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REVIEW: The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Monday, August 4th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss 

Some biographies are as much about the era or the milieu as the man. The Orientalist is one of them.

This is not to say that Tom Reiss has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is an enlightening and informative one, even for someone well read in the history of Russia and Germany in the twentieth century, will find that The Orientalist has a rich store of little known anecdotes. In an effort to unlock the mystery of “Kurban Said“, the alleged author of the modern Azeri national epic, Ali and Nino: A Love Story, whose identity is hotly disputed, Reiss became a cultural archaeologist excavating the graveyards of Empires, Tsarist, Wilhemine and Ottoman. It was a search that brought Reiss to a remarkable character, Lev “Essad Bey” Nussimbaum, who had narrowly escaped the Bolshevik CHEKA, made fame and fortune as a literary freebooter in Weimar Germany only to sink into obscurity during WWII, dying in poverty and illness in Fascist Italy.

Lev, who was the son of a millionaire Russian-Jewish oil magnate from Baku, was a cultural chameleon, reinventing himself numerous times, converting to Islam, passing himself off variously as Muslim prince, a Transcaucasian “Wild Jew”, Orientalist scholar, monarchist and anti-Communist writer, briefly a literary star on Germany’s radical far Right. Even in the early days of the Third Reich, despite accusations of being a “Jewish story-swindler”, the many anti-Soviet books of “Essad Bey” were warmly endorsed by Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda for reading by the Nazi Party faithful. The famous individuals who reputedly crossed Lev’s path are remarkable - Joseph Stalin, Fyodor Vinberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin,  Giovanni Gentile, Walter Mehring,  Benito Mussolini, Egon Kisch, George Sylvester Viereck, Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Max Brod, Stefan Zwieg, Hertha Pauli, and Ezra Pound among others.  “Essad Bey” was the denouement of the respectable intellectual tradition of 19th century Orientalism, particularly that of Jewish European scholars and ethnographer-explorers. Lev Nussimbaum was less a Martin Buber (whom Lev knew) than he was the Karl May of the East, a dime store mythologizer of  Transcaucasia, old Qajar Persia and Islam for popular audiences accustomed to a tabloid press.

Essad Bey as a character reflects the contradictions and juxtapositions of an interwar Europe, especially Germany, ravaged by the Great War and Communist Revolution in ways that would be highly improbable today.  Lev was a talented writer, a  Jewish refugee who was an exponent of Islam and an admirer of Fascism, more glib than insightful, more clever than wise, at home playing the outsider but his place never secure. When the official black sedans of the Fascist secret police rolled up to an ailing Lev’s hotel and found him dead, villagers assumed the OVRA men where there to arrest “the Muslim”; in reality, it was to take Lev to make wartime propaganda broadcasts for Italy in Persian.

Recommended.

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Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

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Sent to Coventry and much else besides

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- shall we say, not a great enthusiast for war? ]
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This image of Winston Churchill in the bombed out ruins of Coventry Cathedral is almost a self-referential paradox in itself, if you still believe the canard that he knew the Germans were going to bomb Coventry that night, and did nothing about it to avoid divulging allied knowledge of the German ENIGMA code.

It it walks like a canard and quacks like a canard…

For a rebuttal of the suggestion that Churchill knew Coventry would be the target that night, see Sir Martin Gilbert, Coventry: What Really Happened [pdf, pp. 32-3] — the post-literate can listen to this Angry History podcast instead.

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As an aside, I wonder what Churchill had in mind when he coined his celebrated mot about Russia:

It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.

According to Wikipedia, the Poles had delivered their early Enigma-breaking theories, tools and sample cryptologic bombs to British military intelligence in Warsaw on 25 July 1939. Churchill’s broadcast, The Russian Enigma, was given on 1st October 1939.

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And another aside, while we’re here — just to note that conspiracy theories are often among the gaseous components of a fog of war…

On the other hand, conspiracy theories can often be revealing of popular and or archetypal hopes and fears. In the present case, the anxiety revolves around situations such as that invoked by Caiaphas’ claim “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people“.

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Coming at the destruction of Coventry Cathedral from another angle…

I have mourned before the losses at Bamiyan and Monte Cassino:

Here’s what’s happened to the Green Mosque or Mazjid Sabz, famous for its dome (upper panel only, lower panel h/t Bilal Sarwary), in the course of fighting in Afghanistan — the country whose oldest mosque it is:

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And yet prayer continues:

FWIW, the lower panel image (above) is from a Christian Science Monitor article titled Israeli settlers respond to mosque burning allegations — the caption reads in part:

Palestinian men pray Monday near a burnt part of the carpet in a mosque that was damaged in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem. Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to the West Bank mosque on Monday

The upper panel image, as far as I can determine, shows the continuing celebration of Mass in a German church after Allied bombardment in World War II.

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It is at least worth pondering the words of these Trappist sisters in Azeir, Syria…

They came to Azeir to continue in spirit the work of the monks of Tibhirine, about whom I wrote, giving extensive background and the entire text of Fr. de Chergé‘s great, final testament here. The sisters write:

Today we have no words, except those of the Psalms that the liturgical prayer puts onto our lips in these days:

Rebuke the Beast of the Reeds, that herd of bulls, that people of calves…oh God, scatter the people who delight in war…Yahweh has leaned down from the heights of his sanctuary, has looked down from heaven to earth to listen to the sighing of the captive, and set free those condemned to death…Listen, God, to my voice as I plead, protect my life from fear of the enemy; hide me from the league of the wicked, from the gang of evil-doers. They sharpen their tongues like a sword, aim their arrow of poisonous abuse…They support each other in their evil designs, they discuss how to lay their snares. “Who will see us?” they say. He will do that, he who penetrates human nature to its depths, the depths of the heart…Break into song for my God, to the tambourine, sing in honor of the Lord, to the cymbal, let psalm and canticle mingle for him, extol his name, invoke it…For the Lord is a God who breaks battle-lines! … Lord, you are great, you are glorious, wonderfully strong, unconquerable.

We look at the people around us, our day workers who are all here as if suspended, stunned: “They’ve decided to attack us.” Today we went to Tartous…we felt the anger, the helplessness, the inability to formulate a sense to all this: the people trying their best to work and to live normally. You see the farmers watering their land, parents buying notebooks for the schools that are about to begin, unknowing children asking for a toy or an ice cream…you see the poor, so many of them, trying to scrape together a few coins. The streets are full of the “inner” refugees of Syria, who have come from all over to the only area left that is still relatively liveable…. You see the beauty of these hills, the smile on people’s faces, the good-natured gaze of a boy who is about to join the army and gives us the two or three peanuts he has in his pocket as a token of “togetherness”…. And then you remember that they have decided to bomb us tomorrow. … Just like that. Because “it’s time to do something,” as it is worded in the statements of the important men, who will be sipping their tea tomorrow as they watch TV to see how effective their humanitarian intervention will be….

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Of dualities, contradictions and the nonduality II

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- notes towards a pattern language of conflict and conflict resolution: bridging divides in Baghdad 2013, Netherlands 1888 and the Germanies 1961 ]
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I’ll be collecting examples of “dualities and the non-dual” here, because they give us a chance to consider the pattern that underlies “conflict and conflict resolution” and much else besides. This post picks up on an earlier post on the same topic: I’ll begin with three tweets that came across my bows this last week…

First, a vivid glimpse of sectarianism in today’s Iraq:

Second: sectarianism in the Netherlands, 1888:

And last, unexpected but charming, the divided Berlin of 1961:

It’s obvious once you think about it — thought we don’t always remember, such is the mind’s propensity to distinguish, divide, and argue from just one half of the whole — that human nature embraces both conflict and conflict resolution.

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The Hamburg Cell: close reading

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- a poorly subtitled movie, the ease of misreading & need for mindfulness in information gathering, a real world problem example, full quotation of one verse from the Qur'an, and changes in teaching the concept of jihad in Saudi ]
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I know, I know: it’s only a movie.

But it also offers us a glimpse into how easily we humans misread or mishear what’s in front of us. In this case, the film — about the cell in Hamburg that brought us Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Ziad Jarrah — gets the soundtrack right, but is misheard by whoever is doing the subtitles. And so the words “our Prophet, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah” are confused by the subtitle writer with the name of the 9/11 facilitator who is being introduced in white text at that point in the film — giving the seriously mangled transcription “our Prophet, Mohammed bin al-Shibh”…

Just a minute or two earlier in the film, the Qur’anic verse (9.5, spoken in the Yusuf Ali translation):

… fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)…

had been clearly enunciated on the soundtrack, and became:

Seize them, believe in them, and lie in wait for them, this is strategy in war.

in the subtitles. Believe in the pagans? Really? In the Qur’an? Or does beleaguer them make just a little more sense?

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I know, I know: it’s only a movie.

But do you remember the incident I mentioned in January, in a piece on the (needless) bombing of the (historic, not to mention consecrated) Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino?

The bombing appears to have been authorized on the basis of a mistranslation. An intelligence intercept of the question “Ist Abt in Kloster?” — “is the Abbot in the Monastery” — was translated by the US as though Abt was short for Abteil, “Is the HQ in the Abbey?” The recorder answer “Ja” then led to the bombing.

As it turned out later, “Until the moment of the destruction of the Monte Cassino abbey there was within the area … neither a German soldier, nor any German weapon, nor any German military installation.”

So here’s my main point:

It takes extraordinary human diligence to give oneself a decent chance to avoid human error…

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But I’m not done yet.

For what it is worth, the Qur’anic verse 9.5 cited above begins with a qualification that’s applicable only to the world of the Prophet’s time, in which certain months were considered sacred, and warfare prohibited — not only by the Prophet and his Companions, but by all the surrounding tribes.

A literal reading of the text, therefore, gives quite a different and more historically focused and geographically circumscribed impression to the one given by the jihadist instructor in the film:

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

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It’s worth noting that Saudi Arabia is about to introduce the concept of jihad, properly understood, to younger (“intermediate level”) school children. The article in Arab News today discussing this change is headed:

Concept of jihad to be made clear to younger students

and begins:

In a move likely to be welcomed by parents and educationists, the Ministry of Education has decided to introduce the concept of jihad in Islamic jurisprudence textbooks at the intermediate school level.

Abdullah Al-Dukhaini, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, told Arab News that the ministry decided to move the teaching of jihad from the high school level to intermediate school because intermediate students are prepared to learn the “correct concept of jihad” before “erroneous concepts” reach them.

One has to read almost of the bottom of the longish piece, though, to find out what this “correct concept of jihad” might be — here’s their version:

Al-Dukhaini said the ministry wants to teach students that jihad is only permissible when defending against aggressors, and with the approval of the country’s ruler and parents.

Textbooks include a warning to pupils that the only one entitled to “raising the banner of Jihad” is the ruler and no one else. No individual Muslim or a Muslim group is permitted to do so.

Once the appropriate textbooks have been published, it will be interesting to see the various translations offered for the relevant passages and the kinds of interpretation they call forth from different points of the compass…

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h/t for the Saudi education pointer, John Burgess at Crossroads Arabia.

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