Sunday, July 29, 2007
Two Swedish television channels will probably have to change their advertising practices, because of new rules in Britain. For years TV3 and Kanal 5 have broadcast from London, to get around tougher Swedish legislation, which bans advertising aimed at children. But now the British authorities are introducing rules that in some ways go farther than the Swedish, banning commercials for junk food, for example, in programs for viewers up to 16 years old. TV3 is now considering whether it should move to yet another country.
As the introduction, by a former Tunisian culture minister states, ” is there anything stranger than the case of this ‘Alfiya’ which appears even in it’s name to be a rare example of an attachment to heritage and a desire to revitalise it with the spirit that created it in the past”?
Indeed a modern Arab book with a rhyming title in the medieval fashion is a novelty in itself, but this one is also more specifically placing itself in relation to Ibn Sina’s Alarjuza Fi Al-6ib ( alarjuza - from rajz, one of the seas of poetry- on medicine; often called the Alfiya because it has 1000 odd lines). In fact Dr. Salim 3amar proclaims his poem an Alfiya Mukarrara, as it has 3500 lines.
Writing a poem, even if not great in the aesthetic sense and regardless of the topic, of such length is an achievement; and as this one conveys detailed information on psychiatry for a lay audience in an uncomplicated way it is is a doubly impressive one…but I wonder if it is worth the effort?
However there seems to be no reason why a book on psychiatry printed in 1992 should be a poem, and the limitation of the rhythm must have adversely affected Dr. Salim Amar’s treatment of his material, and is offset by no positive practical benefit.
The book seems to ‘degenerate’ into a mere curio, even in the fulsome praise of the minister of culture who ends by declaring “this Alfiya is thus given a unique character, and becomes a wondrous treasure [tuhfa 3ajiba]…so the reader should enjoy it’s manner as well as it’s matter, as every person of taste enjoys everything that is rare and precious”.
Printed on glossy paper with patterned borders, the two column layout of traditional arabic poetry reinforces the ‘gimmicky’ effect of the rhymed chapter and subtitles, the cover illustration from a medival manuscript, and the title which echoes the descriptive rhyme of the inumerable Alfiyat across the centuries on everything from grammar to theology.
In short, Dr. Salim 3amar’s Alfiya mukarrara fi al-amrath al-nafsiya almu3tabara ends up being just the sort of book people only buy as gifts, ending up looking good and gathering dust on a shelf.
A different approach is taken Dr. Sami Mahmoud, who supervised a recent edition of Tadhkirat Uli Al-albab wa Al-jame3 li Al-3ajab Al-3ujab (The memorandum for the intelligent, and the compendium of the wondrously strange) by Dawud ibn 3amr Alan6aki, and says he found his original intention to publish a full or even abridged version impractical.
Instead of seeking to slavishly duplicate what was produced to fulfil the needs of a different era, Dr. Mahmoud used the Tadhkira as a basis for a book he calls Tadhkirat Dawud Lil-3ilaj Bil A3shab wa Al-wasa2il Al-6abe3ia (Dawud’s memorandum on on herbal and natural treatments), the title says it all really- no rhyme, and he uses the phraseology natural to him as the writer of an earlier best-selling book on herbal medicine. Unlike Dr. Salim 3amar he sees no need to twist his expertise into an unatural form to revive the past, instead he goes back to it to take what is useful in a contemporary context.
The original Tadhkira is a massive three volume book - the first volume gives the properties of over 3000 medicinal plants and herbs arranged in alphabetical order, the other two deal with the diagnosis and treatment of alphabetically arranged illnesses and diseases; but it also contains detailed sections on topics such as veterinary science, farming and geography. The language is difficult, and at times obscure, and as the publisher says in his introduction, some of the elements required for the compounds are almost impossible to obtain, and others are unkown even to an expert.
This edition edits content and language, and after each entry on a plant or illness from the Tadhkirah adds the explanation in terms of modern science. As an active researcher in the field of herbal medicine, Dr Mahmoud provides additional uses for plants and treatments for diseases from other medieval texts, and from folk remedies.
Such an approach is actually much more in line with that of doctors and 3ulama like Ibn Sina and Dawud ibn 3amr, the latter says in a quote which serves as an epigraph to Dr. Sami Mahmoud’s book:
"We have chosen medicines that are easily available and inexpensive, to comply with the needs of the seeker, who if he agrees accepts, and if so his acceptance is an honour, and if not let him cover what faults he sees with the tail of forgiveness, for it is the ever-blessed (God) who is free from all deficiency and mistakes…and let my prize for this [work] be a prayer from him; God is the one who guides us to the right, and to him is the return and in his hands my fate, there is no power but God the high and great, he is the one I depend on, the most perfect sustainer"
Friday, July 27, 2007
After three days cooking elaborate meals for visiting relatives, and preparing relays of trays in between, winding up with a huge barbecue in the (tiny) garden, what could be more irresistible than this title: 101 10-minute recipes?
I really enjoyed having my favourite aunt over, but sweltering heat just doesn't go well with the oven and the hob, you end up looking like a sweaty tomato with a terrible rash...or as the article puts it "the pleasures of cooking are sometimes obscured by summer haze".
Anyway so there are lots of nifty ideas, but one just seems a desecration of couscous:
Soak couscous in boiling water to cover until tender; top with sardines, tomatoes,
parsley, olive oil and black pepper.
Is it just me or does that just scream YUK?
My favourite Libyan cool summer recipe is Sala6a 3arabiya, really simple. What you do is:
- Roughly chop a lot of really ripe tomatoes, finely chop a bunch of parsely and add thinly sliced chillis, diced cucumber and tiny black olives.
- Combine oil from the olive jar if you have some home-made stuff, or just regular olive oil, with lime or lemon juice and salt. Mix the dressing with the salad and chill in the fridge for a half-hour or so.
- To make it more substantial it's common to add bite size pieces of khubzit she3eir, khubzit tannour, or those ubiquitous french baguettes. The essence of the thing is to use your hands to squeeze and knead and generally mess up your salad, so the bread really soaks up the juices.
Monday, July 23, 2007
There are quite a few differences in details of course, the one I found intriguing was the father's reluctance to remarry in the Palestinian version, fearing how a step-mother would treat his children, which made him more of a 'sympathetic character' than the father in the Juniper Tree - who nevertheless escapes death, despite similarly unconsious canibalism.
The avoidance of patricide and purging of all evils through the surrogate mother figure might be part of the Grimm brothers' reworking of their materials for the sensibilities of contemporary child
I don't mind bowdlerisation though; some experts seem to imply 'authentic' tales, crude and earthy and true, told by peasant hags in some hut and being disfigured by the Perraults seeking to satisfy a literate elite, but tales passed on orally are also changed at each telling with regard to the audience.
The Green Bird as I remember it told years ago, started of with the stepmother making kib'e and greedily gobbling it all up herself, and as we were old enough to enjoy being scared, we were told in gory detail how she made her step-son into a replacement meal, but there was greater stress on the father's constant worry about his missing son, who he is told ran away. The woman who told it might have heard it in this version, or she might have made her own changes...or maybe she first encountered it reading Muhawi and Kanaana's 's popular anthology.
The relationship between written and oral folktales should not privilege either, and actually with the tradition of elites gathering these narratives and recreating them in forms to suit their literary taste and social, or even political, purpose going back so many centuries, it seems senseless to imagine a folklore purely oral, even if oral narrative was to be seen as the more pure, essential form of these stories. They have always been a collaborative, collective effort, always something made, not just existing, constantly being consciously remade, not spontaneously mutating.
And not necessarily a cosy process around the home fires . The resemblance between Mameluk sagas like Sayf bin dhi Yazin, or Alf layla wa layla, and Russian folklore is usually explained with reference to the the Central Asian hordes marauding across, and then settling in, both areas. Battles and blood baths, are probably also the reason for this instance of cross-culturation between the fertile crescent and central Europe. In fact Warner's book makes a couple of references, in the context of legends based on Biblical figures, to Crusaders bringing back the Muslim folktales about Solomon and Bilqais the Queen of Saba2/Sheba for example, and adding them to the local mix.
So anyway, war and empire building/dashing seems to be an ideal time to swap fairy tales...will something positive come out of the creative chaos the region is currently experiencing after all?
The Green Bird
Sunday, July 15, 2007
[As a six year old] I couldn't read a lot of the words in The Hobbit. I had accelerated into reading faster than my understanding had grown. If I press my memory for the sensation of reading the second half of the book, when I was flying through the story,I remember, simultaneous with the new liquid smoothness, a constant flicker of incomprehensibility. There were holes in the text corresponding to the parts I couldn't understand. Words like prophesying, rekindled and adornment had never been spoken in my hearing...I could enjoy them. They were obviously the special vocabulary that was apt for the slaying of dragons and the fighting of armies: words that conjured the sound of trumpets. But for all the meaning I obtained from them, they might as well never have been printed. When i speeded up, and my reading became fluent, it was partly because I had learned how to ignore such words efficiently. I methodically left out chunks...
Now that I hardly spell out I do not know, and the things that puzzle me in books do not lie in individual words but in the author's assumption of shared knowledge about the human heart (never my strong point), I still have, like everybody, words in my vocabulary that are relics of that time. The words we learned exclusively from books are the ones we pronounce differently from everyone else. Or, if we force ourselves to say them the public way, secretly we believe the proper pronunciation is our own, deduced from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it was too late to alter the sound of the word. The classic is 'misled', said not as mis-led but as myzled-the past tens of a verb, 'to misle', which somehow never comes p in the present tense. In fact, misled never misled me. One of mine is 'grimace'. You probably think it's pronounced grimuss, but I know different. It's grim-ace to rhyme with face. I'm sorry, but on this point, the entire English-speaking human race except me is wrong.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
‘Om kriget i Vietnam’ was not the sort of thing I would usually attempt, but I was hooked from the first line. Of course I knew nothing of Vietnam, but a few days earlier, despite my parent’s best efforts, I had seen a news segment from the then ongoing 2nd (or 91) Gulf War. They thought we were all safely asleep and were watching the evening news, but for some reason I woke up and came into the living room; from the doorway I watched the whole report, complete with the Iraqi corpses and POW’s (paraded across the globe sans condemnation for barbarity) and it wasn’t until the anchor moved unto some local item that my mother noticed me. I remember I slept with her that night.
Those images, perhaps more inexplicable than shocking, were what made me read and re-read the poem. Obviously it was way over my head, I couldn’t even understand some of the words, but I was fascinated by the disjunction between placid Scandinavia and the horrors on TV - it seemed so distant, so unreal, like it was something going on literally inside that black box.
Om kriget i Vietnam
Bakom TV'n ändrades ljuset
utanför fönstren. Mörkret bytes
mot grått och träden framträdde
svarta i det klara grå ljuset
från ny snön. På morgonen
var allt igen snöat. Jag går nu
ut och sopar efter stormen.
Jag hör i radio att USA
gett ut en vitbok
om kriget i VIETNAM
i vilken Nordvietnam anklagas
för aggression. I går kväll
på TV såg vi en filmspelning från
Viet Congs sida, fick höra
från marken, från de beskjutnas
sida. I en annan film
för ett par veckor sedan
intervjudnas de amerikanska
helikopternforärna av CBS. En av dem
beskrev sin utlösning
när han äntligen fick skott på
en “VC”: han slungades
tre meter fram
av raketerna. Det blir säkert mer snö idag
säger min granne, svartklädd
på vag till sitt arbete. Han
balsamerar döda och är nåttvardare på
mentalsjukhus. Trackten jag bor i —Lund
med omnejd — blir en allt vitare
bok, solen kommer och lyser
brännande kall over de vidsträkta sidorna.
De döda är siffror, som vilar, vivlar
som kristaller, i vinden over fälten. Hittils
beräknas 2 millioner ha dött i VIETNAM.
Här dör knappast någon
av annat än personliga skäl. Den svenska
ekonomin dödar numera
inte många, i varje fall
inte här i landet. Ingen för
krig i vårt land for att skydda
sina egna intressen. Ingen
bränner oss med napalm
fär en feudal frihets skull.
På 14- och 1500-tålen fanns ingen napalm.
Solen stiger här mot middag.
Det är snart mars 1965.
För var dag.
dödas allt fler i USA’s vidriga krig.
Snöflingorna på fotot av
vid tiden för det sista bombingarna
i Nordvietnam — han steg
ur eller in i en bil — faller
allt tätare over de vita sidorna.
Fler döda, fler rätt fårdiganden,
tills allt snöar igen
i den natt som slutgiltigt
ändrar sitt ljus utanfär fönstren.
Storyteller: Salitu le3shi wala la2?
(have you prayed the evening prayer?)
Audience: Kulna msalyeen
(we have all prayed)
Storyteller: Nkharefkum Khurafa fil bhar jarafa
(I’ll tell you a tale that drags up the sea)
eIli khawaf yatla3 bara
(whoever is a scaredy-cat get out)
Wili yibi yarbah ysali 3alnibi
(and whoever wants to prosper bless the Prophet)
Audience: Alahuma sali wa salim 3aleh
(God's blessings and peace be upon him)
Storyteller: Imala asm3u zein
(right then, listen up!)
Far away there is a vast and rich kingdom you've never heard of and will never see, and it had been ruled by the same family for a thousand years. In the time of our story Zamzar was king; he was very proud of being the descendent of men as wise as they were brave, as merciful as they were just, and ruled according to the pattern they had set.
Now in that country a King had fifty wives, but not one of Zamazar's wives had given him a child. He was desperate to have an heir: not because the state was in danger, for he had many brothers; and not because he distrusted his brothers, for they were all very able and honest men, and a great help in administering a vast territory. He just didn't want to be the one to disrupt an unbroken line of succession from father to son.
Aside from this worry the King Zamzar lived fairly happily, as did his wives and his subjects, and his realm prospered - until one day he went out hunting with his nobles, and they chased a gazelle that would bring about his destruction and suffering to many others: listen and I will tell you how this came about.
This gazelle was no ordinary animal, its dappled coat was the colour of the midday sun that shone above the hunting party, its hooves were gold and gave off sparks like minature lightning as it lead them up hills, down valleys and across streams. The chase continued for many hours, and more and more of the hunting party were left behind or dropped out, but Zamzar insisted on catching this magical creature, which always remained tantalizingly within sight.
As the sun set only he and his royal guard were left to see the marvellous transformation as the gazelle became as fiery red as the disk slipping behind the mountains in front of them, and then reflected the soft purples of the sky approaching twilight. When the full moon rose in the sky they had reached the edges of the desert, and the chameleon-like gazelle was a luminous shape that lit their way. The horses, exhausted from the unrelenting pace, floundered in the sand, and one by one royal guards the fell back.
Accompanied only by Sawad, his stallion, who seemed as caught up in the chase as his royal master, Zamzar continued to follow the gazelle. He was too intent on his prey to notice that he was being led to the ruins of an ancient fortress; it was at this very place, exactly a thousand years ago, that his ancestor had won the kingdom.
The other nobles had invited this ancestor to lead a revolt against a brutal ruler, who was finally besieged with his remaining forces in this well-fortified castle. The story goes that it was the princess who had revealed secret entrances to the army outside, which was led by a man to whom she had been engaged.
However once the battle was over, the triumphant new King had made it clear that he was not ready to jeopardise the position he had won by a marriage that would antagonise his subjects. According to legend the girl had appeared as he prepared to return to the capital with his troops, and before their astonished eyes turned into a marble statue whose lips moved to pronounce three words before becoming forever still: "I wait here".
Although he achieved his ambitions the founder of the dynasty was said never to have known rest, and the priests of that country declared the fortress a cursed place to be avoided by all.
However the centuries had stripped this warning of its significance, and given it the status of a tale to tell around a kanoun (clay brazier) on winter nights; so when Zamzar saw the gazelle actually enter through the crumbling gateway, he hesitated for a few minutes, but followed it in.
Once inside the ruins he could not see the gazelle, but picking his way through the maze of broken pillars and half collapsed walls he reached the central courtyard, crossing it he heard a sound behind him and whirling round with his spear raised in expectation of the gazelle he found himself facing a woman instead. Her hair was golden as the sun at high noon, her lips were red as a the sky at sunset, her eyes were the colour of the horizon at twilight and her face shone like the full moon that now hung low in the sky.
Zamzar lowered his spear, the woman walked up to his horse wordlessly and he helped her up behind him then rode back to his palace.
When he returned a royal wedding was celebrated, and life went on as before for a few months; but then one day his new wife came to complain: one of her co-wives was insulting her, mocking the woman come out of the desert with no people and no name. The King ordered his guards to take that woman to the dungeons beneath his palace and build a wall to bury her in alive within four walls, then he told everyone that she had suddenly fallen ill and died.
Some weeks later she came with another story, how another of the wives was plotting to poison him, and again Zamzar sent the accused to the same dungeon, the wall was partly broken, she was shoved in and then it was rebuilt behind her.
And this was the way things continued, sometimes every few days and sometimes at intervals of weeks or even months a queen would be declared dead, there would be a funeral and that would be the last anyone heard of her. Of course people were suspicious, but not even the most powerful families dared accuse the King without proof, and there was none except the King, his new queen and the guards who knew their fate.
In fact they only thought they knew, because not even the guards knew that the first woman was, by God's will, still alive when they brought the last, the fiftieth wife, to meet the same end.
Together the King's wives suffered the pain of starvation, if not its effects. In fact in their prison they all became round as watermelons, because they all became pregnant.
When the first woman gave birth, and found she had twins she told the others that they should eat one of her children and she should keep the other, as long as the agreed to do the same for her. The women agreed and as each of them gave birth to twins the same rule applied, so each woman would keep one child and sacrifice the other. However the fiftieth wife, and the last to find herself pregnant, never ate her share; but she was afraid, because as God says those who do evil want those around them to slide into sin too. So she would pretend to eat and hide the meat in the folds of her r'da, until she was sure they were all safely asleep, and then she’d bury it near the wall.
So this was how things went until this woman too gave birth, and she did not have twins. The other women said "we have all lost a child, and you received your share so, twin or no twin, we are going to eat your son". But she went to her hiding place and, giving each mother her piece, she said "here are your children, leave me mine". At this all the women began crying and lamenting their own cruelty.
However only a few days went by before they agreed to start devouring the rest of their children; being older they lasted longer than their infant siblings had done, in fact each was as filling as a newborn lamb. But soon there were no more children to eat.
The mother of the baby who was now a toddler was afraid they would eat him while she was asleep. One morning she woke up and didn't find him next to her, and straightaway she stared accusing the others, who of course all denied having touched him. While they were arguing the little boy crawled in through a hole in the corner of the wall which had been rebuilt 50 times, and after him he dragged a basketful of bread.
The women all ate their fill before thinking to ask where he had got it, but when they questioned him he simply said that he had gone out and walked till he found himself in a busy street, where the smell of freshly baked bread lead him to a bakery, and he got the basket just by telling the man he was hungry. From that day onward the boy was sent to the shops to buy food with the women's jewelry, and you may be sure they all praised his mother and wished they had done as she did, and had their children around them.
After seeing the same strange little boy come in alone every morning, the baker decided to satisfy his curiosity by asking some questions - and this time his love of gossip would have a useful purpose.
"Who is your father little boy, who never comes in here with you, not even to buy you k3ak and zlabya on feast days?"
"Zamzar the King is my father" said the Prince Hadiar "and I have never seen him"
"And where do you live then, in the palace?" said the man, laughing
"Oh no! I live in a room with my father's fifty wives, and every morning I crawl out of a hole in the wall."
Now the baker thought this a funny story, and he repeated it as a joke to his many customers; so the Judge who sent his clerk for a snack got to hear it as he munched lugmit kadhi, the servants carrying an order of pies and pastries to the merchants' meeting house brought it to their masters' ears, and the Wazir's wife was told by a maidservant who had gone for some katayef dough - "my own hand's making" she'd tell the neighbours at the lama (women's gathering) as she handed it round.
That same night all the important families in the city held a secret meeting and determined to find out if the boy was telling the truth, if their daughters were really alive. The next morning a trusted servant waited for him in front of the bakery, and when he appeared asked him to show him his home.
When he reported back to the assembled notables they gathered their men and marched to the dungeons, calling on the people to join them. The palace was stormed, and the king and his golden-haired consort were killed, then the women were set free from the dungeons. They were reunited with their families, and were told how the mysterious woman who instigated their suffering had not become a corpse when stabbed, but crumbled into marble fragments.
Prince Hadiar became King at a very young age, so his father's fear of breaking a horizontal line of descent were not realised. With the advice of his uncles and his mother he soon restored the country to its former glory, regaining lost territories and, more importantly, his subjects trust. The dynasty survived for another ten centuries, but his reign was the most brilliant in the whole two thousand years of the families rule; the one the poets celebrated in their poems, the one storytellers set their tales of chivalry, heroism and magic in - and that is the highest praise of all as the Khalifa Harun al-Rashid would tell you.
Storyteller: Uw hadha hadha warham jadha
(that's the end of this tale and mercy on it's grandfather)
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Traditions, Customs, and Dangerous Old Ladies
Every nation has its traditions and customs; some of which should be utilized as mechanisms for positive social change and advancement. Regretfully, some of these same traditions and customs have the opposite result when enforced by certain type of old women...My father wanted to name me ‘Zenobia’, after the historic queen who reigned over a great empire in ancient Palmyra (now Tadmur, a part of modern Syria), and fought the Romans. A great historical female figure, with a strong character and a grand name.He had hopes that perhaps with the name would come the strength of character of Zenobia. Except that on that day my grandmother -his mother- happened to be there, and she was horrified at the strange and un-Libyan name
and on the other hand A Flimsy View of Progress
I was surprised to see a report in the Arabic Al-Jazeera news channel about a private Libyan company’s approach to ‘modernisation’. This company was promoting its business by holding a fashion show that – according to the company owner - proved Libya was progressing and opening up to the West. I hope that that’s only his opinion, and not of all Libyan businessmen. At a time when the state is encouraging businesses to participate in local investment and social development, there are probably a thousand ways to show the world that we are progressing other than a fashion show. Although enough to send shockwaves through most of Libyan society, I didn’t think that this was going to become a ‘norm’ just yet. But still, I couldn’t help cringing in embarrassment as I watched the models flouncing on the catwalk. Not because of the clothes they wore; not because some of the models were Libyan girls, and not because the audience included males –all very ‘un-Libyan’ goings-on....(more)
Monday, July 2, 2007
Variations of this costume are worn in the Maghreb (North-Africa with the exception of most of Egypt), but even within Libya there is a wide range of styles. The major difference here is between the Eastern and the Western style: the gmaja is different, but it is mostly to do with the wrap of the r'da which in the East is usually worn higher up, a few centimeters below the knees, while in the west it almost reaches the ankles. To match this the Sirwal (what the occident likes to call harem-pants) is calf-length in the east and ankle length in the west, as in both cases it has to show from beneath the r'da.
A Libyan bride is given two such costumes by the groom, and as they are woven of silk and silver threads (although the latter are sometimes tinted gold), together with the jewellery she has quite a wearable fortune as this painting (from Flying Birds) of a Libyan 3arusa in full regalia shows.
The buttons are gold too! Like the jewellery one set of these is used with any number of 'badlat'- they're sewn unto the one you happen to be wearing.
A crescent moon, a five-pointed star and a hand - all are seen as 'Islamic' symbols although the hand in particular, which superstition regards as warding off the evil eye, is not.
There is usually a repeating pattern, which together with the colour combination creates the variable elements to each design. There are fashions and designers, and customers can also order their own unique creations direct from the specialised factories.
The same factories also buy the badlat, and burn them (!) to extract the silver from which to make new thread and weave new rdawat. Some are just about falling to bits and desperately need a reincarnation; but quite often the badla is sold because the owner wants to 'cash it in', whether because she needs the money, never wore it since her wedding or has worn it so often that she's sick of it and wants something more up-to-date. A less combustive form of recycling seems possible as I've heard people are now buying what is in good condition to use as fabrics for interior decoration.