First Visit to NYUAD

I’ve just returned from Abu Dhabi, where we held a two-day conference to solidify a fledgling research and teaching initiative amongst scholars of Islamic Spain at the Madrid, New York, and Abu Dhabi campuses of NYU. I think it was a productive meeting in terms of getting all of us into a room and at least circling the same page; it was also my first visit to NYU’s Abu Dhabi portal campus.

This trip was such a whirlwind, and with such little possibility for sleep that it feels like a dream — down the sensation that if I don’t write it down I will forget it all. I was in the Persian Gulf for such a short time that I didn’t even have to book the cat sitter. 60 hours on the ground with almost as many in transit back and forth, and I think I slept for about 5 of them.

16684007_1192191797566367_7066322239734397719_nI was really worried about the flight. If you fly direct from New York you go up over the pole and the flight path just traverses a tiny bit of eastern Iraq. With a stopover in Paris, as I had, the flight path goes over northern Syria and diagonally down the length of Iraq. The plane flies high for as long as possible and it’s a quick descent after coming straight down the Gulf. Anxiety aside, I did enjoy seeing the Zagros mountains, though.


I arrived on campus around 10 and was shown to my guest suite by Sandeep, a hospitality contractor; most of the site staff there are contractors rather than employees of the university and most are south Asian. What surprised me most was how little Arabic is heard on campus (and around Abu Dhabi at large) and, by comparison, how much of the various languages of India and Pakistan. There seem to be a whole host of language politics issues at play at every level of society. I asked Sandeep how he liked it there and said that he preferred the UK, where he had studied for his hospitality degree, because there is more freedom. He was so upfront about it, and so on the nose that I wondered if he wasn’t just saying what he expected an American visitor to want to hear. Service industry ethos, perhaps?

I caught myself admiring the stone floors in the guest suite where I was staying (which is as large as my apartment in New York) and stopped myself with the thought “…stone floors that were probably installed by slaves.” I don’t want to betray conversations that I had on the ground so I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but it was interesting and helpful to get a more local perspective on some of the labor issues, how they came about, and how they’re trying to be resolved.

After the first day of the conference concluded and after the Maghrib prayer was over, we visited the Sheikh Zayed mosque. The exterior is a mash-up of marshmallows, Disneyland, and Qairowan.

The interior is  something else.

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We also visited the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, which is what happens when all the medievalists gang up on the one modernist at the conference while planning the conference excursion.

A falconry scene in a Persian Kalila and Dimna manuscript. BL Or. 13506, f. 86v.

I got to hold one of the falcons, and it’s like having a very lightweight gyroscope on your wrist — you feel the animal constantly making tiny adjustments in her balance. (I’ll update with a picture when the colleague who got the picture of me with the falcon sends it to me.) We watched the veterinarians anesthetize a falcon in order to trim its nails: “It reduces the stress on the birds and on us,” he explained. We also got to watch feeding time; the falcons are fed defrosted, cleaned quails while they are in the hospital and make a great, audible go of crunching on the bones.

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The downtown didn’t quite work for me. It’s not dusty, but the quality of the light makes it look so. All the same, it’s very sterile: A glass financial district on some massive scale that doesn’t really admit human existence. It’s sort of a post-apocalyptic rebuild of Los Angeles still in progress. It also struck me that many of the public spaces seemed to look like a parody rather than a showcase of design and ideas current in the Arab world.

This public art, with the coffee pot sculpture positively dwarfing the minaret of the mosque across the street just struck me as an Orientalist fantasia. I laughed to myself when I imagined archaeologists 500 years from now wondering to themselves what kind of circumstances allowed coffee-worshipers to build their shrine taller than that of their Muslim neighbors.


The art historians in our group were insistent that we visit the World Trade Center, a building designed by Foster + Partners that is supposed to replicate a traditional souk. I don’t have anything more intelligent to say than that it just didn’t do it for me. It was kind of tacky and kitschy, full of mass produced stuff you could get anywhere. And as far as perfect metaphors go, the green wall on the outside of the building is populated by plastic plants. (And yes, it’s a desert, but those of us from dry climates have some basic appreciation of xenoscaping.) I did get to see raw gum Arabic in one of the spice stores.

So, that was my very brief introduction to Abu Dhabi.

Production and Publication Schedule

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions from friends and colleagues who are a few steps behind me in the tenure-book process, mostly about what the process entails and how the schedule runs. Your mileage, depending on your project and your press, may vary, but this is how my book production schedule played out:

January 2015 — Initial contact with the press and series editor. A colleague introduced me to the editor of the Indiana Series in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies, who invited me to submit a proposal. After I submitted the proposal to him and to an acquisitions editor at the press, I was invited to submit my manuscript for review. (It’s worth mentioning that Indiana was the third press I had approached and had conversations with. I sent out many more proposals cold, but the places where I at least had an initial expression of interest were presses where I had some kind of “in” or contact with someone there or introduction from someone with good contacts. More advanced colleagues told me that it’s completely normal to have to approach two or three presses before finding a good fit. And it really is a question of fit; even though Indiana wasn’t the first press I had thought to approach, I’ve ultimately been really happy with how it places my book within my field and I can’t say enough good things about how the press has been to work with.)

May 2015 — Submitted manuscript for review.

October 2015 — Received comments from reviewers and contract from the press.

March 2016 — Submitted final manuscript after revising according to the reviewers’ suggestions and critiques. (I fully rewrote the introduction and conclusion, added an additional chapter that I had still been writing at the time I submitted the manuscript for review, and refined the argument in the existing chapters per the reviewers’ critiques as well as things that I myself had identified as needing revision. Ideally I would have spent more time on those revisions if I’d had it.)

July 2016 — Got files from copy editor. The typescript of the book came back from the copy editor with questions, corrections, and queries about stylistic inconsistencies, etc. I didn’t have the time (or the funding) to be able to do this, but I think that in the future, when I don’t have such a drop-dead deadline, I would hire an outside copy editor who has worked specifically in my field and whose work and judgment I trust to do a first-pass copy edit before submitting the final manuscript. One final thing: in between the time that I submitted the final manuscript and the copy editor doing his work, I realized that I could put a date on the medieval manuscript that is the main source for my book. Fortunately I was able to add a few paragraphs in at this point to be able to include that information in the book.

Sept 2016 — Worked with copy editor on outstanding questions.

November 2016 — Received proofs from the press. In spite of the instructions only to identify typographical and typesetting errors (of which there were plenty), I definitely did some polishing of the prose that I just didn’t have the time or the distance from the writing to be able to do before my initial submission. This was the moment when it really started to look like a book and the point at which I finally had enough distance to not hate it as much as I had.

December 2016. Returned proofs to press and answered outstanding queries.

January 2017. Proofs to indexer. All advice I received told me to hire someone to do the index for the book, so I did. It didn’t strike me as something particularly onerous, but apparently it is; and to be honest, I’m happy not to have one more thing to have to do for this project. I received a grant from the Humanities Center at NYU to pay my indexer, who is a PhD student in my department who does freelance editorial work.

Spring 2017. Expected publication of book!

Teaching in the Wake of Trump

Last semester, I taught my freshman lecture course, Cultures and Contexts: Muslim Spain, on Mondays and Wednesdays. The morning after the election, virtually everyone present in the class — myself included — was out of our minds with grief. Many students did not attend that day and I instructed my teaching fellows not to take attendance or penalize absences. “If they’re not here,” I said to them, “it’s because they need to be somewhere else.” This was in line with directives that would ultimately come down from the official level at the college, encouraging faculty to take post-election dips in performance into account when calculating grades. Someone else was supposed to have lectured the morning after the  election, but had let me know late the week before that she wouldn’t be able to make it in the end; with one extra lecture to write, I looked at my schedule for the week, figured I’d watch election results with friends until 9 o’clock when Hillary would have it all wrapped up, and then go home and write. Of course that’s not what happened, and I ended up screening the medieval Islam section of Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews in class on November 9. It was not my most stellar pedagogical move ever, but it was the best I could do that morning.

At that point in the semester, we were just up to a brief excursus into Christian Spain and France, looking at 1391 as a political and cultural turning point; and because of the nature of the material in the syllabus ringing with such obvious echoes of the hatred being directed first at Muslims, but also at Jews, in those last days of the campaign as throughout it, I thought that I had to address the election and its aftermath in some form.

I struggled over that weekend with how to do that. In an a class of 72 mostly-anonymous students in a deeply divided country, I had to assume that some were Trump voters or supporters; and in fact, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic vandalism on campus in the following weeks would prove the audacity of the Trump supporters in our midst. I voted against George W. Bush in the first election I could, but I always hated it when my own college professors would make their political views, as aligned as they were with my own, a part of their teaching. Now that I am on the other side of the desk, I still believe in keeping political views out of the classroom; but at the same time, I think that opposing Trump is a moral choice and not wholly a political one. And for me and for my friends and colleagues who will be targets of a Trump administration and the neo-Nazi affiliates he is choosing to employ, opposing Trump is also an act of self-defense. Opposing those who would treat me as less American because I am Jewish is not a political act.

Ultimately, I decided to give a historiographic lecture about the materials through which we come to know about the events of 1391 and about how different forms of writing function in charged political circumstances. In particular, I built on the interview given by David Nirenberg in the runup to the election about how his understanding of the function of Twitter in political discourse was informed by his archival practice. This was all very easy to work into the class not only because of the content but also because of the students’ ongoing research essay project, in which I was very much emphasizing attention to genre — both of their sources and their own essays.

Archival practice was implicated in how I delivered the lecture, too. Normally I teach from notes, but since I was straying much further into contemporary issues than I normally do, and even though I did not consider my lecture that day to be a political one, I knew that a possibility existed of a student going to the dean to complain. So instead of lecturing from notes on that Monday after the morning after, I wrote out almost my entire lecture so that I could show the dean verbatim what I had said, were it to come to that. Since I had the whole thing written out, I had thought about posting it ablog, but couldn’t decide, in the end. But at this intersection of Twitter, history, hate, and the archives, with new questions being raised about the implication of Twitter in the destruction of presidential archives, I thought back to this lecture and thought it was time to share it. You’ll find it after the jump:

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Staving Off Panic Through List-Making, Early 2017 Edition

I start teaching on Monday and have hit the point of panicking about how much work I have to get done by the end of the month/first week of February. It’s quite a bit of work, and on top of that I have personal/family commitments that I’m no longer willing to completely sublimate to my academic life. All I want to do is shout, very loudly: “I’m doing the very best that I can to get to everything that everyone needs/wants from me!” Instead, I’m making a list to try to keep track of it all, possibly solicit the occasional sympathetic pat on the head, and, perhaps, passive-aggressively indicate to the world that is waiting on stuff from me that I’m not just being delinquent — I’m really pretty slammed.

— Finish Humanities Initiative team-teaching grant (Draft. Final version.)

— Read/comment on someone else’s Humanities Initiative grant (Not going to happen, so I’m just crossing it off the list.)

— Write paper for Abu Dhabi conference. Possibly in Spanish.

— Finish writing chapter for edited volume on the literary forms of philosophy

— Finish writing chapter for edited volume on Amichai, Lorca, and Ibn Naghrila

— One other miscellaneous writing task for an edited volume

— Finish syllabus for grad seminar on medievalism

—Write syllabus for specialized grad seminar

— Reconcile accounts from Spain trip

— Review essay for LARB

I’m sure there’s something else I’m forgetting at the moment (Oh, right. Finish editing the proposal for an overhauled undergraduate major in the department.)

— Catch up on emails (Some of them. The rest of them.)

— Resist hatred being spewed and encouraged by the new presidential administration.(This, of course, will not be done until 2020, and there are more substantial things to do that mere gestures, but I started out by wearing a bracelet with the Throne Verse written in Arabic while traveling on an airplane as a way to normalize the presence of the language in transit. In the more action-oriented column, I signed up for 10 Actions/100 Days and plan to participate in all the protest actions. ETA1/29: Also attended the emergency protest this week in Washington Square part against the Muslim Ban. ETA 2/2: Added myself to a database of people who can volunteer to translate at the airport.)


My Year in Books: 2016

What with finishing my own book, I didn’t do nearly as much reading for pleasure as I would have liked. Here’s what I did (and didn’t) read in the year that was:

Most delicious alphabet soup of hardware: Feynman’s c-clamp, used to test o-ring resiliency as a member of the Rogers Commission, as described in his Why Do You Care What Other People Think?

It’s very different to listen to an audiobook without having first watched the TV episode based on it rather than the other way around: The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter, read by Kevin Whately

Expected Philip Roth. Got Joseph Roth instead: Jacobo el mutante by Mario Bellatín

Book I wish I  lived my life in such a way so as to be able to have written: Teaching Plato in Palestine by Carlos Fraenkel

Not a guidebook but I put in a ton of sticky notes as I read and then walked around Jerusalem with it all the same: Till We Have Built Jerusalem by Adina Hoffman

I have dragged a copy with me on every single flight to Madrid that I have taken since 2004, this year being no exception (three flights to Madrid), and still haven’t actually managed to read: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Two details about Finland that I found during my visit there to be surprisingly accurate: The close-knit-ness of the Jewish community, as illustrated in Behind God’s Back by Harri Nykanen; and the apparent predilection for hot pepper-flavored foods, as illustrated in The Core of the Sun by Johana Sinisalo

Art forger whose life and work make me want to go on a grand tour of Europe to see all the museums he duped: Reinholt Vasters, as profiled in Noah Charney’s The Art of Forgery

Book I started with high hopes but have been put off by the stultifying writing and therefore have no charming little tidbit with which to characterize it and, in fact, may not finish it in 2017: Tolkien and the Great War by John Gath

Favorite source of book recommendations: NPR’s Science Friday occasional science and sci-fi literature episodes

Spoiler alert: 1341.

Sometimes you can have been staring at something completely obvious for nothing short of years without realizing it, and then all of a sudden it comes into very sharp focus. This just happened to me recently, with the copying date of a manuscript I’ve been working with since 2012 suddenly becoming apparent. To be fair, I’m not the first scholar to have worked with the manuscript, so I’m far from the first to have overlooked it. I was in very good company in not having noticed the date. But I also like being the one who noticed that it was there. This blog post, then, is sort of a preview of a ḥiddush, a new discovery, that will be published in my book early next year.

The colophon of Bodleian MS Mich. 50.3 begins with the phrase: “This was completed — praise the lord God! — by the hand of Yoav.” It then has a funny little abbreviation, the Hebrew letters aleph-yud-mem-nun.

colophonWith the help of the dictionary of acronyms, I had already identified the letters as an abbreviation for the biblical phrase: אנא יי מלטה נפשי, which comes from Psalm 116. But it kept nagging at me. Scribes will often cite biblical verses in their colophons, but this one is a little weird and a little obscure. It’s not what I would expect to find in a colophon. And so I kept coming back to it, opening up the image file and staring at the manuscript page on my computer screen. And finally, suddenly, it occurred to me that this phrase might be a chronogram, an abbreviation that indicates a date through the numerical values of the letters. I suspected that it wasn’t — that if it were, someone else would have figured that out by now — but I figured I’d do the math anyway just in case.

The letters in this abbreviation add up like this: aleph = 1, yud = 10, mem =40, nun = 50. Chronograms often omit the leading 5 in the thousands place; so for example, this year is 5777, but it might be indicated with letters that add up to 777. If we restore an extra 5,000 to the numerical value of the chronogram in this colophon, we get 5101, which is the year that runs across 1340-41 of the common era. Up until now, the manuscript has  been dated to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries on the basis of the script, so reading the abbreviation as a chronogram actually comports totally with the paleographic evidence and so it is reasonable to date the copying of the manuscript to that year.

The strangeness of the phrase chosen to yield the chronogram still leaves me with a question, one I can only speculate about at this point. Psalm 116 comes from the hallel cycle of psalms, recited as part of the liturgy at the three major pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Hallel is recited at other time, too, so it’s not as secure an identification, but I wonder whether choosing a phrase from hallel indicates that the scribe, Yo’av, finished copying the manuscript just before one of these holidays, that is, sometime between Sukkot (with the 15th of Tishrei falling on 7 October, 1340) and Shavot (with 6 Sivan falling on May 23, 1341).

So, in case it is useful for anyone to know, the upshot is this: The earliest and most complete surviving copy of Judah ibn Tibbon’s ethical will was copied 150 years after the author’s death and the text’s dissemination in 1190, in the fall of 1340 or the spring of 1341. Ultimately this is a question of the reception and readership of the ethical will and what particular value it might have had for the Jews of Provence and northern France at a particular nadir of Jewish-Christian relations and the end of the Maimonidean Controversie. Being able to date the manuscript gives us some context for the reception and transmission of what is a very Andalusi text to a  wider audience.

“Both Sons of Spain”: Medieval Jews and Muslims in the Imagined Nation

My department held a round-table and teach-in yesterday in response to post-election Islamophobic and anti-Semitic vandalism on campus. We felt it was important, as scholars in the humanities, to offer a humanistic intellectual response to the changing tenor of campus discourse; we grounded this response within our discipline, with six speakers offering case studies of how different communities have responded to repression within the Spanish-speaking world. (The event was livestreamed and a recording will be available early next week; I’ll post it as and when. Edited on 12/9/16: The video is now available! ) What follows was my intervention:

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I want to let you in on the dirty little secret of my field, Medieval Studies: The Middle Ages is incredibly attractive to white supremacists. For people whose vision of a backwards-looking, great world is one with white Christian men in positions of power and the rest of us put in our places, the Middle Ages is a fertile ground for fantasy, where it seems very easy, at least superficially, to ignore the integral role of an incredibly diverse population. There are legends like King Arthur, images like the Bayeaux Tapestries, and long histories of Crusading that, on the face of it, make the Middle Ages look very white and like a world very divided neatly into categories of “us” and “them.”

This vision of a very white, very Christian Middle Ages has been a part of political rhetoric for rather a long time: Anti-feminist politicians exploit their idea of medieval chivalry and courtly love to give their ideas a historical grounding. The British Nationalist party uses the story of Excalibur to promote its vision of a racially pure England. The Crusades, in particular, have factored into that: Crusaders became a favorite theme of 19th-century Romantic writers and thinkers, whose refashioning of these tales were crucial to the creating the popular vision of a very white Middle Ages. T.E. Lawrence, the young British army officer who would go on to be known as Lawrence of Arabia and reshape the map of the modern Middle East came to that region as a student at Oxford writing about Crusader castles. Various European fascist movements throughout 20th-century have adopted Crusader rhetoric. More recently and in our own country, George W. Bush called for Crusade in the wake of 9/11. And the most recent presidential election saw a proliferation of images that have long circulated more quietly in the darkest, most racist corners of the internet that rely on medieval and Crusading themes and images to support both individual candidates and wider worldviews.

The fall of the last Muslim principality of Spain, Granada, in 1492 is another popular motif for white supremacists. They also love that that was the year when the Jews were expelled; and because it was also the year that Columbus first set forth for the New World, it allows modern white supremacists to translate a late medieval Spanish desire for empire into something rather different, both in Europe and in the Americas.

But it’s not just political rhetoric: Attachment to a white Middle Ages is also an attitude that has absolutely permeated our cultural outlook: Look at something like the TV version of Game of Thrones and you see a kind of fantasy Middle Ages in which the race politics is incredibly uncomplicated, with a lily-white savior and her dragons redeeming the inarticulate, teeming masses of brown barbarians. It’s a rhetoric that politicians can use because it resonates with the population.

But when we look at the actual Middle Ages in all its complexity, the possibility of this fantasy vision evaporates very quickly.

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Literature Dungeons and Dragons

About two-thirds of the way through my lecture class meeting on Wednesday, one of the students shouted out, loudly enough for the whole room to hear: “THIS IS JUST LIKE LITERATURE DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS!” Not all of the students were quite that enthusiastic about the day’s activity, but most of them got into it and I think that the activity that I will be calling Literature Dungeons and Dragons from here on out (it is medieval, after all), was a success.

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Not a Moor, Exactly

Following a truly bizarre exchange on Twitter a few months ago, the racial animus that inheres in the term moor has been on my mind. It’s not just social media, either: I’m teaching a Muslim Spain course this fall and using Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain as the main text, which meant that I had to devote part of my lecture on race in the Middle Ages to why we don’t use that term even though Fletcher does, and what it means for us to live with the book this semester and to try to do better than its author does when we write and talk about questions of race. It’s been percolating in the back of my head, then, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the role of moor in Spanish historiography and popular perception made its way into the talk I gave at the University of Minnesota this week. What follows is the introduction to that talk, which went on to discuss the ways in which Judah utilizes Arabic and Arabizing literary forms to advocate for the preservation of the literary culture of al-Andalus:


This statue that you are looking at, located in the Realejo district of the Spanish city of Granada, is known in the popular parlance as “el moro,” or, “the moor.” A colleague at the University of Granada assures me that the locals are fond of placing a cigarette between his lips (or just rolling up a piece of paper to look like one), and so he also called, colloquially, “el moro fumando,” that is, “the smoking moor.” When academics speak about Islamic Spain in, the convention is to avoid the term moor or moro, a word that manages to be, simultaneously, uselessly imprecise and full of racial animus. Originating from the Latin word MAURUS, the term moro never acquires a precise definition in the way that words like Ishmaelite or Saracen do; it also goes on to be imbued with a regular and fierce racial animus that makes it a term best avoided. Yet despite our scholarly understanding of this term, we have not yet adequately conveyed the racism of this term to the popular world, where it is still common currency: In movies and certain kinds of commentaries that valorize the Crusades to different political ends. In a Harry Potter Reddit forum devoted to determining whether Salazar Slytherin is actually a crypto-Moor. In the annual “Cristianos y Moros” festivals in Spain and, interestingly, in Mexico. And even in title the popular history that I am using as the textbook this semester in my freshman-level introductory course: Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. And so when I look at this picture in an out-of-the-way plaza in the shadow of the Alhambra, I wonder how rank-and-file lay citizens understand the honor bestowed by the existence of the statue they call “the moor”: In memory of a noble savage, perhaps? As a part of their history that they will render as strange and other as possible after accepting, grudgingly, the impossibility of escaping it? Without fully knowing the depths of the racism encoded in such a moniker?


But to borrow a turn of phrase from yet another popular phenomenon, Sarah Koenig’s smash-hit first season of the podcast Serial: “The villain is not a moor, exactly.” Nor, in this case, is he even a villain. The statue popularly misidentified as “el moro” and plied generously with cigarettes was cast by the Granadine sculptor Miguel Moreno in 1988 to represent a fellow native son of Granada, the 12th-century Jewish physician and translator Judah ibn Tibbon. As fine an Arabist as they come and a lover of Arabic philosophy, but not a Muslim and, in no possible ill-conceived way, a moor.

Yet the transformation of this figure from the father of the medieval Hebrew language that would go on to become the single philosophical lingua franca for Jews into a nameless moor, the butt of local pranksters’ jokes, is unknowingly a perfect reflection of his intellectual biography: From Judah to moor, this is the figure who, more than anyone, made Arabic philosophy available to a European Jewish audience that would never have known it otherwise. His legacy is a Jewish one, to be sure, but it is that much more the Arabic literary culture of al-Andalus that he brought with him into exile. When the locals of Granada make Judah a nameless moor, they give him, however backhandedly, his firmly deserved place in the pantheon of Arabic authors of al-Andalus. Even though he was a translator, even though he was Jewish, even though he wrote and translated into Hebrew, Judah is, for better or worse, a moor through and through. His literature is Arabic and his culture Arabized, and so, not-so-miraculously, he is lumped in with all of “them.” To be able to pass as a member of a different despised faith amongst the modern citizens of his native city, in effect, proves the legacy of his literary and cultural project. Judah was an Arabic writer and his culture of reading an Andalusi-Arabic one, a Franco-Jewish thinker no less a “moor” than Tariq ibn Ziyad or Averroes.

That Judah is memorialized in contemporary Granada as a nameless moor is a double insult, to be sure — a racializing and an erasure — but paradoxically it is also the surest proof of the success of his own endeavors. It seems a shame that he is run together with so many figures and subsumed under the anonymous heading “moor,” but here he is, remembered — however ham-fistedly and forgetfully — as he would have wanted to be: as an Arabic writer of al-Andalus.


The Proof of the Poetry

The Nobel Prize in Literature went (as you surely know unless you have been living under a rock) to Bob Dylan this year. The news was followed by rather a lot of complaining about the choice, agonizing about the nature of the literary, and pearl-clutching over the decline of high culture in favor of pop. The one community in which none of this happened was amongst medievalists: Those of us who study the protest poetry and personal anthems of the Middle Ages, written in verse and often sung aloud, do not have the luxury of holding up the Provençal troubadour lyric (just to give one example) as the exemplification of the literary just because it is old while condemning Bob Dylan for being pop or soppy or definitely not poetry because he is a lot less old. The line is blurry and in the end they are the same thing: Bob Dylan is our troubadour.

For more on rock music and its relationship to the Provençal lyric, read chapter 3 of María Rosa Menocal’s Shards of Love, which focuses on a collaboration between the Persian poet Nizami and the rocker Eric Clapton that transcended language, death, and eight-hundred years. That chapter argues, in part, that in lyrics like Dylan’s or Clapton’s or the Provençal troubadours, the music is an inherent part of the poetics and the lyrics and the music can’t be separated out and read separately. It makes perfectly good sense: we don’t, for example, separate out the two languages in bilingual poetry or the sources or influences from poetry written at a cultural crossroads (or we shouldn’t, anyway). Some medieval Hebrew poetry has Arabic metrics; some medieval Arabic poetry ends with a Romance couplet; some Provençal poetry is influenced by Arabic forms and sung as song; and some twentieth-century American poetry has electric guitars.


Menocal brought rock to medieval studies in ways that were revolutionary and totally self-evident.  (And in fact, having been her student, the coincidental timing of the fourth anniversary of her death and the awarding of a Nobel Prize that I’d like to think would have thrilled her gives this all a bit more weight for me.)

But despite my intellectual lineage, I don’t know all that much about Bob Dylan’s oevre. I find his voice hard to listen to, so I mostly don’t. At the end of the day, I’m a Clapton-Beatles kind of girl. The song of Dylan’s that I know the best, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” isn’t one that I know because of him, per se, or through a recording that he made. I don’t even really know it in English. In the early 1970s, the Israeli poet Jonathan Geffen translated several of Dylan’s songs into Hebrew, which were recorded in 1974 Danny Litani.

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