In response to the recent violence in Beirut and Paris, I offer this video featuring the music, philosophy, and singing of Sister Marie Keyrouz, a Lebanese Catholic nun who sings in Arabic. For more, see her website.
Here’s a sneak peak from my new translation I have coming out this December. The following two excerpts introduce the three main characters in this social comedy / drama…
Captain Murad’s house was crammed full of antique furniture and relics, like the Egyptian Museum. As Hazim’s eyes roamed the villa, he felt like retching, for nothing irritated him like extravagant taste and flamboyant designs. It seemed to him that the captain had flung gold at his floor as if that would give it value, but the gold was lost amid the junk, dust, and massive furniture that devoured everything like dinosaurs.
Pouring wine in his glass, the captain asked, “Does it bother you if I have a glass before dinner?”
Hazim shook his head.
The captain drained the bottle. “I only drink it to preserve my heart. Red wine is good for the heart.” He sighed. “In the seventies, no Egyptian house was without wine. Do you remember? How old were you? You look to me like you’re in your forties.”
“Right. In the seventies, a bottle of Black Label whiskey resided in every Egyptian kitchen in the summer, just in case of hard times, and no one got upset or angry about it. What a time! I don’t know how to describe it. When I was little, people told me: ‘Stay out of politics.’ We Egyptians don’t interfere in politics, as if our country were run by an unseen magician. Then, when the 1952 revolution started, they said, ‘This is your country, returned to you, but stay out of politics: leave the bread to its baker. You’re young and inexperienced, and we’re in a state of emergency.’ For fifty years, we’ve been in a state of emergency.
Since she had given birth to her first son, Asma had believed that he would become Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. Since she had given birth to the youngest boy, she had believed that he would become a prominent police officer, and then the First Assistant to the Minister of the Interior. When she had her daughter, she never doubted that she would become the first of the Abid family to go to medical school, the first to build a private hospital, and the first to discover a cure for hepatitis C. Asma thought nothing of the obstacles she would face to realize her dreams. She did not think of the greatest obstacle until quite a bit of time had passed. Asma’s children may have been geniuses, as she claimed, more intelligent than anyone, Egyptian or not. They may have memorized all their schoolwork, scrutinizing their books into the night and gulping down arithmetic, logic, and chemistry like a bitter daily medicine. They may have studied nonstop for hours. However, poor Asma forgot about the most important thing needed to realize her dreams. Poor Asma did not think through how things would turn out. Poor Asma forgot that she was completely unknown!
Who was Asma? Who was her husband, Muhammad Abid? They had several acres in Benha, a large house, and one agricultural employee to maintain the land. Asma was, unfortunately, an utterly unknown woman.
Happy Labor Day (in the U.S.) !
My favorite labor day quote, by philosopher Olfa Youssef of Tunisia from here (my translation) :
“It’s not so important for workers to have a holiday. The important thing is for work to be more like a holiday. That won’t happen until humans stop exploiting other humans. You can’t expect someone to be happy when they’re working to exhaustion for less than a living wage. You can’t expect someone to celebrate when they’re disrespected, and their work is belittled. And you can’t expect someone to be cheerful, when their work is repetitive, like a cog in a machine, with no acknowledgment or encouragement. A work ethic is important, but a human ethic is more important.”
ليس مهما أن يكون للشغالين عيد…المهم أن يصبح الشغل عيدا…ولن يتحقق ذلك إلا إذا قل استغلال الإنسان للإنسان…فلا يمكن أن تطلب من شخص أن يكون سعيدا وهو يعمل مرهقا بأجر لا يفي بالحاجة…ولا يمكن أن تطلب من شخص أن يكون فرحا وهو يعمل مهانا أو محتقَرا…ولا يمكن أن تطلب…من شخص أن يكون جذلان وهو يعمل برتابة آلة دون عرفان أو تشجيع. قيمة العمل هامة لكن قيمة الإنسان، صانعِ العمل، أهم
A beautiful image for today:
by Moataz Nasr in Cairo, from here.
Egypt has prioritized its film industry more than any other Arab nation, and it shows in the quantity and quality of its output. (It also shows in the predominance of Egyptian Arabic throughout Arabic media internationally.) The following films stand out to me for their entertainment value and also for their intellectual contribution to social and cultural studies. They are also available with English subtitles.
Terrorism & BBQ was the first Arabic film I ever saw; I was studying Arabic at Emory University. I liked it because it made me laugh. It’s a comedy of errors, focusing on the tenuous position of common people living through bureaucratic challenges. It has some talented actors, and a cast of characters that shows multiple parts of Egyptian society.
The Open Door is a classic from the sixties generation, based on the eponymous feminist novel by Latifa Zayyat. If you want a black-and-white cinematic experience, from the days of the silver screen, that envisions independence for Egypt and for individuals, then this is your movie!
The Yacoubian Building is a classic. The novel on which it was based was the best-selling book in the Arab world (after the Qur’an) when it came out, and the movie was the most expensive Egyptian film when it came out. I heard the author speak in 2004, and he explained how his day job (as dentist) gave him the material for his book, in which he explores Egyptian society and a number of controversial issues (such as homosexuality, religious extremism, violence, and illicit relationships). This film stars plenty of talented actors, and portrays downtown Cairo (prior to the 2011 Arab Spring), with plenty of both grit and glamour.
Feel free to write to me with more suggestions!
For English speakers beginning to learn Arabic, the most popular and most effective book is Alif Baa by Brustad, Al-Batal, and Al-Tonsi. Based on the order of its vocabulary, here are some materials that I like to use for providing cultural input in Arabic class:
To be continued…
(Photo from here.)
Because I have studied Arabic for a long time, people sometimes ask me for my analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I usually let others steer the conversation, not because I have no ideas or opinions, but because sometimes I have little to say. I recently read Alice Walker’s book The Cushion in the Road (2013). These quotes regarding the situation in Israel / Palestine resonated with me:
“I think one reason it is so hard for people to deal with the Palestine/Israel issue is that so much of it is unbelievable. Even when you’re standing there, in the middle of it, the mind has to struggle to grasp what is happening. What has been done for the past sixty-odd years, and what is being done now. Just as my niece finds it impossible to imagine what a segregated American South felt like, I find it hard to believe Israelis assume they can live through generations of brutally oppressing the people whose lands they occupy. The greatest, most obvious expression of their intent to do this is THE WALL.” – p.305 and here
“There is, finally, a sense of overwhelm, trying to bring comfort to someone whose sleeping child has been killed and buried, a few weeks ago, up to her neck in rubble; or a mother who has lost fifteen members of her family, all her children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, her husband. What does one say to people whose families came out of their shelled houses waving white flags of surrender only to be shot down anyway? To mothers whose children were, at this moment, playing in the white phosphorous laden rubble that, after 22 days of bombing, is everywhere in Gaza? White phosphorus, once on the skin, never stops burning. There is really nothing to say. Nothing to say to those who, back home in America, don’t want to hear the news. Nothing to do, finally, but dance.” – p. 335 and here
As Alice Walker says, “Hard times require furious dancing.”
Here are some sources that I can recommend that relate to Jews in the Arab World:
Medieval Middle East
- Norman Stillman’s source book is excellent, especially for those seeking an overview of the earliest records regarding Jews and the spread of Arabic culture (from the 7th to 19th century). It gives access to primary sources in English translation, and is very balanced in its representation of societies.
- Shlomo Dov Goitein’s work is magnificent in adding to historical scholarship on the Mediterranean. His multi-volume A Mediterranean Society is the place to go for details, but this collection of letters is wonderful, I think, for a sense of the daily life of Jewish merchant families in the medieval Middle East region.
Medieval Iberian Peninsula
Maria Rosa Menocal was an outstanding figure in medievalist academic circles because she forged her own path. Her training in graduate school largely excluded Arabic sources and perspectives from medieval historical studies. She sought to revise her field, and to open its horizons toward inclusiveness and broad information. I heard her speak eloquently on her subject. Some find her work too flowery, or too idealistic. But if you’re looking for someone who writes passionately about the shared culture of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who lived in the area that has since become Spain and Portugal, then Ornament of the World is for you.
20th Century Middle East & North Africa
Mark Wagner writes about Jews in Yemen in the early twentieth century. Like Joseph in Beauty is about sung poetry. I have also written about Jewish contributions to sung poetry in Moroccan culture in my dissertation available for download here. For more on Jews in Moroccan history, see Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life in Morocco by Haim Zafrani. (And if you visit Morocco, you may want to see the Jewish Museum in Casablanca. As far as I know, it is the only Jewish museum in the Arab World!)
For an introduction to Judeo-Arabic literature, focusing on North Africa, see Yosef Tobi, “The Flowering of Judeo-Arabic Literature in North Africa, 1850-1950” in Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries, ed. Harvey Goldberg (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996): 213-225.
If you like music, there is also a recent project to present mystical chants from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in Aleppo, Syria. So far, Jason Hamacher has released one album called Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations & Forgotten Songs from Aleppo. I do not see a lot of details regarding his sources, but I’m watching for more. There is also an informative book by Shelemay on Syrian Jewish music and community.
20th Century Egypt
Lucette Lagnado writes the story of her family, focusing on her father and his life in Cairo, in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. (And for the record, I think the Arabic translation is excellent!)
Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary Western Mediterranean and North Africa
This collection (Poems for the Millenium vol. 4) of poetry and excerpts of fiction includes Jewish contributions to Arabic culture throughout history.
I have more sources on my to-read list that I might add later. Feel free to write to me with more recommendations! I haven’t included any films here–yet. Do you have any favorites?
Note Regarding Title of this Post:
Judaism is just one of many cultural facets in the Arab World. I selected this group because political events have contributed to relatively high interest in this topic, but I do not mean to belittle the presence and significance of other minorities (such as Christians, Druze, Bahai, and other spiritual communities), as well as diversity more broadly defined that has come to shape the Arab World (for example, languages such as Aramaic, Greek, French, Italian, Persian, Syriac, and Turkish, and connections to many regions, such as South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe).
I like to blend my own teas during the cold weather months. This year I’ve made the following three caffeine-free blends. I’d love to hear of other favorites to try next year!
Two days ago, Radwa Ashour passed away. Ashour is my all-time favorite writer of Arabic literature. I discovered her through her trilogy, ثلالية غرناطة / Granada (currently only part 1 of 3 has been translated into English). I was a student in Cairo, and I chose to write my final paper (in Arabic) on this historical novel that tells the tale of a family and related characters in the Iberian Peninsula of the fifteenth century. Her treatment of the expulsion of Muslims and Jews reminded me so much of narratives of Palestinians fleeing occupation. I was neither the first nor the last to find this comparison meaningful. The comparison is important here only because she was able to tell the story in such a compelling way that it seemed to me to capture not only a narrow snapshot of history or an imaginary group of people, but also a hefty range of human experience. Her writing style included all my favorite elements of fiction: a narrative that keeps my attention; characters who maintain their own personalities, while growing with their experiences; and beautiful descriptions of nature and life. I was hooked.
Since then, I read about her studies in the United States (in الرحلة, currently available only in Arabic). Her days in 1970s Massachusetts, where she earned her PhD in African American literature, prepared her for many of her future occupations and preoccupations. She grew as a scholar, and as a student of life. She developed a strong awareness of race, ethnicity, and identity in light of the social changes that she witnessed at that time. She never lost the ability to address issues of injustice and inequality. Her novel سراج / Siraaj provides a fable-like story of a mythical island off the coast of Yemen where an African slave plantation is ruled unjustly by an Arab sultan. Her willingness to tell stories, reflect on history, and raise social issues of concern is unparalleled in Arabic literature. She has many other books, and we will be reading and reflecting on them in our Goodreads group here.
Her passing occurs at a time when many great teachers of whom I know are also nearing the end of their lives as we know them. The yogi B.K.S. Iyengar passed away several months ago. For me, he was a teacher of the ability to train the body and mind. Despite many physical challenges, he developed new methods of practicing yoga poses through the innovation of props that have since become standard. His methodology inspires me to practice yoga with precision and patience. Another personal hero who has been on my mind is the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who I understand is currently hospitalized. His teachings are great reminders to me of the power of gentleness, compassion, and mindful action. Radwa Ashour has struggled with pain and discomfort recently, and she has tackled many of the problems and pleasures of humanity. She remains in my memory as a great teacher, storyteller, and communicator. And her works line my bookshelf to be revisited in the midst of my own life journey.