Monday, 27 August 2018

Who Wears a Mask?

I'm comfortable with masks. You have to be, when your past and present are irreconcilable, when you straddle different worlds, constantly calibrating language and body language, treading the tightrope of mannerisms and mores, as you segue from one to the other. It becomes second nature, and there is no hypocrisy involved, only the universal imperative to make others comfortable. You yourself are always comfortable in your skin, as the French say, "bien dans sa peau," only you have more than one skin to slip into.
But isn't it true of everyone to some extent, that as we play our many roles in life, child and parent, lover and colleague, we don subtly different masks?
In the photo above, a fragment of gold-thread embroidered velvet overlays my face like a mask. The fabric comes from my grandmother, and was used in her day to wrap fresh linens. I've framed a section of it on a wall in my home in North Carolina, where it hangs, a little incongruous perhaps, but comfortable in its own skin, so to speak.

Photo Exhibit Poster Up!

Excited to see the poster and flyers for this photo exhibit, in which I am one of seven writers photographed in conjunction with the anthology I edited, Mothers & Strangers, to be published early spring 2019.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Women, Writers, and Images

I am thrilled to be one of seven women writers photographed for an exhibition, Mothers, Daughters & the Writing Life, on display at Block Gallery in Raleigh September through November 2018. The photographers are Barbara Tyroler, who made the stylized portrait below of me on my website, and Elizabeth Maatheson. I will be in illustrious company: Jaki Shelton Green, NC Poet Laureate, Frances Mayes, best-selling author of Under the Tuscan Sun, Jill McCorkle, and more. especially gratifying: the exhibition was inspired by the anthology I co-edited, with Lee Smith as my co-editor, Mothers & Strangers, a collection of essays on motherhood by 28 celebrated Southern writers.

Photo by Barbara Tyroler.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Deep Sahara: a deeply intriguing and disturbing read.

Deep Sahara, the second novel by Leslie Croxford, starts as a deep drive into one man’s psyche, his memories and the loss that grieves him, and then opens up and evolves into a thriller with a breathtaking twist of international dimensions. When the protagonist takes refuge in a monastery deep in the Algerian Sahara to come to terms with his bereavement, he stumbles across the horrific mass slaughter of the resident monks. Surprisingly, he decides to stay on, alone, at the monastery, in complete desert isolation, until the mirage-like appearance of an American woman, and the disturbing observation of genetically defective insect life, lead him down a dangerous path to unmask a global plot. Without spoiling the surprise twists and turns, suffice it to say that the action moves from Alexandria to Algeria to Rome to Germany to the United States. What sets Croxford novel apart is the quality of the writing, the minuteness of the observation, and the moral ambiguity that recalls the best of John Le Carré.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Trump, Rigged Elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood

Listening to Donald Trump whip up his supporters with warnings about rigged elections and a rigged system, and hearing him threaten that mayhem might ensue if he does not win, evokes a shocking sense of deja vu. But not in America. In Egypt. 
When Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was running for the first contested presidential election in Egypt, a year after the January 25 revolution, he also claimed that the elections would be rigged against him, and that the entire system of the deep state was rigged against him, and that his supporters would "set fire to the country" if he did not win. Given the history of Egyptian elections, Morsi, arguably, could make a more plausible case than Donald Trump. 
But Trump echoes Morsi in even more unsettling ways. The Muslim Brotherhood leader also fed  the anger, frustration and fear of his base and validated their sense of economic and political disenfranchisement in a country ruled by cosmopolitan elites. Morsi, like Trump, was clearly unqualified and inexperienced to govern, but made a virtue of being an "outsider" against an ultimate insider opponent. Like Trump, he warned of dark conspiracies and declared he could trust no one but his own "people." And crucially, like Trump, he appealed to xenophobia and  religious bigotry against minorities. 
Morsi won, narrowly. Some put it down to the protest vote. A significant proportion of those who voted for him could not abide his Muslim Brotherhood but also could not bring themselves to vote for his opponent, a military establishment figure who represented the Mubarak ancien regime on steroids- it would have meant repudiating the revolution they fought for. Another significant proportion could not bring themselves to vote for either candidate and stayed home. 
Morsi won, but the backlash from his supporters came anyway, a year later, when a million people went into the streets to demand the removal of his inept and autocratic government, and the military responded with a coup. Morsi diehards felt robbed of their "democratically elected" president and were encouraged by the Muslim Brotherhood leaders to occupy a major square in Cairo and camp out there in protest, by the thousands, men, women, and children, for several months, Waco style. It  took a bloody confrontation with the forces of order to root them out: a thousand Morsi supporters perished.
That could never happen in America. But then again, this entire election campaign year could never happen, except that it just did. Foreign observers offering to supervise the legitimacy of US elections is only the latest outrage dragging America down into banana republic territory. Could a protest vote against an establishment figure bring about a default victory for a racist, bigoted, unqualified showman? And if he lost, could he bear to be a "loser" or would he try to blame rigged elections and encourage his supporters to sow mayhem?

Sunday, 24 January 2016

January 25: Egypt's Revolutionary Legacy

It was five years ago today that an unprecedented mass uprising against then president Mubarak of Egypt sent shock waves across the region. The Tunisian revolution was one thing, but a similar revolution in Egypt was quite another. Given Egypt's sheer size, population, strategic position and regional and global weight, the Arab Spring was launched in earnest on January 25. 

That date was not chosen at random by the young Egyptian revolutionaries. January 25, known as "Police Day", was meant to commemorate the heroism of a particular unit of Egyptian police against the British occupation of the Suez sixty years earlier; on the other hand, in 2011, the Egyptian police  was feared and reviled as the heavy-handed arm of a police state. 

Five years after the 2011 revolution, the legacy of January 25th is more complicated than ever, and celebrating it is a delicate matter for the current regime. On the one hand President Sisi and his military-backed regime seek to publicly embrace the ideals of the 2011 revolution, at least in principle, while upholding the legitimacy of the June 30th 2013 mass uprising that, in their view, superseded and supplanted 2011, and endorsed the return of the military to power. That many, if not most, Egyptians support that position is a testimony to the general disillusionment with the principle of revolution itself, after the bitter experience of four years of successive upheavals, the hijacking of the revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood, the death spiral of the economy, the rise in terrorism, and the state of insecurity.

The desire for security is key here to understanding the mood of the general public. Revolution fatigue has set in. The young revolutionaries who originally launched January 25th are generally  regarded, at best, as naive idealists who knew how to launch a movement and upend a regime but had no plan for the day after; or, at worst, as witting or unwitting pawns of a foreign conspiracy to create the kind of chaos that would fling Egypt down the path of the failed states surrounding it: Libya, Syria, Iraq. A return to stability seems to be the immediate priority of the majority of Egyptians, and no price, in civil liberties or parliamentary democracy, is too high to pay.

But to be fair, Egyptians are hardly the only people who seem willing to trade liberties for security, a famously unprofitable exchange according to Benjamin Franklin. It took two serious terrorist attacks in one year for the French, with a far more established tradition of civil liberties, to abandon liberté and égalité in favor of an indefinitely extended state of emergency powers and the creation of two-tier citizenship.

In French, the grapevine of rumors and information is called "le téléphone arabe." Today, Facebook and Twitter are the new  "téléphone arabe" of protests. The Egyptian government is taking no chances ahead of the fated anniversary of January 25. Schools and universities have been put on mid-year vacation for a month to preempt campus protests. A newly-elected, safely rubber-stamp parliament held its first session earlier in January, for the first time in three years. The Ministry of the Interior, associated in the Mubarak years with overreaching police powers, has been moved to new headquarters out in the suburbs, away from the center of Cairo. The artists' studios have been shut down around Tahrir Square, historically the hub of protests. Tahrir square itself is undergoing a much-needed makeover, after years of disruption and degradation.

The first anniversary of Tahrir was a peaceful, largely still-hopeful celebration. But it was downhill from then on. The slogans changed from from year to year, from "down with the military" to "down with the Brotherhood" to "down with the military" again. This year may be back to the future, again.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter

 Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter
This isn't one of those “how I met Omar sharif” stories, although I did, in effect, meet him. It's about the Egypt that Omar Sharif represented, the cosmopolitan, open, tolerant society it always was until suddenly, it wasn't. It's the Egypt portrayed in The Jewish Quarter, an Egyptian television miniseries set in 1948. But that is not the only connection. Omar Sharif’s real name was Michel Chalhoub.
But to backtrack for a second: every year during Ramadan, when postprandial spectators are a captive audience in front of the television set, there is one breakout miniseries that reflects the zeitgeist of the the year. This year it is The Jewish Quarter, which has the audacity to Egyptian Jews fully integrated in 1948 Egyptian society, living side by side in close quarters with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in  a modest neighborhood  of cloth merchants, dairymen, pickle sellers and café owners called The Jewish Quarter.
Ali, a Muslim military officer, and Leila, a Jewish saleswoman in the upscale Jewish department store Cicurel, are neighbors and childhood sweethearts. The religious difference might pose a problem- particularly for the girl’s mother, who would object even to a Jew of a different sect-but ultimately it should not be an insurmountable obstacle. Until, that is, the 1948 war with Israel begins, and the community is set asunder, dividing families and pitting neighbor against neighbor.
In spite of some inaccuracies and anachronisms,  the series clearly makes an effort to show Jews going about their business, their prayers at the synagogue, their kosher butcher, with mutual respect and understanding from their neighbors. All of the characters, Muslim, Coptic or Jewish, are shown as complex, capable of both tolerance and prejudice, patriotism or misplaced loyalties. The line is drawn rather sharply between Egyptian Jews and Israelis. The single all-out villain in the drama is a Muslim.
So what does this miniseries indicate for the political zeitgeist in Egypt? For one thing, it glorifies the military, no surprise. But it is also significant as a step in the rehabilitation of the Egyptian Jewish community in the eyes of younger generations of Egyptians brainwashed by Islamist rhetoric.
So what is the connection between The Jewish Quarter and Omar Sharif, aka Michel Demetri Chalhoub? He was born Christian but he converted to Islam when he married Egypt’s sweetheart movie star, Faten Hamama, who was Muslim. In those days, back in the fifties, it didn't matter. Would he have been likely to have lived in The Jewish Quarter? No, because it was a very modest neighborhood, and Omar Sharif, like middle class or wealthy people of any religion, lived in upscale Garden City or Zamalek or wherever they could afford; there was no such thing as a ghetto. The connection is the era evoked by Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter, a truly cosmopolitan, tolerant, modernizing Egypt that once was and might be again.
Oh, and where did I meet Omar Sharif? At a family wedding, where the bride’s father was a schoolmate at Victoria College, and then, twenty years later, at the Cairo Opera, where he was charming and tactful enough to pretend to recognize me. May he rest in peace, but not so the Egypt he knew and loved.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Daesh: Don't Call Them ISIS

John Kerry does it. London Mayor Boris Johnson thinks about it. Queen Rania of Jordan gives impassioned speeches explaining why we should all do it. As she argues, they are neither Islamic nor a state. Don't call them ISIS or ISIL or whatever self-styled aggrandizing title they choose to call themselves. Deny them that prestige, and deny them a recruiting tool. Just call them Daesh.
What is that? It's a sort of acronym in Arabic; "sort of" because acronyms are not used in Arabic, just abbreviations. For instance, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known as SCAF in English, was commonly abbreviated in the Egyptian media as "The Supreme." In Arabic, therefore,  Daesh is intentionally a pejorative, delegitimizing label used by their enemies and victims in the Arab world- and it's worth remembering that the victims of Daesh's unspeakable brutality are overwhelmingly fellow Arabs and Muslims.
So what's in a name? Does it matter if we in the West and the Western media call them Daesh rather than Islamic State? Yes, it does.  Deny them that association with the religion they give a bad name to, and deny them a recruiting tool. So come on, Mayor Johnson, just do it.