Thursday, 24 September 2009

The linguistic and cultural ties between Arabs and Jews

The conflict in the Middle East gives rise to the perception that Arabs and Jews are deadly enemies with vast differences that can never be solved. Many will be surprised to learn that this conflict is a relatively recent development dating back about a hundred years. The conflict belies the fact that there are many similarities between the two peoples.

Arabic is widely spoken as a language amongst the Arab nations of the Middle East. Hebrew is an ancient language, the language of the Old Testament originating several thousand years ago. The two languages are written using different scripts but there are striking similarities between the two. Often the difference is one of pronunciation.

The Hebrew word for peace is pronounced as shalom. In Arabic it is salaam. Where a Jew will say 'shalom aleichem' an Arab will say 'salaam aleikum'. Both mean 'peace be with you'. The Hebrew for blessing is baruch, in Arabic, barack. The names of the Hebrew numbers are almost identical to their Arabic counterparts.

Knowledge of one of the two languages simplifies the learning of the other. Both languages are thought to have originated from the same source, and have been written since about 3000 BCE. Although a different script is used for the two languages, the names of the letters share a certain similarity and neither has vowels as part of the alphabet. Interestingly, the term 'alphabet' derives from the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet - aleph and bet. All Semitic languages are written from right to left.

For many years, Hebrew became the language to the Torah and other books of the Old Testament. It was a language of study and prayer. Jews in the region began to speak Aramaic - another Semitic language with great similarities to both Hebrew and Arabic. Much of the Talmud is written in Aramaic, but Torah scholars do not have great difficulty in managing the transition.

With the rise of Zionism in the nineteenth century, Hebrew was revived as a spoken language. This resulted in changes to the grammar, and the infusion of new words to describe modern phenomena. Surprisingly, much of the new grammar corresponds to the grammatical changes that occurred in the use of Arabic over the last two millennia.

There are more than simple linguistic similarities between the two peoples. According to the Torah (and the Quran) both nations began with Abraham's two sons - Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was to father the Arab peoples and the nomadic tribes; while Isaac was the father of Jacob whose twelve sons defined the twelve tribes of Israel. Both peoples therefore have a common ancestry.

Islam and Judaism have many differences, but probably share more with each other than with Christianity. Each has retained the dietary laws. These include the killing of animals by cutting through the jugular vein. The method is painless and death is instant. The slaughterer requires specific training. The animal's blood must be drained before the meat is fit to eat. Not all animals are allowed to be eaten. The most famous of these is the pig.

Kosher food is considered halaal for Moslems, though the kosher laws are stricter than the laws of halaal thus precluding Jews from eating halaal food.

The laws governing burial are also similar, namely that the body should be buried on the day of death. Mourning procedures also have similarities.

Both religions place a strong emphasis on the giving of charity. Modesty is emphasised in dress and in the relations between men and women.

There have been historical times when the Jews thrived under Moslem rule. The greatest example was the Hebrew Golden Age in Spain. The Golden Age spanned the years between 900 and 1200 CE. This was a time of great Jewish intellectual achievements. The Jewish and Arab intellectual worlds stimulated each other producing astronomers, poets, philosophers, musicians and scientists. Although the Jews had to wear identifying clothing to distinguish them and were subjected to special taxation, they were free to pursue their own religion and studies. The Jews prospered and developed a strong culture which thrived until their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

For many centuries Jews lived in Arab countries and Arabic became their spoken language. Persecution was much more rare than in the Christian countries of Europe. In the modern era, the Jews of these Arab countries have let or been expelled.

Perhaps one of the keys to solving the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians is to emphasise what the two peoples have in common rather than their differences.

Sunday, 06 September 2009

A visitor's guide to South Africa

South Africa is a mixture of cultures and traditions with much to offer the visitor. The mixture includes spectacular safaris and sightseeing, beach holidays and visits to great cities. South Africa is a mix of Western, African and Asian cultures.

The local currency is the rand. The strength of the currency varies from time to time but even when the rand is strong, it tends to favour the visitor. At the time of writing you will get about R8 for US $1 or R13 for 1.

Accommodation is available in a number of hotel chains including the outstanding Southern Sun, the Hilton, many independent establishments. There are also a wide variety of guest houses, guest farms and other accommodation. Rates vary from one establishment to another depending the ratings and demand. The most expensive rates are available during the December peak season (December 15 to January 5) which is the South African summer school holidays. provides a useful guide to rates and accommodation. Hotel accommodation is available from under R300 per person per night (about US $30) to over R2000 (US $200). Many establishments offer self catering options.

Getting around the country is best achieved using a combination of air and road. Car hire is widely available in all the major centres. Public transport is limited. The Blue Train offers a luxurious 'old-style' fully catered train that takes you through some of the most spectacular landscapes between Pretoria and Cape Town. Good food is accompanied with the finest wines. A holiday in itself.

South Africa is home to people originating in all four corners of the globe. The variety of restaurants reflects this diversity catering for almost all tastes. Almost every type of cuisine is available in the many restaurants that include classic French, Italian, Thai, English, Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, African and South African dining experiences. Many on-line restaurant guides are available includingWhat2Night. By international standards, South African restaurants are very inexpensive.

The South African braai or barbecue is always popular. Beef steaks, lamb, chicken or fish is cooked over a charcoal grill accompanied with boerewors which is a South African sausage made according to the butcher's own recipe.

Special dietary requirements are available in many centres. Halaal food is very widely available while kosher food is available in more localised areas.

South Africa has eleven official languages. English is most widely used and most people have at least a smattering of English.

Located on the Southern tip of the African continent, South Africa is flanked by the Indian Ocean on the East and the Atlantic on the west. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the summer months include December to February and winter months include June to August.

Cape Town is cosmopolitan and sophisticated boasting a wide range of world-class hotels. The climate is Mediterranean with hot dry summers and wet winters. The latest of these is the One&Only seven star resort which opened in April 2009.

Cape Town is a picturesque city blessed with beautiful beaches on the warm Indian Ocean and the icy Atlantic. Table Mountain dominates the city wherever you happen to be. Table Mountain resembles a table especially when covered by a white cloud 'table cloth'.

Robben Island lies just off the Cape coast. It played host to Nelson Mandela as a former maximum security prison. Today, Robben Island has become a major tourist destination and is worth a visit. The island is reached by ferry and tours are inexpensive.

Restaurants and theatre of all types abound. Cape Town is in the heart of the South African wine lands and a popular wine tour is an inexpensive way to experience the rich variety of South African wines.

The Victoria and Albert Waterfront is a not to be missed venue. Sit at one of the many restaurants overlooking the harbour and watch the ships come and go.

One of the highlights of the Cape Town year is the annual Coon Carnival' on the first and second of January.

Johannesburg is South Africa's largest city and the business centre of the country. Situated on the high veld at 6000 feet above sea level, it features hot wet summers and dry mild winters. Johannesburg hosts a number of good restaurants and theatres. The Market theatre is known as one of the leading fringe theatres in the country and has staged a number of award winning shows over the years.

Johannesburg is host to a number of world class casinos. The best of these is Monte Casino which includes a theatre, cinemas, curiosity shops, fashion retailers, night clubs and restaurants. It is also the home of a bird sanctuary and an upmarket hotel.

A visit to the Constitutional Court is a must. This was built on the old Fort prison that played host to Nelson Mandela amongst others. During the apartheid years, the prison was known as Sun City. Nelson Mandela was amongst the many well known guests of this establishment. A guided tour is strongly recommended. The court has been built using some stunning and innovative architecture and houses an impressive art collection.

While Johannesburg does experience a high level of crime most people are able to go about their business on a day to day basis with little trouble.

The African Craft Market takes place every Sunday at the Rosebank Mall and is a must for any visitor looking for African crafts and mementos. The Apartheid Museum provides a perspective on the history of South Africa. It is located near the Gold Reef City Theme Park and casino.

Soweto has been home to many of the South African leaders and is worth a visit. Guided tours are available to take you to the most interesting parts.

Some of the earliest known humanoids have been found in South Africa. The Cradle of Humankind was developed to celebrate this. The Cradle has been developed into a major resort offering accommodation, guided tours conference facilities, and much more.

200 kilometres away from Johannesburg is the spectacular Sun City casino resort. The resort features a number of hotels ranging from the Cabanas to the Palace of the Lost City and self-catering chalets in the Vacation Club. The Palace is a not to be missed African dream with its own legends and a man made sea with real waves. Top class restaurants are the order of the day. Bordering on Sun City is the Pilansberg Game reserve which is well worth a tour.

Durban is South Africa's third largest city on the Indian Ocean. It boasts a spectacular aquarium at Shaka's Rock in the form of a ship wreck. The harbour area is also being developed as a popular night spot. To the north are the quiet resorts of Umhlanga and St Lucia boasting beautiful white sand beaches. Durban has a sub-tropical climate and is generally warm throughout the year. It is a popular winter destination as it remains warm throughout the year.

Durban and the nearby Umhlanga Rocks are popular destinations for surfers. To the north and south of Durban are many miles of beautiful beaches and quiet resorts.

South Africa has developed many game reserves. The larges of these is the Kruger Park. This is in malaria territory so precautions are required. The park is home to lions, elephants, rhino, crocodiles, hippos, springboks, wildebeest and a whole range of other animal and bird species. Luxury accommodation is available at various parts of the park which is about the size of Wales. The best time to view the wildlife is in the early morning, before the heat of the day drives the animals to seek shelter.

South Africa is aboPublish Postut to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Apart from the many new stadiums that have been built for this event, the road networks around the country are being upgraded to cope with higher traffic volumes.

Many visitors to South Africa return to experience the country again. South Africa is a worthwhile and affordable place to visit.