June 2013


“If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime.” Such was the sentiment of satirist Jon Stewart, who made a surprise appearance on the popular Egyptian television comedy show, al-Barnamaj, starring Bassem Youssef. If the Arab Spring protests were not simply an exercise resulting in one kind of intolerance replacing another, then this may be one of the most important lessons to be learned from the prevailing winds of post-people-revolution hopes. Obviously Moubarek did not handle jokes well, nor did Ben Ali, nor Qaddafi, nor Ali Abdullah Salih. Neither does Bashar al-Asad, who is desperately trying not to be the next ex-dictator in the Middle East. But then the ruling parties in the Islamic Republic are not exactly comedy-friendly. Bin Laden was the butt of millions of jokes, but it is hard to imagine him having success as a stand-up comedian.

The irony is that most of the people I have met in Egypt and Yemen are fond of jokes and have a rich tradition making fun of those in power, corrupt regimes and religious hypocrisy. Many have a sharp edge of “othering” one group or another, but some are self-deprecating. Satire has a way of getting to the crux of problems, which is probably why it is so irritating to those in power. Consider the following joke about the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Asad, a joke I heard from a Lebanese friend when Syria was basically in control of much of Lebanon.

The heads of the CIA, the KGB and the Syrian intelligence agency met at a conference and were bragging about their abilities to track down and find terrorists. (more…)

by Sama’a al-Hamdani, Atlantic Council, June 17, 2013

Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which began on March 18 and just reached the halfway point of its six-month mandate, was conceived as a core part of the transition process and is intended to bring together Yemen’s diverse political, social, geographic, and demographic groups to address the most critical issues plaguing the beleaguered country. Unfortunately, the way the dialogue was developed, designed, and directed created intrinsic flaws that may undercut its success. Some argue that the large number of participants and the lack of genuine representation outside of political parties are the reasons it is doomed for failure. Others feel that the process is advancing too quickly, leaving honest reconciliation out of the equation. One of the other major concerns is the lack of clear communication with the Yemeni public, transparency of the proceedings, and oversight of expenditures.

Although some Yemen experts remain pessimistic about the future of the country, they refrain from critiquing the dialogue because the outcome is still unclear and many perceive the dialogue as the only way to prevent a descent into civil war. Particularly because the process is opaque and because there is genuine skepticism about the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) transition agreement and the dialogue itself, the NDC should pro-actively report on all working group and plenary proceedings, publish all records and modifications, and disclose all financial contributions and allocations. This is the time to measure the discrepancy between the dialogue’s stated intention and the reality on the ground, if there is hope for effective progress. (more…)


Top of page from 1347 CE copy of Miftah al-‘ulum of al-Sakaki in the al-Aqsa Mosque Library

The British Museum is sponsoring a project to digitalize Arabic manuscripts in the al-Aqsa Mosque library of Jerusalem. Details below and at their website:

EAP521: Digitisation of manuscripts at the Al-aqsa Mosque Library, East Jerusalem

The main goal of this project is to preserve the historical manuscript collection housed at the Al-aqsa Mosque Library in Jerusalem. The Al-aqsa Library located at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem serves as a primary research center for Islamic studies and as a reference library for scholars and students from Jerusalem and other Palestinian cities. The library’s rare and most valuable collection consists of approximately 2000 manuscripts. The manuscripts were acquired by the Al-aqsa Library from prominent scholars, private collections, and from libraries in Palestine that have ceased to exist. The materials selected for this project represent 119 manuscript titles in the most immediate need of preservation.

EAP521/1: Al-Aqsa Mosque Library Collection of Historical Manuscripts [12th century-19th century]

“This manuscript collection contains 119 Arabic language titles that span over several Islamic periods from the 9th century CE to the end of the Ottoman rule in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the manuscripts relate to aspects of the Islamic religion, but also cover Arabic literature, the Arabic language, logic, math and Sufism and provide a unique insight into centuries of Arabic culture in Palestine. The numbers of pages of original material represent double pages, often librarians of islamic manuscripts use one number for every two pages. ”

Digitisation is planned primarily as a means of preservation in order to create high-quality archival digital copies of the original source materials that are at risk of deterioration. Environmental factors, wear and tear of manuscripts due to poor storage conditions, the lack of security at the library, and the unstable political situation in Jerusalem contribute to the sense of urgency and make digitisation of these unique manuscript materials a top priority. (more…)

Omid Safi has a fine post (Sounds of Protest: Les Miserables, Gezi Park, and the Power of Music) on his blog at Religious News on the music in the recent protests in Turkey. Check it out for a nostalgic journey through protest songs since Joan Baez. Here is one of the songs he discusses, made at Gezi Park by Kardeş Türküler and called Sounds of Pots and Pans. Check out his commentary for far more. There is also a Turkish website with many tracks of protest music at http://capulcular.bandcamp.com/


Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757, by Francis Hayman

In 1894, as Queen Victoria smiled upon the empire upon which the sun never was allowed to set, the British literary historian Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall wrote a book that was to go through five editions by 1910 and reprints for a decade after. This was The Rise and Expansion of the British Dominion in India, published by Murray in London (I am using the 1919 edition, only recently ejected from my university library collection). This was, of course, before the fall, before India achieved independence from the Raj lords in 1947. As the 19th century came to a close, Lyall could boast that “the existing relations between India and England constitute a political situation unprecedented in the world’s history” (p. 3). Although Edward Said was aware of the biased Orientalist notions of Lyall, this particular book appears to have escaped Said’s justifiable wrath. He thus missed the telling remark that the “Indian people were, from the beginning, so far from objecting to the English dominion in India that they co-operated willingly in promoting it” (p. 3). Perhaps Lyall prefigures Gramsci in this respect; both understand the power of hegemony. Lyall, by the way, was also a poet, who once wrote a diatribe in verse, called Theology in Extremis, against attempts in India to convert British prisoners to Islam.

Lyall, not to be confused with his fellow civil servant and Arabist namesake, Charles James Lyall, was also concerned about the future of British India. He teases the reader with a quote made by Sir James Mackintosh that “England has lost a great dominion in North America in 1783 and had won another in India in 1805,” adding that “it was still uncertain whether the former as any real loss, or the latter any permanent gain” (p. 353). Another historian, Spencer Walpole, opined “Centuries hence, some philosophical historian … will relate the history of the British in India as a romantic episode which has had no appreciable effect upon the progress of the human family” (p. 353). Perhaps the episode was not romantic for people under British rule in India and the appreciable effect took place mainly on Indian bodies on the Indian continent. But Walpole seems quite prescient to me.

The future had to be more British rule, as Lyall saw it. (more…)

Egypt’s Morsi turns to Syria and soccer to polish his tarnished image

By James M. Dorsey, Mideast Soccer Blogspot, June 17, 2013

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his flailing Muslim Brotherhood have turned to foreign policy and soccer to improve their battered image in advance of a planned mass anti-government protest at the end of this month and mounting calls for his resignation.

In a bid to distract attention from his domestic woes, curry favor with the United States and Gulf countries and restore Egypt to a leadership position in the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Morsi chose a Cairo stadium to announce to his rallied supporters that he was cutting diplomatic ties with the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The president’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood at the same time said it would field candidates for the board elections of storied Cairo soccer club Al Zamalek SC and other major football teams. The move is an effort to gain control of clubs in a soccer-crazy country whose huge fan base played a key political role in and since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

The fans, one of the largest civic groups in Egypt, are likely to participate in a mass opposition Tamarod (Rebel) march on the presidential palace scheduled for June 30, the first anniversary of Mr. Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first freely-elected post-revolt leader, to demand his resignation and early elections. Egyptian media report that a petition calling for Mr. Morsi’s resignation has so far attracted 15 million signatures, two million more than the 13 million votes the president garnered a year ago. A significant number of militant soccer fans are believed to be among the signatories. (more…)


Area: 219,000 sq. mi
Population: 2,750,000
Government: Absolute Monarchy
Scenes: Morocco Leather; City of Morocco; Street Scene in Morocc
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previous post I began a series on coffee advertising cards with Middle Eastern themes. One of the most colorful collections is that provided by the Arbuckle Coffee Company. In my great, great aunt’s album there were several Middle Eastern and North African nations represented, but she did not have all the cards. Here is a final potpourri from Arbuckle’s 1889 series, starting with Morocco above. (more…)


There is always a problem with drawing a line in the sand, especially the shifting sands of Middle East conflicts. President Obama is surely aware of this now, after unguardedly saying that use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a “game-changer.” The devastation in Syria, where the death toll is now estimated at around 93,000, is no game for the people of Syria or its neighbors, who are absorbing hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. In hindsight, President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner summarizes with non-irenic irony the ineptness of his administration’s handling of the last (hopefully the last) Iraq War; will “Game Changer” haunt Obama’s record for future historians? To be blunt, is “game-changer” morphing into “game-on”?

In the rhetorical build-up to the last Iraq War, the hawkish mantra was WMD. Forget the fact that the U.S. gave tactical support to Saddam’s regime in his bloody 80’s war with Iran or had the opportunity to take him out in the earlier Iraq war. The intelligence icing on the “yellow cake” was that Saddam had become a threat to the U.S. (surely Israel was not absent in the equation), even though he had zero to do with 9/11 and was intolerant of any Islamic extremism at home. Although Libya did not seem to have WMDs, it did have the crazy loon Qaddafi, an easy target for removal by an air campaign of the U.S. and its NATO allies. Tunisia and Egypt sprung out of their respective dictatorial nightmares on their own, as the U.S. was basically reduced to observer status. The conflict in Yemen drones on, with the Saudis and the GCC doing the dirty work to redesign Yemen. Forget about changing the scene in Bahrein, where the U.S. docks its naval ships.

So the focus now is on Syria. Well, not just Syria. (more…)

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