April 2012



Tribesmen voting in al-Ahjur, Central Highlands, 1978

By Elham Manea, The Daily Star, April 6, 2012

February’s presidential election in Yemen by no means marks the end of the country’s troubles. However, the suggestion that the United States host a new arrangement based on decentralized negotiation between tribal and regional leaders is not the way to solve them.

Such a call ignores lessons from Yemen’s past and underestimates the deep changes that have taken place in Yemeni society over the last decades. Although the tribal system continues to operate as the prevalent mode of social organization, it is crucial to recognize that the nature of tribal networks and institutions has changed drastically.

Historically, tribal networks compensated for the state’s lack of capacity. The tribe assumed the role of protector and provider: securing tribal territory, protecting water wells, and resolving conflicts between its members or with other tribes. In many ways, the tribe was the institution of first resort for financial backing and social support in times of crisis. It is perhaps very telling that Aden – where the nuclear family has displaced the tribe as the main social unit – is more affected by poverty than regions that have preserved tribalism, such as Shabwah, Mahra and Al-Dali.

Tribal sheikhs were also once accountable to their constituents: They were elected and could be voted out. Thus, a sheikh was often regarded as a first among equals, rather than an absolute ruler. Custom (Irf) governed the mediation of conflict within or outside the tribe and could not be violated without loss of honor – a distinct disgrace – and threat of severe penalty. (more…)

For those who read Arabic there is an online Arab Encyclopedia at http://www.arab-ency.com. It has a mix of old and new, including technology. The same site offers a lexicon searchable in Arabic, English or French at http://www.arab-ency.com/index.php?module=pnEncyclopedia&func=display_all_terms. There is also an atlas in Arabic at http://www.arab-ency.com/index.php?module=pnEncyclopedia&func=display_maps


Can’t afford to go to Egypt? Then you can build you own paper version of the age-old Sphynx at home by clicking here.


Shah Rukh Khan as sex symbol

Someone really needs to read the riot act to The Patriot Act. Yes, the threat of terrorism is real and we millions of passengers dutifully take off our shoes and spread out our arms for see-through scanning or pat-down frisking in airports. But screening does not have to be irrational. How many times must a world-famous actor like Shah Rukh Khan be detained by security when he enters the United States? This is not the first time. What status is there to check out? Does the image above look like a serious threat? Would Salman Rushdie be rushed into detention?

Here is the report on Al-Jazzera :

He is one of the most famous men on the planet. Adored by millions. His films are almost always box office smashes. But when Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan travelled to the US on Thursday, he was detained by security for two hours while they checked out his “status”.

Ironic, considering his biggest hit film was the story of a man determined to visit the US president and give him a very simple message: My Name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist.

The film is a powerful look at what it means to be Muslim in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I wonder if he told Homeland Security that he wasn’t a terrorist.

He says he feels angry and humiliated. I know how he feels. In the last three years I have travelled to the US six times. Each time, bar one, I was stopped. I was asked to go to a holding facility and my passport was taken. You are asked to sit down by a polite but hostile official. (more…)


Maya Youssef, Syrian kanun player

Amidst all the strife that the Syrian people have been suffering over the past year, imagine a musical break. Imagine Vivaldi in Syria. Imagine a performance of Vivaldi’s “winter” from his Four Seasons. Imagine this played by the Syrian National Orchestra and accompanied by a kanun. Well, imagine no more. You can listen to Maya Youssef playing this right now. Enjoy.

For more information on Maya Youssef, click here.


woman in Sanaa, March, 1978; Photo by Daniel Martin Varisco


Shit happens but Manure Matters. The latter is the title of a recently published anthology, edited by Richard Jones for Ashgate with details about the historical use of manure in Europe, India and the Arab World. My own contribution to the volume is entitled “Zibl and Zirā‘a: Coming to Terms with Manure in Arab Agriculture,” (pp. 129-143).

Here is the description of the book, as posted on Ashgate’s website:

This book brings together the work of a group of international scholars working on social, cultural, and economic issues relating to past manure and manuring. Contributors use textual, linguistic, archaeological, scientific and ethnographic evidence as the basis for their analyses. The scope of the papers is temporally and geographically broad; they span the Neolithic through to the modern period and cover studies from the Middle East, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and India. Together they allow us to explore the signatures that manure and manuring have left behind, and the vast range of attitudes that have surrounded both substance and activity in the past and present.

Contents: Why manure matters, Richard Jones; Science and practice: the ecology of manure in historical retrospect, Robert Shiel; Middening and manuring in Neolithic Europe: issues of plausibility, intensity and archaeological method, Amy Bogaard; (Re)cycles of life in late Bronze Age southern Britain, Kate Waddington; Organic geochemical signatures of ancient manure use, Ian Bull and Richard Evershed; Dung and stable manure on waterlogged archaeological occupation sites: some ruminations on the evidence from plant and invertebrate remains, Harry Kenward and Allan Hall; Manure and middens in English place-names, Paul Cullen and Richard Jones; The formation of anthropogenic soils across three marginal landscapes on Fair Isle and in The Netherlands and Ireland, Ben Pears; Zibl and zira’a: coming to terms with manure in Arab agriculture, Daniel Varisco; Understanding medieval manure, Richard Jones; Lost soles: ethnographic observations on manuring practices in a Mediterranean community, Hamish Forbes; Manure, soil and the Vedic literature: agricultural knowledge and practice on the Indian subcontinent over the last two millennia, Vanaja Ramprasad; Postscript, Richard Jones; Bibliography; Index.


Brill has just announced the inaugural issue of a new publication, the Journal of Sufi Studies. The first issue is currently available free online. the following excerpt is from the editor’s introduction:

While the academic study of Sufism has a relatively long and productive pedigree in both western and Islamic academic discourses, in recent years the mainstay philological, philosophical and literary approaches to the subject have begun to give way to a much wider array of approaches drawn from across the humanities and social sciences. In the new conversational vistas and cross-fertilizations attendant to the study of the subject that such a situation portends, it would appear that the time is now ripe for sentiment to give way to assurance. What can, for example, anthropologists bring to the table which might be of interest to art historians? How might the insights of those dealing with philosophical discourse inform the work of those interested in cultural history? How and in what ways might a study devoted to pre-modern Sufi communities be usefully placed alongside one investigating globalized Sufi networks in modern times? While disciplinary territoriality and parochialism might been seen as posing difficulties to an effort seeking to link together scholarly engagements produced in different academic arenas, creating a space for genuine conversation and cross-fertilization on a subject of shared interest is not necessarily as arduous as it may sound. This, especially when dealing with a subject as amendable to a general multivocality, scholarly or otherwise, as that which this journal looks to engage.

It is precisely such a space which the Journal of Sufi Studies looks to create: an international scholarly forum for research on Sufism which, in taking an expansive view of the subject, brings together all disciplinary perspectives so as to promote a wide understanding of the richly variegated Sufi tradition in both thought and practice and in its cultural and social contexts. By providing a forum for academic research of the highest caliber on any and all denotable instances of Sufism wherever they may be situated, the journal looks to make a distinctive contribution to current scholarship on Sufism and its integration into the broader field of Islamic studies. As such, it is the fervent hope of the editors that this journal will come to serve as a meaningful outlet for the field of Sufi studies, one which fosters, shapes and energizes the efforts of those researchers who have ventured to engage one or another instantiation of the particularly persistent feature of the Islamic tradition which is Sufism, and in doing so contribute to those processes which are presently shaping the contours of the field itself.

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