Saturday, November 27, 2010

Shahnama, Simurghs and Sections

The serendipitous pleasure gained when one’s professional and peripheral interests coalesce is magical and none more magical when that convergence meets in a museum exhibition of the quality of the Heroes and Kings of the Shahnama exhibition currently running (Nov17 to April 3, 2011) at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

The Shahnama – the Book of Kings – was the great multi-generational mythological-historical poetic opus – running to 50,000 lines of verse – detailing the history of Persia and the Iranian people and written over a thirty-year period by the Persian poet, Hakīm Abu'l-Qāsim Firdawsī Tūsī, known more commonly as Ferdowsi, and presented to the Ghaznavid ruler Sultan Mahmud in 1007 CE.

From my perspective I have always had a deep affection for the mythological cycles in the Shahnama and particularly for the appearance of the Simurgh, the great midwife. The half bird, half beast was Zal’s wetnurse and later when Zal’s great love and wife Rudabeh ran into difficulty in labour it was the Simurgh who returned and instructed Zal how to perform a Caesarean Section operation to deliver her.

“The mother must be drugged with soothing wine,

Till sense forsakes her, and she feels no pain;

Then must her side be opened, and the infant

Drawn through the wound. This being done, close up

The deep incision with the nicest care,

And take the herb, which I shall give to thee,

Prepared with milk and musk, and rub it well

Upon the severed flesh, and pass this feather

Along the part, and health will be restored.”

Zal obeyed the instructions and arranged for a skilled priest or Magi in the Zorastrian faith to perform the operation and thus the great belligerent hero of Iranian literature, Rustam ( a very similar figure to Cúchulainn in Irish mythology) was born.

Statute of Rustam,

Sa'd Abad Museum Complex, Tehran, Iran

From an obstetric perspective the description always fascinated me: a lateral incision – similar to the yotsé dofan of 1st century Talmudic texts – was used rather than midline; anaesthesia was induced; and with care the mother was sometimes expected to survive. A lateral incision rather than a midline approach however meant it was more likely that the major blood vessels of the womb would be damaged.

Birth of Rustam (Shiraz, Iran, 1548 CE)

Chester Beatty Library

Birth of Rustam (Iran, 1659 CE)

Trinity College Dublin

This was in distinct contrast to the western tradition where Caesarean Section had been reserved for women who had died but were undelivered. This intervention dated to the Lex Regia law of the second Roman King, Numa Pompilius (reigned 715-673 BCE). In the ‘Dark’ and early medieval ages the live birth of a child by caesarean section in a dead mother become associated in popular superstition with the birth of the anti-christ.

Birth of Anti-Christ (16thC Woodcut)

It was only from about 1600 CE onwards that Caesarean Section operations began to become part of obstetric practice in difficult labours and sometimes be associated with survival of the mother. The first successful (mother and baby survived) Caesarean Section in the United States was as late as 1794, 800 years after Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnama.

The Birth of Rustam (Isfahan, 1650 CE)

John Rylands Library, Univ of Manchester

The Exhibition at the Chester Beatty is well worth visiting.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Galway Sunset
25 November 2010

At the edge of the sky,
The highway across an inner landscape,
Meanders downwards,
Amongst moon-crushed shells and desiccated bladders,

To wait with Lear’s children;
The champagne froth of a moment,
A sea-anointed, wind-blessed fulfilment.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ireland’s Sisyphean Crisis: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Between a Rock and a Hard Place
(adapted from Punch Cartoon, March 1844)

The first time a whole nation completely imploded financially as a result of the unbridled speculation on a commodity was in February 1637 in Holland. It must be noted that in 1637 the concept of a ‘Nation’ was a relatively new one but in the Dutch case it concerned an overestimation of the worth of tulips, a flower; in Ireland’s case the bursting ‘bubble’ of 2010 is the result of an almost universal delusional estimation of the value of property and land allied to a fraudulent lack of regulatory control. Both of these bubble bursts came at the end of each country’s so-called Golden Age where the true value of tulips or land became unhinged from their real or logical intrinsic worth.

And now the crisis!

Ireland Inc. to get its house in order, to protect the deposits in national banks of all its taxpayers, has to sacrifice its financial autonomy in order to survive. It is caught between a rock and a hard place. Go with the International Monetary Fund and close the ‘Double Ireland’ taxation-avoidance ploys available to multinational corporations based here or go with the EU Stability Fund and remove the favourable basic corporate taxation rates that attracted those companies to Ireland in the first place. Either way the EU, who suddenly appears reticent to remember its proprietary gloating – and lack of regulatory intercession – over Ireland Inc.’s ‘European’ success during the Golden Age of the 1990s, is now determined to remove the ‘Irish’ virus ( it was a Tulip mosaic virus in the 1630s in Holland which was responsible for creating the most sought-after varieties) from infecting Portugal, Spain and others.

Sisyphus in Greek mythology – like Ireland in our own modern mythology – was considered the craftiest and most devious of men. Punished for his mortal hubris by being forced to push for eternity a boulder from the realm of men to the realm of the Gods he nearly makes it only for the boulder, at the extreme of his ambition, to roll back down again.

Time will tell whether Ireland Inc’s punishment will last as long.

Many mortals will certainly be crushed by the recoiling boulder.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Riot Grrrls, Feminism, and Female Combatants

If, in simplistic terms, it could be argued that first-wave feminism of the early 1900s resulted in enfranchisement of women, and that the second-wave of the 1950-60s resulted in emancipation, then the third-wave movement of the 1990s, as articulated by Riot Grrrl feminist punk bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, brought about empowerment:

'BECAUSE we are interested in creating non-heirarchical ways of being AND making music, friends, and scenes based on communication + understanding, instead of competition + good/bad categorizations.'

The more mainstream culmination of this empowerment demand for women resulted in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995.

Article 19 of the Beijing Declaration determined that:

'It is essential to design, implement and monitor, with the full participation of women, effective, efficient and mutually reinforcing gender-sensitive policies and programmes, including development policies and programmes, at all levels that will foster the empowerment and advancement of women'

Since then the UN, in particular, has been very pro-active in implementing gender-sensitive policies across its entire range of activities but in particular it has concentrated on Peacekeeping (The Windhoek Declaration and Namibia Plan of Action on Mainstreaming a Gender Perspective in Multidimensional Peace Support Operations (UN Doc. S/2000/693) ) and the impact of war and armed-conflict on women in particular.

Ten years ago on the 31 October 2000 the Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 (UN Doc. S/Res/1325 (2000) ) and called upon:

'all actors involved, when negotiating and implementing peace agreements, to adopt a gender perspective, including, inter alia:

(a) The special needs of women and girls during repatriation and resettlement and for rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction;

(b) Measures that support local women’s peace initiatives and indigenous processes for conflict resolution, and that involve women in all of the implementation mechanisms of the peace agreements;

(c) Measures that ensure the protection of and respect for human rights of women and girls, particularly as they relate to the constitution, the electoral system, the police and the judiciary'

Further Security Council Resolutions (1820,1888, and 1829) were to re-enforce these demands but one of the areas of female empowerment that was perhaps marginalized a bit – as if third wave feminism and its mainstream embodiment could not quite make up its mind as to how to embrace the notion of a ‘violent’ female combatant, irregular or otherwise – was how to deal with the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of female combatants. Resolution 1325 in particular only offered encouragement to the parties involved:

'13. Encourages all those involved in the planning for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration to consider the different needs of female and male ex-combatants and to take into account the needs of their dependants;'

It has been estimated that women ‘combatants’ comprise somewhere between 3-10% of armed groups ‘manpower’ with the higher numbers seen in South and Central American irregular or guerilla forces. As part of the transitional approach to the re-integration of ex-combatants when the period of armed conflict ceases systematic DDR programs are established. Women ex-combatants however do not appear to be helped in equal measure by these programs.

Louisa Maria Deitrich Ortega in a recent article ( Transitional justice and female Ex-combatants: Lessons Learned from International Experience in DISARMING THE PAST, Transitional Justice and Ex-combatants. Edited by ana cutter patel, pablo de greiff & lars waldorf, international center for transitional Justice Social Science Research Council • New York • 2009, pp 158-188) states that:

‘International experience indicates that women combatants’ multiple forms of engagement in armed opposition groups, such as in military intelligence missions, weapons training, and combat, tend to be downplayed and trivialized in both official and popular accounts of war. Consequently, female ex-combatants may be marginalized, stigmatized, and excluded in different ways, not just with respect to their experiences in armed groups, negotiations, and DDR, but also with respect to transitional justice measures.’

Many female ex-combatants it appears drift into the sex industry rather than return to families, clans, or tribes where their ‘military’ experience is a source of suspicion and exclusion. Ortega contends that many DDR programs are culpable in this outcome,

‘DDR processes operate in accordance with structural constraints that often result in disadvantages for women, such as male land tenure, traditional inheritance rights that exclude women, and restrictive traditional roles for women that relegate them to the domestic and reproductive sphere, rather than empower them to engage in the public sphere’

She concludes by stating that,

‘Male ex-combatants may face stigmatization related to the perception that they may be criminals and murderers, and thus may feel a disadvantage in searching for employment and in returning to their former communities. Female ex-combatants, on the other hand, find their very womanhood questioned.’

Not something I expect the Riot Grrrls would approve of!!!

Further Reading:

Secretary General’s Report: Women and Peace and Security (UN Doc.S/2010/498)


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Backward Headers and Glances

Perhaps the best of songs heard, or of any and all true love, or life's fairest episodes, or sailors', soldiers' trying scenes on land or sea, is the résumé of them, or any of them, long afterwards, looking at the actualities away back past, with all their practical excitations gone. How the soul loves to float amid such reminiscences!

Walt WhitmanA Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads

The woven images of an August evening in Tanzania of more than thirty years ago loom in front of me. I say woven, because sometimes, old memories overlap each other, become a résumé. It is not done to deceive but more to remind, in a tactile sense, of the patterns of effect.

There we were, in a battered Bedford truck, with its recently repaired chassis of reinforced concrete, winding our way back up the escarpment road. Behind us, the red dust spewed, to settle on pointed sisal plants. Behind us also, I hoped, were the night-hunters of the Serengeti, panting for the rains, a quick African sunset...a quick kill.

Our football team, with a conveniently epileptic goalkeeper, and polygamous striker were in great spirits. We – they – had beaten the bullying, braggart, bucks of Babati for the first time in ten years. Nothing in the shared memories of the team could touch the joy they felt at that moment.

Father Louis, the priest and coach, with the jet-black skin of his tribe and the Tipperary accent of the Palatine’s began the chant. It was the primitive sound of the nearby gorges: Oldevai, the birthplace of mankind … and strangely also of Benedictine Rome. Perhaps not so surprising for Fr Louis had spent seven years in the Eternal City infusing doctrine and incantation. But this sound was, more eternal still and I listened to the echo from the truck’s canvas walls and the night outside.

A second voice joined in, deep bass like the thunder that often rolled in the twilight across the plains below. I looked along the line of grinning faces. It was the silent member of our team; never a word out of him! And now his voice! It captured the chant to its loom, like a man’s footprint on the earth. It grew louder and louder before suddenly stopping and then began again. This time softer, anger spent, waiting.

The others then joined in with a melody that silk-spun a pattern between in the weave of chant and bass. By now, the night and the cold air had drawn in and the song’s cloth warmed us before drifting upwards towards the stars and the horizons of their lives.

I listened. I did not understand the individual words, or the imitations of nature that they held within them. But, that did not matter. In the music of the language of the escarpment, I could sense the ideas of joy and celebration and felt warm in the shared nurture and shared experience of our victory.

Two-nil, two-nil, two-nil. Enough said!

Monday, November 01, 2010


Apamea, Syria, Oct 2010

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,

In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones

Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky

With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones

From W B Yeats, The Magi