Meanderings & mawqifs of poetry, poetics, translations y mas. Travelogue too.

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Uri Avnery on Israel & the Iran Treaty

July 18th, 2015 · Iran, Israel

UriavneryUri Avnery
July 18, 2015

The Treaty

AND WHAT if the whole drama was only an exercise of deception?

What if the wily Persians did not even dream of building an atomic bomb, but used the threat to further their real aims?

What if Binyamin Netanyahu was duped to become unwittingly the main collaborator of Iranian ambitions?

Sounds crazy? Not really. Let’s have a look at the facts.

IRAN IS one of the oldest powers in the world, with thousands of years of political experience. Once they possessed an empire that spanned the civilized world, including our little country. Their reputation for clever trade practices is unequaled.

They are much too clever to build a nuclear weapon. What for? It would devour huge amounts of money. They know that they would never be able to use it. Same as Israel, with its large stockpile.

Netanyahu’s nightmare of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel is just that – a nightmare (or daymare) of an ignorant dilettante. Israel is a nuclear power with a solid second-strike capability. As we see, the Iranian leaders are hard-boiled realists. Would they even dream of inviting an inevitable Israeli retaliation that would wipe from the face of the earth their three-millennia-old civilization?

(If this capability is defective, Netanyahu should be charged and convicted for criminal negligence.)

Even if the Iranians did deceive the whole world and build a nuclear bomb, nothing would happen except the creation of a “balance of terror”, such as saved the world at the height of the cold war between America and Russia.

The people around Netanyahu pretend to believe that, unlike the then Soviets, the Iranian mullahs are crazy people. There is absolutely no evidence for that. Since their 1979 revolution, the Iranian leadership has not made one single important step that was not absolutely rational. Compared to American missteps in the region (not to mention the Israeli ones), the Iranian leadership has been thoroughly logical.

So perhaps they traded their nonexistent nuclear designs for their very real political design: to become the hegemon of the Muslim world.

If so, they owe a lot to Netanyahu.

WHAT HAS the Islamic Republic ever done in its 45 years of existence to harm Israel?

Sure. Tehran crowds can be seen on television burning Israeli flags and shouting “Death to Israel”. They call us, not flatteringly, “the Little Satan”, as compared to the American “Great Satan”.

Terrible. But what else?

Not much. Perhaps some support for Hezbollah and Hamas, which were not their creation. Iran’s real fight is against the powers that be in the Muslim world. They want to turn the region’s countries into Iranian vassals, as they were 2400 years ago.

This has very little to do with Islam. Iran uses Islam as Israel uses Zionism and the Jewish Diaspora (and as Russia in the past used communism) as a tool for its imperial ambitions.

What is happening now in this region resembles the “religious wars” in 17th century Europe. A dozen countries fought each other in the name of religion, under the flags of Catholicism and Protestantism, but in reality using religion to further their very earthly imperial designs.

The US, led by a bunch of neocon fools, destroyed Iraq, which for many centuries had served as the bulwark of the Arab world against Iranian expansion. Now, under the banner of the Shia, Iran is expanding its power all over the Region.

Shiite Iraq is now to a large extent an Iranian vassal (we’ll come back to Daesh). The leaders of Syria, a Sunni country ruled by a small semi-Shiite sect, depend on Iran for their survival. In Lebanon, the Shiite Hezbollah is a close ally with growing power and prestige. So is Hamas in Gaza, which is entirely Sunni. And the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are Zaidis (a school of the Shia.)

The status quo in the Arab world is defended by a corrupt bunch of dictators and medieval sheiks, such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf oil potentates.

Clearly, Iran and its allies are the wave of the future, Saudi Arabia and its allies belong to the past.

That leaves Daesh, the Sunni “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq. That is also a rising power. Unlike Iran, whose revolutionary élan long ago exhausted itself, Daesh is radiating revolutionary fervor, attracting adherents from all over the world.

Daesh is the real enemy of Iran – and of Israel.

PRESIDENT OBAMA and his advisors realized this some time ago. Their new alliance with Iran is partly based on this reality.

With the advent of Daesh, realities on the ground have changed completely. The shift reaffirms the old British maxim that one’s enemies in one war can well become one’s allies in the next, and vice versa. Far from being naïve, Obama is building an alliance against the new and very dangerous enemy. This alliance should logically include Bashar Assad’s Syria, but Obama is still afraid of saying so aloud.

Obama and his advisors also believe that with the lifting of the crippling sanctions, Iranians will concentrate on making money, lessening their nationalist and religious fervor even more. That sounds reasonable enough.

(Netanyahu thinks the American people are “naïve”. Well, for a naïve nation the US has done quite well in becoming the world’s only super-power.)

One by-product of the situation is that Israel is again at loggerheads with the entire political world. The Vienna treaty was signed not just by the US, but by all leading world powers. This seems to create the situation described by a jolly popular Israeli song: “The whole world is against us / But we don’t give a damn…”

Unfortunately, unlike Obama, Netanyahu is stuck in the past. He continues demonizing Iran, instead of joining it in the fight against Daesh, which is far, far more dangerous to Israel.

One does not have to go back to Cyrus the Great (6th century B.C.) to realize that Iran can be a close ally. In the relations between nations, geography trumps religion. Not so long ago, Iran was Israel’s closest ally in the region. We even sent Khomeini arms to fight Iraq. The Mullahs hate Israel not so much because of their religion, but because of our alliance with the Shah.

The present Iranian regime has long since lost its revolutionary religious fervor. It is acting according to its national interests. Geography still counts. A wise Israeli government would use the next ten-or-more years of a guaranteed nuclear-free Iran in order to renew the alliance – especially against Daesh.

This could mean new relations with Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas too.

BUT SUCH far-reaching considerations are far from the mind of Netanyahu, the son of a historian, who is devoid of any historical knowledge or intuition.

The fight is now going to Washington DC, where Netanyahu will be fully committed as a mercenary of Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Republican Party.

It is a sorry sight: the State of Israel, which has always enjoyed the full unblinking support of both American parties, has become an appendix of the reactionary Republican leadership.

One victim of this is the legend of the “invincible” pro-Israeli lobby. This crucial asset has now been lost. From now on, AIPAC will be just one of the many lobbies on Capitol Hill.

AN EVEN sorrier sight is Israel’s political and media elite on the morrow of the signing of the Vienna treaty. It was almost incredible.

Almost all political parties fell in line with Netanyahu’s policy, competing with each other in their demonstrations of abject loyalty. From the “leader of the opposition”, the pitiful Yitzhak Herzog, to the voluble Yair Lapid, everybody rushed to support the Prime Minister at this crucial hour.

The media were even worse. Almost all prominent commentators, left and right, ran amok against the ‘disastrous” treaty and heaped their uniform disgust and contempt on poor Obama, as if reading from a prepared government “list of arguments” (as indeed they were).

Not the finest hour of Israeli democracy and the much lauded “Jewish brain”. Just a despicable example of all-too-common brain-washing. Some would call it presstitution.

One of Netanyahu’s arguments is that the Iranians can and will cheat the naive Americans and build the bomb. He is sure that this is possible. Well, he should know. We did it, didn’t we?

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Gad Hollander: Diary of a Sane Man

July 17th, 2015 · Film

Diary of a Sane Man from Gad Hollander on Vimeo.

This classic feature-length experimental film was first shown in the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival in 1990. It was broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 in 1990 & 1991 in the suitably named Midnight Underground slot. Since then it has never again been publicly screened. Classic!

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Joris Radio-Talk on Celan’s Poetry

July 16th, 2015 · Poetry, Radio, Talk, Translation

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2015 National Translation Award Longlist in Poetry!

July 16th, 2015 · Poetry, Translation

Happy to announce that my Paul Celan – Breathturn into Timestead made the ALTA longlist!

The American Literary Translators Association is pleased to announce the 12-title longlists for the 2015 National Translation Awards in Poetry and Prose. Prose Longlist here!

This is the seventeenth year for the NTA, which is administered by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), and the first year to award separate prizes in poetry and prose. The NTA is the only national award for translated fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction that includes a rigorous examination of the source text and its relation to the finished English work.

Featuring authors writing in 11 different languages, from 12 countries, this year’s longlists expand the prize’s dedication to literary diversity in English.

Books eligible for this year’s award include titles published anywhere in the world in the previous calendar year (2014) that were translated into English. The selection criteria include both the quality of the finished English language book, and the quality of the translation.

This year’s judges for poetry are Lisa Rose Bradford, Stephen Kessler, and Diana Thow.

The winning translators will receive a $5,000 cash prize, and the award will be announced at ALTA’s annual conference, which will be held this year at the Marriott University Park in Tucson AZ from Oct. 28-31, 2015.

The 5-title shortlists will be announced in September. In the meantime, ALTA will highlight each book on the longlist with features written by the judges, on the ALTA blog.

The 2015 NTA Longlist in Poetry
(in alphabetical order by author):

Acquelin-AbsoluteThe Absolute Is A Round Die
by Jose Acquelin (Canada)
Translated from the French by Hugh Hazelton
(Guernica Editions)

Attanasio-AmnesiaAmnesia of the Movement of Clouds & Of Red and Black Verse
by Maria Attanasio (Italy)
Translated from the Italian by Carla Billitteri
(Litmus Press)

Celan-BreathturnBreathturn into Timestead
by Paul Celan (Romania)
Translated from the German by Pierre Joris
(Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Darwish-Nothing-More-to-Lose_1024x1024Nothing More to Lose
by Najwan Darwish (Palestine)
Translated from the Arabic by Karreem James Abu-Zeid
(New York Review Books)

Dopplet-LazySuzie_cover_WEB_FINAL-1Lazy Suzie
by Suzanne Doppelt (France)
Translated from the French by Cole Swensen
(Litmus Press)

978-0-9856122-7-6Guarding the Air: Selected Poems of Gunnar Harding
by Gunnar Harding (Sweden)
Translated from the Swedish by Roger Greenwald
(Black Widow Press)

MandelstamPoems of Osip Mandelstam
by Osip Mandelstam (Russia)
Translated from the Russian by Peter France
(New Directions)

.Wallless Space
by Ernst Meister (Germany)
Translated from the German by Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick
(Wave Books)

Merle-ElsewhereElsewhere on Earth
by Emmanuel Merle (France)
Translated from the French by Peter Brown
(Guernica Editions)

Ovid-OffenseThe Offense of Love: Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amoris, and Tristia II
by Ovid (Rome)
Translated from the Latin by Julia Dyson Hejduk
(University of Wisconsin Press)

Ruebner Dust Jacket.inddIn the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner
by Tuvia Ruebner (Slovakia)
Translated from the Hebrew by Rachel Tzvia Back
(University of Pittsburgh Press)

by José-Flore Tappy (Switzerland)
Translated from the French by John Taylor
(The Bitter Oleander Press)

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‘Many, Many Works of Wonder’: Beyond the Classic Classics

July 15th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Language, Literature, Translation

downloadvia the always great Arabic Literature (in English)
BY MLYNXQUALEY on JULY 14, 2015 • ( 0 )

The fifth session of “A Corpus Not a Canon: A Workshop on the Library of Arabic Literature,” a panel series hosted by Dame Marina Warner and LAL General Editor Philip Kennedy at All Souls College, Oxford in April, focused on “LAL’s remit, ambition, and complexity.”

Philip Kennedy and Richard Sieburth led a discussion that included Humphrey Davies, Marilyn Booth, Robyn Creswell, and Roger Allen. The books in focus were Leg over Leg, by Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, edited and translated by Humphrey Davies; and What ‘Isa Told Us, Or, A Period of Time, by Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī, edited and translated by Roger Allen.

A discussion of this session will continue next week, insha’allah.

“Classical Arabic literature” usually evokes a Baghdad-centered Golden Age, a far-off period of poetry and sophisticated manners that’s followed by an immense Dark Ages, only imperfectly lightened by the early twentieth century nahda, or renaissance. This framing of Arab and Islamic history was questioned explicitly during the LAL workshop’s first session and implicitly during the fifth session. There, instead of a focus on Golden Age works as representative of the Library’s “remit, ambition, and complexity,” workshop participants looked at two nineteenth- and early twentieth-century texts.

“I’m delighted that LAL from the start has very much embraced the nineteenth century as part of its remit,” Marilyn Booth said during her presentation, which focused mostly on al-Shidyāq’s Leg over Leg. “I think that’s really important. Right now, there’s something of a nineteenth-century turn in modern literary studies of the Arab region, and also the Turkish and Persian regions.

“This is a time that, until recently, I think was seen as something of a dead letter,” Booth said. “And now that’s changing. There are many, many works of wonder from that period to read and explore.”

But while the two works discussed during the fifth session share a time period, they’re markedly different in construction and ambition. Leg over Leg attracted the majority of the discussants’ attention and could, as Philip Kennedy noted, have been the focus of an entire day’s workshop. The book, translated by Humphrey Davies and published in four volumes, is a major creative work that reads as relevant now as it did in 1855, challenging our ideas of modernity, literary influence, gender, and genre. Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī’s What ‘Isa Told Us, or, A Period of Time, meanwhile, is a popular and influential collection of newspaper essays originally published in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Translator-editor Roger Allen called the two-volume set a “bridge work,” linking the earlier Arabic corpus with other, newer forms.

Al-Shidyāq’s work, on the other hand, is almost certainly not a bridge; indeed, al-Shidyāq challenges the idea of literary bridge-ness. But both writers were intellectuals connected to earlier forms as scholars and readers; both were familiar with European travels and literature; both were involved with newspapers and the new types of printing; both engaged Arab and European realities.

The relationship with Europe

Much of the attention to Leg over Leg has focused on its relationships with European texts, as indeed has been the case with other key Arabic texts, such as al-Maʿarrī’s Epistle of Forgiveness. But Creswell, in his presentation, said he was less interested in the search for European “sources” for Leg over Leg. This search, he said, “strikes me as a way of mitigating the novel’s essential strangeness.” But he didn’t forgo comparisons: He focused on a key formal difference between Leg over Leg and Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, which was the manner of digression. In Tristam Shandy, he said, digressions are contextual, while in Leg over Leg, they’re philological.

Al-Shidyāq, Creswell said, “becomes an intellectual by re-imagining the older profession of philologist. Rather than being a commentator on authorized texts, he makes himself into a commentator on the world around him.”

In the end, Creswell likened al-Shidyāq to a later set of European writers: “He estranges his own language by opening it up to its own past. It is this task of renewing language by archaicizing it that makes for common ground between Shidyāq and somewhat later European modernists like Pound and Yeats, who sought to make it new by making it old.”

Al-Muwayliḥī, who wrote half a century after al-Shidyāq, had a different relationship with European texts, and his comments on European habits came through a filter of the British occupation of Egypt and as a participant in struggles over power and influence. Al-Shidyāq, meanwhile, stood as an independent observer.

“There are pages [of Leg over Leg] on England that sound almost like Engels on Manchester and the working class, published in 1845,” Sieburth said. As for al-Shidyāq’s descriptions of Paris: “I would use [them] in a ‘representations of Paris in literature’ course.”

“There are bits of social history here, and discussions of, for example, the specificities of French latrines that I haven’t found in Hugo or Balzac or the British travelers.”

In other ways, Al-Shidyāq’s work stands out from other nineteenth-century texts, or other literary works in general, Sieburth said: “Rarely have I read a work that is this profoundly corporeal, that is founded in the body of language. Its vocalizations, its sound structures. A body whose verbal flesh and blood and shit and sperm and farts and belches are physically inscribed on the page in a form of lists and lexicographical riffs.”

Meanwhile, al-Muwayliḥī showed a greater anxiety about European opinion. Al-Muwayliḥī’s description of Paris, which was removed from the “school-ready” editions of his book, show a prudishness that’s foreign to Leg over Leg. In this section, al-Muwayliḥī describes the Egypt exhibit at a Paris fair, which he finds full of “lewd women” and gaming. “When we got inside, we almost died of shock.” This sort of exhibit, al-Muwayliḥī wrote, “only served to make other people look down on Egypt with contempt.”

The two texts offer different visions of Europe—one more independent, and one that became an “official” view, stamped with the approval of becoming a school-exam text.

The tradition and untranslatability

Booth and Creswell both called Leg over Leg a blueprint for LAL’s remit. One of the senses in which it functions as a guide is in its apparent “untranslatability.” As Kennedy noted, “If there are works that fit into that scheme [of untranslatability], then certainly Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq [Leg over Leg] is one.”

Yet Davies, along with his project editor Michael Cooperson, made his heroic job seem possible. “My task as a translator was resolutely focused on breaking it down into discrete tasks and tackling them one by one.”

As in much of classical Arabic literature, rhymed prose was an issue. But in Leg over Leg, Davies said, it was even more important that the translator embrace this challenge.

“Shidyāq was very self-conscious about the fact that he was using rhymed prose, and he didn’t allow the reader to forget it. At one point he says, ‘Rhymed prose is to the writer as a wooden leg to the walker. I must be careful, then, not to rest all my weight on it every time I go for a stroll down the highways of literary expression, lest its vagaries end up cramping my style or it tosses me into a pothole from which I cannot crawl.’”

“It is impossible, clearly, for the translator to skirt the issue,” Davies said. “So I had to sit down and do as much as I could in the way of simple rhyming.”

In the end, the “untranslatable” Mt. Everest of Leg over Leg ended up being translatable after all. The rhyming worked so well, Davies said, that he wondered “if we could work through this series to reintroduce the use of rhymed prose in English.”

Davies shared, as part of his presentation, a satiric poem that was part of Leg over Leg, composed in the style of slavish admiration to the Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Ali. The poem was written on the occasion of the ruler having his body shaved.

Time’s lips parted to reveal a radiant feat,
The day our prince took a bath and was rendered depilate.
His noble nether parts thus appeared less hoary
And poetry, through his pubes, gained in glory.

“It’s fun to do, and it’s worth trying,” Davies said. “And sometimes it works.”

Previous sessions:

A Comparative Balancing Act: Arabic Literature Is from Mars, English Literature from Venus
Re-membering: How to Assemble a Corpus of Classical Arabic Literature
Genre, Anxiety, and the Plurivocality of the Arabic Tradition
Editing Classical Arabic Texts: It’s Not Just Making Buggy Whips

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Arabic Literature Is from Mars, English Literature from Venus:

July 13th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Arabic, Translation

A Comparative Balancing Act

The third session of “A Corpus Not a Canon: A Workshop on the Library of Arabic Literature,” a panel series hosted by Dame Marina Warner and LAL General Editor Philip Kennedy at All Souls College, Oxford in April, focused on “LAL’s importance to comparative literature and ways of reading”:

Marina Warner led a discussion that included comparativists Dominique Jullien, Ros Ballaster, LAL International Advisory Board member Wen-chin Ouyang, and Matthew Reynolds. The books in focus were The Epistle of Forgiveness, by Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, edited and translated by Geert Jan Van Gelder and Gregor Schoeler; and The Principles of Sufism, by ʿĀʾishah al-Bāʿūnīyah, edited and translated by Th. Emil Homerin.

These session overviews will run every Monday from now through July 20, insha’allah:

Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī.

As we started the third session of the Library of Arabic Literature’s April workshop, Marina Warner reminded participants of the difficulty of the task at hand.

In the workshop’s second session, speakers explored the wide range of literary modes and genres that are brought together inside the LAL’s blue jacket. Although these genres overlap with those from other traditions, Warner noted there is still “no easy way” of comparing the distinct literary genres and values of “one cultural language with another.”

Moreover, the texts in focus during the third session aren’t the simplest ones to approach as a contemporary Anglophone reader. The writing explored in the second session would have made an easier entry point, as Two Travel Books reads enough like contemporary Anglophone travel writing, and Ibn al-Sa’ī’s Consorts of the Caliphs may not be thirteenth-century gossip writing, but it can be read that way.

By contrast, Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī’s The Epistle of Forgiveness and ʿĀʾishah al-Bāʿūnīyah’s The Principles of Sufism require placing oneself in a different framework of literary expectations.

Nonetheless, both Matthew Reynolds (who focused on The Epistle) and Ros Ballaster (who focused on The Principles) found interesting points of overlap and tension between their chosen volumes and Western texts. But UCLA comparativist Dominique Jullien, who discussed how the texts would float in the classroom, was less enthusiastic.

“Seen from the point of view of not just the California student, this is literature from Mars,” Jullien said. “It is absolutely and radically alien.”

The Epistle and the Commedia

While acknowledging that previous scholars had been wrong in tracing a direct line of descent between al-Maʿarrī’s Epistle and Dante’s Divina Commedia, Reynolds and Jullien nonetheless found that links between the two works were fruitful.

For Jullien, situating The Epistle vis-a-vis the Commedia was essential, and “despite the inaccuracies,” she felt it was important to talk about al-Maʿarrī as “the Arab Dante.” Or, if one wanted to make the link less normalizing of a European center and Arab periphery, one might call him Dante’s older step-brother.

As Jullien saw it, bits and pieces of The Epistle could be wedged within a comparative course that focused mostly on classical European works. She suggested a course on eschatological tourism, which “in addition to the usual suspects—The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and The Commedia—would have some excerpts by al-Maʿarrī.”

Reynolds, by contrast, was far more excited about The Epistle on its own terms. He first confessed that he had no knowledge of Arabic literature, even in translation, but said of The Epistle: “The good news is, I loved it.”

“It was something new for me, aesthetically,” Reynolds said, noting how different reading this was from reading a text in the European tradition. “You get these conversations that you would expect to be dry, but in fact have tremendous energy behind them. It’s satirical, but it’s also a warm presentation of this character. This is a guy who loves poetry. He loves poetry so much that he’s almost unbearably boring about it. But being boring about it is also kind of admirable, and kind of enjoyable.”

Reynolds went on to give a lively reading from the text, and his manner of reading—the emphases laid [I’m not sure what this means—he was emphasizing certain words but not others? To be honest, I don’t remember him having a particularly unusual manner of reading. Maybe this should be something like “—with emphases laid on particular phrases/words—“)—was a sort of comparativism in itself.

When Reynolds moved on to what a comparativist could do with the text, he also tracked back to Dante’s Commedia. Reynolds was most interested in how The Epistle treated textual transmission and error, and in the differing ways poets are imagined in The Commedia and The Epistle.

“In Dante’s imagining of how poetry would figure in the afterlife, you have this conjuring of an idea of utterance, of a body of work, and a turning of that work into a figure who can speak with authority in the afterlife,” Reynolds said. “But there’s nothing really about misunderstanding and error and textual transmission—and the works having varied as they’ve been recited in different ways. Whereas in this text [The Epistle], that’s where the interest is. Their relationship to their writing is quite different.”

Indeed, it’s tempting to see Dante as having a pre-modern or modern view of textual authority, while al-Maʿarrī’s is decidedly post-modern.

But Reynolds was quick to question the connections he’d made. “On the one hand, the text is appealing to me, and I’m finding something in it that speaks me to. But on the other hand, because I don’t have the right scholarly knowledge, I’m a bit uneasy with this recognition that I have,” he said.

“My imaginative involvement with the text has a value, but it needs to be rebutted as well.”

The Principles of Sufism and Christian female mystics

Oxford scholar of English literature Ros Ballaster also engaged imaginatively with ʿĀʾishah al-Bāʿūnīyah’s The Principles of Sufism, noting that she “thought immediately of the kind of mysticism in the prophetic writings and speech of Christian women…the medieval mystics in Europe.”

Ballaster found a particular resonance between sixteenth-century al-Bāʿūnīyah and the work of seventeenth-century English author Anna Trapnell, seeing in both “an identity that has been set alight through an encounter with the divine,” and in both an attempt “to ignite that audience as well.”

In Ballaster’s view, al-Bāʿūnīyah was less focused on her personal journey than the Christian women mystics. There is almost no mention of al-Bāʿūnīyah’s femaleness in the text, and “there’s no biographical information, no self-reference. In this respect, it reads more like what I would recognize as a conduct book or an instructional work than a spiritual biography of a mystic experience.”

While searching for a section “that gave me ʿĀʾishah’s voice, or her poetry,” Ballaster found such a thing wasn’t easy to find. The mode of writing as re-representation, Ballaster said, felt very different from a contemporary Anglo-European understanding of creativity. This, she noted, could help us shift our ideas of what “creativity” meant in writing.

The fact that al-Bāʿūnīyah didn’t lay emphasis on her gender also had another interest for Ballaster, who noted that the author doesn’t “show any particular sense that the male experts she cites have any more authority than she does. She evidences none of that kind of uncomfortable struggle that I see in Christian women’s mystic writing with male priests and authority figures.”

“There’s much to celebrate in reading a woman’s unproblematic demonstration of her learning,” Ballaster said. “Which is not something I encounter often in the European texts I read.”

Ballaster had some anxiety about reading the text in translation, as it meant she wasn’t able to see “patterns of language that might be visual or sonic.” To her, the poetry read “startlingly like free verse,” although Ballaster knew from the accompanying materials that this reflected the translator’s decisions rather than a lack of strict poetic conventions in the Arabic.

Ballaster added that she connected to some of the text’s more physical metaphors, such as “repentance is a fire in the heart and a rift that never mends” while expressing anxiety that these metaphors might be considered tired or overused in the Arabic tradition.

‘The Arab St. Theresa of Avila, for example’

Each of the panel members had different approaches to what “comparativism” meant when reading these texts, which raised the question: How should (and shouldn’t) non-Arabists approach LAL texts? What sort of local, temporal, or global contexts make for vivid, productive, and enjoyable reading? How should the feeling of a connection—or the lack of a connection—be interrogated?

Jullien felt that making strong links to the European tradition was “an indispensable way in to these texts…if the non-specialist Western reader is to connect in any deep way with these books.” While calling al-Maʿarrī “the Arab Dante,” she referred to al-Bāʿūnīyah as “the Arab St. Theresa of Avila, for example,” and insisted “despite the inaccuracies, that we actually take this sort of thing seriously.”

Jullien felt we must “triangulate Dante and al-Maʿarrī …to inject some relatability into the foreign, into the impenetrability. It really helps.”

Later discussion among workshop participants focused on whether Dante really created an access point for contemporary students, with Sajjad Rizvi suggesting that students were more likely to relate to more contemporary books or films. Al-Bāʿūnīyah’s work could potentially rub up against other spiritual guides, including self-help books, and al-Maʿarrī, as Reynolds noted, with post-modern questionings of textual transmission. Or, to create a different sort of context, Al-Bāʿūnīyah’s spiritual guidebook could be read in the context of her own collection of poetry, Emanations of Grace.

Reynolds’ and Ballaster’s anxieties also point to how it might be productive for comparativist readers to de-center themselves and their own literary traditions.

Wen-chin Ouyang, who was the only speaker on the panel who was also an Arabist, talked about living both inside and outside the Arabic tradition. She echoed what Reynolds found interesting in The Epistle, noting that “there is already,” in the Arabic tradition, “theorizing about reading and modes of writing. And that is a very productive site of thinking more about how to read classical Arabic literature.”

Ouyang also didn’t want us to forget that we were supposed to be enjoying these texts, and this sometimes means letting ourselves flow along with the writer: “There is pleasure of the text, and that pleasure derives…from drifting and not sticking to the point.”

Previous sessions:

Re-membering: How to Assemble a Corpus of Classical Arabic Literature

Genre, Anxiety, and the Plurivocality of the Arabic Tradition

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Piketty: “Germany Has Never Repaid Its Debts…

July 8th, 2015 · Economy, Europe

thomas_piketty_imgsize_M…It Has No Standing To Lecture Other Nations”

In a forceful interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, the star economist Thomas Piketty calls for a major conference on debt. Germany, in particular, should not withhold help from Greece. This interview has been translated from the original German.

Since his successful book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the Frenchman Thomas Piketty has been considered one of the most influential economists in the world. His argument for the redistribution of income and wealth launched a worldwide discussion. In a interview with Georg Blume of DIE ZEIT, he gives his clear opinions on the European debt debate.

DIE ZEIT: Should we Germans be happy that even the French government is aligned with the German dogma of austerity?

Thomas Piketty: Absolutely not. This is neither a reason for France, nor Germany, and especially not for Europe, to be happy. I am much more afraid that the conservatives, especially in Germany, are about to destroy Europe and the European idea, all because of their shocking ignorance of history.

ZEIT: But we Germans have already reckoned with our own history.

Piketty: But not when it comes to repaying debts! Germany’s past, in this respect, should be of great significance to today’s Germans. Look at the history of national debt: Great Britain, Germany, and France were all once in the situation of today’s Greece, and in fact had been far more indebted. The first lesson that we can take from the history of government debt is that we are not facing a brand new problem. There have been many ways to repay debts, and not just one, which is what Berlin and Paris would have the Greeks believe.

ZEIT: But shouldn’t they repay their debts?

Piketty: My book recounts the history of income and wealth, including that of nations. What struck me while I was writing is that Germany is really the single best example of a country that, throughout its history, has never repaid its external debt. Neither after the First nor the Second World War. However, it has frequently made other nations pay up, such as after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when it demanded massive reparations from France and indeed received them. The French state suffered for decades under this debt. The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.

ZEIT: But surely we can’t draw the conclusion that we can do no better today?

Piketty: When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: what a huge joke! Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.

ZEIT: Are you trying to depict states that don’t pay back their debts as winners?

Piketty: Germany is just such a state. But wait: history shows us two ways for an indebted state to leave delinquency. One was demonstrated by the British Empire in the 19th century after its expensive wars with Napoleon. It is the slow method that is now being recommended to Greece. The Empire repaid its debts through strict budgetary discipline. This worked, but it took an extremely long time. For over 100 years, the British gave up two to three percent of their economy to repay its debts, which was more than they spent on schools and education. That didn’t have to happen, and it shouldn’t happen today. The second method is much faster. Germany proved it in the 20th century. Essentially, it consists of three components: inflation, a special tax on private wealth, and debt relief.

ZEIT: So you’re telling us that the German Wirtschaftswunder [“economic miracle”] was based on the same kind of debt relief that we deny Greece today?

Piketty: Exactly. After the war ended in 1945, Germany’s debt amounted to over 200% of its GDP. Ten years later, little of that remained: public debt was less than 20% of GDP. Around the same time, France managed a similarly artful turnaround. We never would have managed this unbelievably fast reduction in debt through the fiscal discipline that we today recommend to Greece. Instead, both of our states employed the second method with the three components that I mentioned, including debt relief. Think about the London Debt Agreement of 1953, where 60% of German foreign debt was cancelled and its internal debts were restructured.

ZEIT: That happened because people recognized that the high reparations demanded of Germany after World War I were one of the causes of the Second World War. People wanted to forgive Germany’s sins this time!

Piketty: Nonsense! This had nothing to do with moral clarity; it was a rational political and economic decision. They correctly recognized that, after large crises that created huge debt loads, at some point people need to look toward the future. We cannot demand that new generations must pay for decades for the mistakes of their parents. The Greeks have, without a doubt, made big mistakes. Until 2009, the government in Athens forged its books. But despite this, the younger generation of Greeks carries no more responsibility for the mistakes of its elders than the younger generation of Germans did in the 1950s and 1960s. We need to look ahead. Europe was founded on debt forgiveness and investment in the future. Not on the idea of endless penance. We need to remember this.

ZEIT: The end of the Second World War was a breakdown of civilization. Europe was a killing field. Today is different.

Piketty: To deny the historical parallels to the postwar period would be wrong. Let’s think about the financial crisis of 2008/2009. This wasn’t just any crisis. It was the biggest financial crisis since 1929. So the comparison is quite valid. This is equally true for the Greek economy: between 2009 and 2015, its GDP has fallen by 25%. This is comparable to the recessions in Germany and France between 1929 and 1935.

ZEIT: Many Germans believe that the Greeks still have not recognized their mistakes and want to continue their free-spending ways.

Piketty: If we had told you Germans in the 1950s that you have not properly recognized your failures, you would still be repaying your debts. Luckily, we were more intelligent than that.

ZEIT: The German Minister of Finance, on the other hand, seems to believe that a Greek exit from the Eurozone could foster greater unity within Europe.

Piketty: If we start kicking states out, then the crisis of confidence in which the Eurozone finds itself today will only worsen. Financial markets will immediately turn on the next country. This would be the beginning of a long, drawn-out period of agony, in whose grasp we risk sacrificing Europe’s social model, its democracy, indeed its civilization on the altar of a conservative, irrational austerity policy.

ZEIT: Do you believe that we Germans aren’t generous enough?

Piketty: What are you talking about? Generous? Currently, Germany is profiting from Greece as it extends loans at comparatively high interest rates.

ZEIT: What solution would you suggest for this crisis?

Piketty: We need a conference on all of Europe’s debts, just like after World War II. A restructuring of all debt, not just in Greece but in several European countries, is inevitable. Just now, we’ve lost six months in the completely intransparent negotiations with Athens. The Eurogroup’s notion that Greece will reach a budgetary surplus of 4% of GDP and will pay back its debts within 30 to 40 years is still on the table. Allegedly, they will reach one percent surplus in 2015, then two percent in 2016, and three and a half percent in 2017. Completely ridiculous! This will never happen. Yet we keep postponing the necessary debate until the cows come home.

ZEIT: And what would happen after the major debt cuts?

Piketty: A new European institution would be required to determine the maximum allowable budget deficit in order to prevent the regrowth of debt. For example, this could be a commmittee in the European Parliament consisting of legislators from national parliaments. Budgetary decisions should not be off-limits to legislatures. To undermine European democracy, which is what Germany is doing today by insisting that states remain in penury under mechanisms that Berlin itself is muscling through, is a grievous mistake.

ZEIT: Your president, François Hollande, recently failed to criticize the fiscal pact.

Piketty: This does not improve anything. If, in past years, decisions in Europe had been reached in more democratic ways, the current austerity policy in Europe would be less strict.

ZEIT: But no political party in France is participating. National sovereignty is considered holy.

Piketty: Indeed, in Germany many more people are entertaining thoughts of reestablishing European democracy, in contrast to France with its countless believers in sovereignty. What’s more, our president still portrays himself as a prisoner of the failed 2005 referendum on a European Constitution, which failed in France. François Hollande does not understand that a lot has changed because of the financial crisis. We have to overcome our own national egoism.

ZEIT: What sort of national egoism do you see in Germany?

Piketty: I think that Germany was greatly shaped by its reunification. It was long feared that it would lead to economic stagnation. But then reunification turned out to be a great success thanks to a functioning social safety net and an intact industrial sector. Meanwhile, Germany has become so proud of its success that it dispenses lectures to all other countries. This is a little infantile. Of course, I understand how important the successful reunification was to the personal history of Chancellor Angela Merkel. But now Germany has to rethink things. Otherwise, its position on the debt crisis will be a grave danger to Europe.

ZEIT: What advice do you have for the Chancellor?

Piketty: Those who want to chase Greece out of the Eurozone today will end up on the trash heap of history. If the Chancellor wants to secure her place in the history books, just like [Helmut] Kohl did during reunification, then she must forge a solution to the Greek question, including a debt conference where we can start with a clean slate. But with renewed, much stronger fiscal discipline.

This interview was translated by Gavin Schalliol.

One year after Tomas Piketty sold a record number of economic textbook paperweights which virtually nobody read past page 26, once again showing the power of constant media hype, the French economist and wealth redistributor is out and about, this time pouring more gasoline on the fire started by the IMF last week when it released the Greek debt sustainability analysis showing Greece needs a 30% haircut, only to be met with stern resistance by, who else, Germany who know very well that should Greece get a debt haircut it will unleash the European dominoes which not even all the bluster and rhetoric of the ECB can halt.

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June 29th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Arabic, Language, Maghreb

Morocco’s “National Coalition for Arabic” is reportedly up in arms over a Ramadan sitcom it says “mocks the Arabic language”; a government minister says speaking formal Arabic causes her “a fever”; a recent report suggests teaching Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, in early primary:

keep-calm-and-love-darija-2An ordinary summer in the struggle over language in Morocco.

Darija* (the language that’s doing the mocking) and Standard Arabic (the language being mocked) are just two of the players in a landscape that also includes French, English, and Tamazight. French and Standard Arabic seem to be associated more with older generations, with English and Darija, or “Moroccan colloquial,” for the young. The language war is also, it seems, a culture war, with the blog“The View from Fez,” quoting a “critic” who suggests “if we speak Standard Arabic we will end up like the Saudis!”

For poets and novelists, these are certainly not small decisions. Most prominent and award-winning Moroccan writers who work in an Arabic continue to write in the standard literary form. Globally celebrated Bensalem Himmich and Mohammed Bennis write in standard Arabic, as does International Prize for Arabic Fiction winner Mohammed Achaari. The prominent Moroccan authors who don’t write in standard Arabic generally write in French. Fewer write in English,  Dutch, or Tamazight. And while there are novels and poetry collections in Darija, there are perhaps no authors who write solely in the langauge.

But as Alexander Elinson wrote in “Darija and Changing Writing Practices in Morocco,” the landscape is nonetheless shifting:

Beginning in the 1970s, but really taking off inthe early to mid-2000s, writing in darija has gained support as serving the practical, political, and artistic needs of a dynamic and multilingual society.

The first-ever prize for literature written in Darija was reportedly offered in 2006, followed by others. Since then, the debate has been growing hotter (or more feverish, perhaps).

Elinson quotes the highly regarded Moroccan literary critic, academic, and novelist Abdelfatteh Kilito as saying that colloquial Egyptian alienates him from a novel, but, for Moroccan literature, “colloquial Arabic . . . as a bearer of [a certain] history and geography, would allow one to recognize a Moroccan work, in Arabic or French, ancient or modern!”

Yet for himself, Kilito wrote in 2013 (trans. Kristin Gee Hickman), reading in Darija is difficult:

I speak colloquial Arabic, I read classical Arabic. My education has, indeed, accustomed me to only reading texts written in French and classical Arabic. There are certainly poems, stories, proverbs in colloquial, but they remain, for me, fundamentally, connected to orality. When I happen to read them, I have a bizarre experience: because of my lack of habit, I start deciphering them as if they were written in a foreign language. As easy as it is to speak in colloquial, reading it is equally laborious and full of obstacles.

Education usually still trumps in determining an author’s language of choice.

There is also yet no standardized orthography for Darija, and critics of its use have pointed to regionalizations, and the multiplicity of words for carrot, for instance. But a growing number of authors have staged novels in the language, with more or less success, including Youssouf Amine Elalamy, Murad ‘Alami, Driss Mesnauoi, and ‘Aziz Regragi. Graphic novels, such as Fatima’s Memories by Safia Ouarezki and Mahmoud Benameur, also create new and fertile ground for Darija.

Many proponents of a literature in Darija, such as celebrated novelist Fouad Laroui, write most of their work in French or another European language. Yet it seems Darija is growing in strength, and unlike in other places where the lament is that “Arabic is dying,” here a new sort of literary production is being born.


Elinson’s “Darija and Changing Writing Practices in Morocco”

Martin Rose’s “Bavures and shibboleths—language in Morocco

*The decision to capitalize Darija is to recognize it as a language.


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Uri Avnery on War Crimes

June 27th, 2015 · Gaza Strip, Israel, Uncategorized

gazaUri Avnery
June 27, 2015

War Crimes? Us???

“WAR IS HELL!” the US general William Tecumseh Sherman famously exclaimed.

War is the business of killing the “enemy”, in order to impose your will on them.

Therefore, “humane war” is an oxymoron.

War itself is a crime. There are few exceptions. I would exempt the war against Nazi Germany, since it was conducted against a regime of mass murderers, led by a psychopathic dictator, who could not be brought to heel by any other means.

This being so, the concept of “war crimes” is dubious. The biggest crime is starting the war in the first place. This is not the business of soldiers, but of political leaders. Yet they are rarely indicted.

THESE PHILOSOPHICAL musings came to me in the wake of the recent UN report on the last Gaza war.

The investigation committee bent over backwards to be “balanced”, and accused both the Israeli army and Hamas in almost equal terms. That, in itself, is problematic.

This was not a war between equals. On one side, the State of Israel, with one of the mightiest armies in the world. On the other side, a stateless population of 1.8 million people, led by a guerrilla organization devoid of any modern arms.

Any equating of such two entities is by definition contrived. Even if both sides committed grievous war crimes, they are not the same. Each must be judged on its own (de)merits.

THE IDEA of “war crimes” is relatively new. It arose during the 30 Years War, which devastated a large part of Central Europe. Many armies took part, and all of them destroyed towns and villages without the slightest compunction. As a result, two thirds of Germany were devastated and a third of the German people was killed.

Hugo de Groot, a Dutchman, argued that even in war, civilized nations are bound by certain limitations. He was not a starry-eyed idealist, divorced from reality. His main principle, as I understand it, was that it makes no sense to forbid actions that help a warring country [or “party”] to pursue the war, but that any cruelty not necessary for the efficient conduct of the war is illegitimate.

This idea took hold. During the 18th century, endless wars were conducted by professional armies, without hurting civilian populations unnecessarily. Wars became “humane”.

Not for long. With the French revolution, war became a matter of mass armies, the protection of civilians slowly eroded, until it disappeared entirely in World War II, when whole cities were destroyed by unlimited aerial bombardment (Dresden and Hamburg) and the atom bomb (Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

Even so, a number of international conventions prohibit war crimes that target civilian populations or hurt the population in occupied territories.

That was the mandate of this committee of investigation.

THE COMMITTEE castigates Hamas for committing war crimes against the Israeli population.

Israelis didn’t need the committee to know that. A large share of Israeli citizens spent hours in shelters during the Gaza war, under the threat of Hamas rockets.

Hamas launched thousands of rockets towards towns and villages in Israel. These were primitive rockets, which could not be aimed at specific targets – like the Dimona nuclear installation or the Ministry of Defense which is located in the center of Tel Aviv. They were meant to terrorize the civilian population into demanding a stop to the attack on the Gaza strip.

They did not achieve this goal because Israel had installed a number of “Iron Dome” counter-rocket batteries, that intercepted almost all rockets heading for civilian targets. Success was almost complete.

If they are brought before the International Court in The Hague, the Hamas leaders will argue that they had no choice: they had no other weapons to oppose the Israeli invasion. As a Palestinian commander once told me: “Give us cannons and fighter planes, and we will not use terrorism.”

The International Court will then have to decide whether a people that is practically under an endless occupation is allowed to use indiscriminate rockets. Considering the principles laid down by de Groot, I wonder what the decision will be.

That goes for terrorism in general, if used by an oppressed people that has no other means of fighting. The black South Africans used terrorism in their fight against the oppressive apartheid regime, and Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in prison for taking part in such acts und refusing to condemn them.

THE CASE against the Israeli government and army is quite different. They have a plentitude of arms, from drones to warplanes to artillery to tanks.

If there was a cardinal war crime in this war, it was the cabinet decision to start it. Because an Israeli arrack on the Gaza Strip makes war crimes unavoidable.

Anyone who has ever been a combat soldier in war knows that war crimes, whether in the most moral or the most base army in the world, do occur in war. No army can avoid recruiting psychologically defective people. In every company there is at least one pathological specimen. If there are not very strict rules, exercised by very strict commanders, crimes will occur.

War brings out the inner man (or woman, nowadays). A well-behaved, educated man will suddenly turn into a ferocious beast. A simple, lowly laborer will reveal himself as a decent, generous human being. Even in the “Most Moral Army in the World” – an oxymoron if there ever was one.

I was a combat soldier in the 1948 war. I have seen an eyeful of crimes, and I have described them in my 1950 book “The Other Side of the Coin”.

THIS GOES for every army. In our army during the last Gaza war, the situation was even worse.

The reasons for the attack on the Gaza Strip were murky. Three Israeli kids were captured by Arab men, obviously for the sake of achieving a prisoner exchange. The Arabs panicked and killed the boys. The Israelis responded, the Palestinians responded, and lo – the cabinet decided on a full-fledged attack.

Our cabinet includes nincompoops, most of whom have no idea what war is. They decided to attack the Gaza Strip.

This decision was the real war crime.

The Gaza Strip is a tiny territory, overcrowded by a bloated population of 1.8 million human beings, about half of them descendents of refugees from areas that became Israel in the 1948 war.

In any circumstances, such an attack was bound to result in a large number of civilian casualties. But another fact made this even worse.

ISRAEL IS a democratic state. Leaders have to be elected by the people. The voters consist of the parents and grandparents of the soldiers, members of both regular and reserve units.

This means that Israel is inordinately sensitive to casualties. If a large number of soldiers are killed in action, the government will fall.

Therefore it is the maxim of the Israeli army to avoid casualties at any cost – any cost to the enemy, that is. To save one soldier, it is permissible to kill ten, twenty, a hundred civilians on the other side.

This rule, unwritten and self-understood, is symbolized by the “Hannibal Procedure” – the code-word for preventing at any cost the taking of an Israeli soldier prisoner. Here, too, a “democratic” principle is at work: no Israeli government can withstand public pressure to release many dozens of Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of one Israeli one. Ergo: prevent a soldier from being taken prisoner, even if the soldier himself is killed in the process.

Hannibal allows – indeed, commands – the wreaking of untold destruction and killing, in order to prevent a captured soldier from being spirited away. This procedure is itself a war crime.

A responsible cabinet, with a minimum of combat experience, would know all this at the moment it was called upon to decide on a military operation. If they don’t know, it is the duty of the army [or “military”] commanders – who are present at such cabinet meetings – to explain it to them. I wonder if they did.

ALL THIS means that, once started, the results were almost unavoidable. To make an attack without serious Israeli casualties possible, entire neighborhoods had to be flattened by drones, planes and artillery. And that obviously happened.

Inhabitants were often warned to flee, and many did. Others did not, being loath to leave behind everything precious to them. Some people flee in the moment of danger, others hope against hope and stay.

I would ask the reader to imagine himself for a moment in such a situation.

Add to this the human element – the mixture of humane and sadistic men, good and bad, you find in any combat unit all over the world, and you get the picture.

Once you start a war, “stuff happens”, as the man said. There may be more war crimes or less, but there will be a lot.

ALL THIS could have been told to the UN committee of inquiry, headed by an American judge, by the chiefs of the Israeli army, had they been allowed to testify. The government did not allow them.

The convenient way out is to proclaim that all UN officials are by nature anti-Semites and Israel-haters, so that answering their questions is counterproductive.

We are moral. We are right. By nature. We can’t help it. Those who accuse us must be anti-Semites. Simple logic.

To hell with them all!

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Pierre Joris & Nicole Peyrafitte at l’ Asile 404…

June 25th, 2015 · Live Reading, Performance, Poetry readings, Uncategorized

in Marseilles with the brilliant Manu Morvan et Thomas Pailharey. Thanks to Denis Brun for the vidéo! It was great fun…see you guys soon again, we hope!

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