Tag Archives: Romans

NikoBako reads: Dangers of Convenient Universalism: Power Relations and Responsibility of Scholars on the Hagia Sophia — Axel B. Çorlu: “The reconversion of Hagia Sophia is about power…”

23 Dec

I once got into an argument with a Turkish art historian friend of mine after I referred to the eight round canvasses with the first caliphs’ names on them (I think) in Hagia Sophia as “the hideous green billboards”. She, of course, thought they were “cool” or “pastiche-y” or “palimpsest-y”. I thought, and think, that they not only mar the space by covering the joints between the massive square space and the massive dome which are perhaps the most ingenious aspect of this miracle of Roman engineering, but that they were meant to send a clear message of who was now in charge. Hers is a typical “woke” take on these things. In the article below, Axel Çorlu highlights the dangers of such gleefully amoral, post-modern celebrations of funky “conjunctures” and how they essentially elide the historical facts of violence, persecution and appropriation from our picture of the past, and how — in the particular case of Hagia Sophia — these academics end up feeding the discourse of both Ottoman/Muslim triumphalism and the oppression and displacement of religious minorities by the nationalism of the Turkish Republic.

In short, you may want to get past “conquest narratives”; Erdoğan — who justified the reconversion by the “right of conquest” — doesn’t.

My money quotes:

They [Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycıoğlu, titled “Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present”] conclude this section with the heart of their essay: “…in this essay, we would like to divert the conversation and discuss how the conquest narrative, which is shared by those who oppose and support the decision, does not do justice to Hagia Sophia and its architecturally, spiritually, and emotionally charged history.” This sort of interjection, very appealing to the academic mind, nonetheless includes ominous terminology such as “doing justice” to the Hagia Sophia and its “…emotionally charged history.”

This narrative at once establishes the issue of “justice,” not in the sense of the expropriation and destruction of Christian and/or minority populations and the appropriation of their cultural heritage, but as in, “Let us not be unfair to the Ottomans or the Turkish Republic…” and the fact that those who respond to the Hagia Sophia issue might be affected by the same “emotionally charged” aspects. In other words, the authors are guiding us to focus on “justice,” as long as it is to protect the powerful who do not need any protection –there appears to be no need to consider the concept of justice for the dispossessed, whom the Hagia Sophia also symbolizes. […]

While the republican regime was indeed interested in recasting the Ottoman past (usually not in a very bright light, as it also distanced itself from many of its aspects and dictated a highly selective version of its history) and kept busy trying to prove that “Turks” had existed in Anatolia for millennia through the Hittites and other ancient peoples with an eclectic mix of the racial theories and pseudo-science of the time (including the infamous obsession with the morphology and measurements of skulls), it hardly made an effort to understand, teach, or preserve its Byzantine past, let alone “making a claim” to it, if what we mean by “making a claim” is anything more than a possessive but not inclusive approach.

Indeed, the Byzantine past of Turkey remained either buried, neglected, or carefully molded in the public imagination, as nothing more than the “other” that had happened to be there before.At no point did the republic genuinely try to make a direct connection to the Byzantines beyond their role as the adversary in history textbooks, the adversary that had been vanquished, the adversary that had nothing to do with the ethnicity or cultural heritage of the people in Turkey. […]

Beyond its [the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum] practical use as described, it was neither part of a grand historical or intellectual vision, nor a noble gesture of “tolerance” by a regime that did its very best to eliminate the remaining diversity of cultures and religions in its lands for decades to come through acts ranging from the population exchange with Greece, to the Izmir Economics Congress of 1923 where the elimination of “foreign” bourgeoisie and its replacement with a “national” one was planned, to the Varlik Vergisi (Capital Tax) of 1942, among many other examples. Such a regime surely could not care less about multiculturalism, inclusivity, or the Byzantine past as the authors suggest. […]

This idea also worked very well for the urban Kemalist elite and their newly created middle class throughout the 20th century, because it did not require them to symbolically come to terms with the vast destruction visited upon the minorities of the land, from whom they had acquired significant aspects of their material and cultural wealth via direct or indirect appropriation

I agree that a narrative that “equates Ottoman approaches to Hagia Sophia with iconophobia and iconoclasm is incorrect” but I do not think it is necessarily “marked by Islamophobia and Orientalism” given the fact that Byzantine art and architecture suffered tremendous degradation and damage, sometimes in the name of Islam, and other times at the hands of unscrupulous republican bureaucrats, treasure hunters, or the common public in more recent times. Any scholar, casual observer, or visitor of Byzantine, Armenian, or Syriac heritage sites in Turkey will be more than cognizant of the intentional damage done to frescoes, mosaics, and other elements of Christian architecture. The damage was done over a period of centuries under different conditions, the perpetrators were/are not a homogeneous group, and the practice ranges from officially undertaken projects to “simply” neglected sites. This is an undeniable fact, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that the few token examples in the Ottoman era, republican era or today somehow represent a “preservationist” or “tolerant” attitude when in the vast majority of locations they were covered at best and destroyed at worst. …..Today, the Turkish state uses sites such as the restored Aghtamar Cathedral of the Holy Cross or the Sumela Monastery as tokens of its hollow “multiculturalism” and “tolerance.” As scholars, we have a grave responsibility to challenge this narrative. This multiculturalism narrative and tokenism of Turkey is a propaganda tool designed to cover the simultaneous appropriation and destruction of the past and the present, motivated to a significant extent by the conquest narrative. The conquest narrative was a real factor in history, and it is a real factor today. Ignoring it, reducing it to merely an “incorrect” historical interpretation, or diminishing it to an ahistorical approach is dangerous. […]

The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is about power; in a world where power relations past and present influence the lives of millions of people, and history is weaponized for various agendas, we do not have the luxury of pretending to “stay above it” in a noncommittal manner.

The interior of Hagia Sophia with the eight “hideous green billboards”. Getty Images.

For full article, please read below:

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Dangers of Convenient Universalism: Power Relations and Responsibility of Scholars on the Hagia Sophia

2020-08-08

By Axel B. Çorlu, Ph.D.

The recent reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque by the (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan regime generated heated debates among scholars, politicians, and the public. A recent article by Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycioglu, titled “Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present” offers sophisticated but ultimately convenient universalism, where both the past and the present are presented from a distorted lens, with strategic omissions.[1]

According to Blessing and Yaycioglu, there is a binary “conquest narrative” that both the supporters and opponents of the Hagia Sophia reconversion utilize, and that in essence this simplistic view does not reflect the “complex history of Ottoman Hagia Sophia.” The authors go on to label the concerns about the protection of the structure, especially regarding the issue of the mosaics as ahistorical “disinformation,” and offer a “correct” version of history.

I will follow their text in the same order, and point out the multiple issues… (see below)

Continue reading

Feast of St. Nicholas on Julian Calendar, old post, and Срећна Cлава to all Serbian friends celebrating today

19 Dec

(See Slava: “Где је слава, ту је Србин” — “Where there is a Slava, there is a Serb“)

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Today’s my nameday

6 Dec

Saint_Nicholas_1550

Russian icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker (click)

Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas (on the Gregorian calendar — December 19th on the Julian Calendar, depending on what kind of Orthodox you are ethnically), the saint generally known in the East (and beautiful Bari, one of my favorite Italian cities) as the “Miracle-worker.”  But for me the coolest thing about St. Nick, and that’s the cause of his nauseating transformation into Santa Claus in the West, is that his miracles are deeply human and mundane and material, and actually just more good deeds than miracles: his most metaphysical, I guess, was his power to calm threatening seas; probably more to the point he prevents the execution of an accused criminal, following Christ’s example in opposing capital punishment or — my favorite — he quietly leaves three bags of gold, εν τω μέσω της νυχτώς, in the bedroom of three poor sisters who needed dowries to get married.  He didn’t preach or rail against the dowry system, like the moralist who thinks his ideological crusade is more important then the real needs of real people, who gets a hard-on from his preaching while others are truly suffering: for example, the schmucks who leave a hard-working waiter a card that says: “We don’t believe in tips; they’re exploitative, join our group at www…etc…” or like the assholes you hear in New York on the subway when a panhandler comes by and certain types go off on their “oh-I’ve-heard-that-story-before-get-a-job-you-probably-make-more-money-than-me” tirades, without thinking that if a man is reduced to begging, for whatever reason, he’s already been through hell enough and deserves your compassion.

A priest at my old parish in Whitestone, I remember years ago on this day, said in his sermon: “St. Nicholas is not one of our great theologian-intellectual saints, like the Cappadocians [though he apparently slapped someone at the First Oecumenical Council at Nicaea for saying something dumb about the Trinity…I think], or one of our warrior, defender-of-the-faith saints, like Demetrios or Mercourios or the Archangels.  More, he was a saint who always made sure that everyone under his pastorship had food to eat and a roof to sleep under.”  He was particularly venerated in the sea-faring islands of Greece, for obvious reasons (“Hagie Nikola, I implore you” sings the island girl with her sailor-man away, “carpet the seas with flowers…”) and is the patron saint of Russia.  In communist times the name still had some lingering Imperial/Romanov stigma attached to it and when I was there in the eighties, it seemed anachronistically charming to many Russians.  Now it seems there are significantly more young “Kolyas” and “Nikolays” everywhere.

Despite an almost erotic devotion to and obsession I’ve developed for St. Demetrios over the years — hard to resist a young Roman aristocrat in uniform — Nicholas is still my patron saint.  And he’s more than just important to me as saint himself, but because I love the Orthodox nameday tradition, which again varies from country to country.  Serbs have always observed a single clan nameday, the Slava, celebrating the saint on whose feast-day the family’s first ancestor supposedly converted to Christianity, a very ritualized and beautiful celebration and one of the many traditions that Serbs adhere to that makes them the Slavs that, more than any others, still have one foot in their pagan past; telling, also, to how important he is in the Orthodox world: the single largest group of Serbian clans celebrate St. Nicholas as their Slava patron.  Communism forced Russians to take their birthdays more seriously, and discouraged the celebration of the obviously religious nameday, but nineteenth-century Russian literature is full of nameday celebrations (Chekhov’s “Nameday Party,” and Tatyana’s nameday dance in Pushkin’s Onegin*), and as a semi-conscience remembrance of what the new Western-style celebration of birthdays replaced, the birthday-boy is to this day still called the “imeninets,” the “name-bearer.”

What I most love is that, among Greeks, your nameday is a day critical to your honor and reputation: it’s when you take friends out and treat them; it’s when people in small towns especially, but even some in Athens still, sit home in a house full of food and sweets and wait for everybody who has the right to — meaning every one they know essentially — and most likely will, drop by and wait for the the privilege of feeding them; most young Athenians today wait for an official invitation but massive group drop-ins are still common enough among the old-fashioned.  In smaller, provincial towns, when there was a death in the family, you used to have to put an ad in the paper saying: “Due to mourning, we won’t be accepting callers this St. Nicholas Day.”  In villages everybody just knew.  It’s a day when you make an artoklasia,  a “bread-breaking” offering and share sweetened and blessed loaves with your whole parish.  It’s a day when it’s your obligation to give and serve and prove your noblesse and not, as Western birthdays have become, a day when you sit around waiting for others to do for you or give you gifts.  Western, American, birthdays are only slightly less gross to me than the totally American ugliness of wedding and baby showers: “I’m getting married and/or I’m pregnant; so I’m having a party where you have to bring me things.”  And don’t even start me on bridal registries, where you tell people, not just that they have to bring you something, but what they have to bring you.

So: χρόνια μου πολλά…  And Многая Лета to other Nicholases everywhere.  Keep the tradition alive.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Tatyana was not a popular name in Russia until Pushkin’s Onegin became the Bible and literary gold standard of modern Russian, and Russians took the deeply loved heroine into their hearts.  Only then did it become a widespread name and eventually, through her epic act of heroically soul-baring letter-writing probably, her nameday, January 12th or 25th — depending again on calendar — become the patron saint day of young students and scholars.

Photo: Hadrian’s library. Athens. Night. Lockdown.

2 Dec
Photo ΙΝΤΙΜΕ NEWS

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Arabs and the classics: “Am I gonna have to put up with this preposterous idea forever?” Probably yes…

12 Nov

…unfortunately. Or at least for as long as our fear of being labelled an un-p.c. racist makes us overcompensate in the other direction in terms of how we view the history of Arabs/Islam. And for as long as our post-Christian Christianophobia makes us unable to relate to Byzantine civilization and ignore the extent to which it was the keystone civilization of western Eurasia for a millenium and a half.

Yes.

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

4 Sep

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

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

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

From Wiki:

Massacres:

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

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

Shit happens, in other words.

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

Loxandra: Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loxandra paid her no mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haydi, Tarnana, make him some coffee.”

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

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

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

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

“Vah, vah, vah”, Mehmet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old Meşrutiyet Caddesi
The Gates of Galatasaray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list, contact us at nikobakos@gmail.com.

“Ottoman”: It’s pretty good: understanding an opponent’s mythology

28 Jan

“Understand an opponent’s mythology…”

Last night I figured I’d just buck up, get over with it, and start watching the Netflix docudrama — got through first two episodes — and it’s actually pretty good. Some key notes: The Turkish perspective is not insufferably jingoistic or Islamically triumphalist, like it was in that trashy 1453 film that came out a few years ago, which I also put off watching for a while because I thought it would be disturbing, but I ended up turning off after 20 minutes, not because I was disturbed or offended but because the script and acting were so horrendous and the production values so cheap — it looked like the set was composed of stuff bought wholesale from a Moroccan antique shop in the East Village or Çukurcuma– that it was simply unwatchable.

* We’re not portrayed as craven cowards or decadent dinosaurs à la Gibbon, whose destiny it was to float off into extinction. Both Constantine and Mehmet are portrayed as equal opponents, Hector-Achilles style: it’s probably no accident; both were, I’m sure, as acquainted with the Iliad as the other. Constantine’s heroic and complex combination of resistance and resignation are portrayed as thoroughly as possible: he did everything he could until there was nothing to be done anymore; Mehmet’s impressive intellect, cosmopolitanism and warrior skills are highlighted without going overboard. And both are pretty sexy, as is Giustiniani, as is even Notaras père (costumes and sets are beautiful too). I do dread the thought of how they’re going to treat the fate of the Notarades, though. It’s much too scintillating to just leave out of the whole narrative, yet to show it to us they’d have to admit that their revered Fatih Mehmet was what we would today call bisexual, and that he was also a cruel sadist, and I don’t know how that would have sat with the Turkish side of the production.

* Unexpectedly, I thought, we’re called “Romans” from the beginning of the series, in the fictional segments (and I think some of the Italians, Giustiniani even, calls us “Greeks” at one point); there’s more “Byzantine” used in the doc segments obviously. Either way, it’s hard to say whether they wanted to take a calculated risk in doing that, because using “Romans” probably leaves all non-Greek viewers baffled, or because “baffling” and confusing were the desired result for what’s always been the Turkish state’s policy: that is, separating us from the Byzantines/Romans and not giving us our due rights to claim descent for ourselves there, by calling us something different, the same reason Turkey calls Istanbul’s 3,000* remaining Greeks “Rum” to this day, while the rest of us are “Yunan”. It’s satisfying to hear, in any event.

* Whether advertently or not, it punctures some pretty giant holes in the Turkish mythology of heroic feat. One, by admitting the fact that we were outnumbered by the tens of thousands, so that the speed with which, for example, Rumelihisarı was built doesn’t seem quite so miraculous, plus there were already foundations on the site from an older Roman fortress. Two, by showing the glaring technological disparities between the two sides, meaning, that the Siege and Fall of Constantinople was the last great military event between mediaeval fortifications and early modern cannons and artillery, so that instead of being an incredible military achievement, it was more like the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, with as dogged and determined a defense. And enough already with the “genius” of dragging the ships over from what, I would guess, would be somewhere near Kabataş, over the ridge, down Dolapdere into the Horn. It must have taken an enormous amount of manpower — too bad Erdoğan’s tunnel wasn’t there yet — yet not everything that’s just super-hard is necessarily “genius”.

* And stop comparing it to fucking Game of Thrones. GOT was Tolkien with sex and was the most maddening piece of trash to enthrall the masses in a long time. Ottoman is about a series of deeply traumatic events in the history of a real people that still exists, and who have been persecuted and are still threatened and harassed by Mehmet’s descendants to this day: US.

All in all it’s good; watch it. I mean, wtf, whatever. Maybe the inevitable escalation of violence, especially against civilians after the entry of the Turks into the City (The Religion of Peace gave an army three days’ right to loot, murder, rape and enslave if a city resisted and didn’t capitulate on it own) will make later episodes more disturbing. And the long arm of Erdoğanism is always felt throughout the whole thing. If Netflix were to produce a series portraying the destruction of the Second Temple and the horrendous brutality with which the Romans massacred and expelled most Jews from Judaea that made the Romans look even slightly heroic for even a second — “due to be released next Tisha B’av” — there’s not even a question of whether it would face a howling riot of protest or not; it would simply never have been produced. That’s not a “Jews control Hollywood” argument. It’s the truth. Just too many people would be offended. But even as Turkey sinks deeper into self-isolating dictatorship, it does wonders projecting a certain image to the rest of us and the rest of the Ummah.

But, at best it’s an exercise in what Helequin above calls “understand-[ing] an oppenents [sic] mythology”. You don’t have to be a trained Jungian to understand (or at least try) that “myth” is the only “reality”. That means understanding the other’s myth/s is crucial to the development of empathy, the one form of intelligence that homo sapiens [?] are still tragically deficient in.

It’s certainly the only thing in Palestine, or between Hindu and Muslim in India, and in the continuing bad divorce that is Greek-Turkish relations that will inevitably make a difference. Put yourself in a Turk’s position. Think about the massive baggage of tradition around the idea of taking Constantinople that animated them. And then [smerk]… put yourself in our position: if everybody wanted it so badly for 1,200 years, it must have been one puta madre of a city we had built there.

And in the 19th and 20th centuries, we built them another real city — “over there” — the likes of which they also had never known, and they threw us out of there too.

What are you gonna do? After a certain point, anger is too tiring. And they pay and are paying the price for their political culture anyway.

************************************************************************* The number of Greeks today in Istanbul is somewhere in the 2,000 to 3,000 range, there’s an issue of whether deaths and marriages and births will keep things in the range of critical mass… Near 300,000 in a city of around a million in the 1920s, three-thousand — in a city of 15 million today.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Χριστός Ανέστη” — Christ Has Risen — and I’m so damn PROUD…

25 Jan

I swear to God those were the first words — the two most totemic in the Greek language — that instinctively leapt out of my mouth when a very loved cousin of mine in Athens answered her mobile today.

Anastasis_fresco_(Chora_Church)The Resurrection fresco in the church of the Chora in Constantinople (click)

I don’t know what will happen.  Tomorrow, me…and Greeks all over the world will wake up sober — or hungover — and have to figure out how this thing is actually going to work.

But one thing all of us need to understand is the power of language and discourse.  By “discourse” I mean the idea and interpretations that people give and ascribe to the phenomena in the world around them; that discourse is “poetic” and a process of “poiesis”— not poetic like Byron or Baudelaire — but poetic in the original Greek sense of “making” or “creating.”  What that means is that DISCOURSE: what people say about things, how people talk about and interpret reality, the opinions and analyses of that reality, are not an either accurate or inaccurate view of that reality but a code and a language that create that reality.  This is simple stuff.  Intro to Deconstruction.  Foucault 101.  And nowhere is it truer than in the “game of chicken” played in the arena of political economics.

So, like I said in GREEK ELECTIONS,” if a critical mass believes a hypothesis is true — or just possible — then it becomes true; then actions and gestures on the ground, and praxeis in the “real,” physical world will create that reality, poetically.  And if we continue to bolster — worse, think we deserve — the Troika’s Neo-Liberal discourse of exploitation, then it will continue.  If we support a discourse, if we believe that an alternative to that reality is possible, then it will emerge.  It only took some workers in a Gdańsk shipyard to say: “I’m not gonna pretend that I believe this shit anymore”; it only took a heroic Gorbachev to say: “This isn’t working”, for the most horrific political economic system that has ever been inflicted on humanity, and that seemed as eternal and as immoveable as Everest, to come crashing down like a house of cards from one day to the next.

This will work, if we let it.  They’ll feed us a language of fear, which if we swallow, will ruin us.  If we simply keep in mind: “That’s what you think — and want us to think — but we won’t,” change will come.

ALSO, we, as ROMANS, should be immensely proud that so many other left-leaning, anti-austerity parties from the rest of the European periphery: Spain, Portugal — and even from Prussia itself and other parts of Merkelstan — came to be part of these elections.  If it gives them only a tiny drop of optimism, if it makes them feel like: “Yes, we can say ‘No!’ too”, it will be a by far greater gift to them than anything else we supposedly gave the West in the past.

YESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

The Classical Liberals: “On the Balkans, the Former Yugoslavia, and the Unity of Spaces”

4 Jan

dropoliThe Valley of Dropoli, the pass up to the Pogoni plateau near Libochovo, and in the distance, the snowcapped peaks of Nemerčka, from the Monastery of the Taxiarches in my father’s village of Derviçani, Easter 2014 (click)

I’m honored by the fact that this really intelligent blog quotes extensively from the Jadde’s mission statement in a recent post: Jadde — Starting off — the Mission.

Check them out: The Classical Liberals: At least, most of the time  Smart, perceptive, interesting stuff.

The author of the post below and the person I suspect is largely behind the editing of the blog is one Eoin Power, not just a fellow Balkan-freak along the lines of me or Rebecca West, but also a fellow Epirote.  He demurs a bit — though not very convincingly — at being called an Epirote, because his lineage is multiple and complicated and the connection to Epiros is fairly distant historically.  But he’s from one of the most archetypically and ancient Epirotiko villages — where they still own their patriko — in one of the most archetypically Epirotiko regions of Epiros and he carries himself with the requisite Epirotiko dignity and soft-spokeness and if I, NikoBakos, have conferred the title on you, it’s ’cause you deserve it.

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On the Balkans, the Former Yugoslavia, and the Unity of Spaces

The other day, as she is wont to do, my mother sent me a link to something on the Internet; this time it was to Nicholas Bakos’ blog, which you can find here. If you’re reading this blog, we’re probably friends in real life (thanks for reading!), and so it’s probably obvious why something like that would be of interest to the both of us. I have admittedly only skimmed sections of his posting so far, but in his introductory one, it was especially gratifying to read this:

This blog is about “our parts.”  It’s about that zone, from Bosnia to Bengal that, whatever its cultural complexity and variety, constitutes an undeniable unit for me.  Now, I understand how the reader in Bihać, other than the resident Muslim fundamentalists, would be perplexed by someone asserting his connection to Bengal.  I can also hear the offended screeching of the Neo-Greek in Athens, who, despite the experiences of the past few years, or the past two centuries, not only still feels he’s unproblematically a part of Europe, but still doesn’t understand why everyone else doesn’t see that he’s the gurgling fount of origin and center of Europe.

But set aside for one moment Freud’s “narcissism of petty differences,” if we have the generosity and strength to, and take this step by step.  Granted there’s a dividing line running through the Balkans between the meze-and-rakia culture and the beer-and-sausage culture (hats off to S.B. for that one), but I think there’s no controversy in treating them as a unit for most purposes; outsiders certainly have and almost without exception negatively.  And the Balkans, like it or not, include Greece.  And Greece, even more inextricably, means Turkey, the two being, as they are, ‘veined with one another,’ to paraphrase the beautiful words of Patricia Storace.  Heading south into the Levant and Egypt, we move into the Arab heartland that shares with us the same Greek, Roman-Byzantine, Ottoman experiences, and was always a part of the same cultural and commercial networks as the rest of us.  East out of Anatolia or up out of Mesopotamia I challenge anyone to tell me where the exact dividing line between the Turkic and Iranian worlds are, from the Caucasus, clear across the Iranian Plateau into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Bakos suggests that for people of “those parts” displaced to another environment (e.g. grad school in the West), this kind of geographical unity came, at least in a social context, fairly naturally, so perhaps I shouldn’t be all that surprised and delighted at seeing it reconstituted in blog form. But in fact I think the basic unity of the geographical zone outlined here often gets lost in the way these places are understood by outsiders and, ironically enough, in no small part due to the vehement insistence from each of the zone’s component peoples that they could not possibly be compared with those uncultured idiots with whom they share a border.*

Explaining the rationale for delineating “his parts” the way he does, Bakos writes:

But to step into Buddhist Burma is somehow truly a leap for me, which maybe I would take if I knew more. And in the other direction, I stop in Bosnia only because for the moment I’d like to leave Croatia to Europe – mit schlag – if only out of respect for the, er, vehemence with which it has always insisted that it belongs there.  Yes, I guess this is Hodgson’s “Islamicate” world, since one unifying element is the experience of Islam in one form or another, but I think it’s most essential connections pre-date the advent of Islam.  I’ll also probably be accused, among other things, of Huntingtonian border drawing, but I think those borders were always meant to be heuristic in function and not as hard-drawn as his critics used to accuse him of, and that’s the case here as well.

Ultimately what unites us more singularly than anything else, and more than any other one part of the world, is that the Western idea of the ethnic nation-state took a hold of our imaginations – or crushed them – when we all still lived in complex, multi-ethnic states.  What binds us most tightly is the bloody stupidity of chilling words like Population Exchange, Partition, Ethnic Cleansing – the idea that political units cannot function till all their peoples are given a rigid identity first (a crucial reification process without which the operation can’t continue), then separated into little boxes like forks after Easter when you’ve had to use both sets – and the horrendous violence and destruction that idea caused, causes and may still do in “our parts” in the future.

Having not, at least north of the equator, yet made it further east than Istanbul, I am in no position to question Bakos’ perception of the fundamental apartness of Buddhist Burma. But the loose border he posits to the north and west is one I’ve crossed many times, and it’s one that is both deeply present and functionally invisible.**

At the very least it is present in people’s minds; I can vouch for the vehemence (to use Bakos’ word again) with which Slovenes and Croats will insist that their countries are European, and not Balkan. It’s also pretty visually observable – you could mistake Zagreb or Ljubljana for a city in Austria or Germany in a way you simply can’t for, say, Sarajevo or Belgrade. And on one frantic trip from Dubrovnik back to Ljubljana (the ferry which I’d intended to take from Dubrovnik to Ancona decided not to arrive from Split, leaving me nothing to do but beat a hasty retreat back north) you could, if you were looking for it, see an actual tangible difference in the way things were done in the world – bus tickets in Mostar and train tickets in Sarajevo had to be paid in cash and a conductor on the train north from Sarajevo let me pay in a mix of Croatian kuna, Bosnian marks,  and euros. In Zagreb I could pay with a credit card, the train station had working and appealing amenities, and you couldn’t smoke in the train. This is a terribly squishy thing to write, but it did feel more “European-y”.

On the other hand, if the relatively old Huntingtonian dividing line between formerly Orthodox and Ottoman lands to the south, and formerly Catholic Hapsburg lands to the north is visually (and, at least in terms of credit card viability in 2009, functionally) discernible, the comparatively recent unifying experience of Yugoslavia is also unavoidable. Here, too, the first signs are in architecture and appearance; Soviet-style architecture and the legacy of 1950s industrialization has left the same physical scars on cities from Nova Gorica to Skopje. But they run deeper than that – the protestations of linguistic nationalists notwithstanding, Slovene, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Macedonian (hell, even Bulgarian a bit) all exist along a spectrum of of mutual intelligibility; state apparatuses, all having those of the former Yugoslavia as their common predecessors, share similar characteristics. Indeed, to me as a foreigner, the similarities often seem more salient than the differences.

Just on the basis of whether or not there “is” a usefully differentiating border to be drawn where Croatia meets Bosnia, it seems you can argue fairly fruitfully either way, depending on whether your sympathies lie with a sort of longue duree emphasis on deep civilizational splits or a faith in the primacy of modern political experiences. But by Bakos’ own ultimate criteria, it seems a bit odd to leave the northernmost bits of the former Yugoslavia out of things (though there is a nice alliterative symmetry to covering “from Bosnia to Bengal”) . If you’re going on the basis of, “the bloody stupidity of chilling words like Population Exchange, Partition, Ethnic Cleansing,” surely things like Jasenovac or the Istrian exodus argue for the inclusion of all of the former Yugoslavia?

Of course, any exercise in boundary-izing is a bit arbitrary, and in this case there are good reasons to put one in between Croatia and Bosnia and not, say, in between Slovenia and Austria (two countries for which there also exist plenty of historical reasons to consider them as part of a unified space). So if all of this does anything, it is perhaps to show how much more liminal are most places than we or their inhabitants often care to admit; whether or not you see a border somewhere often depends as much on your level of zoom as anything else.

*Or at least their nationalist politicians – many average people (whatever that means) in Bosnia and Serbia, for example, will quickly stress to you the fundamental similarities between the two countries and their inhabitants
**People sometimes marvel at my overstuffed passport but really something like 40% of the stamps come from the Dobova and Dobrljin border posts.

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Again, check these guys out; you won’t regret it: The Classical Liberals

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

From Salon: Jewish angels and Roman gods: The ancient mythological origins of Christmas

3 Jan

Manger_154490453-1

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet

 

 

 

Valerie Tarico interviews Dr. Tony Nugent, scholar of world religions. Dr. Nugent is a symbologist, an expert in ancient symbols. He taught at Seattle University for fifteen years in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and is an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Many Americans have heard that December 25 was a birthday of Roman gods long before it was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some people also know that our delightful mélange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Roman and Druid traditions – or, in the case of Rudolph, on Madison Avenue. But where does the Christmas story itself come from: Jesus in the manger, the angels and wise men?

Nugent: The familiar Christmas story, including the virgin conception and birth of Jesus, is found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Scholars have pointed out that these stories are somewhat disconnected from other parts of these Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. In fact, by the time he is a young boy in the temple, Jesus’s parents seem to have forgotten the virgin birth. They act surprised by his odd behavior. There is never any other mention in the New Testament of these incredible events! These stories seem to be an afterthought, written later than the rest of the gospels that contain them. To make matters more interesting, the stories themselves have inconsistencies and ambiguities – contradictory genealogies, for example. Our Christmas story (singular) is actually a composite.

Or consider the idea that Mary is a virgin. The Greek writer of Matthew quotes Isaiah as saying: “a parthenos shall conceive and bear a child.” The Hebrew word in Isaiah is “almah,” which means simply “young woman.” But the Greek word parthenos can mean either a virgin or a young woman, and it got translated as “virgin.” Modern Bible translations have corrected this, but it is a central part of the Christmas story.

That’s a lot of added complications. If the rest of the New Testament doesn’t refer to these stories or need them, then how did we end up with them? Where do they come from?

Nugent: One part of the answer comes from Hellenistic culture. (It is no accident all New Testament books written in Greek.) In this tradition, when a man did something extraordinary there was the assumption that he did this because he was different, either divine or semi-divine. They would make up a story about how he came to be divine. Almost all Greek heroes were said to be born of a human woman and a god–even Alexander the Great, Augustus and Pythagoras.

The father typically was Zeus or Apollo. The god would come and sleep with the woman, pretending to be the husband or as a bolt of lightning, or some such. Greek mythology also shows up in the book of Genesis: the gods lusting after the women and coming down and mating with them.

Why were they added to the Christian story?

Nugent: Jewish Christians, the first Christians, didn’t believe in the virgin birth. They believed that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. Part of their Christology was “adoptionism”–they thought Jesus was adopted as the unique son of God at some time later in life. There were disagreements about when – Mark suggests the baptism, Paul suggests the resurrection.

Over time, gentile Christianity replaced Jewish Christianity. There were Jewish-Roman Wars. The Jewish Christians were marginalized and oppressed. The Gentile branch became dominant. Eventually we get the gospel of John which pushes the sonship of Jesus back to the beginning of time. This writer is at the other end of the spectrum from the Jewish Christians.

But Matthew and Luke think that the sonship of Jesus began at birth. And they want to tell a story that reinforces this point. Matthew and Luke are the source of the Christmas story as most of us learned it.

Why didn’t the writers do a better job of cleaning the contradictions?

Nugent: They did, some. This is called the “orthodox corruption of scripture.” But it appears that these birth stories were added toward the end, so scripture got frozen before they could get integrated.

I was raised that the bible was the literally perfect, “inerrant” word of God, essentially dictated by God to the writers. What you are saying about the Christmas story sure calls into question this point of view.

Nugent: Which Bible?! There are thousands of manuscript variations. Most biblical stories are probably fiction, not non-fiction. They are mythology in the deepest sense of the word. But we need to get beyond the issue of whether biblical reports happened in the historical, physical sense to understand what they mean spiritually and mythically.

Ok. Back to Christmas. Of all the images from the Christmas story, the one that people fall in love with most is angels. The Christmas story is full of angels, beings of light. Is this because of the solstice tradition?

Nugent: Actually it comes from the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish scriptures that were eventually adopted into the Christian Bible as the Old Testament. It also comes from the Jewish literature written between the Old and New Testaments that didn’t get into the biblical canon. Some of these are even quoted in the New Testament, for example Enoch, from the 2nd Century BC. It’s all about angels.

What are angels in these stories? Who are they?

Nugent: The Bible calls them the sons of God, the Divine Council. The word used for God in parts of the Hebrew Bible, Elohim, is plural implying a family of deities. Angels are the lesser gods of the deposed pantheon of ancient Israel. They are under the rulership of Yahweh. Together with Yahweh they are part of Elohim, a plural word that we translate “God” in the book of Genesis. Elohim/God says “Let us make humans in our image.” Christians understand this to refer to the trinity, but that is a later interpretation. These angels came from the ancient pantheons of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Many of these gods come from stars. There is a strong astral dimension. “Heavenly Hosts” are stars.

The Luke story focuses on one angel specifically: Gabriel. Is he the archangel?

Nugent: Gabriel is the Angel of the Lord. He is one of two angels who are named in the Jewish canon and the Christian canon outside of the apocrypha: Gabriel and Michael. They are the angels of mercy and judgment. Gabriel means “Strong One of El.” He is first named in Daniel.

f you go into an Eastern Orthodox church you have two icons on the north and south. Michael is on the North to fight with Satan who lives there. Gabriel is on the south. He is more like what the angels originally were, which is messengers of the gods. That is what angel means. The idea that God has a special messenger is exactly what we read about in the Middle Eastern mythologies. Each of the earlier gods has his own special messenger. Enki, who becomes Yaweh, has Isimud. The goddess Inana has Ninshubur. Each high god will have an envoy or assistant, who is a lesser god. The angel of the lord is the same thing. The distinction between angels and gods came later.

So Gabriel is a star person? Or one of those semi-divine descendants of gods and women.

Nugent: He is one of the gods who would come down to earth.

Why do you say that?

Nugent: The offspring of the gods mating with women are called Gaborim–from the same root as Gabriel. In the second century, Gabriel appears in the Epistula Apostolorum. It talks about Jesus and these secret teachings that he gave to his apostles after the resurrection. One of the secrets is that he is actually Gabriel. After Gabriel took on flesh and united with Mary, then he becomes Jesus. The idea that Christ was an angel was extremely popular in the early church. Later we find this really strict separation between humans and angels; between gods and angels. (more)

We have time for just one more favorite Christmas story: The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi.

Nugent: The Magi are astrologers. They are Zoroastrian priests. Just to the east of the Roman Empire was the Persian Empire, which was Zoroastrian. They see this star at its rising (the better translations don’t say in the East). The astrologers paid a lot of attention to this. It is likely that what this refers to was a heliacal rising, which is the first time that a star appears over the horizon during the course of a year. They thought this was a sign of the Jewish messiah. Scholars speculate that they would have been living in Babylon, where there were lots of Jewish merchants. The Jews had been there from the time of the Jewish exile from Babylonia. We have cuneiform records from them.

Are you assuming that this story is historical?

Nugent: Think of it as a frog and pond. The pond is real, the frog is not. They are fictional stories in a real setting. They don’t always get the details of the setting right, but they are fictional characters in real places. The Magi follow their star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The author has in mind a real star that would be in front of you in this situation. It would have to be a star in the far southern sky. Remember what I said about the Heavenly Host being stars? The star in Matthew and the angel in Luke are two variants of the same mythology.

My former fundamentalist head is spinning. Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?

Nugent: We need to be able to appreciate these stories as myths, rather than literal histories. When you understand where they come from, then you can understand their spiritual significance for the writers and for us.

This interview first appeared at the Huffington Post, December 25, 2008

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Today’s my nameday

6 Dec

Saint_Nicholas_1550Russian icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker (click)

Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas (on the Gregorian calendar — December 19th on the Julian Calendar, depending on what kind of Orthodox you are ethnically), the saint generally known in the East (and beautiful Bari, one of my favorite Italian cities) as the “Miracle-worker.”  But for me the coolest thing about St. Nick, and that’s the cause of his nauseating transformation into Santa Claus in the West, is that his miracles are deeply human and mundane and material, and actually just more good deeds than miracles: his most metaphysical, I guess, was his power to calm threatening seas; probably more to the point he prevents the execution of an accused criminal, following Christ’s example in opposing capital punishment or — my favorite — he quietly leaves three bags of gold, εν τω μέσω της νυχτώς, in the bedroom of three poor sisters who needed dowries to get married.  He didn’t preach or rail against the dowry system, like the moralist who thinks his ideological crusade is more important then the real needs of real people, who gets a hard-on from his preaching while others are truly suffering: for example, the schmucks who leave a hard-working waiter a card that says: “We don’t believe in tips; they’re exploitative, join our group at www…etc…” or like the assholes you hear in New York on the subway when a panhandler comes by and certain types go off on their “oh-I’ve-heard-that-story-before-get-a-job-you-probably-make-more-money-than-me” tirades, without thinking that if a man is reduced to begging, for whatever reason, he’s already been through hell enough and deserves your compassion.  A priest at my old parish in Whitestone, I remember years ago on this day, said in his sermon: “St. Nicholas is not one of our great theologian-intellectual saints, like the Cappadocians [though he apparently slapped someone at the First Oecumenical Council at Nicaea for saying something dumb about the Trinity…I think], or one of our warrior, defender-of-the-faith saints, like Demetrios or Mercourios or the Archangels.  More, he was a saint who always made sure that everyone under his pastorship had food to eat and a roof to sleep under.”  He was particularly venerated in the sea-faring islands of Greece, for obvious reasons (“Hagie Nikola, I implore you” sings the island girl with her sailor-man away, “carpet the seas with flowers…”) and is the patron saint of Russia.  In communist times the name still had some lingering Imperial/Romanov stigma attached to it and when I was there in the eighties, it seemed anachronistically charming to many Russians.  Now it seems there are significantly more young “Kolyas” and “Nikolays” everywhere.

Despite an almost erotic devotion to and obsession I’ve developed for St. Demetrios over the years — hard to resist a young Roman aristocrat in uniform with a pretty deep, homoerotic friendship as part of his martyrdom backstory — Nicholas is still my patron saint.  And he’s more than just important to me as saint himself, but because I love the Orthodox nameday tradition, which again varies from country to country.  Serbs have always observed a single clan nameday, the Slava, celebrating the saint on whose feast-day the family’s first ancestor supposedly converted to Christianity, a very ritualized and beautiful celebration and one of the many traditions that Serbs adhere to that makes them the Slavs that, more than any others, still have one foot in their pagan past; telling, also, to how important he is in the Orthodox world: the single largest group of Serbian clans celebrate St. Nicholas as their Slava patron.  Communism forced Russians to take their birthdays more seriously, and discouraged the celebration of the obviously religious nameday, but nineteenth-century Russian literature is full of nameday celebrations (Chekhov’s “Nameday Party,” and Tatyana’s nameday dance in Pushkin’s Onegin*), and as a semi-conscience remembrance of what the new Western-style celebration of birthdays replaced, the birthday-boy is to this day still called the “imeninets,” the “name-bearer.”

What I most love is that, among Greeks, your nameday is a day critical to your honor and reputation: it’s when you take friends out and treat them; it’s when people in small towns especially, but even some in Athens still, sit home in a house full of food and sweets and wait for everybody who has the right to — meaning every one they know essentially — and most likely will, drop by and wait for the the privilege of feeding them; most young Athenians today wait for an official invitation but massive group drop-ins are still common enough among the old-fashioned.  In smaller, provincial towns, when there was a death in the family, you used to have to put an ad in the paper saying: “Due to mourning, we won’t be accepting callers this St. Nicholas Day.”  In villages everybody just knew.  It’s a day when you make an artoklasia,  a “bread-breaking” offering and share sweetened and blessed loaves with your whole parish.  It’s a day when it’s your obligation to give and serve and prove your noblesse and not, as Western birthdays have become, a day when you sit around waiting for others to do for you or give you gifts.  Western, American, birthdays are only slightly less gross to me than the totally American ugliness of wedding and baby showers: “I’m getting married and/or I’m pregnant; so I’m having a party where you have to bring me things.”  And don’t even start me on bridal registries, where you tell people, not just that they have to bring you something, but what they have to bring you.

So: χρόνια μου πολλά…  And Многая Лета to other Nicholases everywhere.  Keep the tradition alive.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Tatyana was not a popular name in Russia until Pushkin’s Onegin became the Bible and literary gold standard of modern Russian, and Russians took the deeply loved heroine into their hearts.  Only then did it become a widespread name and eventually, through her epic act of heroically soul-baring letter-writing probably, her nameday, January 12th or 25th — depending again on calendar — become the patron saint day of young students and scholars.

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