August 2007


by Abdullah Al Rahim

What is it that makes people slaughter one another in the name of religion? Which among all these warriors can claim the integrity to dictate the terms by which God is to be venerated and who is to be slaughtered in God’s name? They call these sects Sunni and Shia. So I ask, which one of these post-Prophet innovations called sects did the holy Prophet Muhammad belong to? Which of these slaughters will he approve of, should he come back today?

We hear in mosques every time the word Bida’a [innovation] which is used to fight anything new we come up with, even if it is positive. So let me ask both, Sunnis and Shias: what are these sects? are they not innovations [Bida’a]? They are the most dangerous of all innovations which have never united but always divided the house of Islam. (more…)

by Christa Salamandra
Lehman College, CUNY

If you enter the Old City of Damascus at Bab Sharqi (the Eastern Gate), walk a few yards along a Street Called Straight, and turn down the first narrow alley on your right, you will find, jutting out from among the inward-looking Arab-style houses of this quiet residential quarter, a sign advertising “Le Piano Bar.” Enter through the carved wooden door, walk along the tile-covered foyer, under the songbird’s cage, past a display case strung with chunky silver necklaces, and step up a stone platform to the raised dining room. Here well-heeled Syrians sit at closely spaced tables, drinking arak and Black Label whiskey, and eating grilled chicken or spaghetti. The walls around are decorated, each in a different style. One features a collection of Dutch porcelain plates set into plaster. In another, strips of colored marble hold a series of mosaic-lined, glass-covered displays of wind instruments. A third wall features two floral wrought-iron gated windows draped in a locally produced striped fabric. Wrought-iron musical notes dance on the last. At the from of the long, arch-divided room is a huge mother-of-pearl-framed mirror. Set into the top of the mirror is a digital billboard across which Le Piano Bar’s menu and opening hours float repeatedly. Patrons listen politely as the proprieter sings “My Way” and other Frank Sinatra favorites to a karaoke backing tape. When he finishes, video screens tucked into corners feature Elton John song sing-alongs. Some nights a pianist and clarinetist play Russian songs as patrons clack wooden catanets. (more…)

Fascism, a thorn rather than a rose by any other name, has a long and sordid history. The modern term was resurrected from the gore-galore glorified history of ancient Rome by Benito Mussolini in the 1920s to signal the power of the state (his state, of course) über alles (as his ersatz Aryan co-fascist to the north put it). As an ideology it dispensed of a need for any other religion than the twisted Durkheimian notion that the dictatorial “state” was really at stake when talking about “God.” As a fashionable pejorative term to heap abuse on one’s enemies, “fascist” readily becomes the modern day equivalent of saying the hated other is a bloodthirsty cannibal.

Now there is the recent moniker “Islamofascism,” which appears to have been coined by the Marxist French scholar Maxime Rodinson to describe the overthrow of the Shah and unexpected rise of an Islamic Republic in Iran. If so, this demonstrate the malleability of a term in which one form of fascism seemingly replaces another. But then the rhetorical door opens at least a crack for renaming the Vatican a “Christofascist” city state — surely a word game that would make both Mussolini and the popes turn over in their graves.

Confused? Not to worry … because David Horowitz, an idiotologue out to save “Western civilization” along with Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer, has embarked on a cybercrusade campaign to make “you” aware of the apocalyptic dangers of Islamofascism. Forget about global warming (a liberal trick to discredit the Bush administration) and look out for bearded jihadis on the march. Mark your calendars for the week of October 22-26 for the coming of “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.” Don’t expect any parades down Main Street (we need to keep up the barriers so the terrorists don’t get us at home), but man the campus barricades and stick it to the Women’s Studies Centers. (more…)

I write from the Syracuse International Airport, inside the security zone. Despite my guilty conscience, I passed the non-unionized TSA without a hitch. One guard even described my informal greeting as “the American way.” Would that other authorities so exercised their ethnographic faculties. But they do not, and recently two NYC cultural documents recalled our attention to this country’s addled take on religion, politics, and radicalism.

On Aug. 15, the NYPD published an “Intelligence Report,” which warns that Islamic radicalism is “permeating” (p. 66) New York City. Then on Aug. 19, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla’s NY Times Magazine’s cover article ascribed the US-Islamic divide to the West’s advancement beyond, and Islam’s arrested adherence to, political theology. (more…)


Syrian Bedouin girl at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

In his picturesque memoir of life in late 19th century Palestine, Philip J. Baldensperger recounts a number of adventures he had as a young man visiting his parent’s land with a Bedouin group. One of the foods loved by the Bedouin was the fruit of the doum palm. One day a group of Bedouin girls were surprised to see Philip’s white skin, something of a novelty at the time in rural Palestine. Here is his account:

“Being the only European, it was thought, in those days (1874), to be safer for me to wear Bedawi-clothing: a long shirt with broad, pointed sleeves hanging to the ground, a Sayé, and, on my head, a silken Kafiyé. With the exception of the girdle, which held the skirt and the Sayé together, the ‘Akal, or head-cird, wound around the Kafiyé, and a fringe of hair hanging over my forehead, in accordance with the fashion among Bedawîn youngsters, I was a figure in spotless white. In order to be able to walk more easily whilst on the march, I used to gather up the long folds of my dress and stick them in my girdle, leaving my legs bare. No wonder that one day four Bedawiyat, gathering Dôm-apples in the forest, fled with loud screams at my approach. (more…)


[The American plan to convince Afghan farmers not to grow poppies: some good old cow dung smothered in politically expedient B.S. Photo from the New York Times.]

In the old days (before 9/11, the posters for Osama dead or alive, the seeming fall of the Taliban, Operation Shock and Awe, etc.) before terrorism merited an all-out war, there were more socially-minded wars on the American political scene. An earlier Texan (so early he was Democratic) named Lyndon Johnson started a War on Poverty. The wealth of Bill Gates shows how well that succeeded. Then Betty Ford helped launch a War on Drugs. Casualty figures for this have been withheld by the government for insecurity reasons. Indeed, today’s New York Times has an article that suggests the War on Drugs has fused with the War on Terrorism and we are losing on both fronts. “Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2007 for the second straight year, led by a staggering 45 percent increase in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province, according to a new United Nations survey to be released Monday.” writes David Rohde in his article “Taliban Raise Poppy Production to a Record Again.” He adds, “Here in Helmand, the breadth of the poppy trade is staggering. A sparsely populated desert province twice the size of Maryland, Helmand produces more narcotics than any country on earth, including Myanmar, Morocco and Colombia. Rampant poverty, corruption among local officials, a Taliban resurgence and spreading lawlessness have turned the province into a narcotics juggernaut.” (more…)


[Interior of the Ryad Mabrouka, a restored guesthouse in Fez medina.]

A trivia question: what may have been the largest city in the known world in 1180 CE? Would you believe Fez (also spelled Fes) in modern day Morocco? Less famous today than Casablanca (thanks to Humphrey Bogart) or Marrakesh, Fes is fascinating for its long history and extraordinary architecture. The Qaraouiyine Mosque, built in 859, boasts the oldest university in the world. The mosque/university library held an estimated 320,000 volumes by 1613 CE. Then there are the palaces of various sultans, the schools, the market and craft buildings, most enclosed within a medina of narrow allies that no cars can penetrate. Here was the a refuge for the 12th century scholar Maimonides, who lived in Fez with his family for five years after being forced to leave Cordoba in Andalusia. Not surprisingly the heritage of Fez makes it a protected World Heritage city of UNESCO. Exactly a week ago, I was visiting Fez as a tourist, an outsider entering a world dedicated to the inside. (more…)

There is a fascinating online movie called Isfahan, inspired by Persian architecture and created by Cristobal Vila.

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