Podcast: The Israeli passion for Arabic music

 
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By Khaled Diab

Mizrahi Jews are reviving the Arabic music of their heritage and fusing it with new influences, which is proving popular with young Palestinians.

 

An Israeli magazine from 2104 has a cover story on Umm Kulthoum, with the headline "Enta Omri".

An Israeli magazine from 2014 has a cover story on Umm Kulthoum, with the headline “Enta Omri”.

Thursday 31 March 2016

Like Cold War Moscow was for the West, Israel is the location for many an Arab spy thriller. So, by rights, my first visit, nearly a decade ago, should have been accompanied by suspenseful, high-tempo incidental music.

Instead, as I watched the Tel Aviv skyline whizz by in a blur from the taxi window, my ears were telling me I was in a Cairene ahwa, or traditional teahouse, not in Israel. The dulcet, glass-shattering, tones of Umm Kulthoum bombarded my eardrums.

Enta omri,” “You are my life,” sang the taxi driver, undaunted by the enormity of the task of emulating the Arab world’s most revered singer. His gravelly, tuneless voice, thickened by too many years of too much smoke, jarred painfully against the deep, husky mystery of Umm Kulthoum’s own contralto voice.

Statistically speaking, of course, my surprise was unfounded, as I’ve discovered over four years of living here.

Although Israel’s image abroad and the self-image it projects is very Western, about half of its Jewish population originates in the Middle East, but it is coy of showing this Arab face to the world.

Known as Mizrahi, or Eastern Jews in Hebrew, the first generation were born in Arab countries, the second generation grew up in Arabic-speaking households, and many in the third generation are busy rediscovering their roots.

The first generation had it tough. They fled their homelands out of fear following the creation of Israel, landed in desolate refugee camps and were usually sent off to remote “development towns” which never developed into anything beyond a receptacle for broken promises and shattered dreams.

Their Arab culture, which was also the culture of the enemy, was shunned and looked down upon by the Ashkenazi pioneers who founded Israel. This led the Mizrahim to seek escape from the offending Mizrahiness.

However, even if their culture was shunned in public, the Mizrahim maintained it in private, speaking Arabic at home and listening to the music they had grown up with. This was driven home to me by Murad, a oud player I met, who performed Arabic music at weddings and bar mitzvahs for the Iraqi community.

Despite having left his native Baghdad as a child, Mordechai, as he was known in Hebrew, had a large repertoire of Arabic songs, spoke fluent Baghdadi Arabic and had picked up the Palestinian dialect.

Some of the musicians who moved to Israel were among the crème de la crème of Arabic music, but found no interest from the Ashkenazi establishment. These included Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti.

Born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-Jewish family, the Kuwaiti brothers were popular both with the political elite, including Iraq’s then King Faisal, and the masses in Iraq and the Gulf, though they were expunged for decades from the Arab collective memory. In Israel, they fared no better. Saleh and Daoud were forced to eke out an existence as shopkeepers in Tel Aviv and sang in small bars.

Decades later, Daoud’s grandson Dudu Tassa revived their memory by fusing their songs with the guitar riffs he had become famous for as a rocker. And Tassa is not alone. Recent years have seen Mizrahi music come out of the home and on to the radio, TV and the club scene. You can hear it at parties, weddings and even on Saturday nights at Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s covered market.

Numerous young artists have reclaimed the Iraqi, Yemeni and North African music of their ancestors, others have mixed it with other genres to create original new sounds. Some sing in the Arabic of their heritage, while others perform in the Hebrew of their present.  There are Israeli artists who cover classics of Arab song or take the tunes and plonk Hebrew lyrics on them.

Despite the distrust of Israel and growing hatred towards Israelis in Palestinian society, Mizrahi music in Hebrew has a surprisingly strong following among young Palestinians, a trend which confounded a Palestinian artist friend who hears it all around the Bethlehem area. Even more bewildering, a trickle of Palestinian artists are singing Mizrahi music in Hebrew, such as Nasreen Qadri, who has found mainstream success.

While some Palestinian activists I know dismiss this interest in Mizrahi music as a form of assimilationism with the occupier and an expression of self-hatred, I think its causes run deeper. Despite their disparate politics, young Mizrahim and Palestinians have a lot  in common: they are socioeconomically marginalised, their forebears were uprooted and their culture has been under threat.

As is the case with African-Americans, the fact that Mizrahi music has become hip and mainstream does not mean that the Mizrahim are no longer marginalised. Despite some success stories, the Israeli establishment and upper echelons are still firmly Ashkenazi.

This growing cultural pride has not translated into greater sympathy for Palestinians and Arabs. In fact, there has been a hardening of sentiment and a troubling surge in anti-Arab racism.

This is disheartening to Mizrahi activists I know who possess the dream that their communities’ Arab roots can help bridge the gaping chasm separating Israelis and Palestinians.

This is unlikely to happen for many long years to come. But one day the Mizrahim and Palestinian appreciation for the same music may help them find the cultural common ground to hit the same notes politically and work in concert towards a better future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This report was first broadcast on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on  26 March 2016.

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One man’s terrorist is another woman’s lover

 
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By Khaled Diab

The surreal “lovejacking” of an EgyptAir flight adds a new dimension to the western image of the Arab man: the hopeless romantic and dedicated lover.

"Lovejacker" Seif Eldin Mustafa poses for a surreal snap with one of the passengers.

“Lovejacker” Seif Eldin Mustafa poses for a surreal snap with one of the passengers.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

A domestic EgyptAir flight from Alexandria was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus. So far, so ordinary, in the grisly annals of global terrorism.

The first sign that something was different was when the hijacker released most of those aboard. This prompted some commentators to express initial relief that we had returned to a bygone era of airborne terrorism when flights were hijacked, not just summarily blown up, and demands made.

The fact that only the crew and a handful of foreign passengers remained on the plane led me to conclude that the hijacker(s) could not be takfiri jihadists, who tend to kill Muslims and non-Muslims with equal vigour.

Soon after, it emerged that the Egyptian hijacker, wwho has now been arrested by Cypriot authorities, was not motivated by politics or ideology. “It’s all to do with a woman,” Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades told miffed reporters.

Egyptian media publish what they say is first photo of hijacker

Egyptian media publish what they say is first photo of hijacker

A blurry image has even emerged of the hijackers hand passing a love letter addressed to his ex-wife to a female airport official who has her hands to her cheeks in a gesture of disbelief.

This “lovejacking”, as some have dubbed it, had Egyptian social media doing what it does best: firing off barrages of biting satire. Some took it as a commentary on the poor quality of Egypt’s internet and postal services, others expressed gratitude on behalf of the passengers for diverting the flight to Larnaca instead of Cairo.

There were the inevitable references to classics of Egyptian comedy, such as the 1990’s satire “al-Irhab weh wl’Kabab” (Terrorism and Kebab). Personally, I reworked a popular love song to produce the lovejacker’s version.

He’s not a terrorist, he’s an idiot,” an irate Egyptian foreign ministry official was quoted as saying.

Given all the fear and heartache the hijacker has caused passengers, the potential economic fallout for his fellow Egyptians (though maybe Egypt might be able to carve out a new niche in tourism) and the undoubted legal consequences that will follow, the official’s sentiments are understandable.

Next time, send flowers, was my first thought. But those more romantically inclined than I were touched by the gesture, either for real or in jest. This just goes to prove that one man’s terrorist is another woman’s lover-boy.

One female acquaintance admitted that she would be “impressed” if someone had performed a similar gesture for her – though I suspected that if she had been the target, she would have thought “weirdo stalker”, not “hopeless romantic”.

“After [the] LoveJacking of [the] EgyptAir flight, [the] bar is now set extremely high for men to show their love,” tweeted Iranian-American commentator Holly Dagres.

And the reports that the hijacker, demanded the release of all female political prisoners in Egypt is bound to fuel speculation that he is a hopeless romantic.

Although I doubt very much that my wife would be flattered if I took a planeload of people as hostages to romance, this surreal overlap of love and terrorism does shed light on something about Arab men that gets little exposure in the West.

A popular contemporary Western stereotype of Arab men is that they are mirthless religious fanatics who hate women, although once upon a time Europeans were strongly influenced by Arab romance. Rarely are Arab men seen as lovers of women, though Hollywood does often portray them as lustful and sex-crazed.

But if we were to judge Arab men by the culture they produce, then we would be left with the impression that they are helpless, hopeless, tormented romantics. Love, especially of the tragic, painful variety of grand gestures, is a centuries-old staple of Arabic poetry and literature.

Love burns like a fire, inebriates like wine, tortures, makes you lose your senses, and much more, and the lover would do anything for his beloved. And every part of a beloved’s body is like a weapon of mass desire, from eyelashes that cut like knives to swaying hips that hypnotise.

Classical Arabic literature has a pantheon of Romeo and Juliet-like characters, the most famous of which is probably Qays and Laila. Qays’s obsession with Layla, whose father marries her off to a nobleman, earns him the nickname “Majnun” (Madman), and he lives up to it by wandering the wilderness for years longing for his beloved. After her death, his lifeless body is found near her grave, upon which he has carved verses of passionate poetry.

Perhaps the hijacker of the EgyptAir plane does not see himself as an “idiot” but as a 21st-century Majnun on a flight of fantasy to Cyprus in search of his own “Laila”.

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You are different

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“You are different” is a simple sentence with confusing connotations. What does that even mean? What sort of different?

"You are different!"

“You are different!”

Wednesday 16 March 2016

“You’re different.”

What does this mean? Maybe you’ve changed. Something small but noticeable… your hair, eyeshadow. Maybe you have an air. Age has caught up or events taken a toll.

Maybe you’re different from expectations. A blind date… online relationship enters next phase.

Someone younger. Someone older. Someone with nicer clothes. Someone with a glint. Someone with less tics. Someone with charm, freckles, wrinkles.

Someone liberal, cool, straight, straight-laced. Someone in skinny jeans, with a man-bun. Someone caring. Someone cruel.

Maybe it’s something about contractions. You are different. You’re different. Or something about emphasis. You are different. You are different. You are different.

Could be about punctuation. You’re different! You’re different. Or the delivery. You’re… different. You… are different. You are… different.

Could also be the things you do. Collecting mushrooms. Making Lego. Drinking white Port. Listening to Burt Bacharach. Chewing pens. Torturing animals. Watching Netflix.

What if it’s all about the word ‘different’? What sort of different? Different good. Different bad. Different without connotation, context… meaning.

But then why say it?

The words mean nothing, then? Chit-chat. Something to say. Observance. Insight. Better than… you.

What if it’s none of this? Focus is on you, not perception. Maybe you really are different.

Funny looking. Stunning. Funny. Cross-eyed. Misshapen. Trendy. Angry. Unfashionable. Bald. Unclean. White. Poor. Together. Punk. Sad. Christian. Yellow. Gothic. Red. Happy. Black. Jewish. Unhinged. Rasta. Clean. Muslim. Rich.

You.

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Egypt’s other Tahrirs

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tahrir may have been pacified for now, but the revolution is still playing out in Egypt’s economic and social squares.

Sana Seif

Friday 5 February 2016

In January 2011, Egypt captivated the entire world but, above all else, Egyptians surprised and mesmerised themselves.

If revolution means, as the word implies, sending the established order and accepted norms into a spin, then what occurred in those heady winter days in 2011 was a revolution with a capital “R”.

Only the tyranny of death would manage to oust the ageing tyrant, many believed. Instead, millions of Egyptians taking to the streets gave Hosni Mubarak his marching orders.

Egyptians are docile and apathetic, was the received wisdom. But they shock off the chains of apparent lethargy to rise up, en masse, against the despotism of the dictator, the junta and the theocrats.

Egyptians need, nay desire, the iron fist of a strongman. Although a surprising number of people lamented the downfall of Mubarak, the majority were jubilant and partied like there was a tomorrow when the news of his demise broke.

In addition, the crowds’ sustained and uncompromising demands for bread, freedom and social justice put paid to the lie that Egyptians do not desire nor understand democracy, even if some are reluctant or passionate supporters of military or Islamist dictatorship.

Today, it is hard to believe that those momentous events occurred just five years ago. Like a 21st-century Alice, Egyptians seem to have fallen into a wormhole in which time, space and history have been warped and speeded up.

In just five years, Egypt has gone through more changes in leadership than over the preceding six decades. The country has hurtled through revolution, counterrevolution, and anti-revolution, and its people have ridden the emotional rollercoaster that has taken them from the heights of elation to the depths of deflation.

Though everything promised to change, nothing seems to have changed. This sad reality was poignantly summed up by the solitary courageous protester, Sanaa Seif, who marched defiantly through the indiffrent traffic on Tahrir Square with a short bearing the slogan: “It’s still the January revolution“.

This has led to a sense of despondency and despair, with many signing off on the revolution’s death certificate or, worse, claiming that it was never born in the first place.

But is this disillusionment justified?

It is true that the existing order has proven remarkably adept at clinging on to power. First, the regime sacrificed its head to save its body. Then the military attempted to rule directly and co-opt the revolutionaries. Failing this, it hid behind the democratic façade provided by a pliant Muslim Brotherhood. When Mohamed Morsi got too big for his shoes, he was unceremoniously evicted and the apparent loyalist he appointed to run the armed forces, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, became Egypt’s newly minted military dictator.

The counterrevolution has been so apparently successful that it seems to have brought Egypt full circle back to square one. However, appearances are deceptive.

The incremental and unprecedented use of force and coercion, not to mention efforts to frighten the population into submission, are signs of weakness, not of strength. It betrays just how desperate the regime has become after everything has failed to keep a rebellious population in check.

And even though Egypt’s jails are overflowing with prisoners of conscience, not to mention all the dead, other activists, critical journalists and outspoken citizens take their place, some many times over.

Ahmed Gamal Zyada is just one “typical” example of this courage in the face of adversity. A journalist who previously spent 500 days in prison, he was recently stabbed and left for dead in what his family allege was a political assassination attempt.

“I’m not going to lie, pretend that I’m a hero and say I don’t feel fear,” Zyada said in an interview after his release from prison. “I am afraid, but I’m not going to be silent.”

But it is not just revolutionaries who feel fear. Despite being the one with the guns, the soldiers, the police and the prison cells, the al-Sisi regime is the one that is acting terrified, especially so in the run-up to 25 January.

This panicked fear has been amply demonstrated by what has been described as “the toughest security crackdown in Egypt’s history” which has included a spate of arrests, and the random, arbitrary searching of thousands of downtown apartments.

The underlying reason for this fear are clear: while Egyptians have changed, their leaders have not, and they live in a delusion that the old ways can be restored through violence. “A profound gulf now exists between a ruling class intent on governing as if nothing has changed and large swathes of a democratic citizenry for whom something fundamental has altered,” writes Jack Shenker, who covered the revolution for the Guardian, in The Egyptians, a new book which will be released soon.

In addition to the ferocity of the counterrevolution, the trouble with the revolution was that the euphoria it aroused raised too many high expectations. Problems that have accumulated over the six decades since the army took over power take time to unravel. The brutality of the modern Egyptian state over the past two centuries cannot be blunted immediately. The damage done by foreign control and meddling that has been Egypt’s lot for more than two millennia cannot be repaired in an instant.

When the revolution first erupted, I argued that a political revolution will fail without an accompanying social (r)evolution, to dethrone the million “mini-Mubaraks”, weed out endemic corruption, promote equality and egalitarianism, create a meritocracy and more.

While the political revolution has stalled, the social and cultural one is in full swing. It has been spearheaded by workers demanding their rights, women struggling for equality, and the growing assertiveness of previously discreet minorities, such as atheists. Young people have perhaps been the greatest agitators for change and have given their elders lessons in courage, determination and grit – schools have even become breeding grounds for rebels.

Even if Tahrir has been pacified for now, Egypt’s thousand of mini “Tahrirs” have not. This is reflected in the paradox that, despite or perhaps because of the escalating use of state violence, the number of daily protests under Sisi is almost triple what they were under Morsi and five times higher than the turbulent final years of Mubarak’s rule.

Although Egyptians did not heed the call of the shrunken ranks of activist to take to the streets once again on 25 January, it does not mean they won’t ever again. Egyptians have discovered their latent ability to move immobile mountains and broken the fear barrier.

When they do eventually rise again, a deep social revolution may enable them to unleash their creativity to the maximum – perhaps even reinventing democracy to suit their needs.

“I am deeply convinced that the future is ours and that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of this tyrannical state,” believes Khaled Fahmy, a history professor who has been chronicling the revolution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 23 January 2016.

 

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Sexual harassment, Islam and the politicisation of women’s bodies

 
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By Khaled Diab

Sexual harassment in Cologne and elsewhere is not about Islam. It is about the patriarchy and the politicisation of women’s bodies.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon in its latest issue featuring the drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, in which it suggests that, had he lived, the boy would have morphed into a man-ape and become an “ass groper”. This was a crude reference to the shocking spate of robberies and mass sexual assaults of women in Cologne on new year’s eve, which has further fuelled anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment across Europe.

Defenders of the cartoon claim it is a parody that “mirrors racist public discourse” and a “damning indictment of our anti-refugee sentiment.”

As someone who is no stranger to satire and who was outraged by the slaying of Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamist terrorists, I feel these defences give the satirical French magazine too much credit. Even if we were to give it the benefit of the doubt, racists and bigots are likely to take the cartoon – which echoes traditional depictions of blacks as oversexed monkeys – at face value, and use it to confirm their prejudices.

Rather than challenging the growing anti-refugee sentiment, I feel Charlie Hebdo is pandering to it. Social media in Germany and across Europe has been awash with a tidal wave of hate speech against migrants since the Cologne mob attacks, as epitomised by the grotesquely racist “rapeugees” hashtag and the call on Facebook for a “manhunt of foreigners”, which has already claimed casualties.

That is not to say that I do not feel outraged by what happened in Cologne on new year’s eve. So far, nearly 350 women have reported being sexually assaulted by roaming mobs of drunken men, many of whom were described as looking Arab or North African.

The scale and mob nature of these attacks reminds me of Tahrir square, where groups of men would erect a “circle of hell” around female protesters and sexually assault them.

Although a large number of these savage attacks were likely opportunistic, exploiting the confusion of big crowds and the vulnerability of women inside them, others were politically motivated.

Victims accounts and circumstantial evidence suggest that many were likely carried out by the regime’s paid thugs or undercover police to intimidate female protesters, by the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists, who have a track record of inciting against female protesters, incensed by women acting as equals and demanding equality.

The reactions to these crimes have more often than not also been politicised, with Egyptian society’s most reactionary forces, from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to capitalise on these tragedies by blaming their political opponents for them.

A similar dynamic has been at play in Germany. The apparently orchestrated nature of the sexual assaults in Cologne suggests that they may have been politically motivated, though for what end or by whom is a mystery.

As if the sexual abuse of the women in Cologne was not enough, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups and politicians have been falling over themselves to politicize their plight.

This political profiteering was on blatant display during a rally organised by the anti-Islam Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident).

“This is Deutschland, not Afghanistan,” opined Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the extremist English Defence League and founder of the European Defence League. “Islam is the cancer and Pegida is the cure.”

What exactly sexual assault and sexual harassment have to do with Islam – or at least any more so than other religions – is unclear. Syrian refugees, for one, do not seem to have read the memo. A group of them produced a flyer addressed to the German public, in which they declaimed: “Our cultural values were trampled by these crimes. Those values include respect for women and men [and] respect for bodily integrity.”

On new year’s eve, one American woman in Cologne was rescued from a mob attempting to assault her by a group of Syrian refugees who set up a protective cordon around her and helped her locate her boyfriend. “The good people, nobody speaks about them,” one of the young woman’s rescuers lamented.

If Islam really were to blame for the Cologne assaults, then you’d expect there to be a clear pattern of sexual harassment across the Arab and Muslim world. But anecdotal evidence suggests that no such pattern exists.

An unscientific survey I conducted of female friends and acquaintances confirmed Egypt and Pakistan as among the worst in the Muslim world, and India topped the non-Muslim league. Meanwhile, the Levant, including Syria before the civil war, was seen as pretty mellow. “I feel a lot more comfortable around 11pm in Manger Square… than I do walking in Cairo during broad daylight,” one friend confessed.

In Egypt, the sexual harassment epidemic is partly a backlash against the gender revolution taking place, in which women are becoming more assertive and unapologetic in their demands for equality, as well as years of denial and the breakdown in law and order.

Interestingly, women living in some Gulf states, such as the UAE and Bahrain, report that the harassment there is minimal. Given their conservative reputation, this would appear to be an anomaly.

However, this conservatism may be part of the reason why their streets are relatively free of sexual harassment. There, the traditional concept of a woman’s “honour” being intertwined with that of her family is still robust. So, rather than gender equality, it is the idea that a woman is some man’s sister, daughter or even mother that holds other men back.

Although less common, this attitude is not unfamiliar in the West. This was demonstrated at the Pegida rally. Not only were the majority of the protesters there men, Tommy Robinson reminded his audience that: “It is the duty of every man to protect their women.”

“When exactly those people who otherwise spend the year telling women that they should button up their blouses suddenly start promoting women’s rights, then it is instrumentalized racism,” wrote Sascha Lobo in Der Spiegel.

Much as we would like to believe that we, in the West, live in some kind of post-patriarchal society of equals, misogyny remains, persistently and infuriatingly, alive and well. And despite all the gender legislation and education, sexual harassment in public is a reality that millions of women on both sides of the Atlantic must live with.

“The place where I have been most harassed is France by non-Arab men,” one well-travelled friend admitted. Another said that harassment was less frequent in Europe than in the Middle East but when it occurred it was “more aggressive or very rude… Harassers have pretty often seemed drunk or high.”

What limited research has been conducted reveals that street harassment is a challenge of global proportions. One study in the United States found that a whopping 87% of American women had been sexually harassed, with half reporting “extreme” harassment. A Europe-wide survey found that one in three women had experienced physical or sexual abuse, with one in 20 reporting they had been raped.

The assaults in Cologne were an extreme and discomfiting public display of this reality, and singling out migrants will not resolve the problem. In addition to better policing, Europeans need to tackle the misogyny and sexism, both amongst minorities and the majority, that give men a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, breed a blame-the-victim culture and provide victims with insufficient emotional and legal support.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 20 January 2016.

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Orientalism for kids

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the racism contained in Tintin and other classic children’s tales, I believe that children should be exposed to them.

C01-36

Tuesday 3 November 2015

My son’s long-standing love for comics betrays his Belgian side. At nearly six, he has now graduated to more advanced comic-books, including Tintin.

But the Cigars of the Pharaoh edition had his Egyptian side scratching his head, as its depiction of his other homeland did not match what his own eyes and ears had witnessed of that country and the wider region.

From the mummies of Egyptologists and the pharaonic wall-paintings of bowler-hatted Europeans with cigars and briefcases to bloodthirsty and violent Arabian tribesmen, none tallied with his real-life experiences.

Iskander’s reaction reminded me of a caricature by Kevin Moore I have seen of Tintin with a frown of concern on his face as he flicks through the pages of a book. The caption reads: “Tintin discovers Orientalism.”

In a similarly orientalist vein, Belgium and the Netherlands have been discovering the latent racism of Zwarte Pieten in recent years. These traditional characters, translated as “Black Petes”, are Moors who help Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas or Santa Claus) distribute sweets on his saint day (December 6), which is a huge deal in the Low Countries.

But Zwarte Pieten are usually depicted by actors in “black face”, with exaggerated thick red lips and a mop of thick curly hair, a racist representation of African faces once common in the West. Now, the Netherlands is phasing out the character’s trademark look from its schools, sparking controversy and outrage, particularly among conservatives.

While the tradition undoubtedly has its roots in early 19th-century attitudes to African slaves, my wife and I take it all with a pinch of salt. Overt references to the race of the Zwarte Pieten were excised a generation or two ago and, with the far more ominous forms of racism around today, this is hardly a battle worth fighting.

Besides, as is the case with many other children, Iskander loves the Zwarte Pieten far more than Sinterklaas. In fact, when he was a toddler, he was terrified of the old man’s long beard and would not go near him.

Back to Tintin. Should he and other classic tales be banned for their offensiveness?

Tintin in the Congo – which the comic genius and pioneer Hergé was specifically instructed by his ultraconservative Catholic publisher to draw to shore up colonial sentiment among a people who had never possessed a colony before and were not terribly interested in one – is probably the most obvious example of this bigotry.

Framed in the classic mould of the “white man’s burden”, our swashbuckling young reporter travels to the Congo to investigate conditions there, uncovering a sinister diamond-smuggling operation in the process.

The album depicts the indigenous Congolese as “noble savages” who are essentially good but lazy. In contrast, the white Belgians are portrayed as efficient and industrious, building villages and facilities for the natives, educating them and leading them down the path to Jesus.

In one panel, a missionary shows Tintin his mission. “This is the schoolroom, and there, in the middle, is the chapel,” the priest explains. “When we first arrived here a year ago, this place was bush.”

“Missionaries are the tops,” barks Tintin’s dog, Snowy, brimming over with admiration and enthusiasm.

At one point, a young native, eager to be educated by the white man, rushes up to the missionary to inform him, in pidgin, that the priest tasked with teaching them is too sick to give them lessons.

Helpful to a fault, Tintin volunteers to be the replacement teacher for the geography lesson, despite, presumably, not being much older than the pupils. “Today, I’m going to teach you about your country: Belgium,” Tintin pompously informs the class.

When Tintin finally departs the Congo, the supposedly primitive and dim-witted Congolese erect a shrine for him and his dog Snowy, and a pious native is pictured prostrating before it.

For a strong believer in equality and human dignity, this kind of superiority and casual racism makes me highly uncomfortable and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That said, I don’t think it should be banned.

After all, many children’s classics contain at least some content that we would consider unacceptable today, from Walt Disney cartoons to popular Arab fairy tales.

For instance, the frame story of the 1,001 Nights involves an insulting depiction of a black slave who sleeps with Shahryar’s queen, portrayed as a fickle and untrustworthy woman, and a tyrant who feels it is within his rights to murder a woman every night. As this example attests, it is not just racism that is a problem with old tales.

Sexism is a major issue too. Tintin, for instance, has almost no female characters and the only notable one, Bianca Castafiore, is whimsical, absent-minded and self-centred.

As a strong believer in freedom of expression and thought, the idea of bans does not appeal to me, especially since unsavoury attitudes need to be actively tackled, not swept out of sight. This is especially the case when it comes to historical literature.

Tintin was very much a product of his time, as reflected in the runaway success of the series and how little controversy around the world it elicited when it was published – ironically, Tintin’s adventure in the Congo remains hugely popular there and across francophone Africa.

Despite how unsavoury and even alien the attitudes above seem to us from our 21st-century perspective, when Hergé first published Tintin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the views of his young hero were sadly commonplace, especially in the conservative Christian circles to which Hergé belonged.

Four decades later, Hergé expressed regret, describing the Congo strip as a “sin of youth”. “All I knew about the country was what people said at the time,” he admitted.

In some later adventures, in which both Hergé and Tintin matured, the cartoonist sought to atone for this “sin”.

In Blue Lotus, Hergé, who had consulted a Chinese art student who became a friend, tackles colonial attitudes head on. Tintin defends a rickshaw driver against a savage beating from a white man who complains: “Can’t we even teach that yellow rabble to mind their manners now? It’s up to us to civilise the savages!”

“Tintin himself is vehemently anti-racist,” one reader contends, “and is often seen sticking up for downtrodden locals over the objections of imperial powers.”

Whether or not Tintin, the character, is anti-racist does not absolve the comic, especially its early editions, of racism.

However, episodes of racism and sexism notwithstanding, Tintin was a pioneering work of comic art and his boyish adventures tickle the hero instinct in children and appeal to their longing for the independence and self-determination of which we adults deprive them.

In addition to not wishing to deprive my son of such simple pleasures, I feel Tintin and other classics of bygone eras present a wealth of educational opportunities. As the enduring appeal of the far-right suggests, these bigoted attitudes are, sadly, still alive and well in our societies, and so it is our duty to prepare our children by making them aware of this reality.

An unthreatening comic full of exotic destinations and outlandish storylines could be utilised as a great teaching tool. Although my son is still blissfully oblivious to the ogres of discrimination, I intend to use Tintin and other stories to discuss with him and to help him learn, as he gets older, about these unsavoury aspects of human culture.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 17 October 2015.

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The road to hell is paved with pious intentions

 
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By Khaled Diab

The ban on eating and drinking in public in some Muslim countries is wrong. Piety cannot and must not be imposed by law.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Ramadan is a unique month. It is time of stark contrasts. Fasting and austerity during the day. Feasting and revelry once the sun goes down. It is paradoxically characterised both by enhanced spirituality, as many faithful withdraw from the world to worship and spiritually cleanse themselves, and greater materialism, as the average family’s consumption sky-rockets.

The holy month is marked by greater forgiveness and charity, but also heightened levels of impatience and anger, especially in the form of the “fasting furious” during rush hour. One unedifying aspect of Ramadan is when piety stops becoming a personal quest and becomes a question of public interest and even legislation.

This was recently illustrated in Morocco, where five people were arrested for eating and drinking in public, which is prohibited in the kingdom by law and carries a sentence of up to six months in prison.

Of course, Morocco is not alone. A number of Arab and Muslim countries have similar regulations in place, especially in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has gone a step further and threatened to deport any non-Muslims found eating and drinking in public.

Even in countries that do not ban eating and drinking, overzealous individual officers can sometimes take the law into their own hands.

Although it was once unheard of in my native Egypt, where there is a vibrant parallel non-fasting culture, recent years have seen a number of incidents in which Egyptians were detained by police for breaking the fast in public. Controversy surrounding the alleged arrest of 25 people prompted Egypt’s interior ministry to reiterate that eating in public is legal during Ramadan.

And it is important that it stays this way. In fact, Egypt needs to go further, and lift the ridiculous ban it has on alcohol sales during Ramadan.

Some pious people will object. I’ve debated this issue with numerous conservatives. Some argue that it is about not putting temptation in the way of the faster. But, surely, a Muslim who can’t handle fasting around others who are eating doesn’t possess the spiritual stamina to fast.

Besides, the Moroccan arrests took place in a beach resort, which implies that the fasting locals could endure tourists in beachwear sipping cocktails on the beach, but thirsty locals are suddenly intolerable.

Another justification is that in a Muslim country people must respect Islamic values and rituals. “These people were arrested for not showing Ramadan the respect it deserves,” one interlocutor argued.

Well, those chanting “This is a Muslim country” should not mind at all that China is forcing Muslims to eat in public this year – after all, Ramadan conflicts with the country’s ostensibly communist ideology. Of course, this is an enormous violation of the rights of Chinese Muslims – but so is forcing people not to eat in public.

This highlights how this kind of coercive imposition of ideology is not just an Islamic ailment. In Israel, for example, it has surprised me how the country must go into forced lockdown on Yom Kippur and, every Shabbat, public transport comes to a grinding halt and traffic is banned from ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods.

Moreover, showing respect is a personal choice, not a legislative issue. Coercion results in the kind of “respect” people show to thugs and bullies. Respect is a two-way street. Just as liberals like me don’t force pious Muslims to drink alcohol, why do the pious believe it is their right to compel us to fast, or at least to pretend to do so in public?

Such pressure for citizens to exhibit public piety is counterproductive, as it promotes a spirit of hypocrisy – something which has undermined numerous Arab and Muslim societies. Do what you want in private but lie in public, is the implicit, underlying message.

More fundamentally, such coercion is a violation of the principle of religious freedom. And even if you exempt non-Muslims from this, this raises the problematic issue of dividing between citizens, which can raise tensions and fuel sectarianism. In addition, such exemptions still infringe on the rights of non-practicing Muslims not to practise their religion.

Beyond this, the road to hell is paved with pious intentions. If this logic works in Ramadan, why stop there? Shouldn’t the pious then have the right to impose their values on the rest of us all year round?

And this is happening before our eyes. Despite its reputation for tolerance, Morocco is becoming increasingly draconian. A telling example of this are the two women currently standing trial for “public indecency” for wearing miniskirts, who face the prospect of spending two years behind bars.

Luckily, tolerant Moroccans have not taken this lying down, and have come up with creative ways to protest, including a campaign to bare legs in solidarity and more than 27,000 have signed a petition telling the minister of justice that “wearing a skirt is not a crime”.

Such initiatives are not a campaign to spread “debauchery” and “immorality”, but seek to protect the freedom of everyone, even the pious. What the self-righteous pious don’t realise is that there are always those who are more pious and radical.

By showing intolerance towards those less pious than them, they open the door to the more extreme doing the same to them. Today, they fashion a self-righteous moral case against the length of a skirt. Tomorrow, others might persecute them for wearing the wrong length of beard or a “revealing” type of hijab.

The only way to guarantee that others tolerate you is to tolerate others, without exception.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 17 July 2015.

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Omar Sharif: Actor without borders

 
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By Khaled Diab

The late Omar Sharif was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West.

Sharif-Zhivago

Friday 24 July 2015

In a world where the most famous Arabs in the West tend to be infamous, Omar Sharif was like a breath of fresh air. For a young Egyptian growing up in London, he was a welcome and flamboyant distraction from the popular stereotypes of the Arab: oil sheikh, fanatic or terrorist.

Although he was more famous for playing bridge than for acting when I was growing up, the aura of his legendary silver screen persona from the 1960s still mesmerised people. Buoyed by his off-screen playboy lifestyle, easy charm, dashing good looks and disarming honesty, Sharif remained a household name, no matter how many mediocre films he made for a quick buck to pay off his gambling debts.

Sharif-LawrenceSharif’s big international break was in the universally acclaimed epic Lawrence of Arabia. Casting him as a traditional Arab tribal leader was a bizarre choice. Omar Sharif grew up among the upper crust of cosmopolitan Alexandria and Cairo, where his modern upbringing was probably more “western” than that of many Westerners.

He attended Victoria College, a British school, where he rose to become the head boy and a prefect. The late Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said also went to the same school, where he lived in terror of the older boy’s “entrenched authoritarianism” and in admiration of his acting talent on the school stage.

Meanwhile, Sharif Ali, the character Omar Sharif portrayed, was a fictional and generic amalgamation of the Arab sheikhs TE Lawrence aided during the Arab revolt, who made what is widely regarded as the most spectacular cinematic entrance in history.

Despite the romantic and exotic orientalism of Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif’s great strength was that he did not allow himself to get typecast as a celluloid Arab – whether the “noble” desert Bedouin or the more common Hollywood staple, the “reel bad” Arab villain.

In his 1960s heyday, Sharif played a Spanish priest, a Yugoslav patriot fighting the Nazis and even Genghis Khan, which was panned by one critic as being “no closer to history than Omar Sharif is to being a Mongolian”. Sharif has even played a German. “Can you believe an Egyptian playing a German? Hitler turns in his grave at this,” Sharif once joked in an interview.

But the most famous non-Arab he portrayed has to be the dreamy and exceedingly romantic Russian Doctor Zhivago.

A polyglot who spoke five languages but didn’t have a mother tongue, Omar Sharif was not just a cinematic icon. With his ability to glide between cultures, he was also a symbol of an easy-going multiculturalism. He was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West, that the cultural divergence within them is greater than that between them.

Sharif, the first Egyptian and Arab to conquer Hollywood, not only challenged western clichés, he also undermined stereotypes in Egypt and the Arab world, and stood as a symbol of a vanishing cosmopolitan era of greater mobility and tolerance.

Born Michel Chalhoub, he was not just the son of Egypt but also of the Levant. His Lebanon-born father was a well-to-do Greek Catholic merchant who settled in Alexandria, while his mother was of Syrian-Lebanese extraction.

Sharif-HamamaUpon embarking on his film career, Chalhoub changed his name to Omar Sharif, partly because his father was ashamed of his career choice and partly to give himself an easier name for Egyptian audiences to recall. He soon ostensibly adopted the religion to match his new name when he fell in love with Egyptian silver screen legend Faten Hamama on the set of his first film, the classic Sira’ Fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley), and converted to marry her.

And like Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif’s first film in Egypt – the Arab Hollywood – was a mega-hit, though his casting in it also diverged from his real-life circumstances. In Struggle in the Valley, Sharif plays the son of a farmer caught in a passionate love affair symbolising the class struggle. In reality, Sharif grew up in a bourgeois household frequented by King Farouq, who played cards with his mother.

But Omar Sharif never became involved in overtly political art nor activism. Perhaps as a function of his complex and varied background, upbringing and career, he never sought to be a symbol for or representative of anyone.

He was a lover of the good life who was prone to overindulgence, especially when it came to his many affairs and to gambling. The side effect of this was that he lost many of the dearest things in his life, including his marriage to Hamama, and  led a rootless existence for long years living out of hotel rooms around the world. “I’ve been forced to live like a Bedouin,” he once said.

Sharif was also unapologetic about his multiple cultural influences and lifestyle choices, and never tried to fit into a particular cultural template. He didn’t seek assimilation in the West nor did he strive for a return to Arab authenticity when he came back to Egypt. “I am very western in culture and very eastern in temperament,” he once described.

This uncompromising individualism sometimes landed him in hot water, such as when he became romantically involved with Jewish-American superstar Barbra Streisand, known for her staunch support of Israel. Sharif’s response to allegations of treachery levelled against him in the Arab press was disarmingly simple and straightforward: “Neither in my professional nor in my private life do I ask a girl her nationality or her religion before I kiss her.”

Cinematically, Sharif’s silver years were better than the dry middle decades of his career, though, in his self-effacing honesty, he did not believe that age brought with it wisdom. He produced a number of Western and Arab films of worth, including The 13th Warrior, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, al-Aragouz (The Puppet Show), and al-Muwatin Masri (The Citizen is Egyptian).

It is a shame that he will no longer produce films of such calibre. But given his hit-and-miss career and his uneven acting abilities, it will not be Omar Sharif the artist that the world will miss the most.

It will be Omar Sharif, the person. In these times of growing polarisation, hardening cultural identities, the mindless quest for “authenticity” and fake civilisational clashes, we desperately need an Omar Sharif to glide effortlessly and elegantly through the allegedly impassable cultural barriers which supposedly separate us.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 July 2015.

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Egyptian Jews, love triangles and conspiracy theories

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite outlandish conspiracy theories, a Ramadan TV drama about Egypt’s lost Jewish community is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism.

Haret al-yahoud

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Love triangles, unrequited love and the torment of separation are staples of Egyptian soap operas. This is especially the case during Ramadan, when fasting and piety dominate during daylight hours and feasting and revelry kick off once the sun goes down.

But one Ramadan drama stands out for a love story with an unusual twist. Leila and Ali are the classic boy and girl next door who have been madly in love since childhood, with Ibtihal their jealous neighbour, representing the obtuse angle of this triangle. So far so ordinary.

However, Leila is an Egyptian Jew and Ali is an Egyptian officer deployed to the Palestine front during the 1948 war. To complicate matters further, her brother is one of the few Egyptian Jews who has gone to Palestine to help the Israeli effort.

The Leila-Ali affair makes up one of the central storylines of Haret el-Yahoud, which is set in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter, the controversial historical drama that is currently airing in Egypt and across the Arab world.

I have watched the first few episodes of this slick production and have generally been impressed by the quality of the acting and the period mood it evokes of 1940s “belle epoque” Cairo.

Most of all, I am pleased that a largely forgotten and distorted period of Egypt’s recent history, that of the demise of the country’s once-vibrant, 80,000-strong Jewish community, has been made accessible to a broader public – and in a humane and sympathetic light.

Though many Egyptians have welcomed the series, it has also provoked inevitable anger and allegations of “whitewashing history” in some quarters, especially among those who seem convinced that Jews, Israelis and Zionists are the same thing.

One example of this is Ahmed Metwali, described as a professor of history at Cairo University, who claimed that Jews in Egypt isolated themselves socially and worked exclusively in trade and business.

Obviously, the good professor’s grasp of his own country’s history is shaky at best, or ideology has blinded him to reality. Though a small community, Egypt’s Jews were prominent in every walk of life, including culture and politics – and many were ordinary, working class folk.

In fact, it might surprise the learned professor to learn that Jews played a central role in awakening Egypt’s modern national consciousness. A good example of this was Yaqub Sannu. Though almost totally forgotten today, in the 19th century, Sannu established one of the country’s first anti-imperialist and anti-royalist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses. He was also possibly the creator of the quintessential Ibn el-Balad (Son of the Country) character who stood for native virtue and the anti-imperial and class struggle.

Jews in Egypt felt so apparently comfortable that they not only made films, but some made films about Jews. At a time when German Jewish filmmakers were fleeing Hitler, Togo Mizrahi, one of the founding fathers of Egyptian cinema, made numerous films which had Jewish protagonists and main characters  – something that was rare if unheard of in 1930s Hollywood.

Even more unbelievably, Metwali claims that there were no love affairs between Muslims and Jews.

Has the history professor really not heard of perhaps the most famous on- and off-screen couple in Egyptian cinematic history, Leila Murad, who was once everyone’s favourite silver screen beauty with the golden vocal chords, and the debonair Anwar Wagdi? Out of love, Murad converted from Judaism to Islam to marry Wagdi (three times), who ruined their relationship by insisting on owning her entire career.

The character of Leila is done up in such a way as to pay tribute to her legendary namesake, while Ali, with his Clark Gable moustache, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wagdi.

Some critics have gone even further and taste the ingredients of a conspiracy by the al-Sisi regime to appease Israel and engineer a rapprochement by “narrowing the psychological gap between the two peoples”, according to Hossam Aql of the al-Badeel al-Hadari party.

But again, this strikes me as a case of conflating Jews with Israel. While the series portrays Egyptian Jews in a sympathetic light, the only Israeli I have seen so far was a two-dimensional sadist army officer who tortures Ali.

For Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it is Haret al-Yahoud’s less-than-flattering portrayal of their founding father, Hassan el-Banna, that seems to have provoked the greatest fury. “al-Sisi’s TV serials are a misrepresentation in favour of the Jews,” Anas Hassan, a prominent activist and the founder of Rassd, a pro-Brotherhood grassroots news site, wrote on his Facebook page, eliciting more than 2,000 likes. “al-Sisi is a complete Zionising project.”

The flimsy evidence for this is that the Israeli media has praised al-Sisi repeatedly. But if that is an indicator of being a “Zionist stooge”, then the Brotherhood’s very own Mohamed Morsi deserves that accolade just as much, given the acclaim he got in Israel and the love letter he sent to former Israeli president Shimon Peres.

In other posts, Hassan accused al-Sisi of being an “apostate” who was “raised by Jews”. Since al-Sisi’s rise to power, many Muslim Brotherhood supporters and activists have subscribed to outlandish ­– and frankly anti-Semitic – conspiracy theories about the Egyptian leaders ancestry, alleging that he is a Jew.

The damning case against him? According to a popular YouTube video, al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter. “Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area, despite its name, was always a mixed one.

Though not all Muslim Brothers entertain such feverish fantasies, this kind of hate-filled, intolerant, sectarian discourse does little to counteract the image of el-Banna and his men, who set off a deadly campaign of bombings against Jewish targets in 1948 just because they shared the same religion as the enemy, presented in Haret el-Yahoud as violent fanatics.

To my mind, there is no pro-Israel conspiracy behind Haret el-Yahoud, but perhaps an alliance of convenience and some co-option. Many artists in Egypt feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist intolerance in general, and this has, sadly, made many staunch or hesitant supporters of the ruthless military regime.

The series’ uncritical veneration of the army is a case in point. Even though al-Sisi hadn’t yet been born at the time of the 1948 war, the makers’ decision to set this drama in al-Sisi’s old neighbourhood and to make the main star a handsome, principled and sensitive army officer to whom women are instinctively drawn is a powerful subliminal message to audiences. Of course, any resemblance to real or living presidents may be entirely coincidental and unintentional.

For audiences and programme makers alike, the main draw to Haret al-Yahoud, in these tumultuous times, is nostalgia. Many look back wistfully to an Egypt that was once perched on top of the Arab and developing world. It was the wealthiest and most advanced Arab country, and a place where modernity and progress seemed to be on an unstoppable onward march.

In a contemporary Egypt where intolerance towards Christians, not to mention anyone who is different, many Egyptians feel that their country seriously lost its way in the second half of the 20th century, when it was supposed to have been liberated.

Haret al-Yahoud is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism. By coming to terms with the injustice it committed against its Jewish minority, Egypt may be able to save its soul.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 June 2015.

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Living in a selfie-centred world

 
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By Khaled Diab

The selfie fad has reached epidemic proportions, but we don’t live in more narcissistic times. Selfie-absorption is as old as civilisation itself.

Has modern technology made us more selfie-obsessed or have we always lived in a selfie-centred world?

Do we live in a more selfie-centred world than before?

Monday 23 March 2015

It was a miracle of selfie-preservation. A 14-year-old British schoolboy on a skiing holiday in Austria improbably survived, with only a few bruises and scratches, a 500-metre drop after slipping while shooting a selfie.

And if his phone survived the fall too, the teenager may just have snapped himself the kind of digital self-portrait that will make him the awe of his Facebook friends, and could even go viral.

But it is not just young people who are doing it. During a recent holiday in Thailand, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of selfie sticks. While giant representations of Buddha meditated peaceably in the background in a state of selfless Nirvana, the tourists in the foreground gave full expression to their selfie-ish impulses.

Egypt's President Sisi smiles as volunteers take a "selfie" with him during the closing session of Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-SheikhBeyond the clicker-happy tourist, a cursory glance shows that selfies have become one of the greatest fads around, with celebrities and even politicians embracing them, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who recently found it an opportunity for national selfie-actualisation.

A group selfie at last year’s Oscar ceremony became the most re-tweeted image of all time – a picture that apparently spoke a billion dollars. And with the fuss about selfies at this year’s ceremony, it won’t be too long before we start hearing about a “best selfie” category being introduced at the Academy Awards.

The selfie tsunami has also swept Arab and Muslim countries. The young and savvy Indonesian Muslim convert-turned-popular-guru Felix Siauw caused widespread offence when he declared selfies to be haram because, echoing some of the seven cardinal sins, he maintained that they were expressions of pride and ostentation. This led outraged Indonesian social media users to post selfies of themselves under the hashtag #Selfie4Siauw.

Even Islam’s holiest sanctuaries have not been immune, which has set off alarm bells in conservative quarters. Selfie fever reached such a pitch among pilgrims to Mecca and Medina that it provoked the ire of some Saudi religious scholars.

Cat jihad selfieRadical, ultra-conservative Muslims go even further and liken the idle pursuit of selfies to idol-worship. For example, during their reign of terror in Afghanistan, the Taliban banned television, video and photography, which prompted one journalist to describe it as a “country without faces”.

As a sign of the changing times (or perhaps the end-times for millennialists), today’s crop of foreign jihadists does not seem to have got this memo, or perhaps they believe that the “greater jihad” is the jihad of the selfie.

Many combatants have posted selfies of themselves on social media bearing arms, training, swimming, as well as surreally endorsing consumer products, including Nutella, not to mention a sideline in images of “mewjahideen” kittens.

The jihadist selfie is helping to transform the Spartan and puritanical image of holy war circa 1980s mujahideen in Afghanistan to make it resemble a mix between a lads’ teen movie and an 18+ shoot’em-up video game.

Some observers believe there is a deliberate strategy behind these selfies, which are seen as being part of a drive to recruit more young foreign fighters by showing how “normal” and “cool” being an extremist jihadist is, by injecting a bit of Rambo-like glamour.

With even normally camera-shy Islamic extremists indulging in this photographic fad, it is little wonder that many view this trend as a sign of the narcissistic nature of 21st-century society.

But do we really live in a more selfie-centred world than our ancestors? I happen to think not. It is no coincidence that the modern psychological term for vanity and egotism is derived from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water (nature’s own selfie). 

I believe that this moralising is largely a manifestation of the romanticisation of bygone days when people were supposedly kinder, nobler and more selfie-less. For example, space pioneer Buzz Aldrin claimed he took “the best selfie ever” during a 1966 spacewalk.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world's first photographic selfie.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world’s first photographic selfie.

Though the word is new, the concept of the selfie is as old as photography itself. The first photographic portrait ever taken, in 1839, was a “selfie” – and required considerably more time and effort than today’s instantaneous results – while the selfie stick may be almost a century old.

Prior to the invention of photography, the world was still awash with selfies, in the form of self-portraits. Though the boom in artists painting themselves began during the Renaissance, self-portraits have an ancient pedigree. One of the oldest surviving self-portraits is a sculpture of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s chief sculptor Bak, standing beside his wife.

The traditional Islamic aversion to depicting human forms meant that self-portraits were rare, but there have been some examples. Perhaps the most ambitious was the Akbarnama (The Life of Akbar), which chronicles, with exquisite miniature paintings, the biography of the third Mughal emperor Akbar. Though Akbar did not paint these portraits himself, the book was the emperor’s idea and he commissioned the work.

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world's oldest existing selfie?

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world’s oldest existing selfie?

Arabs traditionally preferred word-based selfies, in the form of self-aggrandizing poetry. For example, in addition to his talent for writing panegyrics glorifying princes and kings, the legendary al-Mutanabi had a penchant for glorifying himself. In a poem chiding an ungrateful patron for not supporting him, the poet boasts that the blind and deaf appreciate his writing, and that his fame extends to the “steed, the night and the desert”, as well as “the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen”.

What this reveals is that modern technology has not made us more self-centred but has democratised our ability to express the more selfie-ish side of our nature, and on an unprecedented scale. What the ramifications of this are for the individual and for humanity has yet to be revealed, but once it is, be sure that someone will somehow make a selfie out of it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 March 2015.

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