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Sabbath Day: Canada

July 3, 2015

My last sabbath day, last Thursday, was the last day of school for my son. In celebration, he and his mother headed to Canada for the Montreal Jazz Festival. They enjoyed a long weekend of farm-fresh food, gourmet cheese, beach days, water parks, and really good music. In honor of their trip, I decided to read something Canadian. By chance, or design, yesterday (July 1) was also Canada Day. “I love when a plan comes together.”

Without question, the Canadian of the moment is Naomi Klein, social movement animator and author of some of my favorite books: No Logo, which served as a guide to early globalism; The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, a description of contemporary opportunistic, anti-social change; and the book of the year, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate. The later came out the same week as the People’s Climate March last September. It was announced just this week that Klein has been invited by Pope Francis to participate in a high level environmental conference at the Vatican. Follow that story.


I did not try to re-read Klein this week. Rather, I had on my shelf an unread copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, for which she was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2000. It is a long book. In fact, a book within a book. At the end of this week I am only half-way through. Perhaps over the holiday weekend…


I have read Atwood for a long time, ever since my encounter with The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) in college. Readers of my blog will recall that I have recently finished two volumes of her Madd-Addam trilogy.  

Realizing I would not finish The Blind Assassin, I was fortunate enough to come upon a used copy of Vintage Munro. I had never read Ontario born Alice Munro – “master of the contemporary short story” – but knew she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. The Prize committee said that “Munro is often able to say more in thirty pages that an ordinary novelist is capable of in three hundred.” Her prose is devastatingly honest and painful, but revelatory and, in the words of the committee, “tender.” This slim volume, published on the occasion of the award, and including the Nobel Prize Presentation Speech, has wet my appetite. And that, after all, is the greatest gift of this year of reading multi-national literature.


Finished this day with good friends for dinner and fireworks.

Happy and restful sabbath. Happy and reflective fourth.

Perhaps We See Now

June 29, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2015

 Psalm 104: 1-14       Mark 5:21-43

A man … comes to Jesus … full of grief and hope. “My little daughter is dying,” he says. “She is at the very point of death. Please, if you could but touch her, she would be made well and live.”

Just. Touch. Her.

Urgent words. Desperately spoken.

Just touch her.

The man’s name is Jairus. He is a leader in the local synagogue. He is a man of importance. He knows the people in this neighborhood, for it is his own neighborhood. This road on which he meets Jesus is one he travels often.

But all he can see right now is the face of his little daughter. He’s afraid of losing her, she is on the point of death. Jairus has heard of this Jesus, whose deeds go before him, and who large crowds follow, and he thinks, “maybe, just maybe.” So he goes out, and begs. “Please, just touch her, that she may live.”

No response is recorded, none of the words Jesus might have said in reply, but we are told Jesus goes with him.

Sitting in my office yesterday I tried to imagine the relief this father must have felt when his hope was restored. When Jesus … starts walking … toward his home. I tried to imagine my own child in such need, and what it would be like to suddenly have at least a chance, that he/that she, will live. And then I thought of a colleague and her daughter, and I just wept. And I thought of some of your families, and the prayers we offer here each week, full of grief and hope, urgent prayers for our lives and our world.

To think: Jesus walks with me … is coming home with me.

To know: Whatever the outcome, I will not be alone. We can face this together.

But then, according to our story, everything stops. Or at least Jesus stops. Jesus actually turns around and looks in a different direction.

“Who touched me?” he asks.

And I think “WHAT? Are you kidding me?” Like the disciples, I want to shout, “There’s no time for this. A little girl is dying.” My little girl is dying.

But Jesus persists, “Who touched me?” And I wonder: Who is he asking, the person who touched him, or me? Does he want to know if I saw what happened?

I used to act this story out with my confirmation class. I would assign parts and we would literally walk down the aisle of the sanctuary together on the way to Jairus’ house. Counting on the fact that most of my kids would not already know the story, I would prepare the two students playing Jesus and this unnamed woman for their encounter, but not say a word to the others. Sometimes, when Jesus stopped unexpectedly, the crowd would keep walking, often ten or fifteen feet, before realizing that Jesus was no longer with them.

Imagine thinking you are following Jesus only to discover that he has gone to work somewhere else and you didn’t notice.

Someone has touched Jesus, has gotten his attention. And he turns around to see a woman who no one else had seen. A woman who had been made poor by her attempts to be made whole; whose suffering had gone on year after weary year, a woman whose only thought was, “If I can but touch the hem of his garment, I can be healed.” And when she does, and when Jesus asks, this woman tells him everything, according to scripture, “the whole truth.”

Consider how much there was to tell? The shame involved as each doctor and priest, healer and quack, men all of them, examined her perpetual menstrual flow, but could offer her no cure. The medicines and procedures that had cost her everything, but still she bled. The years of bandaging and binding, the hours of washing and washing, but still the blood, the stains …

And Jesus listens to this woman as if he has all the time in the world.

Now we are supposed to feel the tension here. The urgency of Jesus arriving in time to save the little girl; the interruption by the woman who had suffered so long, so long, that surely she could have waited a little longer. We wonder whether Jesus feels this the tension too, the competing demands, the limited time, the shifting priorities…

Despite the urgency of first request, Jesus is touched by this woman. He sees her. And he stops. And for as long as it takes, he cares for her. In the end, of course, Jairus’ daughter lives too. Despite the manifest fear that she has died, Jesus recognizes that she has only fallen asleep, and he wakes her, and orders her something to eat.

The first thing I take from our gospel reading this morning is simply that when someone or something intrudes upon our lives, we should pay attention. Life is full of interruptions. But when they happen, we can look to Jesus, because he sees what do not. Those whom we overlook. And we can trust Jesus to see us through.

On Friday, our President, Barak Obama, delivered the eulogy for The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME Church. Delivered to a congregation of 5000 at the TD Arena in Charleston, South Carolina, the President’s message was heard throughout the nation and around the world. For an hour, for several hours, we turned aside with him in grief and hope.

And as he sang, (that’s right), sang, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” our President invited us TO SEE where we have been blind:

  • TO SEE the pain that the confederate flag, a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation, has caused in too may of our citizens;
  • TO SEE how our complaisant acceptance of poverty and racial segregation in our school system leaves too many children unprepared for jobs or careers and leads them, too often, straight to prison;
  • TO SEE the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation: “eight of our brothers and sisters (he said) cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope (he added) we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed…”
  • “For too long,” he continued, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we SEE that now.
  • Ultimately, he invited us TO SEE one another, how “my liberty depends on your being free.” How “justice grows out of the recognition of ourselves in each other.”


This moment of sight, of insight, our President called grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

None of the problems the President mentioned, of course, are new to this congregation. We have had sermons, classes, discussions, and in many cases taken action together on most of these issues. We are not afraid of following Jesus, even when he interrupts our well planned lives, even when he seems to have changed direction.

But the second point I take from our gospel reading is even more important. Having seen, we must see the connections. As our congregation has grown in mission over the last couple of years and publicly committed ourselves and our resources to the challenges of our day, to education, immigration, affordable housing, marriage equality, racial justice, ending gender violence, combating climate change – there is a danger that these aspects of our discipleship may be seen as competing, even disparate, priorities. That we may feel a tension between them. I was planning, for example, to preach on climate change this morning, to lift up the central points of the Pope’s new encyclical, but the events in Charlotte interrupted and took priority. Nevertheless, they are deeply connected, part of what Pope Francis has called ‘integral ecology” in which the health of our human communities and our planet are entwined, and require our coordinated response.

Our gospel reading is an invitation to make these kind of connections – to find the intersectionality between these two stories. You see, the woman with a flow of blood does not just interrupt the healing of Jairus’ daughter, she interprets it, helps us understand it more fully. In this case, both stories are about gender. Though her father refers to his daughter as “little,” the girl is twelve years old, almost a woman. She is on the cusp of puberty, ready to begin her period, and on her twelfth birthday she became eligible to marry and presumably bear children. With the risks attendant to childbirth, her father is right to worry that she is “at the point of death.” The woman with Jesus, on the other hand, suffers precisely as a woman. She cannot bear children, has not in fact been able to stop menstruating for the same twelve years the little girl has been alive. She can tell Jesus things about being a woman in that society that the girl’s father cannot even imagine. Interestingly, with an eye toward making connections, every single confirmation class I have taught has wondered aloud whether the woman is secretly the mother of Jairus’ daughter, suffering complications from childbirth and rejected by her husband.

There is obviously much more to this story, of course, but it has served its gospel purpose today if it reminds us to look for the deeper connections between the issues in our lives, and to trust and follow Jesus when they interrupt us and thrown off course.

I have wept a lot this week, in grief, in hope, and in joy. At clergy gatherings throughout the week, the community vigil and march this past Wednesday at Calvary Baptist and Allen AME, here in White Plains, I have shared the pain as well as experienced the generosity of my neighbors. Our nation’s public response to an act of hate that was meant to divide but which has only brought us closer together has inspired more hope than I have in a long time. The Pope’s detailed call to take up the challenge of caring for the human and natural world, and to make the connections them, has reignited my sense of urgency. The Supreme Court decisions upholding the Affordable Health Care Act, and establishing marriage equality in all 50 states, were moments of pure joy.

This morning, Sarah and I were asked to lay our hands another little girl, Danielle, and speak over her the words of life. We baptized her in name of God our creator, Jesus our healer, and the spirit of holy and divine community. And I saw the future. I had a colleague who used to say at every baptism that the birth of a child is God’s sign that God want the world to go on. I look at Danielle this morning and think, yes, this is why – she is why – we work so hard on so many fronts, on our human community and our earth community, to build the world God intends. We have made promises a promise to her.

Thank you, for being such a faithful community.

Thanks be to God, who walks with us.

Sabbath Day: Haunting Harlem

June 26, 2015


For several months now my Thursday sabbath post has been a capstone to a week of reading literature from a different countries. Though I had intended to read two short novels and a short story collection from India this week, there was neither time for fun reading nor did it seem appropriate for my attention to have been anywhere but on my own country and our present crisis. The terrorist act in Charleston, South Carolina provoked grief and anger that had to be woven into last Sunday’s worship and further prompted a community vigil and march for justice. I was humbled to be asked to pray for the communities of faith in Charleston, White Plains and our country.

Last Thursday was also the release of Laudato Si’ (Praised Be) by Pope Francis. This was highly anticipated by those of us anxiously anticipating the UN Climate Conference in November, as it underscores the imperative morality of action to prevent catastrophic change. This included spending part of last Thursday calling my representative in congress to ensure that she vote against fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership which will likely undermine any national efforts to combat climate change. The joy of receiving the Pope’s letter was overshadowed by the immediate need to act and by what the murders in Charleston revealed about the stubborn legacy of racism in our country.

2015-06-22 11.31.52 copy

My week found it’s focus on Monday, in Harlem. My long time colleague, the Rev. Daniel Izquierdo, was in New York this week to speak with Presbyterians about U.S./Cuban relations in the present moment. I first met Daniel in 1996 when he was the pastor of the Igelsia Presbyterian y Reformed de Cuba in San Antonio de los Banos in Cuba. It was the first eight trips I would make to Cuba as part of a church partnership with my then congregation. Daniel has since served as moderator of the denomination an ambassador to the World Council of Churches and World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Geneva. He is currently serving a congregation in Luyano and teaching at the seminary in Matanzas. In any case, I met up with my good friend Daniel in Harlem on Monday. It was the first time we have sat face to face in over four years.


As I had business on the Upper West Side later in the day, I remained in Harlem after our visit in order to have lunch and spend a few hours reading Laudato Si’. Throughout the document we are reminded that the “issues” which confront us are deeply interrelated and require concerted action: “We are faced not with two separate crisis, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Author James Baldwin is shown on a Harlem street in New York City, June 3, 1963.  (AP Photo/stf)

Author James Baldwin is shown on a Harlem street in New York City, June 3, 1963. (AP Photo/stf)

When I got home I pulled from my shelf James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). It seemed the right book to accompany my reflections this week, particularly its unsparing indictment of “whiteness.’ My wife Noelle published a reflection on the first essay this morning, and I share her words here:

In “My Dungeon Shook:  Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” James Baldwin wrote

“And this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent.  It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

This letter, published as part of “The Fire Next Time,” was a clarion call to our nation and to white Americans in particular to refuse the myth of innocence which allows injustice and racism to flourish in the very sinews of our society.  We stand today 53 years after he penned those words, still struggling with their mantle and mourning the devastation of our inaction or failed efforts. Baldwin ends the letter urging his nephew to love his “countrymen” writing, “that we with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

Many things have indeed changed since Baldwin’s jeremiad was published.  With farther yet to go on this urgent journey, Baldwin invites us to explore what does it means to love?  What does it means to receive love? What does love show us about ourselves?  And how does love free us for new life?

To which I can only add an Amen.

May we, “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – … handful that we are …, end the racial nightmare and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything [and here I hear the refrain from the People’s Climate March: “The change everything, we need everyone”], the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” (James Baldwin, 1963).

Defiant Hope

June 23, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rev. Lynn Dunn at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost / Confirmation Sunday, June 21, 2015

 The Rev. Lynn Dunn

Deuteronomy 6:1-6         Mark 1:1-13

I enter the pulpit this Sunday humbly, because of the tragedy this week, the racist murder of nine worshippers in a church in Charleston, S.C, on Wednesday night, and also in reverence for what we will do later in this service, as we baptize one and confirm four young adults who will become the newest members of Christ’s church in this congregation. And so, I rely upon the Holy Spirit today to guide my words, and I ask you to pray for me.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

Many of us have felt tremendous pain and grief since Wednesday night, but I must leave it to more eloquent and experienced preachers in the next few weeks to fully plumb the spiritual depths of this sad moment in history. For today is a celebration: a celebration of our faith in the God of hope and the resurrection.

As shocking as it seems to celebrate in the wake of such terror and grief, this is nothing new for the church. The church has always been called to celebrate, often defiantly celebrating, resurrection and new life in the face of fear, pain, terror and death. This is the church’s defiant hope, and the substance of things not yet seen.

Today is Confirmation Sunday, and I hope to share with you some of the mystery and majesty of this moment. Confirmation at White Plains Presbyterian is a yearlong process, and Mike Doehring and Patty Nohara have been co-teachers with me this year. The theme this year was “Pilgrimage,” a transformational journey of faith.

We began in September by reading through the entire Gospel of Mark, making a list of every geographical place named in the text, and then checking the map at the back of our Bibles. When we did that, we saw that Jesus began his public ministry with a pilgrimage from his home in Galilee to visit John and be baptized in the Jordan River. Jesus’ baptism was not the end of the story; it was the beginning. Immediately, Mark tells us, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to enter into spiritual battle. Now I will admit to our confirmands, that I may have sounded this particular note in class with a heavy hand throughout the year, but I wanted to make the point that confirmation, like Jesus’ pilgrimage to the Jordan River, is not a capstone or ending of their preparation and participation in church. It is no graduation ceremony. It is the beginning of a life in the church.

The program was demanding. The confirmands attended worship every week since September, with class after worship most weeks. They worked with Covenant Partners who mentored them. They found a variety of service projects in the church. You may have seen them ushering or assisting with Communion set-up. Together we also sought glimpses of churches engaged in the world, as faith expressed in both action and in art. In September, after viewing the film “Disruption,” about climate change, we attended the ecumenical worship service at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine after the NYC People’s Climate Change March. In October, we had lunch with the Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews, General Presbyter of Hudson River, and heard about her experiences as Moderator of the General Assembly. Through the year, as we studied church history and organization, we noted the progress of two proposed amendments to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In January, we saw the film, “Selma,” and we talked about the importance of the Black Church in the Civil Rights movement, and how important the community of faith is in sustaining all people as they work for all that is right, good, true and beautiful in this world. In February, we went to Stony Point for a retreat, and delved into the Gospel of John, and the “I am” statements of Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” and we made the candles you see on the communion table. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and we baked bread and shared communion. We also explored traditions of Christian Art, and the many ways Jesus has been depicted in various cultures and times.

Finally, as the last step of this long process, the confirmands wrote their own statements of faith and shared them with the Church Council. They were asked to reflect on what they had learned and tell us what they now believe about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the Church and what this all means for how they will live their lives. Council members were moved by the honesty and originality of their statements. Alexis wrote of her favorite Bible story, the paralytic man, and the importance of friends– not just any friends, but friends who will bring us to Jesus when we are in danger of perishing. Shian wrote of the importance of prayer and that everyone—everyone — has a spark of the Holy within. Wesley wrote of the rhythm and music of our lives, from our heartbeat and breathing, to the way we walk, as God’s music, the way God communicates with us, and wrote that each of us should read and interpret the Bible, “to make it your own song.” Elinam wrote of the reality of God’s love and forgiveness and the importance of the church as a supportive community.

Pilgrimage is sometimes called “the road that teaches.” Leading the confirmation class has also been a pilgrimage of faith for me, a time to learn, reflect and grow. When we saw the film “Selma” together this year, I revisited some of the public events of my childhood, events I had watched on a little 13” black and white Admiral TV screen, but which were nevertheless seared into my consciousness and memory. Recently reflecting on the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, I realized how deeply those events must have affected my entire generation, since we experienced them as children and young teens. For some of us, hope seemed to die that year, and that may be why my generation did not live up to expectations that we would change the world for the better with our idealism. Lacking hope, it seemed our songs changed, from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” to, “Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?” and “The Day the Music Died.” But Bob Dylan’s words have come home to many of us this week: How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend he just doesn’t see? Or, how many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?

The Rev. Sidney Davis leads a group in prayer during a community prayer service at the Second Presbyterian Church Thursday, June 18, 2015, near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was captured without resistance in North Carolina Thursday after an all-night manhunt, Charleston's police chief Greg Mullen said. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

The Rev. Sidney Davis leads a group in prayer during a community prayer service at the Second Presbyterian Church Thursday, June 18, 2015, near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was captured without resistance in North Carolina Thursday after an all-night manhunt, Charleston’s police chief Greg Mullen said. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

I am convinced that this generation of children and teens will be equally marked by the public, violent, history-making events of the past several years. Speaking directly to you now, I urge you never, never, to give up hope. Hold on to that same defiant hope that the church has always celebrated in the face of fear, pain, terror and death. If your generation is to be marked by the events of the past few years and especially of this past week, let it be marked for greatness.   If you listen deeply within your own souls, you will find your true calling– to work for justice, reconciliation, goodness, beauty, grace and peace. You are not alone; you have the church to support you. Jesus also said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches,” so stay connected to this vine, and hold on to hope!

In closing, I share with our confirmands the words of 14th century theologian, Catherine of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

May it be so!

Benediction: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sabbath Day: Egypt and Morocco

June 18, 2015

Some readers will notice that there is no sermon on my blog separating my sabbath posts this week. That is because our children led worship this week and provided their own reflection on scripture and our common life.


Dust of those rusty strings just one more time. Gonna make ’em shine. Stella Blue.

My sabbath day began last evening after choir practice. The Stella Blues Band brought another rockin’ summer evening at Garcia’s in Port Chester. The night was ‘deadicated’ to a local deadhead who died unexpectedly this week. His family came out to the show. I was moved by the outpouring of love from this, my other tribe, among whom I float so anonymously.

Today, of course, was overwhelmed by public events. In his encyclical, Laudato Sii, Pope Fancis evoked Saint Francis who, “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” If we specify that ‘commitment to society’ in our time requires strengthening public institutions and addressing racial division, then this sounds like what we recognize in worship every single week at the White Plains Presbyterian Church .

These were helpful words on a day in which we grieved racial violence in Charleston, resisted (and grieved) the house vote on fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and received with hope the Pope’s new ‘climate encyclical.’ Holding all of these things together and doing something about them is how we find peace.


Last Friday I posted the following to Facebook:

because white men can’t 
police their imagination
black men are dying…

Reading “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine.

Buy it. Read it. Read it again. Read it again.

This is our country.

When Dylann Roof walked into the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last evening and shot nine black parishioners, including a pastor and state senator, he continued a long history of racial hatred and domestic terror, especially in the south. On Sept. 15, 1963, for example, four black girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — were killed when four white men bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, before churchgoers began prayer. The image above of a black Christ crucified is from a memorial window at the 16th street church, an icon to always remember this long history of racial hatred, as well as an offer of better way. In it Jesus rejects and resists, with one hand, the hatred and intolerance of our society, and with the other hand offers forgiveness and invitation. In a Facebook post today I used this image as a reminder that domestic terror on black churches is not an attack on “Christianity,” as FOX News and other proposed today, but a targeted attack on the strongest political and soul-sustaining institution in the black community.

The balance of my day was spent with neighbors and children in our neighborhood park, at Rye Playland with good friends, over dinner at a fish house in downtown Rye, and finishing a good book.

My multinational reading brought me this week to EGYPT and MOROCCO. I was so taken last week by Moroccan author Laila Lalami that I purchased her novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. The novel follows a group of Moroccans who emigrate illegally to Spain in a small raft. In three sections we are told of the journey itself, the pre-history of each individual, and their fate after flight. Deeply moving.


I also finished the 500 page Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. Depicting Egypt during the last years of WWI and the first year of the Revolution, this is the first of three novels that comprise his Cairo Trilogy for which Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. Several sources told me that reading Mahfouz was better than buying a travel guid to Egypt. I was struck by the stunning differences (and sometimes similarities) between the Egypt depicted in this novel and the contemporary Egypt depicted by Alaa-Al-Aswany in The Yacoubian Building, which I read last week: in particular, how little seems to have significantly changed for women.


Sabbath Day: North Africa

June 11, 2015


What a nice routine for summer sabbaths. At the end of a very long day yesterday, I stepped out to dance to the funky rhythms of the Stella Blues Band. They’re playing the music of the Grateful Dead every Wednesday evening at Garcias in Port Chester. I spent most my day today reading, doing laundry, talking with my partner, reading some more, having dinner with my family, and reading some more.

I read several works out of North Africa this week, mostly short because I am working on a long novel from Egypt for next week. In the Penguin Anthology of contemporary African writing, Gods and Soldiers, I read an outstanding essay by Laila Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, called “The Politics of Reading.” Reflecting upon her childhood in Morocco, Lalami remembers that her first books were all in French (the colonial language). Schools shied away from vernacular writers. Only later did she discover Moroccan authors like Driss Chraibi and Mohamed Choukri, both of whom were banned by the state. Later she discovered literature from other African countries. State censorship plays an important role in the “politics of reading,” as does the colonial legacy and the existence of diaspora communities.

Because of this huge diversity, I think it is quite difficult to speak of one North African literature. Africa is made up of 40 nations, its people speak a multitude of languages and belong to many different religious traditions and ethnic groups. The continent is larger than China, Europe and the United States put together. Just as world maps often shrink the size of Africa to that of South America for representational purposes, speaking of one African literature risks giving the impression that it is a monolithic literature. It risks pointing to a unique literary tradition. It risks equating Africanness with blackness. I think, therefore, that it is more proper to speak up north African and African literature’s.


And so I read a short story on gender violence by Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt; an excerpt from Mohamed Magini’s novel, The Butchers Aesthetic, set during the civil war in Algeria; another excerpt from fellow Algerian Aziz Chouaki; and a very powerful short by Leila Aboulela of Sudan. This last story is about a young man who got married without his family’s knowledge while away working on an oil rig in the North Sea. When he decides to visit his home home after the wedding, his Scottish wife will not go with him because of “her many fears.” Unable to reconcile his love for his wife with his love for his home country, or to explain the one to the other, he ends up substituting for his richly complex attachments a painting of mud huts and goats composed by a Scottish artist living in Sudan.

Finally, I sought out the poetry of Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan poet born in Benghazi. Here is a poem that reflects that “huge diversity” spoken of by Laila Lalami within the poet himself.



My lips came with a caravan of slaves
That belonged to the Grand Sanussi.
In Al-Jaghbub he freed them.
They still live in the poor section of Benghazi
Near the hospital where I was born.

They never meant to settle
In Tokara those Greeks
Whose eyebrows I wear
–then they smelled the wild sage
And declared my country their birthplace.

The Knights of St. John invaded Tripoli.
The residents of the city
Sought help from Istanbul. In 1531
The Turks brought along my nose.

My hair stretches back
To a concubine of Septimus Severus.
She made his breakfast,
Bore four of his sons.

Uqba took my city
In the name of God.
We sit by his grave
And I sing to you:
Sweet lashes, arrow-sharp,
Is that my face I see
Reflected in your eyes?

Most of my time this week was spent reading Alaa Al Aswany’s international bestseller, The Yakoubian Building. When it was published in 2002 it was the first Egyptian novel to name and portray government corruption and hypocrisy. In 2011 Foreign Policy put Aswany first on their list of the “top 100 global thinkers.” During the Arab Awakening, he was in the streets every day in Tahrir Square. It seemed to many citizens that they were living the revolution called for by Aswany’s novel.




Sign Here to Call for Repeal of Cuomo Education Bill!

June 11, 2015


After preaching on education last week, and immersing myself in the literature this week, it is clear that poverty and racial isolation – what Jonathan Kozal calls “caste and color” – are the real problems with education. I’m throwing in with this petition and invite you to do so as well if you live in New York.

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

A group of education leaders in New York have drafted an appeal to suspend implementation of the “Education Transformation Act of 2015″ and to convene a panel of educators and educational experts to design a research-based teacher evaluation system.

They hope to get 10,000 signatures. They have gathered nearly half that number. If you are a New Yorker, please sign so the Legislature and the Regents will begin the process of revising a truly terrible program that is guaranteed to demoralize teachers, discourage students, and produce more teaching to the test.

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