Sunday, March 21, 2004

Brace Yourselves...

Shaykh Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, has just been killed by Israeli forces. This move is probably related to the planned Gaza pull-out, as some articles I'd read but never got around to blogging about talked about how Hamas was gaining influence in that territory over groups usually linked to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

UPDATE: The Israeli strike on Yassin has even elicited comment from Arab Street Bum.

Banu Huddan

Item: According to the Encyclopedia of Islam's article on the Azd, the Huddan were the dominant clan along Oman's Pirate Coast.

Item: According to the conventional view of Azd development, the Azd Sarat (from the Sarat Mountains in Asir south of Hejaz) were among the original settlers of Basra, where a few decades later they were joined by the Azd Uman. Prior to that migration, the Azd Uman were not part of a confederation with the Azd Sarat. (In other words, they were not the "Azd" Uman.)

Item: The leader of the Azd in Basra during the early caliphate was Sabra b. Shayman al-Huddani, and the main mosque was the Huddan Mosque.

One of these pieces needs to move somehow. Is there another "Pirate Coast" somewhere?

Herat Fighting

Marwais Sadiq, Afghanistan's Minister of Aviation and son of powerful Herat Iranian-backed warlord Ismail Khan, was assassinated earlier today. Reports suggest that as many as 100 people have been killed in the fighting which followed. The circumstances of all this remain unclear.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Obvious?

After a day perusing Robert G. Hoyland's Arabia and the Arabs, I've started reading Golden Fool, Book Two in Robin Hobb's Tawny Man trilogy. The first volume of a Hobb trilogy is always set-up, so I'm not going to judge it yet except to say something near the end of the first book (Fool's Errand) is pretty depressing, though both expected and well-executed. Anyway, as I was saying, the author is setting up a mystery about who Chade's new apprentice assassin is. Only he never uses a pronoun to refer to her. Which makes me strongly suspect it's one of the two possible female characters. I mean, in quiz bowl at least, ducking the gender pronoun means female.

We'll see, I guess.

UPDATE: Or you could introduce a third possibility, one stronger than the other two. Still, I'm only considering women at this point.


Stuff seems to have calmed down in Syria, but mark my words, those disturbances will have an impact, even if we can't pick up on it through the media. Al-Jazeera reports on Arab beliefs that the Kurds were hoping for American invervention. There seems to be a common belief that the protests were linked in some manner to Iraq, though I don't know exactly how. Iraqi Kurds were highly supportive of the Iraq war, though, and it may be that Kurds in other nations were, as well.

Kerry, Bush, and Credibility

Josh Marshall has a great post on the Presidential campaign and what Kerry should be doing. Here's just a sample:

"The key is simply that the president has no credibility. He has lost the trust of the country's allies in part because he has repeatedly deceived them -- dealt with them falsely or simply lied to them. But to a critical degree neither do they fear him. This is what we're seeing as our few remaining allies in Iraq ramp back their deployments in the country (Spain, South Korea, possibly Poland) and abandon our foolishly shortsighted effort to advance our interests by dividing Europe.

"Right-wingers in this country are casting this pattern as a cosmic moral drama of appeasement, with the faint of heart cowering before the grand struggle. In fact, the president is reduced to a mix of taunt and begging, pleading with other countries not to abandon him. What is a leader without followers? Not a leader."

Read the whole thing.

Minor Notes from Iraq

I've had lots of posts about the doings of ayatollahs, Presidents, and IGC members, as well as reflections about what's in store for the Iraqi people. Here, however, are links which give a glimpse at the American troops over there.

First Link

Second Link

(Via Daily Kos)

Friday Night TV

Here in Madison, one of the stations is showing Son of Godzilla. Come on guys, it's only 12:45 a.m. This shouldn't be on for another couple of hours yet! =)

Friday, March 19, 2004

The Road to Petra

I've decided that every Friday, I will post something related to my admittedly limited travels in other countries. (Until I run out, of course.) Often these will be drawn from e-mails sent at the time, which means they won't have been proofread (run-on sentences abound), and were targeted to an audience conisting mainly of relatives and friends who don't study the Middle East at all. (Part of the reason so much Biblical stuff is mentioned is because that would have been a main interest for the relatives.) With that in mind, here is my description of the Kingshighway as it runs from Amman to southern Jordan, and of Petra and its adjacent city of Wadi Musa...

"Over the years, however, I have decided that the 'stereotype' of 'desert' also conveys something important, what I call the 'literary definition' of the word. And it is this definition that you find as you travel south on the Kingshighway, considered a candidate for the world's oldest continuously used road, a road so old that the brochures on it claim it was mentioned in the Bible as travelled by Abraham. Following this road, which runs next to the Hejaz railway between Istanbul and Mecca attacked by Lawrence of Arabia and the Hashemites during World War I (see last e-mail). Past the hills which characterize Amman and Irbid, the land becomes increasingly level, dotted with small shrubs which become increasingly infrequent so that gusts of wind blow large clouds of sand and dust across the land, obscuring the view of the scattered farms along the way and hills and mountains in the distance.

"All throughout this country are small, scattered villages, occasionally noted by blue signs that serve the same function on Jordanian highways as green in the United States. Between them one sees small stone walls and what I suppose you would have to call abandoned house parts, a few walls crumbling, always without a roof, the nature of which I don't know. Also seen as one moves further south are encampments of the Bedouin, large gray tents near a herd of animals and pick-up trucks which can at times barely be seen against the brown-gray landscape covered in a haze of desert heat.

"In the middle of all this are occasional springs near the settlements, each varying according to the amount of water it contains. The largest and richest of these is the Wadi Musa, at which is found a sizable town of the same name. According to one of those stories common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, when the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, Moses struck a rock here, and it produced the stream that, in English, means "River/Spring of Moses," flowing from its source in a large gray stone enclosed with a white mosque-like structure down into a valley until it joins another stream far out of sight in the distance. The water of this spring produces soil that is apparently quite rich; outside the mosque across the street is grass, the richest grass that we saw in Jordan. Cool and clean, the structure which contains the source has a hollowed-out floor so that passersby can come and fill their water bottles or other containers with as much as they like, and one sees this happening irrespective of nationality or religion.

"As interesting as all this might be, however, the town of Wadi Musa owes its prosperity not only to the supply of water, but its proximity to Petra, Royal City of the Nabateans, the Rose Red City of the desert carved out of the living rock of in gargantuan proportions which must be seen to be believed. As Jordan's leading tourist attraction, Petra has around it a number of hotels in one of which we stayed, as this week and last week were trips sponsored by the program, which paid all the costs.

"To describe our hotel, the "Petra Forum," as expensive would be an understatement in American terms, much less Jordanian. Eating a standard meal in the dining room costs about $18. Needless to say, we passed on that, and instead wandered into the adjacent strip of restaurants in Wadi Musa before settling into a place called "The Bedouin Tent," this one multicolored with all sorts of what were supposed to be Bedouin implements hanging from the walls. The dining was a rather unpleasant experience - take my advice: If you ever do any serious travelling, try to get off the tourist track. It is here that the types of hospitality, etc. that I have described earlier start to give way to raw commercialism and swipe-whatever-you-can opportunism whether in Wadi Musa, Jerash, or wherever. In Irbid, you can't tip a waiter because it would give offense; here, a handsome gratuity was figured into our check for food which included a chicked dish which included only the skins of the chicken. And of course it cost about $5, more than my average day's spending in Irbid. That aside, however, we definitely enjoyed the hotel, and I even caught some of a Braves-Phillies game on a TV which carried stations in English, Arabic, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, and I think Japanese. Friday morning, however, we were up at 6 a.m. anxious to hit Petra before the worst of the day's heat.

"Attempting to describe Petra would be an exercise in futility, you must for yourself walk the path past the large stone cubes known as the 'Djinn Blocks' erected for the Djinn (genies) whom the ancient Nabatean Arabs of 1000 years after Moses believed guarded the city they were building across the seemingly miraculous stream they had stumbled across and whose water they channeled through stone channels through the siq, the long, narrow canyon through which the visitor must walk for at least twenty minutes before catching a first glimpse of the Treasury, originally the tomb of the Nabatean King Harith IV, which is in the United States most famous for being used as a set in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Past this monumental structure one reaches a street containing row upon row of stone-carved houses that remind me almost exactly of Tatooine from the movie Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, small dwellings piled on top of each other behind the columns the Romans erected when they conquered this city through treachery, much humbler in scope than the giant royal tombs which line rock face in the distance but which still shine bright red and pink in the sunlight, as the city's nickname indicates.

"It is also here that one sees that Petra, although only a ruin of its former splendor, remains inhabited, for as they have for uncounted centuries, the Bedouin tribe known as the Banu Badul, professed descendants of the Nabateans who built the city, continued to sleep on mattresses in selected houses and the small stands which they run for their livelihood throughout the ruins with the permission of the government which failed in its efforts to evict them as it had the inhabitants of Umm Qais from their village atop Gadara. For the Badul, unlike the tourists who crowd the ruins with paid-for camel and donkey rides and sit sipping coffee at the restaurant at the end of the main street, are of Petra, knowing its nooks and crannies, masters of their domain as no distant government could ever be, so much so that after we had climbed the 800 stairs to reach the distant temple that at 45 by 50 meters is Petra's largest structure, we ambled huffing and puffing over the rocks to get to the top of it, trying to find our footing, only to have one of the Badul actually jog past us, setting his feet precisely and thoughtlessly on the right spots to appreciate the view that makes up his own backyard.

"This view, from the top of ad-Deir, known as the Monastary, is another one of those things which has to be seen rather than simply described, with the sunlight gleaming off the red buildings in the distance, the Wadi Araba into which the Wadi Musa flows cutting a deep gorge, and in the distance, looming over everything at a distance of four hours by donkey, the tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses, as-Salam alaihu, who according to the same story as that of the water from the rock died here atop a mountain and whose tomb is accompanied only by a small white mosque glinting in the distance."

Here is more about Aaron's tomb, including pictures.

Libyan Reform

Diederik Vandewalle writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace relates Libya's decision to give up WMD to the rise of a technocratic class within the bureaucracy which has also promoted economic privatization. It's worth adding here that a scholarly article I read on Libya a few months ago made it sound very much like one of the Gulf states: Its economy is almost totally dependent on oil, and the government is "structured" by patronage and relationships among an extended ruling family. It also has a much smaller population than the more classic revolutionary dictatorships such as Syria and Ba'athist Iraq.

Sex Sale

Like Allison, I believe sex trafficking is a serious problem, and we should work against it. However, like also like Allison, I can't resist being amused by this.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Hizb ut-Tahrir in Tajikistan

Authorities in Tajikistan were surprised to discover Hizb ut-Tahrir cells in the southern part of the country. This is the Islamist organization which is a major target of the Central Asian War on Terror, despite the fact they believe in achieving their goals through non-violent means. The linked story gives an interesting profile of how they fill a gap in the political discourse caused by Tajikistan's dictatorship suppressing other forms of opposition. This is a story one finds behind a lot of Islamist groups throughout the Islamic world.

Syrian Tensions Continue

According to al-Jazeera, violence in Syria continued yesterday as Kurds in Qameshli fired on the homes of local police officers and a Syrian flag was burned in Afrin. According to Pakistan's The News, Arabs in the area have been waving pictures of Saddam Hussein, which in the context of the Halabja commemorations does not seem designed to improve relations between the two groups. The State Department has called upon Syria to stop suppressing the demonstrations.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Al-Qaeda Endorses Bush

I'm serious. The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a close al-Qaeda affiliate, have endorsed George W. Bush for President of the United States.

However, because I don't believe that terrorists should have a voice in American elections, I will refrain from attacking those who choose to vote for Bush for sound reasons of their own. I don't always believe terrorists anyway. My opinion of how best to combat the terrorist threat will remain unaffected by this statement.

Via Daily Kos.

UPDATE: The original al-Hayat story is here. Judging from the final paragraphs they don't have everything Reuters quotes, but the essence is there. What's missing is the stuff after "Kerry will kill our nation while it sleeps," although my Hans Wehr dictionary does direct me to "negligence" or "foolishness" instead of sleep. An admittedly quick read: The al-Hayat excerpt has cunning next to wisdom as a quality Bush lacks, and adds that they don't really see Kerry as that different from Bush except in those qualities, which leads into Kerry's killing the umma. (laa faruqa beinik wa bein Kerry, lakin Kerry sayaqatulu...)

Marriage Name Wars

Matthew Yglesias, William of Baude and a trio of Butlers have posted on whether women should take their husbands' names upon marriage. I actually don't care one way or the other. Growing up in Quincy, women who didn't follow the traditional path stood out and were talked about, but even my more conservative friends in college at least considered what they would do, and I have been surprised a couple of times by the result.

Part of this attitude is because the terms of the debate really don't go back to the origins of the naming system. The American way of assigning surnames stemmed from a combination of urbanization in the late middle ages (how to tell John the Baker from John the Miller) and Norman record-keeping with respect to property rights and needing a word to call different descent groups. It was set up on a strictly utilitarian basis.

Other cultures developed different naming patterns. In Arabia, the key question was descent and figuring out who was related to whom and to what degree. Arab names thus tended to be very long, such as Masud b. Khalid b. Malik b. Ribi b. Sulma b. Jandal b. Nahshal b. Darim b. Malik b. Hanzalah b. Malik b. Zayd Manat b. Tamim (b = bin/ibn = son). In everyday use, they found it convenient to shorten things, so this man would often be referred to as just Masud b. Khalid al-Tamimi, with "Tamim" being his tribe. Eventually place would work as well as tribe, as in the historian Abd al-Qadir b. Umar al-Baghdadi. Today the patterns are the same, though usually without the "Ibn," and Arabs are frequently adopting Westernized practices by picking either an immediate father's name or the kinship or regional designation to become the family name. Thus, Saddam Hussein's father might have been named Hussein, and he just named his kids Uday and Qusay Hussein rather than Uday and Qusay Saddam.

Back to the main point, in this system there is no provision for women taking a husband's name, though Yasser Arafat's wife is Suha Arafat, probably a sign of Western influence on the elites. Names are about ancestry and origin, not a means of defining a bounded entity for the purpose of property rights. Which is why today, I think people should do whatever works best for them. The institution of the family will not collapse if not all members share the same surname, just like people who take a spouse's name are not giving up their identity because they wish to base it on the family they are producing rather than the one from which they sprung.

The remains of past gender bias in the property rights system could be removed if couples simply began taking a new name upon marriage. For example, If I got married in May and my wife and I wanted to honor the creation of something new, we could call ourselves Mr. and Mrs. Spring, or if we believed strongly in certain values we could be Mr. and Mrs. Compassion. Although that sounds weird, it would be true in some ways to the origins of naming. I admit I don't think I could actually do that, though - I much prefer to have my family life blend into the established options of whatever culture I find myself in and simply wish other people well when they decide to become reformers. Such a name, of course, would work for only one generation, and people who are really into family connections would hate it.

Bottom line? This really doesn't matter much. My wife will do what she wants. Other people will do what they want. Too much else goes into the status of women's rights and family life for names to be much more than a symbol, albeit one many will decide is important to them.

Syria Update

Al-Jazeera has more. I can't translate from here, but may update later.

UPDATE: Or you can just read Haaretz, which has clashes spreading to Damascus. Syrian intelligence is arming Arabs and sending them against the Kurds, while the Kurds are preparing defensive measures in case the government tries a true massacre.

Calpundit Transformed

Kevin Drum has now moved to the Washington Monthly as "Political Animal."


I haven't seen this ad, but apparently President Bush, who last summer tried to cut troops' combat pay, is falsely accusing John Kerry of trying to cut troops' combat pay.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

More Syrian Violence

Syrian security forces opened fire on Kurds commemorating the anniversary of the Halabja massacre in Iraq, killing several people. One place affected was Aleppo, a city where I spent a few days on my Syria trip and for which I harbor some affection. Some of my description:

"The city of Aleppo, in northern Syria about 30 miles south of the Turkish border, spans the centuries from where the Citadel stands on the hill from which was ruled the ancient Amorite kingdom of Yamzhak to the busy city squares and intersections with posters and statues supporting the personality cult of the Assads who rule the modern nation from Damascus, Aleppo's local rival for the title of world's oldest continuously inhabited city. In between stretch the ruins of ancient Rome, the churches of Byzantium and Armenia, and the ancient Umayyad mosque next to the mostly Ottoman suq in the old city.

"The streets of Aleppo are filled with yellow taxis much like those of Jordanian cities, though where the Jordanian taxis have a yellow sign with the name of the city in black in Arabic on the front and English on the back, Syrian taxis have the taxi number in Arabic numerals on the front and Western numerals on the back in between red and green lights indicating whether it is carrying a passenger. These taxis share the streets with cars, trucks, and horse-drawn wagons carrying watermelons along the curb, manned usually by a father with a son of between 8 and 14 hanging of the side.

"Another salient feature of Aleppo is its wide public spaces, including at least one significant park filled with fountains which at night are lit up red, yellow, and blue, providing a nice backdrop for people walking along the paved sidewalks through the thick grass and trees made possible by the city's place along a river. Near this is also a large pedestrian square dominated by a giant statue of - I believe - something Roman and surrounded by giant ball lamps each with the face of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who every night looks over this part of the city like the year on the New York apple that drops every New Year's Eve.

"Bashar al-Assad's face is one you come to know well in Syria, simply because it is in almost as many places as the remaining pictures of his late father Hafez al-Assad. This is subtly different than in Jordan, where although you see many pictures of King Abdullah II, they tend to fade into the background, just another part of the landscape. Assad's pictures, however, reach out and grab you, filled with propaganda touches like showing the Syrian landscape reflected in his glasses. Most also have some sort of writing on the bottom - Bashar's favorite word appears to be "Yes," and the slogans one reads include "Yes, Yes, Yes!" and "From our hearts, a thousand times yes!" Many also refer to him as "The Doctor," a reference to the fact that he worked as an eye doctor in London before becoming dictator.

"The sites of Aleppo are varied, ranging from the previously mentioned huge churches of the Armenian Quarter where in the morning you see mainly old people coming to pray while a priest sits in his office conducting some sort of business, to the Umayyad Mosque (not THE Umayyad Mosque, which is in Damascus) across from the colossal Citadel, which can be reached only after climbing a stone step bridge across the old moat. Between the Citadel and Umayyad Mosque and containing 6 miles of road is the suq, much of which dates from Ottoman times architecturally and is completely covered to keep out the sun, though most definitely not the heat."

I also had a conversation there about Saladin, the Ayyubid sultan of Kurdish origin who was Richard I's opponent in the Third Crusade. Someone told me that Saladin had once said there should be no national homeland for Kurds. That statement, of course, is anachronistic, since the 12th century was not noted for ethnic nationalism, but shows how governments can use their education system to achieve a political agenda.

Pilgrimage in Iraq

Today's been busy, but here's an interesting article about the revival of Shi'ite pilgrimage to Iraq. The economic benefits, security concerns, and contrast with life under Saddam are all interesting. Articles like this really make me hope Iraq comes through its current situation in decent shape.

Monday, March 15, 2004


Do you ever wish you had tentacles?

Saudi Labor Issues

Another story on issues related to nativizing Gulf labor forces. This one describes allegations that Saudi employers treat them unfairly so as to portray them as incompotent. (For other articles on this topic, see this post from last Friday.)

Before You Bash France...

Read this:

"Gen. Henri Bentegeat said about 200 French troops were operating with U.S. forces in southeastern Afghanistan against the Taliban and bin Laden's al Qaeda. The Saudi-born militant is thought to be there or just across the border in Pakistan."

Later in the article he mentions that militant Islamic radicalism - what some are coming to call jihadism - is spreading into West Africa, as well. This is another reason why I don't think remaking the Middle East is really a viable solution to the War on Terror.

Spanish Elections

Oxblog's Patrick Belton has a reasonable perspective on Spain's election results. Surfing around, I see both anguish that the terrorists may have gotten what they wanted and celebration that a government which played politics with tragedy was defeated. Both perspectives are, in my judgement, understandable. Without knowing what the Socialists have said on the issue of terrorism, I have no idea what I should have hoped for. As it stands, just opposing the Iraq war isn't enough to make me join the PP cheering section.

UPDATE: Jonathan Dworkin also has thoughts, while Jacob Levy brings up the Cold War, Winston Churchill, and the U.S. decision to pull troops from Saudi Arabia. Matthew Yglesias also makes some sharp comments here and here. (See his comment sections, as well.) Ocean Guy, meanwhile, makes the argument that the results did constitute appeasement.

UPDATE: I think there's a point beng lost in all this: Terrorists are going to attack us. It is only a question of when. Let's say that because of the PP's election defeat, al-Qaeda decides to blow up a subway car in New York on Halloween hoping to affect the American elections. Had the PP won, however, I believe al-Qaeda would still have decided to blow up that subway car, only perhaps at a different time. The only real way you can look at these things is deciding which group of leaders would do the best job of making sure no subway car would be blown up at all. Which brings us back to the old debate about how Iraq fits into the War on Terror.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Syrian Riots

I can find little information on the riots which recently erupted in Syria. They apparently began with a soccer disturbance in Qameshli, but fueled by Kurdish grievances against the central government turned into general anti-government rioting which was felt even in Damascus. I don't believe anything like this has happened in Syria in years, perhaps since the Hama massacre.

Saudi Elections

Saudi Arabia's municipal elections have been scheduled for this October. That happens to be during Ramadan. My cynical self wonders if the timing was chosen to help the Bush adminstration.

Friday, March 12, 2004


Good movie. However, I found it odd that sometimes the spoken Arabic didn't match the subtitles. I wonder why that happens?

(Leaves before debate can start over representation of Arabs and Americans in film...)

Gulf Labor Issues

There was a time when the Persian Gulf had lots of oil and few people, so the rulers set up welfare states and foreign workers came in to do a lot of the less desirable jobs. Then the population exploded, and now people are trying to nativize the work force so that they can all find jobs. One problem, of course, is that young people are often looking at careers their parents would have considered beneath them. All of this is probably the biggest under-reported story in the Persian Gulf these days, as it affects not only foreign workers who are now working illegally, but is also leading to calls for more women to enter the workforce in some rather conservative countries. But see also Mahmood al-Yousif for an employer's perspective.

Kuwaiti Shi'ites

The one area where I've been giving the Iraq invasion credit for current changes in the Middle East is Shi'ite empowerment, and today Gulf News has a story of this happening in Kuwait, where Shi'ites are seeking the right to build new mosques and have Ashura recognized as a national holiday, as well as the right to live under Shi'ite rather than Sunni personal law. Observers credit the developing situation in Iraq.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Paper Time

So which is worse, writing a paper, or grading them? Fortunately I'm not involved in either activity this semester, though there are times when dissertation activity slows to a crawl.

By the way, I apologize for the lack of substantive posts lately - I've been distracted with other things, and the news I tend to blog about seems slow, anyway.

Close to Home...

Had I not decided to fly into Gibraltar, I probably would have taken a Spanish train like those hit in this terrorist attack. My thoughts and sympathies go out to the victims and their families.

UPDATE: Al-Qaeda and the ETA have emerged as suspects. This would be a serious shift in ETA tactics, but the Spanish authorities say they have been expecting something of the kind. Someone claiming to represent al-Qaeda has claimed credit, and a tape with Qur'anic verses were found in a van with detonators.

UPDATE: Via Pejman Yousefzadeh, Iberian Notes is all over the story. My mother has also noticed the facts in the original post above.

Triangle Point

This is a picture of the scene I described here, where Israel, Jordan, and Syria all meet. The Golan Heights is off the picture to the left, and you would actually have to turn a bit to see them. The river is the Yarmouk, which provides water to both Jordan and Israel, and next to it is the road. You see the crocodile farm where the water is, and I'm guessing the building near that is the abandoned mosque I described. I'm pretty sure the barbed-wire fence at lower left is the border between Jordan and Israel. At the very least, there were some telephone or electric lines running overhead, and the professor showing us this was emphatic about not going past them by even a step.

UPDATE: Incidentally, one of the complaints Jordanians voiced about Israel was its intensive consumption of the region's scarce water supplies. I've read elsewhere that immigrants to Israel frequently try to pursue the same sorts of industry and agriculture they did in other places. In this picture, the crocodile farm looks like it uses just a bit of water. I have not, however, investigated this in detail.

Place Names

One of the major intersections in Rabat is the "Place Abraham Lincoln." I wonder where it got that name?

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Travels in Uzbekistan

In keeping with the recent travel-related posts on this blog, here's Nathan Hamm's memories of Uzbekistan, where the Hare Krishnas are now being persecuted as terrorists.

I have now booked plane tickets to Gibraltar, and have a ferry reservation from there to Tangier. Can't wait...

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

"The Islamic World"

Matthew Yglesias, who is now accepting advertising, has a post that would make my advisor proud:

"Speaking of which 'Islamic world' is, in my opinion, a really poor way to denote that swathe of the world the majority of whose inhabitants are at least nominally Muslim. That locutions been critiqued often -- by, mostly I think, intellectuals from the region in question -- and on solid grounds. Nevertheless, it does seem to be the sort of entity to which one needs to refer at times. Something better would be . . . ?"

Ahh, yes. I think we've discussed this in every graduate seminar I've taken. In order to understand why "Islamic world" has more currency than "Christian world," you have to look at the history of the field. As described by Albert Hourani in "Islam in European Thought," back in the 1800's, scholars believed each civilization had certain core characteristics that made it great. The greatness of the medieval Middle East was in religion, or so they thought, and since the term "Islamic civilization" stuck.

This fell out of favor in the late 20th century. Classical orientalism tended to reify and essentialize its subject, so that Islam became perceived as some vast timeless whole with all the parts having "Islam" as their most important characteristic. For example, when A.S. Tritton went to study religious minorities in the Islamic world, he started off looking at some medieval texts, then moved on to descriptions of random events continually talking about how "the Muslim spirit" was causing this, that, and the other thing. Especially after the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, however, scholars challenged these approaches, and under the influence of all the much-maligned "theory" of the 1970's and later, came to see texts as social products affected by economics, politics, and other factors.

Terms like "Islamic world" then fell out of favor as reminiscent of the old approach of seeing Islam as the major explanatory factor. Instead, we saw scholars focusing more clearly on, say, 13th century Egypt, or 20th century Iran, and not seeking to generalize to a broader framework. In my master's thesis, I looked specifically at relations between Copts and Muslims in early 13th century Egypt, and found lots of social, economic, and political causes for things even when they were described in religious terms. Those who continued to generalize, such as Bernard Lewis, were seen as old-fashioned, and even then it is instructive that in the early 1980's he wrote The Jews of Islam, but in the early 1990's it was Race and Slavery in the Middle East.

Now, however, we're seeing a resurgence of the term "Islamic world" mainly by scholars who wish to look at phenomena related to global Islam. Dale Eickelman perhaps fits into this category - his book Muslim Politics includes Muslims from Nigeria to Iran to Britain, but his The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach includes Islam as only one topic discussed among such things as family and tribal organization. Finding another term is difficult - Marshall Hodgson suggested "Islamicate" and "Islamdom," but these never really caught on. Really, the only commonality among Indonesia, Senegal, and Chechnya is religion, and the fact that people in both Mali and Malaysia want to study at Al-Azhar in Egypt shows that this in fact a tie. Robbed of its essentializing qualities, I don't see a problem with "Islamic world" in certain contexts, as long as people remain on guard that there are a large number of other factors at work throughout it.

(Note: Larger-scale works such as Lewis's The Middle East or Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples certainly remain useful. What I'm referring to in the penultimate paragraph is mainly a style of analysis.)

Israeli Arab Pioneers

Jonathan Edelstein has an interesting post on the Arab members of the first Knesset. I've often thought the Israeli Arabs were in a somewhat troubling social position, as simply by existing, they get to be part of the "demographic threat" to the existence of the state which has their loyalties. Other nations have similar issues, but not to the same degree: The French majority in France is unlikely to be seriously threatened anytime soon. Still, they do have rights and privileges as citizens, and I suspect that if there were ever a final status agreement they would play an important role in the rest of the Arab world.


This day care attack was very close to campus.

Al-Qaeda in Algeria

The AP is reporting that an Islamist group in Algeria could be a dangerous new al-Qaeda affiliate. In my opinion, these sorts of connections with regional groups make al-Qaeda even more dangerous, as a terrorist pooling of resources and specialized knowledge will increase efficiency as much as comparable corporate phenomena. This one seems especially troubling, as Algeria still isn't the most stable place in North Africa, and I'm sure illegal stuff could go on in the Sahara Desert.

Hamas and the Pull-Out

Hamas military leader Muhammad Daif is ready to take credit for driving the Israelis out of Gaza. This is the risk Israel runs by taking these sorts of unilateral actions. In the end, however, I believe Palestinian militants would take credit for any eventual withdrawal, or even a negotiation, and efforts to simply eliminate terrorism never work, so I don't think that's really a valid reason for staying there.

Middle East Studies

New York University's Zachary Lockman has a detailed look at some of the policy debate surrounding Middle East Studies. Juan Cole has also posted on his concerns with the proposed Title VI advisory board. My own stands on these issues will be well known to regular readers, but here's something I want to pluck out of the Juan Cole post:

"As Stanley Fish has said, university teaching and research is not about 'balance.' Our cancer institute isn't required to hire at least a few biologists who believe smoking is good for your health. In research, it is all right to be partisan for the evidence. It is in fact one of the things wrong with journalism and political discourse that there is so much emphasis on 'telling both sides of the story.' This is a bad approach because many stories have many more than two sides, and some stories only have one true side. Appointing a professor at each major university who would have insisted in early 2003 that Iraq was only 3-5 years away from having a nuclear bomb would not have been an academic advance, but it is the sort of thing the framers of HR 3077 had in mind when they urged 'balance.'"

It occurs to me that some of this debate goes straight to the heart of current discussions on the relationship between the academy and civil society. Part of this is salesmanship. In Middle East Studies, for example, there's a solif case to be made for the importance of gender studies despite its low reputation in right wing circles. After all, one of the major wedge issues Islamists use to advance their agenda is the role of women in society. But beyond that, the fact that the argument that Middle East Studies should be judged solely on the basis of its relationship with national security objectives has such resonance is interesting food for thought.

Libertarian Leanings

I have just scored a 12 out of 160 on the Libertarian purity test. I guess this means I will not be voting Libertarian in the upcoming Presidential election.

Monday, March 08, 2004


The man who carried the banner of the Basran Azd at the Battle of the Camel was Amr b. al-Ashraf al-Ataki. This according to Abu Mikhnaf of the Azd Sarat, with a very strong isnad, as recorded in Tabari on page 3203 of Volume I in the Leiden edition. This interests me because the Ataki were of the Azd Uman, and hadn't officially moved to Basra at the time. However, in the context of a dissertation which seeks in part to examine trade relationships involving the Azd, an Omani in Basra is quite useful.

(Yes, I've been working on my dissertation all day.)

Arabian Water Problems

Saudi Arabia may be running out of water, according to a Gulf News staff reporter. The culprit seems to be government programs to settle the nomadic Bedouin tribes into agricultural lifestyles that use water for irrigation. They've actually tried to limit agriculture in recent years to save water, but to no avail. I'm not sure how bad this problem is, but unless the Saudi economy becomes diversified, they could be in real trouble. Of course, we knew that already...

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Around Umm Qais...

I totally can't wait to be off for Morocco in a few months. I haven't been outside the country except for a brief vacation in Canada since 2001. There's so much to see, so many people to meet, and so much to be learned about them. Just last night I was talking to a friend about my hopes to possibly duck into Western Sahara. When I was in Jordan, I sent back e-mails to my friends discussing my observations and experiences, something I hope to repeat this summer on this blog. The post from last weekend about the kids learning English in Aleppo was excerpted from these, which I've been glancing at to tide me over. Anyway, here's another about our group trip to Umm Qays, on which we also saw the point at which Jordan, Israel and Syria all meet...

"To really understand a lot of this stuff, however, you need to leave Irbid behind and travel northwest, into the hills adjacent to the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee. This is the breadbasket of Jordan, where fields are fertile (by Middle Eastern standards), the heart of Jordanian olive country, where, I am told, a row of about a dozen or so trees can get those lucky enough to farm them about $50,000 a year. Here along the roads are numerous small towns where children play around in the streets, and where a bus will have to go around a farmer driving goats or donkeys in front of it, a large wedding party conveying the groom to the bride's house, and where every so often you have to stop at a Jordanian military checkpoint, or at least slow until they wave you past.

"A good view of the area can be had from the small town of Umm Qais. Here there is a new, modern town covering most of a hillside, with the minarets of the mosques reaching skyward and streets buzzing with the sounds of human habitation. The place you will stop, however, is one hill over, in the old city, now abandoned to make room for archeological excavations of the ancient Roman city of Gadara which lies beneath. Gadara was founded sometime in the first millennium BCE, one of the cities of the Decapolis with Arbila, Damascus, Gerasa, Philadelphia, etc. Its streets, still paved with the original Roman stones complete with wagon ruts, preserve the record of the city's ages, through the days of the Roman gods to the time of Christianity and a Byzantine Church to the days of the Umayyads, before the city was destroyed by a great earthquake in 749. Thereafter the site lay deserted until, I believe, Ottoman times, when the village of Umm Qais was founded on its ruins, with the pieces of Gadara being used by its inhabitants in the construction of their new dwellings.

"Today Umm Qais looks and feels like a ghost town, preserving the small, dark-colored oblong buildings of the Arab townspeople who were moved into the new town much earlier this century. On its streets, built with occasional steps in an age before automobiles, one can feel back in time to the days when the carts and donkeys and merchants and farmers went here about their business, actors of one great civilization carrying out their activities in the shadow of another and atop its ruins. The city of Gadara, too, borrows some of this feel, and although it is not as intact as either the Arab village or Gerasa to the South, it, too had life one can sense strolling casually down the main thoroughfare on a quiet Friday morning, taking in the feel of this place most known today for the Chrisitian story of a demon called Legion and a herd of swine. And even this city still has a bit of lived-in feel to it, as a family from somewhere around here comes to picnic in the ampitheater and a few children run around a street which we think used to be a marketplace.

"Overlooking these treasures is a small restaurant where someone - I forget who - bought us all tea and coffee. This restaurant has an outside terrace from which one can see beyond the hills over to the Sea of Galilee, of which about 25% is visible on a good day, peeking out behind the Golan Heights in a hazy mist of blue against the green land all around. A closer view of this is necessary to bring out the things I'm eventually going to bring out; this can be obtained by taking the road down from Umm Qais to a nearby spot far below sea level from which this perhaps hottest of hotspots can be seen in greater detail.

"Imagine if you will, a large valley shaped like a wedge falling away at your feet. In the distance across the valley is the Golan Heights, which appears to be essentially a large pile of dirt with a Syrian observation post seen dimly in the distance. Bisecting this valley as it flows out of Syria to join the Jordan just below the Sea of Galilee is the Yarmouk River, which near the mouth looks like Emory Creek during a flood. Next to this river is a road lined on one side by a barbed-wire fence, with sand along the curb; this fence is the Israeli border, and the Israelis run daily patrols to make sure the sand has not been disturbed, a sign that someone has crossed illegally.

"Crossing this river and road is an old railroad bridge of the Hejazi line connecting Istanbul and Mecca; this was frequently attacked by the Hashemites and Lawrence of Arabia during World War I. Today it cuts through a no-man's land passing next to a hill upon which is a small round building which may hold about three people; this is an Israeli observation post; a slightly larger one is just up the hill. Just below your feet is a road where a Jordanian soldier walks his rounds near a Jordanian observation post. In the no-man's land are a few farms, the owners of which must each day pass through a series of military checkpoints before tending their fields.

"Somewhat further away, perhaps approaching the open end of the wedge's V, is a series of swamplike pools and plush green patches next to a white mosque. This is a crocodile farm located right at the edge of Israeli territory; the mosque now serves the farm as a storage facility. Just beyond the farm is a small grove of trees; somewhere in these trees is the triangle point at which Jordan, Syria, and Israel all meet. This somewhat surreal place holds the keys to some of the key aspects of our lives in Jordan. The Yarmouk River is divided by a dam; as the river flows into the Jordan half its water is destined to provide for northern Israel; after the 1994 peace treaty the other half was diverted into a cement-sided channel to northern Jordan. That's not a lot of water to go around. And the Golan Heights is the place where two days ago the Israelis sent in the tanks, adding a bit more force to one of the only borders in the world where two armies face each other, always on alert to resume on the ground the war that still exists on paper. "

Illegal Tea

It looks like opium isn't the only thing being smuggled in Afghanistan. It sounds like the border guards tend to look the other way, which is probably a good thing. This also reminds me of an amusing vignette from my Jordan-Syria trip: When we were in Damascus, we decided to take a shared taxi back to Irbid, Jordan, where we were living, but the first few drivers we found were a bit reluctant to take what we felt was an appropriate fare. One of the drivers, however, had "a friend" who might be interested, and in fact was. There followed many incidents which need not detain us here. However, when we got to the border town of Dara'a, our driver began buying watermelons to smuggle across the border, where everything was more expensive. The trick was that tourists could transport such items, but locals couldn't. Anyway, we reached the border crossing with "our" watermelons, not sure what to make of the situation in which we found ourselves. However, in one of the great amusing moments of the trip, I looked around at all the other cars being inspected in front of us, and almost without exception the border guards were discovering watermelons in the trunk.

Parents and Education

This commentary from a disgruntled high school teacher who has had bad experiences with parents reminded me of this Matthew Yglesias post on school vouchers questioning whether more parental control would actually lead to better education. Unlike the "Irascible Professor" poster, I attribute this more to some parents' conception of how best to prepare for the college admissions game or their own kids' perfection than the "self esteem movement," but the point is the same. As one of my undergraduate English professors said, "An education is the only thing we pay through the nose for and then try to avoid getting." Too often, that goes for more than just the students, something the anti-teacher forces in society might want to keep in mind.

Thanks Kristin!

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Lectures and Discussions

Invisible Adjunct has an interesting thread on the relative merits of lectures and discussions in college education. On the issue of whether lecturing is teaching, I'd definitely argue that it is. When preparing a lecture, you try to package information in a way that students will best understand and retain it by means of such devices as analogies, examples, and organization. This is, I believe, something that requires skill, and, at best, an ability to think on your feet and read your audience to pitch your performance accordingly.

That said, I am a strong proponent of discussions. For one thing, in the vast majority of lecture classes I've been in, the content of the lecture has really been little more than the content of the reading in different packaging. (This is probably less true in fields that have yet to develop a strong range of readings suitable for college students.) Granted, that packaging is often interesting, but that's still a lot of what we're talking about. In addition, I think there are three points that speak to why I consider discussions the real core of a liberal arts education.

First of all, at least in history, there are often many possible views or approaches to something. One of the most interesting assignments I did as an undergraduate was in Dr. David Costigan's Civil War class when we had to go find out what certain historians said about why the North won. We then got to class and discussed the different ideas. Sure, Dr. Costigan was more qualified than us to decide which was the best, but we had read articles in which each was defended by a reputable historian more eminent than he was, so would we really have been better off just listening to his view? Some say that we need to just give students something to go on before they get to more complicated questions, but then I say, "Why?" As one of the IA commenters pointed out, research shows clearly that people learn material better if they have to process it in some fashion, and I'm quite convinced that the average undergraduate is capable of more than the average university currently asks of them.

Second, is our goal as liberal arts educators to produce students filled with knowledge simply for the sake of being learned, or do we aspire to have them use this knowledge as part of an educated society? I believe it's not enough to know about Reconstruction. I think you can also get students engaged in the process of discussing such questions as the nature of the relationship between the states and the federal government. One key role of discussion sections is to try to set up a habit of exchanging ideas based on the knowledge gained in lectures and readings. Ideally, of course, this helps them become better thinkers, makes them learn to consider and stand up for their ideas when necessary, and accomplishes other goals which I think are valuable for a member of society.

Finally, in addition to course content, educators usually aspire to pass along a skill set that is almost always best done in discussion. I have spent three semesters as a TA doing discussion sections and one as a lecturer in my own course doing both lectures and discussions. In my own course, one of the readings was Karen Armstrong's Muhammad, one I chose in part because its presentation sets up interesting questions about why books are written and how purpose and intended audience affects the contents. This sets up some ideas about critical reading which I felt were best addressed via class discussion. Students also need to learn about primary sources and what historians do with them. Several times in discussion I've divided the class into small groups, given each a source to analyze, and had each group give their comments on the source to the class as a whole. This allows both for better teaching, as I can go around and get a chance to work with each group on their skill development, and more coverage, as, say, during a given week students get a chance to at least here an analysis of a fatwa on reproduction, waqf deed by a woman, and whatever the other two sources were.

The IA comments thread brings out a lot of the common arguments against discussions. One is that students don't do the preparation. To me, this is a problem to be solved rather than a reality to be accepted. At my undergraduate school, history professors would often make us write short papers on the readings in which we had to discuss the author's point and the evidence used to make it. Through these papers (originally done at QU by the above-mentioned Dr. Costigan), I basically learned to become a historian, and even were that not my interest would have become a better consumer of news accounts and who knows what else. Things like this can at least bring everyone's reading habits up to the level where serious discussion is possible. As far as good students having to listen to everyone else, I have yet to have (or be) a student who couldn't have learned something from their peers. Finally, on the problem of students who just participate a little because they have to, I'm convinced the same thing happens in lecture, and we just don't notice as much. Try canvassing a class for memories of a lecture from the week before, and you'll usually find students paying only enough attention to jot everything down in preparation for cramming the night before the exam, after which it will promptly be forgotten.

This, at least, is my take. Some students like it, some don't. At QU, my friends and I definitely preferred discussion to lecture; at UW, I've seen letters in the student newspaper complain about people asking too many questions in lecture when others are paying to hear the words of the Great Authority. For what it's worth, many students indicated to me they thought discussion was a strength of the course I lectured in, though I've definitely presided over discussion sections that failed miserably. Here again, though, I'm sure I've also given worthless lectures I just didn't see failing because there was so little interaction. Ultimately, either lecture or discussion formats can succeed or fail. It's all in your strengths as a professor and the chemistry of individual classes.

ADDENDUM: The course I lectured in was a 200-level course which was about half freshmen and the rest an equal mix of sophomores - seniors. I disagree that discussions are primarily for advanced classes. In fact, I think it important to introduce basic habits and skills as early as possible.

Central Asian Stuff

Those interested in following Central Asia might want to check out The Argus. Judging from some of his comments about "Leftists," we probably disagree on a lot of policy, but then, that's half the fun!


Last night before going to bed, I saw a Yahoo headling which said something like, "Shi'ites Refuse to Sign Interim Constitution." (probably slightly paraphrased) Today, I see from Juan Cole that five if the thirteen Shi'ites have refused to sign the document. Now, see, that headline, while still literally accurate, could have been more clearly written. Still, this is bad news. Also, should we go ahead and interpret Chalabi's siding with the Islamists as another sign of his opportunism?

Friday, March 05, 2004

Old Testament History

Via Gnostical Turpitude, I find this column which contains the following two paragraphs:

"Once in the 'land,' of course, the People forsook God's promise, and went after strange gods. Eventually, after generations of battling with God and forsaking his laws, they were driven again into exile only to return to a ruined Sion, chastened from the rivers of Babylon. All this makes sense as a story of how we lead our inner battles with the Good. It bears rather less relation to actual history than does, say Malory's Morte D'Arthur, to the actual history of the British Isles...

"There is no archaeological evidence for Jerusalem being a City of the legendary David or for Solomon having built a Temple, any more than there is for King Arthur's Camelot. That simply isn't the sort of book the Bible is. Very few Jews ever thought it was, incidentally, until outer political circumstances in Russia and later Germany changed the desire for a Jewish homeland from a romantic dream of the few into a matter of dire urgency for the many."

Unless this author has some rather unconventional views of King Arthur, I'm assuming this puts him in the rejectionist school with regard to the general outline of ancient Israeli history as told in the books Christians consider the Old Testament and Jews the Tanak. This view tends to get a lot of play in the media because it appeals to simply put questions like "Is the Bible true?" However, this is really not the way matters are viewed by most scholars, and often the people reading and writing the news stories fail to appreciate the nature of historical methods when dealing with the complex sources of ancient history.

Earlier this semester, I was reading the pre-Islamic sections of at-Tabari's History, which began with accounts of religious figures such as Abraham and legendary ancestors of Arab tribes, becoming more and more reliable as it reaches Muhammad's lifetime. The stories of ancient Israel contained in the Old Testament follow a similar pattern. The account of Jacob and his sons becoming the twelve tribes of Israel bears a definite structural resemblance to Malik Ibn Fahm and his sons becoming the Arab tribes in pre-Islamic Oman, and while we may accept the lessons of anthropology is assuming their exploits to be largely enlivened accounts of collective tribal wanderings, we can still perhaps learn from them the controversies for which the Arabs remembered them as evidence or the deeds considered significant to the tellers of the tales, and we can even note that the bursting to the Ma'rib dam that started their wandering appears to be a real event, even if its use as the cause here is questionable.

In looking at the sources for the "kingdom" period of Israel's history, we find plenty to occupy our minds. Certainly by the standards of ancient history the scholar of Israel is in reasonably good shape, as the people involved had a record which they believed faithfully recorded their past. And although the form in which we have this record now dates from post-exilic times, evidence suggests the material itself is much older. Genesis reveals traces of an impure monotheism, such as the use of the plural "Elohim" by one of the traditions within it. This is not something that would have been simply invented in later Judaism, and suggests the survival of traditions from a very early period.

Skipping ahead to the kingdom, the books of Samuel reveal two voices, one supporting a monarchy, the other not. Most scholars feel this reflects an early ambiguity about whether there should have been a king as opposed to judges, but I suppose it could also have reflected a post-exilic debate over a possible monarchy. Still, if the latter is true, it is significant that both interpretations agree on the existence of kings with certain names rather than having the anti-monarchic school deny the existence of kings itself. It actually seems difficult to deny the existence of kingdoms at all, certainly, as there were allegedly people who made the return from captivity who remembered its beginning. Keep in mind the fact that somebody had to be ruling that territory, and archaeology points to the strong central authority of a kingdom. The fact the kings of Israel interacted with people whose historicity we know suggests a certain reliability to the tradition, as well.

As a historian, I am very wary about using the lack of archaeological evidence to prove a negative. This Jonathan Edelstein post links to evidence that finally turned up about East Africa when people had previously assumed there was none. The case in this article seems especially unconvincing. First of all, I've said I find the existing historical tradition fairly convincing, at least in its later stages, and the very last chapter of II Kings talks about a king and a temple in Jerusalem. (Make no mistake here: When people mean they find no evidence of Solomon's temple, they're saying there's nothing for a temple in the kingdom period.) Furthermore, the temple is not just a building project of an early model ruler, but the centerpiece of the late Davidic monarchy's religio-political ideology. (This of course makes the treatment of Solomon especially interesting, because he is protrayed as building other temples, something which does not appear in the pious Chronicler's History which includes the book of Ezra.) In this light, it seems very easy to suggest that either the temple's remains haven't been found yet, the original destruction of the temple was complete, or the builders of the temple under Ezra simply cleared the ground before building their temple on the same site.

As far as a city being in Jerusalem during that period, I've poked around and confirmed the lack of artifacts for the "United Monarchy" period of Jerusalem's history. However, there clearly was a city there for most of the second millennium BCE, as well as for the first millennium BCE. Even the books of Samuel confirm this when they claim David conquered the city from the Jebusites. Believing the city did not exist c. 1000 BC requires you to belief that its rather strategic spot went unoccupied for a short period of time just when there appears to have been a burst of building elsewhere, such as at Megiddo. And it is, incidentally, this burst of building which causes scholars to believe that at least something was happening in Israel during that period.

All this is not to say that the history of Israel recorded in the Bible is proven. I actually have no firm idea if there was a Solomon, but I believe the odds are that there was. Even then, though, there's nothing that says he actually did all the things he is credited with. Often a magnificient court or city will become even more magnificient in lore as it fades from memory. According to Dr. Morgan, Iranian lore credits the very historical Khusrau II with all sorts of magnificient projects, when in reality many of these belong to other periods. Tabari attributes a very high level of prosperity to the Lakhmid capital of al-Hira, when in reality Persian records paint a somewhat more modest picture. On the other hand, Solomon, David, and Co. could be the Hebrew equivalent of the mythical early kings of Persia or China.

But that is just the way ancient history works, and very seldom is anything actually proven. In Egypt, for example, people assume the monuments prove everything, but IIRC, the names on the monuments frequently don't match those of the pharaohs listed in Manetho, the Ptolemaic historian whose work provides the basic framework within which things are written. I believe Sheshonk I is actually dated on the belief that he is Shishak from 1 Kings, and the theory is that his listed conquests don't include Jerusalem due to damage. (Or there's the Jerusalem didn't exist theory, which is still possible.) There's a reason I didn't go into ancient history: When I look too closely at the edifice of its chronology, it seems like if I blow too hard, the whole thing will collapse. Which means in a sense that anything is possible, and we need to just take our best guess rather than hold out for non-existent proof.

One more thing that a couple of lines in the article linked to brings to mind: I have in the past said that the political contentiousness of Israeli history makes me stay close to the established academic historians, and that goes for the entire history of Israel. I wish to say explicitly that what I am about to say is not meant to refer to the author of this article, whose political views I know nothing about, and who seems to be a serious student of Judeo-Christian history who has written reasonable books on the subject. I also note that my own views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tend to favor the Palestinians, despite my current inclination that the Israeli left is the force that should pragmatically be catered to as most likely to end the conflict. But I have in the past encountered evidence that suggests some are interested in assaulting the traditional core of ancient Israeli history to serve political purposes. I mean this mainly for people who will discover this post via google: Be careful with what you're looking at. If, for example, Jerusalem wasn't really the "City of David" and there was no temple there, that has definite repercussions for the debate over Jerusalem's present status. The same goes for arguments which might seem to question Israel's right to exist in the present by questioning whether it ever truly existed in the past. Again, I'm not trying to charge anyone with this, but rather just send out a cautionary note about some of the agendas that float through the "real world."

UPDATE: I just remembered hearing somewhere that Omri is known from Assyrian sources. Unfortunately, I don't remember where.

UPDATE: This religious site goes into the evidence supporting the existence of the early monarchies. I don't agree with all the implications the site does, and it stays with the "Is the Bible true?" framework, but some of the points are very strong. And once you grant existence to the likes of Omri and Ahab, it becomes very tough to continue to doubt the temple.

Urdu Blogging

If anyone's interested, Zack Ajmal has some stuff up about how to blog in Urdu. It looks applicable to other Arabic-alphabet languages, as well.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Zarqawi and the War on Terror

Josh Marshall has a good analysis of this story alleging that the Bush administration decided against taking out Zarqawi and his Ansar al-Islam organization before the war so as to concentrate on the Iraq invasion. I think the sources saying that Bush wanted to use Zarqawi as anti-Saddam propaganda are right. As Marshall notes, of course, Zarqawi was actually operating from the Kurdish territory, so his presence in the geographic area of Iraq really meant nothing.

The situation involving Zarqawi looks more ominous, though, when seen in the context of this article on the reach of his terrorist organization and the changing nature of the War on Terror. It supports ideas I've been touting for some time, portraying the rise of a number of strong regional terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda, of which Ansar al-Islam is one. I believe this transformation took place during the period when we switched our focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, and furthermore that Zarqawi hopes for a failed state in Iraq in which terrorist groups can fester. Fortunately, as noted yesterday, I still see hope that Iraq will turn out okay, if all the cards fall properly regarding contentious issues and the general sentiment for continued unity in the face of such attacks.

However, I don't think Bush comes off well in all this under any circumstances. I already believe our Iraq campaign hurt our efforts against terrorism. Now, there is evidence that Bush essentially ensured the survival of a terrorist group to use as a propaganda tool for that Iraq war, a terrorist group which is now a greater danger than before because he mismanaged the aftermath. Tell me again why the Democrats have to prove they can be trusted to defend the nation?

Middle East Medievalists

I am now a member of the Middle East Medievalists. I am not yet a member of the Middle East Studies Association, though, because they want too much money and I already get to see the journal at the office. But medievalists have the best parties, anyway. Just go to the big Kalamazoo conference and see what people are really interested in.

Harry Potter Stuff

The Leaky Cauldron has the transcript of a World Book Day chat with J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter fans will find it interesting. There are no real spoilers, but there are teasers. She also refused to rule out writing about the adult Harry at some point in the future.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Ashura in Hasa

Lost in yesterday's tragedies in Iraq was the celebration of Ashura in Saudi Arabia's largely Shi'ite al-Hasa region. I generally think that attempts to tie every move toward freedom in the Arab world to the Iraq war are ill-founded, but in this case I think the two are probably related. The Saudis don't want to risk Shi'ite unrest should the people of al-Hasa perceive too great a gap between their own freedoms and what they see happening on TV to their north. In addition, I suspect that Crown Prince Abdullah is fostering relationships among Shi'ites for use in royal political intirgues.

Great Sign in Iraq

This Juan Cole post makes me feel a lot better about Iraq's future than I have for some time. One of the possible scenarios, and one I was coming to fear, was a sectarian civil war. According to Cole, however, Sunnis responded with an outpouring of support for the Shi'ites after yesterday's bombing, which can only be considered a good sign. Yesterday on NPR Cole talked about the strength of Iraqi nationalism as opposed to sectarianism, and when famous historian of Iraq Peter Sluglett was on campus last October, he talked about how many Iraqis felt more tied to social or professional organizations than religious ones, and actually feared that the coalition would force people into confessional categories. Nothing would please me more than to see ineffective terrorist violence serve to unite people, thus staving off possible sectarian violence.

Dean Wins Vermont

Howard Dean got a much-deserved triumph yesterday from the people who know him best. The margin was convincing, to say the least. Way to go!

Tuesday, March 02, 2004


Want to know what's been going on in Turkmenistan lately? Now you can check out The Blogmenbashi. Keep in mind that it is not Onion reporting. Turkmenbashi really does this stuff. Here's a sample:

"Speaking on behalf of Machtumkul - the Organization of Youth, the heir to the defunct Komsomol (the youth training wing of the communist party)- Jennetgul Pir Mohammedova has published an article in "Neutral Turkmenistan", the only legal newspaper in the country. In it she demonstrates that Niyazov, who was already calling himself Turkmenbashi - the Ruler of All the Turkmens- when he was a communist satrap, deserves to be recognized as a new prophet. "We ought to do this as a mark of respect for the great things he has done for the country, his far-sighted national policy and his incalculable role in educating its youth", wrote Jennetgul Pir Mohammedova."

Via Ideofact.

Kazakh Oil

Exciting things are afoot in Kazakhstan, even ahead of the arrival of famous bloggers with quick facts on the country. The nation's potentially vast oil industry is on the move, with serious movement toward a deal on a pipeline through China, as well as a Kazakh connection to the pipeline through the Caucuses and across Turkey. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was in Kazakhstan yesterday signing agreements on the latter.

The portrayal of Kazakhstan as a new Saudi Arabia may be a bit far-fetched for the immediate future, but the development of Central Asia's oil and natural gas reserves is one of the largest geopolitical issues of our time. Under President Clinton, Afghanistan policy was affected by pressure from both feminist groups opposed to the Taliban and oil companies which required stability to potentially build a southern pipeline, and American diplomats worked feverishly to prevent a pipeline from being built through Iran linking Central Asia with the Persian Gulf. The cynic in me also couldn't help but notice that 2000 saw the beginning of a trans-Balkan pipeline made possible by the Kosovo campaign aimed at linking up with Central Asia via the Black Sea.

Closely connected to this is China's growing demands for oil. The same cynic in me noted above wondered if Chinese opposition to a Western pipeline for Central Asian oil played into its vehement opposition to the Kosovo campaign, and whether Turkey's concern to help its fellow Muslims might have been affected by the desire to make one happen. (I don't know the current status of all that.) Now, it looks like Kazakhstan can supply a lot of China's oil needs, but had they not, another possibility was the Persian Gulf states, and I remember before the Iraq war reading on some report or other that the administration was concerned to get strategic control of the Persian Gulf as possible leverage in a global chess game with China, which IIRC was the major Bush foreign policy initiative before September 11. (Chinese berets, anyone?) Finally, most Kazakh oil now flows through Russia via old Soviet pipelines, and I doubt Kazakhstan's development of other options makes Russia terribly happy.

Bad Iraq News

Well over 100 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Baghdad and Karbala. The victims were Shi'ites worshipping on Ashura, the holiest distinctively Shi'ite day of the year, and U.S. and IGC officials are blaming Abu Musab az-Zarqawi. Shi'ites on the street, however, are quoted as blaming the United States.

UPDATE: JB has a quote that is stunningly appropriate. For more on Ashura, click here.

Good Iraq News

Tacitus has a round up of good news out of Iraq. It's hard to argue with the fact the trajectory there right now is good. Let's just hope it keeps up.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Casimir Pulaski Day

To all the people of Illinois, permit me to wish you a Happy Casimir Pulaski Day! Please celebrate by following this link. (Pulaski was actually Polish and had no connections to Hungary whatsover, but I haven't seen any good Poland pictures, and it's a really cool image.)

Women in Herat

The situation for women in western Afghanistan is driving many to self-immolation. This is especially common among women who had previously lived as refugees in Iran, where the women's rights situation is much better. This is just another bit of evidence that all the rhetoric about how we helped Afghanistan's women applies mainly to Kabul.

Iraq's Interim Constitution

I think Juan Cole is right to be cynical about the the new Iraqi consitution. At the same time, though, a document like this is an important first step in setting up a workable legal framework, and it's entirely possible that Iraqis will find they like the compromises it contains and decide to keep them once the permanent document is drafted next year. Based on the description here, I'm wondering about the relationship among the President and Vice Presidents and how the goal for women's representation in Parliament will be achieved. Finally, there's the question of whether the government will live up to its bill of rights - one notes, for example, that at least the Yahoo story does not list freedom of the press among the rights given, something consistent with the IGC's behavior towards the Arab satellite channels. I'll try to look into some of these matters once I have more time.

Lord of the Rings

Pejman Yousefzadeh has a nice paean to the Lord of the Rings films, arguing that all three should have won Oscars. I don't see enough movies to have an opinion, but think that if they really did form one giant movie with year-long intermissions, one "Best Picture" is enough =)

UPDATE: See also Ed Cohn's post about good and evil in The Lord of the Rings.

Blog Readers

Matthew Yglesias posts about the raw numbers of blog readers, and how they are higher than for many academic journals. A point about that, however - academic journals have a large number of readers who aren't subscribers in the form of people using individual articles in the library as part of their research. The blogging equivalent to this is probably google hits, which do show up on a total traffic count.

Egyptian Vagina Monologues

Via Angry Arab, I see the Vagina Monologues has been performed in Cairo. An ad hoc women's group at AU-Cairo put it on, with proceeds going to start a women's shelter. In a sign of how controversial it was, a sign was posted outside stating that the university was not connected to the performance, which was also not advertised.

Looking In...

The most recent thing I've learned from a blog is that Purim involves costumes and candy, at least in Israel. Neat. The only thing I knew about the celebration of this holiday before was that it involved cookies.

UPDATE: In addition, Mahmood al-Yousif posts about Ashura in Bahrain. Those interested in contemporary celebration of religion will find it well worth a read.

"The Court of the Caliph al-Muttaqi"

Take in the smoke of this sweet incense, and you inhale
The scorched flesh from threescore towns and villages
Wasted beneath the burning spires of Samarra
And the minarets which daily fill the air with calls of my empty name.
Hear the strumming of the young minstrel
As he sings of the black banners of Khurasan
Sweeping down from the mountains like a dark cloud of vengeance
And setting aright the injustice wrought in God's holy name
Before the coming of shadows
And those who hide within, dabbing their poison on daggertips at the caliph's own table,
And the slave army from beyond the mountains,
Owned by ourselves, but rulers of us, too,
As a horse mad in the desert rules its rider.

To hide within a throne in the City of Peace, I was not born,
Yet broken are the swords of my ancestors,
Softened to dancing girls and this chalice of red wine.
And in my darkness, ghostly revelers on whose clothes stains of the blood of Abu Muslim
Stand as markers, even as the last candles provide a feeble warmth
In the silence, save in my conscience, where already the cold of the grave
Awaits the firm footfalls of my executioner.

This is a poem I wrote over a year ago about an Abbasid caliph from the 10th century who tried to restore the dynasty's real power before being blinded and put to death. It's meant to speak to universal themes, about how we can be trapped by the past from living up to who we want to be. Imagery refers to the black banners of the Abbasid Revolution, which began in Khurasan in the middle of the 8th century, and Samarra, where the Abbasid capital was temporarily moved from Baghdad some decades before al-Muttaqi's brief reign.

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Saudis and Jewish Tourists

This is a clear case of opposition to Israel drifting into anti-Semitism. (And no, it doesn't convince me that all opposition to Israel is anti-Semitic.)

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Kyrgyz vs. Russian

A big issue in Kyrgyzstan right now is a proposed law which would boost Kyrgyz at the expense of Russian. Most of the debate centers around the concerns of the Russian minority and Kyrgyz nationalism, but this article suggests some economic questions, relating the situation of Russian in Kyrgyzstan to French in Morocco. It cites a study in which the decline of French in Morocco led to a decline in earnings among young Moroccans.

In much of the developing world, knowledge of a European language is the key to future economic prosperity. Some of this is due to globalization and the chance to work for a company that does business overseas. In addition, English is required for many jobs where people come into contact with foreigners. When I was in Jordan, for example, I found that although young people having jobs was rare, McDonald's was filled with them because the company required proficiency in English to work with all the tourists who came there. In addition, access to higher education is a huge reason for learning a European language. This vignette from when I was in Aleppo, Syria a few years ago is perhaps instructive:

"In the suq you find merchants with all kinds of wares, from boxes to carpets to food to clothing, generally friendly, usually with at least one son of around 10 and another family member sharing the day's labor. To buy, you have to bargain, though we quickly found a friend of one of the girls who was here last year and who just started giving us the "rock bottom prices" without us having to bother talking him down. His neighbor had a son who was there, kind of a chubby kid in a red T-shirt; while I was waiting on a friend the father asked if I would mind speaking English with him so he could practice, though the kid was generally a less then enthusiastic student since the kid across the hall - apparently the smartest kid in their class, kept snickering at him. Later the father of the smart kid, after shooing the obnoxious kid back into the shop, sent his younger son over, too, and I wound up speaking/teaching English with both of them, with the father of the smart kid sort of hanging out trying to help things along but mostly getting in the way.

"As we were leaving, the father of the first kid thanked me and said that when he inherited the shop from his father, he didn't have a choice in what to do with his life. His son wanted to go to the U.S. to study medicine, and he wanted him to have that choice. This is a common story, I think, throughout the region, as people seeking new opportunity turn toward the language of the land of opportunity. In this part of the Middle East, the United States may function as the hegemonic Western power despised in global politics, but even more relevant to the lives of the people, it symbolizes hope and the future - the dream that going to America will get you a great job, the reality that knowing American English will open more doors than you can possibly imagine, and the media image of the U.S. as a place of unmatched technological prowess. The trade made by people such as these suq merchants, of course, is in the cultural arena - an exposure to American values in place of Arab ones, a straight-up deal of "culture" for "opportunity." It is not my place to evaluate this trade-off, and given the past I'm not sure it's as drastic as liberal intellectuals like to make it (see the Islamization of Western Africa for what I suggest is a similar situation). But it does exist, and forms a real part of the lives and plans of millions of people."

The real issue in the above aeticle isn't bilingualism, but the economic benefits and cultural costs of retaining certains ties with a more powerful neighbor. After all, I haven't heard of Russians worrying about the state of Kyrgyz in their country. And it's still not a issue I'm inclined to judge.

Friday, February 27, 2004

NATO and Uzbekistan

NATO officials were in Tashkent yesterday discussing the possibility of a Partnership-for-Peace training center in Uzbekistan. Maybe it's just me, but if we start allowing states like Uzbekistan to participate in PfP activities, it calls into question the very core of what NATO supposedly stands for.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Meeting the Emir

Uzbek Aid Tax

Uzbekistan, current poster state for American support of dictators, is imposing a 40% tax on foreign humanitarian assistance. David Asednik also has some thoughts. This story certainly validates his point about releasing a political prisoner on the eve of Rumsfeld's visit.

By Comparison...

I should note that virtually all modern historians are more comprehensible than the medieval Kufan scholar Abu Abdullah Sayf b. Umar al-Usayyidi al-Tamimi. I tried to read a passage from him yesterday that was completely opaque; Gautier Juynboll's introduction to the translation indicated I should not feel alone in this sentiment. I'm rapidly developing other reasons to dislike him, too. More on that later, perhaps.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Writing History

Crescat Sententia's Amy Lamboley has a round-up of some recent discussion about the current state of historical writing. For my part, I agree with almost everything that's been said, but can't resist adding a few thoughts of my own.

First, I wonder what the relationship is between the evolution of academic writing about history and the growing association between history and the social sciences. Anthropology, political science, and sociology all provide valuable models through which to understand the past, yet they do so with an often specialized vocabulary and manner of expression which is foreign to mainstream English. Rendering something like "symbolic capital" or "political legitimacy" in a way that remains faithful to the concept which you are trying to apply yet makes clear sense to the average reader is a much more difficult task than simply saying that the government was popular.

Secondly, I'm not convinced that the dearth of readable historical writing really exists. Let's admit that there are no Edward Gibbons among us, but also add that the high cultural preferences of the current age don't lend themselves as well to history. There is still tons of well-written history, perhaps better for the fact it is based on the pain-staking research of armies of scholars who focused on figuring out that narrow topic that allows for another solid paragraph or two in a general work. On my desk right now, for example, is John Keay's India: A History, a highly readable work of the type Schama would love which has in its bibliography books such as Muzaffar Alam's The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab 1707-1748. Theodore Hall Partrick's Traditional Egyptian Christianity probably benefitted greatly from D.P. Little's article "Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Bahri Mamluks" in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Any interested reader would also get a lot out of the "Cambridge Illustrated" histories and "Oxford" histories of different groups all over the world. On my sidebar you see The Oxford History of Islam, edited by Georgetown University's John Esposito and containing chapters by the University of Chicago's Fred Donner, AU-Beirut's Majid Fakhry, Stanford's Ahmad Dallal, and others, all scholars at the top of their field who contributed to this volume because they found it worthwhile. The current director of UW-Madison's Middle East Studies Program, David Morgan, has a wonderfully written (very witty) book called The Mongols, one of a number of such books published by Blackwell Publishers all written by serious scholars.

The average dissertation or monograph will probably always be somewhat difficult to read, simply because it serves a different function than an authoritative book for general readers: Convincing other scholars that your interpretation of the evidence or suggested approach is correct or useful. For my own dissertation, I need to go over why I accept some transmitters of Muslim historical traditions more than others, or why I take the stands I do in historiographical debates so that 1.) Other scholars will see I know what I'm talking about a give me a job teaching students and 2.) Knowledgeable readers will take my ideas and put them into the more well-written works for the general public. Does that mean I'm a scholar writing for other scholars? Probably, but we're to a point in history where we can do that and still make a contribution.

One additional point about broad vs. narrow topics: Back in the Middle Ages, there were people like Ibn Sina who aspired to know all of human knowledge up to that time. Now, no one would dream of that. There's simply too much knowledge floating around. Ira Lapidus can write A History of Islamic Societies after decades of working in the field soaking up knowledge and experience. Those of us on a 5-year dissertation clock must content ourselves with more modest goals. Peter Partner's God of Battles discusses the idea of holy war in religions of Middle Eastern origin from ancient times to the present, yet the "By the Same Author" page begins with The Papal State under Martin V.

So to reiterate, I do agree that there's a lot of really opaque stuff being written by academic historians, and that a lot of this could be better. However, I don't see evidence of a crisis, but rather of a system that works fairly well and advanding historical knowledge, digesting new ideas and discoveries, and feeding that into the public consciousness in a variety of formats. As long as everyone involved can learn from and respect each other's different priorities and approaches, we should be in good shape.

Entering the Library

Here at the University of Wisconsin, one cannot enter Memorial Library without showing a campus ID. I just ran over there to get a book, showed my ID to the ID-checker, and was told I could enter. I then spotted something I wanted to pick up at a stand a few feet away, and stepped over to get it. This took less than 30 seconds. As I began to enter the library, I was stopped and the ID-checker demanded to see my ID before entering. I guess I'm not particularly memorable =)