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Tuesday 15th of October 2019

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How to Read "Gilgamesh" @NewYorker

The mid-nineteenth century was a time when very many Western people
began to doubt the historical truth of the Bible. Was it really the
case that we were all descended from Adam and Eve, whom God created in
his own image and placed in a beautiful garden and then, by reason of
their sins, banished from there? Did their descendants compound their
wickedness, to the point where God decided to drown them all, in a
huge flood? And did he, afterward, seeing the destruction he had
wrought, make a covenant with the one surviving family, that of Noah,
promising that he would never again raise his hand against his
creation? “While the earth remaineth,” he decided, according to the
King James Bible, “seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer
and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” For many centuries,
this story comforted people. Though we might sin, we could hope for
God’s mercy, because that’s what he had promised to Noah. By the early
eighteen-hundreds, however, scholars from various young
fields—geology, archeology, paleontology—were producing evidence that
the earth was much older than anyone had thought, and that human
societies had existed long before the dates assigned to the Creation
and the Flood. In 1859, Charles Darwin, in his “Origin of Species,”
put forth a theory suggesting that human beings might be descended not
from Adam and Eve but from lower animals, things with fur. Not
surprisingly, such ideas encountered vigorous opposition. Many
scientists and scholars redoubled their efforts to find evidence of
the truth of the Bible. Around the time that Darwin was writing his
book, a young Londoner, George Smith, who had left school at the age
of fourteen and was employed as an engraver of banknotes, became
fascinated by reports of artifacts that were being turned up by
explorers in what is today Iraq and sent to England. As David Damrosch
writes in “The Buried Book” (2007), Smith spent his lunch hours at the
British Museum, studying its holdings. The staff eventually noticed
him, and, in 1866, the management hired him, to help analyze the tens
of thousands of clay shards that had been shipped there years earlier
and had been sitting around in the museum’s storage boxes.
The site they came from was Nineveh, an important city in ancient
Mesopotamia, and the reason so many tablets had been found in one
place was that they were the remains of a renowned library, that of
Ashurbanipal, a king of the neo-Assyrian Empire in the seventh century
B.C. When the tablets were first dug up, no one could read the
curious-looking script, later called cuneiform, in which they were
written. Scholars worked on it for decades.
Now George Smith joined the hunt. He studied the shards for around ten
years, and it was he who found the most famous passage inscribed on
them, an account of a great flood wiping out almost all of humanity,
with one man’s family surviving. When he read this, we are told, he
became so excited that he jumped out of his chair and ran around the
room, tearing off his clothes. This ancient document could support the
truth of Genesis, or so it seemed to Smith. And to others. In 1872,
when Smith presented his findings to the Society of Biblical
Archaeology, even William Gladstone, the Prime Minister, was in
attendance. The discovery became front-page news across Europe and the
United States. Soon, London’s Daily Telegraph gave Smith a grant to go
to the region to see if he could add to his findings. Within days, he
hit pay dirt—a shard that appeared to complete the flood story—and the
British Museum financed two further trips for him. On the second of
these, he died of dysentery in Aleppo, at the age of thirty-six. He
never lived to understand that, in fact, he had not proved the truth
of the Old Testament with his clay tablet. (Both flood narratives
could have been descended from older sources, quite possibly
fictional.) He had done something else, though. He had discovered what
was then, and still is, the oldest long poem in the world,

The poet and scholar Michael Schmidt has just published a wonderful
book, “Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem” (Princeton), which is a kind of
journey through the work, an account of its origins and discovery, of
the fragmentary state of the text, and of the many scholars and
translators who have grappled with its meaning. Schmidt encourages us
to see “Gilgamesh” not as a finished, polished composition—a literary
epic, like the Aeneid, which is what many people would like it to
be—but, rather, something more like life, untidy, ambiguous. Only by
reading it that way, he thinks, will we get close to its hard, nubbly
heart. We meet Gilgamesh in the first line. He is the King of Uruk, a
splendid, high-walled city in southern Mesopotamia. His mother was a
goddess and his father a mortal. Accordingly, he is a fine specimen of
a man, eleven cubits (seventeen feet) tall and four cubits from nipple
to nipple. He is not an exemplary ruler, however. He wearies the young
men of his city in athletic contests, and when they marry he insists
on the droit du seigneur: he, not the groom, spends the wedding night
with the bride. The people of Uruk complain to the gods about
Gilgamesh’s behavior, and in response the mother goddess, Aruru,
pinches off a piece of clay and, from it, fashions a new person,
Enkidu, to be a friend to Gilgamesh and distract him from his bad
habits. Enkidu is a giant, too, though not as big as Gilgamesh. In the
beginning, he is much like an animal. His body is covered with hair.
He runs with the gazelles and drinks with them, on all fours, at the
water hole. But he has human intelligence; he regularly releases his
animal companions from traps. When one of the local trappers objects
that Enkidu is interfering with his livelihood, he is instructed to
bring a temple prostitute, Shamhat, to the water hole that Enkidu
frequents and have her sit at the edge. (There were such beings as
temple prostitutes, devotees of local fertility goddesses, in many
ancient societies. This was a respected profession.) Enkidu arrives.
Shamhat spreads her legs, and he instantly succumbs. With what must be
the most robust erection in literature, he engages Shamhat in an
uninterrupted act of coitus for six days and seven nights. Then he
gets tired, and Shamhat takes him to a shepherds’ encampment. For the
first time in his life, he eats bread. He also drinks seven goblets of
beer, and he starts to sing. But when he tries to rejoin the gazelles,
they shun him. Tragedy thus enters “Gilgamesh.” Through making love
with a human being and eating human food, Enkidu has become a man, and
nothing will ever be the same for him. For example, he now has morals.
When he hears about Gilgamesh’s exercise of the droit du seigneur, he
becomes enraged. He goes to Uruk and draws Gilgamesh into a fight. The
door jambs shake, the walls quake, but after a while the two men weary
of the quarrel and decide to be friends. Gilgamesh introduces Enkidu
to his mother, the goddess Ninsun. She doesn’t like him. Who are his
people? she asks. Thus snubbed, Enkidu weeps, and Gilgamesh, to cheer
him up, proposes an adventure: the two of them will go to the Forest
of Cedar, kill its protector, the monster Humbaba, and harvest some
cedar wood for building projects in Uruk.

Humbaba is no ordinary monster. He is like a miasma, or a nightmare.
He has seven auras in which he can wrap himself, and which he can send
out, as a means of defense. As Gilgamesh and Enkidu approach, he
taunts them. “Spawn of a fish,” he calls the fatherless Enkidu. He
tells Gilgamesh that forest birds will soon be feasting on his body
parts. Though shaking with fear, the two men seize him. Gilgamesh
plunges a dirk into his neck. Enkidu rips out his lungs. The auras run
away. Then the men cut down several giant cedars, build a raft, and,
with Gilgamesh brandishing the head of Humbaba, sail back to Uruk.
Once home, Gilgamesh bathes, puts on clean clothes, and shakes out his
long hair. Seeing him, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, is
dazzled, and calls out to him, proposing marriage: “Grant me your
fruits, O grant me!” She will give him a chariot of lapis lazuli and
gold, she says. His ewes will bear twins; his goats will bear
triplets. Gilgamesh responds by inquiring how he would profit from
marrying her. You are a brazier that goes out in the cold, he tells
her. You are a door that lets in the wind, a palace that collapses on
top of its warriors, a water skin that leaks, a shoe that pinches the
foot. The men that you loved: what became of them? One you turned into
a frog, another into a wolf. No thanks, he says. Ishtar, greatly
insulted, runs up to Heaven, to her father, Anu, and asks to be given
the Bull of Heaven, to avenge these insults. Descending to Uruk with
the goddess, the formidable beast does serious harm even as it lands.
One snort, and the earth opens up; a hundred men fall into it. A
second snort, and another pit opens; two hundred men are swallowed up.
On the third snort, when the cleft opens, Enkidu falls into it, but
only up to his waist (because he is a giant), and he grasps the bull
by the horns. It slobbers on Enkidu’s face. It defecates on him. But
Gilgamesh stabs it in the neck, and it dies. When Ishtar protests,
Enkidu tears off one of the bull’s haunches and throws it at her,
saying that he would happily have ripped off her limbs and thrown them
at the bull. He and Gilgamesh then wash their hands in the Euphrates
and, clasping each other, return in triumph to the palace. “Who is the
finest among men?” Gilgamesh asks his serving maids. “Who the most
glorious of fellows?”

The triumph is short-lived. That very night, Enkidu has a dream that,
to atone for the crime of murdering the Bull of Heaven, one of the two
men must die. No one needs to ask which. Enkidu sickens. He starts to
complain. Why could he not have died in combat? That way, people would
remember him. But then the tablets break off. As Michael Schmidt
writes, Enkidu has “some thirty so far silent lines to bid his beloved
Gilgamesh good-bye and perish.”
There was a real king called Gilgamesh, it seems. Or, at least, his
name appears in a list of kings compiled around 2000 B.C., and he
probably lived in the first half of the third millennium B.C. For at
least a thousand years after his death, poems were written about him,
in various Mesopotamian languages. Then, sometime between 1300 and
1000 B.C., one Sin-leqi-unninni (his name means “The moon god Sin
hears my prayers”) collected and edited the stories. We might call
Sin-leqi-unninni a scribe or a redactor. According to one scholar, he
was also a professional exorcist. What matters is that he pulled
together the Gilgamesh poems that he had at hand and, adding this and
deleting that, and attaching a beginning and an end, he made a unified
literary work, in his language, Akkadian. This composition is what
Assyriologists call the Standard Version of “Gilgamesh.” It was
incised on eleven tablets, back and front, with roughly three hundred
lines on each tablet. We don’t have a complete copy of
Sin-leqi-unninni’s tablets. Through the actions of time, wind, and,
above all, war—Nineveh, with Ashurbanipal’s library, was attacked and
destroyed by neighboring forces in 612 B.C.—a great deal of the text
was lost. Some of the holes can be plugged with material from other
Gilgamesh poems, but even once that has been done important sections
are missing. Of an estimated thirty-six hundred lines, we have only
thirty-two hundred, whole or in part. (Translations often supply
ellipses where text is missing, and use italics and brackets to mark
varying degrees of conjecture.) Furthermore, the thing that we are
looking at, after the insertions, is a patchwork of texts created at
various times and places, in what are often different, if related,
languages. One highly respected translation, by Andrew George, a
professor of Babylonian at the University of London’s School of
Oriental and African Studies, gives what remains of Sin-leqi-unninni’s
text and then appends the “Pennsylvania tablet”; the “Yale tablet”;
the “Nippur school tablet,” in Baghdad; the “fragments from Hattusa”
(now Boğazköy, in central Turkey); and so on. Scholars cannot afford
to ignore these outliers, because the symbols that constitute
cuneiform, up to a thousand of them, changed over the millennium that
produced Sin-leqi-unninni’s materials. So the word for “goddess of
love and war” on a fragment in Baghdad may be different from its
analogue in the vitrines of the British Museum. Indeed, meanings may
change in the present as well, as additional discoveries are made.
After a new piece came to light in 2015, George wrote that the
energetic Enkidu and Shamhat had not one but two weeklong sex acts
before repairing to Uruk. The text has no stability. It shifts in your

Also, the text was missing for so long that it is relatively new to
us. Schmidt estimates that the Iliad and the Odyssey have been studied
by scholars for about a hundred and fifty generations; the Aeneid, for
about a hundred; “Gilgamesh,” for only seven or eight. Translators of
Homer and Virgil could look back on the work of great predecessors
such as Pope and Dryden. Not so with “Gilgamesh.” The first
sort-of-complete Western translation was produced at the end of the
nineteenth century. I was not taught the poem in school, nor was
anyone I know. There is no real tradition for reading it. Modern
translators are pretty much on their own. And they have a special
challenge. When, at the conclusion of Tablet 7, Enkidu dies,
“Gilgamesh” does not end. On the contrary, something like a new poem
begins, in a different key. Before, the two young men were killing
monsters and having sex—not such a different plot line from that of a
modern action movie. Now, with the death of Enkidu, everything
changes. Gilgamesh sends up a great, torn-from-the-gut lament: “O my
friend, wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the
wild,” may the Forest of Cedar grieve for you, and the pure Euphrates.
He calls for his craftsmen—“Forgemaster! [Lapidary!] Coppersmith!
Goldsmith!”—and orders Enkidu’s funerary monument: “Your eyebrows
shall be of lapis lazuli, your chest of gold.” For six days, Gilgamesh
cannot bear to leave his watch over the body. Finally, a maggot falls
out of one of Enkidu’s nostrils. (That appalling detail is recorded
again and again. The poets knew its power.) Seeing it—and
understanding, accordingly, that his friend has truly been turned into
matter, into dead meat—Gilgamesh is assailed by a new grief: he, too,
must die. This frightens him to his very core, and it becomes the
subject of the remainder of the poem. Can he find a way to avoid
death? He flees Uruk and clothes himself in animal skins. First he
goes to the mountain where the sun rises and sets. It is guarded by
two scorpions. Gilgamesh explains to them that he is seeking
Uta-napishti, the one man, he has heard, who became immortal. The
scorpions grant him entry to a tunnel that the sun passes through each
night. But if he wants to get through it he must outpace the sun. He
starts out and, in utter, enfolding darkness, he runs. He can see
nothing behind him or ahead of him. This goes on for hours and hours.
In the end, he beats the sun narrowly, emerging into a garden where
the fruits on the trees are jewels:

A carnelian tree was in fruit,
hung with bunches of grapes, lovely to look on.
A lapis lazuli tree bore foliage,
in full fruit and gorgeous to gaze on.

To me, this is the most dazzling passage in the poem: the engulfing
darkness, in which Gilgamesh can see nothing for hours—he is just an
organism, in a hole—and then, suddenly, light, color, beautiful globes
of purple and red hanging from the trees. God’s world, made for us, or
so we thought.

Gilgamesh does not linger in the garden. He at last finds
Uta-napishti, the man who gazed on death and survived. Gilgamesh wants
to know, How did you do this? Unhelpfully, Uta-napishti explains:

“No one at all sees Death,
no one at all sees the face [of Death,]
no one at all [hears] the voice of Death,
Death so savage, who hacks men down. . . .
Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there!”

Uta-napishti now tells Gilgamesh the story that made George Smith take
off his clothes. We might have done the same, for Uta-napishti’s tale
is far more bloodcurdling than the one in the Old Testament. Like
Noah, Uta-napishti was warned of the coming catastrophe, and he
ordered an ark to be built. The bottom of the hull was one acre in
area, with six decks raised on it. (And the vessel seems to have been
cube-shaped!) Once the ark was finished, Uta-napishti and his family
and all the animals he could lay his hands on, and whatever craftsmen
he could summon, boarded the ark. Before he sailed, he gave his palace
and all its goods to the shipwright—an ironic gift, since the palace
and its goods, and presumably the shipwright, too, would be destroyed
the next day. Uta-napishti continues:

“At the very first glimmer of brightening dawn,
there rose from the horizon a dark cloud of black,
and bellowing within it was Adad the Storm God.
The gods Shullat and Hanish were going before him,
bearing his throne over mountain and land.

“The god Errakal was uprooting the mooring-poles,
Ninurta, passing by, made the weirs overflow.
The Anunnaki gods carried torches of fire,
scorching the country with brilliant flashes.

“The stillness of the Storm God passed over the sky,
and all that was bright then turned into darkness.
[He] charged the land like a bull [on the rampage,]
he smashed [it] in pieces [like a vessel of clay.] . . .

“Even the gods took fright at the Deluge,
they left and went up to the heaven of Anu,
lying like dogs curled up in the open.
The goddess cried out like a woman in childbirth.”

These last lines are what everyone quotes. How thrilling they are,
with the gods bent over, howling, in the skies and the storm
shattering the earth like a clay pot. In the end, the rains stop, and
Uta-napishti’s ark, like Noah’s, gets snagged on a mountaintop. He and
his fellow-survivors disembark, and re-people the earth. For suffering
this ordeal, Uta-napishti and his wife were granted immortality, but,
he suggests, no one but they can live forever. Then he relents and
gives Gilgamesh some tests whereby he might cheat death. Gilgamesh
fails. (They are silly tests, and he fails in silly ways. The poem is
not perfect.) Uta-napishti’s boatman takes Gilgamesh home. When they
arrive in Uruk, Gilgamesh tells the boatman to climb Uruk’s city wall:

“Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?

“A square mile is city, a square mile date grove, a square mile is
clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar:
three square miles and a half is Uruk’s expanse.”

A few commentators interpret these words as a statement of
consolation: we should take comfort in our achievements on earth and
accept the inevitability of life’s ending. With the poem in its
present state, however, such a case is hard to make. Having read the
lines above, which form the conclusion of Tablet 11, as translated by
Andrew George, we turn the page and find not a Tablet 12 but a brief
note informing us that what is often presented as the ending of
“Gilgamesh”—it describes the conditions of the underworld, where
Gilgamesh, after his death, will reign—is not part of the epic at all.
According to George, it is a fragment from an older poem, tacked on to
supply an ending.

Twelve tablets would have been nice. That is the form of the Aeneid,
and the Iliad and the Odyssey are each twenty-four books long. But an
eleven-tablet format doesn’t bother George. He proposes that the
structure of the poem is 5 + 1 + 5, and sees Tablet 6, in which
Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to Uruk after killing Humbaba, as a
centerpiece—the manifestation of Gilgamesh at the height of his
glory.I wonder, though. It is surely in Tablet 5, when he kills
Humbaba, that Gilgamesh is shown at his noblest. Whereas, in Tablet 6,
we get his crudely worded rejection of the infatuated Ishtar and then
the slaughter of the Bull of Heaven, which so displeases the gods that
they punish Gilgamesh by killing off his beloved Enkidu. The truth, I
suspect, is that “Gilgamesh,” as befits something that was buried
under a pile of sand for twenty-five hundred years, is simply missing
some pieces. Schmidt, in his book, sort of moseys through the poem,
addressing topics as they arise. When the subject of war comes up, he
nods at the wars in Iraq, which, beginning in 1990, were being waged
when a number of translators of “Gilgamesh” were at work. When the
characters are having sex, he discusses Assyrian sex. Did Gilgamesh
and Enkidu have a homosexual relationship? He doesn’t think so, but he
gives the evidence for and against. He also makes the important point
that their friendship is the most tender relationship in the poem.
Each night, when the two men are travelling to the Forest of Cedar,
Enkidu makes a little house for Gilgamesh to sleep in, and, “like a
net, lay himself in the doorway.” Again and again, Schmidt discusses
the translations. You might think that a poem that exists in a pile of
broken pieces, in an extremely dead language, would be something that
translators would run from in a hurry. The very opposite is the case.
Presumably because it is, as Schmidt writes, such an “uncertain,
porous” thing, translators are drawn to it. Often they are not, by
profession, translators or Assyriologists but just poets. Others are
Assyriologists, and, unsurprisingly, not all of them look kindly on
people who publish versions of “Gilgamesh” without knowing the
language in which it was written. Benjamin Foster, a professor of
Assyriology and Babylonian literature at Yale, told an interviewer, “I
have no patience with clueless folk who think that they can translate
the epic without going to the trouble of mastering Babylonian, though
of course they are welcome to retell it.” Since the mid-twentieth
century, there have been, by my count, nearly a score of full-scale
translations of “Gilgamesh” into English. The majority of the
translators, not to speak of the commentators, have stepped forth from
among Foster’s “clueless folk.” What most of these people do is read a
literal translation by an expert Assyriologist and then “poeticize”
it, pushing it up into verse. Such a procedure should not scandalize
anyone in our time. It is, basically, how Ezra Pound wrote his
so-called translations of the Chinese poet Li Po, and Auden his
versions of the Icelandic Eddas. But with a text so unknown as
“Gilgamesh,” so hard for any of us to read, this method certainly
raises some questions. Schmidt doesn’t linger over the questions. He
is broadminded. He is a poet, and the thing he is interested in is
obtaining poetry, getting the grapes of carnelian truly red and round,
getting Uta-napishti’s deathless world appropriately wan and
bloodless. Going through the poem tablet by tablet, he stops at his
favorite parts and reads to us from various translations. How excited
he gets when the men leave for the Forest of Cedar! How ravished he is
by the forest’s richness!

A pigeon was cooing, a turtledove answering,
The forest was joyous with the [cry] of the stork,
The forest was lavishly joyous with the francolin’s [lilt].
Mother monkeys kept up their calls, baby monkeys chirruped.

Sometimes Schmidt seems less a literary historian than just a friend,
who has come over to our house for the evening, with a bottle, to read
us a terrific poem. He recommends specific translations. He is acutely
aware of the age of the poem, and its fragmentary condition, and its
authorlessness—“a poem without a poet,” he calls it. The translations
he is most wary of are those that try to cover over that strangeness,
de-“otherize” the poem, solve its riddles, and thus “free us to be
contented literary consumers.” He names names: in England, Nancy K.
Sandars (1960); in the United States, Stephen Mitchell (2004). Both,
he says, are “guilty as charged,” guilty of producing a poem that
tries to convince us that Gilgamesh is our friend down the street,
with problems like our own, and speaking the words that we would say.
(Or not: in Mitchell’s translation, Gilgamesh, rebuking Ishtar, claims
that she implored her father’s gardener, “Sweet Ishullanu, let me suck
your rod.” He’s the one she eventually turned into a frog.) All the
same, Schmidt then goes on to suggest that if we haven’t yet read
“Gilgamesh” we might as well start with Sandars, to get comfortable
with the poem. Next, we should move on to one of the Assyriologists,
Foster or George, and find out what the surviving inscriptions
actually say. Finally, Schmidt sort of goes wild and sends us to
“Dictator: A New Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh” (2018), in which
the Belfast-born poet Philip Terry translates the poem into “Globish,”
a fifteen-hundred-word vocabulary put together by a former I.B.M.
executive, Jean-Paul Nerrière, and published in 2004 as a proposed
language for international business, just as Akkadian, the language of
“Gilgamesh,” was the lingua franca of Near Eastern commerce in its
time. Here, in Globish—with plus signs indicating missing words that
Terry apparently doesn’t want to guess at and vertical lines
demarcating metrical units—are the trapper’s instructions to Shamhat
for seducing Enkidu:

“Here be | the man | party | girl get | ready | for a | kiss + + +
Open | you leg | show WILD | MAN you | love box
Hold no | thing back | make he | breathe hard . . .
Then he | will come | close to | take a | look + + +
Take off | you skirt | so he | can . . . | screw you.”

I think Schmidt is having a little fun with us here, and that he has
read too many “Gilgamesh” translations. My own recommendation would be
the same as his for the first two stops—Sandars, to get comfortable,
and, after that, one of the Assyriologists, to get uncomfortable. Then
I might go to “Gilgamesh Retold” (2018), by the Anglo-Welsh poet Jenny
Lewis, who teaches at Oxford. Lewis’s version is very musical, with
rhymes and chimes and shifting meters. It can be blunt. Its account of
the murder of Humbaba is the nastiest I know. Yet her translation is
also the most tender, the most tragic—the one, I think, that might be
recommended by feminist scholars. When Enkidu meets Shamhat at the
water hole, there is no talk of love boxes. Enkidu strokes her thighs;
he sings to her. Likewise, when, as a result of his commerce with
human beings, Enkidu loses his kinship with the animals, that
melancholy fact is given its due:

Far away, under the forest’s boughs
A small gazelle still searched for him in vain
And others sniffed the air to catch his scent
But there was nothing carried on the wind
And in his mind no thought of them was left.

But I have a bizarre proposal: it would not be a bad idea, in
approaching “Gilgamesh,” to start with Michael Schmidt’s book. Yes, it
is a commentary, not an end-to-end translation, but it includes a lot
of translated passages—the best ones, needless to say. And Schmidt’s
argument for the poem as poetry, in the modern sense—concrete,
unglazed, tough on the mind—is touching and persuasive. I read the
book spellbound, in one sitting. (Like “Gilgamesh,” it is short, less
than two hundred pages.) Schmidt has emotions about these ancient
tablets. When you handle one, he tells us, “especially the apprentice
copyists’ tablets that fit in the palm, almost as if we were shaking
hands with the original scribe, the sensation of living contact can be
intense. The fine-grained river mud was rolled and patted into shape,
sliced, lifted to the eye and, in dazzling sunlight of a scribal
courtyard, under supervision, the cuneiform figures were incised.” He
sees the tablets again as, thousands of years later, various underpaid
people sat in the British Museum, year after year, trying to figure
out what they said. In George Smith’s time, the museum lacked not only
electrical light, but gaslight as well. (The management was afraid of
fire.) Some of the higher-up staff had lanterns, but George Smith was
not a higher-up. If it was a foggy day and the windows did not admit
enough light to read by, he had to go home. On other days, though, he
was at his post. “With devotion and patient application,” Schmidt
writes, these scholars “deciphered the languages, finding human voices
in the clay, and a king terrified of dying came back to the long
half-life of poetry.” ♦

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The Origins of New US-Turkish Relations @GPFutures
Law & Politics

For several years, there has been a significant shift underway in U.S.
strategy toward the Middle East, where Washington has consistently
sought to avoid combat. The United States is now compelled to seek
accommodation with Turkey, a regional power in its own right, based on
terms that are geopolitically necessary for both. Their relationship
has been turbulent, and while it may continue to be so for a while, it
will decline. Their accommodation has nothing to do with mutual
affection but rather with mutual necessity. The Turkish incursion into
Syria and the U.S. response are part of this adjustment, one that has
global origins and regional consequences. Similarly, the U.S. decision
to step aside as Turkey undertook an incursion in northeastern Syria
has a geopolitical and strategic origin. The strategic origin is a
clash between elements of the Defense Department and the president.
The defense community has been shaped by a war that has been underway
since 2001. During what is called the Long War, the U.S. has created
an alliance structure of various national and subnational groups. Yet
the region is still on uneven footing. The Iranians have extended a
sphere of influence westward. Iraq is in chaos. The Yemeni civil war
still rages, and the original Syrian war has ended, in a very Middle
Eastern fashion, indecisively. A generation of military and defense
thinkers have matured fighting wars in the Middle East. The Long War
has been their career. Several generations spent their careers
expecting Soviet tanks to surge into the Fulda Gap. Cold Warriors
believed a world without the Cold War was unthinkable. The same can be
said for those shaped by Middle Eastern wars. For the Cold War
generation, the NATO alliance was the foundation of their thinking. So
too for the Sandbox generation, those whose careers were spent
rotating into Iraq or Afghanistan or some other place, the alliances
formed and the enemies fought seemed eternal. The idea that the world
had moved on, and that Fulda and NATO were less important, was
emotionally inconceivable. Any shift in focus and alliance structure
was seen as a betrayal.

After the Cold War ended, George H.W. Bush made the decision to stand
down the 24-hour B-52 air deployments in the north that were waiting
for a Soviet attack. The reality had changed, and Bush made the
decision a year after the Eastern European collapse began. He made it
early on Sept. 21, 1991, after the Wall came down but before the
Soviet Union collapsed. It was a controversial decision. I knew some
serious people who thought that we should be open to the possibility
that the collapse in Eastern Europe was merely a cover for a Soviet
attack and were extremely agitated over the B-52 stand-down. It is
difficult to accept that an era has passed into history. Those who
were shaped by that era, cling, through a combination of alarm and
nostalgia, to the things that reverberate through their minds. Some
(though not Europeans) spoke of a betrayal of Europe, and others
deeply regretted that the weapons they had worked so hard to perfect
and the strategy and tactics that had emerged over decades would never
be tried.

The same has happened in different ways in the Middle East. The almost
20-year deployment has forged patterns of behavior, expectations and
obligations not only among individuals but more institutionally
throughout the armed forces. But the mission has changed. For now, the
Islamic State is vastly diminished, as is al-Qaida. The Sunni rising
in Iraq has ended, and even the Syrian civil war is not what it once
was. A war against Iran has not begun, may not happen at all, and
would not resemble the wars that have been fought in the region
hitherto. This inevitably generates a strategic re-evaluation, which
begins by accepting that the prior era is gone. It was wrenching to
shift from World War II to the Cold War and from the Cold War to a
world that many believed had transcended war, and then to discover
that war was suspended and has now resumed. War and strategy pretend
to be coolly disengaged, but they are passionate undertakings that
don’t readily take to fundamental change. But after the 18 years of
war, two things have become clear. The first is that the modest
objective of disrupting terrorism has been achieved, and the second is
that the ultimate goal of creating something approaching liberal
democracies was never really possible.

The world has changed greatly since 2001. China has emerged as a major
power, and Russia has become more active. Iran, not Sunni jihadists,
has become the main challenge in the Middle East and the structure of
alliances needed to deal with this has changed radically since Desert
Storm and Iraqi Freedom. In addition, the alliances have changed in
terms of capability. The massive deployments in the Middle East have
ended, but some troops remain there, and to a section of the American
military, the jihadist war remains at the center of their thinking. To
them, the alliances created over the past 18 years remain as critical
as Belgium’s air force had been during the Cold War. There is another,
increasingly powerful faction in the United States that sees the
Middle East as a secondary interest. In many instances, they include
Iran in this. This faction sees China or Russia (or both) as the
fundamental challenger to the U.S. Its members see the Middle East as
a pointless diversion and a drain of American resources. For them,
bringing the conflict to a conclusion was critical. Those who made
their careers in this war and in its alliances were appalled. The view
of President Donald Trump has been consistent. In general, he thought
that the use of military force anywhere must be the exception rather
than the rule. He declined to begin combat in North Korea. He did not
attack Iran after it shot down an American drone or after it seized
oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. After the attack on the Saudi oil
facility, he increased Saudi air defenses but refused offensive
actions against the Iranians.

Given the shift in American strategy, three missions emerge. The first
is the containment of China. The second is the containment of Russia.
The third is the containment of Iran. In the case of China, the
alliance structure required by the United States is primarily the
archipelago stretching from Japan to Indonesia and Singapore – and
including South Korea. In dealing with Russia, there are two
interests. One is the North European Plain; the other is the Black
Sea. Poland is the American ally in the north, Romania in the south.
But the inclusion of Turkey in this framework would strengthen the
anti-Russia framework. In addition, it would provide a significant
counter to Iranian expansion.

Turkey’s importance is clear. It is courted by both Russia and Iran.
Turkey is not the country it was a decade ago. Its economy surged and
then went into crisis. It has passed through an attempted coup, and
internal stress has been massive. But such crises are common in
emerging powers. The U.S. had a civil war in the 1860s but by 1900 was
producing half of the manufactured goods in the world while boasting a
navy second only to the British. Internal crises do not necessarily
mean national decline. They can mean strategic emergence. Turkey’s
alignment with Iran and Russia is always tense. Iran and Russia have
at various times waged war with Turkey and have consistently seen Iraq
as a threat. For the moment, both have other interests and Turkey is
prepared to work with them. But Turkey is well aware of history. It is
also aware that the U.S. guaranteed Turkish sovereignty in the face of
Soviet threats in the Cold War, and that the U.S., unlike Russia and
Iran, has no territorial ambitions or needs in Turkey. Already allied
through NATO and historical bilateral ties, a relationship with Turkey
is in the American interest because it creates a structure that
threatens Iran’s line to the Mediterranean and compliments the
Romanian-U.S. Black Sea alliance. The U.S. and Turkey are also hostile
to the Syrian government. For Turkey, in the long term, Russia and
Iran are unpredictable, and they can threaten Turkey when they work
together. The American interest in an independent Turkey that blocks
Russia and Iran coincides with long-term Turkish interests.

Enter the Kurds

This is where the Kurds come into the equation. Eastern Turkey is
Kurdish, and maintaining stability there is a geopolitical imperative
for Ankara. Elements of Turkey’s Kurds, grouped around the Kurdistan
Workers’ Party, or PKK, have carried out militant attacks. Therefore
it is in Turkey’s interest to clear its immediate frontiers from a
Kurdish threat. The United States has no overriding interest in doing
so and, indeed, has worked together with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria.
But for the Turks, having Kurds on their border is an unpredictable
threat. American dependency on the Kurds declines as U.S. involvement
in the Middle East declines. Turkey becomes much more important to the
United States in relation to Iran than the Kurds. Trump clearly feels
that the wars in the Middle East must be wound down and that a
relationship with Turkey is critical. The faction that is still
focused on the Middle East sees this as a fundamental betrayal of the
Kurds. Foreign policy is a ruthless and unsentimental process. The
Kurds want to establish a Kurdish nation. The U.S. can’t and doesn’t
back that. On occasion, the U.S. will join in a mutually advantageous
alliance with the Kurds to achieve certain common goals. But feelings
aside, the U.S. has geopolitical interests that sometimes include the
Kurds and sometimes don’t – and the same can be said of the Kurds.
At the moment, the issue is not al-Qaida but China and Russia, and
Turkey is critical to the U.S. for Russia. The U.S. is critical for
Turkey as well, but it cannot simply fall into American arms. It has
grown too powerful in the region for that, and it has time to do it
right. So Trump’s actions on the Syrian border will result in
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington and, in due
course, a realignment in the region between the global power and the
regional power.


the most coherent argument I have read to date around justifying
Trump's actions.

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27-MAY-2019 :: China vs. US War Ballistic
Law & Politics

The point being in the trade war Trump is no longer the decider. In
the US, there is clearly a consensus baseline for a full-on toe to toe
slugfest as it were. In China, however, there is only one decider who
was pronounced as much by Xinhua in a historical announcement in March
Xi reckons he can direct a suc- cessful, society-wide struggle in the
trade dispute’’ Notwithstanding all the hyperbole and very partisan
commentary, the following are the plain Truths.
The Markets are still pricing in a benign [but much less benign than a
month ago] Outcome. We need to consider what a non-benign or even
maximum non-benign outcome looks like.

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15-OCT-2018 :: War is coming
Law & Politics

I recall President Obama describing the Presidency thus. He said it
was like being a train driver. The rails are laid and the direction
set and the President can speed up or slow down but nothing more. In
Dec 2013, I wrote a piece headlined, ‘’The Pivot to Asia bares its
Fangs’’ in which article I said:
‘’I see the pivot to Asia as the encirclement of China, then the
shrinking of its operating theatre and then lighting the tinderbox
that is the periphery and Xinjiang might well morph into China’s
[China has been stuffing the residents of Xinjiang with pork, locking
them up in internment camps and brainwashing them in order to prevent
that outcome].
The Pivot to Asia was the signature name for President Obama’s pivot,
which entailed a repositioning of US Assets into Asia and which China
saw as a US attempt to contain it and bottle it up.
If one is to criticise Barack Obama one would criticise him for being
incredibly supine in the teeth of China’s ‘’salami slicing’’ [Ronak
Gopaldas in the ISS].
This geopolitical contest will likely escalate dangerously. Powerful
forces on both sides are driving the world’s two strongest countries
toward full-fledged confrontation’’ [The writer is the Douglas Dillon
professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of
‘Destined for War’ in the FT]
The incident with the USS Decatur where a Chinese warship came within
45 yards of the USS Decatur in South China Sea is surely a precursor.

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OCT 15 :: Putin is a GeoPolitical GrandMaster
Law & Politics

Let us return to UNGA, where Putin set out his stall and I quote: ‘’I
cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realise
now what you’ve done?’’

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Engineering global consent: The Chinese Communist Party's data-driven power expansion @ASPI_ICPC
Law & Politics

The Chinese party-state’s tech-enhanced authoritarianism is expanding
globally. This expansion isn’t always distinctly coercive or overtly
invasive. While there’s an important focus on technologies such as 5G,
surveillance and cyber-enabled espionage, that narrow focus misses the
bigger picture. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a much more
ambitious vision for harnessing a broad suite of current and emerging
technologies in support of its own interests, including devices that
might be seen as relatively benign, such as language translation
technologies. By leveraging state-owned enterprises (SOEs), Chinese
technology companies and partnerships with foreign partners—including
Western universities—the CCP is building a massive and global
data-collection ecosystem. The creation of that ecosystem gives the
party control over large data flows. And, when the data is combined
with artificial intelligence (AI) processing, the result can help
build tools that can be used to shape, manage and control, including
propaganda tools and the social credit system. To explain this new
phenomenon, this report provides analysis of the global operations of
Chinese company Global Tone Communications Technology Co. Ltd (GTCOM),
which is a subsidiary of an SOE supervised directly by China’s Central
Propaganda Department (Figure 1). GTCOM focuses on ‘big data’
collection and AI technologies such as facial recognition. It claims
to collect enormous amounts of globally sourced data each year (2–3
petabytes annually, or the equivalent of 20 billion photos on
Facebook). It’s also responsible for identifying risks to state
security—a concept that places the party’s political power at its
core. GTCOM is a company openly contributing to state security and
intelligence data collection, the case study sheds light on many other
issues that should be of critical importance to global
decision-makers. It demonstrates, for instance, the global
consequences of the PRC’s military–civil fusion priority, which ‘seeks
to break down the barriers between China’s civilian and military
sectors’. Digital tools are revolutionising the old art of public
opinion manipulation.5 Advances in data collection and analytics,
human–machine interaction and AI are transforming how public sentiment
is monitored, analysed and manipulated. Technology assists state and
corporate actors to read public sentiment and use language more
effectively to shape it.6 It enables the automation and amplification
of messaging towards target groups.7 The possibilities are limited
only by whether the actors have the intent, capability and opportunity
to act. Through this rapidly expanding ecosystem, it seeks the
capability to collect mass real-time data on a global scale. The party
sees the most powerful threats to its ideological, cultural and
general political security as emerging from outside China. According
to this logic, preventing external risk requires the party’s
political, ideological and cultural security effort to go global. The
party-state’s descriptions of its own threat perceptions matter. It
describes the protests in Hong Kong as involving foreign ‘black
hands’, and implies that it blames ‘hostile forces’ outside the PRC
for the protests as much as political opposition that has organically
emerged from inside.19 Similarly, ‘hostile forces’ internal and
external to the PRC are viewed as a potential cause of a ‘colour
revolution’ event in the PRC.20 A 2017 article on a Xinjiang
Government website, for example, said the region had a ‘harmonious but
different’ system.22 The article quoted Xi as saying that the concept
‘reinforces the capacity of cadres and masses of various ethnicities
to tell right from wrong, defends against the thought infiltration
perpetrated by foreign enemy powers, sturdily raising the correct view
on motherland, history and ethnicity.’23 For Uyghurs currently
detained in Xinjiang on the basis of their ethnicity, there’s no
evidence that ‘being harmonious but different’ is about anything other
than the party’s power at the cost of their own identity, culture and

Beijing-headquartered GTCOM demonstrates how the CCP doesn’t just rely
on visibly coercive technology and overtly invasive surveillance to
achieve its broader objectives, such as reshaping global governance.
GTCOM was established in 2009 as a subsidiary of the Central
Propaganda Department-controlled SOE China Translation Corp., which is
a member of China Publishing Group (see Figure 1). The self-proclaimed
‘world leading big data and artificial intelligence enterprise’ is in
the business of ‘cross-language big data’; that is, the collection of
bulk data in at least ‘65 languages and 200+ countries’ (Figure 3).25
The data is used to generate ‘industrial knowledge graphs, algorithmic
models and visualisation platforms for finance, technology,
intelligent manufacturing, smart cities, national security, and
industry consulting and analysis’ for government and the private

Note: The image behind Liang Haoyu reads ‘90% of military grade
intelligence data can be obtained from open data analysis.’

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If they give up now without securing concessions, they will be arrested piecemeal over the coming months based on combing through copious digital and photographic records available to the police @Pinboard
Law & Politics

This works reciprocally for protesters. If they give up now without
securing concessions, they will be arrested piecemeal over the coming
months based on combing through copious digital and photographic
records available to the police.

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I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up," Mr. @AmbJohnBolton a Yale-trained lawyer, told Ms. Hill to tell @WhiteHouse lawyers @nytimes
Law & Politics

Bolton instructed Fiona Hill to notify the chief lawyer for the
National Security Council that Mr. Giuliani was working with Mick
Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on a rogue operation
with legal implications

International Markets

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Currency Markets at a Glance WSJ
World Currencies

Euro 1.1030
Dollar Index 98.52
Japan Yen 108.32
Swiss Franc 0.9967
Pound 1.2628
Aussie 0.6772
India Rupee 71.1975
South Korea Won 1183.83
Brazil Real 4.1288
Egypt Pound 16.2591
South Africa Rand 14.8182

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"Mr Saied ran a shrewd campaign, with almost no advertising, on a message of integrity and anti-corruption targeted at young Tunisian voters" BBC

Retired academic Kais Saied is set to become Tunisia's next president
after a landslide victory in Sunday's vote.
The electoral commission announced that the former law professor, 61,
secured 73% of votes in the run-off election.
He was up against media mogul Nabil Karoui, 56, who had campaigned
from prison after being arrested on charges of money laundering and
tax fraud.
Exit polls suggested that Mr Saied benefited from huge support among
young voters.
"Saied is clean and represents us. We know very well that he does not
have a magic wand," one student was quoted as saying.
Nicknamed "the robot" for his stern manner, Mr Saied ran a shrewd
campaign, with almost no advertising, on a message of integrity and
anti-corruption targeted at young Tunisian voters.
Mr Saied was on the committee of experts that helped parliament draft
Tunisia's post-Arab Spring constitution, adopted in 2014. He
occasionally appeared on television as a political commentator.
In the week before the polls, he announced that he would not campaign
while his rival was in prison.

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Polls are due to open shortly in Mozambique's general elections. President Filipe Nyusi is standing for another term, as his governing Frelimo party seeks to extend its decades-long rule. BBC

The main opposition Renamo party is aiming to win the local elections
in its traditional strongholds - even if it can't secure power at a
national level.

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Mozambique's elections on Tuesday have the highest stakes in the southeast African nation's history. @BBGAFRICA

The winner will oversee $50 billion of investments in gas projects and
need to tackle an Islamic State-linked insurgency that threatens to
disrupt them

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14-OCT-2019 :: @PMEthiopia @EliudKipchoge @WorldBank #AfricasPulse Ecclesiastes and Ozymandias

Two important Events happened last week. The Prime Minister of
Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed Ali was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 by
the Norwegian Nobel Committee and indeed it was a well deserved award.
In July 2018, I wrote

''These 90 or so days represent the most consequential arrival of an
African politician on the African stage since Mandela walked out of
prison blinking in the sunlight and constructed his ‘’rainbow
nation’’'' And whilst he faces a fiendishly complicated task fending
off the centripetal forces which are tearing Ethiopia apart, the Prime
Minister who has a singular self-belief in his destiny is a Virilian
figure and a c21st African Leader which is a scarce commodity.

“Whoever controls the territory possesses it. Possession of territory
is not primarily about laws and contracts, but first and foremost a
matter of movement and circulation.”

Staying with the Theme of Speed our very own Philosopher Runner Eliud
Kipchoge claimed the first sub two hour Marathon with a time of
1:59:40. Mr. Kipchoge has said

''I don’t know where the limits are, but I would like to go there.''

Eliud went to Vienna to run his race and under the auspices of the
#IneosChallenge which is a message of its own but is not the subject
of this Article.

Both these ''Feel-Good'' Events were iconic and totemic.

Staying with the theme of Speed and the Pulse, the World Bank released
its #AfricaPulse Africa's Pulse Report, No. 20, October 2019, which
gives us deep dive insights into the Pulse of this vast continent of
ours and below are some Bullet Points..

Regional growth is projected to rise to 2.6 percent in 2019 (0.2
percentage point lower than the April forecast) from 2.5 percent in
The recovery in Nigeria, South Africa, and Angola—the region’s three
largest economies—has remained fragile.
In Nigeria—real gross domestic product (GDP) growth decelerated from
2.1 percent year-over-year (y/y) in 2019q1 to 1.9 percent in 2019q2
South Africa For the entire first half of the year, real GDP growth
amounted to 0.4 percent.
In Angola—the region’s second largest oil exporter— GDP contracted by
0.4 percent (y/y) in the first quarter,
Debt vulnerabilities remain high. The share of countries in
Sub-Saharan Africa assessed in debt distress or at high risk of
external debt distress has almost doubled, though the pace of
deterioration has slowed.
The median government debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to stabilize at
around 55 percent in 2019, following sustained and broad-based
increases since 2013
For the region as a whole, the average interest payments-to-revenue
ratio is expected to rise to 11 percent in 2019, from 6 percent in
Per capita GDP growth for the region as a whole has remained
relatively flat, with no gain expected in 2019. Per capita GDP growth
is projected at 0.5 percent in 2020 and 0.6 percent in 2021, well
below the growth needed to improve the living standards of the
region’s population.
The downward forecast revision for 2019 mostly reflects temporary
drags from stressed economies, including Mozambique, Sudan, and
Zimbabwe, but slowdowns are also seen in Kenya due to sluggish
agricultural exports.
Africa’s total fertility rate (TFR) of 4.8 births per woman remains
high (and even higher for poor women)

Charlie Robertson [Chief Economist Renaissance Capital] has pronounced
that South Africa [is] Heading for [a] Junk Downgrade. A meme flying
round on social media is that There is a New sex position called the
"Ramaphosa" Get on top and do nothing [@danielmarven]

You will agree that the overall picture is not very pretty. The Canary
in the Coal Mine is Zambia.

“Investors have lost faith in government promises to get spending
under control and the government has fallen out with the IMF as well,”
he said. In Zambia, Eurobonds are trading at 60c in the $. Even the
Chinese whom many thought was Santa Claus ave thrown in the Towel. I
recall #FOCAC2018 and the famous Photograph where all the Chinese
Officials had a Pen and Paper and not one African Official was taking
notes. Had they been taking notes they would have heard Xi Jinping
specifically speak of ''The End of Vanity'' which I characterised at
the time as a ''a substantive linguistic recasting of China Africa by
Xi Jinping''

I only recently discovered Ecclesiastes and clearly Xi was ahead of me
in this regard.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 2 Vanity[a] of vanities, says the Preacher

2 Vanity[a] of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,[c]
    nor will there be any remembrance
of later things[d] yet to be
    among those who come after.

It seems to me that we are at a Pivot moment and we can keep
regurgitating the same old Mantras like a stuck record and if we do
that this turns Ozymandias

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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.@NSSF puts 25pc equity portfolio in @SafaricomPLC @BD_Africa

The National Social Security Fund (NSSF) invested nearly a quarter of
its equities portfolio in Safaricom in the year ended June 2018,
raising the portion from 14.8 percent the year before.
This makes the telco, which dominates at the Nairobi Securities
Exchange (NSE) in terms of profitability, liquidity and market
capitalisation, by far the single largest equities investment for the
State-controlled pension fund.


Its technically an underweight position. Neutral would be 50%

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@SafaricomPLC share price data

Par Value:                  0.05/-
Closing Price:           28.45
Total Shares Issued:  40065428000.00
Market Capitalization: 1,139,861,426,600
EPS:             1.58
PE:                 18.006

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by Aly Khan Satchu (www.rich.co.ke)
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October 2019

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