I stand on the wharf. A lascar cries from agil To his serang: “bas!” Onboard, a sahib’s Call is glossed by a Malay Who runs to fetch wine For patroon’s kajuit. The bay babbles, but so does town. I face her alleys To hear joyous drums Some free black has brought from her House to the harbor. Above the rhythm — Then — violins commandeer A tune from the waves. Or is it from the Geese honking, circling over Table Mountain?
Author Archives: Aliosha Bielenberg
This story is a response to a simple question: what would have happened if the first European settlers at the tip of Southern Africa had encountered not Khoikhoi pastoralists but rather Bantu-speaking agriculturalists? The two main sources for imagining this alternative history are Noël Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (New York: Knopf, 1992) and Catherine Cymone Fourshey, Rhonda M. Gonzales, Christine Saidi, Bantu Africa: 3500 BCE to Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), both of which I read for a class with Nancy Jacobs called Southern African Frontiers. I have tried to be as historically accurate as possible, but at heart this remains a thought experiment.
I’ve come to lie.
I’ve not come to tell the truth.
Because if you discover that there’s truth
in the lying, you’ll love my poetry.
But if you discover a lie
in poetry that claims to be true, you’ll hate me.
Now let me sing:
—Euphrase Kezilahabi, “Stray Truth,”
in Stray Truths (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State
University Press, 2015), ed. and trans. Annmarie Drury
Through the blue mists, far away on the horizon, a distinct promontory appeared: the honey-glazed profile of Table Mountain. The sailor who sighted the cloud-high peak sank to his knees in joy and immediately cried out: “Land ahoy!” As the Dromedaris neared the southern tip of Africa, every member of the crew had begun to strain his neck to catch sight of land. For one, the first to see Table Mountain was always given an extra swig of wine, a new hat, or some other gift. Since leaving Texel in December 1651, the passengers under the command of Jan van Riebeeck had lived in filth, disease, and insubordination. In the four months since their departure, not one person on ship had not wished themselves at one point or another to be one of the lowest animals ashore. From the original complement of passengers — two dozen sailors and 100 settlers chosen (or volunteered) by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) — only half had survived.
Emotions ran high on the boat carrying the landing party to shore. The prospect of immediate relief was on everyone’s mind. It seemed as if they could already taste the sweet water running down from Table Mountain and curl their toes in the firm, rich soil beneath their feet. But there was also trepidation. The previous night, they had seen bright fires dotting the cape, and some sailors had even sworn that they had heard faraway echoes of song and snatches of conversation. Now, as they neared the beach, they saw that a small group of natives — armed with spears — was awaiting them. How would they treat the strangers arriving on their shores?Continue reading
I recently found out that my proposal for an independent concentration in Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry has been approved! Just what does this mean, and why am I so happy about it?
First of all, a few words on what an independent concentration is (at Brown). Apart from the standard concentrations (majors) we offer, every student has the opportunity to design their own course of study. This concentration proposal must be reviewed and approved by a subcommittee of the College Curriculum Council, the same body that approves regular concentrations. The process of proposing an IC is supervised by the Curricular Resource Center, which has multiple peer student staffers who meet regularly with students who want to create an IC. The actual proposal is long and rigorous. Furthermore, the committee almost as a rule rejects first-time applications; there is a heavy emphasis on the process of proposing an IC as a conversation between the committee and the student with the aim being to create a well-articulated, coherent, and rigorous course of study that aligns with Brown’s wider educational goals. I personally found this process extremely rewarding: it helped me process my interests and a few thoughts that had been rolling around in my head (many because of courses I had taken). I am now much more articulate about these interests and I have a much better idea of how they align with my broader life goals. Although the process of creating an IC is arduous, for me it was well worth it.
To explain what my Independent Concentration is about, here’s an excerpt from my proposal (which you can find in full here):
What is Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry? It is the study of global social phenomena such as postcolonialism, nationalism, and global justice through the philosophical lens of critical theory. I think dialectically about both the institutions derived from the Enlightenment and the practices, communities, and identities developed and deployed in resistance to these institutions. I am thus equally invested in studying the universal and metropolitan on the one hand and the particular and peripheral on the other. As a field of study, I imagine my Independent Concentration as a conversation with a number of figures invested in this dialectic – chief among them Edward Said, Hannah Arendt, and Cornel West. In many ways, this field of study is constituted by its intellectual genealogy: while investigating questions about how societies cohere, how politics functions, and how the past shapes our present (and drawing on sources from many times and places), what distinguishes Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is its distinctive perspective. This reflexive, provisional approach is gathered from the theoretical consciousness developed through the philosophical tradition of critique. Given my commitment to provisionality and reflexivity, I do not intend through this concentration to provide conclusive answers to the questions I described above. The fundamental aim of Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is instead to develop concrete questions, modes of interpretation, and resources for action that resonate across different commitments and backgrounds. Through my concentration, I develop a map – a way to navigate the incredible diversity of thought and experience our world has to offer.
Topographies of Memories: A New Poetics of Commemoration. By Anita Bakshi. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Pp. xvii + 340. ISBN 9783319634616.
Anita Bakshi’s first book is compelling reading that makes important interventions in several areas. Drawing on memory studies and her training as an architect, Bakshi adopts insightful methodological approaches including collaborative mapmaking, ethnography, and archival research to explore issues around the Buffer Zone separating Greek and Turkish communities in Nicosia, Cyprus. Topographies of Memories is important not only because it provides fresh, thoughtful analysis of intercommunal conflict in Cyprus and beyond, but also because its insights undergird intriguing contributions to the study of heritage and the practice of commemoration. Rather than presenting another narrative of Cypriot history, Bakshi suggests strategies for architects and designers to approach memory through embodied, emotional, and multivalent experience. Throughout her work, Bakshi’s perspective is stimulating and her presentation articulate. Topographies of Memories is relevant to anyone interested in heritage, conflict, materiality, and commemoration. Continue reading
I begin by giving a short introduction to baybayin, followed by a brief history; both these sections mostly summarize previously published material. I then consider variation in baybayin before ending with contemporary concerns of identity and ideology, considering especially how baybayin is implicated in Filipino nationalism. Please feel free to browse to any of these sections — I hope my writing is useful to you!
Baybayin is a writing system native to the Philippines, attested from before Spanish colonization through to at least the eighteenth century.1 The word baybay means “to spell” in Tagalog, which was the language most frequently written with the baybayin script. Apart from Tagalog, baybayin (with some necessary changes) was used to write Ilocano (Iloko), Kapampangan, Pangasinan, Bisaya, and Bikol. The identification of baybayin with languages other than Tagalog is a contested subject, as I describe below. Continue reading
I want this post to be shorter than usual, since I’m mostly just interested in presenting two images I find fascinating. They are both related to the Turkish Language Reform. In 1929, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decreed that Turkish would from then on be written in the Latin alphabet (as opposed to the Ottoman Arabic script used previously).1
This first image is of an Ottoman calendar published in Thessaloniki in 1911. It demonstrates a remarkable diversity of scripts and languages. These include Arabic and Turkish (in the Arabic script) using the Islamic calendar; Bulgarian (in Cyrillic); Greek (with the Julian calendar); French (with the Gregorian); Armenian; and Ladino (in the Hebrew script), with the Jewish calendar. Some discussion is available here. Isn’t this just incredible!
This second photo is of Atatürk supposedly teaching the Latin alphabet. The photo is clearly propagandistic, but still a fascinating historical document.
Update: a more recent, more detailed, and better-informed version of this project is available here.
In this post I focus on Baybayin, a writing system native to the Philippines. Baybayin is a Brahmic script used to write Tagalog through to the period of Spanish colonization.1 There are few academic studies of Baybayin.2 What we know about this script mostly comes from Spanish missionaries who learned, documented, and translated Baybayin texts in the 16th century. The earliest known book published in Tagalog is the Doctrina Cristiana from 1593, which includes both Latin and Baybayin transcriptions as well as a translation into Spanish. At this time, literacy in the Philippines was fairly widespread, though it seems literature remained primarily oral. The Boxer Codex of 1590 reported that native inhabitants “have neither books nor histories nor do they write anything of length but only letters and reminders to one another.”3 This claim may have been used to cover up mass destruction by Spanish priests of Baybayin writings. In 1921, Otley Beyer, an American scholar of the Philippines, wrote: Continue reading
In this post, I wanted to talk a bit about an archaeologist I admire, Sonya Atalay. I saw her speak two weeks ago here at Brown and her work will continue to inspire and problematize my research projects.
Overview and context
Sonya Atalay is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachussets, Amherst. Her research interests include community-based research and indigenous archaeology and heritage. Her book Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012) is a pioneering work in the field of engaged archaeology. Atalay’s interest in community-based participatory research (CBPR) draws on her Anishinabe (Ojibwe) heritage. She has worked extensively with American Indian communities, especially in the Midwestern United States. Here I will focus not on this research but rather on Atalay’s work in Çatalhöyük, an archaeological site in southern Turkey.
Çatalhöyük is most famous for the remains of a large, densely packed settlement from around 9000 years ago. The ruins point to a community that was remarkably complicated for its time. The site is particularly important because it testifies to “the evolution of social organization and cultural practices as humans adapted to a sedentary life,” including early forms of religion (to quote from the site’s inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Çatalhöyük was first excavated in 1958, but the current project dates to 1993. This second phase of excavation is based on the principles of post-processual archaeology developed by Ian Hodder, the site’s director. In short, this theoretical movement emphasizes the subjectivity of archaeological interpretations, undermining positivist tendencies and universalist claims. In other words, Çatalhöyük is a natural environment for the implementation of Atalay’s engaged archaeology. Continue reading
This paper was delivered as part of a student-led symposium on the life and legacy of John Wesley Gilbert held on 2 March 2018, as part of the Joukowsky Institute’s conference entitled State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice. A video recording is available here; my presentation begins at 30:30. The slides I used are available here, and I’ve added the appropriate images below when possible. Any questions or comments are very much appreciated (as are requests for sources)!
In this paper, I analyze primary sources to reveal contemporary attitudes to Gilbert and his work as a cleric, a writer, and a scholar. First, I discuss Gilbert’s relationship with Methodism, including his mission to the Congo. I then turn to Gilbert’s political activity and contemporary reception, before ending with Gilbert’s modern legacy. I argue that these three facets of Gilbert’s life – his religion, politics, and scholarship – reflect three different approaches to John Wesley Gilbert, the man and the symbol. Paying close attention to the shifting emphases in the legacy of John Wesley Gilbert pushes us to be more reflexive in our own approaches to him and reflect on how our politics are entangled with the representation of the past. Continue reading