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That Israeli op is not Brother’s Keeper, it’s Return, brothers!

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

[ By Charles Cameron -- thanks to Gershom Gorenberg for clarifying this for me ]
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Dalia Hatuqa, in a Foreign Policy piece titled Am I My Brother’s Keeper? and subtitled How the disappearance of three Israeli boys in the West Bank is upending Palestinian politics, wrote:

Since June 12, the Israeli army has killed at least four Palestinians and arrested more than 470 others in an operation dubbed Brother’s Keeper.

I was interested: Am I my brother’s keeper? is the question Cain asks about Abel in Genesis 4, after they have both offered sacrifices to God, and God had been pleased with Abel’s, and not so much with Cain’s:

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.

This is the foundational text for murder in general, and fratricide in particular, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and also a key text for the notion of sacrifice, also central to both traditions. I don’t want to “read” it with twenty-first century Anglo-American eyes, and I’m no rabbinic scholar, so I won’t attempt to explain the whole narrative, but simply draw your attention to the fact that the name of the Israeli operation in that FP piece is Brother’s Keeper, which would make it a clear reference to Cain and Abel.

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Meanwhile, Matt Levitt asked in a tweet:

— to which I responded, not realizing it was a different op he was talking about, “Brother’s Keeper”. The op in Matt’s question, which I’d have known if I’d followed the link he offered – to his own article Kidnapped Israeli Teens Compel Scrutiny of Hamas’s International Finances in the New Republic – was named Biur Hametz, and although intensified by the kidnappings, had nothing to do with Cain and Abel, being as Matt had suggested, a Pesach reference:

In fact, Israel has been quietly targeting Hamas’s financial infrastructure for some time now as part of Operation Biur Hametz. (The name refers to the pre-Passover custom of burning any leftover bread before the onset of the holiday.) Much of Israel’s focus the past few months has been on Hamas’s financing from abroad, but the kidnappings have thrust this campaign into full throttle.

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In any case, I wondered how the Israeli forces interpreted the name of the exercise, which I still thought of as Brother’s Keeper, and asked my old colleague from the Center for Millennial Studies, Gershom Gorenberg:

When Israel names op “Brother’s Keeper” – Israel keeper of “brother” Palestine, or some1 unnamed keeper of 3 Israeli brothers?

Gershom very kindly corrected me:

Original is “Return, brothers” in imperative. Still no Cain/Abel reference.

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So there you have it. We can forget Cain and Abel and Brother’s Keeper –the operation is named Return, brothers, or in Hebrew, Shuvu Ahim.

And every decent maze has its blind alleys!

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Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- accuracy in naming, and the potentially dire consequences of theological insults ]
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On February 3rd, Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the English daily The National in the UAE, wrote a piece titled Five Reasons Why It Is Stupid To Say ISIL Instead of ISIS for Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Here are reasons 1, 3 and 4 of his five, minus the “stupid” bit, which is intended to make the title eye-catching, while it’s dismissed as fluff (“joking, don’t shoot”) in the body of the piece:

1. “Al-Sham” is a word often used for Syria, and more specifically for Damascus. “Bilad al Sham”, on the other hand, is Levant or Greater Syria.

3. When ISIS was formed, they certainly didn’t mean the group would operate in all of Greater Syria or Levant. It was only recently that they announced they would open a branch in Lebanon. People forget that ISIS was a merger between Islamic State of Iraq and “Jabhat al-Nusra for the Support of the People of Sham”. After a year and two months from creating Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Baghdadi unilaterally announced a merger between his group and Jabhat al-Nusra, in other words between the group that operates in Iraq and the group that operates in SYRIA. Jabhat al-Nusra did not mean, and does not say, it is a group for supporting the people of all the Levant but the people of Syria. So the initial merger was Iraq & Syria, not Iraq and the Levant. It was later that the name of the new merger “broadened” to include other areas, as ISIS announced a chapter in Lebanon and more recently in Jordan. So, in short, this is less about the meaning of “al-Sham” and more about that fact.

4. Often when there are Arabic words whose translation into English is disputed, it’s better (academically speaking) to use the Arabic word and explain what it is – in this case, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (still ISIS).

I’m always grateful for informed background, and in full agreement with point #4.

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Yesterday, the NYT had a post titled What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on S’s and L’s:

Many news outlets, including The New York Times, have been translating the group’s name as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS for short. But the United States government and several news agencies call it the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or I.S.I.L. (The BBC, curiously, uses the ISIS acronym, but “Levant” when spelling the name out.)

Al-Sham is the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands, and over time, it came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert. Similarly, in Egypt, “Masr” may refer either to Cairo or to the whole country. Used in that sense, al-Sham takes in not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.

That is fairly similar in extent to what Western geographers call the Levant, a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like “the Orient.” Because of the term’s French colonial associations, many Arab nationalists and Islamist radicals disdain it, and it is unlikely that the militant group would choose “Levant” to render its name.

That’s three paragraphs, and a broad strokes version of something the article goes into more detail about…

The fighters do not like “Syria” either, though. Syria is what the Greeks named the region in ancient times, possibly after the Assyrian people who once lived there, though that derivation is disputed. And at times in the past, the term “Syrian” was used to mean specifically a Christian Syrian, while Muslims or Jews living there would be called Shami. Today, when Arabs speak of Syria, they usually mean only the modern state, which the insurgent group is fighting to obliterate.

Historic resonances are the point, said Ali Adeeb, a professor of Arabic at New York University. “When they first thought of the name,” Mr. Adeeb said of the group, “they were thinking with the mentality of the seventh or eighth century, just like their interpretation of religion and the life they want to recreate.” He noted that in the group’s statements, “they use old words like ‘ghazwa’ for invasion, instead of the modern word for battle.”

So if neither “Levant” nor “Syria” will do to translate “al-Sham,” what would? Some writers and geographers use “Greater Syria,” which preserves the distinction with the current state. But that would come at the cost of adding an adjective that is not present in the original Arabic, not to mention cluttering the acronym. Or the already familiar ISIS abbreviation could simply be said to stand for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, though the last word is unfamiliar to English speakers.

Al-Sham is a key concept in the final 100-page apocalyptic rant in Abu Musab al-Suri’s 1,600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance — hence my own preference for ISIS, as an abbreviation for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. I’d suggest it may be time for English readers to get familiar with that last word, although given our proclivity for not knowing even such basic distinctions as that between Sunni and Shia, I’m none too optimistic about that.

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But here we have the Zenpundit readership, and I have the impression that deepening understanding is a major concern. May I therefore also recommend Aaron Zelin and Phillip Smyth‘s The Vocabulary of Sectarianism over at Foreign Policy? That way we can all be clear on the theological insults conveyed by such phrases as rafidha / rawafidh, nasawi / nawasib and Hizb al-Lat.

In sectarian warfare, theological insults can carry the force of death-sentences.

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Two notes relating to Boko Haram

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- one on the scripturally-sanctioned revenge abductions of women and the other on Hausa nomenclature, with a possible correlate in Sudan ]
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Boko Haram and revenge:

Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson have an important piece on War on the Rocks titled Boko Haram and the Kidnapping of Women: A Troubled Tactic. Here are some key quotes I’d like to bring the attention of Zenpundit readers:

Boko Haram members have for some time harassed and abused both Christian and moderate Muslim women. Now there is a new focus on kidnapping women to demonstrate enemy vulnerability, a focus Boko Haram is ruthlessly determined to exploit. The strategy differs from other Islamist groups, to which they have been compared, such as the Taliban. The Taliban are deliberately and increasingly killing women, and have used women as suicide bombers. Boko Haram also kills women, but often deliberately spares them. Kidnapping is now the statement tactic of choice.

and:

Shekau’s order to kidnap women dates back to 2011 and 2012, when the Nigerian government detained more than 100 wives and children of key Boko Haram leaders, among them Shekau’s own family. In response, Shekau issued his first video message in January 2012 threatening to retaliate by kidnapping the wives of government officials. Several more similar videos and statements followed. However, Boko Haram’s first abduction came over a year later in May 2013…

and:

After security forces detained ten women related to Boko Haram in September 2012, Shekau’s fifth video message threatened revenge on wives of government officials. In this address, Shekau alleged the possible sexual abuse of the Boko Haram female family members by the government, promising the retaliatory targeting of “enemy” women:“Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women…to your own wives according to Shariah law.”

I want to emphasize these particular quotes, becuase they indicate pretty clearly that this is not “just” blowback — in this case, meaning the Nigerian government doing something that has unfortunate boomerang-effect consequences — this is the religiously sanctioned return of specific tactics according to a rubric that can be expressed as “what you do to us becomes fair game for us to do to you”.

I’ve said it before: I think that’s an important rubric for us to remember.

I dealt with this concept in my earlier post, Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns. The key Qur’anic quote, suggesting that it is permissible to replay enemy tactics against the enemy, is found in Qur’an 2.194:

For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

And here again, the keywords are “and so for all things prohibited”.

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Education Bad:

My second note concerns the notion that education is bad, sinful, or haram.

The very name Boko Haram is generally rendered “western education is forbidden” in English, and for most practical purposes that may be good enough, though the derivation of Hausa “boko” from English “book” has been powerfully discredited by Prof. Paul Newman, see this Christian Science Monitor piece:

Newman writes that “boko” has a variety of meanings focused around denoting “things or actions having to do with fraudulence, sham, or inauthenticity” or deception. He says the false linkage to the English word “book” was first made in a 1934 Hausa dictionary by a Western scholar that listed 11 meanings for the word -– ten of them about fraudulent things and the final one asserting the connection to “book.” An incorrect assertion, says Newman.

A big deal? Not a huge one, but a good example of how received “facts” are often far from the truth.

Dr Newman’s The Etymology of Hausa boko is the detailed scholarly paper that underpins the CSM piece.

Briefly, then, boko refers to whatever is considered “inauthentic” or “fraudulent” — and western book learning is considered inauthentic and fraudulent by those who view traditional Hausa Islamic education as the superior article. But this may not entirely be a religious distinction — as this quote from the long and interesting Vice piece, Saving South Sudan, that Stephanie Chenault pointed us to in her guest post yesterday:

Education was often considered a bad thing because of the fear that men who could read and write would show up to interfere with the area’s simple pastoral lifestyle —- specifically Sudanese tax collectors who would arrive at Machot’s father’s homestead and demand cows as payment. To Machot and his family, being “educated” meant you worked for the government and became corrupt…

Given that Hausa is commonly spoken in both Sudan and Nigeria, that para seems to me to add a possible (political/cultural rather than religious/Qur’anic) sidelight to the issue of the name Boko Haram.

That’s a guess on my part, nothing more, based on an intriguing parallelism — if any ZP can correct or confirm it, I’d be much obliged.

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Of maps and territories

Monday, April 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Lao Tzu with a quick boost from CS Lewis -- Tao, Logos and a line of water can be traced across the face of North America ]
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The Tao of Korzybski
The Tao of Korzybski
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I have long been an admirer of Lao Tzu, and in particular of the opening phrases of the Tao Te Ching, which Stephen Mitchell renders thus:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Lao Tzu, of course, is working within a language that’s impressionistic enough to allow each word multiple resonant connotatations, and English translations of his work are correspondingly very many and varied, as we shall see.

Ursula le Guin translates those same lines:

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

We can phrase Lao Tzu’s opening lines simply thus:

The way that can be described isn’t the Way:
The name that can be pronounced isn’t the Name.

As an aside, Le Guin lets the cat out of the bag a bout “true names” in her marvelous book, Wizard of Earthsea, in which she writes:

Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

But it’s the Way rather than the Name — not that the two can be anything other than two ways to name the One — which concerns me here, because one of the first DoubleQuotes I’m consciously aware of formulating matched Lao Tzu’s:

The way that can be described isn’t the Way

with Alfred Korzybski‘s central insight in Science and Sanity:

The map is not the territory.

That’s what I was suggesting in the illustration I’ve put at the head of this post, which dates back to the early seventies, several decades before I began developing the HipBone Games, let alone the DoubleQuotes format I now use…

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All of which would be one of those treasures I keep stashed in my heart (“where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”) — except that the other day I stumbled on a CS Lewis quote that sheds considerable new light on Lao Tzu’s dictum:

A CS Lewis quote, illustrated

That CS Lewis quote comes from New Learning and New Ignorance, an essay Scott Shipman generously introduced me to the other day. It’s the Introduction to one of his works of literary-histporical criticism, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama! And in his simple, elegant formulation –

roads and small rivers could not be made visible in maps unless their width were exaggerated

— we have an explanation of one way in which the map must indeed distort the territory if it is to be of any use, one way in which the Way cannot be shoehorned into words.

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Which brings us to the river whose width is exaggerated, just as Lewis said it would be, in the aerial photo of the continental US that I’ve placed in the DoubleQuote panel directly above the Lewis quote.

It seems [t]his creek divides the US connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, to quote the title of Jesus Diaz’ fascinating article from which that image comes:

The Panama Canal is not the only water line connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There’s a place in Wyoming—deep in the Teton Wilderness Area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest—in which a creek splits in two. Like the canal, this creek connects the two oceans dividing North America in two parts. [ ... ]

The creek divides into two similar flows at a place called the Parting of the Waters … To the East, the creek flows “3,488 miles (5,613 km) to the Atlantic Ocean via Atlantic Creek and the Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.” To the West, it flows “1,353 miles (2,177 km) to the Pacific Ocean via Pacific Creek and the Snake and Columbia Rivers.”

I’m not often impressed by matters of scale, but that hits my sweet spot. And it seems that fish don’t need to worry about the Panama canal and the political complexities attendant on it –

it is thought that this was the pass that provided the immigration route for Cutthroat Trout to migrate from the Snake River (Pacific) to Yellowstone River (Atlantic) drainages.

All of which fits nicely with the title of one of Alan Watts‘ books: Tao: the Watercourse Way

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In that book, incidentally, Watts — himself an Anglican priest as well as a long time Zen practitioner — has an interesting observation about the Tao:

Weiger gives Tao the basic meaning “to go ahead.” One could also think of it as intelligent rhythm. Various translators have called it the Way, Reason, Providence, the Logos, and even God…

Thomas Merton, in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, picks up the thread, telling us:

Dr. Wu is not afraid to admit theat he brought Zen, Taoism and Confucianism with him into Christianity. In fact in his well-known Chinese translation of the New Testament he opens the Gospel of St. John with the words, “In the beginning was the Tao.”

And here we’re back to CS Lewis, who wrote in a letter to Clyde Kirby, editor of A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C. S. Lewis and author of The Christian World of C. S. Lewis:

is not the Tao the Word Himself, considered from a particular point of view?

There are times when a network of ideas is so close-woven as to form an intricate virtual conversationa, a bead game, even.

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Appendix: further readings

You have been very kind to follow me thus far, but while I’m at it I’d like to drop in some readings for those who might like to engage in further exploration of Lao Tzu.

175+ Translations of Chapter 1

These include Wade-Giles & Pinyin Romanizations, plus translations and interpretations by, among others, John Chalmers (1868), James Legge (1891), D.T. Suzuki and Paul Carus (1913), Aleister Crowley (1918), Dwight Goddard (1919), Arthur Waley (1934), John C.H. Wu (1939), Lin Yutang (1942), Witter Bynner (1944), D.C. Lau (1963, 1989), Wing-Tsit Chan (1963), Timothy Leary (1966), Peter A. Boodberg (1968), Gia-fu Feng and Jane English (1972), Stephen Mitchell (1988), Thomas Cleary (1991), Ursula K. Le Guin (1998), and Jonathan Star (2001)…

Peter Boodberg’s Philological Notes on Chapter One of The Lao Tzu

These are remarkable, if for no other reason than for giving us the phrase “Myriad Mottlings’ mother”. His versiom of the opening — in what he descibes as having “little literary merit” while reflecting “to the best of my ability, every significant etymological and grammatical feature, including every double entendre, that I have been able to discover in the original”. Boodberg’s whole paper is somewhat stunning — here are the two opening lines:

Lodehead lodehead-brooking : no forewonted lodehead;
Namecall namecall-brooking : no forewonted namecall.

Comments on the Tao Te Ching using the D.C. Lau translation (Penguin Books, 1963):

Tao chapter 1

Verse 1 [see Chinese text and literal translation]: “The Way that can be spoken of/ Is not the constant way.” The Tao Te Ching begins with a pun: “Way” and “spoken of” (“said”) are the same character (Dào). So the first line says: “The Tao that can be tao-ed is not the constant Tao.” “The name that can be named…” Here the pun can be maintained in English, where “name” can be both noun and verb. The quality of a translation of the Tao Te Ching can usually be determined from the rendering of these lines. Those determined to unpack the meaning of Taoism in the translation, according to their own interpretation of Taoist doctrine, will often render these terse sentences into a paragraph, sometimes with irrecognizable renderings of the key words. The affection of a translator for Taoism cannot excuse a method that only obscures the nature of the text itself.

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Hey, I think of those first two verses of the Lao Tzu as a “pattern” in the Christopher Alexander sense, with Korzybski’s version and CS Lewis additional insight featuring as examplars of the more general principle. I thought I’d do a quick search and wind up with some of my own playful uses of those two phrases in different situations and for different audiences / readerships:

  • The pronounceable name isn’t the unpronounceable name.
  • The flow that can be capped isn’t the overflowing flow.
  • The quantity that can be counted is not the unaccountable quality.
  • The verbal formulation of x is not the x itself.
  • No way the way can be put into words.
  • The problem that can be described isn’t our actual situation.
  • The describable aint it.
  • More I grasp you, baby, more you disappear…
  • and not to put too fine a point on it…

  • the way that can be mapped is not the way to go, the meaning that can be put into words is not the final word
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    Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

    Thursday, April 10th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]
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    Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

    I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.

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    I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

    But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

    You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.

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    If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…

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