Yashmak, Xenogenesis, Algorithm, and William S. Burroughs

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The High Line, Sep 24, 2019

I took this photo while walking on The High Line last September. I started wondering what the Arabic sentence meant only when I looked at the photo recently reminiscing about the pleasure of walking in a crowded area. With the miracle of Internet, I was able to quickly find out that it was an installation by a Palestinian artist Emily Jacir.

ex libris commemorates the approximately thirty thousand books from Palestinian homes, libraries, and institutions that were looted by Israeli authorities in 1948.

Not knowing much about the Israeli-Palestinian politic, I can’t really comment on the political aspect of the work. However, it made me wonder if one of the thirty thousand books could be the book that is a foundation of modern computing that allowed me to write this post on a computer. The book “Rules of restoring and equating” is written by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 825) and the latinized word “algorithm” is derived from his name.

This is a little known fact that I learned when I was studying computer science (the field I chose after all my options ran out) as an undergraduate. This is probably a fact that most Americans are ignorant of even though nowadays everyone at least heard of the word “algorithm”. Of course, a popular image of the middle east is the land of savagery and war-mongering, not the enlightenment.

In The Western Lands (probably a perfect book to read during a quarantine), William S. Burroughs acknowledges this intellectual debt the world owes to the Islamic world by using the company his grandfather founded as an example:

Much like the legacy of the Islamic world is veiled by Yashmak and being forgotten by the rest of the world, the legacy of the Burroughs corporation and William S. Burroughs (a perfect example of xenogenesis) himself seems to be disappearing. The Burroughs corporation had invented adding machines (mechanical computers that are literally made out of steel and wood) in the 19th century and introduced a series of technical breakthroughs since then only to become a shadow of itself later. William S. Burroughs, who invented the cut-up technique, is now only given that dreadful title “a controversial gay writer”.

Yashmak at the Metropolitan Museum: Savage Beauty or Armor?

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I just recently discovered that designer Alexander McQueen commissioned jeweler Shaun Leane and sculptor Annika Hellgren to revamp the traditional YASHMAK from Muslim women’s culture into a bejeweled, non-gendered medieval-style piece of armor. It’s now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  You can see a video of the piece being worn for the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London here.  It’s a daunting work.

Yashmak: Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn

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From Lynne’s 2007 diary … This has definitely been a very difficult word to explore. While we are committed to using the Y version of this word yashmak for a face-covering veil, the more common words are niqab or burka. It’s a religious concept really, one that takes the sartorial gesture — much life the turban, the yarmulke, or the habit — to its most spiritual dimension. And yet, the political atmosphere of the day has transformed this simple expression of devotion into a highly charged issue of global magnitude. Post September 11, for a woman to wear a full face veil in an American city is a fearless act.

I make a date to go to a Yemenite video store to talk with a young, very hip woman in traditional Muslim dress who knows an immense amount about music and movies. We film together for an entire afternoon as I interview her about wearing a veil in New York and the challenges of being different on the street. It’s a wonderful conversation, and I feel great about the material. But, as I am heading out the door, she whispers, “Please don’t put my face on the internet.” Drat. Double drat. More work.

A few days later, I walk with my daughters from shop to shop along Atlantic Avenue’s famous block between 3rd and 4th Avenues, stopping into the mosque, various essential oil stores and then finally to a Halal butcher. When I ask if they know where I can find a shop that sells a yashmak, I am sent up the hidden stairway behind the cash register. Here? Really, here? I wonder. In a windowless room I never could have imagined before, I am allowed to run my fingers through one yashmak after another, as I listen to the friendly, hijab-dressed saleswoman explain the various forms of dress and their nuanced meanings. For the next several days, I return to the shop with my camera and am told a whole range of stories about why she is not there. On the third day, one of the butchers announces that she no longer works in the dress shop upstairs and that the owner, who was scheduled to meet me that day at 5 PM, is in Egypt.

In a case like this, I have now learned, it is never a good idea to call first. Just appear and start talking about your project and hopefully someone with power will become intrigued. At long last, I find an Islamic dress shop where I am allowed to film and ask a few questions. I speak French to the Moroccan saleswomen. They are, for the most part, quite shy about being on camera, but they are proud of their fabulous inventory and happy to allow me to photograph. I am still wondering whether a full-face veil is a symbol of oppression or liberation from the onus of making oneself beautiful in front of a far too critical public eye. When I look up the definition for the NIQAB or yashmak, I discover, for the first time, a definition on Wikipedia.com in which THE NEUTRALITY OF THIS ARTICLE IS DISPUTED.

Yashmak: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ij5_xl-vs0At this year’s Poetry Walk, Galway Kinnell read Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry for the fourteenth time at the Fulton Ferry Landing, the poem that veiled and unveiled Whitman’s sexual orientation. His poem as yashmak—offering those sensitive to his femininity to look in through the slit he widened with his words, a poem he suspected and hoped might find a larger, more open crowd among the men and women generations after him, seeing mast-hemm’d Manhattan and sea-gulls oscillating their bodies much like he did in his time of thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats. “Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!” he says, “Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn! Throb, baffled and curious brain! Throw out questions and answers…”

Yashmak: Definition

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Yashmak (n.):
Yashmak, yashmac or yasmak (from Turkish ya?mak, literally “to cover, hide”) is a Turkish type of veil or niqab worn by many Muslim women to cover their faces in public.

Unlike an ordinary veil, yashmak contains a head-veil and a face-veil in one, thus consisting of two pieces of fine muslin, one tied across the face under the nose and the other tied across the forehead draping the head.

Yashmak can also contain a piece of black horsehair attached close to the temples and sloping down like an awning to cover the face, or it can be a veil covered with pieces of lace, having slits for the eyes, tied behind the head by strings and sometimes supported over the nose by a small piece of gold.

Segment Producer: Lynne Sachs