I just spent a whole bunch of time updating these pages. There are now beautiful illustrations on each page, better navigation between pages, and collapsible menus that make it easier to find material. There is a new font too, and lot’s of dead links have been removed. The pages are getting around 500 hits a day, altogether some 300,000 hits since I first set them up. Great. Please post comments and suggestions for amendments below. Enjoy!
It was always obvious that I was going to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Diane, my wife, felt the same way. I am in Turkey to work, but also to learn things, and Islam is one of the things I want to learn more about. Ramadan provides a unique way to acquire this knowledge — not by reading books or by making observations, but by directly participating in a different way of life. Since you are learning with your body, you do not even have to know the language! After all, the instructions are pretty straight-forward: you eat early in the morning, refrain from food and water all day, and then totally stuff yourself after sundown. All my colleagues at work were doing it, all my students were doing it too, of course I had to join in!
I’m not a religious person and I’m certainly not a “spiritual seeker” (although both of my grandfathers were vicars in the Church of Sweden). However, I am very interested in what people do and why they do it. In particular, I’m interested in behavior that is difficult to explain in rational, means-ends, terms. In the Western tradition, rational thinking has too often been privileged at the expense of bodily practices, and as a result we have become increasingly opaque to ourselves. Moreover, once religion was defined mainly as a matter of beliefs, Christianity became vulnerable to attacks from secular society. Not surprisingly, in today’s Sweden there are very few religious believers. But Islam is different. Islam seems to me to be more about practices than about beliefs. Or rather, practices and beliefs may be the same thing — both founded in a human being not subject to Cartesian divisions between a rational mind and an irrational body.
So what happens when a quarter of the world’s population decide to synchronize their bodies and share the experience of going without food?
Sahur, for me, was right from the beginning a matter of oatmeal porridge. Oatmeal is the food that kept peasants working long hours in the fields back in agricultural Sweden. A gigantic bowl of porridge at 3.30 AM, topped off with a piece of chocolate, almost felt like cheating. No reason to feel hungry. In fact, “fasting” is surely something of a misnomer. It’s really more a matter of deferring one’s meals. I’m not sure I was eating less. I might have eaten more.
Although I never actually felt hungry, fasting gave a particular coloring to the hours after, say, 5 PM. It might best be described as a certain mellow feeling. The world suddenly slows down and you just want to sit still in one place. No reason to really do anything; not even play with your phone; yet you are pretty content. Surely GDP in the Muslim world must drop off during Ramadan. But just as surely, since people who fast are removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they are returned to their bodies and to their selves. The result is a sense of calm — perhaps it could even be called “serenity.”
But instead of saying that people are returned to themselves, it might be better to say that they are returned to their communities. I noticed something strange during those mellow late-afternoon hours. We always used to watch Deutsche Welle before dinner. DW broadcasts in English and it is a very reasonable alternative to all those blaring Anglo-Saxon news channels. Yet once Ramadan started we stopped watching DW too. Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but it could also have been that fasting had lessened my connection to the German TV station and its non-fasting newsreaders. Their news stories suddenly seemed less relevant to me. I could feel the boundaries of my community being redrawn.
Instead we watched the iftar countdown on TRT. I love the way the fast-breaking schedule rolls by on the TV screen and one city after another suddenly lights up in red. We were counting the minutes, and people all over Turkey, and the entire Muslim world, were counting the minutes too. It was as exciting as New Year’s Eve, but during Ramadan every day is New Year’s Eve! “45 minutes to go now.” “Too long! I’m hungry!” “What are we going to do?” “Let’s talk about something.” Only 22 minutes left. Suddenly only 8. “Where are the dates? Surely we did not forget to buy dates?”
It is nice to share this experience with people you know, but it is somehow even better to share it with strangers. All religions know that eating together is a powerful way to build a sense of community. Christians have their “last supper” after all, and not even Swedish Lutherans, in their excessive rationalism, have managed to abolish “the communion.” Yet it is a special experience to eat together with strangers after a day of fasting. You look at the people seated at the other tables in the restaurant, and although you know nothing whatsoever about them, you share an intimate sensation in your stomach. That is, the sense of community does not have to be visualized or imagined; it is founded on sheer physiology. Then, after the müezzin‘s call, and for about 15 minutes, everyone falls silent and focuses on eating. And when we are done, we look at each other again, and again we know exactly what the others are feeling. We are satisfied now. Happy and content. Today too we got to eat our fill.
Rima, my daughter, put it best. “It is all about gratitude,” she said. “When you finally get to eat, you feel grateful. You are grateful to the person who cooked the food, and grateful to the world that provided you with it.” In modern society it is rare to be grateful for food. We always eat enough — in fact we often eat too much. In modern society we take everything for granted and gratefulness is an uncommon emotion. Yet during Ramadan we are taught to be grateful every evening for a whole month. And perhaps, when our stomachs finally are full, we can spare a thought for people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Fasting also taught me much about the political divisions, and the culture wars, of today’s Turkey. A week into Ramadan, I attended a workshop organized by my department and the IR department at Bilkent University. Since Bilkent was footing much of the bill, they were in charge of the schedule. Consequently the sessions started at 9 AM, which is way too early for someone who likes to sleep after sahur, and there were “lunch-breaks” in the middle of the day. But OK, there were many international visitors invited, and the Bilkent people may have been reluctant to appear as too “ethnic” in front of the foreigners. In any case, us in the Ibn Haldun contingent were just sort of standing around in the court yard of our madrasa while the others were eating. But it felt great. Very visibly, I found myself on one of the sides — on the right side — of the political and cultural gap which divides Turkey. That in a sense was when I finally joined the faculty of Ibn Haldun University.
I was on the right side again when I was showing my sister — visiting Turkey for a few days — the sights in the center of Istanbul. Around Taksim Square in particular there are always bouncers who come up to you with a menu and questions of “Where are you from, sir?” “What would you like to eat, sir?” But the assaults always stopped when I informed the assailants that “Ben orucum.” Instead of pestering us, many started congratulating me, shaking my hand. “Maşallah! Maşallah!
Yes, I do realize that I have a very romantic — possibly an “Orientalist” — understanding of Muslim society. I always wanted to be someone different than myself, someone different than a Swede.
And yet, the whole Ramadan project came apart both suddenly and prematurely. We made the great mistake of going on a mini-vacation to the Aegean coast. That part of Turkey is not like Başakşehir. It is not like Başakşehir at all. In fact, it might as well be a different country. Where we were staying, people were wearing swim suits not only on the beach, but in the streets, and they were not only eating lunch, but they had beers to go with it. And even more surprisingly, our hotel did not even bother with sahur. We complained at the front-desk, but when asked, we had to admit that we were not Muslim. “So why are you fasting?” Yes indeed, why were we fasting? Once again I could feel the boundaries of my community being redrawn. Being a secular European comes easily to me, but that’s not why I am in Turkey.
At the same time, I feel sorry for people in secular society. They are missing out on something.All they have are their private lives and their first obligation is always to service their individual desires. That kind of a life is not good enough for a human being. If nothing else, it is really quite boring — our individual lives are rarely as exciting as we pretend. But now of course the fasting has ended for all of us, and we have all rather brutally been returned to our private lives. I miss Ramadan already. And I’m very much looking forward to next year.
Yes, indeed. I finished the book in the end! Or rather, I stopped writing it. A book like this can easily be revised and improved for another 10 years, but I’ve been at it for 5 years already and perhaps now is a good time to stop. I’m actually pretty happy with it. All material, as you know, is available on this web page, but you can also buy it as a regular book when it appears sometime next year.
In English there is considerable confusion regarding the proper pronunciation of the word “yogurt.” Basically, “yog-urt” is the UK pronunciation whereas Americans say “yo-gurt.”
There are also alternative spellings: yoghurt or yorhourt, and the Canadians write yogourt.
Meanwhile, the French say “yaourt” and this is also how they spell it. That is, the French don’t pronounce the “g.” Weird, right?
Well, as it turns out, the French pronunciation is the most accurate. The word is originally Turkish, yoğurt, from yoğurmak, meaning “to kneed,” “to become curdled or coagulated.” As a people of the Central Asian steppes, the Turks ate a lot of milk products and they do so to this day. In fact, their yoğurt is phenomenally delicious and it contains none of the weird emulsifiers and sickening sweeteners that one finds elsewhere.
So why do the French swallow the “g”? Well, because the Turks do. The letter “ğ” — yumuşak ge, a “g” with a squiggle — is not pronounced in Turkish but it only extends the length of the previous vowel. The French must have met actual Turkish people and learned the pronunciation from them. English, Americans and Swedes must only have seen it written and they consequently mispronounce the word to this day.
When one comes to live in Turkey, one of the first questions one might ask oneself is what “turkey,” the bird, is called in Turkish. The answer, it turns out, is hindi. Hmmm, interesting. In fact, as a quick internet search will establish, this terminology follows a common European pattern. The birds first turned up in Europe at a time, in the 16th century, when people still believed that it was “India” that the Europeans had discovered. This is why the French called it dinde (“from India”) and the Russians called it indeyka. In some other European languages, however, it is called kalkon (Swedish), kalkoen (Dutch) or kalkun (Estonian). But also here there is an Indian connection. As the popular lore would have it, the birds where shipped from the Indian city of Kalikut — today’s Kozhikode — and hence they were known as “hens from Kalikut.”
So, why are the English and the Americans alone in calling it “turkey”? The reason, it seems, is that the first turkeys that arrived in England originally were shipped via the Levant, or, possibly, that there was a mix-up with another sort of bird that originated here. Turkeys were thought to come from Turkey! Really, Americans should know better – the bird is native only to North and Central America.
The new semester is upon us and as always I’m teaching my course on “Comparative International Systems.” Only this time I’m doing it at Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s going to be very exciting to see what all my new students will make of the material — next to all of them will, I suspect, be from distinctly non-European kinds of places. I’ll keep you updated.
Btw, the new version of the reading list is here — it works on phones too.
This is a Youtube clip of a presentation I did at conference in Berlin in June — “Dancing wiht Strangers: Bodies in Inter-civilizational Encounters.”
Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute, Berlin, 19 June 2018. Workshop: ‘From Huntington to Trump: 25 years of the “Civilisations’”. Organized by the very excellent Jeff Haynes.
I always thought “atlases” — books of maps, that is — were named after Atlas, the Greek titan who carries the earth on his shoulders (see above). And it is indeed he who appears on an engraving of Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori , a collection of maps published by Antonio Lafreri in 1572. However, it was Gerardus Mercator, the legendary map-maker, who invented the term and apparently he did not have the Greek titan in mind at all but rather “Atlas of Mauretania,” a famous philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, who also was king of Mauretania. Not very much is known about this man, however. Wikipedia has next to nothing.
“Mauri,” from which “Mauretania” is derived, was the Roman term for the Berber kingdoms of North Africa. But this is also where the Atlas mountains are located. In fact ádrār in Berber means “mountain.” The Atlantic Ocean was named after Atlas and so was the lost island of Atlantis. Moroccans seem to have been great geographers. Ibn-Batuta was from Morocco too.
I’m writing about the “Barbary Coast.” I’m interested in the corsairs who were roaming the coast of North Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries since I’m interested in non-territorial ways of organizing politics. The corsairs were nomads of the sea, as it were.
I put a twitter feed on this page and one of the first tweets that popped up was this:
— Sue Sherrill (@SueSherrill) April 5, 2017
I couldn’t help myself. I had to point out to Sue that it’s called the “Barbary coast” because it’s the part of North Africa where the Berber people live. “Barbary,” that is, refers to “Berber” not to “barbarian.” Few people realize this but North Africa is still predominantly Berber, not actually Arab.
— Sue Sherrill (@SueSherrill) April 6, 2017
My new friend Sue is consequently wrong: there are some 50 million Berbers in the area.
A second question, and this is more interesting, is why the Berbers got their name. The reason it seems is that the Arabs who arrived in North Africa in the 7th century called them bárbaros. This was the generic label which the Greeks applied to all foreigners. They were “barbarians” since they stuttered and spoke incomprehensible gibberish — ba, ba, ba, ba. “Barbarian” to the Greeks was not necessarily a pejorative term, but it was at the same time obvious to them that foreigners were not quite human. For one thing they had no poleis, no city-states.
“Barbarian” as a term applied to people who loot, destroy and in general fail to respect the lives of others caught on in Europe in the 18th century when it came to serve as the antithesis of “civilization.” Yet the Europeans, as already Michel Montaigne pointed out, were often greater barbarians than the alleged barbarians themselves. I wrote a book about this.