December 2013

Old city of Sanaa from the Bakiriya Mosque, from a photograph taken in 1962; courtesy of Dr. Muhammad Gerhoum

This is a fascinating ABC video about attitudes towards Muslims in America. It was filmed in a small town in upstate New York. There were two actors, one an obvious “Muslim” looking man selling sandwiches and another an actor being a bigot. The film captures people’s reactions, most of whom were appalled by the bigot. It is well worth watching.

Egyptian drink seller near al-Azhar in 1983; photography by Daniel Martin Varisco

Egypt faces an ethical dilemma, one that affects anyone who has ever visited or carried out research in the country. My first experience in Egypt was in early 1981 when I conducted research in Asyut on rural sanitation for a USAID project, my first development assignment. This was still Sadat’s Egypt, open to American aid and seeking to end the bitter taste of unwinnable war with Israel. I felt safe no matter where I traveled. The only time I winced was when I visited the Pharaonic ruins in Luxor and stayed in one of the lesser hotels. Striking up a conversation with the young man at the hotel desk, he asked me if I could tell the nationality of another guest’s passport. The passport was in Hebrew and the guest was the Israeli consul. I calmly explained this to the clerk, who took it in stride – another paying customer. In 1983 I was able to spend a year in Cairo studying Islamic manuscripts at Dar al-Kutub, the Egyptian National Library. I could walk from my apartment in Zamalek on Ahmet Hishmet Street across the kubri to the library with my only fear being how to dodge the insane traffic crossing the corniche. I literally walked everywhere, enjoying the kebab, falafel and Groppi sweets. And everywhere I was welcomed with a hospitality and humor that anyone who has lived in Egypt can attest. This is the Egypt I have fond memories of, but this is now the Egypt that is exploding from within.

Egypt’s problems have always been forced upon the people by conquest after conquest from the Hyksos to the Greeks to the Arabs to the French to the British. The Arab Spring that seemed to bring the modern era of pseudo-Mamluk dictators to a close was heralded as a new beginning. The election, despite doubts of its validity, of Ibrahim Morsy as president with the obvious blessing at the time of the military was seen by many pundits as a hopeful sign. Would the Muslim Brotherhood, long in opposition but with a wide following, manage to meld their Islamic fervor with a stable and tolerant democracy? Whether this experiment might eventually have worked is now a moot point. The military coup that deposed Morsy last summer has now declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. (more…)

by Ian Burrell, The Independent, October 18, 2013

The British public has such “poor religious literacy” that a modern audience would be baffled by the Monty Python film The Life of Brian – because it would not understand the Biblical references, a senior BBC figure has claimed.

Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, told The Independent that failings in religious education over two generations were undermining public understanding of contemporary national and international issues. “You had generations that missed out. We have poor religious literacy in this country and we have to do something about it,” he said.

He was speaking at the launch of an ambitious three-part BBC2 series which will address the subject of pilgrimage from a broad perspective and is intended to attract the interest of Atheists as much as religious believers.

“If you tried to make The Life of Brian today it would fall flat on its face because the vast majority of the audience would not get most of the jokes. They don’t have the knowledge,” Ahmed said. He questioned whether modern audiences would appreciate that the “great joke about the Sermon on the Mount” in the 1979 Python film, where a woman asks “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?”, was a reference to Jesus’s words “Blessed are the peacemakers” from the Bible. (more…)

Madonna del Prato, Givanni Bellini, 1505

Today is Christmas, the annual celebration of a Jewish man who literally turned history inside out and gave his name, knowingly or not, to what is the world’s largest religion, Christianity. Within Judaism he is one of many messiah hopefuls; among Muslims he is a major prophet whose followers did not tell the real story that was later revealed to Muhammad, the last of the biblical-line prophets. Regardless of who Jesus really was, one of his titles sounded at this time of year is the “Prince of Peace.” The Gospels quite clearly indicate that Jesus was not a warmonger. Anyone who would say “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) or “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) would hardly charge into any battle with intent to kill. The irony is that the Gospel prophet promoting peace has been turned into the cause for doing exactly the opposite, whether slaughtering fellow Christians, launching pogroms against the Jews or crusading against Muslims. As Mark Twain so eloquently put it:

“Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven…”

So if the Jesus of the Gospels, even of the Epistles, was so peace-loving, even to the extent of not fighting to save his own life on earth, why are there so many princes of war that think they are being loyal to his memory? I suppose Machiavelli’s The Prince offers as good an explanation as any; this is a book that advocates war to maintain peace rather than peace to eliminate the need for war. (more…)

Snow at the Sphinx

As the above photograph shows, even the treasured sands of Egypt are not immune to Mother Nature’s cold warnings. Snow is rare in Egypt and when it falls there is certain to be much interest in what such a climatic omen portends, especially given the mystery that surrounds the Sphinx. After Napoleon’s invasion, unsuccessful as it was from a military standpoint, Egyptomania raged in Europe. There are many poems, as well as paintings, that draw an Orientalist view of the region. Even Mark Twain set down Tom Sawyer over the pyramids. On this Christmas Eve, when the birth of Christ is celebrated throughout the world, including Egypt, it is well to remember that mystery is in the air. Given that General Sisi has admitted that his climb to power was foreordained in a dream, the mysteries coming out of Egypt are as alive as ever.

Oscar Wilde is probably not a name anyone would associate with the night before Christmas. But he did write a semi-humorous and rather long poem in 1894 entitled “the Sphinx.” The whole version can be found here, but I excerpt a few lines to assist in the holiday spirit:

A thousand weary centuries
Are thine, while I have hardly seen
Some twenty summers cast their green
For Autumn’s gaudy liveries.

But you can read the Hieroglyphs
On the great sandstone obelisks,
And you have talked with Basilisks
And you have looked on Hippogriffs. (more…)

I suspect that no one reading this blog has ever heard of Joshua Davidson. He was born, actually created, in 1872 as a fictional character in a social commentary novel published by Eliza Lynn Linton and entitled The True History of Joshua Davidson, Christian and Communist, which is available online. I came across this fascinating not-quite-modern-day parable in a published lecture by the British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Linton’s book, originally published anonymously, imagines Jesus as a mid-19th century Englishman who sees the vicars of his day as pharisees and the money-changers outside the fancy cathedrals. In the end he is killed, like Christ, because he dared to live like the Jesus of the Gospels. The book is well worth a read speaking truth to the imperialist and high-church-minded power of Britain well over a century ago. But let the narrative speak for itself.


The famous Hadrami town of Shibam

News reports over the past week have indicated growing tensions in the Yemeni Hadramawt, following the shooting of a major tribal leader at a military checkpoint. Military outposts have been attacked and several soldiers killed in the upheaval. According to the Yemen Times, President Hadi has accepted the demands of several tribal leaders who asked for the closing of military camps and for investigation of those responsible for killing the shaykh. To appease the local inhabitants, Hadi also promised that the oil companies in the area would hire more Hadramis.

The Hadramawt has a fascinating history as a region often sheltered from the events happening elsewhere in Yemen. There is probably no region that has seen more out-migration over the centuries with Hadramis establishing a major foothold in India, Indonesia and the East Africa coast. For a delightful video on the scenes and history of the Hadramawt in Arabic, click here.

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