July 2011



Exactly 90 years ago a four-volume set of encyclopedia-like human interest books was published as The Human Interest Library: Visualized Knowledge by Midland Press in Chicago. In a previous post I commented on its thoroughly “Orientalist” flavor. The section on Egypt covers mainly the archaeological history with only a few brief comments on the then contemporary state of Egypt. One of the great mysteries over the years has been an explanation for how the massive pyramids were built. Here is a novel idea, if a picture is worth a thousand scholarly words: ants.


Detail from the title page of MS Glaser 20, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

Given the current unrest and economic turmoil in Yemen, little thought is being given to Yemen’s vast cultural heritage. But there is hope, at least for preservation of manuscripts. The German Archaeological Institute in Sanaa has recently released a report in English and Arabic entitled Preserving Yemens’ Cultural Heritage: The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Project and written by Sabine Schmidtke and Jan Thiele. This is available for reading online or as a pdf download.

The American man of letters Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) was one of many travelers to the Near East of his time. His tour in 1853 resulted in a travel account above the common lot of Holy Land roller overs. Of particular interest is his frank account of a Turkish bath in Damascus.

“The Bath is the ‘peculiar institution’ of the East. Coffee has become colonized in France and America; the Pipe is a cosmopolite, and his blue, joyous breath congeals under the Arctic Circle, or melts languidly into the soft airs of the Polynesian Isles; but the Bath, that sensuous elysium which cradled the dreams of Plato, and the visions of Zoroaster, and the solemn meditations of Mahomet, is only to be found under an Oriental sky. The naked natives of the Torrid Zone are amphibious; they do not bathe, they live in the water. The European and Anglo-American wash themselves and think they have bathed; they shudder under cold showers and perform laborious antics with coarse towels. As for the Hydropathist, the Genius of the Bath, whose dwelling is in Damascus, would be convulsed with scornful laughter, could he behold that aqueous Diogenes sitting in his tub, or stretched out in his wet wrappings, like a sodden mummy, in a catacomb of blankets and feather beds. As the rose in the East has a rarer perfume than in other lands, so does the Bath bestow a superior purification and impart a more profound enjoyment… (more…)


“These cafes are picturesque places where one sees the street life of Cairo at its best. Note the more humble style of Turkish pipe smoked by this Arab without being set on the floor.

Exactly 90 years ago a four-volume set of encyclopedia-like human interest books was published as The Human Interest Library: Visualized Knowledge by Midland Press in Chicago. In a previous post I commented on its thoroughly “Orientalist” flavor. The section on Egypt covers mainly the archaeological history with only a few brief comments on the then contemporary state of Egypt. On one plate (volume 4, p. 114) there is a photograph of “An Arab Cafe” (shown above) underneath one of the mummy of Sethi the First. There is also a scene of two water carriers (shown below).


“These men are sometimes negroes, as the seated man in the picture, as well as the boy who has taken water to drink from him. They are usually dervishes of the lowest grade, and are sometimes inclined to be fanatical. They are picturesque as well as a very necessary feature of Egyptian life.”

It is not until the last page of the article that “Egypt today” is uncovered. Not surprisingly, the Pharaonic past is for more than prologue here:

Egypt today, as the case with most of these ancient countries is merely the shadow of its former self; its inhabitants lack the energy and popwer which seem to have belonged to their ancestors. The French some years ago constructed the Suez Canal and on a sandbar which was built up from the the dirt out of the canal the modern city of Port Said was located. It is in some ways the most cosmopolitan city in the world being the gateway between the Occident and the Orient. In visiting Egypt the former usually lands at Port Said or Alexandria, then there is a ninety mile trip by rail to the city of Cairo. It seems quite odd to be riding by street car the six miles out from Cairo to the pyramids. It seems such an awe-inspiring thing to connect these ancient monuments with such a modern achievement. It is, however, typical of Egypt today in that ancient and majestic relics are on the one hand in contrast with the impudent signs of modern native life on the other; the little Bedouin children plan and the burros graze over spots the penetration of the sanctity of which once demanded the penalty of death.

Ah, the sentiments of the Occidental tourist in an antique land where the “impudent signs of modern native life” mar the view of ancient relics. Selah.


The Colbert Report takes on the Fox News and other Rupert Murdoch organs that immediately started reporting that the Norway massacre looked like a “Muslim” terrorist act… I guess we can now rename the WSJ the Up-against-the-Wall-Street-Talking-Jumble where distorted news is only a twitter away.


A manifesto for a Muslim-free Europe, an Infidel-free Middle East

by Imran Khan, Al Jazeera, July 24, 2011

I have just finished reading a terrifying document. It’s called 2083: A European declaration of Independence.

It’s full of advice for the budding Christian martyr. Handy tips on how to build bombs and make poisons; on how to use video games to hone your shooting skills.

I came across it on a far right website.

At 1511 pages long it’s a work of extreme prejudice – against Muslims predominantly.

Ultimately, the author wants a Muslim-free Europe.

The author’s name is Andrew Berwick. He datelines the document London 2011. He spent 3 years of his life writing it and clearly believes, with a passion, every single word.

The Norwegian media claim this document is written by Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect behind the brutal attacks in Norway.

At the end of the book are pictures of Breivik himself, dressed as a blond haired and blue eyed hero of the Knights Templar.

Christian crusaders, the book suggests, have returned and are alive, well and living in London.

His last diary entry is dated 22 July 2011. There seems to be little doubt that Berwick is Breivik.

I have covered extremists of all hues for a decade now. What worries me about this document is the parallels that exist between this and another document found in a Manchester, United kingdom flat in 2005.

That document was dubbed the ‘al-Qaeda military manual’. It has a similar theme to the 2083 document – An infidel-free Middle East; Handy tips on bomb making, etc. (more…)


A century ago Yemen was still very much a terra incognita for Europeans and Americans. The British controlled the port of Aden, but few individuals were allowed to travel up through the highlands to visit the realm of the Zaydi imam. One of the few was Samuel Zwemer, an American missionary who spent several years in Yemen and other parts of Arabia. His desire to convert Arabs to Christianity seeps through his description, but the photographs published in his Zigzag Journeys in the Camel Country, written with his daughter Amy, are valuable documentation. I attach below a chapter on a trip he made up to Sanaa a century ago. The photographs will follow in a future post. For an earlier post on Zwemer, click here.


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From Pamela Geller to Anders Behring Breivik — how Islamophobia turned deadly in Norway

By Paul Woodward, War in Context, July 23, 2011

When terrorism has a white face it invariably gets marginalized in the popular narrative. The lone wolf, the outsider, the sociopath — in many cases these portraits of misanthropic, isolated individuals who turn to violence are quite accurate.

The Oslo killings, however, should be seen in a different light since there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the perpetrator of this atrocity, even if it turns out he was acting alone, was very much part of a political movement — a movement whose leading ideologues regularly appear on Fox News and have high public profiles.

Anders Behring Breivik, the 32-year-old Norwegian man widely assumed to be responsible for the mass murder that took place in Oslo yesterday, is being referred to as a Christian fundamentalist in many press reports. (more…)

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