Behind the iconic image of legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet at the Pyramids – stood an artist who was inadvertently dragged into the debate on the Middle East conflict.
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The Five-Year Odyssey: Alexandria-related articles (2010-2015)
What Louis Armstrong taught Egypt and the Middle East about itself
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono tried to loot Egypt’s ancient treasures
Alexandria and Activism – Translating Memory, Mythology and Utopianism (lecture in Cairo)
Shimaa ElSabbagh in art
Why does the Egyptian state hate its citizens so much? What Peter Greste’s freedom says
Egypt’s Long Walk to Despotism
How the Egyptian regime strengthens the student opposition it is trying to eliminate
Message to Mahienour El-Massry
Run, Mahienour, Run (Why Mahienour El-Massry matters)
- The Five-Year Odyssey: Alexandria-related articles (2010-2015)
Most Viewed Posts
- The Five-Year Odyssey: Alexandria-related articles (2010-2015)
- What Louis Armstrong taught Egypt and the Middle East about itself
- Debate: The Islamic State is a bigger threat to world order than Cold War communism.
- The Strategic Implications of ISIS (Lecture)
- When John Lennon and Yoko Ono tried to loot Egypt’s ancient treasures
- The Five-Year Odyssey: Alexandria-related articles (2010-2015)
Category Archives: Extended Egyptian Revolution
The following are most of my published articles
(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)
Revolution never sleeps (13 June 2012)
Egypt’s stake in the Syrian Revolution (23 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)
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)
Shimaa ElSabbagh in art (7 February 2014)
Alexandria and Activism – Translating Memory, Mythology and Utopianism (lecture in Cairo) (22 April 2015)
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.
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.
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).
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
(Symposium) Cultures Of Freedom And Contending Visions Of Governance: Voices From The Arab And Muslim Worlds
Click here for Conference program (PDF)
(via Lucia Sorbera)
Click here for the Event page.
Click here for the Key speakers Facebook page.
(with links for free registration)
I will be giving a presentation this Friday titled “Despotism and the Unmaking of the Egyptian Citizen” at the New Law School, seminar room 342. University of Sydney. At 1.15pm – 2.45pm.
This is part of a panel that includes Lucia Sorbera (presenting Gender, Politics,and Political Legitimacy in Egypt), Sara Verdi (On Memorialisation, AUC) and Walid El Khachab (Popular culture and Reclaiming the public space: Resistance in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, York University). Chaired by May Telmissany (University of Ottowa).
The conference starts this Thursday at 9.15am, and ends on Friday evening. Details on the conference can be viewed here: http://whatson.sydney.edu.au/events/published/symposium-cultures-of-freedom-and-contending-visions-of-governance-voices-from-the-arab-and-muslim-worlds
Conference program (PDF): Conference Program – April 9-10 2015
click here for the Facebook event.
في السابعة من مساء الخميس 2 أبريل يقدم لكم عمرو علي محاضرة بعنوان (صناعة البدايات من حنا آرنت إلى آلان باديو). تتناول هذه المحاضرة ظاهرة البدايات الجديدة وكيفية حدوثها في العالم، والآليات التي تعزز خلخلة – إن لم يكن اقتلاع – الإطار السياسي والاجتماعي الذي يعرقل التدفق “المتوقع” للتاريخ ويتيح لأشياءٍ جديدة أن ترى النور، والأحداث في المجال العام- وفي أوجها الثورة – التي تخلق مزجًا جديدًا غير متوقع في عالم السياسة. عمرو علي باحث دكتوراه في جامعة سيدني بأستراليا وزميل زائر في مركز برلين للعلوم الاجتماعية ومحلل لشؤون الشرق الأوسط.
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.
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.
Published in the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy
There is a menacing wind sweeping through Egypt engulfing bureaucrats, journalists, judges, celebrities, and the average “patriotic citizen” in its path, remolding them into carriers of despotic ideas. This system is not a clear-cut case of top-down power relations in which an established power asserts itself over its supporters and against its opponents, real and imagined. Rather, in this system, the citizen is brought center-stage in the political arena. Egypt is currently witnessing an age-old political phenomenon of citizens’ “voluntary servitude” to a repressive order – specifically, despotism. Through their collective complicity, citizens hand a carte blanche to the state for violence, nepotism, and corruption.
While despotic regimes rely on violence for control, this violence is rarely targeted toward the average citizen. Rather, one of the paradoxes of despotism is that it relies on citizens’ “passions” and psychological isolation, making them anxious to gain the meager favors of the regime.1 Mutual suspicion forms the cornerstone of despotism and prevents the “communication necessary for any organized political opposition.”2
In Egypt, the citizen plays a role in reinforcing the repressive status quo – from a middle-aged woman reporting innocent journalists to the police to a sycophantic lawyer suing an actor who deviated from the state line. The fertile ground of suspicion enables the creation of legislation on a community police that would allow citizens the power to arrest each other and is also manifest in the many citizen’s names and photos posted on Facebook, who are tarnished with labels like “terrorist” and “foreign agent.” An old Egyptian proverb says, “Oh Pharaoh, who turned you into a tyrant?” “No one stopped me,” he replied.
Published in Al-Fanar on Arab Higher Education
In the midst of the protest violence and security crackdowns that gripped Egyptian universities this fall, Hazem Hosny, a political science professor at Cairo University, spoke about what could turn out to be an ominous sign for the regime: “I believe that at present a new opposition is being formed, even if it has perhaps not yet fully crystallized…This opposition stands mostly outside the traditional parties, and is made up of educated and avant-garde young people who understand what is happening around them.”
His view correlates with the political and social indicators that are pointing in the direction of an inevitable amassing blowback. As the regime clamps down on the universities that seem to be the last visible site of opposition to the regime, it is not in fact, destroying student politics, but dispersing them.