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Inconvenient History: tales of lesser discussed history of Egypt & Israel

As Egypt's relationship with Israel takes central stage for both countries, a look at some interesting little known historical facts ...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Death toll at Rabba ... what would it have been in USA?

Death Toll

Death .. the end of life, the loss of loved ones, the longing, despair and suffering ..a  sense of abandonment, incompleteness in every respect. I don’t belittle death, nor do I take joy in the death of those I differ with, or oppose. The death on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt makes me sad, period and full stop, no ands, ifs or buts, enough bloodshed!

This is how I feel about the deaths at Rabba, the horrible loss of life,  I would now like to explore a sensitive topic, from a detached and admittedly non-feeling, non-emotional view point, just a cold factual look at events. And that is: what would the death toll had been, had the Rabba sit-in  taken place in the USA, not in Egypt?

Back in the early 1980’s when I first moved to the US, while driving, I was pulled over for over-speeding by the California Highway Patrol, it was my first ever interaction with US Law Enforcement types. The police car lights appeared in my rear view mirror, followed by the loud police siren, I slowed down, not sure what to do. Then I heard a loud speaker instructing me to pull over and stop, which I did. I then opened the car door, to get out and speak to the cop; I had thought that was the polite thing to do, the policeman shouted a warning “get back in the car or I below your head off” … I got back in the car and the policeman came to my window, he instructed that I must keep my hands on the stirring wheel where he can see them, I complied.

My experience after that was actually a pleasant one, I did not get a ticket, just a warning, the police man explained to me that opening the door was a serious mistake, seen as threatening, either running away or confrontation and that he would have had the right to shoot me. Future episodes of over-speeding never resulted in further death threats but almost always resulted in fines. 

I have been reflecting over the death toll at Rabba, and wondering how events would have unfolded, had the sit-in been in California or Massachusetts and ignoring the reasons behind the actual sit-in and why it occurred in the first place. Had the sit in just happened, what would the authorities, legitimate or not, isn’t important; assume even they were alien occupation authorities, what would have happened?   In the USA, first and foremost, the focus of the police force, coming in to disburse a protest ,would be their own safety, the safety of the policemen themselves. This clearly was not the case in Egypt, where the lives of the conscripts is viewed as cheap. I can never see a scenario where a US police force would have allowed, over 100 of its own, to die ,to end a protest that they were instructed to disburse, never!! Show me something similar in the history of the US!

What that means is that the level of violence used by an American police force would have been much higher. We then move on to the issue of the huge number of innocent peaceful unarmed civilians, who were part of Rabba. Here we come to a number of obvious topics; first the incitement and the language of violence used by the leaders of Rabba; while there was talk of peacefulness, there was talk of blood and fighting. Second we come to the barricades and the massive amounts of stones gathered by some of the protesters to “protect” themselves. These two points alone constitute a violent sit-in, without getting into the debates of did the protesters have Molotov cocktail bottles, machine guns and rifles or not. I have heard, in person as recently as this week, testimonies from residents of Rabba of barrages of shots being fired at the police, but let’s ignore all of this and  just assume it was thevideo by MB own news agency designed to intimidate ordinary people shouting out  “strength, determination, belief” and the barricaded entrances and huge mounts of ammunition of rocks and stones …. what would an American police force have done?

My belief is that an American police force would have given warnings for the protesters to leave, asked the residents to evacuate the area, and then would have moved with a very high level of deadly force that minimizes the risk to their own. I believe the sit in would have probably been wiped out in a relatively short period of time with the death toll being well into the thousands if not the tens of thousands.

I visited the sit-in of Occupy in Washington DC and spent almost an entire evening inside the Occupy Boston protest, I toured the entire Occupy Boston site and talked to many people including some of its leaders. I did not see a single rock, not a single barricade and of course no weapons and we are talking America the land of weapons! Afterwords I chatted with a Boston policewoman who was standing just outside the protest observing it, the police had every right to go in and out of the camp if they needed. Occupy was a peaceful protest in every respect, when it was disbursed, it was peaceful, even the disobedience was peaceful. Rabba was a different deal all together, it never was peaceful, even though many of the people in it, were unarmed and peaceful!

The leaders of Rabba did not care about using the lives of their people to achieve a political goal and in the process hundreds lost their lives; the Egyptian Police, equally did not, sufficiently, care for the lives of their own conscripts, for political purposes and in the process, also over a hundred law enforcement personnel were killed, that should never have been killed, because they had no choice whereas the Rabba protesters, were their under their own will! 
This is a tough topic, because with death, the decent thing to do, is simply blame the authorities and demand justice, but where is the justice for the poor conscripts!!

AA
October 24, 2013

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sinai .. on my mind!





I have traveled extensively for most of my life and visited dozens of countries from Chile and Argentina to South Africa to Australia and New Zealand in the South and from Japan, Korea in the north to Canada and virtually all countries in between. I have never experienced anything that rivals my journey into the Sinai desert. I'm at a loss for words as to how to begin and to how to describe, as closely as, possible the various aspects of my Sinai experience. I have visited Sinai many times over the last 20 years; so I'm well beyond the initial fascination with the Sinai landscape, this is no passing infatuation. I will attempt to dissect my experience into several strands, the sights, the cultural, historical, political and also the personal and spiritual. The coming together of these strands over a six-day period was intense, I fear losing the intensity and complexity of my feelings should I opt for waiting to be able to write something that is more thoroughly thought through, that could come across more coherently.


I have been to Arizona and Utah in the US many times and have always loved the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, Zion Canyon and Lake Powell. There is a certain majestic beauty to the desert, the colors of the desert, beauty in the ruggedness and the hard edges and in the quality of light and shadows. In Sinai, deep in the high deserts of Sinai, to the north of Catherine City, one gets similar beauty to the US Southwest but with the added richness in colors, the reds and browns are similar, but there, in addition, are intense black, green and surprisingly sand dunes high up in the mountains. There is not a single canyon, as vast as the Grand Canyon, but there are numerous canyons with unexpected twists and turns. There is no river, but rather massive floods that devastate and rejuvenate. The vastness, that feeling of immense nature around us one experiences in the Grand Canyon is there as one looks to the horizon, but what's more is the intimacy of being fully enclosed within a mountain, this was similar to my own experiences hiking down the Grand Canyon and being on boat in Lake Powell where I felt the canyon walls close to me, and I could see the lines and shades in the rocks and different shapes and shadows surrounded me. I always enjoy wide vistas, but feel more beauty in something closer where I could have that enclosed feeling, see different sides of a canyon, the top and the base of the mountain, all from the same vantage point. In a city, we like the narrow old alleys because we get the intensity of the place, the measure of it, a similar thing for me with the desert and mountains in general.



Sinai, largely, remains an undiscovered place and probably will never be fully discovered, it is interesting to note that in six full days, we only came across other tourists twice. Imagine having Monument Valley or Lake Powell all to yourself for few days and imagine that no one has been down a specific mountain pass before you. Imagine walking on sand dune, high up in the middle of a rocky mountain and see no other footsteps before yours. The ongoing massive floods, earthquakes and the effect of the wind on massive mountains of sandstone mean that Sinai is ever changing, all the time.


Shadows of the mountains before dawn, after the moon has set, with only the light of the stars are breathtaking, I move the warm coarse blanket from my face and become fully awake, shifting my eyes between the stars; the shooting stars distract me, I see them every few minutes. The silhouettes of the mountains and big rocks near by are, crisp before my eyes, beautifully haunting. I cover my head again from the cold and fall asleep, I get too hot, I move the blanket, open my eyes to a new sight, a very different view, only the brightest of the stars are now visible but I could see more of the distant mountains, still no sun, but brighter horizon and almost a clear black line separating the night from dawn, not yet day. The sunsets are amazing but familiar, the predawn, dawn and sunrise are just breathtakingly magical.

Most people think of Sinai as an empty desolate place with little history save for the biblical, and the stories of the Hebrew tribes and Moses. In reality, Sinai has vibrant and long history predating the time of the pharos. Sadly, in Egypt, with post colonial mindset dominating much of academia, there is not a separate field of study of any part of Egypt's history that is not of interest to western universities. So I witnessed, perhaps ten thousand year old inscriptions that no one seems to know much about and receive no interest from Egyptians historians and archeologists, zero interest, none! The Nawamees or those ancient 6000-year-old family graves, predating the pyramids stand totally unprotected from commercial exploitation, alone in total darkness, away from the Egyptian intellectuals and educational consciousness. I feel a strange gratitude for the hated Israeli occupation of Sinai that lasted from 1967 to 1982 for recognizing the importance of Sinai's history. To this date, it is the maps that Israel produced of the history, topography and sights of Sinai that most desert safaris still use!

Sinai stands as the intersection between Egypt, the Levant and Arabia, it had an ancient population that created no temples, no beautiful statues but managed to create a highly advanced legal code that remains in use today.  In their wisdom the people of Sinai, knew that their land do not lend itself to great man made architectural projects that could be wiped out in minutes by flash floods. Today most of the natives of Sinai speak a unique form of Arabic that borrows from ancient Egyptian languages and from present day Egyptian Arabic, most of Bedouins also know another language, not a spoken one; perhaps the oldest sign language in the world, a necessity in a society with an unusually high percentage of deaf and mute. In a country like Egypt with huge pyramids, temples, churches, and mosques, archeologists have their hands full ... who has time or inclination to look for this oral, this living yet ancient history and culture, all needing so much research and substantiation! I wonder if a single Egyptian institution of higher learning has dispatched a single expedition to understand the legal code of the Bedouins, their language or the history of Sinai!

I had the privilege of the company and leadership of a great Egyptian, in my eyes, a true hero of Egypt who is totally focused on the beauty of Sinai and its strong historic ties to Egypt. Samer Samuel Makarious believes that the Nawamees tombs prove a strong link to present day Egyptian culture, from the rush to the burial of the dead, to the annual visits of the dead to the concept of family plots, all of these rituals remain very much in use and are the norm in today's Egypt. Makarious sees the language and the calendar of today's Sinai Bedouins borrowing so much from Ancient Egypt and he chases the inscriptions and the pre Islamic carvings of the ancient travelers of Sinai with a contagious passion. My last two days in Sinai were full of Nabataean carvings and of much earlier simplistic paintings and later Islamic era, perhaps dating to the Saladin expedition across the Sinai to face the Crusades and the Richard the Lion Heart in Palestine. Touring Sinai, or on my case, a tiny part of it, on foot and on the back of camels, is almost a prerequisite for understanding how the ancient people, thousands of years ago, lived and traveled the Sinai. A house is not a house, it never has been, it had perhaps been only a collection of stones to form a shelter, a low height shelter, not more than 20 inches or half a meter above the ground, to protect from the winds during the cold night hours, much like we did during our journey, placing our cloth sacks on their sides, behind our heads, copying what the Bedouins did. Why build something more elaborate that could house snakes or get washed away in the floods. The inscriptions sometimes can only be seen from the height of a camel back or on foot, you'd miss them in a jeep! Makarious confused me, at times, I believed he had a built-in time machine, he could see those ancient people, taking for the shade in the hot early afternoon sun and passing the time, with their little playful carvings, or carving a blessing for one of the ancient gods to secure a mountain pass or performing some sort of religious rites in these strange houses with no roofs! Makarious knew that only one side of the valley would have inscriptions, because that’s where he sought the shade from the hot burning sun in the middle of the day, this is what the ancient travelers would have done too. 

Bedouins to me, have meant those nomadic people that have always been fiercely independent, that never considered themselves Egyptian, even though the Egypt propaganda machine waxed lyrically about how intensely Egyptian they felt, I felt somewhat apprehensive around them, never understood them fully, somewhat inaccessible. Reading Leila Abu Lughed's book about the Bedouins of the North West of Egypt opened my eyes to this amazing society. Abu Lughed's, a Palestinian American woman, lived with Awlad Ali tribes for some two years to produce her wonderful work, Veiled Sentiments. Makarious spoke to the Bedouins in their language; blue in Egyptian is black in their tongue, a word that sounds like to hallucinate in Egyptian Arabic actually means to speak or discuss! It was fascinating to observe how privately religious and observant each of our three Bedouin guides were, it was also amazing to see their discipline and non stop hard work, their keen desire to be back with their families for the Eid celebration, their cleanliness and hygiene, their speed. Makarious took deep personal interest in the Bedouins, loved them and respected them and it showed in their interactions, they reciprocated and that too showed in their care for him. Makarious relationship with the Bedouins was not of the patronizing type; it was genuinely that of an extended family type, a multi generational bond. Makarious more than twenty-year life experience with the Bedouins gave his observations a certain depth, his was not an outsider or a mere tour guide, but rather, was man of deep passion and understanding for the people and the place. While a vegetarian, I had no regrets being part of the Eid of Sacrifice lunch celebration, just seeing how four generations of the same family interacted, their simple ways, their generosity with the little they possess and above all, their dignity. 


I never liked the expression drinking out of a fire hose, but in many ways, understanding the history of Sinai and the culture of today's tribes as Makarious explained them felt just like that. The Bedouins have clear laws and rules that govern their lives. Makarious explained to us how to choose a place for our bodily needs, avoid any flat sandy patch that could be used for rest or sleep, instead always opt for a place that no one would choose for their rest or camp, avoid trodden pathways. Makarious taught us how the Bedouins greet as they come into a place or someone, but not as they leave. Makarious pointed at a small pile of kindling by a thorn brush, to my eyes, it looked totally random, but to Makarious it revealed that a young woman was nearby tending her sheep or goats, so we couldn’t take our lunch break in the area. Suitors of the young woman would leave her gifts near by the kindling, not unlike the ancient carvings of a woman’s foot print, with a man’s near by as perhaps their way of courting thousands of years ago. My brother, a deeply religious Muslim had on-going discussions with Makarious, who is a Coptic Christian about certain appreciation he developed for the stories of the Prophet Mohammad in light of his new understanding of the lives of the Bedouins and of the stories of their travels and habits.  Makarious, frequently, quotes at length from the Quran and Hadith to illustrate subtleties of present day Bedouins and my brother quotes from the New Testament. Stripped to their core, much of the religious teachings are reaffirmations of basic human decency. 

Mid October is the time when the high deserts start to get cold and the much feared sand viper disappears for the winter hibernation, our trip was at the time, where one still needed to be watchful for both vipers and scorpions. The two young Bedouin guides came across a viper in the bushes while gathering wood for our dinner, they trapped it in a mineral water bottle, will sell it probably for less than ten dollars. Seeing that the feared snake was still around, I became extra vigilant, watching for it around the bushes and trees; in the process I saw the variety of vegetation. Makarious knowledge was again encyclopedic, here is the tiny flower of the desert chamomile and here is "Lassef" fruit, which he called desert mustard or capers and here's another bush where the seeds are loved by the goats and the desert trees with their richness serving multiple purposes feeding the camels and warming the homes; the ancient Egyptians burned their wood to melt the copper they extracted from Sinai for the pharaohnic temples. 

The historic inscriptions we saw showed herons and multiple types of deer with long horns, showed what looked like men on camel back playing something like polo or could be warring, showed women dancing and also what looked like ancient Gods, at some point the Nabataeans
 appeared to use a combination of Nabataean and Arabic writing. The Nabataeans carvings were the most extensive, the older, more primitive painting and the newer Arabic dating to the middle ages were fewer.

On the last day, we stopped in what felt like an above ground cave, we climbed up the rocks to get what felt like a covered theater stage, a large area. Ancient people, well before the era of the Nabataeans brought their camels, sheep, goats and whatever other animals they settled with or were traveling through with, here to take shelter from the rains; layers, as much as three meters deep, of ancient animal manure. Recently much of the manure was removed for fertilizers for the nearby cultivation, but one could see the evidence of the depth, high up on the sides. How much history is buried within this manure, perhaps we will never know. High up on the walls of the cave and on the ceilings are ancient inscriptions. Makarious and my brother talked the politics of it all and how this should be protected, I wondered on, in silence unsure of what to think, I hold multiple conflicting thoughts without clear conclusions.

For centuries, successive Egyptian rulers have wrestled with how to deal with the Bedouins, be it in the North West near the Libyan borders, the South near Sudan and Nubia or in Sinai. The laws of Egypt in the modern era specifically excluded Bedouins from military conscription and they were generally recognized as distinct societies from Egyptians.  In the contemporary totalitarian state introduced by the late president Nasser, Arab nationalism became a state policy, so all Egyptians became Arab, Egypt became Arab, so a forced assimilation of the Bedouins into this new identity, a single identity became state policy. Nasser and his successors used the tools of a modern state to deal with the Bedouins and soon, the word Bedouin became almost always followed by the word problem. The tools of state naturally include the carrot and stick, spending on roads, schools and housing, designed in distant Cairo, with no knowledge of the destructive Sinai floods or the Bedouin way of life. In the years since the return of Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty Sinai tourism has seen unprecedented levels of development and many main land Egyptians have taken up residence in the coastal tourism centers, much wealth has been created.

I see the Government of Egypt aiming at improving control over the Bedouins by attempting to de-bedouinize them and it doesn't hurt if that allows for some big spending and the inevitable accompanying corruption. Today, as Egypt battles Islamist terrorism, it depresses me to think of how much of a struggle Egypt security apparatus, be it army or police, will have to go through to learn how to deal with the Bedouins of Sinai. I fear huge mistakes will continue to be made as most Egyptians fail to recognize the distinct culture, customs, laws and languages of the Bedouins, in short, the Bedouins as distinct people and identity. Egypt can learn from how other countries deal with their own indigenous people, Australia, Canada and the USA all present examples; all had their own shares of mistakes; we don’t need to repeat them. Israel next door deals with the Bedouin, perhaps in a more successful fashion than Egypt does, principally because it starts out recognizing the difference in culture and identity rather than living the false lie of one identity as Egypt does.  

It was hard not to think of the politics as we looked to the El Gunna plateau in the distance, separating South Sinai from its turbulent North and seeing some present day graffiti boosting of the power of a Bedouin tribal army, for some of the tribes do live on both side of these mountains. It is hard to not to be thinking of politics when some of the ancient nawamees have been totally destroyed and their stones used for building hotels and resorts, hard not to think of politics, when you can’t help feeling that the Sinai treasures and history are at risk under the control of Egypt. I also found it hard to be dismissive of tourism knowing how many millions of Egyptians have been living off of it. 

Long periods of quietness, total silence save for the sound of the wind or that of the camels munching away on their food, or regurgitating it. I started the trip with my backpack full of all of my modern technology gadgets, measuring altitudes, distance and time; after a while I was only using the camera functions; what's more, I only used less than 10% of everything I carried! I didn't need my watch; I needed relatively small amounts of water to keep clean! I repacked my cloth sack so I only need to access the top quarter, if that. I slept on the ground on a thin plastic matt inside my sleeping bag better than I sleep on my advanced technology 15-inch Swedish made mattress. The periods of reflection in the silent cold pre dawn, looking at the nightly extravaganza that only I was awake to watch, the Milky Way, the shooting stars, the sparkling of the brighter stars, my breathing, the wind, the susurrus of the bushes, occasionally whistle like then gentle again ... we need so much, we use so little, we think so much, yet in reality know so little. Sinai the land of the moon, its hard rugged hostile nature captured me with its beauty, its people. Its silence, captured me its purity and cleanliness … with a new inner me that I reconnected with walking ahead of the camels, climbing the rocky mountains, breathing deeply to overcome a panic attack as a looked at the deep fall below as we climbed the Mattameer Mountain. Sinai today is the result of millennia of struggles against the elements; its beauty is the result of this very struggle. Sinai will persevere , its purity and beauty will outlast all, this seemingly empty land, deprived of life, is in actual fact the land of rich life, it will always persevere 

AA
October 20, 2013