Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Saracen's Head

Dhimmi Watch cites this article from the Guardian:

A Birmingham vicar was today accused of "political correctness gone mad" after calling for the historic Saracen's Head pub to be renamed because it offends Muslims.

Kings Norton's rector, Canon Rob Morris, said the name, which harks back to the Crusades, was "offensive," although he had heard no complaints.

The decision was "blasted" by a city councillor named Margaret Sutton: "It's political correctness gone mad. What next? Will they change the name of the church as well?" But Morris is persisting.

"The name we have got does manage to be offensive to Muslims and that's not what Christians stand for."

It's clearly disrespectful to another religious tradition in this city. We shall be looking for brilliant ideas for a name change that will signify something to all."

He said residents would be consulted about any change at the parish-owned building, although he acknowledged the name had been used "in all innocence for years by people who are very attached to it."

"Political correctness" is an overused term, but it's hard for me to discover any other reason why this name suddenly is objectionable. Perhaps it is the association of the Middle Eastern image with a drinking establishment. True, pious Muslims do not drink alcoholic liquor, but then a "Saracen," an ethnic designation older than Muhammad, is not the same as a "Muslim." And despite the religious strictures, many great poets of the Islamic world have celebrated the joys of wine.

The Evening Mail polled some Birmingham Muslims about the name and found they quite sensibly thought it was irrelevant and unoffensive. But Birmingham Central Mosque chairman Mohammed Naseem is quoted in the Guardian article as saying Saracens were a symbol of "hatred and animosity." But the article doesn't say what he means by that, and frankly I can't imagine why he feels that way.

Old-time taverns were not named for themselves, but for their signs. In an age before most people could write, you'd identify your house as a public house by displaying a wooden sign painted with some common or heraldic emblem. Dragons, blue balls, white horses, ships, unicorns, and boots all graced the signs of medieval English taverns. Chaucer's Tabard, immortalized in The Canterbury Tales, was the word for a knight's surcoat, and presumably this was what was painted on the inn's sign.

One of the common devices was a "head" of a well-known person or figure. "Tavern names such as King's Head, Druid's Head, Turk's Head, Alfred's Head, Boar's Head, are common" [Ewen, C. L'Estrange, A History of Surnames of the British Isles, London, 1931, p.231.]. In America "Indian's Head" was added to the list.

This doesn't mean a severed head. Rather it's a portrait of the upper body and head of the person in question. The distinction matters, because a number of people who commented on the Dhimmi Watch site have made the connection between this flap over the "Saracen's Head" and the recent beheadings of non-Muslims in the Middle East, including the American contractor Nick Berg.

One poster wrote, with delicious sarcasm (I hope):

Might I suggest renaming this unclean establishment the "Christian's Head"? The heads of real Christians could be placed on pikes in front of the building for advertising purposes. I'm sure that arrangements could be made for a continuing supply of fresh heads. Of course, once all the British people embrace Islam, there would develop a shortage of heads. I'm sure that importation from America could be arranged, but there really would be no need. There will be no vending of alcohol in the Islamic state.

To which someone replied, agreeing with the proposed new name "Christian's Head."

And gory make-believe heads should be placed outside on spikes, with names like Nicholas Berg etc., to remind everyone how the Islam of today still chops the heads off of Christians all around the world.

Oops ... Berg was Jewish.

So if the "head" part of the tavern name is inoffensive, perhaps the other part is.

Saracen is simply the old name for "Arab," and it goes right back through Latin (saracenus) and Greek (sarakenos). It was the name Greeks and Romans gave to the nomads of the Syrian and Arabian deserts. The ultimate source usually is said to be Arabic Sharquiyin, which is related to the Arabic word for "sunrise" and thus would mean "people to (or of) the East." In Medieval Europe, the name was associated (by folk etymology) with that of Sarah in the Old Testament, as though it meant "descendant of Sarah." It was a general name from the time of the Crusades for "Middle Eastern Muslim."

"Saracen's Head" and "Turk's Head" were used somewhat interchangeably in tavern names. "Turk," similarly, was applied vaguely and generally to Middle Eastern Muslims during the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire was the chief Islamic power known in Europe. Just so, throughout the Islamic world during and after the Crusades, the word "Feringhee" was used generally to describe all Europeans, even though it is based on an Arabic pronunciation of "Frank," the old name of the French.

One of the stories behind the origin of the "Saracen's/Turk's Head" tavern name was that it indicated that the tavern-keeper was a veteran of the Crusades, and the sign advertised the fact that patrons could expect to hear exotic tales of foreign lands.

Another origin-story involves gruesome tales of a sultan's chef, who, when asked for some special meat delicacy that he could not prepare, killed his own son, cooked the corpse, and served it to his ruler, bringing the boy's head out as the last course. There is an account of something like this in the tale of Astyages, the mad Persian king, in Herodotus [1.119], and a similar story is told of the House of Atreus in the Triojan War cycle. Yet this likely is a just-so story, imagined by people unfamiliar with the old tavern signs, which hardly drip gore.

Very likely many of the old Saracen's Heads were named for specific characters, but as time passed the original associations were lost and generic names took their place. A colonial Philadelphia beer house that originally appears on the records as "Kouli Khan" (presumably a corruption of "Kublai Khan") later is called merely "Turk's Head." A likely inspiration for many of these tavern signs was Saladin, regarded as a romantic, chivalrous hero in the old tales (Though, as a Kurd, he technically was neither Saracen nor Turk). Hardly a sign of disrespect.

Turk's Heads or Saracen's Heads were less common in America than in England. There was a Turk's Head outside Philadelphia in the 18th century that gave its name to the village that grew up around it. The village became a town when the county seat moved there, but at the same time it gave up its colorful old name for more dignified-sounding one, a name not associated with a log tavern. But the people never forgot it, and still the Turk's Head name appears there as part of the names of various businesses, and the tavern's old sign hangs prominently in the local historical society. The dark, turbaned Turk, neither smiling nor scowling, looks without blinking over the other relics of the old borough.

The modern name of the place is West Chester. It's just a little town, but you may have heard of it if you followed the news this year. It's the hometown of Nick Berg.