January 2014

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher/historian, is oft quoted for equating knowledge (savoir) with power (pouvoir). Thanks to investigative reporting by Yemeni journalists, we now have knowledge about how Ali Abdullah Salih, the former President of Yemen, used his power to create riyal-ity, that is fabulous wealth skimmed off Yemen’s oil revenues in riyals. As reported in Yemen Press, Salih funneled millions of his wealth to the United Arab Emirates, also having villas built for his family. He has also distributed his vast wealth, as yet unaccounted for, to Morocco, France, Germany and Italy. It is reported that he did not use his own name, but those of family members.

So what else is new? Dictators, like kings and sultans of the past, have always enriched themselves while poor people starved on the streets. The more power tends to be absolute,or near absolute, the more the coffers get filled. Mamluk sultans in Egypt would periodically sack wealthy officials or merchants just to absorb their wealth. While most contemporary states have safeguards to prevent wholesale laundering of a country’s wealth, dictators generally define their own rules. While Asad hangs on to power in embattled Syria, there are no doubt several bank accounts full of cash if he ends up being forced out.

While it is true that there are various kinds of power, positive as well as negative, economics trumps the abstract notion of knowledge. Greed explains more than prejudice, although the two generally go hand in hand. Yemen is a special case in the seasonal shift following the Arab Spring. (more…)

Coptic Mother and Child, 1875, painting by Frederick Goodall, mid 19th century

The English artist Frederick Goodall provides a number of portraits of ordinary Egyptians in the mid to late 19th century. For more details on Goodall, click here for an earlier post.

Study of a Bedouin Girl, painting by Frederick Goodall, mid 19th century


In a previous post I continued a series on the universal history of John Clark Ridpath. The image above is the classic image of a preacher, looking more Gospel than imamic to my eyes. I would question the sincerity of a famed imam who relied on a print version of the Quran rather than his own memory, as the image above suggests. The “preacher” with hands outstretched is a trope that crosses cultures, whether or not it is the cross being pounded on the pulpit (and certainly not on the minbar). Consider John Eliot who set his eyes on converting the “heathen” natives of the new world:

Or the long history of fire-and-brimstone wailing of American Protestants.

In a previous post I continued a series on the universal history of John Clark Ridpath. As one might expect, a particularly important place is reserved for Mecca itself. The image above is an ornamentation for the start of Ridpath’s discussion of Islam. The image below is a drawing of the hajj season where any sense of the individual is lost, resulting in a blur of heads.

to be continued

Right before the first missile struck this Toyota Hi-lux — fourth in the line of vehicles — all three of its occupants fled, including the man whom eyewitnesses thought was the apparent target of the strike. Iona Craig

A little more than a month ago on December 12, 2013 a drone sent four missiles into a wedding convoy in rural Yemen, apparently targeting a senior al-Qaida figure. In this attack 12 men died. The secrecy surrounding this tragic event has prevented an accurate accounting of what actually happened. This report by Iona Craig, an independent journalist based in Sanaa, provides a thorough analysis, based on interviews with the people involved. This is the best analysis of the event that I have seen. Check it out on al-Jazeera.

There was a time when the flat earth Mediterranean ended at the Pillars of Hercules. On a recent visit to Morocco, Anouar Majid visited the “Cave of Hercules” at Cape Spartel and recorded the sounds. Check it out on his blog by clicking here.

In a previous post I introduced the universal history of John Clark Ridpath. In a section on the origins of Islam Ridpath includes several illustrations. The Orientalist trope of depicting the Prophet Muhammad, as seen in the image above, is interesting because it is a very Ottoman style of dress. The style looks like an Italian version of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the conqueror. Just as devout Protestant missionaries and preachers saw the Bedouin of 19th century Palestine as the exact image of the patriarchs, so it was no stretch of the Orientalist imagination (although it was indeed quite a stretch) to present Muhammad in Ottoman style.


For those curious about the illustration in the earlier post, this is said to be a scene of the tombs in Cairo.

to be continued

For anyone interested in following the rapidly situation on the ground in Syria, check out the blog “Syria in Crisis” by Aron Lund at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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