On not being well

Michael Ancher, "The Sick Girl," 1882

Michael Ancher, “The Sick Girl,” 1882

My mother died when she was 51 and I was 17. Here is how it happened. She had gone to Ohio — we lived in Virginia — to see her own mother, a solitary and sometimes bitter woman; an argument had broken out; my mother was struck by chest pains, and an ambulance took her to the hospital with angina. She’d never had heart problems before. That was on the Fourth of July, 1980. The next day, my father and I drove the hundreds of miles across monotonous mountains to her. Prone in the metal bed, she was pale and distracted. She asked me to rub her back. As I did so a small volcanic spike erupted on the monitor behind her, connected to her chest by wires. We left her, seeming a bit better we imagined, and my father and I went to a Howard Johnson’s somewhere nearby to eat silently. When we returned, the outer hall of the intensive care ward looked strange, congealed, like light glancing off obsidian. Nurses were gathered, and my mother’s beloved aunt was there. A band of bright fluorescent light showed under the door to my mother’s room, and I started toward it, and someone stopped me and told me rapidly what had happened. A massive heart attack, nothing anyone could do …. My great aunt held me. After a while they asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said no. I couldn’t have stood it. Many of these memories are blurred now — I don’t recall exactly who stopped me, or who told me. I remember those jagged peaks on the monitor, and I remember the color of that band of light as clearly as if it were shining in the next room now. It was only some years later, in graduate school, when I read The Duchess of Malfithat I found words to match in some degree what I must have felt. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young. 

The ensuing years involved the usual inept evasions of guilt and sorrow. An event like that, especially when you are 17, does not enforce lessons, even if it should. Now I am 50. Ten days ago, I woke up in Cairo with a straining pain in my left leg: the kind of pain that suggests a bad soprano trapped inside there, trying to sing something from ToscaI knew what it was, but for 24 hours I persisted in hoping I had simply pulled a muscle. The next day I took a taxi downtown, and discovered I couldn’t walk at all. A familiar cafe near Bab el-Luk had just opened after Friday prayers, and the waiter propped me there and I started calling friends for help. The pain now indicated that the soprano and the orchestra were working from different scores in different keys. After a while my friends Tarek and Fady arrived with a car, and took me to a hospital in Giza. My leg had swollen to the size of one of those limbs of cattle that hang in butcher’s shops here, and was as red, but with a necrotic blue noli me tangere tinge of rot. As I lay in the emergency room, a doctor told me I had a “massive” deep vein thrombosisWhy massive? Why do they always call them massive? I asked myself. The caterwauling in my leg and in my head had reached a point where the orchestra was trying its hand at a Mahler symphony while the soprano, drunk and flu-ridden, was howling out Pierrot Lunaire.

What it felt like, generally: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

What it felt like: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

I spent five days in the hospital, laid flat and depressively eating flavorless soups, while the musicians gradually sobered up and wound down. I am home now, but the clot is still there, diminished but undefeated. I can’t walk much: even staggering to the corner pharmacy to pick up medicines makes the leg swell up again. I inject myself with something in the stomach daily, intrigued by how this doesn’t hurt. Kind friends are staying with me, to cook and run errands and clean. There’s no travel, no boarding an airplane till this is over, and I’m not sure when it will be over.

This isn’t the first time for me. Modernity has done wonders, for those of us in rich countries, to expand the life-span; specimens of homo sapiens in the European Middle Ages were lucky to grasp the goalpost of 35. But the payback is the onslaught of technologically demanding ills that start in the forties, as a reminder that what lies ahead of you is a stretch of undeserved and unnatural existence endowed by civilization’s artifices, that you owe this borrowed time to the bank.

Warfarin way back when

Warfarin way back when

My mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure in her forties. Almost four years ago, I had my first thrombosis. That one started in my leg too, but showed no traces there; it climbed — they’re natural mountaineers — unnoticed to my chest and nested there as if in a Himalayan cave, and I still felt nothing till one night, running to catch a bus on a New York street, things went white and I collapsed. There were massive blood clots (there you go again) in both lungsMy heart almost failed.

After that came two years of staying on blood thinners. The most popular one, Warfarin, was invented by the Wisconsin Agricultural Research Foundation (WARF) decades ago, in search of a humane way to kill rats by bleeding them to death internally. I went to sleek offices to have blood drawn all the time — little pipettes and big bleeping machines became my neighbors, like the vampires civilisés of True Blood – to test my “international normalized ratios,” (INRs) which determine the “extrinsic pathway of coagulation.” You get used to the jargon. Then 18 months ago my doctors took me off the drugs experimentally, since I seemed to be doing reasonably well. Bad call. 

Warfarin now

Warfarin now

In a condition like my current one, you lie in bed all day and think. The first fact about not being well — it should be obvious, but isn’t to the young and healthy — is how boring it is. The second, related, is that your horizon shrinks: all reality concentrates in the point or body part where you hurt or fear, and neither action nor emotion can happen without reference to the fundamental given of what’s wrong with you. How’s my clot today? That question obliterates the sunrise and the revolving world.  Auden wrote a poem about the sick:

They are and suffer; that is all they do:
A bandage hides the place where each is living,
His knowledge of the world restricted to
The treatment metal instruments are giving.

They lie apart like epochs from each other
(Truth in their sense is how much they can bear;
It is not talk like ours but groans they smother),
From us remote as plants: we stand elsewhere.

This is why visiting the hospital-bound or the very old is so horribly dull for everybody else, to be avoided like (literally) the plague, or turned into a quick drop-off of chocolates or floral arrangements, surgical as a Special Forces raid. What have they got to talk about? Their skin is the absolute limit of their interests. I don’t know how my friends, who have been generous with their time, can stand it.

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

At the same time, in high Western modernity, we’re obsessed with disease. With the idea of disease. This is understandable, since we are, as I say, living on borrowed time. Stolen, really: every year we eke out beyond our fourth decade is not just the gift of our technological civilization, but a robbery from other people whom we deny the diet, the drugs, the requisite machines.

Life expectancy in the rich US is 78.62 years these days. (Almost thirty years to go, Scott –voice shrinking to a whisper — insh’allah.)  That’s lower than Monaco, which has hit an amazing 89.63 (insert joke about a good gamble, please) but well above Egypt, where I am now. A cheap, efficient medical system, the legacy of Arab socialism, can’t overcome radical poverty to raise the allotted time above 73.19. In Sudan, just south, the expectancy falls to 63 years; from there on, as you follow the paths of slave caravans and colonial explorers across the continent, it keeps plummeting, to 54 years in Uganda, 53.86 in Zimbabwe, 52.78 in Malawi. Finally, in South Africa, it reaches 49.48 years, one of the worst in the world (in 2013 only Chad was lower), the aftereffect of forty years of apartheid and twenty more of equality deferred. Democracy does not heal; it does not cure history. These figures don’t just map out disease or poverty. They are a geography of power, because who has power has life. (It’s no coincidence that I’m getting the numbers from the CIA.) As a bedridden American in Cairo, on the broad Northern shelf of Africa, I’m sitting atop an inverted pyramid of injustice.

Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From www.gapminder.org

Do click on this chart. Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From http://www.gapminder.org

There’s always some symbolic sickness in the West, a disease representing how we think about these powers and inequities: a condition that stands in for what we know about our place in the world, or what we’d rather forget. Cancer used to be the great symbol. Its origins were obligingly inexact; either there were Enemies Within (anonymous little Communists in the liver or the lungs) or Enemies Without, chemical or biological opponents like Third-World dictators making the whole known environment unstable. (Todd Haynes’ Safeabout a woman rendered sick by almost everything in the plastic life around her, is still one of the scariest American films.) Thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS displaced cancer as an imaginative malady. We figured out what caused it fast enough — that retrovirus — but it was easily attributable less to a microscopic invader than to lifesize Others whom we disliked. There were a lot of them. Haitians, homosexuals, and heroin users for US paranoiacs were quickly joined by fearsome cousins around the world: Bulgarian nurses, Zimbabwean migrants, sex workers, black men on the down low, black women who slept with them, Africans in general, foreign tourists, foreign truck drivers, that ethnic minority who stink, the whole sick crew. It’s a truism that HIV prevalence provides a chart of inequality. But HIV mythology provides something almost as valuable: a chart of hate. The political power and the ideological convenience of HIV have always lain in its double gesture: simultaneously exposing injustice, and giving hate a justification.

I’ve watched relatives die of cancer, and friends live and die with HIV/AIDS. The kind of thing I’ve got is different: not worse, certainly, just different. There’s a reason heart disease and its associated syndromes have never become such symbols, such subjects of imaginings. They’re just there. Their ultimate cause is generally in the genes or in some combination of accidents; that multiplication of factors doesn’t lend itself to mythology. In my case, the blood just clots the wrong way, much like my mother’s did. I will have to take modified rat poison for the rest of my life to thin it. This is not intolerable. (The rats are happy.) The problem is, of course, that as a condition it’s controllable but not excisable; it doesn’t go away, and there is always that low basso ostinato uncertainty about whether or when you’ll wake up with a strange pain in the leg that gets more insistent, or keel over in the street. It’s impossible to interpret something like that in any meaningful or order-instilling way. It’s an existential insecurity insusceptible to the consolations of metaphor. It teaches nothing except that the body is frail, unreliable. In no sense can that be made reassuring, not in the way that it’s always comforting to identify some chemicals to eschew, some culprits to loathe, some immigrants to expel.

Jean Bourdichon, The Four Conditions of Society : Poverty, ca. 1500

Jean Bourdichon, “The Four Conditions of Society: Poverty,” ca. 1500

Nobody likes these uncertainties, from which there’s nothing to be gained or learned. Nobody likes knowing the body is weak and prone to betrayal.  All that money, all our accumulations of political power, all those drugs we hoard behind patent laws, all the debt we extract from others to fund our happiness, all the food we store up while others starve, all our drones and armies and the authority our societies claim, can’t contend against our physical random flaws, doesn’t alter the aleatic vulnerability of the individual body. It’s an old cliché:

Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade. …
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair.

But do we ever hate hearing that.

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, Cardinal Mazarin's Last Sickness, 1830

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, “Cardinal Mazarin’s Last Sickness,” 1830

You would think that Western gays, after years of confronting HIV, would have come to terms with the body’s unreliability. But no. In fact gays particularly hate the idea. Maybe it’s because their identities are so tied to a set of physical acts that to admit bodily weakness would undermine their selfhood in a particularly drastic way. Maybe it’s because one common reaction to AIDS has been an extreme compulsion to look and act healthy. Back when I came out, in the 80s, you were required to be buff and butch and the picture of wellness (odd that the Marlboro Man, a pitchman for killer cigarettes, served as icon of this vital manhood). The slightest sag into infirmity or unaccountable cough, and no one would touch you for fear of infection. We queers measure triumph or disaster by our bodies. We can’t afford to let them be mistrusted.

I learned this in a curious way, the last time I got seriously sick; I learned it from a bunch of people who don’t like me. When I resigned from Human Rights Watch, I discussed the blood clots in my lungs that triggered my departure, in a letter that made its way around the Internet. What struck me about the many responses was that people who disliked me for political reasons felt compelled to turn that into medical mistrust; they simply didn’t believe I could get sick. This took nasty forms. The ever-love-filled and litigious Peter Tatchell repeatedly circulated e-mails to thousands, saying that “Scott Long left Human Rights Watch. He claims it was because of ill-health. Others suspect he was sacked.” Peter’s friend Michael Petrelis, the crank-slash-stalker in San Francisco, developed this theme, blogging that “Long developed a severe case of a Soviet-style case of the flu … His official explanation for moving on would have delighted the editors of Pravda in Brezhnev’s day, it was so full of obfuscation and self-pity.” Melanie Nathan, a peculiar West Coast blogger, just three months ago sent me an series of messages saying — among many other things — that “We all know that your ‘embolism’ was a convenient excuse” (not clear for what). She also called me a “vile bucket of anal slime,” which I think is a quote from some website. There were more. I would have to be superhuman not to be angry at these creeps; I felt like sending them my medical charts as proof, or maybe my medical bills. Some of these folks were crazy, some permanently enraged, and some simply hadn’t a clue what they were saying. But — trying to stand back slightly — I hear in all this vituperation a very human fear. Your foes are always supposed to be there, even more so than your friends; they’re an identity and linchpin, a pole against which you define yourself. They’re spectres and ideas, not frail and physical people. God forbid they should have bodies; God forbid their bodies should do them wrong. I’m sorry I got sick, and I’m sorry that unsettled Tatchell and Petrelis so much. Perhaps I can understand, though, why the news of somebody else’s sickness roused them to so much anger. “Rage against the dying of the light” translates quickly into a rage against those who remind us of the dying.

So here I sit in Cairo, thinking about my body.

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child," 1885-86

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child,” 1885-86

My mother died when she was a year older than I am now: much too young. I can’t remember her without seeing, almost like a light beneath her skin, the banked fires of things undone. The memories don’t grow easier. I cannot read Paul Celan‘s poems about his lost mother without breaking into uncontrollable tears:

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Celan’s mother died in the Holocaust, in Transnistria. It’s presumptuous to compare personal loss to historical catastrophe. But loss is what it is, always different in its circumstances and in other ways always the same. My mother died because her body failed her. It was part of a world in which she’d suffered, and also where she had a relative degree of safety: a world where she had tried to compensate for both by a constant, wearing labor of compassion. It didn’t matter. My mother died because her body was part of the world, and the world is perishing.

It’s strange that I’ve spent so much of the years since then working on things like “sexual rights” and “bodily autonomy.” Bodily autonomy is a beautiful ideal. Like so much in human rights, it gestures toward a vision of a perfect cosmos, lit by Platonic concepts that burn in the corridors like inexhaustible candles. Yet our bodies are not autonomous. Our bodies are part of the world. They are subject to its vicissitudes, implicated in its weakness, its injustices, its power, its deaths. They live with the world’s joys and fail with its wrongs. This is a fact, not a lesson. It can be said; it can’t be learned. I will only learn it by dying.

Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia

No more yarns from you, lady: State Security arrest Abla Fahita

No more yarns from you, lady: State Security arrest Abla Fahita

The Jews are everywhere; start with that. In fact, the fewer Jews there actually are in your vicinity, the more you have to deal with invisible Jews, who multiply in secret according to the quantity of people you dislike. (Adam Michnik put this very well in explaining how anti-Semitism sustains itself in Poland, absent Jews: “In other countries, they say, ‘That man is a Jew; he must be a scoundrel.’ Here they say, “That man is a scoundrel; he must be a Jew.’”) They particularly appreciate the modern airwaves, since it’s an ethereal medium where they can remain unseen, incorporeal as radiation; and there they carry on their characteristic Jewish activities, reading things and writing things and killing children. Then there are the Masons. On this subject I have no objectivity, since my great-grandfather was a Mason and I have the taint of Masonic blood. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up giving secret handshakes to various parts of my body. (Proof of corruption: it feels good.) The Jews and the Masons, I’m pretty sure, invented Islam, which combines two of their great devil passions, the Jewish lust for reading things and the Masonic lust for erecting pointless buildings. (The Swiss had the right idea: Take the Jews’ gold so they can no longer build minarets.) Out of the Muslims came monstrosities like the Shi’ites and the Baha’i, but the climax and ultimate tool of evil is the Muslim Brotherhood. They control the media, the Queen of England, and the President of the United States, and they are sexual perverts to boot. Their latest version of perversion is to stick their Jewish Masonic terrorist fingers up the anuses of cloth puppets, which, given that our brains are in our assholes these days, is a highly effective form of mind control.

It’s all true, even though different parts of it are true to different people. (In Egypt they probably won’t tell you the conspiracy invented all Islam – just the Muslim Brotherhood section. Oh, and the Shi’ites.) But the bit about the puppets? Gospel truth. To coin a phrase.

There are these two Egyptian dolls, which went viral on Youtube in recent years. Abla Fahita, a widow, spends all her time gossiping on the phone with her friends. (Loose lips sink ships!) She has a daughter, Karkoura, who’s always trying to make sense of the old lady’s babble. (Interpreter of the terrorists’ code!) Nobody quite knows who came up with them, they are pure fun, but they got so popular that this festive season Vodafone, the largest mobile company in Egypt, decided to use them in an online ad.

 I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMuslim: Abla Fahita’s star turn

Then all hell broke loose, starting with Ahmed Spider. Even the most arcane conspiracy theory seems inadequate to explain Ahmed Spider. I wrote about him once,  a long time ago; he’s a willowy, rather fey figure who materialized even before the Revolution, also foisted on the wider world by YouTube and Facebook, where he posted his own videos full of hapless attempts at music-making as inept as Florence Foster Jenkins. After Mubarak fell, he started interspersing the songs with talk: talk about secret plots, the evil revolutionaries, the Masons, the enemies of Egypt. He wouldn’t have been imaginable in Cairo or anywhere else twenty years ago. It’s not just that proliferating new media render him possible; they transform his dreams. They’ve set atop the pathetic longing for fame the sudden feeling that you can make your own mini-stage and be, among your fellow dreamers, famous.

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

He might have stopped there. But the previous military junta (the one that ruled from the Revolution till the June 2012 elections) and the felool the relicts of the old regime — took him up. He was convenient. He attacked the revolutionaries they feared. Spider was soon a fixture on the  Al-Fara’een channel run by talking head Tawfik Okasha, a purveyor of paranoia often called Egypt’s own Glenn Beck. He became that distinctive disease of our time, a Media Personality, as potent and pointless as a local votive spirit, endlessly quotable to the exact degree that he has nothing to say.

A commercial with two puppets should really expect to incite his analysis; particularly when it intrudes on YouTube, his jealously personalized preserve. No sooner had Vodafone released the video than Ahmed Spider sprang up on Tahrir TV (the security services’ chosen channel) to engage in a withering exegesis. It’s like The DaVinci Code. No symbol escapes him:

  • At the beginning of the commercial you see a cactus plant with Christmas decorations. That is a terrorist threat.
  • There is a Christmas ball on the cactus. That is a bomb.
  • The cactus has four arms, count them, clearly a form of the four-finger salute that’s been used by the Muslim Brotherhood since the July crackdown against them. (The military killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters staging a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square; Rabaa means “fourth” in Arabic. You see the cunning of the Brotherhood. They even corrupt cardinal numbers.)
  • There’s talk of using a sniffer dog to find an old, lost SIM card, and also something about cooking a Christmas turkey. This is all about terrorist attacks.
  • Abla Fahita has a friend named “Mama Tutu.” Obviously that means the Muslim Brotherhood. She even says that Mama Tutu’s false teeth are freezing from the cold. Just like the government froze the Muslim Brotherhood’s assets.

It’s amazing the Brotherhood used such a flimsy code in the attempt to conceal its schemings. It was instantly evident even to somebody like Spider, who has no brain.

 Ahmed Spider takes on the Puppet Plot

So many questions remain; for instance, who was the Brotherhood trying to address this way? Will the ad itself brainwash all Vodafone subscribers into suicide bombers? Or, if it’s a more recondite message meant to trigger participants in a specific plot, isn’t Spider actually helping the Brotherhood by publicizing it? The story just rolls on, though. Another channel hosted Abla Fahita herself to refute the allegations. Ahmed Spider called in to the show. A newspaper article reports that he “refused to directly address the puppet, saying, ‘This is an imaginary character and nobody knows who is behind it.’” Abla Fahita asked him, “Would it be fair to say that Ahmed Spider is a spy because there is the word ‘spy’ in ‘spider’?” But the state takes Spider seriously. Prosecutors summoned Vodafone representatives for an interrogation over the ad.

On Twitter and Facebook, a lot of Egyptians have been laughing themselves crazy over this. But there’s a grim hardness under the hilarity, a reminder of how little has changed in Egypt in three years. Only the fact that Abla Fahita is cloth and yarn makes it risible to think of her in official custody.

torture abla fahita copy

Yeah. Or:

Bc-NPbTIQAAFcr2

More seriously, Sarah Carr points out the basic horror of a state where puppets can be criminals while police have complete impunity:

Every country has its Glenn Beck type public figures, the difference in Egypt is that they are taken seriously where it suits the political ambitions of those at the reins and serves a useful purpose. Thus we have the Public Prosecutor accepting a complaint about a finger puppet while nobody has been charged for the deaths of nearly 1,000 people at Rab3a, because the current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated.

I have three small points to add.

a) Creeping conspiracies. Of course, paranoia — even about puppets — isn’t uniquely Egyptian; think Jerry Falwell accusing Tinky Winky. And while Sarah’s right that the Public Prosecutor’s eagerness to pursue this “crime” makes the whole mess distinctively awful, Cairo is not the only jurisdiction where conspiracy theories drive statecraft. In the US since 2009, more than two dozen states have considered legislation to ban “creeping shari’a” (why does only shari’a creep? Does canon law lope, or Halakha boldly ambulate?), on the theory that Islamic jurisprudence is on a quest for total global domination. Shari’a is a “threat to America,” says the Center for Security Policy, a wholly unmedicated neoconservative thinktank, in a report it calls “an exercise in competitive [sic] analysis.” These are rank fantasies bred of prejudice, delirium tremens, and a propensity for belief in burqa-wearing banshees that lurk under the bed; but in places like Oklahoma, where Holy Scripture and hangovers are both interpreted literally, such hallucinations become the stuff of law.

Apparently tyrannical shari'a law actually encourages women judges.

Apparently, tyrannical shari’a law actually encourages women judges.

Actually, as I wrote last week, a little-reported side of all this is that many of Egypt’s presently prevalent conspiracy theories come from the United States. Much as US evangelicals have exported their homophobia to places like Uganda, the Tea Party and its ilk have packaged their prejudices for the Egyptian market.

The President is the offspring of an American citizen and a loosely-woven cotton fabric of inferior quality: courtesy of Wonkette.com

The President is the offspring of an American citizen and a loosely-woven cotton fabric of inferior quality: courtesy of Wonkette.com

For instance, after July’s coup, pro-military media replayed over and over claims by the absurd Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert that the Obama Administration had been giving financial aid to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Gohmert accompanied fellow delusionist Michele Bachmann on a junket to Egypt in September, to disseminate their myths about the Brotherhood among the leadership directly. It’s not for nothing that Tawfik Okasha, a key local vehicle for these fantasies, is nicknamed the Egyptian Glenn Beck. The explosive mix of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — the belief that all-powerful Jews promote Islamism — seems to ooze from the preverbal id of the Tea Party, free to express in Egypt some of the inarticulate hatreds that respectability in the US forbids. It’s interesting, then, that a pseudo-expert like Jeffrey Goldberg points repeatedly to anti-Semitism in Egypt, though it’s unlikely to claim any direct victims now (there’s only a infinitesimal minority of Jews in the country, and the prospect of conflict with Israel is extremely remote) but stays mum about its links to Islamophobic paranoia (which has already helped kill more than a thousand people since the coup). But what happens to Muslims doesn’t interest Goldberg. Neither does context.

b) Neoliberal narratives. For myself, I can spin conspiracies with the best of them, and I don’t think it accidental that the regime is dredging up this ludicrousness on Vodafone now.  Vodafone is the giant among the country’s three mobile providers (ahead of Mobinil and Etisalat). The military government, however, is finalizing a long-disputed license for Telecom Egypt to enter the field as a fourth provider. No one really can comprehend why, since the market is saturated — almost anybody who can afford a mobile phone has one. Telecom Egypt, though, is the powerful, monopoly fixed-line telephone company. It’s 80% state-owned; presumably the government wants a cut of the profitable mobile business, which has been one of the few growth areas in an economy dominated by remittances and real-estate speculation. The other 20% of Telecom Egypt was privatized back in 2005, in the first major sell-off carried out by neoliberals under the direction of Mubarak’s son and would-be successor Gamal. It was the biggest IPO in the whole Middle East up to that time. Most of the shares almost certainly went to rich regime cronies, the felool who are now back full force under General Sisi. So both its own interests and those of its friends motivate the government to look with tender concern on Telecom Egypt’s success.

All together now, and you on the left, PUT DOWN THAT CACTUS NOW: Ramadan ad frm Telecom Egypt, 2013

All together now, and you on the left, PUT DOWN THAT CACTUS NOW: Ramadan ad from Telecom Egypt, 2013

Vodafone can hardly be happy about this. (Telecom Egypt also owns 44% of Vodafone, making the competition extra intricate; presumably they want either to expand that share, or sell it back to their competitor at a hefty profit.) Could the whole contretemps be a small way for the state to remind Vodafone that there is no limit to the petty harassment they can inflict if the company causes problems?

c) Information overload. Back when blogs started multiplying like mushrooms, and even more when Facebook and Twitter first reared their heads, you heard a lot about “citizen journalism” and communications activism, about how this stuff was going to democratize the media and put information in everybody’s hands for free. Didn’t Twitter almost bring Ahmadinejad down? Wasn’t Facebook Mubarak’s fatal bane?

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Well, no. Twitter and Facebook actually did nothing of the kind. And the new media haven’t quite worked as planned. Mainly they’ve just succeeded in driving the old media, particularly newspapers, out of business. Of course, media giants under the sway of capital aren’t going to investigate or expose all things impartially; but you need some capital — which blogs don’t have — to hire reporters and do any investigative journalism at all. Investigative reporting, drained of resources, is going the way of the Brontosaurus, the typewriter, and the LP. Meanwhile, any blog or new-style news source that does show a capacity to make some money gets bought up by the powers that be: like Egypt’s Tahrir TV, which started as a vehicle for scraggly revolutionaries and, purchased and repurchased, morphed into a megaphone for regime propaganda. So we know less and less about what goes on beneath the surface of things, while we know more and more about cats from Buzzfeed, 26 amazing celebrity nosejobs from Gawker, who Chris Brown beat up from Twitter, and photoshopped porn pics of your neighbor from Tumblr. Information proliferates, illumination fades.

Where the ether and the clouds are full of messages, life becomes largely a matter of decoding them, however meaningless they may seem. This is a ripe atmosphere for breeding paranoias. But it’s also an environment where one spends much more time worrying about images than realities, representations than facts. The media erase the message, the vessel is the only content you’ve got.

The Abla Fahita brouhaha reminded me unpleasantly of the end-of-year US tempest over Phil Robertson: the Biblically bearded patriarch of a clan on a redneck reality show, who offended millions by mouthing what he thought were Scriptural strictures about homosexuality in an interview. Of course, there was no possibility of hidden meanings in Robertson’s diatribe, and he didn’t need Ahmed Spider to decode him; he said what he said. Still, an ocean away, what struck me about his comments was their sheer unimportance: the misguided ramblings of a flash-in-the-frying-pan TV star were trivial compared to harsh new anti-LGBT laws readying in Nigeria or Uganda. (His patronizing plantation-style comments on race – “they were happy; no one was singing the blues” before that civil rights stuff started — caused much less outrage. There are probably many reasons, but this Tweet may at least suggest one:

robertson kids copyYou know, priorities.)

The standard reason given for the excess furor against Robertson, when anybody felt the need to provide one, was the children, the children. LGBT youth in the US face acute levels of depression and suicide. But is that fact caused by Robertson’s representations? “I’m terrified for young, powerless gay people growing up in less enlightened places than New York City”– a little patronizing there yourself, Knickerbocker. “In these places, when people calling themselves Christians use fear and loathing of gays as an anti-sin tool, gays and lesbians become collateral damage. Sometimes they’re driven to suicide.” Or:

robertson kids 1 copyCan you? Really? I’d like to see that line before signing on. In my own experience, when kids leave their homes or their lives, it’s because of what’s happening in their homes or their lives: concrete brutality or lovelessness or abuse, not abstract comments on TV.  And if an LGBT child has a parent who thinks like Phil Robertson, she has a bigger problem than can be solved simply by worrying about Phil Robertson.

The rage over the redneck is mostly in the realm of metaphor; he stands in for a host of tangible injustices and harms — family violence, ingrained prejudice, fundamentalism, patriarchal power — that he didn’t cause and can’t do much to alleviate, but tackling him provides a convenient alternative to thinking about those crises, which are fucking hard. It’s much easier to object to symbols than to realities, much easier to argue against a flat-screen representation than an intractable and material fact. This is not wholly different from Ahmed Spider’s almost innocent faith that the murderous unravelling of a country can somehow be understood and answered by deciphering a TV commercial. Both fight the wrong fight — too simple in the Robertson case, too stupid in Spider’s. Both put medium before message, the world we watch before the world we live in. The appeal of this is very much a disorder of our days, so saturated with chattery things said and seen that we can’t remember the actualities we were talking about. I’m not sorry for Phil Robertson, who probably does deserve the anger, even if it could be turned to better use. I’m sorry for Abla Fahita. But it seems a symptom of the syndrome that I’m sorrier for the one who isn’t real.

A husband for Abla Fahita at last: Phil Robertson finger puppet, from www.thistledownpuppets.com

A husband for Abla Fahita at last: Phil Robertson finger puppet, from http://www.thistledownpuppets.com

Thanks to Tarek Mostafa and Ahmad Awadalla for illuminating discussions of Ahmed Spider in days past.

The warped reality therapy of Jeffrey Goldberg

Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Boots, and sandals, on the ground: Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Jeffrey Goldberg is one of those Beltway experts whose main area of expertise is his audience. For a while he was actually The Atlantic’s advice columnist. However brusque his manner (“What’s your problem?”, his column was called) he grasped the essence of Dear Abbyism: people want to be told to do what they already want to do. On the geopolitical scale, his famously arcane influence with high reaches of the American and Israeli governments (New York magazine described him as the “official therapist” of that fraught relationship, half Oedipal, half Albee) stems, similarly, from a talent for feeding each exactly what it longs to hear. He’s also an expert on the greater Middle East, meaning on what other people think about it. When so ostentatious a quest for insight comes back only with the carcass of a cliché or two, it feels a bit as though the Royal Hunt set off to shoot down chickens in a barnyard. But who wouldn’t prefer a safe Kentucky-fried dinner to a confrontation in a mapless thicket with the uncategorized, the indeterminate, the unknown?

This week, Goldberg is teaching us about Egypt. His column for Bloomberg analyses an interview on Egyptian TV:

And the winner of the annual “Most Convoluted Conspiracy Theory to Emerge from the Egyptian Fever Swamp” prize is the writer Amr Ammar, who alleged earlier this month on Tahrir TV that talk-show host Jon Stewart, working in tandem with former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, is asserting dominion over Egypt on behalf of the Jews. …

The gist is that, earlier this year, Stewart appeared as a gesture of support on the TV show of now-censored satirist Bassem Youssef, and made a joke about being a homeless Jew wandering the sands.  Goldberg goes on:

Look into my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Look in my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Ammar … in the course of arguing that Youssef is undermining Egypt (a common charge among revanchists), alleged that Youssef has learned theories of mass social control from Brzezinski, who is the source of Jon Stewart’s “ideology.”

Never much on the rails to begin with, Ammar then goes decisively off: “If you recall, when Jon Stewart visited here in Egypt, he was a guest on Bassem Youssef’s show. Note what Jon Stewart said as a joke. He said: ‘I am sorry I am late. I wandered in the desert, but now I’ve found my homeland.’ That’s what he said word for word — a Jew who wandered in the desert, but, thank God, found his homeland. This man says, in the heart of Egypt and on an Egyptian media outlet, that Egypt belongs to them, that it is his homeland.”

It requires no surplus of reason to agree that this is disgustingly looney. But Goldberg has an Important Point to make, not about a particular exemplar of lunacy but about the whole land of Egypt:

The proclivity of so many Egyptians to embrace conspiracy theories — anti-Semitic or otherwise — suggests an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is. An inability to grapple with the world as it actually is an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.

So now we know why Egypt is poor and miserable: they’re uniquely out of touch with reality. Let’s unpack this.

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We open our arms to welcome the conquering Israeli army to Cairo: Bassem Youssef (L) and Jon Stewart on the former’s show

1) You might think from Goldberg’s piece that Amr Ammar is some kind of important writer, and that like the greats – Dickens, Mahfouz, Dan Brown – he gives voice to dreams that well upward from the collective imagination. The truth is, no. No one I know had ever heard of him. It turns out he’s a retired army colonel, whose just-published book (Civilian Occupation: Secrets of January 25 and the American Marines) is a whole compendium of craziness, arguing that the 2011 revolution was a “complex international conspiracy against our country” by the Zionists and the CIA and everybody else. A review in the state newspaper al-Ahram lists some of the “thousands of agents and spies who tried to rape the honor of our country”:

We have been through that story with the names of its stars and its proceedings: Freedom House and Otpor [the Serbian resistance movement] and CANVAS [the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies] and the National Association for Change [a liberal group headed by Mohamed El Baradei] and April 6 [one of the main youth revolutionary groups] and Bernard Levy and Jared Cohen, and Wael Ghoneim and Ahmed Salah [prominent revolutionary spokespeople] and Mohamed El Baradei, Hamas and Pepsi and Esraa Abdel Fattah [an April 6 co-founder] and Huma Abedin [Hillary Clinton's aide, accused by Michele Bachmann of being a Muslim Brotherhood operative, and through her marriage to Anthony Wiener obviously serving as the main link between Zionists and radical Islam] and Brzezinski and George Soros and Amr Khaled [influential television preacher] and Hisham Kassem [newspaper publisher]

Don’t fuck with me, farbrekhers: In secret footage taken at a Pepsi board meeting, Joan Crawford addresses the Elders of Zion.

And so on. Pepsi is the crowning touch. Goldberg barely scratched the surface of the madness. In fact (and typically) Goldberg’s whole column lazily relies on a “transcript” of Amr Ammar’s interview by the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which always translates the worst stuff coming out of the region for Western consumption. But it’s not actually a transcript. As you can see by clicking the link, MEMRI offers up only five short passages from Ammar’s interview — basically, five Arabic sentences, about thirty seconds’ worth. The whole program, available on YouTube in two parcels, took an hour. I’d hate to inflict more of this stuff on anyone; but a real reporter, unlike Goldberg, might have wanted to go to the source and hear what else Ammar raved about, before devoting a whole column to it.

Amr Ammar interview, al-Tahrir TV, December 10, 2013, part 1

2) However little Goldberg listened to the interview, he’s right: it’s anti-Semitic and loathsome. But Goldberg has repeatedly reiterated his own theory of Egyptian anti-Semitism: that it’s a popular phenomenon deep-rooted in the country’s life and “deeply damaged culture.” “Egypt has never been notably philo-Semitic (just ask Moses),” he wrote in 2012. In the past, at least, he was intent on distinguishing this from Iran, where “the Iranian leadership is wildly anti-Semitic, but … I’ve never personally felt the hatred of Jews on the popular level.” In Egypt, though, “the virus has spread widely.”

Today it’s entirely acceptable among the educated and creative classes there to demonize Jews and voice the most despicable anti- Semitic conspiracy theories. Careerists know that even fleeting associations with Jews and Israelis could spell professional trouble. 

(Note the elision of any difference between Jews and Israeli citizens.) Goldberg has always been reluctant to saddle the Egyptian state, as opposed to Egyptian “culture,” with responsibility for anti-Semitism. It’s because he generally likes the Egyptian state, at least in its military-run incarnations. Even under the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, the state was pliable from his perspective — keeping its cold peace with Israel, and cooperating to police the fractious Sinai. As far back as 2001, he preferred blaming Egypt’s “press and the imams” for prejudice, to blaming friends.

Gleefully citing Amr Ammar, however, doesn’t actually back this up. An ex-officer, the guy comes out of the military establishment. His book’s been praised in al-Ahram, the state’s flagship paper and now a forum for junta propaganda. His interview was on Tahrir TV, founded in 2011 as a voice for revolutionaries but now, after several changes of ownership, “a mouthpiece for the intelligence and police” (in Ursula Lindsey’s words). The el-Sisi regime has been busily spinning horrifically inventive conspiracy theories almost from the moment it seized power, stories in which Zionists, Americans, Islamists, and Masons link up with human rights organizations and long-haired demonstrators to bring the state down. It might seem far-fetched to posit that Netanyahu and Hamas, Brzezinski and the Muslim Brotherhood, would join hands to demolish Egypt; but you’d be surprised. In fact, Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner married specifically in order to conquer Cairo for Mossad and al-Qaeda after the honeymoon. And vilifying Bassem Youssef as a tool of national enemies is not a hobby for “revanchists,” as Goldberg suggests. It’s Egyptian state policy.

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan's Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan’s Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Versions of this stuff have been going on for a long time. State-promoted anti-Semitism became a loud note of the Mubarak era’s waning years. I sat speechless in an Egyptian friend’s living room in November 2002 watching Horseman Without a Horse, a lavishly produced Ramadan soap opera that dramatized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A few months before that, the state-owned al-Akhbar, in an editorial, called the Holocaust a fraud; al-Ahram, which despite its propaganda uses still retained a claim to respectability, had repeated the blood libel (Christian children as ingredients in the matzah) two years earlier. These are only a few examples. Of course, Goldberg’s imams often spoke the language of anti-Semitism as well. But an individual preacher might reach only a few thousand souls; whereas a state production like Horseman infused tens of millions’ dreams. 

Egypt is fertile ground for lots of conspiracy theories, not just anti-Semitic ones. Last night 15 died in a bombing of the Security Directorate — secret police headquarters — in the Delta city of Mansoura; and plenty of my friends believe the state itself did it. The thing is, they might be right. Official paranoia breeds ersatz versions; and who’s to say that a secret state might not sacrifice its own secret-keepers to keep the panic brewing? These are feelings familiar to anyone who’s lived under authoritarianism; survivors of Communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa will recognize them. There really is a “deep state” in Egypt, a military-security establishment with vast economic and political power. The ostensible public sphere stands severed from the occult locations where decisions are made. The more constraints encircle knowledge of what’s going on, the fewer limits there are to speculation. 

Where the more hateful and virulent versions of conspiracy theory, like anti-Semitism, are concerned, one standard diagnosis finds them nebulously linked to “social change”; economic or cultural transition, if too accelerated, feeds irrational explanations. A more complex account might be: conspiracy theories breed amid uneven social change, where some structures freeze in rigidity while others shift and bend. In Imperial Germany the economy was swiftly transformed, but the political system remained fixed, dominated by an ossified and indifferent landed class. Turkey’s entrepreneurial makeover in the last three decades was slow to shake the authority of the old secular and military elites. Western investment, Western aid, satellite dishes and the Internet have rendered Egypt unrecognizable since Sadat; but the same ruling powers that were, still are. New classes — whether salaried clerks in Cologne or Islamist small businessmen in Cairo — look for reasons why their influence is less than their numbers or resources demand. If power and its persistence are neither accountable nor explicable, it’s tempting to seek not just causes, but cabalistic agents: scapegoats.

Raise your hand if you've tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Raise your hand if you’ve tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Egypt’s political immobility under Mubarak, then, helped make a conspiratorial mindset attractive. The Parkinsonian rigidity of the regime despite three years of revolution can only deepen its heuristic appeal. But the monumental resilience of the military-security complex doesn’t just draw on its own inner resources. It’s due to forty years of unstinting support from the US; and that support has been a payback for the regime’s détente with Israel. Even Egyptians who never switched on Horseman Without a Horse know that. Egypt’s politics have gone through plenty of vicissitudes, but the treaty with Israel has stayed intensely unpopular throughout. It’s hated not because of anti-Semitism, and not just for itself, but because it’s both symbol and (financial and military) enabler of a government that can ram through pretty much any policy without even a curtsey to democratic consent. (That the semi-peace coincided with Sadat’s equally despised, equally authoritarian pursuit of poverty-producing neoliberal economic policies only confirmed its unpopularity.) Some of the most important moments in democratic dissent in Egypt have focused on opposition to Israel, and to the government’s ties to it. Many activists who led the 2011 revolution got their start a decade earlier protesting Mubarak’s acquiescence in Operation Defensive Shield and his failure to support the Palestinians, as well as his tacit endorsement of the US invasion of Iraq. Even more infuriating to the dissidents, WikiLeaks revealed that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s sinister security consigliere and chief torturer, was also his liaison to Tel Aviv. The old monster consulted on a hotline with the Israelis daily. Contemplating “Egyptian succession scenarios,” an Israeli diplomat said, “there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.”

Intelligent Egyptians were eminently capable of concluding that Israel’s vested interest in Cairo’s “stability” meant complicity in repression. There was a conspiratorial element to this belief, but it wasn’t fantasy; it wasn’t Holocaust denial or the blood libel. It was perfectly consistent with the facts. The Egyptian regime’s ignition of anti-Semitism (which hit full throttle around the time Sharon took office) must be comprehended in this light. It was fantasy, but it distracted attention from the raw truth that the regime’s strength depended on its Israeli ties. It was a way of screaming, “Don’t look here: look over there!” The state knew how to cultivate conspiratorial thinking, and divert it to its own ends. The elaborate paranoias the generals promote today — the Jew-led US in league with the Masons and Qatar — serve the same purpose. The US isn’t about to give up on the Egyptian military; John Kerry has made it clear that he approves the coup, just not the methods. But a dash of rabid anti-Americanism spicing up the anti-Semitism keeps the Obamans on their toes. And it makes el-Sisi seem independent to his citizenry when, like his predecessors, he’s not.

I talk to chairs too, when I'm lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

I talk to chairs too, when I’m lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

Goldberg points anxiously to the “culture” of Egyptian anti-Semitism. He doesn’t want to talk about the politics of it. Talking politics would mean admitting that the regime spreads anti-Semitism, not just the “culture,” and it does so because it’s embarrassed by its own dependencies. Full democracy — including state transparency, accountability for past crimes, and smashing the military apparatus’ power — would be the remedy for Egypt’s inculcated political paranoias. A fully democratic state would almost certainly push for a different regional power structure. For that reason alone, Goldberg and the other “therapists” are unenthusiastic.

3) Goldberg is a reality therapist, all about pragmatism and responsibility and paying your doctor bills on time. His diagnosis of the Egyptian disease is “an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is,” this being “an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.” He elaborated in 2012:

The revolution that overthrew the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, held great promise, but it also exposed the enormous challenges facing Egyptian politics and culture. … As Walter Russell Mead [a Bard College professor] has written on his blog, countries “where vicious anti-Semitism is rife are almost always backward and poor.” They aren’t backward and poor because the Elders of Zion conspire against them. They’re backward and poor because, Mead argues, they lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” 

That anti-Semitism was the property of poor and backward countries would have surprised Jews in rich France during the Dreyfus affair, or in technologically advanced Germany in the 1930s; or even in thriving, skinhead-infested Russia today. Certainly anti-Semitism — conspiracy addiction in general — is a cognitive failure. But is the inability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect” distinctive to fetid Egypt and its “damaged culture”?

Goldberg lives in the US now, and as a commentator with political pretensions, maybe he should check the polls. It isn’t just that surveys repeatedly show nearly 80% of Americans believe in angels. It isn’t even that 4% of citizens affirm that “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies,” with another 7% “not sure.” Absent a militant movement to throw the reptiles out, those credos won’t do much. Probably.

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries "The Bible," 2012

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” 2012

But what can you say when 20% of Republicans say Obama is the Antichrist? (18% of Americans overall, of course, think he’s a Muslim.) What about the 34% of Republicans and 35% of independents who believe in a global conspiracy to install a totalitarian superstate called the New World Order? These aren’t innocent illusions; they’re predicates for how folks vote and agitate. And what intervening angel will prevent the 37% of Americans who think global warming is a hoax from incinerating the rest of us with their delusions?

Plenty of analysts have held paranoia to be a deep-rooted characteristic of America’s political “culture”: see Richard Hofstadter. Rich and forward the US may be, but that doesn’t keep it from being fearful. More cogently, from the anti-immigrant frenzies of the 1920s through McCarthyism to the anti-Obamism of the present, conspiracy theories seem connected to uneven social change, to classes and identities terrified of being left out by economic or political transformation. But like anti-Semitism in Egypt, they’re easily manipulated and bought up by entrenched, existing power. The Koch Brothers, after all, paid for the Tea Party: the former’s method used the latter’s madness. And there’s plenty of media to promote these stories. Pat Robertson has a whole TV network to spread his ideas about how Satan, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Council on Foreign Relations plot a one-world government through central banks. Broadcaster Glenn Beck, the Kanye of paranoia, beloved of the Tea Party, maps all kinds of conspiracies on his trademark chalkboard: University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein is planning genocide; Obama is an ally of Egypt’s blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Egypt, in fact, is something of a Glenn Beck fetish. One of his more intricate narratives had Obama, George Soros, and international Communism working together to launch the Egyptian revolution, in order to build a “Muslim caliphate” that for some reason would make them all happy.

 Egypt, your caliphate is coming: Glenn Beck connects the dots, which look suspiciously like small brain lesions.

It comes full circle. Egypt’s popular, insane TV presenter Tawfik Okasha plagiarizes the Tea Party, raging about how Obama brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, helped by Zionists and Masons. Not for nothing is he known as the Egyptian Glenn Beck. (If you don’t know Okasha, this brilliant parody Twitter account in English gives something of his mad flavor.)

In fact, there’s one key point Goldberg left out in his account of Amr Ammar, so hampered was he by MEMRI’s selective editing, so fixed on Egypt’s “damaged culture.” Many of Ammar’s conspiratorial fantasies didn’t spring from the “Egyptian fever swamp.” They come from the US. 

bachmann copy

Look in my eyes and, trust me, you will never get out alive: Michele Bachmann editorializes in Daily News Egypt, December 2013

The “fever swamp” is in DC, as much as the Nile Delta. It’s doubtful Ammar or anyone else in Sisi’s circles would even have heard of Huma Abedin if Michele Bachmann hadn’t been smearing her for years as a Muslim Brotherhood mole in the US government. The Islam-loathing Bachmann has become a serious and baleful influence on Egyptian politics, visiting the country twice since the coup to share her “witless ramblings” with the junta leaders; in Cairo, she even accused the Muslim Brotherhood of involvement in the September 11 attacks. George Soros as bête noire and fulcrum of the global conspiracy is an idea borrowed, of course, from plenty of Tea Party polemicists, Glenn Beck high among them. Ammar would hardly have thought to mention Zbigniew Brzezinski’s name — as hard to pronounce in Arabic as in English — but for the work of right-wing US paranoiacs, who have long fingered the dour Pole as an Illuminatus and inventor of the New World Order.

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, "Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt's Jews, is an obligation": via @ablasalma

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, “Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt’s Jews, is an obligation”: via @ablasalma

Indeed, much as right-wing evangelicals arguably exported their homophobia to Uganda, conspiratorial neocons and other conmen are shipping their Islamophobia to Egypt. What’s arising in Cairo is a peculiar blend of Islam(ist)-hatred and anti-Semitism, a weird worldview in which the Elders of Zion breach protocol to lend a hand to the Ikhwan. The key ideas come from outside. And the melding seems liberating for many Tea Party types like Bachmann. Egypt is a place where the latent anti-Semitism bred by Becks and Robertsons, by Christmas warriors and Confederate nostalgists — a sentiment confined to coded dog-whistles in the corseted US — can emerge and stretch its limbs and find its voice.

Goldberg is spot on that some people can’t “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” But they’re not all Egyptians. Some of them live right in his own town, and promote their paranoias in his neighborhood. One person, in fact, who has some trouble with cause and effect relations seems to be Goldberg. Therapy begins at home.

Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

Baiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

Braiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.

I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia.  He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.

Here is his story.

I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah.  I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.

In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad.  There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”

There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!

So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?

I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that.  I was looking cute.

He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking.  But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.

The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.

Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.

I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.

I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.

The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.

The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported.  To me this was something good: at least I would be free.

Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert.  I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.

That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?

Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.

The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.

I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.

The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.

I was so happy that day.

But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.

But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me.  Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.

After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions.  The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex.  The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.

In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty.  The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years.  And after I was released, they deported me.

In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.

I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75.  Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo.  Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country].  From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US].  The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.

No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.

They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that.  But I don’t believe everything he said.

Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.

But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death.  It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Military manhood: More arrests for homosexual conduct in Egypt

Houses made of ticky-tacky: 6 October City scene

Houses made of ticky-tacky: 6 October City scene

It would be hard to say why you’d bother to put a checkpoint in 6 October City. Stranded in the rock and sand a dozen or so kilometers west of Cairo like a very dull mirage, with only four or five roads leading out of it to anywhere else, it’s an unlikely source of trouble. As with Las Vegas – which it resembles only in that it was drawn improbably from the desert by sheer will, not however by dreamy scoundrels like Moe Green or Bugsy Siegel but by a drably determined military state – what happens there stays there. Not that anything happens. It’s one of a slew of satellite “new towns” coaxed out of lunar landscapes from the 1980s on, artificial developments to relieve the capital’s choke and congestion. Originally meant as a worker’s city, it stalled when the industries failed to congregate. Private developers bribed their way to ownership of the unoccupied tracts, then sold them cheap to members of Cairo’s middle class desperate to escape: mostly not the rich middle class who live on speculation and connections, but the sad and salaried — government clerks, mid-level NGO minions, doctors and lawyers just starting underpaid careers. The place smells of expectations that started small and still shrank. Thirty years ago its planners envisioned a city of half a million. Maybe a third of that live there, house after house gapes empty, and streets give way abruptly to shimmering desert like a slide being changed.

Nonetheless, in these months of curfew and military rule, the armored personnel carriers stand guard athwart streetcorners in 6 October, like everywhere else. The soldiers sit on the steel humps and sweat and look prickly as porcupines in the sun.

Soldier and armed personnel carrier at Cairo checkpoint

Soldier and armed personnel carrier at Cairo checkpoint

It’s unusual when any news escapes the boredom vortex that is 6 October, but it started seeping out early in the morning of November 5. I heard from a friend at around 2 AM: 46 people had been arrested at a raid on a private party, or 80, or 70, no one was sure. The numbers swung round wildly in the next 24 hours. All anybody knew was, there’d been a gathering in a “villa” — a detached house — celebrating “Love Day,” an unofficial holiday that’s a kind of Egyptian Valentine’s Day. The police came in.

Since then one friend of mine has spoken to several people who were at the party but escaped. Anther friend and colleague went with a lawyer to the niyaba – the prosecutor’s office – in Giza for the victims’ hearing on the night of November 5. He interviewed some of those arrested. Here, so far as we know, is the story.

It was a large party, perhaps more than 200 people. At 1:00 or 1:30 AM a first group of police knocked on the door – wearing civilian clothes, but carrying handguns.  They demanded to know if the party was “for money” or not; the party organizer told them it was for free. Many guests panicked and fled.

Another phalanx of police charged in, demanding to see IDs. They focused on young people and so-called “ladyboys” (my friend who spoke to guests used the term in English; it has filtered into Egyptian slang), men who look “effeminate.” They zeroed in particularly on men wearing belly-dancing dress. Three police vans waited on the street outside – indicating both that the cops planned arrests even before “investigating,” and that they looked forward to a large haul. In the end, however, they only arrested 10 people. They seized the host, a female bartender, and a man who works as a belly-dancing teacher (his wife, also at the party, was taken in as a witness). Along with them went four other men who seemed unmanly in dress or manner, and three kids under 18.  Police slapped and beat all of them, and kicked and fingered some in the ass. At the same time, the officers seemed uncertain what the guests were guilty of; the presence of women at the party especially flustered them. They called the men “khawalat” and accused them of fujur (“debauchery,” the legal term for consensual sexual relations between men) but also threatened them with charges for adultery. (Consensual adultery is not a crime in Egyptian law,)

The vans took them all to a police station in 6 October City. More beatings followed. The officers forced the “effeminate” men to clean the station toilets as punishment. .

In the early evening of November 5, all were transferred to a police station in Giza (the vast district of Cairo proper west of the Nile) and brought before the niyaba. The scene was chaos, with relatives of the accused screaming and weeping. My colleague and the lawyer he brought monitored the interrogations as best they could. Two things were obvious:

a)     The police had absolutely no evidence anything illegal happened in the villa. The only allegedly incriminating items they confiscated were belly-dancing clothes and, they claimed, women’s makeup.

b)    Nor was there evidence any of the men had committed illegal acts — especially the homosexual acts on which the investigation concentrated – in the past.

After nearly six hours, the lawyers there expected all the arrestees to be freed for lack of cause. Reportedly, the wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) in charge of the case was ready to order their release. However, after a phone call, the chief prosecutor of the district overruled him.

Night passage: Cairo checkpoint

Night passage: Cairo checkpoint

The complaint against the party had come from the military itself. The villa stood near a checkpoint, and the soldiers there didn’t like the noise, or the way the guests looked and acted when they passed. Military police had phoned the 6 October cops to shut the party down. The soldiers wanted the egregious villa closed permanently; for this, a legal case would be necessary. To please the military, the Giza prosecutor ordered the case kept active, and sent the victims off for forensic anal exams.

Performed without consent, these tests are abusive and torturous, devoid of any medical value. Reportedly the results “cleared” the men. (A medical finding in favor of arrestees is never final. In my experience, most reports on anal exams contain an “escape clause” saying the defendants might still be guilty: for instance, “It is scientifically known in the case of adults that sexual contact from behind in sodomy with penetration can happen  –through full consent, taking the right position, and the use of lubricants – without leaving a sign.” If so, what is the tests’ point?)  It’s not yet certain whether or how the woman in the case was tested, or indeed what her place in any potential charges might be. But meanwhile, the prosecution has ordered them all detained for an additional 15 days.

Armored personnel carriers sealing off a  Cairo road

Armored personnel carriers sealing off a Cairo road

The story has already made it to the Egyptian press, most notably in a longish article in Al- Watan al-Arabi on Sunday: “Homosexuals [mithliyeen] arrested in Egypt during the celebration of the ‘Feast of Love.’” Oddly, it alternates between using the PC, recently-invented term al-mithliyeen (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”) and an older language of “sexual perversion.” But it conflates both with sex work:

Security services received information that  a number of homosexuals [mithliyeen] organized ceremonies in a villa on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, to practice sexual perversion on Valentine’s Day. Police raided the villa where they found, according to the official record, young people dancing with each other near the pool, and others, including minors and a dance teacher, putting makeup on their faces and their skins, with women’s underwear and wigs for dancing in their possession. …

The public prosecutor ordered the detention of suspects for 15 days pending investigation on charges of “organizing the collective exercise of acts contrary to morality [adab], and practicing sexual perversion, and  [forming] the headquarters of a business contrary to morality” …

Egyptian law criminalizes the practice of sexual perversion, and society rejects those habits and treats them with disdain, but there are places, including cafes and nightclubs in Cairo, known to be frequented by sexual perverts.

There is a “homosexuals in Egypt” page on the social networking site Facebook titled [in English] “Gays in Egypt” that has won likes from more than 11,000 people. Page members are known to be “youth of tender age, many of them still minors, roaming some streets and parks and major cities to offer sexual services to adults and the elderly for a fee. Some of the dating sites are a way to find clients.”

The article warns about mithliyeen “using social media sites to network and promote their ideas rejected by society.” It relays a question:

What drives these young people to this behavior you may deem perverted? Is it poverty? Is it a desire to earn money the easy way? Or is it more complex, associated with a sense of inferiority and the desire to get paid as a kind of compensation for a homosexual role considered insulting?

L: Good Facebook (placard from Midan Tahrir during the 2011 Revolution); R: Bad Facebook ("Facebook, Friend or Foe," book by Dr. Gamal Mokhtar on the danger of social media to Arab and Egyptian youth)

L: Good Facebook (placard from Midan Tahrir during the 2011 Revolution); R: Bad Facebook (“Facebook, Friend or Foe,” book by Dr. Gamal Mokhtar on the danger of foreign social media to Arab and Egyptian youth)

So what is happening? In El-Marg, on Cairo’s eastern verges, 14 men still languish in jail, facing charges of fujur, arrested in early October in a raid on a local gym. Do these cases presage a new crackdown, a return of horrors ten years gone, when police slunk into chatrooms and raided private homes, arresting and torturing hundreds or thousands of men to root out “sexual perversion”?

Nobody can say yet. But the talk of perverted social media, of foreign influence creeping in, of technology mating with immorality, of hangouts and watering holes that are “known” and watched, is ominous. It suggests that the relative visibility of a small LGBT community, mostly in Cairo’s downtown, is wakening anxieties.

Yet this case, like the El-Marg one, also suggests how much of this is about manhood: a complex of fears and fantasies that military rule, with its overt adulation of power and muscle, only intensifies. Why hone in on “ladyboys”? Why the prurient questions about perverts who dare to “act like men?” The same friend who went to the Giza niyaba also managed, bravely, to make his way into the El-Marg police station last month, trying to find out more about the victims detained there. It was harrowing. The El-Marg officers praised themselves for striving, during the feast of Eid el-Adha when the arrests happened, “to protect moralities of the State.” But some slight default of ideal masculinity in my friend set their alarms off — and they started menacing him:

Before answering my questions the uncertain police officer looked at me and said “Do you know that I am the one who received the complaint of the neighbors, the one that guided us to arrest the group of 14 men? …. They said the place had drug addicts and immoral acts, so we sent a task force and surprisingly they didn’t take much time till they arrested the 14 men” …

I asked the police officer to describe the club for me, so he said “It’s an ordinary health club with gymnastics equipment, steam rooms and closed massage room.” He looked at me and asked in a humiliating and sarcastic tone “Come on  … you’ve never been in one of those rooms with any one before?” …

[H]e insisted on harassing and insulting me once more by saying “You know that those who were fucked in that place used to pay, while those who used to fuck wouldn’t pay a penny, so would you like to pay or go for free?”…

I understood he didn’t want me to know if they forced the arrested men to go through anal examinations or not … “Well this whole medical test comes later after a permission from the prosecution office, but we don’t wait, we have our own vision.” The comment made me ask “What do you mean by your own vision?”, so he answered saying in a very confident tone “Like when you find someone, and sorry for my language, who only has two balls but no penis, do you think he was fucking or getting fucked? Aren’t you a man? You definitely understand.”

Being a man: Egyptian police assault protester, May 2006

Being a man: Egyptian police assault protester, May 2006

He adds, “the police officers were mocking the families of the 14 men, especially that some of the old[er] men among the 14 arrested men are married and have sons or daughters who would go to ask about them.” When they did, they were “made fun of by the police officers.” During his foray into the beast’s belly, he watched one cop take a call from another police station: the brother of one of the men had gone there, unsure where to turn, asking desperately about his arrested relative. “Fuck, so his brother is being fucked and he shows up there acting like a man … I’ll fuck him up.”

The tone’s consistent with what Khaled el-Haitamy, the El-Marg police chief, told the Egypt Independent about the gym: “The owner of the place is a son of bitch and a khawal … He fled the scene. These gays are sick!”

Black and white: Egyptian police officers joke, with Central Security anti-riot forces in the background: Reuters, 2012

Black and white: Egyptian police officers joke, with Central Security anti-riot forces in the background: Reuters, 2012

This morning, Alaa al-Aswany, Egypt’s bestselling novelist, has his debut column in the New York Times. It’s a barely-qualified defense of military rule, with all the usual cliches: in a showdown with the evil Morsi, “the army sided with the will of the Egyptian people.” (No mention of how the army massacred Egyptian people at Mohamed Mahmoud, or Rabaa). Al-Aswany’s magnum opus, The Yacoubian Building, famously called State-sponsored masculinity into public question: not only through a sympathetic gay character, but through another protagonist, Taha el-Shazli, a desperately poor boy who joins an Islamist rebel group in shame and rage, after policemen brutally rape him in a station cell. These days, Al-Aswany sides with the police.

It’s to be expected, maybe. That official, militarized manhood is inescapable. 6 October City, with its stunted mediocrity, still bears its imprint. It’s named (like other sites around the country) for the one great triumph of Egypt’s armed forces, the stunning crossing of the Suez Canal on the first day of the 1973 war. It was wrested from the desert by the the military-ruled State: indeed, its 1981 foundation — and the decision to push Cairo’s margins into the encircling sand — came along with new laws on the ownership of desert land. These formalized government control over empty spaces, and ensured that developing any of the patrimony would require buying influence with the security bureaucracy. The laws helped set in literal concrete many of the crony networks that rule the State today. The powers that be built the artificial city; no coincidence, then, that their values insinuate themselves into its interstices. They’re enforced at its checkpoints, just as they were forced onto Taha el-Shazli’s body.

The idea of November 4 as “Love Day,” by the way, comes from the late Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin – who also promoted Mother’s Day in the country. Once, some forty years ago, he watched a desolate funeral trundle down the street with no one attending or walking behind. He wondered about the silence of loveless lives, and the moldlike spread of solitude, and suddenly he had the notion of a day to celebrate human connection. The problem with official masculinity is how many people it shuts out: the inadequate, superfluous, unloved. The more the checkpoints multiply, the more unwanted there are.

Soldiers set up barbed wire at a Cairo checkpoint

Soldiers set up barbed wire at a Cairo checkpoint

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as you have never seen him before

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

Moving to Hungary not long after the revolutions of 1989, I spent my first few days in Budapest (hampered by my total incomprehension of the language) looking for evidence of gay life. Late one night, on a scarred and ill-lit street near Oktogon Square, I saw a lavender sign over a doorway: Sissi Panzió. I was stunned: Sissies? Pansies? Surely a slur ironically recuperated, the way my compadres back in the States were busily reclaiming queer. The formidable door was bolted. I resolved to come back and investigate this outpost of gender dissidence at a more amicable hour. Only on checking a dictionary did I find, first, that Panzió meant pension, and, second, that Sissi, far from an insult to Magyar masculinity, was the nickname of Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Josef, the penultimate monarch of the House of Habsburg.

The General is remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

The General will be remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

Even under Communism, Hungarians revered the memory of Sissi — also spelt Sisi. Unlike the other resolutely German Habsburgs, she’d learned Hungarian during her reign, endearing herself to her subjects. She also had an appealingly awful life: horrible mother-in-law, indifferent husband, suicidal son, an eventual death at the hands of a murderous anarchist on the lakefront in Geneva. Estranged from ordinary affection, she adored public adulation as she adored her own beauty; she ordered her ambassadors to report on whether any women in other countries rivalled her own charms. Her posthumous cult took the tinge of narcissism in her personality, and ran with it. Sisi’s glamorous tale, frozen in statues and reproduced in film, is ubiquitous in Hungary. 

The General in uniform: "The Sisi Cult," an exhibit in Hungary

The General in uniform: “The Sisi Cult,” an exhibit in Hungary

But I never quite understood her. Not till I came to Egypt! Not, in fact, till I read this article in Al-Ahram, the flagship of the State press. It’s a fascinating description of the military ruler, General Sisi — also spelt Sissi.

It’s clear now that in his magnanimous modesty, his self-effacing love of being loved, his mysterious bond with the people, and his romantic rise, Sisi is no ordinary dictator. Surely his name (which in Modern Standard Arabic, I’m told, means “pony” or “young rat”) is not a coincidence. Great souls stretch across boundaries of time and culture. I’m convinced this Sisi is the other one reincarnated.

A hero, big and small: SIsi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

A hero, big and small: Sisi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

You run into Sisi (the male version) everywhere these days in Cairo — portraits of him are de rigeur in shopwindows, stare down on avenues from banners, and even deck little chocolates like Hershey’s Propaganda Kisses. This too resembles Hungary and Austria, where titles like “Sisi’s Dream of Love” or “The Tragedy of Sisi” jam the bookshelves; three films in which she’s played by the equally tragic Romy Schneider (dead of an overdose at 43) spool endlessly on late-night TV.

L: The General (on the right, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, evinces fear of freedom

Sisi on film: L: The General (with hair down, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, demonstrates fear of freedom

I don’t know who wrote the op-ed below. The alleged author, “Lubna Abdel Aziz,” bears the name of an actress in her 70s, who most recently appeared in the TV adaption of the Yacoubian Building (unlike the feature film, that version demurely dropped the gay sub-story). She’s also famous for starring in several Nasser-era films where women struggle against patriarchal values, one with the very un-Sisi-esque title Ana Horra: “I am free.” How uncool! Could it be she wants to make amends for that old deviation, by showing the General how very unfree she — like the rest of Egypt — can be? Or could she have a higher ambition? Maybe she dreams of imitating Romy Schneider, by playing General Sisi herself in the inevitable movie?

Here goes: from Al-Ahram, September 17. It’s hard to believe, but yes, it’s real.

Catch the Al-Sisi mania by Lubna Abdel Aziz

The General is a looker: "Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress"

The General is a looker: “Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress”

He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendezvous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant.

Let the deaf, dumb and blind media and governments of the West say what they will, Al-Sisi submitted to the will of 33 million Egyptians in the street and 50 million in their homes, crying for salvation. The people led — Al-Sisi followed.

The General's moment of truth: "SIsi: Year of Destiny for an Empress"

The General’s moment of truth: “Sisi: Year of Destiny for an Empress”

What the West cannot comprehend is the warm affinity between people and army in Egypt, which has endured for centuries. Gamal Abdel-Nasser is a recent example, even when he ruled with the firm grip of a military dictator.

Whatever else is going on in the rest of this vast universe, this much is certain — Al-Sisi has captured the imagination of all Egyptians, if not all the world.

He popped out of nowhere — almost — and his secret ingredient was hope. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “a leader deals with hope”, and the brand of hope that Al-Sisi deals, breathed new life into our withering, perishing dreams.

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting murdered members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting dead members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Are heroes born, made or chosen? Perhaps, all of the above. William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.

The General takes what's thrust upon him: Sisi (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

What was thrust upon him: The General (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

In the full vigour of his prime, he exudes a magic charm, afforded to a select few.  His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless. He wears the emblems of his rank on his shoulders as he does the legends of his ancient land, with gushing pride. But it is the swelling reservoir of love for his Egypt and his God that sealed the deal. We responded to this love a million times over. Therefore, for those who raise an eyebrow at the portraits, flags, pins, pictures, chocolates, cups and other forms of Al-Sisi mania that fill the streets of Egypt, it is only a fraction of the love and appreciation we feel for this strong yet modest, soft-spoken, sincere and compassionate leader. It is Kismet.

The General's got charisma: L, German book cover ( "Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten"); R, Hungarian fashion show (with Princess Di)

The General’s got charisma: L, German book cover ( “Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten”); R, Hungarian fashion show ad (with Princess Di)

Shy and reserved, Al-Sisi is a man of few words and much action. We know little about the private life of Colonel General Abdel-Fattah Saad Hussein Al-Sisi, except that he is married with three sons and one daughter and he believes that is all we need to know.

The General is cultured: "Sisi, the Modern Woman"

The General is cultured: “Sisi, the Modern Woman”

He was born on 19 November 1954, to the right kind of father, in the right kind of district — Al-Gammaliya — right in the heart of the bustling city of middle-class Cairo. This is what gives him that sharp perspective into the hearts of his people, their pains, their aims, their wishes, their dreams. His father Hassan, an amiable accomplished artisan owns a shop in Cairo’s legendary Bazaar, Khan Al-Khalili, where he displays his craftsmanship of intricate inlay of mother-of-pearl and rosewood. Cultured and well-read, he owns a huge library filled with history books, and socialised with famous writers, poets, musicians, and theologians. Al-Sisi is one of seven children, four boys — a judge, a doctor, a businessman and an army general. All three daughters are married.

According to his brothers, Al-Sisi developed a love of books from their father. He was the one who saw the most and said the least. Even as a boy, they called him “the General”. There was little doubt he would join the army and make it his career, and what a distinguished career it has been. He studied in the UK in the General Command in 1977, and attended their Staff course in 1992. He spent a year in the US at the War College in Pennsylvania and became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi's life story

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi’s life story, suitable for children

He took over as defence minister in 2012, but by 30 June 2013, there was no doubt in his mind that he would do what is right. He responded to the 33 million voices clamouring in the streets. Yes, the Eagle had landed.

His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.

The General's inner life: L, "Sisi's Dream of Love"; R, "Sisi's Secret Love"

The General’s inner life: L, “Sisi’s Dream of Love”; R, “Sisi’s Secret Love”

There is almost poetry in his leadership, but the ardour of the sun is in his veins. He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side.

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, with enigmatic expression, faces the future

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, an enigma as always, faces the future

(Thanks for Liam Stack of the New York Times for pointing out the article, and hunting down that young rat or pony.)

New arrests for “homosexuality” in Egypt

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeast Cairo

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeastern Cairo

I wish some Egyptian Joan Didion could visit El-Marg. She might turn this dry outcropping of Cairo into a fear-saturated landscape like the dismal suburbs of Los Angeles: “an alien place,” as the writer sketched those badlands in one essay,

a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.  October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April.  Every voice seems a scream.  It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

Street in El-Marg

Street in El-Marg

I’ve been to El-Marg once or twice, out on the far northeast edges of the megacity, and I remember dust everywhere, enough to outdo Didion’s sallow, itchy ambience. The neighborhood is too close to the desert, and nothing keeps out the onslaught of sand that grinds itself fine against window and wall and skin. But there are no mountains and there’s little wind; none of Didion’s rattlesnakes crepitate in the drives – there are no rattlers in Egypt, just impudent mongeese that hurry hunchbacked along the streets like donked-up rats; and you come away impressed not by sullen, repressed California housewives dreaming of adultery and insurance money, but by the prevalence of men, particularly young ones, slouching and strutting and parading down the unswept streets. It’s a shaabi neighborhood, a word sometimes translated “popular” and sometimes “working class,” but carrying other, deeper connotations: down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, the country transported to the city on migrants’ backs. The place has the resentful pride of poverty, but none of the thwarted aspirations that fester in Didion’s bourgeoises. Nobody aspires. The local dreams seem leaden, not golden. The main hope is simply to survive in an economy and country where that gets harder all the time. Fourteen or more men are in jail there tonight, for something connected, somehow, to this hurt and troubled manhood.

The story appeared on October 12 in Akhbar el-Youm, a state newspaper, describing arrests that probably happened the day before.

The niyaba [prosecutor] ordered the [continued] detention of the manager and specialists and workers at a health center that was open for perverts [shawazz] only, in El-Marg. He also ordered the detention of 14 men who were caught practicing immorality [fahesha] inside it, and the closure of the establishment.

Information had been received about the center’s illegal activity, and that it welcomed perverted men and boys to practice immorality in its rooms.  The investigation has proved the information correct; the center was raided, and 14 men were caught, in positions that are against religious precepts.

Also, the management staff were caught along with a large quantity of pills and sexual stimulants. It emerged that the center only engages in this illegal activity in return for payments of between 50 and 200 pounds [$7-$28 US] for one encounter.

The defendants confessed in front of Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, the chief El-Marg prosecutor, that they had been frequenting the center to practice immorality [fahesha]. The niyaba ordered their detention and referral to the forensic medical authority, and ordered the center closed and the evidence preserved.

The “health center” turned into a “medical center” by the time this reached the English-language Egyptian press. It has remained so now that the story has started to enter the international LGBT media.

Actually, the establishment is — was — neither. I have at least one friend who has visited. It was a small gym and sauna, converted from a private apartment and operating as a business for years. It’s well known in the surrounding streets; when my friend went there about three years ago – before the Revolution – and asked directions, the neighbors said “Oh, the hammam!”, or baths, and pointed the way. The entry fee was 25 pounds back then. It’s unlikely the price has gone up eightfold in the interim, so the figures the police gave (with the strong suggestion of prostitution) are probably nonsense. There is a good chance that the “pills and sexual stimulants” the police found are vitamins, or even steroids.

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

The gym sounds, and perhaps was, a little upscale for a district like El-Marg: so poor and so insulated from so much of Western consumerism, with the exception of universal values like Marlboros and Pepsi. The arrests certainly call into question the celebrated thesis of Joseph Massad: that the “visible” people experiencing, indeed mischievously inciting, persecution for “homosexuality” in Egypt are “Westernized upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists.” There aren’t too many people like that around El-Marg. On the other hand, a different kind of consumerized identity, built not around sexuality but around masculinity, has been creeping into places like El-Marg for well over a decade now. It comes from movies and magazine ads and it consists in a cult of the sculpted body, perfected from nature’s raw materials, designed to elicit admiration quite apart from anything it does, any useful work or wonders it performs. A longstanding fetish of health and exercise in Egypt dates from the colonial period – periodic pushups helped show that “natives” could be as strong and self-sufficient as their masters. Yet it was largely confined to the upwardly-pushing middle classes, as Wilson Chacko Jacob has demonstrated in an intriguing study. Only more recently has working out, and a fullblown Chelsea version of it at that, become a defining feature of shaabi manhood.

Something of the change can be sensed just with a glance at two Egyptian movie stars and their physiques.  Farid Shawki (1920-1998), nicknamed the “King of the Cheap Seats,” was an idol to working-class audiences for decades, playing poor heroes who fought against injustices imposed by a rogues’ gallery of rich villains. He was an unwieldy lug with a rectangular body that made him resemble a walking refrigerator (a luxury item his characters certainly couldn’t afford). Mohammad Ramadan, a 20-something kid from Upper Egypt and now a major sex symbol, also plays noble prole roles, but by contrast has the kind of torso that – well, in every movie he misses no opportunity to take his shirt off: “Lunch, habibi?” “Yes, but it’s so hot in here …”

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R):

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R)

It’s like the transition between John Wayne and Channing Tatum: between a laconic masculinity that held its energies in reserve, lest they be harnessed or exploited, versus one that shows itself off compulsively and indeed exists to be seen. The way the poor devour this new image in Egypt may have something to do with how the shaabi classes are increasingly invisible to the privileged and powerful. The rich and even the middle class retreat into guarded shopping malls, gated towers, and remote desert developments with the poor safely locked out. The conspicuous development of delts and abs is also a defiant way to say, I’m here, if only as an object of desire. It also perhaps reflects the economy of underdevelopment: a feeling that muscles are no longer for labor – there are fewer and fewer jobs as the economy spirals downward – but for show. Maybe there’s an element of resistance to it (look at Mohammad Ramadan’s menacing weaponry, above), but mostly it seems to be resignation to a different kind of exploitation. It’s a grim admission that your existence is really only useful as a spectacle. This kind of masculinity-for-display inevitably carries homoeroticism with it, but a particularly unsettling kind: the pumped-up muscles make one an object, not an agent, and imply vulnerability along with the visibility, the paralyzed passivity of a pin-up photo. Mohammad Ramadan is not an action hero. He seems quite credible, in fact, playing a victim.

The consumerized body, its class implications, its cross-cultural incursions – have any of these drawn Joseph Massad’s indignant attention? I think not. I don’t know whether any of the arrested men in El-Marg are “gay” or not, or what they were doing when caught “in positions against religious precepts” (a remarkably inclusive phrase).  I am inclined to guess, though, that the visibility of this suspect masculinity finally roused the antagonism of the neighborhood; and that is why the police were called, and how they ended up in jail.

Friends of friends of mine know some of the men. (Although “14” is the figure that’s made it into Western press reports, this is only the number of the clients arrested – it doesn’t seem to include the “manager, specialists, and workers.”) The prosecutor ordered them held for four days, but that may be renewed. They’ve been sent off for forensic anal examinations, which are intrusive, abusive, and inhuman treatment. They don’t yet have lawyers. Human rights organizations are overburdened with the arrested, the tortured, the disappeared since the military takeover. Some informal networks are trying to see what we can do.

Bodies indisciplined: Anti-Morsi protesters fill Midan Tahrir, June 30

Bodies indisciplined: Anti-Morsi protesters fill Midan Tahrir, June 30

Back in June, when three days of massive demonstrations gave the military the go-ahead to overthrow President Morsi, most of my gay friends in Cairo flocked to the streets, first in protest, then in celebration. But nothing had gotten worse for LGBT people under Muslim Brotherhood rule; nothing has got better since it ended. Same old, same old. It’s still true that the worst persecution LGBT people have faced in Egypt, possibly in the whole region – the three-year, continuous crackdown from 2001-2004, when police probably arrested and tortured thousands – was inflicted under Mubarak’s secular dictatorship. It had virtually nothing to do with religion. Indeed, the aged caudillo was arresting and torturing tens of thousands of Islamists at the same time.

What has been consistent since the Revolution, despite the several changes of government – military, Islamist, military again – is that the police want desperately to win their reputations back.  Under Mubarak, the vast majority of Egyptians passionately loathed the police: they were the contact point where ordinary citizens faced, and felt, the corruption and arbitrary power and abusiveness of a regime that had lost its sense of limit. And after February 2011, the cops finally had to give a damn that they were hated. In fact they largely disappeared, fearing for their safety and even lives if they offended an empowered populace. Since then, they’ve looked for ways to recuperate credibility – mainly, by showily harassing anybody the man in the street might despise even more than a man in uniform. Since the coup, the police go after Syrians, Palestinians, and other foreigners, because the wave of State-fostered xenophobia makes them applause-inducing targets. But it never hurts to announce that you’ve picked up a few suspected homosexuals. What better paints you, corrupt and immoral though you may be, as a defender of the nation’s morals?

Tell us who to torture and we will: Police in el-Marg escort deputy Minister of Interior on an inspection tour, April 2013

Tell us who to torture, and we will: Police in El-Marg escort deputy Minister of Interior on an inspection tour, April 2013

One night last February, I got a call at 4:30 AM. A small gaggle of gay men had been standing just after midnight in a square, in the tony Heliopolis neighborhood, that’s known as a cruising area. A police car pulled up to harass them; two of them, feeling their post-Revolutionary oats, argued with the officers.  They got arrested, while the others ran. One other guy who bravely went to the police station an hour later to ask about their well-being also found himself arrested, though the cops quickly let him go. Before that, though, the badges threatened him that he’d join his shawazz pals in prison. The word spread fast, by phone and text message, across Cairo’s gay communities. There were fears the prosecutor would slap charges of “debauchery,” or homosexual conduct, on the two men; fears, too, that they’d be sent off for the dreaded anal examinations. By 6 AM Ramy Youssef, a young Egyptian human rights activist, was standing with me in the shivery egg-blue dawn in front of the police station. Under various pretexts, we argued our way in, and persuaded the commander to let us see the men. One had been severely beaten. They were set free a few hours later – largely, I think, because we let the abusers know somebody was watching; but before I left, I asked the commander, in my most oozily ingratiating manner, whether the police found it increasingly difficult to work since the Revolution. “Definitely,” he said, spreading his hands imploringly. “And I hope you will tell the world that, as these cases show, we are still trying to do our job.”

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from http://instagram.com/p/faSnnEGD-t/  (h/t @Seldeeb)

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from http://instagram.com/p/faSnnEGD-t/ (hat tip: @Seldeeb)

Will this change? Not until the police are changed – until Egypt’s security sector is reformed; and neither military nor civilian governments have shown the slightest interest in that. The current junta, led by Generalissmo Sisi, has even less incentive to embark on any reforms than Morsi, who should have mistrusted the police (after all, they persecuted the Muslim Brothers for decades) but imagined he could employ them against his enemies. And military rule is never friendly to alternate ideas of manhood (or womanhood, for that matter). It exalts its own proprietary version of gender: a thoroughly traditional one, the old Everyman style of patriarchal authority, impatient of any perversion or extravagance. “We’re all Sisi,” the propaganda tells the public, and anybody who doesn’t look safely, nondescriptly, heterosexually Sisiesque enough will be in trouble. The fourteen or more men now in jail are victims because they seemed, in some fashion, different. They’re among many victims of the pressure to both believe (in the secular cult of Sisi) and conform.

It is the eve of Eid el-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice in Islam. The holiday commemorates the faithful Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail – a story that ended, as Jews and Christians know from their own versions, with God’s merciful forbearance, permitting the prophet to spare the boy’s life. Tonight as I walked in downtown Cairo, all the alleys felt festive almost till the curfew impended. In a run-down street near the High Court, small kids played on the sidewalk around a prostrate and unhappy-looking goat, which in a few hours would play its part as the substitute sacrifice. Ibrahim offered up an animal in grateful exchange for the divine indulgence, the value God placed on human life. There are no substitutes in Cairo these days. It’s human life that’s sacrificed. The whole country looks more than ever like a scapegoat.

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We are all Sisi: Junta propaganda on an August 2013 cover of Sowt el-Umma

The Russian issue(s)

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a "Day of Kisses" protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of  the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a “Day of Kisses” protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

A few good sources of information about Russia crossed my screen in the last week or so.

§ Just over two years ago, LGBT activists in Russia set up an e-mail list, Queerussia, to help to help Western activists and journalists understand their perspectives on the LGBT rights struggle. Now it’s gone online, as a news aggregator for lots of information about Russian events — mostly in English, with valuable material specially translated for the site. Check it out.

§ Open Democracy published an opinion piece by activist Igor Iasine on what Russian LGBT communities need right now: movements strong enough to carry the fight forward on Russian ground.

It won’t be Stonewall; it’ll be our own revolt. ..We  need to create a systematic and solid movement for LGBT rights if we are to avoid a new backlash … We can take inspiration from other people’s successes. Not everything in that experience is universal and equally relevant everywhere, but its importance should not be underestimated.

In the 60s and 70s the American LGBT community couldn’t ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the USA government on their behalf, to introduce sanctions or refuse visas to American officials. But now some Russian activists are looking for ways to enlist help in putting pressure on the Kremlin from abroad, as they doubt their own strength and don’t believe they will find enough support among other Russians. But … the best way to fight homophobic laws and prejudice is to forget about Obama and develop our own grassroots protest campaign. … [T]he LGBT community shouldn’t be pawns in a new Cold War, but part of an international movement for real democracy and equal rights for all.

The best way for people abroad to help us is through empathy and genuine solidarity, and not isolation or a boycott. Lukashenka’s Belarus has been the object of sanctions for years, but ordinary people’s lives are none the better for it.

§ Spectrum Human RIghts Alliance also interviewed Iasine here. And Open Democracy also carried an interesting piece by writer Sergey Khazov:

I’m certain that it is the new homophobic law itself that … has in fact worked both ways. On the one hand it has triggered a public witch hunt: a steep rise in cases of discrimination; people losing their jobs; attacks on LGBT activists; regional LGBT organizations being harassed and prosecuted under the law that bans NGOs from engaging in ‘political activity’. But on the other hand, this is happening precisely because people have suddenly started leaving their closets in a way that they never did before – a wave of ‘coming- outs’ is sweeping the country. LGBT activists have emerged in just about every city, and some of them have set up organizations that are making a real difference to people’s lives.

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Solidarity in Poland, April 1981

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Poland’s Solidarity movement, Paris, April 1981

§ Sean Guillory’s article in The Nation is one of the few recent English-language pieces to recognize the large, loud, and vibrant LGBT movement that’s still agitating in Russia — and to point up the diversity of opinion it contains. He concludes with a paradox worth stressing:

Six months ago, few in Russia, let alone abroad, knew about Russia’s LGBT movement. Now it seems that gay rights in Russia are on everyone’s lips. The sudden incessant talk about homosexuality is the dialectical result of recent attempts to repress it. In his History of Sexuality, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that … the more a society seeks to repress sex, the more it has to talk about, identify and categorize it. Prohibition, he wrote, ensures “the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities.” Russia is currently experiencing what Foucault called the repressive hypothesis. … The worst thing that could happen is that Russia’s current LGBT explosion is silenced. Or as Andrianova says, “It is very important to keep this pressure on because here in Russia the LGBT community is very mobilized and very much more open than before.”

§ Finally, in Counterpunch, Alexander Reid Ross places the anarchist artists of Pussy Riot in the heroic tradition of Soviet-era dissent. Check at the bottom of his article: he offers to translate and forward letters of support to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the sacrificial leaders of the group who are imprisoned in Putin’s Gulag, if you’ll send them to him at a.reid.ross@gmail.com. Tolokonnikova started a hunger strike last month to protest conditions in the Mordovian labor camp where she’s being held. Her open letter has been widely circulated; it can be read here. I would also like to call attention to a moving statement Tolokonnikova wrote (but was not allowed to deliver) at a hearing this April, when a judge denied parole because she refused to admit her “guilt.”

I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty. …

Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.

I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia, November 2012: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

And then there’s other stuff. Notably, New York’s Gay City News headlines its current edition “The Russia Issue,” which is nothing if not a belated effort to clamber onto the news cycle. As issues go, it’s thin. There’s one article on the Queer Nation’s anti-Russia protest at the Metropolitan Opera, which happened two weeks ago. And, inevitably, there’s something by ace reporter Doug Ireland.

Ireland’s contribution is an interview, all done by e-mail, with Nikolai Baev — Nikolai Alekseev’s onetime deputy at (indeed, almost the only other member of) Moscow Pride. Baev is a brave man, and he’s been a leader in at least one important action: he and Irina Fet were arrested in Ryazan in 2009 for demonstrating against the local anti-gay-propaganda law, a precursor to the later Federal iteration. Fet took her case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which found against Russia; Baev appealed his conviction to the European Court of Human RIghts, where it’s still pending.

But there are a couple of issues with Doug’s mis-take on the “Russian issue.” First off, Baev broke with Alekseev back in late 2011 — partly because Baev wanted Moscow Pride to join in anti-Putin demonstrations, and Alekseev refused; but partly too because Alekseev briefly resigned as Generalissimo, putting Baev in charge, then rudely retracted it (not the only time this happened). Baev hasn’t had an organization since then. Singling him out as the sole voice of Russian activism shows Doug’s old identification with heroic Lone Rangers, and his distaste for people who build movements. It’s the same frustrated passion that led him to idealize Alekseev over seven years of hype. Indeed, maybe the most telling passage comes when Baev tells Doug that Nikolai Alekseev’s

reputation among Russian LGBT community was always very bad. He has been supported by a few number of radical activists, including me, who thought about him better than he indeed was. … In any case, it always has been a minority of activists, and originally he understood this himself, saying that he represented no one but himself and his supporters.

If that’s true, why didn’t ace reporter Ireland know it? If Doug knew it, why did he keep lauding Alekseev as “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers” — and so on?

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

More than that, though, it shows how little Doug has learned about Russia and its movements over the years. Presumably he was under some pressure from his usually pliant editors to show that he could interview somebody, anybody, other than Alekseev about Russian issues. But who does Doug find? Alekseev’s former right-hand man. Either Doug didn’t have any other Russian numbers in his Rolodex; or other activists, many of them angry over his years-long denial of their existence, refused to talk to him. Either way, it’s sad that Gay City News thinks this lazy, one-note, one-source writing actually gives a general picture of “the Russia issue.”  One need only compare Sean Guillory’s analysis of the diversity of Russian LGBT activism with Ireland’s easy puff pieces to see the difference between reporting and typing.

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Let me tell a story. During the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Doug decided he wanted to write up the gay angle. He “found” a gay Egyptian blogger — actually, the discredited website Gay Middle East served up someone they knew — and asked him questions by e-mail. When Doug published the story in Gay City News, it contained major factual errors, mostly about the 2001-2004 crackdown on men suspected of same-sex sex. Doug misidentified and misunderstood the laws under which they were arrested. He misunderstood Egypt’s Emergency Law and the kinds of special Security Courts the country operated. He got the details of the famous Queen Boat raid wrong. And he utterly garbled the fact that police arrested hundreds, probably thousands, of men by entrapping them through gay personals and Internet chatrooms. In his version, this came out as “During the same crackdown, all gay websites were closed down, either by Internet censorship of the Internet or by the arrest of those who ran them.” Fact: there simply were no “gay websites” operating in Egypt in the pre-blog, pre-Facebook era. (People used Gaydar.com, Gay.com, and other sites hosted well outside the borders. None of those websites was “censored,” since the police needed them to entrap people). And no one was ever arrested for running one.

I pointed these errors out to Doug, and he exploded in shrill banshee wails of fury at my temerity. “Distortions”!  “Meritricious [sic] semantic quibbles”!  His words were TRUE, he thundered back, because

Information on the use of the Emergency Law and the law on blasphemy to arrest and persecute gays came from Ice Queer, the gay Egyptian blogger I interviewed, as did the information on censorship and arrests relating to web sites which published gay-related content.

Now, I know “IceQueer,” who was Doug’s one and only source for the story, personally. He’s a nice guy. He blogs in English; this identifies him (or might if Doug knew anything about Egypt) as someone who stands at a slight angle to the mainstream of Egyptian life, gay or straight. He doesn’t write about politics at all. His blog is full of frank talk about sex; its main appeal is to an upscale Zamalek and Maadi crowd whose English is often better than their Arabic, who want to read about erotic lives like their own, but don’t give a damn about politics either. This is a very needed niche in Egypt, but it might have made Doug question whether the guy’s legal analysis didn’t need just a little fact-checking. Moreover, IceQueer was born in October 1988. When the Queen Boat case happened, he was twelve years old.

In other words, Doug Ireland relied on the memories of a single source who wasn’t even a teenager at the time to give him all the information about Egyptian law and history he needed. Having jotted down a mishmash of mistakes and turned facts to wet falafel, Doug rushed to print. Gay City News never printed a correction — they never do. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. Out of Doug Ireland, gibberish.

Two women at the "Day of Kisses" demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters.

Two women at the “Day of Kisses” demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters. © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

In Dream Park: A day without Adorno

Spill Water ride at Dream Park: This was really fun

Spill Water ride at Dream Park: This was really fun (self not in picture)

Yesterday, with four good friends, I went to Dream Park.

Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress? If you never read Pilgrim’s Progress when you were a lonely kid, then perhaps you should; it’s one of the great English novels – the lone believer sets out on foot from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, plodding slowly through an allegorical landscape, through the Country of Coveting and the Slough of Despond, and of course Vanity Fair, which is probably near Dream Park. It entranced and frightened me as a child. The opening had the suddenness of pristine terror:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.

“What shall I do?” Christian cries, because the book tells him that everything around him will be burnt with a fire from heaven, and he, and his neighbors, and his wife and children are all doomed to annihilation. Isn’t that a good reason to leave home? Isn’t that why you go to Dream Park?

At Vanity Fair, be sure to ask about the student discounts: Map of Pilgrim's Progress, from City of Destruction to Celestial City

At Vanity Fair, be sure to ask about the student discounts: Map of Pilgrim’s Progress, from City of Destruction to Celestial City

My Egyptian friends invited me on condition that I promise not to open a book all day, because they thought that would be good for me, and you can see why. (Christian’s book tells him, “Flee From the Wrath to Come,” and mine aren’t much lighter.) Dream Park is Egypt’s biggest amusement park, kind of like the various Disney universes but minus the megalomaniacal style. It was a lovely day in the sun with lovely people, cracking jokes and doing the bumper cars and eating homemade kofta sandwiches. I only cheated once and cracked a book during  the Towboat Ride, when I was sitting in the back. Don’t tell.

Amusement parks always are a bit of an allegorical landscape for me. “Forget your cares,” they say, and of course if the day works out you do, but there’s no such thing as complete amnesia, and putting the present aside makes room for the past to overtake me. I spent my childhood summers in Noble County, Ohio, a poor and rural place. There were two big revels every season, the County Fair and the Fireman’s Festival (to raise money for the fire department), and for both, traveling carnival companies set up rides. My mother never liked the Fair much, and neither did I. It was mostly for farmers — there was a constant recruiting drive to get kids into 4-H, so intense in its ethical overtones (“Head, heart, hands, health!” “Make the best better!”) that I imagined a junior agricultural cult sacrificing virgins to the crops, although virgins were too rare to be killed lightly in Noble County, and weighing pigs and evaluating fertilizer were the more likely diversions. Also, the Fair rides sucked. Once I went in a “haunted house” which mainly consisted of rubbery things touching your cheeks in the dark. My mother threw a fit at what she almost saw as child abuse, complained to the sinister carnies who huddled in a tent behind, and got our admission back. She liked the Fireman’s Festival better, because your money went to a cause. The crowds were smaller, the steers and swine gone, the rides seemed cooler and the carnies less scary. Every time I go to an amusement park, though, I remember her anger at the ghost house, where I had been robbed of a promised good time. She frightened me sometimes with the intensity of her feeling; but I learned with age, long after her death, that love means going to battle even for others’ smallest joys.

Son, that is one fine prize steer: 4-H stand at Noble County Fair, Ohio

Son, that is one fine prize steer: 4-H stand at Noble County Fair, Ohio

There were things I really enjoyed at Dream Park; there was a boat going over a waterslide that was delightful. But there were things that were different — different, too, from the Disneyland my parents took me to when I was nine years old, where I loved It’s a Small World After All, and the Mad Tea Party. Those ride were intimate and individuated; you got in alone or with your “guardian,” and spun around in a way that left you feeling special — that your experience was your very own, so to speak. (All the more so if you puked in the whirling teacup, and so made your temporary mark.) There were a few like this at Dream Park: they had an imitation teacup ride, and something called Caesar’s Shaker which could have fit in back in Noble County. But all the emphasis was on mega-rides, where dozens of people get buckled into some giant, meat-grinder-like machine.

Is this a new fashion? I don’t remember these being around to envy when I was small. We all took the Top Spin, which looks like a cross between a combine and a trash compactor, except fifty feet high; it takes two rows of strapped-down victims, and hoists them and flips them upside down and throws them groundwards.


I forwent going on Discovery, which seems to be the biggest attraction in the park. Shackled in a circle on a huge gondola hung from metal beams, you sit and the thing spins while swinging back and forth like a bell’s tongue, higher and higher till it’s more than perpendicular to the earth. One of my friends dislocated his shoulder.


Peer pressure to show you can take this stuff pervades the air. Another friend really didn’t like these “violent” rides, he said, and felt so frustrated that he almost cried at his inability to enjoy what other people seemed to. But I knew where he was coming from. I liked the spinning teacups better, and I missed the singing dolls and tinkling cembalo music of It’s a Small World.

I didn’t put words to my dissatisfaction till the day’s end, when we sat in the waning sun while Selim nursed his shoulder, and watched Discovery from a distance. It didn’t look frightening in the right way, it looked degrading: people packaged up and manhandled by a vast machine. It was frightening in the way that air travel is to the inflexibly phobic (including me): not just because of the heights and the speed, but because you’re processed and immobilized, strapped down in an anonymous collective, and everything that goes on abolishes not just your volition but your personhood. It seemed an exercise not so much in excitement as in complete submission, like S&M without any of the erotics, where your master is made of metal and is sixty feet tall. This didn’t strike me as fun. It reminded me of bang-up special effects, from Transformers or War of the Worlds.

(L): SpinSpider, version of the Discovery ride, in a Norwegian theme park; (R) Very bad thing ("I don't think they come from around here), from Spielberg's War of the Worlds

(L): SpinSpider, version of the Discovery ride, in a Norwegian theme park; (R) Very bad thing (“I don’t think they come from around here”), from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds

Probably it’s good that I didn’t have a book. But being bookless didn’t stop me from wondering what’s the fun in these rides that seem more helplessness than thrills, pure abnegation to technology. Today I remembered Adorno, my old guide and companion Adorno; and I looked up a few passages from Minima Moralia, the book he wrote in exile during the Second World War.

Some years ago, the report circulated in American newspapers about the discovery of a well­-preserved dinosaur in the state of Utah. It was emphasized that the specimen in question had outlived its species and was a million years younger than any hitherto known. Such reports, like the repulsively humorous craze for the Loch Ness monster and the King Kong film, are collective projections of the monstrous total state. One prepares for its horrors by getting used to giant images. In the absurd willingness to accept these, a humanity mired in powerlessness makes the desperate attempt to grasp the experience of what makes a mockery of every experience. …Two years before World War II the German public saw a film of the downfall of their zeppelin in Lakehurst. Calm, poised, the ship went on its way, only to suddenly plummet straight down. If there remains no way out, then the destructive drive becomes completely indifferent as to what it never firmly established: as to whether it is directed against others or against its own subject. 

This is really not a style of thinking conductive to having fun. (I have read that Adorno greatly enjoyed practical jokes, and that his friends wondered how someone so humorous could write “that way.”) Having quoted it, I wonder if my friends will invite me to Dream Park, or anywhere, ever again.

But he’s on to something, isn’t he? — in our era, where the special effects have gotten even more destructive, where movies are basically a succession of bigger and bigger things getting blown to bits. In such an age, every park is Jurassic. This feeling that being manhandled and anonymous before some humongous power, helpless in a humiliated mass, is fun: does it arise, not from some deep eternal masochism in the human soul, but from this moment in our history, where everybody’s strapped down to something, where powerlessness is so much the way you are that being even more powerless is the only thrill you can imagine?

Houses made of ticky-tacky: Middle-class apartment blocks in 6 October City

Houses made of ticky-tacky: Middle-class apartment blocks in 6 October City

You go to the many Dream Parks to get away from the city. But the history of amusement parks is one of counter-urbanism, creating faux utopian spaces that nonetheless reflect as well as refute the realities left behind them. Disneyland is vacation from and mirror to L.A., Dream Park is oasis and supplement to Cairo. (FORREC, the Canadian firm that built it, cites “forty years of experience in theme, urban, architectural and interior design” that give “a singular ability to merge design creativity with fiscal practicality.”) It’s fourteen years old, but it’s part of a larger urban project that began in the late Sadat years (when capitalism and speculation came to once-socialist Egypt): to create “new cities” on the edges of Cairo, safety valves for the megalopolis’s congestion. The rage of masses trapped in crowded poverty and powerlessness demanded an outlet: not for them, but for the middle classes who wanted to leave that menacing anger and the sump and stagnation behind.

Dream Park was uncrowded, comparatively empty on our visit, another victim of Cairo’s tensions and the curfew. (The latter only moved back from 9 to 11 PM yesterday.) People don’t like to travel these days. Earlier, another friend even warned me about the microbuses you have to take to get there — “terrorists” will stop them to take sojourners hostage, he told me. Those who had trekked there wanted, like us, to enjoy a day with the streets far off, the stories of murder silenced. But it’s not that simple. October 6 City, of which the park is a peripheral part, is an excrescence in the desert; it still looks as though only enchantment sustains its cement and lawns, as though a brief lapse of will would make the mirage vanish. When it wavers into sight on the straight horizon, it reminds you of the power of the corporate djinns who coaxed it from a lunar landscape of sand and rock. Speculating in land is almost the only growth sector in Egypt’s economy, but it takes enormous money and influence to make the desert even pretend to bloom. A Mubarak crony bribed his way to get the permits to build 6 October City. He eventually married his daughter off to the then President’s son: a fairy tale about a captive princess that might make a decent theme park ride. After the Revolution, a court tried him for corruption, along with the former Minister of Housing, who enabled his castles in the sand; he got a prison sentence in absentia. But he’s fled somewhere to safety, his class of hangers-on is back in power again after the coup, and few expect him to suffer much or long.

The whole desert development is artificial, an enormous strain on the environment that seems to be cracking at the seams. The grass is desiccated, the sand can’t be kept out of doors. In Dream Park, the aquatic rides take an immense amount of water — more than anybody could justify allotting to the place when 18 million people are living in the vicinity; so they keep reusing it, and it stagnates, and in corners it smells, and bloated dragonflies circle hungrily above the guests.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Christian and Hopeful encounter terrorists and bad transportation infrastructure on the way to the Celestial City

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Christian and Hopeful encounter terrorists and bad transportation infrastructure on the way to the Celestial City

I’m not a good person for amusement, I suppose. Yet I really enjoyed Dream Park; I loved being with my friends; I loved the innocence despite everything, and I loved — even as I swayed under — the unleashed flood of memories of childhood. Tonight I’m remembering still, and for some reason I’m thinking of Pilgrim’s Progress. I read it in my great-grandparents’ farmhouse in Noble County, on languid summer days when the bluebottle flies buzzed in the prisoning windowpanes. It stood in the dark bookcase with many other old books, but it was the most impressive; they had a stately edition from the Henry Altemus Company, ample with engravings, one that must have sat in the parlor of many a pious family at the last century’s turn. I remember looking at Christian casting off his burden, Christian tempted by Vanity Fair, Christian crossing the river at last to the Celestial City.

Atheist on the edge: A lesson for Richard Dawkins

Atheist on the edge: Watch out, Richard Dawkins

I remember also the book’s ending, which brought back the pure terror of the beginning, here at the resolution where it was least expected. Christian and Hopeful enter Heaven after fording the treacherous RIver of Something. But Ignorance — a bumbling character who’s been the earnest hero’s comic foil — sails over by boat, which is cheating, and then tries to charm his way in without his ticket of salvation. The sentinels turn stonefaced, the story darkens. “When they asked him for his certificate, so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? but the man answered never a word.”

The King of Heaven is intolerant of intruders. He orders his servants, “the two shining ones,” to act: “to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away.” I never forgot these lines:

Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.

PProg_60_p146_ThenTheyTookHim

The flight into Egypt

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

None of this will make sense.

You can’t make things make sense in Cairo these days. The curfew and the stir-craziness prevent it. If you speak Arabic, search for #اكتشافات_الحظر on Twitter; that’s “Curfew discoveries,” a new hashtag, for people to post all the things they’re learning from being housebound twelve-plus hours a day. Some discoveries indicate an observant, experimental mind: “The refrigerator shelf can fit up to 78 lemons, or 65 cucumbers stacked vertically, or 75 cucumbers stacked horizontally.” Or: “It takes six minutes and 40 seconds for the toilet tank to refill with water.” Other folk count the ceramic tiles on their kitchen floor, Tweet it, then re-count them. “Nobody can tickle himself” suggests, perhaps, a need to learn more about masturbation. But what can you make of “#CurfewDiscoveries: There are other people living in my house”?

A sort of Sartrean madness has possessed the citizens, a nausea born of nerves and boredom. Tonight I went downtown for the first time in almost two weeks. The curfew has been moved from 7PM till 9 PM; still, at 6:45 half the shops on Talaat Harb were shuttered, the streets dully dark, and only a fraction of the usual throngs scudded along the sidewalks. Yet it didn’t feel quiet; panic pressed on the crowd — not just in me — like a held breath. People’s eyes kept flicking back over their shoulders, to see who might be after them. The strictures are devastating the economy. Even doctors report they’re losing money: “their patients are too scared to be out on the streets.” But the military seems unworried by fiscal consequences. One man-in-the-street told the AP that “The curfew is not for security reasons. It is purely to make people feel that the army is in charge, for psychological reasons.” And a website developer had his own analysis: General Sisi, the new Jefe Máximo, is “imposing the curfew to make us all sit at home and watch TV propaganda aimed to make us all love him and hate terrorists.”

Protocols of the Elders of Ikhwan: Al-Ahram, August 27, warns of a new US-Brotherhood-media-business-politician plot

Protocols of the Elders of Ikhwan: Al-Ahram, August 27, warns of a new US-Brotherhood-media-business-politician plot

The love is made of fear. Arrests continue, slowed to a dribble now that few real Ikhwan leaders remain at large. But the press keeps whipping up sectarian paranoia. Islamists horrifically burned churches ten days ago. Yet even tangible atrocities see the circle of guilt expanding. Yesterday’s headline in Al Ahram blared that the US Ambassador and the Muslim Brotherhood had joined “politicians, journalists, and businessmen” in a “new plot” to destabilize the State. The story pointed to “some liberal parties” as conspirators. Plainly the military doubts the lasting loyalty of its erstwhile liberal allies. Time to send a warning: they could be next.


Video by a group of fresh-faced young Egyptians trying to expose media lies and challenge public gullibility: the refrain, Khaleek Mesadaq, also the group’s name, means “Go ahead! Believe!” H/t Arabist.net

Stories proliferate of attacks on Western journalists, no doubt because Western journalists write about them. These are terrible: two reporters shot and killed, two Canadian filmmakers imprisoned for nearly a fortnight now. Meanwhile, TV propaganda spews out endless stories about how CNN is in the paws of al-Qaeda. No one has bothered me even once, but I feel beleaguered just from everybody’s warnings.The other night, having overstayed the curfew, I had to walk across one of the bridges to get home, and on its empty asphalt expanse, with no way out except the Nile, I felt utterly exposed and doomed: caught between wall and barbed wire, like Richard Burton at the end of The Spy Who Came In From the ColdFor me the city is cheap melodrama. For others, it’s turned tragic. So much of the hate targets the least protected strangers in the land, the refugees.

Between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt since the civil war broke out. The myth now is that these refugees are all diehard militants for the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s support for the Syrian opposition had been one sticking point, perhaps fatal, in his relations with the generals. Barely two weeks before his ouster, he spoke to an Islamist anti-Assad rally, and seemed to urge Egyptians to build a private army and join the Syrian struggle if their own military would not take part. The idea of privatizing their preserve of violence enraged the officers. Some later told the press that Morsi was beyond rescue from that moment on. Revenge came almost immediately after he fell. The military government tightened visa terms for Syrians, barred them from attending schools, and made “security checks” compulsory. The media stoked fears — not just State airwaves but even the private ONTV network, once known as a citadel of liberalism. Tawfiq Okasha, a TV host and owner of the lunatic Fara’een channel (he’s sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck), turned crazed marbled eyeballs on the camera and told Syrians, “We know where you live.” He gave them 48 hours to stop “backing the Ikhwan,” or their homes would burn.

The junta started arresting refugees, almost at random. They picked them out of microbuses at the checkpoints that have sprouted around Cairo. They seized them on the streets. They knocked on doors in the night:

On July 25, the night before Egyptians took to the streets to support military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror,” Qasim, who fled from Dara’a in southern Syria in early March of this year, [was] detained by Egypt’s Homeland Security forces. Along with his elderly father, he was taken from their home in [the Cairo quarter of ] Mesekeen Uthman by a security officer wearing civilian clothes. Qasim’s yellow card, which guarantees protection by the U.N. Refugee Agency, did nothing to help him. Waiting for them below their dilapidated apartment tower were five security cars and a troop of Homeland Security officers.

No one knows how many Syrians are detained without charge. The UN High Commission on Refugees says 160, but this reflects only those about whom police have deigned to tell them. Since hardly more than a third of Syrians in Cairo are registered with the UNHCR (the office’s snail-like lassitude means there’s little advantage in formalizing one’s status), this is probably a fraction of a figure rising to the hundreds or thousands. They face deportation back to a murderous war.

Revenge: Sandro Botticelli, Moses Punishes the Rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram, 1481-2

Revenge on the resistance: Sandro Botticelli, Moses Punishes the Rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram, 1481-2

Then there are the Palestinians. Immediately after Morsi’s overthrow, the junta issued an order: to prevent people with Palestinian identity papers from boarding planes to Egypt. In most cases, these were Gazans trying to return to their besieged enclave, which can only be entered from the Egyptian side. In some cases, they were residents of Egypt. Probably thousands were stranded abroad.

The media hawked the notion that Palestinians were “terrorist” adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Electronic Intifada has collected moments from the fearfest. Three days after the coup, a well-travelled host on Al-Youm TV told about watching as an airline offloaded a stunned Palestinian passenger trying to get to Egypt. She felt warm, she said, because “the army and the police forces are wide awake and acting properly.” FIve days after the coup, a speaker on another channel claimed repeatedly that President Morsi was “of Palestinian origin.” Nine days after that, the “liberal” ONTV reported that Hamas had sent 3,000 fighters from Gaza into Egypt, to restore their man Morsi to power. Many Palestinians fear to leave their homes. Two days into the curfew, the Palestinian roommate of a friend of mine was thrown out by their landlord. The neighbors had complained at having a “terrorist” in the building.

There aren’t figures for how many Palestinian nationals now live in Egypt: hundreds of thousands, probably. They encapsulate much of the country’s modern history. When they came, in 1948 and then in waves over ensuing years, they first were hoisted onto the triumphal vehicle of Nasser’s Arab nationalism, promised a common identity as the culmination of a common struggle. Later, under Sadat and Mubarak, a narrower and US-funded Egyptian national identity excluded them — though it still exploited their cause whenever it needed the illusion of a larger, more invigorating purpose.

Palestinian mother and children in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa'ab Elshamy, 2013

Palestinian mother and children in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2013

An hour or so north of Cairo, in the reedy dust of the Delta, is a settlement called Gezirat Fadel, or Fadel Island. It’s not a real island, just an enclave circled by a mud wall that secludes it imperfectly from history’s flow. Almost four thousand people live in poverty there, mostly descendants of one clan of Beersheba (Bir al-Saba’) Bedouins, Palestinian families who fled to Egypt in 1948. They had life easier before Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Before then, they shared the benefits of Nasser’s socialism equally with Egyptian citizens. After that, the President’s breach with the PLO meant they were relegated to foreigner status, and their rights to education, health care and other benefits similarly shrank. They have no amenities such as sewage systems. They settled in the village because it reminded them of the sprawling desert back at home; they’ve stayed because there is nowhere else to go. Theirs is the largest single community of Palestinians in rural Egypt. One official estimates, though, that 40,000 Palestinian nationals live scattered across that governorate alone.

Sandro Botticelli, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1495-1500

Sandro Botticelli, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1495-1500

I visited Gezirat Fadel briefly about ten years ago. I remember goats and garbage — scavenging plastic for recycling moors the residents loosely to the cash economy. I thought of it today because it reminded me of the history of Egypt as refuge, a place for strangers. That history has never been easy, but now xenophobia and lies make the refuge dangerous. Nobody in her right mind would flee to Egypt. I wonder what’s happening to the people on Fadel Island now. Has anybody noticed them?

I thought today also of Zeitoun, which is maybe halfway between Gezirat Fadel and the center of Cairo. I passed through Zeitoun one bored day this past spring. Once a village, it’s been sucked up, like a bird into a jet engine, by the metropolis. It’s a very Egyptian neighborhood, nothing distinctive except the Coptic church, a larger shrine than the shabby suburban mediocrity would seem to merit. In Christian legend, the Virgin Mary sheltered on its site, when the Holy Family fled to the Nile to escape Herod’s persecution. The flight into Egypt: one waystation in a history of refuge.

In 1968, though, Egypt turned its eyes toward Zeitoun. It was a year after the huge defeat of the Six Day War. FIghting and massive Israeli retaliation continued along the Suez Canal. Sectarian violence sprang up — Muslims burned a church in Luxor. Strange, then, that it was a Muslim garage mechanic in Zeitoun who first saw the apparition, a wavering band of light atop St. Mary’s Church, which he mistook for a woman about to jump to her death. A crowd gathered, and though the police tried to displace the suicide rumor with the story that it was a reflection from the streetlights, a certainty grew: the Virgin Mary had appeared above her shrine.

April 2, 1968: Photo of the apparition above the church in Zeitoun

April 2, 1968: Photo of the apparition above the church in Zeitoun

Mary is almost as important in Islam as in the several Christianities. (The Qur’an mentions her more often than the New Testament.) Over the next three years tens of thousands of people flocked to Zeitoun to see the apparition; Nasser himself showed up. And while the Coptic and later the Roman Catholic churches certified it as an official miracle, the glimmering light’s popularity crossed confessional divides. More Muslims than Christians made the pilgrimage. Even among Copts, the national scope of the celebration was transformative. One worshipper told Cynthia Nelson, an anthropologist:

The most beautiful thing to do is to go to Zeitoun and watch the people of all religions participating in Coptic prayers. Imagine, this is the first time in history the Copts could sing their hymns in the streets of Egypt among all the Muslims and shout aloud, “Umm el Mokhalass (Mother of the Savior).”

In 1973, Nelson wrote:

The Virgin was seen as a collective symbol for all Egyptians. … [she] symbolizes for the Egyptians  – both Christian and Muslim alike — a succoring, protective mother, who has the power to banish chaos and restore the benign shape of the world. … [Thus] the apparition of the Virgin also symbolizes the conditions of modem pluralism in Egyptian society. By pluralism I mean a situation in which there is more than one worldview available to the members of society, a situation in which there is competition between worldviews.

Something lovely lingers about the Virgin’s appearance as unity in diversity. It reveals a deep capacity in society for finding ways to transcend difference, deeper than the daily violence. Still, it took a myth and miracle to do it. Turning that ecstasy back into reality is a harder matter.

If the Virgin really existed, though, she was no heavenly light. She was an ordinary woman, a Palestinian, one who herself migrated and became a stranger in Egypt. Could she have looked like this girl, the child of Palestinians from Gezirat Fadel?

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Young Palestinian woman in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2013

There’s a minor tradition in English literature of imagining the Madonna as a very normal woman burdened, and repelled, by the unwanted responsibility God gave her of tending to the world’s salvation. The Victorian Walter Pater saw this in Botticelli’s Madonnas. The painter, Pater says, shows us not extraordinary beings, but ordinary persons, “saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.” Pater grows eloquent in projecting how those women feel, forced by history into an inhuman greatness from which their human self recoils. How can we bear the demands of others’ dreams? I want to quote him at length, because it is one of the most beautiful passages in English prose.

It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression and charm. He has worked out in them a distinct and peculiar type, definite enough in his own mind, for he has painted it over and over again … Hardly any collection of note is without one of these circular pictures, into which the attendant angels depress their heads so naively. Perhaps you have sometimes wondered why those peevish-looking Madonnas, conformed to no acknowledged or obvious type of beauty, attract you more and more, and often come back to you when the Sistine Madonna and the Virgins of Fra Angelico are forgotten.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1481

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1481

At first, contrasting them with those, you may have thought that there was something in them mean or abject even, for the abstract lines of the face have little nobleness, and the colour is wan. For with Botticelli she too, though she holds in her hands the “Desire of all nations,” is one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies; and her choice is on her face. The white light on it is cast up hard and cheerless from below, as when snow lies upon the ground, and the children look up with surprise at the strange whiteness of the ceiling. Her trouble is in the very caress of the mysterious child, whose gaze is always far from her, and who has already that sweet look of devotion which men have never been able altogether to love, and which still makes the born saint an object almost of suspicion to his earthly brethren. Once, indeed, he guides her hand to transcribe in a book the words of her exaltation, the Ave, and the Magnificat, and the Gaude Maria, and the young angels, glad to rouse her for a moment from her dejection, are eager to hold the inkhorn and to support the book. But the pen almost drops from her hand, and the high cold words have no meaning for her, and her true children are those others, among whom, in her rude home, the intolerable honour came to her, with that look of wistful inquiry on their irregular faces which you see in startled animals – gipsy children, such as those who, in Apennine villages, still hold out their long brown arms to beg of you, but on Sundays become enfants du choeur, with their thick black hair nicely combed, and fair white linen on their sunburnt throats.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, ca. 1487, detail

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, ca. 1487, detail

William Butler Yeats read Pater, and wrote a poem, “The Mother of God,” about the fear the Virgin feels, as history and responsibility irradiate her body.

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

Maybe we can barely bear the stranger, and can hardly survive the moment when his presence is real to us, when it enters into our blood and bones and makes the heart halt in recognition. Maybe we have to imagine a saint or virgin, someone better than we could ever be, who can live the generosity we would like to feel but cannot stand to know.

But all of us are ordinary people. There is no saint to save us. There is no heavenly light to absolve us. And this is no myth. The strangers are Syrians and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. While the propaganda blares, the truth happens. They are here, and now.

Meister von Mondsee (the Mondsee Master), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1487

Meister von Mondsee (the Mondsee Master), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1487