Tourist Guides of Jerusalem, Circa 1641

The guild [of Jerusalem tourist guides] had ten members, one of whom was the head; it was very zealous in guarding their vested interests. They apparently had ample reason to be anxious: in 1641 it was reported to the kadi that unauthorized guides were meeting the pilgrims outside Jerusalem’s walls and showing them around holy sites, their faulty knowledge not withstanding. Moreover, other individuals were selling the visitors figurines made of clay, allegedly taken from the cave situated beneath the Dome of the Rock and representing historical figures—claims that were baseless factually and harmful financially. Thus the kadi instructed “stock ‘Abd al-Qadir,” the head of the guild, to stop anyone who tried to behave in such unauthorized ways, and if necessary, bring them to the court where they would be punished. All guild members were to be equally treated by the head, but each guide was to be left alone to handle his own customers, without interference by others. The head was also to stop any sales of the kind just mentioned, as well as insist that each of the staff of the Temple Mount stay within his allocated area and address the visitors there, while refraining from showing them around other areas. However, if high-ranking individuals wished to vist these places, their tours should not be conducted by ordinary guild members; only handpicked top staff of the Temple Mount (the deputy shaykh al-haram and the deputy nazir) could guide them there. And finally, no one was to be allowed to intercept the pilgrims outside the town gates and monopolize them.

Amnon Cohen, The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 79-80.

Returning to Khurasan

The excerpt below is taken from the Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah, compiled by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shahrazuri (1181-1245/577-643), a jurist and scholar of the Shafi’i ‘school’ (madhhab) who, while originally from what is now northern Iraq, spent most of his life in Damascus. Many of Shahrazur’s works deal with the theory and practice of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence; among these is his tabaqat dealing with jurists of the Shafi’i school.

A tabaqat, which literally means ‘layers’, is a sort of biographical dictionary, usually focusing on a particular group of people, and arranged by generations. The genre was hardly limited to religious figures: there are tabaqat for poets and singers, as well as tabaqat concerning scholars and Sufis. However, across the genre there are certain generally consistent features. The entries tend to be short, and much of the information formalized. In a tabaqat dealing with scholars and other religious figures, such as this one compiled by al-Shahrazuri, there is usually an emphasis upon the other scholars and masters the person under consideration studies under, or received hadith from, or was licensed to copy a book, and so on. Other matters appear as well, including short antecdotes that emphasize some aspect of the person’s piety or scholarliness.

As al-Shahrazuri says in the introduction to his work, the purpose of these brief biographies is to ‘connect’ the reader with a whole community of scholars in the past, and to give examples for emulation. The following antecdote is an instance of this purpose of tabaqat; it also reveals a very small glimpse into one scholar’s life and thought. Two major themes of medieval Islamic scholarly life appear here: the centrality of travel in the pursuit of knowledge (travel which can be quite difficult, and often involves long distances), and the importance of dreams, both for the dreamer and for those who encounter them through narration or text.

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[Muhammad ibn Ahmad Abu Zayd al-Marawzi] said: When I had resolved to return to Khurasan from Mekka, my heart was stiffened by the prospect, and I said: ‘When it happens- the distance is so long, I cannot bear the hardship- I am so advanced in years!’ Then I saw in my sleep as if the Messenger of God, peace and prayer be upon him, was sitting in the Sacred Mosque, with a young man (shab) at his right hand. So I said: ‘O Messenger of God! I have resolved to return to Khurusan, but the distance is so long!’ Then the Messenger of God, peace and prayers be upon him, turned to the young man, and said, ‘O spirit of God! Accompany him to his homeland.’

Abu Zayd said: So I saw that he was Gabriel, upon whom be peace, so I proceeded on to Merv, and I did not feel anything of the hardship of the journey.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah

Fall Comes to the Mountains

Fall is nearing the peak of color here in the Southern Appalachians this weekend, or at least we suspect it is. Despite spending the day in the Smokies, my comrades and I caught very few glimpses of the mountains themselves, other than the bits (wet and muddy!) beneath our feet, as the hills were living up to their name and sat wrapped in mist and cloud all day. Still beautiful, as I hope you’ll judge from the photos below.

This fall is cooler and wetter than last year; it was nearing freezing in the highcountry when we left this evening, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the year’s first snowfall occurs this weekend. Even here in the Tennessee Valley we are supposed to reach near freezing for the next several nights. Winter is looming up close by; last winter had some bitterly cold (spectacular in the mountains) stretches, and we imagine this winter will be even deeper and colder.

If you do feel compelled to visit these mountains in the fall (the loveliest on the continent, by my lights, but I’m biased), do be warned that the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge entrance to the Smokies is absolutely hellacious this time of year. The other entrances, and the rest of the Southern Appalachians really, are comparatively decent and less congested.

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On the way up the Trillium Gap Trail, on the slopes of Mt. LeConte.

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The trail along Brushy Mountain, a spur of Mt. LeConte covered in dense heath bald; some days with lovely views, but today socked in with cloud.

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Grotto Falls, on the way up the Trillium Gap Trail.

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Spider web up on Brushy Mountain.

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Grotto Falls from the other side of the creek; the trail passes behind the falls and stays fairly dry in the process.

The Light and the Fish

Down a dark, narrow little side street in the Fes medina there is a tunnel, old solid cedar beams straddling overhead holding up whatever structure stands above- what exactly is not clear when coming down the street from Tella Kabira, the main drag through the medina. Upon emerging on the other side, if you look back and up, you can see one of the most remarkable little architectural gems in Morocco, in my opinion, the Ayn al-Khayl Mosque, which dates back at least to the time of the 12th-13th century Muslim mystic and esoteric philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi, and is presumably older than that. While I know of at least one other mosque in Fes that straddles a street- it’s way across the valley in the Andalusian quarter- this little mosque also stands out for its octagonal minaret (I only saw one other in the rest of Morocco), and the evocative flame-shaped moldings around the tiny windows that march up the minaret towards the sky. That, and it was in this mosque, its tiny prayer hall perched above the street, that Ibn ‘Arabi spent much of his time while sojourning in Fes, and where he experienced repeated mystical visions. It is also home, within its elevated courtyard, to a spring- the Ayn of the name- in which, it is said, a mysteriously large fish appeared one day, some thirty years ago. And while there’s no word of al-Khidr having shown up in the area, there is a wonderful vegetable and fruit market a couple blocks over.

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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.

Palimpsests, Contested Land, and Spring Comes to the Mountains

I love every season in the mountains, and if you asked me what my favorite season to be in the hills is my answer would probably be whatever season it is at the time. Spring is probably the most exhilarating season though, particularly after a harsh winter: you can feel the life springing up out of the ground, the woods and peaks starting to stir and throb with new life. This weekend the hills are just starting to show the signs of spring- the ice is almost all gone from the high country (just a few icicles and patches of frozen ground left in the shadows), wildflowers are blooming up almost to the high peaks, and down in the valleys the patches of new green and blooms are covering larger and larger spaces.

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Early spring is one of the best times of the year to trace out the vast array of palimpsests that lie under the forests of the Southern Appalachians, before the thick growth of summer temporarily buries them yet further under the resurgent forest. Up almost every little valley and cove, if you look hard enough, you can find the traces of the people who once dwelt here, who pushed into the mountains up from the Piedmont of the Carolinas or down from Virginia, and cut and slashed their way into the often harsh and unforgiving landscape. In the Smokies, and in many other ranges and valleys, there are no more people- none at all in the Smokies, thanks to Federal policy that bought up and ran off (or let die out) the land owners. In other parts of the Southern Appalachians there are few or no people thanks to the hardscrabble nature of this land- after a century or so, the attraction of outside work was too strong, and the valleys and coves emptied out.

There are a variety of forms of writing, to continue my metaphor of the palimpsest, that still show up under the trees. Piles and rows of stones are the most obvious, usually- stone walls in various states of disrepair, disheveled stacks that mark old chimneys, disorganized piles along old fields, testaments to what had to have been back-breaking labour of digging up and clearing out the product these hills grow best. Occasionally bits of structures remain- spring coverings, foundations, less ambiguous signs than the often random-looking rows and piles of rock. Here and there are the stone marking graves, some of them still tended by the descendants of the people buried there, the names on the stones the last link of individual persons to the land in which they now lie waiting the Resurrection.

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There are other signs- day-lilies and ivy, rose bushes and periwinkles, living markers descended from the plants brought with the people who once dwelt here. If there were no other records, we would know this much- whoever dwelt here cared about the appearance of their farmsteads, hardscrabble as they might be. You don’t eat ivy or day-lilies- they make your home more civilized, more settled. They are markers- though doubtless whoever planted them didn’t have this in mind- that persist, that have struggled against the return of the native forest: the day-lilies and roses have themselves become native, as the people who lived here had been, slowly, settling into the landscape. And like everything else in this landscape, they are in flux, rising and falling with the seasons, spreading and retracting, struggling, living.

The old fields and roads show up too, more subtly than the above signs, but clear enough if you’re looking for them. In cove after cove, even-aged tulip poplars grow like the corn stalks they’ve replaced; in some places the furrows of the fields are still visible under the fallen leafs and new humus. All through the hills old roads and paths still wind through the valleys and over ridges, appearing and disappearing; here and there modern trails lie on top of them, as people with very different lives and intentions follow them. But we leave eventually, returning to our homes elsewhere, in a different world, a different land.

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Finally, this is contested land. The signs of the Cherokee, and whoever might have come before them, are almost entirely invisible now. A few names of streams and mountains, mutated under the hand of English, survive on maps; in some of the lower valleys more tangible traces appear, or used to appear. But otherwise there is little left but the absence. The people who displaced the Cherokee are more visible, who wrested control of the land and gradually too became native to the place. The lumber companies who fought their way up the valleys- contesting the land perhaps most of all- still speak through the hills, but their traces are even more ephemeral than the settlers, now reduced mostly to railroad beds and bits of cable and a few scattered cinders; the forest is largely healed. The farmers themselves were challanged and driven out by the combined power of economic difficulties and the force of the Federal government; the transposition of old roads and modern National Park Service trails are testimony of this struggle. The signs of the Park Service often overlay the old signs- reused trails, place names, old cabins and houses marked by interpretive signs and tourist grafitti. One day, no doubt, these signs will also be subsumed by mountains, as the forest- enduring in its presence if not its form- swallows up this latest assembly of signs, and new ones- or perhaps none- replace them, and our contemporary presence recedes into the scattered memory of the hills.

Rainy Day in Sefrou

Sefrou is a fairly small town south of Fes, placed between the grand valley of Fes and the Middle Atlas. One approaches Sefrou from Fes through rolling groves of olives, mostly, the citadel-shaped mountain that stands guard over the town drawing closer and closer. The town itself sits in a little valley, with the rolling expanse of the Middle Atlas spreading behind; a stream drops down from the hills alongside, over a lovely little (and much locally celebrated) waterfall, and through the Old Medina (where it serves pretty much as a garbage chute, unfortunately). The entire time I was in Morocco this little river was full of water, and Sefrou and its surronding countryside was incredibly green. Walking around the edge of town I was always struck by how incongrous all the greenery- oaks and ivy even!- was in comparison to the usual image of North Africa as all desert and barren mountains: a far cry from reality.

Nor is it all sunshine and heat, as this set of photos relates. I took them on my first full day in Morocco- a wet, cold, and continually rainy day. I had spent the night in Fes after taking a plane to Tangier and then train to Fes; after checking in with the Arabic institute in the morning I trudged through the rain, down the street past Fes’ regal McDonalds, and confidently got in a grand-taxi bound for Sefrou. When I arrived, the rain that had harried me on my trek to the grand-taxi stand in Fes was still pouring down, so I sat in my little hotel room and looked out the window, wondering if had in fact ended up not in North Africa but perhaps England or Ireland. After a while I could stand no more sitting about, so I put on my raincoat and set out into the little medina, where I got lost (not for long- it’s hard to stay lost in Sefrou’s diminutive medina) and thoroughly drenched. In the meanwhile I took these photos, which are a bit drab, thanks to the rain, and work-a-day in their subject matter, I suppose. However, as I was looking back over this set today- inspired by the advent of cool, rainy weather here in Tennessee- I thought that they give a nice snapshot of ordinary medina life, and all the wonderful colours and shapes you can see, and perhaps a hint of the sounds and tastes and smells and feelings attendent to the seen things: the marvelously rich- moreso than any other urban place I’ve visited in the world- sensory experience of the Moroccan medina.

This is probably in the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter- Sefrou’s old Mellah takes up nearly half the Medina, though only a handful, if any Jews, now live there.

The robes some of the men in the photos have on are jellabas, the traditional, and quite functional, Moroccan outerwear.

In the always wonderful and aromatic (particularly compared to the meat sellers stalls…) vegetable and herb section of the suqs.

Along the outside of the walls, on the north side of the Medina.

In the evening, in one of the ridiculously narrow streets of the Mellah part of the Medina. It was rather cold by now, and I did not, alas, possess.