All Roads Lead to Roma: A Very Gypsy History


Romantic Art: Making stereotypes look good.

There are few groups who have been so romanticised and so reviled over the course of history as those travellers of Europe and the Near East, the Gypsies. The Romani – to use the more accurate and polite term, because they’re not actually from Egypt – have been the subject of so many stereotypes and stories counting them would be impossible. They have also been alienated and persecuted to within an inch of their existence: even now, there are people who see them as nothing more than thieves, cons and scroungers. It is a belief that has existed as long as they have lived in Europe. But underneath that Daily Mail surface exists a monolithic, ancient culture. Their coming to be in Europe isn’t simple, but it’s interesting. Their story isn’t wholly happy, but it’s important. And it starts with a question.

“Where the hell did the Romani come from?!?” is, like all the best questions on Holistic History, almost impossible to answer. The Romani, like a lot of travelling cultures, have a distinct lack of written history until they get to Europe, which is not entirely hard to understand: before paper and the widespread use of vellum the only option was to write things on metal or stone. For travellers like the Romani, unless you want to go carving your messages on rocks and then leaving them behind like it’s prehistoric Twitter, this makes it difficult to take your past with you. Nevertheless, we do know some things about the origins of the Romani: recent genetic evidence suggests that they’re from Rajasthan in India, for start, so the current theory is that they migrated up through Persia to avoid…well, you know, the foreign guys who happened to be conquering Rajasthan in India at the time. So far, so much common sense. On their journeys around the Middle East, they split into three groups named Dom, Lom and Rom based on…well, based on which was the more convenient to pronounce in the places they settled, and the Romani made their first marks on western history. Reaching Europe in the 11th century, the Rom started to settle in the declining Roman Empire (they clearly liked the similar sounding name) and then Romania (see what I mean?) and by the 16th they had reached as far as Britain and Scandinavia – although they remained in the highest proportions in south-eastern Europe for minor reasons like slavery and oppression. But we’ll get to that. By the full height of the Renaissance, there were Romani in most of the kingdoms of Europe, and even further – Columbus brought three Roms with him to the New World, the first few of another continental migration. By the Enlightenment, their origin didn’t really matter – they had spread through almost every country in Europe. The burning question, then, became how to keep a consistent cultural identity across a whole continent.


The Romani get expelled from Spain in 1554. In the same decade, a law passes in England making being a Gypsy an actual crime.

I’m not saying that there’s one, completely unified Romani culture – there are several million Sinti, Kale, Roma and Romanichal who might have something to say about that and I am desperate to not offend the Sinti when they have names as awesome as Django Reinhardt. However, there is a sort of cultural consistency amongst Romani groups – it’s called Romanipen, in case you feel this article needed a few more words beginning in Rom. Like those other famous exiles in Europe, the Jews, Romani culture was upheld through the Middle Ages by observing a series of laws and codes instead of a shared language and land. It still has influence today. The general theme is purity – virginity is traditionally upheld as the greatest virtue, and some Roms will not take baths to avoid stagnant water, only washing in showers or natural running water. Ever the communitarians, the Romani also traditionally use shunning and shame to uphold customs, which manifests itself today in fantastic phrases like “May shame eat your face”. Tradition and even religion vary massively over Europe – the northern Romani are generally more influenced by Evangelical Christianity, the southern by Islam and Catholicism, but the so-called Romani Code influences all. In the end, it’s that success at keeping a culture going that can make the Romani remain a distinct culture while so many other immigrants of their time seem to have assimilated completely. Unfortunately, that outsider aspect came at a cost. Europe was a dangerous place for exiles, and none seemed more dangerous to the rulers of Europe than the dark-skinned and mysterious Romani.  In the end, it would cost them over a million lives.

You can say the Romani got off to a bad start in Europe because enslavement by Romanians is generally considered as a bad start as you can get. Tied to the land in a status even below serfs, the Romani were kept in large numbers in Eastern Europe as farm labourers. Elsewhere, they were forced into an almost nomadic lifestyle by Western European leaders who frequently banished them (banishing being apparently a thing they could do on a whim – Elizabeth I of England banished all the black people from London in 1601 only to give up when no-one turned themselves in). That constant travelling eventually became an important part of Romani culture, but it also made them newcomers and strangers wherever they went. The Enlightenment, based on principles of “tolerance” and humanitarianism, saw a change in attitudes. The Romani were suddenly seen as poor backwards immigrants in need of naturalisation, to the extent that the Austrian Empress Maria Therese decreed that they should be renamed “New Hungarians” and forced to fit the Hungarians’ nomad-to-settler mould. Communism, when it reached Eastern Europe, did much the same, offering jobs to Romani people that had previously been denied at the cost of abandoning their traditional communities, but in non-Communist Europe they retained the role they had always had on the outskirts of society. It’s then that they fell foul of a theme of history. Every action has its reaction, each enlightenment its reactionaries. Many were led to believe that the Romani were going to be outsiders forever, and a drain on society for just as long. In 1933, some of those people came into power.


Gypsies gathered in a concentration camp.

It’s difficult to translate “Porajmos” into English. It’s a Romani word that means something like “The Devouring”, but even that doesn’t quite cover it – the best would probably just be “The Romani Holocaust”. Labelled by the Nazis as “asocials”, the people who didn’t quite fit the Nazi vision of society, the Romani were taken to concentration camps and then death camps and systematically murdered: first those from Germany, then France and Italy and Romania  and Bulgaria. Let me list some of the countries with the highest Romani populations. Germany. France. Italy, Romania, Bulgaria. The death toll was between 200,000 and 1,200,000, and probably to the higher end – destroyed records mean only 200,000 can be confirmed. If you can find a way to visualise that, tell me.


Real sign; real attitudes.

Today, safe from the genocide of the past but not entirely healed by it, the Romani are undergoing a social revolution. Record numbers now live in permanent residences, and secular education is improving alongside assimilation. But the struggle to retain a cultural identity within that, while definitely possible, seems more difficult year on year, and Maria Theresa’s dream of getting rid of all that is Gypsy through assimilation could one day come true. The persecution of the Romani, at the risk of getting too political, is far from over.  Forced relocations are still common in Romania, France and Italy; segregated classrooms for Romani students mean that 75% of Romani girls cannot read. Infant mortality is on average ten times higher just for being in a Rom community, and the issue of employers refusing Romani workers from the UK to Greece is currently being reviewed by the EU.

About 1,000 years ago, the first Romani arrived in Europe.

At what point will they stop seeming like outcasts?





Holistic History Extra: The Speech From Another Reality

There’s one type of history I usually wouldn’t touch with a Renaissance Venetian barge pole on this blog, and that’s alternate history. While it’s interesting to try and work your way through a “What If”, you need to understand what you’re talking about in minute detail to get anywhere. History, unfortunately, isn’t really about minute detail. But occasionally, just occasionally, you can get a glimpse of how things might have happened: from an idea, from an ambition, from a plan. Or, in the case of what I’m going to show you today, a contingency plan.

William Safire was a speechwriter and presidential aide for Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. He was one of the people who publicised the legendary Kitchen Debate, a bizarre event where Nixon and Khrushchev started a heated argument about their countries’ achievements in the plastic kitchen of an American “model home”. But in 1969 he had a different task, because somewhere high above his head were three men in a little metal box, about to make a small step for a man and – to paraphrase – a fucking huge one for mankind. But the White House was worried. The footage was to go live on television to 500 million people: what would happen if they failed? The first people to land on a surface other than Earth would go down through human history. But if they missed their rendezvous they could be stuck there forever, perfectly preserved in the lack of atmosphere, a grim reminder of the dark side of the Space Race. So Safire wrote a speech. A speech that was to turn this alternate turn of events into an act of national, maybe even global, heroism. Thankfully, it was a speech that was never used. But it remains hauntingly beautiful, the last transmission Armstrong and Aldrin would ever have heard in a terrible alternate reality where a momentous achievement was marred with tragedy. Here, in full, is that speech:


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.


A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

Hidden Religions of the Middle East: Zoroaster, the Druze and the Bahá’í Faith

Name three Middle Eastern religions, right now, off the top of your head.

Christianity, Islam and Judaism, right? If you’re from roughly the same background as me, you might even have thought of them in the same order. The land between the Red Sea and the Indus Mountains is a diverse mess of ancient religions and creeds, but behind the Big Abrahamic Three you’d be forgiven for forgetting a few.  Anyone list Zoroastrianism as one of their three? What about Bahá’í? Druzism? Unless you’re…well, one of these people, I guess you didn’t. The way I see it, to use the most English analogy ever, seeing the Middle East and thinking of it just as a vast Muslim/Jewish expanse is like making tea and thinking of it as boiled water – you’re mostly right, but you’re missing all the flavour. So this Holistic History post is all about the tea leaf religions – the old gods and alternative beliefs that still manage to survive in pockets and enclaves around the Middle East. This is the story of their people, of their faith and ultimately of their persecution, but along the way there are prophets, prophecies and maybe a few world-eating demon gods. And if those three can’t don’t make you want to find out more, I’m not even sure why you’re here.

600 years before a certain prophet was dumped in a manger and given the most extravagant baby shower ever, everything between Israel and Afghanistan was under the rule of one religion – Zoroastrianism.  It was the religion of the Persians – that ancient empire that’s probably now more famous for once being at war with some scantily-clad Spartans than any of its colourful, deranged but extremely tolerant kings – and because of that it got spread along with Persia all across western Asia. Zoroastrianism might seem like a fairly familiar religion – good creator god, working class prophet at odds with the priests and ruling class, badass beards for all – but a few bits of it might seem a bit more alien to an Abrahamic audience. For one, there are two gods, one good creator type and one evil creator type. The earth, their joint creation, is their battleground, and good Zoroastrians have to constantly fight what they perceive as the forces of evil, darkness and ignorance. Fire is the symbol of life and renewal and burning away darkness, and so Zoroastrians have prayed in Fire Temples for centuries. Sounding familiar yet, Game of Thrones fans? In any case, the super-duper fire god and his evil counterpart dominated the Middle East from the first teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (or, if you’re a fan of Nietzsche and the film 2001, Zarathustra) in 1000BC for centuries until about 300BC, Alexander the Great tried to replace it with his own religion, worshiping a sun god who had descended to earth. A sun god who just so happened to be Alex himself. The Zoroastrians survived that assault – weirdly, worshiping a 30-year old binge drinker didn’t catch on – but they were so weakened that the attacks of the (Hellenic, then Christian) Romans and (Muslim) Arabs broke them down almost entirely, so much so that the religion that once reached tens of millions now has about one hundred and fifty thousand followers in small communities in Iran (and, because Iran isn’t a huge fan of non-Muslims, India and the US). But that’s not to say, of course, that Zoroastrianism has been forgotten. On the contrary, it’s probably influenced every religion with black and white morality and angels and demons in its wake. After all, remember the prophet in the manger and his ridiculous baby shower? You should probably know what they called Zoroastrian priests. They called them Magi.

Islam is the religion the Middle East is most famous for, and nowhere is it more powerful than in countries like Syria, which is currently being torn up by a civil war between a ruling class from one sect of the religion and a working class from another. But that’s not to say it’s the only religion in the region, because that would be ignoring one of the least-known Abrahamic faiths – the faith of the Druze. To put it simply, the Druze are to Muslims what Muslims are to Christians and Christians are to Jews. They believe in the Qur’an, and the first Shia Caliphs, and that you shouldn’t force people to convert to your religion, and that you should keep your faith secret to protect it. If you’re a Shia Muslim, that’s probably sounding like pretty standard stuff to you. But they also incorporate ideas from other parts of Islam – like Sufism and the idea that there is a supernatural world within our own that holy men can access – and far-flung Eastern religions – like Buddhism and reincarnation. Hell, it’s even partly based on ancient Greek philosophy: they believe in Plato’s “universal soul” and his theories about our senses deceiving us, which means it’s a religion inspired by the same things that inspired the fucking Matrix. The religion was born in the 11th century in Syria when Damascus was the capital of the Islamic world, and scholars from all over the world were trying to delve into religious texts to find some deeper meaning. Druzism was one of those deeper meanings, but it separated itself from Islam in the process and evolved into something very different. And that’s when the secrecy of the Druze came into its own. By keeping their faith secret, they were never attacked by zealous mobs from another religion. By only revealing little bits about their faith to different people, they created small and close knit communities that are debatably an ethnic group of their own. Yes, they might not have survived if the succession of Sultans and Khans in Syria had been particularly intolerant. And they might not have been born at all if Damascus and the surrounding area wasn’t home to so many religious texts and so many ways of interpreting the Abraham faiths. But they created a religion with a built in defense mechanism, and for that reason it’s got around two and a half million followers to this day. Syria is a much more dangerous place now, but their ecumenical cloaks and daggers may well see the Druze through it safely.

Finally, spare a thought for the Bahá’í faith, the new kid on the religious block at a measly 200 years old. Founded in the 19th century in Persia (amazingly, still bearing the name it had when it had been the birthplace of Zoroastrianism almost 30 centuries earlier) but developed in the Ottoman Empire, the Bahá’í Faith does something that damn near every faith before it would have thought unthinkable. It believes every other religion is right. Well, sort of. Bahá’í believes that there’s only ever been one religion, but that religion has progressed and changed to the most appropriate form for its time and place. So it counts Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as prophets. It also counts Buddha and Vishnu, Adam and Eve and our old friend Zoroaster. It even accepts that eventually Bahá’í will be replaced and their own prophet, Bahaullah, will be added to the list. The idea behind it is that each prophet accepts what’s good about the one before and rejects what’s not, kind of natural selection that works towards a perfect faith, but they’re all essentially talking about the same god. Born in the 19th century, the Bahá’í faith also incorporates a lot of modern ideas into its teachings (only in Holistic History are ideas from the 1800s modern, but still) like equality between men and women, a universal language, free education and other things so offensive to Industrial Era sensibilities that all Bahaullah’s letters to Queen Victoria were dutifully ignored. The Bahá’í, where the Zoroastrians spread their faith by the sword and the Druze hid their faith altogether, spread their faith through stuff like that – through letters, and meetings, and newspaper articles about Bahaullah being exiled from a  new country, which was…quite often. They’re still growing today, although essentially banned in the country they were born in and plenty of others besides, and have about 5 million followers spanning almost every continent. Of all the Middle Eastern religions, the strange and all-encompassing Bahá’í Faith might be one of the few on the rise.

So why have so many world religions come from the Middle East? The answer to that is probably the same as to why the Middle East is so important to our history. Zoroastrianism spread through one of the region’s largest empires, just as Islam spread through the Arabs and Mongols and Christianity spread through the Roman and West European empires. The Middle East is important to us because it was an integral part of so many cultures, civilizations and kingdoms that spread their wings across whole continents. Druzism came to be because of the rich history of monotheism and philosophical thought that could be built upon and expanded upon in the region. The Middle East is important to us because it’s the home of so much religion and so much philosophical thought. And Bahá’í could only have existed because of the huge variety of faiths, cultures and creeds that places like Persia were in contact with through trade and modern transportation. The Middle East is important to us, more so that for anything else, because it has always served as the connection between different parts of the world, between east and west, north and south, Christianity and Hinduism and plenty more besides.  You don’t need to understand the ins and outs of Zoroastrianism to understand that. But when you forget those hidden religions, when you picture the Middle East as closed off and insular, you run the risk of forgetting it.

The Greatest Gap Year Ever: The Travels of Ibn Battuta

A Hajj – you got to look good when you’re this holy.

You get a lot of talk nowadays about living a connected world. We’re connected by social networking and connected by globalisation and connected by a shared fear of how exactly how much of our Internet history the American government can find out. Connectivity is a good thing (I’d say “We’re better connected” but I’m not really a fan of shameless advertising unless it gets me free texts) but everyone bands it about like it’s a totally new thing. As if the people 100, even 500 years before us wouldn’t go as far as to leave their little villages to see if the beer really was sweeter over in the next hamlet. In this post, I’m going to try and disprove that idea by foraying into one of my rare (but fun!) articles about one person’s life. It’s usually difficult to get a sense of the holistic with a biography, but with this guy…well, you’ll see. Because the person I’m going to talk about was, for about 400 years, the most well-travelled man in existence. In fact, would be right up until the 1800s, when steamships and railroads made his journeys possible in less than a lifetime. This is a guy who crossed three continents and four seas, saw the Mongol Empire at its peak and Constantinople in its final days.  He saw every great holy site of Islam and met everyone who was anyone in an extraordinary world of sultans, khans and imams. His name, to use the heavily shortened version, was Muhammad Ibn Battuta. And his story is the best testament to a connected, global history that you’re ever going to find.

To concur: One lifetime. One freaking lifetime.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304 – Tangier’s that pointy northern bit of Morocco and pretty much as far west as you can get without crossing the Atlantic. He was a devout Sunni Muslim and a trained judge of Sharia (two misconceptions here: it’s not Sharia Law, because Sharia is Arabic for…well, law. It’s also not as evil and bigoted as the Daily Mail might have you believe and for most of the medieval era it was much fairer to women, peasants and nonbelievers than anything the Christians came up with. As ever, it’s the way it’s interpreted that can lead to the ridiculous Taliban stuff and its application to the modern world). So, at some point in 1326, Ibn Battuta began his Hajj – his obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, which would take him all across Northern Africa and along Arabia. Travelling was slow and so he stopped at famous towns, settlements, and sights along the way. But something in that awoke a travelling bug in young Muhammad, and he promised to spend the rest of his life travelling through the rest of the Muslim world – and some countries beyond it, too. In fact, he was to travel three times the distance of his contemporary Marco Polo, seeing Greece, Iran, Egypt, Arabia, even India and China, and some of Indonesia. He would go on to record stories, memories of people and places in his literary masterpiece, “A Gift to Those Who Appreciate the Wonders of Cities and the Joys of Travelling”, or, for short, “The Travels”. It’s a book that – translated and shortened, admittedly – I own myself, and it’s that which I’m going to talk about (with geeky joy, naturally) from here on.

Islamic Turkestan? Been there, done that, played the newfangled horse game.

There’s a lot to love in The Travels. It’s perfectly balanced between Ibn Battuta’s boundless enthusiasm for new things and his endless bigotry that only the Muslim things are really the best things. He’s essentially a massive geek about his religion – he goes to Egypt but states that he didn’t have time to visit the Pyramids or the Great Library of Alexandria because he was too busy looking as mosques. He goes to Jerusalem, where the Dome on the Rock is, in his words, “endowed with a plentiful share of loveliness”, while the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (the one partially ruined in the Syrian Civil War earlier this year) is “the most exquisite in beauty, grace and consummate achievement” in the world. It’s not just the architecture he finds extraordinary – his travels through India introduce him to the rhinoceros, which he thinks has a hilariously large head but is basically, when it comes down to it, just a new sort of elephant. In Uzbekistan, he is introduced to watermelons, which in his words “have no equal in any country of the world”, and he proceeds to order melons wherever he goes. Of course, as a conservative Muslim scholar, he also looks down on the practice of everywhere and anywhere “pagan” – he can’t pass through a village in India without making reference to “idol worshippers” and in Mali, he’s shocked to fainting by the women with their chests uncovered and – even worse – without veils on their heads. By far the most adorable part (if that’s really possible for a 700-year old man) is when he finds one of his heroes, a great ascetic holy man. The man tells him that he will bless Battuta and pray to God for his one strongest wish. By this point, Ibn Battuta has been lost, robbed, abandoned and mistreated countless times across the globe. But all he can wish for is more travel. It’s that passion, that enthusiasm to see and do and feel every continent known to man, that makes The Travels such a good read. It’s not, however, the only reason to study Ibn Battuta.

Medieval Islam: Generous doesn’t even cover it.

Ibn Battuta also manages – intentionally or not – to stumble across some of the most important figures of his day. He flits between the courts of Sultans, Khans and Emperors, impressing them all with stories of travel in exchange for food and board. He finds a job working for the Sultan of Dehli, who calls himself slightly presumptuously “King of All the World”. He meets the Byzantine Emperor in his home and travels with his daughter to marry her to the Khan of the Mongols. He also meets the Emperor of freaking China. He gives one of the best impressions of the world as it was at that time – from his point of view, a huge Muslim expanse of bazaars, mosques and traders, covering a route called the Silk Road that ran all the way from Constantinople to China. The Silk Road was for about 1000 years the most important road in the world. He sees Indian Ocean trading at its height and how the same spices can be grown in the Maldives to be sold in markets in Mecca. He sees the devastating effect of the Black Death as it crosses the steppes of Asia to infect Europe and the Middle East, returning at one point to his home town to see it ruined and half-empty from the plague. But everywhere he goes, he sees faith and goods and kings and peasants who wouldn’t look that out of place in his home in Morocco. He goes to China and meets Muslim families willing to take him in. He goes to Indonesia and sees the same dried fish and nuts that he saw sold 10,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean and the same silk he saw in the Silk Road. To paraphrase the man himself, he went to the land of the Christians, but the girls were still pretty. That is the legacy of Ibn Battuta – of connectivity all across the world centuries before the telephone and the internet. And, of course, of travelling for the love of it, without knowing where to go but liking where you end up. So there you have it – Ibn Battuta, proprietor of possibly the best gap year in history and one of the few people who might actually have had a girl in every port (seriously…90 wives, following an odd custom to marry your daughters to important-sounding guests). He’s not likeable but he’s loveable, a slightly stuffy old cleric with an admirable taste for travel in a world that’s all at once varied and familiar. You don’t have to like him but his legacy – of travel, and of interconnectivity – is one you should never forget.

Holistic History Extra: Get your Arabic Name On

Ibn Battuta’s full name wasn’t printed in the article I posted about him, and to some that might seem odd. See, medieval Arabic names just aren’t like other names. To be specific, each one takes up a whole damn paragraph. Ibn Battuta’s full name is this:

Shams al-Din Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Addallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah al-Lawati al-Tanji al-Maliki al-Maghribi

And that’s without naming any of the honorifics he had poured over him in his lifetime, beautiful titles like “Chief Qadi of Delhi” or any non-ceremonial nicknames, like “The Great Traveller”. See, Arabic names don’t provide a handle as much as all the information they thought was important about the person. So let me take it apart for a second – because dear god, I know some of you and you know who you are will be desperate to try and work out your own Medieval Arabic Name. So let’s get your M.A.N. on.

Laqab (Title) – “Shams al-Din”. Placed here, this is the equivalent of Mr or Mrs. But before you get a brilliant idea for a marriage-based celebrity gameshow, it’s not exactly the same. See, while Mr and Mrs are bastardised versions of Master and Mistress, the names of famous Arabs tend towards the divine. Shams al-Din literally means “the Sun of Religion”. You can also be Muhyi al-Din (“the Saviour of Religion”) or Sitt al-Mulk (“the Lady of Power”, a rare female example), if you really feel like it. You’ve probably heard of Salah al-Din (“the Righteousness of Religion”) before – although we usually spell it Saladin. For Ibn Battuta, the laqab essentially saying he’s a learned man. Maybe a better equivalent would be Ph.D, but hey, title’s a title.

Kunya (Reverse Patronymic)- “Abu Abdullah” I’m making up terms here, but this is the name of Ibn Battuta’s son. Which gets added to his name. Before his own name. Abu means “father of” (and interestingly, also “owner of”), and “mother of” is Umm. It’s generally a more intimate form of address than a title or personal name – and is probably more than a little awkward to explain to the kids who your name doesn’t show off.

Ism (Personal Name) – “Muhammad” Finally, some familiar ground. This would be a First Name or a Christian name in English. For obvious reasons this one is neither first not Christian, but you get my point.

Nasab (Patronymic) –  “ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim” Patronymics are names taken from your father, where Ibn means “son of”. “Bint”, incidentally, means “daughter of” and I’m not even joking. So his father was called Abdallah, and his grandfather – who he was, in all likelihood, named for – was another Muhammad. You can literally go as far back as you deem necessary. Sultans, as you might expect, tend to go back to their most famous ancestor. The Prophet’s family traced theirs back to Adam and Eve, so the sky’s your limit here.

Nasab (Surname) – “Ibn Battuta”. Ah. This must be confusing. Ibn Battuta acts as a surname, hence the capitals on Ibn in English, but it’s shaped like a patronymic. That’s because his surname is taken from the founder of his family, Battuta, so his family are the “Sons of Battuta”. To be honest, not too difficult if you have a German-style surname like Johnson or Peterson, but still catches people out. Surnames can be literally anything. One Arabo-Persian dynasty named themselves Saffarids – “the Coppersmiths” – because their founder was so proud of his non-aristocratic metalworking background. However, they’re more often than not just ways to attach yourself to a particular ancestor.

Nisba (Regional Name) – “al-Tanji”. The nisba is a kind of name suffix that tells you everything you need to know about a person. You can have several, usually starting with al- and ending in -i (if you’re feeling maculine) or -iyya (if you’re feeling feminine). al-Tanji tells us that Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in Northern Morocco. I’d use one myself but al-Coventryi sounds kind of terrible.

Nisba (Tribal Name) – “al-Lawati”. Tribal names were second only to family names in importance in Ibn Battuta’s Arab-influenced culture, so this is also an important nisba. The only confusing thing is that a tribe is more like a political alliance than a closely knit family. Tribes were constantly refashioned and genealogy reformed to fit political needs, so I guess if you’re playing along at home and don’t have any tribal ancestry, you can put your politics here. Arabia even had tribal factions who called themselves the “Rightists” and “Leftists” – the Qays and Yemen – so if you’re as willing to completely misunderstand medieval Arabic politics as I am think you’ll be fine.

Nisba (Scholastic Name) – “al-Maliki”. Oh god, another nisba? Al-Maliki refers to the school of law Ibn Battuta followed – there are four big ones in Sunni Islam and Maliki Law is the most prevalent in North Africa. I guess this one’s more important for Ibn Battuta than most people – he worked as the Chief Qadi of India for a long time – so it might be easier to put your school in than any school of law if you’re not a Muslim. I’m guessing…well, hoping you follow the laws of wherever you happen to live.

Laqab (Nickame) – “al-Maghribi”. Another Laqab, and we’ve finally come fill circle. This one acts less like a title, though, and more as a nickname. Nicknames had a special place in Arabic society, especially among famous people – go through a list of Caliphs and names like al-Mahdi (“the redeemer”) and al-Rashid (“the guided”) are sure to crop up. Al-Maghribi? That means “the Westerner”, and looking at Batutta’s life you can kind of see how he got it.

All credit to Tim Mackintosh Smith, the translator of this fantastic book, and please, try it yourself if you want to know more. It’s almost by definition a good travel book. Have fun making your own Arabic names, and first person to guess who Muhyi al-Himself Abu James Harry ibn James Potter al-Godric’s Hollow al-Phoenix al-Hogwarts The Boy Who Lived is wins a free Horcrux.

Hate and Heat in Hispaniola: Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Slaves’ Revolution

Pirates. Slaves. Sugar plantations. Parrots. Voodoo. The history of Hispaniola – you know, that strangely shaped island in the Greater Antilles – looks like it was patched together from the crazed ramblings of Jack Sparrow and Guybrush Threepwood. And sure, at first glance, it’s a stereotypical Caribbean island, with tropical forests and mountains and colourful cities and a history of violent dictatorship, but if you just scratch beneath the surface there’s a huge amount of history, interconnectivity and culture that the “Banana Republic”descriptions just don’t cover. For a start, the island is split almost down the middle between the French-Creole speaking Haiti and the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, two nations with enough bad blood between them to fill an ocean, but it’s also got brutal presidents, revolutionary heroes, secret mountain cults and the world’s first independent slave republic. Ladies and gentlemen, the history of Hispaniola.

Taino Indians in Hispaniola

The Taino get ther collective freak on.

Hispaniola’s first known inhabitants were the Taíno, a South American Arawak culture who followed Polynesians’ example by sailing around discovering shit until they owned pretty much an entire ocean’s worth of islands. You can get a really good idea of how a culture works from its religion, and if I tell you that the Taíno had two main gods – a goddess of fresh water and fertility and a god of salt water and cassava – you can probably get a good idea of their priorities. (For the record, they also had two smaller spirit-gods for different types of cassava, and Arawak itself is the native word for cassava flour – there’s a definite theme here that I can’t quite place). Like a lot of Aboriginal American cultures they had a matrilineal society, where women owned lands and titles more often than men, and split the island into about 5 different clans, each with a distinctly different culture. When the Europeans came, however – Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola on his first voyage in 1493 and, because he had a flag, claimed it for Spain – the Taíno quickly died out, – that had no real resistance to Eurasian diseases like plague and smallpox. (If it’s any consolation, we had no resistance to syphillis, but…ugh. Unfortunate implications.) What records we have on them, however, are surprisingly positive – Columbus said that they “have the sweetest voice in the world and are always laughing” – but they are limited, and when Spanish colonisation really began the only Taíno left (about 10% of the original population after smallpox epidemics) were taken as slaves and concubines. The sweet-voiced Taíno only really survive in the name they gave to their island. They called it Ayiti.

The Isle of Tortuga – the real-life base of piracy, just off the coast of Haiti.

Spain, and this is a general theme throughout history, are terrible at empires. They survived mostly by mining silver in Peru – amazingly, that caused huge inflation and a market crash so huge that the Netherlands declared war on them in frustration – and through African slave labour. The slave system in Hispaniola created a natural class system – with Spanish whites at the top, then colony-born whites, then freed slaves and mixed race “mulattoes” with slaves, unsurprisingly, at the bottom. Meanwhile, the awful economic advice crippled the economy of the entire west half of the island and moved most of the Spanish population to the east, essentially giving it what would become Haiti to whoever wanted some more colonial land. In the 1600s, that meant “France and pirates”, and because the French had money and a military and didn’t rely on crime, eventually just “France” – although the fact that a pirate republic existed at all is awesome. By the 1700s, then, Hispaniola was split between the mostly slave French bit and the mostly mulatto Spanish bit. But you know the 1700s. Shit goes down in France in the 1700s. So that’s when things got interesting.

Dangerous times call for dangerous hats.

Through the Enlightenment, slaves rebelled pretty constantly in Haiti in an attempt to make slavery unprofitable and dangerous. Many ran away into the mountain where they became “marrons” – which is where we get the word “marooned” – who started worshipping traditional African spirit gods in the guise of Catholic saints. This secret pagan worship became known as Voduo or Voodoo, and your impression of it is probably wrong – mine was – so just understand that it was important in uniting escaped slaves and Baron Samedi is a hell of a lot better than the Grim Reaper because HE KILLS ZOMBIES AND WEARS A DINNER JACKET. This rebellion was happening all throughout the New World – in Florida, black slaves joined forces with the local Seminole Indians and repelled the Spanish for several decades – but nowhere was anti-slavery feeling stronger than in Haiti. The French Revolution near the end of the century promised to change that – specifically, it promised to free all slaves– but Napoleon quickly reversed that policy and that sort of pissed people off (is the understatement of the century). The mixed race-mulattoes, who had been campaigning for civil rights, and the slaves, who had been rebelling for freedom, quickly rose up against the whites – and then against each other – in a three-way struggle for Haiti. The result was unprecedented, unexpected and completely horrifying to the French. The slaves won – – and formed the first slaves’ republic in history.

Toussaint’s best side.

Unfortunately – you shoule be able to see this coming a mile off by now –  the republic of Haiti was kind of doomed from the start. France demanded that the slaves pay reparations for the loss of such an important colony – roughly £8,400,000,000 in today’s terms – and most of Haiti’s wealth had been lost to fleeing ex-slave-owners in the revolution. France, to this day, has refused to repay the charges. Revolutionary heroes like Toussaint L’Ouverture (yes, his name means All-Saints-Day the Overture – he was awesome, look him up) had been executed for treason and the chance of further rebellion was high. After only one year, Haiti abandoned democracy and installed an emperor. The worst would be yet to come.

In the Spanish half of Hispaniola, however, a new kind of revolutionary fervour was taking root. The early 1800s saw most of South America rise up against their Spanish overlords to form free and equal…well, fine, they were republican dictatorships led by colonial whites but they were still a step in the right direction. Spanish Hispaniola rose up and attempted to join the sort-of South American Union but was invaded by – who else- Haiti, and a 20-year occupation of the Dominican Republic began. Campaigners like Juan Duarte eventually secured freedom for the Dominicans, however, and set the stage for the rest of the 19th century. The Dominican Republic could become a trading power by exporting sugar, bananas, coffee – all massively fashionable in the pre-Starbucks USA. Haiti could become an intellectual capital, living evidence against Social Darwinism and racist ideologies. And, for a little while, they were.

The 20th century, however, is not kind to countries. The Dominican Republic declined in stability until a 1930s coup by President Rafael Trujillo, generally accepted as one of the worst dictators in Central America whose lasting legacy is that of the “Parsley Massacres”, a genocidal act in which Haitians in the Dominican Republic were identified – because they couldn’t say the Spanish for “parsley” – and murdered. Haiti, not wishing to be outdone, had successions of presidents who lasted less than a year until “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a dictator who claimed that voduo made him invincible and who – I kid you not -had the Lord’s Prayer rewritten so it began “Our Doc, who lives in the National Palace”  Now, the status quo is turning yet again – as strong links to Spanish speaking South America make the Dominican Republic one of the area’s most powerful economies while earthquakes and disease cripple their French-Creole speaking neighbours. For all the twists and turns in history, Haiti and the Dominicans are left in the same imbalanced situation as they were in some 500 years earlier. History is interconnected, and holistic, and beautiful. But it’s definitely not fair.

Holistic History Extra: Papa Doc’s Prayer

The extraordinary Lord’s Prayer, renamed “The Catechism of the Revolution”, from Haiti at the time of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, has to be seen to be believed. I really hope it scans better in French or Creole, but it’s fast becoming my favourite (well, second favourite) weird fascist song.

“Our Doc,

Who art in the National Palace for life,

Hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations.

Thy will be done at Port-au-Prince and in the provinces.

Give us this day our new Haiti,

and never forgive the trespasses of the antipatriots who spit every day on our country;

let them succumb to temptations,

and under the weight of their venom,

deliver them not from any evil …”


Diederich, Bernard and Burt, Al, “Papa Doc,” pages 283-284, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1969

F. Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, Volume 1, page 328