Uneasy lies the head that wears a crownFrom Egypt in the east to Morocco and West-Sahara in the west there is a new wind sweeping over both busy, noisy cities and the eternal desert sand of North-Africa. It’s beyond the theme of this article to make a political analysis of the upheavals of this area, but one cannot look into the happenings without seeing a pattern in it all, from the unrest starting on October 9, 2010 in Western-Sahara including the circumstances surrounding the death of 14-year-old Nayem Elgarhi on October 24, 2010, via the “Tunisian revolution” starting with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, the “Egyptian revolution” of January 25, 2011(I visited Egypt in December 2010 and there was not the slightest indication of the later happenings), and now, at the time of writing in May 2011, the civil war in Libya. It’s impossible for this author to see the whole conflict, the unrest in the Middle East and North-Africa, as coincidental or a result of the so-called “Domino effect”! From my point of view, such a huge part of the world do not set itself on fire! Here I rest my case, as my theme of the day is the collecting of banknotes from all these countries of unrest in North Africa.
Shakespeare: Henry IV. Part II, 1597.
I’ve written “The End of an Era” in the heading of this article. In short, this means that as I see it, the era of dictators and other despots in the areas I’m writing about seems to be over. Some of them have, as you will see for yourself here and in the media, already fallen while many others now experience that “their time is out”! The reader will also see that several of them came themselves to power by deposing rulers of another era – the era of local monarchies and colonists running the countries in their way, either bad or good. Just to briefly name some, Col. al-Ghaddafi ousted HM King Idris of Libya in 1969 and further back when generals Nequib and Nasser deposed HM king Farouk of Egypt in 1952 Hosni Mubarak was close at hand to both Nequib and Nasser, as well as Anwar el-Sadat(his predecessor as president)! I will come back to the “bargain” at the end.
A couple of things must be underlined first. In contrast to the Middle East, North Africa(also known as the Maghreb meaning “Western Arabia” - lit. Arab west - thanks to the Osman Empire are Berber lands. In Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Egypt the majority of the population, though Arabic speaking, are not Arabs, but belong to a different ethnic group the Berbers or as they prefers to call themselves Imazighen (singular: Amazigh), possibly meaning "free people" or "free and noble men" the word has probably an ancient parallel in the Roman name for some of the Berbers, "Mazices"). The Egyptians are, though, a special case in this context, that I will not discuss here. There are, well-known Berbers of history like the Roman author Apuleius and St. Augustine of Hippo, as well as well-known modern Berbers including Zinedine Zidane, a French-born international football star, and Ibrahim Afellay, a Dutch-born footballer.
A much underestimated subdivision of numismatics is the study of the value of coins and banknotes as means of political propaganda. We have a prominent example of this in Libya and on Libyan banknotes. On, for instance, 10 dinars,as well as several others, from the al-Ghaddafi regime we find the portrait of Omar el-Mukhtar(the prefix el- or al- is often difficult when one Romanizes Arab names!) who was an Islamic scholar and freedomfighter against the Italians in the 1920s. His life ended in 1931 when he was captured by the Italians and hanged in front of his men, aged 73:
Omar el-Mukhtar is still regarded as ”The Greatest Libyan” and the opposition now fighting against Colonel al-Ghaddafi have adopted Omar for themselves and since the preliminary government of Libya(so far only France has recognized this govenment as the de facto goverment of Libya) they don’t print banknotes, but uses his image in other ways such as this(within the old Libyan flag):
No doubt, whatever regime that rules Libya it will continue to use this Iconic figure. Hence all banknotes from the al-Ghaddafi regime with Omar on will be an investment worthwhile for the future.
What Egypt needs, when it comes to paper money, is a complete artistic revision. To Western eyes they look pretty much alike and when worn and teared, which they usually are, they get this greyish colour making them look alike. However, this is sad because many of the motifs on them are quite interesting. The 100 Egyptian pounds note has a very nice drawing of one of the most sacred places of Muslim worship and the pride of Cairo, the Al Sayida Zainab mosque, which is also in the heart of Islam. Not to be confused by the similar sounding name of the mosque in Damascus, Syria, another country of unrest, in this mosque is buried, at least it is claimed, Zaynab-ul-Sugra, the younger daughter of Imam Ali and grand-daughter of The Prophet Mohammad himself.
Lady Zaynab spent her last days in Cairo and her shrine is believed to be in Cairo. History narrated from noble ladies of Qahira (as is the city’s original name corrupted by English and French into Cairo) support the claims. This author do not in any way make claims to have any theory in this delicate matter between Cairo and Damascus since the name Zaynab seems to have been quite popular within the family of The Prophet and the burial places of it’s various members is disputed! However, the banknote is, together with being a visual claim on fundamental Muslim belief and a superior holy site, a must for all interested in early Islamic history, architecture, and the tremendously fascinating subject of Cairo and Egypt itself. Of course, the real Icon itself of Egypt, the death mask of pharaoh Tut-ank-amon(commonly known by “insiders” as “King Tut”), you find on several notes.
If we take a leap to Tunisia we find another troubled country. There was a general election in 2009, but in December 2010 the country exploded in a series of street demonstrations and led to the ousting of longtime President Zine-El-Abidine-Ben-Ali(ben, bin, and ibn all have the same meaning:”son of”) in January 2011. This is claimed to be the inspiration for what happened in Egypt later. Street demonstrations and other unrest have continued to the present day and as in Libya most parties rallies around another Iconic figure, the late “Liberator of Tunisia” and long-term, both as Prime Minister and President, ruler Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba was, by the way, ousted himself, but the background was that he was re-elected so many times that in reality it became for life. A well organized coup ousted him in consultation with his doctors that could confirm that the president was senile and no longer capable of running the country(He died 96 years old in 2000!). Ousting or not, he is considered as “The Greatest Tunisian” and his portrait can be found on numerous banknotes. No wonder, after all he kicked out the French and made the country independent, and also replaced the short-lived Kingdom of Tunisia that followed.
As I leave the Maghreb, I will only comment on two other countries and they are not even big ones, Bahrain and Yemen. The oddest of these is the little island of Bahrain ruled by king(in Arabic Hikam, which is one of the 99 names of Allah) Hamad-bin-Isa-bin-Salman-Al Khalifa. Bahrain, which together with Jordan has no oil, has usually been a peaceful little place on earth but not anymore.
Ancient historical sources from Mesopotamia refers to some place in the region of what we know as the Persian Gulf, but the Arabs detest that name so for them it’s the Arabian Gulf, that functioned as a free market zone, known as a dilmun(aka Telmun). Well, the Bahrainis is convinced, especially as they have now become the bankers for their wealthier neighbours, that the dilmun was Bahrain and in order to underline this they have adopted the seal of the dilmun on their banknotes!
Back to the king. The present king started his kingship even before he succeeded his father emir Isa in 1999. The Al Khalifa family once also ruled Qatar, by the way. As Crown Prince he wrote a book about his political intentions. Thus, after he was enthroned, he established a national assembly, gave suffrage to women, and opened the cabinet for non-royal members. As a return, in 2002 he exalted himself from emir to king! Protesters, which he surprisingly enough came down on with a heavy hand even calling in foreign troops(the revolt quickly spread across to Saudi-Arabia), demand roughly the same as the other countries, but at the bottom of it all the big problem is that the royal family are rich Sunni Muslims while the majority of Bahrainis are poor Shias! In a way to handle the situation the king has both imported Sunnis from other Arab countries to his kingdom, while he has maintained a good relationship with Shia Iran. Well, you can’t win ‘em all...
Most intelligence sources regard Yemen as where the greatest likelihood for a revolution is present, but than Yemen’s history is a chaotic one. Arabia felix(the happy Arabia), as it once was called, has not been happy for centuries now. It has been independent, colonized, had civil war, been divided with a communist regime in South-Yemen (The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) of the brutal kind, and re-united. The present president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been president both in North-Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) from 1978 and since 1990 a united Yemen. A revolution may be avoided after the president signed an agreement with the opposition on 18th of May 2011 that he will resign within a month, but there are many that is not convinced that Mr. Saleh will give in that easily! Only time will show!
So, what’s the “bargain”? If you look at past, present, and future you will find that by collecting as many banknotes as budgets allows now you will end up with a collection of printed historical evidence of an era that changed both North Africa and Arab lands from one form of rule and policymaking to another over a span of approximately 60 years. It also changed much of the culture of these areas, probably for ever. We will, in the future, hardly see rulers either of the Farouk-type or the Idris-type! Equally, the rulers described here will hardly have a revival. A new agenda has now been forced on everyone responsible in every country. Even the Al Khalifas of tiny Bahrain are forced to re-asses their rule. A collection of banknotes from this period is not difficult to trace and it comes fairly inexpensive! As I see it now, we face a change of world history and a new era is at hand for new collections so too; so look out for the future, as well...