Monday, April 30, 2012

Touring Luxor Part 1: No Tourists



Our tour guide’s name is Alaa al-Din, but he asks us to call him ‘Aladdin.’ My mother jokes that he must normally take the hearing-impaired around the Valley: he raises his voice, spaces his words, and repeats most phrases. He begins each sentence with ‘Excuse me’ to get your attention, and ends with an affable, mock-naive nod, or maybe a tap on the knee if you’re nearby. He has a slightly lazy eye, minor lisp, shaved head, skinny frame, and a laugh like a sputtering motor. “Excuse me, if you want to go to the extra sites, no problem. It will cost one hundred pounds, no problem… the extra sites, if you want to go… it will cost one hundred pounds. No problem.” Affable nod.

He tells me that Luxor used to get upwards of 6000 tourists a day. Then came the 90’s and the terrorist attacks, and those who came had to move around in a bureaucratically lead-footed police convoy. Then came September 11th, 2001 (and word that Al Qaeda’s number two hailed from Egypt). And then, a decade later, the revolution. Now, Aladdin says, 800 tourists a day is an optimistic figure. “This is why people are desperate. They only know how to make money from one thing, tourism, and there are no tourists.” Aladdin diversified. He learned how to give tours of Petra, in Jordan, and teach diving classes on the Red Sea.

Others did not diversify. Luxor today is a frantic scramble to please the few People With Money who show up. From the train station, where they are assailed by offers for cheap rooms and extras (A/C, swimming pool, breakfast, internet, tea, coffee, tour fixing, snacks, donkeys, camels, first born sons), they proceed to the street, where they are offered carriage rides and felucca trips for pennies (“Please. Twenty pounds. Ten Pounds. Five Pounds. One Pound. One Pound!). They climb into a cab and are offered rides to cities three and six hours away. Egyptians often talk about their peoples’ natural hospitality. In Luxor, this self-promoted national trait drifts into huckstering promotion of a weirdly vaudeville type, as if everyone is trying to make Luxor look like a Disney version of the Orient. Occasionally, the façade comes down: I did a double-take upon hearing one carriage driver clearly pronounce, in English, “Open your hand!”

The wax and wane of tourism affects more than just the tourism industry. On the road to the monuments near Luxor, farmers must keep their sugar cane fields three hundred meters from the road, because gunmen used to hide and snipe at tourists from the tall stalks. This means less cultivatable land. Hotels no longer buy bulk subscriptions to English language newspapers, which means that tourism companies don’t pay for advertising, or pay less.

The village of Qurna, however, has been hit harder than any lateral industry. Qurna sits at the foot of a mountain near the Valley of the Kings, and the Mubarak government believed that the draining water and sewage produced by the villagers might damage the tombs. “The foreign press picked up on this,” wrote journalist Jill Kamil in Al Ahram Weekly, “and justified the demolition of the houses by propagating a myth that the Qurnawis were thieves who traditionally pillaged artifacts to sell to tourists and who had done terrible damage to the tombs.” UNESCO did not buy that narrative, and offered each family in the village 40,000 Euros to relocate. The money had to go through the Mubarak-era Department of Antiquities, and they ended up with a mere 10,000 pounds per family. UNESCO no longer supports the move, and today, Qurna is a ghost town.

We arrive at the Colossi of Memnon, two statues of Amenhotep III and hop out of the air-conditioned van into the piercing heat. Several very young children, who give their ages as between eight and twelve, flock to us to sell scarabs and plastic necklaces. An older man swats them away, and then offers to take our picture for a few pounds. Aladdin points up at the statue, whose face has been eroded by the wind, forcing the late Pharaoh into a cubist humility.

Back in the air-conditioning, my mother chats up with a man about where in the world they’ve seen the worst poverty. My mother thinks it was in Giza, on the way to the Pyramids, but he disagrees, for he has been south of the Sahara.

As they finish categorizing the third world, Aladdin takes up the first. “How do you tell an Australian in Egypt?” he asks. Before anyone ventures an answer, they get one: “Because he has a drink in each hand! How do you tell a Japanese?” Pause. “He has an umbrella in one hand and a camera in the other.” The stand-up routine rolls on. “How do you tell an American?...He pretends to be Canadian!” And finally, perhaps the most poetic of all the tourist typecasting: “How do you tell a Russian?...She is almost naked, bottle of vodka in one hand, and wearing high heels…like a ballerina in the desert.”

“These are stereotypes. But they are all a little bit true.” Affable nod. Tap on the knee.

Before we get to the Valley of the Kings, we pass a small village and stop for a moment to admire the front of a yellow house. A photograph of this yellow house appeared on the cover of the 2008 Lonely Planet guidebook. “We could stop for pictures,” Aladdin tells us, “But the family who lives there has gotten annoyed, because everyone who comes by stops for a picture.” 

Photo: Aladdin points to a pile of hands, by Emily Smith

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #4: Rania Al Malky


When I interviewed Daily News Egypt editor Rania Al Malky three weeks ago, I did not know that the paper’s end was imminent. A week later, they could close up the office, but today was typical, meaning that office conversation still picked apart the day’s stories, many of which would be irrelevant after a few days, or even a few hours. ‘This candidate is in the race, this other is out, this third one might be in, but we’re waiting on the courts. This other one could change everything if he runs. But will he appeal to people?’ The confidence of the headlines produces the opposite behind the scenes, an ongoing debate about what might be future headlines.

It goes on for hours. Lunch is delivered from a phone-in order. They continue to talk, one hand on the keyboard, the other on a fork, all the time chatting like there isn’t a newspaper due in a few hours. An old colleague stops by. They catch up with one eye still on the computer screens. He sits pleasantly waiting for them to take another one of the thirty-second breaks that checker the afternoon.

As head of the editors, Rania subtly creates the workplace’s tone with an intensity that also shapes the bite of her own editorial writing. Two days earlier, she publishes a piece on the anniversary of the April 6th protests of 2008, one of the earliest seeds of the revolution. “On the fourth anniversary of the April 6 protests, an invisible voyeur looks down from above,” she writes, “sporting a grin that is part gloating and part ‘mission accomplished’.” She explains how these protests led to the 2011 revolution, and then she concludes: “Fast forward a year or so and the irony of the political reality in Egypt is enough to make you laugh and cry.”

The April 6th protests took place in Mahalla, which is where Rania’s father was born in the 1930’s. Then as now, the city was a “hotbed of nationalistic fervor.” As a politically active young man in the early 50's he was arrested a few times, imprisoned once, and then fled Egypt in the 60’s to work in Kuwait, as Nasser tightened the noose on the opposition.

He came back and married Rania’s mother, who in school had been a “hardcore Nasserist.” “You find this in a lot of Egyptian families,” Rania told me. “A lot of Egyptians oscillate on Nasser. It’s a love-hate relationship with that man, which you don’t see with Mubarak.”

Rania was still in elementary school when Mubarak came to power after the shock of Sadat’s assassination. “It seems to me that there were great expectations,” she says, but Mubarak “kept people confused enough to divide the public, and he cultivated a culture of parasites…people with huge stakes in making the system continue as it is, to keep the power balance tipped in his favor.”

Today, there are only so many people in Egypt with great wealth who didn’t benefit from the corruption of the Mubarak years. This includes the Daily News Egypt’s original backers. One had even been a personal advisor to Mubarak’s son and hoped-for successor Gamal. But this seldom effected the editorial policies. “People are surprised at how aggressively anti-regime we were.”

Nevertheless, even the connected backers could not keep the censors away. “Sometimes we would run stories on Mubarak that to me were not at all critical or subversive,” she tells me. “They were just news stories about debates going on. But we would get called in for them, and this only started happening in the year and a half or two years before the uprising, when the political street was becoming bolder.”

On March 12, 2009, Rania published a short article by Abdel-Rahman Hussein (who now writes for The Guardian). It began: “A group of students attacked a police station Sunday night throwing stones and vandalizing allegedly in retaliation for the mistreatment of a fellow student, according to a video posted on the internet. The students are believed to be army cadets studying at the Military Academy.”
Hussein describes the video, in which policemen fire gunshots to ward off the student cadets, who set a motorcycle on fire, and then he quotes the BBC, who had reported that local newspaper editors were given “clear orders not to publish details of the incident because it involves the army.”
Then Hussein quotes a well-known blogger saying, “It's silly that foreign news outlets can report news that local press cannot.”

Three years and a mass uprising later, this article looks like a brave and subtle jab. By putting it out, Rania was asking the censors: are we, Egyptians publishing in English, a ‘foreign news outlet’ or the ‘local press’?

Rania was called into a government office. Before going, she conferred with publisher Hisham Kassem. Kassem had spent decades pushing the envelope, and he knew when it wouldn’t go any farther. “You should not have run the story,” she remembers him telling her. “Look at the Arabic papers. Nobody ran that story. Go in, get out, and make sure you leave on good terms.” She went in, got out, and left on good terms, and three years later the article is still online.

Last week the newspaper folded for good. Rania’s final letter to readers mentioned that she and the staff had been informed “quite abruptly” about the end. A few days later, ‘Egyptian Media Services,’ the people upstairs, wrote ‘After months of grueling negotiations, last-ditch efforts and desperate measures the funds – and time - had run out.’

I ran into Amira, the Business Editor, a few nights after the last publishing day. “How is everyone? Have you seen them?” I asked her. “We’ve been hanging out constantly, every day,” she told me. No doubt, they’re still having that debate about future headlines.


More on Journalism in Egypt
The Tahrir Printing Press
The Scene of the Crime: On Maspero and October 9th
Naguib Mahfouz and the Novel in the Newspaper

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Observations #7



41. The Japanese Gardens in Helwan were constructed in 1917 and include fish ponds, canals, and fifty massive statues of Buddha. Under the statues are carvings of three monkeys in the positions of ‘Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil,” Although the garden was once a logical part of the neighborhood, which catered to Egypt’s notables as a winter getaway, now it is a dusty relic surrounded by bustling markets and abandoned factories.

42. At the Abu Tarek restaurant, a sign proudly proclaims, “We have no other branches,” and the building rises to six stories, complete with fountains filled with plastic ducks, massive aquariums, and a big photograph of Abu Tarek himself on every floor.

43. At a party, two young American Jewish journalists tell one another that they are really excited about a new story idea. They realize that their topics are one and the same: the 10,000 native Chinese who live and work in tight communities in eastern Cairo. Both also admit to discovering the communities through their restaurants. Eventually, one explains that he is interested in Al Azhar University students and the other says he’s talking to the older importer-exporters and the crisis is averted.

44. During the clashes in November, an American journalist wrote on Twitter that the “cabinet is now an orgy of intrusive reporters. They shoved a camera in my friend's face "because 'his head wound bandage looked interesting'.”



45. In the neighborhood of Bulaq, we pass a framer, who has filled his tiny storefront with frames surrounding former Egyptian presidents, athletes, and singers. He sees me perusing, tells me to wait, and then produces a large framed copy of the front page of Al Ahram newspaper, January 29th, 2011, the day after Mubarak sent camels and horses along with the bullets and tear gas to scare protesters and ended up injuring over six hundred of them. The frame maker holds up the front page proudly as I snap a picture, and then he says, “Souvenirs, souvenirs,” or maybe he says, “Memories, memories.” (The words are the same in Arabic).

46. Emily met a girl who, when it came time to find a job, picked the “Tahrir Pharmacy” because “the name is so inspiring.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Egyptians' Views of Americans



I wrote this for the Austin American-Statesman, my native daily. No matter how much the Internet takes over the world of print, it is still very exciting to know that this is being read over coffee, clutched between two hands on a giant broadsheet:

Among Americans in Cairo these days, the stories of xenophobia are traded freely and a bit compulsively, in spacious apartments and colonial-era hotel bars. We all have the anecdote of quickening our steps or avoiding eye contact, of having our IDs checked, or just a few too many questions from a few too many random men on the street.
Example: At a Chinese restaurant one night, I meet a father eating out with his wife and three small children. As his toddler climbs onto his lap to try his fried rice, the father's questions drift subtly from friendly small talk to interrogation. "You're here studying Arabic?" he asks. "Only studying? Not working for a company or a government?" His tone grows aggressive, and when I don't budge, he nods with a "hmph" and returns to his rice.
Read the rest here (or if you're in Austin, check out the print)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Eulogy for The Daily News Egypt


Today, the Daily News Egypt folded after seven years of publication. The paper had served as a local insert in the International Herald Tribune, and its editors and writers, several of whom have become friends, have done an superb job covering local politics, business, and culture on a tiny plank of a budget, which has fallen out from under them. It is clear that the end came due to financial machinations out of their control, and had nothing to do with quality. Tourism is down, so hotels stopped buying bulk subscriptions. When circulation dropped, advertising money dried up.

Although English-language newspapers in a country with few English speakers might seem like a minor market, they practice an outsized influence. They are read by foreign businessmen, diplomats, and other influential decision-makers who do not speak the native language. Subscriptions are held by a vast number of embassies and companies, and so the way DNE covers a story subtly influences the responses of those embassies and companies to the events themselves. “Very high political players around the world read us and read the English language press coming out of this country,” Chief Editor Rania Al Malky told me recently, “so on an important level we are influential.”

The Egyptian English-language papers also influence foreign coverage. The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and countless other foreign papers publish little breaking news from countries like Egypt. With the exception of the revolution, these outlets wait a day or two and publish longer summary articles. Even if they do their own reporting, the way they tell these stories is influenced by how Egyptians, writing in English, have made sense of them.

And the influence goes deeper than the day to day cycle. DNE has been a testing ground for young journalists. Its writers and videographers have gone on to work for Al Jazeera, Reuters, CNN, and Bloomberg, using the skills they learned under Rania and the other editors as they have moved to bigger international audiences. 

The Daily News Egypt leaves only a single local daily English paper for hotels and embassies to buy, the state-owned Egyptian Gazette. It leaves the Egypt Independent, which might go to paper, but for now only publishs online. Paper is not quite dead yet, and diplomats looking for a break from sitting at a computer now will only have a state-owned newspaper to pick up and open over coffee.

Two of the editors, Amira Salah-Ahmed and Sarah El Sirgany have co-written a book about the revolution last year, which is out in Italian and Arabic, and will eventually come out in English. They have done a great deal in the ongoing work of defining, since the revolution, the sticky relationship between activism and journalism. “A paper like ours, we consider ourselves independent,” Amira told me, “but when your independence entails bringing out the truth, and the truth is very, very ugly, and it’s always against the current regime and the status quo, then you’re instantly opposition. So you’re always put in this position, unwillingly maybe, and sometimes unintentionally, of opposing the regime.”

In 2009, when Israel started bombing Gaza and the Mubarak regime (which could never fall!) would not let Gazans through the border, local activists rallied. A DNE reporter covered the protests and Rania found herself face to face with a security agent, asking for the reporter’s address. Rania refused to give it, but told the reporter to not go home that night. “The agent already knew her address,” Rania told me. “He knew everything about her. He just wanted to send the newspaper a message.”

Mubarak’s censors paid close attention to English-language media, thereby signaling their perception of its importance for world opinion. “Sometimes we would run stories on Mubarak that to me were not at all critical or subversive. They were just news stories about debates going on,” Rania says. “But we would get called in for them,” and this “only started happening in the year and a half or two years before the uprising, when the political street was becoming bolder.”

I was one of the countless young Americans who knocked on their door for an internship. They graciously gave me ideas and sent me to press conferences. Eventually, I moved on to write for the Culture section under Joe Fahim, whose encyclopedic knowledge of film, music, and literature (Egyptian, European, American, Pan-Arab) is truly unique, and whose opinions are bold and fearless. I still would stop in to see the staff occasionally, and every time I  imbibed lessons from their scholarly conversations about the news, which flowed easily through the day as they ordered food and ate at their desks, their eyes focused on the next day’s articles.

With the announcement of DNE’s end came the wave of Twitter praise. “DNE was all over the big Egypt stories years before the rush of post Jan25 media interest,” wrote Tom Gara of The National. “Hard to overstate its importance.”

Lina Attalah, who edits Egypt Independent: “I learned so much by being part of Daily News Egypt’s family.”

Andy Carvin, Twitter-guru and NPR strategist: “May a thousand journalism startups bloom from the ashes of Daily News Egypt.”

Abdel-Rahman Hussein, of The Guardian: “The staff way too good for the ownership, onto bigger and better things.”

Liam Stack, of The New York Times: “My 1st job in journalism. A great paper & crew whose hard work & insight will be missed.”

Amira, the Business Editor, who is also a poet, tweeted on Saturday: “And then the ground fell from beneath us…”

Moments later, she wrote: “A roar of applause, a standing ovation, flowers for everyone *bow*”

The Tahrir Printing Press



This is a short excerpt of an essay I'm working on:

Mr. Sayed reminds of my uncle, who is also an engineer, in the way he responds to questions. Every time you inquire about some detail of his work at the printing press, he responds in a tone that makes you feel dumb for not knowing the answer already, or else like the answer is not worth knowing.

The actual answers, once he gives them, are meticulous and direct. The Al Tahrir printing press, where he is the “beeg boss,” the engineer in charge of operations, has “seven reel stands, four units, two folders, and two towers.” It can produce 70,000 pages in an hour, and fifty-six distinct pages per day. “How long does it take to make one copy of tomorrow’s newspaper?” He pulls out a calculator and punches in a few numbers, and then he says, “One newspaper takes 1,166th of a second.”

The statistics don’t capture the process, though. The Al Tahrir printing press, which has been owned by the state since President Gamel Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952, is a five-story room, three above ground and two below, where an eleven year-old bright red Mitsubishi printing press clicks and clacks and whirs and snaps at a deafening roar. The floor is slick and the air smells of oil and ink. The machine warns, “High Voltage: Danger, Significant injury or death may result,” though this is not translated into Arabic and few of the workers read English.

At first they won’t let us in. My mind spins as to the reason why, generally arriving at some combination of This is the state-owned newspaper, maybe they think we’re American spies and This is a state-owned newspaper, there must be a lot of bureaucratic red tape to keep people out.

In fact, they are just worried about anyone, us included, seeing tomorrow’s news before tomorrow. The beauty of that idea, which assumes the absence of the Internet, much less Twitter or Facebook, hits me. In this room, a very different conception of news still operates, literally, in towering machines and conveyor belts and spinning wheels of paper, an industrial marching band of rubber, steel, and ink that performs in paper.

Six men race over to a vertical belt on which fresh newspapers are drifting by at an insane speed. They are checking for mistakes. The second page is printed slightly off the paper, slicing the faces of several influential politicians clean down the middle. So they punch a few buttons and try again.

Al Gumhoria, which means The Republic, used to be seen as Nasser’s mouthpiece. The military officers who took over Egypt in 1952 immediately established Dar al Tahrir, a printing house, “in order to make known the ideas and personalities of the new leadership.” They took over in July, and by December they had a daily newspaper, on a license issued in Nasser’s name.

Al Gumhoria became the standard-bearer in an alternate tradition of thinking about the purpose of a newspaper in a newly independent society, with future president Sadat as the first Editor in Chief. During the second half of Nasser’s rule, between 1960 and 1970, the paper had fourteen different editors. “In truth,” wrote a journalist for Time Magazine, “Cairo's privately owned newspapers had embarrassed Nasser by making money, an endeavor in which his house organ, Al Gumhoria, has notably failed.” After Nasser’s death, it didn’t need to succeed, because increasing censorship of the press under his successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, kept out real competition past the other state-owned papers, Al Ahram and Al Akhbar. The tradition of bureaucratic state journalism Nasser had established turned into little more than cheerleading. Many argued that this had been true in Nasser’s day, as well. But in Nasser’s day, for better or worse, there was a professed optimism about the whole thing.

Recently, Egypt again became newly independent, only this time the booted leader was not foreign. There was a palpable sense of optimism again after many years of acquiescence to corruption and decay. New questions about the role of news and information in the relationship between leaders and ordinary citizens would need to be answered. Some of the questions were similar to those raised when Nasser took power. Others questions, with the advent of television and the Internet and tools like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, invested with expectations of revolutionary potential, were new. But still, even today, there are newspapers, and that’s how a lot of people continue to get their information. There are traditional journalists, editors, and printing press engineers like Sayed, doing what they have done for decades.

As I stood in the printing press, I watched conveyor belts take freshly tied bundles of crisp newspapers into bright red trucks with Al Gumhoria written in lovely calligraphy across the side, with a logo of the Egyptian eagle looking proudly to the future, and I forgot momentarily about everything I had read about this paper being a state bureaucracy, beholden to corrupt rulers at the expense of the people’s right to the truth. I forgot about the talk of “reforming state media” and the march in October where an angry protester chucked a rock at the door of state-paper Al Ahram, and then those protesters were attacked, and then accused the state papers of covering it up.

In my awe at the beauty of industry, all of the interlocking parts and people preparing to deliver the news to Egypt, about Egypt, the next day, that I remembered that the purpose of information, as many optimistic people have written, is to liberate, and how poetic it is that this printing press should be called Tahrir, or “Liberation.” Not “freedom,” or “independence,” but the word that signifies achieving these conditions.

It might seem like a coincidence that this printing press bears the same name, Tahrir, as the storied square in downtown Cairo that grabbed the world’s attention a year ago, and now has become the name of restaurants and cafes and laundry mats. By the end of this year, I hope that this blog, and maybe someday a book, begins to tell that story.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The National Military Museum



In Egypt, national history is army history. The country’s leaders have always been military heroes. Before 1952, the history of Egypt was the history of foreign conquerors. Since then, it’s been the history of military men who take on (sort of) civilian roles. This is the case for most postcolonial nations who achieved independence in the twentieth century, but here, it’s a particularly fraught issue right now, as Egypt tries to transition to fully civil rule.

The National Military Museum takes up the former palace of Muhammad Ali, widely seen as the founder of modern Egypt, whose dynasty lasted from 1805 until 1952. The museum was born from a cooperation of kitsch between Egypt and North Korea, who supplied the artists for the epic battle scenes in the style of socialist realism.

A statue of a soldier with his mouth agape guards the entrance. One hand forms a peace sign, and the other holds a rifle. The sign reads, “The Best Soldier on Earth.” Nearby, he is challenged by another statue, in the Islamic garb of a thousand years ago. His sign reads, “The Best Soldier in the World.”

We met a group of Egyptian students practicing their English outside, and they came in with us, so as I admired the large paintings of Nasser and old photographs of Yemen and Sinai, I listened to them debate the presidential candidates. All but one of the five students support Abdul Moneim Abu El Fotouh, a Muslim Brotherhood breakaway who has managed to get a lot of support from young liberals and revolutionaries.

The one hold-out student likes Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, of the far right. “He will ruin the country!” one said incredulously. The hold-out just smiled back, and there seemed to be no hard feelings. “But really,” another one said, “the best ruler Egypt ever had wasn’t any of these guys,  and wasn’t Nasser, Sadat, or Mubarak. It was Muhammad Ali.” He stretched out a hand and pointed to the grand room surrounding us, as if to say, He built this! How could he not be the greatest?

As we were descending the stairs to leave, I eavesdropped on a conversation between a young Egyptian man and American girl. “Did you know that the 1973 war was bullshit?” he asked her.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Egypt won, but only because we surprised the Israelis. We weren’t that heroic.”

The girl looked confused. “Wait, no, I thought Israeli won that war,” she told him. “Are you kidding?” he snapped, his cynicism totally gone. “We definitely won the 1973 war.” They argued for a bit and agreed to look it up on Wikipedia later. Later, when I typed in “1973 war” on Google, one of the first recommended search terms was “1973 war who won?”

The military museum concludes with a picture of Sadat sitting with the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and American President Jimmy Carter. I wondered if this painting was also made by the North Korean delegation, and there were no clues to suggest otherwise.

And then, Mubarak. Celebratory paintings, photos, and busts of him are everywhere towards the end of the exhibits. The museum’s inept campiness is perhaps not the most important remnant of the Mubarak regime, which still fills out many of the ministries, and the rich who made their money due to the corruption he fostered are still rich. But here, you can still see one of the shiniest, remnants of the former age, like a museum not only to a former period, but to a former idea. In the museum, Mubarak is still the President of Egypt. When you leave, a picture of Mubarak waving is accompanied by a sign reading, “The everlasting truth in Egypt and the sovereignty over the land is the solemn oath before which the head of state and the average citizen are e ua llu committed.”

After we left the museum, one of the students asked me what kinds of movies I like. The answer didn’t matter, because it set up an opportunity for him to ask,  “Have you seen Avatar?” I nodded. “You know the real story behind the movie?” I shook my head. “Well,” he told me, “Avatar did not win the Oscar for best picture because really it’s a metaphor for the Palestinians. Except in the movie, the Palestinians win, so Hollywood did not want to give it an award.”

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fifteen Minutes at the Tomb of Sadat




Cairo has a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, and like the one in the U.S., it is more of an attraction for foreign dignitaries and a few local tourists. The difference is that there are two tombs at the Egyptian version. One tomb holds someone ‘unknown’ and the other holds former President Anwar El Sadat. I had a funny feeling about this pairing, and I looked back at my notes from an undergraduate course on nationalism in which I had read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.

Anderson uses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to present the distinctly contemporary flavor of nationalism. Because the soldier is unknown, he represents the entire nation. “To feel the force of this modernity,” Anderson writes, “one has only to imagine the general reaction to the busy-body who ‘discovered’ the Unknown Soldier’s name or insisted on filling the cenotaph with some real bones. Sacrilege of a strange, contemporary kind!”

The Egyptian government did something almost as sacrilegious by Anderson’s standards, placing Sadat’s cenotaph next to that of the Unknown Soldier, and hence robbing the latter of its force. Nobody could better outshine one unknown than the most known of all.

The two tombs sit under a massive open-air pyramid structure on the side of a highway. Most of the people who see the structure in a given day are not visitors but drivers stuck in traffic, for this area is always congested. Across the street stands the platform and parade-viewing area where Sadat was shot. A rusting, long empty observation tower overlooks three identical posters for the military’s current public relations campaign. In the three posters, three unknown soldiers hold three unknown babies and three captions read, “The people and the army are one hand.”

At the two tombs, pairs are everywhere. Two soldiers in red uniforms and dusty black caps stand guard with long rifles. Behind them, past two black Ottoman cannons, are two more soldiers wearing Ottoman garb: gold striped red coats, billowing bright blue pants, and tilted little maroon fezs. Behind them are two more soldiers, in tacky get-ups of Ancient Egyptophilia: white pajamas, gold pharaonic headdresses, and neon rainbow rayon breast-plates.

The unknown soldier’s tomb is a simple black cube that looks like the Ka’ba at Mecca. Behind it stands Sadat’s cenotaph, on which is written, “The hero of war and peace. He gave his life for the sake of peace and was martyred for the sake of principles.”

Sadat was killed on October 6th, 1981, eight years to the day after the crossing of the Suez Canal. Public monuments to his eleven years of rule focus for the most part on this victory, against Israel, and the Camp David Accords in which he made peace with Israel.

On October 10th, 1981, four days after Sadat’s assassination and one day after his funeral, the newspaper Akhbar al-Yom published a striking image. Unfolding the central crease, you see a simple drawing of Sadat’s face next to the Unknown Soldier pyramid, under which thousands crowd together around a procession of horses carrying Sadat’s coffin, wrapped in the Egyptian flag. Upon closer look, you notice that every soldier in the procession and every civilian in the audience has Sadat’s face. The bottom fourth of the front page reads, in letters three inches tall, “Farewell.”

As we walked around the big empty space under the pyramid, a young soldier in a black cap introduced himself as Abu El-Hassan and asked us if we wanted to take pictures. When we said we did not have a camera, he looked confused and lit a cigarette. He continued to smoke and drift languidly around the area, wiping a bit of dust off of some poles surrounding the cenotaphs.

At exactly 4:00 PM, the two modern-day soldiers stretched their arms and rifles straight in front of them and turned stiffly. Kicking one foot out in front and then the other, they proceeded slowly towards one another, clapping their shoes in unison against the sound of rushing traffic and the roar of passing airplanes. They began with about a step every three seconds, and as the process grew more labored they incrementally sped up until they were going about a foot a second. At nearly 4:02 they passed one another and at 4:03 each had reached the other’s original position, though one must have had longer legs, for he got to his destination first and smiled with embarrassment while the other finished. 

Several French tourists approached with an Egyptian guide, who told them about Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem. “Sadat was brave to make war, brave to go to war, and brave to stop war.”

At 4:10, the two front soldiers again turned and locked into slow, stately kick steps to return to the center of the black path. In the center, Abu El-Hassan scuffed the ground with his show and gazed at one, and then the other, and then took a long drag from his cigarette. The soldier with shorter legs suppressed a laugh under his mustache. When they reached the black path, they proceeded towards the pyramid, saluted Sadat’s grave, and disappeared behind it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Scene of the Crime: Article in Arab Media & Society



At long last, I've got a new article out in the online journal Arab Media & Society. The issue also has a really fascinating "Proposal for a Dialogue on Media Reform" by Muslim Brotherhood Spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan, translated by Reuters chief turned literary translator Jonathan Wright. Then there's an epic comparison piece, on social media and protest in Egypt and Syria, and two beautiful tributes to journalist Anthony Shadid. In my article, which they've nicely dubbed "literary reportage," I write about the increasingly blurry lines between activists and journalists, the status of state-owned newspapers since the revolution, and how these issues came to a head on the evening of October 9th, when over twenty peaceful protesters were killed by the military. I tried to weave together press analysis and storytelling, and they were nice to let me run with it. Check it out here.


On October 9, 2011, violence broke out in front of the Maspero building in downtown Cairo, turning a peaceful march into clashes that resulted in the deaths of over twenty protesters. Immediately, accusations targeted the state-owned media, claiming that it had reverted to Mubarak-era practices of provoking inter-religious violence and had failed to acknowledge the possibility that the military had purposefully killed protesters. While covering the story, independent journalists found themselves working out their relationship to activists as they tried to build a credible case against the state-sanctioned version of the events. This is the story of the march, its aftermath, and the way it was covered, along with brief forays into the history of Egyptian media, offering a broad look at Egyptian journalism a year after Mubarak’s fall from power.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Traffic Jam for Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail



I’m now sitting in my apartment in Dokki, the neighborhood where Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail was born, as the sound of crowds shouting his name, cars honking in support, cars honking in anger over the hold up, and the pop and fizz of fireworks waft in through the window. As we were coming home in a taxi, a traffic jam in front of a gas station (there’s a gas shortage right now) continued well past its usual end. As we turned off the bridge from the Nile and traveled down a major road, we found large crowds of men standing crushed together on the beds of small trucks, each with a megaphone.

Tonight a court ruled that Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail is still in the running for the presidency of Egypt. He was almost kicked out when speculation that his mother held American citizenship, which would disqualify him from running, led to an investigation by the New York Times that proving she was living in California. His supporters were/are convinced that the whole thing is a conspiracy.

Abu Ismail is doing very well in the polls, even if they are unreliable, and his face is everywhere. Posters with his big, boyish smile and bulbous grey beard are posted everywhere. Last Friday, his supporters filled Tahrir square. An Egyptian friend, secular and upper class, works for a wire agency and walked into the rally. “I got there and I wondered if this was really my country,” she told me. 

The men came in waves, smiling, shouting, knocking on the hoods of cars and waving T-shirts with Abu Ismail’s stenciled face. One man climbed up on the shoulders of another, straddled over a motorcycle, and the two careened through the thick of men coming down the sidewalk. Although many had big, pious beards, not all of them did, and although many wore long flowing robes, others wore suits, t-shirts, and every other style of dress. I saw no women.

Cars started honking in the same rhythm that people usually use to shout, “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!” One man happened to be driving through the traffic with his wife, fully veiled in the niqab, and a young daughter sitting on his lap and pretending to steer. He had covered the back window of the small family car with a big picture of Abu Ismail. He rested one hand on the wheel and stuck the other out the window to hold up a peace sign, which has strangely become a common hand gesture for Abu Ismail’s supporters. I asked my cab driver if he liked Abu Ismail. “Yes,” he said, “he should be president of Egypt!”

Abu Ismail is very conservative, though he has not clarified many of his positions. I saw him speak at Tahrir once, and he is very charismatic. Many worry that he will crusade to make Egypt look more like Saudi Arabia. On television, he has told supporters to boycott Pepsi, on the theory that the company’s name is an acronym for “Pay Every Penny Saving Israel.”

Another man on the street started shouting into the cars, “Don’t be afraid!” He was passing us on the left, where most of the supporters were rallying. Suddenly, on our right, we passed three police lorries, filled completely with cops. You can only see into the lorries through small windows, covered with latticed metal. I could make out three or four men in each window, their fingers laced through the lattice, smiling and shouting out in support for Abu Ismail. Police would have never publicly shouted in support of a controversial, anti-regime, Islamist political figure before the revolution.

Another man, wearing a long robe, his mustache shaved in the traditionalist style, pointed at us, three Americans in a cab, and shouted “You are people of the book!”  This is often the phrase offered by conservative Egyptians after they ask my religion and I don’t answer, ‘Muslim.’ My mother was in the backseat, visiting from the U.S., and she did not understand him. She commented, “Oh how exciting this is!” and took a picture of ten men crowded on top of a tiny truck bed. 

We arrived at home and I read on Twitter, “Sounds like Hazem Abu Ismail is living out his rock star fantasies.” Liberals and Socialists and Leftists and Muslim Brothers and the military council are worried about his popularity. Despite his mass appeal, he is like Ron Paul, compelling for his outsider status, but too provocative for too many powerful people for me to be able to picture his victory. But since when have I been able to make predictions about Egypt?

Monday, April 9, 2012

'I'd Rather Vote for Faustus!' - On Omar Suleiman's Candidacy




It is outrageously hot outside. I was covered in sweat when I arrived at the newspaper office yesterday. All the editors were red in the face too. “Islamists and remnants of the former regime…rushed to register their candidacy for Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election,” began the lead article in the next day’s paper. But at the office, the discussion was not conducted in the dry house style.

The two big new names in the presidential election, scheduled for late May, are Omar Suleiman and Khairat el-Shater. Suleiman served as director of military intelligence under Mubarak for nearly twenty years. If Americans had heard his name before February 2011, when he gravely announced Mubarak’s resignation, it was likely attached to the title given to him by Democracy Now!: “The CIA’s man in Cairo and Egypt’s Torturer-in-Chief.” He was once seen as a possible successor to Mubarak, before the talk of Mubarak’s son Gamal began. In 2005, journalist and opposition leader Hisham Kassem remarked, “You can say today Omar Suleiman is the most prominent military figure with his influence and closeness to the president.” According to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, “he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.” Now, he’s running for president.

“I can’t sleep. I’m getting nightmares,” the Editor-in-Chief, said as I entered. She is convinced that Suleiman was assured victory by the SCAF, who might rig the election. For her, Suleiman’s sudden decision to run reeks of conspiracy. “The SCAF will do their utmost to see their man there. Would he put himself out there if he wasn’t 100% he’s winning? Which body would give him that assurance? Three days ago he writes a statement saying ‘I’m not running,’ and two days later, ‘I’m running.’ What on earth happened in two days?”

The Business Editor tried to make the best of it, trying to be heard over a the sound of a gas seller clanking his canisters outside. She looked back to the pre-revolution days, explaining that those opposed to Mubarak used to hope that at the very least, if there was no revolution, perhaps Suleiman would be better than Gamal Mubarak. The continuation of the regime, they used to say, was at least better than a dynasty. “These were the options,” she explained. “Not that we wanted any of them.”

“But did we have a revolution or didn’t we?” she almost shouted, realizing that Suleiman, if elected, would pardon Mubarak and all the most corrupt former leaders. “I’m very disappointed and very angry and I think if Omar Suleiman becomes the next president, I don’t know hat I would do. What do you do? I would rather vote for Faustus, for Mephistopheles, than this guy.” She’s afraid that Islamophobia will drive secular voters to bring back the former regime rather than risk a religious turn in the government. And she thinks that’s wrong, that there’s no way the Brotherhood would want to turn Egypt into a Saudi-style theocracy. 

She explained to me that Suleiman’s campaigners are trying to paint a revolution-friendly portrait of the former Mubarak-aide. They are, apparently, saying that Suleiman did “not approve of what was going on.”

The Business editor piped in: “He was what was going on!”

She took me to another room where I interviewed her for several hours. We talked about her family, her career, the history of the newspaper, the drift of Egyptian journalists towards activism since the revolution, and other bits of speculation on current news stories. I mentioned having seen stickers for Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, the ultraconservative Salafi candidate, in the office kitchen. She told me that several of the men working in the office, not on the editorial staff, support Abu Ismail, lest anyone think the newspaper only employs secular revolutionaries. “They give me a real sense of the pulse of Abu Ismail’s supporters,” she said. “They love that man.” Abu Ismail has been accused of lying about his mother’s U.S. citizenship, which would disqualify him from the race. She told me that his supporters at the newspaper office refuse to believe this. “They refuse to believe that me may have even remotely lied.”

At one point, another employee walked through the room, which bordered the financial office. The employee, a young man dripping sweat like everyone who entered that day, was smiling. She knew why. “Congratulations on Suleiman’s entrance into the race,” she said to him. He thanked her and entered the adjoining office.

Her voice dropped to a whisper as she told me, almost conspiratorially, “He supports Suleiman!”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Jewish Cemetery in Port Said



We were walking aimlessly around the town, an urban maze tucked up into a nook where the Mediterranean meets the Suez Canal. Neither the town, nor the Canal existed in Biblical times, though had the Jews been able to curve north and walk the isthmus of Suez, they would never have needed the Red Sea to part for them. Today, they would definitely need that divine event, for the Suez Canal totally cuts the mainland of Egypt off from Sinai, from Asia, and from Israel. 

Jews began to settle in Port Said in the 1850’s. Around the turn of the last century there were a few hundred of them. Despite several attacks on synagogues, their numbers grew to as many as 800 in the 1940’s, some Greek,  some Yemeni, some Egyptian. According to the Jewish historical society in Egypt, Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria in the 1930’s made their way to Shanghai when they could not find visas to the Americas. They embarked for China by ship, and stopped in Port Said along the way. The Port Said Jews set up an apartment, a relief society of sorts, and collected clothes, medicine, food, and toys for them. 

Then in 1956, Israeli troops attack the Canal, backed by England and France. A battle of words broke out between British and Egyptian newspapers over whether or not the Jews of Egypt would be protected. Port Said's Jews were the most vulnerable, for they risked attack from both Israel and the local population. Although Nasser loudly proclaimed that Egyptian Jews would be not be kicked out, many arrived in New York with horror stories of having their shops closed down and being arrested and barely getting out with their lives, or at least, their dignity (“We were placed fifty to sixty in a room not larger than three yards by three yards, packed like sardines. That morning food was thrown at us, one bread, uneatable, and a tin of filthy white cheese with vermin in it”).

Today, the remnants of the Jewish community in Port Said only exist as apparitions, and only if you know where to look. A friend who spent years researching the history of the city for her dissertation told me that sandwiched between the Christian and Muslim cemeteries one could still find a Jewish cemetery. “But you can’t go in,” she told me over coffee one day several weeks ago.

“Why? Because of security?”

“No- I mean, it’s physically impossible. It’s like a jungle.”

Several weeks later, I was spending the day with my friend Ahmed, taking a long walk around the beach after buying tickets for what he breathlessly described as the “First house music party, ever, in Port Said. Nothing this fun ever happens here.” Several blocks down from the Hotel, the mostly empty Grand Albatross (I say mostly because there were about twenty elementary school-aged kids dancing at the KFC out front with a raggedy Mickey Mouse), we came upon an empty beach, totally deserted in winter. Ahmed pointed to graffiti, which read “Irdaha ala ochtick,” roughly “Accept this for your sister.” Someone, Ahmed explained, was reminding young men taking their girlfriends to the deserted beach—to do things that young couples do at deserted beaches—that if it was their own sister, they would not approve those things being done. We didn’t see any couples.

Behind the beach stood a long, high wall, stretching for maybe half a mile, with gates every sixty feet. We made our way over and peered into the gates, one by one, as if inspecting paintings at a museum. The first gate was closed, but through the iron bars we saw a long stretch of perfectly smooth, bright green lawn, with rows and rows of identical rectangular tombstones all spaced out with dizzying perfection. This was a British and French cemetery from the two world wars, where soldiers killed during the North African campaigns were buried. Ahmed exclaimed, "Wow. I had no idea this was here!"

The second gate was a Catholic plot, for the many British and French who worked for the Suez Canal or lived out their lives trading goods here. It was reasonably well kept-up, a bit overgrown. The Orthodox plot—same story. Then, the Muslim section, much bigger, with many men, women, and children going in and out to visit big, chipped mausoleums and solemn granite tombs among tall trees.

Finally, several gates past the soldiers, we saw a wooden pair of doors, bulging out past the stone wall slightly under the weight of something we could not see. Approaching closer, we were greeted by a nearly opaque tangle of small branches. My professor friend had not exaggerated. The wooden doors might be easily forced open, but past them was a thick snarl of millions of small branches, so tightly packed for hundreds of feet by the stone wall that one could only imagine trying to swim through them, getting scratched all the way and maybe bitten by whatever might be living in this ocean of thin, contorted limbs.

There were no markers. We could only guess that this was the Jewish cemetery. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Article on Egyptian State Newspapers in Sada


I have a new piece up on Sada, formerly the Arab Reform Bulletin, published by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. It's the first time I've been translated into Arabic professionally, so that's pretty cool. There was an extensive and intense editing process, from which I learned a lot, and though it dips into the annoyingly authoritative tone of think tanks, I tried hard to make it read easily for a non-specialist. I discuss changes in the Journalists' Syndicate and small clues that suggest that state-owned newspapers in Cairo are increasingly willing to challenge the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Force. Here it is: 


On February 3, 2011, senior news anchor and former deputy head of Nile TV Shahira Amin resigned. Citing the channel’s refusal to cover the protests at Tahrir, she accused her station of siding with the Mubarak government. Since Amin’s public condemnation of her employer, other journalists working for state television have followed suit. Television host Hala Helmy has not appeared on air since January 25th, 2011, and went on to co-found the Media Revolutionaries Front, one of several emerging groups that protest journalistic complicity with the state’s media policies. This past February, these groups helped organize dozens of state journalists and producers to protest outside of the office of the Minister of Information, General Ahmed Anis, chanting slogans like, “Minister of Information, stop lying and tell people the truth!” and “Minister of military media, go join them back at the base!” 
Critics have focused more on the overhaul of state television than on its print counterparts. But even without the bombast of Helmy and Amin’s statements, print media is also changing; the Journalists’ Syndicate (composed of print-media journalists) is becoming increasingly critical of the regime since its last election, and state newspaper coverage of the SCAF has become more cautiously critical. While it is still too soon to assume direct connections between the syndicate’s statements and the changes in coverage by state papers, it is valuable, however, to look at the two as part of a broader process of reforming the state media apparatus.






Monday, April 2, 2012

The Colonel Begs America for Help



It’s pouring rain outside in Port Said. The colonel wears civilian clothes, a slightly shiny black leather jacket and loose jeans, like a young impatient businessman as he clutches his keys, lighter, and sunglasses in one hand and scratches his cheek with the other. His office is big, but not ostentatious, with a wide desk, two couches, two coffee tables, and several chairs for entertaining guests. There’s a Pharaonic mural made of tile on the wall. Next to the desk is a live video feed from the main hall of the museum he oversees, which feels a little creepy until you stop paying attention to it. A dog sleeps on the floor. His name is Rommel, for Erwin Rommel, the German Field Marshal of World War II who was popularly known as the ‘Desert Fox.’ This dog comes from a German wolf breed, but is very lazy, perhaps because of the rain.

Colonel Ahmed Amr sends a young soldier to bring lunch, which comes on a big tray: bread, halvah, cheese, French fries, and hard-boiled eggs. He insists that I eat (“Together we share bread and salt, an old Egyptian saying”), which makes it hard to write down notes. This feels slightly intentional, though he knows I will write about him. I scribble when he turns away.

Amr was born in 1965. He does not remember the 1967 war, and his memories of Egypt’s last major war, 1973, are those of an eight year-old. He grew up in Port Said, and remembers how the first Israeli bombs dropped during a vacation from school. He was sitting down to eat a ful sandwich. He points to his teeth as he mimicks chomping down, and then makes the sound of an explosion. “Booooom.” “I heard the bombs just as my teeth hit the sandwich, as if I was creating the sound.”

The son of teachers, Amr grew up to serve in the Gulf War. He then lived in Cairo for twenty years, but wanted to raise his kids in his native Port Said. The military honored his request and sent him to direct the museum, “to return to my roots.”

From here, we enter a swirling, unfocused two and a half hours of history, politics, and personal history. If I had any expectations or assumptions about the political commitments and historical judgments of an Egyptian military man, especially in a year where a lot of things are said about military men, the colonel confounds nearly all of them.  Of course, he talks the talk. “The people of Egypt, we love our army,” he says. “The army here have never attacked the people in Egypt. Mubarak and all the kings of Egypt have known this. We’re not like Libya or Syria, because we’ve had civilization for so long, for 7000 years.”

But the colonel also thinks that military rule has hurt the country in the long term. “The sixty-two years of military rule were not good for Egypt,” he explains. “After WWII, we were like Japan or Europe. Anything could have happened. But then we had four wars. We used all of our money on the military and the people became poor. America has improved while we have declined.” Nasser, he thinks, was a “good man,” but who was blinded by his singular dream of “Arab strength.” Sadat, on the other hand, “changed the picture of Egypt all over the world,” and helped the country by opening it up economically to the West.

He is particularly keen to talk about the Islamist victories in parliament, about which he is not pleased. “The Salafis take Wahhabi ideas,” he says, “but Abdel Wahab [the founder of the religious school that influences Saudi law] was from Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t apply here. These people have become so popular that they can affect foreign relations, and this is bad and not the true way for Egypt. Egypt was always moderate in the past. All these groups are new. Most of Egyptians are poor and ignorant. The Salafis tell them ‘Vote for us and go to heaven, or vote for liberals and go to Hell. They don’t vote for Islamists because they agree with them, but because they are ignorant and afraid.”

“I am afraid for my son,” he concludes, looking towards the constitution the Islamist-led assembly is about to write. “The wrong kind of constitution will make a very bad world for him.”

Amr grounds his distaste for the Islamists, for the Brotherhood and the Salafis, in his own understanding of Islamic history. “Do you know the first word Gabriel said to Mohamed?” he aske me. “Iqra,” I respond, which means ‘read,’ and preceded the angel Gabriel’s dictation of the Qur’an to Mohamed. “Exactly,” the colonel says, smiling. “God’s first command was to learn, to read, to understand, not to look backwards, but to look forward. God doesn’t say ‘limit’ He gave all creatures freedom.”

Although a distaste for Islamists is often a signal for an embrace of the U.S., Amr does not exonerate us. He thinks the U.S. is only powerful because of luck, because of the Soviet Union’s decline, and that they make a lot of mistakes. ““America made Yemen the center of Al Qaeda,” he tells me, shifting into the second person to address me as America: “Your problems are your own fault.”

But, he explains, “if the USA would only invest in factories here, they would make Egypt their best friend in the Middle East. When we achieve social justice, the Islamists will lose their support.” He puts me in charge of handing over his warning and plea to the U.S, which I quote in full:

“The Islamist rise is America’s fault, because they supported Mubarak. Why don’t Americans understand this? You can ask this question in the article you write about me. America made Al Qaeda, and now Al Qaeda is an enemy of the U.S.

“But if the US gets us food, employment, and opportunities, there will be no terrorism. The number one cause of terrorism is povery, and the number two cause is ignorance. Mubarak made Egypt an open buffet for anyone to push their ideologies.

“We need American help to create a strong civil state, without fear, without Islamists, without military rule. If we have Islamist rule, there will be ten Al Qaeda’s here. We’ve got to kill this possibility now. You’ve lived in Egypt. You should give a complete picture to the US, about how they should support us liberals against the Islamists.”