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DQing my way towards Arabic, one letter at a time

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- also the Latin Breviary in 24 letters, and the meaning of blood and dots ]
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I was aware of the Arabic letter nun:

but not until the last few days, the letter ra:

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The letters that comprise alphabets, and the words, phrases, sentences and books that are built of thedm, are capable of enormous meaning…

The banging of a judge’s gavel can be a death sentences, the pillars of a door painted in sacrificial blood can cause hamash’chit — the destroyer angel — to overfly a house in which there are Jews, thus saving them from the destruction of their first-born, a yellow six-pointed star painted on a house or shop indicate its Jewish ownership — and the Arabic letters nun and ra serve similar purposes, signalling both a threat from ISIS and a mark of pride and solidarity…

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For those with hermetic and kabbalistic tastes, I’d like to take this a little further.

A single dot can have powerful meaning…

In Judaism:

bereshit

Although the Torah itself suggests that certain hylic entities co-existed with God at the beginning (water, darkness), by separating out the diacritical dagesh from the word [it is the dot in the first letter]:

Beginning with a point… b • reshit (Zohar I:15a)

the Zohar finds the philosophic principle creation ex nihilo [from nothing] in the first word.

In Islam:

dot_under_ba

And know that all of Allah’s secrets are in the heavenly books, and all of the secrets of the heavenly books are in the Qur’an. And all of which is in the Qur’an is in al-Fatihah, and all of which is in al-Fatihah is in bismillah, and all of which is in bismillah is in the ba’ of bismillah, and all of which is in the ba’ in bismillah is the dot (nuqtah) which is under the ba’. Imam ‘Ali said: “I am the dot which is under the ba’”

first finds the saying I am the dot which is under the ba’ in al-Ghazali, where it is attributed to Abu Bakr al-Shibli, disciple of the great Sufi al-Junayd

and comments:

We can not understand the Quran properly without dots, or if we can know the point (Nukta) of a thing we understand the reality of the whole matter.

In Hinduism:

black-aum-sign-on-white-background

The symbol of Aum contains of three curves, one semicircle and a dot. The large lower curve symbolizes the waking state; the upper curve denotes deep sleep (or the unconscious) state, and the lower curve (which lies between deep sleep and the waking state) signifies the dream state. These three states of an individual’s consciousness, and therefore the entire physical phenomenon, are represented by the three curves. The dot signifies the Absolute (fourth or Turiya state of consciousness), which illuminates the other three states. The semicircle symbolizes maya and separates the dot from the other three curves. The semicircle is open on the top, which means that the absolute is infinite and is not affected by maya. Maya only affects the manifested phenomenon. In this way the form of aum symbolizes the infinite Brahman and the entire Universe.

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And the entire elphabet?

Here’s the Shortest Rite for Reciting the Breviary, for Itinerants and the Scrupulous, as transmitted to me by Dom Sylvester Houédard, priest, poet and scholar:

RITUS BREVISSIMUS RECITANDI BREVIARIUM PRO ITINERANTIBUS ET SCRUPULOSIS

Dicitur: Pater et Ave

Deinde:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

V. Per hoc alphabetum notum
R. componitur breviarium totum (Tempore paschali, dicitur Alleluia)

Oremus.

Deus, qui ex viginti quatuor litteris totam sacram scripturam et breviarium istud componi voluisti, iunge, disiunge et accipe ex his viginti quatuor litteris matutinas cum laudibus, primam, tertiam, sextam, nonam, vesperas et completorium. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Signat se dicens: Sapienti pauca.

V. In pace in idipsum.
R. Dormiam et requiescam.

If my rusty, Google-assisted Latin is to be believed, the gist of the central prayer here reads:

O God, who hast chosen to compose the entirety of sacred scripture and this breviary out of twenty-four letters, separate, join and receive from these twenty-four letters Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, through Christ our Lord. Amen..

That’s the complete Holy Office as recited by Catholic monks — Dom Sylvester was a member of the Benedictines — in just 24 letters.

Which is less than it takes to type:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

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Ebola: two curious questions of language

Friday, October 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- when misunderstandings beget panics, we're not too conceptually far from rumors of wars becoming wars ]
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Hilton Garden Inn, Liberia, Costa Rica

Hilton Garden Inn, Liberia, Costa Rica

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Language matters.

I know I keep saying this, but it is true, and in the past few days I have run across two cases where false assumptions about the meaning of language have led to erroneous “hearing” of a message, with consequent unfortunate results.

I’ll post the press reports first in each case, then my own comments.

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Red Cross and Rose Cross:

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recently posted Fighting superstition in Congo’s Ebola zone:

In mid-February, at the peak of the epidemic, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. A local sorcerer accused four teachers of killing people to acquire supernatural powers.

According to him, the four belonged to the Rose-Croix, a Gabonese sect. The teachers – all from the same political party – were lynched by a mob wielding iron clubs and machetes.

Most of the terrified population of Kellé fled in the forest. From this time, a dangerous confusion has developed in people’s minds: Pink-Cross and Red Cross were seen as indistinguishable, all the more so because in the local Lingala language, the word for red and pink is the same.

My suspicion is that the Rose-Croix in question is not “a Gabonese sect” but Rosicrucians in the AMORC tradition familiar to those who chase divine secrets through ads in the back pages of esoteric journals — in this case, under the supervision of Serge Toussaint, Grand Master of the French court of AMORC, who visited Libreville, Gabon in July 2010 to address the Rosicrucian Central African Convention “On the Trail of Light”.

The original Rosicrucians were a key group of intellectuals in the early enlightenment period, best described in:

  • Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and
  • Christopher McIntosh, The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason
  • The Red Cross, or more precisely The International Committee of the Red Cross, is a global humanitarian organization whose founder, Henry Dunant, was one of two recipients of the first Nobel Prize for Peace in 1901, and the Red Cross has subsequently been awarded the Peace Prize three times, in 1917, 1944 and 1963.

    Red is not pink, though a rose may be a rose be a rose.

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    Liberia and Liberia:

    Rebecca Gordon, in Ebola & Immigrants and Muslims, Oh My! Operating the Fear Machine, writes of Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of SOUTHCOM:

    The general has proof that they’re already coming – all the way from Africa. In fact, he says, a U.S. embassy employee in Costa Rica told him about a group of migrants he’d met on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. And where were these migrants coming from, Kelly asked? The embassy worker told him, “Liberia.” Liberians traveling to the United States through Central America. Who knew?

    As it turns out, these folks may well have been from “Liberia,” but they probably weren’t Africans. Chances are they came from Liberia, Costa Rica, the state capital of Guanacaste province there. This from the man in charge of all U.S. military operations in Latin America.

    Gen Kelly’s remarks were reported by DoD News in Kelly: Southcom Keeps Watch on Ebola Situation, October 8, and more widely in Time‘s General: Expect ‘Mass Migration’ to U.S. if Ebola Comes to Central America, October 9. Neither story picked up on the “two Liberias, one in Africa and one in Costa Rica” aspect of the story.

    The two reporters, and likewise the General, were presumably unaware of the Costa Rican Liberia. Rebecca Gordon has worked in and published on Nicaragua, holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. from Graduate Theological, and has a sharp eye for telling detail.

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    And we all have our blindspots. The question is, what can we do about them?

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    Language as tripwire: Kobani and Ayn al-Arab

    Thursday, October 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- third in a series nibbling at the edges of the importance of precision in language ]
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    Charles Lister, presently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and previously with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, is a respected analyst specializing in the Middle East. Two days ago, he tweeted:

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    In the first post in this series, Language as tripwire: the Khorasan Group and the active and passive voices, I said “place-names matter”. I have also discussed the matter of names and how they can shift in geostrategic meaning on this blog before, eg in my post, Damascus, Dearborn, Rome, Vienna?

    Ayn al-Arab is the Arabic name for Kobani, Kobani is the Kurdish name for the same city.

    Language matters, place-names matter..

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    And for what it’s worth, I am sure that I make silly mistakes o this kind, too — it goes with the conceptual territory being so much larger and more nuanced than any map an individual can carry in his or her head.

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    Language as tripwire: Conway’s Game of Life and “emergent” warlords

    Thursday, October 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- the word "emergent" has an emergent, special meaning -- don't abuse it ]
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    Now here’s an interesting little graphic. If you’re interested in cellular automata and agent based modeling, you’ll recognize it as a Gosper’s glider gun from Conway‘s Game of Life:

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    It was the use of the word “emergent” in this Stars and Stripes piece, Islamic State leading Mideast into warlord era as nations dissolve, that tripped me into making this post:

    The Middle East may be sliding toward a warlord era, with nation-states increasingly struggling to control all their territory and millions living under the rule of emergent local chiefs and movements.

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    Who would have thought that this pattern:

    glider gun

    when subjected to the very simple rules of Conway’s Game:

    Any white cell with fewer than two white neighbours turns black
    Any white cell with two or three white neighbours remains white
    Any white cell with more than three white neighbours turns black
    Any black cell with exactly three white neighbours becomes a white cell

    where a “cell” is one of the squares on a grid, and a “neighbor” is any cell horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent to the cell in question, would result in this smaller pattern that glides across the grid:

    glider

    The upper pattern is called a “glider gun” while the lower one is called a “glider”.

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    If you want to know more about the emergent warloards, you need HUMINT, you need people who know the languages, the dialects, the cultures, the personalities, the shifting alliances…

    If you would like to know more about the various emergent patterns that have been found in Conway’s Game, try this Wikipedia entry. It includes the delightfully patterened “Pulsar”:

    And if you want to play around with gliders, you could try Wolfram‘s page:

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    Warlords aren’t “emergent” — that’s a buzzword-style use of what has by now become a term of art. They are strongmen already in the terrain, and if we knew the terrain like they do, we’d already know them.

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    Language as tripwire: the Khorasan Group and the active and passive voices

    Thursday, October 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- first in a series in which the language makes a difference ]
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    There is this business of the so-called “Khorasan Group”.

    Two paragraphs of CENTCOM’s news release, Sept. 23: U.S. Military, Partner Nations Conduct Airstrikes Against ISIL in Syria, mention the phrase “Khorasan group”. The first of these reads:

    Separately, the United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qa’ida veterans – sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group – who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets.

    Notice the use of the passive voice: the group is “sometimes referred to as” the Khorasan Group. This is either skillful linguistic obfuscation or bureaucratic linguistic ineptitude, and I tend to vote for the latter, because so few people know how to write decent Ebglish any more, while those that do can easily be paid to forget.

    The passive voice doesn’t tell us who does the referring — who refers to the group as the Khorasan Group. It might be Americans in intelligence circles, in the Department, in the media — it might be other Syrians, intercepts from Jabhat Nusra communications or AQC — or the “group” themselves.

    As recipients of the CENTCOM news release, however, and by means of that passive voice construction, we just don’t know.

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    And perhaps it matters.

    Perhaps it matters because the place named “Khorasan” has a distinctive meaning in Islamic eschatology. It is the place of origin of the army with black banners that will sweep victoriously down to Jerusalem, either led by the Mahdi or coming to his aid. While there is a province in Iran still called Khorasan, a far greater area including parts of Iran (Masshad, eg), Afghanistan (Herat, Balkh), Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was designated Khorasan in earlier times, and both AQ and Iran have used the hadith about the army from Khorasan in support of their own activities.

    Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since that CENTCOM press release two weeks ago, and I’m not going to link to all the wise and foolish articles that have explored the nature of the group — but journalist Jenan Moussa has seen internal memos of the group that was attacked under the name “Khorasan Group”, and the name is not one they have viven themselves:

    So why is the Administration using a loaded apocalyptic term to describe what seems in effect to be a group of AQC fighters sent to fight under the aegis of Jabhat al-Nusra?

    Language matters, place-names matter, and the use of the passive voice only confuses what should be clearly understood.

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