Tag Archives: Coffee

Thesis Tableaux, Part 1 – Gathering the Materials

As I sit, here at my kitchen table in a very suburban and bourgeois locale somewhere near Princeton, a masochistic satisfaction has taken hold of me, surrounded by the paraphernalia of my upcoming enslavement to a single, unified, and laborious paper-writing process:  the thesis.  Maybe as a means to preserve this beginning moment for myself, so that I might look back fondly upon it in future years, or perhaps to share the mound of work, at least metaphorically, with those of you enjoying a voyeuristic pleasure in my pain, I will document here what I perceive to be the major milestones of the process.

. . . like the setting of a B-grade horror film . . .

The subject of the thesis will be a monograph of the life of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s more scurrilous Companions, al-Mughirah ibn Shu’bah, who was a very early convert to Islam but was also involved in one of its more spectacular and formative legal/moral cases.  More to follow, in future installments of this thesis-production narrative, on al-Mughirah and his doings.  Now, onward to the writing process itself, onward to the first of the milestones I plan to document.

What more necessary milestone can there be than a beginning?  And how better to capture it than with a photograph, a tableaux of the materials, most of them visible, that I have heaped around me to spur me toward beginning this paper’s production?

Here I list the visible and invisible elements of this project, in order of importance:

1.  Computer.  Modern man cannot write, let alone research, without said device.  My choice:  a slightly feminine but perfectly serviceable white MacBook.  Unseen on the computer are perhaps 30+ files and scans from various encyclopedias that will contribute to the project, along with an entire searchable Arabic-language database of scholarly works that I will (at some time in the nebulous future) exhaust of all references to my subject.

2.  Coffee.  ‘Nuf said.  Cup courtesy Anthropologie, though meant to match a small collection of blue-glazed crockery purchased in Morocco and Oman.

3.  Books:  Most of this is background reading, rather than primary sources.  The primary sources will be in Arabic and I will access them online, for the most part, verifying them in volumes kept at Princeton’s library.  A preliminary search tells me that al-Mughirah is mentioned directly, in various hadith traditions, about a dozen times.  These secondary sources, along with primary-sources exegesis from later (but still rather Medieval) Islamic theologians and historians, supplement the direct mentions of al-Mughirah only partially.  The rest of his life I plan to reconstruct via hypotheses I derive from what various factions or various armies were doing during the blank spaces in his life.  Today my goal is to put all of these secondary sources into a bibliography and, maybe also, to comb through indices and mark/excerpt the direct mentions of al-Mughirah that each book contains.

4.  Stick-’em notes.  An archaic tool, but necessary.  When I have indexed a direct mention of al-Mughirah, I don’t want to have to go through the process of looking it up again.  I will therefore both a). copy the specific mention into a word document arranged by subject or time-period and b). affix a stick-’em note to the original page so that I can find the quote quickly in its larger context if necessary at a later time.

5.  Example theses.  My advisor provided two example theses from recent MA candidates.  I’m going to double check the formatting of their bibliographies prior to creating my own.  In the end, hopefully minus coffee stains, my thesis will look as fat and happy (and professional) as these two do.

6.  Chair, table, and especially cushion on chair.  The writer requires a certain degree of comfort.  But not TOO MUCH comfort.  The cushion eases the pain of a flat wooden surface squashing buttocks.  The table and chair will keep the writer more alert than, say, the couch or the nice big leather arm chair just purchased for more leisurely reading.  Chair/table/placemats/seat cushions courtesy IKEA.

7.  Woven baskets on wall.  No direct correlation with the thesis, other than ambiance in an otherwise milquetoast white pre-fab house.  Baskets from Nizwa, or perhaps from Morocco.  I forget.

8.  Voo-doo doll.  (Parti-colored feathers visible between largest stack of books and copies of previous theses).  Just in case.


A Cup of Khan

This one falls under the ‘accidentally good’ product name category.  And the accidentally provides justification enough for including it as NQR.

Ogedei's mug on the package, but no corresponding triple-sized 'mug' available.

Although this blog certainly refrains from advocating any product named after a Mongol despot, we feel especially concerned about food or beverage products claiming specific heritage or association with the Central Asian horse-lords.  What’s more, this one has been named not for the iconic founder of the dynasty (Ghengis) nor for the more famous later descendent Tamerlane, but for one of the tweener Khans, the more obscure but still satisfyingly frightful Ogedei.

What makes this name particularly apt is that Ogedei was ordered by his court physician to cut his drinking in half or else face certain early death from what we, now, would call cirrhosis.  Ogedei, cheeky bugger that he was, complied with the letter but not the spirit of the injunction, having one of his craftsmen fashion a drinking vessel three times as large!  He continued his drinking.  He died.  And the invasion of Europe stalled on the very doorstep of Germany and Austria in order for all the claimants to the royal Mongolian throne (or yurt) could make their way as speedily as possible back to Karakorum in the Himalayan foothills, there to decide upon the next ruler.

So, as a bit of marketing advice for the Khaantea Corporation, consider incorporating Ogedei’s oversized cup into advertisements.  I’m sure there are plenty of us Starbucks’ addicts who might benefit from a mug three times larger than usual.  And, if I were to see, through my bleary pre-coffee morning vision Ogedei’s visage every day, I might feel at least a little grateful for his extreme appetites.  Were it not for his early death I might be speaking and writing some variation of Mongolese now, rather than English.


Distance Makes Bootcamp Grow Fond

Not that I wasn’t fond of Oman when my family and I enjoyed the awesome experience of living there for a year, but now, looking back through photos, some of the more mundane or even unpleasant aspects seem better.  Take our present experience of New Jersey traffic for instance. The rudeness of drivers here almost makes me wish for the super-sonic speeds and random construction zone lane-changing of Oman, always accompanied by smiles and good manners.  Or the heat.  Miserable to live through an Omani summer, but O, the winter — 80F with balmy sunshine every day!

In addition to the steps and the beach where bootcamp was conducted, I linger over the fine remembered taste of Costa Coffee (seen in background) not to mention the pleasant swaying of so many palm trees.

Even this photo, seeming rather barren, rather boring, inspires a moment of NQR reflection and remembrance.  It was at the base of these steps, along a stretch of Muscat beach sometimes left dry by the tide, sometimes washed over knee-deep by blessedly cool water, that my wife and I and a goodly number of our friends and acquaintances — mostly expats, though my buddy Aflah became a regular attendee — tortured ourselves every morning by attending a bootcamp physical training session led by two crazy South African gentlemen.

Ahh, I look at the steps and wish I could return to those mornings:  waking up with a light mist of sandstorm or mosquito-fogging (an expelled concoction part deisel, part napalm) floating in the air, temperatures hovering around 90, 95F at 5am, picking our way down these very steps, sometimes awash with kelp and little crablike critters, slipping, tiptoeing to keep our shoes dry, waving the beam of a flashlight in front of us to avoid stepping on anything truly unpleasant.  Then gathering in the dark with the other masochistic morning bootcampers, a quick jog down beach, a stretch, and a return to the real heart and misery of the morning.  Usually it went something like this:  1 minute of a randomly chosen but inevitably brutal exercise, the easy ones being push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, the tough ones impossible combinations of twisting, pushing, prying, jumping and generally getting wet sand into every crevice of the body; then a quick shuttle-run sprint down to a line drawn in the sand; another minute of a different but equally painful exercise; a second sprint to a farther line in the sand; a third exercise; a third and final sprint to the farthest of the lines.  Rest.  Repeat.  Sweat.  Repeat.  Charge into the water (maybe bringing gallon jugs to fill and then lift in a final burst of calesthetics or isotonics).  Return home dripping, sandy, but well-worn and well-woken for the day’s chores and pleasures.

Thinking back on it now, such mornings seem almost perfect, although a little bird in the back of my head still chirps a reminder about bleary-eyed cursing that occurred during, and especially en route to, such bootcamp fondnesses.


The 24-Hour Book

Amid a panoply of other academic tasks this week, I’m planning to write a response essay (300 words or less!) as part of the 24-Hour Book Project.

Brian Dillon hard at work on his 24-hour book

In short, a man named Brian Dillon has been closeted away at the Brooklyn offices of Cabinet magazine for the last 24-hours, producing a novelette he has titled “I Am Sitting in a Room.”  He started at 10AM yesterday and finished just a few minutes ago.  The manuscript zipped off to the printers and also to a few enterprising volunteer grad students from various disciplines here at Princeton.  We have 24 hours of our own to read, digest and respond — artistically, critically, banaly — to the work.

I’m interested to see if Dillon’s writing exhibits coherence in this short time-frame.  I’m interested to see what reaction it provokes in me, tossed and turned and sullied by the articles on Jewish mysticism, Islamic exegesis, and Christian gnosis I’m currently reading for my coursework.

Whether I produce something worthy of this cultural pearl or something more fit to toss to swine, it is an interesting and fun experiment in the narrowing of time and history, the mechanisms at our disposal for communication, and the speed of production and consumption in our present-day half-mad world.

It’s a project filled to the brim with Not Quite Right.

UPDATE #1 (1433hours, Sunday 11DEC2011):  After finishing three articles on the Merkavah and the approach to God in Jewish mysticism, I tore through a first reading of “I Am Sitting in a Room.”  Enjoyed it.  Found it more relevant to academia and less a ‘fiction’ than expected.  Will now let it take the air for a few hours while attending a Sunday evening lecture and dinner.

UPDATE #2:  (2302hours, Sunday 11DEC2011):  Returned from excellent dinner and lecture.  Reviewed materials for courses tomorrow.  Starting 60-minute essay on 24-hour book.

UPDATE #3:  (0043hours, Monday 12DEC2011):  Finished essay, submitted to IHUM, the Princeton program coordinating the book ‘release’ event.

UPDATE #4:  (1425hours, Monday 12DEC2011):  Editors of 24-hour book project notify me of my essay’s inclusion in the commentary volume that will be associated with the project.  Invited to speak as panelist at book event circa 1630hours but unfortunately — due to car maintenance issues — decline.


Coffee in Chop Chop Square

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, isn’t known as a tourist hotspot.  It’s right in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, high, hot/cold, dusty, and policed by a force called the Mutawwa who ensure strict adherence to Islamic standards of morality, arresting unescorted women, shutting down public revelry, enforcing modesty in dress, generally outlawing fun.  So, it was with some surprise that we spent three quite full days ‘touring’ the sites of Riyadh.

First, the souq was a real souq, a working souq, where anything could be purchased and where the prices were reasonable.  We (errr . . . my wife Angie) bought a decent version of a brand-name purse for about $40.

Then we toured Musmak Fort where the Family Saud, on horseback, stormed the front gate in 1902 to re-unite Arabia.  All the displays had been removed to participate in a touring exhibit, but the painted and carven doors were beautiful and the place had a cleanness and realness to it that made it simple and interesting.

The third event, the National Museum, was also well-worth our time, on par with Smithsonian for presentation but with a Saudi and Islamic skew to all the displays.

Deira Square, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Yet, the most moving, the most gut wrenching of the sites we visited was Deira Square.  Called “Chop-Chop Square” by the expat community, it is the site where Saudi Arabia conducts its public executions and corporal punishments, Friday mornings after communal prayer.  While the larger social issue of capital/corporal punishment, its pros and cons, has been debated elsewhere, the Not Quite Right moment, the contrast, made itself felt on the square itself, even on a non-execution day.  It’s a big place, colonnaded, and on three of the four sides it is bordered by Musmak Fort, the souq, and a big government mosque.  It is a communal area.  And it has been invaded by commercialism:  coffee shops, snack shops, vendors selling cashews and candy tucked away under the colonnades.

I found myself — mocha in one hand, a bag with my wife’s new faux Versace purse in the other — standing at the spot where Saudi’s condemned kneel and look upward at a dust-filled sky as the sword of righteousness dispatches them.

In that place, drinking my coffee, I was the element of Not Quite Right.


Indiana Jones Feedback Loop – Petra, Jordan

Shop outside Petra, Jordan

Culturally-speaking, this one seems like the equivalent of two mirrors facing each other.  Mindnumbingly unending repetition, an image that keeps looping back on itself:  Steven Spielberg selling movies via the romance of Petra’s rose-red tombs while Petra then sells fifteen-cent Nescafe for two dollars in a styrofoam cup.

Or maybe its the old ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ joke, with a highly air-brushed Harrison Ford.  Either way, it proves that capitalism does have a sense of humor.

The shop was closed, very early this particular morning.  I checked.  I actually would have bought the coffee.  I woke before dawn and waited  for the Petra visitor center gates to open as the sun came up, trying to beat the expected 110F heat and the crowds.

My son Wesley pointed out this sign as he and I crossed the last wastes of parking lot.  I don’t think Petra was ‘cool’ in his 10-year old mind until he linked it to Indiana Jones.  Then it became something more than just another museum or another run-down castle he was forced to visit.  It became a video game, a backdrop, a place he understood.  He began to ask the first of a couple hundred 10-year old questions about Crusaders and the Holy Grail and whether or not college professors really do use bull whips.

It made me wonder whether relics of this sort, as beautiful and empty as Petra, have a value of their own or whether value only exists to the degree that a site, or an object, or an idea, resonates with a person.  Do all our histories require Steven Spielberg’s intervention so that they too might survive in the psyche of our children?

After a few more minutes Wesley and I passed beyond the visitor center gates, went down the vacant gravel footpath to the Siq, that narrow canyon through the keyhole of which, at the far end, are the remarkable ruins themselves.  We were mostly alone.  The moment was a full one for me, an almost holy feeling.  Yet it had been touched, at the outset, with a healthy dose of Not Quite Right.