Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Aramco World: One of the Best Magazines You’ve Never Heard Of

Dear foodie friends, dear inquisitive, appreciative, humanist friends, here is one of the best magazines you’ve never heard of: Aramco World.

But you have heard of National Geographic, right? And that’s the closest magazine I can think of to compare it to. Aramco World, however, focuses specifically on “Arab and Islamic cultures and connections.” I suppose if you have a cold, cynical attitude, you might view the magazine skeptically, as propaganda, published in Houston by Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco.

But there’s nothing charitable or even accurate about such an assessment, since oil, economics, and extremist politics are not the focus. It really is about cultures and connections, and that is something our world badly needs.

Too often we get our news in soundbytes and headlines, which objectify people and portray them, at best, as total strangers. “Others.” We need to be reminded that “those people” who live “somewhere else” are just as human as anyone else we know. Just like us, they have cherished customs and traditions. Just like us, they get up in the morning and go to work, God willing, and try to do something that makes the world better, or more beautiful, more fruitful, or healthier.

Aramco World magazine shows and celebrates the worldwide spectrum of Arab and Islamic cultures. They have articles about exploration and history; about medicine and science; about art, architecture, music, and crafts; about age-old customs of hospitality, charity, and family.

The art and food articles are my favorite. One real standout, in 2004, was Eric Hansen’s twin articles on the agricultural and ethnobotanical history of dates, “Looking for the Khalasah,” about date growing in California, and “Carrying Dates to Hajar,” about Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the world’s largest date-growing region. (Click here for those articles. That July/August 2004 issue was full of excellent articles—one on the city of Marseille, France, long an international crossroads; one on an Arab music store owner in Brooklyn who delights in helping people find Arab music CDs; and one on a surprising Minnesota discovery of a trove of unknown glass-plate negatives showing Jerusalem in the 1850s.)

Aramcoworld.com is a truly excellent website, containing a complete and wonderfully organized archive of all their well-written, beautifully illustrated articles. But if you’re like me, you might prefer to read the actual printed magazine. I like to read an article with my cereal in the morning! And guess what: Subscriptions are free!

There’s a section in the back of the magazine that offers educators ideas for using the issue in a classroom; another section in the back provides an “Events and Exhibitions” calendar—global in scope—that feature Arab and Muslim art and history.

My dad has gotten this magazine for decades—he’s a geographer, see, and anything remotely resembling geographic knowledge is something incredibly nourishing to him.

Once he’s read them, he passes his issues on to me. When he gave me the July/August 2015 issue, he told me, “You have to read the article on Uzbekistan flatbreads!” And he was right! What a beautifully written article, with equally engrossing photos. (Again, by Eric Hansen.)

A few years ago, there was a similarly fascinating, colorful article on “Morocco’s Threads of Red Gold”—saffron, the most expensive spice in the world. To my delight, it included recipes for saffron tea (pretty simple) and for “lamb tagine with oranges, saffron, and candied orange peel.” (A little more complex!)

But ultimately, it’s not about the food at all—it’s about the people, their traditions, their culture . . . their humanity. And this is the true gift of Aramco World: seeing the broader perspective that we are, in our heart of hearts, all in the same family. We must always keep this in mind.

I encourage you to check out this magazine. Look at it online, and if you like what you see, consider getting a subscription, or a gift subscription, for someone you know who’ll like it. (The holidays are coming up!)

P.S. Aramco World doesn’t run any advertisements, and it’s not available in bookstores, much less grocery-store checkout lanes. You have to get it online or by mail.

Note: Sorry about my crappy photos of the magazine; I just wanted to give you a small idea of what kinds of images greet you when you open its cover! Do go to Aramcoworld.com and check out the current and back issues!

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