Our heart’s a crepe myrtle in the earlysummer heat gleam
Bright pink and purpled bits, folded into themselves and drifting
One two three slow seconds down, ground graved of fire ants languid. Yes.
I ease off the shoulder back onto the sunrotting coarse blacktop narrowing down
Muscadine and pine easing in, time’s suddenness.
I drove through the town I grew up in today… well.
We are vessels of decay, and none of our
Works will last. That’s the resounding message in the lay of this land, let me tell you.
Even our memory, the memory of our bones and our blood and the broken banners
Of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers, it’s split to nothing and wasting away,
Its own weight and the weight of the sins of the world. With every hurricane
Another empty space. Ten years, twenty, even the shards of bricks will be swallowed.
I turn my heart to the sun burning off in the west. October comes, and the last bit of color
Is gone. The leaves turn brown, and cling to the weary limbs. Metaphor? It’s so much
Deeper than that, man. All our lives are ruins, return, and red with sword and speech.
Some of us have worse ruins than others. These innerscapes of history—God how
I wish I could escape that word—are the brown leaves clinging, the crepe myrtle heart,
The swathe of the storm, the hidden cotton rows secret,
Our forefathers’ and mothers’ sweat and sins, our birth and others’ scarred redemption.
July 4, 2015
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Our heart’s a crepe myrtle in the earlysummer heat gleam
June 18, 2015
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Indulge me, dear reader, some of my out-loud thinking, taken from my common-place book, where I jot down, in a sort of haze of free-form association and reckless philosophizing, unbound by genre or affiliation, and often indirectly occasioned by the dreary roll of the day’s headlines, my scattered ideas and attempts to corral my thoughts and emotions into something coherent-ish, and, perhaps, of interest to others…
1. One knows not to indulge in O tempora tropes, knowing that one’s own age is ultimately not really all that different from any other. At every age there are madnesses at the center, and the madnesses of the periphery, the strange and terrible machinations of the human heart spilling out of the prevailing discourses and modes of behavior, at once shocking, at once emerging from what is normative and central.
2. It is best not to begrudge people their fantasies, their naivety, their willful, unreasonable optimism. If people were in the habit of dealing with reality, and not their delusions, it would be utterly crippling for most. Perhaps it is better to imagine a world in which things work out they way you imagine they will—by the time the time comes and they don’t turn out that way, the infinite flexibility of human thought and perception will not be perturbed, but will merely adapt its future-looking vision, untroubled by prophets proved wrong, cheery—or apocalyptic, cheery in their own way to our odd little minds—prognostication unfulfilled, and forgotten, new ones replacing. Human memory is akin to the cellular structure of our bodies: seemingly stable and self-reproducing, but constantly in flux, dying and being reborn to meet the passage of time, the perils and presses of biology, heading towards a biological end but a spiritual and historical afterlife and extension elsewhere and in others, transformed. Memory—particularly our memory of the future—is largely unstable and flexible, at once incongruent with the world as it is and yet malleable to what the world turns out to be, or what we come to remember the world having been. The material traces, the psychic echoes…
3. I suppose it makes me a conservative in the technical, and not the ideological sense, in that I no longer suppose—and in the back of my mind, I have never supposed—that history moves on some progressive, teleological line, without terrible (or wonderful—who knows) and fundamentally unforeseen feedback loops built into that movement, which can, in time or suddenly or both, send history into new and unexpected directions, directions that belie any talk of ‘progress’ or unidirectional (or bidirectional) movement. History, time, is a welter, and there is no telling how things will move, what will become.
Proceeding from this conviction—or, I would say, observation—is the congruent conviction that for many ‘problems’ there is in fact no ‘solution.’ If time, human societies, ecology, history, so on, are infinitely complex, malleable, their ontology at once visible and invisible to us, driven by logics and processes known only to God, as it were, then why should we expect our lives capable of division into neat moral binaries, or liable to neat solutions and resolutions? That is not to deny the possibility of moral certainty, in propositional terms, or even in a deep sense of the self before the world and God: but when we attempt to arrive at a ‘social’ morality, at a morality that is dispersed, woven into our human and natural ecologies in ways that preclude personal reckoning and analysis: then we enter territory for which ‘ambiguity’ is too mild a term.
Value judgments need not collapse utterly, but we are more in the realm of tragedy and comedy wherein the sheerness of the world, its apart-from-us-ness, is the primary operative reality. In the face of everything, then, what is best…? Prayer, sorrow, the momentary discoveries of good and gladness, small comforts perhaps, unless joined to a conviction, in the movement of prayer, liturgy, and the pin-points of sanctity, human and natural, that beyond our immediate, history-bound ken, there is God, there is an eternal stability in eternal movement, as unpredictable as that of this world, but in a movement of fundamental goodness and wholeness, moving Itself and us and all towards a fulfillment beyond, behind, our temporal knowledge, into an unending, ever expanding Completion.
May 25, 2015
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The religious lives of the nomadic people of the Ottoman era are not easy to reconstruct. While some aspects of nomadic and semi-nomadic life are recoverable due to Ottoman administrators’ interest in the nomads and their often vital role in Ottoman military activities, other aspects are much murkier. Few to no nomads left written records of their own, leaving us dependent on the observations of others, observations that themselves are rather thin due to either lack of contact or, more likely, lack of sustain concern- a situation that holds with observations of rural life in general. But while there were certainly stereotypes operative about nomadic peoples, the attitudes of sedentary, learned people were in fact quite complex and capable of nuance. The following story, narrated by Muḥammad Abū al-Wafā’ ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī (d. 1661), a scholar from Aleppo whose biographical dictionary, Ma’ādin al-dhahab, is, no pun intended, a gold-mine for the cultural, social, and religious life of early modern Aleppo and its surrounding region, is an example of this nuance. It is not the only story in the biography that features Turkmen nomads- in the next story a group of nomads seek out, and gain, the intercession of the saint on behalf of the son of a tribal chief.
As for this story, it opens with rural people- who may be nomadic, semi-nomadic, or sedentary- engaging in a water dispute with a Shaykh Aḥmad, the subject of the biographical entry (and the author’s maternal great-grandfather), a detail by itself worthy of note. We next see a nomadic Turkmen family, though they are not really the center of the story as it turns out. At heart this anecdote is about the powers of insight of the saintly hero, and his ability in leading an adulterous disciple to repentance and restoration. Still, we get a glimpse of life among the Turkmen of Syria and their devotion to local saintly shaykhs (and the saintly shaykh’s respect for them), coupled with gender norms considerably laxer than those found in urban areas (gender segregation is not observed, and we get the sense that the wife is not veiled). Yet it is noteworthy that there is no explicit condemnation of these lax gender norms, or of the woman involved- rather, the responsibility for the sin that occurs is placed squarely on the errant urban male, who is made to confess his betrayal of hospitality by the saintly shaykh, then guided back to religious and social soundness through the shaykh’s tutelage.
My father the shaykh related to me that Ibn al-Qala’ī turned towards Antakiya due to a case against the shaykh [Aḥmad ibn ‘Abdū al-Raḥman al-Quṣayrī al-Kurdī, d. 1560] concerning water which the Banu al-Qala’ī were making claims on. He found along the way a khalīfa  of Shaykh Aḥmad, and he told the matter to him. The khalīfa said: ‘No, this is a futile matter; still, adjudicate it amongst yourselves.’ They agreed upon going to the village of the shaykh for reconciliation. Then night overtook them, so they stopped in a Turkmen tent , and the Turkmen received the khalīfa of Shaykh Aḥmad, in honor of the master, and showed him great hospitality. Then the Turkmen left after the evening prayers to tend to his flocks. He had a beautiful wife, and he left the two of them sleeping in the presence of his wife. When the cover of night fell, the khalīfa sought to seduce the wife, and she quickly responded and complied with his desire. Ibn al-Qala’ī perceived that, but the two supposed he was sleeping. When the khalīfa consummated his lust [lit. when he consummated what God had decreed for him], he settled down and went back to sleep.
Morning came, and Ibn al-Qala’ī and the khalīfa set out. Ibn al-Qala’ī said: ‘Let us perform the morning prayer.’ The khalīfa was silent, and payed Ibn al-Qala’ī no attention, so he stopped at a spring of water, did ablutions, and prayed the morning prayer. When the two reached the shaykh who is the subject of this biography, the khalīfa entered. It was the shaykh’s custom to rise to meet him, [which he did]. Then the shaykh looked at him wrathfully, and withdrew his hand from him when the khalīfa sought to kiss it, his face reddening. When the two sat down, the shaykh ordered the fetching of [the book] al-Targhīb wa al-tarhīb [by ‘Abd al-‘Aẓīm ibn ‘Abd al-Qawī al-Mundhirī, d. 1258]. He opened the book and began to read the chapter ‘Invocation of Fear towards Adultery,’ taking up the mention of the evil of adultery. The khalīfa remained silent, until he suddenly cried out, and began weeping and wailing openly. The shaykh shouted at him, then stripped him of his ceremonial apron (mi’zar), drove him out, and said: ‘O traitor! A man trusted you with his family and you betrayed him?’
Then he spent a long time weeping before the door of the shaykh, and was public with his repentance and returning to God, until the shaykh caused him to undergo a forty-day retreat . He then dressed him the clothing of the fuqarā’, not of the khalīfas. After two years, when he verified the soundness of his repentance, he returned him to his previous position.
 A sort of deputy of a Sufi shaykh.
 Turkmen nomads and semi-nomads could be found all across the Ottoman Arab provinces, sometimes in competition with Arab Bedouin tribes who surged north into Palestine and Syria during this period.
 During a forty-day retreat (forty being a symbolic number in both Christianity and Islam) the disciple would remain in seclusion most of the period, praying, practicing remembrance of God, and struggling with his lower self. Aḥmad was an initiate of the Khalwatiyya Sufi ṭarīqa, an order known for spiritual retreats, hence their name, taken from khalwa, ‘solitary retreat.’
Muḥammad Abū al-Wafā’ ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī. Maʻādin al-dhahab fī al-aʻyān al-musharrafah bi-him Ḥalab. [Ḥalab]: Dār al-Mallāḥ 1987. 92-93. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2015, no rights reserved.
May 22, 2015
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‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah (d. 1517) was a female Sufi master from Damascus, living in the twilight years of Mamluk rule and the very beginning of Ottoman control of the region. She is one of the most prolific, if not the most prolific, female Muslim writer in the pre-modern era, writing treatises, poetry, devotional literature, and the like, including a mawlid-text (a text in celebration of Muhammad’s birth) that would prove to be of enduring popularity. The following is a poem from her diwan that is representative of her deeply emotional and affective piety and poetic style.
When I sought union from the one I love,
His majesty replied that there was no path to Him.
So, I closed my eyes that had tried so hard to see Him,
while in my heart, desire burned with separation’s fire.
I was about to meet my death, when He was kind,
and sweetly spoke to my heart, saying:
‘If you want union from Us, be true to Us,
set aside all else, strive for Us, and be humble.
Leave yourself and come to Us with Our true love and grace.
Make that your means to Me.
Draw near to Us, be devoted to Us; don’t fear rejection.
Turn toward a sacred precinct filled with acceptance.
There, you will find providence draws you to Us,
bringing sweet union,
And you will leave there all but Us
and appear in a station where true men alight.
You will behold lights of power, and in their intensity,
the shadow of difference will go and disappear.
You will pass away, nothing to preserve you save Our splendor,
as you behold, truly, the climax of desire.
Then you will abide with Us, Our servant,
pure, chosen by Us for Our secrets forever!’
‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah, Fayḍ al-Faḍl wa-Jam’ al-Shaml, translated by Th. Emil Homerin, in Emanations of Grace: Mystical Poems by ‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011), 64.
April 19, 2015
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Below is a short story from a biography of one of the most important Muslim saints of early modern Ottoman Aleppo, Abu Bakr ibn Abi al-Wafa’ (1503-83). Abu Bakr was a majdhūb saint: someone who has been ‘seized’ by divine ‘attraction,’ as a result acting in often aberrant and socially unacceptable ways (Abu Bakr lived on trash-heaps, had a following of feral dogs, and liked to whack people with his staff, for instance), but believed to have special access to divine insight and revelation. Abu Bakr’s tomb and surrounding complex would become a center of Aleppo’s spiritual life (as well as serving for some time as the headquarters of the Ottoman governor), his reputation built in part by stories like the one reproduced here. However, I selected this particular story due to its giving us a peek into everyday life in Ottoman Aleppo for ordinary people, men and women. Note particularly, as you read the story, the importance of textiles: in our industrialized world of mass produced clothing, the expense and ensuing value of seemingly basic textiles for pre-modern people is hard to grasp. Yet, as this story indicates, simply keeping one’s children properly clothed could be a major struggle for non-elite, working people; unfortunately, not everyone could count on the prescient generosity of a charismatic saint.
Jamāl al-Khādim related that he visited [Shaykh Abū Bakr al-Majdhūb] once. The shaykh gave Jamāl his shirt and outer garment and said: ‘Put these shirts and trousers aside for your children!’ But Jamāl, who at the time was not married, said: ‘Ya sīdī, I don’t have any children!’ So the shaykh hit him with his staff and said, ‘You lie!  I can hear their voices!’ Some of those present said, ‘Take them from the shaykh, whether you have children or not!’ Jamāl said: ‘I fear accusing the shaykh of deceit,’ so he took them and intended to use them as a funeral shroud for himself when the day came. He stuck them in with the stuffing of a cushion (mikhadda), then forgot about them. Time passed, Jamāl got married, they had children, and these clothes were still forgotten. His wife sought from him shirts for his children, but he replied: ‘I have nothing! But perhaps God will give us a blessing.’
He spent several days in great distress on account of his children. But then he came home one day to find brand-new shirts upon his children, and asked: ‘Where did you get these?’ His wife answered: ‘I washed the cushion, and I pulled out the stuffing so as to clean it too, and found linen shirts and outer garments!’ Jamāl wept, remembering the mystical foresight (kashf) of the shaykh.
Abu al-Wafa’ ibn ‘Umar al-‘Urdi, Ma’adin al-dhahabfi al-a’yan al-musharrafa bi-him Halab, ed. ‘Abdullah al-Ghazali( Kuwait, 1987), 52-53.
 Here Abu Bakr addresses Jamāl in the feminine, not the expected masculine; this was one of Abu Bakr’s ‘specialties,’ through which he marked off his socially aberrant, and hence spiritually liminal, place in the world.
For more on this fascinating saint and the world of Ottoman Aleppo, see the following:
March 26, 2015
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Here the hills are marked as if by great cosmic knives, taking
Deep clean cuts, molding wedding cake of land, the blown out bits
Of the glacial wastes, at the ice’s edge, cold lover jilted,
Washed down the River, liquid myth and sorrow.
If you listen close you might hear the blood murmuring, so close
To being silent and still, at last into that good night.
If you let your skin feel you might breathe the brush of spirits
Tangled in the kudzu vines’ frozen crawl up from the gullies,
Burrowing their dark roots into the loess bluffs, bidding the grey months.
There were flames on the hilltop then,
And you arrive a hundred years later, to look, the cinders washed away. You
Mark the columns, anonymous authored Greek tragedy scene,
Live oak weeps in Spanish moss, branches cracking. And you think
You’ve seen this all before, in a dream,
Or on a screen, maybe, fading into one another, ghost cinema.
Circumambulate the ruins, love, and put your finger to pulse. Know
That there are no more secrets here, except what we keep in ourselves.
Shame, the cold-blooded kind, manacled to heart, flesh,
No place to release it, no deeds of manumission.
We remember all too well, and not at all, as we tread the pilgrim’s road,
No absolution at the end, no word of blessing.
Just the dark roil of the River, choke of flood and silt,
Baptism of death, no fire. Look elsewhere for grace and love.
Here are only ever ruins.
February 8, 2015
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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!