I’m at the bottom of the ocean, and I hear singing.
I can’t see them, but their voices are clear, like a bird calling in the night. I wait motionless on the sand bottom under twenty feet of water as reef fish dart around me. I’m listening for whales. The sounds I hear are not deep, slow baritones: the whales chirp like a baby trying out its voice in gurgles and giggles. It sounds like a conversation between whales, talking in rising and falling coos and blips. I can’t help but grin behind my mask. read more
A year ago, the Walikota [mayor] of Banda Aceh made headlines by declaring Valentine’s Day haram [forbidden]. “Many Muslim youth in Banda Aceh are sending Valentine’s day greetings via social media. And it is the responsibility of the city government to ensure this does not happen again…Muslim youth should certainly not be celebrating non-Islamic culture,” said Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal.
You might recognize that name from a footnote in my last Newsletter. Illiza is the exception to male dominance in the political class of syariah law-observant Banda Aceh. After serving for seven years as vice mayor under Mawardy Nurdin, who died of kidney failure, Illiza was appointed mayor in 2014. She and Jakarta governor Ahok thus share two commonalities: neither fit the Muslim male mold that typifies Indonesian leadership, and neither was democratically elected. This could all change when residents in their respective cities go to the polls this Wednesday – the day after Valentine’s Day.
In the run-up to Democratic elections, it is not uncommon for politicians to deliberately create media events in an attempt to shape public impressions. Indonesians call this “pencitraan” – though I’ve always liked the slightly less politically charged phrase “cari muka” [looking for face], which describes going to seemingly absurd lengths to draw attention to oneself.
“Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads,” goes the adage. At the Cairo International Book Fair, where hundreds of publishers and thousands of readers gather each winter, everybody writes, publishes, and reads.
While the sclerotic institutions of state-funded culture remain conservative forces with an outsized role in Egyptian letters, independent publishers continue to push the limits and introduce new voices from within and without the Arab region. At the fair, you can find the latest catalogues of free presses from across the Arab and Muslim world, periodicals from a century ago, or quirky delights like contemporary children’s books from Syria or Yemen—that is, if you can find your way around the colossal fairgrounds. Since there is no map or guide—at least not one that’s of any use—let me give you a tour.