A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

that old black magic …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 25, 2009

Several years ago, my aunt pointed out something I had never noticed: the great frequency with which articles about – and editorials against – magic and sorcery appear in Gulf newspapers. I thought of her observation when I read earlier this month that Ali Sibat had been sentenced to death for his work as a television psychic. Sibat is Lebanese and lived worked in Lebanon, but was arrested in Saudi Arabia while there on a religious pilgrimage last year.

Here’s an excerpt from the latest Associated Press article on the story:

Saudi Arabia should overturn a death sentence imposed on a Lebanese national convicted of practicing witchcraft during a visit to the conservative kingdom, an international human rights group said in a report late Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Saudi government to halt “its increasing use of charges of ‘witchcraft,’ crimes that are vaguely defined and arbitrarily used.”

The report highlights the ongoing complaints over the Saudi justice system, which, while based on Islamic law, leaves a wide leeway to individual judges and can often result in dramatically inconsistent sentences.

Ali Sibat, a Lebanese psychic who made predictions on a satellite TV channel from his home in Beirut, was arrested by religious police in the holy city of Medina during a pilgrimage there in May 2008 and then sentenced to death Nov. 9.

Sibat is one of scores of people reported arrested every year in the kingdom by local papers for practicing sorcery, witchcraft, black magic and fortune-telling. These practices are considered polytheism by the government of this deeply religious Muslim country.

Sibat seems to have been arrested somewhat by chance: he was recognized while in Medina, and those who recognized him informed the local authorities.

Here’s a September article from Arab News, the English-language Saudi newspaper, that addresses the issue of magic (or sorcery, as it is often called in the Gulf papers). It incorporates several common themes: the sinfulness of magic and its historic omnipresence; the connection between sorcerers/magicians and 1) Africans or dark-skinned people, 2) avarice, 3) women; and the real presence of evil in this world, which religion can address but magic cannot.

JEDDAH: Hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the Kingdom, something that is indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery. It is, however, not just sorcerers who make money — those who treat (or claim to treat) magic and the evil eye are also rolling in dollars. While there is mystery surrounding how magic is done, some weak-hearted people end up resorting to sorcerers to mend troubled marriages, ensure husbands remain faithful or cause harm to adversaries.

At the same time, magic is an old human practice, which has existed in many countries and religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism.

Sara Mohammed, a single 28-year-old woman, said a sorcerer once told her she was unmarried because someone had cast a spell on her. “I have been facing problems all my life and I was looking for something to change my fortune for the better. A relative told me that she knew a man who could help me because I may be under some kind of spell,” Sara said.

The man who her relative introduced her turned out to be an African sorcerer who had been residing in the Kingdom for some time. Sara visited him at his home, which she described as a “rotten place with a terrible stench.”

Afraid to go alone, she took her cousin along. “I went in and his wife offered us tea. We refused to drink anything there. My cousin was laughing and giggling as she felt the entire setup was just a big joke. The man then began asking me about my situation and held up a small cup filled with olive oil,” she added. Sara laughs for a few seconds and then explains that the sorcerer then began acting strange by whispering into the cup. “He then said my ex-fiancé had cast a spell on me and that he could undo it for SR1,800. I told him that he was asking for far too much money. He held the cup up once again and started talking and haggling with this supposed jinn inside,” she said, laughing.

“That was four years ago. I now only seek Allah’s help,” she said.

People underestimate how serious a sin magic actually is. Some people pay large amounts of money to sorcerers, believing they will eventually give them happiness. Abeer Saleh said some members of her family are so infatuated with magic that they act strange and perform nonsensical rituals.

“Two elderly members of my family who are sisters met a sorceress who told them that their sister-in-law had cast a spell on them. They believed everything that she told them,” said Saleh. She added that the two sisters were experiencing some domestic problems and in the course of their fascination with magic even claimed to have seen the ground split open and their sister-in-law appear and cast a spell on them. “They then began selling their personal belongings and even furniture to pay the sorceress to break the spell,” said Saleh, adding that other members of the family even tried to explain to them that magic was forbidden in Islam, but to no avail. “They’re still, even to this day, engrossed in weird rituals. They burned coriander and black pepper at my sister’s wedding to protect her wedding dress from harm,” she said, adding that her relatives are educated women and not ignorant.

Reports surfaced in July that divers searching for the body of a young woman who drowned off Jeddah’s Corniche discovered 22 bottles containing papers with names scrawled on them, as well as pieces of jewelry and locks of hair. It is thought these items were spells cast into the sea as part of some magic ritual. Some sheikhs cure those afflicted with magic by reciting verses of the Qur’an over Zamzam water, olive oil or honey which they then administer to those affected.

Some of these people have even developed reputations of being very proficient in what they do and are known to charge around SR100 or more per visit. One sheikh who helps fight black magic and the effects of the evil eye said that magic is everywhere. The sheikh, who asked not to be named, charges SR100 per visit. He even has an office where he receives clients.

“Black magic is widely practiced nowadays. It’s all over the Internet and even in toy stores,” he said giving the example of Ouija boards, which are sold in stores.

A woman told Arab News that she went to this sheikh after her son decided to break off his engagement. “I just felt my son was behaving strangely. It was out of character. The girl he was engaged to was suitable for him,” she said. “The sheikh treated my son with verses of the Qur’an and Zamzam water. He then abandoned his intention and then married that girl. They are very happy,” she added.

I’m personally not a great fan of astrologists, psychics, etc. But this story is rather horrifying: a man goes to the holiest cities of Islam to perform an act of piety, and is arrested and sentenced to death for breaking the law – a violation that occurred in another country, under a different set of laws. Talk about a guardian state …


Posted in Arab world, Arabic, education, Islam, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »

Logorrhea, Mufti-Style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 2, 2009

When it rains, it pours. and pours. and pours. and sometimes pours out so much that it starts to sound rabid. or maybe just very, very, very post-modern.

When I clicked on Naharnet’s evening headline, Jouzo: Let the Lebanese Maronite and the Rest of Lebanon Go Back to Syria, what I hoped to find were a few mis-translation gems. It never crossed my mind that this headline might in fact actually be what Mufti “dare to spell differently” Muhammed al Jouzo said. But apparently it was.

So. Let’s take this step by step.

In a statement on Sunday, Lebanese Sunni Mufti of Mt. Lebanon Sheikh Muhammed al-Jouzo said that “Lebanon has turned into an Arab Babylonian tower with its folkloric leaderships and new parliamentary faces only fit for exhibitions and decorations while the losers turn into sectarian symbols standing on the government’s doors” with their conditions hindering the formation of the government.

It must be hard to be the Sunni mufti of Mount Lebanon, an area historically low in Sunnis and high in other groups with elevated senses of their own importance. But sometimes getting up on a soapbox does more harm than good. Ancient Babylon was not Arab, and Lebanon’s leaders are not folkloric, unless “za’imi” now translates as “folkloric”. On the other hand, a MP campfire singalong would make for a priceless photo op. And I bet Sheikh Saad has a guitar.

“There are politicians who move from right to left and vice versa while their slogans change with the stock exchange. One day you see him a Gulf Arab and another day a Persian Iranian when a third time he becomes an American and then again a Russian. One day you see him an enemy of Syria and then again Syria’s best friend and so on. There are no principles, no morale, no charters and the ‘unity’ presidency stands bewildered before the political “Sufi-sectarianism”; next to the allies or to the opposition!” he added.

The Lebanese stock exchange changes basically only when Solidere does. The U.S. stock exchange, on the other hand, has been on a pleasant upward tick, Friday’s 250-point decline aside. Which bourse is he referring to here? And the only political figure who might possibly qualify for the bewildering khaliji-ajami-amerki-russi raqs is, of course, Yoda Bey. But even with him I’m skeptical. As for “Sufi-sectarianism” … hunh. I just don’t get it, but I’m trying. (Sunni Mevlevis twirl with hands up, Shii with hands down?)

“There’s no civilized nation in the world like that of our Great Lebanon. The Lebanese people abhor this category. To those I ask you, what’s your true identity? Who robs the electricity money, the foreign, internal, sea and land telecommunications’ money? A nation that lives the culture of hate with leaders leading them to sectarian wars, hating each other; hatred in the name of religion, in the name of sectarianism and in the name of the parties,” he added.

I’ve read this bit several times now, and I’m still wondering: which category is it that the Lebanese people abhor? Civilized? Nation? Great? Lebanon? And are they the “those” whom al Jouza addresses? (I think we all get the point of his question about robbery, but I don’t understand its connection to this bit about categories and abhorrence.) Condemning hate sounds more equitably distributed – “hating each other” – and hate is a good thing for a religious leader to condemn, even if his words are a bit vague.

“Our educated youth is faced with only one exit, that of emigration. They have grown to hate their country and their nationality and have traveled in quest of finding another one keen to protect their integrity and protect them from the politicians and their resentment,” he continued.

What? I’m not questioning the fact of emigration, but what other types of exits might there be? Mental? And as for “hating their country and their nationality” and journeying on some heroic quest to find another (a much nicer way of putting it than “trying for the American passport”), most overseas Lebanese I’ve met want nothing more than to return home.

This is the Lebanon of today, so why don’t all the people emigrate and offer our country as a gift to Syria and their infidels? Did not the Maronite come from Syria, so why not go back to it and along with them all of Lebanon and not just those who have missed Syria?,” he concluded.

Ah, the sectarian fun begins. Here’s where an Arabic original would be helpful (and here’s also where we reach and exceed the limits of back translation …), as well as a history lesson. By “infidels” does he mean the Alaouites who run Syria, or is suggesting that Syrians in general are irreligious? And what’s with the jibe at Maronites?

Finally, and just as a minor point: historically speaking, the Lebanese who wanted Lebanon to go back to Syria were the Sunnis. And only the Sunnis.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Islam, Lebanon, religion, Syria, Uncategorized, words | 1 Comment »

Islamic silver, Christian gold?

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 16, 2009

I ran across this advertisement in a regional publication this morning (yes: the tasks of my current job can indeed be somewhat eclectic) and am stumped:


What makes silver Islamic? Is there anything wrong with un-Islamic silver?

What am I missing here?

Posted in advertising, Arabic, fashion, Islam | 4 Comments »

Americans still muddled about Muslims

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 6, 2009

Today’s Washington Post has an interesting, although not exactly cheering, article on the results of a poll it commissioned recently to gauge Americans’ responses to both particular initiatives and the general tone of the Obama administration thus far. The poll addressed a variety of subjects, including Obama’s economic initiatives and the overall direction of the country under him, but it also included a sizable chunk of questions on relations with the Muslim world and the pollees’ view of Muslims (at home and abroad) and Islam. (You can see the questions, answers, and percentages here.)

The article is very much worth reading. I’m pasting it in here, along with a few unsolicited editorial comments :).

Most Americans think President Obama’s pledge to “seek a new way forward” with the Muslim world is an important goal, even as nearly half hold negative views about Islam and a sizable number say that even mainstream adherents to the religion encourage violence against non-Muslims, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

There is still a broad lack of familiarity with the world’s second-largest religion — 55 percent of those polled said they are without a basic understanding of the teachings and beliefs of Islam, and most said they do not know anyone who is Muslim. While awareness has increased in recent years, underlying views have not improved.

About half, 48 percent, said they have an unfavorable view of Islam, the highest in polls since late 2001. Nearly three in 10, or 29 percent, said they see mainstream Islam as advocating violence against non-Muslims; although more, 58 percent, said it is a peaceful religion.

[What’s scary to me here is that the percentage of people saying that they have a “favorable” view has remained the same – the increase in the “unfavorable” views comes from those who in the early 2000s said that they had no opinion. There seems to have been a major shift from “no opinion” to “unfavorable” between 2003 and 2006, a shift that is holding dishearteningly steady today.

As for views on Islam as a “peaceful religion”, I really don’t like this question. Religions are complex and neither peaceful nor warlike; it is people who make the choice to mobilize religious faith for peace or war, and this changes from generation to generation and from one socio-political context to another. But, in 2006 the “peaceful” respondents were 54%, and the “advocates violence” crowd was 33%, so maybe this is a hopeful sign. Again, though, there was a shift between 2003 and 2006 from those answering “no opinion” to those answering “advocates violence” – a dangerous shift, and one that to me seems closely connected to the Iraq war.]

Muslims make up about 1 percent of all U.S. adults.

Majorities of Americans with sympathetic and unsympathetic views about Islam said it is important for the president to try to improve U.S. relations with Muslim nations, with those holding more positive views much more likely to call those moves “very important.” In his inaugural address, Obama extended an offer to leaders of unfriendly Muslim nations that the United States “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Overall, nearly two-thirds said Obama, who arrived yesterday in Ankara, Turkey, will handle the diplomatic mission “about right.” Nearly a quarter, though, said he will probably “go too far.” Nine percent said it is more likely he will not go far enough.

Nearly half of Republicans said Obama is apt to overreach in his efforts to advance U.S. relations, while large majorities of Democrats and independents said they think he will walk the right line.

Republicans are also more apt than others to hold negative attitudes toward Islam, with six in 10 having unfavorable views, compared with about four in 10 for Democrats and independents. Among conservative Republicans, 65 percent view Islam unfavorably; liberal Democrats, in contrast, are 60 percent positive.

[This to me is a very disheartening statistic, as is the one below. Having known many fine Republicans, I find this a sign of the party’s 1990s lurch to the far right, and hope that this will not last.]

This partisan divide is also apparent on the question of whether mainstream Islam encourages hostility toward non-Muslims, with Republicans about twice as likely as Democrats to say it does. Nearly half of conservative Republicans see centrist Islam as a promoter of violence.

Perceptions of Islam as a peaceful faith are the highest among non-religious Americans, with about two-thirds holding that view. Among Catholics, 60 percent see mainstream Islam as a peaceful faith; it is 55 percent among all Protestants, but drops to 48 percent among white evangelical Protestants.

There are deep divisions in perceptions of Islam between younger and older Americans as well: More than six in 10 younger than 65 said Islam is a peaceful religion, but that drops to 39 percent among seniors.

[I find this heartening for what it says about younger Americans, and I understand from other research that it connects with the information below about the views of those who know at least one Muslim. As our population of Muslim Americans continues to grow, and more and more non-Muslim Americans meet Muslim Americans in school and at work, I hope that we see a measurable change in these statistics.]

As in previous surveys, unfamiliarity breeds skepticism: 53 percent of those who profess an understanding of some Islamic teachings view the religion favorably, compared with 31 percent of those who said they do not have that fluency. Those who have such a background are also significantly more likely to see the religion as peaceful. Similar patterns exist for those who know a Muslim. And views of Islam are more positive among those with more formal education.

In a Pew poll in March, 11 percent of Americans mistakenly identified Obama as a Muslim, about the same proportion to do so during the presidential campaign.

[Argh. Not that it matters if he were Muslim, but it is embarrassing to see how persistent American ignorance can be.]

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone March 26-29 among a national random sample of 1,000 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Posted in Americans, Islam | Leave a Comment »

my sister in the Islam

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 17, 2009

This morning I received word from two friends: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the husband of my old friend Princess Amira, invited me to buy a new Mercedes, and Mrs. Muna Habib offered $3.5 million to me to use for dawa.

Here’s the word from Prince Alwaleed, who obviously hasn’t seen my driving, which – surpassed only by my parking skills – certainly fits one definition of “spectacular”:


And here is the note from Muna, with commentary in brackets:

Assalamn aleikum I am Mrs. Muna Habib from South Africa, married to Alhaji Habib Nasser who was until his death an exporter of antiquities based in Cote d’ivoire, we were married for eleven years without a child. He died after a brief illness that lasted for only two weeks. Before his death we were both faithful Muslims.

[Faithful perhaps, but clearly unable to spell “assalam aleikum” properly. There are many alternatives, but none add an “n” to “salaam”.]

Since his death I decided not to remarry or get a child outside my matrimonial home which the holly Quaran is against. When my late husband was alive he deposited the sum of ($3.5 Million U.S. Dollars) in one the famous financial institutions here in Abidjan capital of Cote d’ivoire.

[Holly is a plant. The Qur’an does not have two “a”s. Having had a friend who worked as a consultant in Abidjan, I question Muna’s description of the financial institutions there as “famous”.]

Recently my doctor confirmed to me that I have serious sickness which is cancer problem. The one that disturbs me most is my stroke sickness.

[A stroke-causing cancer: who knew!]

Having known my condition I decided to donate this money to an Islamic institution or individual that will utilize this money the way I am going to instruct herein. I want a muslim that will use this money for orphanage homes, hospitals, mosque, schools, and propagation of the word of the mighty Allah and to endeavour that the house of almighty Allah is maintained. The holly Quaran made us to understand that Blessed is the hand that gives.

[Fair enough – and thanks to an earlier bout of historical training, I do indeed know how to properly establish a waqf.]

I took this decision because I don’t have any child that will inherit this money and my husband relatives are not Muslims and I don’t want my husband’s effort to be used by unbelievers. I don’t want a situation whereby this money will be used in an unGodly way. This is why I am taking this decision.

[Um, okay. Your husband converted to Islam? Then why did you receive all of his money when he died?]

I am not afraid of death hence I know where I am going. I know that I am going to be in the bosom of the almighty Allah. As stated in the holly Quaran (Surah xxxvi Yasin) Thou wariest only him who followeth the reminder and feareth the beneficent in secret to him bear tiding of forgives and a rich reward.

[Sura 36 is spelled Ya Seen, after two discrete Arabic letters, not Yasin as in the name. How about this translation instead, which actually makes sense? “You will be heeded only by those who uphold this message, and reverence the Most Gracious – even when alone in their privacy. Give them good news of forgiveness and a generous recompense.”.]

I don’t need any telephone communication in this regard because of my health hence the presence of my husband’s relatives around me always. I don’t want them to know about this development. With almighty Allah all things are possible.

As soon as I receive your reply I will direct you on how this vission will be realised. I want you and the Islamic institution to always pray for me because the almighty Allah is my shepherd.

[God as a shepherd – one of my favorite Christian analogies. I think Muna’s in-laws are influencing her metaphors.]

My happiness is that I lived a life of a worthy Muslim. Whoever that wants to serve the almighty Allah must serve him in spirit and truth. Please always be prayerful all through your life. Any delay in your reply will give me room to sourcing another Islamic institution or a good muslim for this same purpose. Please assure me that you will act accordingly as I Stated herein.

Your Sister in the Islam.

Mrs. Muna Habib

Technically, the word in Arabic is used in the definite: “al-Islam”. But just as in English we do not speak of “the Judaism” or “the Christianity”, we do not speak of “the Islam”.

But what a bad friend I am, correcting Muna’s grammar rather than replying to her email.  Guess I’ve gotten lazy ever since agreeing to help my Gazan-refugee-in-Spain friend, Princess Amira, and – of course – Ali Ibrahim from the 20th Armored Brigade 🙂 .

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Islam, women | Leave a Comment »

becoming a bab

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 2, 2009

Yesterday morning I found myself in another animated online discussion with my friend H, about assorted religious issues. We often disagree, but we are usually able to do so – as negotiators suggest – without being disagreeable. Yesterday we covered a wide range of topics, most swirling around the tension between ecumenicalism (which accepts other faiths as they are) and conversion (which does not).

We had been chatting for at least half an hour, and our conversation  while friendly – after all, we have several years invested in one another, not to mention assorted family connections – had grown fairly heated. It – and we – needed a little leavening.

So when H Arabicized a Christian sacrament, I couldn’t help but laugh.

You’ve been babtised, diamond, haven’t you? H wrote.

I mean babtized, he wrote in the next line, changing his spelling from British to American.

As many of you know, Arabic does not use the letter “p”. And as many of you also know, the word “bab” in Arabic means “door”, in both the literal and metaphoric senses.

And, of course, in the US, people jokingly ask someone to move out of the way by saying: “You make a better door than a window”.

I don’t like to think of myself as an obstructing force, so I’ll focus on the other aspect of the word bab: that like all doors, it opens onto something else – a home, an adventure, a new thought.

In that sense, I would like to think that yes, I have been babtized. I would like to be a door for others 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arabic, church, friends, Islam, Qur'an, religion, words | Leave a Comment »

What’s a nice Jewish girl doing in Syria? new thoughts on my favorite city

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 5, 2009

This morning I found myself utterly engrossed by an interview in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, which appeared on my Google news alert. If you read it carefully, you will see a number of interesting tensions between the stereotypes that the interviewer has – about the appropriateness of a young Jewish academic studying Arabic literature rather than Jewish, about Jewish life in Syria, and about Islamic influences on synagogue architecture – and the much more grounded perspective that Rachel Levine, the interviewee, has. (And a few things that are not addressed, such as the fact that many Syrians would have no idea that Rachel Levine is a “stridently Jewish” name.)

As for me, I found parts of it an absolute hoot, like the idea that a rabbi would calmly ask a young woman how she and her boyfriend enjoyed traveling together. I may be wrong, but in my experience, the sexual habits of unmarried Americans and their comfort level in discussing these with religious leaders are quite different.

I also found parts of it extremely comforting, like Levine’s comment that there are “over ten very eligible Jewish bachelors” in Damascus – men who apparently want a wife who will commit to staying in Syria. This is heartening to me, because it suggests that Syria’s small Jewish community is not yet (and, I hope, ever) in danger of dying out completely.

As I noted above, the interview is quite long, but worth skimming if you don’t have the patience (or the time) for a full read.

Why’s a Nice Jewish Girl Spending a Year in Syria?

— Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram

This fall Rachel Levine begins doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania, having completed a BA in Near Eastern Languages including Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi (Persian). Right now she’s studying Arabic in Syria.

PJV: Sounds like a potentially dangerous location for a beautiful young American woman with such a stridently Jewish name. Why did you want to spend a year in Syria?

Coming from a part of the academic world where study in the Arabic-speaking world is not only expected, but imperative, it was the next natural step. Syrians guard and cultivate their linguistic heritage and they are very proud about this. It’s simply the best place to learn Arabic well as any person on the street can speak to you in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).

PJV: What drew you to Arab literature over say, Jewish studies or Torah?

I’ve always seen it as intimately related to my being engaged in the Jewish world. If we’re talking about comparative advantage, I went to public school and don’t have a background in Talmud or Jewish studies, but I do have a background in multiculturalism and being open to the other. I think there need to be people in the Jewish world who study Arab societies from a cultural, rather than political perspective. And my work isn’t so far removed from Jewish studies because my doctoral program will also involve Hebrew across the full spectrum from classical texts to modern literature.

I’m particularly interested in the questions that are found where modern Arabic and Modern Hebrew discourses interact. What’s written about Arabic literature in Hebrew and Modern Hebrew literature in Arabic, or when you have Israeli Jews writing in Arabic and Israeli Palestinians writing in Hebrew, these are fascinating areas of overlap. And if we’re talking more historically, Jewish studies in America are very much Ashkenaz-centered. I think the story of Jews in Muslim lands, which would include Arabic and Persian-speaking Jews, is a story that is waiting to be told in the West, and a very important story given the current political climate.

Furthermore, anyone who is committed to Judaism and the Jewish past, present and future needs to realize that in the 21st century it’s incumbent upon us to learn Arabic and learn to appreciate the interwoven and adjacent Arab cultures. We don’t have to all become world-class scholars in Arabic, but we all do need to become familiar with their customs, their magnificent history, and their incredibly expressive language, because if we think that Israel is going to stay and “survive,” we need to recognize that we have neighbors and we must build relationships with them. That we must do. In speaking with American Jews, I see it just hasn’t sunk in how close together the two peoples live. Day schools would do well to offer Arabic and Arab cultural studies.

A Palestinian girl from the Old City of Jerusalem explained it to me this way when I was living in Amman. She’d given me an Elite candy bar she’d brought with her, and stated that “We’d better learn to get along because we’ll be living side by side,” and then she paused…”Forever.” In the ideal world knowledge of the Arab world and language would be just as valued as Hebrew, Talmud and Torah given the emergence of the State of Israel in what happens to be the geographic center of the Arab world and the bridge between Mashriq and Maghreb [Eastern and Western Arabic-speaking countries].

Right now there is a curiosity in Jewish communities about the Arabic speaking world but often it’s interwoven with schadenfreude: Why can’t they have democracy? Why do they blow up one another’s mosques? Why are people kept so poor in such an oil-rich region? Can women drive cars in Damascus? What are you going to Damascus for, to learn how to make bombs? I want to help change that curiosity in which the subtext is, why are Israelis so superior? There needs to be a more neutral and respectful curiosity about Arab culture and the Arabic language.

PJV: Did you get to travel widely? What surprised you most about Syrian culture? You are half-way through your year there, how has your perspective changed over time?

There are certain things I think we can learn from more traditional cultures of the Arabic-speaking people of greater Syria, if I’m not romanticizing. There’s a huge emphasis on spending time with family and friends. Syrians will often tell foreign students like me, when we say we don’t have time to socialize due to our studies, that we don’t know the real meaning of friendship; they sometimes get angry. Also, all their produce is locally grown. They often mention that Syria is self-sufficient in this way, which of course is easy to do in the Mediterranean. Public transportation is very efficient and inexpensive, you rarely have to wait more than two minutes for a microbus. People are very very friendly and hospitable, they’re world-famous for it.

PJV: Can you get by as a tourist without Arabic?

Sure. I was really overwhelmed by the great wealth of archaeological sites and stunning Islamic architecture. I was able to dress like I dress in America, which one can’t do in Egypt or the West Bank.

PJV: What are the religious services of Syrian Jews like? This was the first time I was in a Yom Kippur service where there were more Torah scrolls than people. I think I counted twenty-five kept in this one synagogue. All in beautifully ornate cases, they’re the scrolls brought from other Damascus synagogues which have since been boarded up. The service was 100% in Hebrew; I’d never heard this particular kind of semi-melodic chanting before.

PJV: Was there separate seating? Did the temple look like a mosque?

There was a place for women upstairs but since there were so few of us, we all sat downstairs. Ostensibly there could have been separate seating if there had been more people. We women were sitting off to the side in the back, but at one point they invited us to sit closer to the men, near the ark. They seemed impressed that we as women knew how to davven (pray) and read Hebrew. They probably didn’t think very much about this, but for us it felt like a rather profound gesture. Here we are, still fasting and praying in Damascus in 2008, so indeed, why make praying, atoning Jews sit so far away?

Many elements of the synagogue showed Islamic influence, for example the name of G*d in Hebrew illuminated on the gold wall plaques, stylized exactly like in the mosques. There’s a lot of word art with religious themes; it’s done in Hebrew calligraphy just like its Islamic, Arabic counterpart.

PJV: Did you feel isolated as a Jew in Syria?

Well, for those who are looking, I met /heard about over ten very eligible Jewish bachelors who would each love a Jewish woman to contact them with an eye toward marriage and a life in Syria. They all make an excellent living there, and as rumor has it, are quite eligible. But, what’s left of Jewish life in Damascus gives a sense of what it was like to be Jewish before vast swaths of Jews immigrated to America.

Being a minority anywhere, religious or otherwise, can be a position of disempowerment and the position of Jews in Syria must have been similar in some ways to that of other religious minorities. How similar, well, that’s a question for graduate school. But in this regard, Syrian Jews were integrated into a religiously-diverse Syrian society. The Jews were a sect among sects in Syria; they were sectarian in the true sense of the word.

PJV: One hears that people watch what they say over there. How safe and observed do you feel?

I know that part of what makes Syria so safe is that there’s a lot of “observing.” I feel very safe and know I can walk around at any time of day or night. I run alone at night and feel 100% safe and often feel people there are so involved in the lives of others and it’s like the entire society watches one another. It’s a nosey culture but people also care about one another immensely and watch out for the well-being of women especially. There’s a certain sense of chivalry that’s present in the society.

PJV: Are you “out” as a Jew there?

No. But maybe I’m just afraid and not giving the Syrians a chance. It’s been fascinating discovering a whole world where Judaism doesn’t exist. Here some people live very pious lives but they’ve never met a Jew, it doesn’t show up on their religious radar. It’s been a wake-up call to realize this is a norm in much of the world, that Judaism just isn’t present. Maybe it’s present in its absence; Jews are depicted as such an ominous force in world politics though no one has met one of us. Part of it is that I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

Some Syrians do reminisce about when they had a Jewish neighbor or Jewish classmates in high school and their nostalgia for them. This is a testament to their society’s religious diversity. In some ways the loss of the Jewish population, regardless of the historical circumstances, was seen as a blow to Syrian pluralism. But at the same time, what they understand as Judaism and Jews is so removed from Judaism and from what Jews are and what I really am. Syrian religious minorities themselves don’t always make known their religion, and so Jewish foreign students would be extremely well-served to adopt this local custom. I don’t think anything bad would necessarily happen to me, but it would change the relationships with people as I came to learn about them.

PJV: What do they say about Jews?

There are two strands of discourse – one is there are no gripes with the Jewish people; Judaism is a monotheistic Abrahamic religion, the problem’s with Zionism. Jews can come to Syria and anyone is welcome to pray in any holy place in Syria – a member of the Syrian parliament actually said this to us in a lecture. He was particularly proud of the fact that there is still a functioning synagogue in Syria even though the country is at war with the “Hebrew State.” So there’s this discourse of tolerance that’s interwoven with the enmity toward Zionism and Israel.

The other discourse is a very deeply rooted suspicion of Judaism; you see a lot of sensationalist books in bookstore like “The Sexual Secrets of the Talmud,” and books with skulls and blood and Jewish stars – the typical anti-Semitic fare. There’s a sensationalist book on the history of the Jews in Damascus published last year with a specific chapter dealing with the ritual uses of blood throughout history and with the phenomenon of “Jewish prostitution.” You don’t see such things about Christianity or other traditions. Every day one hears anti-Zionist sentiments such as “God isn’t a real estate agent, he doesn’t promise people land.” There are copies of Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kamf all over the place. There was a book at the book fair, Leaders of the Zionist Movement. I didn’t read it. There is an interest in the figures of Zionism, but as criminals. This type of stuff tends to be rather sensational in nature. They assume you’re a Christian if you’re an American tourist, but some people think most of America is Jewish. It’s very strange.

PJV: Is there a free press?

No, but newspapers from Lebanon are available for sale and one can always read widely on the Internet or watch any number of foreign satellite channels, everything from Al-Manar [Hizballah TV] to Al-Jazeera to the BBC and CNN. Syria has a secular government that is providing security for its citizens in one of the most violent, sectarian regions of the world.

Also, it’s important to remember how people’s degrees of relation to the terrorized-starving-dying people on TV affects their emotional response. When Syrians read take in news about Israelis and Palestinians the top story before Operation Cast Lead in Gaza had been the humanitarian suffering and the boycott there. Perhaps people hear from American satellite or from the last line in an Al-Jazeera article about rockets falling on Sderot, but obviously the sufferings of the residents of Gaza struck and do strike their hearts much more intensely and immediately. They look at the rockets falling on Israel with a degree of dismissiveness, if not a little bit of cheering.

With the air and now ground campaign in Gaza, the Arabic press sees as the main story what the Israeli and Western presses see as the collateral damage.

PJV: Your boyfriend came out to visit you for a month, how did your experience change?

They aren’t used to seeing unmarried people staying or traveling together. They would assume we are engaged or married, and bless us to have a large family, inshallah (G*d-willing). There was a family that was so hospitable they wouldn’t let us leave – for days. We went one night and the next day we stayed two more nights for a total four days with them. We lost track of how many cups of tea and teaspoons of sugar we drank.

Syrians have a saying – “his blood is light,” which means someone has a good sense of humor, and they do laugh a lot. My experience is that they value their relationships and joke about one another all the time. There has to be something to talk about in lieu of the sensitive topics of politics and religion.

PJV: Will you go back?

Well, that’s a much more daunting prospect than it was a week and a half ago given just how angry people are in the Arab world right now. But there are five months left of my program and I’m very much looking forward to continuing to deepen the relationships with the very kind people who I’ve had the immense pleasure of meeting in Syria. There must be a better way, and the more violent the region becomes, the clearer it gets that even though educating and being educated is a slow, gradual process, there really isn’t a moment to lose.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Damascus, Islam, Israel, travel, women, words | 2 Comments »

starting from scratch: a new beginning

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 21, 2009

My aunt has posted the full text of President Obama’s inaugural address yesterday – you can read it here.

The elements that I found most inspiring were his call to service, his reference to the United States as a country of multiple faiths, his invitation to the Muslim world to seek a “new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect”, and – thanks to my friend A, with whom I had a long conversation yesterday evening – his call for what I would term a kind of moral realism: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” This is an approach more nuanced than the Bush Administration’s “you’re either with us or against us” regime-changing steamroller, and less cynical than the “don’t ask, don’t tell” acceptance of dictators that characterizes flat realism.

And anyone willing to fight against corruption and deceit – putting transparency in the place of wasta, putting honesty in the place of lies – is fighting the good fight, as far as I am concerned.

And for our part, here in the United States we have our homework cut out for us – particularly when it comes to partnering with the Muslim world.

This was the “Joke of the week” in last week’s Time Out New York. Read it – its hysterical:


Or it would be, if most Ethiopians were in fact Muslim. The CIA World Factbook, my go-to online reference source, states that Ethiopians are:

Christian 60.8% (Orthodox 50.6%, Protestant 10.2%), Muslim 32.8%, traditional 4.6%, other 1.8%

Not that I think we shouldn’t exclude Ethiopia from this new climate of “mutual interest and mutual respect” – but perhaps we could demonstrate our respect by first getting our assumptions right :).

Posted in Americans, citizenship, humor, Islam, media, religion | 3 Comments »

the Jesuit of Gaza

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 17, 2009

Argh. Metaphors always break down at some point, but this article from Ha’aretz online is misleading from the get-go. Its the report of a Saudi militant who was killed in Gaza recently. I agree that the presence of a Saudi national fighting in Gaza with Hamas is less-than-good news. But “fighter-priest” is not only a bad translation – it is wildly inaccurate:

The unusual report of a Saudi jihadist, who was killed while fighting Israel alongside Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, appears to indicate that Hamas may be gaining greater acceptance among even more fundamentalist Muslim groups.

As a rule, Hamas does not release details about its casualties – neither in number nor identity. But a Web site identified with a radical Islamic organization that preaches jihad and features the logo of Hamas’ military wing, reported that Abu Muhammed Mari, a Saudi sheikh mujahid (“fighter-priest”), who previously fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, was killed in the fighting in Gaza.

Fighter isn’t the worst translation for “mujahid”, and unlike “jihadi”, which isn’t used in Arabic, “mujahid” is actually a word. But a “sheikh” is not a priest, and a priest is not a sheikh. Islam does not have priests, just like Judaism does not.

Ha’aretz knows better. Its not bad to be ignorant, but it is bad to spread ignorance when you know better.

Posted in Arabic, church, Islam, Israel, words | 2 Comments »

Listening In: Arabian Business reader comments on Dubai’s cancelled New Year

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 3, 2009

I enjoy reader comments, particularly on newspaper sites, and particularly in response to articles of local (or, in small countries, national) importance. I learn a great deal from them – well, at least from the ones that don’t degenerate into name calling, as some do! – : they tell me how local readers, for whom the article’s subject is a pressing and personal issue, feel.

Recently, I have been following reader comments on an Arabian Business article about Sheikh Maktoum’s decision to order all public New Year’s celebrations canceled.

The first responses – and many subsequent ones – were positive and wholly supportive, like this one, by a reader named Na:

God bless the ruler!!!
And may our blessings be with all the palestinians at this tough time.

Others were less moved by Maktoum’s decision, like Rob Tolley, who wrote:

Do you think not celebrating New Year is going to make a difference? Instead of canceling all celebrations if UAE feels that strong about the issue, send in some financial aid and military to assist.

When I last checked the comments, there were 83, amassed over several days. This article – and Sheikh Mohammed’s decision – touched a nerve, and people were clearly eager to comment on it. I don’t want to overstate the tenor of these comments, but I did notice a few trends. Those who approved of the cancellation tended to emphasize ethnic solidarity or religious behavior, like Yaseen:

Sheikh Mohammed has demonstrated what an exemplary leader he is. Muslim nations need to show a strong stand against Israel and demonstrate clear support of Palestine…. Well done Sheikh for doing exactly that!!! Esp in the month of Muharram – a time when the sahabe demonstrated their true faith in the face of aggression!

Muharram is the first month of the Muslim calendar, and historically a time when wars and other military ventures ceased (in the Christian world, Lent and other feast/fast times were also periods of truce). The “Sahaba” were Muhammad’s companions, who stood by him despite the many hardships that the early Muslim community endured.

Those who disagreed with Maktoum’s decision tended to say that it was either unhelpful or unrelated to Palestine, or that it would harm Dubai’s growing reputation as a tourist destination.

For example, Bahraintaxi suggested that Dubai’s ethical behavior might be better off if it started with a focus on the moral issues of domestic life:

Personally, I’m no great fan of New Year celebrations, but this is very odd. What on earth is the connection between New Year celebrations and what is happening currently in Palestine? What right does ANYONE have to tell us what we can and cannot celebrate and when? This is facile gesture politics: if Dubai wants to take a high ethical stand on political and social issues, it doesn’t take a genius to think of 101 things that ought be be banned in the city before New Year celebrations are!

Wael put the cancellation in terms of tourists and the individual’s right to choose: I think this is very bad for Dubai’s image as a touristic destination. There is no respect for the individual choice. I guess the end of the Dubai mania has already started.

And some suggested that a more effective tactic would be to ask hotels to donate a percentage of the night’s take to aid the people of Gaza.

In addition to calling for solidarity or religiously appropriate behavior, those who supported the decision described it as a triumph of “conscience” over “business” – a sign that Dubai would put humanity first.

I understand that in the end only the big public parties were canceled, or were restricted to eating and drinking, no dancing or loud music. I’m torn about the value of this: my parents and I did talk about the incongruity of celebrating the New Year – or any celebration – while people elsewhere were suffering. But we agreed that staying home, in and of itself, would do little to ameliorate their situation. Our feeling was: celebrate, but lift your voice in support of those suffering, and send money to aid those in need.

You can read the ongoing discussion here.

Posted in Arab world, Dubai, holidays, Islam | Leave a Comment »