13 June 2015

Ben Ali and the Arabic Diary (Part Two)

One of the earliest well-known encounters with the Ben Ali Diary dates from 1896, and was recorded by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the popular Negrophobic stories "Uncle Remus" and "B'rer Rabbit." A character in one of Harris' books calls the manuscript a diary, and suggests that Ben Ali was an "Arab slave hunter" who was himself taken into slavery, and goes on to state quite erroneously that the first few pages were said to describe the events of Ben Ali being taken into slavery (Harris 1896, p. 13). It is perhaps worth noting here that some of Harris' personal papers contained in the rare books library at Columbia University suggest that he was on the lookout for African stories from which to profit in his own literary endeavors. I cannot resist also noting here that his predilection to profit from the heritage of African Americans might implicate Harris in an attempt at selling the manuscript, or parts of it, which could explain the missing pages, though that would be difficult to prove at this point unless one could show that he actually had it in his possession and had not merely heard of it. In any event, Harris' account of Ben Ali's life and writing, although found in a work of fiction, proved to be very resilient and was often recounted, even as late as 1931 by Goulding, who had the Ben Ali manuscript in his possession for a number of years but seems to have used Harris' opinion as his primary source for interpreting it. By 1940 the notion that Ben Ali was an Arab was questioned by a university academic, Joseph Greenberg, who found the account "improbable" (Greenberg 1940, p. 373). In the same year, one of Ben Ali's great-grandchildren described him as "coal black" (Georgia Writers' Project 1940, p. 166). In 1984, Austin refuted the claim that Ben Ali as an Arab slave trader, and suggested as evidence that Harris' stories were "completely Negrophobic" (1984, p. 265), but by that time the notion had lingered for nearly a century.

09 May 2014

Ben Ali and the Arabic Diary (Part One)

In the early nineteenth century, an African Muslim was living out the rest of his adult life in chattel slavery on a plantation in Antebellum America. Before dying on the eve of the Civil War, he left a handwritten Arabic manuscript with an acquaintance of his slave master. Since then the manuscript has been the object of considerable study and debate by a wide range of characters, including a famous novelist, a state librarian and a prominent Africanist, as well as a number of academics and a host of curious enthusiasts. These characters have variously suggested (and in some cases have even hoped) that the writer of the manuscript was an Arab slave trader, a Moorish prince or a Muslim jurisprudent, who went by the name of Ben Ali, Bilali or Bu-Allah, and whose manuscript was a diary, a set of meditations, a plantation log, or an excerpt from a book of Islamic law. Opinions as to the importance of this manuscript range from writing it off as indecipherable gibberish to suggesting that it problematises the entire canonical structure of African American literary studies. Some of the above suppositions are certainly more defensible than others, but what is remarkable about this manuscript is that it has generated such an engaging and wide-ranging set of responses. Beginning with a chapter in my PhD dissertation and a subsequent journal article (Progler 1996 and 2000), I joined the ranks of those who have attempted to "decipher" the contents of this mysterious manuscript. In Part One, the first of a two part series, I recount and update my earlier efforts to describe its author and contents. In Part Two, I explore tangential questions of how and why people have come to see its origins and its significance in particular and self-serving ways.

02 December 2013

The Sound of Azan: Muslim Reflections on the Call to Prayer

The call to prayer, azan, pervades Islamic culture. Muslims can hear azan up to five times a day--once for each of the five daily prayers. It is often broadcast from the minarets of mosques. Parts of azan can be used to gather Muslims for a public event. There is also an Islamic tradition of reciting azan into the ear of a newborn child, and azan is said to have medicinal qualities in some forms of Islamic folk medicine. Ethnomusicologists have occasionally focused on azan. Faruqi (1981) identified two styles: laythi, an unembellished recitative style popular in villages, and sultani, a less recitative and more florid, urban style. Sultani seems linked to Ottoman sultans; Turkish Muslims are still noted for their florid and highly embellished azan style.

23 April 2012

Musical Stupidity and the Reigning Monoculture

Many music educators, myself included, thought Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences was useful when it first appeared. But over time, some of us became frustrated with it being limited to separating out the individual components of what in the end needs to be a whole, integrated person. On the heels of hard won gains in holistic education, the theory of multiple intelligences is re-compartmentalizing schooling, by suggesting that a different curriculum can be developed for each intelligence, whereas what is needed is a curriculum for the whole person. While Gardner insists that the various intelligences can be merged together in life and education, the discourse of multiple intelligences reifies intelligence into separable entities, each testable and isolatable.

17 December 2011

Schooled to Order: Education and the Making of Modern Egypt

"They opened fire with cannons and bombs on the houses and quarters, aiming specially at the mosque, firing at it with those bombs. They also fired at suspected places bordering the mosque, such as the market. And they trod in the mosque with their shoes, carrying swords and rifles. Then they scattered in its courtyard and its main praying area and tied their horses to the prayer niche They ravaged the students' quarters and ponds, smashing the lamps and chandeliers and breaking up the bookcases of the students and the scribes. They plundered whatever they found in the mosque, such as furnishings, vessels, bowls, deposits, and hidden things from closets and cupboards. They treated the books and Qur'anic volumes as trash, throwing them on the ground, stamping on them with their feet and shoes. Furthermore they soiled the mosque, blowing their spit in it, and urinating and defecating in it. They guzzled wine and smashed the bottles in the central court and other parts. And whoever they happened to meet in the mosque they stripped. They chanced upon someone in one of the student residences and slaughtered him." (Abdul Rahman Jabarti, 1798, from Napoleon in Egypt)

27 November 2011

The Disaffections of Daily Life: Pathways to Activation Within and Without the Machine

Disaffection and activation are intertwined in a multiplicity of ways. They are not necessarily related in a linear, cause and effect type of relationship. Sometimes, a person can become disaffected from a way of thinking or acting, and this disaffection can lead to forms of activation. Other times, becoming activated for a particular cause or issue can lead to disaffection from the opposing ways of thinking and acting. Throughout one's life, disaffections and activations come and go, overlapping each other, adding and subtracting understandings of life experiences. Disaffection without activation can lead to nihilism, and activation without disaffection can lead to co-optation or extremism. In whatever ways we understand their dynamics, disaffection and activation seem to be interdependent. In this essay, I want to reflect on the overlapping relationships between disaffection and activation, and emphasize how daily life experiences provide opportunities for both, by placing these reflections in the context of living in what might be the declining stages of an era marked by hegemony of the megamachine.

22 October 2011

Norms and Allegiances in Muslim Education

Even the most casual observers of current events will notice a tension between Western civilization and Islam. This tension is often made explicit in Western public discourse about "Islamic fundamentalism" and the "clash of civilizations." Similarly, Muslim public discourse often focuses on the Zionist occupation of Palestine and the destruction of places like Bosnia and Iraq. But careful observers will soon realize that this tension contains within it an odd, and often unnoticed, paradox. While most Muslims are quick to denounce instances of Western aggression and political double-dealing, the more subtle cultural legacies of colonization and imperialism receive less attention. This is apparent when one takes the time to look at various forms of institutionalized colonization, such as education.

14 September 2011

Social Studies Standards: Diversity, Conformity, Complexity

"If the goal of human history is a uniform type of man, reproducing at a uniform rate, in a uniform environment, kept at a constant temperature, pressure, and humidity, living a uniformly lifeless existence, with his uniform physical needs satisfied by uniform goods, all inner waywardness brought into conformity by hypnotics and sedatives, or by surgical extirpations, a creature under constant mechanical pressure from incubator to incinerator, most of the problems of human development would disappear. Only one problem would remain: Why should anyone, even a machine, bother to keep this kind of creature alive?" (Lewis Mumford, The Transformations of Man)

15 August 2011

Mapping the Musical Commons: Digitization, Simulation, Speculation

This essay is a speculation on how recent digitization and simulation technologies are providing a means of mapping cultural processes that may contribute to new ways of enclosing the musical commons. Three broad, shifting, and interwoven themes permeate this speculation: contested concepts of ownership between a disorganized and reorganized capitalism; blurred distinctions between cultural products and human processes; living beings between the convergence of technologies for mapping and simulation. By outlining a potential paradigm shift in how people understand music, the essay suggests some new directions for ownership and control of primary cultural resources, especially with respect to embodied and simulated musical processes.