Thursday, August 31, 2006

Preeminent Egyptian Novelist Naguib Mahfouz Dies

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz (Najeeb Mahfoudh), arguably the Arab world’s greatest novelist, and the only Arab to be awarded a Nobel prize in literature, at 1988, died yesterday at a hospital in Cairo. He was 94.

Mahfouz was a distinguished, prolific writer, a humanist, a free thinker, and a unique example of the rare breed of Arab intellectuals managing to break free of the constraints of Arab society to preach a universal message of tolerance.

It is no wonder that Islamists condemned him for this very reason. In 1994, he was stabbed in the neck by extremists while he was taking his daily walk to a favourite café in Cairo. He survived the assault but lived under constant protection by the authorities ever since.

In addition to the hostility he faced from the religious establishment, he was also criticized by so-called intellectuals in the Arab world for his moderate stance toward Israel and his outspoken support for President Anwar Al-Sadat and the Camp David peace accords. Before that, he was branded a reactionary because of his well-hidden disapproval of the destructive policies of President Gamal Abdul Nasser and the coup that brought him to power in 1952. Many of his novels were banned in Arab countries.

Mahfouz is most celebrated for his epic work, The Cairo Trilogy, a novel in three volumes (Bain Al-Qasrain, Qasr Al-Shawq, Al-Sukkariya) published in 1955, which follows the fortunes of a middle-class Egyptian family through three generations during British colonial rule, independence under the monarchy and the coup that brought Arab nationalists to power. The last installment was significant because it depicted the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt around WWII and the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) movement, which later produced people like Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The trilogy shares many similarities with The Brothers Karamazov (not surprising since Fiodor Dostoevsky was a huge influence on the Egyptian novelist), both in its underlying philosophical questions, and its portrayal of the author’s own struggle with spiritual and social issues.

His stellar novel, Children of Gebelaawi (Awlad Haritna), also known as Children of Our Alley, first published in a serialised version in the Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper in 1959, brought him unwanted attention from Islamists. It was banned in Egypt on the request of Al-Azhar University because of its allegorical portrayal of God and the lives of the prophets Adam, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.

Children of Gebalaawi is divided into five episodes. The first four represent the stories of Adam (Adham), Moses (Gebel), Jesus (Rifa’a), and Mohammed (Qasim), while the last embodies modern man, or science (in the character of Arafa), on a quest to reinstate the rights of the poor and the oppressed inhabitants of the alley, also killing the enigmatic Gebelaawi (God) in the way.

Al-Azhar University, and later the fundamentalist Jihad group, condemned the work as blasphemous, since it depicted the Islamic prophet Mohammed as a womaniser, and an alcohol-drinking, hashish-smoking ruffian; the death of God (in the character of Gebelaawi); and the alleged ridicule of the Quran because the novel had 114 chapters (which, incidentally, is the number of suras or chapters in the Quran).

During the furor in the Islamic world following the publishing of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and the subsequent fatwa for apostasy, blind Egyptian cleric Omar Abdul Rahman stated that if Mahfouz was punished for his novel, Rushdie would not have dared write his. It didn’t help that Mahfouz publicly defended Rushdie’s right to publish his novel.

Naguib Mahfouz maintained that Children of Gebalaawi was a religious work that represented man’s search for spiritual values, and that he actually portrayed skewed ideas that man have made of God and religion.

Mahfouz was buried at Al-Hussein mosque near his birthplace in Cairo, according to his will. His funeral was attended by a few friends and relatives and a score of Egyptian officials, but the people of Cairo who made the characters of Mahfouz's novels were absent.

It is regrettable that funerals of great men, such as Mahfouz, in our Arab world are not attended by the Arab masses that were the main body of their work. Our people prefer to march in thousands at the funerals of their oppressors and dictators.

Big Pharaoh and Sandmonkey on Mahfouz.

NAguib Mahfouz. August, 2006

From the Lebanese Scene to the Iraqi Scene

The following is an op-ed that appeared in the Jordanian Al-Rai newspaper last Friday, by columnist Khalid Mahadin and which serves as a classic example of Arab state-controlled media reinforcing and catering to the self-delusion of the Arab masses. Al-Rai newspaper is partially owned by the government. It is published by the Jordanian Press Foundation, but it often strays far from the official stand of the Jordanian government as this op-ed demonstrates.

Read for yourself [my translation and emphasis].

From the Lebanese Scene to the Iraqi Scene

Khalid Mahadin

As much satisfaction and relief that one can feel over the present and the future of Lebanon, by following how the Lebanese were able to abort yet another chapter of conspiracy against their national unity, as a principal goal of the Zionist aggression, one also wishes that such unity and concern would lead the way in brotherly Iraq in its quest to liberate that nation from occupiers and to expel the invaders who continue to wreak havoc, murder and destruction.

In the face of the Zionist enemy, the Sunnis and Shia of Lebanon stood together, under the banner of national affiliation, in the trenches of confrontation and resistance. They were able to withstand thirty-three days in the face of the Zionist war machine and the American war arsenal – wide open to supply this machine with all the necessary needs of murder and destruction. And when [U.N.] Resolution 1701 came out to save the Zionist entity from further fragmentation and political, military and psychological collapse, the Lebanese people – Sunni and Shia – had started a large-scale operation to rebuild what the bombing and the aggression had destroyed. The world stood in awe to witness the experience of a people that did not waste a minute in waiting for the reconstruction, whether in Beirut or in any Lebanese town or village targeted by the planned destruction from the enemy’s land, aerial and naval weaponry. We followed the continuous meetings between Sunni and Shia leaders and their joint participation in touring the scenes of aggression, and in speaking in one language, stressing that a strike on their national unity is not as easy as the Zionist enemy and its allies wagered.

This Lebanese scene prompts us to ask: Why does it not create an incentive for the brothers in Iraq to stand in one trench, on one frontline in the face of the American and British occupation of their country? For it is this unity, which the occupation works to undermine, that is needed by Iraqis to put an end to the brutal infighting that is reaping lives, robbing tranquility and sowing hatred more than ever.

Any gamble on sectarianism in Iraq winning its war against the common enemy of all Iraqis is what has caused the daily tragedies perpetrated by the enemies of Iraq’s Arab and Islamic identity. It has made it more difficult to count the many parties scheming against the unity of Iraq, as a country and a people. Some of these parties are from the inside and some the extension of foreign powers and some are under the sponsorship of the occupation. All so that Iraq does not catch its breath and enter the confrontation against this occupation to drive it out and liberate the nation from its crimes and consequences.

The Iraqi scene, when compared to the Lebanese scene, is distressing. And if all the interests of the Lebanese people have been confirmed and consolidated by the unity of the Lebanese, Sunni and Shia, Muslims and Christians, the scene is the exact opposite in the wounded Iraq. Unless Iraqis realise that Islam is one and that the multiplicity of sects and ethnicities is a source of strength, not of weakness and division, the Iraqi scene will remain prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred, prolonging the occupation and offering it all the reasons to remain, to destroy Iraq and isolate it from its ummah and plunder its wealth, as a fierce enemy of all its sects and ethnicities and its ambitions and aspirations to return to its ummah, and to achieve for it a victory against its enemies in the size of the Lebanese victory or greater.

The writer insistently depicts a sense of national unity and consensus in Lebanon among the different political groups and factions in regard to the last war that is really hard to discern on the ground, whether from the statements of Lebanese officials or from the reactions of the Lebanese press (which enjoys a long history of being far more free and liberal than the press in most Arab countries) or even from Lebanese citizens. The writer chooses instead to parrot Nasrallah by declaring grand victories for Lebanon and the ‘ummah’ against its enemies (namely the ‘Zionist entity’ and the US, as its backer.)

Note that the columnist is careful not to overstep his boundaries by decrying the stand of certain Arab governments that chose to remain neutral during the conflict (Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to name a few), or by mentioning Syria or Iran. Instead, he shifts the view to Iraq - a subject that the Jordanian population feels strongly about - and laments the fact that the Iraqis are now at each other’s throats, instead of uniting under the Islamic banner (or the pan-Arab – the writer seems to have a difficulty deciding which) and turning their attention to the ‘common enemy’.

It is amusing to note that Al-Rai boasted last year that it was planning to start a 'reform' section in their newspaper to "achieve a clarity of vision against the various forms of extremism and bigotry and takfir, and to raise the flag of enlightenment in the Arab world, allowing reason to be the judge and reference.., and to make moderation the prevailing feature in thought, politics and society."

The Arab media is in such a sad state these days.

Belligerent Taxi Drivers in Jordan

Longtime readers know that I’m quite fascinated with taxi drivers. A couple of days ago I was in a taxi on my way to the U.S. embassy in Amman. What follows are tidbits from the conversation that went between the taxi driver and myself.

Taxi driver: What business might you have at the American embassy? I swear that I would never ever want to set foot in that country. In fact, a former American consul once offered my whole family citizenship. I have no need for it.

Me: Really? How come?

He then recounted an implausible story about the American consul renting or vacationing in a property that belongs to his family, and how he was so grateful for their services in the end that he offered green cards for the whole family, or something to that effect.

T: Now, two of my sons own businesses in America. We’re planning to visit them in about four months. They always speak of Niagara Falls. I really want to see those Niagara Falls. I want to see what the fuss is about. Do you know what they say about them? I heard that the water falls in a shape that resembles an arc. Allah be praised.

Z: So you are planning to go, after all.

T (ignoring the remark): It’s ridiculous the way they treat us at their embassy here. So many questions and so many investigations. They think we’re all Osama bin Ladens. No, my friend, we’re not like that at all.

Z: …

T (changing tone and peering at me strangely): You’re Iraqi?

Z: Yep.

T (complimenting me): ’Ala rasi.

[Long pause.]

T: So from which of the Iraqi governorates are you from?

Z (fully realising the intent of the question): Baghdad.

T: Baghdad. Oh, Baghdad. The capital of Al-Rashid.

[Another pause.]

T (peering at me again and predictably asking): Are you a follower of the Imamiya?

Z: No, I’m not.

T (with evident relief and a trace of a smile): So you’re Sunni? You’re not Shi’ite?

Z: Yes, you can say so.

The man looked happy now. He started bashing the Shia and their beliefs, lecturing me on how the Shia detest the companions (Sahaba) of the prophet, on how they loathed A’isha, one of the prophet’s wives (the one he married when she was just 9), and on how evil they all are.

T: So do they openly disparage the prophet’s companions in their mosques? Do they condemn Omar through loudspeakers?

Z: No, they don’t. It’s only in their literature.

T: I see. And how is it in Baghdad these days?

Z: Not very pretty, as you can see from the news.

T: I guess it isn’t. If only the lion Saddam was free. He would crush those ragtag militias in a few hours. Heh. We’ll watch how that wannabe Nuri Al-Maliki would flee for his life, that son of a bitch.

Z: …

I usually try not to get into an argument with such people. It would be counter-productive. Most of the time, I try to get them comfortable enough to reveal more of their opinions, unless I’m dead bored and I just sit back and listen to their monologues.

T: You know, when Saddam’s daughters sought refuge in Jordan, his majesty the king offered them one of his palaces and 50 million Dinars [about $70 million]. I think two of them are still here, while the third is in Qatar.

Z (nodding): …

T: One of my relatives used to work as a truck driver between Jordan and Iraq. He was once near the Iraqi Central Bank in Baghdad, and there was an enormous explosion that targeted an American patrol there. You know what the media reported? They said that 20 Iraqis were killed and dozens injured. But I swear that 45 American soldiers were killed in that explosion. This is always the case. The Mujahideen never miss their target. Do you see their videos on Al-Jazeera? They never miss.

It’s a common belief among Arabs who are sympathetic to the insurgency in Iraq that the media does not report real numbers of American casualties, or that American soldiers who are not yet naturalised U.S. citizens are not counted among them. This was most evident in the case of the Jordanian family at Al-Salt, which celebrated the martyrdom of their son in Iraq. It was reported that he detonated himself near a police station in Hilla, where dozens of Iraqis were lining up as volunteers to join the police. The blast also killed and wounded civilians at a crowded market nearby. When the martyrdom celebration caused a diplomatic crisis with the Iraqi government and embarrassed Jordan, the terrorist’s family stated that they were informed that their son had actually killed dozens of American soldiers, not Iraqi civilians.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


View of the Gulf of Aqaba from the main water road
If we are to rely on biblical scriptures, Aqaba has been continuously inhabited since the fourth millennium BC. It is mentioned as Ezion-Geber, where King Solomon built ships on the shores of the Red Sea, near Eilat in Edom (Kings 9:26). Recent archaeological excavations, however, date the site to the 1st century BC, when it was populated by the Nabateans. The Romans called it Ayla, and at the time of the advent of Islam, it was administered by the Ghassanids (Ghassasina, a Christian Arab clan from the northern Hijaz) on behalf of Byzantium. It lied at a vital junction of trading routes between Asia, Africa and Europe.

The small settlement of Ayla expanded and prospered under the Ummayid and Abassid Caliphates, because of its strategic position on the road of annual pilgrimage (Hajj) convoys to Mecca, from Egypt and the Levant. The ruins of this old settlement were unearthed in the mid eighties by an American archaeological team, and can be seen today near the hotel district.

Ruins of the Ayla fort near the hotel district at Aqaba

Ayla fort ruins at Aqaba
Crusaders occupied the area during the 12th century, and one of their fortresses still stands today on the main water road. Saladdin (Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyoubi) recaptured Aqaba, and his successors, the Mamluke Sultans of Egypt, rebuilt the fort during the 14th century. The name of Sultan Qansah Al-Ghouri (1516 AD) is inscribed in Arabic on one of the forts doorways.

The town declined and was reduced to a small fishing village during the 4 centuries of Ottoman dominion. During WWI, the Arab army of the Hashemite Sharif Hussein bin Ali (ancestor of the present Jordanian ruling family), led by T.E. Lawrence of Arabia, raided and captured Aqaba during the Great Arab Revolt of 1917.

The Arab flag of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, which is the prototype of most present day Arab flags

The Arab flag at Aqaba
The port of Aqaba then became part of the British protectorate of Transjordan, now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is Jordan’s only seaport. It has also been a major port of entry for Iraqi imports since the 1980s.

Unloaded cargo containers at the Aqaba port

Unloaded cargo containers at the Aqaba port
Aqaba borders the seaport of Eilat, Israel, and it’s possible to cross the border on foot or by taxi through the Rabin passage. Ferryboats also take passengers to the Egyptian resort of Sharm Al-Sheikh. The cities of Aqaba, Eilat, and the Egyptian Taba form the triangular head of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Aqaba, Jordan in the foreground, Eilat, Israel in the background

Aqaba, Jordan in the foreground, Eilat, Israel in the background
The triangular building across the gulf is Taba in Egypt

Taba in Egypt, across the Gulf of Aqaba
It’s a popular destination for tourists visiting Jordan to enjoy water sports, such as scuba diving, water skiing, windsurfing and fishing. The gulf’s waters are inhabited by hundreds of species of coral, fish and other invertebrates (we learned that the hard way as you’ll see shortly). Tourists taking a short cruise or diving in the gulf might come across turtles, eels and dolphins amid the resort’s world famous coral reefs. The Red Sea’s waters looked marvelously cool and crystal-clear even though the heat was smoldering at 50 C, briefly reminding us of Baghdadi summers.

I spent less than a day at Aqaba, so I didn’t get to check out most of it, except the beach resort near the Yemaniah coral reef

Beach resort at Al-Yemaniah in Aqaba
We had a short swim at the resort, until an unsuspecting Iraqi friend of ours was pricked in the foot by the spines of a black sea urchin (Diadema antillarum). The girl was screaming in agony as we desperately tried to pluck out the long black spines. They seemed so brittle, almost wax-like, and the ends obstinately refused to come out of her sole. We carried her to the shore, where two Jordanian lifeguards then proceeded to burn out the ends with a cigarette and to slap the sole with a slipper, responding to our skeptic looks that this was the best treatment available. A lebanese lady suggested that a child pee on the puncture. All the while, the young girl was shrieking and writhing under the hands of the pitiless lifeguards.

We left the beach immediately following that unpleasant incident. The girl was kind enough to offer her sole for my camera later, when she had calmed down and after my mother gave her an analgesic shot. The purplish marks are the sharp ends of the spines

Sea urchin punctures
I was too nervous to go into the water again, so this is what the black sea urchins look like (image courtesy of Wikipedia). Having no sea or beach resorts in Iraq, we were unfamiliar with the rogue. I was only thinking of sharks (a long childhood fear based on the Jaws movie), but from now I’ll be sure to watch out for sea urchins

Later, we had a hasty meal at Aqaba’s McDonalds. It was slightly more horrible than Amman’s

McDonalds joint at Aqaba
Much of the northern districts of Aqaba have been constructed during the last few years

Modern district in Aqaba
A short visit to a grand mall at northern Aqaba. A huge mural of King Abdullah II adorned the entrance. Murals and posters of King Abdullah are so abundant in Jordan these days. I don’t remember that much posters of his father, the late King Hussein, during his reign

King Abdullah mural on Aqaba mall
Veiled Fullah dolls, the conservative Arab version of Barbie doll, sold at a mall in Aqaba

Veiled Fullah dolls at a mall in Aqaba
Someone stubbed out a cigarette inside a coffee mug displayed at the mall

Cigarette stub in mug
A view of Aqaba from the mall

View of Aqaba
I’m experimenting with panoramic camera shots these days, so bear with me. This is a view of the granite mountains near the Aqaba checkpoint

Aqaba checkpoint
And guess who this brilliant chap is. This was a Jordanian security officer who scrupulously searched our baggage at the checkpoint

Jordanian security officer at the Aqaba checkpoint
Off we went to Wadi Rum (the valley of Rum), the largest valley in Jordan, just northeast of Aqaba, and 35 kilometres into the desert from the main Amman-Aqaba highway.

Famous as the base of British officer T.E. Lawrence during the Great Arab Revolt (most of the Lawrence of Arabia movie was filmed at this location), the valley is now a major tourist attraction. Tourists have the options of camping in the desert with the local Bedouin tribes, riding Arab horses, hiring camels for excursions into the desert with Bedouin guides, touring the landscape on foot, and mountain climbing.

Unfortunately, it was dark when we arrived there, so we didn’t get to explore the vast area. This is a view of one camping site at Wadi Rum, where scores of tourists were performing folk dances under the desert stars

A camp at Wadi Rum
A young local was offering his camels for a short ride

Local Bedouin kid at Wadi Ram
Damn. I feel like a tourist guide.

This is a map of the areas described above

Aqaba, Jordan
I’ll leave you with a few images from the drive to Aqaba. This is a motel near Al-Jiza, just south of Amman

Motel near Al-Jiza
Bedouin tents at Al-Qatrana

Bedouin tents at Al-Qatrana
Unlike what you see in the modern districts of Western Amman, and a few tourist resorts, most of southern Jordan actually looks like this

Mosque near Al-Hasa
These barren areas were once strongholds of Hashemite loyalty. Today, they are the most hostile to the state and are home to heavily armed, militant Islamists, criminals and smugglers. Local tribes in southern regions often clashed with Jordanian security forces over the last two decades. They defied authorities by flying Saudi flags and often pelted officials with eggs and tomatoes.

The latest violence erupted in 2002, when demonstrators in Ma’an expressed their support for Osama bin Laden following the arrest of a local radical by the police. His alleged death under torture spurred intense clashes with the authorities, and locals attacked police stations and set them ablaze. The government responded by declaring a curfew and sending several thousand Special Forces troops and helicopters to subdue the city.

Southern cities such as Ma’an, Al-Karak, Al-Qatrana, and Al-Tafilah remain the most underdeveloped in the kingdom. Illiteracy and unemployment are rampant, and the local population feels politically, socially and economically marginalised in their own country. This has contributed to a volatile environment that continues to breed extremism and violence. With increased inflation, high bread and fuel prices and continuous delay in promised reforms, this situation could explode any moment in response to the slightest provocation and would threaten to undermine the Jordanian state.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Fuel crisis gets worse in Iraq

If you ever wonder what a line at a fuel station in Baghdad looks like, this video is for you:

Queue at a fuel station in Zayuona, Baghdad. (DivX codec required)

Sorry for the poor quality. I was using a cell phone camera. This was just before I left to Amman, a bit over two months ago.

And this is a map of the line

queue at fuel station near Zayouna, Baghdad

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sectarian clashes in Baghdad

A massive wave of sectarian violence engulfed several districts of Baghdad yesterday. The violence was sparked by news reports of sniper attacks against Shi’ite pilgrims heading to the shrine of Imam Musa Al-Kadhim in Kadhimiya to commemorate his death anniversary. When the news had spread, armed members of ‘popular committees’ (militias) accompanying the pilgrims opened fire against residences in some Sunni districts surrounding Kadhimiya. Others took over Sunni mosques in Sulaikh, Dola’I, and Palestine Street, and reprisals were reported from several areas of Baghdad.

For some reason, Western news agencies have completely missed these serious developments, highly reminiscient of the confessional violence that followed the Samarra shrine attack, but both the Iraqi Al-Sharqiya and Baghdad satellite channels aired video footage of the clashes. The events were corroborated by dozens of eyewitness accounts.

In the Dola’I neighbourhood, just south of Kadhimiya, gunmen occupied the Du’at Al-Islam mosque and kidnapped the Imam, Sheikh Hassan Ali Yassin, and two guards who were in the mosque. Their battered corpses were found later.

Fierce clashes were reported at Sarrafiya, which is where most pilgrims arriving from Sadr City and eastern districts of Baghdad cross the Tigris to Kadhimiya. Al-Sharqiya TV reported that gunmen in official Iraqi security vehicles stormed into residences at the nearby Waziriya district. The Islamic Party claimed that three Sunni families, including women and children, near the Talei'a theatre, were all slaughtered by the attackers, until American troops arrived at the scene and forced the militiamen to flee.

Gunmen also attacked the Al-Janabi and Al-Quds mosque at Palestine Street, and parliament members, of the Accord front, complained that several districts and suburbs of Baghdad were attacked. A camp for displaced Sunni families at Hayy Al-Ma’alif in southern Baghdad was also attacked.

Fighting was also reported at Bub Al-Sham, Binouk, Hurriya, Dora, Hayy Al-Mechanic, Shurta Al-Khamisa, Fadhl, Wathba Square, Jisr Diyala and Madain.

The heaviest fighting took place at Sulaikh, which also lies near a main route for Shi’ite pilgrims commuting to Kadhimiya from the Sha’ab district and from suburbs north of Baghdad. Residents and eyewitnesses said the attackers came in vehicles, in open violation of the vehicle ban, at 8 am and started firing against civilians and the Al-Sada Al-Ni'aim and the Shaheed Sabri mosques. Mortar rounds from the nearby Sha'ab district also targeted the neighbourhood.

In fact most of yesterday’s violence occurred around the main routes of pilgrims to Kadhimiya, as you can see here

Militiamen were openly touting weapons in Baghdad yesterday, under the noses of Iraqi security forces that were deployed to enforce the ban on vehicles. The subtle line between Iraqi security forces and, supposedly, outlawed militias is increasingly being blurred.

Another encounter with Jordanian security

A close friend had a disturbing encounter with undercover Jordanian security agents in Amman. He was resting on a bench at Wasfi Al-Tall Street when a civilian vehicle carrying three men pulled over next to him. One of them motioned to him to come forward. They asked for his ID, to which he offered them his Iraqi passport.

Then they questioned him on his background. They wanted detailed information on where he lived in Baghdad and what tribe he was from. One of them bluntly asked him if he was Sunni or Shi’ite. My bewildered friend told them he’s Christian.

Then they went through the contents of his wallet and a plastic bag he had left on the bench. In the end they questioned him on his business in Jordan and left.

Many of my Jordanian friends and contacts insist that the authorities here don’t differentiate between Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqis. Why, then, the repeated questions both at the border and the airport on tribal and sectarian background?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Unrest in Karbala

Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Mahmoud al-Hassani hold up his portrait as they protest against a recent Iraqi police action targeting his office in the southern city of Basra August 1, 2006. REUTERS/Atef Hassan (IRAQ)

Iraqi authorities have declared a curfew in the holy city of Karbala and closed it for 3 days following clashes with Mahmoud Al-Hassani’s followers. The clashes were reportedly prompted by the takeover of the Imam Al-Sadiq religious seminary and Hassani’s offices at Bab Tuwairij in Karbala by Iraqi security forces and the subsequent arrest of several of his followers. (Al-Zaman report in Arabic)

Hassani’s followers are pouring onto Karbala in defiance of the curfew.

Who is Mahmoud Al-Hassani?

Mahmoud Al-Hassani is a former disciple of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr (Muqtada’s father) based in Karbala, briefly imprisoned by Saddam’s regime in 1999 following Sadr’s assassination. He initially pledged allegiance to the remnants of the Sadrist movement that emerged directly after the 2003 war - as did other former representatives and followers of the second Sadr (such as Abdul Sattar Al-Bahadili, Ahmed Al-Fartousi, and Hazim Al-A’raji.) By the time Muqtada Al-Sadr assumed a central role in the leadership of the Sadrist current, Al-Hassani broke off and headed his own Sadrist fringe movement with a limited hardcore following, mainly in Karbala, Basrah and Nasiriya.

By mid 2004, he unilaterally elevated his religious standing and proclaimed himself Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Al-Sarkhi Al-Hassani. He also issued theological challenges to more established and senior clerics in the Hawza, boasting that he is the most knowledgeable or foremost cleric (al-marja’ al-a’lam) and is capable of solving the most intricate jurisprudential issues (ishkalat).

These declarations were often met with ridicule and disdain from the Shi’ite clerical establishment in both Iraq and Iran. His faction never sought to participate actively in post-war Iraqi politics and, as far as I know, he was not represented with any electoral slate in the 2005 elections. In fact, his movement can be more identified as a religious cult, rather than an active politico-social group.

He exhibits fanatical obsession with the reappearance of Imam Al-Mahdi (the hidden 12th Imam, and a descendant of Mohammed through his son-in-law Ali bin Abi Talib, in the beliefs of Shi’ite Twelvers), often alluding to current developments in Iraq as signs of his imminent return. Many of these signs were detailed in Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr’s writings, such as the operation of Western spies in Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s regime prior to the war.

Al-Hassani often points out that the al-messiah al-dajjal, or the antichrist, has entered Iraq in the form of the U.S., heralding the reemergence of the 12th Imam, and that Hassani’s followers will act as the Imam’s foot soldiers to restore justice to the world and, more significantly, to fight the corrupt clerical establishment (in reference to false clerics in Iraq and Iran). This claim is often reverberated by Sadr’s Mahdi army, as Omar noted in a recent post.

Many Sadrist followers in Iraq, including their offshoot movements, strongly believe that the Americans (and Jews) came to Iraq to kill Imam Al-Mahdi or to prevent his return. In this context, you can realise the significance of the bombing of the Askari shrine in Samarra last February for the Shia masses, especially if you know that the basement adjacent to the shrine is where Imam Al-Mahdi was known to have disappeared during the 9th century, and is where he is believed to rise again.

Another interesting characteristic of Hassani’s movement is that it strongly resents what it perceives as growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Hassani often attacks Iran in his fiery sermons, and not long ago his followers attacked and set fire to several Iranian consulates in Basrah, Karbala and other southern Iraqi cities in response to an Iranian television program that mocked Hassani.

Hassani is also known for his anti-federalism stance. He also recently issued a fatwa against sectarian violence and forced deportation, in which he stated that the sanctity of the blood of Sunnis and Shi’ites is greater than that of Allah’s house (Mecca) and the prophet’s mosque. A communiqué on his website speculates that this fatwa angered ruling Iraqi parties loyal to Iran (read SCIRI). He also accused the Qom Hawza of ordering the attack against his followers, assisted by Iranian intelligence operatives in Iraq.

Some Iraqis here are questioning the timing of this action against Hassani. He is undeniably a radical but it would be ridiculous to portray his feeble movement as a threat to either the Iraqi government or the coalition. Hassani and his followers are all talk and little action. So far they have not engaged in any violence and there is no evidence that they have participated in confessional killings, unlike Badr and the Mahdi Army.

Others believe that Iran is using its Iraqi proxies again to eliminate its opponents.

No disarmament of militias on the part of the Iraqi government would be credible if the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade (both responsible for gruesome sectarian killings and often parading in official Iraqi uniform) are left intact. Hassani’s movement does not even fall under the definition of a militia.

The Ded Sea, Jordan

A view of the Dead Sea from the Jordanian side.

The Ded Sea before sunset

The Ded Sea before sunset

Tourists lounge at the Ded Sea beach at sunset

The Ded Sea at sunset

The Dead Sea

The road to the Dead Sea from Amman

The road to the Dead Sea from Amman

Monday, August 14, 2006

The ‘Divine Victory’

Hassan Nasrallah just announced that Hizbullah has achieved a “significant strategic and historical victory against Israel, not just for Lebanon and the resistance, but also for the entire Umma.”

Of course, for leaders like Nasrallah, their mere survival is a victory in their eyes, and the eyes of the ‘Ummah’. I am reminded by Saddam Hussein's speech in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. The fact that the Shi’ite warlord managed to fire hundreds of missiles deep into Israel, a feat that not even Gamal Abdul Nasser could achieve in his time, represents another major victory for the Arab and Muslim masses starving for any semblance of Israeli and western defeat, only to add more imaginary victories to feed their self-delusion for years to come.

Other snippets from Nasrallah's televised speech:

"We emerged victorious in a war in which big Arab armies were defeated before."

“Who will defend Lebanon in the case of a new Israeli offensive? The Lebanese army and an international force in the south will be incapable of protecting Lebanon.”

“Hizbollah will not be pressured or terrorised to give up its arms.”

“Those who discussed the disarmament of Hizbullah’s weapons at this critical stage are mistaken,” in a reference to Lebanese politicians who spoke against Hizbullah’s provocative attack, adding that any such discussion is “immoral.”

Lebanese Hizbullah supporters are, typically, firing celebratory gunfire in the southern suburb of Beirut as we speak, while distributing posters of Nasrallah with the title 'the divine victory.' Amazing how fast those posters were printed.

Other Lebanese don’t seem so impressed.

I think we all agree that, despite heavy military and operational losses for Hizbullah (though some would dispute that, since its rockets continued to pour consistently into Israel until the last day of hostilities, notwithstanding Israeli claims that over 50% of its rocket arsenal has been destroyed) and substantial damage to Lebanese infrastructure, Hizbullah’s position in the region and in Lebanon has been given a considerable boost. The weakened Lebanese government will now have to tread with care.

Iran must be rubbing its hands with glee right now.

The State of the Blogosphere

Dave Sifry, CEO and founder of Technorati (the ultimate weblog tracking portal), offers another timely report on the present state of the blogosphere. Key findings: Technorati tracked its 50th millionth blog two weeks ago; the blogosphere is steadily doubling in size every 6 months or so; and the blogosphere is more than 100 times larger than it was 3 years ago.

Blogs never fail to fascinate me.

I was telling the Iraqi bloggers in Amman yesterday that a majority of Internet users (an estimated billion people) would soon have blogs, just as it’s given now that they all own personal email accounts.

We also discussed where the Iraqi blogosphere stands in the midst of these developments. Iraq Blog Count lately counted its 212th Iraqi blog, which can be somewhat impressive, given that there were only 4 Iraqi blogs before October 2003, just before the launch of the second wave of Iraqi bloggers, which added exponentially to the growth of the Iraqi blogosphere.

But still, looking at Sifry’s data, one cannot help but wonder: is that all we can offer to the blogosphere? 212 Iraqi blogs?

More on this later.

UPDATE: Omar responds.

An Al-Jazeera worker blogs from Qatar

Abdul Rahman Warsame, a Somali-Australian post-grad student and an employee of Al-Jazeera TV, currently residing in Doha, Qatar, recently created a blog dealing with Middle Eastern/North African issues.

He promises to "create a conversation on development issues (media, democracy, health, education) and commentary on current issues (Israel-Arab conflict, Iran nuclear, Iraqi situation, etc.)

His posts are well worth a look.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Amman Photos, Part 3

Scene from Quraish Street (Sa'f Al-Sail), downtown Amman

Scene from Quraish Street (Sa'f Al-Sail), downtown Amman

Jordanian traffic policeman writing a ticket for an unfortunate driver

Jordanian traffic policeman writing a ticket

My favourite Jordanian dish: Mansaf, basically lamb cooked in sheep yoghourt, and served with rice and fried almonds

My favourite Jordanian dish: Mansaf, basically lamb cooked in sheep yoghourt, served with rice and fried almonds

This one deserves further comment. Those innocent looking middle-aged vendors selling souvenirs (beads, old coins, stamps, defunct Iraqi bank notes with Saddam's face) for tourists are a bit more than street vendors. Notice the bald fellow hiding his face from the camera? He turned out to be an undercover Jordanian security agent. Just after I took the photo, he beckoned for two other men to follow him and headed to the bench where I was sitting with another friend, sipping horrible tea made out of bags. He asked me, with authority in his tone, from which country I was from and why I was shooting people's faces. I told him I was from Iraq and offered for him to scan through the photos I took that day. He checked each photo closely while explaining that this was a delicate security issue and warned that I should be careful while taking photos, otherwise I would probably be taken for interrogation and my camera confiscated. I was watching the group of Japanese tourists all over the place with video cameras and resisted the strong urge to point out why they weren't stopped and questioned. Anyway, I can now officially announce that this was my third encounter with undercover Jordanian security agents over the last three years. They seem to be all over the place.

Undercover Jordanian security officers sell Saddam souvenirs

Saddam memorabilia sold at souvenir shops in Amman

Saddam memorabilia sold at souvenir shops in Amman

Scene from the old quarter of Amman (Wast il balad), near the Hussein mosque

Scene from the old quarter of Amman (wast il balad), near the Hussein mosque

An old hotel at downtown Amman

Cairo hotel

The 'New Yourk Nigt Club' at Shmeisani, central Amman. Judging from their spelling, I'm sure they serve great bloody marys.

The 'New Yourk Nigt Club' at Shmeisani, central Amman. Judging from their spelling, I'm sure they serve great bloody marys.



A lone saxohpne player at Suweifiya, southwest of Amman.

Lone saxophone player at Suwaifiya

Fast food chain restaurants are all over Amman. This is the Arabised Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Fast food chain restaurants are all over Amman. This is the Arabised Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Popeyes, Burger King, and Hardees at the Sixth Circle, near Suwaifiya.

Popeyes, Burger King, and Hardees at the Sixth Circle, near Suwaifiya.

Pollo Ranchero at Al-Medina Al-Munawara Street: latin flavour.

Pollo Ranchero at Al-Medina Al-Munawara Street: latin flavour.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Adventures of Iraqi Bloggers in Amman

Iraqi bloggers put their best foot forward

Our small group of Iraqi bloggers in Jordan has expanded with the much welcome addition of Baghdad Treasure and 24 Steps of Liberty. We met twice with the new bloggers during the last few days, after our initial get-together at Mecca Mall a few weeks ago.

I’ll leave it to the bloggers to describe the meetings, but it suffices to say that the last meeting at Al-Hussein park, west of Amman, boiled down to my brother, Nabil, singing and strumming tunes (ranging from Hotel California to Fade to Black and Fog Al-Nakhal) on his acoustic guitar, with everyone else humming and singing along while stuffing ourselves with snacks and Pepsi; a scene that, sadly, would be virtually impossible to replicate back in Baghdad!

Another teaser from the last meet up:

Nabil playing his guitar

I also attended the latest periodic meet up of Jordanian bloggers. You can find an account of how that one went at Khalidah’s blog.