Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ibn Yaaqub @ Blogspot is now Ibn Yaaqub @ Wordpress

I am transferring my blog to wordpress. Same time, same Ibn Yaaqub, new dot..

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Foreign Policy Association Egypt Blog

I am going to be doing some blogging for the Foreign Policy Association's Egypt Blog.

This is the url: My first post is titled : Egypt's Exporting of Gas to Israel not Likely to Change.

Gulf Arabs in Egypt

We were just sitting chatting with Mohammed the barber when I remembered that I saw him sitting with a Yemeni man the other day is new to the neighborhood. Mohammed told me that the man was here on vacation and was renting an apartment for a few weeks because it is cheaper than a room in a hotel.

Gulf Arabs come to vacation in Egypt quite often, and I have yet to hear an explanation of this phenomenon other than the one I am about to share. Mohammed told me that Gulf Arabs, especially the more convervative Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, come to Egypt to "go out with women." This means everything from just speaking to women to sleeping with them. In these countries, Mohammed explained, the women are all covered, most often wearing niqab. I wanted to question this stereoptype as I hear it often and I think it's generally useful to do so, so I asked Mohammed if he was sure that this was really the reason people from the Gulf come to Egypt. He said, "well yesterday when I was speaking with him he asked me the best place to fine women in Cairo, so yes, I am sure."

He added that to Gulf Arabs, Egypt is known as "أمريكا العرب." "The America of the Arabs."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Right Smack in the Face

One of my roommates teaches English once a week to a Somali living here in Egypt. The student's name is Mohammed and he is 18 years old. I have met him a couple of times and he is very nice, and he told my roommate today he has never gone to see a movie and would like to come with us next time we go.

I was curious about Mohammed's socio-economic status, as I do not know much about Somalia and was interested to know what type of family Mohammed comes from. My roommate said from what he understood, Mohammed is from a "middle class" Somali family, whatever that means. Not dirt poor but not wealthy on any level, either. So I asked what Mohammed's parents do for work. Guess what? His whole family is dead. His mother, his father, and his brothers and sisters. Killed in the current conflict in Somalia. Mohammed is here alone studying English, Arabic, and Islam, and shares an apartment with a few other guys living in Cairo.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More of the Same Old…Suzanne Tamim and Sexual Harassment

Today my program met with an Egyptian lawyer. She was very nice and told us a bit about the kinds of cases she deals with, which range from business to family law. Someone asked her to comment on the Suzanne Tamim case, something I have not been paying much attention to but I understand as follows: A wealthy Egyptian businessman and member of Egypt's Shura Council, Hisham Taalat Moustafa, ordered a hit on his estranged lover, Ms. Tamim, a well known Lebanese singer who was apparently engaged in a number of "relationships" with various men.

During the discussion, the lawyer offered her personal opinion on the case. She said that Suzanne Tamim deserved what she got for behaving in such an immoral manner. Yes, that she deserved to be murdered and have her throat slit because she was sleeping around. She said that a Muslim, Arab, proper girl should not behave this way. It was really that simple. The lawyer emphasized that this was her personal opinion and not that of the law.

My Egyptian professors were just as astonished as my classmates and I were, and I would not say this is representative of Egyptians as a whole, but this type of thinking certainly does exist here. And to be fair, I am sure there are people in the US who would feel the same way. In addition, how does this impact the effectiveness of the law? How do lawyers and judges who are mandated to uphold the law no matter their personal opinions deal with cases like this? This is probably a question for my uncle…

As usual, we also discussed the issue of sexual harassment in Egypt, which I know I talk a lot about but is hard to avoid when I constantly hear stories from my classmates about being harassed. This woman is an Egyptian, educated lawyer, and she flat out told us that she has never seen someone being sexually harassed in Egypt and that she does not consider it to be a problem. Furthermore, she explained that when it does happen, it is because the individual who commits the act cannot make a proper moral decision about what is right and wrong. That is, she does not think that sexual harassment is a societal problem but rather that it happens on a case by case basis involving people who just do not know any better. By that logic then, she is claiming that two-thirds of the male population in Egypt cannot figure out that you should not grab women’s private parts on the street. I don’t buy that. In my opinion, she is trying to place the blame on the individual in an attempt to deny that there are real problems in Egypt’s sexual culture.

I have heard all of this before and frankly I am getting a little sick of it. We have these meetings with prominent, influential Egyptians who are educated and who are doing good for their country, and for some reason, whether it is because they don’t want to paint a bad picture of Egypt in front of foreigners, or they actually think that there are no real problems here, they just keep feeding us bullshit.

I spoke with my professor about this later and she a made a good point which is that I should not get too upset or be so surprised when someone does not deliver the response I expect from them. Just because this woman is a lawyer, etc. does not mean that I should expect certain ideas or opinions from her. And vice versa, I might be surprised to hear what a less educated person has to say, as well.

And for the record, we have plenty of societal and cultural problems in America, too, so don’t think that I am picking on anybody. I just happened to be living in and studying Egyptian society and culture.

Patriotism For the First Time

This is a bit of a late post, but I never got a chance to publish it.

I have heard a lot of people say (and seen a lot of Facebook status messages) that they are "proud to be American for the first time" now that Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States. I understand that people have been incredibly unhappy the past eight years under the Bush administration, but does that mean one still cannot be proud to be American? I was proud when firefighters rushed into the burning World Trade Centers, knowingly giving their lives for their country and their countrymen. I was proud of the US olympic team while watching from a restaurant in Morocco. And I was proud to see Americans stand up and make their voices heard, regardless of the result.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Same 20 Questions

If you were an American wandering the streets of Cairo these days, you might be asked the following questions upon meeting Egyptians:

1. Where are you from?
2. What is your religion?
3. What is your name?
4. What do you think of Obama?
5. What do you think of Israel?
6. What do you think of Bush?
7. What do you think about the invasion of Iraq?
8. Can you teach me English?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Financial Crisis and the GM Bailout

So a friend on campus told me two interesting pieces of news today that I thought you all might like to hear. The first is that he overheard two Egyptians speaking at the US Embassy about how the Jews caused the financial crisis. It must be true, because Hamas thinks so as well. The second is that the Israel lobby is blocking the bailout of GM. Just thought you should know.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Suzanne Mubarak Denies there is Sexual Harassment in Egypt

That's pretty much it. Wow. (It's in Arabic, sorry)

$$$ + "Western Cultural Imperialism?" = Al-Khaleej

For all you IR, business, finance, art lovers out there, here's an article on the United Arab Emirates' booming economic, and apparently now cultural, influence.

A few choice quotes from the article:

"The whole intention is to make Abu Dhabi the hub of culture in the Middle East, and a cultural destination for the world. It's going brilliantly," she says.

Is he worried that the new Arab investors will be calling the shots?

Years of western culture and tradition are being transplanted to the desert, where the Emiratis are greedily slaking their thirst for these new experiences.

There's so much money around, so much appetite to bring new things to the Middle East that it can't be long before Abu Dhabi rivals Paris, Venice or Los Angeles - certainly that is the ambition.

This brought a couple of things to mind, I'll share after I finish listening to Ala Nasiya, insha Allah.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

American Movies

Egyptians love American movies. A lot. Our friend Mohammed who cuts our hair down the street was just telling me that he noticed a couple of things in American movies and wanted to know if they reflected American society. The first is that there are a lot of gangs in America, and the second is that if people are fighting in the street, for example, no one pays any attention. He must have just seen Goodfellas and Bad Boys 2.

Anyway, the point is that Egyptians get a lot of their ideas about America from our movies. Movies are very popular here, and most Egyptians do not read books. They read newspapers, but that's about it. I can talk more about this later, but let me just quote a statistic from my professor who is an Arabic literature critic. He said that the greatest number of books sold in Egypt in one year written by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian and possibly the most well-known Arab writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was 3000 copies.

Many Egyptian movies are pointed expressions of Egyptian society. For example, we just finished watching a movie starring Adel Imam, one of the most famous Egyptian actors, in which he plays a business man who at one point buys some poems, releases a book of these poems under his own name, buys all the copies of the book, and then pays some people off to win Egypt's best poet award. The film of course deals with corruption.

So when Egyptians see American movies, they often think they are a direct reflection of American society. Needless to say I told Mohammed that the mafia and gangs are not really the biggest problems facing American society these days, and that although people do not help each other enough, its not as if it never happens.

I'm not sure he was convinced, but he loves Sly Stallone.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gym Talk - "Obama, Race, and Israel"

I am going to stop numbering my "Gym Talks" because I foresee there will be many more to come.

A couple of guys in the gym asked me today what I thought of Obama. I won’t go through it here but I basically said that I like him although I do not think he is perfect (unlike some other people I know). Anyway, I asked them what they thought. One guy, pointing to his skin, said that Obama being elected was a big deal because brown people in the United States usually cannot be in higher jobs than white people. I explained that although there is racism in the US, we have Black, White, Asian, Arab, etc. presidents of companies, universities, etc. etc. I agreed however that having a Black president is a big deal.

Their biggest complaint about Obama was that they 1. “think that he is going to do things just for the Jews” and 2. “heard that he is biased towards Israel.” One of them mentioned Rahm Emanuel’s appointment in passing. I’ll be honest, the music was really loud, and one guy had a speech impediment, so I didn’t catch everything they were saying. From what I could tell though, they didn’t really go into much detail about their opinion or what they heard. I would venture to guess this is because they don’t really know why they think that Obama is biased towards Israel, and if he is why that might be. These guys are not dumb, but they don’t read The New York Times every day either (that is not a shot at The New York Times, it’s just an example).

I asked what they thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. They said what I hear most Egyptians say, which is that it will never end. We continued talking and they told me that there are good Israelis and bad Israelis just like there are good Egyptians and bad Egyptians, but that the governments are the ones that cause all of the problems because they say one thing and do another. In addition, they agreed with a two state solution.

I am not sure where the idea about race relations in the US came from, but I sure know where the ideas about Obama came from, because as many people have pointed out, the whole Arab world is distraught over Rahm Emanuel’s appointment. They see it as a death sentence for a Palestinian state. And the majority of news and opinion I hear here completely disregard anything else about Emanuel’s personality, experience, or qualification for the job.

I understand people’s concerns vis-à-vis Emanuel and Israel, but I do not think there is evidence that he is going to be bad for the Arab side. He played an important role at Oslo. And as I have said many times before, just because someone is pro-Israel does not mean that he does not believe in a Palestinian state.

The fixation with everything Israel and Zionist in the Arab media gets really frustrating. I have no problem with reporting on the closure of Gaza or on Israeli raids into the West Bank or whatever. These are things that are happening and they are important to people in this region. But the constant discussion of these issues at the expense of sometimes more important ones and the lack of balance in the sharing of opinions is really tiring.

Op-ed "Obama's Message Resonates in Egypt - To a Point"

Thanks again to Claude Salhani at the Middle East Times for publishing my piece "Obama's Message Resonates in Egypt - To a Point"

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Marc Lynch on Emanuel

Here is a good post by Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark, whose blog is listed below) about Rahm Emanuel's appointment as Obama's chief of staff.

One thing I like about Abu Aardvark is his focus on the importance of public diplomacy and strategic communication, two things with which I have a bit of experience and the importance of which I think is often overlooked.

Keith Olbermann Issues Special Comment on Passing of Prop. 8

This is not a topic that I usually cover, but I think Olbermann does a great job here. I was especially impressed with his emotion.

Here is the clip from Youtube.

November 12, 2008
Keith Olbermann Issues Special Comment on Passing of Prop. 8

In a week that has seen everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to Drew Barrymore speak out against California’s passing of Prop. 8 -- the ban on same-sex marriage -- MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann issued a passionate commentary on the passing of Prop. 8, asking supporters, “Why does this matter to you?”

Olbermann promised last week that he would be issuing a "special comment" on the passing of Prop. 8. Staying true to his word, on his show last night, he prefaced his report by saying that he has no personal stake in the issue of same-sex marriage. He said he was even hard-pressed to find one family member who is gay.

“To me, this vote is horrible…horrible,” Olbermann said. “Because this isn’t about yelling and this isn’t about politics. This is about the human heart, and if that sounds corny, so be it.”

Later in his report, Olbermann pointed to the many times throughout history in which America has had to redefine marriage in accordance with achieving civil rights.

“I keep hearing this term ‘redefining marriage.’ If this country hadn’t redefined marriage, black people still couldn’t marry white people. Sixteen states had laws on the books which made that illegal in 1967... 1967. The parents of the president-elect of the United States could not have married in nearly one third of the states in the country their son grew up to lead.”

Since Prop. 8 passed by a narrow majority last Tuesday, rallies have been held around the state protesting the voters’ decision. On Saturday some 12,500 people marched through Los Angeles's Silver Lake district protesting the same-sex marriage ban. (The Advocate)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Dry Cleaners

There are about 4 dry cleaners on our street. One of them, called Iran Clean (we live on the corner of Iran and Zahraa streets), usually gets our business. Every couple of months Iran Clean hires a new delivery boy, usually between the ages of 10 and 14. The kid working there now, who for the past few days has been wearing a blue Incredible Hulk hoodie, is very nice. He just brought my dry cleaning over, 2 shirts, which cost 7 Egyptian pounds ($1.27). I am not sure if I am paying khawaga (gringo) prices, but either way that is still pretty cheap. I had a ten dollar bill and gave it to him, and he said "I'll go get you change and come back." I told him to keep it. He was speechless. $0.54. I am a saint, I know.

Monday, November 10, 2008

DAM Concert

I went to see the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM this past weekend at the Sawy Cultural Center in Cairo. A really good Egyptian hip-hop group opened for them, rapping in mostly English and some Arabic. The beats were really good. I was impressed. The Egyptian group, called The Pharaohs, gave it up for their main inspiration, Tupac. I remember reading an article in the one sociology class I took in undergrad about the transnational nature of hip-hop and hip-hop culture. How teenagers in Japan, for example, were rapping, wearing baggy clothing, and listening to American hip-hop groups. It explained how they used hip-hop as an outlet for their societal frustration, for expressing themselves when there wasn’t always another available medium.

I know of the DAM guys first and foremost through a friend, Sameh, “the Arabic beatbox,” who often collaborates with them. Sameh stayed at my house for a weekend when I was in high school with a program called Friends of Open House. I haven’t really kept up with the friendships I made in the program or with the program itself, but the idea is to bring together Israeli and Palestinian children who live in Ramle, a mixed Israeli-Arab town in Israel, to talk about the issues.

Anyway, the concert was great and there was a lot of energy. Of course, DAM is a political group and politics are part of their songs and their concerts. I cringed during one of their most famous songs called “Who is a Terrorist? (Min Irhabi?).” The chorus goes like this:

Who's a terrorist?
I'm a terrorist?
How I am a terrorist
When you've taken my land?!
Who's a terrorist?
You're the terrorist!
You've taken everything I own
While I'm living in my homeland

This is a very strong message. But I think it is important to hear what people are saying and try to understand what they are feeling. They called Bush a terrorist, and they called “the occupation” a terrorist. I thought that was interesting. Instead of saying Israel is a terrorist state or the Jews are terrorists, they attacked the occupation. I think that says something. At the end of the show, they lifted their arms and made the peace sign. The group has collaborated with Israeli artists in order to bridge the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian youth through music.

I may not like or agree with everything these guys say, and their message is not always the most positive, but instead of blowing themselves up, instead of firing rockets, they are rapping and making music.

Here is another interesting article on DAM and their relationship with Israeli rapper Subliminal.

Egypt's Top Judge

My program was fortunate enough a few weeks ago to secure a meeting with Egypt’s top judge, Zakaria Abdel Aziz, head of the Judges Club. The Club is an institution to which all Egyptian judges belong, a type of judicial union/syndicate in Egypt, though I am not sure its exact legal status. Regardless, Abdel Aziz came to speak to us about his experience leading this group, his unprecedented legal opposition to the government (Unlikely Reformers: Egyptian Judges Challenge the Regime), and about women's legal issues in Egypt, an Egyptian man just being put in jail for sexual harassment in a landmark case(Egyptian Gets Jail for Sex Assault in Milestone Case).

Abdel Aziz began by giving us an interesting history of the Judges Club. He talked about when it was formed, how it works, and how it has historically dealt judicially with Egyptian politics, through times of both relative freedom and of intense political oppression. He was supposed to also speak to us about women’s issues in Egypt, but after giving the history of the Club, instead opened the floor up to questions. A student asked about the relationship between Egyptian law and Islamic law, called Sharia. A very good and fair question, as Egypt’s law is commonly known to be a mix of French civil law as a result of France’s colonization of Egypt, and elements of Sharia law, as Egypt is a Muslim country. Apparently the common knowledge in this case is wrong, as the judge explained that Sharia has nothing to do with Egyptian law. This is plainly false. Even my professor was surprised by this answer.

Abdel Aziz

The judge then went on, frankly to an astonished audience, explaining how although Egypt does not follow Sharia law, it is the best and most advanced type of judicial system and, yes I am serious, would even be a good system for the United States to adopt. He explained that the Jews failed morally under laws given to them in the Torah, and hence God sent another messenger to his people, Jesus, to give them new laws to follow. The Christians, of course, failed in this respect as well, leading God to send the Prophet Muhammad with the laws of the Quran. His proof of this was that it says in the Quran that Muhammad is the last messenger of God, bringing God’s final and complete message.

Slightly shocked, I thought I might change the subject and ask him about something we were supposed to be discussing. My question was “Do you have a comment on the recent ruling regarding the sexual harassment case, and what do you think is the future of this issue in Egypt politically, culturally, and socially?” I received a two part answer. The first part was that yes, there is a problem with sexual harassment in Egypt, but there are these same problems all across the world. In fact, there is an international phenomenon of moral decline, which is causing this problem. Even in America you have these problems. Next, he told me that if I go up to a woman on the street in Egypt and say something to her such as “oooh, you are so pretty,” or hiss at her, then I will get thrown in jail for a week because that is Egyptian law. Sexual Harassment in Egypt really deserves its own post, in fact, one could write an encyclopedia about it, but let me just say that it is sometimes the police officers here who are doing the harassing, and when my classmate got spit on the other day, and my other classmate got her crotch grabbed multiple times in broad daylight, no one went to jail.

So unfortunately, what could have been an incredibly rewarding discussion on the challenges to the judicial system in Egypt turned out to be, for lack of a better term, complete and utter bullshit. My classmates and I were not only disappointed, but angry as well.
What the judge talked about is indicative of a lot of social and cultural problems in Egypt. First, the view that Islam is the be all and end all, that is has the answers to everything, and that one is silly not to embrace it, is manifested in a myriad of contexts and as this educated, influential judge has proven, at all levels of society. Second is the lack of responsibility in Egyptian culture. Even in the Egyptian dialect, one does not say “I missed the bus.” The actual translation would be “the bus missed me.” The judge, who of all people should be willing to take responsibility and admit that Egypt has a problem with sexual harassment, blamed it on the rest of the world and of course, which brings me to my final point, brought the US into the discussion. I realize that because I am American, Egyptians may whole-heartedly want to discuss America with me, or relate what they are saying to the US because they think it might be useful for me or help elucidate a point. But even though the sex that Egyptians see in US movies certainly has an effect on their sexual behavior, it really is not an excuse for the terrible sexual harassment problems in Egypt.

It is a sad state of affairs in my opinion when the man who should be representing rule of law, accountability, and the democratic process refuses to deal with important issues facing his country and preaches his religion in place of a constructive discussion on the role of the judiciary. Not to mention he didn’t answer my question.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Power of the Judicial System

My Uncle Gary has a PhD from Northwestern in psychology, received a law degree from Vanderbilt while in his 50's, and is a ranked US chess player. He now works as a public defender in Nashville, Tennessee.

"Teen is Acquitted of Double Murder"

I don't know if this kid is guilty or not. Neither does my uncle. The point is that in the United States of America one has the right to a fair trial and is innocent until proven guilty. No matter if your bloody fingerprints are at the scene of the crime.

I am proud of my uncle for doing what he does. To me, this is a great example of what being an American is all about. Serving your country, fighting for justice, and doing what is right, no matter the circumstances.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


My previous post brings me to another point, which is the demonization of the word Zionism. Not just the word, of course, but the concept of the state of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. "Zionism is Racism" conferences, Zionism = Apartheid, etc, etc. Most of us have heard it all before. When I broach the topic of religion with Egyptians (which does not happen that often), and especially friends and colleagues in Middle East studies or in my program, we end up talking about Zionism. Let me just give you a quick example. A European friend I met in Egypt, upon finding out what my religion is, literally took a step back and said, "wait, are you a Zionist?"

Opinions in the Classroom

There is a lot of talk about biases, allegiances, expressing opinions, etc. in the academic world, especially in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Many on the pro-Israel side accuse Middle East studies professors, associations, and students in American and other academic circles as being one-sided, too pro-Palestinian, or anti-Israel. There is a lot of truth to these accusations. However, the issue is not black and white and there are differences between being pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel, less supportive of Israel than your neighbor, anti-Semitic, left-wing, etc. It is not useful to paint everyone with the same brush, nor is it useful to attack people solely because their opinions are different than your own. There are lines, and when these lines are crossed, people should be held accountable. However, for example, people need to understand that just because someone does not support Israel to the same extent as they do, that does not necessarily make that person anti-Israel.

On that note, and the real reason I began writing this post, is because I wanted to share something that happened in the classroom today. I hope to write more on this later, but of course Obama talk is very prevalent at AUC and around Cairo these days, and my professor was asking us if we were happy that Obama was elected. Of course the class was unanimously thrilled. However, one student, who is a very nice woman though she and I disagree on a lot of things, decided to add "yes, but he offered Rahm Emanuel the job of chief of staff, and he is a little too Zionist, so that is not good."

Now, now. We are all entitled to our opinions. However, I was upset by this comment. First of all, I found it ironic that this same woman who was literally jumping up and down with excitement the day of the election in anticipation of Obama's win, who did not come to school the day after because she stayed up all night watching the results, who told me that anyone who would vote for McCain is "retarded," is already criticizing Obama's decision making skills. I thought he was supposed to be perfect? I support Obama, but I was never under the illusion (or delusion) that he is perfect or that once he was elected, all of America's problems were going to just disappear into thin air.

More importantly, the discussion of Rahm Emanuel's politics, history regarding Israel, his father, etc, and being upset about these things I have no problem with. However, to me, the comment made in class served no purpose and was out of context of the discussion, unnecessary, and inciting. Personally, I try not make comments that I think could be inciting or might offend other people even if such a sentiment might be warranted based on my opinion. Especially in a classroom, especially when we are not really talking about politics, and especially when I know there are other people around who might disagree with it and/or find it offensive.

Not to mention the fact the Emanuel is the fourth ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, and by that logic is qualified for the job. Israel is not the only issue he will be dealing with and hence should not be qualified or disqualified for the job solely based on that criteria.

Anyway, these are the types of comments I hear often in Middle East studies academic circles.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

In a few hours, history will probably be made. I have been reading lately about the American Revolution. I wonder what the Founding Fathers would have thought about today. I hope they would be proud. These men, along with their wives and families, and the thousands of other Americans who contributed, who worked, who fought, and who died, stood up and were counted. These were ordinary people. Booksellers, farmers, and fishermen. Many of them owned slaves. Today, Americans can still stand up and be counted. Today, ordinary Americans can still make a difference.

Living abroad in Egypt has obviously made me think about the United States and what it means to be American. People here are amazed that the President only serves two terms, and consider Americans lucky that they can not only afford to take the time out of their workdays to vote, but that their vote will actually be counted. America is not perfect. She will never be. The Founding Fathers realized soon after America was born that the struggle for freedom is never ending. This is our challenge as Americans, to always strive for freedom. We owe this to the people who built our nation, and we owe it to ourselves.

I am so proud to an American.