Pakistani Immigrant Goes to a Led Zeppelin Concert, Gets Inspired to Become a Musician & Then Sells 30 Million Albums

Salman Ahmad, the guitarist who founded the acclaimed Sufi rock band Junoon, has sold over 30 million albums worldwide, performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and continued making music despite threats from The Taliban. He also teaches courses on Muslim music and poetry at Queens College of the City University of New York.

Above, in a video produced by The Moth, the boundary-breaking musician recounts his inspirational life story. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, he moved to New York at the age of 11. Being the “only overweight, brown, Muslim kid” in school, he lived in relative isolation–that is until Dan Spitz (later the guitarist of Anthrax) urged him “to get cool.” Cool came in the form of a ticket to a Led Zeppelin concert at Madison Square Garden, which kicked off, oddly enough, with “Kashmir.”

I’ll let Ahmad tell the rest of his story. It’s also a story about how America does good (for the world and itself) when it remains open in heart, mind, and law.

To get better acquainted with Ahmad’s journey, read his recent book, Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution.

To keep America open, make a donation to the ACLU.

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Ian McKellen Reads a Passionate Speech by William Shakespeare, Written in Defense of Immigrants

The identity of William Shakespeare has been a literary mystery for four hundred years, inspiring theory after theory, book after book. There has been, indeed, little biographical evidence to work with, though paleographer and “literary detective” Heather Wolfe has very recently filled in some critical gaps. It was long thought that Shakespeare’s will, in which he bequeaths to his wife his “second best bed,” was the only document in his hand, aside from a few signatures here and there.

Since around the turn of the 20th century, however, scholars have come to agree that three pages of a manuscript in an Elizabethan play called Sir Thomas More contain Shakespeare’s handwriting. The play, writes the British Library—who house the physical pages and have digital scans at their site—tells the story of “the Tudor lawyer and polymath who was sentenced to death for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England.”

Best known from A Man for All Seasons and for writing the philosophical novel Utopia, More was a humanist and a diplomat, and in this excerpt, he “delivers a gripping speech” to a rioting mob, “who are baying for so-called ‘strangers’ to be banished.” In the video above, you can see Ian McKellen give a passionate reading of More’s speech, in which he “relies on human empathy to make his point that if the rioters were suddenly banished to a foreign land, they would become ‘wretched strangers’ too, and equally vulnerable to attack.”

The speech, McKellen says, “is symbolic and wonderful… so much at the heart of Shakespeare’s humanity.” Read an excerpt below and more of the text at Quartz.

Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

This scene refers to an actual event in English history, writes Anne Quito at Quartz, when “feverish xenophobia swept through the population.” In a period between 1330 and 1550, “64,000 foreigners, from wealthy Lombard bankers to Flemish laborers, arrived on English shores… in search of better lives.”

The tension came to head on May 1, 1517, when “riots broke out in London and a mob armed with stones, bricks, bats, boots and boiling water attacked the immigrants and looted their homes. Thomas More, then the city’s deputy sheriff, tried to reason with the crowd.”

The day became known as “Evil May Day” and cast a grim shadow several decades later when the play was believed to have been written, between 1596 and 1601. Shakespeare was not its only author, though the 147 lines of More’s speech are his. Sir Thomas More was immediately banned and never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The queen’s censor Edmund Tilney “thought it might incite riots during a time when England was once again besieged by another immigrant crisis.” McKellen’s reading has become a “clarion call,” writes Quito for refugee advocates in the midst of Europe’s current crisis.

Americans might take this to heart as well, as victims of war and terror in countries all over the Middle East may soon be banned from finding refuge in the U.S. See a shorter reading of an excerpt from the speech just above by Harriet Walters.

via Quartz

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“Calling Bullshit”: See the Syllabus for a College Course Designed to Identify & Combat Bullshit

Two professors at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, have created a website meant to accompany a potential college seminar entitled “Calling Bullshit.” Here’s how Bergstrom and West explain the premise of their course. It’s worth quoting them at length.

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.

What do we mean, exactly, by the term bullshit? As a first approximation, bullshit is language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

While bullshit may reach its apogee in the political domain, this is not a course on political bullshit. Instead, we will focus on bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse. Traditionally, such highbrow nonsense has come couched in big words and fancy rhetoric, but more and more we see it presented instead in the guise of big data and fancy algorithms — and these quantitative, statistical, and computational forms of bullshit are those that we will be addressing in the present course….

Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.

The “Calling Bullshit” course would sit nicely alongside the work of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, the author of the fairly recent book, On Bullshit. (In fact, On Bullshit would be read during Week 1 of the “Calling Bullshit“course. See the syllabus here.) There’s a lot of bullshit freely flowing through our world, and it may well take a cross-disciplinary team to help us cut through the crap.

To learn more about the envisioned Calling Bullshit course, visit Bergstrom and West’s website, where they have an FAQ that explains what a study of bullshit might look like.

Update: You can now view the lectures for the course here.

Note: You can download Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” as a free audiobook (or any other two free audiobooks) if you sign up for’s free trial program. Learn more about Audible’s free trial program here.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

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Female Samurai Warriors Immortalized in 19th Century Japanese Photos

Most of my generation’s exposure to Japanese culture came heavily mediated by anime and samurai films. One cultural artifact that stands out for me is TV miniseries Shogun, an adaptation of James Clavell’s popular novel, which gives us a view of Japan through the eyes of a British novelist and his British hero (played by Richard Chamberlain in the film). Shogun depicts a feudal Japanese warrior culture centered on exaggerated displays of masculinity, with women operating in the margins or behind the scenes.

Even the great Akira Kurosawa’s visions of feudal Japan, like The Seven Samurai, are “not exactly inundated with the stunning power of female warriors brandishing katanas,” writes Dangerous Minds, “it’s a bit of a  ソーセージ-fest.”

And yet, it turns out, “such women did exist.” Known as onna bugeisha, these fighters “find their earliest precursor in Empress Jingū, who in 200 A.D. led an invasion of Korea after her husband Emperor Chūai, the fourteenth emperor of Japan, perished in battle.” Empress Jingū’s example endured. In 1881, she became the first woman on Japanese currency.

Preceding the all-male samurai class depicted in Clavell and Kurosawa, the onna bugeisha “learned to use naginata, kaiken, and the art of tanto Jutso in battle,” the Vintage News tells us. Rather than pay mercenaries to defend them, as the terrified townsfolk do in Seven Samurai, these women trained in battle to protect “communities that lacked male fighters.”

The onna bugeisha’s ethic was as purportedly as uncompromising as the samurai, and it shows in these fierce portraits from the 1800s. Although many tales of prominent onna bugeisha come from the 12th-13th centuries, one famous figure, Nakano Takeko lived in the 19th century, writes Dangerous Minds, and died quite the warrior’s death:

While she was leading a charge against Imperial Japanese Army troops she was shot in the chest. Knowing her remaining time on earth to be short, Takeko asked her sister, Yūko, to cut her head off and have it buried rather than permit the enemy to seize it as a trophy. It was taken to Hōkai Temple and buried underneath a pine tree.

Another revered fighter, Tomoe Gozen, appears in The Tale of the Heike (often called the “Japanese Iliad). She is described as “especially beautiful,” and also as “a remarkably strong archer… as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot.”

In the photos here—and many more at The Vintage News—we get a sense of what such a legendary badass may have looked like.


via Vintage News/Dangerous Minds

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet Theda Bara, the First “Vamp” of Cinema, Who Revealed the Erotic Power of the Movies

Readers of a certain generation, asked to envision a vampirically alluring lady of cinema, may find their imaginations going straight to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. But the tradition of the silver-screen “vamp” goes much deeper, reaching all the way back to the silent era. The term itself was first coined to refer to Theda Bara, not exactly a household name now, but then in a league with Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. She was one of the most popular performers alive.

Bara revealed to a generation of moviegoers the sheer erotic power of cinema, an accomplishment you can glimpse in the clip above of 1915’s A Fool There Was, the picture that made her an icon. The minute she arrives on screen, writes The Guardian‘s Kira Cochrane, “it becomes obvious why she was so popular — why she went on to have songs written about her, children named after her, a perfume and even a sandwich (minced ham, mayonnaise, sliced pimento and sweet pickles on toast — served warm) created in her honour.” Her face, though it may not seem so notable at first, soon “comes into its own — so much so that when you learn that her character’s malevolence has led one man to jail, another to beggary, and her most recent victim to a very public suicide, you believe it.”

Frank Powell, director of A Fool There Was, “took a chance on a 29 year-old Theda (she lied and said she was 25)” by asking her to star, writes Messy Nessy’s Addison Nugent. “It’s the story of a devoted family man who, while on a ship to England, meets a beautiful stranger referred to only as ‘The Vampire Woman.’ This mysterious creature corrupts his soul, destroys his family, drains him of all of his money and dignity, and eventually causes his demise.”

And so the former Theodosia Goodman — with some assistance from Fox Studios’ PR team, who “planted false stories in the press and invented a fantasy backstory for her” — swiftly became a new kind of femme fatale for this new artistic and commercial medium. These dangerous young women, write the New York history podcasters the Bowery Boys, “were the spiritual children of the prior generation of newly empowered women who fought against the constraints of Victorian society. A few years later, as another vein of female power (the temperance movement) helped bring about Prohibition, these young women would be called flappers, carefree and fueled on the powers of jazz and illegal alcohol.”

During her dozen-year-long screen career, Bara made some forty films in total, most of them lost in the Fox vault fire of 1937, including the 1917 epic Cleopatra, a few fragments of which you can see in the video above. Her final appearance, in 1926’s Madame Mystery, both parodied the vamp image she could never quite shake and saw her bid farewell to the world of silent cinema. “Before pictures grew up and started to talk, we had to translate all our motion into pantomime,” said Bara herself in a later radio interview. “We had to express jealousy, hate, love, or devotion all in pantomime, and at the same time keep pace as the director guided us just as a metronome guides a pianist.”

The vamp, as Bara played and defined the figure, expressed all those emotions with a fearsome vividness, and she “became so synonymous with the term that she is now referred to as the original on-screen vamp,” writes Cochrane, “the woman who made performances such as that of Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction possible.” Or as the original vamp summed up her own legacy, “To be good is to be forgotten. I’m going to be so bad I’ll always be remembered.”

A Fool There Was will be added to our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Theater Dictionary: A Free Video Guide to Theatre Lingo

It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your showstoppers are? Or, more to the point, do you know why a musical-comedy writing team seeks to orient its showstopping number at “eleven o’clock”?

The Theater Development Fund’s Theatre Dictionary is an ongoing attempt to define and document theater terms for both the rabble and any budding practitioners who’ve yet to master the lingo.

Each term is accompanied by a loopy slapdash skit. Not all of the performers exhibit the pedigree Veronica J. Kuehn and Nick Kohn of Avenue Q bring to “Eleven O’Clock Number,” above, but casting administrators and ticket booth reps in starring roles lend a homey egalitarianism, such as when students from the Yale School of Drama’s Department of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism are given free license to explore the origins of “vom.”

(This loosey goosey approach also allows for uncredited appearances by other theatrical tropes—the marathon rehearsals where popcorn constitutes lunch and one actor repeatedly complains that his work has been insufficiently acknowledged.)

A “What Does This Word Mean” tab for each term anchors the video silliness, providing historical and anecdotal context. It’s in keeping with the Dictionary’s greater goal of bringing theater to the people, letting everyone play with the toys.

Some of the definitions are practical shorthand…

Others are couched in longtime, possibly archaic theater lore…

I’d exercise caution with some of this lingo. Even though many of these terms are born of practicality, overusing them may cause others to view you as the most obnoxious of self-declared Triple Threats, the kid in the comedy-tragedy mask sweatshirt, prone to belting out the entire soundtrack of CATS at the slightest provocation. (“Thanks, 5!!!”)

Some of these terms have unexpected crossover appeal, most recently Ghost Light, above. Knowing the meaning of the term will help you better appreciate the power of the Ghostlight Project, a post-election coming together of theater artists and audiences in defense and support of vulnerable communities.

You can browse the Theater Dictionary complete glossary here or watch the videos on TDF’s Youtube channel.

The Theater Dictionary’s FAQ contains information on how professional theatre companies and organizations and college-level theatre programs can apply to contribute a video.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

Image by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

There have been many theories of how human history works. Some, like German thinker G.W.F. Hegel, have thought of progress as inevitable. Others have embraced a more static view, full of “Great Men” and an immutable natural order. Then we have the counter-Enlightenment thinker Giambattista Vico. The 18th century Neapolitan philosopher took human irrationalism seriously, and wrote about our tendency to rely on myth and metaphor rather than reason or nature. Vico’s most “revolutionary move,” wrote Isaiah Berlin, “is to have denied the doctrine of a timeless natural law” that could be “known in principle to any man, at any time, anywhere.”

Vico’s theory of history included inevitable periods of decline (and heavily influenced the historical thinking of James Joyce and Friedrich Nietzsche). He describes his concept “most colorfully,” writes Alexander Bertland at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “when he gives this axiom”:

Men first felt necessity then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.

The description may remind us of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man.” But for Vico, Bertland notes, every decline heralds a new beginning. History is “presented clearly as a circular motion in which nations rise and fall… over and over again.”

Two-hundred and twenty years after Vico’s 1774 death, Carl Sagan—another thinker who took human irrationalism seriously—published his book The Demon Haunted World, showing how much our everyday thinking derives from metaphor, mythology, and superstition. He also foresaw a future in which his nation, the U.S., would fall into a period of terrible decline:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

Sagan believed in progress and, unlike Vico, thought that “timeless natural law” is discoverable with the tools of science. And yet, he feared “the candle in the dark” of science would be snuffed out by “the dumbing down of America…”

…most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance…

Sagan died in 1996, a year after he wrote these words. No doubt he would have seen the fine art of distracting and misinforming people through social media as a late, perhaps terminal, sign of the demise of scientific thinking. His passionate advocacy for science education stemmed from his conviction that we must and can reverse the downward trend.

As he says in the poetic excerpt from Cosmos above, “I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”

When Sagan refers to “our” understanding of science, he does not mean, as he says above, a “very few” technocrats, academics, and research scientists. Sagan invested so much effort in popular books and television because he believed that all of us needed to use the tools of science: “a way of thinking,” not just “a body of knowledge.” Without scientific thinking, we cannot grasp the most important issues we all jointly face.

We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

Sagan’s 1995 predictions are now being heralded as prophetic. As Director of Public Radio International’s Science Friday, Charles Bergquist recently tweeted, “Carl Sagan had either a time machine or a crystal ball.” Matt Novak cautions against falling back into superstitious thinking in our praise of Demon Haunted World. After all, he says, “the ‘accuracy’ of predictions is often a Rorschach test” and “some of Sagan’s concerns” in other parts of the book “sound rather quaint.”

Of course Sagan couldn’t predict the future, but he did have a very informed, rigorous understanding of the issues of twenty years ago, and his prediction extrapolates from trends that have only continued to deepen. If the tools of science education—like most of the country’s wealth—end up the sole property of an elite, the rest of us will fall back into a state of gross ignorance, “superstition and darkness.” Whether we might come back around again to progress, as Giambattista Vico thought, is a matter of sheer conjecture. But perhaps there’s still time to reverse the trend before the worst arrives. As Novak writes, “here’s hoping Sagan, one of the smartest people of the 20th century, was wrong.”

via Charles Bergquist

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Free Online Course on Dante’s Divine Comedy from Yale University

Over the years, we’ve featured the many drawings that have adorned the pages of Dante’s Divine Comedy, from medieval times to modern. Illustrations by Botticelli, Gustave Doré, William Blake and Mœbius, they’ve all gotten their due. Less has been said here, however, about the actual text itself. Perhaps the most important work in Italian literature, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote the Divine Comedy (consisting of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) between the years 1308 and 1320. And that text is largely the subject of Dante in Translation, a free online course taught by Yale’s Giuseppe Mazzotta. The course description reads as follows:

The course is an introduction to Dante and his cultural milieu through a critical reading of the Divine Comedy and selected minor works (Vita nuova, Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia, Epistle to Cangrande). An analysis of Dante’s autobiography, the Vita nuova, establishes the poetic and political circumstances of the Comedy’s composition. Readings of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise seek to situate Dante’s work within the intellectual and social context of the late Middle Ages, with special attention paid to political, philosophical and theological concerns. Topics in the Divine Comedy explored over the course of the semester include the relationship between ethics and aesthetics; love and knowledge; and exile and history.

You can watch the 24 lectures from the course above, or find them on YouTube and iTunes in video and audio formats. To get more information on the course, including the syllabus, visit this Yale website.

Primary texts used in this course include:

  • Dante. Divine Comedy. Translated by John D. Sinclair. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Dante. Vita Nuova. Translated by Mark Musa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.

Dante in Translation will be added to our list of Free Online Literature courses, a subset of our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

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