Dear loyal readers: for the next couple of months, I plan on posting, perhaps daily, perhaps not, on a side-project blog I recently inaugurated: Sohbetname. The title is an Ottoman Turkish word meaning something like ‘conversation book,’ the story of which I will no doubt give in greater detail at some point in the future. My plan is to attempt to write something moderately publishable, something reflective of my imagination, my philosophical or political speculation, or something connected with my historical work but in a very rough and unverified form- in other words, a different body of material than has been my wont to publish here. I will continue to update this blog, sporadic as ever; this side-project will be my outlet for my more personal, experimental writing, and I very much hope you will give it a look. Thanks!
February 8, 2015
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January 18, 2015
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We like our distance. Angle things a little crooked,
Don’t line up with the neighbors. Show difference.
Scraggling trees, brush piles, dirt road weave,
A junked truck or two, moldering into earthen rust, loose fencing.
Sometimes the dog down the way wanders up and we watch him
Loping along, gaunt, in his eyes a hunted cast, signs of his owner’s
Maladroitness. And we reaffirm our distance, shoo him off.
When God made the world He made it wide with reason, we figure.
We’d prefer to keep it that way. Then, when death calls,
Put us near, but not too near, our ancestors’ bones. Even then
We’ll need our breathing space.
January 6, 2015
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Straddling the long stony spine of West Virginia’s North Fork Mountain is an expanse of natural meadows, edged by red pine groves and gnarled oaks, called Nelson Sods (‘sods’ in local geographic usage means ‘meadows’). While the views are spectacular, the photos below, taken on a recent hike up on the mountain, are of the smaller wonders found there.
Above: wind-sculpted grasses along the ridgeline. Below: grass woven into a circular shape by the action of wind upon a milkweed stalk.
Above: a lone tree in the midst of the Sods. Below: a view across the ridge, red pines in the foreground.
Above: an old pine stump in the Sods. Below: detail of the weathered wood of the stump.
Below: British-soldier lichens.
December 10, 2014
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The great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi traversed the vast lands of the Ottoman Empire and places beyond, recording both the mundane and the fantastic, from the number of public baths in a given town to tales of magic, wonder, and the machinations of dark and mysterious powers. In the especially charming selection below, he describes the unique lifestyle of the residents of Diyarbakır, a city in what is now southeast Turkey. The description- of the marvelous gardens and temporary summer dwellings therein, and the entertainments associated with them- speaks for itself, so I won’t elaborate further. While the particularities of the situation are perhaps unique to Diyarbakır and its geographic and ecological situation, other themes can be traced elsewhere in the Empire: the importance of sociability, especially in semi-public spaces like gardens, accompanied by music and drink, can be traced all through this period and the following century, despite the protests of the more puritanical-minded among the ‘ulama. The seamless integration of Sufi musical practice with the more ‘secular’ preceding night’s entertainment is also worth noting.
But Diyarbekir’s basil gardens and regularly laid out vegetable plots on the bank of the Tigris have no equal in Rum or the Arab lands or Iran. When, in the spring season, the flood period of the Tigris has passed and its limpid waters begin to flow [again] in a stable current, all Diyarbekir’s inhabitants, rich and poor alike, move with their entire families to the bank of the Tigris. They settle down under tents and pavilions along this wide water, on the plots that they have inherited from their fathers and ancestors, and they sow and cultivate in their gardens melons, water melons, various vegetables and flowers. They cultivate here a special type of basil, which everyone plants along the borders of his plot. In a month’s time it becomes [dense] like a forest and as high as a spear’s length so that it is impossible to look through the basil and see what is inside. The doors and walls, the gates and roofs of all these make-shift habitations on the bank of the Tigris are entirely made out of basil…. These pavilions are so densely overgrown with basil that the nostrils of the men and women living in them are scented night and day with the fragrance of basil and the other flowers in these gardens, such as roses, Judas-trees, and hyacinth. The women’s quarters of each garden are also such open-air pavilions of basil. The ponds and fountains in each pavilion all receive their water from the river Tigris. Between all these gardens and vegetable plots run numerous canals and watercourses which people have diverted from the Tigris to their regularly laid-out vegetable gardens.
For a full seven months a merry tumult, with music and friendly talk, is so going on night and day here on the bank of the river Tigris, as in each pavilion people are passing their time with their beloved and close friends, in jollity and drinking, enjoying concert sessions [like those] of Huseyn Bayqara[‘s court]. All the artisans however remain busy with the crafts during this garden season; [so that] all sorts of food and drink are available. Thousands go to the city in the morning and pursue their respective jobs; and in the late afternoon they return in swarms to the gardens on the banks of the Tigris, to indulge in pleasure and enjoyment…
In short, the people of Diyarbekir arouse the envy of the whole world because of the pleasures and enjoyments that they have on the bank of the Tigris for seven or eight months [of the year], their nights being [like] the Night of Power, and their days [like] the Feast of Sacrifice. They hold banquets like Husayn Bayqara’s, thinking to snatch a bit of pleasure from this transitory world. Each night the banks of the Tigris are illuminated with oil lamps, lanterns, wind tapers and torches, and people arrange in thousands of artful ways oil lamps and wax candles on boards, [which they then put to float on the Tigris], so that the lights are drifting from one side to the other, and the darkest night becomes like a brilliant day. In each pavilion singers and musicians, clowns, minstrels and story-tellers perform, players of the lute, the çartar, the şeşetar, the berbut, the qanun, the çeng, the rebab, the musqar, the tanbur, the santur, the nefir, the balaban, the ney, and the dehenk, in short all sorts of musicians with string and wind instruments give performances like those at Bayqara’s court, continuing until the break of dawn, when the Muslim muezzins chant with their sorrowful voices the glories of God, as it to apologize, and all the followers of the [Sufi] path and faithful lovers [of God] begin their recitations in praise of Oneness, in the spirit of Pythagoras the Monotheist. For since the people of Diyarbekir all belong to the order of the Khwajagan and the Gülşeni order they do not miss the ecstatic joy and delight of ritual chantings. In conclusion [one may say that] while busy intercourse and buzzing conversation go on these Iram-like gardens, the people continually pray for the perpetuation of the imperial state (devlet). May God exalt their spiritual stations!
Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatname, translated by Martin Van Bruinessen and Hendrik Boeschoten, in Evliya Çelebi in Diyarbekir (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 177-181
November 29, 2014
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In the course of the great Damascene mystic, savant, poet, and author ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī’s journeys- which he took with considerably frequency during the latter years of his life- he encountered many sorts of people from all walks of life, in both city and countryside. His impressions of rural life are especially precious, given his eye for detail and his sympathy and even reverence for rural religiosity and hospitality, a trait hardly universal among early modern literati anywhere in Eurasia, but quite characteristic of ‘Abd al-Ghanī. During his journey to Jerusalem in 1690, he encountered many majdhūb, ‘divinely attracted people,’ figures who are difficult to categorize in terms familiar to most Western readers (or modern-day readers in many places elsewhere for that matter). These people- who could be men, women, or children (or entire families, as ‘Abd al-Ghanī encounters in his journey)- could be similar to the ‘holy fools’ of the Orthodox tradition, though unlike holy fools they did not always embrace radical displays of disruptive piety. All however displayed signs of having been ‘attracted’ by the power of the Divine, in an unmerited, unsolicited manner. This ‘divine attraction,’ as I have translated it, could manifest itself in acts of transgressive piety, such as ignoring the dictates of the sharī’a or embracing extreme living standards or daily actions, like living on a garbage heap or carrying out highly eccentric actions in public. Despite their often extreme rejection of basic standards and social hierarchies they were seen as particularly potent instruments of divine grace and power, and hence not only not persecuted, but were often sought out for their divine baraka or blessing, by all ranks of society, ‘high’ and ‘low,’ literate and illiterate.
The majdhūb that ‘Abd al-Ghanī encounters in the below story is an excellent example. Originally a slave of African origins (and hence a reminder of the global status of the early modern trade in people from Africa), the man would become known as Shaykh Zā’id was seized by ‘divine attraction,’ which evidently quickly led to a change in his status and his embracing of an eremitical life, settling in a cave (miraculously generated according to a story ‘Abd al-Ghanī was told) on the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Ya’bad. The rest is fairly self-explanatory. Note however both the way in which social status could be remarkably disrupted and upended, as well as the role one of the quintessential early modern commodities, coffee, plays in the story, albeit in a surprising way.
And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely attracted lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, and he is in a cave there, at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that there used to not be a cave there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back and place it in his cave.
And when we entered we greeted him, and he returned the greeting. He is a black freed slave who prefers silence and solitude; Shaykh Muṣlaḥ of the aforementioned village had told us that he used to be the slave of some of the people of that village, and he used to shepherd animals for them. But then this divine attraction (al-jadhb) occured in him, he abandoned shepherding, and his master manumitted him. He used to return at times the village after the death of his former master, but then he settled in this cave and the people began paying visits to him in it. People from every place seek him out, believe in him, seek blessing from his words, and ask advice from him about their affairs. I asked him about the condition of my brothers and of the group of people traveling with me to Jerusalem, and he replied: ‘They are in grace and good through you.’ And he mentioned to us many words in which were good tidings to us and favorable end for our goal, and peace and safety.
And when we went in to visit him there was with us a young divinely attracted man from among the divinely attracted folk of Damascus, whom we have mentioned previously. When that divinely attracted one went in to him and spoke with him, he laughed greatly. He then said that he was tired, so we recited the Fātiḥa, paid our regards, and departed.
‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, al-Ḥaḍrah al-unsīyah fī al-riḥlah al-Qudsīyah, Bayrūt, Lubnān: al-Maṣādir, 1990, 66-7.
November 9, 2014
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The following is an excerpt from a letter sent by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (on whom and his letter writing see a previous post) to a friend of his living in the Ottoman town of Hayrabolu (in modern-day Turkey), one Ibrāhīm Efendī, in March of 1680. It concerns the practice of dhikr- remembrance- of God: its form, its effect, and its proper ‘translation,’ both into the letter recipient’s native tongue (in this case Turkish), and into right understanding of the role of the practioner vis-a-vis God. As such it is a good snapshot of how ‘Abd al-Ghanī envisioned the ‘mechanics’ of spiritual practice working in the practioner, including a glimpse into the real-world application of spiritual advice.
Persist in the dhikr of Sahl ibn ‘Abdallah al-Tustarī, God be pleased with him, which his shaykh invested him with and through which he attained to God in four days, with your observation adhering to its meaning in each moment. Then you will be benefited greatly by that, God willing. The dhikr of Sahl, God be pleased with him, is: ‘God is with me, God looks towards me, God is present to me.’ And if you translate it for yourself into the Turkish language, with words that make attention to its meaning easy for you, and so remember God by them, that is excellent. And it is thus when you pay heed to it with your heart but your tongue does not speak it. The intended goal is that there be no straining (takalluf) in yourself and in your thoughts for the flow of the remembrance of God (dhikr Allāh), and that you practice dhikr in every condition. Do not practice His dhikr believing that is you doing it under your own strength, rather, believe that it is He who is remembering Himself by means of your tongue and heart.
As God said: ‘God’s remembrance is greater,’ (Q. 29.45), which is an example of the attribution of the maṣdar [verbal noun] to its doer; that is, greater than the canonical prayer which is the dhikr of the servant towards his Lord. For indeed you are in His hand, in the disposition of His power, and He remembers Himself through you as He wills, and He makes your heart heedless of Him as He wills. Do not depend upon any but Him, and do not prop any of your affairs upon any but Him; do not imagine that any will benefit you other than Him, and do not believe that any can strike you other than Him. Be with Him by means of nothing else, and be in everything through Him. So stand upright and persist in that, and do not be displeased concerning His judgments over you, nor from the effect of His disposition in you. Be patient with the judgment of your Lord, and do not say, ‘He will not bestow good upon me.’ If He inclines thus for you, He will bestow good upon you in accordance with what He wills, not in accordance with what you will. If He wills, He will convey you in the moment, from state to state, and in a flash wholeness will come.
I have presented you with good advice, but it is God who is responsible for your guidance, for He is your Master. Do not fail to report about yourself to me, O brother, and write to me concerning everything that concerns your religious affairs, for I am the servant of this path, for the good of people. Peace in perpetuity!
‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010),150-151.