Egyptian journalism: ‘Is there shame in [asking] a question?’

20151113_165618206_iOSPublished in Mada Masr

“In Egypt, there is freedom of speech, but no freedom after speech” – went the running joke at a recent conference in Berlin that brought a number of prominent Egyptian media figures and scholars together. The aim was to discuss the deplorable state of the country’s lack of freedom of the press, amid a wide-scale assault on professional journalism. With minimal risk of security forces storming the event Cairo-style (or cancelling it), the space was wide open for a conversation on how journalists deal with the challenges of operating in a state of repression, and for crafting a way forward.

The event took place as journalists are being arrested and harassed in Egypt – a country which ranks 158 out in 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index. Ismail Alexandrani is among the latest journalists to be detained (as a result of a tip-off from the Egyptian embassy in Berlin).

Figures and reports cannot, however, capture the human anxiety, courage and endurance that characterises the lives of Egyptian journalists when they decide to step out of line with the regime.

In her opening speech, Reem Maguid, a popular media anchor hounded by the regime, harkened back to an old Egyptian proverb, “Is there shame in [asking] a question?” This basic journalistic exercise of asking a question, Maguid added, often outrages authorities, which makes it clear that it is not the question that is the problem, but the mere act of asking and thinking.

The answer to Maguid’s question could perhaps be partly found in the ordeal of Hossam Bahgat’s incarceration. Bahgat, a journalist with Mada Masr, was taken into military detention for writing an article on the military. Bahgat was asked one question through the hours in detention by everyone, even those who were not involved in his prosecution case: “Why did you write about the military?” Incessantly repeated, it eventually dawned on Bahgat that the question was in fact genuine. The conflict between Egypt’s professional journalists and the regime, Bahgat noted, does not happen at the level of discourse or policies, but is more fundamental; it is a question of opposing worldviews; “Anything that deviates from the official line is seen as a weird phenomenon,” he explained.

Many independent-minded journalists are determined to hold onto the relative media freedoms they enjoyed in 2011–2012 following the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, researcher Mostafa Shaat points out how freedoms in that period were simply “political bargains forced on the political regime by the waves of mass protests.” Now the state, Shaat emphasizes, has returned to rewarding its loyal journalists with legal immunity from prosecution, while deliberately targeting independent journalists.

There is an overall feeling of arbitrariness in how decisions are made in today’s peculiar form of despotism. Different security agencies were apparently unaware that Bahgat had been summoned. This state of arbitrariness and unpredictability makes the situation even more frightening. “Never underestimate the stupidity of dictators,” Bahgat added. “These are not rational people; you should not look for a reason.”

Hitting a similar note, maverick media anchor Yosri Fouda pleaded for common sense to come back into high politics. “It’s important we move in the right direction. Don’t tell me the train is going to Aswan when it’s heading to Alexandria!” Fouda exclaimed.

The question of courage was naturally a topic journalists often grappled with. Maguid gave a moving account: “Being brave is great, but being professional is greater [long silence]. But we are weak. The price paid is getting higher. At some point, I was ready to be jailed or killed. But I’m not ready for harm to come to my family. I’m not ready for them to pay the price for me.”

For those walking the line of investigative journalism, Bahgat gave this warning: “There is a difference between being a brave journalist and a reckless one. Martyrdom does not feel good when you are locked up. Don’t try to be a martyr without at least calculating the consequences.”

Yet what drives journalism is a quest for the truth. “I am incapable of telling half the truth,” said Maguid. Bahgat noted that there is a “crisis when security forces kill people in an apartment and say it was an exchange of fire – that there can be no other narrative to this.”

Regarding his controversial article, Bahgat addressed the need to break boundaries and set precedents. “I feel insulted at the silent imaginary gag order in which journalists are not allowed to report that a trial even happened. What is worse and more dangerous than censorship, physical danger, or losing your job – is failing to report the story. I wanted to show you can run the story, that it can be done.”

But he warns that “it took many weeks before I decided the story was ready. Have all the evidence, introduce editorial concessions, make the story possible to defend… minimise the damage that can be done.”

However, he conceded that Mada Masr had underestimated the military’s attention to online media. “What’s depressing is that even when you follow journalistic ethics, you are [still] not safe,” he said.

These word echoed those of Abeer Saady, from Egypt’s journalism syndicate, who underscored self-responsibility among journalists: “If you don’t regulate yourself as a journalist. Then someone else will.”

Fouda reminded the audience what their profession is supposed to entail: “Our job as journalists is not to facilitate an easy life for the authorities.”

While the question of how to advance Egypt’s journalism saw a difference of opinions, what was certainly easier to acknowledge was the inability to return to the pre-2011 status quo. Conference organiser and scholar, Hanan Badr, aptly repeated Fouda’s memorable words in 2011: “Freedom is like death. You cannot experience death and return, and you cannot experience freedom and return.”

Fouda, among the more optimistic of the speakers, stressed how we should not lose sight of the goal that unfolded during the revolution’s 18 days. He reminded the audience how state-owned television channels were broadcasting a vivid scene of the Nile River – pristine and calm – while a few blocks away, Tahrir Square was rising up in its revolutionary glory. The contrasting scenes signified to him that the events of 2011 marked the fall of what the authoritarian state media had inherited from the 1950s and 1960s.

Fouda finally paraphrased John F. Kennedy’s words, “If you make professional journalism impossible, then you [the regime] deserve all the rubbish that is happening to you.” Here is the paradox of the regime’s repression: they realise their own media is losing credibility, and thus undermining the official narrative.

The journalists’ tireless efforts, coupled with the emerging cracks in the regime’s unsustainable endeavour, enables them to continue with their hazardous work, testing the boundaries, and, at times, breaking them. The future of Egyptian media freedom and professional journalism looked quite bright by the end of the discussion – but hopefully not only in Germany.

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Was all of this worth it, Assad?

Imagine, when Bashar al-Assad and his regime was
confronted with an uprising in early 2011, he could have
wisely stepped down, initiated a democratic redBAAtransition or negotiated a power-sharing agreement. He instead declared war on his own people, caused one of the largest refugee exodus in modern history, laid the foundation for radicalisation, indirectly gave birth to ISIS, lost half his territory to ISIS, killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, lost the heritage of centuries, lost international legitimacy, opened up his government to interference from Russia and Iran (and the Gulf monarchies who exploited and supported his opponents).

Not to mention the latest terror attacks, nothing certainly original, but the blood splattered in Ankara, Sinai, Beirut and Paris has a trail that, in part, goes back to the chaos in Syria.

It could have all been so different, and all this heartache and agony for what? Because Assad could not bring himself to, at the very least, sit at the same table with protest leaders and citizens during the honeymoon days of the Arab uprisings. No, he just could not do it. It was beneath him. Alas, power and privilege is so intoxicating that it makes you believe the price of civilisational collapse is worth it.

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Alexandria’s walls can still speak: Shaimaa el-Sabbagh in street art

The late poet, writer and activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh who was killed by security forces on 24 January 2015, as she was walking to lay flowers for those who have fallen in Tahrir, has, this month, been painted on the walls of her home and the surrounding vicinity in Moharem Bey, Alexandria. The moving words that accompany the images says it all:

“The one who fears the sun will have to imprison the day.”

“is there anyone guaranteed to walk in safety or not in safety – where can they walk?”
– Sheikh Imam

(This is a follow-up to my previous post on the drawings of Shaimaa)

In taking her life away, they inadvertently made her into a powerful living symbol. Rest in peace.

Left: "The one who fears the sun will have to imprison the day."  Right: "Freedom"
Left: “The one who fears the sun will have to imprison the day.”
Right: “Freedom”
left: "Is there anyone guaranteed to walk in safey or not in safety - where can they walk?" - Sheikh Imam
left: “Is there anyone guaranteed to walk in safety or not in safety – where can they walk?”
– Sheikh Imam

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh 3

"Shaimaa in paradise"
“Shaimaa in paradise”

"The flower of Shaimaa" [in the form of a clinched fist]
“The flower of Shaimaa” [in the form of a clinched fist]
Source: Shaimaa el-Sabbagh Facebook page.

The full story of her tragedy can be read here.

 

 

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A Frightening Vision: On plans to rebuild the Alexandria Lighthouse

Originally published in Mada Masr, republished in openDemocracy
Arabic translation: رؤية مرعبة: عن خطط إعادة بناء منارة الإسكندرية

The Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria

It’s no easy feat to restore the seventh wonder of the ancient world, but then along came modern-day Egyptian exceptionalism with its mega projects to obscure political and economic ills. The Pharos of Alexandria is now slated for resurrection after its demise in a powerful earthquake more than 600 years ago.

Today, the lighthouse icon adorns everything from the Alexandria Governorate flag, to the crest of Alexandria University, to public service logos, to wall paintings on elementary schools. One might argue its symbolic force arises from its invisibility — Alexandria’s cultural strength lies in the imagination. Reconstructing it might skew that imaginary past. But that’s the least of its problems.

In fact, Alexandria is at risk of being subjected to a commercial and geographical disfigurement by a project with no public accountability — and the silence on the issue is deeply troubling.

The odyssey of an idea
The story starts in 1978, when Alexandria resident and diplomat Omar al-Hadidi suggested rebuilding the lighthouse to then-Governor Fouad Helmy. The idea was not only welcomed, but pushed in the international media, capitalizing on then-President Anwar al-Sadat’s sky-rocking international stature as a result of the Camp David talks. However, a parallel development was underway, with one set of Alexandria’s cultural elites pushing for the resurrection of the ancient library. After 1981, the newly instated President Hosni Mubarak took on the latter with enthusiasm, elevating it to a global project, while work on the lighthouse dragged on in its shadow.

The lighthouse concept was a form of decentralization and a subset of a culture war with Cairo’s elites. The idea started innocuously enough. But the project was transitioning into the neoliberal age, with academics and cultural workers receding into the background and the rise of new money coming in its place.

When Mohamed Mahgoub took over as governor in 1997, he rightfully gawked at the 32 companies competing over the project, some of whom were suggesting to make it into a glass and steel building that would house a shopping mall, with laser beams instead of the traditional lantern at the top. Fortunately, Mahgoub cancelled the entire project for the then-foreseeable future.

But the idea was taken up again in 2005 by the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Center (AlexMed) as part of a series of projects toward a vision to develop the East Harbor. The vision was proposed in the Alexandria City Development Strategy (CDS) process (2004-2008) “to assist to Alexandria Governorate to complete its City Development Strategic Framework for sustainable development and prepare for its implementation technically and institutionally.”

The East Harbor Development spent the duration of the lead-up to the 2011 revolution seeking funding opportunities. Post-2011 events saw an Alexandria that was in flux, and the project was restored again, now described as “a new definition for the relationship with the waterfront in coastal cities … rebuilding the old lighthouse in the area facing the library of Alexandria, located in Chatby, as well as building a residency hotel for tourists.” Alexandria’s cultural activists were too busy trying to save historic villas from being destroyed by the real estate mafia to worry about a theoretical project that was proposed before they were born.

But a surprise came in May, when Supreme Council of Antiquities Secretary General Mostafa Amin told the privately owned newspaper Youm7 that “members of the Permanent Committee of Egyptian Antiquities have approved an old project, submitted previously by the Alexandria Governorate, aiming to revive the lighthouse. The comprehensive studies and a final plan have been submitted to Alexandria’s governor for final approval.” The unexpected certitude of his statement set off alarm bells.

The project was unusually absent from the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) that was launched with great fanfare in early March 2015, even though the website of the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones (GAFI) — an affiliate of the Ministry of Investment, and the principal government body regulating and facilitating investment in Egypt — briefly describes the “revival of the old Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos)” project as “establishing a science museum reflecting the heritage value of the old lighthouse and a hotel, conference center, restaurants, concert hall and a marine club.” To date, the lighthouse project is listed with no budget estimation.

Mohamed Nabeel, the executive manager of Save Alexandria, notes that “all information announced so far was just to propagandize the East Harbor Project under the name of reviving cosmopolitan Alexandria, and hence attract investments. However, no information has been made available for the public about what their government is doing, no public participation that promotes accountability. And, overall, no transparency.”

This raises the question of which company will take on the lighthouse project. The governorate is supposed to open a call for bids within a transparent framework that guarantees integrity and public participation. But Nabeel believes that a top-down approach will probably be taken, and allocation will be given to “one of the state’s institutions or business sectors, such as the Arab Contractors. If the property belongs to the military, then the Military Engineering Authority shall handle the project, or the allocation of subcontractors might be applied.” Western architectural firms, however, have been behind a series of outrageous proposals to mutilate the city.

Alexandria Lighthouse … Why?

Not only do the proposed designs show the lighthouse containing shopping malls and a hotel, but the lighthouse is also part of a larger project to revamp the entire area. The 2007 report exploits the city’s Achilles heel of nostalgia and recognition: “The renovation of the whole Eastern Harbor with special emphasis on conservation, bringing into perspective the unique feature of dialogue of cultures symbolized in Alexandria’s cosmopolitan architecture. Evoking the past is experienced in integrating past and present grids in the new development, the revival of the academia with a new research facility, reviving the ancient Soma axis round the development of Silselah (peninsula stretching out from the library location), recreating the Pharos while highlighting the importance of the underwater archaeology and developing the Fort Museum. The concept emphasizes creating pedestrian experiences and establishing a relationship with the water edge while promoting leisure activities such as bathing, yachting, fishing or visiting the royal yacht Al-Mahrousa.”

Figure 1: Conceptual imaginative design for the revival of the Lighthouse
Figure 1: Conceptual imaginative design for the revival of the Lighthouse

It sounds beautiful on paper, and how could one say no to such a development, let alone not be charmed by the visual rending model? That is, until you realize this is about the venerable Alexandria. We have been down this path before — no flowery text and diagrams ever actually factor into the world of Alexandria’s power structures, complex social relations, economic inequity, informal economy, the fate of fishermen, unearthed archeological treasures and so forth. Nabeel raises the concern that the implementation of Phase I & II (2004-2009) of the CDS process has shown that no proper monitoring or evaluation has been carried out, no positive implications and, most crucially, no public participation.

Figure Two shows a 2009 design by the Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP that renders Alexandria in the year 2030. This is the same company that designed the Burj Khalifa, and it notes Egypt’s Culture Ministry as its client (they also report to be leading the planning of Egypt’s new capital city). There is not a single Alexandrian of any persuasion that I have shown these images to who hasn’t given me a look of horror in response.

Figure 2: Proposed design of Alexandria in 2030, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP Architect
Figure 2: Proposed design of Alexandria in 2030, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP Architect

Egyptian and foreign-based firms have an obsession with slick, futuristic, cutting-edge designs, forgetting that maintenance is not one of Alexandria’s assets. Alexandria could always veil its lack of maintenance and infrastructure behind its rustic, antiquated and historical image. But anything with a futuristic public planning streak would suffer from poor maintenance.

The politics are bigger than the lighthouse

Since the 1990s, Alexandria’s public spaces have been subjected to an ideology of revivalism. This involves resurrecting cosmopolitan-era fixtures like gas-light lamp posts, and placing statues like Alexander the Great and Cleopatra in public space. The crowning achievement of revivalism was the unveiling of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 2002. While revivalism brought some benefits, it has more to do with political branding, in which the state imposes a narrative from above upon the public. Furthermore, these nostalgic motifs frequently act as a guise for neoliberalism. Historically, Alexandria is treated like the political laboratory for Egypt’s reckless economic experiments.

Had the governorate been sincere about revivalism and preserving the heritage of the city, it would have saved countless monarchical-era villas from destruction. Preserving what we already have counts far more than any lighthouse bells-and-whistles project. But the reality is not about amplifying Alexandria’s rich cultural history as much as it is about what aspects of its history can be vulgarly commercialized at the expense of the public good. There is not even a proposed lighthouse design that will stay faithful to its ancestor of antiquity, which was built out of limestone, granite and white marble. Rather, it will be something resembling a watered-down version of Burj Khalifa.

One investor proposed “relocating” the iconic Citadel of Qaitbay to build the lighthouse in its place. The thoughtless idea was quickly quashed. But it shows what the city is up against.

Figure 3: The Pharos “Hotel”| designed by the Alexandria Mediterranean Research Center and Studio Bertocchini & Ruggiero

“Capitalism talks here,” says Islam Asem, director of the Tourist Guide Syndicate. “If these investors could destroy the pyramids and build something profitable in its place, they would not hesitate for a moment.” It is largely faceless investors that are sitting on boards making decisions, Asem laments, not academics, cultural workers and UNESCO.

Asem states that the proposed lighthouse location would further weaken the grounds holding up the fragile citadel, and destroy the Greco-Roman ruins under the seabed. This is not to mention the aesthetic disruption of the Alexandria skyline by having a modern building next to the citadel. Asem says it’s better for the project to be constructed far away, in Montazah or Aboukir.

Nabeel also supports this view.

“A metropolitan city cannot be reduced to its city center,” he says, warning that under this kind of development plan, Alexandria “will see more urban segregation and, hence, urban rebellion.”

That urban rebellion was a familiar trait of the city through the sporadic, pre-revolution upheavals of the 2000s that were spurred on by the privatization drive. This can only worsen if the city’s soul is further compromised.

The inability to develop a strategic vision for the city is reflective of the city’s high politics. Any new governor is usually initially met by Alexandria’s civil society with hesitation by default, due to a lack of an electoral mandate. This was the case when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appointed Hany al-Messiry governor in February 2015, especially because left-wing activists were concerned with his free-market economics philosophy. However, a number of them allowed him breathing room for a few reasons. He was from Alexandria, which fulfils the basic providential nationalism criteria. He was a civilian, and not from the military. He was perceived as refined, due to being educated abroad and international exposure. Most importantly, he took a favorable approach to working with civil society.

But such strengths were exploited by different groups and power factions. The media started attacking Messiry for bringing his wife with him to meetings. Then hyper-nationalists took issue with him because he was not from the military. Security entities were calling up civil society workers to “discourage” them from meeting with the governor.

This all came to a head when an anti-governor protest was held in late May to protest Messiry’s dual nationality (he holds American and Egyptian citizenship). Demonstrators chanted, “Go out Messiry, Alexandria is free” while burning the American flag. One source told me the protestors were hired by private contractors after the governor refused to issue new building contracts. It’s notable that the Protest Law was not implemented for this demonstration, and no one was arrested, raising questions of security complicity.

Marianne Sedhom, who co-runs Iskanderya mabatshee Mareya — an environmental initiative that roughly translates as “Alexandria is no longer pretty” — highlights the obstacles to governor faces. For example, when Messiry issues a decree to halt work on, or to destroy, an illegally constructed building, corrupt elements within a district board will issue building permits to allow more illegal buildings to go up, she claims.

Such is the toxic climate out of which the lighthouse, or any development for that matter, will emerge. This is not to write off the lighthouse as a bad idea. The lighthouse has the potential to be a powerful uniting public icon bridging the cultural imaginary between the past and the present, solidifying civic identity, attracting tourists, and more. But this is only if it is done appropriately, with transparency and broader public discussion on the matter. No lighthouse is better than a badly planned lighthouse that violates aesthetics and social, heritage, communal and environmental factors.

The historical magnitude of rebuilding the lighthouse requires it to be the result of a clear vision and coherent civic narrative. It should not be built to resolve or eclipse existing divisions. If modern Alexandrian history is any indicator, it will become not the symbol of a communal spirit, but the symbol of excess and a visible target of rage.

There is a lesson to be learned from the unveiling of the ancient lighthouse in 247 BC. After 12 years of construction, the architect Sostratus was under no illusion that he had to dedicate the new monument to Ptolemy and his wife — but he would not allow history to forget his hard work and the people it was intended to serve. So he engraved his words in the stone, then he placed a plaster plaque etched with a dedication to the Ptolemies over it. With time, wind and sea salt ate away at the plaster. Long after the monarch and the architect passed away, the plaster decayed and fell apart, revealing his words: “Sostratus, son of Dexiphanes the Cnidian, dedicated this to the Savior Gods, on behalf of all those who sail the seas.”

With time, the narrative that emerges out of this project might not be the one that the state had intended.

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The Five-Year Odyssey: Alexandria-related articles (2010-2015)

The following are most of my published articles alexschool
(including some blog posts and videos) that deal with Alexandria-related issues or employs Alexandria as an illustration, from 2010 to 2015. However, there is way more of my Alexandria-related notes, images and videos that can be viewed at the Alexandria Scholars Facebook group. Thank you for everyone’s support over the years. What a journey it has been. One that started with the tragic death of Khaled Said and yet, the Alexandria story still continues…

Egypt’s Collision course with History (9 July 2010)

The Revolution in Alexandria (Visual Timeline) (February 2011)

The shock therapy moment in Salafi politics (13 May 2012)

Voting for security in Alexandria (2 June 2012)

Saeeds of Revolution: De-Mythologizing Khaled Saeed (5 June 2012)
Arabic: أمثال خالد والثورة: إزالة الأسطورة المحيطة بخالد سعيد

Revolution never sleeps (13 June 2012)

Egypt’s stake in the Syrian Revolution (23 July 2012)

The real estate pirates behind Alexandria’s collapsing tenements (28 July 2012)

The Alexandria mafia’s new adversary: civil society (6 August 2012)

Turning the tide on Egypt’s sinking book reading culture (17 September 2012)

Power, Rebirth, and Scandal: A Decade of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (16 October 2012)

Silent Commander-in-Chief: From Khaled Saeed to Malala Yousafzai (30 October 2012)

Egypt’s (Alexandria) Constitutional Referendum results (25 December 2012)

Sons of Beaches: How Alexandria’s Ideological Battles Shape Egypt (29 December 2012)

Alexandria Re-Imagined: The Revolution through Art (25 January 2013)

Marching to Sidi Gaber: Alexandria’s Epicenter of Upheaval (22 July 2013)

Sidi Gaber, Ovvero Fare Rivoluzione Ad Alessandria (Journal article in Italian)

Save Alexandria, and free Sherif Farag (16 December 2013)
Arabic: انقذوا الأسكندرية.. وأفرجوا عن شريف فرج

If the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots started in Alexandria, then why are there few accounts of it? (20 January 2014)

Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East (Co-edited chapter: Distorting Digital Citizenship: Khaled Said, Facebook, and Egypt’s Streets) (March 2014)

Run Mahienour Run (23 June 2014)

How the Egyptian regime strengthens the student opposition it is trying to eliminate (19 December 2014)

Shimaa ElSabbagh in art (7 February 2014)

Alexandria and Activism – Translating Memory, Mythology and Utopianism (lecture in Cairo) (22 April 2015)

A frightening vision: On plans to rebuild the Alexandria Lighthouse (2 July 2015)

 

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What Louis Armstrong taught Egypt and the Middle East about itself

 

Louis Armstrong playing for his wife at the Pyramids of Giza
Louis Armstrong playing for his wife Lucille Wilson at the Pyramids of Giza (1961)

This post has been republished in Open Democracy , Sydney Democracy Network and Al-Araby

If there was one legacy, among many, of president Gamal Abdel Nasser that Egypt could have done without – it is the peculiar suspicion of foreigners, to the point of embarrassment, that rode the region’s pan-Arab nationalism wave in the 1950s and 1960s. A problem that still, in various manifestations, continues up until today through institutions, mass media and the public discourse.

Behind the iconic image of legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet at the Pyramids – stood an artist that, you would think, had no relation to Egypt’s politics and the Middle East conflict, and infact once stated “I don’t know nothin’ about politics”, was dragged into a mind-boggling controversy.

On his visit to Egypt in 1961, Armstrong was standing in a Cairo hotel lobby packed with over 20 news reporters who asked him if he supported Zionism. It must have been like asking Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez visiting Russia as to what he thought of the imperialist forces in the emerging Vietnamese conflict.

An incredulous Armstrong replied “What is that Daddy?” The reporters were surprised that an artist, immersed in his own world, was ignorant of their regional issues, the reporters said: “You helped the Jews a lot.” Armstrong, replied “Yeah, I help them. I help anybody. I help you. You need help? I help anybody’. He continued “I’m going to tell you this. I got a trumpet, and I got a young wife, and I ain’t got time to fool with none of the stuff you guys talking about”

Armstrong just walked off and left them all in the lobby.

It was, however, the incessant suspicions of Armstrong in the lead-up to his visit that raised his ire. In 1959, Egyptian newspapers were circulating rumours that Armstrong was the leader of an Israeli spy network. Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper went as far as to report that Lebanese security authorities uncovered a spy ring that was reportedly working undercover with various artistic troupes. The report stated “Among the leading members of the gang was the famous American Nergro musician Louis Armstrong, who had recently visited Beirut.”

When this was brought to Armstrong’s attention, he responded “I’ve been called many things in my life but this is the first time I’ve ever been called a spy.” When asked to sum up his feelings about the report, he replied “bunk.”

For a while, Armstrong ignored the rumours, but he drew the line when Nasser himself added his weight to the senseless reports. In 1960, the Egyptian president went further and believed that one of Armstrong’s “Scat singing” record was used by the artist to pass secrets during his first 1959 tour of the Middle East. An outraged Armstrong, in Boston at the time, mailed Nasser a copy of the suspect record, with a note rebutting the accusations:

“It’s all Greek to me. They claimed all that junk because I played in Israel. I don’t have to be a spy to earn a living. I have enough money blowing the horn and I have a very happy life doing it. Why don’t you tell these people who are spreading all this stuff to come around. I’ll tell them a few good traveling salesman jokes.”

It is not known how Nasser reacted. However, he did not stop the musician’s visit to Egypt the following year.

The achievement of Arab unity was so close, until the below Skat song and its encrypted subversive message destroyed it all.

The 1959 Middle East tour, that Nasser referred to, saw a prophetic Armstrong when, in Beirut, sitting around with colleagues and reporters, all smoking hashish, was asked “Say, how come you going playing for them damn Jews down in Israel?” Armstrong replied “Let me tell you something. When I go down there, the first thing they going to tell me, how come you play for them damn Arabs over there? Let me tell you something, man. That horn”, pointing to his prized instrument, “you see that horn? That horn ain’t prejudiced. A note’s a note in any language.”

True enough, when Armstrong landed in Israel, the first question he was asked as to why he plays in Arab countries, a furious Armstrong responded “I told them that you guys were going to say the same damn thing. So ain’t none of you no better than the other side. You’s as bad as they are, man”

Poor Armstrong, no wonder why he suffered a heart attack that same year in which his health would only deteriorate from this point onwards.

"If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it" - Louis Armstrong
“If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it” – Louis Armstrong

Of course, this is not to overlook the fact the US State Department sent artists like Armstrong on public and cultural diplomacy initiatives around the world to counter the influence of the Soviet Union in the developing world. Yet this is not the same deal as a “leader of an Israeli spy network.” It was atrocious enough that he suffered from the scourge of racism back home, even at the height of his fame, that he stated to an American reporter in 1957: “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” He also told Ebony magazine in a 1964 interview: “I don’t socialize with the top dogs of society after a dance or concert. These same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro.”

Yet, he was not even spared, at least ideologically, on the international platform.

The impoverished thinking that unfairly and irresponsibly attacked Armstrong – raised a generation that rules Egypt today, if not the Arab world, and sets the tone for a destructive conspiratorial language that tarnishes, if not sentences, the innocent, disembowels the political public sphere and foments political and social tensions. Armstrong visited an Israel that has since become an increasingly racist, brutal and a militarised state that would make Apartheid South Africa look like a lightweight. Not helped by the same government that sponsored Armstrong’s visit.

Armstrong’s encounter with the Middle East was a microcosmic reflection of the wider cancerous socio-political tumour of denial and scapegoating in the region that just keeps on festering with time. More so, the “What is that Daddy?” responses of Armstrong were refreshingly simple, altruistic and empathetic, in a complex, murky and relentless region where the indiscriminate use of words and charges are prone to lose all meaning.

So a posthumous note to Armstrong, nothing has changed since you left the Middle East, just more of the same, and worse. Someday, the meaning of ‘What a wonderful world’ will be understood and sung. Someday.

 

Louis Armstrong entertaining hospitalised children at the Tahhseen Al-Sahha Medical Centre, Cairo (1961).
Louis Armstrong entertaining hospitalised children at the Tahhseen Al-Sahha Medical Centre, Cairo (1961). But if regime logic was applied, he was the Pied Piper leading innocent Egyptian children to their doom and causing Syria’s break-up from the United Arab Republic.

 

References:

Ricky Riccardi, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (New York City: Pantheon, 2011) pp.180-181.

“Egyptians call Satcmo Armstrong Israeli Spy,” Jet Magazine (26 Nov 1959) p. 60.

“Satch Mails Egypt’s Nasser ‘Spy’ Platter,” Jet Magazine (14 April 1960) p. 61.

Ben Schwartz, “What Louis Armstrong really thinks” The New Yorker (25 February 2014).

 

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When John Lennon and Yoko Ono tried to loot Egypt’s ancient treasures

Lennon and Ono in Egypt, 1997.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Egypt, 1977.

 

(This post has also been translated into Arabic: عندما حاول جون لينون وزوجته سرقة كنوز مصر القديمة)

I was researching something unrelated (on 1970s political Egypt), then stumbled across this photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Egypt in 1977. So I got curious as to what they got up to on their trip, and it turns out, predictably, it was controversy galore.

“As January [1977] rolled on, an exotic adventure, engineered by Yoko, promised freedom from their lethargy. Sam Green learned from one of his colleagues about a clandestine archeological dig being conducted in Egypt to unearth an ancient temple. The project, however, needed funding to complete the excavation. When Green relayed this news to Yoko, she could barely wire the money to Cairo fast enough, and began planning a visit to the site. Lennon, too, excited by the prospect of an intercontinental hunt for artifacts, couldn’t wait to get on the plane.

John wrote excitedly to Leila that he was departing the following day for Cairo, stopping in Geneva for a week to take care of some business. He asked if any of her friends or relatives lived in Egypt and made a pun about wanting to exhume a few of her dad’s kin. He promised to write her all about the trip.

His gloom momentarily lifted, John plunged enthusiastically into his sketchbook, drawing romantic Egyptian deserts dotted with camels and Bedouins. He purchased the proper wardrobe, got himself a new passport photo, and even changed his hairstyle. At the same time Yoko and Sam Green were finalizing the details of a complicated plan to sidestep the Egyptian authorities. Because Egypt’s ancient national treasures were under assault by international art poachers, its governmental authorities instituted safeguards to protect these sacred gravesites, and even resorted to aerial searches to catch would-be raiders. John, eavesdropping from the next room on Yoko and Sam’s conversation, was thrilled to hear that accompanying them would be a cache of potent marijuana…

The next day, while the couple was rushing to make their flight to Cairo, Yoko got into a dispute with the hotel concierge over her attempt to purchase a pair of diamond watches with an inadequate deposit. Just as all seemed lost, he recognized John. For once the harried musician was grateful for his celebrity.

Arriving in Cairo, the Lennons checked into the Nile Hilton. John took a nap before venturing into the city to purchase a wardrobe for the excavation. He ran into Thomas Hoving, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was in Cairo on his own expedition for art. An enraptured John spent his first night exploring one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great Cheops Pyramid, built by Pharaoh Khufu, founder of the Fourth Dynasty, around 2680 B.C. Afterwards, he took in the nightly Giza light-show extravaganza, a gaudy commercial tourist attraction he enjoyed thoroughly.

The next day Lennon awoke energized and refreshed. An ardent history buff, he enthusiastically toured the pyramid at Saqqara, which he found even more fascinating than the Cheops site. As he explored the underground chambers, he ran his hands across the hieroglyphics and marveled at the intricacy of the ancient artwork on the stone walls. Coming upon an open sarcophagus, Lennon was unable to resist the temptation and recklessly tore off a scrap of material as a souvenir. Only later did he wonder if his blasphemous action had incurred the mummy’s curse; he was worried enough to call an emergency meeting with one of Yoko’s mystics.

While Lennon was exploring various sites, Ono was finalizing details for the proposed visit to the illicit excavation. The more intent she became, the more Green feared her presence might cause problems. An internationally known celebrity couple wasn’t likely to go unnoticed by the Cairo authorities. Green used Thomas Hoving as a means to discourage Yoko’s plans. He concocted a story that the renowned art director had gotten word of their scheme for obtaining artifacts and stood prepared to alert the authorities himself unless all parties left Egypt immediately. Marlene Weiner, Yoko’s psychic du jour, confirmed the imagined threat, telling her that a certain assertive six-footer they’d meet in Cairo should be avoided. It wasn’t clear if Green encouraged her to make this statement, but he did recruit Charlie Swan to dissuade Yoko. She was concerned enough to abandon the plan. Surprisingly, John wasn’t all that disappointed by the abrupt turn of events. He had already had his fill of Egypt and was more than anxious to go home.”

Source: Geoffery Giuliano, Lennon in America: 1971-1980, Based in Part on the Lost Lennon Diaries (2001) p. 182-184.

Given today’s great threat to Egypt’s national heritage from within, not helped at times by the complicit authorities – the attempt of Lennon and Ono looks like a picnic.

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Alexandria and Activism – Translating Memory, Mythology and Utopianism (lecture in Cairo)

Date: 8 March 2015.

Abstract: One of the long-standing fears of Alexandrian activism has been the eclipsing of its people’s local struggles by a Cairo-centric narrative – an issue that is further aggravated by limited bilingualism among the coastal city’s middle class revolutionaries, which makes connecting with international audiences more difficult. Apart from efforts to attract domestic attention to the city’s struggles, a peculiar form of Alexandrian activism evolved that employs the city’s namesake, history and popular culture to attract national and international attention to the issues affecting its urban terrain. This is evident in revolutionary graffiti that makes reference to Alexander the Great and Ancient Alexandria, and in the growth of civic groups that contrast their present problems with a by-gone era of utopian cosmopolitanism and indulge in various forms of nostalgia, symbolized by images such as the Pharos lighthouse or a mermaid.

This trend can be traced back to the 1990s struggle between the state and Alexandria over identity formation. The Egyptian state constructed a discourse of utopianism revolving around Alexandria’s ancient past and the city’s cosmopolitanism of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. This was motivated by a wish to brandish the regime’s ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic’ credentials for the benefit of international audiences, fight the Islamist utopian mode of thinking that was beginning to make serious inroads, symbolize a significant break with the Nasserist past, and employ a cultural mask of universalism to disguise the neoliberal policies spearheaded by the Alexandria governorate. Rarely did any of this address the city’s deep-seated problems, and centralization – a common Alexandrian grievance – took its toll over the decades, resulting in a disembowelled public sphere.

Activists appropriated a variety of narratives and symbols to ‘translate’ and communicate their specific concerns to a wider audience, escape the shadow of the heavyweight capital, and establish a common ground with diaspora and foreign audiences who spotlighted, and sometimes co-worked on, texts and videos with Alexandrians to amplify their story to the world. This produced creative methods of revolutionary activity, drew modest research and journalistic interest to the coastal city, and started a slow process of democratizing the activist field. A highly utopian language enabled activists to draw inspiration from and chart their own understanding of ‘The Revolution Continues’ vernacular maxim by devising daily strategies and tactics that can function as alternatives to protesting on the street, which now carried a high risk of imprisonment.

مثَّل حجب المقاومة  الشعبية لأهالي الإسكندرية عن طريق الروايات التي تتمحور حول القاهرة أحد المخاوف المتواصلة  للنشاط السياسي السكندري ,وقد تفاقمت هذه القضية في ظل محدودية ثنائية اللغة  بين ثوار الطبقة الوسطى في المدينة الساحلية؛ مما زاد من صعوبة التواصل مع الجماهير العالمية، وبصرف النظر عن الجهود المبذولة لجذب الانتباه الشعبي إلى مقاومة المدينة، نشأ شكل غريب من أشكال النشاط السكندري الذي يوظف اسم المدينة، وتاريخها وثقافتها الشعبية لجذب الانتباه الوطني والدولي إلى القضايا التي تؤثر على طبيعتها الحضرية، ويتجلى هذا في رسومات الجرافيتي التي تُشير إلى الإسكندر الأكبر والإسكندرية القديمة، و تزايد الجماعات المدنية التي تعقد مقارنة بين مشاكلها الراهنة و عصر الكونية الطوباوية المنصرم التي تنغمس في أشكال مختلفة من الحنين إلى الماضي وترمز إليه بصور مثل منارة الإسكندرية، أو حورية البحر.

ويمكن عزو هذا الاتجاه إلى الصراع الواقع بين الدولة والإسكندرية حول تشكيل الهوية في فترة التسعينات. إذ أسست الدولة المصرية خطاباً يميل إلى تبني فكرة الطوباوية يتمحور حول تاريخ الإسكندرية القديم، وعالمية المدينة في القرن التاسع عشر والنصف الأول من القرن العشرين. ولقد كان الحافز وراء ذلك تصوير النظام الحاكم بأنه “تقدمي” و”ديمقراطي” أمام الجمهور العالمي، ومحاربة أسلوب تفكير الاسلاميين الطوباوي الذي بدأ في تحقيق نجاحات جدية ترمز إلى القطيعة مع الماضي الناصري، وتوظيف قناع ثقافي من العالمية لإخفاء السياسات الليبرالية الجديدة التي تقودها محافظة الإسكندرية.  ونادراً ما كانت تساهم هذه التوجهات في معالجة مشاكل المدينة المتجذرة (ومن ضمنها المركزية – وهي شكوى شائعة في الإسكندرية) التي تفاقمت على مدى العقود، مما أدى إلى تقويض المجال العام.

خصص بعض النشطاء مجموعة متنوعة من الروايات والرموز لترجمة ونقل اهتماماتهم المحددة إلى جمهور أوسع، والهروب من شبح العاصمة المرعب، وتأسيس أرضية مشتركة مع المغتربين والجماهير الأجنبية التي سلطت الضوء وأحياناً شاركت في ترجمة النصوص والفيديوهات مع السكندريين لتوضيح قصتهم أمام العالم، وقد ساهم هذا في خلق أساليب إبداعية من النشاط الثوري، وإجراء بعض البحوث المتواضعة حول المدينة، كما وجه الاهتمام الصحفي نحو المدينة الساحلية، وبدأت عملية تدريجية لنشر الديمقراطية في مجال النشاط السياسي. واستطاعت اللغة الطوباوية الراقية أن تكون مصدر إلهام للنشطاء، وساهمت في تشكيل فهمهم الخاص للشعار المتداول “الثورة مستمرة” من خلال وضع الاستراتيجيات والتكتيكات اليومية التي يمكن أن تعمل كبدائل للمقاومة في الشارع، والتي يترتب عليها الآن مخاطر عالية مثل السج

Originally published on Mona Baker on 18 March 2015

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Shimaa ElSabbagh in art

I have been absolutely gutted since Shimaa ELSabbagh (also spelled as Shaimaa el-Sabbagh) was killed by security forces two weeks ago as she headed to Tahrir Square to lay flowers on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. While I never personally knew Shimaa, we shared numerous common friends who have been in tears and heartache since that tragic afternoon. Many will ask why focus on Shimaa when other protesters also die. That is true, Sondos died the same day in Alexandria but she got little attention. Since 2011, countless lives have been lost and we don’t hear much about them. But what makes Shimaa’s death much more sharper is that her final moments in life were filmed. As a human, you can only react to the theatrics that will naturally shock you and scar it into your memory for life. It doesn’t mean we think less of other deaths. It is why we are moved by the imagery, followed by the posthumous story, of past icons such as Khaled Said, Omar Salah and Mina Danial. Shimaa’s demise will not be in vain, and she will hopefully be a signpost to illuminate the other lesser known activists killed by the state.

I believe memorialisation is important to sustain the story of Shimaa and all that she stood for. She was a writer, poet and activist, and Egypt has lost an irreplaceable asset. An innocent woman killed while carrying flowers. Like I have said before, Pablo Neruda’s words are the most appropriate here: “You can crush the flowers, but you cannot delay the spring.”

These are some of the painted, hand-drawn and digital images of Shimaa that have been floating around social media. RIP.

 

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Why does the Egyptian state hate its citizens so much? What Peter Greste’s freedom says

As you all know by now, Peter Greste has been
released and this is great news for Peter, his family, everyone that was campaigning for his release, and for overall justice. Greste was a tragic case of being caught up in a geopolitical entanglement between Egypt and Qatar. Greste’s case was helped not only by a thawing of tensions between Egypt and Qatar, but Sisi released Greste in order to legitimise his regime on the international platform and brandish “progressive” credentials to Western governments. Moreover, this could be a sign that the judiciary is being tamed and consolidated under the wings of the new regime. Yet politicised judicial decisions are not going to disappear anytime soon.

Now that Greste has left Egypt, the focus should be on his journalist colleagues still in prison, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy (who could be released soon) and Mohamed Baher. Egyptian activists and human rights workers are delighted with the news of Greste’s release, but rightly point out that there are tens of thousands of political prisoners still languishing in jail and who don’t have the luxury of a Western passport to get them out. A week ago, activist and poet Shimaa Elsabbagh was killed by security forces while she was heading to Tahrir with colleagues to lay flowers on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the 2011 revolution – sparking international outrage. The release of Greste and the murder of Shimaa has raised the spectre in activist and civil society circles of what value even exists in Egyptian citizenship rights? After all, an Australian journalist is freed, and a Canadian journalist will probably renounce his Egyptian citizenship to also be freed. Which begs the question, why does the Egyptian state hate Egyptian citizens so much? What started in 2011 is far from over, and the struggle for bread, freedom, dignity and social justice in Egypt continues on a very long road.

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