Tag Archives: Byzantines

For The Byzantine Ambassador @byzantinepower (interesting thread going on there)

8 Nov

A great book — and destined to be the seminal go-to for these issues — for anybody interested in role Hellenism played in later Greek consciousness is Kaldellis’ Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition:

Kaldellis

It leaves you with more questions than answers, but that’s probably how it should be.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“The Myth of the Andalusian paradise…” — “…just modifying the history in a declared desire to extract a pre-established moral.”

7 Sep

71YwotMWVL

One reader’s comment that delves deeper into the book’s subject matter, repeats some of my thoughts and questions, especially that Spanish Christianity developed its militance and triumphalism in almost a millenium of constant warfare “in a society organized for war” against what for me is arguably a militant and triumphalist religion primarily organized for war, etc.; emphases are mine:

on April 16, 2016
Format: Hardcover
In ‘Al-Andalus au Miroir du Multiculturalisme; Le Mythe de la Convivencia dans quelques Essais Nord-Américains Récents’, the Arabist Bruna Soravia has reflected about the total absence of references to recent studies in books and articles published in the USA about Muslim Spain, including the important advances in essential fields such as archaeology, numismatic or epigraphy, as well as the lack of any work published in Spanish, French or Portuguese in the bibliographies of these American authors. Outside the United States, nobody doubts that the essential investigations in this subject are published in those languages, but the multiculturalism apologists obviously scorn any advance that proceed from their Spanish or French colleagues; they have paradoxically converted in a epitome and paradigm of intellectual endogamy.

The myth of that paradise of peaceful coexistence and cultural enlightenment had its origin in the long shadow that Américo Castro left in the United States (always copied, rarely cited), something obvious due the repetitive use of the Spanish word ‘convivencia’. A term created by Castro that gives the false impression that it was actually used in Spain during the Middle Ages. Today, there is no specialist who takes seriously the ideas of Castro, a Spanish scholar specialized in medieval literature that wasn’t actually a historian and openly admitted his lack of interest in the scientific methodology.

Darío Fernández-Morena not only demonstrates a remarkable knowledge about the modern European investigations in this subject but also a great knowledge of the primary sources. This is a well-written book that destroys, one by one, almost all the myths about al-Andalus repeated by those who pretend to refute the ideas of Samuel Huntington and his followers just modifying the history in a declared desire to extract a pre-established moral.

‘The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise’ follows the path of Serafín Fanjul’s works and present some similarities with ‘Al-Andalus y la Cruz’ by Rafael Sánchez Saus, also published this year, although independently. Both books reach the same conclusions, something that is not strange as both have the virtue of proving something that any Spanish historian has learnt in the first year at the university. I would say Fernández-Morera has done a better work, and his book has a great importance because it is an opportunity for the English readers to get the historical information that use to be conveniently omitted by the mainstream publications.

Fernández-Morena wrote a courageous introduction citing ‘political incorrect’ but true facts, as the financial dependence of many Western historians to foundations controlled by the governments of some Arab countries, the millionaire donations to American and British universities from Saudi and Muslim sources, the censorship that exists in the Muslim academic world and the risk that any investigator has to be labeled as ‘islamophobic’ if his publications refute the idyllic narrative about the medieval Islamic world. As happened with the academic lynching of Sylvain Gouguenheim, after the publication of his excellent ‘Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel’ in 2008.

Just to summarize, during the High Middle Ages the Iberian Peninsula was the most militarized territory of all Europe and the Islamic world, where it was actually known as Dar Djihad, ‘the house (land) of the jihad’. The Christian kingdoms were involved in an almost constant war with the emirs and caliphs of Córdoba, that organized annual military expeditions to the north to get prisoners and looting; something that Roger Collins has defined as ‘an economy based in institutionalized banditry’ (‘Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031’). Just during the government of Al-Mansur (977-1002), the hajib of the caliph Hisham II (controlled by him as a puppet ruler), were organized 56 military raids, and only in the campaign towards Barcelona of 985, according to the Arab sources, 75,000 prisoners were made, mainly women sold in Córdoba as sexual slaves.

Maybe Fernánez-Morera should focus this chapter in the socio-economical and institutional implications of this state of constant war that created, using the words of James F. Powers and Elena Laurie, ‘a society organized for war’. The records in the Muslim and Christian textual sources about the great amount of severed heads are true anyway. The first thing any traveler saw when he visited Córdoba crossing the Roman bridge was hundreds of severed heads decorating the Azuda gates of the alcázar, the fortress of the caliph situated 100 meters from the great mosque. The textual sources even describe muezzins calling to oration over a mound of severed heads after the raid of Ubayd Allah to Bacelona in 811, or after the Battle of Uclés (1108).

Regarding the domestic policy, Christians and Jews of Al-Andalus lived into an authentic apartheid. The Dhimma implied the legal interiority of the ‘protected peoples’, their judicial defenseless against any Muslim, their fiscal exploitation and their constant humiliation; something that forced the conversions and the mass emigration of the Mozarabic population to the Northern Christian kingdoms. The Muslims become majority during the Umayyad caliphate (929-1031) and soon the mass killings began, as the slaughter of 4,000 Jews in Granada in 1066. During the period of North African domination, the conditions for the ‘peoples of the book’ were even worse and ended with the mass deportation of the Christians to the Magreb in 1126. Since the middle of the 12th century, there are no Christians or Jews in al-Andalus.

As Fernández-Morena pointed out, Andalusian society was a theocratic state (or ‘states’, during the Taifa period) dominated by the ulema of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, the most strict of all after the Hanbali (now used in Saudi Arabia), that controlled every aspect of the daily life. It’s really hard to understand why any historian with a basic knowledge of the primary sources can ignore these facts that have so many implications in all the aspects of the Andalusian society, politics, economy and culture, and instead prefers to focus his research in the ‘spirit’ of the poetry and literature created in (and for) a courtesan context.

Finally, another important myth that maybe Fernández-Morena should consider deeper is the transmission of the ancient knowledge through the Arabic translations, that supposedly were the foundations of the European Renaissance. Anyway, as I have said, this book is essential for any English reader who wants to know the reality of the Medieval Islamic Spain.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain” by Dario Fernandez-Morera

7 Sep

Just saw it on Amazon.  Is it serious or “yellow” history?  Obviously haven’t read it.  If anyone has please share.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final

The comments/review quotes seem to be from fairly “serious” sources:

“Shows in meticulous detail . . . that intolerance, segregation, formal inequality, and brutality were the order of the day [in Islamic Spain].”
The New Criterion

“[Fernández-Morera] must be commended for daring to wade into this hazardous arena. He has come well-armed: his The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise has 95 pages of notes, and the lionisers of political correctness will not find it easy to penetrate chinks in his bibliographical armour of primary and secondary sources, many not published in English. In an exhilarating and unput-downable read, Fernández-Morera debunks the fashionable myth that Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together (convivencia) under ‘tolerant’ Muslim rule. . . . World-class academics—hailing from Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, London, Oxford—look like fools in their apologetics for jihad.”
—Standpoint

“Numerous books propagandize for Islam by calling Muslim rule in Spain during the Middle Ages a golden age of tolerance. Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (ISI Books) cuts against PR for Islam by giving specific examples of rulers cutting off heads or applying burning candles to the faces of sexual slaves.” —World magazine, naming The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise a finalist for Book of the Year

“Often a work of historical revisionism is a dubious exercise in discovering trendy, hidden agendas with little bearing on the actual record of the past. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is decidedly not such a study and is instead a bracing remedy to a good deal of the academic pabulum that passes for scholarship on Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.”
Middle East Quarterly

“A first-rate work of scholarship that demolishes the fabrication of the multiethnic, multiconfessional convivencia in Spain under Muslim rule. The book is also an exposé of the endemic problems of contemporary Western academe. . . . Space does not allow us to list all of the fables—some bizarre, others laughable, most of them infuriating—that Fernández-Morera dispatches with unassailable logic and ruthless efficiency.”
Chronicles

“I am in awe of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. . . . This book is an intellectual boxing match. The author shreds not just one opponent, but a series of intellectual bigots, prostitutes, and manipulators of the common man. . . . He uses research and objective facts to make his case. Nothing could be more transgressive in academia today.”
FrontPage Magazine

“The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise prompts readers to rethink their traditional notion of Islamic Spain. Fernández-Morera shows that it was not a harmonious locus of tolerance. Paying special attention to primary sources, he documents how Islamic Spain was in fact dominated by cultural repression and marginalization. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is essential reading. It will soon find its place on the shelves of premier academic institutions and in the syllabi of pioneering scholars.”
Antonio Carreño, W. Duncan McMillan Family Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, Brown University 

“I could not put this book down. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise constitutes a watershed in scholarship. Throughan unbiased and open-minded reading of the primary sources, Fernández-Morera brilliantly debunks the myths that for so long have dominated Islamic historiography and conventional wisdom. We were waiting for this great breakthrough to come to light, and Fernández-Morera has done it. Bravo!”
Raphael Israeli, Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern, Islamic, and Chinese History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“Fernández-Morera examines the underside of Islamic Spain, a civilization usually considered a model of dynamism and vigor. Through the study of primary sources, he questions the historiographic and intellectual view of the superiority of that civilization. This is an intelligent reinterpretation of a supposed paradise of convivencia.”
Julia Pavón Benito, Professor of Medieval Spanish History, University of Navarra

“Desperately, desperately needed as a counter to the mythology that pervades academia on this subject. This book sheds much-needed light on current debates about the relationship between the West and Islam. It displays rare good sense and a willingness to face truth that is all too often absent in discussions of this era.”
Paul F. Crawford, Professor of Ancient and Medieval History, California University of Pennsylvania

“A splendid book. This sober and hard-hitting reassessment demolishes the myths of religious tolerance and multiculturalism that have hopelessly romanticized the precarious coexistence and harsh realities of medieval Spain under Muslim rule. Well documented and persuasively argued, this book is must-reading as a window into the lessons of the past.”
Noël Valis, Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Yale University

“Fernández-Morera takes on the long-overdue topic of assessing medieval Muslim Spain’s reputation for ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance, and cultural secularism. Finding this view based on a ‘culture of forgetting,’ he documents the reign of strict sharia in Andalusia, with its attendant discrimination against non-Muslims and subjugation of women. So much for the charming fantasy of open-mindedness and mutual respect.”
Daniel Pipes, historian of Islam and publisher of the Middle East Quarterly

“Brilliant . . . A thorough and entertaining study, as masterful as it is pointed.”
Catholic Culture

“Reveals the awesome and awful truth camouflaged by many in the West who have written apologies for Muslim-ruled Andalusia . . . More than 90 pages of footnotes to contemporary sources in their original languages make his thesis unassailable.”
New English Review

About the Author:

Darío Fernández-Morera is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University. A former member of the National Council on the Humanities, he holds a BA from Stanford University, an MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD from Harvard University. He has published several books and many articles on cultural, literary, historical, and methodological issues in Spain, Latin America, and the United States.

But before I publish this I’ll commend myself for “daring to wade into this hazardous arena”, just about two weeks ago in: Barcelona addendum: why the Western, “leftist” intelligentsia bears a nasty share of the guilt, part I(part II should be coming soon):

OK…I’ve bitten off more than I can chew I think, so let me resort to bullet points.  Some Al-Andalus and Crusades fun bubbles I’d like to pop:

* The happy Muslim Iberia of convivencia — co-existence — only lasted for at most two centuries, as long as the Umayyad Caliphate with its capital at Córdoba lasted.  That caliphate was replaced by new and much more religiously orthodox and intolerant Berber kingdoms from North Africa under which Spain devolved into small Muslim emirates — the taifain which conditions for Spanish non-Muslims came to resemble those of dhimmi elsewhere in the Muslim world.  (See also rayah: “…both in contemporaneous and in modern usage, it refers to non-Muslim subjects in particular, also called zimmi.”  The “dh” sound of Arabic is usually replaced by a “z” sound in Irano-Turkic usage, as in Ramadhan and Ramazan.)

Taifas2 1031 after fall of CórdobaThe taifa of the Iberian peninsula in 1031. (By 1248, when Seville fell to Christian siege, the only other major city left in Muslim hands was Granada.


*
Check out this book about the Crusades: God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 11.36.28 AM

It’s a cruddy, badly written and amateurish book (but, you know…”Out of the mouths of babes…” Psalms 8:2 and Matthew 21:16; you can’t expect an academically serious historian to write something like this, as he’d lose all funding and probably his job), but it asks a serious question: why have we in the modern West come to consider the Crusades the beginning of aggressive Western imperialism, a kind of proto-colonialism, and not, as Stark asks, a perfectly predictable response to the aggression of Islam/Arabs?  I mean, sorry, it’s a question I’ve always been afraid to articulate: but who conquered two thirds of the Roman Christian world and the whole of the Sassanian world in less than a century to being with?

Next:

* That the Crusades have remained a traumatic memory seared in the collective consciousness of Arabs everywhere, that Syrian mothers still scare their children into obedience by telling them that Richard the Lionheart is coming to kidnap them, is an urban myth.  Arabs didn’t remember the Crusades any more than we (Greeks) collectively remembered the Fourth Crusade that dealt the fatal blow to the Eastern Roman Empire (the Ottomans really just mopped up what was left).  Arabs only “remembered” the “trauma” of the Crusades when the West and the above mentioned guilty Western intelligentsia “reminded” them

* On to another inconvenient truth that follows on the above: the Byzantines recovered fairly quickly from the loss of the Levant and Egypt to the Arabs in the 7th century, and in fact, may have emerged stronger as a more compact, ethnically and linguistically Greek polity.  Then, under the early Comnenoi in the 12th century (Alexios, Ioannes and Manuel), they showed their resilience again as they reconsolidated their rule over the Balkans and, taking advantage of the crumbling of the Seljuks caused by the appearance of new Turks in Asia Minor, reconquered a large part of western Anatolia, despite facing renewed aggression from the Italian/Sicilian Normans to the West and from these newer Turkic states on the East; with the First Crusade’s help, they even recaptured Antioch and the surrounding region for a brief period.  The Fourth Crusade’s conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1204, though, was an event it was impossible to recover from.  Several Greek successor states that emerged then reunited into an empire under the leadership of the Palaeologoi out of Nicaea and retook Constantinople in 1261, but from then on this remnant Roman Empire was, despite a new cultural and artistic flourishing, a political and military sitting duck.  Add to these facts that Levantine Christians and Armenians who ended up in the reconquered Crusader states — at the time of the Crusades the regions we’re talking about were, by some estimates, still almost 50% Christian — were subjected to violent reprisals by their newly returned Muslim overlords that diminished their numbers through flight and conversion and we come to the inevitable conclusion: in the long run, the greatest victims of the Crusades were eastern Christians.

* For Jews, whose horrific experiences with the Christian Westjust went from bad to worse over two millenia, culminating in the Holocaust, and for whom it seems to have been particularly tempting to see the historical lands of Islam as the “Goldene Medina” where Jews lived in peace and acceptance, it wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind that the biggest pogrom in mediaeval Europe in terms of numbers slain occurred in 1066 in Muslim Granada.  This was when a Jew-cum-uppity-nigger, Joseph ha-Nagid, became too powerful as the vizier at the emir’s court in Granada — that city whose languid beauty and graciousness is the Fetish-in-the-Crown of pro-Moorish apologists.  He was crucified and, by some estimates (many consider them discredited, but you have to ask why), 4,000 Jews were killed.  I don’t know if crucifixion was supposed to have some kind of retaliatory significance given he was Jewish.  But, according to Bernard Lewis, the Berber Muslim mob that carried out this pogrom were egged on by a poem of a certain Muslim, Abu Ishaq:

Bernard Lewis writes:

“Particularly instructive in this respect is an ancient anti-Semitic poem of Abu Ishaq, written in Granada in 1066. This poem, which is said to be instrumental in provoking the anti-Jewish outbreak of that year, contains these specific lines:

Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them, the breach of faith would be to let them carry on.
They have violated our covenant with them, so how can you be held guilty against the violators?
How can they have any pact when we are obscure and they are prominent?
Now we are humble, beside them, as if we were wrong and they were right!
[my emphases]”

“My emphases” are obviously meant to highlight the zero-sum game that is monotheism and particularly Islam: “obscure/prominent” and “wrong/right”.  No sense that there’s room for both or many as in polytheism or Hinduism (let’s not get into whether Hinduism is really polytheism right now).  Just “right” and “wrong”.  If you’re wrong you’ll be tolerated as long as you don’t get too big for your britches.  And: “why am I obscure when they’re prominent?” sounds like the battle cry of curdled ressentiment we’ve heard from Sayyid Qutb to Mohammed Atta and his buddies and back to Abu Ishaq if not to the very beginnings and to Ishmael himself, the rejected illegitimate son of Abraham and of the slave Hagar

Lewis adds though: “Diatribes such as Abu Ishaq’s and massacres such as that in Granada in 1066 are of rare occurrence in Islamic history.”

Well, ok then…

* Spanish Catholicism has been (Yes – “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”) for great periods of our common history, terrifying, especially for the Jews and Muslims the Arabs left behind in Spain and for the subjected-to-close-to-genocide inhabitants of the New World.  I admit to having played around with Santiago imagery in the past, but the connotations became too hard to stomach (see this interesting article: “The Transference of ‘Reconquista’ Iconography to the New World: From Santiago Matamoros to Santiago Mataindios“).  The Spanish Catholicism of the Reconquista and the Counter-Reformation is easily the most abominable form Christianity has ever taken — along with the Puritans, of course, and Luther and his Taliban, of course, and American Evangelists, of course, etc. etc.  But, still, you have to ask: the legitimacy of force and conquest in the spreading of the faith; massacre or forced conversion as legitimate proselytizing methods, enslavement of the defeated enemy — where did Spanish Catholicism get those ideas from?  They’re not in the Gospels.  And forced conversion is not present in Judaism either, which — remember — is not interested in converting you, my little goy.  Maybe — just maybe — after 800 years you start to resemble your enemy.  Even the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangreblood purity — that you have no Muslim or Jewish ancestors, probably unfeasible to impossible in Iberia — seems to mirror the chauvinism of early peninsular Arabs, and the apart-ness status they lived under in early Islam.  Any ideas?

Santiago statue

Santiago Matamoros

I’ve had quite some fun with the response to this; like I said, I should get Part II posted in a couple of days or so.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Barcelona addendum: why the Western, “leftist” intelligentsia bears a nasty share of the guilt, part I

21 Aug

Spanish flag Cibeles PalaceA Spanish flag at half-mast in front of Cibeles Palace in Madrid. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty

A lot of Greeks here have asked me “Why Spain?”  When the 2004 attacks on the Madrid commuter trains which killed 192 people were carried out, Spain still had troops in Iraq, which then new Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero shamefully withdrew as soon as could after defeating José María Alfredo Aznar López, who got Spain into Iraq in the first place.  Involvement in Iraq had been unpopular with the Spanish electorate from the beginning, and pressure had already been mounting on Aznar to withdraw troops after seven Spanish intelligent agents were killed by Iraqi insurgents in November of 2003, but the Madrid bombings were planned by Al Qaeda to occur just three days before Spanish elections.  I was not an Aznar man by any stretch of the imagination, but for Spaniards to cave in to Al Qaeda terror like that and elect a Prime Minister whose first act, essentially, was to withdraw the country’s troops from Iraq, was a show of collective cowardice from a people whose ballsiness I’ve always admired that seriously dismayed me.  But since Spain is no longer a nation with troops in Muslim lands, what’s the problem.

So here in the Guardian is the answer to “Why Spain?”:

Although most are thought to have been radicalised by the war in Syria, some jihadis find Spain a peculiarly atavistic target because of the country’s 700-year period of Moorish occupation. Islamic State was quick to look to the past and claim credit for the Barcelona attack, trumpeting: “Terror is filling the crusaders’ hearts in the Land of Andalusia.” [my emphasis]

See the New York Times’ video: “The Islamic State’s Claim to Spain”

OK…I’ve bitten off more than I can chew I think, so let me resort to bullet points.  Some Al-Andalus and Crusades fun bubbles I’d like to pop:

* The happy Muslim Iberia of convivencia — co-existence — only lasted for at most two centuries, as long as the Umayyad Caliphate with its capital at Córdoba lasted.  That caliphate was replaced by new and much more religiously orthodox and intolerant Berber kingdoms from North Africa under which Spain devolved into small Muslim emirates — the taifain which conditions for Spanish non-Muslims came to resemble those of dhimmi elsewhere in the Muslim world.  (See also rayah: “…both in contemporaneous and in modern usage, it refers to non-Muslim subjects in particular, also called zimmi.”  The “dh” sound of Arabic is usually replaced by a “z” sound in Irano-Turkic usage, as in Ramadhan and Ramazan.)

Taifas2 1031 after fall of CórdobaThe taifa of the Iberian peninsula in 1031. (By 1248, when Seville fell to Christian siege, the only other major city left in Muslim hands was Granada.


*
Check out this book about the Crusades: God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 11.36.28 AM

It’s a cruddy, badly written and amateurish book (but, you know…”Out of the mouths of babes…” Psalms 8:2 and Matthew 21:16; you can’t expect an academically serious historian to write something like this, as he’d lose all funding and probably his job), but it asks a serious question: why have we in the modern West come to consider the Crusades the beginning of aggressive Western imperialism, a kind of proto-colonialism, and not, as Stark asks, a perfectly predictable response to the aggression of Islam/Arabs?  I mean, sorry, it’s a question I’ve always been afraid to articulate: but who conquered two thirds of the Roman Christian world and the whole of the Sassanian world in less than a century to being with?

Next:

* That the Crusades have remained a traumatic memory seared in the collective consciousness of Arabs everywhere, that Syrian mothers still scare their children into obedience by telling them that Richard the Lionheart is coming to kidnap them, is an urban myth.  Arabs didn’t remember the Crusades any more than we (Greeks) collectively remembered the Fourth Crusade that dealt the fatal blow to the Eastern Roman Empire (the Ottomans really just mopped up what was left).  Arabs only “remembered” the “trauma” of the Crusades when the West and the above mentioned guilty Western intelligentsia “reminded” them

* On to another inconvenient truth that follows on the above: the Byzantines recovered fairly quickly from the loss of the Levant and Egypt to the Arabs in the 7th century, and in fact, may have emerged stronger as a more compact, ethnically and linguistically Greek polity.  Then, under the early Comnenoi in the 12th century (Alexios, Ioannes and Manuel), they showed their resilience again as they reconsolidated their rule over the Balkans and, taking advantage of the crumbling of the Seljuks caused by the appearance of new Turks in Asia Minor, reconquered a large part of western Anatolia, despite facing renewed aggression from the Italian/Sicilian Normans to the West and from these newer Turkic states on the East; with the First Crusade’s help, they even recaptured Antioch and the surrounding region for a brief period.  The Fourth Crusade’s conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1204, though, was an event it was impossible to recover from.  Several Greek successor states that emerged then reunited into an empire under the leadership of the Palaeologoi out of Nicaea and retook Constantinople in 1261, but from then on this remnant Roman Empire was, despite a new cultural and artistic flourishing, a political and military sitting duck.  Add to these facts that Levantine Christians and Armenians who ended up in the reconquered Crusader states — at the time of the Crusades the regions we’re talking about were, by some estimates, still almost 50% Christian — were subjected to violent reprisals by their newly returned Muslim overlords that diminished their numbers through flight and conversion and we come to the inevitable conclusion: in the long run, the greatest victims of the Crusades were eastern Christians.

* For Jews, whose horrific experiences with the Christian West just went from bad to worse over two millenia, culminating in the Holocaust, and for whom it seems to have been particularly tempting to see the historical lands of Islam as the “Goldene Medina” where Jews lived in peace and acceptance, it wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind that the biggest pogrom in mediaeval Europe in terms of numbers slain occurred in 1066 in Muslim Granada.  This was when a Jew-cum-uppity-nigger, Joseph ha-Nagid, became too powerful as the vizier at the emir’s court in Granada — that city whose languid beauty and graciousness is the Fetish-in-the-Crown of pro-Moorish apologists.  He was crucified and, by some estimates (many consider them discredited, but you have to ask why), 4,000 Jews were killed.  I don’t know if crucifixion was supposed to have some kind of retaliatory significance given he was Jewish.  But, according to Bernard Lewis, the Berber Muslim mob that carried out this pogrom were egged on by a poem of a certain Muslim, Abu Ishaq:

Bernard Lewis writes:

“Particularly instructive in this respect is an ancient anti-Semitic poem of Abu Ishaq, written in Granada in 1066. This poem, which is said to be instrumental in provoking the anti-Jewish outbreak of that year, contains these specific lines:

Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them, the breach of faith would be to let them carry on.
They have violated our covenant with them, so how can you be held guilty against the violators?
How can they have any pact when we are obscure and they are prominent?
Now we are humble, beside them, as if we were wrong and they were right!
[my emphases]”

“My emphases” are obviously meant to highlight the zero-sum game that is monotheism and particularly Islam: “obscure/prominent” and “wrong/right”.  No sense that there’s room for both or many as in polytheism or Hinduism (let’s not get into whether Hinduism is really polytheism right now).  Just “right” and “wrong”.  If you’re wrong you’ll be tolerated as long as you don’t get too big for your britches.  And: “why am I obscure when they’re prominent?” sounds like the battle cry of curdled ressentiment we’ve heard from Sayyid Qutb to Mohammed Atta and his buddies and back to Abu Ishaq if not to the very beginnings and to Ishmael himself, the rejected illegitimate son of Abraham and of the slave Hagar

Lewis adds though: “Diatribes such as Abu Ishaq’s and massacres such as that in Granada in 1066 are of rare occurrence in Islamic history.”

Well, ok then…

Some questions:

* Why does the Western liberal never tire of reminding us how bloody the massacre that accompanied the First Crusaders’ conquest of Jerusalem was, but if you dare compare that to one of the first acts of the first community of Muslims — the decapitation of an entire tribe of Jewish men and boys and the distribution of the women and younger children among them as slaves (sound familiar?) — or the orgy of bloodletting and destruction the Ghaznavids unleashed on India, or the comparable massacre and enslavement by the Ottomans of whatever remained of the population of Constantinople on May 29th, 30th and 31th, 1453 (when a city that has resisted falls you get three days to pillage, massacre and enslave and then you have to stop: let’s not get greedy), then you’re an Islamophobe like the creepy Sam Harris or the silly Bill Maher or even the flip-flopping Maajid Nawaz (I never trust a convert) who’s “cherry-picking” events and quotes in order to make his hateful, Islamophobe argument?

Banu_Qurayza Battle of the Khandak Detail from miniature painting The Prophet, Ali, and the Companions at the Massacre of the Prisoners of the Jewish Tribe of Beni Qurayzah, illustration of a 19th-century text by Muhammad Rafi Bazil. Manuscript now in the British Library.

(At least, as far a I know, no Western descendant of the Crusaders celebrates either the fall of Jerusalem or the 1204 Sack of Constantinople with this kind of clownishness:

turkisharchers8-superJumbo

…the fifth annual Conquest Cup, an archery competition that celebrates the anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.” [my link] the Times writes, oblivious to the fact that this celebration commemorates an event which to some might mean a history of death and enslavement.  And they just cheerily put it in the sports section, when it’s as easy to find this offensive as it is to find a Confederate soldier or Robert E. Lee monument offensive.  But imagine the Times just putting Southern Civil War battle reenacters in the sports section as a wacky, cool, exotic event; there’d be a screeching riot of anger they’d have to deal with that they would never forget.  Let’s re-enact some slave auctioning too then.  I mean, whatever, Turks can have their fun.  I’m not going to turn into one of the jerks who kvetches until the Helmsley building takes down its Cross lighting display during Christmas.  But then drop the religion-of-peace argument.)

* I am so sick of the clichéd accusation of “cherry-picking” so beloved by the insufferable Mehdi Hassan (see below) and his like, but let’s take the term as textually literal and see.  If I took a basket and starting looking through Muslim scripture and history for legitimized violence and intolerance, I think I’d end up with a pretty hefty basket-load of cherries; c’est-à-dire, if something is “cherry-picked” it doesn’t mean that the cherries are actually light on the tree and we’ve picked the very few that there are this year, for whatever reason, or that they don’t taste like what we think they taste like.  And let’s rethink the word “tolerant.”  “To tolerate” is a word that in contexts other than Western liberals’ defense of Islam is offensive; it means, I’ll be merciful and compassionate, if you accept your second-class status.  Needless to say — it pisses me off to have to add this caveat — the Old Testament is just as loaded, if not more, with cherries ripe for the picking, as is the New Testament aside from the Gospels and Acts; pain-in-the-ass Paul’s re-Judaizing of the Gospels’ message with his moralism and legalism and chauvinistic zeal, is nasty and, worse, boring (like I said, always watch out for the convert), and the psychotic vengeance-poem of Revelations (Apocalypse in Greek) sends chills up my spine — and not chills of repentance, just disgust — whenever I’m exposed to it.

* Spanish Catholicism has been (Yes – “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”) for great periods of our common history, terrifying, especially for the Jews and Muslims the Arabs left behind in Spain and for the subjected-to-genocide inhabitants of the New World.  I admit to having played around with Santiago imagery in the past, but the connotations became too hard to stomach (see this interesting article: “The Transference of ‘Reconquista’ Iconography to the New World: From Santiago Matamoros to Santiago Mataindios“).  The Spanish Catholicism of the Reconquista and the Counter-Reformation is easily the most abominable form Christianity has ever taken — along with the Puritans, of course, and Luther and his Taliban, of course, and American Evangelists, of course, etc. etc. — but, still, you have to ask: the legitimacy of force and conquest in the spreading of the faith; massacre or forced conversion as legitimate proselytizing methods, enslavement of the defeated enemy — where did Spanish Catholicism get those ideas from?  They’re not in the Gospels.  And forced conversion is not present in Judaism either, which — remember — is not interested in converting you.  Maybe — just maybe — after 800 years you start to resemble your enemy.  Even the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangreblood purity — that you have no Muslim or Jewish ancestors, probably unfeasible to impossible in Iberia — seems to mirror the chauvinism of early peninsular Arabs, and the apart-ness status they lived under in early Islam.  Any ideas?

Santiago statue

Santiago Matamoros

* And the insufferable Mehdi Hassan below.  I loved him as host of Al Jazeera’s The Café.  Then he appointed himself the ummah’s defender against the likes of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens and became as annoying as hell.  He seems to think that speaking a mile a minute in an Oxbridge accent with just enough working-class twang to suggest a Bradford boy done good will win him arguments…snide, cliché-ridden, “super-cherry-picking,” an accusation he likes to throw at others.  Exhausting, but you have to admire his energy I guess.  I don’t know if you’re the best “ambassador” of Islam, though, when you yourself have started to develop strange physical ticks in an attempt to monitor your own rage.

Comments, questions, answers, corrections, tirades, please send to:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Börek II — or Burek and the end of Yugoslavia

26 Aug

Börek Nein Danke

(click)

This is a piece of graffiti that appeared in the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana in 1992, at the beginning of the worst period in the Yugoslav wars and after Slovenia had become independent. “Burek [‘börek’ in Turkish, pronounced exactly like an umlauted German ‘ö’]? Nein Danke.” Burek? Nein Danke. “Burek? No Thank You.” What a silly slogan, ja? How innocuous. What could it possibly mean? Who cares? And how can NikoBako maintain the bizarre proposition that a piece of graffiti in a rather pretentious black-and-white photograph is an important piece, in its ugly, dangerous racism, of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Back up then. There are certain — usually material — aspects or elements of Ottoman life in the Balkans, which, even for Christians in the region, despite the centuries of unfortunate hate and reciprocal bloodletting (and no, I don’t think pretending that wasn’t true or that “it wasn’t that bad” is the key to improving relations between us all now; I think the truth is the key), remain objects of a strange nostalgia and affection. They linger on — even if unconsciously, or even as they’re simultaneously an object of self-deprecating humour or considered homely backwardness – as evidence that Ottoman life had a certain refinement and elegance that these societies have now lost. You sense this often intangible and not explicitly acknowledged feeling in many ways. Folks from my father’s village, Derviçani, for example, now go to Prizren in Kosovo to order certain articles of the village’s bridal costume because they can no longer find the craftsmen to make them in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and they’re conscious of going to a traditional center of Ottoman luxury goods manufacture. You feel it in what’s now the self-conscious or almost apologetic serving of traditional candied fruits or lokum to guests. Or still calling it Turkish coffee. Or in Jiannena when I was a kid, when people still had low divans along the walls of the kitchen where they were much more comfortable than in their “a la franca” sitting rooms. 1* Perhaps the sharpest comparison is the way the word “Mughlai” in India still carries implications of the most sophisticated achievements of classical North Indian…Muslim…culture, even to the most rabid BJP nationalist. 2**

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There are some places where this tendency is stronger than in others. Sarajevo and Bosnia are obvious; they still have large Muslim populations though and, after the 90s, Muslim majorities. But Jiannena – which I’ll call Yanya in Turkish for the purposes of this post, the capital city of Epiros and one often compared to Sarajevo: “a tiny Alpine Istanbul” – is also one such place. Readers will have heard me call it the Greek city most “in touch with its Ottoman side…” on several occasions. You can see why when you visit or if you know a bit of the other’s past: or maybe have some of that empathy for the other that’s more important than knowledge.

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About half Greek-speaking Turks before the Population Exchange, Yanya was a city the Ottomans loved dearly and whose loss grieved them more than that of most places in the Balkans. It’s misty and melancholy and romantic. It has giant plane trees and had running waters and abundant springs in all its neighbourhoods, along with a blue-green lake surrounded by mountains snow-capped for a good five or so months of the year. It experienced a period of great prosperity in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth century, when it was not only a rich Ottoman commercial city but also a center of Greek education: “Yanya, first in arms, gold and letters…” – and, especially under the despotic yet in certain ways weirdly progressive Ali Paşa, was the site of a court independent enough to conduct foreign policy practically free of the Porte and fabulous enough to attract the likes of Pouqueville and Byron, the latter who never tired of commenting on the beauty of the boys and girls Ali had gathered among his courtiers, as Ali himself commented profusely on Byron’s own. All the tradition of luxury goods associated with the time and the city: jewelry, silver and brassware, brocade and gold-thread-embroidered velvet, sweets and pastries – and börek – still survive, but are mostly crap today, even the börek for which the city used to be particularly famous, and your best luck with the other stuff is in the city’s numberless antique shops.

ioannina-epirus-greece-the-antiqe-market-hip

identical to yiayia's belt

It also, unusually, and which I like to ascribe to Yanyalıs’ good taste and gentlenesss, has preserved four of its mosques, the two most beautiful in good condition even, and on the most prominent point of the city’s skyline.  It would be nice if they were opened to prayer for what must be a sizable contingent of Muslim Albanian immigrants now living there — who are practically invisible because they usually hide behind assumed Christian names — but that’s not going to happen in a hundred years, not even in Yanya.  Maybe after that…we’ll have all grown up a little.

ioannina165

janina

And, alone perhaps among Greek cities, only in Yanya can one open a super-luxury hotel that looks like this, with an interior décor that I’d describe as Dolmabahçe-Lite, call it the Gran Serail, and get away with it. 3***

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Digression Bakos. What’s the point? What does this have to do with Yugoslavia? I’m not digressing. I’m giving a prelude. “People don’t have the patience for this kind of length on internet posts.” I don’t post. I write, however scatterbrainedly. And not for scanners of posts. For readers. However few have the patience.

So. Croatians don’t eat börek. The prelude should have been enough for me not to have to write anything else and for the reader to be able to intuit the rest. But for those who can’t…

The graffiti on the wall in the photo at top is dated 1992, but I think it had appeared as a slogan as early as the late 80s when Slovenes and Croats started airing their completely imaginary grievances against Serbian domination of Yugoslavia and making secessionary noises. What it meant is that we, Hapsburg South Slavs, were never part of the Ottoman Empire and therefore never were subject to the barbaric and development-stunting influences of said Empire that Serbs and whoever those others that live south of them were, and therefore have the right to be free of the intolerable yoke of Serbdom. We don’t eat burek. Not only do we not eat burek, but you offer it to us and we’ll refuse in German – “Nein Danke” – just to prove how much a part of the civilized Teutonic world of Mitteleuropa we are. 4*** (I think it was Kundera who wrote about the geographical ballooning of “Central Europe” after the fall of communism, till “Eastern Europe” finally came to mean only Russia itself. ‘Cause as we now see, even Ukraine is part of Central Europe.)

Why this yummy pastry dish was singled out as a sign of Ottoman backwardness and not, say, ćevapi or sarma, I can’t say.

Cevapi54

Ćevapi — köfte, essentially — (above) and sarma (stuffed cabbage) below.

sarma raspakovana

And when I talk about Hapsburg South Slavs I’m obviously talking about Croats, because, let’s face it, who cares about Slovenes? And there may be very few, if any, compelling historical or cultural reasons of interest to care about Croatians either, except, that as most readers must know by now, I consider them the people most singularly responsible for the Yugoslav tragedy. And this post is my chance to come clear about why I feel that way. There may be lots of interpretations of what the “Illyrianist” intellectuals of Vienna and Novi Sad and Zagreb had in mind when they started spouting theories of South Slav unity in the nineteenth century; countless theories about how Yugoslavia or the original Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed; many analyses of what happened in Paris in 1919 and what kind of negotiations led to the Corfu Declaration; and reams of revisionist stuff written about exactly what Croatia wanted out of this union. But, for me, one basic fact is clear: that Croatians were always part of Yugoslavia in bad faith; that they wanted something out of the Serb efforts and Serbian blood that was decisive in defeating Austria in WWI, but that that something was independence, or greater autonomy within an Austria that they probably never expected to be dismembered the way it was – anything but what they felt was being subjected to Belgrade. And that became immediately clear upon the formation of the state when they – being, as Dame Rebecca calls them, good “lawyers” – began sabotaging the normal functioning of the Yugoslav government in any way they could, no matter how more democratic the Serbs tried to make an admittedly not perfect democracy, no matter how many concessions of autonomy Belgrade made to them. If there were any doubt as to the above, even when Radić and his Croatian People’s Peasant Party had turned the Skupština into a dysfunctional mirror image of today’s American Congress, even when a Macedonian IMRO activist working in tandem with Croatian fascists assassinated Serb King Aleksandr in Marseille in 1934, it was subsequently made brutally clear by the vicious death-spree Croatian, Nazi-collaborating fascism unleashed on Serbs during WWII, a true attempt at ethnic cleansing that dwarfs anything the Serbs may have done during the 90s — which is dwarfed again by what Croatians themselves did in the 90s again: the most heinous Nazi regime, “more royalist than the king,” as the French say — more Nazi than the Nazis — to appear in Eastern Europe during WWII.  And they have not been even remotely, adequately,  held to account by the world for any for any of the above; all this ignored, even as the West maintains a long list of mea-culpas it expects Serbs to keep reciting forever.

Alexander

King Aleksandr of Yugoslavia (click)

And so, when they got their chance in the 90s, with the backing of a newly united, muscle-flexing Germany, Croatians abruptly and unilaterally and illegally declared their long-wished for (but never fought-for) independence. And so did Slovenia; but again, who cares about Slovenia? It was a prosperous northern republic that may have held the same Northern-League- or-Catalan-type resentments against a parasitic south that was draining its wealth, but it was ethnically homogeneous and its departure left no resentful, or rightfully fearful, minorities behind. But Croatia knew, when it declared its independence – as did, I’m sure, their German buddies – that they were pulling a string out of a much more complex tapestry. And did it anyway. And we all saw the results. 5*****

So when a Croat says “Nein Danke” to an offer of burek, without even the slightest concern about his past reputation and avoiding any German associations, it is for me a chillingly racist and concise summation of Saidian Orientalism, a slogan that sums up not only the whole ugliness of the tragic, and tragically unnecessary, break-up of Yugoslavia, but the mind-set of all peoples afflicted with a sense of their being inadequately Western, and the venom that sense of inadequacy spreads to everything and everyone it comes in contact with. I’ve written in a previous post about Catalan nationalism:

All of us on the periphery, and yes you can include Spain, struggle to define ourselves and maintain an identity against the enormous centripetal power of the center.  So when one of us — Catalans, Croatians, Neo-Greeks — latches onto something — usually some totally imaginary construct — that they think puts them a notch above their neighbors on the periphery and will get them a privileged relationship to the center, I find it pandering and irritating and in many cases, “racist pure and simple.”  It’s a kind of Uncle-Tom-ism that damages the rest of us: damages our chances to define ourselves independent of the center, and damages a healthy, balanced understanding of ourselves, culturally and historically and ideologically and spiritually.  I find it sickening.

(see also: “Catalonia: ‘Nationalism effaces the individual…'” )

We’re signifying animals. And our tiniest decisions — perhaps our tiniest most of all – the symbolic value we attribute to the smallest detail of our lives, often bear the greatest meaning: of love; of the sacred; of a sense of the transcendent in the physical; of our self-worth as humans and what worth and value we ascribe to others; of hate and loathing and vicious revulsion. Nothing is an innocently ironic piece of graffiti – irony especially is never innocent, precisely because it pretends to be so.

And so I find anti-börekism offensive. Because a piece of my Theia Vantho or my Theia Arete’s börek is like a Proustian madeleine for me. Because I’m not embarrassed by it because it may be of Turkish origin. Because I think such embarrassment is dangerous – often murderously so, even. And because I think of eating börek — as I do of eating rice baked with my side of lamb and good yoghurt as opposed to the abysmally soggy, over-lemoned potatoes Old Greeks eat – as an act of culinary patriotism. 6****** And a recognition that my Ottoman habits, culinary and otherwise, are as much a part of my cultural make-up as my Byzantine or even Classical heritage are. Because just like Yugoslavia, you can’t snip out one segment of the woop and warf and expect the whole weave to hold together.

spinach-burek

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*1  One thing judo taught me — or rather what I learned from how long it took me, when I started, to learn to sit on my knees and flat feet — is how orthopedically horrible for our bodies upright, Western chairs and tables and couches are.  (By couch here I don’t mean the sink-in American TV couch, which you sink into until you’re too fat to get out of — that’s another kind of damage.)  Knee and lower back problems at earlier ages are far more prevalent in the Western world precisely because of these contraptions that artificially support and distort our body weight in destructive ways.  I remember older aunts in Epiros, in both Jiannena and the village, being able to sit on a low divan on the floor and pull their legs up under their hips with complete ease — women in their eighties and nineties and often portly at that — because their bodies had learned to sit on the floor or low cushions all their long and very mobile lives; they looked like they didn’t know what to do with themselves when you put them in a chair.  I’m reminded of them when I see Indian women their age at mandirs, sitting cross-legged, or with legs tucked under as described, through hours-long rituals, rising to prostrate themselves and then going down again, and then finally just getting up at the end with no pain and no numbness and no oyyy-ings.

**2  The two masterpieces of this point: the celebration of the sophistication and sensuality of the Ottoman sensibility and a trashing of Neo-Greek aesthetics — and by extension, philisitinism, racism and Western delusions — are Elias Petropoulos’ two books: Ο Τουρκικός Καφές εν Ελλάδι“Turkish Coffee in Greece,” and Tο Άγιο Χασισάκι “My Holy Hash.”  Part tongue-in-cheek, part deadly serious, both books are both hilarious and devastating.

***3  Unfortunately, to build this palace of Neo-Ottoman kitsch that would make Davutoğlu proud, one of Greece’s classic old Xenia hotels, masterpieces of post-war Greek Modernism and most designed by architect Aris Konstantinidis, was torn down, and most of these hotels have suffered similar fates throughout the country, as the nationally run State Tourist Organization was forced to sell off its assets by the privatization forced on Greece then and to this day.

Xenia Jiannena

The Jiannena Xenia, above, built in the old wooded grove of Guraba, just above the center of town, and, below, perhaps Konstantinidis’ masterpiece, the Xenia at Paliouri in Chalkidike. (click)

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Fortunately, Jiannena preserves one of Konstantinidis’ other masterpieces, its archaeological museum, below. (click)

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****4  Ironically, the strudel that Croats and Slovenes imagine themselves eating in their Viennese wet dreams is probably a descendant of börek; and take it a step further: let’s not forget that croissants and all danish-type puff pastry items are known generically as viennoiserie in French.  So the ancestor of some of the highest creations of Parisian/French/European baking arts is something that a Slovene says “nein danke” to in order to prove how European he is.  Talk about the farcicalness of “nesting orientalisms.”

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*****5  Of course, in every case, this assumption-cum-accusation, about the parasitic South draining the North of its resources, is patent bullshit.  Southern Italy, the southern Republics of Yugoslavia, Castille, Galicia, Andalusia, and the southern tier of the European Union today, may get disproportionately more in the allotment of certain bureaucratic funds compared to the tangible wealth they produce.  But they also provide the North, in every single one of these cases, with resources, labor and markets on which that North gets rich to a far more disproportionate degree and stunts the South’s growth in the process.  So haydi kai…

It’s become a common-place — and not inaccurate — observation that the catastrophic economic pressure Germany is today exercising on the nations of Southern Europe for the sake of making some sick moral point is the fourth time it’s wrecked Europe in less than a centurythe third time being when it decided, immediately upon reunification, to show the continent it was a political player again by practically single-handedly instigating the destruction of Yugoslavia.

******6

patattes

Over-oreganoed and over-lemoned — like much of Greek food — and overdone, over-salted and over-oiled, perhaps the only thing more repulsive than the soggy potatoes Old Greeks bake with lamb or chicken (though one horrible restaurant — which New Yorkers are for some reason crazy about: I mean like “take-the-N-train-out-to-Astoria-and-wait-for-a-table-for-an-hour” crazy — criminally serves them with grilled fish) is the serving of stewed meat with french fries.  You’ve hit the rock bottom of Neo-Greek cuisine when you’ve had a dry, stringy “reddened” veal or lamb dish accompanied by what would otherwise be good, often hand-cut french fries, sitting limply on the side and sadly drowning in the red oil.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Upon escaping from Greece…

7 Sep

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How do you go through the work of the poet whose opus consists of the sharpest and most accurate analysis of Modern Greek identity, and find the poem that displays perhaps the most razor-sharp understanding of all of them? I’ve always known that poet was Cavafy, but I wasn’t looking for that one poem or anything, when, just leafing through his stuff a few days before I left Greece this past July, I came upon one of my favorites, the following. Please have a look first:

Going Back Home from Greece (an unbelievably clumsy translation of the Greek title)

Well, we’re nearly there, Hermippos.
Day after tomorrow, it seems—that’s what the captain said.
At least we’re sailing our seas,
the waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt,
the beloved waters of our home countries.
Why so silent? Ask your heart:
didn’t you too feel happier
the farther we got from Greece?
What’s the point of fooling ourselves?
That would hardly be properly Greek. 
 
It’s time we admitted the truth:
we are Greeks also—what else are we?—
but with Asiatic affections and feelings,
affections and feelings
sometimes alien to Hellenism. 
 
It isn’t right, Hermippos, for us philosophers
to be like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up! 
 
No, that’s not at all right for us.
For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won’t do.
We must not be ashamed
of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins;
we should really honor it, take pride in it.

— Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Επάνοδος από την Ελλάδα

Ώστε κοντεύουμε να φθάσουμ’, Έρμιππε.
Μεθαύριο, θαρρώ· έτσ’ είπε ο πλοίαρχος.
Τουλάχιστον στην θάλασσά μας πλέουμε·
νερά της Κύπρου, της Συρίας, και της Aιγύπτου,
αγαπημένα των πατρίδων μας νερά.
Γιατί έτσι σιωπηλός; Pώτησε την καρδιά σου,
όσο που απ’ την Ελλάδα μακρυνόμεθαν
δεν χαίροσουν και συ; Aξίζει να γελιούμαστε; —
αυτό δεν θα ’ταν βέβαια ελληνοπρεπές. Aς την παραδεχθούμε την αλήθεια πια·
είμεθα Έλληνες κ’ εμείς — τι άλλο είμεθα; —
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις της Aσίας,
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις
που κάποτε ξενίζουν τον Ελληνισμό. Δεν μας ταιριάζει, Έρμιππε, εμάς τους φιλοσόφους
να μοιάζουμε σαν κάτι μικροβασιλείς μας
(θυμάσαι πώς γελούσαμε με δαύτους
σαν επισκέπτονταν τα σπουδαστήριά μας)
που κάτω απ’ το εξωτερικό τους το επιδεικτικά
ελληνοποιημένο, και (τι λόγος!) μακεδονικό,
καμιά Aραβία ξεμυτίζει κάθε τόσο
καμιά Μηδία που δεν περιμαζεύεται,
και με τι κωμικά τεχνάσματα οι καημένοι
πασχίζουν να μη παρατηρηθεί. A όχι δεν ταιριάζουνε σ’ εμάς αυτά.
Σ’ Έλληνας σαν κ’ εμάς δεν κάνουν τέτοιες μικροπρέπειες.
Το αίμα της Συρίας και της Aιγύπτου
που ρέει μες στες φλέβες μας να μη ντραπούμε,
να το τιμήσουμε και να το καυχηθούμε.

What gives this poem such pride of place as an analysis of Greek identity? For me, it starts with the simple joy both passengers feel as they’re arriving home – not approaching Greece, but leaving it. “Upon Escaping from Greece” would be my choice for the title’s English translation, because it’s clearly an experience of suffocation that the two friends have experienced that has started to lighten up for them as they cruise east through the breezy waters of the Mediterranean.

Cavafy has become an object of a resurgent cult in Greece, partly due to last year’s 150-year celebration (he was born in 1863), that’s a kind of an “emperor’s-new-clothes” phenomenon for me; not because his new clothes aren’t real, but I feel that few Greeks actually know what it is they’re suppose to be liking so much. I much prefer people who just say up front that they don’t like him. He’s “childish” they say, in response to his prose-like, early modernist experiments. These are the people who like their poetry with a capital “P”; they want it to rhyme: “φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό…” and they want it to have epic scale heroics and ‘the thousands dead under the axles’ and ‘the living giving their blood’ in the heroic deed of ‘making the sun turn,’ along with some myrtle and oleander and jasmine thrown in for Aegean effect. (What if you’re from Epiros and you don’t know from oleander and jasmine, just tsouknida and pournari?) Others only like a very emphatically stressed “some” of his poems: these are the ones turned off by his sexuality, but who feel they can’t say so openly in 2014 – or to me. (And the degree to which that whole part of his work, a good half, was ignored by the official festivities – they wanted only “Ithaka” or “Waiting for the Barbarians” or “The City” — was amazing.*) The Messenger for example, found a publisher for his paternal grandfather’s, my great-grand-uncle on my mother’s side, fascinating memoirs, which span the whole period from the late nineteenth century and the end of Ottoman rule to WWII. Except his grandfather met a Jewish guy who screwed him over when he was a young immigrant in New York in the 20s and he included the unfortunate phrase: “Hitler was right for doing what he did to them.”**  The publisher thought maybe that line should be cut. But the Messenger stuck to his cast-iron principles and insisted it be left as is, because it would be “censorship” to remove it.  Hardly an upholder of the most liberal sentiments on issues of that kind, I have a feeling that if the comment hadn’t been about Jews, he wouldn’t have minded the censorship so much. Just a few months earlier, for example, he hadn’t thought it was “censorship” to cut a slightly too homoerotic line from a Cavafy poem he read at his father’s funeral, for fear that our landsmen, our chorianoi, would be scandalized.

These elements and others: that Cavafy preferred the tragic dénouement to the epic climax; the unconsummated to the fulfilled; that he preferred the coded to the open and disclosed, and not out of choice; but learning to love what fate had made him, he learned to love the beauty of code – its poetry — the furtive touch over some cheap handkerchiefs; that he loved the ethnically and culturally and religiously mixed margins of Greek history and the poignancy of characters who had to straddle those margins and did not write a single poem about its Attic glory days (who are all these half-breed Egyptians and Parthians and Jews and other exotic anatolites he’s always making us read about anyway? Where’s Pericles and Aristotle?); that he understood life and humanity as fundamentally amoral, and morality as a convenient weapon to be used against the unfortunate few or often just a bad joke. All this did not do much to endear him to his contemporaries, along with the fact that he famously disliked Greece and especially Athens (the latter kind of unfair in my opinion: Athens at that time must’ve been at its most beautiful and charming), and the straight, homophobic white boys of the Generation of the ‘30s in particular, despite Seferis’ famous eulogy, had no time for him. The most vehement, Theotokas (unfortunately, one of my favorite Greek writers otherwise) scathingly declared Cavafy, in his Free Spirit, a “dead end” (a common trope, whether conscious or not: the gay man begets no issue and is thus fundamentally allied with death); that his modernism was an experiment that had been taken to its logical conclusion and that the Alexandrian was now a decadent (same difference), a point of departure for what Greek letters should move on from next and not a road open for them to continue down.

That right there is the grand and egregious error. Because Greek culture and identity – in a way that makes any sense to who we are today – simply didn’t exist until the Hellenistic (and then Roman/Byzantine) periods that Cavafy chose, almost exclusively, to write about in his historical poems. The conglomeration of Indo-European tribal units who all spoke dialects of similar languages and had started coalescing into larger city-state forms of political organization by the mid-first millennium B.C. have nothing to do with us. They may have started calling themselves “Hellenes,” but let’s not forget that the Iliad does not contain one, single, blessed mention of that holy word, and was compiled only a century-and-a- half or so before the Golden Periclean Age we’re so obsessed with.

It was because he was fascinated with the true origins of Greek identity, the cauldron of cultural mixture that Alexander created that later became condensed into a more distilled Greek-speaking, Orthodox idea, that Cavafy wrote about those periods so widely and studied them so deeply. And being from such deep aristocratic Constantinopolitan roots and an Alexandrian, how could he not have felt that basic idea on a gut level.

This is another reason the mention of the words “Macedonia” and “Alexander” makes my hair stand on end. The Macedonians (by which I mean Slav Macedonians) are ridiculous in their attempt to appropriate Alexander as a phenomenon of their own culture, though many observers have written about how this conscious policy of “antikvatsiya” (“antiquization”) on the Macedonian government’s part is, partly, a response to Greek intransigence on every other grounds. But you can see from how Greeks respond to Macedonian moves that Greeks don’t get Alexander either. Alexander is not a culminating point of Hellenic history, where the great hero brought Hellenic civilization to the “borders of India.” Alexander is not even a Greek herohe very early in his career quickly became déraciné, as Mary Renault keenly observed. Alexander is where Greek history starts. It’s all really the other way around. Alexander is what brought the East, and its incomparably greater and older civilizational achievements, to us. He drove us deep into contact with that wider world, cementing what had always been our bonds to those lands and those peoples he grew to love so much, and giving us as much in return, actually more, than what we gave them. He created the great creolized cultural space that a universal, cosmopolitan Greek identity was first born in and that later – when the name for “universal, cosmopolitan identity” changed, due to political circumstances, from “Greek” to “Roman,” – changed along with it, but which left the Helladic peninsula — or “the Hellenic” generally — behind permanently as a focus of any kind. Until the twentieth century.

Alexander Renault

Hermippos and his friend, Greeks going home to Antioch in Syria or Seleucia in Mesopotamia, can’t be Greek in Greece. It suffocates them. They don’t fit into that nonsense, antiquarian straightjacket. It’s “beneath” them, as Greeks, to reject the wider world that they’ve long been an intimate and inseparable part of. Greek means cosmopolitan to them and they can’t be Greeks without that quality. It would be the most provincial thing for them to do, to act like provincials who try to hide their “easterness”:

“…like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up!”

Eastern Mediterranean(click)

The nation-state is bound up inseparably with provincialness. And narrowed tribalism. And provincials hide. Not true Greek men. Cavafy’s “petty kings” are the Neo-Greek bourgeoisie, from the statelet’s origins down to our day, with their still immovable disdain for the East, who don their ancient fineries and try to make the world call them Hellenes and have no clue how ridiculous they’re being. Provincials dissimulate – not true Greek men — and that dissimulation has been the main thread of Neo-Greek culture since the late eighteenth century, so much so that all perspective has been lost. Hermippos and his buddy aren’t provincials. They’re Greek alright – from some of the richest, most sophisticated and Greekest cities in the world; but they understand the larger cultural context they’re a part of, and they’re too supremely secure in their Greekness to put down the Egypt and Syria that ‘flow in their veins.’ Greece tries to take that away from them. I imagine the Athens they had to go study at as a kind of tired old Cambridge, MA, still resting on its now dried-up laurels. But they’re too Greek to let Greece do that to them. Sorry to get repetitive. It’s an attempt to make the paradox – a wholly healthy and natural one – sink in.

Greece still tries to do that to you. And in the crisis mode it’s in today, it tries even harder because its sad inhabitants’ perspectives have become narrower and narrower to the point where they see nothing of the rest of the world and there’s simply very little language left you can share with them. “Η φτώχεια φέρνει γκρίνια,” the Greek says – “poverty makes for kvetching” — and though many people I know have faced the current crisis with the best kind of Greek dignity and humor in the face of adversity, too many others have lapsed back into ideological craziness, or just a frustrated lashing-out bitterness, or were always there but kept it hidden and now think that it’s more okay to express things openly; it’s hard to tell which.

One friend or relative has become a Golden Dawn apologist if not supporter: “What’s a young man who loves his country supposed to do?” I dunno; but half of Dostoevsky is about what to do with the unguided idealism of strong young men and phenomena like Golden Dawn wasn’t one of his answers; he strictly warned us against them, in fact. Another wants to take a DNA test to make sure he has no Albanian genes: actually believes such a thing exists – a chromosome for Albanian-ness and a test that will detect it. And this is one of those uncomfortable situations we’ve all been in where this is coming from the spouse of a good friend, so you have to keep your silence and you can’t just say: “That’s nice _______, Hitler and the Nazis were into that kind of thing too.” If I could I would’ve also asked if he wanted to see my DNA chart too, which is probably chock full of “Albanian-ness” and if he would then feel the need to maybe keep me away from his daughters. Another is still obsessing, as we go on twenty-five years since the break-up of Yugoslavia, on the “Macedonian issue.”*** And after hours of mind-bogglingly pointless conversation – “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” said Jonathan Swift — you take a step back and realize that that’s all that’s ever mattered to this guy. The hundreds of thousands dead produced by the Yugoslav disaster, the millions displaced, the destruction of the last part of the former Ottoman sphere where there was still some hope of survival for a multi-ethnic society, the greatest bloodletting in Europe since WWII, right on our doorstep…  He doesn’t give two shits, nor has he let one blessed thought or idea on that series of calamities occupy even one of his brain cells for a second. All he cares about is the “Macedonian Issue.” Twenty-five f*cking years later. And he doesn’t find such narcissism the least bit obscene.  “The world is burning, και το μ**νί της Χάιδως χτενίζεται.”  I won’t translate.

Whether or not they’re becoming more extreme or just showing their true colors more, it’s certain that I’ve become more radical – not in my ideological positions, which are what they always were – but in my inability to tolerate their stupidity and growing narrow-mindedness. I’m always ready to leave Greece when the time comes, but this time it had become truly unbearable. There were just too many people that it had become too uncomfortable to even be around. And stumbling on this half-forgotten Cavafy poem was no accident I feel.

And so I took that great big breath of relief that Hermippos and his friend took on the deck of their boat as the shores of Cyprus came into view when I myself left for Serbia back in July. I had to get out of this place – and disassociate myself from it and its inhabitants — if the fact that I’m Greek was going to continue to be to at all tolerable to me. I’ll always love arriving; with the new flight path south over the Attic midlands passing right over the town and beach — over the very apartment building — where I spent my childhood summers, I’ll always choke up a little at the sight of the brown hills of Attica. But when I’m ready to leave, I gotta go – and fast – and this year more urgently than any other.

And I can see myself spending more and more of my future time in “Greece” in Albania with my relatives – “deep” Greeks who don’t have the ball-and-chain of a nation-state tied around their ankles; in Istanbul – with smart young Greek and Turkish kids who are trying to do something intelligent and productive about our relationship; maybe in Cyprus – which Kosmas Polites called the last surviving remnant of his beloved lost Ionia and where I have friends to whom I owe long over-due visits; or just here in Queens — where every block and street corner and subway stop and church bears a piece of my Roman-ness.

Because Greece, man… Greece just cramps my Greekness.

Egypte, Alexandrie, le front de merAlexandria (click)

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

* And the thing is, if you ignore his erotic poems, I find it hard to believe that most people can even understand, much less really appreciate, the rest — the historical poems.  Who understands the religious and cultural sociology of fourth-century Alexandria enough to have the proper context to apprehend all of “Myres: Alexandria, AD 340”?  Who the hell knows where Commagene is?  Or who Alexander Jannaios was?  Or what a handsome Jewish prince is doing with the name Aristovoulos?  Or why he was murdered and “those sluts Kypros and Salome” are now gloating in private?

** It’s amazing.  And disturbing.  Anti-semitism and the extent of its popularization and the accessibility of its language.  Not only can one accusation of unethicalness — and from a Greek at that! — be used to tar a whole people, but Jews are the only people with whom that one charge leads straight to the gas chambers so easily, in people’s minds and on people’s tongues.  Not “what a sleazebag.”  Or “what a nation of sleazebags.”  But straight to “Hitler was right…”

*** Yes.  Believe it or not.  The “Macedonian” “issue.”  More on that to come.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Syria Is Not A Country” — Andrew Sullivan lets fly another one of his kotsanes and then rushes to cover his tuches

27 Jan

Sykes-Picot

He got enough flak for the post (read through all the ctd.’s too — very interesting) and I feel kind of bad giving him more after so many months, but it’s been in the back of my mind since the fall and the argument is so irritating that I had to put in my own two cents.

It seems that every Sullivan-type pundit rushed out in 2001, or more probably 2003 when they were making their Iraq predictions, and bought some book about the Paris Peace Conference: “Paris 1919” “The Peace to End All Peace” — it’s an entire genre in itself.  And there they found out about some magic secret, like in a Dan Brown novel, called the Sykes Picot line, that supposedly explains everything about the Middle East’s dysfunction, and like a little kid who realizes he’s said something that the adults have found smart or funny, they go around repeating it ad nauseum: “Sykes-Picot Line”…”Sykes Picot Line” … “this guy Sykes and this guy Picot”…”The Sykes Picot Line…”  Listen to Sullivan’s own pedantic tone:

“Syria as we now know it was created by one Brit, Mark Sykes, and one Frenchman, Francois Georges-Picot in 1920. Originally, it included a chunk of Iraq (another non-country), but when oil was discovered there (in Mosul), the Brits wanted and got it. With that detail alone, you can see how valid the idea is of a Syrian “nation” is.”

The whole point is that most of the nations of the present Middle East are artificial, colonial creations — arbitrary lines drawn on a map –and that explains everything.  First, these lines are not arbitrary.  Whatever you might want to say about Sykes or Picot, or Churchill or Lloyd George or Clemenceau — that they were gross imperialists (which is not even redundant really but simply a tautology: “The King is a gross monarchist…”) or anything else, they weren’t ignorant or anistoretoi.*  The units they put together corresponded, as so many of Sullivan’s readers point out to him, with regions with long, historically recognized identities.  Where you look at a map of the Middle East and do see straight artificially drawn lines, they were drawn through places where nobody lives.  Otherwise, within every one of those lines, there has always existed a shifting, changing, re- or de-centralizing identity, but one with clear continuities nonetheless.

(*Anistoretoi – ανιστόρητοι – is a Greek word that I like very much, because it literally means “un-historied” — historically ignorant, obviously, but there’s something about “un-historied” that just seems to me like a sharper condemnation of inexcusable lack of knowledge — no? — so you’ll see it on this blog here and there.)

Thankfully, no one says this about Egypt, because it so obviously has a longer continuous history of unified consciousness than even China.  But what Sullivan, so damn pompous — or just so gay and so Magdalen — dismisses as the “non-country” of Iraq, the flatlands of the Tigris and the Euphrates basin, even when semi-splintered into northern, central, and southern parts, as Iraq seems to be doing now, was always seen as a unit: certainly geographically but even culturally.  The two regions the Greeks called Libya and Cyrene may correspond to a west-east division that is still apparent in modern Libya (Tripoli and Benghazi), but their union is not necessarily artificial or inherently problematic.  The headland to the west of Libya we call Tunisia was the first region called Africa by the Romans, where their ancient enemy Carthage had once stood.  And the region where the northwestern section of the Fertile Crescent bends over and meets the Mediterranean has been called Syria since the Greeks and was probably seen as a recognized cultural entity far before them.  The mountainous Mediterranean littoral of this Syria — what’s now Palestine and Lebanon and maybe a new Alawite state waiting to be born — was always a space slightly apart and more heterogeneous, but Syria nonetheless.  (The arid plateau across the Jordan, inhabited by the Moabites and Edomites and Nabataeans and all those other peoples the Israelites are always defeating in the Old Testament because God loves them more, was also a region of a recognized coherence of sorts not just made up by the Brits when they decided to call it Trans-Jordan.)  Syria was the birthplace of Christianity as an organized religion.  Syria was the Romans-Byzantines’ richest and most sophisticated eastern province.  Syria was the prize catch for the Crusaders; the real studs among them who could, got themselves a piece of booty there, not the “Holy Land.”  When Zainab bears her lament to the people of Shaam (Syria or the Levant) in Agha Shahid Ali’s beautiful poem she cries out: “Hear me Syria…” addressing the people of the seat of Umayyad power in Damascus — the one in Syria — that had massacred her sacred family.  Sykes and Picot didn’t make this stuff up.

What Sullivan wants to say, and what’s truly problematic about his assertion, is that Syria is not a country because it’s not ethnically or confessionally homogeneous, and dismissing it as a state for those reasons is a far more eurocentric, and anistoreto, an idea than he may know.  Because if those are our standards for nation-hood, there are very few countries in the world.  By those standards, if Syria is not a country, then England and France aren’t countries either.  Because a polity called the Kingdom of England, or the Kingdom of France — both of which one could argue were “artificially” created by the powers that be of the time — had existed for far longer than Englishmen and Frenchmen have.  And the process by which a unified national consciousness was created to match these pre-existing political units — England or France — was a long and complex one and one that followed the particular course it did only in Western Europe and trying to force it onto the peoples of states in other parts of the world is impossible and extremely dangerous.  Forget what Sullivan thinks is the Machiavelian divide-and-rule politics of the colonizers that pitted ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq against each other; these colonizers were probably never as devilishly smart as we like to imagine them.  What Sullivan finds inconceivable is that one can be a Latakian Alawite or a Sunni from Homs or an Aleppo Christian or a northeastern Kurd and still function as a citizen of a legitimate country called Syria; that these groups have always had boundaries that fluctuated or were permeable; and, that though relations between them historically were better at some moments than others, they were brought together in this place called Syria by organic historic processes and not corraled together there by outsiders.  And by believing that it’s inconceivable they can all function as citizens of this place, he’s actually participating in the creation of a discourse that pits these groups against each other in a manner far more fatal than the supposed manipulations of the British or French.  He’s creating a poetics of sectarianism, pure and simple.  One only has to look at how reinforcing ethnic differences, often with the naive supposition that satisfying each group’s demands will lead to peace, only exacerbated the tragedy — the tragedies — of Yugoslavia in the 90s to see where thinking like Sullivan’s leads.

To his credit, Sullivan gives the Ottomans credit for maintaining a semblance of peace and stability in the region for several centuries.  But the Ottomans had molded, over the centuries, a complex and flexible system of negotiated corporatism and autonomy that recognized the different groups of their empire and yet that held them together in one unit successfully until modern nationalism started making that impossible.  What Sullivan is doing with blowhard statements like the above is just continuing that process: making it impossible for the peoples of the region that have to live together to do so peacefully and productively.

Finally, as a somewhat tangential but important aside, I’d really be interested in finding out why Sullivan doesn’t think that India is “not a country.”

And, folks, what is going on in Syria?  I’ve been in France for a month and my French isn’t good enough to follow the news and the American stuff on-line seems to have less and less coverage.  Has some sort of stalemate been reached?  Is some kind of compromise being forged?  Are people just tired?  Anyone want to enlighten me?

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