Wednesday, January 29, 2014

being a nomad about what to study

The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question 'Whither?'

— Robert Frost, from "Reluctance"

A list of  'nations' in Sogdian
from the Berlin Turfan Collection
Sogdian script

These scraps of ancient paper with Sogdian writing from pre-Islamic Central Asia, from Sogdiana in fact, are little morsels I glom onto as I slog through information and possibilities to follow. For me, they are representations of the mysterious beauty of the Silk Road. The long tails of letters, the curves and twists — are they not like the long passes through the Pamirs?

Image from Pamir Highway Adventure site

The Sogdians were people in a region north of India and west of China who were the primary traders on the Silk Route. Their borders fluctuated with the spread of their language, Sogdian. This script is similar to medieval Iranian scripts. 

I'm grateful I learned — better said, studied — Turkish in Latin script, not Ottoman:

With so much history, research and scholarship about this part of the world, I have to pick out grains with my fingertips, crumbs to follow that will start to make connections. How is the Sogdian language and script like Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit? Do I care about this? You can see that just following this path of crumbs — the scripts — would take a lifetime's study.

So my feet question, "Whither?" 

I will probably do what I do in a new city when I travel: venture out and turn at corners or into alleys that intrigue. It is not easy finding new points of interest when you travel the same route day after day, like my drive to and from work. In my Midwestern way, I have lived a semi-nomadic life, having lived in 30+ houses in my 57 years. In fact, ten years in this farmhouse is the longest I've lived anywhere.

Monday, January 27, 2014

violence, unanimity and poetry

I have never been competitive in my life. I didn’t play sports or run track in school. I’ve rarely played board or card games. When my husband’s family taught me to play euchre, there were times when I subconsciously wanted the opposing team to take the trick, and I almost played the wrong card. I would have gotten a seething (though comical) look from my partner: my father-in-law.

I was deeply conditioned in my Christian home to be selfless and submissive. Furthermore, we were discouraged to participate in sports or any activities that took time away from church, or God. There was no competing with church. How I felt about things was really of no consequence, so I shaped my life into the borders I was given.

Since becoming a mother in 1981, I’ve imagined what I would do if someone or something were about to harm my child. I believed then without a doubt, as I do now, that maternal instinct would kick in, and I would cover their body with my own. While I doubt that I could stab or shoot to protect myself if an intruder entered my home (maybe I could stun them with a frying pan), I believe I could hurt someone to protect a loved one. I might even protect a stranger. I would rather die than live with myself after making someone else die to protect myself. Thankfully, I have never had to test this theory. (Note here that my husband and I have just begun watching the TV series "Breaking Bad" wherein a regular, nerdy guy enters a world of unthinkable choices and repugnance, and I wonder what morality is, and what choices many people in the world are presented with daily.)

In the 1160s, the mother of Genghis Khan tutored him in the ways of tribal alliances. (Temujin was his actual name. After he and his men destroyed other Mongol tribes the title “Genghis Khan”—meaning “universal ruler”—was bestowed on him by leaders of remaining tribes who wanted peace.) At age nine (or age 16, depending on your source), he killed his half-brother. Was this brother another woman’s son? Did his mother advise him to do him in? When you contemplate the decapitations, boilings-alive, slaughters of whole tribes, and all the other mind-blowing violence that infused the lives of these nomadic peoples (estimates at 40 million killed, so many that Genghis Khan is credited with cleaning 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere according to this study), even inside their own yurts (not so different than Henry I assassinating his brother William Rufus to become king of England at around the same time), and our horror at them in 2014, you have to wonder, What changed?

We know more about what happens in the world now, and more quickly, than ever before. Violence seems more pervasive than ever, from Central and South America across to Africa, and on to Pakistan and Afghanistan. We hear more about mass shootings in the U.S. and Europe, one just yesterday at a mall in Maryland. And yet Steven Pinker and others point out that violence is down drastically since previous decades. A couple of reasons are that we’ve grown more intelligent (IQs are up), and democracies are more widespread. Our media spread fear and doubt. Our planet is being decimated, that's sure. But what is really happening to us as humans?

I watched the 2007 Russian film "Mongol" because I wanted to begin to understand Genghis Khan with as little prejudice and judgment as I could. In some ways it is a sympathetic look at what it means to be born into a culture innately violent. Shamans traveled with the marauders. Were they spiritual counselors or purveyors and protectors of superstitions? It is said that Genghis Khan's ultimate goal was to unify tribes in the largest empire the world has ever seen, from China to the Balkans. He wanted harmony, but he won it by violence.

There is a warrior-poet from 17th century Afghanistan named Khoshal Khan Khattak. He wanted Afghan tribes to forsake their fighting and unite. He wrote this poem.

As I Look On

As I look on I am amazed
At this world's denizens,
Just seeing what these dogs will do
To satisfy the flesh.

Such dealings as are brought about,
Men being what they are,
Satan himself could not devise,
Still less consider fair.

They place before them the Koran,
They read aloud from it,
But of their actions not a one
Conforms with the Koran.

In which direction should I go?
Where should I seek for them?
Wise men have now become as rare
As the alchemist's stone.

Good men are like garnets and rubies,
Not often to be found,
While other common, worthless men,
Like common stones, abound.

It may be that in other lands
Good men are to be found
But they are few and far between,
I know, among Afghans.

However much he counsels him
And gives him sound advice,
Not even his own father's word
Does he consider good.

And yet Afghans, in all their deeds,
Are better than the Moguls;
but unanimity they lack,
and there's is the pity of it.

I hear talk of Sultan Baholol,
Also of Sher Shar Sur:
They were Afghans who won renown
As emperors in Hind.

For six or seven generations
They ruled in such a way
That all the people were amazed
At their accomplishments.

Either they were another kind
Than these Afghans today,
Or else it is by God's command
That things have reached this pass.

Once Afghans acquire the grace
Of unanimity
Aged Khushal will thereupon
Become a youth again.

— Khoshal Khan Khattak (1613-1690)

(I regret not having information 
on the translator.)