Monday, 18 January 2021

The Cataclysmic First Year of the Decade

 What is it about the cataclysmic first year of every decade of this third millennium? Events that permanently shake and shape the world stage. September 2001 needs no reminder. January 2011, the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square, Cairo. January 2021, the sacking of the Capitol in Washington DC. As I watched the inconceivable spectacle of a mob charging the very seat of American democracy, the sense of déjà-vu was acute and yet overpowered by the far more alarming implications. When a million Egyptians gathered in the streets to demand, first the reform, then the ouster, of the thirty-year autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, the uprising fell into the category of the familiar, the rational, and even the expected, along the pattern of similar popular revolutions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the world. But the mob assault of a few thousand

on the hallowed electoral process in the iconic Capitol building on January 6th, 2021, was truly unprecedented, an earthquake opening a chasm under our feet. Above all, irrational: a response to an alternative, conspiracy-fueled version of facts. And consequently, the chasm opening under our feet is dividing the nation into two camps with irreconcilable world views. Egypt’s 2011 Revolution presented no such challenge to reality, only irreconcilable positions on whether, or how, to bring about change. In America today, there is no consensus on reality. 

The contrast is particularly salient to me right now, as I am in the process of writing a novel set in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

A Silent Fall


Come September, you wake up one morning to a bracing chill in the air, you look at the time and realize the sun is sleeping later and later every day; you thrill to the promise that our muggy, buggy Southern Summer is gathering its mosquito foot soldiers and its hurricane storm troops and preparing to migrate to the far hemisphere. Fall, the glorious season, with its coat of many colors, the payoff for surviving the dog days of August, whispers “soon, soon,” with every breeze. But the sounds of September are silent this year. The morning grinding of school buses up and down the streets is eerily missing. Missing too, the bustle and commotion of thousands of college students flocking back to summer-sleepy campuses, standing in line with overflowing carts at checkouts in supermarkets and home goods stores, and cramming every restaurant table or bar stool up and down the downtown strip. Fall, the real season of renewal, when our town is jolted back to life. It is eerily silent this year.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Remembering Randall Kenan.


For two years, whenever I ran into Randall Kenan and he gave me an especially big hug in greeting, I worried. It meant he was feeling guilty for not having turned in his essay for Mothers and Strangers, in spite of my regular emails hounding him, as editors are wont to do. But Randall had a mischievous sense of humor, and I appealed to that by comparing him to Michelangelo, who replied to the pope who had commissioned the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, that “he would be done when he was done.” In return Randall compared me to “that mean old pope who nagged Michelangelo, but much nicer.” Our UNC Press editor, Lucas Church, even went ahead with the peer review and the board approval, without an essay from Randall; we had faith in him to come through after the eleventh hour. And so he did, with a delightfully breezy essay about food and family and the village it took to raise him. “The mean old pope” quote made it into the Acknowledgments at the back of the book when it was published. The great talent and sweet spirit that was Randall Kenan passed away on August 26th.  Today I cherish that permanent record of our playful exchanges.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Take the Police Off the Streets? Been there.

Take the Police off the Streets? Been there.

What’s it really like, not just to defund the police, but to actually take them off the streets? I know firsthand. I was in Cairo on January 25th, 2011, when the country was convulsed with mass protests and teetered on the brink of anarchy.  Much of the protests were directed against police brutality, and centered around one particularly egregious case. “We are all Khaled Sa’eed” the banners proclaimed, referring to a young Alexandrian who was arrested in an Internet café and died in police custody, reportedly beaten to death.
In response to the protests, the police were withdrawn from the streets, and it was widely disseminated that the jails and prisons had been left with the doors wide open, potentially releasing all manner of criminals. So what happened next? Civilians took their security into their own hands. The residents of each house, each building, each street, each neighborhood, organized their own vigilance and self-protection.
At the time, I was staying in an apartment in a large building on an island in the middle of the Nile in Cairo. The residents took shifts standing guard in the lobby of the building along with the four doorkeepers. Some residents carried golf clubs as makeshift weapons; the doorkeepers had Nubian billy clubs. The odd duck rifle or hand pistol were rare. And that is the crucial difference with the United States. Egypt is not an armed society. Very few civilians have guns of any kind, let alone the automatic rifles and heavy firearms that are common in America. So the residents might not have been armed, but then again chances were that neither were the criminals.
Curfew was in force, usually from dusk to dawn. Zamalek, where I was staying, is an island, so once curfew was in effect, the several bridges were blocked by the residents, and volunteers manned these roadblocks. The river banks also needed to be patrolled: thugs occasionally tried to cross over in small boats, claiming to be fishermen.
Standing around with the neighbors in the lobby, I noted that the general ambiance was almost convivial, and people made acquaintance with neighbors they had never exchanged a word with. That is one thing revolutions and pandemics have in common: when you are confined or under curfew, your neighbors become your most accessible social circle.
But in spite of the spirit of bonhomie, the danger of thugs and looters was real and there were moments of tension. One night a scowling man in black leather rode by our building on a motorcycle, shouting: “See how you like it when there are no police.” It was assumed he was a disaffected policeman out of uniform. There were also moments of levity. One time, a long black car was stopped by our building’s neighborhood watch when it tried to pass the road block on our street after curfew. Then a delivery boy on a motorcycle came by and vouched for him. “Let him through, I know him, that’s the Chinese ambassador.” Delivery boys in Cairo go everywhere and know everyone.
 During the few hours of the day when curfew was lifted, people went out for urgent business, but there were no policemen directing traffic, or any functioning traffic lights. Cairo traffic is chaotic at the best of times, and Egyptians are notorious for ignoring traffic regulations, so it is easy to imagine the nightmare entanglements and traffic jams that ensued. But again, people took matters in their own hands. A frustrated driver or just any passerby would stand at the juncture of a cross street and beckon cars forward from one direction and then the other.
Purse-snatchers on motorcycles or motor scooters wove between cars in stalled traffic, zipping up on sidewalks and snatching a purse off a woman’s arm when they saw an opportunity, then making an unimpeded getaway. Cairene women replaced their jewelry with cheap baubles and carried only small crossbody bags; they exchanged recipes for homemade pepper spray.
But at least in the city, there was no descent into complete lawlessness, widespread violence or out-of-control looting, although outside of Cairo the incidents were more common.
The stand-off between the police and the public lasted for months. Gradually, there was more police presence on the street.
Today, nearly ten years later, the power of the police is as ubiquitous and unquestioned as it ever was during the Mubarak years. Is there a lesson to be drawn from that period of the eclipse of the police? Egyptian society is divided, predictably, on whether or not the experiment should ever be repeated. As for history, it has not yet had the last word.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

What do these four great leaders have to do with Coronavirus?

What do George Washington, Louis XIV, Bismarck and Pharaoh Mena have in common and relevant to our current coronavirus crisis?
Each of these men were leaders in the unification of their country, but along markedly different forms of government. Washington presided over the birth of the United States as a federal republic with largely autonomous states. Otto von Bismarck united the German Bundeslander as a federal republic in 1871. Louis XIV concentrated power in the central government of France; he notoriously said: “L’état, c’est moi.” Egypt, of course, preceded them all: Mena was the first Pharaoh to preside over Upper and Lower Egypt five thousand years ago.
Today, the responses to coronavirus in each of these countries reflects the modes of centralization or decentralization of government established by these early leaders. In the United States, the extreme case of decentralization, the governor of each state, indeed the mayor of each city, can decide what measures to take to fight a pandemic, and when to impose or lift a lockdown. To a lesser extent, the German Bundeslander have considerable autonomy, even though most trust their chancellor enough to follow directives. In France, however, the idea that a municipality or a département might decide not to follow the directives of the Elysée is heresy, and violation of confinement rules anywhere in the country is not tolerated. In Egypt, the central government is traditionally so all powerful that the very notion of autonomous regions is unthinkable.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Covid-19: what would Bonaparte have done?

When General Bonaparte prepared to invade Egypt in the summer of 1798, he was warned that he would face three enemies: the English, the Ottomans, and Islam. What no one could have predicted was a fourth: the plague. How the French dealt with it is as much an indication of the ethics and science of their time as how we deal with our current pandemic crisis is revelatory of ours.

The pestilence could not have broken out at a worse time. Nelson’s navy had sunk the French fleet in the Bay of Aboukir off the coast of Alexandria, leaving Bonaparte’s “Army of the Orient” stranded in Egypt and hemmed in by a British and Ottoman blockade. Cairo had erupted in bloody revolt against the occupation, and the even bloodier repression that followed left the French bunkered behind a ring of garrisons.

It was against this backdrop that the plague reared its head in Egypt in the winter of 1799. The chief French physician accompanying Bonaparte’s army, Docteur Desgenettes, recognized the bubonic plague —no stranger to Europe—but avoided the dread word “plague,” referring to it as “the epidemic,” much as the world took its time to acknowledge that Covid-19 was indeed a pandemic. The French took draconian measures to lock down the city of Cairo, and anyone caught scaling the city walls was shot. To contain the spread of the pestilence among the troops, “social distancing” from prostitutes was strictly enforced: thirty Egyptian prostitutes who were caught consorting were drowned.

Medicine, physicians and beds were in short supply in the three hospitals the French set up, so then, as now, hard questions arose: are all lives equal, or do we choose who deserves saving? In each era, a society’s ethics are reflected in the decisions made in such crises. In today’s pandemic, prioritizing who gets the last available ventilator in extremis is framed in terms of age and survival chances. In Bonaparte’s Egypt, ethnicity and religion were prioritized. Apart from the French themselves, only civilians from the European and Syrian Christian communities were admitted to the French hospitals, and Claude Royer, the chief pharmacist, had orders to dispense medications only to members of these two communities.

But other measures were taken to contain the plague among the native population, some of which will have a familiar ring to us today. Festivals and celebrations were banned, to limit congregation, and pilgrimage to Mecca was cancelled, just as it is this year of 2020. So was the slaughter of sheep for the annual Feast of the Sacrifice. Bedding was to be aired daily, and all raw food to be macerated in vinegar. A sick person was to be isolated from his family for forty days, and the entire household was to be strictly quarantined. A family that failed to report a sick member or neighbor to the police or who violated the isolation imposed on their household risked severe punishment. French soldiers did daily rounds of the city, inspecting house by house. As the locals would have balked at allowing a man to inspect the women’s harems, a local woman from each neighborhood was assigned to accompany the French soldiers. Then, as now with “aggressive contact tracing,” such extreme surveillance measures aroused suspicion as a sinister assault on privacy and liberties.

Hardest of all for the Egyptians to accept was the ban on holding funerals for their dead. How do you mourn when you cannot hold a funeral? How does your responsibility to society weigh against your deepest commitments to family and faith? Even today, we struggle with such questions.

But it is instructive to learn from a contemporary Egyptian account of the French occupation, the daily journal kept by the prolific historian Abdel Rahman al-Jabarti, that the harsh measures enforced by the French against the plague, resented as as they were at the time by Egyptians, were grudgingly conceded to have been partially effective in limiting its devastation. In every era, confronted with an existential threat, respect for science and scientists prevails over superstition or its modern equivalents.

But it was not only in Egypt that the French were beset by the plague. Bonaparte, who had launched a campaign against Ottoman-controlled Syria, found it waiting for him and his army in Jaffa. The French advance was initially victorious, but after the fall of Jaffa the plague began to seriously ravage the French army. Bonaparte set up a camp hospital there to administer to the diseased and pressed on with his campaign. The French were defeated before the impregnable walls of Acre and prepared to retreat from Syria back to Egypt. An appalling predicament arose: what to do with the plague-stricken French soldiers in the camp hospitals in Jaffa? Evacuating them was impractical if not unfeasible. Bonaparte ordered the chief physician, Docteur Desgenettes, to administer opium to the sick, arguing that it would put them out of their misery and lessen the chances of infecting other troops. Desgenettes, who had been selfless in fighting the epidemic, even going to the extent of inoculating himself publicly with pus from the bubonic sores, refused. In the event it was Royer, the pharmacist, who administered the fatal doses of opium.

In 1804, three years after the French evacuated from Egypt, Napoleon commissioned the painter Antoine-Jean Gros to immortalize him in the heroic “Bonaparte visiting the Plague-stricken of Jaffa.” History, however, recorded a far less glorious reality. Even today, it is debatable whether Bonaparte’s decision was humane or indefensible.

Two centuries later, when mankind shoots not just for the moon but for Mars, it is hard to believe that the world can still be caught short and ground to a standstill by disease. Harder still, that we grapple with the same ethical choices. We should prepare now for the next time we are tested, because we will be. When this is over, how will history judge us? Judge us it will.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Epidemics and The Naqib’s Daughter

Doing research for this novel, I learned a great deal about how Bonaparte’s French occupation dealt with the plague in Egypt and with their own troops in the Syrian campaign. They faced some of the same hard choices : how to ration limited medicine—Europeans and Christian Syrians were given priority over native Egyptians. How to contain the plague by locking down the city of Cairo. Forcing social distancing by drowning prostitutes who violated it. Trying out a new vaccine. Administering opium to the afflicted troops the French had to leave behind in Syria.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Strange Days

The closest experience I’ve had to the present Covoid-19 crisis is during the days of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution: the panic stocking up; not knowing what to expect, waiting for the other shoe to drop; the imposed isolation of curfew; the conflicting news stories. This, of course, is much worse. There is no safe haven anywhere in the world, and no potential upside. Worst of all, the unwitting fifth columnist in this war could be the stranger you never meet who touched the pharmacy checkout counter ahead of you, or your closest friend. At least, since I am writing a novel with Egypt 2011 as a setting, self isolation puts me in the right frame of mind!

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Great day in Southern Pines.

Lee Smith and I were invited to speak about Mothers and Strangers at the Southern Pines Rotary Club luncheon, following which we took a stroll around the quaint downtown to read at the charming Country Bookshop, where we were greeted by enthusiastic fans and bookshop staff. A very pleasant day!

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Reading in Southern Pines March 6, 2020

Lee Smith and I will be reading from Mothers and Strangers at The Country Bookstore in Southern Pines at 2 pm on March 6th.