How Islam Shaped Shakespeare

Did you know there was a time when Protestant Christians partnered with Muslims to usurp the Catholic Empire? Did you know that Queen Elizabeth sent a carriage to the head of a harem as a political gift? Did you know Shakespeare included many Muslim characters in his most famous plays? If you knew all these things give your brain a break and go watch the remake of Gilmore Girls. For all of us still reading, let’s take a weird journey into 16th century England where the teeth were black from Moroccan sugar and the houses were ordained with Turkish rugs. As a guide to our journey, we will reference my most recent read – The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam by Jerry Brotton.

Our journey begins in 1558 when Queen Elizabeth took the throne and began ruling a island in a very fractured world. Elizabeth was a protestant while Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were obviously Catholic. The Holy Roman Empire was the beez neez back in those days and made the rules of the land. Well, Pope Pius V and King Phillip II of Spain hated Queen Elizabeth because of her religious views. They colluded against her for decades and finally in 1570 the Pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth from the church and all of its domains. This put the Queen in a sticky situation – England could no longer trade openly with European countries but needed trade to survive on an island. Added to her woes, Elizabeth was also cut off from the Americas because of Spain and Portugal’s dominance. She had one option that could work but the chances of success were slim. Trade with Muslims in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

Englishmen were sent to the Ottoman Empire and Morracan Sultanate in hopes of opening up economic partnerships. What is interesting is the fact that when the Englishman met with the Turkish Sultan, he didn’t know where England was and viewed it as politically insignificant. He was correct in this assessment because England and Europe as a whole during the 16th century were far less powerful than the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople had a population of 500,000 compared to 200,000 in London). The Sultan agreed to the trade because he needed valuable metals to make weapons and in exchange the English would receive all sorts of exotic goodies. Guess where a lot of the metal came from for the production of Turkish weapons? Catholic church bells. Protestant English were using Catholic metal to arm Muslims. The same Muslims that were targeted by the Crusades. By the late 1580’s, thousands of English merchants, sailors, and privateers were moving about the Muslim world exchanging goods, beliefs, and culture.

One unlikely cultural exchange occurred in the world of English theater. The theater, up until that point, had primarily consisted of moralistic plays which followed similar patterns of plot and structure. This all changed with the play Tamburlaine which enlisted Muslim characters with plots that included conflicts of religion, politics, and power. Guess who was inspired by Tamburlaine and came out with his own play 6 months later? William Shakespeare. Shakespeare would go on to include 150 references to Islam in 20 different plays – many of which included main characters who were Muslim.

This weird time in history, thanks to inter-Christian quarrels, led to major cultural changes that we still experience today. Every year thousands of students read about Islam through Shakespeare. Everyday millions of people use words that were introduced to the English language from this period of trade: candy, turquoise, and tulip to name a few. Maybe most of all, the Moroccan sugar that blackened Queen Elizabeth’s teeth, led many to search for new sources in the New World. Unfortunately, Christianity and Islam’s 16th century partnership soon ended after Elizabeth’s death. Fast forward today, what can we learn from these previous partnerships? Would we have Shakespeare? Would a England, who decided not to trade with Muslims, have the resources to settle the New World? Interesting questions that all root to the fact that intermingled cultures are powerfully synergistic.

Vacation of Carbs

IMG_0770IMG_0773IMG_0774

At this very moment my stomach feels so fat that it is currently protruding onto my keyboard and obstructing the right-click button. This is a major problem because I am a Registered Dietitian and there are levels of fluffiness which cannot  be surpassed. My recent weight gain is a result of my family vacation to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Oldham family vacations are not the type of trips where one lays by a pool and relaxes. No, the Oldham family vacation is more like a marathon where volunteers hand out ice cream cones instead of cups of water. We are all healthy people when not on vacation but we tend to go about our trips as if we were all possessed by some carb demon. From the beginning, bags of chips, cookies, granola bars (not the healthy type), and chocolate populate the car on the 8 hour road trip. We did not eat when we were hungry but rather when we solely glanced over at the carb bag-the temptress entangling us in a dance of seduction that always ended in a lust for more.

Upon our arrival to Minneapolis, we went to the grocery store to gather our precious food for the week. Normally, when I go to the grocery store, my cart is filled with fruit, vegetables, and meat; on the Oldham vacation a cart like this would be promptly doused in lighter fluid and set on fire. The vacation cart is only filled with the most precious carbs that are unthinkable for consumption at other times in the year: double stuffed oreos, Cheetos, Doritos, gallons of ice cream, biscuits, donuts, potato chips, pizza [insert favorite carb]. We get enough food for two weeks but somehow find ourselves back at the grocery  store only a couple days later for another hit of the good stuff. Purchasing food at the grocery store is not enough for the Oldhams-we require carbs from all sources. After purchasing the groceries, we headed to a famous ice cream store which serves enormous portions. I decided to order the biggest portion and was presented with a gallon sized bowl of ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce and topped with whipped cream-my father and wife circling me like vultures over a dead wildebeest.

This obsession with eating continued throughout the week with an equal obsession with bike riding/walking. You might think that bike riding and walking at least offset some of the eating. Wrong! We biked 15 miles each day, to the point that it hurt to fart, and yet we still couldn’t suck in our stomachs. I walked around the Mall of America for six hours, to the point that I needed a fricking scooter, and yet stretchy pants still felt tight. Each day I though that I couldn’t go on, that I had to go back to my normal diet. Each day I tried to refrain but it was as if I would black out and find myself eating cereal out of a Tupperware container or savoring Chips Ahoy while taking a shower. My low point came on the last day. The last meal. The final countdown. We ate at Olive Garden and then immediately went to get ice cream. After the ice cream I said that my vacation was over and I was finally ready to eat healthy again. One hour later…I must have blacked out again because I found myself in the kitchen eating two microwaved hot dogs sandwiched between a hamburger bun. Do I regret some decisions over the past week? Yes. Did I have an awesome vacation that will be with me in memory and waist line forever? Yes. Am I looking forward to next year’s vacation? Let’s just say i’m already mapping out the ice cream shops.

Sugar and Gluten: America’s Most Wanted

Would it be an exaggeration to say that sugar and gluten are poisoning most Americans? I would argue that both of these substances, albeit natural, are toxic in levels that are regularly consumed in the United States. As a Registered Dietitian, I have strong views about the subject of nutrition and what merits a “healthy” diet. I am an indomitable supporter of the primal/paleo lifestyle because it makes evolutionary sense. For 95% of human existence the amount of grains, gluten, sugar, and general carbohydrates in the diet was negligible. Today the typical diet of westernized countries includes all those aforementioned categories as staples. Am I extreme in my thinking, a rogue dietitian hell bent on smacking cupcakes out of children’s hands? For a long time I thought so, but I think the medical community is slowly coming around.

One of those coming around in the medical community is David Perlmutter MD, a highly-acclaimed neurologist, who wrote the book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers. Going into this book I thought I knew the gamut of negative effects that wheat, carbs, and sugar had on the body; however, I had no idea how drastically these compounds affected the brain. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and causes either obvious or subtle inflammation throughout the body. Obvious cases include explosive diarrhea in those with Celiac Disease, subtle cases include bumpy skin or annoying headaches in those with sensitivities. Gluten can affect the brain and body by causing inflammation in the intestines which elicits an immune response and subsequent systemic inflammation. Also, gluten can enter the bloodstream partially digested and act as an exorphin in the brain (think addiction) or deposit in joints, skin, or countless other organ systems. In addition to gluten, excess carbohydrates can cause high blood sugar which results in protein glycation in the blood vessels throughout the body-including the brain. Glycation is a very bad thing because it inhibits neurotransmitter function, and decreases overall cognitive function. A gluten free diet has been shown to be more effective then prescription medications in those suffering with ADHD, Schizophrenia, dementia, Alzheimer’s (delaying the onset), and depression. That last sentence alone is enough to say, “crap Jon why am I eating this piece of bread!” 

Another point that I need to harp about is that saturated fat is not bad for you! Saturated fat does not cause high cholesterol or heart disease….period. Watch the informative video I posted for a little history on how we came upon this scientific lie. The cause of heart disease is extremely complex and is mainly from inflammation and oxidized proteins circulating in the blood. This oxidation is caused by a myriad of things including gluten, Omega-6 fatty acids, and trans fat. High cholesterol compared to low total cholesterol is actually found to decrease mortality, increase cognitive function, and decrease risk of depression. If all of these points make you want to curl up into a vegan ball of fear then you should pick up Grain Brain, Wheat Belly, The Primal Blueprint, or Paleo Manifesto. So my prescription to my readers is simple: Try your best to avoid grains, processed oils, eat less than 100 grams of carbs a day, lift weights regularly, walk in nature regularly, sprint once a week, and get plenty of sleep. So get rid of the gluten and excess carbs so you can start feeling like the best version of yourself.