July 2011

Bonfils, ca. 1870. Negative inscribed: “278. Jerusalem. Mosquee d’Omar.”

by Salim Tamari, Al-Shabaka Policy Brief, July 11, 2011


Even before the crusades, Jerusalem has had an enchanting hold on people’s imagination. Visitors imposed their aspirations, inner anguish, and dreams on what they saw as an eternal sacred city, whereas the worldly city was at great variance and often in contradiction with these imageries. Indeed, this vision of the city of God has always been in contrast with the living physicality of the city. As revealed in the leaked “Palestine Papers,” this view of the metaphoric Jerusalem has been adopted in the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

In this policy brief, Al-Shabaka policy advisor Salim Tamari examines the historical origins of the sacrilization of Jerusalem and how it has obscured changes on the ground affecting the city’s current state and its future. He argues that proposals for the future of Jerusalem ignore the fact that at its core the conflict over the city is a case of colonial subjugation which must be addressed and resolved equitably.
Jerusalem and the “Palestine Papers”

The “Palestine Papers” revealed that Jerusalem occupied a central position in the implicit agreements between President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.1 They demonstrate that the PA has moved considerably from positions held at and since the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Previous Palestinian and Arab positions on Jerusalem were based on UN Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 242, passed after the June 1967 War. The resolution considers East Jerusalem occupied territory and its status no different from that of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or the Syrian Golan Heights. Moreover, the “land for peace” arrangement that is at the heart of UNSC 242 also applies to occupied East Jerusalem.

From the official Palestinian perspective, the PLO’s approval of the two-state formula in 1988 “resolved” the status of Jerusalem as the capital of two states — Israel and the prospective Palestinian state. Jerusalem at this stage became the subject of a seemingly symmetrical formula of reciprocal political arrangements. West Jerusalem would be the capital of Israel, and East Jerusalem would be the capital of the Palestinian state.

However, with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Jerusalem was deferred to final status negotiations, along with borders, settlements, and refugees. During the second stage of negotiations, in the late 1990s, the focus shifted to Jerusalem’s “special status.” This status emanated from its sacred character, the presence of the holy basin, and the interests of other parties, including Jordan, the broader Islamic world, the Europeans, and the Vatican. This removed negotiations over Jerusalem from an issue that could be addressed simply within the rubric of UNSC 242, that is, restoring the territories to their status before the war. (more…)

With the virtual flood of book digitalization online quite a few obscure books are now available online either at archive.org or through Google. I recently came across a gem: a translation of a high school Arabic text used in Aden by the British at the start of the 20th century. The title page is shown above. The text has translations into English of classical Arabic texts, including fables, anecdotes and travel accounts. The full text can be downloaded as a pdf here. I include an anecdote about Salah al-Din below. (more…)

By George Nicolas El-Hage

Poetry and art are twins. Both are the offspring of suffering and joy. Gibran translated Blake’s “Innocence and Experience” into a “Tear and a Smile.” Nevertheless, the unending drama of human existence unfolds itself in the pages of both men. Only the elected and gifted soul is capable of creativity, of reading the world differently, and of rebelling against evil clothed in a lamb’s garment. Art knows no boundaries. It transcends all national limits and is only satisfied with the universal. There, time and place lose their ability to imprison the artist in a closed cell. The inspired poet becomes a winged soul floating over life, embracing the infinite. It is in the midst of this vast expanse where the responsibility of the artist becomes eternal and his mission turns holy that we can speak of Kahlil Gibran and William Blake together. (more…)

The beach in Tangier, 2008; photograph by Daniel Martin Varisco

Journalist who took the human smuggling voyage from Djibouti to Yemen gives a first-hand account of migrant beatings.

by Glen Johnson, Al Jazeera, July 18, 2011

There were more than 30 people crammed on the back of the truck as the vehicle bumped through the desert in eastern Djibouti.

The passengers were men, women and children from Ethiopia and Somalia and myself. And all would be smuggled in boats from Djibouti to Yemen, as part of wider trafficking operations involving six countries – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea – that apparently trafficks tens of thousands of people from the Horn of Africa to Arabian nations each year.

I had arrived in Djibouti on June 7 to research human trafficking. Having lived in Yemen for part of 2010, I was aware that the Africa-Arabia smuggling trade was one of the myriad challenges facing Yemen, yet one of the troubled nation’s least discussed. In Djibouti, I quickly established links with smugglers, some of whom agreed to let me accompany migrants from Ethiopia and refugees from Somalia by boat to Yemen.

The truck drove slowly through the desert. No one talked. A distant beam from a lighthouse swept across the night sky. The silhouettes of coarse thorn scrubs, bent back from the wind, stood under a yellow moon that was ill-defined from the dust and sand that swept up into the night.

Occasionally the truck would grind to a halt and men would get out swinging sticks wildly, telling the passengers to keep still. A woman spoke to a child – his hair a mass of coarse, black curls; his spindly legs sticking out the bottom of his trousers. (more…)

Yesterday, July 17, is a day that will live in history. Not because it was the day of my 35th anniversary, but because 33 years ago Sunday Ali Abdullah Salih came to power in Yemen. Yemen Press has posted a video of his first speech. Yemen remains in stalemate as President Salih remains in Saudi Arabia, despite all the rumors of his return to Sanaa. But stalemate is a downward slope as the government has ceased to function and even basic commodities are hard to get. We are watching a country self-destruct. The fact that videos get posted and Twitter whirls away over the continuing protests overshadows the obvious: Yemen has been a military dictatorship far too long to transition overnight into a practical democracy. Hopefully in another 33 years we will not see yet another first take of a military leader rebroadcast on the Internet…


[The noted historian of Islamic science, David A. King, recently retired from his position as Professor of the History of Science at Frankfurt University, has published a new book on two of the most remarkable objects surviving from the Renaissance, one an astrolabe and the other a painting. The connection between the two is described in detail in his new book Astrolabes and Angels, Epigrams and Enigmas – From Regiomontanus’ Acrostic for Cardinal Bessarion to Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2007. An associated website is http://web.uni-frankfurt.de/fb13/ign/Code.htm.]

Only recently have we achieved a better understanding of two monuments to the intellectual genius of the Renaissance, both of which have caused scholars a lot of trouble over several decades. As it happens, the two are intimately related.

The back of the astrolabe made by Regiomontanus for Cardinal Bessarion, with an inscription or epigram and the image of an angel.

One is an astrolabe, presented to the ageing Greek Cardinal Bessarion in Rome, 1462, by his new protégé, the young German astronomer Regiomontanus. (more…)

Politics trumps virtually every other kind of news until a natural disaster breaks through. For those of us watching the daily reports of protests in the Middle East and North Africa, it is easy to be absorbed by the sheer amount of coverage and websites available. This morning I noticed two “front page” stories that stopped me in my tracks, one in the New York Times and the other a special report on the website of al Jazeera. Freedom from dictatorial rule is a dream shared across a spectrum of people, and not only in this part of the world, but there is no ultimate freedom from Nature.

Drought is as much a killer as any ruthless dictator, which is not to diminish the negative impact of even the worst of the lot. But Saddam met his fate, as will Qaddafi. With all our technological savy, however, Nature still calls the shots, whether it is a tsunami, hurricane or prolonged drought. There is a cruel irony that some places have far too much water, especially at the wrong time, and others have no water all. No place is more miserable both politically and from drought than Somalia, a land that has been racked with civil war creating one of the worst humanitarian crises around (and there are quite a few). The camp of Daabab just across the Kenyan border already has hundreds of thousands fleeing the turmoil in Somalia. The UN estimates that 10 million people in the Horn of Africa are suffering directly from this crisis. Picture what this number means. If these people were lined up so that each one took only one foot of space the line would stretch over 630 miles. This means that if a bread line started in Boston and stretched south to Washington, D.C. it would still have almost two hundred more miles to go before it would end. A car driving the distance would take at least ten hours. And this is just for the crisis in the Horn.

What if the money spent on military weapons per year were actually spent on food aid and development assistance to people who are in danger of dying? The drones sent to destroy suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan (and now in Yemen) cost about 4.5 million each. The U.S. just gave Kenya an extra 5 million dollars in aid to help cope with the influx of refugees, about one drone’s worth. As Mark Twain said in a speech in 1881, war is “a wanton waste of projectiles.”

Daniel Martin Varisco

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