Friday, October 28, 2011

The Week in Links (Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia edition)

Two reviews of the new galleries at the Met that opened this week:

A New Vision for Islam in Hostile Times

A Cosmopolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty

Photos of the installation, including the re-installation of a muqarnas ceiling:

Behind the Scenes: Building of the Moroccan Court

Historically, it has been a huge challenge to display non-Western art in ways that befit an art museum rather than an anthropological or natural history museum. I particularly like that in this interactive feature the Times juxtaposes Islamicate art with Western European art. It forces the reader away from the very pervasive idea that Western art is Art and Islamicate art is simply craft:

At the Metropolitan Museum, a New Wing, a New Vista

And from across the pond:

New York's Met Museum Showcases a World of Islamic Treasures

I'm hoping to go myself two weeks from now, so my own impressions will follow then. Yes, I am just about falling over in excitement.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

History of the Language for Undergraduates

"Sometimes the alphabet gets screwed up," the student working at the circulation desk said to me, by way of explaining why my interlibrary loan book did not seem to be on the shelf waiting to be picked up. Yeah, I thought to myself. Sometimes it does. And that was exactly what I was hoping to demonstrate to my students with the book that had somehow drowned in the library's alphabet soup.

Amadís de Gaula.

The book of chivalry that drove Don Quixote mad would be the first text that my introductory students would encounter. Because it is so tangential to what I find compelling from this period, I hate the fact that my students' first introduction to medieval/early modern literature involved someone named Urganda la Desconocida (Urganda the Unknown) could easily spawn references in discussion to movies starring Vanessa Redgrave and possibly a good, rousing chorus of < music > "Camelot! Camelot! The winter is forbidden'till December...". < / music > Give them an astrolabe first, or a fabulous wordlist, or a work of philosophy or poetics or adab, with its own particular set of courtly values, or a great heroic epic; and let them find the books of chivalry and the daydreams of the novelesque later. I want them to understand that not only that there was science and rationalism back then (after all, watery broads handing out swords is a terrible basis for government even if it took Monty Python to point out the fact) but also that that there is an almost scientific, and certainly a logical and rational, way to approach these texts that will seem so foreign to them, in content but also in language.

Part of this is motivated by my own experience as an undergraduate in the still not-too-distant past. I don't fit neatly into a modern academic disciplinary structure. In concrete terms, it was never a sure thing what kind of department I would enter to pursue graduate study. The literature of Muslims in Spain. Does that fall under the purview of a Spanish department? Near Eastern Studies? Religious Studies? Something else? The answer is that it depends on the shades of meaning, on the narrow sub-interests and, critically, on the ideas of different departments and universities. And when I was applying to graduate school having taken hard-nosed philological text seminars in Arabic and interesting and valuable but less hard-nosed seminars in Spanish literature, that made all the difference in making my decision. It was doubtless a fault on my part, a failure to pay attention or to read between the lines or to nose around enough in the library, but I felt like in some ways, I didn't know how to read a Spanish text. In general, we were told that if we came up against a difficulty in a medieval Castilian text, that we should read it aloud and see what it sounded like. It's not bad advice, and it's part of what I included in my brief introduction to how to read an early modern text. But it didn't seem sufficient to me. What if that didn't work? On the other hand, Arabic, with its glorious tradition of poetics and lexicography and grammatical study practically inherent in the literature provided a very clear way forward. I knew where to look for answers when I (very frequently) got stuck in an Arabic text; not so much in Spanish ones. Not until I took history of the language in the last semester of my senior year, when the decision had already been made, did I realize that with Spanish there could be a there there, too.

I don't for a minute regret my decision to pursue a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies rather than in Spanish. I'm confident that even if I'd had history of the language earlier on in my education, I would have made the same decision. (That wasn't, after all, the only factor that went into making my decision.) But I don't want to leave students in the position of thinking that muddling through is the only option where medieval Ibero-Romance texts are concerned.

In terms of actually presenting this information and material to my students, I had thought about doing a Semitics-style text seminar, in which students would read, translate, and comment on the language, and where understanding what's on the page is the most supreme concern, at least for the first pass. I decided to hold that off until they read excerpts from the Libro de Alexandre at the end of the semester, though. For a variety of reasons, though (including the fact that the Amadís wasn't actually the central concern of that week's work) I decided simply to give them a a brief overview of some principles of language change, both orally and in handout form, and let the ones who are interested it it pursue it further on their own or, again, just know that the possibility is out there.

I made a very simple handout with some very basic guidelines. (I'm dead chuffed with it, too.)

(Click on the images to enlarge them to a readable size.)

Edited on 10/28/11 to add: A friend whose judgment about my work I trust completely (a trust forged in the crucible of us both finishing our dissertations simultaneously this past summer) offered me some useful feedback about the handout off-blog, and I just wanted to acknowledge and address her most serious concern here, namely the way I have described the consolidation of Castilian as the national language. Of the many oversimplifications that one necessarily and unhappily makes in an intro class, this was the wrong place to oversimplify  because it feeds into a variety of pernicious modern myths about the unity of Spain. The version of this handout that I use in the spring will explain this differently. Another change that the next version of the handout will incorporate is more precision in describing what was happening in the language and relating it to how the students themselves will see it.) That said, in spite of a sort of lapsus calami here, we (this is a co-taught course) are giving our students a very good panorama of all the varieties of Ibero-Romance, as well as (perhaps especially) of the other languages that come into play for the times and places we are talking about. For example, Tuesday's lecture was all about aljamiado literature, we talked to them earlier in the semester about gallego-portugués and I'm going to pick the dialect question back up when I introduce them to the Libro de Alexandre at the end of term. There's actually a lot more to say related to this, specifically about introducing students to the idea that Arabic and Latin are legitimately Spanish languages, but that should be its own post. And just one final note: Next time I post a handout, I'll give it a little more context for how I used it, but for now, suffice it to say that the Amadís and Quijote quotes actually wouldn't have seemed as random as they must here to people who had been in attendance in the related lecture and recitation.

On the one hand, I hate presenting "watch out for words that start with the letters F and H" as history of the language and leaving it at that. But on the other hand, I don't care if they will ever be able to explain the collapse Castilian of the sibilant set (or even know what the term "sibilant set" refers to — I certainly didn't even use that term with them) or ever identify the Latinizng sense of a lexical item. What I want them to know is that they could do those things if they decide that they are important and that there is a way beyond pure guesswork and reading aloud for the music of a text to ascertain very precise meaning. (Although I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being really thrilled that one of my students decided to write his research paper on phonetic change as reflected in 16th and 17th century Inquisition testimony.)

I know that we're not supposed to think of our younger selves when we're designing lessons because we are the dorks who think that the collapse of the sibilant set and its implications for writing in Aljamiado-Morisco, for example, is fascinating on the face of it. But I also don't think that we should neglect our younger selves and the current students who might either be like us or even the ones who just have a little bit of an inner dork. In fact, one of my students who isn't planning to go on to graduate study in literature said to me after class, "This is so cool because it makes Spanish just like what I love about math." I didn't design this lesson with a math or science student in mind, but I'm glad I was able to make the material appeal to him by teaching it in a way that he had never thought about it before. In a lot of cases, students will rise to meet higher expectations or be served in very unexpected ways by an unusual presentation of the material

My biggest hope for my students is that the middle ages should be full of possibility. My job, at least at first, is just to give them the tools to recognize that, even when it's the medioeve itself that has done something as basic as having screwed up the alphabet to the point where they need some help making their way through it.

Woo Hoo! (Or, the week in just one link.)

I'd actually known about this already but sort of forgot about it. (Such is life when you have easy access to a hard copy.) But I was reminded  via one of the listserves this week that the complete Lane is available online, and I was, once again, jubilant! If you have to ask why this merits such enthusiasm, you'll never understand.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Resolving the Equation: Graduate Student =/= Human Being

I realized this week that I've started feeling like a human being again.

I defended and filed my dissertation in July, but I think I've only just now recovered. I slept through the night every night this week. I did academic reading as reading (appreciating the complete picture, rereading as necessary, taking good long-form notes, sitting in a comfy chair and away from my computer), rather than as frantic skimming and data-mining. I didn't put my supper in the oven and sit back down at the computer to try to write three more sentences while it heated up. It's not that I'm not working for very many hours a day; it's that I'm not cramming work into every single waking moment of every single day. It's been a sort of long, slow decompression. I'm surprised at how long it took, and I'm also surprised at how long it's been. I barely recognize this sensation. (And all this before signing up for yoga for people who need to chill out.)

My dissertation was a marathon run at a sprint pace. This next leg is a double marathon, and I fully intend to pace myself accordingly. I don't think it could work otherwise.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Week in Links (10/9-10/15)

One of those detective stories that make my heart beat just a little faster, and proof that archival work is worth the hassle. I also like how sanguine everyone is about the fact that it showed up in a Virginia library: "'Documents scatter and manuscripts travel,' said [George] Greenia."

W&M professor chronicles history of 700-year-old missing Spanish document

And an interesting article on art valuation (Islamic art, in this particular case) and the auction house scene:

When Auction Estimates Go Haywire

As a medievalist and an anglophile, I should be very excited by the possibilities, but all I can think is that this going to be like Jurassic Park with microscopes. Sequencing the Y. pestis genome? Great! Vivifying an infectious agent that traveled very quickly on its own long prior to the age of the airplane? Substantially less great. 

Scientists Sequence Genome of Ancient Plague Bacterium

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, via the Square

I'm veering far out of my comfort zone by going within ten feet of current events on this blog; but the Occupy Wall Street protest set up camp today in Washington Square Park, so the current events are now within a stone's throw from my office. (Metaphorically, of course. Nobody's throwing stones. Not yet, anyway.) The tide of the twenty-first century is, once again and perhaps inexorably, lapping at the gates of my thirteenth-century oasis.

I went to return some library books and take a walk today, and there were eight mounted police officers between my apartment and the library, scores that I could see on foot and on motorbikes, and police cars and vans lining the perimeter of the park.  Normally, regardless of where I go walking, I have to go up the western edge of the park. Not today. I took a detour up Greene Street to 8th Ave because I didn't even want to be on the edge of the park if the police started arresting people. I wondered whether it might be worth taking some photographs; but again, my desire not to get arrested won the day. This struck me at first as terribly cowardly. The woman going out of her way to avoid a false arrest is not the woman I thought I would be. Right up to the time I decided to forsake modernity for the middle ages, I wanted to be a hot-shot journalist who would set the world on fire by running into the heart of all the places that every sane person was fleeing, who would afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and who would most definitely go to jail and rot away there if need be to defend the First Amendment.

I don't think that I've changed, though; instead, it's that I'm simply not compelled by this protest and so I'm not willing to risk anything to make a point with respect to it. Not as a protestor and not as a photographer or observer. If I'm going to get arrested to make a point about police power, I also want, tangentially for the arrest to be related to a cause I really support. (Or alternatively, I can imagine being willing to be arrested while photographing or observing a rally for a cause I truly abhorred.) This cause? There is no cause. I wasn't annoyed with the police for this state of affairs, even though I am well aware of the allegations that there have been many, many improper arrests over the course of this vigil.  Instead, I was cross that the protestors were essentially forcing me to choose between living an expression of my deep belief in the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and getting onboard with one of my great bugaboos, overenthusiastic but sloppy thinking.

A protest with no goal is not going to end with results. A bunch of people in a park with no specific, coherent demands and no real plan of action is not going to command the attention of anyone in a position to effect change. Down with the establishment, full stop is not a viable protest platform. For all the nods in the rhetoric to the Arab spring, the American protesters' attention seems to have shifted before they noticed that the protests in Egypt may have accidentally made things worse. That's not to say that the Egyptian uprising shouldn't have happened. It should have. Mubarak was a kleptocrat and a maniacal dictator. And it's not to say that the current protests shouldn't happen. They should. The big banks, with government collusion, have wrecked our livelihoods and the basic sense of equal justice under the law that we still like to think is our birthright. It's simply to say that down with the establishment is a meaningless proposition when it is not coupled with an idea of what should go up in its place.

So, to the protesters: When you get that figured out, I'll be marching and getting arrested right there with you. But until then, please, I'd just like the park back.

Edited on 10/20/11 to add: I can't even tell for sure if this is a sincere aspect of the protest or whether it is an elaborate performance or satire, but assuming for a moment the former,  if an offshoot movement is protesting museums' limited purchasing repertoire from amongst current working artists as a form of cultural oppression, then why, oh why, are they "occupying" a museum that doesn't have a contemporary art collection? I'm utterly done waiting for this protest to start being sensible.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Ordinary Glosses

I'm quite sure that Bill Gates did not have source criticism or medieval poetry in mind when the wonks at Microsoft developed the comment/track changes feature in MS Word. But it turns out that it's a very efficient as an automated glossing tool, and it's what I used today to teach my students about said source criticism.

(Click to enlarge the image to a readable size.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: The Most Magnificent Mosque

 I am frequently jealous of my friends and colleagues who work on the ancient world because there are so many lovely children's books with beautiful illustrations. It's not that anybody really needs children's books about his or her field of study, but they sometimes contain illustrations that can be useful in introductory or general-audience lectures; and selfishly, one likes to think that so fascinating a topic, whatever it might be, has appeal to people beyond the ivory tower. So, I was very excited to discover the existence of The Most Magnificent Mosque written by Ann Tungman, a University of Exeter-trained lawyer-turned-teacher and illustrated by Shelley Fowles, a graphic designer based in Brighton. It was published in 2004 by Frances Lincoln Children's Books.

The book tells the story of three boys, one Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim, who are troublemakers in the city of Córdoba until one day they get caught dropping oranges on the head of the caliph and are sentenced to several months' of work in the gardens of the mosque. In order to take a break from the scorching summer sun, they often seek refuge inside the Great Mosque and come to appreciate its splendor. When they are grown, they reunite to keep Fernando III, who conquered the city in 1236, from razing the mosque.

The book's underpinnings are a curious mix of both the well-intentioned and the quite malicious stereotypes that plague this field of study at the professional level; it's almost as if the author read a few of the most inflammatory press clippings and book reviews, cottoned onto them and deemed her research to be sufficient. At once a Muslim boy can be best of friends with a Christian boy and a Jewish boy, but then the evil Christian reconquerers sweep into Cordoba and want to sunder everything that the Muslim rules and the rank-and-file multiconfessional population had achieved. The words put into the mouth of the fictionalized Fernando III, who reconsecrated and preserved the Great Mosque as it was (aside from adding two small chapels) are: "'It is indeed a magnificent mosque,' said the king, and he sighed. 'But this is to be a Christian city and we shall build a great cathedral on this site. The mosque must be pulled down." It's sad that the author took a figure who was, indeed, a champion of multiconfessionalism and turned him into a villain. The real lesson of the Great Mosque (at this level, anyway) is that a cathedral can look like the local architectural style dictates a sacred space should. Cathedral does not automatically imply high gothic. This book teaches children that a building with arches and calligraphic decoration cannot be a church, which is untrue and even contravenes the message of tolerance and integration that the book seems, on the surface, to want to promote.

I don't mean to say that children's story books need be perfect histories, but there should be some truth to ground their aspirations to a better world. In other words, this book would not have had to be strictly accurate to be worthwhile, but it should have been true in some way. And furthermore, I do think that the conflation of one named historical figure with a version of the actions of another, with absolutely no indication of what is happening is a problem. In actual fact it was Charles V who plunked a renaissance-style cathedral in the middle of the original mosque complex; he was the one the rank and file in Córdoba opposed, and he is said to have regretted his decision almost immediately after it was completed. And there is no narrative reason why Ferdinand III should have been made the villain of this story.

I did laugh aloud when I read the page on which the boys, who enjoy making mischief in their hometown of Córdoba, are finally caught after they dropped an orange on the caliph's head from their perch atop the minaret. I'm not sure that was the desired effect, though.

The illustrations are nice enough, but are not stunning on a par with the illustrations of ancient Near Eastern legends retold for a young, Anglophone audience. And I'm not sure they are really worth putting up with the problematic story. Really the only one that overcomes the text appears towards the middle of the book (the pages are not numbered) and depicts the boys standing in the arcade of the Great Mosque. It may not be the illustrator's skill, though, that makes it sing, though; it is more that the architecture itself can shine through any kind of treatment and still amaze even the most jaded historian.

The representations of the characters' outfits is also a bit strange. The children are dressed in such a way that one cannot but wonder if there is a comment implicit in the illustrations about sumptuary laws. All the Christians wear cross necklaces, which forces one to ask why their presence need be signaled in such a way. Is the book trying to say that people respected each other's religious traditions while holding their own dear? Or is it that society was so assimilated that this was the only way to tell people apart? That religion was really the most important thing? Additionally, the outfit that the caliph is drawn in looks curiously similar to papal vestments.

One other seemingly tiny problem betrays the book's ill-informed and uncareful approach to the whole matter: While the author managed to describe Rashid, one of the boys, as a "Muslim" in the text of the book, he suddenly becomes a "Moslem" on the back cover and a "Moor" in the front matter.

With all that said, though, on balance I'm still marginally pleased by the book's existence.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Chapter in Which Our Most Illustrious Gentleman, Don Quixote, Meets an Orthopedic Surgeon and the Chief Conservator of Works on Paper

Something occurred to me while planning the recitation sections for my intro course last week: I wonder what one could tell about a person based on where the spine of their copy of DQ is broken. It's not a bad point of comparison because we pretty much all have one, and I'd stake a sum of money to bet that the vast majority of them are broken somewhere.

The spine of mine — the Cátedra* edition that I've had since I first read the novel in my college survey course and which is full of marginalia in different colors of ink, a new one for each re-reading — is broken in the middle of Part I, chapter 23, which is in the middle of the Sierra Morena episode.

Where is your copy of Don Quijote broken? And what does it say about you?

Sure, it's a bit of a meme, and a bit of a facile indicator of some kind of cultural gestalt, but it does raise two serious issues about reading: First, that books are meant to be used, and second, that this sort of thing would be impossible to tell with an e-book. I think I may rewrite this post at some point in the future in a way that answers more questions than it poses, but for now, this is what I've got.


I'm hoping to have time to write two posts of greater substance, one on introducing undergraduates to the history of the language, and the other about my current binge on books by and about Garcia Lorca, but those are going to have to wait until I have finished: a book review that was due two weeks ago, a fellowship application, an R&R, a letter of recommendation, a talk I'm giving in November, the rest of the book chapter that will be the basis of that talk, a committee report and some correspondence. Phew. As I said, posting will be intermittent, and having now written a few short and fluffy posts in a row, I really don't want to post again until I have the time and inclination to say something substantial. Please bear with.

Edited on 10/9/11 to add: So much for that.


A very nice (if not earth-shattering) essay on Don Quixote and the nature of fiction and reality, sort of in the vein of "Reading Quijote in a Time of War," appeared in the NYTimes online opinion section this week.  I wish it had appeared a week earlier so I could have used it in my class when I introduced the idea to my students by talking about levels of fiction and whom we could consider to be readers of the Amadís de Gaula, the famous book of chivalry that ostensibly drove DQ mad:

*I linked to the publisher's web site because it was the best illustration of what the book is, not because I have some shady (or any kind of) financial arrangement with them. Click away or not; it will have no bearing on me one way or another.