Shalom Goldman – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 14 Apr 2021 05:36:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Mrs. Hemingway, Israel, and the Palestinians Thu, 08 Apr 2021 04:04:30 +0000 Middlebury, Vt. (Special to Informed Comment) – In the current PBS series on Ernest Hemingway’s life and work, Martha Gellhorn, the journalist and novelist who was the third of Hemingway’ four wives, is sympathetically and vividly featured. But one important, perhaps defining, aspect of her life is glossed over. Similarly, in the 2012 HBO movie “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, viewers learn much about the love lives of these two acclaimed and politically engaged writers, but they will learn nothing about Gellhorn’s Jewish roots, or of her enthusiastic support for Israel, and her critique of the Arab states and the Palestinians.

Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), novelist, essayist, and war-correspondent, survived Hemingway by some thirty-seven years. In the period in which their tempestuous relationship developed (from 1936 to 1940), and the years in which they were married (from 1940 to 1944), Gellhorn never mentioned her Jewish identity to her husband or his many friends and acquaintances. In the light of Ernest Hemingway’s casual and often-expressed anti-Semitism remarks, she would have been reluctant to reveal her Jewish roots. And as a working journalist with a large readership in the popular press, including Collier’s Magazine, there would be little benefit in referring to her Jewish ancestry.

Martha’s parents, George Gellhorn and Edna Fischel, brought her up in St. Louis, where George Gellhorn was a prominent obstetrician-gynecologist with a successful medical practice and a professorship at Washington University School of Medicine. Born in Breslau, in what was then East Prussia, George Gellhorn studied medicine in Germany, and then had specialty training in Berlin and Vienna. Edna Gellhorn was a prominent activist for women’s suffrage.

Caroline Moorehead, the most thorough and sympathetic of Martha Gellhorn’s biographers, noted that Dr. Gellhorn hated and feared Prussian militarism, and decided to emigrate to the United Sates. In 1898 he signed on as a ship’s doctor and left Germany. A year later, in 1899, he decided to settle in St. Louis and establish a medical practice in that booming city. George married Edna Fischel, daughter of St. Louis Jewish physician, Washington . E. Fischel, and his Protestant wife. Dr. Fischel had emigrated to St. Louis from Prague. Known as Emil Fischel in Prague, he added the first name Washington when he settled in the U.S. Thus Martha, born in 1908, had two Jewish doctors in the family – her father and her maternal grandfather.

The Gellhorns did not affiliate with any of the liberal synagogues in St. Louis. Rather, they were among the founders of the local Ethical Culture Society. Among the couple’s ‘good works’ was a commitment to provide medical care to African-American patients. For decades Dr. Gellhorn conducted pre-natal clinics for the poor of St. Louis. Mrs. Gellhorn was one of the founders of the suffragist movement in the city.

In contrast with the PBS Hemingway series, and with HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, , Love and Ruin , Paula McLain’s 2018 best-selling novel about Martha Gellhorn, features Gellhorn’s Jewish background. Reporting from Berlin in the late 1930s, McLain’s Gellhorn witnesses attacks on Jewish businesses. In Paula McLain’s evocation of Gellhorn’s voice, “Walking back to my pension, I startled several times as I caught my reflection in a ship window. I looked Aryan enough, with my blond waves and light blue eyes and strong straight nose. I’d inherited my features from my parents, after all, who easily passed as Protestant in anti-Semitic St. Louis. But there was Jewish blood in my family on both sides.”

Growing up in a progressive household where women’s rights and minority rights were the subject of both discussion and action, Martha’s progressive political tendencies were affirmed in her college years at her mother’s alma mater, Bryn Mawr. Martha left that school in her junior year and in 1930 went to Paris to write for Vogue, Time Magazine, and later, for United Press International. Later Martha wrote for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, then a newspaper with national influence.

During the next few years Gellhorn wrote many articles, short stories and essays. She had published a novel, What Mad Pursuit, in 1933, and two years later a journalistic account of the unemployed, The Trouble I’ve Seen. In that same year her father died, and in December 1935, she returned from Paris to St. Louis.

While Martha’s father was alive, Christmas at the Gellhorn’s had been an important family event. After his death, her mother suggested that Martha join her for Christmas in warmer climates and vacation in Florida. And it was in Key West that Martha, sitting with her mother in Sloppy Joe’s Bar, met Earnest Hemingway. He was thirty-seven years old and one of the nation’s acclaimed novelists. She was a decade younger and an aspiring journalist and fiction writer. He saw a beautiful young woman and her attractive, refined mother. Gellhorn, acerbic and affectionate, remembered their first meeting differently: “There he was,” she wrote – “a large, dirty man in untidy somewhat soiled white shorts and shirt.”

Gellhorn and Hemingway were to spend eight years together – more or less. For much of that time they were war correspondents. According to A. Scott Berg, biographer of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, it was Gellhorn who inspired Hemingway to support the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.

Gellhorn and Hemingway became passionate supporters of the Spanish Republic of the early 1930s. When Franco’s rebellion against the Republic ignited the Spanish Civil War, they went to Spain. “We knew, we just knew” Gellhorn wrote, “that Spain was the place to stop fascism. This was it. It was one of those moments in history when there was no doubt.”

Gellhorn reported on the war for The New Yorker. Her articles from Spain are masterpieces of intimate detail. She said that she “was always afraid that I would forget the exact sound, smell, words, gestures which were special to this time and place.” Her reporting from Spain was replete with just such elements. The struggle against fascism in Spain, she explained, was “the affair of us all who do not want a world whose Bible is Mein Kampf.”

Hemingway had been married twice before. When these relationships ended, Hemingway was the one to leave. His macho public persona, and his private insecurities, would allow for no other outcome. But in Martha Gellhorn, he met his match. She would not be intimidated by his fame or talent and in the end, in 1944, Gellhorn was the one to leave him. Tired of his jealousy, insecurity, and his attempts to block her literary career, she asked for a divorce. To a friend she wrote that she no longer wanted to be Mrs Hemingway. “I want my own name back, most violently, as if getting it back would be a return to myself.”

Hemingway agreed to a divorce, but never forgave Gellhorn, and until his suicide in 1961 he was increasingly bitter and nasty when her name was mentioned. In the years between their divorce in 1946 and his suicide in 1961, Hemingway lost no opportunity to bad-mouth Gellhorn, both in remarks to friends and in thinly-disguised fictional portraits.

In 1947, when Hemingway learned that Gellhorn was writing a World War II novel, he mounted a campaign against her. Referring to Gellhorn’s German Jewish father, he told a friend that he “hated her ersatz kraut guts”. In another screed Hemingway wrote that “she had that Prussian blood mixed with the Juden.” And, in a letter to his friend Buck Lanham, Hemingway suggested that Martha Gellhorn had hidden her Jewish background from him, but despite her efforts, he had uncovered it. “I would still have married her,” Hemingway wrote, “since the Virgin Mary was also Jewish, but I would have appreciated getting at least an approximation of the truth.” These remarks and many others like them, seems to undermine Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker’s claim (c. 1981) that the novelist’s anti-Semitism “was no more than skin deep; it was mainly a verbal habit rather than a persistent theme, like that of Ezra Pound.”

Most of all, it was Gellhorn’s reputation as a writer that Hemingway sought to impugn and undermine. In Across the River and Into the Trees, published in 1950, Hemingway depicted a female journalist clearly based on Martha Gellhorn. “She had,” Hemingway wrote, “more ambition than Napoleon and about the talent of an average High School Valedictorian.” Gellhorn could match Hemingway’s venom, as in this remark to her mother Edna, “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

After meeting in London to discuss the details of their divorce, Gellhorn and Hemingway never met again. She had left him, and that he could neither forgive or forget. In a letter to her mother Gellhorn wrote: “I simply never want to hear his name again; the past is dead and has become ugly; I shall try to forget it all entirely, and blot it out as with amnesia.” As the Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson remarked, “Hemingway was not the first or last man to love her for her independence . . . but to resent her when she behaved independently.”

In April 1945 American and British troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. Journalists, along with the soldiers entered the camps. There were tens of thousands of starving prisoners in the camp. Gellhorn was among the first group of journalists in Dachau, and one of the very few women among them. While the HBO film has Gellhorn running out of the camp and collapsing in tears, in reality she was shaken but composed, and channeled her shock and grief into writing about the horrors she had seen.

Her powerful reportage on Dachau reached millions of American readers. It was published in Colliers Magazine in May of 1945, just a few weeks after it was written: “I was in Dachau” she wrote, “when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies . . . It seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it forever.”

In her 1948 war novel, The Wine of Astonishment, the protagonist, American GI Jacob Levy, is stunned by what he sees at Dachau. Injured soon afterwards and recuperating in an army hospital, Levy falls into a reverie: “How could you guarantee there wouldn’t be a Dachau again? The idea came by itself, unexpected and menacing, and he lay still between sweaty sheets, feeling a new fear. . . I’m a Jew, he thought and remembered the faces in the prison, I’ll always be a Jew . . . He could not move, imagining the world had grown ugly and strange after Dachau. . . . It was dangerous with a danger you could not see.”

A year and a half after she reported from Dachau, Martha Gellhorn attended the Nuremberg Trails, which she wrote about for Collier’s Magazine.

Witnessing Dachau and Nuremburg were a pivotal events in Gellhorn’s long life (she lived until the age of ninety). Her faith in human progress was shaken. Decades after the war she wrote that “It was as if I walked into Dachau and there fell over a cliff and suffered a lifelong concussion, without recognizing it.”

Despite Hemingway’s efforts, Gellhorn’s war novel, The Wine of Astonishment, was published in 1948, and widely-acclaimed. The novel was a Book of the Month Club selection and it won praise from many reviewers. The Atlantic reviewer dubbed it “one of the most authentic novels of the war.” (And this was long before Gellhorn wrote for the Atlantic). The last section of the novel is set in Dachau. In a sense The Wine of Astonishment is Gellhorn’s ‘Jewish novel.’ Unhappy with the title that her publisher chose for the book she called it her “Jacob Levy novel.” In the 1960s it was re-published as Point of No Return.

Dachau and Nuremburg led her to visit Israel. In the winter of 1949, on the first of her seven visits to Israel, Gellhorn wrote to her friend William Walton, the Time-Life correspondent. “It’s a hard uncomfortable country, with one million individuals in it; you’d never have known how many different kinds of Jews there are, until finally there is no such thing as a Jew. . . . But their stories, a gold mine of stories, the equal of which I’ve never before seen. And then they’re brave, or they wouldn’t be there and alive, and because they’re brave they are gay (I am now certain that gloominess and cowardice go together) and face the more than uncertain future with a steadiness which delights and dazzles me.”

In 1961 The Atlantic published Gellhorn’s essay The Arabs of Palestine. Along with her 1945 Collier’s essay on Dachau it was the most widely-read of her many articles. By the journalistic standards of the time the essay was very long, and very thorough in its attention to detail. It was precisely because Martha Gellhorn was not thought of, or known as, Jewish that she was able to conduct research by traveling in the Arab world and visiting Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan. In those camps she conducted interviews with many refugees and with the United Nations administrators tasked with their care. Throughout the article Gellhorn compared Egyptian President’s anti-Israel rhetoric to Nazi propaganda. “The echo of Hitler’s voice is heard again in the land, now speaking Arabic,” she wrote. Gellhorn praised the UNRWA administrators for allowing her to interview whomever she wished. The article opens with her summary of the Arab position c. 1960 about Israel: “According to Arab politicians and apologists, this is what happened, this is the authentic view, these are the facts. Doubt is treasonous. There can be only one truth, according to Arab politicians and apologists, and it belongs to them:

In 1948, war took place between five Arab nations of the Middle East and the Jews in Palestine. This war was caused by the United Nations, whose General Assembly resolved to partition Palestine into two states, one for the Palestinian Arabs, the other for the Jews. The Arab nations and the Palestinian Arabs would not accept this monstrous decision. They were obliged to protect themselves against it, with force. The United Nations operated as the tool of the Western Imperialists, notably Great Britain and the United States. The United Nations wanted the Jews to proclaim the upstart state of Israel. Because of the Western Imperialists, who favored Israel, the Arabs lost the war. By massacre, threatening broadcasts, pointed bayonets, and the murderous siege of cities, the Jews drove hundreds of thousands of Arabs out of their homeland. For thirteen years, these Arab refugees have languished in misery around the borders of Israel. The United Nations (Western branch) bears the blame for these events and must repair the damage. The condition of the refugees is a sore on the conscience of honorable men. The Israeli government refuses to welcome back to their homeland the refugees, now swollen to more than a million in number. This refusal demonstrates the brutality and dishonesty of Israel, an abnormal nation of aliens who not only forced innocent people into exile but also stole their property. There is no solution to this injustice, the greatest the world has ever seen, except to repatriate all Palestinian refugees in Palestine. Palestine is an Arab country, now infamously called Israel. Israel has no right to exist, and the Arab nations will not sign peace treaties with it but will, by every means possible, maintain the state of war.

Gellhorn’s pro-Israel stance and the article’s persuasive tone galvanized American Jewish organizations to distribute the article widely. The American Zionist Council arranged for copies to be distributed to “10,000 opinion makers in all categories.” Council officials noted that “interested friends are making arrangements with the Atlantic for another reprint of the article to be sent to all 53,000 persons whose names appear in Who’s Who in America.”

Among the arguments that Gellhorn presents in “the Arabs of Palestine” is that “to be a refugee is not necessarily a life sentence.” Just as millions of World War II refugees “have made a place for themselves, found work and another chance for the future,” so can the Palestinian refugees.

Gellhorn’s article was published during the Eichmann trial. Gellhorn attended the trial and wrote at length about it for The Atlantic. “The trial was essential to every human being now alive and to all who follow us. . . . No one who tries to understand our times, now or in the future, can overlook this documentation of a way of life and death which will stain our century forever.”

Martha Gellhorn read her journalistic colleague Hannah Arendt’s report on the trail for The New Yorker. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “I’ve just read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and have the greatest respect for that ice-cold absolutely rational mind.”

Perhaps Martha Gellhorn was admitting here that about the victims of the War she could never be absolutely rational and “ice-cold.” She would be more emotional and sympathetic. Her observation that “the echo of Hitler’s voice is heard again in the land now speaking Arabic” resonated with Israelis.

And that equation between Hitler and Nasser, translated into Hebrew, appeared as the headline of a Hebrew version of The Atlantic article. It was published in Herut, the newspaper of the Revisionist party led by Menahem Begin. Above the headline it says: “by the famous American author, Martha Gellhorn.”

After World War Two Gellhorn never returned to live in the United States. She spent a few years in Kenya and then in Mexico. After her initial 1949 visit to Israel, Gellhorn visited there every few years. In 1953 she travelled to Tel Aviv to renew her friendship with Leonard Bernstein and hear him conduct the Israel Philharmonic in a performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Gellhorn shared Bernstein’s boundless enthusiasm for Israel and the Israelis. In a letter to a friend she described that visit to Israel. “We were all merry and elated. Something good had come out of the endless horror of the second world war, a new country full of young, brave, gay people and of hope. The courage was breathtaking.”

Through Leonard Bernstein and their mutual friend photographer Robert Capa, Gellhorn met many influential Israelis, among them government officials and academicians. She cultivated these friendships, and by the mid-1960s had a wide circle of Israeli friends, including government spokesman Moshe Pearlmann, and General Moshe Dayan. Between 1961 and 1967 many of her articles, including sections of her Atlantic article The Arabs of Palestine, were published in Israeli newspapers. Many in the Israeli reading public recognized her name, though I doubt any of them knew of her Jewish family roots.

When she arrived in Israel during the last days of the Six Day War, Gellhorn was treated as a VIP and given a military escort to visit the sites of battle. For the Guardian, The Nation, and Commonweal , Gellhorn wrote about what she saw during her month-long stay. She took the opportunity to visit some of the Palestinian refugee camps she had first seen in 1961. Unable to relate to the suffering and displacement that the war caused on the Arab side, Gellhorn remained unsympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian refugees. Her opinions, shaped by World War II and her earlier visits to the Arab states, remained unchanged.

In the early 1970s Gellhorn returned to Israel, intending to write a book about Israeli youth. But after a few weeks of extensive travel she found herself somewhat disillusioned, and even worse, bored. She was about to turn sixty and found it difficult to relate to young people who she found arrogant and boorish. Daily encounters with young Israelis had chipped away at her romantic image of the heroic Sabra. “Their manners,” she remarked, “were a combination of the worst of the French and the Germans.”

But these observations were for her diary and for letters to close friends. In her published articles Gellhorn did not allude to her disillusionment with Israelis and she was always fulsome in her praise of a people she felt a deep affinity with. As biographer Caroline Moorehead noted, “Martha, whose sympathy for exile and alienation was real, who minded profoundly about the human condition, remained obdurate about the Palestinians for the rest of her life, repeating that if ever the state of Israel were menaced, she would insist on dying with it.”


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Alexander Street/ Proquest: “Martha Gellhorn: On the Record”

The Golem always turns on its Creator: The Fable that Explains everything about Trump Tue, 15 Dec 2020 05:04:15 +0000 Middlebury, Vt. (Special to Informed Comment) – Four years ago, before the 2016 election, I wrote in these pages about my search for the appropriate literary or folkloric character with we could understand Donald Trump and his supporters.

As a scholar of religion and mythology I felt in dire need of archetype with whom i could identify Trump and Trumpism. I searched in vain among the multitude of characters in Scripture, folklore and myth —but nothing quite fit.

The answer to my quest did not come from my fellow academicians, but from journalists. Trump, they noted, is a Golem.

One of the first journalists to pick up on this comparison was Veteran NY Times writer George Vecsey . He came through with this compelling image when he wrote in the late summer of 2015: “Make no mistake about it, the Republicans have made this an easier world for Donald Trump to spread his foolishness. For over six years they have run a campaign of ignorance and malice and, yes, prejudice about the twice-elected President. McConnell and Boehner and Graham have questioned Obama’s motives, his actions, and, with their silence, even his birthplace in Hawaii. I think it is because they cannot handle having a moral and educated man of African and American descent, as the smartest man in their room. Their behavior has created a monster. Donald Trump is their Golem.”

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of “golem” is:

  • an artificial human being in Hebrew folklore endowed with life
  • something or someone resembling a golem: as a: automaton b: blockhead

in Jewish folklore the story is associated with the 16th Century Prague , and with its wonder- working Rabbi Judah Loewe. The Golem was an artificial being created to protect the Jewish community from harm. Rabbi Judah formed the Golem from a large lump of clay that lay inert in the rabbi’s attic study. When the rabbi wrote the secret name of God on the Golem’s forehead, the creature sprang to life. But as the Golem grew more powerful, his creator, the wonder-working rabbi of the city, could no longer control him. The Golem ran amok, harming the very people he was created to protect, along with anyone else who got in his way. To stop the Golem from running amok the rabbi had to catch and subdue the creature and erase the magic name from its forehead. The Golem then returned to the inert lump of clay he started from. But, the tale reminds us in its conclusion, every generation has its Golem. There once was a Golem in Prague—and there will be Golems in the future.

Over the centuries ,the lesson garnered from this tale has been that “the Golem always turns on its creators.” This adage has been used to warn about many phenomena, including the creation of weapons of mass destruction.

Today, as we witness the last act of this Golemic presidency, we can see how over the past four years this Golem has turned on his creators.

The list would have to include the producers of “the Apprentice,” CNN, the Republican Party ,social media, conservative Evangelical voters, and the Electoral College—whose job it now is to erase the ‘divine name’ of presidential authority from the Golem’s forehead.

Hopefully, Trump was the Golem of our times, and we won’t have to endure another one in our generation.

Featured image: “Statue of Golem” courtesy Pixabay

Lady Zeinab: A British Aristocrat embraces Islam in the Shadow of European War Sun, 22 Nov 2020 05:03:24 +0000 Middlebury, Vt. (Special to Informed Comment) – In 1934, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a Scottish aristocrat and traveler, wrote that with the tightening of Nazi rule over Germany, many in England sensed that a European War was looming. Among the British elites ‘rumors of war’ were discouraged; the trauma and losses of the 1914-18 World War, and the need to avoid another war, were uppermost in people’s minds. European disarmament was the clarion call of the day.

Lady Cobbold’s response to the crisis in European politics was quite unusual. She made the case for a militarily prepared Britain in this way. “While all the world is discussing the vexed question of war and disarmament, it is perhaps well to give here the attitude of Islam on the subject: While Islam bans all aggressive wars, it permits such as are undertaken in defense of the life, property, and religious liberty of all denominations.” Lady Cobbold then turned to the second Sura of the Qur’an to make her case: “Fight in the name of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities; verily God loveth not aggression.”

Invoking Islamic ideas to address a European political crisis was more than unusual at the time. Among British elites it was unheard of.

But Evelyn Cobbold was not citing the Qur’an as an outsider to Islam, but rather as a Muslim convert. In 1933, at age sixty-five, she performed the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and a year later she published Pilgrimage to Mecca, an account of her experiences in Saudi Arabia. The British newspapers hailed her as “the first English woman on the Mecca Pilgrimage.” As she was widely known as a traveler and game hunter, the British press depicted her pilgrimage as something of a celebrity event, as in the Daily Express headline, “Woman’s Trousered Trip to Mecca.”

Evelyn Murray was born to aristocratic Scottish family in 1867. Her parents were the Earl and Countess of Dunmore. Their family seat was on the Isle of Harris. As a young child Evelyn, the eldest of six children, spent long periods of time traveling with her father, a noted explorer, hunter, and geographer. Summers were spent in Cairo, where the Murray family kept a residence.

Converts to Islam undergo a formal process of accepting the faith; but in Evelyn Cobbold’s case no such ritual was recorded, or ever mentioned by her. Later in life she said that she had always been a Muslim, had felt that way since her childhood, so there was no reason for her to undergo a formal conversion. In her twenties Evelyn took a Muslim name, Zainab, and when in the Middle East liked to be known as Lady Zainab. But, unlike many converts to Islam, she did not give up her Christian name or her ‘Western’ ways. She remained an avid and expert hunter and angler, often winning competitions in those fields.

Lady Zainab’s story and her 1934 book might have been forgotten but for the efforts of London writer and publisher William Facey and his co-author Miranda Taylor, an editor at the Royal Geographical Society. In 2008 they re-published Cobbold’s Pilgrimage to Mecca along with a richly-detailed biographical introduction.

Lady Zainab’s pilgrimage account pays considerable attention to Muslim women in general, and to the participation of women in the Haj in particular. Seeking to counter Western stereotypes of the era, she makes the case that “it is a mistake to think that the seclusion of women is an Islamic institution . . . Muhammad enforced as one the essential teachings of his creed respect for women.”

As to the institution of purdah, the seclusion of women in Muslim India and elsewhere, Lady Cobbold asserted that “the purdah system in India is no part of the Islamic Law. It is of Zoroastrian, Persian and Byzantine origin . . . also the lack of education among the greater part of the women is in direct contravention of the Prophet’s plain command.”

After her pilgrimage to Mecca Evelyn Cobbold – Lady Zainab spent most of her long life in London and at her family estate in Scotland. She remained in contact with other British Muslims, including her fellow-convert to Islam, Muhammed Marmeduke Pickthall.

On her death at age ninety-six in 1963, she was buried, according to her explicit instructions, on her estate in Scotland. A Muslim ceremony was conducted by a British imam. And on her tombstone a calligrapher inscribed the Light Verse of the Qur’an.

Blues in the time of Pandemic, 1919 — “In a few days influenza would be controlled” Thu, 19 Mar 2020 04:01:49 +0000 Middlebury, Vt. (Special to Informed Comment) – The great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 , which raged in the aftermath of the 1914-18 World War, killed and incapacitated over 50 million people worldwide. In the U.S. over 600, 000 people died in the pandemic.

Survivors of that pandemic have left us a rich cultural legacy , one that was inscribed in memoirs, novels, poems and stories.

As COVID-19 spreads, people are reading these works and asking themselves what the relevance of the past is for our immediate future. Some of the lessons gained from reading these century-old accounts are pragmatic. A comparison of the 1919 death rates in Philadelphia and those in St Louis reveal that the inhabitants of St Louis, which enforced an earlier form of ‘social distancing,’ had higher survival rates than the people of Philadelphia, whose city fathers were slower to alert the public dangers of person -to -person transmission. In September of 1918 , despite a growing number of infections in the city, Philadelphia City Hall held a Liberty Bond parade to which 200, 000 people flocked. Within a few weeks there were hundreds of cases in the city , which was the hardest -hit of America’s metropolises.

For me , and I imagine for many others, the benefits of of studying the pandemics of the past are more in the aesthetic and emotional realms. We can relate to the stories of suffering, acceptance and heroism conveyed in the accounts of the sick, the dying, and the survivors, and consider more thoughtfully the powerful challenges that lie ahead.

The musical legacy of the Great Flu is similarly instructive. And with the exception of a few classical pieces written in memory of flu victims, that musical legacy is a popular one that springs from the Blues. “The 1919 Influenza Blues,” which circulated among blues singers in the early 1930s, was in essence a protest song against officialdom, the wealthy, and the medical establishment of the day. The song opens with this verse.

It was nineteen hundred and nineteen;

Men and women were dying,
With the stuff that the doctor called the flu.
People were dying everywhere,
Death was creepin’ all through the air,
And the groans of the rich sure was sad.

Its that last line that tells us that this blues is more than a lament. Its a complaint —and a song of the poor, reminding us, with a bit of an edge, that now, in the pandemic, the rich too are suffering .

In the next verse, the songwriter, who remains anonymous, moves from complaint to judgement:The tone is biblical, the land and its people are being judged. The doctors in the singer’s town , Memphis , said that “In a few days influenza would be controlled.” The consequence of that reassurance was more suffering ( h/t ).

Well it was God’s almighty plan,
He was judging this old land,
North and south, east and west,
It can be seen,
It killed the rich, killed the poor,
It’s gonna kill just a little more,
If you don’t turn away from the shame.

Down in Memphis, Tennessee,
The doctor said it soon would be,
In a few days influenza would be controlled.
Doctor sure man he got had,
Sent the doctors all home to bed,
And the nurses all broke out with the same.
(H/t ).

Now that the doctors, and the public, have ‘been had’ –and the disease has struck deep and wide—only death will take away the dread and the pain.

Influenza is the kind of disease,
Makes you weak down to your knees,
Carries a fever everybody surely dreads,
Packs a pain in every bone,
In a few days, you are gone.
To that hole in the ground called your grave.

For many of us today, official reassurances that “in a few days influenza will be controlled “–assurances that we heard a few weeks ago from the president and his advisors–ring as hollow as they did for the composer of this song, and for the many victims he or she laments.

A cover of “The 1919 Influenza Blues” was recorded by the African-American singer Essie Ray Jenkins in 2004.

The 1919 Influenza Blues

Arif “The Greatest Ears in Town” Mardin: How a Turkish Muslim Nurtured the Music of Aretha Franklin, Dione Warwick, and Nora Jones Tue, 10 Mar 2020 04:02:51 +0000 Middlebury, VT (Special to Informed Comment) – In the mid-twentieth century many American jazz musicians converted to Islam . Some took Muslim names ( Ahmed Jamal and Yusef Lateef) ; others identified as Muslim but kept their Christian names (Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner). These musicians helped shape the sound of American music and no less significantly they influenced generations of musicians in the Islamic world, particularly in Morocco, Mali and Turkey.

But these musicians weren’t the only Muslim influencers in the history of American jazz. A number of producers and arrangers from Muslim countries played an important part in jazz history. Best know of these were Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records. Along with their American Jewish colleague Jerry Wexler the Ertegun brothers shaped the sound of jazz, soul , rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Between the 1950s and the 1990s these Atlantic executives signed and recorded Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin , Led Zeppelin and scores of other musical greats –and they enabled the Rolling Stones to distribute their own records through an Atlantic subsidiary.

The Ertegun brothers broke the barriers between musical genres, and in doing so they helped break racial barriers. In the late 1940s, as recent immigrants from Turkey living with their diplomat parents in Washington DC, Ahmet and Nesuhi organized the first jazz concerts in which both the band and the audience were fully integrated. As no commercial musical venue would allow them to put on an integrated concert , they held their first show at the local Jewish community center. After that concert was a success, other liberal institutions offered to host the concerts.

One of the keys to the Atlantic team’s success was that the Ertugen brothers and Jerry ‘Wexler were more than music company ‘executives’—-they were deeply knowledgable and enthusiastic about they music they recorded. They treated their musicians as artists—not solely as commercial properties. We can see this depicted in the popular film “Ray”—in which the character based on Ahmet Ertegun lets Ray Charles choose the musical style in which he prefers to record, rather than impose his own taste on the great musician.
Less well know than the top Atlantic executives, but equally important in creating and sustaining the “Atlantic sound’ in all of its great musical variety was another Muslim producer, Arif Mardin.

Like the Ertegün brothers Arif Mardin was born into the upper reaches of Istanbul society; his ancestors were public servants in a variety of professions. But whereas the Erteguns , who were a generation older , had to come to the US to meet American jazz greats, Arif Mardin, a musical prodigy and a jazz fan from childhood, was able to meet them in Turkey. In the mid-1950s the US State Department , in an era of cultural diplomacy that seems ages away from State’s current dis-functionality, sent jazz musicians on good-will tours.
In 1956 Arif Mardin heard “jazz ambassadors” Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones play at a concert in Ankara, Turkey. The twenty- four year old aspiring composer introduced himself to the musicians, who were eager to meet local jazz fans. Soon afterwards Mardin sent Quincy Jones a recording of one his compositions and on that basis Mardin was awarded a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He excelled in the Berklee program and was offered a teaching position there. But he chose to go to New York and work in recording industry.

Hired at Atlantic as assistant to Jazz producer Nesuhi Ertegun. Mardin, in his thirty year career at the company, distinguished himself as a record producer deeply knowledgable about all genres of music. He could annotate musical scores and write arrangements of his own for the artists he was working with. Mardin recorded and nurtured the talents of many great singers , including the Bee Gees, Dionne Warwick, Chaka Khan , and Phil Collins.

Because of its mandatory retirement policy Mardin retired from Atlantic Records in 2000. Still energetic and creative, he went to work for EMI, where he produced Norah Jones breakthrough 2002 recording “Come Away With Me”, an album that ‘went Diamond’ —selling 27 million copies. Mardin went on to produce other great albums and he was busy writing and producing until his death in 2006 at age 74.

For his talents Mardin was famous in the music industry as possessing “the greatest ears in town.” Bette Middler, who preferred to work with Mardin as her producer and arranger, wrote a song of that title in Arif’s honor. Its the first song on ” All My Friends Are Here,” a record of his own songs produced by Arif Mardin in the last few years of his life. The story of Mardin’s life and of the creation of that record is told in a wonderful documentary film produced by Joe Mardin, Arif’s son.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story (EPK)

James Baldwin’s Journey from Engagement with Israel to Pro-Palestinian Activism Wed, 15 Jan 2020 05:03:20 +0000 (Special to Informed Comment) – James Baldwin was one of the first African American writers to visit Israel. In the fall of 1961, he spent two weeks in Israel as a guest of the government. Baldwin was thirty-seven at the time, and already well-established as an essayist and novelist. He had published his first full-length essay, “Harlem Ghetto: Winter 1948,” in February 1948 in Commentary, the journal of the American Jewish Committee. Baldwin published his first short story, “Previous Condition,” in the same magazine eight months later.

Much of Baldwin’s “Harlem Ghetto” essay was concerned with black-Jewish relations. In religious terms, Baldwin noted, African Americans identified with the Hebrews of the Old Testament: “It is the Old Testament that is clung to and most frequently preached from, which provides the emotional fire and anatomizes the pain of bondage,” Baldwin wrote. But for African Americans, this very identification with the ancient Hebrews became, in Baldwin’s analysis, a source of bitterness. As Jewish businesses in Harlem were viewed as complicit in white exploitation of blacks, they were “therefore identified with oppression and hated for it.”

To escape the racial tensions of American life and focus his energies on writing his first novel, Baldwin had moved in 1948 from his native New York City to Paris, where he completed Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1952. Seeking a place outside of the United States to write his novel, he had considered several options in addition to Paris, including Israel, later writing that he had “seriously considered going to work on a kibbutz in Israel.”

Go Tell It on the Mountain was published to great acclaim in 1953; Notes of a Native Son, his first collection of essays, won a similar response two years later. In 1957 Baldwin returned to the United States and again took up residence in New York City. By the early 1960s, his essays on literature, politics, and the civil rights struggle were eagerly sought by the editors of such influential magazines as Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, the Nation, and the New Yorker.

In fact, it was the New Yorker editor William Shawn who approved of Baldwin’s suggestion that he report from Israel. In 1961 Baldwin accepted Shawn’s assignment to travel to Africa and the Middle East. A fluent French speaker who had begun to explore his African heritage while living in Paris, Baldwin planned to visit some of the emergent Francophile West African nations, including Senegal. On the way, he planned to make short trips to Israel and Turkey. “From the time of his early adolescence until his death, traveling was one of, if not the, driving force of James Baldwin’s life,” noted Baldwin biographer David Leeming. “He traveled to escape, he traveled to discover, he traveled because traveling was a way of knowing himself, of realizing his vocation.”

In October 1961, after several days in Israel, Baldwin confided to his diary, “The visit seems, so far, to have been a great success: Israel and I seem to like each other.” He had a keen appreciation of Israel’s biblical significance; as a teenager, Baldwin had preached weekly in Pentecostal churches in Harlem, following in the footsteps of his minister father. His passion for the pulpit faded, but in his life and writing the biblical influences remained. As the Baldwin scholar Clarence E. Handy III observed, Baldwin’s “religious inheritance did not simply provide a rhythm of speech or a style of rhetoric; it also helped him pursue the very essence of what he described as ‘the business of the writer’ in a culture like that of the United States, where religion’s influence predominates.”

For Baldwin, the journalistic assignment to explore the new Jewish homeland pushed him to reflect on his own struggle with cultural belonging and his strong sense of alienation. His initial reaction to Israel was more positive than one might expect: “All I’m expected to do is observe., “he wrote. “This is not going to be easy; and yet, since this trip is clearly my prologue to Africa, it has become very important to me, to assess what Israel makes me feel. The fact that Israel is a home for so many Jews (there are great faces here; in a way the whole world is here) causes me to feel my own homelessness more keenly than ever But just because my own homelessness is so inescapably brought home to me, it begins, in some odd way, not only to be bearable, but to be a positive opportunity. It must be, must be made to be. My bones know, somehow, something of what awaits me in Africa.”

Baldwin saw Israel and Turkey as cultural and geographic springboards for his projected encounter with Africa and Africans. That Baldwin would see Israel as an entrée to Africa might strike today’s reader as odd. But beginning in the late 1950s, Israel and the new African states were forging ties. The Israeli government made it a priority to strengthen economic, military, and cultural ties with African countries emerging from colonial rule. Israel provided technical, agricultural, and medical aid to Ghana and Liberia. Golda Meir, foreign minister at the time, was a strong proponent of these ties. Some of her colleagues in the government envisioned Israeli participation in the nonaligned bloc—those emerging states that affiliated neither with the Soviet Union nor with NATO. For the Israeli government and its diplomatic service, the African initiatives were of great significance. Bordered by states with which it was still at war—there was a 1949 armistice, but no treaties or diplomatic relations with the Arab states—Israel sought allies in two spheres: along the periphery, in non-Arab Muslim states such as Iran and Turkey, and among newly independent African nations.

Thus, for many African Americans of the 1950s and 1960s, Israel had a positive image, and it seemed like a natural gateway to Africa. In the early 1960s, Israel’s Foreign Ministry sent three hundred Israeli instructors abroad and invited some three thousand students from African nations to Israel for hands-on training. Baldwin was familiar with Israel’s outreach to African nations, and it is altogether possible that, during his visit to Israel, he crossed paths with Africans who were in Israel as part of these agricultural, technological, and military training programs.

Baldwin never wrote the article from Israel and Africa that the New Yorker had requested. Anticipating criticism of what he might write, Baldwin said, “I suppose the Israel piece will cause some people to say that I’m anti-Semitic.” Two years after his return to the United States, Harper’s published Baldwin’s “Letters from a Journey.” Addressed to Baldwin’s literary agent, these letters included some of his observations concerning his trips to Israel and Turkey.

After a six-month sojourn in Istanbul, Baldwin journeyed to Africa in 1962. He chronicled his experiences there in his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, sections of which appeared in the New Yorker. As Baldwin biographer David Leeming noted, “This was the book that propelled James Baldwin to fame and led to his picture on the cover of Time magazine. “

In the summer of 1965, Baldwin returned to Israel to attend a production of his play The Amen Corner, which had debuted a decade earlier at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Born out of Baldwin’s experience as a preacher in Harlem’s Pentecostal churches, The Amen Corner was performed at the Israel Festival of Music and Drama by an American cast. The American Israel Cul- tural Foundation and the U.S. State Department cosponsored the production, and the latter paid for Baldwin’s trip. At the Tel Aviv premiere, Baldwin took a curtain call and introduced Claudia McNeil, the African American actress who starred in the production.

Baldwin’s two visits to Israel, in 1961 and 1965, left a lasting impressions on him, and on his understanding and analysis of the Jewish situation in the world and in the United States. His view of Israel and its place in the world would change dramatically over the decades. In his earlier essays, there is no mention of the Palestinians. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with many African American intellectuals and activists, Baldwin would move to a more critical view of the Jewish state and a more supportive view of the Palestinians. He described himself as an anti-Zionist in a 1970 interview. “When I was in Israel, I thought I liked Israel. I liked the people. But to me it was obvious why the western world created the State of Israel, which is not really a Jewish state. The West needed a handle in the Middle East. And they created the state as a European pawn. . . . I’m not anti-Semitic at all, but I am anti-Zionist. I don’t believe they have the right, after 3,000 years, to reclaim the land with western bombs and guns on biblical injunction.”

As the civil rights struggle deepened, James Baldwin emerged as one of its most forceful and perceptive chroniclers and advocates. He did not shy away from addressing the issue of worsening Black-Jewish relations in the United States. In a provocative essay in the New York Times Magazine, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” Baldwin asserted that “the root of anti-Semitism among Negroes is, ironically, the relationship of colored peoples—all over the globe—to the Christian world. . . . The Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor to the world’s history: this is not true for the blacks.”

After the 1967 War, when the situation of the Palestinian refugees became a prominent international issue, relations between Israel and Africa became strained. At the United Nations, the Arab states pressured the emerging African nations to censure Israel. Israeli cooperation with apartheid South Africa during the early 1970s caused further tension between Israel and the African states, and by extension, between Jews and blacks in the United States. The Palestinian cause, along with other revolutionary causes, resonated with American radicals, black and white. James Baldwin, who had accepted Israel as a legitimate state in the early 1960s, opposed its policies. Because of its oppression of the Palestinians, Israel was on the path to becoming a pariah state, not just in the eyes of the developing world but also in the eyes of some of its former American supporters.

In a 1973 interview in the journal the Black Scholar, Baldwin claimed that “the guilty conscience of the Christian Western nations helped to create the State of Israel. . . . It is not acceptable to me that the people who have been in the refugee camps for the last twenty-five or thirty years have no equal right to the land of Palestine where Jews and Arabs have been for so long.” For Baldwin, the inconsistency of American policy would become fully apparent during the Carter administration. Acceding to Israeli demands, President Carter had banned meetings between U.S. officials and members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). When news leaked that Andrew Young, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, had met with a PLO delegation in 1979, Carter—who had appointed Young only a year earlier— demanded his resignation. Baldwin was outraged. Writing an “Open Letter to the Born Again” in the Nation, he excoriated Carter—“the world’s most celebrated born-again Christian”—for failing to support Andrew Young.

In that powerful letter Baldwin argued that “there is absolutely—repeat: absolutely—no hope of establishing peace in what Europe so arrogantly calls the Middle East . . . without dealing with the Palestinians.”

Shalom Goldman, Professor of Religion at Middlebury College is the author of “Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel,” from which this article is adapted.

How Turkish Muslims at Atlantic Records Marketed Motown, Jazz, Black Music to America Mon, 09 Dec 2019 05:02:57 +0000 (Special to Informed Comment) – To those outside of the music business the title, “The House that Ahmet Built” might sound like the name of a Turkish folktale for children. But for those in the know, the ‘house’ was Atlantic Records and ‘Ahmet’ was Ahmet Ertegun, the great record company’s co-founder. In 1947 along with New York native Herb Abramson, Ertegun founded a record label that dared to focus on jazz, Soul, and gospel. Ertegun and Abramson created a record company with a unique sound, a sound that reflected the rich and varied musical tastes of the two partners. In the fifties they released records by Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner. And in the sixties, they promoted the recordings of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Picket, and Aretha Franklin. In the seventies and eighties Atlantic signed Fleetwood Mac, Crosby-Young-Stills-and Nash, and arranged to distribute the records of the Rolling Stones.

Ertegun, unlike his partner Abramson, was not a native New Yorker. The city that shaped Ahmet was Istanbul, where he was born into an upper-class family in 1923. Though he assimilated thoroughly into American Culture (and especially into American musical culture, which he would have a hand in shaping) he did not jettison his Turkish Muslim heritage – a culture for which he had reverence, and about which he had a sense of humor. “The older I get,” he wrote in his seventies, “the more I realize how Turkish I am. I display the prime characteristics of Turkish vices, indolence and excess.”

As his New York Times obituary noted: “Mr. Ertegun’s music partnerships, he sometimes pointed out, were often culturally triangular. He was Turkish and a Muslim by birth. Many of his fellow executives, like the producer Jerry Wexler, were Jewish. The artists they produced, particularly when the label began, were Black. Together, they helped move rhythm and blues to the center of American popular music.”

Ertegun and Abramson’s mixture of eclectic musical tastes, business acumen, and sheer chutzpah, paid off in ways that no one could have anticipated. Atlantic, the label they founded, survived the economic shifts of the late 1980s and 90s, when the multibillion dollar recording industry underwent a series of mergers and acquisitions that left little room for a label with its own character. But with Ertegun at the helm, Atlantic survived, and flourished. The LA Times summed up Ertegun’s story in this tribute:

“Ahmet Ertegun, the Turkish ambassador’s son whose ear for the culture of Black America would make his Atlantic Records a legendary fount of 20th century popular music, died Thursday. He was 83.” (LA Times December 15, 2006)

In 1956 Ahmet brought his older brother Nesuhi into the business. While Ahmet’s tastes ran to Soul, and rock and roll, Nesuhi’s passion was jazz. In fact, before he moved to New York City to join Atlantic, Nesuhi ran a jazz record store in Los Angeles. And, at UCLA, he taught a course on the history of jazz, the first academic course of its kind. On Nesuhi’s initiative Atlantic signed jazz greats Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and the Modern Jazz Quartet (The MJQ) to the Atlantic label.

These innovative jazz musicians praised Nesuhi’s knowledge of jazz, and the creative freedom he granted them. John Lewis of the MJQ said that unlike other record producers Nesuhi let musicians play what they wanted, not what record executives thought they should play.

Ahmet and his older brother Nesuhi came to the U.S. in 1934 when their father, Mehmet Munir Ertegun, was appointed the Turkish ambassador to the United States. Prior to that he had been ambassador in Paris and London. When the two brothers arrived in Washington D.C. Ahmet was eleven years old and Nesuhi was seventeen. In London, two years before they moved to the U.S. Ahmet saw his first jazz concert. It was a life-changing event. In Ahmet’s words:

“When I was about 8 or 9 years old, in 1932, Nesuhi took me to hear Cab Calloway and later Duke Ellington at the Palladium in London. I had never really seen black people except I had seen pictures of great artists like Josephine Baker – whom I spent a few days with before she died. And I had never heard anything as glorious as those beautiful musicians, wearing great white tails playing these incredibly gleaming horns with drums and rhythm sections unlike you ever heard on records. . . . So, I became a jazz fan quite early and never went off the path thereafter.”

Ahmet and Nesuhi’s father, Mehmet Munir, had been Kamal Ataturk’s chief legal advisor. Ataturk insisted that all government officials take Turkish names. Mehmet Munir complied by adding an invented name “Ertegun” which means “new day” in Turkish. Despite Ataturk’s assertive hostility to the practice of Islamic religious rituals, Mehmet Munir, remained an observant Muslim, praying five times a day and expressing respect for the religious traditions of his grandfather, Sufi Shaykh Ibrahim Edhem Efendi, head of the Ozbeker Tekke in Uskudar, Istanbul.

In an interview in Slate in the year before his death in 2006, Ertegun was asked what he would like his legacy to be. His reply, “I’d be happy if people said that I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music.

And to the interviewer’s question, “do you have any devotional feelings towards Islam?” Ertegun said, “Well, look I’m a Muslim by birth – and the rest I’ll have to explain when I write my autobiography.” Unfortunately, Ertegun never got to write his autobiography. But perhaps we can intuit what Ahmet’s answer would be from the instructions he left for his funeral. He told his wife and friends he wanted to be buried in the family plot in Istanbul and to have his janaza (funeral rites) conducted along strictly traditional lines. When Ahmet Ertegun died at 83 in 2006 his wishes were carried out and his body was flown to Istanbul. There he was buried next to his parents and his brother Nesuhi on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

25 Years: A History of Atlantic Records

Jazz Legend Talib Dawud: Be-Bop and Islam’s “Elevation of the Mind” Thu, 14 Nov 2019 05:02:23 +0000 (Informed Comment) – Jazz Trumpeter Talib Dawud, whose given name was Alfonso Nelson Rainey, was one of the early American jazz converts to Ahmadiyya Islam. In the mid-twentieth century over a hundred other jazz musicians would follow in Dawud’s path. The background to these many conversions was articulated forcefully and dramatically by John Coltrane’s first biographer, the Philadelphia physician, C.O. Simpkins:

    “Islam was a force which directly opposed the deterioration of the mind and body through either spiritual or physical deterrents . . . many musicians were searching for a foundation in life. Islam taught that one should keep his body clean and healthy. It elevated the mind from the morass of American oppression and myths about Blacks.”

Alfonso Rainey was born in 1923 on the Caribbean Island of Antigua to a family of musicians. He came to New York City for high school and then studied at the Julliard School. His musical skills were recognized by his older contemporaries and he was soon performing on trumpet with two of the great jazz orchestras of the day, those of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

In 1947 Rainey converted to Islam and took the name Talib Ahmed Dawud. Dawud, who brought many musicians to Islam, was converted through meetings with Sheikh Ahmed Nasr, an African-American missionary for the Ahmadiyya Islam movement.

Among the converts that Talib Dawud himself brought to Islam were reed player Yusuf Lateef and drummer and band leader Art Blakey.

In the late 1940s Dawud was invited to join Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, the proving ground for many jazz greats of the twentieth century. In Gillespie’s’ band Dawud was featured on some of Dizzy’s most popular and enduring recordings.

Over the past half-century jazz fans have delighted in his trumpet work on “Dizzy’s Diamonds” (The Best of the Verve years) and on “Good Dues Blues – The Dizzy Gillespie Story.”

As historian Robert Dannin noted, Gillespie’s band “also proved to be fertile soil for Islamic dawa.” (proselytizing), and at one point in the early 1950 the band featured many Muslim musicians.

Once he had converted to Islam and legally changed his name, Dawud decided to challenge American bigamy laws, on the grounds that his recently -adopted religion allowed him to marry up to four women. Already married twice, Dawud took a third wife in 1958. He married jazz vocalist Dakota Station, and she took the Muslim name Aliyah Rabia, but continued to record under her given name.

In the late 1950s Dawud left jazz performing and became a leader in the Ahmadiyya group, the Moslem Brotherhood of America. In 1957 Talib Dawud, together with Mahmoud Alwan an Egyptian Scholar, and the anthropologist J.A. Rogers formed the Islamic and African Institute of Philadelphia .

As a spokesperson for these two groups Dawud argued strongly against the teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI), the Chicago-based Black Muslim group led by Elijah Mohammed. Dawud wrote articles in the New Crusader, a Chicago newspaper, in which he contrasted the ‘authenticity’ of Sunni Islam with the doctrines of the NOI. Malcolm X, then a spokesman for the NOI, responded vigorously to Dawud’s claims, and attacked Dawud for letting his wife Dakota Staton continue to perform and record “sexy songs.” In a radio interview Dakota Station echoed her husband’s critique and questioned the right of Elijah Muhammad to speak for all American Muslims

The irony of these competing claim and counterclaims about religious authenticity is that Ahmadiyya Islam was in danger of being declared ‘un-Islamic’ by the Pakistani government (a step finally taken in 1974). As a consequence the Ahmadiyya movement moved its offices from Pakistan to London.

In the mid 1960s Talib Dawud, fearing the wrath of the NOI and wishing to join fellow Ahmadiyya leaders now in exile from Pakistan, moved to London to work for the London headquarters.
His wife Aliya Rabia moved with him, and in London she pursued her jazz career and continued to perform and record. But after Dawud began to interfere in her singing career , the couple was divorced and Staton returned to the US on her own.

After the 1960s Talib Dawud never returned to jazz performance or recording. Up to his death in 1999 he dedicated himself to dawa , and to the mastery of the martial arts. But for aficianados, Dawud is still one of the jazz immortals.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Dizzy Gillespie & Lee Morgan – 1958 – Birks’ Works – 01 Jordu

Alto Saxophone – Ernie Henry, Jimmy Powell
Baritone Saxophone – Billy Root
Bass – Paul West
Drums – Charlie Persip
Piano – Wynton Kelly
Tenor Saxophone – Benny Golson, Billy Mitchell
Trombone – Al Grey, Melba Liston, Rod Levitt
Trumpet – Carl Warwick, Dizzy Gillespie, Ermet Perry, Lee Morgan, Talib Dawud

Jazz Great Yusef Lateef’s Journey to Islam Wed, 16 Oct 2019 04:03:40 +0000 “I want my music to awaken something that’s already in your heart.”

(Informed Comment) – Among the hundred-plus African-American jazz musicians who embraced Islam in the mid-Twentieth Century, Yusuf Lateef, whose given name was William Huddleston, emerged as the elder statesman and spokesman of the group. One of the reasons was his remarkable longevity. Another was the wide range of his creativity, which included composition, performance, teaching and writing.

Lateef lived from 1920 to 2013, and he was active as a performing musician and teacher from the age of eighteen until the last few months of his life. In April of 2013, eight months before his death, Lateef performed at a concert in his honor, “Celebrating 75 years in music.” At that concert in Brooklyn he played the saxophone with a wide variety of musicians, and he presented the premieres of two new compositions.

Three decades before that tribute, Lateef had eschewed the use of the word “jazz.” In 2008 he told an interviewer that he had relinquished the term jazz some thirty years earlier. “I still play that form of music,” he said, “but I feel that the word is a misnomer . . . It has meanings and connotations that debase the art and belittle those who play it . . . If you look up the word “jazz,” you’ll see that its synonyms include ‘nonsense,’ blather,’ ‘claptrap,’ and other definitions that reduce the music to poppycock and skullduggery.”

Similarly, Lateef wanted to distance jazz from its ties to drinking and the use of drugs. In 1980, he announced that he would no longer perform in places where alcohol was served. He said that, “Too much blood, sweat and tears have been spilled creating this music to play it where people are smoking, drinking and talking.”

Despite his discomfort with term ‘jazz’ and the venues in which it was most often performed, Lateef continued performing and composing, and his stature as a jazz musician grew over the ensuing decades. In 2010, at the age of ninety, Lateef was awarded the Jazz Master Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts. But Lateef’s artistic accomplishments were not limited to music. He was an accomplished university teacher and fiction writer. Among his books are two novels, and an autobiography, The Gentle Giant.

Lateef wrote and spoke eloquently about his path to Islam and his conversion to that religion. In 2008, sixty years after that conversion, he told an interviewer that, “In 1948 I embraced Islam through the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community movement – which is guided by a Khalifa, a spiritual leader. After my conversion, I found myself striving for a spiritual development, and I still am.” Lateef explained how he choose the name Yusef Abdul Lateef. “Lateef means gentle and amiable, and Yusef means Joseph, after the prophet Joseph. And Abdul Lateef means a servant of the gentle and amiable, a servant of God, and I said, ‘that’s something for me to try to live up to.’”

In the early 1950s, Lateef’s career as a saxophonist blossomed. He was invited to join Dizzy Gillespie’s band and toured widely with that popular ensemble. At the same time, Lateef immersed himself in the study of Islam in general, and in the study of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) in particular. And it was in the writings of the Twentieth Century Sufi master Inayat Khan, that Lateef found a powerful link between musical expression and religious devotion.

In “The mysticism of Music, Sound, and Word” Inayat Khan wrote that “The true use of music is to become musical in one’s thoughts, words, and actions. One should be able to give the harmony for which the soul yearns and longs for every moment.” Lateef shared his religious ideas with many of his jazz contemporaries, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane among them.

Some musicians of Lateef’s generation, McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey among them, converted to Islam but later drifted away from active practice and participation in religious life. In contrast, Yusuf Lateef remained a strict practitioner, of Islamic rituals, praying five times a day, and fasting during Ramadan, and, on two occasions, making the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. From 1987 to 2002 Yusef Lateef taught at Five College Consortium in Western Massachusetts, where he was a Professor of Music and Music Education. When he retired, at age eighty-two in 2002, he was asked what he would miss the most about teaching. His answer: watching his students develop. “It’s like watching a flower grow. I tell them to have an open mind – to explore all the possibilities of life.”


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Yusef Lateef Quartet – Yesterdays