“Este año no hay corridas” — “There’ll be no bullfighting this year”

16 May

“Good, I’d rather plow.”

Would you though? Watch what you wish for.


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Barcelona chair: The arrogance of modernism

16 May

In From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe wrote:

“When you saw the holy object on the sisal rug, you knew you were in a household where a fledgeling architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home.”

Yes, but where do we sit?

Interesting link at: Curule seat


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Sella Curulis – Curule seat: Wood carved and gilded. Berlin around 1810. The design probably by Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

Ramzan Mubarak

9 May

…a little late — it’s a full moon already — but this is a letter my friend, Zain Alam shared with all of us at the beginning of the month. I found it really moving.


Dear friends, family, & listeners,

Salaam, and Ramzan Mubarak. Jumma Mubarak to you, too — I hope you’ve had a wonderful end to the week and start of the holy month, however you observe. I’ve been grateful for the twofold opportunity this week to mark the passage of time, as the days start to blend with fewer variations, inside confined spaces that soon become second nature.

Every rise and fall of the sun this Ramzan has taken on new meaning now in the age of social distancing, even though the month has always had its own significance to me over the years: more evenings than usual spent at the mosque, a deeper engagement with the religious and philosophical texts I devoured in grad school, a weekend spent back at home in Kennesaw to childhood iftaars of Mum’s chilled choley and French pastry-like samosey.

But the Ramzan of 2020 will stand out from all Ramzans in memory. It’s not only in this month but in every week that we’ve lost a central part of our practice: to gather with people — ijta’ama, the Arabic root of jumma. Still, I’m grateful that people across the world and Muslims in particular (with some notable exceptions — looking at you, my native Georgia and Pakistan) have given up the privilege of gathering. Together we all strive in the hope that the sacrifice of sharing space may usher in a greater good, a cleansing from what we cannot see that ails the world, unevenly but all over. This will be a long month of fasting for many, and for some it may be a long year to come.

I’m grateful for how this month’s call to focus through fast anchored my ideas of freedom growing up, particularly as we watch some societies with a strong sense of social obligation redefine what it means to be “open,” in comparison with others (like our own) increasingly bound to no ideal other than their own individual liberty. I’m grateful for the attention to presence that Islam instills in the spirit through discipline of the body, especially considering the treasured moments still available to us — breaking bread only with whom we share home, catching up with friends, faces floating and disembodied on our devices.

I’m writing in hopes that there’s some alternative mode of congregation, of conversation that can go beyond likes and forwards, of gathering an archive from texts and prayers and the conversations they birth. While despondent the other night thinking of the now-empty mosques I’ve meditated in across India, Pakistan, and at home in Brooklyn, I remembered the writing of Muhammad Iqbal, the beloved poet-philosopher of the subcontinent.

“Islam is non-territorial in its character, and its aim is to furnish a model for the final combination of humanity by drawing its adherents from a variety of mutually repellent races, and then transforming this atomic aggregate into a people possessing a self-consciousness of their own.”

This passage resonates now even more than it did back in 2013 when I took issue with nationalist, territorial conceptions of “Islamic community” in an undergraduate thesis on the Partition of 1947. Iqbal goes on to quote hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): This whole world is a mosque. My hopes are that this Ramzan I can make my home like a mosque, my mind closer to the self-consciousness of an ummah we all dream of, even when we cannot be with one another in person.

I’m including an essay, song, film, and reporting that I’ve found uplifting in this time of sociopolitical upheaval and spiritual unrest. Some, like the Jean-Louis Michon essay from the Study Quran, I’ve come back to time and time again through the years. Perhaps later on this month I’ll send more selections from the Study Quran, one of my favorite collections of translation, scholarly essays, and commentary on the holy book — the kind of comprehensive treatment needed to grasp the wide breadth of how Muslims experience the Divine, inclusive of its many ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, and gender perspectives.

  • “The Quran and Islamic Art” — an essay by French Muslim and art historian Jean-Louis Michon, accessible but broad in scope on the enduring Muslim quest for beauty, an endeavor all too often missed in discussions of (and sometimes by) us.
  • “Khird Ke Pass” — a sonorous rendition of Iqbal by Sanam Marvi with tasteful, modern production that thankfully stays close to the spirit of the words.
  • Taste of Cherry — a favorite by Abbas Kiarostami that I was surprised to find in full on Youtube which, perhaps not necessarily “Islamic,” is the kind of meditation on storytelling and identity I find useful in this month, especially in a distinctly Persian voice that our government seems hellbent on breaking.
  • “American Muslims face a lonely Ramadan during lockdown” — a wonderful piece of reporting on our predicament here in the US by my cousin Hibah Ansari in the Guardian.

I’d love to hear what you think of these, or better yet, about anything that has moved you in spirit recently, regardless of how you may (or may not) be observing the month.

Longer summer fasts are approaching, and sacrificing time spent with one another will only grow more painful. Replenishing our spiritual reserves — as well as giving all that we can of what we have in time and money — will be paramount. I’ve been giving to Bed-Stuy Strong for their work in my part of Brooklyn, and volunteering my time translating Urdu/Hindi with Mutual Aid NYC, if you’d like to join the efforts of either.

The empty Juma Masjid in Delhi

I hope we soon get to congregate in person, but in the meantime look forward to gathering with you these Ramzan jummeh, even if alone, by sharing what moves us.

Love (& khuda hafiz),

Zain A. —

All creation emanates from Him, its beginning represented by a bulb or seed and its end by a shoot, a flower, or a bud. The occupant of the house is therefore constantly reminded of the omnipresence of God and of the inevitable destiny of mankind.
(– Michon, “The Quran and Islamic Art”)

Zain Alam / Humeysha

Andrew Sullivan takes a swipe at Biden’s crusader #metoo-ism under the reign of Obama

3 May

Very interesting piece on #metoo’s hypocrises and Biden’s own.

What are the rules? Photo: Michael Brochstein / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Money quotes with my emphases:

…I tend to believe women on these matters as a starting point. They have to endure all sorts of exposure and embarrassment for coming forward, and their claims should always be treated respectfully, compassionately, and fairly. It’s been a serious gain for civilized life that women are not routinely ignored or universally trashed for protesting against their assaulters and harassers. Some trust for all women is vital.

But just as vital in a liberal society is verification. I believe strongly in due process, especially with grave allegations of sexual assault. Revolutionaries, like those behind the Shitty Media Men list, don’t care if an individual is unfairly accused because, well, in the grand scheme of things, the ends justify the means. In an otherwise admirable attempt to protect women, their respect for liberalism and its frustrating procedures for establishing guilt or innocence was notable by its absence. In fact, it is liberalism that they see as an impediment to their cause, because it is, to them, a mere mask for oppression.

…Biden was especially prominent in the Obama administration’s overhaul of Title IX treatment of claims of sexual discrimination and harassment on campus. You can listen to Biden’s strident speeches and rhetoric on this question and find not a single smidgen of concern with the rights of the accused. Men in college were to be regarded as guilty before being proven innocent, and stripped of basic rights in their self-defense.

In 2014, the Obama administration issued another guidance for colleges which expanded what “sexual violence” could include, citing “a range of behaviors that are unwanted by the recipient and include remarks about physical appearance; persistent sexual advances that are undesired by the recipient; unwanted touching; and unwanted oral, anal, or vaginal penetration or attempted penetration.” By that standard, ignoring the Reade allegation entirely, Joe Biden has been practicing “sexual violence” for decades: constantly touching women without their prior consent, ruffling and smelling their hair, making comments about their attractiveness, coming up from behind to touch their back or neck. You can see him do it on tape, on countless occasions. He did not stop in 2014, to abide by the standards he was all too willing to impose on college kids. A vice-president could do these things with impunity; a college sophomore could have his life ruined for an inept remark.

It seems to me that Biden has a simple choice here. He can either renounce his previous astonishingly broad and illiberal view of “sexual violence” and argue for more nuance and due process so that a case like Reade versus Biden isn’t a slam dunk in advance; or he should follow his own rules and withdraw from the presidential race. He will, of course, do neither.

I’ll vote for him anyway, because Trump. If you’re using sexual assault as a way to judge a candidacy, Trump’s open record of boasting about it, and the long, long list of women he’s abused and assaulted is surely dispositive. But supporting Biden does mean I’ll be voting for a hypocrite who wants to ruin others’ young lives for what he has routinely and with impunity done. I can live with that, I suppose. And it won’t, of course, be the first time. Or, in all likelihood, the last.


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Massive trade in illegally stolen Greek icons

1 May

Icons stolen from Greek monastery appear in private gallery auction in Europe

(See whole post in Orthodox Christianity.)

Epirus, Greece, May 1, 2020   

Hundreds of precious icons were stolen from churches and monasteries in the northern Epirus region of Greece between 2000 and 2010, most of them ending up abroad and being sold.

The creation of an electronic database of stolen art, including 150 icons, helped significantly reduce the number of thefts.

Now, two more icons are set to be auctioned at a private gallery in Europe. According to reliable sources, the Christ the Pantocrator and Panaghia Portaitissa icons came from the Monastery of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos in Makrino, Zagori, from which nearly 40 monasteries were stolen in 2007, reports the Epirus Post.

The images from the gallery’s website, published by the Epirus Post, show that the icons have been well preserved.

The starting price for the icon of Christ is $10,985 (10,000 euros), and $13,180 (12,000 euros) for the icon of the Theotokos.

In 2011, 6 stolen icons were discovered in an art gallery near the Greek embassy in London. Having learned they were stolen, the art dealer voluntarily gave up his rights to the icons.

The ring leader for the thefts was identified later that year with information provided by the London gallery.

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5/1/2020 See also Relics of St. Mamas of Caesarea, saved from auction, to be returned to Cyprus Icon-smuggling ring uncovered Stolen Greek relics found in London

Header image change (above)

29 Apr

Going back to Paradzhanov exhibit I was going through before Lent. This is from The Color of Pomegranates (1969).

Declaring the Republic of New York

26 Apr

Readers may have noticed I’ve been missing New York desperately. But this 1975 article by Pete Hamil in the Voice that appeared on Twitter (definitely read in its entirety) really amped up my urban patriotism. At first I thought it was written tongue-in-cheek and ironically, but then it becomes obvious, in its detailled agenda, that Hamil was being totally sincere.

The mid-seventies were, as most must know, a time of terrible crisis in New York’s history. Nearly a century of uniquely progressive social policies (begun, not in least part, by the city’s Jewish immigrants), in education, health, housing, services and impressive infrastructure investment (before we bitch about the subway again, let’s remember what a visionary project of urban integration it represents and what a treasure it remains) came into a crashing conflict that all of America’s nineteenth-century industrial cities had to face in some form: in New York’s case, the almost complete departure of manufacturing and shipping. We’re so used to living in a New York whose economy is dominated by high finance and, in an increasingly cartoonish way, by culture-entertainment-leisure production (no matter that most New Yorkers can’t afford to participate in the latter) that it’s now hard to imagine New York as a great manufacturing center and a great port city and to conceive of how devastating the loss of those sectors was for the city’s economy.

(For an absolutely brilliant analysis of the above process see episode 7 of Ric Burns’ New York: a Documentary Film; or watch the whole series too; all episodes are available on Amazon Prime.)

Part of what Hamil was so angry about at the time was that despite the financial straits the city was in due to the massive erosion of its tax base, New York was still contributing more to federal coffers than it was getting back:

It is hard to explain; the closest I can come is to tell him [a hypothetical stranger trying to understand New York at the time] that New York is essentially a colony of the United States, that its people consume American goods to the tune of billions of dollars a year, to pay the mother country some $14 billion in taxes and receive in return about $2 billion, and that even that small return is given begrudgingly. New York, like all colonies, has a balance of payments deficit. The man raises his brows in surprise. “In that case,” he says gravely, “why do you not revolt?”

Then, when on the verge of bankruptcy, the city, under the administration of Mayor Abe Beame, requested federal aid, and then only in the form of a credit line and not even a straight out request for funds, President Ford vowed that he would veto any bill to bail New York out, prompting The Daily News to publish its now famous headline:

Hamil rightly puts this reaction into both an ideological and psychological context. First, that Republican America had always thought that New York’s generous, progressive spending policies had a whiff of dangerous socialism about them and/or that they were simply a form of financial profligacy that the city now deserved to be punished for.

And second, and more importantly, Hamil’s anger zeroes in on what he correctly identifies as white, conservative America’s long-standing — from mild to intense — distaste for New York and its essence: its literal foreigness, its ethical liberalism, its density, its decay and dirt (though that was precisely why the city was requesting federal help), and its intimidating sophistication and baffling cosmopolitanism.

Hamil’s money quote on this is:

Most of America hates New York. The citizens of America hate New Yorkers. They cannot stand our diversity, our great clanging mixed-up bowl of Jews and Blacks and Puerto Ricans and Irishmen and Italians. and Chinese and Poles and Cubans. They despise our energy, the great driving engine of the town that sends us into sweating, mulling, ferocious contact with each other every day of our lives […] The hicks and the boobs arrive in New York for their tours in the summertime, and they can’t believe it: “Too much rushing around for my blood.” Of course. Too much talent too. Too much energy. Too much intelligence. [my emphases]

(It’s funny; if anybody today described the majority of Americans as “hicks and boobs”, he would be attacked for snobbery and political incorrectness. And frankly, I have to say that his form of deprecating non-urban, non-coastal America only contributes to the polarization of American social and political consciousness that has brought us Donald Trump.)

In the end, Washington did come through with some aid, but mostly New York got back up on its feet through a series of extremely painful spending cuts, and then on the burst of economic energy a massive new wave of immigrants brought starting in the mid-eighties.

And finally, on riding the wave of the new urbanism, post-industrial transformation that most Western cities underwent in the nineties. But…at what cost? At turning Manhattan into a sterile playground for the privileged, or a brutal cage for the desperately poor, that has left the boroughs the by-far most interesting and vibrant parts of the city? At what Hamil would probably see, correctly, as the suburbanization and “Americanization” of New York? I’m not nostalgic for a city where getting on the train at night felt like going on safari, or where my car got broken into on the average of once a week. But sometimes I dunno if I wouldn’t prefer going back to the ratty New York that I grew up in, instead of living in this simulacrum New York that seems to be closing in on us day by day. If you want more reading on the subject — though, warning: if you’re a New Yorker the book might be devastatingly depressing — see Jeremiah Moss’ Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul.

Finally, just one point offered as an antidote to Hamil’s anger at America and one often overlooked by New York chauvinists like me: that’s that New York may not be America, but it also wouldn’t be possible in any other country on earth.

He dicho.


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Muslim India journal — from the Wire: “Looking blindly to the increasingly orthodox and puritanical Arab world for our religious traditions has repercussions on much more than just language.”

25 Apr

“Why Indians Should Stick to Saying ‘Ramzaan Mubarak’, Not ‘Ramadan Kareem'”

Nizam Pasha

As Ramzaan starts and “Ramadan Kareem” wishes start trending on social media, I feel it is time to set the record straight on certain things. Most of us in the subcontinent grew up hearing our parents’ generation pronounce the name of the month as “Ramzaan”. Increasingly, as data becomes free of borders, we have been exposed to ideas, words, phrases and transliterations on social media popularised by people in the Arab world. There is a tendency to blindly follow these as ‘correct’ and ‘authentic’ because Islam originated in that part of the world after all.

Now the name of the month is written as “رمضان” in Arabic. The operative letter here is ض, which is pronounced as a sound that is a cross between ‘d’ and ‘z’ by native Arabic speakers. This is invariably written as ‘d’ or ‘dh’ by Arabs when using the English alphabet. In fact, Arabs extend this same treatment to the alphabets ظ and ذ when transliterating into the English alphabet. However, in the Indian subcontinent, we have consistently written and pronounced all three as ‘z’. Here’s some evidence of our pronunciation of the alphabet ض elsewhere. The following commonly used Urdu words commence with ض:

Ziddi (stubborn)
Zarurat (need) and zaruri (necessary)
Zaleel (scoundrel)
Zamanat (bail/bond)
Zamana (era)
Zameer (conscience)
Zila (district)

So, to all those from the subcontinent who are blindly following English transliterations done by Arabs to call this month “Ramadan”, your Dameer is probably already dead, it is extremely Daruri that you watch Sunny Deol’s Diddi, sing ‘Saara Damana’ from Amitabh Bachchan’s Yaarana, give Damanat if anyone gets arrested, blame General Dia-ul-Haq for Pakistan’s misery and give your address as Dila Hoshiarpur because you’re so damn clever. And if you’re already doing that, then you’re just zaft.

(PS: Just a quick question, when lawyers in Hindi movies used to say “M’lord, mein aap ke saamne ek daleel pesh karna chahta hoon”, what did you think they were about to do?)

That brings me to the second part of the greeting. Till a few years ago, despite growing up in a practicing Muslim household and living in a Muslim neighbourhood, I had never heard someone say “Ramzaan Kareem” and expect it to be understood as a full sentence.

‘Kareem’ means ‘honourable’ or ‘noble’ in Arabic. It is one of the 99 names of Allah and, in its literal meaning, it is used as an honorific. Like ‘Quran Kareem’ is used to respectfully speak of the noble Quran. Dropping someone a message saying “Ramzaan Kareem” is like saying “Honourable Ramzaan”. It sort of leaves the sentence awkwardly hanging midair. It’s like walking up to someone and saying “Holy Christmas”. It will invariably be followed by a long pause after which they will be forced to mutter “ahem…yes, it is very…holy…”

Sure, every culture has its own idiosyncrasies and I don’t know how the Arabs arrived at this greeting (if they actually do use it), but to discard our own cultural “Ramzaan Mubarak”, which means “May this Ramzaan be beneficial for you” for “Honourable Ramzaan!” is just mindless aping of the worst kind.

And I could go on about the words and phrases that are changing. The morning meal during Ramzaan is now called by its Arabic name ‘Suhoor’ instead of its Persian version ‘Sehri’ used by Indian Muslims so far. The dish Haleem is now called Daleem because ‘Haleem’ is also one of the 99 names of Allah and naming a dish after Him would be disrespectful, and we don’t want people to think our increasing godlessness is because we ate our deity. Khuda Hafiz has become Allah Hafiz because the Persian word ‘Khuda’ is not one of the 99 names of Allah, and we don’t want to pack-off our loved ones with the wrong God. And now, some people have also started using the Arabic “Mabrook” instead of Mubarak, while others say “Khair Mubarak” instead of “Eid Mubarak”, so one can’t even look forward to Eid to be rid of these idiots.

Which brings us to why this has wider implications and isn’t just my annual rant. Looking blindly to the increasingly orthodox and puritanical Arab world for our religious traditions has repercussions on much more than just language. It represents an attitude that has implications on culture and religious practice itself, diluting what I call the softer aspects of Islam and replacing it with harsher doctrines of Wahabism imported from the Arab world.

An example of this are the traditions that exist around dargahs in India and Pakistan. Veneration of saints is something that has come into India through the traditions of the Sufi saints who travelled from areas that comprise present day Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, among others. These Sufis, who were actually responsible for spreading Islam in the sub-continent, contrary to the popularly held and aggressively advertised misconception that it was spread by invading armies, brought with them the idea that the Aulia (literally, beloved of Allah) live on after their death. And so, people continue to visit them at their place of burial as if they were present in the flesh, bringing presents of flowers and essence for them and requesting them to make dua or prayer for them. This led to the evolution of the dargah as a place of seeking spiritual solace and for the teaching of religion.

In 1744, Abd-al-Wahab, the founder of what we know today as ‘Wahabism” forged a pact with Ibn-Saud forming an alliance that would lay the foundation of modern day Saudi Arabia. Abd-al-Wahab believed that construction of dargahs, tombs and all manner of mausoleums and the veneration of dead saints carried on at these places were heretical practices that amounted to idol worship. And so, when the Wahabi-Saudi alliance gained control over the holy cities of Mecca and Madina, first for a brief interval in 1806 and then finally in 1925, one of the first things they did on both occasions was to demolish all tombs built at the burial places of the Prophet’s family and his companions, leaving only an unmarked stone to mark each grave, so that people would recognise that this is a grave so as not to step on it, and no more.

They also demolished the house the Prophet was born in, the house he spent his adult life in and all sites that could be identified with his life, so as to prevent heretical veneration of these sites. All possessions of the Prophet and his family that had been preserved for centuries were buried in unmarked graves at undisclosed locations, since the sentiments attached to them were, to the Wahabis, bordering on idol worship. In this manner, Islamic history and a whole cultural tradition associated with it was sought to be effaced.

One of the biggest exports of Saudi Arabia today, besides its oil, is its ideology and its harsh understanding of Islam that is sought to be spread far and wide, propelled by the petro-dollar. It funds movements like the Tablighi Jamaat, whose markaz in Hazrat Nizamuddin came into the limelight recently as a proclaimed COVID-19 hotspot and generated so much controversy. And it is ironical that the Tablighi Jamaat that seeks to efface the softer traditions emerging out of our dargahs should be located in a locality named after the great Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin, and stand a few hundred yards from his place of burial.

It is wrong to imagine that the missionary work of Tablighis is to convert non-Muslims to Islam. Since their outreach is limited to Muslim households and mosques, their purpose is actually to convince Muslims to abandon what the Tablighis see as heretical innovations that have crept into the practice of Islam and go back to the origins of the religion. Meanwhile, the Saudis work overtime to efface those ‘origins’ and rewrite history and reinterpret religious texts in a manner that suits them. To the Wahabi and by association the Tablighi, the dargah with its outwardly veneration of a grave, its flowers, chadars and incense sticks represents all things satanic. All forms of music is fitna (temptation) and is prohibited. So qawwali cannot presume to be spiritual, it does not even meet the definition of what is permissible.

While Islam does engender a pan-national identity uniting people across cultures, there is simultaneous emphasis on being locally connected to one’s geographical area and community. It is not without reason that Muslims follow a lunar system where Eid depends on sighting of the moon in each geographical region. Since there is considerable variation in moon phases in different parts of the world, India usually starts fasting and celebrates Eid one, or sometimes even two, days after Saudi Arabia. We don’t try to synchronise our Ramzaam itself with Saudi Arabia. There is no reason why we should do the same to our Ramzaan greetings. https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

This local Islamic culture that we have developed over centuries has an Indian-ness that makes it more relatable to the communities we live besides. This culture, of which dargahs have been the fountainhead, is what we know today as the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, that cultural confluence of the followers of the great religions of our sub-continent. And it is in those shared cultural moorings that the solution lies to the widening communal divide that is the greater of the two pandemics threatening us today. It is therefore important that we should be careful in trading the traditions of our ancestors for every shiny new imported thing that comes out of the Arab world. While the first step may be as simple as confounding our friends by wishing them Honourable Ramadan, the habit this builds has far reaching consequences.

Nizam Pasha is a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @MNizamPasha.


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Celia y Fidel p.s. — “Burundanga”

25 Apr

Fidel wrote about how when he was in the Sierra Maestra with his guerrilla (see video in previous post if you speak Spanish), he liked to clean his rifle to the sound of “Burundanga” one of Celia Cruz’ greatest hits, and one of the nasty rubs he had with the defiant Changó-daughter Celia is when she and her band refused to play it at one of her performances when he showed up unannounced and requested it.

Of course, being at heart a bourgeois, gallego white boy, it’s telling that he liked the silliest, least complex, least Afro, more Mexican than Cuban “Burundanga”. I would assume, in fact, that it was actually written for her audience in Mexico, where she was wildly popular.


Interesting piece (for Spanish-speakers) about how Celia Cruz dissed Castro, and how the petty little bitch (menudo héroe) took his revenge

25 Apr
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