Thursday, December 27, 2007

On Benazir Bhutto's Assassination

Today, yet again, we witnessed an act of savagery that now passes as part of the regular political discourse in the Middle East and neighboring Muslim countries. The culprits in Bhutto's assassination are probably al Qaeda or one of its associates from the North West Frontier province bordering Afghanistan. Also high on the short list is the ISI, Pakistan's all powerful intelligence agency. These suspects are not mutually exclusive as the ISI seems to play both sides of the political divide in Pakistan. Bhutto's courageous and vocal opposition of Islamic extremists put her in the crosshairs of al Qaida and their backers, but it was also her very public endorsement by the U.S. that made her politically radioactive.

Despite Benazir's checkered political past, there is something about her that has intrigued me. I am not sure what it is exactly; her intelligence, her charisma, her good looks or the fact that she was a powerful Muslim woman who shatters the stereotypes. It is perhaps a combination of the above. Whatever it is, there was the hope, the promise that she might...might... bring a new approach to the politics of a critical Muslim country the fate of which is now intricately linked to that of the Middle East.

An objective review of her stints as prime minister would suggest that I am wrong in having been hopeful about her. However, her last time in office was over a decade ago. She deserved a second chance; she certainly did not deserve this end.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christian Muslim Dialogue in the Syrian Desert

Interesting story on the interfaith dialogue set up by an Italian Jesuit priest in Deir Mar Musa al Habashi monastery between Damascus and Homs.

Syrian Church Aims to Foster Religious Dialogue
by Deborah Amos;National Public Radio, December 26, 2007 ·

Every 33 years, the major Christian and Muslim holidays of Christmas and Eid al Adha fall close together. This is one of those years.
While Christmas focuses on the birth of Jesus Christ, Eid al Adha centers on Abraham, a shared prophet from the Koran and the Bible's Old Testament. In the Middle East, these dual holidays are reminders of the many shared traditions of Muslims and Christians.
Deck the Malls
In the predominantly Muslim country of Syria, Christmas trees twinkle in shopping malls. Muslim neighborhoods are decorated with festive lights, a new custom borrowed from Christians.
The jingle bells are jazzy at the Damascus opera house – and the choir is decked out in gold robes. The horn players wear angel wings. Syria's Christian community celebrates the season with a traditional concert. Muslim families, also part of the tradition, join in the holiday cheer.
Across the Middle East, however, true understanding between Muslims and Christians is harder to find.
Leading the Way
One religious community in a mountaintop monastery is trying to lead the way to understanding. Dier Mar Musa is a long trek up a mountainside, up hundreds of stone steps that finally lead to an arched doorway, a courtyard and a church. The church was built more than 1,500 years ago, when Christians were a majority in the region.
"Christians in the Middle East, the numbers are going down quickly," says Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, who leads this community of Christians and Muslims. "Some of us are willing to create hope together, to build a complementary world vision in a way that we can work on our future world, hand-by-hand as minorities that have something to offer to majorities."
An Organic Life
Dall'Oglio makes sure there is tea after the long hike and a sumptuous spread of cheese, jam, olives and bread. The community produces the food it needs.
"We have only goats because this mountain is so high," says Luay Jubail, a veterinarian who takes care of the goat herd. "All the milk from the goats, only is special to produce cheese and everything is organic."
Sister Huda Faduil conducts tours of the church, the restored 6th century altar and medieval frescos of Bible stories. She has lived here for 13 years; she says she was attracted to the monastery's main mission.
"The first time I came for a visit only to see the place," she says. "It has attracted me, the simplicity of the place and our vocation, the dialogue with Islam."
To promote this dialogue, a place has been set aside within the church for Muslims to pray facing the holy city of Mecca. And on the wall, Arabic calligraphy in the shape of a dove spells out first phrase of the Muslim call to prayer.
Dall'Oglio, who came here from Italy in the 1980s as a young seminary student, says he found his life's work in this ancient place, promoting dialogue between Muslims and Christians.
"Each one of us, Muslims and Christians, we block the other in our concepts. We don't know about how the other build his hope, his relationship with God and others, his feeling about the secret spiritual dimension of life," Dall'Oglio says. "From that level, we are in a failure of dialogue and we have to start and start again."

Friday, December 14, 2007

What do Mormons and Muslims Have in Common?

No, you guessed wrong if you said polygamy. What they have in common is that in the United States both are vilified in the court of public opinion.

Since the events of 9/11 it has been open season on everything Arab or Muslim in the American media and among American politicians. What was considered unacceptable public discourse about any other religion, became perfectly acceptable when it came to Islam. This discourse served certain political and religious agendas intent on spreading fear and paranoia. One of the issues often remarked upon, usually with great indignation, is Islam's intolerance of dissent and of other religious traditions. This was always carefully contrasted with the West's superior and "exemplary" religious tolerance -history be damned.

So it is with great amusement that I now watch evangelical Christians, George W's constituency and the backbone of the Republican party, go after Mitt Romney, a Mormon, with the same zeal that they attacked Muslims. They accuse Romney of being the follower of a cult and insist that Mormons are not Christians. It makes them sound like a Wahhabi denouncing anyone who is not. It turns out, ultra-conservative evangelicals are as quick at pushing theTakfir button as Wahhabis are.

But the public preoccupation with Mormons does not mean that Muslims are off the hook. It turns out that one of Hillary Clinton's volunteer campaign workers was spreading email rumors that Barack Obama was (Gasp!!!) a crypto-Muslim. As if that is not bad enough, rumors have it that he sympathizes with Al Qaida types (double Gasp!!). Such garbage is not new as the not-so-Freudian slip of a conservative commentator a couple of years ago who called him Barack Osama clearly shows.

Doesn't look so good for the much vaunted religious tolerance of the Western, Judeo-Christian civilization.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Peace through Gastronomy

Interesting review from the New York times Magazine on Middle Eastern cooking books written by Oriental Jews. Makes me long for an alternative reality than the one we live where Arabs and Jews got along. Politics aside, it is not that far-fetched, the rift is not personal or cultural. If one applies Brillat-Savarin's axiom, then Poopa Dweck is first and foremost a Syrian as much as Roden is Egyptian.

Culinary Orientalism
By Jon Fasman
NYT Magazine, December 9, 2007

Tell me what you eat,” wrote the 19th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I shall tell you what you are.” In other words, an understanding of a community’s cuisine entails an understanding of the community itself. Of late, the cookbook industry seems to have made — perhaps unwittingly — a case that understanding Middle Eastern cuisine is the path to resolving the world’s geopolitical crises.

Consider Claudia Roden’s “Arabesque,” a cookbook that takes in the variant cuisines of Turkey, Morocco and Lebanon. In a review in Slate, Michael Lukas, an American living in Turkey, points out that “Arabesque” is not just — is not even primarily — an excellent cookbook: by socially, politically and historically contextualizing the three cuisines, he argues, Roden has also written an effective primer on the diversity of the Middle East. Lukas even goes so far as to suggest that the late scholar and activist Edward Said (the author of “Orientalism,” an influential critique of traditional scholarship about the Middle East) might have recommended Roden’s book as a reliable guide to the region.

Poopa Dweck has done something similar to Roden’s feat in “Aromas of Aleppo,” a Syrian-Jewish cookbook that was published in August. Like Roden, Dweck traces her roots back to the all-but-vanished Jewish communities of the Levant. Aleppian Jewish cuisine, she argues — like the cuisine of any community — reflects and defines the community’s history. The Syrian Jews’ version of the classic Arab dish laham b’ajeen, for instance, gets its bite from tamarind, which they use far more than most other communities in the Middle East. Add together a few hundred such small differences and you have a subcommunity.

Dweck says that “the Europeans built a wall around themselves. We didn’t. My mother was shoulder to shoulder with Arabs in the market. We learned all our recipes from them.” A message of hope? Sure, but underneath that, an understanding of the need to understand.

(Photo by Yasmina)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Holland and Its Muslim Immigrants

On a minibus transporting researchers to a medical conference, a Dutch colleague, sitting across from me said "look a mosque with TWO minarets". A sly smirk flashed across his face as he emphasized "two", as if trying to bait me. I turned around to look. Indeed, there amidst a drab urban landscape at the edge of Rotterdam, was a humble small mosque, not particularly attractive, with a central dome framed by two small, slender minarets. Refusing to bite, I said "yes, it is Turkish in style and their mosques often have two minarets". There was no further discussion. Now, I am not one to over read what people say, but clearly his statement was pregnant with what was left unsaid. "It is bad enough that we let THEM build a mosque, but then they have to rub it in by building TWO minarets" is what he meant to say. This sentiment, in a nutshell, summarizes the state of European suspicion, paranoia and distrust towards the recent -and not so recent- Muslim immigrants. The latest manifestation of this tension is the ongoing battle over the building of mosques.

In Holland, known for a long time for its liberal policies on immigration the tide turned abruptly in 2004 when the film maker and rabid Islamophobe, Leo van Gogh, was murdered by a home grown Muslim extremist. This murder was followed by numerous acts of vandalism against the Dutch Muslim community and resulted in a palpable hardening of Dutch feelings towards immigrants and asylum seekers in general.

Twenty to thirty years ago as the Dutch standard of living rose, these immigrants, mostly from Morocco and Turkey, streamed in to fill a void at the bottom of the labor market. In Holland, as many Northern European countries, they were provided with housing in communities physically separated from the rest of the population. The reasoning was that the immigrants were in Holland temporarily and thus keeping them together would maintain their sense of community and cultural integrity. Or perhaps the explanation was just a cover for a covert racist attitude among the Dutch who preferred that their "guest workers" remained out of sight. Whatever the true reason, this setup created second and third generation immigrants who are alienated and disenfranchised from the rest of the Dutch society and who became easy prey for peddlers of extremist ideologies. Some in Holland lay the blame on the immigrants themselves saying they prefer living in insular communities and that their closed and conservative faith prevents them from integrating into Dutch society. Yet some of my thoughtful Dutch colleagues tell me that me that racism and anti-Muslim feelings, present long before Leo van Gogh was murdered, are also largely to blame. A job application form with an Arab or Muslim sounding name, they assure me, stands little chance of being selected regardless of qualifications.

(Photo: Leiden canal, posterized photo by AK)

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Algerian singer Souad Massi is one of my favorite female vocalists. Her smooth silky voice is like a soothing balm for all that ails you. Her voice warms you up like a cup of steaming hot, sweet, Magherbian mint tea; better than any synthetic drug- legal or otherwise. But she is more than just a beautiful voice. Her music is highly original, melding together many musical traditions but never too far from her Algerian roots.

Raoui (Storyteller) is one of my favorite Massi song. Listen to the lyrics.