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Jul 11, 2017

Workshop 'Buddha: The Story of a Christian-Muslim Saint'

In July 2017, AGYA Members Bilal Orfali and Kirill Dmitriev brought together academics from different disciplines to discuss the peregrination of the biography of Gautama Buddha in time, space and imagination. The Christian-Muslim Adaptation of the Buddha Once upon a time there lived a prince. His father, the king, wanted him to succeed as ruler of the kingdom. But as astrologers predicted that the prince might turn to religion, the king shielded his son from religious teachings and from knowledge of human suffering. Despite being isolated and surrounded by luxury and pleasure, the prince finally learned the truth, became renunciant and in the end a great spiritual figure. This narrative is recognizable to most Buddhists as a retelling of the life story of Gautama Buddha. Ultimately based on the life story of Buddha, the legend has traveled in time, space and language, providing the prototype for the Islamic story of Bilawhar wa-Budasif and the Christian legend of Barlaam and Josaphat. In the Christian legend, the prince is named Josaphat (or Josafat, Iosaf, Iodasaph). His virtue lies in converting his father’s kingdom to Christianity and living as a Christian ascetic with his teacher, Barlaam (or Barlam, Varlaam). Tracing the Legend through Space In their Tandem Project AGYA Members Bilal Orfali and Kirill Dmitriev got on a research journey to track the travel route of the sacred tale of these two saints: In Rome they studied several relevant (middle Persian and Arabic) manuscripts in the Vatican Library. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg they used the manuscript libraries and researched the liturgical and musical tradition of the story of Josafat and Barlam in its Slavonic transmission. Moreover they visited the Assumption Cathedral within the Kremlin Museum in Moscow to study icons and wall paintings of Varlaam and Iosaf there. They shared their results with other experts at a workshop in Meteora in Greece. There, they brought together scholars from the fields of philology, iranology and art history to look at the legend of Barlaam and Iodasaph on different textual, artistic, theological, performative and interpretive aspects. The workshop venue was right below the famous monastery dedicated to Barlaam that rests on a monolithic rock pillar in the Greek mountains. The focus of the workshop lied on a comprehensive study of the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat not merely as a text transmitted in various linguistic contexts, but as a phenomenon of cultural history crossing boundaries and transcending identities of multiple ethnic, religious, and artistic systems. The workshop participants agreed that due to the missionary aspect of the text, describing mystical knowledge and the persecution of religious minorities, the legend was primarily appealing to marginalized faiths instead of dogmatic state religions. Therefore, the early Arabic and Christian versions were created in Ismaili Muslim Culture and in Muslim-ruled Georgia – and not, for example, in mainstream Sunni Islam. The Search for the Oldest Text Source In presentations and discussions, the experts approached the topic from different angles. While there is a rich history of oral transmissions of the legend of Barlaam throughout different cultural settings, the workshop concentrated on analyzing the written versions. Iranologist Andrea Piras (University of Bologna, Italy) opened the conversation by discussing his research of a stemma to trace the text’s versions trough time, analyzing the Manichaean transmission, a gnostic religion of the early Middle Ages. While he agreed that it had little direct influence on the later Arabic and Greek texts, he nevertheless stressed the value of the Central Asian life of the story more generally for understanding the missionary and didactic aspects of the text in later incarnations. Alexey Muraviev (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow) argued for the possibility of a Christianized Arabic predecessor to the Georgian version – a point that was controversial discussed by the other participants. Arabist Isabel Toral-Niehoff (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany) concentrated her work on the extant Arabic versions of the text in the search for the oldest Arabic source. She rejected orientalist Daniel Gimaret’s claim of his edition to resemble the oldest non-Christian, non-Muslim precursor of all other versions. She pointed out that the manuscripts upon which Gimaret based his text were primarily of the 19th century and stemmed from the Ismaili tradition in Bombay. While this does not rule out their preserving older elements of the text, it does make it less likely, particularly given the degree to which the text was changed by copyists in other versions. Toral-Niehoff summarized that we must conclude the picture is complicated and we do not presently have the oldest Arabic version in any definitive form’. Following Dr. Toral-Niehoff’s talk, the Christian Arabic version – clearly a translation of the Greek text – was discussed, observing the extremely high quality of language, in contrast to many other Christian Arabic religious texts. Tracing the Legend through Art Art historian Francesca Tagliatesta (Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle, France) approached the story from a visual rather than textual perspective. She focused on the depiction of several episodes from the story in medieval Italian frescoes and mosaics, to see which versions of the story they are based on and how people understood these images in their respective epochs. For example, she examined the symbol of the “three living and three dead,” representing the worthlessness of the worldly life compared to enlightenment and afterlife, to demonstrate how an originally Buddhist story could spread with ease throughout Christendom. Outlook: a Detailed Comparison of Texts In a final round led by AGYA member Kirill Dmitriev, the workshop participants discussed how to integrate new perspectives into the traditionally philological discussion of the story. All participants agreed that an episode-by-episode comparison of the various versions, tracking the small changes of dialogue and plot, might reveal new information about the process of transformation across various versions of the story. AGYA member Bilal Orfali summarized: ‘The literary complex known as the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat is a remarkable document of the history of contacts between civilizations. It mocked all boundaries and enjoyed a popularity attained perhaps by no other legend. Like all good stories, it has something to teach. We hope to continue our exploration in future workshops that tackle different aspects of the story from different angles, the aim is to learn about how similar we humans are, how different, but also why and how this happened.’

May 12, 2017

Insatiable Appetite: Food as a Cultural Signifier

Like no other item of daily life, food intimately connects the world's population to the process of globalization - a process that was by no means a recent development. Particularly Europe and the Mediterranean have been connected by alimentary exchange since antiquity. Yet while food serves to build bridges, it is also a potent marker of social, religious, gendered, and ethnic differences. This conference aimed at exploring the cultural as well as scientific ramifications of food and foodways in Europe and the Mediterranean in a longue durée and interdisciplinary perspective.

Apr 25, 2017

Winner of 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction: Previews Before Today’s Announcement

The final countdown to the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction — popularly known as the “Arabic Booker” — has begun: The prize is set to be announced this evening in Abu Dhabi, the night before the opening of the city’s international book fair. Last night, five of the six shortlisted authors were hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi in a discussion moderated by AUB professor Bilal Orfali. Writer Rana Asfour tweeted from the event, which Kuwaiti novelist Ismail Fahd Ismail (shortlisted for his Al-Sabiliat) was apparently unable to attend. The five who attended were Libyan novelist Najwa Binshatwan, shortlisted for The Slave Pens; Iraqi novelist Saad Mohammed Raheem, shortlisted for The Bookseller’s Murder; Egyptian novelist Mohammed Abdel Nabi, shortlisted for In the Spider’s Room; Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, shortlisted for Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam; and Saudi novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan, shortlisted for A Small Death. Snippets from the night include Binshatwan saying: “The Arab character is decaying and we are trying to save what’s left through writing. Writing is my escape as well.” According to Asfour, Binshatwan also said, “For my book I collected folkloric stories because formal history never mentioned slavery in Libya, actually marginalised it.” Alwan, whose novel follows twelfth-century philosopher-poet Ibn Arabi, said, according to Asfour, “Writing on a real character was challenging yet I learnt as I wrote & it proved a joyous experience’.” Abdel Nabi, who was apparently asked about whether his novel presents stereotypical gay characters, perhaps in response to an online review of his In the Spider’s Room, which is set around the Queen Boat arrests of many in Cairo’s gay community. Abdel Nabi apparently said: “Let’s not burden literature with more than it can take!” Asfour clarified that she felt Abdel Nabi “avoided the question. He said that literature should not always be expected to carry the burden of reality.” In respones to a question about why only one woman was on the shortlist, Khoury apparently said: “A personal observation is literature in [the] world[,] not only Arab world[,] has male domination.” Khoury also reportedly added that the “‘trend now is 2 write about the present as if in revenge on authors who refused to break silence in the past.” Interviews with all six of the shortlisted authors can be found on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction website, where they all gamely answer questions about where they were when they heard they’d been shortlisted (at the office; at home; recovering from surgery) and who influenced them (shortlisted novelist Saad Mohammed Raheem generously names fellow shortlistee Elias Khoury). The National ran a short piece about each author’s chances, although without any fun numbers to gamble on. Short translated excerpts of each of the novels can be read in the current issue of Banipal magazine, along with a discussion of whether literary prizes are a positive or a negative for Arabic letters. Over on Bookwitty, I discuss this discussion, and recommend 10 reads from the prize’s first 10 years. As in other years, the six shortlisted finalists will receive $10,000, with an additional $50,000 going to the winner. Last year’s winner of the Prize was Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba by Rabai al-Madhoun. Other previous winners include Shukri Mabkout’s The Italian (2015); Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014), forthcoming in translation by Jonathan Wright in 2018; Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk (2013), translated into English by Jonathan Wright; Rabee Jaber’s The Druze of Belgrade (2012); Mohammed Achaari’s The Arch and the Butterfly and Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace, co-winners, both in English translation (2011); Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks (2010), translated into English by Maia Tabet and Michael Scott; Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel (2009), translated into English by Jonathan Wright; and Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (2008), translated into English by Humphrey Davies. The IPAF does provide funding for English translation for its winners.

Dec 22, 2016

Hot Encounters: Glass Blowing and Glass Art in the Middle East and Europe

Glassblowing is believed to have been originated in the region of Syria in the 1st century BC, and rapidly spread throughout the ancient world. The use of the blowpipe and closed molds were important technical advances that revolutionized the glass production in the Roman Empire. Therefore, manual glass production has become an intangible cultural heritage shared between Europe and the Arab world. Contemporary glass artists follow the tracks of former craftsmen and have become global travelers between Western and Eastern glass art traditions. The Working Group has invited researchers and artists to bring attention to historical and contemporary approaches of glass art production.

Dec 4, 2016

Book panel focuses on the role AUB plays in the region

The American University of Beirut (AUB) and Dar Nelson have organized a panel discussion about the book One Hundred and Fifty at the 60th Beirut Arab Book fair held yearly at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center. The book, which is published by AUB Press, is a collection of articles examining the history of the University. The book was launched in March 2016 as part of AUB’s 150th anniversary celebrations, and was edited by Drs. Nadia El Cheikh, Lina Choueiri and Bilal Orfali. On the panel spoke Dr. El Cheikh, who has since been appointed dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Philosophy Professor Bashar Haydar, Director of the Issam Fares Institute Dr. Tarek Mitri, and AUB Alumnus Mohammad Mattar. The panel was moderated by Suleiman Bakhti. Bakhti opened the panel stating that in this book all sides of the history of the AUB were explored and portrayed objectively, showing the instances that made AUB an institution that changes the lives of people for the better. “AUB is a book that doesn’t end; it’s an institution that doesn’t stop growing and producing novelty,” he said. Dr. El Cheikh then took the stage to further elaborate on the content of the book, which she described as a token of appreciation presented by her and her co-editors to AUB on its 150th anniversary. “The book contains a photo essay showing the first females at AUB after it was an all-male university,” she said. “It shows the first female head nurse at the nursing school in 1905, the first veiled woman to join AUB in 1924, among other firsts, and this highlights the important role AUB played as the first university in the region to open its doors to women.” Dr. Mitri spoke about the relationship between the University and Ras Beirut. According to him, the university helped shape the old Ras Beirut, back when the area was quasi-empty. However, the modern Ras Beirut as we know it today is different compared with the old one, and the University has little to no effect on its modern constitution. The split between the once twins area happened after the civil war, he said, when AUB’s main concern was to survive the war, so the university’s focus became internal rather than open to its surroundings “What hit Lebanon and the Arab region of wars and hardships during the past few years hit AUB as well, but we should all be proud of what AUB was able to accomplish during the past 150 years despite all odds,” he concluded. Dr. Bashar Haydar added that AUB has entered a phase of individual success, stating that this success, although notable and important, should not preclude involvement of society outside or the wider picture of Beirut and the region. “AUB deals with itself as a knowledge generator, comparing itself with universities abroad, missing the point that we are not in the US, where communities are advanced, but we’re rather in Lebanon where the government doesn’t properly function and basic human rights aren’t applied,” he said. “We have to admit that we have failed on this level, and must start focusing on the role that AUB can play in the society, all while trying to overcome the obstacles and the hard circumstances the region is going through.” In his turn, Mr Mattar spoke about the important role AUB plays in providing its students with a degree of political awareness. According to him, AUB is multifunctional, it does not only provide its students with skills to take over the market place once they graduate, but it also equips them with tools to play important roles in their societies. He referred to the strike that happened in the 1970s and in which he took part, stating that although most universities in the region are apolitical, AUB allowed its students a chance to be political activists. “FAS is the spirit of this university, where social sciences and humanities are main components allowing students to learn about their societies,” he said. “Those fields provide the students with critical views on studies and theories that can later be applied in civic engagement and not only in the professional fields they choose to pursue.” The panel was followed by a book signing at the AUB Press stand in the fair, where Dr. El Cheikh signed copies of the book. One Hundred and Fifty is currently available for $40 from AUB Press. It is also available through the AUB Bookstore and other Librairie Antoine stores (including www.antoineonline.com).

Apr 5, 2015

AUB Assistant Professor named member of prestigious Institute for Advanced Study

Bilal Orfali, assistant professor of Arabic studies and director of the CAMES Arabic Summer Program at the American University of Beirut, was recently named a visiting member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey for the academic year 2011-12. The Institute for Advanced Study, a private academic institution, independent of Princeton University, is, as its website states, “one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry.” Founded in 1930, the institute encourages and supports “fundamental research in the sciences and humanities—the original, often speculative thinking that produces advances in knowledge that change the way we understand the world.” The institute brings together a community of top rank scholars, enabling them to pursue research at their own time and pace, free from teaching and other university obligations. Past faculty members have included distinguished scientists and scholars such as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Panofsky, John von Neumann, and George Kennan. Some twenty-five Nobel laureates, thirty-eight Fields Medalists, and many winners of the Wolf and MacArthur prizes have been affiliated with the Institute. Orfali’s research contributes to understanding key literary and social issues of the fourth through tenth centuries such as the significance and nature of the genre of Arabic literary anthology, patronage and courtly life, the working and reworking of books in classical Arabic literature, oral versus aural and written transmission of literary reports, as well as prose and poetry and the several ways in which they are combined and juxtaposed. His project at the institute will focus on the genesis and development of early Sufi poetry by examining the origins of the early Sufi poetic motifs in light of other genres of Arabic poetry such as wine, ghazal, and madih poetry.