Category Archives: bravery

No Swimming, Wading, Dog-Bathing or Skateboarding

A very specific sign outside the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton.

A very specific sign outside the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton.

If the rather disparate ideas of swimming, wading, dog-bathing, or skateboarding in an empty, frigid, December fountain plaza in the middle of an Ivy League campus ever occur to you:  please don’t.

First of all, the nice people in charge here at Princeton have put up a very explicit sign forbidding such conduct.  (Note the word PROHIBITED is in all-caps.)

Second, they’ve erected an enormous procession of Chinese Zodiac-themed statues overlooking the potential location of your chicanery.  Leering and toothy, these figures seem like they have been placed here just to ensure, in case you’ve missed the sign, that the bejesus will be scared out you.  Any crazy thoughts of splashing around in the waterless fountain will safely subside after you glance up from your frolic to notice twelve sets of beady eyes and bronzed teeth (is the rabbit the scariest of them all?) staring at you.

However you look at it, it’s a little weird, a little NQR.

Just in case you missed the sign.

Just in case you missed the sign and feel like taking a dip.

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Don Quixote of the Modern College Campus

I took this picture while stopped in traffic on Nassau Street, right in front of Princeton University’s main gate.

The bus caught my eye.  (How could it not?)  It’s the type of NQR that makes me, at least fleetingly, rather happy, warmed-inside, representing a sort of harmless and hopeful craziness which, if it were to increase individually or collectively, would surely benefit our often cruel and callous world.

Some of the lovely, hopeful slogans borne by this Rocinante:  “Spread kindness to everyone every chance you get” . . . “Overcome bullying through love” . . . “One guy (Bob) and his dog (Gocart) traveling to campuses across the country to promote kindness” . . . “Kids need role models” . . . “Let’s all stop hurtin’ each other” . . . “Don’t Hit Don’t Hurt Do Help Do Heal” . . . “You Have Such a Big Heart Share It With Everyone” . . . “The Greatest of These Is Love”

The bus also provides an opportunity to show to people overseas who aren’t familiar with America one of the last vestiges of our vaunted hippie culture, a dream and an anti-capitalist fervor that once thrived on certain (more liberal) college campuses but has now disappeared, aging and mellowing, to suburban pacification or to isolation in certain marginalized movements or locations. (Though the ‘Occupy’ events of last summer still had force!)

I was happy to see this bus, here, in a place like Princeton where I wouldn’t ever have expected it.  I wonder how its owner fared, preaching or simply being among the scions of this elite, Ivy locale.  I imagine he found some folks to listen, others like me to look and think about his slogans and his message.  But, in the end, the thing that made me happiest of all was just to imagine him, a modern Quixote mounting his painted, slogan-covered Rocinante and driving, rescue-dog at his side, off into some romantic and futile sunset, tilting at so many noble windmills.


Kharijite Rhetoric

The following remarks by the Kharijite (an early heretical sect of Islam) rebel Abu Hamza al-Mukhtar b. ‘Awf were given as part of a sermon in Mecca during his fight against the Ummayid Caliphate, approximately 746 CE.  Amazingly (and definitely NQR) they were preserved in Sunni sources because of the strength of the rhetoric, even though the comments greatly disparage the Sunni Ummayid caliphs.  In this year of campaign invective it might be nice to see that other peoples have engaged in character assassination, perhaps even more effectively than we Americans now stomach.  And it is interesting to note that the Sunni historians had such a sense of aesthetic value that they’d record a sermon like this, even though it clearly damns the Ummayids!

PS.  This is excerpted from Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds’ book “God’s Caliph.”

PSS.  The really good stuff is toward the end of the sermon, so keep reading.

Abu Hamza’s comments:

The Prophet's Mihrab, or pulpit, the approximate spot from which Abu Hamza may have delivered his sermon (although, back then, it wouldn't have been so gilded).

1.  O people! The Messenger of God used neither to advance nor to draw back save with the command of God and His revelation. [God] revealed a book to him and made clear to him what he should undertake and what he should guard against, and he was in no way confused about His Religion….

2.  When the Muslims put him (Abu Bakr) in charge of their temporal concerns, He fought the apostates and acted by the kitab and the sunna, striving, until God took him to Himself; may God’s mercy be upon him.

3.  ‘Umar took charge after him.  He proceeded according to the mode of conduct of him who had gone before him . . .

4.  Then ‘Uthman took charge.  For six years he proceeded in a way which fell short of the mode of conduct of his two companions.  Thereby he annulled what he had done earlier, and passed on his way.

5.  Then ‘Ali b. Abi Talib took charge.  He acted in a proper manner until he established arbitration concerning the book of God and had doubts about His religion. [Thereafter] he did not achieve any goal in respect of what was right, nor did he erect any beacon for that.

6.  Then there took charge Mu’awiya b. Abi Sufyan, who had been cursed by the Messenger of God and was the son of one so cursed.  He made the servants of God slaves, the property of God something to be taken by turns, and His religion a cause of corruption.  Then he passed on his way, deviating from what was right, deceiving in religion.

7.  Then there took charge his son Yazid, part of the curse of the Messenger of God, a sinner in respect of his belly and his private parts. He kept to the path of his father, neither acknowledging what ought to be acknowledged nor disavowing what ought to be disavowed.

8.  Then Marwan and the Banu Marwan took charge.  They shed forbidden blood and devoured forbidden property.  As for ‘Abd al-Malik, he made al-Hajjaj an imam of his, leading to hellfire.  As for al-Walid, he was a stupid fool, at a loss in waywardness, abusing the caliphate with benighted senselessness.  And Sulayman, what was Sulayman?!  His concern was with his belly and his private parts.  So curse them, may God curse them!  Except that ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was from them:  he had good intentions but did not act upon them; he fell short of what he intended.

9.  Then there took charge after him Yazid b. ‘Abd al-Malik, a sinner in whom right judgement was not perceived . . . Two items of apparel were woven for him and he wore one as pants and the other as a shirt.  Then he sat Hababa on his right and Sallama on his left and said, “Sing to me, Hababa; give me wine, Sallama.”  Then, when he had become drunk and the wine had taken a hold on him, he rent his two garments, which had been acquired for one thousand dinars on account of which skins had been flayed, hair shaved off, and veils torn away; he took what he spent unlawfully and wrongly.  Then he turned to one of the girls and said, ‘Surely I shall fly!’  Most certainly!  Fly to hellfire!  Is such supposed to be the distinguishing characteristic of the caliphs of God?!

10.  Then squint-eyed Hisham took charge.  He scattered stipends about and appropriated the land . . . and you said, ‘May God reward him with good.’  Nay!  may God reward him with evil!  He was miserly with his wealth and niggardly in his religion.

11.  Then the sinner al-Walid b. Yazid took charge.  He drank wine openly and he deliberatly made manifest what is abominable.  Then Yazid b. al-Walid rose against him and killed him:  God has said ‘So We make the evildoers friends of each other for what they have earned.’ Then Marwan b. Muhammad took charge and claimed the Caliphate.  He abraded faces, put out eyes, and cut off hands and feet…

12.  These Banu Umayya are parties of waywardness.  Their might is self-magnification.  They arrest on suspicion, make decrees capriciously, kill in anger, and judge by passing over crimes without punishment . . . These people have acted as unbelievers, by God, in the most barefaced manner.  So curse them, may God curse them!

(Please note, the Kharijite opinion of these Caliphs is a minority opinion in Islam.)


How to Make Ruins Fun

After touring a large number of sites in the Middle East, many not much more than a ‘significant’ pile of rock their father identified along some barren stretch of highway, my two children, boys ages 9 and 11, had this to say:  “Just because it’s old, dad, doesn’t mean it’s interesting.”

So, how, as a parent (and an enthusiast of archeology and other ‘old’ stuff) could I keep them interested?

For this, I stumbled on a wonderful recipe and will share it now with all other like-minded parents who face the challenge of touring citadels and other crumbly things while keeping children in tow.

First, take one pile of old stones, like, for instance:

Amphitheater at Tlos, Turkey.

Next, add one small (but hopefully very quick and wily) lizard.

The Lizard.

Then, applying the wisdom of age and keen observation, father (or other parent), will notice lizard, take excellent close-up photo for later use in blog entry, then steathily indicate its presence to bored progeny.

The speedy little bugger hid behind the crumbled ruins of some nice Roman stairs.

Bake for 35 minutes, during which time father might enjoy, at his leisure and without harassment, the majesty of associated ruins and the gorgeous backdrop of nearby Turkish mountains.  Children scamper after lizard.

Scamper, scamper.

End result?  A rather NQR sort of entertainment, but happy kids and happy dad.

Younger son, 'permitted' to hold the Lizard by his brother. NOTE: this photo was actually taken at the Jerash ruins in Jordan. The Tlos lizard conducted a successful evasion. Nevertheless, the principle remains unerringly valid.


Masada = Awesome

Model of how Pontius Pilate's original palace at Masada may have appeared.

If you want to plumb the depths of commitment to an ideal of religious zealotry, one of the best places to go is the ruin of the mountain fortress of Masada south of Jerusalem on the Dead Sea.  Here, a band of Jewish sicarii (or daggermen) holed themselves and their families up in order to avoid Roman oppression at the end of the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE.  In the end, when it became apparent that the huge earthen ramp the Romans built to bring seigeworks to the cliff would prevail, the sicarii men drew lots.  The ten men selected each went among a group of about 70, probably not their own kin, and performed a bloody ritual of slaughter before turning their daggers on themselves.  When the Romans at last breached the fortress they found cooking fires still burning and stores of food and water enough to withstand several more months of seige.  But they found no living rebels.  They took no slaves.  Approximately 700 people died at their own hands, free, that day.

Now, in the present age, Masada has become a national symbol of pride and independence for the state of Israel.  New recruits to the Israeli Defense Forces swear their oaths of allegiance after performing a harrowing early-morning climb up the sheer eastern face of the bluff, following a twisting path called Snake Trail.

The mountain fortress of Masada and the thin winding path of Snake Trail seen in the morning light before my climb.

With one day, actually just one morning, left during my visit to Israel, I decided to wake really early in Tel Aviv, leave the comfort of my hotel, zip through Jerusalem in the gloaming, traffic-free hours before dawn, cruise down the Dead Sea highway, and try to scale Masada in a way that would trace the footsteps of these new recruits and still give me several hours on top to snoop around among the archeological preservations and reconstructions.  I wanted to get a sense for the place and its mystique.  I wanted to maximize my last day of exploration in the Middle East.  I wanted to cap off my travels with the one spot that might be, while not as famous as the Pyramids in Egypt, most relevant to our modern world’s troubles and trials.  In the execution of this plan, I was not disappointed.

First of all, the drive and the climb went just as planned, exhausting my body in such a way that my limbs shook and my skin under my backpack foamed with sweat when I reached the summit.  This was purposeful.  It was my choice to experience the rigor of the climb, sun cresting the Jordanian mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea to bleach the bluff and burn my skin.  I could have taken a ski-lift tram to the top but I wanted to be tired.  I wanted to feel the emotional drain that the new Israeli recruits must feel, along with the euphoria of their ascent and their sacred entrance among the place of the death of those terrible, awesome martyrs from two-thousand years ago.  The view from half-way up Snake Trail shows the amazing precipice of the heights and reveals, also, the outline of one of seven militarily-square Roman encampments, a place that sheltered somewhere around 600 legonaires, and the well-preserved wall of the Roman circumvallation, far below at the start point of the trail.

View from half-way up Snake Trail, just before sunrise.

What I came away with, after relaxing and soaking up the historical information on placards scattered around the blufftop ruins, was a sense of the awesomeness and the holiness of the place, the same strange mixture of secular strength and religious fervor that colors the Israeli outlook on the world.

To talk about that sense, to really give a reader a feeling for it, is — if anything — the Not Quite Right element here.  Think of killing your own children, having those deaths link to cultural motifs like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Torah, and then tying the oath of an impressionable young soldier to that moment.  What do we, as Americans or Canadians or Australians or Europeans hold similarly dear?  What symbols make us fight for our freedoms?  What experiences lead us to rise from the comfort of our Monday Night Football- or Oprah-opiated lives to actually do something for the betterment of ourselves or our fellow men?  Do such symbols exist that might benefit the whole of mankind rather than just one group, one nationality, like the Israelis?

I fear they do not.

Ruins of the storerooms atop Masada.

 

 


The Hand of Sheikh Sabah

This is a truly fearless tattoo.

During my unit’s train-up to deploy to Iraq, one of the more interesting and culturally relevant events we underwent involved meeting with a mock group of Iraqi townsfolk to conduct negotiations.  This drill was supposed to be pressurized, a first taste of the difficulty in communicating through interpreters, with security elements posted around us, and discussions that incorporated senstivity to regional issues.  For me, this was an excellent foreshadowing of the real work I would do later in the year, work which involved almost daily meetings with the town council in Safwan. The drill employed real Iraqis and other Arabic-speaking persons (along with a few dozen local ‘extras’ from South Louisiana pretending to speak Arabic through their heavily Cajun drawl) to add realism.

One thing that I noticed during this drill, a thing that stuck with me and has popped back into my consciousness now, especially given the current elections in Egypt, was a crude tattoo on the very visible backside of the hand of the head “actor” in this group.  This guy was the lead Iraqi negotiator, the ‘Sheikh’ of the mock village.  He played hardball with us.  He came prepared with a list of demands and wouldn’t budge from his positions.  He stressed our little team of negotiators as far as he could, refusing all accomodation, all reconciliation, and he did his best to escalate the scenario that had been concocted into something dangerous, a riot or a protest.

This photo was taken just after the finish of the exercise, when the actor walked away from the scenario to take a phone call.  He slipped his red-checkered keffiyah from his head to let the sweat from the humid Louisiana air dry.  He paced back and forth along a razor-wire fence.  I was able to surreptitiously raise my camera, zoom in from afar, and take this photo of the tattoo I had seen during our practice negotiations.

The tattoo makes me wonder about the man’s history.  So, too, does it make me wonder — this is the NQR here — how many of us, in our comfortable American bourgeoisie lives, would be willing to visibly and permanently express this sort of hope (or protest) if we lived under a similarly suppresive and brutal regime?