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Of border crossings, and the pilgrimage to Arbaeen in Karbala

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — as one headline put it, 20 Million Shia Muslims Brave Isis by Making Pilgrimage to Karbala ]
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You may remember IS / Daesh bulldozing the berm separating Syria and Iraq (upper image, below) not so long ago:

SPEC border crossings

Putting that into perspective is this image from the border between Iran and Iraq (lower image, above), as millions of pilgrims queue up there on their way to Karbala for Arbaeen, the final day of the Shia’s forty days mourning for Imam Hussein.

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At a time when the sectarian anti-Shia brutalities of Daesh / IS are capturing the attention of many in the west, the presence of Christian priests participating in the Arbaeen proceedings (upper panel, below)) echoes Pope Francis’ recent gesture in offering his prayers in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul:

SPEC christians at arba'een

The enormous turnout for Arbaeen in Karbala this year — those gathering at the shrine are reported to number 17.5 million (lower panel, above) — can be seen as a mark of Shia solidarity and devotion in the face of possible violence from Sunni jihadists.

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One tweeter posted this image of a road sign seen along the pilgrimage route early in the forty-day period of mourning:

If it rains Daesh, we will still visit Hussein

The sign reads: If it rains Daesh, still we will visit Hussein!

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Sources:

  • Guardian: Isis breach of Iraq-Syria border merges two wars into one ‘nightmarish reality’
  • Iraq Live Update: Iran-Iraq border crossing … Millions queue to go Karbala

  • Shafaqna: Christian priests in the holy shrine of Imam Hussein (AS)
  • Iraq Live Update: Largest prayer congregation in the world

  • IB Times: 20 Million Shia Muslims Brave Isis by Making Pilgrimage to Karbala for Arbaeen
  • Sunday surprise: the country western / blues of Hafez

    Monday, December 8th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — at the heart not of the political entity, Iran, but of the Persian culture and people, can be found a king’s ransom in poetry and song ]
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    The sensual and the spiritual meet, melt, meld, merge, and dare I say it, emerge to suit each reader of the poetry of Hafez, Sufi poet and mystic — at times erotic, at times ecstatic, the yearning for the beloved sounding in both registers in his poetry, as in the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.

    These versions, by James Newell, capture the spirit of Hafez far better IMO than the frankly best-sellerized and thus trivial versions of Ladinsky. The most sophisticated translator of Hafez now living is probably Dick Davis, who has this to say in an essay intriguingly titled On Not Translating Hafez:

    The second obvious problem faced by a translator inheres in those parts of a text which have clear cultural resonance for the original audience and very little or absolutely no resonance for the linguistic community of the target language. An obvious example of this for translators from almost any Persian text from the sixteenth century on is the lore of Shi’i Islam, an intimate knowledge of the main features of which is automatically assumed by most post-fifteenth-century Persian authors, though this is of course a knowledge almost entirely lacking in the linguistic communities of the West. When we turn to Persian poetry such cultural problems can be particularly intrusive. There is the fact that after the thirteenth century virtually all Persian poetry has at least a tinge of Sufism to it, if it is not outrightly mystical in intent, and mysticism is not a subject accorded particular importance by the poetry of the major Western languages. [ .. ]

    A subdivision of this mystical problem is the set of ideas metaphorically expressed in Persian poetry by wine, drunkenness, the opposition of the rend (approximately “libertine”) and the zahed (“ascetic”), and so forth. None of these notions have any force whatsoever in the Western literary tradition. It would never occur to a Western poet to express the forbidden intoxications of mysticism by alluding to the forbidden intoxications of wine, for the simple fact that the intoxications of wine have never (if we exclude the brief and local moment of prohibition in the United States) been forbidden in the West. The whole topos of winebibbing and the flouting of sober outward convention, so dear to Persian Sufi poetry, can seem in earlier translators’ work to be little more than a kind of rowdy undergraduate hijinks, and in more recent versions it can take on the ethos of Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties. But in both cases the deeper resonances of the topos are not obvious for a Western audience: they have to be explained — and to explain a resonance is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is over, no one laughs, except out of pained politeness, and no one is moved.

    Here’s a song in which the world-renouncing side of things comes axroo forcefully…

    I wrote a poem of my own in somewhat similar spirit yesterday, not too long after listening to that one, and offer it here in counterpoint, with Madhu especially in mind:

    Lend me at least an echo
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    If you’re not listening to my poems
    how shall I possibly know I’m still alive?
    It’s when your heart stops
    just for a moment
    that my heart begins to race,
    when your breath catches
    that my breath can return to my heart.
    You kill me. I call to you,

    nightingale to rose or whatever,
    lover to beloved,
    thorn, petal, throat, branch —
    are you nowhere,
    and how can I follow?
    Let me know it was you sang my song.

    And okay, here’s a third and last Hafez version by James Newell:

    **

    Dr Newell’s bio can be found here — and yes, in addition to playing with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Mose Allison and John Mayall, he does indeed hold a doctorate from Vanderbilt. His doctoral dissertation, should you care to read it, is on the ethnomusicology of the Qawwali

    Which brings me just the opportunity I need to close this post with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing his signature qawwali, Allah Huu.

    To the best of my understanding, Allah is simple the Arabic term for God, just as Dieu is in French — used by mambers of any religion or done who wish to reference the Deity — while the word Hu in Sufism references the breath or spirit — pneuma in Greek, prana in Sanskrit, spiritus in Latin — the wind that “bloweth where it listeth” of John 3.8.

    Huu:

    Give me that Old Time Nuclear Fatwa

    Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — when is a tweet not quite a fatwa? when it’s a tweet! ]
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    A day or two ago Tim Furnish pointed me to a recent MEMRI post titled:

    Tehran Again Offers Khamenei’s Nonexistent Fatwa In Negotiations As A Guarantee That It Is Not Developing Nuclear Weapons

    You can pretty much imagine the content by means of its title, but the piece also contains a lead to Khamenei‘s Twitter feed, and thus to the tweet with which I’ve opened this post.

    What to make of it?

    **

    It seems to me that there are two obvious possibilities —

  • the Ayatollah is lying, there is no such fatwa
  • the Ayatlloah is telling the truth, there is such a fatwa
  • Those who are prone to hope may well take the Ayatollah’s word for it — whether or not that trust is justified — while those who are prone to doubt are liable to distrust the Ayatollah…

    And so we’re at that old “trust but verify” business again.

    It seems to me that neither proposition — that a fatwa exists as claimed, but has not been made public, or that no fatwa exists, and claims to the contrary are simply incredible — is verifiable, or falsifiable for that matter. Hunh.

    The one thing that is clear from my POV is that the Ayatollah Khamenei is playing this close to his chest. He could very easily write out a fatwa and publish it, and he doesn’t. He could very easily not have issued a fatwa, which would explain its non-publication. But his refusal to publish a fatwa, while claiming to have issued it, presumably by word of mouth, is a clear indication that he is toying with his interlocutors in the west. And the game is:

    I claim to have given a fatwa — will you take my word for it?

    He’s asking for trust, we’re asking for verification: trust, but verify, it’s not a new idea. And it seems to me that neither axiomatic doubt nor axiomatic trust is the point, although we are mostly prone to one or the other.

    The point is that this is poker. Perhaps this is an obvious truism that others move quickly past on their way to reading the Ayatollah’s “tells” one way or the other. Or perhaps we are so quick to take sides that the idea that we face a formidable opponent in what is essentially a very high stakes game eludes us.

    I’m not a player, I don’t speak or read Farsi, the Shah was still in power when I visited Tehran, I haven’t studied for years in Qom or Najaf, I’m not inclined to make political assertions more than one or two levels above my pay grade, I’m mostly unpaid, and I’m left with this:

    We’re in a game.

    And if that’s the case, intelligence — human intelligence — is the way to read Khamenei’s poker face. And FWIW, Amir Taheri wouldn’t be my go to source for intel.

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    BTW, here’s Khamenei’s latest:

    A Clash of Messianisms: now let me get this straight

    Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — slightly tongue-in-cheek, intrigued at a rhetorical level, not sure who here, if anyone, necessarily believes the words they speak ]
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    Okay, let’s see now.

    • In December 2009, Israeli PM Netanyahu said, “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.” 
    • In April 2012, former Israeli Shin Bet intelligence chief Yuval Diskin, said “I don’t believe in either the prime minister (Netanyahu) or the defense minister (Barak). I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings…” 
    • In October 2013, Israeli PM Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly, “In our time the Biblical prophecies are being realized.” 
    • In January 2014, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is quoted as calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic”.
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      **

      I told you messianism was a big deal. Now will you listen?

      At the very least, it’s heating up the rhetoric of the the quest for peace…

      So how many “wide-eyed believers” have gotten hold of “the reins of power and the weapons of mass death” at last count?

      **

      I coulda made at least two DoubleQuotes out of that little lot.

    An interesting pattern I’ll call Piggy in the Middle

    Thursday, December 12th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — on the travails of negotiators & peacemakers ]
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    I’m thinking of the simple, three-player version of the children’s game called Piggy in the Middle. Two plays face each other and toss a ball back and forth, while a third player standing between them attempts to intercept the ball in passing. In the case below (upper panel), Phillip Smyth is “piggy in the middle”.

    I’m suggesting there’s a pattern here that’s worth watching for. Bill Keller, opining in the NYT under the title Iran’s Hardliners, and Ours (lower panel, above), thinks that if you’re piggy in the middle, “you’ve probably done something right.”

    That’s a thought that might have comforted my childhood, though I don’t think it’s true in an “always applicable” sense. I do think it suggests that both sides in a fierce argument may often have something to be said for them, and that a skillful negotiator will be one who can “hear the truth” in both sides and winnow them out of the turmoil as the basis for a rapprochement

    And BTW, it’s clearly a lot more work being “piggy in the middle” that either of the two other players — for one thing, you’re constantly forced to spin around to catch a ball you just missed, as it whistles by in the opposite direction to the one it was going in when you just missed it. Blessed are the peacemakers.

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    Wikipedia’s entry on Piggy in the Middle is titled Keep Away. As of this writing, it contains what is undoubtedly my current favorite comment on any game in the entire literature of play up to this point in time:

    The game has a worldwide use of playing; mostly in many countries.

    That’s good to know, and or maybe not.


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