July 2012

Gold dinar of the Rasulid sultan al-Malik al-Mansur ‘Umar b. ‘Ali

Sailing Seasons in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean:
The View from Rasulid (13th-14th Centuries) Aden

by Daniel Martin Varisco

[This is a lecture presented at the Red Sea Trade and Travel Study Day of the Society for Arabian Studies at the British Museum, October 5, 2002, and subsequently published in Yemen Update. For Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here; for Part 3, click here.]

Monday, 19 Sha‘ban, 691 (August 5, 1292)

Most travelers that I know complain of the lack of fresh water here in Aden, but I think the more serious omission is basic intelligence. Perhaps the unbearable heat drains their brains as well as their bowels. Instead of unloading our ship on the third day, we were kept waiting a full extra day before finally being allowed into customs. One would think their interest in picking our pockets would speed up rather than prolong this unpleasant process. I was under orders to take the gift directly to the sultan, and I am half tempted to write a letter immediately to the master of this land and apprise him of the inattention that seems to plague his servants in the port. After all, I represent the Karimi, not some cheap junk from Serendib! (more…)

The great thing about America is that in theory (and mainly in theory) anyone has an equal opportunity to become a VIP in the usual sense. Certainly a President, no matter what the party, is a Very Important Person. So, in theory, is a representative from the U.S. House of Representatives. But Michele Bachmann, who ran for the Republican nomination and briefly led the lackluster field, is another kind of VIP: a Very Ignorant Pariah. Not just ignorant, but very ignorant, as she demonstrates almost every time she makes a public statement. And now it is increasingly clear that she has reached Pariah stage, even in her own party (at least the part that doesn’t get drunk on tea). In finding a few other out-there representatives, she has written a letter (which you can see here) demanding an official investigation of a Muslim American senior official, Huma Abedin, in the State Department. Before any prominent Muslims could cry “Foul,” the news media (like CNN’s Anderson Cooper) and fellow Republicans (like John McCain) leveled blistering attacks on her tactics. Even Fox News has turned its guns inward, publishing a commentary by Ed Rollins, a former campaign advisor for Bachman, comparing her to Joseph McCarthy. Add to this mix Scott Brown and Marco Rubio.

The tragedy is that Bachmann sits on the House Intelligence Committee. How oxymoronic is that: the queen of un-intelligence sits on this powerful committee of the United States government. (more…)

Lamu; Photograph by Daniel Martin Varisco

by Irena Knehtl, Yemen Post, April 15, 2012

One of the city-states founded by Yemeni Hadhrami Arabs was Lamu, an island off the present Kenyan coast, a world heritage site

Throughout its history Yemen has been a seafaring nation, famed for boat building and its mariners navigation skills. While the Yemeni sailors harnessed the monsoon winds to reach distant ports, inland its farmers harnessed water to develop life-sustaining agriculture adopting to a harsh and often formidable environment.

Archaeologists are still investigating these long gone civilizations that have played a major role in transforming global history. These ancient civilizations introduced deep-sea sailing vessels capable of long distance travel and trade. At this time writing, banking, shareholding were established and developed societies were formed for perhaps the first time over.

Linen, cotton, wool and metal were taken to China, where cargoes of silk, camphor, musk, spice were exchanged and Yemen acquired ceramics. Southern Arabia was on cross roads on the trade routes between China and India to the East, and the Red Sea and East Africa to the southwest providing merchants with a huge and lucrative markets. One of the city-states founded by Yemeni Hadhrami Arab travelers was located on the island just off the northern coast of present day Kenya called Lamu. (more…)


The constant news about fighting and violence in Yemen obscures the extraordinary beauty in the country. Here is a short video with spectacular views, the pristine nature being sold somewhat soiled by the appearance of tourists. If you ignore this aspect, especially the rather distorted account of tourism amenities, it is worth watching.

Bracketing Realities in Lebanon; photograph by Estella Carpi

Confessionalization fundamentalism: commodifying religious identities in the Middle East

by Estella Carpi, Open Democracy, 16 July 2012

Middle Eastern revolutionaries and spectators alike, deprived in the media of any representation of their own agency and denied the chance of producing their own new life chances, end up commodifying the identities they are exposed to within their social pattern.

As Maya Mikdashi has argued in an interview released to Istituto di Studi Politici Internazionali (ISPI), published on Jadaliyya on June 21, the uprising in Syria itself is becoming more sectarian now, packaged in a way such that ‘sect’ seems to be the political marker that matters the most.

This development could be taken as a starting point to point to a more widespread arbitrary confessionalization of Middle Eastern conflicts, and of the Syrian revolution in particular. “Crisis”, “sunnization of the revolt”, “new balance between Sunnis and Shiites” and “civil war” are key terms used by the media in reporting the current events.

Voices from think-tank and news analysts actually unfamiliar with the Arab world have largely contributed to portraying a patchwork image of the Middle East composed of ethnic and religious groups that do not fight each other only thanks to the power of dictators that discipline and guide these irrational individualities. (more…)

Sailing Seasons in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean:
The View from Rasulid (13th-14th Centuries) Aden

by Daniel Martin Varisco

[This is a lecture presented at the Red Sea Trade and Travel Study Day of the Society for Arabian Studies at the British Museum, October 5, 2002, and subsequently published in Yemen Update. For Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here.]

Thursday, 15 Sha‘ban, 691, August 1, 1292

We are now but a day’s sail away from safe haven in Aden, if God wills and the wind does not cease to obey his commands. It has been a good journey thus far. No major storms or pirates, though we did see a shipwreck on the reefs south of the Farasan Islands. Our pilot, praise God, knows his way over the shoals, even if blindfolded, I think. In the morning we took aboard some fresh water at al-‘Ara, after coursing around the tip at Bab al-Mandab and leaving Bahr al-Qulzum. After my noon prayer, when the sun beat down so mercilessly and I was sorely tempted to jump into the water with all my clothes on, I suddenly remembered that this was the midpoint of Sha‘ban with only two weeks left until the holy fasting month. Today is the anniversary of the day the Prophet, peace be upon him, was instructed to make Mecca the qibla rather than Jerusalem. God willing, I will make the pilgrimage in the coming year. Even thinking of the well of Zamzam made the warm water in the fantash all the more sweeter.

As night fell, I remembered an earlier trip, when a tormenting monsoon tore our sail and nearly capsized the ship as we departed Zayla‘ for Bab al-Mandab. These were the ‘awasif winds, fouling us with the stench that only Iblis breaking wind could send. That turning point is a dangerous point. An old sailor on board, who has often traveled along the African coast from Mogadishu, told me that only ships like our jalba can make the passage safely; no boat with iron nails could sail past, for God, our Protector, has ordained a magnetic mountain to attract hand-wrought nails and split an intruding vessel asunder. But only the infidel Christians defy nature with such innovations. May God protect the holy cities from the ravenous appetites of crusader cannibals. (more…)

Anti-Obama propaganda on Americans Stand with Israel website

Ellison Challenges Bachmann: Put Up or Shut Up

by James Zogby, The Huffington Post, July 14, 2012

A few weeks back, the sensation-seeking Representative Michele Bachmann did her best imitation of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. She and four of her Congressional colleagues released letters they had collectively sent to the Inspectors General of the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security, and the Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence calling on them to investigate whether “influence operations conducted by individuals and organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood” have “had an impact on the federal government’s national security policies.”

Warning of “determined efforts by the Muslim Brotherhood to penetrate and subvert the American government as part of its ‘civilizational jihad'” the representatives wanted the Inspectors General to identify the Muslims who were influencing U.S. policy.

In making these charges, Bachmann and her cohorts were relying on the work of a Washington-based group the Center for Security Policy — a notorious player in the anti-Muslim industry that has been working for several years to smear Muslim American groups. The head of the Center served as one of Bachmann’s advisers during her ill-fated run for the presidency and the only source cited in the Congressional letters was the Center’s “training program,” “The Muslim Brotherhood in America: The Enemy Within.” (more…)

A variety of Islamophobes have comfortable media niches, including “opinion writer” Charles Krauthammer, whose Krauthammering away at Islam as a political force in yesterday’s Washington Post is yet another low blow. Krauthammer admits, almost laments, that Libya “appears to have elected a relatively moderate pro-Western government.” But, then who cares since “Libya is less a country than an oil well with a long beach and myriad tribes.” I suppose one could expand on this to argue that Texas is less a state than an oil well with a long beach and myriad rednecks. Libya is a country, Mr. Krauthammer, and one that is struggling to remake itself after decades of a dictator that the West loved to hate but actually did nothing to undo. Ah, but after all, this is obviously an exception in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring.”

They say that ignorance is bliss, so consider the bliss as Krauthammer’s view unfolds: “Tunisia and Morocco, the most Westernized of all Arab countries, elected Islamist governments. ” The most “Westernized”? This might come as a surprise to the Lebanese, unless they fail to qualify as Arab. Does he mean that they happen to be rather close to Europe? Is being “Westernized” a geographical issue? Does being “Westernized” mean accepting American foreign policy without reservations or having access to iphones and Hollywood movies? Morocco, by the way, is still a kingdom and not part of the “Arab Spring.” (more…)

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