December 02, 2003

Temples of memory

[Update 12/15/2003: I've placed this update before the rest of this post rather than after it, as I usually do, because it calls the content of the post into question in a fundamental way. I have not edited the post itself.

Lameen Souag has pointed out to me that Dr. Ziedan has posted a series of notes asserting that the some of the quotes attributed to him by al-Usbu' were "fabricated", and stating clearly his view that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is "a racist, silly, fabricated book." Lameen also pointed out that al-Usbu' seems to have withdrawn the article in question from its web site. To his credit, Ziedan links to many of the outraged comments from around the world, including this one. However, he also implies that these comments represent some sort of organized effort against him, speaking of "comments that surfaced unexpectedly on numerous web pages launched by many (most probably zealous Jews)", asking "What is the secret behind this deliberate provocation in the wording chosen by that al-Usbu‘ to cover the news?", and referring to "the striking synchronization of publishing the article in the two Israeli papers" and "the systematic attack launched by websites on the following day".

I was unable to determine from Dr. Ziedan's posts what he thinks the "secret behind this deliberate provocation in the wording chosen by that al-Usbu'" might be. Whatever hidden hand might be directing things at al-Usbu', I'd like to assure Dr. Ziedan personally that what I wrote here on Dec. 2 was not part of any "systematic" effort. No one suggested to me that I write it, or even told me about the facts of the case. I learned about the al-Usbu' article by reading MEMRI, as I do from time to time, as one of many news sources from a wide variety of perspectives. As a matter of fact, I was initially skeptical that a manuscripts expert could believe that the Protocols might be genuine, but after reading the article "WWW and the Informatics Plexus" (quoted in the MEMRI page), I concluded (apparently wrongly) that al-Usbu' was no more misleading about Dr. Ziedan's views in this case than journalists usually are in quoting those that they interview. Dr. Ziedan seems to have removed this article from his website -- though if I have simply been unable to find it, I apologize for not looking effectively enough.

In the third of his notes, Ziedan writes that "what was mentioned in the article is groundless and with no proof. I will return to the question of furnishing proofs in detail in my next argument about the whole Jewish issue." This is a reference to the fourth of his notes, which is listed as "coming soon". I look forward to reading it.]

The Internet Sacred Text Archive (recently cited by Language Hat for the Complete Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Poetry) has just added The Vampire Codex, "a document written by occultist and psychic vampire Michelle Belanger for use as the instructional text of House Kheperu", and The Songs of Bilitis, "a clever forgery by Pierre Louys" published in Paris in 1894, which "purports to be translations of poems by a woman named Bilitis, a contemporary and acquaintance of Sappho." The Internet Sacred Text Archive is even more open-minded than these selections might indicate, as their long list of available texts includes the Mahabharata, Tao the Great Luminant, and the Unicode Greek New Testament.

Meanwhile, in news from another galaxy, the Egyptian weekly Al-Usbu' reported on November 17 (via MEMRI) that the manuscript museum at the new Alexandria Library has "added The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the display case of the holy books of the monotheistic religions, next to a Torah," because, according to the museum's director Dr. Yousef Ziedan, "this dangerous book ... has become one of the sacred [tenets] of the Jews, next to their first constitution, their religious law, [and] their way of life. ... It is only natural to place the book in the framework of an exhibit of Torah [scrolls]."

The Alexandria Library has been built with funds from the Italian government and UNESCO, among others, totalling something like $100 million.

On November 1, Umberto Eco gave a talk at this same Alexandria Library, entitled "Vegetal and Mineral Memory: the Future of Books." He is quoted as describing libraries as "temples of vegetal memory."

"They were, and still are, a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know," he told the assembled crowd at the library’s conference center. "We have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them."

Or something.

[Update 12/3/2003: Let me try to state my own viewpoint on this, in case it's not clear from reading between the lines above.

I find it strange that John B. Hare, the man behind the Internet Sacred Text Archive, thinks that Daughters of Bilitis is a sacred text at all, or that The Vampire Codex should be given essentially parallel billing with the King James Bible and the Rg Veda on his site. However, it's Hare's right to follow his own inspiration as he pleases, especially because his site is funded only by himself and the contributions of those who find it useful. And many of the texts he posts seem to represent a truly valuable service, while all of them are likely to be interesting at least to some people. His descriptions of the texts (those that I've read) also seem fair-minded and completely lacking in malice. So at worst, it seems to me, one could describe the site as heart-warmingly nutty, though I can see that some readers might be offended by the implied parallelism between sacred texts that they sincerely revere and things like Louys' forged erotica or Belanger's creepy Vampire manifesto.

By contrast, Dr. Yousef Ziedan, director of the manuscript museum at the Biblioteca Alexandrina, which is supported by something like $100 million from UNESCO and various governments, is promoting a malicious political agenda by placing the notorious anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a small display case next to a Torah scroll, and describing the text in at least one published interview as if it were a genuine document that "has become one of the sacred [tenets] of the Jews." Such statements have become routine in the (government-supported) Egyptian media, but it is shocking to see that the infection has penetrated to an internationally-oriented institution that pretends to want to "became the matrix for a new spirit of critical inquiry". I'd describe Dr. Ziedan's views as chillingly nutty, and the Egyptian social context that validates them as appalling.

The new Alexandria library has established ties not only with governments, politicians and NGOs from around the world, but also with major public intellectuals like Umberto Eco and Brewster Kahle. They're drawn by the vision, the publicity and I suppose also partly by the money, which can be used to promote good works such as Kahle's Internet Archive. I don't mean to suggest that such people are complicit in Ziedan's gesture, nor even that they've been aware of it. But it will be interesting to see how widely the see-no-evil approach of the European Union will be duplicated in this case.]

[Note: Peter Erwin has pointed out to me that Umberto Eco's book Foucault's Pendulum "contains, amidst numerous other displays of erudition, a brief discussion of the Protocols' true history -- not just its concoction by elements of the Tsarist secret police, but further back to a chain of plagiarism and borrowings originating in mid-19th Century political screeds against Napoleon III and the Jesuits. So Eco is perfectly aware -- indeed, far more than most people -- of how much of a hoax the Protocols actually are." Erwin also drew my attention to this essay by Eco, which closes with the words "... it is enough to visit certain racist websites, or to follow anti-Zionist propaganda in the Arab countries, to see that anti-semites have still found nothing better to do than to recycle, yet again, those ludicrous Protocols." And finally, Erwin pointed out a link to the full text of Eco's November 1 talk at the Biblioteca Alexandrina.]

[Update 12/9/2003: according to Agence France Presse (here reprinted in Al-Jazeera), library director Ismail Siraj al-Din has ordered the book removed from the exhibit, claiming that it had been displayed "as a curiosity" only. The AP Story (here from the SF Chronicle) also cites a letter "questioning the display" from Koichiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO, and quotes Ziedan as saying that "My professional view is that it is a silly book ... Its only significance is that it is the first Arabic edition of the book that has influenced the Arab mentality to a great extent."

But Ziedan's quoted remarks in the Al-Usbu' piece translated on the Memri site offer a different picture of his views. Either he distinguishes between his professional view (that it is a "silly book") and his personal view (that it "has become one of the sacred [tenets] of the Jews, next to their first constitution, their religious law, [and] their way of life"), or he was mis-quoted by Al-Usbu', or he lacks the courage of his convictions, saying different things in different contexts. What's your guess?

Matsuura also sent a letter to the participants in a seminar on the 100th anniversary of the Protocols, coincidentally held in Venice last weekend. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 2, 2003 11:11 PM