The drinker’s guide to Ramadan

 
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By Khaled Diab

Ramadan is the time of year when hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world abstain from food or drink. But one group of fasters suffers a special variety of thirst this time of year: Muslims who drink alcohol.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 June 2018

Although alcohol is considered haram (prohibited or sinful) by the majority of Muslims, a significant minority of Muslims do drink, and those who do often outdrink their Western counterparts. When per-capita alcohol consumption is calculated, Chad and a number of other Muslim-majority countries top the global league. Fewer Muslim women drink than men but when they do, they can drink their western sisters under the table.

During Ramadan, though, many Muslim drinkers do abstain from consuming wine, beer or spirits of their own free will for the duration of the month. It’s the same as how some lapsed Christians will give up a vice for Lent but never set foot in a church except for christenings, weddings and funerals, or some secular Jews who eat bacon still give up bread for Passover [adding since I thought the analogy was apt!].

When I still fasted, I would get together with friends to have one for the road before we embarked on the long, arduous trek through the Ramadan dry lands, until Eid al-Fitr, the festival following Ramadan, made it safe to leap off the wagon once again.

Although I gave up Ramadan, and abandoned every last vestige of faith at the dawn of this millennium, I certainly still drink alcohol. Most Muslim drinkers I have met in my life do view drinking as a minor sin (even though they indulge in it) and thus, if they fast during Ramadan, they abstain for the month. This can lead to some peculiar situations. Last year, at a barbecue organised by European friends in Tunis, I debated, wine glass in hand, with a secular Tunisian, sipping on his fruit juice because had given up alcohol for the holy month, whether or not it was hypocritical and an infringement on personal freedom to ban the sale of alcohol during Ramadan.

Weirdest of all perhaps is the tiny minority of Muslims who fast and then drink at night after they have broken their fast, including a neighbour of mine. This may seem peculiar both to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but it is not as odd as it appears. From Islam’s very inception, there was a debate about what exactly the vague passages on drinking in the Quran prohibited. Although the majority opinion holds that intoxicants – alcohol itself – are banned, a minority view is that it is intoxication – getting drunk that is forbidden.

Far more common are Muslim drinkers who do not fast and, hence, wish to continue drinking during Ramadan. Some are lapsed or vague believers who do not practise their faith, while others, like me, are out-and-out atheists or agnostics. For Ramadan drinkers, I know from experience, finding booze can get complicated. Sure, in the United States, Europe or the Muslim countries that allow alcohol sales during Ramadan, the only obstacle is your own conscience. But in many countries, including my native Egypt or in Tunisia, where I live now, which normally have booze in abundance, getting a drink during the fast requires foresight, planning and resourcefulness.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, alcohol supplies dry up during the holy month, because stores are barred from selling booze and many bars close their doors. That confounded me when I first moved here last year, because drinking is a popular pastime, and Tunisia has a surprisingly wide range of quality local wines.

But humans are nothing if not adaptable. Rather than a forced abstention, as conservatives undoubtedly hoped to instill, drinkers simply build up a strategic stockpile before Ramadan begins. This usually results in a huge pre-Ramadan upsurge in business for alcohol suppliers, visible in the rapidly emptying alcohol aisles at my local supermarket in Tunis.

This stockpiling can make for awkward situations. Just before this Ramadan, we organised a pre-Ramadan party for friends, and when I went to the supermarket to stock up for the party and the next month, I bought what apparently struck non-drinkers as an unsettling amount of alcohol.

The young woman in a hijab at the checkout counter must never have experienced the pre-Ramadan rush on booze: Her face registered a look of mild panic. At one point, she got so confused trying to decipher the different types of wine that she smiled at me and said non-judgementally: “Forgive me, I can’t tell one type of wine from another.”

When it comes to drinking during Ramadan, though, I’m lucky to be a Belgian citizen, not a Tunisian: foreigners here are allowed to order alcoholic beverages at the few licensed restaurants and bars that do stay open during the holy month, but Tunisians generally can’t, though if you look Muslim or your name sounds Muslim, some places may object.

Similar regulations exist in my native Egypt. This always struck me as unfair to Egyptian drinkers, especially for Christians who have no religious restrictions on the consumption of alcohol – and I used to make noise about it, but bar staff would shrug apologetically and say they would love nothing more than to serve me, as Egyptians were their main customers.

I recall the first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I gained my Belgian nationality. I made a point of visiting one of my old watering holes with a mixed group of friends. When I ordered my beer, the waiter asked me discreetly whether I had a foreign passport, I flashed it to him, and his smile said that would do nicely. The staff turned a blind eye to the fact that the orange juices for the Egyptians without foreign passports in our midst had hardly been touched and that the ‘foreigners’ had ordered more drinks than normal.

This attitude of tolerating alcohol 11 months of the year but banning it during Ramadan is conflicted and contradictory, but it’s not unique to Muslim societies. For all the prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment today and fears that “Sharia law” might destroy the American way of life, the United States had a full-blown, Saudi-style total prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10 percent of the land mass of the United States.

If it were up to me, I’d do away with all such restrictions. The state shouldn’t get to dictate to citizens how to be good Muslims – or not. This is an individual decision for each believer and non-believer to make. And the temporary ban doesn’t distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, which enlists people of other faiths who have no religious obligation to take part in Ramadan in a Muslim ritual.

But still, I’m relieved that I live in Tunisia and not some place where alcohol is banned, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Now that Ramadan is over Tunisia has reverted to its normal, laid-back self, just in time for the summer. And drinkers are able, once again, to toast each other in the open.

—-

This article appeared in The Washington Post on 31 May 2018.

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl

 
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By Khaled Diab

We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 1 September 2016

Read Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

I launch out, under the cover of the dimming light, but after just a few minutes of swimming the toes of one foot curl up in an excruciating bout of cramp. I float in place for a time, waiting for the spasm to pass, as it often does. “Focus,” I urge my scattered mind. Overriding the numbness in my extremities, I search out the rhythm where my body seems to move in perfect counterbalance to the waves, where my limbs beat in perfect time to one another.

Like an aquatic Icarus, I swim towards the setting sun, as it appears to head towards its marine bed on the dark seafloor, where it illuminates the lives of those merfolk and mythical sea monsters of ancient mythology for a few hours while we landlubbers slumber.

Will the salmon pink sunlight evaporate my delusion like it melted the wax binding Icarus to his feathers?

Only half an hour in and my limbs are already feeling tired and sore, leaving me longing for the oasis of my room, which doubles up as my capsule for travelling through time and space, thanks to my laptop, books, music collection and a hard-disk full of movies.

Being a hermit is not just for saints escaping the world’s trappings, it is also for the young trapped by the world seeking escape in the only place left to them, within themselves. Had I been a monk, my beard would have grown long and unruly by now – instead, my hair has. Once, I maintained my hair immaculately. I used to love to restyle regularly as a kind of barometer of my mood and as an unspoken rebellion against the pressure to cover up – while stylish hijabi friends went for different coloured scarves to cover their hair, I was more daring and rebellious, going for different hair colours and lengths, raising eyebrows on the streets and the occasional ire of the Hamas police. Although I have stopped caring about and styling my hair, I still raise the same eyebrows which had grown accustomed to my bright, rainbowy presence, but now out of concern and worry.

Even those who disapproved of me preferred me as the bright, colourful rebel who floated past on the cloud of her own confidence, though it was actually bravado, than this wild-haired depressive who trudges past, increasingly rarely, under a dark cloud. But I have not become a complete recluse. For social sustenance, I have become part of the electronic cloud, connecting with others like me around the world. In the digital age, I have discovered that great minds link alike. I also go out to pursue my passion of long-distance swimming.

Very early in the morning, I often make it first to el-Sadaqa, Gaza’s only Olympic-sized swimming pool, to do a couple of hours of laps, in peace, without anyone eyeing me up or commenting on whether or not my tight skinsuit is “appropriate”, to which I usually retort that it covers my entire body, even my hair.

I occasionally go swimming at a nearby club during the women’s afternoon hours. But I find that distracting. The better-off ladies who frequent the pool there come to flee the tedium of home and to socialise. This means I have to weave a beeline around the archipelago of clustered bodies standing in the shallower water or floating in the deeper parts like chattering, gesticulating islands in colourful burkinis, as they call them in the West. While I don’t begrudge them their precious moments of escape from their domestic routine, it does make it difficult, and annoying, to train seriously, especially when some of the older women seem perplexed by my constant to-ing and fro-ing, my changing of pace and stroke, but if they were soaking-pools, they’d be called that.

My true passion is training in the sea. Abu Halim, the fisherman who has been selling choice pieces from his catch to my family for as long as I can remember, was recruited by my father to help me train – and to compensate him a little for his inability to go out to fish like before. Abu Halim would take his fading turquoise and yellow boat out to a pre-agreed distance and wait for me to arrive. On the way back, he would row, instead of using the inboard motor, so we could chat like we did when I was a child and he would bewitch me with stories of his aquatic adventures, both true and imaginary. The way this gentle, almost mythical creature of the sea praised my swimming and stamina to the heavens made my heart swell with pride and my cheeks burn with embarrassment, even if he was exaggerating.

“Remember when I told you that you’d grow into a beautiful dolphin?” he once shouted as his boat accompanied me on a longer endurance swim. “See, now you’ve even grown dolphin skin,” he chuckled in his raspy way.

And with dolphins who routinely save humans and penguins who swim thousands of miles for annual reunions with their human friends, I sometimes feel that, despite its perilous reputation, the sea can be a friendlier and more welcoming place than land.

I try to conjure Abu Halim up now, to accompany me through the dark lonely stream to freedom. As my arms pound the water, my mind drifts towards his ageing boat, with his ageing face, weathered like an elephant’s and stubbled like a bandit’s, gazing over the starboard edge of his vessel.

“Don’t forget: swim like a dancer and dance like a swimmer,” I hear him giggle mysteriously, his face breaking into a tempest of wrinkles. “Ya eniee, ya leili (My eyes, my night),” he sings out repeatedly, in praise and to help me time my strokes and to help him time his rows. 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2…

But Abu Halim’s voice grows distant. It’s as if he has stopped rowing. Then his encouraging chant stops altogether. I’m all alone again.

I persevere. But after some time, I lose my rhythm and my arm and leg muscles suddenly feel on the verge of collapse. I realise that it is time to pause. I float in place and look back to assess the distance I’ve travelled. I estimate that I’ve done a couple of kilometres. “Only a few hundred to go, then,” I reflect grimly, as my heart sinks.

Gaza flickers in the distance like an electric eel on life support. A little to its north, I see Ashkelon, my ancestral home which I’ve never visited, and Ashdod burn bright like a fireworks display. Glowing in the distance, I see what I think is Tel Aviv. Israelis like to call it a “bubble” because it is disconnected and detached from its surroundings, and cushioned against the conflict. And as a Gazan, I am painfully aware of this bubble, this invisible screen, surrounding this city that makes many of its hip beach-loving inhabitants worry about the welfare of dogs they’ve never met but live oblivious to the bipedal feral dogs living amid the rubble and dodging missiles just 70km down the beach. But there are some Tel Avivites who try to escape the bubble and penetrate ours in Gaza, as the regular friend requests I get on Facebook show.

As I look back towards Gaza, I conclude that, yes, we too live in a bubble of sorts, albeit one made of concrete and barbed wire, not the silky, luxuriant chiffon surrounding Tel Aviv. Our bubble is stifling, suffocating, and binds our world tight, shrinking our horizons and minds. It is hard for me to conceive that older people were able to go freely to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Egypt, let alone to dare to imagine the world beyond them… except in my books and online.

Like a restless sleeper, I turn on my back. And what a star-studded gala awaits me. The sky is even brighter than in the darkened neighbourhoods of Gaza City during the rolling blackouts.

“Looking up at the stars, I know quite well,” involuntarily flashes in my head, “That, for all they care, I can go to hell.”

The feeling is mutual for the most part.

Admirer as I think I am

Of stars that do not give a damn,

I cannot, now I see them, say

I missed one terribly all day.

And we city dwellers have certainly learned to live without them, though in cities like New York, the stars seem to have fallen to the ground to illuminate the skyscrapers and Times Square.

Were all stars to disappear or die,

I should learn to look at an empty sky

And feel its total dark sublime,

Though this might take me a little time.

But floating here on my own, I promise myself never to forget these twinkling stars again and pledge to seek them out and admire them, whether I make it to freedom or through the figurative window of my metaphorical prison.

WH Auden is one of the goldmines which made choosing to study English literature feel like the best academic decision I had ever  made.

He even helped me to wallow in eloquent self-pity following my break up. “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,” I grunted, as Abdel-Halim Hafez sang Touba (“Never again”) in the background. “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.”

“Pour away the ocean,” I was even willing to contemplate, despite my love of its mysterious depths, as the essence drained from my soul. “And sweep up the wood… For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

But it did come good, as my mother promised it would.

“You know, I’m not just a medical doctor,” she said, as if confessing to a secret vice. “At college, they used to call me Dr Ishq. And I had a cure for every broken heart.”

“Is that why you became a cardiothoracic surgeon?” I joked gloomily, my bloodshot eyes trying to smile.

“I like to mend every type of heart,” she quipped with her tongue, but her emerald eyes had lost their shine since the last war and looked like they’d been replaced by cheap imitations which were of the same colour but lacked none of the original’s lustre.

“Tell me what happened?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. Mama is my confidante in everything… except boys. I suspected she’d understand and be cool, but I didn’t want to risk our relationship, especially as what use was a confidante if you couldn’t be entirely open and honest.

How could I tell her that I’d initiated sex? Well, tried to. After a lot of agony and soul-searching, I decided that I believed in sex before marriage. But like a secret convert, I was terrified to act on my new convictions. Because I was afraid. Of society. Of family. Actually, I wasn’t really scared of my parents. I was more afraid of what it would do to them. I didn’t want them to feel shame towards their daughter. I knew they wouldn’t kick me out or kill me to restore the family’s honour. But the wounded look of disappointment and disapproval I pictured would’ve killed me… a thousand times over… inside. And even if they turned out to be all right with it, I didn’t want them to be shamed by our neighbours and relatives.

But our bodies and rebellious souls move in mysterious ways. Just when I thought I’d contained my drives and urges, they somehow managed to break out of the siege I’d imposed and, like an insurgent army, brought me to my knees in a barrage of lethal hormones. Armed with the conviction that sex is my natural right, and prodded on by the unruly oestrogen masses dragging their testosterone partners to storm the bastille of my genitals, I mutated into a walking biological sex bomb who was bound to explode upon contact with my boyfriend.

Which I did. And despite the fallout, my lips couldn’t help but register a slight smile, puzzling my mother, who could not penetrate into my mind’s eye. Poor Faris, he didn’t know what had hit him. Reserved and just this side of shy, he’d only just started to surreptitiously touch my hands – discreetly, out of sight, during lectures. And I hadn’t a clue about what his views about sex were. But I was determined to find out.

But where? And when? We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me, and I found myself alone with Faris in a study room. Don’t ask me how, but it happened. It was as though the stars were aligned or something. Filled with trepidation and a sense of urgency, even emergency, that the moment should pass unseized, I seized him.

Faris initially succumbed to my kiss, but when my hand drifted to the rising mound between his legs, he was jolted as if I’d applied electric wires to his genitals. Even here in the cooling night water, feeling like a damp squid, my lips and body recall with pleasure the heat of that short-lived embrace.

What happened next was not what I’d expected or pined for. “Forgive me God,” he yelped involuntarily. “What are you doing? This is haram.”

I hadn’t realised he was so religious. I was hoping he’d jump at the chance. Then, he did the worst thing possible. He unsheathed his tongue and impaled me with his words.  “Only a slut does that,” Faris screamed at me. “I thought you were a decent girl from a decent family. How many men have you tried this on? I never want to see you again, you prostitute,” he spat as he stormed out.

“Mama, I’d rather not speak about it,” I said finally. “Maybe I should be more like dad. ‘Love is a bourgeois invention,’” I added in my best baba voice.

Mama laughed. “Your father may not believe in love, but, like his hero, Marx, he lives love and does love, and that is far more important,” she said matter-of-factly. “He may be an austere communist on the outside, but inside he is a hopeless, poetic romantic. Why else do you think I love him so? Why else do you think he does all he does for me and for you? Why else do you think he has stuck with his Marxist buddies, even as their movement died, people misunderstood them, and the Islamists treated them with suspicion and disdain?”

A distant droning sound rouses me from my night-daydream. At first, my land legs make me think the humming is a drone. Then I begin to feel mild vibrations under the water, and I realise what it must be just as I see a hazy phantom of a shadow, luminous in the moonlight, slicing through the water and hurtling towards me as if it can see me.

To be continued…

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 1: Hell from the heavens

 
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By Khaled Diab

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the heavens are where hell resides. People talk of taking wing, but, me, I’d rather take fin, be free as a fish.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

The sun setting over the Mediterranean is a magnificent sight. It is also the perfect optical illusion. When I feel I need a moment of escape, I often return to this very spot, about as secluded as you can get around here, and watch the fading light as it shifts from a hot, unforgiving yellow, to a warm, caressing orange.

Looking out to sea, I feel myself transported from the land-bound misery on terror firma behind me, that land of fear, misery and hopelessness. For a few, short, glorious moments, I can even imagine myself as someone else, in another time, another place, the product of a different accident of birth – one that involves relaxed holidays with my best friends, cocktails at sundown, selfies of our other selves, rather than the salafis constraining our current selves, and even kissing and telling. I can see myself on a beautiful Mediterranean island, idling on the beach roasting my olive skin until it’s almost ebony, dressed in the bikini that I have only ever worn in the bathroom, but which I now have on under my wetsuit, and which my mother bought me during a rare trip abroad to attend a medical conference.

“I couldn’t book you that holiday you’ve been dreaming of but I got you the next best thing,” she giggled conspiratorially as she passed me the package, her emerald eyes twinkling in a beam of sunlight that had entered the room. Despite her evident fatigue, she reminded me of those gorgeous Red Sea lagoons I also fantasised of floating on and under, like a carefree mermaid and good friend of the rainbow nation of the nearby coral reef.

The sea is my tormenter. Like its illusionary promise of quenching the thirst of the parched desert dweller, it rubs salt in the wounds of my longing to be free. The vast oceans in their depths and breadths contain the prospect of liberation, of release from this fenced-in prison. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being carried away by an irresistible current to a far-away land where people live in peace of mind and body, where the only ruins are those being conserved by the antiquities authorities. Or better still, plunging into a submerged world, an aquatic Atlantis.

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the sky for me has lost its allure. The heavens are where hell resides, our infernal graveyards, where death rains down, where a superhuman force greater than ourselves keeps watch over us, its numerous eyes droning high above our heads, buzzing intolerably like giant wasps.

People talk of taking wing, but, me, I’d rather take fin, be free as a fish, return to the waters from which we came, even if some sheikhs say it’s haram to believe in evolution. Perhaps I don’t wish to devolve into our scaly ancestor but to evolve into a mermaid, with the boundless ocean my oyster, instead of this land-bound coffin in which I dwell.

Once, during a particularly intense bombardment of the last war, I cracked like the plasterwork in my room and something inside me snapped. The winds of blind rage carried me in a hurricane of hysterical screams to the nearby beach where I pummelled my fists and mocked the killing birds ripping through the darkness above. With explosions sounding from every direction and the cool sand vibrating, sometimes violently, under my bare feet, I saw a phantom emerge from the shadows and, at that moment, I was ready for it to snatch my soul. Instead, it snatched desperately at my arm, like the hopeless life I lead, trying to keep me away from the dark clutches of death. In the moonlight, I saw my father’s panic-stricken eyes search my face for a clue to my dark madness. “Maha, have you been possessed by jinn?” he said, shaking me angrily in a way that simulated an exorcism.

But you don’t believe in jinn, baba, was the involuntary thought that infiltrated my deranged brain, which was knocking about inside my rocking skull.

When I burst into tears, baba regained his senses, even though the mayhem in the sky was growing. Unrushed and apparently unperturbed by the missiles and shells, he gave me the kind of deep cuddle I could never get enough off as a child, the kind that crushed love deep into your bones.

Then it hit me. How did baba get here? Since the war before last, he has hardly been able to move his left leg, whose calf is sore and swollen, causing him bursts of excruciating pain every time he tries to walk on it, often flooring him. No doctor has been able to find anything wrong with him. A psychologist friend of my father’s suggested that it was in his head, caused by unprocessed trauma and depression – and urged him to seek professional help. Needless to say, baba refused. He has a stubborn streak that is bone-headed even by Gazan standards. On top of that, he believes psychology and psychiatry are bourgeois dark arts, indulgences for the rich and pampered, not legitimate medical disciplines to cure the underprivileged and destitute. I think he also secretly feared the traditional “you’re crazy” stigma attached to the field.

“Baba, your leg?” I yelled over the explosions, breaking loose of his embrace.

Surprised, he looked down at his swollen calf ballooning out of his trouser leg, and laughed in astonishment. “You know it doesn’t hurt. The pain of my fear for you is stronger than physical pain,” he said, taking me back in his warm embrace.

As he did so, I looked out towards the Mediterranean, hearing only the rhythmic waves, obliviously lapping away, unaware of the inferno metres away on the land.

The sea taunts me. Despite my deep azure love for it, it waves at me from afar, swishing and swooshing derisively in the distance. But today I will conquer you. I will ride your tide and your blue jinn will not be able to stop me. During the last war, I regularly felt the urge to take flight, to flee, that is, into the oblivious embrace of the sea. But the invisible hand of family and community held me back. Though I could not protect my parents and kid brother from the missiles, bombs and shells shaking the foundations of our lives, again, I was determined to shield them from the emotional shrapnel ripping away at their hearts and shredding their minds.

Though the world sits up and pays attention when the explosions are audible and death dramatic, it turns its gaze away when the implosions are emotional and the deaths are of the soul, not the body. Of course, war is traumatic, everyone knows or can imagine that. But what comes after can be far worse, especially here in Gaza, where our looped history has repeated itself so much that hope too escaped from our particular Pandora’s jar, to soar into the heavens, which have become our hell, unlikely ever to return.

And deprived of external hope, I have decided to create my own, to fashion it out of the abundant radioactive elements of despondency all around me, to modify genetically the DNA letters which spell despair and engineer them into hope.

I stand waist-high in water, dressed in my wet suit and a life jacket for the rest stops I’ll inevitably need to take, with a lightweight waterproof bag containing snorkels and some supplies. In a bright corner of my darkened brain, the scheme I have devised strikes me as preposterous, suicidal even. I silence my doubts and fears by telling my limbs, which stand frozen in the still-warm water, that death awaits us anyway – better to die pursuing your dreams than to die pursued by your nightmares.

Read part 2: Breaking out of the fish bowl

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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Living in a selfie-centred world

 
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By Khaled Diab

The selfie fad has reached epidemic proportions, but we don’t live in more narcissistic times. Selfie-absorption is as old as civilisation itself.

Has modern technology made us more selfie-obsessed or have we always lived in a selfie-centred world?

Do we live in a more selfie-centred world than before?

Monday 23 March 2015

It was a miracle of selfie-preservation. A 14-year-old British schoolboy on a skiing holiday in Austria improbably survived, with only a few bruises and scratches, a 500-metre drop after slipping while shooting a selfie.

And if his phone survived the fall too, the teenager may just have snapped himself the kind of digital self-portrait that will make him the awe of his Facebook friends, and could even go viral.

But it is not just young people who are doing it. During a recent holiday in Thailand, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of selfie sticks. While giant representations of Buddha meditated peaceably in the background in a state of selfless Nirvana, the tourists in the foreground gave full expression to their selfie-ish impulses.

Egypt's President Sisi smiles as volunteers take a "selfie" with him during the closing session of Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-SheikhBeyond the clicker-happy tourist, a cursory glance shows that selfies have become one of the greatest fads around, with celebrities and even politicians embracing them, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who recently found it an opportunity for national selfie-actualisation.

A group selfie at last year’s Oscar ceremony became the most re-tweeted image of all time – a picture that apparently spoke a billion dollars. And with the fuss about selfies at this year’s ceremony, it won’t be too long before we start hearing about a “best selfie” category being introduced at the Academy Awards.

The selfie tsunami has also swept Arab and Muslim countries. The young and savvy Indonesian Muslim convert-turned-popular-guru Felix Siauw caused widespread offence when he declared selfies to be haram because, echoing some of the seven cardinal sins, he maintained that they were expressions of pride and ostentation. This led outraged Indonesian social media users to post selfies of themselves under the hashtag #Selfie4Siauw.

Even Islam’s holiest sanctuaries have not been immune, which has set off alarm bells in conservative quarters. Selfie fever reached such a pitch among pilgrims to Mecca and Medina that it provoked the ire of some Saudi religious scholars.

Cat jihad selfieRadical, ultra-conservative Muslims go even further and liken the idle pursuit of selfies to idol-worship. For example, during their reign of terror in Afghanistan, the Taliban banned television, video and photography, which prompted one journalist to describe it as a “country without faces”.

As a sign of the changing times (or perhaps the end-times for millennialists), today’s crop of foreign jihadists does not seem to have got this memo, or perhaps they believe that the “greater jihad” is the jihad of the selfie.

Many combatants have posted selfies of themselves on social media bearing arms, training, swimming, as well as surreally endorsing consumer products, including Nutella, not to mention a sideline in images of “mewjahideen” kittens.

The jihadist selfie is helping to transform the Spartan and puritanical image of holy war circa 1980s mujahideen in Afghanistan to make it resemble a mix between a lads’ teen movie and an 18+ shoot’em-up video game.

Some observers believe there is a deliberate strategy behind these selfies, which are seen as being part of a drive to recruit more young foreign fighters by showing how “normal” and “cool” being an extremist jihadist is, by injecting a bit of Rambo-like glamour.

With even normally camera-shy Islamic extremists indulging in this photographic fad, it is little wonder that many view this trend as a sign of the narcissistic nature of 21st-century society.

But do we really live in a more selfie-centred world than our ancestors? I happen to think not. It is no coincidence that the modern psychological term for vanity and egotism is derived from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water (nature’s own selfie). 

I believe that this moralising is largely a manifestation of the romanticisation of bygone days when people were supposedly kinder, nobler and more selfie-less. For example, space pioneer Buzz Aldrin claimed he took “the best selfie ever” during a 1966 spacewalk.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world's first photographic selfie.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world’s first photographic selfie.

Though the word is new, the concept of the selfie is as old as photography itself. The first photographic portrait ever taken, in 1839, was a “selfie” – and required considerably more time and effort than today’s instantaneous results – while the selfie stick may be almost a century old.

Prior to the invention of photography, the world was still awash with selfies, in the form of self-portraits. Though the boom in artists painting themselves began during the Renaissance, self-portraits have an ancient pedigree. One of the oldest surviving self-portraits is a sculpture of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s chief sculptor Bak, standing beside his wife.

The traditional Islamic aversion to depicting human forms meant that self-portraits were rare, but there have been some examples. Perhaps the most ambitious was the Akbarnama (The Life of Akbar), which chronicles, with exquisite miniature paintings, the biography of the third Mughal emperor Akbar. Though Akbar did not paint these portraits himself, the book was the emperor’s idea and he commissioned the work.

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world's oldest existing selfie?

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world’s oldest existing selfie?

Arabs traditionally preferred word-based selfies, in the form of self-aggrandizing poetry. For example, in addition to his talent for writing panegyrics glorifying princes and kings, the legendary al-Mutanabi had a penchant for glorifying himself. In a poem chiding an ungrateful patron for not supporting him, the poet boasts that the blind and deaf appreciate his writing, and that his fame extends to the “steed, the night and the desert”, as well as “the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen”.

What this reveals is that modern technology has not made us more self-centred but has democratised our ability to express the more selfie-ish side of our nature, and on an unprecedented scale. What the ramifications of this are for the individual and for humanity has yet to be revealed, but once it is, be sure that someone will somehow make a selfie out of it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 March 2015.

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A successful caliphate in six simple steps

 
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By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn’t get what restoring the caliphate means. Here’s how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I’m not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I’m better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you’ve released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously (haram) in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don’t cry for Leila and don’t rejoice over Hind

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

A glass which, when tipped down the drinker’s throat,

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid’s court, Ziryab, the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival Umayyad court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

  1. Strength in diversity

Diversity and multiculturalism were the hallmark of Islam’s most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic equality.

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam’s “golden age” was characterised, rather like today’s America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

  1. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow Muslims, such as the mass executions of Shi’a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam’s various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women’s place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma’a bint Abi Bakr – sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam’s attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

  1. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region’s leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam’s greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don’t mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you’ll be drawing immigrants from all over the Muslim world.

____

This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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A drinker’s guide to Islam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although alcohol is ‘haraam’, Muslim societies have rarely managed to stay on the wagon, and vital parts of their culture have developed under the influence.

Tuesday 12 October 2011

Photo: © Khaled Diab

If I said that we went to an Oktoberfest last weekend, readers may wonder why I am writing about it. If I added that the beer festival in question was in the West Bank and there we encountered a couple of self-deprecating young Germans dressed in lederhosen, some may start asking themselves what I’ve been drinking, or perhaps smoking. 

To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, as my wife pointed out, fellow Belgians – who possess not only the world’s best beers but also perhaps the greatest per-capita distribution of breweries – and other Europeans may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all this way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap. 

Secular Palestinians, expats and even leftist Israelis equipped with glasses of Taybeh beer wandered around food and handicraft stands, watched traditional Dabke dancers  – which our toddler son strutted his stuff to – modern music, comedy and theatrical performances. 

Despite its remoteness and tiny proportions, Taybeh has earned its place on the cultural and social map as being the location of the only Palestinian beer brewery. It has battled the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to become a rare Palestinian business and cultural success story. 

This may explain why Taybeh once adopted “Taste the revolution” as its advertising slogan. And, judging by its micro-brewery quality, the revolution tastes pretty good. 

The very existence of Taybeh overturns the stereotype associated with Palestinians – and Arabs in general – as teetotal, fanatical Muslims. This caricature has been reinforced since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, where the Islamist party has imposed a de facto ban on alcohol, though bootlegging has become a popular, if risky, pastime

Taybeh by night. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

There are those who will protest that Taybeh is the exception that proves the rule. After all, it is the only Palestinian brewery, and it is owned and run by Christians. But the absence of local competitors has more to do with the difficulty of setting up a viable business in the Palestinian territories, which requires a certain foolhardiness and courage – and, anyway, most of the people who drink Taybeh are Muslims. 

In the wider Arab and Muslim context, booze is widely available. Although alcohol is generally considered to be haraam (forbidden) in Islam, only the most conservative countries actually impose a legal ban on it. Egypt, for instance, has a booming local alcohol industry that has been growing for years. 

This is not just a recent Western import or “innovation“, as conservative Muslims might believe. In fact, the history of the region where beer and wine were probably invented shows that most societies there have a long track record of falling off the wagon. The prominent 19th-century orientalist Edward William Lane – famous for his incredibly observant if somewhat condescending book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians – provides, in one of his lesser-known works, some fascinating details about the drinking habits of Egyptians. 

“From the conversations and writings of Arabs,” he notes, “drinking wine in private and by select parties is far from being uncommon among modern Muslims.” Lane also alludes to the fact that boozing was even more common in earlier centuries, before the introduction of tobacco and coffee as substitutes. Interestingly, the Arabic word for coffee, from which the English word derives, originally meant “wine”. That’s something to mull over while sipping on your morning caffeine shot. 

There is plenty of historical evidence to back Lane’s assertion. Numerous prominent Muslims throughout the ages drank alcohol. Even caliphs, such as the Abbasid ruler Haroun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame, were reputed to indulge, despite their title of “commanders of the faithful”. 

Alcohol has played so prominent a role in Islamic history that many aspects of its various cultures and societies were formed under the influence, so to speak. This is evident not only in the starring (or should that be staggering?) role that booze has played over the decades on the silver screen, but also in traditional poetry and song.

Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is famous for its odes to wine, known as khamariyat, and this tradition continued into the Islamic era. Take Abu Nuwas, Haroun al-Rashid’s camp court poet. In addition to his homoerotic ghazal, he penned endless verse in praise of wine. 

Although he was considered to be the greatest Arab poet ever during his lifetime, Nuwas has fallen out of favour with the modern Muslim reader. But he is not alone in talking up the virtues of drink. The celebrated poet and polymath Omar Khayyám wrote extensively about wine and love, as did the legendary Sufi mystic Rumi.

Modern-day puritans will argue that Khayyám and Rumi used wine and drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication. But there’s no reason why their poetry should not be read both literally and figuratively, as mystics have long used alcohol (after all, we do use the term “spirit” to describe some drinks) and other drugs to alter their consciousness in pursuit of the divine.

The relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol in the earlier centuries of Islam may have been due to doubts, in the days before the religion had hardened into rigid orthodoxy, as to whether the Qur’an actually prohibits the consumption of alcohol or merely recommends moderation and/or abstinence. Some hadith (traditions of the prophet) even suggest that Muhammad may have actually drunk mildly alcoholic beverages.

Regardless of whether this is the case or not, devout Muslims have every right to consider alcohol haraam and not part of Islam the religion. But they must also accept that alcohol has always been an integral and largely tolerated aspect of Islamic culture.

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 8 October 2011. The related discussion can be viewed here.

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The Arab man’s burden

 
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By Khaled Diab

Some in the west are more likely to believe in the existence of elves in Middle Earth than in Arab men in the Middle East who are secular, modern and do not oppress women.

Saturday 6 November 2010

“Have you got another wife in Egypt?” asked N with the trademark, but innocent, lack of tact which I had grown to expect with every one of her visits. “No, why do you ask?” I queried as Iskander, my baby son, put a whole strawberry into his tiny mouth and little streams of red ran down his chin.

“Most Arab men married to European women have another wife in their country,” she said, making a daring generalisation. I did a quick mental inventory of all the Egyptians and other Arab men I knew who were married to or in relationships with European women, and I could not think of a single one who had a second wife back home or anywhere else. Occupied as I was with Iskander, who was babbling incomprehensible instructions to his courgette slices as he watched them fall over the side of his high chair, I let the matter drop. I also knew that N, who is from Ukraine, meant no malice with her remarks.

N entertains some stereotypical views of Arabs that come straight out of Hollywood central casting. Thus, she has expressed her surprise – and approval – that I can actually take care of a baby and do household chores. Her views are all the more surprising considering she’s married to a Muslim from Bulgaria, a country where the Muslim minority is less religious than the Christian majority.

And N is not alone. Although certain Arab stereotypes are positive, such as our reputed hospitality and generosity, I regularly encounter people who make automatic assumptions about me based solely on my background. One recent incident almost startled me into dropping my glass of wine when a young woman I know shrieked in loud surprise: “You drink alcohol!?” Although drinking alcohol is strictly speaking haram, you don’t have to be a non-believer like me to enjoy it – millions of believing Muslims knock back their favourite tipple every day.

Some stereotypes of Arab men with which we have to contend are less harmless. For example, one American Jew to whom I was introduced through mutual Israeli friends and with whom I corresponded for some time in a bid to build better mutual understanding, was ultimately unable to overcome his prejudices and accused me of viewing America as the “Great Satan”, of lacking the faculty of self-criticism, of having a secret agenda and of being a terrorist sympathiser wearing a mask of moderation.

In the popular imagination, the Arab man is not so much fun as fundamentalist, never a fan but always a fanatic, and whose only claim to fame is infamy. After all, the world’s most famous, and infamous, Arab is Osama bin Laden. Although his video and audio releases are keenly awaited and garner the kind of global attention most pop artists could only dream of, he is not the kind of role model the vast majority of Arab men aspire to.

Simply sharing his first name can prove problematic, as my brother has discovered a number of times. One surreal incident occurred when he went to a bank in London to open an account and the clerk phoned his superiors to say: “We have a guy called Osama here, should I open an account for him?” My brother was so infuriated that he left immediately.

The media, particularly the rightwing and conservative end of the spectrum, has a lot to answer for in this vilification of Arab men. Hollywood – where the overwhelming majority of Arab characters are reel bad villains or aliens from some Planet of the Arabs – is an extreme manifestation of this trend.

Although contemporary British and some other European television and cinema tend to be more nuanced and human in their treatment of Arabs, the situation on this side of the Atlantic also leaves a lot to be desired. My wife is often confounded by the European fixation with Islamism and conservative Islam. While watching a recent Belgian documentary that featured women who had converted to Islam and married ultra-conservative Muslim men, she wondered why such programmes never featured mixed couples like us or our friends: modern, a-religious, laid-back.

In fact, given the endless torrent of negative images of Arab men in western popular culture, ordinary people might be excused for believing that elves in Middle Earth are less mythical than men in the Middle East who are secular, modern, peaceable and do not oppress women. Arab women, whose struggle for equality I write about regularly, garner far more – often genuine – sympathy in the west than Arab men, but much of the compassion is condescending and ideologically, even politically, driven for faceless, voiceless, invisible victims.

So, what is behind this almost casual hatred and vilification? Many cite the September 11 attacks in 2001 as an important turning point. While prejudice against Arabs, and Muslims in general, certainly increased after these atrocities, the growing demonisation and the public debate it sparked also, and perhaps ironically, led to more people developing greater understanding and sympathy towards Arabs.

But history did not begin on 9/11, nor did anti-Arab prejudice. It has a long history in the west, dating back to the colonial era and even the earlier, mutual love-hate relationship between “Islam” and “Christendom”. While there were some orientalists who were Arabophiles, particularly in their admiration for the “noble and honourable” Bedouin but not for the “wily and cunning” city Arab, orientalism as a whole lent a respectable academic veneer, as Edward Said so convincingly demonstrated, to crude racism.

In this view, the Arab is indistinguishable as an individual, unchanging, backward, passive, deceitful, ruled by lust and sexuality, and “in all the centuries has bought no wisdom from experience”, as Gertrude Bell, who played a crucial role in creating modern-day Iraq and Jordan, once put it.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 30 October 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Do no haram

 
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By Khaled Diab

A new search engine claims to filter out ‘haram’ (sinful) content for the faithful. Should non-believers now demand their own version – let’s call it Godpile – that blocks religious content?

10 September 2009

We live in tough times for the faithful, for vice has gone virtual and a worldwide web of sin has been weaved online. The fleshpods of the internet make the fleshpots of Egypt seem tame in comparison, and all the godlessness online would make the throne in heaven shake in rage.

Luckily, some good Samaritans have come to the rescue. A few months ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis launched Koogle, the kosher search engine.

Perhaps not to be outdone, a Muslim equivalent has also just been launched in time for Ramadan, a time when virtuousness is an extra-special virtue.  I’mHalal claims to filter out haram or sinful content, and may soon promote halal or virtuous content through special widgets.

“Our goal is to create a safe environment for Muslims to search the worldwide web,” said the search engine’s creator Reza Sardeha, an Iranian-Kuwaiti based in the Netherlands. In addition to blocking sexually explicit content, I’mHalal is also progressively excluding content deemed to be haram by selected Islamic scholars.

Secular and progressive Muslims are not amused. “Muslims are not children. What’s the point of free will if someone else always decides for you what’s right and what’s wrong?” believes Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist based in New York.

Even some devout Muslims find it objectionable. “Two words I’m absolutely sick of: halal and shari’a – and coming from a practicing Muslim that’s saying something. One more Halal invention and I’m converting to Scientology,” said one commenter on Facebook discussion.

Despite the protests that this amounts to censorship, Sardeha insists that: “We have absolutely no intention of being a dictatorial search engine” and that I’mHalal is not intended to be a “political censor”.

But determining what is sinful is no easy feat. Halal, like its cousin kosher, is pretty straightforward when it comes to diet. The overwhelming majority of Muslims accept that eating pork and drinking alcohol is haram (sinful). Of course, many are willing to run the risk of divine retribution (“vengeance will be wine”?) to savour the joys of intoxication, but even if a flying pig landed beside them on a desert island, they might well not eat it.

However, beyond the bread-and-butter issue of food, determining what is halal is wrought with difficulty. In fact, it could spark a theological controversy and force this search engine, which is currently targeted at “moderate Muslims”, to install varying levels of virtue and vice.

For instance, like Judaism, the strictest interpretations of Islam ban “graven images”, not to mention poetry and song. Should an Islamic search engine, then, block YouTube, TV channels and all embedded images on a page?

How about non-halal views? Should a search engine like this not return results that contradict Islamic orthodoxy, are critical of Islam, or advocate atheism? Although I understand why people adhere to a faith and take a more nuanced view of religion than many other non-believers, I write plenty of stuff that would be considered haram.

Luckily for me and open-minded Muslims,  I’mHalal does not seem to have blocked my writings questioning Islam and religion, such as my guides to Ramadan for the non-believer and the drinker, or my piece on atheism in Islam.

Although I don’t like the idea of divine or worldly censorship, my belief in freedom of choice means I cannot object to self-censorship of this sort. The danger is that, once the technology is perfected, theocratic regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia or Iran, could force citizens to use it and block other alternatives.

But as the genie is now out of the bottle, at this rate we may soon have search engines designed to answer people’s spiritual questions modelled on the Ask Jeeves format, possibly named Ask Jehovah or Ask Allah. Since there seems to be a growing market for niche search engines, may be we’ll soon get one for atheists, perhaps it could be called Godpile, which blocks religious content. Personally, I wouldn’t use Godpile, just as I wouldn’t use I’mHalal, but there might be a market for it out there.

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Ramadan for drinkers

 
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By Khaled Diab

With booze in short supply, the month of fasting can be a thirsty wait for some Muslims.

September 2008

In Europe, Ramadan creeps up on you with none of the fanfare associated with the fasting season in the Muslim world, where it is a unique time of year. It is a month of fasting and feasting, frugalness and greed, night turning into day, spirituality and commercialism. When it started this year, we’d arranged, by chance, to go out for drinks with some friends, where we, blasphemously, drank an impromptu seasonal toast.

While the majority of people go without food or drink from dawn to dusk, some Muslims suffer a special kind of thirst. For those who drink alcohol, the holy month can be a very dry spell.

Many do this voluntarily, much like Christians give up certain ‘bad habits’ for Lent. One Bosnian woman describes people who practice this temporary abstention as being “Muslims on batteries”. In Bosnia, the majority of Muslims still drink alcohol, despite the growing religiosity of society there since the traumas of the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.

When I used to fast, I would have ‘one for the road’ just before the holy month began, try to keep on the Ramadan wagon for the fasting season, and join friends for a new season of drinking after the Eid festival.

Curiously, Ramadan was the only facet of Islam I stuck to religiously. Long after I’d stopped entering mosques except to admire their architecture, I still continued to fast. This may have had something to do with the periodic and festive nature of the season, rather like becoming a football fan for the duration of the World Cup. The discipline, humility and endurance required may have played a role because it made it a ‘cleansing’ personal challenge, as opposed to an empty a religious ritual.

While it’s okay for Muslims to stop drinking during Ramadan out of choice, society often takes a paternalistic attitude towards drinkers. Egypt, for instance, has a booming alcohol industry, which comes to a virtual grinding halt during the holy month.

During Ramadan, Egyptians are barred from purchasing alcohol and all alcoholic outlets besides ones catering to foreigners close down. The first time I became aware of this peculiar legislation was when I was out with some foreign friends and we ordered drinks at the bar, only to be told by the waiter that I wasn’t allowed to.

Feeling humiliated, I complained to the manager who made sympathetic noises and admitted that he would love to serve Egyptians, who made up the bulk of his clientele, but he would face an enormous fine if an inspector walked in. In fact, Ramadan is a month of major losses for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

This law is patently unfair because it forces Egyptian Christians to live by an Islamic rule, and it casts the state in the role of moral guardian. If alcohol is legal, what right does the government then have to force its citizens to behave temporarily like ‘good Muslims’?

It also leads to some absurd situations. Egyptians who do not wish to stop drinking clean out the off-licences just before they shut. Sometimes in mixed groups of expats and Egyptians, the foreigners will order binge quantities of booze, while the Egyptians will order a token soft drink and, with one eye on the door, they will all make merry.

The first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I acquired Belgian citizenship, I seized the opportunity to order a stiffer drink that previously permitted, and surreptitiously poured beer into an Egyptian friend’s coke as we moaned about the injustice of it all.

Well, I shouldn’t complain too much, at least drinking in Egypt is not a punishable offence like it is in the Islamic theocracies of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, and the law is more honest than in, say, Morocco, where Muslims are officially not allowed to consume alcohol, but everyone turns a blind eye – except during Ramadan.

In some countries, a veritable ‘alcohol war’ is brewing between alcohol-free puritans and the booze brigade. Despite having licences to operate during Ramadan, several restaurants and bars in the Jordanian capital, Amman, have been shut down by over-zealous health inspectors on questionable pretexts.

The owner of Books@Cafe, a popular Amman hangout, summed up the situation by saying: “This is about where we stand in hypocrisy and bigotry…and where we will be if we remain quiet.” His article drew more than 200 outraged responses, with one poster describing the closures as “the pinnacle in state-sponsored stupidity”.

In Turkey, which normally has a relaxed attitude to drinking, a shop owner was attacked for selling alcohol during Ramadan in an upmarket Ankara neighbourhood.

Turkish revellers have been organising a campaign of boozy civil disobedience – which has continued into Ramadan – to defend their right to drink at a popular Istanbul quay. Meanwhile, life goes on as normal in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district, where some restaurants serve traditional iftar for the pious and others offer alcohol for the secular punters.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims will be looking forward to the post-fasting festivities of Eid el-Fitr, which will be around 1 October, where I will get to observe the Indian version in Delhi. For Muslim drinkers, they will be eager to fall off the Ramadan wagon and head for their nearest watering hole.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 27 September 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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