Category Archives: books

What I Remember About the Satanic Verses, Before I Reread It

About fifteen years ago I read Salman Rushdie’s the Satanic Verses. I knew nothing about Islam at the time–well, only what a typical American “knows”: Muslim men can have four wives, some Muslim girls’ genitals are mutilated, images of the prophet are not allowed, and so on.

I’m going to re-read it, since it occurred to me that I might enjoy it more now that I’ve studied Islam a little bit. But this morning I read a piece on where the claim was made that the upset about the book was due to a mistranslated titled and not because in the book Muhammad’s revelations were delivered by a demon rather than an angel.

Well, I don’t remember that much about the book except that it was way more artsy than I like anymore and that it was a chore to get through and that I could see very well why Muslims would get upset at the book, as in the book the prophet Muhammad’s revelations were delivered by a demon rather than an angel.

Anyhow, I’m going to reread it soon. And also, as far as I remember, the meaning of the phrase the Satanic verses, while in real life may refer to some verses excised from the Qur’an, had nothing to do with the book. A lot of people seem to think it does.

So stay tuned. And share your opinion.


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Nelson DeMille’s The Panther, Part 2 (and the end)

If I hadn’t committed myself to blog about this book, I probably wouldn’t have finished reading it. But I realized that most of my complaints are about the storytelling, and not Arabic or Arab culture.

The idea of an al-Qaeda hit list and, better yet, a CIA hit list (of American law enforcement personnel) have nothing to do with Arabic or Arab culture, so I guess there’s no point in talking about how ludicrous it is. And the fact that this book is so steeped in testosterone I felt like I should go sit around in my OBGYN’s office for a few hours to normalize is irrelevant, too.

But to go back to a couple passages I marked:

“Right. And don’t forget that The Panther is an American. So maybe he thinks more clearly and logically than most of these whacked-out jihadists.”

I mean, that’s annoying as hell, but it’s spoken by a character, not an omniscient narrator.

And also not relevant is the protagonist, John Corey, epitomizing mansplaining as he talks to a medical doctor:

“That’s about it.” I reminded her, “Aim for the center mass of the target. Heart is on the right.”


“His left, your right, Doctor.”

More insight into our protagonist here:

And not a bad technique. Like, “Hey Abdul, let’s talk about camel grazing rights. And by the way, how much do you want for your wife?”

har har

So, that’s all I have. Can’t recommend the book, even just for laughs. And to think I really loved Plum Island.

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Nelson DeMille’s The Panther, part one

A couple days ago I started reading The Panther by Nelson DeMille. “Yay,” I thought, “Finally another book to write about on my blog. Almost nobody writes novels with Arab villains these days.” But Mr. DeMille came through.

Rather than wait until I finish it, I’m going to start with my thoughts so far, as they are many, plus I just got to something that really tickled my funny bone.

I’ve mentioned in my previous posts about Nelson DeMille’s Arab-related novels that he really seems fascinated almost to the level of having a fetish about Arab names. The villain of two of his previous novels was named Asad Something or Other. Asad is a very common proper name and it means lion, and throughout both books the author or perhaps the narrator just couldn’t stop comparing the human being to a lion.

Arab names are a lot more likely to be words still in use in Arabic, unlike names in English, which come from all kinds of languages so that we often have no idea what their original meaning was. Nevertheless, being named Asad in the Arab world is very much like being named Mike or Jim or Dave in the US. No big deal.

Protagonist John Corey killed “The Lion” in a previous novel. His new nemesis is “The Panther.” In the case of this new guy, his given name was something else, and he actually chose to be called “the panther,” or al-numayr. (Al Numair in the novel). Numayr is a word I didn’t know, so I looked it up. I did a Google image search. I looked at over 100 image results without seeing a single picture of any kind of big cat. I saw lots and lots of pictures of Arab human beings named Numayr. (I searched on النمير, for those who wish to recreate my experience).

And what’s killing me is that John Corey can NOT think of this guy without mentally calling him “The Panther” and comparing him with a big cat. You know how you do, like when you watch golf and compare Tiger Woods to a real tiger, or listen to Charlie Parker and muse on how much like a bird he is?

Later I hope to piece together my thoughts on John Corey’s casual racism (but Arab isn’t a race!) and his Iraqi-American Muslim pal who denigrates Islam, but for now I must rush to page 208. Up to this point, John Corey has mentally or verbally referred to “The Panther” at least two dozen times (I’m estimating), and remember, the man nicknamed himself al-Numayr or Al Numair, not “The Panther”–and from what I know after 20 years of Arabic plus a lengthy google search, it is not at all a common word for panther–when he is introduced to Dr. Fahd.

Corey has nothing to say about Dr. Fahd’s name, or how much Dr. Fahd resembles any given animal. No internal musings on the prey-predator relationship or nocturnal habits or hunting ranges or anything…because John Corey doesn’t know what Fahd means. Fahd is just a man’s name.

Guess what Fahd means. “Panther.” A Google image search brings up mostly pics of cheetahs, I saw one of black leopard, and I’ve also told it can mean ‘lynx.’

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Arabic Grammar – The Forms or Measures

Is Arabic hard or easy, simple or complicated? You sometimes hear the argument that Arabic is easy because there are only two verb tenses and the verbs are formed according to patterns, from a three-letter root.
From what I’ve been told, native speakers of Arabic don’t learn the measures the way we do; some western linguist or grammarian or whatever invented it for our sake. Anyhow, my point is, if you’re trying to learn Arabic, it couldn’t hurt to read Keith Massey’s book, Intermediate Arabic for Dummies.
As an Arabic student acquaintance of mine said, “If Dr Massey wrote another book, I’d read it.”
You can find out more here at Keith’s site, Adventures in Language.

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Another Quote From Devil’s Game

I’m still slowly making my way through Devil’s Game, How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, by Robert Dreyfuss. Some sections kind of drag, and it’s so chock full of information that you get overloaded.

This jumped out at me, though, given the various arguments I’ve heard made against Muslims in the last few years. Somehow the throwing of acid in girls’ faces always gets brought up. I don’t know which anti-Islam screecher pushes the acid-in-the-face angle, but I keep hearing it.

[US National Security Advisor 1977-1981] Brzezinski, and then [Director of Central Intelligence 1981-1987] Casey, embraced the Pakistan-Saudi axis. But both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had their favored clients in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, it was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the militant Islamist whose group was called the Islamic Party (Hizb-i Islami). Hekmatyar had a well-earned reputation for being a brutal fanatic:

Gulbuddin was the darling of Zia and the Pakistan intelligence service. Like other mujahideen leaders, he had been working with the ISI [Pakistan intel service] since the early 1970s, when Pakistan had begun secretly backing fundamentalist students at the University of Kabul who were rebelling against Soviet influence in the Afghan government. Back then Gulbuddin was very much a part of the emerging global wave of Islamic radicalism. By all accounts, he was responsible for the practice of throwing acid in the faces of Afghan women who failed to cover themselves properly.

Hekmatyar’s specialty was skinning prisoners alive. Sigbhatullah Mujaddidi, an Islamist of somewhat less radical stripes, called Hekmatyar a “true monster.” But Representative Charles Wilson, a Texas Republican who was the leading congressional advocate for the Afghan jihad, approvingly noted that Zia was “totally committed to Hekmatyar, because Zia saw the world as a conflict between Muslims and Hindus, and he thought he could count on Hekmatyar to work for a pan-Islamic entity that could stand up to India.”

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Preliminary Book Report

“What’s all this nonsense about isolating [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser or ‘neutralising’ him, as you call it? I want him destroyed, can’t you understand? I want him murdered…And I don’t give a damn if there’s anarchy and chaos in Egypt.” –Anthony Eden, UK Prime Minister 1955-57

I’m only about a third of the way through Devil’s Game; How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, but I didn’t want to wait too long and forget how I felt at reading this.

We have a tendency to think that Arabs have Islamic governments because they just want it that way, that they’re simple people who need their religious trappings, and we don’t have the slightest clue at the concerted efforts that our governments have made to subvert every nationalist and secular government that was successful in the Middle East.

Nasser was a towering figure in the Arab world and was known as the “leader of the Arabs.”

His funeral procession through Cairo, on 1 October, was attended by at least five million mourners.

All Arab heads of state attended. King Hussein of Jordan and the PLO leader Yasser Arafat cried openly while Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya reportedly fainted twice. Although no major Western dignitaries were present, Soviet premier Alexey Kosygin showed up. Almost immediately after the procession began, mourners had engulfed Nasser’s coffin shouting “There is no God but Allah, and Nasser is God’s beloved… Each of us is Nasser.”

The general Arab reaction was one of mourning, with thousands of people pouring onto the streets of major cities throughout the Arab world. Over a dozen people were killed in Beirut as a result of the chaos and in Jerusalem, roughly 75,000 Arabs marched through the Old City chanting “Nasser will never die.”

Seems like the kind of guy the US and UK would want to ally with, a powerful figure who could accomplish a lot of good.

Along with Muhammad Naguib, the first President, he led the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 which overthrew the monarchy of Egypt and Sudan, and heralded a new period of modernization, and socialist reform in Egypt together with a profound advancement of pan-Arab nationalism, including a short-lived union with Syria.

Modernization and social reform? We’re all about that. So why were we working so hard to bring him down, even assassinate him?

Under his leadership, Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, and came to play a central role in anti-imperialist efforts in the Arab World, and Africa.


I’ll have more on this book later. And you can buy it here.


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The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov

1979 was a big year in the history of relations between the US and parts of the Islamic world. In early November Iranian radicals supporting the Iranian revolution took over the US embassy in Tehran and held 53 Americans hostage. On November 20th Salafist radicals in Saudi Arabia seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held it for two weeks, and a few days later a mob in Pakistan attacked the US embassy in Islamabad.

In 1979 I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to US foreign policy, as I was more interested in drawing band logos on my blue, 3-ring binder and dreading dissecting a frog. I do remember the hostage crisis because it made a lot of headlines. If I knew about the other two incidents, they probably blurred into one.

This book explains the siege of the grand mosque, who did it, why, what the Saudis did about it, etc., with a peek into what happened in Iran and Pakistan. It’s very nice to have this puzzle piece.

Long story short, a Saudi cleric thought Saudi Arabia was too westernized and lax. Women appeared on television with their faces showing, if you can imagine. He was also upset about Shi’ites, Americans, and cigarettes. This cleric wasn’t getting the satisfaction he wanted from the other leading clerics in the kingdom, so took matters into his own hands and published tracts and assembled a gang of followers. Then he realized that a young friend of his had some traits in common with the mahdi, and convinced himself that he was him.

Anyhow, the book is well-written and readable, and I found it very helpful in driving home the importance of some characters whose names I’ve read and heard plenty of times without really absorbing their significance. It’s also kind of fun to remember how things were in 1979, when the US and the Soviet Union were locked in a death grip of paranoia and blind to any other interpretation of events.

When the Americans heard about the seizure of the Grand Mosque, they took for granted that it was the work of Shi’ites either working for or colluding with Iran. Whereas when the Iranians heard about the seizure, they assumed it was the work of the Americans, probably in concert with Israel. And this is where Trofimov made me angry. In his writing, it’s only natural that the Americans assume Shi’ites seized the mosque, whereas when Iran assumes it’s Americans, that’s the result of a history of “self-pitying propaganda” and “outlandish conspiracy theories.”

“Embassy is continuing to receive information–some of it conflicting–concerning occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It is still not known for certain who is occupying the mosque, although it appears they are very well armed,” [Ambassador] West wrote, citing testimony by the American chopper pilot. “We have received reports indicating occupiers could be Iranian or Yemeni, although some reports from Saudi sources state occupiers are Saudi tribesmen supporting some as yet unidentified group of Islamic fundamentalists.”

The attack on the holiest place in Islam, the Pentagon’s spy service explained categorically, had been perpetrated by a group “believed to be Iranian.”

A separate telegram by Ralph Lindstrom, the American consul-general in Dhahran, in the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, appeared to back up this suggestion of Khomeni’s involvement, citing the Aramco oil company. The news from Mecca, Lindstrom cabled, “may be related to information we have just obtained from reliable company sources re recent Iranian attempts to agitate Saudi Shiites.”

With the lives of American hostages in Tehran on the line and Khomeini looming large as Washington’s public enemy number one, it was only natural that the mayhem in Mecca that day was seen by participants at the White House meeting as yet another Iranian provocation. In line with the DIA explanation, the working assumption became that the zealots in the Grand Mosque were Iranians or Iranian-inspired Shiites.

See, perfectly natural for right-thinking white people. Not like those wrong-thinking other people who are just looking for reasons to blame the spotlessly innocent US for something bad happening in the Muslim world.

Iranian revolutionaries and, before them, the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have long inundated the Islamic world with self-pitying propaganda that held Westerners–and, in particular, Jews–responsible for all the evils that have befallen the Muslims. In this paranoid worldview, the Americans and the Jews were eternally plotting to undermind Muslim interests and to sully the shrines of Islam. The statement by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior that had aired on Pakistani radio Wednesday morning gave no clue about the identity of the mysterious “deviators” occupying the Kaaba. So, as Pakistanis learned that the House of God had been desecrated by gun-toting invaders, many instinctively blamed the usual suspects.

Even well-educated, seemingly reasonable Muslim intellectuals quickly succumbed to outlandish conspiracy theories…

tsk tsk How embarrassing for those Muslim “intellectuals” to jump to the wrong conclusion because they’re foolish, not like those American policy-makers who jumped to the wrong conclusion because for all the right reasons. *rolleyes*

To justify using military hardware in the confines of the mosque, the Saudi royal family needed the country’s prominent clerics to sign off on it. A deal was struck. And this is why Saudi Arabia today is a less fun place than it was prior to November 1979. This also led to the exportation of harsh, Salafist Islam by the Saudis around the world. Bummer.

the Grand Mosque in Mecca

the Grand Mosque in Mecca

You can buy the book at my Amazon a-store here.

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Belated Book Report

I saw Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations sitting on the bookshelf and decided I’d take another shot at posting about it. Here’s my previous and not very informative post.

First off, this one line threw me for a loop, and I couldn’t help but hold it against the book. It is mind-bogglingly wrongheaded and hard to recover from. And it occurs in the preface.

She was not a feminist; she had no need or wish for special treatment.

I trust everyone can see what’s wrong with that.

And oh, she was not a feminist, just an independent woman educated way, way beyond what a woman could expect at that time, who hobnobbed with the entirely male rulers of the Arab tribes and also, by the way, climbed mountains, but whatever. And oh, she had no need for special treatment, but she was the granddaughter of a man the author describes as “the Bill Gates of his day.” Surely if she’d been born in an alley to a tubercular, illiterate prostitute who promptly died she’d have achieved all the exact same things she achieved, because she was just so smart and talented and her grandfather’s obscene wealth played no part in her success. Right.

Then we are treated to what seems like many hundreds of pages about mountain climbing. I have always thought that there was no such thing as a boring subject, and that an enthusiastic speaker could make any subject interesting. After having read (most of) this book as well as Three Cups of Tea, I now know that there is a boring subject: mountain climbing. And you’d expect it to be interesting, too.

I confess that I didn’t finish the book. But actually, now that a lot of time has passed, I think I’m ready to read the rest. After all, she was instrumental in the creation of the modern state of Iraq. And she was not a fan of Zionism.

Lord Arthur James Balfour, Lloyd George’s languid Foreign Secretary, had issued a Declaration in November 1917 that the British government aproved “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” As Gertrude, thinking of the Sykes-Picot treaty and all the trouble that had caused, wrote in a letter to Sir Gilbert Clayton, former head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo: “Mr. Balfour’s Zionist pronouncement I regard with the deepest mistrust–if only people at home would not make pronouncements how much easier it would be for those on the spot!”

When the first draft of the Declaration had been put to the Cabinet, Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India…mounted a vehement opposition despite being Jewish himself, stating that Zionism was a “mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom.” Was his own loyalty, he demanded, to be to Palestine? And what would be the repercussions for the rights of Jews living in other countries? Many Jewish leaders in the West believed that to offer Palestine to the Jews would be a disservice to Jewry, moreover, the Jews already settled in Palestine anticipated, and dreaded, the trouble that Zionism was about to cause. In support of his argument, Montagu had read out to the Cabinet a strongly argued letter from Gertrude, whose persuasive words had resulted in the rephrasing of the document. She was angered by the tendency of the Zionists and the statesmen at the Conference to talk as if Palestine was empty of people; and she could see that Arabs and Jews could not live peaceably side by side.

Well, of course they can, and they have many times in places throughout history, but the ethnic cleansing aspect is probably what she was thinking of when she wrote this.

In Jan 1918 she wrote:

Palestine for the Jews has always seemed to us to be an impossible proposition. I don’t believe it can be carried out–personally I don’t want it to be carried out, and I’ve said so on every possible occasion…to gratify Jewish sentiment you would have to override every conceivable political consideration, including the wishes of the large majority of the population.

Okay, I’ve convinced myself to read the rest of the book. I guess when I left off it was just about to get interesting.

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Qur’an Authors

Found this over on The Arabist’s site. lists the authors of the Holy Qur’an as Muhammad and Gabriel. 🙂

The angel Gabriel, that is

The angel Gabriel, that is

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The History of Islam by Robert Payne

Usually I don’t buy a book and then let it sit around, unread, but somehow I don’t remember where I acquired this book, and I just got around to reading it. It was originally published in 1959 under the name, “The Holy Sword,” which says a lot. Although they gussied up the titled for the reprint, the author used “Muhamadanism,” throughout the text instead of “Islam.” Even three hundred pages later, that’s still jarring.

I hope it’s no longer in fashion to write tomes analysing an entire group of millions of people as if they were a single entity. Robert Payne does a lot of comparing of “Muhamadans” to “us.” It’s weird and uncomfortable no matter which side you’re on.

There are so many quotes to choose from. I’ll post a few here, and then I think I may revisit this book again in a future post.

From the very beginning there were differences so vast that no human mind has been able to reconcile them. It is not only that Muhamadans are incapable of understanding a God who is expressed in terms of the Trinity and cannot bring themselves to believe He was crucified in the flesh, but their normal habits of mind, their aims and preoccupations, are at variance with ours.

Here we are already with the us-and-them mentality and we haven’t even hit the body of the book yet; this is from the introduction.

Anyway, I’m not sure I know anybody who is comfortable with the concept of the Trinity. And let’s not even start on the cannibalistic aspect of the eucharist ceremony.

Muhamadanism has no priesthood, no rounded tradition of scholarship, none of those elements of sensuous ceremonial which go with western worship.

I included that one because it’s true, Islam has no priesthood, although we persist in calling their scholars “clerics.”

Their strength lies in their humanness. They are ruthless and at ease in a world where we are increasingly restless and incapable of decision. Hamlet still walks our fortress walls, but an Arab Hamlet is unthinkable.

So I have written this book in the hope that men will look closer at Arab origins, and I have called it after the strange two-pointed sword which Muhammad won as a trophy at the battle of Badr, because the sword became the symbol of his imperial pretensions.

I find this a little weird, because I hadn’t yet come across any reference to that sword in any of the Muslim literature I’ve read.

To this day the Arabs worship stones, an so do all the followers of Muhammad.

No one knows why Muhammad changed so abruptly from a benevolent despot, the devoted servant of the Merciful and Compassionate God, into a ruthless conqueror. Perhaps power corrupted him; perhaps he knew the faith would never survive without unsheathing the sword.

For the Muhamadan the jihad, or “holy war,” has become an essential element of the faith; all of Islam would have to be turned upside down if the doctrine were eliminated.

This paragraph left me gaping:

Though [the caliph] Muawiya shows an astonishing modern temper in his mingling of indolent ease and efficient ruthlessness, he remained a man of his own time. Beneath the silks and damasks he remained essentially an Arab at war with the incomprehensible civilized world, hating Byzantium with an inextinguishable passion, employing Christians in his service only because he needed them as scribes and teachers and government officials, and because he himself could learn from the. His aim, like Muhammad’s, was to conquer the whole world.

Here’s one that transcends religion, race, national identity, and so on:

Sulayman, the fat voluptuary, belongs to the great tradition of Umayyad monarchs: he possessed, like many enormously fat people, a steady, driving intelligence.

I think that’s enough for one post. More later.

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