Tag Archives: islam

“Africa Zina” – Beautiful Africa

2015-04-23 14.08.03

Africa Zina, Tamazight or Berber for Beautiful Africa became the byword of the two-week adventure my wife and I just had in Morocco. Maybe one day it will classify as a vacation, but right now, it’s still an adventure. We had a blast and enjoyed ourselves immensely, but by virtue of the itinerary we planned, and it wasn’t entirely a surprise, this was not a stress-free trip.

First, a few2015-04-23 10.12.48 things about Morocco. Because of the media and our propensity to make things identifiable and simple, we tend to classify all of North Africa and the non-European parts of the Mediterranean basin as “the Middle East”.  It isn’t so. Moroccans identify wholly as Africans – North Africans.  Mention the Middle East and the Moroccans we met will point vaguely east and tell you the Middle East is over that way, where the Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis are. It’s not a political writing off, just geo and ethnographic fact setting. Along with our geographic lumping together, we pretty much classify most of the 2015-04-25 10.17.39citizens of the North Africa / Middle East area as Arabs. While mostly true, it’s a matter of degrees. Forty to fifty percent of Moroccans are Berber or Amazigh, and they’re proud of that distinction. Berber is actually a shortened version of Barbarian, a term conferred on the Amazigh (and others, including the Corsicans) by Rome as the empire was collapsing. While Rome ruled the region, the Amazigh were never entirely subdued and didn’t wholly embrace the glory of Rome.

2015-04-28 10.43.12Morocco is a Moslem country, but by virtue of its history and location it’s also cosmopolitan. Historically Morocco hasn’t been insular and offers visitors a culture and history influenced by sub-Saharan Africans, Jews, Islam, the Berber-Arab mix, and a French (and Spanish) colonial past .

While we saw many people in traditionally modest dress, and guide books recommend that even men eschew shorts (except maybe in the desert,) and remain sensitive to local mores, our guides intimated that many Moroccans (like High Holiday Jews or Easter Christians) manage to find their mosques around Ramadan. Maybe in the bigger cities, but the villages certainly seemed more observant.

So, the stress. This experience was unlike anything either of us have experienced. Going into the medinah (old city) of Marrakech makes midtown Manhattan 2015-04-29 10.58.42seem almost sedate and Midwestern by comparison. Either the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet commented that a visit to Morocco’s historical cities would involve “sensory overload”, and they were absolutely correct.  The whole older city, whether Marrakech or Fes, are warrens of narrow, nameless alleys, and merchants in stalls selling every variety of good, food, spice, fabric and clothing.  Marrakech, more so than Fes is the living embodiment of commercial capitalism.  If you stop and make eye-contact for more than 3 seconds, you’ve effectively entered a contract to try and buy something through bargaining. If y2015-04-27 11.20.33ou stop to look at a map or read a non-existent street sign, you are inviting a score of helpful but not necessarily altruistic youth (boys, never girls) to show you where you want to go, or think you w
ant to go.  And, usually for a fee.  It can be unseemly and uncomfortable at times, but it’s normal.  We learned to look determined in the face of wrong turns, and to ask directions from vendors or shop owners, or men (again, never woman) in cafes.  As Chicago is less intense than NYC, so Fes is several degrees more manageable than Marrakech, and to a degree, more interesting historically.

We spent several days with some wonderful people learning to prepare Moroccan
dishes, gallivanting from butcher to baker to the spice man2015-04-22 13.21.37 with a delightful young woman in Fes. Her demeanor with the stall vendors was reminiscent of how our grandparents interacted with the neighborhood butcher and grocer before the coming of the supermarket. We also had a serendipitous encounter with a “healer” who beckoned us into his shop, but was fun to listen to and provided a relaxing reflexology massage to weary feet and strained shoulders, and a recommended selection of Argan Oil, musk and Amber.

Finally; despite geographic, social and cultural differences, we really are all human, and have more in common than we sometimes think. Even when there’s no snow.2015-04-21 12.43.36

– Richard

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The Remote War

Every now and then a book comes along that really helps me get a handle on current events. A foreign policy junkie like myself gets a fix constantly from the reams of info available online. But there is usually something missing. A few paragraphs and a carefully chosen photo can fill me on some event, sometimes only hours after it happens on the other side of the world. But those paragraphs usually aren’t able to capture that vital element in comprehension. I am talking about context.

That’s when Print throws open the saloon doors and swaggers back into the room. The Internet is wonderful and all, but good luck trying to parse out what’s happening in somewhere like Nigeria from a few news articles and a Wikipedia page.


Getting context and background on the shadowy enemies of Obama’s drone campaigns had proven very difficult until I found this book, The Thistle and the Drone,  by Akbar Ahmed. This remarkable work takes a historical and anthropological look at the tribal groups most likely to have their sleep interrupted by a hellfire missile. It’s impressive for a number of reasons. Ahmed’s encyclopedic knowledge on the topic was acquired by his own experience as a government administrator in Pakistan’s most notorious areas.  There, in the pre-9/11 world, the author learned the histories and organizations of groups like the Pashtun and Baluch. His own scholarly research further completes an expansive understanding of tribal societies and elements common to all sorts of cultures from the Scots that gave the English so much trouble so long ago, to the Chechens and Avars that resisted Russian imperial aims. Books like this only come along so often. Ahmed provides the background and nuance to center-periphery conflicts such as those raging in Waziristan and northen Nigeria. This book should be required reading, as inconvenient as its contents may be.


For more background on Pakistan and Afghanistan and the long chain of events that led to our never-ending war against people wearing sandals, I highly recommend Ghost wars : the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll.

Any other news junkies out there that happen upon singular works that go beyond the headlines, please sound off. I am always looking for an edge, and I am sure the library has it.


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Journey with Us

Growing up in the 1980s in a distant bedroom community of Washington, D.C., my experience with people of other religions was minimal, to say the least. Everyone seemed to be Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian or possibly Catholic. The few Jewish folks I knew didn’t go to temple and I certainly didn’t know any Buddhists or Muslims.

Several years, cities and countries later, I’m glad that my worldview has expanded greatly. Even so, if you asked me to confidently rattle off more than five sentences about the world’s second-largest religion – Islam – I might start to trail off. The American Library Association and the National Endowment for Humanities got together recently and figured I wasn’t the only one who could use some enlightenment.

Throughout 2013, over 800 libraries across the nation will be exploring Islamic culture, thanks to a grant from the ALA and NEH called Muslim Journeys. We’re excited to be one of those libraries. The Main Library in Oakland will receive a “bookshelf” with more than two dozen books, some films, and a year of access to Oxford Islamic Studies Online. These materials are “intended to address the American public’s need and desire for trustworthy and accessible resources about Muslim beliefs and practices and the cultural heritage associated with Islamic civilizations,” says the NEH. In addition to these resources, we’ll be hosting programs all year long that will introduce themes of Islamic history and culture.

Our book clubs are a marvelous way to explore Islam. Black Holes, Beakers and Books discussed scientific contributions of the Arab Muslim world last Sunday, Bound Together will look at The Art of Hajj in March, the Mystery Book Discussion Group reads a novel set in Pakistan, Broken Verses,  in April and Books in the Afternoon will discuss Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in November. For graphic novel fans, discussions will be held later this year by the Teen Department on Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Out of the Gutter will be looking at Bosnian Muslims in Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde on May 20th.

Our long-running foreign film series, International Cinema Sunday, will present several movies related to Muslim culture or by Muslim directors. First up is Le Grande Voyage, about a conservative Muslim father and his more secular son making a pilgrimage to Mecca, followed by films set in Chad, Turkey, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

A survey of Muslim poets is never complete without Rumi. Three Poems By … will read and discuss his work in November.

In a happy accident, the Muslim Journeys grant dovetails with another local program happening this year. Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book is the 2013 selection for the Allegheny County Library Association’s One Book, One Community programs. In it, a Muslim librarian helps rescue a sacred Jewish text. The phrase “people of the book” has been used by Jews to refer to Jewish people and the Torah. It has also been used by Muslims to refer to non-Muslim adherents of Abrahamic faiths, including Jews and Christians

Of course, Islam is not a religion solely of the Arab world, nor are all Arabs Muslim. Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim community, and many adherents of Islam live in African countries such as Egypt and Nigeria. (Kids can learn more about that in March at Passport to the World: Somalia.) That said, many Muslims speak Arabic, and the library continues to hold free Arabic classes on Sunday afternoons. Films, books, and a magazine in the Arabic language are available to check out. We also offer English translations of books that were originally written in Arabic.

We’re excited for you to journey with us throughout 2013. Look for more information about the grant, materials and programs to be posted soon at http://www.carnegielibrary.org/muslimjourneys.


Rita is a librarian with the First Floor, New & Featured Department and is coordinating CLP’s efforts for the Muslim Journeys grant.


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