All posts by kbship

Surprise! The Kitab al-Bulhan

Magic and the occult are one of the simultaneously most widespread and least talked-about phenomena of the Muslim world. Its roots go back to the pre-Islamic Arabian desert, where soothsayers — kuhhan, etymologically cognate to the Hebrew word for an Aaronic priest, kohen — would use divination to settle tribal disputes and predict the outcome of battles. The poetry of that time also depicts instances of an apparition (ghul, the source of the English word “ghoul”) manifesting in the desert and a disembodied voice (hatif) calling out in the night. Pre-Islamic bedouin belief in jinn (the source of the word “genie”) and other unseen spirits are attested by Qur’an and epigraphic evidence.

Zodiac chart from the Kitab al-bulhan

With the coming of Islam, these traditions, beliefs, and practices continued in an array of divination techniques using the Qur’an (fal), the stars (tanjim), the earth (raml), and letters (`ilm al-huruf), as well as the design and use of talismans and amulets. In particular, the continued allure of such “occult sciences” (`ulum al-ghayb, “arts of the Unseen”) in the medieval Islamic world is evinced by a relatively obscure work called Kitab al-bulhan by Abu Ma`shar al-Balkhi (d. 886), a Persian astronomer whose works were known throughout the Middle East and Europe (his name is Latinized as “Albumasar”). In terms of the title, the root of bulhan, b-l-h, means “someone with little knowledge of uncommon things,” which is why Stefano Carboni translates Kitab al-bulhan as “The Book of Surprises” (the information provided here comes mainly from Carboni’s work).

The Waq Waq tree and its human fruit

The Bulhan is best known from a 14-century illustrated manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University as well as two copies made in Turkey, one now housed at the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York, the other at the French National Library in Paris. These codices feature a series of fascinating illustrations about astronomy and astrology, including the twelve Zodiac signs, the planetary stations, and the climates and seasons. There is a section on various categories of jinn — male and female — each associated with a day of the week, plus images that refer to man-made wonders like the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Finally, there are many illustrations that depict the tales of the 1,001 Nights and travel lore like Waq Waq island, whose female-only population was continually perpetuated by a tree that grew women as fruit.

But in addition to preserving obscure facts and folklore, the Bulhan may also have been a kind of grimoire, a book of spells. Strewn throughout the striking illustrations are symbols that can be interpreted as talismanic, which Carboni connects to the prolific writings — over 40 books in total, most of which are now lost — of North African occultist Ahmed al-Buni (d. 1225). His manual of talismans and divination, Shams al-ma`arif al-kubra (The Great Sun of Gnosis), outlines the use of many different designs whose influence can be seen in the pages of Abulmasar’s Bulhan. Whether and how these works were used for practical ends is debatable, but what is clear is that astrology, magic, and lore played a central role in the medieval Middle East, and they remain an important element in Muslim society even today.


Boujloud – Morocco’s Halloween

Every year, Muslims all over the world celebrate Eid al-Adha, The Festival of Sacrifice, which coincides with the season of pilgrimage to Mecca and which commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son (the Qur’an does not name the son, but most Muslims believe it was Ishmael rather than Isaac). The day’s main event is the live slaughter, cleaning, and cooking of an animal – typically a sheep or goat – for a big family feast. Waste is not tolerated. Whatever meat isn’t eaten gets donated to the poor. All parts of the animal, even horns and hooves, are carefully saved for later meals or other uses.

Boujloud celebrations often involve music, parades, and games.

In Morocco, one of those traditional uses is Boujloud, a folk holiday celebrated for three days starting after families have their sacrificial feast. Its roots are still obscure, but most Moroccans say the festival comes from indigenous Berber masquerades (western scholars also posit Roman origins). For three days, celebrants dress up in exotic costumes and hold parades, games, and live drum music. Children go around giving candy or money to the poor. But for some, the fun also involves practical jokes that sometimes turn violent. For this reason, Boujloud events are sponsored by NGOs and the local government to help control pranks.

This desire to maintain at least a semblance of order is understandable. Henk Driessen points out the carnivalesque nature of Boujloud as a space to express emotions and energy normally at odds with social decorum. Such a social “reversal” is apparent especially in the holiday’s core symbolism. Although nowadays people dress in modern, Halloween-esque costumes, traditionally it was the cleaned and prepared skin of the sacrificial lamb from Eid al-Adha that they would wear – hence the name Boujloud, “Wearer of Skins.” Participants literally inhabit the body of the slaughtered animal as part of the celebratory masquerade, an act that symbolizes their transformative reversal from human to beast and unleashes the animalistic behavior that social norms otherwise demand be kept in check.

“Donkeyskin” and other European folktales involve a young woman posing as an animal to escape a bad situation.

In this sense, the masquerade of Boujloud shares its mythology with several rich cultural traditions that blur the line between humans and animals. One is the sparagmos of Dionysiac cults in ancient Greece, a rite that involved tearing a live animal (or sometimes a human) to pieces and consuming it raw, thereby absorbing not only its body but its spirit as well. Another is a series of European folktales in which a young female protagonist wears an animal skin to hide her human form and thus escape a bad situation – usually forced marriage to her father – only to have to prove her humanness to a handsome prince in order for him to marry her (these Electra complex-laden narratives are the basis for K.A. Laity’s novel Peltzmantel). Still another is the Navajo skinwalker, a kind of witch that can assume animal form. There may be still other traditions resonant of Boujloud, including Sardinian Boes, the Alpine krampus, and the Bulgarian kukeri. And of course there is the narrative of Eid al-Adha itself, in which God first asks for Ishmael as a sacrifice only to replace him with a lamb, thus conflating the two even as they are simultaneously differentiated.

These vivid, even frightening symbols lie at the heart of Boujloud, and so it is no surprise why many Moroccans are hesitant to discuss the festival without commenting that it is part of their cultural, not religious, heritage. At the same time, it is the very pluralism of that heritage – a pluralism embodied in the occurrence of Boujloud’s unbridled, Dionysiac release during Islam’s holiest rite of passage, the pilgrimage to Mecca – that captures the tension between animal and divine, profane and sacred, that rages in every individual person. To diminish that tension would also be to diminish the ongoing struggle to find balance between the two, which is why in many ways Boujloud speaks to the very core of what it means to be human.

Halloween: Censorship and the Carnivalesque

On the night of October 30, 1938, several million Americans thought the world was being attacked by Martians. That’s because they were tuned in to the popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour” radio show until past 8:15PM EST, meaning they missed the initial announcement that Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast was indeed fictional (the original broadcast can be heard here). The “news reports” that made up the first two thirds of the broadcast were not real. Earth was not actually being attacked by invaders from Mars. But despite this announcement being made several more times throughout the evening, widespread fear took hold. Distressed listeners flooded local police stations and newspaper offices with phone calls to the point where switchboards were rendered inoperable. People bought gas masks and hid in their basements with shotguns. They stormed hospitals seeking medical treatment. Many claimed to have seen UFOs.

Over 12,500 newspaper articles covered the panic that ensued after War of the Worlds

Experts still debate the nature and extent of this panic. Some – including Orson Welles himself – blamed the media for whipping up public fears (over 12,500 newspaper articles were published documenting the aftermath of the broadcast). But whatever the exact contours of the hysteria, its effects were real enough to prompt a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation into whether radio censorship was necessary to avoid the type of panic that followed War of the Worlds. It eventually concluded that steps already taken by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the wake of public outcry were sufficient to protect the public interest. No further action was unnecessary, although the FCC did order the CBS programming department not to use the format of a “simulated news broadcast” in future radio plays.


The War of the Worlds episode depicts the trust of mainstream media that still prevailed in 1930s America, a time before the immediacy of social networks coupled to the caustic irony of faux reporting like The Onion blunted the public’s taste for the nightly news. Yet it also bears witness to the kind of censorship that has arisen around Halloween throughout its history as a modern holiday. The most recent example is the costume controversy at Yale, but despite the claim that this kind of outrage is only a recent phenomenon borne of social media, offensive costumes on campus have been an issue since at least the 1990s, for example in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals case Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University over an “ugly woman contest.”

Horror movies like The Exorcist (1973) have traditionally been both blockbuster hits and the subject of controversy and censorship.

Horror movies are another perennial object of the censors, with films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) causing outrage, panic, and even heart attacks in theaters. Urban legends of Halloween “sadism” – e.g. poisoned candy, razor blades in candy apples – have been circulating since at least the early twentieth century and reached a fever pitch between the 1950s and the 1970s. And every year, Evangelical Christians prohibit their children from dressing up and lobby public schools to shut down Halloween celebrations (this year there’s an added twist – in some places in the U.S., police are discouraging clown costumes because of the rash of alleged serial killer clown sightings in wooded areas throughout the country!).

But Halloween as a modern holiday is no stranger to debates about the limits of proper expression. Controversy about such limits go back to at least the 19th century, when the holiday was associated with “licentious revelries and masqueraded parades.”  The first recorded instance of dressing up for Halloween – called “guising” – was in 1911, and scholars generally trace the holiday’s ancient origins to Celtic harvest festivals like Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) that were then Christianized by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century. Traditionally associated with commemorating and/or warding off dead souls wandering among the living, Halloween has also been a time for mischief and pranks, especially since the 18th century. “The conventions of rascality that invigorated turn-of-the-century Halloween took a long time to die,” writes Nicholas Rogers in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, remarking on the holiday’s slow transition to respectability in the American context.


Licentious revelries, conventions of rascality, the dead among the living – at its core, Halloween is connected to ideas of transgression and reversal. It means surpassing or inverting the normal bounds of right and wrong, proper and improper, or even life and death. In this sense, it resonates with what Mikhail Bakhtin called “the carnivalesque,” roughly defined as a world upside-down created through humor and chaos. Bakhtin was referring specifically to the ribald satire of Gargantua and Pantagruel by 15th-century French monk François Rabelais, but the idea of a transgressive, topsy-turvy social space can be found in every culture – ancient Greek Aristophanic drama, the medieval European Feast of Asses, native American shamans and contraries (heyokas), the shadow play (khayal al-zill) in Middle Eastern cultures, or the “wise fool” archetype embodied by Yu Sze and Lan Ts’ai-ho in China, Birbal in India, and Nasreddin Hodja in Turkey.

Medieval “topsy-turvy” festivals like the Feast of Fools were closely scrutinized by religious authorities.

Little wonder that rituals and symbols like these – whose purpose is to be a kind of social catharsis, a temporary and fictionalized space for actions normally prohibited by social custom or law – should also traditionally be the object of both obsessive attention and vigilant policing. This partly has to do with the real potential to abuse brief allowances of bad behavior. The medieval European Feast of Fools, for example – the celebration vividly portrayed in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame – was perennially subject to condemnation by clerical authority figures like Robert Grosseteste, Eudes de Sully, and Cardinal Odo, out of fear that the celebration would lead to real subversion of legitimate religious and social custom. In this sense, the policing of “topsy-turvy” festivals partook of a similar spirit that led to various Inquisition offices springing up across western Europe.

But the censorship of ritualized behavior reversals also happened because such reversals have historically taken on the role of a political and social scapegoat. By singling out the sinful, the debased, the ‘low,’ a given social group can legitimize its own position as moral, exalted, ‘high.’ Yet ironically, this only happens because they are willing to let their gaze linger on the very thing they want to condemn. “Repugnance and fascination,” write Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, “are the twin poles of the process in which a political imperative to reject and eliminate the debasing ‘low’ conflicts powerfully and unpredictably with a desire for this Other.”


What does this mean for modern-day debates over proper expression which are bound to show up every year toward the end of October? It means that they take part in a longstanding struggle at the very core of human nature: the dance between hedonism and its suppression. We all have the urge to do something outrageous, unseemly, or even bad, yet at the same time we fear the real consequences of it. Days like Halloween provide a space to let us experience that fear but not the consequences, exploiting the positive benefits of a seemingly negative emotion (this is what Katerina Bantinaki calls the paradox of horror). The panic that ensued after War of the Worlds aired the night before Halloween came from fear and fascination all at once – it was, after all, one of the most popular radio broadcasts of all time.

As long as humans have a simultaneous desire for and fear of the macabre, the grotesque, and the diabolical, Halloween and its accompanying controversies will not be parting ways anytime soon.

For the Sake of Words

The first time I heard about Salman Rushdie was during high school in the 1990s. I spotted a copy of The Satanic Verses on the shelf at a friend’s house and, being fascinated by the macabre from a young age, I was immediately drawn to the diabolic title, not knowing the book’s content or the controversy it had caused. “What is this?”

“A damn fine novel,” my friend’s mother said.

“What will we do if they come for us?” my friend asked his mother.

“We will stand up for it,” she replied.

Open and informed political debate at home, let alone passionate defense of ideals like free speech, was not a staple of my upbringing, so all this talk was mystifying to me. Especially perplexing was my friend’s question. “What will we do if they come for us?” Who’s coming? Why are they coming? What will they do if they find this book? It’s just a book! The idea that words had consequences — even life-or-death ones — had never occurred to me. It just wasn’t necessary to my existence to think about it.

Indian Moslems burn an effigy of British
Salman Rushdie burnt in effigy in India

Only in college did I learn the details of Rushdie’s life, the controversy sparked by The Satanic Verses and its alleged mockery of Islam, the ordeal suffered by Rushdie after he was marked for death by the head of a sovereign state (Iran), the western media’s perennial fixation on blasphemy laws in the Muslim world. That world and my understanding of it remained limited by my white, middle-class suburban upbringing, even having grown up just outside cosmopolitan Washington, D.C. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this brief exchange with my friend and his mother set me on a path full of desire to better understand countries where something that seemed to my American mindset so unremarkable, even benign — criticism of religion — could be such a serious offense, even deadly. But it would take another confluence of events for me to start digging at the roots of speech itself, to start asking questions about how and why people put limits on expression, not just in the Muslim world but in every society, including and especially the West.

Fast forward almost twenty years. It’s 2015 and I am a PhD candidate in Arabic language and literature. I have spent the last decade thinking constantly about the two worlds I inhabit: Middle Eastern language and culture, and U.S. higher education. September 11th and the Danish cartoons have come and gone. The rise of ISIS dominates news cycles and white papers the world over. I try my best to think about the medieval Arabic poetry I’m writing about for my dissertation when, just a week after New Year’s Day, a pair of brothers born in France to Algerian immigrants stormed the Paris offices of satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo — which most of the world had never heard of before that day — and gunned down a dozen people and injured a dozen more. Their stated motive? Avenging the honor of the prophet Muhammad, a regular target of Charlie Hebdo lampoons.

“All is Pardoned,” the first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the attack

This horrific incident sparked vociferous debate about free expression and Islam. Are the two compatible? Is it possible to champion free expression and historically-oppressed peoples at the same time? Is racism protected speech? Are images allowed by Islam? Much of the conversation was a screen onto which individuals and groups projected their own existential pre-commitments and anxieties. Facebook profiles became littered with “Je suis Charlie” and “Je ne suis pas Charlie.” For me personally, it was a chance to imagine what the world must have felt like in February 1989 — a time I was too young to recall — when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling on Muslims to murder Salman Rushdie, a fatwa that, despite its legal force being rejected by Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in 1998, still remains on the books. Words and images once again came to have life-or-death implications. Once again they divided nation against nation and brother against brother. At a time when I had begun to wonder whether my chosen profession — the humanities — had any relevance to people’s everyday lives, the fact that people were willing to kill and be killed for the sake of words was a terrible reminder that it does.

University of Missouri Turmoil
Protesters at the University of Missouri in 2015. They and others raised questions about the limits of speech on college campuses.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks had not quite faded from memory when another debate about free speech arose later that fall. This time, however, it was American colleges that took center stage. A series of charged events — culturally insensitive Halloween costumes at Yale, racial slurs and a fecal Swastika at University of Missouri, a clumsily-worded email at Claremont McKenna, and many others — led to student demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins at campuses all over the country. Official student demands were issued. Administrators resigned. Campus speech codes and diversity training programs were instituted. Building names were changed. As with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, media coverage of these developments reflected the pre-commitments and anxieties people brought with them to the debate. The image of Melissa Click calling for muscle at Mizzou became a symbol of intolerance. Many blamed the millennial generation as a coddled one, while others pointed out the fact that for the first time, voices marginalized for decades or even centuries were now being heard.

My own experience of these events was a fraught one. Since I want be a university professor, I wondered if college campuses were becoming too toxic for me to want to spend the next 40 years working at one. I have no interest in verbally attacking anyone, but what if other people don’t see it that way? What if my research or teaching requires me to say something controversial? Will I be protected against reprisal for voicing my views? It gave me pause to think about making my professional home in a place where I would have to censor myself beyond the normal bounds of workplace civility and politesse. This question is especially urgent in an industry — academia —that upholds free inquiry as a professional ideal.

But for me, the other result of the fall 2015 campus debates was to help me see that people in every society, not just the Middle East, find certain words and images offensive, even to the point where they are willing to silence them or commit violence because of them. This hit me even more forcefully because the campus protests happened in the same year as the Charlie Hebdo attacks and, in November 2015, the Stade de France attacks that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.

The decapitated statue of Abu al-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri near Aleppo, Syria.

The confluence of these events last year took my already burgeoning interest in the limits people place on speech, and set it on fire. I have now begun to notice any and all controversy about the limits of human expression. This has even affected the questions I ask in my seemingly esoteric research on medieval Arabic literature, since my dissertation is about a poet long thought of as an arch-heretic against Islam, Abu al-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri. What is heresy? Who decides what it is, and why? How is this affected by the way people experience words and images? How and when is it silenced? This train of thought left the station in full force last fall, and ever since it has left me wondering about the limits of speech.

That’s what I want to do with my blog now — wonder out loud about the whos, whats, whens, wheres, whys, and hows of limits to human expression. Since I figured travel photos — what I was blogging about before — can easily be posted on Facebook and fit nicely with its raison d’être, I should dedicate my blog posts to something requiring more space to flesh out and which is not easily categorized as belonging to a given social media platform’s community. I chose “The Blasphemy Blog” because the Greek root of blasphemy has the same meaning as the Latin root of defamation — to attack (blaptein) one’s reputation or good name, pheme, cognate with “fame” in modern English. To me, the word “blasphemy” therefore has the potential to include not just insults against religion but anything humans hold to be sacred. How people limit speech goes back to how they judge value, both of good versus bad and also beauty versus ugliness, and the stakes of those value judgments for what others think, i.e. “fame” or reputation.

With this as a starting point, I want to explore examples from my academic field, Middle East Studies, but really anything that touches on debates over the limits of human expression. Of course I have my own personal opinions, but I figure the best way to interrogate them is by allowing myself free reign to wonder aloud about issues related to “blasphemy” broadly defined. My hope in so doing is that people will recognize that human expression, the “humanities,” have real power in everyday human life, and for that recognition to be an honor rendered to people like the Charlie Hebdo victims and others who have paid the ultimate price for the sake of words.

Humans of the Middle East

During this latest trip abroad, I’ve been struck harder by something than before. Even though it’s kind of a cliché, what makes travel unique isn’t the sights, the architecture, the relaxation or even the food. What makes it unique is the people. Whether random passersby, baristas in a tiny café, or lifetime friends, the humans you meet on the road is what gives you new glasses to see the world. So without further ado, I wanted to introduce you to some humans of the Middle East I’ve met over the past few months.

My buddy Ibrahim, for example, who makes the meanest popcorn Rabat has to offer. Or the street band in Tunis who played nonstop for hours in protest of government land grabs, as the crowd around them heaved and swelled. Even in Rome I can’t get away from the Middle East — pictured in front of his own artwork is another Ibrahim, an Egyptian who moved to Rome in the 80s and has been selling paintings of the Colosseum ever since. And even though it’s hard to avoid raising eyebrows when I try to take pictures at a local market, some of the fish sellers couldn’t wait to goof off for the camera:

Now, if you ever come to Morocco, you must know: they love their seafood. All kinds of seafood. Including snails, which they boil alive in a broth seasoned with a dozen spices or so, then serve in bowls and eat straight out the shell with toothpicks (in recent years, this has gotten attention as an upscale snack among the locals. I’d say it’s a bit of an exaggeration). Here in Rabat, Abd al-Rahim makes the best snails in town. He’s been at it for over 30 years and, if you catch him with his friends, they’ll crack a smile before throwing down another snail.

Finally, I couldn’t resist including a few photos I took with these amazing people I’ve met. I see Abd al-Rahim the snailmaker pretty often, so of course he made it into the mix. The gents under the parasol are veggie sellers in Rabat, and the other two throwing up deuces talked politics with me in Tunis for a while. Of course no selfie collage is complete without my beautiful, amazing wife accompanying me on a train from Casablanca to Rabat (you’ll notice she’s the only woman pictured here, which is the result of fairly restrictive social norms plus a general shyness about being photographed among traditional Middle Eastern women). And two friends from home who were clearly fascinated with the sun setting on my baldness.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, Victorian Steampunk Hero

In a previous blog post, I may or may not have publicly shamed such narcissistic titans of European colonialism as T.E. Lawrence and Sir Richard Francis Burton for not having their own comic book series. Well, I’m here to issue an apology and a correction. It turns out that Richard Burton is one of the two main protagonists of Mark Hodder’s six-part Victorian steampunk series, Burton & Swinburne. Set in gritty, industrial revolution-era London, the novels feature notables of the era like Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, and explorer John Hanning Speke.

In this, the Burton & Swindburne series goes along with recent Victorian period piece movies like Sherlock Holmes and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which have drummed up the public’s interest in heroes set in turn-of-the-century England (despite League‘s terrible box office showing and the continued legal battles of its creator and one of my favorite authors, Alan Moore). So I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sir Richard as the hero of a movie sometime in the near future, unless Hollywood gives up entirely on trying to produce anything but films that are remakes of previous films….

BURTON [BD].indd.pdf Also to give credit where it’s due, I should point out that Burton is the title character of at least one comic book in French, an irony in itself given the historical tensions between France and Britain over who got to keep which part of the Middle East. There are two volumes, one about Burton’s adventures on the Nile and the other about sneaking into Mecca disguised as pilgrim. Somebody get Warner Brothers on the phone!

Gertrude Bell – “Queen of the Desert,” Now in Comic Books!

Among the people who stand out in the history of European colonialism in the Middle East are the swashbuckling, native dress-sporting, megalomaniacal figures like T.E. Lawrence (the title character of Lawrence of Arabia) and Sir Richard Francis Burton (best known for translating the Arabian Nights and sneaking into the holy city of Mecca). But tell me this: Has either Lawrence or Burton had a comic strip written about them based on archival material from their adventures??

Well maybe. But so has another big name in European orientalism: Gertrude Bell, the British archaeologist, diplomat and spy whom Werner Herzog called Queen of the Desert and who was influential in establishing British Middle East policy during and after World War I. Now, thanks to Newcastle University’s Gertrude Bell Archive project, students of the modern Middle East can read about Gertrude Bell’s exploits in a COMIC BOOK based on diaries, letters, photos and other archival documents from Bell’s life.

The Newcastle project isn’t the only online collection of materials about Bell. Oxford University has put some of their Middle East Centre Archive online for viewing, including part of its Gertrude Bell Photo Gallery. The collection is especially strong in pictures from Bell’s tenure in modern-day Iraq, which she had a hand in shaping through a report, “Self-Determination in Mesopotamia,” that assessed the leadership needs of local tribes from a British policy perspective.

Now that there’s a comic book out, maybe Marvel and Disney will start a new movie franchise! Let’s all hold our collective breath.