STEFANIE AQUILINA: Hello. And welcome to Professor Ross Brann's last lecture. My name is Stefanie Aquilina, and I'm the president of the Der Hexenkreis chapter of Mortar Board Senior Honor Society. Established in 1892 as an all women's secret society, the Der Hexenkreis chapter became one of four founding chapters of the national mortarboard society in 1918.
As such, we have a rich and unique connection to both the Cornell campus, as well as the national Mortar Board network, which currently consists of 226 collegiate chapters. Nationally and locally, the society recognizes in its membership the qualities of superior scholastic ability, outstanding and innovative leadership, and dedicated service to the college or university community.
We are extremely proud to have recently tapped our 119th class, which boasts 35 of Cornell's most distinguished and pivotal leaders. I am pleased they have joined us for one of our traditional and oldest events, the Last Lecture.
Please join us for a reception after the lecture. It will be held in the Phillips Lounge one floor up. And there'll be signs and people directing you up there. I'll now invite Jack Cau, who will introduce our wonderful speaker this evening.
JACK CAU: Good evening, everybody. My name is Jack Cau, and I am this year's Last Lecture chair. Each semester, Mortarboard invites one of Cornell's most distinguished people to speak as if he or she were retiring the next day. Today, we're honored to have Professor Ross Brann reflect on his life, his journey, and share with us insight and wisdom that would otherwise go unspoken.
Professor Brann's journey at Cornell began in 1986. Since then, he has served for 14 years as the chair of the Near Eastern Studies Department. He is the recipient of many prestigious fellowships and awards from national organizations, as well as from Cornell, including a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and a Stephen H Weiss Presidential Fellowship.
However, Professor Brann's contributions to the community extend far beyond academia. He is now serving his sixth and final year as the Alice Cook House Professor and Dean. And he is the faculty co-chair of the West Campus Housing System.
Thinking of one's last words is certainly a tough task. But when you have the insight and the rich experiences that Professor Ross Brann does, these hypothetical last words will resonate deeply with all of us today. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Professor Ross Brann.
ROSS BRANN: Thank you, Jack and Stefanie. And congratulations to the Mortar Board class of 2010 and 2011. Fabulous. Thank you all very much. Not everyone at Cornell or in Ithaca knows about the conceit of the last lecture and the fact that you do this twice a year.
And over the last three weeks or so, people have been coming up to me. And the people who think they know me well sort of lean in and whisper, are you OK?
And other people have been coming up to me and saying, it's really been great having you here in Ithaca and Cornell. Are you going to Florida? Are you going to Bermuda? Where are you going?
And I've kind of let this roll off my back and thought that people were just being polite and interested and curious, a little concerned in some cases. But then something really extraordinary happened. I found out that there were a whole bunch of folks here in Ithaca who were absolutely taken to the next level in thrill by the prospect that I might actually be delivering my last lecture.
And there's been a petition that's been circulating at Cornell. And this is front and back. I'm only going to show you the front. And people have been adding to it over the last two or three weeks, came into my possession about a week ago. You can see it here, all signed by Cornellians. And I left most of it back in my office.
But it's not my last lecture, I don't think. Unless I get the sign from President Skorton tomorrow, after he hears what I'm going to talk about this evening.
Thank you all so much. I'm not only incredibly humbled and honored by being given this opportunity. But I'm really very, very deeply touched, because there are among you, I see, some people who must be gluttons for punishment, because they heard me speak Friday evening at a venue on campus. And you're here this evening.
And some of those same folks will actually-- you're supposed to get up tomorrow morning and hear me at 10:10 AM. Someone that wants to listen to me talk three times in four days, you must be smoking or drinking something or in flights of religious ecstasy or whatever. I don't know. I can't explain it.
And then, there are others of you here from various walks of my life at Cornell and in Ithaca. And I'm very, very honored and touched.
In the Middle East, which we can view on the map, which I'm going to leave up for the duration, the motif of the journey is as old as the ancient Egyptian tale of Sinuhe, the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, and the Abraham narrative cycle of the Hebrew Bible.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the idea of the journey appears as a very compelling and powerful persuasive motif in various genres of medieval Arabic and Hebrew literature that I've been studying over the course of my life as a comparative cultural historian.
The trope of the journey is really so arresting that all of us employ it frequently, metaphorically to suggest the possibility of individual exploration, discovery, and growth. Indeed, it can be applied to your-- and here I only speak to the undergraduates and not to my cohort here in the assembled throng. But it can be applied to your four years of undergraduate education at Cornell or to my life trajectory that brought me here to you this afternoon.
Before I take you into the world of a very famous text of 12th century Arabic travel literature and demonstrate for you how I go about reading such a text, I'm going to embrace the indulgence implied by the conceit of this forum of last lecture and speak very briefly to you about my journey to you this afternoon.
Now, those of you who are with me at various times in the classroom know two things. First, I will only tell humorous anecdotes about my life in the classroom. And in the classroom at Cornell, I never speak from a totally prepared text. And I'm violating both of those cardinal rules of my lecturing life here at Cornell this afternoon for obvious reasons.
But I'm also going to speak and talk about my journey to you and how it shaped my interests, as well as some of the questions that I ask of my work. And those of you who will be returning sadly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with me tomorrow morning need not worry. We're not going there this afternoon. This will be very edifying and uplifting, hopefully optimistic.
I'm a child of the '60s and San Francisco. At the onset of my teenage years, my parents divorced. And my father, a civil rights and labor attorney and political activist with very wide-ranging intellectual and cultural interests, subsequently married an African-American woman with similar interests and commitments. My stepmother had two children of her own from her first marriage.
And throughout my teenage years, I lived in a family that seemed to embody all of the social change and promise of that era of the '60s. At times, our lives seemed to be organized around realizing in practice, as a family and as individuals, all of the socio-political ideals of the 1960s. Together, we marched. We sat-in. We worked in every progressive political campaign, going door to door for weeks at a time.
Our Passover celebrations at home were informed by the immediacy of that holiday's message to the here and now, as we understood it, as well as by the remembrance of things past. And we naturally wove "We Shall Overcome" and "Oh, Freedom" into our rendition of the traditional holiday ceremony. For me, it was joyous and galvanizing. And my family here in Ithaca still does it.
Most importantly, my stepmother, stepbrother, stepsister, sister, brother, my father, and I embraced the opportunity to engage and learn from one another, from one another's culture, from the inside. My stepbrother and I established a high school club against racism in all its forms.
I relished being the only white kid who patronized the local black barbershop, back in the days when, alas, I still had a lot of hair. They used to hoot and holler when I would come in. And I would spend the entire afternoon absorbing all of the rich goings on there, one of my most warmest memories from that period in my life.
My stepbrother and stepsister dutifully went to Jewish Sunday school with us to become familiar with my traditions. And when we arrived home, we would fight over who would get the last piece of Jewish deli, to which we were treated on many of the Sundays coming back home from that school.
Sly and the Family Stone, for those of you who have heard that name, lived just down the street. They had this pair of howling dogs. It was very forbidding. We wouldn't go near, but we would sort of stand across the street, waiting for one of them to come out, and sort of position ourselves down the block to listen to their jam sessions. A young Julian Bond and Coretta Scott King, among many others, were visitors to our home.
I could not have known it at the time, and I surely did not, but these experiences and my interest in and sensitivity to cultural otherness, along with the intellectual, cultural, and political stimulation of studying at the University of California, Berkeley from 1967 to 1971 led me to an adult life in which I would never, ever, unless this really is my last lecture, have to leave the incomparable environment of the college campus, where we afford singular importance to ideas and to debate.
I did not understand it at the time, but my experiences also led me to exchange my major in mathematics for Near Eastern studies and eventually for repeated Mediterranean journeys to Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan, and to what I'm going to talk about briefly in a moment, to the study of ambivalences, ambiguities, cultural otherness, and transcultural intimacies prevalent in that troubled part of the world.
During the late classical period of Islam, corresponding to the high Middle Ages in Europe, all manner of travelers, pilgrims, pietists, migrants, adventurers, seekers, international merchants, literati, religious intellectuals, diplomats, craftsmen, political-religious refugees, and opportunists-- that just about includes all of us here; we could fit into one of those categories-- set out from Iberia, which you can see all the way in the west, marked as Spain, and the western frontier of Islamdom and Christendom, and journeyed to North Africa or the northern Mediterranean, the Levant, and the Muslim East.
Though frequently traversing the same terrain, the social meaning of their Mediterranean journeys varied considerably in accordance with their differing motives and the historically determined social and cultural matrices to which these travelers belonged.
These intrepid souls-- and trust me, travel during the 12th and 11th century is not exactly what it was today. It's more like being stuck in Europe while there are clouds overhead and not knowing when you're going to be able to get started. You had to wait for the right winds.
These intrepid souls composed accounts of their experiences and discoveries in letters, lyrics, travelogues, or imaginative narratives, necessarily reframing their reflections in fidelity to the particular literary traditions in which they wrote.
To put it another way, the travelers' varied motives in leaving Spain or Iberia for the East found textual expression in accordance with representational practices associated with different literary genres, linguistic traditions, and religious cultures, even as the social meaning of their journeys varied according to their station in life and their orientation.
From the pilgrim-poet's exercise of his religious and literary imagination, to the seeker's quest for knowledge, for intellectual community, for culture, patronage, or, in some cases, inter-religious dialogue, to the refugee's historical sensibility, writing grounded in the venture of Mediterranean travel clearly lies at the intersection of social and cultural history.
For our purposes, I would like to focus our attention on the 12th century, a period especially rich in diverse documentation of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Mediterranean travel originating in Spain and heading east. These journeys and the textual reverberations they produced were undertaken during an extended moment of historical transition across the Mediterranean writ large.
To remind us of only a few critical shifts in forming the movement of people, goods, ideas, and texts across the Mediterranean during this period-- I'm going to stop for a moment and observe, for those of you who maybe aren't familiar with this period in history, those of us who do study either the ancient world or the pre-modern world, know very well that the patterns of interaction and commerce and travel that we take for granted as marking the age in which we live actually existed in the pre-modern period.
It was more difficult. It was less extensive. It was far more dangerous than it is now. But all the way going back to antiquity, these patterns of travel and all of the things that go with travel existed profoundly. Now, I've lost my place. But here we go.
To remind us of only a few of those critical shifts, Al-Andalus-- these terms are on your handout, if you aren't familiar with them. The Islamic polity of Iberia was incorporated into the Almohad North African Kingdom. It's Iberia Jewish communities were displaced and dispersed respectively to North Africa and the Christian kingdoms of the north of Spain.
The importance of French Mediterranean ports arose. And the activity of Italian merchants increased significantly in the wake of the Crusades, where they found many new opportunities.
In the 12th and early 13th century Mediterranean, apocalyptic eschatology-- fantasies, visions, ideas, dreams, nightmares about the end of days, the imminent end of days, popular messianism, and millenarianism-- were very much in the air in each of these three religious communities, reflecting social, political, and religious upheavals and turmoil over contested territory in Iberia and the Levant in the Muslim East, between Islamdom and Christendom.
Of course, cultural constructions of geography and territory were central to the ways in which classical Islam, Christianity, and Judaism formally defined their ideas of place in history and conditioned what each of the travelers saw and how each of the travelers represented what they saw in textual form.
Discussing the relationship between mental maps and ideology, an Assyriologist, Piotr Michalowski, who teaches at Michigan, writes, geography is a human problem that involves both universals, which purportedly stem from the physical reality of mankind, as well as culturally independent variables. Certain conceptions of space appear to differ little across societies.
There do exist strong cultural variations, however. And one of the problems is the question of mental or cognitive maps-- that is, the ideas of space and its relative seriations that men and women carry in their heads, so to speak. These mental maps include notions of preference, as well as vague ideas and value judgements about places that speakers or authors have never seen.
In the 12th and early 13th century, normative religious and historical sensibilities pertaining to place, constituting as Michalowski instructs us, the travelers' ideology, what my students know I like to refer to as their cultural baggage, informed but did not completely define our Mediterranean travelers' cultural mentalities.
Their travel constituted acts of imagination. And in the pre-modern world, travel involved an act of imagination far more than it does today. As we shall see, travel narrative activated the capacity of the literary imagination and representational practices to reshape and reconfigure what was experienced.
Because travel expands the horizons of the familiar, the unusual, the misunderstood, or the unknown, it necessarily engenders contact across social and cultural boundaries, thereby transforming established patterns of cultural meaning. As the scholar Eric Leed puts it, quote, "the history of travel suggests that collective and individual identities arise from and are transformed by processes of mutual reflection, identification, and recognition in human relationships, that neither collective nor personal identities are implicit in the organism or collective, but arise from relations to others."
People in my undergraduate class this semester saw a documentary recently that ended with a series of shots on newborns. And one of the things that members in the class who observed and shared their observations with other members of the class were that these were, as yet, young individuals whose identities had not been shaped. Those identities will be shaped both by their experiences and by their interaction with others, who will assist them in the process of defining who they are and to which groups they belong.
Let us turn to a paradigmatic late 12th century text, based on the experience of travel from Iberia through the Mediterranean, and inquire to what extent it transcends, it reinforces or resists the various sociopolitical, religious, and cultural boundaries imposed by communal authority and policed by historiographic orthodoxy.
I'm going to talk about Abul Hussein Hamad Ibn Jubayr, a very famous traveler from 1145 to 1217. This is part of a longer piece in which I compare his insights and his textualization of insights from exactly the same period and from the Iberian Peninsula with a Jewish traveler, who left a travelogue of a very different kind from virtually the same place and the same period. I only have time to talk about one of them today, but you can wait for the written version.
Ibn Jubayr left us a famous report of his pilgrimage from Granada in Iberia to Mecca in 1183 and back in 1185, the first of three trips he undertook from Spain to the Muslim East. By the late 12th century, journeys east in quest of knowledge and spiritual refreshment had long since become a critical and defining practice of Andalusi Muslims, way out there on the west, increasingly anxious to maintain intimate contact with eastern centers of the Muslim world.
This cultural practice, referred to and institutionalized as rihla, was the Islamic equivalent of philosophical travel, often undertaken in the course of pilgrimage to sacred shrines. Apart from its literary, historical significance as a paradigm for the rihla-based literary tradition, Ibn Jubayr's text is really the first.
Ibn Jubayr's travelogue described as, quote, "a simple narrative of a voyage undertaken and experienced," end quote, is of interest to us for two reasons. First, it frames the Mediterranean region and the Levant as shared terrains in which Muslims and Christians interact with a regularity that is both troubling and reassuring for the traveler and his intended reader.
Indeed, as Olivia Remie Constable, who teaches at Notre Dame, observes, the Iberian Peninsula was one of two places in the Western Mediterranean, together with the nexus of [INAUDIBLE] Sicily, which you can see in the very middle of the map-- look how close Sicily comes to North Africa-- where Christian and Muslim shipping routes met.
Second, the text also represents Muslim polities and societies in the Mediterranean and the Levant as being in desperate need of spiritual rejuvenation and sociopolitical repair. As an Andalusi Muslim from Valencia and Granada in Iberia, Ibn Jubayr was intimately familiar with a society in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews mixed and cooperated somewhat freely in various social sectors, commercial activities, and intellectual ventures.
If such interactions and the presence of non-Muslims, as well as heterodox Muslims, diminished under Almohad rule during the 12th century, they were nevertheless remembered by every Andalusi, Muslim or otherwise. These traditions and patterns of social behavior were also reinforced as Andalusi Muslims continued to encounter Christians and Jews from the northern Iberian kingdoms, as well as Italian traders calling on Andalusi ports.
Bearing the unlikely title, An Account of Events That Befell Upon Certain Journeys, Ibn Jubayr text details, among other things, his Mediterranean travels on Christian vessels. His pilgrimage for [INAUDIBLE] Grenada to the Muslim East shortly before Salahuddin Saladin, his capture of Jerusalem in 1187, begins on a Genoise ship that took him from [INAUDIBLE] to Alexandria, the first leg of a journey that eventually took Ibn Jubayr to Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Mecca, and Medina, and a bunch of other places as well.
Though the text does not indicate the purpose of his travels, a 17th century North African historian explains that Ibn Jubayr set out on his pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina to atone for sin-- everyone ought to remember this-- after the governor of Granada, for whom he worked as a court secretary, forced him to drink seven cups of wine. What was he thinking?
Notwithstanding the conflicts raging over Iberia in the west and Palestine in the east, throughout Ibn Jubayr's work, Muslims and Christians repeatedly crossed paths, signaling how impossible it was for any trans-Mediterranean traveler performing the Hajj to Mecca to avoid encountering religious others, even when trying to remain strictly within the Muslim world.
Such narratives, Mary Gergen asserts, typically position social, cultural, and religious others in relation to the self discovered in the course of the journey. Instructive in this respect is the section describing Ibn Jubayr's passage through Lebanon, which categorizes the open social situation in the Mediterranean and the Levant under the rubric of [INAUDIBLE], the unusual, the marvelous, the unexpected, the extraordinary, the astonishing circumstances that travelers witnessed on their journeys. This is similar to the marvels and curiosities that became later on a convention of European travel literature.
Here is how Ibn Jubayr puts it. "It is strange how the Christians round Mount Lebanon, when they see any Muslim hermits, bring them food and treat them kindly, saying that these men are dedicated to great and glorious God and that they should therefore share with them. One of the astonishing things that is talked about is that though the fires of discord burn between the two parties, Muslim and Christian, two armies of them may meet and dispose themselves in battle array.
And yet, Muslim and Christian travelers will come and go between them without interference. Between it, the [INAUDIBLE] road for overland passage of Muslims and Jerusalem, lies a day's journey or a little more. The sultan invested it and put it to sore straits. And long the siege lasted.
But the caravans pass successively from Egypt and Damascus, going through the lands of the Franks without impediment from them. In the same way, the Muslims continuously journeyed from Damascus to Acre, through Frankish territory. And likewise, not one of the Christian merchants was stopped or hindered in Muslim territories."
This is during the period of the Crusades. Documentary material from the period provides us uncensored information on commercial, social, and cultural arrangements and interactions between members of these three competing confessional communities.
By contrast, the traveler's narrative voice is under no obligation to highlight or even comment on such relations in the manner of Ibn Jubayr's ambivalent wonderment at a Christian bridal possession he witnessed in Tyre, Lebanon, with Muslims and Christians in attendance. Describing the exquisite and decorous beauty and elegance and captivating appeal of the entire celebration and of the bride, the text concludes, "leading them all were the musical instruments.
The Muslims and other Christian onlookers formed two ranks along the route and gazed on them without reproof. We were thus given a chance of seeing this alluring sight, from the seducement of which may God preserve us."
Elsewhere, Ibn Jubayr's rihla manifests the unyielding hostility toward Christians we would expect in a time of heightened political and religious tension, such as the Crusades. His note on the city of Acre for example, invokes the pious formula, may God exterminate the Christians in it and restore it to the Muslims.
Depicting a desolate religious landscape that draws upon the conventional language and imagery of Andalusi Arabic elegies for Iberian cities lost to the Christians after the late 11th century, he writes about Acre in Palestine, crusader Palestine, "unbelief and unpiousness there burn fiercely. And pigs and crosses abound. It stinks, and it's filthy, being full of refuse and excrement.
The Franks ravished it from Muslim hands in the first decade of the sixth century. And the eyes of Islam were swollen with weeping for it. It was one of its griefs. Mosques became churches, and minarets bell towers." And yet the same note on Acre represents the city as an uncommonly important commercial crossroads.
He says, Acre is the capital of the Frankish cities in Syria, the unloading place of ships reared aloft in the seas like mountains." Here, he's quoting the Quran. "A port of call for all ships, in its greatness, it resembles Constantinople. It's the focus of ships and caravans, and the meeting place of Muslim and Christian merchants from all regions in the area."
Similarly, his note on the fortress city of Tyre alternates between the stock expression, may God most high destroy it, and the qualitative observation, "its people are by disposition less stubborn in their unbelief. And by nature and habit, they are kinder to the Muslim stranger. The state of the Muslims in this city is easier and more peaceful.
From an Andalusi perspective, this paradigm of intercommunal relations, a century after the Muslim loss of the city of Toledo in Iberia in 1085, to Alfonoso VI of Castile, must have seemed especially familiar, vexing, and ironic in lands such as Palestine, Lebanon, and Sicily, where Christians had snatched sovereignty away from Islam.
Accordingly, the rihla adjures its readers as if it were the earliest Mudejars of Christian Iberia. This is another word on your handout. "Mudejars" in Spanish is a corruption of an Arabic word. It means Muslims who are left behind in Christian lands that once belonged to part of the Islamic world.
He writes, "there can be no excuse in the eyes of God for a Muslim to stay in any infidel country, save when passing through it, while the lie ways clear in Muslim lands. They will face pains and terrors, such as the abasement and destitution of decapitation, And more especially, amongst their base and lower orders, the hearing of what will distress the heart in the reviling of him, Mohamed, whose memory God has sanctified and whose rank he has exalted." It sounds like fire and brimstone.
But listen to the other side. Ibn Jubayr's account of his shipwreck and rescue at Messina in Sicily en route home to al-Andalus, after he had made the pilgrimage reflects an equally paradoxical view of Christian-Muslim intercourse. Although the text naturally attributes Ibn Jubayr's deliverance to providence, the Norman King William II of Sicily plays a very prominent role in realizing God's design.
"The strangest thing"-- again, it's that word that he uses, [INAUDIBLE] or [INAUDIBLE]. "The strangest thing that we were told was that this rheumy Christian king, when he perceived some needy Muslims staring from the ship, having not the means to pay for their landing, because the owners of the boats were asking so high a price for their rescue, inquired, this king, concerning them, and learning their story, ordered that they be given 100 [INAUDIBLE] of his coinage in order that they might alight.
All the Muslims were thus saved and cried, praise be to God, lord of the universe. Another sign of the loving kindness and benevolence of the great and glorious God towards us in this disaster was the presence of this rheumy Christian King. But for all that, all within the ship would have been robbed of everything, or all the Muslims might have been placed in servitude, for such was sometimes their custom."
Ibn Jubayr's depiction of King William and his treatment of Muslim subjects recalls for me a contemporary Iberian Jewish traveler's account of Abbas in Baghdad, which you cannot see on the map, but it's from exactly the same time. In both cases, the ruler is made out to be just towards his minority subjects.
He relies upon members of their community. And as we're going to see in a moment, he reads and writes their language. However, the texts of the rihla interprets William's largess towards the Muslims in his realm not as a grateful, very tiny, small minority accustomed to subject status might experience-- that is, the Jews of Baghdad in Benjamin of [INAUDIBLE] parallel account-- but rather as viewed by erstwhile rulers of a lost Muslim Sicily, wary of a very powerful rival who has displaced them.
Their King William is admirable for his just conduct and the use he makes of the industry of the Muslims and for choosing eunuch pages who all or nearly all concealing their faith, yet hold firm to Muslim divine law. William has much confidence in Muslims, relying on them for his affairs and the most important matters, even the supervisor of his kitchen being a Muslim.
William is engrossed in the pleasures of his land, the arrangement of its laws, the laying down of procedure, the allocation of functions of his chief officials, the enlargement of the splendor of his realm, and the display of his pomp in a manner that resembles the Muslim kings.
He pays much attention to his Muslim physicians and astrologers. And he also takes great care of them. May God protect the Muslims from his hostility and the extension of his power.
One of the remarkable things told of him is that he reads and writes Arabic. In the pious imagination, King William's behavior, manners, and learning render him attractive and dangerously proximate to the Muslims. Like the figure of a Jewish vizier in the 11th century state of Muslim Granada, about whom I've written, William is cast in this text as a powerful pseudo-Muslim or ersatz Muslim. His adoption of Muslim etiquette, his reliance on Muslim servants, bureaucrats, and scholars, and even the guy watching
Over who's cooking what in his kitchen, all are consequently beholden to him. And maybe most importantly , his appropriation of Muslim knowledge, especially the Arabic language and the use of formulas signifying Muslim piety, transgressed socio-religous boundaries designed, at least in theory, to protect Islam.
Such behaviors and the blandishments of his power amount to clear and present social seductions for Muslims, requiring God's protection, just like the sight and the experience that is described in glorious detail of the wedding in Lebanon. One can gawk and enjoy and appreciate and wish and recoil at the same time.
Clearly, Ibn Jubayr's rihla does not support any simplistic interpretation of this period as one defined by crusade, reconquista, and jihad, as lots of historiography has done up until fairly recently. Rather, its ambivalence, alternately accepting and rejecting religious others, reflects the complexity of a seemingly contradictory situation, in which social, commercial, and cultural interactions existed alongside adversarial competition and conflict, and which produced as well an abundance of polemical discourse, while there were military clashes over contested territory.
Unlike his Jewish contemporary, Benjamin of Tudela, whose very sparse reporting and reserved narrative style does not signal much consciousness of his Iberian origin, except for the nature of the message and its intended audience, Ibn Jubayr frequently expresses his sense of his localized identity and his pride in the Mahgrib to him, North Africa and al-Andalus.
It is compelling precisely on account of, in his eyes, the unique rightness of Western Islam as he sees it. He writes, "let it be absolutely certain and beyond doubt established that there is no Islam, save in the Mahgrib lands. [SPEAKING ARABIC]
There, they follow the clear path that has no separation and the like, such as there are in these eastern lands of sects and heretical groups and schisms, save those of whom the great and glorious God has preserved from this. There is no justice, right, or religion in his sight, except with the [INAUDIBLE], [SPEAKING ARABIC]
May God render them powerful. They are the last imams of this time. And all the other kings of the day follow another path, taking tithes from Muslim merchants, as if they were of the community of the Jews and Christians, seizing their goods by every trick and pretext and following a course of oppression, the like of which, oh my God, has never been heard of, all of them, that is, except this just sultan, Saladin, whom we have mentioned for his conduct and virtues."
Like other religious intellectuals of this period, Ibn Jubayr was completely bewildered and distressed by the divisions and discord in Islam, and contemptuous of the avaricious Muslim rulers he witnessed on his journey. These kinds of observations are not unique to Islam and certainly not unique to Ibn Jubayr's age.
The rihla thus reads as an expression of pious hope that Almohad rule, in its uncompromising advocacy of religious revival, would continue to expand eastward. It had already reached Tunis, [INAUDIBLE] And that Salahuddin's heroic uprightness would restore Islamic norms of social justice and religion in the East.
The text's religious geography thus imagines restoration of a lost wholeness and just order in Islam that's in keeping with the orientation of a penitent pilgrim, but at variance with the intricate social and cultural accommodations of the age that Ibn Jubayr encountered and marveled at and wrote about on his travels.
Our brief discussion of this late 12th century travel-based text affirms the instability and the fluidity of social, cultural boundaries in the medieval Mediterranean. While operating within defined historical, religious, and cultural matrices, travel narratives, like other texts, have the potential to challenge and subvert their conventions by separating triumphalist socio-religous and political ideals from life as is actually experienced in all its complexity.
As text, they engage, they resist, they undermine and dissolve the various boundaries and divisions imposed and policed by communal and historiographic orthodoxy, and thereby mirror the expanded social and cultural horizons of the traveler's experience on a Mediterranean journey.
Here at Cornell and in your life's journey beyond it, take every advantage of opportunities to cross cultural boundaries and to break down whatever social barriers you may encounter. You will find your life profoundly enriched and transformed and your intellectual horizons expanded by engaging people of other backgrounds and different experiences. Thank you so much.
STEFANIE AQUILINA: Thank you, Profressor Brann, for that wonderful lecture. And thank you all for coming. Before we head upstairs for the reception, we're going to do a question and answer session. So if anyone has any questions, feel free to ask Professor Brann.
ROSS BRANN: Could be on anything. Leonard.
SPEAKER 1: Was there any centralized locations for identity or-- I guess there must been money changers. How did they travel so freely? Was there any question of where someone came from, like we're having now about origin? Do you belong here?
ROSS BRANN: Great question. In the Mediterranean region, I think the text tells you, but a little bit of history that I tried to frame it should tell us that travel, particularly for commerce, but also for religious purposes, for intellectual pursuits was fairly free and easy, especially for commercial purposes.
If you were within either the lands of Islam or Christendom, all you needed was to have the equivalent of your passport. And what was that? Your tax receipt. You had to be able to demonstrate that you had paid your taxes in full at your point of departure.
And then, you were given free passage. Now, there were pirates in the Mediterranean, and of various religious and ethnic backgrounds. And when you encounter pirates, all bets were off. But as far as official and unofficial travel goes, you could come and go pretty much as you pleased, even-- and this is why I chose this text to make this point.
If you were to pick a moment of heightened tension between religious communities, one that everyone knows, you would think of the Crusades. So here we are at the height of the Crusades, and people are coming and going. People are even coming and going between one another arrayed on the battlefield. Please, Remy. We'll see how long I can keep up the streak of identifying people by name.
SPEAKER 2: This question is more directed towards your personal life. You said growing up--
ROSS BRANN: I was afraid of that.
SPEAKER 2: You sat through and participated in a lot of protests. Is there anyone in particular that was profoundly transformative or had a deep impact on your life that you can think of?
ROSS BRANN: Well, it began with civil rights, direct action in the mid '60s and culminated with anti-Vietnam War protests in the late '60s and early '70s. I guess you could say the one that ended up being foundational for me was an instance during a time when there were National Guard troops on the Berkeley campus with bayonets.
And I was at the front of one of these demonstrations. And the guy in front of me was stabbed, I think accidentally, by a bayonet. And we had to carry him into the student union. I took a year off, UC, Berkeley Abroad in Jerusalem, after that event. I guess I decided that it was getting a little too close for comfort. Maria Antonia.
MARIA ANTONIA: We can't hear you very well in the back.
ROSS BRANN: Why? The microphones are all on. You can't hear me in the back? Now you're telling me?
MARIA ANTONIA: Now we can hear you.
ROSS BRANN: OK.
MARIA ANTONIA: Who was the William the king in Sicily? Was he a Norman?
ROSS BRANN: Yes, he was a Norman King. The Normans conquered Sicily after about two centuries of Muslim rule. And although it's not nearly as well-known as Spain, the transformation of Sicily from a Muslim polity and society to a Christian polity and society was as interesting for comparatus, as all of those of us who are more interested farther towards the west.
A lot of the cultural practices and manners that were prevalent in Muslim Sicily were simply adopted wholesale by the Normans when they took Sicily from the Muslims, roughly after 200 years. And Muslims continue to live there, some, as the text tells us, secretly, but others quite openly and without difficulty.
SPEAKER 3: The story that you told us might as well have been written by a modern traveler--
ROSS BRANN: Yes.
SPEAKER 3: --either from the Middle East traveling throughout, I guess, the Western world or a Westerner traveling in the Middle East. So it seems that we, as people in general, have always had this sort of view, a simplistic view of the others. And whenever we cross cultures, we are rather surprised by the commonalities between us.
ROSS BRANN: Yes.
SPEAKER 3: Do you think we're getting any better at realizing these shared commonalities? Or will we ever get any better in doing that?
ROSS BRANN: Well, what do you think? Are we better at it than folks were in the 12th century? I forgot to identify you, [INAUDIBLE]. I'm four for four so far.
SPEAKER 3: I mean, certainly by the actions of our day-to-day life, yes and no, I guess.
ROSS BRANN: Sometimes, yes. And sometimes, no.
SPEAKER 3: Yeah.
ROSS BRANN: Let's be optimistic. I think, on the whole, we have more opportunities to engage people of different backgrounds and experiences, as I put it, through travel, through trade, through diplomacy, through now from technology. We don't always use these modern modalities in the most positive way. So there's always the downside. And we get battered by that with a lot of hate, say, over the internet, ignorance and hate.
But the opportunities are there for many more of us. And one of the things that I hope that I was going to-- one of the buttons that I wanted to touch today was to have all of us thinking about how privileged we are in a university environment and I would say also in wider Ithaca.
We don't always get it perfectly. We have significant differences of opinion. And that's fine, differences of background and experience. And that's fine. But on the whole, I think in places like this, we do a fairly good job most of the time of paying attention to one another and listening to one another and taking advantage of those opportunities.
I think we cannot keep but reminding ourselves to embrace that, as difficult as it sometimes is, particularly during times of religious, political, historical tensions that pop up as they will certainly do, if not tomorrow, then next week or next month.
But the obligation is on us who are in an environment where we can study and think and talk and discourse freely to really embrace these opportunities and to use our experiences after we leave Cornell-- I'm not leaving, but you folks-- to lead a life that reflects these experiences on our campus and through travel. Eleanor.
SPEAKER 4: For the author that you detailed in your lecture today were asked to give a story in modern day about a Mediterranean journey, current day, how do you think that his account or his narrative would be different or similar?
ROSS BRANN: I think it would be similar, because a lot of the problems, as well as a lot of the possibilities that he finds attractive and fascinating-- I mean, human beings are curious. It doesn't matter what century they come from. And it doesn't matter what part of the world they come from or what their religion is.
Human beings are curious. And although we are defended against encounters with things that are unfamiliar, when we let ourselves open to them, or we have encounters with them we weren't expecting, curiosity can and does take hold. And sometimes, what we see, although scary and maybe even religiously unnerving, is alluring at the same time.
And I'm trying to point to the fact that that is a very common human experience that we share across cultures. And so I like to think-- I mean, we really have no way of knowing. But I like to think that Ibn Jubayr would respond in much the same way.
Certainly, he can go to Lebanon and see exactly the same kind of patterns of intercourse and many of the other places he mentions along the way as well. But maybe that's just wishful thinking. OK, now I'm seeing some hands of people I can't name. Yes, in the first-- no, no, right here.
SPEAKER 5: So if I remember correctly, you mentioned you left your study of mathematics.
ROSS BRANN: Yes.
SPEAKER 5: So that made me curious, because I come from a mathematics slash physical sciences background. And that's sort of a dilemma that-- so you dedicate your study for one area. You sort of miss out on a lot other. So I'm wondering, since this is a last lecture thing, do you ever look back and-- did mathematics just get out of your life? What was the factor that made you--
ROSS BRANN: I still love math. I'd like to think that I transferred some of the skills that I had in mathematical thinking to my study of Semitic languages. The structures of Arabic and Hebrew and all of the other Semitic languages are highly mathematical, very predictable in their patterns. There are a few exceptions, but-- and I like to think that some of my love for these grammars comes from my background in mathematics.
No, I have absolutely no regrets. I mean, talk about privilege. This kind of life that I'm permitted to live here, even with frozen salaries last year and it sounds like frozen salaries this year, I would not give up the kind of life that I'm privileged to lead for any other. I have the freedom to read what I want, to go where I want, to teach what I want, to encounter these incredibly brilliant minds represented by students in this audience.
This is unimaginable to be doing anything else. I wouldn't have made it as a professor of mathematics. So I elided-- I somehow found the right way. Absolutely not. No regrets about that. Yeah.
SPEAKER 6: Hi, Professor Brann. I'm Dean. I have a question. So you mentioned that our identities are formed not only by our experiences, but our interactions with other people. I'm sort of interested in-- you don't have to share, but I do love when you share your own worldview and whether your experiences and interactions with other people [INAUDIBLE]. Has it changed, given those experiences, or whether you adopted [INAUDIBLE]?
ROSS BRANN: I presented it as though it came out of my adolescent experiences. Clearly, it must go back a little farther than that. My views of people of different backgrounds and experiences has not changed since my adolescent years. If anything, I am as determined as I ever was to embrace people whose experiences and assumptions aren't mine.
I find-- and this is not an easy transaction, but if you can do it, I highly recommend it, that one's own sense of oneself and one's own identity and your embrace of your own culture can be enriched immensely by encountering other cultures.
You don't-- if you're of a particular religion, and you go reading or traveling, most people who do that don't then sort of switch sides. You're not like a free agent in that respect. But your own sense of who you are and your appreciation for the way in which cultures are alike and different and interactive is enhanced through really opening your eyes to the possibility of this kind of experience.
I was fortunate to grow up at a time and a place and in a family that made that very easy for me. It comes to me by second nature. I grant that it's not always so easy. But for me, it was just part of what I became and what I was expected to become.
And I haven't ever experienced anything that would make me back down from this way of understanding who I'm supposed to be and how I'm supposed to interact with the rest of the world out there. I don't know if that answers your question.
SPEAKER 6: Sort of.
ROSS BRANN: I have a tendency to do it like that, sort of. Yeah. Please tell me when we're supposed to stop, because I don't know. OK. Some of the people here must have come because they were more interested in the food than in hearing what I was supposed to say. Yeah.
SPEAKER 7: You spoke a lot about this journey and this interchange in that period between the various Mediterranean cultures. And I was wondering now, looking at this map, you have the European Union. You have the [INAUDIBLE] talk of an Arab Union even. And so in your opinion, to what extent is there a uniquely Mediterranean identity or culture today?
ROSS BRANN: That is a very big question. And you'd have to take-- we have a couple of courses that deal with this question. The short answer is yes, that there always was. But this is a debate that geographically minded historians, cultural historians, social historians have been engaged with in the last generation, really more than the last generation. It's not resolved.
Certainly, in the period that I study-- I'm much more comfortable talking about this-- I see a kind of a cultural continuum, not an identity of cultures, but a continuum in the Mediterranean basin. I'm more familiar with and more interested in the southern Mediterranean. But you can't study the southern Mediterranean then or now without talking about the northern Mediterranean.
And in this respect, one of the things I was thinking about when I was writing this-- I mentioned this to my class last week. There was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of New York two years ago I think now-- my wife will correct me if I have the time frame wrong-- which was about interaction between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, or the heartland of the Middle East and Venice, but principally during its Ottoman period.
And that, the catalog as well as the exhibit, just demonstrated how in the late medieval, really the early modern period, just how fluid the borders were-- nonexistent borders-- borders were between the northern Mediterranean and the southern and eastern Mediterranean, that trade continued.
And with trade-- and we learned this from ancient Near Eastern studies. With trade comes exchange of ideas and books and knowledge of human beings and how other people do things differently. Sometimes, it seems weird what they eat or their habits and manners.
But the universe expands through those encounters. And one doesn't have to be a Marxist to talk about how important what the role that trade and transfer of goods plays in that process. It was profound during the Middle Ages, as it is now.
And that display at the Met, there was one little blurb that was a quotation from a Venetian trader and government official, who was asked by someone who wasn't engaged in this, what are you doing with all those Mohammedans, those Muslims? What-- why are you-- and he said, we really like to trade with them.
And for me, that says it all, that that possibility, that need to engage, even if it's over material transfer, opens up for most human beings who, aren't privileged by living the life of the American university, it opens up this world of possibilities. And it's always characterized the Mediterranean.
Do we have something to eat? I'm not saying I have to. I'm perfectly fine.
STEFANIE AQUILINA: Just one more.
ROSS BRANN: There aren't anymore.
STEFANIE AQUILINA: Then let's go.
ROSS BRANN: OK. Thank you all very much.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Professor Ross Brann focused on the importance of the personal life journey, touching on culture, Mediterranean travel and his life as "a child of the sixties," in his 'Last Lecture' on April 26.
The Last Lecture series is sponsored by the Mortar Board National Honor Society chapter at Cornell.