Saturday, 11 July 2015

Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter

 Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter
This isn't one of those “how I met Omar sharif” stories, although I did, in effect, meet him. It's about the Egypt that Omar Sharif represented, the cosmopolitan, open, tolerant society it always was until suddenly, it wasn't. It's the Egypt portrayed in The Jewish Quarter, an Egyptian television miniseries set in 1948. But that is not the only connection. Omar Sharif’s real name was Michel Chalhoub.
But to backtrack for a second: every year during Ramadan, when postprandial spectators are a captive audience in front of the television set, there is one breakout miniseries that reflects the zeitgeist of the the year. This year it is The Jewish Quarter, which has the audacity to Egyptian Jews fully integrated in 1948 Egyptian society, living side by side in close quarters with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in  a modest neighborhood  of cloth merchants, dairymen, pickle sellers and cafĂ© owners called The Jewish Quarter.
Ali, a Muslim military officer, and Leila, a Jewish saleswoman in the upscale Jewish department store Cicurel, are neighbors and childhood sweethearts. The religious difference might pose a problem- particularly for the girl’s mother, who would object even to a Jew of a different sect-but ultimately it should not be an insurmountable obstacle. Until, that is, the 1948 war with Israel begins, and the community is set asunder, dividing families and pitting neighbor against neighbor.
In spite of some inaccuracies and anachronisms,  the series clearly makes an effort to show Jews going about their business, their prayers at the synagogue, their kosher butcher, with mutual respect and understanding from their neighbors. All of the characters, Muslim, Coptic or Jewish, are shown as complex, capable of both tolerance and prejudice, patriotism or misplaced loyalties. The line is drawn rather sharply between Egyptian Jews and Israelis. The single all-out villain in the drama is a Muslim.
So what does this miniseries indicate for the political zeitgeist in Egypt? For one thing, it glorifies the military, no surprise. But it is also significant as a step in the rehabilitation of the Egyptian Jewish community in the eyes of younger generations of Egyptians brainwashed by Islamist rhetoric.
So what is the connection between The Jewish Quarter and Omar Sharif, aka Michel Demetri Chalhoub? He was born Christian but he converted to Islam when he married Egypt’s sweetheart movie star, Faten Hamama, who was Muslim. In those days, back in the fifties, it didn't matter. Would he have been likely to have lived in The Jewish Quarter? No, because it was a very modest neighborhood, and Omar Sharif, like middle class or wealthy people of any religion, lived in upscale Garden City or Zamalek or wherever they could afford; there was no such thing as a ghetto. The connection is the era evoked by Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter, a truly cosmopolitan, tolerant, modernizing Egypt that once was and might be again.
Oh, and where did I meet Omar Sharif? At a family wedding, where the bride’s father was a schoolmate at Victoria College, and then, twenty years later, at the Cairo Opera, where he was charming and tactful enough to pretend to recognize me. May he rest in peace, but not so the Egypt he knew and loved.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Daesh: Don't Call Them ISIS

John Kerry does it. London Mayor Boris Johnson thinks about it. Queen Rania of Jordan gives impassioned speeches explaining why we should all do it. As she argues, they are neither Islamic nor a state. Don't call them ISIS or ISIL or whatever self-styled aggrandizing title they choose to call themselves. Deny them that prestige, and deny them a recruiting tool. Just call them Daesh.
What is that? It's a sort of acronym in Arabic; "sort of" because acronyms are not used in Arabic, just abbreviations. For instance, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known as SCAF in English, was commonly abbreviated in the Egyptian media as "The Supreme." In Arabic, therefore,  Daesh is intentionally a pejorative, delegitimizing label used by their enemies and victims in the Arab world- and it's worth remembering that the victims of Daesh's unspeakable brutality are overwhelmingly fellow Arabs and Muslims.
So what's in a name? Does it matter if we in the West and the Western media call them Daesh rather than Islamic State? Yes, it does.  Deny them that association with the religion they give a bad name to, and deny them a recruiting tool. So come on, Mayor Johnson, just do it.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Back to the Future: Prospects for Democracy in Postrevolution Egypt

So pleased there was a record turnout for my talk on Egypt at the Carolina Friends of the Foreign Service luncheon today. But the credit goes entirely to the interest in the topic taken by this highly experienced association of former diplomats, Stare department heads, including Hodding Carter III, elected officials, and others. They made for penetrating questions and courteous listeners.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Chapel Hill Muslim Student Shootings

“Chapel Hill”. The first time I heard it used like that: not Chapel Hill student shootings, just Chapel Hill, as an immediately recognizable reference in the media, like ‘Ferguson’ or ‘Waco,’ as a byword- the first time I heard this it came as a shock. Particularly when I’m overseas, I tend to idealize Chapel Hill as the ‘Southern part of Heaven’, that uniquely liberal and diverse enclave in conservative North Carolina, the town with more PH.D.’s per capita than Cambridge, MA, situated as it is at the crossroads of three great universities: UNC, Duke, and NC State. 
And now this. Around the world, the name Chapel Hill coupled with the senseless triple murders of three local college students, promising and optimistic young people who also happened to be openly Muslim American. I never met them or their families, but I know them: the model minority, a little more driven than your average student, from immigrant, educated Middle East families with high expectations for achievement, surrounded by a strong, supportive faith community. 
In most ways, all-American. Deah Barakat was basketball mad and copied his idol Stephen Curry’s pose in a photograph, but he was also a serious young man dedicated to service who used his UNC Dental School training to help underprivileged people in this country and abroad. He looked up to his older sister Suzanne, a San Francisco physician. His wife Yusor and her sister Razan, daughters of a Clayton psychiatrist, were an aspiring dentist and architect, respectively; ambitious, bright young women who could have been Amal Alamuddin Clooney in an Islamic veil, if they had lived.  
I was never ‘that sort of Muslim,’ as someone I knew once put it: the easily identifiable sort who wore a headscarf and sent their children to Islamic Sunday school. But I knew many of them, and like the Barakat and the Abu-Salha children, they felt confident that they belonged in Raleigh or Chapel Hill. If they had anything to prove, they believed their achievements would speak well for their community.
Like many religious minorities, they made a conscious effort to reach out and to represent their community among society at large.  According to Rabbi Greyber of Beth El in a letter to his congregation, his colleague Rabbi Solomon of Beth Meyer in Raleigh knew Deah, Yusor and Razan quite well. “All three were very active in inter-religious affairs including an interfaith Habitat for Humanity, and Farris Barakat, the older brother of Deah Barakat, attended Beth Meyer Synagogue services and, with the Barakat family, recently opened his home to Beth Meyer congregants to share the breaking of the Ramadan fast.”
These three young people were the best and brightest of their community. What a waste. And why? This is not the place to discuss whether the murders were motivated by a parking dispute or bigotry, or a toxic mixture of both. Deah Barakat’s articulate, poised sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, points to the role of a media culture that relentlessly portrays all Muslims as violent terrorists, and cites as an example films like American Sniper.
What that film refuses to show is that Chris Kyle, the real-life sniper of the story, was not killed by an Iraqi or Muslim but by a fellow white American veteran at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas. Eddie Ray Routh, a former marine, is accused of turning on Kyle and another friend and shooting them dead. His motive? According to one witness, Routh shot them ‘because they wouldn’t talk to him.’ Think about that for a moment. Then think about this. Craig Hicks took the lives of three young people because, according to his wife, he didn’t like them sharing the visitor’s parking spot with him. Is that all it takes to make an armed white man turn killer in today’s America? And is that particularly reassuring to those who would dismiss the Chapel Hill murders as ‘just a parking dispute’ rather than a hate crime?
The families of the three student victims, or ‘our three winners’, as they prefer to call them, in true American style, are understandably seeking to assuage their unspeakable pain with the hope that some positive legacy might come of this tragedy, some re-examining of prejudice, some coming together of communities. And indeed, Stephen Curry, the basketball star whom Deah Barakat idolized, expressed a desire to honor his murdered fan. Rabbi Solomon of Beth Meyer, whose congregants Farris Barakat had invited into his home, is setting up a discretionary fund to help the families of the three victims or the charities of their choice. At the very least, what photos of the smiling faces of the three young people seem to be calling for, is the hope that America looks past the headscarf or the headline and sees Muslims as neighbors, not the eternal and suspicious Other.