Arab gifts to European culture

 "Wasim Salama" (Illustration:  Irina Reshetnikova  © )

"Wasim Salama" (Illustration: Irina Reshetnikova ©

I spoke with Doctor Jacobsen about Wasim’s desire to explain, in person, why he wanted to study in Norway. Doctor Jacobsen readily agreed to meet my brother, and suggested that our family join him after work on Friday, October 5. We would have tea together and discuss our application as a family.

And so on Friday afternoon, after a day so long and difficult that it blended into all the other long and difficult days, I was sitting with Doctor Rosie, Doctor Ayyesh and Doctor Jacobsen at the table in the Doctors’ Café, as we called it, when my mother peered around the edge of the blue surgical drapery that curtained the café from the rest of the medical tent. Doctor Rosie saw her and waved for her to come in.

“Zeinab, come, we need you. We are having an argument about tea. Which is older, Chinese tea, Indian tea, or Arabic tea?”

My mother stepped into the café, a professional among colleagues, followed by my brother Wasim, who was dressed in his one and only best shirt—he had worn it when we fled Aleppo—and his blue jeans. Wasim looked at me; I should now introduce him to Doctor Jacobsen. Then Wasim would speak, and I would translate. My mother sat at the table. Wasim continued to stand. I turned to Doctor Jacobsen, who was looking, with calm, appraising eyes at Wasim.

“Doctor Jacobsen, I would like to introduce my brother, Wasim. He watched very carefully the installation of the solar panels, and then of the wind turbines. When the engineers from Turkey strung lights throughout the camp, Wasim met an engineer who took him on as an apprentice. Wasim learned very much from this engineer.”

I paused; I didn’t want to rush everything into a jumble.

“The engineer had to leave when his job was finished, but he arranged for a teacher to visit the camp—a teacher from a school in a nearby town in Turkey—to give our young people a course in electrical engineering, and a second course in mathematics. We now have several teachers. Our little school is growing. But it is this one teacher, Hakan Baştűrk, who guides Wasim into fields of mathematics far beyond what I have learned in school. I am sixteen, and Wasim is only twelve.”

Again I paused. Wasim glanced at me, then continued to look at Doctor Jacobsen. He was waiting to speak.

“My mother and I have discussed with Wasim the possibility of travelling to

Norway so that the three of us could study there. Wasim has come today so that he could express to you . . . why he would like to study mathematics and engineering in Norway.”

“Ja,” said Doctor Jacobsen with a welcoming nod. “Wasim, we are very glad to hear what you have to say.”

Wasim’s dark eyes hardened with determination as he said in Arabic, and I translated into English,

“Doctor Jacobsen, I am Wasim Salama, youngest child of Omar and Zainab Salama. I am twelve years old, and should have begun sixth grade in Aleppo in September.”

Now Wasim did something that perhaps only a child of war would do. I had seen it happen many times in the camp, and I had seen it in myself. The children often spoke with a maturity beyond their years. They had been so terrified, so bewildered by the sudden chaos of war, that they could never go back to their childhood innocence. At the same time, they tried to make sense of their lives. They tried to understand why a father would disappear, why a brother would disappear. And thus children ten, twelve, fifteen years old spoke with a maturity far beyond that of ordinary children.

“I would like to tell you a story, Doctor Jacobsen, a story that has not ended yet.”

I did not know what this story would be. My brother had not told us. We had spoken only about how I would introduce him.

“This is a story about knowledge, and the spreading of knowledge. This is a story about people who are very good students.”

He paused, then with a graceful sweep of his hand, he said,

“A long time ago, a prophet named Mohammed lived in the Arabian desert for sixty-two years. He heard the voice of God, and he became God’s prophet. Part of this message was that the people, even poor people, must learn to read, so that they could read the Koran. The people of Islam were to be an educated people.”

Was I listening to my little brother, whose favorite activity at the school in Aleppo was football?

“Mohammed died in 632, but his message spread across many parts of the world. In 641, Muslim armies captured the great city of Alexandria in Egypt. Did they destroy the city? No. Instead, they explored the enormous library, where they found books filled with the wisdom of Greek scientists, Greek mathematicians, Greek doctors, Greek poets. The people of Islam translated these books into their own Arabic, so that libraries could be established in the growing Islamic world. I have read that in the library today in Fez, Morocco, you can find translations in Arabic of Aristotle and Plato, and even of your Christian Bible. For you see, the people of Islam were interested in all knowledge, no matter where it came from.”

I glanced at my mother. She was watching her son.

“The Muslim armies carried Islam across northern Africa, converting people along the way. In July of 711—only seventy years after the fruitful assimilation of Alexandria into the Muslim world—an army of seven thousand Berber tribesmen, who had converted to the Islamic faith, crossed the narrows at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea and took their faith to the southwestern corner of Europe. They called the fertile peninsula, where Spain and Portugal are located today, ‘Al Andalusia.’ They stayed for almost nine hundred years.”

Wasim smiled, the first smile I had seen from him today.

“And what did these ‘Moors’, as they were called, bring to Al Andalusia? Did they bring their swords, so they could slaughter the native peoples? Did they bring their axes, to cut down the olive trees? Did they burn people at the stake?

“No, they set up paper-making factories, thus bringing to Europe an art which the Arabs had learned in China. With their paper, they transferred Greek knowledge from Alexandria to newly founded libraries in Al Andalusia. They brought Aristotle and Plato to a Europe increasingly mired in the Dark Ages. They brought treatises on medicine, based on the original writings of Greek doctors, but with additional commentary by Arab surgeons. They brought the geography of Pythagoras, as well as a Greek instrument called an ‘astrolabe’, which enabled them to apply their geometry to the stars.”

“In Cordova, the Muslim capital of Al Andalusia, these books were kept in seventy libraries. No such collection existed in Paris at the time. The Moors were engineers who brought the art of irrigation with them. They also brought many new trees and fruits, such as the avocado and the orange. Water flowed not only through orchards, but through the towns and even through some of the houses. Cordova, a city of a hundred thousand people, had over three hundred public baths. Fountains graced many courtyards. Water flowed in channels beneath the city, carrying away the sewage. Cordova, in that respect alone, was far ahead of London.”

Wasim paused, his eyes relentlessly meeting the attentive gaze from Doctor Jacobsen.

“From the early years on the Arabian desert, caravans travelled at night in order to avoid the heat of the day. Arabs thus became highly skilled in navigating by the stars. The Greek astrolabe enabled Arabs of a later time to combine astronomy with mathematics. By viewing the stars, and by making certain mathematical calculations, an architect building a mosque in Al Andalusia could calculate the exact direction toward Mecca . . . and thus the direction toward which to pray.
Even today, a bright red star in the sky, the eye of Taurus the bull, is called by its Arabic name, ‘Aldebaran’, from Al-Dabaran, meaning ‘the follower’.
Look for the ‘al-’ at the beginning of a scientific word, such as ‘algebra’ or ‘algorithm’ or ‘alchemy’, and you will know that the modern word came from Arabic.
And of course: Arabic numerals. Even the Greeks were woefully behind in their rendition of numbers. Try to multiply CCCXCVII times XXXVIII. Not an easy task.

But then try to multiply 397 times 38, and you can do it within a minute. These simplified numbers were making their way north into Europe by the 1100s, where they were adopted by architects building new structures called cathedrals.

“One Arabic numeral was especially important: the sifr, or ‘cipher’, meaning ‘empty’. With this unprecedented ‘zero’, mathematics could explore new realms of thought. The Moors were innovative. The Moors were progressive. And the Moors were always willing to share their knowledge with visitors from the rest of Europe.”

Wasim paused, sadness in his eyes.

“We all know, of course, that the Christians drove the Muslims out of Al Andalusia, creating modern Spain and Portugal. Let us look at two Muslim cities and their very different fates when they were conquered by Christian armies.

“The city of Toledo passed from Muslim to Christian control in 1085, but Muslims were allowed to stay, mixing with populations of both Christians and Jews. The three religions worked together in translating many books. Scholars from the northern parts of Europe came to Toledo to study, and to take home with them books and treatises and their own greatly expanded knowledge. Aristotle and Plato, after residing in Toledo, made their way in a scholar’s baggage to a small town in England known as Oxford. There they flourished.

“On the other hand, when the city of Granada fell to the Christians in 1492, all of the books in the city libraries were burned. Every trace of the Moors was to be destroyed. . . except the architecture. The magnificent palace of the Alhambra was preserved, with its slender pillars and intricate arches. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, after casting out the Moors, and sending Columbus off on his expedition, were eventually buried in the Alhambra. Today, as I have read, thousands of tourists visit this palace in Granada, where they marvel at the beauty, the delicacy, and the intelligence of a building completed in 1391.

“One might think that a civilization which could construct such a building might have something of value in its libraries. But no, the books of Granada were burned.

“The Moors suffered the cruelties of the Inquisition, then they were expelled entirely in 1609. A quarter of a million refugees were forced to cross the sea to northern Africa. Those refugees had no medical tent, and no doctors, to welcome them.”

Wasim nodded his gratitude to Doctor Jacobsen, Doctor Rosie, and Doctor Ayyesh. Though he had never needed medical care in this tent, he was profoundly grateful for the work that they did here. And for the education which my mother and I had been offered here.

“I told you, Doctor Jacobsen, that this would be a story that has not yet ended. Because, you see, I am the next chapter. Me, and thousands of kids like me. I love mathematics. It’s in my blood. And now I understand how a mathematician can become an engineer, and how an engineer can design and build machines that provide clean energy for people around the world. You see, Doctor Jacobsen, clean energy makes sense to me. War does not.”

That was a twelve-year- old speaking, with anger in his eyes.

“I would very much like to study mathematics in Norway. I would like to study engineering. I would like to help build some of those new energy machines. And I would like to return to my Syria one day, as a teacher. Because I am but one, and there are thousands waiting to learn.”

Wasim was silent for a long moment.

Then he said, “Thank you, Doctor Jacobsen, for listening.”

Doctor Jacobsen stood up from his chair, walked around the table and reached out to shake Wasim’s hand.

“It is I who thank you,” he said. “You give me hope. You give me hope.”

Doctor Ayyesh also stood and shook the hand of a young Syrian who would one day help to build a better country. Doctor Ayyesh was clearly very proud of this boy. Of course, Doctor Rosie not only shook his hand, but gave him a kiss on his cheek.

“Don’t you ever stop, lad. Don’t you ever stop.”

Doctor Jacobsen told us that he would write a strong application for our family. Perhaps he should include some pictures of the three of us. The process of evaluation in Oslo could take a while. Norwegians were sometimes like “elephants marching backwards” when it came to making a committee decision. Nevertheless, he thought that we had “a strong case” for an education in Norway.

He just so happened to have brought his camera with him, a large digital camera with a flash (not a little telephone camera). And so there in the Doctors’ Café, with the blue surgical drapery as a background, my mother and brother and I stood together—my mother between us with her arms around our shoulders—while Doctor Jacobsen took our picture.

“This is a portrait,” he said. “This is history.”

Then he took a second picture, with Wasim, Doctor Rosie, my mother, Doctor Ayyesh, and myself, the five of us smiling with a happiness that burned deep inside us. One of the stretcher carriers now took a picture of the six of us. Doctor Jacobsen stood with one arm around Wasim’s shoulders and one arm around my shoulders. We were the students that he hoped to send to Norway.

That was the portrait. Three doctors, from Ireland, Norway, and Syria by way of Brooklyn, and three refugees who had fled from a war, standing together, interwoven together, giving their absolute best to each other.

Every day, the war spat in the face of the Creator.

But on that day, in a medical tent in one of thirteen refugee camps on the Syrian border, I think that the Creator would have felt a degree of hope in his heart.

"Arab gifts to European cultureis an excerpt from John Slades book Melting at One End, Bleeding at the Other - now avaliable in Norwegian (link).


John Slade is a Norwegian-American author born in Buffalo, New York. He has a doctorate in literature from Stanford University, and is a certified speaker for Climate Reality. You can find his books at

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