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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Books

ISRAEL: Researchers see Tunisia as a textbook revolution

Revolutions seem to take place all of a sudden, but usually they don't really come out of the blue. Whether religious, political or economic reasons are behind upheaval, it often reflects a long process that reached a tipping point and a window of opportunity. 

The time must be right but the ground must be ripe, too. In this context, an Israeli research group suggests Tunisia's was a textbook revolution. Not in the sense that it was a perfect storm or that it followed a certain formula -- no two revolutions are the same -- but in the sense that it may actually have begun in school textbooks.

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE) is a group that conducts in-depth studies of school curriculum throughout the Middle East, checking hundreds of books per country and they way they teach about tolerance and peace.

A comprehensive study of the Tunisian curriculum, completed in 2009 and presented before the European parliament, found that education in Tunisia cultivates equality and is much more progressive in teaching tolerance than any other Arab country.

But it wasn't always so, says Yohanan Manor, a retired Jewish Agency official and political scientist who established the research group a decade ago. According to Manor, Tunisia began instituting educational reform in the mid-1990s, when Zine el Abidine ben Ali (who was overthrown last month) appointed a political opponent as minister of education. Mohamed Charfi, who died a few years ago, was a lawyer and longtime human rights leader in Tunisia and a fierce critic of Ben Ali, in particular concerning human rights issues.

The now-deposed president had placed Charfi in charge of the education ministry, maybe so that  he could keep an eye on him but also because Ben Ali  was interested in letting the rights leader implement his agenda, which was separating religion and state, Manor said, noting that the issue is a longstanding one in Tunisian history.

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PAKISTAN: Fatima Bhutto on her memoir, 'Songs of Blood and Sword'

Fatima and her father

We recently interviewed Fatima Bhutto about her new memoir, “Songs of Blood and Sword.”

In the book, Bhutto traces her late father’s life and the history of her political family in Pakistan.

In two podcasts, we talked with her about the book, her research, her late aunt Benazir -- the  first female prime minister of Pakistan -- Muslim women in politics, and the massive flooding that Pakistan faces now.

Check out the full interview here: Fatima Bhutto's love-hate affair with her native Pakistan.

Pacific Time podcastListen to the podcasts here:

Podcast: Fatima Bhutto on "Songs of Blood and Sword"

Podcast: Fatima Bhutto on Pakistan's floods

-- Lori Kozlowski

 Photo (left): Author Fatima Bhutto. Credit: Benjamin Loyseau. Photo (right): Fatima writes, “Papa and I in Geneva.  He had broken his arm and I insisted on being fitted with a cast too, which I wore until his came off.” Credit: Fatima Bhutto.

EGYPT: 'Trial of the Prophet Muhammad' rouses fury at Al Azhar Islamic institution


The world's most influential Sunni Islamic institution, Al Azhar, is enraged that one of Egypt's leading online newspapers has decided to publish the new novel "Trial of the Prophet Muhammad."

Despite stressing last week that they have put the publication on hold until the novel and its title gain the official approval of Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, writers at Al Youm Al Sabee were publicly blasted by Azhar clerics and religious extremists.

"Publishing such novel is an act of infidelity against prophet Muhammad," said an official statement by the council of Muslim scholars at Azhar, adding that the newspaper "couldn’t have found a worse way of welcoming the holy month of Ramadan than by hurling insults at the prophet."

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IRAQ: Saddam Hussein's alleged mistress tells all in new book

9789137135328-2If it wasn't for a bowl of tabbouleh, the popular Middle Eastern cracked wheat salad, Parisoula Lampsos' life might have been much different today.

On a summer night in 1968, Lampsos' neighbor, Gina, had nagged her to come over and keep her company while her husband hosted a dinner party.

Then-16-year-old Lampsos put on her pink dress with a matching pink band in her hair and silver-colored shoes. She smelled of her favorite perfume, Je Reviens, and her golden anklets and bracelets dangled as she jumped over a fence separating the two families' houses with a bowl of tabbouleh in her hands.

A man wearing a blue silk suit and a blindingly white shirt introduced himself as Saddam. He was then a 31-year-old influential figure in the Arab nationalist Baath Party.

Lampsos says now that that she did not know who Saddam Hussein was at the time but that she was smitten by his good looks.

"He had these deep golden eyes. I was attracted. He was a real man. " she told Babylon & Beyond in a recent interview.

There, in Gina and Harout Khayyat's living room in Baghdad, while Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" blared out from the record player, began what Lampsos claims was her three-decade-long complicated and fearful, but also passionate, on-off romantic relationship with the former Iraqi dictator.

She said Hussein called her shaqra, or "the blond."

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LEBANON: Some Arab writers lament roles as cultural ambassadors


"If anyone ever comes up and tells me my work is 'responsible,' I will punch him in the face," joked Moroccan-Dutch author Abdel-Kader Benali while discussing whether Arab writers have a duty to serve as cultural ambassadors.

His sentiments were echoed by the other authors present on the panel titled Rock the Casbah: Responsibility, Commitment and Art, one of dozens held over three days in and around Beirut as part of the Beirut39 festival, a subsidiary project of the Hay Festival.

"I don't want my work to be used as a piece of anthropology, a textbook for people who don't know about the Arab world," explained Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, one of 39 Arab authors younger than 40 selected for the Beirut39 book festival.

"I think [Arab literature] is in danger of becoming something else -- something non-literary," he added.

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EGYPT: New book tells the story of saving the past

Queen Hatshepsut From boat graves to sarcophaguses and from tomb robbers to the temple of a lion goddess, Egypt is a history of epochs tumbling into one another.

Defined by masterpieces such as the pyramids, and by lesser known treasures stretching from the Grecco-Roman period to Napoleonic times, the nation’s art and architecture speak to the distinctive powers and religions that have risen along the Nile for more than 6,000 years. 

Some of it may have been lost if not for nearly $15 million in restorations and excavations done by the American Research Center in Egypt and mostly funded by grants from the United States Agency for International Development. The work -- part cultural reclamation, part exploration of unexpected wonders – includes salvaging the temples at Karnak and Luxor and saving medieval paintings at the Church of St. Anthony. 

A new book, "Preserving Egypt’s Cultural Heritage," offers intriguing glimpses into dozens of projects. A collection of essays edited by Randi Danforth, the book, which includes before and after photographs, is a reminder of the passion and meticulousness that comes with conserving Egypt’s glorious and often troubled past.

The splendor is much diminished these days. The world’s first empire, which the book describes as once spanning “from the fourth cataract of the Nile in the south to the Euphrates River to the northeast,” disappeared centuries ago. Today’s Egypt is a poor, chaotic and dusty offspring, a nation still important but slipping in stature in a changing Middle East.

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ISRAEL: Author waits--and waits--for permit to travel to Lebanon for literary award

Literature is supposed to transcend borders, but sometimes it runs up against them. Ala Hlehel-1

Author Ala Hlehel is among the winners of the Beirut39 literary competition, which acknowledges fresh voices in Arab literature in a list of 39 writers under the age of 39. The writers are invited to a four-day festival  in Beirut in April.

Hlehel, a native of the Galilee village of Jish and today a resident of Acre, is an Arab citizen of Israel. Israel prohibits all its citizens and residents from visiting countries defined as "enemy states"-- including Lebanon--without a special permit. 

When he learned he was among the winners,  Hlehel asked authorities for permission to travel to Lebanon to receive his award. A few months went by. Authorities said they were waiting to learn the position of Israel's General Security Services.

The festival is now two weeks away.  Adalah-- the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel-- submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on the author's behalf. Attorneys Haneen Naamnih and Hassan Jabareen argued that the failure of the Minister of Interior and the prime minister to issue a decision on his request "violates his constitutional right to leave the country and his right for freedom of employment and expression, as well as his due process rights for a fair hearing," an Adalah press release said. 

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LEBANON: Memoir sheds light on the life and struggles of Arab transsexual from Algeria

Photo 001dsds The threatening letters and phone calls at night trickled in at a steady pace. They had become a part of everyday life for Randa, an Algerian transsexual and one of the pioneers in the Arab world's gay and transsexual activist movement.

One letter dropped in Randa's mailbox said, "We will kill you." Another one read, "You are a threat to all Muslims in Algeria." In mosques around the country, Randa's name was being circulated. Still, she refused to be intimidated and shrugged off the threats.

But one day, a friend showed up at her house in Algiers, the Algerian capital, with a worried look on his face. He had bad news. 

"One my friends took me for a ride in his car and told me, 'You have 10 days to leave the country,'" Randa, the author of a new book about her experiences, said in an interview with Babylon & Beyond. "Influential people had come to talk to him." 

She knew she had to move quickly, but she had no idea where she'd go. Getting a visa to Europe would certainly take longer than 10 days. No, they'd get her before that, Randa figured. A visa to Lebanon, however, would only take a few days. And she had friends in Beirut. 

So, Lebanon it was.

A year later, Randa, wearing a long black dress, high heels and sporting new black hair extensions, is greeting crowds of guests and reporters with a smile on her face at a signing for her memoir in the garden of a Beirut art studio.

The biography, "Memoirs of Randa the Trans," co-written with Lebanese journalist Hazem Saghyieh, was recently published in Arabic by the Dar-Al Saqi publishing house and recounts Randa's life story and struggles as a transsexual in Algeria and Beirut.

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LEBANON: Professor condemned for scholarly work with Israeli counterparts

Sari Hanafi (1) A politically charged uproar has erupted on the campus of a leafy university over the academic collaboration between a local Arab professor and two Israeli counterparts. 

In a town hall at the American University of Beirut  earlier this month, nearly 300 in the crowd castigated Sari Hanafi, a scholar and Palestinian activist, for his role as co-editor of the book, "The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories." 

Hanafi worked on the book with two Israeli scholars from Tel Aviv University, Adi Ophir and Michal Givoni, both of whom publicly oppose the Israeli military presence in the West Bank.

Lebanese law forbids contact between its nationals and Israel. The two countries remain technically at war. There's also an ongoing effort to isolate Israel called the Palestinian Academic Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which many AUB students and faculty support.

“This open collaboration between an Israeli academic and an AUB academic is unprecedented in my 50 years of service at this university," said Tarif Khalidi, professor of Arab and Middle Eastern studies at AUB, who addressed the audience at the March 8 meeting. "I say 'open' because God knows what might be happening under the table. This is especially disturbing in a country like Lebanon, which is still in a state of war with Israel."

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DUBAI: Martin Amis set to add ‘fireworks’ to upcoming literature festival

Dubai-martin-amis-wikimedia To most outsiders, Dubai appears a town of ludicrously tall towers, bumbling Mossad agents sporting unconvincing tennis gear and leaky aquariums in oversized malls.

But away from the recent headlines, the city has also been trying to position itself as a land of culture and sophisticated debate.

The Festival of Literature (sponsored by Emirates Airlines) kicks off this week at the aptly named Festival City, another of the United Arab Emirates city-state's shopping mall and hotel complexes.

While the venue may not sound the most inspiring for a cultural chin-stroking session, the attendees – one in particular – should ensure some rather lively banter.

Outspoken author and England’s "punching bag" Martin Amis probably hadn’t considered his future travel plans when he made a few comments during a 2006 interview in the English newspaper The Times.

Discussing issues of terrorism and security back then, he suggested “strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan” and “discriminatory stuff” against the Muslim community, “until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."

His words, as one might expect, went down like a Hummer at a Greenpeace picnic. UK writer Yasmine Alibhai-Brown described Amis as “with the beasts” with it came to dealing with Islam, along with “the Muslim-baiters and haters,:

Novelist Ronan Bennett described Amis’ views as “symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam and intolerance of otherness."

The director of the Dubai literary festival has been fielding a lot of queries regarding Amis’ involvement. In an interview with Abu Dhabi-based, English language newspaper The National, Isobel Abulhoul said she expected “fireworks” during his talk.

But, she added, “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Authorities target book piracy in raids across the country


Fearing that the United Arab Emirates might turn into a haven for intellectual property scofflaws, authorities are implementing tough new measures to keep pirated book traders at bay. 

Over the last months, the UAE's Ministry of Economy along with police forces in Dubai and Sharjah and the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance have carried out a series of raids suspected of book piracy across the country.

The task force is said to have so far busted three major traders and locked them up on charges of violating copyright law. Several book shops were shut down in the raids, while others were let off with fines, read a news release published by local media.

The raids turned out to be fruitful. A wide variety of pirated books were apparently retrieved in the operation.

“They were a combination of fiction, non-fiction as well as textbooks. Pirates target everything,” Scott Butler, head of the AAA told Abu Dhabi's The National

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