Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Where will the Muslim Brotherhood go from here?

The Egyptian parliamentary elections took place last week. Though the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) retained its grip on power in parliament, the results have redrawn the political landscape in subtle ways and have set the tone for the presidential elections to come next year.

First, these elections are notable because the Muslim Brotherhood, said to be the most influential opposition group, boycotted them. Recognizing that the NDP wasn't going to give an inch this time around, the group withdrew its list of candidates and refused to take part in the elections. This is a striking contrast to what happened in 2005. Back then, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20% of the seats in parliament. Rumors have it that the regime gave the Brotherhood some extra breathing space in order to compete, if only to show secular elites "what they need to be afraid of.'

This time was different. The regime cracked down hard on media freedoms in the months leading up to the election, and didn't try nearly as hard to conceal the fact that these elections were certainly not fair and transparent. The Muslim Brotherhood read the writing on the wall, and made a strategic calculation not to participate. As a result, they went from controlling 20% of the seats in parliament to controlling none at all.

This represents a break in the dynamics of Egyptian politics. Though officially banned, the Muslim Brotherhood is 'tolerated' by the regime. Moreover, the group of secular opposition parties (Tagammu' on the left, Wafd on the right) have been not only tolerated, but cultivated by the regime in order to triangulate more effectively between the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition. Yet with the Brotherhood's decision to boycott these elections, the future of this political dynamic is called into doubt. The secular opposition parties are also furious, as they have seen the balance of power tilt even more in favor of the NDP in the aftermath of these elections.

What will become of the Muslim Brotherhood in the future? Will the movement devote more of its time and resources towards non-political projects? Since its founding, though, the Muslim Brotherhood has been a political movement, concerned with state power. It's not a quietest religious movement simply focused on societal change (that would be the Da'wa movement, which is not concerned with state power).

I suppose the answer to this question depends on whether the regime is cracking down only in the short-term in order to ensure a smooth presidential election next year, or a smooth transition to Mubarak's successor. After all, even if Hosni Mubarak runs and wins again, the man is not getting any younger. The next few years will certainly be politically delicate in this regard. For this reason, I tend to think it's a bit short sighted to see the crackdown purely in the context of setting the tone for next year's presidential election. I would wager it is something more long-term, designed to make sure any future transition goes as smoothly as possible.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Just because I’m pro-anti doesn’t mean I’m anti-pro

My mom got a call this fall from a political surveyor who wanted to know if she was anti-abortion. She answers the question this way: “I’m not anti-abortion, but I am pro-life.” And the political surveyor probably just about dropped the phone from his gaping mouth. How could she possibly be pro-one thing but not-anti-its opposite? Even more shocking is her oft-stated comment, “I’m not anti-abortion, but I’m not pro-abortion, either.” Because how could anyone be psyched about going out and aborting some fetuses? It’s a fact of life. There are shades of grey.

Recently, I’ve found myself in this same dilemma, but on a topic much more divisive, at least in the New York academic community. Of course, I’m talking about Israel and Palestine. Having decided to take my history seminar in the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department, I am at times horrified by the statements I read that have permeated the history American Middle East Policy. If you’re pro-Arab, then you must be anti-Israel. If you’re anti-Israel, you must also be anti-Semitic. And maybe—MAYBE—if we were right in the throes of it, on the West Bank in 1967, that would be at least accurate of not logical. But 40 years and 5600 miles away, I think we should have enough distance to break these terms down a bit more.

I, for one, am certainly pro-Arab. I like Arab food, I like Arab culture, and I certainly like many many Arab people. Heavens knows I’m pro-Palestine; the Palestinian people have suffered from oppression and abuse for 60 years now. I have a hard time understanding how anyone can NOT support a people who have been denied basic human rights like freedom of movement and access to potable drinking water. I want those things even for people I don’t like.

But here’s the shocking thing: I’m also pro-Israel—as in Eretz Y’Israel. I accept the historical arguments. The Jews have historically gotten screwed time and again and, after facing a decade of ethnic cleansing, needed a safe space to call their own. Would I have gone about it as was done in 1947? Probably not.

What I am not is pro-Israeli expansionism, pro-Bibi (Netanyahu), pro-settlement, pro-terrorist, or anti-Semitic. And yet somehow, these labels tend to get thrown around in tandem with what I do believe. The language, in this case, makes things especially messy. Israel refers both to the Biblical Jewish “homeland” and the state apparatus in place there. Jew is used to reference both a religion found worldwide and the particular group of people who inhabit that chunk of land between Lebanon and Egypt.

As the conflict in Israel Palestine rages on more than 60 years later, as the U.S. gets increasingly involved in the Middle East, and as more and more innocent civilians get caught in the middle, I think its increasingly important that we use our language specifically. That we talk through things carefully. There are shades of grey. If someone tells you he is pro-Arab and you jump to the conclusion that he is, therefore, anti-Semitic, well…. That says a lot more about you than about him.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Beginning of the End

From the almost-finished series, “A Failed Adventure”

The next day, I made plans to hit up some of the city’s most tourist-friendly attractions. First, I visited the Ummayyad, or Grand, Mosque. Next, I headed to Al-Azzem Palace, both visually stunning and amusingly entertaining. I was distracted by the long display descriptions, which I first read in full in English and then tested my Arabic by stumbling through the translations. Before I knew it, the time had passed 3 in the afternoon. I headed over to ‘Omr’s shop, but when I got there he was gone. I felt bad for having missed our appointment, but needed to continue my day.

And continue I did, as I went in search of the last item I needed to buy for my family back home. My father and brother had asked specifically for Damascene steel, which was remarkably hard to find in a city once made famous for it. But I managed to find a small shop displaying antique damascene steel daggers and letter openers. The proprietor, a heavy-set middle-aged Beiruti popped out the door. “Come in!” he said. He knew right away that I was an American. He asked if I had traveled to Beirut, and I responded that I had not. “I love Syria,” he said, “but I do miss Beirut. They are much less conservative there. People can do what they want.”

After presenting me with dozens of options to choose from, I chose two small daggers and haggled him only a little to lower the price to 900 pounds each. But before I could pay him, he began bringing out refurbished antique jewelry. I was astounded at their beauty. “Would you like to try them on?” he asked. I asked the price, but he insisted that I try them on now and we would talk price later. He picked up a jade-beaded chain from which hung a huge silver medallion. As held it, rubbing my thumbs over the engraved Arabic characters, he closed the shop door, revealing a mirror on its back.

“Here,” he said, “ I’ll help you put it on.” He clasped the chain around my neck from behind and encouraged me to look in the mirror. I sighed as I admired it. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “Yes,” he agreed as he stepped between me and the mirror, looking me up and down like I might expect from a ubiquitous gay salesman in New York. “It would look even better in America, if these were up here, like this,” he said as he grabbed my breasts and lifted them up to a Whitney Houston-like look.

I didn’t know what to do. I stepped back immediately, and looked uncomfortably at the floor. I had never been in such a situation before and was feeling small and guilty. But he moved on as though nothing has happened. I moved back toward the closed door as I tried to count 1800 pounds out of my wallet to take my daggers and go. “Wait!”he said. “please, let me give you a gift.” I refused, but he took out a tray of rings and looked quickly through them. He handed me the silver and turquoise ring as I pushed my two thousand pound notes at him and rushed out the door.

I tried to hold it together as I worked my way back to the house, fighting back tears. I struggled to get my key in the door before Bruce, my 40-something roommate, opened it. “Well hello,” he said, smiling, before sensing anything was wrong. “Oh, is everything ok?” I forced a smiled and walked slowly to my room, then lay on my bed and let the tears fall. I was already homesick. I felt alone. I scheduled a return flight to the U.S. for two days later.

I slept for several hours before waking up with a growling stomach. I looked out my window and saw the Umayyad Mosque glowing against the dark sky. I knew it wasn’t smart to go out this long after dark, but I hadn’t any food in the house. So I decided to go for more ice cream. Along the way, I passed the Lebanese shopkeeper, who waved and smiled at me as he closed up his shop for the night. I continued quickly to the market for a little comfort food.

The view of the mosque from my room at night

I took the long way back to my house, through the shops, restaurants, and falafel stands that lined the outer edge of the mosque, taking in the safety of heavy foot traffic and the beauty of this bustling city I was both sad and relieved to be leaving. Suddenly, I heard my name called out from the line of an orange juice stand. It was ‘Omr.

“Sarah, Sarah, “ he said, “I am sad you did not come by my shop today.”

“I did!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry I was late. You were gone by the time I got there.”

“I had made a reservation for us and everything. You did not come. I know that Americans say Arabs are liars but that is not true. You think I am a liar, but I think you are a liar.”

“I am sorry, really. And I don’t think you’re a liar, I’ve never heard anyone say Arabs are liars. I’m sorry, I have to go home now, it is late and I have to be up early in the morning.”

“No, you don’t have to be up that early, I’m sure. Please, you can make it up to me. Let us go out. You can stay up for another couple of hours and still get up early.”

I continued to protest, until finally making a deal that I would join ‘Omr for one drink before I needed to go home. He agreed that we would go to a restaurant near my house. But as we walked, he started again to hassle me about my missing our appointment that evening. When we reached the corner of my street, I stopped. “‘Omr,” I said, “if you are just going to give me a hard time about this, I do not want to go. I have not had a good day.”

‘Omr took my hands there in the street. “Sarah, I am not trying to give you a hard time,” he said, and just as I was about to continue walking, he put his arm snuggly around my neck and approached my face to kiss me, right there in the Old City. “Nonononono,” I stuttered quickly and turned my head. He rushed off angrily.

The decision to go home was the right one.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An Idiot Abroad

No, this post isn't about me - though there really is no shortage of superbly stupid moments from my travels. I'm just not interested in making it a matter of public record just yet. An Idiot Abroad is latest endeavor of The Office co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, a travel show in which they send one of their more "unworldly" friends, Karl Pilkington, around the globe to see the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World just for the sheer fun of seeing him struggle with it all.  Really, that is the entire premise of the show.  While Merchant expressed his hope that traveling will help broaden Pilkington's horizons and change his outlook on the world, Gervais cackled that he hopes Karl will hate it, adding: "This is one of the funniest, most expensive practical jokes I've ever done."

Indeed, when Karl heads off to Jordan to see Petra, along with a side trip to Israel, there are plenty of moments when he appears to be hating his life. But overall he is good sport, and is open to learning. In many ways, watching an "idiot" such as Pilkington is refreshing - he isn't a pretentious know-it-all showing off how knowledgeable and worldly he is. Viewers are able to watch him take everything in, process it, and begin to form his own opinions.

For example, within the first few minutes of the episode Karl is ambushed and kidnapped by "terrorists" in a paranoid Israeli-run "Extreme Scenario" training session...because, you know, sight-seeing in Jerusalem is extremely dangerous and everyone should be prepared to be held for ransom by Palestinian militants. Riiiiight. Pilkington caught on to this, however, commenting when he was in the Old City: "It can't be that dodgy, can it? Look at all the tourists...You don't queue up to go to a danger zone...is it all part of it, though, do they do that for the tourists? Make them feel like ooooh it's a bit edgy when really it's not going to kick off." Pilkington also heads off to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, where he his impacted more by the Separation Wall than he is by the birthplace of Jesus: "I got more of a feeling from that wall than from where Jesus was born...go over there, that's where you can have a tear, it's depressing." So, even an "idiot" such as Pilkington can see through some of the performances that are put on for tourists in a "hot spot" like the Holy Land and form his own opinions.

As can be expected, the episode wasn't without its fair share of cringeworthy/facepalm moments. After a detour to the Dead Sea, Karl reaches Jordan where he trades in the car for a camel, and begins the trek to Petra. He's relieved when, after eight hours, the camels tucker out and won't walk any further, and they have to load them onto trucks and drive to a Bedouin camp for the evening. This is perhaps the most awkward scene of the episode - Karl and the Bedouin - as you can tell he really has no idea what to think of it all and, given the fact that he'd spent eight hours on a camel that day, his patience and graciousness are lacking (more in the video below). After nearly throwing a temper tantrum the next morning when they try to make him ride a camel the rest of the way to Petra, Pilkington is driven to site where he actually ends up enjoying himself. After spending the night in a cave, he later remarked: "I think being a caveman would have suited me down to the ground. I think my brain would have suited that time more as it can't keep up with stuff these days. I think I was born too late."

I found it odd that throughout the Jordan portion of the episode, you don't see Karl in Amman or any other Jordanian city for that matter, giving the impression that Jordan is just all desert and camels. Though Karl felt well suited to a "caveman" lifestyle, I'm sure he would have spent at least one day in Amman if only for the sole purpose of catching a flight back to England, and I think that it wouldn't have been so terrible to include some footage of Jordan's capital city in the episode. Still, I suppose the "Petra Experience" is what most people are looking for when they travel to Jordan, and Amman wouldn't have been as "challenging" of a place for Karl - so there would have been fewer uncomfortable moments to get Ricky Gervais cackling.

Below are some of the episode's "Best Bits" - which, in my opinion, aren't actually the highlights. It seems like these are these scenes when Karl is the most annoyed and not enjoying himself (which, in Gervais's view, ARE the highlights):

Monday, October 25, 2010

Some Background on Iraq's Outstanding Issues

In light of tonight's visit by esteemed historian of modern Iraq, Professor Charles Tripp, I thought it would be a good idea to kick off the week by briefly touching on some of the salient issues in Iraq today.

Sectarian versus issue-based politics. A logic of sectarianism as political ideology has largely governed power relations in Iraq since the first elections there in January 2005. Governing institutions were created based on ethnosectarian quotas. As a result, substantive issues have time and again fallen prey to identity politics. In early 2009, there were signs that a more issue-based political dynamic was beginning to emerge. PM Minister Maliki's party had fared exceptionally well in the provincial elections running on a platform based on issues like the rule of law and a strong central government. Building off that success, Maliki broke from the dominant coalition of Shia parties to run separately in the national elections in March 2010. Though he tried to reach out across the sectarian divide and form a transectarian alliance, he ultimately failed in that regard.

Politics are still mired in the logic of identity politics. The current government formation process (now over seven months old) has seen the desire to form an "inclusive" and "representative" government at the expense of one that is ideologically coherent.

The Insurgency. The state of the insurgency has attracted some attention as of late due to the recent New York Times article reporting that substantial numbers of Awakening group members have been deserting their posts and returning to their original role as insurgents. The original deal was that the in exchange for policing their neighborhoods and rooting out elements of the insurgency, the federal government would incorporate these unofficial policemen into its own security forces. Those that weren't given jobs in the security forces would be given jobs in the public sector. On the one hand, it was always going to be difficult to find 91,000 jobs for these individuals - especially given the 2009 budget cuts that the fall in oil prices necessitated. As a result, only a small portion of the 91,000 Awakening group members have been given official positions.

This recent controversy aside, the insurgency is not - and likely will not - be capable of controlling whole neighborhoods and cities like it used to prior to 2008. The government's security forces have grown and improved substantially. As a result, the insurgency is limited to the occasional high-profile car bomb.

Tensions between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad. Because the Iraqi constitution is vague on federal and regional powers, Baghdad and Irbil have locked horns on a number of issues. The most prominent of these are those dealing with territory and hydrocarbons. The two are intertwined, as the struggle for Kirkuk demonstrates. The KRG is pushing for the implementation of article 140, which calls for a referendum to be held in Kirkuk to determine if that province joins the KRG or remains governed by the federal center. The federal government has consistently dragged its feet on this issue, since a referendum would be highly polarizing and could risk the outbreak of violent conflict.

The dispute between Irbil and Baghdad over who has the right to sign oil contracts is also a high-stakes game. The KRG claims it has constitutional authority to sign oil contracts independently of Baghdad. For its part, the central government is adamant that it is the only body legally authorized to sign such deals. It fears that the KRG seeks to rapidly exploit its hydrocarbon resources in order to build an economic infrastructure that will pave for the way for its eventual secession from Iraq. This is the sticking point, not disagreements over "revenue distribution between sects" as is often reported.

So there you have it. Hopefully this will add some context and background to a talk tonight that is sure to be enlightening and insightful.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The (In)validity of Labels

Whenever I tell people that I am getting a master's degree in a discipline called "Near Eastern studies" I am often met with confused stares. I then clarify that Near Eastern studies at NYU is more or less the same discipline as Middle Eastern studies; the differences are semantic. We call the masters program "Near Eastern studies" and the PhD program "Middle Eastern studies". Every now and then I'll be asked by friends or acquaintances what the difference is between the "Near East" and the "Middle East", but instead of getting roped into a discussion of the Eurocentrism inherent in the coding of geographical regions and the history of Orientalism, I try to change the subject and enjoy the rest of my day.

But for us students of Near Eastern studies - or Middle East and Islamic studies - the problematic nature of these labels sometimes gets under our skin. I know at least a few students at the Kevorkian who visibly cringe whenever they hear the acronym "MENA". MENA, which stands for Middle East North Africa, takes the arbitrary nature of labels to new levels. After all, what are the countries comprising North Africa? If you were to look on a map, you could say: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Yet for some reason, Egypt is rarely acknowledged to be in the "North Africa" category. Instead, Egypt seems to be universally accepted as part and parcel of the "Middle East". Meanwhile, the term "al-Maghrib" is usually used to refer to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. So what happens to Libya? Why isn't it included in the Maghrib?

This reminds me of an argument I got into with a colleague this past summer at the CASA program in Cairo. While talking about Algeria's performance in the World Cup, he noted that Algeria was the only team in the tournament from "the Middle East". I rudely cut him off and said that I wasn't sure if Algeria was in the Middle East. This colleague was a graduate of a particular university in the South known for its pretension, so I wanted to give him a hard time anyway. I simply recommended that he replace "fii as-Sharq al-Awsat" with "fii al-3alam al-a3rabi". The professor sided with my suggestion, and the issue was settled.

But it wasn't. Perhaps it never will be. Until it is, we graduate students of Near Eastern studies can continue debating the (in)validity of these labels.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ahmadinejad in Lebanon: Entertainment as Usual

Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his first visit to Lebanon since taking office in 2005. Prior to the trip, the international press kept itself busy with speculations on what sorts of antics to expect from the controversial media darling.

Yes, I said "media darling". More on that later.

The speculations ranged from paranoid to downright delusional. Some emphasized Iran and Hizbullah's "evil plans". On the other end of the spectrum, Iran's state-run Press TV claimed that the trip would "unite [the] Lebanese."

One of the primary hang-ups were reports that Ahmadinejad's visit would include a trip to Fatima's Gate to hurl stones at the Israeli border. Fears that this would spark an international incident, perhaps armed confrontation, ran rampant. One writer even conveyed a sense of admiration at the thought of Ahmadinejad venturing to the southern-most point of the country, "where he will be standing in the cross-hairs of Israeli rifles." And this was all in spite of the fact that even Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah flatly denied that any such rock-slanging was on the agenda.

Which brings me back to my labeling Ahmadinejad as a "media darling". What struck me the most as I read these reports was that it seemed that the media wanted this to happen. They wanted to see Ahmadinejad, clad in his signature khaki members-only jacket, toss a few stones at that fence, all in the name of showmanship. Recounting Ahmadinejad's antics has become a national pastime of sorts, as evidenced by the annual spectacle of his trips to the UN. We're all sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for him to say or do something outlandish or inflammatory so we can head to our computers and deconstruct his statements and actions. He's that guy you invite to the party not because you particularly like him, but you know that he'll do something ridiculous and you'll have a great story to tell your friends and coworkers on Monday.

As amusing as Ahmadinejad-bashing may be, this preoccupation often draws attention away from more pertinent issues, and it seems to be part of a wider attempt to discredit Iranian regional influence and legitimacy. While it is true that he isn't too popular back home, "Lebanon one of the very few places in the world where Ahmadinejad is welcome." Even my friend Omar, a Palestinian refugee who generally prefaces political discussions with an assertion that all politicians are terrible, has a favorable impression of the Iranian President. According to Omar, in the next few months they'll be able to have electricity 24/7 because of Iranian funding. These sorts of details - and an examination of their wider implications - are often missed when we're too busy making fun of or demonizing or debunking superficial public displays.

Which is, of course , exactly what is happening. Though Mahmoud didn't throw rocks, Nasrallah gave him an assault rifle which was purportedly seized from the IDF during the 2006 war. It didn't take long for the IDF to assert that the rifle model was too old and outdated to have been seized in 2006, thus implying that Nasrallah is a liar and that Mahmoud was given a counterfeit souvenir. But I guess I'm forgetting that, in spite of its pretensions, news is in many ways a form entertainment. And I think it's pretty obvious that the average reader is more interested in hearing about souvenir assault rifles than complicated regional politics.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Identity Politics in Egypt

Tensions between Muslims and Copts have been on the rise lately in Egypt. Two incidents in particular have led to a marked deterioration in inter-sectarian relations since May 2010: a legal battle between the Coptic community and the state over whether divorced Coptic men can legally remarry; and the issue of Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest who Muslims claim has converted to Islam and is being held by her family against her will.

The history of Muslim-Copt relations is a long one, as the two have been coexisting in Egypt since the 7th century. The Coptic community welcomed the Arabs, who gave them more religious freedom than they had enjoyed under Byzantine rule. The trope that Copts were forced to convert upon the Arab invasion is an utter falsehood; mass conversions did not occur until much later on (circa the 14th century). Regarding more recent relations, many Egyptian Copts - rightly or wrongly - attribute the rise in sectarian tensions to the growing religious conservatism of the Muslim majority since the 1970s, and the role of the state in fostering that growth.

The two aforementioned incidents have sharpened sectarian tensions. Furthermore, they have exposed the problems underlying the effort to secure rights for religious minorities in the modern secular nation-state.

First, the legal battle between the state and the Coptic community. In May 2010, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the Coptic church could not prevent two divorced Coptic men from legally remarrying. The Coptic church considered this an infringement by the state on their religious rights, since Egyptian law grants the church primacy over personal status affairs. In response to the ruling, Pope Shenoudah III - head of the Coptic church - appealed to President Mubarak. Though the ruling was subsequently overturned, the Coptic community was once again vulnerable to the accusation that they constitute a state within a state.

The second controversy has generated more sectarian tension. After Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest, disappeared, rumors spread that she had converted to Islam and was being held against her will by her husband and father as punishment. Mosques became the sites of rallies and demonstrations calling for the liberation of "sister Camillia". Despite the fact that a You-Tube video was posted in which Camillia appeared and explained that she had left her husband due to a marital dispute, and not because she had converted, the demonstrators insisted that the video was a fraud and that she was being held against her will. To add fuel to the fire, the number two in the Coptic church, Bishop Beshoy, gave an interview to al-Masri al-Youm in which he called the Coptic community the original inhabitors of Egypt, and that the Muslims were simply "guests". So much for tactful PR.

The Mubarak regime itself has attracted attention for its inaction in the midst of these tensions. The security forces have not lifted a finger to crack down on any of the public demonstrations, which some say reflects a strategic calculation on the part of the Mubarak regime. For example, Ibrahim Eissa, the prominent regime critic and recently sacked editor of one of Egypt's largest independent newspapers, has underscored the notion that with the prices of vegetables, fruits, and meat having risen by 300%, fomenting identity politics is a great way to distract attention from more substantive issues that transcend sectarian divisions. The title of his editorial says it all: "Muslims, Copts, and Meat."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these recent episodes of sectarian tension is that many of the demonstrators who oppose the stance of the Coptic church in these issues couch their arguments in the language of civil rights. Though the state sees itself as enforcing religious freedom by permitting the Coptic church to manage personal status issues, these demonstrators charge that by doing so, the state is enabling the church to act in ways that are perceived as "illiberal". Many of them support a unitary civil code, regardless of religious affiliation. Indeed, the concept of a unitary civil code constitutes an integral part of the normative Western conception of the modern, secular nation-state.

But what these advocates often fail to recognize is that unitary civil codes can be illiberal in their own ways. The implementation of them involves drastic transformations in the way adherents of a particular religious tradition relate to that very tradition. In this way, the secularizing project inevitably involves power, coercion, and work on the self. In short, if the Egyptian state's policy of allowing the Coptic church to manage their personal status issues enables "illiberal" traditions, so does the project of enforcing a unitary civil code.

Not surprisingly, advocates for an individual rights-based framework don't get very far when they appeal to the Egyptian government. After all, as far as the NDP is concerned, there's nothing like good old sectarian controversy to take the public's attention off of high food and gas prices, unpopular foreign policies, and an increasingly harsh media crackdown in an election year.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Iraq's Continuing Refugee Crisis

Last week I noticed that the prominent Arabic periodical, al-Hayat, had published an interesting investigative piece on Iraqi refugees in the United States. Not surprisingly, the lack of media coverage allocated to Iraq these days has alarmed Iraqi refugees, many of whom fear that the Obama administration's desire to focus on more pressing issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan will result in ignoring the residual humanitarian issues still lingering in Iraq.

The conflict in Iraq has generated over two million refugees, or one out of every 15 Iraqis. The vast majority have sought refuge in Syria and Jordan; the more affluent have been able to escape to western Europe, Australia, and the United States.

Who are they? Many are Iraqis who worked with the US-led occupation as interpreters, translators, drivers, and cooks. But most are just normal Iraqi citizens who became caught up the sectarian violence and forced to abandon their homes. One of the rarely mentioned reasons for the decline in sectarian violence post-2008 is that neighborhoods in Baghdad became almost entirely segregated, as these maps demonstrate. By 2008, almost every neighborhood east of the Tigris river was exclusively Shia. Small pockets of Sunni neighborhoods dot the western side of the city. This ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was carried out largely by sectarian Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaish al-Mahdi and the Badr Corps, and was often facilitated by Iraqi security forces (who themselves were infiltrated by the afore-mentioned sectarian militias).

So what's the status of the thousands of Iraqi refugees now living in the United States? Prior to 2008, the US had absorbed an embarrassingly small amount of refugees. However, the situation changed significantly after the late Senator Ted Kennedy co-sponsored legislation enabling the repatriation of a greater number of refugees in late 2008. The number repatriated in the US grew to 12,000 in 2008, followed by 18,000 in 2009 - a marked increase in comparison to the several hundred repatriated between 2003 and 2008.

Yet, challenges remain for those granted residency in the US. Few jobs are available given the severe economic downturn. As a consequence, educated refugees with university degrees are forced to settle for jobs quite different from those they left behind in Iraq. Apparently Ali al-Shamri, a former health minister and prominent member of the Sadr trend, is now working at a Wickman's supermarket somewhere in the United States.

So how will the Obama administration deal with the lingering refugee crisis plaguing Iraq? Will they strive to repatriate larger numbers of refugees in the US, or stall and hope that the security situation in Iraq improves to the extent that these refugees are able to return to their original homes? (Small caveat here: different families have moved in to many of the houses that these refugees were forced to abandon.) Another thing to keep in mind: to administration officials in charge of managing this issue, this is a strategic as well as a moral concern. Last time I checked, large refugee populations whose grievances are continuously ignored make for some rather unstable regional dynamics.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Colbert's "Muslim Threatdown"

Between school, working full time, and my quest to find the perfect man, I seldom have the time to sit down and read the paper or watch the news. Plus, every time I take a few moments to indulge in popular journalism, I am bombarded by cranky old men and “mama bear” women pressing me into ultra-conservatism or ultra-liberalism.

So, I’ve turned exclusively to one hour of cable television to get all of my news: Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘The Colbert Report.’ Don’t be too quick to judge me: during my research for a term paper on Jon Stewart’s show, I found that in 2004 some absurd percentage of 18-34 year olds cited ‘The Daily Show’ as their main source of news. (I’d give you the actual statistic and citation here, but hey, this is a blog. And I’ve already read all of my source materials once; I don’t want to do it again. Sorry.)

Last night it was Colbert, however, who made my night with his segment “Muslim Threatdown.” Colbert examines how Islam is “permeating our society” through public schools’ recognition of Muslim holidays, and Kellogg’s and Campbell’s release of Halal cereals and soups, as reported by right-wing blogs. I figured Colbert and his writers at Comedy Central must stalk the right-wing bloggers (who even reads blogs, anyway?) to find this stuff, but it’s surprisingly easily available. Google “blog Halal Campbell’s” and you’ll find such titles as “Creeping Sharia” and “Campbell’s goes Halal to appease terrorist-funded group.” Seriously? How do these people get enough credence to end up on cable TV?

I figure the right-wingers who express these crazy views about the jihadists secretly taking over America are just afraid. And while the fear might stem from experiences, it’s still irrational. Like all phobias. And just because you’re afraid of something doesn’t mean you should be allowed to, and certainly not encouraged to, make public, definitive, and influential statements about it.

For example, I am afraid of frogs. I hate those slimy, bug-eyed, long-legged creatures. Sure, there are some tiny yellow ones off in the rainforest somewhere that could kill me with the toxic oils seeping from their pores, but I know that the frogs I see, that I actually deal with on a day-to-day basis (I’m from New Hampshire, we have frogs) could never hurt me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of them. It’s a phobia, it’s irrational.

So no one would ever let me write a blog post (at least not on a widely read influential blog) about frogs. Steven Colbert would never put my frog blog on his show. Because I would say utterly absurd things, like, “that frog I found smushed under the bathmat at summer camp? That was just the beginning of the frogs’ takeover of every place I find sacred.” (It’s true, though.)

Certainly no would take my frog blog seriously. In fact, people would ridicule me. My friends do ridicule me. So much so that, quivering and with a sour smile, I force myself to take 12 little frog-loving girls out to catch some. (Little girls always love frogs.) I even carry the bucket in my shaking hand, and smile and nod when they catch one and put it in. “Greeeeeee-eat,” I say, and if you know me you can picture my pursed lips, squinted eyes, and brows raised so high my forehead wrinkles as I say it.

So sure, there are some yellow, rainforest, toxic-oil Muslims out there. We’ve seen it. And some people are afraid of Muslims, and they can’t help it because fear is a feeling, and it’s irrational. But that certainly does not give them the right to suggest that Campbell’s is making Halal soups as a means for the Muslim brotherhood “to eliminate and destroy Western civilization from within.” (I refuse to link to it, but that’s from Pam Geller’s blog).

Is the greater world solution really the same one that my friends use on me? Do we really have to ridicule—I mean personally make fun of—people that fear Muslims? Should I befriend some Islamaphobe bloggers and force them to eat Campbell’s soup or other delicious Halal foods? Will that convince the right-wing bloggers that most Muslims they interact with on a day-to-day basis are not only harmless, but good and kind people who deserve, at the very least, that you try to understand and get to know them? You don’t have to love Islam, but you can’t hate (or slander) its people.

And yes, I did, in fact, just compare Islamophobia to my own ranidaphobia. But that can't possibly be as offensive as Geller.

Check out the segment on Colbert: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/361759/october-11-2010/threatdown---muslim-edition?xrs=share_copy

Monday, October 11, 2010

On Being a Woman… Alone Part 3

From the now somewhat long series, “A Failed Adventure”

My experience in the market put me on edge, and made me suspicious of all the attention I had received from Syrian men. It became difficult to discriminate between kindly displays of Syrian hospitality and creepy sexual innuendo and misguided expectations of an American girl. Do I accept tea because it is polite? Or refuse it because it is only a vehicle to keep me inside longer?

I thought I got my answer later that evening as I was walking home from a little late-night semolina ice cream topped with crushed pistachios. After a productive afternoon shopping and buying enough to merit the purchase of another suitcase to get it all home, I had purposely left my wallet at home to avoid the temptation to buy anymore. But as I walked home though the handicrafts section of the market, I was caught by a young man speaking unaccented English. “Miss!” he cried out. “Miss, please, come inside. See my jewelry.” He smiled widely and brightly in that way that just exudes kindness and hospitality. I stepped to the side and admired his craftsmanship.

The handicrafts portion of Souq Al-Hamidiyya

“They are beautiful,” I said, “But I don’t have any money with me tonight. I left my purse at home, so I can’t buy anything.”

“That is ok,” he said. “I like to show my art work. Please, I have my own workshop and gallery around the corner, next to Al-Azzam Palace. Will you come see my work?”

I weighed the balance in my head: was this safe? Would it be rude to say no? So I took the plunge and walked with the young shopkeeper a few blocks around the corner to a big, well-lit multi-artist workshop. Inside, the walls were lined with beautifully hand embroidered scarves and tapestries, woven blankets, and intricate gold and silver jewelry. The young shopkeeper/artist, whose name I had learned was ‘Omr, offered me a cup of tea and a seat on a red velvet upholstered bench. After showing me much of his jewelry and giving me a brief tour of the other artists’ work, he asked about me and my trip.

After hearing my story, ‘Omr demonstrated the famous Syrian hospitality in full force. “Please, why don’t you come out with my friends and me tomorrow night, and we will teach you to play backgammon?” he offered, and I accepted graciously. “Come by my shop tomorrow, at around 2:30, and we will choose a time and go out and have fun.” I agreed, and went home to bed having made a new friend.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tea with Dr. G

Last spring during breaks from my internship with an organization in Haifa I would spend time in Jerusalem. I wrote this during one of such trips.

The last few days I've been in Jerusalem, staying with "the doctors" as I call them - Dr. G, a family physician, and his wife, Dr. F, a professor, writer and activist. They live in the Old City in the Armenian quarter, and they both have no shortage of stories to tell.

Dr. G in particular is quite the character - he is always bursting to tell stories and share his random thoughts on life, and I am more than happy to listen. For example, here is a sampling of some of the things he said just while I was writing this post:

"I always thought I was 64; Today I realized I am 63."
"What are you doing? Are you writing an article? Are you chatting with your friends? I cannot use laptops!"
"Do you eat as a duty or because you enjoy it?"
"In India, I lived like a KING!"

An Armenian, he studied medicine in the former Soviet Union, and as a young resident in the 1970s he was based in Amman, Jordan. In Jordan, most doctors study in Britain or the States, and therefore use English medical terms, even when speaking in Arabic with patients. One doctor was delivering a baby that was in breech presentation. In Arabic he told the woman that the baby was delivered breech, but used the English medical term. The woman practically freaked - "WHAT?!  BREECH?!" The doctor failed to recall that in Arabic the word "breesh" means feathers - so he told he woman that her baby was being delivered with feathers.

Some of his other stories from Jordan aren't so light-hearted. In 1975, when he was just starting out as a young med school graduate, a woman brought her granddaughter to the emergency room claiming that she had eaten a tomato that had been sprayed with pesticide. The ER physician had stepped out for a bit, and Dr. G was left to treat the patient on his own.

Dr. G knew that if she had only eaten a tomato, the amount of poison she would have ingested would have been small, and therefore easy to treat. So, he began administering the antidote, not thinking that much would be needed. You could tell if it was working if the patient's pupils dilated. Well, Dr. G had administered several doses and nothing was happening - no dilated pupils. The ER physician returned and right away knew what was going on - "This girl's grandmother wasn't telling the truth - this is a suicide attempt."

Dr. G began administering dose after dose after dose of the antidote - the medication's packaging falling to the floor "like bullet casings," as he described it. The physician called the grandmother and got the truth out of her - the girl had intentionally drank a glass of pesticide. She had ingested too much, it didn't matter how much medicine they gave her - she died.

Her body was transported to the morgue at King Hussein hospital, and the final autopsy and police reports revealed the rest of the story. The girl was to be married the following day, but she was not a virgin - so, the story goes, she poisoned herself. This case had a profound impact on young Dr. G, and I can't help but wonder more about the conditions surrounding the young woman's death. Many studies have been done analyzing cases such as this on a broader scale, but I'm fixated on this specific girl. I guess all I can do is wonder.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Egypt's Upcoming Electoral Season

It's that time again: the Egyptian election cycle is heating up. Parliamentary elections are due to be held on 29 November 2010, while presidential elections are due to be held in September 2011. A lot of the buzz surrounding these elections has focused on the possible presidential candidacy of former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed el-Baradei. These elections are taking place in a significantly different context than the 2005-06 cycle, so what has changed? What hasn't?

First off, Egypt's standing in the Arab world has not been immune to the series of crises that have shaken up the regional power dynamics since the last presidential election in 2006. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, President Mubarak denounced the Israeli killing of civilians but ended up laying the blame squarely on Hezbollah. In June 2007, Egypt's security forces shipped arms and trained Fatah fighters who were preparing to oust Hamas from Gaza, only to watch those fighters pre-emptively overrun by their Hamas counterparts. Though Egypt has been attempting to bring Hamas and Fatah together since then, it has repeatedly failed to do so, and has been charged with not being an honest broker in the matter. Finally, the Israeli assault on Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009 was orchestrated with apparent Egyptian approval. Israeli foreign minister Tsipi Livni visited Cairo two days before the assault began in order to inform Mubarak. Needless to say, this pattern of cooperation with unpopular Israeli policies has not and will not win the regime any friends at home. Perhaps this regional insecurity explains why al-Ahram felt compelled to doctor this now infamous photo of Mubarak leading the group at the White House.

Another change worth noting is the modest increase in media freedom since 2006. A variety of independent newspapers have been allowed to thrive since then, particularly al-Masri al-Youm, al-Dustor, and al-Sharouq. It is also noteworthy that several of Egypt's most prominent commentators (Fahmy Huweidi, Jalal Amin, Salameh Ahmad Salameh) have recently bolted from the government-affiliated daily al-Ahram to write in the independent dailies.

Though this has been tolerated by the regime, there are signs that a government crackdown on media freedoms is underway in light of the upcoming election year. Earlier this week, Ibrahim Eissa was fired from his post as editor of al-Dustor. Eissa is arguably the single most influential critic of the regime, so his sacking has raised some eyebrows. The rumor is that he was going to publish this critical article by Mohammed el-Baradei on the 6 October war. Issandr El Amrani has more on this at The Arabist for those of you who are interested.

So will unpopular policies towards Israel coupled with a modest increase in media freedom (though this is doubtful to last) be able to significantly shake up the power dynamics underlying Egyptian politics? Probably not. It is practically guaranteed that the ruling party - the NDP - will use whatever means necessary to secure victory at the polls this November. However, as Mona El-Ghobashy pursuasively argues in MERIP, Egyptian elections are not about winning for the regime. Winning is guaranteed. Rather, parliamentary elections are about re-establishing networks of patronage by renewing political alliances, redistributing economic resources to the regime's vast pyramid of partners.

This point is helpful to keep in mind when thinking about Egyptian politics, because far too often, this entrenched, complex, shadowy system of patronage politics is overlooked. There is a tendency to simplify Egyptian politics by focusing on the role of Mubarak himself. If only Baradei could find a way to compete next year and win, goes the thinking, Egypt would be different. But what about the system of entrenched patronage that includes partners stretching from the highest corridors of power in Cairo to the lowest-level clients in the Delta? As Ghobashy's piece shows, micro-level politics in Egypt matter. We can't deny these people agency by assuming that the power dynamics underlying the regime are confined to a handful of elites in Cairo. After all, US officials made a similar assumption after invading Iraq, and they made it at their own peril.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Historical Production of Sectarianism in Iraq

While mulling over the discussion surrounding Lisa Wedeen's presentation at the Kevorkian last week, I've been thinking about the elective affinity between science and liberalism, and the particular type of discourse that emerges from that affinity. Specifically, I have been thinking about how this can be applied to one of my own research interests: the production of knowledge regarding modern Iraq.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, it's become fashionable to view Iraq through ethnosectarian lenses. This tendency is not limited to policymakers and commentators in the public discourse; intellectuals and academics have also been culpable of reinforcing the notion that Iraq is an artificial state, or a state that has never integrated as a nation because of its so-called ethnosectarian heterogeneity. Iraq was carved out by the British in 1920, goes the notion, and the individuals incorporated into the new state have never been able to get past their primary identity of the ethnic group, the sectarian group, the tribe, the clan, etc. In short, Iraq has never fully made the transition from Gemeinshaft to Gesellschaft, a fundamental precondition for the development of the nation-state. Iraqis identify themselves as Shia, Sunnis and Kurds before they identify themselves as Iraqis.

Significantly, I think, many Western academics and intellectuals also subscribe to the "non-integration of Iraq" thesis (as esteemed Iraq scholar Isam al-Khafaji calls it). For instance, Noah Feldman writes in the Wall Street Journal on September 1, 2010, that Iraq will require a long-term US presence because "Iraq's primary identities are still of religious denomination or ethnicity, not of Iraqi nationhood." Thus, due to its "fissiparous character", Iraq is capable of sliding back into civil war at any moment. Feldman is a professor at Harvard Law School, and has written extensively on Islam and the Middle East. He also was one of the authors of Iraq's interim constitution in 2004.

This connection between viewing Iraq as a state without a national identity and the necessity for intervention is interesting. It is interesting, because in a lot of ways, it is not new. British views of Iraq and of India during their colonial administrations were characterized by essentialist understandings of sectarian identity. Sectarian cleavages - between Sunnis and Shia in the case of Iraq, and between Hindus and Muslims in the case of India - were seen as impediments to state and nation building. Since the modern liberal understanding of the nation-state was seen as the normative ideal (in which civic citizenship defined identity), sectarian and ethnic identities became problematic. In this light, notice that Feldman states that the ideal scenario would be for a new Iraqi identity to emerge on the basis of democratic institutions, or civic citizenship. Iraqis must move past their sectarian identities in order to forge a strong national identity. Yet, doesn't Feldman see the contradiction between adovcating for identities based on civic citizenship and the محصصة (ethnosectarian quota system) enshrined into the Iraqi constitution that he helped draft?

Nevertheless, despite the fact that this understanding of Iraq does not resonate with Iraqi history, it is quite resilient. Perhaps it is so resilient because it is part and parcel of a larger discourse involving issues of power and intervention. Britain used these essentialist understandings of Iraq and India in order to legitimize their colonial presence in both. Similarly, Feldman's discourse is aimed at legitimizing a long-term US presence in Iraq.

I think the more interesting questions that we need to ask have to deal with how sectarian identities become politicized. To a large extent, sectarian identities still govern power relations in Iraq. Of course, it has not always been this way, as even the most superficial study of Iraqi history will demonstrate. So how did Sunni and Shia go from being religious identities to being politicized and contending forces? This is the question that Feldman should be addressing.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Being A Woman… Alone Part 2

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

As I continued on my search for woven blankets, I encountered a number of shopkeepers of various ages, demeanors, levels of devoutness, and English-speaking ability. When I returned for a second time to a shrunken hat salesman’s store to buy two more bright red costume fez in the biggest size available, the man grinned ear to ear, exclaiming, “I like you, American!” Seeking a gift for my 7-year-old cousin, I was dragged excitedly to the upstairs room of a dressmaker’s shop and filled to the brim with tea before being begged to try on a dress and offered it for no cost (which I refused, not wanting to exploit myself). In one of Hamidiyya’s plethora of scarf shops, I was rescued from a leering 20-something salesman by a grandfatherly man who picked up on my accent. “You are from America!” he said. “I got my PhD. in Pennsylvania. Where are you from?” As the words “New Hampshire” rolled off my tongue, he nearly jumped up and down with excitement. “You know it?” I asked, surprised. “I traveled in Vermont. I drove through New Hampshire!” he said proudly.

Only one thing remained constant: all the shopkeepers and their cohorts were men. And while the market was swarming with women in black gowns and hijab, many with entire faces covered under the niqab newly banned in public offices and universities, I realized none of these women were alone. They walked, whispering, arm-in-arm with mothers, sisters, friends, or children, under the anonymizing protection of the veil.

Conservative Muslim Dress at the Mosque

Having found and purchased my blankets (eight of them, in fact) from an elderly man who spoke not a word of English but managed to decipher my poor Arabic, I needed to head home to drop off my heavy load of gifts before continuing. I turned around in the middle of the souq and vowed to return that afternoon to experience the rest of it. As I passed through the market’s welcoming arches where vendors displayed ornate Qur’ans, prayer beads, and shawls, a younger man in a Tshirt and khaki shorts—the only pair I saw in Damascus—looked my way and said something indecipherable. I ignored him and continued walking toward home in hopes of keeping myself out of trouble. But after several minutes of walking through the independent handicraft vendors lining the streets behind the Grand Mosque, I felt like I was being followed. I pulled off to the side of the street where a table full of baby toys and shoes was on display and my fears were confirmed. The young man in the shorts pulled over, too, and stepped increasingly closer to me. I looked him squarely in the eye and said firmly, but quietly to avoid making a scene, “No. Halas.” But instead of backing off, a creepy smiled sprawled across his narrow face and he continued toward me, whispering something in Arabic I’m not sure I would have been able to understand even in full voice.

Now I had no choice but to use the people around me. So I repeated, in a louder voice this time, gesturing toward the man as I addressed the crowds with my eyes. “Halas! Laa! No!” He took a step back and looked at his feet, then, perhaps employing all of the English he knew, looked me in the face and muttered “beetch” before wheeling around on his heels and rushing in the opposite direction.

I walked home for lunch under the discomforting stares of Souq Al-Hamidiyya’s patrons, my bags now feeling a little heavier than before.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Did American political science miss the linguistic turn?

If you missed the Kevorkian Center's research workshop yesterday, you missed what I and a few of my colleagues considered the best one we've had since our time at the Kevo. The workshop featured Lisa Wedeen, a prominent political scientist at the University of Chicago and author of the highly esteemed work "Ambiguities of Domination."

During the workshop, Wedeen elaborated on the shortcomings of American political science in the modern Middle East, as well as on the problematic nature of the dominant methodologies in that discipline. She specifically targeted American political science's affinity for rational choice theory and its emphasis on quantitative analysis, drawing attention to the notion that these methodologies are embedded with normative claims that are rarely explicitly recognized as normative. This lack of self-reflexivity among political scientists betrays a wider lack of healthy skepticism in the discipline as a whole, including a reluctance to challenge the prevailing assumptions and normative claims that underlie these methodologies.

In her paper discussed at the workshop, Wedeen grapples with the "elective affinity" between liberalism and science, and how the coalescence of the two with the presumptive exigencies of US foreign policy have organized and reproduced our imaginings of politics in the Middle East. For instance, the prevailing liberal and scientific notions about the individual have given rise to "democracy experts" that have offered their services to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in post-war Iraq. Nevermind the fact that this notion of democracy and good governance is loaded with normative claims, and as such, is disembedded from the local context, history, and power relationships that govern the society in which it is implemented. It is not entirely surprising then that this ethos of procedural democracy appears to be stumbling in Iraq, as the political forces in that country currently try to navigate a deep constitutional crisis.

Another interesting point that was brought up concerns why the linguistic turn appears to have never really taken root in the discipline of political science. For example, why does the Rousseau-ian notion of culture as an explanatory device still seem to hold water in political science, despite the fact that this conceptualization of culture has been widely discredited in other disciplines?

One possible answer that was discussed deals with the political economy of status. Notable political scientists who may not be highly regarded in academia happen to wield formidable influence in the power corridors of Washington. The likes of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis (though a historian), among others, have been very popular with certain government and think tank types despite the fact that their conceptualizations of culture places them in a discredited minority in academia. Nevertheless, this political economy of status tends to foster particular kinds of practices and intellectual thought which empower the individual political scientists that subscribe to them.

This political economy of status represents an impediment for a more intellectually honest discipline of American political science. It fosters a reluctance to recognize the problematic epistemological notions that underpin the discipline, and promotes the use of particular quantitative methodologies that masquerade as science.

How can this trend be reversed? Perhaps a greater emphasis on political ethnographies would be a step in the right direction. But as to whether or not it will have an impact on the political economy of status, one can only be pessimistic.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Feeling of Home

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

When ten o’clock struck, I stepped out of my house and back into the winding narrow streets of the Old City, determined to find the blankets I had spent the last 5 years dreaming about. I had with me, also, a list of names: people back home for whom I needed to buy gifts. From my apartment, I took the long route back to Souq Al-Hamidiyya so that I could walk by the section of the market where local handicrafts were made and sold.

After making a young shop boy’s day by purchasing 10 of the purses he was selling at 50 pounds (about a dollar) each, I found a small woodcraft shop and was invited—in English—inside. I was pleased to find a gentle older man, probably sixty, inside. He struck up conversation in almost entirely unaccented English about his collection of hand-enameled wooden jewelry boxes. I picked up a tiny red-lined box and held it up, marveling at the red and gold enameling. “I love this,” I said, “its so…” As I trailed off, he interrupted. “Yes, isn’t it cute?”

As I dropped my hand holding the box back down to waist level, the look of shock on my face must have been obvious, because the shopkeeper smiled. “You’re English is incredible,” I gushed. The word “cute”, especially when applied to an object, was a colloquialism I had never heard used outside the U.S. and Britain. “I have to ask, did you go to school in America or Europe?” He laughed with a wide, warm smile that made me feel almost at home. “I didn’t go to school at all,” he said. “But my family has owned this shop for 50 years. I have met many American and British tourists and I always tried to talk to them. More importantly, I always tried to listen to them.”

“And you,” he asked, “are you learning Arabic?” I told him about the class I was taking at the University, and my previous years of language studies in the U.S. “Let me offer you, if I may, some advice,” he said, as I handed him my crumpled Syrian pound notes. “Buy a Qur’an, in Arabic, and every day read 5 lines. Do not read more than that, you will be overwhelmed. And when you finish, you will speak Arabic and you can come back to Syria, and you will feel at home.”

I wanted to believe him as he shook my hand gently and warmly, in the western fashion, to bid me goodbye.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on the CASA and ALI Programs

After having just returned from a summer spent in Cairo, studying at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (CASA) program, I figured I'd kick off the new semester with a few comments on the different Arabic language programs for American students in Cairo.

First, a few words on the CASA program. The application process is a lengthy and strenuous one (you have to sit for a challenging four hour Arabic exam on a Friday morning in February, and then have to conduct a 30 minute long telephone interview to test your oral proficiency). Fortunately, CASA moved back to the Tahrir campus this summer, after having spent two years out in the desert at the new AUC location. The word on the street was that too many CASA students were complaining about the three hours spent each day commuting back and forth to the new campus. Surely, this grueling commute coupled with the four hours of homework daily was too much for students to handle. However, unfortunately for the ALI students, the ALI program was not moved back to Tahrir in tandem with CASA, and the ALI students had to suffer the painfully long commute on a daily basis.

Second, I cannot overstate the quality of the CASA program. Classes are small, and the quality of the faculty is outstanding. Each student takes two courses every day: colloquial Egyptian Arabic and contemporary literary Arabic. The 'amiyya course focuses on everyday vocabulary that comes in quite handy, especially the frequent idioms that one hears and notices every day after having been exposed to them in class. The fusha course focuses on advanced media Arabic in addition to moderately complex literary forms. During the summer term we were assigned three novels to read, one of which being The Yacoubian Building. At the end of the semester, Ala' al-Aswany (the book's esteemed author and prominent critic of the Egyptian regime) came to the CASA program for some Q&A, which proved interesting. I get the feeling that he is a little more complex than his detractors make him out to be, but perhaps that's a topic for another post.

In short, I would recommend the CASA program whole-heartedly to any aspiring Arabic student out there who qualifies for it. ALI is an outstanding program as well for those who are still in the beginner-intermediate phase, but I'd definitely recommend finding funding from somewhere; the cost of ALI's summer tuition is through the roof. And given ALI's location out at the new campus in the desert (with very little shade, mind you), there are reasons to consider other less expensive programs. After all, I doubt that there will be much opportunity to practice your Arabic skills at the Chile's restaurant chain out there in New Cairo.

Monday, August 9, 2010

On Being a Woman… Alone (Part 1)

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

During my undergraduate years, I dated a Coptic Egyptian whose parents had supplied him with a number of what I considered luxurious Arab goods. Among them was a beautifully woven Egyptian cotton comforter that I had commandeered for the duration of our relationship. Giving it up had been a low point of the break-up.

So from the moment I booked my flight to Syria, I was dreaming of the opportunity to buy such a bedspread in Damascus. Thus, on my third day in the city I ventured out to the Souq Al-Hamidiyya in search of these wonderful textiles and other gifts. I woke up at eight o’clock in the morning, showered, and dressed myself to fight the heat in a white cotton t-shirt, long linen pants, and a blue light cotton scarf around my neck. I figured I would go out for a cup of coffee and a light breakfast at one of the coffee houses in the old city before I spent all my money.

But when I stepped out the door around 9 am, the streets were surprisingly quiet. The shops hadn’t yet opened—even the convenience store on my corner was still covered by its Brooklyn-style garage doors. I walked around the neighborhood for several minutes to no avail, running into only a young man tugging a cart full of rugs and a veiled woman dragging her child by the forearm. I pulled my guidebook from my bag and flipped to the “Eating and Drinking” section. Too late, of course. The book informed me that, in fact, most businesses don’t open until “at least” 10am.

Alright. I had a course of action. The day before I had passed the Café Nawfra, noted in my book as a great little coffee shop. I walked the few blocks toward it and took in the scene on the patio outdoors. A very western-looking man: blonde, buzz cut, Nike t-shirt and khaki shorts with tube socks pulled up to his knees. At the next table, two older Arab men smoking sheesha. I stepped inside to the counter, but couldn’t find a menu or a server.

Cafe al-Nawfra

Alright. New course of action. I went back outside and sat down at a table in the corner. I smiled at the server as he passed by, ready to ask politely for a "qahwa." He walked by and served the men at the front of the patio. Then, over to the western-looking man. Then back into the shop. I looked around. Still, the men drank coffee and smoked sheesha. No one glanced in my direction.

The whole scene repeated itself, and I remained without coffee. Was I not supposed to be here?

After a few more minutes of waiting, I stood up and left the patio. Business there continued as it had before I sat down. No one paid any attention to my leaving. So I headed home to finish my day-old cheese-filled croissant and water while “Daddy Day Camp” played in the background.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

I flagged down a taxi on Sharia Zablatany, outside the AIDS testing center in the Old City of Damascus after receiving my school-required test results. I assume I was HIV-negative, because the cashier at the testing center handed me the results, open faced, in front of a crowd of people with no fanfare. My Arabic is barely good enough to speak to a toddler; it is certainly not good enough to interpret medical findings.

“To Qaymaria,” I said in poorly pronounced Arabic, “ in the Old City of Damascus.” Damascus, especially the old city, is compact enough to walk, but the streets are winding and the traffic grueling enough to be in-navigable, so I generally don’t ask questions. But after driving what felt like far too long, the driver pulled over and asked me, “Where you go in the Old City?” His English was about as good as my Arabic. I showed him a picture of the street sign near my apartment, which I had moved into only a day before. He stared at it for a long time until finally saying,” Qaymaria! You should have said so.” I took a deep breath. The damascene heat poured into the taxi as we slowed down and the breeze no longer cooled us. I fanned myself uncomfortably.

“Hot," said the cab driver.

I laughed. “Yes, very.”

“My English is not very good, “ he said, with a shy giggle. “Just a little.”

I smiled back at him. “That’s ok. Shwai arabiyya faqat (I speak only a little bit of Arabic).” He smiled and reached into his glove compartment, revealing a box of thick tissues. He wiped his head, then leaned back and offered one to me. “No, shukran,” I said. “Water?” I gestured toward him with an unopened bottle. He shook his head no and grinned.

Another painfully long—although it couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes—cab ride and the driver stopped to ask an old man on the street, “Ayna (where is) Qaymaria?” After a brief conversation (of which I understood none), the driver instructed, “You can get out here and walk about 200 kilometers to left. You will get to Qaymaria. ”I paid my fare, thanked the driver, and got out. Uneasily, I began my walk down the thick, stone-lined street.

Within moments, I knew I was lost. I retraced my steps to get back to the old men who had first directed my cab driver. “Minfadalak,” I asked them, “ayna Qaymaria?” I watched their hands gesture rapidly toward the souq, then curve to the left. I tried again to follow their instructions, thinking perhaps I had not walked far enough to begin with. For the first time, the sights and sounds of the busy marketplace invaded my consciousness, breading in me a sense of both wonderment and terror. Then the smells—oh the smells. Spices and mint, fresh baked bread, sweet baklava, roasting shwarma. I had eaten nothing but a few crackers since my flight from Egypt, now almost 24 hours ago. I hurried past to avoid the hunger sickness I knew would no be far off.

Again, I found myself in an unfamiliar place. Although it was not so unfamiliar: the narrow, stone-lined streets and jagged paved alleyways of the old city seemed to repeat themselves over and over again throughout the neighborhood, differing only in the carpets and artwork that hung on the outer walls of the nearby shops. I approached a young mother who, unlike most Syrians, wore no veil. She held in her arms an infant while playfully chasing after a little girl in a pink dress. “Minfadalik, ayna Qaymaria?” I said a silent prayer that she would answer me in English. No such luck. She pointed me back in the opposite direction, gesturing like an airport flagman with her point hand. I caught only the word “qareeb” (close) in her list of directions, so turned around and began checking every street sign, smiling with a thankful wave as I left her. But before I long, I was back at the entrance of the covered souq.

I stepped into a shop, surprisingly staffed only by veiled women. “Minfadlik, ayna Qaymaria?” I asked again, each time sounding less and less like I actually knew the language. Directions again came only in Arabic. The women pointed me back in the direction I had come. Defeated, I wandered back and forth between the women in the hop and the point where I had spoken to the young mother, checking and rechecking every street for nearly an hour.

As I neared tears, I noticed a group of young Syrians laughing and smoking in the street. Their age and gender-mixing indicated to me that perhaps the spoke English. I fought back tears, mustered all of my courage, and approached the group. “Enkaleezia?” I asked hopefully. All of the teenagers turned toward one girl, who stepped forward. “Yes,” she said, “I speak English. Do you need help?”

I explained to her that I was in Syria—heck, the Middle East—for the first time, it was my first day, and I had gotten lost on my way home. I showed her the photograph of my street sign that I had taken on my phone that morning, and she took it over to the local food vendors a few meters away. She and her friends engaged the shopkeepers in conversation, and I guessed from their gestures and smiles that they knew where I was going. The English-speaking girl turned to me and began relaying the directions. “Walk this way,” she said, beginning to gesture back from whence I had come, “and then…” She stopped. “Would you like us to walk you there?”

A huge sigh of relief flew from my toes, up through my legs and into my stomach before being slowly released through my mouth. “If you don’t mind, that would be wonderful.”

“Of course!” she said, and looped her arm through mine. The shopkeepers wished me well, and I set off with the girls and her friends, maybe 5 or 6 of them: 2 men and several girls. “I’m LuLu,” she said, “and what is your name?” “Sarah, “ I responded, and she smiled. “Are you here to study Arabic?” she asked she pushed me gently to the side of the narrow street to allow a car to pass. I told her about the Damascus University Arabic program, that I had arrived only a day ago to take a placement test, register for the class, and take an AIDS test. She laughed. “Well, I can give you my telephone number and you can call me,” LuLu offered. “I will help you with your Arabic. And you can help me with my English!”
Suddenly, like something out of a crudely cut movie, my street sign appeared, as out of nowhere. “Here you are!” she said. “This is right?” I nodded enthusiastically. Her friends politely bid me adieu in the best English: “Goodbye!” “Nice to have meet you!” LuLu put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me on each cheek. “Good luck, “ she said softly. “Enjoy Damascus.”

Relieved to be back in a place that I had recognized, and to have made a friend in the city, I stopped to open my phone and review the photos I had taken that morning of my route out to the taxi. The picture before my street sign showed a rather non-descript street, a green trash can, and a man standing below an overhang covered in plant life. If you have ever been to Damascus, you will know that these things are not unique. Still, I walked down the street in search of the scene from the picture. I walked the hundred or so meter to one end of the street without seeing anything familiar. After a deep breath, I tried again, walking back to where I started and again looking for the narrow alley hat held my apartment. About halfway down the street, a young man—he couldn’t have been more than 16—who had seen me pass once already approached me. “Do you need help?” he said, in near perfect English. I explained to him my situation and he offered to help. Still overwhelmed with joy at the treatment given my by LuLu, I cheerfully agreed. As we began to walk, he asked my name. “Sarah, “ I said, paying him only scant attention as I scanned the adjacent alleys for my home.

“I’m Abdu, “ he said. “I am from Iraq, but I moved here during the war. I go to school here now. I live with my mother and brothers. My father is still in Iraq, I think.” I smiled at him as I realized we were back at the end of my street. The boy had no idea where I was going.

“Can you give me some money?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, “thank you for trying to help.” I took out m purse and retrieved a 50-pound note for him, hoping to restart my search on my own.

“Give me more,” he said abruptly.

I did a double take, startled by his force. “I’m sorry, but that is all I can give you.”

“No,” he replied abruptly, “you can give me more. Give me 100 more.”

“No, I’m sorry, but that is all I will give you,” I asserted in the way I might refuse a beggar on the streets of New York.

“You are American,” he said plainly. “America invaded Iraq. You owe me. Come on. Give me more. You can give me 100.”

“I cannot,” I said, and began back down the street in a hurry. The boy followed me down the street at close range. “Give me more, you owe me more, you can give me 100,” he repeated. He continued to follow me down the street for several meters until I turned onto another unfamiliar street. The boy left me alone, but I again was lost. I walked nervously to the end of that street, but, unsurprisingly, saw nothing familiar. I again retraced my steps and returned to Assawwaf Street, on which I knew my home lay. But I walked no more than a few meters before Abdu reappeared. “I will find your house,” he said, “if you give me more money.” “No, thank you,” I replied and hurried along. Again, he followed me to the other end of the street and stopped as I left it and crossed to the next, like a loyal Labrador.

Shaken, I walked up the next street. It, too, was unfamiliar. I looked back toward my street, where I could see Abdu sitting on the cobblestone path, leaning against a black and white striped building under the shade of its awning. I didn’t want to walk past him again, but I knew that my house was on the street, and wandering through it was the only way I’d ever find my way back. I hesitated. Could I spend a few more hours out in the 100-plus degree heat?

I couldn’t. I took a deep breath and re-entered Sharia Assawwaf, keeping my eyes turned away from Abdu. Just moments before I passed him, Abdu attached himself to another white tourist, a man this time, with a long ponytail and hemp pants. I followed slowly behind them as Abdu repeated his story to the young man, who responded apologetically. I smiled as they turned under a stone bridge and down a side street.

But I still had no idea where I was. For 15 minutes I continued walking up and down the street, afraid to venture down the alley-like private walkways that leas to the entrances of the tightly packed houses and workshops. Suddenly, my sixth sense kicked in as I felt someone staring at me, coming toward me. I looked up uneasily.

“Bruce!” I cried out as I saw the tall, thin man approaching me. “I thought I recognized you,” he said in a thick Australian accent, his gray beard sprinkling crumbs as his mouth moved. “I can’t find my way back to our house,” I told him. “Ahh,” he replied, confidently, “the trick is to turn at Beit Jabri,” he said as I followed him around the corner.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Traveling with Monsters

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

I firmly believe that children under the age of 3 should not be allowed on airplanes. Period. Or at least not on overnight 10-hour flights to the Middle East.

No, period.

I read in my Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Syria and Lebanon that “As elsewhere in the Middle East, Syrians love children.” How perfect! I too, love children. In the New York airport, my face glowed as hoards of Arab children ran around the gate: little boys holding hands, speaking in a mix of Arabic and English, sucking down their last bites of American candy as we boarded our plane.

With a baby behind me, and another in front of me accompanied by his toddler brother, I headed first for Cairo. Between the three babies, there wasn’t a moment of silence. At first, it was nice. I speak about as much Arabic as a toddler, so the 2-year-old playing peek-a-boo from the seat in front of mine was both endearing and confidence boosting. But the night approached. Knowing that I left New York at 6:30pm and would arrive in Cairo at noon, I needed to get some sleep. I finished my delicious Halal dinner, and settled in for a movie and a little sleep.

Then, no longer entertained by the Richard Gere’s B-movie “Hatchi,” the toddler began to wail around 10 o’clock. His mother, clearly embarrassed, tried to calm him by rocking and bouncing him in her seat, causing my tray table to alternately shake and poke me in the knees. Seeing no change, the mother’s next strategy was to pick her child up and carry him throughout the plane, at least spreading the misery out a bit. Still no luck. This adorable toddler, who I had admired in the airport, screamed from 10pm until 2am – or rather, 9am, breakfast time over the Mediterranean.

I didn’t sleep a wink.

The Irony of Travel

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

As I sat in the airport on Friday afternoon, I realized all of the irony surrounding my upcoming trip to Damascus, Syria. My parents had driven 4 hours to New York City from our family home in New Hampshire just to drop me at the airport, 20 minutes from my New York apartment. They had been forced to lug along our 50-pound, 6-year-old bulldog, wearing a “lamp shade” to protect her injured eye from her gnarling paws. The whole scene was a bit ridiculous. I certainly had not received the same treatment when flying to California this spring!

My father had been very nervous about my traveling to Syria. “You’ll have to call me every day,” he told me. “I’m going to be on pins and needles. My daughter is going to Syria!” I know he was concerned for my safety, and I tried to explain that Syria was incredibly safe. I bought travel books to share with him, directed him to the U.S. Embassy in Syria website, kept on top of Syrian news and such to keep him feeling as good as possible about my trip.

I, on the other hand, felt numb—or at least tried to ignore any feelings about—my trip. I focused on the superficial: buying “old lady” linen pants to keep my legs covered but cool in the Damascene heat, making sure I had note cards with important phrases like “I’m sorry” and “My Arabic is not very good,” and figuring out my international cell phone. The tiny details stressed me out—facebook is banned? (There’s a way, which I don’t know, to get around it.) My cell phone can’t receive text messages? (Miraculously, it somehow did.) How would the EgyptAir Flight attendants dress? (Turns out, they were all men.)

In the days before my trip, I started to feel nervous. I threw myself tiny going away parties to distract myself and share stories and facts about Damascus, but never got those real feelings of excitement that have usually preceeded my travels. As I sat in the airport, providing last minute phone explanations of my trip to friends and family, I realized that I in fact had no idea how I felt about it.

A Failed Adventure

Over the next few days or weeks, I will publish a short series of blog posts about my trip to Syria, which was an eye-opening first solo travel experience. One that failed but taught me something important both about the Middle East and about myself.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Sadrist Watershed

One of the most notable aspects of the recent Iraqi elections has been the electoral success of the Sadrists. Led by the enigmatic young cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sadrist list formed part of the large, loose alliance of Shi'i religious parties known as the Iraqi National Alliance. The fact that the Sadrist list won 39 out of the coalition's 70 seats has put it in a position to play kingmaker of the next government, and will likely have a marked effect on the next government's program.

Oil policy and relations with the US are two areas where the Sadrist contingent could play a significant role in the next government's program. It is not secret that the Sadr has been one of the most vociferous opponents to the US project in Iraq since 2003. His 39 seats in parliament may be enough to break a governing coalition that shows signs of being too chummy with the Obama administration. For instance, there had been rumors that some in the Iraqi leadership had wanted to slow down the American withdrawal, even postpone it indefinitely. If any future PM pulls a stunt like that, he can expect to see Sadr's 39 MPs walk out.

Oil policy is another important aspect of the next government's program that the Sadrist trend has been highly critical of. The current hydrocarbon legislation is deadlocked (really two competing Kurdish and Ministry of Oil sponsored bills that appear to be irreconciliable), and likely has no chance of passing in its current form as long as the Sadrists have a say about it. The Sadrists have expressed a strong current of resource nationalism, are suspicious of foreign oil companies operating in Iraq, and vehemently oppose the use of Production Sharing Agreements (in which oil companies acquire equity in Iraqi oil). The Kurdish draft law actively encourages them, while the centralized Ministry of Oil draft version doesn't explicitly prohibit them (none of the recent oil deals signed between the central government and international oil companies have used the controversial PSA as their contract model). In short, passing any type of neoliberal hydrocarbon law is a pipe dream as long as the Sadrists control 39 seats in parliament, and will have a great amount of leverage in terms of selecting the next prime minister. Undoubtedly, one can expect the policies of the upcoming government to be decidedly more nationalist in nature.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Limitations of National Unity Governments

Many hoped that the recent national elections in Iraq would shake up the balance of power that has prevailed in Baghdad since 2005 by ushering in some new parties and producing a coalition government with a greater degree of ideological coherence. In this context, recent developments in the post-election negotiation phase provide reasons for disappointment.

One of the many problems with the 2006-2010 government was that it included so many parties with conflicting ideologies. It may have been a "national unity" government in name, but it was incoherent ideologically. It included the main Shi'i religious parties, Prime Minister Maliki's Da'wa, the Kurdish Alliance, and the Sunni-led Tawafuq bloc. Since there was virtually nothing binding these blocs together besides the desire to cling to power, the government has not managed to accomplish much in the last four years.

Though former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's bloc faired the best in the recent elections (winning 91 out of 325 seats), he will not be forming the next government. A supreme court ruling has decided that the leader of the largest bloc in parliament is to be designated with forming a government, and that blocs can form after the election. This means that al-Maliki's bloc (State of Law, which finished second with 89 seats) can merge with the third place finisher (the INA, collection of Shi'i religious parties). Throw in the Kurdish Alliance, and you have yourselves the necessary number of parliamentary seats to form a government. But because Maliki has made so many enemies within the INA and Kurdish blocs during his tenure as PM, it is likely that he will not be nominated as the new PM if a State of Law + INA + Kurdish Alliance coalition emerges.

What's wrong with this potential coalition? Nothing, except it is the same coalition that has dominated Iraqi politics since 2005. And it excludes the bloc that finished first in the elections (Allawi has said he will not join such a coalition).

The ironic part about all this is that the two top finishers in the recent elections - Maliki and Allawi's blocs - are quite ideologically coherent. Both favor a strong central government, talk in nationalist terms, and are perceived as less sectarian than their rivals. Yet, a fierce personal rivalry has prevented them from reaching an accord and has forced each to turn to less logical alliance partners.

Though grandiose "national unity" governments that comprise as many blocs as possible may sound normal and fair, they often come at the expense of ideological coherence. That is precisely what happened from 2006 to 2010, and it is happening again today. The real losers in all of this are the millions of Iraqis who value a state capable of delivering security, jobs and services over a state based on ethno-sectarian quotas.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Baradei and the MB

Within US policy circles, the Muslim Brotherhood is often spoken of in somewhat of a hushed tone, often times in conjunction with ominous phrases like "Islamo-fascism" or "jihadi extremism."

I was therefore dismayed but not surprised to read Foreign Policy's most recent take on the political situation currently playing out in Egypt. Mohamed el-Baradei's "commitment to liberal reform" is questionable, writes Ilan Berman, because (and here's where the hushed tone comes in) he has been "flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood." This "flirtation" is in reference to Baradei's outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood (and virtually every other opposition group and party within Egypt) in his effort to cobble together a coalition for political reform -- what he has called "The National Coalition for Change." Berman goes on to explain that the Muslim Brotherhood is "the world's most influential font of radical Islamic ideas" and that, as a result, "if the Brotherhood is joining a coalition committed to political liberalism, it's clearly not for ideological reasons." There were lots of other factual inaccuracies, analytical shortcomings, and gross mis-characterizations in the essay -- but I'll spare you.

Ilan Berman, as far as I could tell, seems to have limited expertise in local Egyptian politics (indeed there seems to be quite a trend these days of alleged Egypt 'experts' writing dispassionately about the upcoming elections). It was therefore an incredible relief to find that Foreign Policy had also published an eloquent and thorough rebuttal of Berman's article, which effectively debunked every single statement made in the piece. Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown, is actually an Egypt expert, having spent extensive time living and researching in the country. He has an impressive understanding of domestic politics and the various political actors in the country -- and it shows in his response.

I won't elaborate the various points Shehata makes, as they are stated better by him. His broad critique, however, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is "far from the radical threat portrayed by Berman" and that in fact it is a diverse Islamist movement with a history that extends back farther even than the current regime and that it's role in Egyptian politics is incredibly complex.

The latter is a point that is far too infrequently made in Washington (or anywhere in the US, besides the odd university seminar room). The 'hushed-tone' attitude surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood is really unfortunate. The movement certainly has had violent episodes in its past and there are factions in it today that espouse a more uncompromising bent of political Islam. But the Muslim Brotherhood is also arguably one of the most moderate Islamist groups in the Middle East today and many of its members are open-minded, well-educated professionals who are happy to embrace and participate in a liberal political system. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a genuine, well-functioning democracy in Egypt that does not include, in some shape or form, an MB-based party. In order for Baradei's reform project to have any credibility or mass support he needs the Muslim Brotherhood's blessing, and he is therefore wise to reach out to its leaders and include them in his coalition. Unfortunately the policy wonks in Washington (who claim to want democracy for Egypt) tend to avoid this inconvenient reality and choose instead to paint the Muslim Brotherhood with the same broad "Islamo-fascism" brush that is reserved for any Islamically-oriented political group.

A final point: these sort of ill-informed 'analyses' are unfortunately a common occurrence in much of the writing on the Middle East by think tank experts, policymakers, and even journalists. This fact is well known and often-decried among professors and grad students in the ME Studies departments of US universities. There is a disdain for the policymaking community's myopic focus on current events and an assumption that much of this analysis is conducted without any real depth of understanding. This is a fair criticism. But what is truly maddening is that most of these individuals -- who have the understanding and nuanced insight necessary to effectively combat these flawed accounts -- don't ever respond. Samer Shehata is a well-respected academic whose work on Egyptian labour is some of the best on the subject. And yet here he is, getting his hands dirty in the policymaking realm to make sure that poor articles like Berman's do not go unanswered. It's too bad that more professors of ME studies don't take it upon themselves to do the same.