Wednesday, December 31, 2008


The Muhuarram Festival, c. 1795
Image taken

Yesterday or today, depending on whether you’re Sunni or Shiite {see wgaw: creeds of islam}, was/is New Year’s Day and the first day of the Islamic year, 1430 H {see wgaw: calendars}.

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and can also be spelt; Muharam, Moharam or Moharram, but all four versions are said in exactly the same way [moo-ha-rram].

On the 10th day of Muharram, a day of mouring known as Ashora, (also spelt Ashura, but said in exactly the same way [ash-shore-rrah], from the Arabic word for '10'; ash-rra), Shiia Muslims mourn the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala (a town about 100km south-west of Baghdad).

At the Battle of Karbala, Hussain ibn Ali (a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, founder of Islam) and approximately 72 members of his immediate family and followers were killed, en masse in AD 680 / 61 H. It is said the survivors, mostly women and children, were transported to Damascus where they were incarcerated.

Photograph of a Muharram procession in Baroda (Vadodara) taken by an unknown photographer in c. 1880 Image taken from:

The Battle of Karbala is marked throughout the Shi'ia world during the first 10 days of Muharram with entire male populations of villages marching as one, in commemeration. Horses often lead the procession and are decorated with green and gold garlands around their necks.

Muharram in Bahrain, 2005.
Image taken from:

The horses are closely followed by several drummers and men carrying various portable loud speakers, on which the story of the battle is re-told to the audience. Highly decorated tazivas [taa-zee-vaas] or lifesize replicas of the martyr’s coffin can follow and are carried through the streets on the shoulders of the mourners.

Muharram in Bahrain, 2005.  Image taken from:

Next come the mourners, all male and all of whom will be dressed from head to toe in the black of mourning. They will, in unison, beat their breasts, arms and backs with their right arm. Alternatively sharp knives, 'cats of nine tails' [sun-gal] and swords [safe] are used to draw blood.

~As an aside, the only time I spectated at a Muhrram procession many years ago, there appeared to be a lot of slashing, blood and I found the smell quite overpowering (embarassingly, I fainted). So I have dilerately choosen not to add photos of bodies being cut with sharp implements to this particular blog, however, hundreds of photos can be found on the google search engine. Go to the 'image' section and type in the word 'Muharram'.

The mourning period for Ashora is 40 days, as is the custom in the Arab world {see future blog: }. During this time, within the Shi'ia communities in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, you'll be able to hear speeches from the Matams [maa-taams] or the Shi'ite mourning temples, see public processions and a great pouring of public grief. Both men and women chant and weep, mourning Hussain, his family and his followers.

What to Say
Leading up to the 10th Muharram, or Ashshoora, you can use the term, "Maa jouren" [maa jou-rreen] which translates as, sympathy/ condolences.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shaking Hands

photo taken from:

In general, and as an alternative to western norms, Arabs prefer a gentle handshake rather than a firm grip. The reason being it is thought that firm grip suggests unnecessary aggressiveness.

Once inside the room you should shake hands with the most senior person first who will usually, but not always, be the host. You should then work your way around the room, shaking hands and kissing each person before sitting down and joining in the conversation. I’ve read you should move around the room in an anti-clockwise direction, but I never remember which way to go round a room and am presuming it doesn't matter that much.

Urban Legends
Some Arabs, both male and female, will never shake the hands of an unrelated member of the opposite sex. As a woman I overcome this by waiting for the man to offer his hand to be shaken. However, sometimes I forget and hold out my hand and find it refused. I'm not particularly keen on standing in public with my arm out-stretched, hand open in mid air, waiting for a hand which is not forthcoming. It's not particularly inspiring or amusing, but I do find it less embarrassing than I used to, however it still has the capacity to make me feel quite uncomfortable.

Photo taken from: AP Photo/Amr Nabil, as shown on:

When I once asked an Arab business woman why she wouldn’t shake hands with men, or why ladies wore a black glove on their right hand when they knew they were going to shake hands, her reply was,
"Well, if I were to let a man shake my hands he could easily tickle my palm, or hold it for just that bit too long. And I know he would want sex.”

She continued,
“I do shake hands with members of the opposite sex because of my work. I know Europeans would find it very rude if I didn’t shake their hands, but if I can get away with not doing it, I will.”

When I contemplated out loud I’d never thought of shaking hands in that way before she replied, “Well now you have thought about it, you’ll always have it in your mind a man can indicate how he feels about you through shaking your hand.” ~I'm still not convinced!~

I was out with my husband and a very close friend of his. The friend was talking about his problems and the difficulties he was currently facing. Instintively I put out my hand to touch his and was surprised to feel him pull it away quickly. Not only did he pull his hand away, he pulled his entire body away too.

It took me several seconds to realise we'd approached what I had done from completely different viewpoints: I’d reached out to him and attempted to pat him on the hand saying, “It’ll be all right” and he’d reacted as entirely appropriately; there was no way he should, in any circumstances, be touching any body part which belonged to his friend’s wife.

A western friend told me this story,“I remember before we got married my husband and I had male acquaintances who we would chat with. However, when we got married some of them started to shake hands with my husband and completely ignore me. I asked my husband why this was happening and he explained they were showing respect for him by ignoring me!”

Monday, December 29, 2008

Insults & Shoe Throwing

Photo taken from:

Following the recent shoe-throwing incident by Iraqi journalist, Muntadar al-Zaidi, (reporter with Cairo-based network Al Baghdadia Television), this particular blog update is dedicated to explaining some of the insults used by Arabs.

Image taken from: msnbc

Firstly though I'll try to explain why throwing a shoe is such an insult within the Arab world. Shoes step on dirt and indicate a person who is filthy dirty and is equivalent to the dirt found on the floor. As an aside, and for the same reason, it's also an insult to show someone the bottom of your shoe.

Throwing a shoe and shouting the words, "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!" followed by another shoe and the words, "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!" Is probably the ultimate insult of all time. It appears the shoes sailed over the president's head in more ways than one.

From my viewpoint it appears many of the words used to insult another person in the Arabic language are derived from the animal kingdom and in each of the examples below, the male version of the word has been given.

If you'd like to insult a female just add the sound ‘aH’ to the end of each word, or as a suffix. For example a male bear is refered to as a, 'doob' and a female bear is referred to as a, 'doob-aH'.

Insults for Males & Females
bear [doob]
too fat

bull [thorr]
big and stupid

cow [bug-qaH-rarr]

dog [khel-bh]
dirty person (although dogs were apparently not liked by the Prophet Mohammed, as stated in a Hadith, or one of the 'extra Quranic' books, they are mentioned in the Quran; 7:176, 18:18, 18:22. In Afghanistan apparently the ultimate insult is, 'dog washer'.

donkey [ho-maarr]
stupid. Also, 'cuss ho-marr' or 'donkey's cunt'

insect [hash-aa-rrah]
the lowest creature

monkey [soo-baal]
ugly looks and it seems you’re trying to get one over me by acting cute, but you aren’t

owl [boom-merr]
a nosy, interfering and old woman

pig [khan-zeerr]
filthy animal (Muslims don't eat pork or pork products, as forbidden in the Quran; 5:3)

scorpion [agg-rraab]
a tricky person who plays games behind my back

Insults specifically used against females
ya marrah [yaa maa-raH] literally, 'come here now woman'
ya binti [yah bint-tee] my female, literally, 'you belong to me'

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

To Barter or not to Barter?

When I think of classic personifications of Arabs and the Middle East, bartering always comes into the picture. It is part of life here but as more and more shopping centres spring up it is, in some ways, a dying art.

If you want to practice your bartering skills then a trip to a suq is needed, a glint in your eye and the desire for a bargain.

Edward T. Hall, the father of cross-cultural communication, discusses batering with such precision in his book, 'The Silent Language' (ISBN: 0-385-05549-8), I've decided to let him talk for this particular blog update:

“Negotiation, therefore, swings around a central pivot. Ignorance of the position of the pivot opens one up to the worst type of exploitation, as well as loss of face. It doesn’t matter whether it is a squash in the bazaar or a hydroelectric dam in the international market. The pattern remains constant. Above and below the central point there is a series of points which indicate what the two parties feel as they enter the field.

Here is how an Arab from Damascus described this process. The pivotal point was six pilasters, the price of squash on the day he describes. Above and below this there were four points. Any one of the top four might be the first price asked by the seller. Any one of the lower four represents the first offer made by the prospective buyer.

The hidden or implicit meaning of the code is given opposite each step on the scale below. This meaning is not exact, but represents a clue as to the attitudes of the two parties as they enter the bargaining process:

Seller’s asking prices
12 or more; complete ignorance on the part of the seller
10 An insult; arguments and fights ensure, seller doesn’t want to sell
8 Will sell; but let’s continue bargaining
7 Will sell; under the market value

6 The market price/ pivot

Buyer’s offering prices
5 Buyer really wants the squash; will pay over the market price
4 Buyer will buy
2 Arguments and fighting; buyer doesn’t want to buy
1 Ignorance; of the value of the item on the part of the buyer

Hall continues,
"One cannot under-estimate the importance of such patterns and the hold they have on people at all levels.

Discussing our stand in Egypt during and directly following the Aswan dam fiasco and before our position in the Middle East had deteriorated so badly, an Arab sympathetic to our cause expressed it this way,“If you don’t give a little in bargaining, the other fellow will back up. If he gives two steps, you have to give two steps, if you don’t he will back up four. We didn’t give our two steps and Nasser backed up four.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pre-Nuptial Agreements

Following the advice from several women friends who have come through some very messy divorces, today's blog is dedicated to suggestions as to what can be included in a prenuptial agreement; pre-nups are a legal part of any Muslim marriage - you can't get married without one.

Women, when the Mullah asks if there anything else you require during the wedding ceremony, take the opportunity to ask for it. This is your chance to state how you want your marriage to be conducted and what you would like in the unfortunate event of a divorce.

Thank goodness ignoring the pre nup agreement is NOT AN OPTION and whatever you include becomes part of a legally binding contract. I strongly advise any woman to think about their pre-nup carefully before the marriage ceremony. Make sure to state what you would realistically need, should things go wrong and you divorce {see wgaw blog archive: o7/o5} .

Divorce, in most cases within a Muslim marriage, can only be asked for by the man. Please note divorce courts in the Gulf Arab world are staffed by very old gentlemen and there doesn't appear to be a single woman judge in the family courts in the GCC. (would someone please correct me if I'm wrong on this)

My suggestions of what to think about including in a pre nup agreement are:

1. The Right to ask for a Divorce Should your Husband take a Second wife
Muslim men are legally allowed to marry up to four wives, at the same time. If the right to ask for a divorce is not stated in your marriage contract and your husband decides he wishes to take a second, a third or a fourth wife you will not, under any circumstances, be granted a divorce by the courts.

2. The Right to Visit your Children
Following a divorce the wife is always given the children to look after until they are aged seven. Once the child reaches seven years of age, (in Arab counting terms you are born aged 1) should you and your husband divorce, the children can choose who they want to stay with. Should they choose your ex-husband then you, as the ex-wife, will have no legal visiting rights to your children until they reach the age of 18.

3. The Amount of Money you Require Should you ever get Divorced
Think about this in the cold light of day before the ceremony. Be realistic; if you plan to have children they will need some support from their father, but please do not take this advice as a suggestion to take your man for a ride. At the wedding the mullah will ask you how much you require and will not accept the answer, “Nothing”.

4. The Right to half the Joint Property
Unless this is written into the marriage contract an ex-wife is not necessarily entitled to any of the joint property. If you decide to claim your half you could well have a long court battle on your hands. It took a friend five years of court battles to gain her half the house, following her divorce.

5. Also worth Thinking About
I've included this list because each one of the following points has been included in one or more acquaintance's marriage certificate. In each case, the women were able to use their marriage certificate as a legal document to stop difficult times:
a - The right to work and the ability to state who gets to keep what % of your salary
b - The right not to receive verbal, physical and sexual abuse by your husband
c - The right not to have children, or the right to have children
d - The right to visit your relatives in the country you reside in, or abroad
e - The right to wear whatever clothes you choose

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Henna Nights

The henna night traditionally marks the officical begining of the wedding festivities. In times past Arab brides would be covered from head to toe in henna patterns and somewhere on her body the henna artist would include the initials of the husband. The husband's task on the wedding night was to find those initials.

These days, the bride and her guests usually have patterns applied to just their hands, feet and ankles. Professional henna artists are always hired and you’ll find each henna salon and each area of the Gulf has its own specific patterns. The henna patterns in Oman often involve large areas of very dark brown/black geometric patterns (African influence) and in Bahrain the colour is lighter and the patterns are smaller and more delicate, often using flowers (Indian influence).

To apply the henna, the ground leaves are mixed into a paste and then put in to little piping bags, the end of the bag is cut and then the henna is applied using a technique similar to cake decorating. The bride and her guests (only the closest female family members are invited, usually about 30 women) sit down and have henna patterns applied to their bodies.

Henna nights are usually held in the bride’s parent’s house, although sometimes the henna night will be held at a hotel. Much dancing and joviality takes place and you’re usually in for quite a wild time. Traditionally at her henna night the bride wears a green dress, (here the green symbolises fertility) covered in gold embroidery. Buffets are always provided for the number of guests invited not the number of guests who are expected to turn up and you will be encouraged, if not forced, to eat.

Henna nights usually finish early at about midnight or one and all guests are given a small packet containing henna paste to take home with them.

Background Information
Henna is the Persian name for the plant with the latin name, 'Lawson inermis' which is found in many hot, dry countries. The leaves from the plant are picked, dried, crushed and then made into a paste which is then applied to the body in patterns or shapes and as it dries stains the skin underneath.Once the henna is dry, which takes anything up to a couple of hours, the flakes are rubbed off and the pattern can be seen. The origins of this tradition seem to be lost in time, but it is known the pharaohs were buried with hennaed fingers and toes.

Urban Legends
Henna nights for me are the most enjoyable part of the wedding, simply because it is low key event and everyone is relaxed. Don’t be fooled though, if you ever do get invited to a henna evening, dress up. 'Casual dress' for Arab women is the equivalent of ultra-smart dressing for Europeans. I have a memory of being totally embarrassed when I turned up for a henna party in casual clothes, as I had been instructed to do by my husband ... I was in European casual clothes, not Arab casual clothes and the two things are completely and utterly different.

I remember one henna party which was held in the family house and had lots of dancing and much merriment. I sat opposite the bride and watched as her henna was applied (a very intricate Indian design) and then contemplated the women in the room. The bride was the manger in an international bank, the woman next to her runs a very successful business and so did the woman on her other side.

At that point I looked around the room and realised every single woman there was successful in business. It was a real eye opener as to how far Arab women had developed, work wise, in the past 50 years.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Historical and Cultural Values
It’s thought camels were domesticated and put to use by the frankincense traders of what is now called Yemen and Oman in around 3,000 BC. By the time Old Testament was being writen camels appear to be important part of life and are mentioned twice within in the first chapter:

1 - “He [the Pharaoh] treated Abraham well because of her, and Abram came to posses sheep and cattle and asses, male and female slaves, she-asses and camels.” (Genesis, 12:16)

and also,
2 - when Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac, “The servant took ten camels from his masters’ herds ….” (Genesis, 24:10)

Camels are also mentioned in the Koran at least twice, firstly in the classic statement,
1 - “Nor shall they enter paradise until a camel shall pass through the eye of a needle” (Al A’Raf, [The Heights], 7:39)

and secondly when their uses to humankind are described,
2 - “We have made the camels a part of God’s rites. They are of much use to you. Pronounce over them the name of God as you draw them up in line and slaughter them; and when they have fallen to the ground eat of their flesh and feed the uncomplaining beggar and the demanding suppliant. Thus we subjected them to your service, so that you may give thanks.” (Al Hajj, [The Pilgrimage], 22:34 )

Unsurprisingly the cultural value of camels to nomadic tribes is large: some tribes will give thier newborn baby boys a female camel calf and his umbilical cord will be placed in a sac and tied around the neck of the camel. Whilst in others the camel is used for trading, to attract potential wives or to pay off ‘criminal’ offences. Occasionally camels won't be slaughtered because they have become an integral part of the tribe.

Urban Legend
Many years ago when my parents first came out to the Middle East we went hunting for antiques in the suq. At one particularly dark and dingy shop where everything was covered in dust, and the shop keeper wasn’t particularly keen on selling anything, he asked my father, “How many camels for your daughter?” I always thought it was done for the sheer pleasure of seeing the look on the faces on the passing tourists, but it was quite amusing at the time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Camels, also known as 'Ships of the Desert', or 'Horses Designed by a Committee', come in two types, dromedaries and bactrians. It is one-humped camel, or dromedary (easy to remember; a 'D' has one hump and a 'B' has two humps) which lives in the Arabian peninsular and by the dozen, at least half a million inhabit the Gulf regions.

Camels (along with cows, llamas and alpacas) are ruminants; vegetarian mammals that chew the grass or cud. However, camels are the only ruminants able to survive intense heat, for long periods of time, without water. Their adaptations to the heat are many and varied:

Adaptations to the Heat
1. Camels can loose up to 30% of their body weight through the loss of water and unlike any other animal on earth, will survive
2. They are able to replace absolutely all this lost water in one drinking session
3. Baby camels can survive on their mother’s milk without the need for additional food. Other ruminant babies such as lambs and calves need drinking water to survive, even before they are weaned
4. Camels store fat in their hump which they use as food when famine strikes
5. Camels are able to change their body temperature, depending on the air temperature, from between 34 degC to 41 degC. This allows them to stay cool and sweat less.
6. Camels only have three stomachs, (all other ruminants have four stomachs). They do not have a third stomach which is used for water re-absorption in cows, llamas and alpacas
7. Camels, like horses and rats, have no gall-bladders (gall-bladders store bile from the liver)
8. Camel's kidneys concentrate their urine to reduce the ammount of water lost when pissing
9. Camels produce poo pellets which are so dry they can be used, immediately upon production, as fuel

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Haya Baya

Haya Baya, also spelt Hiya Biya, Haya Biya, or Hiya Baya, but all said in exactly the same way [hay-ya bay-ya] is an annual folk custom, which to the best of my knowledge, takes place across the entire near east, but with variations.

With such strong currents in the Gulf waters and no such things as boat engines it meant, until not long ago, drowning at sea was a very real possibility for fishermen and people travelling by boat. To combat this possiblity the pearl divers started a custom whereby the gave food to the sea, on the eve of Eid al Adha, in the hope the sea would not be hungry and they wouldn't drown during the next year.

The day before Haya Baya you might be lucky enough to see young boys selling small round woven baskets, about the size of a small caserole dish, containing earth and grass. After you've paid the boys some money for a basket or two you should go to the beach and put the basket into the sea.

In 2008 Haya Baya occurs today, Tuesday 9th December.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Eid Mubrarak! Happy Holidays!

For lunch on the first day of Eid al Adha {see wgaw archive:  eid}, a cloven hoofed animal (sheep, goat, cow or camel) is scarified and eaten as a rememberance of Ibrahim's sacrifice to God.

As Eid approaches the holding pens become full with sheep and goats and then they suddenly empty as the animals are sacrificed. The animals are killed the day before Eid, or yesterday, in preparation for lunch today. It was reported in the newspapers approximately 2 million sheep and goats were sacrificed in Mecca alone.

After slaughtering the meat is cooked, often into a dish called Biryani [bih-ree-arn-nee]. The food is shared with immediate family and friends and then distributed on large oval plates throughout the immediate community.

Recipe for Biryani

Ingredients - Meat
1 shoulder of lamb
spices: cinnamon, cumin, cardamom
salt and pepper to taste
1 onion

Ingredients - Rice
3 cups basmati rice

Ingredients - Fried Nut Mixture
spices: cinnamon
1 onion, sliced into rings
sultanas (handful)
sliced almonds (handful)
pine nuts (handful)

1 - To Prepare the Meat:
Put all the spices in a grinder and blend until a powder is formed. Rub the ground spices over both sides of the lamb and then rub oil all over the meat. Place the meat in a roasting dish and put into a pre-heated oven at 425 F.
After 20 minutes remove the pan from the oven and cover the lamb with water, adding the onion and garlic. Cover the top with foil and place back into the oven at 300 F and cook for another 3 and a half hours.

2 - To Prepare the Rice:
Put the rice in a saucepan and cover with water. Wash the rice and pour out the water. Repeat this process three or four more times, or until the water stays clear. Cover with water and bring to the boil, cooking the rice until it is just soft.
Remove the rice from the heat, take to the sink and drain away the water. Now wash the rice in cold water to stop the cooking process. Drain the ricein a colendar. Now add oil to the bottom of the saucepan and return this to the lowest possible heat. Put the rice back in the saucepan and allow to cook for at least an hour.

3 - To Prepare the Condiments:
In a saucepan, fry the onion with the oil until quite brown. Then add the sliced almonds, sultanas and pine nuts. Cook until the nuts are golden. Keep to one side.

4 - To Serve:
Put the rice on the plates, arrange the meat in the middle of each plate of rice and then decorate the top of the meat with the fried nut mixture.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Calendars: Islamic & Western

Image of a astrolabe, made by al-Sarraj in the Islamic year 628


In the west we tend to use the Gregorian [gree-gor-re-ann] calendar system to mark time and dates. The Gregorian calendar marks the birth of Christ as being year 0 and we’re currently in the year 2008. The start of the year is always 1st January and the end of the year is always 31st December, 365 days. It is a system based on the phases of the sun and has months which are 30 or 31 days long (except for February).

In the Arab world there are two different calendar systems in use; the Gregorian and also the Hijira [hij-jee-rraH] which is based on the moon phases. This means each month is 28 days long (very occasionally 29) and consequently a Hijira year is about 354 days long, or 10 or 11 days shorter than a Gregorian year. This calendar marks the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina as being year 1 and we are currently in the year 1429. 1430 will start on approximately 29th December, 2008.

The Arabic calendar appears to ‘move forward’ each year when compared to the Gregorian calendar. However, the order of the months never changes and the year always starts with month 1 or Muharram [moe-haa-ram]. It takes about 33 years for the Hijaria calendar to rotate around an entire Gregorian calendar and because of this, Hijaria calendars are not generally used in agriculture.

When writing, the Hijira year date is indicated by an H after the year, for example; 1422 H or the year 2000.

A joint Hijrah/Gregorian calendar image for the year AD 2008
taken from:

In the west we start our days at sunrise, whereas traditionally, in the Arab world, a new day will start with the sunset. This can cause some confusion; Tuesday evening to a westerner can be a Wednesday evening for an Arab. In general it has to be said the Arab method is loosing ground rapidly to the western way.

In Saudi Arabia weekends fall on Thursdays and Fridays. In 2007 Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE changed - weekends now fall on Fridays and Saturdays in these five countries.

Urban Legend
Years ago I worked with an expatriate man who could not get his head around the difference between the working week in Europe and the Middle East. At the time the weekend fell on Thursdays and Fridays. Having been confused several times by his use of the word Tuesday (he meant the second working day of the week; at that time Sunday) or Thursday (the fourth working day of the week: at that time Tuesday) we started to use a new system. Saturday became day 1, Sunday became day 2, Monday became day 3 and so on. This system resolved all sorts of problems and everyone was happy using it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Holiday - Eid al Adha

Eid al-Adha [‘ee-Dh al add-ha], or the Festival of Sacrifice, is a three-day festival/holiday which celebrates the end of Hajj {see wgaw posts: Hajj overview + obligations} and the Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishamel/Isaac, to God.

In remembrance, Muslims will sacrifice a cloven hoofed animal (usually a sheep or a goat, but also camels and cows depending on the number of people visiting for the main meal) as a reminder of Ibrahim's obedience to Allah.

After slaughtering the meat is often made into a dish called Ozi [oo-zi] and shared with immediate family and friends. Once the family has eaten what remains will be distributed, by hand, throughout the neighborhood.

The giving of food to the poor in the neighbourhood will occur after each meal for the entire three days. This is carried out in an effort to ensure not a single person goes hungry during Eid and is an essential part of this particular festival.

Eid always occurs on the 10th day of the month of Dhul al Hijaa [dh-hule al hij-jah] and lasts for nine days in Saudi Arabia and three days for the rest of the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE). This means Eid al Adhar falls from Monday 1st December to Wednesday 10th December, 2008 for Saudi Arabia and Sunday 7th to Wednesday 10th December, for the rest of the Gulf states.

What to Say?
If you want to practice speaking Arabic, Eid is an excellent time to do this. Every Muslim, no matter what their background or extraction, will be happy to hear the following exclamation; “Eid Mubarak” [‘ee-d moo-ba-rak] or to translate, ‘Happy Holidays’.

Don’t worry if you hear a lot of words you don’t understand in response. What is likely to be said is; "Taqabbal Allah mina wa minkum." [taa-Qaa-bal Al-laH min-na waa min-kuum], or in English, ‘May God accept the good deeds done by you and by us’. To this phrase you can easily reply, “Shukran” [sh-kran], or ‘thank you’.

General Truths
In the Arab world your family are of most importance and then come your neighbours. As my brother-in-law explained one day, “First give to the family, then give to the neighbours and then if anything is left over, give to the poor people in your neighbourhood.”When my husband was small he remembers running in and out of the neighbour’s houses and being fed, by them, whenever he was hungry. He assures me everyone kept their doors open at all times and during the summer months the entire neighbourhood would sleep on their roofs.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hajj - Obligations

The Kaa'ba, Mecca
Photograph taken from Britannica Student Encyclopædia:

The Three Rituals of Hajj

All Hajj pilgrims perform a minimum of three and a maximum of eight rituals, depending on preferences. The three obligitory rituals which must be performed by all pilgrims are:
1 - Walking around/circumvening the Kaa'ba.
2 - Standing at Arafat
3 - Stoning the Devil

The list below attempts explain each of the eight rituals in an easy to understand summary. You'll find loads and loads more information about each ritual on the internet if you're interested in finding out more, but for the purposes of this blog I've attempted to write short overviews ...

1. Circumvating the Ka'aba
[al-sa'ee how-well el-saf-wah wa al murr-wah] and also [al-ta-waf how-well al-bait]
All pilgrims will walk seven times around the Ka'aba, the central building in the great mosque in Mecca, in an anti-clockwise direction. Many also attempt to touch the Black Stone - a meteorite believed to have been sent from heaven - in the Ka'aba's wall and run seven times along a passageway in the Great Mosque, commemorating a search for water by Hajar, wife of the Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham (Ibrahim [ee-bra-hymn] in Arabic, Abraham in English).

2. Alwoqoof be-Arafah [al wa-qoof b' ara-fat] Standing at Arafat
On the ninth day of the month pilgrims go from sunrise to just before sunset to Arafat, a plain about nine miles to the south-east of Mecca. It is likely they will listen to a sermon delivered from Mount Arafat, the place where the Prophet Muhammad gave his final sermon.

3. Ramee Eljamrat [raa-mee al-jam-rat] Stoning the Devil
Pilgrims throw pebbles - usually about 70 - at the three spots where Satan is believed to have tempted the Prophet Ismail.

4. Mona
[mow-na] Spending the Night at Muzdalifah
The act of Mona is where Pilgrims spend a night out in the open, at a place called Muzdalifah, near Mecca.

5. Sacrifice at Minah
Pilgrims will sacrifice a sheep or a goat to commemorate the Old Testament incident in which the Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham was about to sacrifice his son but God accepted a sheep instead. Currently many pilgrims pay someone to slaughter an animal on their behalf and then have the meat distributed to poorer countries.

6. Repeat the Circumambulation of the Ka'aba

7. Drink Zam-Zam Water
Inside the great mosque in Mecca there is a well which fills with water and which pilgrims can drink. This water is known as 'Zam Zam' and it is believed this is the location from which God provided water for Hajar and her son, Ismail, whilst they wandered in the desert.

8. Take Prayers at the Station of Abraham
Pilgrims pray at the Station of Ibrahim/Abraham, the location where Ibrahim and Ismail are believed to have prayed after building the Kaaba.

Additional Information
An excellent article on the Hajj, which uses lots Google maps to show locations and photos of the pilgrimage and can be found at:
This is printable direct link to the original post. Although for purpose of explaining Hajj, it is complete but it doesn't show the comments or any additional information which may have been posted in Google Earth Community forum. Or:
This links opens in Google Earth Community and includes all the comments etc.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hajj - an Overview

Image taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

The Hajj [Ha-J] is the annual pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca and takes place during the last month of the Islamic year, dhul al-Hijja [d-hul al-hij-jah]. All Muslims are expected to complete at least one Hajj during thier lifetime, health and finances permitting.

During Hajj pilgrims aim to be in a state of ihram [ih-rraa-m] (translation: consecration).

Ka'aba [karr-aa-bah]
The name given to the most sacred site in Islam, the central black cube in Mecca which people circumvent/walk around. It is towards this location in which all Muslims face when they pray. The Ka'aba is covered by a black silk and gold curtain known as a kiswah [kis-waH] and which is replaced each year.


Men will wear two pieces of white unstitched cloth, which looks to all intents and purposes like a large, thin towel. One cloth will cover the waist and legs and the other is worn around the shoulders and covers the upper body.

During Hajj, pilgrims shouldn't cut their hair or nails, wear perfume, kill animals or insects or engage in any kind of sexual relations, including marriage proposals.

Relevant Terms of Endearment
Hajji [haa-ji] a male who has completed the Hajj pilgrimage
Hajjia [haa-jee-a] a female who has completed the Hajj pilgrimage
Mutahajabia [mut-ta-hajj-a-bee-a] a female who wears the Islamic headscarf

The 5 Pillars of Islam

Most nationals within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are Muslim (I'm guessing 98%) and Islam is the national religion of choice for all six governments (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE).

Although Islam affects every aspect of life here, we'll start with contemplating the fundamentals: in this case the 5 Pillars of Islam, the obligatory devotional-rites or duties which must be carried out by every Muslim.

1 - Shahadah [shar-haa-dah]
Every Muslim must, at least once in their lifetime, profess their faith using the following words, “La ilaha illa Llah, Muhammadun rasul Allah” or the Shahadah (literally: ‘witnessing’) and which translates as, "There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God". In reality it means total surrender to the one and only God, Allah. Hence the term, ‘Muslim’, to surrender.

When a non-Muslim decides to embrace Islam they will recite the Shahadah, in the presence of another person; a very exciting time for many people.

2 - Salah [saa-lah]
Salah is the word given to the Muslim act of praying, that is speaking the words and moving the body. Every Muslim is expected to pray five times a day, every day, whilst facing towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

In hotels throughout the Gulf and the Muslim world you will usually see a compass printed and then stuck to the ceiling, always pointing in the direction of Mecca.

3 - Zakat [zaa-cat]
Zakat, literally ‘purity’ or ‘sweetening’, is a system of taxation on personal unused wealth. At the end of each Islamic year individuals will give 2% or 2.5% of their unused assets to the poor. This includes all assets not used during the previous 12 months, for example, unworn gold jewellery and/or savings.

4 - Sawm [sai-yim]
Sawn is the term given to the fast which takes place during the hours of daylight (or sunrise to sunset), during the Holy Month of Ramadan. During daylight hours, Muslims who are fasting will neither drink, nor eat; nothing at all will be consumed until the call from the Mosque says the fast can be broken with the Iftar [if-tarr] meal.

The start of Ramadan is determined by the sighting of the moon and the hours of fasting are determined by the ability to see the difference between a black and white thread, using only your eyes (no electric or battery lights should be used).

5 – Hajj [ha-J]
Hajj is the name given to the pilgrimage to Mecca. A journey every able Muslim is obliged to go on, at least once in their lifetime. The Hajj consists of eight different ceremonies, each of which symbolises an essential concept of Islam and/or the difficulties faced by the prophet Abraham and his family.

The Hajj takes place once a year during the first 10 days of Dhul al-Hijja [d-hul al-hij-jah], the twelfth month of the Islamic year. In 2008 the Hajj should take place from 6 - 9th December.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Birqa [berr-ca] or Niqab [nic-caarb] is the name given to the covering Arab women wear over their face in public. Depending on the country of residence the birqa takes on a different form.

In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE the birqa is usually made from two layers of far softer material which can be used as wanted, enabling light or complete cover (see picture above, or think ninja turtle). All features are hidden completely and often extend down to the mid chest.

In Qatar the birqa is made from a hard mask like substance and shimmers gold when it catches the light. It is shaped like a large capital H which has been turned by 90 degrees and covers the forehead (horizontal), the nose (vertical) and the space between the nose and the mouth (horizontal). Large gaps are left for the eyes.

If a woman chooses to wear a burqa it will be something she will do at all times in public. During the 1970s when international travel was still in its infancy, women would have their passport photographs taken wearing the burqa; covered and without features. This practice was unsurprisingly banned several decades ago and as a consequence, you’ll find 'women only' booths at passport control. This is to allow women travellers to uncover their face, to women custom officers, in private.