giovedì 24 aprile 2014

Behind the name MARIAM

Miriam or Maryam is a name that is vastly used in many different cultures. We can find it in Africa, Middle East, Persia, Europe, but how come this name is so widely spread?
Miriam is an ancient female name that has taken on many other forms in other languages and cultures, including the English name Mary. 

Origin and variants

The name may have originated from the Egyptian mry "beloved" or mr "love" or the derived ancient Egyptian name Meritamen or Meri-Amun, "beloved of the God Amun". Other suggestions include the word root m-r-r "bitter" (cf. myrrh), or the Hebrew root (מרי m-r-y) "rebellious", or even possibly "wished-for child", or "strong waters". Its earliest appearance in writing may be in the Exodus narrative of the Old Testament, in which the elder sister of Moses and Aaron is called Miriam.

Miriam is a common name and figure that is both sacred in Christianity and Islam. According to the Bible, Mary, also known as Saint Mary or Virgin Mary, was a Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee. She is identified in the New Testament as the mother of Jesus through divine intervention. In Islam, Mary (Maryam) also has a revered position, the mother of Jesus, where she holds a singularly distinguished and honored position among women in the Qur'an  and a whole chapter of the Qur'an is devoted to her. 

As a result "Mariam", "Miriam" ,"Mary" gained popoloratiy with the passing of centuries making it one of the most popular and common names in the world. A name with a unique spiritual significance that binds together three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) under the same linguistic root, tradition and popularity.

Writing Mariam in Arabic 

"Miriam" used in religious and traditional songs

giovedì 17 aprile 2014

Dimi Mint Abba: The griot diva of the desert

Loula Bint Siddaty Ould Abba, better known as Dimi Mint Abba was the most famous and successful Mauritanian musicians to have emerged from the Iggawin/ Griot tradition. A prominent female singer and ardin player Dimi Mint Abba through her songs manifested her love for her traditions and her homeland. Known as the “Diva of the desert” she was born in 1958 to musical parents. Her mother is a percussionist and ardin player and her father composed the Mauritanian national hymn and presides over the Mauritanian society of authors and composers. Her belonging and her attachment to the griot musical tradition represents much more to Mauritanians than a singer or musician, as their songs convey history, social commentary, poetry, prophecy and tales about the beauty of love. Dimi’s songs were influenced by the crossroads of African and Arabic culture, mixing Arabic scales and improvisation with traditional West African instruments. 

In 1976 she played for the first time on Mauritanian radio. Her breakthrough came a year later in the Om Kolthoum singing competititon in Tunis, which she won with Sawt Elfan, a song which describes the social role of an artist as being more important than that of a fighter. Since then she has been one of the most important singers of the Maghreb and has undertaken many tours through Africa as also through Europe.Although the music of neighbouring Mali, Senegal, Algeria and Morocco are better known outside of Africa, the modern and traditional music of Mauritania boasts a unique fusion of African and Arabic cultures to produce a passionate, expressive singing style over complex rhythms - a powerful influence on other forms of music, including flamenco. 

giovedì 10 aprile 2014

The Queen of Sheba: Exotic romance and legend

Photo: Fatima Abbadi
Queen of Sheba is probably the second most famous female character in Ancient history after the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, who died with the aid of a serpent.. Very little is known about her but in movies she was either referred as Balqis, or simply as Sheba. The Queen was queen of the ancient kingdom of Sheba and is referred to in Yemenite and Ethiopian history.

The legendary Queen of Sheba was always seen in history as an exotic and mysterious woman of power and immortalized in the world's great religious works, among them the Bible and the Quran. She also appears throughout in history in many Persian and Turkish paintings same as in many medieval Christian mystical works, where she is viewed as the embodiment of Divine Wisdom and a foreteller of the cult of the Holy Cross. In Africa and Arabia her tale is still told to this day and, indeed, her tale has been told and retold in many lands for nearly 3,000 years. 

Ethiopian tradition:

Of all the stories of the Queen of Sheba, those of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa are those that probably retain the most resonance today with the people who tell them. The stories are immortalized in the Ethiopian
holy book - the Kebra Nagast - where we find accounts of the queen's hairy hoof, her trip to Solomon and her seduction. But these tales go further. Here, the queen returns to her capital, Aksum, in northern Ethiopia, and months later gives birth to Solomon's son, who is named Menelik, meaning 'Son of the Wise'.

The story goes that years later Menelik travelled to Jerusalem to see his father, who greeted him with joy and invited him to remain there to rule after his death. But Menelik refused and decided to return home. Under cover of darkness he left the city - taking with him its most precious relic, the Ark of the Covenant. He took it back to Aksum, where it still resides today, in a specially built treasury in the courtyard of St Mary's Church.

The importance of the queen, the Ark of the Covenant and the Kebra Nagast in Ethiopian history cannot be overstated. Through their reading of the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopians see their country as God's chosen country, the final resting place that he chose for the Ark - and Sheba and her son were the means by which it came there. Thus, Sheba is the mother of their nation, and the kings of the land have divine right to rule because they are directly descended from her. Emperor Haile Selassie even had that fact enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1955.

Haile Selassie was not, however, the first Emperor to publicly declare the importance of the Kebra Nagast. London's National Archives contain letters dating from 1872, written by Prince Kasa (later King John IV) of Ethiopia to Queen Victoria, in which he writes (translated):

There is a book called Kebra Nagast which contains the law of the whole of Ethiopia, and the names of the shums (governors), churches and provinces are in this book. I pray you will find out who has got this book and send it to me, for in my country my people will not obey my orders without it.

On Victoria's permit, the book was returned to Ethiopia, and it is now kept in Raguel Church in Addis Ababa, where a front page inscription explains its history.
Ultimately though, there is no primary evidence, archaeological or textual, for the queen in Ethiopia. The impressive ruins at Aksum are a thousand years too late for a queen contemporary with Solomon - at least on his traditional dating to the tenth century BC. And the great Sabaean kingdom in southern Arabia, for which we do have textual evidence, lists names of ruling kings at the time when Sheba is supposed to have sat on the throne.

It is only after the second half of the nineteenth century with the of period remarkable for archaeological researches and discoveries, especially by English and French expeditions in Egypt and the Middle East that replaced Greece and Italy as the focus of curiosity, that Queen of Sheba became popular in Europe and contextualized further more through ther orientalist narratives in literature, music and visual art.


Perhaps the most famous depiction of the Queen of Sheba is 'The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King lion throne' closely follows the detailed description given in the Bible (1 Kings 10:18-20), though the twelve golden lions were further inspired by a colossal stone lion that Layard discovered in 1849 on one side of the doorway into the Temple of Ishtar in Nimrud (now in the British Museum, Room 6: Assyrian sculpture).

Solomon' by Sir Edward John Poynter (1836-1919), whose stunning oil painting is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The watercolor shown here is one of several studies that Poynter made in preparation for the composition. Trained in Paris under Gleyre,  like many of his contemporaries, Poynter was strongly influenced by the sensational archaeological discoveries of Assyrian palaces in northern Iraq made by the archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894). The magnificent '

Hollywood, too, has fallen under her spell, releasing its own polished epic version of her story in many numerous movies. The Queen of Sheba (1921) was the first silent film produced by Fox studios about the story of the ill-fated romance between Solomon, King of Israel, and the Queen of Sheba. Written and directed by J. Gordon Edwards, it starred Betty Blythe as the Queen and Fritz Leiber, Sr. as King Solomon. The film is well known amongst silent film buffs for the risqué costumes worn by Blythe, as evidenced by several surviving stills taken during the production. This was a rarity in mainstream Hollywood films at the time. Only a short fragment of the film survives.


“The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, sinfonia for two oboes and strings is one of  George Frideric Handel masterpieces that premiered in London on March 17, 1749, as the first scene of Act III in the oratorio Solomon. One of the last of Handel’s many oratorios, Solomon is rarely performed in its entirety, but Handel’s bright and lively “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” interlude is a widely appreciated processional set piece. It often was (and it continues to be) played during wedding ceremonies. A noted public performance of the piece occurred during the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games. 'Solomon' is partly religious, and partly secular, being somewhat graphic in its celebrations of sexual love. It embraces the man at the pinnacle of his powers and popularity, also emphasizing his wisdom, but hinting that his sexual proclivities may be his undoing. Yet in the end, with the arrival of the Queen of Sheba,it is pure choral spectacle. The Queen speaking of how much she has learned and will never forget after her stay with the great ruler.

martedì 1 aprile 2014

Orientalism and the Ballets Russes

Many of the twentieth century’s notions about Eastern dance came not from the Arab world, but fromScheherazade, Cleopatra, Thamar, Le Dieu Bleu, Les Orientales and the Polovestian Dances from Prince Igor. Here the genius of Russian composers, dancers, choreographers, and theatrical designers merged to create a dazzling vision of the exotic East, a vision so powerful that it continues to shape popular notions about Eastern dance to the present day.
Russia. The most notable and successful exporter of pseudo-oriental dance was the Ballet Russe, the legendary company that enchanted the world with its portrayals of forbidden harems and provocative temptresses. Included in the ensemble’s repertoire were the so-called “oriental ballets:”

Serge Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet (Ballets Russes), which existed from 1909 to 1929, represents the golden age of modern ballet. From this company came the masterpieces Petrouchka, Schéhérazade, The Golden Cockerel and The Magical Toyshop, that are still in the repertoire of ballet companies around the world.

Serge Diaghilev was born in Novgorod, Russia in 1872. He moved to St Petersburg in 1890, where he became associated with a group of young writers and artists. Russia at this time was open to artistic influence from Western Europe, with many modern French and German artists selling works to Russian collectors. There was a similar European fascination with Russian culture. Both the exotic, or oriental, and the peasant cultures of Russia were recreated in Diaghilev’s ballets. 
Vera Fokina Michel Fokine

Vera Fokina Michel Fokine
 Diaghilev was not a dancer, choreographer, composer or designer, but he was an impresario of genius. He transformed traditional ballet by turning it into a theatrical production embracing all forms of the arts. Short, dramatic ballets, often radically different from each other, were presented on the same night. Audiences, used to the staid and predictable choreography and stage design of traditional ballet, were enraptured by Diaghilev’s productions. He encouraged exciting collaborations between choreographers such as Fokine and Massine, composers such as Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy and Satie and artists such as Benois, Bakst, Goncharova, Picasso, Matisse and Derain.

Vera Fokina
Perhaps the most influential of the Oriental ballets was the 1910 production of Scheherazade. Ironically, the courageous and witty storyteller Scheherazade, who risked her life in a valiant attempt to rehabilitate her serial murderer husband, is not the heroine of this ballet that bears her name. The literary Scheherazade arrived on Western shores much earlier when Antoine Gallard’s first French translation came out in 1704. Newly published English versions were printed in the Antheaeum as early 1838.11 Edward Lane explained that it was Scheherazade’s mind which gave her power among Arab audiences: “Eloquence, wit, is lawful magic: it exercises over their minds an irresistible influence.”

Fatefully for the Western perception of Eastern women, the Ballet Russe version of Scheherazade dispensed with the intellectual heroine. It took its thematic content from the opening story of A Thousand and One Nights. The action involves Shah Shahriar who pretends to leave his palace on a hunting trip in order to test the fidelity of his concubines in his absence. No sooner does he depart, but his harem favorite, Zobeide, obtains the keys to unlock the slave’s quarters. The result is a riotous orgy depicted in abandoned dance. The Shah unexpectedly returns to kill the faithless concubines and slaves, but spares Zobeide, who takes her own life when her favorite slave is murdered before her eyes.

Vera Fokina Michel Fokine 
Schéhérazade created a sensation in the Parisian world of art and fashion. After seeing Leon Bakst’s unusual combination of blue and green in the set design for Schéhérazade , the jeweler Cartier found the inspiration “to set emeralds and sapphires together for the first time in history.”13 Heavy fragrances became the rage, with names that conjured up images of the sensuous East: Nirvana, Kismet, Maharajah and, one still produced today by Guerlain, Shalimar. Oriental motifs in clothing and furnishings also enjoyed popularity. Schéhérazade proved to be so popular that it remained in the repertoire even after the death of Diaghilev in 1929. 

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