Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day randomness

Just a few random, rambling thoughts this sunny, mild Valentine's morning...

Had a busy weekend, which began with my looking at my friend Susi Wyss's web page, I met Susi at the AWP conference in DC last weekend and I instantly liked her: she just seems so smart, wise, and interesting. Susi has what seems to be--I haven't read it yet--an excellent novel coming out just a few days before The Jack Bank does, and from the same publisher (St. Martin's). Her novel is ALL about Africa--weird and wonderful coincidence, no? We're going to try to do some joint Africa-themed events in the Baltimore area.

Anyway, I was reading some of Susi's stellar reviews, and that got me hunting down reviews of my own. I was pretty pleased with this one from Library Journal: Retief has a skillful, subtle style that conveys a sense of atmosphere and his own otherness that grips even when he describes in detail the sordid brutality of boarding school life.” Gripping my readers with sordidness--yes! That'll pull out the book-buying hordes. But then I got thinking: as a writer, should I even be reading my own reviews? My own Valentine, Peterson Toscano, asked a similar question at just about every panel he went to at AWP: should we writers listen to our critics? I told him no, I am just going to ignore my reviews, all they can possibly do is muddy the creative waters. But then I realized: if I put my head in the sand, who will collect the good reviews for my web page? Tenure file? Writers conference applications? So I guess I'm going to be reading my book's reviews after all, God help me...

Yesterday, at the Quaker meeting Peterson and I attend, folks had a lot to say about Egypt: how inspiring the nonviolent change there has been; how destructive the military and financial support for the Mubarak regime. I think I was the only one in the group to have traveled to Egypt, all of the way back in 1993. I remember the beauty of the Nile, the endless hustling of the tourist totes, and the breathtaking pyramids at Saqqara. But I did think: if we North American liberals are going to get THAT inspired by a country we've barely thought about for the last several decades, how about we teach ourselves a little about it? So here are some beginners' links and suggestions:
The novels of Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz. I especially enjoyed Palace Walk.
If you haven't already, read the Koran, a brilliant, sometimes disturbing, poetic sermon on how to be righteous. It also contains alternative versions of the major Bible stories.
Watch some Egyptian movies!

Finally, a sad Valentine's moment--a segment on BBC World Today, about the BBC reporter who had to flee Uganda after telling an MP he was gay. I'm not denying the awfulness of what's happening there in that country, by any means. When I visited in 2000 I was very struck by the climate of terror and homophobic hatred. But really, what does Scott Mills expect if he asks random people in the streets of Kampala what should be done with homosexuals? If I asked this question in rural Transkei, many of the respondents would think I was talking about intersexed people ("hermaphrodites," as they say in rural Africa). Without asking Ugandans about their understanding of the word "homosexual," interviews like this simply become a display of mutual cultural ignorance.


  1. Very good Glen, some thought, some muse and a smile.
    Keep it up.
    God bless ur writing
    Rev Suz x

  2. The cynic in me assumed that Scott Mills had done this as a publicity stunt for the documentary on Uganda that he is currently promoting (indeed, it did make headline news). Since I first thought that I have started wondering if maybe that is OK though, it's good if more people know about what's going on there and as he is a Radio 1 DJ he will mostly well known by young people who may not have previously been interested in the news stories about the murders there.

    I did see footage of him after this incident saying how lucky he felt to be living in a free country in the UK where gay people are so safe and welcomed. On the same day I watched footage of Paul Harfleet planting pansies at various sites in NI where people had been abused and beaten because of their sexuality. I do hope the documentary isn't going to be too self congratulatory regarding UK equality. We have a long way to go before everyone here feels safe and welcomed.

    Love to you and your Valentine. Shirley x

  3. Hi Glen, I find disturbing that you think the Koran is a "a brilliant, sometimes disturbing, poetic sermon on how to be righteous". It's full of hatred and incitement of violence against Jews and "infidels". When Churchill read Mein Kamp, ha said it was "the second Koran". No wonder almost all terrorists are Muslims. I hope you're just being ironic/sarcastic :-).
    About the understanding of the word "homossexual", there's a very funny video in youtube (in Portuguese) of a reporter asking people in a city in NE Brazil , "What you would do if your son was a heterossexual?". Nobody really knew what that word mean, they only understand the "sexual". Most said that they would accept that "choice", some said they wouldn't.


  4. Hi Nathan,

    That video looks pretty funny, although I couldn't follow the Portuguese. It would seem to illustrate my point, though!

    I taught a class on the Koran recently. It was my Thought and Civilization class, a survey of the history of ideas. I raised the point you raised in a slightly different way. I was not aware of the Churchill quote, but I asked my students if they'd ever read a religious scripture with even a quarter of the density of references to hellfire and punishment? They said no, and I asked them (somewhat rhetorically) if this image of God reminded them of Hitler or Stalin, where you go to the concentration camp or gulag if you do not submit (Islam means "submission").

    So I do think there is something very tyrannical in the tone of the Koran. Thus far I agree with you. This is what I meant by the Koran being "disturbing."

    That said, the Koran does not, in my view, even remotely incite violence against Jews and infidels. The secular, modern religious scholars I studied to prepare my lesson unanimously agreed with me, too. On the contrary the Koran tells Muslims to treat Jews and Christians with respect and says there should be no forced submission in religion, only voluntary. The Koran isn't even consistent in what it suggests God will do with Jews and Christians. One moment, it talks about People of the Book finding their own way to Allah, according to their own legitimate revelations. The next moment, it suggests Jews and Christians will go to hell for believing the wrong things about God. But the idea that the Koran advocated genocide in THIS world seems ridiculous, no matter what Churchill, Netanyahu, or for that matter Al-Qaeda say. I asked the students if they could see the Koran calling for civilians to be killed, and they all unanimously agreed no, not at all, quite the opposite.

    The Hadith is another matter. I have never read that.

    The Koran inspired a great empire--created by conquest, like all empires, but nevertheless great intellectually, artistically, and culturally. I am currently preparing a lesson on the Middle Ages, and it's clear how much the Islamic Empire provided medieval Europe and with learning and scholarship. I admire this period of Islam's culture and literature, all the way from Rumi to the 1001 Nights. And the Koran is, for all its authoritarian harshness, a literary masterpiece, with some of the most beautiful language and imagery I've ever encountered in a religious text other than maybe the Bhagavad-Gita. As a formal literary composition-meaning looking at linguistic devices like metaphor, repetition etc.--it is superior to most of the Hebrew Scriptures (other than maybe Psalms, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Job) and I would say to the entire New Testament, which is largely written in pedestrian prose.

    Still, you are my favorite Islamophobe! Happy Valentine's Day! :-)

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  7. Hi Glen,
    First of all, I'm not an islamophobe. Phobia is an irrational fear. My dislike of Islam is not irrational. Is due to what Islam has to say about jews, infidels, women, gays. I also don't like nazism for obvious reasons. So am I a "naziphobe"? By the way, is very interesting that you asked your students about Islam, Hitler , Stalin and submission. Check this passage:

    "The Islamism of all of us is anchored in uncritical loyalty, in the surrender to Allah that does not ask for the why in individual cases, in the silent execution of His orders. We believe that the Prophet is obeying a higher call to fashion our history. There can be no criticism of this belief."

    Sounds like it was said by an Ayatollah, but actually I just modified some words. Here is the original passage:

    "The National Socialism of all of us is anchored in uncritical loyalty, in the surrender to the Führer that does not ask for the why in individual cases, in the silent execution of his orders. We believe that the Führer is obeying a higher call to fashion German history. There can be no criticism of this belief." - Rudolf Hess 1934

    I can't believe you think that "the Koran does not, in my view, even remotely incite violence against Jews and infidels". Please tell me you're just being ironic or sarcastic when you said that (or you were smoking some good stuff). Here are some examples:

    9:123 (Y. Ali) O ye who believe! fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.

    9:73 (Picktall) O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them. Their ultimate abode is hell, a hapless journey's end.

    9:5 (Asad) And so, when the sacred months are over [6] , slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God wherever you may come upon them, [7] and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place [8] ! Yet if they repent, and take to prayer, and render the purifying dues, let them go their way: for, behold, God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace. [9] -

    9:29 (Y. Ali) Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

    9:33 (Asad) He it is who has sent forth His Apostle with the [task of spreading] guidance and the religion of truth, to the end that He may cause it to prevail over all [false] religion [50] -however hateful this may be to those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God. -

    And the hadith:

    The Prophet said, "May Allah curse the jews! When Allah forbade them to eat the fat of animals, they melted it and sold it, and utilized its price! "

    Allah's Apostle said, "The Hour will not be established until you fight with the jews, and the stone behind which a jew will be hiding will say. "O Muslim! There is a jew hiding behind me, so kill him."

    And when you say that "The Koran isn't even consistent in what it suggests God will do with Jews and Christians" , you're ignoring abrogation. The Quran's commandments to Muslims to wage war in the name of Allah against non-Muslims were revealed later by the Prophet and so replace earlier instructions to act peacefully.

    There's more, but frankly I've better things to do than reading the Koran :-)



  8. Try to relax, Nathan! Try befriending a couple of Muslim people, you may be surprised at encountering their humanity. ;-)

  9. Glen, I've nothing against Muslims, otherwise I wouldn't have gone to Turkey. BTW, I'm intending to go to Jordan and Egypt in April. I just wrote in your blog to say that I totally disagree with your assertion that "the Koran does not, in my view, even remotely incite violence against Jews and infidels". And although I'm not a scholar, it was very easy to find several parts of the Koran that incite violence against infidels and Jews. And you can't say that I'm an Islamophobe, because as I said, phobia is a irrational fear. Islamophobia is a term invented by islamists to shield Islam from criticism. Why is it ok to criticize Nazism and Communism, but not Islam?

  10. The vast majority of secular scholars who read the entire Koran agree that while it claims the uniquely correct way of worshiping God (a real problem for me), it also opposes force in matters of religion and calls for particular tolerance for Jews and Christians. I am not persuaded by your reading methods, which amount to cherry-picking quotes that support your prejudices. If I did the same, in an anti-Semitic spirit, with the Hebrew Scriptures, I could assume that observant Orthodox Jews in New York celebrate when goyim babies' brains get bashed out, the ways Psalm 137 celebrates baby-skull-smashing in its final verse. To list just one example. In that case, I would "criticize" Judaism in the same spirit I criticize Nazism and Communism. But I don't do that. Rather, I prefer to try to learn about Jewish history and Jewish cultures as a whole and form real informed opinions of what I do and don't like about these cultures. Same with Christianity, Buddhism etc. I am all for criticizing real human rights abuses regardless of the culture they stem from. I criticize Christian Bible Belt literary censorship, Islamic death penalty for homosexuality in Saudi Arabia, Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial (Islamic), Israeli denial of civil rights to Palestinians (Jewish). I am also critical of particular political ideologies, e.g. radical Islamism, Focus on the Family, extreme Likud, whatever. But I stop short of equating whole vast religions and cultures with vile political ideologies, e.g. "Judaism=capitalist exploitation" or "Islam=Nazism." To me, that is cultural bigotry, not nuanced and informed criticism. And indulging in it does not make the world a safer or better place for anyone. It just breeds strife, misunderstanding, and conflict.

  11. Hi Glen,
    First of all, I'm not cherry-picking. You made an absurd affirmation and I listed some verses of the Quran that contradict it. Just one would be enough. A more simple example: Suppose you say that "all blacks are toothless". Then I show you a black person with teeth. This is enough to show that your affirmation is wrong. It is not "cherry-picking". Cherry-picking is what you do when you ignore any verses of the Quran that contradict your affirmation.
    Instead of doing ad hominen attacks, like saying that I'm an "islamophobe" or have prejudice or whatever (BTW, isn't it ironic that I'm writing this from a Muslim country, Egypt?) , why don't you try to actually support your affirmation, by showing that the verses that I listed don't actually even remotely promote violence/hatred against infidels? For instance, try with this yet another example (there are MANY more):

    8:12 (Y. Ali) Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): "I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them."

    Please try to show me that the verse above doesn't even remotely promote violence against infidels. You may ask your "scholars" for help. Good luck.

    Hugs from Egypt (BTW, my hotel is right next ot a mosque)


  12. Nathan, this particular verse is totally violent and bigoted, but it is contradicted by the overall spirit and intention of the Koran as a whole, which you have not bothered to read. If I ever have time to compare genocidal tendencies in the Koran, the Christian Book of Revelation, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew Scriptures, I'll let you know! I am sure if you look at your own religious-cultural tradition you will find some pretty awful verses and tendencies. I feel that to notice the violence in other faith or cultural traditions (Islam) while failing to notice it in one's own is moral hypocrisy. "Better to be known as a sinner than a hypocrite.”

  13. Glen, if you had bothered to read the Koran, you would have seen that this is not a "particular verse", there are MANY more like it. And jihad is sure part of the spirit and intention of the Koran. And why are you talking about other religions? I posted in this blog because I was surprised by your absurd affirmation that the Koran "doesn't even remotely" preach violence/hatred against infidels. How can you say that this verse is contradicted by the "overall spirit and intention" of the Koran, when it's actually part of it? All the history of islam, from the beginning to the present days, is a history of violence and intolerance against infidels. Jihad started as soon as Islam started. Jihad is the spirit of Koran. Persia was zoroastric, Turkey and Egypt and many other places were Christian, and were forced to convert to Islam. And today you have persecutions against religious minorities in many Muslim countries. That's the intention of the Koran, written in MANY verses.