The (Jewish) Christian Question

Freud cartoonA comment on Gil Anidjar’s paper “Jesus and Monotheism” and its discussion at the MESAAS department colloquium on September 11th.

Murder, it soon becomes clear, goes far beyond the “who-done-it?” digressions, down which Freud (and Anidjar) takes his readers. This word designates more than a crime, far more than an action. It describes a kind of relation: the relation of a father to his sons, of a son to his father, of a people to their leader and, ultimately, of Christianity to Judaism.

What Anidjar terms “the Christian question” is an inquiry about this relation. But this inquiry is not about Christianity’s relation to just anyone. It is what we arrive at when we turn the screw of “the Jewish question” one more time. When we ask what it is about Christianity that so persistently maintains this relation—“murder”—to its Others. Certainly this question goes far beyond “the Jewish” one, but in Anidjar’s reading of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, the “(Jewish) Christian question” takes center stage.

This “center stage” was illuminated in the colloquium discussion as well. First when Anidjar referenced “my teacher Boyarin” and his reading of Jews as another (third) gender. And next in an exchange between Anidjar and Dabashi, in which they amicably agreed Dabashi spoke from a de-colonized position, while Anidjar had not yet been de-colonized.

I will bracket the assumed relation here between decolonization and de-christianization. What I would like to highlight in this exchange is the implied agreement that, while other peoples, nations, geographies, genders (?) may speak from a de-christianized position, the Jews do not. If the claims to language, territory and autonomy were central to the decolonizing process, and set the basic conditions for the formation of other people-hoods, nationalisms and geographies, for the Jews—in the sense that they were colonized, Christianized by the West—these same claims seem not to have produced a similar decolonizing effect. (“The only democracy in the Middle-East,” to quote Anidjar, “shall remain nameless.”)

Where, then, are the pressure points at which this decolonizing effort is disrupted? Where are the nodes of Christianization that so persistently attach (“murder”) the Jewish to the Christian? Freud is a central one, argues Anidjar. And the debate about the extent of Freud’s Judaism—though by now redundant—is counterproductive to any effort at de-christianizing Judaism. To resolve the “Christian question,” one might conclude from Anidjar’s paper, would be to render “the Jewish question”—among several others—immaterial.

Between Miracle and Afterthought: Hebrew in MESAAS

My parents, native Israelis with wide and deep ties to the Hebrew language, insisted, always, on maintaining a Hebrew-speaking household in the U.S. so that my two sisters and I might carry on in the world with “a miracle” of a language at our disposal. I remember my father telling me excitedly that, “before 1948, no one made love in Hebrew!” I was fascinated by the thought of a language existing by virtue of some dedicated people carefully applying ancient, known words to their contemporary surroundings. I would imagine them staring at birds or one another in an attempt to string together some sounds and silences that might do justice to a subject’s fullest character.

But studying Hebrew literature in MESAAS has been one long attempt to bend my thinking to accommodate the reality that modern Hebrew literature is a contemporary Middle Eastern affair. Or is it? Hebrew literature and Israeli culture fits into MESAAS geographically; but Hebrew has long been a shared cultural language of the Jews that only in the 20th century became a spoken vernacular in Israel. A question of belonging arises: how does modern Hebrew literature fit into MESAAS when we look beyond basic points of contact, such as the Semitic origins of the Hebrew language or the many centuries of political-Zionist poetry?

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Teaching Notes III

For those of us who teach or will be teaching an introductory course of Islamic Studies in the United States, there are a number of pedagogical challenges we uniquely face as instructors. In order to reach a deep and critical engagement with the texts, histories, aesthetics, narratives and politics at play in a course such as “Islamic Civilization,” a form of “de-programming” must take place.

I say “de-programming” because instructors are certainly not engaging with “blank slates.” Many students enter our classes having already developed an idea or opinion of Islam, Muslims and related terminology (such as shari’a, jihad, Islamic state, burka, etc.), and this is reflected in their questions and papers. Here’s a sampling of the questions I received through an exercise I conducted at the end of the last academic term:

“What makes Islam hate Israel?” “What is the burka?” “Do mainstream Muslims read the Qur’an?” “Is there such a thing as Islam without belief in God (Allah)?” “Should Muslims get the blame for human misery?” “Is a democratic and religious state possible?” “When do most Muslims visit Mecca (what part of their life)?” “What is the Muslim position on human nature?”

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Archives and Canons

What is the opposite of a canon? Perhaps an archive, which contains an overwhelming array of texts that very few people intend to read. I sometimes feel like Raph and I are working our way through an immaterial archive that stretches across the globe. This “archive” contains digital copies of short stories culled from published collections, underground literary journals, blog entries, Facebook posts, and unpublished manuscripts. It also presumably includes letters stowed away in old backpacks and journals forgotten in desk drawers. An infinite array of things just waiting to be catalogued and, perhaps, one day, interpreted.

The challenge of transforming such an archive into a collection is partially the brute effort of finding the materials, compounded by the difficulty of working with texts that are rarely annotated. For instance, we have found digital copies of stories typed by hand by literary enthusiasts into labyrinthine websites like Sudanese Online. The multiple copies create multiple versions which, without a robust editorial effort, jostle one another for authority, not unlike the way in which Sudanese folk tales proliferate in near infinite variation. Although unlike scholars who work on manuscripts, Raph and I are not in the business of sussing out the authentic version of a given text, such variations and inconsistencies take us back to the question of how a literary canon is formed.

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Sketch of a Literary Scene

The stories in our collection span the roughly four decades since the publication of Tayyib Salih’s much acclaimed Season of Migration to the North in 1969. Some are works of social protest, others of technical mastery or experimental daring. Despite variations in theme and style, we’ve chosen them because they all revolve around Khartoum in one way or another. For that reason, contemporary literary culture in Khartoum is one of the most valuable frames for understanding the literature produced in and about the city. The questions are deceptively simple. Who writes? Who reads? Where do people in Khartoum go to buy books, hear poetry, discuss literature and workshop their own writing? By offering a brief sketch of the literary scene, based on my own short stay in Khartoum last year, I want to start to explore the city as a metaphor for the bundle of expectations, literary conventions, and social mores that shape what Sudanese writers write and why.

I myself have only become acquainted with many of the stories in my growing collection over the past year, culled initially from the dozens of books I carried back from Khartoum to Cairo in a cardboard box. The less controversial ones I bought in the dusty book shops clustered around the University of Khartoum, but the majority were recommended to me by friends and acquired at a monthly open-air book market called Mafroosh, written up not so long ago in the New York Times.

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“Good” Stories in Translation

One of the unexpected benefits of preparing an anthology is the chance to read through enough mediocre literature to begin to ask yourself what “mediocre” actually means. This summer, as Raph Cormack and I co-edit a book of Sudanese short stories in English translation, we are finding out that our attempts to distinguish the great stories from the mediocre raises interesting questions about competing literary aesthetics. Figuring out which stories to include and how to justify our selections to the publisher has been a hands-on lesson in how a literary canon, even a marginal canon such as Sudanese Arabic literature in English translation, is formed.

In our work, the basic tension is that some stories generally regarded among Sudanese readers as “good” do not translate into “good” literature by Anglo-American standards. It’s not that Anglo-American standards are superior to the Sudanese, largely because that way of speaking presumes we have some outside standard by which these two literary aesthetics could be properly compared. We don’t. But we do know that some of what is written, printed, appraised and ultimately bought and sold in the Arabic speaking parts of Sudan is quite different than what is appealing to English readers. As translators, we must either conceal or explain that difference to our imagined English readers. These essays are a first attempt to do the latter: to explain those aspects of my encounter with Sudanese Arabic literature that I cannot properly translate. In large part, I’ll be looking at different aspects of the marvelously complex relationship between the two literary critical traditions, call them for the sake of convenience Sudanese and English, brought together by global trade relations, colonial dominance, educational and cultural exchanges, and the emergence of specific technologies and revolutions in literary form that they entail.

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Tariq Ramadan’s Burden

Tariq Ramadan faces off claims of Arab colonialism in Africa. Source:

During a recent debate on the Senegalese television channel TFM about the ongoing violence in Palestine, Tariq Ramadan accused one of his interlocutors Bakary Sambe of the most offensive crime for an African intellectual: having a colonized mind.

Sambe, a professor at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University and coordinator of the Observatory of Radicalisms and Religious Conflicts in Africa, had been asked about American leadership in peace talks when his response solicited Ramadan’s comments. In a clear departure from the flow of the conversation, Sambe offered his reflections on the Islamist threat of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood while staring directly at Ramadan. Observing that Sambe’s comments had “nothing to do with” the conversation, Ramadan asked Sambe if he was speaking live from Washington or London. Humorously, Sambe slips and says that he is speaking from Washington, before correcting himself by saying that he was speaking from here (here being Dakar). Ramadan then gives a dismissive gesture while Sambe appears clearly flustered and at a lost for words.

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Teaching Notes II

The infamous Foreign Policy "Sex Issue" cover.
The infamous Foreign Policy “Sex Issue” cover. (Source:

When our class arrived to the cluster of assigned readings on Gender and Contemporary Islamic Civilization, as a similar exercise to another that I have described on the blog, I asked my section to write down the first thing they imagine when I say, “Identify a stereotype regarding Muslim women.” This time, I decided to ask directly to identify stereotypes rather than what first comes to mind when I say “Muslim woman.”

Again, I wanted them to be honest so I asked the students to submit their answers anonymously. As I expected, it was a much easier and faster exercise for them than the one about fictional Muslim characters. However erroneous the narratives about Muslim women may be, they are ample and accessible.*

I collected the slips of paper and read them out loud so the class could hear what their colleagues wrote. This is what they wrote, exactly how they wrote it:

First stereotype of Muslim women that comes to mind

  1. Muslim women are oppressed. (6 students)
  2. Submissive (3 students)
  3. Hijab-wearing (2 students)
  4. They are meek. (2 students)
  5. They wear headscarves. (2 students)
  6. Muslim women are made to wear hijab.
  7. Headscarf stigma Continue reading