Wednesday, September 29, 2010

John Murray Day

We celebrated John Murray Day at our house this week.

We’ve been attending a local Unitarian Universalist church for a couple of months, and, in a church-sponsored parenting book group, I recently encountered John Murray for the first time. According to, Murray is “often referred to as the father of American Universalism, helping to found Universalism as a denomination in the 1790s” (par. 10). The story goes that fierce winds prevented Murray from leaving the shore of New Jersey for his intended destination on September 30th, 1770, and, because he was detained, he agreed to speak at a Universalist meetinghouse, thus preaching the first Universalist sermon in America. He went on to serve as a minister for the first Universalist church in Massachusetts for the better part of the next couple of decades. As a Universalist, Murray espoused that salvation was for everyone, not just “the elect,” as the Calvinists of his day believed (or “the saved,” as contemporary conservative Christians believe today). Universalism of Murray’s time was driven by the belief that if Jesus was sacrificed for all of humanity, as the Bible states, then even non-believers could not be doomed to Hell. Today, Universalism is much less confined within a Christian worldview and, in UU theology, has come to stand for the inclusion of all people, regardless of faith or creed. Many Unitarian Universalists see Murray as helping to build the foundation for acceptance of difference within a religious community.

In order to commemorate John Murray’s contribution to Unitarian Universalism, my family and I instituted a new ritual involving dessert! (As my husband says, my daughter and I can turn anything into an opportunity to consume chocolate.) We started with two scoops of ice cream. I poured chocolate syrup over one of the scoops, and we all observed how it flowed over the ice cream. I then stuck an Oreo part-way into the other scoop, taking care to position it so that it was perpendicular to the bottom of the bowl. I poured chocolate syrup into the ridge between the two chocolate wafers of the Oreo, and we observed how it flowed differently than it did in the first. We talked about how the ice cream represents the world and the Oreo represents a person, like John Murray. The syrup flow over the Oreo demonstrated, then, that one person can make a difference in how the world experiences the forces of life. After discussing the demonstration, we all had Oreo sundaes!

Okay, so maybe it’s a stretch. But I wanted to find a way to celebrate this day, one of the only “special” days of a specifically UU history. It is important to me to reinforce that we are a family grounded in a free-thinking spiritual tradition, a tradition founded on principles of Universalism, both of the new definition and the old.

Perhaps because I come from an evangelical Christian upbringing, I see the concept of Universalism not just as a tenet of the UU church but also as a marker in my own spiritual journey. To move beyond the (fear-based) belief in Hell has been a major milestone for me and has allowed me—just as it allowed the Calvinist-turned-Universalist John Murray, I suspect—to join in meaningful community with believers and non-believers of all sorts.

I also believe that we might all benefit from the adoption of a belief in Universalism, as it seems to me to not only prevent our condemnation of each other to spiritual damnation but also, and perhaps more importantly, to pave the way from toleration to associationism, a journey that very well might led all of us to further spiritual enlightenment by virtue of learning from others. In a post over at A Commonplace Blog, D.G. Myers defines toleration: “Toleration, on my showing, would entail the unspoken agreement to put up with religious differences without ever undertaking the impossible mission of reconciling them, which—in the absence of any logical method for doing so—can only end in coercion or violence —separatism to learning from each other” (par. 6). Myers thus describes toleration as enduring the religious opinions of others without budging on our own beliefs. As Kevin points out in a comment, though, it seems a bit ridiculous to envision living in harmony with people of differing beliefs but remaining unchanged by this diversity. Kevin states, “Perhaps the world’s religions aren’t as insular as [Myers] suggest[s], aren’t self-contained circles” (Myers, par. 11).

Indeed. It seems to me, in fact, that the concept of Universalism allows for a more positive—and perhaps more practical—way of living with difference, a way that Daniel Harper at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist describes as associationism. Harper sees associationism as “refer[ing] to a form of voluntary association in which local organizations or voluntary associations are connected into a larger association or network of local organizations, by means of written records (minutes of meetings, bylaws, etc.), and formal and informal exchanges between associated local organizations (informal local cooperation, formal regional and national conventions, annual meetings, etc.)” (par. 8). In short, associationism allows people of divergent belief systems to come together in community, to support each other, to work toward common goals, and to help each other attain spiritual enlightenment. Associationism differs from toleration in that it implies more than a respect for spiritual difference; instead, it opens up the possibility of learning from the diversity of a common religious community.

John Murray Day is, for me, then, not just an opportunity to rejoice in my family’s recent inclusion into a local spiritual community but also a celebration of Universalism itself, a concept that has played a major role in my own religious liberation and that offers the promise of uniting us for the purpose of individual and communal spiritual growth. And, of course, the kids and I liked the ice cream and Oreos!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Motherhood and the Law of the Father in Nuruddin Farah's "Dictatorship" Trilogy

As many critics have noted, Naruddin Farah’s trilogy “Variations on the Theme of African Dictatorship” represents the patriarchal structure of the family as reinforcing the power of Somalia’s governmental regime under the General (a stand-in for the historical figure of Siad Barre, who led the Somali Democratic Republic from 1969 to 1991 as military dictator). Certainly, traditional gender roles that position the father/husband as the unqualified head of the family and his children/wives as powerless and therefore submissive to his commands map easily, according to Naruddin’s novels, onto the structure of a dictatorship, which situates one omniscient and all-powerful man above a citizenry at the mercy of his dictates and their often violent enforcement. I claim, however, that Naruddin also portrays motherhood, both as a familial position and a conceptual framework, as playing a crucial role in the maintenance of the General’s regime.

The extent to which motherhood functions to underpin the oppressive Somali government is most fully explored in the first two novels of the trilogy: Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), which introduces this issue even in its metaphorically rich title, and Sardines (1981). The final novel in the series, Close Sesame (1983), sidelines the issue of motherhood in favor of a final look at the patriarchal family structure and its tribal counterpart, the traditional Somali clan system. I will therefore focus in this post on the first two novels. In Sweet and Sour Milk, Loyaan undertakes to determine the cause for the sudden death of Soyaan, his twin brother, which appears to have been ordered by the General in response to Soyaan’s subversive politics. The novel introduces a host of mother figures, including Loyaan and Soyaan’s mother, Qumman, who, out of fear for her children’s lives, discourages their political activism. The second novel centers on the strained relationship between Medina and Samater, who differ in their approaches to dealing with the General’s government and, by extension, the continued oppression and abuse of women and girls personified in Samater’s highly conservative mother, Idil. While Idil works to maintain the political and social status quo, Medina and other mothers throughout the novel offer us alternative approaches to motherhood. In both novels, mothers are depicted as subjugated to the rule of their husbands and the dictatorship, but they are also powerful in that they either visit—in true Kristevan fashion—the Law of the father upon their children or actively resist the rule of the patriarchal family and government structure.

Although she recognizes that her son’s death was a work of foul play, Qumman insists on blaming other women—Soyaan’s mistress Margarita and her husband’s other wife Beynan, for instance—for his demise. In this way, she deflects responsibility for Soyaan’s murder from the oppressive military regime and—though unwittingly—reinforces the patriarchy’s conventional suspicion of women and breeds distrust within her own community of women. Fearful for her only remaining son’s life, Qumman also tries to prevent Loyaan from pursuing the truth or resisting the government in any way, hovering close to him during a communal “broom party” in an effort to ensure that he does not verbally or non-verbally challenge the officiating government personnel (212). As J.I. Okonkwo points out, “[T]hrough loyalty, service and emotional hold over sons and husbands, Qumman’s generation of women, deeply conservative, militate against individual freedom and progress” (219). We find another—perhaps more extreme and certainly more deliberate—example of this type of maternal control over the potential subversive acts of her children in Idil of Sardines. As I mentioned in a previous post on genital mutilation, Idil insists that she will have her granddaughter, Ubax, circumcised, even if it means that she has to steal the eight-year-old away from Medina and Samater. When Medina moves away with the young girl in an effort to escape Idil’s threat, Idil arranges for a more suitable—conservative and submissive—wife for Samater. Samater ultimately rejects both his mother and the new woman, forcing them to leave his house, but not without arousing the anger of the state.

In fact, Samater’s decision to eject his mother from his home is treated as an act of treason. Samater is picked up by government officials, held in prison for a period of time, and subjected to various acts of torture before he is finally allowed to return to his wife and child. In this sequence of events, we see Idil the matriarch positioned as a representative of the General and his regime. An offense against Idil is perceived by the state as an offense against the General. In addition to a father-figure, then, the General becomes a mother-figure. A passage in the first novel of the trilogy describes the General and his dictatorship as taking on the role of both mother and father to the abandoned orphans of Somalia: “[A]ny unclaimed babies found in the city’s garbage bins or unpatrolled streets were trained to consider the General their father, his revolution their mother, and the regime’s generosities to them their breast-feed” (235). In fact, the novel’s very title, Sweet and Sour Milk, suggests both the role that women play in perpetuating the violence of the military regime through their efforts to protect their children and the ways in which the head of the state acts as a mother himself, indoctrinating his subjects into a harsh world by laying down the Law, his own law of fear and violence. Recurrent imagery in the novel depicts mothers nursing, refusing to nurse, unable to nurse, and weaning their children. I read these women as representative of the state—and the general himself. Together, they portray the General as an abusive mother. He suckles his citizenry in the rhetoric of equality and freedom and then abandons them to hunger and desperation, all in a careful plan to ensure their dependence on his random and infrequent acts of nurturance. In that they care for their children and then limit their children’s struggles against an oppressive government and in that they take on the symbolism of the state—which protects and kills at whim—conservative mothers in Farah’s trilogy raise their children on the sweet and sour milk of the first novel’s title.

Not all mothers in Sweet and Sour Milk and Sardines reinforce the Law of the dictator, however. Especially in the figure of Medina, Farah offers us a woman who acts as a strong leader for the young women in her community and encourages both her surrogate and biological daughters to question the government and engage in political activism. Interestingly, though, in all of her zeal to teach her daughter to resist the General’s militaristic regime, Medina has to consciously work to avoid taking on the qualities of a dictator herself. Medina recalls at one point the words of her progressive father: “You must leave breathing-space in the architecture of your love; you must leave enough room for little Ubax to exercise her growing mind. You mustn’t indoctrinate, mustn’t brainwash her. Otherwise you become another dictator, trying to shape your child in your own image” (17). Even as Medina struggles against the General in her political life and her mother-in-law who represents the dictatorship in her personal life, she must proceed with caution in her relationship with her own daughter, for, as Derek Wright points out, “The freedom which Medina forces prematurely upon Ubax is at times almost as oppressive as the obedience Idil has forced upon Samater” (103). In this way, Farah again insists on the power of motherhood, a power that many women use to initiate their children into the way of the Law and that Medina must moderate in order to raise a free-thinking daughter.

Because women (as mothers) are so potentially powerful in resisting the dictatorship, Farah situates their full freedom—from arranged marriage, circumcision, purdah, censorship, etc.—as crucial to the development of a just government in Somalia. In that they continue to suffer the terrorism and indoctrination inherent to a dictatorship, however, mothers in Farah’s novels often function to serve the state by teaching their children the Law that, ironically, oppresses them and also by serving as honored symbols of the dictatorship itself. It is in fact because Farah is so sensitive to the continued victimization of women and the political consequences of this victimization that popular and scholarly critics agree, as blogger The Activist Writer claims, for example, that he is one of Africa’s leading feminist authors.

Bibliographic Notes: Those who have discussed the patriarchal family structure as reinforcing the General’s dictatorship include R. John Williams and Derek Wright. For further discussion of the significance of milk in Somali lore and tradition, see Abdourahman A. Waberi.

Works Cited

Farah, Nuruddin. Close Sesame. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf P, 1983.

---. Sardines. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf P, 1981.

---. Sweet and Sour Milk. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf P, 1979.

Okonkwo, J. I. “Nuruddin Farah and the Changing Roles of Women.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 58.2 (1984): 215-221.

Waberi, Abdourahman A. “Organic Metaphor in Two Novels by Nuruddin Farah.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 72.4 (1998): 775-80.

Williams, R. John. “'Doing History': Nuruddin Farah's Sweet and Sour Milk, Subaltern Studies, and the Postcolonial Trajectory of Science.” Research in African Literatures 37.4 (2006): 161-76.

Wright, Derek. “Parents and Power in Nuruddin Farah's Dictatorship Trilogy.” Kunapipi 11.2 (1989): 94-106.