August 2008


The late 14th century Egyptian savant al-Damiri was introduced in a previous post. His massive Hayat al-hayawan, mostly unknown in English texts, is a treasure trove of esoterica. One way of looking at esoterica is that it is useless information, frivolous and entertaining with little or no pedagogical value. I suppose the same could be said for many of the subjects taught on college campuses, past or present. The previous post focused on remarks about camels, but al-Damiri is not without his pragmatic advice for humans. After all, animals should be our friends and not just our dinner. The following recipe may have few takers in contemporary society, especially the overweight citizens of America; but just in case you ever wanted to know, here is advice on how to get fat:

If you wish a woman to become fat, take the fat of a goose (female), pound it and mix with it borax, Karmânî cummin-seed, and the flour of fenugreek, then mix all together with water, make it into bullets and get a black fowl to swallow them for seven consecutive days, after which it is to be killed and roasted; whoever partakes of it or its gravy will become so fat, as almost to be overpowered by the fat, whether the eater is a man or a woman; but if you wish a person to be still fatter than that, take human bile and place it over as much wheat as can be easily prepared with a little water, then wait until the wheat swells out, after which feed a black fowl on it, and do with the fowl as described before; whoever partakes of that fowl whether a man or a woman will see a wonder of wonders in the shape of obesity and fatness, so much so that he or she will not be able even to stand up; this is a wonderful and tried secret.

Given obesity rates in the United States, I would say that either al-Damiri’s secret is out or it really would be useless advice today.

In a world dominated by media celebrities little space is left for intellectuals. Undergraduate students multiple-choice their way through the great lights of the academic past: Freud, Marx, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault and the list goes on. But who among the living tops the list of brain savy heroes? Foreign Policy held a referendum for four weeks earlier this year in which 500,000 people responded. The idea was to create a list of the world’s top 100 intellectuals. But surprise, the list would seem more a result of who was motivated to respond than anything else. Write down your top three (or at least think about three prominent living intellectuals) and compare to the Foreign Policy list. (more…)

In 1924 Major F. A. C. Forbes-Leith decided to drive a “motor-car” from London to India, a journey that took almost half a year to traverse ten countries. Overall, a total of 8,527 miles were covered, with 3,000 of them devoid of road or track and 1,500 over desert, not to mention detouring around 150 broken bridges. This was three years before Lindy flew from Mitchell Field (next to the university I currently teach at) to France. The rationale for a ridiculously long auto adventure? That was simple: no one had done it before. As Major Forbes-Leith puts it, “Airplanes had already flown to India on several occasions, airships for a regular mail service were in the course of construction, even one of the submarines of the Royal Navy was on its way, but as yet no effort had been made to bridge the distance by mechanical transport.”

Attempting such an adventure at the time no doubt took a sense of humor. In this case the auto was labeled “Felix” after the cartoon character Felix the Cat. (more…)


Full Moon on lunar eclipse and Venus, dated June 18, 2008 – Photo by Mohamad Soltanolkotabi

by Khalid Chraibi

“The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed;”

(Koran, Ar-Rahman, 55 : 5)

“It is He Who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for it; that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time).”
(Koran, Yunus, 10:5)

“The ulamas do not have the monopoly of interpretation of the shariah. Of course, their advice must be sought in the first place on shariah matters. (But) they do no make religious law, in the same way that it is not the law professors who make the law, but parliaments.” (Ahmed Khamlichi, Point de vue n° 4)

Issue # 1: Why do Muslims observe the new moon to determine the beginning of months?

When the Messenger was asked by his Companions for a method to determine the beginning of the month of fasting, he told them to begin fasting with the observation of the new moon (on the evening of the 29th day of sha’aban) and to end fasting with the new moon (of the month of shawal). “If the crescent is not visible (because of the clouds), count to 30 days”. (1)

At that time, the Bedouins didn’t know how to write or how to count. They knew nothing about astronomy. But, they were used to observe the stars, at night, in order to find their way in the desert, and to observe the birth of the new moon to determine the beginning of months. The Messenger’s recommendation fitted perfectly with the specifics of their situation.

Issue # 2: Why is the new moon visible, at its birth, in some regions of the world only? (more…)

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent, Environmental News Network, March 1, 2008

BEIT HUJAIRA, Yemen (Reuters) – Black-clad women trudge across a stony plateau in the Yemeni highlands to haul water in yellow plastic cans from wells that will soon dry up.

“We come here three or four times a day,” says Adiba Sena, as another woman draws water six metres (20 feet) to the surface and pours it into jerry cans lashed to her grey donkey. “We use it to clean, cook, wash — we have no pipes that reach us.”

These women are at the sharp end of what Yemen’s water and environment minister describes as a collapse of national water resources so severe it cannot be reversed, only delayed at best. (more…)

William O. Beeman, New America Media, Aug 12, 2008

Editor’s Note: The Bush Administration’s push for access to oil from the Caspian Sea and it’s desire to isolate Iran precipitated the Russian invasion of Georgia. William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has lived and worked in the Middle East region for more than 30 years.

No one should be surprised that U.S. interference in the Caucasus has led to the Russian invasion of South Ossetia. By mixing into the volatile politics of the Caucasus, and trying to recruit the governments there to become American “plumbers” for a variety of purposes, the United States has only drawn Russian fire.

The Caucasus was one of the last territories added to the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It was captured from the Qajar Empire of Iran. The Caucasians never were fully incorporated into Greater Russia, and maintained a fierce cultural separatism. Georgia in particular was proudly nationalistic, with a distinctive language, cuisine, literary tradition and writing system. (more…)

The great French photographer Felix Bonfils (1831-1885) not only provided a photographic archive of life in Palestine and Syria, but visited Egypt as well. Here is a photograph of a rug shop taken in Cairo in the late 19th century.

[For more photographs of Bonfils, see the online gallery at almashriq.]

If you are a young, well-educated Egyptian, your future probably lies somewhere else. “I love Egypt, but I can’t live here” Hawass told me. He was a computer-science graduate from the American University in Cairo who obtained a job with a German firm and was preparing to relocate to Bonn.

Many young cosmopolitan Egyptians manage the ironies of their relationship with Egypt not through links to the homeland but through social networks with other Egyptian travelers. This has recently been hugely facilitated by e-mail, instant messaging, cell phones, and social networking technologies. An Egyptian friend of my daughters, on a recent trip to visit us in Ohio, introduced me to what is now my favorite such site, the Facebook group “I will bitchslap the next foreigner who asks me if I go to school on a camel.” (more…)

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