Marinab to Maspero?

In a small village in Aswan Province in Upper Egypt, a group of Christians want to rebuild their local church. They apply for, and are granted, the necessary permits. They are then told they can build their church, but it is forbidden from having a cross, a bell, a beacon, or domes on the roof. They agree to all these conditions, except the domes, because they have already been built and to remove them would necessitate rebuilding the entire roof. A group of Muslims from the village lay siege to Coptic houses. The Christians are told they must remove the domes in fifteen days or the whole church will be destroyed. They agree, and begin demolishing the domes. Eight days later, after incitement from a local preacher, a mob firebombs the church and begins demolishing it. Fire services are prevented from entering the village. The soldiers who were assigned to protect the church stand by and watch. Ten days later, the governor of Aswan Province goes on Egyptian state television and states categorically that there is no church in the village and no churches burning in the district.

As a vignette, this story sums up quite succinctly the mixture of petty humiliations, bureaucratic obstructionism, and sporadic violence faced by the Copts as a matter of course in Egypt – to say nothing of the official complicity in all of this. These types of stories, while not uncommon and certainly not unnoticed, are not front page news in Egypt. I only knew the intricate details of Al-Marinab – the village in question – because I spent a day translating a detailed report on it, in a slightly bad mood as it was Armed Forces Day and I was supposed to have the day off work. At the end of the report, my colleague had written: ‘With the confrontation continuing, and demonstrations escalating…it is not unlikely that matters will flare up again.’

They did, and the next part of story was front page news. On the 9th October, a demonstration against the Al-Marinab affair turned into nothing short of a massacre in the heart of Cairo. Outside Maspero, the Egyptian state television and radio building, the criminals in the army mowed down demonstrators with machine guns and crushed their skulls under armoured personnel carriers, while the criminals inside the building spouted poison on the airwaves. Sitting in my flat, I listened to an Egyptian state TV anchor reporting that Coptic demonstrators had seized weapons and turned them on troops, and urging ordinary Egyptians to go to Maspero and defend the army. I switched to Twitter and read that my boss was in the Coptic Hospital and had just personally counted 17 corpses, some without facial features or heads from being run over by APCs. In the most traumatic and horrifying event since the uprising in January, Egypt’s armed forces had done what they claimed they would never do, and killed their own people in the most brutal and indiscriminate of ways.

Al-Marinab is evidence that there is still a ‘sectarian’ problem in Egypt, to the extent that the religious majority in Egypt still imposes humiliating and oppressive conditions on the religious freedoms of the country’s minorities (not just Christians, but Shi’a, Ahmadis, Baha’is, and Jews as well). At their worst, the ever-present tensions erupt in incidents of horrific violence, such the Nag Hammadi massacre in 2010 or the Alexandria church bombing at the beginning of this year. The problem is perpetuated, exacerbated, and exploited by Egypt’s government and security forces; indeed, the Alexandria bombing is now widely believed to have been the work of the Egyptian security services themselves. The Copts who marched on Sunday, and the many Muslims and others who joined them, were demonstrating against a state which systematically and relentlessly discriminates against them and, worse, exploits prejudices and inter-religious tensions to make them feel like second-class citizens, aliens in their own country.

Maspero, however, was different. One of the most blood-boiling things that I read on Sunday night was one of the most trivial: a Facebook status posted by an acquaintance in Alexandria complaining that her planned ‘relaxing weekend’ in Cairo was now coinciding with ‘Muslim-Christian riots’. Leaving aside the sheer noxiousness of such a remark, the assumptions it makes about what happened on Sunday night are both ignorant and damaging. The events outside Maspero were not riots, but a massacre. They were not a crime committed by one religious group against another, but a crime committed by the state against its own citizens. There is a line which can, and should, be drawn between Marinab and Maspero. Yet to characterise this as the latest outbreak of sectarian violence in Egypt is to swallow hook, line, and sinker the excuses peddled by the generals themselves, who in an Orwellian press conference on Wednesday claimed that they had been drawn into clashes between Muslims and Christians and had never opened fire on anyone, despite all evidence to the contrary.

What happened at Maspero was more proof, as if any were ever needed, of the hollowness of the army’s pretensions towards being the ‘defenders of the revolution’. The more conciliatory argument says that SCAF are just inept; that they have little experience of policing demonstrations, much less running the country; that on Sunday they lost control of a volatile situation. The less conciliatory and far more accurate argument says that SCAF had ample time to prepare for Sunday’s march; that they deliberately chose to terrorise peaceful demonstrators; and that they must take full responsibility for the bloodshed that ensued. They are not the defenders of the revolution, but the protectors of the ancien régime. On Sunday they showed that they had inherited not just its authoritarianism and political stagnation, but its brutality, too.


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Martyrs behind bars

EIPR releases a report on prison abuse in Egypt during the revolution, ‘Martyrs behind bars’:

You can read the report here. An English translation should be up soon. And here is an ONTV programme based on the report:

It features an interview with the sister of General Mohamed al-Batran, Chief of the Prison Authority’s Intelligence Unit, who was killed by prison guards inside al-Qatta prison on the 29th January.

There used to be a huge picture of al-Batran hanging up in the Tahrir Square sit-in. I first heard about the al-Batran story from a friend of mine, MS, who lives in Fayoum. We were walking past the poster one day and he told me that it was a general from his town and that he was a decent man who had been killed for trying to treat prisoners like human beings. I asked what happened and he told me the story of how al-Batran went to al-Qatta to talk to the prisoners and to try to calm unrest and that he was shot by other prison guards.

There is a large prison in Fayoum, innovatively named al-Fayoum prison, and MS also told me that during the revolution he used to see prisoners occasionally walking through the streets of the town, wrapped in blankets, lost and disoriented. Once, he said, he went up and talked to one of them. The prisoner told him that there was no security and he had escaped. He said he was from Fayoum but he had been in prison so long that he didn’t recognise the streets any more. He asked MS to tell him the way to the main street. Then he walked away, his blanket trailing along the floor behind him.

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When your Facebook feed reads like the Greatest Hits of the Clash*

Gonna stick my oar in on the London riots. A few points for consideration:

[1] The looters/rioters are not mindless. They wanted things and they went for exactly the things they wanted because that’s what the prevailing capitalist system has drilled into them from day one. All this stuff about ‘looters with blackberries can’t be that poor’, yes, ok, these people are not starving. However I would say the problem is not poverty but injustice (just like in Egypt – you often hear people saying that it is not being poor that bothers them but inequality, injustice, rampant corruption, etc.) The left and right are both judging them for what they chose to steal but are missing the central point that the fact they chose to steal trainers and TVs is in some ways a more savage indictment of our society than if they were starving families stealing bread or politically-motivated revolutionaries smashing up RBS. These people feel like they are not getting their due in modern Britain and see no other way than to ‘get paid’, i.e. go out and get their due for themselves when the opportunity arises. Note that their ‘due’ is material goods because that’s all we have been conditioned to aspire to.

 [2] Let’s stop the class snobbery about the rioters/looters as well, and let’s especially stop the racial tinge to this. There were university graduates out there stealing shit. Greed and opportunism is pretty universal. It’s become kind of a lefty canard to equate bankers and looters in a pointless ‘this is like that’ exercise but there is a grain of truth to it, which is to say that in general if human beings face the opportunity to enrich themselves for free then a certain proportion of them are always going to. (Apart from us socialists, we would never do such a thing.) It’s easy to condescend towards a group seen as an underclass (‘they left all the bookshops alone, didn’t they! chortle chortle!’) but the last I heard, Cormac McCarthy novels didn’t have much of a street value and all this is going to do in the long run is further perpetuate this immense gulf in understanding between Britain’s haves and have-nots. I don’t even know what to say about David Starkey and his arse-licking cheerleaders (‘right on, Dave! wield your truth sword!’) because the man is so obviously a big ol’ racist. This is not ‘black culture in excelsis’, it is aspirational-capitalist culture in excelsis.

[3] Obviously punish the looters. This stuff doesn’t even need to be said. If you catch them, put them on trial (a proper trial, not some half-asleep 24hr magistrate handing down wacky sentences for stealing some water), and then give them an appropriate punishment. |To be honest I can’t think of a crime more suitable for ‘community service’ afterwards. I’d like to see a scheme whereby rioters/looters are set to work cleaning up the homes and livelihoods they destroyed, ending with heartwarming scenes as small business owners and yoot’ embrace and promise to fight together to bring down Cameron’s government. But hey, I’m a dreamer.

 [4] This was not a working-class uprising. You can fiddle with semantics but any misty-eyed lefties seeking revolution in the leaping flames of Allied Carpets need to take a deep breath and calm down. However, although the riots were not political in form or tone, they quite evidently stemmed from political and economic roots. Gary Younge puts it quite well when he says that ‘ when a group of people join forces to flout both law and social convention, they are acting politically.’ A friend of mine here in Egypt also drew an interesting parallel, not with the revolution, but with the months preceding it which saw similar ‘mindless’ violence on the part of disaffected Coptic youth. The socioeconomic ills of Britain have been so well rehearsed in the past few weeks, most notably and movingly by Camilla Batmanghelidjh, so I won’t bother to go through them again here. Comparing London to Cairo at the moment is another pointless exercise in broad-brushstroke ‘this is like this’ analysis. Thomas Friedman is probably penning the hand-wringing article at this very moment, not neglecting to mention the fact that opposition to Israel was nowhere to be seen on the streets of either city. Yes, Egyptians, you didn’t steal trainers from the Adidas on Talaat Harb, well done, and your smug tweets to that effect are kind of justified. Yet both January 25th and whatever we’re calling this stuff in England (I suggest the ‘Midsummer Commotion’) came from injustice and inequality.

 [5] Warning: personal recollections. Skip if you dislike political analysis based on anecdote. Like many people, I grew up in London. Specifically, I grew up in Tottenham and I know that former classmates or people they are connected to have been involved in these events, mainly through their charming habit of posting trophy pictures on Facebook. I was privileged enough to make growing up in Tottenham safe, comfortable and even fun. I was also the kind of dreamy, disconnected kid who preferred books to human company and thus wasn’t at the cutting edge of documenting social inequality. However, watching what has happened to my home town has brought back a few specific memories. I remember at primary school a friend of mine, A., was excluded for carrying a knife to school. Afterwards he spent his days circling the neighbourhood on his bike, riding up and down outside the school gates taunting us because we were still in school whereas he was free. We all thought he was cool as fuck and how much we wanted to get the hell out too. There’s nothing abnormal about kids wanting to skip school but there is something wrong when kids feel so little connection to the state institutions that are allegedly trying to help them that they do not give a shit enough to bring a knife to school. (This is like aged 10, by the way.) The point of all this is: this generation, my generation, have felt alienated and fobbed off by the state for a long time. Middle-class kids of my age are only just starting to wake up to the fact that the state doesn’t give much of a shit about them, either.

[6] The aftermath of this has been equally depressing as the riots themselves. It’s basically been an excuse for the right to start waving their authoritarian phalluses around and bleating about law and order. Some of the measures taken have been repugnant, I’m looking at you, Wandsworth Council. As Gary Younge wrote (man that was a good article) the riots may have not been particularly wise, politically speaking. But at the least it has shoved problems in our face which now cannot be ignored. Hopefully Cameron’s shiny US gang experts (having come to power thinking he was in the West Wing, our Dear Leader now thinks he’s in the Wire) will lay down some Real Talk on the folly of leaving disaffected youth to stew in their own disaffectedness. Hopefully Ed Miliband will say something inspirational and statesman-like, thereby sealing the fate of the Conservative government. (Ha! Sorry, I think I fell asleep there for a second.)

Hopefully the family of Mark Duggan will receive justice, and the families of Haroon Jahan, Shazad Ali, and Abdul Musavir, and all those who lost their homes and businesses.

Hopefully so will everyone who is fucked over by the state in Britain – a group which, like it or not, includes many of those hoodie-wearing petrol-bomb-chucking plasma-TV-looting low-lives you saw on your TV screens and who are not a million miles away from you or your kids, literally or metaphorically.

*not my joke, unfortunately.

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Just for salafs

If someone should say to you, this is politics, say: This is Islam, and we do not recognise such divisions.’ (Hasan al-Banna, ‘Between Yesterday and Today’)

I opened the window this morning and looked out onto Hoda Shaarawy to see four girls, about ten years old, holding an Egyptian flag and chanting Islamiyya, islamiyya, masr dawla islamiyya as passers-by stopped to film them on camera phones. Outside the mosque, clusters of dudes lay around on green mats in the shade. Snowdrifts of white robes had mounted in the side streets. The great beard march was beginning! AMW came out on the balcony beside me. ‘They’re everywhere,’ he said, in hushed tones.

I put on my least seductive outfit, ending up looking vaguely Amish, and we set off to talk to some Islamismists. As we headed down Talaat Harb, we played ‘scariest Salafi’. AMW won with a guy wearing a tea towel on his head. (That’s not racist, you know. He was actually wearing a tea towel. Just a practical attitude to sun protection.) The street was full of box fresh white robes and sensible sandals. It was a bit like a mirror image of this. ‘I’M HERE…TO PROTEST.’ Somewhere, Thomas Friedman was weeping at the sight of Muslims doing something he’d rather they didn’t. The crowd was incredibly thick in Tahrir Square and I could feel rivers of sweat running down my back and legs. There were many of those awkward moments when a Salafi jostled me in a crowd thinking I was a man (short back and sides, you see) before realising I’m a woman and pulling away as if they’d just accidentally touched a hot plate. There were chants that I hadn’t heard for a long time. The people and the army with one hand? So Jan25, guys.

I wondered where all the people in the tent city had gone. The central reservation was surrounded by a phalanx of bearded guys and there was no way of getting in to see what was left. I heard that secularists were still running the stage by the Mogamma but it was impossible to push through the crowd to see. Later I read that most of the groups making up the coalition for the 29th July had pulled out. The day was set for a particularly obnoxious show of strength by Egypt’s least lovable political grouping. (Although I guess ex-NDPians could give them a run for their money.) (I should point out, to any of you who are foolish enough to take this blog as your main source on Egyptian politics, that Tahrir Square has been occupied for the past couple of weeks by a large and shifting group of people from many different political parties or groups. The character of it has been largely secular. This was a pretty unusual display of Islamist force. This probably puts it best.)

AMW and I got talking to a man carrying a picture of the Dome of the Rock. This turned out to be a bad idea as he was an egregious example of what Jerry Seinfeld would call a close talker. AMW was accosted by some guys in white robes while I was left to dodge spittle as Dome of the Rock barracked me about Western support for Israel. I rehashed the usual arguments about the difference between government policy and personal opinion. He made the eminently fair point that we voted these cretins into office. I jokingly said that maybe the solution was no government at all and earned myself a slightly cold stare. A man standing next to him told me that he appreciated my support for the Palestinians. (About time someone gave me the recognition I deserve! Jesus! I’ve been sweating it out supporting the Palestinians for years without a word of thanks from an Arab!) He then proceeded to list for me the achievements of Arab civilisation and the ways in which it had contributed to science, literature, art, undsoweiter. He looked at me somewhat expectantly. I was conscious of a large sweat patch developing on my stomach. ‘Um, thanks,’ I said.

A young guy in a white t-shirt started telling me the life story of Muhammad. His accent was almost impenetrable and the only word I could work out was rusuul (messenger) which obviously came up a lot. I’m pretty sure it was the life story of Muhammad but couldn’t really be sure. Whatever he was saying, he really, really wanted me to take it in. Dome of the Rock kept interrupting but White T-shirt would brush him aside and fix me with his burning gaze, say Shouf ya ukhti, and carry on with his interminable tale. He then told me that every ruler in the history of Islam has been both political and religious. I asked him what the difference between politics and religion was. There is no difference, he said. Dome of the Rock at this point converted his sign into a makeshift awning to shade me and my rapidly growing crowd of interlocutors. A smartly-dressed young duktuur type asked if I had any questions for them. I asked him what their aims were. He told me that they wanted a civil state but with Islamic ‘concepts’ (mafahiim). I asked him to clarify and he said that a civil state meant civilian rule, democracy, a parliament, the rule of law, but based on Islamic concepts such as justice, social equality, gender equality. I gave up at that point and went to grab a guava juice. As we left we got talking to a man who named us Mohamed and Fatima and asked AMW for my hand in marriage. ‘My sister is far too young for you,’ said AMW with convincing disapproval and we turned on our heel towards the juice shop on Midan Falaki. ‘Good bye Fatima,’ said the man.

Cruising back towards Talaat Harb, we spotted a bunch of Hizb al-Noor (recently formed Salafi party) activists sitting in the ahwa at the foot of our apartment building and sat down to talk to them for a bit. They gave us the same line: a civil state with Islamic ‘concepts’. They also told us that the Qur’an comes down hard on litterers. One of them asked us if Britain had a constitution. We decided that ‘it’s more of a mutually understood, unwritten constitution, based on years of legal precedent’ was a bit beyond our language skillz so nodded assent. He then told us that everything in our constitution was borrowed from Islam. There wasn’t really a reply to that. Their rhetoric was a lot like the early Muslim Brotherhood: studious denials of any ‘political’ aims, and an assertion of total political and financial independence. The Egyptian Salafis remind me a lot of the Tea Party movement, in some ways. The idea that you can somehow affect politics by determinedly existing outside it, and the constant assertion that this is not politics, what we are doing, this is not politics.

It felt like a show of muscle. Supporters were bussed in from around the country and filled the square until any dissenting voice or even appearance was pushed out. The space was starkly coded in white and black, but mainly white, because there were very few women around. It was a marked contrast to the cooperation between groups which has been ongoing and developing for months: this wholesale, aggressive assertion of one point of view. Cooperation between different groups in Tahrir has not always been harmonious, by any means, but it has at least been attempted. But this was different: this was saying, look at us, look how powerful we can be, and be afraid.

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Fahrenheit 25Jan*

It’s pretty hot in Cairo right now. I get up at 8 or so and the sun has already heated the tiles on the balcony to a baking redness. Every time I walk past the tents in Tahrir I think how hot it must be under there. (Family camping holiday veteran, right here.) I don’t know if there’s a correlation between heat and road rage but I keep on seeing arguments in the street, more than I remember seeing in the past.

Living so close to Tahrir brings with it the feeling of verges and edges. The liminal public space (and shit). Every building around the square seems to face inwards like plants growing towards the light. Last night a couple of hundred people marched past my street, up Talaat Harb, and it was like some kind of fourth wall being breached. Sometimes, like yesterday evening at about 6pm, I find myself hearing events in the square and simultaneously following them on Twitter in my flat. It makes me think of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation about becoming a gigantic eyeball. (Or something like that.) Piecing together sensory perception is disconcerting. Was that a cheer from a football match or a roar as a fight breaks out in the middle of Tahrir between protesters and street vendors who were allegedly paid 50 LE (about £5) to start a fight in the square?

The space has been elevated to a suitably worthy place in the world’s collection of symbols. Even David Cameron went to Tahrir Square; my hopes for a Tamer Hosny-style ass-whuppin were unfortunately not to be realised. When the space becomes more important than the cause, that is when problems start. That’s what ended up happening in the Cambridge occupation. Holding a space for no reason other than, as George Mallory said, because it’s there, is deeply flawed. The stasis of it will fracture your movement and weaken your forces.

That’s not, I hasten to add, what Tahrir is like. It runs the risk, like any symbol, of becoming worth more than its actual meaning, but in Egypt, in this place, this time, this week even, that’s clearly balls. The thing worth remembering, though – and no-one in Egypt forgets this, but many people reading the news in London or New York might – is that the fight doesn’t stop at the edge of the square, even though it can feel like that. My first encounter with CS gas took place on Tuesday night; I retreated up Talaat Harb, availing myself of a baby wipe some dude had given to me, and within five minutes I was back in the wast il-balad that first smacked me around the retinas a year ago when the idea of a protest camp in Tahrir Square was just someone on the Siesta again. (CS gas was as unpleasant as you might imagine. I left soon afterwards because I was alone and it was past midnight.) The most surreal thing about it is the atomisation of the city. Overflow out of the square doesn’t have the forces to sustain itself. Whatever you think about the merits of attacking the Interior Ministry, even the hardiest of would-be occupiers has to realise that such an undertaking requires more manpower than they currently have, especially when the boys in blue hole themselves up inside the ministry and start lobbing rocks, displaying a subtlety of policing tactics I haven’t seen since, well, since the London Met horse-charged a bunch of sixth formers a few months ago. But I digress.

The fight doesn’t stop at the edge of the square. It continues into the neighbourhoods all around the country where policemen facing charges for violence against demonstrators are continuing in their normal duties. It continues into the hospitals in al-Arish and Minya facing armed attacks due to lack of security. It continues into the rural villages where women are injecting cleaning products into their vaginas because they can’t get a safe, legal abortion. (Those are just three particular press releases I translated at work this week.)

It’s been a strange, scrappy few days, with a lot of confusing and obscure events. Full, satisfying explanations have yet to be found for yesterday or Tuesday, although this comes close. It’s very hot in Cairo; sometimes unbearably so. The attempts of SCAF to cool things down are having little effect. The postponement of the Adly trial, although apparently (according to my colleagues in Cairo) following the letter of the law and justified under the circumstances, looks hella bad. The persistent patrician attitude of the Egyptian elites renders them seemingly incapable of explaining their actions. Don’t trouble yourselves, they seem to be saying. The (martial) law works in mysterious ways. This fundamental communication problem between the state and the people only makes this more tense. And the temperature rises. The SCAF Facebook page is a joke. Justin Bieber has a more sophisticated public relations operation than this. الشعب يريد رفع الاخفاء. WordArt on riot police shields doesn’t make your military state more transparent and welcoming, it just makes it look well ’90s.

But the problem lies deeper than the lack of explanation. For as much as I’d love to see Adly with stripes around his shoulders, these high-level prosecutions are quite obviously sops to keep people happy. Offering compensation to the families of the martyrs means little if the killers of their children are still on duty in Free Egypt. And while due process should be observed and no-one’s trial should be compromised, no matter how odious they are, no matter if they wear suits with pinstripes made up of their own name, it needs to be made clear that this is due process, and that no-one is above (or below) the law. And making that clear, not just clear but true, will take more than rapping senior NDP blowhards on the knuckles. It will take more, even, than justice for the families of the martyrs. It will take a comprehensive reform of security and policing in Egypt, which in itself will involve a fundamental re-evaluation of how the state relates to its citizens. Then maybe the temperature will cool, just a little.

*worst post title ever, apologies. it’s hard thinking them up, you know.

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The pool is heated and has lights

I recently spent three weeks in Dubai as an intern at a television station. This is the first part of an account of that time.

I spent my flight from Cairo to Dubai with a small child on my lap. She wore a tutu and a tiara and could not have been more than five years old. The flight was four hours, and she continually eluded her mother’s grasp to slither onto my lap, burbling away in Arabic. As my Arabic is probably at the standard of a five-year-old, we communicated very successfully. Both of us commented on the existence of the sky, on its very blueness, and urged each other to look at the planes. Her mother, a lady in niqab, exchanged rueful eyebrow gestures with me and rolled her eyes in sympathy every time her daughter once more approached my knees.

Dubai came upon me like a computer-generated image, a cartoon of a city, the fundamental absurdity of so much existing on so little. We circled around the tops of the towers and came into land. I had visions of swooping down to funnel between the buildings, to look out of the window at others behind glass. The city was on an aerial scale. It shone with a white heat. I got the metro into town and spent the journey in a haze of sweat and half-sleep. At Ibn Battuta I picked my way across a building site and fell into a cab.

At first I slept on a purple sofa. I bought a sack of oranges from the supermarket and ate them for breakfast and lunch. I didn’t know how much I could spend and got used to the faint pinch of hunger. Discovery Gardens was a huge parking lot surrounded by peach-coloured buildings which glowed in the evenings. After ten in the morning it was too hot to be outside. Children played football in between the apartment blocks and women in saris sat talking on benches.

On my first day at work I left two hours to get to the office. I arrived with an hour to spare and sat in a pile of sand on the edge of Media City and read a newspaper I had picked up on the flight. I was still brutally tired. I was wearing a blouse and high heels and a skirt that kept riding up slightly. I went into the office and the air conditioning slapped me around the face. Nick took me outside for a coffee and smoked his way steadily through a packet of Marlboros as he told me about his time in Saudi Arabia making films for the government. People greeted me in English and told me to watch what they were doing. I watched carefully as they typed and printed and pressed buttons. I watched carefully as they made coffee, the sickly Nescafe I was used to from Egypt and Syria, one spoonful of coffee, two of sugar, one of powdered milk, stirred until it turned the perfect beige.

I packed oranges in my work bag and learned the metro route from the flat to the office. I wore sunglasses and jeans and kept my head down. The Emirati policemen, at least four to each metro station, swaggered lazily along the platforms and leaned against the walls, playing games on their phones. I stopped hearing the announcements and unwittingly memorised the sequence of stations.

Every morning I went to the McDonalds in Media City and bought a cup of coffee for four dirhams. It came in a brown paper bag with two sticks of sugar, two cartons of milk, a paper napkin and a plastic stirrer. I would unpack this all on the concrete steps in the courtyard of Media City. I would drink the milk on its own then pour one stick of sugar into the coffee and stir it. I would save the napkin for lunchtime to wipe away the orange juice from my fingers. By the evening, the courtyard would be filled with nargileh smoke and the clack of tawleh boards coming from the Lebanese cafe on the corner.

The first time I went to Abu Dhabi I fell asleep in the car and woke up with hot and itchy eyes which balked at the sunlight reflecting off the glass buildings. Wodyan did her makeup expertly in the back of the car and shuffled through her stack of business cards with manicured fingers, deftly sorting and extracting the ones she needed. Naji was already in the bureau, filling the editing room with smoke. Wodyan showed me the live stream of her own house that she used to watch her nanny while she was at work. Naji and I argued over whether Hassan Nasrallah was a sayyid or a sheikh. He was from Achrafiye and not for the last time in Dubai I felt the brief tug of memory, of places passed through. This time it was sunlight on a wall full of bullet-holes, a picture of Baudelaire outside a cafe covered in bougainvillea, a bar filled with people with dark hair and leather jackets. Every time we went to Abu Dhabi I fell asleep and woke up feeling like a grumpy child.

I learned to create my own diversions. I arrived earlier than most people and stared at the scrolling list of wire reports on my computer screen. I cut and pasted and stitched together with the pieces of Arabic that serve as glue, the fa’s and inna’s and wa’s. I summarised and tried to give a sense of meaning. Day by day I watched the pieces of news expand. An initial report of violence gave way to places and names and numbers of dead. Then that was joined by reaction and condemnation, by detail and nuance, by background and analysis. I translated and memorised. I wrote a voice-over and laboriously added the vowelling, then practiced it in the toilet because I was too shy to speak fusha out loud.

Chris and Melissa took me to the creek. Melissa and I sneaked up to the top floor of a restaurant and looked out over the water. The abras went back and forth, the most fragile pieces of light. She told me about a plan to create a Venice-like system of canals, and the idea made perfect sense to me. Everything about Dubai began to make perfect sense to me. We walked through the souk and I bought falude from an Iranian man who tested me on my paltry Farsi and agreed when I told him that Shirazi falude was the best in Iran. We went through Deira to a falafel place where I ate with my hands and drank sweet tea from a mug with ‘QALB TAYYIB’ on it.

I went into Ibn Battuta mall once to pick up something mundane and never went back. That was the only time I went to a mall. When I left I felt as though perhaps I had missed something.

Wodyan, Naji, Mohin, Ali and I filmed interviews with grave, clean-shaven men in dishdashes who sat behind vast desks in dark, cool rooms. I shook hands and listened and tried not to make any sound. Wodyan’s hair was always flawless and her clothes were always straight. Only perhaps by the evening when we were driving back to Dubai would you catch the faintest hint of sweat when she moved. My hair stuck to my scalp and I hopped between patches of shade. My sunglasses were held together with a bit of wire and my bag had one strap missing. I had no business cards. Occasionally I did the re-asks with Wodyan, when she asked questions and nodded in reaction to imaginary responses. I was a mannequin in a leather armchair. I was younger than her and looked older.

I developed a fascination with one of the anchors. She was round in the careless, taut way of a Rubens painting and wore satin suits in purples and pinks which stretched tight when she walked, with a slight effort, clumsy on her black spike heels. Like all the anchors I saw them first on screen, in the control room or in the office on one of the televisions which all day flashed silently between CNBC, al-Jazeera, and al-Arabiyah. Then I would see them in the flesh as they came into the news room after a broadcast, sipping from water bottles and detaching wires from themselves, loosening their ties or taking off their stiff shoes, their faces shining. I saw her once eating lunch in the courtyard and avoided her eye, although her desk was very close to mine. There was something cartoonish about her, something that faintly intimidated me.

I went to a party with Chris and Melissa on the 26th floor of a building. The apartment was new and looked like a magazine spread. It had white leather furniture and a futuristic sound system and a balcony that looked far out into the city. The hosts were young and seemed to want for nothing. I drank fruit punch out of a paper cup and listened to people talk. Later we played a game, a debating game, and I was drunk or unfamiliar enough to win. Their dog matched the furniture and ran around the apartment as they made delicate little snacks out of avocado, prawns, basil, goat’s cheese. I think it was the first time I had ever introduced myself as a friend met on the internet.

Slowly, I learned how to edit video, a new kind of typing, and found a kind of pleasure in the neatness and exactitude required to cut and paste a clip just so, the trickery of sound and image, the basic manipulation of a story. It was laborious and I was very slow. I spent two days editing an interview that would take ‘Usama, my mentor, a couple of hours. I finished it and realised I had used the wrong sound file. I started again and this time it only took me a day. When I had finished ‘Usama congratulated me and gave me the interview on a memory stick.

I bought some sesame sweets to supplement my oranges. I ran up huge bills talking to people far away. At night, I sat outside on a bench in Discovery Gardens, watching the nocturnal dog-walkers ply back and forth.

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War games in Yemen

Speaking of people who know what is up – Jeremy Scahill on the history of US involvement in Yemen:

‘There is no doubt that when President Obama took office, Al Qaeda had resurrected its shop in Yemen. But how big a threat AQAP actually posed to the United States or Saleh is the subject of much debate. What was almost entirely undiscussed was whether US actions—the targeted killings, the Tomahawk and drone strikes—caused blowback and whether some of AQAP’s attacks were motivated by the undeclared war the United States was fighting in Yemen. “We are not generating good will in these operations,” says Nakhleh. “We might target radicals and potential radicals, but unfortunately in a crisis other things and other people are being destroyed or killed. So in the long run it is not necessarily going to help. To me the bigger issue is the whole issue of radicalization. How do we pull the rug from under it?”

It was the Bush administration that declared the world a battlefield where any country would be fair game for targeted killings. But it was President Obama, with Yemen as the laboratory, who put a bipartisan stamp on this paradigm—which will almost certainly endure well beyond his time in office. “The global war on terror has acquired a life of its own,” says Colonel Lang. “It’s a self-licking ice cream cone. And the fact that this counterterrorism/counterinsurgency industry evolved into this kind of thing, involving all these people—the foundations and the journalists and the book writers and the generals and the guys doing the shooting—all of that together has a great, tremendous amount of inertia that tends to keep it going in the same direction.” He adds, “It continues to roll. It will take a conscious decision on the part of civilian policy-makers, somebody like the president, for example, to decide that, ‘OK, boys, the show’s over.’” But Obama, he says, is far from deciding the show’s over. “It seems that this is going to go on for a long time.”’

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