Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Letter from Salamanca - I

Salamanca is a three hour long and scenic journey from Madrid through the Spanish countryside. The countryside is stunning with precipitous mountains giving way to rolling and sometimes barren hills, and then the proverbial Spanish plain which stretches as far as the eye can see. Indeed, the trip is unlike most post-airport drives across urbanized parts of the West - especially the Northeastern corridor of the United States - where tedious successions of Walmarts, Staples, Bestbuys and their ilk repeat themselves in various permutations ad nasuam. On the way to Salamanca, you very quickly find yourself transported from the bustle, dirt and lights of Madrid. Poof, a journey worthy of physical and intellectual speculation.

Just a few days before the bulls began to tear up Spanish streets and stadia, the seven hundred year old University of Salamanca held a conference entitled, "Poets, priests, scribes and (e-)librarians. The transmission of holy wisdom in Zoroastrians," in the sixteenth century abode of the faculty de philologia. Avestan scholars from three continents met to discuss the transmission and reception of the Avesta from antiquity, when it was transmitted orally, to the medieval codices, modern printing press, and now, electronically. There were also some discussions of Pahlavi (Middle Persian) adaptations, translations, and reformulations of Avestan texts.

The Zoroastrian High Priest of Bombay, Dastur Firoze M. Kotwal was there, and the enormous bird nests left undisturbed on the upper columns inside the Faculty de Philologia may of reminded him of the Tower of Silence, and of home. The Dastur seemed to enjoy the conference, shared a beer (Spanish, cold) with some of the younger generation in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. Otherwise, he kept to himself.

Essentially, the conference was a showcase for Alberto Cantera's impressive Avestan Digital Archive. ADA is run out of University of Salamanca, directed by Cantera, and powered by his own five member team - doctoral students, of course. A while back I made mention of the ADA's sister site, www.videvdad.com, on MM's blog in order to show how far Zoroastrian studies had come. I admit now that my impressions were rather patronizing, as if Zoroastrian Studies had some "catching up" to do re: digitalization when compared with sites like JNUL's digital library and Shamma Friedman's Lieberman Project. At this point, the student has surpassed the master, perhaps revealing that she was never a student to begin with. The site is well on its way to providing a definitive place for Zoroastrian philological research.

But the conference was also a steady stream of papers read, mumbled, pantomimed, and sometimes enthusiastically performed. There is room for the scholarly study of the academic paper - perhaps by oral-performance theorists. Unfortunately, for many an academic, there is the sense is that the conference paper has ontological meaning - thus it takes up many more pages than the allotted twenty minutes allow, and it also contains footnotes, which of course conference participants don't read. The paper exists, yet no one has access to it in its entirety save for the performer. But more, anon.

There were two moments that jolted the conference from its general predictability. First was Dr. Yuhan Vevaina's (Harvard University) paper, which was ostensibly about "transmission and agency" in the Pahlavi translations/commentaries to the Avesta, but was really a post-modern critique of Avestan philology. Vevaina's point had to do with the way Avestan scholars look to the Pahlavi translations as, at best, poor renditions of the Avestan original instead of new creations that are trying to do something new. Interestingly, Vevaina has used some recent work on Midrash in his research for methodological framing. There was of course much more. The ironies of this critique taking place in the sixteenth century faculty de philologia building were lost on few. (I hope to devote further discussion to Vevaina's work when/if it is made available online in the near future at ADA's website).

The second moment was a toast at the galla dinner, that quickly turned into a related critique of the narrow philological study of ritual texts, courtesy of Prof. Michael Stausberg (Bergen). (Both Vevaina and Stausberg are editing Blackwell's companion to Zoroastrianism, and I will be submitting an article to that volume aith Yaakov Elman on Judaism's intersection with Zoroastrianism). Stausberg's toast was truly a roast aimed not just at the conference organizers, but at the conference participants as well. All in good fun, but the laughter ranged from healthy to nervous (shades of Dick Van Dyke, and more). It is telling that the two were seated at the same table during the gall dinner

Michael Stausberg, laughing

...as was I:

Yuhan Vevaina and Shai Secunda. A chuckle, a critique.


  1. It's called Spain. I've been harassed too many times in Europe to think it worth it to walk around with my kipah. It's just not worth it. You should see the anti-israel grafiti in lovely Salamanca. In any case, I received a blow from a homeless guy on Shabbat afternoon, but that's another story.

  2. Is there a minyan in Salmanica?

  3. Not even close. No Chabad to speak of, either. I did discover an old abandoned synagogue (judging from the star of david windows) on one of the main drags, above a copy-center, but because of construction I could not get access to it. That said, Salamanca was home to a Jewish community before the expulsion (though perhaps recently as well, I just have no information). Abraham Zacut, the mystic/scientist was from there.


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