Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Dalrymple : Nine Lives

I love Chola bronzes like the above -- on display in the Cincinnati Art Museum - so it was thrilling to read about the sculptors who continue that tradition today, like Srikanda Stpathy of Swamimalai in southern India.

Unfortunately, no pictures of his work are published in this book (or on the internet) -- and those pictures would be  the most important part of his story.

The details of his practice are fascinating. He seems to be more devoted more to the divinities he depicts than to how his sculptures actually look.  He seems to prioritize the sacred mathematics of proportion - and to running a factory that employs 60 works, turning out 6 new idols per week.   I'm sure that they meet the  requirements of the priests who commission them - but are any of them as wonderful as the piece shown above ?

BTW - the sculptor tells us that  indwelling divinity enters these statues when the eyes are chiseled out - but may depart for a number of reasons - including installation in an art museum - or just getting too old. (apparently 800 years is the maximum life span)

The other nine lives in this collection include:

*Theyyam dancers : this is another devotional artistic practice.  The costume is so enormous, it  takes an exertion to wear them in performance.  The dancer who is interviewed notes that dancers usually do not reach old age -- even though they only perform during the brief Theyyam season.   Indeed he dies soon thereafter.  During the rest of the year, he had worked as a prison guard and digging wells.

*A story teller who travels through Rajasthan telling the story of Pabuji, the heroic cow herder.   A  phad banner, like the above, is used onsite to illustrate the characters.

This episode was especially fascinating to me because it's in the same tradition of epic story telling as the Hamzanama which I read earlier this year - though the last year that epic is known to have been recited was 1928.

* A devotee at the Sehwan shrine of Lal Shabbaz Qalander, a Sufi saint whose tomb is shown above.   She doesn't perform any particular dance, song, or story -- she's just a daily ecstatic celebrant at the shrine - jumping around in her red gown, swinging a heavy club. (kept for protection).   Her life story is quite tragic - her family being driven from India during  the Partition,  and then driven from Bangladesh during the civil war that separated east from west Pakistan. 

*This woman lives in a cremation ground at Tarapith - a worship center for the goddess  Tara.

Her community of devotees seems to take care of each other- and does not harm anyone. But their manipulation of human skulls certainly sounds creepy.  They communicate with the spirits attached to them -- apparently the skulls of suicides and virgins are the best for this purpose.  But what is the purpose, anyway?  It does not seem far removed from what Europeans might recognize as witchcraft:  the practice of supernatural powers to help some and hurt others.  People seek out the devotees when they are in need of divine protection.

As you can see above, Tara can appear quite frightful.

The woman we meet tells us that she left her children - and in-law abuse - to pursue spiritual development.  Back in her village, she was known for being occasionally possessed by the Goddess - and therefore was worshipped as an intercessor

*At the cremation ground at Tarapith, we also meet  a Baul - a member of an itinerant community of devotional musicians.

If Americans didn't have such an individualistic bent, this is the kind of community tradition that Hippie musicians of the 60's might have sustained: always on the road - playing and sharing music - owning nothing except what can be carried.  In contrast to the other religious devotees in the book, the Bauls do not seem to be attached to any deistic cult or temple.  They look toward the God within them -- so like Walt Whitman, they sing "the song of myself"

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Dalrymple : Return of a King

Elizabeth Butler, "Remnants of an Army", 1879

"History repeats itself"

But not as often as this historian, who repeats that sad refrain  continuously throughout his book, first page to last.

The disastrous 1841 British retreat from Kabul is attributable almost entirely to the incompetence of Lord Elphinstone who was too ill to lead and too stubborn to step down.  When his 5,000 soldiers could have made a difference, he kept them in  barracks.  When they were hopelessly vulnerable, he led them out to  slaughter.  As General Robert Sale proved at the Battle of Jalalabad, a small but well-led force could produce the opposite result.

The intractable problem is not winning battles, it's establishing authority over disparate clans with a delicate balance of negotiation, threat,  bribery, and moral credibility --- a task for which only native, Muslim rulers have been proven competent.

It was interesting that the puppet king, the one who returned in the book's title, was more successful at  doing that after his British supporters had been driven out.  But in native eyes, his loyalty to the non-Muslim foreigners was his un-forgivable fault - eventually leading to his murder.

Evidently, British military leaders learned from this mistake - decisively winning the next two Anglo-Afghan wars,  wisely avoiding any future military occupations, and holding onto their South Asian empire until ready to divest it more than a hundred years later.  They also achieved the original objective of the war, which was to keep Russia out of the country - maintaining  control over Afghan foreign policy thereafter.

Meanwhile, the Afghan ruling class seems to have improved their subsequent performance as well.  After the British left, Dost Mohammed returned to establish the borders of the modern Afghanistan -which would avoid tribal anarchy until the 1973 coup d'état.

So everything turned out well -- except for those who did not survive: the lost British army - and however many Afghans were slaughtered by the British "Army of Retribution"

Though, quite possibly, the results would have been no different if a British army had never invaded.


Regarding the parallels between then and now -- it does seem that three  similar forces are involved: tribalism, Islam, and capitalism.

Then, and now, it took a Jihad to unite the tribes against the infidel.

Then, and now, it was capitalism that got the infidel to cross the Khyber pass - though it was much more explicit in 1841 when the army was funded by the British East India Company to protect its profitable tea and opium trade in India.  The British would eventually leave Kabul not because they were driven out militarily  - but because it was too expensive to stay. 

160 years later, American involvement was more the consequence of the broader cultural clash between fundamentalist Islam and the capitalist West - the American invasion being in response to the Islamic attack on the capitol of capitalism: the World Trade Center.  Had there been no 9/11 --- there would not have been an American invasion to replace the regime that  openly sheltered the perpetrators.


Regarding that cultural clash,  it's pretty clear where I stand: I live, breathe, and prosper in a capitalist state  which promotes no moral values  higher than toleration and personal freedom.  The capitalist West tolerates the mono-culture, autocracy,  and Sharia of Saudi Arabia because we like doing business with them, and we do not suffer from whatever strictures they place on themselves.

Whether that kind of social order can or should take control of more diverse areas like Afghanistan or Iraq is another question. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ferdowsi : Shahnameh

Rustam  (dying) shoots his half-brother who built the spear-pit that trapped him (1482)

300 years after Sasanian civilization was transformed by 7th Century Jihadists, the  poet, Ferdowsi, devoted his adult life to the world's longest epic poem in celebration of its emperors and heroes.   Unfortunately the entirety of that epic remains untranslated, but a substantial amount is now available, and it makes a fascinating contrast with the Hamzanama , the Indo-Persian epic that followed it.

For one thing -- it's not goofy and there's no low humor.  For another, there's no celebration of "the one true religion.  All speeches and correspondence begins with an invocation to God- but the arrival of Islam at the end of the poem is marked only by the line "and so the throne was replaced with the pulpit."  And, of course, rather than offering the enemy the options of "convert or die", that option was offered by the Muslim warlord  to the Sasanian's last great hero, who,  knowing that he was fated to lose the battle, chose "Hell and a narrow grave"

But there's also plenty that the two epics have in common, as they write about a world that celebrates bling, partying, and brute strength.  There's no warrior like Kongming ("Three Kingdoms") who triumphed by strategy. (though there is a clever vizier who learns how to play chess by simply looking at the pieces)

 Funeral of Isfandyrar  (tragically killed by Rustam) , 1330's

Qadimi (1520-1560), Turanians attack drunken Iranian camp

It's been many decades since I first saw illustrations like the above at the Met - but this is the first time I've finally read the stories they were based on.


There's only one fantastic/magical creature in the story -- the giant, benevolent, all-knowing Samurgh - and it, plus some other magical events is included in the stories of Rustam and his father, Zal.

But in the final centuries of Sasanian rule, the stories become more realistic, more about character and human behavior - especially the recurring problem of a battlefield hero serving an unwise and ungrateful ruler - a relationship  that also set the table for the Hamznama.

Of special note is the appearace of the egalitarian prophet, Mazdak who is presented as converting a gullible ruler until he and all his followers are buried alive, upside down in a garden by a wise prince.

But what about the prophet Mohammed ?

The introduction tells us that Ferdowsi was unquestionably Muslim -- but this epic poem seems markedly non-Islamlic.  The good kings, all pre-Islamic,  are presented as pious, true believers in one God, and the great tragedy of the entire poem is the arrival of the Prophet's armies.  It's leaders are not presented as monsters -- but their clothing is unfit for the Persian court - and as subsequent pictorializations confirm, physical appearance was highly cultivated.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Hamzanama

It feels like I've just spent as much time in the land of Indo-Persian mythology as poor Hamza spent wandering through the magical land of Qaf killing demons and siring half-human children.

It did get a bit tiring at times -- being based on a disparate oral tradition, there are multiple variations on the same stories - with each new giant a little bit bigger and each new monster a little bit meaner.

At it's core, is the contrast between the gullible but unstoppable mighty Hamza and his loyal companion, the clever, vicious, and equally undefeatable Amar the Ayyar.

Even though the Prophet does not appear until the few final pages, Hanza has spent the previous 800  converting warriors and kings to the one-true-faith --- by defeating them in battle and then making them an offer they cannot refuse.  If you needed any further documentation of Islam as a warlike creed, these popular stories would provide it.  In addition to declaring their new found faith, the defeated or rescued kings would also often offer Hamza their daughters in marriage -- so Hamza ended up with dozens of wives and super-hero sons (though I don't recall that he had more than one daughter).

One thing that's memorable is just how nasty his companion, Amar, could be.  As a child he poisons his teachers - as an adult he lies, cheats, steals, kills, poisons, and likes to play humiliating tricks on his enemies after he has sneeked into their tent and drugged them senseless.  For example, he might strip a father and son, and then place the one into the other's lap so that they will awake to discover themselves having anal sex.  A large section of the book involves him protecting Hamz's beautiful fiance while Hanza is gone -- and he does this by repeatedly entering a foritified city in disguise -- gaining the trust of the rulers -- and then killing them and moving into the castle with his followers.  He's about as repulsive as a man can be -- his loyalty to Hamza and Islam being his only positive features.

Also memorable are some of the women - they can be quite powerful and headstrong - most notably Hama's wife in Qaf, Aasman Peri, the daughter of a king saved by Hamza.  She doesn't want Hamza to ever leave her, so she threatens death to whomever tries to help him escape.  One might also note that the only woman whom Hamza ever fights is the only warrior who can defeat him, as she does in the final chapter, using a poison spear and then beheading him.

When he isn't killing men, Hamza is usually partying or honeymooning with one of his many wives.  He does like women - though he had to drown one who demanded too much attention.

Another extreme character is the Emperor of the Seven Climes who is saved by Hamza early in the epic, but tries to kill him ever after.  His resources seem to be as unlimited as his treachery, stupidity, and futility. They exemplify the antagonistic relationship between king and super-hero  (like Arthur and Lancelot) .

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Roy Mottahedeh : The Mantle of the Prophet

This is a curious book

Each chapter has two parts:  one that follows the life of a semi-fictional imam named Ali Hoshemi -- and the other that sketches out 1400 years of Iranian and Shia history.

Neither part is very satisfactory.

The story of Hoshemi is frail because he is almost completely outside the drama of the Iranian Revolution. Presumably, as a Shia jurisconsult, he benefits from the establishment of a theocratic state. But he doesn't participate in the rebellion beyond anonymously writing a pamphlet or two against the Shah that gets him thrown in jail for a few months. Nor does get involved with protecting anyone within the many political or religious factions persecuted and murdered by the Khomeini regime.

Like Mottahedeh himself -- he considers himself just a scholar.

He may be based on a real iman whom the author knows, but in the  necessary effort to keep his identity unknown, all of his possibly interesting peculiarities have been scrubbed away.  There is not one word about his extended family.

So there is hardly any story to tell about him beyond the following:

Smart boy wants to be a professional religious scholar (just like dad) --  he studies hard --- he gets a nice clerical position -- story over.

Likewise -- the author is so dispassionately lite-headed  about religious and political history,  I had some difficulty  not nodding off.  He is a little too concerned with projecting a positive attitude towards his subject.

As he explained in the introduction,  he wanted to write about the Shia higher clergy because their training and practice is so involved with logic -- applied, of course, to the interpretation of the Koran and subsequent authoritative texts.

He seems far less concerned with political power -- it's acquisition and  consequences.  That kind of story about the Iranian Revolution will have to  be found elsewhere.

The one thing I received from his book, however, is a greater appreciation for the Shah.  Most of his political prisoners survived -- while the Ayatollahs didn't make the same mistake.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Marjane Satrapi : Persepolis

Above is  Marjane Satrapi's depiction of  her first marriage -- and I can't imagine how words might better describe the discomfort of being close but distant with a mate one finds attractive.

Though given her self-centeredness, I am wondering how she could  stay married to anyone.

This is a fascinating book -- because Satrapi is self confident enough to depict  herself as a very difficult person, despite her many advantages.

She's really smart -- in math, languages, and graphic art.

Her parents are modern, prosperous, and well-educated but apparently immune to persecution by Muslim fundamentalists. (reminds me of some very smart industrialists who survived Maoism in China)

Her parents adore and support her -- as the only child of a quite distinguished family (her mother's father was royalty)

And yet -- her parents don't cling to her -- they encourage her to seek her destiny outside Iran, even if it means they will hardly ever see her again.

At the center of her story is the culture war between open-secular-permissive modern culture and closed-theocratic-restrictive fundamentalist Shia Islam.   Obviously she's a poster girl for the former, and just as obviously, she's not going to live in Iran.

And yet --- the picture she draws of herself is not very pretty.  Her primary virtue is how succinctly and honestly she reveals herself..  While it's surprising that she gets away with as much as she does -- the most glaring example being the mullah who approves her entry into university -- despite her sharp tongue.  ("if Allah were so concerned with women showing their hair, he would have made them bald")

I don't think her intransigence would have been quite so tolerated by the doctrinal purists who conducted the very secular Cultural Revolution in China.

As she suggests, some of these religious leaders actually are spiritual people who are uncomfortable with the hypocrisy that is the inevitable consequence of linking religion to politics -- and that has accompanied Islam ever since the Hijra.

If only she could have given us a more complete picture of her mother, father, and grandmother -- all of whom seem to be quite interesting.

But modern young person that she is -- her attention is all about  me-me-me.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Paigham Afaqui : Makaan

This celebrated Urdu novel is practically unreadable in an English translation that reads like it was  executed by  word-for-word software.  (even if the translator relates that he spent 9 nine years contemplating it)

But then maybe the original is just as difficult - because most of the text consists of  interior dialogues, and God knows that people usually don't think very grammatically.

The basic story is very simple.

A young medical student, Neera, living at home with her parents, is confronted by the tenant who lives upstairs. Soon after the death of her father, the tenant stops paying rent and decides that he would like to have the entire house for himself.  As I learned in "Pakistan: a Hard Country", the police and judicial systems of South Asia are notoriously corrupt -- so all the tenant has to do is pay them off, and then he can assault, terrorize, and even legally challenge his landlord until he gets what he wants.

The novel focuses on Neera's psychological growth -- as she must overcome feelings of fear, weakness, and despair.  She sends her aging mother away to live with distant relatives, and then she hunkers down to deal with all the challenges - which include graduating from medical school getting married. (her fiance was scared off by the tenant)

For the first hundred pages I kept wondering why she didn't just ditch the house and get on with her life. Was it really worth all that effort? But now I realize that it's about her identity as a woman - not her bank account - and this book is celebrated as a unique example of feminism in the Urdu language. (even if it was written by a man)

There are pages and pages of tedious, semi-religious interior dialogue in broken English, and concern for resolution was all that kept me reading --- so now I now must issue a Spoiler Alert.  If you intend to begin reading this book, it's time to stop reading this post. (though actually, it becomes clear early on that the soul of the intrepid young lady will emerge triumphant, even if she loses the house)


Regarding Neera:  Her ethnicity is indeterminate - at least to me - but her name suggests that her background is Hindu and Bengali.  And as her interior dialogues develop throughout the story, her inner life does seem to be Gods-are-in-me Hindu. She's the last person you'd ever expect to say "It is the will of Allah". But as a medical student, she has to be immersed in science-based  modern secular culture.  The triumph of her will could almost fit into an American  self-realization program like that of Tony Robbins - except that it seems to arise spontaneously within her - without any coaching.

Regarding the author: It's fascinating that he had a career in law enforcement. He experienced public corruption from within.  Possibly this book is his response to meeting a young woman like Neera and feeling the need to help her even if it cost him his job. He created a law enforcement character, Alok (also a Hindu name) who is fascinated by his need to help Neera.  But despite his high-mindedness and self-confidence in self control, he is easily drawn into the web of those who are attacking her.  He's wined - and dined - and fucked - and videos are made of his indiscretions.  By the logic of the narrative, it's not really important that he help her or not -- everybody who meets Neera wants to help her, eventually even the gangster kingpin. But still I'm bothered that his story is left unresolved.  When shown the tape, he reacts with curiosity rather than dismay - or as the gangster put it "I have shown that cassette to Alok. I could see what waves had been rising on his face. Instead of collapsing , they kept rising up, drawn tight like a bow string"

And now -- here are Neera's final words in her climactic confrontation with Ashok,  the gangster kingpin:

Ashok... I’m with you. Don’t be disturbed by the darkness that you have entered now after coming out from the radiance of the darkness. I’m there with you. I’m with you. You know well that I hadn’t come here to ask any help from you. I’d just come here to fight with you. I’d just come here to tell you how you had only been sitting contented here in your darkness. There is lots of room here for lights. Don’t be disturbed by the strange and unfamiliar dales (sic)  that you have to get largely involved with. You just remember me and my talks. The bushes will get cleared up by themselves and paths will get formed too. Even the slight changes in your attitude will take on the forms of big changes in the people. I’ll now wait for you. Will keep observing the things analytically. Of the journey that you set off toward. It’ll give me intense happiness. I’ll feel whatever you have been doing, isn’t being done by you at all. Rather, I'm the one who have been doing it. Believe it from today onward whatever you do.

As Ashok learns --- you don't mess with Neera!