Posts filed under ‘Islam’

Djenne

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The photo of the mosque at Djenne that I have been showing my class seems to have no context, just a strange and spectacular building set off by itself.

It isn’t set off by itself. It is in the center of an unpaved dirt courtyard, surrounded by children playing, goats sleeping, touts offering guiding services, stalls selling assorted goods, and two foosball tables used by young men.

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It is, without doubt, an imposing structure, built of mud bricks, with poles sticking out at regular intervals to allow people to scale the walls to remud the structure. It was rebuilt in 1906. There was little the French bequeathed their former colony in Mali (baguettes, French language, and remarkably little infrastructure), but, like in Morocco, here too they began refusing non-Muslims entry into mosques. So I was unable to see what the structure looks like inside.

The mosque, a World Heritage site, seems to be what brings people to Djenne. The town lies on the other side of the Bani river, and the crossing requires the use of a four-vehicle car ferry. Our drive up from Segou passed through many more small villages, an 18-wheeler broken down on the side of the road, a collection of overloaded minibuses, motorcycles, goats, cattle, and horses. After passing through miles and miles of wheat fields, then watermelon fields, then mud-brick-making fields, we turned off the main road and encountered flooded rice fields before crossing the river into Djenne.

After seeing the mosque, we set off in search of the mud cloth William had been commissioned to find. There is one famous mud cloth maker, a matriarch who looks to be in her 60s. Her son explained the various motifs, the groups who used them, and the methods still being employed to make the cloth. It is quite impressive stuff. We were invited up onto the balcony to see the view of the city from there, and found mud, cloth, and plant material for dyes awaiting use.

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They tell me Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world, though I don’t know how that is measured, and Djenne is the poorest town I’ve ever been in. Along the route today, we passed two villages where signs announced proudly that electricity had come in 2006. . In side the town, There are no paved streets, houses are small, and the sewer system is a series of open trenches in the middle of the streets. Nonetheless, children walk around barefoot. Apparently, the street sewer is a result of well-meaning development projects. Water had been brought into town only for cooking and drinking, while washing and other tasks were done on the riverside. Those who arranged to pipe water into town didn’t consider the greater output, and there was no planning for what to do with the waste. See “How Not to Parachute More Cats.”

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January 10, 2008 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

On the Road to Segou

The road from Bamako to Segou takes almost four hours. Almost as soon as we left Bamako’s sprawl, we were in a small village celebrating market day–along the main highway. Our driver, Abdullah, slowed down as he wove through people, stalls, animals, and large vans unloading merchandise.

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Most of the road, though, is quite rural, miles and miles of scrub interrupted by roadside villages with a few houses and a mosque. We started off listening to a taped sermon by one of Mali’s most famous imams–in Bambara language, with intermittent Qur’anic quotes in Arabic. When that ended, I requested music, and Abdullah put on a Tracy Chapman cassette. By midway, we were listening to music from Mali.

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Small village mosque, larger village mosque

People sat along the roadside, apparently watching each other and the varied conveyances cars going by. We passed a broken down bus, a van, and a car stuck on the side of the road. Small herds of small cattle grazed in the scrub, while groups of fewer than six goats reserved the space closer to the road. (Abdullah honked at them to convince them to stay on their own side.) He reassured me that there really was someone tending them.

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Segou seems more prosperous and less frenetic than Bamako. It is a river town, and I was impressed with the amount of activity along the Niger’s banks here. We just missed taking a huge canoe (pinasse) across–still hope to get on the water at some point during our trip.

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In the continuing series, Che here is a revolutionary cola.

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January 1, 2008 at 6:59 pm 1 comment

Eid Mubarak!

Eid al-Adha started on Wednesday in Aleppo, as people began visiting family and large numbers of sheep appeared in the streets. Katie tells me that in Istanbul people buy shares of cattle, and that there are specific places in which ritual slaughter is acceptable, but in the old city of Aleppo, it seems, anywhere is OK. In both places, one is to keep some of the meat, share some with family, and distribute the rest to the poor.

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A few years ago, Turkey and Syria agreed to a holiday exchange to allow visits to family members who had ended up on the other side of the border. This year, Syrians went to Turkey on the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and Turks came to Syria for this Eid.

That explains why Katie was unable to find a bus or train seat to Antakya until Thursday. When I crossed the border into Turkey on Friday morning to meet her, I was stunned to see the huge numbers of vehicles, stretched across all available “lanes,” bringing Turks to Syria. Our minibus had to wait until police opened one lane so cars trying to get into Turkey could get around the press of vehicles trying to get into Syria! The vehicles all had large yellow flyers in the front windows announcing they were participating in the exchange, and their passengers already had their permission to enter the country, having been vetted days earlier.

When we pulled into Turkish customs, there were large piles of tea, sugar, and biscuits on the curb. Food is quite a bit cheaper in Syria, and the Turkish customs officials were clearly trying to prevent holiday-makers from doing imports.

I found Katie in Antakya, where we ate terrific Iskender kebab (unavailable just across the border) and kunefe, then walked to find the lot where there are usually many drivers trying to find passengers to fill their cars heading to Aleppo. This day, the area was mostly deserted–all the vehicles in the area had left many hours earlier, that large contingent I’d seen at the border.

We finally found our transportation, and arrived in Aleppo quite late for our wonderful going-away party. (Nadine, our French housemate, Makiko, our Japanese housemate, and William had all cooked wonderful food, and even our friends from Damascus came to wish us goodbye!)

The next morning, we decided it was finally time to see the citadel, but couldn’t get close to the ticket booth. The entry was jammed, and Turkish was the only audible language. The suq was similarly full of visiting Turks, and suddenly the linguistic border seemed to have moved. (I looked unsuccessfully for the numbers of Turkish visitors. Please post if you find them.)

December 26, 2007 at 7:29 am Leave a comment

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

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Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

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On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

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No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

Aleppo Ramadan

Ramadan is about to enter its last week. Although we arrived only a month before it began, the changes have been evident. The first few days of the month seemed quite strange, almost tense. There is a different feeling now, as if the city has settled into the fast. Our friend Samer tells us that the streets will become more crowded than ever as people begin to shop for the new clothing to wear during the three-day holiday that will mark the end of the fast.

For us, the month is marked by the visible changes in our friends and on the streets. For Muslim friends here, the month is more spiritual than material. Some who regularly drink wine (forbidden in Islam) abstain during Ramadan as part of a general effort to become reconnected with the faith. Those internal changes aren’t immediately obvious to those of us on the outside.

The days have a markedly different rhythm, from the first drums outside the house to the last call to prayer. In our neighborhood, the 4:00 a.m. drummer (listen to the drummer) plays something sounding quite bass; in Idlib the neighborhood drummer awakens people with a snare. There isn’t much time to eat then before the sunrise, when we simultaneously hear four calls to pray from the closest mosques (listen). People then go back to sleep for a few hours. School begins early enough, though, that there isn’t much time for more sleep. I’ve been surprised that, instead of letting the kids sleep later during Ramadan, the schools begin at the regular time and let the children out an hour earlier.

Activity seems to go on as usual until about 5:30, when the streets become frenetic with everyone hurrying to get home. Lines for the minibuses get longer and longer, and the large buses get fuller as everyone tries to get home in time to break the fast. For those out on the streets when the sun sets, there is a special kind of juice served. A few nights ago a friendly middle-aged purveyor of the drink insisted that William try some. Special rolls and sweet breads make their appearance.

For us, Ramadan has meant rescheduling things. Since it is impossible to find transportation between 5:30 and 6:30, we try to go out earlier or later. On Wednesday we found ourselves waiting and waiting for a taxi. A man in an SUV pulled up and offered us a ride. He is a native of Aleppo, and knew that we would never be able to find a taxi at that hour, so wanted to make sure we got to our destination. Where did you learn English? William asked. At Aleppo College, an American high school/junior college where my colleague Bob Cunningham used to teach. Our kind driver told us he admired the Americans, the school, and Bob’s colleague, the charming Makhloul Butros whom we had met just days earlier. (Many years ago, I’ll tell my students, people used to know the United States for the very important schools we established in the Middle East, schools like Aleppo College, Robert College in Istanbul, the American University of Beirut….We made many friends in the Middle East by educating children there, I’ll tell them.)

By 7:30, the empty streets seem more crowded and bustling than ever. The usual rhythm before Ramadan was that shops would be open from 10-2, then again from 5-10, so evening shopping is common. But now the hours seem to have changed, so that everything is closed, all the shops shuttered, and streets remarkably quiet between 6 and 7:30. Our radiologist friend has changed his hours, working during Ramadan from 9 to 4 and then again from 9 to 11 in the evening.

What my women friends and I know as “second shift” becomes even more challenging. My friend Rima returns from teaching kindergarten around 3:30. She hasn’t eaten or had anything to drink since 4:45 a.m. Three of her four children are fasting and hungry, and she still needs to get them settled, help with homework and cook iftar dinner before the sun sets around 6:20. She is a terrific cook, and the evenings we have eaten at her table during Ramadan, she has served soup and at least two main courses. After dinner, it’s the first tea and coffee of her day, which won’t end until around 11:30. The next begins a few hours later.

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A number of friends have urged me to watch Bab al-Harah, a special TV series created to play every evening during Ramadan at 9. A combination soap opera/costume drama, it is set in French-occupied Syria. The huge cast of characters speaks in Syrian dialect, and the plot is quite complex, with a number of sub-plots and romantic entanglements. Although the intended audience is clearly Syrian, the advertising sponsors (large multinationals Coca Cola, Maggia, Ferro Rocher) seem to reflect tastes further south. Like in the afternoon soaps, the ideal male portrayed in commercials is tall, dark, handsome, and smiling, playing with his children and winking at his beautiful wife, who always has spectacularly long and flowing hair. He wears an immaculate long white robe and white headcovering, not the Syrian version. I think I need to tape some of the TV commercials here to give my students a sense of what is considered attractive. The equivalent of a public service announcement airs at least twice during each episode, of a family sitting down to break the fast together when two sons look out the windown and notice a man sitting alone on the street. They consult with their father, who nods as the boys hurry downstairs to bring the lone neighbor/stranger to the table. The newcomer is shown at the end in thankful prayer. 

(Thanks very much to Russell for his help posting the audio.)

October 7, 2007 at 7:05 am 3 comments


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