Like many students of South Asian literature, I was delighted when the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) was launched this January. The MCLI –– whose general editor is Sheldon Pollock –– is a collection of South Asian literary works in over twelve different languages. Although some of the volumes in the MCLI will be Sanskrit works, the library’s vital contribution will be rendering available texts that belong to vernacular South Asian literary traditions such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Sindhi and Punjabi. The importance of making vernacular works of South Asian literature more accessible is paramount. As Rohan Murty, the founder of the MCLI, points out, many students in India today are more familiar with Robert Frost and Shakespeare than they are with Indian classics.
In a certain sense, the MCLI is complemented by Sudipta Kaviraj’s new book, The Invention of Private Life: Literature and Ideas, which also draws our attention to the importance of South Asian vernacular literature, specifically Bengali literature. In this book, Kaviraj offers a set of critical reflections at the intersection of literature and political theory. In the introduction, Kaviraj describes how he once thought that his scholarly penchant for both literature and political theory was “simply an accident of taste”, and that these two academic interests were unrelated to each other (Ibid: 2). But, as is evidenced in these diverse essays, Kaviraj has since then begun to see literary works as sites of formations and articulations of nationalist ideas as well as other political and social forces. Throughout this book, Kaviraj uses the theories of Bakhtin, Taylor and Danto, among others, to examine and analyze the different Indian literary works that he discusses. Yet, despite approaching many of these pieces of literature with questions of political and social theory, Kaviraj’s “sense of textual pleasure” for these works clearly comes across in his essays (Ibid: 8).
Marseille’s designation as “European Capital of Culture” in 2013 has certainly improved the city’s image. From the New York Times to National Geographic, Marseille has received long-awaited attention for its urban and cultural transformation: after decades of violence, poverty, and social malaise, it is emerging as the new capital of the Mediterranean, a raffish, “rough but refined” port city and tourist destination. “Marseille is Paris’ messy, mad other—the New Orleans of France,” writes Shirine Saad for Ralph Lauren Magazine. “It is the city of sailors and prostitutes, Marcel Pagnol and bouillabaise. But it’s also a thriving hub of street and contemporary culture.”
Yet another facet of this Mediterranean multiculturalist representation of the city relates to questions of gender and feminism, which have figured prominently in the Marseille 2013 public relations campaign. At the Bazaar of Gender: Feminine-Masculine in the Mediterranean, one of the first exhibitions at the newly minted Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, explored gender relations in the Mediterranean world. This exhibition focused on topics such as reproductive rights, the Muslim headscarf, and gay and lesbian rights, intended to unify women of the Mediterranean behind a common feminist agenda. Underlying this Mediterranean feminist discourse, however, is the belief that women of the sea’s southern shores lag behind their more progressive northern Mediterranean sisters.
First believed to have been performed in 415 BC, Euripides’ play The Trojan Women tells of the violence committed by the Greeks during their siege of Troy, a city not too far from the borders of contemporary Syria. Scholars believe Euripides wrote the play as a critical response to the Athenian slaughter of the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian War. The tragedy draws from an ancient history to speak powerfully against contemporary war crimes and human trafficking—and classicists have taken great interest in the ways in which the play has been reinterpreted over the past century. Performed in Arabic entirely by Syrian women currently living in refugee camps in Amman, Syria: The Trojan Women provides a platform for Syrian refugees to share their experiences of war through a dramatic reinterpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy.
When the performers were recently denied entry visas to the United States, Columbia University organized a promotional event on campus that was attended by many like myself who are currently teaching and studying ancient Greek texts. Over Skype, the Syrian performers spoke about their experiences working on the play in response to questions from their U.S. audience. The highly performative aspects of “engaging across a divide”–particularly on the U.S. side of the screen–dissipated the moment one of the Syrian women took the microphone, moved her face close to the computer camera and surprised her audience by asking in perfect English, “Are you bored?” In response to our silence, she raised her voice and enunciated with a wide smile, “Boooooored?” At that moment, her question disturbed and problematized our passive, distant, and comfortable consumption of war narratives on a screen. The discomfort she provoked flips the spectator’s gaze inward, drawing attention to our role not only as audience members but as crucial participants in the tragedy behind the tragedy. For a project that aims to give a human face to the suffering that is a consequence of war, achieving this is a success in itself. Continue reading “Bored” with the Theater of War?→
The study of Islam in Africa has long been in need of a coherent work of synthesis that bridges specific and substantive knowledge on Islamic contexts in Africa with a broad continental view that places those African experiences of Islam in a larger world history. Many a scholar have tried gallantly, but even more have failed miserably. At last, with Muslim Societies in Africa(IUP), Roman Loimeier has provided us a resource to sit with and digest, a resource that will likely prove to be a foundation for the study of Islam in Africa for years to come.
Few scholars would attempt to produce a work of such scale and scope. Loimeier, uniquely positioned as a scholar who has done research in Senegal, northern Nigeria, and Tanzania, has written a historical anthropology that emphasizes the importance of place. The result is a book organized largely by geographic region with some attention to periodization.
In many cases in Africa today, political conflicts are debated through language of citizenship and language of culture; the former defending equal rights of “settlers” and the latter defending traditions of the “natives”; both contesting access to land, resources, and power. In “Define and Rule,” Mamdani questions the very definition of “native” by exposing the theory of “nativism” as a creation of intellectuals of Empire in crisis. Mamdani argues that “native” as political identity was produced by the theorists of British colonialism who were faced with the crisis of the 1857 uprising in India.
It is generally held that the roots of current political conflicts in Africa are traced back to colonial policies. Nonetheless, these policies are commonly expressed with the phrase “divide and rule” denoting that colonialists created divisions as a strategy to debilitate resistance within their colonies. However, from “Define and Rule” we comprehend that defining subjects first and foremost was in the core of dividing them. Mamdani historicizes the political legacy of colonialism and discusses the historical dynamics that produced indirect rule and, more importantly, the intellectual endeavors that justified it. Indirect rule’s goal was to stabilize colonialism through fragmenting colonial subjects in administrative units. Mamdani maintains that the shift from direct to indirect rule represents a shift from an assimilationist colonial scheme that focused on the elites of the colonized to a project of shaping and managing differences in both society and polity focusing on the conquered masses.
The events unfolding around the political arrest of an apolitical businessman tells the story of a politically troubled country. The author of Guban, Abdi Latif Ega, cleverly weaves the social, environmental, cultural and political provisions of Somalia to voice the journey of a largely misunderstood country that came to be viewed as predestined to failure because of its culture. The author impressively debunks this preconception by offering an urgently needed alternate narrative, not only to grasp the circumstances through which Somalia came to be “a failing state” but also to construe the histories of many African countries.
The author represents a rare voice that goes contrary to a great number of African authors who take a cathartic mode of writing through which they try to appeal to Western mainstream audiences confirming the prejudices about the savagery, inhumanity, poverty, famine, diseases and violence of African societies. He, however, does not go to the extreme opposite of that cathartic mode to talk about “the positive” through cultural enchantment. The author provides a compelling story of Somalia that humanizes and historicizes its political struggle. Guban is not a novel to be read for entertainment although it generously fulfills that requisite; rather, it is a story to be read for reflection and political learning.
In Covarrubia’s seventeenth century dictionary Tesoro de La Lengua Castellana O Española, moro (from the Latin Maurus) is defined as “one from the province of Mauritania.” The term is meant to be used pejoratively as in the proverb, “A Moro muerto, gran lanzada” (p.1150). The Real Academia Española offers more than eleven definitions, including the natural border of North Africa and Spain; one who professes the religion of Islam; a Muslim who lived in Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth century; a black mare with a star on the forehead and shoes on one or two limbs; Muslims of Mindanoa and Malaysia; etc. In the Oxford English Dictionary, moor is defined as “originally a native or inhabitant of ancient Mauretania” and “later usually a member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent inhabiting north-western Africa (now mainly present-day Mauritania), who in the eighth century conquered Spain.”
In An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam: Antonio de Sosa’s Topography of Algiers (1612), Sosa devotes an entire chapter—“The Inhabitants and Neighbors of Algiers”—to defining the “Moor” as a category of people among other inhabitants in Algiers, including Jews, Turks and Christians. The rest of the text, however, does not always use the term in the same way; rather, its usage reveals and reproduces the conflation of race, ethnicity and religion in the early modern period.
Written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Mahmood Mamdani’s 2005 book Good Muslim, BadMuslim historicizes the violence of terrorism. It extricates terrorism from the narrow morality that arises from the convergence of ethics and national interest, and instead locates terrorism “first and foremost as unfinished business of the Cold War.”1 “Good” and “bad” Muslims, terms borrowed from former U.S. President George W. Bush,2 are descriptions not of religious adherence, but of utility to U.S. foreign policy. As yesterday’s allies become today’s antagonists, the labels change to morally denigrate American foes.
Reintroducing history to the violence, the book begins by tracing the broad contours of the relationship between nation-state modernity and violence. Mamdani rejects violence as a pre-modern phenomenon, asserting instead that there is an inextricable relationship between violence and modernity.3 This is the book’s central theoretical framework: violence is political, not cultural.
The first chapter builds on this history of violence, and offers an alternative account of political Islam. It exposes the caricatures of Muslims and Islam that are deployed to provide a moral veneer for expansionist imperialism. The subsequent three chapters offer a chronological account of the violence of U.S. imperialist policies, beginning with post-Vietnam American support for anti-nationalist militancies, and through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s terrorism, the book asserts, is a direct consequence of these policies. The final chapter of the book offers closing thoughts, exhorting a review of American policies that “consistently seem to erode support and generate opposition.”4