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).
Election results in India are not merely an aggregate of atomistic decisions made on the polling day. Even before the first vote is cast, a significant degree of synchronization has usually already taken place in the voting choices of the vast majority of the electorate. One of two scenarios usually obtains. Either a candidate wins by a huge margin, or, if the contest is a close one, the overwhelming majority of votes are split between the top two contenders. In other words, only those candidates who are perceived as having a real chance of winning are catapulted to victory, while others receive little more than scraps.
The concept of the electoral hawa (lit. breeze, wind) denotes, in lay usage, the creation of this perception of winnability. It is a notoriously ambiguous term, whose usage spans the entire spectrum from the buzz created at the electoral betting market (satta bazaar) to the more profound process through which the entire electorate is said to make up its mind. Part of this productive linguistic ambiguity stems from the fact that the hawa ‘reaches’ different people in different ways, depending upon their location within society and their involvement in politics. Only those who are involved in creating the hawa, i.e. politicians, or those involved in diagnosing its direction, i.e. the satta bazaar operatives, can be said to possess anything like a bird’s eye view of it. For most of the rest of the electorate, who observe politics from a distance, the hawa becomes discernible only when, having turned into an aandhi (a seasonal storm), it is already upon them.
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.
In America today, showering daily is a social norm. We avoid body odor, grease, and sweat, and consider such qualities unhygienic or “gross.”We also consider the technologies behind the daily shower –bathrooms, sewers, and heating systems–and the parts that construct them–valves and pipes –to be commonplace. Their omnipresence makes them unlikely to warrant a second thought. Despite this, our methods of cleaning ourselves have social, commercial, and even political implications.
Mass-produced valves, showers, and water heaters have only appeared in the past century. Crane Company, an American manufacturer of pipes, fittings, and valves, boasts on its website that in the 1920s it “conceive[d] the idea of the modern bathroom,”designating the American bathroom as “a sign of affluence and social pride.”The bathrooms we use today are really only a century old, as are the norms associated with them.
Over the 1920s, Crane Co. advertisers created concepts like “body odor”to form a consumer base for their new product: bathroom fixtures. Through magazine advertisements and bathroom showrooms, bathrooms became increasingly prevalent, and daily showers more common. Skyscrapers, factories, and hospitals all began to include water supply and sewer systems.
A struggle has long been under way in the American university, sharpening especially in the past two decades, between area-based and discipline-based knowledge. The distinction between the two often maps closely against another, which differentiates humanistic from nonhumanistic knowledge. This is most obviously so in the case of philology, which in American universities has always been organized entirely according to areas and has, accordingly, experienced a crippling disciplinary deficit. And unsurprisingly, it is now under serious threat.
Like the humanities overall, philology has been weakened by fragmentation, with the proliferation over the past century of philology departments—national departments for Europe and, for the rest of the world, where there are no “real” nations, regional ones (English, Italian, German, Greek-and-Latin (“Classics”), Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, and so on)—and philological subfields such as comparative literature. The net result has been the dispersion of a core knowledge form across ever smaller and weaker academic units, with all the institutional risks that “small” and “weak” entail.
Ideally, ‘Eid al-Fitr joyously marks the end of Ramadan fasting with communal prayer and equally communal feasting. In Senegal, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, there are some translations in the form of the holiday but the message is the same. Known in the vernacular as Korité, it functions to bring together the community of believers and cultivate a sense of unity in the West African nation, around 94 percent of which is Muslim. However, during my pre-dissertation research on Islamic textual collection in Senegal this summer, Korité appeared to be as much a point of disunity and contestation as solidarity and community.
Because ‘Eid and the rest of the Islamic year follows a lunar calendar, the start of a new month must be observed by someone with the authority to determine the start of the full moon, thereby making time an inherently political concern. This necessity has produced a notorious, yet predictable, low-level controversy across the ummah, the world community. When does the month start? When does it end? And according to whom? While many countries follow religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, it is sometimes the case that they establish national bodies to determine the appearance of the new moon and hence the beginning and end of the holy month. In some places, this determination is even made at the local level. In Senegal, all three seem to be the case, forcing people to decide between multiple days on which to celebrate their connection with the larger Muslim world.
I recently came across an Arabic rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from Disney’s 1994 blockbuster, The Lion King. It’s a fantastic translation, drawing on a variety of registers of Egyptian colloquial and modern standard Arabic to express much of the humor and dynamism of the English original. Consider Zazu, the king’s red-beaked advisor pictured above. The translation draws from a wide array of Arabic registers to convey his quickly changing disposition, at turns imperious, imploring, and impotent. For instance, as he is chasing after the troublesome cubs (at 0:56), he switches from his shrill vernacular to a more formal register, announcing, “I reckon the time has come, and I’ll tell you frankly…” But before he can finish the sentence, he smacks into the ample rump of an unsuspecting rhino (one of many times in which the poor bird–and the kingly authority he represents–is sat upon or trampled underfoot). As a flattened Zazu slides off the rhino’s backside, Simba picks up with the word “frankly,” which is used in both formal and colloquial Arabic, to label Zazu a muristan – a nutjob, as one translation has it.
As I watched, I realized I was being (re)introduced me to a cast of familiar characters. They were singing a tune I know, rehashing a narrative I remember enjoying, and rehearsing a set of classic Disney conflicts about loyalty, authority, and adulthood. Yet they were doing it all in Arabic, a language I’ve learned, however imperfectly, as an adult. As with any successful translation, it is neither an exact copy nor a wholly new work, but an intermediary text which contains recognizable elements of the original while standing on its own aesthetic merit. As a student of early modern Arabic literature, however, I rarely have a chance to engage with English texts translated into Arabic, especially those from my own childhood in the United States. Watching a clip from The Lion King in Arabic not only raised questions about what constitutes a successful translation, but left me with an uncanny feeling of having encountered an element of my self through the eyes — or in the voice — of the Other. Continue reading “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”→
I’ve spent the past few years organizing materials that were left behind by my late grandfather, Ahmed Zaky Abushâdy (1892-1955), the well-known Egyptian Romantic poet—and physician, inventor, and bee scientist. Early on in my research, I became aware of two distinct narratives in the biographical literature: Abushâdy the Romantic Poet and Abushâdy the Bee Scientist. The former narrative is enshrined in the field of Modern Arabic Literature, while the latter weaves between the history and science of beekeeping in 20th century England and Egypt. Each tells a story that portrays important aspects of Abushâdy’s life and work. But as I continue to examine the materials in the archive, it strikes me that the logic that gives rise to separate, non-intersecting narratives runs counter to the spirit of my grandfather, who dedicated his life to working across disciplines and bringing together a wide array of traditions and cultures.
One remedy may be to develop a new narrative that emphasizes the hybridization that shot through all of Abushâdy’s activities. As a scientist, he understood the concept of hybrid vigor in both theoretical and practical terms, bringing it to fruition by breeding honeybees on a grand scale. He also applied the concept as a poet, for instance, by welcoming the influences of European Modernism, particularly English poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats. Likewise, he developed his own brand of proto-multiculturalism in his academic writing on politics and social issues.