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Survival and Oblivion: Egyptian Jews after the Second Exodus

23 Jun

Whenever Egypt is mentioned today in conversation, it is often with an assumed Islamic identity in mind. A minority of Christian Copts sometimes creeps into the discussion later on as an afterthought. This assumption is often accompanied by the rather unconscious or indirect presumption that there are few Jews in Egypt today, if any. This is not true.

It is easy to understand however why this is the mainstream account. The Second Exodus from Egypt occurred in 1956, under Colonel Nasser’s orders, stripping all Jews of their Egyptian citizenship and expelling them from Egypt. The vast majority of Egyptian Jews fled to one of three destinations of refuge: Israel, Mediterranean Europe (mainly France and Italy) and the Americas (primarily Argentina). This was, however, neither the beginning of trouble for Egyptian Jews in modern times, nor its end.


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Article published in History Today on 8 May 2017.


We’re sorry Isis, we got it wrong…again!

2 May


The atrocities committed by ISIS are known to the vast majority of people. In the UK we have recently been exposed to yet another terrorist attack which ISIS claimed ‘responsibility’ for. We have seen it on the news, we have read numerous analyses of it in the papers and listened to radio reports on security measures in and around Westminister Palace. Nevertheless, none of ISIS’ atrocities are new to us, their crimes against humanity are well observed by media outlets. Yet not many of us realise that ISIS is a name we made up, that unlike al-Qaeda which is a direct transliteration of the older terrorist organisation’s name, ISIS is something unrelated to this relatively new monstrosity.

Their name is Daesh, which we in the Anglophone world, translated into the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ then created the acronym ISIS out of this translation. Some poeple would shrug their shoulders at this and say we call them whatever we call them, it doesn’t matter. But as a matter of fact it matters, because by making up an incorrect name we have also created a confusion between two entirely unrelated entities. Isis is the goddess of fertility and motherhood in ancient Egypt. Her iconography alongside her son Horus has a direct influence on the development of the iconography of Mary and Jesus. ISIS, or Daesh as we should appropriately call it, on the other hand, claim themselves to be Muslim (though many Muslims would disagree with this) and if they could they would destroy all traces of ancient Egyptian heritage as they have done and continue to do with world heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, needless to mention their recent attacks in Egypt.


Mislabelling anything is misleading enough, but mislabelling evil can lead to bigger horrors by allowing it to disguise itself in forms we revere and cherish.

So once again… We are sorry Isis, goddess and mother of mothers!


Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

26 Mar

Retro Me Sathana (1848) or Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, was initially a painting project which Dante Gabriel Rossetti started in 1947 and later had to abandon. The curator of the National Gallery, Charles Eastlake, did not favour the project, perhaps due to its Satanic invocations. It is worth mentioning here that ‘Retro Me Sathana’ is a latin quotation from the Gospel of St Luke; it’s English translation is from King James’ Bible. Somehow the unfinished painting has been transformed into this beautiful Sonnet XLII, first published in the House of Life (1869).

Get thee behind me. Even as, heavy-curled,
Stooping against the wind, a charioteer
Is snatched from out his chariot by the hair,
So shall Time be; and as the void car, hurled
Abroad by reinless steeds, even so the world:
Yea, even as chariot-dust upon the air,
It shall be sought and not found anywhere.
Get thee behind me, Satan. Oft unfurled,

Thy perilous wings can beat and break like lath
Much mightiness of men to win thee praise.
Leave these weak feet to tread in narrow ways.
Thou still, upon the broad vine-sheltered path,
Mayst wait the turning of the phials of wrath
For certain years, for certain months and days.

Haythem Bastawy – Translations of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’

8 Mar

LTU Explorers


18th Century Translations

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1706-21) is the very first translation in English of A Thousand and One Nights. It was translated from Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704-17) by an anonymous ‘Grub Street’ translator. Antoine Galland, a French scholar well-read in languages, is generally considered the European discoverer of the Arabic manuscript which was itself a translation of combined tales in Persian, Indian and other languages.

The English translator, despite producing a superb translation lasting unchallenged for over a century, remains anonymous to this day. His choice of title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, rather than A Thousand and One Nights, is very significant as it from the start represented the book as something very different from what it really was. This also began a naming tradition of the book that all succeeding nineteenth-century translators have preserved even though each of them claimed…

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Review: A Woman of No Importance

3 Sep

A Woman of No Importance
A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Woman of No Importance is a short entertaining play of four acts, by Oscar Wilde. Lord Illingworth, the main protagonist of the play, reminds me a lot of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Indeed his views and philosophy of life echo many of those mentioned in Dorian Gray. He and the rest of the featured aristocracy in the play represent the morally degenerated elite of English society and how dehumanising English and European (French novels mentioned) modernism has become. Hester, the American puritan novelist, on the other hand, stands for the purity and the morality England has lost to attain its condemned modernity. Hester visits England as a descendant of a generation which left England to America three hundred years ago, and after being shocked and insulted by English aristocratic modernity, she decides to leave, taking back with her to America the only two pure characters in the play -who also represent the last of the purity of England. This is a sign of the irredeemability of England’s immorality and the doomed irreversibility of its monstrous modernity.

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Review: Arabian Nights’ Entertainments

2 Aug

Arabian Nights' Entertainments
Arabian Nights’ Entertainments by Robert L. Mack

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments is the very first translation in English of A Thousand and One Nights (1706-21). It was translated from Antoine Galland’s Mille et Une Nuit (1704-17) by an anonymous ‘Grub Street’ translator. Antoine Galland, a French scholar well-read in languages, is generally considered the European discoverer of the Arabic manuscript which was itself a translation of combined tales from Persian and Indian languages. The English translator, in spite of producing a superb translation lasting unchallenged for over a century, remains anonymous to this day. His choice for the title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments rather than A Thousand and One Nights is very significant as it has from the start represented the book as something very different from what it really is. This also begins a naming tradition of the book which all succeeding nineteenth-century translators have preserved even though each of them claimed to be directly translating from original manuscripts.
The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments has been produced at a time when Europe was reconnecting with its medieval past through an unquenchable thirst for fairy tales, something which has massively contributed to the translation’s instantaneous success. It was even very popular amongst culturally influential figures such as Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and Charlotte Bronte. Its stories are alluded to in their work, its plot imitated, and its themes and characters adopted and reincarnated.

The stories of The Nights are based within the frame of the story of Scheherazade. Prince Schahriar, having been betrayed by his first wife, decides that all women are ‘unchaste’. He marries a new bride every night and has her beheaded when the first beam of dawn appears in the sky. It is Scheherazade’s turn to marry the prince, and to avoid a similar fate to her predecessors, she devises the trick of telling the prince a new story every night. Her stories do not end by the end of the night, but become rather the starts of new stories to be told the following nights. Schahriar’s interest in the new story she promises to tell the following night, saves Scheherazade’s head from the executioner’s scimitar at every break of dawn. Some of the popular stories told by Scheherazade to Schahriar, including Aladdin and Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, are not based on the Arabic manuscript but are rather pseudo-translations devised by Galland to complete a thousand stories for the thousand nights he appears to have taken literally.
For over a century this version of The Arabian Nights has continued to be the sole representative of the people it has been given their name in the English language. Subsequent translations could only attempt to get beyond its centrality by exaggerating its stories and excessively annotating them. Its intimate scenes and sexual references have awed and offended its readers. Nevertheless its endless chain-like narrative has never stopped to inspire authors, artists and politicians, and its prisoner queen has been the subject of wild British dreams and illicit aspirations.

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Review: Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of Orient

28 Jun

Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of Orient
Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of Orient by Rana Kabbani

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Studies of the Western representations of the ‘Orient’ reached their peak in the eighties and the nineties of the past century and they continue to be highly influential today. In Europe’s Myths of Orient Rana Kabbani takes on herself the gigantic task of deciphering misrepresentations of the East in the unique legacy of Western travel literature. Kabbani pioneers postcolonial studies by arguing that Western depiction of the Orient as the ‘sensual’ immoral ‘other’ dates back centuries before the evolution of imperial Europe.
Kabbani is a typical metropolitan post-colonial scholar in terms of her upbringing. Her scholarly field of choice, post-colonialism, aims to show the ‘limitations’ of Eurocentric human liberalism by examining the misrepresentations of non-European cultures in Western literature and the Imperial agenda behind them. Born in Damascus at a time when her native Syria was still struggling against colonial France, Algeria fighting its Million-Martyr War against colonisation, Morocco still split between Imperial Spain and post-war France and Egypt torn between a new popular dictator and a grim British past, her family spent their time away from the hubbub of the Middle East between Djakarta and New York. She read her PhD at Cambridge and worked as a lecturer in Beirut and an art critic in Paris. Such a unique and cross-worlds profile has without doubt helped Kabbani to develop a wholistic critical eye that transgresses the tabooed geo-cultural barriers between Orient and Occident.
In her gentle but firm style, Kabbani slowly and concisely argues that the unhappy relationship between Muslim East and Christian West developed in medieval times when, through trade and interaction with Muslim Spain, the West was stricken with fear of and ignorant awe towards a civilisation that seemed in many ways its superior. These feelings threatened the West’s self-respect and in order to protect its Christian integrity the West has consciously and unconsciously developed a false portrayal of the East as loose, ‘lewd’ and ‘sensual’ with an ‘idolatrous’ faith and a ‘polygamous’ ‘impostor’ prophet. Kabbani carefully peels away layer after layer of European travelogue literature, examining the influence of each text on its contemporary culture with a brief but keen scholarly eye. The European traveller himself is also examined as a character that re-incarnates itself in different shapes but often maintaining the same supercilious Orientalist essence, in a way similar to the nature of all Oriental women in Orientalist paintings who ‘appear to be cloned from one model, as if depictions of one woman in an endless variety of poses.’ This elusive spirit of the mainly male European travellers is analysed by Kabbani as the Orientalist painter, writer, translator and creator of the controversial centuries-old Western tale of the ‘Orient.’
Kabbani acknowledges the authority of contemporary predecessors to her work in the postcolonial field, such as Said’s controversial but ground-breaking Orientalism and Kiernan’s The Lords of Humankind and very briefly also leans her metaphorical back on them for support. Nevertheless her own Europe’s Myths of Orient maintains its uniqueness for being one of the pioneering critiques of European Orientalist travelogues in English and their influences on European culture. Although Kabbani’s work flows in a semi-chronological formula from medieval times onwards, Marco Polo gets mentioned only in the penultimate chapter as though he had been missed out and only got remembered towards the end.
Kabbani’s arguments are almost always either derived from texts or supported by texts. There are only two occasions within Europe’s Myths of Orient when the author’s statements seem too general and perhaps unjustified. In the introduction the author applies the premise, ‘To write a literature of travel cannot but imply a colonial relationship.’ The second occasion is when in chapter two she accepts Burton’s ‘crooked’ sexual perversions as typical in one way or another of every Victorian male. In the same chapter, Kabbani provides a superb analysis of the major translators of The Arabian Nights’ personalities and work; Galland, Lane and Burton, however Payne is entirely overlooked and passes completely unmentioned.
Rana Kabbani traces her argument all the way to modern times, including works such as An Area of Darkness (1964) and Among the Believers (1981), taking into account the misfortunes of colonised peoples in Africa, India, China and the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Her arguments though well-structured and generally well-supported seem mostly to take for granted that the ‘East’ and ‘West’ are ideological constructs rather than real geographical locations. Overall, however, Europe’s Myths of Orient is a unique postcolonial, and in many ways feminist, critique of European travelogue and its influences on European and trans-European cultures.

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