Tag Archives: Christopher Hitchens

“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

“Correction…”: See, nobody knows when Tishabuv is.

31 Jul

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Sorry; I couldn’t resist.  I wrote a few posts about the observation of Tisha B’av (or Tishabuv) a few years ago during the Romney campaign, which I’m reposting below, and the initial date confusion here seemed to confirm my, upon rereading, slightly snarky take on the observance.

I know I offended the website Jewish London (see below) when I wrote those posts, the writer of which felt personally attacked.  I certainly hope I haven’t offended the folks at Kehila Kedosha, the shul of the Jewish community of Jiannena, my mother’s hometown, to which I feel intimately connected (see an old Purim post, also below).

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Tisha B’Av?

Sorry, but it’s pretty funny that Romney’s trip has made of Tisha B’Av such a central metaphor for contemporary Israeli politics and the problematics of Jewish conscience (see previous post).  In old Ashkenazi humour — at least as I know it from Brooklyn — Tisha B’Av, Ti-shabuv in Yiddish pronunciation, is used ironically because it’s such an obscure holiday that no one ever knows when it is.

“When is he gonna finally paint the kitchen?  Who knows?  At Tishabuv…”

“If you’re waiting for the perfect girl to come along, you’ll be waiting till Tishabuv…”

And the like…

But Beinart’s piece, Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism to Support Israel and Buttress His Own Campaign, is truly beautiful, expressing the best tradition of Jewish moral self-reflection, which time and again has saved them and saved us too, in ways too complex to get into here:

“Sorry, but that largely misses the point. Tisha B’Av is less about steeling Jewish resolve against our enemies than fostering self-reflection about the Jewish misdeeds that allowed those enemies to prevail. The Talmud says that God allowed the Babylonians to destroy the First Temple because the Jews committed idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual sins. Similarly, the Romans are bit players in the Talmud’s intricate explanation of the chain of Jewish sins that led to the Second Temple being destroyed. Among those sins—none of which easily lends itself to a GOP stump speech—are “baseless hatred” among Jews and a concern for ritual stringency so obsessive that it trumps concern for human life. [my emphases]”

What other people, even if they lapse so often and so often tragically, are so honest and clear-eyed about their faults?

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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A reader writes: “Tishabuv?”

(Sorry…only now getting a chance to respond to some of these)

The Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the Roman suppression of the first Jewish revolt in 70 A.D. (click)

In reference to Jadde posts: “Romney in Israel: How High To Jump?“and “Tisha B’av?,”  “Jewish London” writes:

“it seems appropriate that he should visit on Tisha B’Av, a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people”

Oooooofffff…  This is like teaching…when you’ve spent hours researching and preparing, and then another half hour conducting, a brilliantly detailed and structured, thrillingly executed lesson on participial phrases, only to have one student, while you’re catching your breath right after, ask a question that proves none of the class has understood shit the entire time you were lecturing.

My point was simply that there’s a genre of Ashkenazi jokes, among the many, based on “When is Tishabuv?”  Beinart’s point, “Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism…” is that in the long tradition of Rabbinic and Talmudic learning, Tishabuv has been a time to reflect on why a certain tragedy has struck Jews and not just commemorate that tragedy in a victimized and ad nauseum form.

Yes, brother, “terrible calamities befell the Jewish people” on Tishabuv.  The Second Temple, the One and Only House of God in the One and Only Holy City, was levelled.  Jews were slaughtered in unbelievable numbers.  In trying to figure out whether these events happened as part of the Roman response to the Jewish rebellion of 70 A.D. or that of 135 A.D. — which has never been clear to me — I learned that there’s a trend of Jewish mystical thought that fascinatingly believes all Jewish tragedies occurred, occur and will occur on Tishabuv: the selling of Joseph into slavery; Moses’ shattering of the first tablets at seeing the Jews revert to idolatry; the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian captivity; the destruction of the Second Temple; the first massacre of European Jews at the beginning of the Crusades; the issuing of the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492; the day the first train left for Auschwitz – all become mystically assimilated into Tishabuv.  That’s a tragic and moving idea.  However, I do know that the Roman suppression of the revolt of 135 A.D. was so brutal in its massacre and expulsion of Jews that it’s easy to say that it officially marks the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.

Tishabuv is also intimately related to Jewish messianic thought.  The revolts themselves were partly inspired by messianic expectations.  And the crushing of those hopes by the greatest cluster of disasters to befall Jews before the Holocaust made Rabbinic thought retreat into the sharpest of all cautions against any such expectations.  This, I suspect, is what marked the final rupture between Christian Jews and the rest of Jewry.  It’s not that Jews didn’t succumb to the temptation again.  Kabbalism is a mystic desire to correct the world that is a barely concealed messianic impulse.  And there was the great fever of messianic ecstasy that swept the Jewish world in the seventeenth century, when Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi from Smyrna, started declaring himself the Messiah – one of the most fascinating and, in the end, sadly absurdist, episodes in Jewish history.  Zevi, either a con artist or a psychotic, had raised Jewish expectations to such a frenzied pitch, that when he ended up converting to Islam and becoming a ward of the Sultan, it sent shockwaves of psychological distress, not only through Ottoman Jewry, but throughout the entire Jewish world; in fact, due to renewed persecution and massacres at the time in Eastern Europe, the effects on Ashkenazi Jewry may have been even greater than on Sephardim.  The crisis sent the Eastern European Jewish universe careening into two different directions: on the one hand a trend that reemphasized Rabbinical textualism and that eventually responded to the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, the movement out of Germany that attempted to bring European Jewry into the modern world; and on the other, a retreat into the most introverted mysticism, out of which Hasidism, and an even greater immersion in Kabbalistic thought, grew.  To some extent, this split is one that old New York Jews still codedly refer to, whether they know it or not, as “Litvaks” and “Galizianers” (explanation in subsequent post).  See Michal Waszynski’s 1937 film version of S. Ansky’s Dybbuk.  I think there’s no greater primary text of Jewish spiritual impulses and its conflicts.

Lili Liana as Lea, the bride who becomes possessed by the spirit of her wronged beloved on her wedding day to another man, in Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish film, the Dybbuk. (click)

(Two interesting notes that I’d like to make here.  One is that the Jewish revolts of the early first millennium were partially led by political groups whom we, today, wouldn’t hesitate to compare to, not only the first New England Puritans, but even the Taliban, and who engaged in certain tactics, like the surprise slaughter of masses of innocent civilians that we like to associate with Palestinian “terrorism” – or that of…errrr….Irgun, Haganah, the Stern Gang, Mssrs. Ben Gurion and Begin and all the rest.  The other is that maybe the real basis of Tishabuv jokes is still unconsciously based in messianic expectations, the way older Greek women who, say, have missed a bus, will mumble: “Oy, now we’ll be waiting till the Second Coming.”)

But if “Jewish London” is to understand my point, he needs to better understand the transformation that Tishabuv has undergone in Israel since its founding, because I suspect that, not living among the most vibrant Diaspora communities in the world, Israel is his model.  Obviously, Zionism didn’t need to worry about the Messiah, since it had solved the “Jewish Question,” as must be obvious to anyone who throws even a cursory glance at the Middle East today and sees the peace and happiness in which Jews there live can attest to, and no Messiahs need apply anymore.  Tishabuv had been forgotten by the Jewish Diaspora, reduced to such an obscure holiday that it was the object of humour; I’ve lived most of my life in a city, and worked for a great part of it in an environment, where, believe me, it was impossible to not know that a great, or even just important, Jewish feast was being celebrated or was coming up, and Tishabuv wasn’t one of them.  In Israel, however, the “secular” Jewish state raised Tishabuv to new, official status as a holiday-fast day.  But not as a day of introspection; but as a day to remember, as “Jewish London” puts it, “a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people.”  This is because “calamities” are Israel’s justification for being; it was Israel’s down-payment and it’s still how it pays its mortgage; it’s the currency in which it trades.  And the ignorant Romney’s visit to the Western Wall with Netanyahu or whoever on that day, was just another slimy exchange in that same currency — and, in fact, a dishonour to centuries of Jewish suffering.

But back to the Diaspora, and a time when Judaism hadn’t locked itself into a barricaded nation-state.  More than just self-reflection and introspection, the repeated, century-after-century dashing of Jewish hopes may have generated an even more important element in the Jewish psyche: doubt.  The great Christopher Hitchens, quotes the equally great Rebecca West in his introduction of her book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and her own ruminations about the origins of anti-Semitism:

“West reflects on the virus of anti-Semitism, shrewdly locating one of its causes in the fact that ‘many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews.  They knew only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.’”

That’s why on Easter night, the night of the Resurrection, I always remember to have one, only one, glass of wine that’s offered to the suspicion – the same one born out of the fact that Elijah never actually walks through that open door at Passover — that this whole idea is bullshit.

So what is Tishabuv for (when we know when it is)?  Introspection, moral responsibility, skepticism, doubt and the saving beauty of being eternally able to convert suffering into humour and irony – these last may be the most important — a pretty whole summation of what Jews have given us, given me, at least.

When “Jewish London” can tell me what Israel has given us, he should let us know.  These Days of Awe might be the perfect time to think about that.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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It’s Purim tonight! — something like a letter to my mother…

 

Nicolas_Poussin_E_before_Assuerus_c.1640Esther before Assuereus, Nicolas Poussin, circa 1640 (click)

For Purim this year I’m posting this poem by Greek Jewish poet Joseph Eliya, who was from my mother’s hometown of Jiannena in the northwestern Greek region of Epiros.  (See the tab box on the right for the hundred references to Jiannena and Epiros on the Jadde).

The Jews of Jiannena were Greek-speaking Romaniotes, descendants of the Jewish communities of Greece, the Balkans and Asia Minor that existed since Hellenistic times and that held out culturally against the flood of Spanish-speaking Sephardim that found refuge in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They were called Romaniotes because Romania (the kingdom of the Romans) was what the Byzantines called their polity and what we too – till the early twentieth century – also called ourselves: “Romans” – which it always aggravates me to have to explain.  But it is one of the rich ironies of history that the only inhabitants of Greek lands that stayed faithful to their true name for themselves were Jews, while we sold our souls to the West for the promises and prestige we thought the re-excavated neologism “Hellene” would curry us from the Frangoi.

So Eliya’s native language was Greek, and though he wrote some of the most beautiful translations of Jewish Biblical texts into Modern Greek, particularly one of the Song of Songs and a series of love poems to Rebecca, in a rich, florid, archaic idiom, he also wrote homelier poems in a folksier Jianniotiko style like this one, “something like a letter to his mother” on the occasion of the feast of Purim.

For those who don’t know, Purim is the day that the Esther, the Queen Consort to the Persian King Ahasureus, and her uncle Mordechai, foiled the plans of the king’s evil minister Haman, to have the Jews of the kingdom massacred.  It’s generally celebrated by listening to the book of Esther in synagogue, the Megilla, sending food and giving charity to the poor and dressing up in costume, an aspect of the celebration that may be an interborrowing due to the fact that it tends to fall around Christian Carnival.

Eliya was a poor schoolteacher who died at the young age of thirty, and I believe this poem was written when he was away from his beloved Jiannena, and his beloved mother, on a teaching post in the Macedonian city of Kolkush.  It’s a sad, therefore — and very Epirotiko in that sense and in tone — poem, that’s in sharp contrast to the happiness of the holiday.

This poem also has an added emotional subtext for me.  My mother’s best friend when she was in elementary school was a Jewish girl, Esther — Esther Cohen.  “Astro” they called her, in the Epirotiko diminutive; “Tero” is also another form for the same name.   And as a little girl from a peasant family recently moved to Jiannena from their village in the mountains just to the south, I could tell that her stories about her friendship with Astro were her first lessons in tolerance and difference, whether she would’ve called them that or not (we certainly wouldn’t in our day…I’ll leave them for another post).  And she may have known it even less, but her friendship with Astro may have prepared her for life in New York in ways she was probably never conscious of.  And what she may have been even less conscious of — though maybe I should give her some credit: I do know for sure that my mother’s stories of her friendship with Astro served as my first lessons in decency and openness to those different from you.  Of that there’s no doubt.  So this post is something like a letter to my mother too.

Always they ended in a kind of distracted silence, for she never knew what had happened to her friend during the war: “Τι νά’χει γίνει η Άστρω;” she would mumble.  “What can have happened to Astro?”  And what was strange was that she could’ve found out; there were surviving Jews in Jiannena that she knew and there were even Jewish Jianniotes in New York she could have asked.  But it was like she didn’t want to know.  Even odder, I’ve had several opportunities to find out as well; Kehila Kedosha Jiannena, the Jianniotiko shul in New York on Broome Street has records on the whole community.  But it’s been almost as if I don’t want to know either.

Here is Eliya’s original Greek, with my free verse translation below.

Purim

Purim

(Something like a letter to my mother)

It’s Purim tonight!  The thrill and joy of the great feast!

Light in our souls, and a smile on the lips of all.

And I, my orphaned mother, the refuse of exile*

Waste away in a chill joyless corner.

It’s Purim tonight!  And the synagogues open their arms wide to the faithful children of my ancient people.

And they read again with wonder, from the white parchment, the triumphs of Mordechai and Esther through the ages.

It’s Purim tonight!  Young and old gather at home, at hearth, to hear the Megilla’s** tale.

And I mother – with the burning lament of exile – tearily thumb through my Bible in a lonely corner.

Your son won’t be bringing you candles or flowers from shul*** tonight, mother.  And if your crying is bitter, don’t lament too deeply.  My Fate has been decided, and poverty — poverty, mammele**** – has no feel for sympathy.

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Notes on my translation:

*”Exile” here does not imply political banishment or anything of the sort.  It’s the word “ξενητιά” as Eliya spells it, that’s so central to understanding the Greek and — it probably goes without saying — the Jewish soul, but is so devilishly difficult to translate precisely.  It means absence — absence from the place where one should be, from one’s heart’s homeland.  Through and because of emigration and poverty most often but not always; it’s often something one feels without having had to leave.  The Turkish “kurbet” is the word closest in meaning that I know from another language.

**Not to be disrespectful, but the Megilla, the Book of Esther, is quite long, and is proverbial, in at least Ashkenazi humor, for being tedious and monotonous to listen to — but one bears it.  It’s exactly the same as the Greek term “εξάψαλμος,” the Hexapsalm, a selection of six psalms that is always read at the beginning of Matins and I’m not sure if during other offices, and would be beautiful if correctly and carefully recited according to the rules of Orthodox recitation.  Unfortunately, it’s usually read in an incomprehensible blur of mumbled boredom by the lector or cantor, which actually makes it even more tedious and irritating to sit through.  It’s usually a good time to go out for a cigarette.  I just always thought the similarity was funny.  “Ωχ, τώρα θα’κούσουμε τον εξάψαλμο,” a Greek will say with dread when faced with a berating lecture or kvetch session or someone’s tiring complaint that’s so repetitive you just tune it out, just like a Jewish New Yorker will say: “I really can’t listen to his whole Megilla right now…”

***In the second verse, Eliya uses the Greek word for synagogues and I translated it as such.  In this last verse, he uses a homier, Epirotiko form whose intimacy I felt was better conveyed by “shul.”

****And last but not least, we run into the painful translation issues that are generated by the fact that English is almost completely lacking in a system of diminutive terms of affection, especially compared with the highly elaborate diminutive terminologies of Slavic languages or Yiddish (or I assume Ladino) or even Greek.  At no point in the poem does Eliya refer to his mother as “mother” but rather “my little mother” — “μανούλα’μ” — “manoula’m.”  This is a term of affection used often by Greeks and especially Epirotes to refer to anyone, not just one’s mother, not even necessarily a female (Athenian idiots making fun will darken or double up the “l” to make it sound more northern and Slavic and hickish; for me it’s just more beautiful…); one will say to a young boy or even a friend: “Come here, manoula mou… What’s wrong, manoula mou?”  Just like “mammele” is used in Yiddish.  But I felt that using “mammele” throughout would have sounded too Yiddishy and cute, and so I saved it for that last, most intimate verse, and used mother elsewhere.  After all, this is a poem that above all is an expression of the most Jewish kind of mother-son bond.  But Yiddish and its many beauties is cursed now, by its sudden, dramatic extinction in Europe, and its shadow survival only in American entertainment, with the danger of always lapsing into a default comic tone.  It’s sad.  The translation from the Greek of the last line of the poem, for example: “poverty has no feel for sympathy…” would literally be: “…but poverty doesn’t know from sympathy.”  But then I’d be writing Larry David dialogue.

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FINALLY, I’d like to thank Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos for the scan of the Greek text of the poem.  I’m in Athens now, away from my library and couldn’t find it anywhere online.  I wrote to her and within five minutes she had written back to me with both “Purim” and “Esther,” another of Eliya’s poems about the biblical heroine.  She suggested that “Esther” is a poem more appropriate to the happiness of Purim than the melancholy of “Purim.”  Unfortunately, it’s written in a much more difficult, semi-biblical, archaic language that I didn’t have the time to translate.  I promise her however, that as soon as I get a chance I will work on it and post it on the Jadde — out of gratitude to her helping me out for this, and out of gratitude to the one-woman pillar of the Kehila Kadosha Janina community that she is.  I’d also like to thank the whole congregation there for always making me feel so welcome when I attend on Erev Simchas Torah; the rabbi and his stentorian voice, the three young men who lead prayer and are perhaps the community’s most precious resource — let’s see if I remember correctly: Seth, the rabbi’s son, and the brothers Andrew and Ethan, who though they’re from a Sephardic family from Berroia, devote their shabbes and yontif time to energizing this tiny community in need of outside help.  The warmth of the community has always moved me and I’m grateful for both the odd need for Jewishness in my life and the link to my mother and her childhood that they unknowingly provide.  Thank you.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

To the Messenger and Co. — An Isaac Bashevis Singer story…

5 Jan

…full of the pain they don’t know and the humor they’re lacking…

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The New Yorker last week published a story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s: “Job–to anyone who wants to read it because they haven’t hidden it from non-subscribers.  Mostly I want to dedicate it to the Messenger and his parea.  It’s a tale told to Singer by someone — I dunno if it’s a fictive character or not — in the 1970s.  It was written by Singer at the time, but was not translated from Yiddish to English until March-July, 2012 by David Stromberg.  Much like Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate (which I touch on briefly here), it deals with the suffering of a twentieth-century Jewish everyman, sandwiched between the nightmare of Nazism and Stalinism, with bitter, caustic humor completely intact (which Grossman couldn’t really do).

Why do I dedicate this to the Messenger?

Because I remember distinctly in one late-night email battle-session, when he wrote me: “And why is it so wrong for bourgeois guys — like the both of us [his emphasis] — to have an ideology or an ideological schema?”  It’s a slightly tricky question to be asked in Greek and to have to answer from a Greek-speaker but native English-speaker’s perspective, because the word “αστικό” in Greek means urban and urbane and bourgeois, in its socio-political sense, all at once, so it’s difficult to separate.  But I quickly clarified the difference between my ethnic-American, working-class New York borough background and his petit bourgeois Athenian upbringing.  And yet I couldn’t put into words — or rather — couldn’t, at the time, find an example or definition to support the difference I was trying to establish.

But we can sort of close in on what I meant…  Someone — Simone Weil, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Rebecca West, Walter Benjamin, the great Hitchens, historian Timothy Snyder…I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember — said: “The twentieth century is when ordinary people realized that bookish young men who read big books full of big ideas could have a total and devastating effect on their lives.”

Or in the words of Singer’s Job: “Our young little Stalinists, the onetime yeshiva boys and simple idlers, hounded me to the point that I started longing to go back to Russia.”

And that’s where it lays.  It’s Singer’s Job that makes the knock-out realization:

“I’ve realized one thing: the worst people are those who want to save the world. Among simple folk—merchants, skilled workers, the so-called little man—one can still find decent people. But among those who want to bring about the coming of the Red Messiah there is no truth, no compassion. What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?”

Of course your messianic vision doesn’t have to be Red; the Messenger’s is vehemently non-Red.  But that’s one thing that he never understood.  That that hue doesn’t matter.  That after a certain point he — he and his nationalism and his cronies’ nationalism — became the enemy for me.  The “worst people” are the ideologues.  After liberating him from the petit bourgeois prejudices he had been raised with, and becoming a model of “Roman-ness” for him, I didn’t realize that I had created a Frankenstein.  And he has never realized that he’s the enemy to me.  The people who tortured innocent women in our family like our aunt A. and killed heroic young men like our uncle S. and others, who looted and burnt down my mother’s paternal home, who imprisoned and persecuted and exiled my maternal uncle L. for decades, the people who tormented my father and his family and his extended clan for decades, who threw my grandfather into a prison camp in Albania and then into a mass grave somewhere, who isolated my grandmother in one room of the house her husband had built for her, who separated her forever from her only child, who created the pall of depression and unspoken sadness that hung over my family all my life…  Those people weren’t Albanians to me.  Or Muslims or communists or fascists or Turks or anything else or anyone else that the Messenger loves to hate.  They were petty little ideologues like him: bookish nerds who feel empowered by imposing their ideological hard-ons on innocent people, and making them suffer intolerable suffering in the name of their grand ideological vision.  “What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?”  He’s the enemy.  But he doesn’t get it.  Y de allí his shock when I lay into him.

The other money quote from the Singer story:

“…I’d arrived at a certain philosophy: We can’t live openly in this world. We have to smuggle ourselves through. People, like animals, must constantly hide themselves. If the enemy’s on the right, you go left. It goes left, you crawl right. This very philosophy—you can call it cowardice, it doesn’t bother me—has helped me. I knew where the informers were and I avoided them. A lot of leftists—half-leftists and converted leftists, so to speak—went to Vilna or Kovno, but I went on to Russia, not to the big cities but to little towns, villages, collective farms. There I found a different kind of Russian: generous, ready to help. There they laughed at communism.”

Laugh at these people.  Russians’ and especially Jews’ saving strength.  That’s all there is to do.  Until they knock on your door.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

giagoulaMy grandmother (click)

 

And the whole article, since The New Yorker is being so unusually generous about it:

August 13, 2012
Job
By Isaac Bashevis Singer

Translated by David Stromberg

Editors’ Note: This story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), was first published in Yiddish in 1970, and is appearing here in English translation for the first time. (See the translator’s note below about how it came to light.) Singer published more than sixty stories in The New Yorker, beginning in 1967; we’re grateful for this chance to present his work once again.

****

Being a writer for a Yiddish newspaper means wasting half the workday on people who come to request advice or simply to argue. The manager, Mr. Raskin, tried several times to bring this custom to an end but failed repeatedly. Readers had each time broken in by force. Others warned that they would picket the editorial office. Hundreds of protest letters arrived in the mail.

In one case, the person in question didn’t even knock. He threw open the door and before me I saw a tiny man wearing a black coat that was too long and too wide, a pair of loose-hanging gray pants that seemed ready to fall off at any moment, a shirt with an open collar and no tie, and a small black spot-stained hat poised high over his brow. Patches of black and white hair sprouted over his sunken cheeks, crawling all the way down to the bottom of his neck. His protruding eyes—a mixture of brown and yellow—looked at me with open mockery. He spoke with the singsong of Torah study:

“Just like this? Without a beard? With bared head? Considering your scribbling, I thought that you sit here covered in prayer shawl and phylacteries like the Vilna Gaon—forgive the comparison—and that between each sentence you immerse yourself in a ritual bath. Oh, I know, I know, for you little writers religion is just a fashion. One has to give the ignorant readers what they truly desire.”

A wise guy, I thought. Aloud I said, “Please, sit down.”

“And what good will it do me to sit? Let me first get a good look at you. Right here is where you write? Right here, next to this little table, is where the goods are fabricated? This is where your holy spirit, so to speak, makes its appearance? Well, it is what it is. And, anyway, how do people write all these lies? With simple pen and ink. Paper is patient. You can even write that there’s a festival in Heaven.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“My name is Koppel Stein, but you can call me Job, because I’ve suffered as much as Job, and possibly even a little more. Job had three friends who came to console him, and in the end God took it upon Himself to offer a word of comfort. Then He repaid him twice over: more donkeys, prettier daughters, and who knows what else. I haven’t been comforted by anyone, and the Almighty remains silent, as if nothing had happened. I’m Job squared, if one can put it this way. Do you have a match? I’ve forgotten my matches.”

I went out and brought him matches. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke right in my face.

“Forgive me for speaking to you this way,” he continued. “As they say, it’s my troubles speaking. You know it down to the last letter: ‘blame not a man in his hour of sorrow.’ The other day you complained in your write-up about a reader who’d held you up for six straight hours. I’ll keep it short, though how can one shorten a story that’s already lasted more than forty years? I’ll give you just the bare facts and if you’re no fool it’ll be as they say: ‘a word to the wise is enough.’ I’m one of those crazy people—this, it seems, is what you called them—who want to save the world, to institute justice, and other things of that kind.

“With me it started when I was still a little kid. Our neighbor Tevel the Shoemaker worked straight from the first rays of the sun until late into the night. In the winter I heard him banging on nails when it was still dark outside. He lived in a tiny room. He had everything there: the kitchen, the bedroom, the workshop. That was where his wife, Necha, gave birth every nine or ten months, and there the infants died. My father wasn’t much richer. He was a teacher. We also lived in a single room and had so little to eat that we might as well have deposited our teeth in the bank.

“Early on I began to ask: how is this possible? My father answered that this was God’s will. And I came to despise—with a thorough hate—the very same God Almighty who sat eternally in his seventh heaven, showered with respect and greatness, while his creatures suffered and died. I won’t get into details—I know from your work that you’re familiar with these details and even with the so-called psychology of such things.

“In short, I was about fifteen when I went astray. We had a political group in town where we read Karl Marx and Karl Kautsky and even got our hands on a brochure by Lenin—in Russian, not in Yiddish. In 1917, when the Revolution broke out, I was a Russian conscript. I managed to catch some lead near Przemysl and was laid up in a military hospital. What I went through in the barracks and on the front you probably know yourself. No, you know nothing, because my greatest sorrows came from my own mouth. I told everyone the truth. I spoke against the officers. To this day I don’t understand why they didn’t have me court-martialled and shot. They must have needed cannon fodder.

“Kerensky called for further fighting and I became a Bolshevik. I ended up in Poltava, and there we went through the October Revolution. Mobs set upon us and we were chased away. Who wasn’t there? Denikin, Petliura, others. I was eventually wounded and discharged from the Red Army. I got stuck in a little town where there was a pogrom against the Jews. With my own eyes I saw how they slaughtered children. I lay in the hospital and got gangrene in one foot. I’ll never understand why, out of everyone, I came out alive. Around me people died from typhoid fever and all kinds of other diseases. For me, death was an everyday thing. But despite all this my faith in man’s progress became stronger, not weaker. Who started wars? Capitalists. Who incited pogroms? Also they. I’d seen plenty of wickedness, stupidity, and pettiness among my own comrades, but I answered myself ten times a day with the same refrain: we are products of the capitalist system. Socialism will produce a new man—and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, my parents died in Poland, my father from hunger and my mother from typhoid fever. Though possibly also from hunger.

“After the mobs were driven out and things subsided into some kind of order, so to speak, I decided to become a laborer, despite the fact that I could have taken a government post or even become a commissar. By that time I was already in Moscow. I’d studied carpentry in our little town, so I entered a furniture factory. Lenin was still alive. For the masses, the big holiday still held sway. Even the New Economic Policy didn’t disappoint us. How do the Hassidim put it? ‘Descent for the sake of ascent.’ To stand and hear Lenin speak was a compensation for all the suffering and humiliation. Yes, suffering and humiliation. Because in the factory where I worked they cursed me and called me a ‘dirty Yid’ and mocked me no less than they had in the barracks.

“I was constantly hounded—and by whom? Party members, fellow-workers, Communists. They took every chance to tell me to go to Palestine. Of course, I could have complained. You heard of cases in which workers were put behind bars for anti-Semitic acts. But I soon realized that these were not isolated incidents. The entire factory was saturated with hatred for Jews—and not only Jews. A Tartar was no less inferior than a Jew, and when the Russians felt like it they made mincemeat of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles. Try sweeping away a trash can. I saw with sorrow that the Revolution had not changed all the drunkenness, debauchery, intrigues, theft, sabotage. A doubt stole into my heart, but I kept it silent with all my powers. After all, this was still just the beginning.

“I promised you to be short and this is what I’ll do. Lenin died. Stalin took over. Then came the plot against Trotsky—who for me was a god. Suddenly I heard he was nothing but a spy, a lackey of Pilsudski’s, Leon Blum’s, McDonald’s, Rockefeller’s. There are hearts that burst from the least worries, and there are also hearts as solid as a rock. It seems I have a stone there on my left side. What I’ve put up with, I only wish upon Hitler, if it’s true that he’s still alive somewhere, and that someone is hiding him in Spain or Argentina. I shared a room—actually a cell—with two other workers: drunks and scoundrels. The language they used—the smut! They stole from my pockets. At the factory, they called me Trotsky more than once and pronounced the ‘r’ with a Yiddish accent. Then came the arrests and the purges. People I knew—idealists—were taken away to prison and either got sent off to Siberia or rotted in jail. I began to realize, to my horror, that Trotsky was right: the Revolution had been betrayed.

“But what is a person to do concretely? Could Russia endure a new revolution, or even a permanent revolution? Can a sick body stand one operation after another? As my mother, peace be upon her, used to say: If a dog licked my blood, it would poison itself….

“So the years passed. Permanent revolution is impossible, but there is such a thing as permanent despair. I went to sleep in despair and awoke in despair. I was drained of all hope. Yet Trotskyist circles sprang up regardless of the persecution. The old conspiracies from the Tsarist times repeated themselves. The Revolution had fallen with a thud, but humankind doesn’t resign itself. This is its misfortune.”

II

“In 1928, I came back to Poland. So to speak. I smuggled myself across the border, helped by my fellow-Trotskyists. Each step involved the worst of dangers. I forgot to tell you that while still in Russia I’d been held at Lubyanka for seven months precisely under the suspicion that I was a Trotskyist. There wasn’t a single night in which I wasn’t beaten. Do you see this crippled fingernail? This is where a Chekist stuck a glowing rod into me. I had my teeth knocked out and those who did it were my fellow-proletarians, a curse upon humankind. What was done in prison can’t be put into words. People were physically and spiritually degraded. The stench of piss pots made you crazy. In a prison you can find all sorts of people. There was homosexuality as well as outright rape. Yes, be that all as it may, I smuggled myself into Poland and came to Nieswiez—perhaps you’ve heard of this little town? As soon as I crossed the border, the Poles arrested me. They later let me out, but then I was put behind bars again.

“This was in 1930. I’d been given a contact among the Trotskyists in Warsaw, but they ended up being just a few poor youths, workers. The Stalinists considered it a good deed to denounce Trotskyists to the authorities, and most of them were imprisoned in Pawiak or Wronki—a terrible prison. In Warsaw, I tried to tell them about what was going on in Russia, and don’t ask what I had to put up with! Our young little Stalinists, the onetime yeshiva boys and simple idlers, hounded me to the point that I started longing to go back to Russia. I was beaten, spat on, and called nothing but a renegade, fascist, traitor. A few times I tried to speak to an audience, but thugs from Krochmalna Street and Smocza Street came to shut me up. Once, I was stabbed with a knife. There is no worse lowlife than a Jewish Chekist, Yevsektsia member, or plain Communist. They spit on the truth. They’re ready to kill and torture over the least suspicion. I already understood that there was no difference between Communists and Nazis, but I still believed that Trotskyism was better. Something had to be good! Not everyone could be evil.

“Up until now I haven’t mentioned my personal life, because in Russia I hadn’t had any personal life. Even if I could have sinned, there was nowhere it could be done. With several men living in a single room, you’d have to be an exhibitionist. I witnessed both sexes in their utmost shame and misery, and I, as they say, lost my appetite. Hundreds of thousands of illegitimate children were brought forth—the homeless—who in turn became Russia’s curse and peril. When a woman went to buy bread, they fell upon her and stole it from her. Very often they raped her too. There was no lack of downright thieves, murderers, drunks. The Revolution should’ve brought an end to prostitution, but whores loitered all around the very Kremlin. In Warsaw, I met a Trotskyist woman. She was hunchbacked, but for me a physical defect was no defect at all. She was clever, intelligent, idealistic. She had a pair of black eyes and from them all the sadness and wisdom of the world peered out—though where in the world is there wisdom? We became close. Neither of us thought much of the idea of going to a rabbi. We rented an attic room on Smocza Street, where we started living together. That’s also where we had our daughter, Rosa—naturally, after Rosa Luxemburg.

“My wife, Sonia, was a nurse by trade—a medic and a compassionate caregiver. She spent her nights with the ill. We seldom had a night together. I couldn’t find any work in the Polish factories and earned a little by repairing poor people’s furniture—a closet, a table, a bed. I earned peanuts. As long as there wasn’t any child, it was still bearable. But when Sonia was in her later months it became difficult. In the middle of all this I was arrested. I’d been denounced by my Jewish and proletarian brothers, who’d invented a false accusation against me and actually planted illicit literature. What do you know about what people are capable of doing? Some of them later fell in Spain—they were killed by their own comrades. Others perished in the purges or simply in Comrade Stalin’s labor camps.

“The entire trial against me was a wild invention. Everyone knew this: the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge. They put me together with people whose faces I’d never seen and said that we’d planned a conspiracy against the Polish Republic. The policemen—guardians of the law —gave false testimony and swore to lies. In prison, the Stalinists hounded me so much that each day was hell. They didn’t take me into their circle. Among the civilians there were rich people, especially women, who brought political prisoners food, cigarettes, other such things. They even provided lawyers free of charge. But since I didn’t believe in Comrade Stalin, I was as good as excommunicated. They played dirty tricks on me. They tore my books, threw dirt into my food, they literally spat on me a hundred times a day.

“I stopped talking altogether and went silent. It got to the point that I became like a mute. In order not to hear their abuse and curses, I used to stuff my ears with soft bread or cotton from my coat. They even persecuted me at night, all in the name of Socialism: a bright future, a better tomorrow, and all their other slogans. The tortured themselves became torturers. Don’t think that I have any illusions about the Trotskyists. I’ve realized one thing: the worst people are those who want to save the world. Among simple folk—merchants, skilled workers, the so-called little man—one can still find decent people. But among those who want to bring about the coming of the Red Messiah there is no truth, no compassion. What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?

“It got to the point that the Polish prison guards began to stand up for me and demanded that I be left alone. I started asking them to put me among the criminal offenders, and when they at last obliged me the comrades exploited it and organized a protest demonstration opposing a political prisoner being put among criminals. In other words, they wanted me nearby to torture. This is how they behaved—those who ostensibly sat in jail for the sake of justice.

“Sitting among the thieves, pimps, and murderers was hardly a delight. They eyed me with suspicion. There prevailed an old hatred between the underworld and the politicals—ever since the times of 1905. But, compared with what I endured from the Stalinists, this was paradise. They stole my cigarettes and made off with portions of the packages that Sonia sent me, but they let me read my books in peace. Instead of ‘fascist,’ they called me ‘idiot’ and ‘good-for-nothing,’ which did less damage. It even happened sometimes that a thief or a pimp would pass me a piece of sausage or a cigarette from his own stash. What was there to do in the cell? Either you play cards—a marked and greasy pack—or you talk. From the stories I heard there, one could write ten books. And their Yiddish! The politicals babbled in the Yiddish of their pamphlets. It was not a language but some kind of jargon. The thieves spoke the real mother tongue. I heard them use words that astounded me. It’s a shame I didn’t write them down. And their thoughts about the world! They have a whole philosophy. At the time I went to prison, I still believed in revolution, in Karl Marx. I had all kinds of political illusions. Back outside I was completely cured.

“While I sat in jail, there developed in Poland a growing disappointment in Stalin. It swelled to the point that the Polish Communist Party was thrown out of the Comintern. Many of my persecutors had taken off for the ‘land of socialism’—where they were liquidated. I was told about one sucker who, having crossed the border, threw himself down and started kissing the ground of the Soviet Union, as Jews of yore used to do when arriving in the Land of Israel. Just as he lay down and kissed the red mud, two border guards approached and arrested him. They sent him to dig for gold in the north, where the strongest of men didn’t last more than a year. This was how the Communist Party treated those who had sacrificed themselves on its behalf.

“Then a new curse wriggled its way in: Nazism. It was Communism’s rightful heir. Hitler had learned everything from the Reds: the concentration camps, the liquidations, the mass murders. When I got out of jail, in 1934, and told Sonia what I thought about our little world and those who wanted to save it, she attacked me like the worst of them. The fact is that while I sat behind bars I’d become a kind of martyr or hero for the Trotskyists. I could have played the role of a great leader. But I told them: dear children, there is no cure for the human race. It was not the ‘system’ that was guilty but Homo sapiens itself, in the flesh. When they heard such heresy, they shivered with rage. Sonia informed me that she couldn’t live with a renegade. I’d had the luck of becoming a renegade twice over. It was a separate issue that, while I sat behind bars, she had lived with someone else. Hunchbacks are hot-blooded. There’s always a volunteer handy. He was a simple youth from the provinces, I think he was a barber. Little Rosa called him Daddy…”

III

“Don’t look so afraid! I won’t keep you here until tomorrow. You went away to America in 1935, if I’m not mistaken, and you know nothing about what happened later in Poland. What took place was an absolute breakdown. Stalinists became Trotskyists, while Trotskyists went into the Polish Socialist Party or the Bund. Others became Zionists. I myself tried to turn to religion. I went to a study house and sat myself down to learn the gemara, but for this one must have faith. Otherwise it’s just nostalgia.

“The anarchists raised their heads again—some of them still stood by Kropotkin, others became Stirnerists. We had guests in Poland. Ridz-Szmigli had invited the Nazis to hunt in the Białowieza Forest. Then came the Stalin-Hitler pact and the war. When they started to bomb Warsaw, those who were strong enough ran over the Praga Bridge and set out for Russia. Some had illusions, but I knew where I was going. Yet staying among the Nazis was not an option for me. I came to say goodbye to Sonia and found her in bed with the barber. Little Rosa started crying, ‘Papa, take me with you!’ These same cries follow me still. They torment me at night. They all perished. No one remained.

“I was in Bialystok when a number of Yiddish writers from Poland all at once became ardent Stalinists. Some lost no time and began denouncing their colleagues. People knew me as a Trotskyist and I was heading for certain death, but by then I’d arrived at a certain philosophy: We can’t live openly in this world. We have to smuggle ourselves through. People, like animals, must constantly hide themselves. If the enemy’s on the right, you go left. It goes left, you crawl right. This very philosophy—you can call it cowardice, it doesn’t bother me—has helped me. I knew where the informers were and I avoided them. A lot of leftists—half-leftists and converted leftists, so to speak—went to Vilna or Kovno, but I went on to Russia, not to the big cities but to little towns, villages, collective farms. There I found a different kind of Russian: generous, ready to help. There they laughed at communism.

“Until 1941, people got by somehow. When the war arrived, a famine broke out. Refugees on foot arrived by the millions. Others were brought in freight trains. Millions of Russians went to the front. I starved, slept in train stations, passed through all seven circles of Hell, but I avoided one thing: prison. I kept my mouth shut and played the role of a simple person, someone half-illiterate. I worked wherever possible. On collective farms and in factories I witnessed the thing called the communist economy. They simply destroyed the machinery. They ruined raw materials. It couldn’t even be called sabotage. It was a simple beastly indifference to anything that didn’t directly relate to them. The whole system was such that either you stole or you were dead. I entered a factory and the accountant, a fellow from Warsaw, conducted his accounting on books by Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy. He scribbled his numbers—obviously false—on the margins and above the printed type. You couldn’t get any blank paper there. People lived on stolen goods sold on the black market. You can’t grasp it unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes. If not for America—and had the Nazis not been such ferocious murderers—Hitler would have got as far as Vladivostok.

“I didn’t live—I smuggled myself through life. I became a worm that crawled from here to there. As long as it wasn’t trampled, it crept on. I was astonished to realize that the whole country was like this. We became like the lice that infested us. Until I arrived in Russia for the second time, I’d still had something in me that could be called romanticism or sexual morality. But with time I lost this, too. Millions of men lay scattered on the fronts and millions of wives lived with anyone who would take them. I slept with women whose names I didn’t even know. In the night I had females whose faces I hadn’t seen. I once lay with a woman on a bale of hay. She gave herself over to me and cried. I asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ And she wailed, ‘If Grishenka only knew! Where is he, my little eagle? What have I made of him!’ Then she nestled up to me, crying. She professed, ‘To me you’re not a man but a candle for masturbation.’ She suddenly took to kissing me and wetting me with her tears. ‘What do I have against you? You’ve probably also left someone behind. A curse on fascism!…’

“In Tashkent, I got typhoid fever, which was later complicated by pneumonia. I lay in the hospital and around me people were constantly dying. Some Pole spoke to me and started telling me about all his plans. All at once he went silent. I answered him and he didn’t respond. The nurse came in and it turned out that he’d died. Just like that, in the middle of speaking. He suffered from scurvy or beriberi, and with these diseases people died, so to speak, without a preface. I became indifferent to death. I never believed this would be possible.

“You shouldn’t think that I came here just to get into your hair and tell you my life story. The fact is that I’m here and this means that I smuggled myself through everything—hunger, epidemics, murder, destruction, borders. Now I’m in your United States. I already have my papers. I’ve already been mugged in your America, and have already had a revolver held to my heart, too. A survivor with whom I crossed here on the ship has already worked his way up and owns hotels in New York. He took straight to business, forgot all the dead, all the killing. I recently found him in a cafeteria and he complained to me about his falling stocks. He married a woman who’d lost her husband and children, but she already has new children with him. I talk about smuggling myself and he’s a born smuggler. He’d already started smuggling in the German DP camps, where he waited for an American visa.… Yes, why did I come to you? I came with an idea. I beg you, don’t laugh at me.”

“What’s this idea?”

He waited a moment and lit another cigarette.

“You’ll think I’m crazy,” he said. “The idea is for all decent people to commit suicide.”

“Is that so!”

“You laugh, eh? It’s no laughing matter. I’m not the only one disappointed in the human race. There are millions of others like me. As soon as there is no longer any hope—what’s the point of hanging around to suffer fruitlessly and in vain? I read your writing back in Warsaw. I read you here. You are, as far as I know, the only writer who has absolutely no hope for mankind. You’ve lately taken to praising religion, but your religion is a religion of despair. You reduce everything to one point: this is God’s will. Perhaps God wants humankind to put an end to itself? I beg you, don’t interrupt me! There are scores of movements, who knows how many religions and sects—why shouldn’t there be a movement that preaches suicide? How long can you smuggle yourself only to be crushed in the end? My feeling is that millions of people are ready to end it all, but they lack the courage—the last push, so to speak. If millions of idiots are ready to die for Hitler and Stalin and all kinds of other scourges, why shouldn’t people want to perish as a protest? We should frankly throw back at God this gift of His: this despicable struggle for existence, which in any case ends in defeat. First of all, people must stop having children, bringing into the world new victims. Let the scumbags hope, let them fight for bread, sex, prestige, for the fatherland, for Communism, and for all kinds of other isms. If there remains among the human race a remnant of common sense, it should come to the conclusion that all this filth isn’t worthwhile.”

“My dear friend,” I said, “suicide can never be a mass movement.”

“How can you be so sure? What was the Battle of Verdun if not mass suicide?”

“People there hoped for victory.”

“What victory? They stationed a hundred thousand men and were left with sixty thousand graves.”

“Some survived. Some received medals.”

“Perhaps we should create a suicide medal?”

“You’ve remained a world-saver,” I said. “Suicide is committed alone, not with partners.”

“I read somewhere that in America there are suicide clubs.”

“For the rich, not for the poor.”

He laughed and exposed a toothless grin. He spat out his cigarette butt and stepped on it.

“So what should I do?” he asked. “Become rich? Perhaps I should. It would, actually, be like Job.”

****

Translator’s note:

Beginning in his early years in the United States, Isaac Bashevis Singer earned his living churning out texts for the Yiddish-language daily Forverts—an assortment of fiction, essays, journalism, advice, and memoir, often published in a hurry, under several pseudonyms. Later in his writing life, Singer worked on translating into English those stories he considered worthy of republication, editing and correcting them in the process.

When, in the course of my doctoral research, I came across the story “Job” (“Iyov”)—first published in Forverts in 1970, and later included by the late scholar Khone Shmeruk in a Yiddish collection titled “Der Shpigl” (“The Mirror”; Hebrew University, 1975)—I was convinced I’d find the story in English translation. Its themes of political disillusionment coupled with an inextinguishable search for salvation were tied to Singer’s larger body of work, and the story’s artistic accomplishment was confirmed by its inclusion in the Yiddish collection. The biblical title also indicated its potential significance. But I found nothing: not in any of Singer’s English-language collections, not among his uncollected or posthumously published stories, and not in the Isaac Bashevis Singer papers at the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. It seemed I’d have to read “Job” in the original.

I’d studied Yiddish, but my vocabulary was still relatively limited. To understand anything beyond the main premise, I had to look up words in the dictionary. As I began writing them down, I realized I was on my way to translating the story. I shared my translation of “Job” with a few colleagues in Jerusalem, and reviewed it with Eliezer Niborski, a young Yiddish teacher and native speaker. We were all struck by the story—especially its sharp yet compassionate final exchange—and surprised that it had yet to be published in English.

I decided to take another look at the list of the Singer papers in Texas. Knowing now what the story was about, I noticed a folder entry among Singer’s unidentified works that caught my eye. I ordered a facsimile of this typescript fragment and, as I suspected, found that Singer, together with Dorothea Straus, had indeed translated “Job”—but that the translation was not complete. The fragment of Singer’s translation attested to his distinct and idiosyncratic mastery of English, which I felt compelled to acknowledge in my rendition of the story. I ultimately decided to introduce the author’s hand by incorporating some of Singer’s own word choices—while also aiming to avoid mimicking or impersonating his singular English style.

Arrangements were made to publish my translation of the story. I showed it to Robert Lescher, the literary agent for Singer’s estate, who gave me some insight into Singer’s publication process. Mr. Lescher said that, after they’d begun working together, in 1970, Singer would bring his stories into the office. Mr. Lescher would comment on them, sometimes Singer would make changes, and only then would they be submitted to various editors for publication. At The New Yorker, Singer worked with the fiction editor Rachel MacKenzie to get a story into its final shape.

Mr. Lescher had minor reservations about a few lines in my translation where he felt the language didn’t flow. Based on his suggestions, I made a handful of adjustments that required my straying very slightly from the literal text. We were wary of editing a great writer who was no longer with us, but felt we could fine-tune the translation: ultimately, the responsibility falls to the translator to make decisions based on the original Yiddish text, whose publication Singer had approved.

A couple of days before the story was set to appear, I found myself again working with the folder list of the Singer papers at the Ransom Center. Looking for something else altogether, I came upon yet another entry among the unidentified works that caught my attention. I realized that it contained more, though still not all, of Singer’s translation of “Job.” The rest of the manuscript had apparently not been lost—it had merely been separated from the other parts and stuffed into a different slot.

The publication of “Job” had turned into a literary experience reminiscent of a chaotic Singerian universe—where coveted objects are misplaced, or purposely hidden by imps, only to reappear just before it’s too late. I used the additional pages to reconstruct some of my initial translation solutions—though again avoiding the temptation to replicate Singer’s signature linguistic choices in English. With the help of Arcadia Falcone of the Ransom Center, I am working to locate and reunite the missing pages of Singer’s translation of “Job.” And as in a Singer story, the story of this translation is yet to be continued…

— David Stromberg, Jerusalem, March-July, 2012

Photograph of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Bruce Davidson/Magnum.

“It’s not even a country; it’s a fuckin’ acronym!”

6 Oct

Maybe the best line from last night’s season four opening of SHOWTIME’s Homeland…and maybe a nomination for best “nuff-said” comment ever on the Land of the Pure.

political-map-of-Pakistan(click)

Led to me to look up exactly what the acronym was and came across the brilliant Hitchens’ attack on the Pakistani elite and political/military establishment and the U.S.’s dysfunctional relationship to it: From Abbottabad to Worse which appeared in Vanity Fair’s July 2011 issue, following the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Harsh, perhaps exaggerated, but probably not far off the mark:

“Again to quote myself from 2001, if Pakistan were a person, he (and it would have to be a he) would have to be completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred. That last triptych of vices is intimately connected. The self-righteousness comes from the claim to represent a religion: the very name “Pakistan” is an acronym of Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and so forth, the resulting word in the Urdu language meaning “Land of the Pure.” The self-pity derives from the sad fact that the country has almost nothing else to be proud of: virtually barren of achievements and historically based on the amputation and mutilation of India in 1947 and its own self-mutilation in Bangladesh. The self-hatred is the consequence of being pathetically, permanently mendicant: an abject begging-bowl country that is nonetheless run by a super-rich and hyper-corrupt Punjabi elite. As for paranoia: This not so hypothetical Pakistani would also be a hardened anti-Semite, moaning with pleasure at the butchery of Daniel Pearl and addicted to blaming his self-inflicted woes on the all-powerful Jews.

“This dreary story actually does have some bearing on the “sovereignty” issue. In the beginning, all that the Muslim League demanded from the British was “a state for Muslims.” Pakistan’s founder and first president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a relatively secular man whose younger sister went around unveiled and whose second wife did not practice Islam at all. But there’s a world of difference between a state for Muslims and a full-on Muslim state. Under the rule of General Zia there began to be imposition of Shari’a and increased persecution of non-Muslims as well as of Muslim minorities such as the Shiites, Ismailis, and Ahmadis. In recent years these theocratic tendencies have intensified with appalling speed, to the point where the state contains not one but two secret statelets within itself: the first an impenetrable enclave of covert nuclear command and control and the second a private nexus of power at the disposal of the military intelligence services and—until recently—Osama bin Laden himself.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Off to ex-Yugoland

25 Apr

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Ochrid, Macedonia

This was the summer that I would finally do it.  Me and a friend are off for a two-week tour through Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.  (And yes, we’re calling it Macedonia and if anybody has a problem with that….emmm…tough shit; don’t read this blog.)  This is effectively the second leg of my journey; the first part was a visit to the monastery of Hilandar on Athos.  If I have the time and money I may do a Sarajevo to Belgrade run later in July.

I think you have to understand the degree to which I’ve saturated myself in everything about this part of the world for twenty-five years to understand my excitement.  When we crossed the border into Macedonia last night I nearly pissed on myself.  If you want to come with me on this trip in spirit you’ll get your hands on Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, a book written about her trips through Yugoslavia in the 1930s that is so by far the best, most perceptive, most loving book ever written by a Westerner about the Balkans that it might as well be the only book ever written by a Westerner about the Balkans.  Everybody I know in New York rushed out and bought it in the nineties because it was getting touted everywhere as the thing to read in order to understand the Yugoslav wars, and then dropped it about a quarter — if that far — of the way through because they decided it was too pro-Serbian — Western liberals generally liking to have their preconceived notions about places they don’t know shit about validated for them.  The reason I’ve inhaled all 1,100 pages of this book about four times is best expressed in Christopher Hitchens’ brilliant introduction to the 2007 re-edition, Hitchens being one of the only intellectuals of our time to understand the brilliance of West’s mind, and the complexity and depth of her thought about not just Yugoslavia or the Balkans, but about masculinity and gender, war and pacifism, nationalism, fascism, anti–semitism, and just about all else:

“She never chances to employ the word, but Serbo-Croat speech has an expression that depends for its effect not on the sex lives of humans, but of animals. A “vukojebina” – employed to describe a remote or barren or arduous place – literally a “wolf-fuck,” or more exactly the sort of place where wolves retire to copulate. This combination of a noble and fearless creature with an essential activity might well have appealed to her. The term – which could easily have been invented to summarize Milovan Djilas’s harsh and loving portrayal of his native Montenegro, Land Without Justice – is easily adapted to encapsulate a place that is generally, so to say, fucked up. This is the commonest impression of the Balkans now, as it was then, and West considered it her task to uncover and to praise the nobility and culture that contradicted this patronizing impression.

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Sveti Naum39628346Sveti Naum, Ochrid (click)

(You’ll also find yourself a copy of Djilas’ stirring, disconcertingly moving book as well.)

Land without Justice

I’m getting a good connection almost everywhere, but I may not have time to write a lot in the next few days — you’ll probably get some photos with quotes from West — because we’ll be on the road a lot.  But next week we’re anchoring for five days on Durmitor in Montenegro, near a town called Žabljak, apparently the highest inhabited village in the Balkans, and then I’ll probably have time to write some.  Till then…

Ochrid, Easter Friday 2014

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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