litvinenko's conversion

Have been meaning to mention the deathbed conversion of the poisoned former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko...

This from the press...

Litvinenko's father, Valter, told RFE/RL's Russian Service his son converted to Islam shortly before his death and wished to be buried according to Muslim tradition.

"He told me about his decision two days before he died. He said, 'Papa, I have to talk to you about something serious. I've become a Muslim,'" Walter Litvinenko said.

"I said, 'Sasha, it's your decision. As long as you don't become a communist or a satanist, that's the main thing.' I'm a Christian myself, but I have a granddaughter whose father is Kabardin -- my daughter's husband, he's Muslim as well," he continued. "We haven't lost God; we believe in God. But how to believe in God, how to pray -- everyone should do that in the way they consider best."


rip the godfather of soul

James Brown died today. Reading his biography (and looking at the lines on his face) he clearly had a long, tough life. Hopefully he'll soon be in heaven singing with the angels, adding some soul to paradise...may he rest in peace.

hajj boutef

President Bouteflika is going to Mecca to perform hajj. This was announced by one Algerian paper when it announced that he will address the nation in a "surprise" speech on 12/26 after an "extraordinary reunion" of the highest levels of the government.

[UPDATE: No hajj this year...there he was at Aid prayer in Algiers. I now realize that the fact-checking department at Algerian newspapers is somewhat lacking...sorry for the misinfo.]

prophet jesus

One of the biggest misconceptions of Islam is that we don't "believe" in Jesus, when in fact he is a much loved and revered prophet in Islam. Another great misconception of Islam, perhaps the greatest and most damaging of all, is that "Allah" is different from the Christian "God," when in fact Allah is a translation of the word God, and Muslims, Christians and Jews, all "people of the Book" worship the same God.

Here are some of the words in the Koran about Jesus (Yusuf Ali translation):

Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah; He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous." She said: "O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?" He said: "Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: When He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, 'Be,' and it is! "And Allah will teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel, And (appoint him) a messenger to the Children of Israel, (with this message): "'I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah's leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by Allah's leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe...

My best wishes to all my Christian friends. Peace.

j'aime ça

OK, so I've been writing some pretty serious stuff lately. On a more positive note, these are just a few of the things I love about this country, feel free to add your comments!

• couscous on Friday afternoons
• the Adhan, even when it wakes me up at 5am
• lambs grazing in the middle of the city
• chahchouha
• having the entire family within a 3-mile radius
• darija
• rai music
• weddings where the guests, not only the bride, change clothes several times
• baklawa & makroud
• the desert
• berber culture
• generosity & kindness
• contrasts and contradictions
• slower pace of life
• the mountains
• coffee at 4
• jasmine
• harissa & felfel haar
• roadside shwa

up in smoke?

OK, I've been in Spain, and in Morocco, where the smell of hashish and the sight of someone rolling a hashish cigarette is quite common...but Algeria?

Apparently Algeria is moving from a country of transit to a country of consumers. A recent survey of 3000 students aged 15-16 indicated that 17% of the boys had tried marijuana (2% of the girls, who are either staying out of trouble or just too afraid to fess up).

One of the things that always strikes me about Algeria is the fact that a group of people huddled together on a dark street corner is a common and non-threatening occurence...not in any way indicative of any illicit or illegal behavior. Hopefully this won't change...

rewriting the koran

According to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, copies of the Koran with "serious and malicious alterations" have appeared for sale in the streets and mosques in Algeria, and from now on all copies in circulation will undergo inspection and will be stamped if approved. (Kind of like the blue stamp from the FDA you find on your steak?)

So much for the inalterable word of God, and how do they expect to handle the inspection...word for word comparison? Wonder what the alterations and/or deletions were? Crazy scary stuff...

the evil eye

The city of Constantine is a sea of brown and concrete, covered with strange white growths. Way back when, when Constantine was Frenchified, apparently people actually painted their houses. Now, from the poorest hut to the most luxurious villa, 99.9% of buildings remain the gray/brown color of weathered concrete.

"Why?," I ask. Clearly whitewash is inexpensive, used extensively throughout the Mediterranean.

"Evil eye," I'm told.

Apparently many are afraid that by painting their houses they will draw attention to them, and as any good North African knows, drawing attention may also attract the evil eye. That's why babies wear "hamza's" and people slap them for no apparent reason, other than the fact that they're so darn cute.

The growths I mentioned are satellite dishes, which have taken over the world and which can be seen on the roofs of even the humblest of shacks (not sure where they get electricity from, but that's another story). The effects of satellite tv on societies such as the Algerian one are well known and oft discussed.

One of the effects of the global satellization, which ties into my previous post about the lack of libraries, is the fact that the number of cinemas in Algeria has decreased dramatically. Of the more than 400 cinemas that existed at independence in 1962, only 15 remain today.

In the days when houses were painted, young people hung out at the Filmotheque, where they saw films and then stayed to discuss them. Now there are no books, no movies, just French tv and Amr Khaled.

morning after? if it's a pill it must be halal...

Was in a pharmacy the other day and noticed a display, prominently placed on the counter, for "la pilule du lendemain," or the morning-after pill. Mentioned to the pharmacist that I was surprised to see that here in Algeria, and he responded that it sold very well. Based on the atmosphere of religious fervor that I see here, I can only assume that they the average person doesn't really understand what it is, but also that its success is due in part to the Algerian love of pharmaceuticals...just tell anyone you have a cold and they'll open up their fridge which contains eggs, a few tomatoes, and dozens and dozens of syrups and injections and pills, most of which have probably expired and none of which they really know much about!

medina ah-zahra

Near Córdoba, Spain are the ruins of the palace of Medina ah-Zahra, the jewel of Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. The analogy has been used that, during this period, Córdoba was to the rest of Europe what New York would be if compared today to a tiny rural village in Mexico (no offense intended...I love small villages in Mexico). Running water, paved and lighted streets...and during a period when large collections of books were scarce in Europe, Córdoba had about seventy libraries, the largest containing some 400,000 books. The culture of Al-Andalus was intellectually alive and was responsible for introducing Europe to, among other things, paper, algebra, advanced irrigation techniques and translations of many of the classic works of both Greek and Latin philosophy.

Medina ah-Zahra was brimming with ideas and beauty, creativity and activity, attracting musicians, astronomers, poets, doctors, botanists and mathmaticians. Stanley Lane-Poole, in his book "The Story of the Moors in Spain," wrote that "Travelers from distant lands, men of all ranks and professions in life, following various religions - princes, ambassadors, merchants, pilgrims, theologians and poets - all agreed that they had never seen in the course of their travels anything that could be compared to it."

It had a short life. Construction began in 940, and just seventy years later, in 1010 it was destroyed by Muslim purists from North Africa who felt that its culture was too far away from what they felt was the true interpretation of the Koran.

Hmmmm...sound familiar?

bouteflika lives in the airport

OK, so my young nephew believes that President Bouteflika lives at the airport, since every night the news shows him at the airport, on the red carpet, shaking hands and making speeches.

Kind of like that Tom Hanks movie, but on a whole other level...

bored, no books

OK, so I'm used to constant stimulation, entertainment, consumerism and activity. Now I'm here in el djazair and it's raining and the dish isn't working, and the only books in the house are the ones I've read (tomorrow I'm going to the librairie to look for some new books...mama always said be reading one and have one on the side). I feel lost when I'm not into a book.

That makes me think about how important reading is to me, and has been my entire life. I don't see that here. Whether it's my husband who has 2 PhD's yet I don't think has read a novel in his entire life, or the fact that his family, all educated people, apparently never ever read. Sad...and frightening.

According to UNESCO, youth literacy in Algeria has increased from 60.6% in 1980 to nearly 90% in 2004. That's a pretty impressive increase. The ability to read is apparently not the problem. However, books are expensive and inaccessible for the average Algerian. Libraries are few and far between. Latest figures on the public availability of books estimates one book for every two Algerians (or a 1/2 a book each), when the average # of books per inhabitant of a developing country is 2 and 4+ for the rest of the world.

The director of the National Library, Amin Zaoui, summarized this crisis very elocuently when he said "Of one million university students, how many of them read [for pleasure]? 2000 maximum!" He calls for an increased emphasis on reading in schools and universities, an expansion and revitalization of municipal libraries and a public campaign to promote reading. He recently proposed a cigarette tax to fund these programs. He also feels that the state needs to support all those involved in the culture of reading, from the author to the publisher to the bookseller.

He believes there is hope. Algerians read newspapers, which is a tradition unique in the Arab world. Now, he feels, the challenge is to help Algerians transition from reading newspapers to a more profund and lasting reading, that found in books.

prayer is physical

OK, so it's in the news today that "a top Malaysian university has discovered that the postures used during the Muslim prayer, or solat, have significant physical benefits. Initial results from a research project by Universiti Malaya’s biomedical engineering department show the Muslim style of praying benefits the heart and spine, while increasing the capacity for memory and attention."

I also found mention elsewhere that "approximately 200 calories are burned during tarawih prayer. However, even more beneficial than the actual physical exercise is the therapeutic exercise of the five prayer positions. Many curative therapies (e.g., Feldenkrais, Yoga, and Tai Chi) use positioning of the body to elicit a physical, mental, and spiritual balance. Muslim prayer positions are no different than these common medical approaches to physical therapy. In fact, according to modern medical research, each prayer position relates to a different organ system. These organs are activated when assuming the prayer positions by stimulating the nerve ganglia that branch forth from the spinal column. As each bodily part is stimulated, healing energies increase in that area for a period of 5-30 minutes."

Awesome, eh? And that's just the physical benefit...

zizou is here!

Let me just say that Zizou, otherwise known as Zinedine Zidane, or just as Zidane, is the greatest football player and the classiest sportsman of all time (don't bring up the headbutt, that was just an honorable, yet regrettable, reaction to a dishonorable provocation). He's in Algeria after 20 years, visiting his village and playing soccer with the kids. Awesome.

mangled arabic

This keeps me going when I forget the words of my prayer, or totally mangle the Arabic pronounciation:

"Many prayers are declined because of the rank odor of a corrupt heart rising through the beautiful words. Let the words be wrong, but the meaning right. That flawed utterance is dearer to God."

-Rumi, "The Life and Thought of Rumi"

fighting rams

OK, I'll really try to stop ranting and write about something more positive next time, but had to get this in first...

For those who aren't Muslim, we have a religious holiday approaching where lambs are sacrificed in remembrance of Abraham's offer to God of his son, etc., etc. You know the story.

Well, I heard the other day that there's a very well developed network of ram fighting, that precedes the Aid. The fights are apparently very popular and the champion rams, prior to being slaughtered in the name of God, live the life of prize fighters...they're given names and enjoy fame and fortune.

The shocking thing is that the reason for doing this are not only "sport," but cold hard's a gambling ring! As in most religions, gambling is totally haram or prohibited in Islam...yet the pious gather round and throw their dinars on the table, betting on their favorite rams, then wash themselves for prayer without a cloud in their little minds.

sexy hijab

OK, so I don't get it. The veil is the latest rage here, and I'd say an overwhelming majority of women wear it...but I'm not talking about the modest shapeless kind, or the traditional one with the little hankie over the face...

Yesterday I saw the ultimate...a young girl with skin tight jeans, killer spiky heels, a tight as saran wrap black sweater, and a black scarf wrapped tightly on her head (accompanied by the little dangly jewelly things they use to close the scarf, but I won't even go there!). The clincher is that on top of this skin tight sweater she was wearing what looked like a hot pink string bikini style?

The contradictions of this society are many, but the ones over religion is the most complex. What's disturbing is what I see, and hear from many young women, about the reasons why many of them are wearing scarves (and I won't call them muslim veils, because they have little to nothing to do with the modesty of the veil): pressure, style, sexiness, wanting to be like their friends, are the last reasons one should wear hijab. It's kind of like the girl who wears a leopard-print scarf on her head, and then takes it off at the beach so she can better show off her new thong bathing suit.

Wrong message being sent to them, and it's being perpetuated by them...just shallow and insincere and hypocritical.

cat, i mean yusuf

The man-formerly-known-as-cat-stevens-now-known-as-yusuf-islam has a new single and an album out, available on itunes (which has saved my mind since I can still buy music wherever I am in the world...that and Survivor episodes!). I almost cried when I heard it for the first time, as not only did his voice bring back incredible memories of my youth, but also I could relate to his conversion to Islam, etc. Worth checking out, although I'd suggest you skip the reviews, which while overwhelmingly positive, include some political, anti-Islamic, unnecessary comments, too.

Oh, and did you know he has a twenty-something son, whose album is coming out in the beginning of 2007? His name is Yoriyos.

Oh, and for those who don't believe music (or at least music with instruments) has a place in Islam, here's a link to Yusuf's discussion of same:

amr khaled

Don't know if you've heard of Amr Khaled, the "Muslim Televangelist," but he's really hot right now in the Muslim world, especially among young people. I think he's personally responsible for taking thousands of "disenfranchised youths" (hate that term!) directly from the discos into the mosques. I read an interesting article about him in the NY Times:

Here he's on TV all the time, and in Ramadan (and I think now in Hajj) was broadcasting directly from a studio overlooking Mecca. I saw a program with subtitles (my Arabic ain't so hot) and it was oddly compelling, but there's something about his voice and his tears that made me a bit cautious...Pat Robertson? Jim Baker? He has some good ideas, though, but I'm a bit nervous by his embracing the mighty dollar (or riyal?) and his emphatic call for all women to wear hijab, or full veil.

yikes, am i the enemy?

There was an attack on foreign workers yesterday, which gives me the creeps, especially since when I go out I stand out like a sore thumb. I have this vision of being kidnapped by crazy bearded ones, who take me for a typical infidel...and I cook them a nice couscous and join them in Allahu Akbars at prayer time...hmmmmm what would they do then? Confusing, eh?

no prayer today, or tomorrow

OK, so I go to wash up for prayer (in case you didn't know, muslims are the cleanest people on the planet, since they wash at least 5x a day!) and found that I have my period, so I'm exempt from praying until it's over and I've taken a bath. Regardless of what some may say, menstruation is not viewed as dirty in the Koran and in Hadith (the sayings of our prophet, Muhammad). Actually I found something about this, as told by Muhammad's wife, as follows:

Book 003, Number 0578, Sahih Muslim:
'A'isha reported: When anyone amongst us was menstruating the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) asked her to tie waist-wrapper daring the time when the menstrual blood profusely flowed and then embraced her; and she ('A'isha) observed: And who amongst you can have control over his desires as the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) had over his desires.

There are other references to intimate contact between the prophet and his wives (yes, he had several, but that's a whole other story), and they show the naturalness and tenderness of their relationship and the fact that menstruation did not make the woman an "untouchable."

salat 101

OK, so I've finally started praying, after a long time trying. You try learning a bazillion words in another language and committing to doing so 5x a day! In any event, it's going ok, although I'm still confused about about when to put my arms up, when to say "Allahu akbar", etc., and my husband (who's a muslim by birth, not by conversion) still looks at me warily, afraid that one of these days I'll show up with a veil. That's about as likely as a blizzard in the Sahara... oh well, gotta go, hear the adhan...time to pray, again.