Peace on Veteran’s Day

Yesterday I stumbled into the monastic quiet of Chancellor Green Hall on the Princeton campus, just to sit and think for awhile before the start of a seminar.  There, in the empty octagonal enclosure, with light streaming from all angles through gorgeous stained glass windows, I found a little item worthy of a Not Quite Right mention in honor of this Veteran’s Day, 11-11-11.

An image of peace in a window of Chancellor Green Hall, Princeton.

I’ve got two takes on the image of this Crusader-like figure, both of them worth mentioning in the context of NQR.

First, I wonder if the artist intended the image to embody the Pax Romana, the somewhat oxymoronic enforcement of peace through a monopoly on violence.  Does the horseman’s slumping posture hint at the failure inherent in such a doctrine?  Or is his head held high, looking foward to a horizon that must lead to a soldier’s self-sacrifice in the name of his ideals?

Second, and maybe simultaneously, I think that this figure represents the very opposite idea: a Don Quixote, piquant, holding aloft a banner embroidered with a single word for Peace despite the realities of the world around him.  I like this interpretation best.  It has warmth to it that matches the warmth of the light flooding through the colored baubles of glass — the lone soldier holding to an unreality, facing a corrupt world.  The invocation of Don Quixote touches also upon madness, a beautiful madness that sees things in their most wondrous light rather than in their most real and dismal actualities.  Unfortunately, such an idea is one for books, for literature, for poetry.  It intersects only in the realm of ideas with what life is really like for a soldier.

I think of the friends and comrades I have lost at war today and all those who have gone before us, sacrificing, unsure of what ideals they really represent.  All a little Quixotic.

Middle East Water Issue

I think I’ll tell this Not Quite Right story through pictures, rather than words.  Just a few clarifying details upfront:

1.  This is not your standard Middle East water problem.

2.  No children were harmed in the process of taking these photographs.

3.  Mughsayl Beach is located about 40km southwest of Salalah, Oman, about as near to Yemen as a person can safely venture now days.


My son, Wesley, checking out one of many 'attractions' at the Mughsayl Beach


I join Wesley. We can see down into the hole to a rather frightening depth and can feel a breath of air on our hands.


Ya, Allah! -- a better scare than any ride at Great America!




One Hundred and One Nights

Just received via overnight package two advance copies of the finished, published version of my novel “One Hundred and One Nights.” They came as a wonderfully-timed birthday present gift from my editor at Little, Brown.

The cover captures the essence of the main character, a little Iraqi girl named Layla.

It’s been a long process, shepherding the book to this point, a process that couldn’t have happened without the confluence of tremendous good luck, good circumstances, and grinding effort.

In the category of good luck, I must mention how fortunate I was to have a couple stories originally published by Storyglossia quickly anthologized by Dzanc Press in back-to-back editions of “Best of the Web.”  From there, I was doubly lucky for Jon Sternfeld, of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, to contact me and ask if I might be able to write a novel similar to the stories he had read in those anthologies.

After bantering around a few ideas with Jon, I settled down to sketch out “One Hundred and One Nights.”  The process (here is the beginning of the GRIND) took a full year, writing during lunch breaks as I studied the Arabic language at the Defense Language Institute.  Eventually, 500 words at a time, I reached a point where I had put flesh on a very, very rough skeleton of a first draft.  Jon signed up to represent the novel and, after several thorough and complete edits/revisions under his guidance, he found it a home with Little, Brown’s imprint Back Bay Books.  Here, again, more good luck:  being pared with an editor (Vanessa Kehren) who took the book through several more important iterations of review and polishing and whose good ideas now pervade the novel to such an extent that it really should be considered a group effort, Buchholz-Sternfeld-Kehren.

And, as for the good circumstances?  There I must credit my work in the military, first as a Civil Affairs Officer in Safwan, Iraq, and now as a Foreign Area Officer learning more about the Middle East, both experiences which have provided the waft and the supporting weave in which to stitch something I hope will convey a certain measure of reality while also invoking a bit of empathy for the people of the village of Safwan, Iraq.

A further bit of fortunate circumstance — taking my family with me this last year in Oman and throughout the Middle East.  They not only enlivened my days, but provided space for me to write and inspiration for me to write about.  I think “One Hundred and One Nights” reflects a little bit of them, my father feeling for my children especially which comes streaming out between the seams as the character Abu Saheeh slowly unravels his story.  My family might say that living with someone who is trying to write/edit a novel is Not Quite Right but, without them, I would have been lonely, empty, and only resonating with the sort of hollowness that haunts Abu Saheeh in the beginning of the tale.

Please help me spread the word about this book!  It will ship to bookstores (and ship from Amazon both as a hardcopy and as an eBook) starting in December!  I’ll return to normal NQR blogging with most of my posts hereafter, though occasionally some exuberance, some note about especially great things going on with the book, may bleed over into this forum.

Thank you for your patience with my exciticism.  I hope, if you do read the novel, that you find it both enjoyable and meaningful.

Heavenly Etymology

The Garden of Allah by Maxfield Parrish.

I’m going to nerd-out here for a moment in order to show my enthusiasm for what must be a totally obscure and academic discipline:  etymology.

I’m taking a course right now with Professor Michael Cook, who is a truly entertaining teacher as well as being one of the world’s most iconoclastic scholars of Islam.  During the course, reading through an Arabic passage on the life of the revered Muslim scholar Bukhari, we came across a strange nisba, or surname, in Bukhari’s lineage.  The name, roughly transliterated into English, was Birdizbah.

This is, doubtlessly, a non-Arabic name.

We asked Professor Cook about it in class and he launched into a really groovy etymological explanation.

It seems he, too, had the same question but was not, like me, completely dumbfounded when it came to deciphering the word.  He guessed that it likely derived from a very obscure Iranian language (still spoken in one little valley in Tajikistan) called Sogdian.

He found an online Sogdian discussion forum (wonder of wonders!) and posed the question of the origins of this name to the assembled electronic Sogdians and Sogdian enthusiasts.  It seems, within a short period of time, that a Japanese scholar identified the ‘–bah’ ending of Bardizbah as roughly equivalent with the Indian term ‘walla,’ which could mean lord or possessor or owner of something.

Then in the same forum an English professor, switching the Arabized ‘B’ to a phonetically equivalent Persian ‘P’ arrived at Pardiz for the first half of the name.

This gave Professor Cook “Pardiz-walla’ or “Owner of Pardiz” for the rough meaning.

It was only a small step further to produce our English-language version:  Paradise.

Lord of Paradise.

When you think about it, it’s quiet beautiful as a name, really.  And the only quip I can make as far as NQR is the fact that such a linguistic excavation was really incredibly interesting to me.  I guess I’m in the right place, immersed in academia!

Expatriate Picnic Secrets

So, two options if you want to go to a REALLY nice beach in Oman:

1)  Stay at the Shangri La Barr al-Jissah Resort, with a sea-cave arch in its front yard and a private cove among three different ‘tiers’ of resort complexes (all visible in the picture on the main page of the resort’s website, link provided here at no additional cost).

. . . or . . .

2)  Pay one of the local fishermen who wait on shore, after finishing their morning trawl, to take expats out to the equally private and much less expensive cove immediately opposite the sea arch.

Same waves.

Same water.

Same sand.

Same sun.

Cocktails are, unfortunately, best kept within the confines of the resort, in deference to local predilections.

Going rate to hire a boat from Qantab Village to take a group out to the hidden cove?  Negotiable, but usually somewhere around 10 Omani Rial (about 26 USD).  Going rate to spend the day at Barr al-Jissah?  I wouldn’t know.  And that’s the NQR of this post . . . all of us expats creating a cottage industry of taxi-boats through nothing more elaborate than our own penny-pinching!

A boatload of expats shove off for a short trip around the peninsula to the 'hidden cove'

Cotton Candy at Job’s Tomb

Cotton candy vendor in the mist at Job's Tomb -- Salalah, Oman.

The Not Quite Right element in this post is almost painfully obvious:  a cotton candy vendor (among others hawking everything from nuts to clothes) has set up his cart just outside the gates of what might be the most historically plausible of several locations that claim to inter the remains of the Biblical Prophet Job, or An-Nadi Ayoob as he is called in the Qur’an.

What might not be so obvious, but are undoubtably also NQR moments, are two other things about this location and time:  the rain and the extreme length of Job’s green-draped sarcophagus.

For the first, the rain is an effect of a seasonal monsoon that touches the very southern part of Oman (Job’s tomb is cradled in the coastal mountains near Salalah) each August.  The phenomenon greens the whole area and makes it a tourist destination for vegetation-starved pilgrims from across the Arabian peninsula.  To westerners, the idea of spending a week in a light drizzle might be better satisfied by a visit to London.  But to locals, nothing seems to make them happier than a celebration, or even a roadside picnic, in the rain.

Job's 9-foot long sarcophagus.

For the second, the Prophet Job was (along with all the earliest members of homo sapiens) supposedly a giant.  Thus his sarcophagus measures about 9 feet long while a footprint alleged to be his is preserved (in concrete!) outside the shrine.

One further oddity of the tomb:  the relics of an abandoned mosque abutt the rear wall of the building.  It appears to be very ancient and, from what I could tell, it seemed that the qibla, or prayer niche, faced in a direction toward Jerusalem rather than toward Mecca.  This could possibly date the building among the very earliest in Islam, from before the time when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) changed the direction of prayer.  Omani friends:  please comment if you have more information on this directional change.

A Building for Posterity

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the man who founded and largely molded the United Arb Emirates, built what must be one of the most beautiful and vainglorious buildings of modern times.  No, this isn’t the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  It’s the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which sticks out against the modern cityscape like a scimitar of light, like a reborn Taj Mahal.

View from inside the courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (gold-tipped minaret gratis)

Technically this building is a mosque, although it is open to tours and serves (in my opinion) more as a vast decoration to the adjacent tomb of the Sheikh himself.  Loaded with the best of old and new worlds — including escalators to bring worshippers and visitors up from the underground parking lots as well as inlays of precious and semi-precious stones on all of its forest of marble columns — the mosque is truly a ‘must see’ for a tourist but also an awe inspiring reminder to Emiratis and other Arabs of the incredible wealth of this oil principality.

The contrast, and perhaps stretching it a bit the NQR moment, comes when thinking of my own country, the US.  What have we built (other than the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium) with anything like the panache and truly lasting beauty of this edifice?

Sycamores in the Land of Milk and Honey

The view from the parking lot of Nimrod Fortress in Israel’s Golan Heights, halfway up the jutting flank of Mount Hermon, reveals a number of things:  justification for the Jordan River Valley’s title as the ‘Land of Milk and Honey,’ the dip between mountain ranges through which the ancient road from Damascus to the Mediterranean ports of Acre and Sidon now no longer runs, the demarcation between Israel (flushed green with irrigation) and Lebanon (largely desolate).

Groves of sycamores on the near slope mark the location of old Syrian barracks. (Click to enlarge photo)

What also appears in the view from this particular precipice, but which would go unnoticed by most visitors, are a few small groves of sycamore trees on the nearer slope (just beneath the rock retaining wall and nearer than the roofs of the Jewish kibbutz community at the intersection of the slope and the valley floor.

I would have paid these sycamore groves no heed if I hadn’t struck up a conversation with a pair of elderly Israelis, a husband and wife who parked their car to tour the ruins of Nimrod at the same time as I did.  They brought the sycamores to my attention and explained the hidden significance.

“Syrians,” said the man.  ”They liked to have shade on their barracks.  It’s all that’s left of the places now but those groves are where the Syrian army had set up camp, where they raided down into the valley.  This was why we needed to take the Golan in ’67.”

The man pointed out several of the groves to me.  I was struck by their proximity to the fertile lowlands of the Jordan Valley.  I was struck by how magnificently the cliff from Nimrod and the hills beneath it controlled, in a truly strategic and choking sense, all the terrain around it.  Those Syrian positions offered a definite advantage to whomever possessed them.

Before the conversation drew to a close though, the man’s wife made the most striking comment.  It has stuck with me exactly because, coming from a nice, gray-haired grandmotherly sort of woman, it bared the true grit and determination of the present-day Israeli mentality.  This woman stepped closer to me and said, shaking her finger, “You better believe the Syrians plan to come back here some day.”

Then she turned, her husband in tow, and began to walk into the fortress.

No goodbye.  No sweet pinch of the cheek from this old lady.  She was all business, thoroughly chilling and — juxtaposed against the beautiful vista, the gorgeous day, the ruins, and the tourist leisure of my time on that mountain — her warning resonated for me as a moment of definite Not Quite Right.

Trucker’s Parade

Having just returned to the United States from Oman the flip side of this Not Quite Right idea has become more and more apparent.  As an American it is very easy to view the rest of the world as if it is an oddity, especially since we’re so isolated here, a single monolithic culture from ‘sea to shining sea’.  So, as a new part of this blog, I’ll add an occasional observation on the weird things American life often accepts as normal.

For starters, in my very own little Wisconsin hometown, we have an annual Trucker’s Parade.  The event consists of a couple hundred highly decorated, chrome-enhanced semis parading not once, but twice through the city streets (day and night) — complete with horns, jake-brakes, sirens, black undercarriage lighting, flames, and cotton-candy vendors walking the streets.  All the trucks stage at a big open field near the town’s community center, where bands play, beer is consumed, and people vote on the prettiest trucks.  It’s the sort of thing stolen from a Jeff Foxworthy joke!

Here are some of the best trucks, pictures of which I snapped while sitting in a lawnchair on my parents’ sidewalk . . . there’s nothing wrong with a parade of semis, mind you, but the rest of the world will probably agree that there is definitely an element of Not Quite Right involved here.

Double Wide Orange Monster of a Semi . . . look at all the cab space!

The 1980's called . . . they want their flames back.

And the very best, most ‘Wisconsin’ of all the trucks . . .

Pulling a giant Old Style beer!

Caliph Omar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One of the things that I noticed several times during visits to very different parts of the Middle East and North Africa were examples of early Muslims, Christians and Jews showing a tolerance for each other that has certainly not been the prevailing theme of more recent years, or at least not the theme of media coverage in more recent years.  One such example, in the tomb Morocco’s Moulay Ismail, I mentioned as part of an earlier post.  Yet another example I found in the very heart of the current conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims:  Jerusalem.

The Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, across a small courtyard from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

So much has happened in Jerusalem, religiously and historically, that current discussions of Palestinian autonomy tread lightly on the subject of dividing or allowing a shared authority in the City itself.  However, people would be wise to look backwards at the actions of one of the first Caliphs, Omar, when his Rashidun Army conquered the city in the year 637 AD.  The Christian Patriarch Sophranius, upon surrendering, asked as a condition of the city’s capitulation, to be allowed to surrender to the Caliph himself rather than to a military leader.  When Omar reached the city, the Patriarch invited him to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is the site of the Cruxifiction, see my separate entry on the subject).  Muslims revere Jesus, not as the Son of God, but still as one of the major prophets in the line from Abraham to Muhammad.  Many Muslim men are named Issa or Aissa, which is the Arabic equivalent of Jesus.  This is not strange.  Just as many Muslims are named Daoud or Sulieman after David and Solomon.

Anyway . . . Omar was both sensitive about keeping the Christian Church autonomous and also didn’t want to set a precedent for Muslims to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  So he prayed, with Sophranius, just a few feet away at a spot where King David was said to have prayed.  Omar then built a mosque on the site so that future Muslims could pray near to, but not violating, the sacred Christian site.

Even more telling, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is that the church itself has been divided into seven different areas of responsibility, parceled out to seven different Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox).  But the keys to the building itself are held by a Muslim family, so as not to cause jealousy among the seven!

This is, truly, an elegant solution.  Though it might seem Not Quite Right to entrust the opening and closing of Christianity’s most important church to a non-Christian, such a solution might be best for the city as a whole.  Maybe a battalion or two of Buddhist peace keepers could be found to enforce whatever solution is finally decided upon for the Holy City.


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