The retelling of history – a window on our own time

One of the interesting aspects of reading texts that deal with human history is what these texts tells us about our own time (or the time when they were originally written). Currently I’m reading Gender in the Early Medieval World. It consists of a number of essays written during the early 2000’s by different scholars, and they cover different aspects and themes.

The ‘world’ means, in this context, Europe proper and the Middle East. As the term ‘medieval’ generally is applied to the nations and cultures that succeeded the Roman empire this is an accurate term but to me the ‘world’ is rather larger than that, so that I think the editors show their Eurocentric world view.

Our present values also show through in the implicitly – maybe even unconsciously – made judgements on gender roles during the times discussed. Not that I disagree. But a value judgement is a value judgement, no more no less, and just as we perceive times past our time will in turn be looked down upon – there are no moral absolutes, just as there is no fixed path to civilisation, or an apex of said.

So, halfway through the book I feel like I’m watching a meta-philosophical argument trying to repair damages done by previous generations; putting salve and plasters on an academic agenda which has previously excluded the impact of the hidden society – e.g. those not male and politically and economically empowered – on the evolving cultures, societies and nations.

This willingness to see history as something more than an enumeration of years and important kings, masters and wars is interesting. When this approach was discussed in the 1970’s it was perceived as a Marxist agenda, and thus suspect. Or – this is at least what I remember from my years in compulsory school (from ages 7-15, at the time).

Just let’s hope that academia in general is ready for a more, let’s say, holistic approach to their topics. It is certainly long overdue.
If they manage academia might at last be of some relevance to the civil society.
(Not that this is what some of them remotely wants, but that is a whole another discussion.)

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Are you valuable enough to be worth some health care?

Some days ago the tabloids announced, in letter sizes reserved for wars and sex scandals, the glorious advent of lowered income tax. This is the second reduction in since this regime came to power.

Two days later my morning paper screamed ‘the counties are bankrupt’. For those of you who aren’t swedish citizens this means there are no more money for the health care centres or the hospitals. The hospitals in my county no longer accept referrals for orthopaedic conditions, meaning people with bad hips or feet or backs will have to manage on their own.

I am amazed that no one, not even the political opposition, has made the connection – lowered taxes = less money in the public coffers.

For most people the lowered tax rates means 100 SEK, or US$12, or UK£8.90, or €9.30, more in the wallet a month.

The argument is, of course, that people are intelligent and should be trusted with their own money. They should be granted the right to decide their own priorities. So. Do you want to buy an appendectomy or food this next year? Because those 100 SEK a month, 1200 SEK a year, will not suffice to pay for it.

The result is a society were only the well off will have their ailments treated, be it corrective surgery (as just now when my son had his tonsils removed, to treat his speech impediment) or of a more immediate character (like needing a hip replacement). The effects will be severe. The majority will have to live with their ailments and illnesses. They will be able to work less, and will earn even less money. The difference, the rift, if you will, between the classes will grow. Growing rifts often means instability. On a societal level, this is not preferable.

In the meantime the children and the old will have to pay a high price.

In harsh times people look out for themselves. So right now not enough people have realised this is not a win situation. Will they ever?

I’m not optimistic… Partly because there is no real political opposition to this particular trend – they all want this to happen, it seems.

The mindless reproduction of negative stereotypes

Today I received an image in the mail. It was sent by a female colleague and I know she meant no harm but personally I thought it a bit over the top.

Not that it was offending, in any way. It was a nominally harmless joke – the text “An international symbol for marriage has now been agreed upon”, attached to an airport sign style icon showing a dominating female at whose feet a subservient male kneels while offering the woman his credit card.

I can think of countless ways this symbol, with it’s byline, should be hilariously funny. So why don’t think that is the case?

My reasoning goes like this –

I think this a very common stereotype used between men. It’s a way for a man to joke at his own expense, to play down the emotional aspects of his relationship with his wife. Despite the fact that we look down our long noses on societies were marriage is not a matter of love but of economics and politics we on a societal and cultural level have inherent difficulties with admitting to being in some way ruled by feelings and emotions – we, as rational beings expect of ourselves to behave in entirely logical ways.

Also men, at least in the cultures and societies I have encountered, are supposed at the very least to be independent of women. But a relationship is a co-dependency. This adds to the need to play down the importance of the relationship.

I can understand this need to downplay. Very few are strong or single-minded enough to recognise or withstand these behavioural imperatives. What I don’t have much acceptance for is women who are complicit in enforcing their own subservience.

In this category I count women who complain endlessly how their men don’t help with washing the dishes or cleaning up the house but then deny them the right to help by complaining on how the go about these tasks.

I am known to laugh at gender stereotypes. Some of them work to defuse situations we by no means have the tools or means to handle or change. Others are too close to observed truth, within a given culture, not to be funny.

This particular image, though, paints a picture were the male has to submit to the dominatrix, to give her all his money or perish (in this it also plays on religious imagery but I’m not going into that aspect).
It paints a picture of the shopaholic wife, and so either endorses a consumer lifestyle or shows women as slaves to shopping. Whichever of these two the woman can be interpreted as a mindless animal rather than a representative of Homo Sapiens. She is a slave to her impulses, and her impulses is enslaving the male.

It also paints a picture that justifies men having a higher income, even if they are in the same business and have the same skill levels and experiences as women. You know – “it’s all right, the money will end up in the woman’s purse anyway”.

Contrary to these interpretations it could also be read as showing how it is the woman who have to handle all the purchases of a household. On the surface this seems a more benign interpretation – she is able and responsible! – but in reality it means the male escapes responsibilities by placing them on the female, who then have to carry a burden which should rightfully be shared between the involved.

Whichever way seeing the image did not make me laugh. I only felt very VERY disturbed. It’s closely related to the logic used to justify the delimitation of women’s rights as humans just because males are so brain dead they can’t control themselves if they sees some female skin.

Demeaning to men and women alike.

It follows that GAAAHHH!!! is the only rational reaction I can muster.

Connections. Discovering the true stories behind the fiction

Having read and reread G G Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan some five times in the course of three years it was almost a revelation to read Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. Did I ever think Lions was a work of fiction?!?!?! O my was I deluded!
I had read about the early medieval history of the Iberian peninsula before ever even knowing of the existence of Lions. I had even pilgrimaged to certain sites in southern Spain, like Granada, Cordoba. I had travelled the Andalusian countryside, I had watched Morocco from Gebr al-Tariq – sorry, Gibraltar – thinking how short the distance had been for the Berb conquerors and their Arab masters, back in the early eight century. I thought knowing the smells and the texture and some of the history of the country and its peoples biased my reading.

Ha!

Only a couple of pages into Moorish Spain I felt the urge to check if Kay mentioned any of his sources for Lions on his website. He did. Top position on the list was this one book – Moorish Spain, by Richard Fletcher. As I continued to read I started to note down obvious references between the two. Remember – one is a work of fiction, the other is a comprehensive history. Not a textbook, sure, but a non-fictional text summarizing a historic period.

These are the connections I found –

The only real person mentioned on Kay’s website is El Cid (Rodrigo Diaz), which is said to be the inspiration for Rodrigo Belmonte.
Others, as I discovered them, are –

I’m quite convinced Ammar ibn Khairan is modelled on a composite of the bisexual muslim poet and petty king Al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad of Seville and the king’s lover, the poet and statesman Ibn Ammar. Like Ibn Khairan Al-Mu’tamid ended his life in exile (or as a prisoner, depending on source. Either way it was in Morocco).

I also think Tarif ibn Hassan is modelled in part on ‘Umar ibn Hafsun, the brigand leader originally from Rhonda but acting out of the mountains at Bobastro (ibn Hassan, as we remember, was headquartered in Arbastro).

Ibn Ammar and El Cid was both exiled to Zaragoza in the early 1080’s – El Cid for being over-zealous when exacting parias from Toledo, much the same way as Rodrigo Belmonte was. They might have met.
(From this point on the true story of Diaz don’t match the one of the fictional Belmonte).

If Cartada is Seville (even down to the beetles producing the crimson dye) then Ragosa ought to be Granada, with it’s protected location in the mountains, with it’s jewish first minister Samuel ibn Naghrila and with it’s amir Badis. Samuel’s son Josef seems to have come to an end just like Mazur ben Avren. (The splendid Alhambra was a later addition to Granada, but a writer of fiction are allowed some lee).

The Muwardis seems to be related to the Almoravids, zealous Berbers from the Maghrib. The al-Andalusian petty-kings invited them for protection against the Christians. Al-Mu’tamid of Seville seems to have been instrumental in this. He reputedly said that he “would rather be a camel-herder in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. This sentiment is echoed almost word by word by Ibn Khairan when turning down an offer from Belmote.
The first I had guessed already but the details looks almost as copyright infringement, if such laws applied to real life.

At last, in the epilogue, Ibn Kharian makes an elegy to Al-Rassan. This elegy echoes the elegy the poet ar-Rundi composed for Seville – “Ask Valencia what became of Murcia…” – quoted in the Fletcher’s book.

Do this lessen the value of Lions? If you ask me the answer is no. Kay uses this setting as background, to tell another story – one of how individuals might want to try to affect what’s happening but that not even the mightiest are truly independent from the whims of others or the realities of economical and social and political factors.

I’m a wee bit disappointed because I thought Kay had created more of this story than he really did. But I can live with that.

Links to my reviews of The Lions of Al-Rassan and Moorish Spain

Review: Moorish Spain, by Richard Fletcher

The author, when writing Moorish Spain, set out on a quest to defuse the popular image of Spain under the Moors as a glamorous, tolerant and enlightened community laid to waste by brute ignoramuses – he states this intention clearly enough in the first chapter.

His success is only partial. Because while the Moors was as brutal and intolerant as the Christians that replaced them this was very much what life was during not only this period of time but the periods preceding and succeeding it, and while the Christians are a known entity to us in western Europe the Moorish Muslims are not. The winner writes the history, and for a very long time the winners had zero interest in preserving anything Muslim. This means very few records or perishable objects are left us from the Moorish era. Thus a lot of our knowledge is guesswork. What objects are left only adds to the enigma. The Alhambra, arab baths, carved objects and learned texts all shows the image of something medieval Europe wasn’t, not to our inner eye.

(This inner image is, of course, a false one. Between the Black Death and the Inquisition there was a place where the seed of science could grow. Not to come to bloom yet, but the ground works were being laid. Part of that came through the area then called al-Andalus in the form of translated and commented texts by Aristotle and the like.)

The book is geared towards the layman, and therefore lacks notes of sources and references. This is both good and bad. It’s good, because it makes the text flow in a pleasant way. It’s almost written as discourse, and he don’t care to hide his disdain for the navel-gazing coteries of historians who spends their time disputing who wrote what in 784 when the real interest lies in why things happened – the patterns and the motivating factors (I happen to share his view).
The lack of footnotes are bad because in some cases references are of interest even to the layman. A special period or person or place has captured your interest, and you want to know more. This is just a minor flaw, though. As a whole it offers a comprehensive overview of early medieval Spain.

If you’re interested in the era this should be a must read.
You should also read this if you’re planning on visiting Spain or Portugal – if you do it will add to the experience and heighten your awareness of what you are seeing (if you venture beyond the beaches of Costa del Sol, that is).

Is the truth out there?

Over a period of time I’ve had an on-line and offhanded talk with some colleagues. The talk have been a bit rambling but have touched on matters of interpretation of truth and how the social and cultural belongings of a person or group of people colours that interpretation.

I think it can fairly well be said that I don’t think there are any specific eternal truths to be found, anywhere. The idea of Truth with a capital T have nevertheless been, and still is, an idea both strong and potent in the minds of humankind. The impact it have had on our history is undeniably big.

The list of thinkers that have elaborated on the concept is as long as history is old. What is it that makes truth such a tasty, even addictive, concept for some people? And what makes a lie?

And, as one of my colleagues so aptly stated – what is the difference between an interpretation that unbeknownst to the interpreter differs from the original, and conscious misinterpretation? He raised this topic while thinking of the US Bill of Rights, but it’s an interesting issue in a wider perspective as well, mainly because it relates to the way we look at a wide variety of topics. Like, we hail the the ancient Greeks for their giving us the concept of democracy, and a lot of people seems to think what they meant with it was just what we mean. Is it? In some countries, certainly, because it excludes all women, and all men that aren’t above a certain income level. Then, democracy means that only rich males are allowed to participate in the decision-making.
To me, of course, this is not democracy. To me the word implies that power is given to the people. (This means there exist no democratic countries, as of today). I, then, is a conscious misinterpreter of the concept ‘democracy’, as I widen it to include all people. But it could be argued that the Greeks thought it included all people too, they just didn’t think women or the less well situated to be ‘people’.

This is not an academic discussion. Throughout the history people with the power to assert their (skewed) interpretation of a ruling or guiding document to be true have used this to their personal benefit, often to justify organised harassment and torture of groups of people. Going back to the US Bill of Rights mentioned earlier it’s now certain that the US as a nation views some people as more equal than others, whatever it says in that document. And as it at the time is was written did NOT include people not classified as ‘people’ it could be argued that this is in line with the original idea. Even if the idea originated in 1776, and even if it could be argued that rather a lot of water have flowed beneath the bridge since.

This is just one example. There are examples spread throughout the world. That I happened upon this one was because my colleague mentioned it – a coincidence, not a judgement.

So, maybe it’s not the concept of truth that should interest us, but how we treat each other; how we perceive and judge each other.

So, no, there’s no truth to be found. Not out there, not in here. Mainly because truth is not the important thing – being true is.

The statement is a contradiction, in itself, but I stand by it.

My spider, on top of evolution

In my kitchen a window is set aside for fresh herbs. During winter most of them dies – it’s simply too cold and too dark for them, and they wilt to death. The sage usually survives. It’s sturdy. Since some months back a small spider lives in the sage plant. Of course this means I cannot use the sage, but it doesn’t matter. While I like the spice right now it’s more relevant as the habitat for another living thing.

I have not tried to classify the spider. It’s maybe 5 millimetres long, and in it’s usual position it’s maybe 2 millimetres across. It resembles a wilted leave, or a fragment of wilted grass. It’s so small and so unassuming – well camouflaged! – that I’ve had no luck getting it to show on a photograph.

This is part of why I keep it. I’m fascinated by nature and how evolution works to promote creatures like this. I have no idea how it survives. The kitchen is notoriously bereft of flies and other small insects that would be in it’s range, and I have trashed it’s net at times. But it keeps turning up, again and again and again. In a way it’s very human – resilient bordering on obnoxious.

A reminder of the superficiality of humans and human motives, maybe.