Jordan – 9 years on (BAJD2010)

It had been 9 years since I last paid a proper  visit to Jordan, but I recently went back for 2 weeks. I was greeted by a freak heatwave in the middle of the bitter Jordanian winter, and instead of the bone chilling cold and sobbas I got warm sunny days. It had been 6 years since I had seen most of my relatives, and during this time two of my uncles had passed away. A loss which struck me again when I arrived, and I kicked myself for not having gone back sooner, in time to see them one last time. But as is life, I dont have a money tree and I guess my priority is to visit my nuclear family at least once a year.

While in Jordan I felt ‘something’ had changed, certainly the little I saw of Amman was busier, more developed, and significantly more capitalised. In northern Jordan in general there was a boom in billboard adverts, with slogans such as “together we can build a better future”, and I remembered thinking what that was about? There were far more leisure outlets as well, such as the King Abdullah gardens and the water park, which were not there 9 years ago. The explosion of malls did not escape my attention either, there is, what, four or five of them now, and I left the day after they opened abdoun mall (the first mall in Jordan), and there are now plans for another in Irbid. I was saddened however at the high perecentage of imported goods, I would have preferred to see more home grown products in the malls. But I guess we can always go to wist-al-balad for that, which I did, and was pleased to see it was the same!

In terms of spirit, I did feel that the few young people who had remained were optimistic, and were developing plans for their futures. My engineer cousin has yet to succumb to the lure of the gulf, and enjoys a decent job with a decent salary and health care, and the option to switch jobs. This luxury of choice of companies to work for was not as available when I was there, I recall a deep pessimism in the land regarding career progression, but now, at least with the few that I spoke to, they felt they could build a life in Jordan. Having said this, I did feel the Jordan is an ageing society, with so many of its youth and middle-agers having travelled abroad, and people did complain about the broadening divide between the super-rich and super-poor.

I was impressed by the new Jordan highway, as well as the northern bus station (so much cleaner, organised and pleasanter than abdali). I was also gobsmacked at immigration, I usually get through passport control in a bad mood, due to the officer being rude, but this time things went really smoothly, and the officer smiled and was really pleasant! It turns out this was not a one off experience, my sister reported the same phenomena when she joined me a few days later. We were both impressed and pleased by this!

The mumtaz taxi service gets a mixed reaction from me, their phone service is professional and friendly, but their drivers still try to bargain and switch the counter off just before they reach their destination, but of course you can always complain.

Above all, I just loved seeing my relatives again! I loved being reminded of all the amazing qualities that Palestinians/Jordanians have, that often are absent in the people who travel west. I was reminded of how genuinley generous they were, how unassertive and how much they hated upsetting people, and how hospitable! It was great to be reminded where my little quirks come from.

The House of Wisdom and the Legacy of Arabic Science

*A summary of the lecture given by Prof. Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical nuclear physicist.

**italics are my own take

The lecture kicked off with the Prof. explaining what prompted his interest in the legacy of Arab science. Born in Baghdad to a Iraqi father and English mother he was raised in the UK, and when he got older he became interested in the scientific history of his ancestors. He felt it may something he should be taking pride in, and wanted to promote knowledge of this era of scientific history which neither the West nor the Islamic/Arab east knew much about, or at least an era whose significance in modern-day science is under-appreciated.

Arab science is often viewed as merely presentational, the scientists of the age are assumed to have only translated and kept the scientific discoveries of the Greeks, then passing them on to Europe once it began its emergence from the Dark Ages. The Prof. aimed to present an argument that the Arabs did more than this, and that in fact they can be credited with the foundation of many of the theories and philosophies that drive modern day science.

The “Golden Age” of Arab science began roughly in the 9th century in Baghdad, a city built from scratch as a seat of power for the Abbassid Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid. This Golden Age was characterised by an “obsession with learning and original thinking. Haruns son, Al-Ma’mun, whose mum was a captured persian slave, took over the caliphate after his father. Like his father he had a thirst for knowledge, and claimed to have dreamt of Aristotle. He built what was known as the “house of wisdom”, or Beit Al-Hikmah, which was an academy filled with scholars and books. Today, some western historians try to play down the significance of this house by labelling it as little more than a library, when it was in fact a seat for science and rational thinking.

This interest in science and rational thought without any hint of any conflict with religion contrasts with the more modern viewpoint of some sort of clash between science and religion. 1000 years ago, Muslims took their duty to seek knowledge seriously, whereas today, a minority of Muslims now view with suspicion the advances in science. They wonder why we bother with the study of cosmology when the “Quran tells us all we need to know”.

Al-Khalili then spent the next 1/2 hour or so giving us a crash course on all the scientists of this golden age and their impact on science today. He started with Al-Kindi, a philosopher and polymath who imported and adapted Greek philosophy for the Islamic world. Then he spoke about Al-Khawarizmi, who is credited as the father of algebra, a title which he felt needed explaining since it is known that the balylonians were solving quadratic equations well before he came on the scene. Up until Al-Khawarizmi people were solving specific problems, and even though they used symbols these symbols represented real numbers, and their approach was geometrical and can be classified best as “number theory”. Al-Khawarizmi was the first to treat the symbols as free entities which can be manipulated, which through the algorithm that is used is ‘fixed’ or ‘forced’ to take a value (jabara=forced in arabic). In fact his seminal work in written entirely in prose, no mathematical symbols appear, and as such is accessable to anyone.

He then mentioned Al-Razi, the physician and founder of the modern day hospital. The of Al-Biruni, the persian polymath who provided a very clever and concise measurement of the radium of the earth. And f Ibn-Sina, the persona physician and author of the well known “Canon of Medicine”. Then of Ibn-Alnafis, the Syrian anatomist who first understood that blood must circulate via the lungs and into the heart.

Throughout the talk, Al-Khalili was careful not to over-inflate the contributions of Arab scientists. He was careful to mention that, for example, Al-Biruni was not the first to measure the circumference of the earth, he was beaten by the Greek Eratostheres in 250 BC, and that the Greek Gaelin thought the blood flowed from the right to the left chamber of the heart and that the true nature of blood circulation was figured out by William Harvey. His argument that no science springs out of the vacuum, and that people must stand on the shoulders of the giants that predated them to progress, and as the Arabs stood on Greeks, Indians, Persians and Babylonians, the West today stands on the shoulders of Arab giants.

This brings us to the question, do we call this age the Arabic revolution or the Islamic revolution? He argued that we can’t call it the ‘Islamic revolution’  because the early scientists were not all Muslim, and even though they were not all Arab, the language in which the texts were written in was Arabic. But it was not Arabic culture that prompted the revolution was it? It was Islamic philosophy, so shouldnt we pay credence to this?

He also briefly addressed the issue of the decline of science in Arabia. His reasoning for this was that there was no real answer to it. In the 14th and 15th centuries scholars such as Al-Ghazali came on the scene, he was more orthodox and criticised the early scholars and philosophers for being too pro-Greek (aka Pagan) philosophers. Added to this the Empire fragmented, the Mongols invaded (leading the loss of alot of literature), and the Ottomans took over. The Ottomans were not so much into pure science as they were into architecture (one of the Turkish members of the audience rightly argued that necessity is often the impetus for science and many engineering advances were made from the Ottoman interest in architecture). There was an overall loss of appetite for science, and no one other than Europe to carry the baton of scientific progress. I.e. the natural ebb and flow of life.

Moving on to Arabs today: the Gulf states are really in the best position to ignite another Arabian scientific revolution due to their financial resources, but up until recently they followed the science=technology=economy mentality which left little room for the pure sciences. Now things are changing, and Saudi Arabia for example is building (or has built?) a university dedicated to science for the sake of it.

Who know? Maybe we will shake of the cobwebs and become scientific revolutionaries once more? But will this require political and humanitarian stability in the regio or will it force it I wonder?

Fear for women and their repression in the Middle East

Just a quickie, on why some women are more at risk of honour crimes than others. Based on a talk given by Penny Johnson (Institute of Women’s studies at BirZeit University, Palestine), my own mental meanderings are italicised.

In reality she was looking for the reasons behind women’s bodies becoming the icon of fear for societies, and what causes one community to be more fearful for their women folk and restrictive of their movements… an attitude which could potentially lead to honour crimes.

She compared two small village communities in Palestine (I cant remember their names), both are under occupation (duh) and both are poor. In a survey of 19 to 29 year old women she found in Village A that the women were optimistic and spoke of hopes and dreams for themselves, of ‘developing their personalities’ and such whereas in Village B the women were very pessimistic they said they could not go out, lead very restrictive lives and ‘did not feel they had anything to live for’. Since there were no differences in education, economy or basic culture between the 2 villages, what could have lead to such a difference in attitudes?

Penny was able to determine 3 factors which contributed to the differences in attitude:-

  1. Security: village B was very close to a settlement and were often attacked by settlers and the army, thus leading to an overriding sense of insecurity.
  2. An enabling environment: village A had a more organised and active community council. There were therefore more community activities.
  3. Social cohesion: village B suffered from social fragmentation and unruly men. Thus 1 event can have far reaching events (no one is sure what happened or who to trust)

Lack of these factors can lead to a serious restrictions being placed on the womenfolk, such as:

  1. Blaming seemingly innocous things for the excessive danger perceived to face women (e.g. stallellite televison).
  2. The placement of inane restrictions, such as banning the use of the phone.
  3. Over-exaggerating events, and reading too much into them. An example she gave was the case of Village B, where a young couple were found killed in a car (I think this is how it happened I missed a bit of it) and people assumed the girl had been up to no good, and placed restrictions on their own daughters. Even after the community leaders, including the Imam, exonerated the poor girl from all wrong doing.

I would have loved for her to extrapolate on these points but since she was focussing on the effect that the occupation had on women, she moved onto other issues (namely how women dealt with keeping the family together in hard time).

But I think we can see similar trends in neighboring Arab countries, where women complain about harassment, also complain of a lack of trust of the police (lack of security), community activities are minimal, and people are mistrustful of others (social fragmentation). Often I find that people shift the blame, onto the women, onto the television, onto the high costs of marriage (women again), penalizing the victim I think must be easier. Solving the problem seems to be doable though, upgrade the police forces, offering training in dealing with cases of sexual harassment, probably increasing the number of female officers to make it easier for women to speak out, increasing community activities and projects, this may also lead to a healthier social framework.

Kolna Laila, or is it Khadra?

Funny that this event should coincide with the week in which I completed “Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”, by the Syrian-American academic Mohja Kahf. The heroine of the story, Khadra, is the daughter of Syrian Daaiays (da3iyas) who join a Dawah centre in the middle of Indianapolis. The parents come across as decent folk, who teach their daughter the shariah, and in her childhood few elements of cultural conditining appear. As a result she grows up to become quite an emancipated young lady, who expects other muslims to behave according to the Islamic concepts she was raised with. She wakes up to a harsh reality when she gets married, and her husband requires of her all the traditional services many arab men expect. He bullies and ‘forbids’ her to ride her bicycle, interferes with her activities on campus, and refuses to cook, at one point shouting ‘I am a man I do not cook’ even though both were in the middle of a university course. It all comes to a head when she gets pregnant and he completes his degree, expecting her to drop hers and move with him back to his country. Khadra, already feeling hemmed in by this marriage, rebels. At point she asks herself “Was this what marriage amounted to, compromise after compromise, until you frittered away all the jewels in your red box?”, she felt the ‘future was closing in, the horizon shrinking smaller around her’. She realises that she had lived her life for others, and this phase in her life culminates in abortion and divorce. That is when the dichotomy between religion and culture smack her in the face. Her parents disapprove, her brother is worried that her divorce will dent his chances of getting married. She is effectively left to deal with things on her own, and surprise surprise sinks into depression.


I wont say much more, its a beautiful book that I highly recommend, and in case anyone is wondering, no it is not an anti-islam book, on the contrary. However Mohja does illustrate how Islam is twisted to suit the male desire and ego. At one point we meet her mums friend, who married for love and whose husband took a second wife after over 20 years of marriage, but she stays with him for the kids and puts on the mask of the brave. Yet she admits to our heroine that her love for him was as pure as gold and that ‘you dont do that to love. No. No. It hurts. It hurts’. I cried buckets at this part. 


Its not all doom and gloom, in actuality the fact that an Arab woman is writing about such issues, while still being happily married mum of a few says bucketloads about the status and role of women in what has been a traditionally male dominated society. I refer readers to my post “Arab women of today”    for how arab culture and the status of women has evolved in the span of a generation.

the girl in the tangerine scarf, by mohja kahf. If you do buy it, link from and support Palestinian students studying in the UK.

Mohja Kahf

the privilege of being a female muslim, also by Mohja Kahf

Shame on us…

We say that God does not change a peoples’ situation until they change what is within them. Lebanon treats Palestinians worse that criminals, the rest of the Arab nations are complicent in the Palestinian predicament, the Gulf states exploit their migrant workers, all in the name of capitalism and a luxury lifestyle for the minority. These sentiments, far from being condoned by Islam, are the very vices that Islam initially set out to eradicate in the Arab world. These actions are in direct opposition to the beliefs and values that we prescribe to.

We nitpick at superficial issues, we analyse in detail the precise dress code required for women and the effect their clothes have on the greater society, we ponder the deep question of whether the process of producing gelatin renders pork gelatin halaal, fatwas are issued on the precise percentage of alcohol is halaal in beverage while keeping silent on the persecution of a rape victim, our conscious befuddled about whether we can listen to music and if so which type of music is halaal. We  go mental over some cartoons some poncy Dane draws, and roll out the red carpet, dancing in greeting of a mass murderer. Until we cleanse these heinous sins, adhere and submit to what we know Islam to be, then we deserve to live in this shame and we deserve the scorn the world levies at us.

A cop out often used when faced with our ugly reality, is that these are the actions of our unelected governments, that we have no say in what they do. Yet we also have a saying that a government reflects the people it rules… and I’m sorry to burst the bubble of our warped reality, but not even an absolute monarchy can survive without the compliance and support of its governants. Our lack of democarcy is not an excuse for our putrid souls, but a direct product of it.