October 11, 2009
Dear Mowbray and Sally,
I doubt that there has ever been a more cosmopolitan place in the world than Pattaya today, neither ancient Alexandria, Rome nor Chang-An, neither modern Paris nor New York. Today I woke up with an urge to move my research into the Muslim world along and took up for that purpose one of the books that I had recently purchased here, Malek Chebel’s illustrated Symbols of Islam.
In separate chapters he considers in turn such matters as 1. Allah, 2. Muhammad, 3. The Qur’an, 4. The Profession of Faith, 5. Prayer, 6. Almsgiving, 7. The Fast, 8. Pilgrimage, 9. Mecca, 10. The Kaaba (the canonical direction), 11. Quibla (orientation thereto), 12. The Mosque, 13. The Mihrab (the material representation of the Quibla), 14. Friday (the Muslim holy day).
I thought of remaining in my air-conditioned room in Jomtien Beach Paradise but on reflection ventured out instead to Pattaya’s “Soi Hookah” (as it is nicknamed), a street with Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi and Iranian, Muslim Indian and Muslim Russian restaurants. I took with me a 2007 invitation in Arabic from my Tunisian host to make sure that I had understood it.
After taking a seat at a café named “Omar Khayyam” (to have an omelet and to observe a gesticulating crowd at Arsil Libanon Restaurant next door), I moved along to an air-conditioned Iraqi restaurant for coffee. Here the head waiter graciously translated my invitation and commented upon it. When I return to Taipei, we will post it on the Arabic sub-page of “About MM.”
Today I also dipped into James L. Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East (which I retrieved from my new house), underscoring passages for the Cairo section of Renewed, my book about Egypt. The other day, on my way into Pattaya, I discussed President Obama’s speech at the University of Cairo with an Egyptian sitting opposite me in a songthaew on the way into Pattaya.
Malek Chebel defines Islam as “a sober religion, an aggressive religion, but one that fervently advocates the spiritual equality of all men.” “In the sight of God,” he says, “no distinction exists between man and woman or between Arab and non-Arab.” He quotes a Qur’anic definition of Allah as “a Glass lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the East nor of the West.”
There are, as you know, more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East. The faithful comprise a quarter of mankind, for whom Muhammad, says Chelek, “fulfils the monotheistic tradition started by his predecessors Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.” “Mohammad,” he adds, “is a universal Prophet and lawgiver,” but “he was also a warrior and fine strategist.”
The Qur’an, which I may avoid in my treatment of Cairo (allowing its text instead merely to underlie my treatment of “the mother of all cities”), “in the eyes of Muslim esotericists, is embodied in the mushaf,” regarded as “only the visible copy.” It represents “in ‘perspicuous’ Arabic the divine archetype of that materia prima which has been safeguarded for all eternity.”
Rather than plowing my way through the text of the Qur’an, I will likely use a condensation, called The Wisdom of the Koran, and perhaps supplement my reading of these excerpts with Muhammad Abdel Haleem’s Understanding The Qur’an: Themes and Style, another book that I recently found in Pattaya. I may turn to the waiters in these restaurants for more help.
Yesterday I had dinner at a restaurant, where the young Thai waitresses all spoke German. I was taken there by a new German friend who has included on his web site the properties that Jacob and I own. Earlier in the day at a Jomtien restaurant I had a conversation in French with a Parisian. I frequent an Indian restaurant whose proprietor speaks both Tamil and Hindi.
With warm best wishes,