Who is the prince of enchantment? What is Winston’s hiccup, otherwise known as Churchill’s sneeze? And why is the statue of Umm Kalthoum in Cairo wearing an eye patch? These and many other Jeopardy-like questions were posed on Friday, January 22nd, by CMENAS graduate student Mekarem Eljamal. (Keep reading for the answers!)
She was speaking on behalf of CMENAS to 59 employees of General Mills (GM), the maker of Wheaties, Cheerios, and Nature Valley granola bars, amongst other kitchen staples, and at the invitation of the Asian Leadership Network, a group of GM employees organizing monthly activities of cultural enrichment for company employees. The first month in the new year was dedicated to the Middle East and North Africa. Since the company’s headquarters are located in a suburb of Minneapolis, and since CMENAS has been conducting work remotely for almost a year, Eljamal prepared and virtually delivered an overview about regional diversity, highlighting history, geography, languages, religions, cuisine, art and architecture, and music.
One of the event’s main outcomes was to dispel Arabo-centric understandings of the vast region. The nation-states of Turkey, Iran, and Israel are not Arab, Eljamal pointed out, and neither is the Nubian population of southern Egypt. Even within one regional language there is much variety, she said. Many North African dialects of Arabic contain Tamazight, the languages of the indigenous Amazigh. And many languages and Arabic dialects linguistically reflect the influences of Ottoman, French, and British rule. In fact, the less geographically proximate two dialects are, the less their mutual intelligibility. Noting the colonial legacies in the two regions, Eljamal also drew the audience’s attention to the arbitrariness of countries’ borders. (Winston Churchill, legend has it, sneezed while demarcating Jordan’s in 1921, accounting for its sharp, jerky lines on the map.)
Displaying a collection of unlabeled photographs of various cityscapes and natural areas, Eljamal then invited her audience to guess the locations; the point was to challenge popular perceptions of a monolithic and monocultural region. Far from being desolate and lifeless places, human dwellings and habitats have interacted with natural landscapes in the form of ski resorts (Iran and Lebanon), irrigating marshes (Iraq), and windcatchers (Yemen, Morocco, and Egypt). In an illustration of pluralistic belief and practice within Abrahamic religions, the audience saw photos of historic synagogues in Shiraz, Alexandria, and Beirut, amongst other houses of worship.
True to form, the General Mills crowd reacted most volubly to the mouthwatering culinary traditions of the two regions. In the Chat feature, they listed foods they loved (shawarma, tabouli, hummus, and baklawa), recommending their favorite joints. With respect to staples, rice predominates in the Middle East, the audience learnt, due to historic trade routes with Asia, but couscous (a pasta made from semolina) is the popular ingredient in North African tagines. Tantalizing pictures of khaliyat al-nahel (Yemen) and saffron rice pudding (Iran) excited interest in the best Minneapolis eateries serving these desserts. Happily, Eljamal assured, there is yet another option, in Michigan: Dearborn’s Shatila Bakery. It ships its delectables all over the country.
In her section about architecture, Eljamal explained that, contrary to notions of stereotypical chaos, the lay-outs of old cities followed rhyme and reason. Urban environments, in fact, were designed and regulated for facility of travel by foot, animal-drawn carriages, and other modes of transportation. An array of images demonstrated the contrast between architectural traditions and innovations: the protective walls, main gates, and narrow alleys of Cairo and Fez; the skyscrapers of the “insta-cities” of Dubai and Abu Dhabi; and the corniches and beaches of Beirut.
No presentation about cultural production would have been complete without art, and Eljamal introduced the large-scale mural art of El-Seed, a French-Tunisian artist, who employs calligraphy on “canvases” of city buildings. Working in black-and-white photography and videography to produce stark contrast, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat explores themes of gender-based oppression and political manipulation of religion.
A few examples of musical instruments were displayed, too. The ney or nay: a reed wind instrument popular in Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Tablas: traditionally carved from wood; their drum heads are made from goat skin. Sagat: one-hole finger cymbals played by musicians and dancers. And then there is the oud, so culturally emblematic of the Middle East, according to the May/June 2020 issue of AramcoWorld, that “it is often called amir al-tarab, ‘the prince of enchantment’ in a musical sense.” On the contemporary side, Alsarah & the Nubatones compose and perform East African retro-pop music. The Jewish sister group A-WA has become famous with its mix of Yemeni traditional music and hip-hop. Sung in the Yemenite dialect of Judeo-Arabic, their 2016 "Habib Galbi" went viral in the Muslim world, and became the first song in Arabic to hit No. 1 on the Israeli pop charts.
The General Mills’ audience members were also introduced to the musical giants Fairuz and Umm Kulthum, whose artistic and cultural influences and standing extend far beyond the borders of their respective home countries of Lebanon and Egypt. Umm Kulthum’s songs were operatic, pan-Arab, and nationalistic. AramcoWorld’s January/February 2012 issue states, “Her music is as much a part of the Cairo streetscape as the warm, exhaust-laden air and the ubiquitous desert dust ...” So beloved and magnetic was she that her funeral in 1975 drew crowds larger than President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s. Several decades after the death of the legendary “queen,” Umm Kulthum’s representation of Egypt’s modern history and people endures. Protesting the shootings of civilians' eyes by Egypt’s Security Council of Armed Forces in 2011, demonstrators bandaged one of the eyes of her statue in central Cairo.
CMENAS’ presentation received an outpouring of applause and acclaim from GM’s employees, and the center looks forward to diversifying and strengthening its outreach to the food manufacturer and to other leading businesses.