Daily Archives: 18 February 2004

The Sole Surviving Umayyad Heir Enters al-Andalus, 755

Once upon a time in the mid-eighth century, an intrepid young man named Abd al-Rahman abandoned his home in Damascus, the Near Eastern heartland of Islam, and set out across the North African desert in search of a place of refuge. Damascus had become a slaughterhouse for his family, the ruling Umayyads, who had first led the Muslims out of the desert of Arabia into the high cultures of the Fertile Crescent. With the exception of Abd al-Rahman, the Umayyads were eradicated by the rival Abbasids, who seized control of the great empire called the “House of Islam.” … The prince’s mother was a Berber tribeswoman from the environs of today’s Morocco, which Arabs had reached some years before. From this place, which the Muslims called the Maghrib, the “Far West,” the descendants of the Prophet and his first followers had brought women such as Abd al-Rahman’s mother back east as brides or concubines for the highest-ranking families, to expand and enrich the bloodlines….

Beginning in 711, the Muslims–here the Berbers under the leadership of the Syrian Arabs–had pushed across the small sliver of sea that separates Africa from Europe, the Strait of Gibraltar, to the place the Romans had called Hispania or Iberia….

Abd al-Rahman followed their trail and crossed the narrow strait at the western edge of the world. In Iberia, a place they were calling al-Andalus in Arabic, the language of the new Muslim colonizers, he found a thriving and expansive Islamic settlement. Its center was on the banks of a river that wound down to the Atlantic coast, the Big Wadi (today, in lightly touched up Arabic, the Guadalquivir, or Wadi al-Kabir). The new capital was an old city that the former rulers, the Visigoths, had called Khordoba, after the Roman Corduba, who had ruled the city before the Germanic conquest. It was now pronounced Qurtuba, in the new Arabic accents heard nearly everywhere. The governor of that amorphous and fairly detached frontier “province” was understandably taken aback by the unexpected apparition of this assumed-dead Umayyad prince. Out in these hinterlands, after all, so far from the center of the empire, the shift from Umayyad to Abbasid sovereignty had, until that moment, made little difference in local politics….

The vexed emir of al-Andalus saw at least some of the handwriting on the wall and offered the young man permanent refuge in the capital city as well as his daughter’s hand in marriage. But the grandson of the caliph, the successor to the Prophet and the supreme temporal and spiritual leader of the Islamic world, could not be so easily bought off. Abd al-Rahman assembled forces loyal to him, Syrians and Berbers combined, and one day in May 756, a battle just outside the city walls of Cordoba decisively changed the face of European history and culture. Abd al-Rahman easily defeated his would-be father-in-law and became the new governor of this westernmost province of the Islamic world….

But this young man was, for nearly everyone in these outer provinces, the legitimate caliph, and he was not about to spend the rest of his life in embittered exile…. Although it would be two more centuries before one of his descendants actually openly declared that Cordoba was the seat of the caliphate, al-Andalus was transformed and now anything but a mere provincial seat….

This book tells the story of how this remarkable turn of events, which actually had its origins in the heart of the seventh century in what we call the Near East, powerfully affected the course of European history and civilization. Many aspects of the story are largely unknown, and the extent of their continuing effects on the world around us is scarcely understood, for numerous and complex reasons. The conventional histories of the Arabic-speaking peoples follow the fork in the road taken by the Abbasids. At precisely the point at which the Umayyad prince sets up his all-but-declared caliphate in Europe, the story we are likely to be told continues with the achievements of the Abbasids, who did indeed make Baghdad the capital of an empire of material and cultural wealth and achievement….

The very heart of culture as a series of contraries lay in al-Andalus …. It was there that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style–from the intellectual style of philosophy to the architectural styles of mosques–not only while living in Islamic dominions but especially after wresting political control from them; there that men of unshakable faith, like Abelard and Maimonides [Musa ibn Maymun] and Averroes [Ibn Rushd], saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines.

SOURCE: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Back Bay Books, 2002), by María Rosa Menocal, pp. 5-11

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Morobe Field Diary, June 1976: Fieldworker’s Frustration

Before setting out for Karsimbo I felt the first severe case of fieldworker’s frustration. I was tired of being unignored, or scaring kids, of being hailed for doing the least bit of work. And though my reports and dictionaries were proceeding well I realized my speaking/hearing ability was a disappointment to both me and the rest of the village. Partly it was the necessary swing back from total communication and little work to lots of work and little communication. I didn’t take my work to Karsimbo and spent more time communicating and doing things I could describe to people in the village that they didn’t already know about beforehand. I talked about my solo walk up the mountain to see if I could see Kui. I ended up seeing Salamaua Peninsula and the mountain ranges behind Lae (or at least their clouds) but not Kui because the angle wasn’t right. And I didn’t get lost (as I had been warned I might). I followed the huge caterpillar swaths [logging roads] and only turned back when the road I was following was overgrown too much and I heard a not unsizeable creature ‘break bresh’. I came down the mountain feeling quite invigorated and rehearsing my description of my excursion, finding, a little to my surprise, that I could say about all I wanted to say.

Back at camp my hosts had gone en masse to bring back a pig a guy with us had killed and so I went over to another group who had just finished fighting saksak [pounding sago] and told [them] I had climbed the mountain, not seen Kui but seen Salamaua, heard plenty of hornbills and not got lost, all in Binga N. and in return was offered betelnut, talked about a bit and informed that now I had heard Binga N. finish. It was just the sort of success I needed to bolster my spirits and encourage my teachers.

I came back to Siboma telling stories of the two pigs that guy killed–one with a spear made from a speargun–and of beating kundu [sago], which is not waitman’s work.

The last day there they forced me not to help with a third sago palm they were helping someone else do but on the way back I got the big paddle [not the kid’s paddle they gave me on the way there] and paddled like a maniac to dispel my lethargy. I sat in the front where I would affect the steering less and just did most of the power stroking while my mama (‘father’) and awa (‘mother’) took turns keeping the canoe on course and paddling. Part of the fun of this kind of fieldwork is getting to readolesce all over again as well as play with kids on their level–all for science of course. So my brief dumps down in which I found myself last weekend are dispelled and I’ve set aside my dictionary work for a while to start talking more. This weekend I’m in good spirits–partly because I’m heading into Lae for a day or two. And when I get back with my new supplies I will be able to go visiting with more grace (i.e. goods) and confidence. And people are beginning to talk to me in B.N. off the bat now after I began to start every communication in B.N. leaving Tok Pisin for the reserves.

I torture the kaunsil with thoughts of the cold beer waiting for me at the other end of my boat ride. I plan to bring back a case, along with a thousand other items.

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Morobe Field Diary, June 1976: Sago Work

I’m just back from a trip to the former Numbami village of Karsimbo for the purpose of getting a breath of fresh air (kisim nupela win) and getting sago starch (paitim saksak). I had a chance to observe the process of producing edible sago from start to finish so I’ll attempt a description.

First a suitable tree [Metoxylon sagu] is selected. One near a stream is best so the pulp won’t have to be carried far to wash. A man chops down the tree, which is a thorny son of bitch and the kaunsil borrowed my zori [rubber slippers] to do the job. Then the outer bark is removed with an axe or, less effectively, with a bushknife (busnaip). The men usually do such work but women may participate. It’s a matter of practicality, not custom. The inner bark is then stripped in slats with the aid of a siala, a large digging stick used also for making holes to plant taro in the garden–a smaller version is stuck in the ground and used to husk coconuts.

The strips of inner bark are then used to catch the pulp. This leaves the pinkish white inner fibery trunk of the tree ready and waiting submissively for you to hammer the crap out of it with a wanginda, a tool with an adze-like handle and a head of anything from a flat, sharp-edged stone to any old shell casing or length of pipe. The handles vary from child- to man-sized thicknesses. Pounding is not limited to one sex or the other and is the most tiring of the chores associated with kundu/saksak/sago palm. Being unskilled immigrant labor my job is mostly pounding which I do rather effectively after my first attempt in which I broke the head (a huge nut of iron) off one wanginda and blistered my hands badly. It requires some skill to combine chopping a piece off the log and smashing the stuff previously chipped off to a fine enough consistency to yield plenty of powder, kundu ano or ‘true sago’ [or ‘sago essence’], when washed. This time I was permitted to do a third of one medium-sized tree and half of a small one (12-14″ diam. 10-12′ long).

Meanwhile a man constructs a washing machine [or chute] of a section of the outermost covering [of a sago branch] something like a [huge] stick of celery. In the wide mouth of it, he arranges the coconut webbing to filter the fiber out of the powder as he pours water thru it and turns it and squeezes it. The orange colored water runs down the celerylike [stalk] to a hole thru which it drains into a mat of the leathery husk [sheath] of some tree–people in Yap used something similar to sit on when meeting out in the open and theirs was from the areca palm. The coconut tree webbing and the mat, called yáwanji > yáunji, are the only parts of the washing machine to be reused. The hole is plugged with green fiber that both blocks the water from escaping down the rest of the open tube and conducts it down into the mat. [See more images of sago pounding and washing (scroll down).]

The washed pulp (ulasa) is built up around the edges of the mat for support as it gets fuller. When a lot of sago is a-beating several washers are set up. Only men wash and only women (& children) carry the pulp from tree to washer. When all is washed (-lomosa) the powder, kundu ano, will have settled to the bottom in a heavy pasty mass and the water is then drained off (-lapa tina tomu) [‘beat water apart’] and the paste scraped off and shaped into large rectanguloid lumps. Green sago fronds are then laid on the ground and the lumps burnt on top of them with dry fronds (damu meaning both ‘torch’ and ‘dry frond’ the two being one). The burnt skin of the lumps (baloga) is sweet and considered a treat. The mat is carefully scraped of all the powder, odd bits being dumped in a pan for the dogs. After that the lumps are carried back with the coconut webbing (gogowa–sorry, this is the tube, nuta is the webbing, the laplap (lavalava) bilong kokonas). Bihain [= later] the kaunsil agrees to put the whole thing on tape for me in Binga Numbami; he practiced a bit just now and I could follow most of it fairly well, having seen it all and catching the right cues here and there.

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