Found: A Philological Detail and a Methodological Point

Recently I was translating a medieval Syriac poem lamenting a deacon who converted to Islam, and I got stuck on a single word.  Different manuscripts, as is often the case, contained different readings of that word, but the options were either nonsensical or not in the dictionaries.  The only other scholar to work with the text proposed an emendation which was semantically sensible but poetically impossible.  What’s a translator to do?  I found a way through, turning a philological detail into a methodological point about late medieval Syriac texts. Continue reading

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A Brief Syriac Bio of an Arabic Poet

In the Chronicle of 1234, composed in Edessa in the mid-13th century, there is a brief notice of the poet al-Mutanabbi:

At this time a person named Mutanabbi was famous in poetry, and he had a book of poetry in Arabic writing, and he is greatly praised among the people of the Arabs.

It’s not much, and it does not tell us anything about the poet which we did not know from other, fuller sources.  But it does tell us a bit about the reception of the poet, namely that this Muslim poet and his work were known in Christian social circles in what is today eastern Turkey.  It is a further example that medieval Middle Eastern culture was not divided along religious lines.

An Iraqi Jewish Voice on Zionism in 1938

[This is a newspaper editorial I assign in my Modern Middle East class.  The Iraq Times was an English-language newspaper in the British Mandate of Iraq and afterward, and the author of this editorial was a Jewish lawyer in Baghdad, part of what was then a large Jewish community.  Before World War II, the British Mandate of Palestine was charged with setting up a self-governing state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but instead created rising tensions between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the region.  These tensions led to the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, the Jewish militias’ participation in World War II, the subsequent Jewish terrorism to drive England out of Palestine, the Intercommunal War, the foundation of the State of Israel, and the first Arab-Israeli War.  I have not edited the letter other than changing the indent style and adding links to explain his allusions.  I am not endorsing his arguments, but the editorial presents an interesting viewpoint which is easily forgotten in the landscape of today’s ongoing debate on the subject.]

The Iraq Times, November 5, 1938

CORRESPONDENCE: America and the Problem of Palestine

To the Editor.

Sir, – May I be permitted a word of comment on the recent announcement in your columns that a certain number of American Senators, Representatives, and State Governors have petitioned in favour of the National Home in Palestine? Continue reading

MESA: No Longer Non-Political?

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is North America’s leading venue for academic discussions related to the modern Middle East across a range of disciplines, from history to sociology, anthropology to literature.  Since the Middle East obviously matters to the world today, the forum where the experts discuss everything related to the Middle East is important, not just to academics, but to the broader public.  And since, as academics have increasingly pointed out, the rules of the forum shape what can or cannot be discussed in that forum, then a proposed change in the bylaws of MESA’s constitution are of public interest.  MESA members are debating and voting upon whether to strike the word “non-political” from the organization’s self-characterization, adding to the end of the academic society’s objectives the phrase “in accordance with its status as a 501(c)(3) scientific, educational, literary, and charitable organization.”  This post presents my understanding of the issues and evaluation of the options; of course, I welcome discussion or correction. Continue reading

Event Horizons: Turkey’s Military Coups and Varied Trajectories of History

Journalists know that to understand current events, we must put them in context.  The trick is identifying which context is most relevant.  Friday’s failed coup in Turkey was widely reported with a surprisingly standardized context, a canonical list of military coups in the modern Turkish republic since 1960.  While that is surely an important part of the story, there are longer and shorter trajectories of history that are relevant to understanding recent events, even within the specific category of Turkish military coups.

News reports of the coup have been consistently careful to mention the long history of military coups in the modern Republic of Turkey.  The canonical coups, in which the military ousted the civilian government for a variety of reasons and held power for a varying length of time before allowing new elections to be held, occurred in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.  (One article oddly replaced 1997 with 1993, but it is not clear whether that was simply a typo or in fact a reference to the covert coup which some people allege occurred during that year.)  The fact that the first three happened at intervals of a decade was noted, as well as the nearly two decades since the “postmodern coup” (as it is sometimes called) of 1997.  With these coups as a baseline, explanations for the failure of this weekend’s coup attempt illuminate its divergences from previous military interventions in politics.

All of that is well and good, and certainly has its place.  But it is not the only historical trajectory that matters.  This is middling level context, consisting of events within the living memory of most members of society, but Turkey has both a longer and a shorter history of military interventions of politics.

A number of articles initially remarked with surprise on the junior ranks of the apparent leaders of this military coup.  (The enlarging circle of arrests has now included several top military leaders, but that is a revision of the initial story, and it is not clear whether the shift is due to better [unrevealed] evidence or the political goals of the victorious president.)  But this was not the first coup attempted by junior military officers.  In 1908 the Young Turk Revolution forced the Ottoman sultan to reinstate the constitution (which he had been studiously ignoring for thirty years), call together a parliament, and rule as a figurehead, and most of the military personnel in that coup were junior officers who belonged to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).  One of those junior officers was a young man named Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), who in 1916 as a lieutenant colonel was the real hero of the battle of Gallipoli.  Mustafa Kemal, a young general by 1919, led the Turkish forces in the Turkish War of Independence to establish today’s Republic of Turkey in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.  He personally led the new Republic as its first president until his death in 1938, and his political program (“Kemalism”) defined the state for most of the twentieth century.  The Turkish military today sees itself as the last defender of Kemalism in Turkey, and they certainly remember the role that junior military officers can play in military coups.  (It also helps plausible deniability not to have the top brass most deeply involved.)  While no one alive today remembers the Young Turk Revolution, and very few remember Atatürk, military leaders know military history, and this may be a longer-term context in which the coup’s leaders understood their actions.

On the other hand, there is also a much more immediate and indeed personal historical context, which will have an especially strong impact on the fallout of this weekend’s failure.  I have not seen any news reports take serious stock of the increasing conflict between the current Turkish president, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, and the military.  Erdoğan was himself banned from politics by the military for a period of five years following the 1997 “postmodern coup.” In 2002 his new conservative Justice and Development Party (known by the Turkish acronym AKP) was voted into power, and Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003.  In 2007, as the ruling AKP nominated its presidential candidate Abdullah Gül for the upcoming election, the Turkish military said on its website that the country’s foundational secularism was under threat, presumably because Gül’s wife wears a hijab, unlike previous presidents’ wives.  Yet unlike the 1997 memorandum, in this case the army’s intervention failed: Gül was eventually elected anyway, although it took several attempts.  The military’s power was clearly weaker in 2007, and by the time of the Sledgehammer trials in 2011, the AKP seemed to have successfully brought the military to heel.  The government likewise used the Ergenekon trials to target military opposition.  Irregularities in evidence and procedure, and the split between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, led to the convictions being overturned in the past sixteen months, but they are clearly part of a general trend of escalating conflict between Erdoğan’s government and the Turkish armed forces.  This shorter term trajectory of conflict between the military and Erdoğan personally will have a strong impact on the government’s response to the failed coup attempt.  Erdoğan even called the coup “a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”

Did Muhammad Quote Paul?

Reading along in a late medieval Persian history, I came across the Arabic quotation “ما لا عين رأت ولا اذن سمعت” (“What eye has not seen, nor ear heard”).  Most such Arabic quotations in this work are taken from the Qur’an or the hadith, and the editor has identified all the Qur’anic citations, but not those from the hadith.  But since I am skimming this history not for religious themes but for political events, I generally skip the quotations.  This one was different: I had seen that phrase before, in another language.  The apostle Paul had written in 1 Corinthians 2:9: ἃ ὀφθαλμὸς οὐκ εἶδεν καὶ οὗς οὐκ ἢκουσεν καὶ ἐπὶ καρδίαν ἀνθρώπου οὐκ ἀνέβη, ἃ ἡτοίμασεν ὁ θεὸς τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν αὐτόν (“The things that eye has not seen and ear has not heard and have not come up upon a person’s heart, are the things that God has prepared for those who love him”; NA27).  Could it be that a late medieval Persian author was quoting the New Testament?  That would be very surprising. Continue reading

Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East

(It’s been a while since I’ve posted, because I’ve been working on other things.  One of those things was my participation in a workshop earlier this month at Princeton University, organized by Christian Sahner, Jack Tannous, and Michael Reynolds.  Here, as a guest post, is their post-workshop summary of the discussion, for anyone interested in Middle Eastern religious diversity, yesterday and today.)

Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East
A Workshop at Princeton University
May 6-7, 2016
A Summary

On May 6-7, 2016, the Near East and the World Seminar welcomed fourteen distinguished scholars to Princeton University to discuss the place of Christians in Middle Eastern history and historiography. At the outset, speakers were invited to reflect on how the field of Middle Eastern history generally and their work specifically changes when they consider perspectives provided by Christian sources, institutions, and individuals. A working premise of the conference was that although Christians have formed a significant portion of the population of the Middle East since the Arab conquests, the stubborn but understandable tendency of historians to conceive of the Middle East as a Muslim region has had the effect of marginalizing Christian experiences. The result has been to consign Middle Eastern Christianity to a niche specialty alongside larger fields, such as Islamic studies, Byzantine studies, church history, Jewish studies, and Ottoman history. Continue reading