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Fran Lebowitz – a true New Yorker talking through the cheers and boos

31 Aug

Lebowitz portrait

Fran Lebowitz is a comic writer who has a difficult time writing. So instead, she speaks.

 

She’s the quintessential New Yorker. She loves her town. She celebrates it and it celebrates her. Real New Yorker’s like people with opinions – brash, bold ones – and brash, bold opinions are Lebowitz’ chief currency.

 

Her Grade A conversation makes her popular and in demand. She’s simply fun to be around.

 

waverly signI never met her, but her charismatic magnetism is on display in a documentary entitled, “Public Speaking.” The film is directed by her friend, Martin Scorsese. Much of the footage is of Scorsese and Lebowitz sitting and talking in her hangout restaurant, The Waverly Inn in the West Village.

 

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In the film, Lebowitz complains that New York has gotten boring. The grit and nastiness she liked disappeared when the city cleaned up to attract tourists. Especially sanitized was Times Square, an area Lebowitz says no self-respecting New Yorker ever visits.

 

A second trauma that damaged New York, she says, was the AIDS epidemic. The city’s great culture, especially the performing arts, existed in such a high state only because of the demanding and enthusiastic audiences, mostly gay. In her view, the audience is just as important, if not more important, than the performers. The old New York audiences knew every nuance of ballet, opera, all of it. They wouldn’t tolerate a single flaw, and the performers were aware of this. But the caliber of the audiences fell as thousands of gay New Yorkers died of AIDS. This, she said, devastating New York culture and all of the performing arts.

FranLebowitz-quote

Lebowitz has an interesting take on the gay rights movement. She said the best thing about being gay was you could avoid marriage and the military. Now, those benefits have been undone by foggy-headed reformers who were trying to do good.

 

The author of several books who has made countless public appearances, Lebowitz tells Scorsese of her most horrible experience on a stage. She was booed by over a quarter million people.

 

The setting was a massive rally of activists trying to convince leaders of the old Soviet Union to allow Jews (Lebowitz is one) to emigrate. Lebowitz was among the speakers who was asked to read a letter of appeal from one of thousands of oppressed Jews. But she also was asked to say a little something first.

 

Referring to a petition with thousands of signatures, she said something like:

 

“I expect the leaders of Russia to respond positively to these demands. I know I wouldn’t want this many Jewish women mad at me.”

 

And the boos rained down on her.

 

So be it. Nobody can take a joke anymore.

The theme of this blog at NotebookM is, “Speaking, because it is allowed.” What I love about Fran Lebowitz is she speaks. God bless her for that. And God bless Martin Scorsese for bringing us this film about her.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Lebowitz Quotes

 

“Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort. If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass.”

 

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”

 

“Romantic love is mental illness. But it’s a pleasurable one. It’s a drug. It distorts reality, and that’s the point of it. It would be impossible to fall in love with someone that you really saw.”

 

“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”

 

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Big war, small peace – did Stephen Hawking really know the truth?

29 Aug

Cambridge3

I was waiting, so I picked up a book. Inside, just a few pages in, was a simple sentence with the power to uplift, encourage, and promote optimism.

 

It seemed to confirm the idea that there was light amid the dark; that somewhere below the horrid nature of mankind there was good trying to surface.

Sadly, that sentence – written as a statement of fact – is probably wrong. Oddly, its author is one of the world’s most intelligent men.

 

Hawking book jacket-bioThe book was “My Brief History,” the 2013 autobiography of physicist Stephen Hawking, the man in the wheelchair with the synthetic voice whose life is now a major motion picture called, “The Theory of Everything.”

 

The movie is more a love story than a science story. Still, its title comes from Hawking’s pursuit of a unified way of explaining all forces in the universe.

In the book, Hawking talks about his birth in Cambridge, England, home of one of the world’s greatest universities. His reason for being born in Cambridge is what uplifted me. His casual little sentence was a gentle piece of history I had never heard of; one of those marvelous pieces of information that suggests we maintain a small degree of civility even as we try to utterly destroy each other. It was like reading for the first time about the unofficial Christmas truce during World War I, when soldiers from both sides climbed out of the trenches, sang songs together, exchanged presents and even played soccer.

 

In Hawking’s case, the scene is World War II. The scientist said his family moved to Cambridge because the English and the Germans had agreed it was not to be bombed. Also under protection was Oxford, and in Germany the universities at Heidelberg and Goettingen.

 

I had never heard anything of the sort, but recognized that such an agreement could easily have been buried in the rubble of all the other destruction. Visualizing the leaders of these two warring countries shaking hands on this was heart-warming. I actually pictured them doing it.

 

But I guess even Hawking can get things wrong.

 

The fact-checking site Snopes.com said the agreement mentioned by Hawking had been an Internet myth. It’s likely to spread further now with Hawking’s book. Additional searches could not confirm the agreement.

 

Of course, Cambridge was without strategic value and bombs were precious, so it was much safer to be in Cambridge than in London. Hawking’s father probably moved the family there just to lessen the odds of being killed.

 

With many others doing the same, the myth of protection probably evolved and spread. I’m sure it made living in Cambridge a lot more comfortable.

 

Cambridge bombedMyth or not, in 2010 a BBC website ran a story on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Vicarage Terrace in Cambridge. It has a woman named Barbara Wright remembering the incident. She was six. There’s a photo.

 

“Suddenly there was a huge noise,” she said. “The actual walls on either side came in and practically touched us.”

 

The story said nine people were killed in the attack, and that they were the first British civilian casualties of the war.

 

The fact that the myth exists even when there is proof that Cambridge was bombed shows the power of myth and the need to believe in good things.

 

If anyone can shed additional light on the myth, the truth, or Stephen Hawking, please comment. Perhaps the full story still remains to be told. Please don’t, however, write if you have info that the Christmas truce was a myth. Let’s at least leave that one in place. After all, they made a movie out of it.

 

The trailer is below, along with that for the new Hawking movie.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

           

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How about, “She Love You, Yes, Yes, Yes?”

19 Jan
Great phrases, including those by Churchill, are often edited by the masses.

Great phrases, including those by Churchill, are often edited by the masses.

 

Once a writer gets deep into the art, craft and process of writing, there is a temptation to be more taken with sound and rhythm than with content.

I once read that Edgar Allan Poe very much liked the cadence of the words “cellar door” and hoped to fashion a poem around them. He failed, but compromised and used the similar-sounding “nevermore” to create “The Raven.”

When you read the Raven, you’ve got to think that Poe cared much more about the tap dance underneath his verse than what it actually said:

 

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.”

 

But what’s important to the ear of the writer is not always important to the mind of the reader. The cliché (and name of a 60s rock band) “blood, sweat and tears” seems to have been authored by a mass of people who intentionally or unintentionally chose to edit a speech by Winston Churchill.

Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, was trying to rally his people in 1940 when he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

It was a certainty that the content and meaning of this speech was crucial to Churchill, but so was its sound, hence the alliterative “toil, tears” and the five-beat rhythm of da, da, da, da, da – a little like iambic pentameter. Still, for all Churchill’s literary and artistic intentions, the people ultimately had their way. Churchill’s words have pretty much been lost and their words have stayed.

KhayyamIn college people would quote a line from the 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. With romance in mind they would say, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.”

I had never read Khayyam and I’m not sure they ever did. But recently I learned they did to him what they did to Churchill.

Having stumbled upon a copy of Khayyam’s poems, which in English is call “The Rubaiyat,” I looked for that line and found:

 

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou.”

 

Again, a rhythm of four things was turned to three.

When Tonight Show host Johnny Carson would do a series of four jokes – and bomb – he’d turn toward his producer and say, “I told you four never works.”

And so the difference in opinion between those who create art and those who consume it remains.

We should be aware of this when we read great works like the Iliad or listen to traditional folk songs. Those things started out one way, and along the way people made what they considered improvements. The Iliad, for much of its life, was not written but recited. If a clever reciter made a good edit, it stuck and was passed on. Same thing with many songs whose original authors have been lost to history.

Which leaves us the question: Should literary greats like Homer and Churchill and Khayyam be altered by lesser literary lights? I don’t know, but it’s clear that a whole lot of people think they can do better. I think in some cases, they probably have.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Normal Mailer: Now there was a writer

25 Oct

Mailer-young

Growing up and trying to write, I admired Norman Mailer. Oh, he had his bad points, but I thought he was fantastic. His fame as a character/celebrity was a self-creation but as a writer he was genuine.

 

There is a new biography out on him. It is “Norman Mailer: A Double Life,” by J. Michael Lennon. I haven’t read it, but I did read a review of it in the New York Times by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair.

 

Carter does a wonderful job of describing Mailer:

 

It could be said that Norman Mailer was a man and a writer halfway between fame and infamy and yet with little in the way of middle ground. He was, in varying combinations, a world-class drinker, feuder, provocateur, self-mythologizer and anti-feminist. He was a war protester, a mayoral candidate, a co-founder of The Village Voice, as well as a wife stabber, a serial husband (of six wives), and a father (of nine). He was a boxer, an actor, a filmmaker, a poet and a playwright. He was also a journalist and a novelist of enormous and singular narrative inventiveness and thrust, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of the least boring and most tireless and tiresome public figures of the last half of the 20th century.

 

Mailer-bookI heard Mailer speak at the University of Missouri during the ‘70s. Always the showman looking to shock, he opened with a dirty joke.  It was a good joke. The most interesting thing about the joke was it knocked him down a peg or two on the masculinity chart. This is unusual for a he-man self-inflator.

 

Here is the joke, which I clearly remember after all these years.

 

“I ran into one of my ex-wives recently. She had gotten herself a young new lover and so I asked, ‘How does your boyfriend like that old, worn-out pussy of yours?’  She answered, ‘He likes it just fine . . . once he gets past the worn-out part.”

 

One thing about this great mind, who loved verbal combat: Sometime he tried too hard and flopped. He’d come off like an ass. This happened on the old “Dick Cavett Show” when he went up against both Cavett and his mortal enemy, writer Gore Vidal.

 

I had watched the original show and was so disappointed in him. A clip of the performance has been posted on Youtube and I’d like to share it with you. Your thoughts on Mailer and this video would be greatly appreciated. I would guess Mailer had many more enemies than fans. Which are you?

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Watching the human condition from an airport waiting room: the toll of fate and time.

29 Jun

iraqi-refugeesHumanity struggles.

A good place to observe this is the international gate at Newark Liberty Airport. It is not a struggle for life and death, just life, and the simple routine of getting to where one must be.

Almost no one here resembles the highborn. Save for a few Japanese, all are dressed casually. They seem vulnerable, dependent on unseen forces disinclined to treat them well; at the mercy of an uncaring system.

Pale complexions are few. Most of those must be off somewhere else; perhaps in a special room that requires a card to enter. Out here, little English is heard, although most speak it. As bilinguals, this actually puts them above the cloistered monolinguals.

While there is struggle, there is no real suffering. Indeed, some smile. But the smiles cannot mask anxiety, impatience, fear of the unknown, crying babies that need to be fed, heavy belongs that need to be carried awkwardly from one place to another like a ball and chain.

Many are traveling for pleasure, but this doesn’t resemble pleasure.

But let me clarify.

The transit experience at Newark Liberty Airport is really not all that bad. While I have reported accurately and expressed true feelings, I was greatly influenced by what I was reading.

Such as: a story about 3 million Afghan refugees; a story about 1 million Syria refugees; the review of a book by R.M. Douglas called, “Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War.”

Book cover -- Orderly and HumaneWith respect to the latter, as you might suspect, the forced relocation of 13 million German civilians from Central and Southern Europe was neither orderly nor humane. According to Douglas and history, it was much like the relocation of the Jews during the Holocaust – only this time the atrocities were committed by Americans. The Germans were transported in locked rail cars, kept in concentration camps and rarely fed.  Most were women and children. About 500,000 died.

So as I read I also watched. I saw people moving about uncomfortably, sullen, waiting, waiting and waiting. I thought of all those who risk everything – mostly life — trying desperately to get somewhere that is not worth going to. All in all, the United Nations estimated that in 2012 the world contained about 10.5 million refugees.

Then, in my boredom, I recalled an elderly Chinese woman I once knew. After World War II, she moved to America with her husband-scientist. Late in life, they bought a suburban house that was as large as some small hotels. It had a finished basement so grand that the couple used it as a ballroom.

At a dinner party, this woman casually told me how she left Shanghai on foot – with masses of others – after the Japanese invaded in the 1930s. She was headed many hundreds of miles away, toward Central China, where there were no Japanese. Along the way, it was not uncommon for the migrants to be bombed.

This woman, on the most treacherous journey of her life, may have retained some hope. But amidst war, hunger and death, she most certainly was not thinking how nice it would be to one day live in a $2.5 million house and invite people over to dance.

How powerful the effects of fate and time!

The people at Newark Liberty Airport, at least for now, aren’t going to die, or starve or be forced to live in tented refugee camps (although a few may already have done that). Even so, some, maybe even me, could experience it in the future. It takes only an atrocious natural disaster, an attack on critical infrastructure or a few super microbes that destroy either food or people.

We will all go a running.

How powerful the effects of fate and time.

I somehow see this, or fear this, as I observe a relatively small mass wend its way through a limited but wholly sufficient transportation network. Suppose that network was not sufficient?

Chinese city-ShenjenIn the very near future, over more than a decade, the world will witness a planned event that will be either a migratory miracle or a disaster of incredible proportions. It probably will be both. The Chinese, perhaps recalling other great shifts, plan to relocate 250 million people from the countryside into cities, many newly built for this purpose. This number exceeds the combined populations of all large cities in America. It is the equivalent of moving almost 80 percent of every person in the U.S.

The Chinese are accustomed to solving big problems with big solutions. The purpose of this one is to spur economic growth. Living in rural poverty, as so many Chinese do, adds little to the economic engine. In cities, these same people are expected to be better producers and consumers.

It’s a very bold plan.

Will it break hearts, souls and spirits?

Will it strip people of their heritage, culture, routines and roots?

Might it possibly create contentment, an unthought-of elevation in living standards?

Perhaps even an increase in ballroom dancing?

What it will do for sure it put people where they never expected to be.

How powerful the effects of fate and time.

Should I be in China during this epochal migration, I will try to keep off the main roads and certainly stay out of airports. They are simply too depressing.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Old Books Come Back to Life: Remember “Naked Lunch”?

1 Jun
Writer William Burroughs

Writer William Burroughs

 

The New York Review of Books sat on the table face up, showing the lead item about James Baldwin. This was odd, since Baldwin died a quarter century ago. No new books from him.

“As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question, James Baldwin has no equals,” the review said.

The Negro question?

Oh. This was not new. This was old. It was a copy of the first edition of the New York Review of Books, reproduced on the 50th anniversary of the publication.  The Review was launched in 1963 as salve to a citywide newspaper strike. The most prominent authors of the day contributed. They did so on short notice and for no pay.

What a time that was!

Ideas and making a statement were more important than making money.

As a collective voice from the past now being read in the present, the Review of Books gives more than a few hints of intellectual unrest. The best minds of the day seemed to be laying the groundwork for a coming cultural break with convention and the status quo.

It’s right there, interwoven amidst the literature.

Those doing the writing were the avant-garde, and people listened to them. Looking over their names, it is difficult to recall writers today with reputations as large. Among the contributors were Norman Mailer, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Paul Goodman, Robert Lowell and Jules Feiffer.

If any group reflected the spirit of the times – or perhaps the coming spirit — this one did.

As did the books they reviewed.

Included was “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs, the grandfather junkie to the Beat writers. “Naked Lunch” is perhaps one of the most unclassifiable novels in the English language. The story – often bizarre and fantastic — takes place inside the head of a man taking a drug cure from a quack. At one point in his career Burroughs would write his prose on paper, cut it up then randomly reassemble the pieces

“Naked Lunch” was reviewed by Mary McCarthy, whose books include “The Group” and “Birds of America.”

At the close of the review, she deals with the “pained question that keeps coming up like a refrain” – Why is this book being taken seriously?

Her answer is that for the first time in recent years, a really talented writer meant what he said.

This was the coming era.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Some of the celebrity reviewers, those with the larger personalities, were overly tough on their colleagues. Normal Mailer, always pugnacious, said “That Summer in Paris” by Morley Callaghan was “dim” and mostly without merit. One passage, however, saved the book, Mailer said, because it exposed the true character of novelist Ernest Hemingway, who two years earlier committed suicide.

The tale has Callaghan, who boxed in college, getting into the ring with the much larger Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper. In a round that went long, Callaghan flattened Hemingway. Fitzgerald blamed his poor time keeping.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “I let the round go four minutes.”

Hemingway, perhaps from the canvas, answered, “All right, Scott. If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”

To me, this shows meanness and poor sportsmanship.

Was Hemingway a coward?

Was Hemingway a coward?

To Mailer, who also boxed, it led him to concluded, “There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.”

In essence, Mailer was calling Papa a closet coward, and he cited his suicide as evidence of this cowardice.

Then there was Gore Vidal. He described John Hersey’s book, “Here to Stay,” as  “dull, dull, dull.” Hersey was trying to invent something called “New Journalism,” which later would boost the careers of people like Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson, but Vidal criticized him for cramming too many facts into his sentences.

John Updike is one of America’s best writers but Sir Jonathan Miller, a Cambridge graduate who did books, plays, movies and TV, said Updike’s “The Centaur” was “a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

These reviews pretty much stuck to literature, but an unusual number referenced the Cold War and voiced the fear of imminent doom. It was hard to miss the Soviets. One reviewer discussed four books on the economy of our then-mortal enemy. Another reviewed Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Robert Jay Lifton, in a review of a compilation called “Children of the A-Bomb,” said, “The thing we dread really happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the world resists full comprehension of this event, symbolizing massive death and annihilation.”

He and others suggested that faith in the future was fading, and that without change mankind’s time was limited.

Reviewer Lewis Coser said education and information no longer were the answer.

He called the well-informed person “a cheerful robot.”

“The increase of information may indeed have led, contrary to the belief of the Enlightenment, to a decrease in rationality,” he said.

A remarkably forward-looking book carried the harmless title, “The Exploration of Outer Space.” It written by A.C.B. Lovell and reviewed by James R. Newman. Both lauded the development of radio astronomy as a way to finally understand the composition of the universe.  They believed recent findings made it almost certain that other solar systems contained life and that future contact was possible.

Nuclear war: On everyone's mind in 1963

Nuclear war: On everyone’s mind in 1963

But there was darkness overlaying this optimism. The review expressed a grave fear that humans, if they don’t destroy themselves first, one day would destroy life on other plants, either deliberately or through contamination.

The review ends this way:

“”I myself do not find the prevailing space-race chauvinism and the threat to other planets as horrifying as the threat of global extermination. Nor do I derive consolation from the thought that if our managers turn the earth info a lifeless stone other forms of life will continue elsewhere in the universe. But I am impressed with Lovell’s deep sense of responsibility about life everywhere, and I wish there were many more scientists like him.”

And that’s the way it was in 1963.

Coming would be Dylan, hippies, communes, the counter-culture; Burn Baby Burn, Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30; a refusal to be bought and sold; hope I die before I get old.

 By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

Muhammad as Solomon: A better story

25 May

solomon1

Time gives and takes. It adds and subtracts. It creates things that didn’t exist and extinguishes things that did. So as a general rule I distrust history.

Take for example the story of King Solomon and the baby. Why would a respected wise man mediate a custody case by offering to executive the child? Who would recognize this as rational? And why would any woman – mother or not –agree to it?

The story doesn’t ring true. I sense something was lost in translation and time.

A better story of wisdom comes from the Muslim world. It could be an additive story, but it nevertheless makes more sense.

This is it:

The shrine at the Kaaba in Mecca existed in pre-Islamic days and even then was considered sacred. It is said to have been built by Abraham. Inside then and now is a rock that fell from heaven. Possibly a meteorite, it is considered a divine gift. A flash flood not uncommon in the Arabian desert destroyed the Kaaba in the seventh century. Leaders of Mecca’s tribes and clans work together and rebuilt it.

All went well until it came time to place the stone back in the temple. Each leader argued for the honor. When the discussion broke down and violence was threatened, someone said, “Let us then agree that the next person to come over that hill will be given the task of deciding.”

Along came young Muhammad, future prophet. Being an orphan who had been raised in poverty by Bedouins, he was of low standing among the tribes. But he was also considered neutral.

Muhammad was told the problem.

He thought about it, then secured a tarp of some sort or a large blanket. He put the stone in the middle and told each clan leader to grasp hold of an edge. Together, they carried the stone into the shrine.

True or not, this is a great story of wisdom and mediation. Perhaps more important from the standpoint of story telling, the stone foreshadows the Quran, which Muhammad used to bring divisive, violent, warring Arab tribes together.

Quran or no Quran, Bible or no Bible, prophet or no prophet, the absence of conflict doesn’t last long. Today, the Judeo-Christian world tends to think it is at war with the Muslim world. It doesn’t realize the larger war is actually within the Muslim world. As Abraham, Moses and Jesus failed to bring peace, so has Muhammad.

Human nature embraces the words of prophets then simultaneously rejects them. It has always been.

Author Leslie Hazelton

Author Leslie Hazelton

My interest in learning more about Muhammad and Islam was recently heightened by a well-written work entitled, “The First Muslim: the story of Muhammad.” Author Lesley Hazelton, a journalist and former psychologist, takes a unique and interesting approach to her narrative. Scholars might object, but the most fascinating thing about her book is the way she fills in the historic blanks with rational speculation based on a keen understanding of the human mind.

Another appealing feature is the way she has put together all the fascinating stories from Islamic history and culture, ones widely known in the Muslim world but mostly unknown to western Christians and Jews.

For the first time I learned that many Islamic rites pre-date Muhammad, including regular pilgrimages to Mecca.  I also learned that Arabs considered all scripture sacred and were respectful of all prophets. Furthermore, in a day when little was written down, Jews were honored as “the people of the book.”  Christians also had great influence, as the Byzantine Empire moved into the area.

Faith and beliefs all seemed to have melded together. That’s enviable.

Practices in Arabia had come close to the monotheism of Abraham. The idea of one powerful, all-knowing god was accepted. But in Arabia this god had secondary, sister deities that also were worshipped. Muhammad, in perhaps his most controversial move, wanted the sisters dethroned.

His truth, as revealed to him by the angel Gabriel, proclaimed that God was neither begotten nor a begetter; that there were no sister gods. In a way, this is purer than Christianity, with its trinity.

For me, the most remarkable aspect of Islam is the Quran, or Koran (Spelled accurately only in Arabic script). Let’s remember that Muhammad could neither read nor write. His revelations came at a time when memory, not books, held the history and literature of one’s culture. In fact, the literal meaning of the word “Quran” is “the recitations.”

Indeed, it was not written down in the prophet’s lifetime.

To allow memory to commit large amounts of information, it usually had to be in verse; poetic and alliterative, like a beautiful song. This is the Quran, passed onto the world by a former camel boy.

In the process of revelation, where does the human take over from the divine? How much wisdom, intellect and creativity is required of the human? How much did Muhammad have? Was it Gabriel’s truth but Muhammad’s poetry? Or did the angel do it all?

If Muhammad had a role, then he was more than a natural poet; he was a self-taught scholar with deep, strong knowledge of the Bible. It is said the Quran was meant to be a continuation or extension of the Bible; that a good portion is biblical tales or re-workings of the tales. Gabriel, of course, would know them. But how did Muhammad?

Like the carpenter’s son, he somehow overcame circumstances and acquired a wide and useful education. Maybe it was easier than we think. Without a system of schools and universities, maybe elders were required to pass along great stores of knowledge to the young. Throughout much of his life, Muhammad was an agent and mediator on long caravans up and down the Arabian peninsula. That’s a lot of time for doing nothing more than talking and absorbing. Learning.

Another interesting things about Muhammad and the Quranic revelations is they did not come all at once but over a period of more than two decades. When he needed something new, he fasted and mediated and went back up the mountain.

Sometimes he had to wait years. Other times inspiration came quickly.

It is said by some and disputed by others than on one occasion the verses he brought back were wrong and had to be recanted. It is alleged that he had been spoken to not by Gabriel but by the devil. These are the so-called Satanic Verses, which for a brief time are said to have re-legitimized the three sister gods.

After I finish with “The First Muslim,” I’m going to read a translation of the Quran. I’m certain to be surprised, and that what I read will be a departure from what I think I know or have heard.

Although purists believe Muhammad’s messages should not be read or spoken in any language other than Arabic, that seems to be changing. I received my English copy from two guys handing them out at the mall, a gift from whyislam.org.

My book was published in Istanbul and translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

The name Abdullah, according to Hazelton’s book, means “servant of God.”

If we can get by the hate, the misunderstanding and the ignorance, there is much worthy to be learned about this culture.

Please listen to Ms. Hazelton speak on the Quran.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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