A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Wilder Shores of Machine Translation: "the Field of Youth Creationism Doritos Taha"

I never use Facebook's built-in translation function unless friends are posting in a language I don't know, but sometimes it seems to translate automatically, not always with the best results:
The second part almost approaches comprehensibility, but "Joey scene appears in the field of youth creationism doritos taha masjid yusuf aga time" is a sublime victory for computer translation running off the rails.

The photo accompanying it is this:
Now let's look at what the caption really says: "Cairo: aerial view of Bab al-Khalq Square; in the midst of it is the Mosque of Yusuf Agha, the Governorate Building, and the Dar al-Kutub (National Library), and the Islamic Museum. At the top of the picture appears Abdeen Palace and the area surrounding it . . . Picture from the thirties of the last century."

It leaps the rails at the beginning, when "aerial view" becomes "Joey scene," though the word for aerial (jawiyy) has clearly been read as "Joey." The square in question, Bab al-Khalq, can be translated as "Gate of the People," or the "Masses," but Khalq can also mean "creation," so I guess that explains "creationism." I don't know where "youth" came from. Any ideas? But the real genius was turning one word in Arabic, يتوسطه, into two, "doritos taha." If you ignore the actual voweling, you might come up with "itostaha," quite wrongly, but the "do-" is nowhere to be found.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Battle of Rafah, January 9, 1917: Part II, New Zealand Wins the Day

In Part I of this post last week, we discussed the lead-in to the final move in the Sinai Campaign, through the Battle of Magdhaba in late December 1916. After the surrender of the Ottoman position at Magdhaba, the main remaining Ottoman position inside Egyptian Sinai was at Rafah, then as now right on the border with what was then Ottoman Palestine.

As January 1917The British knew from aerial reconnaissance that 2000 to 3,000 Ottoman and German troops were entrenched at Magruntein southeast of Rafah and others massing around the border. Meanwhile German aircraft bombed British troops at El ‘Arish.

Chetwode (in front), El ‘Aris, Jan.1917
The Allied Forces in Sinai constituted the Desert Column, under the command of Gen. Philip Chetwode, based at El ‘Arish.

Harry Chauvel
The main operational force, as at Magdhaba, would be the ANZAC Mounted Corps, consisting of three brigades of Australian Light Horse and a New Zealand Mounted Rifle Division, all under the command of Harry Chauvel, a Queensland soldier who would prove to be the first Australian full general and probably the most famous cavalryman of World War I.

The ANZACs advanced overnight and discovered the enemy strongly entrenched in country that was generally open and without cover.  Using similar tactics to Magdhabs, relying on the mobility of the Light Horsemen, tje ANZACs sought to surround the Turkish fortifications and then, fighting dismounted, to attack their positions. But dismounted cavalry may have great mobility but provide a weak line fighting dismounted, and throughout much of the day, Chauvel's men were repeatedly driven back by the Turkish redoubts.
As the battle continued, Chetwode became aware that significant Turkish reinforcements numbering 2500 or more were advancing from Gaza.

Firing line at Rafah
Without going into extreme tactical detail, the British Empire forces had a hard slog. German aircraft were bombing them, while Australian aircraft provided recon and target spotting. In this open desert country, air power really showed its usefulness. By afternoon, reports of the approach of Ottoman reinforcements and stubborn resistance led Chetwode, who was not on the battlefield, telephoned an authorization for retreat and withdrawal.

The decision to withdraw, however, came while the 1st New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the Imperial Camel Corps were on the offensive. The New Zealanders, under the command of Gen. Edward Chaytor, decided to delay withdrawal until the current offensive played out.

Attacking from the north in a bayonet charge as the Camel Corps attacked elsewhere, the New Zealanders managed to seize the Central Redoubt of the Ottoman position, and the resistance began to collapse. In the process, the Kiwis achieved another distinction: by swinging northeast beyond the Ottoman border, they could claim to have initiated the Palestine Campaign at the moment they were ending the Sinai Campaign.

Rafah was a small action, but it came to conventionally maek the end of the Sinai Campaign and the overture to the Palestine Campaign. Below, a hand-drawn map from 1917.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Yannayer: Belated Berber New Year

This has been the three day Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday here in the US, and as a result I am late in wishing Amazigh Berber readers a happy new year  according to the old (Julian) agricultural calendar on January 14.

I've talked about Yannayer several times in previous tears, While the Julian date for the New Year is an ancient one in North Africa, celebrating it has become more popular with revival of Amazigh pride and identity in recent years. As I have noted before, the so-called Berber era, dating from 950 BC, is a modern nationalist invention; by that reckoning this is the year 2962, As I also noted in a previous post, while January 14 is the correct date of the Julian New Year, some Algerian Imazighen celebrate on January 12 instead.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Battle of Rafah, January 9, 1917: Last Ottomans Pushed Out of Sinai, Part I

 Journal deadlines and other news have delayed this post, which really should have appeared two days ago. Last summer we traced the Ottoman Army's second advance toward the Suez Canal, and its ultimate repulse at the Battle of Romani in August of 1916.

Extending the railway across Sinai
During the remainder of the year, the British Empire Forces (mostly ANZACs). The advance was slowed by the need to build the railroad line and a pipeline for water forward as they moved. Finally, in two actions in eastern Sinai in December 1916 and January 1917, the last Ottoman troops were pushed out of Egyptian territory. With the Battle of Rafah a century ago Monday, British war historians mark the end of the Sinai Campaign.

The Main Allied force was rhe ANZAC Mounted Division, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades and a New Zealand Mounted Rifle Division. From December 1916 these forces were assigned to the Desert Column, formed to support operations in Sinai and Palestine.

Turkish base at Hafr al-‘Auja
On December 20, 1916, the Allied force reached El ‘Arish, where they discovered the Ottoman force had evacuated the town and withdrawn up the Wadi El ‘Arish to the vicinity of Magdhaba to the southeast. (See map above. Illustrations are from Wikimedia.) Unwilling to advance beyond El rish while leaving Turkish and German forces behind their right in a fortified position at Magdhaba (not far from the big Turkish support base at Hafr al-‘Auja, just inside the Palestinian side of the border).

The Commander of the Desert Column, Sir Phillip Chetwode, arrived at El ‘Arish with supplies from Port Said, and prepared to dispatch the ANZACs under Sir Harry Chauvel. The German Commander of the Ottoman Desert Force, Kress von Kressenstein, had constructed a series of fortified redoubts at Magdhaba which he thought could resist attack, but he reckoned without the high mobility of the Light Horsemen.

The ANZACS, under Sir Harry Chauvel, advanced on the night of December 22-23,  and in a fierce battle on the 23rd succeeded after a day's hard fighting, forced an Ottoman surrender. The fight at Magdhaba had set the stage for the Battle at Rafah, the last act in Sinai.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Remembering Reporter Clare Hollingworth, 1911-2017

Veteran British foreign correspondent Clare Hollingworth died today in Hong Kong at the age of 105. (Yes, 105.) Almost all the obituaries will lead with her famous scoop of being the first reporter to report the German invasion of Poland in 1939, though at the time she had been working for the Daily Telegraph only three days. Admittedly, when your first big story is breaking news of the outbreak of World War II, that can be hard to top. But she spent her incredibly long career reporting from hot spots around the world, including the Middle East. She covered the North Africa campaign, the Palestine conflict (including the bombing of the King David Hotel), covered the Algerian War of independence, reported the defection of Kim Philby, and interviewed the Shah. So she deserves being remembered on this blog for her Middle Eastern reporting, mostly from the 1940s through the 1960s.

I had the honor of knowing and occasionally working with Clare back in the 1980s, though in Europe and East Asia, not in the Middle East. At the time she made her home mostly in Hong Kong, where she spent the rest of her life, but also kept a place in Paris. I remember visiting her during the Paris Air Show one year, but I particularly remember her role as my guide on my first visit to Hong Kong in 1987.

Hong Kong was still British in those days, and was also still a key listening post for Western intelligence services keeping an eye on the mainland; as well as a Chinese intelligence listening post to the outside, the station thinly disguised as the Xinhua News Agency. Clare knew them all.

Clare must have had a home somewhere, but she seemed to live to all intents and purposes at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club, where she held court, a celebrity among her colleagues. The Club is a legend in its own right, and at the time I had recently read John Le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy, in which the Club played a key role. Asked to introduce me to Hong Kong, Clare set up a withering schedule of meetings and interviews, often at the club. She would have been 76 at the time, and I was not yet 40, but she easily left me in her dust.

I understand five years ago, when Clare turned a mere 100, the Foreign Correspondents' Club held her a suitable party, and she still survived another five years. They don't make them like Clare anymore. RIP.

Monday, January 9, 2017

‘Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani,1934-2017

‘Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the Iranian President from 1989-1997, and who held almost every other senior executive position other than Supreme Leader at one time or another, has died at age 82. Though his political fortunes have waxed and waned in recent years, he remained one of the most familiar faces throughout the entire period since the 1979 Revolution.

Born in a village near the pistachio-producing city of Rafsanjan, to a large and wealthy family which made its fortune in pistachios, The family name was Hashemi-Behramani; Rafsanajni was added as a clerical appellation. During and after his Speakership and Presidency, several of his children and siblings achieved prominence as well.

He came to be known as a moderate in the spectrum of Iranian revolutionaries; he had traveled in the United States before the Revolution.

At the seminary in Qom, he became a disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. When Khomeini was forced into exile, he represented him as a leader in the domestic opposition to the Shah. After the Revolution he was a prominent figure in the Revolutionary Council, served as Minister of the Interior, as Tehran Friday Prayer Imam, and was Speaker of Parliament from 1980 to Khomeini's death in 1989. He served as a member of the Council of Experts from 1983 until his death, and as its Chairman 2007-2011.

As Khomeini's Personal Representative to the Supreme Defense Council he also served as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he essentially was in command during the last year of the Iran-Iraq War, and accepted its end.

From early 1989 until his death he also chaired the powerful Expediency Discernment Council.

When Khomeini died in 1989, President ‘Ali Khamene'i was chosen as the new Supreme Leader, and Rafsanjani ran for and won election as Iran's fourth President. He improved relations with the outside world, including Saudi Arabia.

After the Presidential years he remained influential, remaining on the Council of Experts until replaced in 2011, and as Chairman of the Expediency Council until his death. In 2013 he registered to run for the Presidential elections, but was disqualified by the Council of Guardians. He then backed the election of Hassan Rouhani.

Rafsanjani reportedly died of a heart attack.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Greetings for Armenian Christmas Today, and Orthodox Christmas Tomorow

In the Middle East, Christmas is a gift that keeps on giving. Christmas doesn't come just once a year but up to four times depending on how ecumenical you want to be. The Armenian churches outside the Holy Land celebrate on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. (Except in the Holy Land when they mark it in the  Julian calendar.) Merry Christmas to those celebrating.

Most of the Orthodox Christian Churches, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East celebrate Christmas on December 25 in the Julian Calendar, which currently equates to January 7 in the Gregorian, so a Merry Christmas to them tomorrow.

Fear not: it's still not over. Armenians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem will celebrate on August 18-19, Epiphany (known to Eastern churches as the Theophany) under the Julian calendar.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

1970s Activist Melkite Archbishop Hilarion Capucci Dies at 94

Melkite Catholic Patriarchal Vicar Emeritus Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, who made headlines in 1974 when Israel arrested him for supplying arms to the Palestine Liberation Organization, died January 1 in Rome. Born in Aleppo in 1922, he was arrested in August 1974 by Israel, charged with using his Mercedes sedan to smuggle arms into the Occupied West Bank. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but was freed after Vatican intervention and expelled by Israel in 1978.

Lionized by many Arab countries, he remained an activist for Palestinian and other causes. He was active during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-80, negotiating the repatriation of US soldiers killed at Deser One, but was unsuccessful in negotiating the release of the Embassy hostages. In 2010 he was a passenger on the Mavi Marmara protest ship headed for Gaza when it was seized by Israel; he was held brieffly by Israel and then expelled.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

January 4, 1917: Russian Battleship Peresvet is Sunk Off Port Said

Imperial Russian Navy Bttleship Persevet in 1901
This year I will continue my practice of recounting major events in World War I on the centenary of the event. Since 1917 was a key turning point in the Middle East, with major developments in the Palestine and Mesopotamian campaigns and the Arab Revolt, and, before he year was out, the emergence of General Allenby, the end of the Senussi campaign, and, before the year's end, the Balfour Declaration and the publication of Sykes-Picot by the Bolsheviks. In this month of January alone, there were the Battle Of Rafah in Sinai, the recapture of Kut in Mesopotamia by the British, the taking of the port of Wejh in Arabia by the Arab Revolt, and the promotion of Reginald Wingate from Sirdar to Governor-General in Egypt. And that's just January.

My post today is not as important as any of those things. Only four days into the New Year, the Imperial Russian Navy Battleship Peresvet (also transliterated Peresvyet, Peresv'et: Пересвет) was sunk by a mine several miles off Egypt's Port Said.

Now, several Russian warships were in the Mediterranean when the Turks closed the Straits late in 1914, and they joined with the British and French Mediterranean Squadrons, but Peresvet was not one of them. In fact, what it was doing off Port Said is a rather bizarre tale in its own right. She was headed to the Russian White Sea Fleet in the far north, from Asian waters.

Sagami (rear) in Japanese service
Launched in 1898, Peresvet saw action in the Russo-Japanese War. She fought at Port Arthur and in the Battle of the Yellow Sea, as well as the Siege of Port Arthur. When the Russians surrendered at Port Arthur, they scuttled her. Subsequently the Japanese raised her, rearmed her, renamed her Sagami, and used her as a coastal defense ship.

In World War I, Japan and Russia suddenly found themselves on the same side in the war, and in 1916, Japan sold her (back) to Russia. In April 1916, in Vladivostok, she resumed her previous name and was reclassified as an armored cruiser. She then ran aground and had to be refloated. She was assigned to Russia's White Sea Fleet,  She reached Port Said, and put in for repairs. Ten nautical miles off Port Said on January 4, 1917, she hit two mines and sank, with total losses somewhere between 116 and 167. The mines had been laid by the German submarine U-73.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Rerun for Eastern Christmas: The Coptic Legends of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt

Those Eastern Christians who follow the Julian Calendar will celebrate Christmas this Saturday, January 7.

Since 2009, I have annually noted the rich Coptic traditions of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, which expands the couple of verses in the Gospel of Matthew, by offering a detailed story of a three-year sojourn and visits up and down the Nile. More recently I've added a map and some pictures, and fixed a few errors. As always, despite the obvious apocryphal nature of these tales, I intend to respect the charm of the stories while noting some of the improbabilities. My revised and illustrated version:

Since we're in between Western Christmas and Eastern Christmas, I thought it might be a useful time to call to your attention the extremely detailed traditions Egypt's Copts maintain about the Holy Family and the Flight into Egypt. There is hardly a Christian church in Egypt — and there are some mosques, too, since Jesus and Mary are highly venerated in Islam — that doesn't claim that Jesus, Mary and Joseph dropped by for a while. They must have been constantly on the move to have covered so much ground, but you can't build up a good pilgrimage trade if you don't stop frequently.

Now, the Flight into Egypt gets only a couple of verses in the Bible and is only mentioned in one Gospel, Matthew, (Matthew 2, 13-14 and 19) so the extremely detailed accounts of the Coptic stories have more to do with pious elaboration — or pilgrimage tourism — than history, but the stories can be quite charming. Some are based on an apocryphal Armenian infancy gospel, some on local traditions, etc. The Coptic traditions hold that the Holy Family spent three years in Egypt.

I am shamelessly cribbing this from Chapter XXXI of the late Otto Meinardus' Christian Egypt Ancient and Modern, (Cairo: AUC Press, 1965; Revised Edition 1977). Meinardus was a major figure in Coptic studies; German-born, he wrote mostly in English or French, taught at the American University in Cairo, and was an ordained Lutheran pastor. (Judge for yourself what Martin Luther would have thought of some of these stories.) He died in 2005. But I have to condense all the details considerably; his chapter runs over 40 pages. There's also a detailed online site, with pictures (text approved personally by Coptic Pope Shenouda, they say), for those interested. And tours are available;this site also offers a travelogue.

It seems the Holy Family traveled with a midwife named Salome who isn't mentioned in the Gospel but plays a role in the Coptic stories. Instead of heading straight to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, they seem to have zigzagged to the Plain of Jericho, then Ashkelon, then Hebron (at least according to the various churches and monasteries situated in those places), then proceeded to enter Egypt via the Land of Goshen, en route to the town of Bilbays. Along the way they had an encounter with a dragon in a cave, and were approached by wild lions, but of course they all bowed down to the Baby Jesus. At Bilbays they rested under a large tree, which was venerated in the Middle Ages by both Muslims and Christians as the Virgin's Tree, which stood until 1850. Then they headed to Samannud, where there is a church on the site of a well blessed by Jesus. (Early Christian apocryphal infancy Gospels, as well as the Qur'an, have Jesus talking while still in the cradle.) Then they detoured northward to the Mediterranean coast at Burollos, stopping there according to the monks of the place. Then, perhaps at Basus or Sakha in Gharbiyya (Meinardus speculates on the place), Jesus left his footprint on a stone.

Needless to say, they could not ignore the Wadi Natrun, the Coptic version of Mount Athos, where the four great monasteries of the Desert Fathers still stand (but of course didn't then as Christianity hadn't been founded yet), though why they were wandering in the desert instead of the delta in those days isn't explained. Passing by from a distance, Jesus said to his mother, "Know O my Mother, that in this desert there shall live many monks, ascetes and spiritual fighters, and they shall serve God like angels." (Apparently Mary would have known what a "monk" was, though it's hard to know why.) Anyway, you can ask the monks if you doubt any of this.

Even though Cairo wasn't there yet, you know Cairo isn't going to let all these other towns have a claim and not find some of its own, don't you? First they went to On, the ancient Heliopolis, not on the site of the modern suburb of that name but on the site of Matariyya. There Jesus took Joseph's staff, dug a well, and planted the staff, which grew into a tree which became a goal of pilgrimage and was venerated by Muslims as well as Christians. (The Qur'an has a story of Mary resting under a palm tree, and this and the Matariyya tree became conflated in later folklore. The Matariyya tree is a sycamore.) The present tree, still venerated,  is alleged to be grown from the shoot of an older tree:
The Virgin's Tree, Matariyya

Harat Zuwaila Church of the Virgin
From there, the Holy Family went to a site where, centuries later, the Harat Zuwaila quarter of Cairo would rise; the Church of the Virgin there is one of the oldest in Cairo proper, and the convent has a well blessed by Jesus.

(If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned their stop in the Fortress of Babylon, in a church many tourists visit today, it's because they stopped there only after their tour of Upper Egypt. Trust me, it's coming.)

Next they went to Ma‘adi, today an elite southern suburb of Cairo, and attended a synagogue. Joseph got to know some Nile boatmen, who offered to take them to Upper Egypt. (You're wondering how an exiled carpenter and family fleeing from King Herod can afford all this Grand Tour? Don't be so cynical: the legend has it covered: using the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi.)

I'm going to condense a bit here since every Church of St. Mary up the Nile seems to mark a site where the boat stopped and they visited a well or a palm tree. But since Upper Egypt remains one of the more Christian parts of the country, they couldn't skip such Christian centers as Sammalout, Asyut, al-‘Ashnmunein, or the great monastery known as Deir al-Muharraq.

One of the legendary sub-stories here deserves telling, though. Up near al-‘Ashmunein, two brigands who had been pursuing the Holy Family since Matariyya (must be the gold, frankincense and myrrh again) tried to rob them. They grabbed Jesus and Mary cried, and one of the robbers repented, and they left them. And — as any folklorist should have figured out by now — these were the same two thieves, including the same Good Thief, who would be crucified alongside Jesus! How could it be otherwise?

Deir al-Muharraq Today
The constant travels were finally relieved when the Holy Family were taken in by a devout Jew and lived for six months (and ten days: I told you the stories are detailed) at the site of the Monastery of Deir al-Muharraq, south of al-Qusiya. The monks of the monastery say it was the first monastery in Egypt, built just after the arrival of Saint Mark as the Apostle of Egypt. If you doubt that, take it up with the monks, not me. Or with the monks at St. Anthony's in the Eastern Desert, which is usually seen as the earliest.)

Abu Sarga Church Crypt
Then the angel came to Joseph and told him it was safe to go back to Palestine. (That part actually is in the Gospel of Matthew, unlike everything else in this post.) They stopped at pretty much every Coptic village that would ever have a Church of the Virgin on their way back down the Nile, and feeling they had not yet done enough for future Cairo tourism, they stopped inside the Roman fortress known as Babylon and, perhaps having run out of gold and frankincense, stayed in a cave that is today the crypt of the church of Saint Sergius (Abu Sarga), conveniently adjacent to the Coptic Museum and included on many Cairo tours.

I hope I don't sound too cynical here: the stories are charming and are clearly a pious attempt to elaborate on a brief reference in the Gospel in order to make the Christian link to Egypt more tangible to believers. On the other hand, the sense that every Church of Saint Mary in Egypt actually sheltered the Virgin and Child seems a bit credulous.

I hope my Coptic friends recognize that I am helping spread knowledge of your tradition, even if I may not accept every detail as historically attested. I'd really like to know more about that dragon.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Kerry Restates Longstanding Policies, Commentators in Uproar

Let's be clear. Though softened a bit under George W. Bush, US policy since 1967 has considered Israeli settlements an obstacle to peace. Through the Reagan Administration, the US routinely abstainedon, rather than vetoed, UNSC Resolution similar to the recent one. John Kerry's recent speech reiterated often restated positions: that failing a two-state solution, Israel will eventually have to choose between democracy and n apartheid state, a position supported by many Israelis.

Whether taking a strong stand at this late date will have much effect is surely debatable, and the upcoming French initiative may indeed be what Netanyahu really fears, but the uproar this week has really made clear how much Netanyahu's defiant attitude to the US has seemingly deranged Israeli policy.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Belated Appreciation of Irfan Shahid, 1926-2016

Irfan Shahid
I  have learned, rather belatedly, of the passing of Prof. Irfan Shahid, Professor at Georgetown, former Associate Fellow of Dumbarton Oaks, and Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, who passed away on November 9 at the age of 90.

Professor Shahid was one of the readers of my doctoral dissertation.Though he was the definitive historian of Byzantine-Arab relations down to the Islamic conquests, he didn't actually teach history at Georgetown, where he was the Oman Professor of Arabic and Islamic Literature, teaching the Qur'an, Classical Arabic Literature, and the like in the Arabic department. I really only got to know him from his eager involvement in my doctoral committee.

Born as Irfan Kawar in Nazareth in 1926 to a Palestinian Greek Orthodox family, he read Classics at Oxford and then took his Ph.D. at Princeton in Arabic and Islamic studies. I never did know why he changed his name from Kawar to Shahid.

Although he was a prominent enough figure at Georgetown, I suspect he was really far more at home at Dumbarton Oaks, the Harvard-owned Byzantine studies library in Washington, where he did most of his life's work on Byzantium and the Arabs. He discussed his time there in an interview at Dumbarton Oaks in 2008. His publications included Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs; Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century; and Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, and numerous articles. I am uncertain if his final volume, on the seventh century and the Arab Conquests, might have been far enough along to someday appear. Unfortunately, all his volumes are priced beyond my or most people's reach.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

For Hanukkah, Something Completely Different: a Jewish Bluegrass Band

For Hanukkah, here's something you don't see every day: a Jewish bluegrass group. Nefesh Mountain was founded by an American couple, Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, joined by other bluegrass musicians. The band's website is here.

My own only previous bluegrass post on this blog was back when Doc Watson died in 2012, and I needed to reach wildly for that gospel music often mentions the River Jordan), but this time I'm posting Hanukkah songs during Hanukkah.

It;s impressive how smoothly Jewish folk melodies merge with bluegrass.

Here's a good introduction, Esa Einai, based on Psalm 121 (I will lift my eyes unto the mountains):

While living in Coney Island with a Jewish Mother-in-Law, Woody Guthrie wrote a couple of Hanukkah songs. Here,"Hanukkah's Flame," and "Hanukkah Dance," both by Woody Guthrie:

Finally an "Old Time Medley," the first song of which, "Down to the River to Pray," is an old standard of gospel bluegrass, with lyrics adjusted to provide Old Testament references.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Hanukkah and Christmas Greetings

We're now in the heart of the holiday season, with Hanukkah beginning Saturday at sundown, and the Western (Latin) Christmas on Sunday. Sincere greetings to readers celebrating either holiday, or both.

Though the Middle East Institute is officially closed through the New Year, we are still proofing the January issue, and I will probably be blogging, perhaps even more than usual.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Annual Fairuz Christmas Carols in Arabic Post

Christmas is coming, at least the Western date of Christmas. The great Lebanese singer Fairuz, who turned 81 last month, singing Western carols in Arabic, is an annual tradition here. So here goes:

Jingle Bells:

Silent Night:

Go Tell it on the Mountain:

Angels we Have Heard on High:

Her version of "Joy to the World" is about Beirut;

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen:

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Shab-e Yalda

Tonight is the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice occurs at 5:44 AM tomorrow. That means tonight is Shab-e Yalda, the night of Yalda, the ancient Persian solstice celebration of the birth of the solar divinity Mithra, said to have been born of a virgin at dawn on the longest night of the year. (Yalda is the Aramaic word for birth.) After the Roman Army spread the veneration of Mihra in the West, the solstice became the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, when the sun begins it return to the north and the days begin to lengthen.
Traditional foods
Even in the era of the Islamic Republic, Yalda remains a popular seasonal feast, alongside Nowruz in the spring, in areas influenced by Persian culture: Iran, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and among Zoroastrians worldwide.

Yalda greetings to all who celebrate, as the holiday season gets underway.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ill Omens for the Holidays?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
 Yeats, The Second Coming

On the very eve of the Winter Solstice and the seasonal feasts of multiple faiths, and in the bitter aftermath of the fall of Aleppo, in a single day we have seen the public assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, an apparent terrorist attack in which a truck plowed into a crowded Christmas Market in Berlin, killing 12 so far, and then (perhaps a retaliation?) a gunman in Zurich opening fire in an Islamic Center, wounding three people at prayer.

Just yesterday,  four gunmen in the Jordanian city of Karak killed nine, retreating into the city's famous Crusader castle, where they were killed.

Let us hope this is not an augury of worse to come.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dedication of the Butrusiyya Church

Following up on my earlier post on the history of the Butrussiya Church that was bombed Sunday, and courtesy of Prof. Paul Sedra, here's a souvenir of the 1912 dedication:
Note that the dedication was on the second anniversary of Boutros Ghali's assassination.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Political History of the Butrusiyya, Site of Sunday's Coptic Church Attack

The bomb attack on Sunday near the Coptic Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint Mark in Cairo's Abbasiyya district, which killed at least 24, is clearly intended to strike at the heart of Coptic Christianity, occurring adjacent to the Patriarchal See of Pope Tawadros II.

It matched or surpassed the death toll from the bombing of the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria in January 2011, the previous worst church bombing. The attack came during Sunday Mass; the explosion occurred on the women's side of the church, so many of the dead were women and children, and the bombing came on the eve of Mawlid al-Nabi, the Prophet's birthday. Most of these details were widely reported.

But a particularly political connection of the site of the bombing has largely been missed. In fact, many of the reports have spoken of the location as taking place in a "chapel" of the Cathedral, or in a Church "attached" to the Cathedral.

The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, known as the Butrusiyya, sits in the shadow of the Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint Mark, but it is a separate building that predates the Cathedral by several decades. The Butrusiyya was built in 1911, while the Cathedral was completed in 1968. The area around the cathedral is the site of numerous churches, some, like Anba Ruis nearby, dating from the 1400s. The land was given to the Church in Fatimid times.

Boutros Ghali
The Butrusyya was built by the family of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated in 1910, We dealt with the assassination and its background in my 2013 post about the Denshawai incident of 1906. Ghali, 1846-1910,  was a rarity as a Copt who became Egypt's Prime Minister, 1908-1910. His role in the Denshawai trials led to his being viewed as a tool of the British; his Christianity also worked against him. (He was also the grandfather of the late UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.)

The Butrusyya Church contains the grave of the original Prime Minister Boutros Ghali. So there are whole layers of potential political and sectarian symbolism.

In the photo below, the church of St. Peter and St. Paul is the Romanesque-style church in the center; the large Coptic-style vaulted church on the right is the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mark.

Tonight East Aleppo May Fall. There are no Winners; only Losers.

No one is innocent here. Both the regime and the rebels behaved as if the civilian population was invisible. Hospitals were systematically targeted. A great world city has been destroyed as the world watched and deplored. The Syrian people were the losers. There are no winners.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Avner Cohen and William Burr Shed New Light on the Vela "Double Flash" Incident of 1979

I'm one of a small number of Middle East hands who continues to be fascinated by the 1979 incident in which a US Vela satellite detected the double flash typical of a nuclear detonation in sub-Antarctic waters off South Africa, where the South Atlantic and South Indian Oceans join. Although the CIA and other analysts thought it was likely a low-yield nuclear test, a White House scientific panel declared that was unlikely, though subsequent hydrographic and atmospheric evidence of radiation was detected. The mystery has never been fully solved, though  growing consensus has evolved that the double flash was either Israeli, South African, or more probably a joint Israeli-South African test.

A Vela 5B satellite
Last year, I posted about the Vela mystery, when Leonard Weiss reviewed the incident in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Now there's some new material available.  While still not definitive, it adds to the clues that the test was real. Now Avner Cohen, the recognized open-source analyst on Israel's nuclear capabilities, and William Burr, Director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, have some new documents, mostly drawn from the papers of Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, Jimmy Carter's Special Representative for Non-Proliferation Matters, and US Representative to the IAEA in the Carter years. The results are still inconclusive as all the intelligence reports remain classified.

For those with a casual interest in the subject, Cohen and Burr summarize the new material in today's Politico. For the seriously interested, they have posted, at the National Security Archives' "Nuclear Vault," an "Electronic Briefing Book," with more extensive background and a full set of links to relevant documents.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The End is Near, and it Will Be Bloody

Reportedly, Syrian regime forces now control at least 75% of eastern Aleppo, and their jihadist opponents appear determined to fight to the end unless the regime offers them an escape route, which no longer appears to be an option.

Fighting is raging in and around the ancient Citadel itself, now badly damaged. The regime and the jihadists bear shared responsibility, though the Russian and Syrian Air Forces have made it an uneven fight.

Though for obvious reasons, the US press does not like to draw comparisons between the Syrian regime and the situation developing right now in Mosul, since in Mosul the US is supporting the Iraqi forces against ISIS, despite the presence of sectarian militias and Iran as virtual allies. But the fight for Mosul has bogged down, and once again, a regime and jihadi forces confront each other, The tragedy deepens.

Remembering Philip Hitti's Role in US Middle East Studies

Back in 2012, I did a post about the role of the late Philip K. Hitti (1886-1978) in founding Middle Eastern/Arab studies in the United States. Though his famous History of the Arabs and many other works have now been largely superseded, he remains the US pioneer in the field.

Now, here's a post about Hitti's contribution that actually includes interesting selections from an unpublished Hitti memoir.
Philip K. Hitti at Princeton

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Changing Horses a Century Ago: Lloyd George Becomes Prime Minister

David Lloyd George
This particular 100th anniversary post notes an event which, while not directly related to the Middle East, would have enormous effects on the Middle East in the remaining two years of the First World War. On December 7, 1916, David Lloyd George replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Internal Liberal Party politics, which I need not go into here, propelled Asquith to step down.
Lloyd George, a proud Welshman and veteran Liberal politician, had been serving as Minister of Munitions until June, when Lord Kitchener went down with HMS Hampshire in the North Sea. and Lloyd George took over as Secretary of State for War.

Even before becoming Prime Minister, Lloyd George became a strong advocate for emphasizing the Eastern Theaters of the war, particularly Palestine, Greece, and the Balkans, and as Prime Minister continued this focus, echoing his younger (then still) Liberal Party colleague Winston Churchill. Though he never got War Cabinet approval to shift troops from the Western Front, he did preside over more aggressive efforts in Palestine and the Balkan Front.

The 1917 Overture (Punch cartoon)
An avid reader of the Bible who said he preferred the Old Testament over the New, he had a fascination with Biblical geography. (During the Paris Peace negotiations he reportedly asked Clemenceau to cede to Britain the Mandate over "Palestine from Dan to Beersheba," though the Biblical definition was less than the eventual Mandate.) Though the Balfour Declaration of 1917 bears the name of the Foreign Secretary, Alfred James Balfour, Lloyd George was at least its godfather. And in the 1919 peacemaking, Lloyd George was deeply involved in bringing Palestine and Mosul into Britain's sphere.

Herbert Asquith had been easily dominated by his Cabinet colleagues, with stronger men like Kitchener at the War Office and Churchill at the Admiralty (until Gallipoli). Lloyd George would be a very different sort of leader.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Anatolian, So No Reindeer: Happy Feast of St, Nicholas of Myra!

Today, December 6, is the Feast Day of the fourth-century Anatolian bishop Nicholas of Myra, marked in the Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox traditions on the same date. Born at Patara (near Gelemiş in today's Turkey) in southwestern Anatolia about AD 270, he rose to fame as Bishop of Myra (the ruins of which are outside Demre, Turkey). He attended the Council of Nicaea, defended Orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, was famed for generosity and gift-giving. He is a particularly popular saint in the Orthodox tradition, especially in the Russian Orthodox tradition. He is less venerated in the West as an actual historical figure, but is better known under a distortion of his name: Santa Claus.

He was an Anatolian Greek (Turks did not arrive in Anatolia until after AD 1071), who is not known to have any association with the North Pole, and doubtless never saw a reindeer, let alone the flying kind.

No shortage of miracles came to be attributed to hem; he is often known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Among many stories told were that he gave gifts secretly to those in need, including paying the dowries of three sisters who could not afford them. That presumably contributed to the gift-giving tradition. In the last days of pagan Rome, he was imprisoned in the persecution of Diocletian, but was freed under Constantine, and attended the Council of Nicaea as Bishop of Myra.

Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD, hence the day became his feast day. He was buried in a Cathedral named for him in Myra. But his remains did not rest in peace. After the Seljuq Turks took over Myra in the 1080s, the Italian cities of Bari and Venice sought to compete to move his relics (and their lucrative pilgrimage trade) to Italy. in 1087, merchants from Bari made off with St. Nick's bones.

(Stealing saints was actually not that uncommon. In 828 AD, Venetian merchants famously stole the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist, traditional Apostle of Egypt, and took them to Venice, where they reside in the great Cathedral of San Marco.)

With that note, I begin my Christmas blogging, since the Middle East has more dates for Christmas than the rest of the world.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Victorian Converts to Islam

Though Al-Jazeera moved this story some months ago, I hadn't seen it before: "The Victorian Muslims of Britain,"  about British aristocratic types converting to Islam. (To quibble, some of these conversions were more Edwardian than Victorian. Among the examples is (Muhammad) Marmaduke Pickthall, whose translation of the Qur'an still circulates.

It also reminded me of the discovery of a letter from Winston Churchill's future sister-in-law expressing concern that Churchill might convert.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

End Game in Aleppo?

The sudden and unprecedented advance of Syrian regime forces into northeastern Aleppo in recent days seems to mark the collapse of the anti-Asad rebel groups that have been holding out there, especially Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). A victory by the regime and its allies is likely to come at great cost; eastern Aleppo has already suffered horribly from bombing and the systematic targeting of hospitals. And while Syrian forces have been de facto cooperating with the Kurdish YPG and Turkish backed elements, he very different end games envisioned by those three elements may lead to new conflicts.

Once the regime recovers the ruins of this once great city, it will control the major cities of Syria, the "useful Syria" it considers sufficient to assure its survival. It will have recovered Aleppo through the unchallenged and unrestrained application of Syrian and Soviet air power. The chimaera of a no-fly zone is long since moot, rendered so by direct Russian intervention. There will be plenty of guilt to go around for the destruction of a great city; the West is hardly free of guilt, but the Asad regime and its Russian and other allies have the largest amount of blood on their hands.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fidel Castro and the Middle East

With Nasser
Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, a critical juncture in the decolonization of the Third World, and had considerable success in portraying himself as a champion of decolonization efforts worldwide.

Castro was no romantic hero, but indeed a brutal dictator despite some beneficial reforms on the domestic front, and a man who committed Cuban troops to various adventures in Latin America and a bloody war in Angola. But he cultivated many admirers, and some emulators, in the Middle East.

Since 1959 is now nearly 60 years ago, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to recall the context. In 1955-56, Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, accepted the Soviet offer to build the Aswan High Dam, and resisted the British-French-Israeli intervention in the Suez War.

Four years before the Cuban Revolution, in 1955, the Afro-Asiatic Conference at Bandung had laid the groundwork for what would come to be called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). When the NAM was formed at Belgrade in 1961 Cuba, though increasingly aligned with the Soviet Bloc, was a charter member, as was Egypt.

In 1958, following US and British interventions in Lebanon and Jordan (to block unrestblamed by the West on Nasserist propaganda), Egypt and Syria united in the United Arab Republic, creating the alignments Malcolm Kerr branded "The Arab Cold War."

Also in 1958, four years into the Algerian War of Independence against France, French nationalist generals rebelled against the Fourth Republic; out of the crisis came the creation of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle.

It was in this context that Castro entered Havana on January 1, 1959. After he defeated the US-backed exile landings at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, he came to be seen as a Third World hero who had defied the United States, as Nasser had defied Britain and France.

With the rapid decolonization and independence of British, French, and Belgian colonies in Africa, in 1960-62, Castro and Che Guevara, like Nasser, saw Africa as a fertile ground for asserting influence, beginning with the Congo.

With Algeria's Bouteflika
With Algerian independence in 1962, Cuba offered training to the new Algerian Army, after supporting it in the independence struggle. Cuba also supported, via Egypt, the fight for independence for South Yemen, which would lead to the only Marxist-Leninist state in the Arab world. With the formation of the PLO, Cuba became an early supporter, providing training to Palestinian guerrillas.

With Qadhafi
With the Libyan Revolution in 1969, Cuba found a fellow apostle of Third World Revolution in Mu‘ammar Qadhafi, and he, like the Cubans, had a preoccupation with Sub-Saharan African movements.

Castro, with his long ties to Algeria, joined the Algerians in supporting the POLISARIO Front against Morocco in the Western Sahara.

With Saddam
With the death of Nasser, Egypt's tilt to the West, and the decline of leftist liberation movements and the rise of Islamist ones, not to mention Cuban military over-commitments in Central America and Angola, Cuban influence in the Middle East  was much reduced. Castro even criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's foreign adventures were much reduced, and limited to supporting Latin American leftists like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Castro opposed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

In the Middle East of today, with ISIS and similar movements long having replaced revolutionaries of the left, the 1960s seem a long time ago. But Algeria, one of Cuba's early allies and one still led by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had known Castro since the early sixties, has declared eight days of mourning for the Cuban leader.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Rising Tide of Islamophobia in the US and Europe

It's hard to know where to start a consideration of the rising tide of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, nativism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that has spread across Eastern and Western Europe and the US in the past year or two. The anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric of the US Presidential campaign has unleashed some of the darker angels of American nativism, and since the results, some of the nastier attitudes that usually stay hidden under the rocks of the national psyche (the Klan, white supremacists, neo-Nazis) have felt emboldened.

But this is not just an American problem, though various watchdog groups report stepped-up instances of attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, and immigrants since the election. The same thing happened in Britain after the Brexit vote, in France and Belgium after the Paris and Brussels attacks,and in Eastern Europe during the Syrian refugee waves. No single politician or political party incited this, though many cheered it on through dog-whistle language.  And to the new demonology of Muslims, immigrants, and nonwhites generally, is raised the old demon of anti-Semitism as well, not to mention misogyny.

Again, this has multi-national facets; it's not just an American problem. But every time a Westerner insults a woman in a hijab, burns a mosque or scrawls an obscenity on an Islamic center, they help jihadist recruiters and spread fear in the overwhelming majority of ordinary believers. Even such near-farcical measures as the "burkini bans"  of last summer, made more farcical by their imposition in Cannes and Nice, two towns that pioneered topless sunbathing, were a clear way to make conservative Muslim sunbathers feel like the unwelcome, alien Other, even though they were not objecting to the less modest dress around them. It is true that the immigrant communities in Europe are far less assimilated than those in America, but US Muslims are feeling fearful, and many non-Muslims are offering support and even escorts.

I don't have any rousing rhetorical conclusions here: things are getting bad, and may well get worse.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Digitizing the Qarawiyyin Library

The political news both here and in the Middle East is depressing, so I will post something hopeful: the Library of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, described in the article as the oldest library in the world, is having its great collection digitized.

The story contains an Al Jazeera video which I have not been able to embed successfully, so you should watch it at the link. I'm not sure it's the world's oldest library, but among its many treasures is a manuscript of Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima said to be written in his own hand, What historian could resist that?

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of wandering the Medina of the old city of Fez, or Fas al-Bali, you must try to get there, as it is one of the best preserved Arab cities, with many of its industries, particularly its famous tanneries producing Moroccan leather. (Those with sensitive noses might not want to tour the tanneries, though.) For centuries, Fez was Morocco's capital.

The city was founded in 789 AD by Idris I on the west bank of the Jawhar River; in 808 his son and successor Idris II founded a rival town on the east bank; they eventually merged. In the ninth centuries two groups of Arab immigrants arrived in Fez. One set, from Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), settled on the west bank, while the other group, from Kairouan (Qayrawan) in Tunisia, settled on the east bank. The two banks came to be known by the names of the two great Friday mosques, that of the Andalusians (al-Andalusiyyin) and that of those from Kairouan (al-Qarawiyyin). The mosque of Al-Qarawiyyin became a university mosque, still functioning. For the rest of the story, see the link above.