Nonverbal Communication

I have previously said on the blog that you can get by nearly anywhere in the world using just English, but of course that’s not wholly accurate–yes, you can get by, but you’ll still find yourself in situations where you or a local will want to say something that the other will not be able to understand. Fortunately, for those instances, there are unlimited possibilities in circumlocution and pantomime, in order to communicate. I thought that it might be fun to note some of the more amusing examples of nonverbal communication that we have encountered on our travels–if you have any you’ve enjoyed, be sure to add them as comments.

The Moose Call. Traveling in Muslim countries, one often (but perhaps not as often as one might think) runs into people’s prayer schedules. Our passenger train, in Iran, stopped for the evening prayer so that people could alight, properly orient themselves, and pray. We have had buses and share taxis do the same, although not as often as we might have thought. Or, a shop may be unattended for a few minutes, while the proprietor or employee is praying. In order to convey to us, the foreign infidels, what exactly is going on–why the bus is stopping or why the counter is empty–locals will raise two hands, palms open, to the sides of their heads, sometimes with their thumbs in or very near their ears, and make a small bowing gesture. Of course, this is intended to mimic the act of bowing for prayer, but to us it looks like a moose imitation, which is why we call it the moose call. It can also be used to find a nearby mosque.

Anticlerical Gestures of Iran. Discontent with Iran’s government, or more generally Iran’s system of government, is rife in Iran, and we encountered several different gestures used to mock or criticize the religious hierarchy used by Iranians eager to communicate their grievances to us. The most common was a hand tracing an imaginary turban on one’s head, a symbol for the theocratic elite of the country. Repeatedly, people would make the gesture, sometimes accompanied by the other hand stroking an imaginary beard, when trying to signify that it is the mullahs who have control and are mismanaging the country and restricting freedoms. The second was the throat-cutting gesture, hand across the neck, which was used surprisingly often not only to describe what would happen to you if you tried to exercise a freedom that was not provided under local law, but also as a general symbol for the government–nowhere else have we seen people associate their government so closely and so repeatedly with execution/murder. One person told us that the only thing stopping the Islamic government from restoring stoning as a form of punishment is international pressure. (We were also once given the throat-cutting gesture as a sort of threat in Nizwa, Oman–surprising given the highly respectful and hospitable treatment we otherwise got from the Omanis.)

Cluck of Approval. We first noticed this from our hoteliers in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, who would click their tongue against the roof of their mouth to signify approval, in our case appreciation of our photographs. Once we noticed it there, we heard it over and over again, particularly in Turkic regions from Turkey to Xinjiang, China.

Picture Please. People around the world vary an incredible amount from wanting their pictures taken to not wanting their pictures taken. In parts of West and North Africa, people can act like you’re trying to steal their soul; in Turkic countries and India, people will chase you for a photo. Especially in the Subcontinent, but elsewhere too, we frequently saw an odd gesture for “Take a picture of me, please”–something like a person looking through an imaginary pair of binoculars formed by their thumbs and pointer fingers.

Mixing Tea. Mauritania and Morocco (and the Tuareg parts of Mali) have a tea tradition that is somewhat peculiar, especially in the way that it is prepared. The tea leaves are boiled on a fire for a very long time, and then sugar is mixed in by pouring the tea back and forth from the pot to a glass, until long after the tea is blended, frothy and ready to drink. In those countries, this mixing gesture–that of pouring a liquid between two vessels repeatedly–was used to indicate tea (whether we would like to drink tea, that someone is about to make tea, etc.).

Sex. There is of course no shortage of hand and other gestures that one can use to mean having sex, but we find that the most common one–used all around the world from an Uzbek explaining Ramadan’s many restrictions to a Moroccan boy apparently selling sex services (!)–is a closed fist pounding the air, with the thumb toward the body (so that it’s somewhat different from the usual masturbation gesture).

Diving Gestures. We learned to dive a couple of years ago before a trip to the island republic of Palau, and now occasionally use diving gestures–a standardized system of underwater and surface communication for when words are not an option–to communicate with each other nonverbally. We find the “surface” versions of the “ok” and “not ok” gestures (arms forming a large circle or a large “X,” respectively, above the head) quite handy when we are distant from each other, because they are highly visible from far away. Diving gestures also constitute a nonverbal language that people around us are not likely to understand.

Wind-Induced Headache. This is a rather odd one that we encountered in Ethiopia. Although it can get quite warm in parts of Ethiopia, locals do not like to open windows on buses because they seem to believe that the wind pressure on their ears causes some sort of pain or headache. If you try to open a window, they will ask you to close it by placing the palms of their hands a couple of inches from each ear and shaking them a bit.

Hunger. Now, you’d think that putting your hands on your stomach or putting imaginary food into your mouth would be a pretty simple and effective way to demonstrate hunger, right? It’s certainly worked for us in the past, but when we were in Khiva, Uzbekistan in 2008, a cab driver took us not to a restaurant but to a clinic, thinking that we had gotten some sort of food poisoning! Imagine our confusion and then amuseument when we pulled up to an unmarked building we thought would be a restaurant and all of the servers were wearing white hopsital coats.

Andalusia / Al-Andalus

In the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba, an Arab-style waterwheel, or noria, like those found in Hama, Syria

Washington Irving in his famous Tales of the Alhambra mentions that the Moroccans of his day (the late 1820s) spoke of eventually retaking southern Iberia and restoring Moorish/Arab/Muslim rule to Andalusia. In the current world order such a Moroccan encroachment into Spain and the European Union is not realistic, but the spirit of Moorish Andalusia is very much with us today, not only in terms of the Moorish influence on Spanish culture generally (see post of 2009.02.01), but a definite awareness of the uniqueness of Andalusia as a historical blend of Christian and Muslim. Not only do Arabs and non-Arab Muslims feel a connection to Andalusia that they do not feel to the rest of Christian Spain, but also Spaniards (perhaps through Andalusia) seem to have adopted sympathies to Arabs that are a far cry from their ancestral rulers who led the Inquisition.

Andalusia’s ties to Morocco and the Middle East are often used to orientalizing effect for tourists. In the first image, Moroccan leather goods for sale in Seville. In the second image, advertisements for Arab-themed entertainment in Granada. In their defense, many of these establishments are run by Arab immigrants, not only from Morocco across the Strait but from the Middle East as well.

This hammam has been restored as a ruin/museum, but others have been restored for actual bathing by tourists. We visited one in Granada and were disappointed–a fairly sad facsimile of a hammam if scoring for authenticity (and coed–the sacrilege).

Muslim tourists–even non-Arab ones–are drawn to Andalusia for its Arab Muslim history. In the first picture, British tourists of South Asian Muslim descent at the Medina Azahara outside Cordoba. In the second picture, Malay students at the new Granada Mosque taking a break from sightseeing.

The memory of an Arab Iberia very much lives on in the Arab world.

Moors evicted from Iberia after the Reconquista settled in an entire district of Fez known as the Andalusian quarter (first image). The second image is of the Sahrij Medersa in the Andalusian quarter, perhaps the most beautiful in Morocco.

Al Andalous is the inspiration for this barbershop in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, as well as the brand of underwear being sold in Fez.

Half a world away in Doha, Qatar, this curtains and furniture store commemorates Arab rule over Iberia.

One of the most puzzling little aspects of the global taking of sides in the Middle East conflict is the very common phenomenon of pro-Palestinian Spaniards. Pro-Palestinian graffiti is more visible in Spain than anywhere else I have been, keffiyeh are popular accessories among Spaniards and in parts of Palestine the only other tourists other than us were Spanish. I think the real reason for this is the popularity of leftist politics in Spain (perhaps a backlash against Franco) that tend to favor the underdog cause that is Arab Palestine, but perhaps two more interesting factors are also causes: 1) that modern Spaniards feel guilt for their ancestors’ anti-Arab crimes during and after the Reconquista or 2) that modern Spaniards recognize that, genetically, they are part Berber and Arab, descendants of the Muslim Moors who chose to stay in Iberia and convert, and therefore have sympathies for their Palestinian kinsmen. (I do recognize that these theories are somewhat ridiculous, and would really appreciate if someone could enlighten me on the phenomenon.)

Pro-Palestinian / Anti-Israeli graffiti, in Seville and Granada



The Arab World

Morocco was the last Arab country on our itinerary, and so I thought it fitting to do a brief recap of the Arab world, as visited by us. (Note: The Arab world should not be confused with the Muslim world, which includes non-Arab Muslim places.) As “Arab” is, at its most basic level, an ethnic designator, my survey will focus on demographics and cultural identity within these states.

Our entry into the Arab world on this trip began with a stopover in the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Not only by its membership in the Arab League and the (Arab) Gulf Cooperation Council, but also through its name, the UAE reminds us that it is Arab. And, given its location in the Arabian Peninsula, one could hardly disagree, on many levels. However, as most who have visited the UAE know, the UAE is a country that may be owned and operated for the benefit of the local Arabs–called Emiratis–but is primarily inhabited by outsiders (80% of the population), some of whom are Arabs from other parts of the Arab world, but most of whom (perhaps a majority of the population) are from the Indian Subcontinent. One proud Indian resident told us that Dubai is the most modern Indian city–and in some ways it is hard to dispute the description of Dubai as an Indian city. Could South Asians at some point overwhelm the locals and take over the country? Have they already? Oman, though also solidly “Arab,” and populated far more by “natives” than overseas workers, has a distinct cultural identity owing to its former colonial empire, and dark skinned Omanis of clearly African descent but Arab identity seem to fit in quite seamlessly into Omani society–a multicultural vision of what it means to be Arab.

From there we traveled to Syria and Jordan. There is a dost-protest-too-much quality to Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. As I described in my posts of 2008.04.16 and 2008.04.25, Syria may be squarely in the center of Arab history, as the base of the Umayyad Caliphate responsible for most of the expansion of Arab identity and Islam, but the actual ethnic makeup of Syria, in some genetic sense, is incredibly diverse and clearly not the same as the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Basic awareness of history points out that the population must be not only of Arabian descent but of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Turk and Roman (and perhaps even some Crusader and Mongol). Jordan is somewhat more Arabian, its royalty claiming descent from Mohammed, but the many Palestinians living in Jordan no doubt share the same genetic background as the Syrians.

After some more stops in the Gulf and a hiatus from the Arab world in the Turkic world (see post of 2008.11.05) and Iran-e Bozorg, or Greater Iran, by which I mean all of the areas in the Near East where Iranian languages are spoken, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan (see posts of 2008.05.12 and 2008.06.12), as well as Muslim East Asia, we returned to the Arab world in Cairo.

Is the official name of Egypt–the Arab Republic of Egypt–as misleading as Syria’s? I would argue yes. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab League (more than twice as much as the next most populous country), may have a good claim to represent modern Arab identity today, but a comparison of the reliefs and paintings of Ancient Egypt–created hundreds and thousands of years before “Arab” existed as a significant cultural designator–with the faces of modern Egyptians shows that the population of the Nile seems to have remained largely constant. Egyptians may consider themselves Arabs, but they really are Egyptians first.

Again after leaving the Arab world, we returned in Mauritania, one of the newest members of the Arab League (see post of 2008.12.12), and one that somewhat straddles Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. This was followed by Morocco, a country that is increasingly recognizing its Berber identity as well as its Arab (see post of 2009.01.21).

***

Is there such a thing as the Arab world? A common sense of identity that the countries of the Arab League truly share? Yes, of course, but it is one of significant diversity–diversity of ancestry (with people of many different ancestries now claiming Arab ethnic and cultural identity), as well as diversity of religion (in particular the Christian populations of Egypt and the Levant, see posts of 2008.10.01 and 2008.04.16) and many minority groups (from the South Asians of the Gulf, see posts of 2008.04.03 and 2008.04.04, and the Kurds and Armenians of Syria, see post of 2008.04.16, to the black Africans of Mauritania, see post of 2008.12.12).

Diverse Africa

Draa Valley, Morocco

Traveling from Senegal to Mali to Mauritania to Morocco is very much a trip from black sub-Saharan Africa to Arab North Africa, as I described in my posts of 09.01.04, 09.01.05 and 09.01.11. In this post, I wanted to discuss in somewhat greater detail some of the questions of race and identity that arise in these countries, as seen through the eyes of someone who is part of both a homogenous culture (East Asia) and an incredibly diverse one (America).

Generically, imprecisely and unscientifically speaking, there are two native “races” in Northern Africa: black Africans, who have until relatively recent times been the sole occupants of the African continent south of the Sahara Desert, and Berbers, who have lived in the area north of the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast. In addition, since antiquity, the northern coast of Africa has been subjected to numerous external cultural influences, from the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans in classical times to the Ottoman Turk and Western European imperialists more recently, the most lasting of these external influences being the Arabs, who stormed across the entire North African coast soon after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century. Below, some thoughts on race and identity in Africa north of the equator, organized by question and answer.

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Who are the Berbers?

The Berbers are a people who have lived in Africa, from the Sahara northward to the Mediterranean coast, for thousands of years. (St. Augustine may be the most famous ancient Berber.) Many look Mediterranean, by which I mean the olive-skinned, dark-haired type that is found from Spain to Turkey to the Levant, but others are quite fair–some as blond as any northern European. Since the Arab conquest of the seventh century, which swept across the entire North African coast, most of the residents of North Africa have grown to identify themselves as Arabs, and the countries of the North African coast, all members of the Arab League, are generally thought of as Arab countries, but the true “genetic” history is that these countries are still largely populated by the people who have always lived here–the Berbers. The Arabs came, intermarried and spread their language, religion and culture, but did not totally replace the native population. That is, the residents of North Africa speak Arabic, are Muslim and think of themselves (to a large extent) as Arabs, but in reality they are principally the descendants not of Arab invaders (who were always small in number) but of a race that has lived in North Africa for thousands of years. (Berbers exist on the European mainland as well–it is estimated that some 10% of the Spanish population is Berber, presumably from the Arab/Berber conquest of Spain in the eighth century.)

Berber man, Taroudannt, Morocco

How come I’ve never heard of Berbers?

To a large extent, because Berber identity has become subsumed by Arab identity. Even though, as I’ve said above, the residents of North Africa are largely descendants of the people who have lived in North Africa since time immemorial, and in a genetic sense are probably not very Arab at all, Arab identity, through language, religion and culture, has come to dominate most of the region, leaving relatively little sense of Berber identity, at least in most of the population centers of North Africa.

However, just as Christianity survived in the mountains of Maalula (see post of 08.05.22) and in the deserts of the Sinai (see post of 08.10.01), and Zoroastrianism survived in the deserts of Yazd (see post of 08.05.14) and in the hills of Abiyaneh (see post of 08.05.22), Berber identity has survived intact in the two greatest geographical extremes of Northern Africa–the high mountains and the Sahara. In the Atlas mountains not far from the coast, communities of “pure” Berbers speak Berber languages and not the Arabic which has become the dominant language of the region. Even occasional signs can be seen in the ancient Berber script.

Berber girl in the High Atlas, Morocco

Berber language sign near Todra Gorge, Morocco

Similarly, in the Sahara live many different Berber “nations,” the most famous of which is probably the Touareg (see post of 09.01.04). Some of these groups may still in some senses identify themselves as Arab, and there is no doubt that Islam and aspects of Arab identity have well permeated these desert populations, but they also retain their native Berber languages and a distinct culture.

Touareg boys, Timbuktu, Mali

What is the future of Berber identity?

Morocco in particular is experiencing something of a Berber renaissance, as late King Hassan II and especially current King Mohammed VI (who identifies himself as part Berber) have promoted a stronger sense of Berber identity, including by teaching Berber languages in Moroccan public schools. To the outside observer, such moves may appear in part motivated by a desire to build a sense of Moroccan identity that is independent from greater Arab identity, not only to strengthen Morocco as a nation generally but also to create psychic distance between Morocco, a relatively progressive and economically dynamic country increasingly oriented toward the West, and parts of the Arab world that are politically or economically more stunted. Already geographically remote from the conflicts of the Levant and the extremism of parts of the Gulf, it is possible that the Moroccan leadership sees in Berber identity a way to create a sense of Moroccan-ness that is better suited to the country’s particular identity and needs.

Friends, Todra Gorge, Morocco

All of which goes to show you the extent to which ethnic identity can be molded by political forces. As I described in my post of 08.12.22, Mauritania in the 1970s went through a transition from being a West African country oriented toward the rest of black West Africa and the former French colonial world to a North African country oriented toward the Arab world through membership in the Arab League. Of course, the real answer is that Mauritania is part black and part Arab/Berber, but at least in some formal ways that country “changed its color” in that period. There are of course many other examples of such political acts of ethnic/cultural definition.

***

From these points I want to draw one lesson: Africa is more diverse than it is sometimes made out to be.

Timbuktu, Mali

Often, people are guilty of lumping all of the African continent into one homogenous mass–in the ignorant popular imagination a continent of impoverished black people, living alternately in the desert or the jungle. Even those more familiar with the ethnic and social diversity of the continent are likely to think of it in shorthand as a “black” continent with a strip of Arabs along the northern coast. But, in reality, there are many significant and distinct variations within African identity that even a very basic sense of history reveals. Ethiopians and Eritreans speak a Semitic language and have an ancient Christian tradition, making them in some sense part of Middle Eastern history as well as African. Along the entire coast of East Africa, Arab cultural influence is greatly felt in the hybrid Swahili culture. Madagascar is largely populated by people from now Indonesia (see post of 08.08.31).

And all of northern Africa is a place of great cultural diversity, the Sahel a transitional zone in more ways than one. Going from the sub-Saharan south to the Mediterranean, one encounters a mixture of black African Christians, black African Muslims (on the two religions, see post of 08.12.16), fairer skinned Africans of Berber ancestry and then those who identify as Arabs. Indeed, so many of the conflicts that have riled this region–such as those in Western Sahara, Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria, Chad and the Sudan–have been caused by ethnic tensions. Even along the coast, where “Arab” identity seems mostly solid, ethnic identity is to some extent uncertain, as Moroccans and others begin to think of themselves as Berber. (For that matter, even closer to the heart of the Arab world, Arab identity is not something that is uniform–Egyptians, with their incredibly ancient and continuous history rightfully think of themselves as somewhat sui generis and many Syrians and Lebanese are quick to point out their Phoenician or other pre-Arab ancestry (see post of 08.04.25).)

Having a sense of the internal diversity of a place, rather than sticking with a simplistic caricature that wipes out such granularity, is essential to understanding it. And, for a number of reasons, learning about Africa, starting to understand the second-most populous continent, remains for much of the rest of the world a low priority. This post is a small attempt at remedying this defect.

Drug Use around the World

There are certain human phenomena that are often described as unhealthy or unnatural yet are so universal as to be undeniably a part of the human experience, within the set of behaviors that describes us as homo sapiens, at a naturalistic level. As much as some anthropologists may have tried in the last century to find counterexamples, to prove things an aspect of particular cultures rather than of us as a species, traveling far and wide identifies many things that are indeed universal, are patterns that arise over and over again, across cultures thousands of miles apart, of vastly different traditions. One example of such a human phenomenon is drug use.

We have encountered drugs of one kind or another in almost all the countries we have visited–even in the relatively abstemious Muslim world–and it is fascinating to see how cultures have incorporated or tamed the human impulse to chemically alter our consciousness. In this post, I thought I would go over some of the substances we have come across, along with some thoughts on each.

Tea

Pouring tea, Mauritania

Tea is what triggered the idea for this particular post. While East Asians may now drink tea largely as a water substitute, and many in the West as a sort of warm, calming drink, tea still features prominently in Chinese medicine and the pharmaceutical properties of tea were promoted heavily when tea was first imported into the West at great cost. The caffeine content of tea is, of course, relatively modest, especially compared to coffee (see below), but that tea is still used for its caffeine content–to keep us alert and social–is undeniable. The most street drug-like use of tea we have encountered was in Mauritania. The tea culture of Mauritania (similar to that of northern Mali and Morocco) is one of the most unusual we have seen. Mauritanians take huge amounts of Chinese green tea (“the vert de chine,” as it is called) and boil it down over a fire, to produce a highly concentrated form of tea sweetened with a great deal of sugar. Given that it is customary to drink at least three (albeit small) glasses at each sitting, the caffeine and sugar jolt is no less than jarring; a few days into Mauritania we realized that it was the bumps of tea that were preventing us from having solid nights of sleep. While waiting for our Iron Ore Train (see post of 12.31.08), one youth stayed up almost the whole night boiling tea, and trying to nudge his friends awake to join him for more hits. Tea drinking is so essential, so ubiquitous to Mauritanian culture that men will often travel with the essential equipment to make tea, including a fuel canister in the case of the Iron Ore Train. (Men also often travel with a whisk, for mixing milk with water, see post of 08.12.21.)

Qat

An addict on the streets of Harar, Ethiopia

Generally speaking, most of the “traditional” drugs we have seen around the world seem to cause few apparent significant social disruptions, of the kind that we associate with street drugs in the western world such as crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. Perhaps the greatest exception to this rule is qat. Chewed from Yemen to Kenya, and in some expatriate communities elsewhere, the stimulant and hallucinogen is famously harvested around the walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. The ladies selling the leaves in the market may seem jolly and friendly, not like the deadly drug pushers of Hollywood movies, but the ill effects of the drug can be readily seen in the numerous men who lay in the gutters in and around Harar, teeth rotten or missing and mouths foaming with green leaf, unable to control their addiction to the drug. We saw one man using a mortar and pestle to ground the drug, because his teeth had all rotted away, and another fighting with a goat for scraps of leaves on the ground of the local market. Seeing the addicts of Harar certainly made me think through the possibly horrible outcomes of greater drug legalization, at least in a society without proper education, addiction prevention and rehabilitation of addicts.

Coca

Nearly every traveler to the Andes chews a few coca leaves or sips some mate de coca, not only for the novelty and the experience of traditional culture, but also to combat altitude sickness. And, perhaps disappointingly, the tourist discovers that a small quantity of coca leaves seems to have little effect at all, on altitude sickness or anything else. To a liberal South American, coca is also a battle cry, an example of modern first world cultures misusing a traditional product (by chemically creating a deadly concentrate from a relatively harmless plant) and then imposing their own resulting social problems on third world economies (or so the coca growers, perhaps in part dependent on first world addicts for income, may argue). Of all the drugs on this list, coca is perhaps the most controversial, a drug whose social and political profiles vary extremely widely with geography and whose economic profile has the power to move nations. (Opium/Heroin has a similar geopolitical dimension.)

Betel nut

For sale at a convenience store, Yap, Federal States of Micronesia

Traveling in Micronesia, or the coastal edges of Asia (particularly Taiwan and India), one encounters betel nut all the time; locals’ mouths seem to be constantly stuffed with one and the streets red with dried spit. Like many other “traditional” drugs, it all seems harmless enough, but the lime with which the active substance is released from the nut does substantial harm to the user’s teeth, which alone seems objectionable. Betel nut does serve to demonstrate the social nature of drug use. Just like the elaborate ritual of making Mauritanian tea, betel nut chewing requires a certain set of ingredients and tools (lime, a leaf, the nut itself, something to crack the nut with and often tobacco), of which at a given point in time a person may lack one or two elements. By getting together to prepare the drug, people bond–much like the occasionally flirty act of asking for or offering a light for a cigarette. One long-time expat in Yap told us that preparing a fix of betel nut together can act as the equivalent of breaking bread, a joint activity that tells its participants (and those witnessing) that all is well and square between them.

Kola nuts

When we first saw kola nuts in Mali, we couldn’t even recognize them. Only later did we learn that this was the kola of Coca-Cola fame, and similar to cacao, tea and coffee in its pharmacological properties. For the tourist in West Africa, especially the Dogon Country (see posts of 08.12.16), kola nuts serve as a sort of alternative currency, a way of currying favor with at-times grumpy locals without outright cash bribery. We were amazed at how responsive people were to the simple gift–which probably reveals not avarice on the part of the old men but the symbolic significance of the gift, perhaps not dissimilar from the act of sharing a betel nut.

And, finally, the big three, which I will touch on only briefly, since you, dear reader, are no doubt extremely familiar with them:

Tobacco

Lighting up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou, China

Smoking the sheesha, Buraimi, Oman

Cigarettes may be dying out in America, with the imposition of high taxes and laws eradicating them from nearly all public places, but they are alive and well in many parts of the world. But, perhaps more interesting than cigarettes are the various more exotic forms of tobacco consumption, including beautiful tiny pipes found in the deserts of Mauritania, the sheesha or hookah found all over the Muslim world, the Chinese pipes featured above and fragrant clove kretek in the Indonesian isles. The sheesha is not only “traditional,” but a very popular and trendy social activity among the young in the more fashionable parts of the Levant (such as hip cafes in Beirut, Damascus and Amman) as well as New York’s Lower East Side (where a hookah can cost upwards of USD 30). If it tastes like apple, how could it possibly be bad for you?

Coffee

Coffee-husk tea, served to us by the Hamer tribe of the Omo, Ethiopia

Coffee Shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

Coffee has perhaps the largest number of addicts in the world, if alcohol is more often used to disastrous effect. And traveling with something of an addict myself (Derek always travels with packets of 3-in-1, dissolvable in room temperature water), I’m well aware of individuals’ need for a coffee fix. Morocco, where we are now, has perhaps the highest public coffee consumption we’ve seen outside of the American workplace (where, in a most sinister fashion, coffee is the only beverage offered to employees for free). Ethiopia, the home of coffee, fittingly has the most developed brewing ritual. One legend apparently has it that coffee was first brewed by an Ethiopian monk, who had met a goatherd that followed his goats in trying the berries, and came to discover their energy-giving power. The monk, believing the fruit to be evil, threw the fruit in the fire. Upon smelling the delicious roast, he was tempted to try it himself, and eventually grew to appreciate the drink’s ability to focus and prolong his prayers!

Alcohol

British woman enjoying a cocktail

An ever-common site–drunk Asian businessmen, Hong Kong

A very wise Touareg explained to us in Timbuktu that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol was something for man’s own good. “It doesn’t affect or harm God if you drink–it isn’t personally important to him–he just says you shouldn’t drink for your own benefit.” Indeed, many of the rules of Islam and other religions can be explained this way, that they are designed to create a harmonious and peaceful society, rather than to delineate what constitutes a sort of cosmic evil, or sin.

The absence of alcohol is perhaps one of the greatest easily noticeable differences between the Muslim world and the West or Far East. By avoiding alcohol, the Muslim world certainly avoids some of the greatest social ills of other, alcohol-laden parts of the world. Almost all cities in the Muslim world feel incredibly safe, especially at night, relative to American or European cities, largely because they are free of drunks whose erratic behavior can result in conflict and violence. In the major East Asian cities after sundown, drunken office workers are a common sight; in the West, so much of adult social life revolves around bars and inebriation. I will never forget the first “festival” we attended in the Arab world, and how family-friendly it was, largely due to the absence of alcohol. On the other hand, I also understand the role of alcohol as social lubrication, in places such as East Asia where workplace relations can otherwise be very hierarchical and tense, or in the promotion of the mixing of genders (or single-sex pairings, in the case of homosexuals), that most natural human activity. Is trying to ban alcohol from adult social life perhaps as futile and senseless as banning other natural behaviors, such as sexuality? But, of course, many parts of the Muslim world also attempt this, to greater or lesser success.