Tuesday, December 30, 2008

From the archives

I got back to the US last week and have enjoyed spending time catching up with family and friends, something I will continue to do. The final days in Cairo were, despite my limited computer capabilities, quite pleasant in part because I finished grading and spent some time at a large exhibit, Photo Cairo, attending some gallery shows and film screenings. There is a vibrant contemporary arts scene there, particularly, from what I have seen, in visual culture. I should do some blogging about a few things I saw at Photo Cairo at some point, but, here in the US, those days—a little bit more than a week ago—feel very distant.

The pleasures of reconnecting with folks aside, the official reason for my US trip is research on the American Presbyterian Congo Mission at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. The APCM was, at one time, part of the church’s southern branch, and the papers were at the PHS in Montreat, North Carolina. I spent a few productive days there one summer while working on my dissertation. A few years ago the southern branch of the PHS merged with the northern, so those papers are now, conveniently for me, in Philadelphia. So this week and next, I will be spending my time going over these documents which include correspondence, publications, church meeting minutes, diaries of missionaries, and the like. I realize this is not material that generally has broad appeal (though eventually I hope to change all that!), but it is an important part of my project on African Americans and the Congo.

Let me offer a relatively mundane taste of what I am finding. I came across a letter from the US Consul in Congo to a missionary in 1908. The APCM was requesting land concessions from the colonial government in order to establish new mission stations. The Belgians repeatedly refused the requests (claiming they were too close to Catholic stations). The APCM, correctly I believe, saw a pattern of discrimination against all Protestants, which was in violation of the Berlin Treaty (allowing open missionary access to the CongoFree State”). On this basis, missionaries asked for the American Consul to intervene on their behalf. The Consul, in exchange for his assistance, essentially asked the missionaries to stop publicly agitating, a position which was more frequently associated with activist African American missionaries. So here is the Consul’s position, stated in the letter I read in the archive:

I should be glad to receive from you at any time reports on abuses which come to your notice in your district. I can use them as the basis of reports to the Untied States Government. I wish to say, however, that in sending these to me it must be with the full understanding that they are not to be sent to other parties for publication, otherwise I cannot use them. My reason for this is, that I am [fairly] fully convinced that any reforms which may be brought about in the present system will be due to the action of the Governments interested based upon the official reports of their respective representatives, and not upon information appearing in outside publications. In urging this I do not wish to discountenance in the least the valuable work done by Mr. Morel and others in the cause of reform, but I feel, so far as my Government is concerned, that reports from me based upon information secured on the spot will have more weight than those which it receives through unofficial sources.

I will try to post more from the archives and elsewhere in the US during the next few weeks.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

How the internet works...

You see, there is this long cable at the bottom of the sea coming from Europe that... No, really...

This has been brought to my attention because I have been without internet service for the past couple of days.

I thought I would take a moment while my internet is working to explain the problem, and why I probably will not post again until I am back in the US (after Monday). Seriously, the internet here is basically connected by a long extension cord that runs under the Mediterranean. I did not know this until a ship's anchor damaged the cable, cutting off service to the entire country for an entire day. It is still quite erratic with no sense of when it will return.

Damaged cables cause internet outages for millions

Up to 70% of communications to the Middle East have been disrupted after cables connecting region to Europe were damaged

Millions of web users across the Middle East are struggling to get online after damage to undersea cables connecting Europe, Africa and Asia took down a major route for internet traffic.

As much as 70% of internet traffic and telephone communications between the continents has been affected by the outage.

It is believed to have been caused by damage to a string of cables which run on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Egypt, connecting Europe with other parts of the world. The lines, which run hit the Egyptian coast at Alexandria and go on to connect to Asia, are responsible for carrying vast amounts of internet traffic and phone calls between different parts of the world.

It remains unclear what precisely what caused the damage, but the Egyptian communications ministry said that ships have already been dispatched to look at the problem - although repairs will take "several days".

Jonathan Wright, a director at telecoms company Interoute, said that the outage could have a devastating affect on business and communication around the world.

"The potential impact of an outage of this size cannot be underestimated – it is like severing a major artery," he said. "Global internet connectivity is reliant on sub-sea cables connecting countries."

The incident comes less than a year after a similar outage brought a halt to communications between Europe, Africa and Asia. Those problems were believed to have been caused by ships' anchors ripping through another section of the same cables, but were exacerbated by simultaneous damage in lines through the Middle East.

As many as 75 million people were affected in countries as far apart as India, Egypt and Dubai.

It is not yet clear whether today's outage is the same order of magnitude.

Despite the prevalence of wireless internet and satellite connections, global communications are still largely reliant on the vast webs of fibre optic cables which cover the planet. The lines, which take years of planning to install, move traffic backwards and forwards across continents.

The cables hit by the latest incident are among the most vital information pipelines linking Europe to the rest of the world – and are responsible for the majority of all connectivity in the Middle East and south Asia.

According to Alan Mauldin, research director of communications analysis company TeleGeography, the succession of problems in the region are only likely to be remedied by a series of new cables which are currently being planned.

"Many new cable systems are slated to enter service between Europe and Egypt in the next few years," he said.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Palling around with terrorists

Rashid Khalidi spoke at AUC yesterday on “The Cold War in the Middle East: The War on Terror and the New Administration,” which is from his forthcoming book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Hegemony in the Middle East. Khalidi, you may recall, was brought up by McCain and Palin in the recent presidential campaign because Obama had a relationship with Khalidi, a former University of Chicago historian now at Columbia. All of the charges were ridiculous and probably designed to scare voters by associating Obama with a Palestinian guy named Rashid. Innuendo was sufficient. Khalidi is sometimes controversial, but is quite moderate. Even yesterday, he combined his criticism of US and Israeli policy with a sharp indictment of Arab governments. Rather than scaring me off, the willingness of Obama to have relationships with people like Khalidi, arguably the foremost expert on modern Middle East history in the US, makes his presidency most promising to me.

I first saw Khalidi speak in the early 1990s at Wesleyan when I was an undergraduate. At the time he was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation at the Oslo talks. In March 2003, he visited a seminar I participated in at the GC, as I was finishing my dissertation. He gave a public presentation and visited our interdisciplinary seminar of about 10 faculty and 5 graduate students from different disciplines discussing imperialism. He was incredibly insightful and equally kind. Khalidi discussed some of his recent work on the history in anti-colonial resistance in the Middle East, including Iraq, and how US policymakers’ ignorance of this history would be devastating. (This became Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East.) Sadly the US soon invaded Iraq and proved him right.

Last night’s talk made a profound and concise argument that the Bush administration, fueled by domestic considerations, has created a ineffective war on terror based on the flawed presumption that full-fledged war is the best and only way of dealing with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (by conflating these with a range of other groups and organizations, none of which have ever targeted the US, who have unique, independent, and discrete political histories).

He observed that US policy, which is intent on destroying the Afghan and Iraqi states, can only lead to the power vacuum in which instability and violence thrive. The war on terror enables the US to achieve several aims, all of them based on domestic interests. It justifies the US defense budget which has continued to grow since the end of the cold war, at a time when every other country’s defense budget has shrunk dramatically. It enables the US to establish military bases throughout the region, and justify their permanence. (The US has bases in 24 countries in the region.) By contrast to the current war, the Cold War against communism had state actors at its center and included the existential threat of nuclear annihilation.

What are the possibilities for change? Khalidi offered several including the emergence of reform-minded Arab states. He also suggested the influence of other major powers confronting the US to assert their interests in the region by taking a more active role in regional security issues like the US-Iran conflict and Israel’s nuclear proliferation. There is also a possibility for change in how the US deals with the region, which, given the incoming administration’s need to focus on the domestic economy, is only likely to emerge in response to a crisis in the region. He sees the Middle East as a very low priority for the incoming administration.

Ultimately, Khalidi argues, it is not tenable to destroy regimes and states in order to fight shady transnational networks. Bush’s success has been in framing the war on a terror as a war that must be fought exclusively militarily. As a result, there has been a decline of US influence in the region which has created opportunities for other countries, which have huge interests in the region, to participate. One regional example he pointed to was Turkey’s role in brokering talks between Israel and Syria. I look forward to reading the new book, which I know will articulate these ideas much better than me, and hope that folks in the incoming administration do so as well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shoe Day

I am assuming everyone saw The Shoe. A smile has not left my face since I did. My students, who are all abuzz, were discussing a popular talk show host here who proclaimed December 14 Valentine's Day in the Arab world. Shoe day. After all, it was a farewell kiss.

Here, all of my students are talking about it, and loving it, as people are throughout the world. As am I. Muntader al-Zaidi is my hero. I am thinking that he is a real poet. I mean, if he had physically attacked Bush with an intent to injure him, it would not have been the same. The shoe is such a profound insult in Arab culture. It was really perfect. Al-Zaidi saying what he did. Throwing both shoes. Brilliant political theater.

If you haven't seen it or, like me, can't stop watching it, you can see the Al-Jazeera (English) report here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An office tour

Since I gave my final final exam this morning, it seemed like a good time to provide some of the "after" pictures of my office. The view has not changed much. The courtyard outside my window remains unfinished with cables and piles of dirt.

Inside, I have seen some nice upgrades including a trash can and a rug.

The office even looks occupied.

Ah, books! The best part of any office.

And I have a nice coat rack where I can hang things, should I so desire.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ira goes to the embassy

I went to the US embassy in Cario today for the second time in my life. At the time of my first visit there in 1996, it was the largest US embassy in the world. Today it is the second largest (after Baghdad).

In 1996, I went there thanks to the worst airline in the world. Tarom Romanian Air refused to allow me to board my departing flight because it included an “illegal” layover in Bucharest. (On my initial flight I had already expended my “legal” layover.) I have no idea how an airline can issue a ticket with an illegal layover, although the discount shop I used in New York bore some of the responsibility (and later reimbursed me some money). So my flight was scheduled to leave in the middle of the night. I called an embassy hotline when I was refused boarding. The situation could not be resolved and I was told to come to the embassy first thing the following morning. I did as I was told and arrived before the embassy opened at 8am and there was a huge line (a couple hundred people as I recall) of mostly black folks, presumably African, waiting. One of the security guards noticed me in the crowd, asked me if I was a US citizen, and brought me to the front of the line. Very uncomfortable though I did not ask any questions, let alone complain. Once inside, the arrangements for my return flight remarkably had already been made. I would need to stay around a couple more days because Tarom only had two flights out per week. They offered to loan me money (or somehow help me get some) since there were not any ATMs in Cairo then. I didn’t need any, but was impressed by the power of my passport. I did have to go to the Tarom office, where I had to pick up the ticket from the same guy who I had been arguing with at the Cairo Airport at about 2am that morning.

This morning, I went back to the US embassy because I need to get pages added to my passport. The lines were shorter, though still segregated. After being told to turn off my cellphone, I was able to enter. I had to check my phone and ipod at the security office. I walked through a metal detector, was wanded. My bag was sent through an xray machine, which buzzed to indicate a bomb. Seriously. I was able to see the screen which displayed a message indicating that this was a test, but that my bag should be searched by hand. After making sure my eyeglasses case really contained eyeglasses, I was allowed to go ahead.

The embassy’s architecture probably deserves an entire blog to itself (and preferably by an architect). I think it would only be a slight overstatement to say that anything you wanted to know about US foreign policy can be seen in the architecture of this embassy, which was built in 1994 for the US’s then-largest diplomatic mission. (A few years ago I saw a coffee table-style photo book on US embassies around the world.) It is, of course, entirely walled in and closed to the outside. The surrounding streets are, as is common, blocked off. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible for someone on the outside to see anything on the other side of the walls. Once you enter, there is a small unwelcoming paved area—nothing green, uninviting, nobody there. To the left, there is an outdoor stairwell where people can descend to a belowground tent-covered outdoor waiting area. I think this area is for non-citizen services. Those like me with US passports enter the building on the right. This building does not have many windows facing outdoors, but the lobby is four stories high with office windows that look indoors. Instead of looking outside from your office, you look at your own lobby. There are no balconies or anything, so all of the entrances are hidden from view. No natural light either.

After entering the building, for US citizen services, you need to go downstairs to the basement. I took a number and was seen right away. I filled out a form and was told to come back tomorrow. I explained that I was teaching in Kattameya and would not be able to come tomorrow and they said I could come back after 1pm, which I did and voilĂ . I have a fatter passport.

The wait gave me the chance to spend some time downtown, part of which I spent reading a new Egyptian novel, Alaa Al Aswany’s Chicago. One scene I read has an Egyptian couple living in Illinois. The evil opportunistic husband is trying to convince his wife that they should have a child. Part of his argument is that the child will have US citizenship, and that, “People pay tens of thousands of dollars for an American passport…” I thought, yes, the value of a US passport. After a lunch of koushary, I went back to the embassy to pick mine up.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Oral reports

Three oral reports today. All were very good. Let me share the highlights.

Student one got sick during his oral report and needed to step out of the classroom. He’s a great student so there was nothing sketchy. He returned and completed his presentation, which was very good. However, he was really embarrassed and ended up compounding the situation by talking a lot about it when he returned. Instead of a generic I-am-not-feeling-well-and-needed-a-moment, he offered the rest of the class (7 in all) a much more detailed account of his nausea. He said that he did not want things to get disgusting and felt that a mess might have ensued if he had not stepped out, and that the table would have needed to be cleaned, etc. Like I said, he was really embarrassed. The harder he tried to offer an explanation, the worse it became.

Student two wore a bright purple fur shawl. It was very cool and got the attention of the other students in the class; those who are scheduled to make presentations on Tuesday discussed the possibility of borrowing it or otherwise preparing a comparable wardrobe. Her presentation matched the accessory.

Student three has a severe phobia of presentations and last week asked to be excused from it. I kindly refused but offered to go over it with her in advance. This had been going on over email for a few days. She is an excellent student, so I explained to her that her presentation was part of her contribution to the seminar (which has been consistently good all semester). She was visibly nervous at times, but afterward she was almost grateful that I had encouraged her to do it. It went off without any hitches. One of the allowances I made was switching her from first to third, which may have helped since the strangeness of student one’s illness strangely lightened the mood.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tennis, anyone?

I played tennis twice this week for the first time since July when I was playing a few times per week in PA. (What’s up, Walter?) A colleague and I go to the Maadi House, a club that is aimed at US State Department employees, but serves others with US passports in the neighborhood. There is a swimming pool and green space and American food and a children’s playground. It seems especially popular with AUC faculty who live in the area and have kids. We are not members, but know some folks who are, one of whom has beaten me in tennis twice this week.

The courts are clay, which is a bit of an adjustment since I have only ever played on standard concrete. The ball bounces with a wicked spin off of the clay (plus the person I have been playing with is a squash player who knows how to slice the ball). Not that any of this is meant to be an excuse. I won’t print the score here lest you think me a masochist. It is a lot of fun; I’ll be out there again next week.

What else have I been doing for exercise here beyond the walking that accompanies city living? I mentioned the swimming pool in an earlier blog, which I try to use three times per week. I attend Jenna’s Ashtanga yoga class usually once per week, though ideally I would go twice (and this week I did). The other new addition to my program is a membership to the weight room at Cairo American College, the same place where I swim. I abandoned the very nice gym which has personal television monitors attached to all of the cardiovascular machines and loud techno music. The equipment there was excellent and everyone was friendly, but the decision was a financial one. I paid 450LE for one month, which is a little bit more than $80US. Had I signed up for multiple months, as I considered, that fee would have applied toward a longer-term membership where the price would have come down to perhaps $50-60.

Instead, for 100LE (less than $20US) per month, I go to the CAC weight room which is a classic high school gym with lots of weights and old rebuilt equipment all over the place in a big room. Sort of the like the YMCAs I have used in the US (before their renovations). It has pretty much everything I need to get in a little bit of exercise, and enough free weights for me to take up bodybuilding should I desire. They don’t have much in the way of cardio equipment but it is next to the pool and there is an outdoor track right outside. Since I live in Egypt, I don’t need to worry about rain or cold keeping me indoors.

One of the drawbacks is that it has limited community hours, 6:30pm-9:30pm six days per week. Because of the holiday, I have only been there a few times, but each time I was the only person in there other than the super nice guy who works there. Not a soul. It is a little bit strange, though also convenient. I can jump rope without striking anyone. Apparently the facility gets used by the athletics program during the day, but in the evening it is all mine.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Kulle Sana Wintu Tayyibiin

I have been off from work this week; the university is closed for the Eid el Adha. In terms of the academic year, it comes at a peculiar if somewhat fortuitous time this year. Next week when we return, there will be only 2 days of classes scheduled. Most of that time will be exams, preparations, oral presentations, course evaluations, and the like. Not a lot of “teaching” going on. This week gives me a chance to catch my breath, catch up on reading and grading, and catch up on blogging (I hope). It works out for the students as a sort of end-of-semester reading week, enabling them to prepare for their final exams or write their papers.

The holiday itself is three days long, so there is still some time for the students to work after all of their feasting. The Eid el Adha observes when God tested Abraham (yes, that Abraham) by asking him to sacrifice his son. Abraham agreed, but then God, once convinced of Abraham’s faith, spared his son and replaced him with a lamb. This Eid is then a day when Muslims sacrifice an animal to demonstrate their faith. It also marks the end of the Hajj pilgrimage.

It is completely ridiculous and presumptuous that I am writing about a religion that I understand so superficially, but there you have it.

I can comment with only slightly more authority on what happens here in Cairo. Last week, people started bringing animals into town for the sacrifice. Mostly sheep and goats, though there are cows in the mix too. Driving along the road, I saw impromptu sheep markets. People could hear animals in downtown neighborhoods. Since this is a ritual sacrifice, they take place publicly, often in the street or in a yard following the halal way of butchering—bleeding from the neck. The blood, then, is used to bless the home of those making the sacrifice. The meat is divided into three portions—one is kept by the family making the offering, a second is distributed to friends, neighbors, and family, and a third is distributed as charity to the poor.

In many neighborhoods throughout Cairo, the sacrifices take place on the public streets. In Maadi, where we live, that is less common. Here, many people are relatively well-to-do and may hire a butcher to come to their yard and make the sacrifice while the appropriate prayers are said. I did not see much myself. I saw a few butchers in blood-stained coats walking down the road holding some very large, bloody knives. I saw a couple of piles of bones and one carcass off to the side of the road. From a friend’s home where I was last night, I was able to watch some folks cutting up a very large piece of meat in their yard. Whenever I went out yesterday, I brought my camera but didn’t have a chance to use it.

This practice understandably freaks out lots of foreigners who are not used to seeing animals die. Though I am not particularly squeamish, I am sure such a sight would have affected me (and maybe even made me a temporary vegetarian). At the same time, I like what this celebration suggests about public spaces. I do like the visibility and openness it implies. The truth of where our food comes from can be a bit messy, but I don’t resent being confronted with it. For people celebrating the Eid, this holiday also allows them to honor, from a slightly different perspective, the source of their food—God. I eat the meat and eggs and milk of animals who, I am sure, suffer terribly, but I buy it in the supermarket where I don’t have to see the blood.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fayoum Vacation

This is my long overdue report from our trip to the Fayoum and the Western Desert, which is to the southwest of Cairo. Our first stop was Kom Oushim, an ancient city in the region and a center for agricultural production and animal husbandry.

Historically, the Fayoum has been important because it is the lowest-lying and most fertile region of the country. Since the Middle Kingdom period, perhaps 4000 years ago, it has been a center for agriculture. Then more recently, about 300BC, irrigation systems, among the world’s most sophisticated, were developed to distribute the freshwater overflow from the Nile throughout the valley region. Throughout the rest of Egypt, there was only be one crop harvest per year; in the Fayoum they were able to manage three. This picture is an old wall that we drove over which is a regulator that was built to create the artificial reservoir that provided water to the region. The wall/road, which I’d say is at least 5 miles long, is probably 13th century, but is likely on the site of previous walls that were built to serve the same purpose, which this one continues to serve.

Other highlights of the trip were a couple of Middle Kingdom pyramids: Hawara

and Lahun.
The experience is so much different than visiting the pyramids at Giza. Here, we were more or less alone with these enormous structures. A few notes about the conditions of the bricks. The outer layer of pyramids in this part of the country were built with limestone, which is a very good mortar used in construction. So, the outer layer of limestone has been taken over the years. (This explains the much better preservation of granite monuments.) I really loved these sites—it gives a good sense of the extent of monuments in ancient Egypt and I admit there is something romantic about their remoteness.

We also visited some natural sites—including a lake and park with some small waterfalls and an array of birds (one of our guides was a naturalist).
The original itinerary included a park with whale fossils, but there was a conflict with the bus company (who claimed this destination was not on the original itinerary and that the road was not in good enough condition) so this will have to wait until a future trip.

We stayed overnight at the Panorama Hotel, which I liked though it seems like the rooms ranged in quality. On the range, we hit the jackpot. Our spot had a huge balcony overlooking Lake Fayoum.

When I say we were alone at most of these sites, I should point out that we had a military escort for the entire trip. About 10 years ago, after an attack on a tour bus in Luxor, the Egyptian government required military escort for any tour groups traveling outside of the main citieis or tourist sites. So once we enter the Fayoum governate, there is a truck of soldiers that we follow around. And all of the sites have guards positioned very dramatically. Though there has been some unrest in this region, I think that a lot of it is performative (as I guess many military installations are). I was grateful if for no other reason that they made for some nice dramatic photographs.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The end is near

Coming Soon: Last weekend, we went to the Fayoum region which was great. I will write more and post some pictures this weekend. Sorry for neglecting the blog; this has been a busy week.

The Good News: After tomorrow, I will only have two days of scheduled classes. But, in American Studies, I am giving the exam in class on one of those days, so there will really be only one day (at least in terms of what I need to prepare). And in Literature and Human Rights, my students are giving oral presentations, so there will really be no days.