Time with my family
It was a welcomed relief for me from the hot humidity of the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our time together was wonderful, as we had not seen each other in more than a year. We enjoyed outings in the national park and visiting with family members in Košice and Poprad.
“Kenny” (our Schnauzer), Janulik and I enjoyed throwing the frisbee in the backyard of the bed-and-breakfast lodging. Kenny is absolutely wild about chasing a frisbee. Just mention the word and he goes crazy. He was constantly begging for his red frisbee, which he wore out while I was in Slovakia. He never tired of chasing that flying disc. He would sit beneath the rack holding the frisbee, whimpering and begging for it.
I have read that chasing and catching frisbees is an exciting and physically demanding activity that “tests a dog’s intelligence, fitness and endurance.” It is apparently a natural extension of a dog’s “prey drive,” and many hunting and working dogs pick up the sport with little effort. “Kenny” is one of them.
He is a great companion for Janulik. He faithfully walks Janulik four times everyday!
A lot of changes!
Poprad and Spišská Sobota have changed so much since I was first here as a teenager in 1968. The dark days of totalitarian communism have given way to bustling commercial centers of shopping malls, restaurants and hype-supermarkets. The old, gray, cold hotels and
buildings are now painted cheerful, vibrant colors. Historic villages and castles are now busy with tourists wandering about. By night the streets are brightly lit with LED lighting and signage.
Some changes here have been rather shocking–like the price of gas. It costs over 100 euros (US $140) to fill your car’s tank. While the rise in salaries here in Slovakia has slowly increased, the cost of living has mushroomed. But there is one bargain still available to tourists, if you have the right connections. We found a beautiful bed-and-breakfast for just $10.00 a night!
Our favorite time everyday, was to walk through this historic village where the bed-and-breakfast was located–Spišská Sobota. Especially, around dinner time!
There are a lot of not-to-expensive, excellent cafes and restaurants. You can have a nice meal in one place, and easily walk across the street to a bakery or coffee shop for a great dessert.
My favorite dessert, as my family knows, is makovnik. It’s a large rolled pastry filled with a sweet poppy seed mixture. My father-in-law, Miloslav, presented me with two very large makovniks while I was there!
The Slovak King of Madagascar
As we were walking down the main street of the ancient town of Spišská Sobota I noticed a historic marker on one of the old houses. It read “Home of Zuzana Benyovska, wife of Count Maurice Benyovsky.” The dates pointed to the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that then included Slovakia.
Loving history, I began to wonder, who was this married couple? As I began to ask questions, it didn’t take long to get my answer, as my Slovak family and friends were very proud to tell the story.
Count Maurice Benyovsky was considered a great representative of the period known as the Age of Enlightenment. He was a leading figure during the development of transportation and world trade. He was an explorer of unknown regions, and a “Slovak-French colonel.” He would be known as the “King of Madagascar” and the first Slovak author of a best-selling travelogue, having been involved in the history of various nations.
After being captured while fighting for the independence of Poland, Benyovsky was deported by the Russians to the Siberian region of Kamchatka. There he organized his escape, commandeering a Russian sailing vessel. His voyage would take him to Macao. His was the first known voyage from the northeast to the southeast shores of Asia.
The King of France would eventually entrust him with an expedition to Madagascar, where he made friendships with the various warlords, uniting a major part of the island. Benyovsky, beloved by the local tribes, was conferred affectionately with the title of “king.”
Upon his return to France, he attempted to build a fleet of ships for overseas trade, but business was not his gift. Having failed at commerce, this man of adventure and travel never gave up.
While in France he had developed a close friendship with the US Ambassador Benjamin Franklin who in turn introduced Benyovsky to US General George Washington. Benyovsky became a general himself in the American revolutionary army. He fought in major sea battles during the American war for independence. In 1796 he would be killed in battle alongside the French. His travel memoirs were published in London in 1790.
Benovsky’s wife Zuzana later, with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin, returned to her home in Spišská Sobota.
Slovak cuisine and the “miracle suit”
Slovakia is known for its excellent cuisine. Svíečková with potato dumplings (knedliky) is a one of my favorite Slovak dishes and one of the most popular Slovak meals. It is sirloin beef prepared with vegetables, spiced with black pepper, allspice, bay leaf and thyme and boiled with thick double cream. Pour that over the knedlíky, and you have a scrumptious meal fit for a king!
Being in Slovakia for just a couple of weeks, and knowing time was of the essence, I tended to eat as much as I could! But then, all of this delicious food presented a big problem. My business suit “shrank”!
Seeing I was having difficulty buttoning my suit, my wonderful Jana insisted on helping me find a new suit. We looked all over the nearby city of Poprad, going from one shopping mall to another, in and out of men’s apparel shops. Nothing fit me properly. Top too small. Pants too long. And there was no time for alterations. I told Jana, “It’s impossible to find a nice suit in Slovakia. Just forget it.”
But Jana never gave up. I got a phone call from her one morning. She was so excited. “You have to come try on this suit! It has your name on it! And it’s 50% off!”
She picked me up, and we were off to the Prior department store. That suit did, indeed, have my name on it! It bore the factory tag marked “Samuel.” Apparently this Slovak clothing factory assigns a name to every suit they make.
And, of course, when I tried it on that suit was a perfect fit!
Goodbyes are always difficult. Jana and Janulik work and live in Slovakia. I am working in Saudi Arabia. It isn’t the best arrangement, but I hope to return to Slovakia in just 4 months. We spend time together, almost daily, on Skype and via the internet, sharing the latest news and asking questions. I hope to never be away so long from Slovakia again.
Jana, Janulik and “Kenny”!
The memories of you
Are engraved within my heart.
Nothing in this world
Can ever tear us apart! ~ Daddy
Here’s a great, short video showing the beauty and splendor of the Slovak Republic–a little nation of great faith, history and castles, high mountains, culture and very hospitable people. Take a few minutes to watch it!
Sources: BBC History Magazine, wikipedia.org, historyorb.com, slovakiopedia.com, youtube.com, discdogg.com
The King Abdullah Interfaith Center, Vienna, Austria
It was my privilege to meet the first of September with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff, of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna, Austria.
KAICIID was founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different faiths and cultures around the world. The Centre is an independent, autonomous, international organization, free of political or economic influence.
The Founding States are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Republic of Austria and Kingdom of Spain. They constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the work of the Centre; the Roman Catholic Holy See has been admitted as a Founding Observer to the Centre.
The Board of Directors comprises high-level representatives of the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) and cultures. The Centre is headed by a Secretary General. An Advisory Forum of up to 100 members of other religions, cultural institutions and international organizations provide a further resource of interreligious and intercultural perspective.
Our discussion at the KAICIID Vienna offices
KAICIID’s mission, to facilitate interreligious and intercultural understanding, and enhance respect for diversity, justice and peace is reflected in the diversity of its staff from 19 countries, four continents, and a wide range of cultural and religious affiliations. Respect for diversity is a cornerstone of KAICIID’s recruitment policy.
My discussion with Fahad Abualnasr centered on current religious extremism among all faiths its resulting conflicts. We spoke of my work with Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation and about the need for Islam itself to be known as a more vigorous partner in initiatives promoting world peace, human rights and environmental concerns, recalling that the founding document of KAICIID cites principles enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”–with emphasis on “human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”
I was, indeed, blessed and encouraged to have learned more about the work of KAICIID and by meeting Fahad Abualnasr and members of his staff.
KAICIID statement condemns religious extremism
On 25 September, meeting at the KAICIID offices in New York, the foreign ministers of the Republic of Austria, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom of Spain signed a declaration affirming dialogue as a path to lasting peace and social cohesion. This was in response to the current deplorable violence and humanitarian crisis in Northern Iraq and in Syria, as well as in other parts of the world. KIACIID hopes, with the combined support of all faith, to develop international solidarity n ending sectarian violence in various parts of the world.
The released statement said, “We condemn violent conflict in the world, more so violence committed in the name of religion, and call for an end to violent hostility. We deplore loss of life and commend those who seek to alleviate suffering, as well as those who strive to promote well-being, harmony and peace.”
The statement, as well, opposed the instrumentalization of religion to make war and strongly condemned “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes.
Hate speech and extremism that incite violence and fuel prejudice were also singled out.
Enjoy this sand-art performance during the opening ceremony of KAICIID on 26 November 2012:
Sources: Ecumenical Review, Time Magazine, KAICIID.org
I accepted the ice bucket challenge on behalf of my 14-year-old friend Andrew Stevens who lives with his parents Angelo and Nancy Stevens in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The event was staged in the historic Al Balad district of downtown Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
It was more than 100 degrees and humid in Jeddah at the time, so the ice and cold water were actually a welcomed relief!
Andrew lives with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), a severe form of epilepsy. LGS, also known as Lennox syndrome, is a difficult-to-treat form of childhood-onset epilepsy that most often appears between the second and sixth year of life, and is characterized by frequent seizures and different seizure types. LGS is often accompanied by developmental delay and psychological and behavioral problems.
Andrew made history in 2011 when he was finally allowed entrance to his Northern Virginia school accompanied by his service dog “Alaya.” While the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia applauded the school board for allowing Andrew into school, it released a statement saying, “We continue to urge the school system to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Apparently many schools do not.
Andrew’s story has been featured at avarious times on NBC News, the TODAY Show and in the Washington Post.
Contributions to assist families living with LGS and other forms of epilepsy can be made online to the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia. Your generous help will be greatly appreciated.
God bless you, Andrew! We love you and pray for you! Thank you for all the good work you do for men, women and children living with epilepsy!
(Article last updated 15 September 2014, 1:34 am)
Recently I received several questions from American friends. They are questions that have also troubled me since moving to Saudi Arabia two-and-a-half years ago. The questions: “When will Sunni and Shia Muslims stop fighting each other?” and “How can Muslims commit such horrible atrocities?” and “Doesn’t the evil of terrorism discredit Islam?”
A view from the heart of Islam
I have lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years now. I’ve asked just about every difficult question that could possibly be asked, and I have actually been on the lookout for “extremists” to try to get a better understanding of what makes them think the way the do. So far I have found none.
The Muslims brothers and sisters I have here are rational men and women who dislike bigotry, hatred and war. They simply want a nation that has a sound economy. They want prosperous futures for their children and grandchildren. However, they are concerned about how others outside the Kingdom view their Muslim faith.
As I answer the above questions, I do not intend in any way to excuse some of the obvious hatred and bigotry among peoples and groups who refer to themselves as Muslims. But in living here in the Mecca Region, the very heart of Islam, I have gained what I believe to be a valid perspective, having completed the grueling difficulties of Hajj with friends from our local neighborhood mosque, and having visited Mecca on many occasions and Medina once.
Also, millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world travel in and out of Jeddah every year on their way to Mecca, just 35 miles down the road. I mingle with them as they come and go. I have also developed friendships with some of the migrant workers resident in Saudi Arabia—most who are Muslim.
Lest we forget our own Western “Christian” wars
While we are astounded at what we see every night on television, I can imagine that many Muslims of the 19th and 20th century must have asked these same questions when observing wars in the West.
One might consider the American Civil War, that pit Southern Christians who supported slavery against northern Christians who, for the most part, opposed slavery. More than 620,000 American combatants died, and there were more than 450,000 casualties among American civilian men, women and children.
In reference to that War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.”
During the First World War and the Second World War “Christian nations” battled “Christian nations” for supremacy. It was a time when oligarchies made alliances with religious groups and political parties (fascism) for one political objective or another. Allied armies responded in force.
Even more recently we have had the Irish Republican Army (IRA) battling it out with the Presbyterian Orange Order of Northern Ireland. Countless kidnappings, murders, and bombings were carried out during the 1960s and 1970s. Homes were torched and innocent men, women and children were caught in the crossfire.
Today in South Sudan we find Christian militia battling Christian militia for power and control.
Islam–divisions and factions
One cannot think simply of Islam as a united faith where all believers are in agreement. Islam has many divisions and factions.
Greater than eighty percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are said to be Sunni. Among Sunnis are thousands of offshoots.
In recent years, some self-proclaimed Sunni leaders, like those of ISIS, have managed to organize radical militias, enlisting soldiers while amassing funding by pillaging towns, cities and homes as they pass through.
ISIS has a radical agenda of organizing a caliphate (an Islamic state) from parts of Syria and Iraq. Their leaders have ordered Iraqi Christians living within their proposed state to convert to Islam, pay taxes or die.
To say that these fanatical Muslims who lob grenades at each other shouting “Allah akbar!” (“God is great!”) are representative of all Islam would be like saying the IRA is a bona fide movement of the Catholic Church.
I don’t know a lot about ISIS, but I can honestly say that some Islamic hate groups are to Islam what the National Socialist White People’s Party (NWSPP) and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) are to Christianity. Fortunately, most Americans are keenly aware that the NWSPP and KKK are certainly not “Christian” in the traditional sense, but both racist groups do claim to represent “white, Christian America.”
Islam and illiteracy
It is unfortunate that millions of Muslims today, especially those living in poorer nations, cannot read or write.
While education of both girls and boys is promoted throughout the Muslim world, some Muslim populations have fallen under the influence of radical Islamists who have political objectives that are extra-Quranic. They forbid the education of girls and endorse only principled Islamic texts for educational purposes.
While many of those who are illiterate are able to recite long passages of the Qur’an, I was surprised to find that some have no idea what they are reciting. While the Arabic of the Qur’an is beautiful, flowing wonderfully with sounds and syllables, it is an ancient language that many who recite it don’t understand. It would be like a Catholic quoting from the Latin Vulgate Bible–not knowing the meaning or nuances of the Latin sentences and words.
It has been pointed out to me by men in my mosque that there are many who are born into Islam and refer to themselves as “Muslim,” but they actually have no idea what it means to truly be Muslim. They have little knowledge of who Mohammad was and the principles for which he stood.
War is hell, and horrible atrocities happen in all wars–even at the hands of western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, when radical Muslims who are politically motivated present themselves to be acting on behalf of God, the consequences can be disastrous. One man commanding a group of disenfranchised, uneducated, illiterate followers can wreak havoc on a nation (eg Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq, etc.).
The Sunni – Shia differences
Now we come to the historic Sunni—Shia divide.
I do not pretend to know all there is to know about what caused the evolution of Shia Islam and the succeeding Sunni resentment that followed. I have met a few Shia Muslims and have spoken with my Sunni Muslim friends about the matter. It appears that the battle is over something that happened nearly 1400 years ago; a deviation from the original faith observed by the Prophet Mohammad.
The Sunni branch of Islam believes that the first four caliphs (Mohammed’s successors) rightfully took his place as the leaders of Islam. They recognize the heirs of the first four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.
Shia Islam, in contrast, teaches that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. Shiites seem to be more mystical in nature—some paying homage and praying to Ali and his descendants.
In some Shia homes in Iran, one will find “icons” honoring Ali. Shiites make pilgrimages to what is believed to be Ali’s gravesite in Iraq. Some speak of the miracles Ali has performed on their behalf.
Sunnis compare such behavior to idolatry, and they believe that any form of idolatry is anathema and worthy of “hell fire.” Indeed, the Qur’an says that no one should worship idols or pay homage to humans or other created entities. Even pictures of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden.
I have visited Mohammed’s tomb at the Nabawī Mosque (also known as the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina. There are guards posted at Mohammad’s sepulcher to prevent Muslims from praying or paying homage to the Prophet.
I find the Sunni-Shia divide to bear similarities to the great debate that took place between Protestants and Catholics during the great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Protestants separated from Roman Catholics, debating similar issues. Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and others sought to eliminate manyof the corruptions and accesses that were then present within Roman Catholicism.
Luther ignited the Reformation by posting his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That church held one of Europe’s largest collections of holy relics. These religious relics had been gathered by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics were said by Rome to give relief from temporal punishment for sins in “purgatory.” By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly “including vials of the milk from the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger of Jesus’ birth and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod.”
As reformers allied themselves with kings and rulers vicious wars ensued between Catholics and Protestants. Horrible atrocities were committed. Many of the reformers were imprisoned, burned at the stake, beheaded, hanged or dismembered.
Conflicts between some Shia and Sunni Muslims continue today. ISIS is further advancing its radical religious agenda by destroying Shiite mosques and Islamic shrines around the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul, which they captured last month. Al Arabiya reported that the damage extends to at least four shrines to Sunni or Sufi figures, and six Shiite mosques in the northern province of Nineveh.
Pictures surfacing on social media showed the destruction, ISIS troops accomplished with explosives and bulldozers. They appeared on a militant website that was verified by the Associated Press as being an outlet for official ISIS statements. The photos were posted under the headline, “Demolishing shrines and idols in the state of Nineveh.”
The vast majority of Shias and Sunnis live in friendship together side by side. They say it is security and stable economies their families need, not misguided extremists stirring up trouble.
I pray that peace and reconciliation between these two contending bodies of believers might be possible in the same way that eventual dialogue, appeasement and understanding have taken place between Protestants and Catholics during the past century. After all, Islam means to “voluntarily surrender” to the God of Abraham. It also implies “peace” and “safety.”
Current situation in Syria and Iraq
I liken the present situation in Syria and Iraq to that of the former Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia had come into existence as a result of treaties at the end of the First World War. Serbia (which then included the present-day Republic of Macedonia), Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia were forcibly joined, and after the Second World War these Balkan states were brought under Josip Tito’s communist dictatorship as the Iron Curtain of atheistic socialism descended over Central Europe.
After Tito’s death in 1980 and the subsequent fall of communism in 1989, the nation of Yugoslavia descended into anarchy and civil war. Today, the former Yugoslavia has self-divided along religious beliefs and ethnicity.
Many of the Islamic states of the Middle East were also formed after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Their borders were drawn up by colonial powers (England and France). The secretive Sykes–Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, defined their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East. Dictators were essentially appointed and supported by various foreign powers, including the United States.
What is now happening in Syria and Iraq is, I fear, inevitable. People yearn for freedom and stable economies–better futures. Today we are witnessing the breakup of these “forced” states along religious and ethnic lines. In the case of Syria and Iraq, Sunni, Shia and Kurds are vying to have dominant influence hoping to form their own independent states.
The challenge for Arab states
As I write this article, CNN is broadcasting that that Al Qaeda and another group new to me is planning attacks on Arabian Peninsula airports and shopping malls.
There is growing concern about Islamic extremism here and elsewhere. As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.
Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks are all more worried about the extremist threat than they were a year ago. Men and women living in Muslim states hold very negative opinions of well-known extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Last evening, Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the US and former Saudi intelligence chief, was interviewed by CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. (See posted interview at the end of this article.)
Prince Turki believes ISIS is a threat to world peace. He argued that the the major powers must come together to confront ISIS.
“Look how many American young people, French, English and other misguided western youth are joining the ranks of ISIS,” he said. Prince Turki says this is a critical matter that needs to be dealt with by western governments as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states.
Prince Turki says the Muslim world basically wants to live in peace. He believes the kind of terrorist tactics being espoused by ISIS is foreign to the faith of Islam. He concluded his remarks on CNN about ISIS, “It’s a terrorist organization that has specialized in brutal killings, so it is a danger to the whole area and I think to the rest of the world.”
On August 7, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, said extremists are attempting to hi-jack Islam for their own evil use. He condemned Islamist extremists who he said have besmirched Islam by committing atrocities in the name of religion. The King’s comments were read August 7 on Saudi television, “It is shameful and disgraceful that these terrorists are doing this in the name of religion, killing people whose killing Allah has forbidden, and mutilating their bodies and feeling proud in publishing this.”
The ISIS call for a Sunni Islamic caliphate has little support outside the ranks of the organization. Muslim scholars and movements from across the Sunni Islamic spectrum have rejected the caliphate declared by the group, with the fighters receiving scathing criticism from mainstream Muslim leaders. Most recently the chief imam of Turkey has pronounced the ISIS caliphate as illegitimate.
Murder and wanton slaughter of the innocent prohibited
All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) agree that acts of aggressive behavior, especially when it involves murder and massacres of innocent men, women and children, are evil. There is no place within any of these faiths for suicide bombers and acts of aggression.
Abrahamic believers today are of one of two opinions. Some seek to avoid conflict and war all together, declaring themselves pacifists or conscientious objectors. They refuse to fight under any circumstances.
The overwhelming majority consider “just war” appropriate when confronting an agressive enemy that is invading, killing their fellow citizens, and destroying their cities, businesses, farmlands and homes.
In Islam, the Qur’an makes the following clear:
Suicide is forbidden. “O ye who believe!… [do not] kill yourselves, for truly God has been to you Most Merciful. If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire…” (Qur’an 4:29-30).
The taking of life is allowed only by way of justice (i.e. the death penalty for murder), but even then, forgiveness is encouraged. “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause…” (17:33).
In pre-Islamic Arabia, retaliation and mass murder was commonplace. If someone was killed, the victim’s tribe would retaliate against the murderer’s entire tribe. This practice was directly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:178-179). Following this statement of law, the Qur’an says, “After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement” (2:178).
No matter what wrong we perceive as being done against us, we may not lash out against an entire population of people. The Qur’an admonishes those who oppress others and transgress beyond the bounds of what is right and just. “The blame is only against those who oppress men with wrongdoing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice. For such there will be a chastisement grievous (in the Hereafter)” (42:42).
Harming innocent bystanders, even in times of war, was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad. This includes women, children, noncombatant bystanders–even animals, trees and crops. Nothing is to be harmed unless the aggressor is actively engaged in an assault against Muslims.
Listen to this interview conducted from Jeddah last evening by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour with Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal. (Click on photo below to be directed to the video interview.)
A time of rejoicing, fasting and prayer
Today, 29 June 2014, marks the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is the most important time of the year for Muslims worldwide.
This is my third year to join in the celebration of Ramadan in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, having moved to Jeddah in December 2011.
Ramadan is viewed by children as a wonderfully magical time. Neighborhood houses and businesses are often adorned with strings of colored, lighted lanterns. During Ramadan lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness are often strung in homes and businesses. Many stories of their origins have been told. One legend has it that the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah wanted to light the streets of Cairo during Ramadan nights, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang Fawanees that could be illuminated by candles. As a result, the Fanoos became a custom that has never been abandoned.
Homes seem to be perfumed constantly with the mixed smells of food and burning incense—all serving as a constant reminder that this month is a very special time of the year.
The uninterrupted chanting of Qur’an verses emanating from nearby mosques indicate the absolute solemnity of Ramadan.
It is an intrinsically sacred time for all Muslims. It was during the month of Ramadan that the first revelations of the holy Qur’an were first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel.
The Qur’an is the holy book of Muslims, being recited daily year-round through prayers and worship. It is the basis for reflection in guiding the lives of Muslim men, women and children.
A time of renewal, drawing closer to God
During Ramadan, Muslims will fast and engage in extra prayers and worship, as a means of drawing nearer to God.
Ramadan is the ninth Islamic month. The Islamic calendar is based on a lunar calendar, and the lunar calendar which is 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. It, therefore, takes 30 years for the calendar to rotate full cycle.
Fasting and prayer are from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, which presents greater challenges to Muslims living in the far northern regions where they are expected to stick to the rules, no matter how long the fasting period may be. Fasting in northern Canada or the Nordic states of Norway, Sweden, and Finland is especially difficult, but the blessings of fulfilling the fast are even greater.
The Prophet Muhammad taught that “whoever does not give up lying or cursing during Ramadan, God has no need for that person to give up his food or drink” – which emphasizes that Ramadan is not just about avoiding food or drink, but also working on who one purports to be as a person.
As a spiritual support to achieve one’s goal, Muslims will attend their mosques more often. In the evenings there will be a special extended prayer time.
A month of empathy and gratitude
Ramadan is known as the “month of empathy.” Ramadan is an exercise in empathy for the more than 2 billion people in the world who live in poverty, but it’s also a lesson in gratitude.
During this 30-day period Muslims put themselves in the shoes of people who are in dire straits—people who are suffering deprivation of all kinds: thirst, hunger, homelessness, sickness, pain, etc.
This month at Tuqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as in all mosques around the world, the brothers and sisters gather five times a day for prayer, fellowship and encouragement while reflecting on the needs of others in their community and worldwide.
Collections are made for the poor. Individuals are encouraged to carry out distributions to the poor. It is common to find men, women and children on street corners distributing dates and water to passersby at sundown for the breaking of the fast.
The ultimate “anger management” course
Along with learning and practicing empathy towards others, one is to learn patience.
For 30 consecutive days the faithful are put into a situation where they will face are going to be hungry, sugar levels are low, and the chances are that one is going to get a bit edgy and agitated, so either one develops a rather foul mood for the month of Ramadan or one deals with it successfully for 30 days.
Ramadan is likened by Dr Mansur Ali Jameel, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Center for the Study of Islam at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, as “the best possible anger management course.”
Muslims are advised to control and deny anger. If one feels anger rising within, one is encouraged to take refuge in God.
The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, “If a man gets angry and says, ‘I seek refuge with God from the accursed Satan,’ his anger will go away.” Saying this, Muslims believe, will make it easier to control your anger, as it will remind you that it’s being increased by Satan’s whisperings and that he is rubbing his hands with glee at your rising temper!
Standing makes one feel strong, agressive and powerful and ready for fight. So if one gets angry while standing one is directed to follow the Prophet’s advice: “When one of you becomes angry while standing, he should sit down. If the anger leaves him, well and good; otherwise he should lie down” (Abu Dawud and Al Tirmidhi).
Remembering God and the coming judgment
All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) teach that there will most definitely be a final day when all humankind will stand before God in Judgment. Jesus spoke of the Judgment Day when he walked among men. He said “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of’ Judgment” (Matthew 12:36). We’re told in Hadith Jibra’il, that one is: “…to worship God as though you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not yet—truly He sees you” (Al-Bukhari).
Such God-consciousness (tuqwa) is a good practice for all who claim to believe in the God of Abraham!
One should strive to live each moment, fully aware of God’s presence, living in the knowledge that He is watching everything done by humankind—that someday there will be an accounting for one’s behavior here on earth.
Ramadan is a great time to demonstrate repentance, seeking renewal in one’s relationship with God, to gain forgiveness and peace through increased reverence and worship and to prepare oneself for that final, great Judgment Day.
A firm faith in God is the beginning of that journey—but it must be proved that it is a genuine faith that leads to changed behavior while reflecting on the needs of others and exercising self-restraint; engendering greater love, dedication and service to our almighty God.
Eid al Fitr celebrations
Ramadan ends with the festival Eid al Fitr, which in 2014 occurs on July 28. Literally the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” Eid al Fitr is one of the two most important Islamic celebrations (the other occurs after the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca). At Eid al Fitr people dress in their finest clothes, adorn their homes with lights and decorations, give treats to children, and enjoy visits with friends and family.
A sense of generosity and gratitude colors these festivities. Although charity and good deeds are always important in Islam, they have special significance at the end of Ramadan. As the month draws to a close, Muslims are obligated to share their blessings by feeding the poor and making contributions to mosques and community nonprofit organizations.
In many parts of the world Ramadan is celebrated with spiritual music. Enjoy this Ramadan song by contemporary Muslim recording artist Maher Zain:
Sources: Arab News, Saudi Gazette, ramadan2014.net, The Windsor Star, Time Magazine
Snorkeling south of Jeddah
Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of accompanying some Saudi friends on a snorkeling adventure into the Red Sea, about 90 kilometers south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. My previous experience of exploring coral reefs had been in snorkeling around Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands and scuba diving off the Gulf coasts of Belize and Mexico. However, what I witnessed beneath the waters of the Red Sea was equally incredible.
The Red Sea coral reefs are among the most beautiful of all the world’s marine habitats. This vast inlet of the Indian Ocean provides ideal conditions for corals and other countless forms of aquatic life. There are about 200 species of “stony corals” along the coast.
Most corals are reef builders. Each of these sea polyps builds a skeleton and the animal sits in a calcareous cup that it has secreted. The polyps are connected to each other by an extension of the body above the level of the skeleton. Thus the colony sits on the surface of the skeleton, feeding on algae and particles of food drifting along in the water.
The Red Sea coral reefs form an ecological environment in which creatures can take refuge from predators. Crustaceans, eels, starfish, turtles and thousands of varieties of fish–all benefit from this beautiful ecosystem. Fish that are found in these reefs include some very colorful species. One will find brilliant orange coral groupers, enormous gorgonian fan fish, moray eels and elaborate lionfish and majestic, swooping giant manta rays. We even saw “Nemo” who was made famous by the film “Saving Nemo.”
In deeper waters there are such species as hammerhead sharks and barracudas and various varieties of jellyfishes which look attractive but can deliver their unpleasant stings.
Jacques Cousteau and these coral reefs
I am told that Jacques Cousteau chose this celebrated Red Sea reef system to first introduce the world to undersea life, and by the same token it is not by chance that so many people become diving and snorkeling fanatics during their visits to Saudi Arabia.
The exceptional richness of marine life in the Red Sea is due to an unusual combination of environmental factors. First, the Red Sea is comparatively sheltered and calm: its currents are gentle and regular, its tides almost non-existent, and its temperature warm and steady. While its waters run quite deep, they are warmed by volcanic heat emanating from the sea bed. The result of all these factors is an environment ideally suited to the complex and delicate ecosystem of coral reefs.
Considering all the world’s most celebrated reef systems, these of the Red Sea stand out for their unusual wealth of specific kinds of marine life–most notably, coral itself. The sheer abundance of corals, many of exceptional size and color, makes diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea an experience of almost magical intensity.
Today, one-third of shallow water, reef-building species are threatened with extinction, making them one of the most endangered animal groups on the planet. These reefs are suffering from many environmental impacts, including the effects of climate change, pollution, over-fishing of animals that live on the reefs, and removal of the reefs for use as home décor objects and curio and aquarium trade.
Watch this video produced by Saudi Aramco to learn more about the wonders of the seas bordering both sides of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia:
Sources: Scuba Travel Guide, redsea-online.com, wikipedia.com, youtube.com, Red Sea Reef Guide, Saudi Aramco
Always enjoyed seeing the world
As a high school student at Bob Jones Academy and later as a student at Shelton College, I had worked in Europe for four summers with the Evangelical Reformed Church and other Christian groups. So it was at the age of 18 I found myself bagging groceries, waiting tables in restaurants and scrubbing dormitory toilets in what would be an ongoing effort at getting airline tickets to Europe. As a young student of history, at the end of each summer of work I would take off on my own–travelling to see different parts of Europe. I got around by a Eurail Pass for trains or just hitchhiking on the German autobahns.
I have, on occasion through the years, returned to Europe, and it has been interesting to see changes gradually taking place throughout—especially Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.
Now I was invited by a businessman from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to accompany him on a brief 8-day business trip to Amsterdam and Paris, and I got to have some time off in both cities to explore sights I had first seen some 48 years ago!
A few days in The Netherlands
Amsterdam is considered the “greatest planned city of northern Europe.” It has always been a well-known name in world history and played a central role in the history of the Netherlands. In the 17th century Amsterdam was the center of world economy, and nowadays the city is known for its more tolerant character.
The period 1813-1940 is marked by economic recovery and, from 1870 onwards, by expansion. The increasing wealth brought about a rapid population growth. This development was primarily the result of the Industrial Revolution which triggered off a New Golden Age. The city now ventured into the area beyond the Singelgracht. Large poorly built working-class neighbourhoods were built. The period 1920-1940 was a time of economic recession. Therefore it is all the more remarkable that the so-called Ring 20-40 compares favourably to the 19th century jerry-building. This was also the period of large-scale damage to the historical city centre; canals were filled in and new traffic breakthroughs were realised.
After concluding business in the Netherlands, I boarded the hi-speed Thalys train from The Netherlands to Paris, France. The train ride, at nearly 300 kilometers per hour, would take a mere two-and-a-half hours compared to the 10 hours it used to take to get from Amsterdam to Paris!
Vive la France!
The history of Paris, France, spans more than 10,000 years! During that time the city grew from a small mesolithic settlement to the France’s largest city and capital. Through the centuries Paris developed into a center of government, art, medicine, science, fashion, tourism, high culture and high finance, becoming one of the world’s most influential global cities.
Today, Paris is one of the major capitals of the world. While many world capitals feed off the energy of modernity, Paris is loved because it represents an escape from it. So when most people visit the city, their agenda involves visiting monuments like the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville and Notre Dame Cathedral. The “baby” of this grand group is the Eiffel Tower, built in 1887.
Certainly, no visit to the “City of Lights” can be completed without visiting the Eiffel Tower time and time again. It was constructed as the focal point of the 1889 Paris Exhibition which highlighted the science and engineering achievements of the 19th century. Soaring 300m / 984 ft. (320.75m / 1,052 ft. including antenna) and weighing 7000 tons, the structure consists of two visibly distinct parts: a base composed of a platform resting on four separate supports (called pylons or bents) and, above this, a slender tower created by the latticework tapering upward.
It was almost torn down in 1909 at the expiration of its 20-year lease, but was saved because of its antenna — used for telegraphy at that time. Beginning in 1910 it became part of the International Time Service. French radio (since 1918), and French television (since 1957) have also made use of its stature. In the 1960s, it was the subject of a wonderful study by semiologist Roland Barthes. This unprecedented work, the tallest structure in the world until the Empire State Building was built about 40 years later. It has earned its right as a major symbol of Paris. (For a tour of the Eiffel Tower watch the video at the end of this post.)
Paris might very well be one of the most well-preserved cities in the world – but it still has a lot of contemporary ‘features’ to offer. This comes in the form of hip and modern buildings, museums and other architectural wonders which will give you an idea about what contemporary Paris is all about.
The prime example of contemporary Prisian architecture is La Défense. It is actually considered as an urban project for the 20th century which is made up of 30 high-rise towers standing in a vast square. If you’re in the mood to seeing a film at one an IMAX theater which has one of the biggest screens in the world, this is definitely the place for you.,
Among the more notable modern buildings of La Défense is the famed square, hollow Grande Arche. La Defense is also home to Pompidou Center’s Piano and Rogers Building, considered one of the emblematic buildings of the 20th Century. Sometimes compared by critics to an oil refinery, the building which houses modern art was the subject of huge controversy throughout the 1970s, but now has won the hearts of Parisians.
I am grateful to have had this opportunity to visit these nations once again. Enjoy this video history and tour of Paris’s famous Eiffel Tower.
Sources: Paris by Day, A Short History of Paris, wikipedia.com, simplyparis.org, centrepompidou.fr
Dressing like a Saudi
I always wear the white Saudi thobe here in the Kingdom, and on very special occasions I wear the full Saudi attire. I don’t always get the shemagh positioned precisely correct, and sometimes I’m a bit embarrassed when my black egal falls off! (Hey! I have a great new idea! How about an egal with Velcro on the bottom to hold it in place?)
I recently wore this complete Saudi traditional outfit at the celebrated National Saudi Arabian Janadriyah Festival near Riyadh where I was the guest of the Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense. To my surprise, groups of Saudi young people recognized me as I walked through the grounds. Some would approach to practice their English and to shake my hand, and, on one occasion, there was a shout of appreciation in English, “Welcome, Uncle Sam! We love you!”
The white thobe
The thobe is a full-lenth garment commonly worn by men throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It is normally made of cotton, but heavier materials such as sheep’s wool can also be used, especially in the colder climates of Iraq and Syria. The most common color is pure white, but darker colors are sometimes worn during the cooler months.
The style of the thobe varies slightly from region to region. The long sleeves and the collar can be stiffened to give a more formal appearance.
Other names may be used for this garment. In Oman, dishdasha is the most common word used; in the UAE, the word kandura is used; in Jordan, it is called keffiyeh.
I always wear the thobe in Saudi Arabia. It fits the warm to very hot desert climate.
The shemagh head covering
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a white thobe is most often worn with a white skull cap and a head covering called a shemagh. All is generally considered essential clothing in every Saudi man’s wardrobe. The thobe and shemagh are generally requisite dress when visiting government buildings, attending formal gatherings like state functions, weddings, funerals, dinners or the weekly Friday jumah worship service at one’s local mosque.
The customary wearing of the shemagh began with the Bedouin tribes of old. Designs and colors have varied through the centuries. Like Scottish tartans with designs and colors for the various Scottish clans, colors and designs of the shemagh have often represented the various Arabian tribes. In Saudi Arabia the predominant design today is a red, checkered effect while an alternative solid white is also fashionable.
The shemagh historically has served many purposes. It is used to shade one’s head and neck from the desert sun, but it also many other practical uses, as I discovered when overnighting in the Arabian desert with friends. On windy nights it can be used to conceal the face from blowing desert sand and dust. It can also be worn as a neck scarf to retain heat during cold weather or rolled and worn in a turban style to absorb sweat during hotter, sunny days.
According to the English language daily Saudi Gazette, the shemagh has evolved into a symbol of manhood, particularly among Saudi teenagers who are sometimes expected to wait until they graduate from high school to wear an egal with their shemagh.
Thobes and shemaghs today brandish such names as Armani, Cardin, Gucci and other leading fashion houses. The very best handmade outfits sell for thousands of dollars. But, a custom made thobe in the Al Balad (Old Town) of Jeddah can be purchased for $100 or less, depending on material and quality.
A crowning touch–the Egal
The egal is the black, woven camel or sheep wool cord that is doubled and used to hold the shemagh in place. It has an interesting history, as I learned recently from a close friend in Riyadh. When milking or grooming a camel, Bedouin tribesmen used this black cord to pin the she-camel’s front right leg in order to keep her from moving. What more convenient place to keep the egal than on one’s head!
Today, not wearing the egal is considered by some of the more pious Muslims as a sign of humility, especially those who are devoted observers of the religious teachings of the sunnah; however, most Saudis overcome their humility with pride of Arab tradition. In the short video below, an American tourist is instructed by a Jordanian in the many varied ways to wear his new shemagh.
Sources: The Saudi Gazette, wikipedia.com, A History of Saudi Arabia, Sam’s friend Sheikh Rayan
History of our solar system
The oldest matter found on earth originates from outer space. This debris from far away worlds falls from the dark depths of space onto the ever-changing surface of planet Earth. These meteorites provide valuable information about the early history of our solar system.
Scientists are now investigating unusual surface areas of the Arabian Peninsula where meteorites are found, often in dense concentrations. In these black stones one learns about the early beginnings of the birth and death of celestial bodies. Today, in almost every country there are scientists who work on decoding the hidden messages of this space debris.
Most meteorites are fragments of asteroids, some containing organic matter. Some preserve information on the chemical make-up of the solar system before the formation of planets. Other meteorites found in the Arabian Desert are known to be impact debris from the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. Martian and lunar meteorites, which are rare, are often fragments from the past, having been knocked off into space millions or even billions of years ago.
Mars literally in our hands
Meteorites provide the only samples from Mars that we have in hand to analyze in a laboratory. However, we do have material collected by astronauts from the Moon. Lunar meteorites provide clues to early processes in the Earth-Moon system, such as the a period known as the “late heavy bombardment.” That’s the period when huge numbers of meteorites pelted the Earth and Moon some 3.9 billion years ago, just when life may have started on our planet.
“Searching for meteorites is of paramount importance for astrobiology and planetary science,” according to Dr. Beda Hofmann, head of Earth Science at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Hofmann and Edwin Gnos of the Natural History Museum in Geneva, Switzerland are leaders in meteorite hunts taking place in Oman.
Antarctica and desert hunting grounds
For 30 years, the frozen desert of Antarctica has been one of the richest sources of pristine meteorites. The black stones are easy to pick out from the white snow, and there are no rivers or other natural processes to carry the meteorites away.
More recently, the hot deserts of Africa and Australia also have produced new meteorite discoveries. The dry conditions in deserts tend to preserve stones, and the lack of rain means they are less likely to become eroded or be covered over by sediment.
In 1999, an incredible number of meteorites appeared on the market due to activity by private collectors and dealers.
Oman a big source of space rocks
Within the last ten years Oman has yielded almost one-fifth of the world’s meteorites, a huge cash of more than 5,000 fragments weighing greater than four tons. The Oman finds include one-third of all known lunar meteorites, and a handful of specimens from Mars.
Amateur collectors are cautioned to accurately document their finds, which will make life a bit easier for the scientists who might want to study the rocks. Amateurs found the first Mars meteorites in Oman; in fact it was the appearance (and sale) of those rocks and lunar meteorites that caught the attention of a group of Swiss researchers. They enlisted the support of the government of Oman, and on their first mission in 2001, the team recovered a Mars sample.
Dr. Beda Hofmann is proud that his team’s meteorite collection is conducted in collaboration with the Omani government. “So far we have obtained permission to take all samples necessary to Switzerland,” he says, “but the samples remain the property of the Sultanate of Oman.” Eventually representative samples will be displayed in the Natural History Museum of Muscat, the Omani capital.
Fossils from outerspace
Meteorites are the fossils from which geologists recover the history of our solar system, but most of the meteorites found in Oman did not fall on Earth recently. They have been lying in the desert for several thousand years. A major thrust of the Swiss research is to learn how the environment contaminates meteorites, and see how a meteorite might change its appearance and composition prior to discovery and conservation.
The deserts of Oman seem to be a rich source of unique meteorites, and the precious fragments can tell planetary scientists about conditions in the early solar system when stony objects first formed. These fragments subsequently were glued together by gravitational attraction to construct planets, moons and asteroids. By helping us reconstruct the early history of our solar system and our planet, meteorites bring us a step closer to understanding what conditions were necessary for the origin of life on our world.
Our past, present, future
While meteorites are important because they reveal the very source of life on Earth, they have also contributed to the development of our life-sustaining environment.
Meteorites provide not only a glimpse into the past but also a window to the future. They represent, in a very real sense, both birth and death; creation and destruction.
Today, they are being studied because of their significant threat to life on our planet. With increasing regularity, we are discovering asteroids and comets with unusual orbits — ones that take them dangerously close to Earth and the Sun.
Though just a very few of these bodies are potential hazards to Earth, by understanding more about these “near earth objects” early on, we are better prepared to take appropriate measures to head off a collision with our planet in the future.
For sure, I am joining the hunt for these fascinating interplanetary objects. I have marked carefully the coordinates of where I found my meteorite and hope to return there in the near future.
The following brief video helps us better understand meteorites and to easily distinguish them from meteoroids and meteors.
Sources: NASA, wikipedia.com, Science Magazine, National Geographic, University of Bern archives, astrobio.net, Hossam Malallah
Cart tugging across “the Empty Quarter”
The pinkish-orange sand dunes of Saudi Arabia: a beautiful part of our earth’s biodiversity–challenge any who seek to cross its barren stretches. British adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron seek to better the camel in the Arabian desert. “The locals we met were the kindest, friendliest and most welcoming, but they thought what we were doing was completely crazy.”
Humphreys and McCarron crossed “the empty quarter.” The Empty Quarter (in Arabic known as Rub’ al Khali) is the largest sand desert in the world. It encompasses just about all of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq mi).
The goal of the two men was to retrace the footsteps of a great British legend–Wilfred Thesiger, who had made two separate desert explorations in the 1940s charting vast tracts of the Empty Quarter.
Truth be told!
Just as I, these two adventurers came to Saudi Arabia having received dire warnings of terrorists and impending danger. And, just as I, Humphreys and McCarron found themselves safe–safer than some places we might be in our home countries.
“It was very safe,” Humphreys said. “Before I went a lot of people were thinking ‘Oh you’re going to the Middle East. You’ll definitely be killed by Islamic terrorists!’ but it was so much safer than even the United Kingdom.”
Read more about these adventurers at: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/12/22/world/meast/modern-day-adventurers-desert-crossing/index.html?iref=allsearch
Or, watch this YouTube video describing their incredible desert adventure:
Sources: CNN, Wikipedia, YouTube, alastairhumphreys.com