Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Ah, the American Halloween. Now that I’m outside of the U.S., I rather miss the adult costumes. When I was growing up in New Zealand, anyone above the age of twelve dressing up for Halloween was a curious sight.
This used to be true in the U.S. as well. As of the mid-20th century, trick-or-treating was an annual event for children, but adults seldom dressed up. But by the turn of the millennium, an estimated 65 percent of American adults celebrated Halloween, spending billions on costumes and party accessories. Halloween had become the second most important holiday for America's retailers, second only to Christmas.
Beyond the skimpy “sexy nurse,” “sexy cop,” “sexy cat” costumes or your annual fad like Deadpool, however, Halloween has actually served a very serious purpose in American history. And it was this purpose that made the holiday adult.
Halloween an occasion for transformation, for simultaneously wearing and mask and showing who you truly are. It’s okay because by the next morning you can always claim that it was only a costume. So marginalized groups began to dress up for the holiday in order to make a political point. The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade began in 1973 on Christopher Street because it was New York’s gay Mecca, and it was a way for LGBTs to announce themselves without provoking a full backlash.
As everyone knows, Sherlock Holmes, gentleman sleuth and mastermind, died in 1891 at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. In “The Final Problem,” Arthur Conan Doyle describes Holmes struggling with his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty, with both men plunging to their deaths in the end.
Except, as everyone also knows, he didn’t. Holmes returns in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” explaining that he’d been wandering the world for the past three years, traveling to such places as Italy, Iran, and Tibet. (Hmm, reminds me of someone… who can it be?)
And how did he survive his duel with Moriarty? How did he survive the long fall?
Once there lived a man named Muḥammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, (محمد بن موسى الخوارزمی). He was born into a Persian family in Khwarezm (hence the last name “al-Khwarizmi,” meaning “of Khwarezm”)), also variously spelled Chorasmia, Khwarezmia, Khwarizm, Khwarazm, Khorezm, Khoresm, Khorasam, Kharazm, Harezm, Horezm, and Chorezm. It was Χορασίμα (Chorasíma) to Herodotus and 花剌子模 (Hualazimo) to the Chinese. According to local tradition, Shem, son of Noah, founded the city of Khiva, a center of Khorezm life, soon after the flood.
Once an independent Khanate and slave-trading entrepot, Khorezm was incorporated into the Russian empire in the 19th century before becoming part of the Soviet Union, and now of Uzbekistan. When I visited Khiva in the summer of last year, I found a dreamy medieval town ringed by crenellated mud fortifications, with a cityscape punctuated by magnificent minarets.
2016 has turned into a year of walls. Late last year Hungary built a fence on its southern borders to keep out refugees. Last month the British began building a wall in Calais, France, also to block migrants. It wasn’t that long ago when the English Channel was good enough. And of course, throughout the year we have been subjected to a certain presidential candidate’s repeated promise of building a “big, beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexican border, with the fanciful proviso that Mexico would pay for it.
Well, if you’re thinking about building a big, beautiful wall to keep out foreigners, you might want to consult the Chinese. I hear that they have some experience in the matter.
According to the “Records of the Grand Historian” by Sima Qian, written in the 1st century B.C., what we now know as the Great Wall of China began as a series of disconnected fortifications. The northern members of the Warring States, a series of seven kingdoms that divided China from the 5th to the 3rd century B.C., had constructed them to keep out barbarian tribes from the north.
I’d like to think that Voltaire would be shocked to learn that the merits of vaccination remain up for debate, or rather are up for debate once again, nearly three centuries after he wrote extolling the practice.
From 1726 to 1729, the great Enlightenment Philosophe lived in England. Drawing on experiences from these years, in 1733 he published a volume of essays now known as Letters on the English or Letters on the English Nation. Letters, because each essay was written as though a letter addressed to his fellow French. Covering a wide range of topics from Westminster parliamentarianism to Isaac Newton to Alexander Pope, the Letters generally presented the British in a favorable light in contrast to the French. They were, in a way, well-intentioned propaganda to goad the French into catching up with their rivals across the Channel wherever, in Voltaire’s view, they had fallen behind.
And in Letter XI, Voltaire addressed the practice of inoculation or vaccination. In his telling, Lady Wortley Montague, wife of an ambassador to the Sublime Porte of Ottoman Turkey, brought knowledge of smallpox inoculation back with her to Britain, where the practice was now widespread.
In the Islamic tradition, the Quran is believed to be a recitation that the Prophet Mohammed made under divine inspiration. The angel Gabriel or Jibreel (he of the Annunciation in Christian tradition) is believed to have given him the text. Therefore Mohammed is not considered the author of the Quran but only a conduit for the divine.
But the words and deeds of Mohammed when not divinely inspired are also important to Islam. A report describing such words and deeds is called a hadith (Arabic: حديث). And in fact, hadiths are the source of many important Islamic teachings, including rules relating to prayer.
It is sometimes pointed out that Steve Jobs, American titan, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. It is also often pointed out that the grudging European and American responses to Syrian refugees today parallel the American response to Jewish refugees from Europe on the eve of the Holocaust, down to ships full of desperate men, women, and children being turned away.
But few seem to be recalling that the greatest American (fictional) hero of all, Superman, was conceived as a Jewish refugee. Perhaps doing so would seem to trivialize the very serious public debate. But our imagination, in which we invest our deepest yearnings, is as good a moral compass as any.
Perhaps ironically, Superman’s Judaism is actually well-documented. Several books have been written spelling out the case for Clark Kent as an Ashkenazi Jew, with titles like “Up, Up and Oy Vey,” “From Krakow to Krypton,” and “Superman Is Jewish?” Here, then, are the basic facts:
From Thamel I caught a cab to Bhaktapur, the ancient city five miles east of Kathmandu proper. The driver was a tallish, chatty man of about forty named Ben.
“Are you married?” he asked. I said I wasn’t. “Good. Single life better. Once you marry, in Nepal, all the responsibility is on the man.” I asked how many children he had. He said he had a 12-year-old daughter.
I asked whether the earthquake last year affected his family. “Yes,” he nodded. “Our house collapsed. Thankfully no one in my family was hurt.”
“Have you rebuilt it?”
“No. We’re waiting for the government assistance. But actually the amount of money they give is only two thousand dollars.”
“That’s not much for rebuilding a house.”
He shook his head in agreement. “It’s not enough. So I hope that God will help me.”
Yesterday Hungarians held a referendum on the resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees in Europe, which of course has been a subject of great and often ugly controversy.
History may not repeat itself exactly, but it rhymes. The Romans dealt with a refugee crisis once, and it almost destroyed the empire. In fact, in a way it did, indirectly leading to the final downfall of the Western Empire in 476.
The real beginning of the story, according to Edward Gibbon, happened on the borders of China. At the end of the First Century A.D., after many years of war, the Chinese finally defeated the Huns. This was the event that led the subject of my book, Gan Ying, a veteran of the Hunnic wars, to depart on a mission to Rome. But the same event also caused many of the Huns to begin migrating westward.
Eventually one group of Huns, “a race savage beyond all parallel” according to Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, marched into the territory of the Goths in what is now southern Russia and Eastern Europe and defeated them. The Goths fled their homeland and, in 376, amassed on the banks of the Danube River, the border of the Roman Empire. Here,
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."