“If You Get There Before I Do,” Dick Allen

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

“If You Get There Before I Do,” Dick Allen

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,

and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards

lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around

and look out the back windows first.

I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines

leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer

of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,

I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,

only a General Store. You passed it coming in,

but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump

along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.

If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,

that state where people are folded into the mountains

like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there

is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate

on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators

and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,

or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many

take small steps into what they never do,

the first weeks, the first lessons,

until they choose something other,

beginning and beginning their lives,

so never knowing what it’s like to risk

last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,

or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.

That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget

to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times

just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing

make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,

the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:

In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break

who had followed the snows for seven years and planned

on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,

to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find

Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,

as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,

old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.

You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed

when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually

you lose your bearings,

your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,

until finally it’s invisible—what old age rehearses us for

and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.

Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,

the long middle passage done,

fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the

checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,

out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,

pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,

then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,

until you tell them all—the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,

those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses—

that I’m allowed,

and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,

I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.


Billy Collins’ “The Function of Poetry”

“The Function of Poetry” by Billy Collins

I woke up early on a Tuesday,
made a pot of coffee for myself,
then drove down to the village,
stopping at the post office
then the bank where I cashed a little check
from a magazine, and when I got home
I read some of the newspaper
starting with the science section
and had another cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal.

Pretty soon, it was lunchtime.
I wasn’t at all hungry
but I paused for a moment
to look out the big kitchen window,
and that’s when I realized
that the function of poetry is to remind me
that there is much more to life
than what I am usually doing
when I’m not reading or writing poetry.

New essay: “Za” on the Arabic Alphabet website

“Za is for Saffron” by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi



Za is for Saffron

Za and Ra come from different ancestors, though you wouldn’t guess it from their appearance. Today only the dot distinguishes them. This was not always the case.

Among the letters which don’t connect on the left (Za is our fourth), there are other family connections you wouldn’t ordinarily see. It is a tangled genealogy. Today Ra and Za look like twins, except for the dot over Za, but in Nabataean, the R sound had a different twin. R was represented by a letter pretty much identical to the one which represented the sound of D. (Both looked like an inverted capital Roman L.) The Z sound was at that time a simple vertical stroke. None of the three had a dot. Gradually the shapes of Dal and Ra grew apart, who knows why, Dal with the sharper angle, while Ra grew smoother and began to sit lower on the line. Meanwhile Ra and Za converged. Sometime around the fourth century, Za and Ra became the look-alikes, too close for practical use. There was a separation, and Za got the dot. Then both shapes, Za and Ra, developed, thanks to the reed pen, the identical curved bodies we see today.

There is probably some scientific principle to explain the evolution of letters from one form to another, why one rotates 90 degrees, lengthens, thickens or bends. Perhaps the changes are arbitrary, or perhaps there is a process of natural selection, in which the most useful ones, the most legible, the easiest to distinguish, or the most beautiful, survive. The reed pen exerted its shaping power. As Islam spread, and there were frequent occasions to treat letters with respect, in calligraphy, inscriptions, seals and written prayers, the most beautiful (or malleable) were the survivors.

Zayn in Arabic means beauty. For years I thought that in Arabic Zayn was the name of the letter. (It isn’t.) Way back, as far back as the evidence goes, the Phoenician ancestor of Za, something like a capital H on its side, had a name (Zayin, in Phoenician “weapon,” evidently a sword). The current shape has lost the name, but it looks more like a sword.

continued at:  http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/za/

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)


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.

Anne Meneley, research on Yemen

(photo of Sarfait, close to the Dhofar border with Yemen, taken by M. A. Al Awaid)

I was so pleased that Anne Meneley came to the session on “Social Attitudes Toward Food and Eating” at the recent Just Food conference. It was her work on ‘food and morality’ that helped me start to think about the connections between food and ethical behavior in Dhofar. Although her research focus has moved beyond Yemen (see below) I would like to list four publications which have greatly helped me in understanding Southern Arabia.

Meneley, Anne. 2017. “The Zabidi House,” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill my Eye. Trevor Marchand, ed. London: Gingko Library. 195–203.

—. 2011. “Food and Morality in Yemen,” in Food: Ethnographic Encounters. Leo Coleman, ed. New York: Berg. 17-29.

—. 2007. “Fashions and Fundamentalisms in Fin-De-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks.” Cultural Anthropology 22.2: 214–243.

—. 1996.  Tournaments of Value: Sociability and Hierarchy in a Yemeni Town. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Re-released on the 10th and 20th anniversary of publication – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1436862.Tournaments_of_Value

Selected publications from her website:


2020  Anthropology News, 29 June 2020 The Distance of a Hockey Stick, Pandemic Insights.

2020a Hope in the Ruins: Seeds, Plants, and Possibilities of Regeneration. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, online.

2020b The Olive and Imaginaries of the Mediterranean. History and Anthropology 31 (1):66-83.

2019 Walk This Way: Fitbit and Other Kinds of Walking in Palestine. Cultural Anthropology 34(1):130-154.

2018 Consumerism. Annual Review of Anthropology 47:117-32.

2017 The Zabidi House. Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill My Eye. Ed. Trevor H.J. Marchand, pp. 194-203. London: Gingko Library.

2016 Checking Your Waistline at the Checkpoint: Dieting as a Peace Initiative. Jerusalem Quarterly 68:90-103.

2014a The Accidental Pilgrims: Olive Pickers in Palestine. Religion and Society: Advances in Research 5: 186-199.

2014b Resistance is Fertile! The Re-invention of Food: Connection and Mediation, Cristina Grasseni and Heather Paxson, guest editors. Special Edition of Gastronomica Vol. 14(4):70-79.

2014c The Qualities of Palestinian Olive Oil in Fat: Culture and Materiality, Christopher E. Forth and Alison Leitch, eds. pp. 17-31. New York: Bloomsbury.

2014d Discourses of Distinction in Contemporary Palestinian Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Production. Food and Foodways 22 (1-2): 48-64.

2014e Comment on Andrew Bevan’s “Mediterranean Containerism.” Current Anthropology 55 (4):408-409.

2011 Blood, Sweat and Tears in a Bottle of Palestinian Olive Oil.  Food, Culture and Society 14 (2): 275-290.

2011 Food and Morality in Yemen.  In Food: Ethnographic Encounters.  Editor, Leo Coleman.  New York: Berg. Pp. 17-29.

2008 Time in a Bottle: The Uneasy Circulation of Palestinian Olive Oil.  Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Fall 248:18-23.

2007 Fashion and Fundamentalisms in Fin de Siècle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks. Cultural Anthropology 22:214-243.

2003 Scared Sick or Silly?  Social Analysis 47(2):21-39.   Also reprinted in Illness and Irony.  M. Lambek and P. Antze, eds. 2004  New York: Berghahn.

1999 Goods and Goodness. Social Analysis 43(3):69-88.

1999 Introduction to “The Structuring of Subjectivities in Material Worlds.”  Social Analysis 43(3):1-5.

1998 Analogies and Resonances in the Process of Ethnographic Understanding.  Ethnos 63:202-226.

New essays about the Arabic Alphabet: Ba and Ta (by Michael Beard)

(illustration  by Houman Mortazavi)

Ba: http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/ba/

Peh: http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/peh/

Ta: http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/ta/

excerpt from “Ta is for Dragoman”

Ta is for the Arabic verb T-M-M tamma, to be complete. (Tamma, “it’s over.”) One verbal noun is the word tammâm, completion, perfection, the end, a word which readers of the first edition of FitzGerald’s Rubai‘yât of ‘Umar Khayyâm (1859) will see at the bottom of the page under the last poem, where he adds, without translation, “Tamám shud,” the Persian term for “It’s over,” “it’s complete,” “that’s all she wrote,” “finito,” “finis,” “khalâṣ,” “the end,” “ta ta.”

If we’re in this for the shape of the letters we should be ready for disappointment. Except for the dots, it’s just another saucer shape like Ba or Pa. Ta and Ba do not, however, come from the same ancestor. Ta (like the following letter, Tha) was, in an early Nabataean form, two vertical lines, one of which bends to touch the other, something like our lower-case “h.” In successive shapes it gets simpler and simpler, loses its visual identity, gives in to peer pressure, and assimilates to the shape of Ba, with nothing to distinguish it but the dots.

The two dots float side by side above the plate shape (or above the lip at the beginning of a word, or the little notch in the middle of one). In its terminal form two dots above the curved horizontal line seem a little like two eyes hovering over a narrow, wan smile. It would make a good emoticon.

Ta is one of the commonest prefixes in Arabic, and a common suffix as well, an alphabetical handyman who is likely to show up in any part of the word. At the end of a past tense verb (actually verb tenses in Arabic are complicated, but leave that to the experts), Ta can designate the first person. The same suffix can signal that the agent of a past-tense verb is feminine (object or person). In a present tense verb (present being, again, an approximate term) Ta at the beginning can mean it’s a second-person “you” who performs the action. The same prefix attached to a third-person verb signals feminine agent. For other reasons, independent of tense, it can show up in the middle of a word with no warning for the uninitiated reader.

Hard Worker

The new student of Arabic is greeted early on with a list of variations around the three consonants. The stem D-R-S, “to write,” in default form is darasa, “he studied” or “learned.” Double the middle consonant (i.e. darrasa) and we have the second form, “he caused to learn,” or “he taught.” Lengthen the first vowel, and it’s dârasa, “to study.” (There are seven other potential forms that I know of, not our subject.) That second form, darrasa, has a verbal noun with a Ta prefix, tadrîs, “learning,” “instruction.”

Arabic dictionaries are alphabetized by verbal stem, so Ta often just gets in the way. You see the word tadrîs and you may want to look it up: you won’t find it under Ta, but under Dâl, for D-R-S. Pick up a passage of Arabic and we see Ta words everywhere on the page, but most of them are prefixes. Actual Ta words take up only thirteen pages (out of 1301) of the Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary. It’s different in Persian or Turkish dictionaries, where the Arabic verbal nouns are heard as separate loan words and listed under Tay, so that all those Ta prefixes look like separate words, and the Ta entries in Persian or Turkish dictionaries go on for a while.

Tatmîm, “completion,” comes from a Ta verb, T-M-M. Taḥqiq, “research,” comes from a stem Ḥ-Q-Q, “to be correct.” (The noun Haqq, “truth,” is a family member.) The stem which gives us the Arabic numeral “one,” W-Ḥ-D, as a number is wâḥid. Tawḥîd means “unity,” but in a religious sense “belief in the oneness of God,” “profession of faith,” one of the five pillars of Islam.