November 28, 2006

Facing down fear in Cairo

The subway that chugs indefatigably through Cairo now has a women's section. Here the women giggle and sleep, pat children – not just their own – and rip loud jokes; here you see gestures and liveliness that are not to be seen on the street. But at some point, and nobody can say exactly when this was, almost all of them took to wearing veils. The Saudi Arabian dress code is becoming increasingly common: the coal black Niqab, the full-body veil with eye slits and now, gloves as well. In a section with eighty women, maybe four will be unveiled. They seem unimpressed and nobody stares at them, nonetheless the cloaked ones generate a characteristic kind of pressure that the tourist can hardly ignore: there the whores, here the pure ones. We're watching you.
Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed

The death on 30 August 2006 of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz - the sole Arab writer to receive the Nobel prize in literature - was marked around the world, and by many of those unable to read a word of his work in its original language. This universal moment, however, was primarily an Egyptian and Arab one, and for more even than the loss of a great writer. For Naguib Mahfouz's death is also a symbol of the demise of Arab liberalism. It is a century's story, and the "Dostoyevsky of Cairo" was the one whose books embodied it.

A century ago, the west was not worryingly eyeing the Arab world, with a fear of suicide-bombers and plane hijackers. It was colonising the Arab world - for a number of reasons: the strategic location, the Suez canal, securing trade routes, access to the Indian subcontinent, protection of minorities, exploitation of economic resources, building empires, civilising the savage Saracens.

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