Monthly Archives: April 2010

Referee Ring Names: Only in Sumo?

From Grand Sumo: The Living Sport and Tradition, rev. ed., by Lora Sharnoff (Weatherhill, 1993), pp. 178-179:

As of May 1992, there were forty-one gyoji, all with the assumed professional name of either Kimura or Shikimori. The gyoji’s role is believed to date back to the late eighth century, but apparently did not take on its present form until the late sixteenth century when Oda Nobunaga reigned as the most powerful military lord in Japan. The houses of Kimura and Shikimori came into being in 1726 and 1768.

For nearly two centuries there were clear distinctions between the two lines of gyoji. Even now some fine differences exist in the way they hold the gunbai, or war paddles, when calling out the contestants’ names. A Kimura keeps his palm down; a Shikimori has it up. Yet nowadays a referee can start out as Kimura, switch over to Shikimori, and go back again to Kimura as he moves up the referee ranks.

Similar to the way several apprentice sumotori perform under their real names, some of the young referees also use their own given name as part of their professional name (such as Kimura Hideki) in the early part of their career. A more old-fashioned sounding name, like Zennosuke or Kandayu, will be assumed by the time they have climbed high enough to officiate matches at the juryo level.

The highest ranking referee is always named Kimura Shonosuke and the second highest is always known as Shikimori Inosuke. Given the moving between the gyoji families nowadays, this means that the man assuming the name of Kimura Shonosuke was previously known as Shikimori Inosuke, and that he undoubtedly performed under at least one or two different names before that. The referees must work their way up through the ranks just ike the sumotori. The youngest gyoji, like the youngest rikishi, is likely to be fresh out of junior high school. He must be affiliated with one of the sumo stables and, just like the sumotori, is likely to live there until he gets married.

A separate stable once existed for the referees but it was closed in 1973. (However, they still have their own large dressing room inside the Kokugikan.) Now almost all the sumo stables except for some of the newest or smallest, have one or more gyoji attached to them.

Again similar to the sumotori, the gyoji’s promotion through the ranks is based primarily on ability, though seniority can play a small part in the referee’s case. Nevertheless, just as an exceptional sumotori like Kitanoumi and Taiho can become yokozuna at age twenty-one, the previous Kimura Shonosuke XXVII—the “grand champion” among referees—was promoted to the position at the extraordinarily early age of fifty-two. For some years, Shonosuke XXVII had a second-hand man, Shikimori Inosuke XXIV, who was about six years his senior. Inosuke XXIV reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five at the end of 1983; Inosuke XXV was a bit younger and became Shonosuke XXVIII in 1991.

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Tokyo’s Kokugikan: Where East is West and West is East

From Grand Sumo: The Living Sport and Tradition, rev. ed., by Lora Sharnoff (Weatherhill, 1993), pp. 67, 69:

The present Kokugikan in Ryogoku, where three of the tournaments are held annually, serves as the headquarters of the Sumo Association. The stadium is a 35,342-square-meter building with a seating capacity of 11,908; it stands 39.6 meters at its highest point. It has three floors aboveground and two underground. The stadium was constructed to withstand earthquake tremors up to ten on the Richter scale and is equipped with computerized temperature control, fire prevention equipment, and sensors to detect gas leaks. It also has a 1,250-ton tank designed to store rainwater and divert it to the toilets and air-conditioning system inside….

On the second floor the seats are Western-style chairs. However, except for some tables with lounge chairs in the very back, the first floor is given over to traditional Japanese seating arrangements on tatami…. The first five rows around the ring are individual seats called tamari-seki or suna-kaburi. The latter, meaning “sand-covered,” comes from the fact that spectators sitting in this area occasionally take in some of the sand kicked up on the dohyo or flying off the body of a falling rikishi. Despite the unglamorous appellation, the suna-kaburi are the most sought-after seats….

The seats as well as the tickets are labeled shomen (main side), muko-jomen (opposite main side), higashi-gawa (east side), and nishi-gawa (west side). The present labeling in the Kokugikan is actually the opposite of the actual compass points and traces its origins to the tradition of the emperor always sitting facing south. The area in which he sat was designated the main or northern side, and everything to his left was deemed the “east side,” and to his right the “west side”—a pattern which can be seen in the old capital of Kyoto. Thus, what is supposed to be west from his perspective is actually east on the compass, and vice versa. In the Kokugikan the emperor’s box is actually located on the second floor in the middle of the building’s southern side, which in respect to tradition is called the main or northern side.

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Madrasahs vs. Secular Schools

From: Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3297-41:

Madrasah is a catchall term. A madrasah can mean something as simple as a Koranic academy where young children learn a few religious basics and practice reading from Islam’s holy book. Or it can mean a primary or secondary school meant to compete with national education; or a seminary established to train proper clerics in classical Islamic religious knowledge. Madrasahs, in other words, vary widely in what they teach, how they teach it, and what view of Islam and its place in the world they impart on their students.

Madrasahs are generally conservative and some are troublingly fanatical—some do indeed harbor and train jihadis and terrorists. These are a minority, however, and the problem is less extensive than is usually thought. To begin with, there are not as many madrasahs as common wisdom holds, and they train relatively few students. A Harvard University and World Bank study of Islamic education in Pakistan found that in 2002, fewer than 1 percent of all students in Pakistan were attending madrasahs. That number has risen but only to 1.9 percent in 2008. The report also found that over the decade leading up to 9/11, madrasah enrollment had risen by 16 percent, which was slower than the increase in overall school enrollment. Madrasahs were not gaining, but instead were losing part of an already small market share. Even in Indonesia, where Islamic education is on the rise, only 13 percent of the country’s 44 million students attend some form of Islamic education. The poor do flock to madrasahs, but more so in rural areas than in cities, and studies of students’ economic backgrounds reveal too much diversity to see Islamic education as the domain of the poor.

Terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey argue that the link between madrasahs and terrorism is weak. The anthropologist Robert Hefner estimates that of some 46,000 pesantrans (as madrasahs are called in Indonesia), no more than forty or so qualify as extremist. Perhaps a larger problem is that in many countries, the so-called secular schools teach a great deal of religion, often interpreted in illiberal ways, and sometimes push hair-raising intolerance. State textbooks in Algeria, Pakistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all stand as cases in point. In Algeria, the battle against Islamic extremism now centers on changing school curricula that have long been under the control of conservative religious leaders. Sometimes, as in Jordan, the problem is that state authorities have tossed fundamentalists the education ministry as a sop. Better to give them that than have them clamoring for the foreign-affairs or finance portfolios, the thinking seems to have run. It is a worrisome reminder of the lack of seriousness with which these governments consider education.

In Pakistan, it was General Musharraf—an avowed secularist and admirer of Kemalism—who changed the law so that a madrasah certificate counts as well as a university degree in qualifying someone to run for parliament. Other rulers seem to feel that a religious formation for young people is preferable to the Marxism or Western decadence that might otherwise vie for youthful attention. Pakistan’s national identity is strongly Islamic, and Saudi Arabia sees Wahhabism as its national creed. Neither country can truly envision education as a secular enterprise. In this, they may not be so different from secular-nationalist regimes that seek to infuse young minds with an almost religious sense of national identity and cohesiveness. Madrasah-bashing will not clean up education; that requires pressing the governments not just the clerics.

Since 9/11, many madrasahs have in fact done better than governments when it comes to reform. The overwhelming bulk of madrasahs in Indonesia and Bangladesh have submitted to government oversight and implemented required curricular reforms. In general, madrasah reform progresses slowly, but in the meantime, Islamic education of a hopeful nature has been thriving outside of the madrasahs.

In one Pakistani poll, 70 percent of those surveyed favored reforming madrasahs to root out extremism and boost educational quality but also rejected secular education. That is not a surprise if you consider that secular education in that country has pretty much collapsed. Too many schools lack textbooks, desks, and blackboards, and too many teachers are underpaid and unqualified. There is very little in way of proper education in sciences and math. All around the Islamic world today, in fact, secular education draws little praise. The demand is for high-quality, useful Islamic education but not extremism; for teaching religious values but not political activism; and vitally, for providing children with the knowledge needed to make it in the competition of the modern, globalized economy.

In Pakistan, Islamic high schools cost far less than secular private schools while producing graduates who do better than average on college-entrance exams and standardized tests. Muslim parents can see the value for money here, especially in a country with numerous young people and a tight job market. In Bangladesh, almost a third of university professors are graduates of Alia madrasahs, a network of government-mandated seminaries that combine traditional Islamic education with English and modern subjects. Between 1985 and 2003, the number of Alia madrasahs in Bangladesh grew by 55 percent. If the goal is upward mobility, Islamic education is the rational choice for many parents in many countries.

In too many countries around the Muslim world, political parties have turned campuses into battlegrounds and gutted higher education in the process.

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“Indische” Indos and Theosophists in the Dutch East Indies

From: Being “Dutch” in the Indies: A History of Creolisation and Empire, 1500–1920, by Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben, tr. by Wendie Shaffer (National U. Singapore Press, 2008), pp. 293-297:

The 20th century arrived in the Dutch East Indies accompanied by a chorus bewailing the growing number of children who had concubines as mothers. The prevailing tone was that many of these children did not merit the status of European. A commonly heard anecdote was that of the down-and-out soldier who, in exchange for a bottle of Dutch gin, acknowledged that he was the legitimate father of a child who had not a drop of Dutch blood. The newspaper Java-Bode reported the growing number of “degenerate Indos and complete hybrids” who were in fact natives but were entitled to call themselves European: “Without a doubt, such people must feel deeply dissatisfied with their lot.” These gloomy musings were, however, seldom based on more than anecdotal accounts and were certainly not founded upon systematic research. It was nothing new to hear of “immoral” goings-on in the army barracks, while concubinage and large families of pauperised (Indo-)Europeans were a familiar phenomenon. What was new were the growing complaints about the situation and the sombreness of their tone. Such attitudes became widespread at the end of the 19th century, when interest grew in matters such as genetic inheritance, Malthusian ideas about population control and the theme of ennobling the lower classes.

The fin de siècle Zeitgeist encouraged the notion of a moral decline of European society in the Indies. Colonial policy in the Indies had always tried to draw a clear distinction between European society and the natives. Until the close of the 19th century the emphasis had continually lain on reclaiming the stray sheep of the European flock and returning them to the fold of European culture and values. Bur now the idea arose that it might be better for them to remain in their native environment. This notion, born largely out of discussions on inheritance, race and degeneration, now buzzed on every side. The Java-Bode, which represented the conservative opinions of the more wealthy Batavian civil servants, used the word “hybrid” to highlight the problematic aspects of racial mixing. Understandably, this newspaper did not dispute the fact that there were large numbers of decent Indo-European families bringing up their children in a correct and seemly manner. But once the journalists got the bit between their teeth, they became carried away by polemics regarding degeneracy and childhood neglect. It only needed a tiny slip of the pen before they were fulminating about the stereotypical Indische family where the eternal ne’er-do-wells lazed around and never lifted a finger, convinced as they were from birth that to do manual work would debase them forever.

This caricature was not something new. A hundred years earlier, at the beginning of the 19th century, newcomers to the East Indies had written with shocked amazement about the lack of parental care, about the frequent beatings that children received, and about how their mothers carried on their peddling trades and spent their time playing cards instead of looking after their children. Around 1900 such commentaries became imbued with pseudo-scientific arguments on the topic of racial inferiority. Articles and reviews with scientific pretensions were published claiming to substantiate the stereotypical pictures of Indo-Europeans as people who were underhand, easily suspicious and quickly roused to anger. The widely held opinion in British colonies that when European populations became mixed with a native race they dissolved into native society also crept insidiously into Dutch (Indies) publications. Some suggested that several generations of mixed marriage resulted in infertility — although such an opinion would appear to be firmly disproved by the many large and flourishing Indo-European families. However, a conservative newspaper like Java-Bode could not be shaken from its conviction that social improvement — with all its biological connotations of crop or cattle improvement — was the same thing as opposing mixed marriages. In the Netherlands, newspapers were quite unabashed in stating that pauperism was the result of racial mixing. The word volbloed (pure-blood) began to appear in advertisements for domestic staff and personnel. Cynical remarks were heard to the effect that the elite corps of the Binnenlands Bestuur [Dept. of the Interior], in Dutch keurkorps, was turning into a coloured corps, Dutch kleurkorps. In short, with the arrival of the 20th century, the colonial discourse became strongly racialised.

It is tempting to think — although inaccurately — that Darwinism, then a fashionable ideology, was responsible for this racist thinking. Social Darwinism was widely accepted in Europe, but in the Indies it was the Spencerian theory of evolution that predominated. Herbert Spencer saw human ability as the product of social evolution, and not of biological selection. It proved a difficult task, however, to distinguish between inherited propensities and the effects of upbringing. The journalist Paul Daum, for instance, was a fervent Spencerian, yet in his novel published in 1890, titled “Ups” en “downs” in het Indische leven (“Ups” and “Downs” of Indische Life) — which recounts the downfall of the aristocratic planters’ family the Hoflands — he invokes heredity as a major element in the family’s decline. In his journalistic writing, however, he pleaded the cause of education as the driving force behind social advancement and the best possible cure for the ills assailing the European community in the Indies. City gardens, public parks, theatrical performances and concerts were surely more attractive ways of passing the time than cockfighting, tandakken (Javanese dancing) or Javanese wayang puppet theatres. Cultural paternalism of this nature encountered little opposition; indeed, it was applauded by the newspaper De Telefoon, which wrote in this context of “the improvement of destitute Europeans”.

All the complaints about the effects of mixing and the negative influences of an Indische lifestyle might almost make one forget that ever-growing numbers of Europeans in the Indies were now speaking Dutch, reading the paper, and writing letters to the editor on touchy topics. It was a recent development, for until well into the 19th century — even in wealthy families in the Indies — the lingua franca was not necessarily Dutch, but Malay. This appears, for instance, from a complaint made in 1887 by the education inspector about the poor level of Dutch among students at the HBS School, which was intended for children from the better circles. It was only in the closing years of the 19th century that Dutch began to be more widely used among Europeans. It first became the standard language at work and then moved into informal areas. In contrast to the much-quoted opinion of the education inspectors that in 1900 the majority of Indies-born European children at elementary school had a very poor command of Dutch, we find that at that time already 40 per cent of Europeans used Dutch in their everyday affairs.

The early 20th century also witnessed an alternative wave against the assumption that “Indische” meant “inferior”. While the terms “hybridity” and “Indische” when used in the colonial context both had negative overtones, the cultural avant-garde in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the Western world embraced the exotic. The artistic style of Jugendstil (art nouveau) made use of exotic shapes and designs. The artist Jan Toorop, born in Java in 1858, who was greatly celebrated in the Netherlands, exploited heavy symbolism borrowed from Javanese art and even transported this into his painted posters advertising salad dressing. For the colonial newcomers, belief in animism was superstitious, possibly even dangerous, nonsense, but in the Netherlands it was all the fashion to hold séances and make contact with the spirits of the dead. What might be described as an organic way of thinking, most powerfully expressed through the eclectic and unrestrained images of Jugendstil, flourished among the elite of the Netherlands. The urge to reconcile opposites also reached the colonies and was to have an influential role in the rejection of conventional European tastes and values One manifestation was the growth of the Theosophical Society (founded in 1875) which acquired a considerable following in the first decades ot the 20th century. Before this, the Freemasons had been the chief instigators of dialogue between the various cultures and faiths in the colony. In about 1908 the Theosophists took over. In the Indies their champion was Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton, who taught Javanese at the training institute for the Binnenlands Bestuur in Batavia, the Willem III School. This eloquent, indeed loquacious, man was inspired by the great British Theosophist Annie Besant (1847–1938), who had left England for British India in 1893, declared the Indians to be her brothers and sisters, and become a tireless advocate of home rule for India. Theosophy also appealed to nationalist intellectuals in the East Indies, who applauded its approach of an Eastern counter-current against the materialism of the West.

Thus the world of the East Indies became aware of two contrasting, indeed opposing, voices. Since the rise of the Soeria Soemirat movement, the Indo-Europeans had spoken out as a separate group, although their plea was to be accepted as Europeans. In contrast, the notion ot an Indische domain as a space where European and Asian cultural influences were equally valid steadily gained ground. The politically tense period linked with the growth of nationalism served to reveal the tensions between the concept of “Indo-Europeans” — people who constituted a category of class and race within the wider group of “Europeans — and “Indische”, a term that could be applied to everything connected with the Dutch East Indies. On the one hand, the expression “Indo-European (or Indo) was used to apply to Europeans who had a part-Asian ancestry as opposed to pure-blood white. At the same time, the word Indische was used in contrast to Hollands (Netherlandish) but never to demarcate Europeans from Indonesian, Chinese or other population groups living in the East Indies. The “closed” character of the term “Indo-European” and its opposite, the boundless connotations of the word “Indische”, have dominated the political evolution of the Indies. During those years of budding nationalism the political pendulum swung continually between the struggle to establish a movement representing the more general Indische interests, and a Union of Indo-Europeans. Two Dutch words crystallised the differences: beweging (movement) stood for new and open, while bond (union) implied the formation of a group to defend one’s own interests. Everything born out of the Indische movement was to be absorbed almost unnoticed into Indonesian nationalism, while the notion of a union or brotherhood gained definitive form in 1919 in the Indo-Europeesch Verbond (IEV) — the Indo-European Union.

This final excerpt from this book touches on most of the major themes raised in this fascinating look at the history of the Dutch and their local allies in their East Indian colonies.

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Democratization vs. Secularization

From: Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3149-85:

More and more Muslims, especially those in the rising middle class, are going around the mosque and mufti network to take advantage of such choices for engaging with Islam available not only on television and radio but also in cyberspace. It is now possible to get guidance from on-the-air or online clerics and Islamic sages. Fatwas—which are religious decrees that clerics issue to clarify ambiguities in religious practice or to call on Muslims to follow a specific course of action—are a phone call or an email away. Sites such as IslamOnline, eFatwa.com, MuftiSays.com, askimam.com or, for Shias, Sistani.org offer lively discussion groups about such hot-button issues as how Muslims should interpret shariah law, how they ought to behave in the workplace, and whether the jihadist’s call to arms has any religious validity. Such websites command an impressive number of visitors, and this popular engagement is generating a democratization of sorts in Islam comparable to the rise of a more populist, and pious, breed of Christianity in the United States spurred on by the advent of televangelism.

Many of the popular new breed of media-savvy preachers blend tradition with modernity in their style as well as the substance of their messages, wearing Western attire rather than traditional robes, and speaking to their audiences in the personable, folksy manner of so many popular American preachers, making use of anecdotes about life’s daily struggles. That recipe has proven enormously popular. The strong appeal of this blending of modernity and Islam does not mean, however, that there is strong support for reform of Islam itself. The core of the appeal is in reassuring the Muslim masses that a modern way of life—the pursuit of material success, watching television, going out to nightclubs, listening to pop music—is in no way in conflict with Islam. Muslims can enjoy the fruits of modernity, they say, and be good Islamic believers at the same time. They are not, for the most part, championing the kind of more thoroughgoing reform of the faith that many in the West have advocated.

We should not kid ourselves: There is very little in the way of liberalizing reform going on in the Muslim world today. If anything, the phenomenon of rising demand for Islam is disproportionately raising the stock of conservative voices, though there surely are leaders of movements for democracy—and for women’s rights—who are building followings, as we’ll explore shortly. But by and large, while there is a great deal of engagement with new ways of delivering the message of Islam, there is not much interest in changing the message itself. For the most part, changing Islamic law or compromising on Islam’s values and worldview is not in the cards.

The attacks of 9/11 convinced many Americans that the problem with the Muslim world is that it is “unenlightened,” meaning it is pre-Renaissance in its mind-set. To catch up with modernity, Muslims must subject Islam to substantial change—Vatican II at least if not the Reformation tout court. But Westerners who are pinning their hopes for better relations with the region on an Islamic Reformation are going to be let down, at least in the near term. The paradox that can be hard to grasp is that the aspirations of the rising middle class have, by contrast, fueled the embrace of traditionalism—the Islamic world’s version of old-time religion. The prospect of launching oneself, one’s children, and one’s society out into the competitive, globalized economy has increased rather than decreased interest in tradition—religious tradition very much included—because of the belief that enduring sources of standards and values are needed to help navigate the currents of change [and not just among Muslims—J. (emphasis added)]. In time, the embrace of tradition may give way to a broader and more vigorous movement for reform, but Western efforts to promote reformism are unlikely to be the impetus. Indeed, they may be even counterproductive, feeding fears that the West wants to subvert Islam.

Many Western observers do not want to hear this. They remain preoccupied with locating the right Islamic reformer, someone who can slingshot Islam onto the fast track toward Reformation and Enlightenment. Why is such a reformer, like Samuel Beckett’s Godot, not showing up? Is reform only a matter of time, or is the West wrong to assume that the Muslim world will follow the same historical trajectory that unfolded in the West when capitalism and the scientific revolution forced change on Christianity?

Those advocating a Protestant future for Islam dwell little on the facts that early-modern Christian reformers were hardly liberal or tolerant—and that the Reformation unleashed a century and a half of bloody and even cataclysmic warfare. The Reformation in all its manifestations across Europe enforced narrow puritanical views with great violence.

Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and a great many other secular “rationalists” also enforced narrow puritanical views with violence far greater than that of any religious leaders in history. Nor was the post-Reformation transition to secular nationalism—especially the racialist nationalism of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan—accomplished without great violence, not just in wars between nations but in warfare and ethnic cleansing within national boundaries. If religious intolerance is the problem, secularist intolerance of religion is not the solution.

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Lessons from Romanizing Turkish Orthography

From: “Script Charisma in Hebrew and Turkish: A Comparative Framework for Explaining Success and Failure of Romanization” by İlker Aytürk in Journal of World History 21(2010):97-130 (on Project MUSE):

Since the downfall of the Soviet regime in 1991, successive Turkish governments have been trying to impress upon the ex-Soviet Turkish republics the necessity of adopting the Roman alphabet. As late as June 2007, for example, a delegation from the Republic of Kazakhstan visited the Turkish Language Institute (Türk Dil Kurumu) for consultations and received briefings on a number of topics, including the history of script change in Turkey, the economic costs and benefits of romanization, and the implications of script change for electronic media and information technologies. Indeed, Turkish policy makers are correct when they underline Turkey’s role as a model in this regard. Adoption of a Roman-based alphabet in Turkey in 1928 is habitually cited as the textbook example of a successful and lasting case of romanization. The problem with the approach of the Turkish policy makers, on the other hand, is the somewhat naïve conviction that, with a good amount of fortitude, the Turkish success could be easily replicated elsewhere.

This approach is not new, nor is it particular to the Turkish officials. It had been voiced earlier, during attempts at romanizing the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese scripts in the interwar period and the immediate aftermath of World War II at the heyday of an international romanization movement. What is common in all of them is a tendency to strip the question of script from its historical, religious, and political context and to present it mainly as an issue of the expediency of a writing system. It is very telling that Western advocates of romanization were pointing at the Turkish example even then, as Turkish officials still do. The success of the Turkish experiment, though, obscured many other attempts at romanization that ended up as utter failures. If truth be told, the impact of the permanent adoption of the Roman alphabet by a handful of speech communities in the twentieth century is far outweighed by the resilience of non-Roman writing systems in spite of efforts to romanize them. It is impossible to overlook the fact that about half of the world’s population today employ non-Roman alphabets or scripts: the Devanagari script in India, the han’gŭl in Korea, the kanji and kana in Japan, the hànzì in China, the Arabic alphabet in most of the Muslim world, the Greek alphabet in Greece, the Cyrillic in Russia, and the square letters in Israel, just to name a few, show the limits of the expansion of the Roman alphabet in contrast to high expectations in its favor at the beginning of the twentieth century. The image of a victorious Roman alphabet is then probably caused by the paucity of counterfactual data, which could have been gleaned from failed cases, and it also results from the lack of comparative works, especially those that compare a successful case with a fiasco.

What I intend to do in this article is precisely this. By focusing on the Hebrew and Turkish cases, I aim at constructing a theoretical framework for explaining success and failure of romanization. The two cases in question are selected on purpose: adoption of the Roman alphabet in Atatürk’s Turkey is the emblematic example of romanization in the twentieth century. Quite the reverse, the feeble movement in the Yishuv—a term that describes the Jewish population and settlement in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel—in the 1920s and 1930s for writing Hebrew in the Roman alphabet had so utterly failed to impress the Hebrew speakers at the time that there are very few today who even remember that such a bizarre attempt was ever made. Comparing these two cases will help us identify a number of independent variables that facilitate romanization or inhibit it….

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the implantation of the Roman alphabet in the Americas and pockets of European colonization in the Far East. The first real conquest of the Roman alphabet outside the boundaries of Western Christendom, however, was the romanization of the Romanian script in 1860, during an atmosphere of cultural revival and independence, which also signaled Romania’s growing estrangement from the Slavic and the Orthodox world. A second, less known, case was the gradual adoption in Vietnam of Quoc-ngu, a Roman-based alphabet, which was officially endorsed in 1910 but whose spread to the masses took considerably more time and lasted until the 1950s. A more crucial and rather famous decision of romanization was made at the Baku Congress of Turkology in 1926, when representatives from the Muslim-Turkic and Tatar communities in the Soviet Union and from the Republic of Turkey discussed matters of orthography among other cultural problems. The resolution of the congress stressed the need for the creation of a common script based on the Roman alphabet for all Turco-Tataric nations. This particular wave of romanization started with the Yakuts and the Azeris in 1926, while the Uzbeks and the Crimean Tatars followed suit in 1928 and 1929 respectively. The Republic of Turkey, on the other hand, whose initial attitude toward romanization at the congress could best be described as lukewarm, jumped on the bandwagon in 1928 with huge publicity given to the event in world press.

If it is permissible to use Max Weber’s notion of “charismatic authority” in a field that he did not intend it for, the Roman alphabet had in effect become a charismatic script by the 1920s and 1930s. It owed its charisma less to its Roman or Catholic background, and more to a rather secular association with the advent of modernity, Westernization, and, later, the ascendancy of English as the global lingua franca….

An argument in favor of romanization of the Hebrew script was first heard in 1898, but that preliminary shot by Isaak Rosenberg, a Hebrew teacher in Jerusalem, fell on deaf ears and did not make an impact at all. The person who actually catapulted the idea of romanization to short-lived fame and notoriety was Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of the “father of modern Hebrew,” Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Hardly remembered today, Itamar Ben-Avi (1882–1943) was a celebrity in the Yishuv as well as the diaspora world from the first decade of the twentieth century to the 1940s. His father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the individual who probably contributed more than anybody else to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, raised him as the first Jew in nearly two millennia whose mother tongue was Hebrew. Thanks to the publicity given to him since his childhood for this reason, Ben-Avi was a living specimen of the “new Jew,” who could turn dreams into reality by strength of will. Upon completing his university studies in Berlin, Ben-Avi returned to Jerusalem, where he embarked on a journalistic career, first writing in his father’s newspapers, then acting as the Jerusalem correspondent for British and French dailies, and eventually topping his career with the editorship of such important Yishuv newspapers as the Do’ar ha-yom and the Palestine Weekly. He was to put his oratorical skills in many languages into use following a request from the Jewish National Fund to go abroad on lecture tours for the Zionist cause, a job that further boosted his image abroad, where he rubbed shoulders with the VIPs of the diaspora Jewry.

Of all people, it was this man who proposed to write Hebrew with Roman characters, and put his name at risk and gambled with his financial resources to carry out his plans for romanization. After many adventures along those lines in his youth, Ben-Avi’s first concrete action was to publish a biography of his father, titled Avi (My Father), in romanized Hebrew in 1927. That initial attempt drew the ire of the Jewish literati in the Yishuv, who nipped the project in the bud by their deadly silence. The following year, no doubt encouraged by the news coming from Turkey, he briefly experimented with offering a Hebrew supplement in Roman alphabet to the Palestine Weekly. The first issue of Ha-shavu‘a ha-palestini [variously spelled (per fn. 42) ha Şavu‘a ha Palestini, ha Şavuja ha Palestini, ha Shavuaj ha Palestini, ha Shavuaa ha Palestini, and ha Shavua ha Palestini], as the supplement was called, appeared on 14 December 1928 and continued until May 1929 in twenty issues altogether. Members of the Revisionist Zionist Organization in the Yishuv rallied round his cause, and the organization’s legendary leader Vladimir Jabotinsky emerged as the second best-known advocate for the romanization of Hebrew script. Yet, the supplement failed to create a momentum, with about three hundred copies sold in the Yishuv and abroad, even though a few first issues were distributed gratis. Ben-Avi made a final, and more serious, attempt in 1933, this time by publishing an independent weekly journal in romanized Hebrew. The weekly Deror appeared from 17 November 1933 to 25 March 1934 in sixteen issues, and, if we trust Ben-Avi’s somewhat inflated numbers, the journal’s sales stabilized around 1,400 copies from the third issue onward, several hundred of those being subscriptions from abroad. Not surprisingly, the Deror met the same fate as its predecessor and had to be closed down at enormous cost to its owner. The damage done, however, was not just financial. Ben-Avi was compelled to admit defeat, facing the Yishuv’s indifference, if not outright animosity, toward his romanization plan.

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