Tag Archives: Farsi

X. doesn’t like my post on “The insufferable entitledness of bikers” — or lots of other things I’ve written

12 Nov

…or, how does one react to the tiring self-righteousness of certain left-dudes.

bikes

X. (I want to respect anonymity) is a journalist who I generally like personally, whose work I respect, and whose opinions and judgements about the Middle East I value and find extremely useful; he’s my go-to guy, especially about Lebanon, a country I find particularly fascinating.  But he’s called me a few times too many on what are supposedly my biases, which generally consist — sorry to be crude — of my not being “brown enough”, in a way I find not just a little offensive.

I call it “not-brown-enough” because though his criticisms seem to indicate that he believes I’m on the right side where the oppressed are concerned, he also seems to think that I’m not on the side of those he considers the really and truly oppressed.

For one, he’s patently impatient and irritated by my concern for Middle Eastern Christians — though that’s par for the course when dealing with post-Christian Western intellectuals who, at best, have only traumatic memories of growing up Catholic or Lutheran and see any defense of Christianity as a racist and irrelevant leftover piece of creepy reaction. So for X., someone worrying about the survival of Eastern Christianity seems to be tantamount to being Pat Robertson.  For my part, I don’t think that, being Greek Orthodox, I should have to apologize for caring about the losing battle that eastern Mediterranean Christians are fighting.  (I would take a guess and assume X.’s unspoken attitude basically consists of: “Oh, so many millions are truly suffering and displaced and dying and you’re worried about 60 old Greek ladies in Istanbul”; well, yeah, somebody has to worry about those old Greek ladies in Istanbul too, ok?  No apology).  Nor do I think that I should have to apologize for believing that that battle for survival is real — or apologize for believing that it’s an ancient battle that dates back to the glorious entry of Arabs and Islam into the Greco-Roman-Christian and Sasanian worlds — or apologize for believing that that “entry” was anything but an unalloyed good — or apologize for believing that sectarianism in the region has a long and bloody history way before any blood-letting was caused or provoked by Western colonial powers.  I should probably send him a copy of one of Walter Dalrymple’s early and brilliant books: From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East.

Holy Mountain

But in an exchange about this issue, he had the gall to refer once to what he calls “elite minority supremacism”.  Remember that phrase; it’ll come back to haunt us all.  This means that it’s racist, on some level, and politically incorrect of me, to care about the rights of minorities — Orthodox Christians, Maronites, Jews, Copts, Armenians, the Alawites of Syria, the Shiites of southern Lebanon and the Bekka — when it’s really the Sunni majority of the Levant and Iraq that are the true victims.

Sorry.  The Sunni Muslim majority of the region were the politically, socially and economically privileged majority group until the late nineteenth century and specifically 1918 — that tragic year when Turkey capitulated and the Ummah and Caliphate were humiliated by the boot of the kaffir West.  That tragic humiliation is what left us with the likes of Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, all so enraged and humiliated and boiling over with rancid testosterone.

Granted, not much sympathy from me there.  And the fact that the non-Sunni or non-Muslim minorities of the region might have found that “humiliation” to have been a liberation of sorts, after centuries of discrimination by said Sunnis, seems perfectly natural to me.  There’s a reason Maronites and Syrian Christians turned to France in the mid-nineteenth century and especially after 1860.  There’s a reason Syrian Alawites became the French Mandate’s mercenary force.  There’s a reason Serbs looked — somewhat ambiguously, with their typical wariness and sense that they don’t really need or think they should trust anybody else’s help — to Austria, and that Bulgarians and Armenians looked to an Orthodox Russia for most of the last two centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and Anatolia.  They took a route that they believed, rightly or not, would give them protection from the ethnic and religious groups that had systematically marginalized and persecuted them.  So the result is that the 20th century and modernity come around and Syrian Alawites become the dominant military and therefore political force in that country.  The 20th century and modernity come around and most Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon are generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Lebanese Muslims.  And there’s a whole set of reasons that the 20th century came around and Ottoman Greeks, Armenians and Jews were also generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Ottoman Muslims except for a small elite.  Is the colonizing West entirely to blame for that too?

What fantasy world do intellectuals and journalists like X. live in, where everyone in the Near East loved each other and lived in harmony until the evil West and its divide-and-conquer policies showed up?  I would love to believe that but it’s just not supported by the historical record.  It’s a common academic trope of intellectuals from the region because it jibes with leftist anti-colonial discourse and it absolves regional players of any responsibility.  (See Ussama Makdisi‘s Aeon article Cosmopolitan Ottomans: European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab worldor Ottoman Cosmopolitanism and the Myth of the Sectarian Middle East, or any of his other work for classic examples of this fictional genre; it’s his forte; he’s made a career of the argument.)

Screen Shot 2019-11-12 at 7.35.58 AM“European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab world”

And wait a minute; let’s backtrack: you discriminate against a minority group; you bar it from conventional access to power and wealth; you confine it to the interstices and margins of your society, and in those interstitial niches they develop the skills and the talent that enable them to survive, and not only to survive, but to come out on top once they’re emancipated — and then that only makes you hate them even more — I’m sorry, but is that not the fucking textbook definition of anti-semitism??!!  Call it “elite minority supremacism” if you like.  It’s the same thing.  And just as nasty, racist and toxic.

Then there was a persnickety exchange about minorities — again — in Turkey this time.  X. disagreed with an eccentric but actually quite informed and smart Byzantinist Brit on Twitter, because he tweeted that “the state of minorities in Turkey is not a good advertisement for dhimmitude”.  “Dhimmi” in Arabic, or “Zimmi” in Turkish and Farsi pronunciation, is a term that specifically — and very specifically — means the non-Muslim subjects of an Islamic state.  X. thought that it was “epistemologically sloppy” of him to refer to the now practically vanished Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey and ignore the intra-Muslim (for lack of a better word) minorities, like Kurds, Alevis, Zaza-speakers, or the Arabs of the south-east and Antakya (X. calls it Hatay, but I refuse to use the place-names of Turkish science-fiction nationalism).  Again, the Byzantinist Brit was supposedly being biased because he lamented the fate of Turkey’s non-Muslims and ignored its persecuted and more deserving of pity Muslim “minorities”.  But that’s his right to do and feel — and mine.  And, in fact, there was absolutely nothing “epistemologically sloppy” about his analysis.  By simple virtue of the fact that he used the word “dhimmi”, he made it unequivocally clear that he’s talking about Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities; he’s not using a “dog-whistle to mean Christians,” as X accused him of in one tweet.  He’s stating it very loud and clear that that’s what he’s concerned with.  But for X. that makes him biased and probably an Islamophobe, while all that he — and I — were doing was simply pointing out the fact that there was/is a qualitative and taxonomical difference between the status of non-Muslims in Turkey and sub-groups within the Muslim majority in Turkey.  And proof of that qualitative difference is born out precisely by the fact that the Christian and Jewish groups have practically vanished; “elite minority supremacism” apparently didn’t save them.  Tell me what X.’s objection was, because I can’t make heads or tails of it — talking about “epistemologically sloppy”.

Then we go to New York.  I post this piece: The insufferable entitledness of bikers :

“The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that helmets be required for all bicyclists in the U.S., but some advocacy groups say putting the recommendation into law can have unintended consequences.”
[Me]: How ’bout we let them crack their heads open, and then maybe they’ll think about how biking — in a city like New York at least, not Copenhagen — is a deeply ANTI-URBAN, elitist, yuppy phenomenon that makes our cities’ centers more and more inaccessible to borough dwellers who can’t afford to live there, to street vendors, to truckers, to commercial traffic, to theater-goers and to everything that makes New York New York and not Bruges, all dressed up in the pedantic Uber-Green self-righteousness of a bunch of rich vegan kids from Michigan?
Walt Whitman would be turning in his grave.
Blows me away that more people don’t see that.
I immediately get a response from X., because he’s one of those people who always has a pre-printed ravasaki in his breastpocket with an analysis and a supporting, supposedly proof/text for almost any political issue.  You’re concerned with Christians in Syria?  X. is right there on the barricades to call you an elite minority supremacist.  You suggest there seems to have been a shortage in the Arab world of leaders able to successfully create a solid civil society and functioning democracy, X. immediately has a long list of names for you, even if that list includes more than a few murderous dictators.  You wonder what suddenly caused Syrian Sunnis to stand up to the despicable Assad regime, X. tells you part of the issue is agriculture and water supply.  You accept the fact that environmental conditions might have been what literally and figuratively sparked the civil war, and then X. tells you water and drought have nothing to do with it.  You articulate an opinion on the mating habits of homosexual penguins in Antarctica and…well, you get the point.
Hey, maybe that’s what makes a good journalist, but it also leads to dizzying instant analyses and superficial opinions, without a single “well…” or “maybe…” or “Shit…I never thought of that” or any even remotely multi-facetted take on things.  Sorry to be channeling Sarah Palin — never thought it would come to this — but so many exchanges with X. immediately degenerate into “gotcha” discourse.
So, he responds, with lightning speed:
Actually most bicyclists are low-income immigrants. Which is why upscale white people love to shit on them.
Not everyone can afford first-world privileges like taking taxis. Even riding public transportation is too expensive for a lot of folks.
With an informative link attached:
Except, I don’t know any upscale white people who shit on bikers.  As far as New York is concerned, I don’t have statistics, but my visual gut observation is not that there are multitudes of immigrants riding bikes around, but almost exclusively young white guys — the “upscale white people” who supposedly shit on bikers.  ?
And here I think it’s important to point out that it’s a bit disingenuous of X. — if not just a total misrepresentation of facts — or maybe even a teeny-weeny bit of what we used to call lying — to send this particular article because it refers almost exclusively to Houston and totally exclusively to Sun-belt cities and southern California: all cities that are of radically lower density than New York, which is the city the discussion was about, and that, incidentally, have kinder weather.  Bikes there may not cause a problem or may be mostly for lower-income city-dwellers.  But in New York they’re a nuisance.  And I see and know very few poor people using them.
I wrote back:
“Very possibly low-income immigrants, ok, but do we have and how exactly do we get statistics about that?  [As it turns out we don’t; we only have statistics from Houston]  But even if that’s true, they don’t demand that a modern, industrial city, built and designed to be a modern, industrial city, change itself and cater to a mode of transportation that such a high-density city [like New York and unlike Houston] is not designed to accommodate.
“And as for taking taxis, or even the subway, I am and have always been a borough-boy, who couldn’t and can’t afford to take a taxi to get into Manhattan, nor could I tolerate a commute to and from a two-fare zone, which is what we used to call neighborhoods where you had to ride the subway line to the end and then pay a second fare to take a bus, like Whitestone, where I spent my teens and twenties.  I used to drive into Manhattan (20 minutes instead of 2 hours on public transport) and parking was easy to find even on a Saturday night in the East Village.  And while we’re on the subject of poor immigrants, have you asked a Sikh cab-driver how he feels about the pedestrianization of Times or Herald or Madison or Union Squares?  Or — while we’re weeping for the working class — have you asked a truck driver who has to negotiate backing his truck up into Macy’s loading platform with Herald Square blocked off and 35th street narrowed by a biking lane how he feels about that?
A superfluous number of pedestrianized zones, biking lanes, Citibank bike stops, farmers’ markets, happy piazzas for office workers to eat their $15 prosciutto sandwiches from Eataly, Bloomberg’s unsuccessful plan to put tolls on East River bridges — a flagrant fucking attempt to keep the non-rich out of Manhattan — because his constituency wanted less traffic and less noise in their neighborhoods, have all contributed to making Manhattan less accessible for me, because I, like your immigrants, can’t afford to live there.
“And even if there are more Mexicans delivering Chinese food on their bikes than there are entitled pricks from Indiana using bicycles, the Mexicans don’t give me attitude about how I’m not respecting their hobby.  They’re too busy working.  Plus it’s hard for me to imagine that taking care, storing, maintaining and protecting your bike from theft or vandalism in New York is cheaper than taking the train.
“You know that long passage between the E train at 42nd Street that connects to the 7 train?  Would you, at rush hour, let a toddler free there?  Obviously not.  Because you wouldn’t let a being of radically different size and speed go free in a space where he’s more likely than not to get trampled.
“Nor could you possibly ask NYers rushing to work to watch out for that toddler.”
Again, I’m progressive but not quite progressive enough for X.  Poor, brown immigrants should be entitled to ride their bikes anywhere at any time, though that’s a sociological type that barely exists in New York.  But a white, working-class, ethnic-American kid from outer Queens like me can go fuck himself (the implication that I was ever rich enough to take a cab into the city on a regular basis is infuriating) and I can be denied access to the pleasures and resources of Manhattan, even as Manhattan becomes a sterile playground for the rich on one end and and hip enough to let hipsters and X.’s poor immigrants ride their bikes supposedly on the other end.  No room for me, who falls in the middle of that spectrum.
Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.  If you’re from there you know that; if you’re not, it might make you a little nuts and you might long for parks and greenery and bike-lanes.  And it’s almost always non-New-Yorkers who are clamoring for these pleasantries that will remind them of Madison, WI.  Density; it means cars and street traffic too — and noise — things that give access to the maximum amount of people, cities you can get to easily and that let you in.  Not obnoxious, exclusive enclaves like Georgetown or Cambridge, MA, where you need to prove you’re a resident to even park on one of its streets.  Look at what pedestrianization has done to Istanbul, where Erdoğan has transformed Taksim, Tâlimhane and the upper Cumhurriyet into a concrete wasteland with all the charm of a Soviet plaza in a city like, let’s say, Perm’. 
A city needs to breathe, even in its crowded chaos.  That’s why I posted the Whitman poem in my response to X.:

City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!

City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede,
whirling in and out, with eddies and foam!

City of wharves and stores! city of tall façades of mar-
ble and iron!

Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extrava-
gant city!

“Mettlesome, mad, extravagant…” 

More later — maybe.  This gets exhausting.

4a08193u.jpgMulberry street, c. 1900 — “Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

P.S. on Kamyar Jarahzadeh’s piece on Sayat Nova

9 Nov

Thank you Kamyar for your posting.
Your comments however are somewhat incomplete.
Sayat Nova, born name “Harutyun Sayatyan” would have been a perfect peace ambassador in today’s Caucaus region. As far as I know, only Armenians have honored his true work for people. He was a true peoples’ singer, musician besides being accepted in Georgian court. It is sad that Azeri’s don’t appreciate the work of a genius.
He became a monk in an Armenian monestery (Haghpat) after he was expelled from Georgian court. Because he refused to convert his religion to Islam, he was killed and beheaded by the order of Persian king Agha Mohammad Khan of Ghajar during his invasion to Caucasus…

Sorry.  Kind of a moral mission on my part: can’t let celebration of cosmopolitan, tolerant Islam (or any monotheism) get away with exaggerations.

A tableau/scene — the still, fabulous compositions of Paradzhanov’s style, that make so much of his work “our parts” pornography, in essence — from Color of Pomegranates:

sayat-nova,jpg

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

 

From the Ajam Media Collective: Sayat Nova by Kamyar Jarahzadeh

9 Nov

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 5.18.09 PM

The Bard of the Caucasus” by  

A popular rendering of Sayat Nova.

For those unfamiliar with his legacy, Sayat Nova’s story can seem like the stuff of myth. His life is fascinating even in broad strokes: he was an ethnic Armenian musician and Orthodox Christian who lived in the Caucasus in the 18th century. He created a unique style of music, and wrote hundreds of songs in Armenian, Azeri, and Georgian. His talent was so great that even though he was born in a humble background, he rose to become the court musician of a Georgian king and founded his own school of musicians.

Sayat Nova was part of a tradition of bards known in Armenian as ashough — synonymous with the Turkish aşiq or Persian ashegh, terms used to refer to travelling musicians but literally meaning lover. Such bards worked across a vast cultural landscape that included the territory of modern Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and similarly transgressed the Persianate, Armenian, Azeri and Georgian speaking cultural worlds.

Just like other artisans, during this era being an ashough was like joining a class of professionals. But Sayat Nova’s style of music was unusual, he created new musical forms and compositions in all three languages.

Despite the formidable and cosmopolitan legacy of this bard, his appreciation has largely been confined to the domain of Armenian cultural heritage. Sayat Nova is mostly associated with and remembered for his works in Armenian. The reasons for this are largely due to what history has passed down to us (or failed to preserve), but that still begs the question: what more could we understand about Sayat Nova, if we were to further explore his story and music beyond his Armenian identity?

A Sayat Nova composition being performed by a modern ensemble.
To understand how an 18th century bard could create such a corpus of work, it helps to start with the basics of the musician’s biography. Although there is contention over the details of his life, Sayat Nova was likely born in the northwest of modern-day Armenia. Supposedly, he was to become a trained weaver only to instead travel to India and fight in one of Nadir Shah’s invasions of the Mughal Empire. He eventually returned to enter the ashough guild and officially gained the moniker Sayat Nova, from the Persian sayyad-i nava, or “hunter of songs.”

As he rose to fame for his musical ability, he became the court musician of King Heracle II of Georgia in Tiflis (modern-day Tblisi). He composed and performed his famous repertoire of work during this period, until legend has it he was kicked out of the court for falling in love with the King’s sister. He lived out his final years as a monk.

A map of the Afsharid dynasty detailing their campaigns against the Mughals in modern-day India. Sayat Nova is claimed to have participated in these battles.

In the 17th and 18th century, despite conflict between empires of different ethnolinguistic makeup and demographics, linguistic and cultural cosmopolitanism was the norm in royal courts. Sayat Nova was particularly valued in the Georgian Court for his ability to contribute Persianate culture and Persian-style music (although the music he performed in the court was almost exclusively in Georgian, Armenian, and Azeri).

Fortuitous timing also gave Sayat Nova the space to create his particular repertoire and be appreciated. In the 17th century, Western and Eastern Armenia had been split by the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, respectively. The Safavid Empire fell to Afghan invaders in 1722 who were then overthrown by Nader Shah and his Afsharid dynasty — the rulers of the empire during the century between the Safavids and the Qajars.

The multiple transfers of power allowed the Kingdom of Georgia a chance to shake off years of Persian meddling, tribute taking, and general interference. While the Afsharids were occupied fighting against the Mughals in the East, Georgia had a chance to cultivate its own court culture — enter Sayat Nova.

A Sayat Nova composition in Georgian from a film biopic about his life. The Armenian version is titled “Dun el Glkhen.”
Many parts of Sayat Nova’s musical legacy survive to this day. His songs are still widely performed in Armenia, with countless recordings available in a variety of formats. But the nature of his enduring legacy doesn’t match the transcultural life and music of Sayat Nova: most of the available recordings of his music are exclusively in Armenian.

The significant cultural projects that attempt to continue his legacy are tied to the Armenian community and diaspora, including the upcoming Sayat Nova festival that will be held in Yerevan. While there are Sayat Nova monuments in Armenia and Georgia, there is no monument to Sayat Nova in Azerbaijan, even though the majority of his surviving poems are in the Azeri language. Most of his Azeri and Georgian poems, in their original language, are out of print or nearly-impossible to find.

Part of this is due to the difficulties of historical preservation. We have many of Sayat Nova’s lyrics in all languages thanks to his biographers and the documents gathered by his son, but his melodies are less well-preserved. Musical notation was not common in Sayat Nova’s time and milieu, so the Armenian melodies that survived were passed down orally for 150 years until they were finally notated. The projects to track down these melodies (that continues to this day) were mostly Armenian initiatives. While it is likely that Georgian and Azeri melodies of his still survive and are being performed, they are not as widely available as his Armenian repertoire.

It seems unfitting that Sayat Nova is solely remembered through the lens of Armenian culture. Of his surviving works, scholars have located 117 Azeri poems, 72 Armenian poems, 32 Georgian poems and six Russian poems. It is this cosmopolitan legacy that arguably makes Sayat Nova unique.

Sayat Nova compositions notably used Persian and Arabic poetic meters with Armenian melodic structures. With these techniques, Sayat Nova founded the Tbilisi “school” of ashough, a tradition that was notable at the time for performing Georgian music in the Persian style. Even people unfamiliar with these languages, when listening to a Sayat Nova composition, will notice that the final couplet of his ghazals often refer to Sayat Nova in the third person — a trademark of the ghazal form that many associate with Persianate poets such as Hafez and Rumi.

At the end of this song, Sayat Nova refers to himself in the final couplet. This is very common in the ghazal form in other languages as well, such as Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Urdu.

 

A bialphabetical Sayat Nova manuscript from his notebook. The text is one composition written in both the Armenian and Georgian scripts.

Sayat Nova was unable to read the Perso-Arabic script, but his Armenian poems often blended Persian words with the language. This speaks to the role Persian played as a language of high culture: it was a language of literacy in the Caucasus that transcended ethnic boundaries.

In his handwritten manuscripts Sayat Nova would even switch between scripts mid-poem. Picture this: his Azeri poems are written in a mix of Georgian and Armenian scripts, and his Armenian poems are often written in both Armenian and Georgian scripts. His songs in colloquial Tbilisi Armenian were written in the Georgian script, and the Armenian script was reserved only for the classical Armenian language — widely considered “sacred” by devout Armenian Christians.

Why then, are the cross-cultural celebrations of Sayat Nova so few and far between? Azeris and Georgians have just as much to celebrate in Sayat Nova as the Armenian cultural mainstream.

Unfortunately a more pancultural perspective of Sayat Nova is not just difficult due to the historical record, but politically fraught. This video of an Azeri version of Sayat Nova’s song “Kamanche” highlights the vehemence of the arguments that often accompany celebrations of Sayat Nova.

An example of a Sayat Nova composition adapted into Azeri Turkish, framed by the uploader as an example of “plagiarism.”
The video shows clips of the song being used to celebrate Azerbaijan and Turkey’s form of pan-Turkic ideology that arose in the 20th century  — an incarnation with anti-Armenian ideology — while criticizing Azerbaijan for cultural theft.

This is doubly confusing: Azerbaijani nationalists using Sayat Nova for pan-Turkic goals, while Armenian reactionaries respond by disavowing the fact that this bard actually had strong ties to Azeri culture. Comments on a video of a Georgian translation of an Armenian Sayat Nova song meanwhile try to excuse or explain his non-Armenian works, rather than acknowledge that they are a significant part of his canon.

This is a tragedy, as some of the most integral parts of Sayat Nova’s identity were linked to his non-Armenian cultural capital. For example, 19th century Sayat Nova biographer and documenter Akhverdian recorded a story in which the ashough, as a retired monk, hides his identity in order to meet a young new ashough visiting the city in search of the infamous Sayat Nova.

When the youngster meets a disguised Sayat Nova and asks where to find the renowned bard, Sayat Nova’s answers are a series of Azeri plays on words: bilmanam, tanimanam, and gormanam, Which could either be translated as “I don’t know,” “I don’t recognize him,” and I “have not seen him,” or, “know, I am him,” “recognize, I am him,” and “see, I am him.” The beauty of this word play brings the young bard to surrender his instrument to Sayat Nova, to show that he has been humbled in the face of the master.

These sides of Sayat Nova’s legacy are often forgotten or glossed over. It appears that Sayat Nova’s Georgian and Azeri sides have been both lost on accident and forgotten on purpose over the course of time.

The Sayat Nova Project, now renamed Mountains of Tongues, seeks to document and explore musicological phenomena in the Caucasus beyond a nationalist lens.

There is great interest in reviving a multicultural Sayat Nova. Mountains of Tongues (formerly known as the Sayat Nova project), is a multicultural ethnomusicological research project that attempts to document the region’s musical heritage while breaking free of nationalist tropes. But that work has unfortunately become politically tenuous. The borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan remain closed in the face of the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Funding for Caucasus-based musical research is often tied to a single culture and involves the explicit practice of nation and identity building. If Sayat Nova was alive today, far-right nationalists from all three communities in the Caucasus would likely denounce him for daring to perform in the languages of the “others,” whoever they may be.

But just as a modern Sayat Nova would be denounced, there would perhaps be those awaiting his return. Could there be a radical, transformative potential in remembering the multicultural Sayat Nova? Over three centuries on, the natural cosmopolitanism that Sayat Nova embodied seems lost to us. In the face of ethnic homogenization and conflict in the Caucasus, there are no easy answers. The clichés of past cultural fusions are no panacea for the contemporary political problems that the region faces. Cultural dialogue and civil society is important in such a situation, but it is important not to overemphasize the role of shared cultural heritage in examining contemporary political problems.

But at the very least, the very work of filling out our collective image of Sayat Nova could bolster a longstanding cultural unity in the region. The mix of knowledges it takes to appreciate Sayat Nova’s oeuvre is no longer easily found: people knowing Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Persian and Russian is no longer as common as it once was. Perhaps filling our mutual gaps of knowledge could bring fans of this famous ashough together to at least remember what once was, and dream of what again could be. Until then, the very least that fans of Sayat Nova can do is heed his own hand-written introduction to his second written song:

“This divani (type of song) is very good

If you learn it, pray for my soul.”

And here is the poem he was humbly boasting about:

Special thanks to Hasmig Injejikian’s dissertation on Sayat Nova. Please refer to her publication for more specific information on Sayat Nova’s life and the academic discourse surrounding his biography, works, and legacy.

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Odd that this piece left out two masterpieces of Georgian-Armenian Soviet director Sergei Paradzhanov; one: Aşık Kerib, that tells the story, in Azeri, of exactly the kind of bard-troubadour-“lover” Sayat Nova was:

He directed the Armenian-language stunner, The Color of Pomegranates, which was a highly abstract biography of Sayat Nova (below):

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Eid on Steinway Street, Astoria, 1433 (2012)

22 Aug

The few blocks of Steinway Street just south of the Grand Central in Astoria have become the center drag for Queens’ Egygptian and other Arab community in the past two decades or so.  Steinway is lined, literally one next to the other, with narghile (hooka, shishsa) shops, clubs, pastry shops and coffeehouses, largely Egyptian-owned, some Lebanese, some Yemeni.  What I hadn’t realized till a couple of years ago is that those blocks of Steinway Street were a major hang out for South Asian kids from around the neighbourhood and from all over Queens.  At least the first night of Eid.  I asked more than a few of these kids why they didn’t go to Jackson Height, the densest and most varied of Queens’ South Asian neighborhoods, on a night like this, and all of them said: “There’s nothing there at night!”  It really got me thinking about why this sort of cafe culture would exist in the Muslim world’s Mediterranean countries and not in South Asia.  There’s the tea-house in Central Asia, but there seems to be nothing in lowland Pakistan, India or Bangladesh that’s comparable.  Or is there and I don’t know about it?  Any ideas?

In any event on Eid (as soon they as they can escape their families?) these kids swamp and totally overwhelm Steinway with color and beauty.  It’s really an amazing sight.

(Click — and for textile, ornament and beautiful face detailsdouble-click on ALL photos; they’re big files.)

The gorgeous silk kurta, the traditional sequinned (double-click) shoes and the jeans in between (above).  Can anybody tell me what the beautiful article of clothing his friend is wearing is called?

Hennaed hands.

Only one of these guys was unsuccessful in suppressing the giggles.

My funky glasses and my yaar: “Eid Mubarak!”

And a beautiful friend and guest of the above two.  It’s New York, right?  They musta had a piss taking her shopping.

And some Egyptians…   The best Adana-like kebab in the city (above), what’s called lyulya kebab in Russia and Central Asia.  I don’t know what Arabs call it.  Too bad for the plastic, germophobic gloves; I can guarantee you, from experience, that an evening’s accumulation of grease and sweat off his palms makes it taste so much better.

And (below) an Egyptian couple who now happily have nothing more to say to each other.  Is there a way to fast-forward a marriage to that point?

The photo below turned out to be badly focussed– very unfortunately — because this guy was easily the king of the Steinway St. runway that night in a white satin, red-and-gold sequinned sherwani and red, gold-threaded dupatta.  I said to him: “That’s what you wear for Eid, buddy?  What are you gonna wear for your wedding?”  He smiled and said: “I’m married…”

Then there’s these guys below, who are cool enough to just show up in their tats.

“Askeri” — soldier

And a more hardcore tattoo below (though, actually, just “askeri” is probably more Spartanly hardcore).  It had something in transliterated Urdu or Punjabi underneath the lion but things were too frantic for me to get it down.

And scarfing with his friends.

Below, a real knock-out.  Full holiday dress-kit for Bangladeshi women usually means a sari and not fancy salwar-kameez like for Indo-Pako-Muslim or Sikh women.  But you can’t really draw hard lines like that ’cause you never know; it’s India and this is New York.  (“India” is meant here historically, as the whole subcontinent guys, ok?  Don’t bow up on me please.)

A kiss away from the folks.

Down Steinway.

One particularly heartening part of going out on this shoot…

Muslims in America have been the object of illegal surveillance and harassment, infiltration of their communities, unfair detention, vandalism and just plain annoying and irritating disrespect and meddling for a long time now.  I’ve been on the secondary receiving end of the anger and suspicion that’s all caused — though hardly a victim of it — under a variety of circumstances, some unpleasant, some funny.

Now, for a variety of physical, age, accent and attitude reasons I guess I could pass for a New York cop.  I also wear my cross on an employee i.d., dogtag-type chain and that probably doesn’t help.  Nobody in Afghanistan, expat or Afghan, believed I wasn’t a contractor without lengthy explanation and convincing on my part and that’s really not a perception you want to be the object of when in Afghanistan.  When I came back, the passport guy at JFK saw my Afghan visa and said: “Contractor?” and I said “NO! ENGLISH TEACHER!”  I was once thrown out of a mosque in Elmhurst (off-prayer time) by the custodian and his broom, one of those old Peshawari guys with the orange beards, yelling: “Go out! Go out!”  And an exchange with two Afghan butchers who I had gone to for my lamb one Easter because I was having halal-observant friends over was completely friendly and animated till I started throwing around some of my recently learned Farsi.  That was followed by a complete silence through which they kept busily hacking away without even looking at me.  And when two Pashtun guys with meat cleavers make it clear they don’t want to talk to you, it’s best to shut up.  They didn’t even speak the price to me at the end; just physically showed me the receipt.  I payed, took my animal and slunk out.

But I only put two and two together when I went into another halal butcher in Jackson Heights to get some chickens for something I was going to make for a party we were having with my students, many of them also halal-observant.  I walked in; said “Salaam,” even did my little “adab” forehead gesture and everybody just stared at me.  Then a very energetic, smiling young Pakistani guy came out of the back and with arms wide-open says: “Officer, what I can give you?!”  After a “what-do-I-say” second, I told him what I needed.  “Ok, officer!”  He started skinning and chopping at the chickens.  “So, barbecue time, officer?”  It was right before Memorial Day.  I said, “No, I’m actually gonna make a korma with that chicken; that’s why I’m asking you to take the skin off…”  “Wow, nice.”  Silence.  “You know, I’m not a cop.”  “Ok, officer, no problem,” smilingly.  “I have students who only eat halal meat, we’re having a party….” I continue trying to explain.  “Ohhhhh, that’s very nice, officer, you’re good guy.”  “And I’m learning Farsi because…”  Then I just gave up; put my arm up on the counter, leaning up against the glass, just watching him — him with the chickens, as he kept grinning and occasionally mumbling to himself: “Ok, officer…yeaaaaaaaa, chicken….no problem, officer…ok, officer…”  He was getting to the last of the chickens and he looked up at me and we stared at one another for a moment, full eye contact, like three feet away from each other…and we both fell into a giggling fit.

I never did figure out whether he believed me, didn’t believe me, was pulling my leg and shittin’ with me the whole time — I don’t know.  They all replied “Khuda Hafez” to mine as I left.  I did my little forehead gesture.  The older men returned it.  Who knows.  I don’t know.  Once on the street I thought to myself: “Can they really think that any American ‘inteligence’ organization — FBI, NYPD — can be that stupid that they think they’re going to teach a big white guy some half-assed words of Farsi-Urdu, and send him in to….” and then said, yeah, they have every reason to think they can be “that stupid” because they probably are.

Back to Steinway Street.  The night we went on this shoot I was doing my introductory spiel to every group of kids we would walk up to: “These are just for a blog I write…I’ll take them down if you don’t like them..” and, to several more hesitant looking groups of guys: “…I’m not a cop or anything,” to which they replied, to the man, and in stereo: “I wouldn’t give a shit if you were.”

Aferin!  That’s the spirit, brothers.  Stay strong and keep it up.

Thanks to all of you guys for your smiling, cooperative, welcoming participation in this little project.  I can’t express my appreciation enough.  All the best to you, your friends and your families.

And for the rest of us, trapped in the aesthetics of nineteenth-century, false bourgeois humility and, now, its descendant, the fake hipness of charcoal and black, PLEASE keep wearing those clothes, and be enormously proud of them.

Many, many thanks to Johana Ramirez, who took the photos and accompanied me on this adventure.

Again, if you want any of these taken down, you know where to find me.  Any of those who didn’t make it, sorry; it was only a matter of space.  I’m putting up a Flickr page as soon as I can where all the photos taken that night will be posted, so you’ll be able to find them there.

And again, thank you.  Peace.

Nick Bakos

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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