Thursday, February 02, 2006

Outrage at Prophet cartoons spreads in Mideast...

Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!!! What, do we have to invent a new word for this now, like "cartoono-fascism?"
I just ran into a cultural wall for which I’ve long braced myself. My non-English-speaking housekeeper and I have begun commiserating over a few of life’s little woes. So of course she asks me, in Arabic, what religion I am. I lied and said I was Christian. My parents are Christian -- not very religious ones, at that -- but I really don’t consider myself much of anything. That’s a concept I fear that the average Egyptian would have difficulty understanding, but I had to say something. She didn’t know the English word “Christian” (it’s masihi in Egyptian Arabic, so I just learned), so I drew a cross, which really made me feel like I was lying. Then she got it, and proceeded to recommended a church I should go to. At least that’s what I divined, and she confirmed it by saying yes when I made a praying gesture. I replied, “Me not.”

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I've been dithering for a while about which comments to use, but today I removed the ones provided by Enetation and I'm going with Blogger's own comments service exclusively (mainly because they'll send me an email when somebody comments, and Enetation won't). I had an emotional attachment to Enetation. They've been providing me with a free comments feature almost since the start of this blog, and I never donated or anything. Thank you, Enetation, and goodbye.
This evening around dusk I went for a short walk along the Nile. I didn’t have anyplace to go or any errands to run. I just wanted to get out of the apartment.

The sky was clear, a sort of deep grey-blue with thick bands of light brown and beige around the horizon, and there was a tiny sliver of a crescent moon hanging above the Cairo Tower, which stands just across the river from the downtown embankment beside the Egyptian Museum, where I was standing.

I got a shave and a haircut yesterday: a first. Truth be told, he didn’t do a stellar job on the shave and I’ll be using my electric from now on.

I’m slowly getting to know my downtown neighborhood. I knew there had to be a barbershop near my apartment. In fact I was pretty certain there had to be one just around the corner. The question was, which corner? There are lots of them.

So I walked around literally for about 90 minutes looking for an open barbershop. In the end I came back to my apartment and asked my doorman, using a combination of rudimentary Arabic and hand gestures, where I could get a haircut. He took me to the nearest barbershop, which was, you guessed it, just around the corner.

You see a lot of dead cats in Cairo. There are a lot of stray cats and about as many cars, so they get curious (the cats, that is) and run out into the middle of the road and get killed.

For whatever reason, you don’t generally see too many dying cats. Today on the way back from my walk along the Nile, lying between two parked cars I saw a dead cat that wasn’t quite dead yet. It had assumed the standard dead cat position and it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going anywhere.

The cat raised his head up and looked at me, as if to say, “Hey, there. Sorry to bother you but you could you do something for me: find something heavy and bash my skull in. Would much appreciate it and I’ll return the favor next time we meet.”

He (or she) seemed to be handling the whole thing with remarkable grace and dignity, not meowing or crying in that way cats often do. It wasn’t clear how the cat got banged up. There was a dog nearby on sidewalk, looking at me. I wondered if the dog did that to the cat and was waiting for me to leave so he could finish him off.

I looked around, and walked up and down the street. I couldn’t find anything heavy. Nothing at all. No big stones or loose paving tiles anywhere. On the ground nearby was a big hulking piece of a car, but it was just a plastic fender.

The dog circled around one of the cars and looked at me again.

I regret to say that I left the cat how I found him. And here’s the thing. I knew this then and it haunts me now: Though I made a genuine effort to find something to put it out of its misery, I didn’t try hard enough. Of course I could have found something, if I’d walked far enough. I could have even come back to my apartment and taken that cheesy plaster statue of the Greek nymph that’s decorating my entry way, and killed the cat with that. (That probably would have caused a stir, since one of the nymph's breasts is showing.)

But I didn’t. It pains me greatly to admit it, but I gave up too easily because didn’t have the stomach for it. I’m sorry.

Somewhere in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence writes that during the Arab Revolt, when the Arabs couldn’t take their own wounded with them (as they often could not) they would kill them, because otherwise they would fall into the hands of the Turks who would torture them. (This line’s in the movie, too, when Prince Feisal meets the reporter for the first time.) Lawrence wrote that this actually had nothing to do with the notion of putting somebody or something out of his or its misery – something that was completely alien to the Arabs. If, when traveling across the desert, a camel broke its leg and they were in too much of a rush to use the meat, for instance, they would leave the camel to die slowly in the desert, rather than shoot it as the British would. Better, they argued, to give man or beast as much time as possible to ponder his fate and make his peace with God.

I don’t think I agree with that and I’m not using it to justify what I did or didn’t do to the cat today, which was a failure of will on my part. It just came to mind.

Monday, January 30, 2006

I don't follow all many domestic American controversies too well, but I'm getting a kick out of this flap about James Frey and Oprah. I saw the guy on Larry King live and he struck me as a true weasel, especially considering his supposed memoir sounds like a pseudo-macho tale about how he defeated drug addiction by basically geeting real, real tough on himself. (I didn't read the book, nor do I intend to.)

The problem with non-fiction writing is that the world is gray and murky, and if you try to see things from multiple angles (which is important) and if you're honest (in my view, most important) then the stories you tell often tend toward gray and murky as well. And gray and murky just doesn't sell, as I've learned trying - and failing - to sell gray and murky stories.

This problem is easily solved, as James Frey discovered, by embellishing a few facts - say, putting clown costumes on people and have them dancing the merengue, or inserting a lime-green Honda that unexpectedly careens out of control, rams into a flowering dogwood and kills the protagonist's lover in the passenger seat. Whatever moves the goods...

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I enjoy reading the reactions on Slate to my articles, especially when they call me by my first name -- "Scott you ignorant slut!" being my personal fave -- but unfortunately those that do seldom succeed in making a coherent point.

My recent article about Hamas was my first serious foray into writing about Middle East politics since I moved to Cairo last October, so naturally I was interested in what people thought. You can sort of sense my uncertainty when you read the article from start to finish: Although I begin by saying Bush's idea of promoting democracy appears to have backfired, I end by suggesting it might be crazy enough that it will work. I prefer to believe the latter.

Frankly, I distrust most anybody that claims to have a clear idea of what's going to happen next. Historically, nothing like this has ever happened before.

My idea for an article on Bush's "pothole theory" for the "Foreigners" section of Slate (drawing on a very interesting piece by Guy Dinmore in the Financial Times, which unfortunately is not available online) was green lit prior to Hamas's shock win of a majority in the Palestinian elections. When Hamas won outright, I actually got sort of nervous on a couple of grounds: First of all, everybody and their retarded brother is now going to be reading my little essay about Palestine and Israel. Second of all, my own opinions about the matter are really conflicted, although ultimately I prefer to think it's a good thing that democracy prevailed and the corrupt Fatah party was thrown out on its ass.

In fact, I only scratched the surface. There were a lot of things I didn't mention, such as the strange role that Islamic Jihad will now play. According to what I've read, Hamas actually rushed in (as the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) during the first intidada in 1987-88, after Islamic Jihad, declaring that the destruction of Israel was the divine duty of every Muslim, had initially seized the popular momentum. Hamas attempted (successfully, in the end) to grab the mantle of Palestinian nationalist (and Islamist) resistance.

On Saturday, Hamas (like the IRA, a famously disciplined organization) declared its mission to create a "national army" consisting of all the different Palestian factions. It would seem its biggest obstacle in that regard is not Israel, nor even Fatah, but rather Islamic Jihad, the most important group that rejected the truce with Israel one year ago. If Hamas can bring Islamic Jihad in line - which would involve using any means necessary, Hamas being Hamas, in contrast to Fatah - then peace, or at a long term truce, might actually be a possibility.

Then again, I'm the kind of person who likes to look for silver linings.