Monday, June 29, 2015

The Pharisees by Amy-Jill Levine

He even said to some of those believing in themselves that they are righteous and despising the rest this parable:

“Two people went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing, by/to himself, these (things) prayed, ‘O God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of the people, greedy unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast two times of the Sabbath [i.e. each week]; I give a tenth of whatever I acquire’
“But the tax collector, at a distance standing, did not wish to raise his eyes to the heaven, but he beat his breast, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

“To you I say, descending to his house, this one is justified, alongside that one. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted”
                                                     Luke 18, 9-14

.  .  . Like the quest of the historical Jesus, there is also a quest of the historical Pharisees, for ironically the only self-identified Pharisee from whom we have written records is Paul of Tarsus. Thus, in order to understand the Pharisees we need to look at literature written by outsiders to their group, including Josephus, The Dead Sea scrolls, the later rabbis, Paul himself, and some of the early followers of Jesus with whom they were in competition for reception by the broader Jewish community in the land of Israel.

Since members of this group are most familiar to modern readers because of their New Testament portraits – the term “Pharisee” is still seen as synonymous with “hypocrite,” a connection made by the New Testament (see especially Matt. 23) – we start here. And we start, given our parable, with Luke’s portrait.

Unlike the invariably positive tax collectors in the Gospel tradition, Luke’s depiction of Pharisees is more ambivalent, albeit ultimately negative. Pharisees do have their good points. Some invite Jesus to dine with them (7.36; 11.37), and they do ask questions that need not be perceived as hostile (17.20). Their warning to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (13.31), can be seen as benevolent, although it could also be read as an attempt to prevent Jesus from entering Jerusalem and so to abort his mission. Finally, the Pharisees drop out of Luke’s Passion narrative so at least they are not directly responsible for Jesus’s death.

Pharisees are also pictured in Acts in a generally positive light. The Pharisee Gamaliel speaks on behalf of Peter and John after they were arrested by the Sanhedrin (5.34-39); Paul acknowledges his Pharisaic connections (26,5; cf. Phil. 3.5).At the Jerusalem Council, held to debate the requirements for gentiles in the church, Pharisees appear as members of the Jesus movement, albeit on the wrong side of the debate (15.5*1).

However, the majority of Luke’s references to Pharisees are not complimentary. Unlike the tax collectors, Pharisees reject John’s baptism and so God’s purposes (7.30). Jesus condemns them for greed and elitism (11.38-44; 16.15), and Luke adds the generic insult that they were lovers of money (16.14). Primarily they serve as negative foils who complain about Jesus’s dining with those tax collectors and their sinning friends (5.30; 7.39; 15.2); fuss over his claiming the ability to forgive sins 95.17-26); complain about his disciples’ picking grain on the Sabbath (6.1-5); condemn Jesus’s healing on the Sabbath (6.6-11); seek to silence his disciples praise of him (19.39); and attempt to trap him rhetorically (11.53-54; 14.1-6. *2)

For the majority of Jesus’s Jewish audience, however, the Pharisees would have been respected teachers, those who walked the walk as well as talked the talk. Josephus, a priest who found the Pharisees’ voluntary organization in competition with his own inherited priestly status, mentions their interpretations of the Torah designed to make the ancient teachings relevant to the society of their day: “On account of which doctrines, they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.”

The New Testament’s comments on the “traditions of the elders” may have some connection to these Pharisaic up-datings. For example, Mark 7.3 states that the “Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” Jesus rejects some of these teachings; instead, on what appears to be more an ad hoc than systematic basis, he develops his own interpretation of the Torah. We can see his own version in his comments on Sabbath healing (Matt.12.10-12) or in his extension of the commandments regarding murder and adultery to love of enemy and forbidding lust (5.27-28; 43-44 *3).

Pharisaic interpretations of Torah distinguish the Pharisees not only from Jesus, but also from the Sadducees, a point the New Testament also notes. Josephus explains:

The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are written in the word, but are not to observe what are derived from the traditions of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace favorable to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.

In Paul’s view, his being a Pharisee was a marker of distinction (Phil. 3.5 *4).

Following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, members of the Pharisaic movement, along with scribes and others, came to compose what has come to be known as rabbinic literature. The rabbinic texts, more or less contemporaneous with ante – and post- Nicene fathers, include the Mishnah, a compendium of Jewish law written down around 200 CE; the Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, and the Yerushalmi of Jerusalem Talmud (commentaries on the Mishnah, finally redacted after the fifth century); and the equally late midrashic collections (running commentaries on biblical books, such as Genesis Rabbah and Ruth Rabbah).

There are connections between the first-century Pharisees and the later rabbis. For example, both groups are concerned with Sabbath observance, dietary regulations, ritual purity, and promoting correct understanding and following Torah. Thus the Pharisees could be seen as ‘proto-rabbis.” However, there are also distinctions, just as there are in every party that lasts for several centuries and faces new circumstances including, in the case of the rabbis, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the disastrous Second Revolt against Rome in 1323-35 and the growing presence of the rabbinic community in Babylon (present-day Iraq).

Nor can we go directly from the rabbinic literature to the earlier time of Jesus. Rabbinic literature is generally prescriptive – it details the way rabbis would like to see Jewish life lived – rather than descriptive – it is not a direct window into actual practices. Moreover, rabbinic literature is often a series of disagreements among rabbis rather than a definitive code; the rabbis debate everything, from circumstances under which divorce can be granted to the determination of what constitutes work on the Sabbath. Consequently, as we’ve seen throughout these studies of the parables, it is highly problematic to take a rabbinical statement, unsupported by any other text of the first century, and understand it to be representative of the practices at the time of Jesus.

We may be on safer historical ground by looking at rabbinic storytelling. Whereas laws must be adapted and should be debated for the health of a society, stories can remain stable over generations. Rabbinic parables may well reflect earlier views, especially since they tend to be connected to a biblical passage; the laws themselves are more likely to be adapted.

With regard to their sphere of influence, Pharisees were substantially village – rather than Temple-based. The Temple was the center of priestly power. Josephs recounts how the Pharisees sought to influence Temple practices: that is the meaning of  “and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction” in the earlier quote. We might compare attempts by lay Catholics to determine the celebration of the Mass. Thus the Pharisees were not on home turf, but they were in a place whose operation and leadership would have been of great concern to them.

Although some scholars suggest that the Pharisee of our parable was a “retainer” in the Temple system and that “through the network of synagogues, the Pharisee and his faction participated in efforts to enforce collection of tithes, the ancient sources do not support the claims. Tithes were collected by regional Temple representatives, not Pharisees. Second, Pharisees do not run synagogues; synagogue rulers do. Nor, by the way, do later rabbis run synagogues; rabbinic literature locates them primarily in the schoolhouse or academy.

Equally incorrect, albeit probably as popular, is the insistence that Pharisees “believed that God’s blessing, most notably ridding the land of Romans, was contingent upon their achieving a significant obedience among themselves and among the population as a whole,” that they were “very nationalistic and fueled an intense hatred of Gentiles”, or that they insisted that a “minute obedience to their detailed laws” was necessary in order to “stay saved.” Again, we do not have direct information on what the Pharisees believed. The New Testament portraits give no indication that the Pharisees were ultranationlists or that they fueled an intense hatred of gentiles.  Those who claim that Paul, the (former) Pharisee, was a political firebrand take their case from Galatians 1.14, where Paul says, “I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” However, to be zealous for his tradition does not make him a political “zealot” seeking liberation from Roman domination.

It is easy to compare them to whatever population is seen to be judgmental, parochial, bigoted, stuck-n-the mud, or otherwise unable to see the “newness” of the “good news”, as the pastor so understands it. The problem is that the “good news” should not be based on bad history; nor should the reaction of the congregation be, “Thank God, I’m not like those Pharisees (baa baa baa).”

Were Jesus to have told this parable to a group of Jews, they would have begun with the impression that the Pharisee was pious and righteous and the tax collector sinful and self-interested. It turns out, the parable would have confirmed these views. And yet it still provokes.

[.  .  .  .]

At the end of the parable, we are left without full resolution, which is what a good parable should do. Is the Pharisee praising God or praising himself? Is the tax collector trusting in the divine or not? Will he keep his day job and continue to sin, or will he make restitution for his sins and find another line of work? With whom are the readers to identify, the Pharisee who does so much more than expected, and perhaps is a bit self-satisfied in the process, or the tax collector   who, as far as we know, has done nothing for the benefit of the community (he is a Roman tax collector), but who at least seems sincere in his request?

We cannot fully identify either with the Pharisee, who will continue to behave in a righteous manner far beyond what most people will do, or the currently repentant tax collector, who may continue to do the wrong thing. Once we judge one better than the other, we are trapped by the parable. And if we dismiss them both, we are also trapped, for most of us are neither as supererogatory as the Pharisee nor as sinful as the tax collectors (who must need ‘farm’ the taxes he collects for his own benefit).

But we do see again through the parable ideas that we already, somehow, knew but did not want to acknowledge. We see that divine grace cannot be limited, for to limit this grace would be to limit the divine. This unlimited grace is something many of us find problematic. We are quote happy when we are saved; we are less happy when this salvation is extended to people we do not like, especially when our dislike is bolstered by seemingly very good reasons such as, “He’s a sinner.”

The type of generosity shown by a God who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike, the type of generosity that allows the tax collector to tap into the collective repentance of the Temple system and the good deeds of the Pharisee, is what we want for ourselves, but what we don’t want others to have. And we know, deep down, that our sense of ‘justice” here is limited.

To give an up-to-date reading of how, and so the genius of Jesus’s teaching, we need a modern example. Here’s what the parable sounds like in a twenty-first century context.

The story of the tax collector’s ability to tap into the merit of the Pharisee and the encompassing, communal grace of the Temple system is the ancient version of the middle-school group project. This assignment, perhaps now more familiar through reality television, puts together, in classical terms, the smart one, the one who is good at art, the one who is able to provide provisions (e.g. coffee, donuts, Scotch), and the one who both literally and figuratively brings nothing to the table. Three do their fair share, and more, since they cover the fourth’s work as well. The project receives an excellent grade. The fourth, who may show up at the meetings, benefits from the work of others. In middle school, where I was the “smart one”, I found this system unfair. I was justified I got the “A”), but alongside me, indeed because of me, so was the slacker.

My sense of justice then was too narrow, my sense of generosity too constrained, my sense of self-import too great. But that fourth person believed in the system; that fourth person, whom we dismissed as lazy, as stupid, or as unable to contribute, may well have done what he could. He may have felt himself unworthy; indeed, we three others may have signaled to him that we were disappointed he was assigned to our group. He trusted in us, he trusted in the system. Had we been more generous with him rather than resentful, we would have learned more as well.

And what if he didn’t care at all? What if he depended upon us, even though we were fools for doing his work for him? What we do is still worthwhile. We can afford to be generous. There are other systems of justice (e.g. test grades, a final judgment) in which his contributions or sins will be assessed.

 We are all our brother’s, and sister’s, keeper, and living in a community is another form of group work. We all have something to contribute, even if what we give is the opportunity for someone else to provide us a benefit. If we take more seriously this necessary interrelationship, we might be more inclined to consider others, because our actions, whether for ill or for good, will impact them.  And if our good deeds aid someone else, rather than begrudge them, why not celebrate all who are justified?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Midaq Alley by Joseph Massad

Th           The first work of modern Arabic fiction to deal with the question of same-sex desire seriously is Naguib Mahfouz’s Zuqaq al Midaq (Midaq Alley). Published in1947, Midaq Alley is one of the Egyptian novelist’s earlier novels. Set in the early 1940s, while Egypt remained under British colonial rule and the confrontation between the Axis and the Allied powers was approaching at El-Alamein, the novel, a tragicomedy of sorts written in a realist style, opens with a romantic rendition of the history of Midaq Alley:

It is a wonder of epochs past. It soared one day in the history of Cairo like a flashing star. Which Cairo, do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamluks, or the Sultans? Only God and the archeologists know the answer to that, but at any rate, it is a relic, and a precious one at that. How could it be otherwise when its cobblestone road leads directly into Sanadiqiyyah Street? That historic cul-de-sac, and its famous café, known as Kirshah’s Café . . . Although this alley lives in virtual isolation from what surrounds it, it still clamors with its own distinctive life, one that is connected in its depths to the roots of life as a whole while still preserving a good amount of the secrets of the world gone by.

            The novel tells of the transformation that the alley would undergo with the encroachment of colonial modernity, which had already enveloped much of Cairo over the previous century, but to which the alley had somehow remained immune.

               As we will see, the change will not only be felt at the technological, economic and political level but also at a deep social and ultimately epistemological level. The entry of Western epistemology is signaled in the novel by the appearance of certain words and concepts in English.  It is in this realm that the opening scene in which a folk poet, who for the previous twenty years had worked in Kirshah’s Café, playing the Rababah (a one-stringed instrument played with a bow) and reciting folktales of olden days, was dismissed from his job by a popular demand among customers to be replaced by the radio.

               The Sufi ascetic Shaykh Darwish explains the transformation: “ Yes, everything has changed . . . the poet has gone and the radio has come. This is the way of God in his Creation. It was mentioned in the ancient days in tarikh [history], which the call in English ‘History’ and is spelled ‘H-i-s-t-o-r-y.’” Presumably, the invocation of “History” as an “ancient” European concept is ironical in this context, given Mahfouz’s enumeration of different historical periods through which Cairo passed long before Europe or the English language itself existed.

               Shaykh Darwish had been an English teacher at one of the religiously endowed schools. He, like other employees, was let go when this traditional school system was placed under the control of the modern Ministry of Education, which required higher qualifications. He took up a job as a clerk in the Ministry of Religious Endowments with a lower salary, which made him so unhappy that he became notorious as the most stubborn complainer in the Ministry. News of his bad disposition reached his superiors who, though sympathetic, docked his pay a day or two.  “ One day he decided to write all his official correspondence in English, and would say that he was a technical employee, unlike other clerks.”  About to be fired, he requested to meet with the deputy minister and informed him that “God had chosen his man,” referring to himself. He deserted his family and friends and began to roam the streets, wondering into “the world of God, as he calls it.” He lost all his money, and his house but seemed completely at peace. Everybody became his family. “If his gown wore out, someone would get him another; if his necktie got torn, he would receive a new one too.” Shaykh Darwish, as he came to be known following the Sufi tradition, was loved and considered blessed. “People feel that he brings them good luck and they say of him that he is a holy man of God who received Godly revelations in both Arabic and English.”

     It is noteworthy that while the march of the colonial modern state had already has its imprint of Dawish’s life, wherein he taught English, a language not taught previously, the further entrenchment of the colonial state transformed Darwish’s life at a deep institutional level, dismantling the school system of which he was a part and erected a new one. Unable to accept this modern transformation, which for him signaled not progress but regression in both his pay and his rank as an employee (he was reduced from grade six to grade eight), he opted out of the whole affair and chose an alternative that was familiar to him,  namely, that of Sufi asceticism. The alley and Kirshah’s Café became his makeshift home.

               Unlike Sheykh Darwish, Kirshah, the café owner, is of a different ilk altogether. A hashish dealer and user, he spent much money on his habit and on chasing after “his desires”. Kishah lived “in the embrace of the deviant life for so long that it seemed to him to be a normal life. As a narcotics dealer, he was used to working in the dark, a fugitive from normal life and a prey to deviance.” Kirshah resented the modern colonial government of the British Mandate and its local cronies, “which allows alcohol, which God has forbidden, and prohibits hashish, which God has permitted!  It protects bars, which spread poison, but cracks down on hashish dens, which are therapy to souls and minds . . . As for his other desire, he says with his traditional cough: ‘you have your religion, I have mine!’”  Here Kishah invokes the traditional tolerant impulse of folk Islam where each will be judged according to his/her religion or to his/her interpretation of religion.  This metaphorical posting of sexual practice as tantamount to professing a religion is important in that it signals Kirshah’s refusal of one uniform religious judgment of his sexual practice, and his refusal of one religious authority’s right to pass such judgment.

    While he had initially been private about his sexual practices with young men and would not invite them to frequent his café, “once his situation became known, and the scandal spread, he took the mask off his face and pursued his misdeeds openly. Tragic scenes would take place between him and his wife that became fodder for scandalous gossip.”

    When Kirshah’s wife mobilizes his son Husayn against him, Husayn was “not concerned with the misdeed [ithm] unto itself, but rather with the scandal that it engendered around them as well as the volley of curses and fighting it unleashed inside their home. The misdeed itself was utterly unimportant to him. Indeed, the first time he was informed of it, he shook his shoulders and said indifferently: “he is a man and nothing shames a man!’ Then he condemned his father along with the others when he found his family’s reputation in shreds by gossip.”  Clearly for Husayn, his father’s sexual practices are not the cause of shame or embarrassment at all if they remain within the realm of the private and are not advertised publically. People knowing about what his father’s practices are is one thing, while his father becoming open about them is another. The issue is not that people in the neighborhood know that Kirshah fancies young men (which in itself causes no embarrassment), rather it is that Kirshah thinks he can openly court such young men before the eyes of the community without censure. It is the latter that the community rejects and that Husayn condemns. It is this kind of stark publicity of such private intimate practices that society condemns, not the practices themselves.

              The novel is rich with characters derived from Cairene quotidian life. Take for example the character of Radwan al-Husayni. His biography is borrowed from the story of Job, as like the latter, he lost all his children but maintained his belief in God and His mercy and appeared always content.  He is the one to whom Kirshah’s wife, Umm Husayn turned in order to pressure her husband to end his affair with an unnamed young boutique salesman whom she described as a “profligate [fajir]”.  When she sent for her husband to have a word with him, Radwan thought to himself that this would be the first time he would allow a ‘dissolute” (fasiq) person to enter his room. Then, “he went on wondering about the devil’s seduction of man, and how he makes him deviate from the proper nature that God gave him [fitrat Allah].”Attempting to bring Kirshah back to the righteous path, Radwan asked him to let go of this “disreputable and profligate young man.”  He then instructed him to “leave this man, for he is an abomination of Satan’s handiwork.”

               It is interesting that Mahfouz has Radwan use this description, which is a direct Qur’anic quotation from a well-known verse.. Ironically the Qur’anic verse has nothing to do with homosexuality, but rather with alcohol and gambling, among other things.  In the Qur’an, other abominations include eating pork, blood, or dead meat but not same-sex practices among men.  Undeterred, Kirshah answered back, “ Man commits many bad deeds, of which this is only one; don’t be angry with me, instead ask God to  guide me, and accept my apology and my excuse. For what power does man possess over his soul?” Kirshah’s clever response to Radwan’s  Qur’anic reference marshals a modified Qur’anic verse about man’s limited power to do good or harm himself “except as God willeth,” therefore exonerating Kirshah’s own actions as predestined by God.

              Radwan al-Husayni’s failure in his mission on behalf of Kirshash’s wife left her with no recourse but to confront both her husband and his boy lover. She marched one evening to the café and began to insult and beat up the young man, calling him a “son of a whore,” and “a woman is man’s clothing.”  When the shocked young man asked her what he had done to her, as he did not even know who she was, she answered him with ridicule that she was his “co-wife.”  The bloodied young man slipped away in the mayhem of Umm Husayn’s confrontation with Kirshah, who in turn was appalled at her audacity. Once the pious Radwan calmed her down and asked her to return home, despite her threats of walking out on her husband, Kirshah began to swear up and down that he “will not submit to a woman’s will, for I am a man, free, I do as I like, let her leave the house if she wants.”

               Mistaking Kirshah’s desire for the young man as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, desiring women, the, evidently non-essentialist, Sufi Shaykh Darwish lifted his head and addressed Kirshah: ‘Your wife is strong, and has within her such manliness that is missing in many men. She is indeed a male, not a female, so why don’t you like her?” Furious, Kirshah lashed back at Darwish to shut up and walked away. Shaykh Darwish proceeded to explain: “This is an old evil, which in English is called homosexuality and is spelled h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l-i-t-y, but it is not love. True love is only for the family and descendants of the Prophet.” For Darwish, the Sufi ascetic for whom love is always love of God and the Prophet, the opposite of homosexual love is not heterosexual love, but a much nobler kind.

              What is being introduced by Mafouz is not only a word but also a new epistemology that seems to define such acts outside Midaq Alley, among the literati and those with an English education, where the encroachment of colonial concepts was being felt more strongly. In the alley, the problem was not with Kirshah’s desires for young men but his open sexual practice, which caused a minor scandal, one that ultimately had little social repercussions for him and affected his wife more, but no more and no less than had he taken a woman as his mistress and flaunted her in public. Mafouz does not explore the situation from the vantage point of the young salesman whom Kirshah courted. The young man remains unnamed, an encroaching character that come from outside Midaq Alley, who seems to have a small role to play and then disappears upon being beaten up by Umm Husayn. As the young man is unknown in Midaq Alley, there is no scandal for him. He simply disappears from the novel. The next time Kirshah’s desires are expressed in the novel is when his own son moves back in accompanied by his young bride and her brother, whom Kirshah fancies.

               It is important to note that although Mafouz used the term shudhudh (deviance) to refer to Kirshah’s sexual practices with men, the term is not limited to homosexual sex, but to all non-normative sex, desires, excess, and general public conduct. Indeed, when Salim ‘Alwan, the owner of the sales company in Midaq Alley, expressed his dissatisfaction with his wife’s lack of responsiveness to his insistent sexual advances (he indulge in eating green toasted wheat with pigeons and much nutmeg baked and served in a pan, which he deemed an aphrodisiac and to which he attributed his virility), this is what the narrator tells us:

               His wife did not welcome the baking pan at first, even when she was a young woman in the prime of her life. She had a healthy instinct [fitrah] but was repelled by deviance from nature; still she bore what she considered to be exhausting out of respect for her insatiable husband, and out of pity that she might unsettle his mind.

               Deviance in fact seems to be the operative judgment not only of the sexual desires of Kirshah, Salim ‘Alwan, and Hamidah, but also of all socially unpleasant behavior. When Salim ‘Alwan returned to work weakened by his heart attack and deeply depressed, his hostility to his employees and the constant irritability that he now exhibited led them to conclude that he had become an “accursed deviant.”

               The novel however does naturalize heterosexual desire as that which is normative, insofar as the institution of marriage is linked to it definitionally.  The declaration is made by Umm Hamidah, the alley’s matchmaker, not only as a truism but also as an expression of economic necessity, for her livelihood depended on it.  She stated that “men love marriage in their depths” and that “a man wants a woman even if paralysis had crippled him, for this is Our Lord’s wisdom,” and “this is why God created the world. He could have filled it with men only, but God created the male and the female, and he graced us with reason so that we understand his aim; there is no deviation [mahid] from marriage.

     .   .   .  .  .
                Midaq Alley received critical acclaim by book reviewers of the period. Sayyid Qutb expressed his dissatisfaction with the novel on account of the abundance of “deviance” and “deviants” in it (understood as general social deviance). He proposed that Mafouz reduce the number of deviant characters from five to two. Nabil Matar, half a century later, misunderstood Qutb’s reference to deviance and perversion as a reference to same-sex contact and attributed Qutb’s dissatisfaction to those elements, which is a gross misinterpretation of Qutb and of the uses of the term “deviance” in the novel and by critics. Indeed, Matar strangely declares that the critics, Qutb included, received Midaq Alley with an “outcry against the novel’s homosexual characters.”  Besides Qutb’s review, Matar cites Lebanese critic Adib Muruwwah’s review of the novel as another example of a critic objecting to homosexuality in the novel, merely because Muruwwah stated that “no one among writers has been able to depict these [popular] classes as they are, as Mr. Mahfuz has done. He was utterly realist and faithful, even though this reality might have contained that which would on occasion offend proper decorum (such as the sodomy of Kirshah, for example).” Matar also cites Muhammad Fahmi’s review as another example, when all Fahmi stated was the he found “Kirshah’s deviance . . . somewhat strange for [someone] like him; perhaps had Kamil, the sweets seller, been afflicted with it . . . it would have added an atmosphere of joy to the story.: This is hardly an “outcry” against homosexual characters or anything remotely connected to it.

               Contrast this with the reception that Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel The City and the Pillar received in New York. The critical response was so violent that the New York Times refused to advertise the novel and, along with all the major magazines and newspapers, had a standing policy not to review any Vidal novels for the next six years merely because the novel depicted a homosexual encounter between two young, all-American athletic types, wherein one had an unrequited love for the other. In contrast to Vidal, Mahfouz continued to be celebrated by the Arabic press for the rest of is career despite continuing inclusion of characters who desire same-sex contact.

      In his discussion of Sa’dallah Wannus’s Orientalist play  Tuqus al- Isharat wa al- Tahawwulat (The Rites and Signs of Transformation), published in 1994, Massad  writes:

   The character of Mu’minah seems to conflate the body and its desires. She seems to posit that the truth of the body is that of desire. Her insistence on becoming a prostitute (though she is not compelled by poverty to do so), as she tells the Mufti, is unrelated to anger at her husband’s infidelity, the latter having provided her the opportunity to make the latent manifest. In undertaking her project of manumitting her body as part of the liberation of her repressed desire, a contradiction arises in Mu’minah’s logic (and in the logic of Wanna.)  If the play stresses the quest for individuality and individualism in a society that represses both, then desire cannot be the foundation of such a quest. As desire is always already social and not part of the individual economy, how is Mu’minah’s quest to release her desires from the shackles of traditional repression, and even oppression, to enter the social economy of carnal pleasure, a quest for modern individualism?  Wannus seems to posit Mu’minah’s quest as a Hegelian one, of transforming the being-in-itself into the being-for-itself and the being-for-another. But the Hegelian story is not only about the journey of self-consciousness into individualist self -realization but also that of a journey of self-consciousness into sociality, of being “in the world,” as Edward Said, echoing Heidegger, put it. When the response to her father’s horror at her sullying the family name and its honor by her action she responds that “what I do is no concern to anyone but me,” she is insisting on deploying the individualist project and exiting from society. Indeed, no less an authority than the Qur’an is marshaled to the cause of individualism by Mu’minah: “In the last instance, we do not know that no one carries the burden of others, and that each soul receives every good that it earns, and suffers every ill that it earns.” How is desire, which presupposes sociality, liberated in an asocial individualist world? The play provides inadequate answers at best to the very question it raises. . .

              While Arab intellectuals, following Orientalism and the colonial encounter, came to perceive the existence of the Arabs principally in terms of civilization and culture, there emerges in the literature they produced an elaboration and an occasional contestation of the place of sexual desires in wider discourses and practices of modernity. It is at these rarer moments when the impositions and seduction of Western norms fail that the possibility of different conceptions of desire, politics, and subjectivities emerge. My hope is that the critique that Desiring Arabs offers marks an instance of that possibility.

End of the Ottomans by Tamin Ansary

Historians looking back can see quite clearly that Suleiman’s failure to take Vienna in 1529 marked a watershed. At that moment the empire had reached its greatest extent, it was no longer expanding.  This was less than obvious at the time because the empire was still fighting someone somewhere all the time, and the news from the battlefield was often good. The Ottomans were losing battles here and there but they were also winning here and there. Were they losing the big ones and winning only the little ones? The answer was yes but that was hard to gauge for people swimming through the historical moment.  How does one weigh the significance of a battle? Some people were alarmed, but some people always are. After all, the empire was not shrinking.

Unfortunately, however, not shrinking was not good enough for the Ottoman Empire. In truth, this empire was built on the premise of permanent expansion. It needed a constant and generally successful war on its borders for all of its complicated internal mechanisms to work.

First of all, expansion was a source of revenue, which the emperor could ill afford to lose. Second, war served as a safety valve. For example, peasants who were forced off the land for one reason or another didn’t hang out hungry and hopeless, turning into a surely rabble. They could always go join the arm, go on a campaign, score some booty, and then come home a start a little business. Once expansion stopped this pressure of agrarian displacement and surplus population drifted into the cities. Even if they had a skill, they might not be able to ply it. The guilds controlled all the manufacturing and they could only absorb so many new members. A good many drifters ended up unemployed and disgruntled.

Third, the classic devshirme depended on a constant conquest of new territories out of which “slaves” could be drafted for the institutes that produced the empire’s elites.  The janissary had originally labored under one important restriction: they were not allowed to marry and produce heirs, a device designed to keep new blood flowing into the administration.  Once the expansion stopped the devshirme began to stagnate. Then janissaries began to marry and swing their clout to get their kids the best possible educational and employment opportunities. This meant the janissary encrusted into a permanent, hereditary elite, which reduced the vigor of the empire because it meant that experts and specialists who ran the empire were no longer drawn exclusively from those who showed early promise but also included dullards with rich and important parents.

Then came the follow-up to Sulieman’s failure. In 1683, the Ottoman’s tried against to take Vienna, just as they had 154 years earlier and were routed by a coalition of European forces. Whereas in 1529 failure to score a victory resulted in, at worse, a sort of general, indefinable social malaise that was hard to explain or caused religious conservatives to rail about the moral fabric of society and the importance of restoring old-fashioned values, this time the Ottoman elite knew they had been trounced and something had gone very wrong.

It made them doggedly determined to pump up their military strength. Against the formless forces eroding the empire, they thought to fling up a military bulwark. Pouring resources into their military, however, only imposed more expenses on a government that was already overburdened.

It was overburdened in part because European traders entering the economy had upset the delicate checks and balances in the Ottoman system. Forget the battle of Lepanto, the failed siege of Vienna. Ultimately, it was traders, not soldiers, who took down the Ottoman Empire.

In the Ottoman Empire, guilds (intertwined with Sufi orders) controlled all manufacturing and they protected their members by locking out competition. One guild had a monopoly on producing soap, for example, while another had a monopoly on making shoes.  The guilds couldn’t exploit their monopoly positions to jack up prices, because the state imposed limits on how much they could charge. The state protected the public and the guilds protected their members; everything balanced, everything worked.

Then the Westerners came into the system. They didn’t compete with the guilds by trying to sell soap or shoes – the state wouldn’t let them. No, they came looking for stuff to buy, raw materials mainly, such as wool, meat, leather, wood, oils, metals and the like – whatever they could get their hands on. Suppliers were happy to sell to them, and even the state smiled on this trade, because it brought gold into the empire. Unfortunately, the Europeans were after the same materials the guilds needed to make their products. And the Europeans could outbid the guilds because they had the gold of the America in their satchels, while the guilds only had their profits, which were limited by government price controls. They couldn’t make up the difference with volume – by producing and selling more goods, that is – because they just couldn’t get enough raw materials to increase production. With foreigners sucking those out of Ottoman territory, artisans in the Ottoman world felt the pinch: domestic production began to fall.

Ottoman officials saw the problem and dealt with it by banning the export of strategic raw materials needed by domestic industries. But laws of this type only opened up contraband opportunities: when exporting wool is a crime, only criminals will export wool. The black market economy began to thrive: a whole class of nouveau riche black-market entrepreneurs emerged: and since they were breaking the law to make money, they had to bribe various officials to look the other way, which opened up opportunities for corruption, which spawned another class of nouveau riche “entrepreneurs”: bribe-battened bureaucrats.

So now a lot of folks had illegal cash to spend that didn’t come out of increased productivity. But what could the newly rich Ottoman citizens spend their money on? Investing in aboveboard industries was out: it would attract unwelcome attention from the state. So they did what drug dealers do in modern American society. They spent freely on extravagant luxury items, including consumer goods from the West, which could be had for cash paid under the table. The very trends undermining Ottoman ability to manufacture goods were providing a market for European industry and incidentally draining the gold back to Europe.

Outside cash coming into the system just as production was falling generated inflation: that’s what happens when you have more money chasing fewer goods.  Whom does inflation hurt? It hurts people on fixed incomes, and not only the poor.  In Ottoman society people on “fixed incomes” included salaried government bureaucrats and more particularly the salaried officials at court- that bloated, wholly nonproductive upper class. These officials were rich beyond the dreams of Croesus. But even the richest of the rich somehow feel threatened when their buying power goes down. How much they had didn’t matter: it was how much less they had that got to them. Inflation made rich courtiers living on fixed salaries feel like they had to tighten their belts and this they didn’t like.  They began to supplement their incomes by controlling access to the administrative and legal workings of the state.  When people have no role except to provide access, they have no power except to deny access. Courtiers and bureaucrats began to prevent instead of facilitate – unless they were given bribes. The Ottoman Empire became a paperwork nightmare. To negotiate one’s way through it, a person needed to bribe people who knew people who could bribe people who could bribe other people, and so on, creating an expensive maize of delays and bottlenecks.

To combat this gumming up of the works, the state raised salaries, so official wouldn’t feel the need to take bribes. But the state didn’t have any source of extra funds based on real productivity, especially since the empire was no longer expanding and flush with the revenue that came from conquest. In order to raise salaries, pensions and soldiers’ wages, therefore, the empire had to simply print money.

Printing money spurs inflation –which puts us back where we started! Everything the Ottoman government did to stem corruption and promote efficiency only aggravated the problem it was trying to solve. Eventually, government officials gave up and decided to hire some consultants to come in and help them set things in order. Western business forces thus began to operate freely in the Ottoman Empire.  Their interaction with the Ottomans can be summed up in one word: capitulations.

These capitulations began when the empire was still at is height, and the term simply referred to permissions granted by the mighty sultans to petty petitioners from Europe pleading to do business in the Empire. Capitulations were lists of permitted business activities for Europeans, organized by category. There was no single moment when capitulations stopped meaning “permissions doled out haughtily by mighty Ottoman lords” -in exchange for a fee or percentage of gross sales (rarely a percentage of profits) –and started meaning “humiliating concessions wrung out triumphantly from Ottoman officials (by haughty European bosses backed by the military might of their governments).” But that’s certainly what they meant by 1838, when the Ottoman’s signed the treaty of Balta Liman which, for example, which placed low tariffs on European goods coming into the Empire but imposed high tariffs on products flowing out. It forbade Ottoman subjects to establish monopolies but permitted and eased the way for Europeans to do just that, ensuring that Ottomans would be unable to compete with European businessmen on their own soil.

These capitulations were soon followed by ‘reorganization measures”  - The Noble Edict of the Rose Chamber” (1839), “The Imperial Edict” (1956) and a third in 1860- designed to construct a modern secular state on democratic principles- written out by the British Ambassador Stratford Canning and handed to Ottoman officials with instructions to translate it and proclaim it publically.

A growing movement of reformists throughout the empire and the Muslim world embraced and promoted the reforms. They thought that the only way to defeat the Europeans was to beat them at their own game which would necessitate, first of all, adopting whatever European ideas accounted for European strength. But to many Ottoman Muslims, the tanzimat  smelled less like reform and more like fresh evidence of alien power over their lives.

The Ulama was still around. The Tanzimat worked directly against their interests by taking education out of clerical hands, replacing Shari’ah courts with secular courts and substituting French laws for Islamic laws. Of course they were going to resist; and the ulama still had a lot of moral authority among ordinary people and clout at the court too.

 The sultan and his advisors soon found themselves caught between the clamor of the secular modernists and the yammer of both the Islamic old guard and various ‘schools of reform’ whether of the fundamentalist Wahhabism, the Aligarh Movement or those associated with Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan.

It was a see-saw battle.  It wasn’t like one group of agitators were nationalist, another group secular modernists, some other one liberal constitutionalists. Many ideologies and movements were intertwined and interacting. Any single person might espouse a bit of this and a bit of that.  Eventually a group, held together for a brief time by their youth- The Young Turks- overwhelmed the last Ottoman sultan, a weak and silly man named Abdul Hamid II. In 1908 they forced him to reinstate the constitution (briefly suspended in the turmoil) and reduce himself to a figurehead.  On January 23, 1913, the ultranationalist Committee for Union and Progress staged a coup d’etat, assassinated the incumbent vizier, deposed the last Sultan, ousted all other leaders from the government, declared all other parties illegal and turned Ottoman Turkey into a one-party state. A triumverate of men emerged- the Three Pashas- and they were ruling the truncated remains of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, when the long-anticipated European civil war broke out.

.  .  .  .  .

From the Western side, it seems plausible (to some) to assert that funding and arming rulers amenable to Western ways in places like Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt helps bring democracy to those societies, as well as the blessings of the ‘free market.’ It also seems plausible (to some) to assert that Islamic social values are backward and need correction by more progressive people, even if force must needs be applied to get it done.

From the other side, however, the moral and military campaigns of recent times look like the long familiar program to enfeeble Muslims in their own countries. Western customs, legal systems, and democracy look like a project to atomize society down to the level of individual economic units making autonomous decisions based on rational self-interest. Ultimately, it seems, this would pit every man, woman and child against every other, in a competition of all against all for material goods.

What looks, from one side, like a campaign to secure greater rights for citizens irrespective of gender,looks from the other side, like powerful strangers inserting themselves into the private affairs of families and undercutting people’s ability to maintain their communal selves as familial and tribal networks. In sort, what looks from one side like empowering each individual looks, from the other side, like disempowering whole communities.

The conflict presently wracking the world is not, I think, best understood as a “clash of civilizations”. It’s better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting. Muslims were a crowd of people going somewhere. Europeans and their offshoots were a crowd of people going somewhere. When the two crowds crossed paths, much bumping and crashing resulted and is still going on. Unraveling the vectors of those two crowds is a minimum precondition for sorting out the ideas and feelings of the present time. The unraveling will not itself produce sweetness and light, because there are actual contradictions within each vector and incompatibilities between them, not just ‘misunderstandings’.