October 2010

The poet Robert Browning left a large corpus, including his translation of Goethe’s masterful West-östlicher Diwan. One of his longer poems is an Oriental tale entitled Ferishtah’s Fancies. Recently in a used book shop I bought a copy of the 1885 edition published in Boston by Houghton, Mifflin and Company. There is an ironic epigraph for this Orientalist tale from Shakespeare’s King Lear (Act III, Scene 6) at the forefront:

You, Sir, I entertain you for one of my Hundred; only I do not like the fashion of your garments: you will say, they are Persian; but let them be changed.”

Browning’s verse is as antiquated today as the tale he spun, but still worth looking at if only for the nostalgia of Victorian English prose. Here is an excerpt from the encounter of Dervish Ferishtah with a former high official now beggared:

The Mellon-seller

Going his rounds one day in Ispahan, –
Half way on Dervishhood, not wholly there, –
Ferishtah, as he crossed a certain bridge,
Came startled on a well-remembered face.
“Can it be? What, turned melon-seller – thou?
Clad in such sordid garb, thy seat yon step
Where dogs brush by thee and express contempt? (more…)

Left to right) Salwan Al Shaibani, 39, Hala Kazim, 47, Maha Jaber, 32, and Aida Al Busaidy, 27, all of Dubai. Kazim recently took the other women on an 80-kilometer hike in Austria through her program, Journey Through Change; Photo by Amy Leang / The National

Hike across Austria raises profile of Emirati women

by Maey El Shoush, The National, October 15, 2010

DUBAI // Five Emirati women who traded their abayas for backpacks have returned from a successful five-day hiking trip through Austria aimed not only at their own personal development but also at breaking down stereotypes outside the UAE.

Their tour was organised through Journey Through Change, a Dubai life coaching and organising company run by Hala Kazim, 47.

Mrs Kazim said: “I wanted to show the ladies and men in our communities, there are more things to life. This was not just a walking trip: I exposed them to different cultures, showed them how to absorb the beauty around them, and counselled them as we walked.”

The group, composed of women from their mid-20s to 40s, walked 80 kilometres, starting at Vienna through Fuschl towards St Wolfgang, across mountainous terrain and past green fields, farms and villages. Dressed down and wearing no makeup, with minimal internet access at the bed and breakfasts where they spent each night, the trip took the women back to basics. (more…)

A Revolutionary of Arabic Verse
By CHARLES McGRATH, The New York Times, October 17. 2010

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Every year around this time the name of the Syrian poet Adonis pops up in newspapers and in betting shops. Adonis (pronounced ah-doh-NEES), a pseudonym adopted by Ali Ahmad Said Esber in his teens as an attention getter, is a perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This year Ladbrokes, the British bookmaking firm, had his chances at 8-1, which made him seem a surer bet than the eventual winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, a 25-1 long shot. Why Adonis appeals to the oddsmakers, presumably, is that he’s a poet, and poets have been under-represented among Nobelists lately; that he writes in Arabic, the language of only one Nobel winner, Naguib Mahfouz; and that as is the case with so many recent winners, most Americans have never heard of him.

In the Arab world it’s a very different matter. There he is a renowned figure, if not everywhere a beloved one. He is an outspoken secularist, equally critical of the East and West, and a poetic revolutionary of sorts who has tried to liberate Arabic verse from its traditional forms and subject matter. Some of his poems are immensely long and immensely difficult and resemble Pound’s Cantos at their most impenetrable. Others reveal a Paul Muldoonish playfulness, a Jorie Graham-like expansiveness and fascination with blank space. His poems are as apt to cite Jim Morrison as the Sufi mystics, and his 2003 volume “Prophesy, O Blind One” includes some long, leggy lines about traveling that could have been written by Whitman, if only Whitman had spent more time in airports. (more…)

Selma Al-Radi at work at the Amiriya Madrasa; photo by Qais al-Awqati

In addition to the obituary previously posted, the New York Times has recently published this account of Dr. Selma Al-Radi.

Selma Al-Radi, Restored Historic Madrasa, Dies at 71

By MARGALIT FOX, The New York Times, October 14, 2010

On certain dark nights, as a Yemeni legend tells it, Sultan Amir ibn Abd Al-Wahhab would command his servants to set lanterns in the windows of the Amiriya Madrasa, the ornate palace complex he had commissioned at Rada, in southern Yemen. Then, with his daughter by his side, he would ride into the hills above town, to behold his vast edifice ablaze with light.

The sultan was a historical figure, the last ruler of the Tahirid Dynasty, which flourished in Yemen from the mid-15th to early 16th centuries. The Amiriya Madrasa, erected in 1504 and named for him, was then and is now again one of the great treasures of Islamic art and architecture.

Solidly built of limestone and brick, the Amiriya seemed destined to endure as the sultan’s monumental legacy. But after he was killed in battle in 1517, the complex was left to decay. The more puritanical rulers who followed him deemed its lavishness a distraction from the sober business of prayer.

That the Amiriya today stands resplendent after five centuries of neglect is due almost entirely to the efforts of one woman, the Iraqi-born archaeologist Selma Al-Radi, who was for many years a research associate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. (more…)

If you are bored enough to follow the cable or evening news, the top stories these days are all about politics. At this point we are all suffering from a Tea Party hangover, candidates who make ads claiming they are not witches or Nazi sympathizers, conspiracy theories of foreign money buying congress, and the latest notes inscribed on Sarah Palin’s million-dollar hands. It is as though the media has outsourced its integrity, what little it ever had in the broad historical sweep of journalism in this country. I remember an old saying in the days when people actually thought about peace: what if they started a war and nobody came? Well, now it seems that the mantra is what if a war is going on and no one cares. The two ongoing wars started during the Bush years are falling off the radar, as two recent polls have voiced:

In a nationwide New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last month, 60 percent of Americans said that the economy or jobs were the most important problems facing the country. A mere 3 percent mentioned Afghanistan or the war. (more…)

Scene from the show

Laugh! There is a Bomb in your Car
by Sinan Antoon, al-Jadaliyya.com, September 11, 2010

Ramadan is a very special time of year for Muslims and it is impossible to overestimate its socio-cultural importance. Additional time and effort are invested in its daily rituals and practices. Familial and social bonds are augmented and celebrated. Traditional games used to be an important facet of the month’s celebratory and festive mood culminating in the feast marking the month’s end. While these games are still popular and are still played in many parts of the Islamicate world, they have been largely eclipsed by visual entertainment. Thus, Ramadan is the month to watch TV and follow the new shows and soap operas. It is the month with the highest rates of viewership as families and friends gather around TVs. Stations and satellite channels invest heavily in their Ramadan productions. It is also the perfect time of year to take the political and cultural pulse. For Iraqis, Ramadan has been more of a challenge this year than it usually is. The country is still without a government after more than five months of fruitless negotiations. Despite claims to the contrary, the government has failed miserably in providing security for its citizens as suicide attacks continue. (more…)

Hurlbutt’s Atlas, p. 118

The Christian fascination with the Holy Land as a window into interpretation of the Bible has a long and indeed fascinating history of its own. Here I continue the thread on Jesse Lyman Hurlbutt’s A Bible Atlas (New York: Rand McNally & Company, 1947, first published in 1882). Ah, those cedars of Lebanon, hewn for Solomon’s temple but a few being left for the intrepid explorer, in this case Rev. Hurlbutt himself. Here is his sketch of that temple. (more…)

2007 suicide blast at Baghdad hotel

by Matt J. Rossano, The Huffington Post, September 27, 2010

We all have our personal “theories” about what motivates religious terrorists. To go from personal theories to real ones, we need to study the issue scientifically. One recent study draws the provocative conclusion that ritual participation more than religious belief may be behind suicide attacks.

From a scientific standpoint a suicide attack represents an extreme form of parochial altruism — a self-sacrificial act made on behalf of one’s in-group, involving aggression against an out-group. Religious belief, some have argued, is the prime motivator for such an attack. The attacker believes that his or her sacrifice will lead to a glorious reward in the afterlife (e.g., Islam’s famous 70-some-odd virgins-awaiting). This explanation can be called the “belief hypothesis,” and it would predict that those who demonstrate increased devotion to religious beliefs or deities would be more supportive of suicide attacks. In the context of a recent study (Ginges et al., Psychological Science, 20, p. 224), devotion was measured by prayer frequency. Thus, those who prayed more were assumed to be more devoted, and some preliminary analyses confirmed that this was indeed the case. (more…)

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