June 2013



A Seated Scribe, 1479-80, Attributed to Gentile Bellini, Italian, 1429–1507

The painting above is located in the Gardner Art Museum in Boston. Here is the description posted on their website:

Curious visitors who lift the cover from the unassuming Seated Scribe will be richly rewarded by what they see: an intimate painting in miniature of a young member of the Ottoman court bent intently over a writing pad. Dressed in a navy velvet caftan woven with gold, the elegant youth wears bright silks at his arms and neck. The generous folds of his turban hold in place a ribbed, red taj – headgear worn in the court milieu of Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (1432–1481), who nurtured a passionate interest in portraiture and particularly in western traditions of the genre.

Striking for its gleaming tones and stunning delicacy of line, the Seated Scribe is spectacular not only visually, but also in historiographic terms. The painting’s original dimensions have been trimmed, and a later hand has taken care not only to embellish the image, but also to frame, mount, and, ultimately, historicize it. An added inscription in Persian records the image as the “work of Ibn Muezzin who was a famous painter among the Franks.” Scholars have never doubted that a European or “Frankish” artist painted the Seated Scribe. The pressing issue of late has been who, precisely? Whether the Venetian Gentile Bellini, a renowned portraitist sent to Istanbul in 1479, or Costanzo da Ferrara, a court artist at Naples who also sojourned at the Porte, the specificity of detail in the Seated Scribe leaves little doubt that the artist drew from life.

Once the debate over attribution subsides, the more intriguing issue to raise is whether one can call the work a portrait. Might western pictorial realism have been the point of the exercise? A pronounced crease just above the youth’s elbow suggests the image was initially handled as a loose-leaf, autonomous work of art before being mounted (and in this way preserved) in a sixteenth-century album. Like other western-style works Mehmed II commissioned or obtained during his sultanate, the Seated Scribe may have been used as a pedagogic tool for rising artists of the Ottoman royal workshop. A slightly later copy of the miniature (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington) certainly affirms its value for Ottoman and Persian artists as a pictorial model worthy of imitation. If the pictured youth is not a scribe but an artist, shown in the act of drawing while he himself is being drawn according to Western pictorial practices, the Seated Scribe taught by poignant example – it sits indeed at the nexus of Ottoman art and European traditions of representation.

Source: Susan Spinale, “A Seated Scribe,” in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 97.


Allegorical bust of Voltaire; from 1901 text

One of the vexing paradoxes of modernity is whether or not intolerance can be tolerated. Should dictators be cuddled if they play up to the foreign policy concerns of a democracy? Should anyone — man, woman or child — be forced to live by religious dogma? How much of the intolerable actions in this world should we tolerate? Some wise words on the problem were offered two and a half centuries ago by the French savant, Voltaire, as brilliantly said in his Philosophical Dictionary. Here is what Voltaire said:

What is tolerance? it is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly–that is the first law of nature.

It is clear that the individual who persecutes a man, his brother, because he is not of the same opinion, is a monster. That admits of no difficulty. But the government! but the magistrates! but the princes! how do they treat those who have another worship than theirs? If they are powerful strangers, it is certain that a prince will make an alliance with them. Franois I., very Christian, will unite with Mussulmans against Charles V., very Catholic. Francois I. will give money to the Lutherans of Germany to support them in their revolt against the emperor; but, in accordance with custom, he will start by having Lutherans burned at home. For political reasons he pays them in Saxony; for political reasons he burns them in Paris. But what will happen? Persecutions make proselytes? Soon France will be full of new Protestants. At first they will let themselves be hanged, later they in their turn will hang. There will be civil wars, then will come the St. Bartholomew; and this corner of the world will be worse than all that the ancients and moderns have ever told of hell.

Madmen, who have never been able to give worship to the God who made you! Miscreants, whom the example of the Noachides, the learned Chinese, the Parsees and all the sages, has never been able to lead! Monsters, who need superstitions as crows’ gizzards need carrion! you have been told it already, and there is nothing else to tell you-if you have two religions in your countries, they will cut each other’s throat ; if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace. Look at the great Turk, he governs Guebres, Banians, Creek Christians, Nestorians, Romans. The first who tried to stir up tumult would be impaled; and everyone is tranquil.

While surfing the book treasure site of archive.org, I came across an interesting account of a brief tour of duty of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Aden Hinterland. This covers the years 1902 and 1903. This is continued from a previous post

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bread provided by NGOs to Syrian refugees in the aid kit in Wadi Khaled (Akkar); photograph by Estella Carpi


A practitioner and a researcher assess humanitarianism in today’s Lebanon

By Fiorenzo Conte and Estella Carpi

In our combined effort of providing the perspectives of the practitioner and the researcher, we would like to take as a point of departure Italian scholar Roberto Belloni’s theses according to which humanitarianism, on the one hand, ends up being the short-term substitute for development, and, on the other, tends to reproduce the same cleavages it tries to overcome.

Humanitarianism as a short-term substitute for development

While conducting research and grounded humanitarian work in Lebanon, we have noticed how humanitarianism, while providing increasing quantity of aid, avoids addressing the root causes of Lebanese chronic poverty, administrative anarchy and recurring war-like events. Predominantly Western and Gulf countries have focused their attention on managing the symptoms of the malaise without effectively addressing its causes and hence engaging in the long term.

The humanitarian needs in Lebanon are surely huge for both Syrian refugees and long neglected Lebanese host communities. With the massive influx of Syrian refugees since August 2011, the Lebanese community, living in the poorest regions, has felt the pinch. Indeed, many residents are currently trying to tackle increased expenditures and a drop in income caused by a variety of factors: the closure of the border and the consequent inaccessibility to Syrian cheaper goods through the usual border-cross smuggling; fierce competition in the labor market that has been increased by the presence of Syrian workers; a deteriorating security situation; and reduced access to the agricultural lands strewn with landmines (1).

The situation for Syrians is similarly grim: according to a recent report, more than 50% of Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees live in substandard conditions, as Lebanese host communities are no longer able to absorb new flows of refugees in their houses. (more…)


Former Emir Hamad with his son Tamim to the right

In 1988, when I was living in Doha and conducting research at the Arab Gulf States Folklore Centre, the emir of what was still a rather sleepy little gas-rich emirate was Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, who had named his son, Hamad bin Khalifa, heir apparent back in 1977. While his father was out of the country in Geneva, in 1995, the son ousted his father in a bloodless coup. The deposed emir lived in France and Abu Dhabi until his return to Qatar in 2004. On Tuesday Shaykh Hamad pre-empted any such repeat performance by one of his eleven sons by naming his son Tamim the new emir and effectively retiring from leadership without having to find a villa in France. Tamim, the son of Hamad’s second wife, Shaykha Mozah, was declared heir apparent back in 2003, so he has been groomed for the job, including education at Sandhurst in England. Emir Tamim already has four children, so the dynasty will not run out of heirs any time soon. (more…)


Terraced fields below al-Saraha in valley of al-Ahjur; photograph by Daniel Martin Varisco

by Zaid Ali Alwazir, La Voix du Yemen, June 9, 2013

Agricultural policy describes a set of laws related to the local farming and imported agricultural products from abroad. These laws are supposed to be implemented to get certain results such as utilizing the land, operating it or stabilizing prices of imported and local products.

Since the start of the “youth revolution” in Yemen, talks about the political and economic reforms got increased without focusing on “the agricultural economy” as if it was not part of the general “economy”. Therefore, no attention was paid by reformers to this issue since their talks had been focusing on “the material economy” such as “taxes”, “Zakat” and others.

“Agricultural economy” is not given the required attention despite the fact that agricultural development would feed the budget with more income, boost up farmers’ capacity to give more and optimize their living standards to ensure their welfare. (more…)

While surfing the book treasure site of archive.org, I came across an interesting account of a brief tour of duty of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Aden Hinterland. This covers the years 1902 and 1903. This is continued from a previous post.

(more…)

While surfing the book treasure site of archive.org, I came across an interesting account of a brief tour of duty of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Aden Hinterland. This covers the years 1902 and 1903. Take a deep breath and read on …

(more…)

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