Thursday, August 31, 2017

A notion of tribes


Harari on Tribes
I take umbrage with Professor Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)on his notion of what it is to be an Arab. In particular, his comment on page 217.
“Present-day Egyptians speak Arabic, think of themselves as Arabs, and identify wholeheartedly with the Arab Empire that conquered Egypt in the seventh century…”
I beg to differ with him, partly because I have travelled the length of Egypt and have spent time talking with them, and with other Egyptian ex-pats, some of whom I have worked with throughout the Gulf for the past twenty years.
One of the first lessons I learned travelling overland from Nairobi and following the Nile through the Sudan to Cairo was to assume that once I got into this part of North Africa that modern-day Egyptians considered themselves as Africans.
One chap in the souk quickly corrected my incorrect assumption and told me proudly, “No, I am Egyptian”.
Unless Egyptians have changed in the last while, I think Harari has fallen into the same trap.
For him to assume that Egyptians think of themselves as “Arabs” is a stretch.
I know for a fact, that my Egyptian Copt friend Murad, whom I worked alongside for seven years in Abu Dhabi, corrected a mistake I had made.
He spoke Arabic, lived in an Arabic-speaking country yet when I am asked, “Are you an Arab? He quickly corrected me and said, “No, I am Egyptian.”
This confusion on Harari’s part about Arabs brings me back to my first day in Professor Todd Lawson’s “Introduction to Islam” course at University of Toronto in 1990.
He asked our large class, consisting of many Muslims and interested Arabists such as myself, “What is an Arab?”
No one knew the answer or bothered to answer even though there were obviously students of Arabic origins in our class.
Naturally, I could not help myself, so I answered, “The Bedu, the Bedouins.”
This comment seemed to catch the professor off guard, and he asked why I said that.
I told him that is what I had read in Wilfred Thesiger’s legendary travel book, “Arabian Sands”.
Professor Lawson casually tossed off my suggestion and proceeded to tell us all that "an Arab is anyone who speaks Arabic".
In retrospect, he was dead wrong because there are many nationalities who speak some form of Arabic, but they do not consider themselves as “Arabs”.
A few that come to mind are Moroccans, Tunisians, Mauritanians, Algerians, Somalis, Sudanese, Libyans maybe even Palestinians.
It is true that most of them have some Arab blood in them, but many have more African or Berber bloodlines.
I know for a fact that many in Southern Sudan speak Arabic, but that is the lingua franca there and they are for the most part either animist or Christian, and they prefer to call themselves by their tribal alliances: Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk…etc.
I also know from teaching in Kuwait, UAE, and now in Qatar, that if I were to call my female students "Arabs "that they might take that as an insult.
In my first year of teaching at Gulf University for Science & Technology in Kuwait, I had a mixed class of girls of various origins and ethnicity. Moreover, it is not unusual to have a class with the majority of students from the traditional Bedouin culture of Kuwait, usually with surnames Al Azmi, Al Ajmi, and Al Mutairi.
Perhaps some of them might be what are called “Bedoons”— ‘stateless Arabs’—those tribes never having citizenship because of their ancestors roaming from pasture to pasture in traditional Bedouin lifestyle between Kuwait, KSA and Jordan.
However, in my classes there might also be a smattering of Palestinian, Syrian, Qatari, Bahraini, Balochi, and Egyptians thrown into the mix.
Two of my better students were Palestinian, and in one class the subject of the “honour killings” came up. In particular, we were discussing the recent “honour killings” that had taken place in Jordan, and I knew the two girl’s families came from Amman. I also knew they were Palestinians, so I played the devil’s advocate and asked them if ‘honour killings’ were part of Palestinian culture.
They were abhorred, and one said —“Sir, that is the tribes that do that, not us.”
I wondered who ‘the tribes’ were that she was referring to, so I asked for clarification on that.
The one answered rather adamantly — “The Bedouin tribe’s sir. They are very tribal.”
I was rather taken aback by this and asked — “Aren’t the Palestinians tribal too?”
She seemed miffed by this as though I was insulting her and clicked her tongue at me which is a verbal sign of disdain or dislike in the Arab World.
Bearing this in mind, perhaps Professor Harari should re-think his notion that Arabic-speaking people think of themselves as Arabs—the Palestinians I know would not share that worldview.
In fact, the Palestinians have gotten screwed around not only by the Israelis, but their supposed “Arab brothers”.
Their "Arab brothers" have kept them in refugee camps spread all through the Levant since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent “Nakba”. The largest camp is north of Amman (with the Jordanian Army tank barrels pointed in their direction), and there are squalid camps in Lebanon, and Syria. I used to live in what was considered the Palestinian ghetto in Kuwait called “Nugra”.
King Hussein and his Jordanian Army battled with Arafat and the PLO and their ilk during “Black September” in 1970. Both the Kuwaitis and Saudis kicked many of Palestinians out of their countries when they unwisely supported Saddam before and during the Gulf Wars and Invasion of Kuwait.
In a sense, despite speaking Arabic, the Palestinians get shafted in the Middle East because, for lack of a better term, they are from the wrong tribe, but maybe, they are not from any tribe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Musings from Kuwait (2004)


“Apr├Ęs Moi le Deluge” or “The Flood”

We were busy studying the mandatory five-paragraph 'cause and effect' essay in class at Gulf University for Science & Technology in Kuwait when one of my students, Yousef Ibrahim, had written on the board about the effects of an earthquake.
One of the reasons he gave was—“the flood.”
As Yousef Ibrahim waltzed back to his seat, I muttered something at him that there was only one—“the Flood”.
He looked quizzically at me as if I were half-mad.
To be fair, many friends and family had wondered the same thing and why I was working at a new university in Kuwait, but that was another matter.
This writing of “the flood’ had also caught the attention of another student who blurted out—“shinu flood” (what flood?).
I said, “You know, the Great Flood…the flood before Islam, the mother of all floods?”
This was met by a wall of silence or maybe indifference, one can't be too sure over here in the Gulf.
I moseyed up to another sharp student, Ibrahim Khalwati, and nonchalantly asked him.
“You know, Noah”—or as the Arabs would say ‘No-ahh’ (sort of a soft, throat clearing sound), and just to prove my point, “Al-Nebi No-ahh” (the Prophet Noah).
This caught a light and a few of them nodded incomprehensibly as if they knew the historical figure from the Biblical story.
As is my wont, I went off on an historical tangent, waving my arms wildly and excitedly telling them about Gilgamesh.
Okay, let's try a different tack.
“You know the Epic of Gilgamesh?”
“Shinnu Gilgamesh, teacher?” (“What’s Gilgamesh”)
Muhammad al Bahar (a really bright student) lisped to me—“Who's Gilgamesh?”
Of course, my eyes rolled, and I realized that these guys didn't have a clue about Gilgamesh or any of the Epic of Gilgamesh or even the “Great Flood”.
They could, however, tell you everything about the new Nokia phone, or the new Hummer, but were useless on any real historical information—probably the result of brainwashing at the madrassa.
As the students mumbled amongst themselves, my mind drifted back to my fledgling university years where the Epic of Gilgamesh was pounded into me by Professor Celeste Peters at University of Calgary, then Professors R.W. Sweet and Kirk Grayson at University of Toronto.
My mind was reeling, but I had to come back to the present.
Then I prattled on about Diana.
“Who's she?” asked one student.
“Princess Diana,” some smart-ass guy piped up.
“No, she is the Goddess of the Harvest and Fertility”, I proclaimed with real religious fervour.
Now things were really getting odd as the guys thought I was a real loony.
I proceeded to tell them about Ishtar, the half-breed Enkidu, Gilgamesh the hero, and Lilith of the dark underworld, not Lilith from the dark TV sitcom Frazier.
Then a spark hit, and I thought they must know about Nebuchadnezzar, as that was the term Saddam (the impaler of the Kurds—those inhalers of gas) used as one of his monikers for the glory of modern-day Iraq.
Well that was a complete dud much like the SCUDs that Saddam tried to fire off during the Gulf War.
They were eyeless in Gaza, stateless in Ramallah, legless in Kandahar, and clueless in Kuwait!
The students had absolutely no idea of the history of this area just to the north of here in what was called Ancient Mesopotamia.
It's as if Arabs didn't exist before Muhammad and the coming of Islam.
I proceeded with caution—“What about the Assyrians?”
“Duh, sir you mean the Syrians?”
I could have cried.
“No! The Assyrians—you know Sargon the Great, Sennacherib…” the names just fell off my palate as the students almost fell off their chairs.
“What about Hammurabi—surely you must know the Code of Hammurabi?”
This too was lost on them and it reminded me of the scene from the recent movie, The Emperor’s Club, where Kevin Kline, playing an ancient history teacher at a prestigious boys private school, slags an ancient Elamite and Akkadian king for not being remembered.
The teacher points to some saying carving in wood above the class doorway attributed to some ancient king.
“Shutruk Nahunte”, the student answers.
“Can anyone tell me who he was?” asks the teacher, and added, “Texts are permissible.”
A few students hurriedly scan through their textbooks for the name.
But you will not find him there,” says the teacher. The teacher goes to the front of the classroom and pulls down the class map of the ancient Persian Empire.
Shutruk Nahunte, sovereign of the land of Elam! Behold, his name cannot be found anywhere! Why not? Because great conquest without contribution is without significance! Unlike the giants of history you are seeing among you today.”
He says pointing to alabaster busts close by of Caesar, Cicero, and Aristotle to name a few.
I suppose this  history teacher did not know that Shutruk Nahunte defeated the ferocious Akkadians and brought back the famous Stele of Naram-Sin to Elam as booty.
Such a slagging of poor old Shutruk Nahunte and in the same breath, besmirching the name of Naram-Sin, grandson of the legendary Akkadian ruler, Sargon the Great—“ruler of the four quarters of the world”.
Sometimes, I get the impression that modern-day Arabs are born-again in the sense that they have totally forgotten their pagan past and its rich legacy of Mesopotamia.
Alas, poor Hammurabi, I knew him well.
Alas, my poor students, they didn’t know him at all. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A trip to the Embassy


In the past, this would not be a big deal, but being post-9/11 and especially here in Kenya—who knew?

My first exposure to the Canadian Embassy in Nairobi was on my initial trip to Nairobi in March 1982. At that time, I had been instructed by my younger brother Harry and Kate (his girlfriend later wife) to rendezvous with him at Comcraft House in downtown Nairobi after their safari.

Not such a big deal since this was one of the first things I usually did as a Canadian travelling abroad—signing in. This was done so that the Feds could keep track of which Canadian national was in a foreign country.

Nowadays, I have an app with my i-Phone which lets the Canadian gov't, through a security agency, International SOS, keep the Feds apprised of my every movement thanks to GPS. Nevertheless, a groovy, yet scary thought a la 1984.

Undaunted, I left my second home away from home —the Nairobi Youth Hostel, where I spent considerable time on four of my African sojourns during the 1980s. A place, I might add, that my African globetrotting younger brother and then girlfriend Kate, would never stay in—too lowbrow for them and not accommodating for couples.

Nevertheless, our supposed meeting at the embassy had been planned a few months earlier whilst I was still in the barren cold of Alberta and my brother in the wilds of northern Nigeria where he and his girlfriend were at a Teacher's College in Manchok.

To go to a Canadian Embassy back then just meant walking in to a small room, signing in, or walking to a small glass cubicle, much like a bank teller's station, to see an embassy representative if need be. There was no security or showing of passport that I can remember--it was a safer time.

Zoom to the present, 2017.

The smallish consulate at Comcraft House has long gone, no longer a stuffy, pokey office in a downtown high-rise. The Canadian Embassy, like its counterpart the US Embassy, is out in the boonies of Nairobi. Now, a coned off, long entrance, no parking, huge concrete walls with razor wire, a force of about 10 GPS security guards, 24/7 CCTV cameras, tire traps, an elaborate security alarm, and retractable heavy metal gates with cylinders that rise and fall upon entry.
Oddly enough, unlike the US Embassy, here there were no M-16 gun toting bearded Blackwater security guys roaming the perimeter.

Before you even get to the first security pillbox, a guard asks for ID and your purpose. Next, your passport is passed onto to another guard who visually scans your passport then radios to someone inside the embassy. There are two other GPS security dudes we have to confer with.

The OK is given then Gracie and I walk down an ivy lined walled outdoor corridor to another security gate where we are asked for our passport and or in Gracie's case—her Kenyan ID. The heavy metal gate is open then we go to another concrete security building where we are directed to the x-ray area one by one.

First, we have to show passport and then given an ID pass. We surrender any metal, step counter and cell phones, but are instructed to switch them off first before putting them in a locker and given a key for it. I was carrying my leather brief case with all my documents and passed it through the x-ray machine. Then I was asked to open my case and was told to also remove my chargers. Then was asked if I had anything else, so had to go through another part of my case to remove flash drives and my key fob--who knew? Guess you can't be too careful these days.

After all that, then you finally retrieve whatever went through the x-ray machine and enter into the huge driveway entrance to the embassy pass gleaming pictures of Trudeau the Younger and his new set of cronies--beats the hell out of the former Turneresque portrait

The expanse of the lobby of the new embassy is larger than the whole former embassy downtown. This and the waiting room is all open. Open to the elements to some degree which makes it like waiting in a fridge to see someone. No need for a/c here.

A receptionist is behind what I think is bullet proof glass and one of those sliding trays where you put your passport in for further perusal. She instructs us to wait your turn in the freezing open foyer or warmer waiting room cum library.

Back in 1982, I have pictures that took of my brother and of me inside the embassy--that would be verboten these days. During my sojourns through Africa I would check in at different Canadian embassies to sign in and to check out the latest news in the Globe and Mail and other papers or magazines that the embassies often have. Today in Nairobi, there were no Canadian newspapers and the latest magazine, Harper's (no relation to ex-PM Stephen) was a 2013 issue.

Fact of the matter is, it is tougher getting into this embassy than going through airport security before boarding a flight to either Canada or America these days—a bit over the top if you ask me, but Kenya is now the land where those shifty Al-Shabab can strike anytime.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Hashemite Empire or the new ISIS caliphate.


Hashemite Empire or the new ISIS caliphate.

The idea of a caliphate stretching from Iraq to the Levant is nothing new despite what Islamic State had proposed in recent years under its supposed new caliph—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In fact, an earlier version in the 1920s, the Hashemite Empire under Sharif Hussein and encouraged by Lawrence of Arabia, would cover roughly what the “new” Islamic State Caliphate was trying to perpetuate recently.

It is curious or ironic that some countries have had to endure the recent scourge of the Middle East—namely the so-called Islamic State or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria better known as ISIS.

The Islamic State wanted to impose their jihadi or Wahhabist form of Sunni Islam inside a make-believe state stretching from infidel Iran through ancient Mesopotamia, and all the way over to most western shores of the Levant. 

En route, the Islamic State would put to the sword or convert all those religious minorities who were considered blasphemers or infidels to the Wahhabi form of Sunnism by IS towards the Yazidis, the Kurds, the Ismailis, Christians, those Alawite rulers named Assad, Shia sects in Iraq and Iran, and those pesky Houthis in Yemen.

In particular, the Islamic State hoped to eventually overthrow those monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia that also stood in the way of their “new caliphate” with the new “caliph”, Ibrahim al-Badri or as he was called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as its head.

Truth be told, it was the British at the behest of Colonel Lawrence (AKA Lawrence of Arabia), who foresaw an Arab Kingdom during the Arab Revolt, but it was after the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1925, that created a different version.

After the defeat and breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the two winning nations; Britain and France carved up the old empire, installing their own choice of rulers at the helm into what we have today as the sovereign states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel.

Lawrence’s main Arab supporter in the Arab Revolt, Sharif Faisal Hussein, envisioned a Hashemite Kingdom or Independent Arab nation in those newly created countries with the support of the British.

These “new” Arab rulers would be from Sharif Hussein’s family, and they were the same ones who had served under T. E. Lawrence in the “Arab Revolt” of WWI.

After all, Sharif’s family could trace their lineage back to the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, Hashim ibn Abd Manaf. As such, they had a right to claim to be “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques”.

Unfortunately, these “new” Arab rulers would, for lack of a better term, be subservient to British and French rule.

As such, the Hashemite Empire would cover roughly what the ISIS Caliphate was trying to perpetuate in recent years under its supposed new caliph—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Sharif Faisal Hussein of the Hejaz, had wanted all the Arabian Peninsula (Arabia, Trans-Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Syria) as part of the “new” Arab Kingdom with his sons proclaimed as emirs or kings.

Prince Faisal I was initially installed as the King of Syria, and his brother Abdullah as the Emir of Trans-Jordan in 1925 (later King of Jordan in 1946) and the Palestine Mandate.

The Hashemites had been the “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques” sites since the tenth century. They assumed they would continue to do so in the future Arab Kingdom.

As the Turkish Caliphate collapsed in 1924, Sharif Hussein proclaimed himself as “Caliph”. This in addition to his earlier claims of being the “King of the Arab Lands” infuriated the Saud clan of Arabia who had other ideas.

In 1925, the Saud clan battled and forced Sharif Hussein and his Hashemites out of both Mecca and Medina northwards to Trans-Jordan.

The result was that the Saud clan formed the modern-day state which still bears their tribal name: Saudi Arabia. As a result, Sharif Hussein and his family could no longer claim the prestigious Islamic title as “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques”, a title that the Saudi clan still retain today.

However, following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and the earlier Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain (1916), France declared that they wanted part of Greater Syria and thus claimed Lebanon and western part of Syria as their own.

It was only a matter of time before the French Army engaged those Arab troops loyal to Faisal I just east of Damascus in a lopsided victory for the French that ended Faisal I’s reign in Syria.

He escaped to Iraq and was soon crowned the new King of Iraq.

His son, Faisal II would later inherit the title, but in a series of events, he too would be toppled in a coup and assassinated in 1958 which would later lead to the takeover by Saddam Hussein, no relation.

Nevertheless, Emir Abdullah would remain King of Trans-Jordan and Palestine, but he too would be assassinated in 1951 on the steps of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem.

His son, Talal assumed kingship and ruled for only 13 months, but was unfortunately mentally incapable of continuing, so the Hashemite torch was passed onto a very young Hussein to take over the kingship which he ruled until his death in 1999.

In the end, what had been a grand plan by the British at the behest of Colonel Lawrence to set up the Hashemite Empire and the Arab Kingdom of Sharif Faisal Hussein had been whittled down over time to just the modern-day state of Jordan being the last remnant of the Hashemite Empire or Arab Kingdom with its present-ruler, Abdullah II, at its head.