The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Opening a New Door on History

This is a writing assignment I did for a World Civ 100 class I’m currently taking.  Expect more regular updates soon.

The question:

First you should summarize the article, then give your thoughts about it and tell how it might be useful in our class and to the scholarly world in general. You can certainly include negative andpositive thoughts about the article.

The article:  After 90 Years, A Dictionary of an Ancient World (NYTimes)

My response:

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Opening a New Door on History

After 90 years of effort on the part of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, a project titled the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary has finally been completed. This 21 volume dictionary compiles the definitions and usage explanations of words from the ancient Mesopotamian language, including its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. This monumental achievement has opened a new door for all scholars interested in researching the Mesopotamian people and their culture.

According to a New York Times article published online (footnote was inserted here), this dictionary covers the language as it was used from roughly 2500 B.C. to 100 A.D. The project was initially started by Dr. James Henry Breasted in 1921, but didn’t make too much progress until after World War II, when the project was reorganized. The first volume of the set was published in 1956, with 20 following volumes being published over a 55 year period under the editorship of A. Leo Oppenheim, Erica Reiner and Dr. Martha Roth, the current dean of humanities at the University of Chicago. The dictionary is comprehensive, covering word usage and nuances, as well as cultural material available that relates to the word being defined.

The best way to understand any culture is by examining primary sources. The best primary source is a set of written records, but those records are meaningless if a scholar cannot completely understand the language. By unlocking the Assyrian language and making it accessible to scholars everywhere, the team at the University of Chicago has opened a door to new and hopefully more insightful studies of the Mesopotamian civilizations. Having a reviewed and reputable resource to draw from, scholars can now make better informed translations of the material they’re working with, whether it is a cuneiform tablet of a contract, or a literary work. The effort the team made in defining the nuances and various usages of the word, rather than giving simple definitions, added immense value to the work as a whole. The meaning of a text can sometimes change drastically based on a misinterpretation of one word. With a new standard to build from, scholars and translators can hopefully render the Assyrian language into English with greater efficiency and accuracy. Additionally, currently existing translations can now be vetted against this dictionary to check for accuracy.

This accomplishment can also greatly benefit classroom study. A common misconception among people today is that people from ancient civilizations were inherently less intelligent than modern people. By presenting examples of the Assyrian language (from entries in the Chicago University’s Assyrian Dictionary) to students today, a professor could demonstrate the complexity and depth not only of their language, but of their society as a whole. When discussing literature from Mesopotamia, the professor could introduce printouts of key terms from the work for classroom study so that students will have a greater understanding of the social constructs present in the work. As Gil Stein, the director of Chicago University’s Oriental Institute said in the New York Times article, this dictionary “is an indispensable research tool for any scholar anywhere who seeks to explore the written record of the Mesopotamian civilization.”

The compilation and publication of the Assyrian Dictionary by the University of Chicago will have a lasting and profound impact on the study of Mesopotamia. It is a vital and robust tool that can be used by professionals and scholars to make more accurate translations of the Assyrian language. For students, the dictionary will be an excellent tool for expanding their knowledge of the Mesopotamian world and ancient civilizations in general. The Assyrian Dictionary is a work of immense value that sheds new light on an ancient civilization and it will be used as a basis for research and study far into the future.

Bibliography

Wilford, John Noble. “After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World.” The New York Times: Science. June 6, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/07/science/07dictionary.html (accessed July 7, 2011).

This paper received an A, but I don’t think it was graded too critically.

The Effects of “Strange Fruit”

The following is a main outline for a speech I wrote for my Speech Foundations class.  The information presented is true and includes a works cited section at the end of the blog post.  However, the information was presented in a fictional setting, with myself as a Professor of History at UGA speaking at the Jazz Education Network annual conference, which is a real conference.  Three other people presented speeches on the social impact of Jazz, besides myself.  The first person talked about the birth of Jazz in New Orleans.  The second person talked about the Harlem Renaissance.  I gave my speech, and then the last person spoke about how Jazz has spread to other countries, and about how it’s empowering.  The purpose of the assignment was to determine our ability to give an informative speech, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to do this research and presentation.  It gave me a new appreciation of Jazz music.

At the top of the speech text I’ve embedded the PowerPoint slides I used during my presentation.  Cues for changing the slides are in the text.  I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed learning and speaking about it.

Title:  The Effects of “Strange Fruit”

Speaker:  Professor of US History, University of Georgia

Specific Purpose:  Recognizing the cultural influence of Strange Fruit, a Jazz song, at the third annual Jazz Education Network (JEN) conference.

Thesis Statement:  The Jazz song, Strange Fruit, played an important role in raising public awareness regarding the horrors of lynching and the necessity of ensuring civil rights.

 

I.  Introduction

1)      Attention Getter:  In 2009, a group of Caucasian and Latino firemen sued New Haven, Connecticut, for racial discrimination when a promotion test was thrown out, simply because no African Americans were able to pass (Tedford).  The fight to find equality between the races is far from over, but these days conflicts are usually resolved in court.  That wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when the answer to race conflict usually ended with a public lynching.  (slide 2)

2)      Establishment of Ethos:  As a professor of American history, I have been studying and teaching civil rights issues and how they have affected US History for almost 10 years.  What I’ve discovered is that…

3)      Thematic Statement:  … Jazz music, through Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit”, played a significant role in raising public awareness of civil rights issues.

4)      Preview of Main Points:

a)      Despite efforts and progress made during Reconstruction, racism increased dramatically, to the point it became publically acceptable and a source of pride among Caucasians.

b)      Racial tensions were running so high that Billie Holiday didn’t even want to sing “Strange Fruit” initially, but after agreeing, it became a huge success.

c)       Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit”, became an important reminder to the public of the horrors of lynching and a reminder to African Americans of what they were fighting against.

(Transition:  (Open image of lynching).  To get an idea of the social climate when “Strange Fruit” was first sung, let’s take a look at this photo of a lynching.)

II. Body

1)      If you look at this photo, you can see how widespread and publically acceptable it was to lynch African Americans during the years following Reconstruction.  If you look closely, (point to man pointing at bodies) you can see that for many people, it was even a source of pride.  This man definitely wants his peers to know he approves of what’s being done.  After the Reconstruction Era, race relations quickly degraded.  Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936 and often considered one of the best books ever written (Loewen 144), even “suggests that slavery was an ideal social structure whose passing is to be lamented” (Loewen 137).  (slide 3)  A passage from that book reads:  “The former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty.  There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do.  Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild – either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance” (Loewen 144).  (slide 4, I added this after writing the speech, at the last minute, and spoke about how lynching was so publically acceptable that it developed into an industry like modern day tourism) With so much positive social reinforcement for keeping blacks in their ‘place’, is it any wonder that whites engaged in lynching or that they were in fact proud of their participation, even posing in lynching photos like this one?

2)      A picture very much like the one above prompted Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, to write “Strange Fruit”, which was originally a poem (Strange Fruit: The Film).  (Pass out lyrics to class).  Billie Holiday was first approached to sing the song while working at an establishment called Café Society.  When she read the lyrics, she was reluctant to commit to singing it. (slide 5, emphasize the climate of fear in the late 30s)  She later said, “I was scared that people would hate it” (White 49-50).  The café manager, Barney Josephson, insisted that she perform the song and turned it into a dramatic production.  When she sang, all service would stop and the lights would be turned off, with only a spotlight on Billie’s face.  Josephson said, “People had to remember Strange Fruit, get their insides burned with it” (White 50).  People did remember it.

3)      “Strange Fruit” climbed to #16 (Kolodzey) on the US Billboard Chart and, according to a PBS documentary, “made it impossible for white Americans and politicians to continue to ignore the Southern campaign of racist terror” (Strange Fruit: The Film).  According to Caryl Phillips, who wrote a stage play called “Strange Fruit”, based on themes in Billie Holiday’s song, “Those who heard “Strange Fruit” in the late 30s were shocked, for the true barbarity of southern violence was generally only discussed in black newspapers.  To be introduced to such realities by a song was unprecedented…” (Phillips).  What was truly revolutionary about this song was that it broke the traditional role of the café singer, which was to entertain (Phillips).  Instead, Billie Holiday was able to use this song to promote an idea to her audience, to educate them and leave them unable, as PBS said, to ignore the problems of racism.  Because of its high popularity, “Strange Fruit” is credited with a major role in increasing Caucasian social awareness of the fledgling civil rights movement (Kolodzey).  When she performed the song for an African American audience at the Apollo, the end of her song was followed by a moment of heavy silence and then a rustling noise as 2000 African American patrons collectively sighed, perhaps after mentally reliving horrors in their minds that they had themselves witnessed (White 55).  To Billie herself, the song came to symbolize “all the cruelties, all the deaths, from the quick snap of the neck to the slow dying from all kinds of starvation” (White 55).

(Transition:  You’ve heard about the social atmosphere during the 1930s.  You’ve heard about how the song was created and initially introduced to the public.  You’ve heard about the impact it had on American culture.  Now, I’d like to give you an opportunity to hear the song for yourself. )

(Slide 6, Play video. Note: Video doesn’t work in the embedded slideshow, so I’ve inserted it below)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v/h4ZyuULy9zs

III. Conclusion

1)      (slide 7)  Music is powerful.  Billie Holiday’s use of “Strange Fruit” to excite the public imagination regarding the horrors of lynching and the need for equality prove that.  In an atmosphere of fear, she was brave enough to sing it.  Because of her passion, she turned it into a powerful call to action that affected Caucasian Americans across the country.

2)     So, when you think of Billie Holiday, don’t just remember her for being an entertainer.  Remember her for using Jazz music as a platform for promoting the necessity of one of the greatest accomplishments in our nation’s history, the establishment of civil rights.

Works Cited

Kolodzey, Jody. “Stranger Than Fiction.” 24 March 2003. In These Times. 17 June 2011 .

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 2007.

Phillips, Caryl. “Blood at the root.” 18 August 2007. Guardian.co.uk. 17 June 2011 .

“Strange Fruit: The Film.” n.d. PBS: Independent Lens. 17 June 2011 .

Tedford, Deborah. Ruling on Firefighters Tests Tensions In New Haven. 1 July 2009. 15 June 2011 .

White, John. Billie Holiday: Her Life & Times. New York: Universe Books, 1987.

 

Art Comparison: Qu’ran Manuscript and The Angel Gabriel

The following is the second paper I wrote for my Art History 100 class.  We were tasked with finding two art pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and then writing a paper that compares and contrasts them based on form and content.  Our choices were restricted to certain art periods from specific locations, like French Gothic or Italian Renaissance.  I chose the following two pieces because I found them particularly interesting on a personal level, as well as being easy to write about.

I think I might have been a bit off the mark on fitting The Angel Gabriel to the Renaissance standard, but I won’t know for sure until September, when I can get in touch with the professor and see the paper.  It was due on the day of the final, so there’s no way for me to get it back and check it out.  I’ll update the grade received and any notes from the professor at some point, on the Essays page.

(Note: The images were not included in the paper that was turned in.  I added them here so readers that aren’t as familiar with art as my professor can get a better idea of what I’m talking about.)

 

Introduction and Location

The paper will be discussing the differences and similarities between two works: The Angel Gabriel and Qur’an Manuscript. The Angel Gabriel was created in approximately 1493, is attributed to Masseo Civitali and is believed to have originally been located in the oratory of Santa Maria dell’ Anunnziata in Lucca, Italy. The work is now located in gallery 500 on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the “European Sculpture and Decorative Arts” section. The Qur’an Manuscript was created in the early 14th century, by an anonymous artist in Iran or Iraq. The work is now located in a display case in gallery 203, on the Great Hall Balcony on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Formal Aspect & Genre Descriptions

The Angel Gabriel, Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Angel Gabriel is a Renaissance sculpture that is roughly life-sized. The sculpture is a painted and partially gilt terracotta statue. It appears to have been free standing on its original base, which is now broken. The statue is now anchored to a display base. The sculpture leans at an almost unnatural angle, covered in a draped garment that is smooth and flowing. The figure is naturalistically proportioned and detailed, though the face is idealized. On the back of the statue, there are two vertical slots where terracotta wings were probably inserted. Renaissance art was largely religious (Aston 105). Compared to the earlier Gothic style, Renaissance art focused more on the human aspect of the art subject. Where Gothic art was solemn and dignified, Renaissance works like The Angel Gabriel attempted to introduce tenderness and beauty into art without sacrificing the aura of divinity associated with religious figures (Aston 133). The introduction of a human element into the sculpture is apparent in the joyous expression on the face and in how the arms are crossed over the chest, as though the angel can barely contain the good news he is about to share. Rather than standing vertical, the angel is leaning forward towards the recipient of his news. Despite these included aspects of human emotion, the aura of the divine is still maintained through the idealized, androgynous face (angels have no gender), and the original presence of wings on its back.

Qu'ran Manuscript, 14th Century Iran or Iraq, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Qur’an Manuscript is a non-illustrated manuscript folio and an example of Islamic art. The page on display is 34.9 x 27.3 centimeters and was made with ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The page is primarily covered with naskh cursive text, but also contains decorative calligraphy and hand drawn vegetal and geometric images that are painted with gold. Islamic art as a whole is defined by a prohibition against making representations of living things, since it might create a temptation to commit idolatry (Evans 151). The resulting typical expression of Islamic art is mostly abstract, containing geometric patterns, references to vegetation and calligraphy. These elements were reflections of religious beliefs. The geometric patterns represent the perfection of Allah and the vegetation is a reference to paradise in the afterlife. Calligraphy also became a popular form of art, taking the place of images and being used to represent Allah. The main purpose of calligraphy was to appreciate the visual quality, rather than to read it. These elements are present in both secular and religious art, though secular art would not contain calligraphic quotations from the Qur’an.

Content

Theme

Both The Angel Gabriel and the Qu’ran Manuscript have a similar theme. Both works are the products of religious devotion. Gabriel is a prominent figure that is present in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Stories about Gabriel appear in each religion’s holy texts. The Qur’an Manuscript is a handwritten and decorated page of the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. The difference between the two works is that while The Angel Gabriel represents a religious idea, it was mostly meant to be decorative, appearing in an oratory. The Qu’ran Manuscript, on the other hand, while being decorative was also meant to be functional, a holy book to read and learn from.

Depiction

The Angel Gabriel, Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Angel Gabriel specifically depicts Gabriel, an angel, leaning forward, as if appearing to someone. The name Gabriel means “God is my strength” or “the strength of God” and he is known as The Great Communicator (Aquilina 69). Throughout the Bible, Gabriel appears to people to bring them news from God. In Daniel 8:15-17 he appears to Daniel to explain a vision to him. In Luke 1:16-17 he appears to Zechariah to tell him that he and his wife shall have a child and that his child, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for the Messiah. Later, in Luke 1:26-38, Gabriel appears to Mary, to tell her that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ, the son of God. According to the information placard on the sculpture’s display base, it is believed that The Angel Gabriel was originally part of a pair of statues which included the Virgin Mary. Together, they would have formed an Annunciation Group, which represents the moment when Gabriel shared the news of her divine pregnancy with her.

Qu'ran Manuscript, 14th Century Iran or Iraq, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Qu’ran Manuscript is a page from the holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran. The top of the page contains a geometric, gold painted rectangular frame that contains decorative calligraphy which reads, “Surat Saud, Eighty Six Verses (Ayats), Mekka surat” (Hany), though Mr. Hany also noted that the surat actually has 88 verses. Just to the right of the rectangular frame is a drawing containing concentric circles around a vegetal image, probably of a flower, also in gold with a blue center. Additional matching representations of flowers, rosettes, are drawn throughout the text as markers between ayas, or verses. In the right margin are two decorative seals, one circular, one teardrop shaped, both in gold and surrounded by a blue outline. These seals contain kufic script in the center. The main text of the page is a cursive form of Arabic known as naskh, with recitation marks added in red ink. The text on the page on display is the last part of the 37th surah and the first 11 ayas of the 38th surah of the 23rd juz (part) of the Qu’ran, The Letter Saud, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad at Mecca. Preceding the beginning of the 1st aya in the 38th surah is the phrase, “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful,” which is not part of the surah itself and precedes all of the surahs in the Qu’ran (Hany).

Purpose

The original purpose of The Angel Gabriel would have been to inspire believers and deepen their faith. Many people at the time the statue was created were illiterate, and learning about Christianity, outside of sermons given by clergy, was through observation of religious art. When looking at the sculpture of Gabriel, believers would have been reminded of the good news he shared with people in the Bible, and particularly with Mary. If The Angel Gabriel was originally paired with a statue of the Virgin Mary, then viewing them together would have reminded viewers of their hope of salvation through God’s grace and Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross. The Angel Gabriel was originally designed to be a decorative piece for casual observation and reflection and, though it is now located in a museum rather than a religious building, the effect is essentially the same. It causes the viewer to contemplate the meaning of Christianity and Gabriel’s role in the Bible.

The Qu’ran Manuscript was meant to be a functional copy of the Qu’ran, to be used by believers for study and recitation, as well as to inspire through the decorative artwork it contains. The Arabic text of the page, together with the rest of the text in the Qu’ran, is the physical representation of Allah through language (the written word) in the Islamic faith. The Qu’ran praises Allah and His creation, defines the relationship between Allah and the worshipper, explains the afterlife through eschatological texts and teaches Muslims how to practice their faith in everyday life. While the particular copy of the Qu’ran the page came from is no longer serving that purpose, the text of the Qu’ran has been copied, translated and distributed all over the world and continues to serve the function it was originally created for.

Presentation

The Angel Gabriel is presented in a small room with other Italian Renaissance pieces. The room is well lit, and Gabriel is the first work you notice as you walk into the room. The lighting brings out the remaining color from the original paint and gilding on the statue, giving the viewer an idea of what it might have originally looked like. Appreciation of how the piece was originally displayed would be helped by having a similar work of the Virgin Mary opposite Gabriel, though that is probably not possible due to limitations in the museum’s inventory. An alternative would be to have a digital rendering of what it might have looked like in place at the oratory displayed next to it, or on the display base. As it’s now displayed, Gabriel appears almost out of place in the room and it requires a lot of imagination to picture how it would have originally appeared.

The Qu’ran Manuscript is set in a glass display case along the wall of the Great Hall Balcony. The display case contains other Islamic works that represent highlights from the Department of Islamic Art. The works range in date from the seventh to the eighteenth century and include textiles, jewelry, pottery and other manuscript pages. Since the case shows a cross-section of art, the overall effect is a bit jarring, especially combined with the noise coming from the entry hall below the balcony and the strong smells coming from the balcony dining area. The benefit of being placed in that location is that it catches the eye of people walking by and the skylights and windows help to keep it well illuminated. It would be easier to appreciate this work in a smaller room with other Islamic manuscript pages from the same time period.

Works Cited

Aquilina, Mike. Angels of God: The Bible, The Church, And The Heavenly Hosts. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.

Aston, Margaret. The Renaissance Complete. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1996.

Civitali, Masseo. The Angel Gabriel. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Evans, Gillian Rosemary. The Church in the Early Middle Ages: The I.B. Tauris History of the Christian Church. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2007.

Hany, Islam. Translations and discussion of Qu’ran Manuscript and Qu’ran. Bradley J. Farless. 15 May 2011.

Unknown. Qu’ran Manuscript. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Where Does Fate End and Free Will Begin?

Note:  The following is the second and last paper I wrote for my World Humanities 1 class.  It deals with the issue of fate vs. free will in Oedipus the King, Macbeth, and the creation story of Genesis.  Please keep in mind that in regards to Genesis, this was written from a literary perspective and only using the information found in the first two chapters.  The paper has been edited slightly to look better as a blog post.

Introduction

Some of the earliest artwork that’s been found, like the cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the Venus of Willendorf, indicates that man has had an interest in the supernatural since before recorded history. Archaeological evidence shows intentional burial of the dead with objects needed in the afterlife as much as sixty-thousand years ago and evidence also exists of the universality of religion in historic and modern times (Ember, Ember and Peregrine 446). This preoccupation with religion has led to the development of complex belief systems throughout history, from the Greek pantheon of gods in ancient Greece to the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are based on the Jewish Talmud and Torah.

Starting with Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., scholars, theologians, historians and philosophers have speculated about religion. This speculation has sometimes taken the form of literature, such as the creation story in the book of Genesis, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These stories present situations that place man at odds with the supernatural. They pose the question of whether or not man has any control over his own life. Does man have free will, or is he driven by fate to success or failure? Each of the three stories gives us a similar, but different possible answer.

Adam and Eve Were Doomed to Fail

Adam and Eve stained glass window.
Adam and Eve stained glass window.

The book of Genesis is a Jewish religious text, later recognized by both Christians and Muslims, that tells the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world and then places man in that world as the pinnacle of His creation. From man, God creates woman and they live together in a paradise on Earth called the Garden of Eden. God also chooses to place the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. He tells Adam and Eve that they can enjoy the rest of the garden as much as they want, but they may not eat from that specific tree. Despite this warning, Eve does eventually eat the fruit of the tree and Adam joins her, causing them to be cast out of the garden.

Is it Adam and Eve’s fate to commit this sin, or do they have free will to avoid temptation? When God creates Adam and Eve, they are created without any concept of right or wrong. They have no concept of morality, because morality requires knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. When God places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, he is setting Adam and Eve up for failure. Despite his instruction to Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree, they cannot be reasonably expected to follow this instruction, since they do not know that disobeying it is wrong.

God also allows evil to come into the garden, in the form of a talking snake, to tempt Eve into doing what God says shouldn’t be done. Even when Eve decides to eat from the tree, she does not do it out of a conscious act of disobeying. She does it because the tree is pretty and the fruit looks tasty: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … she took of the fruit thereof…” (King James Version, Gen. 3:6).

God could have placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil anywhere in creation, but He chooses to place it in the Garden of Eden, where He also places man. God then tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from the tree, but does not give them the mental capacity to understand that following His command is the right thing to do. God then allows the snake to tempt Eve. One could reasonably assume that an omniscient, all powerful God did these things for the sole purpose of ensuring that Adam and Eve would sin and fall from grace. Adam and Eve never had a choice in the matter.

(Image of Adam and Eve from The Rector’s Corner)

Laius and Oedipus Ruined Their Own Lives

Oedipus the KingIn Oedipus the King, Sophocles presents a tale showing that a foretold fate can be prevented, but is sometimes brought about by one’s own hands. The story revolves around two key prophecies from Apollo, one given to Laius and one given to Oedipus. Relating the story to Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that the oracle “declared that doom would strike [Laius] down at the hands of a son, / our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood” (Fagles 201). When Oedipus visits the oracle, he is told: “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring / a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see– / you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!” (Fagles 205).

Both of these prophecies set in motion chains of events that lead to their fulfilment, but not because of fate or an inability to change the future. Laius and Oedipus both make conscious choices, of their own free wills, to act, or not act, on these prophecies, influencing the final outcomes. After hearing the prophecy, Laius could have acted in other ways that would have prevented its fulfilment. Laius could have killed Oedipus himself, or he could have raised him. If he had killed Oedipus outright, the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true. If he had raised Oedipus in Thebes, the boy would have either grown up to love him, or at the least he’d know who his son is. Knowing who his son is would have allowed him to keep an eye on him. Instead, Laius sends the baby Oedipus into the mountains with a shepherd, to die from exposure.

Instead of being left to die, Oedipus is given away and becomes the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, where he in turn grows up and receives his own prophecy. When Oedipus hears this prophecy, he makes a conscious choice to leave Corinth, to avoid killing the people he believes are his parents. However, he also makes a choice to not heed the remainder of the prophecy. When trying to escape from an unpleasant fate, shouldn’t one take into consideration the whole prophecy? It’s true that he believes his parents are Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, but considering the stipulations of the prophecy, he could have chosen to avoid killing or marrying anyone in the future.

When Oedipus encounters a rude traveller on the road, instead of choosing to avoid trouble and run away, he attacks and kills the man, who turns out to be his biological father. When presented with an opportunity to marry, he takes it and unwittingly marries his mother, rather than remembering the prophecy and abstaining from marriage altogether. Through their own actions and their own choices, Laius and Oedipus both fulfil the prophecies they are given.

(Image in this section from KevinStilley.com)

It’s All in the Journey, Because the End Doesn’t Change

Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.
Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we are presented with yet another way to view fate. While returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches along the road that present Macbeth with two prophecies. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, which he is. They then hail him as Thane of Cawdor, which confuses him since there is already a Thane of Cawdor. Finally, they hail him as “…Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Orgel 9). Shortly after the witches disappear, Macbeth finds out that he has been named the Thane of Cawdor. The witches do not tell him when these prophecies will come true and whether or not it is a deception on their part, Macbeth takes his immediate naming of Thane of Cawdor as a cue to act to ensure the fulfilment of the third prophecy.

At this point, Macbeth begins to control how he will bring about his own fate. Macbeth and his wife conspire to kill the current king, Duncan, and after succeeding, Macbeth is placed in power. He attains the kingship and his prophecy is fulfilled. However, because of the way Macbeth chooses to reach his prophesied destiny, his reward is short lived, violent and ends in tragedy. If Macbeth had chosen to wait for the prophecy to fulfil itself, he may have been a much older man when he was named king, but the transition would have likely been more peaceful and he might have even sat on the throne longer. In Macbeth, fate is absolute, but how Macbeth attains his fate is optional.

(Image of Macbeth and Banquo with the witches from Wikipedia)

Conclusion

These three works of literature each present a different view of how man is subject to fate. Is man locked into his fate with no chance to escape, like Adam and Eve in the Genesis creation story? Can man avoid fate altogether by acting on prophecy and making the proper choices, as evidenced by Oedipus the King? Or is our fate absolute, with only the way we get there left to our discretion, as in Macbeth? As long as man continues to believe in the supernatural, questions about man’s relationship with the divine will continue to be debated, because there is no way to definitively prove that any particular view is correct.

References

Ember, Carol R., Melvin R. Ember and Peter N. Peregrine. Anthropology: Thirteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.
Fagles, Robert. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.
Orgel, Stephen. Macbeth. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000.
Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.

Culture Clash: Small-Town American vs. Somalian Immigrant Culture

This is a paper I wrote for my 100 level Anthropology class.  It deals primarily with an incident that occurred in Lewiston, Maine, between the residents and a massive influx of Muslim Somali immigrant refugees, and the reactions of both sides.  The paper was written along specific guidelines, as well as from an anthropological and cultural perspective.  The purpose of the paper is not to debate whether or not it was ‘right’ for the Somalis to be in the town, or to have been admitted to the country.  It was, instead, to discuss how culture affects relations between people from different areas, what cultural concepts are being demonstrated, and possible accommodations or solutions that could be offered.

The specific guidelines for the essay are as follows:

1. Review the video on migration above. [Migration: A Profile of the US]

2. Read article “Mixed Welcome…” … and

3. Answer the following questions in your paper:

  • Explain how aspects like migration, religion, food, dress, language, & religious holidays are cultural.
  • How are these cultural elements different in Somali culture than they are in small-town American culture?
  • What is important to know about these cultural elements, as they apply to Somali culture?
  • What do the Somali immigrants and the local Lewiston residents probably have in common?
  • What could local American government institutions, schools, and residents do to make accommodations for—and be sensitive toward—the cross-cultural differences?
  • How does this experience of cross-cultural contact illustrate what we’ve learned about cultural knowledge, individual behavior, and the process of cultural change?

Additionally, the paper was to be written in APA style (which I hope I got right) with at least 5 different references for material covered in the course to date.  I’ve included the references at the end of the post, so that the in-text citations make sense, and so a potential reader can find more information or verify the information I’ve presented in case they’re doing their own research for a paper.  I’ve also added some images to make this long stretch of text a bit more visually appealing.

Please keep in mind that this paper was written based only on the information given, rather than on any more recent events in Lewiston.

If you have any questions about the paper, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment.

 

Culture Clash: Small-Town American vs. Somalian Immigrant Culture

America is a great melting pot of cultures, but sometimes, cultures don’t want to be melted. To be more specific, there are sometimes groups of people who immigrate to the United States, but don’t want to assimilate into American culture. They bring their culture with them and then create isolated pockets of their own cultures within the greater American society. This isn’t an issue that only comes from immigrants. There are groups in the United States who have been here for generations that we all accept, like the Amish, who do not embrace modern American culture. Perhaps the reason we don’t mind having these insular groups in the United States is because they are, in fact, insular. They don’t try to impose their beliefs on the established order. In the case of the Amish, many of the beliefs and practices are still similar enough to our own that we can, if not accept them, understand them.

Problems arise when two very different cultures attempt to interact with each without trying to understand or make accommodation for each other first. Each group makes demands of the other group, oftentimes without being willing to compromise in any way. This paper will be discussing the ways in which culture and the misunderstanding of it have led to culture clashes between Somali immigrants in Lewiston, Maine and the local, small-town American population already living there (Belluck, 2002).

What is Culture?
 

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Before trying to understand how cultural differences have led to misunderstandings between immigrant populations and the local, receiving populations, it will be helpful to understand just what culture is. The popular idea of culture is that it’s a desirable trait you can somehow acquire by attending a certain number of plays, visiting art galleries, or by going to classy concerts (Ember, Ember, & Peregrine, 2010). The reality is that culture is a difficult concept to nail down (Townsend, 2011) and an exact definition has been debated by anthropologists, with entire books being dedicated to the subject (White J. J., May/June 1998). The earliest definition of culture stated that it is “[t]hat complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (White E. B., 1871). This is a very inclusive definition, which leads you to believe that almost every aspect of daily life is cultural, and it is. Waking up in the morning and having a cup of coffee is cultural. Using an alarm clock to get out of bed at a set time is cultural. Driving your car to work every day is cultural. Going to church on Sunday is also cultural. Culture is everything we’ve been trained to do by the external sources that surround us (parents, television, education, radio, etc.), that allow us to function as well-integrated members of our societies.

So then, what is a society? And how do we define what cultural traits belongs to a society? A society is (Ember et al., 2010) “a group of people who occupy a particular territory and speak a common language not generally understood by neighboring peoples” (p. 224). These territories may or may not correspond to existing countries, which is the case with the Somali, who have populations in Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia (Shurgin, 2006). For a behavior to be considered a cultural trait of a particular society it must be a widely held belief or practice that is commonly found amongst the population (Ember et al., 2010). Using this information, it can readily be accepted that aspects of a society that are shared and practiced by the majority of a people are elements of that society’s distinct culture. This can include their choice of clothing, the types of food they eat, their language(s), holidays, and even beliefs. In regards to the Somali in Lewiston, even their migration can be seen as a result of culture. “Push and pull” (Migration: A Profile of the US, 2009) cultural factors in the country being emigrated from and the receiving country can act as powerful motivators to cause a migration. For example, the climate of war and conflict in Somalia, caused by the cultural tradition of clan loyalty is a strong push factor for emigration, whereas the relatively open, accepting, and peaceful society within the United States (caused by our culturally derived judicial and governmental systems) can be a strong pull factor, making it a desirable destination for immigrants.

So, culture is a powerful influence that affects almost every aspect of our lives. We grow up believing that the way we do things, our culture, is the normal way of doing things, and when we’re confronted with foreign cultures, especially those that are radically different from our own, it creates tension, and sometimes fear. However, it also challenges us to expand our view of the world and recognize how we’re different from other people, and how we’re the same. We have to allow for the fact that people are going to be different based on where they’re from, and because of these differences they may not see even the simplest aspects of life the same way we do. The tensions in Lewiston are caused by a failure to adequately understand other peoples’ cultures, both on the part of the Somali and the indigenous residents. One example is the mayor sending a letter to the Somali community, written in English, when most of the Somali don’t understand English. On the other hand, you could say that the Somali reaction to the letter was overly violent, because they immediately assumed it was an attack, instead of understanding the local economic situation and thinking of how their intrusion in the local culture has affected the original residents (Belluck, 2002).

These differences between cultures have become much more prominent in the media lately, specifically between what you could call Muslim culture and American culture, due to the United States’ military actions in the Middle East over the last decade. Because of these conflicts, Muslims in general are branded as the enemy. This idea of Muslims being the enemy has been well seated in the United States, and it is with this outlook that the Lewiston residents encountered and came into conflict with the obviously Muslim-influenced culture of the Somali immigrants.

Cultural Differences and Similarities:
 
Somali Immigrants vs. Lewiston Natives
 

Beginning to recognize differences between the culture of the Somali immigrants and the native culture of the Lewiston residents would help to shed light on the problem, and perhaps present solutions. The Somali come from a country on the Horn of Africa, which is predominantly Muslim. Many of the elements of their culture are borrowed from nearby Arab countries. Some of their practices may be seen as primitive or strange to Americans, but the culture of the Somali immigrants is simply a result of where they were born.

Somali immigrant workers.

 
(Image from: The Two Malcontents)

An important thing to understand about the Somali is that their culture and daily habits are heavily influenced by their religion, Islam, even to the point of their legal system being based on sharia (Islamic) law (Culture of Somalia, 2011). Despite President Obama’s recent announcement that the United States is not a Christian nation, the United States has been heavily influenced by the ideas and morals presented by the Bible. Many of our laws are based on Christian ideas and many of the great changes in our society, such as the end to slavery, were partially argued on the grounds that it violated the religious principles of Christianity (Gilson, 2009). It would be more accurate to say that the United States is a secular nation with Christian values. It’s easy to see how conflicts could arise between a Christian/secularist culture and a culture that is heavily influenced by Islam, especially since most Somalis hold their Muslim beliefs and practices in the highest regard.

The Somali’s adherence to Islam has had a profound effect on their culture. In terms of clothing, most Somali dress in adherence to Islamic principles. Men must wear clothing that covers them from neck to knee, and women must be covered from neck to ankle in non-form-fitting clothing. Married women may additionally wear a head scarf and/or a shawl (Culture of Somalia, 2011). The clothing they wear is sometimes based on region, sometimes adopted from neighboring Arab countries, but is almost always designed for a hot, arid climate and is in compliance with Islamic ideology. Most Somali speak the Somali language, but are illiterate. However, because of the influence of Islam, many Somali can speak and write Arabic, which is the language of the Qur’an. The Somali practice Muslim holidays, such as Ramadan, the month of fasting to celebrate the revelation of the Qur’an; Id al-Fitr; the First of Muharram, when an angel shakes the tree of life and death; Maulid an-Nabi (a celebration of Muhammad’s birth); and Id al-Adha, which commemorates the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael (Shurgin, 2006).

photo_lg_somalia

 
(Photograph by Kevin Fleming/CORBIS)

Other aspects of Somali culture are influenced by the region they come from. In addition to the clothing being adapted to hot, arid climates, the environment has affected their social structure and diet. Many Somali still live off the land as nomads and herders. Their diet consists mainly of cereals and grains, with few vegetables or meats. Due to adherence to Islam, alcohol and pork are not consumed. Milk, tea, coffee and water are the consumed drinks. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, a division of labor based on gender and age has been created, and people tend to live in multi-generational households. They also value interdependence and commonly have large families (Culture of Somalia, 2011).

By comparison, US society is very different. The most commonly recognized and observed holidays are secular or Christian. Individualism is highly valued in society, with children being shooed out the door as soon as possible. Families are typically small, with 2-3 children, rather than the 6+ in Somali families. Alcohol is consumed in great quantities, and a meal is not considered complete without meat, including pork at breakfast. The literacy rate in the US is high due to standardized education and people generally dress according to fashion, rather than a strict religious ideology. One of the greatest differences, though, is the separation of church and state. The Somali culture is incredibly Muslim, and as stated before, even their laws are drawn from their Islamic faith. Despite earlier Christian influences, our government is increasingly enforcing the separation of religion and government from public institutions. Private companies also try to enforce rules against actively promoting or practicing religion in the workplace. This active attempt to remove religion from daily life seems quite natural to Americans, because it’s a principle that the country was founded on. Religion has its place, and US society has determined that place to be outside of public areas. To a Somali Muslim, however, it may be seen as an attack on the Muslim faith, particularly since they require allowances for prayer times throughout the day, as well as facilities for performing ablutions before prayer (Mohammed, 2009). The denial of these facilities for those actions may be seen as a proper separation of church and state, but to a Muslim who is unaware of that cultural trend it may feel targeted.

Despite vast differences in culture, the Somali and the Lewiston residents both have things in common. Both groups have pride in their culture and are trying to do the best they can with the opportunities they’ve been given. Both groups hope for a better future for themselves and their families. Both groups likely value having a peaceful, happy town to live in, where they don’t have to be afraid of physical violence or racially motivated attacks. Both groups are likely hoping for a peaceful resolution that will allow for coexistence. At the time of the writing of Belluck’s article (2002), they also had one more thing in common. They failed to try to understand each other before reacting to the situation they found themselves in.

Accommodation and Cultural Change
 

Regardless of whether or not it is ‘right’ for the Somali immigrants to settle in Lewiston, or to have been admitted into the United States, it has already happened, and rather than create tension and possibly incite violence, this is an opportunity for these groups to learn about each other and possibly find a common ground to work from. For the residents of Lewiston, the only way for these two groups to come to grips with each other is through dialogue. This dialogue could be opened through town hall meetings. The local government could hold these meetings to address concerns in the town that everyone, including the immigrants, could voice their opinion on. The feeling of working together produced by these meetings would start building a sense of community. Additionally, qualified speakers could be brought in to talk about important cultural aspects of both Somali Muslim and American culture. Another possibility for Lewiston is that they could insert short, commercial-like infomercials into normal commercials that give a brief description of Somali Muslim cultural aspects, like why they wear burkas or why they pray five times a day. In the future, though, steps could be taken by the US government to prevent this type of situation from occurring in the first place.

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Robert F. Bukaty / AP
Somali women and children in downtown Lewiston, Me.

When such large and foreign populations are introduced into American society, certain steps could be taken to ensure successful integration. The key to that success is education. It’s hard to predict where large groups of immigrants will attempt to settle, so the best solution for educating locals would be to introduce anthropological and cultural perspectives classes into secondary education as a mandatory requirement on a national level. The United States doesn’t exist alone, and understanding the world around us is beneficial for more reasons than just getting along with potential immigrants. As for the immigrants, mandatory and extended education about American culture, prior to being admitted into the general population, would likely go a long way towards accelerating their assimilation into society, or at the least, help them understand the people they’ll be interacting with. If the Somali immigrants in Lewiston had been taught about the role women play in our society, they wouldn’t have reacted the way they did to female employees (Belluck, 2002). Another helpful accommodation the government could make would be to provide English lessons for refugee immigrants that are admitted to the country. If the government is going to introduce groups of foreigners into US society, it should take responsibility for its actions and make sure these people are well equipped to, at the least, communicate with other Americans on a basic level. It is irresponsible to simply turn them loose in the US and expect them to become successful members of society. These refugee immigrants should also be evaluated for potential job skills, and if none are found, they should be trained. Again, it is irresponsible to simply release these people into American society, where they will invariably wind up living off the welfare system in perpetuity.

There are many things institutions, such as schools, could do to accommodate Muslim Somali immigrants, but the question to be asked is should they? As previously stated, the separation of church and state has rendered the practice of religion in public schools, for example, impossible except for the most private and innocuous of activities, such as praying silently (to yourself) over your meal at lunch time. If these sorts of restrictions have been placed on religion in public institutions, based on a Constitutional Amendment, should we make allowances for immigrant religions just for the sake of appeasement? Should we create a double standard where one religious group is excluded and another is permitted as much freedom as they want? Part of living in the United States is adhering to the local culture, which includes the local laws regulating what is acceptable in public institutions. If that means that religious traditions have to be slightly modified to fit the current situation, then it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened. Rather than ask what the government can do for them, they should ask what they can do for the government. Performing ablutions in a school’s gym showers would be perfectly fine, but allowing Muslim students to miss class time for religious practices would be unfair to the other religious groups that are denied similar privileges, as well as be detrimental to their education, since they would be missing instruction. If an accommodation for Muslims to practice religion in the schools is made, then that same accommodation should be afforded to people of all religions. If that were the case, then the solution would be simple. The school day could be extended by half an hour to 45 minutes, with a period of ‘free time’ beginning at noon. This would allow immigrant Muslim students to go to the gym showers to perform ablutions, conduct prayers in a designated location, and then return to class without missing out on anything. It would give students of other faiths time to have religious meetings, or to hang out with friends, or even to do homework. Another advantage would be that the practice of having a break between classes would start acclimating students to the educational atmosphere present in most colleges. In short, for a religious accommodation in a public institution, such as a school, it should be an ‘all-or-nothing’ policy that includes everyone.

somali_blog1

 
(Photo from ISEDSolutions (Institute For Social And Economic Development))

The experience of the Somali immigrants in Lewiston and the reactions of the locals (noted in Belluck’s article (2002)) illustrate some of the basic concepts of culture and cultural change. We, as individuals, are all products of our social and physical environments, meaning we are all shaped by the culture around us. The way we interpret the world around us depends as much on culture as it does our educations and economic abilities. Because the Somali’s grew up in their Muslim dominated African culture, they had certain expectations of what liberties they should have, what ‘place’ women should be in, and they also had certain expectations of what to believe in terms of ‘white people’. When the mayor of Lewiston presented them with his letter, they immediately assumed they were being put upon by an “ill-informed leader who is bent towards bigotry” (Belluck, 2002). They assumed that because he was white, his intentions toward them were racist, based simply on the color of his skin. In this instance, the mayor’s skin color acted as a “floating signifier” (Jhally, 1997), conferring certain expectations in regards to his behavior, and the behavior of the other white townspeople. The mayor’s letter was made based on the townspeople’s own interpretation of what “them people” (Belluck, 2002) did or did not understand about American culture, economics and the situation of the town. It was an assumption of the Somali’s level of intelligence, based on the fact that they’re from a third world country and have immigrated to the United States. The integration of the Somali immigrants into the Lewiston population also gives us a clear example of acculturation. Based on Belluck’s article (2002), we can see that the Somali immigrants did what most Americans do when confronted with a social problem: they turned to the media to gain attention for their situation and swing popular opinion in their favor. If that isn’t American, nothing is. You could also say that the Somali have adopted the “American Dream”, migrating from place to place within the US to try to find a better life for both themselves and their children, even going so far as to dream of having “a house by the beach one day” (Belluck, 2002).

Conclusion
 

Culture is a powerful factor that influences our lives in ways that most of us never even begin to guess. It affects our outlook on life and can cause us to come into conflict with people of other cultures due to differences and a lack of education. The Lewiston residents and the Somali immigrants to Lewiston found that out the hard way, by allowing conflict to occur, rather than initiating discussions to learn about each other and overcome differences and challenges as a unified group. These sorts of problems could be greatly alleviated by an aggressive education campaign among American secondary students and incoming refugee immigrants. Additionally, greater freedoms could be allowed to people in institutional settings for the accommodation of religious practices, so long as those practices do not interfere with the actual purpose of the institution and the implemented policies are unilaterally applied. The case of the Somali immigrants in Lewiston serves as a great example of the importance of understanding culture and how it works, or doesn’t work, for us in the real world, as well as showing us the beginnings of cultural acculturation of immigrants. The process of understanding and reaching common ground between groups with such different backgrounds will never be an easy one, but with proper education and respect it will be possible.

References

Migration: A Profile of the US. (2009). Retrieved April 2, 2011, from Pearson: myanthrolab: http://media.pearsoncmg.com/ph/hss/SSA_SHARED_MEDIA_1/anthropology/video/Migration_Profile_of_US.html
Culture of Somalia. (2011, January 18). Retrieved April 3, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Somalia
Belluck, P. (2002, October 16). Mixed Welcome as Somalis Settle in a Maine City. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/featured_articles/20021016wednesday.html
Ember, C. R., Ember, M., & Peregrine, P. N. (2010). Anthropology. Prentice Hall.
Gilson, T. (2009, August 12). Christianity and the Abolitionsist Movement. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from Thinking Christian: http://www.thinkingchristian.net/2009/08/christianity-and-the-abolitionist-movement/
Jhally, S. (Director). (1997). Stuart Hall – Race, The Floating Signifier [Motion Picture].
Mohammed, H. (2009, June 3). The Somali Culture and Beliefs. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from The Somali Cultural Association: http://www.somalicultural.org/history/the-somali-culture-and-beliefs
Shurgin, A. H. (2006). Culture of Somalia. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from Countries and Their Cultures: http://www.everyculture.com/Sa-Th/Somalia.html
Townsend, C. (2011, March 30). Class Lecture. New York City, New York, USA.
White, E. B. (1871). Primitive Culture. London: John Murray Publisher.

White, J. J. (May/June 1998). Helping students deal with cultural differences. Social Studies, 107.