Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ISIS and ISIL--or, to QSIS and Beyond

Admittedly it is hard to find the lighter side of the rise of the grim jihadist group casting a dark spectre over Iraq right now, but if anything is funny, it's hearing a bunch of news reporters asking about ISIS and having the president answer their questions using the word ISIL. He never says, "Uh, it's actually ISIL" but I can't help hearing his refusal to use their term as a bit patronizing, intentionally or not. Then the other day, I heard some other White House official answer questions about ISUS by saying something like "It's important to understand that I.S.I.L. is...", which came across as seeming even more pedantic.

On the level of just sound and hearing, I suppose it isn't that much different than hearing reporters ask about "ee-ROCK" and having the president talking about "eye-RACK", but in terms of comprehension at least we knew they were all talking about the same place. The dissonance in this more recent term has the effect of making me feel like I've missed a beat, or that maybe the press has. And of course we probably have. But still, after bringing it up at a discussion last night, I realized I should probably try and track this down.

At first this seemed easy enough. There are plenty of articles out there already on this confusing topic. But woe to those who wade into this tricky thicket lightly. It turns out that it's a matter of translation, but also a matter of politics.

The name of the group in Arabic is Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. This, according to the Associated Press, which switched over to the ISIL version, means the The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. What is al-Sham, you ask? Well, according to the AP, it is the region comprising southern Turkey and extending down through Syria to Egypt  and also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.This is the area which the group wants to restore to being a caliphate, or Islamic state. It is also the area which in the West has broadly (and loosely) been termed the Levant. To Western eyes, the term just meant the Mediterranean lands east of Italy (so says Wikipedia), and, using the French word for 'rise', means  basically the lands of the rising sun.

from the website Make Hummus, Not War

So, ISIL--the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. As opposed to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

BUT--Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post  quotes a Syrian analyst named Hassan Hassan saying that there is a difference between al-Sham and Bilad al-Sham. Al-sham, he says, is basically Syria and more specifically is used to refer to Damascus, while Bilad al-Sham is greater Syria or the lands we historically have thought of as the Levant. He also points out that if we are going to use an older, out of date name like the Levant, we should use a corresponding older name for Iraq, which would be Mesopotamia.

As you can see, there are variant spellings.
 (The map was apparently uploaded to Wikicommons from the website of someone named Paulo Porsia

When you use modern "Iraq", use the modern term "Greater Syria" — in that case, it's the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (still ISIS).

I would have thought that would be ISIGS, but maybe that's just me.

The Washington Post goes on to say it would be more accurate to just use the Arabic world's shorthand for the group, namely DAIISH. They go on to say usually that it's fairly typical for English to create acronyms that preserve the original language to some degree.

But here the plot thickens still further. Unbeknownst to me, and apparently ignored by any news media I follow, on June 29th ISIS declared that they didn't want to be called the Islamic State of anything, but simply the Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islamiya), because they had established a new caliphate that didn't respect the old borders. This in turn called up a response from  Dar el-Ifta, which is a leading educational institute that weighs in on matters important to the practice of the Islamic faith, begged the media not to use that name in reference to the group as they did not think a radical fringe of Islam should be allowed to present itself as the face of Islam as a whole. Their solution? Why not QSIS?

On the other hand, why QSIS? Well, the group formerly known as ISIS was even more formerly known as a faction of al Qaeda in Iraq. But tensions mounted between al Qaeda and this splinter group and they parted ways this spring. So QSIS stands for "al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq"

I have one little problem with this idea, though, and that is how to pronounce it. Q-sis? Ki-sis? Kwi-sis?

Come to think of it, maybe just Crisis would sum up all its many latent possibilities.

Footnote: Dammit. Slate just wrote up this same question. I haven't read it through, but it's probably more authoritative than this account. Get it all here.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Blue with Green Should Never Be Seen

Sometimes--actually quite frequently--I wonder where I've been all these years. One way this came up was last weekend when, gathering with my family, we were talking about what each person's favorite color was. I don't know exactly how this led to my sister telling us about a conversation she had had with my father that I don't remember ever having heard before.

Back in the distant days of high school, she and I belonged to a club called the Juniorettes, which was a teen club sponsored by the Junior Women's club. In it's slightly eccentric blend of informality and convention, we each had a little badge made out of felt, which was a smaller piece of blue on larger piece of green. Maybe it had a little pin in the middle--I don't have one handy to look at.

I don't actually remember when we ever wore these badges. Maybe at every meeting? Maybe only on special occasions. In any case, they must have come out of the box at some point, because my sister tells me that my father was noticing her pin one day and said, "Blue with green should never be seen."

This did not seem to strike anyone else in the family with surprise. Someone knew that the whole saying was "Blue with green should never be seen, except with something in between." My niece, who takes art classes, went on to explain that the colors are too close together on the color wheel.

There are several funny things about this. First of all, although my father was interested in many things, I find it a little hard to imagine him weighing in on this convention. So I must conclude that this is one of those adages that he picked up at an impressionable age, like the one about not wearing white after Labor Day, which even I remember my Illinois relatives quoting with some authority (it's not really observed in my strata of California society, unless it's just me not observing it--not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.)

The second thing is, how does everyone else know this adage, and after all these years, this is the first I've heard of it? It's one thing when you come across some piece of advice that comes from somewhere else, but apparently everyone in my family had heard this news but me. 

Sometimes we can be skeptical of some piece of collective wisdom. It's very rare in my experience, though, to have been sheltered somehow from such knowledge and find out that you have been going along thinking exactly the opposite. Because I think green and blue together are BEAUTIFUL.

And so, apparently, does God. Or whoever does the interior design for this simulation we're currently caught up in.

(The painting at the top is by Nelson Ferreira, from his Penumbra series. And speaking of penumbras, if you would like to see some spectacular blue tulips--in a backdrop of green--just go to Kathleen Kirk's blog post HERE and scroll on down...)

Friday, August 8, 2014

glean II

I just put a book review up over at Escape Into Life, and about halfway through, I realized that the book under discussion is a book about gleaning. The French illustrator Barroux came across a box amid a pile of things that some movers were hauling out to throw away. In the box was a journal and a French war medal. The result of that chance find was the graphic novel (On Les Aura!), which became Line of Fire in English.

I just thought this was all a great bit of propaganda for gleaning. Read all about it HERE. It's kind of funny that all the gleaning I've been coming across lately has been happening in France.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


I was watching a documentary by Agnès Varda last night called 'The Gleaners and I'. (In French, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse). I don't know how I got on to it exactly, since I hadn't previously known Varda's work--it was probably through some algorithm at Netflix that it was recommended to me. Varda was already a famous filmmaker at the time she filmed it--it came out in 2000--but I hadn't heard of her. For this project, she decided to use a digital handheld video camera and just wander around France with it. After an encounter with Jean-François Millet's Des glaneuses (above), Varda became intrigued to follow around some modern day gleaners, and in the process recognized the gleaner in herself.

And I in turn became interested in the word 'glean'. Although glean in the sense shown in Millet's painting means to gather what is left after the more official harvesters have been through a crop (and actually, as one older gleaner tells Vargas in the movie, gleaning is only the activity of gathering from the ground--things hanging above the ground are picked. So you glean grain or potatoes, but you pick grapes. I'm not totally sure about fruit that has already fallen to the ground, like apples,though), we also use the word to speak about comprehension--to talk about how we have understood or come to grasp something. Varga in describing herself as a glaneuse is actually talking about both senses. She is gathering actual film images and she is trying to understand more about various things--why people glean, but other things as well.

Now I am not sure how the French etymology works, but in English, the course is a bit surprising. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the English word glean comes from the Old French glener (which modern French makes glaner) and this in turn comes from the Late Latin glennare, which meant 'to make a collection'. It goes on to speculate that the word may have come from the Gaulish (I think of Latin flowing out from Rome and being dispensed to the hinterlands, but of course it must sometimes have gone the other way, as that is how language is.) As evidence, the Dictionary cites the Old Irish do-glenn "he collects, he gathers" and the Celtic glan, which means clean or pure. I'm not quite sure how that connects, but maybe you are.

As for me, I hadn't even known that Gaulish was an ancient Celtic language till just now. I would have just thought it had something to do with France. But Wikipedia tells us that "Gaulish is found in about 800 inscriptions consisting of dedications, funeral monuments, graffiti, magical-religious texts, coin inscriptions and other similar, often fragmentary records."

In other words it would take a lot of gleaning in our modern sense of "extracting information from various sources," or "collecting bit by bit" to learn much Gaulish. It seems rather made to illustrate the concept of gleaning, in fact.

(According the ASNC Spoken Word website, this translates as  ‘To the mother-goddesses of Glanum, [X gave] a tithe in gratitude’)

This is a little bit weird. I was just looking for some examples of Gaulish inscriptions to liven things up here a little, and found the above example from Glanum quite randomly. Glanum is an archeological site of some major Celtic/ Roman ruins in the area we now call Provence. It was a Celtic city originally built by a spring dedicated to the Celtic god Glanis. (Remember glan?)

Now yesterday at around this time, I didn't know Glanis, or Glanum from Adam. But as it happens, there is a short interview in Varga's film with a French woman and her grown son, who drops into the conversation about gleaners that his mother is having with Varga. "Glaneurs?" he says--"I thought you were talking about Glanum." And Varga obliginglyshows us a picture of the archeological site.

 (Not this picture. This photo is taken by Axel Brocke and is of The Temple of Valetudo, about 39 BC, in Glanum, Valetudo being the name the Romans gave Glanis when they incorporated him into the Roman pantheon, as was their custom with the local deities of the conquered.)

Another other odd thing, is that in English, anyway, the figurative sense came first. It appears in the early 14th century, while the more literal description of scavenging after the harvest doesn't appear until the late 14th. I'm guess this happens, but I am pretty sure I haven't run into the figurative proceeding the literal since taking up this blog. I am not sure we can say the literal came from the figurative, though, because it may just have hopped the channel in some other way.

Anyway, take some time to watch "The Gleaners and I". It's one of those films that makes you think about a lot of things without being particularly heavy handed about it. I'm looking forward to watching the follow-up on the same disc, which is called "The Gleaners and I, Two Years Later."