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Tag: evolution

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Q&A on storytelling and tradition...and The Tale of the Sands

30maro_slide05You are creating wonderful stories about what our heart is telling us, but today more than ever we fail to reconcile our heart and our mind. Why are they tugging us in different directions? What do you do when your mind shouts louder than your heart?

As you say, I am telling and creating stories, and that’s what’s so central here. Storytelling appeals to the default setting of mankind, the core programming that’s in-built within us. We don’t really know why, but culture is arranged around storytelling – revealing information, ideas, and entertainment through stories. We can’t help but retell experiences in this way because we are programmed to do it. And, bizarrely, most people have forgotten that humanity operates with stories as their language. I sometimes find myself wondering whether other animals, or even insects, do the same and tell stories as a matrix like we do.

At the same time as live to tell stories, we reside in a world that’s so incredibly at odds with the realm our ancestors knew. Yet, in this mad frenetic, frenzied stew of life, it’s the stories and the storytelling that present themselves as a recognizable thread – a kind of communal backbone to humanity. We grasp hold of stories whether they be in the form of a book, a Tweet, a blog entry, a TV commercial selling soap, a movie, or even in the guise of a video game.

You mention your father very often in your works. Would you say that your story is a sequel to his? To what extent are our hearts beating together with those of our ancestors’? Does our storytelling begin where theirs has stopped? Read more

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Inventions

I have already mentioned in passing a number of Arab inventions from the Golden Age. They include a wide range of medical, chemical and astronomical devices. But there are whole other areas in which the Arabs inventors excelled.

         Arab engineers learned from the Romans, Greeks and from their own scientists, and came up with creations that demonstrated their astonishing ingenuity. Some of these creations improved living conditions, while others were more whimsical.

         Engineers were hugely important. When the tenth century Persian engineer and polymath, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), reached Cairo, the Caliph himself went to the gates to greet him. He had been invited to regulate the flooding on the Nile. It soon dawned on him that he couldn’t solve the problem. The only way to save his neck was to feign madness and live for years under house arrest… biding his time until the Caliph’s own death.



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Evolution

Theories of evolution were widespread across the Islamic world by the 12th century. One of the pioneers of this thinking was Al-Jahiz, who was working in ninth century Baghdad. He wrote about the idea of the environment on an animal, and the animal’s chances of survival based on the environment; as well as writing on what he called ‘the struggle for existence’, a forerunner of Darwin’s ‘natural selection’.

Al-Jahiz also described the idea of food chains were first described, and the concept of nature versus nurture.



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The Arab Contribution

In the sciences, the Arabs took Classical work and breakthroughs and refined them, as well as developing their own fields of study from scratch. Their contribution was profound, and is often sidelined or completely forgotten in the Occident. And very often it was centuries ahead of its time. For example: The Arabs under the Abbasids and others constructed the first hospitals and lending libraries, gave the first academic degrees, and treated mental patients with music (more than a millennia before our idea of music therapy); they invented the fountain pen (because a tenth century Sultan wanted a pen that would write when he was ready), the camera obscura, water clocks, hydraulics, decryption of codes, and soap. 

They wrote about the concept of evolution, environmentalism, classification (mineral, animal, vegetable), scientific method and peer review… and refined all sorts of other things that are so key to our world, like paper as we have seen, the ‘Indian numbers’, and the massive mathematical breakthrough of ZERO.

They made contributions in almost all the sciences: mathematics, botany, chemistry, psychology, philosophy, engineering, physics, agriculture, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine and zoology.




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April 25, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Paper

One of the things I love about the study of history is how a small event changes the lives of everyone, and dramatically alters the world in which we live. A great example of this began in the year 751 AD, when a fledgling Abbasid force met that of the Chinese Tang Dynasty on the Talas River. The Chinese were superior as a fighting machine, and were expected to win the battle. But on the day, it was the Muslims who defeated the Chinese. The important point of story is that the Muslims captured a number of Chinese and took them prisoner. Among them, was a group of experts in papermaking. The Muslims took them to the city of Samarkand, where they forced them to build a papermaking factory. The technology was completely unknown in Europe at the time, and had been a closely guarded secret in China. Eventually, the Abbasids had another papermaking factory built at Baghdad using the Tang knowhow. And with this technology they could begin the extraordinary accomplishments in science for which they became so celebrated.

With paper, and the knowledge of writing which was so key to read the Qur’an, the Muslims were able to write books, detailing their breakthroughs in the evolving sciences. And they could now pass these books east and west along the ever-growing pilgrimage routes, centred at the holy city of Mecca. It was in its own way a kind of primitive Internet, made possible by the secret knowledge of paper, acquired on a distant battlefield in 751.



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March 3, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Transitions

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.



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The Big Picture

Keeping an eye on the detail is of paramount importance, but so is the ability to keep the other on the big picture — micro and macro. It’s hard perhaps to explain this or why it’s so important. But while you’re on an expedition it’s very easy to focus on the hand in front of your face and, by doing do, to lose focus on your surroundings. In my experience, the team will quickly lose all interest in the wider goals, the greater scheme of things. They’re too wound up in the pain their injured feet are giving them, or their groaning stomachs. So, it’s your responsibility to watch the expedition from afar and ask yourself key questions. Are you on track? Is everyone pulling their weight? Could you re-jig and win time? Is morale flagging and, if so, can you pep it up right now? At the same time you must be prepared for disaster. It strikes, of course, when you’re getting complacent and comfortable. What happens if there’s a sudden downpour and the river swells two feet? Or if a man snaps his ankle on the next bend, or if hornets attack? Are you prepared? What would you do to cope? Keep the boy scout spirit alive and always remember that you’re as fragile as a feather on the wind.



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Experience

I like watching myself doing things now, and imagining how I did them years or even decades ago; perceiving the effect of gradual experience. The best way to see how far you’ve come is by looking at a child’s progression. Although, as I wrote yesterday, children have something far more precious than we do… the default setting of humanity. As I write this, my little son Timur is sitting beside me. He’s copying words out of his big gruesome book on Mummies. Each word takes him a while, as he does it with attention, and care, forming the letters, and making sure he is getting the spellings right. From time to time, Ariane comes in and laughs at him for doing work that she thinks is easy. She’s only two years older, but in that time she’s grasped it, and has become quite experienced. The same is true with writing, especially journalism. I remember when I wrote my first articles, I didn’t know where to start. I did masses and masses of research, most of which was never needed. I followed leads that were dead ends, and was like Timur writing his words out. I meant very well and was driven by the same enthusiasm as him… but my vision was clouded by a kind of veil. Work at something, really work at it, and the veil lifts. And what’s so wonderful is that you never realise it’s lifting until it’s no longer there. Watch yourself from a distance as you progress, as you become adept, and marvel at it all. Again, I see that with Ariane and Timur, and remind them as often as I can how far they’ve come, and how fast the journey’s been.



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Magic Dust

When I was at school, I remember my teachers always harping on about how wise they were and how young and foolish we were.  I would always roll my eyes and think how dead they had become, trading natural innovation for a learned system. I still believe this, and think we are all born with an amazing ability to think. It’s something that can be re-learned and used in writing, and just about anything. Look at children and you see it right away. They solve problems and use their minds in the most innovative and creative ways. Yet most of the time adults — who have had this default setting knocked out of them — tend to deride it. They don’t understand it because it was removed early in the education system. I find myself wondering how the world would be if we thought as communities using this default setting. Imagine it. Yes, there’d be less of the technological breakthroughs we are used to, but there would a form of genius that we’ve lost. The greatest thing would be, of course, to have a blend of the two systems… using one to fuel advances in the other. This imagination is something that’s like magic dust, an element that, when sprinkled into a writer’s work (whether it’s in a book or magazine),  has the ability to touch a part of us that’s often not stimulated at all. Learn to sprinkle the dust, and you will succeed in the most original ways.



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Pegs

I used to spend all my time dreaming up ideas for articles which I planned to sell. The ideas got better and better. Editors even told me they were great. But no one bought them. Why? Because there wasn’t a reason for publishing. Remember that most magazines and newspapers have limited space. For this reason, they need to be able to qualify why a certain story is going to run. The editor will often have to be ready to defend his choice to his own boss. So enter the idea of the ‘Peg’. It’s simple: If you write an article about London’s Tower Bridge, you may find it hard to sell. Editors will ask ‘Great, but, er, so what?’ But if you work out that it’s the 300th anniversary since the bridge was built and, better still, that there’s going to be an anniversary parade, you have a sure fire seller. Other pegs include political or military acts and anniversaries of any kind. You can get the Media Guide (in the UK) which gives details of up-coming anniversaries. But remember to pitch early. A magazine may work five months in advance, and a newspaper features’ section five or six weeks.



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