Monthly Archives: October 2006

A Vlach, Impaled

When they ordered Radisav to lie down, he hesitated a moment and then, looking past the gipsies and guards as if they were not there, came close up to the man from Plevlje and said almost confidentially as if speaking to a friend, softly and heavily:

‘Listen, by this world and the next, do your best to pierce me well so that I may not suffer like a dog.’

The man from Plevlje started and shouted at him, as if defending himself from that too intimate approach:

‘March, Vlach! You who are so great a hero as to destroy the Sultan’s work now beg for mercy like a woman. It will be as it has been ordered and as you have deserved.’

Radisav bent his head still lower and the gipsies came up and began to strip off his cloak and his shirt. On his chest the wounds from the chains stood out, red and swollen. Without another word the peasant lay down as he had been ordered, face downward. The gipsies approached and the first bound his hands behind his back; then they attached a cord to each of his legs, around the ankles. Then they pulled outwards and to the side, stretching his legs wide apart. Meanwhile Merdjan placed the stake on two small wooden chocks so that it pointed between the peasant’s legs. Then he took from his belt a short broad knife, knelt beside the stretched-out man and leant over him to cut away the cloth of his trousers and to widen the opening through which the stake would enter his body. This most terrible part of the bloody task was, luckily, invisible to the onlookers. They could only see the bound body shudder at the short and unexpected prick of the knife, then half rise as if it were going to stand up, only to fall back again at once, striking dully against the planks. As soon as he had finished. the gipsy leapt up, took the wooden mallet and with slow measured blows began to strike the lower blunt end of the stake. Between each two blows he would stop for a moment and look first at the body in which the stake was penetrating and then at the two gipsies, reminding them to pull slowly and evenly. The body of the peasant, spreadeagled, writhed convulsively; at each blow of the mallet his spine twisted and bent, but the cords pulled at it and kept it straight. The silence from both banks of the river was such that not only every blow but even its echo from somewhere along the steep bank could be clearly heard. Those nearest could hear how the man beat with his forehead against the planks and, even more, another and unusual sound, that was neither a scream, nor a wail, nor a groan, nor anything human; that stretched and twisted body emitted a sort of creaking and cracking like a fence that is breaking down or a tree that is being felled. At every second blow the gipsy went over to the stretched-out body and leant over it to see whether the stake was going in the right direction and when he had satisfied himself that it had not touched any of the more important internal organs, he returned and went on with his work.

From the banks all this could scarcely be heard and still less seen, but all stood there trembling, their faces blanched and their fingers chilled with cold.

For a moment the hammering ceased. Merdjan now saw that close to the right shoulder muscles the skin was stretched and swollen. He went forward quickly and cut the swollen place with two crossed cuts. Pale blood flowed out, at first slowly then faster and faster. Two or three more blows, light and careful, and the iron-shod point of the stake began to break through at the place where he had cut. He struck a few more times until the point of the stake reached level with the right ear. The man was impaled on the stake as a lamb on the spit, only that the tip did not come through the mouth but in the back and had not seriously damaged the intestines, the heart or the lungs. Then Merdjan threw down the mallet and came nearer. He looked at the unmoving body, avoiding the blood which poured out of the places where the stake had entered and had come out again and was gathering in little pools on the planks. The two gipsies turned the stiffened body on its back and began to bind the legs to the foot of the stake. Meanwhile Merdjan looked to see if the man were still alive and carefully examined the face that had suddenly become swollen, wider and larger. The eyes were wide open and restless, but the eyelids were unmoving, the mouth was wide open but the two lips stiff and contracted and between them the clenched teeth shone white. Since the man could no longer control some of his facial muscles the face looked like a mask. But the heart beat heavily and the lungs worked with short, quickened breath. The two gipsies began to lift him up like a sheep on a spit. Merdjan shouted to them to take care and not shake the body; he himself went to help them. Then they embedded the lower, thicker end of the stake between two beams and fixed it there with huge nails and then behind, at the same height, buttressed the whole thing with a short strut which was nailed both to the stake and to a beam on the staging.

When that too had been done, the gipsies climbed down and joined the guards, and on that open space, raised a full eight feet upright, stiff and bare to the waist, the man on the stake remained alone. From a distance it could only be guessed that the stake to which his legs had been bound at the ankles passed right through his body. So that the people saw him as a statue, high up in the air on the very edge of the staging, high above the river.

SOURCE: The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andrić (U. Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 48-50 (Reviewed here and here.)

Okay, that’s the last in this series of gruesome Halloween treats.

Leave a comment

Filed under Yugoslavia

Dracula vs. the Transylvanian Germans

In the winter of 1459 Dracula organized one of his most devastating raids on Transylvanian soil, with the clear intention of trying to seize Dan III and his supporters. [The Drăculeşti and the Dăneşti were two factions contending for the crown of Wallachia.] Advancing along the valley of the Prahova River, he delivered his first blows in the vicinity of Braşov [German Kronstadt], where he burned villages, forts, and towns, burned the crops to deprive the population of food, and killed men, women, and children as he progressed. He focused his attention on the exposed Braşovian suburbs, especially the Spenghi and Prund areas, which were located outside the walls of the fortress. This was the Romanian section of town, where Dan III and his dissident boyars resided. Under cover of darkness Dracula’s men burst across the lightly fortified wooden palisade surrounding the section. He then proceeded to burn the whole suburb, including the old chapel of Saint Jacob, built in 1342, located at the foot of Tîmpa Hill; it was never restored. He took as many captives as he could find and impaled them “lengthwise and crosswise,” according to Beheim’s narrative. Their bodies were strung on Tîmpa Hill above the chapel. Dracula meanwhile was seated at a table having his meal; he seemed to enjoy the gruesome scenario of his butchers cutting off the limbs of many of his victims. Beheim tells us the additional detail that the prince “dipped his bread in the blood of the victims,” since “watching human blood flow gave him courage.” The stage was thus set for Dracula’s later reputation as a blood drinker or vampire, and his subsequent fictional reincarnation as Count Dracula. As we will see, this episode at Tîmpa Hill did more to damage Dracula’s reputation than any other act in his whole career. On this occasion Dracula also displayed the perverted black humor that is attributed to him in Russian narratives. A boyar attending the Braşov festivity, apparently unable to endure any longer the smell of coagulating blood, had the misfortune to hold up his nose and express a gesture of revulsion. Dracula immediately ordered an unusually long stake prepared for the would-be victim and presented it to him with the cynical remark: “You live up there yonder, where the stench cannot reach you.” The boyar was immediately impaled….

But these raids and accompanying atrocities against the Germans of Transylvania during the years 1457 and 1460 were to have a long-range impact that reached far beyond the borders of Romanian countries. Those German Catholic monks who were fortunate enough to escape from their monasteries, which had been reduced to ashes, brought with them to the west what in essence became the first Dracula “horror stories.” Thus, Dracula in his own lifetime became a subject of horror literature. At the monastery of Saint Gall in Switzerland, at Lambach near Salzburg, and at the Melk Abbey on the Danube River in Lower Austria — all Benedictine houses — these refugees related their harrowing escapes to the other monks. These stories were copied down, mostly by scribes, and in turn used at the opportune moment as propaganda against the prince by the Hungarian chancellery. Among the refugees who had fled Dracula’s terror was a Bernardine lay brother who is simply referred to as “Brother Jacob.” He was to become the chief informant to the Swabian minnesinger Michael Beheim. Among the later German texts that included Beheim’s account, one printed at Strassburg in 1500 was prefaced by a woodcut showing Dracula seated at a table surrounded by rows of impaled cadavers. This image suggests clearly that the bloodthirsty Count Dracula of fiction and movies was born from the loins of the bloody practitioner of terror in Transylania.

SOURCE: Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times, by Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally (Back Bay, 1989), pp. 120, 123-124

Photo: Fresh snow on the town square of old Braşov, viewed from Mt. Tâmpa, 29 April 1984. The Council House is in the plaza, with the Black Church to its left.

Leave a comment

Filed under Romania

San Juan Capistrano, Defender of Belgrade, 1456

Saint John of Capistrano … was an extraordinary survivor of an earlier period of Medieval crusading (the likes of which was not seen again in Europe until the siege of Vienna in 1683). John of Capistrano, whose imposing bust still adorns the main facade of Saint Stephen’s Dom in Vienna, certainly looked the part of a Peter the Hermit, the crusading leader of the eleventh century. Small of stature, with an emaciated frame, hollow cheeks, deep-set eyes, and parched skin, he had the countenance and stature of a mystic as he gathered the faithful around him in the city of Györ in Hungary and preached the crusade to the common man in Latin. No one understood his exact words, but the tone of the message was unmistakable as he thundered: “God wills it that we chase the Turks out of Europe and for whosoever follows me, I will obtain plenary indulgence for him and his family.” It was more a matter of heart than rational thinking that induced a ragtag army of some 8,000 inexperienced and poorly equipped peasants, lower burghers, students, and clergymen to follow John on his southeastward march. They had gathered all the crude weapons they could assemble: slings, cudgels, scythes, pitchforks, stakes, and other farm implements. It was, however, their determination and fanaticism that proved more than a match for the holy war proclaimed by the sultan and the tried military talent of the Turks and janissaries. The generals and the diplomats who attended John’s demagogic harangue at Györ — Hunyadi, his son László, János Vitéz, Vlad Dracula, even Pope Calixtus III‘s legate, Juan Cardinal de Carvajal — were not impressed by what they regarded as a “mob.” In the end, though, these leaders found they had underestimated the power of faith to move men.

At a meeting summoned by Hunyadi at Hunedoara on January 13, 1456 [three years after the fall of Constantinople], basic strategies for the impending campaign were laid out and assignments to the military leaders given with little reference to John of Capistrano’s crusaders, who worked essentially as an independent force. Dracula, with an army composed mostly of Romanian mercenaries, was instructed by Hunyadi to stay at Sibiu and watch the Transylvanian passes. In addition, his young protégé was given to understand that he could proceed with the offensive against Vladislav II at whatever time he would deem appropriate, thus to relieve pressure at Belgrade by compelling the Turks to keep a body of troops on the Danube. In essence, Dracula’s mission was part of the overall strategy in protecting the eastern flank of the Belgrade defensive operation. In turn, Dracula’s cousin Stephen of Moldavia, also in Hunyadi’s entourage, was waiting for an opportunity to overthrow the other Turkish vassal, Petru III Aaron. By June 1456, in the words of the historian János Thuróczi “as the grain began to ripen, a vast army, accompanied by 300 siege guns and 27 enormous cannons, followed by the fleet on the Danube, moved northward, capturing on the way a number of Serbian cities that had maintained a precarious autonomy under Turkish rule. Hunyadi sent the customary diplomatic appeals to the west by means of his intermediary János Vitéz; as usual, there was no response.

The greatest achievement of John Hunyadi and John of Capistrano, unlikely allies that they were, was breaking through the ring of Turkish land forces, as well as the chains of Turkish flotillas that blocked access to the city, to effect a juncture with the city’s defenders. On July 21, having finally penetrated the outer defenses and moats, Mehmed gave orders for a final assault. In desperation, the sultan tried to arouse enthusiasm in his troops by joining the melée in person, only to be wounded in the thigh for his pains. Though the Turkish army had penetrated the city, it was unable to capture the fortress on the hill, defended by 16,000 men evenly divided between John of Capistrano’s crusaders and Hunyadi’s professionals. For Mehmed, who lost as many as 24,000 of his best soldiers and whose sailors colored the blue Danube red, it was a disastrous defeat. The relief of Belgrade was described as a “miracle” by Bernhard von Kraiburg, chancellor of the archbishop of Salzburg, in which “8,000 simple people” had defeated a vastly overwhelming Turkish force. In retreating toward Sofia, the ailing sultan was so angry that he wounded a number of his generals with his own sword and later had them executed. When the successful defense of Belgrade was reported to Rome, Eugenius IV called it “the happiest event of my life”; believing that a miracle had truly occurred, the pope made preparations for the beatification of John of Capistrano.

SOURCE: Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times, by Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally (Back Bay, 1989), pp. 79-80

Before the year was out, Hunyadi, Capistrano, and many others had died of the plague. (Photo, October 1984: The bottom panel on the painted monastery at Moldoviţa in Suceava County, Romania, depicts a Byzantine victory at Constantinople. It must date from 1453 or earlier.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Romania

Missionary POWs of the Japanese, 1940s

On Monday, December 8, [Max] Garrott was riding a local train to the home of Northern Baptist missionary William Axling when he learned that war had erupted between Japan and the United States. He saw the shocking headlines on a newspaper that a fellow passenger was reading. The next morning Garrott was interned (“for your own protection,” the police told him) at Sumire Girls’ School, a Catholic school and orphanage in Den’enchofu, Tokyo. He was assigned to a room with 12 other American men, a room barely large enough for the cots and beds wedged into it. “Safe, well, profitably interned,” wrote Max to [his wife] Dorothy through the good offices of the Swiss Red Cross. Though some missionaries were tortured by police interrogators during those early months of the war, Max was not mistreated. He even had the use of his piano, which kind officials had transported from his house to the school. They also had brought a picture of his wife. Since the internees were allowed to buy food in addition to what was served them by the authorities, and some talented cooks were among them, Max soon gained back the 10 pounds he had lost doing his own cooking after Dorothy’s departure. The next spring he and his fellow Americans had strawberry shortcake “running out of their ears.”

Humanitarian treatment was also the lot of Floryne Miller in Shanghai, who though an enemy alien was allowed to continue her teaching until February 1943. “Wouldn’t it be fun,” she wrote to her family in January 1942, “if this should get to you one of these days.” The letter was delivered. In 1943, while awaiting repatriation, she spent seven months in Chapel Civil Assembly Center, an internment camp outside Shanghai. “Everyone is so good to us,” she reported through the Red Cross. Words to the contrary would have been ill-advised, of course.

Far less fortunate were those who had transferred to the South China Mission. Oz Quick was in Hong Kong when the city fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. He had gone there for medical treatment after falling ill with appendicitis at Kweilin. Quick was committed to Stanley Prison with about 300 Americans, including four other Southern Baptist missionaries and [Mission] Secretary Rankin. They had no furniture or furnishings of any kind, and food was so scarce that Rankin, already trim, lost 30 pounds during the half-year’s confinement.

The Robert Dyers were among eight Southern Baptist missionaries interned in the Philippines with about 500 American and British civilians. One of the eight was Rufus Gray, who was judged a spy because he had taken many pictures while in Peking (photography was his hobby) and had made friends among the Chinese. He died under torture by a Japanese intelligence unit. Bob Dyer was taken twice to the “house of horror” for interrogation, an ordeal that has haunted him ever since. As orderly to the sick in the camp’s makeshift hospital and undertaker to those who succumbed to malnutrition and disease, Bob lived with the specter of death day after day. Mary Dyer helped to boost the morale of the living with her magnificent renderings of hymns, wedding songs, and “God Bless America.” In 1944 the internees were transferred to Manila’s infamous Bilibid Prison, from which they were liberated by American forces in February 1945. Most were on the verge of starvation. After returning to the United States the Dyers resigned from the Board. Bob taught religion at Wake Forest University until his retirement in 1983, and Mary gave private voice and piano lessons.

In June 1942 Max Garrott was put aboard the SS Asama Maru for repatriation to his homeland in the first of two prisoner exchanges arranged through the medium of the Swiss government. The ship left Yokohama with about 430 passengers, mostly notably U.S. ambassador Joseph P. Grew and Mrs. Grew (she had refused evacuation with other dependents). At Hong Kong it picked up 370 more Americans, including Oz Quick and Theron Rankin. The exchange ship had large crosses painted bow and stern for identification, but because of a large Japanese flag painted in the center, the vessel was nearly torpedoed by an American submarine when off course.

After a second stop at Saigon, the Asama Maru proceeded to Singapore for a rendezvous with the Conte Verde, an Italian ship under Japanese control that carried 600 passengers from Shanghai. The two ships steamed to the Portuguese port of Lourenço Marques in Mozambique, where 1,500 Japanese from the United States were waiting aboard the SS Gripsholm, a Swedish vessel leased for this trip by the American Export Line. The Japanese exchanged ships by marching from bow to bow, while the Americans moved from stern to stern. Among the 1,500 Americans, just under 600 were missionaries and their families. Forty of the missionaries were Southern Baptists, 39 from China and one–Garrott–from Japan. One of the China missionaries, Pearl Todd, later served in Japan.

The trip from Japan to America took 10 weeks, half of them on the Gripsholm. The fixed price per person was $575, regardless of what accommodations one had. This made for some irritation on the overcrowded Gripsholm, but all were delighted with the sumptuous American meals, showers, fresh sheets, recent news from the homeland, and the delicious atmosphere of freedom.

After one stop en route, at Rio de Janeiro, the Gripsholm reached New York on August 25, 1942. Passengers without diplomatic status had to be screened for loyalty to the United States, a process that took several days. Three intelligence officers–from the FBI, Army, and Navy–examined each passenger, using dossiers prepared from earlier inquiries made of family members and acquaintances. Garrott met with difficulty because of his conviction that he could not take part in the war effort. He endured several hours of interrogation before he was permitted to go ashore.

SOURCE: The Southern Baptist Mission in Japan, 1889-1989, by F. Calvin Parker (University Press of America, 1991), pp. 165-167


Filed under China, Japan

The Real Dracula’s Contemporaries

The real Dracula, who ruled the territories that now constitute Romania, was born in 1431, the year that Joan of Arc was burned as a witch at the stake in Rouen, France. He died in 1476, two years before Spain was united as a kingdom under the rule of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. He was very much the by-product of the Europe of his day — the Renaissance, essentially a period of transition….

It was in the age of Dracula that the notion was introduced of Balkan crusading, the efforts of the lands on the fringes of the Ottoman conquest, the borderlands of Europe, to resist the power of Islam in the name of the cross. It represented a struggle in defense of Europe quite as significant as the Spanish resistance to the Moors, which had preceded it….

One of the more tragic aspects of the Turkish onslaught on Europe was the western powers’ reluctance to defend the frontiers of their culture in eastern Europe. This extraordinary failure of moral fortitude was not intelligible in the fifteenth century, since French ruling families had originally consolidated the Polish and Hungarian states; Venetians, Pisans, Genoese, and Spaniards ruled in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean seas; and countless western adventurers occupied a string of threatened colonies along the disputed eastern coast and on the islands near what are now Yugoslavia and Greece.

The pretexts for the fifteenth-century failure of the west to respond to successive crusading appeals were no different from those that had awakened such deep emotional response during the heyday of the crusades, in the age of faith. Charles VII, king of France, the oldest daughter of the Catholic church and foremost crusading power, had just emerged from one of the most crucial conflicts in his country’s history, the Hundred Years’ War. He and his soon-to-be successor, Louis XI, “the Spider King,” who had a predilection for hanging young boys from the branches of trees and placing his enemies in cages to consolidate royal power, had just liberated their country from the English. The French kings were also busy fighting the dukes of Burgundy for supremacy in the French state. The semiroyal dukes of Burgundy were in fact the only rulers within the actual territories of what is now France who for a time remained true to the crusading tradition. Their generous participation in Dracula’s father‘s crusade in 1446 atoned somewhat for the ineffectiveness of their cousins in Paris.

England was to be no more closely drawn than France into fighting the Muslims; the traditions of Richard the Lionhearted were entirely forgotten. Two rival families there were locked in a desperate struggle for survival, the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485). (The white rose was the symbol of the followers of the Duke of York and the red rose represented the House of Lancaster.) This last of England’s feudal wars dragged on throughout Dracula’s lifetime. The only Englishmen connected in any way to our plot were individual soldiers of fortune who enrolled as volunteers in various crusading armies. (One of these veterans, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, later used the impalement technique that he had learned in eastern Europe to kill his Lancastrian enemies. He was executed for his crimes.) …

Of the lands of the future Kingdom of Spain, only Aragon faces eastward. In particular, the Catalans of Barcelona, an important Mediterranean port, were concerned by the Turkish menace, because it threatened ancient commercial routes and their appetite for eastern expansion. Even before Dracula’s time, an effective group of military adventurers had been formed, the famous Catalan Company, to defend the Byzantine emperors against all their enemies, though in effect the Catalans fought for themselves. The Aragonese wished, through Balkan crusading, to forge commercial and political contacts with the Aegean, the Adriatic, and the Black Sea. The ambitions of the Aragonese king, Alfonso V, are best exemplified by the decision of his bastard son Ferrante to make Naples — closer to the eastern theater of war — the center of his power. Ferrante managed to perpetuate his rule through the use of terror: having killed most of his political opponents, he had his victims mummified and placed in the royal museum, where they were shown to his guests.

Fifteenth-century Italy was the headquarters of the Renaissance. Although Niccolo Machiavelli was not born until 1469, the amoral principles he would set out in The Prince (1517) were being applied well ahead of publication. There was certainly little evidence then of Italian patriotism among the warring republics and city-states of northern Italy, and less evidence of crusading spirit, though the straits of Otranto, at the heel of the peninsula, separate Italy from the Balkans by only some thirty miles….

It was the pontificate (1458–1464) of Enea Silvio de’ Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, that most closely coincided with Dracula’s reign. Piccolomini began his career as a libertine not devoid of literary talent and changed his ways only when he became a priest in 1446. He was enough of a medievalist to understand the threat inherent in the Ottoman expansion. From 1459 onward the Pope repeatedly appealed to the Christian powers to join in a common crusade, and he raised the monies to subsidize such a concerted movement. Indeed, Pius II, although a “Europeanist,” saw the Ottoman menace not merely as a danger for eastern Europe but for Christianity itself. Dracula alone responded to his call.

SOURCE: Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times, by Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally (Back Bay, 1989), pp. 13, 15, 20-21, 23-24

UPDATE: This book is certainly filling in a lot of gaps in my heretofore rather superficial Draculalogy, as well as my understanding of Romanian medieval history more generally. Although I had encountered during my Fulbright year there in 1983-84 many of the famous names in Romanian history—like Ştefan cel Mare, Mircea cel Bătrân, Vlad Dracul, and Dracula—I had not realized that Mircea the Elder (1386-1418), Vlad Dracul (r. 1436-1442), and Vlad Dracula (r. 1448, 1456-1462, 1476) were Father, Son, and the Unholy Impaler; nor that Vlad Dracul acquired his epithet from being named to the crusading Order of the Dragon (not Devil) by the Holy Roman Emperor, in whose court at Nuremberg he served as page; nor that Vlad the Impaler impaled almost as many Transylvanian Germans as he did Turks; nor that the Impaler may have been born in Sighişoara (pictured above, from our visit in 1984), but held court at Târgovişte, on the Wallachian side of the Carpathians and upriver from Bucharest.

Leave a comment

Filed under Romania, Spain

Iran: The Modern Face of Islam

The Islamic revolution is today a spent force in Iran, and the Islamic Republic is a tired dictatorship facing pressures to change…. Iran more than any other society in the Muslim world is a place where fundamentals are under scrutiny and open to questioning and new thinking.

No other country in the Muslim world is so rife with intellectual fervor and cultural experimentation at all levels of society, and in no place in the Muslim world is modernity and its various cultural, political, and economic instruments examined as seriously and thoroughly as in Iran. The cultural dynamism of the country will also be a force that will define the Shia revival. The hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims who travel to Iraq along the highway from Tehran to Najaf are also a conduit for ideas, investments, and broader social and economic ties. They visit shrines and clerics but also fill the bazaars of shrine cities, and many buy property in anticipation of a boom in pilgrimage and business. The outcome of debates in Iran will bear on the character of the Shia revival and are being influenced by forces that the changes in Iraq have unleashed.

In many regards Iran presents the modern face of Islam. Persian is now the third most popular language on the Internet (after English and Mandarin Chinese), where one can surf more than 80,000 Iranian blogs. Iranians are actively engaged in discussions about Western thought. There have been more translations of Immanuel Kant into Persian in the past decade than into any other language (and these have gone into multiple printings); one of them is by the current conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament. In some areas of mathematics and physics, such as string theory, Iranian research centers rank among the best in the world; and Iranian cinema has in recent years become a powerful force, with films such as Abbas Kiarostami’s existential drama A Taste of Cherry attracting global notice.

This cultural dynamism has even left its mark on the Iranian religious establishment. Since the Khomeini revolution, Shia centers of learning in Iran, especially in the city of Qom, have prospered. There are large new libraries in Mashad and Qom, each housing millions of books and manuscripts, electronically catalogued with searchable databases and the latest technology for retrieving and maintaining them. A visitor to the Library of the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad or the Ayatollah Marashi Library in Qom cannot fail to be impressed by the size of the collections, the scale of the services provided, and the care that has been given to infrastructure and the use of technology. The achievement is as much in furthering Shia studies by making rare manuscripts and archaic texts available to eager clerics and seminarians as it is in promoting library science by creating the means to manage such vast collections. Ancient manuscripts commingle with computer terminals and high-tech restoration and preservation labs. The vast libraries are full of turbaned seminarians, some buried in theological texts, others absorbed in managing the collections on their computer terminals.

OURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 212-214

Leave a comment

Filed under Iran

Was Hungary the Last Revolution in Europe?

In a Wall Street Journal editorial headlined The Hungarian Revolution: impotent, poignant, personal, Hungarian novelist Peter Nádas recalls events in Hungary fifty years ago, and then at the responses and nonresponses of other governments to those events.

The Hungarian Revolution was the last European revolution. A bloody end of the romantic and idealist history of the long age of revolutions, an end painful and embarrassing for everyone. The age is over, and this is why the Hungarian Revolution is dead no matter how many monuments the Hungarians raise to celebrate its memory. And it remains dead. It had survived the years of retributions but not the false illusion of peaceful coexistence. In this sense, it’s not just a substantial caesura but also a substantial loss for the political thinking of Europe. In the absence of the tradition of revolutionary changes, we are left with the European tradition of conformity and opportunism, with court poetry and mannerism.

With some exaggeration, one could say that in October 1956 the peoples of Europe and North America, together with their legitimate governments, decided to put an end, once and for all, to the age of revolutionary change. And they were right to do so. To avoid another world war, the existing orders had to integrate, in some way or another, the social and political dissatisfaction of the age; this became the supreme commandment of the day. Expressing deep regrets, with bleeding heart and being fully conscious of their responsibility, they opted not to support the headless and 150-years-late Hungarian Revolution either by diplomatic means, or by sending volunteers or weapons.

I say this without any pathetic overtones or sadness: My life has passed in the context of this double bloodletting. Since those days, I have hated despotism. But I also find it difficult to turn my head silently at the sight of the weaknesses, cheap little farces, self-endangering prejudices and overall vulnerability of the republic and democracy.

In April 2005, I also blogged a few pieces of a fascinating article about China’s role in the Hungarian revolt.

Leave a comment

Filed under Eastern Europe, USSR

The Restless Shia of Bahrain

Bahraini Shias reacted somewhat differently from their cousins in Iraq and Lebanon. They constitute more than 70 percent of their tiny island country’s population of 700,000 and consider themselves to be the salt of the earth ruled by a minority of Sunni settlers who invaded from Qatar in the eighteenth century. Since Bahrain gained its independence in 1970, Shias have been heavily involved in every coup attempt, street agitation, uprising, and reform movement in the Persian Gulf emirate. Trouble began in earnest in 1994 as the poor and politically marginalized Bahraini Shias protested their lack of jobs and rights. The government reacted brutally, jailing and exiling political and religious leaders and perpetuating the cycle of violence and repression.

In 1999 the country’s new ruler, Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, decided to open up the political system. This happened at a time of Shia agitation that led to the imprisonment of the Shia leader, Sheikh Abdul-Amir al-Jamri. Eager to consolidate his rule in the face of unrest, the emir called for elections to give the country’s population a voice in governance. What he had in mind was not democracy but a parliament of notables that would allow him to control the population by coopting their leaders—”a cooptation of the effendis,” as Bahrainis called it dismissively. Many Bahrainis boycotted the 2002 elections, especially the restless Shia youth and those Shia activists who were enamored of the Iranian revolution and followed religious parties such as the al-Wifaq (the Accord) movement and the Front for Islamic Revolution in Bahrain (Al-Jibha al-Islamiya li’l-Tahrir al-Bahrayn). These voices instead called for a complete opening of the political system. Unhappy with limited access to power and the growing prominence of the Wahhabi brand of Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood among Sunnis, the more radical elements in al-Wifaq and the Front began to agitate. The boycott allowed the minority Sunnis to take twenty-seven of the forty seats in the parliament, which only aggravated the situation.

Thus when the second Gulf war came, Bahrain was already restless. The Shia youth, jobless and resentful, looked like the youth of Sadr City. What they lacked was a Bahraini Muqtada al-Sadr. Pictures of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and Lebanon’s Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah adorned shops and homes. When a local newspaper printed an unflattering cartoon of Ayatollah Khamenei in July 2005, large crowds marched in the capital, Manama, chanting, “Labeik Khamenei” (we are responding to your call, Khamenei). Bahraini young people were not keen to follow the leadership of their traditional elders, and less keen to heed their call for calmness and patience. Revolutionary fervor began to give place to democratic hope after Sistani began to clamor for “one person, one vote” and the Shia won the January 30 Iraq elections. As a measure of how closely Bahrainis now followed Iraq, in May 2004 large crowds protested the fighting between U.S. troops and the Mahdi Army in Najaf and Karbala. The mass of Bahraini Shias took the example of Iraq to heart and began to demand real democracy, which would mean a transfer of power to Shias and not just a “House of Lords” to legitimate the Sunni monarchy. In March and June 2005, thousands poured into the streets to ask for full-fledged democracy. They wanted what their numbers warranted, that is, to rule Bahrain just as their cosectarians were now ruling Iraq. Bahrain’s sectarian troubles will bear directly on Shia-Sunni relations in the UAE, Kuwait, and, most important, Saudi Arabia, whose Eastern Province sits a stone’s throw from the causeway that links Bahrain to the Arabian mainland.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 234-236


Filed under Islam

Wordcatcher Tales: Ha‘i, Puana

Listening the other night to the incomparable Auntie Genoa Keawe singing a Hawaiian song in a style often called female falsetto, I got curious about two things: the possible distinctive features of Hawaiian falsetto, and the exact meaning of a phrase that is ubiquitous in Hawaiian-language songs: Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. So I looked both of them up.

Ha‘i ‘break, snap’ – Honolulu Star-Bulletin music critic John Berger explains it in an April 2002 story headlined That LeAnn Rimes yodel translates to Hawaiian ha‘i.

First, about ha’i. The relevant translation relates to a style in which singers voice a break when moving between their lower register (“chest voice”) and upper register (“head voice”). Hawaiian falsetto singers use this technique to emphasize or add emotional intensity to a phrase or passage, whereas traditional European-American falsetto singers try to eliminate any hint of it.

“When I was studying musical theory (in college), my voice teacher and I spent five years trying to smooth that break out,” [Amy Hanaiali’i] Gilliom said.

Certain women, like LeAnn Rimes, sing ha’i, she said, singing a few bars of Rimes’ hit “Blue” to prove her point.

Keawe agreed. “I’ve heard that recording and I hear her singing, and she sings like us with the ha’i. You can sing ha’i in any language.”

Puana ‘refrain, theme, or keynote of a song’ – Puana is the key word in the phrase, Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. Pukui & Elbert’s Hawaiian Dictionary (1986) defines puana thus:

Attack or beginning of a song; in music, the tonic or keynote; to begin a song; summary refrain, as of a song, usually at or near the beginning of a song; theme of a song.

The whole phrase is rather awkwardly translated as

tell the summary refrain (this line followed by the refrain is at the end of many songs or precedes the name of the person in whose honor the song was composed).

Leave a comment

Filed under Hawai'i, language

Convert NK to a US Client State? No, Thanks.

Last week, China Matters carried a long analytical post on the deteriorating relations between North Korea and its last remaining patron, China. It ends off with a bizarre suggestion.

What I believe China wants is a North Korean regime that is profoundly isolated, helpless, and totally reliant on Chinese good offices to survive.

Right now, Kim Jung Il—and the United States and Japan—are pretty much doing China’s work for it.

For China, all that’s needed now is patience—and ruthlessness.

Beijing has offered North Korea no verbal consolation, either at the diplomatic level or in its media. Hu Jintao dispatched a special envoy to meet with President Bush and, I expect, assure the United States of China’s sincere desire to put a lid on the North Korean nuclear program.

And certain Chinese actions are speaking louder than words.

The fence is going up along the Yalu to further isolate North Korea’s export trade—both licit and illicit–from the crucial Manchurian economy. Anecdotal reports in Ming Pao and the South Korean press indicate that Chinese banks are declining to remit money to North Korea, and North Korean guest workers are not receiving visa extensions.

If North Korea detonates another device, all China has to do stand aside and let foreign investment and trade—the key to the regime’s survival as an independent nation—dry up.

Ironically, by this reading, the United States could profit from the estrangement between China and North Korea by embarking on a swift rapprochement with Pyongyang.

Instead, we are doing everything within our power to force North Korea under China’s heel and, in the process, perpetuate the existence of the same failed North Korean system—and regime–that we have sworn to destroy.

What role would the cynical Kim Family Regime play in all this? They’re the parties who most want North Korea to remain isolated and under their control. Not China. If Kim Jong-il were to become another Baby Doc ruling a U.S. client state as helpless as Haiti, South Korea would scream even louder about U.S. imperialism on the peninsula–and China would laugh all the way to the bank.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Korea