Teaching Literature and Staying au courantThe Man from Nowhere and the Ancient Greeks

There is a profound joy in introducing students to classic texts. I am very grateful that I have spent so much of my working life among the splendors of ancient Greek plays, Romantic Era poets, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde.

And I am happy that as I teach I have gotten better at choosing classics which speak to my students, from 20th century writers such as Tawfiq al-Hakim to more modern writers such as Mohammed Al Murr and Badriyah al Bashar. And it’s fun help them get over the newness of Moushegh Ishkhan, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Ryszard Krynicki, T’ao Yuan Ming, Tomas Tranströmer and Wisława Szymborska.

When I start the poetry class, I know that there is at least one student will be blown away by the Cold Mountain poems, Basho, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye or Fowziyah Abu-Khalid. Someone will fall in love with  “Embroidered Memory” by Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis; someone else will champion “About Mount Uludag” by Nazim Hikmet.

It’s a delight to read familiar lines and see how students relate to familiar characters. Who is going to defend Ismene this semester? Who will argue on Creon’s behalf? Who is going to laugh when Patty in Quality Street talks about her hopefulness?  If we read Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, who will my students pick as the one who deserves Chris – Kitty, Margaret or Jenny?

At the same time, it is good for me to be in the position of not knowing, to remember how it feels to be confused by a text. I became a better teacher after I spent two summers studying Arabic in Muscat. Sitting in a classroom as a student, panicking when a teacher asked me a question I did not understand, studying for a test and waiting anxiously for my grade made me more understanding of my own students.

So I try to seek out new texts to read and, perhaps, use for teaching. I scan shelves in bookstores and ask friends for suggestions. Since I don’t know Spanish writers, I asked a friend who has expertise and, following her suggestions, found “Marta Alvarado, History Professor” by Marjorie Agosín and “New Clothes” by Julia Alvarez, as well as “Tula” and “Turtle Came to See Me” by Margarita Engle.

Over the past few years, I have realized that I few students are into K-pop (BTS! Blackpink! Twice! NCT!) and so I decided to dip a toe into that cultural tradition.

The easiest way to start was movies so I duly looked at “top 10 Korean movie” lists and rented The Man from Nowhere (2010). One review mentioned that it was similar to Léon: The Professional (1994) in that it involved a young girl who is taken in and protected by a hired assassin. I thought knowing the plot would help me but there were a lot of differences, making the movie both interesting and confusing. For example, the ending surprised me. At the end of Léon, the girl is re-enrolled at her boarding school and she finally plants the small tree that she has been carrying around with her, symbolizing that she is now rooted.

At the end of The Man from Nowhere, the anti-hero asks the police for one favor and he brings the young girl he has been trying to protect back to her old neighborhood, goes into a small convenience store and buys her some composition books, writing supplies and a back-pack. Then he asks her if she will be ok. She nods, they hug and then he turns to go back into the police car.

I stared at the screen in astonishment. “That’s the end?!?” I wondered. Her father left long ago, her mother died at the start of the film, the girl was kidnapped and brutally treated for weeks, and now, with a few stationary supplies, the girl is now alone and supposed to take care of herself?

Over the next few weeks, I watched a few more and was astounded by whole new levels of plotting. It often feels like I am watching several movies at one: Assassination (2015) has freedoms fighters betrayed by team members (shades of Guns of Navarone), funny but doomed killers (shades of Bitch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and twin sisters on opposite sides of an immense cultural, educational and temperamental divide (a grown-up, super spy equivalent of the Parent Trap).

I am often bewildered as I try out comedies, historical fiction and modern thrillers such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), Masquerade (2012), The Villainess (2017) and War of the Arrows (2011).

It takes a lot of concentration to understand each movie, not because of the sub-titles but the  work of trying to create new templates and figure out new tropes. How can I visually tell the difference between good guys and bad guys? Is the behavior of this woman showing that she is good or bad? Does this style of house indicate that the owners are rich, poor, old-fashioned or trend-setters? Is the meal the characters being served haut cuisine or everyday fare? Is this behavior normal or odd?

Sometimes it is good to be lost.

I am happy to announce that I will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms”

l will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms” at the English Scholars Beyond Borders – Dhofar University International Conference. Dec. 4-5, 2021.

My presentation will argue that in non-Anglospheric institutions such as Dhofar University, literature teachers will always need to be language and culture teachers. Given that many students on the Arabian Peninsula will use English when traveling or teaching primary or secondary students, texts must be chosen for their linguistic and cultural, as well as literary, qualities. I will use examples from teaching literature, cultural studies and education on the Arabian Peninsula for over 15 years to discuss how to create syllabi which reflect both the literary canon and students’ needs, with an emphasis on teaching multi-level classes and explicating cultural narration differences, as well as sneaking in language lessons. For example, folding language teaching into literature classes means both silent editing (such as not calling attention to spoken mistakes but repeating the student’s words with the correct pronunciation and/ or grammar) and short, explicit lessons. Lastly, it is vital to foreground cultural differences in plot, characters, settings and themes, in addition to narrative structures as an analysis of a literary text in English is expected to have the author’s opinion clearly stated with proof in the form of quotes and specific details, a format that Arabian Gulf students sometimes have not learned.

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/zhe/

http://alifbatourguide.com/

excerpt of ‘Zhe is for Bijan’

Zhe is the third of the four Persian letters that have been added to deal with sounds you won’t hear in Arabic. The sound of Zhe is the S of “measure,” the J of French (jupe, jour, bijou, jus), or the common mispronunciation of the hard J in “Beijing.” It is for indigenous Persian words still in use after the arrival of the Arabic alphabet, a glimpse of an earlier language. Today it also allows for proper transcriptions of words borrowed from European languages. Zhânvieh (through French) for January, Zhâpon for Japan. Dehkhoda’s massive Loghat-nâmeh, the OED of Persian, includes Zhen for Genoa, Zhâmâ’îk for Jamaica, Zhakobît for Jacobite. The last example may be a key to his political affinities.

The letter J is used for Zhe words in contemporary Turkish, though there aren’t many of them. There is less than a page of J words in Redhouse’s 1,292-page dictionary, most of them loans from French. Nine of them are on loan from Persian.

Household Words

Before Zhe was devised, you would just use Ze (Arabic Za’) and assume the reader would recognize the word from context, spoken but not visible on the page. And then sometimes pronunciation of Zh words would adjust to what the Arabic alphabet was able to express. Zhang, “rust,” became zang. Zhang still exists, with the same meaning, but you won’t see it often. If you look up zhang in a Persian/Persian dictionary the definition is likely to be zang.

Sometimes a Zhe word will evoke the substantial, resonant or sublime, as with the word zharf, “deep, profound.”  It’s a respected Zhe word, the only Zhe entry in A.K.S. Lambton’s shorter Persian Vocabulary. And sometimes a Zhe word will send us back to the heroic world of pre-Islamic chivalry, as in Ferdowsi, like zhubin, a spear.’ More frequently, though, the Zhe words which persisted over the evolution of New Persian, the ones that slipped through the 28-letter Arabic mesh, are the words closest to home, the intimate ones: household words, words for the ordinary, humble and non-heroic. Often you have to dig through those dictionaries which include the obscure and forgotten to find them. Zhakfar means patient, meek, mild. Zhakâreh is quarrelsome, squabbling. Zhan means deformed. (A cultured Iranian friend has never heard of the last three. It’s a good thing we have dictionaries.) Zhulideh, definitely still in use, is to be disheveled, tousled, scattered in the wind. Zhendeh, also a linguistic survivor, means old, worn out, frayed, or a patched garment. Imperfect things can be a source of praise too. Hair which is zhulideh is a source of fascination. Patches or patched clothes can be the clothes of someone who has taken a vow of poverty, a mystic. Zhendeh is a positive image, as you can see in a couplet of Hafez:

Chandân bemân ke kharqeh-ye azraq konad qabûl
bakht-e javân-at az falak-e pir-e zhendeh-push

[Stay as you are (or perhaps “be patient . . .”) until the sky’s patched blue (azraq) coat grants to you, though you are young, a spiritual elder’s patched robe (zhendeh).]

New essay: “Ra” on The Arabic Alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour 

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazav

Ra is for Rigel (first section)

http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/ra/

Ra is proverbial for smallness (as iota is proverbial for the slight and diminutive in Greek): a simple swoop from the baseline downward. No connection on the left. It just descends, comes to a point and stops. Drawn with a reed pen it thickens half-way down and narrows again as the angle of the reed shifts. Add a dot overhead and you have the letter pronounced Z. (Add three dots and you have the sound added by Persian speakers in the 15th century, Zha.)

In their early forms the Ra and Dâl shapes look, to my eye at least, identical. Evidently early users felt the same way. Writers of Syriac distinguished them by a dot: Ra had a dot added above, Dâl had one added below. In later forms Ra (now dotless) came to descend below the base line and distinguish itself from Dâl by position. (Dâl was higher.) Dâl is often thicker at the top. Most Ra s seem aerodynamic, immersed in a right-left current which blows the thinner edges leftward. The lower point can curl up. In thulûth script Ra can extend until it almost connects on the left, because the lower point may curl up and seem to connect, as if to make the point tickle the underside of the letter which follows. In handwriting today Dal and Ra can still look very much the same.

The sound is a trilled R; when it is doubled (unlike doubled R in English, as in “current” or “barracks”), you hear the prolongation. This is the case of the two (or four) R sounds which occur in the basmala (Bism Allâh al-raḥmân al-raḥîm), where the Ra is doubled because “L-R” is pronounced as RR. (Long story. It requires knowing more about Lam.) Ra is one of those letters whose sound takes on a lot of disguises. In Sorani Kurdish it takes two identities: the familiar trilled R is written with a little V shape close underneath. The naked, stand-alone R shape is pronounced something like a glottal stop.

Dha – new posting on the ‘The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour’ website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/dha/

Opening of Dha is for Zildjian

فی ذکری
PBW
(1945-2021)

It is unseemly, says a friend of the Persian poet Sa‘dî, and contrary to the judgment of the wise, for two things to happen:

ذو الفقار علی در نیام و زبان سعدی در کام
Dhû al-fiqâr-e ‘Ali dar niyâm va zabân-e Sa‘dî dar kâm
…for `Ali’s sword to remain in its scabbard and for Sa`dî’s tongue to remain in his mouth

Sa‘dî’s friend is revving him up to write his masterpiece, the Golestân. It was clearly a convincing argument.There are readers who may say that eloquence is more powerful when the tongue operates inside  the mouth rather than outside, but it’s not as if we didn’t know what Sa‘di’s friend means. It’s a powerful argument, cunningly located, since it makes the creation of the Golestân a kind of heroism, heroism without the sword.

Islamic tradition has tales of heroism and chivalry which will be understandable to western readers. As with us, a hero’s sword may have a name, in the manner of Excalibur in the Arthur stories and Roland’s Durendal. Ali, the Prophet’s nephew, was a historical figure, but he became a legendary hero with enough cachet to deserve a legendary sword. Dhû al-fiqâr (usually transliterated as Zulfiqâr) is etymologically that which possesses a backbone (from fiqâr, spine, from a stem meaning to pierce or perforate). Sa‘dî’s friend makes a clearer case: if you have a tongue with the power of Ali’s sword, out with it. En garde, miscreants.

Dhû means possessor, owner, holder or master of… You can be master of an object or a concept. Dhû al-Qa‘da and Dhû al-Ḥijja are names of months in the lunar calendar. During Dhû al-Qa‘da, military conflict was suspended (since it’s a month characterized by qa‘da, “sitting,” thus “sitting out the action”). Dhû al-Ḥijja is the month of pilgrimage (Ḥijja, the pilgrimage). Dhû ‘aql, possessing reason, understanding, is a term for an intelligent person. Dhû al-Ḥiyyâtayn, the possessor of two lives, is an amphibian. Dhû al-Qarnayn is “the one who possesses two horns” (from qarn, “horn”). In European tradition the hero with horns would be Moses (which we know from Michelangelo’s statue of a horned Moses with the ten commandments); in Islam Dhû al-Qarnayn is Alexander the Great, well known in the Islamic world as Iskandar, who is portrayed in Sura 18 of the Qur’ân, building a wall to keep out Yâ’jûj and Mâ’jûj , our Gog and Magog (Q 18.93-97). Dhû al-Nûn is an epithet of Jonah (Nûn can mean a Ḥût, “whale”): it demonstrates that dhû doesn’t always mean “possessor,” unless we think of Noah as owning the whale. “He of the whale.”

Foodways – other avenues of research

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

The good news is my book, Foodways in Southern Oman (Routledge), is now officially published. The bad news is, as every author knows, I keep finding topics I should have mentioned. Just today I happened upon: Of Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic Literary Representations of Food by Geert Jan van Gelder – what a great-sounding book! I will try to find a copy and read it.

I know there is a whole sub-genre in Arabic literature of personified ‘fights’ between different type of foods (munazara) for example “The Delectable War between Mutton and the Refreshments of the Market Place” featuring King Mutton and King Honey (or Clive Holes’ work “The Dispute of Coffee and Tea: A Debate Poem from the Gulf,” in Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language and Literature, ed. J.R. Smart, 1996, 302-315). But I did not include a discussion of these as they seemed a little too far from my topic, as did poems about being a host/ guest such as Abu al Hakam Al Maghribi’s “A Domestic Disaster” which is too ribald to teach but is a good match with Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper.” Perhaps at some point I can look more closely at this type of writing.

I have also realized that I was never able to find government documents about the number of animals (cows, camels, goats) in Dhofar – that was on my to-do list, but got lost in the shuffle of work and dealing with corona. I also wanted to go to a fish market and meat market and write a lot more about cuts of meat/ types of seafood in terms of prices, how they are prepared and sold but the markets didn’t re-open until after the books was sent to press.

Another topic I want to reflect about more is cultural issues relating to TIME and PLACE of eating, i.e. [pre-corona] my surprise that many of my students do not eat or drink anything before coming to class while they are surprised to see me eating lunch at my desk (“Why don’t you have lunch at home? How can you eat in your office?” they wonder.) Or the surprise of me drinking or eating while walking, something that is not done here. Another difference is my habit of making a cup of coffee last over an hour, while most Dhofaris will finish their drink quickly. A small cup of tea is usually gone in three sips, while I nurse mine until it is cold.

Lastly, I wanted to do interviews with Dhofaris who made/ sold food on Instagram, at festivals and small stores. I have heard of one Dhofari man who opened his own restaurant where he not only supervised, but cooked. However, between the public and private mourning for Sultan Qaboos and the on-set of corona, spring 2020 was not the time to ask strangers to help with my research. I hope 2021 affords more chances to write, research, think and discuss about foodways!

y - meat rice and fruit

Foodways and Literature – Animal Poems

As I was looking for food poems last week, I realized how many animal poems I have taught and have written out a partial list below.

One starting place is the Mu’allaqa, most of which have many vivid descriptions of desert animals, for example in Imru al-Qays “Halt, friends” and Labid’s “The campsites at Mina.” Another group of early poems which feature animals are by the sa’alik poets; no one who has read Shanfara’s Lamiyyat (“Sons of my mother”) can forget the wolf metaphors.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich

“Bear,” Valerie Worth

“Butterflies,” Fawziyya Abu Khalid

“Cat, Valerie Harper

“The Crocodile,” Lewis Carroll

“The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy

“Darwin’s Finches,” Deborah Digges

“December Snow,” May Sarton

“The Dromedary,” Archibald Young Campbell

“The Eagle,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“The Face of the Horse,” Nikolai Alekseevich Zabolotsky

“The Gazelle Calf,” D. H. Lawrence

“The Goat Paths,” James Stephens

“The Horses of the Sea,” Christina Rossetti

“How To See Deer,” Philip Booth

“The Last Wolf,” Mary Tall Mountain

“Minnows,” Valerie Worth

“A Night with a Wolf,” Bayard Taylor

“Not Swans,” Susan Ludvigson

“The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” Andrew Marvell

“Pangur Ban,” unknown, Irish

“The Plaint of the Camel,” Charles Edward Carryl

“The Poet and the Moth,” Ahmad Qandeel

“The Raven,”  E.A.  Poe

“The Seal’s Lullaby,” Rudyard Kipling

“Sister Cat,” Frances Mayes

“Snake,” Emily Dickinson

“Snake,” Valerie Worth

“The Terrapin,” Wendell Berry

“To a Skylark,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Turtle Came to See Me,” Margarita Engle

“Upon a Snail,” John Bunyan

“The Vixan,” John Clare

“The War God’s Horse,” unknown, from the Navajo

“The White Stallion,” Abu I-Salt Umayyah

and many poems by Mary Oliver including “Ravens,” “Swans of the River Ayr,” “Turtle” and “White Heron”

More of her poems can be found at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver

Short stories: “Pepsi” by Mohammad Al Murr, “A White Heron” and “A Dunnet Shepherdess” by Sarah Orne Jewett and all the Jungle Book stories by Rudyard Kipling

Foodways and Literature – Food Stories and Poems

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I teach literature classes but my most recent book is on foodways, which might seem like two dissimilar topics but food is omnipresent in poems, stories and dramas so my students and I often have conversations that include foodways, literature and cultural differences. Explaining a reference to Persephone in a poem led to my telling the story of Demeter/ Ceres, which led to a conversation about cereals.

Sometimes I focus simply to the vocabulary aspect: explicating “civil as an orange/ and something of that jealous complexion” in Much Ado about Nothing or “cucumber sandwiches”  and “sugar tongs” in The Importance of Being Earnest. But occasionally food takes center stage as with the fishing with a sword scene in Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Princess Sunshine when the question of ‘who makes dinner’ helps carry the theme of the play. Another food-centered example is the dual breakfast scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. On our first run-through, it’s simply a confusing jumble of random statements. But when we have read it a few times and then ‘perform’ it with one student per character, the beauty (and sadness) of that section shine through. Students often remark, “it’s like that at my home.”

Some stories show cultural similarities, such as Laura bringing food to the widow in Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” but they can also show differences. Unlike in Oman, only Laura visits the house (not with her mother and older sister) and she only stays a brief time.

Another Mansfield story “The Doll’s House” uses food to give insights into the social standing of the schoolgirls – having a sandwich with meat shows wealth while a jam sandwich wrapped in newspaper points to poverty. Similarly, the social niceties observed in the dining room at the beginning of Room with a View preview the theme of the novel. Who sits at which table reveals the hierarchies which Lucy will eventually break.

Food issues can even be the comic element of a story as with Elizabeth Gaskell’s magnificent Cranford with its details of manage your cook, take care of your cow and why you should eat your orange in your room (so you can roll it under your bed to check if anyone is hiding there and then slurp the orange sections in private).

Food essays are also wonderful for sparking good student writing. “Jam” and “A Thing Shared” from The Gastronomical Me  by M. F. K. Fisher, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” by Alice Walker are great example texts to help students see how to write about their own food experiences.

As for poems about food, we have to start with

“Talk,” Gökhan Tok

You never hear it

but at breakfast the sweetest talk

is between the jam and the honey.

and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful “Arabic Coffee,” “My Father and the Fig Tree,” “Sifter,” “The Traveling Onion” and “The Tray.” For more, please see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye and https://poets.org/poet/naomi-shihab-nye

Other poems include:

  • “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost
  • “The Angler,” Thomas Buchanan Read
  • “The Bean-Stalk,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Blackberry-Picking,” Seamus Heaney
  • “Coolness of the Melons,” Matsuo Basho
  • “Cynddylan on a Tractor,” R.S. Thomas
  • “The [Date] Palm Tree,” Adnan Mohsin
  • “The Fisherman,” Goethe
  • “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee
  • “I Return to the Place I was Born,” T’ao Yuan Ming
  • “Love Poem With Toast,” Miller Williams
  • “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost
  • “The Solitary Reaper,” William Wordsworth
  • “Sorry I Spilled It,” Shel Silverstein
  • “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” Marge Piercy

A few food-oriented short stories include: “A Dash of Light” by Ibrahim Aslan, “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour, “A Cup of Tea” by  Katherine Mansfield and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, as well as several by Mohammed al Murr including “A Late Dinner,” “The Night’s Catch,” “Look After Yourself” and my favorite: “Dinner by Candlelight.”

y - morning coffee