Friday 28 August 2015

KAFKA AND HIS FATHER'S JUDAISM. Small mementos of a bygone time.

Kafka continues his letter to his father:
            Later, however, I came to look at Judaism differently and understood why you might believe I had maliciously betrayed you in that respect. You really brought a certain amount of Judaism from your small ghetto-like village community. It wasn’t much and lost a little more in the city and during your military service, but the youthful impressions and memories were enough for a kind of Jewish life style, especially since you didn’t need a great deal of help in that respect. You were made of solid stuff and could not be shaken by religious considerations if they weren’t mixed with social considerations. On the whole the faith that guided your life consisted in a belief in the absolute correctness of the opinions of a certain Jewish social class, and actually also in a belief in yourself, since those opinions were part of your own nature. There was enough Judaism in your nature, but too little to be handed on to a child. It seeped away and dried up as you handed it on. In a way those youthful impressions couldn’t be handed on. Either that, or your terrifying personality prevented it. It was impossible to impress on a child full of anxiety and therefore too closely observant that those few empty rites you practiced in the name of Judaism had any higher meaning, when you practiced them with an apathy corresponding to their emptiness. They were meaningful to you as small mementos of a bygone time and for that reason you wanted to hand them on to me, but you could not do it without urging and threatening me, since they had no intrinsic value for you. On one hand it was an undertaking that could not succeed, on the other hand you did not recognize your weak position in this matter and therefore were very angry with me on account of my apparent obstinacy… If your Judaism had been stronger, your example would have been more cogent.
(Source: Letter to my Father, text on; my translation)

Tuesday 25 August 2015

KAFKA’S JUDAISM. Dear father, Judaism could not save me from you.

A passage from Franz Kafka's Letter to His Father:

One would think it might have been helpful, or rather, that we two could have found each other in Judaism or even that it would have been a common starting point for us. But what kind of Judaism did you offer me! Over the years I developed three stances. As a child, and in agreement with you, I reproached myself because I did not go to the synagogue often enough, didn’t fast, etc. I thought I injured you rather than myself thereby, and I was seized by bad conscience, which was always at the ready. 

Later, as a young man, I could not understand how you with your non-existent Judaism could reproach me, because I did not out of respect for my parent, as you put it, made no effort to practice an equally meaningless Judaism. As far as I could see it really was non-existent, a nothing, a joke, not even a joke. Four times a year you went to the synagogue, closer in spirit to those who didn’t care than to those who were serious. You patiently went through the prayers, perfunctorily, surprising me sometimes by pointing out a passage in the prayer book which was being recited at the time. As for the rest, I was allowed to bum around wherever I wanted as long as I was in the synagogue (that was the main thing). So I yawned and fooled around for many hours (the only time I was as bored was later when I took dancing lessons) and tried to enjoy the few distractions offered there, such as when the ark of the covenant was opened, which always reminded me of shooting galleries, where a door opened if you hit the target, with the difference that there something interesting popped up, and here it was always the same old headless dolls. Even so, by the way, I was full of anxieties, feeling not only the obvious fear of being among many people and in close contact with them, but also that I might be called to [recite a blessing over] the torah, as you casually mentioned. For years I trembled at the thought of it. 

Otherwise I was not bothered a great deal by the boredom, except perhaps during bar mitzvah, which required only meaningless memorizing, that is, led to a meaningless test performance. Also there were a few small, insignificant events involving you, such as when you were called to the torah and weathered that occasion (a purely social event according to my sentiments), or when you remained in the synagogue during the commemoration of the soul and I was sent out, which for a long time gave me the vague impression that it was something indecent because I was sent away and because I had no further involvement. 
(Source: Letter to my Father, text on; my translation)

Monday 24 August 2015

A CAIRO WEDDING, 1870. The bridegroom utters a cry of joy -- or not.

Luise Mühlbach’s report continues:
On the day of the wedding all invited friends and relatives accompany the couple from the house of the bride’s father to the house of the bridegroom.
The men remain in the lower part and sing songs and chant prayers in praise of the prophet. The women ascend with the bride to the harem and adorn her, meaning, they take off her red wrapper and almost all her clothes, cover her with a thin veil. Then they call for the bridegroom and withdraw.

He acts embarrassed  and makes his friends drag him a few steps, then he jumps up and runs upstairs in great haste. The bride and bridegroom face each other for the first time – she, veiled and modestly lowering her gaze. He approaches and attempts to lift her veil. She keeps it tight. Then, as if to bribe her, he hands her a gift of gold (its value depends on his wealth). This gift is called “the price for revealing the face”.  At last he slowly lifts the veil and says in a loud voice: In the name of god, the all-merciful who takes pity on me! May the night and the day be blessed!
            Then he whispers: Allah bless you.
            Now he has lifted the veil and looks at his bride. If she pleases him and matches the descriptions he was given, he utters a joyful cry. If he remains silent, it is a sign that she has not found approval with him.
            Then he kisses his bride for the first time and leaves her to call the women to dress her in one of the dresses she was given as her dowry, and present her to him again. Again he utters a cry of you – or not, depending on whether he likes the bride and her dress.

Downstairs the friends and relatives wait for this shout of joy, called Zagahrit. When it isn’t heard, the faces of the waiting crowd darken, and the curious onlookers disperse.  It means that the bridegroom has immediately dismissed his bride. But that hardly ever happens. The bridegroom usually has the courtesy to keep the unwanted bride for eight days before handing her back to his relatives, or if he is wealthy enough, he keeps her and takes a second wife, who becomes his favourite, whereas the other one must look after the household.

(Source: Reisebriefe aus Aegypten. My translation)

Thursday 20 August 2015

A CAIRO BRIDE, 1870. An red packet adorned with a golden crown.

The German novelist Luise Mühlbach observes a wedding procession through the streets of Cairo:

The women accompanying the bride are dressed in long black silk cloth covering their heads. It is ringed with a golden band just above the nose, from which is suspended a veil that covers the lower half of their face below the eyes.

The bride, or rather an oblong packet adorned with a golden crown, walks under a red baldachin. This packet which has no resemblance to a human figure (the arms are wrapped up as well) moves ponderously. The only thing that is visible of her are two points where the eyes are. The bride was certainly not an adult. The red packet was rather small and delicate. It was only a preliminary wedding – we would call it an engagement. Bride and bridegroom stand on either side of a curtain. The parents receive the bridegroom’s proposal and agree to it. Then they ask about the dowry. They argue about it back and forth, and then everything is put in writing by the court officials present. The bridegroom signs, and the bride’s father signs on her behalf.

Some years later, the actual wedding takes place. At this point the bridegroom sees her for the first time, after she is his forever. Well, not forever. Every man has the right to dismiss his wife if she does not please him and send her back home or marry her to one of his relatives.

Weddings are a frequent sight – of course, when every man has the right to take four lawful wives. Of course poor men rarely make use of this right because it would be too expensive.
Mühlbach asks an Egyptian friend about this law. He shrugs.
The Europeans look for all assets of the female sex in their one wife. They want beauty, youth, wealth, goodness, intelligence – everything united in one wife. We Arabs know that that is impossible and are reasonable enough to look in four women what the European cannot possibly find in one.
To be continued.

(Source: Reisebriefe aus Aegypten. My translation)

Monday 17 August 2015


Luise Mühlbach continues her report about her visit to the Khedive's harem:

Soon the slaves came with long chibuk smoking pipes and gave one to each of us. I had already learned to smoke a chibuk and took great pleasure in drawing up smoke through a long pipe of linden wood, decorated with a fat knob of amber, but I had never seen one like this. It was two feet long and covered with a net of golden threads, interspersed with rubies and sparkling diamonds set in golden rings. The mouthpiece was made of amber and bore a wide strip of diamonds. The small golden head piece encrusted with diamonds rested on a golden plate on the carpet. The rim of the plate was also decorated with diamonds.  We smoked with serious, philosophical faces…but when you smoke there is no need to talk. The little clouds of smoke take the place of words.

After the third chibuk, six slaves, all in white dresses with pink ribbons, came carrying a large golden tray covered with a red velvet cloth embroidered with gold and pearls. Two of them took off the cloth, bowed, and retreated. Two others held out the tray, and two served us sugared fruit.They also offered  water, so that I could get the cloyingly sweet mass down my throat. Then they handed me a small gold-embroidered napkin to dab my lips.

After another round of chibuk smoking, the slaves brought Turkish coffee served in fine transparent porcelain cups, and the entertainment began.
Accompanied by clapping castanets, twirling tambourines, shrilling flutes, a long train of slaves came up the stairs into the large hall and paraded once around, first the dancers, then the musicians, and finally the singers. There were twelve dancers, dressed in wide trousers of red velvet, gathered at the ankles.
They wore gold embroidered shoes of red velvet. Their upper body was covered with a transparent silk blouse, topped by a short jacket of red velvet. Their hair, long and straight, was held together by a golden ribbon ending in a bow.

The music began, and the dancers swung forward with wondrous movements, then threw back their head and their whole upper body. A luscious, blissful smile hovered on their lips, their fiery eyes gleamed, and ecstasy showed on their faces. Their movements turned more intense, their arms flailed, and they shuddered in individual parts of their body. For the Egyptian dancers do not dance with their whole body, but only move their arms, while the remaining body rests, then they move their feet or only their upper body, and then there is this wonderful swinging and trembling in their whole body… Then finally, breathing hard, not with exhaustion but with ecstasy, the dancers sank to the floor in picturesque positions, with their head back, their mouth half open in a blissful smile.
To be continued.

(Source: Reisebriefe aus Aegypten. My translation; image:

Thursday 13 August 2015


In 1869, the novelist Luise Mühlbach and her 17-year old daughter travelled to Egypt on the invitation of the Khedive and obtained permission to visit his harem. Mühlbach enjoyed great popularity both in Europe and in America as the author of some twenty historical novels, which were translated into English and French. She wrote articles about her journey to Egypt for German papers and also published a book of “travel letters” in 1870.

We were received by a group of some twenty young women [slaves] in delicate dresses, some wearing turbans on their heads, others small gold-embroidered caps or silver bands to tie back their hair. Four of them advanced smiling, took us by the upper arms and led us through the entrance hall, up a broad carpeted staircase, and into a huge hall furnished with carpets and settees. There, the slaves led us to three ladies reclining on the silk-covered settees.
A young Swiss woman, who was the governess of the royal children, acted as Mühlbach’s interpreter. The princesses (as the wives of the Khedive were styled) asked the visitor to take a seat beside them.
One of them moved the pillow on which her arm was resting and signaled to me to make myself comfortable, meaning to tuck one foot under, slide along the sofa, and rest my arm on the pillow. My daughter was given an upholstered chair to sit on.
The women of the harem know how to create and maintain a charming appearance, Mühlbach thought. They looked young and beautiful. Their black eyes were hot and fiery, the unique quality of oriental eyes. Their red lips were always ready to smile, showing two rows of splendid teeth. They are not slim, but rather luscious and full-bodied, as is popular with orientals. They wore dressed in the newest French fashion in glorious embroidered silk, and their hands, arms, and ears glittered with rich jewelry.
The princesses were intrigued by the blonde hair of Mühlbach’s daughter.
Over coffee served in golden cups decorated with diamonds, they made conversation with my daughter, praised her figure, asked her if she was married and were very surprised that she was still single at the age of seventeen. I told them that in Europe it was rare for young women of seventeen to take up the yoke of marriage. I added that this was obviously different in the orient, since the ladies all looked young and blossoming, although I knew that one of them had an adult son. They laughed and nodded and told me that they did marry rather young. The mother of the crown prince said she gave birth to her son when she was barely fourteen.

To be continued.

(Source: Reisebriefe aus Aegypten. My translation)

Monday 10 August 2015


  • COCA COLA. No Coke, said mother. I solemnly promised myself, electrified by the self-consciousness of oath taking, that, once I became an adult, I would drink Coke with impunity.
  • PAUL CLAUDEL, poet and collaborator with the Nazis. Auden said: Time will pardon him for writing well. Was time so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life?
  • MUNKACSI PHOTOGRAPHS. One moment, in all of history, was captured, but the moments before and after it disappeared into the onrush of time.
  • MUGGED IN NEW YORK. I had accepted the next blow and the next? No, I hadn’t. I had felt only the fear of pain and the love of being free of pain. But how could I have missed this! I’d thought, lying in the dirt. How could I have been less than completely aware of how good it was to be injury-free?
  • THE FUNERAL. My father was buried on a particularly hot day, an unfunereal day. My new clothes, which were dark blue, not black, chafed, at the neck especially…The crowd jostling at Atan Cemetery was large, a somber crowd but, on account of its size, not without a touch of festivity.
  • CHILDREN AT A FUNERAL.They fell into a laughing fit. No amount of shushing or threats was sufficient to make them stop, and their laughter rose and bubbled across the somber gathering…Once or twice, the sound subsided, but then one of them would begin again, and the others would not be able to resist joining in, and their raucous, heaving laughter went on for minutes.
  • WHAT IS NORMAL? Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity.
(From Teju Cole, Open City)

Thursday 6 August 2015

#AMREADING TEJU COLE. Sight-seeing in New York and Brussels.

  • WAKING UP. I couldn’t remember where I was. A warm bed, darkness, the sound of traffic…I floated in the dark, anonymous to myself, lost in the sensation that the world existed but I was no longer part of it.
  • LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW. I watched the birds like someone taking auspices… Geese with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.
  • TOWER RECORDS CLOSING DOWN. Men were going through the CD bins with the patience of grazing animals…Music was playing on the store’s speakers. It spoiled the pleasure of thinking about other music. Record shops, I felt, should be silent spaces.
  • OVERINTERPRETING. I suspect there was a mood in society that pushed people more toward snap judgments and unexamined opinions, an anti-scientific mood, an inability to assess evidence. This made brisk business for those whose specialty was in the promising of immediate solutions: politicians and priests of the various religions.
  • LISTENING TO MAHLER. He made himself a master of the ends of symphonies, the end of a body of work, and the end of his own life…Through the force of his will, he became the genius of prolonged farewells.
  • OPEN CITY. Brussels escaped the devastation of WWII. Surrender of course played a role in this form of survival, as did negotiations with invading powers. Had Brussels’ rulers not opted to declare it an open city and thereby except it from bombardment…it might have been reduced to rubble like Dresden. Or Hiroshima.
(Source: Teju Cole, Open City)

Monday 3 August 2015

#AMREADING RACHEL CUSK. Creative Writing in Athens.

  • ON THE PLANE TO ATHENS: My neighbour was a man of conventional sandy-coloured good looks, but close up there was something uneasy in his appearance, as though he had been put together out of unrelated elements…He had large white teeth which he kept always a little bared and a loose body poised somewhere between muscle and fat.
  • ON SELF-IMPROVEMENT: The notion of self-transformation was an article of faith…he could decide how he wanted to be and then be it. There was no pre-ordination.
  • ATHENS AT NIGHT: Darkness fell but otherwise the evenings were strangely without the sense of progression. It didn’t get cooler or quieter, or emptier of people; the roar of talk and laughter came unstaunched from the glaring terraces of restaurants, the traffic was a swarming, honking river of lights, small children rode their bicycles along the pavements under the bile-coloured streetlamps. Despite the darkness it was eternal day, the pigeons still scuffling in the neon-lit squares, the kiosk open on street corners, the smell of pastry still hanging in the exhausted air around the bakeries.
  • MORE SELF-IMPROVEMENT: In his marriage, the principle of progress was always at work, in the acquiring of houses, possessions, cars, the drive toward higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey. When there was nothing more to add, he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility, a kind of malaise: the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion.
  • HUMAN AFFAIRS are like cloud banks, sometimes portentous and grey and sometimes mere distant inscrutable shapes that blotted out the sun for a while and then just as carelessly revealed it again.
(From Rachel Cusk, Outline)