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Vorige week werd bekend dat de European Research Council mijn voorstel voor een groot onderzoeksproject over de oriëntaals orthodoxe christenen in Europa heeft goedgekeurd en gaat financieren via een ERC Advanced Grant (#ERCAdG). Het project gaat uitgevoerd worden aan de Radbouduniversiteit in Nijmegen, bij de Faculteit der Filosofie, Theology en Religiewetenschappen, in samenwerking met het Instituut voor Oosters Christendom.

Het project ‘Rewriting Global Orthodoxy: Oriental Christianity in Europe between 1970 and 2020’ gaat op zoek naar de vragen en spanningen die de veelal gedwongen migratie en recente vestiging in Europa van kerken uit Noordoost Afrika (Koptisch, Ethiopisch, Eritrees) en het Midden-Oosten (Syrisch-Orthodox, Armeens) voor deze gemeenschappen hebben opgeroepen. Hoe zien zij zichzelf, als christenen deel van de christelijke gemeenschap in Nederland, als onderdeel van de wereldwijde oosterse orthodoxie (waartoe bijvoorbeeld ook de Russisch-, Grieks- en Servisch-orthodoxen behoren), als onderdeel van de zeer gemêleerde en vaak gekleurde nieuwe Nederlanders, migranten en kinderen van migranten, of als onderdeel van de Europese tak van hun eigen mondiale kerken?

Om hier achter te komen duiken we in de vele teksten, op papier en elektronisch, die de afgelopen vijftig jaar door deze gemeenschappen zijn geproduceerd: van prachtig gedrukte liturgie-boeken tot simpele boekjes om de kinderen de eigen taal te leren, van her-vertelde heiligenlevens en catechesatieboekjes tot lijvige theologische en historische studies. Door deze teksten te verzamelen, in kaart te brengen en in de dagelijkse context te bestuderen, wil dit project beter begrijpen hoe deze kerken in Nederland en Europa naar zichzelf en de wereld om hen heen kijken. Daarbij wordt bijzondere aandacht besteed aan de onderlinge uitwisseling tussen de oosters en oriëntaals orthodoxe kerken, tegen de achtergrond van groei en herleving van orthodox christendom in de Europese seculiere samenleving.

Binnenkort volgt meer informatie, over de database waarin deze teksten verzameld zullen worden, over de verschillende deelprojecten en over de mensen die we zoeken om deze deelprojecten uit te voeren. Voor een eerste beschrijving daarvan zie de voorgaande (Engelstalige) blog (in het bijzonder ook voor hen die eventueel als promovendus of postdoc bij de project betrokken zouden willen worden). In de loop van dit jaar (2019), in de aanloop naar de start van het project begin oktober, zal het project ook een eigen website krijgen waarop de vorderingen te volgen zullen zijn. Nieuws daarover komt in ieder geval ook via deze blog en social media.

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Last week, my project Rewriting Global Orthodoxy: Oriental Christianity in Europe between 1970 and 2020, has been granted funding by the European Research Council. This ERC-Advanced project (#ERCAdG) is scheduled to start in October 2019, at Radboud University Nijmegen, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies in cooperation with the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies. The project team will consist of three phd’s and two postdocs who will work with the PI. It may take a bit of time before officialy hiring procedures will start, but for those interested in the project, here’s a short summary of what it entails, including a brief description of what kind of researches we welcome to apply. If you’re interested to join, or know people who might fit the project, let us know.

Over the last fifty years, Oriental Orthodox Christians (Armenians, Copts, Syriacs/Arameans, Ethiopians and Eritreans) from the Middle East and Africa have settled in Europe, fleeing war-related violence and societal pressures. One of the prominent aspects of religious practice of these transnational Oriental communities is their strong emphasis on the writing and publishing of texts. These include traditional religious texts (from liturgy to history), re-translated and re-contextualized texts, and completely new texts. From simple leaflets and books to sophisticated internet productions where text is persuasively embedded in sound and image, these textual practices aim to transmit the religious heritage to a new generation in an increasingly globalized context.

Scholarship has largely ignored these texts, being too popular or too modern for scholars of the written religious traditions and too textual for social scientists working on these transnational communities, even though they make up a crucial source for the study of these communities’ European integration, especially as to the hybrid character of many of these traditions, among Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Christianities, and among European and global Christianity. Unfortunately, the popular nature of these texts, whether published on paper or digitally, threatens their long-term survival. 

The project Rewriting Global Orthodoxy takes these textual practices as its main source to understand how these Oriental Christians inscribe themselves in European societies and so contribute not only to the transformation of their own transnational churches but also to that of Orthodoxy worldwide. It hypothesizes that diachronic and synchronic comparison among Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches will show that this rewriting includes the actualization of their religious heritage vis-à-vis ethnic and national self-definitions, vis-à-vis European society, and vis-à-vis other churches, particularly Orthodox ones.

These assumptions translate into the following questions:

  1. What texts have Oriental Christians in Europe produced and transmitted over the last fifty years? What genres, what numbers, what languages, what media, what actors? What changes over time?
  2. What do these textual practices tell us about how Oriental Christians interpret their move to and integration into European societies, esp. as to communal, ethical and ecclesial debates?
  3. What do the transnational textual practices of Oriental Christians, in diachronic and synchronic comparison, tell us about the role of writing and texts in the practicing of Global Orthodoxy?

The project consists of three subprojects:

  1. Four-Corners-of-the-World Library: a public portal for the contemporary literary heritage of Oriental Christians, based on an extensive database of books, pamphlets and magazines;
  2. Three Case Studies of the textual practices of Oriental Christian churches in Europe: the (i) Syriac Orthodox, (ii) Coptic Orthodox, and (iii) Ethiopian and Eritrean Tawahedo churches;
  3. Three comparative and interpretative studies including additional Orthodox traditions from the Middle East and Africa (such as the Assyrian, Chaldean, Antiochian, Maronite and Armenian churches) and Eastern Orthodoxy: (i) ‘What You See’: textual practices as visualized practice; (ii) ‘European Orthodoxy’: Oriental Churches inscribing themselves in European societies; (iii) Rewriting Global Orthodoxy: Oriental Churches contributing to new forms of ‘global Orthodoxy’

For the three case studies under 2 we will be looking for prospective phd students (4 yrs, ft) who come with thorough training in one or more of the languages and literatures involved, and who are committed to work on the contemporary manifestations of these literatures. Though the phd’s are to focus primarily on their distinct case studies, they are expected to participate in and contribute to the overarching comparative aims of the project, by adding to the database, by participating in the regular meetings of the research group, and by contributing to joint activities and publications.

For sub-projects 3i and 3ii we will be looking for two postdocs (3 yrs, ft) who will work comparatively over the three case studies and include materials from relevant additional cases; the first (3i) to focus mostly on the visual aspects of these new literary productions, the second (3ii) to work especially on the issues relating to the European context of these texts and textual production. In addition to their personal projects, the postdocs are expected to take up co-supervising and guiding roles as to the joint projects of the research group, in support of the PI, as to organizing group meetings, conferences and joint publications.

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A Georgian (and thus unrelated) icon of St. George, but a very gentle one, one to talk to, like the one in Saadawi’s novel (c) MvdB

Last week I was mentioning some novels to my students, and promised them to list a few good reads – mostly related in one way or another to Middle-Eastern Christianity, and one rather different one which I will introduce first. This is Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things  – his completely believable (and at time hilariously funny) story about evangelizing the inhabitants of a distant planet. I read it in 2014, when it came out, and still find it a superb description of what happens in missionizing – the good and the bad, conviction, misunderstandings, love, disappointments, entanglements and whatever happens in real life encounters between real (human) beings – and by making one party obviously non-human (i.e., these inhabitants of the distant planet) the sincere efforts to communication across boundaries – whether between human and non-human, or between humans of rather different origins – comes even sharper in focus. A real good read in every sense, for the religious and non-religious alike, but certainly for those reflecting on Christianity and missions.

And then there’s a list of books I’ve mentioned before in blogs or tweets and which I just want to flag once more, because they are every bit as worth your time as they were when they came out. The first of these I merely flagged in a few tweets, but which was one of the best books I read in this year. It was originally published in Arabic in 2014, and Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in the same year. I’m talking about Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (English translation by Jonathan Wright, 2018). It is every bit as gripping as the title suggests, drawing us into Baghdad’s most horrific periods when bombs were exploding regularly – or in fact, irregularly in the sense that people had to make up the strangest stories to make sense of what is happening. Saadawi adds another layer to that ongoing storytelling, by focusing on the coping mechanisms of an elderly Christian lady waiting for her son lost in a previous war by talking to her cherished icon St. George, in a house that used to belong to a Jewish family, with a Frankenstein creature filling in for her son, told by a journalist from the Shiite south. Pieced together and falling apart, this story honors Baghdad’s history, laments its present, brings its inhabitants alive in the midst of death and destruction.

Baghdad’s war is also the background of Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist (2017, Arabic, 2012: Ya Maryam) that I discussed last year. Antoon (in the beautiful translation by Maia Tabet) zooms in on the discussions in the Syriac Christian world, making them stand for all of Iraq’s and Baghdad’s inhabitants: torn apart by hopes kept and lost, by fear, by their longing for lost family members – dead or gone abroad –, and by their deep roots in Iraqi soil. A similar foregrounding of a Syriac community as a symbol of the country’s woes is found in Eliyas Khoury’s Jalo which I discussed a long time ago when the Dutch translation came out; for English see Yalo, first edition 2007). Khoury, another of those celebrated Arabic authors that deserve a wider readership (see also his Gate of the Sun!) creates the story of a Christian in Lebanon who in prison is being tortured into confessing stories about his life and involvement in the war – thereby not only narrating different and conflicting interpretations of Lebanon’s Civil War, but also underlining the utter senselessness of torture – at least when seen as a way to get true information out of the prisoner. The novelist Khoury, however, makes this abundance of winding narratives, of fiction upon fiction –  reminding one of Saadawi at times –  the better way to get to the heart of the matter, the truths of Lebanon’s conflicted past and conflicted presence.

And although of an entirely different time and entirely different place of origin, I must end this piece with reminding the readers of Franz Werfel, whose Musa Dagh (1933)  who also took a narrative road that seems to lead away from the issues of the day, and thereby succeeded in using one inconvenient truth to address another, at that particular time, even more inconvenient truth – using the organized massacre of the Armenians to address the grave dangers threatening Germany’s Jewish community in the 1930s.

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When I came across the announcement of Tala Jarjour’s study of the chanting in Saint George’s parish of the Syriac Orthodox in Aleppo, I hoped that it would provide me with the tools to better understand Syriac Orthodox ecclesiastical music. I had been listening – in churches and monasteries as well as via YouTube – to this music for a long time, and sensed that though I had grown to like it, even being able to hum along with some of the most common tunes – that I did not really understand what was going on. In the meantime, in addition to listening, reading and asking, I had also taken up learning to play the oud, in trying to experientially learn what ‘Arabic’ music entails. Despite my growing knowledge of the sounds and intricacies of the maqamat – the specific modes (to be compared to ‘major’ and ‘minor’ in Western musical scales) that characterize this music and which include a generous use of micro- and quartertones, I still found it difficult to hear and describe what was so different about it.

Tala Jarjour’s book is based on extensive fieldwork in a particular Syriac Orthodox congregation in Aleppo. Before the war this community was well known for its beautiful and characteristic singing. More than some of the other Syriac Orthodox or Suryani congregations in Syria and Lebanon, the Suryani from Urfa, living together in one neighborhood in Aleppo, succeeded in maintaining the distinct chanting traditions as they had developed over centuries in Edessa – ancient name of their Anatolian city which they collective left in the aftermath of the genocide of 1915. It is these local variations of the Syriac Orthodox ritual chanting that Tala Jarjour went on to study in the years before the war in Syria started. She focuses her analysis of the week of the Passion, ḥasho in Syriac, during which the specific Edessan, ‘Rahawi’ way of chanting is most prominent – both as to the specific modes that are used and as to the way in which these chants are perceived as being characteristic for this particular community – by its members as well as outside observers. Jarjour’s discussion of these distinct chants, of their traditional forms and of the contemporary choir practice that has evolved around it, provides a timely description of a so far little understood musical practice in which both the actual chants with it melodic and modal characteristics, as well as its distinct Sitz im Leben is described in detail. Her narration in the monograph is complemented by recordings and musical transcriptions to be accessed via the website accompanying the book.

What Jarjour offers, however, is far more than a musicological description of the chants and the practices characterizing their performance. She adds a layer of interpretation by situating these distinct Urfalli chants in the self-understanding of a community that sees its music as an essential element of its Aramaic Edessan heritage, reaching back to the early phases of Christianity in the region, predating Islam. In an intricate back and forth throughout the book, Jarjour connects the various elements of the liturgy of the Passion week with crucial elements of this self-understanding of an embattled and marginalized community, focusing on the emotions that are expressed through the aesthetics of the chants. She thus reconstructs the ‘emotional economy of aesthetics’, showing convincingly how ‘sadness’ – the central element of the passion week, is performed by various actors, in various ways, throughout the week, in distinct melodies that nevertheless form a densely connected whole.

Her description of the community’s musical practice also brings out the complex hierarchical relations in the community, in which the embodied knowledge of the liturgy and the chants constitutes a crucial element. This mostly concerns the deacons, whose role is defined by their singing, and whose status therefore hinges on their knowledge of it. In a different way this is also true for the archbishop of Aleppo, Yuhanna Ibrahim of Aleppo was abducted early in the war (in April 2013), and has not been heard of since. The bishop, not being from Urfa himself, was generally admired for his leadership and knowledge of the tradition, but at the same time the Urfalli reminded each other and the researcher of the fact that he is not quite up to the intricacies of the particular performance practice of their community. At the other end of the spectrum is a woman who, despite not being a full deacon (women are ordained only at the lowest order of deacons), is considered one of the most knowledgeable in the community about the typically Urfalli singing. Jarjour subtly shows how Farida is allowed to teach and perform like a high ranking deacon while restricted time and again to what is considered proper for a woman.

As important in Saint George’s musical practice and power dynamics is the role of mixed choir which over the years in which Jarjour participated in the community asserted its place in the liturgical practice ever more strongly. The choir directors developed new practices that innovated the performance of typical melodies and which significantly enlarged the role of the choir – appropriating chants that traditionally were sung by the male deacons. While on the one hand this led to a much stronger lay and female participation in the execution of the liturgy (also because the choir directors were often chosen and paid for by the lay council of the church) these new chanting practices tended to set the choir apart from the congregation – performing for the congregation rather than singing with the congregation.

The most important contribution of this study, however, lies in the fact that Jarjour gradually makes clear that understanding these musical practices is much less about modes and melodies (although she provides us with recordings and transcriptions that help to understand its characteristics), but about understanding how the emotions that are being expressed by this music in a ritualized and scripted way, are connected to how the chants are performed, when, and by whom. It is the link between this emotional economy and the specific aesthetics of the chants, that matters, and which only can be grasped by participating, listening and singing. In this way, although the aesthetics of the Urfalli Suryani of Aleppo are strikingly different from many other religious communities, Jarjour’s analysis will contribute to understand musical practices in other religious communities – music which never is just about specific melodies or specific modes. Like with the Suryani of Aleppo, such music so often is carefully scripted and rehearsed and precisely therefore eagerly anticipated and higly valued. It is these familiar and unique chants that allow every member of the congregation to fully participate in the ritualized sadness that characterizes the week of the passion.

Meanwhile, the war in Syria has silenced the Urfalli chants in Aleppo because most members of the congregation have fled the area. They have started new lives elsewhere, with some finding opportunities to continue their singing, some in the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, some in the churches of the Syriac Orthodox diaspora in Europe, Canada and the United States.

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