Spoken Word

Sep 25 2014

Have you ever heard a poem performed live in such a way that it captured your whole attention?

There are tons of amazing poetry performances in Arabic, both spoken and sung.

Hesham El Gakh


This is my all-time favorite spoken poem performance. Sorry, I don’t have time to translate it now…maybe later! The poet is Hesham El Gakh from Egypt, and the venue is Prince of Poets in the UAE, the biggest live Arabic poetry venue. It’s more competitive and high-profile than American Idol because it’s international, bringing together contestants from throughout the Arab World. The poem created quite a stir.

For anyone wanting a similar experience in English, I can recommend Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad here.


For sung poetry, there are quite a few famous poet-singer teams. Umm Kulthum sang poems by Mahmud Bayram El-Tunsi and other poets. For an example, check out Ana fi Intizarak / I’m Waiting for You, starting at 2:10. Lyrics in English and Arabic here.

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Teaching Arabic Literature in Translation

Sep 17 2014

I’m writing in response to mlynxqualey’s recent post. She provides some great suggestions, and I just wanted to add my two cents:

Classical Poetry: Marcia limits her list to only materials that are free and available online. I agree with her recommendations of Khalidi’s translations of Al-Buhturi’s “The Poet and the Wolf” and Al-Ma‘arri’s “A Rain Cloud.” Then, instead of Arberry’s translation, I highly recommend Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes, translated by Michael A. Sells. The translations and explanations are much more accessible, and this slim volume should be very affordable.

Modern Poetry: I would add Mahmoud Darwish’s poem To My Mother, which is free online in places such as here. I also highly recommend showing a video of Marcel Khalife’s sung rendition because he broadens the poem’s audience exponentially. Also, especially for high school and older, I recommend Ahmed Fouad Negm’s poetry of political opposition and free speech. There is a free book of his poems available at the bottom-left corner on this page.

Classical Fiction: If you can use a book (instead of online materials only), then I highly recommend the imaginative tales in The Adventures of Sayf ben dhi Yazan or Tales of Juha or this anthology of Classical Arabic Stories.

Contemporary Fiction: If you can use books, then I recommend short stories by Salwa Bakr, and the novella by Radwa Ashour, Siraaj: An Arab Tale, translated by Barbara Romaine.

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DIY Laundry Soap

Sep 10 2014

So here’s a departure from my usual posts. I have several recipes for products that I prefer to make instead of buying because my family has found them good and easy enough to be worth their minimal effort. Here is the first. This recipe takes me less than one half hour to make, and one batch lasts my family (of two people) about three weeks.

DIY Liquid Laundry Detergent


1. Soap bar (1/4 bar)

  • Note: I first used a Fels-Naptha Soap Bar, but I didn’t like the fragrance. Since then, I’ve come to prefer Zote. Alternatives that I have seen recommended include Sunlight (from Canada), Zote (best for babies, less chemicals, made in Mexico), Liro (laundry bar soap from Latino / Afro-Caribbean stores), Octagon (by Colgate, maybe same ingredients as Fels-Naptha), and Linda (Italy).

2. Washing soda (1/4 cup)

3. Borax (1/8 cup)

  • Note: You will need a container. I use a 2 gallon bucket with lid that I bought at a hardware store. The lid locks in place. You will also need a small pot. Optional: essential oils for fragrance.


1. Grate 1/4 of a soap bar.

2. Put grated soap in a pot with 1 cup hot water. Stir continuously until dissolved (about 10 min.)

3. Fill a container that has a lid with 1 gallon of hot water.

4. Pour in soap mixture. Add 1/4 cup Washing Soda and 1/8 cup Borax. Stir.

5. Add a 2nd gallon of water (or whatever fills container) and essential oils. Stir. Cover and leave overnight.

  • Note: I use a citrus-smelling soap bar (pink Zote), and then I add several drops of lavender essential oil.

6. Stir again. Transfer into containers using funnel and fill only half way. Fill the other half with water and shake. You can experiment with using a more concentrated form of the soap if you like.

7. Use 1/2 cup for a front-loading washing machine and 1 cup for a top-loader.

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Jul 20 2014

Having started to translate my first novel from Arabic to English, I’ve been inspired to make a post here about translation. It’s a science and an art–tedious, but also very satisfying when you feel that you’ve succeeded.

Here’s a great article about translatability and the work of the translator.
For Arabic-to-English translation, see the premier blog by M. Lynx Qualey. For magazines accepting short pieces, see her post here.


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Israel-Palestine Sources

Mar 14 2014

This is a list of recommendations for people (especially Americans) who want to educate themselves about the history and politics of Israel-Palestine.

1. Classic Fateful Triangle by Noam Chomsky. It can be dense due to so much detail, but if you want lots of facts, this one’s for you.

2. For a summary, see A Synopsis of the Israel/Palestine Conflict. Another site of insights is Tikkun.

3. For cultural history of the area, see Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah. For a humorous and insightful novel, see Imil Habibi’s Pessoptimist. Available as both a novel and a film (and I prefer the film) is The Gate of the Sun by Ilyas Khouri. For more narratives, see Qualey’s list.

4. For a progressive Muslim American perspective, see Omid Safi’s article from Tikkun.


Art by Abdel Rahmen Al Muzayen.

I did not even know there was a problem until after I entered college–and that’s not because I was absent on the day it was discussed in my school! I began studying Arabic in London in 2000, and one of my teachers (who happened to be Syrian) refused to recognize the state of Israel. I had no idea what that meant, and almost offered to bring her a map to show her that the country existed. I soon realized that it was not she who needed a lesson in geography. It was me who needed a lesson in history and politics.

Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section.

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Mar 05 2014

I’m starting a list of publishers here for literature of the Middle East and North Africa. Tell me if you know of more that should be added…



  • CairoBookStop / محطة كتب القاهرة is a great tool for locating books in Cairo, designed by Nancy Linthicum and Michele Henjum
  • Dar al-Hilal / دار الهلال- affordable paperback literature, also a magazine
  • Dar al-Shorouk / دار الشروق – fiction and non-fiction, in Arabic
  • American University in Cairo Press – fiction and non-fiction, in English
  • For international orders, I can recommend Neelwafurat



  • Dar Saqi / دار الساقي – fiction and non-fiction, in Arabic


  • Editions Le Fennec / دار الفنك – especially for Francophone literature
  • Librairie Samir / سمير – especially for children’s literature, Arabic and French

United Arab Emirates

  • Kalimat / كلمات – children’s and young adult literature in Arabic

United States

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Figure Skating

Feb 22 2014

I just learned of Zahra Lari, an accomplished young figure skater of the UAE:


This could be a great “culture” video in an Arabic class. In fact, I learned of the video from Laila Familiar’s site where she collects videos for Arabic.

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Jan 16 2014

I’m opening a space here for connections to more information about languages and cultures that neighbor Arabic: Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew to start. Feel free to send me any recommendations!

For Persian culture / art / history, see Caroline Mawer’s blog. For literature in translation, Words without Borders (July 2013) has an issue dedicated to literature post-(1979) revolution.

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Arab Culture in the UK & Europe

Jan 05 2014

This post is a place for collecting all the interesting projects I’ve found in the UK and Europe that showcase arts and culture from the Arab world. More to follow…




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Iznik Blossom in Jerusalem

Jan 02 2014


This is one of my favorite pieces of art. Those of us who are partial to the color combination blue and white may already know of Dutch Delftware or English willow pattern dishes. Both are seventeenth and eighteenth century European porcelain designs inspired by Chinese pinyin, literally ‘blue flowers’ wares, dating from the fourteenth century. Chinese porcelain also inspired pottery styles in the Islamic world, especially in Iznik (in the Ottoman Empire, today Turkey).



The British Museum’s Islamic Art collection includes a large lamp. Gracefully shaped like a pear, with a flared neck, the shape derives from Mamluk glass lamps. Three handles, placed symmetrically at the lamp’s waist, allow suspension from chains (like this). The hard lead-frit body resembles porcelain. Its underglaze-painted surface is composed of two fields of white, alternating vertically with three blue fields. On the white fields, black and turquoise arabesque panels alternate with black and cobalt cloud scrolls. The cobalt blue fields contain inscriptions: bismallah and hadith (sayings) at neck and base, and a bolder-font Quranic reference at the waist. Above this central inscription runs a narrow band of small turquoise triangles alternating with three white tulip buds on a field of cobalt. From a distance, the lamp displays International Timurid motifs, those features that were considered stylish in Iraq, Iran, and surrounding regions, in the fifteenth century. In addition to these general Timurid motifs, around the base runs a unique inscription. It includes 1549 as the date of manufacture, ‘the poor and humble Musli’ as the artist’s name, and a dedication to Esrefzade, local saint of Iznik. Esrefzade may refer to the Qadiri mystic, ‘And Alla-i Rumi (died 1470 at Iznik, see Rogers 203).


Historical Background

Iznik (Byzantine Nicea) in Turkey, probably selected for its deposits of fine clay, served as a major source of production for the Ottoman court. Its ceramics were imitated in other Ottoman cities as well as Italy, Hungary, and Iran, and such production continues in cities such as Fes in Morocco (see Bloom 397). Iznik wares, initially decorated in blue and white, are known for demonstrating a renewed interest in the arabesque. The first known reference to Iznik blue-and-white appears “in the kitchen accounts of Mehmed II at Bursa from 1469 to 1473″ (see Rogers 186). Their typical decorations include chinoiserie, peony, lotus, cloud scrolls, arabesques, knotted interlaces, and pseudo-Kufic script calligraphy. These last several lead some people to conclude that the potters were trained in a Mamluk tradition. Prior to this Mamluk influence, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was imported into the Middle East as early as the late fourteenth century, appearing in bulk with the brief opening of early Ming China to foreign trade in the early fifteenth century. The hardness, durability, and size of this porcelain stimulated a high demand for it in the Islamic world of the fifteenth century. Aside from exterior influences, however, Iznik blue-and-white signified a kind of technological revolution, permitting a relatively low temperature for firing and achieving impressive effects with an often limited palette.


The Story of this Lamp

This mosque lamp is the earliest extant example of ‘Damascus’ wares. ‘Damascus’ wares, so called since they were thought to be made in Damascus, are considered the finest of all Iznik pottery for their brilliant glazes and varied designs. Suleyman (reigned 1520-1566) may have commissioned it in his restoration (1530s-1540s) of the Haram al-Sharif, at least it was very likely commissioned by the court. At that time, Ottomans controlled all three holy places of Islam (Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). The mosque lamp adds to an image of the Haram al-Sharif as a powerful, monumental, central statement of Islam in this period. It also demonstrates the Ottoman’s interest in renewing the stature of the monument, not coincidentally the nearest of the three sites to the Ottoman capital and center of power.


What kind of message does a lamp convey? The Arabic language, first language of Islam, reveals some answers. Grandeur, though impressive, does not summarize the meaning of this important decoration. It is also clearly more than simply a light. What is a ‘mosque lamp’? The Arabic word for mosque, masjid, means ‘place where one worships God.’ Lamps provide light, nur in Arabic, a concept of beauty, knowledge, and goodness in the Quran. So the mosque lamp is like an illuminated blossom, virtually flowering by illuminating a prominent place of prayer. The statement of the mosque that once shone forth from a central shrine of Islam in Jerusalem now sits in London as an elegant and eloquent reminder of the medieval Islamic world.



Blair, Sheila S. and Jonathan M. Bloom The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800. 1995.

Bloom, Jonathan and Sheila Blair. Islamic Arts. 1997.

Rogers, J.M. and R.M. Ward. Süleyman the Magnificent. 1988.

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