The Macbeth of animals

bear

Say my name!

Actors performing in Macbeth will never, out of superstition, say the name of the play.  Instead they call it “The Scottish Play”.

In similar vein the wizards of the Harry Potter novels refer to their great enemy as “You know who” or “He who must not be named” because to speak the name Voldemort gives it power.

There is a tradition in Celtic society of refusing to give power to a beast by giving it its name.  If a village was terrified by an animal, real or mythical, they would name it “the beast” or “the monster” until it was slain.  Only when dead could they give name to the beast.

Which brings us to the Bear.  You may think you know the bear but in truth you do not.  So terrifying was the bear to primitive society that people would not speak it’s name.  Instead they called it simply “the brown one”.

So successful was this refusal to say the name of the beast that we no longer know the name.  “Bear” simply means “brown one”.

The Two Bears; by Hafiz

Once
after a hard day forage
two bears sat together in silence
on a beautiful vista
watching the sun go down
and feeling deeply grateful
for life.

Though, after a while
a thought-provoking conversation began
which turned to the topic of
fame.

The one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
and travels from city to city
in a golden cage;

He performs for hundreds of people
who laugh and applaud
his carnival stunts.

The other bear thought for
a few seconds
then started
weeping.

 

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Grandfather Africa

Tatamkulu Afrika translates from Xhosa as Grandfather Africa.  It is the nom de plume of Mogamed Fu’ad Nasif who was born in Egypt on this day in 1920.  His initial publications were under what he called his Methodist name; John Carlton.  This was the name given to him by his Foster parents in South Africa after his Egyptian father and Turkish mother died of the flu.

That would have been the global pandemic Spanish flu which took people in the prime of their lives and left behind the aged and infirm and the small children.

He went back to the land of his birth in WW2 and fought in the North African campaign, was captured in Tobruk.

After the war he moved to South West Africa, now modern Namibia, and became Jozua Joubert when fostered by an Afrikaans family.

In 1964 he converted to Islam and became Ismail Joubert.

He moved to Cape Town and was active in protests against the whitewashing of District 6 under the apartheid regime.  His Egyptian/Turkish heritage permitted Joubert to classify as a white.  He refused.

Grandfather Africa was given to him as an honorific, as the Indians named Mohandas Gandhi “Bapu” and “Mahatma”.  But he was not the pacifist the Indian was.  He was imprisoned along side Prisoner 46664 for 11 years for terrorism, so maybe we should say that his was a Chimurenga name?

Egypt, Libya, Namibia and South Africa, the name fits.

afrika1

 

Nothing’s Changed; by Tatamkulu Afrika

Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
seeding grasses thrust bearded seeds
into trouser cuffs, cans,
trodden on, crunch
in tall, purple-flowering,
amiable weeds.

of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.

Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.

No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.

I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass,
linen falls,
the single rose.

Down the road,
working man’s cafe sells
bunny chows.
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it’s in the bone.

I back from the glass,
boy again,
leaving small, mean O
of small, mean mouth.
Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Nothing’s changed.

Montgisard

Schlacht_von_Montgisard_2

The Battle of Montgisard, 1177, by Charles Philippe Larivière

In the film “Kingdom of Heaven” the masked Baldwin IV, dying of leprosy, reminisces on a great victory in battle when he was only 16 years old.  That victory was genuine.  It was the battle of Montgisard, on this day in the year 1177.

Saladin led his Mameluke army from Egypt to attack a Crusader Castle, possibly Blanchegarde on Tell es-Safi near Ramla.

Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem,  Raynald of Châtillon, Bailan of Ibelin and the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Odo de St Amand all featured and you will hear these names bandied about in the movie, but beware the poetic licence taken by Ridley Scott with the characters.

The truth is that an outnumbered army of Christian knights prevailed and drove Saladin out of the Holy Land.  Saladin returned to Egypt with only one tenth of his force.  It was a disastrous defeat for him.

It took ten years for Saladin to get his revenge at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187.

Unpicking the details it seems that Saladin sent a detachment of his forces to bottle Baldwin up in Ashkelon and mistakenly thought he had neutralised that threat.  Believing himself in control Saladin permitted his forces to break up to pillage the country and forage for supplies.  Recent rains caused a stream to flood and his baggage train became enmired in the crossing.

When the Christian knights appeared the Mameluke army was in disarray.  Many of them charged back to the baggage train to retrieve weapons.  The Christian army brought out the relic of the true cross.  Baldwin IV dismounted and prayed before it for strength from God.  He rose to the accolade of his troops, his leprosy bandaged, and charged the Muslim army.  Saladin, it is said, escaped only because he had a racing camel at his disposal.

The Crusaders; by Edward George Dyson

What price yer humble, Dicko Smith,
in gaudy putties girt,
with sand-blight in his optics, and much
leaner than he started,
round the ‘Oly Land cavorting in three-
quarters of a shirt,
and imposin’ on the natives ez one Dick
the Lion ‘Earted?

We are drivin’ out the infidel, we’re hittin’
up the Turk,
same ez Richard slung his right across the
Saracen invader
in old days of which I’m readin’. Now
we’re gettin’ in our work,
‘n’ what price me nibs, I ask yeh, ez a
qualified Crusader!

‘Ere I am, a thirsty Templar in the fields of
Palestine,
where that hefty little fighter, Bobby
Sable, smit the heathen,
and where Richard Coor de Lion trimmed
the Moslem good ‘n’ fine,
‘n’ he took the belt from Saladin, the
slickest Dago breathin’.

There’s no plume upon me helmet, ‘n’ no red
cross on me chest,
‘n’ so fur they haven’t dressed me in a
swanking load of metal;
We’ve no ‘Oly Grail I know of, but we do
our little best
with a jamtin, ‘n’ a billy, ‘n’ a battered
ole mess kettle.

Quite a lot of guyver missin’ from our brand
of chivalry;
We don’t make a pert procession when
we’re movin’ up the forces;
We’ve no pretty, pawin’ stallion, ‘n’ no
pennants flowin’ free,
‘n’ no giddy, gaudy bedquilts make a
circus of the ‘orses.

We ‘most always slip the cattle ‘n’ we cut out
all the dog
when it fairly comes to buttin’ into battle’s
hectic fever,
goin’ forward on our wishbones, with our
noses in the bog,
‘n’ we ‘eave a pot iv blazes at the cursed
unbeliever.

Fancy-dress them old Crusaders wore,
and alwiz kep’ a band.
What we wear’s so near to nothin’ that it’s
often ‘ardly proper,
and we swings a tank iv iron scrap across
the ‘Oly Land
from a dinkie gun we nipped ashore the
other side of Jopper.

We ain’t ever very natty, for the climate here
is hot;
When it isn’t liquid mud the dust is thicker
than the vermin.
Ten to one our bold Noureddin is some wad-
dlin’ Turkish pot,
‘n’ the Saladin we’re on to is a snortin’
red-eyed German.

But be’old the eighth Crusade, ‘n’ Dicko
Smith is in the van,
Dicko Coor de Lion from Carlton what
could teach King Dick a trifle,
for he’d bomb his Royal Jills from out his
baked-pertater can,
or he’d pink him full of leakage with a
quaint repeatin’ rif1e.

We have sunk our claws in Mizpah, and
Siloam is in view.
By my ‘alidom from Agra we will send the
Faithful reelin’!
Those old-timers botched the contract, but we
mean to put it through.
Knights Templars from Balmain, the Port,
Monaro, Nhill, andl Ealin’.

We ‘are wipin’ up Jerus’lem; we were ready
with a hose
spoutin’ lead, a dandy cleaner that you bet
you can rely on;
And Moss Isaacs, Cohn, and Cohen, Moses,
Offelbloom ‘n’ those
can all pack their bettin’ bags, and come
right home again to Zion.

 

The Spartan General

Monty

Colonel Montgomery accidentally caught in Churchill Photograph

Born on this day in 1887 Bernard Law Montgomery was a hero of two world wars.

Son of an Ulster-Scots Church of Ireland Reverend Minister from Inishowen in Donegal.  Born in Surrey and grew up in Tasmania where his father was appointed as Bishop.

When he attended military college he was almost expelled for “rowdiness and violence”

He was already an adjutant in the British Army when WW1 broke out.  He fought in the famous retreat from Mons and was shot in one lung.  He recovered and returned to duty to fight again at Arras and Passchendaele.  He finished the war with a rank of lieutenant colonel and it was in this capacity that he was caught in the photograph above in a prophetic juxtaposition with Winston Churchill.

He married Betty Carver in 1927, widow of an Olympic Athlete who died in WW1, mother of two sons.  She had a moderating effect on Montgomery, smoothing out the negatives in his character, his violence, his intractability, his single mindedness.  The qualities that made him a successful battle commander did not serve him well in the 20’s and 20’s.  She helped him greatly to advance his peacetime career.

In a tragic set of circumstances she died of an infected insect bite that gave her blood poisoning and she died in his arms, leaving him grief stricken.

When WW2 commenced Montgomery immediately demonstrated his fitness as a battle commander.  He retreated from France with his command intact, ordering a night time march to reach Dunkirk, and returning to Britain with minimal casualties.

His abrasive manner ruffled feathers at military command and he was openly and frankly critical of the command of the BEF.  He had a reputation for physical and mental toughness and insisted on the physical fitness of all his men, including the senior officers.  He was ruthless in sacking men he saw as unfit to command.

When Winston Churchill sought a commander to replace Auchinleck in North Africa he was convinced to select Montgomery.  His transformation of the 8th Army and his defeat of Rommel at 2nd El Alamein are the stuff of legend.

From then on the march of Monty was the March of Britain.  Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, until he tarnished the polish of his legend in Arnhem with that Bridge Too Far in Operation Market Garden.  Had he succeeded Monty could have ended the war a year earlier.  But perhaps not.

Peace time was not good for Montgomery with no understanding wife to iron out his worst tendencies.  He upset many with his memoirs of the war and even faced legal challenges to what he wrote.  He demonstrated himself as the worst kind of bigot with his stances on issues such as apartheid and homosexuality.

 

Montgomery: by A.P. Herbert

Field Marshal, few, and foolish, are the lands
that do not hail the baton in your hands.
They labelled you a ‘showman’. But we know
good showmen must have something good to show:
One does not capture by the showman’s art
the people’s confidence, the soldier’s heart.
They said you were ‘eccentric’. We could do
with several abnormalities like you:
It needs a not quite ordinary man
to start at Alamein and take Sedan.
Master of craft, and horror of the Huns,
one hundred salvos from a thousand guns!
September 3, 1944

Monty2

Normandy 1944 at the height of fame.

 

Perils of translation

Pomegranate

I came across this translation of a poem:

YOUR FACE AND THE TOLLING OF BELLS; by Ayten Mutlu

it was just like spring to laugh with you
and to touch the chimes of your face
lecherous and tranquil like a naked pomegranate

your face was the intimations of forenoon

at the meeting place of autumn
in the closed seas of your face
the birds flew like poisoned arrows
the summer blindfolded at the bottom of a wall

what is left of your face, a rusty shadow
the receding forest, the flower in mourning
pieces of broken glass the colours of spring

how do birds get accustomed to losing a sky?

ah, I’m late in getting to know the rain
like a naked pomegranate I am defeated and offended
where like the deteriorating autumn your old face
vanished with the tolling of the bells
(Translated by Suat Karantay)
(The Turkish PEN, 1995)

You can translate a poem but can you translate the meaning?  From this poem I will take one symbol, the “naked pomegranate”.  Coming from Ireland we have no symbology associated with this fruit.  It made an appearance every year at halloween as an exotic,  something out of the ordinary.  Most Dubliners called it a “Wine Apple”.

In more recent years the pomegranate has been more widely available and has crept in to a more regular role as an ingredient or a garnish in cookbooks.  But it has no deep meaning for us.

If you speak to people educated in the classics they may remember the tale of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who was whipped off by Hades to his kingdom where she ate six seeds of a Pomegranate and hence we are condemned to 6 months of growth and 6 of death and winter was born.  This Greek tale begins to hint at a deeper symbology to the fruit.  The fact that the seeds represent a calendar, a marker of time or age.

The symbology of the pomegranate in the middle east runs very deep.  Because the tree is evergreen it was used as a symbol of immortality by the ancient Persians.  I can imagine middle eastern children playing a game of counting the seeds of a fruit to represent the years of their life.

Iranian mythology celebrates the ancient hero Esfandiyar who is easily a match for the DC Comics or Marvel superheros.  In one tale he eats a pomegranate and gains super strength like an ancient version of Popeye with his spinach.

The pomegranate appears in ancient Jewish architecture as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.  The fruit was one of the seven species brought by the 12 spies to Moses as proof of the fertility of Canaan.  It has been used as a teaching tool by Rabbis who say the fruit contains the number of mitzvot, 613.

Islam adopted the Jewish symbology of fertility.  Muslims consider the tree one of the four holy fruits along with dates, figs and olives and they depict it in representations of the garden of Eden.

In modern day Turkey as part of new year celebrations a pomegranate is cracked on the floor in a blessing ritual for prosperity in the coming year.  At wedding a bride may be asked to throw a whole pomegranate on the floor and will bear as many children as the seeds that fall out.

The Prophet Mohammed told his wives to eat the fruit so they would bear beautiful children.  From this hadith arises the notion that the fruit is a symbol of beauty.

So when the Ayten Mutlu speaks of a naked pomegranate in her poem she brings a rich weight of symbology of the fruit as a marker for beauty and for the hope of a new beginning and the disappointment of the declining of a life in the winter of years.

Unless you come from the Middle East, or do a lot of research into symbology, it is very difficult to grasp the meaning the poet is trying to convey.  Language and culture erect barriers that are very difficult for the translator to surmount.  Google can translate words, it takes a poet to translate meaning.

Ayten Mutlu is a Turkish Academic, Poet, Writer and Women’s rights activist.  Born this day in 1952.

The missing Menorah

Titus.png

On this day in AD 70 the siege of Jerusalem ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, son of Vespasian, at the head of a Roman army.

According to the historian Josephus the Menorah of the temple was taken as spoils of war and brought back to Rome.  It was carried in the Triumphal Procession of Vespasian and Titus and is recorded on the Arch of Titus.

Using the spoils taken from Jerusalem Vespasian constructed the Templum Pacis, the temple of peace in the Forum of Vespasian.  The Menorah was stored in the temple for hundreds of years until the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 AD.

The Vandals brought the Menorah back with them to their capital in Carthage, in the Roman African province, modern day Tunisia.

One hundred years later the Vandals had become soft from living on the fat of the land.  Their armies were no longer the terror of the western Mediterranean.  Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire sent his favourite general, Belisarius, to retake Africa for Rome.  In 533 AD Belisarius defeated the armies of King Gelimer and his brothers.

According to the historian Procopius the Menorah was found amongst the treasures of the Vandals and was taken to Constantinople.  It was displayed in the Ovation given by Justinian to his victorious general.  Gelimer was prostrated before the Emperor, and was allowed to live out his life on a Roman estate.

According to Procopius Justinian gave the Menorah back to the Jews in Jerusalem.  On the one hand it is hard to believe that such an ardent Christian emperor would have given this treasure to people he regarded as little short of heretics.  On the other hand he may have looked at the fate of the Second Temple, Rome and Carthage and wondered if he really wanted to keep the Menorah in his capital.

Whatever the truth this is the end of the tale for the Menorah.  It is never seen again.  Some say it is hidden in the Vatican City and the Vandals never found it.  Others say it was looted from Jerusalem when the Persians sacked the city in 614 AD.  Some think it was in a ship that sank in the Tibur when the Vandals were leaving Rome and that it lies at the bottom of the sea outside Ostia.  Others think it was still in Jerusalem during the Crusades and was taken by the Knights Templar.  Whatever the truth it is a tempting theme for a “Da Vinci Code” style adventure, or a new quest for Indiana Jones.

Psalm III : by Allen Ginsberg
To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.
Let Occidental and Washington be transformed into a higher place, the plaza of eternity.
Illuminate the welders in shipyards with the brilliance of their torches.
Let the crane operator lift up his arm for joy.
Let elevators creak and speak, ascending and descending in awe.
Let the mercy of the flower’s direction beckon in the eye.
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness — to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness — to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Let Puget Sound be a blast of light.
I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.

 

Imagine being a pea?

Syria

An evacuated Syrian girl looks out of the broken window of a bus.

In this summer heatwave I appreciate the sentiment of Robert Graves, born this day 1895.  An English writer, son of an Irish poet of the Gaelic Revival.  Robert is best known for his novel “I, Claudius”.

 

Give us rain; by Robert Graves

‘Give us Rain, Rain,’ said the bean and the pea,
‘Not so much Sun,
Not so much Sun.’
But the Sun smiles bravely and encouragingly,
and no rain falls and no waters run.

‘Give us Peace, Peace,’ said the peoples oppressed,
‘Not so many Flags,
Not so many Flags.’
But the Flags fly and the Drums beat, denying rest,
and the children starve, they shiver in rags.