Friday, July 16, 2010

Summer Reading

While shopping for souvenirs in the kitschy tourist block of Kruja, Albania, I spotted a book with a title in English, Faith and Fairies: Tales Based on Albanian Legends and Ballads, by Mustafa Tukaj. I didn’t know I was supposed to haggle, so I overpaid for my used, water-damaged copy. The English translation is quite new – it just appeared last year. Perhaps it should have been delayed to allow an actual English speaker to proofread it before publication – some of the translations are unintentionally hilarious. Of the ten tales in the volume, the last five concern the heroes of Jutbina, Gjeto Basho Muj and his brother Halil. The book begins with a scholarly essay summarizing the main themes and motifs that run through Albanian folk tales. The primary virtue exalted in these tales is faith (besa, in Albanian) – keeping one’s sworn pledge of honor.

Before I found Faith and Fairies, I was reading Arabian Fairy Tales by Amina Shah, who comes from “an ancient Afghan family of writers and savants.” The Arabian stories feel, somehow, more familiar and less austere than the Albanian tales. Perhaps living in Britain has taught the author what an English-speaking audience expects. Or perhaps The Thousand and One Nights has become so much a part of the English canon that tales from that culture no longer seem particularly exotic.

At St. Vlad’s, returning students can check out books for the whole summer. After I learned about this privilege, every time I found a book I thought I might want to read over the summer, I filled out a check-out slip for the book. On the second-to-last day of the semester, I took my pile of slips to the stacks, located all my books, and checked them out.

First on my list was Edessa ‘The Blessed City’ by J.B. Segal, a thorough, detailed history of this city, which was central to Syrian Christianity. Here was where Greek, Semitic, Persian, and Armenian cultures met and mixed. Originally home to Antiochene theologians who followed Theodore of Mopsuestia, Edessa’s theological school later switched sides and adopted the theology of Cyril of Alexandria. The city was also home to King Abgar and the famed Edessa icon, known as the mandylion.

Continuing that last theme is Veronica and Her Cloth: History, Symbolism, and Structure of a “True” Image by Polish artist Ewa Kuryluk, an examination of the veronica, the mandylion, and other “true images” of Christ from a postmodern feminist perspective.

Tangentially related to these is Image and Liturgy: The History and Meaning of the Epitaphion, the 2008 M.Div. thesis of St. Vlad’s staff member Tatiana Penkrat. The epitaphion is an embroidered icon of the burial of Christ that is used in Byzantine services of Holy Friday and Saturday, particularly the Lamentation service. I am eager to read this work for multiple reasons:
  • The Lamentation service has always been my favorite Byzantine service.
  • Many recensions of the epitaphion display the Troparion of St. Joseph of Arimathea in the border and place St. Joseph himself at the feet of Christ, making this my patronal icon.
  • Penkrat considers the possibility that the epitaphion is a recension of the True Shroud of Jesus, which some equate to the mandylion translated from Edessa to Constantinople in 944.
Finally, a book that has nothing to do with Edessa and its icon: Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo, by Ger Duijzings. Identity politics in the Balkans has interested me since my 1992 stint on a joint military intelligence task force that followed the Balkans. Since then I have followed Kosovo with special interest; Slobodan Milosevic made the province a particular focus of Serbian identity politics, and the Kosovar Albanians responded creatively to his provocations. Duijzings questions the assumption that ethnic and religious identities in the Balkans are clear-cut and fixed. Indeed, I have long been aware that Balkan villages have historically changed their language and ethnic identity when it was expedient to do so, much as they converted to Islam under pressure from the Ottomans. The whole idea of nationalism, as we understand it, is an invention of the 19th century, and it is even more inappropriate to project it further into the past than it is to maintain it in the present.


Pelasgian said...

Dear Blog Author!!
I just red ur blog and what gave my an impression is your opinion on that "faith and fairies" book. Before you judge or comment first you should skip the first page which is a blank one, then skip the second which is another blank page where only Faith and Fairies is written, then on the third page if u read carefully u will see EDITED BY JOANNE M. AYERS, and for your information she was an english writer , probably not as famous as the dude who wrote the "Bible" , but she was known in England. When it comes to those "unintentionally hilarious" translations you could as well blame yourself in not being able to understand them. Everything in that book is based on Albanian legends and tales and like it or not they are amazing. Seeing that your first favorite book choice is "The Bible" i assume you are really addicted to tales and stories, but imo you seem quite dense about literature. Now i would like to stop a little on your last book you commented on, dunno what history has taught you or with what vision you read it, but calling them villages its impossible to accept it from my side, also that 19th century nationalism crap ur talking about, i beg you please go read more about the history of balkans and their nationalism. Your fathers of Orthodoxism spoke the language of Pelasgians, so do me a favor and don't misinform people with your tiny little blog, they are just your ideas and from my point of view u need more information, lots more when it comes to literature and history. As the wise man said : "If you feel inferior, its your fault"

Arimathean said...

Dear Pelasgian,

Unlike you, I am a master of the English language. I stand by my comment that the English translation of Faith and Fairies is "unintentionally hilarious". I am sure that the original Albanian reads better. Unfortunately, I don't know the Albanian language, so I'm stuck with this bad translation. (I have not yet unpacked my books since seminary, but if I can find it I'll post some examples.)

I agree that the stories themselves are amazing. Even the bad translation cannot obscure that!

As for the editor, Google does not turn up a single reference to Joanne M. Ayers that is not connected to this book. Apparently this is her only internet-worthy accomplishment. I can be grateful to her for bringing this work to English readers while wishing she had done her job better.

"Pelasgian" is what ancient Greeks called the barbarians (i.e., people who did not speak Greek) in their midst. They were the ancient population of the Aegean region. It is not clear who these Pelasgians were or what language(s) they spoke. It is possible they were not even a single ethnic group. In any case, by the time of Christ there were no people called Pelasgians and certainly no Pelasgian language. The ancient languages of the Church were Greek and Aramaic/Syriac.

(Note to readers: There was a theory popular among 19th-century Albanian nationalists that their nation was descended from the Pelasgians. That theory is now discredited. In their effort to prove they predated the Greeks and the Slavs, Albanians subsequently latched onto the Illyrians as their chosen ancestors. I tend to agree with scholars who trace Albanian ancestry to the Dacians, another ancient Balkan people whose descendants include the Romanians.)

I'm not sure why you take offence at the word village - it has no offensive or demeaning connotations in English.

I have read plenty about Balkan history - enough to be able to recognize when modern nationalism is being projected back into earlier eras for purposes of modern political propaganda. This is certainly not exclusive to the Balkans - one finds the same sort of nonsense all over Europe, and also in the Caucasus region. Within the context of the clashes of Balkan nationalities, I am pretty notorious for being pro-Albanian (I once alienated a Slavophile Orthodox friend by defending the Kosovar Albanians' resistance to Milosevic).

But in the end I am an American, which makes me a post-nationalist.

Pelasgian said...

Dear Blog Author,

Not everyone posts his works in internet, there are still old fashioned people who like to keep their works in handwriting, so not knowing an author because his/her work is not published in internet is not a strong statement. I assure you that Joanne may she rest in peace, has had some good work before. When it comes to my English, excuse me if i have made or i might make any mistakes in my comments, this is my 4th foreign language. There is an article, no even better there is a study made by well known institute in Sweden that talks about those Pelasgs that you were referring to, i will just paste the link here for you so you can read and figure out a little bit more who and what they were :
it is very difficult to talk about them when they are that ancient. I am not even gonna talk about slavians since they are dated around 5th century in balkan, whilst most of the Albanian castles date 2600-3000 years ago, which proves that those people who lived there are one of the first not to say the very first people in Europe. The connection between pelasgians and illyrians can be found in the figures, and writings in some caverns throughout Albania, much has not yet been discovered. And the connection between the Illyrians and Albanians today can be found in the traditions, culture and language even if it has been changed, the root is the same. I am very glad that you are interested in the Albanian history, but we went out of the subject a little bit. That book you mentioned might also seem a little bit "unintentionally hilarious" to you since not everything can be translated into English, since English is such an easy language. Joanne may she R.I.P did a great job in trying to understand the concept of what the author meant in his translation, because believe me its not an easy task at all. I would kindly ask you to post those you find "unintentionally hilarious" here so i can try make you understand what the author meant. It may also be your lack of knowledge about the literature,considering ur favorite book is the Bible i cant expect much from your understanding of literature. To go back on the ancient Greeks, there is nothing with the modern Greeks that connects them with the ancient ones , so that leads me into two answers, either they were not Greeks or they just got exterminated and no longer exist. Yeah you are right to be a post-nationalist since you have nothing to show, and use that term to just get out of the situation, but my friend those who have something to show will never be post-nationalists and the funny thing is that even if some have nothing to show they try create it just to show it. I am glad you are found of the Balkan and stuff, but it seems to me you didn't get much informed about the history of this ancient land called Albania. I can help u with materials if you need, it would be my pleasure to do so. And to end this up, your ideas on what you think on books your read are yours only, if you make them public you must let everyone who reads or hears those know that they are just your ideas or opinions. Why i replied on the first place is that it seemed a little bit offensive the language you used, maybe you were upset for that 10 euro you spent on that book.