The device is said to resemble a bomb detector similar to this one pictured in Israel in 2009. Photo: Getty.
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Egyptian army to launch "miracle" anti-Aids zapper

On Monday the Egyptian government is set to introduce its new – and completely bogus – anti-Aids equipment. Let's hope it quietly ducks out of this promise.

On Monday, the Egyptian army is set to release a new high-tech tool to its arsenal. Except it’s not actually high-tech, and it won’t work. In February 2014, the army first released details on its new detector, which it says can not only detect Hepatitis C and Aids from 500m away, but can cure them.

Major General Ibrahim Atti explained how it works: “I take Aids from the patient, and feed the patient on Aids. I give it to him as a kofta skewer for him to eat. I take the disease, and I give it to him as food, and this is the pinnacle of scientific miracles.”

When this was met with ridicule, the army made a second attempt at a more scientific explanation, involving the use of electro-magnetic waves. Commentators have since noted that the device, described by the Guardian as “an antenna affixed to the handle of a blender”, closely resembles the bogus bomb detection devices sold by James McCormick to governments throughout the Middle East. Last May, McCormick was sentenced to ten years in jail for fraud – an astonishingly lenient sentence considering that he knowingly sold over £38m worth of the completely useless kit to Iraq alone, giving security forces the false assurance that they would be able to avert bomb attacks. Pictures have since emerged of the Egyptian security forces using a device indistinguishable from their anti-Aids zapper to detect car bombs. 

Unsurprisingly, prominent scientists have tried to expose the army’s new device as quack science, but this hasn’t stopped 40,000 Egyptians from requesting the treatment from the government when it's made available early next week. Egypt has one of the highest rates of Hepatitis C in the world, and many ordinary Egyptians struggle to access treatment. If the government finds a way to quietly back out of its commitment to roll out treatment on 30 June, this will shatter the hopes of the tens of thousands who believe the army’s propaganda. But if it does go ahead and introduce what it calls its “complete cure device” this will be much, much worse. 

The whole episode – as well as other recent mad government claims such as that Vodafone was transmitting coded bomb plot information in its adverts starring mobile-phone wielding puppets – reveals how little value the new, military-backed Egyptian government places on the truth. It is this same instinct that led to the tragic jailing of four Al Jazeera journalists earlier this week. And it is very worrying indeed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle