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Songs of exile: a playlist for Psalm 137

Psalm 137 begins with one of the more lyrical lines in the Hebrew Bible: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” It ends eight lines later with one of the thorniest: “Happy shall he be, who taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Partly because it deals with music—another famous verse asks, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”—the psalm has been like poetic catnip, a siren song luring musicians, composers, and singers alike for more than two millennia. The first four verses have generated by far the most musical settings, from classical pieces (Bach, de Monte, Guerrero, Byrd, Dvořák, Verdi, Bloch, Alkan) to popular renditions sung by Don McLean and the cast of Godspell. But it was “Rivers of Babylon,” an earlier, Rasta-tinged rendition by the Jamaican group, the Melodians, that gave the psalm global exposure. For more versions of the musical psalm, listen to the clips provided below.

Al Naharot Babel
The first example is a traditional Hebrew rendition called “Al Naharot Babel.” This particular version was recorded in Iraq.

“An den Wassern zu Babel” by Heinrich Schütz  (1619)
Born in 1585, Heinrich Schütz was one of the great composers of the 17th century, generally considered the most important German composer before Bach.


“Al Naharot Babel” by Salomone Rossi (1622)
A supremely gifted violinist and composer, Salomone Rossi came to the attention of the powerful Gonzaga family of Mantua. He was so highly regarded that he was allowed to travel freely in and out of Mantua’s Jewish ghetto, a rare privilege. Rossi is best remembered for his pioneering work, Hashirim ásher lish’lomo (“The Songs of Solomon”), which included a setting of Psalm 137.



An Wasserflüssen Babylon” by J.S. Bach (c. 1720)
One of the best-known of all settings of the psalm, Bach is reported to have improvised on this tune for nearly half an hour in a 1720 concert at St. Catherine’s in Hamburg, as a tribute to the church’s regular organist.


Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi (1841)
Verdi’s first successful opera, Nabucco (1841), was based on the Babylonian Exile, and one of his most beloved choruses, “Va, pensiero”  features a chorus of Judean captives. Most Italians know this chorus by heart.


Ten Biblical Songs, op. 99” by Antonin Dvorak (1894)
This brief setting, composed while Dvorak lived in the United States, was famously performed  by Roland Hayes, the pioneering African American opera singer, and later adopted by Paul Robeson, a great admirer of Hayes.

Ten Biblical Songs by Paul Robeson (c. 1940)
“But history moves on: Hitler is gone; Prague lives and builds in a new people’s democracy—and now I, an American Negro, sing for her this ancient Hebrew song in the language of the people of Huss and Dvorak, Fuchik and Gottwald: Pri rekach babylonckych, Tam jsme sedavali a plakavali. ” -Paul Robeson


“Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians, “On the Willows” from Godspell by Stephen Schwartz, and “Babylon” by Don McLean
Three of the most popular recent musical renditions of the song appeared within two years of each other: one (“Rivers of Babylon”) from Jamaica, the other two from the United States.




“Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M. (1978)
By far the bestselling version of “Rivers of Babylon” was recorded by the German-based band, Boney M. Their 1978 cover, with voices soaring over an infectious disco back-beat, became the second biggest-selling single in U.K. chart history, and was the group’s only song to reach the top 40 in the United States.


“Wood Street” by Judy Hauff (1986)
Composed in 1986, Chicagoan Judy Hauff’s setting of Psalm 137 in the latest edition of The Sacred Harp (1991) is one of the most requested songs in that venerable collection. Most of the composers featured lived in the 19th century.


“By the Rivers Dark” by Leonard Cohen (2001)
Recorded in 2001, Leonard Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark” delivers somber and solitary riffs on the psalm.


Shanghai Dreams (2001)
Boney M’s cover turns up at an illicit dance held in a factory in China in Shanghai Dreams. In the film, families are “exiled” from Shanghai to the countryside, supporting the country’s industrial backbone in the event of World War III.


“Jerusalem” by Matisyahu (2006)
An inward-looking oath by the psalmist, the middle two verses have been of particular interest to political movements that invoke collective memory to mobilize social action. This one, by the self-styled Hasidic dancehall-reggae artist Matisyahu, carries a strong Zionist message.


Daniel Variations by Steve Reich (2006)
Steve Reich’s Daniel Variations, animated by the savage aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, features four movements alternating short, gnomic texts taken from the Book of Daniel with fragments of comments by Daniel Pearl, a young reporter who was captured by the Taliban and beheaded.


“Babylon” from Mad Men (2007)
In the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper and his girlfriend make their way to the Gaslight, a subterranean cabaret in Greenwich Village, where a folk trio plays a haunting, minor-key round setting of Psalm 137. The camera cuts to domestic vignettes suggesting Draper’s stream of consciousness: Manhattan as Babylon.


Tulpan (2008)
Boney M.’s ubiquitous cover version recurs again in world cinema, in a Kazhak film that deals with a young man’s return from military service and his poignant efforts to find a wife and establish a traditional life as a sheep-herder.


The Wandering Jew by Robert Saxton (2011)
This opera, The Wandering Jew, by British composer, Robert Saxton, begins and ends in a Nazi death camp. The first vocal music heard is a chorus of prisoners singing an angular melody, the opening verses of Psalm 137.

“By the Rivers of Babylon” by Jack Richard Hodkinson
New settings of Psalm 137 continue to be composed; this is likely the most recent, by an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, England.


Featured image: “Typography” by Benjamin Gray. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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Portraying Krishna in X-Men: Apocalypse

Another summer, another season of superhero movies. Big budgets, big muscles, big explosions: Each release only strengthens the genre’s domination of Hollywood—and the sense that comic-book franchises make up a contemporary mythology, and superheroes are its gods.

Among this year’s offerings is X-Men: Apocalypse, which opened the last week of May. Apocalypse is the name of the villain, who makes his own claim to divinity in no uncertain terms. One of the film’s trailers features this grandiose statement: “I have been called many things over many lifetimes: Ra, Krishna, Yahweh.” And as reported in Time magazine, the line caught the attention of Rajan Zed, a Hindu priest based in Reno, Nevada. “Lord Krishna was meant to be worshiped in temples or home shrines,” he protested, “not for pushing movies for the mercantile greed of filmmakers,” and pressed the director to have all Krishna references deleted from the film.

Zed is the president of an organization called the Universal Society of Hinduism, but—notwithstanding his own rather grandiose styling—it is unclear how many Hindus he actually speaks for. (Along with Time, some South Asian YouTube channels picked up the story, and comments can be found there echoing Zed’s sense of offense; mishearing “Ra” as Ram has added to the grievances of some.) There has been one notable occasion, however, on which Zed attained national visibility as the face of American Hinduism. In 2007 he opened a session of the United States Senate, the first Hindu guest chaplain in its history. Zed’s prayer was interrupted several times from the gallery; news of his invitation, by Harry Reid of Nevada, had been met with an e-mail protest circulated by Christian groups. One senses that American misunderstandings of Hinduism, and prejudice against it, are sources of familiar and enduring concern for Zed.

That being noted, the association of the X-Men’s blue-faced villain with Krishna would seem to owe little to any actual antecedent in Hindu tradition. Or to any Hindu antecedent, that is, that doesn’t already come filtered through layers of American popular culture, including another comic-book franchise. The Apocalypse character dates back to the X-Men stories published by Marvel Comics in the mid-1980s, and his origin story involves motifs borrowed not from Hindu, but Egyptian mythology (whence the Ra reference). But in the same period, perhaps not entirely by coincidence, another blue-complected character emerged at Marvel’s rival, DC—a figure that does show a clear debt to Krishna. The most powerful character in DC’s celebrated “alternative” comics series, Watchmen, is Dr. Manhattan, a philosophically inclined giant whose name and imagery were inspired by the Manhattan Project—and specifically by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s epiphany on viewing the first atomic detonation, as voiced in the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” Dr. Manhattan’s cinematic debut in 2009’s Watchmen was a memorable one. For comic-book fans and other serial viewers of superhero movies, his is surely the definitive combination, to date, of blue skin, portentous rhetoric, and apocalyptic power—the avatar (so to speak) to beat.

Part of Zed’s point has to do with appropriation. Perhaps the right of non-Hindu filmmakers to use imagery that derives its power and appeal from Hindu sources should be challenged. But his contention that Krishna is “meant” to be worshiped in temples, instead of viewed on the movie screen, relies on a too-simple dichotomy. Indian filmmakers have been working with Hindu imagery (and profiting handsomely off it) for over a century. Indeed, in its first decade Indian film production was entirely dominated by the so-called mythological genre. Famously, D. G. Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema,” cast his own daughter in the early classics Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919) in the starring role—none other than that of Lord Krishna.

Over a hundred years of cinema history, the mythological genre has gone through its vicissitudes. One high point was 1961’s Sampoorna Ramayana, “The Complete Ramayana,” a three-hour Hindi-language spectacular featuring songs, stunts, special effects, and the popular wrestler-actor Dara Singh as the epic’s own action hero, the monkey god Hanuman. These days, in northern India, mythological films have largely ceded their place to mythological television, the catalyst having been the phenomenally successful broadcast of a Ramayana series in 1987–88 (Dara Singh—still going strong—again played Hanuman). But the mythological continues to enjoy prominence in the regional cinemas of South India, which have even fostered distinct subgenres centered on mother goddesses and snake deities. And from time and again the gods do still incarnate themselves in A-list Hindi movies. The 2012 Bollywood hit OMG cast the superstar Akshay Kumar as a suave and well-toned modern Krishna at large in Mumbai; when he races his motorcycle through CGI-enhanced nighttime streets, the scene could be mistaken for Gotham City or Metropolis.

And a final point: What goes for movies goes these days for comic books as well. For a long time starting in the 1960s, the Indian comics market had been dominated by the Amar Chitra Katha line of stories adapted from Sanskrit—a children’s series that served up the classics in an easy-to-digest format. But in recent years glossier comics about the gods and epic heroes—flashier graphics, fleshier physiques—have come muscling into the picture. I’ll give the last word here to the interlocutor who first brought home to me the affinity between Hindu gods and American-style superheroes. He was seven years old at the time, and we were speaking in Hindi. “I know all the mans,” he said to me proudly. “Spiderman…Superman…Hanuman!”

Featured image credit: Wooden Krishna at Bangalore Habba by Rajesh dangi. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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6 reasons why the Hogwarts library is the true hero of the Harry Potter books

It’s undeniable: all Harry Potter fans secretly expect to receive their very own Hogwarts acceptance letter. Ready to be the next magical prodigy, we assume that we’ll hop onto the Hogwarts Express, promptly be sorted into Gryffindor, achieve straight O’s in our O.W.L.s, and inevitably end up as Minister for Magic. After all, like Albus Dumbledore, we are surely destined for magical greatness.

Alas, when our letter-bearing owl rudely pulls a no-show, accepting one’s muggle status is a hard pill to swallow. But, as today is Magic Day, we’ve decided to temporarily shelve our disappointment, and pay tribute to our favourite Hogwarts hotspot. Undoubtedly, the unsung hero of the Harry Potter series, we’re referring to a place with more answers than Albus, better looks than Lockhart, and even more mystery than Mad-Eye Moody.

This is why we love the Hogwarts library:

It inspires Hermione to create S.P.E.W.

The library provides Hermione with both the inspiration and information to establish the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, or as it is more commonly known, S.P.E.W. Dobby, Winky, and Kreacher, though prone to the occasional mood swing, are incredibly loyal magical creatures, and we would challenge anyone to look into their great orb-like eyes and not instantaneously become a campaigner for elfish rights. Here at Oxford University Press, we are all in agreement; had we not been born talentless muggles, we would don our S.P.E.W. badges with pride.

The interior of Duke Humphrey's Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford where the library scenes in the movies were filmed.
Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford where the library scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s home to Madam Pince.

No library is complete without its librarian, and one can’t help but admire Madam Pince and her sassy remarks.

We particularly praise the vulture-like lady for calling Harry a ‘depraved boy’ on catching a glimpse of his maltreated copy of Advanced Potion-Making, which originally belonged to the Half-Blood Prince, Severus Snape.

Bravo Madam Pince: we applaud your commitment to the preservation of books, and we personally hope you do find love with Argus Filch (that is, if you manage to sideline Mrs Norris).

It’s beautiful.

Home to thousands of ancient magical books, with breath-taking views over the Hogwarts grounds, the library is undeniably a picturesque place of study.

We can’t imagine a more scenic spot to kick back with The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or, my personal favourite, Men Who Love Dragons Too Much.

It’s a place of love.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire sees an unlikely romance blossom in the Hogwarts library, between bushy bookworm Hermione Granger, and big and brooding Viktor Krum.

Whilst Harry and Ron are faced with rejection and embarrassment in their mission to find partners for the Yule Ball, Hermione effortlessly nabs a date with the world-famous Bulgarian Quidditch player, who visits the library on a daily basis just to pluck up the courage to talk to her.

Move over Tinder, we’re heading to the library!

It helps Harry, Ron, and Hermione in their quests

Credit where credit is due: the Hogwarts library helps our favourite gang of Gryffindors time and time again in their battles against Voldemort.

Cast your mind back to the Chamber of Secrets crisis. Harry only discovers the true form of Slytherin’s monster, and why only he can hear its whispers, on finding a page from a library book scrunched up in Hermione’s hand. Whilst we cannot condone such shameful brutalisation of books, we must admit that this information was helpful to the somewhat stumped Harry and Ron.

Bodleian Library. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It has screaming books.

Though, deep down, we’re rooting for Harry to succeed in his endeavours, given his complete disregard for the rules, we can’t help but feel a certain amount of satisfaction when one of his plans goes awry.

As far as we’re concerned, any young scallywag who presumes to enter the restricted section of the Hogwarts library in the dead of night, without even attaining a teacher’s note of approval, deserves to happen upon a screaming book.

On this particular occasion, we commend the library for thwarting this little rascal’s rebellious plans.

There you have it: six reasons we love Hogwarts library. In summary, whilst most Harry Potter enthusiasts may believe that the moral of the series is related to the importance of love, friendship, and loyalty, it is glaringly obvious that the real moral of the story is as follows –

Libraries are the best.

Featured Image: “hp7cover2” by Austen Squarepants. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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Lady Susan: “the most accomplished Coquette in England”

In anticipation of the new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s comedic epistolary novella, Lady Susan, this extract introduces the main character; the charming and flirtatious Lady Susan Vernon.


Mr. De Courcy to Mrs. Vernon.


My dear Sister

I congratulate you and Mr. Vernon on being about to receive into your family, the most accomplished Coquette in England. As a very distinguished Flirt, I have been always taught to consider her; but it has lately fallen in my way to hear some particulars of her conduct at Langford, which prove that she does not confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people, but aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable. By her behaviour to Mr. Manwaring, she gave jealousy and wretchedness to his wife, and by her attentions to a young man previously attached to Mr. Manwaring’s sister, deprived an amiable girl of her Lover. I learnt all this from a Mr. Smith now in this neighbourhood– (I have dined with him at Hurst and Wilford)—who is just come from Langford, where he was a fortnight in the house with her Ladyship, and who is therefore well qualified to make the communication.

What a Woman she must be! I long to see her, and shall certainly accept your kind invitation, that I may form some idea of those bewitching powers which can do so much– engaging at the same time and in the same house the affections of two Men who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them– and all this without the charm of Youth. I am glad to find that Miss Vernon does not come with her Mother to Churchill, as she has not even Manners to recommend her, and according to Mr. Smith’s account, is equally dull and proud. Where Pride and Stupidity untie, there can be no dissimulation worthy notice, and Miss Vernon shall be consigned to unrelenting contempt; but by all that I can gather, Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating Deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect. I shall be with you very soon, and am

your affect. Brother R. De Courcy.


Mrs. Vernon to Mr. De Courcy.


Well my dear Reginald, I have seen this dangerous creature, and must give you some description of her, tho’ I hope you will soon be able to form your own judgement. She is really excessively pretty. However you may chuse to question the allurements of a Lady no longer young, I must for my own part declare that I have seldom seen so lovely a Woman as Lady Susan. She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not supposed her more than five and twenty, tho’ she must in fact be ten years older. I was certainly not disposed to admire her, tho’ always hearing she was beautiful; but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of Symmetry, Brilliancy and Grace. Her address to me was so gentle, frank and even affectionate, that if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr. Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend. One is apt I believe to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will necessarily attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her Countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild. I am sorry it is so, for what is this but Deceit? Unfortunately one knows her too well. She is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of Language, which is too often used I beleive to make Black appear White. She has already almost persuaded me of her being warmly attached to her daughter, tho’ I have so long been convinced of the contrary. She speaks of her with so much tenderness and anxiety, lamenting so bitterly the neglect of her education, which she represents however as wholly unavoidable, that I am forced to recollect how many successive Springs her Ladyship spent in Town, while her daughter was left in Staffordshire to the care of servants or a Governess very little better, to prevent my beleiving whatever she says.

If her manners have so great an influence on my resentful heart, you may guess how much more strongly they operate on Mr. Vernon’s generous temper. I wish I could be as well satisfied as he is, that it was really her choice to leave Langford for Churchill; and if she had not staid three months there before she discovered that her friends’ manner of Living did not suit her situation or feelings, I might have believed that concern for the loss of such a Husband as Mr. Vernon, to whom her own behaviour was far from unexceptionable, might for a time make her wish for retirement. But I cannot forget the length of her visit to the Manwarings, and when I reflect on the different mode of Life which she led with them, from that to which she must not submit, I can only suppose that the wish of establishing her reputation by following, tho’ late, the path of propriety, occasioned her removed from a family where she must in reality have been particularly happy. Your friend Mr. Smith’s story however cannot be quite true, as she corresponds regularly with Mrs. Manwaring; at any rate it must be exaggerated; it is scarcely possible that two men should be so grossly deceived by her at once.

Yrs &c. Cath. Vernon.


Featured image: Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in ‘Love and Friendship’. Roadside Attractions

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Much unseen: scandals, cultural stereotypes, and Nabil Ayouch’s Much Loved

Scandal hit just before Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch debuted his most recent film, Much Loved/Zine li fik, at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in May of 2015. Footage of the film about the lives of three prostitutes in Marrakech was leaked online, touching off a furor in Morocco. There ensued death threats against Ayouch and lead actor Loubna Abidar, the film’s ban in Morocco, obscenity charges, Facebook calls for the director’s execution, physical attacks on actors, and soon, Abidar’s exile in France. Throughout it all, however, few Moroccans actually saw the film, a condition that persists, at least insofar as is publicly acknowledged, to this day.

Violence aside, little of this is new or even particularly surprising – least of all the pillorying of a film sight unseen in Moroccan and social media by commentators, politicians, civic leaders, and self-appointed guardians of public decency. It is not even the first time that one of Ayouch’s films has kicked up controversy or been banned in Morocco.

Yet past controversies of films unseen – and, in the eyes of some, unseeable – have evolved largely within the spheres of Moroccan media and cyberspace. What is new in this instance is that the controversy has spread across the Mediterranean to France, Europe, and beyond. Observers on both sides of the northern Atlantic are quick to attribute such virulent attacks on a cultural product to religious conservatism, cultural taboos, or even sexual “misery” (assisted in this latter by the kind of culturalist analysis recently offered by best-selling author Kamel Daoud). In turn, many of those who express the greatest surprise at the uproar of Moroccan opinion assume, as does Ayouch himself, that if only people saw the film, it would become apparent that the nudity, sex, and vulgarity of the leaked clips work in the service of exposing deeper social issues concerning the role of women in Moroccan society.

Nabil Ayouch à la cérémonie des prix Lumières 2014 by Georges Biard. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This presumes that critical blindness is exclusive to Moroccans who refuse or are prevented from seeing the film. Yet, what of Euro-American audiences? Might we not also suffer from some impaired vision?

Certainly, the attention paid to Much Loved obscures the remarkable vitality of film and discourses around it in a country where popular audiences continue to desert movie theaters in favor of bootlegs and downloads even as cineplexes attract wealthy viewers to commercial cinema. More significantly, simplistic analyses of the controversy downplay Moroccan audiences’ keen awareness of the power of globally circulating images and narrative cinema. Not least, it occults the dynamic and complex conversations taking place in Moroccan civil society around the very kinds of social issues that the film’s commercial realism purports to expose.

So, on what grounds do its critics dismiss Much Loved? As the charges against the film show, some call it obscene, an offense against public morals, but they and others also allege that it tarnishes the image of Moroccan women and that it encourages sex tourism. A picture begins to emerge, one that may even have feminist valences, especially when taken together with the critical reviews of western industry critics who have commented that the film contains “a few too many party scenes,” indulges in “the stereotype of the hard-as-nails prostitute,” is guilty of an “overly glossy finish,” and is most likely to appeal to “male viewers wanting close ups of pretty girls, naked flesh, and dirty pillow talk.” If such is the takeaway of Euro-American critics, why should Moroccans see anything different?

In expressing their disappointment that the realism of the film is not grittier (that is to say, somehow more authentic) critics abroad highlight a central concern of many Moroccans, namely that the film will be much viewed not just at home, but also beyond the country’s borders. When presented as a realistic film and framed by a one-sided understanding of the controversy it has elicited, Much Loved has the power to contribute to the long chain of one-dimensional, paternalistic, colonial, imperial, racist, misogynist, and differentially politicized images that flow ever more quickly across borders they simultaneously reinforce. Ayouch’s film, for its part, begins to expose some of these discourses through the figures of Saudi clients who emblematize transnational flows of capital that fuel sex tourism and trafficking. Still, the film’s relationship to the stereotype of Moroccan women as prostitutes that circulates to the North and East, resulting in forms of discrimination and violence both real and symbolic, remains problematic.

Certainly, violence against Ayouch and the film’s actors will do nothing to disrupt such clichés, serving only to harden stereotypes of Moroccans as, in the words of one reviewer, sexual hypocrites.

For our part, we Euro-American audiences must refrain from a certain symbolic violence by learning to see Much Loved as but one small piece of much larger, dynamic cinematic and social discourses.

And by the way, I haven’t seen the film. Yet.

Featured image credit: Jamaa el Fna in the evening, looking toward Café Argana and the covered souq by Boris Macek. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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