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Archive for March 2009

March 11, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Arab and Islamic Titles

The Arab and Islamic worlds hold titles very dear, and it’s a subject that’s almost always misunderstood in the West. The first thing to know is that in Islam all men are equal. There are, therefore, technically no provisions for absolute rulers, such as kings, although a number of Arab countries now have monarchs on along Occidental lines (such as Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain). The highest title has traditionally been ‘Amir al-Mu’minin’, the Commander of the Faithful, that is the one selected for leading the prayer and acting as spiritual figurehead. This is sometimes truncated to Amir, or Emir. Other honorific titles indicate that a person is of the Prophet’s family, a lineage that is held in extremely high regard within the Islamic world. Depending on the country, the title given to the Prophet’s descendants alters. In Afghanistan for example where our family is from, descendants are known as Sayed (also spelt Sayyid). Note that ‘Sayed’ and Seyeda’ are used by people whose ancestry is passed on through the paternal line. Where it is through the mother, the title ‘Mirza’ is used. Elsewhere Sayeds are permitted to use other titles such as Sharif (noble) . There are yet more titles local to a particular region, such as ‘Nawab’ (‘deputy’), a form of Muslim Maharajah, found in south Asia, and Nizam (‘administrator of the realm’). The last name ‘Shah’ as used by Muslims in Central Asia denotes a direct lineage to the prophet, and is used in place of a family name which, in our family’s case is ‘al-Hashemi’.

March 10, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Arab and Islamic Names

This is a subject which catches people out in the West, and one that just about everyone with an interest in the East would do well to spend a moment thinking about. The first thing to remember is that Arab society has traditionally been tribal. You come from a clan and a tribe and a community, before you do a country. Rather like names of old told you a lot in the West, they continue to do so in the East. From a name you can often tell a great deal about the person’s background, his family, tribe and so forth. The first thing to look at is the first name. These names are so important in the Arab world, rather as they used to be in the West. My name, Tahir, is more than a name — it’s part of my identity. It was actually chosen for me at birth through the Abjad alphanumerical system, so that it protects me, the user, through my life. In the same way, names are given not because they sound nice, but because they are linked to values and ideals. For instance, ‘Tahir’, means ‘pure’, a value especially important to my parents, who hoped I’d be pure. Many Arab names are more complex. There are a great number for instance formed with ‘Abdul’, such as Abdul Latif, Abdul Malik, Abdul Razak, and so on. These names are linked to the names of God, and are formed from ‘Abdul’ which means ‘servant’, or ‘slave’, and the quality itself. So Abdul Aziz, is the ‘Servant of the Almighty’. So it is actually incorrect to call person simply ‘Abdul’, as you are calling him ‘Servant’. Then you come to the second part of a name. There may be the word ‘Ibn’, shortened in some countries to ‘Bin’. This is simply a link which means, ‘the son of.’ It’s followed by the father’s name, and sometimes by Ibn again and then the grandfather’s name. In the same way, you can have ‘Abu’, which means ‘the father of,’ which is followed by the name of the person’s son. There may also be the name of the family, such as Qureshi, which is actually the name of the clan or tribe, as family names are not used in the East as they are in the West. Remember that the whole business of family names has altered greatly in the West, and were never so concrete or meaningless as they are now.

March 9, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Favour Network

Living in the Arab world, or blustering through, you find yourself faced with a system that can be disconcerting or even bewildering: the business of favours. It’s a subject that is sometimes hard for Western society to grasp, because it’s a system that’s perfectly balanced, with pitfalls awaiting the unsuspecting. I can’t tell you how often we receive unsolicited gifts. Someone will send a platter of pastries or candy for the kids… and we’ll be very pleased, naturally, and thankful. But then, often, you get a request a few days later. That same person asks if they could make use of a contact of yours, or borrow something. I’m not trying to make this system sound dodgy or bad in any way. Because it isn’t, really. But you have to watch out. For example, if someone sends over a huge bouquet of flowers for no reason at all, send a platter of pastries over to them, of about the same monetary cost. This instantly negates their action and prevents them from asking the favour, and chances are they won’t try it again. It’s far, far better to be owed a favour. So, it does make sense to do a favour, and never ask if back. I promise you that it’s chalked up somewhere, in your friendship with that person, and he won’t forget. I promise you, too, that he’s desperate for you ask it, so he can clear the debt and move on.

March 8, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Five Don'ts in Middle Eastern Business

DON’T try to get something until you have given something first. This goes for physical items as much as it does for favours, ideas and so on.

DON’T be pushy when it comes to a business deal. Arabs don’t respond well to pushy executives and such tactics force a complete shut down of the system.

DON’T mix humour and business. By this I mean don’t suddenly tell a joke in the middle of negotiations. In the Middle East there’s a clear demarkation about being serious or jovial, and the two don’t usually get mixed up as they do in the West, particularly as they do in North America, where business is sometimes less gravely serious as it is in Europe.

DON’T order alcohol or (god forbid) pork, when at a meal with an Arab executive, unless you know them very well, and are certain they are not offended.

DON’T fail to reciprocate a gift with another gift. If even the most token gift is presented to you, send something back — and ALWAYS of the same approximate cost. Gift giving is part of an ancient etiquette in the East, and is something that’s regarded as important to help form a basis of trust.

March 7, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Five Do's in Middle Eastern Business

DO take the time to learn the full name and appropriate titles of the person or people you are planning on doing business with. Names and titles are regarded as very important in the Arab world, and they ought to be given in full where possible.

DO ask after a business acquaintance’s children, but NEVER his wife. In the Arab world the common greeting is ‘How is your family?’ Children are regarded as safe ground. It’s an idea to take something for the children if invited to a home.

DO as much research on a business acquaintance and the firm you are interested in advance, and always ensure you do not spend time discussing matters with a superior which might be regarded as below his station. In the Arab world appropriate etiquette is for people of the same level to deal with a matter. So it would be incorrect for a man of a high position to discuss matters of a trivial nature, and vice versa.

DO bear in mind the matter of face and face-saving when negotiating. An Arab business counterpart may not say ‘no’, especially if you are his guest. Remember this and if worried, don’t force the issue. Every years millions of potential business agreements hit the wall, and Western executives fly home without a clear answer, because they don’t know how to read the signs.

DO  be totally transparent in a business negotiation. Nothing is held in the East with higher contempt as something that appears shady. Arab businessmen don’t appreciate legalese jargon or dodgy clauses in contracts any more than their Western counterparts.

March 6, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Business Tactics

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the lobby of a grand, sprawling hotel in the Arabian Gulf. You know how it is… as you’re sitting there, half dreaming, half alert, you scan the other clusters of tables and chairs. And I was doing just that when, quite suddenly, an Arab wearing a chequered kafir and agal headdress jumped to his feet and stormed away. His face flushed with rage, he left three European businessmen wondering what exactly was going on. I’d been half-listening to the conversation and, from where I was sitting, it was quite obvious why the outburst occurred. You see, there’s almost no era of life more affected by the East-West gap than business, and the fragile etiquette that governs it. The Europeans were acting very politely, that is they thought they were but, in the Arab context, they were giving a terribly wrong message. I’ll maybe take the opportunity of highlighting a few useful tips on doing business in the Arab world in coming days. But, before that, the three blunders I had myself witnessed in the hotel lobby: The first was when one of the Europeans (thinking he was being courteous) persisted in quizzing the Arab counterpart about his wife, asking (for Arab society anyway) very private information, which included questions on whether the woman had given birth to a new child naturally or by Caesarian. The second was when the most senior member of the foreign party served himself tea and cake before his guest and then leaned back with the sole of his leather shoe pointing at that guest. And the third was then, in a terribly miscalculated and misadvised display of his less than basic Arabic language, the youngest European spat out this line: ‘You are all gentle dogs from the desert, and as such are part of my own dog!’ The sentence was the breaking point, the one in which the Arab business counterpart departed abruptly, leaving the Europeans blank-faced. The sentence caused me to smile, because for the English throat there is a difficulty in differentiating the pronunciation of the Arabic Q (as in Qalb = heart) and the K (as in the world Kalb = dog). He had actually been trying to say something like: ‘You are all gentle hearts from the desert, and as such are part of my own heart!’ Perhaps the real lesson here is never to attempt poetry in a language you can’t speak.

March 5, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Five Facts of England

The British Royal Family is of Arabian extraction, through the line of the 14th century Castilian king, Pedro the Cruel.
King John of England supposedly offered to convert to Islam, and hand his fealty over to the Moors, if they would help him. The Moorish king refused.
Morris dancing is derived from the term ‘Moorish dancing’, and came to Europe and hence to England, from North Africa during the centuries of Andalucian Spain.
Shakespeare used stories found in Arabic, which were very current in his time. And Chaucer’s ‘Pear Tree Tale’ is found in the Persian of the Sufi mystic Jalaludin Rumi.
The earliest version of the classic English folktale, Dick Whittington and his Cat, is attributed to Persia.
March 4, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

In the Detail

As far as I am concerned, the joy of studying history is not in the great, broad strokes that shape the grand things in life… the kind of history that teachers rant on about at school. Rather, it’s about the little things, the details, that go on to gather weight and speed, like the proverbial snowball running down a mountainside. Our world has been fashioned by detail, and by consequences of one detail effecting another. Let me give you an example, one which I think of every day. In the years after the Prophet’s death, the fledgling faith of Islam spread East and West like a wild-fire. By the middle of the eighth century, the Arabs had reached the gates of China, ruled by the mighty T’ang Dynasty. In 751 AD, the battle lines were drawn, and the Chinese and Arabs warred, for the right to control Central Asia. The Chinese force was by far the superior but, on the day, the Arabs won. The success seems to have surprised the victor as much as it did the vanquished. The outcome was that the Arabs took prisoners and gained technology and knowledge from the conquered side. Among the prisoners taken, were some artisans who were skilled in the secret knowledge of making paper. The know-how was one of the greatest technological mysteries at the time. The Arab conquerers ordered the Chinese prisoners to construct them a paper-mill first at Samarkand and, later, one at Baghdad. They kept the knowledge of this almost magical technology a secret from Europe, for centuries longer. The result was that not only the holy Qur’an could be copied easily and passed on along the pilgrimage routes, but so could scientific and other knowledge, developed in the House of Wisdom at Baghdad, and other learning centres throughout the Islamic world. The knowledge of paper-making was, of course, coupled with the rise in literacy, fuelled by a need to read and copy the Qur’an. And it was all made possible by a secret knowledge won at a battle in Central Asia 1250 years ago.

March 3, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel


Something I find tremendously interesting is the way icons and ideas pass from one culture to another. And, as they do so, the society in which they arrive believes quite ardently that it has originated them. Let me give you a couple of examples. To the French there is nothing more, well, French, than the Croissant. There are various lines of history on these puff pastry crescents, but the most likely is that they arrived in France from Constantinople, where the pastry is a much-loved favourite. And, of course, the crescent is a known symbol of Turkey as well as Islam. But the star and crescent symbol was not originally Islamic. It was adopted by the Turks when they conquered Byzantium, from the Christians (i.e. the same people who now claim the crescent croissant as their own… so it’s come full circle in a way). The Christians didn’t create the crescent form as an icon though, they merely borrowed it from their Near-Western pagan ancestors. Another wonderful example of such a transition that lives in the Madre de Dios jungle in Peru, and elsewhere in South America. I have been warned by tribesmen there to watch out for the so-called ‘Mal de Ojo’, the ‘Evil Eye’. The superstition was actually taken to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadores, whom in turn acquired it from Morocco.

March 2, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Gaffes Gallore

Just about everyone out there is aware of cultural insensitivity these days, prompted by easier travel and the fact that our societies are so much more multicultural. There are still astonishing gaffes and, perhaps because we’re living in Morocco, we see them all the more. The most obvious recent one to offend Muslims were the Danish cartoons, including the one which showed the Prophet of Islam’s head as a bomb. But blunders of this kind (and the fact that they slip through from the drawing board to the final stage) have gone on for decades. One of the most amazing, to me at any rate, was that during World War Two, the British Ministry of Information had printed up thousands of posters to help bridge the East-West gap. They showed a British ‘Tommy’ sitting in a café with an Arab. The soldier’s beer mug was seen quite clearly to be resting on the Qur’an. Fortunately, the ship carrying this cargo was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. Another interesting war-time example was the Italian dictator Mussolini. He claimed to be the ‘Protector of Islam’. The boast made him hated throughout the Arab world, because to Muslims there is only one Protector of the faith, and that is God himself.