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Tag: Society

3

Boiled Frog

I was recently asked for an interview, ‘What are your thoughts on the way society is changing?’

My response:

We are urbanising at the same time as technologising. It’s happening everywhere at the same time.

Where I am living, in Casablanca, the city grows each day as more and more people come from the countryside and try to live here in the city. Of course, most of them can’t get jobs, and once they have seen the bright lights of the city, they can’t go back to their villages.

The world is changing, but most people aren’t seeing it happen. They’re not programmed to notice the change.

It’s very similar to the BOILED FROG idea:

If a frog is placed in a pot of cold water, water that is heated very slowly, the frog won’t notice the increasing temperature, and it will be boiled alive.

Our society is very similar to the boiled frog. We are going to be ‘boiled alive’ — as the world in which we live changes. We have been developed as a species for the savannah… to react to an instant threat, but not to a gradual one.

The only way to survive is to alter the way we notice change, and the way we react to it.

 

10

The Way of Things to Come

I was recently asked for an interview, ‘Can you comment on the future of technology, and the way it’s effecting the book business?’

My response:

We live in a fascinating time. Technology is changing our lives, and will continue to do so more and more. That’s a certainty. And, elements of culture that we have known and appreciated over centuries will change, or even disappear. That’s the story of human culture.

I think it’s GREAT that the world of books is going through a radical change. The book business has been very restricted for too long: controlled by too few people in publishing firms. For the first time it’s easily possible for anyone to publish a book — either as a Print on Demand (e.g. using Lulu), and/or as an eBook. People can write blogs as well, which I think are a fantastic way of communicating thoughts and ideas.

And, eBooks are going to take a larger and larger share of the market. I think eBooks are a very good way to get people reading. And they make work accessible, instantly.

That can only be a good thing.

I have been extremely critical in recent months about the low quality of production of paperbacks and even in standard hardback books — and I think the typical low quality pulp paperbacks will be replaced by eBooks in coming years.

And, thank god for that.

I chose to publish TIMBUCTOO myself because I hated the idea of a publisher reducing it to just another pathetic junk paperback format. I believe in beautiful books, as objects of inspiration and beauty in their own right… and I am certain that we will be left with high quality books and with eBooks. The paperbacks with smeary type, which fall to pieces in your hands, will be resigned to the dustbin of culture — where they belong.

It’s true that a lot of authors are panicking because they think they will be out of work — fearing the end of books. I think that’s nonsense because authors are storytellers and human society needs storytellers — whether it is to develop material for a video game or for a movie, or a novel. These are exciting times, and are times to be embraced — not feared.

22

Morocco Lost in Translation

Last week a close Moroccan friend and I met for our weekly cup of tea at our usual café.

‘You know how much I like you foreigners,’ said my friend, ‘but you people confuse me, and other Moroccans as well.’

Smiling, I asked what he meant.

My friend went on to tell me of how he had been received at an American family’s home in Casablanca the week before. Following that visit, he invited the American family to his own home. A series of lost in translation moments had punctuated both visits.

As someone with one foot in the East and the other in the West, I could see the difficulties and, for this reason, I wanted to present a list of do’s and don’ts for Westerners living in Morocco.

Here it is:

When visiting a Moroccan home:

  • Take a gift, however small. Not to do so when arriving for a social visit is almost unthinkable. If there are children there, take something for them, or something straight-forward such a platter of pastries. Better to take more than less.
  • Don’t expect a tour of the house, or ask for one. Bedrooms and anything but the formal salon, will be probably off-limits, unless you know the family well.
  • Don’t be surprised if the television is left on all through the visit. TV is regarded as background noise in Morocco.
  • Don’t worry if people come in and out endlessly, while you feel awkwardly rooted to one formal chair. You’re a guest and, as a guest, you’re expected to be seated while everyone honours you. At prayer time members of the host family might slip out, pray, and then return.
  • And, as a respected guest, an abundance of food will be provided. Don’t gorge yourself on starters, as there will probably be large platters of cooked meat to follow.
  • The choicest pieces of meat may well be picked out and served to you. Don’t worry if you have to leave a little, because that’s fine in Morocco – just as eating every crumb is a sign that you are still hungry.
  • Do not help yourself to drinks, but wait for your hosts to serve you.
  • If eating from a communal dish of couscous or a tagine, keep to the triangle of the dish in front of you.
  • Don’t praise an individual object in the home too much, because it may well be presented to you as a gift.
  • Don’t take wine or an alcoholic drink unless you are very certain that the hosts drink.
  • Do make polite conversation, declaring how you adore Morocco, and Moroccan culture. Don’t launch into politics or religious matters.
  • Irrespective of whether you are the guest or the host, your children will be kissed by all. And, if it’s a conservative household, men either kiss each other’s cheeks (if already close friends), and women kiss women’s cheeks. Men shouldn’t kiss women and vice versa, unless you know the family well or if you know them to be less conservative. A handshake is always a good bet unless a cheek is offered.

 

When Receiving Moroccan Guests

  • On no account serve any dish containing pork or pork products.
  • Don’t necessarily ask your guests what they would like to drink. It’s better to just serve tea, or whatever, or to pour various cold drinks and present them on a tray. Don’t offer wine or beer unless you’re pretty sure your guests drink alcohol.
  • Never eat or drink anything until you are sure that your guests have all been taken care of. And never on any account help yourself to a second helping until all guests have taken what they need. If there’s a little food left at the end of the meal, never dive in and finish it if you are hosting the meal.
  • Remember that when receiving people in your home, they are traditionally guaranteed security beneath your roof. This means that you are obliged to treat them with respect, and so it’s not the right time to launch into severe arguments.
  • In Morocco, receiving a guest is regarded as an honour for the host, and so there should be an abundance of food. Don’t worry if you have many times what will be eaten, as you will be honoring your guests. Quantity, quantity, quantity.
  • Don’t offer a tour of your home, unless the guests are close friends. Moroccans are always confused about the idea of the house tour. It’s largely regarded as absurd.
  • Don’t stress if your guests sit in silence. In Morocco, as in much of the Arab world, silence is seen as a virtue and a medium through which people get to know each other.
  • Don’t be offended if your Moroccan friends don’t send a message of thanks. It’s not something required in the culture. But, you are likely to receive a return invitation instead.
1

The Warrior on the Roads

Live in Casablanca as I do, and you have to get used to a few things. Most of the time they’re good things, like the way complete strangers greet each other, or the way the young still have respect for the old. But there are things that take a lot of getting used to, none more so than driving from A to B.
     To drive in Casablanca you have to be a warrior.
     Opening the door of your much-dented vehicle and clambering in, you are a knight clambering onto his battle speed. The dents, scratches, gouges and scrapes, are all testimonies of battles endured and won. Every day the traffic gets a little worse, the gridlock a little more ferocious. Much of the time there may be very little movement, but the clamour of the horns and klaxons is like a hundred thousand harbingers of hell.
      And in this cutthroat realm of cacophony there is one place more feared, more tempestuous, and more draining on the adrenal glands, then any other. The infamous Marjane Roundabout. Ask anyone who’s ever driven in Casablanca if they know it, and their face turn ashen with alarm. It’s where six or more streets converge in a frantic, frenetic juggernaut wheel of life and death.
     I can’t tell you how many accidents I’ve seen there. It must be hundreds. Trucks on their sides, precious cargo strewn in a wide arc all around. Motorcyclists lying on the ground, limbs crumpled and contorted. Communal taxis set ablaze by the impact of a multiple pile-up.
     Mastering the Marjane Roundabout, positioning yourself exactly, learning to keep your cool, is a badge of honour. There should be medals awarded for anyone who has survived it, the best of them reserved for those who manage to complete a left turn.
      Morocco is unlike other countries when it comes to the left turn. In most countries, turning left is all about following the gentle arc made by the car in front, executing the manoeuvre neatly and without any fuss. But in Morocco, turning left is all about exercising one’s indomitable sense of individuality.
     No one lines up. To do so would be to make you the laughing stock of the roads. Instead, all the cars planning to turn left, position themselves side-by-side. And, as their passage opens up, honking and clamouring, they nudge forward in fits and starts, until the moment to charge.
      But at the Marjane Roundabout, the sheer pressure of traffic, the tension, and the fear, usually leeds to a stalemate – a knot of choking vehicles that simply can’t move.
      It may sound dire, but there is a plan to strip Casablanca of all this fun. It’s called the Tramway, and its construction in recent months has only ratcheted up the chaos on the roads. My barber was groaning about it last night. Waving a cutthroat razor in his right hand, and gesticulating wildly with his left, he shouted out loud:
      ‘What madness is this?! This damned Tramway. They’re building it from where no one lives to where no one works!’
     Even if the zillion-dollar Tramway did go where people wanted it to, I have a feeling no one would use it anyway. Because Moroccans are true individuals – and that’s what’s so amazing about them. They don’t like to be guided by others, or follow a path prescribed by anyone else.
     I may be the traffic’s worst critic, but I secretly love it as well. After all, every time I clamber into my car and venture out into the grinding slipstream of ferocity, I have no idea of what tumultuous encounters I’m about to hit headlong with my trusty battle steed.

 

2

Six Moroccan Proverbs

  • Trust in God but tie your camel well.
  • The answer to a fool is silence.
  • To its mother, the baby son of a serpent is a gazelle.
  • That which is written on the brow will be seen in the eye.
  • The wind doesn’t always blow as the ship would want it to.
  • The dog barked but the caravan moved on.

 

12

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.




TS


4

Misinformation

Western society tends to believe that the scientific and cultural bedrock upon which it sits was a product of the Classical world, most notably of the Romans and the Greeks. At our schools, teachers rant on about Latin etymology, and about Euclid, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle. But in our obsession for those empires, we blinker ourselves to the full picture, of how the two Classical civilizations arrived at our doors. The knowledge of the Romans and the Greeks passed through a matrix, a system that honed them and gave them shape, like a swordsmith giving edge to a blade.

The general idea that’s been commonly believed is that the fall of the Roman Empire (in 476 AD), was followed by centuries of darkness, until the blinding light of the European Renaissance. And during that era of darkness, there was no important scholarship, no learning, no breakthroughs in their desert of darkness.

It was almost a thousand years when nothing really happened at all.

But then the Renaissance, the rebirth of learning, was constructed solely on the classical cultures.

Nothing could be farther from the truth…


TS


3
March 26, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Common Greetings and Phrases

Following on from yesterday, I want to highlight a few of the Arab expressions and phrases that are heard constantly in North Africa and the Middle East.


Assalam wa alaikum: As I said yesterday, this is the most common Arab greeting, meaning ‘Peace be upon you’.  It is uttered constantly, and it would be incorrect to omit it  when meeting someone, entering a shop, and so on.
Ahlan wa sahlan:  An all purpose relaxed greeting, favoured particularly in Egypt, that is truncated to ‘Ahlan’.
Bismillah:  ‘In the name of God’, it is said before a pious Muslim embarks on any activity at all. Before sitting down, before breaking bread or eating, or beginning just about any action that requires a little thought.
Alhamdullillah: ‘Praise God’. It’s used as a reply when someone asks you how you are. Also when one hears good news.
Tafaddul: Literally, ‘Honour me’, is an invitation to someone to sit down, come into their home, and so on.
Shukran: ‘Thank you’.
La illaha illa Allah, Muhammed ar-Rasul-Allah: ‘There is no god except Allah, Muhammed is the Messenger of God’. This is the Islamic Profession of Faith. To repeat it once is to testify once conversion to Islam.
La haula wa la quwwatah illa billahi al aali wa’l azeem: ‘There is no Power or Might accept God, the High, the Great.’ The phrase is sometimes said is an expression of great surprise.
Astaghfirullah: ‘I seek refuge in God’. The expression of alarm, disgust and so on.



TS

6
March 25, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Greeting

In the Arab and Islamic world greeting people is very important. It’s usually much more than a passing ‘hello’, and can often turn into an elaborate exchange of expressions, and an abundant show of friendship. The Prophet noted that people ought to greet each other. And anyone who has travelled in an Arab country, must have seen local people greeting friends and acquaintances, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Here in Morocco there is almost nothing so important as greeting someone, whether a stranger or a friend. Each morning when I meet the guardian’s here at our house for the first time, I spend a moment asking them how they, and how their families are, and of course shaking hands. Hand-shaking is a very big deal in the Arab world. It would be unthinkable for me to greet another man and refrain from shaking their hand. The same goes for public greetings. When you enter a bank for example, or even an elevator, you always say: ‘As salam wa alaikum’, ‘Peace be upon you’.  I suppose it came from the times when you never knew whether a stranger was a friend or foe. And by expressing your greeting, you were declaring that you were friendly, and not about to stab them in the back. In the Arab world it can be considered inappropriate for a man to ask another man about his wife. So you always find yourself being asked “how is the family?” A conversation between two friends will never begin until such enquiries have been made.  On my travels I have noticed that almost all societies outside Europe and North America have such elaborate greetings. They are part of the culture, an expression that runs far deeper than the simplicity of the words. Last week I went to London to two or three days, and in the middle of the trip I found myself getting into a crowded elevator. As soon as I managed to squeeze in, I spent a moment greeting everybody, as I would do in Morocco. I did it on autopilot, and found myself  met with looks of blank amazement. After all, in London there can sometimes be a sense of hostility to outright strangers. But then, as the elevator rose up towards the top of the building, a few of the other passengers nervously greeted me back. It was a heart-warming experience, and I could sense that the others just like me felt energised in some way by the greetings someone they didn’t know.



TS
3
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.



TS
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