Tag Archives: Culture

Dhow Construction

Fishing boats in the inner harbor, Sur.

The port of Sur, Oman is one of the few places in the world still engaged in manufacturing traditional dhows, the famous merchant ships of Arabia with slanting lateen-rigged sails and stitched, rather than nailed or pegged, fastenings for their wooden plank sides.  Used for many centuries as the main cargo and fishing ships on the Indian Ocean, plying routes from Africa to India and all up and down the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, these vessels recall a pearl-diving, pirate-infested culture now largely subsumed by oil revenues, Ferraris, and a smattering of folks still interested in traditional culture (mostly tourists and Omani/Emirate/Bahrani/Kuwaiti history-buffs).

The hand-carved scrollwork on the back of this dhow displays some beautiful lacquer.

Sur is a great destination for the traveler interested in seeing dhows because the huge inner harbor is lined, near its entrance, with various dockyards and carpentry shops planing the boards, tarring the decks, and building, from the ground-up, ships propped on slanting rails ready to be launched into the water.

The workshops aren’t necessarily ‘open’ and no guided tours are available but people in Sur are friendly and will gladly show a tourist around.

A worker at the dockyards builds a scale model as a plan for a new dhow.

What is, perhaps, NQR, about the entire industry of dhow building — now largely outmoded by fiberglass fishing boats and huge metal-hulled cargo ships — is that most of the production depends on the interest of western tourists, our fascination with a romantic image of the orient that includes swarthy pirates and the travels of Sinbad (who hails, traditionally, from Sohar, just up the coast in Oman).  One wonders if any but a few dhows, moored as cultural relics, would exist if it weren’t for western tourists wanting to go for a dive, a swim, or a party picnic aboard these high-decked beauties of a time gone-by.

My children aboard a dhow, ready to go snorkeling. This one appeared to have been built with pegs rather than sewing. It also had a diesel motor rather than a lateen sail. Sort of a quasi-dhow.

 

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Terrible Product Name – Fierce ANL Fuse

Found this one just now, while searching for a car adaptor for my kids’ Wii video game system.

Since, earlier, I posted some weird company names from the Middle East — Butt Sweet House, Mohammad Ibrahim Law Firm (which advertises using its acronym), and Coq Magique — I thought it would only be fair to show an American counterpart.  What’s more, there is absolutely no reason, no language barrier, no cultural misunderstanding, that should allow such a name as this to ever, ever hit the market.  Pure copywriting failure.

The image speaks for itself.  Enjoy.

"Fierce ANL Fuse" proudly sold at a Best Buy near you.


The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

Joris Hoefnagel's painting: "Animalia" -- unknown whether the artist employed a fine camelhair brush in his creation

On to a discussion of the sort of completely esoteric (by which I mean, ‘interesting but utterly useless from a practical sense’) things a person might encounter during graduate school.  Add to this esotericity a small dose of humor and we have a subject begging to be NQR‘ed.

This is the somewhat famous taxonomy of “The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”

As background, this list is reputed to be genuine, though likely is a fiction created or latched onto by Jose Luis Borges to show that all organization of the world into categories — despite the very convincing and cannonized taxonomies of Artistotilian and Linnaean thought to which we in the West have become accumstomed — is necessarily arbitrary.  In simpler terms, even though we think of classifications like ‘mammals’ and ‘reptiles’ to be fundamental to a ‘correct view’ of the world, those classifications are no more real than what Borges presents in this following list of ‘ancient Chinese’ groupings.

That’s prolly ‘enuff words for today.  Enuff high-falutin’ talk.  I’ll merely leave you with the original Borgian list, hoping that ideas will roll around in the back of your brain and that, the next time you look at something and slap a label on it, you think twice: “Does it belong to the emperor or has it just broken the flower vase?”

All animals fall into one of 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The National Symbol of Oman

While Oman’s true national symbol is the khanjar, a wickedly curved knife in a gilt silver scabbard still worn on formal occasions (equivalent of a black-tie dinner for us in the West), a close second might be the Incense Burner.  The Frankincense trade originated in southern Oman, Salalah Governate, and therefore, in almost any local market the smell of burning incense quickly overwhelms a visitor whose palate is unaccustomed to such a fug.

Three-storey incense burner at Riyam Park. If lit it might serve as a nice emergency lighthouse for shipping in the Gulf of Oman.

As part of the national effort to enshrine the Incence Burner, several years ago the Muscat Governate erected a giant white statue of a burner on a headland between Old Muscat and Mutrah, in the vicinity of Riyam Park.  When visitors first drive past this monument, heads turn.  Is it a spaceship?  Modern art?  A relic of some misguided brutalist 70’s architectural campaign?  It’s weird, sure, but soon it blends into the background, a part of Muscat, a landmark useful for navigating around town, with people saying stuff like:  “You know where the Incense Burner is?” rather than “Near Riyam Park.”

One might think this is weird, sure, Not Quite Right, certainly.  But we should remember that an Omani is likely to find our kitschy American fascination with something like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a huge statue of a spoon and cherry equally odd.


Meat from the Earth

One of the more privileged moments of my family’s time in Oman was being invited during the Eid to celebrate a traditional dinner with the extended (very extended!) family of one of our friends in Sohar.  For the shuwwa, or grilling, the family employed a traditional technique called the Tanoor, an earthen pit in which carefully herbed and wrapped meats are grilled/smoked underground overnight.  This technique will immediately seem NQR to a western audience, accustomed as we are to eating from the anti-septic (but chemical-laced) confines of our mass supermarkets.

The pictures I present here, of the process of the shuwwa itself, should demonstrate not only the technical aspect of how the procedure is undertaken but also the sense of community, the involvement of the larger kinship group in this tradition.  It would be similar to the Thanksgiving Holiday in America, but only adding a hole in the earth and meat we raise and slaughter ourselves.  The Eid is a holiday at the end of Ramadan in commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s command.

Photos / explanations:

Reed-wrapped meats along with a selection of greens and herbs to add moisture and flavor.

The earthen pit, coals very hot, before the meat and herbs go in.

More herbs, better shot, some of these gave the meat a very savory flavor that stayed with me for days: smoky, heady, delicious, different.

By the lights of a luxury SUV pulled close to the earthen hole, dinner and herbs are lowered by the men into the prepared oven.

Once it goes in, the hole is covered with a sheet of metal and then with a thin layer of soil. If any smoke escapes, then too much air is getting in, the meat will cook too fast and dry out. A true seal over the meat allows it to smoke/roast to perfection.

When it is ready, after a day, the men of the family dig it up. (The women wait in a separate area to receive the meat, carve it, finish its preparation and divvy it up among the families.)

When finished the herbs and wrapping are charred but the food inside is juicy and wonderful. (Actual photo of meat missing, I was too busy eating!)

 

My friend Abdul Azziz (whose family is depicted in the photos above) kindly sent two complimentary photos, the first reveals the meat after it is unwrapped, the second shows a much bigger tanoor, where up to fifty wrapped packages can be cooked at once.  He also notes that this type of shuwwa is particular to northern Oman and parts of the UAE.

The cooked product of the tanoor, with garnish of local herbs.

A bigger version, holding up to fifty wrapped packages.


Utter Academic Infamy

Over the last few week’s one of my courses has introduced me to a man known as Ibn Tabrazadh who was born about a thousand years ago in Baghdad.  He was a scholar of hadith and a fairly widely circulating scholar at that, with many later thinkers and jurists quoting from him or being ‘downstream’ from him in the flow of the semi-oral traditions and teachings that surround many of the hadith works and commentaries.

But, for one reason or another, Ibn Tabrazadh’s primary bibliographic entry in Dhahabi’s compendium absolutely vilifies him.  I provide, here, a few of the choice quotes (translations my own) of how lovingly Ibn Tabrazadh has been remembered.  May these be lessons to us all, that no matter the scope of our work, the appreciation (or lack thereof) for our earthly endeavors is certainly up-for-grabs, the product of the whims and morals of those who follow us.  It also should be a lesson to not-piss-off-your-fellow-academics-or-writers as they wield the pens (or iPads) upon which legacies rise or fall.

Whether Ibn Tabrazadh deserves this degree of infamy, I truly don’t know.  Only these few words from Dhahabi remain to enlighten us.  The quotations make me laugh rather than feel any strong moral revulsion.  But I do feel a nagging sort of NQR-ness about amusing myself at the expense of this man, even across such a chasm of time and culture.

1.  Called المؤدب or ‘litterateur’ which, I feel, was likely a first glancing salvo launched from within the strict canons of academia.

2.  Called ضعيف or ‘weak’ in his trustworthiness as a narrator of hadith (this is the overall measure applied to his reliability after consideration of all the information in this biography — not a real shocking conclusion, if you read on).

3.  Called خليعا and ماجنا and كاغد all of which are new words for me but mean, roughly, ‘depraved’ and ‘shameless’ and ‘scoundrel’

(it gets worse)

4.  Called يؤدب الصبيان or, roughly, a ‘tutor of boys,’ which is a double-edged insult, both elucidating the fact that he used his hadith knowledge to earn money and, also, hinting that he was only good enough to instruct youngsters.  Certainly not an anachronistic reference to Penn State.

5.  More bluntly, one commentator in his biography says, لم يكن يفهم شيئا من العلم which means “he didn’t know a damn thing about knowledge.”

6.  He was called ‘negligent in religion’ (I think this is the true source of the invective) . . . متهاونا بأمور الدين

7.  One person remembers that he ‘saw him more than once urinate while standing . . . and then sit without cleaning himself either with water or stones’ (an offense probably akin to peeing-on-the-toilet-seat-and-not-wiping-it-up nowadays).  In arabic, very seriously toned, راينه غير مرة يبول من قيام . . . وقعد من غير استنجاء بماء ولا حجر (Note that Dhahabi himself ventures a guess, by way of apology for this egregious defamation, that perhaps Ibn Tabrazadh had a fatwa excusing him from cleansing himself.)

8.  (Again, to the heart of the matter) . . . cited for not undertaking prayers.  لا يقوم لصلاة

9.  And, more explicitly than before, he is accused of كان يطلب الأجر على رواية الحديث ‘being in the habit of requesting payment before reciting hadith.’

10.  Lastly, reminiscent of Dante, a later scholar says that he dreams of a dead Ibn Tabrazadh ‘wearing a blue robe . . . in a House of Fire inside a House of Fire.’  رايت عمر بن طبرزذ في النوم بعد موته وعليه ثوب أزرق . . . في بيت من نار داخل بيت من نار

Dude.  Not the kind of stuff I want written on my headstone!


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?


Turkeys in Turkey

Do two rights make a Not Quite Right?  That’s the question today, as we head into this wonderful Thanksgiving holiday weekend of family togetherness and feasting.

You'll just have to take my word for it: this picture WAS taken in the country of Turkey!

Turkey and Turkeys.

We chanced on these two beautiful specimens in the city of Ulu Deniz, on the south Mediterranean coast of the country of Turkey, while parking our car just off the downtown beachside boardwalk.  This was the ONLY time we ever saw turkeys ANYWHERE in the Middle East or Africa.  It was almost meant to happen, meant to be, the two gobblers strolling into view when our camera was ready.

It answers that ages-old grade school question, or giggle-worthy joke, about whether Turkeys come from Turkey.

Right now, at this time of year, its certainly comforting to think about both items:  the warm beaches in the mouthwateringly-named country and the warm, tender roast of bird that will soon find its way onto my plate.


Peace on Veteran’s Day

Yesterday I stumbled into the monastic quiet of Chancellor Green Hall on the Princeton campus, just to sit and think for awhile before the start of a seminar.  There, in the empty octagonal enclosure, with light streaming from all angles through gorgeous stained glass windows, I found a little item worthy of a Not Quite Right mention in honor of this Veteran’s Day, 11-11-11.

An image of peace in a window of Chancellor Green Hall, Princeton.

I’ve got two takes on the image of this Crusader-like figure, both of them worth mentioning in the context of NQR.

First, I wonder if the artist intended the image to embody the Pax Romana, the somewhat oxymoronic enforcement of peace through a monopoly on violence.  Does the horseman’s slumping posture hint at the failure inherent in such a doctrine?  Or is his head held high, looking foward to a horizon that must lead to a soldier’s self-sacrifice in the name of his ideals?

Second, and maybe simultaneously, I think that this figure represents the very opposite idea: a Don Quixote, piquant, holding aloft a banner embroidered with a single word for Peace despite the realities of the world around him.  I like this interpretation best.  It has warmth to it that matches the warmth of the light flooding through the colored baubles of glass — the lone soldier holding to an unreality, facing a corrupt world.  The invocation of Don Quixote touches also upon madness, a beautiful madness that sees things in their most wondrous light rather than in their most real and dismal actualities.  Unfortunately, such an idea is one for books, for literature, for poetry.  It intersects only in the realm of ideas with what life is really like for a soldier.

I think of the friends and comrades I have lost at war today and all those who have gone before us, sacrificing, unsure of what ideals they really represent.  All a little Quixotic.


Trucker’s Parade

Having just returned to the United States from Oman the flip side of this Not Quite Right idea has become more and more apparent.  As an American it is very easy to view the rest of the world as if it is an oddity, especially since we’re so isolated here, a single monolithic culture from ‘sea to shining sea’.  So, as a new part of this blog, I’ll add an occasional observation on the weird things American life often accepts as normal.

For starters, in my very own little Wisconsin hometown, we have an annual Trucker’s Parade.  The event consists of a couple hundred highly decorated, chrome-enhanced semis parading not once, but twice through the city streets (day and night) — complete with horns, jake-brakes, sirens, black undercarriage lighting, flames, and cotton-candy vendors walking the streets.  All the trucks stage at a big open field near the town’s community center, where bands play, beer is consumed, and people vote on the prettiest trucks.  It’s the sort of thing stolen from a Jeff Foxworthy joke!

Here are some of the best trucks, pictures of which I snapped while sitting in a lawnchair on my parents’ sidewalk . . . there’s nothing wrong with a parade of semis, mind you, but the rest of the world will probably agree that there is definitely an element of Not Quite Right involved here.

Double Wide Orange Monster of a Semi . . . look at all the cab space!

The 1980's called . . . they want their flames back.

And the very best, most ‘Wisconsin’ of all the trucks . . .

Pulling a giant Old Style beer!