Empire Week I: Canned Food

The pickled-looking Chancellor Palpatine raised his hand and squawked, “…the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society.” George Lucas’ latest Jedi mind-trick is to convince us that he is a political commentator. Whatever. I was more intrigued by the Galactic Empire [thanks to Doowan for the link] speech because I have been toying with the idea of dedicating a week at CM to Empires. Mostly because I have finally finished B. Porter’s book and have been following his tiff with N. Ferguson in the LRB. Also because spring is here and every young man’s fancy is turning imperial. Also, also, this.

In today’s first entry we shall discuss the history of canning foods. Remember that I am actively looking for an agent to pitch my micro-history so…

In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte [more on his contribution to Empire tomorrow] offered a prize of ₣ 12,000 through his Society for the Encouragment of Industry to anyone who could devise a method of food preservation for his military. After all, two years later, he was going to take a whole lot of grumbling frenchmen over to Egypt. By 1806, FranÁois Appert had perfected his idea of corking and sealing half-cooked food in glass. The Emperor gave him the reward, in 1810, just as an Englishman Peter Durrant sought the King’s patent for his canning technique – in a can, natch. Durrant’s patent was taken up by inventor Bryan Donkin [he invented the steel nib pen!] who set up the first British cannery in Bermondsey. By 1816, they were supplying canned meat & fruits to the Royal Navy which took them to all corners of the globe, including India. The history of canning, hence, owes a lot to the impetus of the Empire. Its invention, production and consumption followed the rise and fall of various sea-faring imperial formations with canned foods, and canning, making their way to US, Australia etc. almost immediately. Incidentally, it took the Civil War to popularize canned food in the US.

The story of canned foods and their relationship to the colonies goes in many different directions [bananas and pineapple should alert you to specific geographic locales]. And it continues to play a role in the post-colonial world as well. Here, for example, is today’s apocryphal tale:

The British Empire’s midnight children went to war in 1965. The war ended with both parties retreating to their positions and declaring victory. On the Pakistan side, they celebrate the Defense Day on September 6th to canonize their “victory”. Today comes the report that the “victory” may not have been possible without canned food! Gohar Ayub will claim in his upcoming memoirs that Gen. Ayub paid some $500 bucks to an Indian brig., whose wife had an expensive habit of canning fruits and vegetables [no doubt for the upcoming seige], for the entire Indian battle-plans.

Now. How to read this? Let us assume that the report is true because it is way too fun to be dismissed as false. There are two interpretations that I would like to highlight [keeping in mind, again, the rest of the week]: 1. The British Empire was evil, then, it’s products were evil – which makes canning evil [also modernity, enlightenment and partition]. Case in point, obsession with canning fruits caused India to fail in its noble aim of uniting a sub-continent fractured by the evil Empire. 2. The British Empire was evil, but, it’s products were beneficial to the colonies – which makes canning good [also modernity, enlightenment and railways]. Case in point, obsession with canning fruits allowed Pakistan to protect itself from the evil designs of Indians to drink champagne in Lahore Gymkhana.

The question I have is: Was she canning fruits or pickling them? Any other interpretations? Also see The Acorn on this.

tomorrow-ish: the history of the empire.

A History of Anything

I have been making jokes about this in the recent past. Even thought I’d do a post on it here. Arthur Krystal beat me to the punch. In the New Yorker [May 30th] is his review of At Days’s Close: Night in Times Past by Roger Ekirch. Krystal opens the review with a bit of snark about the glut of “pop-history” books [as I term it]:

A man has written a book about the night. Well, why not? In the past decade or so, we’ve seen books on pencils, bookshelves, tobacco, cod, salt, spice, blood, bread, caffeine, crying, the penis, the breast, boredom, smiling, the hand, and masturbation. (Do the last six items seem to nudge one another?) Eventually, such books, and others like them, will all come to dust, including the two so far on dust itself, but before they do we might ask ourselves if this expenditure of print on the obvious and the quotidian constitutes anything like a trend, or even a cultural shift. [hyperlinks added, painfully.]

There are many more such pop-histories, rarely written by actual historians. A sample: There is corn, sugar, potato, vanilla, chocolate, cotton, hemp, heroin, cocaine, screws and screwdrivers, the wife, the numbers: zero, e and pi, hair, lesbian hair, fart, and finally [because I must REALLY stop], hip.

So what is going on? Before I get to my thoughts, here is what Krystal postulates:

If it seems that any noun in the dictionary can be tricked out as a book these days, it’s because the minutiae of daily life have acquired some intellectual capital. Good microhistories do brisk business because they see the big picture in the smallest details, offering the hope that everything under the sun has meaning. So, whatever was formerly neglected, or looked at but not really seen – utensils, foodstuffs, or the hemp that was used to make the ladders that enabled enemies to scale the walls that housed a king – now demands the academy’s respect and scrutiny.

Despite the book covers and titles, these are, broadly speaking, social or cultural histories of Western society. They follow a pretty set template – you start with classic literature and move on up to colonial records and archives and finally to 19th/20th c. cultural productions. They follow, if you will, a colored string through the various garments crumpled in the laundry basket of the past [eek!]. The emphasis is not to present a complete picture of a specific figure, time-period, region or practice but to gallop down the teleological path from then to now. The emphasis is to tell the history of commodity or consumption – in of itself [hint hint].

In this regard, these studies do mark a particular trend in the commercial reception of knowledge. They are dated before they are published, in my humble opinion. One can optimistically view them as trojan horses send into the masses to get them interested in history. Or one can pessimistically view them as the only vehicle for mass-publication available. Regardless, we can ask some questions: Are they popular? It is hard to say. None of these books have charted the NYT Bestsellers list while the tomes about DWM has been around there for a while. Are they any good? I have only read the one on Sugar and it is good. Most seem sketchy because…Are historians writing them? Hardly. A solid majority comes from the lit-crit crowd and the odd journalists. One can always put “A History of” in front of whatever without accrediation as a historian.

This is not to diss micro-histories which are, of course, a valuable tool of scholarship. To a generation of historians, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worm: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller will serve as a template. But, then, Ginzburg’s micro-history isn’t the same as these pop-histories that we are discussing here.

I need an agent.

update: Evan at The Scope documents how all these micro-histories claim their it “changed the world”.

Immigration Cricket

As I mentioned, yesterday we went to hang out at Washington Park for some sporty fun. The park is an amazing urban space. Someone recently was grouching that Chicago parks have no character and I wish they had come with us to see how much character and life they do have – from people, natch.

The pecularities of Chicago do exist. The baseball crowd tagged to the corners of the giant park happens to comprise of South Side blacks. The cricket crowd scatttered in the middle around 4 cement pitches is desi/carribean expats. The soccer crowd on the north end of the park is latino. Off to the side are a small group of white techies playing Ultimate. The audience seems to stick to their demographic. There is no cross-talk, no place where any one would mingle [not even a watering hole]. A sports segregation, if you will. I wish the Chicago Park people took some initiative. A small building/shaded structure would focus the crowds, at least, to interact around picnic tables or BBQ pits or vendors. We could have a scoring chalkboard. Something.

Driven by emigrant nostalgia, cricket has been going strong in the Midwest for a long time. A recent article in the WaPo touched on these issues in the DC area. It quotes a Jamaican immigrant’s desire to play cricket: “”It reminds me of my background,” he said. “It keeps me tuned.” Such were the sentiments of those who dedicate their weekends to cricket in Chicago.

Cricket as a vehicle to understand nationalism or society in the commonwealth has been done. Next step, using cricket to examine the diaspora.

Anyways, here are a few random pics I took.

Sunday Reading for Terra Wars

Beautiful, gorgeous day. Went to the Washington Park and saw some sports. Along for the ride were P. & friends. It was quite fun. Afterwards, a short and unsuccessful bid to buy a cast-iron skillet.

This coming week promises tons of time-wasting activities – at least one of which is to go see SW3. On to the links:

  • Maybe someone, somewhere wrote a funnier, harsher review of something. I don’t know. I do know that no one can top Anthony Lane’s particular take on SW3. “Mind you, how Padme got pregnant is anybody’s guess, although I’m prepared to wager that it involved Anakin nipping into a broom closet with a warm glass jar and a copy of Ewok Babes.” hehe.
  • On to serious tasks. Er. Actually no. This is still just amusing. Apparently, the Bush administration was cooking up evidence to go to War in Iraq. Some memo leaked out in the British press. Mark Danner lays out the whole hilarious[!] episode in his side-splitting The Secret Way to War in NYRB. Danner re-quotes a WH aide, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that realityójudiciously, as you willówe’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” HILARIOUS!! Danner also publishes the memo. Snore. Just keep the hits coming, yo!
  • Also in the NYRB is a profile of Fatah, Hamas and the Palestinian political scene after Arafat. Hussein Agha and Rober Malley’s The Lost Palestinians is, all kidding aside, a must-read. “The central contradiction that has bedeviled the Palestinian national movement since the early 1990s. How can it build state institutions while still under occupation? And how can it resist occupation while in the process of peaceful state-building? Over the years, that contradiction benefited Hamas and consumed Fatah, whose institution-builders became unscrupulous and whose rebels lost their way”.
  • There is a war brewing over the Taj Mahal. I, hereby, claim it as mine.
  • Asma Jahangir and Safia Siddiqi are winning wars of their own. I salute them.
  • Khaleeq Ahmed takes us through the etymology of Lahore, my birthplace. It appears that the residents of Markham Street, Toronto are prone to pronounce it La Whore. That may be, but she has a heart of gold.
  • Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea didn’t leave much of an impression. But, I would like to give Desertion a shot after reading Elleke Boehmer’s review in The Independent. Zanzibar has been on my mind lately. Popo Bawa, and all.
  • Lastly, Will Cohu reviews Mike Dash’s Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Cult in the Telegraph. CM covered Thugees a while ago. Contrary to Dash’s claim, some revisionists have read Sleeman’s account. Thank you very much.

unrelated: Apple’s OS 10.4 aka Tiger has the Islamic Calendar built-in. I am so geeked right now. Like DOUBLY so.

Local Hero

They took back the town of Karasu and the rebel Bakhtiyor Rakhimov quite easily. Karimov’s Special Forces did. This dream-land of djinns and paries [Samarkand o Bukhura o Farghana and, in particular, Afrasiab are home grounds in those dastans] is now a repressed dictatorship where civilians can be killed for being “Islamists”.

That bounding Freedom, again.

Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, at first glance, seems like a man from one of those dastans – an Umro Ayyar, if you will. Flanked by his “former wrestling champion” friend, he shared his views:

“If the troops return, we will fight them,” said Mr Rakhimov, a stocky, tanned farmer with a neatly trimmed beard, who says he was chosen as the town’s leader in an impromptu popular vote over the weekend. The defenders’ lack of firearms would be offset by divine guidance, he claimed.
“Without guns, we can still use these,” he said, touching the hilt of his dagger.
“We will establish here a paradise, a Caliphate, in which Muslim cares for Muslim, taking what he needs and giving away what he can do without, as it says in the Qur’an.
“Allah will provide and lead us forward in our struggle,” he said, gesturing to the sky. “Down with slavery!”
The call for an all-embracing Islamic regime will incense the autocratic president, Islam Karimov, who has made it his aim to stamp out what he perceives as Islamic fanaticism, especially in the traditionally devout east of the country.
Mr Rakhimov seemed unconcerned as he entertained guests at his home, where he reclined with friends on an outdoor dais laid with bowls of strawberries, apricots, chunks of raw sugar and round discs of bread.
“A caliphate does not mean the tyranny of men like Karimov, it means the mutual support and love of Islam,” he said.
He denied being a member of any group such as the Islamic sect Hizb ut Tahrir, saying he was guided by the “pure principles of the faith”.

The sister’s account of his arrest puts a sadder face to this upstart hero of the people. Why is he daring to stand-up to a brutal dictatorship with a handful of starched and parched followers? Where does he get these ideas of paradise that he speaks of? I really don’t know. Maybe one of the djinns has him in thrall. Maybe he knows something about freedom we don’t. Maybe he just wants to be heard. They say he helped build the foot-bridge across the border that was later torn down. The bridge was good for business and he is a business man, this local hero of ours. Like Umro Ayyar.

But, there is no space for such odd heroes in our world now, is there? I hope him and his nephew come out safe and alive. I hope that he can hang out, once again, with his ex-wrestler friend and eat some chunks of raw sugar. I could hope for a lot more. But, I will be thankful just for that.

Softer Side of Freedom

Freedom, as they say, is growing in leaps and bounds. And, one of the places it is leaping right over is Pakistan. In an announcement leaked to press, and surprising only to the South Asia Desk at State, The General has decided to “stand for elections after his current term expires in 2007″. Of course, this is for the better of all concerned. Right?

I am going to come off as a broken record by now. Here is what they say: The General is good for Pakistan. He can keep the jihadists in check. He is good for the US. He can hunt for UBL. He is good for the economy. He is good for peace with India. He is good guy. He means well. He promises Enlightened Moderation. He shoots straight from the hip. Here is what I say: Bullshit. Give the Pakistani people what they deserve: Democracy.

One must remember, though, that there is no problem that a sychophantic press and a media consultant can’t fix. Democracy included. The truth is that this General is not my father’s General or my grandfather’s General. This General “can talk politics with Manmohan Singh and entertainment with Shahrukh Khan and Rani Mukerjee. Democracy, the LFO and coup d’etats aside, the President, to put it in a nutshell, is ‘cool’.”. COOL, I say. Take that, Mugabe. Take that, Lil’ Kim.

In a puff piece that will shame Jeff Gannon, The News International visits The General to find him delighting to some Pakistani pop on his Bang and Olufsen system “which is one of the best sound systems you can buy”; ruminating on Urdu “Even Indian songs are in Urdu”; on the gentler side of Pakistan “Extremists held sway and they pushed the soft face; the art face of Pakistan into the background calling it unñIslamic whereas it is not”; on Art “Islamic art has been embraced and adopted by many in the world. It is known as Islamic art. It is Islamic and we should be very proud of it”. Right you are, Mr. President.

To show the world the “soft face” of Pakistan, The General has hired a media advisor: One Mahreen Khan. I wish India Shining on the lot of them. I also breathlessly await the next press briefing from the State Dept. to see what they have to say about freedom in Pakistan.

Saladin Dressing

It is through Richard the Lionheart that we get Saladin [neÈ Salah ud Din Ayyubi] into Western cinema. In most cases, these were small roles or even just dialogue. His character was peripherally important to the story of King Richard – the noble savage who personified the purity that eluded King Richard’s crusading brethern. Hence, in over a dozen film adaptations of Richard the Lionheart since 1923, Saladin appears as a cast role in about four.

The most important one for our purposes today is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 The Crusades – the first major cinematic portrayl of Salah ud Din. About his Saladin, DeMille is quoted to have said, “One of my objectives [was] to bring out that the Saracens were a cultivated people, and their great leader, Saladin, as perfect and gentle a knight as any in Christiandom.” NYT in its review credited DeMille with having a “great deal of nerve”. DeMille’s Crusades failed to make much money and his vision of Salah ud Din more or less vanished. Yet, it became a very popular film in the Muslim world. Kozlovic, in his paper on DeMille, quotes from Lionheart in Hollywood by Henry Wilcoxon [who worked with DeMille for over 30 years]:

In contrast, The Crusades was a favourite film in Muslim countries. It profoundly affected Egyptian Prime Minister, Col. Gamal Abdal Nasser and his best friend General Abdel Hakin Amer. When DeMille and Henry Wilcoxon were introduced to them while in Egypt making the second The Ten Commandments, General Amer enthusiastically confessed:

“Mr DeMille, Mr. Wilcoxon, you will perhaps remember a movie you made called The Crusades?” “Oh, yes,” Mr. DeMille said, as he at last felt his feet touch firm ground. “I made that one in 1935.” “Quite right,” Amer said, “and Mr. Wilcoxon here starred at Richard Coeur-de-Lion.” We nodded. “Well, perhaps you did not know that The Crusades was a very popular film in our Muslim country – due to its fair presentation of both sides and its portrayal of Saladin as a great and holy leader of his people. So popular, in fact, that it ran for three years in the same theater. And during those three years, when Colonel Nasser and I were first in military academy, we saw The Crusades perhaps as many as twenty times. It was our favorite picture. “That’s very gratifying,” Mr. DeMille said, thinking the speech was over. “It’s always been my favorite as well.” “Just a moment please,” Amer said gentley. “Colonel Nasser was so taken with the character of the Lionheart in your movie that he told everyone in the military academy that when he grew up he was going to be just like that, and that’s how the other boys came to call him Henry Wilcoxon!”

In 1963, Youssef Chahine’s marvelous Nasserian-propoganda El Naser Salah el Dine, picked up DeMille and, set forth Salah ud Din as an Arab nationalist hero who manages to unite the Arabs – not for religion but for nation. In DeMille, Salah ud Din was the noble savage who cast the waywardness of the Crusaders in sharp relief, in Chahine, he becomes the solitary hero who has the character and wisdom to look past the walls of intolerance and hatred [of Chahine’s later dis-enchantment with the Nasserian revolution see Adieu Bonaparte].

The solitary figure of the idealistic and principled Salah ud Din imagined by DeMille or Chahine is not new in historical or literary imagination. We can start with Dante’s Inferno“And saw alone, apart, the Saladin”, where Salah ud Din is the lonely Muslim in Limbo. We can trace this almost-positive portrait throughout medieval histories and literature but we will leave that aside for some other time. Let’s keep going with the cinema to Kingdom of Heaven [Cole and Angry Arab are reviews worth reading]. This depiction of Salah ud Din continues the theme of goodness but, mechanically, is quite subdued.

Salah ud Din, as all the characters in KoH painfully enunciate, is more-or-less a cardboard figure of the principled adversary. His screen time is limited as is his agency. At first, I thought that he was in disguise as the non-descript Arab who is set free by Balian [as here]. That would have been quite interesting. But, no. That was just a General of Salah ud Din, who emerges, later, clad in black. We have already heard of him numerous times from his Christian adversaries before we see him – mostly in terms of respect. Later, we see scattered scenes of his impassive face. He seems to be a hands-on kinda guy – personally dispatching Reynald, walking over to negotiate with Baldwin and Balian [what was up with the weird two-fisted proclamation about the worth of Jerusalem at the end?]. The scene where he stands, in stark relief, all-in-black against the all-in-white King Baldwin [and, later, the grey Balian] was great. He is a pragmatist, yielding the assualt on Jerusalem only when Balian proclaims that he will lose most of his army trying to take it. He is prepared to slaughter all but tells Balian that he will guarantee the safe exodus of civilians and crusaders. When he enters Jerusalem, he picks up the fallen cross and sets it right.

The fact that Salah ud Din is portrayed well is par for his record on the silver screen. To properly read KoH, we must look at how the other Muslims are protrayed in the movie. The fact that Balian, from cold and stoney France, has to teach the desert dwellers the facts of canal irrigation irked me. There were never any “faces”, nor “word-less characters” among the Arabs. The camera did not linger on anyone besides the crusaders. We had aerial shots of the Moroccan army beating against the gates of Jerusalem. If those inside the castle were fighting to save the women and children, what were those outside the castle fighting for? [“Jerusalem means nothing. It means Everything”]. I do appreciate that a big studio summer film can come out criticizing religion and the crusaders in such an overt fashion. But, for once, I would like Muslims to be more than shadow-puppets of the guilty liberal conscience.