One of our most exciting travel offerings this year is a late-December exploration of West Africa, beginning in legendary Casablanca, and concluding in Dakar, Senegal, on New Year’s Day 2009 — aboard the 114-guest, all-suite Corinthian II.
You can see the full itinerary here (and it’s really spectacular on its own) but we’d also like to introduce the two scholars who will be exploring this region with us, providing a lecture series en route. They are two Westerners teaching at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, and their fields of interest are especially intriguing. One thing that makes TDI voyages unique is their ability to put you in touch with cutting-edge, up-to-the-minute research about the world in which we live. “Desert Kingdoms of West Africa” is a perfect example:
Dr. John Shoup, who last traveled with us aboard “Coexistence of Cultures and Faiths” in 2005, is a cultural anthropologist with a BA and MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Utah, and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. While he has conducted extensive field work throughout West Africa, I was especially struck by an essay of his in Transnational Broadcasting Studies: “As it Was, and As it Should be Now: Al-Andalus in Contemporary Television Dramas.”
As he explains it, beginning in 2001, Arabic satellite television has been broadcasting a number of excellent historical dramas. Their first broadcast is scheduled during the traditional Ramadan lineup — guaranteeing maximum viewership — and all have been concerned with Al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain and North Africa. Dr. Shoup notes,
The choice of Al Andalus is interesting; a place no longer Arab or Muslim, but where the Arabs, Berbers, and local peoples produced one of the most brilliant periods of Arab/Muslim civilization. Yet, it is gone today, with only glimpses into what it was through architecture, music, and poetry. The loss of what was the confidence and strength of Umayyad Al Andalus, the multicultural and multi-religious nature of the society, the tolerance and understanding between peoples, can be contrasted with the current Arab world in which there is little tolerance or understanding.
Dr. Shoup details the historical plotwork of these dramas, and finds that the analogies to current events are unmistakeable:
Arab states are weakened from the outside by military threat, but the real weaknesses – the ones that really matter – are internal to the Arab and Muslim world. The series ends with the question when will the Arabs and Muslims be great again? When will the social strengths so exemplified in the Andalusian model be realized in the modern Arab Muslim experience? According to the serial’s logic, it is clear that neither multiculturalism nor religious diversity prevented Arabs and Muslims from becoming a great power in the past. On the contrary, these were among the characteristics that made Al Andalus such a vibrant civilization. The problem is not that Arabs and Muslims are battling external military threats, whether from Israel or the United States. Instead, the problem is that the Arabs and Muslims no longer believe in their own possibilities, and when they revive this belief, then they will “recapture” the spirit of Al Andalus and not before.
The remarkable thing about these shows is that they are cooperative ventures between Syrian, Jordanian, Moroccan, and Emirati TV, and feature well-known actors from all these nations as well as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Actors are both Muslim and Christian, playing characters who are Muslims, Jews, Animists, and Christians. The shows are largely financed by the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Shoup writes, “Andalusian society is shown to be tolerant of others and does not reject ideas from non-Muslim sources. The scientists at the court of Amir Hakim I and Amir abd al-Raman II quote the works of classical Greek scholars. All of the serials emphasize the common cultural heritage of Islam and Christianity.” Dr. Shoup concludes,
What is…interesting is the emergence of a new self-criticism. While self-criticism in film and television is not new, its application in these series is. Instead of blaming the current conditions in the Arab world on foreign intervention or past colonialism, the weakness of the Arab-Muslim world is placed firmly on their own shoulders. As portrayed in these series the fall of Al Andalus was due to the lack of unity and commitment by not only its rulers but also its people. Weak and corrupt governments produce an apathetic population who feel they have no stake in the state… Such self-criticism is a new and positive change within the Arab world, and, it is ventured here that it is the reason for the great popularity of these historical dramas.
Read the full essay here.
Our other lecturer, also from Efrane, is Eric Ross. Born in Turkey, Eric Ross is a Canadian citizen with degrees in Geography (BSc. 1986, MSc 1990 Université du Québec à Montréal) and in Islamic Studies (PhD 1996, McGill University). He is a cultural and urban geographer and has conducted extensive research on Sufi brotherhoods and Muslim towns in contemporary Senegal. The resulting book, Sufi City: Urban Design and Archetypes in Touba, was published by University of Rochester Press in 2006. Since 1998 Ross has been teaching a variety of geography and methodology courses at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, and earned the rank of Associate Professor in 2006. He regularly conducts field trips across Morocco and has visited many countries in north and west Africa and the Middle East. In 2001-2002 he contributed to a multidisciplinary study on cultural heritage, tourism development and urban planning in Essaouira, Morocco, and is currently researching the historic trans-Saharan trade in Arabic-language books and manuscripts. He has written numerous encyclopedia articles and has expertise in cartography and the use of satellite imagery.
As you can see from this precis on his book Sufi City, Professor Ross will be invaluable in considering the geography and urban planning of Islamic cities, and the religious iconography that informs these cities’ physical layout.