The Man Who Knew (Almost) Everything: Mas‘ūdī

By Rob Packer

The Meadows of Gold by Mas‘ūdī

When I came across The Meadows of Gold by Masudi in a discount bookshop, any recollections of him had long vanished. I must have first come across him in Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, where a passing comment early on links his 10th-century historiography with isnad, a part of Islamic scholarship to authenticate hadith (a body of tradition about the Prophet Muhammad and his followers) by verifying sources and the chain of narration.

Broadly speaking, historians use this method today and despite the book’s rather fantastical title, the history and geography included in this selection are encyclopaedic, wide-ranging and—it seems, although it’s hard to judge with a 100-page selection of a five-volume work—surprisingly accurate.

Masudi was born in Baghdad and lived during the so-called Abbasid Renaissance, dying in 956 in Fustat, the precursor to present-day Cairo. These cities may seem close (around 800 miles), but he is undoubtedly one of the world’s great travellers. He travelled widely in the Middle East and visited India and Zanzibar, but his work aims for something even wider: a history and geography of the known world.

His range is mind-boggling. He includes reports of pirates close to today’s Somalia; stories of excavations and booby traps at a pharaoh’s tomb; the fierceness of the Galicians and Franks; information about the Serbs, Moravians and Croats with Slavic-sounding names for their kings; a dispute between the Sumatran and Khmer kings; the clear air and clean water of Korea. The list goes on and on. I doubt that any contemporary Europeans or Chinese would even have the vaguest of ideas of lands on other continents (please correct me in the comments).

Elsewhere, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Masudi’s stories of Viking (Rus, if you prefer) raids on the Caspian coast of today’s Azerbaijan and Iran, and raids on Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers in England. And he goes further to conjecture that the raiders on the Caspian and al-Andalus are the same people.

In places, Masudi is concerned by the idea of knowledge lost with time, worrying “that all traces of science have vanished” and “learning has become too general and lost its depth”. He sounds particularly disappointed at early Christianity, writing, “everything the ancient Greeks brought to light vanished”. It seems a sad irony of history that only two of his thirty-six books survive.

Masudi rejects “professional storytellers” and the Thousand and One Nights: probably as a result of the isnad tradition, he goes back to his sources and discounts people he doesn’t consider up-to-scratch. At one point he makes inquiries in India about a particularly tall story about the rhinoceros and dismisses another Arab polymath with a rather sniffy “I do not know where Jahiz got his story, whether he copied it from a book or heard it from some informant.”

Meticulousness does have limits, though, and there are some suspect stories, anachronisms like the Persian emperor Cyrus sending the Magi to Jesus’ birth and probably countless others, but overall much aligns with the history we know from elsewhere. One example is Masudi’s account of a rebellion in China that sounded strangely familiar: my Tang history is pretty rusty and I think I was actually confusing it with the earlier An Lushan Rebellion, but a quick look at Wikipedia told me that rebel was Huang Chao, the first of China’s Long Marchers.

Quite simply, it’s beyond me how he knew so much.

Mas‘ūdī, From The Meadows of Gold [Translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone], Penguin (2007)

London in the Springtime

By Rob Packer

Magnolia buds are falling, creating a carpet of white petals that wouldn’t look out of place in a saccharine music video (maybe Mariah Carey or Cantopop). Rhododendron flowers open and splash Himalayan colour over English gardens. Daffodils and tulips appear; bees hover into sight; the crocus and snowdrop are long gone. Read more of this post

David Hockney at the Royal Academy

By Rob Packer

The cadence of summer schoolboy shorts and winter mittens and bobble hats determined my life from an early age. Fireplaces and cold at Christmas, the end of cold around Easter and my birthday, summer picnics in the park marked time. But in every new city, my European rhythm has had to be adapted to learn the subtle modulations and surprises of the heat of a Kyrgyz October, the rain of a Hong Kong May or the bitter cold of a southern Brazilian winter (by far, the worst I’ve ever experienced). It is these barely perceptible shifts that David Hockney focuses on and powerfully captures in his Royal Academy exhibition, A Bigger Picture (link to the Royal Academy here with video).

I often associate Hockney more with his role in Pop Art and his swimming pool paintings than landscape work, but the strong geographical and thematic focus on the Yorkshire countryside works in the exhibition’s favour. Around half of the galleries are hung with series of paintings of the same view at different times of year, which makes for a far more inclusive and responsive exhibition than a typical retrospective. This time, the cliché of creating a dialogue with the viewer really does ring true.

For me, most impressive was the opening gallery of a four-part series of trees in Thixendale (the exhibition is full of delicious northern place names). The same three trees, arranged around an octagonal room, appear like three ladies with spring branches dancing in the wind, in the exuberant steadiness of summer, clad in red matching the brown of a harvested field, and in the grey sadness of winter.

A fascinating difference comes in the differences in method between painting from memory and from observation. In his memory paintings, roads seem to meander through red-brick suburbia, the Salt Mills in Saltaire lord over tiny purple-roofed terraces, or the Yorkshire Wolds undulate across fields in a panoply of colours: oranges, pinks, crimsons or turquoises. When painting by observation, his colours and shapes are (understandably) more realistic, although even then geometric shapes seem to appear in hay bales and country lanes or trees appear to be trying to escape the ground.

By far the most impressive part of the exhibition, however, is Hockney’s embrace of new media. Towards the end come slow videos of the Yorkshire countryside and ‘The Arrival of Spring’, a series of 50 sketches that Hockney created with iPad and stylus during the first few months of 2011. The results are hard to believe with postimpressionistic misty greens and purples or lines of red and orange, and it feel like a combination of paint and graffiti art and you might not, quite frankly, know these were iPad sketches unless you were told.

These repeated thematic series foreground subtle changes that are often felt rather instinctively, and in one case—where a pile of logs is suddenly missing—I felt the same dull disorientation of something familiar no longer there. In January, the BBC Radio 3 broadcast a documentary on Hockney entitled ‘New Ways of Seeing’. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but these past few days have probably been the best possible time to visit, as bright sunshine and blue skies have caused what feels like an explosion of spring and I’ve noticed my own reawakened interest in and sensitivity for the changes in seasons. It truly is a new way of seeing.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture until 9 April at Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD

Daffodils and Narcissus

By Rob Packer

Whenever I come back to the UK, I’m usually mystified by the way my more meteorologically sensitive compatriots see one sunny day and imagine that their prayers have been answered and the island has been picked up overnight and relocated to the sunnier climes they feel they deserve. Confused I remind myself sceptically that climates often don’t change that much and—in crueller moments—remember complaints about the “sweltering” heat of 28°C and wonder how long this would last.

But after endless—well, six or seven—coquettishly sunny days I’ve been bitten by this stereotyped optimism and (especially the past few days) duped into daydreams about picnics in the park by Daylight Savings Time, 7:30 sunsets and the daffodils finally splashing yellow at the end of the garden. Read more of this post

The poetry of Martín López-Vega: Adult Foreigner

By Rob Packer

I first came across Martín López-Vega in mid 2011 through his poem ‘Última lección (Final Lesson)’ read on the Radio Nacional de España show La estación azul. That poem was a touching depiction of a boy’s memories of his grandfather, “who knew everything / who knew how to catch a flash of trout with his hands / who could whistle to attract goldfinches”, and then his sudden deterioration in old age. It seemed uncannily familiar, similar to the my own grandfather’s life that included playing catch with plates with a restaurant waiter in Berlin followed by his decline.

I recently managed to get hold of the poet’s excellent 2010 collection Adulto extranjero (Adult Foreigner, no translation available). The collection reads somewhere between a collection of poems and a travelogue narrative—strangely, as six poems were only added in 2011 as part of a re-edition. Some poems are personal stories about family members, while (sometimes very funny) pages of ‘Reading the Newspaper Aloud’ punctuate with fictitious news headlines like “Does Angelina Jolie know how to mount a donkey?” or “The United Kingdom advises the Pope to create his own brand of condoms”. But most focus on living or visiting another city, often outside Spain: apartments and internet dating in Lisbon, taking a particular tram home to Prenzlauer Berg or museums in small (Eastern European?) countries with tantalizing references in other poems to where it could be.

What seems relatively simple at first glance becomes increasingly complex and there is a sense of lack that permeates the book, especially after the poem about the narrator’s grandfather and another about the death of a loved one (girlfriend, mother, we’re not sure). In ‘S.P.Q.R.’, the narrator sees footprints in the cobbles of a square in Rome and wonders “Are they ours, are they ours from nine years ago?”. Even in the exuberant euphoria of a skinny-dipping couple walking through Barcelona naked “the night they stole everything”, there is a hint of menace. It almost seems like the narrator is a spectator on his own life and that raises the question whether the narrator is just on holiday, is travelling to escape his past, or even if these vignettes are fantasies of happier lives lived elsewhere.

López-Vega is clearly interested in the wider context of European poetry: his blog references Polish, English or Swedish poets as well as Spanish, and poems reference Hölderlin, Sappho and others by name. But where I felt this most was near the start of the first poem—its Lisbon setting creates unavoidable allusions to Pessoa—where I also heard a vague echo between “Who pays attention to alarms any more?”[1] and the famous first line of Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?”[2]. It may be that I was reading also Rilke at the time and any textual comparison does really end there, but for me they do both evoke that same existential helplessness. The adult foreigner of the title appears as the constant outsider, often a spectator, never fitting in and never giving too much away: which, combined with the powerful portrayals of emotion, is what keeps the collection so interesting.

Martín López-Vega, Adulto extranjero, dvd ediciones (2010/2011)

[1] ¿quién hace caso ya / a las alarmas?

[2] Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?

Michael at the London Asian Film Festival

By Rob Packer

London is in film festival season: the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival both start next week. But this week is the London Asian Film Festival, which started on Friday with Michael (2011), director Ribhu Dasgupta’s first film, and was opened by Bollywood superstar Abhishek Bachchan and British comic, Meera Syal (“so a not desi” as she tripped over the lead actor’s name).

The film, part of “India’s emerging cinema landscape”, is the story of Michael Rodriguez (Naseeruddin Shah), who is dismissed from the Kolkata police force after he is made a scapegoat for following orders to fire on a peaceful demonstration and (accidentally) killing a 12-year-old boy. Soon after, he begins to receive phone calls from the boy’s father who threatens to kill Michael’s own son on his 12th birthday.

The film plays like a thriller, but more engrossing is the figure of Michael as he struggles with guilt, being cast adrift in the city and his diminished masculinity: his lost livelihood means he can no longer provide materially for his son, but worse is his progressive blindness meaning he can’t protect his son from harm. A leitmotiv is the Happy Birthday jingle of Michael’s lighter—potentially very cheesy in other situations—that here signifies something different each time, ranging from a boy’s pre-birthday excitement and familial happiness to a lament. And one of the most affecting scenes is where Michael is given dark glasses by an optician and he travels through Kolkata, eventually coming across a blind beggar singing: as Michael squats down, his fear about his and his son’s future is palpable.

The film, always grainy, shifts in and out of focus more and more in point-of-view shots as Michael’s eyesight deteriorates and the viewer’s eyes are drawn towards Naseeruddin Shah’s own, often unblinking eyes, like pools of darkness that speak of Michael’s helplessness.

In its commentary on the precariousness of life in contemporary India, the film also has a contemporary feel, most obviously in the anti-government demonstration at the start of the film against the Communist party that ruled West Bengal from 1977 to 2011; and echoes (deliberately or accidentally) the anti-corruption mass movements of last year.

But the film’s other real star is monsoon Kolkata, which adds an incredibly atmospheric touch to the film: whether in the rain, the disorienting cacophony of the horns of passing cars in the opening scene as Michael stands on a traffic island, the jostling crowds and flocks of pigeons of central Kolkata, and (above all) in the monumental and neglected Victorian architecture of the city.

I won’t get the chance to go to any other showings at the London Asian Film Festival, but as an opener, Michael promises great things for the festival. And as Ribhu Dasguptu’s directorial debut this gripping and mature, it promises much more.

Michael is showing as part of the London Asian Film Festival at Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road on 19 March at 18:00 and Watermans, 40 High Street Brentford on 21 March at 20:00.

Colloquial Punglish: Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover!

By Rob Packer

Right from its title, Daljit Nagra’s 2007 very enjoyable poetry collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, goes to the heart of questions of identity. The title references the quintessentially British symbol of the White Cliffs and the broken English of new migrants—it is something you can easily imagine someone saying—that always seems to conjure up an existential (and inexplicable) fear in some quarters. Its ungrammatical syntax is a pointer to linguistic inventiveness to come, but also a wink towards the English poetic traditions by evoking Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden and D. H. Lawrence.

Nagra (1966–) was born in West London to Punjabi parents and his poetry narrates the disparate lives and complex identities and fantasies of British Asians. This is most obvious in his paean to the pan-Indianness of ‘Our Town with the Whole of India!’ There is ‘Jaswinder Wishes it was Easy Being Black’ where a teenage girl envies her schoolteacher’s (imagined?) independence: “Ms Victory, nuh uh, she don’t do shame.” At another point is the comparison between the mundanity of everyday life and his father’s dreams of returning to India showering largesse and stories of wealth in Britain. Or a recently arrived Punjabi, planting potatoes in his garden, who confronts the rose-growing poet across the fence “Vut? Dis fancy pots? / Dat’s a gora [white man’s] potiness!

Most shocking about the book is the casual racism of life in the UK. There are countless examples of skinheads “desperate to flush out the enemy within” or “council mums” who talk in loud voices about “darkies from down south” with benefit claims and “flash caahs”. But in one of his best poems, ‘Yobbos!’, Nagra also takes language head on: after an epigram of an 1899 advertising slogan on “lightening the white man’s burden”, he begins the poem with an ironic “A right savage I was – sozzled” as it turns out from too much Paul Muldoon. The real savages are the yobs hectoring on a tube train and the Victorian colonial language is exposed as the absurdity it always was.

Language is Nagra’s forte and throughout the collection, he shifts between English regional dialects, the chimera of “standard English”, playground rhymes, phonetic Indianized English and Punglish, a fusion of Punjabi and Ungreji (glossary at the back). At the same time, the poems constantly play on words (one poem is called ‘Singh Song!’) or have malapropisms, like “cardigan arrest”. Add in the changing perspectives, rhythms and idioms and each work seems fresh and re-readable.

But what of the poet? In ‘Booking Khan Singh Kumar’—an excoriating commentary on ethnic tokenism if ever there was one—Nagra asks “Did you make me for the gap in the market / Did I make me for the gap in the market”. It’s an impossible question to answer that ultimately leads to the nature-nurture debate. What I like about Daljit Nagra (and what makes me want to seek out his latest collection) is that he puts all of himself into his poetry and doesn’t try to straitjacket himself into form or dialect.

Daljit Nagra, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, Faber & Faber (2007)

Modern Persian Poetry: Forugh Farrokhzād

By Rob Packer

All day long I stared
Into the eyes of my life
Into two timid, distressed eyes
That always avoided my fixed gaze
And like two liars
Sought refuge in the lonely protection of my eyelids

Forugh Farrokhzād, ‘Green Illusion’

I first came across Forugh Farrokhzād in a BBC World Service documentary (‘Nightingales and Roses’: download here) that explored the central importance of poetry in Iranian culture, where lines from 11th-century poets influence slogans at street protests, rap lyrics or simply how to tell off the children.

I’d always been vaguely aware of Persian poetry through Goethe and later Orhan Pamuk: of Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, bought, started, unfinished. Since the podcast, though, I’ve been dipping into Hafiz, Rumi and Attar and have The Book of Kings by Ferdowsi firmly on my to-read list—especially after another BBC podcast on this, the Iranian national epic.

Forugh Farrokhzād (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, the maverick poet, Forugh Farrokhzād (1935–1967), seemed the most interesting of all; she has also been the hardest to find. Frustrated with hard-to-find English translations and flicking through the back of my collection of Rilke, I came across a German translation called Jene Tage (Those Days) translated by Kurt Scharf and mostly selected from her later poems. But whatever the language, her poetry is a revelation.[1]

Before her death in a traffic accident, Forugh Farrokhzād was a controversial figure and remains so to this day: an outspoken divorcee who broke the metrical rules of Persian poetry, eschewing formality for Tehrani dialect and writing honestly and openly about female emotions. Of course, broken metrical and vocabulary conventions are almost impossible to translate, but her frank depiction of emotion is powerfully alive

In ‘Those Days’, the words of the title reappear rhythmically throughout the poem, charging it with nostalgia for “trees full of cherries” and “the smell of acacia blossom” and becoming almost a lament by the end as the girl of the poem “Is now a lonely woman / Is now a lonely woman”. But as well as sadness and loneliness, there is a freedom in Farrokhzād, especially a sexual one, most clearly in ‘The Couple’:

Evening comes
And after evening – the dark
And after the dark
And breathing and breathing and breathing
And the sound of water
That drip drip drops from the tap

Then two red points
Of two lit cigarettes
The tick-tock of the clock
And two hearts
And two solitudes

This is one of Farrokhzād’s least allegorical poems, but even this has links to the imagery that recurs throughout this collection, creating threads of darkness, dead birds, crowns and colours throughout. I assume that some have symbolic value within the poetic or cultural tradition (blue candlesticks, for example are part of traditional wedding celebrations according to a footnote). But the poetry is compelling even without that context.

The references to traditional poetry were clearer for me in a poem like ‘Someone Like No Other’, where a girl imagines someone (human or divine) “whom no-one can arrest or lock in prison” coming to solve all problems. This evoked the duality of Sufi poetry that can be read as a meditation on Allah or on the Beloved. But here it seems no more than an evocation: by the end of the poem, this liberator is giving out Pepsi Cola, cough syrup and tickets to the cinema. It seems deliberately naïve and expresses both a societal despondency and scepticism of easy solutions.

From what I’ve read, there is a temptation to see Forugh Farrokhzād as a kind of Rorschach test for one’s views on Iran, whether she is excluded from official poetry anthologies within the Islamic Republic or feted as a hero in the US press because of it. The translator of this collection is more nuanced, saying in the afternoon that her work is “anything but a political pamphlet” and rather expresses social anxieties of the middle class in 1960’s Iran. I am inclined to agree.

For me, Forugh Farrokhzād is a hero because she lived as she pleased and challenged the conventions of a conservative genre and culture. But above all, she’s a hero for the clarity and freedom of her poetry, which can stand alongside Rilke, Neruda, Auden or anyone else as one of the best and most original voices of the 20th century.

Forugh Farrochsad, Jene Tage, Suhrkamp Verlag (1993)

[1] The quotations in this blog are my translations from German, so could end up quite different from the Persian originals.

The Bassae Reliefs

By Rob Packer

Centaurs and Lapiths on the Bassae Friezes

It also seemed a geeky London fantasy to use the city’s free museums to fulfil those whims that ambush you at 4pm in the office or 3pm on a Saturday in Oxford Street: an uncontrollable itch to see—I don’t know—a Gandhara Buddha (British Museum) or an El Greco painting (National Gallery). In this fantasy, you then leave immediately desire satisfied, although more likely is you stick around, flitting from the Indus to Korea to Mesopotamia to the Hebrides.

I think I’ve only ever done this two or three times and, since I left London, I only have Wikipedia. My most recent trip to the British Museum, though, had purpose and schedule: to see the Bassae reliefs. Read more of this post

Voices of a River: Dart by Alice Oswald

By Rob Packer

The River Dart
Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Through hazy recollections of wellies and gauges of widths, depths and flows, years ago I spent a day of a school geography field trip studying the River Lemon, a Devon river running from Dartmoor to Newton Abbot. I thought these memories safely buried until I came across Alice Oswald’s 2002 book-poem, Dart, in a library. These memories provided a vague reference point reading the poem, as it traces the course of the neighbouring and larger River Dart and creates what Oswald calls “a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea”.

The work is the result of three years of recorded conversations between the poet and people working on the river. As the reader follows the river downstream, the narrative—to be “read as the river’s mutterings”—jumps from person to person to river to person and is nicely bookended by two old men: the first a rambler on Dartmoor, the second a sealwatcher who morphs into Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea. In one five-page stretch that I found the high point, Oswald moves between river swimmers, a water treatment plant, a river dream, a dairy, a sewage works and the mythical arrival of Aeneas’ grandson, Brutus, to found the British people.

For Londoners, Devon often seems the epitome of rural England, bucolic, carefree and clean; Oswald’s Dart, however, is a hive of industry where human contamination of nature is ever present. In parts, the narrative is hostile to man’s influence and is most acute in the juxtaposition and intermingling of the dairy and sewage workers. Particularly ominous is the sewage worker’s comment “if there’s too much, I waste it off down the stormflow, it’s not my problem”.

Equally menacing is the river’s own capriciousness, changing from docility to threat—the number of drowned is genuinely surprising. To a kayaker, one of the Dart’s many victims, the river dissimulates playfully “come falleth in my push-you where it hurts / and let me rough you under, be a laugh”, then menacingly continues “I can outcanoevre you”. It doesn’t, however, make sense to reduce the poem to a man-versus-nature narrative: it obscures its sheer documentary power of this very varied book.

Like the narrative voices of the river, the poetry moves from free verse to prose and back, with occasional blasts of rhymed iambic stanzas or alliteration, recalling Anglo-Saxon metres. It feels a cliché to say it, but this does feel like a real river with its fits and starts. The prose feels colloquial and verbatim with its wool merchants, salmon poachers and fishermen, while the verse, and some of the neologisms in particular, feel fresh and inventive. Dart is both an impressive piece of research and writing, but perhaps its biggest achievement is how Oswald keeps things coherent throughout despite the constant changes in perspective and form: the potential watery formlessness coalesces into something solid.

Alice Oswald, Dart, Faber & Faber 2002

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