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This just in on the 5:30 PM EST news:

The awful, terrible, disrespectful, ignorant-based, senseless, idiotic “International Burn a Koran” Day, sponsored by and fathered by Pastor Terry Jones, has been called off.

الحمد لله!

In a press release, Jones has agreed to cancel his “event” after being put in contact with Faisel Rauf, the imam of the proposed Cordoba Islamic Center (of “Ground Zero” fame and controversy), who (he claims) agreed to move the mosque’s location if the burning were cancelled.

I’m so happy that he’s saying he’s not going through with it. Thank GOD.

Read about it at the NYT

The VOA has a remarkably prompt article on it as well, albeit with spelling errors.

Also, President Obama has condemned the “event” as being a “recruiting bonanza for al-Qaeda,” noting that images of Christian-Americans burning the Islamic holy book would do nothing but incite violence against Americans internationally across the Islamic world.

The State Department also released a notice via e-mail to registered American expatriates in Egypt:

The Department of State is issuing this Travel Alert to caution U.S. citizens of the potential for anti-U.S. demonstrations in many countries in response to stated plans by a church in Florida to burn Qur’ans on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Demonstrations, some violent, have already taken place in several countries, including Afghanistan and Indonesia, in response to media reports of the church’s plans. The potential for further protests and demonstrations, some of which may turn violent, remains high.  We urge you to pay attention to local reaction to the situation, and to avoid areas where demonstrations may take place.

I should point out that the State Department  issues these warnings as a matter of mundane routine; we were even issued warnings in the aftermath of the Egyptian defeat against Algeria this past year, when Egyptian’s were throwing rocks and spray painting Algerian Air offices. But I wouldn’t in the slightest be surprised if there were protests in Cairo had this thing actually gone through.

This whole disgraceful affair might finally be at an end, and I’m happy at that.

Let’s just hope it really is at an end.

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After a long and painful day of recovering from a party down on Falaky Street, Rumi and I decided to go out and live the dream and find Cairo’s last remaining Turkish bath.

Steam dreams of luxurious relaxation

Turkish baths once dotted the medieval city aplenty: an Ottoman take on what was a Greco-Roman practice that has been described as “the wet version of a sauna.” Bathers move from progressively hotter rooms together, sweating out the dirt from their pores before being scrubbed down violently with a loofah, massaged, and then rinsed with cold water. In the past, every neighborhood in Cairo had a hammaam (please note the double m) and the fires that were used to heat the baths also cooked the neighborhood fuul in giant tin pots. Steam baths were a social activity that was completely gender segregated, and as a consequence, social taboos were generally removed. People spoke freely, and the women’s bath was an oft-discussed subject of orientalists’ speculations.

Presently, however, the hammaam has fallen into disrepute. Rendered unnecessary by modern plumbing, the steam bath has become the whispered haunt of (gasp!) homosexuals, who are supposed to meet in dark liasons to rub each other with various oils. This, not too long ago, was actually kind of true, as Flaubert writes:

It’s at the baths that such things take place. You reserve a bath for yourself (five francs including masseurs, pipe, coffee, sheet and towel) and you skewer your lad in one of the rooms…

Thought I doubt that Egyptians stay away from the last bath in Egypt because of Flaubert (what a reason that would be!), I suppose the reputation has stuck. Friends have had some rather rude encounters with gay men who were more than a little too pushy in a couple of places, and as a result, the bathhouse is something to be a little cautious of (besides, who knows what would happen to your wallet while you soaked up the steam). Either way, Rumi and I were determined not to face the bath alone (just in case things turned out seedier and more unpleasant than we were expecting); always good to have a friend around when you find yourself in unknown environs wearing only a thin cotton towel.

To get to the last operating bathhouse in Cairo (known as 7ammaam al-Malatili), walk down al-Mu3izz Street on the northern side on the way to the mosque of al-Hakim, past Bayn al-Qasrayn, until Amir al-Gyushi Street, which opens up on the left. About a hundred yards down on the left side is the bath, which is not much more than a hole in the wall about several steps down from the street level. All the locals know where it is, though, and it’s not difficult to find.

But it’s a dump.

Brightly painted on the inside, with light coming in dimly from glass-laminated holes in the roof, the reception room is manned by the hunched Muhammad Ali, who gives you a winding sheet and a pair of plastic slippers, points you to the changing room, and guards your phones, wallets, and watches. Once you strip and wrap yourself up in the sheet, you shuffle down a cracked, soggy corridor to a waiting room on a dais, presumably for the steam room to be vacated, and watch the cockroaches scuttle. Not for the faint of heart.

The floors are cracked, mildewy marble that has clearly seen better days, and there’s a faint sucking sound like that of a drain as water, dripping everywhere, seems to flow down to the narrow slots in the floor.

The steam room is a tiny compartment, filled mainly by a little pool of scalding water. You attempt to sit beside it in a modest fashion, and soon give up. It’s heady and the air is thick, though certainly not fragrant, and you begin to soon sweat profusely. Flaubert goes on:

I was alone in the hot room, watching the daylight fade through the great circles of glass in the dome. Hot water was flowing everywhere; stretched out indolently I though of a quantity of things as my pores tranquilly dilated. It is very voluptuous and sweetly melancholy to take a bath quite alone, lost in those dim rooms where the slightest noise reverberates like a cannon shot, while the naked kellaks call out to one another as they massage you, turning you over like embalmers preparing you for the tomb. (From The Letters of Gustave Flaubert)

After about twenty minutes, your eyes start to get heavy.

At that point, a crooked-jawed man in ratty pants and a wet flannel shirt motioned us out one at a time with his loofah to the central room with an octagonal fountain in the center (not running, and black), motioned for me to lie on my stomach, and proceeded to rough me up with a smelly loofah mitt and soap. He flips you over. Repeat. He flicks his cigarette against the wall, and motions toward the cold shower in the corner. I rinse. Rumi goes next. Soaking wet, and wrapped in wet sheets, we return to the dressing rooms, where Muhammad Ali tosses us giant, rough towels, and we dry off. We pay, collect our things, and are off.

Not exactly Flaubert (NOT what I was hoping for, either), but you couldn’t help but want to ask, “Serious? That’s it?” A pleasant massage. A room filled with gossiping men and incense. Perhaps tea. Music. An oud player, even? Orientalist, yes; but perhaps that’s my soft spot for the occasional indulgence taking over. Instead, it was all rather matter-of-fact.

Despite the smelly loofah, we both felt quite clean.

Afterward, we trotted off to the Arabic Oud House behind the Hussein Mosque for a concert. Free.

These towers can be seen built on top of apartment buildings, offices, and slums alike: all to house the Egyptian country squire's delicacy: the noble and tasty pigeon.

Later, in the spirit of the Arabic jathr, or trilateral root, we decided to have hamaam (please note the single m) for dinner. Supposedly a pharaonic dish, pigeon is considered one of the finer Egyptian foods. My assessment: frustrating. Pigeons have remarkably little meat and are destroyed in the process of eating them (forget the knife and fork). The Gad restaurant by al-Azhar serves up a ma7shi variety, stuffed with cinnamon-spiced buckwheat rice and the head of the humble bird still attached. It’s a little disconcerting, but once over the initial shock, not entirely unpleasant.

Hammaam (a bath) and hamaam (pigeon). Quite a night.

Last night in Egyptland tonight.

 

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Attarine is where you go when you want old things.

The district is kind of amorphously south of Shari3a Fouad, merging into Manshaya somewhere around the west end of the square. If you duck past the police station and sight a gothic edifice, you’re in the right place. A little deeper in, there are a series of labyrinthine alleys crowded with carpenters, furniture makers, and ironmongers that seem to always have work (though I can’t imagine that many people are buying the amount of furniture that they seem to make). There is a perpetual banging, as the woodworkers craft the mashrabayyat screens here, and ironmongers work to restore the blackness of iron newly forged from iron left to rust.

Every now and then there is a dust-covered shop that opens up; some of them have rusty tin signs that once where common advertisements for the mail, Stella Beer, and any number of whiskeys, tobaccos, and facial creams.

I was looking for cufflinks.

Depending on who you ask, the word for cufflinks is zuraar. Unfortunately, this is also the same word for “buttons,” so I ended up getting shown an interesting number of buttons that ended up from being from old livery uniforms during the Ottoman period. I bought two, and am determined to make them into my own awesome cufflinks.

I found two leather-boxed sets of the gaudiest cufflinks I’ve ever seen, thanked the shopowner, and left.

I found myself later in the antiquaire (his word) of George, who speaks a tolerable English (that I never hear), and only annoys me when he tries out his French. He’s been on Rue Fuad for ages, and knows pretty much every story I start telling about the colonial city. He’s a small man and wears an ancient paisely tie most times that I see him, his jacket a little too big for him and looking like the tired old houndstooth numbers you find in Salvation Army stores back in the states. His shop is a half-and-half mixture of books soaked through with tarred L&M smoke and badly restored or replicated antiques.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but we were talking about literature. We went from Arabic to French to English, to literature taught in Egypt, and how nothing post-Dickens is ever taught (seriously, students of English literature have never even heard of T.S. Eliot or James Joyce. Eliot! Joyce!). After an argument over T.S.’s nationality (American, definitely, despite the phony accent), he changed the subject:

“Do you like Komanjis?”

Who?

“Komanjis. He’s American. From the twenties, thirties. He’s famous.”

Don’t know him.

“How do you not know him? You studied literature, right?

He pulled a dusty paperback off the shelf. In Arabic script, the author’s name on the cover read: “Ih ih Kuminjz.”

e e cummings! He was talking about e e cummings!

I flipped out.

This is the first time I realized that certain things actually aren’t translatable….but people translate them anyway. There are no capital letters in Arabic; the language doesn’t even work like English (not a bad thing, just different). How on earth are you supposed to duplicate cummings’ emphasis on structure on the page, formatting, and the use of capitals and lowercase?

It was baffling.

Something to go back to later.

Until then, one of my favorites, just for you to chew on:

i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
-i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth's own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

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Fadz sent me the following article which I’ve been thinking about ever since she posted it to FB:

For Rwandans, Pope’s apology must be unbearable

My response: for all Catholics it is. It’s terrible. It’s an atrocity. And by writing about it, I feel like I trivialize it, even.

Perhaps it is time Catholics forced the leaders of their church to deal with a history of institutional racism that endures, if the church is truly to live up to its fine words. Apologies are not sufficient, no matter how abject. What is demanded is an acknowledgment of the church’s political power and moral culpability, with all the material and legal implications that come with it.

The silence of the Vatican is contempt. Its failure to fully examine its central place in Rwandan genocide can only mean that it is fully aware that it will not be threatened if it buries its head in the sand. While it knows if it ignores the sexual abuse of European parishioners it will not survive the next few years, it can let those African bodies remain buried, dehumanised and unexamined.

There is a conflation between the Church’s political stance and the Church’s theological stance. There is a difference between the believers and the thing believed. And the priests of the Church, empowered with something superhuman, are still human at the end of the day.

“Being human” is the worst excuse in the world for letting people suffer.

I believe in One Holy Catholic Church. I do. I still do.

I have my doubts in the people sometimes.

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For the man who has everything

If I ever get stuck in a traffic jam, I hope my car has one of these inside it.

Shamelessly stolen from “The Arabist.”

Actually, I’ve essentially given up smoking for the past few weeks and exchanged it for midnight runs on the Corniche, and am impressed with the results so much that I think I might hang up my hookah permanently.

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Last night, Ahmed and I arrived late at Gareen Balaza (Green Plaza) to see Avatar. It was Friday night, and the place was absolutely packed. I mean, whoa. Crazy, crazy people. The front doors of the movie theater looked like a drain clogged with coffee grounds. Avatar, incidentally, has been here for weeks, and apparently the time hasn’t done anything to calm anyone down about it.

Needless to say, we didn’t get seats (Egyptian films have “reservations” bought at the front of the cinema, to which an usher escorts you once inside the theater), but decided to stick around for the 10 PM showing (the Green Plaza Mall is wicked deep in Smouha and a pain in the ass to get out to). We walked around, headed over the bridge across the Mahmoudiyya Canal, and found an ahwa at the foot of some rather ominous looking Soviet-esque buildings that reminded me too much of ‘umarat al-zabaat.

We talked for hours. I mean, hours. It was pretty awesome, and though the whole thing was a painful reminder of how my Arabic needs to stretch a little bit more while I’m here. I’ve been so caught up in the “teaching English” mentality that I’ve pretty much forgotten to use my Arabic sometimes.

Thank God for Ahmed, then.

And whoa, the things you talk about: the main topic on the table was cultural difference — which is always fun — but we touched on sex, drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, losing one’s virginity, first kisses, the word “slut,” the and the philosophy of live and let live. Refreshing, to be quite frank. I really want to write it all down, but I was just so

We met Kareem (one of Ahmed’s friends) for the movie and got in the theater about five minutes after the start of the film. It was hilarious to look across the theater and see a packed cinema with every single person wearing white, cardboard glasses, but man oh man, what a film.

Much has already been said about Avatar, so I will confine my remarks to a few: the plot was shit. So was most of the dialogue. And that whole “video narrative” thing that the Marine does is a cheap excuse for a voiceover, which (thanks to Melissa) I’ve begun to detest as a cinematic device (that doesn’t sound pretentious). But I have never walked out of a film and looked around in confusion at the outside world. The movie is just an experience, and it really carries you away; I don’t really think I’m going to look at fantasy films in quite the same way, unless they do that. Not just the 3D thing; make me believe that the aliens are actually legitimately real. Crazy stuff.

We ended the evening on Port Said Street (how I love that little avenue!) in Camp Shezar, where we found this hole-in-the-wall that Ahmed knew sold fantastic sandwiches: these finger-thing sandwiches of shrimp and onions and sausages with a kind of spicy, creamy cheese I’ve never tried before. Holy mackeral, talk about hitting the spot.

Before I end, as the title promises, some literary follow-up, for which I redirect you to an article by The Daily Beast:

John Mayer’s Terrible Week, by Rob Tannenbaum.

In brief, JMay decided to toss out the N-word (something that, incidentally, I hear a lot here) during one of his interview with Playboy. His remarks throughout have provided Internet fodder for the past week, bloggers and New Media-types alike, though not without taking the remarks completely out of context. If you don’t mind a girlie-picture sidebar, you can read the interview transcription here, which I think is actually pretty fantastic, and you can decide for yourself.

What does this have to do with yesterday’s post?

Here is Tannenbaum’s relevant point:

Milan Kundera, who cherished novels as paradoxes of instability in a finite world, in 1988 cited “Rewriting as the spirit of the times.” Can we alter that now to “Retweeting as the spirit of the times”? The Internet has loosened the definition of writing, and now the online world is a limitless, unstable fiction. Per Kundera, tweets and blogs translate every link, adding ideology in the guise of summation. The reaction to Mayer contains many truths about race and celebrity, though nothing that fits in 140 characters. The Web is a series of filters, many of which narrow a story until it’s a negligible number of bytes.

For those of you with an acute sense of irony, you will note that I am doing precisely that by copy-and-pasting a section on my blog; the democratization of the written word — the availability of it to everyone, instantaneously — hands the Word over to people to be judged, changed, altered, and fitted to a different agenda at each turn. Imagine if Playboy were only still a magazine subscribed to by older, white men — one kept hidden under mattresses in college and in the back shelves of college; would this have done just as much damage to Mayer as it’s done in this week? Or would it simply have taken longer?

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Rumi tuned me in yesterday to the controversy surrounding the Swiss popular vote to ban minarets. As usual, there’s what he termed “twitrage” about the decision, though for me, it raises some interesting questions about churches here.

Naturally, I’m outraged.

Interestingly, the character known to me only as “Sandmonkey” (see his amazingly crazy rants here) twittered in response to the ban: “Switzerland is banning the phalic extension of a mosque. Not building the mosque itself. Muslim countries do that, to churches.”

Kind of what I think.

Fadhila posted a really level-headed article by Tariq Ramadan of The Guardian on the ban’s motivation by fear: the Swiss fear “Islamization,” and that a variety of Islamic symbols are targeted as a result of fear — which is implied to be the product of ignorance among non-Muslims. I’m a fan of Ramadan’s articles in general (not his one on Benedict XVI, though), but I think that his assertion that the Swiss have voted “not against towers, but Muslims” is taking the matter entirely too far. And again, I’m outraged. I really am. I hate having to censor myself, I hate that I can’t hear church bells. I hate that being Christian in a Muslim country makes me feel a little under siege. And I don’t want anyone to experience that — ever — in any other country. But I’m not really asking if it’s really ethical, because we all know it’s not; I’m asking if we’re at all surprised at the decision.

When Hamas won the majority vote in the Palestinian legislative assembly in 2006, the rest of the world trembled a little, fearing that the election of the party would escalate the already simmering issue of Palestine. During the Bush administration, the atmosphere surrounding such election results was made to sound like evil was slowly taking over; that within years, the US would become embroiled not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in some tragic, painful conflict in Palestine. But no one interfered. Interference would mean compromising the electoral principle that, when people vote, they vote for a reason: neither the United States nor anyone else could eliminate that fact. Does the same principle apply? (Serious question)

When authors cannot freely publish critical books without incurring death threats and are forced into years of hiding (Salman Rushdie)…

When the publication of the positive portrayals of Islam in The Jewel of Medina (about the life of Aisha) is cancelled and delayed for fear of outcry against the publisher and threats against the author

When the director of (an albeit tasteless) film criticizing the verse from the Qur’an that a man has a right to beat his wife if she is disobedient is murdered in reaction to its release

Protestors outside the Danish embassy in London, c. 2006 following the cartoon controversy

When protesters to the Danish cartoon controversy react with violence against the cartoon depiction of Muhammad, portraying Islam as a violent religion….

When filmmakers are afraid to destroy the Ka’aba in a stupid blockbuster about the end of the world but are more than willing to topple the Basilica of St. Peter’s…

When underage girls in Antwerp feel as though they need to veil and be accompanied by their brothers to be socially accepted by their classmates…

When the display of Christian icons, crosses (even on one’s person!), or the open worship of Christianity is expressly forbidden by law and carries a prison sentence…

When all this happens, are we surprised by Ramadan’s assertion that such a controversy is “fuelled by fear”?

Of course it’s fueled by fear. Fear that we cannot criticize, fear that we cannot unveil, fear that we cannot protect our right to free speech. The public face of Islam is one that advocates itself as the True Faith and a unifying religion of peace; and yet, these items are at odds with the idea of free speech contained within liberal democracy. Shari’a law does do permit public worship of other religions, it requires other adherents to pay taxes: where Christianity conceives itself as a separate political identity (“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…”), Islam is conceived as an umma, a nation of believers that is spread in a diaspora across the world, to be governed ideally by a caliph under shari’a law. Hence, as Bernard Lewis notes:

The penalty for apostasy, in Islamic law, is death. Islam is conceived as a polity, not just as a religious community. It follows therefore that apostasy is treason. It is a withdrawal, a denial of allegiance as well as of religious belief and loyalty. Any sustained and principled opposition to the existing regime or order almost inevitably involves such a withdrawal.

I too am a little afraid. When such potentials are so essential to the practice of the religion, what is the religion itself? Is Islam really how the theologians would have it? Or is it how the people practice it — how it is visible, perceived, and read?

Isn’t that always the question in religion?

——-

Later:

Bikya’s article on the ban makes me SO ANGRY in that it fails to address similar issues within Egypt:
http://bikyamasr.com/?p=6196

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