Thursday, May 21, 2009

Islamic Feminism

A commentary in one of yesterday's local newspapers (link available in the title above) discusses the difference in treatment of women in the Quran and in practice in Muslim societies. The author, Amal Mohammed Al Malki, teaches English at the Qatar branch of Carnegie Mellon. There is a very strong voice of women in this region that is barely noticed in Western press. And as we move to remove stereotypical assumptions of others, commentaries like this are instructive.

The commentary is preceded by a reminder of the early elevation of women's rights in Muslim societies:

Those who study the Quran know that Islam elevated the rights of women beyond anything known in the pre-Islamic world. Muslim women were granted rights in the 7th century, such as property ownership, inheritance and divorce, not granted to European women until the 19th century.

The author opens by presenting the strong dichotomy often apparent in the treatment of women in Muslim societies.
How is it that Islam seems capable of undermining women and promoting them at the same time? Anyone attempting to take stock of the position of women in the Muslim world cannot help but be confused. One finds stories in the media all the time about injustices committed against Muslim women, such as “honour” killings, child marriage and unequal legal judgments in matters of divorce, custody and inheritance.

On the other hand, one also comes across stories about the remarkable strides made by Muslim women in education, career development and political activism in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Morocco and Turkey.

How can we make sense of such a dichotomous picture?

The answer is simple: by distinguishing the religion of Islam from the Muslims who practice it.

The article suggests that there are two main norms being challenged: the patriarchal cultural customs mistaken for Islamic teaching and patriarchal interpretations of certain Quran verses.

Arifa Mazhar, manager of gender issues for the Pakistan-based Sungi Development Foundation, which attempts to mobilise marginalised local communities on behalf of their own development, declared at the International Congress on Islamic Feminism in Barcelona in 2008: “Instead of debating Islam, we should be debating culture and its impact ... There are a lot of social taboos and tribal traditions that oppress women, and they have little to do with Islam.”

The article concludes
Rooted in Islam and the Quranic spirit of equity, Islamic feminism provides a credible political voice for women. It gives women’s organisations, women’s rights advocates and gender scholars in the Muslim world legitimate grounds for action while fulfilling their religious obligations.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Morocco: Buildings and Deocrative Patterns

This second blog on my trip to Morocco consists of slideshows (links found at the end of this commentary) covering buildings and patterns. Go directly to the end if images are what you want. Otherwise, to appreciate the buildings it may be helpful to know that the architecture of Morocco is essentially an Islamic style of construction with profound influence from Spanish styles of the mid centuries. It is not very difficult to identify the architecture of Morocco (and indeed in the West today there are firms that specialize in so-called Moroccan architecture) because of its distinctive Islamic style comprised of some typical features:
- huge U- shaped arches and lovely domes
- large courtyards, adorned with charming gardens
- use of geometrical patterns.
- use of bright color schemes

- use of ornamental Islamic calligraphy and fewer pictures
- ornamentation of the exterior of the buildings

I have spread images among four slideshows here divided among housing, religion, schools and decorative patterns.

A few key concepts and examples may be useful:
The kasbah, a place for the local leader to live and that functioned as a defense when the city was under attack. A kasbah has high walls which often have no windows, athough examples here have some splendid views from windows. Sometimes, they were built on the top of hill to make them easier to defend. A good example seen here is the Taourirt Kasbah in Ouazazate.
This building is Ouarzazate’s only historic building and it has been rebuilt and renewed many times by the film industry that now forms the economic basis of Ouarzazate. It was originally begun in the 18th century and renovated in the 19th c. Interestingly, and not visited on our trip, the Kasbah stands beside a former Berber village, inhabited today by a busy population. In its winding streets are such modern accoutrments as an internet café, a former synagogue that now serves as a carpet shop and a herbalist.

The ksar, a term describing a Berber village consisting of generally attached houses, often having collective granaries and other structures (mosque, bath, oven, shops) widespread among the oasis populations of the Maghreb (northern Africa). Ksars are sometimes situated in mountain locations to make defense easier; they often are entirely within a single, continuous wall. The building material of the entire structure is normally adobe, or cut stone and adobe.

A good example seen here is Ait Benhaddou, now a UNESCO heritage site. The village sits on a hill on the bank of a small river flowing down from the Atlas Mountains. It was reputedly founded in 757, and was started as the home for one family and the settlement has grown out of this. The tomb of its founder Ben-Haddou is at the base of the hill behind the town. The front parts of the village are well restored, as this has been the setting of many films, from Lawrence of Arabia through to Gladiator. It has also been a testing ground for UNESCO and ICOMOS in preservation techniques. Therefore the first part of the town looks very impressive almost new, the higher up the hill however the less restoration you see and this gives a good feel for what the site would be like with out the investment. Within the 'old' town families still live, making their living from tourists. The image below is a watercolor still wet when purchased.

On the other side of the river, is a more modern part of town, where there are restaurants and shops still mostly mud brick architecture.

The Bahia Palace is a residence of another sort with a set of gardens located in Marrakech, Morocco. It was built in the late 19th century, intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means 'brilliance'. As in other buildings of the period in other countries, it was intended to capture the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style. There is a 2 acre (8,000 m²) garden with rooms opening onto courtyards. Set up at the end of 19th century by Si Moussa, grand vizier of the sultan, for his personal use, this palace would bear the name of one of his wives. Here, the harem, which includes a vast court decorated with a central basin and surrounded by rooms intended for the concubines. As the black slave Abu Ahmed rose to power and wealth towards the end of the 19th century, he had the Bahia palace built by bringing in craftsmen from Fez.

Madersa or madrasah literally means "a place where learning/teaching is done". The word is also present as a loanword with the same innocuous meaning in many Arabic-influenced languages, such as: Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Indonesian, Malay and Bosnian.
In the Arabic language, the word مدرسة (madrasah) simply means the same as school does in the English language, whether that is private, public or parochial school, as well as for any primary or secondary school whether Muslim, non-Muslim, or secular. Good examples reflected in thes slideshows are Madersa Ben Yousef and Madersa Bou Inania.

Religious monuments featured here include the Hassan II Mosque

as well as the remains of the 11thc dome of Koubba Ba’Adiyn. The Hassan II Mosque was built between 1986 and 1993 for the 60th birthday of former Moroccan king Hassan II. The Hassan II Mosque has space for 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 outside. The 210-meter minaret is the tallest in the world and is visible day and night for miles around. Although Hassan II Mosque was designed by a French architect, it is Moroccan through and through. Except for the white granite columns and the glass chandeliers, the materials used to construct the mosque were taken from the Morocco region. 6,000 traditional Moroccan artisans worked for five years to turn these raw materials into mosaics, stone and marble floors and columns, sculpted plaster moldings, and carved and painted wood ceilings. The mosque also includes a number of modern touches: it was built to withstand earthquakes and has a heated floor, electric doors, a sliding roof, and lasers which shine at night from the top of the minaret toward Mecca.

The Koubba Ba’Adiyn, brick built dome, is the only example of Amoravid architecture in Marrakech. It was built in 1106 and was part of a richly decorated mosque that was demolished by Almogads. The rectangular pavilion in the photographs was recovered in 1948. The elements of the arches and the floral ornamentation anticipate the fullblown artistic creativity of the Islamic architecture.

The Saadian tombs were neglect for a couple centuries but still today represent some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture. The style is in complete contrast to the simplicity of earlier architecture. These tombs date from the 16-18th centuries although it was not until 1917 that they were made accessible to the public.

The final slideshow presents a sample of decorative images. To appreciate all the decorative images here as well as in the other slideshows, I offer some discussion of Islamic decoration comprised of three non-figural types of decoration: geometric, vegetal and calligraphic. All three appear in the images presented here although I find the geometric the most fascinating and pleasing.

Geometric abstract designs are found in vast abundance on the walls, floors and ceilings of the Islamic architecture as well as on any number of objects, bowls, vases, jewelry and clothing. We may see differences in quality and size of execution, but we see the same forms and designs recur regardless of medium. As the Metropolitan Museum essay, Geometric Patterns in Islamic Art, relates, “While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from the classical tradition, then complicated and elaborated upon them in order to invent a new form of decoration that stressed the importance of unity and order. The significant intellectual contributions of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists were essential to the creation of this unique new style.” More

Vegetal patterns reflect nature with a great deal of accuracy whether they are used as motifs for textiles, objects or buildings. The arabesque, essentially a geometricized vegetal ornament, is based on the same underlying mathematical principles that govern the purely geometric patterns. D. Jones describes the arabesque as “characterized by a continuous stem which splits regularly, producing a series of counterpoised, leafy, secondary stems which can in turn split again or return to be reintegrated into the main stem.”

Calligraphy, with its role in reporting the word of God, is one of the most important Islamic arts. Almost every Islamic building has some calligraphy, often an inscription from the Qur’an, or a repetition of words like Allah, and often appearing as a frame around a doorway or cornice or window, providing a pattern for filtering light. And like geometric and vegetal patterns, calligraphy is closely linked to geometry, as the proportions are governed by mathematics.

As you will see in the images of housing, schools and religious places, there is always a sequence of spaces and a unity expressed regardless of the buildings purpose. Add water and light to the recurring geometric, vegetal and calligraphic decorative patterns and you see additional layers of patterns and transformation of space. Water is cooling and reflective, and, in a pool or contained fountain, is both stable and dynamic. Air may ripple the still pool whose reflections then become new patterns while the fountain adds a gentle murmur and creates new patterns as the water sprays up, down and out, often caught by a breeze. Light similarly modifies and creates patterns and is dynamic as the natural light from the sun changes positions and creates moving shadows. Jones writes that “many devices typical of Islamic architectural decoration -- for example, muqarnas [a honeycomb decoration that can reflect and refract light]-- are explained by a desire to dissolve the barriers between those elements of the buildings that are structural (load-bearing) and those that are ornamental (non-load-bearing).” (Sources: Jones, D: Architecture of the Islamic World; Islamic Arts and Architecture Organisation as quoted on the web site)

After looking at some of these images of Moroccan Islamic buildings, you may wish to look again at the images of the I.M. Pei Museum of Islamic Art shown in the blog on January 19. Considered together with the images from Oman and those from Morocco, it seems clear that while Pei drew enormously from the Islamic repertoire he imbued his building with the essence of Islamic architecture and translated what he saw into something both familiar and new. Quite a monument for what may be his last significant achievement.


Islamic architecture and patterns


Tombs and a Dome

Hassan I Mosque


Moroccan Sampler

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Morocco: Natural History & People

I have organized the commentary (brief) and photos from my recent trip to Morocco into a few separate blogs (Natural History and People, and Architecture). The following is what I have organized under Natural History (mountains, deserts, gardens and so forth) and a piece of people. Each comes with its own slide show, accessible through the subtitle link.

Marjorelle Garden

This garden in Marrakech, begun in 1924 and opened to the public in 1947, is, according to their brochure, one of the twentieth century’s most mysterious gardens. It was designed by the expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924, during the colonial period when Morocco was a protectorate of France. According to Wikipedia, although Majorelle's gentlemanly orientalist watercolors are largely forgotten today the garden he created is his creative masterpiece. The special shade of bold cobalt blue which he used extensively in the garden and its buildings is named after him, bleu Majorelle. The garden has an overpowering abundance of vegetation reflecting five continents and commemorates Jacques Morelle’s significance as one of the most important plant collectors of his time. Since 1980 the garden has been owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé. After Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 his ashes were scattered in the Majorelle Garden and there is a memorial site there for him. The garden also houses the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, whose collection includes North African textiles from Saint-Laurent's personal collection as well as ceramics, jewelry, and paintings by Majorelle. And the garden hosts more than 15 bird species, which can be found only in the area of North Africa.

For me, I could have spent entire afternoon sitting on a bench and listening to the birds and the rustling of wind among the plants. It made me think of Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey:
Once in a lifetime, perhaps, one escapes the actual confines of the flesh. Once in a lifetime, if one is so lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon without discomfort.

Atlas Mountains

The Atlas Mountains are part of the highest mountains in North Africa. In the isolation of the High Atlas, the Berber culture flourished. Over time the tribes established their own economic, social and cultural framework. During the trip to Morocco we traveled through the mountains from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, the latter home today of a thriving film industry. The High Atlas consists of great massifs rising 3 – 4000 meters, steep valleys, rocky plains, and deep narrow canyons. The images here show some of the incredible countryside as well as pieces of a small Berber village we visited and in which we were fortunate to stop in a home for tea, bread and dates.

Todra Gorge

High cliffs over 300 m. rise up dramatically alongside the narrow gorge that ten years ago was accessible only to hikers. Today paved roads traverse the gorge, tour buses bring tourists in to purchase clothing brought in for sale and eat in the restaurant and stay in one of two hotels. We can spy the occasional mountaineer wending his/her way up the steep edges. We have access but at what cost? Wadi Todra flows through this great geologic fault and onto the Tinehir Date Palm Grove.

Tinehir Date Palm Grove

This town and its palm grove are located on a rocky outcropping. With several silver mines, Tinehir is a wealthy town known for its silver jewelry. To the west is a Kasbah, now in a state of disrepair. It is easy to walk into the Palm Grove and follow the network of shady paths that lead through the orchards and run along irrigation ditches. Small boys follow and attempt to capture your attention with items woven from palm – making them on the spot as you and they walk.


We stopped at the oasis of Mersouga, located at the foot of the Erg Chebbi Dunes, that rise out of the stony, sandy desert, extending for 30 km and rising to a height of 250 m. We spent the night in tents, each outfitted with a sink, shower and toilet and rose early in the morning to ride camels to the dunes to await the sunrise. Although we were awakened by the gentle bonging of a drum, in fact the early morning snorting of the couched camels had already awakened most of us. As you will see from the photos at sunrise (or sunset), the half-light gives the sand a fascinating range of colors.


Throughout the trip there were many times we wanted to capture people we saw on the trip - from the people inthe village in the Atlas Mountains to other on the street, Moroccans do not want photographs of themselves, with some exceptions as they become more comfortable with Westerners. Some of the photos here probably violated the peoles preferences, others were definitively takn with the subject's own wish. Enjoy the brief slide show of people.