“We Refugees” – an essay by Hannah Arendt

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There is something powerfully raw and vivid about Hannah Arendt’s essay that came out in the midst of Europe’s darkness in the Second World War, before the worst horrors inflicted upon the Jews were fully unveiled. Originally published in January 1943 as “We Refugees” in a small Jewish journal called Menorah (shut down in 1961), the piece captures what it really means to be a refugee – the endless anxiety, ravaging despair, deluded optimism, jolting absurdity and even the humour of the “refugee.” What it is to be a wandering individual in search for dignity within a larger collective that “fight like madmen for private existences with individual destinies.” Arendt’s larger lesson is poignant: “The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.” A message that projects a long arm into the present and can be read in the current global context that sees indifference and outright hostility to refugees, a political and social attitude that can only come at the price of exacerbating tensions and rupturing the moral fabric of the perpetrators of such indifference and hostility. 

 

Hannah Arendt

“We Refugees”

In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.” We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants.” Our newspapers are papers for “Americans of German language”; and, as far as I know, there is not and never was any club founded by Hitler-persecuted people whose name indicated that its members were refugees.

A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion. With us the meaning of the term “refugee” has changed. Now “refugees” are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees.

Before this war broke out we were even more sensitive about being called refugees. We did our best to prove to other people that we were just ordinary immigrants. We declared that we had departed of our own free will to countries of our choice, and we denied that our situation had anything to do with “so-called Jewish problems.” Yes, we were “immigrants” or “newcomers” who had left our country because, one fine day, it no longer suited us to stay, or for purely economic reasons. We wanted to rebuild our lives, that was all. In order to rebuild one’s life one has to be strong and an optimist. So we are very optimistic.

Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.

Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved—and most of us had to be saved several times—we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us. We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine. In a friendly way we were reminded that the new country would become a new home; and after four weeks in France or six weeks in America, we pretended to be Frenchmen or Americans. The most optimistic among us would even add that their whole former life had been passed in a kind of unconscious exile and only their new country now taught them what a home really looks like. It is true we sometimes raise objections when we are told to forget about our former work; and our former ideals are usually hard to throw over if our social standard is at stake. With the language, however, we find no difficulties: after a single year optimists are convinced they speak English as well as their mother tongue; and after two years they swear solemnly that they speak English better than any other language—their German is a language they hardly remember.

In order to forget more efficiently we rather avoid any allusion to concentration or internment camps we experienced in nearly all European countries—it might be interpreted as pessimism or lack of confidence in the new homeland. Besides, how often have we been told that nobody likes to listen to all that; hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees. Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.

Even among ourselves we don’t speak about this past. Instead, we have found our own way of mastering an uncertain future. Since everybody plans and wishes and hopes, so do we. Apart from the general human attitudes, however, we try to clear up the future more scientifically. After so much bad luck we want a course as sure as a gun. Therefore, we leave the earth with all its uncertainties behind and we cast our eyes up to the sky. The stars tell us—rather than the newspapers—when Hitler will be defeated and when we shall become American citizens. We think the stars more reliable advisers than all our friends; we learn from the stars when we should have lunch with our benefactors and on what day we have the best chances of filling out one of these countless questionnaires which accompany our present lives. Sometimes we don’t rely even on the stars but rather on the lines of our hand or the signs of our handwriting. Thus we learn less about political events but more about our own dear selves, even though somehow psychoanalysis has gone out of fashion. Those happier times are past when bored ladies and gentlemen of high society conversed about the genial misdemeanors of their early childhood. They don’t want ghost-stories any more; it is real experiences that make their flesh creep. There is no longer any need of bewitching the past; it is spellbound enough in reality. Thus, in spite of our outspoken optimism, we use all sorts of magical tricks to conjure up the spirits of the future.

I don’t know which memories and which thoughts nightly dwell in our dreams. I dare not ask for information, since I, too, had rather be an optimist. But sometimes I imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved. I could even understand how our friends of the West coast, during the curfew, should have had such curious notions as to believe that we are not only “prospective citizens” but present “enemy aliens.” In daylight, of course, we become only “technically” enemy aliens—all refugees know this. But when technical reasons prevented you from leaving your home during the dark house, it certainly was not easy to avoid some dark speculations about the relation between technicality and reality.

No, there is something wrong with our optimism. There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way. They seem to prove that our proclaimed cheerfulness is based on a dangerous readiness for death. Brought up in the conviction that life is the highest good and death the greatest dismay, we became witnesses and victims of worse terrors than death—without having been able to discover a higher ideal than life. Thus, although death lost its horror for us, we became neither willing nor capable to risk our lives for a cause. Instead of fighting—or thinking about how to become able to fight back—refugees have got used to wishing death to friends or relatives; if somebody dies, we cheerfully imagine all the trouble he has been saved. Finally many of us end by wishing that we, too, could be saved some trouble, and act accordingly.

Since 1938—since Hitler’s invasion of Austria—we have seen how quickly eloquent optimism could change to speechless pessimism. As time went on, we got worse—even more optimistic and even more inclined to suicide. Austrian Jews under Schuschnigg were such a cheerful people—all impartial observers admired them. It was quite wonderful how deeply convinced they were that nothing could happen to them. But when German troops invaded the country and Gentile neighbours started riots at Jewish homes, Austrian Jews began to commit suicide.

Unlike other suicides, our friends leave no explanation of their deed, no indictment, no charge against a world that had forced a desperate man to talk and to behave cheerfully to his very last day. Letters left by them are conventional, meaningless documents. Thus, funeral orations we make at their open graves are brief, embarrassed and very hopeful. Nobody cares about motives, they seem to be clear to all of us.

I speak of unpopular facts; and it makes things worse that in order to prove my point I do not even dispose of the sole arguments which impress modern people—figures. Even those Jews who furiously deny the existence of the Jewish people give us a fair chance of survival as far as figures are concerned—how else could they prove that only a few Jews are criminals and that many Jews are being killed as good patriots in wartime? Through their effort to save the statistical life of the Jewish people we know that Jews had the lowest suicide rate among all civilized nations. I am quite sure those figures are no longer correct, but I cannot prove it with new figures, though I can certainly with new experiences. This might be sufficient for those skeptical souls who never were quite convinced that the measure of one’s skull gives the exact idea of its content, or that statistics of crime show the exact level of national ethics. Anyhow, wherever European Jews are living today, they no longer behave according to statistical laws. Suicides occur not only among the panic-stricken people in Berlin and Vienna, in Bucharest or Paris, but in New York and Los Angeles, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

On the other hand, there has been little reported about suicides in the ghettoes and concentration camps themselves. True, we had very few reports at all from Poland, but we have been fairly well informed about German and French concentration camps.

At the camp of Gurs, for instance, where I had the opportunity of spending some time, I heard only once about suicide, and that was the suggestion of a collective action, apparently a kind of protest in order to vex the French. When some of us remarked that we had been shipped there “pour crever” in any case, the general mood turned suddenly into a violent courage of life. The general opinion held that one had to be abnormally asocial and unconcerned about general events if one was still able to interpret the whole accident as personal and individual bad luck and, accordingly, ended one’s life personally and individually. But the same people, as soon as they returned to their own individual lives, being faced with seemingly individual problems, changed once more to this insane optimism which is next door to despair.

We are the first non-religious Jews persecuted—and we are the first ones who, not only in extremis, answer with suicide. Perhaps the philosophers are right who teach that suicide is the last and supreme guarantee of human freedom; not being free to create our lives or the world in which we live, we nevertheless are free to throw life away and to leave the world. Pious Jews, certainly, cannot realize this negative liberty: they perceive murder in suicide, that is, destruction of what man never is able to make, interference with the rights of the Creator. Adonai nathan veadonai lakach (“The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away”); and they would add: baruch shem adonai (“blessed be the name of the Lord”). For them suicide, like murder, means a blasphemous attack on creation as a whole. The man who kills himself asserts that life is not worth living and the world not worth sheltering him.

Yet our suicides are no mad rebels who hurl defiance at life and the world, who try to kill in themselves the whole universe. Theirs is a quiet and modest way of vanishing; they seem to apologize for the violent solution they have found for their personal problems. In their opinion, generally, political events had nothing to do with their individual fate; in good or bad times they would believe solely in their personality. Now they find some mysterious shortcomings in themselves which prevent them from getting along. Having felt entitled from their earliest childhood to a certain social standard, they are failures in their own eyes if this standard cannot be kept any longer. Their optimism is the vain attempt to keep head above water. Behind this front of cheerfulness, they constantly struggle with despair of themselves. Finally, they die of a kind of selfishness.

If we are saved we feel humiliated, and if we are helped we feel degraded. We fight like madmen for private existences with individual destinies, since we are afraid of becoming part of that miserable lot of schnorrers whom we, many of us former philanthropists, remember only too well. Just as once we failed to understand that the so-called schnorrer was a symbol of Jewish destiny and not a shlemihl, so today we don’t feel entitled to Jewish solidarity; we cannot realize that we by ourselves are not so much concerned as the whole Jewish people. Sometimes this lack of comprehension has been strongly supported by our protectors. Thus, I remember a director of a great charity concern in Paris who, whenever he received the card of a German-Jewish intellectual with the inevitable “Dr.” on it, used to exclaim at the top of his voice, “Herr Doktor, Herr Doktor, Herr Schnorrer, Herr Schnorrer!”

The conclusion we drew from such unpleasant experiences was simple enough. To be a doctor of philosophy no longer satisfied us; and we learnt that in order to build a new life, one has first to improve on the old one. A nice little fairy-tale has been invented to describe our behaviour; a forlorn émigré dachshund, in his grief, begins to speak: “Once, when I was a St. Bernard …”

Our new friends, rather overwhelmed by so many stars and famous men, hardly understand that at the basis of all our descriptions of past splendors lies one human truth: once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy our food and ride in the subway without being told we were undesirable. We have become a little hysterical since newspapermen started detecting us and telling us publicly to stop being disagreeable when shopping for milk and bread. We wonder how it can be done; we already are so damnably careful in every moment of our daily lives to avoid anybody guessing who we are, what kind of passport we have, where our birth certificates were filled out—and that Hitler didn’t like us. We try the best we can to fit into a world where you have to be sort of politically minded when you buy your food.

Under such circumstances, St. Bernard grows bigger and bigger. I never can forget that young man who, when expected to accept a certain kind of work, sighed out, “You don’t know to whom you speak; I was Section-manager in Karstadt’s [A great department store in Berlin].” But there is also the deep despair of that middle-aged man who, going through countless shifts of different committees in order to be saved, finally exclaimed, “And nobody here knows who I am!” Since nobody would treat him as a dignified human being, he began sending cables to great personalities and his big relations. He learnt quickly that in this mad world it is much easier to be accepted as a “great man” than as a human being.

The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, and to play roles. We were expelled from Germany because we were Jews. But having hardly crossed the French borderline, we were changed into “boches.” We were even told that we had to accept this designation if we really were against Hitler’s racial theories. During seven years we played the ridiculous role of trying to be Frenchmen—at least, prospective citizens; but at the beginning of the war we were interned as “boches” all the same. In the meantime, however, most of us had indeed become such loyal Frenchmen that we could not even criticise a French governmental order; thus we declared it as all right to be interned. We were the first “prisonniers volontaires” history has ever seen. After the Germans invaded the country, the French Government had only to change the name of the firm; having been jailed because we were Germans, we were not freed because we were Jews.

It is the same story all over the world, repeated again and again. In Europe the Nazis confiscated our property; but in Brazil we have to pay 30% of our wealth, like the most loyal member of the Bund der Auslandsdeutschen. In Paris we could not leave our homes after eight o’clock because we were Jews; but in Los Angeles we are restricted because we are “enemy aliens.” Our identity is changed so frequently that nobody can find out who we actually are.

Unfortunately, things don’t look any better when we meet with Jews. French Jewry was absolutely convinced that all Jews coming from beyond the Rhine were what they called Polaks—what German Jewry called Ostjuden. But those Jews who really came from eastern Europe could not agree with their French brethren and called us Jaeckes. The sons of these Jaecke-haters—the second generation born in France and already duly assimilated—shared the opinion of the French Jewish upper class. Thus, in the very same family, you could be called a Jaecke by the father and a Polak by the son.

Since the outbreak of the war and the catastrophe that has befallen European Jewry, the mere fact of being a refugee has prevented our mingling with native Jewish society, some exceptions only proving the rule. These unwritten social laws, though never publicly admitted, have the great force of public opinion. And such a silent opinion and practice is more important for our daily lives than all official proclamations of hospitality and good will.

Man is a social animal and life is not easy for him when social ties are cut off. Moral standards are much easier kept in the texture of a society. Very few individuals have the strength to conserve their own integrity if their social, political and legal status is completely confused. Lacking the courage to fight for a change of our social and legal status, we have decided instead, so many of us, to try a change of identity. And this curious behavior makes matters much worse. The confusion in which we live is partly our own work.

Some day somebody will write the true story of this Jewish emigration from Germany; and he will have to start with a description of that Mr. Cohn from Berlin who had always been a 150% German, a German super-patriot. In 1933 that Mr. Cohn found refuge in Prague and very quickly became a convinced Czech patriot—as true and loyal a Czech patriot as he had been a German one. Time went on and about 1937 the Czech Government, already under some Nazi pressure, began to expel its Jewish refugees, disregarding the fact that they felt so strongly as prospective Czech citizens. Our Mr. Cohn then went to Vienna; to adjust oneself there a definite Austrian patriotism was required. The German invasion forced Mr. Cohn out of that country. He arrived in Paris at a bad moment and he never did receive a regular residence-permit. Having already acquired a great skill in wishful thinking, he refused to take mere administrative measures seriously, convinced that he would spend his future life in France. Therefore, he prepared his adjustment to the French nation by identifying himself with “our” ancestor Vercingetorix. I think I had better not dilate on the further adventures of Mr. Cohn. As long as Mr. Cohn can’t make up his mind to be what he actually is, a Jew, nobody can foretell all the mad changes he will have to go through.

A man who wants to lose his self discovers, indeed, the possibilities of human existence, which are infinite, as infinite as is creation. But the recovering of a new personality is as difficult—and as hopeless—as a new creation fo the world. Whatever we do, whatever we pretend to be, we reveal nothing but our insane desire to be changed, not to be Jews. All our activities are directed to attain this aim: we don’t want to be refugees, since we don’t want to be Jews; we pretend to be English-speaking people, since German-speaking immigrants of recent years are marked as Jews; we don’t call ourselves stateless, since the majority of stateless people in the world are Jews; we are willing to become loyal Hottentots, only to hide the fact that we are Jews. We don’t succeed and we can’t succeed; under the cover of our “optimism” you can easily detect the hopeless sadness of assimilationists.

With us from Germany the word assimilation received a “deep” philosophical meaning. You can hardly realize how serious we were about it. Assimilation did not mean the necessary adjustment to the country where we happened to be born and to the people whose language we happened to speak. We adjust in principle to everything and everybody. This attitude became quite clear to me once by the words of one of my compatriots who, apparently, knew how to express his feelings. Having just arrived in France, he founded one of these societies of adjustment in which German Jews asserted to each other that they were already Frenchmen. In his first speech he said: “We have been good Germans in Germany and therefore we shall be good Frenchmen in France.” The public applauded enthusiastically and nobody laughed; we were happy to have learnt how to prove our loyalty.

If patriotism were a matter of routine or practice, we should be the most patriotic people in the world. Let us go back to our Mr. Cohn; he certainly has beaten all records. He is that ideal immigrant who always, and in every country into which a terrible fate has driven him, promptly sees and loves the native mountains. But since patriotism is not yet believed to be a matter of practice, it is hard to convince people of the sincerity of our repeated transformations. This struggle makes our own society so intolerant; we demand full affirmation without our own group because we are not in the position to obtain it from the natives. The natives, confronted with such strange beings as we are, become suspicious; from their point of view, as a rule, only a loyalty to our old countries is understandable. That makes life very bitter for us. We might overcome this suspicion if we could explain that, being Jews, our patriotism in our original countries had rather a peculiar aspect. Though it was indeed sincere and deep-rooted. We wrote big volumes to prove it; paid an entire bureaucracy to explore its antiquity and to explain it statistically. We had scholars write philosophical dissertations on the predestined harmony between Jews and Frenchmen, Jews and Germans, Jews and Hungarians, Jews and … Our so frequently suspected loyalty of today has a long history. It is the history of a hundred and fifty years of assimilated Jewry who performed an unprecedented feat: though proving all the time their non-Jewishness, they succeeded in remaining Jews all the same.

The desperate confusion of these Ulysses-wanderers who, unlike their great prototype, don’t know who they are is easily explained by their perfect mania for refusing to keep their identity. This mania is much older than the last ten years which revealed the profound absurdity of our existence. We are like people with a fixed idea who can’t help trying continually to disguise an imaginary stigma. Thus we are enthusiastically fond of every new possibility which, being new, seems able to work miracles. We are fascinated by every new nationality in the same way as a woman of tidy size is delighted with every new dress which promises to give her the desired waistline. But she likes the new dress only as long as she believes in its miraculous qualities, and she discovers that it does not change her stature—or, for that matter, her status.

One may be surprised that the apparent uselessness of all our odd disguises has not yet been able to discourage us. If it is true that men seldom learn from history, it is also true that they may learn from personal experiences which, as in our case, are repeated time and again. But before you cast the first stone at us, remember that being a Jew does not give any legal status in the world. If we should start telling the truth that we are nothing but Jews, it would mean that we expose ourselves to the fate of human beings who, unprotected by any specific law or political convention, are nothing but human beings. I can hardly imagine an attitude more dangerous, since we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while, since society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed; since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts, are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinction. It is true that most of us depend entirely upon social standards, we lose confidence in ourselves if society does not approve us; we are—and always were—ready to pay any price in order to be accepted by society. But it is equally true that the very few among us who have tried to get along without all these tricks and jokes of adjustment and assimilation have paid a much higher price than they could afford: they jeopardized the few chances even our laws are given in a topsy-turvy world.

The attitude of these few whom, following Bernard Lazare, one may call “conscious pariahs,” can as little be explained by recent events alone as the attitude of our Mr. Cohn who tried by every means to become an upstart. Both are sons of the nineteenth century which, not knowing legal or political outlaws, knew only too well social pariahs and their counterpart, social parvenus. Modern Jewish history, having started with court Jews and continuing with Jewish millionaires and philanthropists, is apt to forget about this other trend of Jewish tradition—the tradition of Heine, Rahel Varnhagen, Sholom Aleichemn, of Bernard Lazare, Franz Kafka or even Charlie Chaplin. It is the tradition of a minority of Jews who have not wanted to become upstarts, who preferred the status of “conscious paria.” All vaunted Jewish qualities—the “Jewish heart,” humanity, humor, disinterested intelligence—are pariah qualities. All Jewish shortcomings—tactlessness, political stupidity, inferiority complexes and money-grubbing—are characteristic of upstarts. There have always been Jews who did not think it worth while to change their humane attitude and their natural insight into reality for the narrowness of castle spirit or the essential unreality of financial transactions.

History has forced the status of outlaws upon both, upon pariahs and parvenus alike. The latter have not yet accepted the great wisdom of Balzac’s “On ne parvient pas deux fois”; thus they don’t understand the wild dreams of the former and feel humiliated in sharing their fate. Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of “indecency,” get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples—if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.

 

Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” Menorah Journal 31, no. 1 (January 1943): pp 69-77. 

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Burkinis are accepted, if on a poor woman scrubbing France’s floors

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burkini

The legendary African-American novelist James Baldwin once noted on his trip to France, in 1949, the extent of violence “Paris policemen could do to Arab peanut vendors.” The crime of an Arab, it seems, was to be visible, and therefore it was safer for Arabs to be invisible, with the help of the French authorities – be it through the prison cell or the ironing out of their cultural distinctions in the public sphere.

Yet I have always found it quite peculiar this French manner of discriminating against the visible in order to make them invisible – often the people France needs the most.

My encounter with French racism and hypocrisy came about when I stayed in northern Paris in the autumn of 2009, at a bed and breakfast place. I was hosted by an upper-middle class mother who, during a chilly October morning over breakfast, told me about her work in art/decor and went on to disclose her politics as “left and progressive.”

Yet soon enough she mouthed off racist statements against Arabs (apparently I was the “civilised” Arab that would be sympathetic to her rants). Then she moved onto, specifically, abusing Algerians, then onto Muslim women who wore the veil. The only “concession” she could make was that French colonialism brought its “subjects” back in the form that France has to do deal with today. Before I could reply, she had to “urgently” leave for work. Exhausted from her conversation, I sat back at the breakfast table, in a beautiful 1850s apartment from the Baron Haussmann era, trying to wrap my head around all that she had said (I usually hear bigots out to the end, and try to deconstruct their line of thinking).

At that point, I heard the echoes of Arabic singing reverberating through the courtyard of the building’s interior. I peered out the window to see a group of Algerians/Moroccans fixing the broken pipes. I gazed down with despondence and voiced to myself: “How utterly sad France is, many of you are the backbone of this country. The French need you but don’t want to see you.”

This set off a series of questions that I would ask Arab residents of the city and make careful observations of race relations.

There was something haunting and disturbing about the necessity and invisibility of these workers. This shed some light on French hypocrisy and their craven need for cheap labour that often comes out of France’s thriving shadow economy, that mutually complements the official economy, which is populated with immigrants, their descendants, and refugees.

The French need Arabs for service and maintenance, but only when such Arabs are doing so out of sight.

The French need black Africans in restaurants, but as long as they are in the kitchen and not the ones serving the customer (more than enough East Europeans to do that).

The French don’t mind the poor Muslim woman who is veiled as long as she is scrubbing their apartment and office floors on her knees but God forbid if her kind invades French recreational spaces and attempts to be equal on her terms.

The Burkini was a non-issue elevated to a political and identity war. It took a non-issue to expose, again, the hypocrisy of France’s ideals and understanding of liberalism and feminism.

The poisonous sting of hypocrisy will not only consume the intended target – Arabs and Muslims. But it sets irreversible precedents and opens up pores in the nation’s body politic to illiberal infection from all directions. The rise of the far right is one obvious example, but they are just one manifestation of a larger ominous current that is yet to come. One should never think the xenophobic tide will stop at Arabs and Muslims. Hatred never runs on rational thought, it is irrational and all-pervasive, and will seek new targets once it exhausts its initial victims. Supposed liberals and feminists are not only aiding and abetting in this assault, but are conducting a grievous self-harm that will see their legitimacy undermined, value system compromised, and ethical standards dismantled. The consequence is that it will leave them vulnerable, in a worst-case scenario, to French anti-democratic political forces that will seek their destruction or cooptation. French history is testament to such undesirable possibilities.

When Baldwin was imprisoned in Paris for an unintentional petty crime (he used bedsheets that his acquaintance had stolen from another hotel!), he observed that, unlike the other lifeless clay-like prisoners in his cell, the “North Africans, old and young, who seemed the only living people in this place because they yet retained the grace to be bewildered.”

The woman on the beach in her human quest to be visible, had the grace, understandably, to be bewildered. A large swathe of your citizens are bewildered, France. The world is bewildered, France.

 

References
James Baldwin, “Equal in Paris” in James Baldwin, Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998) pp. 101-116.

 

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Kakistocracy: A word we need to revive

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kakistocracy

“Stupidity does not consist in being without ideas. Such stupidity would be the sweet, blissful stupidity of animals, molluscs and the gods. Human Stupidity consists in having lots of ideas, but stupid ones. Stupid ideas, with banners, hymns, loudspeakers and even tanks and flame-throwers as their instruments of persuasion, constitute the refined and the only really terrifying form of Stupidity.” – Henry de Montherlant, Notebooks, 1930-44

How and why did a word so relevant for our times be pushed almost to oblivion? In a world where stupidity penetrates multiple levels of government, policies and personalities; it is strange that the term coined to best describe it has actually ended up in the endangered and forgotten words books. Stupidity in governance needs to be treated as a political problem, and kakistocracy can best capture this problem.

Kakistocracy is the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified and unprincipled citizens in power. Kakistos means “worst” which is superlative of kakos “bad” (perhaps also related to “defecate”). Along with kratos (see -cracy) meaning “power, rule.”

The first documented example appeared in 1829 in a book called The Misfortunes of Elphin, written by the English novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock.

They were utterly destitute of the blessings of those “schools for all,” the house of correction, and the treadmill, wherein the autochthonal justice of our agrestic kakistocracy now castigates the heinous sins which were then committed with impunity, of treading on old foot-paths, picking up dead wood, and moving on the face of the earth within sound of the whirr of a partridge.

By 1876, the American poet James Russell Lowell was clear regarding its political implications when he wrote in a letter:

What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” or a Kakistocracy, rather for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?

Yet given the prevalence of the problem it describes, the word is strangely not appreciated and underused in the twentieth and twenty-first century. The University of Sydney library search shows, since 1917, a modest use of the term only to suddenly peak after 1981. Perhaps because it corellated with the rise of neoliberalism which has an intimate relationship with stupidity, or to put it more harshly in the words of Mexico’s Subcomandante Marcos: “Neoliberalism is the chaotic theory of economic chaos, the stupid exultation of social stupidity, and the catastrophic political management of catastrophe.” Kakistocracy as a term then tapers off only to make a modest rise around 2008, when eight years of Bush hinted the word might be of some significance. Yet by rise, I am speaking of less than a dozen texts. Overall, Google Scholar sees the word employed merely 204 times in the scholarly literature. A few reasons can explain this neglect.

First, the heavyweight dictionaries have not come to a consensus on the term – Merriam-Webster and Collins list kakistocracy, but Oxford and Cambridge do not. Also there is little sign the term has spread from the English language (apart from its Greek roots) and made inroads into other languages – This could have ensured its widespread use.

Second, according to Phrontistery, there is a staggering 169 forms of governments, including bizarelly enough, diabolocracy (government by the devil) and pornocracy (government by harlots). I guess it must have been an issue at some point in time for someone to invent such terms. But it means kakistocracy is in competition with other robust and not so robust terms – creating an etymological dystopia.

Third, kakistocracy can be abused. It is not difficult to fathom from historical texts that every generation seems to consider their government as being the worst ever kakistocracy. The term is invoked to tarnish any government one does not agree with – acting as nothing more than a sophisticated guise for unwarranted attacks. There is even a risk the term could become too “mainstream,” losing its meaning and impact similar to the fate of, for example, soft power.

Finally, it is my suspicion that analysts have preferred to use kleptocracy (rule by thieves) instead. But kleptocracy is not the same as kakistocracy: They do both capture the element of least qualified or the worst, but with different meanings. Taking a reductionist stance for the sake of making the point, Putin’s regime is more of a kleptocracy, a regime ruled by thieves and thugs but that does not mean Putin is politically incompetent or stupid. Sisi’s Egypt shows elements of kakistocracy where stupidity is clearly characteristic of the personalities and decision-making process. This I have examined in detail in last year’s piece Egypt’s long walk to despotism that attempts to make sense of the relationship between Egypt’s political order and the stream of abusurdies we have witnessed over the past few years. Yet both Egypt and Russia share elements of kakistocracy and kleptocracy. There is no mutual exclusivness and clear demarcation lines in this debate.

Yet the flipside of not enganging with kakistocracy has left the word to the mindless circulation of memes and right wing shrills like Glenn Beck who sporadically employ it (and mispronounce it) to attack the Obama administration. Love him or hate him, Obama and his administration is far from anything resembling a kakistocracy. Bad decisions are not always a sign of kakistocracy.

Some might argue kakistocracy is a form of tautology, that stupidity can be rife through established democracies and dictatorships without needing to resort to a special word, or that behaviour is not enough to explain governance.  I would argue otherwise: words matter, as a more sophisticated approach in the use of kakistrocracy, even if endowed with new meanings, can bring in a sharper conceptual understanding of incompetence, help provoke thought and new approaches to the relations of power.

Therefore, kakistocracy will not only capture rule by the “stupid” and the “worst,” but how they push human relationships, that form the controlling governmental machinery, into a degenerative state. The term will be more receptive to seeing a movement of ideas from psychology and sociology into the political science and international relations field. It will provide an organising concept to converse with its established kinfolk in the form of anti-intellectualism, mediocracy and nepotism.

To my knowledge, we are not even at the stage of seeing conferences on the dynamics of political stupidity, nor understanding the accumulative processes over the years that have brought about a large number of kakistocracies and stupidity as the standard bearer across much of the world.

Either kakistocracy gets used and thoroughly examined or a Trump presidency will force us to do so.

 


Update: Two worthwhile comments regarding this post come from Marco Lauri (Facebook). The first better explains the term pornocracy and the other proposes one way of sharpening kakistocracy.

“‘Pornocracy’ is a term with a long and very respectable history – used, I think, first in the Renaissance to describe the role of concubines in the running of the affairs of the Papacy during the tenth century – of course it was derogatory and never actually intended to describe a form of government as such.”

“I think that “kakistocracy” should be reserved for systems that positively select for stupid people to be put in charge. This is historically irrespective of the actual form of government (the idiots may be either appointed by an idiot despot, or elected by a dumbed electorate, or forced through the ranks by a purposeful mob, etc.). However, I support the notion because there are arguably common factors worth studying that enable the selection of stupid people. Sycophants are probably the easiest element to see and explain, but not the only one. There must be a whole ecology of systemic political stupidity awaiting analysis.”

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Why terrorism will always feel worse today than in previous decades

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This will not be of much consolation to the people and victims in Brussels, but it’s important to put the timeline of terrorism in Western Europe in perspective. As the chart by Satista shows, this, by far, is not the worst decade of terrorism in Western Europe. The 1970s and 1980s saw, primarily but not limited to, terrorist groups like ETA, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), West German Red Army Faction (RAF), the Italian Red Brigades, the French Action Directe (AD), and the Belgian Communist Combatant Cells, cause high amounts of deaths and carnage in European cities. Yet Europe managed to successfully subdue them to a great degree. There is no reason it will not succeed in overcoming the Islamist terrorist scourge.terrorist_attacks_in_western_europe_since_1970_n

The illustration should serve as a reminder that terrorism committed by citizens against fellow citizens is not something novel to European history. Also, the difference between today and past decades of one’s exposure to reports of terrorism is that social media makes us live vicariously through the violence unleashed and tears shed due to round-the-clock reporting, Facebook posts and tweets. Consequently, feeding into an exacerbation of our fears and stretching our human attentive capacity to its extreme limits. This is an astronomical leap from the old days of watching the six o’clock news to see a five-minute report and reading an article in the following day’s newspaper.

To emphasise, the diagram should not make one relax or underestimate the gravity of today’s terrorist acts – a grave threat that needs to be dealt with in all seriousness. Yet there is no reason not to take a leaf from history to inspire hope that at the end of it all, with concerted political will and collective human efforts, ISIS and its mutations will wither away and become another failed experiment. History is not on their side.

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The Hidden Triumph of the Egyptian Revolution

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Republished in openDemocracy

To those who cast doubt on the success of the Egyptian revolution. Step back, look around you, and reflect for a moment.

[From Alexandria’s Stanley neighborhood: “The People,” the eternal cry of the revolutionary voice that would follow it up with “Demand the fall of [insert your current oppressor here].”
[From Alexandria’s Stanley neighborhood: “The People,” the eternal cry of the revolutionary
voice that would follow it up with “Demand the fall of [insert your current oppressor here].”
As a result of the revolution, your social relations have been dramatically reconfigured. You have made new friends of strangers. You speak a new political language never known before. Your relationship to the state and public has been redefined. You have been involved in an unprecedented archival culture that narrates everything that has been happening. For every document, photograph and video will aid the next generation in resuming where you have finished off. For you cannot move forward without defining your relationship to the past.

Your understanding of history has been permanently altered. The 2011 revolution ruptured the political and social timeline giving you a new source of historical legitimacy. It gave you a critical juncture that emits a wave of vivid memories of sacrifices, victories, and betrayals of your hopes.

The 2011 revolution gave you a new validity to hold onto, and to rival any previous validity. No longer do you live in vain waiting for a future democratic “paradise”, you now realise that such a paradise needs to be shifted from the future to the present, from a goal to a process, to be instigated in small doses to the best of your human capacity.

The revolution in effect destroyed the previous dominant situation and cannot consolidate the new dominant situation, which can easily be clouded by the smokescreen of arrests and crackdowns.

That is what the revolution achieved. It did not arrive to give you a choice of regimes. It arrived to initiate a new beginning, one that is already on its course. You, among many, have been given a shared fundamental worldview that you unconsciously implement every day, and will determine the course of events in the present and, more theatrically, when the climate is ripe in your favour.

In a marvellous transformation, you can no longer recognise your pre-2011 self.

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A Frightening Vision: On plans to rebuild the Alexandria Lighthouse

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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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What Louis Armstrong taught Egypt and the Middle East about itself

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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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Despotism and the unmaking of the Egyptian Citizen (conference paper)

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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

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How New Beginnings Are Made – From Hannah Arendt to Alain Badiou (Lecture)

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Arendt Badiou

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.

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The Disorient Express: Egypt and the Language of Darkness

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sisiwater-1024x341

Originally published in the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

“Inevitably, our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine.” – Public intellectual Walter Lippman, 1922.

With emotions running high on the eve of the 1952 coup, one of Nasser’s colleagues panicked and was close to tears. Nasser said firmly: “Tonight there is no room for sentiment. We must be ready for the unexpected.” The colleague soon regained his composure and asked Nasser, “Why did you address me in English?” Nasser laughed and replied, “Because Arabic is hardly a suitable language in which to express the need for calm.”

Whether or not this is truly the case—and I am not convinced that it is—the Arabic language today is certainly living up to Nasser’s perceptions, as it is being used to intentionally bring about anything but calm. A schizophrenia increasingly pervades Egyptian colloquial speech, empowering people to express wildly irresponsible and impulsive views and actions and yet expect positive outcomes—sadly, one frequently encounters such behavior these days.

It is easy to see the extent to which media discourse has affected public conversation, even to the level of hearing a news anchor’s sentence be unconsciously mimicked word-for-word the next day by members of the public, such as, “Egypt is not ready for democracy and needs a strongman from the military to rule it” and “Why does Sisi even need a policy platform?” That is not to mention the media-inspired accusations and conspiracies that infiltrate next-day conversations. This might not be unusual in many parts of the world, but in Egypt, it can have severe or even fatal consequences—opinions are shaped and inflamed here by an inexhaustible imagination that can leap from suspecting every tourist of being a spy to nodding at (if not cheering for) a mass death sentence.

The road to the presidential election is now paved with fear and suspicion, harming society’s mental and economic well-being. The result is a climate that renders the vision for the country described in Sisi’s interviews, despite their melancholy and opaqueness, to appear as all that Egypt can hope for. The inevitable problem herein is that if it takes hysteria to bring a man to the presidency, it will take hysteria to continue to legitimize his presidency. A “platform” of security and stability cannot be maintained without consistently invoking the scarecrow of chaos.

This is an Egypt where an old lady feeds some birds, asks about my well-being, and in the same breath, tells me the massacre of over 600 people at Raba’a was necessary; an Egypt where a medical professional, trained to save lives, tells me that a death sentence for 683 people should be carried out, though he will feebly concede that it may be a “bit harsh.” My usual response to people with such opinions is for them to go personally tell the parents of the 683 (or other victims) why their children need to be executed. This usually causes something of a short-circuit in their imagination, but few actually change their minds on the matter.

At the core of such interactions lies an overlooked, foundational problem that can shed light on the nature of the public’s irrational and uncompromising stance towards anything that falls outside the state line. This problem involves the accumulation of individual anxieties stemming from experiences that are reported and imagined, rather than directly felt and observed. As a result, an uncontrollable, collective national resentment has evolved that extends, disturbingly, to the point of turning a blind eye towards, or actively whitewashing, unjustified deaths. This darkness spreads although—or perhaps because—few are actually encountering real life threats on any appreciable scale.

The train to Cairo

On trips to Cairo, I have come to find that interactions with the passengers I encounter on the Alexandria to Cairo train set the tone of my trip to the capital. Beside me most recently was an armed forces cadet and an Interior Ministry junior officer. As all the seats had already been sold, the three of us (and a few others) were forced to stand for the two-and-a-half hour trip.

The cadet abused his position to probe into my life, starting with the xenophobia-inspired question “Are you Syrian?” (I’m often mistaken for a Levantine because of my light complexion and altered Egyptian dialect from having lived abroad). He asked me why I was heading to Cairo, to which I replied that I was attending a funeral. He asked where in Cairo, and I replied Mohandessin. No answer could satisfy him. In fact, the stern way he first stated his occupation—“Armed Forces”—was a futile attempt to knock me off balance.

The Interior Ministry officer steered the conversation away from my destination, and we began talking about Australia. I was struck by the way that he casually spoke in a way that perfectly echoed statements mouthed off by state media. He asked me about my Ph.D. research and how Australia was different from Egypt. Then, he asked the predictable question: “What do they think of us?” I replied that they probably are not happy with Egypt at the moment, given that one of their citizens (journalist Peter Greste) is languishing in jail. I then turned the conversation to the use of torture by the Ministry. He tried to explain that torture was limited to specific cases, that it does not strike him as morally wrong, that it is not as a widespread as popularly thought, and that the global media exaggerates it—“We treat Brotherhood detainees with utmost respect.” On asking my religion (this questioning is second nature to Egypt), I was able to satisfy him that I am indeed a Muslim. Despite all the above, he then went onto explain how religion is not being applied correctly in the country.

Despite both of us being around the same age and engaging each other politely, the implicit feeling was that there was an invisible wall between us—a wall that was put there by historical and exclusionary hegemonic forces. In the end, we could only agree that Egypt is going through a generational struggle and that the young are disadvantaged throughout the county—I left with a feeling that I will cross paths with him again someday.

1984 in Tahrir Square

Standing outside the Hardees in Tahrir Square while waiting for a friend, I decided to take a number of photos to kill time. At a news stand, I saw George Orwell’s 1984 and snapped a photo of it, tweeting the words “a very timely piece of work.” In an ironic moment soon after, the police came by and, as a crowd of eight of them gathered, they pulled me in to their nearby, makeshift security office. They searched through the last photos on my phone and asked me countless questions. I explained the reasons behind each photo—that is a book cover I took an interest in; that was a road accident; that is graffiti; that is a panoramic shot of Tahrir. They grew alarmed at one photo of Muhammad Mahmoud Street where I had snapped a “creative” night shot through barbed wire. I somehow managed to reassure them that was just a harmless attempt at artistry.

Ultimately, the decision to let me go was not based on my words alone. After showing my Egyptian ID card and my University of Sydney card, the senior officer smiled and decided to let me go. The officer who pulled me, though, chose to take one last shot: “Are both of your parents Egyptian?” I answered: “Yes, my mother and father, may he rest in peace, are both Egyptian.” He looked at me sternly, handed back my cards, and responded, “May he rest in peace.” What most frightened me in this case was that somehow my heritage presumed my innocence, and doing a doctorate reassured them that I was “respectable.” What about others who are detained and who do not fit into this culture- and class-based security framework? The language of darkness has its subtexts.

The funeral of Bassem Sabry

The funeral I was attending in Mohandessin was that of Bassem Sabry. Having communicated with Bassem online but never having been able to meet him only further fuelled my anguish. The feeling was not unlike what I feel when thinking of the goals of the revolution that were always talked about and yet have remained elusive.

Beyond serving to mark the tragedy of losing a great human being, Bassem Sabry’s funeral was a surreal showcase of myriad key players involved in the darkness enveloping Egyptian politics now, fighting either for or against it or simply riding its wave—weary human rights workers, life-endangered journalists, veteran activists, opportunistic political figures, brown-nosing media personalities, despondent intellectuals. People who would normally be at each others’ throats were calmly gathered, though avoiding eye contact. It was like Sabry’s funeral invoked an uneasy truce for that one night as the Quranic recitations played on. At one stage, while seated next to TV comedian Bassem Youssef (who spoke in an ominous tone), I told him that he had little to worry about, as his fame gave him some sort of immunity. He replied: “You think two million Twitter followers can save me against a regime? A regime that arises to defend special interests will be more deadly than one that defends political interests.” He should know—he has been pushed onto the front lines against the insanity that has gripped the nation.

Sabry’s funeral was the funeral of part of the inheritance of the January 25 revolution as well—the language of hope. That night, the Cairo air was filled with the vibes of December 2010, yet unlike then, the political language of darkness has exposed a serious absence of empathy and forgiveness in the public discourse that endangers any aspirate for a positive outcome. It was as if empathy and forgiveness, Sabry’s defining characteristics, were two inheritances that had been lost.

Followers of the hyper-nationalist trend are just like those advancing religious fundamentalism, minus the beard. Both are showing themselves to be destructively intolerant—the former more so these days—and incapable of accommodating the rich and diverse tapestry of Egypt.

But is all hope lost?

As I came back to Alexandria, I decided to take a boat ride in the Mediterranean with friends to get away from all the madness—no Sisi posters out there on the water, thankfully—and to reflect on the past few weeks. The sailors who I encountered had this remarkable demeanor that made them seem detached from the political upheavals, and a glow of hope radiated from their faces. The simplicity and fortitude of the sailors made a mark on me. An explanation was soon coming.

I came back home to a friend who had shared a story of a distressed man who, in 1973, had sent a letter to author E.B. White saying that he had lost faith in humanity. The man received this response:

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock as a contribution to order and steadfastness. Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But, as a people, we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time, waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.”

I can think of many remarkable human beings who fight tirelessly for social justice, some of whom I met for the first time at the funeral. They, like many others, are battling to establish the right conditions to affect, positively, the volatility of human nature. It is not that Arabic is hardly a suitable language in which to express the need for calm. It is that the true definitions of freedom, social justice, and democracy have yet to triumph over the state’s definitions of these terms. This state of affairs, however, cannot endure for long.

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