Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Becoming a nobody and Ahdaf Soueif

I am in agreement with J D Salinger:

I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.

I suppose my appreciation of the Salinger quote is a sign of impending middle-age and my lack of satisfaction with myself: I don't have a "life project".

Or you could say it is wisdom, slowly seeping into my consciousness.  I suppose that in the flatter world of today, where class, culture, race, even nationality, barriers are declining in influence, a world in which we increasingly grow up believing we can be anything, that absolutely anything is possible, I suppose in a world like that we all end up having the same dreams, wanting the same things.  We all want to become millionaires, have big houses and the best amenities, to leave traces, to have influence, to be renowned.

What about that alternative of dying a complete unknown?  Remembered only by a close circle of children, siblings, and friends - and perhaps a few colleagues here and there.  Outside of that circle of, say, 20-odd, no one has ever heard of you and no one ever will.

You lived in a rundown home in an undistinguished neighbourhood, you drove a below-average car, you took the occasional above-average holiday, you went out to ordinary places.  And you were proud, and you felt great.  You lived it: Life.

Ahdaf Soueif (of Map of Love fame) was on Egyptian television tonight (Dream2).  I was surprised when she said that a book that no one reads is a failure.  She said the art of the writer is to make the reader keep reading.  She mentioned several writers who took part in PalFest and she qualified each of the names with how famous, how big their readership is.  She certainly seemed pleased with her million plus readership in Britain alone.

It brought to mind the little chats I had with avantcaire about whether the appreciation of the multitudes is important for art (I think so), or if a niche of ten-odd was sufficient (avantcaire thought so).  Ahdaf Soueif seemed to agree with me.

Yet, because of that little Salinger seed that I mentioned above, that may or may not grow, I was less respectful of her achievement.

FYI: The secret to keep the reader reading - according to Dr Soueif - is Detail.

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Friday, 16 April 2010

Good/Bad/European/NonEuropean/Capped/Regional: IMMIGRATION in the UK

I did something different the other day: I recommended someone go to the USA instead of the UK. A young Egyptian tech guy had asked me about going to the UK for postgraduate studies, and I suggested he think of the States instead. This guys represents the differential between countries. His leaving Egypt is a loss to it, his entering another country will be a gain.

I am becoming more certain about it: the UK is not an immigration country. The British people say they are open and tolerant, but my years of living in the UK tell me that they may say so, but they are in two minds; their heart isn't in it. The faces walking down a typical city street are very mixed, but they do not own the land, and those who do (the 'natives') are unsure of this new state of affairs.

The number one consistent concern of the UK public, according to the polls, is immigration - for years. Under that word is a whole set of issues: jobs, fear, "Britain is a crowded island", the decline of British values, etc.

When the first-ever UK Election debate took place between Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats), what was the first question on? Immigration!

But there was a new twist. The political leaders (except Clegg) made a distinction between European and non-European immigration. It is very tricky stuff. Their words are chosen carefully and I like to think that they personally do not have a racist motive. Yet the fact remains: the distinction was made, in front of nine million viewers on live television.

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Friday, 2 April 2010

The Baradei Buzz

What do I think of the buzz Mohamed ElBaradei has injected into the Egyptian political scene?

ElBaradei has handled well his campaign for change.  He has cast the process as reform of a bad political system, instead of becoming president - which is what some figures wanted.  He has asked for bottom-up support; he wants members of the public to sign petitions, he wants the youth to join his facebook page, he wants grassroots organisations to pop up in support of the Call for Electoral Reform that he has inspired.

He knows that requesting these changes may not cause actual change by 2011 (next election), but it may contribute to long-term change in the country.

Whereas I personally want him for president by 2011, I know it is a rosy scenario.  I do not feel the Egyptian public is completely on-board with shoving the current system out.  The neuroses we as a nation have, due to generations of authoritarian rule, I do not think these can be overcome easily.  Lots of people in Egypt believe everything is orchestrated by hidden powers; they fear the ruthless tactics of the ruling regime; they are used to disorder and callousness, they find it hard to believe in alternatives.

On the other hand, it is clear that a big part of middle-class Egypt feels ElBaradei is the man who can unite the opposition and move Egypt on.  The situation is not surprising; the guy with the least connection to the stale political game is the guy with the best chance (remember Serbia's Kostunica?).  ElBaradei's outsider status, together with his undisputed competence and international stature make him an ideal choice for reformer.

Who is Mohamed ElBaradei?

ElBaradei's father was a distinguished lawyer.  Soon after studying international law at Cairo University, ElBaradei the son joined the Egyptian diplomatic service and was posted abroad.  He eventually obtained a PhD in law from New York University.

At some point later, he was able to join the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA); he relocated to Vienna.  (The IAEA is an international body that promotes peaceful use of nuclear energy.)  ElBaradei rose through the ranks of the IAEA and by 1997 had become its chief, succeeding Hans Blix.

In 2002, Blix and ElBaradei were asked to lead the UN inspectors sent to Iraq to look for WMD.  Whereas Mr Blix tried to manage the US administration's expectations, ElBaradei's report to the UN was unequivocally forthright - something that did him no favours with the George W Bush administration.  So, when it was time to renew his term, the US maneuvered to get him out.  But with the Iraq-WMD debacle in full swing, the world community was determined to snub the USA, and ElBaradei won a second term.

ElBaradei proved a timely choice.  One of his main tasks after 9/11 was to mediate between Iran and the Western powers, and who better to do so than an Egyptian Muslim.  The Iranians were bound to listen more sympathetically - so reasoned the international community.

ElBaradei did not disappoint.  He was able to tell the Iranians that since they singed the Non-Proliferation Agreement, they must abide by its rules, and at the same time he was able to restructure the more extreme or alarmist requests from the USA.  He won all parties' trust and marshalled his organisation's workforce effectively.  Of course, this highly-sensitive task continues after his departure.

In 2005, ElBaradei and the IAEA were the joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.  This was a message from the Swedes; the work of this man and his organisation are of subtle and deep importance to world peace.

In Egypt, despite not being close to the ruling circle, ElBaradei was awarded the Nile Collar.  This bestowal of honour is very rare; the medal is given to only the most distinguished of distinguished Egyptians.  People in Egypt were now fully aware of who he is; he had become a role-model.  His carefully-worded pronouncements, his patience in dealing with the most aggressive of US administrations, the world's appreciation of his competence, all these factors increased his standing.

The international community then extended ElBaradei's term as chief of IAEA a third time - expiring only a few months ago.

What would he do next, asked everyone in Egypt?  Would he be interested in coming back to Egypt (after an absence of about 26 years) and engage in politics?

The Baradei buzz

As the Egyptian opposition press questioned his future plans, ElBaradei dropped a couple of hints that he may explore the political arena in his motherland.  He was so disappointed with the status quo - he said - that he felt it was his duty to do something about it.

As the Egyptian press hounded him further, he stated his position.  Yes, he would be interested in running for president.  But, he suggested a list of conditions that were necessary for anyone wanting to do political work to not feel that their efforts would be in vain.  Foremost amongst these conditions was the rewriting of the constitution so as to drop the very strict rules on presidential candidates (designed by the ruling regime to eliminate serious opposition).

As the situation gathered momentum, and ElBaradei returned to Egypt permanently, he increased his newspaper interviews and appeared in a couple of television interviews.  He now wanted to:
  • reform the constitution,
  • make sure the next presidential election was fair through proper judicial supervision and international monitoring,
  • and also to simplify the election process so that it would be more transparent, less easy-to-rig.
All the opposition figures of Egypt went to him.  Together, they signed an agreement formalising his list of requests.  This move was highly symbolic; it meant that in theory they accepted his leadership - even if he has not been in the country for more than 26 years.

Of course, the pro-government press did not stand by idly.  They booked a return trip of character assassination on his account.  What does this outsider, this career diplomat, this opportunist, know about politics?  How dare he think he can come in and take over?  Has he no respect for the constitution?  Does he think he can manipulate the institutions of government because he has a Nobel Peace Prize?  So he met Condi Rice a couple of times, so what, how is that going to help him reform education or improve healthcare?

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