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Friday, November 19, 2010

Waiting for Hadad

One month after the autumnal equinox, with hardly any rain but for a wet night or two, the long Syrian summer trudges along on leaden legs. I stand on the top of a mountain in the south of the country and scan the horizon. The thirsty landscape sprawls under my feet bereft of colors save for a hue of dusty brown. The temperature squanders in the mid-twenties, oppressive like a foreign occupier, obnoxious like a distasteful guest. Deep down in the abyss of my genetic memory I cry for Hadad.

Hadad is the Syrian God of Thunder, Storms and Rain in the first half of the second millennium B.C. He was Atargatis’ only escort and considering her status as the Goddess of Syria or Deasura his central role in the Levant is rather simple to deduct. Hadad (Aramaic) is often called Ba’al (which simply means Lord). He is also known as Adad (Akkadian) and Ishkur (Sumerian). Eventually the Old Testament introduced Yahweh, the Lord of Israel, who stole the attributes of Hadad and lesser Syrian deities. Hadad in this respect is the original monotheist God, the one the Jews made their own. History was rewritten in the Old Testament and subsequently Christians and Muslims tagged along lending credibility to this first instance of historical plagiarism.

In his riveting 1985 article “Trees, snakes and gods in ancient Syria and Anatolia”, W. G. Lambert makes the accurate remark that the study of art and the related text in the ancient Near East (Syria and Anatolia) has been plagued by a lack of knowledge by modern historians of the languages of that region. On the other hand, researchers of Classical Greek and Roman histories have command of Greek and Latin and accordingly both civilizations have been fully scrutinized and their contributions unraveled. The fact that archeology and philology pursued separate tracks in the unearthing of the ancient civilizations of Syria accounts for the “scanty” results, as he put it, and the illiteracy of the world as far as the true nature and role of Syria are concerned. Lambert also discusses an earlier unpublished Columbia PhD thesis by Elizabeth Williams-Forte, titled “Mythic cycles: the iconography of the gods of water and weather in Syria and Anatolia during the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000–1600 B.C.).” The author, an art historian specializing in Near Eastern Seals and with a workable knowledge of Ugaritic language, was able to connect the historical chain between the tree and the snake in the Garden of Eden and their Canaanite origins while researching the God Hadad who holds a  branch of a tree in one hand and lightening bolts in the other. This is not a secret part of history I am divulging but rather obscure knowledge. Allow me to share with you this interesting quotation from “The Genius of the Few,1985" by Christian and Barbara Joy O'Brien.

“The biblical story of the Garden of Eden has had many counterparts; but their documents are often little known outside specialist circles. Even within these circles, few have recognized them for what they are, as they tend to be obscured by apocryphal overtones. But one, fortunately for our thesis, was written in clear and secular terms, unmarred by those deification processes which were later to bring the story into such disrepute. That counterpart was inscribed on clay tablets in Sumer - doyen of the civilizations born in the lower Mesopotamian Valley - where a whole series was made over a period covering the third millenium BC. They give the impression of being coveted library possessions, which were copied in many places, and in many centuries, in sequential re-printings.”

Indeed they were. The great 4,000 years old archives of Ebla (Tell Mardikh, Northern Syria) contained thousands of tablets and fragments, a few of which described one of the earliest accounts of Genesis and other biblical fables. They were written in Eblaite, a term used to encompass the two main written languages of Ebla, Sumerian Cuneiform Script and Proto-Canaanite. Needless to say, Eblaite preceded the earliest Semitic languages of Canaan, Ugaritic and Hebrew. The librarians of Ebla were thorough in documenting their archives and identifying their sources. Nowhere had a celestial author been credited.

I snaked my way down the mountainside and drove back in the gathering darkness. The sky above teemed with primordial stars and a flare of Asatru pervaded my wakefulness. Inanna, Marduk and Ninurta floated in front of the windshield and danced to a soundless tune*. El, the father of humankind, of all creatures and of Hadad himself sat next to me silently watching the magical performance. Near Homs I steered west and headed home. Syria, the cradle of all civilizations lay sleeping in the dead of night till her Shamash rises anew with the advent of another dawn.

* Inanna, Marduk, Ninurta, El and Shamash: a handful of Syrian deities.
-W. G. Lambert (1985). Trees, snakes and gods in ancient Syria and Anatolia. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 48, pp 435-451 doi:10.1017/S0041977X00038428

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Get Me Out of Here

Photo courtesy of Jaguarpedia .org

I don't translate bits of news and post them on my blog. However, I felt compelled this morning to do just that after reading this shocking story on Shukumaku.
It made me wonder whether we're living in Syria or in Saudi Arabia and whether our police really have nothing better to do. The only positive aspect I could discern (there is really none but I'm trying to keep what crumbles of optimism I have left in my mental grip) is that the vast majority of the commentators on the original piece of journalistic crap were as stunned as I was.

The Edleb Criminal Security Branch arrested (Fadi-L) and (Rahaf –G) of Aleppo for having sex in a car.
Informed sources indicated to Shukumaku that during a routine security watch a patrol car from the Branch suspected foul play on the Maa'ret Al-No'man - Damascus highway (a KIA Rio parked on the side of the road). Upon field investigation by the members of the patrol they discovered a young man and woman on the back seat of the car in an indecent position. They were arrested during the act of having sex.
After taking both into custody to the Branch Headquarter, Fadi confessed that he is in love with the girl Rahaf (21 years) and that they have a sexual relationship. Later she was examined by the medical examiner and was found to be not virgin since she was married and divorced before.
The arrested man indicated that he often accompanies Rahaf in a car outside Aleppo and that they regularly have sex. This time, however, he "forgot himself" and reached  the outskirts of Maa'ret Al-No'man near Edleb.
It was also found that the young man, Fadi, has a police record because he had ran away from the compulsory military service and that the car was rented. Accordingly, their confessions were duly recorded and they will be transformed to the judicial system to receive their fair judgment.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On the Tolerance of Religious Societies

I've been asked recently to contribute an article to Two Seas: Forum for Dialogue, an ongoing interchange on Islam Comment website.
The topic was addressed by several individuals and I'm very pleased and honored to have made my contribution alongside these fine gentlemen. The question is:

Are contemporary Muslim societies tolerant of religious minorities?

You can read my colleagues' and my article on the links below. Please leave your comments there on the forum if you have anything to say.

All articles     My article

Friday, November 05, 2010


"Wla... We invented the Alphabet, Wla!" Abufares  

I stood on my rock by the sea watching the ship getting closer to shore. I evaded the boisterous throng and the pompous dignitaries and floated in my euphoric solitude. On the afternoon of Saturday, October 23rd 2010, Phoenicia returned home.

Phoenicia is a faithful replica of the Phoenician vessels that sailed across the Mediterranean and beyond in the 6th century BC. She was conceived and captained by Philip Beale, a former Royal Navy officer based in South Dorset in the UK and built by master shipwright Khalid Hammoud of Arwad, Syria. The ship completed her epic voyage to Arwad then Tartous after covering 20,000 miles in 26 months around the African continent. She set sail from Arwad with a volunteer crew on board in August 2008 to Port Said (Egypt) heading south through the Suez Canal, across the Red Sea to Port Sudan, Yemen, Oman, the Horn of Africa, off the Somali coast (to avoid pirates) all the way to Mayotte in the Comoros Islands, Birea (Mozambique), Richard's Bay, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town (South Africa), St. Helena, Ascension Island, Azores, Gibraltar, Carthage (Tunisia), Malta, Sidon, Beirut, Tripoli (Lebanon) and back to Arwad then Tartous (Syria). The main purpose behind this enterprise, assuming a once in a lifetime adventure needs justification, was to prove that the Phoenicians were in fact the first to circumnavigate Africa 2,600 years ago in their single square-sailed vessels. The only historical record regarding this seemingly impossible feat is that of the Greek historian Herodotus. In 440 BC he wrote that he believed the Phoenician accounts to be true but was uncertain about one particular geographic discrepancy. The mariners' claim that the sun was to starboard (right side) as they headed West did not make sense to Herodotus. However, it was a true observation, one which could only be made in the southern hemisphere. The Phoenicians were there 2,100 years before the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama (1497-1499).

Captain Beale is no stranger to the sea. In 2003 he led the Borobudur Ship Expedition and piloted the Samudraraksa (Defender of the Seas) along the ancient trading seaways between Indonesia and East Africa. He is also a consummate naval history researcher. Based on archeological evidence, mainly the Jules Verne 7 and M'agan Michael wrecks off the coast of Southern France, Greek pottery and Phoenician coins, the basic design and the building method of the era were established. Khalid Hammoud an accomplished shipwright was chosen from a list of candidates due to his exceptional skills and to the fact that he works in his yard in the Syrian island of Arwad. The Arwadites were on the forefront of naval construction technology in the 6th century BC and the unrivaled masters of the sea. It is more than likely that the original Phoenician ships to sail around Africa were built in that tiny island, 3 km off the coast of Tartous.

I was invited by a dear friend later in the evening to attend a gala dinner in honor of Phoenicia and her crew. Captain Beale's account of the voyage and his revealing presentation were captivating. I found myself lost in a daydream of my land and sea in better times although one nagging contention distracted me well into the night. Unfortunately I did not have the chance to inquire privately with Philip. The reference to the Suez Canal pricked my better rationality. I think that it would have been easier for the Phoenicians to sail west across the Mediterranean, head south to the Cape of Good Hope, north toward the Red Sea all the way to Sinai then retrace their own outbound passage back to the shores of the Levant rather than commence their sea passage from coastal Egypt off the Red Sea. The Canal itself was not built until 1869 and even to this date many modern vessels follow the long way around Africa to avoid the high canal crossing fees. It would have been more intuitive and much simpler for the Phoenicians to start their maiden journey from their own Levantine shores rather than transport pine lumber from Aleppo and olive timber across the Sinai desert. It is likely that the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa regularly (the way Phoenicia did) but it is only logical that the first voyage they embarked on followed a shuttle path across the Mediterranean through Gibraltar. They could have later put a number of ships on segments of that route permanently if it were commercially feasible.

Despite the commendable efforts of all parties involved in the Phoenicia project I strongly believe that on the official level Syria is doing a lousy job in promoting her heritage to others and in instilling pride in her own young generations as far as her ancient roots are concerned. Our school curriculum emphasizes recent Islamic and Arab yesterdays while treating our venerable pre-monotheist history too casually. We were here before them all, before the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. We invented the Alphabet on these very shores; the ALPHABET without which they could have never invented their accounts and stories of parting the sea and rising from the dead and riding winged horses. Syria is the first home of Judaism and has been conquered by the Christian Crusaders and the Arab Muslims but she predates them all. We sailed near and far with the emergence of civilization. The rise of monotheist religion in all of its major manifestations, obscure sects and Sufi cults is consequential to our identity. With the invention of the Alphabet, anything became subsequently possible. Phoenicia's voyage should remind us of the way we were and the way we could be if we dig deep enough into our true identity. It was Syria that made them all great never the other way around.

Wla... We invented the Alphabet, Wla! 


Many thanks to my dear friend Aziza for providing me with vital literature for the writing of this post.