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’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.
Abdilatif Abdalla, who will be visiting MESAAS and the Institute of African Studies at Columbia on November 12th and 13th, is one of the most renowned living Swahili poets. Mixing poetry and politics has been a feature of Swahili society for a long time, and classic historical Swahili poets, like Fumo Liyongo and Muyaka bin Haji, were engaged in local politics as well as in writing. Like these Swahili intellectuals before him, Abdalla has been living among his people – or separated from them, through long years of prison and exile – as the gifted and critical voice in society that Swahili poets are seen as: particularly knowledgeable people with a duty to speak up on behalf of their community.
As a poet, Abdalla became well-known only after his term in prison (1969-1972), to which he was sentenced as the author of ‘Kenya: Twendapi?’ (Kenya: where are we going?). He earned his first literary recognition with a didactic poem on the Qur’anic story of Adam and Eve, but it was the publication of Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony) in 1973, a collection of poems he had written secretly on toilet paper while in prison, that made him famous. Using traditional genres of Swahili verse, Sauti ya Dhiki covered a broad range of critical topics with remarkable depth and originality: the perils of colonialism, racism, material greed, and social injustice. But also the loneliness felt in prison, the persistence of his political struggle, and a plea against abortion from the perspective of an unborn child. Readers were awed by the force and scope of his verbal artistry. Continue reading Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist→
He caught up with me as I turned the corner in Connaught Place (C.P.), the shopping hub in central Delhi where I had been running some errands. He was fair-skinned and wearing a checked shirt, jeans and bright sneakers–the basic uniform of young men in urban India. He was probably one of the Kashmiris who hang around C.P. waiting to chat up lost, sweaty tourists. He asked me where I was from, what I was doing in India. I gave the short answer, that I am an American who lives in Delhi for part of each year and that I am a student.
“I am also a student. My subject is English. You study which subject?”
“I study Farsi,” I said, using the name for Persian more commonly understood in India.
“What is… Farsi?”
“It’s a language.”
Our impromptu meeting ended there because I had to catch the metro. In any case, these conversations typically continue with “Would you like to see some shawls?” or “I can sell you cheap tickets to Kashmir—lovely place, where kings used to stay.”
Bab’Aziz, the Prince who Contemplated His Soul. Directed by Nacer Khemir. Switzerland /Hungary /France /Germany /Iran /Tunisia /UK, 2005.
“Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis (sic) in the desert.”—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Whether Thoreau really understood the religious ecstasy of Sufi practice firsthand or was offering an off-hand orientalist reference may remain debatable, but what strikes one as most compelling in the above quote is the acute contrast of the simile: a bustling intellectual center and the starkness of an exotic locale.
The desert, that powerful setting, is just the type of place where contradiction, like the one Thoreau offers, seem to resolve themselves and where paradoxes shape reality. It is a landscape where the unseen is as undeniable as the awesome forces of nature that cut the extreme terrain. Nacer Khemir evokes this leviathan of the desert sea and then tries to wrestle a harness over the beast by contrasting it against an alienating modern world.
In 1949, Ali Bakathir published The Tragedy of Oedipus. His Oedipus was not the one that we are familiar with. This Oedipus knows from the beginning of the play that he is Laius’ murderer and that the Oracle says he is the cause of the pollution that has lead to Thebes’ plague. As a mid-twentieth century Oedipus, he believes that the corrupt priesthood only wants to fill their pockets and do not care one iota for the people who are suffering. This is until Tiresias, who has been expelled from the priestly order for suggesting that maybe it would be nice to give some money to the poor, talks to him. Tiresias convinces him that the cabal of Theban priests are all false prophets and that the one true God is the God of Islam. Oedipus is convinced, and together Tiresias and Oedipus defeat the corrupt religious authorities and save Thebes by bringing the message of Islam.
This kind of ‘Arabicization’ of a ‘Western classic’ like Oedipus Rex may sound rather bizarre, or unlikely. However, alterations of this kind to texts considered part of the Western classical canon are central to the twentieth century Arabic tradition of engagement with seminal works of theatre. From the lowbrow to the sophisticated, every Western theatrical import was given a distinctly Arabic character. To give another example, one of the most respected poets of the age, Ahmed Shawqi, created a version of Antony and Cleopatra, called The Death of Cleopatra (Masra’ Kliobatra), in which the character of Cleopatra is turned into a patriotic, virtuous Egyptian who dies for the sake of her country.