Provincial Map of Afghanistan

August 27, 2021: Anxious Ismaili Couple in New Mexico, USA, Await News About their Extended Family Members in Afghanistan

Prepared and Compiled by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, BarakahSimerg and Simergphotos)

Albuquerque doctor Sharmin Dharas and her husband, Shams Mehri, are desperately waiting to hear whether more than 100 extended family members — some of whom worked for Americans in Kabul — will be among those flown to safety as the deadline for Americans and some Afghans to leave by August 31, 2021 quickly approaches…. READ FULL STORY IN THE SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN.

Also, please click on the following links for posts published on this website, Simerg, on the situation in Afghanistan:

[1]. Letter from Afghanistan (1);

[2]. Aga Khan Development Network’s Commitment to Afghanistan and Its People; and Overview of AKDN’s Work in the Country for the Last 25 Years;

[3]. To the Women of Afghanistan: Let Your Story and that of Bibi Khadijah (a.s.) Be a Powerful Trampoline of Progress for the People of Afghanistan and Around the Muslim World;

[4]. Flowers – with Love – for the Children, Girls, Sisters and Mothers of Afghanistan;

[5]. Ismaili Institutions Says Majority of Jamati Members in Afghanistan Safe and Continuing with Normal Life; and

[6]. Ismailis in Afghanistan Asked to Stay Home and not Panic.

Date posted: August 27, 2021.

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We welcome feedback from our readers. Please complete the LEAVE A REPLY form below or click Leave a comment. Your letter may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation.

Caption for featured image of maps of Afghanistan and its provinces at top of post:

Afghanistan is divided into 34 provinces. The provinces of Afghanistan are the primary administrative divisions. Each province encompasses a number of districts or usually over 1,000 villages. Population (2020 estimate): 32,890,171; Largest city Kabul (capital), population 4.6 million. At left, Provincial map of Afghanistan. Key (alphabetical order): Badakhshan (30); Badghis (4); Baghlan (19); Balkh (13), Bamyan (15), Daykundi (10), Farah (2), Faryab (5); Ghazni (16); Ghor (6), Helmand (7); Herat (1); Jowzjan (8); Kabul (22), Kandahar (12); Kapisa (29); Khost (26); Kunar (34); Kunduz (18); Laghman (32); Logar (23); Nangarhar (33); Nimruz (3); Nuristan (31); Paktia (24); Paktika (25); Panjshir (28); Parwan (20); Samangan (14); Sar-e Pol (9); Takhar (27); Uruzgan (11); Maidan Wardak (21); and Zabul (17).

Map Credits: Provincial map (left): Joshbaumgartner via Wikepedia, Public Domain. Map of Afghanistan with key cities (right): Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas.

Story and Photos: Mansoor Ladha’s Memorable Moments with Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan

Calgary based Mansoor Ladha, a veteran award winning Ismaili journalist and author of two acclaimed books, was a features editor with the Tanzanian English daily, The Standard (renamed later to Daily News), and interviewed Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, in 1970. Later, after he migrated to Canada, Mansoor became the Administrative Committee Chairman of the Ismaili community in Edmonton, and received Mawlana Hazar Imam during his first visit to Canada in 1978. Please read Mansoor’s story about his wonderful opportunities on Simerg’s sister web site Barakah which is dedicated to Mawlana Hazar Imam, members of his family and the Ismaili Imamat. Please click HERE or on image below to read the full post.

Mansoor Ladha with His Highness the Aga Khan
1970: Mansoor Ladha interviewing His Highness the Aga Khan for Tanzania’s daily, The Standard (now Daily News). Photo: Adarsh Nayar/The Standard/Mansoor Ladha Collection. Please click on image for story and photos.

Date posted: May 8, 2021.

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Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

The Guardian on Wikipedia at 20: Last Gasp of an Internet Vision, or a Beacon to a Better Future?

The naysayers said the user-written encyclopedia would never work. Now it boasts 55m articles and 1.7bn visitors a month…..READ MORE AT THE GUARDIAN

Wikipedia Logo
Wikipedia logo. Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0). Please click on image to read article at The Guardian

Date posted: January 15, 2021.

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We welcome feedback from our readers. Please complete the LEAVE A REPLY form below or click Leave a comment. Your letter may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

At Aga Khan Museum, young and old alike share messages of hope for 2021 and beyond: No deadly virus, cleaner water, happiness and freedom for all, unity, no wars, vaccine for Covid-19, and more

MALIK MERCHANT
Publisher/Editor  SimergphotosBarakah and Simerg

Please click on images for enlargement

Messages of Hope at Aga Khan Museum Wall Simerg
Aga Khan Museum portraits of resilience, togetherness and hope: Photo: Malik Merchant /Simergphotos. Please click on image for enlargement.

Before its latest shutdown due to provincial regulations, Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum gave visitors an interesting opportunity to pen their heartfelt wishes on one of several beautiful pre-designed tiles available at the museum bookstore, and post them onto a large panel prominently placed by the beautiful courtyard. The theme of the project was “Blossom Together Community Tile Wall.”

Community wall messages of hope Aga Khan Museum Simerg Malik Merchant
Section of panel (see inset, bottom right) highlighting purpose of the community wall. Photo: Malik Merchant / Simergphotos.

The cards contained the following themes that visitors could write about: “I hope the future will be …”; “I will make the world better by …”; “I hope ….“; and “My hope for the world is …” Here is a selection of images that I was able to capture. As I glanced at the tiles, I was encouraged by the wishes of hope that I read, several of which related to the current pandemic. It is with these feelings of the young and old alike who expressed themselves on the museum wall that we enter 2021, with the hope that new Covid-19 vaccines which have been developed will become game changers in bringing the pandemic under control.

Messages of Hope Aga Khan Museum
Aga Khan Museum portraits of resilience, togetherness and hope: Photo: Malik Merchant /Simergphotos. Please click on image for enlargement.

We wish all our readers a happy new year.

Date posted: January 1, 2021.
Last updated: January 2. 2021 (minor centre image change, thumbnail inset added)

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This post has been adapted from the original version first published on December 31, 2020 at Simergphotos.

We welcome feedback from our readers. Please complete the LEAVE A REPLY form below or click Leave a comment. Your letter may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation.

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Come Watch Afraaz Mulji perform today, July 12, at Aga Khan Museum at Noon, 1 and 3 PM

Afraaz Mulji on July 11, 2020 Aga Khan Museum
Afraaz Mulji at AKM, July 11, 2020

Sit in the Aga Khan Museum’s courtyard, sip a latter, have a biscotti, visit Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan’s collection of Islamic ceramics in the Bellerive Room, listen to performance by Afraaz Mulji and then walk through the Aga Khan Park. Enjoy July 12 at the Aga Khan Museum. Register (preferable) your visit at RESERVE TICKET. NOTE: Entrance to the Museum during the first month of reopening is Free or Pay as You Wish. For story on performance on July 11, 2020, please click A beautiful rendition of Nashid al Imamah by Afraaz Mulji at Aga Khan Museum

Date posted: July 12, 2020.

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Challenges facing Deaf Ismailis around the world, and what the Jamat can do to support them

This special article for Simerg was written jointly by SALMA KHANJI, IMRAN HAKAMAILI, FARAH LADHA, RAMZAN SOMANI and SHAIZA JETHA, and edited by NURIN MERCHANT

Picture yourself sitting in Jamatkhana on a Friday evening, listening to a Ginan or Qasida. Voices of fellow Jamati members resonate within the prayer hall, as they sing along in unison or chit chat amongst themselves. Mukhisaheb’s voice can then be heard, announcing the commencement of Du’a, and subsequent prayers, ginans, readings and announcements. You listen to the words being spoken, thinking about their meaning, as your mind subconsciously perceives the tone and pitch of the presenter’s voices.

Now, picture yourself sitting in Jamatkhana on a Friday evening, unable to hear a single sound. Wanting desperately to be able to participate in and understand the prayers and ceremonies, just as your spiritual brothers and sisters do, but unable to easily do so. This is the challenge Deaf Ismailis face not only here in North America, but all around the world.

Our Deaf Ismaili brothers and sisters can be found across the globe, from small villages and towns across India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, to larger cities across Canada, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Just as our Hearing brothers and sisters living in various parts of the world speak different languages, so do the Deaf murids.

However, there are only two Ismaili sign language interpreters in North America, where American Sign Language (ASL) is used and globally only seven Ismaili sign language interpreters are known.

Sign language is not an international language -– every country and language has its own form. Each one is just as beautiful, unique, and cultural as spoken languages. For example, there is a sign for “jambo” (meaning “hello” in Swahili) in East African sign languages, such as Kenyan and Tanzanian. There is also a sign for “bon appétit” (meaning “enjoy your meal” in French) in French Sign language. However, neither of these signs are used or recognized by individuals who communicate in American Sign Language, which is largely used in Canada and the United States, nor in British Sign Language, which is used throughout the United Kingdom.

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Ismaili Sign Interpreter
President Ameerally Kassim-Lakha of His Highness the Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for Canada gives his weekly address to the Canadian Jamat during the Friday Night Reflections program, while Safina Heneisen, a US based sign interpreter shown at bottom left of the photo, conveys the President’s message to Deaf Ismailis. In the top featured photo, the sign interpreter conveying Mawlana Hazar Imam’s speech is Vancouver’s Farah Ladha. Both photos have been extracted from the weekly Reflections program.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, all gatherings have become virtual. It was nice to see that the Canadian institutions had recruited sign language interpreters for the Friday Night Reflections series, a weekly webinar that airs on the Ismaili Canada website every Friday. This is a step in the right direction in terms of engaging and involving the Deaf Ismaili community. But that is not all that we can do! We are One Jamat -– what more can we do to include our Deaf brothers and sisters?

When Deaf murids are asked for their thoughts, many say they want to go to Jamatkhana to participate in and learn about our rituals, our history, our traditions, and our culture. But, without the presence of someone who can interpret this information to them in sign language, they are unable to learn and participate in a way that Hearing Ismailis can, which sadly but understandably, causes many to stop coming to Jamatkhana altogether.

YOUNG DEAF ISMAILI CHILDREN

There are also many young Deaf Ismaili children within our community, who do not have access to the Ta’lim Curriculum or teachings at Bait-ul-ilm (BUI) in sign language. Parents have expressed much sadness in seeing their children being unable to participate in these teachings. If you find yourself thinking, “why don’t parents of Deaf children just teach them our faith in sign language themselves at home?”, please consider this: do you (or any parent) have the same level of knowledge as a trained Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP) BUI teacher, or an Alwaez? Furthermore, this type of thinking does not consider the experience of attending BUI, of interacting with other Ismaili children, and of feeling like a part of the community.

Deaf children and adults experience many challenges just in the process of seeking to understand and be understood.  Imagine being in a country where you do not understand the language but still need to ask for directions. That would be a challenge.  Now imagine you are in that same country; you have learned a little bit of the language and are required to give a fluent presentation. Imagine being judged on your performance, on the errors in vocabulary choice and grammar that cause misunderstanding or confusion.  That is the challenge that Deaf children and adults face daily.

For Deaf people to have full communication access, they need communication partners that share the same language that they use.  For learning and participating fully in the BUI and in the Jamatkhana there needs to be access in sign language. This can be provided by a teacher who is proficient in sign language. If there is no teacher who is skilled with sign language, the services of a professional sign language interpreter can be used. Such professionals will have completed many years of specialized training and are able to interpret in a variety of situations from business meetings to conferences, medical appointments to classrooms, and even in Jamatkhana.

Not only are professional sign language interpreters trained in a variety of settings, they are also ethically bound to a strict code of confidentially set by their local and national associations.  Some interpreters even work internationally.

Interpreters play key roles in this process of learning and belonging. When Deaf murids receive information in sign language, they thrive in our community. By learning the meanings of Firmans and of our various prayers using sign language, they have said that they feel more connected to our faith –- not only physically to the space of Jamatkhana, but spiritually as well. We would like to share a few examples of how interpreters can be key contributors in building bridges and connections between Deaf and Hearing Jamati members.

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Ismailis taking the American Sign Language Class in a Jamatkhana
A group photo of students attending American Sign Language (ASL) class in a Jamatkhana. Photo credit: Farah Ladha.

EXAMPLES: THE JOY OF FEELING CONNECTED

A Deaf man in his 40s was interested in learning about mehmani that is brought to Jamatkhana, which is then sold as nandi. The question was why is it brought to Jamatkhana as a mehmani? And how its auctioned off after? The presence of an interpreter encouraged this murid to buy nandi in Jamatkhana for the first time. The custom was interpreted for the Deaf murid in sign language, including the description of the item, and the entire bidding process. When he wanted something, he would raise his hand. A Jamati member next to him informed him when his upper price limit had been reached by tapping him on the shoulder, causing him to lower his hand if the price exceeded his set amount. This not only helped him to participate in and understand the tradition of nandi, it also helped him to feel connected and interact with other Jamati members and allowed them to learn how to communicate with a Deaf murid.

Another example: For many years, a well-known Deaf murid attended Jamatkhana regularly. Every day, he would be greeted with a handshake to say hello. Nothing more was conveyed between himself and other Jamati members, as a communication barrier existed between them. One day, the Deaf murid, through a sign language interpreter, was able to present to the Jamat about his life. Audience members wept at having seen him for many years but never truly knowing him or his story. They also didn’t know that as a child, Hazar Imam had put his hand on his shoulder during a mulaqat while at the same time telling his father not to worry, his Deaf son would be ok. Nor were they aware that he had gone on to have a very successful business. His story would never have come to light if it were not for the presence of an interpreter, who facilitated the communication and understanding using sign language and the audience’s spoken language.

DIAMOND JUBILEE AND RECENT SUCCESS STORIES

A final example outlining a recent success story is one from the Diamond Jubilee. After tireless work and education about the inclusion of the Deaf Jamat, sign language interpretation was provided live for the first time for the Mulaqats in Karachi, Paris, and Lisbon, as well as across Canada and in Atlanta Georgia, USA. Over 250 Deaf murids were able to understand Hazar Imam’s Firmans for the first time.

However, there were still hundreds more that were not able to reap the benefit of the live interpretation either due to lack of professional Ismaili sign language interpreters in their area, or due to lack of education and knowledge of the presence of Deaf Ismaili murids, as well as the provision of adequate supports for them. Inshallah as more education is disseminated and awareness is raised, Deaf Ismailis will start to see a change, and more steps will be made towards their inclusion.

GOOD NEWS

The good news is that there is inclusive change happening. Gatherings for Deaf Ismailis have been organized, which have proven to be great opportunities for Deaf murids to meet and greet one another, as well as to teach, learn, and share knowledge. Watching elderly Deaf Jamati members interacting with younger members is a beautiful sight to see and reflect upon. Just as we reminisce about how our grandparents explained concepts to us in their mother tongue, when we were younger, the elder Deaf Ismailis are teaching the younger generations in their shared sign language.

Some Jamats have gone a step further and have hosted sign language 101 workshops for their members, where professional sign language instructors (some from outside of our community) come to teach basic sign language. The workshops have been very successful, and some Jamats have decided to pursue additional workshops so that they can advance their knowledge. All Jamats could host these types of workshops in order to promote communication between Deaf and Hearing murids.

EXCEPTIONAL AND INSPIRING STORIES, AND STIGMAS

In addition to allowing Hearing and Deaf Jamati members to communicate, these workshops also allow individuals with hearing loss to learn sign language and thus have seamless communication as hearing deteriorates with age. For example, there was a woman who brought her elderly mother, who was profoundly deaf in one ear and losing hearing in the other, to one of these organized workshops. Both wanted to learn sign language so that they could continue to communicate once her mom had fully lost her hearing. Both mum and daughter were very touched and emotional when they witnessed firsthand how sign language is possible to learn and assists in communication between the Hard of Hearing and the Hearing. These workshops again were facilitated by professional sign language interpreters, some from within the community and some from outside of it.

These are good news stories, yes. But negative stigmas are still attached with Deafness, mainly the myth that Deaf are unable to be educated or taught or even work to make a living. This is entirely untrue, and an example given by Habiba Teja at a woman’s gala presentation highlights this fact.

Habiba is a well-known nutritionist and was talking about her experience with improving food quality through Aga Khan University (AKU) in Pakistan and Eastern Africa. Through this endeavor, she was able to help many impoverished people find work. One example she gave was about how she learned of a young Deaf man in his 20’s who sat in his room all day and stared at a wall. She visited with him and taught him job skills by communicating with him visually by hand gesturing, and by physically showing him what to do. He was quick to learn and was able to find full time paid work. This turned his entire life around and he began earning an income. He has since gotten married and has a family of his own. The stigma associated with him being Deaf had prevented anyone from trying to support his learning; believing he couldn’t learn, no one bothered taking the time to teach him anything. Habiba’s story touched many and shattered the notions that the Deaf people are unable to be educated or work.

This is not the only stigma we need to face as a community. We need to work together as a community to squash the stigmas associated with Deafness, Blindness, and Disabilities in general. Unfortunately, these stigmas are still very prevalent in the Ismaili Community today. We need to educate ourselves and to reach out to those who feel left out in our community due to situations beyond their control. We need to inspire one another and learn from one another. And perhaps for some of you reading this, it may seem like a lot to take in. Maybe trying to learn a bit of sign language feels overwhelming. For those people, we offer this one quote from a Deaf person:

“Hearing people can learn sign language. Deaf people cannot learn to hear.”

ISMAILI DEAF WEBSITE

Try to learn even just a little bit of sign language to be able to communicate with your Deaf brothers and sisters. If you know of any Deaf Jamati members wanting to participate in activities within our community, but not being able to do so due to the reasons outlined in this article or others, encourage your local or national council to provide a professional sign language interpreter. If they are unsure about how to do this, we invite them to visit the Ismaili Deaf Website and fill out the contact form – information will then be provided to them.

The website also contains lots of information for the general public about the terminology that you have read within this article, such as Deaf, Hearing, Hard of Hearing and Deaf Blind. Furthermore, it has many articles about sign language, and about the achievements and successes of some of our Deaf Ismailis and interpreters. If you are curious about where you can learn sign language in your area, and/or how to have access to professional sign language interpreters, you can fill out the online contact form.

A FINAL NOTE FROM A DEAF ISMAILI MURID

“Without interpreters, our lives would be completely lost. We would feel helpless and struggle in our daily lives because we would not understand what is happening around the world.  We use sign language every day of our lives; a rich visual language which includes the use of facial expression, body language and gestures. Without sign language, we cannot function and participate fully in society as it is our means to communicate in all settings: educational, medical, workplace and at Jamatkhana. Sign language interpreters help us to better understand our faith and religion and in Jamatkhana especially if possible, Ismaili interpreters are so helpful to help us growing in our faith with Allah. Life is about learning and participating in a fully accessible society.”

If you are interested in learning sign language to make friends, to help one another, or to become a certified interpreter, we encourage you to contact your local Deaf and Hard of Hearing service organization as well as local colleges and universities who offer sign language courses. They will be happy to provide you with more information. Of course, you may reach out to us at the Ismaili Deaf Website, and complete the CONTACT US form

Date posted: July 7, 2020.
Last updated: July 9, 2020 (photo caption update with names of sign interpreters).

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FEEDBACK FROM READERS: We welcome feedback/letters on this very important subject from Deaf Ismailis, their families and friends as well as everyone who is concerned about the difficulties Deaf people around the world face every single day of their lives. Stories of inspirational Deaf Ismailis are also welcome. Please use the feedback box which appears below (you may remain anonymous, if you wish). If you don’t see the box please click Leave a comment. Your comment may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters. Simerg’s editor, Malik Merchant, may be reached at Simerg@aol.com. Feel free to write to him – he will only respond to verifiable individuals!

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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You must watch the 72 hour Shukrana concert on Ismaili.TV – don’t let anything stop you!

by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor,  Simerg, Barakah, and Simergphotos)

I’ve been watching the special Eid ul-Fitr presentation Shukrana since it was launched on Ismaili TV Sunday, May 24 2020, at 2 am! Yes! You are reading the hour correctly. When Saba Rawjani of Ottawa was performing on Sunday, my daughter Nurin was doing her gardening under sunny skies and a temperature of 25c in Ottawa! I urged her to get back and watch Saba (see photo at top of post). What a sweet and charming talent Saba is, and what about the control of her voice! Of course, I have heard her in Ottawa since she was a child, but how much she has grown over the years! Then, on Sunday morning the Syrian performance was incredible. Truly, every performance has been top class! And what about those messages from little children — I’m glad they are repeated every so often. Keep one thing in mind: every composition has been done with the artists’ love for Mawlana Hazar Imam, and in the spirit of ONE JAMAT.

I will review the concert at a later time but in the meantime I simply urge you to leave everything aside, for a few hours everyday, and watch the superb musical talent of the Jamat from every corner of the Ismaili world.

You still have more than 24 hours of continuous watching. What have I been doing during my absolutely essential sleeping time? Take my notebook into my bedroom, lay it on the dresser beside me, with the screen facing my bed! Something or the other nudges me to open my eyes, and I stare at the screen with delight. My ears are always open! I feel rested, and I owe it to delightful voices and instruments of Ismaili artists! What a wonderful intrusion!

WATCH IT, and ask your family members to join you! Sorry, but make the Shukrana viewing mandatory, at least for a few hours of the remaining time that is left! Please click Ismaili.tv.

Date posted: May 25, 2020, 01:05 AM.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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Malik Merchant
Malik Merchant of Simerg

Malik Merchant is the founding publisher/editor of Simerg (2009), Barakah (2017) and Simergphotos (2012). A former IT consultant, he now dedicates his time to small family projects and other passionate endeavours such as the publication of this website. He is the eldest son of the Late Alwaez Jehangir Merchant (1928-2018) and Alwaeza Maleksultan Merchant, who both served Ismaili Jamati institutions together for several decades in professional and honorary capacities. His daughter, Nurin Merchant, is a veterinarian. He may be contacted at Simerg@aol.com.

An interview with authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs: A meticulous book about an extraordinary Fatimid manuscript illustrating the heavens and the earth as was known in 11th century Cairo

Book of Curiosities. Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Fatimid manuscript 11th century
There are 17 maps in the Fatimid manuscript Book of Curiosities, 14 of which are completely unique to this manuscript. Perhaps the most remarkable is this rectangular map of the world. This the only such map to be dated before the renaissance that we know to have survived.

“The Book of Curiosities is one of the greatest achievements of medieval map-making; it is also a remarkable part of the story of Islamic civilization….It is a profoundly Fatimid treatise. Like a tirāz armband, it wears its allegiance to the Fatimid caliphs on its sleeve. This is apparent from the opening dedication, from the blessings heaped on the Fatimid imams” — Emilie Savage-Smith and Yossef Rapoport, authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs.

About a millennium ago, in Fatimid Cairo, an unknown author completed a large and richly illustrated book. In the course of thirty-five chapters, this book guided the reader on a journey from the outermost cosmos and planets to Earth and its lands, islands, features, and inhabitants. This treatise, known as The Book of Curiosities, was unknown to modern scholars until a remarkable manuscript copy surfaced in 2000. Christie’s auction house in London, who had put up the manuscript for sale, wanted to know more about it and invited Professor Emilie Savage-Smith of Oxford University to examine the manuscript. As it turned out the manuscript was one of the most important discoveries in the history of cartography in recent decades, and was eventually acquired by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. With Yossef Rapoport, then a young research assistant, Professor Savage-Smith, set out to critically study the manuscript and together they co-authored “Lost Maps of the Caliphs,” with the aim of providing the first general overview of The Book of Curiosities and the unique insight it offers into medieval Islamic thought.

“As tales of scholarly finds go, this is up there with the best….Lost Maps of the Caliphs is a testament both to the scholarship of its authors and to the spirit of inquiry fostered by the Fatimids.” — The Daily Telegraph, London.

The article that follows below was originally published on Jadaliyya on April 8, 2019. We are deeply indebted to Bodleian Library Publishing, publishers of the UK edition of “Lost Maps of the Caliphs,” as well as The University of Chicago Press for facilitating the publication of the complete interview as well as an excerpt from the book on Simerg.

“Lost Maps of the Caliphs” has been acclaimed world wide in numerous reviews. In addition to the very brief excerpt that has been quoted here from London’s Daily Telegraph, the following quote from Imago Mundi goes on to validate the book’s outstanding content: “We are fortunate indeed that Rapoport and Savage-Smith have undertaken fifteen years of meticulous, collaborative research on the Book of Curiosities. The culmination, Lost Maps of the Caliphs, is an exceptional tribute to an exceptional object of study.”

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Interview with Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith (YR and ESS): This book started with a discovery. In September 2000, a specialist in Islamic manuscripts at Christie’s auction house in London called Emilie—who specializes in the history of Islamic science—and asked her if she could come into London from Oxford and look at a puzzling Arabic manuscript that was up for sale a couple of weeks later. It was entitled Kitāb Gharāʾib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn, which loosely translates as “The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eye.” Christie’s didn’t know what to make of it, and wanted to seek Emilie’s advice about its importance.

Emilie was shown a rather scruffy manuscript, bound in ill-fitting covers, with a bird-dropping visible on the cover. But inside the covers was a medieval Arabic treatise on the skies and the Earth, accompanied by a series of strange images and maps unparalleled in any other medieval work. Above all, it had a map of the world with a scale of degrees of longitude at the top, in what seemed to be the earliest surviving example of mathematical plotting on any world map known to us.

The manuscript turned out to be one of the most important discoveries in the history of cartography in recent decades. With the support of Oxford colleagues, Emilie began a campaign to ensure the work would be available to the public rather then be kept by private collector. In June of 2002, it was acquired by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, with the help of the National Lottery Fund. Yossi then joined as (then) a young research assistant. We first established that the treatise was written in the first half of the eleventh century, in Cairo, the newly-founded capital of the Fatimid Shi’a Empire. We then spent the following decade carefully preparing a critical edition and annotated translation of the maps and text, published by Brill in 2014.

Our critical edition made the treatise and its maps available for scholars, but it did not explain what they mean or why they are so important. We strongly felt that merely translating the text and presenting the images—beautiful and striking as they are—was not enough. The treatise had to be understood as a whole, because the maps of the sky and of the Earth, of the Indian Ocean and of the Nile, of Sicily, of Mahdia, and of southern Anatolia, all made sense only when read together in the context of the society and culture in which they were produced. Lost Maps of the Caliphs tells the story of this exceptional manuscript—how it was discovered and why it is so significant.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

YR and ESS: Because the treatise is so wide-ranging, we use it to reconsider the development of astronomy, astrology, geography, and cartography in the first four centuries of Islam. In the Lost Maps we outline the medieval Islamic understanding of the structure of the cosmos and celestial phenomena. The amalgamation of Hellenistic, Coptic, Hindu and other star lore was all channeled towards an astrological mind-set. The Earth together with the Heavens formed the universe of eleventh-century Cairo. To a medieval person, whose night skies were not blanked-out by city lights and pollution, the contents of the night sky—the ‘Raised-Up Roof’ as our author, following the Qur’an, called it—revealed the workings of the universe and, if properly understood, heralded events on Earth.

Our book is also a contribution to the history of global communication networks at the turn of the previous millennium. We use the geographical materials of the Book of Curiosities to depict the Fatimid Empire as a global maritime power, with tentacles of military and religious authority in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Indus Valley, and along the East African coast. The extent of Fatimid knowledge of Byzantine coasts demonstrates close ties between the Muslim and Christian empires. The material on East Asia sheds new light on Sino-Indian trade routes and is very surprising for a treatise written in Egypt. The treatise’s familiarity with the East African coasts contributes to recent debates on the Islamization of the Swahili coast.

Perhaps most importantly, we use the Book of Curiosities to re-consider the history of early Islamic map-making. The world map of the Book of Curiosities is a result of the dialogue of the Islamic world with Hellenistic, Late Antique geography. The extensive maritime material in the Book of Curiosities sheds new light on navigation in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean before the introduction of the compass in the thirteenth century, and presents an Islamic angle on debates concerning the origins of the European portolan chart.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

YR and ESS: Emilie has been working on Islamic scientific manuscripts for several decades, and published books on Islamic celestial globes, medieval Islamic magic and divination, and a catalogue of the medical manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. She also co-authored the volume on Medieval Islamic Medicine that won the 2008 Book Prize in Middle Eastern Studies of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society. It was Emilie’s vast experience with Islamic scientific manuscripts that enabled her to appreciate how special this treatise was. In Lost Maps of the Caliphs, Emilie also wrote the chapters that deal with astronomy and astrology, as well as providing a very personal chapter about her campaign to make this gem available for the public.

Yossi came to this project with training in the history of Arabic-speaking medieval Islamic societies, shortly after competing a PhD on the history of marriage and divorce in late medieval Egypt. But, like so many, he was always fascinated with maps, and the deciphering of the maps of the Book of Curiosities was as close as one gets to deciphering a fairy-tale treasure map. Through this project, he became an expert on Islamic maps, navigation, medieval trade routes between India and China, and Hellenistic collections of strange animals.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

YR and ESS: We hope that this book will be widely read as a window onto medieval Islamic views of the world, a perspective on Islamic science that is missing from current debates about the legacies of Islamic civilization. The Book of Curiosities is one of the greatest achievements of medieval map-making; it is also a remarkable part of the story of Islamic civilization. Too often, the achievements of Islamic science are divorced from the culture that produced them and are only brought to light as a trophy in a sterile competition with West. Islamic maps in particular get almost no attention in surveys of Islamic history, and even when they are shown they are rarely explained. Because we tend to view Islamic civilization through the prism of religion and faith, we find no use for these abstract diagrams that tell us nothing about God.

What could be more foundational to any culture than the manner in which it conceived of the sky and the Earth? We hope to show that the discovery of the Book of Curiosities is also a timely rediscovery of those aspects of Islamic history which are too often neglected in academic and non-academic visions of Islam. It is a rediscovery of the sea as an integral part of a civilization that supposedly originated in the desert, of an outward looking scientific enquiry that was built on the foundation of the classical Greek legacy, and of the power of the image in a culture that is too often reduced to texts.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

YR and ESS: It is about time to put the Book of Curiosities behind—it is nearly twenty years since we started working on it. Emilie came back to the history of Islamic medicine and is now completing a mutli-volume translation of a thirteenth-century Syrian biographical dictionary of doctors, to be published by Brill, with selections in the Oxford World Classics series published by Oxford University Press.

Yossi has been working over the past few years on the history of the medieval Islamic countryside. He recently published a monograph, Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt, whichis a detailed micro-study of the economy and society of the villages of the Egyptian province of the Fayyum as described in a unique thirteenth-century tax register. This book, too, has a lot of maps, mostly modern GIS ones but also a copy of one that was originally made in the tenth century.

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Excerpt from Lost Maps of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith

Who, then, was the author of the Book of Curiosities? His apparent access to naval military records suggests a direct connection to the Fatimid state. His personal acquaintance with an Ismaʿili missionary who had been to Nubia, and his unique information on itineraries in the world of the Indian Ocean, all suggest he was close to the Ismaʿili missionary network. The map of Palermo with its suburbs, the diagram of Tinnīs, and in particular the map of Mahdia, which is drawn from the perspective of someone looking at the city from a vantage point just outside of its walls, suggest that he had visited these port cities in person. In some ways, he is a successor to the geographer Ibn Ḥawqal and a predecessor of the poet Nāser-e Khosraw—both Ismaʿili missionaries, travelers and keen observers of human societies. Unlike them, however, his interest in trade is minimal, and he is more likely to have been a military man than a merchant. Nor was he a scholar of the caliber of his Egyptian contemporaries, the physician Ibn Riḍwān or Ibn Haytham, the founder of the science of optics. His grasp of mathematical concepts appears to have been quite poor, and he generally avoided technical discussions.

Rather than a scholar our author was, primarily, a mapmaker. It is the maps that make the Book of Curiosities such a distinct work of medieval scholarship and such an appealing manuscript for modern audiences. The author has unprecedented confidence in the ability of maps and diagrams to convey information. Unlike any other geographical treatise before this, the maps are stand-alone artifacts, unsupported by any accompanying text. This is true for some of the maps of the sky, but especially for the rectangular map of the world, the maps of the three great seas, and the maps of the rivers. Even when the maps are related to a text, such as those of the islands of Sicily and Cyprus, or the city of Mahdia, the information they contain goes well beyond that of the preceding prose sections. We do not have the original treatise, only a later copy, so we do not know how lavish it might have been when first penned. But the second part of the title literally translates as “that which is pleasant to the eyes” (mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn), indicating that this treatise was about the images as much as it was about the text.

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Lost Map of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith
A photo of the UK edition of Lost Maps of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, published by Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Please click on image to see book details.

Maps are at the center of this Book of Curiosities, and this anonymous mapmaker offers us his reflections on the craft of cartography. His chapter on mapmaking techniques introduces the maps of seas and islands, the most original maps in the treatise. He opens with a formulation of the purpose of his maps: “Although it is impossible for created beings to know the extent of God’s creation, the knowledgeable and qualified among them are entrusted with witnessing or imparting a small part of it.” The maps that will follow will convey knowledge, albeit imperfect, of God’s creation. He then continues to explain why his maps are intentionally “not accurate representations” of reality: the contours of coastlines change over time, the mapmaking instruments are not fine enough to reproduce reality on a small scale, and labels need to be legible. Here is a mapmaker explaining his choices and reflecting on the purposes and functionality of his maps. The results of his labor are unique medieval versions of “graphic representations that facilitate spatial understanding,” to use the definition of “map” by the leading modern historian of cartography. There is no parallel for this passage in any other medieval treatise known to us.

The Book of Curiosities is a profoundly Fatimid treatise. Like a tirāz armband, it wears its allegiance to the Fatimid caliphs on its sleeve. This is apparent from the opening dedication, from the blessings heaped on the Fatimid imams, and from the curses flung at the rebels who sought to overthrow them. The treatise also reflects some immediate political ambitions of the Fatimid state, especially in the Mediterranean. It depicts visually and in text the defenses of the strategic Fatimid holdings in Tinnīs, Mahdia, and Sicily. There are historical references to the early Islamic conquests of Cyprus, Crete, and Bari, with the inference that they may be ripe targets for Fatimid re-conquest. The mapping of anchorages, ports, and bays deep in Byzantine territory, some of them as far north as the Dardanelles, also reflect a military context. It is likely that much of the material here was actually drawn from the records of the Fatimid navy. And beyond the immediate political objectives, the maritime focus of the Book of Curiosities is also distinctly Fatimid. The unusual categories for organizing the geographical material, from seas to islands, and then to lakes and rivers, reflect the unique maritime orientation of the Fatimids, who, alone among the great medieval Muslim empires, preferred networks of ports, rivers, and islands over horses and land routes.

The treatise can be viewed as part of a westward shift in the geographical tradition and in the center of gravity in the Islamic world in general. Most ninth-century works, such as those by Ibn Khurradādhbih and the Relation of China and India, focused on Asia and the Indian Ocean. By the middle of tenth century, however, the gaze shifts to the Mediterranean, North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Al-Masʿūdī spent much of his later life in Egypt and Syria, and Ibn Ḥawqal provided an unprecedented account of the Maghreb. The eleventh-century Book of Curiosities focuses on the eastern Mediterranean. Later works of the Andalusian author Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī (d. 1094) and, of course, the Sicilian based al-Idrīsī (fl. 1154) have their focal point even farther to the west. The heavy reliance of the Book of Curiosities on the work of Ibn Ḥawqal is also suggestive, because the latter was, most likely, also a missionary. The focus on islands in the Book of Curiosities may have had special resonance against the backdrop of the Ismaʿili nomenclature of regional “islands.”

The Ismaʿili context of the Book of Curiosities invites comparisons with the influential Epistles of the Brethren of Piety, an encyclopedic corpus of science and Neoplatonic philosophy, composed in Iraq sometime before the middle of the tenth century. The Epistles are not cited in the Book of Curiosities, nor is there evidence for their circulation in Fatimid Egypt, despite their affinity with Ismaʿili teachings. Yet the Epistles seem to approach the subject matter of the sky and the Earth in a similar manner. Following the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, geography is seen in the Epistles as an appendix to the study of the stars. But the Epistles also have a higher purpose: the reader is invoked to contemplate the design of the creator, “to ponder wonders (ʿajāʾib) of his creation and reflect on the curiosities (gharāʾib) of what he fashioned.” This desire to observe God’s work explains some of the interest in marvels and wonders exhibited by the Book of Curiosities, as its title suggests.

Like the Epistles of the Brethren of Piety, the Book of Curiosities draws heavily and without compunction on the heritage of Greek science. Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen provide our author with much of the material on the general structure of the heavens and the Earth, and on the way the former influence the latter. Muslim scholars like al-Masʿūdī correct and add information, especially when one zooms in on the Earth’s size and layout, but the general framework inherited from the Greeks is not questioned. And while God is omnipresent, the Qur’an is cited sparingly, only to invite reflection on creation or to buttress moral points about God’s punishment meted out to the unbelievers. There is only one Tradition from the Prophet in the entire treatise, on the intrinsic purity of water. Such reliance on a Hellenistic heritage was not uncommon in eleventh-century Cairo. Mubashshir ibn Fātik, a wealthy and influential scholar, left us a remarkable collection of ethical sayings from the Greek sages, with special focus on the Late Antique and legendary Hermes.

The author of the Book of Curiosities does not limit himself to Greek authorities, but is also acquainted with Persian, Indian, and Coptic knowledge. He cites an account of the birth of astrology in India, and Persian authorities on the ominous bābānīyah stars. He is also keen to show command of multiple languages. For example, the names of each planet are given in Persian, Classical Greek, “Indian,” and Byzantine Greek; the names of each day of the week are given in Persian, Byzantine Greek, “Indian,” Hebrew, and Coptic. The use of Coptic is of special significance. There is here a deep influence of Egyptian Coptic traditions, an influence which has been overlooked in modern scholarship on Islamic science. Coptic lore was already reworked by al-Masʿūdī, and the Coptic calendar seems to have been used very early when predicting the risings of the lunar mansions. There is even more Coptic material in the Book of Curiosities, including accounts of the moray eel and the foundation of Tinnīs. Most importantly, the explanations related by Copts regarding the flooding of the Nile—that the Nile floods are a result of the summer melting of the snow on equatorial mountains—are as close to the present understanding of the Nile system as was ever achieved by medieval Islamic scholarship.

Date posted: January 26, 2020.
Last updated: February 3, 2020.

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New African Interview with the Aga Khan: A Life Devoted to the Service of Others – A Man for All Seasons

We invite our readers to read the complete interview on Simerg’s sister website Barakah, which is dedicated to Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. The interview was conducted by Anver Versi, Editor-in-chief of New African, the highly influential magazine on African affairs published in the UK. We are delighted to bring the interview with the editor’s permission. Please start reading the article HERE or click on the image below.

HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN IN CONVERSATION WITH ANVER VERSI

Aga Khan interview with New African editorr Anver Versi; A Bridge of Hope published on Barakah
Please click on image to read interview.

Date posted: September 23, 2019.

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Voice of America: How a Syrian Ismaili Family Was Welcomed in the USA

The brief video posted here with the transcript that follows originally appeared on the Voice of America website on March 17, 2017.

We hope to catch up with this Syrian Ismaili family as well as other families like them with whom we have recently made contact, to see how they have been doing since their arrival in the USA or Canada. We also welcome other Syrian Ismaili families who have arrived in North America to reach out to us at Simerg@aol.com, and share their tales of migration.  

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Despite White House Rhetoric, Syrians Welcomed in US

By ELIZABETH LEE
(Voanews.com)

LOS ANGELES — Nael Zaino will do anything for his almost 2-year-old son, Aram, whom he has hardly had a chance to meet.

“When I saw him first time, he was crying and the bad moment was when he refused to come to me. Maybe he’s punishing me why I was absent all this period.”

Working for an oil company in Iraq, Zaino was not absent by choice. He and his wife, Lin Arafat, are Ismaili minorities from Syria, and their home there is no longer safe from the Islamic State.

“They are so close to my village also. We are expecting any moment they may be inside the village,” Zaino said.

Asylum granted

While visiting her aunt in the U.S. in 2015, Arafat asked for asylum and received it. Zaino then applied for a U.S. visa as a family member. It was approved on the same day that Trump signed his first executive order, banning travelers from seven Muslim majority countries. As a result, Zaino’s first attempt to enter the U.S. failed.

“It’s very hard. I lost all my hope — because I’m here all alone with the little boy. I need him [Zaino] to come to have some support,” Arafat said.

“If you ask about my feeling, I would say I was in a dark box, dark room, black everything around you is black,” Zaino said.

‘This is America’

After many days of phone calls that led to help from U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’ office, Zaino finally arrived at the airport in Boston, Massachusetts, which he compared to coming into the sun.

“I start seeing a spot of life,” he said.

To his surprise, he was not only admitted to the country, he was welcomed.

“The officer gave me my passport with a stamp and he told me, ‘Go and start your life and enjoy it with your son.’ It was unbelievable. He let me feel strong. He told me, ‘This is America. This is American people. We are all behind you.’”

The greeting from the customs officer was at odds with what Zaino had seen on the news: The American government was taking a hard line with refugees and immigrants, particularly from Muslim-majority countries in an effort to safeguard U.S. citizens from terrorism. After the first travel order was stopped by the courts, a revised executive order issued March 6 again included Syria in a three-month ban on visa holders from six mostly Muslim countries. A court in Hawaii put a temporary hold on the second order Wednesday.

Getting to know his son

Zaino’s reception in the U.S., not only from the immigration officer but from other Americans he has met, has emboldened him.

“If it (the revised executive order) harms us, there will be someone to stop it, and we will be a part of it,” he said.

For now, Zaino is working on getting to know little Aram, as they take baby steps together.

“I don’t know what happened yesterday. He refused to let me do anything for him, but today, from the morning, he was smiling, and he let me kiss him, which is not possible yesterday.”

Date posted on Simerg: March 22, 2019.

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To see and read the story at source please click, https://www.voanews.com/a/despite-white-house-rhetoric-syrians-welcomed-in-us/3770191.html