Sunday, July 27, 2008

R.I.P. Youssef ("Jo") Chahine

Allah yarhamu.

Egypt's great filmmaker, Youssef Chahine, passed away this morning in Cairo, at the age of 82. I was no great fan of most of the films he produced over the past two decades, but his production of the fifties and sixties puts him in the class of one of the world's great filmmakers. Cairo Station (Bab al-Hadid) in particular is quite simply, an almost perfect film. (See my earlier, brief, comments on it here.)

The photo shows Chahine in his role as Qinawi, in Cairo Station, holding a knife to Hanuma (played by Hind Rustum).

Note that the AFP story on Chahine's death linked to above includes a statement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy praising the director. In France, even a right-wing politician who is elected on an anti-immigrant platform is expected to have something favorable to say about an Arab artist with a global reputation. There would be no such expectation of Obama, if he is elected president, especially when it comes to Arab artists. Unless they have been approved as "moderate," i.e., in favor of peace with (read: surrender to) Israel. Which means no Nobel prizes, or favorable statements, about any for Arab artists, post-Naguib Mahfouz (d. 2006). Chahine was not "moderate."

Check out this smart obit in The Guardian. As of this moment, the New York Times has not seen fit to mention his death.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Battle of Algiers Soundtrack

I've been a big fan of the film The Battle of Algiers ever since I first saw it in winter 1968-69. For the last few years I've been in the habit of screening it for my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class in the summer, for the unit on violence. Unlike other movies I show in this class, I'm always keen to watch this one again. One of the things about the film that I've become more and more interested in is the amazing soundtrack. (Unfortunately, and despite all the continued interest in The Battle of Algiers and in the soundtrack composer, Ennio Morricone, the recording is no longer in print.)

Two things in particular intrigue me, in part because I seek more information. The first has to do with the famous "milk bar" scene, the site of one of the three terrorist bombings, carried out by women militants of the FLN who are dressed up to look French. It's the milk bar that gets to me in particular, in part because I used to go to similar milk bars in Beirut when I was a teenager, in 1964 and after. Not that long after the bombings in Algiers (which took place in 1956). And not that different a setting. (Lebanon is a former colony of France, and if Lebanon wasn't a colony in the sixties, it was certainly a neo-colony).

In the milk bar the young French colons are dancing to the song, "Hasta Mañana." I've hunted around for the version that plays on screen, and can't track it down. There are lots of versions of the song available, but I can't find the one. (You can watch the segment on youtube here--the song starts about 10 seconds in.)

[See the comments, which informed me that the song in question is "Rebecca," by The Chakachas.]

The other bit of the soundtrack that I've thought a lot about is the use of gnawa music, and in particular the thunderous sound produced by the playing of qraqeb, metal castanets, backed by the pounding of the tabl, a large frame drum hit by wooden sticks. You hear these sounds at two key moments, first, when the three women are preparing to plant their bombs in the European quarter of Algiers, as they take off their veils and cut and dye their hair and put on European clothing. Knowing that the women are preparing to plant bombs, the intensity of the percussive track serves to rachet up your tension. (Watch the segment here, about 1:20 minutes in.)

The other key moment where you hear the Gnawa qraqeb and tabl is at the end of the film, when demonstrations break out in Algiers in 1962. Right at the end, when you hear the sounds of the demonstrators yelling and in particular the sounds of women ululating, the percussion starts up and the camera focuses in particular on two Algerian women who are waving flags and confronting the police. It is significant, of course, that the film ends with shots of militant women. (In the supplementary material that comes with the 2004 Criterion DVD release, the director Pontecorvo states that this was a comment on the fact that whereas women played an important role in the Algerian war of independence, by the time he shot the film in Algiers, only 2-3 years after the end of the war, women were already being marginalized.) As the narrator comes on, states that Algeria finally won its independence, and as the credits begin to roll, the Gnawa percussion merges with a piano, playing classical-style chords. You can watch this segment on youtube--go here and start watching about 4 minutes into the clip.

According to what I learned from the supplementary material on the DVD, what is being played in both instances is a traditional Algerian song, "Baba Salem." Gnawa Diffusion recorded a song called "Baba Salem," which you can here. I don't know what relation the Gnawa Diffusion song has to what we see and hear in the film. And here is a "Baba Salem" from contemporary Algeria. Since I know very little about Gnawa in Algeria, I know nothing about the meaning of the song. (But I will try to find out.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Cli Che Free Palestine
Originally uploaded by tsweden
This says it all. I found these items at a shop in East Jerusalem in June. People hang small t-shirts like this on their rearview mirror or stick them to their car windows.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Kufiya Notes #6341

Here are some random kufiya notes that I've been collecting for awhile, and haven't managed to post previously.

#1: Quiqui (pronounced Kiki) from Kabobfest speaks to Riz Khan about the kufiya, in particular about Kabobfest's efforts to try to invest the kufiya with positive meanings. Riz Khan is a major figure on Aljazeera English. (I had never watched Aljazeera English before I went to Israel, and found it to be quite professional. And more informative, on international affairs, than CNN (the US version). It's curious that Aljazeera can be seen on satellite television in Israel, while the network is virtually banned in the US.)

#2: A report from Ynet on conflicts in Israel last November over kufiyas at Haifa University and Hebrew University (Jerusalem). Palestinian students at both universities organized "kufiya days" in response to an attack on a Palestinian student garbed in kufiya. On both campuses the kufiya day events were met with counter-protests.

#3. This one is a scream. Back in April, the British anti-aviation eco-activist group Plane Stupid uncovered a corporate spy who had been sent to infiltrate them, who went by the name, Ken Tobias (real name: Toby Kendall). What gave him away? In particular, his incongruous dress habits: (corporate) Armani jeans and designer shirts along with an (activist) kufiya! Read the report in the London Times. Here's his photo--not looking so corporate, but he doesn't really know how to wear that kufiya, does he? No activist worth their salt would wear it like that!

#4: A footnote to my earlier post (kufiyaspotting #22) on Israeli fashion designer Nili Lotan and her use of the kufiya. This photo is taken from an article entitled "Battle dress" that appeared in Monocle. (I'm trying to get hold of the complete article.)

gothic bellydance

I've been meaning to investigate this phenom further ever since I saw a Goth Bellydance troupe from St. Louis perform at "Goth Night" at the now, alas, defunct Dart Room in Fayetteville. Check out this vid:

It all goes back to Theda Bara, no?

Here, for the perplexed, is a guide to gothic bellydance.

And--although I've not read it yet--a link, courtesy wayneandwax, to what I am sure is a great article by Sunaina Mair on bellydance orientalism ("arabface"). And check out wayneandwax's recent post on bellydance here.

(I hope, inshallah, to think about these things a bit more systematically in future.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Patti Smith Plays in Lebanon, at the Byblos Music Festival, July 8

Patti in Byblos (Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images)

Patti Smith is simply da bomb. She practically invented punk. She continues to be a model for women in the rock music scene. And she continues to write and release essential music.

And...she is one of a handful of popular US artists to manifest sympathy for Arab victims of Israeli militarism. During the Israeli onslaught on Lebanon in summer 2006, she wrote the song "Qana," about the Israeli airstrike on that village in Southern Lebanon on July 30 (you can download it here).

I've never, ever, had the pleasure of seeing her in concert. But I'm very excited that her fans in Lebanon got to see her perform at the Byblos Music Festival, on July 8.

The following is from a Reuters report on her visit:

Smith said performing in Lebanon was one of her big dreams and that she felt a bond with the Lebanese because of the tragedies and trials both have gone through.

"We're very very proud to be with you tonight in Lebanon. It is a great dreams of ours to be here," Smith told fans.

Smith, an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and a published poet, said she felt kinship to Lebanese who have witnessed much turbulence in the past few years, from war with Israel to internal fighting.

"My first impression was the hospitality and generosity of the people, not looking at me funny, not thinking who is she, what is she dressed like. Everyone has been completely unjudgemental and I find, you know the city [Beirut] is vibrant and interesting and you know you were talking about me facing tragedy but the city and also people have also undergone all kinds of trials and tribulations and I know about trials and tribulations," Smith, told a reporters a day before the concert.

Here's a link to an NPR report on the concert by Zena Barakat. Zena doesn't mention it, but Patti did perform "Qana" at Byblos, as reported in The Daily Star.

And listen to Patti performing the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." I feel fairly confident that the Rolling Stones couldn't do the song so much justice if they were performing it live these days.
Gimme Shelter [Rolling Stones cover] - Patti Smith

R.I.P. Salah Ragab

Allah yarhamu. I just got word (via the Sun Ra list), of the death of Salah Ragab. Here's what Ragab's collaborator Hartmut Geerken wrote:

Salah Ragab, drummer and founder - together with Hartmut Geerken and Edu Vizvari - of the first Egyptian jazz-bigband, died beginning of July in Cairo, aged 72.

Since his introduction to Jazz by Malik Osman Karim Yaqoub alias Mac X Spears in the early 1960, Salah Ragab performed with many important American and European jazz musicians. His collaboration with Sun Ra in the 1980 marked a significant time in his artistic life. As composer and bigband leader he introduced Arabic harmonies and rhythms to jazz.

(The Sun Ra Arkestra meets Salah Ragab in Egypt, Leo Records GY.
Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band present Egyptian Jazz, Art Yard LP 006. (For a good review, go here. Hopefully this album will soon be out on CD as well.)

Sun Rise in Egypt. Sun Ra & Salah Ragab, the Historic Nights & Concerts of the Arkestra in Cairo Egypt 1984, Vol. I - III, Sphinx Records ECD 25735)

I only own The Sun Ra Arkestra meets Salah Ragab in Egypt, which is a great album, and the tracks featuring Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band really swing. Salah Ragab was one of the few non-USers to perform with the Sun Ra Arkestra. If memory serves, I believe that the only other was Talvin Singh.

Check out this video (composed of stills) of Salah Ragab and Sun Ra, set to the tune, "Egypt Strut":

And this one, with black-and-white footage of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, fully costumed, frolicking at the site of the Great Pyramids, Giza, Egypt:

Addendum, July 11: Here's a good bio of Salah Ragab by Joslyn Layne, on

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Saudi Arabia: Awash in Cash...and Meth

In an earlier post, I quoted from an article by Mike Davis, and I reproduce one bit again:

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, whose total gross domestic product has almost doubled in just three years, are awash in liquidity: $2.4 trillion in banks and investment funds...

Does the fact that Saudi Arabia is loaded with cash have anything to do with the fact that, according to the latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), "Saudi Arabia accounted for 28 per cent of all global amphetamine seizures in 2006"? (Financial Times, June 27).

The report in the Financial Times continues:

The quantities impounded in the kingdom started to rise sharply in 2004 and reached 12.3 tonnes in 2006. "This is equivalent to the sum of all UK seizures - the biggest amphetamine market in Europe - from 2000 to 2006," the report said. A further two tonnes of amphetamines destined for Saudi Arabia were seized in neighbouring Oman.

Antonio Maria Costa, the UN agency's executive director, said his organisation was talking to the Saudi government about the trend, which appeared to have continued into last year.

"If you are asking me for an explanation, I don't have it. I'm very perplexed," Mr Costa said.

"Assuming that the efficiency of law enforcement doesn't change very much over a short time, it suggests that this had been mostly for local consumption."

You can check out the UNODC's World Drug Report for 2008 here. It provides these additional details: "Amphetamine tablets for the Near and Middle East have typically been produced in Southeast Europe (Bulgaria and Turkey) and trafficked and marketed as Captagon to Near and Middle East countries. Saudi Arabia is the largest such market in the region. Captagon typically transits over land through Turkey, Syria, and Jordan before arriving in Saudi Arabia."

Meanwhile, this report from Syria, courtesy The caption accompanying this AP photo by Ola al-Rifai reads as follows:

Syrians are seen chanting at a rally in downtown Damascus,Syria, Monday, April 21, 2008, to protest Saudi Arabia's beheading of two Syrians on Friday after being charged on drug trafficking and called for handing over the prisoners to Syria. Hundreds of Syrians are being held in Saudi Arabia on charges of drug trafficking and their families and relatives in Damascus complained that most of them were initially sentenced to 20 years in prison, but the verdicts were abruptly changed to death. They hold banners which read: Our sons in Saudi Arabian prisons are subject to oppression and exaggerated verdicts. Their heads are being cut off without justice.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

October 1957: University of Arkansas Student Senate Disinvites Louis Armstrong

In a previous post on cultural diplomacy, I referred to Penny Von Eschen's book, Satchmo Blows Up the World. At the time, I had not read it, although I had read Von Eschen's article, "Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz, Race, and Empire during the Cold War," in Wagnleitner and May. Now I have read the book--that's how I spent part of yesterday, the 4th of July. (Go here for an interview with Von Eschen about the book.)

One of the tidbits I learned in this enormously informative book has to do with the University of Arkansas, where I have been teaching since 1996. And it has to do with the incident referred to in the earlier post. I quote again from the New York Times article I referred to earlier:
[Louis] Armstrong canceled a 1957 trip to Moscow after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce school-integration laws. 'The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,' he said. 'It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.'

Armstrong also had some choice words for Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who had ordered National Guard units to Little Rock's Central High, to prevent African American students from entering the school. In an interview with student journalist Larry Loubenow in North Dakota, Armstrong called Faubus a "no-good motherfucker," which was toned down for mass consumption in the press as "uneducated plowboy."

Eisenhower eventually did send troops in to Litle Rock, and Armstrong praised his actions. But he continued to blast Faubus. In October 1957, Armstrong and his manager gave an interview, in which they discussed the fact that Satchmo was booked to play at the University of Arkansas, where had played at the U of A two years earlier. ("A History of the Arkansas Traveler," an account of the U of A student newspaper.) According to Von Eschen, Armstrong added that he'd rather play in the USSR than in Arkansas, since in Arkansas, "Faubus might hear a couple of notes--and he doesn't deserve that." In response, the University of Arkansas Student Senate canceled the concert.

Here's how the "A History of the Arkansas Traveler," an account of the U of A student newspaper, tells the story:

The Traveler reported that Armstrong’s manager in New York had referred to the new contract as “a great moral victory” and that Armstrong had told the press that he resented that Governor Faubus would be listening “to those beautiful notes that will come from my horn...He doesn’t deserve them.”

The statements caused a disturbance among the white students and administrators. Jack Davis, the president of Associated Students, and D. Whitney Halladay, the dean of students, said they did not expect an entertainment contract to be used as a “springboard for ill-advised statements” or that it would involve the student body, the university or the state in controversy. The Student Senate met that day and voted to rescind the contract with Armstrong and was backed up by President John Tyler Caldwell. In The Traveler’s first editorial page following the incident, the editor supported the Student Senate’s “prompt efficient action” in canceling Armstrong’s contract:

Hasty and ill-advised ventures have in the past given the University a shaky reputation with many people downstate. To uphold the Armstrong contract would be taken by many as approval of derogatory remarks about Arkansas and its chief executive. This, the University cannot afford. ... Your senate proved to be more than a group whose chief function is to select queens and send delegates to conventions. It showed itself to be a clear thinking governing body with the best interests of the school and state at heart.

The "History" goes on to report on a letter to The Traveler that said that this step put Arkansas in the same league as Mississippi and the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the dis-invitation doesn't seem all that dated or "sooooo nineteen-fifties" to me, given all the recent cancellation of Desmond Tutu's scheduled lecture at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota (because he is too critical of Israel), and all the other sorts of campaigns against scholars like Nadia Abou El-Haj, Joseph Massad, and Norman Finkelstein. What is, unfortunately, a bit unusual about this case is that it is one in which a major, much-beloved popular musician takes a political stand, and takes heat, and loses money, for it.

Jazz great Charles Mingus (who also served as a jazz ambassador) had these choice comments about Faubus, in the lyrics from his great 1960 recording, "Fables of Faubus":

Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us! Oh, Lord, no more swastikas! Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan! Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie. Governor Faubus! Why is he so sick and ridiculous? He won’t permit integrated schools. Then he’s a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists! Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan) Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond. -Faubus-Rockefeller-Eisenhower Why are they so sick and ridiculous? Two, four, six, eight: They brainwash and teach you hate. H-E-L-L-O–Hello.

To read more, and to hear the song, go here.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Anthropocene, Sultans & Emirs

Some excerpts from Mike Davis' recent, apocalyptic, very scary account of the end of the Holocene and the onset of the Anthropocene. Be sure to read the entire account.

"...Whether or not we are actually at the summit of Hubbert's Peak--that peak oil moment--whether or not the oil-price bubble finally bursts, what we are probably witnessing is the largest transfer of wealth in modern history. An eminent Wall Street oracle, McKinsey Global Institute, predicts that if crude oil prices remain above $100 per barrel--they are, at the moment, approaching $140 a barrel--the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council alone will "reap a cumulative windfall of almost $9 trillion by 2020." As in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, whose total gross domestic product has almost doubled in just three years, are awash in liquidity: $2.4 trillion in banks and investment funds according to a recent estimate by The Economist. Regardless of price trends, the International Energy Agency predicts, "more and more oil will come from fewer and fewer countries, primarily the Middle East members of OPEC [The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries]."

Dubai, which has little oil income of its own, has become the regional financial hub for this vast pool of wealth, with ambitions to eventually compete with Wall Street and the City of London. During the first oil shock in the 1970s, much of OPEC's surplus was recycled through military purchases in the United States and Europe, or parked in foreign banks to become the "subprime" loans that eventually devastated Latin America. In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the Gulf states became far more cautious about entrusting their wealth to countries, like the United States, governed by religious fanatics. This time around, they are using "sovereign wealth funds" to achieve a more active ownership in foreign financial institutions, while investing fabulous amounts of oil revenue to transform Arabia's sands into hyperbolic cities, shopping paradises, and private islands for British rock stars and Russian gangsters.

Two years ago, when oil prices were less than half of the current level, The Financial Times estimated that planned new construction in Saudi Arabia and the emirates already exceeded $1 trillion dollars. Today, it may be closer to $1.5 trillion, considerably more than the total value of world trade in agricultural products. Most of the Gulf city-states are building hallucinatory skylines--and, among them, Dubai is the unquestionable superstar. In a little more than a decade, it has erected 500 skyscrapers, and currently leases one-quarter of all the high-rise cranes in the world.

This super-charged Gulf boom, which celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas claims is "reconfiguring the world," has led Dubai developers to proclaim the advent of a "supreme lifestyle" represented by seven-star hotels, private islands, and J-class yachts. Not surprisingly, then, the United Arab Emirates and its neighbors have the biggest per capita ecological footprints on the planet. Meanwhile, the rightful owners of Arab oil wealth, the masses crammed into the angry tenements of Baghdad, Cairo, Amman, and Khartoum, have little more to show for it than a trickle-down of oil-field jobs and Saudi-subsidized madrassas. While guests enjoy the $5,000 per night rooms in Burj Al-Arab, Dubai's celebrated sail-shaped hotel, working-class Cairenes riot in the streets over the unaffordable price of bread."

Interjection: Is it time to bring back into print Fred Halliday's Arabia Without Sultans? Or for someone to pen a volume 2? Definitely time to revive the sentiment...

Back to Mike Davis:

"...the wealthy oil enclave of Abu Dhabi (like Dubai, a partner in the United Arab Emirates) brags that it has planted more than 130 million trees--each of which does its duty in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, this artificial forest in the desert also consumes huge quantities of irrigation water produced, or recycled, from expensive desalination plants. The trees may allow Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed to wear a halo at international meetings, but the rude fact is that they are an energy-intensive beauty strip, like most of so-called green capitalism....

Will the electorates of the wealthy nations shed their current bigotry and walled borders to admit refugees from predicted epicenters of drought and desertification like the Maghreb, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Pakistan? Will Americans, the most miserly people when measured by per capita foreign aid, be willing to tax themselves to help relocate the millions likely to be flooded out of densely settled, mega-delta regions like Bangladesh?...

Even in the most optimistic simulations, the agricultural systems of Pakistan (a 20 percent decrease from current farm output predicted) and Northwestern India (a 30 percent decrease) are likely to be devastated, along with much of the Middle East, the Maghreb, the Sahel belt, Southern Africa, the Caribbean and Mexico. Twenty-nine developing countries will lose 20 percent or more of their current farm output to global warming, while agriculture in the already rich north is likely to receive, on average, an 8 percent boost."

(All italics are mine.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Review of Natacha Atlas' "Ana Hina"

Here's a link to a very laudatory review of Natacha Atlas' Ana Hina, by Gérald Arnaud, published by Africultures. Unfortunately for the monolingual reader, it is published in French.

It's a very useful review, but without wanting to detract from its overall worthiness, I'd like to quibble with a couple details:

Natacha was not raised in Morocco, but in the Moroccan and Jewish districts of Belgium.

The author claims that in Egypt during the 1920s, at the same time that the Muslim Brothers were inventing "ethnocentric Islamism," "music brothers" were creating the exact opposite: a culture that mixed harmoniously the traditions of the West and the East. I don't particularly care for this rather careless binary opposition: "intolerant" Brothers vs. "tolerant" and "open-minded" musicians. The Muslim Brothers, for all their faults, played an important role in opposing, and overthrowing, the venal and corrupt Egyptian monarchy which kowtowed to the British colonialists. In addition, some of the renowned Egyptian musicians who were responsible for incorporating "Western" sounds into Egyptian music were considered tainted by their association with the Egyptian aristocracy, most particularly Mohamed Abdel Wahab. Moreover, the musical mixing of East and West was not a "harmonious" process, but one that was highly contested and argued over. Abdel Wahab was often considered to have gone too far towards Westernization in the process, whereas Umm Kulthum was much more cautious about introducing such elements. (See Virginia Danielson's "The Voice of Egypt": Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century for an account of some of these debates.)

Arnaud also claims that reviewers have trashed Ana Hina in the US and the UK--but I can't find any evidence of this. Only very favorable reviews, like this one from the BBC, which states: "Ana Hina is set to be one of the year's finest albums." I agree.