The looming threat of ISIS in Sudan
Albert Gonzalez Farran/Demotix. All rights reserved.
The news about Sudanese students who fled to Syria via Turkey in March went viral and shocked many in Sudan and beyond. These young students, from Khartoum’s upper middle class, are believed to have entered Syria illegally and are currently volunteering as medics in ISIS strongholds. Five of them are students at one of Sudan’s most expensive higher education institutions, the University of Medical Sciences and Technology (UMST).
Their departure from Khartoum to Turkey would have been noticed had it not been for their foreign passports, as Sudanese immigration law requires exit visas for Sudanese travelling abroad, stating their reason for travel, and on the Turkish side, borders are open only for western passport bearers.
One of the fugitives stated on twitter, "we are a big group here, we are safe, and everything is OK"; when asked to contact his heartbroken mother, his reply summed up their mission: “we are here for the sake of Allah”.
Although the real motive for the students’ travel to an ISIS stronghold has yet to be proven, from a Sudanese perspective their story has refocused attention on the fragile state of the country and the looming threat of the growing ISIS recruitment machine.
This event has also highlighted how Sudan continues to evolve as a centralised entity, where such events receive condemnation only when they strike the central chord. Sudanese delude themselves if they believe that this incident is isolated, because it was not the first.
Above all, Sudan’s lack of democratic governance, ISIS’s effective style of decentralised leadership, and the aggressive political and religious stance currently prevailing in Islamic discourse, underpin ISIS’s ability to recruit Sudanese youth. The last two points feed the central thrust of this article, as democracy in Sudan is an on-going debate.
Fundamental Islamist groups have for some time been a threat to the conservative and moderate version of Islam in Sudan; however ISIS’s penetration presents a particular quandary for Sudanese society as it targets youth.
Recently the country has had many extreme attacks. The rise of political Islam began in 1989, and during the 1990s Sudan provided a safe haven for radical Islamist groups, hosting Osama Bin Laden and his ‘Afghan Arabs’ groups.
In December 2012, the Sudanese security forces attacked a fundamentalist training camp in the remote area of al-Dindir national park in the south-eastern state of Sennar. More than a dozen militants were killed and more than twenty arrested. The governor of Sennar, Ahmed Abbas, said that those who were arrested were university students and their leader a university teacher.
Later it was established that the group members and their leader had been previously arrested in 2007, when the government foiled a terrorist plot by what later became known as the Salma explosions group in southern Khartoum.
Both groups have direct links with the killing of John Granville, the American USAID employee and his Sudanese driver Abelrahman Abbas, in Khartoum on 1 January 2008. The killers were sentenced to death but they managed to escape, raising suspicions of inside help.
In January 2013 al-Qaeda in Sudan announced the birth of their student wing in the University of Khartoum, in a new sign of growing extremist influence on young students.
When France commenced its military campaigns in northern Mali in October 2012, several pro-radical Islamist websites rejoiced at the arrival of 150 Sudanese mujahedeen. The involvement of Sudanese jihadis was corroborated when in February 2013, a French airstrike in Mali confirmed the death of the Sudanese veteran jihadi leader known as Abu Hazim—allegedly the head of al-Qaeda in Sudan.
In his company was Ahmed Hassan Osman, known as ‘al-Barlom’, a term given to students in their first year of university. Al-Barlom later died in another French strike in Mali. According to reports, the Sudanese jihadis in Mali were mostly young people and included two students from the UMST, one of them allegedly the missing Osman Fagiri.
In mid-2014, the Sudanese cleric Mohamed Abdullah al-Jazouli expressed his full support for ISIS from the podium of his mosque in the Taif neighbourhood in Khartoum. Al-Jazouli was arrested by Sudanese security forces a couple of times for the extreme messages he spread.
On 7 May 2014, the Sudanese ISIS jihadist figure Mazin Abdulatif was killed on his 19th birthday in an air strike in Al-Ramadi in Iraq. Mazin, known as Abu al-Baraa al-Muhajir, was considered the youngest jihadi to lead a large faction in Iraq. Mazin spent one year in Syria before he was assigned to lead ISIS campaigns in Iraq. The death of Mazin was deeply mourned in jihadist social media. Mazin’s two older brothers Moayad and Montaser are both detained in Huda prison on charges related to al-Dindir’s activities.
On 14 February, citizens of al-Hasahisa town in al-Gezira state were taken by surprise when engineer Gurashi al-Zain was attacked in an ISIS-inspired attempt to behead him in front of his family. Citizens and security forces were able to capture the assailant and Gurashi al-Zain was rescued.
Recently on 16 March, news spread over social media to confirm the death of Abdullah Mohamed Suleiman Bello in the city of Sarat in Libya. This coincides with the death of another youngster, Abdulsalam Musa, who was fighting with ISIS in Syria and who died near the Latakia boarder.
Political and religious discourse
The political context needs to be considered when trying to understand the spread of Islamism in Sudan. In fact, Sudan was long known for practising a moderate form of Islam, originally spread peacefully through the Sufi movements that first came with Arab migrations in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Traditional religious leaders focusing on the Sufi practice of self-control practised an accommodating version of Islam and succeeded in merging Islamic rituals with African tradition and cultural beliefs.
This religious tolerance gradually started to change with the penetration of Islam into the political life of Sudan, as early as the 1970s; however it was when the Al-Ingaz regime clung to power in 1989 that the political position and discourse of Islam changed.
Younger generations in Sudan raised during the tenure of political Islam have had different political and religious experiences that have promoted radical jihadi language.
For instance, this era ordered the replacement of school uniforms for children from ages 5 to 15 with military uniforms, to brainwash children from an early age into believing in the on-going war the regime was conducting in the southern part of the country, now South Sudan. They were taught that citizens in that part of the country were ‘kufar’, meaning infidels, and that those who fought them were ‘mujahedeen’, the plural of mujahid.
Parallel to the imposition of military uniforms, traditional school names were replaced with Islamic names denoting the prophet Mohamed’s companions. Moreover, after completion of preliminary and secondary school, youth were forced to join a military camp of two to three months, in what was called the Popular Defence Forces (PDF). These camps were a precondition to enrolling in any university. The PDF camps were a locus of radical jihadi discourse and the conscripts fought alongside the Sudanese armed forces in the war with South Sudan.
Furthermore, in the past, districts in Khartoum and other Sudanese towns had open public spaces in each neighbourhood, normally used for social occasions and as playgrounds and sports fields for children. Up to the mid-1990s, each district had its own team, which competed with teams from other neighbourhoods in energetic small leagues called rawabet.
These playgrounds, which provided space and activities for youth, are no longer there. Short-sightedly, local authorities were given the green light to sell them and, hungry for financial resources, they wasted no time in doing so, leaving only a small space in the corner of each yard called al-Zawya meaning ‘the corner’ in Arabic. These zawyas, which are used as small mosques, now proliferate in Khartoum.
Consequently, the youth were conditioned to war and to jihadist language, with TV, radio and other media channels repeatedly reporting on and promoting the 'holy war' in South Sudan. The deliberate destruction of locations for public gathering and sporting activity, and the embedding of jihadi language in daily life, sowed dragon teeth in the heart of society. Politically these policies were essential for the Ingaz regime to reinforce its hold on power.
Sudanese youth see only a bleak future for their country, which seems doomed to suffer and struggle. An ill equipped and poor country, with dehumanising social conditions and entrenched disparities and inequalities among citizens, leaves the youth without hope. Economic, social, and above all, political failures provide little hope that Sudan will emerge out of its quagmire.
Out of desperation and frustration the youth have decided to take things into their own hands. In his recent election campaign, the Sudanese president, Omer al-Bashir, who is running for a new five-year presidency term, pledged to implement “clean Sharia” in a Sudan where there is “no place for secularism and its supporters”—proof of the continuation of the same vacuous discourse conducive to extremism.
The many-headed hydra
Desperate political conditions are not the only element influencing the rise of ISIS in Sudan. One additional factor is its widespread network and ability to regenerate, like the hydra with different heads. This organisation has an impressive ability to function loosely, with very little need for formal structure or central leadership. In this case even if the head is cut off, the body will live on.
Recently in Sudan, seven Salafi figures signed a statement by a group called ‘jihadists around the world’ to give bay’ah or allegiance to al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. There is very little affinity and organisational structure or leadership to link these leaders. Their local priorities, approaches and goals are different. Perhaps what they share is fraternal support for each other and what unites them is their distaste for western values in general, particularly western democracy and secularism.
What distinguished ISIS and what has also apparently attracted Sudanese youth is its advocacy of a Caliphate for all Muslim people, rather than the modern nation state with boundaries inherited from western colonialism.
The quick emergence of ISIS has made possible the attainment of the dream of a Muslim Caliphate, at least in the mind of youth. They have provided a unifying operational ideology that calls for re-establishing the Caliphate state with little cohesive need for structure or leadership.
ISIS’s penetration in Sudan is not an exclusively elite phenomenon, even though it surfaced among the elite only when it directly affected them. The problem needs to be solved not by fighting Islamist groups or the heads of these organisations, as their hydra-like nature will generate new heads. The ISIS threat is not rooted in one place in Sudan; even South Sudan is not immune from the grip of ISIS. Its method of attack is not particular; it can strike anywhere, and anytime.
A recent UN report warned that Sudan’s Darfur is a “potentially fertile” jihadist staging ground , and that the Islamist movements in Sudan and in the entire region constitute a substantial risk not only to Sudan. The impact of this militant mindset will not remain limited for long and could soon be directed at the authorities, as it has now started to impact society. The repercussions of this may result in Sudan becoming as anarchic as its surrounding states.
Evidently 15 years of bombing al-Qaeda by the U.S. and its western allies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and presently Syria, have now borne the poisoned fruit ISIS.
Perhaps Sudan needs to learn from this experience and open up a space for discussion. A permanent solution to the problem would be for Sudan to adapt a more democratic policy and allow more freedom in the country.
The tendency to inaction toward potentially militant Islamist groups may backfire, with risky consequences. Islam was not initially imposed in Sudan by sword, but by peaceful interaction between its different communities and migrant population. This legacy must be retained.
What is your occupation
By Sarah Carr
All images: Sarah Carr. All rights reserved.
On Sunday the improbably named Ray Dolphin gave us a crash course on the occupation at the headquarters of the United Nations office for Humanitarian Affairs for the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The headquarters is a beautiful old building with a verdant garden in which there is a pagoda and well-manicured borders.
It is where Moshe Dayan and his Jordanian counterpart drew out the Green Line, so called because they used a green pen. Ray says that the table they used to do this wasn’t leveled, causing inaccuracies of inches on the map that translated into kilometres in reality.
Ray bombarded us with a litany of depressing facts. He told us that almost a year after Israel destroyed 12,000 homes in Gaza during its war on the Strip there has been almost no reconstruction. Some families have simply returned to the ruins of their homes and pitched tents. In October 2014 countries loudly pledged millions for the reconstruction of Gaza during a donor conference in Cairo. Not much of it seems to have translated into anything of substance.
And in any case even if it did, Israel hasn’t let construction materials into the Strip since 2007 because, it says, Hamas would use it to build bunkers. The tunnels between Egypt and Gaza on which the latter’s economy depended are now all closed, as is the crossing between the two countries, thanks to a certain busy ex-field marshall and his combover.
The occupied West Bank meanwhile houses 556,000 settlers (20 percent of the Palestinian population), 150 settlements and 100 outposts. The difference between a settlement and an outpost is that a settlement is authorised by the Israeli government while an outpost isn’t, but the government is perhaps too busy to object with any force because it is preoccupied with furnishing said “illegal” outpost with roads, water and electricity etc...
Almost 43 percent of land in the West Bank is controlled by settlements. In 2014 there were 221 cases of settlers damaging Palestinian property and 110 cases of incidents involving settler violence that resulted in physical injury to Palestinian victims. There does of course exist a legal mechanism allowing Palestinians to report such crimes but who are you kidding. The result is that settlers routinely intimidate Palestinians and take over their land with virtual impunity.
The wall meanwhile continues to snake its way through the West Bank. It will be 700 kilometres long upon completion. Flipping through a PowerPoint showing diagrams illustrating the various, cumulative, physical insults inflicted on the West Bank since 1967, Ray said the wall’s main effect will be on agriculture.
Are your eyes beginning to glaze over? Offences against agriculture aren’t very sexy, after all. But consider the example of the village of Jayyus that Ray told us about.
Most of Jayyus’ land and water wells are on the other side of the wall from the village. This means that farmers need a special permit to access their land as the area has been deemed a military zone. Many applications by farmers are refused for security reasons. Farmers must also prove a connection to the land, something to prove that they own it.
This is a problem because most of the West Bank has not been formally surveyed (surveying started under the British Mandate and continued under Jordanian rule but Israel suspended it all in 1967). In addition, you also have to have a minimum amount of land. The result of all this is that less than half of West Bank farmers obtain permits to access their own land.
If you’re a farmer that does obtain a permit you must engage in a farce in order to tend to your land.
You wait at one of the electronic gates controlled by the military until army soldiers show up. You are let through and locked in until midday when the gate is again opened. In the early evening the army returns and closes the gate for the final time that day. Farmers are not allowed to stay overnight on their land meaning that you have a maximum of 10 hours each day to cultivate it. Also, you can’t irrigate your crops in the evening when it makes most sense to do so. Satellite imagery shows that lots of land has been abandoned. Wheat is often grown instead of other crops, because it needs less attention. But it makes farmers less money.
Note also that of these 85 electronic gates, only nine open on a daily basis; the majority of them only open during the six weeks of the olive harvest in October of each year.
Some other facts about the West Bank:
- 18 percent of the occupied West Bank is a military area. Palestinians are not allowed to enter these areas without permission.
- 10 percent of the occupied West Bank is a nature reserve. Palestinians are not allowed to cultivate these areas or graze animals there.
- 60 percent of the occupied West Bank is controlled by Israel, which means that virtually every aspect of a Palestinian’s life is mapped out by Israeli diktat.
- Between January and November 2014 only one application by a Palestinian to construct something on territory in the West Bank controlled by Israel was approved. One. You will recall that there are a combined total of 250 illegal settlements and outposts whose inhabitants build and construct freely.
Things get truly mental in East Jerusalem, which is governed by its own nightmarish legal framework.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem do not have Israeli citizenship, they have permanent residence. What this means is a separate, blue ID card, which allows Palestinians to live inside Israel and Jerusalem, but not inside the West Bank. Live abroad as a blue card holder for more than seven years, or acquire citizenship from another country, and you automatically lose your residency.
This has obvious implications for marriage, and for the children of unions between Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem because Palestinians from the West Bank need a special permit to enter East Jerusalem (incidentally if you obtain such a permit you cannot enter East Jerusalem with your car). The result is that there are 4,000 unregistered children in East Jerusalem who cannot go to municipal schools.
All this can seem a bit remote when you just read it. But to occupy is to possess, to fill up space or time with a presence, to dwell inside something, to contain it from within and without. There is a brutal physicality about it.
In Egypt when Cairo’s authorities wanted to shut down protesters they built giant, disfiguring walls of huge blocks in the centre of the capital that reshaped the way that traffic moves and blocked the city’s arteries. The walls were an aberration, monuments to the regime’s failure to control the people through popular approval, through dialogue, and an admission that it has no interest in winning this approval.
It is the same story in Israel. At the Qalandia Checkpoint Palestinians from occupied Ramallah wishing to enter occupied East Jerusalem queue up for hours underneath hulking watchtowers surrounded by shit and burnt rubbish and resolute graffiti and go through a turnstile reminiscent of the machinery used to control cattle during the process of inoculating them.
When we went through there were two young female soldiers manning the checkpoint, which was empty. One was lying on her flak jacket on the floor, apparently asleep until she jumped up to look at the x-ray machine monitor. Another was chatting on WhatsApp. People crossing the checkpoint must hold their document up to the glass for inspection. If the soldier requires a closer look the traveller must put the document through a tiny slit in the counter.
I struggled to put my passport through, so narrow and cumbersome is this slit, and was once again struck by how separated we were, the soldier and me, despite our physical proximity. Which is the point. When dealing with Palestinians Israel puts the gloves on in every sense of the word.
Ray took us to Sheikh Jarrah, an area of East Jerusalem. The street is home to Palestinian refugees who fled Haifa in 1948 and were re-homed here by UNWRA in 1956. The Council of Sephardic Jewry claims right to the area on the basis of an ancient Ottoman document. In August 2009 the Israeli police evicted the residents of two homes and literally threw them into the street. Within half an hour settlers had moved in to the houses.
In the el-Kurd home on the same street a Palestinian family lives at the back of the house while settlers have occupied an extension built on the front of the house which a court has deemed illegal. You can watch the very distressing video of the men taking over the extension here.
On the day we were there the street was quiet. An elderly man drew up in his car, parked it, took his shopping out, unlocked his front gate, went inside. A girl played in the street. And then there were the houses occupied by settlers. That sudden violence again, the street’s symmetry interrupted by their chaos; makeshift structures erected on the balcony covered in bits of fabric and cardboard, a sofa cushion strewn on some unidentifiable makeshift structure, the visual assault of the graffiti, the jumble of it all. And above all, that separation, that deliberately pronounced other-ness, the knife in the fork compartment.
In Hebron the excellent Sami from the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee commented that Israel likes to dominate with its architecture. You will have probably heard of Hebron, the West Bank city where the settlers throw shit out of their windows at Palestinians and Palestinians have to use ladders to enter their homes through windows rather than the front door because the Israeli army has sealed it shut.
In Arabic Hebron is called al-Khalil which means bosom friend. It is so named because of its association with Abraham, who was known as Khalil el Rahman, or beloved of God.
Khelwa, which comes from the same root as al-Khalil means to spend time with a dear friend. The nomenclature has a dark irony, because Hebron sums up the occupation, of two peoples in close proximity who are linked by mutual contempt rather than love. In 1968 Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of Israelis pretended to be Swiss tourists in order to rent rooms in a main hotel in Hebron. They then refused to leave. They were moved to what would eventually become the settlement of Kiryat Arba in east Hebron. Since then four other settlements have been established, one in the building that formerly housed a Palestinian boys school. The settlements have sucked the life out of Hebron’s old city; there are 1829 shops in the area and only 200 are open.
The settlers are obviously motivated by the idea that they are resurrecting a Jewish claim to the city, and as usual the Israeli state supports them in this project. 2,000 soldiers protect 400 settlers living among 40,000 Palestinians. Walk through the old city and you will encounter machine-gun carrying soldiers on patrol in the market’s not very busy alleyways. Above your heads in one street are Israeli flags and the netting that stops the rubbish that settlers throw out their windows from landing on people’s heads. The Beit Romano settlement, the one built over the school, is a monstrous, imposing presence that towers over the streets below. It looks like a government building, with its army watchtower.
The establishment of a settlement in Hebron means the demise of anything immediately near it, like gangrene spreading to surrounding cells. Rooms are deserted, windows boarded up. In addition to the permanent edifices, makeshift barriers of coiled barbed wire and bits of detritus stud entrances to streets leading to settlements.
And then there is the gold market, entirely shut down by military order in 2000. Shop owners were not given any warning before the closure and had to leave behind their wares, which were subsequently looted. Since the street is directly under a watchtower Sami suggested that the only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that it happened under the army’s eyes and was certainly not carried out by Palestinians.
The occupation goes full throttle on Shohoda Street. This is accessed via a security checkpoint overlooked by a watchtower. The shops on this street are all empty; it is a ghost town. Palestinians are allowed to walk for about 800 metres on this street before they must turn right off it or risk arrest or worse, because this is where the settlement starts. Once, in another part of the town with a similar restrictive policy, a 6-year-old Palestinian boy carrying a box was shot dead for failing to stop when a soldier shouted at him to do so. The problem was that he was deaf.
At the end of Shohoda Street, underneath the Ibrahimi Mosque which sits on an elevation above it there is a Jewish guest shop (also a settlement) that sells religious trinkets whose WiFi Sami told us was once “kill the Arabs”. They’ve changed that now and the authorities have also allowed a couple of Palestinian-run souvenir shops to open opposite it, Sami says because a deserted tourist site gave tourists the wrong impression.
Beyond the shops there is a small, well-cared for green with picnic benches and leafy trees under which a large group of soldiers reclined. Rob Stothard photographed a soldier praying at a picnic bench, the soldier gave him dirty looks. Jewish tourists, the women all with their heads covered staggered through the merciless heat towards the synagogue. One middle aged woman waved at the soldiers under the tree, uttered some words in Hebrew enthusiastically. The soldiers waved back languidly.
There is nothing else on this street now, just the settlers, the eerie shuttered shops and a few Palestinian families who have held out and refused to leave despite the fact that they are forced to access their homes using ladders. The place is reminiscent of a disused film set in its silence and stillness, an effect compounded by the stories settlers have spun in the from of posters describing Hebron’s distinctive Jewish character and history (to the exclusion of anything else). There is the usual shrillness about it all, the repeated mentioning of the Arabs and their terror and the turning inside out of the truth that is so characteristic of (and infuriating about) hasbara. Here’s an example of that.
The lies and propaganda are a part of the occupation’s architecture as much as the concrete and barbed wire, since not everyone can be contained in a tiny bit of land and physically controlled.
Leave the West Bank and enter Israel and there are no more army watchtowers, no more checkpoints, no more walls. You are surrounded by well laid out motorways and tasteful homes on top of spectacular rolling hills. In Haifa the sea laps at the shore while people enjoy drinks in pavement cafes overlooked by the spectacular Bahai Gardens. Here, on first impression, the occupation ceases to exist and Gaza is on another planet. This oasis of pleasantness, where women can wear what they want and people can love who they want and live in nice homes and have access to good healthcare and beautiful beaches.
But all of this is built on names wiped off the map, on memories of villages destroyed and people killed and who are still being killed, on families swept around the globe like leaves on the wind, who are forced to put on the coat of another nationality but will never be entirely comfortable in it, who if they don’t acquire another nationality live a precarious existence spent between airport detention rooms and police stations and refugee camps while a stranger enjoys a breeze on the seafront of Haifa without giving it a second thought.
Occupation fills space and time beyond walls and borders, beyond the farmer waiting for the military gate to open, beyond the worker who spends hours at the Qalandia checkpoint, beyond the schoolboy in Hebron arrested because he has dirty hands and therefore might have been throwing stones. To swallow Israeli propaganda about the endless terror and the homemade rockets justifying a bottomless pit of hell is to allow the occupation’s brutality to endure. To fail to challenge the Israeli state’s narrative while three hours away from you people live under military law and are humiliated, detained and worse is to allow the’s occupation’s brutality to endure.
Originally posted on Inanities.org on May 25, 2015.
What Louis Armstrong taught Egypt and the Middle East about itself
By Amro Ali
Image: Wikimedia. No copyright restriction known. Staff photographer reproduction rights transferred to Library of Congress through Instrument of Gift.
If there was one legacy (among many) of president Gamal Abdel Nasser that Egypt could have done without, it is the peculiar suspicion towards foreigners, to the point of embarrassment, that rode the region’s pan-Arab nationalism wave in the 1950s and 1960s. A problem that still, in various manifestations, continues until today in institutions, mass media and the public discourse.
Behind the iconic image of legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet at the Pyramids was an artist that you would think had no relation to Egypt’s politics and the Middle East conflict. In fact he once stated, “I don’t know nothin’ about politics”, but he was dragged into a mind-boggling controversy.
On his visit to Egypt in 1961, Armstrong was standing in a Cairo hotel lobby packed with over twenty news reporters who asked him if he supported Zionism. It must have been like asking Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez on a visit to Russia what he thought of the imperialist forces in the emerging Vietnamese conflict.
An incredulous Armstrong replied: “What is that Daddy?” The reporters were surprised that an artist, immersed in his own world, was ignorant of their regional issues. The reporters said: “You helped the Jews a lot.” Armstrong replied: “Yeah, I help them. I help anybody. I help you. You need help? I help anybody’. He continued: “I’m going to tell you this. I got a trumpet, and I got a young wife, and I ain’t got time to fool with none of the stuff you guys talking about.”
Armstrong just walked off and left them all in the lobby.
It was, however, the incessant suspicions of Armstrong in the lead-up to his visit that raised his ire. In 1959, Egyptian newspapers were circulating rumours that Armstrong was the leader of an Israeli spy network. Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper went as far as to report that Lebanese security authorities uncovered a spy ring that was reportedly working undercover with various artistic troupes. The report stated: “Among the leading members of the gang was the famous American Negro musician Louis Armstrong, who had recently visited Beirut.”
When this was brought to Armstrong’s attention, he responded: “I’ve been called many things in my life but this is the first time I’ve ever been called a spy.” When asked to sum up his feelings about the report, he replied “bunk.”
For a while, Armstrong ignored the rumours, but he drew the line when Nasser himself added his weight to the senseless reports. In 1960, the Egyptian president went further and believed that one of Armstrong’s “Scat singing” recordings was used by the artist to pass secrets during his first 1959 tour of the Middle East. An outraged Armstrong, in Boston at the time, mailed Nasser a copy of the suspected recording, with a note rebutting the accusations:
“It’s all Greek to me. They claimed all that junk because I played in Israel. I don’t have to be a spy to earn a living. I have enough money blowing the horn and I have a very happy life doing it. Why don’t you tell these people who are spreading all this stuff to come around. I’ll tell them a few good traveling salesman jokes.”
It is not known how Nasser reacted. However, he did not stop the musician’s visit to Egypt the following year.
The 1959 Middle East tour, that Nasser referred to, saw a prophetic Armstrong when, in Beirut, sitting around with colleagues and reporters, all smoking hashish, was asked “Say, how come you going playing for them damn Jews down in Israel?” Armstrong replied: “Let me tell you something. When I go down there, the first thing they going to tell me, how come you play for them damn Arabs over there? Let me tell you something, man. That horn”, pointing to his prized instrument, “you see that horn? That horn ain’t prejudiced. A note’s a note in any language.”
True enough, when Armstrong landed in Israel, the first question he was asked as to why he plays in Arab countries, a furious Armstrong responded “I told them that you guys were going to say the same damn thing. So ain’t none of you no better than the other side. You’s as bad as they are, man.”
Poor Armstrong, no wonder he suffered a heart attack that same year. His health deteriorated from this point onwards.
Of course, this is not to overlook the fact the US State Department sent artists like Armstrong on public and cultural diplomacy initiatives around the world to counter the influence of the Soviet Union in the developing world. Yet this is not the same deal as a “leader of an Israeli spy network.” It was atrocious enough that he suffered from the scourge of racism back home, even at the height of his fame, as he stated to an American reporter in 1957: “It’s getting almost so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.” He also told Ebony magazine in a 1964 interview: “I don’t socialize with the top dogs of society after a dance or concert. These same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro.”
Yet, he was not even spared, at least ideologically, on the international platform.
The impoverished thinking that unfairly and irresponsibly attacked Armstrong raised a generation that rules Egypt today, if not the Arab world. It sets the tone for a destructive conspiratorial language that tarnishes, if not sentences, the innocent, disembowels the political public sphere and foments political and social tensions. Armstrong visited an Israel that has since become an increasingly racist, brutal and a militarised state that would make Apartheid South Africa look like a lightweight.
Armstrong’s encounter with the Middle East was a microcosmic reflection of the wider cancerous socio-political tumour of denial and scapegoating in the region that just keeps on festering with time. More so, the “What is that Daddy?” response of Armstrong were refreshingly simple, altruistic and empathetic, in a complex, murky and relentless region where the indiscriminate use of words and charges are prone to lose all meaning.
So a posthumous note to Armstrong, nothing has changed since you left the Middle East, just more of the same, and worse. Someday, the meaning of ‘What a wonderful world’ will be understood and sung. Someday.
Originally posted on Amro Ali: Writing on Egypt, Middle East and other peaceful places on 8th June 2015.
How I became pro BDS
Pro-Palestinian activists protest at John Lewis. Mark Kerrison/Demotix. All rights reserved.
Events have a far reaching impact. People share them on social media, writers and journalists report and visualise them, historians contextualise them, social scientists analyse them and philosophers and intellectuals interpret them.
Recently, Israeli and international agencies extensively reported on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against the Israeli occupation. Back in 2005, BDS was founded by Palestinians to pressure Israel to end the occupation, adopting non-violent means. At the time negligible, if any, concern was paid to BDS and Israeli officials claimed it would not work.
Nowadays, the Israeli far right and Zionists view BDS as an existential threat to Israel, calling for war against the movement and its activists. The main goal of BDS is to end Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Arab land; dismantle the Wall, recognise the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens in Israel; and respect, protect and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in the UN resolution 194.
The idea of BDS is admirable as a non-violent campaign, and the disappointment that motivated the call for BDS is clear. After more than fifteen years of negotiations, uninterrupted settlement expansion, increasing segregation and growing racism against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, there was a need for a new strategy that held Israel accountable for its actions, and pushed for a peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestine.
I was extremely skeptical about the BDS movement’s agenda for a very long time. I was against boycotting Israeli products and academics, due to lack of official support from western governments and civil society organisations. Besides, my fear was that the aim was to engage Palestinians in collaborations with Israelis who reject the basic rights of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, by seeking alternative and secondary solutions to prevent their right of return.
Moreover, the ambiguity of BDS’ goals suggested that it was a weak initiative, in my opinion. However, after many years, I now see how effective it can be, as it engages those who support a one-state solution, like myself, as well as those who are in favor of a two-state solution.
I do not define myself as a pro-Palestinian activist; rather, as a person who is Palestinian born to Palestinian parents, and who has inherited the legacy, culture and suffrage of Palestinians. Moreover, I adopt the notion of ‘Palestinianism’ where free men and women defend and stand by the oppressed against the violation of human rights everywhere.
My views shifted last March, when I went, as a Swedish-Palestinian academic born in the Gaza Strip, on a visit to the Middle East. Our goal was to build cooperation networks with academic institutions in the region, which included Egypt, Jordan and Palestine.
After prosperous meetings in both Egypt and Jordan, I traveled over Allenby Bridge to the West Bank (the only connection it has to the outside world) to meet scholars, independent researchers and professors at the three main universities in the West Bank.
When I arrived at the bridge, I was supposed to cross the border with no restrictions. Even though I am a Swedish citizen, the Israeli army, intelligence and security agencies showed me how dreadful is to wait, be interrogated, yelled at, and inhumanly treated.
What I witnessed at the hands of the Israeli authorities was horrifying, unbearable and unacceptable harassment. I was held for more than seven hours in a room where I was interrogated by the Shabak, Shin Beit, Israeli army and border control about myself, my family, my childhood, the purpose of the visit and how I got out of Sweden.
They denied my entry into the West Bank under the pretext of “prevention of illegal immigration”. Seriously? And the second reason was my "security and public safety" threat.
Do they really think that an academic could possibly be harmful and/or threatening? Is my pen dangerous? Or my Palestinian roots?
This is one of the reasons I now support BDS. The other is Israel’s recent elections. By voting for Netanyahu’s radical far-right coalition, Israeli society is sending a clear message that they support racism, discrimination, and the occupation.
But why I do believe that BDS may actually work?
Durable and just peace and coexistence cannot be achieved by arbitrary and discriminatory policies, but by allowing dialogue through various channels. By denying Palestinian academics and students the right to travel to different parts of the world to pursue their academic journeys, Israel incites more violence and increases frustration among Palestinians.
International political pressure on the Israeli government has not achieved anything. Non-violent pressure will affect every voter in Israel. They will only start to react to their government’s policies as soon as they themselves are affected by their own government’s policies and discriminations.
When an Israeli academic is not invited to participate in a conference, denied opportunity to publish in academic journals under the name of an Israeli institution, then he/she will feel what it is like to be deprived of your basic rights. The same applies to businessmen who invest in the occupied territories, then sell their products as Israeli in Europe or the USA.
BDS is the only option left for the Palestinians, their supporters and the international activists that defend a peaceful solution to these major human rights violations. We must expand BDS activities to engage as many people and sectors as possible. This message needs to be sent to every Israeli: they are paying the price for what they do to Palestinians.
Yes, it may take ten or twenty years to achieve something tangible, but more than twenty years were lost as the Palestinians tried to negotiate their portion of the pizza—the West Bank.
For real change to take place, every Israeli must feel the effects of the BDS movement, as peace is not achievable with a state that considers itself above international law.
Whatever is happening to the Egyptians? (part two)
Mohamed Ali Eddin/Demotix. All rights reserved.
Earlier this month, I wrote an article in which I analysed by observations of AUC’s Hara event, as I found the levels of social unawareness among the Egyptian upper-middle class quite alarming.
The article demonstrated how the event’s portrayal of the lower middle-class was unreservedly negative and entirely unrealistic, yet interestingly reflective of what the upper middle-class believe about themselves: what they are and what they are not.
In this article, I suggested that the prominent socioeconomic analyst and author of Whatever happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin, share his views on people’s migration to gated communities. Upon my request, Amin read the article and offered to meet and discuss his views with me.
Amin contested my projection of gated communities as a new social phenomenon and explained why. He believes that “gating the elites” should not be seen as anything other than the inevitable evolution of consumerism that started back in the 1970s, during Sadat’s Infitah. The continuous and cumulative expansion of the gap in purchasing power within the middle class paved the road for its split into two classes: upper and lower middle.
In my opinion, however, if we are to accept this gap as an explanation for social segregation, why does this gap translate into the upper middle-class’ disdainful objectifying of the lower middle class as outdated, barbaric, and inferior, as expressed in AUC’s Hara event?
For the rich’s economic superiority does not in any way justify their civil, moral, or ethical superiority. There must be other non-economic factors that make members of the new upper middle class see the lower middle as inferior. Inferior to the extent that their slums are perceived as “places that an AUC student could never possibly go.”
This, in my opinion, is a new development. For despite the existence and expansion of the socio-economic gap since the Infitah in the 1970s, the Hara event is the first of its kind—at least to my knowledge. A couple of decades (if not years) ago, an event that introduces the upper middle class to the lives of the lower middle class would have been totally ignored, if not satirically mocked.
This could be because these two layers of the middle class interacted daily before this mass migration into gated communities.
To the upper middle class, lower middle class members were their coworkers, colleagues, and/or neighbors, which facilitated their interaction. They lived in the same neighborhoods, prayed in the same mosques, hung out at the same squares, cheered for the same football teams, went to the same movies, and listened to the same music.
Of course, there were always groups of ‘untouchables’ at the top and bottom of the social pyramid, who lived independent, exclusionary [or rather excluded], parallel lives. But between the ‘untouchables’, the majority of the population shared most spaces (albeit with different shares): such as the market, workplace, street, and public services.
It was through this interaction that the upper-middle class made their fortune. They bought the labour of the lower middle class and sold them products and services, or served them as bureaucrats, government officials, or teachers and professors in the public domain. Thus, although some made higher surpluses from this social interaction, they were all reliant on “public space” to facilitate their economic activity; a space that kept society interactive and cohesive, despite expanding economic discrepancies.
The concept of public space was introduced in Jurgen Habermass’ (1962) in his classic The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. He defined the public sphere as spaces that allow the interaction of different social levels on an equitable basis. Joseph Stiglitz, the renowned economist, made the concept more comprehensive by explaining it in economic terms: “[public spaces] are [actual or virtual] spaces that are non-excludable.” That is, spaces that do not have a price tag: like public parks, public schools, mosques, political parties, the workplace, and non-commercial media. These public spaces, intentionally or not, keep society intact and interactive despite economic variations.
When I look back at my childhood, growing up in downtown Cairo, it became clear how these public spaces evaporated in the last decade. This, I believe, is why the social gap has evolved into an alarming segregation accompanied with ignorance, ‘other-ing’ and disdain.
The free elites of downtown versus the gated elites of Sheikh Zayed
I grew up with my grandfather, a lawyer and statesman, who comes from a well-known Sa’idi (Upper Egyptian) family and enjoys the economic level and lifestyle of your typical Egyptian elite.
For a living, he worked as a deputy minister then adviser to the Prime Minister, before managing his independent law-firm. In his free time, he cooked, listened to classical music, played his own compositions, or went to the local sports club to play croquet, practice shooting, or swim. Yet such aristocratic practices were not completely isolated from members of the lower-middle class.
He lived in a building in the downtown Giza district, where he also had his private office. This building—like many others at this historical juncture—signified and symbolised the interaction between the different levels of the social strata.
The top floor hosted the flat-owners’ class, my grandfather and his brothers. Underneath were the tenants, who were a mixture of public school students and tutors, professionals, bureaucrats, and owners of small enterprises. The basement hosted the Bawab (guard/janitor) and his family. Those three segments, although living on different levels (in the building and socioeconomically), were neighbors who interacted on a daily basis.
Even though my grandfather owned the building, he was not eager to invest or move into a gated compound. At the time, it was not normal practice among members of his class; it didn’t appear to be a rewarding investment, and more importantly it was a totally foreign concept at the time.
He invested his socioeconomic surplus in his leisure. We used to go on vacation for the whole twelve weeks of summer in his chalet in Gamasa, making a surplus of ten extra-weeks over the average two-week middle-class vacationer. However, this variation did not deny middle-class vacationers access to Gamasa. The only difference was that we could afford to spend longer periods of time there. Chalet and apartments owners, one-week renters, two-week renters, room-sharers, and non-resident beach-seekers all had access to the same spaces, and took away similar memories and stories. With the exception, of course, of the few Pasha (upper class) families who spent their vacation in Montaza.
Gated summer escapes, such as La Vista, Marassi, Hacienda and the like, were not only non-existent, but a foreign concept to middle-class Egyptians. These communities are now the only places upper middle-class Egyptians go to. They lie far away from any city, with all their needs provided for inside walls and gates.
Until very recently, the same logic of living in a building in Giza and vacationing in Gamasa applied to most daily practices of schooling, socializing, sports, and every aspect of human interaction. This all reinforced the social ties between the different levels of the middle-class.
Given such a setting, when I made childhood friends, Mohamed, the son of ‘Am Mokhtar the Bawab, was among them. In fact, he was exceptional to me, not only because we shared the same birthday, but also because he had a huge playground (backyard) on his floor of the building (the basement).
Although I had access to a higher level of education than Mohamed, we usually came back from school in the same vehicle, because our schools were in the same district: Zamalek. After school, we’d come home and find my grandfather and ‘Am Mokhtar in the office, the first on a desk reading, the second making coffee and tea. Although we were aware of the discrepancy between incomes, to us they were colleagues and neighbours who worked in the same building; the first as a guard, the second as a lawyer.
On Fridays, Mohamed and I prayed together in Fatma El Zahraa’ mosque, then we’d go for a walk along the Nile Corniche and enjoy jelaty (ice cream) or hummus el sham (traditional drink) before walking back home together. Our conversations revolved around the previous night’s movie on television, the coming week’s El-Ahly football match, or the awaited Amr Diab album.
As our exposure was similar, we grew up with similar interests, tastes, habits and demands. The gap in our abilities to meet our demands did not prevent us from having similar demands and tastes in the first place. For my socioeconomic position allowed me to enjoy a bigger share of opportunities within the middle-class, but did not give me exclusive or exclusionary opportunities that were isolated from Mohamed’s or other friends.
It’s completely different today. My son, alas, will not have the opportunity to make a friend like Mohamed. Living in a gated villa in Sheikh Zayed, protected by hired security guards, who are separated from their families, and trained to keep interaction with the owners at a minimum, the nearest member of Mohamed’s class is miles away from my son.
He will most likely go to a school near home, probably in a neighboring gated compound that does not serve the lower-middle class, due to extortionate school fees and inaccessibility. He will not have a common building-basement to play in, but he will have his own private garden, or gardens and clubs that are exclusive to his social class, the same class he will meet in Zayed’s schools, mosques, cinemas, and hangouts. Like his colleagues at school, he will most probably stay home after school and play PlayStation, listen to western music, observe Premier League matches, or watch an American movie on a satellite channel.
He will visit the mall or café across the road that exclusively serves his class, as all these entertainment choices carry a hefty price tag. The space where he can interact with members of other social levels does not exist in this area. Even if, by chance, he had the opportunity to talk to ‘Mohamed’s son’, they would not find many common interests, if any; for they no longer listen to the same music, cheer for the same team, or watch the same TV channels.
When both tastes and spaces carry price tags, the interaction between people of different income levels is not only economically disabled, but socially redundant. The income gap has not only grown wider, it is now exclusionary, behind walls and gates.
For economic capability is no longer an opportunity to quantitatively increase what you have, but to qualitatively change what you are. That is, not only having access to more, but also having less access to ‘older’ public spaces.
Reflecting on my own experience, I would say I lost a lot more than I gained. Although I now live in a bigger house, work in a place with more green areas, and vacation in less crowded venues with higher access to facilities, I still miss my Friday routine with Mohamed; non-exclusive leisure experiences that are easily shared with others from different classes and perspectives.
At least I have my memories. I feel sorry for my son, who does not really know that an equally, if not more, enjoyable world exists beyond his gated compound.
The pressing question is: why did the new upper middle-class choose to isolate itself from the country to which they belong? Was this a deliberate choice or rather enforced by exogenous political and market forces?
I will attempt to respond to these questions in another article. But for now, it suffices to agree that this movement towards isolation/gating is not an inevitable consequence of the economic-gap’s expansion.
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