"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Crowd Turns against Jesus, from What Jesus Saw from the Cross

On Ash Wednesday I mentioned I was reading What Jesus Saw from the Cross by A. G. Sertillanges for Lent, and I have to say this is one of the best devotional books I have ever read.    Perhaps it’s the very best devotional I have ever read.  As I said then, Sertillanges contemplates what Jesus saw and thinks as He is pinned upon the cross, meditating on the Passion events.

Not only are the meditations profound, but the writing is superb!  Here’s for your appreciation an extended quote from the passage where the crowd turns against Jesus.  Notice how Sertillanges shifts subtly perspectives from Pilate to Jesus to the crowd several times to create different angles, perceptions, and views.  Notice how he changes the pacing of the syntax, accelerating as the actions and emotions build, slowly down to provide contemplative commentary.  This passage, and along with many other passages in the book, are truly passages I wished I had written.  Sertillanges, a French Dominican friar, had written the work in his native tongue, but whoever translated it—it doesn’t say in my Sophia Institute Press 1996 edition—did a remarkable job.  There is a note on the copyright page that says the book “was published in French as Ce Jésus voyait du haut de la croix by Ernest Flammarion of Paris in 1930.  An English translation was published by Clonmore & Reynolds Ltd. in Dublin in 1948.” 

Here is the passage, taken from the chapter titled, "His Enemies." 

The incredible thing is that it should have been found possible to mobilize against Jesus so many people who for various reasons ought to have been His friends.  They had received from Him nothing but benefits.  His word had awaken their slumbering hearts; His goodness had won their affection; His miracles had aroused their admiration; His condemnation of abuses could not but command their sympathy; and His promises of happiness, even if they were not believed, must at least have flattered their dreams.

What is their grievance?  That the leaders of the Jews should have hated Jesus is perhaps intelligible, but the enmity of the crowd is most mysterious.  It is only at the last moment that it becomes manifest, and then only under the stimulus of encouragement from the priests.

At the beginning of His sacred ministry Jesus had applied to Himself the words of the prophet: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, wherefore He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He hath sent me to heal the contrite of heart, to preach deliverance to the captives, and sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of reward (Luke 4:18; Cf. Isa 61:1-2). 

This program had aroused intense enthusiasm.  It is true that there was annoyance at some of His reproaches, and that among His own people Jesus had already experienced something of the fickle moods of mankind.  Still, on the whole He had been well received by the masses.

If Jesus complained of their tepidity and their incredulity, of their selfishness and their demands, He did not attribute hostile sentiments to His hearers.  Often He had been acclaimed; they had wanted to make Him king.  He was received and welcomed with gratitude, and during the last few days since the raising of Lazarus, their love for Him seemed to have reached its zenith.

“A great prophet has arisen in the midst of us!  God has visited His people!  He has done all things well!  Never has man spoken as this man!  He is Elijah!  He is John the Baptist risen again, or one of the prophets!  He is the messiah: Hosanna to the son of David!  Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!  Such were the cries that saluted Him.

Even during the Passion itself, at Pilate’s house, the crowd does not seem ill disposed at first.  The leaders had not summoned them; it was hardly likely!  Had it not been for Judas and the opportunity he offered, they would willingly have postponed the satisfaction of their hate to avoid this concourse.  “Not on the festival day,” they said, “lest there be a tumult among the people (Matt 26:5). 

The crowd has assembled for reasons of its own.  They have a right to have a prisoner released to them this day, and they are going to claim that right.  Perhaps they are thinking of Barabbas, perhaps of Jesus, who is at this moment is appearing before the tribunal (Mark 15:11-13). 

Unhappily for the popular choice or for its constancy, the leaders take a hand; they have time to do so, for this is the interval during which the procurator’s wife interrupts the proceedings.  The mutual explanations of the pair must have taken a moment or two, and it was natural that a certain time should be allowed to claimants to decide upon their choice. 

Pilate has just given them the option: “Which of the two will you that I release unto you?”  And he has shown them in which direction his own inclination lies: “Will you that I release unto you the king of the Jews” (Mark 15:9)?  Left to themselves, those in the crowd might answer in the affirmative, but the leaders are rousing them now; their high priests have control over them, in spite of their complaints.  Moreover, Pilate has irritated them by twice referring jocularly to “their king” (Mark 15:9, 12). 

King, king, always the king!  And a broken-down king at that!  He rouses their derision more than their pity: a Messiah in chains before a Roman governor!  This seems to be the kernel of the matter in the eyes of these Israelites, who yesterday were enthusiastic, a few moments ago were in doubt, and now are suddenly hostile and furious.

Mobs do not like to be disillusioned; and the man who disappoints them may pass in a moment from the rank of a national hero to nothing, and even to less than nothing.  The sympathies of the mob are liable to revulsions.  Many a crashing fall in history has been due to no more than this.

Think what a disillusionment it is for the Jews to see Jesus in this condition before Pilate, to say nothing of the other accusations against Him to which that condition easily lent credit.  The Liberator of the chosen people appearing as a leader of sedition before a Roman tribunal and unable to acquit himself of the charge!  This is the Pualine “scandal of the Cross” (Cf. 1 Cor 1:23) by anticipation, and we can understand that an infuriated crowd will leave Him to His fate.

From disappointment they pass to spite, from spite to anger, and under the ceaseless encouragement of their iniquitous leaders they are easily roused to exasperation.  The word cross has been spoken; it is taken up and repeated.  The penalty of crucifixion has been so often inflicted on Jews that they are surprised at the hesitation of the governor.  Once they have rejected Jesus, He is nothing more nor less for them than an agitator and an enemy of the empire.  “What you have done to so many others,” they answer in reply, “Crucify Him!” (Matt 27:22; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:20-21; John 19:15)

Once the change of feeling is thus achieved, the taste of blood now begins to intoxicate the mob; a thrill of cruelty runs through them all.  To any further questions or objections the maddened crowd has only one reply, given with increasing violence: “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!”  And it does not stop there; it involves the whole people in its own responsibility, and not only the present generation but posterity as well: “His blood be upon us and upon our children!” (Matt 27:25)

And that prayer will be answered.  But what a tragedy for Him who would have gathered this thankless people “as the hen gathers her chicken under her wing!” (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34)  He has come to them with a message of happiness, and they hate Him and blaspheme.  If that message was only a dream it was at any rate a dream of goodness; and their only answer is the nightmare of death.

This people, which has awaited and expected Him for many centuries, receives Him and fails to know Him for what He is.  He who was to come is come, and He departs carrying all His blessings with Him.  His nation scorns Him, kills him, drives Him forth; even dead they will have Him only outside their walls.  And while He dies they scoff and sneer.  Even those who have not come to see Him die are over there on the terraces of their houses, waving their arms and crying out like madmen.  And Jesus, whose Cross raises Him above the level of the walls, can see these traitors to His love, these distant enemies.

As the procession passed the Gate of Ephraim, those who had been waiting there since the great news came from the praetorium, who had heard the legal formula “Go, lector, prepare the cross!” pronounced, must have broken forth again into tumultuous fury.  For now it was their fury that they showed, not their desires or their requests.  The cruel gaiety of this day had gone to everybody’s head; the word cross was on the lips of them all, and the word blood and the word death, mingled with Galilean, rabbi, prophet, Messiah; and every word was uttered with a sneer. 

Every savage instinct latent in the heart of man was awake; souls frothed over with rage, and this anticipatory delegation of those who in every generation would hate and oppose Christ, vented itself in a cry of satanic joy.

The darkness and the other portents that are soon to appear will damp this delirious frenzy.  A thrill of fear will pass through the city; hearts will be heavy; those who now acclaim the death of the Savior will beat their breasts.  Once more the fickle crowd will change, in its emotional and childish fashion.  Yet the problem still remains: how did this transformation which we have described become possible?  General explanations do not satisfy the mind; is there not one which perhaps goes deep to the heart of things?  (pp. 156-61)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sunday Psalm: Psalm 2, The Coronation of the King

I gave a brief introduction on the psalms in my first “Sunday Psalm” but I didn’t get the chance on relating my methodology for this series, if indeed I have one.  First, I plan on reading several different translations.  The website Biblegateway.com is an incredible resource.  It contains just about every translation in just about very language imaginable—including Cherokee!—and specific to denominations.  It includes commentary, dictionaries, study tools, and other resources.  I will also scour the internet for commentary, and at the risk of having people cringe I will admit I use Wikipedia often.  If a subject is not controversial, I find Wikipedia to be very sound.  People may not realize it, but published encyclopedias have lots of mistakes too.  Wikipedia has a process for correcting mistakes while once published a book with mistakes will go on indefinitely. 

I will post the psalm under scrutiny using The New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE).  There are several good Bible translations, but I feel comfortable with the NABRE mainly because it seems like it’s striving for precision of translation rather than elevated language.  Those are the two ends of the translation spectrum: do you strive to translate precisely or do you try to capture the poeticism of the original language?  Glory be to God when you can do both, boy usually it’s impossible.  If it this were poetry, it would be a different matter, but for religious texts I personally want to know what the original author meant as precisely as possible.  Plus the NABRE is what is used in Catholic Mass in the United States, so I listen to it every Sunday and read from it every day.  For Catholics I would say The Ignatius Bible is also very good but we don’t use it at Mass.  I don’t know Protestant Bibles that well but I have found the New International Version (NIV) to be very sound.  When I want to bounce a Catholic interpretation against a Protestant one, I usually go to that one.  I’ve said this before on my blog, I do not like the Kings James Version (KJV).  I find the language stilted and the translation to be suspect at places.  It was translated over 400 years ago, and the scholarship has come a long way since then.

I will be relying on two books for their commentary.  First is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A translation with Commentary (W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007).  Robert Alter is a Jewish Biblical scholar and his translation and commentary will provide a much needed Jewish perspective that most of my resources lack.  The other book I will rely on is Charles J. Dollen’s Prayerbook of the Kings: The Psalms (Alba House, New York, 1998).  Monsignor Dollen is a widely published Catholic author and Monsignor.  

Now let’s go to Psalm 2. 

1 Why do the nations protest
    and the peoples conspire in vain?
2 Kings on earth rise up
    and princes plot together
    against the Lord and against his anointed one:
3 “Let us break their shackles
    and cast off their chains from us!”
4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord derides them,
5 Then he speaks to them in his anger,
    in his wrath he terrifies them:
6 “I myself have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain.”
7 I will proclaim the decree of the Lord,
    he said to me, “You are my son;
    today I have begotten you.
8 Ask it of me,
    and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
    and, as your possession, the ends of the earth.
9 With an iron rod you will shepherd them,
    like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them.”
10 And now, kings, give heed;
    take warning, judges on earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear;
    exult with trembling,
12 Accept correction
    lest he become angry and you perish along the way
    when his anger suddenly blazes up.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him!

This is one of the ten psalms that have been identified as a Royal Psalm.  Royal Psalms deal with the relationship of God with the Kings of Israel.  At the very beginning of the psaltery, a Royal Psalm is placed showing the divine favor placed upon Israel’s King, which in this case is David.  That sixth line, we get the central theme right out of God’s mouth, “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”  Two interesting thoughts come to mind.  First is that the coronation of a King comes as a divine commandment, which I imagine to be radical at that time in Jewish history.  For the first 400 years the Jewish people did not have a King.  Excluding Abimelech, who was an anomaly, and to some never a King, the Jewish people were ruled by judges and prophets for the pre-Davidic era, which essentially made it a theocracy.  From Chabad.org, a Jewish information website, under “A History of the Jewish Monarchy:”  

Then, in the year 2881 (880 BCE), after 400 years of being led by prophets and judges, the people approached the Prophet Samuel, clamoring for a king “like all the other nations.”

After consulting with G‑d (who expressed His disappointment in the peoples’ lack of faith), Samuel reluctantly gave in to their pleas, but not without warning them of the pitfalls inherent in having an absolute monarch.1

A short while later, when a young man from the tribe of Benjamin named Saul came to him for help locating his lost donkeys, Samuel anointed him as king over Israel.

Ultimately God rejects Saul for David but whoever was king, it required some Divine justification. This Psalm depicts that coronation with the voice of God Himself establishing the transition in government.  Such a divine appointment establishes the Jewish King as a theocratic ruler, having a sort of Divine Right.  This concept of Divine Right will later be picked up by Christian monarchs to justify their authority.

The second thought that comes to mind is that there is a parallel construction between God as King of all creation and with His appointed King of His people, the Royal King of Israel.  There are several other Psalms that are classified as Enthronement Psalms, Psalms where God is enthroned as King of the universe.  See Psalms 47 and 93, and see line 4 in this psalm, “the one enthroned in heaven laughs.”  Just as God is enthroned as the universal King, God enthrones a man to be King of His people, “the Lord and His anointed one” (l. 2).  But isn’t the “anointed one” also a reference to the Messiah, the One who will forever lead and save the world?  Yes, and Christians call Him Jesus Christ.  And so, we can see three parallel persons intimated: God who is King of creation, David who is King of the temporal Israel, and Christ who is the Lord of all mankind.

Robert Alter, presenting the Jewish perspective, disputes that jump to Jesus Christ.  On line 2 he says that “anointed” here clearly is used “in its political sense as the designation of the legitimate current heir to the Davidic dynasty, without eschatological implications.”  And on line 7, he argues that “despite Christological readings…over the centuries, it was commonplace in the ancient Near East, readily adopted by the Israelites, to imagine the King as God’s son.”  While those are both true, it does not dispute God worked salvation history over centuries and cultures.  While the poet could not have had Jesus Christ in mind when he wrote those lyrics—I do not believe Christians claim otherwise—the lyrics turn out to be prophetic. 

 The psalm is structured into three parts: Some historical reference to nations conspiring against Israel (lines 1-4), God appointing an earthly King with the power to smash those nations (lines 5-9), and a warning to those nations of God’s power (lines 10-12).  Though it takes a number of lines to get there, the psalm is of the praise genre.  The poet indirectly praises God for siding with Israel.

Of note, the twelfth line (“Accept correction lest he become angry and you perish along the way when his anger suddenly blazes up”) seems to have wide variation in translation.  NIV, as many others, translates it as “Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.”  Alter translates it “With purity be armed, lest He rage and you be lost on the way.” “Kiss his son” seems vastly different than “accept correction” and both vastly different than “with purity be armed.”  Alter explains that the Hebrew words that governs the text is nashqu bar, which literally mean kiss the son but idiomatically means to wield arms.  The NIV and Alter’s translations both attempt to capture a metaphor while the NABRE strips out the figure of speech to what it thinks is the implied meaning.  I can’t make up my mind which I prefer.

Quick summary of Psalm 2:
Form: Praise.
Theme: Royal, Installation of the King
Length: twelve lines.
Key imagery: shackles, Holy Mountain, iron rod, shattered pot.
Christian typology: Eternal King. 

Favorite lines: “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Music Tuesday: Chuck Berry, In Memoriam

These In Memoriam posts are usually too late.  If you’ve heard of rock ‘n roll, by now you’ve heard that Chuck Berry has died at the age of 90.  If you think rock ‘n roll is special, then Chuck Berry is the most consequential pop musician of the last 65 years.  Chuck passed away on Saturday, March 18th at a ripe old age.  From Billboard:

Chuck Berry, the singer, songwriter and guitar great who practically defined rock music with his impeccably twangy hits “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis,” “My Ding-a-Ling” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” has died. He was 90.

The singer/songwriter, whose classic “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen by Carl Sagan to be included on the golden record of Earth Sounds and Music launched with Voyager in 1977, died Saturday afternoon, St. Charles County Police Department confirmed. The cause of death was not revealed.

During his 60-plus years in show business, Berry in 1986 became one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He entered The Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in ’85 and that year also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

He performed in 1979 for President Jimmy Carter at the White House, landed at No. 6 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and trademarked his stage showmanship with his famous “duck walk.” 

John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” He paved the way for such music legends as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Band, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, AC/DC, Sex Pistols and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.

Every single Rock band can trace their roots to Berry.  He was idolized by the Beatles and the Stones and I can’t think of a Rock musician who didn’t revere him.  Let’s start his retrospective with a song that shows all the elements of Berry’s music, “Maybelline.”  

First listen to that introductory guitar lick.  It’s neither pretentious nor gaudy, simple and yet distinct.  From there the guitar moves right into the melody over a thumping blend of rhythm and blues beat and country western intonation.  The guitar riff is his signature contribution.  Add his poetic use of diction and deft articulation—here the verse at twice the tempo of the chorus—and you have Chuck Berry.  Here you have Rock and Roll at its purist form.  One can see how he took America by storm.  He crossed all sorts of racial and musical boundaries.  And he was prototypical American and proud of it.  I still get patriotic fervor when I hear “Back in the USA.” .

The lyrics of this one are just too good to not post:

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today
We touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U.S.A.

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol' St. Lou

Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A.

Looking hard for a drive in, searching for a corner cafe
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.

Chuck Berry - Back In The Usa Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now that was big for a black man in pre-civil rights America to say he was glad about living in our country.  Skyscrapers, Delaware Bay, California coast, hamburgers, and juke box.  He captures the America of his day.

Another thing that made Berry so popular was that he sang to the hearts of the young just when the youth culture was rising in strength.  Whether this was coincidence or his insight I don’t know.  So much of his music has a dance element to it, a youthful dance step.  One of my all-time favorites is “Carol.”  

“I got my eyes on you baby, 'cause you dance so good/Oh Carol, don't let him steal your heart away/I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.”  I remember wishing as a teen I had a girlfriend named Carol just because of that song.

And then there is this little gem.  I picked a clip with the lyrics because I wanted to showcase Berry’s skillful storytelling.  “Memphis, Tennessee” is not exactly what it seems if you’re just casually listening.  It’s about a broken home and trying to connect with a daughter. 

Both R&B and County Western music have a history of song subjects on broken relationships.  If “Memphis, Tennessee” is about a broken family, “30 Days” is about attempting to reconstitute the family. 

Here’s a song that’s probably not as well know, but it’s one of my Berry favorites, “Down the Road Apiece.”

The lyrics are so good here, you just have to read along.

Now if you wanna hear some boogie like I'm gonna play
It's just an old piano and a knockout bass
The drummer man's a cat they call Kickin' McCoy
You know, remember that rubber-legged boy?
Mama's cookin' chicken fried and bacon grease
Come on along boys it's just down the road apiece

Well, there's a place you really get your kicks
It's open every night about twelve to six
Now if you wanna hear some boogie you can get your fill
And shove and sting like an old steam drill
Come on along you can lose your lead
Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece

There's a place you really get your kicks
It's open every night about twelve to six
Now if you wanna hear some boogie you can get your fill
And shove and sting like an old steam drill
Come on along you can lose your lead
Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece

Chuck Berry - Down The Road A Piece Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now if you listen to the instrumentation, you can hear that beautiful, lyrical piano accompanying Berry’s equally lyrical guitar riffs.  That piano player is Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s long time pianist.  I would venture to say that the Chuck Berry sound and style would not have been what it was without Johnson.  While Berry took songwriting credits, Johnson ultimately disputed that it was solely Berry.  My guess is Johnson contributed immensely. 

How about live clip of “Nadineto show off Berry’s showmanship and classic duck step with the guitar.  Keith Richards, who adored Berry, is playing rhythm in back and that’s Bobby Keys on sax. 

Chuck played with that energy and work ethic up to 90 years of age. 

Finally, you can’t have a Chuck Berry retrospective without his classic, “Johnnie B.Goode.”  

Louisiana woods, New Orleans, country boy, log cabin, electric guitar, name in lights, this is such an American song.  The lyrics are just classic.

Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell

Go go
Go Johnny go

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made
People passing by they would stop and say
Oh my that little country boy could play

Go go
Go Johnny go

His mother told him "Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight."

Go go
Go Johnny go

Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now here’s the wonderful news to go along with the sad news of Berry’s passing.  Chuck had just finished recording a new album, the first with original material in decades.  

ST. LOUIS, MO – OCTOBER 18, 2016 — Chuck Berry, the artist who codified the
sound, rhythm and language of rock and roll, celebrated his 90 th birthday today
with the surprise announcement that he will release a new album – titled simply
‘CHUCK’ – in 2017 on Dualtone Records (an Entertainment One Company).

Comprised primarily of new, original songs written, recorded and produced by the
founding rock and roll legend, ‘CHUCK’ is Berry’s first new album in thirty-eight
years. It was recorded in various studios around St. Louis and features Berry’s
longtime hometown backing group – including his children Charles Berry Jr.
(guitar) and Ingrid Berry (harmonica), plus Jimmy Marsala (Berry’s bassist of
forty years), Robert Lohr (piano), and Keith Robinson (drums) – which has
supported him for over two decades on over two hundred residency shows at the
famed Blueberry Hill club. More details about ‘CHUCK’ and other Berry-related
events will be revealed in the coming weeks.

“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry, referring to his wife
of 68 years, Themetta Berry. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this
record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”

Isn’t that wonderful!  I can’t wait until it’s released. 

Eternal light shine on Mr. Berry.  You gave us so much pleasure.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Imam’s Daughter: My Desperate Flight to Freedom by Hannah Shah, Part 1

I bought this book on a whim.  I think it was one of those Amazon deals where the price is reduced to 99 cents or maybe it was $1.99.  Something in the book description lured me, since this is not the type of book I would normally read.  It’s a confessional memoir called The Imam's Daughter by a Muslim lady (or I should say, former Muslim) whose family were immigrants from Pakistan to England. It’s mostly about her childhood and her coming of age.  Her story describes the abuse she lived under by her abusive father, who was an Imam at their local mosque, and how she broke free to find Christianity. Even at the now price of $5.99 it's still worth it. I read it in five days, which is super-fast for me, and I read it while trying to keep up with my current reading schedule. I couldn't put it down.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

From my childhood—the images sketchy and opaque, a splash of color here and there among darkness—I remember one thing clearly: my street. East Street, in Bermford, the north of England. Two rows of identical, brick-built Victorian houses and a shady park at the north end like leafy branches atop a blood-red trunk. I saw the gnarled trees as fanged monsters among whose knotted, bestial shadows our childhood games darted.

I flitted—daydreaming, pigtailed, hand-me-down mary janes rubbing the long spine of the cracked sidewalk—from house to house. Doors were always left open, and there was no fear of being robbed. I could wander down to my friend Amina’s place whenever I felt like it. I was welcome to stay for as long as I wanted. If I was out for more than three or four hours, someone would come looking for me—my mother or one of my brothers. But it was still a kind of freedom for a little child.

I’d be offered a drink of Pakistani tea—water boiled with tea leaves, hot milk, heaps of sugar, and sometimes cardamom—and something to eat. It was chocolate digestives or Rich Tea biscuits one day and curry or chapattis the next. Hours later I found my way home, skipping past window after window blooming yellow into the dark soil of night.
It was the 1980s. We were Pakistani. We were British. We were East Street.

That sort of idyllic opening belies the life that went on inside the home.  We shortly get an inkling of what’s at the heart of the problem.  From later in that opening chapter:

Across the street lived an Armenian family, a mother and her one son—one of the few families on our street who weren’t of Pakistani Muslim origin. The Armenian mother tried to communicate with Mum, but her English was very limited. Mum told us to call her “Auntie” as a traditional sign of respect, but Dad didn’t agree. He refused to show respect to anyone except other Pakistani Muslims—not even the Indian Muslims who lived around the corner on Jenna Street.

The problem is the father of the family and his interpretation of Islam.  It’s hard to separate what can be attributed to Islam and what are cultural norms, and far be it for me to be an expert on Islam or Pakistani culture, but Islam is a not just a theology.  Through the Quran and the Hadiths and Sharia law, it does prescribe culture.  How much of what goes on is not clear whether it’s Islam or Pakistani culture or isolated to this family.  What is clear I think is that masculinity does take a preeminent ranking in the social stratum, and the father of a family has a level of authority well beyond what we are used to in western culture.  It appears to be dictatorial, though prudence and charity should give a father pause from exerting such power.  This father had neither prudence nor charity.  Here is a scene where the mother had arranged to take some lessons in English with a Miss Edith Smith, who came to the house.  The mother and daughter knew the father would be against it, so they arranged for the lessons at a time of day the father would be out of the house. 

Miss Smith brought a ray of light into Mum’s world.

“How are you?” Miss Smith asked.

“I am fine, thank you,” Mum replied.

At first Mum’s words were stilted. But with Edith’s encouragement, she was soon sailing into deeper conversational waters.

“How did you sleep?”

“I slept very well.”

“How many children do you have?”

“I have six children.”

“Are you married?” Mum smiled, embarrassed. What a thing to ask—of course she was married! How could she have six children and not be?

“Yes, I am married.”

“Where do your children go to school?”

And so it went. After Miss Smith left, I helped Mum practice the English alphabet and numbers, and tried to engage her in basic conversation. After those visits, Mum was noticeably happier. She was very clever, yet she was never given the chance to study and learn. Mum was like a caged bird without a chance to fly.

One day Dad came home early from the mosque. As usual, Mum and Miss Smith were in the lounge with me. We heard the front door open and shut. Mum immediately tensed up. The lounge door opened and Dad sat down on the sofa. For a moment, he failed to notice Miss Smith, but then he caught sight of this white woman in his home. Instantly, his face darkened like a thundercloud.

“Hello,” said Miss Smith, trying to smile at him.

Dad scowled back at her and buried his head in his Qur’an. Miss Smith did her best to carry on with the lesson, but a dark and menacing atmosphere had seeped into the room. Mum looked terrified. She wasn’t laughing and joking with Miss Smith anymore.

When the lesson ended, Mum saw Edith to the door and went straight into the kitchen. Dad jumped up and followed her, immediately shouting. “What are you doing bringing that gori into the house? A dirty gori infidel! In my house! How dare you?”  

From where I was sitting in the lounge, I heard that first, sickening thump of fist on flesh. Mum cried out in pain, but Dad was merciless. He beat her again and again.

My brothers were upstairs. They heard Mum’s screams, but they didn’t react. They supported Mum when they could, but they wouldn’t dare challenge Dad’s violent authority.

I sat in the lounge. Minutes earlier Mum had been laughing happily with Miss Smith about her awful pronunciation. Now, for that simple, innocent pleasure, she was being savagely beaten by Dad. I was five years old and too scared to do anything but sit in silence. Finally, Dad stormed into the men’s lounge, shutting himself there in a silent rage.

I crept into the kitchen. Mum had collapsed onto the floor and she was sobbing hysterically. She couldn’t get up, shaking as she was with shock and pain. I tried to put my tiny arms around her, but she pushed me away. She was ashamed and embarrassed she had been beaten again and didn’t want her little daughter to see her in such a state.

I stood bewildered. I longed to help Mum, to comfort her and make her life happy—as it had been a few minutes earlier. But how could I stop Dad from hitting her? Even at the age of five, I understood it was only a matter of time before he beat Mum again, and again after that.

My dad was a bad man. How could he do this to Mum—my gentle, funny mother who never hurt anyone? Dad had really worked Mum over this time, and I was sure he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew where to hit Mum to hide the damage. It was planned. It was deliberate.

As you can see, male authority takes preeminence (notice there is a “men’s lounge” in the house) and fatherly authority is never challenged.  Would such behavior be prosecuted in Pakistan or another Muslim country?  Perhaps not, but the father was aware of it being criminal in Britain, and so he made sure the trauma marks were in places of the body that would not be spotted.

In the opening paragraph above I called this work of non-fiction “a confessional memoir.”  I don’t know if that’s the proper term, but it seems right to me.  A memoir is a subset of an autobiography, “differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus.”  The narrowed focus here is a coming of age story, thereby limiting the scope to the author’s childhood and blossoming into adulthood.  The Center for Autobiographic Studies (CAS) defines a memoir as a work that “puts a frame onto life by limiting what is included.”  The frame that Shah places here is her Muslim upbringing, especially how it pertains to growing up female.  The CAS website provides a list of common frames, and several also apply here: memoir of place (North England), of relationship (family), religion (Islam and Christianity), of dealing with adversity, and ethnic tradition (Pakistani).  But I call it confessional not because Hannah is confessing some sin—she doesn’t sin unless you include being a rebellious Muslim a sin—but because she is confessing some dark family secret.  It seems to me that a successful memoir lets the reader into a world they have not experienced, and yet is very real (unlike fiction) right under their very noses.  Here not only is there an exotic Muslim culture living right beside the at large British culture but concealed is a horrific account family abuse.

When I said above that the father’s authority is never challenged, I was imprecise.  It was challenged by Hannah once.  The next time the father “worked over” his wife, Hannah, all five year old girl, alone among her family stood up against her father.  She tried to block the blows that were directed at her mother, and even sternly rebuked her father.  At first he was startled, and then he pushed her out of the way, indirectly hurting her.  Then later, fully premeditated, he turned his abuse toward his daughter.  She had challenged him and violated the hierarchy of submission. 

I had broken the unwritten rules of the household. I was only five years old—would I dare break the rules again? Perhaps the normal way of doing things was the only way to survive. But the normal way of doing things meant watching Dad beat up Mum, and that I couldn’t bear.

In fact, the normal way had already changed. My instinctive act of resistance had changed it irrevocably. From then on, instead of hitting Mum when the food wasn’t right, Dad hit me. If the house wasn’t perfectly clean, he beat me. I became the object of his aggression.
To start with, he beat me about once a month. But, gradually, it became more frequent.  Worse still, Mum never tried to intervene.

She was relieved Dad wasn’t hitting her. Each time he beat me, she acted as if nothing had happened.

My mother’s lack of response hurt more than any punch.

Whenever he hit me, Dad abused me verbally: “You’re stupid, lazy, and useless! You’re an ugly, worthless daughter!” There was no point in yelling, because everyone pretended not to hear my cries, and no one came to help. After that first beating, I never screamed again. I simply went silent whenever the blows started raining down.

One feels so bad for the little girl, but it does make for compelling reading.  However, the story will take an even darker turn. 

At first, Dad used my behavior—food prepared incorrectly, cleaning done incompletely—to instigate the beatings, but it wasn’t long before his violence became capricious. As abusing his five-year-old daughter became habitual, Dad’s mind began creeping into even darker places.

Before I turn to what her father does next, let me say that Hannah is one of six children, having three older brothers and two younger sisters.  Nowhere in the story do we hear of the other siblings being abused, even the two other girls.  The other children never challenged their father, and on the surface performed all their religious and family duties.  Hannah became a sort of scapegoat, but she became more than a scapegoat.  She continues.

Six months after the first time Dad beat me, he stepped into my bedroom. He’d already beaten me that day, and I was lying on my bed, imagining the Lavender Fields. Dad never entered the women’s bedroom. As the door creaked open, I shrank under the blanket in a desperate attempt to hide.

He stared at me, an expression of loathing mixed with something else on his bearded face. “You…you’re evil,” he announced quietly. “You will surely burn in hell. But for now, your evil must be punished, driven out of you. Beating isn’t enough.”

He stepped toward me, murmuring over and over that I was a “dirty, worthless, temptress girl” and that he’d “never wanted a daughter.” He stopped by the bed. I clamped my eyes shut, willing the Loneliness Birds to carry me away.

I felt his hand pawing the blanket. My body tensed as he tugged my cover away. As my father sexually molested me, he told me he was punishing me. It hurt physically, but not as much as the beatings. Yet it felt far worse emotionally. My terrified mind could not comprehend what was happening. All I knew was that it was wrong and dirty.

I accepted my “punishment.” I was a confused and terrified little girl, and part of me still longed for my father’s approval and love. I hated him for doing this to me, yet I wanted him to love me as a father should. Would acquiescing to his demands make him love me?

Finally Dad stood up from the bed. “You deserve everything you got,” he sneered. “And if you ever tell anyone about your punishment, I will kill you. And then you’ll go to hell, for Allah would never allow a dirty little girl like you to enter Paradise.”

That’s right, he raped her.  Not only did he rape a five (or perhaps six at the time) year old girl, he raped his own daughter.  But it wasn’t just once.  He established a cycle of physical abuse and rape.

I could do nothing to stop my father, and so I did as he demanded—no matter how sick and revolting it made me feel. It was a vicious cycle. The more I was abused, the dirtier and more deserving of such punishment I felt. The more my father abused me with impunity, the darker and more abusive his power trip became. In many Islamic societies, a victim of rape is often seen as the guilty party who has tempted the man into sexual excess. So it was with my father. Eventually the hurried rapes in the bedroom no longer sated him. Or perhaps the bloodied sheets were becoming harder to explain away. Either way, Dad decided to take me to a new place of torture. At the back of the house, beneath the kitchen, was our cellar. It became my hell for the next ten years.

That’s right.  He raped her from five years old to fifteen.  Let me untangle a little of the father’s underlying logic.  The little girl challenged his authority, which proved there was something evil in her.  If she were evil, she needed to be punished.  In beating her, he felt a temptation of her sex, which further proved she was evil.  And so, that evil needed to be punished, so he raped her.  In raping her, he felt the sexual urge, and so he needed to stamp out that evil, and so the rapes continued.  His rapes only stopped when he realized she was menstruating, and at that point he stopped only because she was no longer considered clean in the eyes of his religion.

This is getting long.  I’m going to have to break this up into two parts.  Stay tune for Part 2.