tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Who will be Qaddafi II?

"Constitutions cannot be considered the law of society. A constitution is fundamentally a man-made positive law, and lacks the natural source from which it must derive its justification."
- Col. Moammar al-Qaddafi, from his Green Book (full English translation here), 1975.

"Libya will have a constitution, democracy, elections, like any other country."
- Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, son and would-be successor of the Colonel, 2008.

"[No comment]"
- Moatessem al-Qaddafi, other son and would-be successor to the Colonel.

Qaddafi the elder, "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution," isn't getting any younger. (In fact he's developing that waxy veneer that a lot of Middle Eastern autocrats seem to grow in their old age: Hosni Mubarak, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, King Abdullah, Benjamin Netanyahu.)

This posting from Bitter Lemons speculates on who will succeed the Colonel, focusing on 2 of his sons: Saif al-Islam, a reform-minded populist who's apparently well-liked in Western Europe; and Moatessem Billah, a quiet, toe-the-line man who's reportedly a favourite of Libya's power-broking military brass and the rijal al-khaymah - "men of the tent" - the tight circle of influential advisers around Qaddafi.

So will we see a power struggle in Libya when the Brotherly Leader passes on? Will Qaddafi the elder name a successor to his throne before he's gone?

Not too long ago, when Qaddafi was making nice with the West - paying out gobs of money to victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism, cleaning out his WMD closet, etc - his son Saif was gaining a high profile in Europe carrying out his father's overtures for reconciliation.

But lately the mercurial Moammar has been hanging out in Russia and its former satellites, playing arms dealers off one another in order to get the best deal. And Moatessem has been right by his daddy's side.

Neither son could seize power easily or peacefully without a succession plan. Yet Qaddafi, even after all these years in power - he's the longest-serving head of government in the world - still seems more concerned about his wardrobe than his next of kin. It'll be hard for Qaddafi's death to be more intriguing than his life; maybe his reluctance to name a Crown Prince is his way of spicing up his future funeral. A war of desert roses?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Somali Piracy Watch: Egypt's déjà vu in the Arabian Sea

Reuters posted an excellent article by historically minded journalist Jonathan Wright that compares the current piracy crisis in the Arabian Sea - and Egypt's lacklustre response to the international brouhaha in its backyard - with the 16th century Mamluk Empire's vanilla approach to marauding Portuguese privateers, who appeared asudden around 1510 and molested Egypt's near-monopoly on western Arabian Sea trade:

"Marauding seamen infest the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, extracting tolls from shipping and disrupting an ancient trade route between Asia and Europe.

Egypt, one of the main direct beneficiaries of the transit trade, takes time to react. The government is in the hands of an aging leader, who looks to outside powers for help.

That was the challenge that Mamluk ruler Qansuh al-Ghouri faced in the early 16th century, when Portuguese ships appeared unexpectedly east of Suez and started to harass Egypt-bound shipping in the Red Sea and its approaches.

After centuries of peaceful trading, Egypt had no Red Sea fleet capable of countering the Portuguese menace."

The article goes on to describe how current Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak has been a wee bit insouciant about the piracy affair: "This problem could come to an end if merchant ships arm themselves with heavy artillery to deal with the pirates," Mubarak was quoted in al-Gomhuria.

As an aside, Qansuh al-Ghuri later had his head cut off and sent as a prize to Istanbul after losing a battle against the Ottoman Turks.

[Thanks to our friends at the Arabist blog for alerting us to this story.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Great moments in the History of Flags: the 1958 Jordan-Iraq Federation

2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the short-lived Jordanian-Iraqi union, known as the Arab Federation. On February 14, 1958 the kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq, whose kings were first cousins, merged to become a single country.

That's the flag of the Arab Federation above. It was flown alongside each country's individual flags for the 5 months that the Federation lasted. An identical design was previously the flag of Iraq from 1920-1924.

So many questions? Why did Jordan and Iraq merge? Why did the Federation last only 5 months? Why that flag? Doesn't that flag look like the nearly identical twin of the modern Palestinian flag? And wasn't the new federated country, as short as it lasted, the most bizarrely shaped entity on the world map?

Two weeks before the monarchies of Iraq and Jordan agreed to merge into a federated state, the Arab Republics of Egypt and Syria also merged into a single state, the United Arab Republic. The UAR's flag (left) was created based on Egyptian colours, with 2 stars representing the 2 republics. After the breakup of the union, Egypt returned to its older flag, while Syria kept this one. (More on UAR flags here.)

The UAR was envisioned to be the first step on a path to a single, united, pan-Arab (presumably headquartered in Cairo) country stretching from the Atlantic Ocean (Morocco) to the Arabian Gulf (Oman). But the idea - the brainchild of Egyptian President Gamal 'abd al-Nasser - never took root. Yemen also nominally joined the UAR, but that was it.

It only took 2 weeks, back in 1958, for Egypt's main rival at the time, Iraq, to create a bipolar pan-Arab world by hooking up with Syria's main rival, Jordan, to form the AF.

The Federation came to an abrupt end when King Faisal II of Iraq was deposed in a bloody nationalist coup on July 14, 1958. The UAR merger managed to last until 1961, until a coup in Syria ended the formal union with Egypt.

Interestingly, the leader of the Iraqi coup, Abdel Karim Qassim, later wished to join the UAR in 1961 (before the coup in Syria), and what became the new flag of Iraq (left) was the UAR flag, but with 3 stars (representing Iraq with Syria and Egypt). In 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War when most of the Arab World allied against Iraq, Saddam Hussein changed the Iraqi flag, adding in between the 3 stars the Arabic - الله اكبر - allahu akbar, or "God is great."

This flag, with the 3 stars deleted, was adopted earlier this year as the new flag of Iraq.

The AF's flag, meanwhile, was based on the Jordanian flag (left), simply with the seven-pointed star removed from the triangular red field. What had been the Iraqi flag until the merger was a similar design, with 2 stars instead of one.

The seven-pointed star, which was removed from Jordan's flag to create the Arab Federation's flag, is said to represent the first surah of the Qur'an, which has seven verses. The star found its way on to the new flag of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1917 and later the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq around 1924, so it is often thought to be the symbol of the Hashemite clan (the kings of Jordan and Iraq at the time were brothers). But in fact, the red triangle itself is the representative symbol of the Hashemites, and has a much older history in the Arab world.

Which brings us to the Palestinian flag (left), which resembles the flag of the Arab Federation, excepting the different proportions of the triangle. To make a long story short, the Palestinian flag is, like many of these flags, based on the flag of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks during WWI. The revolt's leader was Sharif Hussein of the al-Hashemi (Hashemite) family of Mecca (hence the red triangle).

As for the black, white and green bars, which have been repeated throughout many of the flags in this article, they are the symbol of modern Arab unity. These "pan-Arab" colours, envisioned during the nascent era of pan-Arab nationalism just prior to the First World War, represent the 3 eras of medieval Arab caliphates: the Umayyads (660-750 C.E., based in Damascus) carried a white standard; the Abbasids (750-1258 C.E. based in Baghdad) had a black flag; and the Fatimids of Egypt (909-1171 C.E.) preferred green. In addition to being the colour of the Hashemites, red was the colour of the Arab rulers in Andalucia from the 8th-14th centuries C.E., and also of the Khawarji, who led a rebellion against the Abbasids in North Africa.

The Palestinan flag was formally adopted after 1948, based on the Jordanian flag (Jordan controlled the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem at the time), minus the star, and with a right triangle instead of an isosceles triangle. Why the triangle change? I don't know. If someone out there knows, please tell me.

Finally, we turn to the geography of the Arab Federation on the map. Jordan already looks funky, with its eastward-jutting panhandle the result of creative British cartography which wanted, after World War I, to connect the British mandates of Transjordan and Iraq and disallow French-controlled Syria from bordering Arabia. Back in the 1950s, Jordan also had a westward pimple on its map, what we now know as the West Bank.

The formal federation of Jordan and Iraq created this geographical ink blot (above), which resembles a coffee pot (Jordan) with a handle (West Bank); the coffee pot is emitting some sort of sprayed cloud (Iraq) towards Iran. If you imagine Israel holding the handle, we have perhaps a prescient metaphor for today's Middle East conflict.

Or, if you rotate the map 90 degrees clockwise, you get what appears to be a giraffe lunging its neck upwards above a low tree top.

A curious giraffe: the legacy of the Arab Federation.

(If you read Arabic, here's a whole lot more reading you could do on the evolution of Arab flags.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Historic" Egypt appoints first woman mayor

With that most overused and underwhelming of clichés, al-Arabiya reported that Eva Habil Kerolos has "made history" by becoming the first woman mayor in Egypt.

Ms. Kerolos, a Coptic Christian, was appointed mayor of the village of Kambuha, located along the Nile in central Egypt near the city of Asyut. Her father was once mayor, too - for 40 years.

A member of Egypt's ruling al-Watani party and long an advocate of women's issues, especially literacy, she has pledged to improve her village's infrastructure and the environment of the countryside.

It's a historic moment for Egypt, but Ms. Kerolos is not the first female executive in the modern Arab Middle East. Palestine has two. Fathiya Barghouti Rheime was the first woman mayor of a Palestinian municipality, chosen mayor of the village of Beit Rima in January 2005. Her win helped pave the way for Janet Mikhail, elected mayor of Ramallah later that same year. Ms. Mikhail is the first woman mayor of a major city in the Middle East. Lebanon has three woman mayors, and Jordan one.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Omani adventurer might be the first Arab to reach the North Pole

Omani adventurer Nabil al-Buseidi will participate in the biannual Polar Challenge next April and will attempt to be the first Arab to set foot on the (magnetic) North Pole.

Al-Buseidi is apparently known more commonly by his nickname "Nabs" - except in Germany, where he claims the media (rather glibly, we gather) dubbed him "der Sultan Auf Schnee," or the Sultan of Snow, for his combination of biathlon prowess and Arabness.

The 700-kilometre Polar Challenge begins at Resolute Bay on the mainland of Nunavut, where challengers acclimatize to the Arctic by skiing 105km to the official starting line on Little Cornwallis Island. The formal race then runs in 4 stages over Bathurst Island, across the frozen Northwest Passage to King Christian Island, and then over more iced sea to the Magnetic North Pole at 78° 35.7'N by 104° 11.9'W, or just off the coast of Ellesmere Island. The finish line is at an airstrip near Issachen Mine.

Competitors may travel by foot or ski, facing challenges involving constant sub-zero temperatures and roving polar bears. (The Polar Challenge's FAQ page highlights the degree of difficulty facing the adventurers.) The record time, from the 2003 race - the first held - is 10 days, 9 hours and 45 minutes. In 2007, a total of 6 teams comprising 15 people completed the challenge.

Nabs the Omani and his fellow competitors will set off next April. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Al Qaeda declares U.S. election for Obama, calls the new prez a "house negro"

After either a meticulous recount or a two-week power outage in the caves, Al Qaeda's quaint, 1950s TV technology has finally and grudgingly called the election for Barack Obama.

Al Qaeda's "Number Two," Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, immediately played the race card, reminding his audience new fewer than a dozen times in his video tirade that Obama is black; and not only black, but negro.

Al-Zawahiri's term for Obama is زنجي البيت (zanjii al-bayt) which al-Zawahiri translated into Arabic after watching Malcolm X refer to docile black Americans as "house negroes." Rebellious blacks like X were in X's words "field negroes," زنوج الحقل (zunuuj al-hiql in al-Zawahiri's translation, or more likely the translation of Adam Gadahn, a.k.a. Azzam the American).

In the video, al-Zawahiri goes on to warn Muslims that the new American prez has "a heart full of hate" for Islam, and he tries to paint Obama as another crusader like George W. Bush. Alas, it seems "Number Two" wasn't following the U.S. election quite as obsessively as the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Excavations highlight early Christians' penchant for burying stuff in the sand

From the needle-in-a-haystack department, Israeli excavators stumbled upon a 2,000-year-old gold earring near the Old City walls of Jerusalem.

2,000 years, eh? Why does that sound familiar? What was going on in Jerusalem two thou- oh my God! Could it be... His?

Men have been wearing earrings since, uh, pre-Christian times. Some pagans thought that earrings protected the mind by guarding the ear cavity against invading evil spirits. The ancient Persians just thought they looked hip. When Jay-C was preaching his radical message about faith, love and hope, He was probably trying to appeal to the hip crowd, too. And He was all about keeping out the jinns.

Call it a hunch.

Meanwhile, from impossibly small things found in the sand to impossibly large things kept hidden all these years, archaeologists in Syria just discovered a 1,200-year-old, nearly 700,000 cubic-foot church buried in the desert outside of Damascus.

What is really spectacular about the find, aside from the fact that a colossal cathedral went undetected for twelve centuries' worth of human curiosity and scavenging, is that the site where it was found - Palmyra - is one of the most heavily excavated (and rewarding, to the visitor) digs in the Middle East.

Archaeologists have found pottery shards, gold chains, glassware, oil lamps, gravestones... yes, even earrings. And only now an entire church!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Jenin's Freedom Theatre opens new production on a new stage

Opening tonight at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, West Bank, Palestine - "Atsi" by Anton Chekhov, directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi.

Why bring this up? Well, I've been following the story of the theatre for some time now. [Moderately shameless plug alert] I wrote a short feature in This Magazine last year about the theatre.

Though flush with energy, inspiration and dedication, the theatre's Israeli and Palestinian organizers and volunteers have been making due with ad hoc performance space in an old UN warehouse and other imperfect structures. The performance of "Atsi" will officially inaugurate their new Main Stage theatre space, no small accomplishment for such a place and such an endeavor.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Somali Piracy Watch: Pirates seize tanker, make fortune in oil futures

The New York Times reported late today that Somali pirates caused a brief surge in the global oil futures market, after a group of pirates reportedly seized a Saudi-Aramco oil tanker off the coast of Kenya.

Oil futures, trending downward and currently around $56 per barrel (U.S.), briefly spiked to $59 per barrel when the markets gasped at the news.

Did anybody check to see if the pirates bought low and sold high?

As always, keep up with the adventures of Somali pirates here at the Tuque Souq Somali Piracy Watch. There's more on this particular story over at Al Jazeera.

Mauritania crisis festers, hula skirts might help

The junta took everything he had. Now he wants revenge.

The general who ousted democratically elected Mauritanian president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in an August coup has released the former leader into village arrest (that's like a step up from house arrest), but the president says he will not give up his right to return to his presidential post.

General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz booted Abdallahi on August 6 after the latter attempted to dismiss Aziz and his fellow ruffian generals.

The European Union has set a deadline of this Thursday - November 20 - for the junta to fully release President Abdallahi and forge an agreement to restore democracy to this mostly deserted country in western Africa, or else face sanctions. Wisely, a meeting has been set for Friday, November 21, between EU and African Union (AU) reps to work on solutions that don't involve sanctions.

Abdallahi's former foreign minister will not be able to attend; he was just arrested by the junta for making disparaging remarks about the military coup on national TV.

The League of Arab States (LAS), the African Maghreb Union (AMU), the International Organization of the Francophonie (IOF), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the United Nations (UN) are also working with the AU and EU on resolving the crisis. That makes the sum total of acronyms involved:

Unscrambling this anagram, we arrive at the secret solution to the Mauritania revolt:
"Um, use a luau, no if. Ciao"!

In related news, to no one's surprise, Qaddafi backs the junta. In news related to the related news, Qaddafi is now only visible by impressionism.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Israel, Palestine and Google Maps: Pleasing some of the people some of the time

It started as a random search. We thought we'd look up "Jenin Refugee Camp" on Google Maps to see if we could figure out when the satellite photograph was taken, based on the visible evidence of the rebuilding of the camp after the 2002 Israeli invasion.

Problem is, "Jenin Refugee Camp" doesn't return a search result in its actual place in the north of the West Bank. Fair enough, maybe Google doesn't do refugee camps. So we tried simply "Jenin" in Google Maps. Jenin is the fifth-largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. We should get that much from Google. But here's what we got:

Jenín, Czech Republic.

At least, that is the first search return. The second is Jenin, Poland. And the third and final search result is a partly cloudy place called ג'נין Israel.

Funny how that works. The Czech and Polish versions of Jenin are by all evidence just small towns. Palestinian Jenin is large enough to have been granted "Area A" status - or Palestinian Authority rule - under the Oslo interim agreements of the 1990s. And for that reason, too, one would be hard pressed to say Jenin is in "Israel." It's in the "West Bank," or "Palestine," or "the occupied territories." Pick your term. But Israel?

Now here's what you're all wondering - what happens when you enter the search in Arabic? جنين

You get a place that is transliterated as "Janine" - a very small town in northern Lebanon. Hmm, at this point, we're starting to feel extra sleuthy for a Saturday.

So we look up other major Palestinian place names and see where they fall, nomenclaturally speaking.

"Ramallah" is in the "West Bank," according to Google. That was easy. Ramallah is the unofficial capital of the West Bank, without much specific historical claim by Israel, Israelis, or Israelites.

What about Bethlehem - birthplace of that famous guy, now practically a suburb of Jerusalem, but nevertheless a Palestinian city under nominal PA control? According to Google Maps "Bethlehem" is in Israel whether you enter it in English or in Hebrew - בית לחם. But enter Bethlehem under its Arabic name - بيت لحم - and all of a sudden Bethlehem is in the "West Bank."

And Jericho? Is Jericho in the West Bank? Or is it in Israel? Or is it in New York (which is what comes up when you type in the Arabic name أريحا.

And Hebron? In ِArabic, it's in the "West Bank." In Hebrew, it's in "Israel." In English, it could be "Israel" or the "West Bank"!!

But then there's Nablus - historically important Palestinian city, trade crossroads, famous for its olive oil soap, population 150,000 or so. In Google Maps, Nablus is in Israel only - as שכם of course - important historically to Jews as the site of Joseph's Tomb. Nablus doesn't come up West Bank at all. Google can't quite place its Arabic name correctly.

All this is frighteningly perplexing, especially for an enterprise that is supposed to untangle the World Wide Web for the lay surfer.

Now wait, what about Gaza, you say? Remember the disengagement? Google doesn't, or else they haven't figured out the taxonomy yet. Gaza, apparently, is also in Israel. Wha-?

And even in Arabic - غزة - the search result also says Israel. The optimist says, maybe Google has left "Israel" in place because the Israeli occupation hasn't ended. Maybe not.

So what does this all mean? Well, for one thing, Google is probably using Israeli cartographic and toponymic data to generate its maps. For another, Google is probably trying to steer clear of politics - which is nearly impossible when it comes to projecting maps, certainly in the Middle East - by avoiding the term "Palestine." But in doing so, Google feeds the monster of conspiracy. It's probably not a conspiracy - to keep certain Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank (and Gaza!) above the rubric "Israel" - but let's just say the evidence does not look good.

After all, when you Google Map "Palestine," you get Texas.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gulf countries vie for World Cup qualification

The Asia regional World Cup qualifying has entered the final round; 2 groups of 5 teams are competing for 4 automatic berths to South Africa 2010 (the top 2 teams in each group qualify). The 3rd place teams in each group will play a home-and-away playoff to determine the 5th place team overall, and that team will then play a home-and-away playoff against Oceania regional champs New Zealand for an at-large berth to the World Cup.

In Group 1, the Arab reps are Bahrain and Qatar, who are matched up with runaway co-favourites Australia and Japan, as well as minnowy Uzbekistan, in what is sure to be a heated battle for 3rd place.
Qatar and Bahrain are natural rivals, staring at each other from across the narrow Gulf of Bahrain, owners of a testy border/island dispute, trying to mend fences with bridges, and similarly inspired in flag-making.

Both national squads feature foreign-born stars. Qatar are led by Uruguayan-born midfielder Sebastian Quintana, while one of Bahrain's top young players is Nigerian-born Jaycee Okwunwanee.

Fittingly, the 2 teams opened this final group qualifying stage by playing each other to a 1-1 draw in Doha. The return leg won't be until April 1 in Manama, at which time the game will likely determine 3rd place in the standings and a playoff position.

Both squads have tough home matches this week against the Group 1 powerhouses, with Qatar hosting Japan and Bahrain Australia.

Over in Group 2, the battle for automatic qualification figures to be a three-horse race between South Korea, Iran and Saudia Arabia, which currently all sit tied for first after just 2 matches.
The Saudis have made 4 straight World Cups, managing a combined 2-2-9 record (with both of those wins coming during the 1994 World Cup when they reached the quarterfinals). A balanced team known for stingy defence, Saudi Arabia are still climbing back from their all-time worst FIFA ranking of 81, just after their goalless '06 WC. Despite their pedigree, the Saudis are no shoe-ins to make it to South Africa.

The United Arab Emirates, reigning Arabian Gulf Cup champions but considered long shots to qualify, sit fifth in the Group 2 table at 0-0-3 (including a tough loss to Saudi Arabia to open the final round). Wednesday's home clash with Iran is therefore a must-win game. But hope remains, especially with their talisman striker Ismael Matar (check out this sweet goal of his from the AGC tourney) in fine form with 5 goals so far.

The UAE have one World Cup finals on their resume, qualifying for the 1990 Italy WC where they finished 0-0-3.

Other Gulf and Middle Eastern states (not counting North Africa) to qualify for the World Cup in the past: Iraq in 1986 (finished 0-0-3); and Kuwait in 1982 (actually managed a draw against Czechoslovakia).

How did the other Middle Eastern countries - Syria, Jordan, Oman et al - fare in the earlier qualification rounds? Check it out here.

In other Middle East football news, we congratulate Palestine for recently playing its first-ever international soccer game on home soil, drawing 1-1 with Jordan.

The Tuque Souq will keep tabs on the World Cup qualifying in the months ahead, including a preview of the Africa region showdown involving hopefuls Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. And we'll check in with the European qualifying, where Israel have a favourable group draw that could see them in their first World Cup finals.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hezbollah, Jay-C 'n Naked Barbie (& other updates from the art scene)

A gallery in Beirut dismantled a photography exhibit by renowned Lebanese artist Jocelyne Saab, well after her show had been well-received by local critics. Among her latest works were photographs that featured the likenesses of Jesus Christ, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and (sometimes topless) Barbie dolls. Oddly enough, no complaint was issued by Hezbollah.

Lebanese-British author, artist and fashion designer Rana Salam's new book, The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie, needs no further introduction. But you can read more about it at the Los Angeles Times' oft-good blog, Babylon and Beyond.

The brand new Contemporary Art Museum - Artsawa - opened in Dubai; with over 3,000 linear feet of display wall space, it is said to be the new hub of contemporary art in the Gulf.

Tunisia's most famous painter and spokesman for the arts, octogenarian Zoubeir Turki, was granted the November 7 Prize by President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali. One of Tunisia's highest cultural honours, the prize is named for the November 7, 1987 bloodless coup during which ben Ali "retired" his predecessor, the father of modern Tunisia Habib Bourguiba.

Finally, fresh off our blitz of hugely successful Toronto Palestine Film Festival, the Tuque Souq stumbled upon this great resource: The Palestine Film Foundation now has an online synopsis archive of many, many dozens of Palestinian feature films and documentaries. Enjoy.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mohamed Kohail update: Urgent appeal for clemency

An update in today's Globe and Mail on the now-perilous situation facing Mohamed Kohail, the Canadian citizen on death row in Saudi Arabia, found guilty and sentenced to death for the alleged killing of a fellow student in a schoolyard skirmish.

"Only the Saudi king can prevent Canadian's beheading," the paper put it starkly. The family of the slain boy has refused to grant clemency, which under Saudi law they can do.

[The Tuque Souq has been covering the case since March, when young Mohamed was first sentenced.]

The uncle of the deceased boy summed up the efforts to save Mohamed Kohail thus far:

"I will not listen to them [appeals for clemency]... I have thought about forgiveness a hundred times, but a hundred and one times I have concluded these people [referring to Mohamed and his brother Sultan, also implicated] don't deserve it. They cannot just push us to forgive without counting the crime that has been committed. Execution is the only justice.

"The King is the majesty of us all. If he says drop everything we will."

Simply put, either Saudi King Abdullah spares Mohamed, or he (and possibly his brother, who will return to court for sentencing next week) will die.

A strong diplomatic initiative from the Canadian government to pressure the government of King Abdullah might save Mohamed Kohail.

More than 2000 have already signed this online petition to the Canadian government.

But there's more to do. Find your member of Parliament here and write him/her a letter, citing the case. Write to Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay. Write also to Jack Layton, NPD leader, who has voiced his support for freeing Mohamed Kohail.

Write, phone and fax the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Canada:
201 Sussex Dr
Ottawa,ON K1N1K6
Telephone 613 237 4100
Facsimile 613 237 0567

In Canada we've long repudiated the death penalty, and therefore there is no situation in which a Canadian citizen facing a state-imposed death should be acceptable to the Canadian government or the people of Canada. Even under Prime Minister Stephen Harper's policy regarding Canadian citizens on death row in "democratic" countries, the Canadian government is obliged to pressure the government of Saudi Arabia to release this Canadian citizen to Canadian custody. He did not receive a fair trial in a democratic country.

Mohamed Kohail has maintained his innocence. Ours is the moral high ground in this case, but more importantly any time a life may be saved, it behooves us to take all steps to ensure the safety of that life. I urge my government to make this a priority. I urge you all to take these steps and more to save the life of a Canadian citizen.

The Middle East press reacts to Obama's victory

They're joyful. They're wary. They're joyfully wary and warily joyful. They love and fear change. They are the Middle East press reacting to
باراك حسين اوباما

Famously edgy columnist Tariq Alhomayeh of Asharq Alawsat tabbed Obama's electoral triumph "a great victory on an international public opinion level," and then he dressed down those Arab regimes who are belching out the "America has changed" rhetoric, asking when are you - the Arab autocracies and Islamists - going to change?

Eminent intellectual Tariq Ramadan, writing in The Star of Jordan, cautioned the Middle East that "we must not succumb to irrational hope"; hope that one man - Obama - is bigger than the American beast itself.

Ditto the Daily Star (Lebanon) editorial, which kept reminding readers that Obama is a "single mortal" (whither Michelle?) who can't undo the monstrosities of the Bush regime overnight.

An op-ed in al-Hayat called the Obama win an "end to illusion" that the so-called war on terror can be won with really big and (mostly) precise missiles.

One Ha'aretz op-ed said, with respect to the tasks facing the prez-elect, that the "American idol of today becomes tomorrow's punching bag." Another exlaimed "Yes, change here too," in reference to the coming Israeli elections.

The more conservative Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot's main columnist was still making up his mind, noting that "Obama is black, which is bad for Israel, because we are white. But Obama is also young, which is good for Israel." (Because Israel is also young? Or because young black men are better than crotchety old white men?)

An editorial in the Egyptian Gazette noted that Obama's victory offers "a golden chance to put the Arab-U.S. ties in good shape... Obama's triumph as well as his change-oriented agenda may right a long litany of wrongs bequeathed to him by his predecessor." (There's a theme in those words common to almost all sentiments coming from Arab media.)

A Gulf News editorial exhaled that the Bush era of shock and horror will soon pass into more careful hands. It added, poignantly, that "most Arabs will pray that [Obama] not bring back to office members of Bill Clinton's Middle East team, discredited by their failure to advance the peace process and by their excessive partiality to Israel."

Hezbollah's al-Manar TV website actually had the most boring commentary on the Obama revolution. C'mon, guys!

Over in Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (speaking on Al Arabiya TV) warned the president-elect to walk softly. "We don't expect any change to happen overnight or any hasty change in U.S. policy and commitment toward Iraq." Translation: we're not sure we believe in change.

Al Jazeera first reported that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated Barack Obama on his election victory, in a statement released to the press. "The great Iranian nation welcomes real, fundamental and fair changes in America's behaviour and policies, particularly in the Middle East region," said Ahmadinejad. (Um, yeah... "fundamental" - good one.)

And last but not least, Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi called Barack Obama's election as US president a "victory for blacks in America, who were slaves but are now becoming masters." But Qaddafi also said he fears for Obama's safety, reminding us all that transformational presidents such as Honest Abe and JFK were killed for their courage. "The people who physically eliminated Abraham Lincoln... can still be found in the United States. That is why I fear for his [Obama's] safety." You mean, John Wilkes Booth is still on the lam?

Must you always be so negative, Moammar? How 'bout a little dance?

Monday, November 3, 2008

President Barack Obama and the Middle East

Welcome to the Tuque Souq's special coverage of the 2008 U.S. presidential elections.

Barack Obama wins the 2008 U.S. presidential elections.

There, we've covered it. It doesn't have much of a catchy "Yes We Can" ring to it, but since we joined the coverage late, we thought we'd call it early.

Barack Obama: a leader sui generis. He's got it. And now he's got a couple of months to celebrate, work on what is sure to be a goose-bump-raising inaugural address, and think that the economy and the environment can dominate his early days in office.

Then it will be time for him to pick up his predecessors' Middle East baton; it bears the scars and scratches of many a presidential head who's bashed himself with it while facing the futility of resolving the Middle East conflict(s). But we expect Obama to try anyway.

But first, a totally unrelated aside...

We'll always remember him for his "my friends" brand of folksiness coupled with his cute little "I can't believe this kid is beating me" smirk. Alas, John McCain's "Country First" slogan failed to catapult the Arizonan into the White House, and being a failed campaign slogan it is unlikely to be recycled. That puts McCain in the following company of presidential campaign slogans that utterly, utterly failed:
  • Bob Dole (1996): "The Better Man for a Better America"
  • Walter Mondale (1984): "America Needs a Change"
  • Gerald Ford (1976): "He's Making Us Proud Again"
  • Barry Goldwater (1964): "In your heart you know he's right"
Of course, Obama's "Change We/You Can Believe In" now gets lumped alongside winning presidential campaign slogans, including Warren G. Harding's "Cox and Cocktails" in 1920, William McKinley's "A Full Dinner Pail" in 1900, and of course Herbert Hoover's "A Chicken in every Pot and a Car in every Garage" in 1928, just before Hoover presided over the stock market crash and the Great Depression.

While McCain can now go back to working on his legacy, Obama inherits a Middle East foreign policy dossier that has been "misoverestimated" over the past 8 years.

Luckily, those old shoes left behind in the White House coat room aren't too big to fill.

Remember this guy? Few besides Oliver Stone do. Not long ago he said that a comprehensive Middle East peace deal was possible within a year.

Said he: "We all can do more to build the conditions for peace. So I will call together an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties."

How did it turn out? In its scope, it was as grand as clearing brush at Crawford Ranch. In its execution, it was an exercise in political meekness. And ultimately the 43rd U.S. President torpedoed his own Middle East peace initiative when the Israelis changed their minds and objected to it.

All in all, the Annapolis summit was little more than a news diversion during a particularly boring November of 2007. Nothing changed on the ground in the Middle East. Nobody expected Bush to put his tattered legacy on the line in a futilely Clintonian endeavor to cure the political equivalent of cancer.

So, in essence, in order for Obama to be the "change" candidate with respect to the Middle East peace push, he basically just has to show up. But of course, we'll all need him to do more.

And a few other players will be involved in the next attempt at Middle East harmony.

She would have been prime minister of Israel if she had cobbled together a coalition; instead Tzipi Livni must sharper her claws for the coming battle with an old foe.

Coalition efforts broke down just short of the 50%-plus-one of Knesset seats Livni needed on the side of her Kadima party. She got the Labor Party led by former prime minister Ehud Barak, the secular "Pensioners" party, and the left-wing Meretz-Yachad party led by Peace Now founder Haim Oron.

With Kadima's 29, Labor's 19, the Pensioners' 4 and Meretz's 5, she was still 4 votes shy of a majority. Livni went after Shas, the main Haredi party and Israel's third-largest party at present with 12 seats. But Shas demanded of any government that it join that the issue of dividing Jerusalem (i.e. partitioning or sharing the city as 2 capitals of two sovereign states - Israel and Palestine - as the result of a comprehensive peace plan) be taken off the negotiating table.

Livni balked.

Israel has at least 34 active political parties, 13 of whom currently have seats in the Knesset. Right-wing, nationalist parties such as Likud, National Union, and Yisrael Beitenu (32 seats combined) dream of forming their own government some day. The so-called Arab parties - Ra'am, Balad, and Hadash (the latter being the part-communist party) which have only 10 seats combined - tend not to join coalition governments but might be counted upon to vote for a peace deal.

Alas, not even Shas's rival Haredi party - United Torah Judaism - with its 6 seats, was willing to jump in with Livni.

It would have been a tenuous coalition anyway - 5 or more parties ruling together - but no more so than Ehud Barak's One Israel coalition government in 1999 that beat back Likudnik Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's hard-line approach to peace. Barak and One Israel took the peace process to the brink of obviation at Camp David in 2000, and came within a few miles of a peace deal with Syria up in the Golan Heights. (Of course, they failed to go all the way, but it got our pulses up for awhile there.)

And so, in Israel it's election season again. And speaking of Netanyahu, as the leader of the Likud party he's supremely confident that he can win over disgruntled Kadima party voters who only left Likud to follow Ariel Sharon, and then sing fear-mongering lullabies to the hawkish nationalists and the Haredim about a united Jerusalem, family allowances and getting tough on terror (what terror?).

Expect Barak to try to vulture away Kadima voters, too, with his "At least I've formed a coalition before" experience. But Labor would be lucky see an uptick in results next time around. And enough seats to rule - as they have for 40 of Israel's 60 years? Not gonna happen.

In the meantime, fallen-angel Ehud Olmert can flap yap from his trap about peace, Syria, Lebanon, the Golan Heights and the Sheba'a Farms, the still-treading-water 2002 Saudi comprehensive Arab-Israel peace initiative, sharing Jerusalem, the Right of Return, land swaps, the separation barrier, water and resource rights, settlements and outposts, a divided Hebron, security cooperation, an economic alliance, and the pesky issue of what to do with Hamastan (aka Gaza Strip)... but he'll have no power to do anything about it. (Funny how Israeli politicians get all magnanimous and conciliatory after they lose power.)

In short, Barack Obama may get a pass on Middle East mania until after the polls close in Israel next spring. But when the election is over, Obama might have to put plastic over the linens in the Lincoln bedroom, because Netanyahu has been known to get pissy about peace talk.

Depending on whom you ask, the next Palestinian presidential elections will be in 2009, 2010, or never. In the meantime, while we wait for a two-state solution (or, in a perfect world, a one-state solution), the prevailing reality is the 3-sort-of-state non-solution.

President Mahmoud Abbas, with his increasing supply of U.S.-trained and -armed Palestinian security forces, rules the still-occupied (don't forget) West Bank under the Fatah/PLO banner. Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas is Prime Minister, for lack of a more fantastical description, of the poverty-stricken-is-a-generous-term-for-it Gaza Strip.

While just 33 months ago Hamas developed the convenient habit in participating in Palestinian elections, the group is no stranger to meddling in Israeli ones. On the metaphorical eve of the 1996 Israeli polls, Hamas went bomb-crazy and help drive a suddenly terror-wary electorate into the arms of Netanyahu, killing Oslo then and there.

If karma cared, Hamas would drop dandelions this time round and nudge Israelis leftward, away from Bibi. More likely, the bizarre Likud-Hamas marriage of fear and loathing will leave the peace process as well oiled as a Gaza City gas station.

Abbas will likely stay atop the rubble heap of Palestinian politics for the foreseeable future, which doesn't bode well for the advancement of peace. He'll get to keep not making promises to his own people, keep not coming up with new ideas for comprehensive peace, and keep not expanding his legacy beyond that of caretaker (at best) and viceroy (at worst) of post-Arafat, pre-Barghouti Palestine.

Obama should have no qualms about photo-ops with Abbas; the latter has a preternatural inability to surprise and inspire a crowd with his words. But it's unlikely we'll see a meeting between the two before Israel gets its new house in order.

What will be interesting to see is whether Obama or Abbas is more hesitant to feign a smile next to Netanyahu, if and when Bibi wins Israel's elections.

The Tuque Souq is laying 3:1 on Obama, as Abbas has a much longer history of hiding his emotions. Why else would he be the only guy Israel allows to administer its occupation?


As for other countries in the region, here's what they might be telling President Obama come spring:

Iraq: "Take back your troops (to Kuwait... you know, just in case)."
Saudi Arabia: "Two-for-one barrels of oil, this Sunday only. We're committed to winning back our loyal customers."
Lebanon: "Apparently we're having a BBQ soon. We'd invite you but... you know."
Jordan: "As a matter of fact, the King is free for a Camp David summit in the summer of 2016. We'll pencil it in. Thanks in advance for the water pumps."
Iran: "We're still translating 'without preconditions' - we'll get back to you."
Egypt: "Trust us, 'Mubarak' is Arabic for 'He whose leadership is so great it obviates the need for democratic reform.' Now, about that $13-billion worth of arms."
Syria: "Hezbollah? Never heard of him."
Oman: "Oil for golf courses."
UAE: "Oil for indoor skiing."
Bahrain: "Oil for pearl diving."
Kuwait: "Oil for funky towers."
Qatar: "Oil for media empire."
Libya: "Oil for pink satin robes."
Yemen: "Oil for anything. Wait, you said fish oil, right?"

Remember this guy? He was President Clinton's Middle East envoy and shuttle diplomat, liaison during the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty talks, architect of the so-called Oslo II agreement of 1995; the guy who put together most of the Clinton team's policy positions and talking points at Camp David 2000, who was perhaps the one person that the Palestinians trusted as an honest broker on the pro-Israel American side, and who then blamed the failure of Camp David entirely on Arafat as part of Clinton's strategy to save Ehud Barak's government by villifying the Palestinian negotiators as incompetent and intransigent.*

Well, Dennis Ross is back. He's become a proponent of Barack Obama's Middle East proposals, and is tapping himself to get deeply involved in Obama's administration, and may even be - some are daring to say - a candidate for Secretary of State.

In an interview with Ha'aretz, Ross said that, "on the question of Israel, what I saw during his [Obama's] trip to Israel, how I saw his understanding of the relationship with Israel - he would describe it as a commitment of the head and heart. He looks at Israel and sees us as being two countries with common values. But he also looks at Israel and sees that whatever threatens Israel also happens to threaten the United States.

"At the end of the day his position is [that] we cannot impose peace, because an imposed peace isn't peace at all. He's more than willing to invest in the process, but, then again, how he does it and in what ways will depend very much on the circumstances, and obviously there are many other issues out there."

After reading the interview, the Tuque Souq was convinced that the entirety of it could have been spoken in 1992 - with all the he/his/him references being to Clinton instead of Obama - and been the same argument.

We thought Obama was the candidate for "change." Dennis Ross isn't change. Isn't there someone else out there who knows anything about the Middle East?

* See Ross's book, The Missing Peace, for more of his venomous strikes on Arafat. But you'd best temper it with this book, The Truth About Camp David, by Clayton Swisher.

Pastor John Hagee, Christian Zionist #1, who backed John McCain, loves Israel this much:

"Those [Jews] who came founded Israel; those who did not went through the hell of the holocaust. Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter. And the Bible says -- Jeremiah writing -- 'They shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill and from the holes of the rocks,' meaning there's no place to hide. And that might be offensive to some people but don't let your heart be offended. I didn't write it, Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel."

McCain got caught with his pants down on this one, and had to denounce Hagee. What, you thought getting into bed with Christian Zionists wouldn't lead to a politically transmitted disease? With Obama, we should get some distance between U.S. policy and the wackiest of the nutjobs pretending to have a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though not all of them.


He called Israel a "stalwart ally" in the first debate and went on to other business, while McCain couldn't slip in the word 'Israel' often enough. In the second debate, asked if he would commit U.S. troops to defend Israel in case of an Iranian nuclear attack, Obama said Israel is our "strongest ally in the region" and again went on to concrete issues.

With a national audience, Barack Obama remained nuanced and somewhat non-partisan about the Middle East. With special interest groups, he's gotten chummy where necessary. So which is he: pro-Israel or balanced? The answer, of course, is both. That's how one gets elected.

In the past, Obama has stood in front of AIPAC crowds and told them how his loyalty to and friendship with Israel will guide his presidency. When accused of associating with the anti-AIPAC book The Israel Lobby, Obama's campaign stiffened and denounced the authors.

With his name, his past associations and his comments in his pre-politics days, Obama has had to carry a lot of baggage to convince pro-Israel types (or at least the ones who vote Democrat, usually) that he's a friend of Israel. And he's needed help.

US congressman Howard Berman, Democrat of California and chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, thought it necessary to write a column for the right-of-centre English-daily Jerusalem Post explaining that "Obama is a true friend of Israel" because he has the support of Chicago's pro-Israel community and because he's more likely than McCain to put a solid, pro-Israel advising team around him (see Ross: Dennis, above).

In another paper, it was "Obama Supports Israel. Period" (after Obama's AIPAC speech last year).

Yes, in straining to pass the foggy rhetorical benchmarks necessary to placate AIPAC-types, Obama has over-exerted himself at the expense of fact, even downplaying the Lebanese civilian casualties inflicted at Qana during the 'o6 war.

(He'd like to talk more about Palestine, Obama told Electronic Intifada co-founder and Chicago activist Ali Abunimah in January, but "we're in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front.")

But he has been nuanced on the campaign trail. He told a Cleveland audience that a pro-Likud (which is exemplified in AIPAC) approach to Middle East foreign policy and the peace process "can't be the measure of our relationship with Israel." In Iowa he said, "Nobody's suffering more than the Palestinian people."

Obama to The Atlantic: "I think that the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea, given not only world history but the active existence of anti-Semitism. That does not mean that I would agree with every action of the state of Israel."

The conclusion to all of Obama's Israel shuffling is that, in order to get elected President of the United States, one must pander to the powerful. Reagan, Bush Sr. (at least in '88), Clinton, and Bush Jr. all "won over" the Israel lobby. Obama's done it, too. But there's a difference: that lobby isn't as powerful as it once was.

A candidate like Obama, with so many potential pickable nits on Israel, might have done anything short of buying a house in Kiryat Arba to win over the Israel lobby - if that lobby were indeed as powerful today as 15 years ago.

Bottom line: Obama won the race without fully selling his soul. For those of us in the pro-peace/pro-Israelestine camp, that ain't bad. (That is, assuming Dennis Ross isn't involved.)

Barack Obama and the Middle East: "Yes He Might."

"F*ck the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway." - James Baker, Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, during the failed 1992 campaign for re-election. Thanks in part to that racist emission, 80% of Jewish voters supported Bill Clinton that year. James Baker endorsed John McCain in 2008.