Middle East Providence Published Articles

Islamism: Contextualist or Essentialist? Or Both?

My new article for Providence Magazine.

Islamism Contexualist Essentialist
Photo Credit: Mosque in Tunisia. By Tarek, via Flickr.

In an excellent review of Shadi Hamid and Will McCants’ Rethinking Political Islam, Olivier Roy says there are generally two ways to think about Islamism.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he first briefly introduces three important shockwaves—the Arab Spring, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS)—that have affected the debate.

As Hamid and McCants write, “After decades speculating on what Islamists would do when they came to power, analysts, academics—and Islamists themselves—finally have an answer. And it is confusing.”

The confusion tends to be filtered into analysis based on one’s predisposition.

There is a contextual approach, as Roy explains: “The policies and practices of Islamist movements are driven less by ideology than by events and sees such groups as reactive and adaptive.” He elaborates:

Contextualists believe that Islamist groups seek to adapt to circumstances and country-specific norms (for example, by recognizing the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco). The groups’ main goal is to survive as coherent organizations and political actors. And their use of religious rhetoric is often little more than “Muslim-speak”—a way to express a unique identity and articulate grievances, especially against the West.

There is also an essentialist approach: “Islamists are fundamentally ideological and that any concessions they make to secularist principles or institutions are purely tactical.”

A corollary to this argument is the idea—extolled by critics of Islamism but also some of its adherents—that Islamic theology recognizes no separation between religion and politics, and therefore an authentic Islamist cannot renounce his ideological agenda in favor of a more pragmatic or democratic approach.

The presentation is skillful, and after researching Islamist movements and parties across the Muslim world, Roy offers a conclusion…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Providence Magazine.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: New Proposals

Flag Cross Quran


Egypt is debating significant changes. Give her the wisdom to walk the right path.

Some have proposed the constitution be amended to allow the president a six-year term. Others say leave the constitution alone, and implement it.

Some have proposed the marriage age be lowered to 16 to legalize longstanding practice. Others say there are too many Egyptians already, and it is backwards.

Some (in Tunisia) have proposed inheritance be divided equally between the sexes, and marriage made open to non-Muslim men. The Azhar says it is against Islamic sharia, and condemns it.

Some have proposed the train system be mechanized. No one opposes, but who will fund it?

God, your discernment is needed.

Grant the president wisdom to achieve agenda, and the people a choice in approving their leader.

Grant Egypt wisdom in population control, and women a choice in the details of marriage.

Grant the Azhar wisdom in Islamic interpretation, and Tunisia a choice in religion and state.

Grant the ministry wisdom with limited resources, and funders the choice of both safety and gain.

God, develop Egypt to function well – government, institutions, and citizens.

In all the above, lead her. Changes must come, may they be the right ones.




Egypt: African Handball Champion

Egypt Handball

Congratulations to the Egyptian national handball team, for winning its sixth continental title on Saturday.

While the national soccer team has slipped in quality since the revolution, the handball team holds steady as one of Africa’s best, defeating Tunisia in a hard-fought 21-19 final on home soil.

Twelve nations took part in the competition, but only three have ever won the title. The sport is dominated by North Africa, with Tunisia and Algeria the other traditional powers.

But this year, Angola shocked defending champion Algeria to claim third place. It was Egypt’s first title since 2008, and now qualifies with Tunisia for the world championships in France.

Many Americans are not familiar with the sport of handball, but I highly recommend it for its fast-paced strategy and athleticism. So also with squash, another sport at which Egypt excels.

But while Egypt takes pride in its success in these sports, it is soccer that moves the national consciousness. A revival on the pitch could significantly contribute to lifting the country’s spirits.

But while waiting, celebrate with Egypt a considerable accomplishment.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Neighbors

Flag Cross Quran


You desire peace not just for Egypt. Honor also her neighbors, that all might live in peace together.

For two doors down, a nation is in mourning. A terrorist attack on Tunisia’s tourists threatens to undermine stability there. Comfort them, God, and give them resolve.

Resolve to defeat a terrorist menace. Resolve to hold firm to a democratic path. Resolve to see the region cooperate.

For Tunisia’s struggle is not hers alone. While she has sent more fighters to Syria than any other nation, the ones who attacked her trained in Libya. Civil war in both nurtures chaos and extremism, threatening Tunis and Cairo and others beside.

For the sake of both countries, and above all for her own people, lighten Libya’s burden, God. Establish legitimate government, to extend legitimate security. Tighten borders, but open societies. Give wisdom to outsiders who want things put straight. Give wisdom to Libyans, to straighten themselves.

To Egypt’s east, another nation needs peace. Israel does not suffer the volatility of the region, but her recent elections showcase disharmony between peoples. Guide them, God, and give them resolve.

Resolve to defeat a terrorist menace. Resolve to hold firm to a democratic path. Resolve to reconcile her differing peoples.

Reconcile, God, her Arab and Jew. Set these citizens in equality to serve jointly their nation.

Reconcile, God, the Palestinian and Israeli. Give just solutions to their disjointed hopes; inspire just leadership to enact them together.

Honor Israel and Syria, Tunisia and Libya. And with them Egypt, for a region both stable and strong. Give each one sovereignty, to bless her neighbor. Together may they live in peace.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: National List

Flag Cross QuranGod,

What value is there in praying over the squabbling of politicians?

President Sisi gathered representatives of the political parties and asked them to agree on one national list to present to the people for upcoming parliamentary elections. Many have met to discuss, but so far they have fully failed.

But does it matter to you? Is the request valid? Is their unity desired?

At present there are four main blocs. One consists of politicians and businessmen related to the old regime. Another comes from old school opposition figures. A third gathers newer parties born after the revolution.

The final bloc is the Salafi Nour, currently awaiting judicial rulings on its continuing legality as a ‘religious’ party. To date, they have been ignored in the efforts of the first three to negotiate a common non-Islamist list.

But the first three blocs are fluid, and in the background is the success of Tunisia’s non-Islamists to squeeze out the Brotherhood-like Nahda.

If only for the prayers of Egypt’s non-Islamists, should newer revolutionaries ally with old regime figures? Is this betrayal of their birthright, or recognition of greater threat?

Guide all negotiations to what is right and best, God. But for all the bickering, these parties fight over a twenty percent slice of parliament. The rest goes to independents who may receive support of different parties, but lie outside their sphere.

God, you inhabit messy spaces. You concern yourself with man’s foibles. However often the manner is outside your preference, it is here your will is made known.

Parliament may determine a lot.

At the least it is necessary for Egypt’s stability. Therefore, God, let it come. As for its members, give Egypt good men who will serve – both constituencies and principles.

Whatever share the parties have in this measurement, honor them accordingly. If they unite over a consensual national list, honor their sacrificed interests. If they divide over core issues, honor their commitment to platform.

And if anything else, may they bear the consequences of selfish ambition.

Squabble they may, and it may be necessary. But guide each one’s concern to be part of your list, their names found in the Book of Life.

Here there is no bloc, no negotiation, no election – only grace. May every politician act accordingly.



Sisi, ISIS, Tunisia, and Arab Spring Values

Sisi - ISIS

In a recent article at Foreign Policy, Iyad el-Baghdadi described the near-eternal and present dichotomy hoisted upon the Middle East: Support a dictator, or his overthrow via violent Islamism. He finds an ironic symbolism in that the names of Sisi and ISIS are spelled backwards, and describes their evils as parallel.

Near the end of the article he reasserts the hope that motivated many in early 2011:

The Arab Spring is about believing that we don’t have to eternally choose between these two evils, and that we can present a real alternative. Arab Spring activists come from across the political spectrum, but they share a belief in fundamental individual rights, coexistence within one political system, and an open marketplace for ideas. These are the people who represent me — and whom I hope to have successfully, if briefly, represented in a public forum.

These are worthy values, and the author was briefly critical of others beside Sisi and ISIS in his critique:

Both extremes are born out of the same twentieth-century political culture that gave us authoritarian interpretations of just about every ideology: authoritarian Islamism, authoritarian nationalism, authoritarian socialism, and even, yes, authoritarian liberalism. Both view human rights not as inviolable or inherent, but as granted by the state, which can then reduce or suspend them at will. And both envision a state in which some people have less rights than others.


Both sides have a deeply exclusionary, “with us or against us” worldview that manifests itself in a profound refusal to coexist with others. In the run-up to the 2012 elections, we saw the Mubarak-associated figure Shafik hint at banning Islamist parties should he get elected; during Morsi’s term we then watched Islamist discourse squeeze the space for civil society.

It would be worthy to dialogue with Baghdadi (the author, not the caliph!) about his opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, for his criticism of them is far less severe, at least in this article. Indeed, he has tweeted and written prolifically, so his analysis is available.

But within the opening quote and listing of values comes a very poignant highlight: the open marketplace of ideas. Egypt did experience this open marketplace during its revolutionary period. With full respect to the diverse forces influencing public opinion, Egyptians overwhelmingly chose the Brotherhood and Salafis over the vision Baghdadi presents. Then, perhaps over and against his vision again, they overwhelming rejected Morsi.

The system that could tolerate this pendulum was never established, and perhaps this is Baghdadi’s lament. If left alone, would the Brotherhood have helped its establishment? Or are they just a milder version of ISIS, focused on a long term Islamization inconsistent with Baghdadi’s vision?

One problem is that the system the Brotherhood helped establish through their 2012 constitution enshrined an illiberalism antithetical to this vision. Shadi Hamid has explored this theme in his writing. Islamist organizations tend to moderate while in opposition, but then revert to their extremes when in power. But if such an illiberalism is what people vote for, if it wins the marketplace of ideas, how does it square with Baghdadi’s desire for fundamental individual rights?

He does not want to be forced back into a dichotomy, and this is noble. But would his vision have been able to triumph over time, allowing the people to reject Morsi four years later? Or eight? Or…

Perhaps, though the argument of urgency on the part of anti-Islamists is well known. To summarize, the Brotherhood would do all it could to sink its teeth into the existing system, to gain control of its levers and use it to their own advantage.

Fair or unfair, there is a distinction between the two current camps in the Egyptian struggle. The ideology of the Brotherhood — at its end goal, not necessarily through its stages or current rhetoric — does not support Baghdadi’s vision.

  • Fundamental individual rights: These are curbed by sharia, however variously defined.
  • Open marketplace of ideas: There are religious norms not allowed to be touched.
  • Coexistence within one political system: …

Here is the rub, and am I trying to find a comparison. A socialist versus capitalist vision of the economy can be very divergent. But European nations have navigated a path that has allowed various governments to traverse the path in different directions.

But how much allowance can there be for a democratic versus communistic approach to the state? Should the open marketplace of ideas, ostensibly welcomed in a democracy, allow momentum to build that would overthrow the system that enshrines it?

This later comparison seems closer to the struggle in Egypt. Liberal forces in Egypt have enshrined liberal values (to a degree) in the constitution, however much they recognize the violations used in putting down pro-Morsi protests, understanding also the violations on the part of certain protestors.

The question for this camp is if it will tolerate, or be able to resist, the continual violation. That is, will they accept reversion to Baghdadi’s dichotomy? The Mubarak regime held forward liberal values for thirty years — and all the while implemented a state of emergency that made it easy to circumvent them.

In all this, perhaps Baghdadi, like many, will find hope in Tunisia. The United States, two centuries ago, began a political experiment that removed religion from the sphere of the state, setting up a system meant to guard liberty and freedom. It has endured numerous contradictions along the years, but has been largely successful.

Now, Tunisia is beginning a political experiment that is seeking to integrate a religious, Islamist element. Will it be successful? Many Tunisians are worried, for in creating a system that allowed coexistence they had to beat back Islamist efforts to encode religion into the constitution. Efforts to do so in 2012 with the Brotherhood were not successful – the Brotherhood chose even more conservative Salafis as their partner. But the Brotherhood and the Tunisian Nahda come from the same family tree.

Is Nahda simply postponing a greater Islamizing goal? But more to the point, perhaps, of Baghdadi’s hope: Will the system created allow for the emergence and entrenchment of his Arab Spring values?

Consider the recent anti-liberal political moves of Turkey’s Islamist Erdogan, after an extended period of winning democratic elections. Will Tunisian Islamists consistently nudge and needle against values they have temporarily accepted? Will fear of a similar Islamist agenda lead to preemptive crackdown against them? Time will tell.

But the experiment is on, and perhaps Baghdadi and other activists frustrated with the dichotomy have a fledgling example of a third way.


Islamists on the Demise of Islamism

From the Hudson Institute, a very long but very worthy survey of Islamist reflection on current events in Egypt and the fall of Morsi. In addition, it translates in full three current articles on the subject by leading non-Egyptian Islamists, and here is an excerpt from Tunisia’s Rashid al-Ghannouchi:

What is called “political Islam” is not in a state of decline. Rather it is in the process of correcting its mistakes and preparing for a new phase, which is not far away, of the practice of better governance. It does not need decades to recover larger opportunities that await it in the time of open-source media spaces, and in the face of coup projects which nakedly lack any moral, civilizational or political cover.

They (Islamists) are deeply rooted movements in their societies carrying the values of peaceful democratic revolution and the values of communalism as a substitute for individuality in a successful marriage of the values of Islam and the values of modernity.

Two thoughts: First, as the Muslim Brotherhood was scrambling to after the fall of Morsi but before the full scale crackdown witnessed now, many Brothers admitted vaguely that their movement had ‘made mistakes‘. But this seemed less an admission as a plea for allies, and was rejected wholescale by the revolutionary forces who believed the Brotherhood betrayed them.

Above, Ghannouchi argues that this current trial is producing the reflection necessary to achieve better governance, chief of which is a spirit of inclusion. Perhaps he speaks confidently because of Tunisia’s experience, in which Islamists engaged in political give-and-take to produce a consensual constitution which falls short of Islamist hopes.

But if Egyptian Islamists are engaged in this reflection it is not demonstrated in the public discourse of Brotherhood leadership, mostly abroad. Instead the focus is on a full return of Morsi’s legitimacy and a prosecution of all involved in the ‘coup’. Perhaps this is popular rhetoric from which they can retreat at the moment of success, but it continues the problem from which their movement suffers: doublespeak.

For at the same time Muslim Brothers are reaching out to other revolutionary movements uncomfortable with the behavior of the army. They might find among them allies, but having had full opportunity to be inclusive, choosing instead to discard them at the moment of success, why should these groups trust them again? Now under pressure, have they really reformed? Especially when faced with Ghannouchi’s vision, stated in a 2009 article also translated by the author:

Nothing can stop the advance of Islamism:

which makes the task of empowering it a matter of time and standing in its way is pure stubbornness to the ways of history and society… attempting to stop it only results in more extremism and explosion. Islamism is not limited to a party or a group, the Islamic project is broader than being reduced to a party or a governance program, governance is merely a part of its project, and is not the greater part or the most important.

Would-be allies are invited to participate in the governance of the state, but only in light of the inevitability of full, Islamist triumph. It is not simply a matter of ‘why trust them again’. The Islamist goal, as articulated by Ghannouchi, is one of ideological domination. Within this vision is good governance and general morality, yes, but not ultimate plurality. If other revolutionary groups have a different vision, why should they enable?

Second, I wonder if Ghannouchi’s vision is anachronistic. He claims in the first quote above that political Islam is the union of Islam and modernity, but does he seek to inherit something that no longer exists? Western analysts say that civilization is now in post-modernity. Perhaps they are wrong and even defining the difference is beyond the scope of this reflection.

But have Islamists struggled a century to achieve a goal that is now but a vapor? If modernity was the effort to ideologically define the rapid industrial, educational, and technological advances of mankind – leaving many behind – post-modernity is an admission of this ideological failure. Islamists might say, ‘Wait, you haven’t tried us yet,’ but is the world willing to experiment? Or rather, by asserting a single ideology, worse, wrapped in religion, are they flailing against a general rejection of grand claims? Plurality, especially in the West, is the non-ideology of the day.

Can Islamism speak to this, or is it hopelessly behind the times? These are questions only, but Ghannouchi prompts them. Do even his hopeful answers miss the mark?


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Assassination

Flag Cross Quran


The gunshot rang out from Tunisia, but its reverberations are felt here too. There, an outspoken opponent of Islamists was killed outside his home; here, a sheikh pronounced legality on the same for Egypt’s opposition, calling them out by name.

Egyptian Islamist politicians immediately condemned the killing, even those whose organizations committed assassinations in the past. Many called to prosecute the sheikh, and the president spoke firmly against any political violence. But is all well?

No. On the small scale, younger activists have been killed in and around the various protests at Tahrir and the presidential palace. While clashes have been ongoing, their mourning friends give evidence they were targeted. Some blame the Islamists, but here all firm evidence is lacking.

God, the prayer is obvious, keep all safe. But assassination casts a long shadow. Strengthen and encourage those of like mind to the deceased, that they may not shirk back in fear. Challenge those who promote a culture of domination to the exclusion of others. May the political system continue along in development.

For those who target, God, bring justice. For those who condemn, rightly, may they do more. Help them to not just to disassociate with such vile acts, but assist in exposing this ugly underbelly.

But God, the cynic notes a winner does not profit from assassination. The right words may be spoken, the right deeds offered, but is the heart still hard? Only you can know, so forgive the cynic. Among the opposition, soften their hearts to receive condolences. Help them to embrace all that is right rather than wallowing in the mire of bitter frustration.

And certainly, keep any of their sympathizers from equal reaction and retaliation.

God, it is a sad development for the region. Reverse it. Have Egyptians build up and not destroy; give life, rather than kill. Resurrect what is dying; revive what is stagnating.

May Egypt come alive with hope and expectation. So much works against this, God, but strengthen her soul. May conscience triumph over interest, and may all soon be well.




Motivational Strategy: Comparison

Emma loving the spotlight, Hannah shying away

I like many things about Egyptian culture, and am happy to be raising our children here, but one aspect of the way many Egyptians interact with children has been grating on me recently.  This is something I have noticed in Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, so it may be safe to say it is a tendency across the Arab world to do this.  Before I mention it, let me remind the readers that we have found a tremendous welcome and interest in small children in every country we have been in.  I can’t count the number of strangers I’ve passed on the street who have verbally blessed our children, wanted to kiss them or give them lollipops.  In general, Arabs love children and aren’t afraid to show it.

And now for the flipside: we have often experienced that if children do not respond in a favorable way, no matter their age, they are told they are bad.  And this isn’t the big problem.  What I have usually witnessed goes something like this:

A stranger or friend greets baby Layla enthusiastically, and Layla reaches for her or smiles at her.  (This makes the stranger/friend very happy).

After this, the stranger/friend greets 3-year old Hannah just as enthusiastically, wanting a kiss or handshake from her, and Hannah promptly frowns at her, turns her head away and definitely does not reach to shake hands.  (This does not make the stranger/friend happy at all).

Inevitably, the response of the stranger/friend is, “inti wahash wa Layla kwayyisa.”  (Translation: you are bad and Layla is good.) 

Keep in mind that three-year old Hannah probably knows enough Arabic now to understand she has just been told by a stranger that she is bad but her baby sister is good.  And why?  Because she didn’t want to kiss someone she never saw before?  So how does that make her want to respond the next time?  Well, if it’s the same person, she probably still won’t care to kiss her.  If it is a different stranger, same story.  She is three years old and has sense of who she knows and who she doesn’t, and how she cares to interact with them by this point.  Being compared like this to her baby sister will not motivate her to change!

All that said, we are working with both Emma and Hannah to be polite to the adults that we interact with.  It is important in this culture to greet people and shake their hands.  Sometimes the problem is that when I convince the girls to be kind and return the handshake, they are then pulled in for a kiss on the cheek.  That’s not helpful for their learning process!  They don’t always feel like responding to people’s greetings, but again, as they are getting older, they need to politely respond and we are working on this.  But they don’t often want to smile and answer people who last time they saw them said they were bad!

The crazy thing is, I have been through this with each of the girls over the last couple years.  Emma was a friendly baby and smiled at strangers and they loved it.  Then she grew a little older and didn’t want to just go to anyone who held their arms out.  I think this is natural.  Problem is, by the time she reached that stage, her baby sister was the friendliest baby on the block and won everyone’s affections.  Then all of the sudden, Emma was “bad” and Hannah was “good.”  Now Hannah has grown some and has a friendly baby sister, Layla who gets all the compliments.

I’ve heard from others that this habit of comparing children to each other is quite common and can be quite damaging.  So far for the most part, these have been quick and minor occurrences, but I try to let the stranger/friend know that the older one was just as friendly when they were a baby.  And I try to talk to the older kid after the fact to be sure they aren’t getting negative messages from people.  Sometimes it is a fine line between being polite to adults, and having them take advantage of the kids.  As I said, I finally convince my girls to shake an adult’s hand, and then they pull them in for a kiss too …. again, a common form of greeting here, and one they can get used to.  But one I wish the adults would ask for and not just take.  Of course, I do have friends who are gentler with the kids, and these are the adults my kids like and feel comfortable with.  But it is something I have to watch and work on to correct the negative messages and reinforce the good.


Egyptian Protests, Day Two

It has been a very surreal two days for us here in Egypt. We live in Maadi, and though there was one early account of a protest, the area has been quiet. Yesterday and today I have been monitoring the Twitter feeds, even after the service went down, allegedly at government behest, though they officially deny this. For those of you who are not Twitter-savvy, like myself, you can follow second-by-second coverage if you go to Google, type #Jan25 into search, and then watch people’s ‘tweets’ scroll down your screen.

Not everything here can be verified, of course, but it puts the urgency and immediacy of the moment right before your eyes. Yet, all around is calm and quiet. Certain websites have live feeds of news reports, carrying the stories that journalists and ordinary citizens report. Whereas yesterday, on Police Day, the protests were large-scale and generally tolerated until late in the evening, today’s reports tell of smaller numbers but greater resistance on the part of security forces.

My take, however ignorant: On Police Day I posted my expectations about the event, written the day before. I spoke about how Egypt was not like Tunisia, because while in Tunis the protests were driven by discontent with economic conditions led by the poor, and only later on joined by the middle class, in Egypt these protests seem to me to be upper and middle class driven. This can be seen by the great role Twitter and Facebook have played in rallying the cry for protest. But I also thought that the impact would fall short of Tunisia for this very reason. Frustrations of the middle class here run deep, but can they gain the numbers and sustain the pressure needed for wholesale change? I wondered, doubting.

As the protests swelled yesterday I, like everyone, including the government apparently, was surprised by the turnout. I was impressed by the generally peaceful nature of demonstrations – opposed to certain signs in Tunisia – as well as the restraint shown by the security forces. By the evening as nightfall came, greater efforts were made to displace the protestors, who seemed determined to stay the night in Cairo’s central square. Tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets were employed. At the same time, it could well be interpreted as reasonable efforts to preserve public order. Not that the protestors threatened violence, but that the government was keen to stop the event as carefully as possible, yet stop it all the same.

Today began very quietly. Early efforts to protest fizzled against opposition, but on a day to return to work, the numbers did not seem grand. Whereas the day before I wondered if my posted analysis would be rendered foolish very quickly, by the afternoon it seemed the efforts at demonstration represented an attempt to force the issue, to keep alive a fading spirit.

Yesterday afternoon Julie and I took the girls out to go shopping and for a bit of a walk. We live in a nice neighborhood in Maadi, which is certainly an upper class neighborhood by all standards. But we live not far from where the area blends into a lower class section, which is where Julie often shops at lower prices than if she walks in the opposite direction. As thousands of people were rallying downtown, we enjoyed a normal stroll in the busy streets, the same scenario played out day after day. There were no rumblings of protest, no efforts to stir trouble. It confirmed my thoughts further that this social media revolution might largely be akin to a spoiled teenager railing against a dysfunctional family. The issues are surely serious, but the stakes are not so large.

Further confirmation came with a phone call to the Upper Egyptian city of Maghagha, where we had visited for a few days. We enjoyed time again with our priest-family friends there, and will write about this soon. But in this sleepy, poorer town three hours south of Cairo, there were no demonstrations whatsoever. Most protests have been in Cairo and Alexandria; certainly there are many desperately poor people here, but it is also home to the middle class. Protests elsewhere have been in a Mediterranean costal city known as a labor stronghold, and in the Sinai where there are longstanding issues with the Bedouin. Much of Upper Egypt was quiet, which was not the case during recent legislative elections, when protest demonstrations against alleged electoral corruption were widespread.

Finally, more confirmation came in a visit to the area of Kozzika, which is a poorer neighborhood to the south of Maadi where I go twice weekly for my class in a Coptic Orthodox institute. Again, no signs of anger, trouble, or concern with the world. A local coffee shop had al-Jazeera broadcasting live coverage of an emerging protest in downtown Cairo, and no one paid any attention, as domino tiles slammed down against the table.

But after a few hours away from the computer and Twitter addictions, I came home to survey the news. Protests, it seems, are gaining steam as the night goes on. Security repression seems rather severe, but the result perhaps is to spur on more people to join in. As you follow the news you can get wrapped up in it – here is an especially chilling audio link from a foreign British journalist who was rounded up in the back of a police truck with dozens of protestors. It makes it seems as if the world is on fire.

Perhaps it is – there. Not here. In all I am about 12 kilometers away from what is happening. It might as well be worlds apart. Those there have such passion and fury from their cause in the moment; those here are sleeping peacefully, including my three young daughters. Do I wish to be there? Not really, exciting as it would be. Am I content here? Not quite. Egypt could be changing, or it could be a blip on the screen. Either way, I am disconnected, and the feeling of disconnection is fueled by the constant surveying of others’ passion and fury. Is it true? Is it widespread? Is it good?

Still, it is smaller than yesterday. Will tomorrow be smaller still? It is said that Egyptians are not revolutionary by character. Until about 60 years ago, the nation had been ruled by foreigners since the days of Alexander the Great. They move along in life, deal with economic realities, and do not rock the boat. Yesterday and today, they are trying to. Some, that is. Thousands, actually. Will it make a difference against a resolute government? A government backed by American support?

But, on the other hand, even thousands are but a drop in the bucket. In their non-participation, do the majority of Egyptians signal content relative enough to prove this is not an internal rumbling for democracy, but rather the pining of a frustrated middle class earning to imitate Tunisia and, however legitimately, increase its sphere of freedoms? The government does not do a great job of eradicating poverty, but it heavily subsidizes basic goods. Are the majority of the poor content enough along their historical pattern, unconcerned by exclusion from political life? Will the protests eventually fizzle as the middle class aspirations are beaten down?

By and large, these have been secular protests, and notably, Egypt is a religious society. I would like to explore this question further tomorrow, if possible, but the call is circulating on Twitter that protestors are regrouping, and calling for nationwide participation following Friday prayers. Will Egyptians emerge from the mosque and take to the streets? This is looking like the next big question, unless tomorrow has more surprises. But will the population rally around a non-religious cause? It remains to be seen.

So what is my take, after all of this? It is best to hold judgment. I would encourage all to pray. The president needs wisdom, as do advisors, police chiefs, and protestors. There are deaths and injuries, and these cannot please God. Yet there are aspirations and hopes, and perhaps these do. May he sift the chaff from the wheat and bring about a society pleasing to all. Far less importantly, may he also give armchair observers sitting in Maadi the ability to be as constructive as possible.


Quick Thoughts on Tunisia

We lived as a family in Tunisia for two years before accepting my current position at Arab West Report in Egypt. While there we developed a fondness for the country and its people, and as such we have been following closely the political developments. If it has not caught your attention, economic protests have been sweeping the nation, which led to the president of over twenty years fleeing the country. Since then the army has been clamping down, and it is premature to say if there will be any real change in the government, or if it will be a face lift which installs another Western-leaning authoritarian regime.

I would like to say that when the protests began developing in earnest, I was hopeful. While there are many poor people in Tunisia, the country as a whole supported a sizeable emerging middle class. Furthermore, this was built upon their industry, as the nation boasts little in the way of the natural resources which have fueled wealth-building of other Arab states, particularly in the Gulf. This is a testament to the Tunisian national character, which we found to be creative and industrious, in addition to being cultured, intelligent, and open minded.

So while I found much of the protests to be driven by the poorer sections of society, which gave them an appearance of riots, I was hopeful that it would lead to a positive transformation that demanded political change. As the president began making capitulations, it appeared it might be so.

As such, I was quite surprised when he fled. Authoritarian regimes tend to be quite adept at putting down social protest. Furthermore, though the protests were sweeping the nation, he did not appear to be in any danger, and the army would always be available to clamp down. Human rights would be trampled in the process, but eventually, these things tend to die down and life goes back to normal.

I wonder if he fled due to pressure from the army. The president was old, and his steps at placation had the appearances of yielding to the call for an opening of society and an expansion of freedoms. Perhaps fearful, the army may have decided he was a liability, made it clear he was to leave, and began asserting control.

If so, the strategy could be to make the people believe they have won, at which point the fervor will die down and preparations can be made for the government transition. This will give ample time for authorities to perfect election tricks and engineer circumstances so as to keep overall ruling power. There will likely be significant popular pressure to push forward with reforms, but that sort of success is a lot harder to achieve.

Still, I am hopeful. The Tunisian people are of a nature to get it done. Though destructive riots continue and rumors abound of American interference, with al-Qaeda trying to involve itself on the opposing flank, Tunisians are of a dogged, resilient sort. Yes, this could devolve into a Romania-type debacle. Yes, the army might reassert control as things go back to the acceptable, but oppressive status quo. But I would risk a wager on the collective cry for freedom, and trust Tunisia to emerge a stronger nation than before. I hope I’m right.



We moved this past weekend.  Not too far, just down the street, but the work involved in changing houses is incredible.  I guess that’s true if you have a lot of things.  Or maybe just if you do it yourself.  I am trying to remember how many times I’ve moved in the past.  After spending my first 17 years in the same house, I wasn’t really used to moving.  Now, in the second 17 years of my life, I’ve moved quite a bit.

The move to college is a normal, expected one for an American teen, so maybe that shouldn’t count.  My first real  move was following college, when I moved an hour from my college town to attend grad school. This was my first apartment, cooking for myself, paying rent, buying furniture, dealing with a landlord.  My stuff was minimal, and following two years of grad school, I brought it all back east in a small U-haul trailer attached to my Chevy Lumina, which henceforth overheated in the mountains of PA.  But I made it back with all my stuff.

Next it was my first job, and with it, relocating to New Jersey.  I actually started my job before finding a place to live, living instead with my former principal’s family.  Great people.  Good job.  Hard to find affordable housing in New Jersey, but eventually, found some roommates and a good apartment right on Main Street in Somerville, right above a Chinese restaurant.  Too bad I’m not a big fan of Chinese food.  That was my residence for only a year, as my roommate wanted to be closer to New York for her commute, so we moved to Metuchen.  A nice town, with a walkable main street.  We lived here for three years, before I got married and moved not too far away to Piscataway.

Jayson and I were quite spoiled here.  This was the top story of a split level house.  We bought some furniture from newspaper ads and set up our first home, temporary as we knew it would be, nicely.  It even had a pool in the backyard.  Our elderly, widowed landlady lived downstairs.  She was an interesting person, hailing from Nazi Germany where she was part of the Nazi Youth movement.  She gave some interesting insight into Germany at that time, but was currently a diehard US Republican.

That place housed us for two years before our first overseas move together.  In one sense, it is easier to move overseas, because this time, we were limited to four 50-pound suitcases, unless we wanted to pay extra.  A couple with no kids and a simple lifestyle didn’t need more than 200 pounds of stuff, so we managed with our allotted luggage.  Once in Jordan, we found an apartment and bought furniture and household goods, and moved in.  Again, a good place.  Looking back, we didn’t realize how nice it was at the time.  Ground floor with a play area out back, but of course, we never needed that in Jordan.  Now it’s something we think about.  Another two years there and we were selling our furniture and household goods, or divvying them up among some of our Jordanian friends, and repacking our four suitcases to head to the states for six months.  Another move.  This time into a furnished home where we would welcome our first baby before heading back overseas.

A baby can bring with it a lot more stuff!  This time we moved overseas with six 50-pound suitcases, although some of them were overweight.  This time in Tunisia, we started out in a furnished place in Sfax, the large city in the south of the country.  It had its peculiarities including no oven but a large Jacuzzi-like bathtub.  Emma slept in our room to begin with, until we convinced our landlord to let us put her crib in their storage room in our house.  It was a great place for language-learning as we shared the property with two Tunisian families.  Very generous people.  Again, we didn’t realize the value of the outside courtyard.  A nice, tiled area for kids to run around.  But, that place lasted about nine months before we headed north to the capital and searched high and low for the perfect spot in the suburb of Manouba.  After a few days of searching, we realized we needed a ground floor apartment to accommodate our double stroller, and found the perfect spot after a bit.  This time it was unfurnished, so, we bought furniture and household goods and set up house again.  We anticipated this place being our home for awhile and began to bring things from our storage in America, because of course, we owned more than 300 pounds of stuff.  I guess you could call Jayson’s parents’ garage in New Jersey a second home for us since that has housed our things since our first overseas move!  As fate would have it, we set up a nice home for only about one year before moving out of Tunisia.  Again, selling our stuff, packing more suitcases than we came with; of course, we also added a child in Tunisia … add a child, add more stuff!  Back to the states for another six months.  This time, we didn’t really move; we just lived with Jayson’s parents.

And then on to Egypt.  Our luggage allowance keeps getting bigger as we add more children, but this time, we opted to pay for some extra luggage too.  Partly because of the children, partly because of what we’ve learned in the other two countries.  Some things are just better and cheaper to bring with you.  So, we probably brought about nine 50-pound suitcases this time.  We lived in a temporary place for a month, so didn’t really unpack too much, and then onto our current place which was furnished.  Only needed to buy minimal house goods.  But somehow, now that we’re moving just down the street, that “nine 50-pound suitcases” has multiplied exponentially.  All told, we’ve taken 6 carloads and 2 pick-up truck loads of goods to our new place.  Again, we added a child.  We bought some furniture both for guests, and for ourselves.  People have been very generous and given us things … toys, house goods, knick knacks.  It all adds up.  So why move again with all it entails?

We knew from the time we took our first apartment here in Maadi, that our landlord’s son would take it from us at the end of a year as he anticipated getting married.  And so I had a year to look around for apartments.  I looked online just about every day to see what was available through Craigslist, since that is how we found our original apartment here.  As the summer approached and we narrowed down exactly what we were looking to move into, I started to call realtors and give them our specs.  Most of them told me that to find an apartment on the ground floor with a small garden in the neighborhood near Jayson’s work and within our budget was near impossible.  However, we stuck with our budget and eventually, a realtor found our new place.  The landlord wanted us to take it right away rather than let it sit empty, and our current landlord graciously agreed to let us out of our contract a couple months early.  We really felt we needed to grab an apartment when it came available as there is a great influx of foreigners at the end of the summer making the apartment search a bit harder.

And so, we move now.  Not the most opportune time in many ways.  Less than two months after having a baby, and rearranging our old apartment for our two houseguests, Mom and Mother-in-law, for a month.  Right toward the end of World Cup action.  In the midst of job transitions for Jayson at work.  And in the middle of an Egyptian summer which translates into lots of sweat.  But, now is the time, so move we will.

Well, I haven’t counted, but there were lots more moves in my second 17 years compared to my first!  And who knows where the next one will be, but I really hope it’s not for a long while now.  Funny thing is, my parents are in the process of moving now too.  They have been in the same home, my childhood home, for 38 years!  Talk about accumulating stuff!  Well, we are too far away to help them with their car and truck loads of things, but now that we are in our own new place, I have plenty myself to unpack and arrange!


The Problem of Dialect – Part Two

The strange thing about different language dialects is that the most basic words you use everyday differ from country to country.  I remember Jayson telling me this after his experience in Mauritania.  He would say, “The words for bread, water, and house are different in the Mauritanian dialect than in other dialects, but the deeper you go in the language, the more similarities you find.”

Here is a case in point.  In Jordan, we studied Arabic in a language school.  This was great in so many ways, one of them being that the teachers taught us all the basic greetings we needed to know.  So we probably learned within the first week how to say, “How are you,” which in that dialect was “Keef hallak?”

Fast forward to Tunisia, where we didn’t study in a language school, but tried to pick up their dialect on the street and in our everyday interactions.  It took quite awhile, and one of the most basic things troubled me for some time.  After someone greeted me, they would often ask me, “Faynik?” which literally means, “Where are you?”  At first I would answer them, probably with a confused look on my face, “I am here.”

Or if we were talking on the phone, I would say in my confused tone, “I’m at home,” or, “I’m out shopping,” or whatever.  It wasn’t always an inappropriate question.  I mean, if I was supposed to meet them, and they were calling me, they could ask me where I was so they knew when to expect me.  But when I went to visit my friend in her store and her first question was, “Where are you?” it was really weird.  It took a little while to realize that this was their way of saying, “How are you?”

Don’t ask me why they chose those words, people usually don’t choose the words of their greeting, they are simply taught from generation to generation, but somewhere it must make sense.  I wonder how many of my friends were confused, however, when I supplied them with my location.  Even after I realized what this really meant, it still took some forethought to not answer their question, but rather say, “Good, thank you.”

The experience changed again in Egypt.  Again, they don’t use the typical, “How are you?” that we learned in Jordan, and most of the time, they don’t even use the word we expected to hear here which is “Zayyik?”  Instead, they say, “Aamila aye?” which means “What are you doing?”  It took me right back to Tunisia.

Before I realized that this was their way of saying, “How are you?” I would answer them with what I was doing, which again, was usually an odd, confused answer, “Well, I am coming to visit you.”  Or, “I am coming here, to church.”  Of course, my thought was, “What do you mean, what am I doing?  Isn’t it obvious?”  Probably thanks to my experience in Tunisia, I caught on more quickly, and realized this was their way of greeting, and that it could probably be equated to our equally incongruous “What’s up?” in English.  Oh, the joys of learning the language on the street!

Another word that has been tripping me up some is the word for “Today.”  A most basic word, to be sure, and one that I should know well if I say I can speak the language.  Probably half the time, however, I use the word I learned in Jordan, “il-yawm.”  I was thinking through this word the other day and realized that in the three countries we’ve been in, Jordan is the only one that makes sense.  Here’s what I mean.

In Jordan, the word “il-yawm” is used for “Today.”  Following this the days of the week each have a name along with the word “yawm” in it.  One of the neat things about the days of the week in Arabic is that they are kind of forms of the numbers 1-7, so it is fairly easy to pick up, or at least logical.  So, for instance Sunday would be “yawm il-ahad,” which is kind of like “the first day”.

Well, moving onto Tunisia, they use the same word for today, which is probably one of the reasons I am having a hard time switching it now.  However, when they speak of the days of the week, they use a different word in place of “yawm,” and that is “nahhar,” which also means daytime or morning.  So, Sunday would be “nahhar il-ahad” or “the first morning”.  It was tricky to learn that at first, but we got used to it after awhile.

Now in Egypt, I realized that they do the opposite of Tunisia.  For the days of the week, we are back to the Jordanian word, “yawm il-ahad,” but the word “Today” is now “innahhar da” which literally means “this, the morning.”  Now my logical brain looks at Tunisia and Egypt and says that they should kind of switch things up a bit so at least their word for “Today” matches with the word they use in the days of the week, but who am I to criticize the language.  I’ll just keep using the wrong word for awhile until it finally sinks in and becomes habit.  Until then, I think people usually know what I’m saying, but I do think I’ve confused some of the kids at Emma’s preschool.

Since we’re on the topic of time, the last word that I will point out is the word for “Now.”  Again, it is a word I use all the time.  In Jordan it was “halla.”  In Tunisia it was “towwa.”  Now in Egypt it is “dillwaqti.”  Do you see any relationship between those three words?  Me neither, but at least I can see a familiar word in the Egyptian choice which makes it mean literally, “this, the time.”  Oh, the sweet sounds of Arabic … if only it wasn’t so confusing!


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Launching “Books” with Libyan Poetry

If you look to the column on the right hand side of this page you will notice a new link – “Books” – which looks to chronicle what we read. A few times in this blog we have been able to write a book review of recent reading which has aided in understanding Egyptian society. Other times we have referenced a book which we have not read, but perhaps have interviewed the author or just remembered its general usefulness. The “Books” link is an effort to congregate all this information in one place, so that you can read along with us, if you care to.

The lead item in “Books” is not of this nature, however, but rather focuses on books we have had a hand in producing. Before moving to Egypt we lived in Tunisia, where among other activities I worked with a local author and publisher to translate books from Arabic into English. The first of these has come to print, which, oddly enough, is a selection of poetry from a Libyan author, entitled “The Journey of the Blind”.

I enjoyed making the translation, and though it might seem counterintuitive, translating poetry was actually a little easier than translating prose. This might not be true with classical poetry, but this author uses a modern style, which left me free to arrange meanings keeping with his style, but without the burden of having to worry about meter or rhyme.

Below is a selection from his works, selected because it is my favorite, dealing with issues of travel, home, and belonging.



I saw in the road

My old horse

Which my grandfather gave to me

Before he died,

And after he informed me

Of the dangers of travel,

Of night, of beautiful women, and of sailing,

And after he informed me

Of the dangers of the road, and thieves.

Do not let the beautiful women

Steal your little heart in the morning.

The road is before you, my dear little boy,

The road is before you,

He informed me and then closed his eyes.


In the early morning

I saw him praying,

In the paths of my homesickness,

In the forest of names and languages,

In the very cells of my body.

And I heard him say:

The best of all homelands is my home,

And the most beautiful of seas.

You see it in the sand,

In the high palm tree,

And in the mirage.

My grandfather told me

In the language of the elderly:

Do not go away,

For the people on the other side of our sea

Walk towards a distant gloom.

Do not go away, do not go away.


Beware of the distance of the road.

Of this he informed me

               Before he fell asleep,

                           Before he fell


Benghazi 1968

You can see an image of the book by clicking here: Cover – Journey of the Blind

The collection is available for purchase; my parents have been kind enough to agree to mail a copy to anyone interested. Full information is found under the “Books: Translations” link. Other titles referenced there can be purchased through Amazon, which if bought through this site provides us with a small percentage of the price. Not enough to persuade you not to borrow the book from the library, but on the off chance a summary catches your fancy and you would like to see the binding on your bookshelf, if you are kind enough to consider us, we appreciate it. Thanks.


The Problem of Dialect

We have lived in a few different Arabic-speaking countries now, and we aren’t sure if this has been good or bad for our Arabic skills.

We started off in Jordan for two years where we studied the Jordanian dialect as well as the Modern Standard Arabic which is what people read and write, but rarely speak.  Next we spent two years in Tunisia where the spoken dialect seemed to be about 100% different from what we learned. At first, we didn’t understand anything people were saying to us.  It seems some people understood some of what we were saying, as they compared it to Egyptian Arabic which is widely known throughout the Arab world due to Egypt’s high movie output.

Well, just about the time we were getting comfortable in the Tunisian dialect, we moved to Egypt.  Egyptian Arabic is much closer to Jordanian Arabic, so we were excited to be “coming back” to what we learned in a sense, but the problem is, Tunisian Arabic is what is on our tongues.  We have been adjusting over these last couple months, and some things came easier than others, but I wanted to try to give some examples of these dialect differences to either let you sympathize with us, or at least get a good laugh.

One of the major ways Egyptian Arabic differs from both Jordanian and Tunisian is in the pronunciation of one letter, the “jeem.”  We see/hear this letter and pronounce it as a “j” sound, but Egyptians change it to “geem” or the “g” sound.  This has provided some difficulties in adjusting.  For instance, we weren’t sure if our names would be Gulie and Gayson here, but it does seem they make allowances for western names as we’ve actually met many people with the letter “J” at the beginning of their name.

One word I use a lot is “zawgi” which means “my husband.”  This word has been tricky for me. You see, in Jordan, we learned this word for husband, but with the “j” sound – “zawji.”  Then, in Tunisia, they use a totally different word, “rajul,” which we translated “man” in Jordan.  So every time I said “rajuli” in Tunisia, I translated it in my head, “my man.”  It fits, but it’s not quite the same as my husband.

So, now we came to Egypt, and I have to remember that they don’t use “rajuli,” for husband, and if they did, it would be “raguli,” which to them would mean, “my man,” but they use “zawji” like I learned in Jordan but pronounce it “zawgi.”  This is still my thought process almost every time I use this word, and people wonder why it takes me so long to say “my husband.”  You would think I was a newlywed and am just learning to talk about having a husband, but we’ve been married for 7 years and I’ve been referring to him as my husband, in Arabic, for about 5; it just hasn’t been the same word all five years!

The original word we learned for house was “bait”.  Not too hard.  Well, in Tunisia, they use a different word for house, “daar”.  It wasn’t a new word to us; in Jordan we learned the word “daar” also means house, it’s just that’s not what the Jordanians used.  So, the Tunisians used “daar” for house and used the word “bait” for room.  It took us awhile to get that.

It’s an important word to learn quickly as you are house hunting because you are looking for a certain number of bedrooms and we kept saying “gurfitayn”, meaning two rooms in Jordanian, but they were looking for “baitayn” which to us meant “two houses.”  We certainly didn’t need two houses.  Well, that was Tunisia.

Now we are in Egypt, and they again use the word “bait” for house. Good.  The problem is they have a new word for room which I don’t know too well yet, “awda”, and since I don’t know it well, I automatically fall back on Tunisian, “bait.”  So the other day when a friend was visiting and looking at our apartment, I was telling her a little about our apartment search and that we saw many apartments with either “two houses” or “three houses” in them.  Whoops.  I kind of realized it as I was talking, but then couldn’t think of the Egyptian word for room.  I think she got the idea, though, but it made me feel kind of silly.  Gotta learn that word for room!

Here’s another word I messed up the other day.  We use the verb “to go” a lot.  In Jordan, we learned to say “aruuh” for “I go.”  It conjugates differently depending on who is speaking, but the root is the same.  So we got used to that using it there.  Then we went to Tunisia and they use the word “amshi” for “I go.”  Now, we learned this verb in Jordan, but it meant, “I walk.”  Subtle difference.

The words could be used interchangeably at times … especially since we do walk so much here, but it doesn’t always fit.  However, it seems they just used this one word for both meanings in Tunisia and you sometimes had to specify “walking” over “going” by saying, “with my legs.” Now we’re in Egypt and we’re back to “aruuh” for “to go” and “amshi” for “to walk.”  But since my Tunisian is on the tip of my tongue, I was talking to my landlord the other day about getting us a refrigerator … click here for this story … and told her that if she wanted me to, I would “walk” with her to the large store (which is located about a 30 minute drive away.)  She kind of looked surprised and said, “Carrefour is very far!”  It didn’t quite occur to me yet that I used the wrong word, I just said, oh I know it’s far, I don’t mean “walk, but walk.”  It wasn’t until after I left that I realized I was using the word for two meanings and she was only hearing one.

All of this is further complicated when I Skype with one of my Tunisian friends.  She kind of laughs at me as I’m trying to speak Tunisian, but keep throwing in Egyptian words here and there.  Fortunately she understands me well, but it’s a big mind game trying to learn the Egyptian and at the same time, not totally forget the Tunisian.  Welcome to the Arabic language … it’s beautiful, and at times, painful!


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