Books to Read :: Es kam ein Stern aus Babylon 24.04.2012. Rezension von Najem Wali.

Aufklärung. Mit “Platon in Bagdad” hat der amerikanische Autor John Freely eine aufregende Kulturgeschichte verfasst, die mit eurozentrischen Vorurteilen bricht. In seinem Buch erzählt er, wie das Wissen der Antike von Bagdad aus in die arabisch-islamische Wissenschaftnach Europa zurückkehrte

John Freely: “Platon in Bagdad. Wie das Wissen der Antike nach Europa kam”. Aus dem Englischen von Ina Pfitzner. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2012, 388 Seiten, 24,95 Euro



Nimrud :: Woman in the Window

A sacred prostitute?

Excavated by A.H. Layard. Carved ivory. Phoenician, 9th-8th century BCE, from Nimrud (northern Iraq)

It is often speculated — for no good reasons that I can see — that she is a prostitute, sacred or not, connected with Astarte or Ishtar. Trying to find out more.

North Korea and Cultural Theory

This week I watched astonishedly how astonished journalists and politicians groaned and moaned and couldn’t believe their goggling eyes. Gefundenes Fressen for the cultural anthropologist.

Our thinking framework clearly doesn’t apply in North Korea. I’ve seen decent and usually objective journalists unable to control their scorn — or their risorius muscles, for that matter. The authenticity of the feelings of the North Koreans is continuously being questioned. Can these people be “happy“?, concerned reporters wonder unisono. Too ridiculous to even contemplate, says the Daily Mail.

Hallucinant images, ungraspable by western eyes, journalists and politicians yelp. “Il sont completement des robots!” gasps a hysterical-indignant Belgia politician on mission, holding a protective arm around the shoulders of a child.
At least 4.000 asylum seekers, men, women and children, are living and sleeping at this very moment in the freezing cold of the streets of Brussels. A democratically elected, free western government is unable to find them a warm sleeping place for the winter.

Hysterics, another favourite. Is this display of emotions forced at gunpoint? Or is it the result of 50 years of brainwashing?
What we see is public mourning and it is, I suspect, not so very different to the emotions shown by the British after Princess Diana’s death. Diana, too, was the centre of a huge personality cult, carefully cultivated by the mass media industry.

I’ve heard the regime called, sloppily, fascist — I rather thought it was communist. Kim Il-Sung’s own personalised brand of Marxism-Leninism, in fact, as differentiated from Chinese and Soviet varieties.

The regime’s Propaganda Department demonises the USA, politicians teeth-gnash. Truly epic times we live in, then – a mythical struggle between the “Axis of Evil” and the United Demon Capitalist States.
Not to mention that some of the beefs North Koreans have with the USA are far from mythical.

I’ve heard it said that we, in the free West, live in post-ideological times. Media reports about North Korea shows us the limitations of our freedom of thinking, the restrictions of our neo-liberal ideology.

And exhibit a clear case of not being able to see the beam in your own eye.

The dehumanisation of North Koreans is well-nigh perfect – they are the absolut Others. Aliens, brainwashed robots, ruthlessly suppressed and indoctrinated by the propaganda machine. Their feelings are bogus – their art is kitsch pur. Kathleen Taylor discusses the use of the term “brainwashing” in this context in a very interesting article. And, literarily speaking: I find the poetic myths surrounding North Korean leaders disarming and gracious, with their crane birds and new-born stars gathering around the Dear Leader’s birth (now what was this other miraculous-birth-story featuring a star?!?). And the streets without cars, the carefully staged but empty hotels, the theatralicity of the enormous buildings and colourful mass spectacles remind me of the assiduous, devoted and almost compulsive movie-going of Americans during the Great Depression.


Peter Tetteroo, a Dutch journalist who made a documentary on the country, remarked:
“Everything that is to us normal, pleasing and comfortable, everything that constitues a logical and right society, doesn’t apply in North-Korea. I was absolutely desorientated by my own feelings. It is fascinating to be in a place where your frame of reference is absolutely inapplicable.
I couldn’t trust my own feelings.”

That is exactly the point. Feelings are not a very helpful guide to understanding another culture.

“Culture is a system of meaningful symbols,” as Clifford Geertz had it. Before getting hysterical about North Korean hysterics, the ethnographer must try to give a “thick description” of social discourse and cultural actions. And she must include her own role and methods in the ethnographic description and interpretation.

“Understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity.” Peter Tetteroo was forced to show reality as the officials of the North Korean regime want to represent it. In filming, he adhered strictly to these rules, thus creating an exemplary basis for a “thick description”: : interesting, because it is a first order interpretation of the North Korean culture-web. For the same reason “Gone with the Wind” is, besides being a smashing good read, an extremely interesting document. As are the Edgar Wallace’s “chinks” novels, with their unabashed sinophobia. Of which we have clearly not yet rid ourselves by a long chalk – see also this excellent article by Anna Chen.

The voice-over commentary in the documentary – and its music – warrants a study in western bias.


Are the North Koreans winking, twitching – or parodying winks? Is what we see esthetically pleasing – or kitsch? How are we in any position to decide? “Kitsch is the absence of shit” wrote Kundera, preeminent writer on communist unhappiness. He certainly has a point, but that is not the point. Or is it? The CIA calls North-Korea the “black hole of diplomacy”, but there seems to be no doubt that North Korea is a dictature of the worst kind. Concentration camps for political dissidents, hundreds of thousands of people dying of hunger and disease, people in the countryside eating treebark and clay are being reported on.

Very few first order interpretations of North Korea are available. “We received permission to travel across the country under strict supervision, and the only conclusion that we were able to draw at the end of this week was that we now understood even less of what goes on in this country” says Tetteroo. Unfortunately it is at this moment impossible to let North Koreans speak for themselves. Untill they can, we must be extremely cautious in how we describe this other culture.


Clifford Geertz: Cultural Anthropology. The Interpretation of Cultures.

Toy Goddesses: The End of the Matriarchal Myth?

From: The Daily Mail

Ancient figurines were toys not mother goddess statues, say experts as 9,000-year-old artefacts are discovered

By David Derbyshire
Amazing artefacts: Many of the figurines resemble animals like sheep and goats

They were carved out of stone and squeezed out of clay 9,000 years ago, at the very dawn of civilisation. Now archaeologists say these astonishing Stone Age statues could have been the world’s first educational toys.

Nearly 2,000 figures have been unearthed at Catalhoyuk in Turkey – the world’s oldest known town – over the last few decades. The most recent were found just last week. Made by Neolithic]] farmers thousands of years before the creation of the pyramids or Stonehenge, they depict tiny cattle, crude sheep and flabby people.

In the 1960s, some researchers claimed the more rotund figures were of a mysterious large breasted and big bellied “mother goddess”, prompting a feminist tourism industry that thrives today. But modern day experts disagree. They say the “mother goddess” figures – which were buried among the rubbish of the Stone Age town – are unlikely to be have been religious icons.

Many of the figures thought to have been women in the 1960s, are just as likely to be men.

Archaeologist Prof Lynn Meskell, of Stanford University, said: “The majority are cattle or sheep and goats. They could be representatives of animals they were dealing with – and they could have been teaching aides. “All were found in the trash – and they were not in niches or platforms or placed in burials.”

Out of the 2,000 figurines dug up at the site, less than five per cent are female, she told the British science Festival in Surrey University, Guildford. “These are things that were made and used on a daily basis,” she said. “People carried them around and discarded them.”

Catalhoyuk is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Established around 7,000 BC, it was home to 5,000 people living in mud brick and plaster houses. Their buildings were crammed so tightly together, the inhabitants clambered over the roofs and used ladders to get into their homes. The town dwellers were early farmers who had domesticated a handful of plants and kept wild cattle for meat and milk. Cattle horns were incorporated into the walls of their homes.

The town contains the oldest murals – paintings on plastered walls. Unlike later towns, there is no obvious hierarchy – no homes for priests or leaders, no temples and no public spaces. The dead were buried in spaces under homes, rather than in cemeteries. Some researchers believe it was an equalitarian society.

The town survived for around 2,000 years. It is not known what happened to its inhabitants, but they may have been killed by invaders or driven away by the loss of nearby farmland.


I also recommend the book:

The Myth of the Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future