Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Saudi Vignettes

A trip to the antiques market yielded another unexpected find last week. There, I came across a book entitled Saudi Arabia: An Artist's View of the Past.

This hardcover book published in 1979 by Jeddah-born artist Safeya Binzagr features interesting sketches and paintings of traditional Saudi scenes.

Binzagr was compelled to capture and preserve images of old world Saudi Arabian life as the pace of sweeping cultural and technological change quickened in the latter half of the 20th century.

Her illustrations (a combination of oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, and etchings) capture the finer details of traditional Bedouin life. The writer of the book's preface commends Binzagr for having “done something commendable, for she has preserved these scenes from the ravages of time and oblivion.”

She reportedly took much of her material from old photographs which she found at such places as the Royal Geographical Society in London.

“It is important for Saudis to remember, and for the West to learn,” Safeya writes in her introduction. “This book will be a record for the new generation.”

A quick Internet search yielded a website for Binzagr’s gallery, which opened in Jedda in 2000, and where many of her works are displayed today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Ancient Olive Trees of Bechealeh

Lebanon is famous for its biblical cedars. But there are also ancient olive trees in the country that rival the cedars in age and beauty. They may or may not be as old as the Ministry of Tourism claims (4,000 B.C.), but nature's craftsmanship and the twists and turns of the wood over centuries is a metaphor for time itself.

This miniature grove of half a dozen trees is tucked away on a small road on the way to Douma in the northern Lebanese mountains. From there, one can climb to the valley of Tannourine, and further up towards the great cedars themselves. Unlike those emblematic trees, however, it's very easy to just drive by and miss the ancient olive grove of Bechealeh.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

'The Baptized Sultan'

Most people are aware of the impact of Islamic Spain on the European history. The role of Andalusian philosophers, mystics, and translators on the development of the West cannot be underestimated. What is less known is the positive effects of Islam on Italy, and its role in the blossoming of the Renaissance there. Over the coming months, we'll examine some of the key examples of this influence, among other cross-cultural learning.

In these days of globalization and the confusion that comes with it, it may be useful to examine some past examples where cultural mixing and tolerance by leaders led to positive and unexpected developments. In the late 11th century in Sicily, Norman kings developed a royal dynasty. One of its first kings, Roger II, had a court that combined East and West, Christianity and Islam, merging the traditions of civilizations from all shores of the Mediterranean. His son, Frederick II, who was a polymath, went on to become an even greater cultural and political innovator, as well as Holy Roman Emperor.

Frederick's string of achievements were unusual: he established a written constitution that protected the rights of his subjects and founded the first secular university in Europe at Naples (Thomas Aquinas later studied there before going on to theological greatness in Paris). He also set up a refuge for Troubadours fleeing from southern France, and a Sicilian school of poetry which directly influenced the poetry of Dante.

Like the great Italian poet, Frederick's court used the local dialect for literature, rather than the traditional Latin. And despite Germanic and Norman roots, Frederick spoke Arabic fluently. His court scholars in Palermo translated the great works of Ibn Rushd and Aristotle, and it is even claimed that Arabic numerals came to Europe through his efforts. Frederick was so Arabized that he was referred to by some as "The Baptized Sultan".

This fantastic cross-mingling that he permitted helped re-awaken European culture. Significantly, Frederick II disbelieved anything that could not be proved by reason. Like Akhenaton, the great pharaoh, he insisted on shutting down charlatanism among physicians, and banned useless cures. He was also a profound religious iconoclast, and is said to have denounced Moses, Jesus and Mohammed as deceivers and fakes. For this and his closeness to Muslims in general, he earned himself a place in the sixth level of Dante's inferno - a heretic to forever burn in his tomb.

Frederick was also excommunicated four times, once by Pope Gregory IX for refusing to join the Crusades. When he finally travelled to the East, he managed to rapidly parlay access for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land in his discussions with the Sultan of Egypt. Indeed, he viewed the peoples of Islam as a rich and honorable society to be respected and learned from - possibly one of the secrets of his success, earning him the title 'The Wonder of the World' in his time.

The Emperor was described by the Damascene chronicler, Sibt Ibn Al Jawzi as having "eyes green like .. a serpent. He was covered with red hair… bald and myopic. Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at the market."

Frederick II is an example of the constructive coexistence of cultures at a time of great intolerance. His achievements speak to the possibility of success even as cultures blend and mix under duress. Through his eccentricities, his liberalism and healthy linkages with the Muslim world, he became a key door for the knowledge of the East to enter Europe and begin the process that we know as the Renaissance.