Ingenious Puppetry

Our mutual friend, Paul K., had the good sense to go on a trip to Poland with Franz Kočka and document the experience.
Franz is an excellent tour guide to Eastern Europe who had me in stitches. Please go see the pictravelogue here. My favorite entry is this: “He will strive all his life without reaching it.”

Which Way to Mecca?

One more notch in my procrastination belt, I finished the syllabus last night. The first class is tomorrow. What a sad man I am. I have to admit to some serious nervous activity but I pulled through in the end. Once, I had the class structure up, assigning the readings was a lot easier. It is making those tough calls that killed me. One week or two to pre-Islamic Arabia? 2 weeks or 3 on political history until the Ottomans? Science and Medicene AND Art and Architecture AND Philosophy and Theology? Or just one, or just two. And most importantly, Crusades OR Literature and Poetry.

In the end, I decided that I should settle the narrative that I want to present to the students and choose only things that serve that narrative directly. And here is the narrative I chose:

This course, then, should properly be titled, An Introduction to the History of Islamicate Societies, using Marshall Hodgson’s formulation that underscores the distinction between Islam as a religion and as a cultural practice. As such, we will aim to understand the social and political forces that shaped the Islamicate polities. We shall do this by broadly combining political history with forays into cultural and intellectual history.

So, largely political history of the various regions and then specific thematic weeks on various aspects. Of course, medieval and pre-modern period is going to be the dominant one. I think there may be too much reading, though. I have assigned roughly 100 pages per week (between secondary and primary materials) which could be a lot for an undergrad class. If they rebel, I will cut back. Plus, they will have a class blog. Now, I really thought about it. Email listservs don’t work at all. I have tried them. Forums are clunky and hard to manage and I had little luck getting people to post or respond. I could have all the same problems with a blog but, it is the least technically obtrusive option. Hey, it’s all an experiment anyways. What the hell do I know about it all?

To start things off, I chose, Edward Said’s piece from Harper’s entitled, Impossible Histories: Why the many Islams cannot be simplified and Clifford Greetz’s excellent review articles, Which way to Mecca? from NYT Book Review (I had to pay 4 dollars to get that online. Damn you, NYT). That should be a good start to introduce them to various approaches to the study of Islamic past (and present).

In the end, I feel that the syllabus is pretty damn good. Even, I would take that class. Which is all one can hope for. Syllabus are like the ultimate movie trailers. I loved getting clean, new syllabi as a student – so full of new information and promises ahead. I try to make mine like that – jovial, exciting. Then the crushing realities of never ending reading lists, and way overdue assignments set in. Happy Academic Year 2004-05!!!

The Yes Prime Minister

Shaukat Aziz is now PM of Pakistan. He was elected to the post at a National Assembly session with 191 votes and no opposition. Which is funny, because, for once in Pakistani history there was the most unified opposition candidate, Javed Hashmi, a man incarcerated by the General for “sedition”. However, Hashmi was not allowed to attend the Assembly and, in protest, ARD, MQM, MMA, PPP all walked out. Really. The opposition against the General just got united which, I must say, is bad news.
But, anyways, back to Aziz. Here is the Economist’s take on the dismal state of affairs facing the new PM. In his acceptance speech, he vowed to work with the opposition and to run an open and transparent government. I have said earlier that I am very ambivalent about Aziz. On the one hand, there is no hope for Pakistan if the General does not retire and democracy does not return. On the other hand, I am impressed with the numbers game that Aziz has played as Finance Minister – Pakistan’s economy is coming along well (uh, the massive US aid helps a bit. just a bit.)
Aziz faces immense challenges, chief among them is that the General can flip anytime; also, the mullahs are getting out of control; also, Baluchistan is hurtling towards chaos; also, Osama may be found somewhere in Rawalpindi leading US to drop Pakistan like its 1989 ; also, Osama may never be found leading US to continue propping up the General; also, the economy has yet to establish a solid base; also, oh heck.
On the plus side, Aziz has proven himself as a bureaucrat (or technocrat, as the homi press calls him). And he is, uh, close to Paul Wolfowitz. Question is whether he can be the perfect rubber-stamp that the General desires? After all, that is the only qualification for the job.