بسوء قدامه مرة تانية في أي مكان .. نخرج من القصة دي بايه؟ مش عارف بس حبيت أحكيها وخلاص 🙂

Distrust of the Revolution in Egypt

22 Jan

Wael Ghonim posted an anecdote about riding in a taxi cab and hearing the driver talking about all the foreign governments and people who were paid by America who triggered the revolution in Egypt. He tells the driver who he is (he played a central role in some events in 2011) and then the driver goes through the whole gamut of accusations and claims made by the pro-Mubarak and yellow media — that Obama is going to weigh in on the presidency in Egypt, but then in the end, he apologizes to Ghonim and says he’ll defend him when he hears him slandered in the future. This is a really important problem now – people who are unable to believe that Egyptians enacted their own revolution although they saw it with their own eyes. The degree of venom planted by the old regime uttered night after night on the news is part of an ongoing discourse about foreign intervention, and the ultimate purpose of regime change. Are people comforted by these thoughts that otherwise, everything would have gone on just as it always did until last year? The similar claims made in Libya and Syria have an equally divisive effect, which will play out in their own particular patterns.

Au Contraire, Marc Lynch – Close the US Embassy in Syria

21 Jan

Today, Marc Lynch who writes as Abu Aardvark (how cute! I can be Umm Amal or Umm Jean-Paul or Umm al-Thawra!), declared in Foreign Policy that the “time has not yet come” for the U.S. Embassy in Syria to close — that would be only when it cannot defend its personnel. The deaths of 5,500 Syrians (a far greater number dead than the casualties of the 25th of January Revolution in Egypt) are not sufficiently important to register a symbolic break in diplomacy. He has also written that the U.S. – indeed, no Western nation should intervene. Why not? Why is Syria worth so little to the foreign policy establishment? Look to the south … there lies Israel — that’s why not. And observe the fears of post-Assad Islamist victories, as this is the regional political trend of our time. These fears are not the appropriate limiting factors that should be calculated at this time. Not only should the US Embassy be closed, but Arab nations who support Syrian freedom should cut relations with Syria now and send Syria’s diplomats home. Egypt and Tunisia first. Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and all others who have claimed concern over Syrian civilian deaths. European nations might close their embassies in Damascus as well. The time is now to send a signal, and this is one that may be sent which could prevent intervention.

Syria: Petition by Alawi Syrians in favor of Revolution

21 Jan