Tag Archives: Middle East

Fishing from Pontius Pilate’s Palace

The gloom of a foggy, pre-winter day here on the east coast of the US has sent me back to my storehouse of Middle Eastern photos, perhaps seeking warmth, perhaps respite from academics and from brutal post-storm New Jersey traffic and congestion.

The ‘throne room’ or reception chamber of the governor’s palace at Caesarea.

I found a series of photos from a visit to the ancient Roman ruins of Caesarea in Israel.  They’re warm.  They’re balmy and quiet (I was almost alone, near closing time for the ruins, making a quick dash to see the site on my way back from a marathon tour day where I visited the entirety of the Golan Heights all the way up to Majd al-Shams, the ruins of Nimrod, the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the northern coast from Haifa down to Tel Aviv.)

Most important, these photos resonate with a sad truth about life and history: slow but steady decay, accompanied by the cheerier but still fatalistic idea that life continues, unabated, even over the most important puzzle pieces of a contentious past.

Two fishermen on a jetty that was probably, at one time, a garden courtyard overlooked by Pontius Pilate’s seaside reception chamber.

That is the mark of NQR I found at Caesarea:  the mundane littlenesses upon which the world really functions, many little examples of which seemed to be creeping — all at once — inward from the sea to reclaim such a fabulous, famous site.

For example, standing in the very spot where the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate held audience with the Apostle Paul and granted him the request to be judged, as a Roman citizen, in front of Caesar himself, I saw the ruins slipping back into the sea and a few local Arab men clambering over the shore, fishing.  Life continues.  I love that.  Despite the rocks, the ruins, the joinery, the faience tilework, the vista, these men operated on a simpler and more innocent level, plying the ruins in search of dinner.

Plaque (multi-language!) telling how the Apostle Paul sought an audience with the Emperor and was shipped to Rome from this location.

More of the world’s petty necessities creeping in toward Caesarea: a power plant just down the beach from the ruins.

A last beautiful photo of a fisherman on the sculpted but eroding shores of the ancient city.

 

 

 

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al-Mughira bin Shu’bah

Earlier this fall, in fact the very same week I sat down to start writing my thesis — a monograph on al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah (ra), the rather infamous Companion of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) — one of my advisors informed me that a work in Arabic had just been produced and published, albeit in Iran, on the very same man.  As an academic, even a very temporary academic like me, this is not the sort of news you want to hear.  In fact, it is very much like having the rug pulled right from under your feet.  Hours and hours of research in primary sources:  Tabari, Ibn Sa’d, Ibn Kathir, Baladhuri, Waqidi, Ibn Khallikhan, Ibn Khaldun, all the ahadith of the various canonized collections, all of that down the tubes, not to mention more contemporary tomes that helped me frame my thinking about these primary sources.

Holding “Mughira bin Shu’bah” for the first time.

But, wonderfully enough, through whatever absurd connections Princeton maintains around the world, the University was able to get me a copy of this book, even though it isn’t yet widely available.  As such my task in this monograph remains intact but also gets shaded just a little.  Not only will I produce a monograph of al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah (in English) but I will engage with this work, debate it, raise conflicting opinions, and jump into what might become a mini-academic debate.

The combination of curmudgeonly respect I feel for this volume, as I heft it for the first time, freshly hand-delivered to me by the library staff here, and disgust (that my idea has been stolen) has a certain curiosity to it, an NQR-icism unique, so far, in the annals of this blog.

Please wish me luck reading this tome, digesting it, and somehow incorporating it in my own endeavors over the next two months as I finish this thesis.  It remains for me to read and review and think about just what sources were used and what opinion of al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah the author of this study — a man named Abd’al-Baqi Qurna al-Jaza’iri — formed and conveyed in his preemptive strike on my (strangely cherished) objective.


Arabic Conjugation Reveals Professor’s Secret Identity

Some of the more prominent Crushers. (Or Breadbreakers).

Frustrated perhaps by a lack of grammatical precision in his ‘supposedly’ advanced Arabic students, my professor in this semester’s Language of the Qur’an course has taken us back a step this week into our primary verb conjugation chart, making us (re)memorize all the verb forms and spending each day of our classwork chanting those forms together to reinforce them in our weak and forgetful minds.

While this might seem like the ultimate in dry and unproductive exercises, it does yield some added ability to communicate in a register above common ‘street’ Arabic.

Additionally, as we ran through the Measure III conjugation of the verb h-SH-M, he provided us with an interesting tidbit of historical AND personal revelation.  (I’m using lowercase ‘h’ here to separate between the two Arabic H’s, fyi, this one being the softer).

Opening my trusty Hans Wehr dictionary, the root h-SH-M means, in Measure I,  ‘to destroy’ ‘to smash’ ‘to crush’ or ‘to shatter.’  Hans Wehr doesn’t offer a verb for Measure III, but the Musdar, or verbal noun, that comes from it yields our modern day Hashemite (as in the tribe, which now rules in both Jordan and Morocco and traces its ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad).  Lest we imagine that Hashemite refers to some ability to smash or destroy in a physical or martial way we must point out that Measure III, from which this Musdar comes, is participatory, changing the base meaning the verb to render something more like: ‘to smash with someone’ or, in this specific case, ‘to break bread with someone.’  Thus, historically, the Hashemites get their name from being the hosts of the sacred area in Mecca, those with whom pilgrims would break bread.

Taking this one step further, my professor’s first name is Hisham.  This also comes from Measure III of h-SH-M, but from a variant of the Musdar that differentiates between ‘completed’ and ‘in-process’ or ‘trying-to-complete’ action.  So, while (to my knowledge) Professor Hisham isn’t a member of either the Moroccan or Jordanian royal families, fittingly enough for us students, we could at least consider him our definite and complete ‘breaker’ ‘smasher’ ‘shatterer’ or ‘crusher’.  He isn’t just trying to break bread here.  He’s wholly successful.

I will remember that next time we get a grammar test.

 


Beautiful Grammar(?) — Sura Ya-Sin 36:37

Two words that should probably never go together:  beautiful and grammar.

However, one of my courses this semester, called “The Language of the Quran,” aims at just that very thing, connecting the two.  And today, at least in some small measure, it succeeded to awe, if not (quite yet) to make the music of the particular grammatical point ring in my mind.  The Quran is known to be an evocative text, imbued with a magic in its tone and a particular depth of meaning that leads men to devote their lives to its study.  Some small glimpse into the mechanisms behind that power is all I ask of this course, or of myself, with what Arabic I possess.  To capture some idea, in English, of one example from among many covered already in two days of class, will be something of a challenge, but hopefully worthwhile, removing the taint of NQR from this link between beauty and grammar.

Today we were looking into metaphor, the various types of it.  As we disected the following example, posted on the blackboard by Professor Hisham Mahmoud, the complexity and multivalent functioning of the metaphorical devices suddenly sprang into stark relief.  I will outline them.

First, the verse itself:

Tranliterated into something vaguely pronouncable in English, this script may be rendered:

Waayatun lahumu allaylu naslakhuminhu alnnahara fa-itha hum muthlimoona

This may be translated, in its words but not in the depth of its meaning, as:  “A sign for them is the Night.  We skin from it the day and, behold, they are darkened.”

On the first functional level the type of metaphor exemplied by this Sura is one in which an unstated object receives a comparison.  Here the unstated object is an animal’s body from which God peels back, or flays, the skin.  This action is related back to the Night and the Day as a sign of the power of God.  In itself, the metaphor presents a powerful, primordial image, the idea of Day being peeled back from the heavens (each and every day) so that Night shines through, showing man a substance more base and more fundamental than the veiling brightness of the sun, an image that evokes, for me, a particular gloaming beauty when the raw heavens transcend or reveal themselves lucidly through what, at first, seemed substantial (the sky) but suddenly and magically dissolved into insubstantiality.

This works, this image.  It grabs me by the guts, just as if I am the one being flayed or as if I am sitting on a hill in childhood idyll watching the sunset, a Shel Silverstein moment.  But the use of metaphor doesn’t stop at this single comparison.  As the class looked at this example, we realized a second level of metaphor fills the verse, a very intentional deepening.  Both the terms Day and Night are, themselves, metaphorical, a different type of metaphor, or an allusion, a type called kinaya in Arabic. Here, Day refers to the believing man’s understanding or grace or God’s mercy and compassion therein, His plan and His foreknowledge to bring man toward enlightenment.  The Night represents the reverse, or the fundamental state of ignorance in which man begins and to which he returns if he should not accept the guidance of day, if he should not accept the revelation of his base substance via the hand at work, which is, in the Quran’s parlance, the Word of God.

Dismissing, not even yet thinking about the elements of poetry in the sound of the Arabic words themselves, assonance, consonance and the like, the allusion and the mutliplicity of metaphor here, in this one single example from among many, should convey some of the power (and some of the difficulty) inherent in reading and comprehending the Quran.  To hear it chanted, or spoken, recited by an expert, the mind attuned to such sounds can slip away, letting the metaphor operate subliminally and the words flow.

Beauty + grammar = a deep operation on the psyche and the Id, a powerful insight into one among many ways in which the Quran serves as a self-sufficient example, or sign, of its own holiness.


Self-critique through Sudanese Art

While staying in Khartoum last year the lobby of my hotel was liberally sprinkled with very nice oil paintings, all floor-mounted like some sort of temporary bazaar, though without the artist there personally hawking his wares.

The particular piece below intrigued me more than any other and I stopped in front of it at least four or five separate times, contemplating it as a purchase — how to ship it back to Oman, whether the meagre price of $300 justified it (certainly, in retrospect, the price seems right!) — and contemplating also, at the same time, though more subliminally, the reasons I felt so drawn to it.  In the end I merely took a picture of it, wanting to look at it again in the future, like now.  Perhaps, during this coming summer, I’ll try my hand at painting a version of it myself (though in acrylics rather than the touchier, more drawn-out oils).  For now, I find it interesting to once more look at it and, having gained a bit of time and distance for self-study and for processing the experience of Sudan, I’d like to list the reasons (some of them NQR) that this particular image engrosses me.

Oil painting of a Sudanese market.

Reasons I like this painting:

1.  Color scheme — First, and most obvious from a distance, the color-scheme is a cooling one.  It contrasts markedly against the actual experience of Sudan, which is (or was for me) one of incredible bustle, dust, noise, and heat.  As such, this scene reveals the artist’s fantasy of what Sudan should be, not what it actually is.  Perhaps that is the primary attraction for me, a romanticized, Oriental idea of what Sudan might be.  On the other hand, just maybe on some perfect spring or winter evening with the light diminished, slanting through massed urbanity, a person might actually witness these shades.  Also, beneath the purples and blues and blacks, a latent heat remains, or I am reminded of this heat’s presence by the very fact of its absence, like a heart grown suddenly fond of what it would, when subjected to full and direct confrontation, undoubtedly consider a blinding and hurtful truth.

2.  Perspective — The thoroughfare in the foreground spreads horizontally while the maze of the market, the depths of the market, open with the single focus of a grade-schooler’s first attempts at perspective art, buildings getting smaller, smaller, as they recede toward a central vanishing point, people reduced in the crowd to heads and shoulders and shapes that subjectively might mean ‘human’ or ’emptiness’ or ‘wall’ depending on the way the eye sees each particular blotch of color, each shape and thrust of flattened object.  This again brings me toward the Orientalist fantasy of standing outside yet being permitted to gaze at the interior, to wander the maze, to drown oneself in the thriving exotica of a place ultimately foreign.  It is voyeurism taken to a second remove, the first being the situation of the canvas vis-a-vis the captured scene, outside the market; the second being the even more comfortable distance between viewing art and standing in actual living reality in such a scene, having that scene transformed, robbed of its grosser sounds and visions, simplified, idealized.

3.  Homogeneity / Anonymity — The people are faceless.  The buidlings largely nondescript.  And each of these, building or human, seems constructed on a theme, of one part, one mold, variation but only within defined parameters.  In truth, Sudan (and Khartoum especially) vibrate with advertising, with striving, with differentiation, everything from Bob Marley t-shirts to traditional dishdashas like those the people in this market painting wear.  Does such a market actually exist, still devoid (or ever devoid) of the capitalist slogan, the Coca-Cola sign, the Marlboro horseman, the vendor calling out to each pedestrian so that he might sell his kebabs, his falafel, his magazines, his boxes of cheap tissue?  With the self so foremost in every Western mind, the idea of this anonymity is yet another fantasy:  who am I to think myself different, unique, and better?

4.  Shadow — This might have been the first thing to draw me to the photo.  The short shadows at the feet of the marketgoers.  They speak to a noonday business, to heat, betraying heat despite the change of the color to purple and black.  The shadows quaver on the ground.  They seem to move, illusions, mirages.  And the dusty ground drinks each shadow into itself, not letting it spill further than a few feet, not letting it spread a black and definite edge to the height of the shadow-maker’s head.  A sense of comfort hides in these shadows, so different than the Western mentality, which wants nothing to be left mysterious, everything to be exposed to the glare of science.   The Arabic expression itself, which is — contrary to our version of “Shed some light on the subject” — usually rendered “In the shade of that . . .” speaks to this altered perception of shade=good, sun=bad; secrets=good, too-much-truth=bad, dangerous, and absent of the very stuff that makes life worth living — surprise, serendipity, mystery, awe, love, abode.

5.  Texture — The whole paiting has a smoothness to it, empty planes, empty shapes that slide one into another.  Yet there is another texture at work too, on the edges, the faces of the buildings.  This texture nods toward Klimt, enlivening while also reducing the buildings to abstractions, to canvasses themselves, to dreams.  These textures capture dirt, graffiti, mildew, and decay and turn them into art, which is, I believe, a higher purpose for the artist, to ennoble sight, to turn sight into a better seeing.  It makes me take a step back, when I recoil at an old and worn-out metropolitan’ filth, to see in it the marks of so many people, incessantly worrying, hurrying, to-ing and fro-ing, but in art made still and made to behave as if each mark of passage has become a hieroglyph, a telltale sign, a signature, a sweetness.  These textures occur on the edges of the painting, leaving the inside, the maze, pure and empty, an unwritten page for the mind’s eye.

I could look at this painting all day, which is a criterion for greatness in my book.  All its portions of NQR — the fantasy, the unreality, the untruth — add up to a whole for me far greater than any one individual lie.


Massively Corrupt Translation

Obverse Arabic; reverse sporting Sanskrit.

When two powerful but rather mutually exclusive cultures come into contact (and here I’m not talking about West/East in the present day), strange things happen between their languages.  In one of my courses this semester I am studying the power dynamics of such linguistic interplay.  But this particular example comes from an Islamic history lesson on the Mughal rulers of northern India given by Professor Michael Cook.  In those particular days amazing levels of not only corruption but also of creation, of mistranslated openness, accidental syncretism, can be found between the Muslim rulers and their Hindu population.  I deal here with a few words written in the Śārada script (a version of Sanskrit) on a coin struck in Lahore during the reign Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 998 – 1030 CE).

The words are: 

avyaktam-eka muhammada avatāra npati mahamūda

~

This phrase, roughly decoded, is meant to replicate the Islamic shadada, or Profession of Faith, which occupies the central space on the front of the coin:

لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله (lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh, Muḥammad rasūlu l-Lāh)

In English:  There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.

~

However, things go very badly for the translation, at least if read from a Muslim theological viewpoint (rather than from the perspective of the Sultanate’s colonized Hindi subjects).

First, for fans of James Cameron, the word avatāra surely jumps out from the Sanskrit.  What has this to do with Muhammad?  Are Mahmud’s medieval translators depicting the Prophet of Islam as a giant blue-spackled centaur from a planet far, far away?  No.  This is the word chosen in the inscription to represent the Arabic rasūlu:  Messenger, or Prophet.  Except, in the Sanskrit, the term carries with it connotations less relevant to an earthly messenger and much more indicative of an incarnation, a reincarnation.  Definitely not an Islamic concept.

Next, the opening phrase avyaktam-eka stands in for the Arabic lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh — ‘There is no god but God.’  Again, the translation takes great liberties.  What we have is something much closer to “Invisible and One” or “Unmanifested and One.”  Furthermore, the Sanskrit employs a neutered case ending rather than a masculine ending, definitely changing the anthropomorphic, masculine Islamic deity into an ungendered metaphysical concept patterned strongly on the Vedas or Upanishads.

It is also worth noting that Sanskrit possessed a perfectly well-established and well-understood word for God:  deva Surprising, very surprising, not to see that word used in this inscription.  My professor hypothesized that the decision not to use deva in the inscription might be linked to Sultan Mahmud’s other courtly language, Persian.  There, the word deva sounds suspiciously like the Farsi div, which means demon.  Should Sultan Mahmud have chosen a translation that included the word deva as a stand in for God instead of avyaktam, his Persian courtiers would have been very offended indeed to hear a Śārada-Sanskrit version of the Profession of Faith that sounded, to them, like ‘There is no demon but demon . . .’

Finally, the word npati means something roughly equivalent to king, lord of men, prince, or sovereign, none of which are titles the Prophet Muhammad claimed, though subsequent Caliphs called themselves Leaders of the Faithful, Amir al-Mumineen.  At the expense of an authentic translation of the shahada, it seems Sultan Mahmud opted to use the very small, very precious space of this coin to remind his subjects of his place in their earthly dominion.

In the end, the coins issued by the Islamic Sultan Mahmud of Lahore, to the great edification of his Hindi subjects, portrayed the Profession of Faith in terms not so different from the way they already thought about the world, blending the language of Islam into a new and entirely different, entirely strange conception of the central tenet of the new religion:

The Unmanifested and One incarnate King Muhammad.

~

It’s not quite Hinduism.  It’s certainly not Islam.  And, doubtlessly, such a translation qualifies for mention on NQR.

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*Credit for the Śārada translations to E.A. Davidovich and A.H. Dani, “Coinage and the Monetary System” in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. 4., UNESCO Publishing, 1988, page 414.

 

 


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.


Dhow Construction

Fishing boats in the inner harbor, Sur.

The port of Sur, Oman is one of the few places in the world still engaged in manufacturing traditional dhows, the famous merchant ships of Arabia with slanting lateen-rigged sails and stitched, rather than nailed or pegged, fastenings for their wooden plank sides.  Used for many centuries as the main cargo and fishing ships on the Indian Ocean, plying routes from Africa to India and all up and down the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, these vessels recall a pearl-diving, pirate-infested culture now largely subsumed by oil revenues, Ferraris, and a smattering of folks still interested in traditional culture (mostly tourists and Omani/Emirate/Bahrani/Kuwaiti history-buffs).

The hand-carved scrollwork on the back of this dhow displays some beautiful lacquer.

Sur is a great destination for the traveler interested in seeing dhows because the huge inner harbor is lined, near its entrance, with various dockyards and carpentry shops planing the boards, tarring the decks, and building, from the ground-up, ships propped on slanting rails ready to be launched into the water.

The workshops aren’t necessarily ‘open’ and no guided tours are available but people in Sur are friendly and will gladly show a tourist around.

A worker at the dockyards builds a scale model as a plan for a new dhow.

What is, perhaps, NQR, about the entire industry of dhow building — now largely outmoded by fiberglass fishing boats and huge metal-hulled cargo ships — is that most of the production depends on the interest of western tourists, our fascination with a romantic image of the orient that includes swarthy pirates and the travels of Sinbad (who hails, traditionally, from Sohar, just up the coast in Oman).  One wonders if any but a few dhows, moored as cultural relics, would exist if it weren’t for western tourists wanting to go for a dive, a swim, or a party picnic aboard these high-decked beauties of a time gone-by.

My children aboard a dhow, ready to go snorkeling. This one appeared to have been built with pegs rather than sewing. It also had a diesel motor rather than a lateen sail. Sort of a quasi-dhow.

 


Terrible Product Name – Fierce ANL Fuse

Found this one just now, while searching for a car adaptor for my kids’ Wii video game system.

Since, earlier, I posted some weird company names from the Middle East — Butt Sweet House, Mohammad Ibrahim Law Firm (which advertises using its acronym), and Coq Magique — I thought it would only be fair to show an American counterpart.  What’s more, there is absolutely no reason, no language barrier, no cultural misunderstanding, that should allow such a name as this to ever, ever hit the market.  Pure copywriting failure.

The image speaks for itself.  Enjoy.

"Fierce ANL Fuse" proudly sold at a Best Buy near you.


The National Symbol of Oman

While Oman’s true national symbol is the khanjar, a wickedly curved knife in a gilt silver scabbard still worn on formal occasions (equivalent of a black-tie dinner for us in the West), a close second might be the Incense Burner.  The Frankincense trade originated in southern Oman, Salalah Governate, and therefore, in almost any local market the smell of burning incense quickly overwhelms a visitor whose palate is unaccustomed to such a fug.

Three-storey incense burner at Riyam Park. If lit it might serve as a nice emergency lighthouse for shipping in the Gulf of Oman.

As part of the national effort to enshrine the Incence Burner, several years ago the Muscat Governate erected a giant white statue of a burner on a headland between Old Muscat and Mutrah, in the vicinity of Riyam Park.  When visitors first drive past this monument, heads turn.  Is it a spaceship?  Modern art?  A relic of some misguided brutalist 70’s architectural campaign?  It’s weird, sure, but soon it blends into the background, a part of Muscat, a landmark useful for navigating around town, with people saying stuff like:  “You know where the Incense Burner is?” rather than “Near Riyam Park.”

One might think this is weird, sure, Not Quite Right, certainly.  But we should remember that an Omani is likely to find our kitschy American fascination with something like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a huge statue of a spoon and cherry equally odd.