Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Abu Shreek: Trix Till Dawn

Endless nights around cards tables.

Abu Shreek makes a conscious effort to avoid regret. Every moment, incident and decision is considered “a part of the experience”, which is practically a survival skill necessary to deal with the over-confident, typical-Arab, proven-to-fail attitude of “Abu Shreek knows best”. However the “Trix era” is worth revisiting.

Trix is a very popular cards game in Jordan. It fits into the “evasion trick-taking” category in the same mold of “Hearts”, except that the Hearts in Trix are the Diamonds and the Queen of Spades is either the four Queens or the King of Hearts (say what?). Aside from the details, the game consists of four rounds, each round consists of five hands, which means that every game takes anywhere between an hour to three hours (unless Beesso (a notoriously slow player and one who was experimenting with mIRC cyber sex as early as 1995) is playing, then the minimum becomes three hours).

No group was ever satisfied after a single game. Endless hours, on daily basis, and over more than three years. Weekdays, weekends, final exams, semester breaks. Endless combinations and variations: Complex, inverse, doubling, five players, complex-inverse, partners, six games, complex-partners. Coffee shops, apartments, pavements, and hours.

Abu Shreek managed to squeeze in other occasional activities that catered to his interests and quasi-hobbies, but in general it was scattered around the main event. Even his official “day-off” on Wednesday nights, when he participates in a mediocre intramural athletic activity, was usually faced with the scrutiny and discomfort of other “Trixers”, for being a traitor and a sellout! When the government announced a day off on the occasion of the solar eclipse (thanks again), playing lasted for 14 straight hours; a record that was soon to be shattered upon the death of king Hussein, when the games went on continuously for three straight days.

It seized to be a matter of tossing cards and elevated to a personal level. Counting every card, reading faces and reactions, mounting tensions, and naturally lots of cussing, swearing and trash talking. Abu Shreek vividly recalls that night when he went to bed after one of those “marathonic” weekends, and upon closing his eyes, he saw the shadows of the ten of spades floating, while he was subconsciously counting clubs and mumbling: “where is the ace you bastards?”. The false sense of accomplishment after winning and the pointless state of concern and irritation when losing. The habit of losing any sense of time. Tobacco use is practically a prerequisite of the setting. The feelings of guilt and unproductively on the way home.
Not good times.

However, it made for a great social activity. It was an environment for meeting different people and a chance to make countless acquaintances and eventually life-long friends. Also keep in mind, that it provided good mentally-challenging (not as in retarded, but as in requiring a mental effort) entertainment value for a very little financial investment. (Mitthatt used to get completely ignored when he came begging for a second round of orders after three hours of occupying the coffee shop table). It is not exactly a chess-like mental effort, but it definitely beats mindless TV watching, or playing video games. As students in a completely dull and unchallenging college system, the Trixers had a lot of free time to fill, and despite the fact that they did not fully or productively utilize it, there could have been worse options that they avoided. (Tangent alert: A friend just graduated on top of his class from JU with a 3.7+ GPA. He literally dozed off during the classes he occasionally attended, seriously inquired if the school offered a degree by correspondence, since he was basically home-schooling himself, played for an athletic national team, played video games, and he still had a ton of time on his hands. And, he was an electrical engineering student).

Now whether this is a justification attempt or a guilt trip, the bottom line remains that the return on the time investment was practically ZERO. Aside from some bragging rights at the end of the night (which are meaningless and irrelevant since (a) after all it is cards (i.e. LUCK) and (b) you can get a Jordanian guy to admit that he is a bad driver before you can get him to admit that he is a bad cards player, even if you just beat him in ten consecutive games), and aside from the free cup of coffee (if you won and you happened to be playing for the orders), that was time flushed down the drain.

Abu Shreek is confident that if he invested a fraction of that time running, he will be the Jordanian record holder for a number of short, middle and long distances. If he invested a fraction of the time in knitting, half of Amman will be wearing his sweaters. But since Abu Shreek values “entertainment” and “leisure time” as much as hard work, and since we know by now that he is a half-glass-full kind of person, he just wonders what would have happened if for every ten hours he spent playing cards, he would have dedicated one hour to doing anything else.
On the bright side, NOBODY can even reach close to his level or challenge his Trix superiority.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Profile: The Reform

In commemoration of the world record that is about to be shattered. A record that will mark the “fingerprinting” over tens of repressive and unimpressive laws in less than 15 minutes.

One of the a few attempts to address the political picture in Jordan was recently presented here, but it does not hurt to re-emphasize the point: There is no need for (colorfully-named) conferences, a fifteen-volume “national” agenda, or a 25-year plan to reform the current inadequate (to say the least) political scene in Jordan. The logical first step can only be one of two options:

A system that installs a “questioning” procedure for the exclusive and absolute decision-maker. A human being is bound to make mistakes. Even if he is viewed as trustworthy, educated, intelligent, and wise, he is not divine.


A system that awards the throne its natural position as an honorary national symbol. It maintains its untouchable status as long as it is completely distant from the decision-making process.

The Question becomes: “Who is to be responsible for the observation (option one) or the replacement (option two) of the decision-making?

The Answer is naturally the people, and usually through their representatives. Of course, that is not meant to refer to the disgraceful current representation under its current format.

The systematic marginalization of the current parliament (regressive election laws, dilution through the increased number of seats, increased financial benefits, the elimination of opinionated influential members,..) rendered it as the typical puppet of an oppressive regime. It continues to pass law after law that goes against the people’s will and aspirations. The parliament failed in taking a single honorable stance in favor of the people it is supposed to represent, or to protect the slightest of their interests. On the contrary it appears to maintain a policy of sliding deeper in bed with the consecutive governments, making them both irrelevant components in the oppressive corrupt regime.

The Solution is in a new parliament arrangements and regulations that may require constitutional changes. (Remember that neither the constitution nor those who hastily scribbled it are divine. In fact the man who presided over its creation ended up in a mental asylum). The clichéd “modern election law” is definitely not coming out of this impotent parliament (it is only logical that this group is going to protect its current status by passing the regulations that will guarantee their re-election for future terms). With the absence of political parties (not changing any time soon), and with the domination of tribal, religious and even ethnic attachments and devotion among voters, the overhaul has to be deep-rooted and maybe “radical”.

The Suggestion (an attempt to avoid “destructive criticism” that does not present alternatives) is an election law that regulates the candidate. Since we cannot deny that the voter is inexperienced (oppressive regimes continue to use the “ignorance” of the voter as an excuse for denying the people their democratic rights, without presenting alternatives of how to “educate” the voter), the law can temporarily limit his/her options. This may seem extreme and against the people’s “rights and freedom” to elect whoever they want, but, as proven by the past 16 years, the voter cannot be fully trusted yet. Brief “limits” on his/her freedom could be more beneficial, on the long run, than the “unconstrained freedom” (using the term very loosely) that continues to produce disappointments.

A set of conditions (aside from age, nationality and sanity) could determine the candidate eligibility to run for a parliament seat. Some suggested highlights:

-The “old-guard” who have been enjoying a strangle hold on the country for a quarter century are ineligible. (Abdel-Audi/ Rifai’i and the gang), you had your chance (and your bank accounts), now please go away.

-Along the same lines, all previous prime ministers are ineligible. Your loyalty is not to the people, you too had your chance, and none of you made any significant contributions to the country.

-Notorious corruption figures, smugglers, arm dealers, “sharks”, robbers, and the regime parasites are ineligible. (Remember this is Jordan (pop. 5.5 million), this group can be identified easily).

-Former and current officials of the internal intelligence department and the secret services are ineligible; (you cannot torture people one day and represent them the next). Also, former and current high ranked Army officers; (beneficiaries of the regime and their loyalty is obviously not to the “man on the street”.)

-Tribe leaders who exist in a social structure more suitable for the middle-ages are ineligible. This is not a folkloric art exhibit that needs a historic figure in his traditional costume, there is an attempt to build a civil society here, and the people this sheikh was supposed to represent are better of being represented by someone else.

-Illiterates are ineligible. Passing a qualification exam is a condition for candidacy. As a representative of the people, the candidate is expected to have basic knowledge of the history and geography of the country and the world,basic math skills, basic economics skills, and a sense logic to be able to analyze and draw conclusion. (The Ability to write a two-paragraph essay and the ability to read an excerpt without making grammatical mistakes could be shooting too high though). A psychological screening to ensure mental stability and a drug test are also recommended.

-A limit on the number of candidates (a percentage of the total seats) from the same political party. An “independent” candidate who is revealed (through his political program and agenda) to be affiliated with a party that is already exceeding the maximum number of candidates becomes ineligible. (The anti Islamic brotherhood domination rule).

-The suggested rules and restrictions, along with the procedure of its application are the responsibility of academia (it is about time that the numerous universities contribute to society). College professors and their research teams review, investigate, survey and suggest a set of regulations, that helps present the voter with the best candidate. The set of laws are reviewed after each election term until all candidacy restrictions are eventually lifted.

- As a more general rule, serving in the parliament is considered voluntary work and a public service. No salaries, allowances, cars or other privileges are to be associated with the parliament member position, especially those furnished by the government, since it causes a conflict of interest between the legislative and the executive branches. (The problem is if the position loses its privileged status,it is probable nobody would want to run anymore!

The effect of the true national representation that is selected outside of the traditional random (faz3a) procedure will expand the horizons of the voter outside of tribe and religion, and the success of such “controlled” representation will allow him/her to appreciate the effect of a strong committed parliament. Hence, by the shortly-to-follow next term elections, the population is more capable of distinguishing the worthy candidates.

Of course, this brings us back to the initial point. Even if the election process achieved the perfect results, it would remain insignificant as long as we won't dare to begin addressing the elephant in the room.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Mailbag (II)

Another installment of eccentric inquiries and delusional answers. As usual, a printer may come in handy.

After all the time we spent under the bushes and on the green fields of the University of Jordan, I always thought he was the one for me. But since we graduated, I am talking to (apparently) smarter guys. I am not sure about Rizigg anymore. What should I do?
Zarqa, Jordan

For the sake of his mental health and everyone’s safety I highly recommend giving Rizigg another chance. Do not be fooled by those in your post-graduation environment who try to sound articulate, and who would never shy away from pitching in their two cents on any issue with a false sense of certainty. Remember in Jordan we are blessed (!) with a whole population of experts on any and every subject. Despite the slicked back oily hair, the brownish-yellow and few missing teeth, despite the mildly-offensive sweat/cheap-cologne combination, the purple “silky” shirt tucked inside the high waist tight jeans and the Texas boots, Rizigg remains a much better option than some of the posers. Remember the “milk bar” and the “plaza” days and stay behind him, and with a few hours of browsing the net and watching TV, he will be able to “outsmart” the best of them.

Do you think autoerotic asphyxiation (as performed in a closed room with sobbet 3ala2 id-deen* as opposed to a belt) poses a significant threat to Jordanian way of life?
Jameed, Utah

I always thought that this technique ishands down the most suitable and enjoyable way to commit suicide (talking about leaving with a grin (or a smile) on your face), but of course using the belt or rope, not the CO fumes generated by the “*kerosene-powered fireplace”.

The answer to your question, (which by the way won the e-mail of the month award, you can proudly put that on your resume), that I do not believe it is a serious problem for the Jordanian society for the following reasons:
1. Usually the whole family is gathered around the kerosene-heater in the same room (usually the only room), which is going to impede any attempt of self-pleasuring, unless the subject in question waits for everyone to fall asleep. Under these critical conditions he is in no situation to be experimenting with pleasure-enhancing techniques, and he prefers to finish the mission as quickly as possible.

2. If we examine the “auto-asphyxiation” definition we have to notice the premeditation and planning factor involved. So if for example, we consider the case of the single guy who is trying to blow off some steam on a cold night and accidentally chokes to death on some CO fumes, he would not be a subject of interest here. (However, looking at his situation, maybe he did not lose much. Maybe those few seconds of “sudden extra-pleasure” he briefly experienced, were the best thing “coming” his way anyway).

3.Under the “in-advance planning” scenario, if our subject hermetically seals the room, turns on the Aladdin magic chauffage, sets up the mood (with a CD from downtown, a publication (Al Shabaka, Sheehan, Sears catalogue,…), his success will depend on very accurate timing calculations that guarantee a synchronization between the choking and the climax. This may need extensive work, and maybe some trial and error, which is not very popular in our society. Notice how the rope allows for complete control and instantaneous feedback on the process control.

4. Notice that the involvement of petroleum products in the process automatically makes it government-monitored and directly attached to the fluctuation of international oil prices. You may recall the popularity of Gas (butane-propane) heaters (Romo: Another product from Aladdin) a few years back, which limited the risks of choking. After the first hike in petroleum products’ prices, the return to the old and cost-efficient kerosene heater meant the return of higher choking risk. The government’s suggestion to protect its citizens from such a dire health hazard was another hike in prices to eliminate the citizen’s ability to afford even kerosene. The decision was based on studies by distinguished American educational institutions which proved that the chances of freezing to death are much slimmer than those of choking to death.
The rope/belt remains the more feasible approach.

What do you think about someone whose favorite part of the day is the few hours he spends sleeping?
Sue E. Cydal

Clinically Depressed ..?! Consider the above option.

What happened to the sports-related posts, I really used to enjoy them and I miss them.

The summer is intrinsically short on major sporting events (MLB and that’s it). I was planning a baseball post on the best, must-see pitchers and the joy of watching pitching in general, but unfortunately the level of pitching this year has been very disappointing. For some reason (i.e. steroids and amphetamines ban) no starting pitcher was consistently on top of his game. The bullpens have been brutal all around from mop-ups to closers. The strikeouts (the most exciting re-occurring play in baseball) are way down (Notice that from 1997-2002 (a.k.a the heart of the steroid era, which we are now sure that pitchers were part of), the league’s leader in K’s topped 300 every year. 115 games into this season no player has topped 180 and only two topped 160 after more than two thirds of the season). Some players showed flashes of brilliance, but it is going to be really hard to pick a Cy Young winner this year in either league, unless a player makes a significant late contribution to his team in winning the pennant. A lot of old players are running on fumes, and the exciting younger ones are inconsistent and regularly miss games The short list of pitchers who were worth watching this year are: Brandon Webb (ARI) early in the year, Francisco Liriano (MIN) for around 5 out of his 15 starts, Carlos Zambrano (CHC) even though he struggles with his comman, Gregg Maddux (LAD) for his first 5 starts and latest 2 with his new team, and Roy Halladay (TOR) who kept improving as the season went on. An honorable mention goes to those who are consistently good even if not always spectacular: (Smoltz (ATL), Oswalt (HOU), Mussina (NYY), Santana (MIN)). Impressive young pitchers include Verlander (DET), Hamles (PHI), Weaver (LAA). In the bullpen impressive players include Zumaya (DET), Jenks (CWS), Papelbon (BOS), M.Gonzalez (PIT) the only closer without a blown save, and of course Rivera (NYY) and F. Rodriguez (LAA)).

I am waiting for the NFL's final 65-man rosters to come out after the Aug 29th cuts (53-man rosters on Sep 2nd ) for a brief preview post, and hopefully a couple of posts on the Basketball World Championship (Japan Aug 19th –Sep 2nd ) if it is worth it. (USA has a team of nice NBA-ers, and supposed to be playing for the lost pride. Lebanon (heyy) and Qatar (boo) represent the Arab hopes.
Speaking of sports…

What do you think about the status of women athletics, and who are your favorite international and local female athletes?
Hanadi, Jordan

Consider that the “AP female athlete of the year” title for the past three years went to a Swedish golfer (Sorenstam) who is overshadowed by a teenage below-average fellow golfer who never one anything (Wie). So for an athletic young lady seeking a hero and a role model, one is supposed to find her motivation in the pseudo-sport world of golf! You also have the over-exposed flavor of the month hot tennis player (the Anna Kournikova Syndrome), and even though you can make an argument for Sharapova since she has a Wimbledon title under her belt, the media frenzy around her far exceeds her on-court accomplishments. Women’s athletics gets modest attention and funding, and is usually centered on scantily-clad players (i.e. beach volleyball and the Lingerie Bowl), but that does not explain the recent absence of a dominant female figure.

My favorite athlete in a while is Chinese figure skater Zhang, whose performance in the Torino 2006 Winter Olympics was the most courageous thing I have ever witnessed on live TV. Watching it again is eye-watering and flat out Incredible.

As for Jordanian female athletes let me sum it up this way: I had a friend in college who can perform the impossible task of running without tripping or flapping her arms, along with decent hand-eye coordination skills. She was on the national teams of: table tennis, badminton, volleyball, squash, handball and football. Although Jordan has not yet produced a Ghadah Shouaa (Syria) type of athlete, very big props to my favorite athletes whom I enjoyed watching and following throughout the years. Basketball players like feisty point guard Hala M7aisenn, collegiate forward Joumana Salti who played at BYU and Cornell, and the best Center in Jordan Yara Malbass (when she played for the U-18 national team, she had a few post moves that most big guys in Jordan can’t excute). Handball players Rana La77am (old school wing) and Fatin Bakheet (A multi talented athlete who holds some track and field Jordanian records). Nadia Rashad and Tatyanna Najjar (Arab table tennis champs and Olympic qualifiers). The Matari sisters (track and field), The Toffa7a sisters (table tennis), The Fareed sisters (handball) and all the ladies who represented the country in Arab and international events.
(By the way: They say never date an athlete, she is always going to choose practice over you).

Hizbollah destroyed Lebanon. The excoriating high price Lebanon paid. Lebanese infra structure. WAAA…WAAA…how can Hizbollah do this WAAAa. The number of innocent civilians WAAA…The destruction, the rubble, the displaced….WAAA..The tourism season…the investors…the cancelled concerts WAAAAAAAAA…WAA

I am completely aware that it was not my home that got demolished neither was it my brother who got killed, but please save us your crocodile tears. If you cared you could have used your pen, space and influence to help contain the war early, not legitimize and justify the shameful traitorous early acceptance and it was awarded.
If the returning inhabitants are looking at their demolished homes and saying: “The Southern suburbs never looked more beautiful”, what are you crying about!!! I guess we cannot grasp the value of pride since we were deprived from it early and continously. Are you crying about 2 billion dollars worth of concrete that Hizbollah promised to rebuild?! Do you know how many 2 billion dollars were spilled on the casinos’ tables, on private jets, and on Royal suites? Do you know how many 2 billion dollars were smuggled outside while inside there are acres of suburbs that look much worse than the bombed Southern Beirut, without ever fighting Israel? (and if you don’t believe me, just visit anywhere outside of West Amman!!)

Just as comical as the concern about “your national accomplishments”, the Lebanese Steel factories, the nuclear plants, the coal mines and the Tanks assembly lines are still intact. It was a few buildings and a few bridges that, as early as 1996, was still a pile of rubble and you did not even know about them. Do not worry, the night clubs, the stock exchange, the brothels and the Solidaire remain standing. You can resume the activities as soon as next week.They were not a target anyway, neither was the villas of those currently occupying 5 star hotels in Amman. The bombs along with your “compassionate stances” were designed to break the will of those who fueled the resistance. Both failed.

As for the human life, since when is this sudden concern?!! Is there any statistics counting how many people here are starving to death, or dying because they cannot afford basic medical care? What about death tolls due to reckless and intoxicated car accidents? I bet if we factor in the honor crimes, the annual death toll will exceed a 1000. I wish I get a chance to die by an Israeli bullet, before getting hit by a stray one from a nearby wedding. I wish I get a chance to be tortured in an Israeli prison before I get beaten up by the secret-service idiot who happens to be my next door neighbor.

ولك العالم بتبدا تفكر بالعيشة و الدار بس يصير في وطن بالاول

After years of toiling under Saddam and hoping for a better tomorrow, he gets replaced by an American occupation and a gang of its mercenaries!! Giving the current complete Arabs apathy to my situation, I am afraid that I may have to consider a Persian “occupational” role if it ever presents itself. At least they are Muslims!!
Omar Hussain Ali,

I am afraid I may not be able to blame you.

So, whenever the number of the rich increases by one, isn’t there supposed to be a corresponding decrease in the number of poor by one?
Ghorebeh, Syria

According to the laws of the free market economics and the entrepreneurial investor-friendly environment, when the blood-sucking parasites increase by one, that is balanced out by thousands of decently-surviving citizens slipping into the barely-surviving stage. For every Swiss bank account and every degenerate gambling spree, thousands are eventually scrambling for the basic needs, as a direct effect. But on the bright side, the economy is booming.
And speaking of Ghorbeh, as long as the “homes” insist on spitting out the faithful children, who dreamt and are capable of improving the situation, in favor of royalties, parasites and merchants, a lot of people are destined to live in (ghorbeh: estrangement) inside and outside.

Is it possible for a human being to “succeed”, while avoiding any and every confrontation throughout a whole life-time?
A.S., Fantasy Ranch, TX

You can duck, dodge and ignore but you won’t be able to run away, even from your indifference. No one is going to fight your battles for you and it is a jungle out there, and the fact that I had to answer to a couple of legit questions above, does not mean that you can start showering me with stupid, semi-philosophical questions that require cheesy answers with direct projections. NO MORE QUESTIONS FOR YOU. (شي غاد).

For everyone else, Abu Shreek welcomes your irrelevant questions at (abushreek_jor@yahoo.com).
In the mean time he is on hiatus for a week, for multiple convincing reasons.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Archive: Love Story

The last chapter of a short story written between the summer and fall of 2002.
It turns out that the ending is capable of standing on its own.
(Mainly as a Jordanian taxi-driver's tale about his cousin who has a green tattoo on his chest that reads (حبتش دمار : Devastation Lover).

When he finally decided that it is time for him to cut her off completely, after he realized beyond doubt that her act is nothing but an act, he tried to do it over the phone. He tried to convince himself for months that she was true, and that it was simply the complexity of the situation that dictated her behaviour.

He tried to remind himself: “Remember that one time when you looked in her eyes and there was that little sparkle … that cannot be faked!! Remember that time when you walked her home and it was windy. She took a shelter under your shoulder and her face pressed against your chest while you both kept walking. Good thing you taught her how to march. You kept moving in sync… Left right left right…left…click clack click clack… in sync with the heart beats you were sure she heard. Didn’t she cry her eyes out that one time when she came to work and you totally ignored her significance? You attended to her business, with the appropriate fake smile and the parting pleasantries: “Have a great day Ma’am”. She immediately wept. You hated women tears.”

A million thoughts. But still, the big picture was crystal clear. Maybe at one point she cared, maybe at one point when he gave less she wanted more, but when he gave everything she had enough. He did not care. The bottom line is: she does not give a shit and that is a fact.

He cannot use the phone.
He cannot carry a good conversation over the phone, but he was sure it was going to be brief:
“How are you doing? I was studying last night and I decided that I am sure this is not working.”
“I am unplugging the phone right now, tell your Mom and Dad I said Merry Christmas, it was a pleasure meeting them.”

She showed up later, started saying stuff he did not bother to hear. He was disgusted.
“I told you that is it. You are cut off indefinitely.”
“You will not be able to forget me, there is always going to be something to remind you of me. A song, a view, a moment…. A movie, a road, even a smell. You were just as selfish, you could have ended this much earlier.”

After a miserable winter, a panic attack and a quasi-heart attack, he still thought of her. But, once she proved that it was all an act, all the little things instantly lost their value. He loved the “little thing”. The little things are the best during the good times, but suddenly qualify under: “I can’t believe I fell for that stupid trick”, when it turns out that the “whole thing” was fake: “So she shouted your full name with an over-joyous tone every time she needed to get your attention, so what? She always laid her head on your shoulder…everywhere. Big deal. She came to your games an nursed your twisted ankle. All insignificant.” When he realized that deep down she did not care, he realized that the “little things” were inexpensive little tools.

“BUT, was she also right about you sharing the blame. You were selfish. You had to make the “correct” decision much earlier. You had to trust your intuition and the complexity of the situation. The difference between right and wrong is ALWAYS obvious. You fell in love with having her.”

It felt great to wake up at 5 in the morning every weekend just to be her wake-up call. It felt great when she visited him at work or when she sat next to him. It felt great to have someone who cared about his daily details. It felt great when she sat in his lap, looked up to his face, smiled and said: “your nose hairs need to be trimmed”. She understood his abnormal mind, his twisted sense of humor and her hair was black, thick and curly.

He tried to justify, diffuse the anger, share the blame: “You knew it was all an illusion all along, right? Where you enjoying fantasy land and she just rode along? Or did she create it and lead the way ?”.
He felt disgusted beyond belief and he wished her the worst.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Review: "Islam is the Solution"

Snapshots from the Islamic Empire through “The History of the Arabs” by P.K. Hitti, and a few other sources.

In the last few decades, a popular school of thought emerged in the Arab world claiming: “The only time in the history that we were significant as a people was when we rallied around religion. Religion is what worked for us, and hence we ought to “return” to its roots to elevate and recapture our glory”. As a result of the continuous and steep deterioration of the general Arabic situation, this concept has supporters that surprisingly spread over a wide range of religious devotion.
On the other hand, there are the skeptics who constantly doubt the accomplishments of the Islamic empire and wonder: “Has the State of Islam died with the death of the prophet Mohammad?!”

The best way to investigate a truth that will probably fall between the two extreme statements is to dive into what we call the “mothers of books”: The collection of references written by the Arab/Muslim historians and travelers that document for the rise and fall of the empire. A shyer, yet more feasible, attempt is to seek a brief, accurate and unbiased review of the above references. “The Arabs in History” by Bernard Lewis (a Jewish orientalist, heavily criticized for his bias and inaccuracy) offered NONE of the above; ( it was the only book available on a long road trip). “The History of the Arabs” by Philip Khuri Hitti, accidentally recommended by my dear pen-pal, lived up to its reputation as “by far the best modern, one-volume English book on the subject” (Edward Said), and offered a charming recollection of the familiar events of our history in a chronological order, without shying away from those less-familiar facts that are considered “taboo” in our school textbooks and Arabic publications.

Obviously the state of Islam expanded dramatically (in size and in challenges) after the death of the prophet, but that expansion was not necessarily always done under the principles that the prophet had set (i.e. religion). The state of Islam took the path of any (former or latter) superpower or empire, starting from under the banner and nucleus of Islam (under the prophet’s leadership), and eventually, politically evolving regardless of the commitment to the prophet's early teachings.

Before accusations of (walking the thin line of) blasphemy start flying around, let us track the following events that will help in reaching a conclusion:

-The minute the prophet died (632), the natural power struggle for his successor began among his righteous (saint-like!) companions. If we consider that the brief dispute between Ali and Abu Baker and “The wars of apostasy (Riddah)”, are nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to the “shock” of the death of the leader of the young state, we cannot ignore the fact that three of the first four State leaders (The Rashid caliphs: supposedly the best of the best) were assassinated! The Umar era (634-644) could be considered an apex in the Islamic state history, since it combined the expansive military dominance with a quasi-utopian virtuous leadership and a commitment to the prophet’s guidelines, not to be reached again. (However that did not prevent his assassination by a Persian slave, whom the system obviously failed to incorporate. From this Persian slave’s perspective, Muslims are occupiers who enslaved him, assumed his family as property, and caused the destruction of “his” Persian empire; an issue that will continue to shape the politics of the State of Islam, and even the religion itself, for years to come. On a separate note, the son of Umar “Abdullah” allegedly went on a revenge-fueled killing rampage against every slave who he suspected to may have conspired in killing his father, including the killer’s little daughter, and Abdullah was spared any punishment).

-The “killing” of Uthman is a bigger indication of the deterioration of the situation, since it was an internal affair. (According to Saad ibn Abi Waqas: “Uthman was killed by a sword drawn by Aisha, sharpened by Talha and poisoned by Ali”. The group that killed him inside his house, after a forty day house-arrest during which he was denied water, is not exactly known, but it included Abdullah Ibn Abi Bakr. The companion's body who was responsible for collecting the Quran in one book, and hence shielded it against multiple versions, had to wait three days to get buried, and his funeral was attended by 5 people. The assassination of Ali, with a poisoned sword to the forehead, was carried out by a group, (Alkhawarejj: who was opposed to the arbitration deal between Ali and Muawiyah after their battle in Siffin), who considered themselves more righteous and committed to Mohammad’s religion than the man who was among the first three to accept Islam and who was the prophet’s best friend!

-Along the way, we find a war between the mother of believers and their leader (Aisha vs. Ali). “Al-Jamal” battle assumed the lives of 20,000 first generation, direct prophet followers, Muslim Arab believers. The bloodshed for the “chair” would not stop (obviously it still has not). The grandchildren of the prophet themselves were not fortunate enough to survive the power struggle. AlHasan was first bribed out of office and later poisoned, while his brother AlHussein “fell dead with many wounds and his head was sent to the Damascus (680)” by Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, who headed 4000 troops and trapped AlHussein on his way to Karbala with 200 of his followers. A deep split at the base of Islam was born.

-In his quest for sole control of Islam land Yazid ibn Muawiyah sent troops against Abdullah ibn al Zubair who assumed control of Makkah and renounced the caliph in Damascus. In the second civil war of Islam (Muawiyah vs. Ali as the first) the scene in the city of the prophet was described as “apocryphal”. The Haram was “catapulted” by stones, the Kabah itself caught fire and was burnt to the ground and the black stone was split to three pieces (Tabari vol ii p.427). Ibn il Zubair survived and rebuilt the Kabah, but Makkah was under siege again (692), and this time Ibn il Zubair head was sent to Damascus while the companion’s body was sent to his aging mother (a prophet favorite), Asma bint Abi Baker. AND that was less than SIXTY years, hardly one generation, after the death of the prophet.

Again, that is not a point to be taken against Islam as a religion. It is a proof that the basic pre-Islam brutal tribal mentality continued to rule the day, despite the greatness of the Islam teachings and the effect that it should have carried on its followers. All the above conflicts were established and fueled by regional and tribal feuds, that once again took place ahead of the unity under the word of Allah.

-The reason that the Umayyad dynasty succeeded in building an empire that covered half of the earth was that they operated according to a plan and following a system. A strong army (inspired in part by martyrdom and in majority by pay and booty), a navy, and a government that featured the four geniuses of the Arabs ruling over its provinces. Accomplishments on all aspects of the civilized society were apparent: Architecture, poetry, the invention of correspondence, science, alchemy, and various intellects. Nevertheless, all of the glory was done under a system that not only violated the “spirit” of Islam, but also its direct orders.

-The Umayyads appointed their successors by inheritance, a plague that the Arab world still suffers from until this day. The caliphates modeled their thrones after those of the Romans and Persians, and presided over a socially unjust system that featured excessive spending and luxury at its top. Regular alcohol consumption was a common practice among all the caliphs, optimized by Walid II (743-744) “who habitually swam in a pool of wine of which he would gulp enough to lower the surface appreciably". “The Holy cities developed into centers of worldly pleasure and gaiety and a home of secular music and song”… “Houses of ill repute flourished in al Madinah…,as the female slaves sang and played soft melodies for the entertainment of their wealthy masters and guests”. And that was less than 100 years after the death of the prophet !!!

Of course, “the ancient and typical weakness of Arabian social life, with its over emphasis on individualism, tribal spirit, and feuds was gain reasserting itself. The down fall of the Umayyad dynasty began with the polarization of the Muslim world over the dualism of Qays and Yaman. “The district of Damascus itself was one the scene of relentless warfare for two years because a lady from Ma’ad took a watermelon from Yemenite’s garden.”(Abu il Fida’ vol ii p.14). Not good times.

-The move to the next Islamic dynasty was furnished with more bloodshed in the name of the religion that emphasizes the value of peace and human life. The Abbasid claiming close ties to the prophet house was taking advantage of the widespread discontent and posing as defendants of Islam” and “embarked on exterminating the Ummayad house”. The living descendants were brutally slaughtered and the corpses of the caliphs were dug out and burnt. “That of hisham bin Abdel Malek was dug out, embalmed (preserved in some way), (whipped) eighty times and burned to ashes”. The only one to escape violation was Umar ibn Abdel Azziz (maybe since he was the one who put an end to the custom of cussing Ali at Jumaa prayers, but it is worth mentioning that the era of Umar II (717-720) (often given the title the Fifth Rashid Caliph) was a spike in the declining curve of pious caliphs and an ascend to the values and basics of Islam itself).

-In the Abbasid empire the Arabs will be playing second fiddle to the Neo-Muslims. In addition, “for the first time in its history the caliphate was not (an extent) of Islam". Various parts of the Islamic world would not recognize the new caliph. At a certain point the empire of Islam was split between three main dynasties, and a few scattered petty (secondary) .
(I think we are done here, or as they say in Arabic “3ayydatt?” !!).

-An Abbasid dynasty that took over to revive orthodox Islam was soon following the luxury life of the preceding Umayyads, and submerging in alcohol drinking and “orgies”. Some of the caliphs are the sons of foreigner slaves (which by definition makes them children born out of wedlock (see the more things change, the more they stay the same)). In the meantime, as Harun il Rahid was playing among the Harem (women) and Gholman (little boys), his power reached the topmost point of the Abbasid. When the new Byzantine Ruler Nicephorus decided to stop paying tribute to the caliph and asked for the return of already paid tribute, Harun al Rasheed replied with the famous letter headed by “From Harun, the commander of believers to Nicephorus the dog of a Roman…”, and immediately started a series of campaigns that resulted in reinstatement of the tribute in addition to another tax on the emperor himself and on each member of his family.( Think about it in the same terms as if Saudia Arabia decides to cut-off the oil supply to the United States, of course the U.S. here is Harun).

-As the “ill-defined heredity principle of successive” took its toll on the weaker caliphs, the office of "Imamah" tried to assume more religious character to sustain legitimacy. They began to assume honorific titles compounded with Allah, (even reached to the point of using the title the “shadow of Allah on earth”). Of course the titles did not help those caliphs when they were ruling for one day (Al Murtada (Dec 17, 908)) or when they were being deposed, blinded (a brilliant punishment that definitely need to be restored), and left begging in the streets. The ex-caliphsn(Al Qahir, Al Muttaqi, and Al Mustakfi) shared powerful names, darkness and the streets of Baghdad by the mid 940s.

-However, “the most momentous intellectual awakening in the history of Islam and one of the most significant in the whole history of thought and culture” started in the days of Al Rashid and continued beyond it. Although the Arab Muslims were short on culture compared to the other civilizations they conquered “they had a keen sense of intellectual curiosity and became the heir of the older cultures”.

The most disturbing aspect of the intellectual awakening was that regarding the religion. “The school of thought, developed then, has persisted in some forms to the present day”. That meant the death of the “simple” Islam and the emergence of “Islamic Sects” and cults that adopted the most ridiculous (would have prefered “extreme”, if it weren’t overused and tired lately) concepts and ideas. These awful claims and interpretations of religion were “carried so carefully” as if it was divine and a part of the prophet’s teachings, despite the fact that they were introduced, more than 200 years after his death, to promote personal, tribal, anti-Arab and other agendas.
From the creation of the science of Hadith (the collection of the prophets utterances and deeds that later assumed a Quranic status, despite being documented hundreds of years after his death, depending on nothing more than oral transmission!), to the emergence of the four orthodox schools, and not ending with the infiltration of Hellenic philosophy to Islam, that lead to futile yet deadly debates over trivial issues like “the dogma of creation of the Quran” (827). All these tools, limited the free-thought, and laid the death penalty by crucifixion on those who disagreed with the caliph, or with the current ruling sect, under the accusations of “Zandaqah”.

-In the meantime, in other parts of the Muslim world, the only surviving descendant of the Umayyads established his independent kingdom in Spain (756). It had its share of bloodshed and was built depending on tribal feuds carried over from Damascus and Hijjaz. We learn the third generation ruler Al Hakam (796-822) was “gay and addicted to the chase and alcohol”. Al Hakam staged mass executions for those theologicals (faqeehs) who opposed him and crucified 300 insurgents with their heads down and leveled their living quarters.
Despite the huge intellectual contribution and the Arab civilization influence in Spain the Muslim’s reign is Spain was in constant turmoil, and the territories they controlled were expanding and shrinking constantly, depending on the strength and character of the leader. Conspiracies that featured caliphs instigating one of their sons to kill the other (Abdullah (912)) and ending with a son (Abu Abdullah) deposing his fathers, and conspiring with the Spaniards against his uncle (Al Zaghall), helped end the control of the remaining petty states in Spain.

-The Fatimids who started in Tunisia (909) was the only Shiite dynasty in Islam and eventually reached its zenith under Al Azeez (975-996), “where the name of the caliph (centered now in Egypt) was cited in the Friday prayers from the Atlantic to Red Sea and in al Yaman, Makkah , Damascus and once even in al Mawsil”. His successor al Hakim was eleven when he came to the throne and his reign was marked with atrocities, “and finally following the extreme development of the Ismailite doctrine, declared himself the incarnation of the Deity (God) and was so accepted by a newly organized sect, called Druze”. That did not stop the country from enjoying a high degree of tranquility and prosperity through a few more generations, neither did it limit the intellectual contributions of the dynasty, even when its richest caliph Al Muntasirr (1035) erected in his palace a Kabah like pavilion where he used to drink accompanied by music and beautiful singers, where he declared "this indeed is more pleasant than staring at a black stone, listing to muezzin's drone and drinking impure water"".

Now as mentioned above, the reason the above brief, selected incidents were presented is to try to back up the following conclusion: The devout commitment to the teaching’s of Islam and the mechanical performance of its worship practices on one side, versus the advancement, prosperity and strength of the state on the other, are Independent Variables. At times it may have appeared that they were rising together (ex: from the prophet until Omar), or falling together (the end of every dynasty). At other times they are clearly inversely proportional (the late Abbasid era and the early Fatimid). But the overall picture throughout the first 400 years of the Islamic Empire shows fluctuations in both aspects (life and religion) that over the whole course will appear independent of each other.
The status of the Arabs in the empire is a third independent variable. After assuming the first-class citizen status as the clear and sole leaders of the empire during the Umayyad era, the Arabs constantly regressed to the back seat (politically and culturally) and conceded the leadership role to Persians, Berbers, Saljuks, Mamluks and finally Othman Turks whose era eventually took the shape (from the Arabs standpoint at least) of a foreign occupation.

Yet, Islam could be the solution, just like Communism and just like Arab nationalism could be the solution. The solution is a concept that the population collectively agrees on, rallies around, and set a plan accordingly. Islam could be the front runner candidate, due to its familiarity and the utopian set of morals and ethics it carries. An Islam that uses worship as a mean not an end, utilizing practice as a tool to refine genuine behavior could be a solution. An Islam that adheres to medieval (hocus-pocus) beliefs, empowers the forbidden clergy, and deceives the masses is a problem. Any system that gets over retarded tribal and regional affiliations and weeds out the cycle of selfishness and individualism will get the vote, as long as it does not involve chopping heads for a few more Dirhams.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Abu Shreek: The School Education

Abu Shreek is convinced that his 12 years of school education could not be matched anywhere outside of Jordan. The tremendous curricula along with the high expectations set by the Jordanian student's teachers and family result in a valuable background of information and a diverse complilation of “common knowledge”.
Abu Shreek would like to demonstrate some examples of how rich the content of some of the subjects he studied, and share the most memorable parts of them, from sixth grade until the most brutal, ultimate “educational” experience that a human being could be subjected to: The General Secondary School Examination, known in urban legends and horror tales as (Tawjihi).

Arabic: Starting from the sixth grade textbook (yellow with a back shot picture of a boy in his blue school uniform carrying a rectangular brown book bag on his shoulder), where you can find classic poems and great moral stories like (اكلت يوم اكل الثور الابيض: “I was eaten on the same day the white bull was”) that will stick in forever. That book also featured the hated, very confusing (Differentiate in the meaning: افرق في المعنى), that features very similar words or idioms that differs in one letter or even one phonetic sound that causes a change in the meaning; (Like Birr: charity, Barr: land, Borr: wheat) ,all have the same exact spelling in Arabic. Until you end up after 12 years working on 5 books (count them 5), that you will practically need to memorize (literally) cover to cover for the Tawjihi, in addition to being able to write a perfect essay. (For Tawjihi purposes some teachers composed a template that would fit common topics predicted in the general exam.Now all you have to do is fill-in (the woman, the youth, the education, the environment, the technology…).in the template you memorized, and you have your essay !!! Not a sign of a good educational system, but at Tawjihi time, all the options are open). By the way anyone heard from (علم العروض) lately?

English: It really depended more on the school and individual effort more than curricula. The grammar was exceptional, even in the government assigned books. Before 9th grade you are familiar with tenses, passive voice, if-clauses and reported speech. Literature and conversation skills were a little behind, although starting from the sixth grade some schools covered adapted versions of Lorna Doone, The Black Tulip, The Mill on the Floss (ehh), A Tale of two Cities, and the full version of Wuthering Heights. The Tawjihi anthology for the second semester was (Animal Farm), where in a typical Tawjihi fashion, you have to dissect the thing to details and memorize full exerts. Shame on you Ministry of Education for subjecting us to such propaganda; Abu Shreek spent every English class defending the pigs and explaining excess value theories to the class.

French: From “La sorciere a casse la lune” at second grade, to an option of taking the first level of French proficiency test (Fr: Certificat) at seventh grade and the second level (Brevet) at the ninth. Magnifique. Abu Shreek owes that to a superb Algerian teacher: Mohsenn Khalifaaah.

Math: By the eighth grade you are “mathing” at the level of an American (College Algebra) class. At ninth grade you are introduced to basic trigonometry, you are dealing with complex geometry and working on “proofs”; (the “Circle” chapter alone causes traumatic experiences for ninth graders nation wide). At tenth grade you are proving theories in Descriptive Geometry that deals with a point, a line and a plane, and you memorize at least 15 trigonometric identities of the form: sin(u+v)=sin u cos v+cos u sin v! As for Tawjihi, where math counted for 240/1000 points, it is pure Calculus. It can be put this way: if you score above 237/240, you can go through the Calculus (101 and 102) classes in college without opening a book or attending a class, and end up with B’s. It was brutal.

History: Another wide range curriculum, which could have used some little more American history and some more truth. (It was not distortion of facts as much as it was ignoring them). Starts with the history of civilization from eras before the ice ages and passes by all the early civilizations in our region (Bronze era, Babylon, Phoenician, Pharaohs, Pre-Islam Arabia...brutally boring to a 12-year old). Eighth grade is the history of Europe in details: Middle ages, church, Martin Luther, The French revolution, Bismarck, The industrial revolution… a great lineup. The ninth grade featured the white book centered by the blue map of the Islamic Empire, and entitled "The Arab Islamic Civilization" (I think this is where ignoring some important facts started, but really, how can you break it to a 15-year old, that Islam went through a number of civil wars, where the prophet’s righteous companions slaughtered each other, and carried the severed heads across the lands of the empire!). Tenth grade featured the useless “Arab Jordanian Society” (the blue book not the society), and “Palestinian Cause”, in which the green book summarized the 1982 Arab-Israeli war in two sentences! But the overall background it provided was efficient.

Science: Another ridiculously advanced compilation of topics. It splits to separate subjects by the ninth grade. However by the end of 8th grade you are familiar (actually memorized) most of the elements symbols in the periodic table along with their respective ionic charges. You already studied most of the body systems (except for the reproductive of course), and you can name every vitamin in the world, its sources and the effects of its deficiencies and excess. You pass by some Geology along the way to the ultimate mission.
Tawjihi Physics falls along the same lines of the math. Get over (142/160) and you are going to pass (Physics 1, Physics 2, Circuit Analysis (first midterm), Statics (first midterm), Dynamics (first midterm)) without studying. The difference is in the nuclear physics and the quantum physics that you will not use after Tawjihi, unless you take a course in Nuclear Power Plants.
Chemistry features some Stoichiometry, Organic Chemistry, and analysis of compounds on the molecular level.
Biology instantly brings back the sad times of memorizing every Hormone in the human body, and of course the very entertaining “Genetics” and Mendel’s laws. The reason you are losing your hair is that the hair loss gene is dominant in men, recessive in women. It is also carried on sex chromosomes. So assume that your dad is bold and your mom is not but her dad was bold, that means, according to the genetics tree, that your chances of hair loss as a guy or a girl are 50/50.

Now since Abu Shreek is a half-glass-empty kind of person, the logical question is: How is this great background offered to the Jordanian student is not helping the overall picture and resulting in the “advancement” of the society? The interrelated reasons that come to mind are:
(Notice that these are the problems facing those who are fortunate enough to be put in an “ideal” situation, i.e. private schools. Those students offered the best education do not have to deal with overcrowded classrooms, unavailability of books and teachers, transportation issues, malnutrition, and other public school challenges, yet this “elite” education is not paying off locally because of… )

1. The Student: The number of school kids who “wants to learn” are continuously shrinking. Abu Shreek hates that he is sounding like his teachers, and he realizes that school can be a great place to socialize and mess around for 12 years, but to make the decision that you will go through the whole experience and remain an illiterate is just unacceptable. (The problem is that same lazy kid who though it was “cool” to be ignorant, feels a sudden urge to be “opinionated”; he starts writing (what he think is) “poetry” and he may even get his own newspaper column. With the right connections he may eventually hold decision-making position!). When a good percentage of the classmates are interested in the educational process, they challenge and push each other, elevating the level of that whole process.

2. The Teacher: The teacher is the focal point of the whole process, and his working conditions are not pleasant. He/She is usually underpaid, some times is under-qualified and has to exert the extra effort in dealing with the increasingly careless students. This causes the teacher to try to get away with the absolute minimum, and rely on a dull, mechanical and repetitive method of teaching that will alienate the students even more.
Maybe a teacher’s union could be a step in the right direction.

3. The System: The most complained about aspect is the “system” and “methods” of teaching. The school work and tasks expected from the student are very difficult, yet it does not enhance his/her ability to create, nor encourages his individual thinking. Notice how many times the word “memorize” was mentioned above, and “memorize” here means literal exact reproduction of original texts, or what is known in Arabic as (بصم: ?fingerprinting). Some teachers ask their students to memorize math problems. An Arabic teacher would interpret a verse of poetry, dictate it to the students, who are then expected to reproduce it word for word in a test; a student will be denied full credit if he/she slightly changes the original language, even if it conveyed the same ideas. Abu Shreek recalls a history test where some points were inexplicably deducted, and upon revision, the teacher (A Ph.D holder in political science from Hungary (no comment)) pulled out the textbook and pointed out that the reason was the use of a different PREPOSITION than that of the original script. (And no, it did not affect the meaning, and no it was not a verse from the Quran). The one-sided ratio between memorizing and thinking causes the student to lose interest and get frustrated. The curricula do not try to strangle creativity, but the teacher does. The student also is not free of blame (When an “innovative teacher tries a more interactive approach, students will complain and passing percentages will dip dramatically). The testing methods which require the cramming of information, other than the understanding of them, (optimized of course by the Tawjihi), need to be re-evaluated.

4. The University: Local universities are completely oblivious to the concept of research, which makes them nothing more than a bigger version of community colleges. In the process, they are failing to take advantage of the rich background the student has acquired, and hence the effect of that education on the ground remains minimal. The university conforms to the same "school formula" (High difficulty tasks based solely on hours and hours of wasted effort to memorize things, in order to pass a more complex version of the detailed school-styled testing). The capabilities of the well-prepared Jordanian students are on full display by those who choose to pursue higher education overseas. Despite the novelty of the research concept to them, even average students (according to Jordanian standards) excel significantly.

School in Jordan is no walk in the park for those who care. The reward is that you may learn a thing or two along the way, and a few years later you will be demonstrating your knowledge versatility to your “stupid” American co-workers, and bragging about how your school system is superior to theirs.