Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Hakawati

A hakawati is a storyteller in Arabic, and also the title of a book by Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese-American writer. This weave of stories, told by many "hakawatis", range from fantastic battles between demons and enchantresses, to the mundane collapse of Beirut in civil war. Its great hidden virtue is that it is also a one-shot window, through time and space, onto the many flavours and cultures of the Middle East.

Alameddine takes us to Urfa at the turn of the last century, with its Armenians, European missionaries, and the local obsession with competing flocks of pigeons; he dives into the beginnings of Mamluke Cairo and the rise of Baybars - the slave-turned-king and slayer of Mongols and Crusaders; he then veers to the Kharrat family in Lebanon, a Druze clan that made its money through its Japanese car dealership.

The book is the story of storytellers, and their stories, all interlaced to take the reader through centuries of the region, its fantasies and its harsh realities. Demons, colorful imps with the names of prophets - violet Adam, indigo Elijah, blue Noah, and green Job  - robbers, thieves, and modern warlords compete in the pages with vain women and envious men.

Through it all, the writer manages to reflect the very incomprehensible nature of the region: colourful, dramatic, full of high emotion and dark prophets laced with the occult. It is a great story - or many stories - yet it is somehow bereft of any seeming purpose or end. Indeed, storytelling is a great tradition in the Middle East, and in the lands further to the east. The classic hakawati sits upon his throne in a cafe, often wearing a tarbouch or fez, regaling his listeners with tales that can go on for hours. This book strives to capture the beauty of that art, revealing that what matters is the tale itself, and the quality of its telling rather than some higher purpose. As with so much in the Middle East (possibly too much), the meaning is in the weave, whatever its content.   

'The Hakawati' builds and constructs these half dozen stories over four sections, and one wonders where they will all go. In the last section, however, Alameddine shows he knows the art of ending, closing several tales like doors that suddenly and firmly shut. What seemed like lyrical fantasies begin to stand on more sober ground: Baybars is really no hero but a cunning self-promoter; the narrator's entrancement with Beirut is now but a cold and barren reality; and the demons' battles come to a harsh and incomprehensible closure. 

The author ends the book with a touching moment, the narrator, coming to terms with a troubled relationship with his father, promises to tell his stories at his dying parent's hospital bed. The tale goes on; no matter the shifting sands and passing of lives - the hakawati does not stop.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Saadi of Shiraz

Most people in the West have heard of the poets Omar Khayyam and Jalaludin Rumi. Khayyam came to Western fame through a (poor) 19th century translation of his now-famous Rubaiyat, and Rumi is today a rock star of new age spirituality and mystical literature. Fewer people have heard of Hafez or Saadi, two Persian poets from Shiraz who are more well-known in Iran than the aforementioned pair. 

The more interesting and comprehensive outlook is to see all these writers as one stream of excellence extending from the 11th to 14th century, and bringing to the planet some of the most intelligent and insightful texts the world has known. The Persian poets are as seminal to world literature as the ancient Greek playwrights, Shakespeare, or 19th century Russian literature, but they are less well known in the West. They are part of an unstated 'global canon' of overlapping universal themes that recur in all cultures: aids for greater learning.

Saadi lived in an era of incredible violence and upheaval. European Crusaders had invaded the Levant, and the Mongols were devastating the lands further east. In 1226, Saadi left his home to tour the world. As you might expect, it was not without adventure. While criss-crossing North Africa and the Middle East, he married twice, apparently in Aleppo and Yemen, and was enslaved for awhile by the Crusaders. 

He left us with two great works among many others, the Bustan (The Orchard), and the very famous Gulistan (The Rose Garden), two works of travel, keen observations, and commentary, set in poetic style. Both works are deeper repositories of knowledge, of the human travels to deeper consciousness, and of our larger purpose. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American poet and essayist of the 19th century, understood the power of Saadi, and wrote a great poem about him, his character, and his outlook on life. Emerson also wrote an introduction to a translation of Gulistan, in which he wrote:

"The word Saadi means fortunate. In him the trait is no result of levity, much less of convivial habit, but first of a happy nature... easily shedding mishaps... and with resources against pain. But it also results from the habitual perception of beneficent laws that control the world, he inspires in the reader a good hope."

After thirty years on the road, Saadi returned to his native Shiraz. One year later, Halagu Khan and the Mongol horde sacked Baghdad annihilating the Abbasid empire. Saadi died in Shiraz at the age of 83, and his words live on to this day. One of his most famous verses is often quoted in speeches and is also found in the Hall of the United Nations in New York.

Human beings are members of a whole
In creation of one essence and soul

If one member is afflicted with pain
Other members uneasy will remain

If you have no sympathy for human pain
The name of human you cannot retain.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mona el-Hallak and the Barakat Building

For over a decade, Lebanese architect Mona el-Hallak has waged a single-handed campaign to turn a war-ravaged belle epoch building in Beirut into the first museum devoted to the contemporary history of the city. 

The museum, which will be called "Beit Beirut", will devote part of its display to addressing the country's devastating 15 year civil war (which lasted from 1975-1990).

Also known as the "Barakat building", the four-story structure sat astride the city’s so-called “Green Line” during the war, which divided the Christian and Muslim quarters of Beirut. It is an area that saw some of the heaviest fighting during those years.

The architect who created the building in the 1920s, designed it in such a way that would later make it a perfect hideaway for snipers during the war - providing depth, safety and a variety of vantage points from which to shoot at passersby on the street. During the war scores of civilians were killed outside its doorsteps. 

When real estate developers tried to turn the pockmarked structure into a parking lot in 1997, Hallak launched her crusade to save the edifice from demolition. At the same time she put forward an alternate vision for the building: to turn it into a museum devoted to the memory of Beirut, where visitors could come and learn about the civil war. 

It was an ambitious scheme in a country of deep and longstanding ethnic disputes, and where the erstwhile conflict is seldom discussed in any meaningful way.

“After almost a generation of reconstruction there is not one single museum, or centre, that addresses what happened here and how 100,000 Lebanese were killed,” says Hallak. “This project is an attempt to reverse this dangerous collective amnesia among the Lebanese.”

For 15 years real estate developers, politicians, and a public more interested in forgetting the past threw every obstacle into her path. But Hallak’s determination and deft campaign proved too difficult to stymie. 

After much toil the project has cleared the final hurdles to construction. Renovation work on the Barakat Building, which began several weeks ago, is slated for completion in 2015.

A full-length Q&A with Hallak about the history of the building and her efforts to save it can be read here.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The House of Wisdom and the Perfect Storm of Knowledge

Western civilization will often point to the intellectual advances of the ancient Greeks and Romans as the cornerstone of its own scientific achievements. But what remains under-acknowledged, if often unknown, is the pivotal role played by Islamic civilization in collating, developing and transmitting ancient learning to the West. 

Over a thousand years ago, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad undertook one of the greatest initiatives to consolidate knowledge ever known. Those efforts focused around “Bayt al-Hikma” or the “House of Wisdom” - a centre for research, translation, and astronomical observation founded by the iconic Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in the 8th century A.D. His son and heir, the Caliph al-Ma’amun put the House of Wisdom’s operations into even higher gear. He gathered scholars from across the empire and charged them with the task of collecting every observation and shred of insight belonging all cultures within Baghdad’s reach.  

It was an undertaking made possible by a fortuitous confluence of developments. By the middle of the 7th century, conquering Muslim armies had fanned out from Arabia to some of the furthest corners of the known world – including India, Afghanistan, China, North Africa and Spain. The scientific and cultural knowledge of a patchwork of ethnic and religious communities were suddenly brought under one political umbrella. Jewish, Byzantine, Persian, Indian, and Egyptian traditions became simultaneously accessible, and started cross-fertilizing.

The availability of new paper technology from China made for the fast and efficient creation of books (in Europe, documents were still being written on parchment). It was only a matter of time before libraries came into being and knowledge began to spread.

This represented a golden opportunity for the forward-thinking minds of the Islamic empire. When Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, was constructed in 765, the decision was made to turn its domains into a scientific superpower. The House of Wisdom was duly born.

Following the example of the Library of Alexandria several centuries prior, the House of Wisdom placed an emphasis on collecting – and translating into Arabic – as many old manuscripts as it could get its hands on. A gargantuan effort comprising an army of scholars churned out new Arabic translations from old Hindu, Persian, Greek, Syriac and Roman works.

The agents of this operation went to extraordinary lengths to get their hands on any text that would add to the empire’s storehouse of knowledge. One account has it that a copy of Ptolemy’s astronomical masterpiece, Almagest, was one of the conditions of peace dictated by the Arabs to the Byzantines.

By the middle of the 11th century, the Arabs translated all major Greek works available in the areas of science and philosophy – as well as a great many others. 

The impact of this translation effort was manifold. First, the availability in Arabic of certain works - some of which had been “forgotten” or “lost” - allowed original Arab thinkers to make quantum leaps within their respective fields. Disciplines such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry, philosophy and psychology were advanced by scholars who had access to an unprecedented pool of information. 

Methodologies also evolved. The first universities emerged. Personal observation and experience became the hallmarks of medieval Arab science. And Arabic replaced Greek as the language of scientific inquiry.

This consolidated learning also provided the bedrock on which the most enlightened of all savants developed what was then known as the “Science of Man” – the knowledge and methods, passed along from teacher to pupil, on how to refine human consciousness and to connect up with ever-higher relationship patterns all the way up to experience of the Absolute. 

This entire storehouse of knowledge was deliberately transferred cross-culturally - westwards and north into Andalusia and Europe, paving the way for the Renaissance and those developments beyond.  

The passing of the civilizational baton came just in time. The House of Wisdom’s perfect storm of knowledge drew to an abrupt close when its libraries were destroyed by the Mongol armies who sacked Baghdad in 1258. It is said that for months the waters of the Tigris River were darkened by ink from all the library books that were thrown into the river. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Village of Dereiçi

Visiting the ancient village of Dereiçi (formerly "Qilleth"), one’s first impression is of a community which is at once both alive and dead. 

Located an hour’s drive from the Turkish city of Mardin on the western edge of the region of Tur Abdin (the historical cradle-land of Mesopotamia’s Semitic Christian Orthodox community) the village exudes a peaceful, yet somber disposition rooted in some long-departed misfortune. 

Restored, honey-coloured stone homes rise from the rubble and ruins that are the town's former incarnations. The shouts of children pierce the stillness as they play amid the detritus of stone, plastic bags, empty water bottles and scrub brush. 

A Syriac village dating back well over a thousand years, Dereiçi was dealt a mortal blow during World War One, when, in 1915, Ottoman forces massacred the inhabitants of the town as part of wider campaign to punish the Christians of Anatolia for siding with the Russians in the war. 

After wandering through the town and acquainting myself with a number of its residents, I met an older man by the name of Nuribrahim. He invited me back to his home where we shared tea and cookies. I asked him what had happened to the town immediately following the massacre. Nuribrahim said that Dereiçi was kept alive by the unlikely intervention of a sympathetic local. 

A wealthy Ottoman Turkish army officer by the name of Wehbe Effendi Seyin, who lived in a huge property on a hilltop several kilometers away, came to the aid of the town in the hours following the massacre. He took dozens of surviving villagers, mostly wounded children and youth, and put them up in his estate where they were raised for several years. When old enough, they began to move back to the village to start new lives. 

Wehbe Effendi’s intercession was considered such a great act of kindness, with such enormous repercussions for Dereiçi, that Nuribrahim carries an old photo of the Turkish officer in his wallet, as though he were a close family member or ancestor.

Wehbe’s Effendi’s own descendents, who still occupy the original home on the hilltop, maintain friendly relations with the village to this day. 

About 200 people currently live in Dereiçi, a mix of Christian and Muslim inhabitants who speak Arabic, Turkish and some, Kurdish.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wadi Tannourine

A few hours drive north of Beirut lies a collection rugged of valleys and gorges running down from Lebanon’s high alpine range. This spectacular region, known as Wadi Tannourine, is one of the many self-contained natural jewels buried deep within Lebanon’s fissured and labyrinthine mountain interior. Historical villages, pine and cedar forests, archaeological sites and wild animals all hold sway here. 

For those accustomed to the frenetic bustle and consumerist mode of life in Lebanon’s cities, Wadi Tannourine constitutes a kind of slap of face. Here a sweet Mediterranean calm swept by clean scented breezes routs the cacophony of horn-honking and the agenda-fueled activities of the urban areas further south. It’s also a place where intimations of the Middle East’s past and, perhaps, its distant restorative future also overlap.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Kasidah

The Kasidah is a poem written by the 19th century British adventurer and writer, Richard Francis Burton, under the pseudonym Haji Abdu El-Yezdi. The title comes from a pre-Islamic form of Arabic lyrical poetry called 'Qasidah'. The word means 'intention' or 'testament' and traditionally recounts stories about travel or caravans, as Burton's does. The poems usually have three parts, a retrospective opening, a travel-transition during which transformations occur, and a final message.

Although we are not well trained to read this kind of poetry any more, a slow intake of the words can begin an appreciation of this underrated form of expression. Here is a short passage from 'The Kasidah' (the full poem can be found at "The Kasidah"):

'Believe in all things; none believe;
judge not nor warp by "Facts" the thought;
See clear, hear clear, tho' life may seem
Maya and Mirage, Dream and Naught.

Abjure the Why and seek the How:
the God and gods enthroned on high,
are silent all, are silent still;
nor hear they voice, nor deign reply.

Cease, Abdu, cease! Thy song is sung,
nor think the gain the singer's prize;
Till men hold Ignor'ance deadly sin
till man deserves his title "Wise".

In Days to come, Days slow to dawn,
when Wisdom deigns to dwell with men,
These echoes of a voice long stilled
haply shall wake responsive strain:

Wend now thy way with brow serene,
fear not thy humble tale to tell:
The whispers of the Desert-wind;
the tinkling of the camel's bell.'

(second image is a lithograph print of the Island of Graia in the Gulf of Aqaba by David Roberts, the famous 19th century illustrator of the Middle East)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Gobekli Tepe: Our Surprising Origins

Everyone knows that the origins of agriculture and civilization are in the Middle East. In the back of our minds are Egypt and the Nile and the Mesopotamian civilizations of the Sumerians and Babylonians along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

We also have an image of farmers irrigating their crops who, over time, developed cities, civilizations, alphabets and Towers of Babel. Little did we know that even these very ancient and great civilizations may have been preceded by the genius of some mere hunter gatherers in neighbouring Anatolia. It appears that, before the dawn of agriculture, humans built structures that resembled full-fledged temples that may have been critical for the development of our civilization.

12,000 years ago at Gobekli Tepe ("Potbelly Hill" in Turkish), a stone temple was put in place that began to draw thousands to gaze at its wonder. The site is made up of rough stone limestone blocks, some 18 feet high, that are carved with images of animals from scorpions to wild boars. The incredible feat was that sixteen tons of these stones were moved hundreds of feet by small nomadic groups who did not have the wheel or barrow. 

Creating this site before the agricultural revolution and well-developed social hierarchies took shape has been been equated with "building a 747 in the basement with an exacto knife." (1) The largest stones are T-shaped, possibly symbolizing humans, and face the centre of a circle, hinting at a focus on an event, a dance or a ritual.

The standing theory is that organized religion developed after civilization was established as a tool for social cohesion and cultural development. What may have happened is the reverse. The human impulse towards the sacred and the desire for spectacle may have brought huge numbers to visit temple sites such as Gobkeli Tepe, creating the necessity for cultivation of grains to feed the masses - and from there inducing settlement.

It seems that the pursuit of greater meaning is as fundamental to human development as economics. Mere survival, or even environmental change, may not be enough to create new and successful patterns of society, and to cause civilizational leaps. There has to be a sense of seeking deeper meaning - of reaching for the stars in order to create the necessary common cause. Some have indicated that the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe, bringing together serfs, merchants, the church and specialized and knowledgeable artisans may have also been such a shift, helping to propel Europe away from the Dark Ages towards its renaissance and greater integration.

Gobkeli Tepe did degenerate. It was rebuilt over centuries and succeeding versions were smaller and less well-made. It is so with many religious and foundational acts: the original events are highly empowered and what follows is often only their shallow echo. For this reason, this act of coming together to seek greater meaning may have to be redeveloped and refreshed every so often - in the same way as a body needs exercise, or a house a spring cleaning.

(1) National Geographic, June 6, 2011

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Syria's Wedding Singer

Aficionados of Middle Eastern politics and anyone who's kept a close eye on Egypt's revolution (and its aftermath) is likely familiar with Omar Suleiman: the former army general turned intelligence chief under Hosni Mubarak, who was once deemed most likely to succeed the aging autocrat.

As Mubarak's ouster catapulted the otherwise camera-shy Suleiman into the international spotlight, and the world scrambled to piece together the biographical fragments of the all-powerful mukhabarat king, another little-known man of the same name (but famous in his own right) kept popping up on Internet search engines.

In nearby Syria, a country stewing in the breathless anticipation of its own impeding rebellion, there appeared to be another Omar Suleiman - but spelled Souleyman - whose talents had little to do with orchestrating political intrigues or striking deals with the Israelis. The Syrian Souleyman was instead making a name for himself as one of the region's busiest and most accomplished wedding singers.

Born in the rural region of al-Jazeera, abutting the Turkish and Iraqi borders, Omar Souleyman has become a kind of cult figure situated on the margins of Middle Eastern pop music. A fusion of singer, emcee, dance-maestro and D-J, Souleyman was encouraged by friends to go professional after strutting his stuff at a handful of weddings in his village of Ras al-Ain. Known by his trademark red checkered keffiyeh, dark aviators, bushy moustache and his no-nonsense demeanour, Souleyman has produced around 500 albums (mostly recordings of live wedding celebrations) since 1994.

His unique and innovative sound, blending disparate traditions, stems directly from the multicultural wellspring of his native Syrian Mesopotamia. Souleyman combines classical Arabic mawwal style vocalization with Syrian dabke (folkloric dance music) and infuses it with Iraqi choubi and some of the bolder elements of Kurdish and Turkish music.

The gritty, high-energy sound that's produced, relying heavily on synthesizers, comes across as almost alien to the untrained ear. Its galloping techno-esque vibe has been described by some as "frenetic", "overdriven", and even "shrill". Various reed and percussion instruments combine to turn his performances into prefect storms of regional musical fusion.

The ancient line and circle dances that erupt at the weddings and parties he plays - a unique cultural expression that goes back thousands of years - provides the final element of the music, without which it would somehow be incomplete. Souleyman presides over these ritualistic and somewhat tribal events like an iconic garage band pied piper of the Mesopotamian unconscious.

One of Souleyman's collaborators, a man named Mahmoud Harbi, is responsible for generating the singer's lyrics. The two often perform together, with Harbi standing behind him while he whispers folk poetry into Souleyman's ear (like a kind of human teleprompter), which the singer then broadcasts. The spontaneous routine is employed to create songs that are relevant to the event and families that host the parties Souleyman plays.

The growing popularity of this musical form has landed Souleyman big gigs at weddings and other functions in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He's made appearances in the West (where he now has a small following) and has even collaborated on a track with Icelandic singer Bjork - a longtime fan.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

'Glorious Urfa'

If you ask people familiar with the Middle East to list the towns with the best souqs, bazaars, and old medieval quarters, you’d find yourself - more or less - confronted with the same gang of seven places, being: the old city of Damascus; Fatimid and Islamic Cairo; the Grand bazaar in Istanbul; the Medina of Fez; old Sana’a in Yemen; the souq in Aleppo; and of course, the old city of Jerusalem.

These spots, which constitute a sort of A-list of living-breathing antiquity, are some of the most evoking in the region. Anyone who spends enough time in the Middle East will often have a favourite among them. But a recent trip to a little-known city in southeastern Turkey left me with the impression that one site has been improperly left out of the mix.

About an hour’s drive north of the Syrian-Turkish border is the ancient city of Şanliurfa. Located on the cusp of Mesopotamia, it’s one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world (a title claimed by both Damascus and Erbil, in Iraq). Şanliurfa, still known today by its old name of “Urfa”, is so ancient that the legendary Biblical figures Abraham and Job - archetypal characters residing in the deepest collective memory – are said to have come from there.

It’s not surprising therefore that the city has a first-class labyrinthine old town and bazaar, that is largely unknown and only visited by a smattering of Muslims who come from abroad on pilgrimage to visit sites tied to the Biblical patriarch.

Part of what makes the place so special is its hybrid feel. Although mostly inhabited by Kurds and Turks, Urfa has a very Arab character. Like its nearby sister cities of Antakya (formerly Antioch), Gaziantep (formerly Antep), and Mardin, Urfa was once a bastion of Middle East multiculturalism that blended not only Kurds and Turks but also Armenians, Syriacs, Syrian Arabs, Bedouin, Greeks, Jews, Turcomen and Assyrians. In 1984, Turkey’s parliament officially changed Urfa’s name to Şanliurfa (meaning “Urfa the Glorious”) in order to commemorate the fighting prowess of its residents during the country’s war of independence.

Travel a short distance south of the city and you’ll also encounter tiny agricultural villages whose ways of life have not diverged an iota from the time of ancient Mesopotamia. Near to these cluster of settlements is the famous ancient mud village of Harran and the recently discovered 12,000 year-old archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe – one of the oldest and most important ancient sites in the world.

Below are some more images taken in Urfa’s old city:

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Politics of Dance

Yasser Arafat takes to the dance floor amid his cronies in Beirut prior to the Israeli invasion in 1982.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: 'A Rebirth for Christianity'

All over the world today, Christians will mark the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was a man and a prophet who grew up in the Middle East, spoke a very Middle Eastern language, Aramaic, and had a very Middle Eastern name, Jesus, which comes from Yeshua, short for Yehoshua (or Joshua in other parts of the Bible).

Two thousand years after his reported time on Earth, his story from birth to crucifixion is one of the most well-known in the globe, and is the basis of worship for over 2 billion people. It may now be time for his story to experience a 'resurrection', an act that Alvin Boyd Kuhn sets out to do in his book 'A Rebirth for Christianity'.

With daring and conviction, Kuhn puts forward a message that is certainly controversial but worthwhile for any one interested in understanding their own purpose more deeply. The author argues that ancient texts were not written as historical chronologies but as an attempt to understand the meaning of events, a form of writing we now call myths.

The key to understanding these myths is to accept they are allegories - symbols that need to be interpreted - and are not in any way literal depictions. Kuhn applies this paradigm to the Gospels, and explains that the Christ of the New Testament is first and foremost an allegory for the development of any individual's spiritual consciousness (with great similarities to other such myths, especially those from Egypt). It is not therefore the history of a life of a man as most Christians understand it. For example, crucifixion is an allegory for the soul's tribulations as it suffers under the "wild instincts" of the flesh; resurrection, its rise to freedom from the shackles of its material prison.

This, he says, is the original message of Christianity: a Christian is not more nor less than someone who brings his spiritual potential to light. He or she utilizes intellect, reason, self-discipline and good judgment to discover his spiritual core, the "Christos" within - that divine potential within all of us that can make us "co-workers with God". This is no mean act, difficult to achieve and yet within it is the kernel of an unusual truth: in the grand scheme, God needs man as much as man needs God.

It may be more appealing, and easier, to think that there has only been one Christ, the man known as Jesus. But Kuhn argues that this view diminishes us by making us impotent to pursue our own salvation. If we project our spiritual power onto an outside figure, like Jesus, the essential power within us is denied. No amount of ritual, blind faith, recitation or automated acts can take the place of personal responsibility in this quest. It also means that all humans have the ability to pursue this goal, in all eras.

Furthermore, it is important to remember, in the Middle East and elsewhere, that it is rather a wrong turn, even a tragedy, for any people or nation to claim any monopoly on this universal mission. In our day, many have also forgotten that much of our religious heritage is allegorical, and requires interpretation not literal application. "The same myth in cruel hands becomes a goad to fanaticism", says Kuhn.

This approach to understanding the Christ did not penetrate sufficiently over the last two millennia, and it is necessary to try again to resurrect this work and reach beyond the literal story to allegory, and from there to the deepest truths about ourselves. Indeed, allegories, myths and stories are crucial for the eternal to reach the human mind; mistaking these symbols for direct truths is, sadly, a kind of idolatry.

As people celebrate Easter today, they may once again encounter one of the thousand ways that Jesus has been depicted since his time on earth. His many faces blur together, an image of humanity, a reflection of us all and our calling to seek the spiritual state within called Christ, Christos, Horus, Buddha, Krishna - a beckoning to a new kind of Easter.

"Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born
But not within thyself, thy soul will be forlorn;
The cross on Golgotha thou lookest to in vain
Unless within thyself it be set up again". (1)

(1) Angelus Silesius, Polish mystic and poet, 17th century

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Walk through Medieval Cairo

"From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan, to Qutuz the Mamluk, who fled to escape our swords: You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us....We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows are sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand."

These are the words that Hulagu the Mongol sent to the ruler of Cairo, Qutuz the Mamluk, after sacking Damascus. The Mongol horde had swept through Central Asia and Persia, destroyed Baghdad, and threatened the 600 year old Islamic civilization with annihilation.

Qutuz responded by cutting the Mongol emissaries in half, and hanging their bodies from Bab al Zuweila, one of the southern gates of Medieval Cairo. He went on to join forces with Baibars the Turk and defeat the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in eastern Galilee, saving the Muslim world from utter destruction.

Bab Al Zuweila is one of the remaining gates of Fatimid and Medieval Cairo. It was named after a Berber tribe from the western desert that fought with the rulers of the city. It, along with the walls of the city, were built by Badr Al Jamali in 1092. Two other remaining northern gates are Bab Al Futuh, and Bab Al Nasr.

The latter is inscribed with the customary ´shahadatain´ of Islam (¨There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is the Messenger of God¨), but it also includes the
Shia statement that Ali has the right to succeed the prophet, echoing its Fatimid (i.e. Shia and Ismaili) origin. The Fatimids had also built Al Azhar, an irony given that it is today the most renowned and prestigious centre of Sunni learning.

Today, these remaining gates of medieval Cairo offer the opportunity to experience Cairo at its most enriching. A walk from Bab Al Futuh or Bab Al Nasr to Bab Al Zuweila will take you through a maze of shops and food stalls, and an enviably vast collection of medieval buildings ranging from mosques to madrasas and sabils.

The experience is one of the living sedimentation of history and the surging humanity of Cairo, trading, eating, debating and sleeping through revolutions, epochs and the rise and fall of kings and queens. Here are some images of what one can see on this interesting walk.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Life and Times of Piri Re'is

Ahmed Muhiddin Piri Re’is (1475-1544) was an Ottoman mariner and mapmaker whose rise to prominence paralleled the ascending fortunes of the empire he served. In addition to becoming an admiral in the Ottoman navy, Re’is also founded Suleiman the Magnificent’s school of mapmaking. He had a huge talent for drawing charts and he created both a costal atlas of the Mediterranean as well as maps of the world.

His most famous works are two world maps created in the early 1500’s, whose fragments survive until this day. One of those maps which depicts Africa, South America and Antarctica has become famous for its surprising mathematical and geographic accuracy. It reveals details, where Antarctica is concerned, which some argue could not have been known at the time because of ice cover. According to Re’is himself, those maps were based on some 20 source charts including Arab, Spanish and Portuguese maps – plus a handful of others which he claimed dated to the time of Alexander the Great.

There has been much debate among academics and armchair scholars as to where those maps of antiquity could have come from. Whatever the answer, the extraordinary accuracy of his charts are cited as evidence for the existence of cartography in antiquity, or even pre-history, and that this knowledge was passed along a line of transmission to him.

Despite his contributions, we still know fairly little about Piri Re’is (a name which roughly translates to ‘Captain Piri’). His ethnic background and origins also remain contentious.

What we do know is that he was the nephew of an illustrious Ottoman admiral, Kamal Re’is, with whom he sailed as a teenager. That important apprenticeship allowed Piri to take part in many sea battles against Ottoman rivals Spain, Genoa and Venice.

Following Kamal’s death in a shipwreck in 1511, Piri abetted the expansionist activities of the Ottoman empire by taking part in the 1516-17 conquest of Egypt, and in the 1522 siege of Rhodes against the Knights of St. John. His knowledge, skills, experiences and naval pedigree made him one of the most respected officers in the Ottoman fleet.

A key moment in his career came when Piri took Suleiman the Magnificent’s Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, to Cairo in 1524. The Pasha, admiring Reis’ skills, commissioned him to create an atlas of the ports of the Mediterranean. After much toil and collation of knowledge, Piri presented his grand Atlas, called ‘The Book of Navigation’ to the Sultan in 1526.

The above image is from a manuscript copy of that atlas. It depicts the cities and coastlines of Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon. The two eastern Mediterranean port cities date back to ancient times and had ever since thrived on mercantile trade. Like other maps of the Islamic era, the map looks south in the direction of Mecca (with the arrow indicating North). Beirut, at the top of the image, is depicted lying below Mount Lebanon with its eternal cedars.

After rising to the rank of Admiral in 1547, Piri Re’is spent the remainder of his days sailing the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, fighting to keep the Portuguese navy at bay. His efforts met with mixed results. As an old man in his eighties, still sailing, he fell out with his political masters and was publicly beheaded in Egypt, at the behest of the despotic governor of Iraq.

Today, a number of warships in the Turkish navy are named after him.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Blood of Adonis

Legend has it that a young man grew up in the city of Byblos, and became so handsome and prominent that he was called "Adon" (or "lord" in Canaanite) - an appellation the Greeks later hellenized into "Adonis".

Adonis was so loved by two goddesses that another god grew jealous, transformed himself into a wild boar, and gored the beloved young man to death. A river near Byblos was named Adonis after the legend (today it is called the Ibrahim River, see photo below). Its annual spring run-off is reddish which was interpreted as the very blood of Adonis coursing into the sea.

On February 15th of this year, another Lebanese river ran red into the sea - but the source was no legend or metaphor. The Lebanese Ministry of Environment found that a nearby factory had dumped a red dye into the Beirut River causing the frightening scene. That sad river was already deprived of its natural beauty by having its banks paved with concrete, and it has now suffered a second humiliation.

This event is a powerful and stark emblem of how badly things have gone wrong in Lebanon's environment. The flow of red dye may be a singular phenomenon, but Beirut's daily air pollution is three times the norms considered acceptable by the World Health Organization. The seashore cities, such as Sidon, Tyre and Tripoli, pour endless currents of raw sewage into the sea close to shore. The mountains around Beirut are paved with uncontrolled development that can only be described as a kind of urban cancer, and of civilization gone terribly wrong.

Lebanon is infamous for its civil war and troubled politics. In fact, the real threat to the country may be from environmental degradation - air, noise, water, sea, and ground pollution that is slowly but surely destroying the bodies and souls of its citizens. The red river of Beirut may be a dramatic warning, but who will heed it?

Behind these troubles is a more mysterious tale, and the legend of Adonis can enlighten us again. The boar that gored the young man is a symbol of the wild creature within us that thinks of naught but itself. It has uncontrolled appetites and is known variously as the ego, the beast within, or the "Commanding Self" - that knot of motivations created by a lifetime of greed and vanity. In the legend of Adonis, the wild self destroys the beauty that is within each human.

The factory that dumped the dye into the Beirut River, the developers who build randomly in the hills and the corrupt government officials who pocket money intended for building sewage plants suffer from the same uncontrolled appetites as the wild boar that destroys out of jealousy and self-interest. To be sure, some of this is due to the failure of the state in Lebanon, but even that is due to the rapacious motivations of its leaders and politicians.

The story of Adonis goes on to tell us that one of the goddesses who loved him begged the masters of the Underworld to let him "resurrect". And so he did, and was afterward permitted to live in the hills above Byblos (where this entry was written) in summer and spring, and to descend back to the Underworld for the other six months of the year. His drops of blood are also believed to have been transformed into the red anemone flower that carpets Lebanon's fields every spring.

For Lebanon to gain any such recovery, someone, if not many, will have to demonstrate some sincere love for their country, and for the welfare of their children, and rise beyond the narrow self-interest: the wild boar within.

Time is short. The Lebanese would do well to hear the clarion call of the red river.