Lapis Lazuli

If you ever walk through the European Art wing of a museum, you might notice that the Virgin Mary almost always wears a blue cloak. This color symbolism can be attributed to a myriad of explanations, the simplest one being this: blue was the most expensive pigment throughout much of history. Ultramarine, meaning “beyond the seas,” was known to come from a land so far away that no European had actually been there, not even Alexander the Great. Ultramarine paint is made from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli (meaning “blue stone”). It is found only in Chile, Zambia, a few small mines in Siberia, and – most importantly- in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, all of the real ultramarine in both Eastern and Western art came from mines in Afghanistan. By the time it made its way down mountain passes, across ancient trade routes and into Europe in the 13th century, it had already been assigned a high value. By standardizing liturgical color codes in the 16th century, reserving blue for the Virgin Mary, Pope Pius V bestowed even more prestige upon the color. Ultramarine retained its high status until a synthetic version of the color was discovered in France in 1828. However, almost all of the masterpieces of the European Renaissance owe some of their charm to the beautiful blue paint that originated in the mines of Afghanistan.

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titian                                                                     Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”

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Pietro Perugino’s “Virgin with Child and Angels”

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Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring”ofthemeadow

Raphael’s “Virgin of the Meadows”
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Evil Eye

Evil eye talismans are very prevalent throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.  The evil eye is an envious or hateful look that is believed to cause harm on whomever meets its gaze.  Certain people are thought to wield especially potent powers when it comes to inflicting the curse of the evil eye on others. This bad luck often stems from envy and the “overlooking” associated with a fixation on or the coveting of another person.

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Belief in the evil eye is strongest in the Mediterranean region.  Muslims often ward off the evil eye by answering any complements with “mashallah,” (God has willed it).  In the Aegean region, where light-colored eyes are rare, those with green, and especially blue eyes, are thought to wield the power of the evil eye.  This belief may have arisen after people from cultures not used to the evil eye unintentionally transgressed local customs by staring or offering praise.  Thus, evil eye amulets in Greece and Turkey take the form of a blue eye.  In Israel, observant Jews believe that the 10th commandment “thou shalt not covet” is a law against inflicting the evil eye on another person.

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Apotropaic (protective) talismans have arisen in many cultures to ward off the evil eye.  They take the form of hanging discs, or small beads, and are often found in cars, on doorways, and on people’s bodies.

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Abdu Hafid

My friend, Phil Murphy, filmed this video of Abdu Hafid, the man who made svinj (Moroccan donuts) just outside of Phil’s house in the Fez Medina. Abdu Hafid explains that he recites verses from the Quran while making his svinj because he hopes to bestow blessings upon anyone who eats them.

Phil is getting his PhD in Ethnomusicology from UCSB, and spent a year in Fez on a Fulbright scholarship, learning Moroccan Arabic as well as traditional Moroccan music. He has a great blog as well, full of beautiful photography and music. Check it out: http://philinfez.tumblr.com/

Bedouins

The term “Bedouin” literally means “those in the desert,” which is an entirely apt appellation for a group of desert nomads.  Throughout history, the Bedouins have herded sheep and camel through the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen), Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel.  They earned income by transporting goods and people across the desert.  Surviving and thriving in such a hostile desert environment engendered a strong kinship network and a profuse sense of hospitality.  Any stranger encountered in the desert could be assured meals and a place to sleep for as long as they needed; survival was a team effort.

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Bedouins traditionally lived in desert tents, made from hand-woven carpets.  These tents were dismantled and transported at each rest stop along the route.  Nowadays, it is harder for Bedouins to maintain their traditional lifestyles.  Many find themselves working in the tourism industry, taking visitors on camel rides through the desert, and offering them a meal and a night’s rest in a traditional tent.  I did this in the Sahara in Morocco and in Wadi Rum in Jordan.  It’s wonderful and conflicting and sad.  I love feeling like Nicole of Arabia, traipsing through the desert sands, but I hate seeing these people with such a rich culture scraping a living by serving me.  I suppose that’s the duality you grapple with when you travel.  The Bedouins are a truly kind and welcoming people, though, and it’s worth a trip to the Middle East just to meet them.

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Bedouin Tea

Bedouin Tea, boiling on the sands

Read this book if you want to learn more about Bedouins:  Married to a Bedouin

Bedouin Hospitality

The Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, situated between the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Red Sea to the south, has some of the world’s best diving.  The Sinai is a fascinating place to visit for other reasons too.  It is the home to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the ten commandments, and beheld the burning bush, and to Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

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It is also stunningly beautiful, it’s landscape craggy and reddish, and covered in sand.  I guess that’s what happens when two continents come crashing together.  The Sinai has traditionally been inhabited by Bedouins, a nomadic people who live in portable tents in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula.  They are renowned for their generous hospitality, which I can personally attest to.

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I found myself slightly stranded on the Sinai last November while I was attempting to bus it (solo) from Cairo to Israel.  Due to several unforeseen challenges, I landed in Sharm al-Sheikh, the southern tip of the Sinai, at about 9 pm, only about halfway to Israel.  There I met a Spanish dive instructor, an Egyptian diver, and a Bedouin man who was offering to drive the three of us about 60 miles north to Dahab.  The Spanish woman promised me she had some Bedouin friends who owned a hostel on the beach, and she would take me there.  OK, I said, slightly annoyed that it would take me 2 full days to go 260 miles (ended up being 450 with previously mentioned unforeseen detours).  When I got to Dahab, the Bedouins were waiting for me with mint tea, conversation, cushions on the beach, and a HUGE plate of freshly caught fish.  When I woke up the next morning, I could not believe how beautiful the view was

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I left the next morning to continue my trek to Israel, severely regretting not having realized how amazing the Sinai was.  I really want to go back, it is basically at the top of my list.  I would love to dive in Ras Mohammed National Park, climb Mount Sinai, and see St. Catherine’s.  I would also just like to spend more time with the Bedouins, a group of people I find fascinating and warm and strong.  They certainly taught me a lesson in serendipity and kindness when I could not have been more annoyed:  slow down, enjoy the ride, and eat some fish on the beach with some nice, new people.

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The Israeli side of the Sinai, Eilat

And with this post, I am giving myself homework.  Two more posts: one on diving in Egypt, and one on Bedouins.  Due: this week.  Stay tuned.