Sunday, December 7, 2014

Novel update 12/6/14

After a fun break where I took a stab at writing a paranormal romance for Nanowrimo, I'm back editing drafts and looking forward to a January writing class to do more workshopping. Also, this blog now has a FaceBook page.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Karkadann: Persia's Killer Unicorn

     Although the translation of the word Karkadann is "Lord of the Desert", the word is often used as a synonym for the Persian unicorn. Although the myth of the Karkadann has some similarity to Western unicorn lore, such as the beast's ability to be tamed by virgins, this mythical animal has far darker and more sinister legends surrounding it than the typical images associated with the Western unicorn. Instead of a beautiful horse with a spiral horn arising from its forehead, the Karkadann is a ferocious monster able to be slain only by the greatest heroes of ancient Persian lore.
      It's thought that the origins of the Karkadann legend might come from exaggerated versions of real-life encounters with the Indian rhinoceros, or even ancestral memories of an extinct animal known as the Elasmotherium

     Then there's the theory that the myth of the Karkadann arose from a view of the Arabian oryx, a two-horned antelope, from the side

       A description by the Greek historian Ctesias describes the Karkadann as larger than a horse, with a white body, dark red head, and on its forehead a horn:
        "The base of this horn, for some two hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers..."
        The magical powers of the Karkadann horn, both as a source of poison and an antidote to it, made it a rare and valuable object. Often the Karkadann horn was described as curved, like a saber, rather than the spiral horn of the Western unicorn, based possibly on collected remains of the narwal.

      In addition to their fondness for female virgins, the Karkadann could be soothed by the cooing of turtledoves. Otherwise, they had ferocious temperaments, and often fought with elephants, their mortal enemies. In these fights, the Karkadann would impale the elephant's soft underbelly, only to be blinded by the melting fat of the elephant and die along with it. 
     For a far more academic account of the fabled Karkadann and related fabulous creatures, check out The Unicorn: Studies in Muslim Iconography by Richard Ettinghausen.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Art of the Arab Lands: A Day at the Metropolitian Museum of Art

After an amusing night watching Disney's homage to Orientalism, Aladdin, I spent a day at New York City's amazing Metropolitian Museum of Art exploring their galleries devoted to art of the Arab lands, including a huge Islamic arts collection.   Due to the presence of two younger children, it was hardly a hardcore research experience, but I managed to catch a glimpse of some of the beautiful pieces on display in the galleries before the inevitable descent into lunch and a visit to the gift shop.

12-13th century harpy, from Iran.  Although usually seen as an evil female-headed winged monster in Western traditions, the harpy may have had more benign associations in Islamic art, seen a protective symbol and a representation of the planet Mercury.

Beautiful Persian ladies with drinks and snacks for a picnic! This is part of a stunning tile wall mural.

Although art from Islamic periods is often associated with stylized calligraphy and the avoidance of figural representations of humans, this striking illustration from the Persian epic The Shahnama shows a Dev, or demon, about to throw the hero into the sea. Spoiler: hero defeats demon in the end.

"Islamic arms and armor" often refers to specific time periods in history: the Mamluk Era, Ottoman Empire and Mughal rule in India.  Distinctive conical helmets and curved swords are associated with this style, and many working weapons and armor had elaborate decoration that turned the deadly objects into works of art.

Jewel-studded swords, life-sized knights and their horses in full decorative armor, and stunning carpets (none of them flying, however):  check out the Met's fantastic collections with a trip to NYC or at least visit their great website.   

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Like Drops Through the Water Clock: Ancient Time-Telling Inventions

While the hourglass and the sundial are familiar pre-industrial inventions in the West for telling time, a different device in the ancient Middle East, the water clock, used the power of water to measure units of time.
  In its simplest form, time is measured by the inflow or outflow of water into a container.  The location and date of the invention of the first water clock is unknown, but early versions in Babylon and Egypt date back to around 1600 BC.  During the reign of Amenhotep III, outflow water clocks dripped out the time to mark the dates of religious ceremonies. Watching the clock at work in Babylonian times meant watching the drops: a guard's shift was determined by how long it took for a volume of water to drip out of a cylindrical container. Water clocks were used in China and India, and the Greeks and Romans used a version called the clepsydra, modifying it to make it more accurate.
Precision in measuring units of time was important in the practice of agriculture in ancient Persia, where it was need to insure an equitable distribution of irrigation water from qanats.


     A picture I took inside the dried up shaft of a qanat in Morocco.  A local entrepreneur has set up tourist tours of the irrigation system which once brought mountain streams down to lowland farms.

     Time measurement was also helpful in determining the holy days in pre-Islamic religions, some of which corresponded to the Western concept of the solstices: the shortest and longest days of the year.  The Persian water clock, or feejan was used for both purposes.  It consists of a large basin filled with water.  A bowl with a hole in the bottom is placed on top, and water ripples up into the bowl until it sinks.  Trusted monitors place a pebble in a jar every time in drops to the bottom.

  In medieval Iran, the Persian engineer Al Jazari took water clocks to a whole new level with his over-the-top (literally) elephant clock.

     Another of his inventions, the water-powered castle clock, has been compared to an early computer.

  While ancient Persian water clocks might not be readily available in the nearest big box store, my daughter discovered this high-tech descendent in the always wonderful Boston Museum of Science:  the Bedol water clock.
It relies on the ions in tap water to generate enough electricity to run a small digital alarm clock.  And it comes in great colors!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Review: Gaza Writes Back


  Need to feel inspired about writing?  Order a copy of Gaza Writes Back, a collection of short stories written by young writers in Gaza.  The collection features fiction written by young people who have lived through the current blockade and flares of violence, including the focus of the collection: the 2009 military excursion known as Operation Cast Lead.  Remarkably, all but two of the stories were written in English, a second language for the authors.  In addition, the collection is heavily weighted towards female writers: 12 out of 15 stories are by women.  
  The stories take on issues the writers face in their own lives, including the violent death of family members and the on-going trauma of life in a combat zone.  In "Will I Ever Get Out", Nour Al-Sousi writes of a young student forced by economic hardship to work in the dangerous Rafah tunnels.  The impact of the killed and wounded on Gaza's medical system is a focus of several stories, including the haunting "Neverland" by Tasnim Hamouda and "Please Shoot to Kill" by Jehan Alfarra.  In "A Wish for Insomnia", Nour Al Borno choses the point of view of the wife of an Israeli soldier to describe wartime atrocities.
  Photographs and biographies of the contributors are included in the collection, providing an engaging look at the authors.  Gaza Writes Back provides a perspective often missing in American discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and showcases the imagination and creativity of young Palestinian writers.  The collection is edited by Refaat Alareer, and is available through Just World Books.