Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nuclear Country

"When we talk about country music, we have to differentiate commercial music and just music," said James Talley, giving a brief history of country music by way of an introduction to his workshop and performance Tuesday night in Paris at the Fondation des Etats-Unis. Talley is decidedly of the "just music" camp. It is perhaps for that reason he has a low profile outside of true folk, country, and blues enthusiast circles (though one online biography mentions some bad business advice in the 1970s). I admit that I didn't know who he was when I took my seat to hear him play. A quick search during intermission made me surprised that I didn't: in addition to his own 40-odd year recording career, which included B.B. King's first Nashville sessions as lead guitarist on Talley's third album, Blackjack Choir, his songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Gene Clark, Alan Jackson, and Moby (why not?).

"Richland, Washington" tells the story of Talley's early childhood, when is father took a job as a chemical operator at the Hanford Plant, a Manhattan Project site in Washington State that produced the plutonium for the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. When introducing the song, Talley tells how his father decided to leave the job after five years or so, fearing ill effects on his health from radiation exposure, which was known but not widely well-understood at the time. The family moved to New Mexico, where Talley's father was diagnosed with lung cancer, which led to his death at an early age. Talley explains that he wrote the song to explain to his own children, and to himself, what had happened.

You can watch Talley himself tell the story and perform the song in Frankfurt in 2010 here.

In the first two verses, the singer relates the story of his childhood; Talley's narrator tries to tell a tale that makes sense, that explains how his father's job led to his premature death. And yet, the lines of each verse don't seem to quite add up. Rather than forming a fluid narrative, each stanza is made up of only fragments that do not form a whole: I started school, we went to church, we bought groceries, paid the rent. These banal bits of memory are haunted by the repeated line, "My daddy worked at the Hanford plant."

In the final verse, the children respond to the story they've just been told. They can only respond with a series of questions, for the story seems to not be a story at all, but scattered remnants of an unidentifiable past. Each piece of the narrator's disjointed memories are rephrased as a question: "What's plutonium? Where is Richland? Where is the Columbia River?". The last question, which falls harshly on the listener's ear for breaking the rhyme of the preceding lines, is "Who is this man we've never met?"

The song revolves around this absence: the part of the story that would turn the first verses into a coherent narrative -- the father's death -- is never mentioned aloud in the song. This dark moment is never betrayed by the even, steady cadence of the voice. Instead, it lurks in the gap between the initial and final verses, in the change of voice from the singer to his children.

In a 1975 radio interview with Mike Hanes on WKDA, Nashville, Talley suggested that all human experience could be divided between love and the blues. Though "Richland, Washington" sounds for everything like an upbeat country song, it is infused with the blues. This is the source of the song's strength, what enables it be at once light and flat, steady and unsettling, lively and morose, all in a bizarre balance, an uncanny zen that leaves the listener to wonder at the song about a void.

And yet, that's not quite the end. Between the performance I attended on Tuesday, the video shot in Frankfort from five years ago, and the WKDA interview from 1975, the story that Talley tells to accompany the song has stayed remarkably similar. In a way, this spoken introduction is a part of the song, or a part of its performance. The spoken narrative succeeds where the song fails at putting events in a linear, causal sequence. It makes sense, or at least some sense, out of the contingencies of living that put people in situations that do them harm, because they need to by groceries, pay the rent, take care of their kids in school. But what the introduction cannot do is create the feeling of the absence that the song calls up for the singer, his children, and the listener. The song and the story are foils, always appearing alongside each other, one trying to complete the other, trying to make a whole, yet always remaining some distance apart. Rather than closure, it is unresolvable tension that holds together song and story. They do not smooth over the difficult facts of living, but give expression to the contradictions of at once living and telling a story through different narrative forms.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

µblog: Shipwrecks, Ruins, Pizza Hut

µblog: not necessrily 10x1-6 the length of a normal post, but micro sounds cool and has its own symbol.

With other work obligations taking up more of my time, I'm going to do occasional shorter entries: quick thoughts, happy coincidences, open questions. I still have some longer-form essays in the hopper, too.

*   *   *

I recently had breakfast with On Barak[1], a historian who came to Northwestern for a conference and to give a talk to the Program in Middle East and North African Studies. As I and the other students present were introducing ourselves, I mentioned that I was interested in the way francophone North African literature uses ruins (and archaeology in general) as sites of their relation to history. Barak smiled, perhaps something of a wry smile, and remarked that ruins seem to be everywhere in the humanities right now.

Barak's own talk later that day confirmed this, in its own way. Presenting work in progress for his next book project, "Coalonalism: Energy and Empire before the Age of Oil"[2] asked us to consider the role of the Middle East in the ostensibly-English story of coal-fueled industrialization. At the center of the talk was the shipwreck, or rather, the near-shipwreck of the SS Jeddah off the coast of Yemen in 1880.[3] Without recounting the whole tale here, suffice it to say that Barak's interest in the Jeddah is in its status as an accident. Accidents occasion and facilitate historical inquiry; in the disruption of the normal operation of things, the routine and the everyday become visible and enter into the historical record in the vast paper trail that accidents tend to produce. We might see the Jeddah, the shipwreck that failed to sink, as a kind of ruin, a place for the historian to renegotiate our understanding of the past.

Not all ruins are accidents, however, and they do not all get extensively reported or recorded. Indeed, ruins are often the byproduct of efforts to change the past, even to destroy it. In Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction,[4] Gastón Gordillo proposes the term "rubble" for such artifacts, in place of the structured, documented, and often monumental nature of the "ruin". Gordillo investigates interconnected sites of rubble in northern Argentina as a kind of negative critique. They persist as a void that speaks to the obverse side of sanctioned history recounted by the very powers that ordered the destruction.

I was struck by an odd parallel to Gordillo's book while listening to the podcast 99 Percent Invisible. Episode 103[5] tells of Pittsburgh comedian Tom Musial's routine about a GPS that gives directions in local terms, many of which refer to places that are no longer there. This is interesting because, without getting too deep into the details, many critics have argued that capitalism leads to homogeneous, interchangeable spaces: farmlands become subdivisions, strip malls are repurposed as churches, garbage dumps are transformed into sledding hills, and so on, in more or less any combination. If I may be wildly speculative, the joke about Pittsburgh seems to posit a space oriented on the retention of memory of these upheavals. (I think there are about a hundred other ways to read this. We're having some fun here.)

One line from Musial's routine, "turn left at the place that used to be Pizza Hut", unexpectedly became a phenomenon. This description resonated with Pittsburgh transplant Mike Neilson, who was unfamiliar with many of Pittsburgh's disappeared landmarks. The architecture of Pizza Hut franchise restaurants features a distinctive trapezoidal roof and, often, trapezoidal windows that made it immediately legible as such, even when the restaurant no longer occupied the building. Neilson started a blog,[6] which has since documented hundreds of U.T.B.A.P.Hs -- "Used to be a Pizza Hut" -- and the many things they have become all around the world. In these odd structures, interchangeable spaces became marked by their own ability to change, making the malleability of capitalist space visible.


[1] On Barak presented on his recent book, On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt. Berkeley: U California Press, 2013.
[2] On Barak, "Coalonialism: Energy and Empire in the Age of Coal". Northwestern University, October 27, 2014.
[3] Joseph Conrad drew on the incident for Lord Jim, which was later made into a film of the same name by Peter O'Toole.
[4] Gastón Gordillo, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham: Duke UP, 2014. Gordillo maintains a blog called Space and Politics.
[5] "U.T.B.A.P.H." 99 Percent Invisible. February 25, 2014.
[6] Used to Be a Pizza Hut.

Monday, September 22, 2014

(over-)reading Chris Ware's Building Stories

I am a little late to the conversation about Chris Ware's ambitious comics project, Building Stories.[1] Much has already been written and said[2] about this book since its publication in 2012. I want to join the conversation not just because it is pretty incredible, as books go, but because it has also suffered from what I would like to call over-reading, a specific case of the over-estimation that many great works are subject to. My purpose, then, is not to write another review the Building Stories, but to think about what different readings of the book might tell us about reading and interpretation in general.

I referred to Building Stories as a book, but this requires clarification. More precisely, it is a box, about twelve by seventeen inches and two inches deep (a bit large for a bookshelf). Inside are fourteen pieces that resemble a variety of print formats: the Sunday comics strip, the floppy comic, the graphic novel, the tabloid, the newspaper, and other less easily classifiable elements.

At the same time, it is simply a book. But as such, its unusual form asks us to consider just what it is that makes a book into a whole. What is the role of the material experience of reading in this, of holding a book, folding and unfolding it, and turning its pages?

In such a context, Building Stories' apparent formal eclecticism might be better characterized as encyclopedic. Katherine Roeder calls Building Stories "a miniature pantheon of comic art,"[3] not simply a catalogue but a literal collection of storytelling formats, graphic and otherwise, established and novel. For Roeder the tactile experience of reading Building Stories is central to this exploration of formal diversity and potentiality, by "taking it out of the museum and off the computer screen and giving us all something we can hold on to." In this sense, the material variety of the elements that make up Building Stories becomes an aspect that unifies them. Each offers a different reading experience, from the small booklet easily held in one hand to the large newspaper-like foldouts that must be opened on a big table or even the floor.

The question is, how do we read a book that forces us to approach it in different ways? The reader who opens the Building Stories box is immediately confronted with choices: where to begin? There is no first page, or, alternatively, there are fourteen first pages. Wherever one begins, there are two elements that are more or less common to all the pieces in the box: story and style. All the stories involve, revolve around, or parallel the life of the unnamed female protagonist and they are all drawn with an insistent graphic regularity that produces innovative panel layouts through principles of symmetry, scale, and repetition. This lends a unity to the contents of Building Stories, but not a linear order.

One way around this difficulty is to accept the order in which the contents have been packed in the box, roughly from smallest to biggest, top to bottom. This results in a semi-linear story, following the female protagonist as a young art student in Chicago into her adult life as a wife and mother, peppered with flashbacks and other narrative interludes and hitting a few appropriately-dramatic climaxes in a number of encounters with death in the larger pieces at the "end".

This is ultimately unsatisfying and insufficient as a "solution" to the text, however, which hardly supports such a banal reading as "one woman's journey to come to grips with life". This top-to-bottom reading of Building Stories does not actually offer any resolution. A series of panels at the end of this particular sequence puts this into relief. We see a kind of time-lapse of the protagonist's daughter, Lucy, at different ages, asking questions of her mother. It's not entirely clear if the protagonist is recalling memories or simply imagining the course of her relationship with her daughter, but whatever the case may be, she is left alone and without a reply to the final question Lucy asks: "Will I be the most important thing you ever do?"


The reader, too, upon reaching the "end" of any given sequence from the book is always left with an uncertainty, a question without an answer. You always could have begun somewhere else and read the text differently. Another story may have been possible.

It is rather seductive to view these possibilities as boundless. This is part of the book's power, no doubt. One presenter at a conference stated that "all of life is in this box" and that we might read it as "a kind of (secular) Buddhist sutra: here's how to turn inevitable suffering into joy."[4] I believe, however, that this is to mistake Building Stories scope for a comprehensiveness or completeness that that text itself does not ultimately support.

Because, in the end, "all of life" is not in the box. Although there is a certain narrative malleability in terms of the reader's approach to the book, there are still a finite number of components, both in terms of stories and physical objects. The book can only speak on and to a limited number of issues. We begin to over-read when we ignore the physical boundaries that the box has so neatly laid out for us, when we forget the materiality of the book so clearly displayed in its many different forms.

The back of the box is illuminating in this regard. The blurb text insulates against over-reading by presenting the work from a certain ironic remove, proclaiming that Building Stories offers "reading material ready to address virtually any imaginable artistic or poetic taste, from the corrosive sarcasm of youth to the sickening earnestness of maturity" and is "sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public". The back of the box forces us to recognize a tension inherent in aesthetic experience: the reader is invited to identify with the story, but must also accept its critique. The text affects us emotionally and calls us to be aware of the conditions -- here, class and race, in particular -- that make that aesthetic connection possible.

For all of its formal ambition, Building Stories is bound by its own pages. It cannot extend beyond the words and images printed in its various elements. But it is the very fact that it cannot contain all of life, that it is necessarily incomplete and irresolvable as a story, that gives it power. The back of the box also carries an illustration of the different printed elements contained within, which gives the impression of suggesting some ideal order of reading: there are dotted lines and arrows pointing from one text to the next, all related to a diagram of a house. The lines, however, lead to dead ends or make little loops, failing to connect all of the pieces depicted in any single order. Instead, the text clarifies that the diagram indicates "appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents within the walls of an average well-appointed home." This seems to better capture the relation of each part of the book to the others and to the whole: they contain moments of time and place to get lost in. They are part of a larger whole, but, like the rooms of a house, they may be visited in any order, for any length of time. They may be loved or ignored, cherished or forgotten.


For all its unusual characteristics, Building Stories is not a challenge to the supposed linearity of reading in general, whether in novels, comics, or any other genre. Instead, it draws out the non-linear reading practices that we already use with texts that do have a first page and are ostensibly meant to be read from beginning to end. We re-read favorite scenes time and again or flip back to double-check important details; sometimes we look ahead or read the last page first; we skip sections that are uncomfortable or dull; we read one particular book in a series more than the others, and so on.

Whether this means that we should read Building Stories like any other book or that we should read all books like Building Stories, I won't try to say.


[1] Chris Ware, Building Stories. 2012.
[2] A good starting point is a review in Episode 21 of the Comics Alternative podcast and the follow-up blog post.
[3] Katherine Roeder, "Building Stories: Stories about Art and buildings, and Growing Up." The Comics Journal Oct. 10, 2012. http://www.tcj.com/building-stories-stories-about-art-and-buildings-and-growing-up/
[4] Jean Braithwaite, "Varieties of Nonlinearity in Chris Ware's Building Stories." Paper delivered at the PCA/ACA Annual Conference, April 19, 2014. Chicago, IL.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Reservations

Entrance to the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss
This picture isn't my own (I found it here), but I very well could have taken it. I stood in that vestibule and thought about taking that very picture: the minaret framed by the arch, people ducking under the wooden beam that crosses the portal.

Beyond that barrier lies the mausoleum of Idriss I, who, as the founder of Morocco's first Muslim ruling dynasty, is held in the highest esteem throughout the country. In 789, he arrived in the hills of north-central Morocco, fleeing a vengeful relative after a failed uprising in the Arabian Peninsula. At the city of Walili, a former Roman municipality better known by its Latin name, Volubilis, he married a woman from a powerful local tribe and began construction of the future Idrissid of Fes. He died a few short years later, however; the scuttlebutt is that he was poisoned by his Abbasid enemies, although I don't know whether that has been verified.

Today, his body rests in the small town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, a few kilometers east of Walili. It was moved there in the seventeenth century by Morocco's most famous sultan, Moulay Ismaïl, who built the mausoleum in the hopes of creating a major pilgrimage site just twenty-some kilometers north of his imperial capital at Meknes.

The plan worked. The main difference between the photograph above and the one I would have taken is the crowd. It was the time of the Asr prayer when I stood in the entryway and people were streaming in to pray. I felt uncomfortable training a camera on these people preparing themselves for an important ritual.

The absent photograph that I decided not to take, however, is not actually all that different from the one that I later found on the internet. The choice not to take a picture, which I made out of a mingled sense of respect and discomfort, hides the same thing as the photo that someone else did take: my own presence, or that of the photographer.

In this sense, perhaps Moulay Ismaïl's pilgrimage site project worked too well. Its powers of attraction, based on its architecture, historical associations, and religious significance, draw pilgrims of many kinds. Tourists, those omnivorous pilgrims of the Sights to be Seen, add their number to that of the Muslim faithful. Travelers latch on the aura of a place, guaranteed by its inclusion in their handy guidebooks, and channel their experience through vision: being there means seeing what there is to see there, wherever that may be.

But when tourists come to a place, they change it. Their presence modifies, becomes a part of, whatever it was that drew them there in the first place. The presence of tourists becomes a part of the fabric of the place itself. And so tourism engenders itself: people travel to places that people travel to. How can places preserve themselves from this self-fulfilling spatial reconfiguration?

Sometimes, the sights that draw tourists in simultaneously withdraw themselves from view. For this reason, what is most interesting to me in the photograph of Moulay Idriss' mausoleum is the small sign posted in the shadows to the left of the doorway. It announces in Arabic and French that "L'accès n'est pas permis aux non-Musulmans": entry is not permitted to non-Muslims. And so I stood behind the barrier, chatting with a European woman who was waiting for her Syrian husband. We wondered together about what the interior might be like and she speculated that it probably resembled the Bou Inania or Ben Youssef Qur'anic schools in Fes and Marrekesh, respectively, which are open to the non-Muslim public. The thought that this inaccessible interior might seem familiar, were I actually to see it, made me wonder about the nature of the traveler's desire to see a place, to be in it.

Forbidding access to a site with such a powerful capacity to draw in visitors has created a new kind of attraction for foreigners in Morocco throughout history. At the same time, however, those that managed to see sights they believed to be off-limits were often disappointed.

When Edith Wharton visited the country in 1917 at the invitation of the Resident-General of the newly-formed French Protectorate, she was surprised by the suggestion that she visit Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. She writes in the travel narrative[1] published a few years later that "Such a possibility had not even occurred to us. Moulay Idriss was still said to be resentful of Christian intrusion: it was only a year before that the first French officers had entered it" (47). This sense of interdiction lingers today; the travel website where I found the picture of Idriss' mausoleum still reports (erroneously) that non-Muslims are not allowed to spend the night in the town.

However, Wharton was not entirely pleased by what she found when she crossed the threshold. On the day she visited, a local sectarian religious festival featuring dancing with ritual self-mutilation was underway: "I wondered how long I should be able to stand the sight of what was going on below our terrace", Wharton reflected (52). She seizes on something particular about the space to compose herself: "the beauty of the setting redeemed the bestial horror. In that unreal golden light the scene became merely symbolical" (53). When she imagines that the violence on display is purely symbolic, she does so in an aesthetic rather than a ritual sense. In this aesthetic capacity, she can recover her pleasure in entering a once-forbidden space: "we counted ourselves lucky to have entered the sacred town, and luckier still to have been there on the day of the dance, which, till a year ago, no foreigner had been allowed to see" (57).

The traveler's impulse to see is here fulfilled, perhaps all the more for having nearly back-fired. But the scene offered an aesthetic component in excess of its religious function. Other travelers' desires are not always so sated. René de Segonzac, a French Marquis of something or other, visited Moulay Idriss in Muslim garb at the end of the nineteenth century. It's not clear in his book Voyages au Maroc[2] whether he visited the mausoleum, but he did gain entrance to a cave where Idriss is supposed to have taught his disciples. Despite his pleasure at sneaking into a space that would otherwise be closed to him as a Christian, Segonzac is ultimately disappointed by what he finds: "Du côté du Nord s'ouvre une étroite fissure; à gauche une sorte de niche obscure, sans débouché, est creusée dans le paroi. Et c'est tout. La caverne sacrée n'a qu'un intérêt historique" [On the northern side opens a narrow crack; to the left a kind of dark niche, with no outlet, is dug into the wall. And that is all. The sacred cave has only a historical interest]" (91). That historical interest, in absence of a strong aesthetic component, is not enough to satisfy Segonzac's drive to see.

What these cases both illustrate is the problematic logic of dismantling reserved space by opening it to the traveler's gaze. Wharton's and Segonzac's interests are essentially narcissistic. They want to appropriate the aura of place and claim ownership of it through their occupation and observation of space. They see denial of entry only as an obstacle to be overcome.

The sign and wooden beam outside the mausoleum do not simply define who is welcome and who is not, however. Instead, I think they seek to preserve the place's power to attract visitors at all, Muslim and otherwise. Most religious sites in Morocco are closed to non-Muslims and the signs I've seen elsewhere capture this goal better. Most of them read, "Réservée au culte musulman": reserved for Muslim worship. It is not simply that non-Muslims are forbidden entry to particular places, it is that those places are reserved for specific practices, without which they would no longer be the same. These spaces are not forbidden, but reserved.

Reserved space is run through with tension. It gathers people in, but distributes them in ways that are uncomfortable for some visitors. I haven't yet processed my own experiences of such spaces that have fascinated me but also held me at bay. They force me to approach them in ways I wouldn't normally have thought of.

A good example is the Qarawiyyin mosque and university in Fes. It is held to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world,[3] which is quite a draw for me as an universitaire in training, albeit along very different disciplinary lines. But not only can I, as a non-Muslim, not enter the massive complex, its architectural form is nearly impossible to grasp as well. It is ensconced in the winding streets of Fes el-Bali, old Fes, hemmed in at every turn by narrow, shop-lined alleys. Only from the hills above Fes could I catch its outline and, even then, its edges remain amorphous. The eye slips from one building to another in the medina; architectural boundaries become fluid.

al-Qarawiyyin in the Fes medina

Neither posted injunctions or religious functions are absolutely necessary to create reserved space, however. About a week earlier, I spent an afternoon in the small city of Sefrou in the Middle Atlas mountains. A small river runs through Sefrou and, in its course down the mountains, forms a series of cascades. I had imagined I would be mostly alone on the short hike out of town to the waterfall, but instead it seemed as if everyone in the region had gathered along the river. I shouldn't have been surprised; it was a sunny, pleasantly warm day, school vacations were coming to an end. The thing to do was to sit down and join in. There were families with children, mothers in headscarves, shirtless boys, barefoot fathers. A young man and woman, perhaps a couple, sat on a rock midstream, as close to each other as they could be without touching. Below me, two men shared a joint; one of them retrieved a Heineken from a black plastic bag where it sat cooling in the current. He opened it below his knees, glancing around and palming the label as he took a sip.

I had passed some kind of government building downstream -- a transformer station or a small dam, maybe. A sign was posted on its indicating that photography was not allowed. This is common at government buildings in Morocco, but it felt to me as though the sign was referring to the whole space along the river. I couldn't take a picture without disturbing people from their end-of-summer rest and drawing attention to myself. And any photograph I might take wouldn't be able to capture the calm of that place, or how completely these people had made the river their own place.

I admit, however, that the visual traveler in me one out. I couldn't resist shooting a few pictures. I was like the man with the beer, only taking my camera out in the shadows and working quickly, my eyes roaming about to see if anybody was watching me. As I was heading back to town, I realized that people around me had their cameras out, too, from fancy Nikons to basic camera phones. They were taking pictures of each other, of the mountains, of the cascades. The key in this reserved space was not to worry about making myself invisible, but to open my eyes to what was going on around me and how my presence could fit in.

River outside Sefrou (heavily back-lit)

Peaks above the river


[1] Edith Wharton, In Morocco. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1920.
[2] René de Segonzac, Voyages au Maroc. Paris: A. Colin, 1903.
[3] According to UNESCO, which has included the Fez Medina on its World Heritage list since 1981. The Guinness Book of World Records also gives the award to al-Qarawiyyin.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Standing stones

I'll begin within another travel souvenir. This time it's a photograph.


These are the menhir, or standing stones, at Monteneuf in Brittany, a megalithic site comprising some 420 carefully-arranged blocks. I had the chance to visit this place several years ago and remain enchanted by those stones. They are such an imposing part of the built environment, of a landscape infused with human work, yet their presence seems anomalous because their construction is so distant. They produce a powerful effect of meaning -- that is, they elicit the feeling that they must mean something, that they must have something to say. Why else would they have stood there for so long? Or, how could they have remained in place all those years without learning a thing or two to pass on to future generations.

Interestingly enough, they haven't actually stood all that time. Most of the stones were toppled in the middle ages and the full extent of the site wasn't known until twenty-five years ago, when a forest fire exposed stones that had been buried beneath brush, moss, and earth. During archaeological excavations, forty or so stones were re-erected.

I visited Monteneuf with a former professor of mine, Anne Harris, who is a medieval art historian. She is particularly interested in when and why the stones were brought down and has written about the site on her blog, Medieval Meets World:

"Paleo-botany revealed that the stones had been put down around the year 1000 - that's the medieval chapter I'd love to uncover. Putting down megaliths is difficult (as difficult?) work - a tremendous effort, it seems in response to a tremendous force or pull of the stones. There may be nothing more than the paleo-botany to tell the tale (though there are plenty of decrees in England and France from the period banning gathering at stones and trees), but I would like to keep going with it, see where it takes me. I bought the archaeological report right before the office closed and felt lucky."

If the stones themselves won't or can't speak, we can turn elsewhere: archaeology, paleo-botany, medieval law, and so forth. The history that could be written would be fascinating, no doubt. But I want to focus on today is that sense of fascination itself. It is, I think, rooted in the effect of meaning I mentioned above: we cannot shake the sensation that these stones have something to say. The fact that they were raised in some distant past, knocked down maybe a thousand years ago, and partially restored recently suggests that they have been able to produce this feeling throughout their history: it was powerful enough to motivate people to do the very difficult work of carving them out, transporting them, and raising them up; it was intimidating enough for people to tear them down, and it remains fascinating enough for archaeologists to dig them up and for tourists to visit them, take pictures, and write about them years later.

What makes this fascination work, I think, what has captured my attention, is a kind of historical break. These stones are ostensibly from a past so distant and remote as to be lost entirely. The menhir testify that some people, at some time -- probably over a good length of time -- thought it was worthwhile to make this big, enigmatic arrangement of giant rocks. It must have had meaning to them, of course, but it is the very loss of this meaning, the fact that we can never know why exactly anybody would bother to do this, that captivates us. The stones themselves persist, commemorating their own loss of meaning, which, in itself, opens space for creating new meanings.

I don't mean to suggest that we can't know anything about the purpose or function of these megalithic arrangements. Archaeology, geology, paleo-botany, and a host of other fields all prove otherwise. I do, however, believe that such studies cannot exhaust the menhir's capacity to enrapture. Even if we knew exactly when and how they were built, how they functioned as spaces in the societies that built them, and what people did at them, they would continue to fascinate because that past seems so utterly broken off from our own.

Their creators and the world they lived in have died, not just an ordinary death, but a historical death, too. In this sense, the menhir are like graveyards or ruined tombs -- not just of human remains, which some of them are (dolmen, or neolithic tombs, are part of the site) -- but of history as a storehouse of knowledge. Perhaps, if I may be allowed to wildly speculate on something I don't actually know about (honesty is a good policy), it was precisely as a graveyard that the stones frightened their medieval neighbors, who saw in them a place threatening to reanimate the pagan past, to bring it back from beyond the grave.

Death, in this case, does not put an end to knowledge; instead, it calls it forth. I discussed Abdelfattah Kilito's book The Author and His Doubles[1] in my first post and I want to return to it briefly again, partially because I like it so much, but also because Kilito shows how the break created by death, literal and historical, becomes productive in Islam. The death of the Prophet Mohamed brings an end to a brief period of direct divine intervention in human affairs, epitomized by the revelation of the Qur’ān. As Kilito writes, "no intermediary was left, and Heaven fell silent once and for all. . . . A breach had opened never to be closed, and struggles for power began that were never to end" (35-6). No human intermediary, that is; the Qur’ān itself remained, of course, and continued to speak divine revelation, as the Prophet himself would have before. As new conflicts emerge or new questions arise, the solution is to be found in this holy text. Yet their is a problem here, too. Kilito writes, "the Divine Book is not always easy to understand: it contains ambiguities", "apparently conflicting assertions", and "eschatological references of a controversial nature" all of which the Prophet might have clarified, if he were still present (36).

Or perhaps he did actually clarify them in his lifetime. He had spoken and adjudicated on many subjects throughout his lifetime; "Nothing could be simpler," Kilito writes, "than to rely upon his words to resolve the difficulties of the Qur’ān and confront the problems that arose in his community after his death" (36). Scholars therefore began to collect oral recollections of the Prophet's words and deeds, now known as Hadith, that might illuminate their understanding of the Qur’ān. This became a massive undertaking that spanned a rapidly-growing empire and occupied many centuries' work. The scale of the task was only further complicated by the problem of false Hadiths, which required the development of a whole theory of transmission and jurisprudence to differentiate between the genuine and the impostors. As a result, the Mohamed's death became an occasion for scholarship and an impetus for the development of entire sciences. 

Algerian writer Assia Dejbar's novel Le blanc de l'Algérie[2] takes up the productivity of death in another, more ambiguous context. The book is a kind of anti-eulogy to the many Algerian authors whose lives were cut short by disease, war, or assassination throughout the twentieth century. I say anti-eulogy because the narrator seeks to remember her dead compatriots as though they were still present. Her impulse is to make memories haunt the present rather than consign them to the past through a ritualized commemoration. Evoking the white linen of burial clothes, the narrator exclaims to the dead, "Oh, mes amis, pas le blanc de l'oubli, je vous en prie, préservez-moi!" [Oh, my friends, not the white of forgetfulness, please, spare me that!] (56).[3] The risk is not simply that, once buried in the ground, they will be forgotten, but that they will be buried again a second time, beneath layers of religious ritual, of media commemoration, of political appropriation. Djebar's narrator pleads instead: "Je ne demande rien: seulement qu'ils nous hantent encore, qu'ils nous habitent" [I don't ask for anything: only that they continue to haunt us, that they live in us" (56).

Djebar tries to bring this haunting about through a careful recounting of her narrator's connection to each author and the circumstances of his or her death. In this way, her novel is sort of like a secularized Hadith. She pieces together details along with the authority on which she presents them: this or that friend who was present for the death, the funeral, or the burial. The aim, however, is not to imagine what life would be like had these people not died. That is, in a way, unthinkable, as tragic as their deaths may have been. For, again, death becomes productive in its own way. For had Camus, for example, not died, "eh bien, Camus l'Algérien aurait terminé son roman Le Premier Homme, et d'autres mystères, pour lui, pour nous, se seraient obscurcis..." [well, Camus the Algerian would have finished his novel The First Man and other mysteries, for him and for us, would have been obscured...] (111). The inevitably unfinished state of works left at death is not so much a missed opportunity in the past, but an invitation for thought in the future. Djebar's narrator exemplifies this as she gives a conference on this unfinished work of Camus amid her recollections of other writers lost.

Always lurking at the edge of Djebar's anti-eulogy, however, is the possibility of forgetting. She cites the journal of Mouloud Feraoun, an author and school administrator assassinated by the the French paramilitary Organisation de l'armée secrète during the political negotiations following the Algerian war of independence, where Feraoun pondered an end to the struggle that "permettra enfin à ceux qui seront encore là de se remettre à vivre, en commençant par oublier" [that will finally allow those who are still there to begin life again, starting by forgetting" (112). Would living on, in some sense, necessitate forgetting?

The very possibility of forgetting and the mechanism by which one could forget the requires more reflection. I would not say, for example, that we have forgotten the meaning of Monteneuf; rather, it is buried in earth and in time. This is not the same burial as that which Djebar is fighting, which is a kind of forgetting through memory. Yet even when something or someone is buried, more often than not the tomb remains.

It is not sure, however, that a tomb can always speak any more than a megalith. Sometimes even a grave that is visited regularly and whose history is known can be forgotten. A few days ago, I walked out to the Marinid tombs, which sit on a hilltop on the northwestern edge of Fes. The Marinids ruled Morocco from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries and built these tombs in the fourteenth century.



Although the structures themselves are modestly interesting in their own right, the place is mostly known today for its panoramic of Fez.



As such, it attracts fewer locals than it doe visitors, who walk from the four-star hotel next door or are driven up the hill in rented four-by-four vehicles. Unlike anonymous stones rising up in the forest, these ruined tombs feel very much a part of Fes as they overlook the old city and its aged, red walls. The apparent disjunction of its location next to a fancy hotel is, in fact, rather characteristic of the city, where the old and new, the crumbling and renovated, and the informal and regulated everywhere stand side by side. The Marinids are just another piece of Fez's 1200-plus year old history.

What fascinates me about these standing stones is how they become everyday, banal. As tourists gather in front of the empty, crumbling mausoleum, they turn to gaze at a modern city whose ancient core is an integral part of its texture. As they point their cameras, they aim over and past the more modest, whitewashed stones of the Bab el-Guissa cemetery that occupies much of the hillside.

The gesture of turning one's back to the tomb to look out over the city is significant. Where menhir impose themselves, the Marinids have retreated into the background. They still attract our attention through an architectural accident. If putting their mausoleum on a hilltop kept it in view of the people, the direction of that gaze has been reversed. No one in the old city looks up at the tombs; instead, foreigners, who might well have been forbidden from setting foot near the mausoleum in its day, look down on the city, their backs to the grave.

In Fes itself, new kinds of stones are standing.



The white blocks that jut up out of this empty lot give the impression of a sparsely-populated graveyard. Instead, they are power and water hook-ups for new apartment buildings. The concrete foundations have already been laid, but are not visible behind the brush that has grown up around the perimeter of the site. If the standing stones of ruins, tombs, and megaliths mark the location where the past happened, perhaps where it can still be found, these blocks are signs pointing to the future. It is to these blocks, rather than the broken rocks on the hill, that Fes is oriented.

For Djebar, however, death points as much to the future as it does to the past: the dead "nous signifient avec une ineffable mélancolie que ce sera bientôt notre tour" [the dead notify us, with ineffable melancholy, that  it will soon be our turn] (90-1). Such melancholy seems appropriate to the (literally) overlooked Marinid tombs and the modern buildings going up in the city below: perhaps they mean to say that, one day, those below will be like those on the hill.

But that's to make a jump from the effect of meaning to creating meaning itself. Ruins have been made to mean many different things across history.[4] There are particular conditions that make this slippage possible at all: apartment foundations can appear meaningful to me because they resemble graves, something else that produces an effect of meaning, either by imposing itself on the viewer or by withdrawing from notice. In other words, they produce an effect of meaning by resembling something else that produces an effect of meaning; a visual analogy that creates a relation between them, provided you look at things a certain way, at least for a moment. So, no, the city doesn't have to be melancholic; the ruins on its hillsides don't have to foretell its gloomy fate. There are points of view where, at specific instants, that phenomenon emerges.

Something lays beneath, making this all possible, that I have only addressed indirectly to this point: these objects are material links to the past and actually do have quite a lot to say as material stuff. It is the persistence (and transformation) of the material itself that makes the effect of meaning possible, but the material itself speaks in its own way. Speech is a faulty metaphor here, because it constantly drags us back toward "meaning". (If this weren't a blog, I might give myself a headache for a week trying to sort out how to not make a mess of this distinction. For now, we'll keep things a little loose.)

What I'm trying to get it as importance of the stuff itself and how we can apprehend it. This is the business of archaeology (and many other fields, of course), which can seek understanding through the material conditions of stuff alone. To get there, however, we must ask the right questions: before wondering what menhir or gravestones meant to their builders or to us today, we must be attentive to to what they are in their materiality. What kind of stone or brick? Where is it from? What is it composed of? Is it worked and, if so, how? Where is it relative to other objects at the site, both similar and different? If it had to be dug up, what was above, below, and around it? How was it uncovered? And so on.

Whether such thick description can be done without slipping into some kind of analysis or exegesis is an open question. There is always some kind of selection or choice: we go to this place and not that, we ask some questions and not others. We work via analogy: this place is like that, in this way or another. We always bring something to a tomb; if it is only ourselves, our presence, that is already quite a lot. And I don't think we should want to do away with that: it's in the encounter itself that fascination begins.


[1] Abdelfattah Kilito, The Author and His Doubles: Essays on Classical Arabic Culture. 1985. Trans. Michael Cooperson. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2001.
[2] Assia Djebar, Le Blanc de l'Algérie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
[3] These rough translations are my own.
[4] I have in the back of my mind here Roland Mortier's Poétique des ruines en France (Geneva: Libraire Droz, 1974), which I will hopefully visit in detail in a future post.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Times of reading: novels, television, comics

A second essay. It had better be good. With two, there can be no accidents. One standing alone becomes part of a series. Patterns begin to emerge.

Or so we hope. At any rate, the conditions for this all-important second essay have been out of the ordinary. I had some ideas sketched out, they will have to wait: I've been traveling lately, to Montréal last week and to Morocco for a few weeks to come. I don’t want this to become a simple travelogue, but most of my writing will reflect what I’m up to at the moment.

I often associate travel with reading: in a general sense, time in transit feels ready-made for reading, which leads me to bring overly-ambitious and unnecessarily-heavy piles of books with me on the road; more specifically, I sometimes recall trips and books together, either because of what I read while traveling or because the a book deals with a place I've been (or the other way around).

Orhan Pamuk's memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City[1] and the city of Istanbul itself form one such pair. The link between them is clear enough from the title alone, but they also share a second bond for me personally because I read the book while in Istanbul with a group from my college. We stayed in the city for nearly three weeks and I left feeling that one could easily spend a year there and still not have plumbed its extreme historical depths. Bits of the past are almost literally stacked, folded, and layered on top of one another in Istanbul. Walking the city’s streets, I was impressed by the different ways that the material stuff of the past, apparently obstinate and stubborn, remained quite malleable: it could be ignored, buried, or destroyed, reworked, uncovered, or rewritten. This highly-visible hyper-historicity put into relief what is really an everyday process of navigating the past that is an essential part of living in the present for people around the world.

Pamuk's memoir shows this constant negotiation of present and past at an intimate scale. In the book, Istanbul’s epic, longue durée historical complexities play out in individual lives in a sort of familial time. Pamuk recalls the sitting rooms created by upper-class and aspiring-bourgeois Turkish families in the twentieth century, which he looks back on as spatial expressions of westernization. The sitting room required a particular decor and strict etiquette to match: “Sitting rooms were not meant to be places where you could hope to sit comfortably; they were little museums designed to demonstrate to a hypothetical visitor that the householders were Westernized” (13). The contents of these little museums of self-identity reflect the perceived interests of western European elites: pianos (that no one played, as Pamuk recalls it), Chinese porcelain and Japanese screens (an interesting displacement of Europe’s orientalist image of Turkey by making east Asia the oriental object of both Europeans and Turks-as-Europeans), silver, crystal, and so forth. The display of these objects, which was their primary function, was a marker of status to the family itself as much as its potential or theoretical guests. Pamuk speculates that a “person who was not fasting during Ramazan[2] would perhaps suffer fewer pangs of conscience amongst these glass cupboards and dead pianos than he might if he were sitting cross-legged in a room full of cushions and divans” (13).

Pamuk’s comment here links the primary spatial purpose of the sitting room-as-museum to the temporal moment defined by the Islamic calendar and its month of fasting. Its function as a mark of westernization is most pertinent during a period when ostensible non-western-ness would otherwise be highly visible. The room distracts its inhabitants from any anxiety they might feel about being in the room itself.

It would take a different kind of western distraction to effect a further change in the social structure of Turkish bourgeois sitting rooms: the television. As Pamuk puts it, “Once people had discovered how pleasurable it was to sit together to watch the evening news, their sitting rooms changed from little museums into little cinemas” (13). But the television did not work the same way as the sitting room-museum; it crossed class and religious lines differently. As a result, the sitting room’s connection to Ramadan and Islam in general would change. Today, for example, gathering at night to watch special TV programs has become an important part of many families’ celebration of Ramadan itself.

If the sitting room-museum was an architectural response to a certain kind of religious time, the introduction of the television turned it into a space that organized time on its own. The key, as Pamuk sees it, is sound. Before television, the sitting room was a place of quiet contemplation of objects on display, epitomized by the unplayed piano. At times, this quiet allowed for unexpected and unpredictable moments of familial calm in the Pamuk household. The young Orhan wanted to become a painter and was inspired in these moments to do family portraits:

“It was when tensions between my parents had softened somewhat—when no one was needling anyone else, and everyone was relaxed, and the radio or maybe a tape was playing in the background, when the maid was bustling in the kitchen as she cooked our supper, or just before we all set out together on an outing or a trip—that I would do these paintings, always in a single of inspiration . . . . It was an arrangement devoid of arresting detail, provoking no discussion, but this was why it attracted my attention. When this tableau made one of its rare appearances, I would whisper, ‘I’m going to do a painting’” (354-5).

In the stillness of this prolonged instant, a fleeting sense of happiness emerges, specifically linked to the quiet: “perhaps my mother and father looked happy because they weren’t speaking. . . . A magical silence would descend over the room as my mother and father stretched out, perfectly still, not saying a word but expressing what seemed a shared anguish” (355-6).If this calm was rare at home in Pamuk’s childhood, it was also historically contingent and its time came quickly: “later, in the seventies, when like everyone else in the country we bought a television set and they [my parents] somewhat sheepishly surrendered to its entertainments, there were no magical silences, and I never again had the desire to paint them” (356).

When I first read Pamuk’s memoir five or six years ago, this seemed like a great loss, an emblem of the aesthetic impoverishment of everyday life at the hands of modern technology. No doubt this had something to do with my own experience of television. Unlike Pamuk growing up in Turkey in the sixties and seventies, there never was a moment when television entered my life. It seems to have always been there, and yet I never really used to watch it. I would have much rather read than anything else (often including having dinner or going to bed). It always seemed more of a distraction than anything else.

It wasn't until I graduated that television had any appeal to me, when a combination of free time and a Netflix subscription opened up a (very digital, very virtual) world of possibilities. What surprised me most was how good much of it was. Television, it turned out, could be a vibrant, compelling means of storytelling (though not all of it is, of course). This discovery was pleasant, but also a little sad: sometimes, watching television at night feels like one of those pessimistically adult gestures that stand for the supposedly-inevitable loss of childhood's wonderment, as if I had given up the imaginative world of reading as Pamuk had stopped painting family portraits.

I think, however, that this is too easy a conclusion, based on nostalgia for time past, whose supposed disappearance is marked by the arrival of at television set. Looking more closely at the Pamuks’ “magical silences”, we see that they weren’t actually particularly silent. The radio was on, or music on the tapedeck, and the maid was busy moving about the kitchen. Stillness, strictly speaking, wasn’t maintained either; Pamuk writes that sometimes his father would put on Brahms and stand up at the most energetic moments to conduct an imaginary orchestra. What television did, in fact, was to channel the activity in the room through its screen. But it can also simply be in the background, present but not commanding, like the radio or the noise from the kitchen.

I don't believe that loss and nostalgia are really the core of the issue. Instead, it is about the structure of time. After a day’s work in French literature, theory, and criticism, reading for pleasure isn’t always that appealing, but that should not mask the fact that I have, in fact, spent my day reading, which is (usually) a rather pleasant thing in and of itself. If I watch TV in the evening, reading hasn’t gone out of my life.I began reading comics relatively recently and am always ready to open a comic book (or a graphic novel, if you like) in the evening. Although turning to an ostensibly-childish medium (although such a conception is quite mistaken) may seem particularly fitting as a response to the threatened disappearance of reading time at the heads of grown-up responsibilities, comics are not actually not a means for me to overcome being a grumpy, jaded, TV-watching adult by returning to a childhood delight in reading. What has made reading comics so exciting is not a return to a past way of life, a familiar kind of time, but the discovery of a new kind of reading, a new possibility of aesthetic experience. It is the discovery that one kind of reading need not override another.

I had wanted to do my second reciter essay about comics. It is precisely because comics don't fit squarely with my main academic work that I find them really intellectually rewarding. In a way, comics are all the more stimulating to my research because of this. As with travel and reading, connections arise on their own just as often as when I seek them out.

To that end, I'm currently working on a piece about Joe Sacco's excellent works of comics journalism, Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza. Being away from home has made it difficult to finish, however, not only because I am already carrying around other books that I haven't yet read, but because I also took advantage of my time in francophone Canada to pick up Guy Delisle's Chroniques de Jérusalem, which I may want to consider alongside Sacco's books. I’ll leave it for another time, then.


[1] Orhan Pamuk. Istanbul: Memories and the City. 2003. Trans. Maureen Freely. New York: Vintage, 2004.
[2] “Ramazan” is the Turkish spelling of the Arabic word normally transliterated in English as Ramadan.

Monday, August 4, 2014

An introduction: the imperative to read

A blog must have a clever title. Perhaps I am over-reaching. A title shouldn't require explanation. Too late. Why reciter? This sort of made-up word creates a point of contact between the languages I work with, primarily French, English, and Arabic.

Réciter is the French verb meaning “to recite.” I like to imagine two fictional etymologies of this word: récit-er, from the noun récit, narrative, story, or tale, and ré-citer, to cite again. In this juxtaposition, reciter is the tension between creation and repetition. It takes inscription, citation and recitation alike as active elements of reading and writing.

Reading and writing are themselves intertwined, not as abstract activities, but as specific, historical practices. reciter will reflect on the tangled knots they form, situated in a particular time and place, and think through how such bonds are loosened or remade, forgotten or preserved, in the circulation of readers, writers, and texts.

I recently re-read one of my favorite books, Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Author and His Doubles.[1] Its eleven short essays on classical Arabic literature and culture are at once insightful and accessible, beautiful and playful, all in just over a hundred pages. The second chapter, “Verses and Reverses,” takes up the pre-Islamic poetic tradition, which, religious texts excepted, is considered the foundation of Arabic grammar and literary style. If this is the degree zero of Arabic literature, Kilito argues that it is marked by the memory of its own tradition. The poet ‘Antara, author of one of the hyper-canonical mu‘llaqāt or “Hanging Odes” that are held as the epitome of pre-Islamic poetry,[2] begins by asking whether his predecessors have left anything unsaid. He likens himself (following a conventional image) to one who has come upon the traces of the abandoned camp in the desert. In Kilito’s reading, at “the beginning of the poem—or rather, at the very beginning of poetry itself—we find a concern for repetition and imitation” (10). Repetition, however, reveals itself to be essential rather than redundant. Kilito continues, wondering “what would a verse that bore no link to ancient verse even look like?” (11). This question animates my investigations here.

By way of a beginning, let’s take a beginning that isn’t quite one: the first five lines of Sūrat al-‘Alaq in the Qur’ān, which are traditionally held to be the first verses revealed to Mohamed, even though they are compiled toward the end of the book itself. They begin with the injunction to read, iqra’: “read in the name of your Lord”. The word, however, is often translated as “recite”. This translation indicates that the imperative iqra’ is not just a command to read and understand a certain text. It enjoins the reader to practice a certain kind of reading that is as much a linguistic practice as an interpretative one, if not more so. Correct reading in the exegetical sense comes to depend on correct reading in the literal sense of pronunciation. Reading and recitation are not separable practices here.

Recite in the name of your Lord who created -
Created man from a clinging substance.

Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous -


Who taught by the pen -


Taught man that which he knew not.[3]


This specialized kind of reading has its own special science: tajwīd is the practice of Qur’ānic recitation, comprising a set of rules of vocalization and intonation that delimit the interpretive possibilities within the text. Accurate pronunciation is necessary to establishing the text’s meaning, even as tajwīd is nothing more than reading what is already on the page.

The nature of this circular process, based on the link between a word’s pronunciation and its meaning, may not be immediately obvious to an English speaker. The reason is that the Arabic script, like other Semitic scripts, began as an abjad, an alphabet whose letters only represent consonants. Readers can understand which vowels go where based on morphology and syntax and pronounce such texts with ease. In modern Arabic writing practice, consonants and long vowels are always explicit. Short vowels and other phonetic markers are optionally rendered as diacritic-like elements called tashkīl, marks that “give shape” to words. Tashkīl are unnecessary to most reading and are only included for aesthetic effect or in the more-or-less uncommon case of an otherwise-irresolvable ambiguity.

The primary exception to this pattern the Qur’ān, where tashkīl have been written out in full since the ninth century or so. Ambiguity is, at least in theory, written out of the text in the form of tashkīl, which give shape and, therefore, clarity to the words they adorn. Tajwīd is the realization of this clarity through a reading that gives voice to a vocalized text: right understanding through correct pronunciation. The text both prescribes and inscribes a particular kind of reading that can only be actualized in its recitation. Tafsīr, or exegesis, can only occur in the transparent textual and vocal space guaranteed by tajwīd and tashkīl.

The injunction iqra’, or even the word al-Qur’ān[4] itself, which is sometimes used to mean “the recitation”,[5] is the point of entanglement of particular practices of reading and writing. The demand for recitation refers back to and affirms the text’s claims to divine utterance. This form of reading is the only conduit through which the book’s meaning or truth becomes accessible. This is why the Qur’ān is considered untranslatable: it is not that adequate words cannot be found in other languages, but that they cannot be read in the same way.

This practice of recitation also refers back to ‘Antara and the Hanging Odes. From its birth in the seventh century on, Islam turned to its inherited poetic tradition as a reference for the standardization of Arabic style and grammar, a project that itself aimed at the clarification of the meaning of the Qur’ān. The significance of pre-Islamic poetry is wound into the knot of the imperative iqra’, even as it becomes the deserted trace of a time past.


[1] Abdelfattah Kilito, The Author and His Doubles: Essays on Classical Arabic Culture. 1985. Trans. Michael Cooperson. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2001.
[2] Supposedly, the seven finest examples of pre-Islamic poetry were embroidered in gold and hung in Mecca. As Kilito discusses in Chapter Five, “Poetry and Coin”, the authenticity of this legend is dubious, as is the pre-Islamic corpus itself, which was almost certainly compiled after the advent of Islam (45-7).
[3] The Holy Qur’ān, ‘Al-Alaq 96:1-5. Trans. Sahih International. http://quran.com/96
[4] There is some debate as to whether the word al-Qur’ān is derived from the Arabic root qara’a, “to read”, or borrowed from Syriac, where its equivalent is qeryānā, a scripture lesson or reading. Either way, it is held to have been current in Arabic at the time of Mohamed.
[5] See The Holy Qur’ān, al-Qiyāmah 75:17-18. Trans. Sahih International. http://quran.com/75