Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


This is going to still be spun a bit, but here's what I told the Graduate School:

This project explores the impact of marketing strategies on emerging identities of Moroccans, focusing on ways a racialized minority, the Gnawa, have imagined themselves as a diasporic community. Using ethnography, music analysis, and media critique, I examine how Gnawa music is produced and circulated in order to discern ideologies of identity imbedded and embodied in performances and recordings.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Fud (cand.)

I successfully defended my dissertation prospectus! I am now free to roam about the world.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Taqwacore, not Muslim Punk

Michael Muhammad Knight refuses to define Taqwacore, but he does give a short summary for how he came to popularize the term. Taqwa means, roughly, fear or reverence for God. In the comments to his post, Cihan 8Bit explains very articulately what's going on, why "Taqwacore" and "Muslim (sub)culture(s)" are not equivalent. I thought it needed to be reposted here:

"These little ethnographic subsections of Islam that revolve around a certain geographies culture, whether it be wearing a veil or wearing an Ashford and Simpson hawk vest, whether listening to made-up prayers or to Rakim espousing on supreme mathematics, this is all-good for remembrance (dzikr) and through the repetition of this remembrance we can technically transcend our lower selves which is the point — (we should all read up more on esoteric and marginal traditions, teach our brothers and sisters, bring our adapted view into the world) — however, Islam, to me and my ghostbusting buddies, is bigger than a boundary of habits and the art of repetition. It’s even bigger than religion to most of us. It’s both non-existing and participating, refinement and blunting. This leads into this idea of ethnic consensus (or when these ethnographic subsection all start acting one way within a coded decision matrix) and to the question of what is ideal refinement for each community; desi’s, turk’s, malaysians, yemeni, etc, etc. Glyph structures, symbolism, traditions all put a tint on truth — thats should be an explation of why the term 'Muslim Punk' sucks big donkey dick."

I believe Cihan's objecting less to the "Muslim" in "Muslim Punk" than to the "Punk," which he thinks shouldn't be about dhikr alone--about subculture?--but rather about something much more active and significant.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Blogging Baptist

Wade Burleson is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Oklahoma. He recently got dismissed from the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board for blogging too openly about his disputes with the other members of the board, who have been (like other zealots in the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC) purging whatever "un-fundamentalist" elements from the various sections they have taken over.

They have successfully purged anyone remotely "charismatic" or "pentecostal" from the ranks of the missionaries, as well as moved closer to identifying an SBC creed. (Those in the know recognize this trend to contradict basic Baptist tradition, which values not having organized theological positions to which all must agree. Of course, Baptists also used to be known for their voluntary, non-binding organizational structures... Look where that went, right?)

Anyway, Burleson's predicament reminds me of Ellen Hampton's recent decision not to publish publicly about work. A wise decision, and one that we all must make--how confessional, how personal should our blogs be? One of Ellen's commenters points us to the expression to be dooced, which means "to be fired from one's job because of one's blog." Heather B. Armstrong is the blogger, at dooce.com.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Glass Palace

On with the Amitav Ghosh novels!

Glass Palace
is an epic. Reading it reminded me of reading The Far Pavilions: How far are we going? Whose descendant is this again? How many decades just passed?

It begins in 1885, with the British occupation of Mandalay and destruction of Burma. The meaningful action ends in the 1940s and World War II, although a short run through the 1990s is necessary to tie up most of the loose ends. The main story is a love story (of course) between Rajkumari and Dolly.

Rajkumari is an orphan left to fend for himself, born Hindu in what is now Bangladesh but in Burma in 1885 at the age of 11. Dolly is a servant to the Burmese royal family, taken from the eastern Burmese Shan highlands. They meet as the king and queen are being exiled to India, the glass palace in Mandalay destroyed. Rajkumari remembers Dolly and goes in search of her, after making a fortune in lumber in Burma.

Rajkumari and Dolly marry, and their children intermarry with others along the way. A rubber plantation in Malaysia figures into the story, as well as photography, the Indian troops in the British Army, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist.

The book was a bit disappointing at first, since I was reading from the experience of Ghosh's most recent novel, The Hungry Tide, which has a spare, efficient plot and the barest number of characters necessary. In contrast, The Glass Palace is an absolute labyrint of plot and subplots, with lots of gaping spaces and characters who are developed and then disappear without comment.

Nevertheless, it's an addictive story. Why? Because Ghosh is a master at showing the material traces of history, and making these traces compelling.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Andrew West Griffin has this thing going...

"Here are the rules:
1. Go into your archives.
2. Find your 23rd post.
3. Post the fifth sentence or close to it.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.
5. Tag 5 other people to do the same."

Not being a "real blogger" (r) (tm), I'm not sure how to "tag" someone. If you're reading this, consider yourself tagged. I think I have around 5 readers...

My contribution comes from last Nov. 21. I was blogging about the Paris riots, about a great article that explains why the riots did not come as a surprise to those in the know. Here's the sentence:

"The venerable French rap group Supreme NTM made the original prediction in 1995."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Old Men and Women

When Joyce Carol Oates reviewed Cormac McCarthy's latest novel, No Country for Old Men, she pulled no punches. In a lengthy diatribe in the New York Review of Books that completely misses the point of this book, she excoriates McCarthy for creating a world "suffused with the malevolent Eros of male violence."

Well, apart from her short stories, I've tried to read only one of Oates' books, We Were the Mulvaneys. She disses McCarthy for writing about "physical violence with an attentiveness found in no other serious writer I know of except Sade," but she herself has to answer for an attentiveness to deeply lyrical and detailed descriptions of rape that I just can't get through.

There's something surface and outside about McCarthy's violence. I'm not downplaying it, just trying to describe why I find it so easy to read. He writes randomness and surprise into the violent acts, at least in the five books of his that I've read (this one, Blood Meridian, and the Border Trilogy). In his world, there is usually no logic to death and suffering. Perhaps this is escapist, but it satisfies some need I have.

In any case, this latest book gives me to opportunity to confess a continued attraction that I have for cheap thrillers written by Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, John Creasey, and the like. Finally, I get to read one that actually has some art to it but that still retains the detailed descriptions of firepower and dark "special-forces" careers.

It also has some useful things to say about life, America, and the world. Here's an old man recalling the prevalence of violent episodes in the history of his West Texas family:

"This country was hard on people. But they never seemed to hold it to account. In a way that seems peculiar. That they didnt. You think about what all has happened to just this one family. I dont know what I’m doin here still knocking around. All them young people. We dont know where half of em is even buried at. You got to ask what was the good in all that. So I go back to that. How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothin, but that dont mean much. I seen a man shoot his pickup truck with a shotgun one time. He must of thought it done somethin. This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?"

Monday, January 09, 2006

Chicks Tour

Andrew West Griffin brings us the news that the Dixie Chicks are touring this summer. Over Christmas I finally liberated my copy of their 2002 album Home that a family member had been holding hostage. What a great record, and what a great year it was for country music.

I'm still maintaining that Martina McBride's new album Timeless is the best thing to happen to country, and actually indicates how mainstream "classic" country has become, since the album's been certified platinum. What's remarkable about this album is that Martina doesn't try to update the tracks--the album actually reproduces that "sound" by using vintage recording equipment and doing it the old fashioned way--I think I read that only two mics were used that had been made after 1960.

It was a good year for Toby Keith, too, IMHO. Toby got sorta tiring to listen to there for a while, but I love "Honkytonk U," "Big Blue Note," and "Ain't As Good As I Once Was." All of these latest hits return Toby to a more self-conscious bombast that winks at listeners and tells them he doesn't really believe his own hype.

Friday, January 06, 2006


From the text of the statement that biology teachers in Dover, Penn., are no longer required to read prior to any class that discussed evolution:

"The reference book, 'Of Pandas and People,' (sic) is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves."

In this case, and I think most of the time when Americans use the word "actually," it smacks of conspiracy-theory, anti-intellectual, defensive posturing. Why is this the case? "What's actually going on?" "Are you actually going to do that?" "It's actually more complicated than that.

Say it with an American accent and you're sure to offend my ears. Say it with a British accent, and it turns into a self-deprecating, apologetic whine, as in the title of the film Love, actually. "Actually, I'm no longer working there." This may have to do with the trend that Americans place the word between the subject and the verb (using it as a true adverb), while the British tend to (over)use it as a transition.

The French word actuellement doesn't really fit here, since it is a false friend and actually means "currently" or "at present."

One of my friends had a favorite Arabic word, Haqiqa, which means "reality" and is kind of fun to say. The phrase "f'il-Haqiqa" is roughly equivalent to the American version, literally meaning "in reality."

The root is H-q-q. "Al-Haqq" is one of the names of God, "The Truth" or "The Only Reality." On March 22, 922, the Persian Muslim mystic and philosopher al-Hallaj was executed when he said "Ana al-Haqq." This was taken to be a heretical claim by al-Hallaj that he was God.

Rather, I understand, he was making the very esoteric observation that, if nothing exists apart from God, then his individual identity was completely destroyed and he considered himself to be completely consumed by God and into God. Actually.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Orientalist Review

Tom Reiss, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life.
New York, Random House, 2005
433 pages
ISBN: 1-4000-6265-9
Hardcover: $25.95
Reviewed by John P.R. Schaefer

Lev Nussimbaum’s life was pure Hollywood and should be made into a film.

The frail, sheltered dreamer was born on a train between Zurich and Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1905. His Bolshevik mother committed suicide when Lev was a child. After his father lost an oil fortune to the Soviets following the October Revolution, the two fled to Weimar Germany via Iran and Istanbul. In the café culture of Berlin, Lev was reborn as writer and Muslim convert Essad Bey. He published 14 books of history, biography, and political economy between the ages of 24 and 33. Lev married the daughter of an industrialist and settled into a Bohemian lifestyle in Vienna; when the two divorced, lurid stories followed in European and American tabloids. In 1938 Lev contracted a mysterious aging and wasting disease and fled to Italy. The intervention of Ezra Pound and others kept him alive and enabled the publication of two masterful novels under the name Kurban Said. Ultimately, though, he ended up miserable, lame, half-starving and alone on the Amalfi coast, tended only by a shadowy Libyan arms smuggler. Self-described “Mohammedan, monarchist, and Orientalist,” Lev Nussimbaum died in Positano in 1942. A compelling screenplay is still missing, but Tom Reiss’s book is rich in facts and appropriate conjecture.

Producing a factual narrative about Nussimbaum at times seems an exercise in futility, since the writer delighted in fabulating wild stories, usually about himself. His two novels, Ali and Nino (1937; Random House, 2000) and The Girl from the Golden Horn (1938; Overlook Press, 2001), give insight into the worlds Lev imagined. Set in Azerbaijan in the late 1910s, Ali and Nino narrates a passionate love affair between a Shi‘i Azeri boy and a Christian Georgian girl of equally noble birth. Lev’s fantasy of a masterpiece imagines what his early life would have been like had he been a Shi‘i nobleman and a committed Azeri nationalist. We can read this novel as a love poem to his homeland in the Caucasus, which he never really abandoned.

The second novel introduces two more alter egos. The first, Prince Abdel-Kerim, heir to the Ottoman caliphate, goes by the name of John Rolland, a Hollywood screenwriter conspicuously drunk in Greenwich Village gutters. Here we see Lev as fallen nobleman and frustrated artist who would sell his talents to the movies. The second alter ego is a young Turkish woman. A graduate student in linguistics, Asiadeh lives a refugee life in 1930s Berlin with her carpet-salesman father, a former Ottoman governor. She is entranced by the former prince. Here, we see how German society both arouses and dismays Lev who, in this imagined feminine identity, is a fragile waif cast adrift in the European city. Rolland states that his place of origin, the East, is “bisexual, it lives and acts in unity with the universe. That is why there is something unfinished and yet illimitable about the art of the Orient.” It is impossible to determine whether his queerness extended beyond aesthetics, but Lev had ambivalent relationships with women and repeatedly rejected men’s affection in attentive, longing ways.

Reiss’s book follows the chronology and geography of Lev’s life. Reiss provides necessary details on the Russian historical background, an often-wacky cultural map of the Caucasus, and the Russian Revolution. His chapters on Central Asia and Iran, which lapse into simple stereotypes, betray Reiss’s dependence on Lev’s Orientalist perspectives at the expense of more factual descriptions. Finally, in the sections set in Germany, Vienna, New York, and Positano, Reiss painstakingly picks apart the intricate web of relationships Lev built among his varied supporters.

Lev resists being forced into neat categories. His fairly conventional Muslim gravestone in Positano, erected by his Libyan friend, is inscribed in Arabic with the name “Muhammad As‘ad Bay.” A disturbing recent trend among the American political right has been to revive admiration for Mussolini, and Reiss comes close to placing Lev in this camp of early Italian Fascism. In contrast, nevertheless, Lev appears to be perhaps the last of an already obsolete political type: a monarchist holding antipathies toward democratic liberalism and fascism that are surpassed only by his visceral and consuming hatred of communism, cemented when the Bolsheviks brutalized Baku. Finally, as an Orientalist, Lev joins other Jewish Orientalists like William Palgrave, Benjamin Disraeli, Josef Horovitz, Franz Rosenthal, and Leopold Weiss/Muhammad Asad. Thus at least one of his self-descriptions—“Mohammedan, monarchist, and Orientalist”—is accurate.

Lev’s similarities with Asad extend the furthest: Both were self-educated and polyglots, living uneasily in Europe; both converted in Berlin in the 1920s and thereafter identified with Islam partly as a means of critiquing the West. Like his character John Rolland, Lev found himself “a nomad, an exile, chasing after an unknown aim. His home? He did not know anymore where his home was.” Asiadeh gives a tempered critique of the Western world, not necessarily “a good or [a] bad world. Any world could make its people happy. But all differed from all the others, divided from one another since the beginning of time, strong and immovably rooted in their own individuality.” Displaying an exquisite sense of the impenetrability of cultural difference, Lev ultimately failed in his Herculean attempt to translate between cultures.

In the biggest failure, Lev identified closely with Nazi Germany despite its anti-Semitism. Moreover, both novels are absent any Jewish character or discussion of Judaism. Whether or not this omission was due more to Nuremberg laws than to Lev’s own intent to deny his Jewish past, we may never know. Lev attempted frequently to circumvent the laws and escape them, and he denied repeatedly that his mother was Jewish. Reiss must find two of Lev’s cousins before he can confirm that Lev’s mother, like his father, came from a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the Caucasus from the Pale of Settlement. This incongruity is also a central enigma of Reiss’s book, which he satisfies only partly by referring to Lev’s handling by the Bolsheviks.

Overall, Reiss’s book represents an admirable first attempt just to get some facts straight. The detective work necessary to establish Nussimbaum as Essad Bey and Kurban Said, and to document his life, represents Reiss’s greatest accomplishment. A tremendous breadth of knowledge would be necessary to fully explain the worlds Lev inhabited, and the limits of Reiss’s knowledge are evident on occasion. Reiss is much more comfortable discussing fascist and communist Europe, providing useful genealogies of propaganda and mass murder. At times Reiss details too much his efforts to salvage the story of Nussimbaum’s life, an engaging story filled with chance meetings between Reiss and fascinating men and women of very advanced age. Often, they died just weeks or months after the interviews, and we are indebted to him. Nevertheless, a different biography could have been written, more literary and cultural, with fewer historical tangents and tales of tracking down venerable Austrian eccentrics.

By all means, read the book. The prose moves quickly, and it is appropriate for advanced undergraduate courses, if not for graduate ones. When comparing The Orientalist to the two novels, nevertheless, I found the novels much more satisfying. We can also look forward to the eventual publication of Lev’s deathbed memoir, The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love. Ultimately, The Orientalist is most valuable because it revives interest in Lev Nussimbaum and enables us to appreciate more fully his strange and dangerous life.