An Introduction to Islam

The University of Washington organised a series of conferences after the 11 September 2001 events aiming at making a better understanding of the context and consequences of the terrorist attacks and what happened after.

Dr Jere Bacharach professor of Middle East History and director of the Jackson School of International Studies gave an impressive presentation about "An Introduction to Islam". This is a brief, yet comprehensive, overview of the social and religious values of Islam in connection with its historical context.

There are tons of lectures about Islam, but what I find special about this one is that it's so light, factual and so easy to digest without getting into any kinds of embarrasement due to political sensitivities and such.


Recent readings: Léon l'Africain

I'm starting off this new section to do a very rough review of books I read lately. There has been some time since I didn't read sustainably.

The first book in this series is Léon l'Africain by Amin Maalouf (أمين معلوف) or "Leo Africanus" (الأسد الإفريقي). I have read the original version in French.

Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese novelist living in France. He has covered in a very elegant style the West's relationship with Islam, Muslims and the Islamo-Arabic civilisation in general.

In Léon l'Africain, Amin Maalouf depicts the life of a genuine figure of the 15th-16th century: Hassan Al Wazzan (حسان الوزان) or, maybe, (حسن الوزان) known to the West as Jean-Léon de Médicis, the geograph. Hassan was born in Granada (غرناطة) in modern day Spain, he moved to Morocco as part of the massive Muslims and Jews migration after the Inquisition.

Hassan gets elevated in the ranks of society and becomes a minister/ambassador to the ruler, he visits Timbuktu, Mali which was a very developed and prosperous city at the time. His childhood friend goes into a rebellion movement and their ways cross in fantastic ways.

A quick journey to Tunis, Tunisia, then a trip to Constantinopole and a settlement in Cairo, Egypt. From Egypt, he travels back to Tunisia fearing the Ottomans, but gets abducted in Jerba, Tunisia by Sicilian pirates to end up between the hands of the Leo (Leon) X, the Pope in Rome, Italy.

Hassan Al Wazzan told us about the stressful last days of Granada and the mood of dispair that was established, the news of Jews being burnt alive in other districts was to tell Granada Jews and Muslims alike they were next. In all this, there was the voice of Astaghfirullah, who was always there to remind the city of what they did wrong and that they were getting what they deserved. Reading through the chapter, you'd find that Astaghfirullah was, somehow, th e same voice that we hear today but prefer not to listen to.

The life of Hassan Al Wazzan was used by Amin Maalouf to tell the story of so much happening in (today's) Spain, France, Italy, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey. This fantastic tale of a figure that lived in the West and in the East is very captivating and Amin Maalouf made it hard for the reader to halt for a pause.


The Passions of the Christ

I saw The Passions of the Christ about two weeks ago and it was quite a different kind of movie. It seems like Mel Gibson became an expert in illustrating pain, sacrifice and suffering.

I'm not proficient in theology, but the story of Jesus (PBUH) as described by the movie was exactly what I have learnt about the matter in the Islamic tradition. The fundamental difference is of course on the notion of Jesus (PBUH) himself; Islam, categorically and by definition of God, refuses the idea of a "son of God".

The movie used the original Aramaic language spoken by Jesus (peace be upon him) and I discovered it was so close to modern Arabic. Well it was not really a surprise since it's just another semetic language like Hebrew and Arabic. What was suprising though was the striking similarity: with careful scrutiny, an Arabic (and for the matter maybe also a Hebrew) speaker can probably recognise 40% of what they were saying.

In the beginning of the movie there is a discussion between Judas and some Jewish clerics where they say "thlatheen, yehouda" that is "30, Judas". Arabic for this is "ثلاثين، يهودا" which reads exactly the same.

In Aramaic, Jesus (PBUH) seems to be called "Yeshua". His name in Arabic Yesou' "يسوع". I should acknowledge that I still don't know the diffrence between Issa (عيسى) and Yessou', a commentator may have the nicety to clarify.

Other examples are: sallo (pray/صلوا), malou (what's wrong with him/ماله), beini ou beinek (between me and you/بيني و بينك), la (no/لا), man abak (who is your father/من أباك), ana howa (I am he/أنا هو), koum (get up/قم), akhdhou al akh (they seized him "the brother"/أخذوا الأخ).

I had some discussions with some Christian friends and they appear to believe firmly that Muslim's God is different from theirs, stressing the fact that it's called "Allah".

What many seem to ignore is that Allah or Al-lah (الله) is just Arabic for "The God", therefore "my God" is Arabic for Ilahi (إلهي). Around the end of the movie, Jesus (PBUH) looks up the sky and screams for God's help saying: "Ilahi!".. I hope you got the point by now.


Italian influence in Tunisian spoken Arabic

Very few Tunisians realise this, but quite a few words of our spoken dialect of Arabic come from Italian, not Arabic nor French. Of course we use French words, but when we do we know it's French, but many of the words below are regarded as authentic Tunisian terms.

Italians have been to Tunisia several times: in the 2nd century BC as conquerors, in the 17th and the 18th centuries as immigrants and in the 20th as tourists. When the French protectorate started in 1881, there were 12000 Italians and only 700 French in Tunisia (*). The number of Italians grew to 85000 in 1921. The French protectorate turned into full scale colonisation, but that's another story.

As Italians came in fleeing oppression and poverty, they were well perceived by the population and quickly got fully integrated. In contrast, French came in as colonials and maintained an oppressive attitude. Well, that was occupation, so no wonders here.

Here is a list of words which were doubly verified by my wife and myself using BabelFish and an actual Italian national (thanks Ezio). I'm listing the Arabic term as pronounced by Tunisians, the Italian word, the English translation of the Italian word and the Arabic translation of the Tunisian term.

jornata/giornata/daily salary/أجر يومي
bousta/busta/postal pack/طرد
shroubo/sciroppo/sweet drink/شراب
stamba/stampa/printer/آلة كاتبة
jilat/gelato/ice cream/مثلجات
rouba fikia/roba vecchia/ملابس قديمة
gazouza/gassosa/gaseous drink/مشروب غازي

It goes without saying that I'm no linguist and no historian, these are just notes from what's surrounding me. Any additions or comments are welcome.

(*) المغرب العربي و الإستعمار الفرنسي، نور الدين الدقي 1997


Rage over the Tayseer Alouni case

Tayseer Alouni (تيسير علوني), one of the Al Jazeera channel key reporters was sentenced to 7 years in jail by a Spanish judge on Monday 26 September 2005.

What started like a bad-taste joke when the reporter was, to his own amazement, arrested in Spain about a year earlier, had turned to be a justice scandal in my opinion.

Being Arab and Muslim myself, I may very well be biaised in judging the situation. But without getting into the subjective agruments, it's a fact that Tayseer Alouni was sentenced some hefty 7 years for having an interview with Ussama Bin Laden.

Now, I cannot grasp what is problematic in doing such a great achievement for a war reporter. Mr Alouni was not the only reporter to have an interview with Bin Laden, a quick Google search told me that a reporter called John Miller of PBS had an interview with the guy too. Mr Miller is most probably not risking 7 years of emprisonment.

I can still recall that in 2002, the US Air Force dropped a bomb on the Al Jazeera Kabul office where Mr Alouni was working. He survived. Later, in 2003 the same US Air Force dropped another bomb on the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad killing the wrong reporter this time. And I saw that live.

It strikes me that the same Spanish justice released Mr Alouni (who's already granted with Spanish citizenship) on bail while he was an accused terrorist posing a major national security threat. More on this from ABC and Al Jazeera.

Tayseer Alouni photo from ABC


Processors of glory

In 1994 (I believe), I had my first encounter with Unix: it was a glorifying presentation of dg-ux by a DataGeneral person, DataGeneral were attending SIB'94 with MASH (Maison Arabe de Software et Hardware). The second time was a brief presentation by a TBM (Tunisian Business Machines) sales person about IBM Aix at the same event in 1995. I started thinking that operating systems running the heavy duty tasks cannot be related in anyway to MS DOS on which I was still having a hard time allocating more than 64 KB. That's when I started contemplating Unix as "the real and true operating system".

Today, I still regard "Unix the concept" as a great technological achievement, but I have a lot lower impression of the way the industry commercialised it. The latter notwithstanding, I managed to collect some of the symbols the Unix golden era: the processors made to run Unix.

This one above is an Alpha 21064 taken from an AlphaStation 200 4/166, it's a RISC processor. Alpha's were made by Digital which was acquired by Compaq, which at its turn merged with hp. Digital is also known as DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation), they made the PDP11, maybe the most famous machine to run Unix.

Several versions of Digital Unix ran on this chip: OSF/1, Ultrix and True64. I still cannot tell the relationship between all three. There's a Linux port (architecture name "alpha" or "axp") to Alpha, actually Alpha was the first non-x86 platform on which Linux ran. Red Hat and SuSE had (now discontinued) distributions for Alpha, Debian still has a maintained port.

I remember reading in Communications of the ACM a story about Robert Metcalfe who, in the 70's, got a research grant from Digital in the form of a PDP8 system. The PDP8 was relatively a medium sized machine by the time's standards. Somehow, the system got stolen from the lab and Metcalfe had to call Digital in panic expecting them to storm the place with flocks of cops, but to his astonishment, Digital visited the lab with their Public Relations staff and started an advertising campaign named: "PDP8: the first computer small enough to be stolen".

There is no doubt that Digital has always been a shrine in the eyes of computer engineers throughout the 70's and 80's representing an example of great engineering and shaping a part of the computing history.

This is the Intel Pentium. Well, it was not really made to run Unix, although some of its predecessors did run some early commercial versions of Unix, namely Microsoft Xenix and SCO Unix.

Curiously, modern Linux versions are spreading very well on machines with this chip. It's definitely the most widely deployed architecture of personal computing these days. Intel is moving to the 64 bit arena with the Itanium, but after some time they got it: the Itanium was too intrusive for the industry: it requires new motherboards, new BIOS and new everything. The EM64T, apparently copied from an AMD initiative, was way more acceptable and was absorbed much easier by consumers.

This is the hp PA-RISC, PA as in Precision Architecture. This RISC chip had some outstanding floating point performance compared to its competitors. hp-ux is probably the only Unix to run on this chip in production sites, there's a Linux port (architecture name "hppa" or "parisc") but I think only Debian are maintaining a distribution for it. The last time I saw a Linux "booting" on a PA was in 1999 when I tested the boot code on a hp 9000/715. The 9000 series are the PA-RISC based hp systems, the 800 series are servers and the 700 series are workstations, or so it seems to me. hp are apparently slowly dropping this processor and replacing it with the Itanium.

This is the MIPS R10000 taken from an SGI Origin 200. I was under the impression that SGI were the only users of this chip. It seems like it has some significant wide-spread in embedded devices, Cisco routers and hp printers run on MIPS for instance. The most popular Unix to run on this chip is the SGI Irix, there's a Linux port which doesn't seem to be very popular. I think only Debian maintains a Linux distribution.

This Sun Sparc processor was taken from a SparcStation 2, Sun (the Stanford University Network) started in early 80's. They, like many other Unix vendors, started using Motorola 680x0 then started their own chip business. The nice thing about this is that Sun created an independent organisation to develop the Sparc platfrom so today you can buy a Sparc system from Fujitsu Siemens for example. The primary operating system running on these is obviously Sun Solaris (formerly SunOS), and it's still the largest deployed commercial Unix version. A Linux port (architecture name "sparc" and "sparc64") exists since the late 90's, Red Hat and SuSE had Linux distributions for Sparc but they were discontinued at versions 6.2 for Red Hat and 7.3 for SuSE. Debian still maintains a Sparc port.
I'm certainly missing some important pieces in my collection, namley: IBM PowerPC, Motorola 680x0 and Intel Itanium. I have an extra MIPS R10000 which I'm willing to exchange for a PowerPC, an ARM, an Opteron, a 680x0 or anything with historical value.