Thursday, August 29, 2013

An Open Letter to the Stanford Visitor Services Folks Who Didn't Think This Through

Dear Stanford,

Your campus is beautiful. The weather is sublime, the architecture appealing and the landscaping lush. I was really looking forward to taking it all in and photographing it from the top of the Hoover Institution tower observation deck during my visit here for a week-long Islamic codicology course. Imagine my dismay when I was told that I couldn't take my backpack up with me and the staff suggested that I take any valuables out and hand-carry them up with me. As an academic visitor to your campus, I have with me my laptop, which I've not backed up for the ten days I've been in California, the iPad will all the photographs of the manuscripts I'm working on, a digital camera, my wallet and phone, three notebooks full of handwritten notes (two from the course and one of my research) and — oh yeah — the hand-annotated copy of my book manuscript that I've been working on revising during lunch breaks.

I get that you're saying that it's a security issue, and I'd be happy for my backpack to be subject to any kind of inspection, but I'm not leaving it in the lobby. And I can't possibly be the first academic visitor who has had stuff they didn't want to leave and no office or locker to safely stow it in. Hopefully I'll be on campus for absolutely no reason whatsoever one day, have nothing important for my career with me, and be able to take in the bird's eye view.

Love and logistics,

Monday, August 26, 2013

University-Level Traffic Signage

I am on the Stanford campus this week for a codicology course (more on this later), and I was quite amused by the specificity of their traffic signage.

At this intersection, you should anticipate collisions between one automobile and two bicyclists:

Whereas at this intersection, be on alert for collisions between two automobiles and one bicyclist:

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Best Bookstore in the Universe

I visited the very best bookstore in the known universe today. It's wondrousness is neatly epitomized by the fact that it has a dedicated "Used Malory" section. As distinct from used books by other medieval English writers. And as yet distinct again from new copies of Malory. If I have to explain it further, you'll never be able to understand.

The damage was as follows. You'll see I was in a mostly historiographic mood:

Plus this:

Plus Moomintroll notebooks:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Week in Links (The 'These Lingonberry-Flavored Meatballs are Not Halal' Edition)

It takes some serious balls, and not in a good way, for a graduate student to write a review like this. The author's response follows, and as an example of the author-response genre, which is usually never good even when the review is egregious, it's not half bad.

The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages

This is a really interesting look at some of the very the complex religious and linguistic issues that were raised when a judge in Tennessee forcibly changed a boy's name from Messiah to Martin, ruling that "“The word ‘Messiah’ is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” Of particular interest to me are the First Amendment questions and the use of Hebrew theophoric elements in Spanish names.

In God's Name

How cool that there's a Hebrew-language bilingual academy opening in Harlem! The article, though, made me a bit sad with its interview of a prospective parent who commented, oh-so-ahistorically that "African-Americans and Jews, it seems like a world apart, but we are pretty much the same." The affinity is well and good, but the neglect of the historic 20th-century relationship between many African-American and Jewish communities shows how quickly we all forget.

Hebrew — In Harlem It's Not Just for Jews Anymore

Sometimes Slate publishes really interesting material and sometimes they completely fall flat. This week they managed the latter. The headline of this map is actually as it appears below, and a series of caveats appears in response to the asterisk.  I looked at the map before I read the caveats and wondered why a whole bunch of Indian Ocean islands that are documented in Genizah and other medieval Arabic trade sources were listed as having been unknown to humans before the European Age of Exploration. And then I noticed that one of the footnotes excepted Arab seafaring merchants from the category of humans. The concept for the infographic was great and potentially really interesting but the execution pretty poor.

Actual European Discoveries: Land Unknown to Humans* Before the Age of Exploration.

And, because you always hear about interesting things while at parties with lots of overeducated nerds. It's not news this week except to me — just about twenty years old, in fact — but apparently there are some German historians who think that the seventh through tenth centuries never happened but rather were a vast conspiracy cooked up by the Catholic Church, and that we are actually now in the year 1716:

The Phantom Time Hypothesis

Also not news, but sent to me by a colleague when I mentioned that Nazis had blown up my books:

Books for Victory

Thursday, August 15, 2013

In Excess of a Punctuation Quota

This is a sentence in a book I am reading, punctuated as it appears:

"Some historians 'fake' a 'mood' and 'manhandle' a text to suit premeditated results."

The punctuation has completely derailed my focus from the subject at hand as I ponder the following:

  • I can only assume that the copy editor was so frightened by the scare quotes that he left them alone.
  • The chapter is about Arabic war poetry, but I think the sentence, decontextualized, could just about be submitted to the bad sex writing contest.
  • Given the combined overuse of scare quotes and the general point being made, why did the author write about other historians' results rather than their "results"?

Anyway, if we find ourselves with a quotation mark shortage later in the year, you'll know what happened.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Week in Links (Sloth Edition)

If you ignore the fact that this woman meant to say "shariah" instead of "haram," then a single sentence in this interview is a surprisingly cogent cultural history of post-Spinoza Judaism... In all seriousness, though, this sort of thing reminds me that teaching history of religion is crucial and public outreach is an important part of the job. (I'd just add, regarding the BBC version of this story, that I find "Islam gaffe" to be a delightful phrase when used as an adjective.)

Australian Politician Gets Her Facts Wrong

Islam Gaffe Candidate Quits

I only knew him through his writing and from anecdotes from people who knew him well, but this was still hard news to read. Baruch dayan ha-emet:

Samuel Gordon Armistead, Aug. 21 1927-Aug. 7, 2013

Finally, I'm going to be exceptionally lazy this week and refer you, without comment, to a few other interesting digital collections of manuscripts and bindings and related articles that I've tweeted and retweeted this week, and well as some stuff of note from the Cairo Genizah universe.

First-Person Outsider

An interesting observation of language and identity politics at work on my penultimate day in Jerusalem:

The clerk at the hotel desk was an Arab Jerusalemite, more or less my age. I asked him, in English, if he could book a "nesher," for me to the airport for Saturday afternoon, using the name of the company that provides the shared taxi service between Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport. He seemed confused about what I wanted, so I circumlocuted, still in English, until I made myself clear.

"Oh," he answered me. "You mean a nayshur. You said nesher. That's something else."

I don't have any Palestinian colloquial Arabic so I don't know what either of those words means in dialect; but he clearly wanted me to use the local Arabic pronunciation and not the Hebrew pronunciation of the word.

It was too early for him to book the taxi, so I tried again after my morning at the library. This time I spoke in Hebrew, because he had seemed confused about my initial request beyond the pronunciation of the name of the taxi company. He booked the taxi and was explaining to me that even though I had asked for one at 4, the company would be running pickups at 1 and 5; and every time he wanted to emphasize something, he would repeat what he had just said, still in Hebrew, but with this very fake affected American accent on top of it. (And I should add — I don't sound like an American when I speak Hebrew.)

The whole pair of encounters was just a completely fascinating scene from a city with a really complex set of relationships between language and identity.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Week in Links (Back in the New York Groove Edition)

I don't care what you have to say about Spain or how lovely your photographs are if your second paragraph contains the phrase "marauding Moors and marauding Christians, pillaging in the name of Allah, God or chivalry."

An American Man's Quest to Become an Old Castilian

"Plato and Aristotle have had a life in ARabic and Persian entirely alien to the colonial codification of 'Western philosophy' — and the only effective way to make the foreign echoes of that idea familiar is to make the familiar tropes of 'Western philosophy' foreign."

Found in Translation

A friend in a field closer to that of the author's than mine is passed this along. I think it' a valuable perspective, even for academics not in the sciences and who don't have kids. This is too long of a slog to make ourselves miserable:

And, of course, there's not always such a big gulf between the sciences and the humanities as some would like to think:

Textbook typos, so to speak:

Thanks, Textbooks

Saturday, August 3, 2013


I have a sore throat, but my cough drops are in Arabic, so I'm calling it even for the day.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Giv'at Ram Cinematheque

Much of my last week has been spent in the Nehemia Allony Memorial Reading Room of the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts. The IMHM is a sort of combined triumph of Zionism and German philology — a repository of microfilmed copies of 90% of the Hebrew manuscripts that existed in the world in the 1950s, obtained sometimes only through great efforts to convince the custodian libraries to let their collections be filmed. If you want to do research on Hebrew manuscripts that are dispersed across many collections, this is the place to start.

Colloquially it's referred to as the "cinematheque" because everyone sits in front of screens with reels of film. (It also features in the film "Footnote.")

The readers are a really interesting mix of secular academics, religious academics and religious lay people who are there to study text.

To be sure, it drives home the problems inherent in reading manuscripts on microfilm, especially films that were created half a century ago with photographic technology that would be considered seriously substandard today. Any flaws in the page or in the script are magnified exponentially. Smudges you might be able to read through on a page obliterate text on film, and lighter marks disappear completely.

Even though some films contain exposures every scrap of paper tucked into the binding (relevant or not), in most cases, things like flyleaves and endpapers, which are really important in ownership studies since that's often where people write their names, are not filmed and so it's really hard to judge certain additional characteristics of the manuscript history.

It's great for a broad survey, but I'd never want to work like this in any kind of sustained way. Nevertheless, it's still a remarkable collection.

And of course, it's always on the last day that you find a page like this one:

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Security was very tight as I left the national library, on the Giv'at Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which is more or less across the street from the Israeli parliament building. As I walked down the hill back towards the center of town, there were pairs of police officers stationed no further than five yards apart from each other, all the way down the main road; it's almost a three mile walk to the major intersection where I was headed and the security only got tighter. Streets were closed and blockaded with police cars, and the sidewalks were taped off. I assumed that a motorcade with a high-level diplomatic delegation would be making its way to the parliament building. It was security unlike security I have ever seen in Jerusalem, even at the height of the disengagement controversy in 2005.

And when I finally got to the crest of the hill where Rambam becomes Agron and mets up with Keren ha-Yesod and King George, I found myself literally in the middle of the Jerusalem gay pride parade.

I grew up in San Francisco and live in New York, which is to say that this was singularly the tamest gay pride parade I have ever seen. It was really also the most moving, though. Right-wing religious zealots have a history of perpetrating violent hate crimes against gay people in Israel, and of targeting the parade in particular, hence the dramatic security. People here were really putting themselves at risk of harm for the sake of being visible and agitating for equality; and they did it anyway.

One thing that was interesting to note during this trip was that, especially with the ongoing controversy over what constitutes things like "custom," "modesty," and "propriety," as it relates to how Jewish women can pray in public and at sacred sites, the people I was meeting and speaking with generally seemed a lot more interested in issues of gender and sexual orientation as they play into questions of how to balance religious and secular life than they were in the matzav, the "situation" with the Palestinians.  (And in spite of what others are saying* in the vaguely academic corners of the blogosphere, the law and its enforcement is starting — slowly, to be sure, but, I hope, steadily — to catch up.)

In Hebrew, ga'avah is the word for pride, which yields a nice bilingual play on words that is often played up in slogans — the adjective derived from it, the word that means proud, is ge'eh, (pronounced like "gay" but with a glottal stop in the middle).

*Yes, I am having a bona fide "somebody is wrong on the internet" moment.