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An Electronic Librarian in a Medieval Library

My wife Mary Ann has a job in a very modern, well funded library in Sharjah UAE. Thanks to the benevolence of the ruler of Sharjah who I unashamedly give a nod to whenever I see his photo. He supports education and the arts at great expense. Shukran.

Her title is Electronic Resources Librarian. In Umbria we got to see the oldest library books either of us will likely ever see, as well as a medieval email!

medieval library

I caught Mary Ann in a moment of shock and awe as she made her way past the “recent” collection (1800’s) into the special collection.

medieval library

These are some of the books from the 1400’S!! I could make out some of the Latin titles enough to know that there were court proceeding records and land title records. Imagine being able to trace the ownership of a parcel of land back to 1450. Mary Ann was quick to pint out that these books were not categorized in either the Dewey Decimal OR  the Library of Congress system! I am no expert on the subject but I suspect these are cataloged  with a system developed by Callimachus, considered the first bibliographer and is the one that organized the library by authors and subjects. Variations on his system were used in libraries until the late 1800s.

medieval calligraphy

They just don’t make them like this anymore. Calligraphy in a 1400’s book.

medieval book

Page one. I beleive this is called a frontispiece. Hand drawn with real gold leafing. You just cannot get this off Amazon!

medieval book

We took one of the books out to examine it. It was a book published in Florence for use by the priests. It  told them how to dole out earthly punishment for sins. The librarian said most of the sins listed were, ahh, sexual in nature! The notes here were written by a priest 500 years ago, I wish I knew what they said, probably something like, “this book just does not cover this man’s sins, you would not believe what he confessed. His poor livestock…”

I am a book freak. I used to collect first editions until they weighed more than my furniture. But I never ever held a 600 year old book in my hands before. I treated it like nitroglycerin.

Now what about that medieval email?

constantantine communication

Well, maybe not email. Maybe snail mail? Maybe mule mail? This is a communication the emperor Constantine sent this town rewarding them with the privilege to stage a festival of games. It is the pride of their library. AND you can walk right up and touch it. It stands about 4 feet tall.


The only word I recognized on the entire message just jumped out at me. I showed it to Mary Ann and I could see visions of Russel Crowe in her eyes.

This was another wonderful experience granted the delegates of the travel bloggers conference. We actually took it a step further by introducing Mary Ann as a professional librarian, so they opened the doors to the collection. Magnificent!

I will share this idea with any of you who can write grants. There is definitely an opportunity for a grant from someone like the world Heritage Foundation of Unesco to find a way to digitize these volumes so that scholars can use them without danger to the books themselves.  Of course you would have to speak Latin…

Please share this with your FB friends, and tell any of your bookie friends about it.

Thanks for reading, stay tuned for more from Italy.

Using the Worlds Highest Urinal

Dubai is a city of extremes. Just about everywhere you go you can find the biggest, the fastest, the tallest.

My mother came to visit my wife and I last week, and we decided to be tourists in our own town. Technically we live in Sharjah, which is next door to Dubai. While being a rather sleepy town (Emirate actually) it is lovely, but without the superlatives you encounter in Dubai. Dubai seems to be working towards the Guinness Book of World Records for the most entries by a municipality in the Guinness Book of World Records.

We visited, in order;

The worlds largest indoor aquarium. This is located in the Dubai Mall, one of if not the largest mall in the world. It is 4 stories tall, each floor the size of five football fields, and this aquarium goes all the way up. There were an incredible number of fish, even sharks in this thing.

Attached to this mall is the new icon of Dubai

The world's tallest building and free standing structure, the Burj Khalifa

On the top of the Burj we visited

The worlds highest observation deck. Those little buildings below are really big skyscrapers.

The elevator to this observation tower is the worlds fastest elevator, 124 floors in 45 seconds. Yes, your ears pop.

All along we were met with plaques put in place by the Guinness book people. However, I just know that when I went to the gents room in this observation toiwer I was using the world’s highest urinal. Even though there was no plaque. I did not have a magic marker or I would have written graffiti to let people know what an honor it was to urinate there.

We also visited

The world's largest hanging gardens. This is my mom standing next to the Guinness sign

These beautiful gardens went on and on for acres.

To top it off my mom flew round trip on the 4th longest regularly scheduled air rout. LAX/Dubai/LAX. It is a 15 hour flight one way. Way to go mom!

Dubai is like the land of Oz. It is becoming a big tourist destination, for cause. The tourists are mostly European and Asian. Americans watch too much Fox news. I just feel lucky to live here.

Thats is it for this post. Next week I am off to Chiang Mai and the first week of June…KENYA! Stay tuned. Tell a friend, and please make a comment.

Something Better Than Democracy (?)

This is not a travel blog. But, there is no where else to express this philosophical idea that has been running around in my brain like hamster in one of those wheels. Do not suggest FaceBook. I have tried to post items of FaceBook that do not have anything to do with a mangy puppie, or what I had for lunch,and no one seems to care. In fact, I think I have be defriended  by a few people because I dared to use facebook for something that was not inane. So, I am breaking tradition here, breaking my travel rhythm, to express an idea.

Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the light hearted travel stuff next week.

I think this is a new idea, at least I have never heard it spoken about by pundits or serious commentators. Being at least new to me, it is both historically and philosophically immature. It might get some “hurrumphs” and it might get some people’s ire raised, but you know me, that is what I do. So sit back, have a coffee or tea or a beer or some other form of mind relaxing (but not hallucinogenic) substance and read on.

I have come to the conclusion that Democracy, with a large D, is a joke. Maybe a cruel joke. I have become convinced that it is a conspiratorial enterprise serving  pablum to the masses.

I grew up in what is called a Democracy. I participated in my Democracy at the local state and national level. My political experiences started in 1968. Motivated by, or more aptly put, disgusted by, the Viet Nam war I was looking for something I could do, even though I was still too young to vote. I started by taking Eugene McCarthy flower shaped bumper stickers from the local “Clean for Gene” office and pasting them on the rear of expensive cars in the shopping mall near my home. But the most memorable thing for me that election cycle was that I shook hands with Bobby Kennedy, on the morning of the last day of his life.

The next election cycle I got serious for George McGovern because my future included a draft to fight in a war I thought was just plain wrong. I stuffed mailboxes and made phone calls.

“Hello, good evening, Sorry to call you at eleven o’clock at night. I am calling on behalf of the McGovern Campaign. We need your vote to help defeat Tricky Dick.”

I was now old enough to vote and I was motivated to participate inside the system. St. George could not slay the dragon Nixon, but praise to everything holy I did not get drafted or have to move to Canada. I never wanted to be a Toronto Blue Jays fan anyway. During that election I watched McGovern self implode. I also watched one of his main campaign managers in action, a smart young guy named Gary Hart. I was among the first people to actively (very actively) work for Hart when he formed his “exploratory committee” to run for President in 1984    As a result of my efforts I became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. We all know what happened to him. Damn, I was hoping to become to cultural atache to Bolivia. Oh well.

My last full blown effort at politics found me the co-manager of a campaign for a bright young man who was running for  a seat in the California Assembly. From that insiders viewpoint, I witnessed Machiavellian  machinations that left me numb. I stopped my active political life. Since then I have donated a few $ to Obama, and yes, I have even voted when motivated.

So do not say I do not know how Democracies work. Also, be slow to disagree with me when I say they don’t. Allow me to blabber on before you call me names, OK?

My first exposure to a democracy being a joke was when I was a 10 year old wide-eyed kid living in Bolivia. They had an “election” while I was there. The parties (about 6 of them) were known by their colors. People voted blue, green orange, yellow, or even red. It soon became apparent even to a ten year-old that there was not a lot of (what I would later learn to be) critical thinking going on here. When the peasants (about 95% of Bolivians can be called peasants without any derogatory meaning, they just are) who were almost all illiterate went to the polling place they voted for the same color as their comrades out of nothing more than peer pressure. They had no idea what Mr. Green or Mr. Chartreuse would do for them, or for that matter why they were voting, except that it made them think they were in control of something. PABLUM.

Since then I have lived in Chile, Peru and Panama. Chile is rather well educated. They had an elction to end the rule of Pinochet (more on him later) and re-install democracy in their country. Pinochet seized power in the worst way, but I was left with impression when he left power that in the end he helped Chile an awful lot. A benevolent Dictator.

Peru had an election while I lived there. Peru, has two faces. The urban educated upper classes, and the rural pablum eaters. On a couple of occasions Peru has gone out on a limb and elected reformers, however the reforms never seem to happen. Just more pablum and frustration for the people.

I also lived in Panama. The educated vote their pocket book, and the indigenous vote with no more discretion than the Bolivian peasants. Sad.

You can look around the world today and see many exercises in Democracy that are just plain bullshit. Iraq? Iran?? Afghanistan??? Southern Sudan? The list goes on. The reason they are bullshit is simple. An uneducated population. At least poorly educated.

Now I am not (as you damn well know) some intellectual powerhouse. But I consider myself an “educated” person. The cornerstone of my University education was a required class (In the California system anyway) called Critical Thinking. It taught me how to read an op-ed piece, an everyday news story, even Hitory. It taught me to take it apart and examine every quote, every supposed fact. Examine who wrote it, to determine the authors pedigree. I can sum up what I learned in one simple question I ask every time I read a politically oriented article or hear a speech or a talking head on TV. I ask myself “He would say that wouldn’t he?” If the answer to that question is yes, then what I just read or heard is useless. However, if the answer to that is no, then maybe I should look into this a bit more. Why would he say that? What is behind the story?

I seriously doubt, in fact I am 100% sure , that the majority of people in “developing nations” (the 3rd world in my day) do not posses this skill. They are led down the path to the polling place by people who want to seize power “Democratically”. All the great intentions of the Carter foundation aside, that is not good democracy.

Now let us look at the United States. Talk about pablum. In this case expensive pablum. I am not sure how many hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in 2008 or 2010 to elect the people now in power. One thing I am sure of is that if all that money went to schools or to feed the poor, the country would benefit a lot more than it has or will from the leaders we now have.

Public Education in the USA was deemed absolutely necessary by  Benjamin Franklin because he knew that no democracy could survive unless the people were educated. I agree.

But lets take a look at the most disturbing (to me) facet of American democracy today. That would be the Tea Party. Even if you ARE a Tea Partier, you must admit that you are NOT analyzing what the likes of Sarah Palin have to say. You just can’t be. So why is the Tea Party still tapping kegs and rolling into the night? Simple. Many people in America have grown very tired of elitists, of people smarter than they are running things  They do not like having to try and understand what a politician is saying, even though they dumb down their rhetoric so a sixth grader can understand it.  So they rally around a dimwit who likes to say “golly gee” and shoot reindeer.

Democracy, yes, even in the USA is a joke.

So what else? Here we go, sit back far enough away from your monitor so you cant’t spit on it or throw it out the window.


Benevolent Rulers.

I live in such a country now, The UAE. I lived in Chile under what I call a benevolent Dictator.  I have traveled and spent time in others. The one thing they all have common, and this is a very rare thing, is an incredible amount of natural resources. Here it is of course oil, in Chile it was copper. Having these resources is not the end all. It requires strong man, a ruler, a one stop shopping power source who just happens to be benevolent.

The rulers here in the UAE (all 7 of them), the Sultan of Oman and the kings of Qatar and Bahrain all qualify as benevolent Rulers. So does the King of Thailand.

As an aside, I was in a class last semester with a princess from Bahrain. A real princess, her Uncle is the Benevolent Ruler. I expressed this philosophy to her and she laughed and said “Ah we have brainwashed you!” I laughed and said “By example.”

Thanks for reading. tell a friend. But this is NOT a democracy, so don’t bother commenting.

Just kidding, fire away.

A Post Just to Post

I have not written on this bloggie thingie for way too long. Mainly because we have not traveled  for like a whole month!

Life on campus is better than I imagined it could be.

Mary Ann is enjoying her job and the people she works with. She gets tired by Thursday (virtual Friday, the Moslem week is Sunday through Thursday) but that is to be expected. She is taking a Yoga class and getting all nimble.

We are both taking a class together called beginning Arabic. Emphasis on beginning. After the hour class is over my brain cells are fried, deep fried. I keep telling myself this is no way to learn a language. I believe that only necessity and immersion are motivators for learning a new language. Jumping into the deep end and dog paddling to stay alive is the only way. Here in the UAE I do not need to speak Arabic. Only 20% of the population are Emiratis. Everyone I deal with speaks English. I have no one to practice with besides Mary Ann, and yes, she tries, flash cards and everything, but she is just learning as well. The New Jersey accent does not help. You must pronounce things accurately in Arabic, and some sounds have absolutely no equivalent in a romantic language. Let me give you an example.

I, as you might imagine, am the class cut-up. Basically, in a class with professors from around the world I am Jeff Spicoli. So I revel in it. The other night, the scene went like this:

Teacher: “this how you say where is the hospital. Ayna moustafa”

Everyone repeats Ayna Moustafa.

I raise my hand. The teacher, who happens to be woman, but treats me like Mr. Hand treats Spicoli, grudgingly says “Yes Forrest”

“Excuse me, but I truly do not believe I will ever have to ask anyone were the hospital is. Can you teach me how to say something useful like where is the bathroom?’

She says “OK repeat after me AYNA ALHAMMAN”


Notice that I spelled them different.  My Mr. Hand starts laughing at me.

Startled by her finding me humerous I say “WHAAAT, what did I say”

She then tells me “In Arabic, we have a sound for a M and a different sound for MM. What you just asked me was “where is the pigeon.”

Now everyone is laughing, at my expense. Cool let them learn how to ask where the hospital is, I can now find out where the bathroom is, or a pigeon. My three to their one. All I have to do is figure out how to say MM instead of M. The only example I can think of in English is ham sandwich opposed to Hamms beer. (Either one of which I would almost kill to get my hands on) Here in the UAE, they say” toilet” so the whole embarrassing episode was academic.

I am also taking an upper level History class Called “The History of US Relations With the Middle East”  or something like that. I am not a real student, so I do not have to turn in papers or any of that rot. I just sit in class and watch this united nations of students discuss the readings. I do my Spicoli act from time to time. Sometimes I even make an intelligent comment. The prof tolerates me because I think he needs comic relief in his life. He is from Massachusetts and has been here six years.  We have a Palestinian guy, a French girl, a girl from no telling where, maybe Pakistan, and  guy from Saudi Arabia. There is one American. He is the only blonde on campus. He is an exchange student from the American University in Washington DC. He works summers for USAID. I am quite sure he is on his way to full employment with a certain three letter acronym soon. Then there is, I swear, a princess. She is a member of the Bahrain royal family. She is very well prepared for class, and she secretly laughs at my jokes.  In my dreams she invites Mary Ann and I for a weekend in the Palace in Doha. But, why should she. Unless I write her term paper for her. Hm. Or is that Hmm.

I have entered three writing contests, short stories. The first is about my History prof going time travelling, the second is about Yetis actually being extraterrestrials and the third is about Social Networking. You FB people would not like that one. Grand prize is a trip to NYC, in January, for four days. Second prize is a whole week.

OK, unless something absolutely amazing happens, like a day under 90 degrees, or it friggen rains, I will not be posting for maybe three weeks. Mary Ann and I are off to Thailand on Nov 12. That is the start of another EID, so Mary Ann gets 10 days off, without having to take any vacation.

Thanks for reading, please comment, I need the attention.

Tidbits and Teasers

I know I have not posted for a while now. I have taken some crap for that, thanks sister.

OK, so we are back in Sharjah. Mary Ann is working and loving it. Now that we live on campus in our spacious apartment (condo?) she has a   71/2 minute walk to her office. Some people who live in the same block as us actually drive the three blocks to the main part of the campus. I forgive them. It is always about 100 degrees f. I don’t think the aircon in the car could possibly cool it down in the 2 minute drive, but heh, it is the thought that counts. We have still not decided to buy, lease or rent a vehicle. The university gives us a free bus ride to the Sharjah Co-Op to shop for groceries twice a week, and every other weekend we have a driver who takes us to Dubai. We go to any one of the huge malls and window shop(all we can afford), see a movie (about US$8 for the ticket and the popcorn is always stale) and have dinner. We also do a lot of people watching. There is a fascinating collection of expats and Emirates to watch go by. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we just shake our heads.

Both of us just started an on-campus class in spoken Arabic. They have a class to learn how to read and write it, but there is absolutely no way I could ever decipher that writing, and much less of a chance of ever doing the calligraphy needed to write it. I cannot read my own handwriting in English, so just forget it. Last night I tried to repeat in Arabic that I live in Sharjah, the teacher laughed and told me I just said I live in a shoe box. I have a long way to go before I can do anything important like order a pizza.

I am enrolled in an upper level history class titled something like America and the Middle East. Classrooms are like playing tennis. You never want to play tennis with someone worse than you, that is no fun. I am in a class where everyone is smarter than I am, so I am having fun. There are only six people in the class, but these people actually study and come prepared to discuss the readings. I throw in a few impertinent comments for comic relief, but intellectually I am outclassed. OK, it has been 30 years since I had to be prepared for a classroom situation. Luckily I am only auditing the class so I won’t have to go on academic probation and embarrass Mary Ann. I think my prof is relieved that I will not be turning in any papers, so he won’t have to grade my dribble. In this class, there is one Palestinian, one Saudi, one girl from France one girl who says she can’t be defined by any geopolitical borders a guy from Chicago (yup, the Chicago by the lake) and one girl from either Bahrain or Qatar.

This last girl and the guy from the KSA got into a friendly argument about a sword that was returned to the Saudi’s last week by her country She said “that sword was given to mt grandfather and passed along to his father. It was a present from the King of Saudi Arabia, we should have kept it.” The guy said something about the sword being  mythical and  magical, or maybe just worth a lot of bucks. Everyone was leaving the room and I missed it. So I have a meeting set up with this girl for Monday to get the whole story. She is going to bring pictures  and tell me all about it. I will post on Monday or Tuesday and entertain you with a little ME lore, so stay tuned.

By the time you read this I will be another year older. Mary Ann is taking me to Muscat for my birthday and the weekend. Where? Google it.

I will put up a post on Sunday (this time with pictures, I know you like pictures) all about our weekend in yet another country.

One last thing. I have a good buddy who is in Afghanistan at this moment embedded as a historian, journalist. If you find him on FaceBook (John R  Bruning) you will be treated to some amazing photography and stories. I have known him for 20 years. We are oil and water politically, but I admire his gumption to go where he is, zooming around in helicopters and writing about it. So check it out. If like me you think FaceBook is just too insipid to be involved with, then he has a blog at

Stay tuned and tell a friend, and for goodness sake, make a comment.

OhMan off to OMAN

Back in Sharjah

We arrived about a week ago, but I had to blog about the last few days in Amazing Thailand before i could write about being back “home” in the UAE.

Mary Ann is back at work. I am trying to find my way around the apartment we have in the Faculty Housing complex on campus. This is the biggest place Mary Ann and I have ever lived in together. I still make a wrong turn to the kitchen or the bathroom sometimes. It has two big bedrooms and three bathrooms. The master bedroom and bath combined are as big as our apartment was in LA when we first got together. The kitchen looks like a restaurant kitchen. The combined living and dining room is huge. It is a little weird in some ways. One of the bathrooms has no toilet, another has no shower, but the master bath has it all including of course a bidet. I still have not used it, don’t plan to either.

They supplied everything we could possibly need. Furniture, linens, cooking utensils and the list goes on. The university pays for our electricity, so we keep it a cool 25 degrees. Outside it is always between 40 and 50 degrees. For those of you still stuck on Fahrenheit,  50 degrees is halfway to the boiling temperature of water, HOT.

The campus, while situated off in the desert, away from town, is very green. We have big trees in front of our place and plenty of birds. Exotic birds I have never seen before. There is a species of blue birds here that is not endemic to Sharjah, but the ruler likes them so he imported a bunch.

We go to town twice a week in transport supplied by the U to do our grocery shopping. We have nixed the idea of leasing an automobile (for now) because neither of us want to drive here. One of my assignments is to find us a driver so we can go to Dubai or Sharjah center for more shopping. We really do not lack anything, but I want a bike so I can get around campus like I did when I was in University. I was skinny then, and I think the bike helped keep weight off. Anyway, I need the exercise. The Faculty housing has a big pool and rec enter, so I need to swim and bike or I am going to look like I do not want to look. The food in Thailand was so good that I put twenty pounds on, bummer.

We have free cable,(60 channels) and the library has all the novels and DVDs I could ever want to avail myself of, so the temptation to veg out is too strong. I also want to take a class this fall, in what i’m not sure, but I can take two classes a semester for free.

We got home at the start of Ramadan, so the campus is deserted and things all over are rather quiet. Ramadan starts and ends with a week called EID. No one works during EID. So, Mary Ann basically gets two more weeks added to her extremely generous six weeks vacation. Her trip to Thailand covered the first EID. She immediately  started planning for the next one. We are gong to Nepal! I have to go back to Thailand for more dental work in November, so she is planning another week off before I go to Chiang Mai, and it looks like we are going to Borneo. Borneo? So far all I have read about it is that it will be, well, different.

Now, any of our friends  who want to experience the UAE, see the magnificent buildings and malls in Dubai, get caught in a traffic jam with Bentleys, ride a camel in the desert, we have space for you! Come visit! Fly Emirates! (do NOT fly Gulf air, yuch). Once you are here you can take inexpensive side trips to Morocco, Oman, India, Nepal, any of those destinations are about $350 R/T from the Sharjah airport, ten minutes from our apartment.  We welcome you! I’d suggest doing it in winter months, and no, you will not need a jacket.

Thanks for reading, please make a comment.

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