New Arabian Nights

Just in time for Christmas, Penguin recently came out with a new English edition of the Thousand and One Nights. It’s a beautiful object, three big off-white books with blue metallic designs. Yet in her review in the London Review of Books (no more than the opening paragraph is available online), Marina Warner accuses the new edition of an unfortunate lack of decisiveness–it can’t quite make up its mind whether to be a scholarly work or a literary entertainment, she argues, just as it can’t quite make its mind up whether to revel in or discard alltogether the period language of its predecessors. Warner ranks the French Pleiade well above it.

Warner also reviews a new book of essays, “The Arabian Nights in Historical Context: Between East and West,” which she argues engages (implicitly) with the legacy of Said’s “Orientalism.” I find this kind of a discussion–are the Thousands and One Nights the products of Orientalism? Can they be reclaimed by the East?–reductive and a little boring, but I admittedly haven’t read the book (and won’t, as long at it retails at 55 Pounds Sterling).

One big quibble I had with the review: at one point, discussing the Thousand and One Nights’ repercussions on modern Arabic literature, Warner writes:

“The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany…continues the process: an enthralling piece of storytelling as well as a brave and straight-dealing account of Cairo, al-Aswany’s novel adopts the urban labyrinth of The Arabian Nights while containing its cast of intricately connected characters within a single, many-chambered building.”

I really struggle to see what in particular relates The Yacoubian Building to The Thousand and One Nights, other than the fact that they are both Arab works of literature. Other authors (Elias Khoury come to mind) have drawn much more explicit inspiration from the nestled, circular, divagatory narration of the Nights. To say that the Yacoubian Building “continues the process” is to say, really, nothing–it does so as much as any other work of Middle Eastern literature does, and just as any contemporary work of English literature “continues the process” of Shakespeare, or Dante. The automatic comparison of any work of Arabic literature to the 1001 Nights–just like the inevitable description of any Middle Eastern female narrator as a “Sheherazade”–is a bad habit that reviewers should lose. After all, as the rest of Warner’s review makes clear, the Nights as we know them are in great part a European invention, and have influenced Western literature as much if not more than that of the East.

Who throws a shoe? Good ole shoe, that’s who.


I won’t point to all the shoe stories out there, which mostly point out the obvious: “shoe incident highlights cataclysmic perception of Bush administration,” which doesn’t even begin to do justice to this strange little grinning man who decided he would wreak havoc thousands miles away from where he lives and whose country (or at least its leaders) still believe they have a right to do just that. Yankee, will you just go home?

Personally, as a funny aside on shoegate, I much prefer this clip from the great, prophetic movie Wag The Dog – which let’s remember preceded much of the Clinton and Bush era warmongering.

Watch the rest here.

Links for December 15th

Links from my account for December 15th:

Goodbye Madbouli

Hagg Madbouli, the owner of one of Cairo’s iconic bookstores, passed away on December 5th. Any one who has spent some time in Cairo has also spent some time, at some point, at Madbouli’s, a small packed bookstore on Midan Talat Harb (so small and packed, in fact, that it was impossible to browse–you had to ask one of the men who worked there to find you the book you wanted.) 
Cairo cover issue 25 - Hagg Madboulli Cairo cover issue 25 – Hagg Madbouli

But Madbouli’s always had a wide selection of books, and always promised to get you the one you wanted if it wasn’t available at the moment. (I recently asked an Egyptian friend to look for some books in Beirut for me and she came back laughing, saying the Lebanese clerks had told her “You have to look for this at Madbouli’s, in Cairo, in Midan Opera”–wrong address, but close.) 

Hagg Madbouli has a quite striking story of personal success: he started out as a child selling newspapers on the street, and ended up running one of Cairo’s main book stores, and eventually, publishing houses. We did a profile of  him [PDF 6.8MB] years ago at the now-defunct Cairo magazine, and there have been articles the Hebdo and the Daily News recently. Despite the anecdotes about him providing intellectuals with censured or hard-to-find books under Nasser and Sadat, I have to say that I have a less idealistic view of the Hagg than most of this eulogizers–he usually struck me as a grouch and, as far as literature was concerned, a philistine. I suspect he saw book-selling merely as a profession and that his choice of books to sell and publish were dictated by a cunning reading of the market more than by any literary principles of his own. And the outpour of articles about him just goes to show, in a way, how small the cultural and publishing scene in Cairo remains.

Still, we need successful and entrepreneurial publishers, and the Hagg will be fondly remembered as a Cairo institution.

Is this Obama’s Middle East strategy?

I’ve been loathe, aside from the quick links, to comment on Barack Obama – the man, his election, his policies and picks. After all, he’s not even president yet.

Like most people I cannot but be impressed by his charisma and talent, but overall I never really bought in to Obamania and he was not my favorite Democrat in the primaries (I fully recognize I was wrong in my choice of John Edwards, though, since his sex scandal would have lost him the race had he been the Democratic candidate). My basic position on Obama’s Middle East policy during the elections was that he would deliver little different, even if one could hope that he would pick different people to work on it than the ones we’ve had for two decades, and that on the Israel question specifically not only did he fail to distinguish himself (aside perhaps from his speech to Jewish-American in Columbus, OH) but bent over backwards to reassure the lobby, all the while neglecting to highlight its responsibility in the warmongering of the last eight years. (I also found his lack of strong reaction to the economic crisis during the election quite shocking, which is my other major beef with him.)

So basically, I already am skeptical that we will see a fundamentally different US Middle East foreign policy than the Clinton and Bush years, which were not that different apart from Bush’s hyper-militarism (before we had more discreet militarism). I was unhappy about Hillary Clinton being picked as SecState, because I associate the Clintons as one of the worst developments in American politics in the past quarter-century, and did not see the political necessity of appointing his ex-rival rather than a more dour and wonky choice. But I don’t really care that much, think that all of the vapid editorializing about the Arab world expecting change from Obama is complete bullshit driven by a US news framing agenda rather than any Arab reality, and am sadly resigned to yet another administration that will miss the point about the centrality of the Israel-Palestine issue in this region (which every elder American statesman has made for years) and the extremely pernicious impact it has had on the US foreign-policymaking process. I just hope Obama can/will/wants to do good on other issues, such as the environment or healthcare – although I remain fundamentally convinced he’s miss one of the most important issues of our time.

Even so,I was surprised to read this albeit speculative article in Haaretz/a about the Obama-Clinton Middle East strategy:

However, senior government sources in Jerusalem said that the information they have received indicates that the new administration is planning a hierarchy of about five special envoys to various regions, overseen by a kind of “super coordinator,” who would answer directly to the president and the secretary of state.

The sources said that the new policy is part of Obama’s and Clinton’s understanding that all the conflicts in the Middle East and Southeast Asia are to some extent connected to the Iranian nuclear program and withdrawal from Iraq. Therefore, it is important to operate in a number of parallel but coordinated channels to attain achievements on all fronts.

The most prominent name in consideration for the top coordinator post is Dennis Ross, who served as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East. Ross’ name has also come up as a possible senior adviser to Hillary Clinton.

The envoy to the Middle East would oversee the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, negotiations between Syria and Israel and the situation in Lebanon.

Short-listed for this job are Colin Powell, who was President George W. Bush’s secretary of state during his first term; Dan Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005; and Martin Indyk, who is close to Hillary Clinton and who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and from 2000 to 2001.

All conflicts in the Middle East are connected to Iraq and Iran?!!?! If they see it that way, it’s because they’ve decided the priority will be Iraq and Iran, which is to say it’ll be Iran. Fair enough, the Israeli-Palestinian process does appear at a deadlock with inter-Palestinian rivalry and the prospect of a new Netanyahu administration in Tel Aviv. Nonetheless, considering the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, continued ethnic cleansing and settlement expansion in Jerusalem and the West Bank, one would think the US could have other priorities on its mind (indeed, since a good part of the US defense establishment thinks it can live with a nuclear Iran, one wonders whether this isn’t an Israeli priority).

It’s also extremely depressing to see the list of names for top coordinator (Dennis Ross – nuff said) and for Middle East Envoy: Martin Indyk is AIPAC’s man and Colin Powell was a failure as SecState and obviously overwhelmed by his bureaucratic opponents. Even with Dan Kurtzer, the most palatable and professional of these choices, we have the slight problem that his brother is an Israeli settler.

Now one might put this down to the idea that these are the only acceptable names to Israel, which largely calls the shots with regards to US peace process policy, at least since the first Clinton administration. But it also shows a staggering lack of imagination: in all of the talent pool of Washington, DC, these are the only men one can think of for the job? Where’s the change we can believe in, Mr Obama?

Links December 13th to December 14th

Links from my account for December 13th through December 14th:

The No. 1 Sun Engine


The 11th Cairo International Biennale kicks off in a few days, and while I’ll unfortunately miss the opening I will be back in a few weeks to check out this intriguing project I was emailed about. The No. 1 Sun Engine was operational in Maadi, a posh southern suburb of Cairo, in 1913 and was among the first serious experiments in solar power. Its American inventor, Frank Shuman, raised funds to deploy the bizarre contraption (which works by powering a low-pressure steam turbine) in London before visiting sun-drenched Cairo to build it. Its first use in to power a water-pump for irrigation with water from the Nile.


You can read more about the history of the sun engine at project page, where there’s a timeline that tracks Shuman’s movements alongside with prominent historical events, such as Lord Kitchener’s arrival in Cairo and the start of World War I. The juxtaposition of this early venture into solar power and major geopolitical developments is fascinating, if only because WWI ushered in the era of oil (and the systematic sabotage of alternative energy projects), while Shuman developed his machine because he (as a Pennsylvanian) was worried about reaching the exhaustion of then-recoveroble coal, the Victorian age’s equivalent of peak oil. Of course, coal (control of which was a key objective of WWI and which is now undergoing a revival in China and the US among others) powered the war effort and shaped European societies, notably by making industrialization possible, much as after WWI control of oil (and specifically Middle Eastern oil) would help make possible massive social change and an unprecedented age of plenty in America.

I’ve always found this interconnection of social organization, imperialism and technology fascinating – such as in some of the recent work of Tim Mitchell, who has looked at the differences in social organization of coal and oil-based societies (because of the distribution model for each resource) and their role in making Western democracy possible (and therefore also perhaps impossible in other conditions). In this respect I highly recommend his short article n the subject (to my knowledge the only one available), which is in Word format here: Tim Mitchell’s article on carbon democracy

But I’ll go see this exhibition for the sheer cool steampunk aspect of it.

Links for December 12th

Links from my account for December 12th: