December 2011

Wilfrid Scawn Blunt, left; Mark Twain, right

There is a curious annual custom inherited in many of our families, but one I am resolved not to take too seriously this year. I refer to the half-drunk notion of making resolutions for the new year (which I see no sound reason to capitalize, as my German blood is very far removed), as though the arbitrary turning of the calendar is a time to reflect on what went wrong over the last 365 days and pretend that things should go better in the next eighteen and a quarter score days. I have heard the rural urban tale that the pin-up 19th century cowgirl sharpshooter Annie Oakley started the custom of sending out Christmas Cards, but I am not sure which genius came up with penning new year’s resolutions, unless it was Johnny Walker in one of his more sober moments. Most people, and I surely fall into this anomalous category, do not remember the resolutions made a year ago. But then most godfearing redneck Americans could not repeat the 10 Commandments in order to save their souls, unless perhaps they were dead drunk. So my re-solution, since it is the defacto one I have been following for quite a few years, is to resolve to forget any resolution before I even make one. This saves me from having to make up a resolution, which is the same as making as silly a resolution as I can imagine.

I am not the first person to take aim at this impotent cultural pastime which has long since ceased to have any influence on what people really do. Mark Twain said it well over a century and a half ago:

New Year’s Day–Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. (more…)

Muslim Hadramis in “Christian Ethiopia”: Reflections on Boundary Making Processes

by Samson A. Bezabeh, Bergen University

[Note: This is the Introduction to a recent article on the Hadrami experience in Ethiopia. The full article can be downloaded from the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.]


Throughout recorded history sporadic population migration from Arabia to East Africa and Ethiopia has been a noted phenomenon. In the modern era Hadramis started to migrate and settle in Ethiopia at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Ethiopia hosted a number of Arab families who were mainly Yemeni or Hadrami by origin. Although the exact population of the Hadramis at that time is not known, various statistical estimates and narrations, including narration of present day Hadrami families indicate that their number was substantial. This is particularly true in the case of major Ethiopian towns and trading centres such as Harar, Jimma and Asmara.

Despite their pronounced presence, however, their numbers, declined during the second half of the twentieth century as a result of negative factors that have forced them to leave the country. One such factor was the movement of pan-Arab nationalism which gained momentum in the 1960s. To be more specific, in 1969 Hadramis were expelled from Ethiopia for “supporting” the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), whom Arab nations, particularly Syrians and Egyptians, were supporting for fulfilling their goal of creating a united Arab land which in their vision also included the highlands of northern Ethiopia. In this scenario, Hadramis along with other Arabs were accused by the Haile Selassie regime4 in Ethiopia of sympathizing with the Arab backers of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), and hence undermining Ethiopian unity. This has led many Hadrami families to voluntarily and involuntarily relocate themselves to Yemen and to oil reach countries in the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia. (more…)

Qu’ran manuscript in Western Library of the Great Mosque, Sanaa

by Arie Amaya-Akkermans, bikyamasr, 13 December 13, 2011

In recent articles on, it was reported at length on the diversity of cultural sites, part of Yemen’s vast cultural heritage, that were threatened with neglect and destruction, partly because of the inability of the Yemeni authorities to preserve them and partly because of the state of unrest caused by the Yemeni uprising – namely the ancient cities of Sana’a, Shibam and Zabid, in which thousands of years of rich history are likely to become yet another casualty in Yemen’s struggle for freedom from the 33-years old dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

It is fortunate however that these three ancient cities are considered UNESCO world heritage sites, due to the fact that they have received attention from international organizations – most prominently the government of Germany – and some degree of action has been taken in order to minimize the damage, or at least, that was the case until the beginning of the Yemeni uprising. The extent of the real damage done to the sites in the course of 2011 remains yet to be properly assessed in a post-revolutionary scenario.

More unfortunate is the fate not only of other sites but of something much more intangible but equally valuable: The rich intellectual Islamic heritage of the country embodied in over 50000 manuscripts held in many libraries and private holdings. The astounding numbers and the nature of the manuscripts make Yemen one of the most important archival collections in the world, easily rivaling similar holdings of Islamic manuscripts in the national libraries of Cairo, Istanbul and Teheran. (more…)

Photo credit: AP | Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to reporters during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, Yemen. (Dec. 24, 2011)

Yemen rarely makes the front page of The New York Times, but today it did. The seesaw political succession game underway in Yemen has seen President Ali Abdullah Salih’s head bobbing up and down in the power vacuum like a bobblehead doll in the hands of a Little Leaguer on opening day in Yankee Stadium. According to the article, Salih requested a visa to receive medical attention at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian hospital. Why it is not sufficient to return to Saudi Arabia, where he first underwent surgery and medical attention for major burns and other complications, is not clear. To complicate matters, and Salih has a knack for complicating matters, Salih told the Yemeni public in a recent televised address that he was not seeking medical treatment in the United States but simply wanted to allow the political process to evolve with him on the sidelines.

The Statue of Liberty still holds the beacon of hope aloft. So what does Salih hope to get from this visit. The Obama administration is keen to insist that Salih is welcome only for medical assistance, not for refuge. There is a glaring precedent that urges such caution: when Jimmy Carter allowed the former Shah of Iran entry to the United States for treatment, the pre-nuclear revolutionaries back in Iran went ballistic and stormed the U.S. Embassy. The rest, as they say, is history, but not the kind one likes to repeat. (more…)

Aliaa Mahdy

by Joseph Mayton, bikyamasr, December 6, 2011

Egypt’s revolution has stalled. Islamists have taken the lion’s share of the first round of voting. In Tunisia and Morocco, large gains by the Islamists have seen women begin to question their future in conservative societies. Aliaa Mahdy changed the global perspective on how women are viewed in the Arab world, when she posted in November a full-frontal nude photo of herself on her blog.

The posting of her naked body left Egyptians and Arabs angry. Hate and condemnation quickly followed. Ironically, despite all the hatred purported in her direction, millions of people logged onto her blog to see her picture, with even lewd comments being posted.

For Mahdy, it was a symbolic protest against the status of women in Egypt and across the Arab world. She said enough to the centuries of male-domination meted out to women in the country and the region. It was the beginning of the Islamic world’s “Nude Spring” and launched a debate over women’s rights, or rather, “what is appropriate for women.” (more…)

Skyscrapers dominate the modern skyline of Doha

In 1988-1989 I received a Fulbright Islamic Civilization Research Grant to carry out research on the Arab almanac tradition. Most of this time I was sponsored in Doha, Qatar by the Gulf States Folklore Center. Tempus fugit, to be sure. The folklore center no longer exists and Doha is quite a different city these days. A week ago I arrived in Doha to give two lectures at Qatar University, one on the sailing seasons around the Gulf and one on traditional agriculture in Yemen. In the two decades plus since I last visited Doha it is obvious that the city has changed dramatically. I do not remember any skyscrapers on my first visit. Doha was a sleepy little haven with the grand Doha Sheraton the eye candy. And quite an eyeful it was and remains.

I arrived at an auspicious moment, the evening of Qatar’s National Day. The entire day was devoted to celebration. Thus the trip that would normally take less than 20 minutes to go from the airport to the Sheraton was accomplished in six hours. The roads were blocked with SUVs and Mercedes colorfully marked and many with young boys on top waving the Qatari flag and sporting scarves with the image of the emir and his heir apparent. I missed the fireworks, but the enthusiasm of the throng made the long journey well worth it.

The majestic Doha Sheraton Hotel

The Doha Sheraton is a grand old place. Having been erected in 1982, such a luxury hotel is an architectural shayba. But it still inspires, with a pyramid exterior and inside right out of an arabesque garden from the 1001 Nights. Back then it stood alone, a harbinger of change; today it is almost dwarfed by a series of skyscrapers jutting out of the ground in various original shapes. Here is an architect’s paradise with almost every building sporting a unique design.

The Museum of Islamic Art at night

My last day I visited the Museum of Islamic Art, which houses a magnificent spread of Quranic manuscript pages, pottery, metalwork and jewelry from all over the region, especially from Iran. Their website has a number of impressive e-cards available. The main Qatar Museum is being renovated, but the Arab Museum of Modern Art has opened and one on Orientalism is in the works. Qatar’s wealth is making Doha a museum Mecca, one that is sure to draw a large number of tourists in the years to come.

Dunkin’ Donuts invades Suq Waqif

When I first visited the Doha suq, it was hardly worthy of the title; to put it mildly, it was quite miskin. But now it has been recreated as a tourist attraction (with paid parking) and live music. It has many of the old kinds of shops, from textiles to spices, but then there are the foreign intrusions, such as a Dunkin’ Donuts located near the parking lot. Just what Doha needs: stale globalized donuts.

Flying to and from New York was on Qatar Airways, which has the most outstanding business class I have ever experienced. It is hard to imagine a better first class experience. Next time you are traveling to the Gulf, consider a stop in Doha. Midst the turmoil embroiling the region, Qatar remains a stable oasis of growth. Such a tiny nation, but one that is really making a mark culturally and politically in the region.

Illustration: Theotokos, Virgin Mary, Albanian icon

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem. In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

. . .And make mention of Mary in the Scripture, when she had withdrawn from her people to a place in the East, and had chosen seclusion from them. Then We [God] sent unto her Our Spirit and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect human being. She said: “Truly I seek refuge in the Merciful One from you, if you are God-fearing”. He said: “I am only a messenger of your Lord, to give to you a pure son”. She said: “How can I have a son when no man has touched me, neither have I been unchaste”? He said: “Even so. Your Lord says: ‘It is easy for Me. And that We may make of him a revelation for humanity and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained’”. And she conceived him, and she withdrew pregnant with him to a distant place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried out: “Oh! Would that I had died before this! Would that I had been a thing forgotten and unseen!” Then (a voice) called out to her from beneath her: “Do not grieve, for surely your Lord has made a stream to flow beneath you; And shake towards you the trunk of the palm tree, it will drop on you fresh ripe dates: So eat and drink and refresh yourself. Then if you see any person, say: ‘Surely I have vowed a fast to the Merciful One, so I shall not speak to any one today’”. Then she brought the child to her own people, carrying him. They said: “O Mary! You have come with an amazing thing. O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a wicked man nor was your mother an unchaste woman”. Then she pointed to the child. “But they said, ‘How shall we speak to one who is still in the cradle, a little child?’ Jesus said, ‘Behold, I am God’s servant; God has given me the book and made me a prophet. God has made me blessed, wherever I may be; and God has enjoined me to pray and to give alms so long as I live, and likewise to cherish my mother; God has not made me arrogant or unblessed. Peace be upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive’”. Qur’an, Chapter of Mary, (19:16—35)

Good evening, al-salaamu alaikum, peace be upon you all.

I am, as ever, honoured to be here with you on this blessed night at Trinity-St. Paul’s. It is a great joy to be back in this church, both in the primary meaning of that word as this gathering of people, and in the secondary meaning of this amazing physical space that we share. (more…)

Beating a female protester in Cairo, Reuters

There it is above: the picture that sums up the resistance to political renewal more than any other image possibly could. It has been flashed across the world: a woman’s body exposed to anonymous male aggression. The issue is less the moment of an ongoing event which has riveted attention for almost a year than its symbolic depth. There are other images of security men beating protesters, including women. There are far more brutal shots of bloodied corpses and disfigured bodies. But this is the kind of picture that launches a thousand and one more protesters. Not only within Egypt. It is the kind of image that should shock us all, because it exposes an ugly truth we do not want to admit.

This is the kind of picture where the meaning far outstrips the specifics of the event. We do not know, nor do most people want to know, who she is or what she said or why she was singled out (if she was the only one), because she stands for the fragility of all protests against raw power. The reality is that force is entrenched. The purpose of military and security is to implement the policy of those who define power. Yes, there are revolutions and mutinies, but the need to control always wins out after a political house is “cleaned.” At times the power enforcers will give a little, but there is a point at which the batons are brandished and blood pours from the bodies of those who dare defy power.

What could this woman, dressed in the symbol of supposedly protective modesty — the hijab — have done to receive such treatment? Did they think she concealed an AK-37 beneath her black cover? Did they think any woman on her own posed a danger to men armed with crowd control equipment? Did they stop and think she is somebody’s daughter, probably somebody’s sister, perhaps someone’s wife or mother? No, because that is the ultimate tragedy of controlling protests, whether here on a Cairo street or a policeman spraying Occupy Wall Street young women with pepper spray. The only thing different this time is that the moment has been captured on film. It will never really be over, but replayed over and over again as a reminder that the violence never ends against those who dare protest a monopoly on violence.

While this beating was happening, several Egyptian protesters were killed and far more people were being eliminated in Syria. Such deaths are a daily occurrence in Yemen. Iraq and Afghanistan have not ceased to be killing fields. So why does this particular image have such power? Perhaps because it can resonate on all sides. For the liberal here is the epitome of woman’s ultimate lack of defense against male power. She had not stripped her own clothes off; she came to the square in the modest dress that was supposed to protect her, to set her off as immune to such actions. For the conservative here is the shame of exposing the body of a woman in public, not that of a criminal or a sorceress but a woman who dressed Islamically.

But there is another angle to this image that goes far beyond Egypt. Men virtually everywhere expose women’s bodies for their own perceived needs. On a gender scale the only real difference between this image and a simulated sex attack in a pornographic shot is that the woman is acting for money in the latter. But in both cases the message is that men are the ones who control women. It is a male power play to clothe the woman in any kind of dress and it is an ultimate male right to remove those clothes to suit his own purpose. A woman’s body is for the male to define. The young Egyptian blogger who posed naked, or nearly so, to speak up for freedom over her own body was roundly criticized by liberals and conservatives alike for rocking the voting public’s boat. How dare she defy the norm and expose her body voluntarily. It would only give more votes to the Islamic parties: such was the fear. But the issue is never really about the naked body, which men desire at almost any cost, but the fact that a woman dared defy the demanding male gaze by not letting the male strip her unilaterally or commercially. Look at the image above and look at the image of the blogger. If you see no difference, than you are the baton the security men wield against a defenseless body.

Daniel Martin Varisco

This commentary has been reposted on

Next Page »