Wednesday, February 11, 2015

the spoken world

An ancient midrash holds that when God pronounced our world ‘good,’ this implied that God had created and destroyed prior worlds, because how can you decide anything’s good without something that came before to compare it to.

            Of the third creation much has been written. That’s only fitting since the experiment continues to this day and has become self-referential.
But the first two. Of these, little has been recorded. Not for want of trying, but because whatever evidence there is exists only as inference or judgment. To study the first two creations is to map cobwebs. The strands break as soon as we try to trace them.
And yet we are drawn to this unending task. For us, these bewildering attempts hold the key to the already lived in, hand-me-down quality that inhabits our world along with us.

The first creation didn't last long. In the blink of an eye it lasted two million years.
            It came from a dream.
This is only fitting: the act of creation was an inadvertent, casual, unconscious thing.
            And then, quite suddenly, there was a world. Thousands of species unknown to us today existed in the limbo of this un-lived world and were consumed when the dreamer awoke.
            Destruction, of course, can never be complete. There is always a residue, some resin, ash, slag, grease, some slight afterimage like the shadows of things incinerated by the A-bomb blast in Hiroshima.
            Snowflakes are the primary evidence of the first creation. They are crystallized time, condemned to exist for a brief moment and then disappear into drifts or melt on a child's tongue. Also, a reminder of the millions of snuffed out voices can be heard today in the surging and singing of high tension power lines. From these melancholy remnants, we receive the news that the creator was a killer.

            The second creation lived an interesting life. It existed, as it were, backwards. The fundamental principal of this world was disorder and people accepted it. Everyone was born in various different ways, repeatedly, and all animals could understand each other.
            Rats were treated as creatures of distinction. Cows slept on their backs with their feet in the air. Dogs had not yet discovered campfires. Rolling stones gathered moss.
            The earth was smaller then, and you could get places without moving at all. Barnacles grew everywhere, spontaneously, so there was no point in trying to travel anyway. Everything was crusted over, immobile. As a result, the world was a fully imagined place.
            In the second creation, people lived according to no set principles. Murphy's law was the norm. In fact, everything went wrong all the time. People never got anywhere they wanted to go when they wanted to be there. And they never ever got what they wanted. But they didn't care. They had a great time doing it.
            Their pleasure in this unruliness and disorder created a massive disharmonious energy disturbance. Today we call this the big bang.
This charged pulse was made up of billions of voices undertaking quixotic individual acts of desperation – sounds spoken out of nowhere, messages without sender or receiver, and, indeed, with no message.
            Meaning was irrelevant. The important thing was the word, the syllable, the individual atom. There were contests, of course. One eloquent, sonorous, properly-placed word could mean respect, riches, or nothing at all. Talking was a game of chance.
            Each word disappeared as soon as it was spoken, not to be used again. New words were invented every minute. They seemed inexhaustible as forest fires, and consumed themselves just as quickly. Speaking at all was an act of planned obsolescence. The words burned brightly for a brief span, but as soon as they were replaced by new words, they died.
            In this way, to use a word was to challenge God, to engage in a spontaneous act of creation, definition and destruction.
            So words became fetish objects. To have a word and hold onto it for more than a few seconds – this was truly to have lived. There was no Everest, no Kilamanjaro, to match that height.
            A market sprang up. People who needed words could go to the bazaar. It was a place much like Times Square of old – a wondrous cacophony of barkers hawking adverbs, whole department stores dedicated to nouns, attics of pronouns, basements of verbs, presided over by small gray-haired men who guarded their inventories with specially trained Dobermans. Sometimes the merchants even slept with the words, but thefts were still common. Some people became addicts – and they thought nothing of killing for a new word.
            Those who could not afford the market prices bartered. They kept lists of their old words and met once a week or once a month or whenever necessary in the market to find new ones. Sometimes it was a one-for-one exchange. But at times when people were desperate, they'd give two, three, even four of their old words for one new one. Thus words became a commodity.
            At some point, though, an unheralded group of savants discovered a revolutionary sound, unmistakable in its meaning yet always new. Laughter never sounds the same – always a different texture, a different feeling, a varied timbre. Laughter alone escaped the commodity fetish and became the quintessential sound of the second creation.
            In time, the authorities (for there always is some authority, no matter how negligible) taxed laughter and its use declined.

            Today, we can find muted notes of the second creation in the phrases we use to indicate the difficulty of making anything mean something:
            "Words fail me." What does this mean? How can a word not succeed? "Words cannot describe." If they cannot describe, what can?
Our obsession with meaning has contributed greatly to the decline of our planet. We want everything to make sense, but can't make sense of it all.
My words don't behave themselves. I want them to stand in size order and let me marshal facts. But they move, they cheat, they bob and sway. I have to prop them up. I build scaffolding. I haul out enormous I-beams. I create infrastructure and superstructure. Yet still my words are sinking.
This spoken world is a leaky boat. We bail but can never bail fast enough. At some point, we will be overrun and slip into the lagoon, and then words, like weeds, will expand through the polluted estuary and choke us out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Third Way

Nothing’s truer than fiction, and the crazier the fiction, the closer to truth it sometimes is.
            The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, by Youssef Rakha (published in Egypt in early 2011, just after the Arab Spring brought down the Mubarak regime, and released in English this month by Interlink Books) is a fever journey through the streets of Cairo, with mad detours into the history of the Ottoman Empire, the grand heritage of Arab literature, and the nature of failed relationships. At once a love story (Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı leaves his wife and finds true love – and great sex, though it might only be in his mind – in the following 3 weeks) and a story of crackpot religious fervor (during the same period, Çorbacı, a Western-educated quasi-believer – the book never has him praying or embracing any particular religious positions – has a series of dreams and visions and transforms himself into a zombie with the mission of reconstituting the Ottoman caliphate), this is a work of zealotry that offers a vision of Islam that is broad and inclusive and lusty and fun.
Çorbacı (which means soup-seller in Turkish) is a man of both East and West. His name itself illuminates the contradictions inherent in that identity. Mustafa is an extremely common name that means 'the chosen one' and this chosen one is a naïf who can't help but carry with him the modern world’s not-quite-satisfying multi-culti stew.
Here’s his critique of the system of the West:

Neoliberalism angers me more than anything else. In practical terms, neoliberalism means that life is a supermarket. It’s what you buy at the supermarket that defines your identity. And the more your choices increase—a thousand types of orange juice, for example, or seventy different sizes of aspirin packet—the more the world flourishes and the possibilities for fulfillment multiply. Would you like your milk 1% or 1.5% fat, or fat-free? Which brand of dark Irish cheddar do you prefer?
So you break your head in a daily job that kills any rebellious instinct in you until you yourself turn into a commodity. Your time, your concentration, your enthusiasm. A job whose only purpose is to increase the supermarket’s size.

And here’s his analysis of the dilemma of a modern man of the East:

To be born a Muslim in this age means that you are perforce a different person. Your historical formation is not a logical result of the situation you’re in. I mean, take these silly examples: you’ve resolved to deal with time in a generous spirit; it is in your nature to grant priority to interpersonal responsibilities and feelings over the demands of work; you explain visible phenomena by reference to the supernatural as well as physical laws: and everything  runs, for you, from right to left. This is the complete opposite of the contemporary expectation that time is like an impaling spike, gain is more important than affection, and everything, even emotions and ideas, has a material explanation, in Latin script. So it is quite natural, in a moment of clarity, that you should wake up one day and fail to recognize anything around you, and be surprised even at your own body. There are now only two choices for a way out: either to blend in with the age to such a degree that you forget you were born a Muslim, or to be a Muslim, narrow-minded, extremist, mediocre, in line with the conditions of the age. There has to be a third choice.

The book is, in a wacky way, the chronicle of a man who finds that third way even as he fears it doesn’t exist. Caught between “the mystical forces of history … dressed up as Atatürk, as European colonialism and national independence movements, then as neoliberalism and religious fundamentalism (“the tail end of the same turd,” as Mustafa called fundamentalism in his notebook….),” Mustafa Çorbacı loses his mind – or, you might say, regains it – as he faces the dilemma that “Everything in his life, if he thought about it this way, would be another example of the marriage of East and West, Mustafa Efendi: the most hateful thing that history has allowed.” Or, as he says later, “Everything he’d known in this world was the aftermath of a crime.”

I can draw a connection between things: to have your love of an emigrée defined as a feeling like loss, while you yourself are abroad; and to be where you are—to be a zombie, with all that the term implies, and to have first met this girl at the time you turned into a zombie—while everything is happening to you in an attempt to understand the meaning of being Arab and a Muslim in this age.

As an author, Rakha is an equal opportunity offender – going after extremes of every sort. And he apparently pisses people off in real life, too: Rakha backed the Arab Spring but has been accused of writing in a kind of veiled support of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general whose regime has imprisoned and tortured journalists and activists. (Rakha has told interviewers that he is against Sisi: "I'm not sure the question is why intellectuals failed to criticise Sisi," he said late last year. "The question is how society and the culture came to be in a situation where there is no viable alternative to Sisi except for a Sunni Iran.")
Rakha has written this book, so translator Paul Starkey says, in a kind of ‘Middle Arabic’ that mimics medieval texts while welcoming contemporary slang, frank descriptions of fucking (the zombie sex, when it comes, is a one-sided male fantasy – but, hey, it’s Çorbacı’s book and he is male and a self-involved fantasist, so why not?), and a multitude of English phrases. The novel is also peppered with quotes from contemporary and classical literature – and, through it, you’ll meet Yemeni novelist Ali al-Maqri (“The homeland is treason. Every homeland is treason. The idea of the homeland is treason.”), Iraqi Assyrian poet Sargon Boulus (he emigrated to San Francisco in 1968, and, while continuing to publish his own writing, translated the Beat poets into Arabic), plus medieval historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, and many others.
The book jumps back and forth in time, and flickers between the 1st person and the 3rd. I felt I could detect the imprint of The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk’s novel of Istanbul, in these pages. And perhaps, subversively, The Book of Questions, Edmund Jabes’ elusive poem made up almost exclusively of quotes from imaginary rabbis.
It’s a riotous high-wire act, grounded by one almost-fatal flaw: Rakha seemed to fear that his story didn’t have an ending. So Part 9, the book’s last section, labeled a “conclusion” and a “confession,” gives the unnamed narrator his chance to plead that, as the very last line of text has it, “the story of Mustafa Çorbacı was not just a collection of fairy tales.”
Fortunately, the chosen one had previously given the book his own ending. At the end of Part 8, ready to embark on the first step of his ridiculous mission to restore the Ottomans as the true Caliphs, Çorbacı hops into a taxi to get to the Plane Yard (‘the airport,’ in his personal cartography of Cairo.) The cabdriver asks, as cabdrivers will, “Where are you traveling to?”
And Çorbacı replies, “I’m going to heaven. Haven’t you heard? They now have a direct flight to heaven.”
What a crushing realization. Çorbacı’s headed to Beirut, the city Westerners once labeled the ‘paradise’ of the Middle East, while tourists, when they fly to Egypt's famed beach resort at Sharm el-Sheikh, understandably feel as if they are headed to heaven – and this is, of course, the same thing Westerners are told the 9/11 hijackers felt when they crashed their planes into the World Trade Center towers and what we assume the Charlie Hebdo shooters meant when they shouted “God is greatest” as they killed, knowing all the while they would be hunted down and killed quite soon thereafter. (see here for Rakha's take on those murders in France.)
Like it or not, our world, like Çorbacı’s, includes all these things. There is a third way and it’s a hard way. It emerges from looking at things as they are.
With its zombies and fanatical fever dreams and crackpot conspiracies involving everyone and everything, The Book of the Sultan's Seal does exactly that.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

written 60 years back, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, 1955:

to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply a the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people.

At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself. And the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans--lynch law and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession--either to come to terms with the necessity, or to find a way around it, or (most usually) to find a way of doing both these things at once. The resulting spectacle, at once foolish and dreadful, led someone to make the quite accurate observation that "the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men."
     In this long battle, a battle by no means finished, the unforeseeable effects of which will be felt by many future generations, the white man's motive was protection of his identity; the black man was motivated by the need to establish an identity. And despite the terrorization which the Negro in America endured and endures sporadically until today, despite the cruel and totally inescapable ambivalence of his status in this country, the battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him--the Americans who became less than themselves, or rose to be greater than themselves by virtue of the face that the challenge he represented was inescapable. He is perhaps the only black man in the world whose relationship to white men is more terrible, more subtle, and more meaningful than the relationship of bitter possessed to uncertain possessor. His survival depended, and his development depends, on his ability to turn his peculiar status in the Western world to his own advantage and, it may be, to the very great advantage of that world. It remains for him to fashion out of his experience that which will give him sustenance and a voice.

The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally, without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, of the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength.

It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

‘All I see is his head and that’s what I shot.’

This is the awful phrase that sticks with me from Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony before the Grand Jury on Sept. 16, 2014.
‘All I see is his head and that’s what I shot. I don’t know how many. I know at least once because I saw the last one go into him. And then when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.’
“The threat was stopped.” It’s a war-movie phrase, a video game phrase, a comic book phrase, a dehumanizing phrase. The target was destroyed. The enemy was neutralized. The threat was stopped.

It’s not the only shoot-‘em-up, caricatured reference Wilson used in his testimony. He described grappling with Michael Brown as “like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” To him, the teenager’s face was twisted. “It looks like a demon,” he told the Grand Jury.

Here’s another version of those fateful seconds, from a Grand Jury witness who testified on Oct. 13, 2014. He saw the incident from inside his car, which pulled up just behind Officer Wilson’s SUV and he initially thought that Michael Brown had a gun and was engaged in a shootout with the policeman. He saw Brown run away, then stagger, stop, turn around, and take “three, maybe four steps” back towards Wilson.
“Q. What happens then? A. The officer unloaded on him.
"Q. What do you mean by that? A. I mean, he fired four or five shots in rapid succession. He gunned him down.”
Perhaps the actuality of what happened in Ferguson that sunny day was so horrific that the cop and the witnesses could only fall back on sentences that seem scavenged from SVU or Scarface or Grand Theft Auto. Those words offer the possibility of a more heroic, storybook, uncomplicated reality.

But there’s nothing heroic or storybook about what went on along those twin yellow-brick lines running down the center of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri.

Michael Brown needed prosecutors and the Grand Jury to serve as his executors. Not simply to assign blame, but to face head-on, unblinking, without comic book language, the implications of the awful event that spun so wildly out of control.

That's now our task.