Salata Baladi

My profile of “Salata Baladi” director Nadia Kamel and of her film has just come out in The Review. The film is a documentary about Kamel’s family, which includes Jews, Christians and Muslims who today live in Italy, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. I see the film as fundamentally a critique of Egyptian nationalism. But it has mostly attracted attention because in it Kamel and her parents travel to Israel to visit relatives of her mother’s–this caused accusations that Kamel is “pro-normalization” with Israel. 

I think this is an extremely simplistic view of the film. In Egypt today, being “pro-normalization” has become a smear that is too often used for petty personal reasons, on the part of people whose own commitment to doing anything helpful for the Palestinians seems pretty thin. I fear that clinging to a dogmatic boycott of Israel allows one to avoid thinking about new, more efficient, creative ways of trying to support the Palestinian people (such as this rather inspiring venture). I’m not saying one should stop boycotting Israel–but it irks me to no end (as I think it irked Kamel) to have any debate over what normalization consists of or accomplishes shushed up by self-appointed guardians of the public debate. These guardians in Egypt often belong to the left, which unfortunately shows itself to be incapable of self-criticism and innovation, and as disrespectful of freedom of thought and expression as its antagonists. 

In any case, the normalization controversy has dominated the discussion of the film, but it actually is not the only or even the main point of the story. The documentary should be available in the States in the Fall from the distributor Women Who Make Movies and you can reads tons of articles about it at the Salata Baladi blog.

Links for August 30th

Links from my account for August 30th:

Links August 29th to August 30th

Links from my account for August 29th through August 30th:

The future of US aid to Egypt

Here’s an interesting piece on the future of US aid to Egypt by Scott Carpenter, who used to run the democracy-promotion office at the State Department until about a year ago. The piece is important because it highlights the little focused on the 2004 MOU between Egypt and the US, which formalized tying aid to specific benchmarks for economic reforms. Carpenter and others in the Bush administration had found willing allies for this type of reform among the economic team of the Nazif cabinet, who were in favor of (and carried out) radical neo-liberal economic reforms in the financial sector. They also hoped that the MOU could be repeated in the future for specific political reforms, but did not find the backing for that in Egypt, and thus there was no follow-up (and of course the bilateral relationship has soured, at least in Congress, considerably since then.)

Carpenter makes the argument below that in light of Egypt’s continued poor human rights record (and, I would add, the inability or unwillingness of Cairo to deliver major pro-US developments in the region, notably Palestine) Congress is likely to continue its anti-Egypt campaign. I don’t think that one should underestimate the ability of the Egyptians to offer compelling reasons to the incoming American administration to protect it from Congress (if you can convince Dick Cheney you can convince anyone!), but the prospect of rising Congressional hostility should not be dismissed either. Of course, the whopping assumption in this argument is that Hosni Mubarak still leads Egypt: a new Egyptian leader would throw everything off-balance, depending on how he is perceived inside of Egypt and in Washington.

For Egyptians, U.S. aid is mainly symbolic, forever linked to the Camp David peace agreements. But as assistance shrinks and conditionality rises, the attractiveness of the aid has dropped significantly. Some have argued, in fact, that it would be advisable to scrap the economic assistance altogether in the interest of smoother relations. Negotiations on such a “small” pot of money have been endless and contribute to bitter feelings on both sides. Moreover, the assistance provides Congress with numerous opportunities to condition what remains, putting additional stress on the relationship. So why does Egypt fight every year for the assistance? Why does the U.S. Department of State not argue that bilateral relations would be better without it? The answer: both are interested in maintaining a shield for Egypt’s military assistance.

Many in Cairo and the Department of State worry that if the economic assistance shield is lost altogether, Congress, with the Obey-Lantos amendment precedent now set, will push more aggressively for conditionality on military assistance. For this reason, many are fighting to maintain it. This state of affairs, however, is unlikely to last into the next U.S. administration. No matter who wins the presidency, Egypt’s critics in Congress will increase, and with it, Congressional ire, especially as Mubarak’s regime has moved beyond Ibrahim to target the next generation of would-be activists. Blogger Abdel Karim Soliman, for instance, has been jailed for nearly two years for insulting the president and Islam. In July, fourteen young Facebook activists were arrested for “incitement against the regime,” a day after flying Egyptian flags and singing patriotic songs to commemorate the 1952 revolution.


The Mubarak regime’s resolute failure to live up to its human rights obligations will give ammunition to members of the next Congress eager to send a strong message to Cairo. As a result, future U.S. administrations will find it difficult, if not impossible, to justify economic assistance to Egypt, let alone to increase it. The White House, instead, will have to fight off multiple efforts to condition Egypt’s military assistance. Waivers similar to those Rice announced this spring will increase, embarrassing both Egypt and a White House forced, however reluctantly, to stand with its “strategic partner.”

Egypt could change all this. If a new leadership were to present a clear vision for the country’s future — one that Americans could understand and support — Egypt would find willing supporters in both branches of the U.S. government. Unfortunately for Egyptians and bilateral relations, such leadership is not on the horizon. Conditioning military aid may, therefore, be the only avenue open to vent U.S. displeasure.

[From The Future of U.S. Assistance to Egypt]

Links August 24th to August 27th

Links from my account for August 24th through August 27th:

Rodenbeck to Pollack: you are not very good

If you read a lot of book reviews, as I do, you will have noticed that many reviewers (especially ones who are also writers or work in the same field as the author of the book) are reticent to go on attack mode when reviewing a peer’s work. Add to that the phenomenon of logrolling — trading favorable coverage in the expectation that the kind treatment will be returned — and many reviews only seem to tepidly explore the flaws of the work of the work under review.

Enter this review of Kenneth Pollack (he of Iraq: The Threatening Storm fame), which looks at his new book on US Middle East Strategy and finds it not very good at all:

Pollack commits errors that, despite his years in the corridors of power and some 70 pages of footnotes, betray a lack of genuine intimacy with his subject. It is not true, as he asserts, that education in the Persian Gulf emirates is largely private. Nor is it true, any longer, that virtually the only foreign investment in Arab countries goes toward pumping more oil: real estate, tourism, banking, telecoms and even heavy industry now lure investors, too.

It is an outdated generalization to state that “Arab bureaucracies . . . create interminable delays with customs regulations, inspections and other red tape.” Try telling that to Dubai Ports World, a company that runs 45 container terminals in 29 countries, or to the operators of the giant, state-of-the-art transshipment hubs in Egypt and Morocco that are set to dominate Mediterranean trade. It is even more misleading to assert that “the Arab regimes have implicitly or explicitly backed a range of terrorist groups.” Pray, which Arab governments does he mean, and which groups is he talking about?

Pollack also shows a shaky grasp of history. We know that the Ottoman Empire declined and fell, but to have endured for five centuries, and for half those as the biggest state in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, does not make the Ottomans “unsuccessful.” Elsewhere he tells us sagely that “over time, the stagnation of the Arab economies has created considerable poverty,” as if there were no poor Arabs before, and as if one of the most startling modern examples of mass impoverishment was not the Clinton-era sanctions on Iraq, which destroyed its middle class and set the stage for postwar chaos.

America gets off rather lightly in gen eral, in Pollack’s account, compared with the sad Arabs whom we must help to be like us. We are told, for instance, that the United States only grudgingly became involved in the grisly Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s when it nobly undertook to reflag oil tankers in order to protect the flow of oil. No mention here of Donald Rumsfeld’s back-slapping with Saddam Hussein or the supply of satellite intelligence to him or the exchange of American weapons to Iran for hostages — all of which helped prolong the slaughter.

Pollack seems oddly unaware of history’s motivating forces. To assert that “what triggers revolutions, civil wars and other internal unrest is psychological factors, particularly feelings of extreme despair,” is plain silly. The Boston Tea Party could not have been prevented by Prozac. Similarly, he ascribes feelings to broad categories of Middle Easterners, devoid of any context or explanation. They are “angry populations” who suffer “inchoate frustration” and “a pathological hatred of the status quo.” We repeatedly hear of “Arab rage at Israel” and “Arab venom for Israel.” Nowhere is there a hint that such attitudes might bear some relation to the plight of the Palestinians, the agony of military defeat or the humiliation of life under Israeli occupation.

In fact, the book’s most salient distortions stem from Pollack’s protectiveness toward Israel. He makes some absurdly cockeyed assertions, like, “America’s support for Israel over the years has even been a critical element in winning and securing Arab allies.” He offers misleading false alternatives, declaring, for instance, that there is “absolutely no reason to believe that ending American support for Israel would somehow eliminate” the risk of Islamist zealots taking power and cutting oil exports. How about making aid to Israel, and not just to Arabs, conditional, or aiming at mitigating, rather than eliminating, such risks? Pollack makes a peculiarly acrobatic effort to prove that hostility to Israel is not a prime motivating factor behind militant jihadism, repeating this assertion no fewer than four times in two paragraphs. Has he not bothered to listen to Osama bin Laden’s addresses to the American people, where he said that what converted him from dreamer to murderous activist was Israeli bombs falling on Beirut in 1982?

Although I’ve only looked at this book briefly, from the little I saw it’s a well deserved put-down of the man who, with “Threatening Storm,” contributed significantly to the war-drums on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Well-deserved.

[From Book Review – ‘A Path Out of the Desert,’ by Kenneth M. Pollack – Review –]

The Devastation of Iraq’s Past

“What is currently taking place in southern Iraq,” Gil Stein, the director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, writes in the catalog to “Catastrophe!,” the institute’s disturbing new exhibition on the subject, “is nothing less than the eradication of the material record of the world’s first urban, literate civilization.”

The New York Review of Books has a long article on the looting and destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage.

2008 Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

They’ve announced the winner of the Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, and: The 2008 Prize is to be awarded to Fady Joudah for his translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry collections in The Butterfly’s Burden, published in a bilingual edition by Bloodaxe Books in the UK, and by Copper Canyon Press in the USA, the latter being short-listed earlier this year for PEN America’s poetry in translation award.

See the publicity pages for the bilingual (!) edition from Bloodaxe and Copper Canyon Press, or get your own copy from or [From the Literary Saloon at the complete review – 11 – 20 August 2008 Archive]