Culture on the Breakfast Menu

July 4, 2010 1 comment

W henever I travel in Europe and receive a breakfast invitation, my acceptance is a must. Not because I am particularly keen about breakfast. On the contrary, I am someone who can easily get along with simply a breakfast tea.

But the breakfast culture in Europe is worth studying.

Let us quickly turn away from the southern European bar breakfasts. Clearly, the small and strong coffee, which everybody outside the region refers to as Espresso and the buttery soft French croissant, or its less soft Italian imitation, cannot impress so much.

The classic English breakfast is probably most familiar to us, with its ham and eggs (for Muslims now also with halal turkey ham), red beans or porridge.

Please don’t get me wrong. By familiar, I mean to say that we know about the components. Of course it takes a while until this rather extravagant early morning dish can become familiar to a non-English stomach.

My personal favourite is the German breakfast. Simply because it allows eating for as long as you want, while you will always discover yet another component.

While in the UK, the standard English breakfast often appears energetically delivered by a well-tempered waitress, for a German breakfast you usually sit down at a readily set-up table.

At such occasions I sometimes fail to fully appreciate the highly sophisticated geometric arrangements of all the breakfast accessories, starting from the little spoons in four different sizes and the egg-top cutter, to the breakfast table dustbin, mostly in the very centre of the table.

Once the food is added to the arrangement, the import-export world champion certainly honours its title.

It is a multi-faceted composition ranging from the very local, like the homemade multi-grain rolls or pretzel, to very different delicacies, including Norwegian smoked salmon and Pacific fruits.

Fruits seem to please a new post-modern exoticism, in particular in hotel breakfast rooms.

The more fruits and cheeses we find on offer that an ordinary visitor cannot name correctly, the better the perceived quality of the place.

All is of course in addition to the standard English ham and eggs, the North American bagels, muffins and waffles (including maple syrup) and the collection of croissants and other sweet and small pieces, which are also available.

There are yet the muesli bowls to be discovered. Not only cornflakes, chocolate and forest fruit muesli, but also bran fibres, cinnamon balls, honey snacks and whatever other mysterious names they carry.

And while carefully studying my latest German breakfast hosts, I was impressed how important each little component seemed to be, given that every empty jar had to be immediately refilled.

There is only one aspect left to be desired: something proper to drink with this breakfast celebration.

Unfortunately, German coffee stays far behind its Mediterranean competitors and the teas cannot compete with the offers in England.

Fresh fruit juices, which may still be an alternative, have never been a German strength.

While hoping that Germany discovers a new breakfast drink that could crown it the breakfast queen – hot chocolate is so far my personal favourite – I recommend to everybody travelling to Germany to skip dinner, in favour of arriving hungry for breakfast the following morning.

Al Zekri is an independent Bahraini cultural anthropologist

Muharraq-Bahrain: The lost Arabian city of women

June 22, 2010 1 comment

Recently, when I sat in one of the last historic coffee shops in Muharraq-Kingdom of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf, I saw a group of young local women walking by the entrance. They appeared as if they had been teleported out of one of the latest Parisian fashion journals with their tight shirts, jeans and creative hairstyles.

In an apologetic mood, I leaned over to the elderly gentleman sitting to my right, who equally looked towards the entrance.

“Uncle, tell me how you brought up daughters that respected our local culture?” I asked.

To my surprise he responded: “This is not so far-fetched from our culture my son, it is just the wrong time of the year.”

I first hesitated to ask for clarification, but when I did, my neighbour invited me to the Muharraq of his childhood of the late 1920s.

To be precise, the Muharraq of the summer months, when all men had left with pearling dhows (boats), would become a city of women.

Then, he reported, women would walk through the market and the streets equally unrestricted as the group of young ladies we had just seen walking by.

They would certainly not have had make-up or such eccentric hairstyles, but would walk around in their colourful home wear, with their henna-coloured hair shining in the sun.

The male involvement during the pearling month was a social norm and men who were not required to sail with the dhows, would have left into summer camps.

“If you see a man on the streets of Muharraq during Ghus Al Kabir, the main diving season, you don’t have to cover your face, because he cannot really be a man,” my encounter quoted his late mother as saying.

I was surprised how the group of young women that had reminded me of a French fashion magazine and seemed so out-of-place, could transport the imagination of this gentleman to the Muharraq of his childhood.

I admit, a Muharraq that I would have liked to see. Did it completely disappear with the end of the pearling era, or did Muharraq keep its heritage of temporary female rule and autonomy?

After some hesitation, I finally dared to ask: “Uncle, is there anything left of this city of women until today?”

He paused, then replied: “My son, many things have changed and I believe that it is better for our wives, mothers, sisters and daughters to not be alone.”

I agreed with him, but argued that this city of women must have been so unique that it was sad it no longer existed.

He looked at me and while I knew he agreed, I also sensed that it was not possible for him to admit so.

After a few silent moments, he smiled a little and then said: “Son, what difference does it make? If it still exits, you would not be allowed to be there. And if it does no longer exist, it will always be with you and your imagination.”

I left and on my way home I kept wondering if the children of my children would have the opportunity to share my imagination.

I wished they would be able to let their thoughts travel to the city of women.

Dr al Zekri is an independent Bahraini cultural anthropologist

Re-branding America: A process yet to be recognized

June 22, 2010 Leave a comment


One morning I woke up with the news of a car filled with explosives that had been discovered on Times Square, New York.

Still somewhat perplexed, I watched the reports and the Press conference by the New York mayor, with the chief of police and high-level representatives of all relevant securit agencies, on CNN in my hotel room.

Something was remarkably distinct about the news footage. Merely a few minutes later, I realised what.

The reporting style had left behind the always ready to accuse Islam on-the-spot pattern of the Bush-era and had turned towards a sober, calculated and rational new communication policy.

continued to listen attentively to further analyse this new policy and wondered if my fellow Arab citizens had equally noticed this difference. It did not yet seem to have translated well into the Arabic media.

This new strategy has produced particularly cautious wording with regard to suspects and their potential aims.

Away from the still familiar “terrorist” and “attempted terror attack” terminology, we are now observing “crimes against civilians”, a language that pursues criminals, not Muslims.

This is far removed from the “Islamist” labels that incite hatred against members of a certain faith.

I admit that I am amazed by the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s change of language, which goes hand-in-hand with a new foreign policy and a reviewed image of the US.

However, in the perception of the wider Arabs that I come across, this image is solely associated with the charismatic figure of President Barack Obama.

It does not expand beyond his individual strength, to the recognition of a peace-promoting policy change and a revised strategy for communication with and media coverage of Islam.

For example, it has not been brought to the wider attention in the Arab world that Obama appointed Dalia Mugahid, to my knowledge the first hijab-wearing woman to ever take an official White House position, as his adviser on Islam.


Her role, “to inform and not form decisions of the Obama administration”, is crucial and could be better utilised; to not only improve communication with Muslim citizens in the US, but also to establish a new perception of US policies in the Arab world.

An increased exchange with Muslims in Muslim-majority settings could likewise assist in communicating the multi-faceted and multi-layered aspects of Islamic identity and culture, to the US decision-makers.

To facilitate such wider mutual exchange and recognition, I would be delighted to invite Ms Mugahid, or her potential successor following the reconstitution of the Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighbourhood Partnerships in late spring this year, to the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf.

A visit would better communicate the new image of the dialogical White House in the Arab world.

At the same time it would allow the adviser(s) to learn from Bahrain, a multi-faith, multi-sect, culturally diverse and peace-loving ancient nation.

I am convinced that Ms Mugahid, or her successor, would gladly accept this invitation, if the White House is seriously interested in understanding the international Muslim perception and its policy changes.

Al Zekri is a Bahraini independent cultural anthropologist

Competing with the Taliban in (Fiqh) Islamic Jurisprudence: a Different Approach to Peace

June 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Breaking the Taliban grip  

By Muhammad Al Zekri 

   The Taliban catch our attention in the context of Afghani warfare or, perhaps even more often, suicide missions and comparable events which give rise to media coverage.

Unfortunately, the focus on such tragic events has obscured our understanding of the particular skills demonstrated by the Taliban in the application of Islamic jurisprudence, referred to as fiqh.

By effectively using fiqh, the Taliban have established and continue to foster the strongest of loyalties and alliances and their application of fiqh maintains a strong power base in the political and religious scene of Afghanistan.

In this context, it is essential to analyse the vision and impact of religious legal rulings, the fatawi (singular: fatwa), issued by the Taliban. Such fatawi can range from being surprisingly liberal to deeply conservative, and are often equally aimed at social, religious, economic and military aspects.

Examples of deeply conservative fatawi can be given in relation to women whose movement is restricted, to follow the traditional customs of Afghani tribes. Through the enforcement of long-established customs, the Taliban gain sympathy and support in the male-dominated conservative society.

Among the surprisingly liberal rulings, one could count the religious permissibility of poppy plantation, regardless of the potential misuse of the product as opium.

Such fatawi find appreciation amidst a tribal community strongly dependent on the economic gain of opium and this in turn guarantees a loyal base of support for the Taliban.

The fiqh of the Taliban is strongly linked to one of the four Islamic legal schools, the Hanafite madhhab. Generally this school is considered rather liberal and tolerant, as is evident, for example, in Turkey.

However, such liberal aspects do not seem to have reached the remote Afghani territories controlled by the Taliban.

On the contrary, the wide-ranging unawareness of alternative accepted Islamic positions, anchored in the other legal schools and the complete lack of dispute or exchange of different opinions in the interpretation of Hanafite fiqh, has led to Taliban religious rulings which are absolute and undisputed.

Concepts such as tolerance and inter-religious multiplicity have either been forgotten or are disregarded. While other Islamic schools encourage general education for girls and provide opportunities for women to work in public and private institutions, Pashtun women are expected to remain at home and dedicate themselves exclusively to the household and their children. To support such restrictions, they are deprived of any form of education that could generate other ambitions.

If one wishes to reduce the power base of the Taliban or the level of loyalty provided by the Pashtun society, it is important to approach this issue based on the Taliban’s particular weaknesses and in the context of a religious discourse.

The Taliban, as the translation of their name indicates, are students. They were students in the traditional Afghani education system consisting of religious schools, madrasa, and their goal was to graduate from these with basic religious knowledge.

Since the Taliban did not complete their religious education, they remain students and are not permitted to use religious titles. In a rare phenomenon of Islamic history, these students rebelled against their teachers, whom they perceived as selfish, detached from the real needs of the society, unworthy and corrupt.

The students took over the teachings and religious rulings and, with their semi-scholarly language and simplistic arguments, they appealed to the common logic of the tribal society. However, outside their own religious powerbase they lack religious legal authority.

This fact presents an opportunity for positive change. A military intervention of foreigners and non-Muslims encouraging women to visit schools and remove their veils will hardly find wide acceptance in Afghani tribal society and will more often put women at risk, than provide opportunities.

Change of interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence can only be accepted on the basis of Hanafite fiqh. A senior religious Hanafite scholar, perceived as honest, uncorrupted and as a well-known religious authority could, for example, question the rulings of the Taliban.

Through such questioning, the culture of undisputed rulings would consequently be weakened and a culture of dialogue encouraged.

A multiplicity of religious interpretations could easily be broadcasted via radio; wind-up radios distributed to all households would be of help.

This would enable the population to listen to reputed religious scholars detached from the tribal alliances. Such scholars might even be considered more trustworthy and less corrupted than the students, with their incomplete education in Islamic jurisprudence.

It is this gap of need and legitimacy between tribal society and the Taliban that could be targeted with alternative religious interpretations, which, in turn, may contribute to peace in Afghan society.

Dr Al Zekri is an independent Bahraini cultural anthropologist

Arabian Women Dreamlore

June 17, 2010 3 comments

 By M. alZekri

Did you dream something last night? Was it promising or scary? What was the last very scary dream you had? Did you tell anybody about it? Would you like to know if the dream had any deeper meaning? Would you tell your wife, daughter or mother if she had the key to find out?

In the old days, prior to the oil era, people paid a lot of attention to their dreams. They would not have just ignored a dream as the confused nightly sorting process of our brains. Dreams always had a deeper meaning and the interpretation of dreams was important and in the hand of specialists. The term specialist may remind us of a profession with training and qualification procedures and that is very close to what it was. The only difference is that it was an exclusively female profession, a powerful female domain with several levels of sophistication. During the pearling period, each small family unit usually had its “dedicated” dream interpreter, usually a grandmother considered most trustworthy and spiritually guided. Within a neighbourhood or larger family unit, the designated interpreter was the woman judged to be the most competent, with the most sophisticated interpreters often known far beyond their own farij. They qualified because of their “eloquence, wisdom, social respect, a commanding personality, devoutness, the possession of a repertory of colloquial proverbs and a large inventory of folk dream lore as well as a widespread reputation and recognition in the community.

The women operated so-called dream majalis, in which each had her regular clientele. Monetary compensation was received only in rare cases, but all interpreters would accept expressions of appreciation, such as gifts and food items. They contributed to the preservation and reaffirmation of traditional community values on at least three different levels. First, they confirmed the worldview of the local community by rendering positive and supportive dream interpretation to its practices and values. Second, the dissemination of dream-related lore among women and men was essential for the maintenance of authority of the dream interpreter and the strengthening of its female superiority. Third, the presence of children in the majalis secured the intergenerational transmission of dream-lore and continuity.

Dream interpretations required a particular context and a specific client, which allowed the interpreter to tailor an explanation to the needs and personal context of the dreamer. Knowledge of the dreamer’s personal context enabled the interpreter to offer practical advice relevant to the individual situation of the dreamer, including male dreamers whose dreams were narrated to her. Of course the male dreamers who wished their dreams to be interpreted, had to first disclose the narrative of the dream to a female family member who would then visit the dream interpreter on their behalf.

One of the dream interpreters who is still active in Bahrain, but wished to remain unnamed, informed me about the method “A woman came to me to seek dream interpretation for her husband. I knew since quite some time that he was not treating her well and that he used to shout at and sometimes beat her. In his dream, he visited his dead father. When his father saw him, he kept staring at him with a frozen and serious expression. The husband got worried and wanted to know the reason for this frightening look of his father. He asked his wife to come and see me. I told her to tell her husband that his father disapproved of the way he treated her, that his serious look disapproved of his son’s anger, and that his frozen stare condemned his son’s physical violence toward his wife. I added that it was a warning from his father for him to become a loving and understanding husband.”

Since women were exclusively in charge of dream-lore during the pearling period, they had a strong power base that helped counter the traditional Islamic male dominance in legal rulings. Through the interpretation of dreams, the interpreter was able to establish women’s rights and the idea of fair treatment of women in her community. Dream-lore became a tool used to “reprogram” value systems of traditional communities that restricted or subjected women in various ways; moreover, it constituted a subtle counter-hegemony in a male-dominated society. Today dream interpretation has found other ways and different media channels, and is no longer a female domain.

However, I wonder if dwindling number of dream majalis is a result of satisfaction with alternative means of dream interpretation or rather a consequence of more broadly established women’s rights in the contemporary Bahraini society