July 26, 2008
Anglos & Arabic: the bizzaro world of the MEMRIstas
Thanks to The Skeptic, or maybe to curse him as this I missed blissfully, of this special piece of stupidity that the Washington Post published earlier, in which a certain student Pollack whinges on about supposed biases in his Arabic text. A terribly tedious and queer little whinge - why it got published escapes me. Although this text came out I think some years after me own Arabic studies (done in the strange dark years of the Orange), I have encountered the book he refers to, and I have to say one has to be a particularly sensitive Likoudiste to find it objectionable. Boring, perhaps, but objectionable?
Although parenthetically, and perhaps of more interest, I wonder how I fit into our Skeptic's Egyptological scheme when I lived there:
After September 2001, foreigners in Egypt, as a group, began to change. They used to be a motley collection of scholarly oddballs with an interest in Medieval weaponry, hieroglyphics, or Ottoman bureaucracy, scam artists with an interest in getting rich on oil or USAID contracts, or Marines with an interest in getting the hell out of here, and, if possible, getting drunk and laid in the meantime. I liked the scholarly oddballs and the Marines best.
International flotsam and jetsam of the kind you find the world over—criminals, pill-freaks, pot-heads, freeloaders, misfits, adventurers, fallen priests—would also drift in and out of town. Let’s call them “Flo” and “Sam” for short. Flo and Sam used to (and perhaps still do) congregate at the fleabitten Hotel al-Shams, which had a decent cafe where local parasites thronged to take advantage of them. I went once to find my old roommate, a shifty felucca captain with a criminal record and a good heart, after he disappeared with some of my girlfriend’s money. I watched the little symbiotic ecosystem in that cafe for hours and wasn’t once bored.
Flo and Sam would also drift into Bab al-Luq’s landmark Cafeteria al-Hurreya, where they would rub shoulders with artists, revolutionaries, real-estate agents, informers, human-rights lawyers, small-time crooks, slow suicides, journalists, and other undesirables with a shared interest in beer.
To be fair, Hurreya also catered to chess players and distinguished gentlemen such as the one who once graced the masthead of this blog. And to be fair, Flo and Sam sometimes stopped drifting, got serious and got respectable jobs: Even the former U.S. ambassador sometimes recalled his days as a shaggy-haired backpacker in Egypt, and I genuinely believe those days gave him an affinity for the country that few of his predecessors shared.
I should add that I believe I have some dim memories of having some truly piss-poor beverages at al Hurreya some long years ago. Never was to my taste, but a certain nostalgic Anglo crowd liked to meet there as I recall (dimly).
Now, the question comes to mind, was I a scam artist, or jetsam? In any event, not working on USAID (which practically bloody runs certain sections of the economic sections of the government - well, runs is too strong, insofar as that would imply a degree of efficiency hitherto I think unseen in Egyptian civil service), and not on oil, perhaps I escaped the scam artist category. Or the scholarly oddbal,l since I took my Arabic from the grand Maghreb and the Sham.
But beside this diversion, it does seem to me that one runs into a rather good number of Americans now who've come to MENA to study the Evil Enemy Language and come in with bizarre hang ups, such as Pollack's (again to have been so offended as to find that book worth writing an op ed - but then his whinging smells like underdone MEMRI work).
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I almost blogged on this when I first saw it in real time in the deadwood Post.
Nowadays you can get away with anything on this subject. MEMRI, the Pipes squad, they got like a whole industry now.
Posted by: matthew hogan at July 26, 2008 09:50 PM
Stella, which they serve at Hurriyya, is a fine beer. There should be no need to ever experiment with other Egyptian alcohols.
Your last point, about lots of Americans coming in to study the Enemy Language, very true. I think most American students I've met and got to know in MENA countries have had either scholarship financing from, or career plans with, the army or State Department (= CIA explicitly, in some cases). Universities should capitalize on this and start offering extracurricular classes in waterboarding.
Posted by: alle at July 27, 2008 10:05 AM
I still think this is better than the days when the security and military simply ignored all area knowledge. I was an Anthropology student in the 80s and no one outside USAID paid us any attention at all, and them not much. Now there are Lt Colonels with Anthropology degrees working on counterinsurgency doctrine. And if you read much COIN related stuff (Small Wars Journal or the West Point Counter-Terrorism Center Sentinal, for example), these guys are the farthest thing from Torture Teh Moslems Cause They Do It To Us.
Posted by: AntiquatedTory at July 27, 2008 06:19 PM
Now, the question comes to mind, was I a scam artist, or jetsam?
Apparently, based on his descriptions, you were a Marine.
Posted by: Anonymous at July 27, 2008 10:48 PM
When I studied abroad in Morocco a mere four years ago, it was a ragtag group of Americans, most of whom were more scholars (or hippies) than politicians or militarists. Judging from recent reports, much has changed in four years there as well.
Posted by: Jillian C. York at July 28, 2008 05:21 PM