Thursday, April 29, 2010


Sorry, forgot to mention I'm on vacation now -- that's why I haven't been posting. Currently in Bermuda for a wedding, then off to London for a few days.

I know, I know, such a tough life.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Trip to the Mosque

So as I noted in a previous post I was going to visit a nearby mosque. So this Friday I went to visit English-language services at the Islamic Cultural Centre's mosque. Before I went I spoke to my Muslim colleagues about any type of preparation and dress code:

1) wear pants, do not wear shorts if they go above the knee
2) you don't have to wear anything fancy like a suit and tie, you can wear a T-shirt and jeans if you like
3) do not wear a shirt with pictures on it, especially representations of people (?? Not entirely sure why that is an issue but okay)

That was about it. So I went in a nice golf shirt and slacks. I took an English-language copy of the Qur'an with me to read while I was there and in case they referred to any specific verses. The service wasn't going to start until sometime after 1130 but I've been told to get there at 11 so that I could get a space inside the mosque. Apparently the place fills up and the overflow goes into other rooms where there is video feed of the Imam.

The mosque was a large carpeted room that could seat about 300 to 400 people. There was a small alcove which indicated the direction you had to pray, although it was pretty apparent from the carpet as well since it had rows perpendicular to the alcove for people to line themselves up at. (I believe this is a common feature of all mosques, and is why when you see video of people praying at mosques they all seem to be lined up perfectly with enough space in between the rows to bow). The only furniture consisted of a small platform in front of the alcove from where the Imam gives his sermon, and around three plastic chairs in the back corners, probably for elderly worshipers or people with back problems. Around the walls were numerous small bookshelves with copies of the Qur'an in various languages. Each bookshelf had a small sign indicating the language of the Qur'ans on it and I could see: English, French, Turkish, Somali, Albanian, Philippines, Thai, Hindi, and at least four or five other shelves that were too far away for me to read the sign.

When I got there the room was maybe one third full, men only, most of them either reading from a Qur'an or doing their prayers. I sat up against the back wall so that I could have a bit of back support and be out of the way. I spent the next half hour looking through my Qur'an and watching the men come in. It was a truly diverse crowd. I noticed Malaysians, Filipinos, Chinese, people from Central Asia (possibly Afghani), Nepalese, Pakistanis and other people from South Asia, some Turks, Africans (both West and East Africa), a few Arabs (odd because I would expect them to go to Arabic-language services), and about a half-dozen Caucasians. Sure enough the dress code varied widely, ranging from national dress to jeans and T-shirt. One guy even had a baseball cap on backward. As soon as anyone entered they found a spot and started doing their prayers. By about 11:30 the room was 90% full and there wasn't much space to move around. All the spots against the back wall were now taken and I had what seemed to be a Thai or Malay man to my right and a Nepalese man to my left.

A man approached the microphone and started doing the call to prayer, which reverberated throughout the centre and surrounding area via speakers throughout the building. More people came in and the room was full. Then the Imam took the podium and started his sermon. While giving the sermon many latecomers continued doing their prayers.

The sermon did not refer to any specific passage in the Qur'an, but touched upon the golden age of Islam (around the 10th to 14th centuries) and how the Qur'an encourages people to wonder and think about the world. [I did a blog post probably a year ago discussing the golden age of Islam and what likely lead to its decline]. He also mentioned about how scientific discoveries have reconciled with what is said in the Qur'an -- I later read in the Islam section of the newspaper the same topic so maybe he does the newspaper articles as well. His sermon was done in about 30 minutes, after which he said something in Arabic and everyone turned their palms upward and started reciting something that I didn't understand. Then everyone stood up and I stood up with them, figuring that was it. . .

Then the Imam said something and everyone started bowing - the beginning of a set of standard prayer movements (bow, kneel, press your forehead to the floor etc. ) I was a little unprepared for them to do that and needless to say I was the only one still standing. Looks like I was the only non-Muslim in the room! The guys to the left and right of me clearly noticed I hadn't bowed yet. (I had been found out! Will all the non-Muslims please stand up!) Rather than standing there like an idiot I just imitated what everyone else was doing. After a couple minutes of bowing/kneeling etc. we were done and people started leaving. All in all the whole thing took maybe 50 minutes, shorter than most Christians Sunday services. No hymns or singing, just a short sermon and a couple of prayers.

The Malay guy next to me asked if I was new. I told them I'm not a Muslim but that the Islamic Cultural Centre invited me to attend the services as part of learning about Islam. He seemed kind of happy with that.

Then I left the room with the others, got my shoes, and headed out.

That was an interesting experience, I was kind of surprised that it was shorter than a standard Christian service. I did like the multiculturalism, it really did have people from all over the world and seemed quite inclusive. Thankfully no one seemed to be upset with a non-Muslim being there.

I have a vacation coming up soon, I think after that I will sign up for the Centre's mosque tour.

Friday, April 16, 2010

National Museum of Iraq

This week I attended a talk at the Museum of Islamic Art on the looting of the National Museum of Iraq during the Iraq invasion. Many of you may remember from the early days of the invasion how during the chaos hoards of people were looting the National Museum of its Assyrian and other Mesopotamian treasures (along with all the media outrage about how could this happen, why didn't the coalition think about this and immediately secure the Museum, all those archaeological wonders would be lost etc.). I recall it.

So it was interesting to hear from a scholar who was the Deputy Director General (or some very senior title) of the Museum from 1988 to 1990. He had a fascinating story to tell.

Back in 1990, at the approach of the what we now refer to as the first Gulf War, the Director General for the Museum closed the Museum and secretly gathered a number of employees, instructing them to pack all of the most valuable pieces in the Museum in crates for placement in the vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq. It took them about a week but thousands of the best pieces in the collection were safely transported to the Central Bank for safekeeping.

The vault had two locks, an "A" key and a "B" key, and once locked the keyholders left the city -- one of them went north, the other one south, with instructions to not return unless certain individuals asked them to come back so that the vault could be opened. Everyone else was sworn to secrecy.

After the first Gulf War it was decided to keep the treasures in the vault. The Museum still had tens of thousands of other pieces which they put on display but the most important ones remained safely locked away. The two keyholders had not been instructed to return.

Fast forward to 2003 and the looting of the Museum. While tens of thousands of pieces were looted from the Museum (the scholar estimated about 50,000) no one realized that the best pieces were somewhere else. Everyone just assumed the looters had them (and the looters probably assumed someone else eluded them before they got to them). Even the media didn't know.

Years later the story did come out. Somehow, and it's not entirely sure who the leak was, a reporter found out that the pieces were in the Central Bank vault and mentioned it on a radio show. Shortly thereafter there were attacks on the Central Bank, likely by criminal gangs trying to get the valuables. The boldest attack was four men using RPGs to try to break into the bank. Thankfully something went wrong and they were killed by the explosion.

It was decided that the pieces had to be removed from the bank. The keyholders were instructed to return, the vault was opened, and with the help of the American military the pieces were taken somewhere else for safekeeping.

We were then shown a slideshow of the items being removed from crates in the Central Bank vault. (And when I mean crates I'm talking about those huge 6' x 4' x 3' crates.)

Pretty much every picture showed items of pure gold. Bracelets, necklaces, masks, crowns, all made of gold with precious stones. Some of the pieces weighed more than a kilogram. Okay not everything was gold, there were a few vases and other statuary, but it appeared they were the minority. I couldn't even estimate what the collection was worth.

Over the ensuing years about 15,000 of the 50,000 pieces looted from the Museum have been recovered, and the greatest pieces of Mesopotamian art are still safe. Sadly, no one knows when or if they will ever be on display again.

The scholar knows where the collection is now being kept. Not surprisingly, he refused to tell us.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Some pearls, a mosque, a souq, and a massage

Saturday turned out to be a varied and interesting day.

First, I decided to go to the Museum of Islamic Art to see their special exhibit on pearls, which is only here until June. Turned out to be more impressive than I thought it would be.

-- The first part of the exhibit focused on the various types and qualities of pearls, usually with examples of the shells the pearls came from.

-- I didn't realize that almost all species of mollusk could produce pearls, just that some rarely do (for example there are fewer than a dozen known pearls from nautilus and conch shells. The museum displayed examples of them).

-- From there it was discussion of the pearl industry throughout history, followed by a large display of Qatar's pearl history, including photos and videos of pearl diving off the coast (the industry largely vanished in Qatar in the 1930s thanks to Mikimoto, and the last divings occurred in the late 70s).

-- An area dedicated to Mikimoto, who developed cultured pearls, allowing for the "farming" of pearls from which most pearls are derived today. There were displays of some of Mikimoto's finest jewelry.

-- Some historical jewelry and other items with pearls, including crowns, robes, necklaces, and a rug commissioned by one of the Indian maharajas which had thousands of pearls in it. The rug was created with the intention of draping it over the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed, though it never made it there.

-- Finally, areas dedicated to modern jewelry incorporating pearls, including one-of-a-kind Cartier and Coco Chanel pieces.

After the Museum I walked about 20 minutes to FANAR (the Qatar Islamic Cultural Center), but they were closed until evening. A lot of places in Qatar still have hours where they are open in the mornings and evenings, closing for the afternoon. The Old Souq has similar hours.

Speaking of which I then walked over to the Old Souq area (Souq Waqif). Most of it was of course closed but I knew that one place would be open, a Chinese massage my friend Fayez and I frequent. Because of all the standing around and walking I did today it seemed like a good time to have a foot massage. My masseur was a Chinese guy and he did a great job. He spoke very little English and I was a bit surprised when I asked him his name and he replied, "Ali". I think he noticed I looked at him a bit quizzically (Ali is not exactly a common Chinese name) because he then said, "Chinese Muslim". Ah, that explains it.

Anyway for those interested an hour-long foot massage is ~$25. Best deal in town. You would pay 5x that at a hotel, maybe more.

So it was back to FANAR now that they would be open. I had realized that in the four years I've been here I've never actually attended Friday prayers at a mosque. I recall that there is an English-language one somewhere so I figured I'd ask FANAR about it and see if it was open to non-Muslims.

I was greeted by a Mr. Umar and we had a long chat about Islam. I think I threw them off a little because he was prepared to discuss basic things about Islam but I was already well-versed enough in the basics through my own studies and discussions with my Muslim friends. Anyway we had a nice chat, I found out that the Centre holds "services" (for lack of a better word) in English every Friday at 11 that is open to non-Muslims. He also told me they organize mosque tours where you can tour various mosques in the city. That's cool, I'll definitely sign up for one of those later, I never know about mosques and whether non-Muslims are allowed to enter them. Some do and some don't but they don't post signs.

I thanked Mr. Umar, he gave me some literature, and my plan for this Friday morning will be to go to the mosque to see what Friday prayer services are all about.
Then it was back to the Souq to relax and have a snack. By the time I got there though I was feeling hot so I stopped at a café and had a juice. It didn't help and I started feeling a little feverish so I went home.

When I got home I was feeling terrible so I immediately grabbed bottled water, medications, and went straight to bed. I was feverish, nauseous, and had very restless sleep. This continued into Sunday morning at which point I started feeling better.

My guess -- heat exhaustion. I've been walking around all afternoon, in the sun, in temperatures around the mid-30s.

You'd think after being here four years I would learn. This is probably the third time this has happened to me. At what point is my brain going to figure out that April does not mean spring-like temperatures.

Just dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

At least I got better and hopefully from now on I won't be so reckless.

Friday, April 09, 2010

More on veils

Man, it's been a crazy week. Anyway . . .

The issue of veils really stirs up a debate in the West. I recall this from one Internet thread discussing it:

"The reality of the veil is cultural apartheid. The reality of the veil is it is a symbol of oppression of women in many cultures."

I do not think it can be viewed solely on those terms, even now. The veil has practical reasons for its use (dust storms come to mind). We in the West may view it as symbolic oppression but it cannot be seen that way in absolute terms as it was also a practical dress code, which was further galvanized under religious ideology.
Note that plenty of Islamic nations are not in deserts, and veils are not commonly used there (now that I think about it there may even be a correlation between how common veils are in a society and how dry & dusty it is, but I digress), yet women in countries without veils still face significant challenges in terms of discrimination and rights.

Rather than us in the West pontificating about what veils do and don't mean let's see what some Arab feminists think. I found one recap of a recent feminist conference [I have paraphrased key points from one speech]

Arab Feminisms: A Critical Perspective | International Conference | October 4 – 7, 2009
Mervat F. Hatem, Ph.D., a Professor of Political Science at Howard University in Washington D.C., chose 3 main points to highlight:

-- There is a critical need to re-evaluate the voices of women in our Arab history, which is entirely biased towards men even when it comes to advances in women’s rights.

-- It is our mission to criticize the views of Arab “modernity” that were born out of colonial histories and to also criticize governmentalities that used motherhood in the service of nation-building, boxing women into that familial role.

-- We must also critically take on the feminist debates and political divisions of secular vs. religious feminists and women, of the middle class in particular.
Women’s rights activists continue to face great oppression in our countries, such as the targeted attacks of women in public demonstrations in Egypt, the tarnishing of reputations of activists in Tunisia, and the direct violence against women during the civil war in Algeria.

The topic of Muslim Feminism is a crucial one for us to address during this conference, Hatem asserted. The dominance of the secularist discourse of Arab feminism has led many to believe that secularism is the only solution to women’s problems. We should challenge such views and allow room for different feminisms, particularly Islamic Feminism, to emerge. Muslim feminists would still be able to deny the projects of Islamic nation-building while, at the same time, promoting Islamic Feminism. It is always dangerous when any feminist discourse claims to be the only correct discourse. Hatem affirmed that she refused discourses around the veil for example, which, in the name of feminism, deny Muslim women the right to their own choices.

It would appear that Prof. Hatem feels there are far bigger issues than wearing veils.

What about in Qatar (again I have paraphrased a recent article, and btw she does not wear a veil):

Secretary general of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs Noor al-Malki talking at the 5th Arab-European dialogue on women’s rights, organised by the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) called yesterday for:

-- (temporaily) enacting a special legislation that regulates the rights of Qatari women married to foreigners and their children, to guarantee those children the same rights to education and health as that of the citizens.

-- quash all articles that discriminate against Qatari woman (married to foreigners) and recognising her children’s rights to automatic citizenship

-- an amendment to some of the articles of the country’s criminal code is needed to secure better protection to the victims of violence in the family.

-- abolishing the ban on appointing women in certain positions, that they were entitled to equal privileges like men.

-- protect housemaids by issuing a special legislation to protect them from all types of violations.

Plenty of big issues that need dealing with, including some that were dealt with in the West up to 100 years ago. Ms al-Malki is clearly outspoken and critical about ertain aspects of how women are treated in Qatar. No mention about veils though. And Qatar is a predominately Wahhabist nation, as is Saudi Arabia.

I am not sure that Arab feminists see the veil in the same way that we do in the West, and thus do not really understand why the West fixates on it. I suspect that most Arab feminists would prefer the West spend its time and resources pressuring Arab governments to address the real problems women face in these countries instead of the debates on whether to ban what the West subjectively interprets as symbols of oppression or lack of freedom.