Snippets from the paper I read at Tea with the Sphinx Conference in Birmingham last month. The paper discusses George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede, and the author’s attempt to create a new creation story by combining ancient Egyptian motifs with the Genesis story. George Eliot renounced Christianity in her youth and in her first novel she was attempting to create her own gnostic gospel, or alternative to Anglican Victorian Christianity. The paper is scheduled for publication as a chapter contribution in a collected essays volume by Manchester University Press.
Snake Worship in Ancient Egypt
The article is out now in the current issue of Nile Magazine. I discuss in it snake worship in ancient Egypt within the context of an old struggle between monotheism (the Abrahamic faiths in particular) and its ancient rival, polytheism (pagan religions).
Written in the spirit of the ancient wisdom!
Further details on the article and the issue in the link https://www.nilemagazine.com.au/
Survival and Oblivion: Egyptian Jews after the Second Exodus
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.
Read more here
Article published in History Today on 8 May 2017.
We’re sorry Isis, we got it wrong…again!
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
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’
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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Introduction to John Clare
This was the title of one of the workshops I attended last weekend during the Southwell Poetry Festival. I went to the workshop completely blank on John Clare. The only thing I hardly knew about him was that he was a poet from the Victorian era.
I walked into the workshop room, the Powerpoint was switched on, and a colourful portrait of the pale red-haired poet was projected on the wall. The presenter was standing next to it in a semi anxious waiting pose, looking at a half-empty room. I asked, ‘Is this John Clare?’ She smiled and said, ‘It is.’ I realised instantaneously that she thought I was talking about the portrait not the workshop, and I sat on the second nearest seat from where I stood, trying to deflect any unnecessary attention I brought upon myself by fondling with the survey card that was on my seat. A minute later a woman in her fifties walked into the room and sat next to me. ‘So you didn’t strain any muscles with your heavy lifting this morning.’ I was still self-absorbed in my embarrassment and for a second I didn’t get what she meant. Then I remembered my helping with the chairs in the workshop I attended earlier. She must have been there too. ‘Ahh! I see what you mean.’ She smiled and got out a sandwich from her handbag. ‘There is just not enough time between sessions.’ ‘No there isn’t’ I humoured her thinking that I didn’t know what to do with myself to waste the 45 minutes in-between. ‘Brilliant poet John Clare!’ She said, ‘Do you know that he wrote prose too.’ I shook my head.’Unfortunately most of it is inaccessible because someone called Eric Robinson has claimed copyright to it.’ She said before drawing her attention back to her sandwich.
Soon the room filled in, and the presenter closed the door and introduced herself as a poet and a member of the John Clare Trust and the rest was brilliance. The pictures she used of the village where he grew up, the stories she told of his struggles to get published and his mental issues brought the dead poet to life to me. Apparently he is viewed as the first British ecological poet and the father of environmentalism. One of the things she spoke of was how growing up as an agricultural labourer has shaped his work. Clare loved walking in the communal fields and often found inspiration there and the ban of access to these fields came as a big blow to him and the other agricultural labourers of the area. The ban was something he opposed strongly in his writings.
This piece of fact, along with what the lady sitting next to me had told me before the workshop started struck a major irony in my mind. Here is a poet who promoted communality and open access of property in his work and yet his own work after his death was copyrighted by a non-Clare who prevented the reprinting of it and public access to it. How outrageous Clare would have found such claims had he been still alive!
Review: Daniel Deronda
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Daniel Deronda is an over-written excessively expansive book that would have made the same point and stressed on the same themes in just half its size. I give Eliot though the credit of immense research and maybe she just wanted to translate it all into this which subsequently deemed it out of focus.
Daniel Deronda discusses a lot of the themes of its day, illegitimate children, pre and post-marriage relationships, filial duty and how far it should go, anti-semitism, Judaism and more than anything else Zionism.
Zionism explained though unnamed takes the biggest place in the book. Daniel Deronda is occupied throughout the book with the question of his parenthood. He eventually discovers that he is a Jew, born to two Jewish parents. He also befriends Mordecai who teaches him Hebrew and gives him a purpose for his life, which is to fight for establishing a home land for the Jews in the East, in other wordsto become a devoted Zionist.
Zionism, controversial as it is, does not require much commentary. It’s complete disregard for Palestinians, the inhabitants of this so called homeland is utterly as disgusting as the antisemitism Jews have been subjected to in Europe.
I also disagree with the notion of classing Jews in general no matter where they come from as a race. Religion does not make a race. It is the physical and cultural traits that make a race. European Jews have different religious habits from Middle-Eastern ones, Russian Christians are different from Coptic or Greek Christians and Egyptians moslems celebrate Eid differently from Saudis, Pakistanis or Indonesian. Religion is not good enough to call the people who belong to it a race, hence not good enough for founding a state upon it.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What a book!Remains experimental in style today after over a century and a half of seeing the light!
Ishmael, the narrator, comes across as a very reflective, thoughtful person who has done a lot of research in the world of whaling and even decided to experience it first hand, and it is this experience that makes up the story of Moby-Dick.
The whole story could be read from the perspective of the civil vs the savage. On the superficial level, the savage is Quick Quag with his harpoon, ugly tatoo and very little words forming a brotherhood bond with Ishmael, the civil, the thinker, the voice.Although Ishmael seems impressed with Quick Quag’s soft-heartedness, bravery and generosity, he doesn’t hesitate to refer to him as a savage when he takes his money or pagan after becoming his brother. Ishmael also redicules Quick Quag’s religion and fasting, for Ishmael every man is entitled to their own belief, however not Quick Quag whose religion is nonsensical. Ishmael also does not seem very affected when his brother the savage is believed to be dying and the carpenter even gets his coffin ready for him.
On another level, the civil is the whale who is described in all sorts of majestic words and Ishmael goes through a lot of researching trouble to prove the regality of whales in general and Moby Dick in Particular. The savage is the whaler in general and Ahab, the captain, in particular. Like Quick Quag, Ahab is strong-willed and brave to a level of recklessness and like Quick Quag he is ridiculed in physical appearance, he is old, wrinkly with an ivory stub for a leg, which gets broken on various occasions to serve for further ridicule.The chase and the strife between Ahab and Moby Dick is catharsisistic in the story, for they too are bonded till death. In the end, the civil, the whale, Moby Dick prevails over Ahab, his ship and his crew including Quick Quag, and Ishmael the other civil survives to tell the story.
Ishmael’s name also stands for the civil and the savage. For Ishmael is the son of Abraham, the man, the prophet, the wise, the civil on one hand and on the other he is also the son of Hajra, the woman, the slave, the abandoned, the savage.
Immortality and the Ancients
One of my friends asked me once this genuine question, ‘How old do you have to be so that people class you as ancient?’ I didn’t know, I thought maybe a hundred years old, five hundred years, a thousand years. I looked it up and there was no clear answer. It depended on the context and the relativity of the situation. The only thing that was certain was that it meant too old, and that I knew.
But the question made me wonder since ancient means too old, and we can use it to refer to a person, a culture or a civilisation that has been around for centuries, or left its remnants behind as a constant reminder of its existence, deeming it perpetual in its own eccentric timeless way, what can we class as immortal. The ancient Greeks and Romans left behind pillars, statues, amphitheatres and Colosseum. The ancient Egyptians left behind pyramids, temples and obelisks, even their dead they mummified so that they remain. Remaining was always what these great ancient nations wanted to do, and leaving a story to be told was what they tried to pass down. Chronicles were carved on temple walls, papyrus records were preserved in pottery jars and leather pouches.
To be remembered, the new pharaoh right after ascending the throne, would commission a statue, an obelisk, a new temple maybe and some even went as far as ordering the build of a pyramid. When they died the most beautiful works of art were put down with their mummies in royal temples, masks of gold and statues of marble and stone. Tutankhamun, the child pharaoh, has been immortalised not by his great achievement as a great king, god and ruler, but through the 1922 discovery of his intact tomb and the artefacts found in it, including the incredibly beautiful golden mask.
Now he and others are remembered for something they have not done, but had it done for them. It is the artists, the engineers, the writers, the craftsmen that achieved these rulers’ immortality. A power they had to give to others, but lacked the ability to bless themselves with. A very scarce number of artists from these times are known, fewer even are remembered when referring to these civilizations. However ultimately it is the work of art that remains, holding in its curves and timeless eaves the memory of the ancient and the beauty of its immortal presence.