December 20, 2011

Arab World Diasporas in Historical Perspective - Panel at CCAS Annual Conference, Georgetown University, 2011

In March, I had the privilege to speak on a panel with a group of distinguished historians at Georgetown University. I spoke about my research into Sheikh al-Amin Mazrui and his project of Islamic reform through the Swahili-Arabic newspaper "al-Islah". Here is the full panel:

2011 Symposium - Arabia to Africa: Reassessing the Omani Trade Diaspora in East Africa, 1861-1920 from Georgetown CCAS on Vimeo.

2011 Symposium - Reimagining Communities: Sheikh al-Amin Mazrui, al-Islah and Transnational Arab Muslim Identity in Kenya, 1897- from Georgetown CCAS on Vimeo.

2011 Symposium - Syrian Migrants to the Colonial Philippines, 1880s to 1940s from Georgetown CCAS on Vimeo.

2011 Symposium - A World of Their Own: Algerian Diaspora and the Making of Algerian Nationalism from Georgetown CCAS on Vimeo.


Music in Oman - Panel at CCAS Georgetown University

Music in Oman from Georgetown CCAS on Vimeo.


November 28, 2011

Voyage to Oman and Zanzibar (interactive)

A Voyage to Oman and Zanzibar with Cleveland Plain-Dealer photographer Peggy Turbett


Alesh: "Reveil-The Awakening" via

The Reveil video was filmed throughout the DRC, including Kinshasa, Bukavu, Kikwit. However, the core of the music video was filmed in Baniele, an illegal squatter settlement on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Baniele was built on land that is in a constant state of erosion and where a single electrical wire and a single well supports the entire neighborhood of thousands.

Home to another very politically engaged hip-hop artist known as MC Scotty Kanku, Baniele was chosen as the backdrop for the video because it is so representative of the Congolese struggle and experience. “Filming the video was an incredible experience,” said Nomadic Wax founder Ben Herson, “I was initially concerned that people would be turned off by the camera and large group of people filming, but the response was quite the opposite. Everyone wanted to talk to us: old women, children, and teenagers. They’re all seen in the video. People saw this as a chance to get their word out.”

“The worst of it all is that instead of pulling us out of the rubble /
you leave us all to suffocate. The number of deaths are too high to count/
much to your amazement /
I've plucked up the courage to say it.”
-Alesh, lyrics from ‘Reveil’

Despite the seriousness of the political situation in the DRC, few people outside of the country have a grasp on the issues faced by the Congolese today. “Congolese, as well as the rest of the world, needs to see what is happening here and why,” says Chirwisa. “I believe that music has the potential to create change and open peoples minds. This is exactly what the goal is with this video.


November 20, 2011

Hali Halisi: Rap as Alternative Medium in Tanzania


November 17, 2011

Footage and Interviews from the Zanzibar Revolution

Mainly Babu talking about the meaning of the revolution. Thanks to Dr. Brennan and Dr. Glassman for the link.


October 30, 2011

In Defense of True Religion: A Response to "Universal Validity of All Religions"

A Response to “Universal validity of all religions”
by Nathaniel Mathews

This is meant to be a response to Shaykh Nuh Hah Mim Keller's “On the validity of all religions in the thought of ibn Al-'Arabi and Emir 'Abd al-Qadir: a letter to `Abd al-Matin”. It is not a point-by-point rebuttal, but a recasting of the debate itself. I decided to write such a response after reading and discussing with a number of Muslims about other spiritual paths to truth, and finding out that in many cases Muslims made ignorant claims about other religions without fully understanding them; this despite the fact that these same people would constantly bring attention to how Muslim thought and theology was distorted and misunderstood.

I also feel there has been a lot of abusive language, hostility and fitna directed towards those who claim to be “perennialists” within the Muslim tradition. Those who are inclined can easily find a lot of good web resources on perennialism. The basic belief of perennialists is that all religions have within them a path to the truth that is valid and acceptable. Notice that the perennialists do not believe that all roads lead to the truth. Muslim perennialists remain within the Islamic spiritual tradition and use its resources to work towards higher spiritual truths and common ground with other religions.

Let me begin by speaking of the respect I hold for the teaching of Shaykh Nuh. His commitment and dedication to the path of tasawwuf is evident, as is his erudition in the Islamic sciences. However, I believe that on the issue of the validity of other religions, his evidence is insufficient to support his conclusion. In what follows I will try to show how, using several different avenues of proof. I will be appealing to 1) Human intellect 2) Human humility—i.e. The limited knowledge we possess of the world and 3) The highest values in Islam itself.

Let us first examine what Shaykh Nuh's refutation of the universal validity of other religions rests on. Shaykh Nuh writes, “As for the abrogation of all religions by Islam, many of us know Muslims who believe the opposite of orthodox Islam, perhaps due to a literary and intellectual environment in which any and every notion about this world and the next can be expressed, in which novelty is highly valued, and in which tradition has little authority.” This is essentially an argument from tradition; Shaykh Nuh claims that many of todays Muslims are unfit to judge this issue because they have been too corrupted by an 'anything goes' argument in the West. It is important to note that this is not an argument at all, but a subtle suggestion that those Muslims who hold this belief (perennialism) are really not Muslims at all, or somehow weak in their faith. It is important to note this because the article is filled with such reliance on the unreliability of personal experience.

The arguments of Shaykh Nuh essentially rest on the supposed inability of the average person to question the tradition which was constructed by learned scholars. Again this is a rhetorical strategy designed to weaken the confidence of those who argue by placing them implicitly outside the fold of the learned. Shaykh Nuh writes, “Orthodoxy exists, it is unanimously agreed upon by the scholars of Muslims, and we have conveyed in Nawawi's words above that to believe anything else is unbelief. .. Who else said it before? And if no one did, and everyone else considers it kufr, on what basis should it be accepted?”

Notwithstanding Shaykh Nuh's dismissal, the perennialists understanding of Islam and other religions is quite sophisticated—recognizing that in order obtain the truths of a particular religious path, one had to follow the dicates of its religious law. Their view is hardly anti-orthodox! Yet Shaykh Nuh, arguing from tradition, claims that perennialists are not advancing insights into Islamic spirituality based on spiritual realization, but rather using their personal ideas of Islam as an element to fit into their own private worldview. This argument like the others in the essay, rests on tradition. It asks: “who are these guys to question centuries of scholarship?” Shaykh Nuh, without analyzing their ideas at all, or bothering to quote from them, dismisses them as self-indulgent crackpots. This is hardly a compelling rebuttal! Shaykh Nuh's burning question—who are you to question tradition?—can and should be vigorously answered: “They, like me, were residents of their contemporary reality, with an unprecedented access to knowledge of other religions and the freedom to search and ask questions that was denied to many previous generations. They like me, and like the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) valued spiritual searching free from persecution, exile, imprisonment or execution or dogmatic statements of spiritual reality.

There can be no doubt that orthodoxy exists, and that there is good reason to pay attention to it and to engage with its arguments. But orthodoxy is not the same as Islam, and the guardians of orthodoxy are not necessarily the guardians of Islam. To Shaykh Nuh's question of “why should the universal validity of religions be accepted?” I would argue that in addition to being the most epistemologically compelling position for rational thinkers, it is urgently needed to prevent 1) inflated self conceptions of nationalistic righteousness and 2) The persecution and abuse of minority religious communities in contemporary Muslim countries (Bahai in Pakistan, Shia in Saudia Arabia, Christians in Egypt). In what follows I assume a compelling link between acceptance of different beliefs within a tradition and accepting the validity of other religions. I also assume that tolerance is an inadequate social value for intellectual engagement with the other. By acceptance I mean a basic validation that other religions are the embodied historical practices of other human beings with their own 'truths', and that believers from those religions deserve our respect, love and attention to as great a degree as we would show to a Muslim brother or sister.

The first point needs little introduction. One need only witness the acrimonious infighting of the Companions in the hundred years after the Prophet's death to understand the danger of refusing to coexist in the presence of massive doctrinal disagreements. The second point has also been well-documented, though it is typically either morally dodged as having “nothing to do with Islam” (it has everything to do with a nationalistic view of Islam) or justified because these communities are unbelievers, disloyal or subversive. (the role of modern Western nationalism in contributing to these ideas cannot be underestimated either, a point missed by many "capture the state for Islam" arguments).

Finally, in what follows I want to argue against the idea, perpetuated by Shaykh Nuh, that religions can be divided into hermetically sealed units whereby Islam and Muslims can be easily identitied by correct belief or a laundry list of traits. I want to argue against a prevailing form of religious nationalism all too prevalent in contemporary Islamic discourse. Such nationalism is ultimately self defeating in the struggle for truth and justice. Islam is not a nation oversweeping the globe, but a series of embodied interpretations of the legacy of a prophetic reformer, who saw himself as bringing the monotheistic message to a community previously deprived of revelation.

Islam, if it is truly a universal religion (and not merely some kind of glorified nationalism), cannot elevate to universality every value from its tribal origins (the cultural context which the law and rulings of Prophet Muhammad were largely rooted in). Islam, if it is to be universal, cannot be a tribe or nation. Yet far too many Muslims treat Islam as some form of nationalism. Examples of this are too numerous to cite here, and need not concern us. I am concerned that if the ultimate intention of the Prophet's message was to transcend the religious nationalism of the Christians and Jews, then the solution for our contemporary times cannot be for Muslims to reproduce their rank nationalistic pseudo-religious exclusivity. Those who are familiar enough with the doctrinal disputes and logic whereby the exclusivity of Christianity is constructed will recognize the Muslim version.

Shaykh Nuh brings forth evidence from Quran that every community had a messenger sent to them, and that one should not differentiate between those messengers because they all brought the same message. He writes, “Though the Sacred Law of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) superseded all previously valid religious laws, it was identical with them in beliefs, such as tawhid or "oneness of God.” Such a belief can only be true ( the Prophet confirming all previous messages) if two other conditions are met: 1) We restrict our study of religion to the Abrahamic tradition and 2) The sacred law Shaykh Nuh is referring to as identical to previous revelation is restricted to an overall ethical impulse, rather than any outward manifestation.
What are the consequences of these two conditions? One, if Shaykh Nuh restricts the scope of religion to the Abrahamic tradition (as do the majority of Muslim scholars), then what he is arguing is that God sent messengers to only a tiny section of humanity, in a tiny geographical area of the world, in just two or three languages, quite late in its history! But this makes a mockery of God's omnipotence, mercy and justice! Furthermore, history itself, properly understood, contradicts the assertion that God will punish any people who are not “Muslims”. If, as the Quran repeatedly says, God will punish those people who don't believe in him by destroying them, then what do we say of some of the most successful civilizations to have ever existed? After all, the Egyptian and Chinese civilizations seem to have prospered for thousands of years longer than any Jewish, Muslim or Christian government or empire without an exclusive concept of ONE GOD (although they did have some concept of an Organic Oneness or Unity similar to the Islamic concept of La Ilaha Illa Allah).

We must also ask ourselves: what is meant by “Islam” in each of the passages Shaykh Nuh quotes? If by Islam all these passages mean a unified ideology, complete with a developed law code, theology, and 5 pillars, then our position is certainly weaker. But if by Islam, at least some of these passages mean a deeper spiritual impulse that motivated all the prophets (and not the formalized religion as we have come to know it) then such a statement cannot be used to refute other religious paths, since according to this vision of Islam, many people may actually be Muslims according to a very broad understanding of what that means. For more on this idea, one should consult Farid Esack's work in Quran, Liberation and Pluralism. Too often Muslims assume that when we speak of Islam we are speaking of one unitary idea stretching back through eons. Other times we assume it is something that the Prophet Muhammad brought to his community. In apologetics and theology, Muslims “switch” between these two different, both orthodox conceptions, often without realizing the important differences between the two ideas. It is the difference between the two ideas that contains the key to a radical reappraisal of tradition that is absolutely necessary to avoid the kind of nationalistic hubris I am writing against.
The consequences of conflating the two ideas are intellectual schizophrenia and a poverty of ideas. Muslims are largely failing to convince others why the sacred law of Islam is so important, largely because the view they have of this sacred law is so narrowly culturally defined by orthodox consensus. When intelligent people ask why, for example, a sharia compliant inheritance or women wearing jilbab or hijab is so necessary to human progress, moral sanity and a just society, they are unable to give a compelling rational answer beyond, “Allah says so in the Quran.”

This is a circular argument, not to mention an anti-intellectual one that echoes a similar conundrum in Christianity. It makes the authority of the revelation do too much work, as if because you accept the Quran to be a miracle you must accept the whole package of orthodoxy. This is not merely a fiqh question (reinterpreting the law), as those defenders of traditional Islam argue, but a question of false equivalency that leads to outmoded nationalistic thinking. The sharia is no longer (if it ever was) equivalent to the practices of the early Muslim community under the Prophet Muhammad's leadership. In constantly emphasizing that it should be, Muslims have to “fit” it, often awkwardly into a worldview largely defined by Western style modernity. They are thus faced with a series of logical and moral absurdities, which they largely navigate through “double-think”. This double think can easily be seen in the realm of contemporary Muslim theological apologetics. It is also observable in the zealotry of new converts who become highly self-righteous, the nitpicking over details (i.e. wearing a beard) or the debates over the lawfulness of slavery (witness what just occurred in Mauritania). All these things are consequences of this false equivalency, of equating a finite historical community with God's infinite favor.

I believe a critical stance towards orthodoxy is much more compelling intellectual position to be in—and perennialism provides a way to meet the new knowledge we have about other religions without sacrificing too much of the essentials of the Islamic tradition. To give an example, we might refer to Quranic ayats about the Jews and Christians, not to mention other religious people, attaining salvation. We would present heaven and hell in Islam as important ideas in creating ethical orientation in the believer—similar to the Buddhist metaphor of the Burning House. In fact, the very idea of a heaven and a hell ought to be understood by the spiritually mature as metaphors designed to point humans in the right direction, not spatially bounded places where we condemn those incovenient to our 'truth'.

For anyone in these times to speak as if ONLY "orthodox" Islamic belief points the way to paradise is a dangerously hubristic viewpoint, as it implicity invalidates the spiritual attainments of hundreds of thousands of contemporary seekers of all stripes: Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, and Jews, not to mention other Muslims (even to the extent of forcing some to twist history to somehow paint successful ancient civilizations as having been “Muslim”, which merely perpetuates a hubristic fantasy of manifest destiny). It short-circuits the intellectual possibilities of inter-religious dialogue and the expansion of our knowledge of the world. Finally, there is not enough experiental evidence to boldly make such a claim. Better to say, like in many matters of so-called orthodoxy in modern times, “Allah 3lim”--God knows—and try to live the best we can according to our chosen path.


October 22, 2011

Consciousness, Motivation and Violence: Review of War of Words, War of Stones

Jonathon Glassman. War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

PART 2: Glassman shows in detail how newspaper debates between the two rival parties over Zanzibar's history, slavery, marriage, and land rights became increasingly polarized and racialized. The outcome these polemical exchanges was that any conflict, especially those with a hint of violence, could become politicized. As each side ramped up their violent rhetoric, it drew readers and listeners into an everyday drama where everyone was encouraged and even coerced to choose among racialized political identities. The personal nature of the island's social relationships made these dramas all the more bitter—gradually almost every aspect of everyday life became infused with the tension of potential racial drama. Everything from bus rides and public dances to traffic accidents and crime became an opportunity for transforming the "overlapping discursive circuits" of newspaper discourse and racial rumor into "what many came to imagine as actual lived experience."
The book draws on a wealth of original sources—the enormous number of published newspapers circulating in Zanzibar during the 1950s and 1960s (and even earlier) as well as archival material. Glassman's choice not to draw on oral interviews is a conscious attempt to steer away from the minefield of counter-interpretation generated (and being generated) around the meaning of the 1964 Revolution. Instead Glassman revises and offers fresh interpretations on theories of violence and ethnic conflict.
The arch-instrumentalists who view violence, especially "ethnic" violence, as an expression of class conflict or other material factors often stress that violence has to be "activated" by elites; violence is the outcome of planning and the hard work of social polarization. On the other hand, elites rarely control and direct the violence of crowds and mobs; the crowd's logic is not the product of external direction. Through a detailed examination of the character of mob violence in Zanzibar, Glassman argues that mob violence acts as an incentive for individuals to recast their experience along communal lines. In the context of a polarized political climate where people are encouraged to racialize their daily lives, transgressive violence can appear necessary. Violence in Zanzibar had to overcome the powerful affective bonds and neighborly relations; once it did (through the racialization of everyday experience in the "newspaper wars") criminality and rumor could work powerfully on people's everyday experience of themselves.
Rumor, argues Glassman, enables people to "replace the subjectivity of personal experience with false memories of victimhood." It "turns everyday patterns" and even sounds into "signs of impending violence." For those who actually experience acts of oppression, rumor further encourages them to think of these acts in the overall terms of a racialized narrative. For Zanzibar, Glassman documents how rival discourses of crime and criminality centered on both mainland immigrants from Mozambique and Tanzania and poor "Manga" Arabs from Oman; these discourses aided rival parties in giving concrete representation to their enemy.
Glassman rejects the distinction between acts that are expressions of the "real" consciousness of the crowd, and those they are "manipulated" into performing by elites. Working through the logic of writers like Robert Weinberg and Paul Brass, Glassman concludes that, based on their distinctions, one has to argue that violence in Zanzibar is a product of elite manipulation in the context of contests for political power.
Yet the nature of the violence itself, argues Glassman, contradicts this argument. The "stylized" and "expressive" nature of the killings in Zanzibar belies any notion that elite discourse sat as a form of false consciousness swaying the actions of an irrational mob. Propagandists in Zanzibar, notes Glassman, although they used inflammatory language, never called for violence. The violence instead was activated in the moment where racial discourse became "embodied" reality, often experienced as a fear of violence and domination from the "other." It was mostly a product of everyday experience and not directly shaped by elite direction.
Building on the work of Sudhir Kakar and Natalie Zemon Davis, Glassman argues that a mob focuses and sharpens a group's identity; participation is a kind of group ritual. Mobs are thus both spontaneous and premeditated. Participants' subjectivities and moral conscience are spontaneously re-shaped in the midst of the violent act itself, but their decision to "act spontaneously" is the product of a racialized discursive envirornment, which is then embodied and amplified through rumors and stories.
Glassman's evidence is vast and skillfully deployed, and his argument is subtle and well-stated. Yet while Glassman helpfully deconstructs the divide between spontaneous and induced violence, I wonder if he doesn't leave himself exposed to the criticism that his "false memories of victimhood" engendering "violent subjectivities" too closely resembles a form of false consciousness. In closing the gap between spontaneous and induced violence, I'm inclined to think that Glassman open up an unintended gap between "true" "personal" subjectivity (rational and moral), and "false" "collective" subjectivity. This may encourage readers to think of the "individual" as acting truly (as in heroic stories of individual rescue) as a counterpoint to the madness of the crowd. This thinking, if taken to its logical extreme, leads us back to our original problem, thus demonstrating that many crucial questions remain to be uncovered towards a better understanding of mob violence.


Consciousness, Motivation and Violence: Review of War of Words, War of Stones

Jonathon Glassman. War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

PART 1: Scholars of mass violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide frequently debate the precise nature of the links between popular violence and an elite propaganda. Mass violence, they increasingly argue, is not the product of primordial hatred activated in a Hobbesian environment of weak social inhibitions. Yet this thesis has come to have something of the air of a cliché; provoking an enormous literature that is essentially a reaction against the "uncontrollable passions" thesis. Such literature argues that such violence was really about "something else", such as control over resources or political power.
In his new ambitious new book on racial violence in colonial Zanzibar, Jonathon Glassman argues that neither approach adequately captures the complexity of violence in the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution and the events leading up to it. In 1964, a group of armed Africans overthrew the Sultan of Zanzibar and purged his supporters in the rival political party. They then embarked on the massacre and intimidation of Arabs; some figures cite as many as 5,000 Arabs were killed in the months following. As in other cases, reports of violence were immediately contested—revolutionaries naturally denied the massacres, while exiles painted a gruesome picture of anti-Arab (and anti-Indian) pogroms.
In Zanzibar, Glassman argues, violence was the product of dueling discourses of civilization and barbarism from groups of "Africans" and "Arabs." Each group shaped competing approaches to the island's history and identity. In his introduction, Glassman traces the development of these identities through the history of Zanzibar, beginning with the founding of the Zanzibar Sultanate in the mid-nineteenth century, when it fell under the rule of the Busaidi family from Muscat, Oman. The Busaidi sultans expanded Zanzibar's wealth through usage of Indian merchant credit and an intense plantation slavery system built around clove production. British-imposed abolition soon destroyed the productivity of this system, and slaves and masters had to re-negotiate relationships of labor through tenancy and squatting. British colonial administrators sought to control and rationalize these relations, and they steadily increased their influence in Zanzibar until the establishment of a formal protectorate in 1890. British administrators had seen Zanzibar as an "Arab state" before the protectorate, and afterwards they continued to rule with (and often for) the Arab sultan as if Arabs were the natural ruling elite of the island.
In the half-century leading up to Zanzibar's first common roll election in 1957, British administrators nurtured a secular intelligentsia of (mostly) elite Arabs, who they inculcated thoroughly with British notions of civilizational nationalism. These Arabs served important roles as middlemen in the colonial bureaucracy. Yet they were no parrots of their would-be teachers; these elites also drew on Islamic modernism and pan-Arabism to advocate (initially) for the Arabs as the natural rulers of Zanzibar, and to mobilize Arabs (and eventually all Zanzibari citizens) against colonialism. Their vision of Zanzibari nationalism was broad and inclusive, but rested on specific values (like allegiance to the sultan) and particular exclusions. All "true" citizens were welcome under the inclusive umbrella of ustaarabu, (a Kiswahili word meaning "civilization") but such logic often criminalized mainlanders and encouraged Arab cultural chauvinism. Politically, the National Party of the Sultan's Subjects (Hizbu or ZNP) represented this ideological position.
In N'gambo, the African neighborhood east of the elite streets of Zanzibar's Stone Town, a vibrant post-bellum African culture nurtured its own intellectual vision of Zanzibar's future. This nationalist vision relied heavily on metaphors of blood and race. Africans, it argued, had been victims of Arab imperialism, and it was only by uniting with each other on the basis of skin color and shared oppression that Africans could overcome Arab hegemony. This vision came to be represented by the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP), an outgrowth of a fusion of member of the town's African and Shirazi associations. The ASP was a complex mixture of former slaves, mainland migrants, and the indigenous Shirazi who resented Arab political dominance. Despite their links, those self-identified as Shirazi often faced criticism from the "Africans" that they were futilely trying to be "Asiatic." Instead of adopting an Arabocentric identity, the ASP argued, Africans ought to rediscover and reclaim their "tribal" ancestry. The Arabs were just as colonial as the British, the ASP claimed, but at least the British had abolished slavery. The ASP in effect, "racialized" the memory of slavery. Where the ZNP saw a shifting relationship between patron and client, the ASP saw evidence of pernicious racial oppression. This issue between the two proved to be one of the most contentious points dividing the two parties in the period known as the "Time of Politics", 1957-1963.


September 27, 2011

Wangari Maathai, "Hummingbird" for Environmental Justice

"Kuishi kwingi ni kuona mengi.""To live long is to experience much." Wangari Maathai exemplified a kind of experience and life-long commitment to social and environmental justice that was tremendously inspiring to activists the world over. She passed away this week at the age of 71. In honor of her visionary work, which won her the Nobel Peace Prize, watch this PBS documentary on her life and work. Her vision and commitment have inspired a whole generation of activists in Kenya, Africa and around the globe.

Watch the full episode. See more Independent Lens.


September 17, 2011

Muthoni the Drummer Queen -Mikono Kwenye Hewa

This chune got kinda of a garage feel to it. I like.


Khadja Nin -- Sambolera Mayi Son

Arise Magazine put me on to this beautiful song from Burundi's Khadja Nin. Enjoy!


September 4, 2011

Abu Dhabi: Sheikh Zayed Mosque

post fajr prayer photos.


Capital Talk: Interview w/ K'naan on His Trip to Somalia

Great interview with K'naan talking about the future of Somalia.


Salalah-Maqam of Nabi Imran

Depending on who you ask, Imran is either 1) the father of Moses or 2) the father of Mary. Either way, his maqam is in the heart of the town of Salalah and so it was relatively easy to find. My friend dropped me off in front, and I went into the mosque, prayed Asr, listened to the post-Asr lecture, and then went and read some Quran at Imran's grave. Waves of Pakistani, Indian, and Bengali families kept pouring in to circnambulate the grave, kissing the flowers piled on either end and at intervals along the grave, which stretched the length of a narrow room.


Salalah-Maqam of Nabi Ayub (Job)

Up in the mountains around Salalah is a mosque compound containing the grave (supposedly) of Nabi Ayub. Christians will recognize him as Job, the Biblical prophet who endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of Satan and still refused to curse or deny God. In the Bible, Job is an existential book that ultimately affirms faith in an ultimate Creator. The Quran mentions his name on numerous occasions, including this ayat:

(21:83)"And (remember) Ayub, when he cried to his Lord, "Truly distress has seized me, But Thou art the Most Merciful of those that are Merciful."



Took a two day trip by bus to Salalah at the end of Ramadan. From June to September everything in Salalah is intensely green, and the weather resembles Seattle Washington, Cape Town, South Africa in winter, or Arusha, Tanzania. Misty cool wet weather with DENSE fog cupping the mountains around the town. The Omanis love it; they come here in droves every khareef season to soak in this uncommon (for Oman) weather. You'll find them camped on the side of the road or rowing boats in the wadis. But since it was Ramadan, there were far fewer tourists of any kind, and so I mostly had the wadis to myself.


September 1, 2011

India and South Sudan: Potential Areas of Cooperation | Gateway House

India and South Sudan: Potential Areas of Cooperation | Gateway House


August 24, 2011

Tippu Tip's family tree

Put this together a while back. Feel free to save, use and revise if you find it useful.


Laylatul-Qadr (The Night of Power)

Laylatul-Qadr- Vipi Uweze Kuupata Usiku Huu?

Tunaingia kumi la mwisho, kumi ambalo ndani yake kuna siku tukufu, siku ya Laylatul-Qadr, ambayo ibada yake ni bora kuliko ibada ya miezi elfu.
Anasema Allaah (Subhaanahu wa Ta'ala):

﴿ بِسْمِ اللّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ ﴾
(( إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةِ الْقَدْرِ)) (( وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ)) (( لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ خَيْرٌ مِّنْ أَلْفِ شَهْرٍ)) ((تَنَزَّلُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ فِيهَا بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهِم مِّن كُلِّ أَمْرٍ)) (( سَلَامٌ هِيَ حَتَّى مَطْلَعِ الْفَجْرِ))

BismiLlaahir Rahmaanir Rahiym
((Hakika Sisi Tumeiteremsha Qur-aan katika Laylatul Qadr, (Usiku wa Makadirio[Majaaliwa]). Na nini kitachokujuulisha nini Laylatul Qadr?)) ((Laylatul-Qadr ni bora kuliko miezi elfu)) ((Huteremka Malaika na Roho (Jibriyl) katika usiku huo kwa idhini ya Mola wao kwa kila jambo)) ((Amani usiku huo mpaka mapambazuko ya alfajiri)) [Al-Qadr: 1-5]

Vile vile dalili katika Hadiyth mbali mbali zimethibiti kuhusu Fadhila za usiku huu mtukufu, na jinsi Mtume (Swalla Allaahu 'alayhi wa aalihi wa sallam) alivyokuwa hali yake katika siku hizi kumi za mwisho za Ramadhaan.

Baada ya kuzijua fadhila zake usiku huu mtukufu inakupasa Muislamu ujikaze katika siku kumi hizi za mwisho kuacha mambo yote yanayokushughulisha ya dunia na utumbukie katika ibada tu ili uweze kuupata usiku huo mtukufu, yaani ukukute wewe ukiwa katika ibada ili zihesabiwe ibada zako kama kwamba umefanya ibada ya miezi elfu.
Tukifanya hesabu miezi elfu hiyo ni sawa na umri wa miaka 83!

1000 ÷ 12 = 83.3 yaani miaka themanini na tatu na miezi mitatu takriban.
Hivyo ikiwa Laylatul-Qadr imekukuta katika ibada ya aina yoyote, ikiwa ni Swalah (Qiyaamul-Layl), kusoma Qur-aan, kufanya aina za dhikr, kutoa sadaka, kulisha chakula, kuwasiliana na jamaa, kujielimisha au kuelimisha, kufanya wema.



August 14, 2011

Research in Oman: the Swahili Speaking Omani

I've been in Muscat for two weeks now, conducting interviews and meeting different people who came back from Tanzania, Zanzibar, Kenya, Uganda and the Congo. Their stories and worldviews are AMAZING. Everything I expected and more. There is a rich dissertation/book project here waiting to be written. The multiple connections linking Oman and Zanzibar in the present day are truly interesting, and the role of East African heritage in contemporary Oman is also a fascinating question. I am sorry I cannot say more. I am compiling interviews at the moment and writing a Fulbright proposal...To be continued.


July 31, 2011

Guide to Swahili Grammar

The noun classes are the most difficult thing for the non-native speaker to pick up in Kiswahili, but once you do, you will have mastered the language. HERE is a handy guide.

The same website also has a verb conjugator, parser, and some handy tools for the Kiswahili learner. If anyone has other resources to add, please comment!


Habib Saleh and His Influence on Islam in East Africa (Spiders and Pigeons)

The excellent blog Spiders and Pigeons has an amazing post on the Comorian/Kenyan Sufi teacher Habib Saleh.

The article asks: To what extent does the Maulidi Festival of Lamu represent the wider culture of the region? It goes on to explore the relationship between Yemen and East Africa, the dawah of Habib Saleh in Lamu among the enslaved and lower classes, and the controversial practices of maulid (Sw. maulidi). I learned a lot from reading and I highly recommend checking out the site.


July 24, 2011

Maqam of the Sahaba: Abdul Rahman Ibn 'Awf

Some friends of mine in Jordan used to joke that the Jordanian government discovers a new maqam of the sahaba (companions of the Prophet Muhammad) every week. Anyway, this is a relatively famous companion whose maqam is on a beautiful Amman hillside; I have been unable to confirm if he is actually buried here or just stopped here.


Somalia to Dadaab: The journey from hell - Features - Al Jazeera English

Somalia to Dadaab: The journey from hell - Features - Al Jazeera English


July 17, 2011

Omani Proverbs (Ongoing Series)

From time to time we drop some Omani jewels on ya go.

اذا كان المتكلم مجنون يكون المستمع عاقل

Meaning: "If the speakers is mad, the hearer should be wise." This proverb points to the necessity of caution on the part of a hearer in believing what he is informed and in acting upon it. Sound advice, especially in the age of the internet.


AddisTunes - Legally Download African Music - Kampala Taxi Sessions: Time to Repent

The good folks at Addis Tunes never disappoint...African gospel music for a Sunday afternoon...
AddisTunes - Legally Download African Music - Kampala Taxi Sessions: Time to Repent


In Pictures: Protests suppressed in Malaysia - In Pictures - Al Jazeera English

In Pictures: Protests suppressed in Malaysia - In Pictures - Al Jazeera English


Protests in Jordan

Over the weekend there were a couple protests in Amman. One of them was only about 400 yards from our apartment. After jumma, me and my roommate set out to go to a walima we had been invited to. As we reached the main road we heard deafening music from the parking lot of the Regency Hotel. I had assumed it was a wedding, but the massive police presence indicated otherwise. Everyone seemed to be in festive mood, and there was dancing, lots of Jordanian flags and a big picture of King Abdullah.

Protests in Jordan have generally not had the same tone and tenor they've carried in Syria and Egypt. The king seems relatively popular, and most of the protesters and activists have been calling for reforms and not overthrow. Back in March, when police broke up a sit-in in Gamal Abdel Nasser roundabout, killing 55-year-old Khairi Saad, King Abdullah assured his subjects that reform was on track. In cyberspace, Jordanians have also been calling for peaceful reforms. For example the founders of 7ibr have encouraged people to tweet about reform under the hashtag #ReformJO. Al Jazeera did a story on their efforts..

But do last weekend's protests in downtown Amman, which were broken up by police with batons, indicate a new direction? The Jordan Times reported that many people viewed the protests as not pointing towards an effective solution to the real problem of rising commodity prices. This blogger also wonders how the presence of Syrian refugees and the continuing unrest there will affect calls for political change in Jordan. Will the king still allow peaceful protests to proceed? And what steps will he take to ensure the continuing stability of Jordan while ushering in calls for popular reform?


July 10, 2011

South Sudan: Expectation and Reality

My colleague and fellow blogger Alex Thurston has a blogosphere rundown of commentary and stories on the South Sudan, the world's newest nation. Expectations are understandably high (perhaps impossibly so) for the South to "deliver the goods" to its citizens, and to flex its autonomy, but the reality is that the South and the North will HAVE to work together for the benefit of their respective futures, at least until the South Sudanese government builds oil pipelines eastward across Ethiopia and Kenya. Over at African Arguments, Naomi Pendle reports on attitudes in Warrap State in South Sudan.

As far as attitudes in the North, I would recommend that everyone check out this documentary "Fight for the Soul of the North" on the future of the state and civil society in North Sudan. The picture is grim, and the North will require wise leadership if they want to prevent the complete collapse of the state.


July 7, 2011

Blues For the Horn (K'naan)

classic chune.


June 29, 2011

East Africa Around the Blogosphere

Greetings Azanian Sea readers,

It has been a minute since I've been in the blogging game as I had responsibilities to take care of on the home front (like finishing graduate coursework at Northwestern). But I'm back, and I hope to get back to blogging and commenting on religion, politics, culture and history in East Africa this summer, while I wade deeply into another round of Intensive Arabic in Amman, Jordan. Things are relatively quiet here, but the Syrian border is closed, Egypt and Sudan are poised for major transitions in governance, there is still unrest in Libya and Yemen and it's bizarre to think about how close we are here to the tides of revolution sweeping the region.

In East Africa, a terrible drought is sweeping the Horn of Africa. In an already destabilized region, the prospect of no rain until September could have catastrophic results for the ability of many residents to eke out a living above the margin of survival. The big question is: how much does climate change play a role in this emerging crisis? Droughts are not new in East Africa, and the region was hit hard in 2006. But the cycle of drought seems to be quickening, as Daniel Howden writes, "At the beginning of this decade the rains failed every other season and what we now see is 'perennial drought'." Climatologists and others have been warning of this situation for quite some time, but it now seems to be approaching a crisis.
The drought is likely to intensify water conflicts in the region, as well as political conflict over other resources like grazing grounds, fuel, and arable land.


March 6, 2011

Book Review: "God and Man in the Koran"

There is a reason Toshihiko Izutsu's book is available through Islamic booksellers online: its a great introduction to what is at stake for the believer in the language the Qur'an. If, as Izutsu explains, the ultimate guarantee of the Semitic religions is that God reveals himself to humans, then an understanding the language through which that revelation came is an indispensable part of understanding divine reality.

Izutsu take a long time building up to his argument about clusters of word and meaning in the Qur'an, and how they are often found in opposing pairs. The Qur'an, argues Izutsu, took the vocabulary of the pre-Islamic Arabs and expanded or narrowed the conceptual scope of certain words. In discussions of words like imam, kufr, wahy, kitaab, nabii, and tanziil, God and Man in the Koran offers an invaluable insight into the Gestalt, or Weltanschaung of the Qur'an.

Izutsu's work, despite being immersed in the technical vocabulary of semantic and linguistics, is readable enough for anyone to gain some insight, and for those (like me) who first read the Qur'an in English and found it (initially) ponderous and unpoetic, this book impresses an appreciation for the intricacy and vision of the original Arabic text. It may seem obvious to any scholar, but it bears repeating that any text in any language cannot be understood properly apart from the cultural context in which it is embedded. That is why the act of translation is so fraught with peril--something of the flavor, the style of the original text is always lost.

The status of the Qur'an as a holy revelation for Muslims complicates the commonsense application of this thesis (culturally embedded) Muslims have to wrestle with extracting universal meaning from the text (the debates over the uncreatedness of the Qur'an in early Muslim theology reflect this tension) and debates over the hidden meanings, abrogated meanings, literal meanings, and contingent meanings permeate this atmosphere of meaning-making.

In order to show what the Qur'an introduced to the Arabs, Izutsu sets out to explain the "darkly pessimistic" attitude of the Jahiliyya Arabs and their particular attitude and style of life. He shows how materialistic their worldview was, and how much they valued language and particular styles of recitation (i.e. saj') as having the potential to release the magical power contained in words. He explains how they initially saw Allah as just another djinn, since djinn were known to pounce upon human beings, throw them to the ground, kneel on their chest and force them to become the djinn's mouthpiece to the world.

Thus when the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) first began his prophetic mission, the Jahiliyya Arabs understood it in terms of spirit possession. However the Prophet (SAW), saw his mission in terms of a revelation from Allah, the Only True God, through His Angel Gabriel. The innovation this introduced in the worldview of the Jahiliyya Arabs is something Izutsu brings out well. The content of these revelations, which took place over twenty years, and which the Prophet (SAW) sometimes heard in terms of tinkling bells, after which he would understand what Allah meant to say, had to be communicated through the Prophet as a coherent message, what Izutsu calls a "Sprachwerk", an objective linguistic work. And it had to take form in a language-system peculiar to his community.

Sura 26, as-Shuara (The Poets)

وَلَوۡ نَزَّلۡنَـٰهُ عَلَىٰ بَعۡضِ ٱلۡأَعۡجَمِينَ

فَقَرَأَهُ ۥ عَلَيۡهِم مَّا ڪَانُواْ بِهِۦ مُؤۡمِنِينَ

Translation: "Had we sent this down upon some non-Arabian prophet, and had he recited it to them in Arabic, they would not have believed in it."

Based on this sura, Izutsu goes on to make a valuable conclusion, "The use of Arabic as the language of Revelation was not intended to be the open declaration of the superiority of Arabic." Arabic, argues Izutsu, was chosen for its usefulness, not for its inherent qualities.

Why is this argument important? Because it helps one avoid a kind of implicit ethnocentrism that runs through many hadith: that the language of paradise will be Arabic for example, and that Arabic is naturally the most exalted and best medium for expressing spiritual reality and complexity. Instead, the message had to be in Arabic because it had to be a prompting to action. Yet in order for the revelation (wahy) to remain a prompting to action, it cannot continue to be a "sprachwerk." That is, its interpretation cannot be fixed in the time it was revealed, even if the content remains the same.

In this reviewer's interpretation, this demonstrates that the inner meaning of the Qur'anic message is not necessarily literally attached to the interpretation of the signs themselves, which changes over time, but to the correct performative recitation of the revelation and the spiritual disposition it creates in the heart of the believer. Izutsu's work thus sheds light on why Muhammad Asad once remarked that no one should attempt to translate the Qur'an from Arabic unless he had personally lived among the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula.

For linguists, Izutsu's approach to the language of the Qur'an as a kind of worldview comes uncomfortably close to the Whorf-Sapir theory of language and meaning, in which language determines reality. I will let those with linguistic training critique this aspect of the book, if they have read it. For me, as a historian, Izutsu's work is "good to think with" and offers a sympathetic portrayal of an oft-misunderstood book.


February 26, 2011

Dhofari Gucci: Anti-Government Protests in Dhofar

Protests in Oman?! I'm sure Sultan Qaboos is watching this development intensely, given Dhofar's troubled history.

Dhofari Gucci: Anti-Government Protests in Dhofar


February 12, 2011

Us and Oman: Us?

A very important and interesting reflection on the relation between self and other in any travel situation, in this case Oman. The outsider/resident is caught between a desire to find community, and the social cost of tying oneself into those networks of obligatory social relationships. Community can be a comfort and a trap.

Us and Oman: Us?: "International travelers know that there exist many contradictions in how we engage with our host cultures."


February 11, 2011

New Publication: Ethiopian Journal of Religious Studies

Tsehai Publishers is proud to announce the launch of the Ethiopian Journal
of Religious Studies. The journal captures the rich heritage of religion
and faith in Ethiopia, bringing you the best in analysis and
interpretation. Featuring the highest quality of international
contributors, EJRS will uncover the past and present, illuminating complex
contemporary issues and debates. The religions of Ethiopia have an
astonishingly complex and intricate history. From being one of the first
countries in history to accept Christianity, to its preservation of Islam,
to the complex issues of the Ethiopian Jews, and the country's own rich
indigenous religious traditions, there is an untapped richness to be

The Ethiopian Journal of Religious Studies seeks book reviews from scholars
of Ethiopia, of Religious Studies and related fields: Sociology,
Anthropology, History, Philosophy, etc. A commitment to review the book
received is required.

Deadline for the next issue: April 1, 2011. Please contact Cynthia Carr,, for more information.

As of 2/8/11, books available include:

Christianity in Ethiopia:
Priests & Politicians: Protestant & Catholic Missions in Orthodox Ethiopia
(1830-1868) by Donald Crummey
Mission to Ethiopia: An American Lutheran Memoir (1957-2003)by Leonard
Flachman & Merlyn Seitz (Eds.)
The Missionary Strategies of the Jesuits in Ethiopia (1555-1632) by Leonardo
State and Church in Ethiopia (1270-1527) by Taddesse Tamrat

Islam in Ethiopia:
Islamic Finance: Law, Economics, and Practice by Mahmoud A. El-Gamal
The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan African by Timothy Insoll
Sharia: Theory, Practice and Transformations by Wael B. Hallaq

Judaism in Ethiopia:
The Evolution of Ethiopian Jews by James Quirin
Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World by Jonathan Schorsch

Futuh Al-Habasa: The Conquest of Abyssinia by Paul Lester Stenhouse (Trans.)
Ethiopia: Judaism, Altars, and Saints by Stuart Munro-Hay
Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia: Islam, Christian, and Politics Entwined by Haggai
Islam & Christianity in the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Ethiopia & Sudan by
Haggai Erlich


Sout al Horeya (Sound of Freedom)


Triumph as Mubarak quits - Middle East - Al Jazeera English

After 18 days of nonviolent protests, the beginnings of a democratic revolution. The determination of the Egyptian people to be an "exception to their ruler" has succeeded! Incredible, incredible, incredible! To quote, Ibrahim Yazeji via George Antonius: "Arise, ye Arabs and awake!" We await expectantly and prayerfully for more news from this popular triumph!

Triumph as Mubarak quits - Middle
East - Al Jazeera English


February 6, 2011

Good Collection of Web Resources on Islam in East Africa

The brother over at Baytul-Hikma has collected a number of helpful internet resources, videos, e-books, and links on Islam in East Africa. Check it out here.


Yoi, It's Super Bowl Sunday (Sepia Mutiny) a hell of a thing!
Yoi, It's Super Bowl Sunday


February 5, 2011

Al Jazeera English: Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek discuss the uprising in Egypt


February 2, 2011

African Union Statement on Sudan

We, the Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU), meeting at our 16th Ordinary Session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 30 to 31 January 2011, are mindful of the vital importance of this critical moment of Sudan’s national history.

1. We congratulate the people of Sudan on the successful achievement of the principal pillar of the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the referendum on self-determination for southern Sudan. This success confirms the commitment of the Sudanese people and their leaders never to return to war, and hitherto to resolve any differences that may arise exclusively by peaceful means.

2. We hail the courage, vision and steadfastness of the Government of Sudan (GoS), under the leadership of President Omar Hassan al Bashir and First Vice President and President of the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) Salva Kiir Mayardit, which has made possible this momentous achievement. Our continent stands shoulder to shoulder, equally with these two national leaders, as they fulfill their historic responsibilities.

3. We commend the people of southern Sudan, whose choice has been clearly, freely and credibly expressed in the referendum. The African Union looks forward to solemnly accepting the outcome of the referendum as soon as it is formally proclaimed by the competent authorities, and calls upon all States to do so, and to extend such assistance and cooperation as may be required for South Sudan to achieve the development that its long-suffering people deserve.

4. We extend our solidarity and that of the entire continent to the people of northern Sudan, who have taken the unprecedented and generous step of accepting self-determination for their brethren. Africa legitimately looks forward to the complete normalization of relations between the international community and the Republic of Sudan, to ensure that all the peoples of Sudan can enjoy peace, dignity, democracy and development. In this respect, we call upon Sudan’s creditors around the world to expeditiously and comprehensively relieve the country’s external debt, ensuring that Sudan’s special circumstances receive special treatment.

5. In that spirit, and noting the personal and unwavering commitment of President Al Bashir to sustaining peace between northern and southern Sudan and do all he can for the early resolution of the crisis in Darfur, we, once again, call upon the United Nations Security Council immediately to invoke Article 16 of the Rome Statute and suspend any actions against President Al Bashir by the International Criminal Court. In responding to this call, the Security Council would be acting in accordance with its responsibilities for the maintenance of international peace and security and would greatly facilitate the ongoing efforts by the AU to help the Sudanese parties achieve lasting peace, security, justice and reconciliation.

6. In its fifty five years as an independent nation, Sudan has faced exceptional challenges, inherited from its colonial past. Recognizing the unique nature of its national question, the Sudanese leaders resolved, in 2005, to grant the right of self-determination to the people of southern Sudan.

7. Drawing inspiration from Resolution 1514(XV) on the Declaration on the Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, whose 50th anniversary has just been celebrated by the international community, we value and uphold the right of self-determination of peoples under colonial rule, which was indeed duly exercised by our own nations to achieve independence, and which continue to be relevant to the peoples of the non-self-governing territories listed as such by the United Nations General Assembly.

8. We acknowledge that Sudan represents an exceptional case, which, in no way, calls into question the sacrosanct principle of respect of borders inherited at the accession of African countries to independence. We reaffirm our determination to ensure full respect of this principle and to forge ahead with our agenda of integration and greater unity among our countries, as foreseen by the founding fathers of the OAU and as enshrined in the AU Constitutive Act. We welcome and support the commitment made by the leaders of Sudan to respect the will of the people in Southern Sudan and, should the latter vote for separation, to establish two viable states, mutually supportive, at peace with one another, and cooperating in the fields of economics, security and international relations. We emphasize that, in such a case, northern and southern Sudan will be equally African nations. The separation of southern Sudan, in no way, dilutes the African identity of northern Sudan. Both entities will move forward in the Sudanese tradition of building strength from diversity.

9. Sudan has the utmost importance to the African continent. It spans the diversity of our continent, bringing our peoples together in a great melting pot. The achievement of peace, democracy and development in northern and southern Sudan promises to help lift the entire continent. Sudan’s ability to overcome the formidable obstacles in its path stands as a testament to Africa’s capacity to resolve its conflicts and achieve our common goals. Conversely, Africa cannot afford to see Sudan again plunge into turmoil.

10. In that spirit, we welcome and endorse the commitment of the Government of Sudan to resolve the conflict in Darfur, by supporting and participating in the Darfur Political Process, which will build on the outcome of the Doha peace process. The AU calls upon the Darfur armed movements to participate immediately in the Doha peace talks, so as to achieve a ceasefire and lay the foundations for an inclusive and holistic peace agreement for Darfur.

11. We call upon the Sudanese parties to resolve speedily the remaining issues in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, including a settlement of the question of Abyei, the convening of Popular Consultations in South Kordofan and Blue Nile States, and the demarcation of the common border and resolution of the status of disputed areas. We urge the parties to proceed rapidly to agree on post-referendum issues, including citizenship, security, a soft border, and all questions relating to economics and natural resources.

12. We express Africa’s solidarity with the entire Sudanese people, and welcome equally North and South Sudan and the emerging post-referendum situation, as building blocks for the ongoing project of African integration. Having achieved peace, the Sudanese people are now able fully to participate as effective actors and beneficiaries in the common African endeavor of shared prosperity and continental unity.


Flames of Revolution: Egypt Part 1

Rami Abdoch is a blogger, writer and Anthropology/Sociology major at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. He has given me permission to repost this from his blog It's an excellent piece analyzing the current crisis in Egypt:

Here is an excerpt:

Tunisia’s revolt, dubbed by some as the “Jasmine Revolution,” was apparently sparked by a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire, feeling hopeless at his potential in life. His fruit stand was seized because he did not have a permit, even though he had a university degree. It is difficult to imagine the ethos and proverbial lock felt in the heart and mind of a person that would lead him to do such a horrendous thing to himself. Afterward, some 3 or 4 individuals from both Egypt and Tunisia did the same to themselves, seemingly without knowledge of this initial incidence. A mere coincidence? These incidents spread via the internet, ballooning into the week long protests in Tunisia that caused president Ben Ali to be deposed. My sense is that the people of Egypt, filled with hope after seeing the Ben Ali ousted, took that hope and began mass-scale protests in Egypt. This spurred the Egyptian government to shutdown the Internet completely to slow the mobilization of its people and protests, as social media was the driving force behind Tunisia’s revolt, largely as a result of tech-savvy youth. The importance of social media cannot be underscored enough. Youth quickly got to work on posters, slogans, and organized rallies, primarily via Twitter and Facebook. The majority of Tunisia’s population is under 30, which is also the case in Egypt. The fervor of a young population in tandem with social media mobilization has enabled these movements to spread at tremendous speed. Also, both countries’ citizens have largely the same misgivings, primarily economic. Egyptians thought to themselves: “If Tunisians can do it, we can do it” Thus, the ripple effect of revolution. Carpe diem, Middle East style.

Check it out!


January 31, 2011

Asma Mahfouz: Bravery personified


January 22, 2011

Book Review: The Sultan's Shadow

Many scholars in the academy, as well as their aspiring graduate students, bemoan the lack of attention paid to the particular subjects they study. Their field of speciality, often the rarefied territory of a few other scholars around the world, never seems to impede upon the popular consciousness in a way that is satisfying to their critical mind. Yet historians are apt to be highly critical of those popular accounts which do make it to major publishing houses as reflecting superficial understandings and canards of historical innacuracy, reductive in their intent. This is especially the case in histories of the Middle East and Africa, where the stories told to a popular audience frequently reflect the moral anxieties of a Western audience and the exotic projections of their wildest fantasies.

Christine Bird's latest book has all the elements of Orientalist fantasy-- the East African slave trade, illicit romance, harem life, wild political intrigue, and swashbuckling pirates. Yet Bird manages to tie the various stories of the rise and fall of the Busaidi family in the Indian Ocean into a coherent narrative that incorporates academic analysis (via her Notes) and an engaging narrative. Additionally she vividly sketches her characters in animated descriptions which conjure imaginative mental portraits from the disparate pieces of the past. I found myself irresistibly drawn to her sensitive characterization of Seyyid Said, the intrepid first ruler of the Arab-Omani dominion in Zanzibar, and Salme Said, his restless orphaned daughter who pays a steep price for her decision to elope from Zanzibar with a German merchant.

The book's strongest passages are those dealing with the 18th century political history of Oman and those that describe Princess Salme's impressions of Germany. Sections on Livingstone, Stanley and Tippu Tip do little to add to our knowledge of these men; their stories have been told too many times for there to be much new in the telling. But Salme's "reverse ethnography" of Germany is sensitively handled by Bird and deserves closer attention by scholars; her tragic and ambiguous role in German imperial conquest is also well told. Having chosen to leave her home and reject her religion and cultural identity, Salme finds herself widowed and alone in Germany, facing the responsibility of caring for three children. Her courage in the face of adversity and her critical and perceptive critiques of German culture, her "reversal of the gaze" are moments when the narrative transcends the "good story" aspect of history and becomes a window to cultural alienation and the limits of perception.

From Salme's story, Bird perceptively brings out the dependence on foreign power that eventually undermines the independence of Zanzibar and the Busaidi monarchy. But this latter narrative, while admittedly more mundane in its aspects, is given a rushed page or two at the conclusion of the book. Thus a story which Bird spent a great deal of time setting up and executing hurtles too quickly to an abrupt and unsatisfying finish. A worthy, though flawed, introduction to Oman and Zanzibar for those interested in learning the basic story.


January 14, 2011

Pambazuka - The invention of the indigène

As Southern Sudanese go to the polls this week, it is worth considering their decision in light of its impact on the larger play of regional politics, especially in Uganda and the Congo. Make no mistake, the creation of a Southern Sudanese state, if it occurs, will have a profound impact on events further south. Here, political scientist and author Mahmood Mamdani reflects on the roots of the conflicts in Eastern Congo.

Pambazuka - The invention of the indigène


Pambazuka - Rising up: Looking for Bob Marley and Fela Kuti

"From African-American gospel music to the soul of James Brown, the reggae of Bob Marley and the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, Alemayehu G. Mariam charts the rich history of protest music and the need for new battle songs to rally around"....

Pambazuka - Rising up: Looking for Bob Marley and Fela Kuti


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP