Sunday, June 29, 2008

Smithsonian Class III: Islam: Mecca

They keep getting better. The lectures, the art presented.

Last Wednesday evening for 90 minutes Dr. Maria Massi-Dakake of the Department of Religious Studies at George Mason University described the history and practices of Muslims in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia to a spellbound class, one of five presentations delivered by different professors in the Smithsonian Associates’ series, “Sacred Cities, Spiritual Journeys.”

Dr. Massi-Dakake said only Muslims may enter Mecca and Medina, the No. 1 and 2 holiest cities of Islam, and restrictions on entry into them have become far more restrictive since September 11.

A once-in a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca (“Hajj”) is one of five duties (or “pillars”) required of Islamic members. (The pilgrimage may be excused if one cannot pay for the journey and is in debt, which Islam reproves, or if a person is old and lacks energy, in which case, a child, who has already satisfied the Mecca pilgrimage for herself or himself, may travel for the parent after the parent’s death.)

According to the Qur'an, Abraham built the “Ka’bah” shrine (meaning “cube” in Arabic) with stones from around Mecca. Islamic tradition says the Ka'bah goes back to Adam and Eve, Dr. Massi-Dakake said.

The Ka'bah is the most sacred place in Islam, which lies in the heart of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The Ka’bah is built in an almost rectangular shape and has been rebuilt several times.

When Muslims pray throughout the world five times daily, they turn in the direction of the Ka’bah of Mecca.

Inside the Ka'bah is the “black stone” which, according to tradition, God gave to Abraham when the Ka'bah was built. It is revered by Muslims who, when entering the Ka'bah, try to touch or kiss the stone like Muhammad did. Some believe it is part of a meteorite. Professor Dakake showed the class a 14th century illustration of the “black stone” which can be found at

Mohammad was a follower of monotheism and established the true Islamic society in Medina. When he conquered Mecca in 630 A.D., he drove out paganism, including the idols at the Ka'bah. Mohammad is buried in Medina.

Between 1880 and the 1950 Mecca did not experience much change, however, during the 1930s the Saudis began major building improvements to the mosque surrounding the Ka'bah, and for the last 50 years vast expansion has occurred.

Before the 1940s probably 10,000 Muslims traveled to Mecca annually for the Hajj, but now, about two million Muslims make the journey every year, and many sleep in “tent cities” in the area. With so many visitors, it is not unusual for Muslims to die of the heat, and some are trampled to death.

Many countries have quotas of Muslims who travel to Mecca on special visas.

Mecca is more often associated with Abraham and his progeny since he founded it, Professor Massi-Dakake said. It is considered a “city of God.”

Islam does not have a “real purgatory." The word "Islam" means “submission” (to God) in Arabic, and is the newest of the major religions.

Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet but not the son of God nor do Muslims believe that he died on the cross.

The class members had lots of questions and interrupted Professor Massi-Dakake throughout her lecture, but she did not seem to mind. Responding to a question she recommended the following books for further study:
The Heart of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: The Straight Path by John Esbosito, and Islam and The Muslim Community by Frederick Denny.

The two final classes remaining are: Buddhism: Bodh Gaya, India and Christianity.
(Thanks to Wikipedia for some clarification.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Book reviews: 'Kite Runner' and 'Water for Elephants'

I tried; I really tried.

Rita Faye thrust “Kite Runner” upon me, and I got to page 72 before declaring “terminus”!

Ditto “Water,” however, I did not progress that far.

What is it about contemporary fiction that it is so bloody awful? I mean, do you suppose it’s because the intended readership is illiterate and is unable to comprehend more than two syllables?

“Kite Runner” is especially offensive, and is an affront to anyone having an education beyond the sixth grade. (I am sorry, Rita Faye.)

Several years ago the New York Times recommended “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr as one of its Top Fiction Books for whatever year it was. The few pages I managed to read convinced me that the book review pages of the Times are nothing more than pages given over to friends of the reviewer/the newspaper/the publisher/whatever in exchange for what? Let your mind soar.

A recent case in point: Last year’s Denis Johnson's Smoke Tree, whoops, Tree of Smoke. Rave reviews! Everywhere. Two friends rushed out and bought it (“I like the author so much,” said one). “Sniff” they both said afterwards. Not finished. Discarded. “So boring,” they said. “Nothing to it.” Hhmmmmm, what relationship, pray tell, does the author have to the reviewers? Do the reviewers even read half the garbage about which they write?

These books are so terribly written; it is a reminder of just how far the U.S. has sunk in terms of writing and English skills. And how meaningless book reviews generally are, as far as quality of content.

When there are so many “good” (i.e., classic, you know, the ones which e n d u r e ) books, all of which few have read? (List? You want a list?)

Can you imagine anyone even remembering “The Alienist” or “Smokebomb" five years from now, other than the sheer mediocrity of both? And the wasted money spent on them?

The last really good “contemporary fiction” book I read which has e n d u r e d was “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry. Published only 23 years ago.

Is it any wonder that advertising in book sections continues to fall, along with the number of pages, the number of readers of book review pages, the number of readers, and, the decline in quality of the written word? How low can we go?

Must we all become part of the mass?

Please let me know your recommendations for “good” contemporary fiction.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Smithsonian Class II – Hinduism and Vrindavan

It was lots better than the class taught the first week about Jerusalem. Then, Professor Jonathan Ray of Georgetown University showed little, if any, preparation and no art, with only a meager handout to share with the class of mostly senior adults.

Last Wednesday's class, "Hinduism: On the Earth and in the Heart" was led by a passionate professor, Graham Schweig from Christopher Newport University, whose love affair with all things of India was palpable and welcomed.

It was part of a series of five lectures, “Sacred Space and Spiritual Journeys,” offered by the Smithsonian Associates, each led by a different professor, at the Ripley Center on the Mall.

Music from India and low lights greeted students upon entry to the class, setting a pleasant stage for Dr. Schweig’s presentation about Vrindavan, "the most famous holy place of Krishna. " The talk focused on pilgrimages, not just to earthy places but the places in and of the heart which, Professor Schweig said, Hindus believe is the holiest place of all. And I believe he does, too.

"We all are humans whose tendency is to be a pilgrim in search of one's heart."

What we do in the 'outside world' affects our inside world and our own hearts. This generally is the basis for the Hindu faith, partially symbolized by the blue lotus flower which Hindus consider the most beautiful flower, and the peacock, both with circulating patterns and magnificent colors representing the outer world, the inner world, the innermost world and "the presence of the divine."

Professor Schweig showed many landscape photographs of India, and paintings and art of the divinity of Krishna and the Hindu faith. He described the creation of the word "Hindu": When the Persians invaded the area in the ninth century, they could not pronounce a river's name and gave it one they could pronounce: “Hindu.”

About 900 million people consider themselves Hindus, Professor Schweig said.

The remaining classes are about Islam: Mecca; Buddhism: Bodh Gaya, and Christianity: Bethlehem, Galilee, and Jerusalem.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Smithsonian Class: "Sacred Spaces and Spiritual Journeys"

Content supplied by Q+A is almost always better than what comes in a presentation.

At least, that's my experience at countless author presentations and lectures in and around D.C.

Last Wednesday night's lecture in the first of five classes about holy cities of major faiths offered by the Smithsonian Associates was no different.

Jonathan Ray, professor of Jewish studies in the Theology Department at Georgetown University, presented "Judaism: Beyond the Holy City." But, alas, no art! None shown! No pictures, maps, graphics, or charts. So disappointing.

So many opportunities to show the class of about 35 mostly senior citizens, a look at Jerusalem: The Western Wall, the only remnant of the Second Temple, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives Cemetery. I cannot believe that I was the only one disappointed. Depending upon membership level, this series of classes starts at $76.

Professor Ray said that many Jews today believe they are secular Jews. He gave brief histories of Jerusalem and the Jewish faith.

He talked for almost an hour exactly and then answered questions for 30 minutes.

England and France continue to resist entry of Jews to attend conferences and conduct business, using the Middle East situation as the reason for the rebuff which Professor Ray said he doubts is the real basis for the rejection.

He said it was increasingly difficult for Jews to live in Western Europe; however, Spain and Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe, especially Poland, are more welcoming. Many Jews are taking "spiritual journeys" to Spain and even New York City from the West Coast to see where their parents and grandparents once lived.

Answering a question, he said politics was part of religion (and vice-versa?) and includes culture, land, people. "What isn't included?"

About half the class members raised hands when Dr. Ray asked who had been to Jerusalem.

Different professors will lecture at each of the four remaining classes which are: Vrindavan, India (Hinduism), Mecca (Islam), Bodh Gaya (Buddhism) , and Bethelehem, Jerusalem, and Galilee (Christianity). They all meet at the Ripley Center on The Mall.

I hope the remaining professors have some art to share. Of any kind. The classroom is fully equipped for it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Tennessee State Society on Capitol Hill

It was the Annual Congressional Reception in the Mansfield Room at the Capitol.

An elegant, tasteful room although not as large as the one where the 2007 event was celebrated. And a smaller crowd, and smaller number of Congressional representatives, too.

Last year most all of the Tennessee congressional representatives attended, including both U.S. Senators who are Republicans, Lamar Alexander and then, the newly elected Bob Corker, now tardy for failing to submit his annual financial disclosure statement due in May. (He got an extension since all his "ducks were not in a row.").

Marsha Blackburn (R-Middle, West, and Northern Tennessee (gerrymandering, you know) was also missing in action, likely working repair on her own financial woes, including trying to answer some of the 33 letters she has received from the Federal Election Commission about faulty reports of her campaign finances.

Last week Congressman John Duncan (R-Knoxville) and Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) were the only representatives who did show up, and both engagingly addressed those present (who numbered about 60). They spoke highly of each other and applauded the relationships among Tennessee congresspeople who actually get along (mostly) and work productively together, unlike some other states, they said, which they did not name.

John Duncan, a conservative, is admired and well respected by Democrats, too, for his sincerity and his always fierce opposition to the Iraq War, even when it was popular to support it six years ago.

Jim Cooper is a Blue Dog, but I shall not hold that against him. He well represents his constituency.

An important no-show! Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), the incoming honorary chair of the Society, replacing Congressman Duncan, the 2007 honorary chair. Perhaps Rep. Cohen was dealing with the Washington Post since it ran a big story the next day on him and his opponent, Nikki Tinker, whom Emily's List is supporting..

Attending: Mostly interns or intern alums.
Average Age: Under 30
Dress: Suits
Food: Some hors d'oeuvres, beer, wine
Caucasians: 97%
Cost: Membership in the Society is $20/year. A great value for several parties throughout the year, usually funded by lobbyists.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

B o r i n g: The Manhattan Transfer at the Kennedy Center

From the Queen of Free:

I just don't remember their music and I thought I did. Anyway, it was a mind nummer. (Is that a word?)

It was music my grandmother would have liked. Wait a minute! I am a grandmother!

I was so mad at the Washington Post. It seemed like every single day it posted a notice about the free concert by the Manhattan Transfer at the KC. What? Did it need more people to attend? And then, of all things, on Friday the Post ran a photo, the nerve, in the weekend section promoting the performance! What was it trying to do?

Whatever, the likelihood of my securing a seat grew dimmer and dimmer as the week wore on. Thank you, Washington Post!

At Foggy Bottom, the line for the shuttle to the KC was at least 60 deep one hour before show time. I was so mad at the Post.

I walked to KC, arriving at 5:15 p.m and discovered one million people had arrived just ahead of me. Not only were all the seats taken, but people were sitting on the steps at the other end of the the Millennium Stage six miles away.

The Post had mentioned KC was installing screens for the special event and that it would observe half off Happy Hour prices for alcoholic beverages until 6 p.m. N o t. On my hike I stopped to quench my thirst, and the bartender gleefully reported: "The Post got it wrong."

Looking for a seat (step seats are better than floor seats) I stopped to ask one woman sitting on the steps if she had come to hear the Manhattan Transfer from six miles away, and she said, while wiping the sweat from her brow, that she had given up walking and had just collapsed.

She pointed to some seats in the horizon at the far end of Millennium Stage, and I hailed a taxi and took off.

Sure enough, although it was 40 minutes until the free concert began, I managed to get a seat right under the facing (from six miles) stage. When the show got underway the screens worked fine, and I could hear, but hear what? Do you mean to tell me I braved all these elements and rushed to hear lacklustre music? That's what it was.

The best selections: "A Tisket, A Tasket" and "Groovin'". The female who performed "scat" stole the show, if it could be stolen. I nodded off and upon awakening, joined some others stealing away before the end.

The Crowd: 97 percent, Caucasian; Average Age (no joke): 60; Dress: Whatever plus

Friday, June 6, 2008

Bette Davis in Town All Summer

From the Queen of Free


Bette Davis FOR FREE!

National Theatre at 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue is hosting a Bette Davis Film Festival all summer long. How gracious of it! (Why do theatres do this?)

But, hold on, you don't sit in the theatre. Read below.

"Now, Voyager" played June 2. Just divine, Ms. BD. Extensive, I mean, extensive notes on the movie were distributed beforehand along with a good one-page biography on Ms.D.

Upcoming: "The Little Foxes" (June 9), "Marked Woman" (June 16), "Jezebel" (July 7), "Dark Victory" (July 14), "The Letter" (July 21), "All About Eve" (July 28), "Mr. Skeffington" (Aug. 4), "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"(my favorite when I was 13 years old) (August 11)

If you go thinking you'll be sitting in the theatre, do think again. The movies play in the mezzanine where seating is, the positively hardest you can imagine: on the plastic chairs found at CVS. Take a pillow!

Anyway, to BD aficionados, this is paradise, or almost. The screen's not full but me thinketh I doeth complaineth too much. After all, BD is free...on the screen.

Get there early (before 6 p.m when tickets are distributed) to stand in line and get your ticket. Open seating began around 6:15 p.m. for the show at 6:30 p.m. No food or drink. Sitting in the front is the best, at least, in my opinion since seating is not elevated.

The crowd: Mixed race and gender; average age: 50; dress: whatever.

About 60 persons attended. Some seats were empty. Thank you, National Theatre!

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Lincolns' Marriage

Perhaps it's because they are writers and not broadcast journalists that some authors have about as much life in them at author presentations as Hummer sales.

Last Thursday night at Olssons at Penn Quarter, Daniel Mark Epstein, also a poet and dramatist, described his latest tome, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. He didn't paint Mary Todd Lincoln quite as negatively as most, although he twice mentioned without explanation her being "committed" to Bellevue Sanitarium in 1875 for three months, and since no one asked about it the "Q + A" session which followed, I guess everyone else there knew why.

Mrs. Lincoln "showed a lot of signs of being bi-polar"; she had headaches and was high strung. (Ed's note: Sounds like menopause to me.) She was quite outspoken and commanded quite a bit of influence on President Lincoln.who had obvious flaws in the "father" department and was often distracted when dealing with family matters.

President and Mrs. Lincoln really did love each other, and Shakespeare and Robert Burns. Mrs. Lincoln was keenly interested in his career and, quite ambitious herself, wanted to be married to a President.

Washington society was "very suspicious of her when she came to Washington." Mrs. Lincoln went over budget with White House decorating which became a scandal. By 1864 she had become a liability to President Lincoln. At one point she was nearly indicted for treason for purloining one of Lincoln's speeches (I believe that's what Mr. Epstein said) which she gave to a newspaper friend. "She created false invoices to get more money to decorate the White House."

Before they married, they broke up for two years which contributed to Lincoln's depression. Her family was not supportive of her marriage to him.

No evidence exists to support the theory President Lincoln was homoerotic. He is one of the most carefully documented Presidents in history.

Based on the blurbs, the "experts" give the book a big "thumb's up," and I can't wait to read it. Let's support independent bookstores, all right? They are dying fast. If you want them to survive, buy your books here and skip Amazon. Speaking of...Olssons looks tired and needs more revenue to spruce it up a bit and engender some life, but, wow! That gazpacho in the restaurant! For the money, the best around. (A dollop of sour cream on top would make it even better.)

I would love to see a book about the positives of Mary Todd Lincoln for which it seems from all the biographies about the Lincolns, there are none.

The audience: 90% Caucasian, 60% male, average age: 40. All 20+ seats taken.