Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Muslim World Manuscript Project: A Codicology Workshop

On September 20th, sixteen students, along with a number of faculty members and librarians, gathered in the Chang Seminar Room of RBML to attend a full-day workshop on codicology led by Dr. Kelly Tuttle, the Muslim World Manuscript (MWM) Project Cataloger at UPenn. The workshop was supported by the Center for the Study of Muslim Societies (CSMS), and is a  part of a series of scholarly events and engagement activities around the ongoing MWM. (Check out the catalog of the digitized and cataloged manuscripts from the MWM project here and here.) 

The aim of the workshop was “to give students a grounding in how to describe the material aspects of Islamicate manuscripts and to prepare students to identify key bibliographic features so that they may more confidently go to repositories and study manuscripts in person.” The day was full of hushed, intense discussions, with heads moving back and forth between the beautiful slides Kelly projected on the screen and the pages of the various manuscripts put in front of the students, who often worked in pairs on the numerous hands-on exercises Kelly had prepared.

Kelly  guided the students through the various components and aspects of these manuscripts “from the very outside to the inside,” beginning with safe handling measures, and then going over covers, spines, boards, fly-leaves, the nature of support (paper or parchment, types of paper, watermarks), collation, quires, bindings, common types of scripts, decoration and layouts, including traditional locations and styles of recording authors, titles, and dates in Islamicate manuscripts. She went into detail about the various types of notes that manuscripts can include and how the layout of the page and other material features (including the different colors of ink, the use of different scripts or locations for writing, etc.) can indicate the type of discourse written down (e.g. poetry vs sharh) or the nature and goal of the inscriptions (e.g. marginalia by different authors written in different directions that indicate different sources, authors, etc.). Students could see in a clear, simple and organic way how form and content work hand in hand in material culture, to great communicative and functional effects.

Throughout, students exchanged tips, background knowledge, and questions, and one could see very clearly in their eyes how the Muslim World Manuscript collection was coming to life. Curiosity, cell phones to take photos, zoom in on any given detail, but also laughter and humor, and an increasing level of confidence and comfort marked the day.

The day wound down with an exercise in which students gathered together what they had learned, filling in a template to describe a manuscript as thoroughly as they could and applied some of the best practices and recommendations from the workshop. They then presented their findings to the group and spoke about what they found most interesting in the manuscript they were responsible for presenting, and about the learning process throughout the day.

The next day, some of the students wrote to thank Kelly, the Libraries and the Center for the Study of Muslim Societies, and to express the wish for further hands-on opportunities to familiarize themselves with the material culture of the Islamicate world, stressing how important such opportunities are for their learning and graduate studies. Navid Zarrinnal,  a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, currently working  on Persian and Iranian intellectual history, wrote: “Friday’s workshop prepared us for a central task of our scholarship, rarely offered in the classroom, namely the discovery and deciphering of previously unedited manuscripts. We learned to locate a manuscript in the context of its intellectual and scholarly history by deciphering key information, such as author, title, summary of contents, and genre. In anticipation of future research, the workshop also prepared us for reading hard-to-decipher manuscripts. I applaud the Muslim World Manuscript Project’s efforts and encourage similar training for the future.”

Shabbir Abbas, a graduate student at MEASAS who focuses on the development of the Shi’i Imami school of jurisprudence in his work, also stressed the interactive nature of the workshop, and how he benefited from the various exercises and discussions throughout the day: “The codicology workshop was beneficial in the sense that I was able to focus for the first time on the physical and artistic/aesthetic aspects of the manuscripts instead of my typical textual analysis. Likewise, interacting [and even debating] with other grad students and scholars coming from different perspectives on the topic of manuscripts was an invaluable experience.”

Seher Agarwala, PhD student in the South Asian Art and Architecture department, who is working on Indo-Persian manuscripts and illuminations,  also wrote to say that “workshops like this would really benefit graduate and even undergraduate history students. We usually work from secondary sources, translations or photocopies so getting a real sense of manuscripts as objects, being acquainted with their idiosyncrasies and specific features and trajectories, their uniqueness,  and getting a chance to form one’s conclusions and opinions based on that encounter is extremely beneficial, and a real eye opener. My research would have taken a completely different trajectory, had I been acquainted with manuscripts earlier on in my studies.” Seher said she was delighted to work with a manuscript of Yuusuf and Zuleikha from  Qissas al-anbiya, The Stories of the Prophets, and the image of Zuleykha seducing Yuusuf in a courtyard, rather than in an enclosed setting, as the scene is usually depicted, stands out in her mind “as something worth returning to, and studying. Had I not been part of this workshop, I am not sure I would have been aware of this variation on the story, and been enticed to  take a closer look at some of the common assumptions around this story “.

After the workshop, I sat down with Kelly and asked her a few quick questions:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How did the idea of organizing this workshop come about? What was your initial motivation in proposing it? I remember my first attempt to work directly with manuscripts. I focused so much on the text that I missed many details and aspects of the history of the material objects I was consulting and that were clearly marked all over them, but that I did not register. After I returned, I realized that not only had I pretty much ignored the materiality of the manuscripts, I also didn’t even know what exactly I should have been looking for, or taking note of, or photographing for later research. It was frustrating. I immediately tried to find a class on Islamic codicology to take, so that next time I went to do research, I’d be better prepared.

That’s exactly what I wanted for the students here: for them to feel more familiar when they go do their own primary source research with manuscripts. Since we are all working to make Columbia’s Islamicate manuscript collection better known through the CLIR-funded Muslim World Manuscripts project, it seemed like a good time to provide an introductory course. My hope is that the students who take the workshop will have a better framework to do research with Islamicate manuscripts, and to think about the manuscripts as material objects with their own stories, their own “presence” and peculiarities, and not simply as “holders of a text”, but as objects in their own right.

How did you prepare for the workshop? What resources did you consult?  When and how did you take the beautiful photos you featured on the sldies? How did you choose the items you are focusing on?

In preparing, I thought mostly about what kind of information I pull out when cataloging manuscripts. The level of descriptive detail that goes into cataloging is also very useful and relevant for research about manuscripts. When I found good examples that illustrated a feature, an aspect of manuscripts which I thought students should know about, I either took photographs myself, if the manuscript hadn’t yet been digitized for the project, or I took one of the digital images that are available on OPenn. As for the hands-on portions of the workshop, I tried to pick items that highlighted specific aspects we had focused on or introduced in my presentation. I also tried to choose items that I thought would be instructive for the students to look at holistically and in greater detail during the final hands-on session. I limited the focus of the workshop to what I thought were the essential elements for a basic understanding of a manuscript.. Since the workshop was only one day, we barely scratched the surface of many of those topics, as you can probably imagine. I hope that the students now have at least a sense of what features to look for and how to describe them. They also came away with a reference sheet of sources where they can go for further guidance.

What was your impression of the students, of the level of interest and attendance? Did any of their questions surprise or intrigue you?

I was quite happy with the variety of backgrounds and experience that came into the workshop. The students had different levels of interaction and familiarity with manuscript culture. Some had worked with the MWM project, doing basic cataloging; some had used manuscripts in their own research, some had even worked on the production side of manuscripts, copying some works, and some had almost no experience with manuscripts. What I most enjoyed about the students, though, was their willingness to share their observations and suggestions. They asked each other for help, they circulated during the hands-on sessions to look at everyone else’s manuscripts and discuss manuscripts that were not assigned to them, they tossed around ideas and observations throughout the day. There was a sense of openness and experimentation. The experience was valuable, for me; I hope it was for them as well.

What type of workshops would you like to offer in the future? Are there any aspects of the project you would like to be more involved in, or see further developed?

I think it would be nice if someone from Art History offered a workshop on Islamicate manuscript illustration, including Perso-Indian. Actually, if someone were to offer a workshop on Perso-Indian manuscripts in general, that would be of real value! If there is interest, a workshop could be developed to delve more fully into manuscript construction, common types of damage and repair, perhaps taught by someone from conservation. With careful selecting, an excellent workshop could be developed to help students understand manuscript notes better, the uses to which they can be put for research, and the basics of provenance research, establishing names, and finding people in biographical dictionaries and other sources.

Thank you, Kelly! Many thanks to all who made this workshop possible!

For inquiries regarding the Muslim World Manuscript project at Columbia, please contact RBML: Jane Siegel: Librarian for Rare Books & Bibliographic Services: jane.siegel@columbia.edu; Peter Magierski:The Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian: pm2650@columbia.edu, or Kaoukab Chebaro: Global Studies, Head: kc3287@ columbia.edu

Kaoukab Chebaro, Global Studies, Head, Columbia University Libraries

 

Toni Morrison and Africa

Toni Morrison (oprahmag.com)
On August 5, 2019, a great tree fell in the forest of my imagination. Toni Morrison, the great African American writer and international humanist, had died.  I could not ignore the sadness.  I was personally moved to read,
re-read, and to become more familiar with Morrison’s novels and non-fiction writing, including her books for children, co-authored with her son Slade Morrison, to learn more about her work with the Western musical forms of opera and classical art songs, her interests in the visual arts, film, and politics, as well as the fruit of her labors as an editor and advocate for African authors and other humanist writers around the world (1975 and 2009).  In the wake of Morrison’s passing, I began conducting a survey of open access interviews and performances of Morrison, as well as significant commentaries on her life and legacy.  As the subject librarian for African Studies at Columbia University, I looked to the books I knew, to the Internet, and to the library holdings at Columbia and elsewhere to cope with my sense of emptiness.  As an Africa-centered reader, I have settled on two topics of investigation:
first, the ways in which scholars have analyzed Morrison’s invocation of an imagined “Africa” and the African heritage among African Americans through her characters and stories ; and, second, her relationships with authors from the African continent.

I offer here the first part of my report.

Out on the Internet, there’s a wide array of freely accessible Toni Morrison performances, analysis, interviews, readings, and testimonies on Morrison’s life and her works.  Aside from the images and words of Morrison herself, particularly useful for the research scholar are the “Bibliography” project of The Toni Morrison Society (Atlanta, Georgia), covering the period 2000-2011, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia biographical entry on  “Toni Morrison”  by Kristine Yohe (2019).

For those with access to Columbia’s library collections, there are currently in the library catalog: 149 entries for Morrison-authored works -and- 261 entries for works about Morrison.  Using Columbia’s access to MLA International Bibliography and other relevant indexes in the EBSCOhost Research Databases, the reader can find almost 5000 entries on the subject of Toni Morrison for publications since 1968, including articles, books, book chapters, book reviews, and theses. Two useful, recently published, reference sources available at Columbia are:
“Toni Morrison” by Justine Tally (2017) in Oxford Bibliographies Online and Tessa Roynon’s The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison (2013) in print or online.  It so happens that Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library is also the home of the archives of Random House, the publishing company where Toni Morrison worked as an editor from 1965 to 1983.  The finding aid indicates that the collection includes Toni Morrison’s editorial files for the period 1974 to 1983.  However, the bulk of the Morrison archive is to be found in the Toni Morrison Papers collection held at Princeton University, where Morrison actively taught on the faculty from 1989 to 2006.

With regard to my first research topic on the “African heritage” of African American culture depicted in Toni Morrison’s novels, especially Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, the reader might start with the following: La Vinia Delois Jennings’ Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa (2008) ;  K. Zauditu-Selassie’s African Spiritual Traditions in the Novels of Toni Morrison (2009) in print or e-book ; Christopher N. Okonkwo’s  A Spirit of Dialogue: Incarnations of Ogbanje, the born-to-die, in African American Literature (2008)  ; and, Therese  E. Higgins’ Religiosity, Cosmology, and Folklore: The African Influence in the Novels of Toni Morrison (2001) in print or e-book.  Two seminal articles by Gay Wilentz on this matter are critically important: “Civilization underneath: African heritage as cultural discourse in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” which first appeared in the journal African American Review in 1992 (print or online) and republished in the 2003 book Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon : a casebook, edited by Jan Furman; and, “An African-Based Reading of Sula,” in Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Kathryn Earle (1997).  In addition, an important early contribution on the discourse is Vashti Crutcher Lewis’ oft-cited 1987 Phylon article: “African Tradition in Toni Morrison’s ‘Sula’.”

These works argue that a major feature of Morrison’s fiction is her use of surviving Africanisms in African American culture, such as the belief in the importance of ancestors, ancestral spirits, healers, conjurers or witches, priests or priestesses, and diviners or soothsayers.  Many scholars argue that such beliefs and the rituals associated with them among African Americans have their roots in the African traditional cosmologies produced in West-Central Africa and in societies near the Bights of Benin and Biafra in West Africa, those areas from where more than half of the African diaspora in the Americas has its origins (Slave Voyages, 2019).  Anthropologists and historians have identified these areas as the historic kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo in present-day Angola, West-Central Africa, the kingdom and empire of Dahomey in present-day Benin, the Igbo and the Yoruba in present-day Nigeria, West Africa.  So, for example, Jennings argues that in several of her novels Morrison uses the Kongo Yowa (cross-in-a-circle), ancestors–living elders and the dead, witches (bandoki, in Kikongo), healers (banganga, in Kikongo), and various aspects of Dahomean Vodun (such as loas and orixas). Okonkwo focuses more on the Igbo and Yoruba concepts of the spirit child (ogbanje or abiku) in Morrison’s fiction.

With regard to the often cited “flying Africans” in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Morrison herself and other scholars agree that she is explicitly drawing upon a documented aspect of African American folklore handed down by several generations of African slaves and their descendants in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. The myth refers to newly enslaved Africans who upon arriving in coastal South Carolina or Georgia flew back to Africa rather than live in slavery in America. See for example, the 1940 publication of the Georgia Writers’ Project, Drums and shadows: survival studies among the Georgia coastal Negroes, (reprinted in 1986).

On my second topic, we must rely on what Morrison has said in interviews and in public appearances. In September 2000, she described her first encounters with African literature.  These comments were part of a brief presentation she gave in honor of the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, published in Morrison’s last book, The Source of Self-Regard (2019):

“In 1965, I began reading African literature, devouring it actually. It was a literature previously  unavailable to me, but by then I had discovered a New York bookstore called Africa House, which offered among other things back issues of Transition (print or online), Black Orpheus (print or online), and works by a host of African writers from all over the continent.  Amos Tutuola,   Ayi Kwei Armah, Ezekiel Mphahlele, James Ngugi [Ngugi wa Thiong’o], Bessie Head, Christina Ama Ata Aidoo, Mongo Beti, Leopold Senghor, Camara Laye, Ousmane Sembene, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark: the jolt these writers gave me was explosive. The confirmation that African literature was not limited to Doris Lessing and Joseph Conrad was so stunning it led me to secure the aid of two academics who could help me anthologize this literature. At that time African literature was not a subject to be taught in American schools. Even in so-called world literature courses it had no reputation and no presence. But I was determined to funnel the delight, the significance, and the power of that literature into my work as an editor. The publication of Contemporary African Literature [edited by Edris Makward and Leslie Lacy]   in 1972 was the beginning of my love affair.” (p. 285)  [***See below]

“Chinua Achebe (along with Camara Laye, Bessie Head, and others) constituted a complete education for me. Learning how to disassemble the gaze that I was wrestling with (the habitual but self-conscious writing toward a nonblack reader that threatened and coated much African American literature); discovering how to eliminate, to manipulate the Eurocentric eye in order to stretch and plumb my own imagination; I attribute these learned lessons to Chinua Achebe.” (p. 286)

In a 1986 interview conducted by Christina Davis, which first appeared in a 1988 issue of the Paris-based journal Presence Africaine (in print or online) and later in Conversations with Toni Morrison (1994), edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie, Morrison says, in response to the question: What do you feel are links between African and Afro-American literatures? : “I’m only discovering those links in a large sense–that is, as a reader and as a scholar…When I first began to write, I would do no research in that area because I distrusted the sources of research, that is, the books that were available, whether they were religion or philosophy and so on. I would rely heavily and almost totally on my own recollections and, more important, on my own insight about those recollections, and in so doing was able to imagine and to recreate cultural linkages that were identified for me by Africans who had a more familiar, an overt recognition (of them).” (p. 225)

In the same 1986 interview, in answer to the question “If there’s an African writer or African writers that you feel particularly akin to or whose work you feel especially close to?”, Morrison responded: “Well, neither akin nor close but certainly a real education for me. Chinua Achebe was a real education… And certainly the plays of Soyinka and the Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born of Ayi Kwei Armah–those things were at that time real, and they’re the kinds of books that one can re-read with enormous discoveries subsequently.”  (pp. 228-29)

In Toni Morrison’s book review of Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King (2001 ed.), which appeared in The New York Review of Books in August 2001, and as the foreword in the 2001 English edition of the French original (1954), later re-published in Toni Morrison: What Moves at the Margin (2008), she explains what was the impact of the Guinean author Camara Laye’s approach:

“This extraordinary novel…accomplished something brand new. The clichéd journey into African darkness either to bring light or to find it is reimagined here. In fresh metaphorical and symbolical language, storybook Africa, as the site of therapeutic exploits or of sentimental initiations leading towards life’s diploma, is reinvented. Employing the idiom of the conqueror, using precisely the terminology of the dominant discourse on Africa, this extraordinary Guinean author plucked at the Western eye to prepare it to meet the ‘regard’, the ‘look’, the ‘gaze’ of an African king.” (pp. 121-22)

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***NB: Contemporary African Literature is a spectacular anthology, with color illustrations, now out of print.  It was primarily designed as a textbook to be used for teaching African literature in American high schools and colleges. Sadly, it does not appear to have ever been reviewed by any major book review magazine or newspaper, or by any African or African American studies academic journal.  I am still searching for evidence that it was used in a significant way in any American classroom.  I would argue that interest in this book should be revived among scholars and teachers of Africa.