Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A curious, moving memoir of an Iranian mother

I have just started following the blog IranWrites, though it has been around for a while. Today a post called A Woman by Her Own Rights showed up. It would be impossible to make a representative excerpt, so I will just recommend it to you.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is the past another country?

Brad DeLong gave me the opportunity today to put a deeply-felt conviction of mine into words.

Brad was quoting from a blog called The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, whose author, Rufus F., was reflecting on the Odyssey.

[Brad]: Rufus F. on the Homecoming of Odysseus:

Homer “The Odyssey” | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: I find his homecoming strange though. After winning a test of strength, Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors. The whole scene is excessive; he claims to kill them for their outrageous violence, but it amounts to boorish behavior and a failed plot to kill Telemachus. It would make more sense to run them off: “Scram, wimps!” Instead, Odysseus kills every last man for having dropped in for a visit and deciding to stay for several years...

[Brad:] It's considerably worse than that: consider the servant-women of Odysseus's palace who had consorted with the suitors:

"I will tell you the truth, my son," answered Euryclea. "There are fifty women in the house whom we teach to do things, such as carding wool, and all kinds of household work. Of these, twelve in all have misbehaved, and have been wanting in respect to me, and also to Penelope....

[T]he women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly.... [T]hey took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, "I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long...




Here's what I said in comments (touched up a little):

I am not so sure that the past is another country... Can't you imagine a similar scene taking place in another neighborhood in our own time, with the woman killers giving a similar justification? Remember that even in his own time that Odysseus was a smalltime pirate; today, unless he got particularly ambitious and inconvenienced the big guys,perhaps by hijacking a ship off the Horn of Africa, he would rate no space in the New York Times. Certainly the killing of the insolent women would get no coverage. Neither would the destruction of their elementary school or women's health clinic.


My point was, that the past is not one country, and our time is not a single country either, and the differences between different countries in any one era are very big sometimes' and broad similarities exist between some past countries and some in the present. Not everything that existed in the past exists in some corner of our own world now, but I believe that many things that existed in the time of, say, the Greek dark ages have rough analogues today. The failure to recognize that, I think, leads to one of the big errors of historical understanding: focusing on one country, one short period, one culture, one imperial court, one literary circle, and saying "this was the human experience on planet Earth at such and such a time."

And another serious mistake is to believe that some phenomenon that you find impressive or repulsive is absolutely unique in human history.

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

"All the fuss we made over these writers, as if what they said was a matter of life and death to us."

I have just finished reading one of the most remarkable books I've read in a very long time: Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a difficult book to describe; one might say it is a memoir, perhaps somewhat fictionalized, of an upper-class Iranian woman, partly raised in Britain and the United States and now living in the USA, which focuses on what it was like to teach English literature in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. In particular, she talks about her interactions with some of her students during this period. Nafisi comes across as a secular person, and she sees the Islamic revolution as nothing but a disaster. For instance page 119, when she talks to one of her students, a Khomeini supporter, about the trial of a supposed counterrevolutionary:

I told him they had no proof that the gentleman in question was a CIA agent, in any case I doubt if the CIA would be foolish enough to employ someone like him. But even those whom he called the functionaries of the old regime, regardless of their guilt, shouldn't be treated this way. I cannot understand why the Islamic government had to gloat over these people's deaths, brandishing their photographs after they had been tortured and executed. Why did they show us these pictures? Why did our students every day shout slogans demanding new death sentences?

Mr. Bahri did not respond at first. He stood still, his head bent, his hands linked in front of him. Then he started to speak slowly and with tens precision. Well, they have to pay, he said they're on trial for their past deeds. The Iranian nation will not tolerate their crimes. And these new crimes? I asked as soon as he had uttered his last word. These new crimes? Should they be tolerated in silence? Everyone nowadays is an enemy of God -- former ministers and educators, prostitutes, leftist revolutionaries: they are murdered daily. What is his and his had these people done to deserve such treatment?

His face had become hard, and of the shadow of obstinacy has colored his eyes. He repeated that people had to pay for their past crimes. This is not a game, he said. It is a revolution. I asked him if I too was on trial for my past. But he was right in a sense: we all have to pay, but not for the crimes we were accused of. There were other scores to settle. I did not know then that I had already begun to pay, that what was happening was part of the payment. It was much later that these feelings would be clarified.

This book has been criticized for giving a very negative view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of women and even more men in Iran and even of Islam itself. Notably, Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz (another Iranian academic based in United States and writing in English) accuses Nafisi of promoting a neo-Orientalist agenda and confirming all the old clichés of the backward, static and exotic East. I don't see it myself. There's nothing exotic about the presentation of life in Tehran in this book, and there's plenty of action and change. What is really wrong with the criticisms I've heard is that they assume that Nafisi had to write the book that the critics wanted to read, or have other people read. This is a very personal memoir, not the history of revolutionary Iran. It tells Nafisi's story of how the revolution affected her as a teacher and scholar, and how it seemed to affect some of her more memorable students -- and not just the ones he liked. I have yet to read a review that picks up on what I think is very important point: this memoir might easily be about the Cultural Revolution in China, or the Jacobin revolution in France, or any other number of similar upheavals.

The quotation at the head of this post tells the story as I read it. It is about reading, teaching, learning, speaking about intellectual subjects when it is really important and far from easy. Again, p. 338:

I said to him that I wanted to write a book [after she left Iran] in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me -- to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, you will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you'll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees. You don't think that this is the same Austen you read with Dr. French -- it was Dr. French [probably at U. of Oklahoma], wasn't it? Do you? This is the Austen you read here, in the place where the film censor is nearly blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women. I said, When I write about all that perhaps I'll become more generous, less angry.

If you like that sample of Nafisi's writing, there is lots more where that came from.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Population crash in Europe?

Hoyerswerda high rise being demolished
Fred Pearce has written a book called Peoplequake and also an article in the Guardian flogging its message of anxiety about Europe's lack of enthusiasm for reproduction. Some excerpts from a meaty article:

On the windswept roof of the Lausitz Tower, the town's only landmark, I meet Felix Ringel. A young German anthropologist studying at Cambridge University, he has passed up chances taken by his friends to ­investigate the rituals of Amazon tribes or Mongolian peasants. As we survey the empty plots of fenced scrub below, he explains that the underbelly of his own country seemed weirder and far less studied than those exotic worlds.

In its heyday in the 60s, Hoyerswerda was a model community in communist East Germany, a brave new world attracting migrants from all over the country. They dug brown coal from huge open-cast mines on the plain around the town. There was good money and two free bottles of brandy a month. But the fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that.

...

Under communism, East ­German women worked more, and were ­often better educated, than the more conservative western hausfrau. But when their jobs disappeared in the early 90s, hundreds of thousands of them, encouraged by their ­mothers, took their school diplomas and CVs and headed west to cities such as ­Heidelberg. The boys, however, seeing their fathers out of work, often just gave up. In adulthood, they form a rump of ill-educated, alienated, ­often unemployable men, most of them ­unattractive mates – a further factor in the departure of young women.

...

"There has been nothing ­comparable in world peacetime ­history," says the French demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais. After the Berlin Wall came down, millions of East Germans who stayed behind decided against producing another generation. Their fertility more than halved. In 1988, 216,000 ­babies were born in East Germany; in 1994, just 88,000 were born. The fertility rate worked out at 0.8 children per woman. Since then it has struggled up to around 1.2, but that is still only just over half the rate needed to maintain the population. About a million homes have been abandoned, and the ­government is demolishing them as fast as it can. Left ­behind are "perforated ­cities", with huge random chunks of ­wasteland. Europe hasn't seen ­cityscapes like this since the bombing of the second world war.

And nowhere has emptied as much as Hoyerswerda. In the 80s, it had a population of 75,000 and the highest birth rate in East Germany. Today, the town's population has halved. It has gone from being ­Germany's fastest-growing town to its fastest-shrinking one. The biggest age groups are in their 60s and 70s, and the town's former birth clinic is an old people's home. Its population pyramid is ­upturned – more like a mushroom cloud.

In a school in a partly demolished suburb known simply as Area Nine, I meet Nancy, a tattooed and quietly ­spoken social worker. Forty years ago, her parents were among the new­comers: her mother was a midwife, her father a train driver. "There were modern flats and services here then. It was a prestige development. When you asked the kids what they wanted to do when they grew up, they had ambitions to drive buses or work in the power station. But now parents find it very difficult to encourage their ­children when they have no jobs or prospects themselves. My friends have all left. I'd like to stay, but I have a three-year-old daughter and the schools are no good any more. I'll ­probably go too."

...

Across the rest of Germany, Hoyerswerda is regarded as a feral wasteland – complete with wolves. Slinking in from Poland and the Czech Republic, they are finding empty spaces where once there were apartment blocks and mines. And the wolves, at least, are staying. A few kilometres down the road, near the tiny town of Spreewitz, wolf enthusiast Ilka Reinhardt can't believe his luck: "We have more wolves than we have had in 200 years." The badlands of former East Germany are going "back to nature". And Europeans should be worried, for some fear that eastern Germany is, as it was back in the 1960s, a trailblazer for the demographic future of the continent.



This is definitely an interesting phenomenon, but strangely I am not moved. First, the traditional population of Europe may be falling, or look like it's about to fall, but the population of the world is still going up, with devastating impacts on climate and the rest of the environment. If Europeans don't want to devote their lives to aggravating the problem, who am I to tell them that they should?

Also, there are sizable parts of North America where the population is thinning out pretty drastically, too. Canada and the United States both have growing populations, but the places where people used to support themselves by breaking the sod or digging mines by hand are clearing out and these areas may well end up with populations of the scale that existed before the huge invasion from Europe. Remember that huge invasion from Europe? That took place because Europe could not support its population under decent conditions with technology and institutions of the time. I am not so sure why people get so excited about this stuff, but it may have something do with the fear of slang-speaking kids wearing baseball caps backwards.

Me, my neighborhood has both wolves and kids with baseball caps worn at various angles. So what.

Image: This is Hoyerswerda.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A new translation of the Menagier de Paris


An excerpt of the review on the e-mail list, TMR-L (The Medieval Review), a useful and timely resource you can subscribe to free.

Greco, Gina L. and Christine M. Rose, translators. The Good
Wife's Guide (Le Menagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book
.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 384. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-
8014-4738-9.

Reviewed by Kate Kelsey Staples
West Virginia University
Kate.Staples@mail.wvu.edu


According to the fourteenth-century Le Menagier de Paris, the key to being a good wife included these edifying directives: "be obedient...to your husband and to his commandments, whatever they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest" (104); "choose rather to please your husband than yourself, because his happiness must come before yours" (104); "it is through good obeisance that a wise woman
obtains her husband's love and, in the end, receives from him what she desires" (119); "protect [your future husband] from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant, and peaceful with him"(139); "steer clear of swaggering and idle young men who live beyond their means and who, possessing no land or lineage, become dancers" (94). While perhaps shocking to modern sensibilities, or comical in turn, this fascinating and relatively understudied text overflows with suggestions for a woman's obedience, attention to reputation, proper piety, and correct conduct. The anonymous author also advises his audience, presumably his young wife, on the practicalities household management: when to transplant cabbage (212), how to delegate tasks to servants (section 2.3), in what ways to tend to ropy, musty, and moldy wine (221), and how to care for horses (223-228). Completing the manual of instruction is a rich selection of cooking menus and a guide to buying spices and foodstuffs, continuing the practical nature of the guidebook.

As the first modern English translation of Le Menagier de Paris, this edition makes a gem of a text accessible beyond French literary courses. With their clear translation, Gina Greco, Associate Professor of French, and Christine Rose, Professor of English, both at Portland State University, open spaces for discussion of the composition of the late medieval household, the reading practices of the bourgeoisie, late medieval culture, culinary practices, and women's history, more generally.

One of the greatest attributes of this edition is that Greco and Rose present Le Menagier de Paris as we may expect it to have originally appeared. There are only three surviving fifteenth-century manuscripts and one early sixteenth-century manuscript; the original is lost (2). The modern scholarly Middle French edition (Brereton and Ferrier, 1981) omits three sections of the text that appear in the
manuscripts: the Griselda tale, the Melibee tale, and Jacques Bruyant's Le Chemin de povrete et richesse (here, too, appear the first modern English translations of the latter two texts). Karin Ueltschi's Middle French and Modern French facing-page translation (1994) includes the tales of Griselda and Melibee, but consigns Le
Chemin
poem to an appendix. As the translators rightfully point out, presenting it without these texts or in an alternate order, even if they were not originally compiled by the author, does a disservice to understanding reading practices, the author's goals, and household composition in late medieval France (5)...

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Then there is this...

Behind the Veil, a video report on women in Kandahar from the Globe and Mail.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

From the NYT: Fashion in Iraq now


I was reading a short time ago about the visible spread of conservative dress among Iraqi women over the last decade. Now things may be swinging the other way.

Image: Engineering students in Baghdad.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Modern" to "Islamic" in just a few years


From the New York Times "At War" blog:

She said: “Abeer you know me, we used to wear such clothes in college.” I told her: “Things are very different now.” Then I showed her a picture on my mobile phone of me wearing an abaya. She was shocked and said: “I heard about it, but I can’t believe it, I never imagined things would go this way.”

We have got a gap inside the Iraqi community. A gap between people of the same generation, I mean between those who fled the violence and traveled out of Iraq after 2003, and these who stayed in the country.

The people who left Iraq cannot imagine what happened, they only have the barest idea, and they have not seen and lived the Islamist style of life.

At that restaurant meeting where I met a group of my friends we chatted and talked about many things, including the provincial elections next month. All of them, even the religious ones, agreed that they would not vote for an Islamist, of any kind. “Even if he was blessed by Ayatollah Sistani and got Sistani’s signature beside his name,” one of them said.

But my friend who had lived outside had an extremely different opinion. She said: “Why not, if they are good?”

More here.

Image: Back before the invasion.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Some early art history -- in process

It has been a while since I blogged anything on the Stone Age. To remedy this terrible lack, let me link to a post from Judith Weingarten at Zenobia: Empress of the East on some recent research about who created some of the famous Stone Age cave paintings. She likes the idea that women -- and kids -- helped create some of the earliest surviving art, but points out that there are some yet-unanswered questions about this specific argument, which depends on the different proportions between the 2nd and 4th fingers seen in men and women (2D:4D):
Until recently, according to Pennsylvania State University archaeologist, Dean Snow, most scientists assumed these prehistoric hand prints were male. But, he says, "even a superficial examination of published photos suggested ... that there were lots of female hands there."

Looking at some stencilled hands, Snow could see that "The very long ring finger on the left is a dead give-away for male hands. The one on the right has a long index finger and a short pinky -- thus very feminine."

To assess prehistoric hand-prints from European caves, Snow used modern hands for comparison. "I had access to lots of people of European descent who were willing to let me scan their hands as reference data," said Snow.

By carefully measuring and analysing the Pech Merle hand stencils, Snow found that many were indeed female -- as, for example, those in the 'spotted horse' picture (above). And so he concludes, "We don't know what the roles of artists were in Upper Paleolithic society generally. But it's a step forward to be able to say that a strong majority of them were women."

I hate to be a party pooper but...

this begs three questions.

First, and to my mind most serious, is:

How do we know that today's 2D:4D finger ratio was the same for the early modern humans who painted the caves?
More from Judith here. A good example of how research often progresses by asking lots of simple questions, and not being too quickly satisfied with the first few answers.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Juan Cole's links on the situation in Pakistan

Juan Cole at Informed Comment provides us with some useful information and commentary on the situation in Pakistan. I particularly liked the following report and panel discussion:

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

'Honour': Crimes, paradigms, and violence against women, edited by Lynn Welchman and Sara Hossain

I have read much of the introductory and theoretical chapters of this book, which concerns so-called "crimes of honor" against nonconforming women, and which is packed full of information and insight. I was particularly struck by the conclusion of an article by Purna Sen, "'Crimes of honour,' value and meaning." Sen objects to one common way that "honor killings" and "crimes of honor" are discussed, especially when the crimes take place in Islamic countries or communities. Sen find it less than useful to contrast the "culture" of the "West" or the "international community" with the "culture" of a criticized community:
Making culture the divisor also renders those who inhabit the culture under scrutiny problematic per se, and suggests that their salvation lies in abandoning this culture and, by implication, adopting another. Almost invariably that Salvation is Western, Judeo-Christian culture. Is this really the answer? If the problem were Islam, or Islamic culture, it might be -- but then only if Western culture and religion had eliminated violence against women. If violence against women exists in the cultures that criticise the "other," as it clearly does, then existing cultural practices do not determine the safety women, as in no culture are women assured freedom from violence.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

From English Russia: a variety of Russian women


Here.

Image: World War II veteran.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Female gladiators


For students who can't wait for today's lecture on the Roman arena, why not have a look at this article on a possible grave find of a female gladiator discussed by Steven Murray in the Journal of Combative Sport?

Or a short article in Discover Magazine about archaeologist Steven Tuck's research into death in the arena?

Read both articles and come to lecture and you'll have a "Steven hat-trick."

Image: from the JCS article, two female gladiators, Amazon and Achillea.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Frankish women warriors in Muslim Middle Eastern sources


People always want to know if there were any women warriors or knights in the Middle Ages. The answer is that there is some scattered evidence of uncertain reliability.

In Hillenbrand's The Crusades: Islamic perspectives, there is translated a bit more evidence of this sort. I'm just going to quote the sources she assembles, without giving full citations.

Pages 348-9, in a section called Frankish Women Warriors:

Imad al-Din:

Amongst the Franks are women knights (fawaris). They have coats of mail and helmets. They are in men's garb and they are prominent in the thick of the fray. They act in the manner of those endowed with intellect [i.e. men] although they are ladies.

... On the day of the battle some of them come forth in the same way as the (male) knights. Despite their softness there is hardness (qaswa) in them. They have no clothing (kiswa) other than coats of mail. They have not been recognised [as women] until they have been stripped and laid bare. A number of them have been enslaved and sold.
Ibn al-Athir on Saladin's siege of Burzay, 1188:

[There was] a woman shooting from the citadel by means of the mangonel and it was she who put the Muslims' mangonel out of action.
Ibn Shaddad recording the testimony of an old man who was at Acre in 1191:

Inside their walls was a woman wearing a green coat (milwata). She kept on shooting at us with a wooden bow, so much so that she wounded a group of us. We overpowered her and killed her and took her bow, carrying it to the sultan, who was very amazed about that.

Imad al-Din drawing a moral on the battlefield of Acre, 1190:

We saw a woman slain because of her being a warrior.
Page 464:
"...according to Usama, there were [Muslim] women fighting ...during the siege b y the Isma'ilis of his home citadel of Shayzar, but as they were wearing full armour the sex of these warriors was not known until after the fighting."

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Algerian women rise up

...and take control of the economy while wearing hijabs. See this from the New York Times.

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