Baba, Taj & Yusuf
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - january 07 ]
Maureen Dowd deplores the fact that many American intelligence officials and political leaders lack fundamental knowledge about Middle East; notes that incoming chairman of House Intelligence Committee, Silvestre Reyes, under questioning by Congressional Quarterly editor Jeff Stein, showed he did not know difference between Sunnis and Shiites. - New York Times, December 20, 2006
Once upon a time, the Russians and the Chinese were the good guys; the Japanese and Germans were bad. The people in between did not much matter. Most people today are hardly more enlightened than I was then, so it is beside the point to ask them the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. One difference is that Shiites pray with their foreheads pressed against a stone, and carry one along with them for that purpose, I am told, and for stoning artists.
When I was a boy in Indiana, the schools were a mirror of the population, just as they are now, and so I was blissful as far as sophistication mattered in my little world, which was not as dissociated and peculiar as others. For instance, children in Quebec schools used to donate their pennies to help les petits Chinois d'Afrique, the little Chinese in Africa.
I assumed then that everyone between Gibraltar and China was a kind of Arab. Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, Turks, Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Persians, and Afghans were all Arabs to me.
I got to know about Moslems from reading James Morier's old book (1824) The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, in an illustrated edition full of camels, scimitars, minarets, and turbans. You can read it online. The Hajji Baba I read then was a 1937 edition (Random House) illustrated by Cyrus Baldridge with drawings and paintings he made at the peril of his life by wandering around Iran, with the Shah's permission, getting himself thrown out of numerous towns for setting up his easel and sketching. Lucky he wasn't stoned to death like some infidels, he finally in desperation hired a silly old dervish and a dancing girl to pose for him. Locals refused his requests. One does not make graven images in the Moslem world, so Oriental carpets usually have only geometrical designs on them. With their depiction of sheep and goats, how close to blasphemy do animal carpets come? How blasphemous are Western movies, television, and magazines to puritanical Moslems? You don't have to read Havelock Ellis's Psychopathia Sexualis to understand the perversion of nature. Desire and determination are fueled by lust and will power, however twisted and inhumane they may be.
Hajji Baba is an unscrupulous trickster, the son of a barber, who schemes to get rich by selling pipe stems in Constantinople, Smyrna figs in Europe, skull caps in Cairo, Ethiopian slaves in Mocha, and coffee in Persia, finally becoming the Grand Vizier. In my ignorance, I did not know the Grand Vizier was not the chief wizard. I would have felt at home in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with Harry Potter.
Christopher Morley, in his introduction to the 1937 edition, says The Hajji Babba is droll, unexpected, facetious, mischievous, and wise "sugar candy" for the reader, playing on people's weakness and credulity, exploiting "the particular oriental genius of ironic narration." The author, James Morier, was an Englishman born in Smyrna (Izmir), secretary to Lord Elgin, who was Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. His several books include The Hajji Baba, which most Persians think a Farsi masterpiece.
Hajji Baba, who is variously a dervish, secretary, physician, lover, executioner, ambassador and barber, gets involved in fraud, warfare, plunder, political corruption, lovemaking and selling smoke from a hookah, among other things. Hero and trickster, Hajji Baba is another Tom Sawyer, but not a guilt-ridden Huck Finn - a Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, Josef Schweik, Bugs Bunny, Chaplin's Tramp, Brer Rabbit, Pink Panther, Coyote, Raven, Harpo and Groucho, Till Eulenspiegel, Odysseus and Randle McMurphy, the malingerer at the margins of society who gets along by means of his wits, cleverness and trickery, the fairy tale hero, the Outsider who must fulfill all the king's demands in order to get the girl.
I believe it was from Hajji Baba that I got my own attitude towards the purposes of powerful persons, the skeptical, disrespectful outlook, and the refusal to honor otherwise revered institutions and their supporters. Since reading The Hajji Baba, I have become a doubting, hyperbolic, dismissive naysayer, a questioner of parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians, and an enemy of all enthusiasms.
If I were teaching children, the first and last lesson would be for them to read The Hajji Baba in order to get smart.
I did not know that Hajji Baba is not an Arab. He might have been Ali Baba's brother, or one of the forty thieves, for all I knew. Copies of The Hajji Baba can be had from booksellers; one bookman on eBay calls it a book of "Arabian Stories", which ought to make me feel less ignorant. As a youth I didn't understand the difference between Abdulla Bulbul Ameer and Ivan Skavinsky Skivar in the old song, except that the Sultan, the Shah, and Mamelukes were on one side, while on the other were Czar Petrovich, Kalmuks, and Muscovites. (To embellish your education, you can hear the melody and read the words of this old popular song online.
To be sure I did not look up Kalmuk to learn about Kalmykia on the Caspian Sea and its Mongol (Tatar) people from Dzungaria (Junggar) in the Ala Tau Mountains between Kazakhstan and Xinjing Uygur, China, the remainder of the 300,000 Buddhist, nomadic people who tried to return to China in 1771 to escape Czarist oppression and whom the Soviets finally disbanded in 1943 after the defense of Stalingrad (Volgograd) because of their Nazi sympathies.
The "Eastern Question," what to do about the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire since the 18th century is still with us, from Bosnia and Hercegovina to Afghanistan. We remember the Crimean War (1853-56, Balaclava!), Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia, and WWI, German imperialism, the Soviet Union, Israel, Yugoslavia and the "Balkan Tinderbox," Iraq... In the days of James Morier, author of The Hajji Baba (1824), England, Russia, and France all wanted to control the old Silk Road to China across Mesopotamia, Persia, and Afghanistan. Now it is the Oil Road.
The first Moslem I ever met was one of two young men who had been sent to the United States by the Quakers for schooling after the partition of Palestine in 1948. In 1952 they were sent to live in a dormitory with first-year students at a small school in Indiana, just west of Plainfield, a Quaker center. The young men wore their native costumes on special occasions, looking to us like the circus had come to town. We laughed at the baggy pants and long shirts, salwar and kameez, their head scarves, keffiyehs and agals, and their silver-sheathed daggers.
In their native costumes they both looked the same. We could not tell the Christian from the Moslem at first.
Yusuf Kutub, the older of the young men, had already been teaching in a Christian school in Palestine, of which he was a graduate, his family having always been Christian. As my classmate, Yusuf took pleasure in teaching me Arabic verses and laughing at my ability to repeat the words correctly. I helped him find words and punctuate his English compositions. He taught me Arabic poems.
La Talumni Fi Hawaha
Ana Lan Ahwa Siwaha
Don't blame me for loving her.
I will not love anyone but her.
Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley.
Drink from the presence of saints,
Not from those other jars.
Yusuf completed his studies in teacher training within two years, and then he went back to what was left of Palestine to help his people make their lives in that gigantic concentration camp, Delilah's Temple of Dagon in Gaza.
Yusuf's companion, Taj el-Dein Taji-Farouki, a nephew of King Farouk of Egypt, a plump and natty Valentino, always wore a jacket and tie to class, spoke a plummy English, and put sugar in his milk at table in the refectory, to our horror. Both Taj and the Egyptian monarchy were having their troubles that year.
As a first-year student Taj was supposed to live like one, but soon he bought himself a big, black Buick sedan, which he kept at a gas station on Highway 40 in downtown Terre Haute before he rented a furnished apartment in a private home. The darling of the farm girls at Chi Omega fraternity (which is a sorority; they choose to call themselves a "fraternity") he soon impregnated the blondest of them all, Prissy Buck from Merom Bluffs, and left town in his Buick without her, headed east, bound for exile with his uncle in Monaco. Taj was a sort of Egyptian, he claimed. He and his family were the Turkish remnant of Muhammad Ali's family of the old Ottoman Empire. His uncle Farouk's father, King Fuad, did not even speak Arabic, he said.
It was half a century before Arabs would produce fear and loathing among my people, a consequence of the creation of the state of Israel, of the greed and complicity of the autocratic Saudis, and the series of attacks upon tools of power such as the USS Cole in Yemen. Westernized, educated young Sunni Moslems, radical Wahabis, attacked the symbols of the New World Order and globalization, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They were Sunnis mostly from Saudi Arabia, but it was not Islam that attacked the symbols of power. It was boys who did what they were supposed to do. Islam is made up of Moslems past and present. Islam is the body of believers, dead and living, and the belief that they held and hold together. Fifteen Moslems did not comprise, and are not, Islam. The boys who attacked were Moslems, but Islam did not attack us. There is no such personal entity as Islam. The boys, like geese, followed their leaders, who are not as stupid and mean as we are told. They are not misguided, the boys or their leaders, but they are not of our world. They know perfectly well what they want. They are not sick in the head. People are not blank slates upon which culture is written. They cannot be saved and turned into people like us. There is no hope for them, no redemption, no salvation, no forgiveness, and there is no cure because they are not ill or afflicted. There is no way democracy, liberation, emancipation, and conversion can come to them. They do not need a Redeemer. They are already redeemed, saved, and forgiven. They do not need Jesus the Lifeguard, in the desert. They cannot drown.
A planeload of rich Saudis were allowed to leave the United States during the no-fly period after the attack on New York City and Washington. They wanted and deserved to get the hell out of the way. They knew that Americans see the world as white and black, good and evil, us and them. They feared tribal-style retribution. They feared they would lose their personal identities and be treated as enemies. Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia and Aspen, Colorado, would fade from the limelight as the personal friend of presidents, as "Bandar Bush."
In 1952 King Farouk was exiled, kicked out of Egypt by revolutionary modernizers including Gamal Abdel Nasser. The King took the family jewels on his yacht with him to Europe, where he lived out his spectacular days as the "Caliph" of Italy, whose eccentric antics were always news in the days of Time, Life and Look magazines, before television gave us our virtual, refined, processed, and flavored pseudo-reality. I followed the reports of the king's doings with some interest because I imagined his slick and smarmy nephew Taj by his side, indulging in all the vices. Farouk died at the dinner table in Rome in 1965, weighing three hundred pounds, having stolen a sword from the Shah of Iran (his brother-in-law) and a pocket watch from Winston Churchill. Stealing and collecting precious objects was Farouk's life work. Having carried on numerous affairs with rich and famous women, all duly reported in the world press, in 1951 he expediently married a commoner, Farida Nariman, in a "simple ceremony" in order to placate the educated Egyptians who were after his head. Her dress carried 20,000 diamonds, and all the golden gifts were melted down after the ceremonies. Time reported that the "pudgy monarch" protested a photographer taking his picture on his honeymoon in Switzerland: ‘"I will never return to Switzerland again,' he whined. Then he and his entourage flounced off to Italy."' In my mind Taj was always with King Farouk, perhaps in Biarritz with Michael of Romania, Peter of Yugoslavia, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth and Ali Khan, the Aga Khan's son. Ali Khan was supposed to become Caliph of the Ismailis, a group of some 20 million Moslems, a Pakistani-Persian, decorated, rich, playboy hero of WWII. He was the Moslem stereotype, the one who came to mind when Mohammedan was mentioned, a Sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH, Praise Be Unto Him].