Category Archives: Morocco

Arabic Conjugation Reveals Professor’s Secret Identity

Some of the more prominent Crushers. (Or Breadbreakers).

Frustrated perhaps by a lack of grammatical precision in his ‘supposedly’ advanced Arabic students, my professor in this semester’s Language of the Qur’an course has taken us back a step this week into our primary verb conjugation chart, making us (re)memorize all the verb forms and spending each day of our classwork chanting those forms together to reinforce them in our weak and forgetful minds.

While this might seem like the ultimate in dry and unproductive exercises, it does yield some added ability to communicate in a register above common ‘street’ Arabic.

Additionally, as we ran through the Measure III conjugation of the verb h-SH-M, he provided us with an interesting tidbit of historical AND personal revelation.  (I’m using lowercase ‘h’ here to separate between the two Arabic H’s, fyi, this one being the softer).

Opening my trusty Hans Wehr dictionary, the root h-SH-M means, in Measure I,  ‘to destroy’ ‘to smash’ ‘to crush’ or ‘to shatter.’  Hans Wehr doesn’t offer a verb for Measure III, but the Musdar, or verbal noun, that comes from it yields our modern day Hashemite (as in the tribe, which now rules in both Jordan and Morocco and traces its ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad).  Lest we imagine that Hashemite refers to some ability to smash or destroy in a physical or martial way we must point out that Measure III, from which this Musdar comes, is participatory, changing the base meaning the verb to render something more like: ‘to smash with someone’ or, in this specific case, ‘to break bread with someone.’  Thus, historically, the Hashemites get their name from being the hosts of the sacred area in Mecca, those with whom pilgrims would break bread.

Taking this one step further, my professor’s first name is Hisham.  This also comes from Measure III of h-SH-M, but from a variant of the Musdar that differentiates between ‘completed’ and ‘in-process’ or ‘trying-to-complete’ action.  So, while (to my knowledge) Professor Hisham isn’t a member of either the Moroccan or Jordanian royal families, fittingly enough for us students, we could at least consider him our definite and complete ‘breaker’ ‘smasher’ ‘shatterer’ or ‘crusher’.  He isn’t just trying to break bread here.  He’s wholly successful.

I will remember that next time we get a grammar test.



Thesis Tableaux, Part 1 – Gathering the Materials

As I sit, here at my kitchen table in a very suburban and bourgeois locale somewhere near Princeton, a masochistic satisfaction has taken hold of me, surrounded by the paraphernalia of my upcoming enslavement to a single, unified, and laborious paper-writing process:  the thesis.  Maybe as a means to preserve this beginning moment for myself, so that I might look back fondly upon it in future years, or perhaps to share the mound of work, at least metaphorically, with those of you enjoying a voyeuristic pleasure in my pain, I will document here what I perceive to be the major milestones of the process.

. . . like the setting of a B-grade horror film . . .

The subject of the thesis will be a monograph of the life of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s more scurrilous Companions, al-Mughirah ibn Shu’bah, who was a very early convert to Islam but was also involved in one of its more spectacular and formative legal/moral cases.  More to follow, in future installments of this thesis-production narrative, on al-Mughirah and his doings.  Now, onward to the writing process itself, onward to the first of the milestones I plan to document.

What more necessary milestone can there be than a beginning?  And how better to capture it than with a photograph, a tableaux of the materials, most of them visible, that I have heaped around me to spur me toward beginning this paper’s production?

Here I list the visible and invisible elements of this project, in order of importance:

1.  Computer.  Modern man cannot write, let alone research, without said device.  My choice:  a slightly feminine but perfectly serviceable white MacBook.  Unseen on the computer are perhaps 30+ files and scans from various encyclopedias that will contribute to the project, along with an entire searchable Arabic-language database of scholarly works that I will (at some time in the nebulous future) exhaust of all references to my subject.

2.  Coffee.  ‘Nuf said.  Cup courtesy Anthropologie, though meant to match a small collection of blue-glazed crockery purchased in Morocco and Oman.

3.  Books:  Most of this is background reading, rather than primary sources.  The primary sources will be in Arabic and I will access them online, for the most part, verifying them in volumes kept at Princeton’s library.  A preliminary search tells me that al-Mughirah is mentioned directly, in various hadith traditions, about a dozen times.  These secondary sources, along with primary-sources exegesis from later (but still rather Medieval) Islamic theologians and historians, supplement the direct mentions of al-Mughirah only partially.  The rest of his life I plan to reconstruct via hypotheses I derive from what various factions or various armies were doing during the blank spaces in his life.  Today my goal is to put all of these secondary sources into a bibliography and, maybe also, to comb through indices and mark/excerpt the direct mentions of al-Mughirah that each book contains.

4.  Stick-’em notes.  An archaic tool, but necessary.  When I have indexed a direct mention of al-Mughirah, I don’t want to have to go through the process of looking it up again.  I will therefore both a). copy the specific mention into a word document arranged by subject or time-period and b). affix a stick-’em note to the original page so that I can find the quote quickly in its larger context if necessary at a later time.

5.  Example theses.  My advisor provided two example theses from recent MA candidates.  I’m going to double check the formatting of their bibliographies prior to creating my own.  In the end, hopefully minus coffee stains, my thesis will look as fat and happy (and professional) as these two do.

6.  Chair, table, and especially cushion on chair.  The writer requires a certain degree of comfort.  But not TOO MUCH comfort.  The cushion eases the pain of a flat wooden surface squashing buttocks.  The table and chair will keep the writer more alert than, say, the couch or the nice big leather arm chair just purchased for more leisurely reading.  Chair/table/placemats/seat cushions courtesy IKEA.

7.  Woven baskets on wall.  No direct correlation with the thesis, other than ambiance in an otherwise milquetoast white pre-fab house.  Baskets from Nizwa, or perhaps from Morocco.  I forget.

8.  Voo-doo doll.  (Parti-colored feathers visible between largest stack of books and copies of previous theses).  Just in case.

More Odd Business Names

To continue the theme, begun before Thanksgiving, of oddly named business establishments in the Middle East . . . here are three (somewhat scatalogical) additions.  The funniness, the quirkiness here, the NQR, must be mostly attributed to our Western perspective in reading and understanding.  Certainly these names haven’t been invented just to be funny.  They pass, unnoticed, through the daily lives of many thousands of people.  So we must conclude that it is us, not them, with a skewed perspective.

Eye-catching Acronym

The first, Mohammad Ibrahim Law Firm, bills itself (on its website) as a ‘highly adequate service.’  As if this weren’t oxymoronic enough, it also announces its presence to greater Muscat, Oman, via a largish billboard overlooking the main Ministry District overchange.  This billboard attracts a fair amount of attention, at least from Westerners, because it uses the firm’s initials as a handy moniker:  M.I.L.F.

Just in case you're wondering, 'Coq' means 'chicken' in French.

The second, on a street corner in Rabat, Morocco, is part of a successful chain, like KFC for Francophiles.  Our hosts in Rabat assured us that the chicken is very good.  The billboard certainly doesn’t appear to be ashamed of itself.  We never ate at any of these locations, unable to overcome our own, more Anglicized, interpretation of the name.

Candy, anyone?

And, finally, what must certainly be the most bizarre and unattractive of all the odd names we encountered throughout our travels . . . this sweet shop in Abu Dhabi.  We snapped the photo while driving along the street, having seen the sign, then grabbing frantically for the camera, before (just barely) managing to get the photo as traffic whisked us away.  What, on earth, were these folks thinking, the owners (or their English translators/consultants) when they put together their brand and their billboard?

Fast Food, Souq Style

Escargot on the go in Fes, Morocco

Ahhh, nothing is more certain to turn someone’s stomach than another culture’s eating habits.  But that turn can be for the better or for the worse.

Take this nice fresh batch of snails, for instance . . . moving so fast they seem to blur! Vendors with pushcarts and boiling pots of escargot, no doubt greatly influenced by French culinary preferences, quite frequently pass through the 1700+ twisty lanes in the old walled city of Fes.  It is eye-popping to think of buying a bag of snails and snacking on them like candy.  We tried and tried to work up the courage to eat a few but there must be something deeply ingrained in the American psyche against the idea of the snail as fast food.  Neither I, my wife, or my two kids would take the leap.

On the other hand:  camel and, for that matter, goat.  We went to a somewhat famous restaurant in the same souq called Clock Cafe.  Their main attraction is the Clock Cafe Camel Burger.  Both of my sons were pro-burger, talking a big game about ordering one and eating it.  They were hungry.  They like burgers.  It was a no-brainer for them.  Yet, just below the cafe, in the street, we encountered butcher-shop row.  Here my sons (and wife) were confronted — in the sort of close proximity the souq forces on someone — with an actual camel head, freshly severed, its tongue and brains probably a delicacy.  Their stomachs rose up in rebellion and I, as dad, had to eat and describe the very good/lean/spicy taste of the camel’s processed flesh.

Vendor selling goat heads (and hearts), Fes souq.

Yet, who are we as Americans/westerners, to try to mandate an idea of ‘good food’ on the rest of the world?  How would we explain to a Moroccan, for instance, what we readily devour when we eat Chicken McNuggets or Potato Chips or Bratwurst?  How would we account for the minimum levels of acceptability for insect-particles and rat/mouse feces mandated by the FDA for many of our packaged cereals?  How about cotton-candy, fried bread, fried cheese sticks, fried ice-cream, skyrocketing levels of salt?

Mind you, traveling carts of escargot are certainly well within the limits of Not Quite Right.  But so too, when I return to America, I hope to think of dear old Coca-Cola (with acid levels high enough to dissolve gristle off a hambone) in the same category of disgusting gustation.

Unexpected Tolerance

Eight-pointed Islamic star.

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, megalomaniac ruler of Morocco in the 17th century who successfully forged a country, defended it from the Ottoman incursion through Algeria and kept a picked force of African slaves warriors called the “Black Guard” in addition to thousands of European/Christian slaves who worked on his capital city of Meknes, was a surprisingly tolerant man.

The tilework on the walls of Moulay Ismail’s own mausoleum proves lasting testimony.  First of all, all the tiles are arranged in a pre-Islamic Berber style, where the sun sits at the center casting rays out onto an abundant earth.  And, even better, inside Moulay Ismail’s sun are three alternating symbols:  the eight-pointed star of Islam, the Cross, and the Star of David.

The Star of David.

Although to a modern audience the Star of David might seem most incongruous, most Not Quite Right, the Jewish community played a vital role in Moulay Ismail’s empire, providing trade links with the world.  The Jewish community lived in well-protected enclaves, here called Mellah, within the same walls as the Muslim population.  Indeed, a big portion of both the Muslim and the Jewish population arrived together from Spain, primarily the cities of Cordoba and Toledo, as the Spanish Reconquista drove the Moors south across the Straits of Gibralter.

The Cross.

It was in the face of Christian persecution that both the Jewish and the Muslim populations in Meknes, Fes and other Moroccan cities blossomed.  And it is, therefore, all the more strange to find the cross given equal status in the architecture of the great leader’s tomb.  His empire derived strength from all three traditions and realized the essential idea that all three peoples worshipped the same God.  While the tiles themselves now seem Not Quite Right, the idea they preserve is right on target.