We meet Cultureteca in Petersburg this week, as the State Hermitage Museum opens an exhibition on the explorer Ibn Battuta; in New York, as amid US Open tennis, trouble – in the form of a plainclothes police officer – runs into former tennis star James Blake; on the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside, for the Great North CityGames; and finally in Sweden, to look at some of its leading women arm wrestlers.
* * *
Ibn Battuta’s Travels at the Hermitage in Petersburg
This week the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg opened a new exhibition on the top floor of the Winter Palace. ‘A Gift to Contemplators’: Ibn Battuta’s Travels will run from 9 September until 13 December.
Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), a Moroccan descended from the Berbers of North Africa, set out aged twenty-one intending on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Instead he spent thirty years travelling the Islamic world and beyond, across the extent of Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia. From his birthplace in Tangier, he reached as far north as Bolghar in modern-day Bulgaria, and Azov in modern-day Russia; as far south as the island communities of Kilwa Kisiwani off Tanzania and Sumatra in Indonesia; and as far west as the Chinese cities of Hangzhou and Beijing.
Ibn Battuta frequently journeyed with caravans, and on his travels met with rulers and religious leaders including Sultan Mohammed Öz Beg, the longest-reigning khan of the Golden Horde; Toghon Temür, Yuan Emperor of China and the last Khagan of the Mongol Empire; and for several years between was a guest at the court of the Sultan of Delhi Muhammad bin Tughluq.
Returning home in 1354, Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his travels to the scholar Ibn Juzayy. The manuscript’s title, تحفة النظار في غرائب الأمصار وعجائب الأسفار, translates as A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, though it is commonly referred to as الرحلة, Rihla, or The Journey. Along with his impressions on the cities he visited and the people he met, the extensive account discusses Ibn Battuta’s marriages and concubines, transportation, clothes, and cuisine.
Ibn Battuta appears to have taken few notes on his travels, and relied for his account on memory, which both he and Ibn Juzayy supplemented with previously-written texts. Scholars therefore question the veracity of some of the recollections in Ibn Battuta’s Rihla. The work began to be noticed in Europe only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with extracts published first in German, then French and English.
The exhibition at the Hermitage incorporates around 300 items, drawn from the fourteenth century and following the full breadth of Ibn Battuta’s route. On display are ceramics, metal objects, glassware, and architectural details; many of these from the courts at which Ibn Battuta attended.
Meanwhile the National Library of Russia has provided more than 30 unique Islamic, Judaic, and Christian manuscripts, showing the intellectual life of the time and the development of the art of the manuscript. And the Moscow-based Mardjani Foundation has contributed a unique collection of costumes from the late-twelfth to fourteenth centuries.
* * *
Trouble Runs Into James Blake
On Wednesday outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Manhattan, waiting for a car to take him to Flushing Meadows for the US Open, former tennis star James Blake was tackled to the ground by a plainclothes police officer in a case of mistaken identity. According to New York Police Commissioner William Bratton, Blake looked like the ‘twin’ of the intended target, wanted on suspicion of fraud.
After being rushed and taken to ground, Blake – who climbed as high as world number 4 in November 2006, and reached the quarter-final stages of the Australian Open and US Open during a fourteen-year career that came to a close in 2013 – was handcuffed, taken away, and detained for a period of ten-to-fifteen minutes, during which he states none of the plainclothes officers present identified themselves or displayed their badges.
Blake was then released from custody, and subsequently received apologies from William Bratton and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. But he has expressed his upset over the excessive force which characterised the incident. Speaking eloquently on the matter and its implications, Blake said:
‘I think about how scary it would have been had I put my arms up and done the normal reaction – to defend myself. If I had any sort of resistance, I wonder what could have happened. I could have broken bones, a concussion, or worse.
You wonder how many times its happened without anyone knowing. I’ve gotten emails and texts from people that tell me, “This happened to me. This happened to my friend, my father, my brother”. None of them get public apologies. They deserve the same treatment I’m getting.
I am determined to use my voice to turn this unfortunate incident into a catalyst for change in the relationship between the police and the public they serve. Incidents of the type I experienced occur all too frequently.’
The offending officer was James Frascatore, who has been placed on desk duty while the case is under investigation. He has received five civilian complaints in the past, and is a defendant in two federal lawsuits which allege excessive force. Last year a complaint was filed in Brooklyn asserting that he and seven other officers beat and unlawfully arrested a man in a Queens delicatessen in May 2013. And another complaint filed in May claims that he was one of a group of officers who used excessive force against a man riding his bicycle on the sidewalk.
The incident only came to light after Blake commented to the press, with Frascatore apparently failing to inform his superiors. Remarking on the investigation into the officer, Bratton confirmed ‘Some of the information from his personnel file is in the media […] Part of our investigation will be looking at his history’.
For his part, Blake argued Frascatore should be fired, explaining ‘You’ve got the badge and you’re supposed to treat that with honor. I don’t think he deserves to ever have a badge again’.
The US Open reached its climax on Saturday and Sunday. Serena Williams provided much of the story of the tournament, with the three-time defending champion going for a calendar Grand Slam. Yet she fell agonisingly short, the world number 1 losing to the unseeded world number 43 Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals, in three sets.
In the women’s final, thirty-two-year-old Vinci met thirty-three-year-old Flavia Pennetta, in the first all-Italian Grand Slam final in the Open Era. Pennetta triumphed 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 to win her first Grand Slam – and promptly announced her retirement come the end of the tennis season.
Serena’s defeat allowed Novak Djokovic to claim the accolade of the best 2015 in tennis. Champion at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and finalist at the French Open – where he lost out to Stan Wawrinka – Djokovic met Roger Federer in the men’s final. The duo had beaten Marin Cilic – last year’s US Open champion – and Stan Wawrinka respectively in three straightforward sets in the semis.
With a 21-20 head-to-head record in Federer’s favour, but with Djokovic unbeaten against his opponent in three years at the Grand Slams, Djokovic took the final’s first set. Federer recovered, and after taking the second set, he looked to have the edge for much of the third, but lost the final two games as Djokovic regained his advantage. And Djokovic held on in the fourth set, to win his second US Open title, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.
* * *
The Great North CityGames and The Great North Run 2015
The 2015 edition of the Great North CityGames was held on Saturday: as usual taking place the day before the Great North Run, on the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside, with the River Tyne, the Sage Gateshead concert venue, the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, and the river’s bridges providing the backdrops.
Despite the pouring rain which required a mass of volunteers to stay ceaselessly sweeping, and though the CityGames were taking place just hours after the final Diamond League meet of the season in Brussels, still some of athletics’ biggest stars turned up and turned up some pretty strong performances.
Yarisley Silva – gold medallist at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing – won the women’s pole vault, with a height of 4.65, but Holly Bradshaw wasn’t far behind, vaulting a solid 4.55 to finish second. Shane Braithwaite bested Lawrence Clarke and Kevin Craddock in the men’s 110 metres hurdles. Men’s 1500 metres world champion Asbel Kiprop held off the challenge of Marcin Lewandowski in the one mile, Lewandowski trying his hand at the longer distance, as he typically competes over 800 metres.
Jonnie Peacock won the men’s 100 metres T44, in a time of 11.11. With Greg Rutherford a late withdrawal, Rushwal Samaai was free to take the men’s long jump, ahead of Dan Bramble and Fabrice Lapierre. And Mark English dipped under a minute, winning the rarely-contested men’s 500 metres in a time of 59.60.
After her travails in Beijing and Brussels – where she finished fifth then fourth – Tiffany Porter picked up a nice end-of-season victory in the women’s 100 metres hurdles over rivals Jasmin Stowers and Cindy Roleder. In the men’s 150 metres, Nickel Ashmeade dipped to take Richard Kilty on the line, in a quick time of 14.63. And in the women’s version of the event, Candyce McGrone led a talented field including Allyson Felix, Jeneba Tarmoh, and Jodie Williams.
Mercy Cherono proved victorious in the women’s two mile race. Michael Rodgers – a supremely consistent sprinter – won the men’s 100 metres in front of Chijindu Ujah, Kim Collins, and James Dasaolu. And in the final event of this year’s Great North CityGames, Dafne Schippers was magnificent once again as she took the race in a stellar time, given the conditions, of 11.01.
On Sunday morning, Mo Farah won the men’s race in the Great North Run for the second year in a row. Farah kicked away from Stanley Biwott in the final 400 metres of the half marathon, to finish in a time of 59:22: the fastest half marathon ever recorded by a British athlete. Mary Keitany also retained her title in the women’s race: having set a course record of 1:05:39 last year, this time round she won comfortably in 1:07:32.
* * *
Sarah Bäckman and Heidi Andersson: Swedish Arm Wrestling World Champions
This GIF has being doing the rounds today on Imgur and Reddit, under the titles ‘Japan’s Great Defeat’ and ‘Viking vs Samurai’:
The woman is Sarah Bäckman, from Stockholm, and at twenty-three years old already a former eight-time World Arm Wrestling Champion, eight-time European Arm Wrestling Champion, and eleven-time Swedish Arm Wrestling Champion. Between 2013 and 2014, she was signed to WWE, working for NXT; she is married to WWE superstar Bo Dallas.
The GIF reminded me of a pleasant documentary I have seen on several occasions, released in 2004 and entitled Armbryterskan från Ensamheten. It follows Heidi Andersson, then twenty-two, and on her way to becoming an eleven-time World Arm Wrestling Champion. Here’s a clip which featured in the documentary, showing her second world victory in 2000; and a more recent sequence displaying her performances at the World Championships in 2014: