Thursday, March 29, 2012

In the Press Archives: A.J. Liebling and Nasser's Egypt

During my research on the Egyptian press, I’ve found a guide in the writing of A.J. Liebling. Liebling was one of the big-name New Yorker writers from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. His work prefigures the bemused, urbane, and literate tone that we associate with the magazine today, and was most recently given tribute by David Remnick in 2004. He wrote famously about boxing, about France, about eating, and about politics, and his work has been resuscitated in edited volumes sporadically since his death in the early 1960’s.

One of his more academically lasting contributions was a column he published for many years called The Wayward Press (which, this week, was revived over a profile of The Daily Mail). Liebling had began his career as a newspaperman, and finished it as a press critic, ripping apart meticulously the faults of newspapers while admitting his unyielding addiction them.

Although he traveled through North Africa while reporting on World War II, Liebling finally made his way to Egypt in late 1956, sparked by curiosity about Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and Britain and France’s ultimatums. He stayed in the Semiramis Hotel, read Egyptian newspapers, and reported from cities along the Suez Canal before moving on to Israel and Jordan. The Egypt trip represented, Liebling wrote later, one of several “shallow dips below the surface of news,” which convinced him that newspapers were not cutting it with their foreign correspondence. After reading about places and then traveling to them, he suggested:

“I might just as well not have read about them before going, because what I found was different. My point here is not that what I see is always exact, and that the harried press association men are always wrong, but that different reporters see different things, or the same things differently, and that the reader at home has a right to a diversity of reports. A one-man account of a crisis in a foreign country is like a Gallup poll with one straw.”

Liebling wrote about news a bit like he wrote about food: as an enthusiast who was often disappointed more than angered by failure, cranky but supportive. In his collected columns, a little bundle simply titled The Press, Liebling bemoans the monopolization of newspapers, of William Randolph Hearsts’ tabloid empire and the increasing prevalence of ‘one-paper towns.’ The press, he bemoaned, was “the weak slat under the bed of democracy.”

“It is an anomaly that information, the one thing most necessary to our survival as choosers of our own way, should be a commodity subject to the same merchandising rules as chewing gum, while armament, a secondary instrument of liberty, is a Government concern. A man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there.”

Part of the reason Liebling’s work appeals to me is that it is tied to close readings of lots of newspapers. He makes theoretical arguments through clever metaphors from other realms of life, from sports to food to commerce. Meditating on the absence of good foreign coverage, he wrote: “The American press makes me think of a gigantic, super-modern fish cannery, a hundred floors high, capitalized at eleven billion dollars, and with tens of thousands of workers standing ready at the canning machines, but relying for its raw material on an inadequate number of handline fishermen in leaky rowboats.”

And another: “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money. The monopoly publisher’s reaction, on being told that he ought to spend money on reporting distant events, is therefore exactly that of the proprietor of a large, fat cow, who is told that he ought to enter her into a horse race.”

I’m researching a longer essay on Liebling’s trip to Egypt, 1956-57, which included suggestive parallels to the condition of Egypt during my extended trip: a country in the wake of revolution, which had once relied on tourism, suddenly with no tourists and lots of journalists. Liebling tried, as I am trying myself this year, to watch the news cycle from the outside, figure out how journalists work in a place where there is too much news and too many reporters.

Liebling never met President Nasser, and in fact may have typified the kind of savvy New York reporter that Nasser found so distasteful. But on the “plight of the press” they agreed in startling, unlikely ways. Look back at Liebling’s remark about newspapers being like chewing gum, and then look at this one by Nasser from 1960:

“I consider the press to be more of a mission than a commodity or a piece of merchandise. If the press becomes a commodity it will go the way of trade in any community. Today, in discussing this subject, our starting point should the realization that the press is a mission and not a commodity. This is the true and natural role of the press.”

Nasser’s way of putting it was more that of a Marxist professor and Liebling’s that of a chatty commentator. But their points remain very similar. Liebling dealt with it in the way of most critics, that is, by complaining more and more. Nasser, on the other hand, made a big, daring, experiment out of nationalizing the press. Many would say today that this experiment failed. In fact, Liebling saw the results of Nasser’s vision when he visited Egypt and criticized them too with the same bemused distance (I’ll share more about that here, but this is getting long). Nasser’s failed experiment does not demolish Liebling’s question, which remains as relevant today, in the era of Rupert Murdoch, as it was in the days of Hearst: How do you create a free press? Less than two weeks before Nasser nationalized the press, Liebling wrote his pithiest aphorism in The New Yorker: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

City of Victory, City of Tragedy

Among the tourist shops one night in Khan al Khalili, the place you go to buy jewelry or statues of King Tut or T-shirts with pictures of pyramids and camels, I found a small shop selling old ‘media,’ for lack of a better word. The man in charge was young and only had a rough sense of everything the shop contained, ranging from antique vinyl to vintage movie posters to endless stacks of yellowing newspapers.

I had been reading about the early days of the Nasser-era press, the mid-1950's, and the ideas that circulated at the time about how newspapers could be a device for transparency, where leaders could publish their speeches at length, instead of competing for space with tabloids. I was curious about the editor Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who became editor in chief of Al Ahram in 1957, and I wanted to see if I could find an issue with his mark on it, even if I failed to bargain the price down to something reasonable.

I sifted through stacks and stacks of yellowing newsprint, and finally I came upon one copy of Al Ahram, dated December 23, 1957. In huge, curving red letters nearly two inches tall it reads “DAY OF VICTORY.”

The sub-headline read, “Gamal Abdel Nasser is in Port Said today. Important speech by the President at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

So Al Ahram had splashed a headline as big as the New York Times might use for perhaps Pearl Harbor or a Presidential election, and all that had happened was a speech by the President in one of Egypt’s smaller cities?

In 1956, Port Said had been attacked by Israeli, French, and British troops. The plan had been secretly designed, but not as secretly contained in the aftermath. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was furious over Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The French were angry over Nasser’s alleged support of rebels in Algeria. Israel would attack, they decided, and then Paris and London would send troops under the guise of protecting international interests in the Canal.

The way its been etched into national mythology, the local population fought back against the British and French troops landing in Port Said. They had few arms, and much of the city was destroyed. But what entered Egyptian national memory was not the devastation, nor the U.N. mission to seize the canal and hand it back over to the Egyptians. What got remembered instead was the resistance of the people of Port Said. “Despite the fact that two powerful countries unleashed their hell on the city,” wrote blogger Zeinobia as recently as 2009, “the honorable people of Port Said stood defending it in a legendary way.”

Each year in the late 50’s and early 60’s, in late December, Nasser would return to Port Said and give a speech for “Victory Day,” commemorating the handover of the Canal back to Egyptian control. He would use the speech as one of many updates on the work of his government, and impregnate the moment with patriotism by holding it at such a historically freighted location. It would be as if Obama gave the State of the Union at Ground Zero or New Orleans, or another place saturated in the symbolism of American resilience.

Nasser placed Port Said in the broader narrative of Arab nationalism. “Port Said, the valiant city, was the first practical test for the power of Arab Nationalism,” he told the crowds in 1958. “Yet Arab Nationalism, which had spontaneously risen from the Atlantic to the Arab Gulf and united the Arab people making them all of one heart and one mind proved its worth as a genuine force. We triumphed in Port Said and thus Arab Nationalism triumphed.”

He enlisted the familiar David and Goliath genre, in which the small city of Port Said stood up to the armies of three countries. “Although you were small in number, you emerged victorious against enormous powers,” he announced proudly. “You gained triumph because you are principled and because you have faith in your objectives.”

He talked in terms of a broad historical trajectory towards freedom. The victory in 1956 had “wiped out the remnants of the thoughts which had prevailed in the Nineteenth Century, which included the ambitions of invasion and the usurping of other people’s countries,” he argued. “In Port Said, you buried the remnants of the age of imperialism.”

This has historically been the way Port Said is seen by the rest of Egypt, as the fierce part that stands in for the proud whole, the synecdoche of Egypt’s refusal to be colonized. In the 1970’s, when Sadat dismantled much of Nasser’s state socialism and turned the country towards open trade, Port Said was a duty free zone, meaning that yet again it could serve as the mantle of broader national initiatives, the city of resistance now a city of acceptance.

Then in February of this year, violence broke out at a soccer stadium in Port Said, leading to the deaths of over 70 innocent fans. It was a national tragedy, and though some people blamed the Mubarak regime’s remnants and others blamed the military leaders and others blamed the Ministry of the Interior, a few blamed the people of Port Said. Graffiti was seen in Aswan reading “What is the capital of Israel? Port Said” A taxi driver told a reporter for Al Ahram, "Murderers! Thugs! Savages! That's what I hear every time I leave the city.” This past Saturday night, a 13 year old boy was shot when soccer fans and security forces fought over a ban on games for three years. 

Suddenly the city of victory, once the symbol for Egypt’s vision of national liberation, had become a city of tragedy, where contemporary dreams of revolutionary change have been knocked perilously out of balance.

This week, I’m traveling to Port Said to continue learning this story.

Photo: Chim (David Seymour), At the close of the Suez fighting, Port Said, 1956, International Center for Photography

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Observations #6

31. An American journalist friend lived on Mohamed Mahmoud street, where the violence flared in November, and moved to a safer area when his apartment caught fire. He told me: “I think we were getting off on the danger thing for a while, but then eventually it’s not fun anymore.”

32. In the Cairo International Airport, a billboard advertising a mobile company reads, “The people of Egypt are the greatest people on the earth, and they deserve the Nobel Prize for Peace – Austrian President Heinz-Fischer.” Another reads, “We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people. – President of the U.S.A., Barack Obama.”

33. The magazine published by Royal Jordanian Airlines features the same articles in both English and Arabic, though the translations are not always literal. “Valentine’s Day: Woo your lover in style!” becomes “Day of Love: Celebrate with your loved one in a perfect and romantic way.” Both, however, advertise “Loveland Ski Resort” in Colorado, where couples can renew their vows at 12,050 feet before skiing down the mountain.

34. In Jordan, many people warned me not to return to Cairo because they perceive the city to be overrun with theft and violence. 

35. In the Al-Gumhoria (state newspaper) building, every time someone enters the elevator, they greet and shake hands with everyone else in the elevator. I assumed this was because they all knew each other until I was shaking hands with new men on the 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th, and 10th floors, before getting out at the 11th

36. The press reported that Hosni Mubarak’s cousin, who happens to also be named Hosni Mubarak, plans to run for president.

37. In a short story by Yahya Taher Abdullah, a man is hit by a car while crossing the street. A large crowd gathers around his corpse. A newspaper seller approaches and covers the face with a paper to keep away the flies. The car’s driver offers the seller some money, the cost of the paper, and the seller refuses, saying “God grants rewards.”

38. When you arrive at the Cairo Airport, a bus waits at the plane’s exit to take passengers to the terminal, which is about twenty feet away. There are two buses, one for first class and another for second. The difference seemed to be negligible, but the young airport worker tasked with making sure that coach passengers don’t get on the first-class bus was incredibly anxious. “Just one moment!,” he shouted at everyone, holding his index finer in the air as they walked towards him. “Please, please just wait one minute!”

Photo: A man paints graffiti and a woman films him.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sonallah Ibrahim and Journalism vs. Fiction

In a new issue of Banipal magazine, American University in Cairo professor Camilo Gomez-Rivas interviews Sonallah Ibrahim, one of my favorite Egyptian novelists. Unfortunely, only a handful of Ibrahim’s works have been translated into English, and some of those translations are not currently in print. In 2003, eight years before the Egyptian uprisings, Ibrahim famously refused a literary award from the Ministry of Culture, saying that on stage that he could not publicly accept acclaim from a government without legitimacy.

It will be a while before I can make my way through one of his longer works in Arabic, but I recommend his translations: Zaat, The Smell of It, The Committee, and Stealth, as well as an essay about Cairo in which he virtuosically mixes empathy and bite. Here he is writing about women in Egypt, who he believes eat poorly due to the influx of cheap processed foods, and who watch Islamic sheikhs on television all day, of whom he clearly disapproves:

"Today's woman stumbles as she walks, often leaning with her hand--or her entire body--against the nearest wall, moaning under the suffocating heat of her voluminous clothes that cover a body bloated by unhealthy foods and a life devoid of physical exercise and exposed to all kinds of illnesses; most of this life is spent seated in front of the television, whose screen is dominated by Sheikh Sha'rawi and his like for hours on end, during which they proclaim all kinds of rules, followed by silly soap operas or commercials that announce the pleasures of life in elite palaces and call for the purchase of more than one television set, under the slogan: 'One for the living room and one for the bedroom!'"

In the interview, which you can read online here, Ibrahim talks about the political situation and the future, about writing in prison, where he began his career as one of the many communists jailed by Nasser, and finally, about the relationship between journalism and fiction. This is a relationship I’ve been studying this year, and hope to explore in my writing for many years to come. Ibrahim worked as a journalist before he was imprisoned. In Zaat, he collages real newspaper articles. He cites Hemingway as an influence for the simplicity of his prose. Gomez-Rivas asks him, “What did you learn about writing from your early work in journalism?” He responds:

“I learned a lot, for sure, because there is a relationship between writing fiction and journalism in its many different forms. Journalism is a collection of professions within a larger field. You can be a reporter, for example, where the emphasis is on capturing the details of an event, on precision and is an attempt to understand the situation and people’s psychological make-up. How did the accident happen? What were people wearing? Then there is re-writing and deskwork. You find the appropriate form in which to present a particular event or opinion, using the simplest and most precise wording. This is one of the things that is most critical for me, getting rid of what I like to call “verbal accumulation” or “verbal traps”. 

For example, there is a novel, by a friend of mine and its first sentence is: “This time, baptized in blood.” These words are empty. What is baptized in blood? All times are baptized in blood. There is no such distinction. And then there is nothing called time. Time is time. Did we pour blood on it? It’s a metaphorical expression, maybe poetic but it is not a true expression of the kind I prefer – it’s not realistic. I don’t like all these similes and verbal games; we don’t need them. They are nonsense, so we say.

I always refer to an anecdote about Chekhov. He was visiting a school and asked the students to describe the colour of sugar. One student said it was the colour of clouds and another continued in the same vein. Chekhov responded saying that all this was strange talk; the colour of sugar is white. That is a true and precise description and it is aesthetic at the same time because “white” is a beautiful word which resonates in the memory and is clearly perceived. This is the kind of simplicity of expression which can be superior to any word game.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Press Conference in an Egyptian Novel

Press conferences are a constant feature of politics and politics is a constant feature of life in Egypt this year, so naturally there have been a lot of press conferences. I’ve attended many while writing for an Egyptian newspaper and researching the ‘behind the scenes’ of journalism in Egypt. Usually, it’s an American politician passing through for diplomatic reasons who answers a few questions from the local press late in the afternoon.

As a novice journalist, I came to learn quickly that press conferences always have an element of theater. They are performances, really, in which the audience, formed of reporters, actively participates to shape the text, gestures, and delivery of the performer, a politician, expert, or eyewitness to violence.

But this rich exchange never makes it into the actual articles produced by the conference. The news reports, as they are supposed to be, are always lackluster, even when the moments that produce them feature real passion, frustration, and confrontation. I once watched Leon Panetta ignore Egyptian journalists because he could not understand their accented English, which predictably annoyed them. I watched Jimmy Carter chastise journalists for incessantly repeating the same prodding query that he simply couldn’t answer.

None of this makes it into the writing, but this disconnect is even more apparent when the conference involves a live interpreter. I have simply been amazed at many conferences where passionate oratory is converted into another language as dry, mechanical copy.

Read the rest here

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Naguib Mahfouz and the Novel in the Newspaper

In 2001, Al Ahram newspaper sent a reporter to interview Naguib Mahfouz, and the reporter said to the novelist, “I noticed that whenever you're photographed carrying or reading a newspaper, it's always Al-Ahram.”

Mahouz chuckled and replied, “This is because I would buy Al-Ahram at first, then the rest of the newspapers. When I fold them, Al-Ahram would always be on the outside.” The journalist then asked, “What does Al-Ahram symbolize for you?” 

 Al-Ahram is the bastion of journalism, being the oldest newspaper in the Middle East.,” Mahfouz explained. “But for me, it is also a bastion of freedom. I have been harassed by censorship repeatedly, and Al-Ahram always stood by me.”

In late 1959, Al Ahram first published Awlad Haretna, known today in English as Children of the Alley, in a serialized form, with a short portion of the longer work in the paper each day over three months. Peter Theroux and Paul Stewart’s translations preserve the bite-sized chapters, which break the expansive story into newspaper columns.  While the publication of serialized novels in newspapers declined in the U.S. and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, the practice persisted in Egypt.

Children of the Alley was Mahfouz’s first novel after seven years of silence following the 1952 revolution, and it quickly became his most controversial novel. An allegory for the lives of major figures in monotheism set in the ruthless, hard-bitten world of a Cairo slum, the parallels to sacred stories angered scholars at Al Azhar. In particular, they must have reacted strongly to Mahfouz's characterization of Muhummad, portrayed in the character Kassem,
as "witty, friendly, and correct... it was a pleasure to smoke hashish with him."

The Editor in Chief of Al Ahram at the time was Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a close friend of Gamal Abdel Nasser. According to Theroux, Nasser “hated the book for its harsh depiction of a society ruled by tyrants and goons, and wanted to ban it.” He did not need to, because al-Azhar objected to the novel publicly,  condemned it in Friday sermons, and led hundreds to protest outside Al Ahram's offices. That was enough  to keep any publisher from releasing it.

“Some Al-Azhar scholars were outraged,” Mahfouz remembered. “Many expected Al-Ahram to stop the serialisation. But Editor-in-Chief Mohamed Hassanein Heikal decided to keep the series going until the novel was published in full. "Your problem with the ulema is your business, but I guarantee your safety. No one will touch you," Heikal told me at the time.”

Heikal kept his word, and agreed with the Azharis that the serialization would continue until the end, but that the book would not be released in Egypt. The first Arabic publication came from Beirut in 1967, and certainly it is more famous than its actual readership would suggest. When Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize in 1988, a call for his murder was made by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman (whose supporters are currently camped out in front of the U.S. Embassy campaigning for his release with a sign that says ‘SMS to Obama. Sincerity of Intentions with Egyptians,’ but I digress).

As he was laying in the hospital after his 1994 assassination attempt by a young follower of Abdel-Rahman, Mahfouz told Mary Anne Weaver of The New Yorker, “The young man who attacked me didn’t know anything about ‘Children of Gebelaawi.’ He had never read the book.” (Weaver’s excellent article, which spawned a book, is available online in its entirety). Although one could find the Lebanese publication in Cairo, and AUC press released an English translation, Children of the Alley was finally published in Cairo, in Arabic, in 2006, with an introduction by Muhamad Selim al-Awa (who is currently running for president).

The whole story is vast, weaving together Egypt’s political history under three presidents, the history of world fiction (Abdel-Rahman issued his declaration in response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie for ‘The Satanic Verses’), and the politics of translation (would The New Yorker have commissioned an article if readers could not then go buy a translation of the novel in question?).

But more than all of this, I keep coming back to how it all began with a form of publishing that English language readers seldom experience these days. Al-Azhar, I speculate, only got so riled up about Awlad Haretna in its original form because it appeared in a publication with a vastly greater circulation than any single novel, over a longer period of time. As I read the novel recently, I imagined the scholars at Al Azhar becoming a little angry about the representation of Adam one day, and then weeks later the representation of Moses stokes that anger a bit more. Then Jesus, and finally, after the indignation and public awareness has built up, comes the lengthy, morally complex portion about Muhammad. Had the novel been published as a book initially, I can hardly imagine that the history would have proceeded the same way.

Al Shuruq has recently been releasing Heikal’s Mubarak and His Times, in serialized form. Akhbar al-Adab still puts out novels bit by bit. But I have trouble imagining Egypt, and hence the world of international fiction, being shaken in quite the same way without this form of publication, which allows repeated exposure to a much wider audience day after day, and which builds an audience for the book’s eventual publication (if, unlike this example, it ever comes out).

The story of Children of the Alley is such a large part of Mahfouz’s worldwide fame, setting up as it does the assassination attempt that took his reputation in the West from that of a Nobel laureate to that of a Nobel laureate under attack. And I cannot help but wonder how it all would have happened differently if not for the novel’s original serialization in Al Ahram newspaper, which Mahfouz so proudly tucked under his arm.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #3

Hugh and Mohssen reminisce about their work at a long-defunct newspaper, the Cairo Post, a decade ago. Their boss, the Editor in Chief, had been a general in the Egyptian army. He required that the men dress formally, and that the women wear white blouses, black skirts, white socks, and black shoes. He would stare at the ankles of all the secretaries as they arrived in the morning, and dock one a day’s pay for wearing yellow socks.

Mohssen looks a lot like Anwar Sadat. He wears the former president’s bushy mustache and even has a bit of his distinct, authoritative cadence when speaking. He has two daughters, both of whom work at the same paper as he does, the Egyptian Gazette, and a ten year-old son. He smiles when I ask if his son will also be a journalist. He writes a weekly opinion column for the paper, where he has worked for many years, and he is, perhaps predictably, very opinionated.

The news of the day, which hasn’t really made the international press, is the quiet move of Hamas’ leaders from Damascus to Cairo. It starts when I mention my Syrian heritage.

“What is happening there is horrible. Today I am writing an article about how it has caused Hamas to move to Cairo.

This is a surprising thing for him to say, at least to me, because I have not read it in the news. There had been rumors, because the newly powerful Muslim Brotherhood is tied to Hamas and Hamas has no interest in being on the frontlines of Syria’s revolution. But nevertheless the fact that Mohssen is writing an opinion piece about news before it becomes news for most people really makes me realize how different definitions of what constitutes important, breaking news can be to different communities.

Hamas’ move from Damascus to Cairo is supposed to be quiet, I suppose, but Mohssen is not quiet about it. One of Hamas’ most outspoken men, Khaled Meshaal, is reportedly in Doha. “They stay in five star hotels while their people starve,” Mohssen tells me. “It was the same way with Yasser Arafat. He said we need to destroy Israel, and then he left his people to suffer the consequences of his war-mongering.” And he does not want Hamas in Cairo. “They make trouble wherever they go, and now they will make trouble for us and our peace with Israel.”

There is a long tradition of opinion writing in Egyptian newspapers that, at least these days, looks a lot richer than its Western counterpart (which produced Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristoff, Maureen Down, none of whom I find inspiring). Around the time of World War I, according to historian of the Arab press Ami Ayalon, “newspapers featured an editorial and other political essays on the front page, with news relegated to the back of the paper.” Today, novelist Alaa Al Aswany is as famous for his political columns as he is for best-selling novels. 

The foremost among the 20th century’s Egyptian editors and writers, Mohamed Heikal, wrote a column every Friday and the circulation of his newspaper tripled. He is currently publishing a book about Mubarak's rule as serialized chapters in independent newspaper Al Shorouk. 

My Arabic tutor usually brings us literature to read, but one week he brought Heikal. “He’s an institution," my tutor said of Heikal. "He pioneered a totally unique style of writing."Although Friedman and Kristof write books, nobody credits them with stylistic innovation (though I do think David Brooks went for something unique in his most recent book).

Mohssen does not have the flare of a novelist, nor is he an “institution,” but he does enjoy evocative metaphors. “China and Russia are oiling their bulging economic muscles,” he once wrote. And another zinger: “US citizens are the victims of their administration's foolish policies over many years, according to which dictators are pampered and breastfed to coerce their people.”

He also savors literary references: “Washington introduced itself as Dr Jekyll to the Egyptian people in the early hours of the revolution,” he once wrote. “Now it’s Mr Hyde’s turn to act and cause more painful economic hardship and instability in Egypt.”

But what really puts Mohssen in line with other canonical opinionists is his historical breadth, his tendency to talk about contemporary events as having a relationship with something that happened a very, very long time ago. “We are told in textbooks about the crusades,” he says.

“But they never attacked the holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina. I never read anything about them doing this. But we were taught, because of the crusades, that the West is the enemy. But look what is happening in Syria. Arabs are the enemy, not the West. We got rid of French and British colonialism and now we have to deal with Arab colonialism.”

Photo: A poster advertising Mohamed Heikal, the "institution," and his new book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Port Said Pub Songs

Every Wednesday in Port Said, a large group of older men gather with a few women, children, microphones, drums, and cheap amplifiers to sing. There are fifteen in the proper band, El Tanbura, and another ten who sit in the front row, know every song, and occasionally join onstage, bringing the total number to twenty-five. Others clap, dance, and mouth along the lyrics to the old port songs they’ve been repeating for twenty-three years.

To get to the cafe, we took the metro to the bus station in Cairo, hopped on the last bus as it waited for traffic to part at an intersection, arrived in Port Said and rode a microbus to a ferry, which took us across the canal to the east bank, Port Fouad, where a taxi took us another mile or so, past ghostly Soviet-style apartment blocks and abandoned beach gazebos. We arrived at El Negma to find balloons at different stages of deflation and some wan birthday decorations, in a large room formed by a tin roof and temporary canvas walls with plastic windows, equal parts state fair and VA bar, though without the cheap beer. 

Zakaria, who I met on the outskirts of the protests in November, performs with El Tanbura in Cairo often and has brought this band and other folkloric acts to Europe and the U.S. It is only in Port Said, however, that he is truly in his element. He buys the drinks for the other singers, and it was he who two decades ago cajoled them to bring back the old resistance odes they used to croon as kids in the 1960’s.

When Zakaria arrives, just late enough to waltz into a full room but early enough to beat the musicians to the stage, he projects the quiet confidence of a mafia boss. He works the room gracefully. He has a cold, so nobody expects him to stay too long and enter into a discussion, which only adds to his floating, permeating authority.

The café has tacked up a poster for the band, with about eight of the men staring at the camera with a smile or a tough-guy scowl (because after all, they’re supposed to be dockworkers). In the picture, Zakaria folds his arms in a tired, grey sweater, and looks at you with a performed, but entirely convincing James Dean expression.

The audience filed into the plastic yellow chairs, sitting at tables with plastic cloths. The one behind us featured Disney princesses. Two bleary-eyed waiters served tea, coffee, and a royally embellished sahleb, the white, creamy pudding-like drink, in textured blue ice-cream dishes with a flower of apple slices ringing the warm substance.

One thing I’ve learned about globalization since coming to Egypt is that the fact of foreigners and foreign goods being everywhere makes the fantasy of an experience without them as tantalizing as it is unlikely. A cluster of attractive French twenty-something’s appeared. We did not ignore each other’s presence, as tends to awkwardly happen between foreigners on the metro in Cairo, but neither did we greet with the warm recognition of fellow non-Egyptians. Smile and nod, unable to converse in a shared language but also somehow bonded.

I looked back at Zakaria, the high priest, as he crossed his legs and began to clap along to lead the group, which didn’t much need leading as it took off like the rickety motors you see spitting smoke all over Egypt. When the band, half the size, performs in Cairo, there are a few drummers, players of the traditional simsimiya and Tanbura, both harp-like contraptions strummed on the lap, an ebullient player of a triangle, and several singers. The concerts feel like a recital of folklore, and are very enjoyable, though the invitations to audience members to dance up on the stage with the band is slightly forced. “Although Cairo is great,” Ali, a drummer and singer, told me after the show, “We feel like guests there. There are tickets. Here it’s free and we’re with our friends and our people.”

“I mean,” he continued, pausing dramatically, “the people in Cairo are our people too. We’re all Egyptians. But it’s different here.”

The Arabic word for ‘Republic’ is very close to the word for ‘audience’ and just as the music began, the second row of Egyptians, perhaps sons and daughters of the older fans in the front, pulled out their cameras and cell phones in the citizen-journalist fashion that has become such a motif this year. After every song, a big wave of shouts and applause rose from both band and audience. The singers and the audience, really all the same sohbageya (meaning, according to Zakaria, the sort of uber-fans of this music) alternately projected insouciance and boyish joy, letting cigarettes hang lazily from their lips before leaping up to join the dance. One middle-aged fellow in a denim jacket got so excited that he nearly knocked over a table trying to join as the song double-timed into a frenetic haze of leaping and crowding around a single gritty microphone in a way that reminded me of the punk bands I used to go see in small, sweaty record stores ten years ago, or another culture’s parallel: an Irish pub sing-a-long (without the booze).

Each member of El Tanbura has a song where he is the leader and solo vocalist. I imagined each one singing his song, every week, for twenty-three years, which is how long I’ve been around, and I suddenly felt very naïve. The songs, which I’ll write sometime about more at length here, are largely political and hark back to the resistance culture of Port Said in 1956, 1967, and other wars in which the people of Port Said were celebrated as the guerilla front line against attacks from, at varying times, France, England, and Israel. One song, called ‘Moorhouse,’ recounts the story of a young British officer kidnapped by the Port Saidians in 1956, when England tried to take back control of the Suez Canal. “Why did you come Moorhouse, all the way from London to make aggression,” the lyrics go, “I am an Egyptian, free and an Arab. Who told you to enter my country? Why did you come here Moorhouse?”

In the 1980’s, the story goes, Zakaria remembered these old songs and found that many of the old men of Port Said had lost interest in the music during the 1970’s, when Egypt opened up to privatization and “glass bottles of coca-cola were suddenly everywhere you looked,” one women who grew up then recently told me. Today, the nostalgia is palpable. One song recounted the “Limby,” a famous effigy of British colonial leader Edmund Allenby who violently crushed peasant uprisings in 1919. “Hey foreigners!” the singer, a shorter man with a cheery, rounded face and bright eyes, shouted as he pulled pretty French girls from the crowd to join him onstage. The song, of course, was about how foreigners should get the hell out of Egypt, but here it was repurposed as an invitation to dance.

Members of the group wrote several of the songs more recently, as a response to the January 25th revolution. In the middle of a romantic ode to 1956, suddenly they would burst in heavily-echoed bliss into chants, straight 2011 vintage, of “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!”

The party lasted until around midnight. After the crowd had mostly trickled out, I met the sort of elder sage of the group. I asked him what he did before music. “I’ve been doing music for a long time,” he told me. “I’m 85,” and he drew the numbers in dust on the table, the eight in Arabic and the five in Latin characters. “But before,” I stumbled, “when you were young?” “Oh! I worked for the Suez Canal Company for fifty years.”

Ali, a younger member of the group who wears a baseball cap and reminds me of a camp counselor, mentioned that the band has organized a school for their children to learn these songs. “My six year-old son plays the simsimiya,” he told me proudly. I looked over to Zakaria, who smiled and nodded. “We have to keep this going, every Wednesday, for many years to come.” 

And the video:

Monday, March 12, 2012

No Cigarettes, No Hashish, No Maurice

A month after Ali the Ahwagy tells me he doesn’t understand politics, he talks at length about the elections, his TV guest gestures framed by a tangled stack of shisha hoses behind his small build. The Muslim Brotherhood is starting to stretch their legs in the newly elected parliament, but mostly everyone is still talking about the big wins by the Salafi parties. Nobody knows what to expect from these new representatives of the rural lower classes, none of whom have held political office before. Several of the parties had grown out of groups that professed violence until the revolution allowed them traditional political channels.

The nervousness of secular, liberal Egyptians manifested in a YouTube video I heard three different men and women in their mid-fifties describe in three conversations in as many days. In the clip, a mid-1950’s President Nasser confidently tells an audience that he had just met with the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted him to make a law forcing Egyptian women to wear the headscarf. The audience bursts into laughter and someone shouts, “He should wear one!” Nasser recounts telling the leader “Look, your daughter does not even wear it. How am I going to force a million women wear it?”

Those who laugh at the video now do so with irony and unease. In the 1970’s and 80’s, nobody forced women in Egypt to don the hijab. They did it on their own. If anything, Mubarak tried to project a secular image to the world, barring veiled women, even as they made up the vast majority of the population, to be diplomats and official state representatives. Nasser had turned his own secular feminism into state initiative, because Nasser turned most things into state initiatives, and women reacted with piety. Most men started to wear a mark on their foreheads, which comes from rubbing one's forehead into the prayer rug, and which today range from subtle smudges that recall Ash Wednesday to deep, black welts.

The recent rise of the Salafis, however, is something much more, for lack of a more academic word, hardcore. Much of their money for campaigns, once religious and now political, comes from Saudi Arabia, and their frequent comments about banning alcohol, forcing tourists to dress modestly, and covering Ancient statues with large sheets (because they predate Islam and are hence false idols), have brought about frequent comparisons of Egypt’s possible future to one that looks a lot like Saudi Arabia.

“In Saudi Arabia,” Ali says, “they pray because they are afraid of being locked up. Here I pray because I want to. Besides, they oversee the holiest places on earth, but then they just go to other countries to drink and sin. Here we also sin, but at least we are honest.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood is not scary, because once they won the elections they started to separate religion from politics. But if Hazem [a Salafi presidential candidate] comes to power, there will be another revolution, just watch, because you can’t force people to pray.”

Ali tells me about his grandmother, who used to live on the bottom of a six-story apartment building. The other five floors housed Christians. “When I was young, my sister was hit by a motorcycle,” Ali says, “and it was a Christian who took her to the hospital. No problems. No problems. We got along very well with the Christians. They were our friends. If the Salafis have their way, Muslims and Christians will fight each other.”

I remember when, several months ago, I asked a Coptic Christian man if the Salafi electoral wins might make any of the Christians nostalgic for Mubarak. He nodded and said, “You know, I woke up thinking that today!” I ask Ali the same question. “You know, in some ways Mubarak was not so bad. I mean, there was a lot of corruption, of course, but look at the new Metro line! Also, he built all those big bridges.”

He continues pondering the nostalgia. “Nasser got us into wars,” he says, “but Sadat brought us peace, and Mubarak, I think, completed that peace.”

“And the military council,” he jumps to Mubarak’s successors, “never killed Egyptians before Mubarak fell. It was only after they saw what was happening in Libya, Syria, and Yemen that they started think it was okay to do that. Mubarak did not kill Egyptians.” This was, of course, not strictly true, but I had not known that someone like Ali would hold this impression.

But the Salafi society is a far bleaker option, he tells me. “The Christians and Muslims got along just fine under Mubarak, like my grandmother and her neighbors. If the Salafis are in charge, there will definitely be a civil war between the religions.”

“...or maybe another revolution.”

“...or maybe we’ll just vote for someone else the next time.”

“If they take power fully,” he predicts, “there will be no cigarettes [he motions to his cigarette], no hashish [he motions outwards to the street] and [pause…] no Maurice!” He whaps me on the shoulder and laughs and clicks his tongs for placing coals in the repetitive, aggressive fashion anyone who does one task over and over for years inevitably winds up with.

We speak again several days later. He has no interest in politics this time. I ask him to explain how they make the shisha so good at Bustan. He says its all about the cloth you use to wrap the connection between the base and the top.

“All the pipes you buy at Khan al-Khalili [the tourist market] are cheap and there is space between the base and the top. You have to wrap the cloth very tightly around it. This took me about two weeks to learn how to do. But really, it's easy.” He clanks the tongs loudly together, whaps me on the shoulder again, and runs off.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Observations #5

25. Expatriates often say that Egyptians trust them less recently. Here’s my anecdote: We stopped at a roadside cart to buy a kitchen lighter and a plug adaptor. We paid about a dollar for the two items and continued walking. After twenty feet, we realized that the adaptor was broken, so we turned around and walked back. The vendor had disappeared and a security guard from a nearby building approached and told us the vendor had gone to pray. We said we would return later. He smiled and told us, “I’m very sorry, but I did not see you purchase these items, so I cannot let you go until the vendor returns.” He didn’t accuse us of stealing outright, but this was certainly the implication. We thought it would be strange to steal a dollar’s worth of items and then try to return them, but could not explain this to the man. After an awkward twenty minutes spent standing around, the vendor returned and the guard apologized for the trouble.

26. We found the doors closed and the windows dark at our neighborhood Sudanese restaurant. An auto mechanic next door spotted us and shouted “The restaurant’s owner- he died!” We walked closer and squinted with confusion. “Just kidding,” he corrected, “His brother died, so he is with his family.” Not knowing how to respond, I put my hand over my heart and said “how sad.” He nodded, and then smiled. “Why is it sad?” he asked. “Everyone dies. Clinton will die. Bush will die. Mubarak, the donkey, you know him? He will die too!”

27. Students at the American University in Cairo, who mostly hail from the elite, speak a hybrid of English and Arabic that could be compared to Spanglish. “Ayza register lilcourse alwriting, yani,” one might say. At several restaurants they frequent, the menus are in English, but the waiters, who are from a lower class, do not speak English save for the menu items. To order food, one must be conversant in this hybrid language, or at least be able to speak Arabic and read English.

28. Graffiti downtown reads, “The Revolution is not a Party.” 

39. On a bridge between downtown and Giza, men and women walk arm in arm and buy candy apples and tea. Teenagers and young men also hold impromptu dance parties. We walked through one and for ten seconds I joined the revelry, leading them all to clap along and laugh. The music was blasting out of gritty, blown out speakers. Next to them sat the box they had been bought in, which said in big block letters “Strive to a Beautiful New Life.”

30. From the Agence France-Presse: “A policeman has been suspended for allowing his beard to grow in violation of regulations, a security official said on Monday.” From Al Arabiya: “I Am a Bearded Police Officer is a new coalition established by a group of Egyptian police officers who submitted requests to grow their beards to the Ministry of Interior, stirring much controversy over the right to a religious appearance in the workplace.”

Photo: Volumes of old newspapers at the Egyptian Gazette archives

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Youth of the Arab Spring

Several hours into a day of writing at the newspaper office, I watched as an old friend of the editors stopped in to say hello. A dashing young man in his late twenties with short blonde hair and a slightly soldierly vibe, he had once worked for the paper, producing video for the website and writing a few stories.

He then became a stringer for a major international news network, filming, producing, appearing on camera, and taking on all different sets of tasks in an era when one is expected to play all roles in the making of international news. The network sent him to Libya, where a piece of shrapnel found its way into his leg, and then to France, where a doctor pulled the shrapnel out, and then to Cairo for recovery. He would soon be off to the border with Gaza for his next glamorous assignment.

The newspaper has a fairly liberal stop-in policy. Journalists and researchers needing advice for a story or a long academic project come by and chat with the editors, and international delegations who want to know more about how news is produced in a place with lots of news come to tour the modest offices. Old colleagues, however, get a big warm welcome, full of smiles and endless perfunctory conversation-starters; “How have you been?” “What’s up?” “How’s life?” “What’re you working on?”

The American relaxed in a chair between the desks, which face each other so editors can talk as they work. He made himself busy looking through a magazine as the editors tapped away at their computers. “I have a question for ya’ll,” he finally said, breaking the silence with his slight mid-western accent. “We need to interview a young activist for a quick update story on the Arab Spring. Who should we interview?”

It was a dazzingly complex question, the answer to which would result in just a few short minutes of footage, which may or may not get primetime play on the network. The majority of the most influential activists in the Egyptian revolution were in their early to mid-thirties. These included Asmaa Mahfouz (27), Wael Ghonim (31), Hossam el-Hamalawy (34) and Ahmed Maher (31). They are certainly young, especially compared to the old dissidents and opposition party leaders, but they were not youth in the hip, Western sense.

During the eighteen days that brought down Mubarak, much of the Western press coverage focused on even younger Egyptians, including Gigi Ibrahim (23), Ethar El Katatney (23) and Sarah Abdelrahman (also 23). Of course, viewers find the prospect that some kids overthrew a dictator before getting their bachelor’s degrees a thrilling story, and these young women were very involved in the protests. But instead of television shows in the U.S. which cast thirty year-olds as semi-convincing college students, here the Western news media looked for the college students themselves.

Not long after that day at the office, in November, violence at Tahrir square would break out again and ensure in the eyes of the world that the Egyptian revolution has not recent history but an ongoing story, (except, perhaps, American readers of TIME magazine, which decided to give their domestic cover to a story called “Why Anxiety is Good for You” and their international cover to an Egyptian in a gasmask).

About a month later, 23 year-old Gigi Ibrahim went on BBC NewsNight for a roundtable discussion on the Arab Spring. Ibrahim had been on Al Jazeera and The Daily Show with John Stewart. She often wore a leather jacket and slung a camera on her shoulder, looking equal parts revolutionary and war correspondent.

One of the BBC’s producers emailed Ibrahim before she called in to London, and he outlined the issues “likely to come up in the discussion.” These included: “How the revolutions were not predicted,” “Western willingness to intervene in Libya but not elsewhere,” and “What the people want when they come to vote (eg western stlye [sic] democracy or something more Islamist).” Ibrahim’s fellow guests would be a bit older than her, including historian Simon Schama, former British ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, Nobel Prize winner Tawakul Karman, and Henry Kissinger.

“When I got on the show,” she reflected later, “I was faced with the most western-centric, orientalist, and racist point of view on the Arab Spring.” Ibrahim felt that comments which described “western technology as what made these revolutions possible” and discussed the “Islamist threat to democracy” were simplifying and pernicious.

She took issue in particular with the great Secretary of State. “It was impossible enough to bare Henry Kissinger’s deep voice on the other end of the line being asked as an ‘expert’ on the Middle East,” she lamented.

“Henry Kissinger?! The one whose exact polices ruined our country and many others to the ground?!! unbelievably stupid. I was going to explode out of frustration for not getting ANY chance to address these comments (insults in my opinion). I hardly had a minute all together to express my point of view or have any questions directed to me.”

Ibrahim furiously emailed the BBC producers the next day. “Your entity incites and affirms the western agenda that our revolution stands against,” she wrote, “and if you are professional journalists you would at least give all sides an equal opportunity to present their view, but you chose Henry Kissinger (with all his history) to be more of an “expert” on the Arab Spring (given how much time you allowed him to speak) than someone fighting there and knows more about what is happening (given why you invited me in the first place). The least you would have done is an equal time to each speaker but you proved to me how unprofessional you are. Thank you for a night of deep frustration.”

Ibrahim’s blog address, incidentally, is “”

Back to the newsroom: After the American young man asked about who to interview, the editors (late twenties and early thirties), who are themselves ‘activists’ in one way or another, pondered their networks of friends, acquaintances and sources. Certainly any of them could have fit the bill, but who recommends themselves? “What about Gigi Ibrahim?” one said. The man nodded and raised his eyebrows. “She’s been on TV so much already, though,” chimed in another editor. “Yeah, but who hasn’t?” the American responded.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

An Evening with Rango

Last week, I attended a concert by Rango, a local group of Sudanese, Nubian, and Egyptian musicians. “This music,” announced a young man as we settled into backless, low stools in the small black theater, “brings together the zar of Egypt and the zar of Sudan.”

Zar, which is now considered a style of music, was originally a kind of ritualized healing ceremony. It originated in Sudan, which used to be part of Egypt, and drifted north with Sudanese, Ethiopian, and other slaves brought up to work the cotton fields in the 1800’s. Many of the Sudanese were also drafted into the Egyptian army.

Some of the men who took the stage might actually remember when Sudan was still a part of Egypt (it broke off in 1956). They ranged from casual clappers who just remembered the songs and sang along to virtuosic, nimble drummers. One young man wore a white robe, and from underneath I could see the large numbers of a football jersey showing through the fabric.

The music eased in, rather than ‘began,’ as niceties of “Thank you, thank you,” and “prayers of the Prophet,” seamlessly became lyrics in the opening, improvisatory melodies. The single woman singer took the stage with gravitas, giving a sense of the music’s ceremonial roots as she draped her head in a small white sheet, stretched out her splayed hands, and shook wildly. The audience shouted a positive heckle, and she emoted with the words of a spurned lover.

Band and audience traded lines in call and response. After a few songs, the members of the band grinned and started shouting , “Rango! Rango? Rango!” hyping up the audience to respond. “Rango! Rango!”

The ‘rango’ that everyone was shouting about is a Sudanese marimba, with wooden keys and gourds underneath that resonate in a sharp, clunky thump, like I would imagine bones to sound if played by a demon. Sudanese slaves brought the instrument to Egypt in the 1820s, and it is now extremely hard to find. There are only three known today. According to one Guardian article, Zakaria Ibrahim “believes it marks the first step in music between pure percussion and the development of melody.” In 1996, Hasan Bargamoon, one of the last living rango musicians, remembered how to play but lacked an instrument and Ibrahim helped him collect several.

A drum roll and more shouts of “Rango! Rango!” preceded a swift unveiling, giving the instrument a ritualistic sense of authority and taboo in the small, black box theater. Then, one of the singers announced, “This song is about the Sudanese and Egyptian army.” They entered into a lazy, entrancing beat. A young man in a peach robe rose and saluted us. He turned to the side and sprung into lockstep, tightening his knees and waddling to the drums like a soldier.

An older man, perhaps in his 50’s, rose to imitate him. The young man inspected the older man as he donned a mock-serious expression and kicked his heels. Then, the young man gave the older man a swift whap on the back and the older man leaped around, fists in the air, ready for a fight. They locked eyes for a brief moment, their faces deadpan. Then, suddenly, they broke into big toothy smiles and waved their arms and legs, jumping up and down and bringing the audience onto the stage to join them in dance.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Slow News Day

Last week, my editor at the Daily News Egypt said she is heading to the U.S. for three weeks to attend a conference. “I was not sure if I should leave at this critical time,” she told me, referring to the revolutionary year in general, “But then I realized that if there was any time to leave, this would be it.”

The pace and rhythm of news in Egypt has undoubtedly slowed and grown sparse. Americans were reading nervously about the trial of NGO workers accused of breaking Egyptian law, but to the majority of Egyptians that is a footnote to the political events. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is promising that presidential elections in late May will produce a new leader in June. Perhaps my year here will really conclude with a major chapter of Egyptian history, though with the twists and turns of the year that have forced me to give up predicting, that is unlikely.

The presidential race means that the news out of Egypt will soon be more about individuals (the candidates) than about groups (the SCAF, the Brotherhood, the activists). Individuals can commit far more embarrassing foibles than groups, and though I do not predict anything approaching the American presidential race for high jinx and farce, there is already a bit.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi candidate who talks a lot about banning bikinis and alcohol, is proving to be the local Ron Paul/Herman Cain/Rick Perry, with skeletons in the closet that, like the newsletters years ago under Paul’s name, lead to a chuckle and then a sense of deep feeling of the ominous. Consider this video, from 2010, in which Abu Ismail tries to convince his television audience that the brand name Pepsi is actually an acronym for Pay Every Penny Saving Israel. Then he admits, “My little son knows more about the boycott than me. When we go shopping he says to me: ‘Buy this, don’t buy that.’” So, at least you know Abu Ismail is a family man.

I saw Abu Ismail speak at Tahrir several months ago. He is very charismatic. He is also sort of kooky:

At Tahrir, protests have quieted down to nearly a whisper and cab drivers no longer nervously refuse to take you there. Coming back from Jordan with a fresh set of eyes, I noticed only a few sad tents in the square and vendors selling Tahrir-ica. An Egyptian friend told me that these tents are occupied not by revolutionaries but by baltageya, thugs, hired by the state usually to provoke protesters, but here, to imitate them so that passers by will look at Tahrir with disgust and think, “Why don’t they just go home?” 

She told me that last week a mock student protest was meant to do the same thing. I asked her how she knew they were "thugs" and not real students, and she said, "Well, if they were really students and they want to protest about education then they could have at least gone to class."

This sounds conspiratorial, but far stranger stories have been believed (and sometimes proved) this year.