Tag Archives: muslims

The Navratri “diet”

28 Sep

I don’t know who India’s equivalent of Oprah is, but I’m sure this has been featured: the healthful effects of Navratri fasting rules.

Few things are more irritating (“might make you grouchy” my friend E. says) than traditional dietary practices of depth, subtle abstraction, intelligent symbolism and transcendence being given new, healthy, “life-style” meaning.  Being retroactively rationalized, in short, into meaningless utilitarianism.

That Jews and Muslims don’t eat pig meat because “pigs are dirty” is probably the most ancient one.  Because they’re not.  Pigs actually have high self-hygeine practices compared to other domestic mammals and that’s generally attributed to their relatively high intelligence compared to other mammals.  (I’m always tempted to think it’s just that pig meat tastes so good — like shellfish and wine — and banning its voluptuousness was just one of those random rules that monotheism needs to build its puritan edifice and get its rocks off*).  The chicken whose steroid-bloated, skinless, grilled pec you’re eating lives in far filthier conditions and even in free range eats worms and its own feaces.  Then there are the vegans who think that their diet and a Hindu’s vegetarianism come from the same impulse and have the same objective.  If that were the case Indian vegetarian wouldn’t be so wildly delicious and vegan food so unswallowable.  Or the male soy-dieter, wreaking havoc on his endocrinal system and flooding his body with estrogen, because Zen must have something to teach us about health.  It does, just not that.

And then are those occasions when it’s spring and you explain to someone the guidelines for Orthodox, Lenten fasting (Because they’re guidelines, suggestions, not rules like in Catholicism.)  “Oh,” inevitably comes the response, “that must have started as a wise way to cleanse your system for spring — and you must lose so much weight.”  No.  You don’t.  You end up eating a ton of cheap carbs and sugars on the halva and lagana diet and on Easter you’re ten pounds fatter than you were at Carnival when you were gorging on fat and animal protein.

So Jai Ganesh Deva”!  Eat Navratri foods if you want and offer the right prasad.  Pray that Sri Ganesh, in his wisdom, prevents any anti-Muslim violence — something a little more important than your anti-oxidant consumption — and skip the diet part.

Ganesha--e1528735504544.jpg

* Don’t wear wool and cotton blends.  “Thou shalt not round the corners of thy head.”  “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Huh?  Not just the randomness of the injunction, but the obscurity of the language… What are these rules even dictating exactly?  What are the corners of my head?  Last time I looked my head was round already.  Is it just the mother’s milk?  Then why is all milk prohibited?  And on that one weird line we construct a whole dietary culture and an entire constitution of domestic order that must be an insane expense of energy to maintain…

Off topic?  Yeah, well…

comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

“Churches and mosques in early mediaeval Syria” — Mattia Guidetti

29 Nov

Screen Shot 2017-11-29 at 5.55.20 PMScreen Shot 2017-11-29 at 5.56.07 PM

Before we get excited… Were Christians and Muslims both allowed to pray in a single building? That’s no great news. Still occurs. The Muslim world is full of churches and tombs of saints and “prophets” and Christian sacred springs, especially, where Muslims pray and come to ask for favors and blessings, though I’m sure the High Ulemate considers that stuff shirk or haram.  The mobs that descend on Prinkipo (Büyük Ada), one of Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands on St. George’s Day are huge and mostly Muslim…of course…in a city of 15 million where there are fewer than 1,000 Greeks left…  And a few years ago the Times ran an article — which I, of course, can’t find now — about how women from the posh C-Town suburb of Kuruçeşme take their children to be blessed by the priest at the local church of St. Demetrius because deep in a cavern under its foundations there’s a spring whose water is considered to have blessing and healing properties.

Anybody can just drop into a church or mosque, grab a corner and pray.  At least no one in any mosque I’ve ever been in has ever said anything to me.  I even cross myself upon entering a mosque or museum that was once a church and never had a problem.  Fact, I find the empty space and tatami-level perspective and silence of a mosque to be extremely comforting and nerve-soothing.

But were Christian liturgies and offices — meaning the theater and rituals and images and music of Christianity, which is what WORSHIP means to me — ever conducted in a building that also served as a mosque?  And “side by side”, meaning the same time.  Now THAT would be cool.  I just doubt it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Turks don’t suffer from Sèvrophobia; they suffer from Lausannitis.

9 Oct

One of today’s Reuters’ titles: Turkey urges U.S. to review visa suspension as lira, stocks tumble is a very deeply unintentional funny.  Is he dyslexic?  Am I?  I’ve read it correctly, yes?  The UNITED STATES is suspending visas to TURKS? The TURKISH lira and TURKISH stocks are tumbling? Right?

There’s been a ton of repetitive commentary again recently — including from me — about how Kurdish, let’s say, “pro-activeness,” in Iraq and Syria, what Kurds think is their right since they played such a key role in kicking ISIS ass, is a menace to Turkey because Turks are still traumatized by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that called for the remaining Ottoman Empire (Anatolia essentially) to be partitioned between the winners of WWI (and the hangers-on and cheerleaders like us), with the Straits and Constantinople internationalized (meaning British), so that Turks would have been left with a rump central Turkey and, I think, a minimal outlet to the Black Sea along the coastal stretch around Sinope.

All of that was changed by Atatürk’s declaration of a Turkish Republic at Sebasteia and the subsequent disastrous defeat of the invading Greek army.  The Turkish War of Independence (please, Greeks, gimme a break and let me call it that for now) was an impressive accomplishment, and if it ended badly for the Greeks who lived there, as we remember every autumn when we recite the Megilla of Smyrna, that’s our fault and especially the fault of Venizelos who, being Cretan, found pallikaristiko demagoguery and dangerous, careerist magandalık irresistible So impressive was Kemal’s accomplishment, in fact, that all the parties involved in Sèvres then got together at Lausanne in 1923 and decided Turkey should get whatever it wants.  Suddenly, the clouds of three centuries of depressing imperial contraction, and massacre and expulsion of Muslims from the Caucasus, the northern Black Sea, the Balkans and Crete were lifted (ditch the Arabs south and call it a country seemed to be the Turkish consensus for whatever was left) and the Turkish Republic went on its merry way.  Sèvres and Sèvrophobia was gone.

What Turkey suffers from now, and has for most of the twentieth century since the events we’re talking about, is a Lausanne-inspired sense of entitlement that is simply breathtaking in its cluelessness.  It’s the kind that leaves you staring at some Turks, silenced and dumbfounded, and unable to tell whether what they just said to you is elegantly, sweepingly aristocratic or just passively asinine.  Lausanne was first; add Kemal’s personality cult (I’m not sure that history ever threw together two bigger narcissists than him and Venizelos; they should’ve been lovers), then, what was always a silenced Ottomanness came out of the closet, allied as it always has been with the seminal triumphalist narrative of Islam itselfand you get Erdoğan!

erdoganjpg-thumb-large

Now he wants the U.S. to review its Turkey policies?  Who is this man?  Scolding the whole fucking world like we’re a bunch of children.  Let him scold his children — meaning Turks — first, and then maybe we can take it from there.  If I were a German diplomat in Turkey and had been summoned to His Sublime Presence for the nth time in one year to be chastised for something mocking someone in Germany had said about Him, and told “to do” something about it, I would have found it hard to control my laughter.  As an outsider, I find it delightful enough that of all peoples on the planet, Turks and Germans got involved in a multi-episode drama on the nature of irony and parody. But to have him demand shit from all sides…

No, you’re not a “mouse that roared” arkadaşım, ok?  Yes, “all of Luxembourg is like one town in Turkey” (wow…ne büyük bir onur).  Turkey’s a big, scary, powerful country with a big, scary, powerful military, and lots of “soft” cultural and economic power in its region too.  But you’re in a schoolyard with some much bigger cats.  Soon all of them — the United States, Russia, the European Union, Israel and even some who already openly can’t stand your guts — like Iran — are gonna come to the conclusion that you’re more trouble than you’re worth.  Even Germany is no longer so guilt-ridden as to be polite to you.  And I don’t say any of this as a Greek, because I don’t think that when they all get to that exasperated point and temporarily turn to Greece, that Greeks are going to be anything other than the chick you were drunk enough to take home for a one-nighter — Kurds are going to be the rebound girlfriend, though I can’t say right now for how long — but things have been moving rapidly in a direction where the big boys are not going to want to play with you anymore, and they’re going to let you know in a way that won’t be pretty.

Though, as with all bullies, as soon as Erdoğan’s tough-guy bluff-policy on anything is called, he backs down.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“What happened to the Turks of Old Greece?” 196 years ago today: the fall of Tripolica

24 Sep

On September 23rd, 1821, the city of Tripolica (Tripolitsa, modern Tripoli), the central administrative seat of Ottoman authority in southern Greece, fell to Christian rebels.  Its Muslim and Jewish populations were then subjected to a hair-raising orgy of slaughter and torture that effectively ended their presence there.  As similar massacres of non-Christians occurred throughout southern and central Greece, these regions were almost entirely cleansed of these populations.

That’s what happened, as someone once asked me, to the Turks of Old Greece (the Kingdom of Greece before 1913).  They went the way of Turks throughout the Balkans as soon as peoples there gained their independence.

Reposting an old post on a Skai documentary on the Fall of Tripolica and other taboos of Neo-Greek nationalism.  See “Diatribe’s” reposting of description of massacre and comments too.  Interestin re: “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”.

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Albanians in Greece and the “documentary that shocked Greece” from SKAI

26 Jan

In my recent post Occitan and “endangered languages”, I wrote about the (mostly former) Albanian-speakers of central and southern Greece and how they had never posed an assimilation problem for the Greek state.  Quite the contrary:

“…Peloponnesian Albanians were already Greeker than the Greeks in their ethnic consciousness and had proven it by essentially fighting our war of independence for us; it seems that, historically, you give Albanians — Christian or Muslim — an incentive to go to war and they’ll become more zealous crusaders of your cause than you are yourself.”

Elsewhere I’ve written about Greeks and Albanians as practically co-peoples, such has been the extent of migration and intermingling over the past millenium.  This winter I read John V.A. Fine, Jr.’s six-hundred page The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest, which I know sounds like a joke about dry academic reading, but it was actually fascinating.  The chaos that followed the fall of Constantinople to the Franks in 1204 produced a bewildering number of Greek and Frankish successor states to the Byzantine Empire throughout the Greek peninsula, all constantly at war with each other and at a time when the Albanian highlands were suffering from demographic overload.  Thus, whether as mercenaries in the hire of anyone who paid best, or as shepherding nomadic clans who took advantage of the extensive areas of the peninsula depopulated by constant war or epidemic diseases, Albanians in huge numbers were constantly on the move southwards for the next two centuries if not more.  (I suspect that this is when their descent into Kosovo begins as well, filling in the gap as as the center of gravity of the Serbian nation moved northward.)  Further waves came after the Ottoman conquest in response to Islamization campaigns in recently conquered Albania, but this time not just south to Greece but westwards to Italy and Sicily as well.  And settling everywhere you could possibly imagine: Thessaly, southern Epiros, Roumeli (in the Greek meaning of the term), the Ionian islands, places as far flung and unexpected as the islands of Cythera or Ios!  My point, without having any Fallmereyer-an agenda — not because I disagree with his basic theses but because I don’t thing “race” means anything — is that regions of Albanian settlement in the past were likely far larger than the regions where we find the language still spoken in the early twentieth century, shown on these maps:

Pelopones_ethnic

Albanian-speaking areas in 1890 shown in pink above, green below (click)

Arvanitika map

This documentary that “shocked Greece” was produced by SKAI Television and called 1821 after the year the Greek revolution against Ottoman rule began and the reason it “shocked” is that it debunked long-held myths about the uprisings that eventually led to the establishment of the independent Kingdom of Greece; but really, that anybody was shocked at any of these revelations: for example, that the uprising was accompanied by the wholesale massacre of Muslims (and Jews) throughout the Peloponnese and central Greece;* that the Church anathematized it and did not support the movement (paid the price anyway with the execution of the Patriarch in Constantinople); that the “secret schools” where poor “enslaved” Greek youth were taught Greek in secret at night because the Turks had forbidden the teaching of Greek is a totally concocted fable (and such a projection of twentieth-century, nationalist, totalitarian policies back onto the Ottomans; there is practically not a single European observer of Ottoman life since at least the beginning of the eighteenth century that doesn’t comment on the quality and extent of Greek educational institutions in all Ottoman cities and even smaller towns and villages); that many if not most of the revolution’s “heroes” were Albanians, some who spoke no Greek at all; that the fustanella is originally an Albanian garment…and on and on — that any of these shocked Greeks in the early twenty-first century is just proof of how pathetically brainwashed and historically ignorant nationalism usually leaves a people.  And this is the point where the documentary pulls a very cowardly copping out — by claiming that such is the price of building a new nation; it has to create new “myths” of its own.  Why a nation — or a people preferably — is not stronger and better off if it knows the whole truth about its past is never delved into.  But it’s worth watching, and it has English subtitles:

In any event, such was the Albanian contribution to the struggle that one wonders if the Porte let go of the Peloponnese, not because it was so far from the center of imperial authority, not because it had always been something of a provincial backwater, not because of foreign intervention, but because of some tough-*ss Albanian warriors that the Ottomans felt were no longer worth resisting.  After all, they themselves knew the value of an Albanian fighter: favorite recruiting regions for the Janissaries in the classical Ottoman period had always been Albania and Serbia — not random choices.

There’s a beautiful song recorded in 1949 by Sophia Vembo, one of greatest Greek voices of the twentieth century, called “The Song of the Morea” (since at least early Byzantine times until the modern Greek state revived the clasical name, the Peloponnese was called the Morea) which is partly a homage to the role of the region in the struggle for Greek independence (ok, even as a New Territory Greek, I’ll grant them that.)  And the refrain says:

“Hail and be well brother Moraites, and health to your women too; Greece owes its freedom to your manhood!”**

And I have a deeply-loved but eccentric cousin, highly intelligent but an unrehabilitated nationalist dinosaur unfortunately and to whom much of this blog is indirectly directed — or one might even say dedicated — who is so profoundly moved by the blood shed by Peloponnesian and Spetsiote and Hydriote Albanians for the cause of Greek independence, that he thinks the refrain should run:

“Hail and be well brother Arvanites (Albanians), and health to your women too; Greece owes its freedom to your manhood!”

Here it is; the music and Vembo’s voice are beautiful even if you don’t speak Greek:

The song has always provoked a strong reaction in me as well, a testimony to the power of patriotism if it can move someone who finds nationalism as repulsive as I usually do.  But even that reaction is contradictory.  The 1949 date of the song is not insignificant; it was recorded in the middle of the most brutal period of the Greek Civil War and was actually more a call to unity and an appeal to brotherhood than a commemoration of the revolution of 1821.  Like many Greeks perhaps, my family suffered more losses in the civil war than they did in the Nazi occupation that had preceded it, and the opening lyrics of the second verse always make me tear up for a moment:

“Now that the earth sweats the blood of brothers, and Greece is drowning Greece in the hills..”

and then my heart goes cold again, because the next line is:

“Come out of your grave Thodoris Kolokotronis, and make all Greeks brothers again.”

…because it’s impossible for me to forget that Kolokotronis was the “hero” who boasted of riding his horse over Muslim corpses from the gates of Tripolitsa to its citadel, when that major city of the Morea fell to the rebels in September of 1821.

So I’d like to end this post with just a little bit of perspective, a reality check we all need every so often, because though the documentary mentions a lot of previously taboo subjects, it glosses over a few of them a little too quickly.  The following is taken from the blog of a Greek-Australian, and apparently fellow Epirote (though he seems to have Samiote heritage as well), Diatribe from a post called “Revolution Unblinkered.”  It’s foreigners’ eye-witness accounts of the Massacre of Tripolitsa, interspersed with some of his own comments:

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From “Diatribe”:

A month later, in September, a combined force led by Kolokotrones and Petrobey Mavromihalis captured Tripolitsa.  Historian W Alison Philips tells a horrific tale of mutilation and slaughter  “For three days the miserable inhabitants were given over to lust and cruelty of a mob of savages. Neither sex nor age was spared. Women and children were tortured before being put to death. So great was the slaughter that Kolokotronis himself says that, from the gate to the citadel his horse’s hoofs never touched the ground. His path of triumph was carpeted with corpses. At the end of two days, the wretched remnant of the Mussulmans were deliberately collected, to the number of some two thousand souls, of every age and sex, but principally women and children, were led out to a ravine in the neighboring mountains and there butchered like cattle.”

A Prussian officer described the incidents that took place after the capture of Tripolitsa by the rebels, as follows:

“A young Turkish girl, as beautiful as Helen, the queen of Troy, was shot and killed by the male cousin of Kolokotronis; a Turkish boy, with a noose around his neck, was paraded in the streets; was thrown into a ditch; was stoned, stabbed and then, while he was still alive, was tied to a wooden plank and burnt on fire; three Turkish children were slowly roasted on fire in front of the very eyes of their parents. While all these nasty incidents were taking place, the leader of the rebellion Ypsilantis remained as a spectator and tried to justify the actions of the rebels as,’we are at war; anything can happen’.”

Based on the accounts of one hundred European officers who were present at the scene, and did nothing to intervene, William St. Clair wrote:
“Upwards of ten thousand Turks were put to death. Prisoners who were suspected of having concealed their money were tortured. Their arms and legs were cut off and they were slowly roasted over fires. Pregnant women were cut open, their heads cut off, and dogs’ heads stuck between their legs. From Friday to Sunday the air was filled with the sound of screams… One Greek boasted that he personally killed ninety people. The Jewish colony was systematically tortured… For weeks afterwards starving Turkish children running helplessly about the ruins were being cut down and shot at by exultant Greeks… The wells were poisoned by the bodies that had been thrown in…”
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Although the total estimates of the casualties vary, the Turkish, Muslim Albanian and Jewish population of the Peloponnese had ceased to exist as a settled community after the early massacres. Some estimates of the Turkish and Muslim Albanian civilian deaths by the rebels range from 15,000 out of 40,000 Muslim residents to 30,000 only in Tripolitsa.   According to historians W Alison Phillips, George Finlay, William St. Clair and Barbara Jelavich, massacres of Turkish civilians started simultaneously with the outbreak of the revolt, while Harris J. Booras considers that the massacres followed the brutal hanging of Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople.  Finlay has claimed that the extermination of the Muslims in the rural districts was the result of a premeditated design and it proceeded more from the suggestions of men of letters, than from the revengeful feelings of the people.  St. Clair wrote that: “The orgy of genocide exhausted itself in the Peloponnese only when there were no more Turks to kill.”*
 –
There were also calculated massacres towards the Muslim inhabitants of the islands in the Aegean. This is because one of the aims of the Greek revolutionaries was to embroil as many Greek communities as possible in their struggle.  By engineering some atrocity against the local Turkish population, diverse Greek communities would have to ally themselves with the revolutionaries fearing retaliation from the Ottomans. In one case, in March 1821, Greeks from Samos landed on Chios and attacked the Muslim population living in that island. Among the Samian belligerents was an ancestor of mine, Dimitrios Kalymnios. When the Samians withdrew to the safety of their island, the Ottomans descended upon defenceless Chios and carried out an atrocity that horrified the rest of the world: the massacre of Chios.
[my, N.B., emphases throughout this last paragraph — just so that nobody is allowed to take something like the the Massacre of Chios out of historic context again…]

The final word, if there is one, goes to Theodore Kolokotronis, who in his account of the fall of Tripolitsa, was unrepentant to the last: “When I entered Tripolitsa, they showed me a plane tree in the market-place where the Greeks had always been hung. “Alas!” I said, “how many of my own clan — of my own race — have been hung there!” And I ordered it to be cut down. I felt some consolation then from the slaughter of the Turks. …”

DEAN KALIMNIOU
First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 April 2013.
READ HIS WHOLE POST: “Diatribe” ; it’s very intelligent.
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Wow.  First thing I have to say is that if this guy is allowed to publish this kind of stuff in Melbourne’s “Neos Kosmos” English-language newspaper, then Greek Australia is eons ahead of Greek America in its sophistication on such issues.  I can’t imagine a single effing channel or venue of the Greek media in New York where someone could get away with writing or saying things like this.
Then, the irony is that these revolutionaries, Greek or Albanian, were probably not fighting for a Greek state, but fighting a religious-cum-tribal war out of which they were hoping to carve out little fiefs and principalities of their own, no different than the Ottoman pashaliks that had preceded them and the internecine chaos that followed ‘liberation’ is proof of that — so let’s not over-romanticize their zeal for the “cause” or exaggerate the degree to which they were fighting for the “freedom” of the “Hellenic nation.”  Finally, is the irony that many of the “Turks” these fighters were massacring in a place like Tripolitsa, were probably Albanians like themselves, only converts to Islam.
And one sad little detail I discovered somewhere else, though I can’t find the source for it:
 –
“European officers, including Colonel Thomas Gordon, who happened to be at Tripolitsa during the massacre, witnessed the hair-raising incidents there, and some of them later recalled these events in all their ugliness. Colonel Gordon became so disgusted with the Greek barbarities that he resigned from the service of the Greeks. A young German philhellene doctor, Wilhelm Boldemann, who could not bear to witness these scenes, committed suicide by taking poison. Some of the other European philhellenes who were extremely disillusioned, followed suit.”
The poor, idealistic, Werther-like German Romantic, come to fight and  liberate the sons of Pericles and Leonidas, kills himself out of disappointment…it just seemed to encapsulate the whole patheticness of a certain kind of European Helleno-latry.
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* Why isn’t that genocide?  A question for those who objected to my post on Genocide last November.
** Forgive me the crude translation of “leventeia” as “manhood;” it’s just too complex an attribute to go into in an already long post.
 –

Riz Ahmed, Immigration, Suketu Mehta and me, Identity Politics, and Varun and Sidharth’s “shining future”

21 Sep

riz-ahmedRiz Ahmed is the first man of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy Getty Images

Suketu Mehta’ conclusions in “This Land is Their Land” (see: Suketu Mehta in Foreign Policy addendum, whole text) echo some of my points on immigration in Greece, Britain, U.S. and everywhere (see: It’s immigration, “stupid”: the United States’ best-kept secret…streams of thought on a hot Sunday afternoon).

Me:

“It’s when immigrant/migrants/refugees are leaving that you should worry.

“My often-stated opinion that the West has both the resources and the historical obligation to take in every-body that needs and wants to come still holds.  That the European Union’s migration agreement with Turkey marked people fleeing a country in the condition of Afghanistan’s as “economic migrants” was a scandal.  But when you’ve got a problem with Poles — whit-er, better-educated, harder-working, more Christian, cuter, better-mannered and less binge-drinking than you — then you really do have a problem…

polish-scum

“America’s best-kept secret, despite what trailer trash Donald Trump and his crew tell you, is that immigrants are a self-selecting group of already highly motivated people who are connected and aware enough to have heard that things are better where you are.  And they’re not coming to take that from you; they’re coming to improve it.  They’re the A-list crew that crashes your party because they’ve heard your parties are the ones to crash and in the process makes them even more of the hottest ticket in town.  It’s a self-fufilling, auto-re-perpetuating process.

“New York, in other words.”

“Olympian Zeus, king of the gods, will tear your head off if you’re unwelcoming to the stranger — or worse, for a Greek, make you ugly — so you better watch out. He comes in disguise to test you. Like the angels to Abraham.”

“So…wooops…there they are. Here they come! They’ve arrived. And they’ve instantly made Greece a more interesting place. And interesting is strong. And strength is freedom.”

And Mehta:

“Countries that accept immigrants, like Canada, are doing better than countries that don’t, like Japan. But whether Trump or May or Orban likes it or not, immigrants will keep coming, to pursue happiness and a better life for their children. To the people who voted for them: Do not fear the newcomers. Many are young and will pay the pensions for the elderly, who are living longer than ever before. They will bring energy with them, for no one has more enterprise than someone who has left their distant home to make the difficult journey here, whether they’ve come legally or not. And given basic opportunities, they will be better behaved than the youth in the lands they move to, because immigrants in most countries have lower crime rates than the native-born. They will create jobs. They will cook and dance and write in new and exciting ways. They will make their new countries richer, in all senses of the word. The immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet.[My emphases]

Was that one of the subtexts or even the skeletal structure of “The Night of…”, the brilliant mini-series and incredible ethnographic essay on New York from HBO for which Ahmed won his Emmy: good, criminally uninclined, son of hard-working Pakistani immigrant parents from Jackson Heights, with …a shining shining future
Sadda bright si (see full video at bottom), gets led to his doom by decadent white girl? or is he a good Muslim boy led astray by Hindu seductress disguised as lawyer who then screws herself in the process?  (I have to admit that the sexual scratch-marks on the back of Ahmed’s character, Naz, that come to light in one courtroom scene put me in mind of the Gita Govinda.)  Or more misogynist than that even: that women — period. — are trouble?

‘The Lovers Radha and Krishna in a Palm Grove’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garhwal’ <i>Gita ­Govinda</i> (Song of the Cowherds), Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra or Guler, circa 1775–1780

Some of the frustrating contradictions of identity politics in the Washington Post‘s Riz Ahmed makes history as the first South Asian man to win an Emmy acting award.  If Riz Ahmed wants to not be type-cast as a Muslim or South Asian man every time he gets a role, but to eventually just play a character called “Dave”, then he’s going to need his fans’ help and have them not get apoplectically happy because he’s the first “Asian” (whatever that means) to win an Emmy, but because he’s a great actor who won an Emmy.

In the meantime, tabrik.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

From the Times: ‘At the Stroke of Midnight My Entire Family Was Displaced’

14 Aug
(Just going to lift this material in its entirety from The New York Times because it’s so beautiful and moving; it’s hard to find something of your own to say  — NB)

August marks the 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in India and the creation of the two independent countries of India and Pakistan, carved along religious and political lines. More than 10 million people were uprooted. We asked readers how they or their families were affected. These are some of their stories.


The author’s mother, Rashida Begum, and father, Malik Fazal Haq, in photos taken around 10 years before partition. CreditCourtesy of Tariq Malik

‘Was he calling out for me?’

In 1947 I was 10. We lived in comfort in Jammu and Kashmir state.

We lost everything at the time of the creation of Pakistan. Things can be replaced, not lives.

My father, an intellectual and educationalist, was murdered. Eight of us crossed into Pakistan dressed in summer clothes and nothing else. Winter came and we had nothing to wear and no roof over our heads. By the following summer my feet had outgrown my shoes and I had to walk barefoot on scorching earth. My feet sometimes still feel that hot surface.

Even today I get nightmares about my father’s murder. As a physician I wonder how the end came. Was he in pain, was he cold, was he thirsty, was he calling out for me?

— Tariq Malik


Suman and Anand Khorana. Credit Dr. A. B. Khorana

‘My father recalled hiding in a Muslim family’s house’

My father, Anand B. Khorana, was about 10 years old at the time of partition. His father was a civil engineer and the whole family (my grandparents, father and his five siblings) had recently moved into a new home they built as a mark of their “middle-class” status. The oldest child, a daughter, had recently become engaged. The family had lived for generations in the state of Punjab and could not conceive of living any place else. As my late father told it, everyone had heard rumblings about the state being divided into a Pakistani half and an Indian half, but few thought it would happen imminently.

At the stroke of midnight my entire family was displaced. Their land and home were deemed to be on the Pakistani side and in a few days it was pretty clear that a Hindu family, regardless of their prior status, was in danger. I don’t know all the details but, unlike most families who decided to emigrate immediately (many losing their lives on the trains in the process), my father’s family went into hiding for a few months. My father recalled hiding in a Muslim family’s house (a former employee of my grandfather’s).

Eventually, things calmed down and the family made the trek to India and resettled, initially in Delhi in refugee quarters. My grandfather was able to find a job similar to his prior one. All of their property, including the house they had recently built, was lost but the family was grateful to have made it out alive — unlike so many others. The only person believed lost was the eldest daughter’s fiancé but, a year later, she spotted him at a train station in Delhi. They married and had several children.

— Alok A. Khorana


The Ghosh family, c. 1972. The author is in her father’s arms. CreditCourtesy of Madhushree Ghosh

‘We carried the heavy utensils, because we thought copper was more valuable than silver’

My parents were young when they walked from what’s now Bangladesh to India. Baba called East Pakistan “home” until he died in 2004. His family, landowners in Dhaka, fled with their belongings; copper utensils, large bowls, plates. He used to say, “We never needed anything, so we didn’t know the value of money. We carried the heavy utensils, because we thought copper was more valuable than silver. We were children, what were we to do?”

When Baba’s bank job moved him to New Delhi, he spent days recreating his childhood vegetable garden. Cabbage, cauliflower, peas, spinach, okra, we had it all. He used to say, “Our pumpkins were bigger than the sun!” and I would believe him. Everything in Bangladesh, the place he left, was better. The roses were more fragrant, the eggplants more purple, the fish were fresher — Delhi could never compete.

Ma was 12 when her family fled Barisal for Kolkata. They sold everything, including Ma’s favorite school books. She mourned those books until she died, in 2008. But she was proud that she hadn’t marked any of them with a pen or pencil. “They were pristine,” she would say, “so Thakur da could sell them at a premium. That money helped us escape.”

— Madhushree Ghosh


The author’s father and mother, c. 1960. CreditCourtesy of Peter Jones Jr.

‘My siblings and I have been effectively stateless’

My father’s family was part of the British colonial administration. During partition my father was in Pakistan attending school while the rest of his family was in Pune, India. As hostilities erupted between Hindus and Muslims, my father was cut off from his family. He couldn’t get British citizenship because most of his papers were lost during the upheaval. So, in the ’50s, he made his way to the United Arab Emirates by ship and started a family there.

My siblings and I have been effectively stateless. Although we are familiar with Indian and Pakistani culture, we belonged to neither culture. We grew up in the Middle East, in Dubai, among other Asians but could not identify with them.

— S. Jones


The author’s father and mother in the late ’40s/early ’50s.Credit

‘He would never forgive himself if anything happened to her’

When partition was announced, my father, who worked for the British Indian Government, was posted in Bombay. He was advised that as a Muslim he would have better career opportunities in Pakistan. He was asked to report to offices in Rawalpindi as soon as possible. He left and my mother, Rosy, who was 20, and their six-month-old daughter stayed behind until he could arrange for their accommodation. Because of the chaos he could not come back to get them, so he asked my mother to take a train to Lahore. On the train a Sikh gentleman noticed my mother alone with an infant and asked her where she was going. When she told him Lahore, he was shocked and told her about the massacres that were taking place on trains going to Pakistan — my mother and father hadn’t known.

He said he was traveling to Amritsar (30 miles from Lahore) but would accompany her to Wagah, a border town between India and Pakistan, because he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her. He told my mother that if anyone asked, she was his daughter. He thought her name, Rosy, was fine since it was secular. But my sister’s name, Shahina, was distinctly Muslim, so if anyone asked her name was Nina.

He stayed with them until Wagah and walked with them to the Pakistani border, kissed them both on their foreheads and told them he wished he could take them all the way to Lahore, but he would not make it back alive.

My sister, who lives in Karachi, is still called Nina by everyone in the family. My mother insisted on that.

— Sohail Murad


The author’s father, left, grandfather and grandmother, a few years after partition. CreditCourtesy of Kanwal Prakash Singh

‘We prayed as we imagined the worst. Almighty God had other plans.’

On Sept. 7, a bespectacled Sikh man, much like my father, was killed in town and a rumor spread that he had come to set fire to the local mosque.

The next day dislocated families from surrounding villages who had taken shelter in schoolyards, grain markets and other vulnerable locations were attacked. I can still hear the cries of people shot or stabbed outside the Gurdwara and the gunfire that began around 4 p.m., as the last train left the Jaranwala Railway Station, in Pakistan, and continued into the evening.

That night women and children were sheltering in a room on the second floor of the Gurdwara with instructions on what to do if the militia broke through the doors and entered the temple. The thought still gives me chills. The temperature outside was in the 90s Fahrenheit, but inside the heat was oppressive. Some men stayed on the main floor or on the rooftop lookout, armed with sticks, swords, a pistol and one double-barreled gun. We were certain our end was imminent. We prayed as we imagined the worst.

Almighty God had other plans. For the next three days we holed-up in the Gurdwara. Our ranks swelled with the addition of the injured who were able to escape. We heard rumors that we would be attacked on Sept. 12, after Friday prayers. But there was a knock at the giant door of the temple around 10 a.m. and four Sikh military officers ordered us to leave in ten minutes and said they would escort us to the caravan of refugees that was passing. Everyone scrambled and ran with the clothes on their backs, relieved and hopeful to live another day or die with others traveling toward the new border and sanctuary of India.

— Kanwal Prakash “KP” Singh


‘I was probably the first member of my family to visit the home since 1947’

My father was a refugee and a migrant. As his child I have lived a peripatetic life, but have always been able to maintain connections with my family in Pakistan. I lived in Aligarh while I was researching my dissertation and visited the home where my father and my grandmother were born. I met the son of the family who had migrated from Lahore and received the home as refugee property (though he had been born later, in independent India). I was probably the first member of my family to visit the home since 1947 and met people who remembered my family, who were known for their love of rooftop kite flying. The family who lives there now sent homemade sweets for me to take to my Pakistani family.

— Amber Abbas


My parents with me in Calcutta at my Mundan ceremony, c. 1954. 

‘He spent days carrying two Muslims from the East to the West’

My mother’s younger brother lived in Jammu and must have been a lad of 15 at the time of the partition. He was aware of the mass violence around him, but he did not take up arms and perpetuate the violence. He was a strong swimmer, and he spent days carrying two Muslims from the East to the West and then two Hindus from the West to the East on his shoulders — back and forth. My uncle’s story reminds me that people can stop the cycle of violence.

— Ripudaman Malhotra


The author’s father, left, and grandfather. CreditCourtesy of Ritesh Batra

‘It was not a national tragedy for him, but a very personal one’

My paternal grandfather and grandmother moved to Bombay during partition with their two little sons. I shared a room with my grandfather growing up and heard stories of how things were before and silences about what happened during. In his last year my grandfather would often weep about partition. It was not a national tragedy for him, but a very personal one.

My maternal grandfather moved to Lucknow in India at the height of the violence. They lost many cousins and relations, but the immediate family made it safely. He restarted an optical shop called Lahore Opticals, named after the city of his birth, and became successful. When Hindu-Muslim strife breaks out in India, the shop is invariably targeted. But my grandfather never changed the name. His shop is now run by my uncle and is still named after the city they fled, now in Pakistan.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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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.

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