Egyptian Idol

The Salafi threat to blow up the pyramids is nothing new: Egypt's ambivalence toward its past dates back centuries.

In March 2001, Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, exploding the statues and reducing to rubble some of Afghanistan's most important cultural relics. That act seemed to epitomize the cultural intolerance of the Taliban regime but also drew attention to the ways in which cultural heritage preservation has become used as a measure of civilized behavior of states in an era of global cosmopolitanism. For those concerned about the future of the world's antiquities, this week another threat emerged on the horizon. In an interview with Egyptian Dream TV over the weekend, Salafist leader Murgan Salem al-Gohary called on Muslims to destroy the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx as a religiously mandated act of iconoclasm. "The idols and statutes that fill Egypt must be destroyed. Muslims are tasked with applying the teachings of Islam and removing these idols, just like we did in Afghanistan when we smashed the Buddha statues," said Gohary, who claims to have participated in the destruction of Buddhas in Afghanistan and was arrested on several occasions under the Mubarak regime.

Forget for a minute the gross improbability of Gohary's threat to destroy millions tons of sheer rock and stone, monuments that have survived foreign invasions, rapacious pillagers, and environmental threats. It is a move almost guaranteed to draw media attention, particularly with the high level of anxiety surrounding the new political clout of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of the Salafist al-Nour party as a significant force in both the government and the charting of a new constitution. Fears over how Islamists might fare in post-Mubarak Egypt have only intensified amid a roiling debate over issues such as the role of women, the inclusion of minorities, and the country's position toward Western interests. Amid this debate, Egypt's Pharaonic remains have now become the latest touchstone for controversy.

At first glance, this latest conflict might appear to boil down to a clash between conservative and liberal strands of Islam, but the debate over Egypt's antiquities dates back centuries. Medieval Islamic scholars worked assiduously to understand the relics, with some attempting to decipher the hieroglyphic inscriptions. By the late 19th century, Egypt's archeological sites were the center of a nationalist struggle that became crystallized in the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb and how to partition its treasures between the state and the site's excavators. But that conflict was but a variation on a theme in Egypt's history. During the era of Egypt's entanglement with European imperialism following the Napoleonic conquest in 1798, the new field of Egyptology would emerge to dominate the representation of Egypt and assert control over the country's heritage. That heritage has also become an important political symbol in Egypt's more recent history -- both Anwar Sadat and Mubarak were derided as latter-day pharaohs for their authoritarian tendencies.

In early 2011, demonstrators tried to protect the Egyptian Museum adjacent to Tahrir Square from criminals who sought to use the chaos of the protests as a cover for looting its treasures. At the same time, illicit dealing of Egyptian antiquities continues, despite the tough rhetoric of the Supreme Council for Antiquities and its longstanding efforts to repatriate artifacts that found their way into foreign museums in an era when such transfers were either legally sanctioned or laws restricting their sale poorly enforced.

But Egypt's archaeological heritage and the remarkable monuments of the Giza Plateau are no strangers to threats. In recent decades, the steady encroachment of the urban metropolis of Cairo and its toxic air has prompted calls for Egypt, its antiquities authorities, and international organizations to come to the rescue of the country's cultural heritage. In previous centuries it was the work of largely European and American antiquarians, adventurers, and tourists who took their toll on these fabled structures and their potential riches. These early Egyptologists made important scientific gains and important contributions to knowledge, but those discoveries must be considered alongside the theft of artifacts and an insatiable desire to acquire and collect that motivated many who entered the field.

Even earlier, the limestone casement of the Pyramids were pillaged and served as a quarry, providing stone for the construction of the medieval cities of Fustat and its successor Cairo (al-Qahira in Arabic -- literally "The Victorious One"). Most recently, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, the worry was that the most impending danger to the site would be neglect. During the revolution, tourism in Egypt came to a standstill and receipts from ticket booths plunged by as much as 50 percent. During my visit to the pyramids in December 2011, during what should be the high season for tourist activity, lines were nonexistent and shopkeepers selling souvenirs and tour guides offering camel rides had become morose at the prospects facing their small corner of the Egyptian economy.

While most Egyptians recognize and understand the role that these ruins play in the economy and various state efforts to represent Egypt as a modern-day heir to one of the world's great civilizations, there is a palpable discomfort with this promotion and glorification of a pre-Islamic past. The archaeologist Neil Asher Silberman once referred to this as an "uneasy inheritance." For some Egyptians, too much attention is paid to these works of idolatry, whose preservation eat up resources at the expense of the welfare of an Islamic past, present, and future. Pharaoh, we might recall, is particularly singled out for approbation in Quranic scripture, which conservative Muslims have used to challenge any reverence and respect for the material remnants of this era as a marker of shirk -- the sin of polytheism or, literally, the partnering of something with God.

This logic has been central in the justification of various acts of iconoclasm throughout history and in modern times. Salafists and Wahhabis have long looked to the scholarship of the 13th century thinker Ibn Taymiyyah for jurisprudential grounding to destroy sites, particularly tombs and shrines connected to the Sufi tradition and important figures in Shiism, which served as loci of pilgrimages or acts of ziyara (literally "visitation"). Such acts of destruction have been notable throughout the Arabian Peninsula and even within the holy precincts of Mecca and Medina.

But the voices of the iconoclasts do not go unchallenged within the Muslim tradition. Consider the remarks of the 10th century Muslim traveler in Egypt, al-Masudi, as he describes his own consternation at the destruction of Pharaonic ruins. He writes to his future progeny:

"Look, son, what the Pharaohs built and how it is being destroyed by these idiots. Nothing is more tragic and sad than the loss of what these ruins offer to those who would regard them and consider their lessons...What sort of wisdom preaches that these ruins should be removed from the face of the Earth?"

Masudi sought to find support for these ruins within the Islamic tradition. For him, they serve to strengthen the Quranic injunction to search out and contemplate the lessons (‘ibar) which the divine has left for believers in the landscape. His words make room for an Islamic cosmopolitanism and pluralism that holds particular urgency for the debates about the future of post-Mubarak Egypt. Egyptians will continue to argue about what lessons they want to draw from the past without literally pulling the house down around them, but they can do so safe in the knowledge that an embrace of ancient Egypt and its antiquities is not incompatible with Islam.

In the aftermath of attempts to destroy a series of sites in Saudi Arabia, the well-known Muslim American calligrapher Muhammad Zakariya commented that those involved propagated a vision of Islam "unable to accommodate the difficulty and complexity -- the depth and texture -- of [Islam] and, ultimately, of its essential meaning." He continued: "Islam is large. Muslims are not mushriks (idolaters)."

Indeed: Islam is large. This debate within the faith over how to reconcile a non-Muslim past with a fervently Muslim present speaks to the broader debate within the religion over how to orient itself after the Arab Spring. While the authoritarian yoke of Mubarak-era Egypt has now been cast off, the relationship of Islam and secularism in Egyptian society remains highly unstable. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular, as it enters the realm of politics, will be forced to navigate with greater clarity between progressive voices calling for pluralism and conservatives advocating a more fixed codification of sharia within Egypt's new constitutional framework. And, the preferences of Murgan Salem al-Gohary notwithstanding, the chances are good that the brothers will be doing so in the shade of the pyramids.



The World Is Not Enough

Why does the planet's No. 1 spy never go to the really dangerous places?

In the opening scenes of Skyfall, the latest installment of the James Bond mega-franchise, the world's favorite MI6 operative chases bad guy Patrice across Istanbul on motorcycles, through the city's Grand Bazaar, and over its minaret-backed rooftops. Bond jumps and weaves such verve and ease that it's like he knows his way around the city. Has he been here before? Well, no. But: yes.

Skyfall hits the cinemas exactly half a century after the first Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). It is the twenty-third official Bond movie, and the third one starring Daniel Craig, the sixth man to play 007 on the silver screen. Craig plays a decidedly muscular Bond, less of a gentleman and more of a street-fighter than previous incarnations -- an attempt to align the slightly time-worn gentility of the series to grittier espionage oeuvres like the Bourne Trilogy. Bond is a protean character, both by the secretiveness of his trade and through the succession of actors that have portrayed him. Thus, while Craig's Bond has never been to Istanbul before, two of his predecessors did visit the metropolis on the Bosporus. In From Russia with Love (1963), Sean Connery dives into Istanbul's so-called Sunken Palace: ancient Byzantine water cisterns, supposedly located beneath the Soviet consulate. A quarter-century later, Pierce Brosnan thwarts an attempt to blow up a nuclear submarine in Istanbul's harbor in The World is Not Enough (1999).

Maybe Craig's Bond, through some form of cinematic transfiguration, was able to benefit from those previous visits -- different actor, same muscle memory. Bond producer Barbara Broccoli claims that Istanbul was Bond writer Ian Fleming's favorite city, but it is not the only foreign city to feature prominently in three different Bond movies -- Venice and Hong Kong share the accolade. In those 50 years and 23 movies at Her Majesty's Secret Service, James Bond has seen a lot of the world. The man not only has a license to kill, but also a travel allowance to kill for. Which is understandable: You can't conference-call your way out of some madman's diabolical plot to wreck the planet.

Taken together, the sum of Bond's 23 erratic itineraries reveals something of the cinematic imperative behind the franchise -- Bond movie locations need to be exotic, spectacular, and/or glamorous. But there's also the lingering geopolitical motive. After all, Bond's mission is to preserve, protect, and promote British influence and interests in the world.

In all, Bond has visited just under 50 countries*, many of those multiple times. Around 20 are in Europe, with about a dozen each in Asia and the Americas. With a mere four visits, Africa scores pretty low on Bond's priority list. Only two of those were in sub-Saharan Africa -- Madagascar and Uganda, both in Casino Royale (2006) -- which obviously did its best to fill in a blank on Bond's world map. The other two were Morocco, in The Living Daylights (1987), and Egypt, twice: in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Mentioning those Arab countries touches upon a defect of the Bond franchise: He doesn't really go where the action is -- in fact, he seems to positively avoid the world's trouble spots. Four Bond movies have been released in the post-9/11 era, but none of them deals even obliquely with the supposed clash with (or within) Islam that has been animating newspaper columns and battlefields ever since. Apart from an unconnected, brief foray into Pakistan in Casino Royale, Bond never comes near the giant, throbbing conflict zone that spans from Israel all the way to Kashmir.

This is quite in character. In previous decades, Bond never was the West's fiercest Cold Warrior. Although the Red Menace is a theme throughout the early oeuvre, with forays into Yugoslavia (From Russia with Love, 1963) and East Germany (Octopussy, 1983), Bond only infiltrates the Evil Empire itself in its final years -- merely retrieving a microchip in Siberia in 1985's A View to a Kill. In those three movies, however, it's never the Communist establishment that is the enemy, but rather rogue elements within it. It's a fantasy world in which the moviemakers have the luxury of choosing the United Kingdom's enemies; ones that bear only the slightest resemblance to its real-world opponents. Forget Islamic fundamentalist terrorists blowing up public transport on the streets of London. Instead, it's cartoonish geniuses that practice evil for its own sake, or for monetary gain. This takes the politics out of global conflict, and allows Britain to assume the mantle of high morality. The Bond franchise has created over two football teams' worth of villains, with such memorable characters as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) -- the criminal organization which crops up in six Bond movies -- and Raul Silva, the ex-MI6 operative gone rogue in Skyfall.

But let's get back to geography. Essential to the crime syndicate/supervillain set-up is the enemy's lair: a secluded, secret, and sophisticated base bristling with high-tech weapons and teeming with underlings (most of whom won't survive the bloody finale). Of these, the island lair may be the best. There's one in the very first movie: Crab Key, the Jamaican base of Dr. No, and Skyfall introduces an unnamed island off the coast of Macau, Raul Silva's sanctuary. In between, there are Blofeld's lair inside an island off Kyushu in You Only Live Twice (1967), his oil rig off the coast of Baja California in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and the Thai island where Bond kills the assassin Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974).

Thematically in opposition to these locations of violence and terror, but often serving as Bond's introduction to them, are the pleasure resorts frequented by the international jet set, in which 007 so easily mingles. The standard location is the casino, thanks to the prominence of Casino Royale in Bond World. Curiously, this Casino Royale is eminently movable: in Fleming's book, it is based on the casino of Deauville, in northern France; in Never Say Never Again, it has migrated to Monte Carlo, on the French Riviera, and in Craig's Casino Royale (2007), it has moved to Montenegro. That 007 visits Macau twice, and a casino on both occasions, was perhaps prescient: it is undoubtedly the new gambling capital of the world. (Bond visits Las Vegas only once, in Diamonds Are Forever.)

Other high-society locations wafting in an air of sufficiently Bond-like decadence include the Bahamian gambling resort of Paradise Island, featured both in Thunderball (1965) and Casino Royale. Or Sardinia's Emerald Coast, host to much of Europe's elite during summer, developed in part by a consortium financed by the Ismaili Shiite spiritual leader Aga Khan -- and featured in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Also in Italy, there's Cortina d'Ampezzo, an Alpine resort that serves as winter residence to the moneyed few, which features in For Your Eyes Only (1981). The roll call of Bond locations worldwide would make an ideal bucket list for die-hard fans, if only some places weren't so hard to visit -- from the remote Icelandic ice palace in Die Another Day (2002) to the Soviet air base in Afghanistan from The Living Daylights (1987). With the advent of space tourism, the out-of-this-world setting of Moonraker (1979) might be in reach soon, though only of the wealthiest of Earthlings.

However, nobody will be able to visit the Caribbean nation of San Monique, the Central American Republic of Isthmus or the African state of Nambutu (Bond never visits this African-sounding country, but manages to blow up part of its embassy in Madagascar). All three are fictional countries, featured in Live and Let Die, License to Kill, and Casino Royale, respectively. This might be prudence or diplomacy on the part of the writers. Each is an unflattering caricature of real places: San Monique, run by a crazy dictator, resembled any number of Caribbean island nations; the Republic of Isthmus, a narco-state modelled on Panama; and Nambutu sounds an awful lot like the easily mocked mini-state Lesotho.  

Where will the resorts and the lairs of future Bond movies be situated? Bond 24 and Bond 25, as yet unnamed and perhaps still non-location-scouted, are rumored to be set for release in 2014 and 2016. Craig, one of the few people who have peeked at the plot for the upcoming movies, has opined that he would like to shoot some of the new material in Australia. That would make sense, as neither Australia nor New Zealand has seen any Bond action, despite being former outposts of the British Empire. Other blind spots on the Bond world map include Scandinavia, the Arabian Peninsula, and most of Africa and China: aside from the former Western colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, Shanghai is the only bit of mainland China that was featured in a Bond movie. Nor has Canada ever had the pleasure of welcoming 007 to its chilly shores.

Wherever they will be set, based on previous experience we can safely predict that Bond 24 and 25 won't take place in China. The West's current No. 1 threat is too hot to handle for Bond, who is after all an agent for a power in decline. One could argue that Bond's suavity is a sort of childlike compensation for Britain's past arrogance as the world's only superpower, his go-it-alone attitude a symbol for a homeland bereft of colonies and groveling allies. But Britain, even in its reduced circumstances, is not without recourse to the ebbing tide of global relevance. Indeed, the movie franchise itself quietly achieves the goals that Bond purports to pursue on the silver screen.

As global cinemagoers root for Bond, millions around the world unwittingly subscribe to the idea of the British hero, of Britishness as heroic, and of Britain forever on the side of good, and against evil. Those are valuable assets for a medium-sized power, and they won't be squandered in a direct confrontation with China or any other of the world's up and coming heavyweights -- not even a fictional one. So yes, maybe Bond will be boxing with kangaroos in the next installment...

*I count 46, but the tally varies, depending on how you count the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and their post-communist successor states; whether you count Scotland as a separate country or not; whether to include the fictional countries; and other such complications.

© 2012 - Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.