Tag Archives: Christians

Why Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Love Affair with the Ottoman Empire Should Worry The World — Alan Mikhail

5 Sep
Selim I

By Alan Mikhail September 3, 2020 7:00 AM EDT Mikhail is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Yale University. His new book is GOD’S SHADOW: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co.)

At the end of August, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated the Islamic New Year with aplomb. Fresh off his conversion of the monumental Haghia Sophia to a mosque, he converted another former Byzantine church, the fourth-century Chora church, one of Istanbul’s oldest Byzantine structures. The day after that he announced the largest ever natural gas depository in the Black Sea. This followed another recent discovery of natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Both of these areas are hotly contested zones of international competition between the powers around these seas. Later that week he welcomed a delegation of Hamas to Ankara, where he expressed support for Palestinians in the wake of the recent announcement of an agreement between Israel and the UAE.

All of these moves project Erdogan’s vision of Islamist strength into the world. Standing up for Islam at home goes hand in hand with securing natural resources and imposing Turkey’s power abroad. It also goes hand in hand with domestic repression. The Islamic New Year saw Erdogan further tighten his grip on social media freedom and consider pulling Turkey out of what is known, now farcically, as the 2011 Istanbul Convention, a treaty of the Council of Europe that commits countries to protecting women from domestic violence. Democratic peoples in Turkey, the Middle East, and around the world should worry.

Much has been written about Erdogan’s attempts to “resurrect” the Ottoman Empire or to style himself a sultan. There is truth here. But to understand Erdogan’s political agenda and horizon we must be specific about which Ottoman sultan Erdogan strives to be. It is the empire’s ninth sultan, Selim I.

Selim died 500 years ago in 1520. It was during his lifetime that the Ottoman Empire grew from a strong regional power to a gargantuan global empire. For Erdogan, this sultan from half a millennium ago serves his contemporary needs. Selim in many ways functions as Erdogan’s Andrew Jackson, a figure from the past of symbolic use in the present. Selim offers a template for Turkey to become a global political and economic power, with influence from Washington to Beijing, crushing foreign and domestic challengers alike. He helps Erdogan too to make his case for Islam as a cultural and political reservoir of strength, a vital component of the glories of the Ottoman past, which he seeks to emulate in contemporary Turkey against the dominant elite secularism that has reigned since its founding.

We should be wary of Erdogan’s embrace of Selim’s exclusionary vision of Turkish political power. It represents a historical example of strongman politics that led to regional wars, the attempted annihilation of religious minorities, and the monopolization of global economic resources. In addition to his attempts to monopolize natural gas reserves around Turkey, today this takes the form of Erdogan’s foreign military ventures in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. At home, he has gone after Turkey’s Shiite community, Kurds, intellectuals, Christians, journalists, women, and leftists. Erdogan cultivates his own Sunni religiosity to position Islam at the center of Turkey’s domestic agenda, with the church conversions the most potent recent symbols of this. Erdogan’s represents a political logic of zero-sum competition that pits Turkey against Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the region and over claims of global Islamic leadership.

Erdogan likes Selim because he made Turkish global political power possible. From 1517 through the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire maintained the geographic shape Selim won for it, dominating the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. In 1517, the Ottomans defeated their major rival in the region, the Mamluk Empire based in Cairo, capturing all of its territory in the Middle East and North Africa. This more than doubled the empire’s size. This explosion of the Ottoman Empire into the Middle East turned it into the region’s foremost military and political power and one of the world’s largest states. The Ottomans now controlled the entire eastern half of the Mediterranean and thus dominated the globe’s most important trade routes overland between Europe and Asia and by sea through the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The Turkish Republic inherited much of that power after the empire’s demise and the republic’s rise in 1923.

While every modern Turkish ruler has distanced himself from the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, and Islam, to attempt to project a more “western,” “secular,” and “modern” face for the republic, Erdogan is the first who has actively embraced the Ottoman past and the empire’s Islamic heritage. Here too Selim proves key to Erdogan’s image of his rule. Selim’s defeat of the Mamluks made the Ottoman Empire a majority Muslim state for the first time in its history, after over two hundred years of being a state whose population was mostly Greek Orthodox. [my emphasis] With this victory, Selim became the first Ottoman sultan to rule Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, thus earning the title of caliph and cementing the empire’s global Islamic credentials. If Selim was the first Ottoman to be both sultan and caliph, Erdogan is the first republican leader to profess to possessing both titles.

Like President Donald Trump’s purposeful deployment of the symbols of Andrew Jackson—prominently displaying his portrait in the Oval Office and defending his statues—Erdogan has trafficked publicly and specifically in the symbolic politics of Selim in Turkey. His most striking act was to name the recently constructed third bridge over the famous Bosphorus Strait after Selim. Erdogan has also lavished enormous resources on Selim’s tomb and other memorials to his rule. After winning a 2017 constitutional referendum that greatly expanded his powers—a process marred by irregularities—Erdogan made his first public appearance at Selim’s tomb. Staged as a kind of pilgrimage, there Erdogan returned to the long-dead sovereign his kaftan and turban that had been stolen years before. This far-from-subtle first act after winning a referendum that gave him near-limitless power made clear who Erdogan’s role model is.

Erdogan and his Islamist party colleagues regularly describe themselves as the “grandchildren” of the Ottomans. In this very pointed genealogy, Erdogan purposefully skips a generation—that of Turkey’s republican fathers since 1923—to leapfrog back in time to when the Ottomans ruled the globe with their particular brand of Turkish Sunni politics, to Selim’s day when wars and domestic repression led to wealth and territorial power. Recreating a political program akin to Selim’s is a dangerous prospect for Turkey and the Middle East and indeed the world. To make Turkey Ottoman again requires the kind of violence, censorship, and vitriol that Erdogan has indeed shown himself ready to use. The universal lesson here is that calls for returns to perceived greatness, whether in Turkey or in United States, selectively embrace controversial historical figures, mangle their history, and elevate hatred and division.

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The duck and okra and Armenian massacre chapter from Loxandra — “shit happens” — my translation

4 Sep

It’s actually hard to say which came first: whether Maria Iordanidou’s Loxandra was the first literary manifestation of the archetype of a Greek woman of Istanbul, or whether life imitated art and Politisses started unconsciously behaving like Loxandra.  Joyful, funny, hovering and caring around all her loved ones but even strangers – even Turks – worldly for her degree of education and fundamentally cosmopolitan if even unawares, obsessed with good food, and always finding happiness and beauty and pleasure in the world, despite her people’s precarious position in their wider environment.

Iordanidou’s novel captures more perfectly than any other literary representation what Patricia Storace has called the “voluptuous domesticity” that Greeks associate with life in Anatolia and Constantinople.  But what’s always moved me and struck me as so intelligent about the novel — each of the some ten or more times I’ve read it — is that it’s not all fun-and-games and yalancı dolma and Apokries in Tatavla and Politika nazia.  Right along side the pleasure and humor rides a brutally honest portrayal of the “tolerant” and “diverse” Ottoman society that is a favorite fantasy of certain progressives, on both Greek and Turkish sides of the coin.  Iordanidou doesn’t fall into that trap, just as she doesn’t fall into the alternate trap of portraying all Turks as murderous animals, along the lines of Dido Soteriou’s Matomena Homata (Bloodied Lands) or Veneze’s Aeolike Ge (Aeolian Earth).  She simply goes for the starkest realism: Ottoman Turks/Muslims and their subject peoples didn’t live together in harmony but rather lived in parallel universes that rarely intersected; the novel takes place at a time when – as Petros Markares points out in his essay in the book’s latest edition – “life was heaven for the minorities and hell for Muslims.”  But even in that paradise, when the two parallel universes collided, the result was hellish for everyone.

I’ve translated the chapter that takes place during the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in 1896, particularly the shockingly urban episode that occurred in Istanbul.  In August of that year, the Dashnaks, Armenian freedom-fighters-cum-terrorists took hostages at the Ottoman Bank in Karaköy and the operation turned into a mini-civil-battle with groups of Armenians and Turks taking up position on either side of the Galata Bridge. 

From Wiki:

Massacres:

Retribution against the ordinary Armenian populace in Constantinople was swift and brutal. Ottomans loyal to the government began to massacre the Armenians in Constantinople itself. Two days into the takeover, the Ottoman softas and bashibazouks, armed by the Sultan, went on a rampage and slaughtered thousands of Armenians living in the city.[11] According to the foreign diplomats in Constantinople, Ottoman central authorities instructed the mob “to start killing Armenians, irrespective of age and gender, for the duration of 48 hours.”[12] The killings only stopped when the mob was ordered to desist from such activity by Sultan Hamid.[12] They murdered around 6,000[1] – 7,000 Armenians. Within 48 hours of the bank seizure, estimates had the dead numbering between 3,000 and 4,000, as authorities made no effort to contain the killings of Armenians and the looting of their homes and businesses.

Loxandra and her family live through the massacring of their Armenian neighbors in Pera in terror, hiding inside their shuttered house for a week, till they finally run out of water and have to start interacting with the neighborhood vendors.  Iordanidou does take a swipe at Turkish passivity and fatalism though in the closing part of the chapter as Loxandra hears repeatedly from the Turkish merchants she has to deal with, in reference to the killing: “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”  This “Yağnış oldu” chimes like a bell or rather a kick in the gut on the chapter’s last page.  Thousands dead, “their homes looted, their churches destroyed… Yağnış oldu”

Shit happens, in other words.

Loxandra soon starts to forget, or at least pretends to.  In the end, the chapter is a disturbing look at the compromises we make in order to go on living with the Other, despite the evil he may have done you, or you him.  Otherwise life would be intolerable.  For “…too much sorrow doth to madness turn…” Loxandra concludes in the final sentence.

Loxandra: Chapter 5

Glory be to God, because To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to be born, and a time to die…a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Loxandra just figured that for her to suddenly find herself living in the Crossroad*(1) that meant that her time had come and that this had to be her world from now on.  She accepted her new life the way that she accepted Demetro’s death.  What can you do?  That’s how that is.

The Crossroad was nothing like Makrochori, and the beautiful old life she had there – it was like a scissor had come and snipped it off — slowly became a sweet receding dream.  Cleio started to yearn for twilight in Makrochori, the sky, the sea, their garden and the shade of their plane tree.  She had even lost her father’s library, because during the move to Pera, Theodore had pilfered most of it and now all she was left with were Kassiane, Pikouilo Ali Ağa and Witnesses at a Wedding.  She started to avoid the cosmopolitan life of Pera, which she at first had thought heavenly, and she lamented her lost paradise.  Exactly opposite to her mother.

Because Loxandra never wept for lost heavens.  Nor did she ever go in search of joy.  It was joy that went in search of Loxandra.  And it would usually pop up in the most unexpected moments.  The angel would suddenly descend and stir the waters in the fount of the Virgin of Baloukli and for Loxandra it was like she had been baptized anew.

Glory be to God.  And great be the grace of the Virgin.

The fat little ducklings of August and the okra make good eating.  It’s a sin to let August pass without eating ducklings with the okra.

So on the eve of the Virgin’s Loxandra bought ducklings to cook them with the okra, and despite her exhaustion, she went down into the kitchen to start preparing the birds.  She was especially tired because the day before she had stocked up fuel for the winter.  She filled the cellar with charcoal, and then she’d call the Kurds to come hack up the lumber she would use for the stoves.

In the City at that time, just as your milkman was Bulgarian, your fishmonger Armenian, your baker from Epiros, so your lumber supplier was a Kurd.  So Loxandra called the “Kiurtides” to come chop up her winter stock of lumber.  Early in early morn’ — όρθρου βαθέος — they would dump a good thirty “chekia” of tree trunks and thick boughs and then the Kurds would come, brawny giants from deep in Anatolia in salwar and black kerchiefs wound around their fezzes and with their shiny, well-sharpened cleavers to chop up the wood.  The Kurds were meraklides when it came to their blades.  Even all the way in his village in the depths of Kurdistan, the Kurd could never be separated from his cleaver, and when the time came for him to emigrate his mother would present his cleaver to her son, the way a Spartan woman gave her son his shield.  And when a young Kurd got to an age of fourteen or fifteen and started feeling the first longings of his youth, he never took flowers in hand.  Instead he’d take his knife and go about the mahalades crying out: “Dertim var, dertim”… “I’m in pain, in longing” and would look around to see if any of the shutters or windows all about would open.  The young girl that would first answer his call would open her window and cry: “Dertine kurban olurum”, meaning “I’ll sacrifice myself to your longings”.  And the young man would exclaim: “Bende baltaim burada vururum”, meaning “And so I nail my knife here.” Then he went home and sent his mother to retrieve his knife and at the same time, get to know her future daughter-in-law.

That’s how important the cleaver was for a Kurd.  And you’d be better off cursing out his Prophet rather than saying anything offensive about his cleaver.

Loxandra was afraid of Kurds, just the way she was afraid of Turks.  But when it came to important things like her yearly supply of firewood, well…there was no holding her back nor kid gloves to wear in treating them:

“Does this fit, you son-of-a-dog?” she’d yell, suddenly fearless and waving a big, bulky knot of wood above the Kurd’s head.  “Does this fit, bre, in my stove?”

She would get so angry that she almost might have said something about his cleaver.

But oddly enough the Kurds never got angry and never felt insulted by her, and would do any favor she wanted.  They would stack the chopped up lumber in her cellar and their departure was always warm and accompanied by the usual güle güle and reciprocal good wishes and a light winter, may-it-be, and here…take this for your little boy and here take this for your wife, and all the rest.

That night, Loxandra was exhausted and all night long she saw bizarre dreams of sharp meat cleavers and a big butcher’s block piled with chopped meat.  She just attributed the dreams to her experiences that day with the Kurds.  “Oh”, she thought upon waking: “Ιησούς Χριστός Νικά” “Jesus Christ Victor”…and she went down into the kitchen to brown the ducklings.

How could she know what the future had in store for them?  How could she know that the treaty that was signed eighteen years before in San Stefano had been revised and revised again so that Bulgaria could be an autonomous state, Romania and Montenegro were now independent, Russia took Kars and Ardahan and Batumi, Britain took Cyprus, Greece got Thessaly and a part of Epiros, but the Armenians got nothing out of all that had been promised to them, and they started an uprising, so that Sultan Hamid roused up his people, and he brought Kurds with their cleavers and they had organized a massacre of Armenians…right there…in the middle of the streets of the City…on the eve of a feast day like this…the Assumption of the Virgin…  How could she possibly know all of that?

So, blissful and clueless, she went down to prepare the ducklings, and she was in a happy mood, but in just such a good mood that morning.  The day before they had received a letter from Giorgaki asking for Cleio’s hand in marriage.  The letter was a bit nutty, but what was important is that he wanted to marry Cleio.  It started like this:

“In these difficult moments my mind races to you and only you, my refuge and haven, my peaceful port…”

And riding on that inspiration – and drunk – Giorgaki wrote that he missed his boat and that he had gotten stuck in Genoa with Epaminonda, alone and abandoned and penniless, because, being human, they had had a bit to drink to forget their dertia and night had fallen on them in the alleyways of Genoa, and in the dark Epaminonda had started bugging a Catholic priest: …psss…psss…thinking he was a woman, and the neighbors had gotten all riled up and Epaminonda had gotten arrested, but the Greek consul in the city was a countryman of Giorgaki’s and he got the authorities to release Epaminonda from the holding pen, and in a few days the consul would put them on a ship to Constantinople to celebrate the engagement — that is, if Loxandra accepted him as a son-in-law.  And before closing, he added: “My lips will never again touch even a single drop of alcohol.”

How could she not be happy?!  She set the pan on the fire and as soon as the birds started to soften up, she tasted the sauce to check the salt.  Suddenly she heard the stomp of running feet in the street.

Bre, Tarnana, get up and go out and see what’s going on”, she said to him.

But Tarnana was too tired to go see because to see he had to climb up onto the sink because the kitchen was in the basement. So all he could see the was the sight of running feet.  But Loxandra grabbed a chair for herself and climbed on top of it to get a better view.  And what does she see?  A Kurd with his cleaver in hand was trying to break down the door of Monsieur Artin.(**2)

HA!  The bloody dog, may-a-wretched-year-befall-him!

She got down off the chair and grabbed the large soup ladle.

“Just wait and see what I’ll do to him!”

She gathered up her skirts and ran up the stairs.  But she came crashing into Cleio.

“It’s a massacre, mother, a massacre!” cried Cleio in a semi-faint.

Loxandra paid her no mind.

“What massacre shmassacre you talking about, bre?  Some Kurd is looking to break down Monsieur Artin’s door. Get outta my way!”

Sultana came down too and along with Cleio and Tarnana they stuffed up her mouth so that her cries couldn’t be heard on the street.  They closed the shutters and they all hid in the charcoal cellar.

But even in the cellar you could hear the blows from the street, the running feet, and the dying cries of the wounded.  There would be a short few moments of quiet and then it would start again.  Any time there was a bit of silence, Loxandra would grab her ladle.

“It’s just the Kurds for heaven’s sake, may-the-Devil-take-them-and-carry-them-off! Let me go see what’s happening!”

When the frenzy finally stopped an employee from Thodoros’ office came to bring them some groceries and to see how they were.  He said there had been a mass slaughter of Armenians but that no Greeks had been hurt unless they were harboring Armenians in their house, and Thodoro sent the message that God forbid anyone find out you’ve got Tarnana in the house.  In the Crossroad things had calmed down, but the killing was continuing in the suburbs.

That was enough to finally scare Loxandra and she hid Tarnana under her bed.  She was afraid to get near the window or even open the shutters.  The street vendors started to come by as usual.  The salepçi (***3) came by.  The offal-vendor came by, and as soon as they smelled him the cats started growling.  She locked them up in the charcoal cellar.  “Shut up, bre, they’ll come and cut your throats too.”  The milkman came and knocked.  No one inside made a sound.  We’ll do without milk.  Drink tea.  But on the seventh day the water supplier came by and she had to open up because they were running out.  Hüseyn came in limping and emptied two goatskins into the clay amphora they stored water in. 

Hüseyn says good bye sweetly and soon the egg-seller comes knocking on her window.

“Kokona (****4), Aren’t you going to buy any eggs?”

Loxandra cracked open the window, took a look at him, and thought: “Could my egg-vendor Mustafa be a Hagarene Dog (*****5) too?”

The next morning the street watchman came by to say hello, expecting his usual cup of coffee.

Haydi, Tarnana, make him some coffee.”

She opened up the front door and sat on the steps, thinking again: “Is he or isn’t he?”  Finally she couldn’t contain herself:

Bre, Mehmet, I want you to tell me the truth, but, I mean, I want the truth, ok?  Were you out on the street the other day with the killings?  But tell me the truth.”

“Valah! Billah!  Mehmet wasn’t involved.”

“Oooff… And I was going to say…” And she began to sob.  “Why such madness?  What did poor Monsieur Artin do to them and they slaughtered him like that?  No, Tell me!  What did he do?”

“Vah, vah, vah”, Mehmet said.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the liver vendor a bit later.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the chickpea vendor too. “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”

Some ten, some twenty thousand people were murdered.  Their homes were looted.  Their churches destroyed.  Whole families were wiped out…“yağnış oldu.”

The dogs licked the blood off the sidewalks and life started again as if nothing had happened.

Tarnana came out from under the bed too, Elegaki came over too and they all got together in the kitchen to prepare the sweets for Cleio’s engagement.  Loxandra wiped her tears and made sweet out of sorrow, because that’s how that is.  And let me tell you something, too much sorrow, well…”that way madness lies.”  I mean, there are limits!

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*(1) The Crossroad, Το Σταυροδρόμι, (above) is what Greeks called the spot in central Pera where the now Istiklâl Caddesi (the Isio Dromo or the Grande Rue) intersects with the steep uphill Yeni Çarşı Caddesi (never understood what the New Market, which is what Yeni Çarşı means, refers to) coming from Karaköy, and the Meşrutiyet Caddesi which then takes a curve at the British consulate and ends up — now — in one of the most dismal urban plazas in Istanbul and a run-down convention center, that were built over a pleasant little park that was built in turn over an old Catholic cemetery. Mercifully, one side of the street is still architecturally intact and you still get one of the most splendid views of the Horn and the western part of the Old City from there. By the Gates of Galatasaray Lycée, that’s still the starting place for demonstrations and protests — whatever are allowed, anyway… By the Cité de Pera arcade and the central fish market (never understood why the fish market is up at the top of one of Istanbul’s hills and not on the seafront somewhere) that is full of both trashy, touristy restaurants and really good meyhane finds as well, once almost all owned by Greeks and Armenians.

If Pera is the center of Istanbul, the Crossroad is the center of Pera. And in Greek usage it meant the whole surrounding neighborhood as well.

The old Meşrutiyet Caddesi
The Gates of Galatasaray

(**2) Artin immediately registers to a Greek-speaker as an Armenian name.

(***3) Salep (Salepçi is a salep vendor) is a hot drink made from ground dried orchid tubers, milk I think, and cinnamon on top. It’s supposedly fortifying — in what way common decency prevents me from saying — but aside from the fact that “orchid” comes from the Indo-European root for “testicle” (as in “αρχίδια,” or as in “στα αρχίδια μου”) the finished drink has a slightly creepy, slippery texture and translucent color that definitely reminds one of semen. I happen to really like it, but I don’t know if that’s just because of its status as a historical remnant or oddity. You can find it in Athens too, like on Ermou, still. But it’s a hot drink, meant for wintery consumption, so it’s weird for Iordanidou to have a salepçi coming around on the street in the middle of August.

(4****) “Kokona” is a term used in historical literature to address not just Christian women, but Greek women, Ρωμιές “Roman” women, specifically. It’s never used to address Armenian or Jewish women, for example. It appears in literature and various accounts dating from even early Ottoman times. In the Byzantine Museum here in Athens (the name of which, at some point recently, was changed to the Byzantine and Christian Museumin case we forget that Byzantium was a Christian culture 🙄) there are several pieces of ecclesiastic embroidery: priests’ stoles, Epitaphio shrouds — that date from the 16th and 17th century, and are attributed to specific women: Kokona Angela, Kokona Marigo, so it was more than just a slang term of address. No one I know can tell me the root of the word, nor can anyone say why it was used just for Greek women and not other gâvur/kaffr women.

(5*****) “Hagarene Dogs”Αγαρηνά Σκυλιά – is an obviously unpleasant term used as far back as mid-Byzantine times to refer to Arabs/Muslims. The rub is that it was the first peninsular Arabs and Muslims who themselves identified with the term. Hagar, as we know, was the slave wife of Abraham, who bore him a child, Ishmael, because his own wife, Sarah, was already 80 years old plus and unable to have a child. Then the angels came to visit and told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a child; Sarah heard from the kitchen and laughed. But indeed, she did bear him a son, Isaac. And Abraham promptly tossed Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert, but they were saved by an angel that descended and struck the ground out of which a fresh spring of water gushed:

Hājar or Haajar (Arabic: هاجر), is the Arabic name used to identify the wife of Ibrāhīm (Abraham) and the mother of Ismā’īl (Ishmael). Although not mentioned by name in the Qur’an, she is referenced and alluded to via the story of her husband. She is a revered woman in the Islamic faith.

According to Muslim belief, she was the Egyptian handmaiden of Ibrāhīm’s first wife Sara (Sarah). She eventually settled in the Desert of Paran with her son Ismā’īl. Hājar is honoured as an especially important matriarch of monotheism, as it was through Ismā’īl that Muhammad would come. [my emphasis]

Neither Sara nor Hājar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but the story is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Ibrāhīm’s prayer in Sura Ibrahim (14:37): “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.”[20] While Hājar is not named, the reader lives Hājar’s predicament indirectly through the eyes of Ibrāhīm.[21] She is also frequently mentioned in the books of hadiths.

I have no idea why early Arabs chose — not that it was a conscious process, but being unconscious makes its function even more powerful — out of all of Jewish scripture, to consider themselves and Muhammad (all together now: PUBH) descended from a scorned slave woman and her unwanted son, the first-born of Abraham cast into the desert, especially given how Ishmael is described in Genesis:

Genesis 16:12 “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him.”

Unless “a wild man” suited their needs. Almost to an archetypal degree, conquest narratives justify themselves as retribution for a historical wrong, or as a necessary process by which the morally and ethically superior impose themselves on the inferior: from the Israelites and Canaan, to the Romans taking revenge for their defeated Trojan ancestors, to the Turkic Conquest of Rum and the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, to the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, to American Manifest Destiny, to Nazi lebensraum to the current Islamist and Turanian rantings of Mister Erdoğan and the bitchy historical insults he’s constantly hurling our way.

So the Hagar and Ishmael story might be perfect soil for the sprouting of Sunni Muslim triumphalism. And if that triumphalism hits the wall of modernity and suddenly finds itself not in charge anymore, if the triumph narrative doesn’t go the way it should, well then we get the Nietzschean man of resentment and we can talk about that forever. But the prophecy that “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him.” certainly seems to have been fulfilled, as we find so much of the contemporary Ummah stewing in rancid testosterone, lamenting their “humiliation” and “disrespect” and convinced that the purpose of the rest of humanity is to deny them their Allah-given superior place in the sun.

And the rest of us just don’t get it. But their mission is that we do.

And wouldn’t you know, just today, Mr. Erdoğan gives us a Friday sermon that pretty much says it all and in language far less wordy than mine:

“Turkish Conquest Is Not Occupation or Looting – It Is Spreading the Justice of Allah”

Loxandra, of course, doesn’t know any of this. She’s just heard the legends of the “Hagarene Dogs” growling at the walls of the City before the conquest, and imagines them to be real barking dogs who can take human shape and turn into her milkman or egg vendor.

Betty Valasi as Loxandra in the 1980 Greek TV serialization of the novel

And now I need some good salsa, ’cause the legacy of “our parts” — τα μέρη μας — can weigh on you like a glob of hardened lead.

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“What Christian Artifacts of the Middle East Can Show Us About Tolerance” — and let’s rethink “Tolerance”

18 Nov

Not much.  Though this Times review of Parisian exhibit seems to think so.  The money quote is still…

On one news channel Jack Lang, the former culture minister who is the director-general of the Institut du Monde Arabe, called Christianity an “essential component of the Arab world,” and warned of an “emergency” for eastern Christians, who constituted 20 percent of the region a century ago, but make up no more than 4 percent now [my emphasis], according to the Pew Research Center. Their continuing migration, and persecution, threatens the diversity and the vibrancy of the Arab world itself.

And let’s start budging the idea of Muslim egalitarianism a bit by rethinking the word “tolerance.”  “To tolerate” is actually a fairly unpleasant word when used in other contexts; it means to put up with, to be able to stand.  Saying you tolerate an — I dunno — asshole brother-in-law or a friend’s semi-racist ideas, is not a description of a pleasant condition or emotion.  And though “tolerated” is a good, very general, description of the position of non-Muslims in Muslim history — they were “put up with” — let’s hold Islam up to the brighter lights of words like “accepted” or “included” and see how well the myth of tolerance holds up.

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 3.04.17 PM.pngRoger Anis’s “Blessed Marriage,” taken in Cairo, addresses contemporary Christians in the Middle East. Credit Roger Anis

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Why I can’t stand watching Rafael Nadal win

12 Jun

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I’m just going to come out and say this stuff and I’m sure not a few readers will end up considering me a quack or some quasi-Nietzschean fascist aestheticizer of things and never log on again. But, hey, that’s the price…

I’ll start with the most petty and irrelevant reasons. I have a serious repellent reflex towards Catalans. This is largely because I love Spain so much, and their anti-Spanishness really gets my goat. I find their Gallic delusions that they’re so much more European and Mediterranean and civilized than the rest of Spain to be insufferable. (And some day I’ll get around to dismantling the cult of “Mediterranean-ness” itself that’s grown since the 1980s and that I find a completely false and fabricated pop-multi-culti identity that grew out of tourist literature, the public relations campaigns of olive oil companies and a popular sprinking of Braudel, and nothing else. When even Turks start acting and feeling like they’re “Mediterraneans,” you know that a discourse is b.s. and needs to be taken apart; the extremeness of the hype surrounding Barcelona is part of this, and is why I love the gravitas and even crudeness of Madrid and Castille so much more deeply.)  I find Catalans’ noli me tangere squeamishness about how they shouldn’t have to suffer by being a part of this barbaric country of monarcho-fascists and Catholics and gypsies and bull-torturers to be racist pure and simple. They’re Iberian Croatians, in short. There are plenty out there who will get the analogy, I believe.

But none of that has any real bearing here.  And poor Rafa shouldn’t have to be the object of my scorn just because he’s Catalan; Ferrer is too and I think he’s one of the most compelling and wonderful to watch tennis players out there.

I simply hate watching Rafael Nadal win because he’s ugly.

And by ugly I don’t mean short and mousey-looking or that his thinning hair is always already a greasy mess from before the match has even started. I mean ugly with a lack of that kind of inner force that manifests itself as a visible form of athletic charisma and magic.

Since the beginning of institutional athletics in human civilization, meaning the Greeks, of course, we’ve always expected our athletes to partake of “some part of beauty.” To have something that made us feel, even if just partly, that a god were being incarnated here in this man, in our presence. “En-thusiasm” in English comes from the Greek ενθούς, ‘possessed by a god, inspired.”  Whether it’s the gorgeous dance of a great basketball or tennis player, or the weightlessness and super-human strength of a gymnast, or the painful duet of two wrestlers or martial artists of any kind, or just the sublime bulk of a rugby player or Olympic weightlifter, or the highly choreographed beauty of a good American football game (yes, it’s a beautiful, highly choreographed, strategically intricate game, much more compelling than…wait…let me swallow first…soccer), we need to experience this glow, which is not a conventional handsomeness or prettiness that I’m talking about, but the need to sense this power and this powerful yearning for glory and victory emanating out of this being, who we want to feel is slightly more just-above-human than the rest of us are.

You never feel any of that glow emanating from Rafael Nadal. It’s just the same cold, technically precise game and the same cold, pissy look on his mug: the most emotion we’re treated to is if things start going a little badly and the pissy mug just gets a little pissier. After the match, if you mute your set and if the score box isn’t showing on the bottom, you almost can’t tell if he’s won or lost. Just the same cold shaking of hands and greasy slinking off of the court.

TOPSHOTS Spain's David Ferrer returns aDavid Ferrer – Picture: AFP/Getty – (click)

Compare this to the elegant gentlemanliness of a Federer. Or the brute, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, clanking mediaeval long-swords game of a Valencian muscle-brick like Ferrer (above).  Or the young, beautifully British, sportsmanly hunger of Murray. And then there’s my dear, sweet Nole, of course, who in every endearing way is still a teenager of sorts, and may have the purest soul of any professional athlete out there. (Talk about “the tenderness of the warrior.”)  No matter what his rank or seed are, or how well his season has been going, he’s as desperately trying to keep his nervousness under control before a match as a young volunteer going into combat for his first engagement, because I think that that’s what he genuinely feels in his heart each time. And when things go badly, and he tragically can’t stop them from going even more badly, because, like an adolescent, he beats up on himself mercilessly because he feels like he’s failed to prove himself, failed to earn his “red badge,” he inspires the purest Aristotelian feelings of pity in me.* And yet, his dignity in defeat is always impeccable. And his howling glory in victory is all his own too. Lots of people don’t like that or feel it unsportsman-like. Trust me, Olympia was a scene of howling winners just like him – and probably then some.  Finally, the spectacular grace of Nole’s feel for his own body is unmatched by anyone in the sport.  Almost like a bullfighter, you sometimes feel he’s risking an easy point just for the gracia and and pure elegance of a braver, more dramatic play.

(And Michael Phelps…let’s not even go there.  See his tag box for posts on him if you want.)

novak-djokovic-volley (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

You feel no sense of any of that pathos or agon in Nadal’s game. None. So when Djoković loses to a man like Federer, or Ferrer – which I don’t think he ever has – or even Murray, I say helal olsun,** να’ν καλά ο άνθρωπος, he deserved it. And I don’t walk around with this churning feeling in my stomach for days afterwards.

But when Nole loses to a Rafael Nadal – I can feel the gods of our ancestors looking down and saying: “What the hell? This can’t be right…”

At least a big, Russian kouklara like Sharapova won the women’s…

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Maria Sharapova, Women’s Campion at Roland Garros 2014. (click)

See also July 3rd post: “Why I love watching Rafael Nadal lose.”

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* Aristotelian “Pity”In his Rhetoric, Aristotle defines “pity” thus: “Let pity, then, be a kind of pain in the case of an apparent destructive or painful harm of one not deserving to encounter it, which one might expect oneself, or one of one’s own, to suffer, and this when it seems near.”

Effing Greeks had said everything, hadn’t they?  Everything else is a footnote.

** “Helal olsun” means, roughly, “may it be blessed” in its mixed Arab-Turkish vocabulary.  This is where the Greek: “χαλάλι του” comes from, “it went to good cause, to deserving reason, good for him or her.”  The opposite is when somethings has gone “χαράμι” — haram — meaning gone to waste, not to blessed purpose, blown off into the wind, spent badly, made unusable by its having been defiled or tainted.  “Χαράμισα τα νιάτα μου” are lyrics you’ll hear in many Greek songs: “I made haram of my youth” — the implication usually being “with you.”

I was talking to a friend here about the term “Helal olsun” and she said that you could use it in Turkish the way you do in Greek, but also that at Muslim funerals the imam asks the gathered congregation if anyone has any outstanding grudges or feels he is owed something by the deceased, and the congregated reply — I don’t know if in unison or individually: “Helal olsun” — “No, may he be blessed,” (or maybe: “even if I do…helal olsun.”)  And I found that unbearably just and beautiful.  And something to remember when Christians feel we have a monopoly on mercy and forgiveness.  It’s the Quran that says that “Mercy is a greater virtue than justice.”

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