Advertising in the Time of Import Substitution

Being on leave means having the time to read the things you too often ignore. Like advertisements from periods you are studying for completely other purposes. Because of their attempt to appear "timely" and "contemporary" within the moment of their making, and because of their appeal to desire and aspiration, ads can read like windows onto the zeitgeist and collective dreamings of the past. But mostly, they are fascinating to look at. In the case of the images below, their nationalization aesthetic and rhetoric contradict and challenge our neoliberal present—and that in itself is worth the effort of study.

In July 1963, the Egyptian Gazette published a "special supplement" commemorating the eleventh anniversary of the 1952 coup d'état that brought the Free Officers to power. The oversize issue of the Gazette trumpets the accomplishments of the Nasser regime in a series of fluff journalistic 'pieces' and large ads mounted by leading public sector industries—from tourism to cotton weaving to tourism, offering a range of consumer products. Most (all?) of the companies here were built from colonial-era corporations that had been (in 1963) only recently nationalized. The ads of this issue of the Gazette are thus testament to the unrealized and imperfect dream of creating an independent national economy. 

Steel, iron, plastic and wood

They used to make things other than macaroni...

They used to make things other than macaroni...

Food and Drink

Luxury goods

Cotton and Textiles



Islam ( الدعوة ) 


Adventures in Socialist Advertising

Reading al-Tali‘a, the leftist Egyptian political-literary journal (1965-1977), I am struck by, among other things, the advertising. Started under Nasser's period of rapprochement with the USSR, al-Tali‘a was a platform for communist intellectuals who had just suffered under Nasser's attack on the Egyptian Communist Party (1959-1964). It is unclear what function advertising was supposed to play given the history and ideological orientation of its editors, like Lutfy al-Khouly. 

Scholars have explored the paradoxes of consumer culture—and advertising—in other socialist states. In particularly, I am thinking ofJonathan Zatlin's work on East Germany. But the topic of Arab socialist consumer culture calls out for similar attention. In a way, the road map for such study is already there in some of the cinema and literature of the period. Sonallah Ibrahim's novels, in particular, pay extraordinary attention to the details of consumer culture. In Dhat, most famously, Ibrahim documents the radical changes in Egyptian material life that took place during Sadat's infitah (Open Door Policy), which was nothing less than a top-down social revolution that sought to undo the state socialism of the Nasserist era. Sadat's counter-revolution largely succeeded—and gave birth the neoliberal consumer culture that thrives in the country today.

Below is an unthorough survey of advertising in the pages of al-Tali‘a. The images and slogans show the linkages between Egyptian nationalist strategies of import substitution and pan-African developmentalist appeal. As to be expected, advertisements featuring trade with the Soviet bloc stop suddenly in 1972. In the mid-1970s, these are replaced with public sector ads from Algeria and Iraq. Finally, just before al-Tali‘a was shut down in the wake of the 1977 Bread Uprising, we see a flurry of full-color ads for Western luxury products. 


In 1969, Port Said was very much on the front lines. Under Israeli military occupation, the city was also a center for guerrilla tactics in the war of attrition. For nationalists and revolutionaries, the very name of the city was a rallying cry for the unfinished business of national liberation. But Port Said was also the name of an Egyptian brand of cigarettes...

Aeroflot airlines ad announcing flights connecting to Bangui and Brazzaville. 

Egypt was more than just a leader in the steel industry... there was brass and aluminum, too.


Dear Smoker…we present to you the one and only Cleopatra cigarette, made from Arab knowhow and the very finest tobaccos from around the world...

Aronal toothpaste


The Nasr Import-Export Company. 


Nefertiti: Egypt's first e-cigarette?

On the move, on time, where you want it... drilling rigs. 



OPEC-era advertising. Algerian National Petroleum Company: Arab Petroleum belongs to the Arabs. 

Iraqi State Publishing: Saadi Yusuf... Muhammad Afifi Matar...

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra...


Soon after the mass uprisings against Sadat's economic policies, Lutfi al-Khuli is replaced as editor, and the journal struggles on for a few more issues. But not before becoming the platform for the new consumer culture. 


Preservation and Destruction

It is exceedingly difficult to know "what to do" as ISIS continues to attack the ancient material culture of Iraq and Syria. A few months ago, I weighed in on the subject in an essay that suggested that those of us who value antiquities for their historic, scientific and aesthetic value would do well to reflect on the ironies of the situation.

One of my main theses, which would be non-controversial for students of history, was that there is nothing inherently "Islamic" about the particular form of iconoclasm (or vandalism) practiced by ISIS. Throughout Islamic history, Muslims have held a wide range of beliefs about, and engaged in a wide range of practices involving, the objects of pre-Islamic antiquity. These range from admiration and wonder to indifference and doubt. The same range of attitudes exists in other traditions. 

Admittedly, I could have focused on the specifically "Islamic" elements of ISIS's campaign, which is to say, how they belong to a modern, Wahhabi tradition of attacking artifacts said to belong to other pasts. This tradition, while "Islamic" in the sense that its Muslim proponents practice it in the name of "Islam," should be seen for nothing more or less than what it is: a strategy of projecting, in brutal and spectacular ways, the material and cultural power of a nascent jihadi state. When viewed against the backdrop of 1400 years of Muslim cultural attitudes toward the distant past, it is a remarkably bleak aberration, though not one without precedents. The more dominant intellectual and textual traditions looked at the past as something to learn from, not something to destroy. Which is to say, ISIS's attacks on Palmyra have their roots not in the Qur'an or Hadith, but rather in the cruel 18th- and 19th-century Wahhabi-Saudi campaigns against tombs and Sufi shrines in the Arabian Peninsula as well as sites of Shiite veneration in southern Iraq.

Similarly, my blog post could have focused on ISIS's iconoclasm as a problem inside Islam, insofar as the Wahhabi-Saudi state theology really is a problem within Islam. But it did not because, as an American, I have a greater responsibility to respond the problems of my own national community, and in this case, the disingenuous posturing of neocons and their liberal allies who, in decrying the destruction of things, call once again for more US military intervention, as if that could be a solution. Contrary to what was said about my piece by interventionists, my piece did not seek to defend ISIS or attempt to rationalist its abhorrent actions. Similarly, there was nothing in the piece seeking to argue that the toppling of cheap Baathist-era statues was the equivalent of destroying priceless ancient artifacts. There was a juxtaposition of images of toppling statues meant to suggest that similar military logics were at work: destroying the arts of the defeated is what triumphalists have always done. If reckless interventionists were bothered by that suggestion, then all the better.

In the main, my post tried to shed light on the deep hypocrisies at home that have become, since ISIS's emergence, more and more manifest. 

The first hypocrisy is a disjointed form of American compassion marked, on the one hand, by newfound concern regarding Mesopotamian objects and on the other, a longstanding indifference toward the suffering of Iraqi people.

The second hypocrisy is rooted in the failure to recognize that the current moment of looting and destruction belongs to a historical context where the US military figures prominently, sometimes as an enemy of antiquities preservation and sometimes as its incompetent champion.

The third hypocrisy has to do with the witting participation in mass antiquities thefts by Western and Gulf antiquities dealers and buyers over the last decade. Without their willingness to traffic in stolen artifacts, the looting would not have reached the scale it has.

ISIS’s attacks on antiquities, like its reported involvement in the illicit antiquities trade, come directly from these contemporary histories. This remains true, even as ISIS spokesmen hide behind pious invocations of anti-pagan, iconoclastic "traditions" that far from being age-old are in fact largely modern phenomena, invented often during protracted conflicts with Western military incursions.  

Each of these hypocrisies is rooted in our culpability as American citizens whose democratically-elected governments and all-volunteer armies have been at war with Iraq and in Iraq continuously since 1991. It has been more than twenty-four years now since we first began our direct war against Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the process, laying waste to large swaths of the landscape, and destroying—through harm and negligence—massive amounts of the country's cultural heritage. In this context, it is ridiculous for commentators to seek explanations of ISIS’s actions in seventh-century Meccan history or tenth-cenury Quranic commentaries while ignoring the well-documented rise of mass looting and theft that occurred during the US occupation and as a direct result of Washington's policies. Likewise, it is disingenuous for American commentators to imagine that the US was merely a distant spectator as Baathist thugs turned into pious Islamists during the years of US-led sanctions, and, during the years of US military occupation, a network of militants were gathered together in US prison camps and eventually morphed into ISIS.

In my blog, I did not comment at length on the depth of the crisis and what it has meant for archaeology and museums. Other commentators, like Fred Bohrer and Ömür Harmanşah have brought these points home in powerful ways. Nonetheless, let it be stated explicitly: anyone who cares about the past should be distraught, troubled and astonished by ISIS’s wanton destruction of museums and archeological sites. The materials under attack are nothing less than the priceless patrimony of Iraqi society, and perhaps something called humanity, if such a thing exists. In some cases, these objects under attack are the only surviving material culture we have of ancient eras of human history, and their value to the study of our own human development cannot be overstated. 

Is there any debate as to whether these objects deserve to be conserved in order to be studied by people trained to study them? There shouldn’t be -- but apparently since I did not repeat my allegiance to the principles of conservation explicitly, it was assumed I was against them. But my point wasn't to confirm a widely-embraced truism. Rather it was to question whether the only solution to this crisis was to pour more US bombs on it. I did this by attempting to problematize the way antiquities figure as important material signs in our modern, still-colonized world, and that as signs, antiquities can be used to mobilize senseless violence.

Affective Attachments

It is a truism that talk about artifacts often slips into talk about civilization. The slippage is common because it was intended to be. And because it is taught to some of us from a very early age. For example, the image or even silhouette of an ancient monument is usually enough to suggest a cultural, even spiritual meaning that far transcends the material dimensions of the object itself. The great pilgrimages that people make in order to be in the presence of artifacts unearthed by archaeologists is another indicator of the expansive meaning these objects have. A visit to the Parthenon or Jerash is for many an occasion to dwell in the presence of something that goes beyond the rocks themselves. It may be awkward to call monuments sacred or the modern veneration of antiquities a form of modern, secular religion, but I can think of no better terms that capture the sense of transcendent value, and the rituals of adoration that accrue around such objects.

From here, it is but a short step to the notion that an attack on such an artifact is an attack on civilization itself.  This is precisely where caution and critique are most needed. Why? Because this slippage from material object to moral argument has a genealogy, and a history. 

The affective attachments linking material objects to broad, moral claims about civilization are not natural but constructed. To point this out is not to suggest that they are unreasonable or undesireable, but rather that they are the result of human activity. Which is also to say, they emerge in histories of struggle, both as terms of struggle and as sites of struggle.

In my own study of a separate history of struggle over antiquities in Egypt, I found that the colonial context of archaeology marked the scientific and humanistic study of the objects in indelible ways. The history of archaeology and museums in modern Iraq is different, and yet it is marked by similar processes. For instance, in Mesopotamia, as in the Nile Valley, the great discoveries of colonial archaeology profoundly, and often negatively impacted the land rights, labor markets and local cultures of indigenous peoples. Similarly, in Iraq as in Egypt, those who most championed the civilizational meanings of ancient objects also tended to voice the most racist views about the modern inhabitants of ancient lands. Antiquities policies were built on these racist views, and it mattered to the people whose lives were impacted. (And as Nadia Abu El-Haj showed, the impact of Zionist archaeology on Palestine was even more pronounced.) While the move to nationalize the professions of archaeology and museum curatorship overturned and corrected some aspects of this colonial legacy, it also compounded them in other ways. Peasants, for instance, continued to be imagined primarily as a problem in the preservation regimes of the nationalist period just as they were during the colonial era. Scholars of colonial and nationalist archaeology have noticed similar patterns in the region, in Palestine, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere.

These dynamics are well known by those of us who study the region’s history, even if there is wide variation about how to interpret their meaning. Moreover, it is not just students of Middle Eastern history who have tried to grapple with these legacies: across the archaeological disciplines, similar lessons have been learned by a generation of post-processualists who have struggled to make ways for local populations to participate in the interpretation and conservation of ancient artifacts. And yet, as the present moment reminds us, colonial-era moral claims about civilization still dominate discussions about antiquities.

Artifact Interventionism

Many commentators on ISIS’s actions have pointed to a range of other historical contexts of iconoclasm—Revolutionary France, Byzantium, Bamiyan—with resonances to our moment. These analogies are rich in some ways, but they seem to miss one powerful fact—namely that ISIS is very aware of the kind of response its actions will garner and this, perhaps more than its rather inarticulate destruction of the objects themselves, seems to be the point. The destruction of the material objects is central to the story, but it also matters that these event are scripted and staged for the camera, and then mounted onto global media platforms as a spectacle assured to provoke intense reactions. 

As suggestive as the history of iconoclasm is, and as tempting as it is to imagine the motivations of ISIS iconoclasts, we should not fail to notice that the perpetrators of these crimes understand, or hope, that their actions will trigger intervention. To understand this, we need to situate these events within a history of artifact interventionism.

What is this history? In the nineteenth century, some of the first calls for direct European military invasion in the Arab world took place in the following way: a traveler or diplomat observes that an area is rich in ancient artifacts; the writer claims that such artifacts are under threat by the actions of local populations; using moral arguments about civilization, the writer urges his government to save the artifacts, employing military force if necessary; months later, the artifacts appear in the metropolitan museum. The process, to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak, is one of “white men saving antiquities from brown men.”

In the twentieth century, as colonized states won qualified forms of political independence, the terms changed slightly. Whereas in the colonial past, Western archaeologists had sought the protection of strong colonial governors, in the postcolonial era, archaeologists tended to favor strong autocratic local regimes because they believed that such regimes were more stable and thus better for securing exploration, excavation, and preservation. In this regard, we might consider the popular perception that many Egyptologists were glad when General Sisi came to power and they could finally get back to work. If true, this too would need to be seen as another variation on the old theme of antiquities interventionism. 

By invoking this history as relevant, I am not claiming that all calls to preserve objects from attacks are spurious, nor am I saying that all champions of conservation are warmongers or enablers of dictatorships. The reality is more complicated than that. As the current response of archaeologists and museum curators to the ISIS emergency shows, preservationism is complex, creative and often self-critical. 

Nonetheless, this history must be part of the conversation (and it is in some circles) since historically, many of the most urgent calls for preserving antiquities have served as the prelude to (and rhetorical grounding for) military intervention. And it is this history—as much as the intricacies of iconoclasm as a recurring historical theme and practice—that seems so relevant to our moment. 

I doubt whether ISIS iconoclasts know much of this history, just as their command over the textual traditions of Islam is so widely doubted. But they do not need to know any of this history to understand that an attack on a cultural icon revered in the West will shock elite opinion in the West, and thus enable broad tolerance for intervention among people who might be otherwise averse to military adventurism. ISIS strategists bet that their attacks will mobilize our own extremists—those who have called for open-ended military assault for many years now—thus provoking the kinds of conflict that help them recruit more jihadists.

After Bamiyan, Charlie Hebdo, the Mosul Museum and Palmyra, it should be clear that there is a broad, jihadi strategy to bait the West, staging crises where something civilizational needs saving. ISIS does not need a Quranic verse or fatwa to tell them to attack artifacts and art, for the simple reason that they already know there will always be white men who volunteer to save civilization from brown men. Again, this strategy is not grounded in any supposed theological aversion in Islam towards the image or the pagan past, but rather in a bloody colonial inheritance whereby national liberation has degraded into a logic of 'trading dead bodies', as Faisal Devji put it in his 2009 book, Landscapes of the Jihad. Juan Cole has talked about this same strategy in terms of “sharpening contradictions.” 

Beyond Colonial Rhetorics of Civilization 

Many of the loudest voices calling to protect the objects have never shied away from the call to defend civilization from barbarism. Likewise, many even parrot nineteenth-century antiquities interventionist rhetoric, calling for boots on the ground to secure objects on the ground. The civilization-barbarism binary is objectionable not just because it is historically inaccurate, but also because, when made into policy, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

It is not an accident that many of those now calling for the defense of civilization against the attack of ISIS were the same ones championing the US invasion of Iraq in the first place. This hypocrisy, as the use of moral discourse about civilization more generally, will only lead to more of the same. 

So, what is to be done? Those who speak most forcefully for action tend to think that only one thing can be done: more US intervention. They say this, knowing full well that US intervention played an outsized role in creating the collapse of the Iraqi state and in fostering the sectarian politics of post-war Iraqi society, just to take two of the principle catalysts for the rise of ISIS. Similarly, US military intervention played a direct role in the collapse of an already fragile Iraqi antiquities conservation system, and in the rise of new markets for looted artifacts. I have no doubt that the proponents of US intervention could produce examples of when the US military helped to secure particular excavation sites—but these, I think, are exceptions that prove the rule. And so perhaps it is easier to begin by saying what should not be done. Repeating past mistakes, for instance, is something we should not do, no matter how much we are provoked by the crimes of ISIS. Imagining that somehow this time, US military intervention will be different is another thing we should not do.

Long ago, Homi Bhabha reminded us of the ties between ‘emergency’ and ‘emergence,’ in order to suggest that crises are also opportunities for the emergence of something different. In that spirit, here’s a thought: what if, instead of responding to this emergency with more bombs we were to work toward producing more democratic, inclusive and effective systems of preserving antiquities? Forms of conservation and study built not on threats of violence, but rather on equitable participation in discovery and conservation as well as a transparent and fair distribution of resources? If it is justice that is desired, we could more consistently and vigorously enforce already-existing laws that ban the traffic of looted artifacts. While we're at it, if we are truly outraged by the destruction of Mesopotamian artifacts, we might even begin to hold those American officials legally accountable for the negligence and malfeasance of the occupation of Iraq, especially actions those that set in motion the waves of looting. 

Reasonable critics might say that is fine, but such things involve decades of education, inclusion and building and that right now we have an emergency on our hands. To them we should say: this has always been the case. Moreover, military intervention is not so much a solution to the destruction of antiquities, but one of its causes. Since Napoleon's intervention to save Egypt from the Ottomans, there is always an emergency and there has always been a crisis, and the great patrimony of human civilization is under threat. These things are related to one another in direct ways. And in the meantime, this greater work of education, inclusion and building is always postponed.

If we could move past the military incursions of the past, and past support for local strongmen promising security, we might finally attend to these larger and nobler tasks, which means we might have a chance to preserve the past and also learn from it. Anything less is the real threat to the patrimony of human civilization.

Scripted Hate: What to Expect When Campus Watch Smears You

A couple days ago, I woke up to the following email from someone calling himself "George Barbery":

It was only then that I discovered that Campus Watch still exists and that it has two other heads, one called Middle East Forum, and one called American Thinker (whose icon is a patriotic man in a straining, seated position). Thanks to "George Barbery" I had been alerted  to the fact that an employee of MEF and Campus Watch had defamed me as an apologist for ISIS. Given that what the author wrote bore no resemblance to what I had posted on my blog, it was easy to dismiss as non-serious. Yet, I couldn't help but respond:

"George Barbery" did not respond. But as I looked at the vitriolic comments that began to build on the website, I noticed a comment, posted by "RedzoneDog" that could belong to him:

People began to take RedzoneDog's advice. Minutes later, I received the following note, this time from someone calling himself "Dr. Tom Barron":

I responded again:

"Dr. Tom Barron" wrote back immediately:

The email read like it had been written by a Campus Watch/American Thinker/MEF employee whose job was to solicit content and create the appearance that these organizations are engaged in debates about ideas. Again, I decided to respond:

"Dr. Tom Barron" did not reply. Subsequently, as the piece was reposted across Campus Watch's other websites, such a Middle East Forum, I began to receive other emails such as this:

And this:

And on it goes. What has been most striking in the emails and comments are these things:

  • Misrepresentation. These folks—authors and readers alike—speak a lot about 'ideas', but do not actually engage with them. At first I was surprised to see how confident the editors of the site were that their readership would not bother to compare the piece's claims to what I actually wrote. Silly me. They know their audience very well, and are secure in thinking that their readership couldn't be bothered to check whether claims are accurate or fair
  • Defamation. Sites like these exist not to debate ideas, but solely to defame character. Usually, they set their sights on people of color and especially Muslims. For some reason, I am in their gunsights this week. Next week it will be someone else. The logic of their defamations boggles the mind. For instance, this author and his audience claim I am a communist, a Nazi, an ISIS apologist and more. But that's not the point—the point is they believe if they can fling enough crap, some of it might stick. For people whose careers are actually precarious, such willful misrepresentations of character and thought could actually inflict damage. 
  • Censorship and Danger. What the author and his audience find so objectionable is not just the content of what someone like me has said, but rather the fact that we were allowed to say it in the first place. In other words, the project is grounded in doubts as to whether people who disagree with them have the right to free inquiry and research. Why is their anger and outrage so visceral? Why are they so outraged that people oppose their agenda?
  • End the University. From the outset, one of this organization's goals has been to poison the workplace of universities. Why? With their relative autonomy, universities are some of the last places that cannot be (completely) controlled by the right-wing and their corporate backers. It is true that informed, disinterested research produces knowledge that diverges radically from the programs of think-tanks and interest groups. But Campus Watch and MEF would like to take it a step beyond contesting the claims of scholarship—they would like to do away with the institutional supports that make disinterested scholarship possible in the first place. Perhaps it is because they cannot imagine what it would be like to do disinterested research, for unlike scholars, American Thinker's editors and writers are paid to produce a given party line, just as an advertiser is paid to produce inticement or a lobbyist is paid to produce political and rhetorical pressure. These organizations are so detached from actual scholarship that they have come to assume that, like them, everyone else must be a party stooge or paid propagandist. 
  • Scripted Hate. The comments and emails sent to me by readers of The American Thinker (and MEF and Campus Watch) are so regular that they appear to be based on a preexisting template or script. The bullet points are remarkably focused: tenured liberals are radicals; our universities are corrupting the youth; leftists hate America; people who disagree with them must be Nazi sympathizers. The insults I have received from Campus Watchers pale in comparison to the kind of hate and contempt these organizations reserve for the Arab and Muslim figures they defame. But it is hate speech all the same, designed to hurt and intimidate. Behind this symphony of hate stand its conductors and composers, the Campus Watch/MEF/American Thinker editors and authors. 
  • Echo Chamber. The public comments section of the forums of these publications speaks volumes about the institutions that support them: they are uncivil and non-serious, characterized largely by an intense hate and fear, most of it directed toward Muslims and Arabs. It's difficult to get a sense of how hateful and inarticulate the comments are without reading them. Some of these comments smack of sock puppetry, like the email from "Dr. Thomas Baron." But others might be composed by actual people. At sites where comments are unmoderated, we could plausibly that the vitriol is accidental, or not necessarily a direct expression of the site's managers. In contrast, at The American Thinker the poison is not only moderated, but cultivated. The incivility and hatred that flourishes there is anything but accidental.

But what are we to make of a garden whose tenders plant so many flowers of hate and fear? And who needs groups like ISIS when such homegrown threats to civilization already flourish on our own soil? Curious, I wrote to some of my correspondents: 

It didn't take long for "" to write back:

I have been told the phrase "Lech tizdayen" (לך תזדייו) is not a traditional way to say "shabbat shalom."

Reading al-Koni in English

Kudos to the panel of judges for the Man Booker International Prize whose 2015 Finalists' List is to applauded both for the depth of talent it marks and the breadth of literary accomplishment it acknowledges. I cannot remember ever before seeing a list that so well reflected the fact that the literature was a global, and not just Euroamerican thing. There are many personal favorite writers on that list, with Hoda Barakat, Amitav Ghosh, César Aira, and Fanny Howe foremost among them. (Arabic Literature in English has a great round-up of the authors on the list with ties to the Arab world.)

I want to make a special pitch for the talents of one of the giants who appears on that list. Ibrahim al-Koni's oeuvre is well celebrated in the Arab world but still largely unknown in English. His life experience—from the Sahara to Moscow, from Tripoli to Warsaw and Barcelona—and his voracious reading in Arabic and Russian make him a very global figure. Reading him is like discovering a continent where Tolstoy and al-Jahiz are drinking companions, and where Dostoevsky can't get over al-Ma'arri.

For English-language readers wanting to catch up on al-Koni, I would most highly recommend two short novels widely available in English translation, The Bleeding of the Stone (trans. M. Jayyusi and C. Tingley), and Gold Dust, (trans. E. Colla). 

If you are hesitant about reading a novel, here are some FREE of CHARGE short stories and excerpts that will give you a sense of why everyone loves al-Koni:

In "Tongue," a harrowing short story from al-Koni's story collection Kharif al-darwish (Autumn of the Dervish), men are forced to confront the burden of unwanted speech.

In "The Teacher," excerpted from al-Koni's magnum opus novel, al-Majus (The Animists), men and Sufis struggle against the black magic of the desert. 

"The Cloak" is an excerpt from al-Koni's 2012 novel, al-Waram (The Tumor), an allegory of the Qaddafi dictatorship. 

And finally, here are three thought pieces about al-Koni, translation, and the place of his fiction in Arab and African writing:

"Translating al-Koni"

"Al-Koni's Homes"

"Ibrahim al-Koni's Atlas."

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra: Ramparts

Twenty years ago last month Jabra Ibrahim Jabra passed away. A Palestinian refugee, Jabra lived an extraordinary life in difficult times. He survived expulsion from his birthplace in Bethlehem, earned a PhD in England, then went on to a polymath career in the arts in Baghdad. As a novelist, Jabra wrote some of the most challenging works of the modern canon, including In Search of Walid Mas'ud, The Boat, and (with Abderrahman Munif), A World without Maps. As a translator, he managed to bring life to Shakespeare and Faulkner in Arabic during the 1950s, in so doing he opened the door for a set of lively conversations about world literature among Arabic modernists. Without Jabra's translation of The Sound and the Fury, it is unlikely that novels like Men in the Sun, Miramar or Voices would have been written. As a painter, Jabra was an ardent champion of experimentation and abstraction, and he was arguably the leading essayist of the Arab world, writing widely on art, literature, history and memory. 

As a poet in the 1950s, Jabra collaborated with other poets—Adunis and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, especially—who were also experimenting with mythical themes and the ritual dynamics of formal poetic composition. At that moment, for these poets the core truth of aesthetic modernism resided in the possibility that the dead and the old might give birth to the new—and do so in art. This poem appeared in Jabra's 1959 collection, Tammuz in the City, and attests to the poet's ability to imagine the deep, mythical ties connecting his native homeland, Palestine to his adopted homeland, Iraq. 


Beneath the walls, walls.
And beneath them, walls. 
Ur, Jericho, Ninevah, Nimrud—
On the debris where the sighs of lovers went to die
Where chattered then vanished the teeth of captives, stripped bare
There, now are hills that bloom each spring
Now home to crickets and ants, 
Refuge to sparrows in the late morning
Feeling the last traces of the evening dew
Through tattered feathers
Beneath their tails lies a head
Before which millions once kneeled
Which ladies’ hands once anointed with perfume.

Hide the laments of your heart in light song. 
You son has come to stay in the valley. 
Then to wander through the wilderness
Where ladies, wrapped in soil,
Walk along the ramparts
Walls lie beneath them, and walls.

In the wastes are cities into whose halls he enters
Seeing nothing but towering walls
Punctured by blind peepholes
And marble floors stretching out, empty
Beneath the last echoes of singing voices
But nightly go the singers
Behind the walls, where the ants and crickets live
Where not hope, but the deposed kings wait. 
Where donkey manure clothes the history of states,
The memory of conquests, and the letting of blood.

Hide your desire—really, hide it! And hide also the desire of the other sons.
Beneath their feet, the lust of years and years
Chases their flesh as they race
Through the collapsing walls
Collecting the fullness of lips
In ceramic cups
Squeezing arteries and veins
So as to draw in thick blood the appetite of the night
On pages of stone. 
The eagle seizes the sun in its beak
While the viper brings forth the wisdom of its poison. 
Disguise your desire—disguise it well! 
Don bracelets of silver and pure gold, 
Bracelets of thorn and bindweed.

Ur, Nimrud, and the sacred virgins
In the temples of Babel and Byblos
Offering their bodies to strangers
So that the hills might bloom (above the old city ramparts)
So that the fields of grain might tremble with gold,
And the anemones might shiver in the meadows
Beneath the claws of the kites and crows
The lips of the widows and the virgins are parched
(Verily, cover your hunger, cover it well!)
And meanwhile, the night drags on across the walls, 
And beneath them, walls
Beneath them, walls.

— From Tammuz fi-l-madina (Beirut: Dar Majallat Shi‘r, 1959).

Advertising in Poetry

I've been perusing some of the old Beiruti poetry journals of the 1950s and 60s lately and was struck by the advertisements — and how they seem to suggest a style of modernist, petroleum-centered consumption that might go with modernist poetry. These images are from issues 5-11 (1958-9) of Majallat Shi‘r, edited by Yusuf al-Khal and Adonis, and from issues 1-3 (1962-3) of Majallat Hiwar, edited by Tawfiq Sayigh. (Critical side note: Hiwar was funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (later renamed the International Association for Cultural Freedom), a CIA sponsored front-group in the culture battles of the Cold War. The CCF also sponsored political and literary conferences in the region, including the famous 1961 Rome Conference, a landmark event in the formulation of Arab modernist poetics.

Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd (Shi'r, 1958)

Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd (Shi'r, 1958)

Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd (Shi'r, 1959)

Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd (Shi'r, 1959)

Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd (Shi'r, 1958)

Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd (Shi'r, 1958)

Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd (Shi'r, 1959)

Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd (Shi'r, 1959)

MEDCO Petroleum (Hiwar 1963)

MEDCO Petroleum (Hiwar 1963)

Hillman Cars (Shi'r, 1958)

Hillman Cars (Shi'r, 1958)

Van Heusen Shirts (Shi'r, 1959)

Van Heusen Shirts (Shi'r, 1959)

Esterbrook Pens (Shi'r, 1958)

Esterbrook Pens (Shi'r, 1958)

Middle East Airlines (Shi'r, 1958)

Middle East Airlines (Shi'r, 1958)

Middle East Airlines (Shi'r, 1958)

Middle East Airlines (Shi'r, 1958)

Middle East Airlines (Shi'r, 1959)

Middle East Airlines (Shi'r, 1959)

Middle East Airlines (Hiwar, 1962)

Middle East Airlines (Hiwar, 1962)

Middle East Airlines (Hiwar, 1962)

Middle East Airlines (Hiwar, 1962)

#IAmFamilyGuy: Charlie Hebdo Media Roundup

Last week’s horrible events in Paris have brought out the best in cultural and social commentary. It’s also brought out the worst in liberal and neocon war-mongering (e.g., New Yorker columnist George Packer speaking from his old comfort zone).

We have been called to believe in this equation before. On one side, we are told, stand the allies of freedom. On the other, extremism and intolerance. Or “The West” and “Islam” as Samuel Huntington put it, taking hundreds of years of received orientalist tradition and welding it into many of the policy recommendations that rule our contemporary world.

Given the abstract, wholly undefined character of this magical equation, almost anything can be plugged into it. As if most of our commentators—from Fox News to CNN—were reading from the same Mad-Lib, adding nouns and adjectives, verbs and adverbs in the appropriate spots. Judeo-Christian tradition versus Islam. Moderate Islam versus extremist Islam. Enlightened versus barbaric. Freedom versus tyranny. Peace-loving versus violent. But underneath them all lie the two most basic binaries: us versus them; human versus inhuman.

In Washington, DC, hundreds of Americans marched yesterday in solidarity, although what they were in solidarity with is unclear. Down the street from where I live, the gates of the French Embassy are covered with flowers and signs that say #JeSuisCharlie, whose most accurate (or idiomatic) translation might be #IAmFamilyGuy. In Paris, despots and democrats rushed to be seen as defenders of freedom, even though everyone there knew that they are anything but. The only thing that was missing from the gathering was George W. Bush to remind us that you’re either with us or against us.

I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said better by the handful of brilliant commentators who have been cutting through the fog, shedding light on the attack, its meanings, and its implications. I recommend their essays (in no particular order):

  • Juan Cole soberly observes that the purpose of the attacks was to "sharpen the contradictions" in order to push the French public—and Europe—to take increasingly extremist positions toward Islam. 
  • At the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz writes on the moral logic (and rhetoric) of the moment, and its ties to violence.  
  • On his blog, A Paper Bird, Scott Long critiques the cheap “solidarity” of the media gestures toward the tragedy, and suggests that true solidarity involves something more difficult, like understanding that it is not enough to say (or imagine) that we are all alike.
  • At the Globe and Mail, Nahrain al-Mousawi reminds us that the attacks in France belong to a broader context, which includes a history of attacks on free expression in the Arab world.
  • Cartoonist Joe Sacco shows that in the end, the abstract right to free expression is always tied to particular content.