Learning is a gift

The opportunity to learn about something you didn’t know before is one of the most precious opportunities which life is likely to offer us.

This week, I’d like to begin by sharing with you what I have learned recently about a new program which will make a great deal of learning available in Jamestown, about the religion of Islam and its believers.

Then, our unfortunate trend of obituaries must continue. Two weeks ago, we paid tribute to the life and career of veteran actor Richard Griffiths. Last week, we mourned the passing of critic and television personality Roger Ebert. This week, we must offer a few words of respect to comic Jonathan Winters, ballerina Maria Tallchief and teen heartthrob Annette Funicello. There is a folk tale that deaths come in threes. Sadly, we’re up to five, and I hope there won’t be any more, for quite a while to come.


Recently Jamestown’s James Prendergast Public Library has been notified that it has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, in association with the American Library Association, and George Mason University’s AIi Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies.

The award is a collection of 25 books, three films and access for one year to a database of information called Oxford Islamic Studies Online. In return for receiving this valuable information for its collection, the library is required to present a public event, centered around the received material.

Let me say, Jamestown Community College has also received an identical grant. I, at least, haven’t received any information, yet, from JCC, and the library needs to call the public’s attention to their public event, so I’m going to go ahead and print the information the library has sent me, and we’ll look forward to hearing from the community college.

All of the material on the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf will be available to be borrowed directly from Prendergast Library, at no charge, as long as they are returned in good condition, and can be borrowed through member libraries in the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System with a slight delay, for the materials to be sent out to the library requesting them.

Anyone desiring the materials must have a library card, which is available without charge. Readers are encouraged to contact their local library for details.

The materials are educational in six different areas of learning:

The majority of Muslims currently living in the U.S. have moved here or been born here since the 1960s. However, there have been Muslims living in our country almost to its very first non-native inhabitants. The materials include five books which are collectively called “American Stories,” sharing the stories of individuals and groups of Muslims in the U.S., from various periods of history.

For thousands of years, western culture and Muslim culture have lived together and interacted. Sometimes the interactions have been violent, but often they have been positive and constructive. The materials from this grant include five books detailing the history of inter-cultural interactions, in various periods.

Nearly all cultures try to enshrine their beliefs and practices in literature, which illustrates and makes human a way of life. Muslim culture is rich in literature. Probably almost everyone is familiar with “The Arabian Nights,” which is one of the five books in the literature collection, but there are four more, ranging from the ancient world to the most modern.

It is not unusual for members of the American public to know little or nothing about the basic religion of Islam. The fourth section of materials deals with the beliefs of Muslims. It includes materials which show that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all descended from the Biblical figure of Abraham, and all three have much in common.

All too often, news reports from the Middle East give the false impression that Muslims are all poor, uneducated and violent. In fact, there is as much diversity within Islam as there is in the rest of the world. The fifth selection of materials deals with life for Muslims in Cairo, in Tehran, in Fez and more.

The final grouping of materials from the grant, deal with art, architecture and film. “Prince Among Slaves,” for example, is a biographical film about Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, a prince from an Islamic kingdom in West Africa who was captured during battle by people from a rival nation, who sold him to slave traders, who brought him to the U.S., where he lived for 40 years in the pre-Civil War South, as a slave.

The public event, to introduce the community to these valuable materials, will be held April 30, at 6:30 p.m. At that event, all the materials will be available to be borrowed, and from that time onward, they will be part of the library’s regular collection.


One of the films from the sixth segment of materials will be shown publicly in the Fireplace Room of the James Prendergast Library, on April 30, beginning at 6:30 p.m. The film is “Koran By Heart,” a 2011 documentary by filmmaker Greg Barker.

Each year, during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is called Ramadan, faithful Muslims fast from dawn until sunset. In addition to fasting, each believer is expected to say additional prayers, to offer alms, and to read and/or recite the holy book of Islam, which is called the Koran or the Quran.

Each year during Ramadan, a competition is held in which young believers from all over the world between the ages of 7 and the early 20s are invited to Cairo, Egypt, the largest city in Africa. There, they compete in reciting their holy book from memory. The judges choose a location in the 600-page holy book and instruct the young believer to begin there. Each participant is evaluated in terms of accuracy, pronunciation and intonation, since each reciter is required to chant the words in a specific rhythm.

The film focuses on three of the 110 participants in the competition, each of whom is 10 years old. One boy comes from war-torn Senegal, in Africa. Another boy comes from Tajikistan, a fierce, desert country which was once part of the Soviet Union. It borders Afghanistan and China.

The third featured contestant is a girl, who comes from the Maldives, a collection of small islands in the Indian Ocean, located between the peninsula of India and the coast of Africa.

All of the featured trio recite well. The film doesn’t provide subtitles for the audience, so we don’t know what they’re saying or how accurately they’re saying it, but the holy book is written in Arabic, and none of the three speaks more than a few words of that language. I suspect all religions have undergone conflict over whether holy writings must be read in their original language, or if they can be translated, and if they are translated, which translation or translations are acceptable and which are officially inaccurate.

Not only are these young children reciting 600 pages of words, they’re doing it in a language which they don’t speak.

The young girl needs to deal with people who believe that women are not worthy to read or recite the holy book. Her parents are eager for her to finish the competition and to return home, but her father wants to move her on to a future as a housewife and mother, while her mother believes she is especially brilliant, and should become a scientist or possibly a medical doctor.

One of the boys finds his school has been shut down by believers who think that education causes young people to disrespect and stray from the basic beliefs of their faith.

It’s a fascinating film, well worthy of your attention. The film will be introduced by Sam Qadri, whose experience includes being Instructor of Islamic Studies and Arabic Language at Jamestown Community College. Qadri is also Community Outreach Coordinator for the Islamic Society of Jamestown, an organization serving the approximately 20 Islamic families in Jamestown.

Joining Qadri in leading the discussion which will follow the showing of the film will be Cynthia McKane, reference librarian and assistant professor on the faculty of JCC, and Gregory Rabb, professor of political science and coordinator of global studies at the community college.

The public is requested to come on time to the showing of the film, as it will begin promptly at 6:30 p.m., so that there will be time following its conclusion for discussion, before the library’s closing time.

Prendergast Library is located at 509 Cherry St. in Jamestown. For additional information about the new materials or the showing of “Koran by Heart,” phone 484-7135.


Comedian, actor, author and artist, Jonathan Winters died April 11. He was 87 years old.

Winters was born in Ohio, and from his early youth, he utilized a madcap style of humor in which he suddenly changed his voice. Picking up a prop, such as a spoon or a stick of wood, he would suddenly pretend the prop was a weapon or a tool or a remote controller of a robot, and he would rapidly coast from situation to situation, usually leaving his audience helpless from laughing. Comics including Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman would all credit him for having inspired their desire for a career in comedy, and their style of comedy.

His career began in 1948, when his wristwatch was broken. His wife convinced him to enter a comedy competition, to win enough money to buy a new one. He succeeded, and a radio executive in the audience was so impressed, he hired the young man to do a radio show in which he introduced and played records, and read the news and weather.

Rapidly, Winters’ outrageous presentations became more important to the show than the records or the news. Soon he was being invited to be a guest star on “The Tonight Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the “Garry Moore Show” and the other popular variety shows which were so successful on network television in the 1950s and 1960s. He had a show of his own from 1972-74.

He was known for his ability to imitate other celebrities, and for his two best-known characters, Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins. Maude was a sharp-tongued granny who said what she thought, whether anyone liked it or not. Johnny Carson created a character he called “Aunt Blabby,” which he admitted was a take-off of Winters’ Maude.

Suggins was a backwoods rube who made statements such as “I think eggs, 24 hours per day.”

Winters was admitted twice to mental hospitals, due to the frenetic quality of his life. He eventually made numerous Grammy-winning recordings of stories, especially children’s stories, and wrote books, often including his popular characters as central actors. His oil paintings sell for hefty sums at galleries around the U.S.

His wife of 61 years died in 2009. The couple had two children and five grandchildren.

Our country will miss Jonathan Winters, and his death deserves our respectful remembering.


Maria Tallchief died April 11 at the age of 88. She was a celebrated prima ballerina, who was the first person of Native American descent to become a principal dancer for a major world dance company.

She was probably most associated with the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the ballet “Nutcracker,” and the magical Firebird, in Balanchine’s ballet of that same name. She was born in Oklahoma, on the Reservation of the Osage Nation, one of five children. One of her sisters, Marjorie, had a major, though less successful, career in ballet, and her brother Thomas played professional football for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Her mother had always wanted to dance, but had received only discouragement from her family. Maria was enrolled in dance class, beginning at age 3, and her family moved twice so she could study with better and better teachers. She studied with Ernest Belcher, the father of famed dancer Marge Champion, and then with Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of perhaps the most famous dancer in history, Vaslav Nijinski.

At 20, she was hired by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. That same year, Russian emigre George Balanchine, destined to become the most famous choreographer in history, became the company’s director.

He declared Tallchief his muse, and the couple married. Four years later, he would found what has become the New York City Ballet, with Lincoln Kirstein, and she would become the most celebrated ballerina in the company. She would go on to be the first American to dance with the esteemed Paris Opera Ballet, and the first American to dance in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre.

After six years, the couple found that they both were attracted to other people, and they had their marriage annulled. In 1966, she danced in public for the last time, as the title character in the ballet “Cinderella.’

In retirement, she moved to Chicago, where she was much sought-after to teach professional dancers the techniques of her former husband, Balanchine. In 1981, she and her sister founded the Chicago City Ballet, and she was an advisor to the Chicago Festival Ballet for the rest of her life.

Ballet was a field which was dominated by Russians, and to a lesser degree, French dancers. Tallchief was the first American star who was sought-after and admired internationally.

Last December, she fell and broke her hip, and she died last week due to a complication from that incident.