The assignment seemed easy enough: Take a long cruise on the Internet and scope out its best Middle East resources. I began in the usual way, conducting a search using several on-line "search engines" to build a list of every site having to do with the Middle East or Islam. I used Yahoo, Lycos and Magellan, though I could have used others as well, and I typed in the keywords Arab, Middle East, Mideast and Islam.
Half an hour later I was astonished to find myself holding 96 pages—single-spaced—of electronic addresses, known as URL's, for "universal resource locator." The sites at those addresses ranged from personal pages created by high-school students to mega-sites at major universities, and they included everything from historical maps to Middle Eastern recipes; from breaking news from the Levant to discussions of Moroccan culture—typical of the Internet's cornucopia (or grab-bag) of riches.
For the cybernovice, the Internet has two main "highways": The World Wide Web carries sound and graphics in addition to text; newsgroups on Usenet use text-only files, including electronic mail, or e-mail. As a whole, the Internet—and particularly the Web—can seem like an enormous bazaar: The hawkers are many and the info-goods, at first glance, seem to address every imaginable need.
However, as in any bazaar, let the browser beware. While some sites are gems of useful information, smart design and clever insight, too many others offer virtual junk, information of doubtful value, sometimes presented with glitzy design and supplemented by meaningless, slow-loading graphics that can make your trip on the information superhighway more like creeping through a construction zone during rush hour.
The fact is that, behind the hype, the Internet still has some serious shortcomings. While it is relatively easy to access from home or work and its reach is indeed global, the information stream runs broad rather than deep. For in-depth learning, the Web and Usenet are still no matches for even an average library.
But hang onto your hats. Most sites have been around for only a year or less, and their numbers and the sophistication of their content are exploding. Given a bit of time, this could be quite a ride.
After sorting through those 96 pages, I came up with this brief guide to the best of the Arab and Islamic world. I've focused on the Web, as that is where the most development is taking place, and I've listed sites to satisfy both the serious digital vagabond as well as the person who logs on for short strolls around the cyberblock.
The definitive Lebanon site. A vast repository of information from the Levant in general and Lebanon in particular. News and feature articles are updated regularly. There are constitution and law pages and links for ethnology, the environment, history, maps, pictures, politics, research, travel, tourism, currency, weather and recipes. The more suites grow along these lines, the better the Web will become.
Site: CiAS (Centre d'lnformation Arabe Scandinave)
This is actually three sites accessed through one URL. Miftah Shamali ("The Key to the North") is a colorful North African travel guide with smart, concise information and photographs on Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Sudan and Andalusia (Muslim Spain). Encyclopaedia Arabica is the only on-line encyclopedia of its kind. Though not at the level of Britannica or The Encyclopedia of Islam, it is a delight to use nonetheless. If your computer supports RealAudio, you can use Dawra: Learn Arabic, a brief Arabic Language Course, which will help you learn a host of basic words and phrases.
Site: University of Texas at Austin-Middle East Network Information Center
In what may be the most extensive and well-linked of Middle East websites, UT-MENIC offers listings of all major online Middle East information sources. One highlight is Istanbul Boy, Part I, part of a famous autobiographical novel by Aziz Nesin published in English by the University of Texas Press. Links include Middle East country homepages, Middle East studies centers, associations, societies, clubs and student organizations, K-12 educational resources, the University of Texas Press Middle East Studies catalogue, and on and on.
Site: Guardians Egypt
URL: http://paaes.prodiay.com/ guardian/egypt.htm
This site features links to Egyptology-and Egypt-related on-line resources, most of which concern ancient Egypt, archeology, important historical sites, hieroglyphs and Egyptian art & music, as well as an ad for a Chicago tour operator. An amusing highlight is the link to an automatic phonetics-to-hieroglyphs translator.
Site: AWAIR - Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services
URL: http://www.telegraphave.com/ gui/awairproductinfo.html
This nonprofit organization works mainly in schools to increase awareness of Arab and Islamic cultures. Here is a guide to a wide range of informative material especially valuable to teachers, including books, audio cassettes, puzzles, posters, videos, and curriculum aids. A treasure trove for parents, too.
A nicely designed site featuring up-to-the-minute news and feature articles from the Middle East, as well as links to sites dealing with computing, religion, tourism, sports, shopping, governments, business, education, entertainment, health, art and culture.
Site: The Arabic Newsstand
URL: http://www.liii.com/~hajeri/ newsstand arab-news.html
Why walk to a newsstand and pay for an overseas periodical that, even with airmail delivery, is already way out of date? This site links you to 39 well-known newspapers, magazines and news services from the Middle East. Many are in Arabic; some are in English. Some require a form of subscription, via e-mail, to view full texts. They include Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Saudi Arabia), Al-Watan (Kuwait), Al-Ittihad (UAE), The Kuwait Times, As-Safir (Lebanon), Al-Quds (Palestine), Al-Hayat (UK), Al-Ra'i (Jordan), Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (USA) and many more.
Site: Virtual Middle Eastern Cook Book
For those who think cyberspace is exclusively the province of youth, check out this thoughtfully designed site by 71-year-old Sabria Farid Toma, an Iraqi-born grandmother of five now residing in California. She offers several dozen recipes for a variety of traditional dishes, with preparation times and translations of ingredients. There is even a recipe for a "trademark" eight-ingredient Iraqi spice mixture.
Site: Tony Belmonte's Historical Atlas of Europe and the Middle East
Follow the waxing and waning of powers in the Middle East and Europe with this on-line historical atlas. Dozens of brightly colored maps begin with Sumeria and Egypt in 2500 BC. Unfortunately, the Middle East disappears from the maps after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Site: The Ancient World Web Geography Index: The Middle and Near East
URL: http://atlantic.evsc.virginia.edu/julia/ AW/geography/mideast.html#syria
Here is a fine networking point from which to begin casual or serious study of the ancient Middle East. There are links to dozens of sites that discuss ancient art and archeology or Mesopotamian astronomy, answer FAQ's ("frequently asked questions") about Assyro-Babylonian mythology, or provide essays on plumbing in the ancient world, the Akkadian language, the civilizations of Assyria, Sumer and Anatolia and the architecture of Isfahan.
Site: Arabview: The Internet Home of Independent Arab Opinions
This well-designed site is an authentic source for editorial opinion from the pages of Saudi newspapers and magazines. Prominent editors and columnists are contributors, and each signed opinion piece includes a dialogue box for reader's feedback. This is where to go to gain an impression of the tone and range of public debate in the kingdom.
Site: A Guide to Ancient Near East Astronomy
If ancient astronomy—Mesopotamian in particular—is in your stars, then this is the website of your wildest hyperspatial dreams. It offers background on astronomers, the origins of constellations, mathematical astronomy, astronomy's role in Mesopotamian religion, the city of Ur, politics, literature, society and art, and a star catalog. Links lead on to Babylonian and Egyptian mathematics, Greek astronomy and Mesopotamian astrology.
Site: zoomQuake s Ancient History Links
URL: http://www.iceonline.net/home/ peters5 zoomquk4.html
Can you say eclectic? This site lists more than 220 Near Eastern, Egyptian, Biblical, Classical and New World astronomical and mythological sites. Don't be deceived by the plain design: zoomQuake is a treasure. Take a look at the virtual tour of Jordan's Petra, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and an on-line museum dedicated to the catapult.
Site: Islamic Texts and Resources Meta Page
URL: http://wings.buffalo.edu/student-life/ sa/muslim/isl isl.html
The Muslim Student Association at the State University of New York at Buffalo brings you this springboard for exploring texts and other resources on Islam, Islamic thought and ideas and related issues. The well-designed site contains an impressive number of articles on topics such as the pillars of Islam, ritual prayers in Islam, scriptures and prophetic traditions, Islamic thought, art resources, FAQ's and more.
Photojournalist George Baramki Azar ([email protected]), a frequent contributor toAramco World, cruises the Internet from his home in Berkeley, California. He is the author of Azar's Middle East Journeys at www.azar.org , which was selected in August as a "Culture Choice" site by The Web of Culture, an on-line group that recognizes the best in intercultural resources on the Web.