Roving thoughts and provocations

The Lod Mosaic

G.W. Bowersock

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s not easy to make sense of the remarkable Lod Mosaic, a large, ancient floor newly discovered in Israel and now on display in the United States for the first time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the very difficulty of interpretation, together with the excellent state of preservation, is what makes it so fascinating. We simply don’t know whether it was part of a residence or an official building, and we can’t even say whether the owner or owners were Jewish, Christian, or pagan. The date is not secure either, although the excavator proposes about AD 300 because late third-and-fourth-century coins and ceramic scraps were found immediately above it. Miraculously, what is on display at the Met survived intact apart from one large gash near the bottom that the excavator considers ancient damage, although not everyone agrees.

The mosaic at the Met is the main part of an ensemble of floor mosaics that the Israeli Antiquities Authority uncovered in 1996 at Lod (ancient Lydda) during the construction of a road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Measuring some twenty-three and a half feet by thirteen feet, the mosaic consists of a large square containing a central octagonal medallion, with narrow rectangular panels above and below the square.

Freedom’

Yasmine El Rashidi

Yasmine El Rashidi

It was around 3 PM on Friday that we began to feel it might be over. Earlier, there had been fears of a new government crackdown, as protesters, still seething from Mubarak’s defiant speech and Suleiman’s call for people to go home the night before, had promised to make the eighteenth day of revolution the largest yet. By early afternoon, those worries had faded. The streets had filled with marching, chanting people, and in Tahrir Square the growing crowd seemed to surge with positive energy. Again there was possibility. Mubarak’s speech had been a point of no return, and everyone I knew—even those who hadn’t taken part in the protests until now—said that they would be out calling for his departure after the Friday prayer.

This Is Who Egyptians Are’

Yasmine El Rashidi

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

On Thursday evening, sixteen days after thousands of Egyptians converged on Cairo’s central square to bring an end to a thirty-year-old dictatorship, it seemed that the moment we had been waiting for had finally come. Around 6 PM, rumors began circulating that Mubarak was preparing to step down, and later, Egyptian State TV confirmed he would be making an announcement—his second since the protests began. People started to pour into the streets near Tahrir Square shouting “Yay, yay, yay, Hosni is leaving today,” and cars were honking as if in victory.

As the evening went on and the speech was delayed, however, the crowd became quieter, many murmuring fears that perhaps the resignation wouldn’t happen. Some people sat on the pavement of Tahrir, others stood, waiting and anxious. Standing near me, Shahira Amin—the news anchor who resigned from her State television post last week to protest the government’s propaganda—said her stomach was in knots. When the speech began at last, a little after 11 PM—broadcast on loudspeakers across the square—it was quickly apparent that Mubarak was not going to concede much of anything. At first, people listened in stunned silence as he rambled on about “those” who were responsible for the violence being held to account. When he spoke of “foreign interference” some minutes into the speech, the crowd booed. People began to shout when he mentioned handing powers to longtime regime insider and now Vice President Omar Suleiman. And they erupted in anger when it became clear that he had no plans to step down.

Why Are the Muhammad Cartoons Still Inciting Violence?

Malise Ruthven

Edinburgh University Library

More than five years after Danish artist Kurt Westergaard published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, lives continue to be lost and—if we are to believe the police and intelligence agencies of dozens of countries—assassinations are still being attempted and plotted because Muslims have been angered by the display of such images. In December, a suicide bomber inspired by other insulting drawings of Muhammad attacked a busy shopping street in Stockholm; on Friday, a court in Copenhagen sentenced a Somali man to nine years in prison for attempting to kill Westergaard.

Traditional Islamic doctrine offers little explanation for this violent response. There is no explicit ban on figurative art in the Quran, and representations of Muhammad, though absent from public spaces, appear in illuminated manuscripts up until the seventeenth century; they still feature in the popular iconography of Shiism, where antipathy to pictures of the Prophet is much less prevalent. There are numerous such depictions—faceless or veiled as an indication of his holiness, or even depicted with facial features—in manuscript collections. It is only quite recently that Muslims living in the west have begun lodging objections to the reproduction of these images in books.

Talking About ‘True Grit’

Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana

Paramount Pictures

When invited by The New York Review to write about the very successful western (if it is a western; about which more follows) and Coen brothers movie adaptation of Charles Portis’s twice-filmed novel True Grit, we watched Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version starring John Wayne and Kim Darby, Joel’s and Ethan’s version, and also read Portis’s much-praised novel, on top of which we breezed through quite a few reviews, as well as portions of the production notes.

Where Is Poetry Going?

Charles Simic

Abbas/Magnum Photos

This is a question poets get asked often. The quick answer is nowhere. This can’t be right, you are thinking. You’ve read plenty of poems about poets walking in the woods, rolling in the hay and even taking a sightseeing trip through hell. True enough. Nevertheless, poets, even when they are fighting in a war, rarely take off their slippers. Doesn’t Homer’s blindness prove my thesis? I bet every one of those eyewitness accounts of Greeks and Trojan slaughtering each other, and the wonderful adventures Odysseus had cruising the Mediterranean, were dreamed up by Homer while waiting for his wife to serve lunch.

Sure, many poets would deny this. Here in the United States, we speak with reverence of authentic experience. We write poems about our daddies taking us fishing and breaking our hearts by making us throw the little fish back into the river. We even tell the reader the kind of car we were driving, the year and the model, to give the impression that it’s all true. It’s because we think of ourselves as journalists of a kind. Like them, we’ll go anywhere for a story. Don’t believe a word of it. As any poet can tell you, one often sees better with eyes closed than with eyes wide open.

Washington’s Secret History with the Muslim Brotherhood

Ian Johnson

AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid

As US-backed strongmen around North Africa and the Middle East are being toppled or shaken by popular protests, Washington is grappling with a crucial foreign-policy issue: how to deal with the powerful but opaque Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, the Brotherhood has taken an increasingly forceful part in the protests, issuing a statement Thursday calling for Mubarak’s immediate resignation. And though it is far from clear what role the Brotherhood would have should Mubarak step down, the Egyptian president has been claiming it will take over. In any case, the movement is likely to be a major player in any transitional government.

Blood Lust and the Super Bowl

Garry Wills

Tom Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Ben McGrath writes a shocking article in the January 31 New Yorker. Drawing partly on the extensive reporting of Alan Schwartz in the New York Times, he traces the high rate of degenerative neurological diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S.) in football players. “N.F.L. players,” McGrath writes, “are five to nineteen times as likely as the general population to have received a dementia-related diagnosis.” On one Sunday last October, “at least eleven N.F.L. players were concussed.” Since the impact of head-to-head run-ins on the field is equivalent to minor car crashes, a knowledgeable observer estimates that 20 percent of pro players on the field are already suffering incipient dementia. Nor are these injuries confined to professional games.

Can Congress Force Us to Buy Broccoli?

David Cole

cole_2-022411.jpg
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The January 31 ruling by US District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida that the new health reform law is unconstitutional in its entirety was immediately hailed by Republicans and Tea Party activists, who have made overturning the law their chief goal. The second federal district court judge to invalidate President Obama’s health care law, Judge Vinson reasoned that if the Commerce Clause empowers Congress to require citizens to buy health care insurance as a means of regulating “interstate commerce,” there would be no limit to Congressional power. It could require us to buy cars, bread, or even broccoli, as all could equally be said to be economic actions that would promote commerce. Surely, Vinson maintained, there must be some limit on Congress’s power. Thus, he concluded that neither the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the authority to regulate “interstate commerce,” nor the Necessary and Proper Clause, which authorizes any appropriate means that might further that goal, affords Congress authority to regulate “inactivity,” by requiring those who can afford it to purchase health insurance.

The Fighter’s Cruel Art

Joyce Carol Oates

Paramount Pictures

The Fighter might more accurately have been titled The Fighter and His Family: it’s a boisterous, brilliantly orchestrated ensemble piece at the paradoxically near-still center of which is an Irish-American boxer (Mark Wahlberg), whose once-promising career, like his grim hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, is on what appears to be an inevitable downward spiral. Just nominated for seven Academy Awards—including best picture and Christian Bale as supporting actor, the current favorite in that category—the film is based on the life and career of former junior welterweight champion Micky Ward, most famous for his three brutally hard-fought bouts with Arturo Gatti in 2002–2003. It is also a group portrait of working-class Irish-Americans in a blighted, postindustrial landscape: the brawling, clannish, emotionally combustible Ward-Eklund family for whom Micky is the great hope and from whom, if he wants to survive, let alone prevail as a boxer of ambition, he must separate himself.