After three days of thinking about and discussing issues of religion, cultural diversity, and coexistence at Oslo’s Litteraturhuset, you suddenly realize that the language of music is far more effective than the prose at our disposal. The band, led by the internationally-renowned saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrom, delighted the audience with its improvisations. It was yet another example of why art matters most when we think we need it the least. A fitting conclusion to a great event.
Olivier Roy gave a spirited and light-hearted lecture at Oslo’s Litteraturhuset on secularism Islam and the West, followed by comments from a Norwegian expert on terrorism and myself. As happens to me nowadays, I chose not to comment on, or highlight, the finer points of his critical analysis of the terms “secular” and “religious,” but to express my barely disguised exasperation with the tropes that have blocked the Muslims’ mind for more than two centuries. The question, in the end, is not whether religion is misread, or whether it is good or not, but whether we are condemned to define ourselves in terms penned down for us by scribes from antiquity and the early medieval period. I don’t care much about secularism, but I do lament the waste of our mental faculties and our entrapment in mythologies that are totally dissociated from our current experiences. The prophets of Scripture spoke the languages of their people; who will speak for us today?
The expression “We Are All Moors,” the title of my book that was read by several members of Oslo’s Litteraturhuset (House of Literature), where I delivered the opening speech on Monday to around 350 people, and later participated in discussions about Edward Said and secularism, turned out to be poignantly true in this Scandinavian nation. Since the moment Spain’s ambassador to Norway and Iceland, Antonio López Martínez, spoke up in the middle of my lecture, we have had an almost uninterrupted discussion about Norway, the Arab world and Islam. After giving me a quick tour of the city and the Spanish embassy, he proudly displayed a statement of his decoration by the King of Morocco in 1996, and then later in his residence, an impressive collection of books on Arabs and Islam. He knew the late scholar Mohamed Arkoun well, so I told him about the library in his name at the Roue Mouffetard in Paris that I recently visited.
A veteran and seasoned diplomat who has witnessed many major events up close, he outlined to me the place of Norway in Europe and the world. That a third of Norwegians vacationed in Spain last year didn’t surprise me, since in the more than three days of my stay in Oslo, I never once glimpsed the faintest ray of sun come through the heavy and low-hanging clouds.
I stayed in what is probably the busiest street in Norway, but walking through it feels like being in a cathedral. This must count as the quietest city I have ever visited—perhaps a testament to the Norwegians’ highly developed sense of civic duty. For in our turbulent times, Norway appears as a country of saints. It’s egalitarian and highly developed ethical culture has made it one of the freest countries and least corrupt ones in the world.
Dr. Sherwin Nuland—“Shep” to his friends, as I mentioned in an earlier post on one of the most insightful physicians and people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing—is no longer with us. The author of the award-winning How We Die, published in 1994, seemed to be fine when we met last September and walked around Portland in Maine. He was a good sport and seemed to care about my life and that of my oldest son who attended his talk and read his book. He was acutely attuned to human suffering because of his own struggles with his father and the mental illness that plagued him in his youth.
I came across news of Shep’s death by mere coincidence, as if some mysterious force wanted me to know. I received an email from a friend and colleague about an interview that the novelist Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom and which deals mainly with death and a writer’s work. I scrolled down the page after reading the interview, and there was news of Shep’s death, accompanied by a photograph that makes him look somewhat professorial and gaunt. Perhaps what unites both men is their Jewishness and interest in the theme of death.
And what is even more intriguing is that I rarely browse through the New York Times when I am traveling abroad. I am actually composing this from a hotel in Oslo, a city whose patron saint might as well be the painter Edvard Munch, another genius adversely affected by his father’s neuroses and also preoccupied by the theme of death. Only yesterday, I visited the National Gallery, where some of his pieces on “Melancholy” and “The Scream” are exhibited side by side, and snatched photos of these details to bring the two paintings closer together in a collage:
Real artists don’t shy away from the ghostly shapes of life, but it is their struggle with the meaning of existence, often composed under the bitter-sweet darkness of melancholy, that, as Shep would heroically put it, allows them to snatch some degree of dignity from the ever-widening jaws of death.
In the picture at the top of this blog, it looks as if I am extending a hand to Shep, pulling him into the limelight of the podium and maybe the temporary safety of life. In truth, I was shaking his hand because he so graciously accepted my invitation to speak in Portland, while insisting that he is first and foremost a humanist. That ‘s why he later sent me an email to comment favorably about a post I wrote about an enlightened Iraqi imam.
"Fascinating, Anouar. Now, how do we clone him?"
The question now is: “How do we clone you, Shep?
Photo on top: Jeff Scher
With the intriguing illustration above, Afternposten, the largest Norwegian newspaper, published my article titled “Europe and the Challenge of Islam.” This is the opening salvo of a three-day event called Saladin Days that starts Monday in Oslo’s House of Literature, when I will give a keynote address by the same title. We will, in the course of the conference, discuss and debate issues related to religion, secularism and reflect critically on the legacy of Edward Said, the great literary and cultural theorist.
I was most fortunate to spend some time yesterday with Greg Woolf, one of the world’s leading scholars on Rome and its empire. A prolific author and—as you could easily glimpse from this brief video—an engaging lecturer, Greg’s research has led him to believe that the Roman Empire was able to manage the enormous amount of cultural diversity within its sprawling borders far better than modern nation-states have done.
This was the subject of his public lecture at UNE’s Center for Global Humanities, but here, in my office, Greg explains the way social roles shifted in times of peace and war and how public functions change in a citizen army, transforming the imperator, or commander, into a leader of his troops, alone with his god, until the war is over and he returns to civilian life again.
This alteration between states of war and peace is probably what kept the Roman Empire stable for so long and created a sense of common purpose for its multicultural citizens.
The sky was dark and heavy in Fez on February 18, 2014, but the sounds hanging over the old city were still lively, as if they were already announcing the coming of a green, bright, and lush spring.
The highway to Fez is dotted by these strange earth structures advertizing the sale of truffles, known in Morocco as terfez. I know that truffles are highly coveted in Europe and the United States, but in Morocco, they seem to grow in abundance. This particular road seller has white and dark varieties, so I chose to buy a few of the latter, hoping that someone could make use of them in Tangier, where I was headed.
Two days later, the maitre d at the El Minzah Hotel took the truffles and prepared them with scallops and parmesan cheese. It made for an exquisite lunch.
It’s been more than 10 years now since my friend Khalid and I launched Tingis, the first Moroccan-American magazine of ideas and culture in the United States and, to the best of our knowledge, in the world. It was our modest attempt to rescue Morocco’s rich and complex intellectual traditions from the one-dimensional narratives that circulated so casually after the tragic events of 9/11. We had been thinking about publishing a magazine for a while, but when, in October 2003, we made the final decision in the basement of my house in Maine, we executed the whole project in less than 3 months. Here is a draft of the first issue before we settled on the final cover and contents.
In December 2003, we celebrated our launch party in Manhattan, and the following month, we flew to Morocco to explore building a cultural compound named Tingis. This would have been a place for travelers to gather, read, discuss, and enjoy life in Morocco. I still have a copy of the conceptual plan.
The magazine was distributed in the US and Morocco and quite a few institutions, including Harvard University, subscribed.
But a magazine is not an easy venture to sustain. We needed designers, printers, distribution systems, storage space, and sales. The latter is the hardest to accomplish, which is why, after two years, we couldn’t keep the print magazine going, and Khalid was forced to move on and take care of his other businesses. I kept the magazine alive on the Internet and recently gave it a somewhat different focus.
Today, I had the pleasure of meeting my son’s friend’s father, Branko. He was in his garage at his Westbrook, Maine home, working on a sign for the bakery his wife is about to open. A native of Croatia, Branko has been living in the United States for 15 years now and has worked hard to give his family a middle-class life. He is a truck driver who supplements his income with odd jobs because life in America is expensive and work never ends. He will be making a bigger sign for the bakery, which will be run by his wife, born in Germany of Serbian descent.
Located on the side of a busy street full of garages, churches, and assorted small businesses, the bakery, with its European cakes, might just catch the fancy of fast-moving drivers and infuse added income into the household budget.
Here’s wishing the family a successful business.