Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer 2012 Academic To-Do List: End of June Progress Report

-- Finish a manuscript review that is two months late

-- Organize the files in my office
    Currently in the this-has-to-get-worse-before-it-can-get-better phase

-- Write two book reviews
    Postponed. They're not due until December. They're not going to happen until then. I'm justfying crossing them off the list on the basis of having taken decisive action about them for the moment.

-- Finish an essay on gargoyles
    Done. Sent. Fingers crossed.

-- Finish revisions to my revise-and-resubmit article from the fall
    Done. Sent to a different, better-suited publishing outfit. (More on this decision to follow.) Waiting to hear back.

-- Finish revisions to a different article
   Augh! This did not fly. So after a two week total break from it, I went back and started working about an hour a day on small, easy changes. My task for July will to be to tackle the bigger, research-intensive changes that need to be made. In the grand scheme I know it's better this way, but I'm a little miffed at not being able to devote more time to the next item on the list and to getting back to the book manuscript itself.

-- Finish and polish two chapters from my grand literary translation project
   In progress. First draft of first chapter completed. Not sure now whether to start tackling the first draft of the second chapter or start revising and polishing the first.

   This will literally take me half an hour. I just need to put my butt in the chair and do it.

-- Write some meatier blog posts with some real content

   This. Still pending, though, is a sort of roundup of a few current books on MSS study that I've been wanting to write since this winter.

-- Work on my team teaching grant-funded project
    I've only fiddled with this, but now that I've got many of the smaller, non-book-related writing projects crossed off the list, I've got more time and can (and must) get my rear into gear. Here's the current state of things.

-- Find a place to live in Philadelphia
   Cautiously optimistic that I've got this sorted out, but I won't rest easy until something's signed.

Monday, June 25, 2012

What God's Wife Fixes Him for Supper

I suppose this means that grace before meals should really come from the Kuntillet Ajrud ostraca. And possibly that the Paleo-Diet guy is really wrong about how much meat our ancestors ate. Or that the "paleo" in Paleo-Diet actually refers to paleography. Feel free to carry on riffing in the comments.

(If your disciplinary background is such that you are completely lost or if you don't hang out with lots of Ancient Near East types to compensate, start here.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Text as Talisman

I've been walking around for months with William Germano's From Dissertation Into Book in my bag. Regardless of whether I'm actually going to work on the book (which most days I'm not at the moment) it's there. On the few occasions I've gone to clean my bag out and divest myself of some of the added weight, it goes straight back in. It's some performative act, as though the occasional contact between my palms and the cover of the book will have some effect in the direction the title suggests or that, hopefully, there might be some correspondence between the miles the book travels and the linear feet of verbiage I can produce.

The Week in Links (The Culture Shock Edition)

My favorite link this week is an open letter in which a translator explains why spreadsheets are not part of the translator's toolkit. It's a cogent, beautiful argument for translation and for art and for independence. There's a full English translation after the original, which was written in Catalan:

Translator Joan Sellent Writes a Letter to Edward Albee

Apropos(ish) of critical thinking, literature and artistic autonomy, I came across this via a combination of the Times Higher Ed supplement page and Twitter. It's kind of interesting to think that there might be a more liberal arts type of education available in the UK; this sounds like it was based on a specific, identifiable model, though, that I really seriously don't think was the best available option:

Liberal Arts

This is my second-favorite link of the week. A much better way to save a library than the one that the NYPL has proposed. Total brilliance and good humor:

Threats of Book Burning Save a Library

More ways to destroy books in a good cause:

Octogenarian Hunts for Rare Hebrew Manuscripts Hidden in Book Bindings

Sculptures/dioramas made out of books:

Book Sculptures

"I wish there were more articles headlined 'Thorough, Accurate Cataloging Pays Off!' " Well, yes and no. Sometimes we discover things that have been catalogued excellently and carefully, and sometimes we find things that the cataloguers have missed, neglected or misidentified, and sometimes we find things, through incredibly careful and hard shoe-leather work in spite of them having been actively lost in modernity:

If you discover something in an archive it's not a discovery


And more news in the book boycott department: I think what bugs me about this one is that it's a completely meaningless gesture. The book already exists in Hebrew and is available in Israel, a country where the vast majority of people also speak and read English really well. So a lack of a second Hebrew-langauge edition of The Color Purple will be what breaks the backbone of the Israeli government? It'll have about as much impact as people posting viral status messages or changing their profile pictures for the sake of a cause on Facebook. If that's what makes Alice Walker feel like she can hold her head high, well...:

Alice Walker Declines Request to Publish Israeli Edition of The Color Purple

I don't know that I'd be able to get my hands on a Hebrew-langauge copy, but if anybody in Israel needs or wants a copy of that book and can't locate one, I'll gladly pop one in the post. Let me know.


Ha! You see? My goal for this coming year has basis in science!:

Take Breaks Regularly to Stay on Schedule

Alternative creation myths. Out of the mouths of babes. SpanishProf reads an essay with a much better origins story for Facebook than the one that involves Mark Zuckerberg (scroll about halfway down the post):

New Knowledge...

Check out the knight in shining armor:

The Middle Ages in the Modern World

And in further medieval-made-modern, I think this should be done for more major European monuments. In all seriousness, though, the idea of actually recreating a sacred site in a way that compels people to take off their shoes is interesting. But maybe I'm overthinking. Overthinking the inflatable, bouncy Stonehenge, that is:

Sacrilege 2012

Friday, June 22, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #6

This one's grammar-heavy. Proceed at your own risk.

It's not as complicated as it might be if it were Arabic, but there is still a gender element in Spanish that doesn't exist in English and that bears on the decisions I am making as a translator.

In addition to the fact that nouns have gender and that adjectives agree with them in gender, there is another problem that, on the face of it is not one of grammatical gender but in effect becomes one: Spanish allows for a lot more uses of the passive than English does in ways that are not explicitly marked with gender but that require either a gender marking or a switch to the plural in English. 

"...escribió que quien penetra en ellas tiene la sensación de internarse en la oscuridad de  una selva sagrada."

"... he wrote that whoever enters has the feeling of interring himself in the dark of a sacred forest."

The issue in this sentence is not that the naves of the cathedral or the forest are marked as feminine; that's a simple issue that need not be blown up into a simplisticdiscussion of whether those things are regarded as more feminine types of spaces. Whatever. The issue is the description of the act of interring oneself in a sacred forest and how to refer back to the actor in the representation of that gesture.

While Spanish marks gender in many more ways than English does, this is a case where a passive action, becoming buried, can just as easily be rendered as an active, reflexive action. The particle se can be used in a whole variety of ways, including as an indirect object pronoun and as a marker of reflexive or passive verbal action. The difference between the passive se and the reflexive se can easily get lost in English translation, not because there is no way to distinguish them — there is, and in a text seminar, one would be expected to do so — but frequently because one of the two ways sounds like English and the other sounds like Spanish with English words. So what I translated in that initial translation in a reflexive way (interring himself) is actually a passive here (becoming interred).

I've noticed a tendency lately, particularly in new media writing but also among my students, that when people want to make their work sound more elevated than it is, they'll completely overuse "one" as a pronoun: "one has the feeling of interring oneself." Shudder. No. The last time I wrote a sentence like that was in the ninth grade. It's probably grammaticality technically correct, but it grates on my ears and sounds like it's been written by someone who hasn't read enough to know that it sounds funny. One has the feeling of interring himself, at a maximum. Or people have the feeling of interring themselves, if you want to leave a gendered pronoun out of it. Suffice it to say "one" is not a solution to this problem.

Although the experience is cast in somewhat more universal terms — the discovery by many people, many different types of people, by the platonic ideal of a person — at the heart if it, the author is a man and he is describing his own experience of the city of Córdoba, extrapolating from his own interaction with the city, so referring to this "one" as "himself" on the second and subsequent references is simply a correspondence with the reality that allowed the text to be written in the first place. Does it make the text less universal? Perhaps, but I don't think that's a change that it's within my purview to make. As much as I am tasked with making this text make sense to Anglophone American readers in a cultural sense as much as a linguistic one, I think that to gender-neutrify the text would be to impose a silliness of American sensibilities on a text that is a description of a very not-American experience and point of view. Even if a reader feels alienated by a narrative of a Spaniard of the male persuasion discovering this city, I don't think I'll have failed in the cultural aspect of my responsibilities.

Another option would be to leave the patient out of it entirely, and leave the passivity inherent in the Spanish in the English translation. And it's funny — it's taken me this much thinking it through and turning it over and over in my head to realize that this isn't one of those cases where the other kind of passivity renders a more idiomatic English; it's actually okay in a very literal way:

"... he wrote that anyone who enters has the sense of being buried in the dark of a sacred forest."

And that's how I've left it for now. Bit of a mountain out of a molehill, this one, in the end.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A King Without a Crown

Sixty mostly medieval manuscript items from the Schoyen Collection are being auctioned at Sotheby's in London next month. Notice of the auction came over one of the listserves because several of the items are Spanish in origin.

(Click any of the images to embiggen.)

The list, interestingly, directed readers to a catalogue being maintained by an Oxford don who is keeping track of the movement of medieval manuscripts on the market, a valuable service indeed so that we don't lose manuscripts in private collections. That catalogue can be found here.

The medieval pieces weren't of such great interest to me, but I thought that this one, a leaf of a translation of the Gospel according to Matthew into Hebrew, was fascinating since it raises very provocative questions about what constitutes authenticity for different audiences:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #5

I write all over my text while I'm working.

I also read aloud, which doesn't photograph as well and makes me look like a mad person when I decide to work in a cafe rather than in my office or at home.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #4

I find myself resorting more to Britishisms in my translation, things like "the only thing for it was to...", "each to each.". I've even used "rubbish." As a verb.

I don't know if these will stay in the final version. And I don' know if they're there now because there is something of a  European sensibility to the book that is better expressed in British English than in American.

Or perhaps it's because this book, and especially the introduction, is so clearly a labor of love, a book about a certain kind of love, quite literally and explicitly about possession, and I've only just fallen out of love with and become disposed by and from the Brit with whom I've spent the better part of the last decade as on-again-off-again, love-and-hate soulmates with benefits, but the link between love and English English hasn't fully reabsorbed itself into the inaccessible reaches of my mind. It's the relationship that has had the greatest impact of my adult life on my speech and language patterns and is now the only discernible scar of a deep wound. Who said scholarly work isn't deeply personal?

Perhaps it's a simpler issue, though. Maybe I just have a very plastic ear and need to stop watching reruns of Inspector Morse for the duration of this project.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #3

I wish that "motoring nomads" sounded less ridiculous in English.

Translation Diary, Entry #2

I am struggling with the capitalization in this phrase. I understand what it means (although even there, I could make an argument for any of several shades of meaning) but can't quite figure out how to render it in English to retain the purity of that meaning:

"... me daba cuenta de que no era hora todavía de encerrarse en una habitación rodeado de volúmenes de Historia." (...I realized that this wasn't the moment to shut myself into a room where I would be surrounded by volumes of History.)

The reference to Historia is, as we might say in English, History-with-a-capital-H. It is the concept and the totality of, well, History.

What I don't like about using History to render Historia is that by now, twenty-five years after the book was written, the capitalization of nouns that have to do with countries' glorious pasts is a rhetorical technique employed by the Tea Party, and I don't want to load this book with that kind of politics. So the simple, elegant, closest cognate solution is out because of the cultural connotations of capitalization in English that do not exist in the Spanish of a quarter-century ago. Or, as Walter Benjamin put it more eloquently, "Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own."

And so although the author's Historia refers to an abstract concept, I have chosen to give it a more concrete sense. I have translated it into English in a way that incorporates the "volúmenes" that precedes it in the original text, making it the books that contain the history so that I can retain the capital H and have it refer to the titles of such works, like Gibson's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Wellhausen's Geschichte Israels, works that still evoke an image of weighty tomes and authorities and that abstract totality of my author's Historia.

And so the phrase, in my translation, reads: "...I realized that this was not the moment to shut myself into a room, surrounded by Histories."

The Week in Links (The Marginally Book-Related Edition)

Mary Beard on why memorizing poetry is a good thing but why having a single national set of poems to be memorized at school is not. I also love that she knows Prufrock by heart, too:

What Poems Did You Learn At School?

A beautiful digital exhibit of Jewish books and paper arts. All the commentary's in German, unfortunately, though. Better than Czech, I suppose:

The Braginsky Collection

I told you there was medieval snail marginalia:

20 Things to Do and See While Visiting Medieval Europe

Backdating the cave paintings at Altamira:

With Science, New Portrait of the Cave Artist

And in case Neanderthals weren't enough, here is grad school as zombie apocalypse:

You are the only human being left on earth not in graduate school

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Chaos Muppet Looses Herself on Europe

(This fits into the general thematic concerns of the blog in that it intersects with the use of new media for popular historical inquiries and the history of European anti-Semitism. The unified theory of chaos muppets comes from here.)


To: Sweden

From: Me

Re: Your PR problem

As an academic, I travel to Europe and the Middle East sometimes to do research. More than once I’ve had the experience of taking a deep breath when someone asks where I’m from and saying: “Well… I’mAmericanbutIdidn’tvoteforGeorgeWBush.” Or, “I…amfromtheUSbutIswearIbelieveinevolution.” Or of just kind of giving my inquirer a wearied look and saying, “Listen. In spite of anything Justin Beiber says, most of us know that there’s a difference between North and South Korea. But yeah, I’m an American.”

So, listen, Sweden. What I’m saying is that I know that we wouldn’t do much better if we, as a country, tried what you are trying: Creating a national Twitter account and letting one average representative of your population take control of it each week, and narrate their experience as average Swedes and share every passing thought with the greater universe in an effort to share what life in your country is like and what typical Swedish concerns are. It must have seemed like a great idea.

Only, you’ve authorized a national spokesman and turned him loose with no plan, retaining no control. And instead of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington meets The Network, it’s turned more into Bye Bye, Birdie meets 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This week’s average Swede, the first one to take over the blue bird’s reigns since many Americans became aware of this project via a Sunday New York Times feature spent the second day of her tenure 1) musing about how childbirth is kind of like strangling your children with your vagina; and 2) using her platform to finally find out what Jews are and why people hate them.

When Justin Beiber says he really opposes the kind of government they have in Korea, we all have the recourse of saying, “We’re not all like that!” Even if he is, we can still try to defend ourselves by saying that Justin Beiber is not the typical American. Your government, on the other hand, declared this woman to be completely representative of Swedish people. She is officially the average Swede. And I have absolutely no interest in visiting a European country whose average citizens obviously don’t have to study European history in any way and don’t have enough command of basic logic and rhetoric to discern that resting a question on the premise that everyone hates Jews might be a flawed way to approach whatever it was that she was trying to accomplish. Sweden, if this is your average citizen, I’m sorry honey, but you seem kind of scary, especially to someone like me, a history-class-appreciating American Jew. Maybe I should be thanking you for the honest heads-up.

There’s a reason that 14-year-olds don’t get to drive cars here. It’s the very same reason we don’t just hand over the keys to the national twitter account for any old Dick or Jane to take a spin on the — well, the spin machine. There would just be really bad carnage and nobody would be able to look away. I’m sure that the average American would say dumb, uneducated stuff if we let him take over the national twitter account. So we don’t have a national twitter account. We’re at least smart enough to protect ourselves from our average citizens.

This, Sweden, is exactly why we don’t nationalize private utilities and resources. It’s a slippery slope there. Universal healthcare one minute and then suddenly you turn around and there are bloody genitals and anti-Semites all over your internet and nobody wants to visit your country anymore.

Or, with tongue not quite so firmly in cheek, seriously, Sweden? Find some above-average Swedes or scrap the project. You’re not doing yourself any favors.


The world helpfully informs her that Jews are things with big noses, but that you still can't tell 100% because Jewish women aren't circumcised:

Back to her merry life:

An al-Jazeera journalist calls her out on brushing off the whole kerfuffle, but not before another Swede helpfully defines Jews as "Germans of a different faith":

Not to pass up the opportunity to make it worse, she compares *herself* to a Nazi on trial:

Not really a save:

Updated at 7:55: Unconscionable question from the Tweetosphere to @sweden. Yet she still manages to one-up the bad with her reply. I'm framing it this way only because she brought Hitler into it first but, seriously, is she trying to offend every single group of people Hitler tried to eradicate?

Updated again at at 9:08, 6/14: Sonja, just drop it. Seriously. If I send you a copy of the Very Short Introduction to Judaism, would you be willing to go the whole rest of the week without tweeting the word "Jews"?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #1

It's interesting how easy it is, when translating, to fall, without even realizing it, into source language-isms that are barely perceptible and probably wouldn't even register as sounding wrong in the target language, but nonetheless, are ever so slightly off.

I just reflexively translated the phrase "como si apuntara un fusil" as "as if he were pointing a rifle" before catching myself and changing it to "as if he were aiming a rifle." You point a gun, but you aim a rifle, except if the euphony of the verb apuntar is already reverberating in your head. Then you point your rifle, and it's a misfire every time.

Week. Links. You know the drill.

On falling for a work of art:

A Painting Only You Can See

A gourmish trapication of dictocraft:

Using Words Not in the Dictionary

"Thesis meltdown continues long after the degree is conferred." Yes. Right over here. I could have told you that much:

Bad Brain Days

The Chronicle of Higher Ed. makes its story about the incipient Society for Qur'anic Studies, an offshoot of the Society for Biblical Literature, very unconvincing indeed by using the very outmoded transliteration "Koran." You know. That book that all those "Moslems" read. Get with it, CHE.

For Koranic Studies, a Society is Born

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Site Traffic Question

What is a nachobot? Why did I just get 11 hits on my blog from one? Am I going to end up with melted cheese and small bits of vegetable all over my hard drive? And can I select a shwarmabot instead? It would be more thematically appropriate. (In all seriousness, though, has anyone heard of this?)

Update 6/11: Apparently it's some kind of photo indexing bot. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Banned Books and the Memory of a Promise

I'm writing about the Middle East in this post. I'm not sure what's come over me except to say that I've read a bunch of news items in the last few weeks that have seen books become casualties of the (mercifully, at the moment relatively cold) war between Israelis and Palestinians. Neither side is helping its own cause this way. Reading is a political act only when it is done in resistance to a certain kind of lunacy that bans books and silences writers; the banners of the books below would have paradoxically achieved their goals of stripping reading of its leaden significance if they had only stood down, or not stood up in the first place. When books go, people follow; nobody is saved by any of this.

As far as potential comments go, disagreement, dissent and debate are encouraged; hate, screeds, name-calling and anything off-topic will not even make it through moderation, let alone be responded to. Act like a human being even if you think I'm wrong. Let's have a civilized discussion than shouting or silence.

In fact, that's kind of the heart of the matter.


Although I lived in Jerusalem between university and graduate school, I'd never spent much time in Tel Aviv before my trip two weeks ago. Even that wasn't much time, but it was enough for me to start to get a sense of it. And one of the things that three days marching around Tel Aviv really drives home is just how awful the British were as mandatory governors. You don't walk more than a few blocks without seeing a plaque that commemorates the kidnap of Lechi commanders by the British or some officer opening fire on civilians for no particularly good reason. It's like walking around London and being aware of all the signs that commemorate so-and-so air raid warden killed or building destroyed in the Blitz, or going anywhere in New York and seeing a fire truck that will inevitably have a list of ten or more names down the side of of guys from that squad who were killed on 9/11. In commemorating, the cities shows off their scars of foreign-inflicted wounds and force your eyes to them, making you look and remember. Walking in Tel Aviv was the first concrete occasion I had to question the value of empire, the splendor of the queen and my general, overwhelming Anglophilia. God, the British were awful in Tel Aviv.

Yet in spite of the constant reminders of the human and cultural costs of British rule, the Israeli government has, in the last five years, revived a 1939 Mandate-period British law forbidding the import of books from enemy countries and has begun, suddenly, to enforce it. The Israeli legal system is based upon the idea of common law, which means that until they are replaced by new laws or court decisions, bits of Ottoman Turkish and imperial British jurisprudence remain in force; there is no constitution, though the declaration of independence fills that function in many legal situations. That document affirms the role of the Book of Books in the establishment and culture of the modern state of Israel. It is, at its core and outset a literary state. But the law on the books, the law on books and the Book are in conflict.

As unconscionable as it is to ban the import of books, enforcement of the law has taken an absurdist new twist. Something close to 80 copies of perhaps the single most proto-Zionist work of medieval philosophy, in a new edition printed in Lebanon by a German publishing house, are being held at the border crossing at the Allenby Bridge since their import would violate that 1939 law. The work in question originally appeared shortly before 1140 under the title Kitāb al-radd wa-l-dalīl fī l-dīn al-ḏalīl.

The book that would commonly come to be known commonly as The Kuzari was, in its original Arabic, entitled The Book of Proofs and Refutations in Defense of the Despised Faith. Different scholars take different views as to the nature of the text, and even to the intended audience. The basic structure of the Kuzari is a series of dialogues between a fictionalized version of a Khazar king who, as the text repeats several times, discovers that his intentions are pleasing to God but his actions are not, and the representatives of a variety of belief systems: Islam, Christianity and philosophy. He asks each representative to explain his system of beliefs and how it could be used to guide him to act in a way that would please God. After being unconvinced by all three, he deigns to consult with a Jew. He is convinced and converts, and four books follow detailing its author's accounting of the correct way to practice Judaism, spoken through the mouth of the Khazar king's Jewish companion. In the end, the companion decided that the only logical conclusion to everything that he has told the king is that he himself must move to the land of Israel. The text was written shortly before its author, Judah ha-Levi, did the same, abandoning what most of his contemporaries considered to be the true Zion, Spain, for the holy land, having decided that this was the only sufficient way to practice his faith.

 The text was written in Judaeo-Arabic, one of the dialects considered to be part of the bundle known as Middle Arabic. The  most prominent feature of its written form is the use of Hebrew, rather than Arabic, script, though there are also syntactic and lexical features that distinguish it from classical Arabic and the other middle Arabic dialects.  It was in common use among Jews in Islamic countries through the middle of the 20th century; there are still speakers today, and you can even listen to some Israeli radio broadcasts in the language.

But in the academy, Judaeo-Arabic has fallen well out of the mainstream of the fields broadly defined as Arabic and Islamic Studies, an academic discipline that is itself heir in all but name to the venerable philological discipline with the now-unfashionably moniker of Oriental Studies. Although learning the script would be just a first step towards understanding the language, a good many mainstream Arabists won't even do that. And so Nabih Bashir, an Arab Muslim Israeli citizen and doctoral student of medieval philosophy at Ben-Gurion University, decided that in order to give  the Kuzari a wider audience, he would transcribe it into Arabic characters. His edition would begin to help sidestep problem of reluctance on the part of mainstream scholars in Arabic and Islamic studies fields to give heed to the Judaeo-Arabic philosophy that very much grew up as a native part of the Islamic world and that is deeply connected with Arabo-Islamic philosophy. Since even learning the Hebrew alphabet is, by and large, a step too far, Bashir's edition brings, as it were, the mountain to Muhammad.

But the Israeli government is being just as closed-minded. So for now, the mountain is trapped in a customs station named for a British general, because of the enforcement of an anachronistic British law. Perhaps the relevant cabinet ministers and customs officials ought to take a stroll through Tel Aviv and review some of those placards before they reinstitute any more of rule britannica.


In a positive development, Hebrew and Arabic can be seen coexisting in a new digital resource:

The Arabic-Hebrew Dictionary of Modern Arabic


But that might be about it.

This week saw the collapse of a memorial volume that would have been published under the aegis of the University of Texas-Austin Center for Middle Eastern Studies in honor of the life of one of its founding professors. Thirteen scholars thought it more important for their work not to appear in the same volume as work by Israeli scholars than it was to honor the work of a beloved colleague and withdrew after the university press rightly refused to boot the Israelis from the project. Those thirteen withdrew and with half the volume gone, the editors scrubbed the project. The title that would have been seems that much more apt now: Memory of a Promise.

The way that the Times Higher Ed version of the story (the above link) reads, it sounds as if the editors were reluctant to publish a volume without the work of any Arab scholars; if that were the case, I would condemn the editors for playing identity politics. After all, surely there are non-Arabs who write about Arabic literature, and as long as the material is all covered, then who cares? But a little digging around online revealed a more complex picture. The memorial volume was not to be scholarship, but rather a collection of short fictions, the type of anthology where having no Arab writers would, in fact, distort the picture badly.

I don't believe in intellectual boycotts. First, they frequently target precisely the wrong people, that is, those who are on the cutting edge of whatever change is desired. Second, ideally scholarship should be apolitical. It isn't always, but a boycott drags it down, irredeemably to that level. Third, stopping the flow of information only hurts everyone. Additionally, boycotts are frequently a cudgel wielded hypocritically and inconsistently; many people who boycott Israeli academics in the humanities also don't think twice about taking, or allowing their family members to take, life-saving drugs compounded based upon science and technology developed in Israel.

So I would generally be disposed against such an action. But I found the rationale for this one to be articulated particularly weakly: The first author to withdraw finds Israel to be "obnoxious"? That's the first and strongest word that she, a writer, can come up with? The flimsiness of her argument, both in her op-ed piece and the interview she gave (see the links above), represented by this kind of weak rhetoric does not compel me to change my mind.

Does silencing  yourself help your cause? Is a self-imposed silence, while perhaps more righteous, any less quiescent than one imposed by a censor or an enemy?

Does refusing to honor a dead colleague mitigate your undeniable plight?

The zero sum is added up all wrong. It seems as counterproductive as — gosh, where to find an analogue? — Jews quarantining a Judaeo-Arabic book because it was transcribed into Arabic script and published in Lebanon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Empire Strikes Back. (Er, an update on the NYPL situation.)

While I was away, there was some movement on the NYPL Central Library Plan issue. Not progress, so much, but movement.

First, there was an email to all signatories of the petition against the plan sent out by the president of the library. You can read the text here. No word yet on what came out of the meeting mentioned at the end of the letter. But if Mr. Marx things that the philosophical, principled reasons for opposing the plan are overblown rhetoric, then how about this, plain and simple?: Hands off!

Then there was the curious apologetic work explaining how the new plan is really the only way to save the library. My hackles were raised especially by the suggestion that . It's not that our sensitive, book-fetishising, ivory-tower souls can't bear contact with the hoi polloi, it's that, frankly —and I know this will be an unpopular and unpopulist position — the hoi polloi destroy books and destroy the environment. I don't want to not see them; I don't want them there. I grew up in San Francisco, a city where you cannot go sit in the main branch of the public library all day because there are homeless people sleeping in the stacks and you can't use the bathrooms because they are a well-known and well-used shooting gallery. New York City has dealt much more effectively with drugs and homelessness, but the possibility of populism in a library still makes me cringe at the sense memory of the smell of old books mingled with devastating and devastated human odors. Why risk it?

Zadie Smith wrote a lovely meditation on public libraries that could be used by either side in this particular case. I don't think I have as much faith in humanity as she does; or perhaps social ills in Britain manifest themselves differently. It's also not a perfect analog: The issue with the NYPL isn't a case though of a library being destroyed to redirect the funds to other kinds of projects; it's a case of a unique library being destroyed for the sake of making it common.

And finally there was an insidious, newspeakish attempt to marshal rank-and-file, non-research library patrons in support of the plan on the basis of what was written in the "defenses" of the library. I really hate it when overeducated people in positions of power try to exploit people who don't have the resources (through no fault of their own!) to understand the full dimensions of the issue.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Pseudo-Break and Some Reflections on Productivity and Improvement

I sent an article back to the editors today, having done kind of a rubbish job of the edits. I refined the point that I was making but didn't really do anything to set it into a broader context. Not only have I been working basically nonstop, never getting out of my chair, scrambling to write three sentences while the water boils for pasta, but I put in an especially intense ten weeks running up to my presentation of the beginnings of book chapter one in Tel Aviv. And I hit the point that I hit after my post-defense dissertation revisions, where I was basically looking at the comments, looking at my work, and thinking to myself, well, there are some words on this page; I'm sure that's very nice. So with a few footnotes about how further study is required to understand how the translation of the sentence I was talking about fits into the history of philosophy, I gave up and emailed it off.

My fed-upness with the article was a bit more complicated than just being tired, though. I wrote most of the article almost 18 months ago, and looking at it now, well, it seems really grad-studenty. It's fine enough, but it's amazing to see the qualitative leap my work has taken, even in just the last six months as I have started to work on the book. I know everyone always looks back at earlier work and cringes, but I do think that this will be a larger cringe than future ones. In a way, I'm really pleased because I'm actually okay with the work I'm doing now. It's pretty good. But I'm also cringing. And it wasn't like the article would have been easy to revise to bring up to my new standard. When I start to write the second chapter of the book, which is where the content from this article will be included as a part, I'm going to start completely from scratch. I'll take some of the evidence, but I'm going to handle the details and the big picture very differently; and I just didn't have that kind of time to undertake a total, massive rewrite before the deadline. So off it goes, grad-studenty.

But just plain tired and burned out is a big part of it, too, so I'm taking a month off. I definitely haven't had a real proper break from my academic work since I got to NYU. I even realized that I've sort of forgotten how to just take one single day off from my work and go do something enjoyable out in the city.  Of course, all I mean by "a month off" is working on a sort of 9-5 schedule beginning to tick things off my to-do list that are totally unrelated to my dissertation/book manuscript topic, and then attempting to resume reading for pleasure, having hobbies, and generally taking advantage of being human in New York once I've quit for the day. So, in my nice relaxing month away from the Banu Tibbon and the 24-7 schedule, I shall:

-- Finish a manuscript review that is two months late
-- Organize the files in my office
-- Write two book reviews
-- Finish an essay on gargoyles
-- Finish revisions to my revise-and-resubmit article from the fall
-- Finish and polish two chapters from my grand literary translation project
-- Answer queries from a Swedish translator (don't ask)
-- Write some meatier blog posts with some real content
-- Work on my team teaching grant-funded project

Overrun with Dictionaries

Back in the States, back to work, and now off to test out the Arabischekomplexitätsverdichtungstheorie. As opposed to the Germanischeausdruckskomplexitätshypothese, which is largely similar but without right-to-left support or quite as many types of camels.

(Nomenclature adapted from @girlarchaeo.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Sort of Vaguely Indeterminate Last Unit or So of Time in Links

At the conference I attended in Tel Aviv, I had the pleasure of meeting the editor who took a major Judaeo-Arabic work of philosophy, the Book of the Kuzari, into Arabic characters, thereby making Jewish philosophy more accessible to Islamicists and to Arabic-speakers. And then there was a snafu:

Israel Bans Lebanese Edition of Jewish Philosophical Work

The new issue of the journal Art Historiography reconsiders the category of "Islamic Art":

Islamic Art Historiography

The archaeological museum at Medinat al-Zahra has just been named the European Museum of the Year:

Museo Madinat al-Zahra "Museo Europeo del Año"


I've fallen behind in my crash course watching, and it's still very relevant:

Islam in Africa:


Snorkeling Camels (?!):

Venice and the Ottomans:


This was my Intro to Lit Theory professor in college:

Yale Scholar will be First President of New Institution

"Borges for the under-five set":

Children's Books as iPad Apps

And few links of the I-do-actually-coteach-with-a-colonialist variety:

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Writing on the Wall

Each spoke of the wheel says "love."

This is a life-sized photograph, outdoors and behind plexiglass, of a graffito that was scrawled on a wall in what is now called Rabin Square in 1995, after the political murder of Itzhak Rabin. The legend reads "Sorry." But that doesn't quite capture the depth of meaning of the Hebrew word, which here connotes despair and begging for forgiveness. It gave me goosebumps.


From the sublime straight to the absurd:

"Where are the fish??"

"In a giraffe's world, there are no shoes.
We have brothers out past the stars."

Lots more Tel Aviv graffiti after the jump: