The Meaning of Martyr


Is calling someone a martyr simply a way of mourning or does it have symbolic power to fuel cycles of aggression and violence?

I think of that Pakistani girl on HONY who called her father a martyr after he disappeared.

But what about those Palestinian youth, whose bodies are paraded across the West Bank after coming into conflict with the Israeli military? Their faces are plastered on posters across the street while others in similar marginalized circumstances watch with sympathy for their dead brother/sister’s cause.

Mourning or symbols of defiance and/or violence?

I think, ultimately, calling someone a martyr is a way of rationalizing anger and frustration. For some it is just a way to mourn the individual’s death, to find solace in some religious notion of them now ‘being with God’ and sticking up for their beliefs.

But when that personal mourning crosses the line into the symbolic realm, anyone can add their meaning to it. That includes cults and extremists, along with grieving mothers and fathers.

The word martyr is a melting pot of meaning that is being disseminated to rouse up different opinions and agendas. A martyr for Islamic extremism, a martyr against American imperialism, a martyr for so called ‘justice’…

*  *  *

Following the Paris attacks, I am outraged.

I understand the apologist’s stance. We have had expert after expert suggest that in a globalized world the conflict in the Middle East is not contained in a border and that every action (increased aggression and spheres of influence in the ME) provokes a reaction.

But I also understand the response of Western states–by bending to policy changes we forgo a standard of Ethics (capital E ethics here, bye bye relativism) and undermine a nation’s sphere of influence for good (and bad). Of course Islamic extremists undeniably detest Western spheres of influence. I get it. Colonial and post-colonial aggression has fucked up a lot of histories and aspirations for nationhood/power. I understand all of these viewpoints.

But a new day cannot occur when we continually have the scars and memories of history etched on our backs and implode them like violent bombs on the innocent. To forget past grievances is not weakness. It is strength, it shows that you care enough about creating a peaceful new day.

Of course, I’m not trying to convert extremists to rethink their stance in this piece of writing (although I do believe pen is mightier than both the sword and machine gun).

I’m reaching out the apologists. I’ve been one, I know some, I’ve encountered others in academic discussions. My case is spawned by a simple understanding. No one should have an AK47 pointed to their head, or be blown up mid-air on a plane, or have the person sitting them blow themselves up in a suicide bombing– in France, America, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, or Syria.

No one is a martyr in such a situation. Not the victims or the culprits.

Just dead.

I’m heartbroken, honestly. Not because the Paris attacks happened on Western soil, as so many social media critics seem to imply is the only reason for our collective grief. (This is not a white/black or West/East issue. It was not just French nationals who died.) Our response to this atrocity is not “selective grief” or a display of “Western privileged”–those who suggest so are grossly mis-applying these words and claim to have a monopoly on how others should grieve. I am not willfully blind to the suffering of those around the world. Mourning for Paris does not dismiss or undermine the mourning done by individuals/communities in geographies beyond Europe. I suppose media bias exists in how news outlets focus on terrorism in the West, but it only has an affect if you believe that the images presented on your TV screen are the only valid or true representations of a region or point in time (which I think most people understand to not be the case).

*  *  *

Overall, I’m sad that we continue to let a lethal ideology exist and we don’t challenge it intellectually, where ever we are in the world (especially those of us in Near East studies disciplines). Don’t be an apologist for terror, you can rationalize it, you can understand it’s cause, but don’t support lines of reasoning that accept or enable it.

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Some disclaimers:

I told myself I would not posts rants when I started this blog. But recently I think rants can sometimes capture an emotion that I was feeling.

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Love poems by a (semi) Romantic


Gravity

In a crowded room
You are a mass
that bends the cool concrete floor
So that my mass
Is pulled towards you
And rotates about you
In a crowded room.

I see vulnerability in your eyes,
A desire to say the right things,
To withhold your true self.

But you forget that
I love you in concept
From young to old
From girlfriend to girlfriend
Between time and space.

I am a weak force
But ever present.

 

Would you classify this as a poem nodding its head towards the Classics or the Romantics? I sense a bit of both, but I think I’m mostly a hopeless Romantic when it comes to Gravity.

La Pieta Reincarnated


If Michelangelo had known that his famous statue of Mary holding the withered body of her son would become an image that would be both consciously and unconsciously recreated throughout time, in many different iterations, then I think he would have tried to scribble is name on the statue in a much more grandiose fashion. 1

La Pieta, Rome

I first realized the significance of this piece of art to the modern world while watching the movie “Children of Men” (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006). While the world crumbles in conflict due to mass infertility in the human race, an art collector becomes obsessed with preserving canonical works, one of the pieces being La Pieta (apparently it had been “smashed up” before he could save it).

Estranged and removed from reality, we see La Pieta being discussed in a crisp white gallery, admired simply for its intrinsic aesthetic value. A collector’s item rather than an image with political prowess.

But outside the white walls of the gallery, buildings are being bombed, wars are being decided, and mothers are holding onto sons.

The film highlights the disconnect between art and reality—hollow statues are protected from harm’s way while warm flesh with pumping hearts and pulsing veins are forced to find some kind of holy resurrection on the streets.

But the film also captures the continuity between art and reality–the notion that if we choose to look closely we might find that life in fact imitates art.

This ‘life imitates art’ sentiment has been exploited by war photographer who understand that the flash of their camera and the arranging of pixels can rouse nations and popular opinion. Consider this photo of the conflict in Darfur, Sudan from the October 4, 2004 issue of Time Magazine:

TIME Magazine Cover: The Tragedy of Sudan -- Oct. 4, 2004

–>Here is a link to an important political counterpoint to the use of this image in contemporary times. It is a reaction to the World Press Photo Award in 2012, which I think captures some of the important questions we should ask when faced with such a symbolic image: <http://politicstheoryphotography.blogspot.ca/2012/02/uses-of-pieta-criticisms-of-world-press.html&gt;

But back to Michelangelo’s La Pieta.

I was at St. Peters Basilica during the month of September and after walking through the Vatican Museum I had seen my fair share of idealized male statutes for the day. But in St. Peters Basilica I found a humbling experience. Tucked away to your right upon entering, Michelangelo’s statue stands like a tiny ornament on an elaborative Christmas tree.

The body of Christ looked withered, as if he had been washed from up from the Mediterranean Sea into the Roman capital and onto the lap of Mary.

A divine union no doubt.

And I could not help but think of the Syrian boy whose body had washed up onto Turkish shores after his family had tried to flee Syria  earlier this year.

And in that moment, staring at La Pieta, I saw an image that can shake the body politic and change the way things were being done.

If we let it.

Michelangelo couldn’t have realized that the image of Madonna and Son that he worked hard to transform would outlive his name. It has yet to be ‘smashed up.’

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1Michelangelo is known to have printed his name on Mary’s sash to remind his artistic competitors who the true designer was (see: https://100swallows.wordpress.com/2009/01/03/the-pieta-michelangelos-first-masterpiece/ ). It was his first commissioned sculpture and he very much wanted the image to be tied to his name.

Mad Scientist Paints a Portrait


Untitled

“You say you have Turkish and Kurdish ancestry?”

“Yes,” I reply. “It is distant though. My mother, she’s mostly French as far as I know. My father grew up in France but his great grandparents were Turkish and Kurdish. I’m not sure which great grandparent claimed which title.” In fact I never asked.

“Interesting,” he said patting his grey mop like hair down as he looked into my eyes, presumably looking at his own reflection in my dark irises.

“I too am of unconventional birth. You see my mother was a great scientist who improved telecommunication systems for the Americans during WWII. Janette Walterstein, have you heard of her?”

“Never.”

“Ah well, so many are lost in our memory of history. Anyways she married a man named Jesus Secondton and in 1967 they had me.”

“Jesus,” I said aloud. “1967? How have you survived so long?”

I knew that the new organ creation program promised to extend life beyond previous scientific limits but I did not expect such results.

“Yes, well, I have connections you see,” he pointed over at the faces of his graduating class picture, a number of whom were the creators of the Extend-Life program.

“1967 was a formidable year. My parents were taking the high road along the rainbow train when I emerged from the watery trail that always pre-exists the rainbow.”

He said this with deep nostalgia, as if he had somehow experienced what life was like before his birth in that formidable year of 1967.

“Huh, peculiar ancestry indeed.” I don’t know much about drug culture in the hippie era, but this talk of rainbows and the Second Jesus really did intrigue me.

“Well that’s enough chit chat. There is nothing about you or me that I cannot discover right here in this petri dish. You will have your complete portrait in two weeks sir.”

He took one last look at me, almost as if seeing me for the first time in our 10 minute encounter. But this moment was brief and fleeting, like our rehearsed anecdotal stories, reveling nothing too sensitive, too precise, or too debilitating.

*             *                *

Two weeks on the dot I received my self portrait by quantum mail. The message reads:

Dear Peter Shalize,

Your personalized 2083 portrait is now avaliable for preorder. Please take a look at the samples and send your request for order promptly.

I swipe my hand left to view the photos–a jester of interest and eagerness to see more in past times.

It was then that I understood the Mad Scientist.

The portrait was a rainbow train, vibrant in all sections of visible light. It revealed aspects about me in every helical rotation and replication sequence. It was alive, morphing, and changing– just as it was in the past and will continue to be in the future.

I see my parents too.

They are taking the high road between two coiled segments, entangled in the grasp of history and memory. On their heads I see what looks like a Beret.

With one step closer it looks like a Fez.

With two steps back it looks like an embroidered Kurdish turban.

And with three steps back I see the watery abyss.

A Visit to the Oracle: Sept 9, 2015


IMG_20150909_124002

9.9.2015

Too bad the treasury of Athena in Delphi can’t save the Greeks today.
In the old days, valuables were offered to the Gods here in exchange for heavenly ‘gifts’ and support. Today, no heavenly gifts are returned when something is offered. No Gods to hear the people’s woes. Just empty grey statues and stones, hollow and still, and simply enduring.

What kind of sacrifice has to be made? Who will guide Greece? Who will be its modern Pythia? IMG_20150909_120416

Shame and National Identity


For some, shame is their primary motivator. It may just be a cultural artifact or a mix of personal and familial psychological upbringing. Nothing inherently wrong with it.

But what happens when shame is transformed from being experienced at the personal level to being experienced at the national or transnational level? Does shame illicit a positive ‘let us remember but move forward’ attitude, a progressive liberal response? Or does shame beget conspiracy, a desire to bury the tragedy and erase history by engaging in a collectively agreed amnesia (one that also brings about the experience of catharsis and renewal)? Which is the most appropriate emotional response for personal/community/state-level reconciliation?

I tried to explore the relationship between shame and national/diasporic identity in two poems that I wrote about the Civil War in Sri Lanka a while back. My mother’s response during the closing of the war in 2009 motivated these poems. She had expressed to me her feelings of shame over the course of events that took place at the war’s end. Feelings of shame on all sides of the conflict–so much shame that she wished it would all be swept away by a tsunami. A personal fantasy that cannot, and probably should not, be actualized.

“Tsunami”

Wash it away,
Because shame is at bay.
Imagine the water rising,
In discrete, measurable steps,
As if climbing the selves of an infinite ladder,
And then plunging by the pull of gravity.

Imagine the force of this water,
Turning the people and the bones,
Into a homogeneous mixture,
Suspending them like electrons in a cloud.
Imagine this water filling into the lungs,
Diluting the shame,
And filtering the brain,
For memories to start anew.

*****

Sri Lanka 2009

The Mother Belly,
This must be it.
Sun. Sand. Sweat.
Sun that heats the skin,
Skin that pools the sweat,
Sweat that boils
The sand
And melts it
Like the heat contained
In a thousand cries,
A pitch that vibrates
The sand beneath the toes;
Excess movement
Creating excess sweat
Pooling in the belly
Keeping the pitch steady.

It is a finely crafted engine,
Not natural, though it may seem.
It was crafted by the historians.
–No. It was by those
Who read the history books,
Who thought the sweat could be concealed.
But the engine never stops,
It has outlived the limits of natural.

Black Privilege (?)


PRESENT May 1, 2015:

With the demonstrations and recent prosecution decision in Baltimore today, I thought I would reflect back on an old journal entry I made 2 years ago on what it may mean to have Black Privilege–what I imagine to be “the language of the unheard.” 

THOWBACK to 2013:

I’ve been a fan of Macklemore ever since Thrift Shop, like most people. Catchy, creative, and relatable. But I’ve recently listened to his song “White Privilege” and it has got me thinking about race-relations and the word privilege.

White privilege is access. Access to networks, to audiences, to a particular class. It means being marketable because your face has a certain historic breadth. Because you represent part of a cultural narrative–one that has led to conquests and contests.

Simply put, ‘white privilege’ is a term used to make us aware of the fact that we are historically entrenched bodies with particular advantages and disadvantages, regardless of the race or culture you identify with.

Today, the term ‘white privilege’ is often touted as a far too politically correct term, one that does not make its meaning clearly known. My problem with the term is that there is no clear meaningful action attached to it. For instance, by “checking your privilege” you are somehow supposed to act differently, you are expected to create the world in a different way than your ancestors or your ‘race’ has in the past, you are supposed to recognize the deep racial divides and work towards a far more egalitarian social order. All noble things, but it is easier said than done, and I suppose that is what troubles Macklemore too, given the fact that he is still rapping despite recognizing his privilege and ‘cultural appropriation.’ By transforming the term white privilege into personal burden, we forget that violent racism tends to be more institutional than personal.

If a particular historically entrenched racial experience is by default my experience, how exactly am I supposed to act differently? Where do I begin? How do I ‘make right’ at a state and legal level? 

In addition, what is the nature of race categories today anyway? How does a quarter Metis, a quarter German, and half Zulu Canadian man navigate his identity in the term white privilege? Maybe he doesn’t. Or maybe he does, having identified with one aspect of his identity more than another. Either way, contemporary experience of race is more complex than what the term white privilege and traditional race theory suggests.

But there are other ways that ‘white privilege’ rings increasingly important and true. At a state and legal level, performing a particular race will get you out of that speeding ticket, will prevent you from being harassed by the police force, will get you immediate service at any cash counter.

But I think too much of a focus on white privilege is counter productive in some ways. It amounts to understanding and accepting that we are historically tied bodies, but without understanding that we are also free thinking agents, creating history as we live.

So I propose something different. I suggest that there is also black “privilege.” This privilege isn’t always tied to financial wealth or power. But it is tied to the power of storytelling, narrative agency, and personal/family connections. We all have this “privilege” (black, white, brown, etc). Though alienation may be a common theme for some of these “under-privileged” groups, I think there can be community and positive growth in the experience of alienation. “Black privilege” means to say that you are not just a historical body, but an agent.

I’m not sure about how to think about ‘black privilege’ yet. I guess I need to do more reading on the subject. Because for me and for Macklemore:

Hiphop started off in a block that I’ve never been to

To counter act a struggle that I’ve never been through

If I think I understand just because I flow too

That means I’m not keeping it true, nope.

THOWBACK to 1968:

PRESENT May 1, 2015:

Thank God for the Arch Nemesis of Evolutionary Biology


I have been taking a macro-evolution class this semester and I had sort of a eureka moment in class the other day.

As most biologists do, my professor was explaining the evolution of the eye and it’s seeming ‘irreducible’ quality by contrasting it with the creationist argument, which supposes that the complex human eye could not have evolved from simpler forms because it would not function without one or more of its particular characters (in other words, a case for design). The argument why this is not so is not my concern here, what matters is that because creationists challenge evolutionary biologists, biologists have become better able to defend their logic, fill in their theoretical holes.

So there I was in class thinking, damn every powerful body has an arch nemesis. God has the Devil. America has terrorists (communists? zombies? ebola?). And evolutionary biology has creationists.

The world is at balance.

Thank God!