September 2007

To veil or not to veil: in Iran that is a question seemingly more relevant than getting an A-bomb. It is not so much the option of veiling as it is how to veil, how much to cover. With reports of a crackdown on what constitutes proper dress for Muslim women in public, the media has been flooded with stories of women with loose hijabs being harassed. For those who have bad feelings about Islam such stories add fuel to the fire of prejudice. But a toll is also taken on Muslims, especially in the West, who see themselves judged by the actions of an extreme case. Not surprisingly, some Muslims who do not see naked eye to veiled eye with the fashion enforcers in Iran are speaking hip hop to power.

Here on the Youtube Watch is an anti-hijab film by Mani Turkzadeh with a hip hop tune from GOZAR.

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

It is easy to dismiss past travel writing about the “Orient” as mere “Orientalism,” the kind that Edward Said disparaged as a style for dominating the supposed “Oriental” other. But viewing such texts through a politicized post-colonial lens thus becomes a kind of scorched-earth form of literary criticism. True enough, there are many narratives, especially by Christian writers, that approach the physical ‘Holy Land’ with a schizophrenic ax to grind: an over-appreciation of the biblical character of the land coupled to an under-valuing of the people who lived in the land at the time. But occasionally there are texts that dig beneath the surface if the reader has the patience to read beyond the surface rhetoric. One of these is a delightful first-person narrative by Philip J. Baldensperger, published in 1913 about experiences in Palestine during the last half of the 19th century. (more…)

Mohammed Jafaar, Baghdad Things, Oil on Canvas, 2006

[Note: This is the fifth in a series of translations of selected letters of the noted Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. For more information on the poet, click here.]

Letter #5 (6//19/1947)


My Kind and Respected Brother, Dr. Suheil Idris,

My sincere best wishes and scented greetings to you.

Your kind letter has overwhelmed me with joy. I am very appreciative of your good opinion of me, and I hope to remain worthy.

In your letter, you inquire as to what our brother, Kathem (Jawad), and I meant when we said in our commentary on your splendid novella, “A letter to My Mother,” that it appeared at the most opportune time. Explaining this could be very lengthy, but trust me that we intended to speak to you about this even if you had not asked. This is a topic that concerns every man of letters and every man who is faithful to his people and nation and who is concerned with their future and the future of Arabic literature. (more…)

“All the News That’s fit to Print.” This is the masthead mantra of The New York Times, one of America’s most important and best funded newspapers. For college professors like myself, it is the paper of choice, if it must be a paper. Long Island’s Newsday is local and closer to Little League than Big League for this Yankees fan; as a periodical Newsday is a great source for buying used cars and finding the nearest cinema. I avoid The Post, except to fill in the chortle gap now left by the demise of once super-marketed Weekly Wierdo News (or whatever…). I also listen to PBS, which all things considered actually tries to grapple with issues rather than just sensationalize how far a baby can fall from a window and still survive. But, my comments today are not really about a particular news outlet. Liberal or conservative is not the issue; a gut reading reaction is. I start with the premise that news media are all in the same boat, sinking in cyberspace apart from the Times Elite crowd and its pay-for-view ilk, which is steaming over an ocean of ignorance on one fuel: profit. It may still be possible to try to limit news items to what is “fit to print”, but most of us have a fit with a lot of what does get printed across the spectrum of right, left, up and down.

It is the choice of fit in today’s NYT that I noticed. (more…)

“I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 24 September 2007

Back in the dark days of the American “culture wars” of the 1990s, I read a surprising newspaper column on higher education by a well-known conservative writer–I can’t remember whether it was George Will or Joseph Sobran. Since both of them usually made me shudder, I was surprised to agree quite wholeheartedly with an argument he was making about the nature and content of college education. Colleges, he wrote, should not offer students courses on popular culture. Not because popular culture is necessarily evil or degenerate, but because this (the content, if not the analytical position) was something they could get from the market. Works by and talk about Madonna, the Ramones, and, even then, the Simpsons, are things students receive daily in their cars and their apartments and from their friends. What a university education should offer students is precisely what is not normally available in the broader world, what they cannot get on the open market: Shakespeare, Moliere, general relativity, the history of Polish nobility in the 16th century. None of these topics can be researched or taught or sustained as bodies of knowledge without subsidy. The market can provide us with the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, but not with Shakespeare himself (the exceptions–Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Baz Luhrmann directing the extraordinary Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet, and a few others–prove the rule. They were successes precisely because they were so rare and so surprising). All of what we think of as high culture, from symphony concerts to sculpture, depends on financial support from foundations and governments and wealthy individuals to support its performance and availability (the fact that we can still buy Shakespeare’s plays in bookstores is due entirely to the fact that the market for his work is supported by his forced consumption in high school and college classes). (more…)

[Note: If you are in the New York Metropolitan area, you may be interested in a lecture by Jessica Winegar at Alwan for the Arts this evening.]

Creative Reckoning: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt Creative Reckoning

Book Reading by Jessica Winegar

Tuesday, September 25, 2007 7 PM

Free and open to the public

Refreshments will be served

Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2006) is an ethnographic study of the intense debates over cultural authenticity and artistic value that occur in a postcolonial society undergoing market liberalization. Based on 33 months of fieldwork in Egypt, the book examines the creation, circulation, and commodification of art in the context of a globalizing cultural economy. (more…)

Tribes should be social entities not political participants, says al-Dhaheri

Reported by Zaid al-Alaya’a, Yemen Observer, Sept. 22, 2007

Dr. Mohammed Mohsen al-Dhaheri, chairman of the Political Sciences Department at Sana’a University, spoke with the Yemen Observer about the contemporary role of tribes in the governance of Yemen and the conflict between the traditional and modern authorities. He is the author of two books about the socio-political relationship between the tribes and the state in Yemen.

Yemen Observer: What do you think of the newly established National Solidarity Council, and what do you think prompted its establishment?

Dr. Mohammed al-Dhaheri: First, I would like to say that this is what we can call political meddling. Tribes in Yemen have certain mechanisms to demand their rights. For example, some tribes will block highways or kidnap foreigners to add urgency to their demands. I can not put this council in the frame of a tribal bloc. It is can not what I would call a tribal council nor is it a partisan council. You can see that politicians meet with the sheikhs and with the academics. The council represents a period in tribal meetings that Yemen has not witnessed before. You can not call it an opposition entity as it has many members from the GPC, and academics etc. As you see there is a sort of dichotomy that starts to prevail in Yemen. This council has encountered other gatherings from tribes led by Sheikh al-Shaif. (more…)


[The noted historian of Islamic science, David A. King, recently retired from his position as Professor of the History of Science at Frankfurt University, has published a new book on two of the most remarkable objects surviving from the Renaissance, one an astrolabe and the other a painting. The connection between the two is described in detail in his new book Astrolabes and Angels, Epigrams and Enigmas – From Regiomontanus’ Acrostic for Cardinal Bessarion to Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2007. An associated website is]

Only recently have we achieved a better understanding of two monuments to the intellectual genius of the Renaissance, both of which have caused scholars a lot of trouble over several decades. As it happens, the two are intimately related.

The back of the astrolabe made by Regiomontanus for Cardinal Bessarion, with an inscription or epigram and the image of an angel.

One is an astrolabe, presented to the ageing Greek Cardinal Bessarion in Rome, 1462, by his new protégé, the young German astronomer Regiomontanus. (more…)

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