Fargot Password? / Help

Tag: Teaching Stories

March 14, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books

The Unsuspected Element

Two men were quarrelling outside Nasrudin’s window at dead of night. Nasrudin got up, wrapped his only blanket around himself, and ran out to try and stop the noise.

When he tried to reason with the drunks, one snatched his blanket and both ran away.
‘What were they arguing about?’ asked his wife when they went in.
‘It must have been the blanket. When they got that, the fight broke up.’

March 13, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books


A very good way of understanding a culture is through its folklore and the stories people tell. Rather in the same way that language contains clues to the way people of a certain place think, folklore does as well. It’s a kind of treasury of fragments, linked to everyone who has ever lived in the society. An excellent way of understanding how the Oriental world thinks, is by reading — or listening to — the tales. And there is perhaps no collection better than the teaching stories of Mulla Nasrudin. He’s found across the East, from Casablanca to Kabul, and can even be seen in Islamic China. He’s known in Greece as well, and in Albania, Kosovo, Sicily and in Andalucian Spain. In Afghanistan and Iran he’s known as Nasrudin, while in Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere he’s simply ‘Joha’. Whatever the name he goes by is insignificant, for Nasrudin is a towering giant of human folklore. My father wrote four books on the whacky and wonderful episodes of his life. Over the next few days I’m going to present some here. If you have the time, read the story once, and then a second time, and allow it to turn around your mind. You’ll find that, given the chance, it’ll take on a life of its own.

March 12, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books


Proverbs and sayings are very common in the Arab world, as they are in the West. Since living here in Morocco, I’ve noticed that there are dozens of proverbs which are found in different forms in both Occident and Orient, and many more that are directly translated. This may suggest a transmission from East to West and vice versa, or it may just be coincidence.

Here are some examples (the Arabic proverb is in capitals, the European one in lower case):

Birds of a feather flock together

Making a mountain out of a molehill

He has the Devil’s luck

A leopard can’t change its spots

The pot calls the kettle black

Don’t try the impossible

Old habits die hard

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

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.

June 26, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Water Seller

We have all seen them, in the flesh or postcards of them, standing in the central square in Marrakech, bright costumes, ear to ear smiles, furry goatskins full of water dangling at their waists. Think Morocco and you think of the inimitable purveyors of water. Their costumes are red, wide Berber hats providing shade, shallow brass cups polished so brightly you can see your face in them, their shoes as shiny as a soldier’s on parade.

The water sellers are so famous, so celebrated, that they’ve become icons, known throughout the kingdom and far beyond. But something has gone awry. These symbols of the exotic, satiaters of the desert thirst, have evolved. They are now so extremely famous that they no longer really sell water at all. Most of the time they make money — and loads of it — by posing for tourists in Marrakech and elsewhere. Mannequins for digital shots.
In my travels I have become obsessed by tourism and the effect it has on countries and on their cultures. Most of the time, and you know where I am heading with this, I’m not a big fan. Although sometimes a city in the middle of nowhere gets charged up with a tourist bonanza. If anyone reading this knows Nazca in Peru, you will know what I am talking about.
And Marrakech is another example. But in this case, a fine Imperial Moroccan city which was once many days journey into the desert, is now so ridiculously accessible. And for me that’s the major point. It’s too easy, far too easy, to get to Marrakech. In my opinion you should sweat blood to get there, and now you don’t have to. Indeed, there’s a Club Med just off the main square. There are other ultra-easy-to-get-to tourist destinations throughout the world, and I think there’s always a sense of wrongness about them.
Talk to me about Marrakech and I do sometimes get hot under the collar. I’m sorry, but I do. And in the grand scale of things it’s the water sellers who have both been made and been destroyed by the invasion of tourist bucks. They are richer than just about anyone else selling anything to the tourists (well, almost, slight hyperbole). But at the same time they have sold out, lost their heritage lock stock and barrel.
Just up the hill from Dar Khalifa there’s a traffic light. I spend a lot of time stopped there, staring out the car window. There’s usually an old water seler standing right there at the light. He’s ragged, his costume a far cry from his kin in Marrakech. But he’s the real thing — a man who hasn’t sold out his tradition.
What irony there is in that. You have to come to Casablanca, the seemingly most European city in Morocco, to find the most realistic vestiges of the culture. Because tourism has eroded it elsewhere, changed for natural form.
June 25, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Cigarette Man

The sign is made from an old empty crumpled Marlboro carton, wrapped around a plastic bottle, a few inches of sand weighing down the base. Beside it, squatting on the ground in the shade, is the cigarette man. You might pass him without another thought if you were in a hurry, or if like me you didn’t smoke.

But to miss him is to miss a vital part of urban life. That’s because the cigarette men perform a vital duty… or two vital duties. The first is to sell cigarettes, one at a time. If you smile they’ll even light it for you as well. The other duty, the one less known, less advertised, is as an informer.
Casablanca’s cigarette men form a network. They’re always squatting there in their places, come rain and come shine. And they see everything, know everyone and, for the right price, they’re willing to tell what they know.
The network is based on the idea that men like to smoke, and when they like to smoke they also like to chat. The more guys come and hang about, smoking with the cigarette man, the more their tongues wag in conversation. 
Spend more than a few hours observing what’s going on, and you see all sorts of people stopping for a moment to buy a cigarette. Granted, the well-heeled don’t need to stop because they can afford an entire packet over at the tabac. But the middle and lower stratas do pause, hand over a coin, light up, a visit for a minute or two.
If you need to know whether there’s a house for sale on the street, or if the man next door has a deep dark secret, or if someone’s doing building work without permission, then it’s the cigarette man who can tell you. His eyes and ears are specially honed, and they miss nothing at all.
A few days ago I was in urgent need of information. I had to know, and fast, if the telephone man had come and gone. I asked the guardians. They shrugged their shoulders, even though it was their job to know. So I asked Zohra. She rushed out of the house, ran down the lane and accosted the cigarette man squatting in the middle of the shantytown.
When Zohra came back a few minutes later, he was smiling broadly.
‘He not only came to the house,’ she said, ‘but he wondered why you have been calling France so much.’

June 24, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Butcher

In England I grew accustomed to buying meat in shallow polystyrene packs, clingfilm tight over the top, a price, weight, and barcode printed neatly onto the sticker at the front. Years passed of running down to Tesco to grab some meat. And in that time I rarely gave it any thought. Indeed, I began to think that meat came in white plastic packs, straight from the animal. Or even worse, I began to forget that it came from an animal at all.

OK, that sounds crazy, but think about it. Think how wildly de-associated we are when it comes to food production. Everything I ever bought was shrink-wrapped in plastic, or stuffed in a box. All you begin to care about is the weight and the price.
Anyone who has ever traipsed through the medinas of Marrakech, Essaouira or Fes will have seen the butchers’ stalls. Our overly sensitive Occidental eyes spy them immediately, mainly because there’ll be a large carcass hanging on a hook outside the shop. And, whether we’ll admit it, we are timid about them. (Remember than until recently, in the pre-supermarket world everyone in Europe visited butchers all the time.)
The butcher’s stall tends to have a variety of wares. There’s lamb, mutton, beef and usually a pen of live chickens. Ask for one of those and it’s weighed, killed, and plunged into a bucket of hot water to soften the feathers. A few cuts of meat are lined up, arranged on beds of fresh mint, with chunks of tripe, hooves, heads and other off-cuts spread out neatly nearby.
Moroccans love meat. Actually, I’d say that they adore meat, it’s even more than love… more like infatuation. And meat is expensive here. Even though we can afford to eat it regularly, there are some days on which we don’t eat mat at all. Rachana’s from India, where vegetarian food is regarded as a delicacy and not as an embarrassment as it’s been until recently in the West.
The other day I got talking with the butcher and he asked me what meat we liked best of all. I told him, and then I said that sometimes we didn’t eat meat, because we like vegetarian food as well, and I explained that in India veg food is very delicious indeed. The butcher’s face froze. He swallowed hard. Then blinked.
‘That must be a very strange country,’ he said. 
‘It’s strange in some ways but very interesting.’
‘But I am sure you get good beef there.’
‘Well,’ replied, squinting into the light, ‘that’s the peculiar thing. In India cows are holy, they’re not killed, but revered.’
The butcher had a cleaver in his hand. He chopped it down into the wooden cutting block.
‘To think of it,’ he said. ‘Were you to be a stranger, Mr. Tahir, I would think that you were not telling me the truth.’
June 23, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Baker

Walk through the shantytown which surrounds our home and you will see children as young as six or seven hurrying forward, oversized trays balanced across their arms. Over the tray there’s always a cloth, pulled down tight. Under it there’s a loaf of flat round dough, ready for the oven.

The children scamper fast through the narrow alleys which run between the shacks, with the trays. They run around the side of the bidonville, where the donkeys laze hobbled in the morning sun, and present them to the baker.

His name is Mustapha. His arms are scarred from the wood fire, his hair all singed at the top from the interminable heat. All day long he shuffles the loaves into the oven with a long wooden paddle, and then shuffles them out again.

In Morocco there is no food as sacred as bread. Indeed, it’s far more than any simple food. It’s a symbol of something far greater than a food designed for alimentary sustenance. The idea of ever throwing away a morsel of bread, however stale, is completely unthinkable.

In our home, a piece of bread that’s unfit to eat is never thrown away – not ever. Instead, it’s passed on to someone or to something who will have use for it.

I once wondered what happened to all the stale old bread that was unfit to eat. There must be tonnes of it created in Casablanca alone every day. After all, no one throws it away. They protect it, defend it at all costs from the dustbin, and ensure it is given a fitting end.

I never asked anyone where the bread landed up, but the question was always in my mind. Then, one day, I was strolling through the muddy junk yard in the nearby area of Hay Hasseni, searching for old Art Deco basins as I do, and I saw it… a sea of stale old chunks of bread. There was every shape and size, every colour from white to the darkest brown.

I went over. The stench was terrible, as a great deal of the stuff was rotten, or gnawed at by rats. It was winter, and the Atlantic winter climate is merciless… especially on bread.

Every so often someone would stumble up, hand a small coin to the bread guardian, and saunter off with a bag of the stuff. The guardian told me that people bought it for their cows, that it kept them healthy and free from illness even in the coldest weather. ‘It’s a sort of miracle food,’ he said.

In the bidonville, Mustapha the baker told me he knew of the bread dealers in Hay Hasseni. ‘They make quite good money,’ he said. ‘And I thank them for their work, they are honorable men.’ He paused, shuffled another paddle of loaves into the fire.

Through a kind of alchemy, Mustapha and the other bakers transform the raw dough into the magical comestible and, as such, they are regarded with special esteem. As bakers – and they are exactly that – men who bake bread, they continue in a profession which remains unaltered since ancient times.

One mention of the history, and Mustapha holds still, rests the end of his paddle on his thigh.

‘The Prophet said never to discard a crust of bread,’ he said, ‘and that if you ever see it even the smallest piece on the ground, you must pick it up and put it on all wall. Then, if a beggar is passing and is in need of food, he will not have to stoop down. Because however poor a beggar, he has dignity too.’