Rising From the Ashes

I spent part of this week in and around Atlanta, the ever-expanding capital of the ‘New South.’ I’d not been to Atlanta in years, other than in passing while traveling; this week I wandered around the city some, both intentionally and unintentionally, since I didn’t get a hold of a decent map until the last day of my visit. It’s a big city; most of my experience in urban navigation has been in ‘Old World’ cities where my means of transport was my own two feet, and in New Orleans, a city set apart from pretty much every other North American city I’ve visited. Atlanta is, I suppose, the South’s paradigmatic example of the modern city- big, ever-expanding, new and shiny (in the up-scale parts anyway, never mind the poor parts for the moment), with precious little of any considerable age, even for North America. Of course, General Sherman bears some blame for that, but not very much; there wasn’t a whole lot there back when my unfortunate ancestors were getting shot up at Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek.

There are of course some sections of the city that are fairly old and historic, and feel it. Auburn Avenue, which was the center of African-American life and commerce after the imposition of segregation in the early twentieth century, has some wonderful old and funky buildings; the Episcopal Methodist Church with its hodge-podgy neo-Gothic and big blue neon ‘Jesus Saves’ sign on the steeple is singularly wonderful, and is still in good shape. Further up the street, the Park Service has purchased and renovated a whole neighborhood worth of old buildings associated with Martin Luther King Jr., who was born and spent his boyhood in one of the old houses. But the stretch of street running back from the historic site is, with all its lovely old structures and venerable history, pretty decrepit. As my friend and I walked up from downtown towards the MLK site, we were approached by a homeless man offering an impromptu tour, followed by a request for donations. The whole area is now run-down, boarded up buildings and heavily armoured likker and mini grocery stores here and there; our homeless tour-guide told us he lived back up under an overpass of the interstate which now dissects the area.

The historic site is quite nice itself however, a sudden imposition in the immediate landscape, neatly trimmed shrubs, a rose garden, a fairly new looking museum, as well as a new Ebeneezer Baptist Church (the old one is still there, though it is at present closed up for renovations). There are signs up in the National Historic Site warning visitors against giving anything to ‘panhandlers,’ reminding one of signs in less urban Park Service sites prohibiting the feeding of bears.

The area went down, as we say, in the late sixties; before it had been a thriving center of African-American businesses, churches, and residences, with it’s own economy and tradition of mutual aid. If the segregationist regime rejected their money, the entrepreneurs of Auburn Avenue reasoned, it was their loss- so they built up their own economy, and thrived. Dr. King’s family came out of this milieu, and the determination and communal (but deeply personalist) sense of mutual aid and support would go a long ways towards the successful challenging of the segregationist regime and its systematic but ultimately untenable oppression. This was one of the things that struck me most as I looked at the exhibits in the museum, and has always struck me about the civil rights movement, particularly in its early stages- it was community-based, and broad-based, with people of many cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and standings coming together in a truly powerful movement. The men and women who challenged the segregationist State did not have to resort to bombs and guns; they had built up lives and communities powerful enough to take on even a violent and deeply entrenched regime and succeed, without turning to violence and oppression themselves.

Returning to the gritty shot-up feeling streets of which Auburn Avenue is only one, one has to ask- what happened, and what can anybody do about it? Auburn Avenue itself is an icon of what has been happening in our cities and towns for years now, what is happening right now as I write. Desegregation had its part, of course- African-Americans were no longer restricted to their own self-contained economy, and could take part in the wider economy and succeed there- leaving behind in many cases places like Auburn Avenue. But this is hardly the only explanation, or even the primary one. At the same time as desegregation was going into affect other programs, Federal and otherwise, were coming on-line, many under the title ‘urban renewal.’ As one line was erased new ones were laid down, often with the best of intentions, but often resulting in Federally-supported ghettos. The drug war has only escalated and grown more violent and more deeply entrenched; the ever expanding field of operations of the Mexican drug cartels only harbours more violence and destruction, and it’s not up-scale gated communities suffering the brunt of the violence and the corruption and rot.

There are other problems as well- job losses, poor education, and so on- but they all share the quality that few of them are exactly intentional. Much ‘urban renewal’ was meant to help the poor, at least ostensibly, or was at least supported by people who wanted to do good. Of course, plenty of it was deliberate in partionining off the poor, especially but not exclusively minority poor, from the elite enclaves. There is ridiculous highway a few blocks from my neighborhood here in Knoxville that, I am pretty sure, was built primarily to separate downtown from the much poorer, and darker-skinned, east-side neighborhoods; maybe there were no such intentions, but the effect is the same. The drug war is supported by well-meaning people, and I am sure at least some of those carrying it out have only good intentions and genuinely desire to do good. The damage is the same though.

The problem is further presented though- the evils and problems afflicting places like Auburn Avenue are so various that they are hard to fight against. There is no segregationist regime that we can unite against and battle; there are no straight-forward targets, as much as we would like for there to be. There is less ground, too, for people to stand on, as so many urban- and otherwise- communities are shot-up and worn out. The work that is needed- and here I start to really preach to myself as much as anyone else- is personal, is on the ground, and is probably not going to yeild immediate or impressive results any time soon, maybe ever. The great failing of the American elite- who are often very well-intentioned people- is to generally stay safely away from the poor and the decimated places, while sympathizing for them, in the abstract, and proposing solutions that are sure to work in theory, in principal. But while there are some genuine general policy solutions no doubt- the drug war comes to mind- they are only a part of the solution, probably not a terribly important part.

When it comes down to it we have to stop thinking in terms of helping the poor, or saving the inner city, as if the poor were a different species or something (albeit an endangered and valorized one), capable of being saved through the right policy enactments or a sufficiently large charity pay-out. In the end, working to end the violence and destruction of our cities is a struggle for ourselves; it is not a case of our aiding the poor and downtrodden in their struggle; we are all in this together, my struggle is your struggle. I cannot cut myself off from the rest of the world; my sin afflicts my neighbor and it afflicts me, just as the violence and deprivation of endless war and seeping poverty are part of my struggle, against the violence and evil in my heart and the violence and evil that come from outside my heart.

Our Auburn Avenues are not going to be magically transformed overnight; if there is going to be change, it must begin in our hearts- my heart- and work outward, person by person, community by community, in knowledge of each person and place’s particulars, and with love for them, love that, in imitation of the love of God, offers itself in becoming one with the sufferer, by becoming a co-sufferer, from the inside, with all the danger and dirt and darkness that comes with being inside of a suffering world, a suffering humanity.

More Compassion Than Anybody We Ever Saw

When we were at the ninth mile-post from Alexandria, we visited the monastery of Abba John the Eunuch for the benefit of our souls. There we found a very old man who had been at the monastery for about eighty years. He had more compassion than anybody we ever saw, not only for men, but also for animals. What did this elder do? No other work but this: he would rise early and feed all the dogs at the lavra. He would give flour to the small ants, grain to the bigger ones. He would dampen biscuits and throw them up on the roof-tops for the birds to eat. Living like this, he left nothing to the monastery when he died, neither door nor window nor spy-hole nor lamp nor table. In brief (not to say it all and make the story too long), he left nothing whatsoever of the world’s goods behind. Not even for one hour did he ever possess books, money or clothing. He gave everything to those in need, investing his entire concern in those things which were to come.

John Moshcos, The Spiritual Meadow (Story 184 in Wortley’s translation)

Occasional Vignettes; Week of Feb. 14

I keep telling myself, and am told by others, that I ought to write more, particularly as one of the principal parts of being a historian is the ability to write effectively. And to make progress in writing one must, as St. Augustine wrote in one of his letters, write, and write a lot, as the prolific Bishop of Hippo certainly did.

So as part of my attempt to write more I shall, insha’allah, begin writing weekly (possibly more but I dare not promise beyond that) installments of vignettes and anecdotal remarks from my week, perhaps brief commentary on whatever primary sources I’m reading in a given week (perhaps also secondary materials if it’s interesting enough). I find that blogging is a useful medium for collating and ever so slightly refining ideas that I would otherwise let flit off into space or consign to a Word file or a notebook; the public-ness of a blog compels me to give slightly more thought and attention to the things I write. Not a lot- blogging is, as advertised, push-button publishing, and like pretty much all the instant conveniences of modern life, quality suffers accordingly.

Still, the fact of writing in a public forum, and being somewhat conscious of it (but only somewhat: blogging still feels half-private, as I neither see the audience face-to-face- or very few members of the audience- nor the work itself in a physical, publicly accessible form) shapes how I write, and I think probably for the better. Then there is the whole interesting matter of one’s blog becoming part of one’s personal archive, here for all to see, alongside the stacks of books, papers, bits and pieces and odds and ends that you do not see.

But that’s a whole other matter.

*

1. While walking to my favorite café in our venerable Old City I was met, as I often am, by a homeless man. Knoxville has a large homeless/transient population, larger than anywhere in the ‘First World’ I’ve lived. This man struck up a conversation with me, seeing me carrying a couple heavy tomes under my arm: ‘What you studying?’

‘History’

‘Oh yeah, I love history. What part?’

‘Ah-’ I am immediately reminded at this point of a homeless person I gave a lift to a few months ago (yes, mum, if you’re reading, I occasionally pick up hitch-hikers etc., but you knew that already…); at this point in the what-do-you-do exchange, the homeless person asked quite pointblank, ‘What do historians do, anyway? Anything?’ Ah, yes, um…). I continued: ‘Medieval stuff mostly.’

‘Oh, my favorite is Ghengis Khan.’

‘My era is a little earlier, mainly.’

‘Oh.’

We proceeded to speak briefly of the joys and travails of history, and my new friend encouraged me to stick with it. He then asked me for a little change so as to buy himself a beer for St. Valentine’s Day. I admire honesty so I gave him, I think it was, a dollar fifty. Not having anyone else to buy a beer for on St. Valentine’s, I was actually glad this time to do so. We parted company.

There is a whole dialectic of do-I-give-money-to-homeless-people, but I will not engage it here, other than to say I usually do. Cf. St. John the Almsgiver. Caveat lector– he’s a bit radical, might make you a little uncomfortable. At least that’s how it is for me.

At any rate I had been in a rather bad nasty mood- long, dull story that only reveals my propensity for anger under frustration- and this particular man, somehow, helped relieve it.

2. Also seen today, first on Gay Street then later when she was walking along Chapman Highway across the river: a lady who wears red and black, in a sort of uniform that looks like a cross between a traffic attendant and a nineteenth century zouave. Very impressive. She also had a baton which she was swinging both times very deliberately.

3. Sitting in the coffee house studying I overheard the people next to me talking about the church shooting in Knoxville last fall. Turns out one of the women sitting there was in the church when it happened, and she proceeded to describe it in detail to her companions, and to me the unintentional voyeur listening at the table over.

One of her companions was very adamantly in favor the death penalty, swift and immediate; she wasn’t so sure. It was complicated, she said: being at the intersection of death and life (I paraphrase), in the moment when the bullets are- literally- flying and you are thinking about the most trivial things and the most serious things- that man has on a nice tie, is this women lying over there going to die right here should I help her where are the kids? I don’t know how I feel towards that man. Being there changes things.

What I wanted to say but did not say and probably it’s best that I didn’t, because after all I really know nothing: but if we condemn that man to death (as he surely deserves) we condemn ourselves to death, don’t we? There is blood on my hands and on yours; I silently participate in a deeply violent and bloody order of things and it almost never weighs on my conscience. And I myself know myself to have the murderous anger and rage inside of me; hell I felt it this very morning over the dumbest thing and then was angry at myself (angry again!) for my stupid brutish anger. It’s there in all our blood; it’s I who lashed out against God on the tree and cursed him and hoped to die- that will show them/Him! So all I can say and I have to say it over and over and over again is: Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. What else can we say?

Pro-War is Not Pro-Life!

From Metropolitan Jonah’s message for Sanctity of Life Sunday:

All the sins against humanity, abortion, euthanasia, war, violence, and victimization of all kinds, are the results of depersonalization. Whether it is “the unwanted pregnancy”, or worse, “the fetus” rather than “my son” or “my daughter;” whether it is “the enemy” rather than Joe or Harry (maybe Ahmed or Mohammed), the same depersonalization allows us to fulfill our own selfishness against the obstacle to my will. How many of our elderly, our parents and grandparents, live forgotten in isolation and loneliness? How many Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian and American youths will we sacrifice to agonizing injuries and deaths for the sake of our political will? They are called “soldiers,” or “enemy combatants” or “civilian casualties” or any variety of other euphemisms to deny their personhood. But ask their parents or children! Pro-war is NOT pro-life! God weeps for our callousness.

Moral Clarity on Gaza

Steve has a good post on a the ‘war’ in Gaza (the conflict is so one-sided it’s difficult to refer to as a war): Moral clarity, moral ambiguity, moral confusion.

US mainstream media coverage of this conflict is an almost case-book example of war propaganda: part of this is due to the IDF’s ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza, but it’s also very much reflective of American media attitudes and willing compliance with the ideology of American foreign policy, of which the Palestinian conflict is but one- very public- facet. After all, as bears repeating, many of the weapons Israel is unleashing on the people of Gaza are courtesy of Uncle Sam, by way of the compliant American tax-payer.

God have mercy on us all.

Strangeness in the Stacks, And On Seeing (And Refusing to Hate)

This afternoon I made a quick run from my office to the library to retrieve a couple books on early Islamic historiography. Normally this sort of book retrival is as uneventful as one would probably imagine it to be. Not this afternoon. I come to the correct section- the DS38s- an area I’ve been in and out of this semester, and remove a volume. I notice that a piece of paper is stuck in it, which I remove (one time I found five dollars in a library book and often hope I will find some more, though so far no more luck, though I did find 200 dirhams on a dirt road outside of Fes in March…). I open the folded paper, and am greeted with the words (I promise you none of this is made up): ‘Attention Muslim Visitors to America! Here are rules for getting along in America.’

The paper then proceeds to list, um, rules for Muslims in America, which include such enlightening things as: ‘You do not have the right to enslave anyone at any time for any reason [shoot!]. This is going on in Mauritania, in Darfur, in Sudan [somewhere between Darfur and Mauritania, right?] and elsewhere in the Moslem world. Muslims must approve, since they don’t even protest against it.’

‘You do not have the right to riot or pillage…’

‘You come here to expecting to practice your religion, yet your home country persecutes other religions. You should be grateful to this country instead of hostile. Until your country [the Moslem one, I guess- that really big one you know] cleans its own house, it has no business criticizing America for anything. Respect other people’s rights in every way or leave.’

Etc. After recovering from the shock that we’re apparently not allowed to riot and pillage, and therefore having to immediately adjust my evening plans, I looked around in the DS38s, and found more of these fliers stuck in books. In one book (a translations of the early Islamic historian al-Tabari’s work on the ‘Abbasids) there were two copies (everyone knows terrorists are really into those crazy cat ‘Abbasid caliphs). However, there were no fliers in books outside of the DS38s, which was perhaps the most bizarre part of it. I didn’t think at the time to look in the section of the stacks with the books on Islamic theology, jurisprudence, etc., so I’ve no idea if these fliers were more widely distributed. Why the DS38s- did our zealous defender of America suppose those horrid foreign Muslims mainly read historiographical work? One can only speculate. At any rate, it was an all around strange experience, not least for the reminder that my particular field of study- medieval Islam and Eastern Christianity- has all sorts of very immediate inroads in everyday life, even here in East Tennessee. It was also a reminder- not that one is needed- that for many people in this country, their only image of Muslims is the violent fundamentalist, the crazy bearded man in a cave, the zealot gunman in Mumbai, or some vague (heavily bearded and turbaned) figure flitting about a madrasa. This is the image they project on all Muslims, everywhere, including those who live and work and worship here.

I don’t know what it’s like for Muslim immigrants here in East Tennessee; a few weeks ago I talked with a young man from Bulgaria who had been working in Pigeon Forge on a temporary visa. While not Muslim, he had an accent and looked ‘Eastern’; he said that occasionally people would come in and speak in their most affected local accent and in general try to yank his chain, knowing that English was his second language. I had a roommate earlier in the year who was working at a JiffyLube out in North Knoxville; he is from Maine and sounds like it. His co-workers constantly harrased him over his origins, until he finally left the place. Feelings towards Latinos here seem to be strained at the least, which is strange since there are so few Latinos around. So I wonder- with just the evidence of my library propogandist to go on- if the same sentiments flow towards people from the Islamic world. Probably, if I had to guess. And let’s be clear- the sentiments that lay behind my anonymous writer are at the least racist: all Muslims are, secretly if not openly, party to the worst of crimes, are part of the Problem. You may be tolerated here, but only barely, and we don’t really trust you, or want you here. Maybe it’s too much to call the web of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings (some of which lie just under the surface and only show up in public from time to time, maybe over a secretly Muslim Presidential candidate…) hatred, but I’m pretty sure parsing it that way is all too often accurate.

Hatred of the brown-skinned peoples of the dar al-islam has been both facilitated by and fostered by our wars in the Middle East. Being able to reduce all Muslims and Arabs to that image of barbarian bloodthirsty (or secretly restrained for purposes of infiltration) savages lets one think about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever else without associating the deaths incurred with real humans; those people are not my neighbor, are not even really human. Muslim people are people who are either shooting and blowing up things or getting blown up and shot; that is what they are there for and nothing can change it (‘they’ve always been like that’). Of course this is nonsense, and many of us know that it’s nonsense. But it’s powerful nonsense, and it infiltrates our minds and hearts, even when we recognize it for what it is. Way back in the spring while in Morocco I had been reading the news out of Iraq online, and I recall reading some particularly troubling stuff. I took a walk down towards the old city, and as I walked I looked at the people- men, women, kids- I was passing, and thought: people who look like this are the ones dying every —- day in Iraq, with my tax money, my unspoken acceptance. People like this, like the family I’m living with [see the photos below], like the people I am seeing now, living alongside. Real human beings. Of course I’ve long known all that- but for some reason it just clicked, and I nearly broke down with emotion, there on the sidewalk between the Hotel Zalagh and the McDonalds… These ‘bloodthirsty savages’ that we are conditioned to throw all together in one horrible image and hate- they have lives, dreams, children, flesh, blood, souls, voices, faces.

So. That leaves me a long ways from a bizarre occurrence in the library stacks.

Lord have mercy.

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Said Muhammad, Saida Fatima, and their two kids, Maryam and Yusef.

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This man, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, makes excellent fried bread. He also helped me practice my fusha Arabic (though one of his friends suggested I ought to drop the classical stuff and just do ‘street Arabic’!)

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A zellij craftsman over in the Andalusian quarter.

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This Heart is Filled With Pity For All God’s Creatures

I am stealing the quotation below from Fr. Stephen; it sums up the way we must relate to a very unjust and violent world, stuff like this and this and this and…. Those injunctions about loving your enemy, putting down you sword- they seem easy enough when we’re just talking about personal enemies (not that they are easy in those instances, even), but they’re even harder when we’re talking about genuinely evil actions, systems and pervasive patterns of injustice- shooting wars, not just the personal verbal battles we fight all too often. What is the way the St. Silouan offers? Pick up the sword only when a really genuine revolution summons? No- pray for the evil people (yourself included), feel the deepest compassion for them. This is the only way, the only way really to truly and authentically resist evil. Lord knows I’ve often felt the urge to pick up the sword, to want to see the powerful evil-doers pay, here, now, to not get away with it. According to St. Silouan- and he has Christ Himself backing him up- that is the wrong spirit. Only love can overcome, forgiveness and compassion- for all- are the only real way.

Lord have mercy on us.

If you think evil of people, it means you have an evil spirit in you whispering evil thoughts about others. And if a man dies without repenting, without having forgiven his brother, his soul will go to the place where lives the evil spirit which possessed his soul.

This is the law we have: if you forgive others, it is a sign that the Lord has forgiven you; but if you refuse to forgive, then your own sin remains with you.

The Lord wants us to love our fellow-man; and if you reflect that the Lord loves him, you have a sign of the Lord’s love for you. And if you consider how greatly the Lord loves His creature, and you yourself have compassion on all creation, and love your enemies, counting yourself the vilest of all, it is a sign of abundant grace of the Holy Spirit in you.

He who has the Holy Spirit in him, to however slight a degree, sorrows day and night for all mankind. This heart is filled with pity for all God’s creatures, more especially for those who do not know God, or who resist Him and therefore are bound for the fire of torment. For them, more than for himself, he prays day and night, that all may repent and know the Lord.

Christ prayed for them that were crucifying him: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ Stephen the Martyr prayed for those who stoned him, that the Lord ‘lay not this sin to their charge.’ And we, if we wish to preserve grace, must pray for our enemies. If you do not feel pity for the sinner destined to suffer the pains of hell-fire, it means that the grace of the Holy Spirit is not in you, but an evil spirit. While you are still alive, therefore, strive by repentance to free yourself from this spirit.

St. Silouan