Monday 7 December 2015

Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe (2013)

In July 2014 I returned to my then home in Atlanta after eight months overseas. I spent six of those months in Tashkent, researching my dissertation in archives and libraries, thumbing through crumbling manuscripts and tattered books in search of ʿAlī Shīr Navāʾī. I was trying to pull together fragments of his legacy and influence upon later writers in an attempt to illustrate (or was it demonstrate?) his ineluctable influence on Central Asian culture.

After several years of graduate school, I though I was prepared. I knew the languages. I navigated daily life in Uzbek, but when I went back in time, I read Chaghatay Turkic (the precursor of both modern Uzbek and Uyghur). I had sat through hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of lectures, seminars, and workshops on the highways and byways of Islamic Central Asian history. I knew the names of long-forgotten classical texts and their equally neglected authors.

But for much of my time in Tashkent, I was a lonely, scared mess of a man. A creature of habit, I restricted myself to a handful of restaurants, teahouses, and canteens. I only frequented two bars. One was a German-style beerhall on the other side of the railway tracks that skirted the south of the city. If you followed the tracks eastwards, you reached Almaty in Kazakhstan. Westwards, and you came to Samarqand and then Bukhara.

The beerhall was popular with foreign workers and their local colleagues, usually employees of the few remaining multinationals who hadn't been driven out by the government's paranoia and incessant harassment. My other watering hole of choice was a Georgian restaurant in a old-style central neighbourhood. Most of the old city of Tashkent was levelled in the earthquake of the 1966, but this neighbourhood still consisted of the single-level houses arranged around a central courtyard that are the stock feature of older Central Asian oasis cities.

I kept myself to myself. There were few foreign researchers and scholars about. The government discouraged anyone from doing research on anything other than the safest and potentially least embarrassing or critical topics. I had no problems there. Navāʾī is the national poet of Uzbekistan.

I suffered through a brutal winter compounded by infrastructural problems: exploding boilers, failing heating, powercuts, uncleared roads ... Some nights I curled up in bed in thermal underwear, pyjamas, a cardigan, woolly hat, and scarf. Only a reliable and steady wifi network, a small library of DVD boxsets, and endless streams of Grateful Dead(!) live recordings kept me moderately sane.

An article by Nick Paumgarten on the fanatical taping habits and obsessive cataloguing practices of Deadheads had proved bizarrely inspirational, as I believed I saw similarities between the manifold differences of manuscript copies of the same work by Navāʾī and the bazillion variations of Grateful Dead concerts. Several recordings might exist of the same show, depending on whether they were recorded by the sound engineer working through the soundboard, or some geezer int he audience holding a microphone above his head. Here was my theoretical framework.

At the end of April 2014 I returned to the United Kingdom, to see family, conduct more research, and take a long overdue holiday with my wife. I did the first and third of these, but the second was cut short when my father was taken suddenly and unexpectedly ill in late May. He died three weeks later, his long-faulty immune system finally unable to beat off a common viral infection.

After burying him and helping my mother wrap up the strands of his life (the paperwork! the files! the bank accounts!) I returned home. I felt I had to simply get on with life. I had to write a paper for a conference in Montreal at the beginning of August. I had to return to Bloomington to teach in the Fall. I had to begin preparing my job application materials.

But amid all this, I forgot that I had to save my marriage. One of my promises for the year had been that I wanted to discover new music. As a teenager, I avariciously read the music papers and 'zines. In this moment, I thought that reactivating that passion would bring fresh stimulus to my life. I half-remembered a review of an artist who went under the moniker Blood Orange. More particularly, I fixated on their most recent release, Cupid Deluxe. Sasha Frere-Jones described it as "one of those albums that spawned a single radio hit and then fell out of print."

As my marriage then crumbled and dissolved and we separated, Cupid Deluxe became what I recently described to a friend as "my divorce album." I listened to the whole thing (and still do) the way people used to listen to albums: in one sitting. At home. On the bus. In airports. In the car. I proselytized (and continue to proselytize) for it. Frere-Jones's description seemed perfectly apt. No-one had heard of it.

One track came to encapsulate that time and is still the song that I play for friends and potential converts. "High Street" combines the vocals of Dev Hynes (the driving force of Blood Orange) with the flow of Skepta. Although Hynes should be best be described as a citizen of the world (parents from Guyana and Sierra Leone, raised in London, lives in Brooklyn) this particular song is a resolutely London song.

"Driving down Ilford Lane, going home ... "

British hip-hop or r&b does best when it stick to home turf, lyrically and melodically. Although I'd fallen out of love with London many years before (I left, friendless, in a white removal-van) "High Street" reminded me of the dirty glamour of daily London. Pushchairs. Sidewalks. Stolen phones. Traffic lights. The roar. Hynes and Skepta erect a moving monument to the daily grind from prosaic foundations. As crappy though I felt my life had become, I remembered that homes are not built in the stars, but start in the gutters.

Sunday 6 December 2015

No More I Love Yous - The Lover Speaks (1986)/Annie Lennox (1995)

"I used to have demons in my room at night ..."

For much of my teen years and well into my twenties, I used to have night terrors. In the in-between state of awake and asleep, spiders used to drop onto my bed. Or build webs over my head. Dark shadows half-concealed themselves behind my bedroom door. Other times I would wake up, paralyzed. I could feel someone holding me. On other occasions, I could sense someone watching me. Don't move. If I don't move, they won't see me.

The cure, it turned out, was simple. I kept the freebie sleep-masks from long-haul flights and used those as amulets to protect me from my nightmares. More prosaically, it meant that when I opened my eyes, my mind was not overstimulated by the night. All I saw was pitch-black. comfortable, pitch-black. Instead, my dreams became the battleground for my anxieties, and hopes, and fears, and despair. As they ought to be. That's what dreams are for. There are no nightmares, just alarming fragments of fact and fantasy melded into terrifying magical reality.

For several years from 1997 or 98, I saw a lot of crappy wannabe bands playing third or fourth on the bill on a Tuesday night at the Rat's Ass in Camden, or the Bumfuck and Firkin in Stoke Newington, or the Stoned Gnome in Islington. I was there because I had a lot of arty friends who were in bands trying to get noticed. Some of them were old and wise enough to admit that that they just wanted to perform their songs in public for a few, kind, non-judgmental friends and that it got them out of the house on an otherwise depressing, grey, wintery, London evening.

There are no other kinds of evenings in London.

Others really were trying to make a career of it. They had websites. They played festivals. They recorded demo tapes. Jazz Summers was in the venue one time, I remember. (look him up, kids.) But in them end they gave up their internship at a record company, stopped pulling pints in pubs because the hours were convenient, and did what their parents' wanted them to do. Get a regular job. Get married. Have kids. Let the waistline expand.

These days hipsters pulling pints in brewpubs is quite the thing, I hear. Funny how things change.

But one time I went to see my older, wiser friend Patrick and his equally old and wise friend Mike perform their songs in front of a few friends. They played rootsy acoustic stuff: things they'd written, with a tasteful cover version on the side. Naturally, they were deep down on the bill. Headlining was some guy I'd never heard of.

David Freeman. Turns out he wrote a song in the 80s that barely scraped the charts and clearly didn't receive much radio-play. But his band, a duet called The Lover Speaks, toured as an opening act for the Eurythmics. Clearly Annie Lennox remembered who they were, because ten years later she did them a massive favor and recorded one of their songs on Medusa, her album of covers.

No More I Love Yous was fucking massive in 1995. Inescapably fucking massive. It. Was. Fucking. Every. Where. On the radio. On the telly. In cars, buses, trains, airplanes. It was one of those epochal records that no matter how many times you hear, it stays fresh and provocative. The kind of record that makes you want to stop driving and listen to the whole thing on the hard-shoulder, because you ask yourself "What. Is. This?"

The video captuared my attention, as I guess it did everyone else, because of the performance by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo ("Les Trocks"), a campy group of American ballet enthusiasts who combined drag and brave athleticism. Think Judith Butler meets the Bolshoi with a twist of Klaus Nomi.

Lennox is an honest performer. Her unforgiving rawness have won her a fanatical following of men, women, straight, gay, bi, questioning, normal, stark raving mad, boring, quite interesting ... who feel that the only role she is interesting in performing is herself. "Why," from he earlier solo debut, Diva, remains a painful and powerful testament to the ways relationships get fucked up. And how much it hurts. I worry for Annie Lennox whenever I hear her perform it, and I feel sorry for the audience members for whom it has become the perfect encapsulation of whatever pain it is they are experiencing.

But her rendition of No More I Love Yous is merely ok. If you want to feel the full affect, visit the original by the Lover Speaks. When I heard David Freeman and his partner perform it, you knew right away who wrote it. Like hearing Carole King singing (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Sure, Arethra has the pipes, but Carole has the pain.

Both the name The Lover Speaks and the lyrics of No More I Love Yous are inspired by Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. In it, Barthes endeavoured, in the manner of his greater and later project of avoiding "writerly" texts, to create a work based on fragments that reflected the quicksilver nature of this thing we call Love. Moreover, it was a discourse that reflected the rapturous highs and the wretched lows of Love.

"Isn’t the most sensitive point of this mourning the fact that I must lose a language — the amorous language? No more ‘I love you’s.”

It is the most painful feeling to wake up one morning and realize that you no longer love someone or that they no longer love you. In doing so, you lose a little piece of language. It is a form of censorship, the destruction of language. But the emotion lingers. In order to create anew, we must first destroy. When I have met other people who undergone similar experiences - by which I mean the same, but different - the loss of a loved one who still lives is as painful as losing a loved one who dies.

In this digital age, marriages and relationships don't die. They remain embedded in the digital ether. The reminders are constant. Facebook. Instagram. Flickr. Twitter. These fragments are the basis for the archaeology of past loves. Maybe in the future a Neo-Barthes will create a work based on these digital fragments. The demons of the internet. The only way to avoid them is to switch off and sleep in digital darkness, where one can dream.

Monday 19 November 2012

Research Methods (3)

A week or so ago I attended a workshop organized by the recently-established Catapult Center for Digital Humanities & Computational Analysis at IUB. The workshop was on Omeka, a digital publishing platform tailored for librarians, archivists and humanists who want to curate collections and research materials online. I attended because I'm becoming more and more interested in possible ways of being to present aspects of my research online, ways that require more sophisticated storage and hosting options than are available through (admittedly, pretty good) blog platforms like Blogspot or Wordpress.

Omeka is becoming increasingly popular with humanists whose research incorporates strongly visual components: manuscripts, photographs, paintings, illustrations &c. The attractions for someone like me, who is interested in the rich world of  medieval and early-modern Central Asian manuscript traditions, are obvious; moreover, it brings me into synch with developments in online curation that are currently impacting upon my own research: thanks to digitization initiatives such as Islamic Manuscripts at Michigan, Islamic Heritage Project at Harvard University, and Walters Arts Museum Islamic Manuscripts, I've been able to acquire research materials that once would have required sensitive negotiation and not insubstantial travel costs and copying fees to acquire.

In fact, I learned about the latter goldmine as a direct result of the Omeka workshop: the Walters Art Museum has made publicly available the metadata of its Islamic manuscripts, and the workshop convenors used it as an example of how spreadsheets can be imported (with the aid of a plug-in) into your Omeka site and used to generate new metadata fields.

Not previously aware of the Walters Art Museum (ignorant me!), or its precious collection of Islamic manuscripts, I was delighted to find that it has a fine Safavid copy of نوائی's خمسه, attributed to the 16th cent. As I begin to construct my my research agenda and schedule for the dissertation, the easy availability of such a fine work - unthought of 10-15 years ago - drives home to me the transformational nature of the digital humanities and its benefits to the researcher.

Friday 12 October 2012

Nawa'i Editions (2)

In one of my earliest posts I noted the lack of both critical text editions and translation of the works of نوائی. Therefore, I was very excited when I was in Tashkent back in August to pick up a copy of a recently-published Arabic-script edition of the نسایم المحبَه, his biographical dictionary of Sufi saints, based largely on three of the earliest known manuscripts: 1) Topkapi MS. Rivan 808; 2) St. Petersburg IVAN MS. 97a; and 3) Sulaymaniyya MS. Fath 4056.

These three MSS. are all copied in a small hand, with 27 lines on each page, so the editors have consulted a pair of later MSS. copied in a larger hand. Incidentally, The editors appear not to be aware of another MS. which arguably belongs to the older family, namely MS. Tk. 1069 III Coll., Asiatic Society of Bengal, Kolkata. This MS. of 116 fols, which I've been able to examine on microfilm, is copied in a small hand, with 27 lines on each page. Many parts of the text are obscured by water damage, but with a little patience and the power of Adobe Acrobat, it's mostly possible to read.

The publishing of (on the face of it) a reasonably reliable text edition will, I hope, make this important source of Central Asian hagiography available to a much wider audience. As I've found out to my delight on numerous occasions, it has a lot of valuable material not found in other sources. For example, according to a friend of mine working on Isma'ilis in Central Asia, it contains one of the earliest references to the traveller and poet ناصر خسرو in a specifically hagiographical context i.e. as a religious personality (p.371)

Most importantly, though, it contains one of the earliest outlines of the group of Turkish shaykhs (ترک مشایخی) 'from the time of احمد یسوی' i.e. the Yasaviyya. While earlier sources had alluded to the co-called 'Turkish shaykhs,' and یسوی was an important figure in the cosmology of Central Asian Sufism, it is only in this work of نوائی that we see the first a full-developed outline of the Yasavaiyya generations, based on initiatory and hereditary linkages.

Friday 7 September 2012

Q&A session

It was a busy summer: a couple of pre-dissertation research trips, one to the UK and one to Uzbekistan; a French readings class; work at the research institute; class preparation for the Fall; and  reading for Quals. It was probably *too* busy, but I achieved a couple of major goals, namely finally fulfilling my coursework requirements, and then taking - and passing - my Qualifying exams, which means - paperwork aside - I am essentially ABD (all but dissertation).

This semester I'll be working with our professor of Persian literature on a study of نوائی's Persian divan, and specifically his responses (جواب) to the غزلs of, inter alia, جامی، خسرو دهلوی and حافظ. The responses usually fall within the categories of مخمس or تتبع, and I'm hoping that a deeper understanding of the mechanics and aesthetics of the جواب will help me understand نوائی's place within  late-Classical Persian poetry and how it seeped into his Turkic work.

This in turn is part of my broader mission to investigate نوائی as a literary and intellectual phenomenon. Among North American and European historians of the Timurid period, the study of نوائی has tended largely to focus on his activities as a politician and patron of the arts, and his literary importance has become axiomatic, without actually being the subject of wide-ranging and deep scholarly investigation. It is, of course, a different story in Central Asia, where - because of his prominence as a culture hero - literary critics have long engaged with his works (though there too there are interpretive issues, largely deriving from the still strong influence of Marxist ideology, coupled with post-independence nationalist ideologies).

Friday 16 March 2012

'Let go of the madrasa and the khaneqah'

One of the highlights of the annual conference of the Association of Central Eurasian Students (ACES) at Indiana University, which was held at the beginning of this month, is the booksale. Consisting mainly of donations from publishers and cast-offs from faculty-members' personal libraries, it can be a hit or miss affair. However, this year (as with last), it was beefed-up by the remnants of the personal library of the late, great Denis Sinor, who died at the beginning of last year. In his will, he left most of his books (15,000+ volumes, I believe) to two institutions in his native Hungary. What was left was first picked over by us at the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, and then put out at the booksale.

Consequently, I was able to pick up a few interesting items. Of most immediate interest is a Soviet-era study on medieval Central Asian Turkic poetry (Э. Р. Рустамов, Узбекская поезия в первой половиние XV veka. Taшкент: 1963). Anachronistic usages of 'Uzbek' aside, it's a hugely useful survey of the Turkic poets of Central Asia who effectively constitute 'Alī Shīr Navā'ī's immediate predecessors, one of whom - اتایی - is the subject of a paper I'm writing this semester on the Yasavī sufi presence in Khurasan.

Only one copy of his divan is known to exist, and is held at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg. A descendant of one of the successors of احمد یسوی, his poetry reflects some sufi themes and ideas (although I want avoid as far as possible simply labelling him as a 'sufi' poet). One couplet quoted by Рустамов caught my eye:

قویغیل اتایی مدرسه و خانقاه
معنیدا قولی صادق و صوفیدا حال یوق

As usual, I'm struggling with a translation that is both literal and lyrical. This is my best attempt to date:

Ata'i: let go of the madrasa and the khaneqah;
Spirituality is an expression of devotion and a Sufi has no means.

The first line is fairly self-explanatory; it's trying to clarify how اتایی elaborates upon that statement in the second line that causes me to stumble. My best guest is that formal study in the مدرسه is not necessary because an 'expression of devotion' (I'm guessing that for metrical purposes قولی صادق is an inversion of the Possessive construction in Turkic) is all that is required to achieve spirituality, and that because a 'Sufi has no means' i.e. has foresworn worldly goods, then a خانقاه is also not necessary.

Regarding this last part, if that is indeed what اتایی is saying, then this would strike one as peculiar because if there is one thing we associate with sufis in this period, it is affiliation with the institution of the خانقاه. It may be an elaboration of a 'rejectionist' stance (similar to the one described by Ahmet T. Karamustafa, God's Unruly Friends: Dervish groups in the Islamic later middle period, 1200-1550. Сalt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994.), and thus we may consider the poetic voice in this case representative not of sufis, but of dervishes. Just a thought.

Monday 20 February 2012

Color me amazed ...

Among projects I keep in the slow-lane is an attempted translation of a pair of verse histories that belong to the clutch of Persian and Turkic works collectively referred to as the Kokand Chronicles. Produced in the 19th century, these works offer various perspectives on the history of the Ming dynasty, the Khanate of Kokand, and the Ferghana valley after 1720. Timur K. Beisembiev is at the forefront of current scholarship on these works, and has produced much that is useful (including the now indispensable Annotated Indices to the Kokand Chronicles) but a lot of work remains to be done. (This is the story, alas, for much of Central Asian history between the Mongol and Russian conquests.)

The works in question are the شهنامهٔ دیوانهٔ عندالیب and the شهنامهٔ دیوانهٔ مطریب and exist in two copies at the Beruni Institute of Oriental Studies in Tashkent. The copy I am working from is Ms. 696/I-II, and is described in volume five (publ. 1960) of the institute's catalogue of manuscripts (q.v. nos 3532 and 3534, p. 49). Both works are concerned with the reign of Muḥammad 'Alī Khan (r. 1237/1822-1258/1842). Nothing is known of the authors.

A pair of stiches caught my eye in شهنامهٔ دیوانهٔ عندالیب (fol. 5b l.15-fol.6a l.1):

خان نی اوروغیدین ایرمیش اول ایر
حم آتی انینگ ایرور علی شیر

که رنگی اوجوب گحی قیزاردی
که سرغاریبان گحی کوکاردی

My best translation thus far of this quite literally colorful pair of stiches goes something like this:

'There was a man from the khan's kinfolk,
Also called 'Alī Shīr,

Who turned pale and sometimes red;
Who turned yellow and sometimes blue.'

The translation is a bit literal, and maybe the depth of meaning can be more accurately rendered in a metaphorical sense:

'There was a man from the khan's kinfolk,
Also called was 'Alī Shīr.

Sometimes he blanched and sometimes he blushed;
Sometimes he yellowed and sometimes he turned blue in the face.'

I'm still working on it; suggestions welcome.