Friday, February 15, 2008

Mughniyeh Martyred

In this post I will jettison my chances of ever being granted an American visa, by committing imperially-defined thought crime and supporting the strategy, if not all the tactics, of the martyred resistance leader Imad Mughniyeh. In today’s sad world you can be demonised, even prosecuted, for refusing to sing the ideological chorus with Israel (specifically Danny Yatom) that assassinations of resistance fighters represent “a great achievement for the free world in its fight against terror.” But I believe it is important not to be cowed by such hypocrisy and intimidation.

First, the strategy. Mughniyeh was a key member of Jihad, an earlier, rougher incarnation of Hizbullah which pushed Western forces out of civil-war Lebanon in the 80s. He then became a founding member of Hizbullah and took part in its campaign to drive out the Israeli occupation from most of the south by 2000. This was the first real victory that any Arab force had won against the Zionist state. The strategy was one of well-organised, intelligent, committed resistance, and the strategy paid off. In the summer of 1996, when Israel and America tried to destroy Hizbullah and the affront to their hegemony that it represents, they were again defeated. The first-world hi-tech army that had defeated Egypt and Syria in six days in 1967, that had taken only a week to reach and demolish Beirut in 1982, spent five weeks floundering in its own blood in the villages on the Lebanese border.

And then the tactics, which are more questionable. The 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, perhaps a Hizbullah response to the Israeli assassination of its leader Abbas Moossawi, can be justified. South Lebanon was under occupation, and the embassy was sovereign Israeli territory. The 1994 bomb attack on an Argentinian Jewish cultural centre, in which 85 civilians were killed, cannot be justified. (Hizbullah has denied responsibility for both attacks, and no firm proof has been presented for its involvement.)

In a particularly messy period of the Lebanese civil war, Mughniyeh was responsible for taking foreign hostages. Again, this tactic was undoubtedly morally wrong and politically counterproductive. However, we should be aware of the hypocrisy of official Israeli and American ranting about such despicable terrorism. Israel took hundreds of Lebanese men and women hostage and tortured them in Khiyam prison (this was the context for Mughniyeh’s hostage taking). America has taken thousands of Iraqis hostage and subjected them to grotesque physical, psychological and sexual torture in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. One of Mughniyeh’s hostages was killed: a CIA man. A CIA operative is not an innocent bystander. In fact, I will use the language used by a White House rat describing the Mughniyeh assassination and say that the CIA man was “brought to justice.”

When Mughniyeh hijacked a TWA airliner in 1985, one passenger was killed: a member of the US Navy. (Apparently the Greek singer Demis Roussos was on the hijacked plane. The hijackers helped him to celebrate his birthday, and once released Roussos expressed sympathy for his Arab brothers’ plight).

Mughniyeh’s most effective operations were in 1983, against the US embassy and then the US and French military barracks in Beirut. These attacks killed hundreds and were successful in ridding Lebanon of Western military interference. These attacks are what elevated Mughniyeh to the status of ‘terror mastermind’, and provoked much handwringing over the abstract evil that drives barbarians to murder innocent peacekeepers. But Western ‘peacekeeping’ in Lebanon involved implementing Israel’s plan of expelling Palestinian forces and appointing a traitor as president who would sign a peace agreement with Israel while it was still occupying Lebanon’s capital city. American ships bombarded villagers in the Shuf mountains. American forces guaranteed the safety of Palestinian civilians once the PLO fighters left the country, and then watched the Israeli-organised and Phalange-perpetrated Sabra and Shatila camp massacres. Up to 3000 old men, women, children and babies were raped and hacked to death by coked-up militia under a night sky lit by Israeli flares. But that’s not terrorism, viewers.

On the theme of what isn’t terrorism, let me pick a few more examples… On July 17th 1981, Israel murdered 300 civilians by bombing residential tower blocks which may or may not have housed PLO offices. On March 8th 1985, the CIA failed to kill Ayatullah Fadlallah with a car bomb in Beirut, but succeeded in killing 80 of his neighbours. On April 18th 1996, Israel bombed a UN compound where the civilians of Qana, South Lebanon, were sheltering, killing 106. In July 2006, Israel killed another 28 civilians, half of them children, in Qana. Remember, sons and daughters of the free world, none of this is terrorism. It is legitimate military action on behalf of civilisation and democracy.

Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus. In his speech at the Beirut funeral yesterday, Hassan Nasrallah said that Israel has now acted beyond the usual battlefield of Israel-Lebanon and has thereby invited the resistance to “open war,” suggesting that the Hizbullah response could come anywhere in the world. It will be fascinating to see what happens next. Nasrallah is the most intelligent Arab politician there is, and he knows that a high-profile act of ‘terrorism’ beyond the Middle East would lead to an unpredictable chain of events, even to the long-threatened US-Iran confrontation. And Hizbullah’s freedom of action is severely limited by internal Lebanese politics. Although the resistance defeated Israel’s war aims in 2006, adroit US and Saudi manipulation of Lebanese sectarian and class divisions has tied Hizbullah’s hands.

The funeral, which I watched on al-Manar, was very moving. It demonstrated once again the power of the crowd, the great unity, loyalty, discipline and commitment of Hizbullah’s core supporters, these people who have offered so many martyrs, who have suffered so much and fought so hard. The success of Hizbullah derives ultimately from the fact that it is a popular movement, the only organisation or ruling force in the Arab world that is not scared of its people. When you watch these people you wonder how America and Israel can even dream of defeating them. But switch channels, and you understand. Jumblatt, with his usual absurdity, blamed Syria for the assassination, and said the wild animals are eating each other. Future TV didn’t show the funeral or Nasrallah’s speech. The clients in Riyadh and Cairo kept quiet, no doubt secretly exulting. There’s a Middle Eastern saying: Al-Arab Jarab. The Arabs are scabies.

The Western media says what it’s supposed to, all it is capable of doing. The increasingly boring and predictable Robert Fisk writes about Mughniyeh’s staring eyes and steely grip (of course, the main character in Fisk’s article is, as usual, Robert Fisk). Journalists from London to Los Angeles put the word ‘martyr’ inside smirking inverted commas, denying the victims even psychological consolation.

Meanwhile the villagers of the Lebanese Shabaa Farms and the Syrian Golan continue to live under occupation. In Palestine on Thursday a woman died after suffering a stroke when Israeli occupation troops refused to allow her to enter a waiting ambulance. On Wednesday a mentally disabled Palestinian died of Israeli gunshot wounds. Gaza continues to starve.

The struggle against terrorism continues.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Egyptian Novels

In the contemporary Arab world, Bilad ash-Sham, or the Levant, surely comes first for poetry. Whether you’re looking for Muhammad Maghout’s bitter satire, anti-romanticism, and defence of the poor and the peasants, or for Mahmoud Darwish’s lyrical nationalism -- whether you appreciate the modernist obscurity of Adonis or the powerful simplicity of Nizar Qabbani; you will turn to Syria and Palestine for your verse fix. The Arabs certainly do. For poetry in the Middle East isn’t the elite preoccupation it has become in the West. Taxi drivers and market men will quote you snippets of Qabbani’s love poetry or angry anti-occupation verse according to their temperament and the twist of the conversation. Even the illiterate may know some Qabbani from hearing it quoted in the café or crooned by the Iraqi singer Kazem as-Saher, with orchestral accompaniment. When Arab rappers want to express hardcore identity, they proclaim: “I’m an Arab like Mahmoud Darwish!” (the ‘Dam’ crew from Palestine.) That’s how uncissy Arab poetry is.

But for the Arabic novel, a genre which is only a century old (although there are much earlier precursors), the action is centred in Egypt, unsurprisingly – Egypt with its huge population and its indefinable, unmeasurable metropolis.

The most famous of Egyptian novelists is Naguib Mahfouz. Amongst the Arabs his books are bestsellers in garish covers, and many have been made into classic films. His international reputation was sealed when he became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Reflecting changes in 20th century Arab reality, his style developed from heroic through realist to magical realist or romantic symbolist.

His career began in the 1930s with historical novels such as ‘Thebes at War’ which used ancient Egyptian history to bolster patriotic pride, racial identity, and resistance to the British.

In the 1950s Mahfouz focussed on the archetypal novelistic theme: social change. This and his extensive reading of European novels resulted in the brilliant psychological realism and richly-peopled urban setting of ‘The Cairo Trilogy’, which follows three generations of a family’s life from the First World War to the Free Officers’ Revolution. The Trilogy did everything the 19th Century European realist novel had done, but perhaps did it better.

In the 60s and 70s Mahfouz’s work became more experimental. My own favourite comes from this period: ‘The Harafish,’ which means ‘the rabble’. It is a more universal study of human lust for power and immortality, and is also sexy and drama-packed. By now Mahfouz’s alleyway, that key social unit of traditional Arab cities, has become not just necessary realist background but a freefloating metaphor. It could represent Egypt, or the Arab world, or humanity. Its daily action reflects psychological and sexual tensions as well as social and political conflict.

The vaguely allegorical ‘Children of Gebelawi’ (its Arabic title is ‘Children of our Alley’) traces human history from the Fall through Judaism, Christianity and Islam to modern secular scientism. In its troubled Egyptian context, the book was controversial enough to get the old man stabbed in the neck by an Islamist in 1994. Mahfouz found it difficult to write after that, but continued producing small works until his death in 2006.

His books are classics of world literature and should be read by anyone who likes reading, whether or not they are interested in Egypt.

One star of the ‘Sixties Generation’ is Gamal al-Ghitani, whose historical novel ‘Zayni Barakat’ is particularly good. This is set in 1516 when Egypt’s Mamluk dynasty was crumbling before rising Ottoman power, but like all historical novels it has as much to say about the moment of its authorship. Many Western journalists are frustrated novelists; the oft-censored and once imprisoned Ghitani is a frustrated journalist. His fiction refers to the rise of a new Egyptian ruling class, to Israeli conquest and American hegemony, and the experience of living in a police state.

The Marxist writer Sonallah Ibrahim, in a reaction against social realism and linear narrative, produces kafkaesque and often hilarious criticism of contemporary Egypt. Another frustrated social commentator, Ibrahim blurs borders between literature and reportage. In ‘Zaat’, for instance, chapters describing the sexual, workplace and bureaucratic battles of the eponymous heroine are intercut with headlines culled from the Egyptian press which tell their own story of galloping corruption, loss of national independence, social dislocation and hypocritical Islamism.

A contemporary Egyptian bestseller, in Europe as well as in the Arab world, is Alaa al-Aswany’s ‘The Yacoubian Building.’ Mahfouz’s microcosmic alleyway has been replaced by a residential building inhabited by, amongst others, a gay character, a pious businessman-politician who makes his real money by trafficking drugs, a young woman who has to smile through sexual harrassment in order to keep her job and feed her family, and the doorkeeper’s son who is turned to political violence by frustrated ambition and police torture. Aswany doesn’t quite have the stature of Mahfouz, not yet at least, but he has the same humanist focus on social change and the same democratic comprehensiveness.

Most contemporary of all in its tone is Ahmad al-Aidy’s ‘Being Abbas el Abd’, which is an Egyptian ‘Fight Club’, amongst other things. It contains graphic weirdness and all manner of iconoclasm. Its humour and quickness of thought, and its up-to-the-minute Cairene cynicism, produce devastating lines such as a list of the ‘three options of the Arabs’: “Security in exchange for peace. Oil in exchange for food. And silence in exchange for aid.”

This slim novel has a high frequency of lines you want to underline and repeat for their own sake. Like: “She swivels her gaze with the neutrality of a security camera.” Or: “Another of the ladies is embracing me at an angle that allows her reticent breast to remain that way.” Or: “The usual Oriental machismo – that machismo that blazes up in a house as the light of a female fades.”

‘Being Abbas el Abd’ has a post-modern playfulness in its relationship with genre and literary tradition. When a prostitute relates her first sexual encounters, “She doesn’t say anything about ‘plucking roses’ or ‘and so Shahrazad reached the morning’s shore.’” The book tells us what is happening to contemporary (Egyptian) Arabic as well as to the Arabs. This is a language refigured by the computer and mobile phone, by the closepacked discourses and jargons of the metropolis, by advertising and Hollywood, by psychobabble, by the English language. “Close your eyes, drag and drop the Defilement icon into the folders of your brain,” writes our narrator. In the Arabic, there are expressions which are uncomfortably direct translations from English idiom (‘give a damn’ for instance). In translation, we read, “‘I forgive U,’ she says, dubbing herself into English.”

I have some problems with the Humphrey Davies translation. When I read “Cut to the chase,” or “Don’t act dumb with me! I mean like what’s with the women?” I have to struggle to place myself back in Cairo. But that’s because this American slang sounds foreign to me. al-Aidy is trying to make his Arabic conform to what he hears in the buses and cafés, to make it as local as possible. How do you translate that?

‘Being Abbas el Abd’ is fast-moving, globalised, irreverent, erotic, and alienated. As such it would surprise Martin Amis, who tells us that a monolithic Islamism has won everywhere in the Muslim world. It would confuse any of the commentators who complacently wrap up the ‘Arab mind’ in a trite image or two.

The West is hearing a lot about the Arabs, but only within the straitened confines of its corporate media, which inevitably simplifies. “Making Sense Of It All,” sloganises BBC World. Non-fiction written by outsiders can be good (on Egypt, ‘In an Antique Land’ by Amitav Ghosh is to be recommended), but the stuff in the best-seller lists (Bernard Lewis, VS Naipaul) usually has a narrow agenda. Novels provide context and complexity. They offer a more nuanced understanding and a sense of the human texture of a part of the world which is, naturally, every bit as diverse as any other.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

“Maps for Lost Lovers” and writerly responsibility

I’ve recently read Nadeem Aslam’s finely-constructed and richly metaphorical novel “Maps for Lost Lovers”, which portrays a British Pakistani community and its rigid boundaries over a year of daily life and crisis. Save for some occasionally unconvincing dialogue, the writing is beautiful and poetic. Unlike, for example, Martin Amis, Aslam respects his characters, who are well-rounded and complex enough to evoke sympathy even when they behave badly. He shows them busy with gossip, work, poetry – and plenty of murder. For example, a book shop owner is murdered for money by his relatives in Pakistan. At the heart of the book, Chanda and Jugnu are murdered by Chanda’s brothers for ‘living in sin.’ Chanda wants to divorce her husband so she can marry her lover, but her husband has disappeared for years, and she doesn’t know where to. Another girl is murdered by a ‘holy man’ during exorcism-beatings. And so on: a litany of crimes motivated by ‘honour’ and superstition.

One subplot revolves around a woman being forced by sharia law to marry another man before returning to a husband who has divorced her once while drunk. The actual regulation is this: if a man divorces his wife THREE times he cannot remarry her unless she has been married to someone else and that marriage has also collapsed. This is generally understood as a warning to husbands not to divorce their wives without considering the consequences. Furthermore, a divorce announced when the husband is angry or intoxicated is not recognised. As for the stranded Chanda, sharia would automatically grant her a divorce if her husband disappeared for a day longer than a year. Fair enough, Aslam is writing about uneducated people’s partial and skewed understanding of their religion, or of their confusion of tradition and religion, but this point will be lost on non-Muslim readers.

Most offensive to Muslims in Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” was his rehearsal of Christendom’s old slurs – his depiction of the Prophet’s wives as whores and of the Prophet himself as a power and sex-crazed epileptic. In this, Rushdie was being unnecessarily offensive to hundreds of millions of people. He was showing off. He was dancing for his Western audience. (The front cover of an early edition of “Midnight’s Children” declares: “It sounds like a continent finding its voice.” Despite his English education and residence and his ‘cosmopolitan intellectual’ influences, and despite the enormous and ancient subcontinental literary tradition, Rushdie was cast as the articulate native who, at last, speaks a language ‘we’ can understand. A paper could be written on how the marketing of Rushdie as much as the offensiveness of “The Satanic Verses” fuelled the angry Muslim response to this later novel). But I think most non-Muslim readers recognised that Rushdie’s version of the Prophet’s family was very far from the truth, or at least from more standard narratives. More damage was done, in my opinion, in Rushdie’s mixing of truth with malicious fantasy in his description of the religion itself. On one page, for instance, a character reports that the new religion allows a man four wives (which is true) and that it forbids any sexual position in which the woman is on top of the man (which is not). An informed Muslim reader will understand Rushdie’s self-congratulatory postmodern games, but the book wasn’t written for Muslims.

I don’t mean to put Aslam in the same category as Rushdie. Aslam is undoubtedly a better, more serious writer who confronts real issues rather than making a virtue of insults for their own sake and an ultimately unchallenging iconoclasm. Neither do I want to suggest that a writer should subvert the power and focus of his writing in order to be politically correct or to nanny the reader through his themes. I merely want to bring up the delicate issue of a writer’s responsibility in an Islamophobic climate. When Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”, “Marabou Stork Nightmares”, etc) writes about Scottish people in relation to drug abuse, rape and infanticide, his audience understands that he has chosen to focus on only one aspect of Scottish life. But honour killing and the rest are presented on a daily basis in the newspapers and the wider popular culture as emblematic of Muslim communities. For many readers, it’s not one aspect of Muslim reality; it’s comprehensive.

Perhaps Nadeen Aslam should have included a better-educated Muslim character to point out the possibility of more liberal readings of Islam. Perhaps he could have included a preface or an afterword to explain, for example, the reality of divorce and remarriage regulations in Islam. Perhaps these tactics would have diluted the work of art that “Maps for Lost Lovers” undoubtedly is. I don’t know.

I’ve written a novel myself, so I’m aware of the difficulties. Mine is about people in London, but there is backstory in Syria and Iraq. I worry that the aspects of Syrian reality that I shine light on – torture, political violence, sectarianism – could serve neo-con stereotypes, especially given the lack of good news fed to the West about Syria. It’s the traumas of Syria that are important to my British Syrian protagonist’s drama. And it’s a novel, not an essay or a piece of reportage. And .. I didn’t realise it would be published when I started writing. Neither did I anticipate the level of American-Israeli threat that would be directed at Syria in 2008.

Back to “Maps for Lost Lovers”. In Pakistan a woman is sacked from her job as a hotel receptionist for shaking hands with a man. When Chanda visits, a man attempts to molest her. Jugnu’s niece returns to marry a cousin who burns her with his cigarettes. Pakistan is a country, a character tells us, not just of wife-beaters but of wife-killers. This unremittingly dismal picture reminds me of the Bangladesh of Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane”, a country of pure poverty and injustice described in the ungrammatical letters sent by our immigrant heroine’s sister. (And why are these letters – supposedly written in Bengali – so gratingly poor in spelling, grammar and style?)

Of course I’m not suggesting that there is no misogyny in Bangladesh or Pakistan. But that, contrary to what the Daily Express tells you, is not the end of the story. When I lived in Rawalpindi, I shook hands with plenty of women – who didn’t immediately lose their jobs. There were many cases of wife-abuse in the papers, and many illiterate mullahs abusing the confidence of gullible villagers, but also many Pakistanis working to end such abuse, and an unlimited supply of jokes targetting ignorant, lascivious, hypocritical mullahs. I clearly remember people’s appalled attitudes to the Britain-returned Pakistani who kept his women shut in the house. “Where does he think he is?” they complained. “Some village in the 50s?”

And it’s not as if misogyny draws a cultural dividing line between East and West. The primary cause of death for women under 35 in the UK is domestic violence. One third of women killed in the US are killed by boyfriends and husbands.

The key issue is not religion but class, and Aslam’s world recognises this. He shows a rich Pakistani’s horror of her poor compatriots in Britain, and the ‘bad image’ they give of Pakistan in the eyes of the English. In the real world, class is forgotten by those commentators who blame Islam, or multiculturalism, for the poverty, educational underachievment and extremism of some British Pakistanis. Compare the Muslim ‘African Asians’ who arrived in Britain with a great deal of pre-existent cultural capital; they were already the business and professional class in Kenya and Uganda, and now they earn more and do better at school than their white neighbours, and are in general politically content.

It is in his depiction of alienation that Aslam excels. The community’s northern town is called ‘dasht-i-tanhai’, which means ‘wilderness of desolation’ or ‘desert of loneliness’. Britain’s Pakistani immigrants were often illiterate peasants who intended to stay no longer than five or ten years. They were focussed on making money rather than education, and anyway did not have access to good education in the industrial towns they moved to. In those days they considered it shameful to bury their dead in Britain. They had little or no interaction with white people, except for entirely negative experiences of white racism (Aslam is good on this). In many northern towns, once the factories closed even workplace interaction of Pakistanis and whites came to an end, and relations deteriorated further. Old world taboos and stigmas were clung to because they established borders around the community and expressed refusal of what was beyond it. The behaviour and beliefs that made the community overly rigid and illiberal also strengthened it and gave it cohesion. Aslam writes of this with compassion as well as revulsion, showing the tender loves maintained in private, between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and the pride in beleaguered identity.

Today this traditional Pakistani community has to a large extent collapsed. The children have rebelled in a thousand ways, and the older generation feels it has lost everything. Meanwhile, the outside remains hostile. In fact, hostility is growing, and globalising. Pakistan itself is in crisis. The British government engages in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, backs Israel’s rampages in Palestine and Lebanon. The police arrest hundreds of dark or bearded men under terrorism legislation, and end up charging almost none. Muslims are taken to court for downloading things from the internet or writing verse no more unpleasant than the gangster rap you can buy on the high street. The media prints anti-Muslim scare stories every single day. The elders despair. Some of the younger generation, unable to believe in the pieties of their parents, unable to bow their heads, no longer enjoying and suffering the structure of taboo and refusal described in Aslam’s novel, turn to crime, and even to suicide bombing.

- Thanks to my friend Tariq Yusuf – a British Pakistani – for the conversation from which these thoughts arose.

Monday, February 04, 2008


Crossing the Nile from Aswan to Elephantine Island feels like travelling to a different country. Squashed – for now – between the ruins of Abu and a gated luxury hotel are the Nubian villages of Siwa and Koti and their shared agricultural land. This was where I spent most of my four days in Aswan, returning from museums and cemeteries to the living, to banana and palm groves, rice paddies and cane fields, and the narrow alleys and painted houses of the Nubians.

I smoked with them, played dominoes, laughed and talked at great length. I returned late each night to my toothbrush in the hotel in Aswan, but they invited me to sleep in their house. They fed me a spicy cheese which tastes similar to Syrian shingleesh, but in liquid form, and fool bean paste, tomatoes and carrots full of flavour, spicy fried liver. It was the best food I ate in Egypt, a country without a decent restaurant culture, even in Cairo, so a country where the best food is simple, rural.

In the downstairs room, three three-month-old crocodiles captured from Lake Nasser stretched their necks, destined for early execution and then stuffing, or mummification – it’s the same word in Arabic. A few days later I visited the temple at Kom Ombo where sacred crocodiles once splashed in a riverside pool, and where a mummified-crocodile graveyard was excavated. So the Nubians have been stuffing animals for a very long time. My hosts told me the Nubians were the originators of ancient Egyptian civilisation. This is a simplification, to say the least, and one which reminds me of other nationalist narratives in the Middle East. In Syria you hear how Arab-Semitic culture gave the world language. Iran, so some Iranians say, was the factor that civilised a previously barbaric Arab Islam. Most absurdly, Kemalist nationalism in Turkey, with its ‘sun-language theory’ and other idiocies, claims that the Sumerians were actually ‘Turanian’ Turks, that the Turks colonised India when the Indians lived in trees, and so on. But the Nubians, being a small, divided people – and pushing the rice pudding bowl towards me as they talked – won my sympathy.

They told me many things about the Nubian language, which is Nilo-Saharan rather than Semitic. They speak it fluently, but seem to speak Arabic more often. I wondered if this was a politeness to me, although even quick sub-conversations around the room were conducted in Arabic. The one time I heard them spontaneously speaking Nubian (or Kenzi, for ‘Nubian’ is actually a group of languages) was when an elder stepped in to say hello.

Most of Nubia remained Christian until the fourteenth century. Islam and Arabic came to Nubia with Sufi drums. The chants and songs of the travelling mystics heard in markets and around campfires were Islamic, in the Arabic language. “This is how the people learned,” explained my hosts. “They dominated us in this way.” They use the word ‘domination’ but they don’t resent Islam. On the contrary, they describe Islam as a blessing and all Muslims as their brothers. They wish the Egyptian government would align itself with Islamic powers and causes rather than with capitalism and the West.

They play Sudanese-Arabic music on their mobile phones, sway and smile, and light another.

They feel themselves to be stranded between powers. When they described the inhabitants of their state, they veered between ‘we’ and ‘the Egyptians’. They are proud of the ‘nahda’, of Egypt’s former role as Arab centre of gravity, of Um Kalthoum, Abdelhaleem Hafez and Najuib Mahfouz. They are more emotional about Arab world issues than some uncomplicatedly ‘Arab’ Egyptians I met. Yet they also talked of oppression, of the misrepresentation of their history, of racism. They are conscious of their links to Sudan, where three quarters of Nubians live, and talked wistfully of the time when Egypt and Sudan were one country (recognising that Egyptians dominated Sudanese then, and that the British dominated Egypt). They boasted of the prominent Sudanese, from Nimeiry to Hassan Turabi, who have Nubian blood. At this point one of them chimed in, cautionary, that Sudan is “a land of wars.”

Their contemporary relationship with Mubarak’s state is defined by ‘development’ and the tourism-heritage industry.

The controversial Aswan High Dam is just a few kilometres up the Nile. It was built to control the sometimes destructive annual Nile flood and to generate hydro-electricity, as well as to symbolise modern Egypt’s coming-of-age and independence. One of the triggers for Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal (and the imperialist aggression against Egypt which followed) was America’s cancellation of promised funds for the dam. Its construction with Soviet help was thus seen as a victory for the Arabs and the third world as well as for Egypt. But the silt which formerly fertilised the Nile banks, the Delta, and even the Mediterranean Sea is now trapped behind the dam. Without the annual replenishment of silt, the Delta is more prone to flood (as the ice caps melt, this could become an unimaginably huge problem). The lack of silt has even led to the erosion of coastlines around the eastern Mediterranean. The dam also provides an easy target for a sophisticated enemy. One Israeli bomb on the dam would result in Cairo being devastated, so I’ve been told. But as far as the Nubians are concerned, the most profound consequence of the dam was the destruction of their villages and farms and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people when Lake Nasser was formed.

Abdul-Nasser’s government made great progress in redistributing wealth and enfranchising the poor through socialist land reforms – reforms which have since been dismantled. Nasser also won important victories against imperialism. On the other hand, his was the first regime in the Arab world to build a comprehensive police state. The state imposed itself not only on café conversations but even on nature. The history of Egypt, and in some way therefore of the world, is the history of the Nile’s fertile flood. The dam which put an end to it is an example of the folly of ‘development’, the global materialist mania for control. And the dream of Egyptian and Arab independence which was dreamed in the Rapid Eye Movement of the 50s and 60s has become a nightmare of dependence today. The Egyptian state controls a degraded Nile, and the Empire controls the Egyptian state.

Tourism, meanwhile, is the state’s biggest earner. As a result, Elephantine Island has been partitioned into, on one side, the Nubian villages and the ruins of Abu and, on the other, the ugly concrete and very exclusive Oberoi hotel. An impenetrable barrier runs between. An ancient stairway descends beneath the Nubian houses, which makes it likely that there are more temples and statues undiscovered. Elephantine was, after all, the dwelling place of Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts, who guarded and controlled the waters of the Nile from caves beneath the island. The state naturally wishes to uncover what is covered, to do its own guarding and controlling, to make another few guineas from the tourists. The villages of Koti and Siwa may not be there for much longer.

My hosts wondered whose property the artifacts under their homes and hills are. Do they really belong to the British Museum and the Louvre, to the Egyptian museum in Cairo, to the busloads of white people passing through? And what is the most intelligent way to respect and appreciate their ancient heritage, as well as their contemporary reality?