March 2014



Prince in a Garden Courtyard. Folio from an illustrated manuscript (detail). 1525-30, Iran. Opaque watercolor, ink, gold, and silver on paper, 8 9/16 x 4 3/4in. (21.7 x 12.1cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1911 (11.39.1)

Islamic Art, Culture, and Politics: The Connections

Tuesday, April 1, 2014, 6 pm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

With Peter Brown, Yasmine El Rashidi, Haleh Esfandiari, Shaul Bakhash, and Navina Najat Haidar, Curator, Department of Islamic Art

The New York Review of Books and Met Museum Presents examine the living traditions of the Islamic world, in the setting of modern conflict and variations in Muslim culture. Editor Robert Silvers brings together a group of contributors for a panel discussion on the interconnectedness of art and ethos.

Save $5 per ticket with code NYRB14 at metmuseum.org. Offer expires March 30.

In 1981, during a trip to Egypt, I bought the old multi-volume Cairo edition of the mother of all Arabic dictionaries: al-Zabidi’s Taj al-‘Arus. It took up an entire suitcase and was so heavy that I paid the porter extra. As I arrived home, the handle broke and the books spilled in the landing of my home. Those were the days when most Arabic books had to be physically bought in the Middle East and carried home in luggage. Books that used to be accessible only in major libraries are often available online today. If one is patient just about any classic Arabic text from the past is available online. Some are pdf scans, where there is a treasure trove at archive.org and 4.shared.com. It is usually best to search these sites in Arabic. But even a ouja-board Google search in Arabic can yield full texts.

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The viral Youtube sensation of “First Kiss” has inspired a number of satirical responses. Here is a Saudi one.


Mohammed at the Kaaba. Miniature from the Ottoman Empire, c. 1595. Source: The Topkapi Museum, Istanbul

Folk Astronomy and Islamic Ritual

Astronomy was relevant to Muslims in large part because of several of the ritual duties proscribed in the Quran and Islamic tradition. The three most important of these are determining the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadân, reckoning the times for the five daily prayers, and determining the proper direction of the qibla or sacred direction toward Mecca. While Muslim astronomers later worked out mathematical solutions to some of these problems, correct timing and orientation could be achieved by those untrained in astronomy and with virtually no computation skills beyond simple arithmetic (King 1985:194). (more…)


By accident I came across a website called “countrylicious: World country facts” which has a section on Famous People in Yemen. It is telling that the first entry is for Mukesh Ambani, an Indian business magnate who is India’s richest man with personal wealth of $21.5 billion. He does not seem to have anything to do with Yemen, but he is followed by Tawakkol Karman and then Ali Abdullah Salih, who weighs in just above Abu Hureirah, the companion of the Prophet, who was indeed born in Yemen (the entry here is taken verbatim from Wikipedia). But then when you scroll down to Abd al-Majeed al-Zindani, a rather strange thing happens. The picture shown is actually of Anwar al-Awlaqi or else Zindani has had major plastic surgery. Here is where copying from Wikipedia can get you in trouble. The Wikipedia site for al-Zindani also has the picture of al-Awlaqi and no one checked to see the switch. So much for the facts on this site…


January 2013: Syrian government troops take position in a heavily damaged area in the old city of Aleppo; AFP/GETTY

There is a well-known, and after 2003 quite apt, proverb in Arabic: “After the destruction of Basra” (Ba’d kharab Basra). It originally referred to a slave revolt in Basra, the southern Iraqi port, in the 9th century. But it still resonates a millennium later. The savage violence that has left Syria in turmoil not seen since the days of the Mongols has now reduced major parts of one of the splendid cities of the Middle East to rubble. Now we see the destruction of Aleppo (Halab in Arabic), once Syria’s second largest city, with little evidence of a resolution of the fighting. Even the old suq has been destroyed beyond recognition. UNESCO designated Aleppo a World Heritage site, but this status has not saved it from massive destruction.


The Aleppo of the recent past

For the last three months the government of Bashir al-Asad has been dropping barrels — more than a thousand — of barrel bombs, making much of the city a ghost town. Some estimates indicate that 90% of Aleppo’s population has been forced out.

Sad pictures are readily available on the internet and on Youtube. But the horror of kharab continues. It appears that al-Asad is content to be the dictator of Damascus and let the rest of Syria be damned. Of course, he has his accomplices, the fanatic jihadists who are as vicious as the regime they are intent on toppling. Meanwhile the Syrian people suffer and the rest of the world either ignores this or makes things worse by supporting one side or the other with arms. If only we had a new proverb: ba’d kharab this insanity!


A husn or stronghold in Wadi Bayhan

The Telegraph, March 12, 2014

Nigel Groom, who has died aged 89, was an Arabist, historian, author, soldier, spy-catcher and perfume connoisseur. These pursuits saw him fend off a tribal assassination attempt in Aden, uncover a KGB spy embedded in the RAF and explain the association between frankincense and Christ’s divinity.

As a young Political Officer for the Colonial Service, Groom arrived in the British Protectorate of Aden in 1948. He was responsible for the north-eastern area, based in Bayhan, a remote emirate bordering the central Arabian Desert, and accessible only by small RAF aircraft. Two years later he took over the northern area, based in Al Dhali’, regarded at the time as a difficult, ungoverned tribal part of the Protectorate, riven by unrest fuelled by the Imam of Yemen in pursuance of his claims over the whole country.

At Christmas in 1950 the British agent for the western area of the Protectorate, Basil Seager, and his wife arrived to spend the holiday in Al Dhali’, unaware that a plot was afoot to assassinate both Seager and Groom (and their escort of Arab soldiers) at a Christmas Day lunch in a nearby village. However, while out for a walk with armed guards on Christmas Eve, Seager and his wife by chance met the chief assassin, a religious fanatic high on khat, and his party on their way to their assignment. The assassin stabbed Seager with his dagger, causing serious injury, and in the subsequent gunfight several of the escort and several assailants were killed. Groom signalled to Aden for a doctor, who arrived after a five-hour night-time journey over rough tracks, and for a substantial force of Aden Protectorate Levies, to leave early on Christmas morning to help counter a planned tribal uprising. (more…)

One of the remaining marvels off the east coast of Africa is the island archipelago of Socotra, historically associated with Yemen, the nation which it belongs to. Socotra is a preserve of biodiversity with a local population not yet catapulted into the under-development pains of the 21st century. There is a fascinating film about the need to protect Socotra’s unique environment and its people from the devastating impact of uncontrolled “development.” Among the individuals speaking is Dutch ecologist Paul Scholte, who has extensive research experience both in Yemen and Africa. Check out both parts of the film here and here. There are a number of Youtube videos on Socotra, but most are tourist oriented and do not match the information level of this film.

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