Sunday 30 April 2017

Z is for...Zaghareet...and...Zellige....

is for

Zaman, a band from Palestine. Their music is a fusion of Arabic and Spanish and Roma. More about them here

Zahraa Berro, a child artiste from Lebanon, with Mawtini, which you’ve heard from Elissa and Faia before in this A-Z series.  Zahraa has a crystal clear voice, and her rendition is moving.  Though I don’t like the drama with the rose and the sound effects – imho they are redundant and a distraction. Anyhoo. I liked this version, children singing always move me, whatever the level of talent, and this little girl is talented beyond doubt. Have a listen

Zaghareet - (singular zagharout) meaning ululation.  Performed as an expression of joy, to celebrate an occasion and/or welcome/felicitate a person, all through the MENA region. 

As an interesting aside, Bengalis also ululate at weddings and religious/celebratory events just like the Arabs. Common practice in some other parts of Africa also. I understand both ancient Egyptians and Sumerians ululated, the practice really goes back deep into antiquity.


Zellige is the name given to Moroccan decorative ceramic mosaics. The patterns are abstract and repetitive - in accordance with Islamic principles. Most of them are based on the geometry of the circle. Mosaics are nothing new, of course, used well before the advent of Islam.

Roman mosaic from the 2nd century found in a wealthy urban
residence.  Villa of the Birds, Kom al Dikka, Alexandria, Egypt.

Detail of Byzantium era mosaic. Madaba Archaeological Park.
Madaba, Jordan.

The use of glazed ceramics in architecture was established in Persia by 6th century BCE.  Mosaics existed in pre-Islamic Persia by the 3rd century, and in Rome/Byzantium even before that.  

Zellige mosaic in the Alhambra Palace. Note the strapwork weaving
over and under each other. Complex! Granada, Andalusia, Spain.

Moroccan zellige was first developed around a thousand years ago – the Almoravid rulers introduced these mosaic tiles in mid-11th century.   The colour palette was broadened under Merinid rulers in the 13th century and the zellige mosaics reached unsurpassed heights in Andalusia, in the buildings of Granada and Cordoba, by the mid-14th century.   

Detail of zellige mosaic. Royal Palace, Seville. Spain.

Zellige making is incredibly fiddly – a mind boggling combo of art and science and inspired.  First the tiles are made in a range of colours/glazes.  Then a master-cutter wields a heavy hammer-chisel hybrid (menqash) with supreme finesse to cut out the tiny pieces (tesserae in English, furmah in Arabic). 

Detail of mosaic. Note the strapwork radiates out from a central
eight point star. Alhambra Palace, Granada, Andalusia, Spain.

Floor inset, based on Moroccan Zellige. Beit al Quran Museum, 
Manama, Bahrain.

Detail of above, showing geometric pattern. Note the presence
of the 8-point star in the interstices.

The required pieces are then assembled face down from a central point onwards to ensure a smooth, even surface for the front of the finished mosaic. Not a single mismatch in colour, not one wrong placement, otherwise the pieces don’t fit, not the slimmest margin for error.  Takes the phrase “working blind” to a whole new level, doesn’t it?

Once the mosaic pattern is assembled, it is moistened, a mixture of backing material is poured into the frame and left to set.  When set, the zellige is removed from the frame and taken for installation. This clip illustrates the process -


So that completes my A-Z 2017 - as in all other years, I have had a super duper fun time, both writing and reading. I hope you too have had a pleasant time here.

An apology on the length of the posts is in order. I did try some major culling though, oodles of stuff left out - a heap of musicians, all literature, mother-of-pearl inlay, the internet, woodwork, parks, the importance of water, the month of Ramadan...uff, chop chop chop the whole time and even then my posts were humongous. But I hope I've been able to get across at least a part of the vibrancy and beauty and diversity of this culture I'm privileged to see up close.

Leaving you with this song by Oum, "Here" from her album Zarabi -

'Here, my eyes have seen grace...
Here, we found peace...
Here, the Eden where we got lost,
Here, we got lost...'

A tad melodramatic in ordinary convo, but you get my general drift...

To each one of you who came along with me on this exploration, for a few steps, or the entire way - a big, fat thank you for your patience and your support! Or as the Arabs would put it ~

Alf shukr! wa ma'a salaama! 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 with a final round of thanks and applause

for the Creator of the Challenge

Arlee Bird @ Tossing it Out



Alex J. Cavanaugh @ Alex J. Cavanaugh

eremy Hawkins @ Hollywood Nuts

Heather M. Gardner The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Zalka Csenge Virág @ The Multicolored Diary

John Holton @The Sound of One Hand Typing

J Lenni Dorner @ Blog of J. Lenni Dorner

Saturday 29 April 2017

Y is for...Yalla bina!...and...Yellow...and Youthful

is for
Yalla bina!

is an expression that translates “hurry up” or “C’mon, let’s go”, yalla not to be confused with Ya Allah, which literally means “O God” and is used as an invocation to God. 

Ykhalili Albak 

by Najwa Karam, the phenomenally popular, multi-platinum artiste from Lebanon. Najwa has been singing for almost three decades, and has sold millions of records. 

And here is a brand new Middle Eastern star Faia Younan – amazingly expressive voice! Some quality in her voice reminds me of Fairouz. She rose to stardom after this video, created by her and her sister, went viral. She has subsequently released an album and performed at many events in Europe and in MENA. Read more about her at her site


Time for some random snaps and random facts!

Yellow limes on the Yellow Alley - Darb al
Asfar. This area of the old city was restored 

in the 90's. The vendor was a woman, she did 
not permit me to photograph her. So I got her
basket instead. 2011, Islamic Cairo. Egypt.

Middle-Eastern munchies.  Arabs snack on a wide range of roasted 
nuts and seeds - sunflower, pumpkin, pine nuts, peanuts, etc. Many 
local dishes use nuts as ingredients as well. Display in a shop near 
the Archaeological Park. 2013, Madaba, Jordan.

Bahrain National Theatre. The metal clad roof was specially treated
with a closely guarded proprietary substance to achieve the golden
yellow colour. 2014, Manama, Bahrain.

Embroidered Coptic Cross on velvet drapery at St 
Anthony's Monastery, one of the oldest in the world.
Some of these desert monasteries have been continually 
functional for around 1500 years, given a special dispensation 
of protection by Prophet Mohammed personally when the Arab 
armies conquered Egypt. St Anthony's Monastery. 2012, 
Zafarana, Egypt.

Tanoura performer in yellow. Wikala al Ghouri. Al Azhar Street,
Cairo. 2014, Egypt.

Tableau depicting Bahraini society of times past. Dates and
coffee are still an important part of Arab culture. Bahrain
National Museum. 2015, Manama, Bahrain.


The profile of the Arablands is youthful.  First off, the demographics in these countries – the population is overwhelmingly young. Arabs are a tender young bunch, the median age in the Arab countries varies from a low of 19 years to a high of 29 years. 

Secondly, most of the 22 countries which make up the Arab League, are themselves quite young - they have become self-governing nations only a few decades ago. Except for Oman, all countries in the MENA became independent in the 20th century. All Arablands, except Oman, are less than a century old.

Many of the conflicts and challenges that these countries face can be at least partially laid at the door of foreign occupiers. Let me make it clear here - I'm totally not in favour of former colonies/protectorates looking back and forever playing the victim card, pick yourselves up and get a move on, folks! But equally we must be aware of facts.

The general public outside the Arablands knows or cares little about the origins of Arab problems and what role the Europeans have played here. I wonder if European/Western teenagers learn about the Sykes-Picot agreement in their history classes? Or about the history of colonialism of their respective motherlands? About the past roles of their governments in slavery or Apartheid? The Holocaust is shocking beyond words and we must never ever forget its lessons, but it is regrettably not the only huge injustice perpetrated in history! 'Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.' 

Is the new generation being made aware of peoples/nations who've been grievously wronged apart from the Jews?

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017  

Friday 28 April 2017

X is'Xplorers

is for

X ala X  

which is a 2016 hit from this new artiste Sultan, very catchy, very joyous. Ten is ashra in Arabic incidentally, and dig that double clap and that little shruggy move Sultan does, ooh some music mojo! All this rhythmic hand clapping reminds me of the subcontinental tradition of Qawwali songs.


Historically, the Arabs were inveterate travellers. Most of them were ordinary people, traders or merchants, who travelled thousands of miles between Arablands and other shores, but left no records. Other cultures and peoples did however, and a quote from a Roman writer, “…And the whole place is crowded with Arab ship-owners and seafaring men, and is busy with the affairs of commerce; for they carry on a trade with the far-side coast...” shows that Arabs have been building ships and sailing the Indian Ocean long before Islam came to Arabia.

Arabs have always had a seafaring tradition, think of the Arabian peninsula and the reasons are obvious – it has a long coastline, surrounded on three sides by the sea. Second, the coasts are separated from the interiors by mountains and deserts, sea routes are more accessible, and lastly, the coastal areas offered easier options to live off them than the interior. Add to the long Arabian coastline, the Nile in Africa, the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers to the East, and we get an effective transport hub, sitting at a strategic location between the East and the West. 

Once Islam came to Arabia, travel got a further fillip – every able bodied practitioner of the new faith was required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. But apart from the journeys required by faith or livelihood, there were travellers who went out just for the love of it. Wanderlust - there was an epidemic of it among the early Arabs it seems! A few of the famous Arab travellers -

Mohammed ibn Battuta (1304–1368/9) Moroccan scholar, writer and traveller. Travelled extensively in Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, India, Sri Lanka, China.  Wrote of his travels in Rihla (Travels). 

Al Masoodi – (~890’s–956) Known as the Herodotus of the East. Travelled to Syria, Armenia, the Caspian Sea, Indus Valley, Sri Lanka, Oman, the East Coast of Africa. Wrote widely, most well-known for Muruj ad-Dahab wa Ma’adin al Jawaheer (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems).

Ibn Jubair (1145-1217) From Al Andalus, Spain. Travelled to Mecca and recorded the trip.  Covered Egypt, Mecca, Medina and Sicily. 

Ibn Fadlan (10th century) Travelled to Bulgaria as ambassador of the Abbasid Caliphate. Wrote of his travels up the Volga River.

Ahmed ibn Majid (1421-1500?) Born in Oman, traveller, navigator. Wrote detailed treatise on navigation, marine science and oceanography. The most well-known is Kitab al Fawaadh fi-Usul Ilm al Bahrwa al Qawaidah (The Book of Benefits of the Principles of Seamanship).

There are several others – Al Mahri, Al Muqaddasi, Ibn Hawqal…and not enough time/space/word allowance to cover all of them.  

Phew! am I glad that's over??  X is tough enough in English already, without trying to wrestle it into Arabic :) Did you know - Ibn Battuta's Xylophones are the oldest surviving specimens, kept in the museum at Khayalliya in North Africa?

(okay I just made that up to fit the post, clueless whether he collected xylophones, or played the instrument! :D and Khayalliya doesn't eXist either to the best of my knowledge and belief. Creative licence folks, needed nowhere else as much as X)

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Thursday 27 April 2017

W is for...Women...and Wrong impressions

is for

Egyptian musician Maii Waleed, collaborating here with Zeid Hamdan, a Lebanese producer, in Hsafeer Ba'aeid 

and also Dina el Wedidy, another emerging Egyptian musical star, with her Sokoun (Tranquillity) -

And if you are not in the mood to read a long and somewhat cantankerous post, you should stop while the going is feel-good with this music.  But if you want to feel hot and bothered like me, then go right ahead…


I keep getting these vibes from non-Arabs about how Arab women are ‘oppressed,’ ‘not empowered,’ ‘can't access education,’ and somehow ‘forced’ to wear the hijab. Let’s talk some facts and kick the stuffing out of these stereotypes!

Firstly, Bahrain, where I am now: Bahraini women’s situation in particular is different from their much larger and notorious neighbour Saudi Arabia. Here’s an excerpt from a book by a couple of Western authors, one of whom grew up in Bahrain.

Bahrainis are more politically advanced than elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf because Bahrain has a longer exposure to Western style institutions. Prior to 1930, the Ruler of Bahrain appointed a British advisor who introduced elements of British law into the Bahraini legal system. Bahrain was the first country in the region to hold parliamentary elections in 1973 and 2002, women were probably the first in the region to have the right to vote.

Culture Shock! Bahrain: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette – Harvey Tripp, Margaret Tripp.

According to the UNDP study on Gender Inequality, Bahrain is second among the GCC countries in Gender Inequality Index (GII), second to UAE by a hairsbreadth. Here is a recap:

GII 2016
Global Rank (in 188 countries)
% women’s share of seats in parliament
% female population 25+ with some secondary education (male)
% women  in labour force (15+)
65.7 (44.2)
77.4 (64.5)
61.6 (55.6)
Saudi Arabia
63.3 (72.1)
59.8 (57.1)
37.5 (49.9)
56.8 (58.1)
53.0 (55.4)
34.1 (35.7)
78.5 (82.7)
26.7 (33.2)
35.8 (55.5)
70.9 (67.8)
34.8 (43.4)
54.5 (68.2)
Chart-topper n benchmarks
96.1 (97.4)
81.3 (84.6)
95.4 (95.1)

It leaps off the page that in most Gulf countries, more women than men have secondary education. Bahraini women certainly are not denied schooling!  In twenty years, I haven’t met a Bahraini who was not literate. The overall literacy is 95.7% here, so it figures! 

A greater percentage of women participate too, in the labour force in the Gulf as compared to other Arab nations. Political participation is a different matter altogether, but then again, nowhere in the world is it perfect, is it? Not even in the strongholds of democracy do women have adequate representation, so what of these here, which are just a few decades into their lives as independent nations? 

Now onto Egypt, where I was just before I came to Bahrain. Egypt is a painful instance of regression over the last few decades, they started out very differently.  Again, don’t take my word for it, I am an outsider, read what Alaa al Aswany, a famous Egyptian author, essayist, social commentator and a US-trained dentist, has to say:

In the aftermath of the 1919 uprising against the British occupation, the pioneering Hoda Shaarawi took the Turkish burka off her face at a public ceremony as a sign that the liberation of the country was inseparable from the liberation of women. Egyptian women were truly the pioneers for women in the Arab world: the first to be educated and to work in every field, the first to drive cars and fly planes, and the first to enter parliament and government.  But at the end of 1970’s Egyptians fell under the influence of fundamentalist ideas and the Wahhabi school of thought proliferated, with the support of oil money, whether through satellite television or…the Egyptians who worked for years in Saudi Arabia and came back saturated with fundamentalist ideas.
On the State of Egypt – the Issues that Caused the Revolution.
Alaa al Aswany.

For all the depressing figures, there are still many, many educated women working in every field in Egypt, and across all of Arablands.  A quarter of the Egyptian female population is still more than 10 million.  

This is not to claim that women’s situation is not a concern – in Egypt particularly - Wahhabism, Female Genital Mutilation and sexual molestation remain major issues.  But it is equally wrong to assume all Egyptian/Arab women are uneducated, powerless, browbeaten, spineless wilting lilies, covered top-to-toe in veils, who don't know their own minds. This attitude is patronising and insulting and frankly, weird. Read about some prominent Egyptian women here

And watch this Saudi video which went viral last year.  The lyrics translate to 'Oh God rid us of these men.' :) Times they are a-changing, even in the final bastion of patriarchy! 

Oh yes, nearly forgot - the misplaced Worry re hijabs. I've known Arab and Muslim women who wear it, and those who don’t. As a random example, I once knew a young woman who wore the hijab to work because she didn’t want to “deal with hair issues at 6 a.m.” and never covered her hair for social occasions/in the evening.  And I have known others, deeply devout, who wore it as a religious duty. Some women wear it as an identity marker, others as a fashion statement. There's no law that forces women to wear the hijab in Bahrain. Or Egypt, though there has been a spike in veiling as mentioned before.

It seems to me beyond belief that the hijab is conflated with degree of freedom, or ambition, or education, or anything else. It's a non-issue, women should be free to make their own choices re attire and not be discriminated against for wearing/not wearing a scarf, or a dupatta, or a certain length of hemline, full stop. People really need to get over this obsession with what women wear, everywhere in the world! 

An apology for the length of this post, and thank you for your patience if you've read through till here.  It's just one of those topics where word limits get thrown into the wastepaper basket. 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017