Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Tale of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men

Raymond Lull was a Mallorcan of the late Middle Ages who became known for his writings and his mystical and religious dedication. He was born into a wealthy family in Palma and worked in the royal household there until a religious conversion compelled him to travel and spread Christianity. His ideas and works were based on the power of reason and not blind faith, and he strongly opposed any conversion through violence.

In 1314, Raymond Lull was stoned by an angry crowd in present day Algeria, and died one year later in Palma at the age of 82.

One of his most well known books was called The Gentile and the Three Wise Men. It dealt with the three major religions that have arisen out of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam – in a daring manner for its time.

Although written for another age (with theological arguments that are not easy to follow), the story's universalist bent and the openmindedness of its protagonist is a sober and refreshing message in our age of increasing religious radicalism, and exclusive mindsets.

Here is a summary of the book’s unusual tale:

A miserable "gentile" is roaming the roads, berating himself for his unhappy state in life. Lost and depressed, he comes upon three wise men: a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. The gentile explains his unhappiness, and enters into a discussion with them about God in order to gain some contentment. They agree with the gentile that after they complete an account of their laws and traditions, he will choose one of their faiths as a means to escape his misery.

Each then gives a detailed and masterful explanation of his religion, along with answering the gentile's queries. At the end of the discussion, the three turn to him to find out which faith and tradition he has been most impressed by.

However, instead of stating his choice, the gentile proclaims a personal outpouring of faith, declaring a new profound and heartfelt understanding of the divine road.

The three – Jew, Christian and Muslim – are deeply impressed by the gentile’s ardor and humbled by the superiority of his newfound faith and sincerity. They are especially marked by how rapidly he gained truth after being so long in error, in contrast to the decades it had taken each of them.

Afterwards, the three men commit to spending their days explaining to one another the virtues of each of their religions, without recrimination and prejudice. They agree to continue these discussions until they are united in one single faith.


The Gentile, by his sincere queries, and honest arrival at the truth, had managed to impress three devout and knowledgeable believers enough that they turned from a fixation on their own traditions to openness to one another’s common truths.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Street Scene

Damascus, Syria

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Village of Ghajar

According to UN cartographic teams, the village of Ghajar lies bifurcated between two countries. Its northern two-thirds is in Lebanon, its southern third in the Israeli-occupied Golan. The village is in a true no-man's land. It was the route of passage of the Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem - just before the swamps of Hulah, the cliffs of granite to their right and the vast Golan to their left. It is also the road of thieves and drifters who hid in the contours of the land, belonging to no one, distant from the Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem or the coastal towns of Tyre and Acre.

The village was originally called Taranje, before the arrival of the Kurds who changed its name to Ghajar, or 'Gypsies' in Arabic. It is very possible that a tribe of the Romani ended up there, as they did in valleys and plains throughout the world. Under the Ottoman Empire, Alawites from northern Syria settled in Ghajar, as well as two other nearby villages in the Golan: Za'ura and Ayn Fit.

Once upon a simpler time, a bus line connected Marjayoun in Lebanon to Qunaytra in the Golan. Ghajar was a stop on that route - its only connection to the rest of the world. Today, the town finds itself in a strange seclusion, surrounded by fields of land-mines to the north (placed there by Israel during its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon), and a fence erected south of the village, similar to the electronic sensitivity grid Israelis have placed elsewhere to detect attempts to cross from Lebanon.

Today's Ghajarites are, however, well adapted to their context. They live in a large village with well-off homes, different in style and size from the poorer Lebanese villages to their north, or the tidy California-style spreads of Israel at Metulla and Kiryat Shemona to their southwest. Source of income of the village: unknown; "border enterpreneurs", if you wish.

The Ghajarites claim they are Syrian, descendants of a man who ran from trouble in the Alawite regions in the north-west of Syria, and who settled in this strange and barren corner. However, they also hold Israeli passports and speak Hebrew, with many of their children educated in Haifa at the Technion University or elsewhere - a function of their adaptation to Israeli rule since 1967. The Ghajarites claim allegiance to Syria, demand the fruits of citizenship in Israel, and want nothing at all to do with Lebanon, where half of them now technically belong.

They are victims of war, the march of history, modern cartography and the borders that have carved up the Middle East. During the rush to create a line of Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the UN partitioned the village into two sovereignties. Indeed, it may be that the partition of the village was decided under the pressure to complete the Israeli line of withdrawal from Lebanon, and may not present the most accurate picture of history.

Maps depicting Ghajar, including those made prior to the Israeli invasion of 1967, are very inconsistent. The 2000 partition may have been based on historical and cartographic errors; Ghajar could have been part of any of the entities created at the end of the Ottoman Empire: Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine (1). Indeed, Ghajar is an example of a general problem, the lack of exact border demarcation between Lebanon and Syria. Here, however, the problem is exacerbated by the human dimension: nowhere else does the border apparently cut through a village.

At one point, Ghajar became a flashpoint between Israel and Lebanon/Hizballah. Because the town was a potential infiltration point into Israel from Lebanon, the Israelis took it upon themselves to occupy the northern two-thirds of the village. The Ghajarites have demonstrated actively against being divided, fenced in, and handed over to countries where they do not belong.

Ghajar speaks to a day when political identity mattered much less, and when states did not measure borders to the inch. Certainly, these villagers were once the victims of marauding armies, and, no doubt, they swayed with the prevailing political winds to survive and thrive. But, nobody had previously thought of bisecting their village and its surrounding fields in the name of a proper border. That act took the brilliance and exactitudes of modern diplomacy.

Like other unfortunate "political gypsies" of our time, including the Palestinian refugees, they belong nowhere, in a sense, at a time when everyone must belong somewhere, or suffer the consequences.

(1) This entry is based partly on the study by Asher Kaufman, "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: On Ghajar and other Anomalies in the Syria-Lebanon Tri-Border Region."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Human Journey

Those who liked the subject of our last post, will be interested to hear about a new website which tracks the development of human beings over the last 100,000 years.

The Human Journey is a longstanding web project of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK) - an organization which has been working for decades to increase public awareness about human nature and human capacities and potential.

Drawing upon the latest discoveries in genetics, evolutionary biology, anthropology and linguistics, The Human Journey website traces the development and evolution of human beings with a view towards our future.

To quote from the website:

The future depends on how we understand who we are, and how that past has made us so: what is unchanging about Human Nature and what we CAN and MUST change to face a world that is far different from our ancestors... If we don't know our history, social and biological, we can't adapt fully to a world that we made.

The website will also be relevant to people interested in the Middle East, not just in terms of its portrayal of early human development in that part of the world, but more importantly, in terms how the past has shaped us into who we are today. This knowledge might provide us with a better understanding of - and could help us to mitigate - the conflicts in the region.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mahmoud Marai, Desert Adventurer and Explorer

Located off a busy Cairo square, in the bucolic and tree-lined district of Maadi, is a small and inconspicuous basement-level office space. At first glance, the room looks no different than most of the dusty and austere apartments that sometimes double for offices in Africa’s largest city. But upon closer inspection, an entire universe spanning eons, opens up.

Found along the office shelves, on its walls and in its corners are curiosities that speak to a succession of bygone eras of natural history: old topographical maps North Africa, prehistoric stone tools, alien-looking rocks and crystals, ancient tribal artifacts, colonial-era regalia, and dusty old journals and academic periodicals.

This veritable storehouse of treasures, flying stealthily below anybody’s radar, is the headquarters and personal sanctuary of Egypt’s youngest Saharan explorer, Mahmoud Marai.

For more than a decade, Marai, age 35, has been at the forefront of deep desert exploration in Egypt. His journeys have taken him to the furthest and most inaccessible corners of the country.

A high-school chemistry teacher by trade, he has spearheaded dozens of journeys to the Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat regions of the Western Desert (also known as the Libyan Desert) – a still somewhat unexplored wasteland of over 700,000 square kilometers known for its cave paintings, prehistoric relics and concealed wadis.

“People say Egypt is ‘The Gift of the Nile’,” says Marai. “But Egypt is also the gift of the desert.”

Undaunted by his lack of experience or training, this self-taught adventurer started by making solo expeditions in a single vehicle between 1998 and 2003 – an almost unheard of (and some would argue foolhardy) - undertaking that nonetheless earned him the respect of other desert guides. After staking out his own claim to the Western Desert, he began work as a professional guide, desert outfitter and explorer-for-hire in 2004.

Unlike other guides, Marai has become known for his preferred method of doing trips into the desert, either largely - or entirely - on foot.

“You can’t find anything by car,” says Marai. It’s totally useless. Most people who travel into this area bypass a lot of rock art and artifacts because much of it needs to be seen on foot.”

During his short career, he has crossed the Great Sand Sea numerous times, has walked hundreds of kilometres overland to the Gilf Kebir, and has explored most of the hidden wadis of the majestic Jebel Uweinat.

His experiences don’t end there. While at Karkur Talkh at Uweinat, he was abducted and held, along with two others, for weeks by a rogue North Darfur paramilitary organization operating along the porous Sudanese-Egyptian-Libyan frontier. The experience, which was life-threatening, shook Marai to the core. But he nevertheless, intrepidly, went back to explore the desert he loved.

In late 2007, Marai, along with Maltese adventurer Mark Borda, stumbled upon Neolithic cave paintings in the Uweinat Desert, some seven hundred kilometres west of the Nile Valley, near the twin massifs of Peter and Paul. Then, at another nearby location, the two surveyors found engravings on a large rock consisting of hieroglyphic writing: a Pharaonic cartouche, an image of a king and other ancient Egyptian iconography.

The implications of the discovery appeared to be significant. The consensus among Egyptologists up until then was that the ancient Egyptians did not penetrate the Western Desert any further than around 80km southwest of Dakhla Oasis – an area of sandstone hills containing hieroglyphs discovered by German explorer Carlo Bergmann. Marai and Borda’s discovery seemed to indicate that the Ancient Egyptians had in fact penetrated much, much, further into the desert than had previously been believed - all the way to the area near the Libyan border.

“The ancient Egyptians had the means, the methods and knowledge to undergo very long journeys in the desert,” says Marai.

Photos of the inscriptions, whose location has been a tightly held secret, were taken to the UK to be looked at by a hieroglyphics specialist. A preliminary translation determined that the hieroglyphs mention the name of a region where they may have been carved – the fabled Land of Yam: one of the most mysterious nations that the Ancient Egyptians traded with in Old Kingdom times.

Marai and Borda both believe that Yam, which has never been positively identified, lay somewhere in the area where they found the inscription.

Despite his best efforts to get the academic and Egyptology community as a whole to recognize his discovery, there has been relatively little interest in the Yam inscriptions. This due perhaps to a lack of willingness to budge an iota from the accepted historical narrative, which sits heavily in text books with the weight of dogma.

Because of the worldwide recession of the last few years, there has been far less of an appetite for internationally sponsored desert expeditions, and much less demand for Marai’s skills. He has since fallen back on teaching high-school chemistry.

But ever the dreamer, Marai looks ahead to the day when he can pick up where he left off and perhaps contribute in his own way to the story of history, which, he maintains, will continue to be re-written, despite of the intransigence of the “experts”.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Changing a Flat

Somewhere in the Nubian Desert between Wadi Halfa and Dongola, Sudan. Winter 2004.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rabia of Basra

"Religion is a field unplanted except by those who accomplish an interest from it - return.
If it were not from fear of hell, none would worship any god;

And if not for the expected rewards, they would deny God."
- Khalil Gibran


Fortunately, and occasionally, some come to live another religious reality.

Rabia al-Adawiyya, a woman and a mystic from Basra of the late 8th century, is one such person.
Her early and formative life was most difficult. She was orphaned as a child, kidnapped by slave traders, sold for six silver pieces and only freed her when her master was astounded by her saintly conduct.

Over time, and to free herself from all enslavement, Rabia pursued the most difficult of roads: the freedom to worship the Divine without temptation, distraction or ulterior motive. "I will not serve God like a labourer in expectation of wages," she said, and went on to transform herself from a suffering child of Basra to an ascetic, and then to most ardently seek her freedom through the Sufi way.

Asceticism is not encouraged in Islam, a religion that puts much more emphasis on being a normal member of society, and providing service to the development of humans. Yet, Rabia shirked the regular life. She had few belongings, carried a stick and wore an old patched mantle and worn sandals. She would spend the night praying on the rootops of her city, and denied herself motherhood and love for a man.

Even though she thwarted the normal life and embraced a more radical road, it may be that "the imbalance of the thoughtful is much better than the conservatism of one who takes no thought." (1)

Indeed, her extremism came from a noble and intense source: a wish to worship out of complete freedom, and out of her own (and not any other) choice.

What little we know of her life comes to us by way of Farid al-Din Attar, a major Muslim luminary who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. He devotes a chapter to Rabia in his Tadhkirat al-Auliya (Memorial of the Saints) - a compilation of biographical anecdotes from the lives of Islamic mystics.

Ever since her death, Rabia has been revered among her own kind as one of the most realized of beings. She has come down through history as a beacon to all who suspect, or know, that there is a greater reality than the ironclad materialism and seductive ideologies that we often embrace. Rabia was also an exemplar to people, both now and at the time, that the path of knowledge was not just something restricted to men.

Today, she is most well known for her saying, that was sure to have inspired Gibran to his:

"My Lord, if I am worshiping you from fear of fire, burn me in the fires of hell;
and if I am worshiping you from desire for paradise, deny me paradise.
But, if I am worshiping you for yourself alone, then do not deny me the sight of your magnanimous face."

(1) Much of the material for this entry is drawn from the book, ¨First Among Sufis - The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya¨, by Widad El Sakkakini, 1982

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Echoes from Ugarit

In 1972, after 15 years of research, Dr. Anne Kilmer (professor of Assyriology at the University of California, and a curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley), transcribed one of the oldest known pieces of music notation in the world.

Clay tablets relating to music, written in the cuneiform "Ugaritic" language (with both Hurrian and Akkadian influences), were excavated in the early 1950s at the ancient Syrian coastal city of Ugarit at what is now Ras Sharma. Ugarit is considered the birthplace of the modern alphabet.

One text contained a complete hymn, both words and music and is the oldest known preserved music notation in the world. The tablets date back to approximately 1,400 BC and contain a hymn to the moon god's wife, Nikal. Remarkably, the tablets also contain detailed performance instructions for a singer accompanied by a harpist as well as instructions on how to tune the harp.

From this evidence, Professor Kilmer and other musicologists have created versions of the hymn.

One of these adaptations, came to life in a performance in Atlanta recently. The instrumental piece is entitled, Echoes from Ugarit and was performed by Syrian pianist and composer Malek Jandali along with The Ludwig Symphony Orchestra.

Many thanks to one of our readers who brought the story to our attention.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Emotional Brain

Part of the huge task of trying to resolve conflicts in the Middle East is getting past the perceptual barriers that stand in the way of properly seeing these conflicts for what they really are.

Longstanding traditions of diplomacy focus on state and interest-based negotiations, or an emphasis on concrete issues, for example, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, on resolving borders or settlements in the West Bank. These approaches are understandable because they are based on familiar institutions and methods. However, they assume that since we don’t see other potential causes of conflict, that they must not be there.

As we have indicated in previous posts, despite the best intentions of conflict resolution specialists, these efforts often fall short. This is because attending strictly to “issues” does not take into account the deeper human dynamics that give rise to those issues in the first place.

Unacknowledged are the psychological and cultural aspects of conflict, which are fundamental and which, if properly understood, may hold the keys to improved conflict resolution.

The role of excessive emotion in Middle East cultures, for example, is a factor that is virtually unrecognized or brought to bear in studies involving conflicts in the region. And yet emotion is one of the most salient factors, playing a crucial role in helping to instigate and maintain political conflict between human groups.

Cycles of revenge, exacting punishment, and an inability to see beyond the needs of one’s own group - actions and reactions between Israel and its Arab enemies today - are all driven by excessive emotional states.

Discoveries in the behavioral sciences allow us to see why the key to understanding and resolving conflicts lies in understanding our brains, and in our emotional brains in particular:
  • Our emotional brains date back to the earliest life forms on Earth and evolved to help ensure our survival.
  • Extreme emotional arousal results in primitive thought patterns and triggers the fight-or-flight response, creating a mindset that sees the world in either/or, black and white, and good or bad terms.
  • Being in a highly aroused emotional state prevents us from seeing subtle distinctions and shades of grey that are the mark of intelligent or evolved thought, and that more accurately depict reality.
  • Too much continual emotional arousal creates a state of ignorance in people and makes individuals susceptible to indoctrination and brainwashing
All violent conflicts, and acts of inhumanity and discrimination have as their hallmark high emotional arousal among humans. It is therefore easy to understand how a region like the Middle East, with its emotionally charged culture and complex politics, continues to be embroiled in so many ongoing difficulties.

However, this idea has not been embraced because it does not fit into our constructs of the world. We are not educated from an early age to know how our brains work and so we passively accept that all forms and degrees of emotion are simply an acceptable part of being human. The idea that excessive emotion may be to blame for many problems may also seem simplistic, and a leap from the hard interests that we usually equate with politics.

If we were all taught from an early age about the consequences of excessive emotional arousal and the need to temper those emotions, we might stand a chance to greatly reduce the periodic tides of conflict that arise between peoples - movements that bring with them waves of debilitating excessive emotion that literally drive the conflict and block the road to effective resolution.

As it stands - and in some cultures at that - we only view excessive emotion as a problem only if it seriously disrupts our interpersonal relationships. In cases like these we may seek out counseling or attempt to learn things like “anger management”.

But what about on a collective level?

Certainly, in cases of war and violent conflict, our group relations are more than disrupted. Is there also not a desperate and dire need for something akin to anger management among groups when it comes to certain international, interethnic, and inter-religious relations?

If people could be more cognizant of the power and damage of extreme emotions, they could better manage them, making their lives more fruitful both for themselves and for their neighbours, near and far.