The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons

Musings about politics, religion, law, art and marriage - what else is there?

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Saturday, April 26, 2003
What I'm reading

Ikram Saeed describes a textbook crisis in Nunavut.

Ampersand considers whether men can be feminists.

Arthur Silber is keeping on top of the Santorum affair (start here and continue forward). So are Jim Cappozzola (start here), Andrew Northrup and Daniel Goldberg.

Conrad of Panchayat offers a masterful analysis of the controversy over the Narmada River project.

Randy McDonald predicts the demographic future of the Middle East.

The Modulator follows up on my discussion of the Qatari constitutional referendum with an analysis of the new constitution's provisions.

Gil Shterzer identifies Israel's surprising new ally and its Jewish heritage (if the permalink is bloggered, go to the main page and go to the entry for April 25).

Yvette provides more hopeful news from Somaliland, as well as pictures of Berbera.

Laying the groundwork?

The MDC has begun an intensive political advertising campaign in Zimbabwean newspapers.

Friday, April 25, 2003
Making concessions

Al-Ahram's chronicle of twentieth-century Egyptian history continues with a description of the constitutional crisis of 1931. During the height of the crisis, legal scholar Ahmed Wafiq presented an interesting classification of constitutions:

Wafiq held that there were three categories of constitutions, "concessionary", "contractual" and "popular". The first type, he said, was a gift from the king, but "as it is promulgated by law it can only be amended by law in accordance with the procedures stipulated under the constitution". A contractual constitution was that formulated by the king or parliament and recognised by both the legislative and executive authorities by virtue of an oath to honour and abide by it. He adds, "Since this type of constitution is contractual, it follows that there must exist a balance or parity between the powers of the executive and legislative authorities, for an imbalance would be inconsistent with its contractual nature." The last, a popular constitution, was that created by a constitutional assembly consisting of delegates elected by the people for this purpose.

Among the "concessionary" constitutions cited by Wafiq was the 1923 constitution of Egypt. Many traditional monarchies both within and outside the Arab world - Swaziland and Brunei are two non-Arab examples - continue to have exactly this sort of constitution, with the legislature and courts holding authority through royal grant rather than as coequal branches of government. Unfortunately, most of these monarchs don't recognize the second step of Wafiq's analysis - that a constitution, even if given as a gift, becomes fundamental law once promulgated. Instead, the history of countries with concessionary constitutions is replete with examples of the king taking back his gift.

Contractual constitutions, on the other hand - even those which leave the monarch with considerable authority - seem to have more staying power. The extra step of referendum or legislative approval is evidently more than a symbolic one, which bodes well for Qatar's upcoming democratic transition.

Nasser resurgent?

Nasser Arabyee analyzes the upcoming Yemeni elections and reveals, among other interesting facts, that there is a Nasserist party in Yemen. This is the first time I've ever heard of Nasserist parties outside Egypt, but they apparently exist in Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and - of all places - Mauritius.

The existence of Nasserist movements in Syria and Lebanon is fairly easy to understand. Syria was part of Nasser's United Arab Republic, and its, er, influence in Lebanese politics goes back at least that far. Sudan, too, has frequently looked north for political inspiration, particularly under the Nimeiry regime.

Yemen, however, appears to be the only country other than Egypt where Nasserism remains a significant political force. In Syria, the rise of the rival Ba'athist brand of pan-Arabism resulted in the Nasserist party being banned and, although a Nasserist newspaper was allowed to reopen in 2001, the movement has never really recovered. In Lebanon, Nasserist parties have met with little electoral success, and the Sudanese and Mauritian movements are barely on the map. In Yemen, on the other hand, the Nasserist party is the country's third largest. As in Egypt, being the third largest political party is a mixed blessing given the hegemony of the ruling General Congress Party, but the Yemeni Nasserists are clearly within the political mainstream and have consistently outperformed Ba'athist organizations at the polls.

This has some potentially interesting implications for postwar Iraq. It's possible that an unintended side effect of the fall of Iraqi Ba'athism will be the rise of a politically significant Nasserist movement to fill the pan-Arab part of the political spectrum. Nasserist parties do have a history in Iraq - Qasim flirted with Nasserism during the early part of his dictatorship, and Nasserists ruled the country from 1963 to 1968. The Egyptian Nasserists have prepared for this eventuality by establishing a general secretariat for the Arab world in 2000; if a Nasserist movement develops in Iraq, it will be able to count on moral and political support from its better-established Egyptian counterpart. I'm not about to hold my breath waiting for a Nasserist government to take power in Iraq, but the possibility cannot be ignored.

More fallout in Nigeria

ANPP presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari has filed a court challenge to Olusegun Obasanjo's controversial re-election as president - and Emeka Ojukwu, who won 3.29 percent of the vote, claims that he was robbed. Buhari's claim, unfortunately, isn't likely to fare much better than Ojukwu's; the Nigerian courts have a poor track record of correcting abuses of power, which I will describe at greater length over the weekend.

From the Friday magazine

Aviv Lavie further debunks the theories of Jonathan Cook by conducting a long interview and profile of controversial Israeli Arab filmmaker Nizar Hassan [1, 2], Sara Leibovitch-Dar discusses a libel case with potentially serious academic and political ramifications, and Neri Livneh tells the forgotten and tragic story of World War II Jewish resistance heroine Sophia Poznanska [1, 2].

Thursday, April 24, 2003
Thoughts on the last day of Passover

A time-honored part of the Seder recitation is the parable of the four sons :

The Torah speaks about four sons: one who is wise and one who is contrary; one who is simple and one who does not even know how to ask a question.

The wise son asks: "What is the meaning of the rules, laws and customs which the Eternal our God has commanded us?" You shall explain to him all the laws of Passover, to the very last detail about the Afikoman.

The contrary son asks: "What is the meaning of this service to you?" Saying you, he excludes himself, and because he excludes himself from the group, he denies a basic principle. You may therefore tell him plainly: "Because of what the Eternal did for me when I came forth from Egypt" I do this. For me and not for him; had he been there he would not have been redeemed.

The simple son asks: "What is this?" To him you shall say: "With a strong hand the Eternal brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage."

As for the son who does not even know how to ask a question, you must begin for him, as it is written in the Bible, "You shall tell your children on that day; This is done because of that which the Eternal did for me when I came forth out of Egypt."

I am the contrary son. I know this, not only out of deep and abiding faith in my own contrariness, but because it has become traditional for the entire family to point at me every time the contrary son is mentioned. I am contrary enough, in fact, to wonder whether my counterpart in the parable really deserves the name.

The parable takes for granted that, by saying "you," the contrary son takes himself out of the group. That's far from obvious to me. It seems just as possible that the contrary son already knows what the festival means to him, and wants to learn what personal meaning it has to his father.

Or is that the point? Is the meaning of the parable that there can be no personal interpretation of Passover, and that anyone who attempts to reach an understanding outside the received wisdom of the group excludes himself from it? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see any other interpretation that would render the contrary son suitably contrary. The use of a singular pronoun is a per se withdrawal from the group only if group identity and individuality are mutually exclusive.

This isn't my understanding of Judaism. The Jewish tradition is rich with stories of holy men who argued with, wrestled and even sued God, and sometimes won. If Baba Metzia 59b can be believed, God delighted in being defeated in argument by Rabbi Joshua - "He laughed [with joy], saying, 'My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'"

This is, quite possibly, the aspect of the Jewish religion that is most attractive to me - the allowance for individuality and reliance on reason rather than blind faith. My reading of the Baba Metzia passage is very similar to that of Rabbi Jonathan Kraus - "[w]e obey, question and sometimes, disobey, but ultimately, mature into trusting and sharing God's vision for us--even if we must each interpret that vision through the lens of our individual, human experiences and insights." By this measure, the contrary son might be the most Jewish of them all.

Or maybe that's only my contrariness talking.

The two prime ministers

This is probably old news to most of you by now, but Arafat and Abu Mazen have made a deal. After some serious arm-twisting by the United States, the EU and Egypt, albeit probably not as serious as Imshin imagines, Abu Mazen got Mohammed Dahlan as security minister, Arafat got the right to be "consulted" on security issues and Palestine got a Prime Minister. The Palestinian legislature is expected to vote on the new cabinet - which, in addition to Dahlan, returns technocrat Salam Fayyad to the Finance Ministry - within a week.

This doesn't make Palestine a democracy - for one thing, there's still no constitution and no timetable for elections. Nevertheless, it's an important step forward in several ways. For the second time in two months, Arafat has lost a power struggle; last month, he was forced to accept a premiership with enhanced powers and now he has to swallow Dahlan. Arafat's personal power - and with it his ability to strangle the peace process and treat Palestine as his personal fiefdom and piggy bank - has been reduced. No doubt he will continue to fight a rear-guard action, but the tide is moving in the right direction.

In addition, European leaders have shown themselves willing to lean on Arafat hard. The last two years have made it painfully clear that peace requires a serious European commitment; American pressure on Israel will not be enough unless the Europeans apply equal leverage to their Palestinian clients. If the Europeans continue to demonstrate the resolve they have shown with respect to Abu Mazen, then the United States will be able to push ahead with the road map knowing that someone will keep the Palestinians on track. It's little wonder that the first reaction of one West Bank journalist to the cabinet deal was that "the Americans won."

Third, there is Abu Mazen himself. There's been a great deal of hot air wasted lately about his Holocaust-denying doctoral dissertation. Haggai has the best rejoinder I've seen thus far:

In 1953, when a rumor that Hitler might still be alive circulated around the world, an Arab newspaper asked some public figures what they would say to Hitler if they could contact him. As quoted in Bernard Lewis' book "Semites and Anti-Semites," this Arab officer responded: "I congratulate you with all my heart, because, though you appear to have been defeated, you were the real victor." [...] 24 years later, in 1977, the Nazi collaborator and author of that passage--Anwar Sadat--became the first Arab leader to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Only time will tell whether Abu Mazen is a Sadat, but I personally place less significance on his dissertation than on something he co-authored thirteen years later - the Beilin-Abu Mazen peace plan of October 31, 1995. This plan, which was never put into effect because of Prime Minister Rabin's assassination four days later, set forth a five-year transition plan - a road map, if you will - leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

There's little point debating the merits of the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan, because it isn't going to be resurrected. The territorial provisions would be a non-starter today; greater concessions to the Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem, will be necessary. The al-Aqsa intifada has also diminished Palestinian tolerance for a continued Israeli troop presence in Palestine after the establishment of a state. However, the plan also contained some innovative ideas relating to water rights and autonomy for Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem; it was, to my knowledge, the first plan to propose a division of sovereignty between the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount underneath. In addition, it sacrificed the right of return for internationally sponsored resettlement of refugees in Palestine.

All this shows two things - that Abu Mazen is not a maximalist, and that he has a demonstrated willingness to consider creative solutions to contentious issues. He is far less likely than Arafat to scuttle negotiations by insisting on deal-breaking concessions from the beginning, and he is far more likely to be flexible when it comes time to trade.

And then there's Sharon. Last night, Sharon promised to work with Abu Mazen, and he has recently reiterated (in an interview with Ha'aretz of all people) his willingness to make "painful concessions." In practical terms, though, what does that mean? He's said all these things before - although he's never been quite this specific about leaving the settlements - and we aren't any closer to getting out of this mess than we were when he took office.

I think he's in a position, though, where he'll have to deliver. He won't be able to treat Abu Mazen like Arafat - not only does the international community (including the country that matters) have far too much invested in Abu Mazen, but Sharon himself has repeatedly emphasized the need for a Palestinian prime minister. Now that such a person exists, Sharon won't be able to get away with dismissing him out of hand.

Nor, I think, will he want to. By all accounts, Sharon's hatred for Arafat is genuine; he has referred to the Palestinian president as "the dog, the murderer and the liar". In contrast, he appears to have a decent working relationship with Abu Mazen. Sharon is likely to feel more comfortable making security concessions with Abu Mazen on the other side - especially since he is backed by Dahlan, who knows Gaza and is one of the few Palestinian commanders with a real track record of cooperating with Israel. (And then there's the economy - given how much Israeli stocks rallied on the news of the Arafat-Abu Mazen accord, imagine what real Israeli-Palestinian progress would do.)

Moreover, the Iraq war has, in some ways, given Sharon more flexibility in reaching a final status accord. Hillel Halkin, who is no peacenik, recently commented that the elimination of Saddam Hussein means that there is no conventional military threat against Israel from the east, and that Israel can safely concede the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians. It's just possible that the improved climate for both interim and final- status negotiations will lead to real improvement in the Palestinians' living conditions in the near future and feed a virtuous cycle that will return peace to the table. It could also fall apart, of course, but I'd rather hope for the best.

UPDATE: More analysis by Amos Harel and Ze'ev Schiff about the likely significance of the Kfar Sava suicide bombing and how Abu Mazen, Dahlan and Sharon should respond. And Graham Usher worries that Arafat's resentment of the international pressure to approve Abu Mazen's cabinet may have permanently soured relations between the two men.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003
Shhhh, the name change hasn't been announced yet

An article in today's New York Times on the Nigerian election refers to Olusegun Obasanjo's PDP as the People's Ruling Party.

The one face of Ha'aretz

During this year's Seder, a member of my family mentioned that she had "heard" that the English edition of Ha'aretz was selectively edited to remove those articles most critical of Israel. I was somewhat taken aback; I had never seen this accusation before, even on the radical-left web sites that I occasionally frequent. During a bout of insomnia last night, however, I checked the issue further, and found that the rumor stemmed from two articles, one by Ran Hacohen and the other by Jonathan Cook.

Both authors are of questionable credibility; they have axes to grind, and both have been known to go in for conspiracy theories. Hacohen is a regular columnist whose running theme is that Israeli democracy is a figleaf for military rule. Cook is a stringer for al-Ahram who lives in Nazareth, has accused the Israeli government of orchestrating anti-Semitism to promote aliyah and characterizes outgoing Meretz MK Amnon Rubinstein as right-wing. Both authors include a great deal of sneering commentary in their accusations against Ha'aretz, with Cook urging readers "not [to] lean too heavily on Haaretz to understand how or why this 'light unto the nations' has grown so dim."

That, by itself, doesn't end the matter. Bias affects a witness' credibility, but it doesn't disqualify his testimony entirely. A biased witness is sometimes capable of telling the truth - and both Hacohen and Cook provide specific examples of stories that they allege were withheld from or mistranslated in the English edition.

The very articles they cite, however, go a long way toward disproving their theory that those stories were omitted deliberately. Some of them, in fact, were not even omitted. Cook, for instance, cites an April 3 story about spraying of herbicides on Bedouin fields by the Israeli Land Authority, which he claims was reported in the Hebrew but not the English edition. I distinctly remember reading that story. I'll be charitable and assume that Cook didn't notice it because it ran in the English edition on April 2, the day before it ran in Hebrew.

Moreover, Ha'aretz has run other recent English articles on exactly the same subject. On March 27, a week prior to the article Cook cites, Ha'aretz featured a lengthy discussion of the Interior Ministry's actions toward unrecognized Bedouin villages, including spraying of fields and home demolitions. Another article on February 5 (which Aziz Poonawalla discussed in his blog) described the demolition of a mosque in an unrecognized village. It can hardly be said that Ha'aretz is attempting to hide the unrecognized village problem from its English readers.

Similarly, Hacohen accuses Ha'aretz of spiking an English story about employment discrimination against Arabs - another issue to which the English edition is no stranger. Nor does its coverage of the intifada pull any punches, given that one of its flagship reporters is Amira Hass, who has been widely criticized (sometimes with justice) for presenting a one-sided pro-Palestinian view. Even Hacohen has nothing but praise for Hass, and does not allege that her stories are withheld from the English edition.

Cook has another accusation against Ha'aretz' English coverage - that it hardly ever covers the Israeli Arab community except when its members take part in terror attacks. He charges it, in fact, of being "recruited, along the rest of the Israeli media, for a concerted campaign to demonise the non-Jewish minority as terrorists" as part of a "campaign... personally instigated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon." This is a ludicrous accusation to anyone familiar with the relationship between Ha'aretz and Sharon - and Cook's allegation that the English edition ignores the Arab community except for terrorism is, quite simply, bullshit.

Those of you who follow The Head Heeb know that I write frequently, and sympathetically, about Arab Israelis. In many cases, the source for my articles about Israeli Arab politics, culture and civil rights issues has been the English edition of Ha'aretz. A spot-check of today's edition, for instance, reveals a top story giving two Israeli Arabs credit for stopping a terror attack in northern Israel. There is also an in-depth feature about the case of Farag Ibrahim, an illegal alien of Egyptian origin who faces deportation and separation from his Israeli Arab wife and daughter. The story is hardly one designed to whitewash Israel's image, and it paints its Arab characters with sympathy.

Other top stories in the English edition in recent weeks have discussed Israeli Arabs' opinion on the war, the dismissal of the Bishara indictment, the role of Arabs in state-run companies and of course Land Day. During not quite five months of blogging, I've cited dozens of additional stories about Arab politics and media, interviews with prominent Arab Israelis and op-ed pieces by Arabs. I use the Adalah web site and the Weekly Review of the Arab Press in Israel as a reality check, but there's almost nothing in either place that would be a surprise to a regular English Ha'aretz reader.

All in all, this seems a very strange conspiracy, if conspiracy it be. If I were a right-wing editor who wanted to shade my English-language coverage for foreign eyes, I wouldn't spike a story only to run another story on the same subject the following day or week. Nor would I allow the stories most critical of Israel to run and omit those that are less so. Indeed, despite Hacohen's allegation that the English edition is tailored to prevent damage to Israel's image abroad, many of his own anti-Israeli articles cite - you guessed it - English stories from Ha'aretz.

So do discrepancies exist? A cursory glance at the English and Hebrew homepages reveals that their layout is slightly different and some of the stories aren't the same. A spot check early this morning revealed, for instance, that a story on SARS was on the Hebrew homepage while a somewhat different but related SARS story was in the "More Updates" section of the English edition. Nobody but a diehard conspiracy theorist - and possibly not even one of those - would argue that the different placement was the result of a hyper-nationalist editorial cabal. It's far more likely that Ha'aretz is like other newspapers that are published in more than one language, and that there is a time lag between the posting of a Hebrew story and its English translation. For top stories such as the latest developments in the Arafat-Abu Mazen saga, the English and Hebrew postings are likely to be virtually simultaneous, but other stories might appear after a lapse of hours or even days.

I've spoken informally to a number of Israeli acquaintances about the discrepancies, and the consensus is that they are the result of editorial oversight, lack of time or translator error rather than deliberate effort to toe the Sharon party line. That's my gut feeling as well; in my experience, error and chance are much more common than malice, and the latter should only be assumed after the former have been ruled out. If I were a Scottish judge, my verdict would have to be Not Proven, tending toward Not Guilty - I don't think anyone other than those who are convinced that Israel is an irredeemably racist and criminal country could characterize Ha'aretz' coverage as a whitewash.

In the interest of truth, however, I'll throw the question open to my Israeli and Hebrew-speaking readers. Are stories critical of Israel omitted from the English edition more often than those that are not, and if so, is there any evidence that the omissions are deliberate? If anyone has the evidence to change my mind, now is the time.

Watchdog or lapdog?

Baruch Kra analyzes Eliyakim Rubinstein's tenure as Attorney General of Israel, and argues both sides.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003
A hopeful sign

Yvette thinks that the governing party and opposition in Somaliland may be trying to work things out in the wake of the extraordinarily close presidential election:

KULMIYE was supposed to hold a demonstration and march to the National Electoral Commission today. It didn't happen. The government and community elders advised KULMIYE supporters to put aside the planned rally for it will destabilize the country. President Rayale was interviewed on the radio today and he spoke of an upcoming meeting with the two parties. By the sound of it, he may be taking his promise to the South African observers to seriously explore a Government of National Unity.

If so, then the leaders of Somaliland will be showing a degree of political maturity remarkable in any country, let alone one with such a fragile democratic tradition. UDUB's 80-vote victory had - and still has - the potential to bring down the whole house of cards, but if it leads to compromise between the parties, then it will strengthen democracy rather than destroying it. Indeed, with the presidential vote that close, a national unity government could fairly be said to represent the public will more than victory for either side.

Imagine, if you will, George Bush responding to the 2000 election by appointing a cabinet with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. That's exactly what's at stake here. It's rare for a country to have even one leader with the foresight to place the interests of democracy ahead of his own party, but if UDUB and KULMIYE reach a power-sharing agreement, Somaliland will have two. Compared to what's happening in Nigeria, such an outcome would be like night and day.

If the people of Somaliland resolve this election peacefully and without compromising constitutional rule, then it's time for the international community to recognize them. They'll have bloody well earned it.

Vox populi

Nigerians weigh in on what to do next.

A Muslim Passover?

Al-Muhajabah links to an article by Hesham Hassaballa about the significance of Passover to Muslims. In it, Hassaballa draws an analogy between the Muslim festival of Ashura and Passover:

Muslims also commemorate the Exodus of the Hebrews out of Egypt by fasting the ninth and tenth day of the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The event is called Ashura, stemming from the Arabic word for "ten."

While this may be surprising to many, it is important to understand that Moses figures very prominently in Muslim belief. The Exodus story is a happy one for Muslims; it is a tale of bitter bondage and hardship and the glory of God's deliverance from that hardship. The Qur'an speaks a great deal about Moses and his dealing with Pharaoh. In fact, around 73 passages—many encompassing several verses at a time—deal with Moses.

There is a great deal of debate, however, over whether Ashura actually corresponds to Passover. In Shi'ite tradition, Ashura has lost any significant connection to Judaism, and is remembered as the anniversary of the battle of Karbala at which Husain was martyred. Among Sunni Muslims, for whom the Ashura fast is optional, there are varying traditions of how its observance began.

The origins of Ashura are more commonly associated with Yom Kippur than Passover. The scholar Abu Rehan Beruni, based on his analysis of correspondences between the Jewish and Islamic calendars, argued that Ashura stemmed from Mohammed's observation of the Yom Kippur fast among the Jews of Medina:

It is said that 'Ashur is a Hebrew word which has become 'Ashura in Arabic. It stands for the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tisri. The fast observed on this day is called Yom Kippur. It came to be incorporated in the Arab Calendar and the name was given to the tenth day of the first month of their year in the same way in which it denoted the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish Calendar. It was instituted as a day of fasting among the Muslims in the first year of Migration. Later, when fasting was enjoined in the month of Ramadan it was dropped.

Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, however, defends the Passover interpretation: explicitly occurs in the traditions that the day of 'Ashura (on which the Muslims are enjoined to fast) was a day of rejoicing among the Jews. As Imam Bukhari has related it on the authority of Abu Musa Ashari, the Jews regarded it to be a day of Eid and it was on seeing it that the holy Prophet advised his Companions also to keep fast on it.

In Saheeh Muslim, also, it is related from Qais bin Muslim that men of good-doing observed the fast of Ashura and celebrated it as the day of Eid, with their women wearing the best of clothes and ornaments [...] In the light of the facts given above, it will be incorrect to say that 'Ashura is the Day of Atonement. Were it so, it would have been a day of lamentation and mortification while 'Ashura, as mentioned in the tradition, is a day of merriment and decoration.

Eliezer Segal responds that the celebratory mood of the Jews of Medina doesn't rule out Yom Kippur as the antecedent to Ashura:

[I]n a way that non-Jews often have difficulty appreciating, the Jewish mood on Yom Kippur has always been one of joy and good spirits, precisely because of the confidence that God has indeed forgiven our sins and we may joyfully begin life anew with a clean slate. The Mishnah (end of Ta'anit) describes this atmosphere vividly: "Israel knew no days as joyous as...the Day of Atonement, in which the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in...white garments and dance in the vineyards..."

As to the question of the supposed victory over Moses' enemy on Yom Kippur, it seems clear that the original reference was not to Pharaoh or any mortal foe of the Jews, but rather to Satan (the Hebrew term literally translates as "the Antagonist"). This accords with the traditional Jewish identification of Yom Kippur as the day on which Moses finally concluded the 40 days of prayer and pleading with God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of worshipping the golden calf.

According to the Midrash, it was on Yom Kippur that God finally announced (against the counter-arguments proposed by Satan) that Moses was allowed to present the people with the second tablets of the Law. This story was well known to Muhammad, and alluded to elsewhere in the Koran.

On the other hand, the fact that the Jewish celebration witnessed by Mohammed was a fast does not - as some have argued - exclude Passover. One of the "minor fasts" of the Jewish calendar, the Fast of the Firstborn, occurs the day before Passover begins. This fast, observed by firstborn males (and, according to some authorities, fathers of sons), commemorates the slaying of the firstborn Egyptians and gives thanks that the Jewish children were spared. This is a celebratory rather than a sorrowful fast, and it certainly commemorates a "victory over Moses' enemy." It may have been this that Mohammed observed among the Jews of Medina - its observance dates back at least to Talmudic times.

There are other theories as well. Some argue that Ashura marks the date on which Abraham was born, the day Noah's Ark came to rest or all of these. Ali Nadwi raises the possibility that Mohammed might have witnessed a fast peculiar to the Jews of Medina, which may or may not have concerned Moses. Others argue that because the systems of intercalation among Jews and pre- Islamic Arabs differed, Ashura has nothing at all to do with any Jewish fast; instead, the story was "invented by a narrator who only knew that once upon a time Muharram coincided with the Jews' Tishri... but was totally unaware of contemporary Jewish religion and culture."

We'll probably never know for certain. On the other hand, history isn't everything, and holidays are what people make of them. Ashura is already many things to many people, and if Muslims view it as a time to remember the Exodus and celebrate their shared heritage with the Jews, then it is that as well.

Monday, April 21, 2003
Creoles and the courts (again)

My article on Krio in the Bronx courts sparked some discussion in the comments to Ampersand's blog. Among the questions raised by the Bronx court's finding that a Krio-speaking witness was entitled to an interpreter was whether there was any precedent for providing similar services to speakers of indigenous American creoles. In particular, did courts provide interpreters for speakers of the Gullah or Afro-Seminole languages?

A search on LEXIS was largely unhelpful. In the history of the United States, there have been only three reported cases in which Gullah was mentioned at all (either under that name or as Geechee or Sea Islands Creole), and none that mentioned "Black Seminole." By itself, however, this means little. Many court decisions are not reported, and reported decisions generally occur only when there is a contested issue of law. Unless anyone questioned a Gullah-speaking witness' right to an interpreter, the courts were unlikely to take notice of it.

Opinion as to the meaning of this absence of cases varied. Scott Martens was:

...surprised that there's nothing for Gullah [...] There aren't many monolingual Gullah speakers left anymore, but at least 100,000 people still speak it and 50 years ago monolinguals were still pretty common in the Carolinas. But then, in the old days a lot of well educated people in the Carolinas were effectively bilingual so I suppose it just possible that no monolingual Gullah speaker has ever been tried in a court where no one could understand them.

Mac Diva, on the other hand, wasn't surprised at all:

I am from North Carolina and never heard of translators for dialects, instead of languages. (Gullah is South Carolinian, BTW.) I doubt appointing translators would have occurred in legal systems that were racist to the point of excluding nonwhites from participation except as convicts.

The truth is somewhat more complicated. African-Americans did have a place in the pre-civil-rights Southern legal system, albeit a constricted one; they were parties in civil suits and testified as witnesses at least against each other. At times, creole-speaking witnesses did come before the courts, and one Georgia case from 1911, United States v. Merchants & Miners Transp. Co., suggests that interpreters may commonly have been provided. The judge in this case describes the local Gullah-speaking community in much the way you'd expect from a genteel white Southerner of the time:

Then, too, in my rides about the beautiful environments of Savannah, I meet a number of simple and no doubt kindly people, dwelling in homes which to my mind resemble Henry Grady's Patchwork Palace [...] They talk in a dialect which is not understandable by those who know only the English language. And not infrequently in the performance of my extended duties in this community I have been obliged to call an interpreter to interpret their 'English' as it is spoken. It is really a Gullah dialect, which has come down to them from their tribal forebears on the Dark Continent, and which cannot be understood by the court. I believe some of them are irreverently and carelessly alluded to by Vox Populi here as 'Ogeechee coons.'

Thus, in at least parts of the country, there is precedent for providing interpreters to speakers of creoles. The judge might not have engaged in any analysis of the fine points of whether Gullah was a language or a dialect, but he viewed the matter very pragmatically - if a person in his courtroom said something he couldn't understand, he called for an interpreter. I can't be sure whether the practice extended beyond that one judge, but it certainly seems that nobody challenged it - at least until this year in the Bronx.

UPDATE: Scott Martens shares a personal anecdote about Gullah.

Mugabe's victims

Basildon Peta tells chilling stories of the escalation of torture in Zimbabwe during the past month.

Sunday, April 20, 2003
Happy Easter

... to all my Christian readers. Have I ever mentioned that one of the best things about my readership is that I can share everyone's holidays?

PDP leads

As expected, early returns in the Nigerian presidential election show Obasanjo in the lead with about 60 percent of the vote. The election appears to have been mostly peaceful, but there were reports of violence in the delta and widespread allegations of fraud, especially in Rivers and Bayelsa states.

This Day gives a state-by-state breakdown of the gubernatorial races, showing that Obasanjo's PDP is likely to suffer losses in the north but pick up some of the central and southern states. More state-by-state analysis is here, including the news that Enugu voters have largely rejected the local opposition parties' call for a boycott.

The great mechanical matzah controversy

Just when I thought that every conceivable topic in Jewish history had been treated, I came across Eliezer Segal's history of mass-produced matzah. It turns out that the matzah-baking machine is the reason why modern matzahs are square:

The turning point came in 1857 in Austria, where the first mechanical Matzah device was put to work. The machine was designed to knead the dough, squeeze it through a set of metal rollers, perforate it and deliver the pieces promptly to be baked in the oven.

At that stage the notion of a square matzah had not yet occurred to anyone, and this gave rise to some serious halakhic problems. For the roundness of the matzahs was achieved with a sort of cookie-cutter. In the quest for efficiency, the left-over corners were then regathered and combined with the new dough. This raised fears lest, by allowing the dough to circulate too long between kneading and baking, it might actually start to leaven. In order to avoid such a dreadful eventuality, our beloved square matzah came into being. Continual improvements in the speed of the matzah-machines increased its acceptability among many Jews.

Is there any other evidence that mechanical matzah really did get its start in 1857? One indication is that, like everything else new under the sun, there were rabbis who opposed it from the beginning. An early opponent, Rabbi Solomon Kluger of Brody, published a ruling against mass-production of matzah in 1859, entitled "A Declaration to the House of Israel." Among his arguments was the observation that "the matzah that is consumed at the seder is intended to fulfil a religious precept, and must be fashioned with the appropriate intention. We can hardly speak of a machine having any kind of intention."

Of course, there were other rabbis of more progressive bent - which is also a given in any controversy involving Jewish observance. One of these, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson of Lemberg (the Shoel u'Meshiv), published a pamphlet entitled "the Annulment of the Declaration" the following year:

In it, he argued that the rapid speed of the automated process actually made it preferable to the older methods. He was satisfied that the machinery was capable of being adequately cleaned and inspected.

There ensued a lengthy exchange of diatribes in the newspapers, in which the authors did not refrain from indulging in the most vitriolic of personal attacks.

Segal notes that the rabbinical opponents of machine-made matzah may have been motivated by a concern similar to the Luddites - i.e., that the machines would put matzah bakers out of work. But there was also the specter of the Reform movement, which had begun in Germany in 1810:

...most of all, the battle over matzah-machines must be viewed in the context of the deep rifts that were splitting European Judaism at the time. Experience had taught the traditionalists to be wary of any departure from accepted practice, even where it did not involve any overt violation of Jewish law. The dreaded Reform movement had begun by questioning minor customs, and had ended up (so they felt) denying fundamental Jewish values!

Reform or not, even shmura matzah is made in factories now.

More Kenyan feminism

The political openness of the Kibaki era doesn't just include discussion of abortion rights; Katie Nguyen reports on a Nairobi performance of the Vagina Monologues and how it has affected the country's dialogue on gender. As expected in a country where about 40 percent of the population subscribes to some form of evangelical Christianity, the performance isn't without controversy:

The production has ruffled a few feathers with some Kenyan radio stations and newspapers refusing to run adverts for it or reducing the name to the "V Monologues".

And by charging 2,000 shillings ($26.09) a ticket when well over half the Kenyan population lives on less than a $1 a day, it is clear it was not going to appeal to everyone.

Mention of it drew bemusement and raised eyebrows from most men. "The question is, is the play capturing the concerns of Kenyan women or presenting foreign ideas?" asked George Odipo, a 29-year-old architectural assistant.

One aspect of the play that might have impact in Kenya is its treatment of female circumcision, a practice that remains common in the country. Many reviews of the Vagina Monologues even outside Africa have characterized this as one of the most powerful parts of the play. At 2000 shillings a head, however, the performers are likely to end up preaching to the choir - the educated, Westernized middle class who share the author's horror at female circumcision rather than the people who still practice or suffer it.