A few years ago, I moved back to an apartment in Amman that I had lived in some years previously. When I had rented this apartment the first time, I asked a friend to help install a fireplace. My friend, who was an officer in the Jordanian Armed Forces Royal Corp of Engineers, did a great job. Workers came in and out drilling through a concrete ceiling, putting up a tall chimney, and stone-casing the mantel. A couple of weeks later, and after profuse apologies to the neighbors who bore the construction noise in silence, I had a fully functioning wood fireplace and those Amman winter evenings were never better. My friend passed away some time after that from cancer. He was a member of a small minority in Jordan called Circassians (or Cherkess). The Circassians are an ethnic group that has inhabited the Caucasus Mountains for millennia. A valiant and proud people, they were forced to leave their lands in the 1880s during the Ottoman-Russian wars. Some migrated into inland Russia and some into Ottoman territories. Today, Circassians can be found throughout the Middle East – in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. The Circassians settled Amman, which was a mere old ruin with no permanent inhabitants, in 1878 and built it up from scratch. Both of my grandmothers are Circassians. Russia has recently, and quietly, allowed Circassians to return to their old territories in the Caucasus, granting citizenship to those who wish to resettle in their ancestral homelands. Surprisingly, or not, large number of Circassians are applying for and receiving such privileges, and are gradually moving back, leaving the Middle East. This is driven by more than one factor. The headwinds facing the Middle East in the coming years and decades are expected to be rough and it is prudent to hedge one’s bets. We see this not only where Circassians are concerned but also in the numbers of Arabs applying for residency and citizenship in Western countries that would take them – the US, Canada, and some European countries. Australia and New Zealand are also destinations. When I moved back into that Amman apartment, I was pleasantly surprised that the fireplace was still functioning well. Which brings me to one particular winter evening. The temperature was close to zero Celsius and I had piled a few large logs on top of each other to make a fire. I tried to light the fire but it kept going out. After about an hour or so of trying, I had one last twig to use as kindle and I inserted it amongst the pile of large logs thinking that its small flame would die out along with the rest of the pile. Lo and behold, that small twig, for no apparent explanation, lit up the whole pile and I had a roaring fire brining back memory of friends, past and present. The roaring fire of that evening also started me thinking about small twigs and how unexpected they can be – a small, scrawny, dried up twig can make a big fire out of a pile of old, lazy, dried up bunch of logs, piled on top of one another.
Sep 20, 2022 · 3 min read
International Women's Day
Khadija bint Khuwaylid (567–620) was Mohammad's first wife. She was an independent Arab businesswoman and merchant, and Mohammad was one of her trade agents. After two previous marriages, she proposed to Mohammad and married him and they were together for 25 years. She gave him shelter and support to develop a new religion. Her first cousin, Waraqah bin Nofal, a Nestorian priest, influenced Mohammad's thinking and philosophy. Khadija should be remembered on International Women's Day...
Mar 8, 2023 · 1 min read
I read a LinkedIn post by a someone saying that he is part of a growing group of professionals living and working across several countries in the Middle East. No doubt this is a healthy development for the region. It denotes the creation of regional enterprises and regional investment vehicles and clusters. It also indicates that Arab societies are opening up and are becoming more accepting of the “other”. Many of the Arab World’s challenges can only be addressed via regional initiatives, with water and food security dominating. Crossing boundaries to transact trade, learn, and discover has been part of the human experience for as long as we were able to document our histories. That was the positive side of crossing borders. The other side was more atrocious. Wars to conquer and pillage and subjugate, with ramifications of such acts of aggression still with us today. Crossing borders in the 1980s was called globalization – a trend that accelerated with the end of the Cold War, the ease of travel, the primacy of the Chicago School of untrammeled free trade and free markets (aka minimum regulation), and the politics of borrow and spend – by everyone: governments, companies, and individuals. Globalization, as an economic concept, was sold to the middle and working classes in the West as improving their consumer choices in terms of quality and price. Also, improving the earnings of companies they work for and that their pension plans own shares in. The other promise made was investments in upgrading the skills of the middle and working classes so they can graduate to producing higher value-added products, with jobs to replace those lost to middle and working classes in Developing Countries. The latter did not materialize in meaningful ways and the massive economic letdown suffered by the middle and working classes in many countries spawned extremist politics, fueled by identity issues and nationalism. Brexit was one result. Trump’s presidential win and the ensuing political divide within the United States is another. When one is thrust upon new horizons, the move up the learning curve can be steep. Learning to speak the language of a new place may not prove to be an easy exercise. It is not so much the language of the letters that we need to learn but that of the soul, the mind and the spirit. These are the levers that we use to negotiate the structures of our relationships and the parameters within which our relationships function. Human relationships are tender constructs. They can be forged with blood, sweat and tears or with something as simple and powerful as a smile or a handshake. And they are malleable. The same bonds that can break with the first drops of rain can sustain Mount Ararat. Human relationships are the veins and arteries of our universe. They are the conduits through which we live and breathe. And through them, we connect to the quarries of our souls and mine the seams of whatever is good in our lives. They are too precious to be subjected to the withering winds of whims, prejudices and greed.
Aug 30, 2022 · 3 min read
Jordan's numbers of new infections started increasing dramatically about 3 weeks ago. We are currently averaging around 200 new cases per day. The Government decided to close schools, sending students home to use the Internet for distant learning. Restaurants and cafes are also closed. Government departments are functioning with minimal staff. Companies continue to operate. Friday curfews are gone. Looking at what is happening in the rest of the world - lockdowns and curfews on the rise again, the second wave of the virus almost with us, expected delays in vaccine distribution well into next year - and the ability of this virus to mutate, it seems this new-normal is here to stay for many years to come. I continue to be amazed at the intensity of feelings around the use of protective measures - social distancing, washing hands, and wearing masks. With few exceptions, societies worldwide seem to be divided between those who practice these measures, and those who don't. Those who trust (their governments, the experts), and those who don't. Those who have the frame of reference to understand what a pandemic is, and those who don't. Those who leave their fate to the stars, the throw of the cosmic dice, god, what is destined to be, and those who practice safe living. It is not easy for an individual (or for society, for that matter) to construct a frame of reference that enables one to deal with reality in productive, viable, safe, and rational ways. In Africa, they say "it takes a village." It is the collective interplay of the components of the systems we inhabit that bestow on us, distill in us, our frames of reference - a general frame of reference that we share with others, and an individual frame of reference that is our own. Do our education systems challenge us to learn, or encourage us to dumb-down? Do our political systems catalyze our sense of civic spirit and belief in a set of common goods, or encourage selfishness and disengagement? Do our religions emphasize the value of being "good" in everyday life, or do they emphasize adherence to rituals for their own sake? Do our economic systems impart us with a sense of justice and fairness, or do they operate with a paradigm of live and let die? And our languages ... do they inhibit our thinking and intellectual progress, or do they propel these forth? I have written previously in these Diaries about Wittgenstein and his theory of language. We tend to underestimate the power and impact our languages have on the development and shape of our frames of reference - on our abilities, as individuals and societies, to deconstruct our frames of reference and reconstruct them to deal with and manage constantly changing realities. I was recently reminded of the important function of language while listening to music - highly advisable in these pandemic times. I ran across the National Arab Orchestra, which I've never heard of before. The Orchestra performs the music and song of the years of the recent Arab enlightenment, which sadly did not last long. This was the period after the fall and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire into its constituent national units, and after the Arab nation and peoples attained independence from western colonial powers. It was a period of freedom of the intellect, of the heart and spirit, of art and music - tinged with the hopes and dreams of pluralism and democracy. It was not meant to be. The politics of the Cold War, oil, and religious conservatism took hold of the region, pulling it back and down. One casualty was Arabic language. Arabs lost control of their language and this loss and subsequent neglect meant that Arabic no longer supported, but impeded, the intellectual and spiritual progress of Arabs. The link below is for a recent performance by the National Arab Orchestra of a song by Umm Kulthum, a doyen of Arab music and song from the 1960s and 1970s. It does not take a musicologist to realize that the music of those days far surpass what is currently produced in the Arab World. A song has two main components: language and music. If a language suppresses the heart and spirit, then the resulting music will reflect this. That was not the case in Umm Kulthum's days and Arab music soared. To regurgitate means to re-consume something that one has already ingested. I hope that by re-playing the music of the days of enlightenment, Arabs will find nourishment for the next mile to cross. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_HoGYhk4x8
Aug 16, 2022 · 4 min read