Saturday, 22 April 2017

S is for Stars....of Several kinds

is for
Shukran gazeelan!

Probably the most well-known bit of Arabic among non-native speakers  - it means ‘thank you very much!’ The g can be pronounced either hard as in 'go' or as in 'jet' depending on the regional dialect. Whichever way you say it, you'll be understood.     

Singer Yousra El Hawary with El Soor - the Wall - a song about a wall built to keep out protesters during the Egyptian Revolution. One of the loveliest voices to come out of the Arab Spring.

More of her music at her own Site. 

Also, Samira Said, a Moroccan-Egyptian and a much awarded and successful singer, can't not mention her!


Why do so many star names sound so abstruse? I mean, Achernar, Betelgeuse, Deneb Algedi, Rasalased, seriously? Where did these even come from? They don’t sound anything like Greek or Latin, the two languages on which most Western nomenclature is based. Well, star names don’t sound like Greek or Latin because they aren’t Greek or Latin, simple.  Those are actually, yup, you knew this was coming, didn't you? Arabic.

Betelgeuse derives from Ibt al Jauza or the Armpit of the Giant (the Giant being Orion) or more likely Yad al Jauza (the Hand of the Giant). How did Yad become Bet? That’s because a careless transcriber/translator missed a dot. The letter for B in Arabic is the exact same as Y, except that B has one dot below it, while Y has two.  Somewhere along the line someone misread or miswrote Y and B and voila - Betelgeuse! A case of Arabic whispers, only written not verbal. Achernar is Akhir an Nahr (End of the River in Arabic), Rasalased is from Ras al Assad (Head of the Lion) and so on.

The nomads named their visible stars in antiquity, no-one knows when exactly, maybe 2-3000 years ago.  These names themselves were built from the ancient legends and myths of Sumer, Babylon  and Mesopotamia. 

The Egyptian-Greek, Claudius Ptolemy (100-170 CE), lived in Alexandria and wrote three monumental works of importance (in Koine Greek) – one each on astronomy, astrology and geography.  In his treatise on astronomy called Almagest now (it went by a different, more complex moniker at the time of writing), he catalogued all the known stars, among other things. Ptolemy catalogued around 48 star constellations, it became the definitive text from which all astronomers worked for centuries after, though the original Greek version was lost, preserved only in translation.

The Almagest in due course was translated into Arabic. The star names from Almagest were converted to Arabic and some more of their own Arab names added, the ones handed down to them by their nomad ancestors, from the ancient civilisations of the Middle East.

Al Sufi, known in the west as Azophi (10th century), carried out extensive observations in Persia, in Yemen, in Iraq, and published the first critique to Ptolemy’s Almagest, which was by then many centuries old.  In it, he refined some of Ptolemy’s observations and also added his own.  This ground breaking book, in which the names of the stars were obviously in Arabic, was called Kitab Suwar al Kawakib al Thabitha (The Book of Fixed Stars) and went onto become a classic. Many of these Arabic star names were later on transmitted to Latin during the Middle Ages and down the years to modern times.

Courage, brother, do not Stumble
Though thy path be dark as night,
There's a Star to guide the humble,
Trust in God and do the right.
Let the road be rough and dreary
And it's end far out of Sight,
Foot it bravely; Strong or weary
Trust in God and do the right...

~ Norman Macleod, 1867

The Spirit always flags a bit by the time the A-Z gets into it's last third, and this time is no different. It becomes more of a Struggle to keep up the visits, the reading, the returns, and the comments, and it doesn't help that my weekends don't match up with the A-Z's Sabbath. And it's compounded by the fact the toughest letters are Strategically concentrated in a Series of obstacles in this last bit. But I'll rally, I know I will, can't Stop now! 

Talking about devotionals, are you aware of the Stereotype about Arabs avoiding any music apart from religious music? Music is supposed to be unIslamic. I don't know if that's right or wrong, no comment.  But I can't help pointing out that I do hear a massive amount of Secular, - traditional and popular and alternative music being Sung and listened to all around me in Arablands. And the largest Arabic record label - Rotana? it's based out of Saudi, Supposedly the nation of the Strictest interpretation of Islam, go figure! 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Friday, 21 April 2017

R is for Reeha!...and...Roubi...and...Riqq...and...Raqs Sharqi

is for

(ar) Reeha! 

literally 'the smell' - this is what you answer when you're asked how much sugar you want in your tea, and you don't want it doused in half a kilogram! You just want a spoonful, 'the flavour' of sugar in it.  If you want it sweeter, you say 'mazboot' meaning 'strong,' and if you do want a quarter cup sugar in one cup tea, then it's 'zyada,' or 'more.'

Roubi, an Egyptian singer, and notice how she incorporates some nifty dance moves into her music. 

Riqq is the Arab frame drum, a tambourine, an essential part of the line-up of percussion instruments for both traditional classical and folk Arab music.  They are sometimes called def or daf also. 

Frame drums go back a long time, they appear in paintings and reliefs from the third millennium BCE in Mesopotamia. They used to be the main percussion instrument in the Arab classical tradition till the 20th century.  The riqq has been displaced from its prime position after the darbouka or the goblet drum, common to Arab folk music, was introduced into the classical accompaniments.

Adel Shams El Din is one of the most well-known masters of riqq – from Alexandria, now residing in France.  He has recorded over 40 albums. Here is a riqq solo by him:

Read more about the history and use of the riqq here.

Raqs Sharqi 
literally means Eastern or Oriental dance and refers to what is known as Belly dance in the Western world.  Yup, one of the eternal stereotype of Arabs - Billionaires, Bombers or Belly dancers!

It is actually a traditional Arab folk dance which is performed in two completely different contexts: at family occasions like weddings and in normal garments. And as a performing art by trained professionals in special dance costumes.  The costumes necessarily bare the midriff so as to showcase the dance moves, which can be sensuous, sinuous and/or raunchy, depending on the interpretation.  This is looked down upon by some as contrary to the teachings of modesty in Islam. There are also restrictions in place on public performance in some places, on what can be worn (the navel must be covered in Egypt, for instance) and the moves. However, the associated stigma does not prevent any number of women and also to a much lesser extent men, both Arabs and foreigners, to learn it and perform.

In recent years, Shakira (who has a part Lebanese heritage) has included Raqs Sharqi choreography in many of her performances, and has brought this art into the limelight and popularised it across the world. 

Watch one of the best contemporary belly dancers - Dina Talaat, perform in this clip.

Have you ever watched a performance of Raqs Sharqi or Belly dancing live? What did you think of it? Too raunchy for you? Or riveting?

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Q is for...what else? - Qahira!

is for
Qusai, from Saudi Arabia- here with Umm al Dunya, or the Mother of the World:

And here again is my fav Egyptian musician - Amr Diab, singing Qahira, featuring another well-known Egyptian artiste, nicknamed 'the King' – Mohammed Mounir. The video's subtitled, and Amr completely sums up my feelings on the subject :)

And that stringed instrument that the lady is playing? that's called the Qanun, part of traditional Arabic music ensembles, played by plucking with two thimble-like picks worn on each hand.  The Indian santoor is a close relative with the same Middle Eastern roots. 


Al Qahira is the Arabic name for Cairo, the largest city in the Arablands and also in Africa.  Including its greater metropolitan area, it is among the top 20 cities in the world in terms of size. Located on the river Nile, just before the delta fans out, its strategic position has meant that it has played an important role in Egypt since antiquity. It's called ‘Umm al Dunya’ or 'Mother of the World’ by local Cairenes, a nickname that's come about due to the impact of the city on the wider Arab culture.

The Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre just
outside Cairo on the Giza Plateau. 

Heliopolis on the East side was the site of the famous, ancient sun temple. Memphis, located 20 km away, was the capital of several Old Kingdom dynasties. The Romans built a fortress near Cairo and called it Babylon.  It's been a pivot of political, social and cultural life for millennia.

Sunset over the Qasr al Nil bridge, leading to Tahrir
Square, scene of protests during 2011. 

The Arabs conquered Egypt in 641 CE, and Fustat was their first capital located a little southwards from Cairo, the administrative hub for around 5 centuries.  

The minarets of Sultan Hassan and Al Rifai Mosques.

The Fatimid dynasty conquered Egypt in 969 and Al Qahira was built by Jawhar al Siqilli, a Sicilian slave and the commander in chief of Muiz li Din Allah, the fourth Fatimid Caliph.  

Salahuddin's Citadel, and Mohammed'd Ali Mosque within it, on the
right in the far distance. The Mosque more recent than the Citadel.

View of Cairo from the Citadel. Not for nothing is it known
as the City of a Thousand Minarets!

Salahuddin Ayyoub overthrew the Fatimids in 1170’s, realigned Cairo towards the Caliphate in Baghdad. He also built the Cairo Citadel which served as the seat of the government right up to the 19th century.

The Nile at night. The river has an enormous impact on Cairo
as well as Egypt as a whole. Egypt is because of the Nile.

In 1250, slave soldiers, known as Mamluks, took control of Cairo.  The city continued to flourish as a hub of the spice trade.  The Mamluks ruled till the Ottomans overthrew them in the 16th century and Cairo passed into Turkish hands.  

Sharia Khiyyamiya, or the Tentmakers' Street in Islamic Cairo.

Emad el Din Street in Downtown Cairo. In the 19th century,
Ismail Pasha, the then ruler of Egypt, remodelled/modernised
Cairo in the style of European capitals, especially Paris. He
also built the Suez Canal with huge loans from European banks, 

and these enormous debts meant Europeans soon sat on the 
Egyptian cabinet.

In the last few centuries, modern Cairo has seen a French invasion, become a British protectorate, been the venue for three national revolutions, and umpteen other politically, socially charged events. 

Did you know the Arabs are very foreigner-friendly? In twenty years, I remember meeting only two Arabs who were rude and Quarrelsome and they were both desperately unhappy people. In contrast, I’ve met many, many Arabs who went completely out of their way to help us - total strangers.

That’s not to say the guides and touts, cabbies and shopkeepers, won’t cheat sometimes, of course some of them will try. There are a few dodgy ones everywhere who spoil the majority-reputation. But the cheaters will do it with unfailing courtesy and a very articulate, not Quiet, charm :)

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

P is for...hang on...P? not legally Permitted!

In case you are looking for the WEP post, click here.

is not a letter

Psst...did you know? P doesn't exist in Arabic? Yup, no P. Many uneducated Arabs substitute P with B which are both bilabial consonants (need both lips to be pronounced, in plainspeak), and say Bebsi for Pepsi. 

No P in Arabic. Arab decorator overcompensating! :) Spotted 
many of these on the Ring Road, Cairo. Egypt.

Arabs are forever being made the butt of jokes because of this...Have you heard that one about the guy who wanted to 'find a blace to bark his car because he wanted to bray?' Yeah me too, about five million times, it kind of goes flat after the first. Let's turn the tobic to more bleasant, OMG it's rubbing off!! I mean, pleasant stuff like...

Pitbull featured in this Cheb Khaled number


For a culture that is supposed to shun image-making as close to being idolatrous, the Arabs churn out pretty large piles of photographs!  Click here to find a small selection of them and the kind of work they do. 

Also, just a wee mention of the Arab Image Foundation, set up in 1997 in Beirut. It collects photographs from the Arab countries and diaspora, and preserves the history of photography in the region.  They have a collection of 600,000 photographs till date.

However, today I want to talk about just one particular photographer - Mosa’ab El Shamy, who is a young Egyptian, self-taught, freelance photojournalist.  He started off by documenting the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 and went on to follow those events through the years.  His photographs are powerful, yet intimate, sometimes heart-wrenching, at others heart-warming, at times both.  Strangely compelling. Go to his Flicker stream to see more. A word of warning though - some of them are graphic! so not for the queasy or the softhearted.  Read his interview in the WSJ and on Time here, both interviews carry his images too.

Protesters clash with police in Cairo after the events at Port Said. 
© Mosa’ab El Shamy

The lion on Qasr el Nil bridge after many protesters were shot in the eye.
© Mosa’ab El Shamy

Protests in Cairo on Armed Forces Day, 6th October
© Mosa’ab El Shamy


If there is a biochemical that controls human affinity to paints/colours and the facility with a brush, then the Arabs seem to have an unfairly large dollop of it in their genes!

Triptych by Hassan Al Suri. Bahrain Museum.

I don’t have any statistics to prove it, of course, but I am sure that artist per capita population in the Arab world must be one of the highest! I don’t know what it is- this intense sunlight – does that bring a unique clarity not possible elsewhere? Or is it the forbidding, stark beauty of the desert landscape that underpins a unique perspective? Whatever it is, it makes for a profusion of artworks.

Painting exhibition at the Atelier, Downtown, Cairo.

In an artist's studio in Wikala al Ghuri, Old Cairo.

Anyways, I digress.  Like Mosa’ab, I wanted to tell you about one particular Bahraini artist – Abdul Wahab Al Kooheji, an architect by training, he has spent his entire career archiving the old architecture of Bahrain through his paintings. The kind of dwelling spaces that have mostly been lost now in the rush of modernity. See more of his work by clicking this link.

Reproduction of The Balustrades by Abdul Wahab Al Kooheji.
Note the discarded slippers at the foot of the staircase. 

There is a common Perception that Arabs are an angry, violent race, but this is largely untrue. Given the constraints they operate under, the young people are extremely well-behaved, Polished and Patient. Of course, as I said before, there are a few rotten apples everywhere. But all things considered, the majority are Paragons if you ask for my free and frank.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Ambiflextrous : Write... Edit... Publish... April 2017

Hello folks!

My A-Z post is at P is for… just in case you're here from the A-Z Challenge.

WEPers! I tried to combine the A-Z and WEP into one post, but totally didn’t manage to – massive fail! But this post does fit into my overall A-Z theme  - Arabiana, and it's a response to both "Peace and Love" and "Despair and hope may meet within one heart" - at least to the idea that two completely opposite elements can be present simultaneously within the same thing.

So...I'm back with the last part of Heba’s story, an epilogue really. Her story starts sometime after 2011 March and ends on the morning of November 9th, 2016. This final excerpt opens eight years down the line, and Heba is on the move again, but this time it's a happy move, not traumatic.  

(For those who'd like to refresh the background, the earlier parts can be found here and here)

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

O is for...Oum...and...Oman

is for

Oum El Ghaith Benessahraoui, known simply as Oum, from Morocco. Totally strumming my feelings with her fingers and killing me softly every time I hear her. Blending her uniquely fascinating brand of Arab-African music, a glorious fusion of both her Berber/Amazigh and Arab heritage. Enjoy!


Oman is one of the Gulf countries, lying at the extreme south-east corner of the Arabian peninsula, it pretty or what? It has a population of about 4 million, and 45% of that is expatriate.

Expat soaking feet at Hawiyat Najm - 'The Fallen Star' Sinkhole. 
Bimmah, Oman.

And it has a history as long as a whale's tail – recently an archaeological find in Abyut al Awal has unearthed stone tools from a specific African Lithic Period dated back to 106,000 years ago. That’s seriously ancient! It’s the hard evidence that Man migrated out of Africa first into Arabia - happening place the Middle East even yonks and yonks ago. There are other sites that show Oman being continuously settled since some 9500-10,000 years ago.  

Wadi Shab. Oman has a coastline of over 2000 kms. 

Like much of Arabia, Oman too has been under the rule/influence of Persian dynasties from ancient times. Islam came to Oman in the 7th century, and remains the major faith there since then.  Political control however passed onto the Portuguese in the 15th-16th century, and they and the Ottomans fought over Oman all through the latter centuries. Till a local rebel group kicked both of them out and founded the present ruling dynasty of Sultans in 18th century, since when Oman has been self governing. It is an absolute monarchy through male primogeniture - the Sultan is the supreme authority. 

Mutrah in Muscat. Muscat has been a trading port for centuries. 
Omani Arabs have controlled trade in these parts historically.

Sultan's Palace. Muscat. No security to keep passers by off, 
anyone can walk right up to the gate and take a snap, like 
I did.

Freedom of worship is not an issue - there are places of prayers for all major faiths. The current Khimji family of Indian origin, (their forefather came to Oman in 1870) are the only Omani Hindu sheikhs in the world. The present head of the family is a Vaishnav (worshipper of Krishna as a family deity), a strict vegetarian and has close access to the Sultan. 

Al Hajar Mountains. Oman has the highest hills in the 
Arabian Peninsula.

The Sultan is reputed to be a bit of an eccentric, and incidentally, is a student of Shankar Dayal Sharma's, ninth President of India. When the President visited Oman, the Sultan met his professor and drove him personally back from the airport, a very Eastern/Arab/Indian teacher-pupil type cute, great-PR-vibe thing to do. (This I hear about most Arab monarchs - they are always jumping into SUVs and driving off by themselves without much ceremony at the drop of a hat, and the young princes of royal blood are the same - zoom off on motorbikes and stop at roadside shops, rub shoulders with the hoi polloi, and zoom off again. Must be absolute security nightmares!)

The Omani Sultan's also a passionate fan of music, and has set up the Omani Royal Orchestra. Slightly rocky marital history (does that remind you of any other leaders? :) But no male heirs, and no successors named. More reliant on business families for his administration than members of his own family, unlike normal Arab practice.

Sur. Traditional centre of Omani shipbuilding and a historically 
important port in the past.

Wadi Tiwi. Lots of trekking opportunities if you're into that sort
of thing. And desert safaris.

Oman has traditionally been the main controller of frankincense trade since ancient times. 'All the perfumes of Arabia?' That's Oman - it was the centrepoint of the Incense Route. The present economy is based on oil exports, it has the 25th largest reserves worldwide.  Though there have been determined efforts to diversify since the last few decades.  Tourism is now a fast growing area - Oman is a major turtle- and whale-watch destination in the Gulf area.

Did you know Arabic has Oral traditions in poetry going back millennia, pre-dating Islam? Poetry slams, where two poets from different tribes competed against each other, stood in for actual battles, thus avoiding bloodshed. May be an idea to tweak and use to avoid our modern megaconflicts!

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Monday, 17 April 2017

N is for...Nourhanne... and... Nasri... and... Nomads...

is for

is a singer from Lebanon, with Min Zaman, a pop number:  

Welcome back everyone after the big weekend, hope you have had a great time relaxing or catching up, and those celebrating Easter have had a great and fulfilling Easter Sunday. My weekend sped by before I had time to draw breath, this whole A-Z is flashing past at a break neck speed somehow. Anyways…

N is also for Assalah Nasri, a Syrian singer based out of Egypt, whose music leans towards traditional Arabic. She has been granted Bahraini nationality after she performed here in Bahrain for the National Day celebrations. Here is one of her shorter songs. (Traditional Arabic songs are long!)


The very word ‘Arab’ is etymologically rooted in words like passer-by, nomad, moving around in the various Semitic languages. Think of an Arab and the image that floats into mind is a man in a chequered headgear riding a camel over miles of inhospitable dunes.

Jebeliya Bedouin and camels.  At the foot of Jebel Moussa, Mt
Moses, the mountain of the Decalogue. St Catherine, Egypt.

Arabia had been completely underplayed in the story of human migrations out of Africa…we’re transforming the prehistory of Arabia. ~ Michael Petraglia, Director, Paleodesert Project. 

There is now evidence that Arabia was the first stop when Man initially migrated out of Africa.  Several archaeological sites in Oman, Saudi Arabia and UAE have been identified. And some dated to more than 100,000 years.

Geneticists have shown that the modern human family tree began to branch out 60,000 years ago. I’m not questioning when it happened, but where. I suggest the great modern human expansion to the rest of the world was launched from Arabia rather than Africa. ~ Jeffrey Rose, Director, Dhofar Archaeological Project. 

Arabia wasn’t always a desert, it was once a lush, green land with flowing rivers - archeological evidence shows that hippos, elephants, big cats roamed across a savannah like terrain in what is now a formidably arid desert. 

The taxation of caravans and transport of goods 
and people were historical occupations.  Bedouin 
man. Wadi Rum. Jordan.  

So, if that’s the case it automatically begs the question – why didn’t the hunting-gathering populations that came out of Africa stay put in Arabia? What made the Arabs wander? Why were they nomads? 

The answer to that lies in the nature of Arabian climate change. It happened in cycles over many years, alternating between aridity and lushness. And these cycles of life-sustaining greenery and barrenness must be responsible for nomadism in the Arabian peninsula - when things got tough, the tough tribes broke camp and got going. 

Traditionally, Bedouins have raised goats and sheep in addition
to camels. A Bedouin flock crossing somewhere in Sinai. Egypt. 

The nomads in Arablands, generally known as Bedouins (from Bedu in Arabic) range from Oman in the south to Syria in the north, and from Egypt to Morocco in North Africa.  Camel, sheep and goat herding were their livelihood traditionally, and remains important even today.  Over the years, most Bedouins have been settled into purpose–built villages. Many of them work as guides or in other capacities in the tourism sector.

In most countries of the Middle East, they have no title to the lands, only the right to use.  The governments see the land traditionally used by the Bedouins as state property to be developed for the tourism sector, as for example in Egypt.  Predictably this has meant their lands shrinking and a resulting spike in unemployment, poverty and crime.

Bedouin guide in the White Desert, Egypt.
Many Bedouins are now settled in villages in
the desert and serve as tour guides.

They have their own laws and social customs and settle their disputes without recourse to the courts. It was considered completely inappropriate for Bedouins to marry ‘city-dwellers’ from outside the tribes, but it’s no longer unheard of, even if unacceptable.

A Bedouin woman's wealth is in her jewellery, traditionally made of silver and given when she gets married. Some of the designs have been handed down unchanged for thousands of years. However, individual antique pieces are rare, because once a woman dies, her jewellery is not handed down, that's considered unlucky - a bride must have new jewellery custom-made for her - so the dead lady's stuff is resold to the silversmiths who promptly melt it down.

Did you know - Lotfia el Nadi, an Egyptian, was the first female Arab pilot, she received her aviation licence in 1933 at the age of 25 and was the second woman to fly an aircraft solo after Amelia Earhart. The two women were friends and correspondents.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017