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Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Famed Delicatessens of al-Andalus

I saw these a few weeks ago in the supermarket and was desperately curious how such a malapropism was introduced into the label of this brand of molasses:


I assumed that it was some kind of mechanical translation issue and spent a few minutes trying to put various things back and forth between Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Arabic in Google Translate to see if I could reproduce the error; I came up with sort of a long shot but didn't think it was probably what had happened.

Then, when we were driving to Córdoba with the students, we passed a sweet shop just off the highway that was a shop that sold "delicación." It's a less-common word that's used to describe jiggly desserts, such as flan and jello-molds, and I could imagine the semantic range including molasses and molasses-based desserts.

Not only do the words sound similar, but if you type "delicación" into Yelp, it asks you if you meant to search for directions to a delicatessen, demonstrating that there are algorithms that seem to think, erroneously, that they are the same thing.

Friday, February 27, 2015

A Personal Cartography of Cordoba

Surprises aside, this was a brilliant place to teach.
We got off the bus in Córdoba a week ago today just in time for lunch. The itinerary gave students an hour and a half before we would meet in the patio of the orange trees just  outside the Great Mosque where, the itinerary said, they would be required to take audio-guides as they walked through the cathedral. And so when my colleague asked me if I had given thought to what route I would take the students on through the cathedral, I answered her that I thought I would leave them to their audio guides and just make sure that I visible at several key points on the walk through to answer any questions they might have.

Turns out that the term "audio-guide" does not mean the same thing in Cordoba as it does in Madrid. This wasn't a false-friends situation in which I assumed a definition for a Spanish word on the basis of an English counterpart; the "audio-guías" at the Prado Museum and even at the Alhambra are exactly the same as you find anywhere else; the audio guides in the Great Mosque of Cordoba are just a speaker system so that a guide can address her group through a microphone and headphones without having to shout and disrupt the quiet and the sanctity of the space. "You are," my colleague said, "the audio-guide."

 Fortunately, even though I haven't been there in fully a decade it's a space I know quite well and whose history I know quite well. It's still the first time I've taken students there, though, and so my colleague drew me a map to show me how she walks students through and what she thinks is important to tell them and what seems like an excess for intro-level students.


This map, drawn for me alone, is the very best souvenir of Cordoba. It's going up in a small frame in my office when I get back.

It speaks, I think, to the very individual ways in which any of us relates to a monument. This is a description of the Great Mosque of Cordoba by a medievalist for another medievalist that reflects the intimacy with which we both know the space. It speaks to the Mosque as a site for teaching as much as it is for anything else for anyone else who might have been there on that day or any other day in the past.

Mostly we think of maps as being for people who are lost. This one says not how much I needed to be told how to make my way through the space, but how much I didn't need to be told; not how much I needed it, but how much I did not.

Even where you might be able to read this map as a way to walk through the space, unless you are its intended reader (me) or one of the few other people in this world with her intellectual and professional profile you can't see where it says "tell them about the flying buttresses" or where it says that al-Hakam II was vain caliph with no sense of political expediency or where it explains how much more advanced engineering was in the tenth century than in the ninth, or the eighth, or in Rome. You might or might not know how many times this space has been consecrated and reconsecrated in the name of competing visions of the same God; I see it written here in ink. Personalized, this is a map through history and ideology as much as it is through space.

Titus Burkhardt described the Great Mosque of Cordoba as a forest of mathematics and history. This isn't the map that could have saved any Little Red Riding Hood walking through it, but it did save me.

The paradox of this map is its explanation of its own innecessity. And the one who can understand it will understand.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Solving the "Moor" Problem

One of the stops on last weekend's trip to Cordoba and Granada with twenty-nine NYU undergraduates was the cathedral of Granada, which was originally intended to be a late period gothic building but ended up for a variety of interconnected historical and aesthetic reasons as an exemplar of full-on, whitewash and gold leaf, more blood and nails, Renaissance-Baroque splendor. "Splendor."

One of the challenges in that space was explaining to students the two traditional Spanish representations of Saint James, he of Compostela pilgrim path fame, one as pilgrim and the other, characteristically, as Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-Slayer.

This is a representation from the cathedral of him in that second mode. It's not my photo — although I can't claim to be above taking pictures in places where it is officially prohibited, I was trying to model responsible behavior to the students this time around:


I often struggle, and mightily, to get students not to use the term moor in their work in my classes. I explain to them that it's not a historically specific-enough term to be useful and that its racialized and racist connotation makes using it a complicity with those ideologies. I have them read this essay (Paywall. Sorry. Happy to share a PDF.) And I still get reading reflections, research papers, and exams that talk about the Christians and the Moors.

It struck me, though, standing in the cathedral in Granada, right below this statue exalting Santiago in a warm golden glow at the moment his horse tramples a moro and explaining to the students that this is a part of the ideology that motivated the religious persecutions and expulsions of the period, that such a stark image, seen up close, probably drives the point home better than a thousand essays or classroom discussions could. Here is Santiago, killing a dark-skinned Muslim and receiving reward in the heretofore and plaudits in the mind of the nation; it may not be the case everywhere, but this is not an ideology, represented so starkly here, that any of my cosmopolitan, urbane, New York-based college students would choose subscribe to. It's not to say that I have never taught students with prejudices, but to a one they know what the problem is as it is represented here.

I'll wager I don't see any moros in my students' essays this term.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Red Fortress, Gray Fog


This morning before departing Granada, we took the students to the viewpoint in the plaza of San Nicolás. It's on a hill about the same height as the hill where the Alhambra sits, less than 600 meters as the crow flies across the valley of the River Darro. Any questions about why the sixteenth century conquerers felt so comfortable in the landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Burial of the Sardine


Carnaval here ends with a parade that marks the traditional burial of the sardine, supposedly to commemorate the generosity of Carlos III toward his subjects gone very badly wrong: He held a public feast of sardines to mark the beginning of Lent, but they took so long to arrive and it was so warm out (at this time of year?) that his subjects had to bury them in the ground as the only way to eliminate the stench.

For lack of a better cultural reference, it seems a bit like a cross between the Philadelphia Mummers' Parade and a New Orleans Funeral.









The ceremony includes a satirical requiem for the sardine. There is video below, but please be warned that it includes a variety of off-color jokes, many of them about chorizo.







Cartas Marruecas


A one-person protest in front of the Moroccan embassy in Madrid (around the corner from NYU's Madrid site) being supervised with a total lack of subtlety by an equal number of Moroccan embassy staffers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

It Is Known.

For all my complaining about the disconnect between the medieval and the medievalism of Game of Thrones, I think I have identified the medieval Hebrew origins of the Dothraki citation system, much appreciated for its brevity by wise men throughout the Seven Kingdoms and in the cities across the narrow sea: "It is known."



As he was translating Jonah ibn Janaḥ's two-part lexicon of the Hebrew Bible out of Arabic into Hebrew, Judah ibn Tibbon would often omit much of the discussion of terms when it relied too heavily on points of Arabic lexicography or language or grammar. He would remove Ibn Janaḥ's detailed discussions and prooftexts when they would lack cultural significance for his non-Arabophone readers, and would substitute Ibn Janaḥ's commentary with a single, knowing word: Yadu'a. It is known.

In truth it grates a bit. I'm sitting a stone's throw from the manuscript collections where I want to begin my next project and the only thing between them and me is the fact that I have to fix the footnotes in the manuscript for my first book. I've consistently gotten  advice that for a first book, to avoid making it sound dissertationy, one should strip out anything that looks like a lit review. I clearly took that advice a little too far, and ended up getting, quite rightly, slammed for not acknowledging my place in the scholarly universe. Better to be slammed for that pre-publication rather than in reviews or in a tenure file, but I'm in Madrid, fixing footnotes that I could just as easily fix in New York but for the timeline and the clock ticking in the background.* (At some point the tenure track starts to feel a bit like Captain Hook's nightmares...) And I'm writing footnotes about a guy who was creating resources for readers by, among other things, deliberately omitting everything that came before him, substituting the sum total of human knowledge about the meaning of words in the Hebrew Bible with a wink and a nod to only the most educated and most polyglot of his readers: Yadu'a. It is known.

It tells us, of course, that standards for scholarly discourse have changed in the last eight hundred years. I think some of that's for the best, but some of it is stifling and makes us sound weasely and indecisive. More interesting, and it's the point that I'm making in one of those footnotes (clearly I've not fully learned my lesson about not mentioning here work pre-publication — but what a dreary existence that would be, and how tedious!) is that it is in fact an affirmation of the validity of Arabic biblical lexicography and an affirmation of the comparative method.

The portrayal of the Dothraki is done through the worst, most simplistic Orientalist stereotypes, so egregious that even as someone who takes some issue with Edward Said's analysis, as is becoming increasingly acceptable, this is a case where I would wholeheartedly and simply fall back on his one word as a condemnation of it. It is a cartoon of a vaguely Bedouin tribe, no longer the guardians of God's language but backwards savages. Their vocabulary is small and lacks words to express gratitude or aspiration. When they say it is known, they are superstitious and silly, believing things that medieval Arabic astronomy could easily disprove.** But when Judah ibn Tibbon says that it is known, he is in effect venerating the Arabic linguistic tradition and making it the ultimate, authoritative source. He is telling his readers, both those who could recognize his rhetorical technique and those who were already so far removed from the Islamicate world that they could not, that there is knowledge out there and that it is so completely trustworthy as to not need repeating or verification. For Judah ibn Tibbon to say: yadu'a, it is known, is to affirm the language of the Bedouins and its scientific study by later intellectual Arab elites.

It is known.

*Yes, I am complaining about whether I have to fix my footnotes in New York or Madrid. Disappointed though I am in the missed opportunity, I do know that it's the first-tieriest of first tier academic problems.

**And yes, I know I'm conflating two different categories here — Bedouins and Abbasid astronomers. I'm trying to sound like a human being before sounding like an academic and that's not a sentence that could easily accommodate both voices. And if anybody gives me a hard time about it from a Chicago IP address, I will scream. And then revert this to being a password-protected blog for good.)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Theory in Practice



Scene: This evening at the Prado.

Guard: Señorita, no se permite sacar fotos aquí.
Me: Ah, perdón.
Mom: Don't get into an argument with her about it.
Me: I wasn't going to. Besides, she probably hasn't read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," so it wouldn't really be a fair fight.