The Consolations of Fate

Arabia, Christianity, civilisation, ethics, europe, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, Hinduism, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, Meaning, meditations, Middle East, Musings, Muslim, Natural Law, natural philosophy

Maktoob: that which is written. Ask any one of 1.6 billion people of the world who belong within the Umma (the global community of Muslims, whatever their sect), and most will confess that their entire life boils down to a narrative, a script already written by a divine hand long before each infant has entered the maternity wards of this physical world. That only two endings are conceivable, paradise or hell, is by the wayside. It is the story of life that counts.

Now anyone who has ever lived among the faithful will know that by and large they are a contented bunch. Muslims the world over smile ineffably. When they are not busy with their struggles or else bogged down in civil strife, Arabs and their muslim brethren everywhere from Indonesia to West Africa seem to spend considerably more time that we in the West in a state of laughter and outward expressions of happiness. There’s a lightness to being among them; a sense that, unlike the self-made man of the West, enormous burdens have been somehow lifted from each and every shoulder. Speak to them about how they imagine their lives are going to pan out and in return you will receive a beatific smile and a shrug. It is not for me to say, he will counter. To which, I will respond baffled and he will reply, why worry about the future. It is not ours to decide.

Oh, fate? I will reply. Well, yes and no, he will say. You see, fate is that collision of two moving bodies sprinting down adjacent streets until both reach the corner simultaneously and boom! two bodies collide. Fate, to the Western mind has the air of being something sudden and unplanned. Yet fate – maktoob, is really rather different. What maktoob implies is that those who ran down that road did so before they even knew it. They collided on the corner not because fate ‘intervened’, as we in the Greco-Roman tradition are want to say. Fate to the ancient Greeks, and by extension the latter-day Western World, rested with fickle Gods. They refereed you through every minor move you made, blowing the whistle on transgressions, on foul play. With fate, occidental-style, you could be up one minute; down the next. But maktoob wrote the book of life before you were even conceived. You keep to a life script without ever consciously reading it. The key thing is that to the believer in the Qur’an, each mere mortal was never tasked with writing their own life story. That onerous task was never laid down before them. Blank pages in the annals of God’s creation were just too precious to be delegated to a human fuck-up. The weight of responsibility too great an undertaking for the pages ever to be left blank.

So here we are, twixt a world of the divine and the secular where the growing legions of secularists are sold the belief that life is what we make of it. Fortune favours the bold. Who dares wins. You get out no more and no less than you put in. The proverbs supporting free will are woven into the very fabric of Western languages. Their fellow mortals, in stark contrast, who maintain a more monotheistic tone (and even spiritual when you consider predestination as a central tenet of most Hindus, Jains, Parsees, Buddhists, Baha’i, animists, et al) do not fundamentally accord with this notion that each one of us is a little God carving out the cosmos in his or her own image. These adherents to Islamic (and Judaeo-Christian to a lesser degree) doctrine (the hadiths of the Prophet and the surahs of the Book) are happy of course to be given a patina of choice in life: what car they choose to drive, what profession they choose to follow, what football team they choose to support, even where they’d like to spend their honeymoon. But to most who adhere to a divine book – that we shall call a operator’s manual for living – all notion that each of us is alone to decide everything short of dying at the age of forty of terminal cancer (and even cancer in the West is often attributed in terms of blame to a person’s unhygienic choices, such as smoking) is risible. Of course, when we visit these holy lands with our fanatical secular faith tripping off the tongue like the good little imperialists we profess not to be but are all the same, our religiously-minded hosts humour us and indulge us our fantasies of taking control of our destinies. We lecture them on planning and freedom to choose and freedom to be and even freedom to fuck up. They listen and nod serenely before heading off to the mosque for the fifth time that day, the thirty-fifth time that week, to radiate in the knowledge that the road for them is already laid. Life is a book whose pages were filled in not by the protagonist, but by the author, a long time in the past, so long ago that time is irrelevant.

In a sense this is logical that the book of life be not composed by the main character, for it is the author – a figure who never appears in the book – as creator. Which brings us back to the happiness factor. For all the student suicides in secular Seoul, Shanghai or Tokyo, how many self-confessed failures in life do we count from among the lands of the strictly faithful? For all my mediocre students in Arabia, did I once ever see one who was so overburdened by feelings of impending academic failure, so ridden with self-blame for poor performance that they sought the easy way out? Not once. Many underperformed in class only to walk out in high spirits. And what of my Asiatic students? Did they push themselves to the outer limits of academic achievement because of a culturally ingrained belief that the buck stops with them? Yes, frequently. Their academic performance is linked directly to the underlying secular notion that we build our house with our own hands.

I try to reconcile the two opposing philosophies of free-will and predestination and I cannot other than to bewail the amount of responsibility heaped on young individuals in Western Secular and East Asiatic Confucian societies to take the quill of creation and write their life story like each one needs to be on the Booker shortlist. The pressures are immense; the philosophical premise of free-will still unproven. Life is lonely on a planet of authors. Life, in contrast, is one big jovial gathering on a planet where one anonymous author wrote everything for everyone for all time. Maktoob. Who wants to be a driver on a mad road when you can be passenger on a country lane? Isn’t it enough to be the train driver? Or must we lay each rail as well while we go along?

This is by no means a rallying cry for mass religious conversion. The strictures of an observant life of answering the azan thirty-five times a week (and much more during the month of Ramadan) are prohibitive and constrictive to the postmodern mind made up of Post-Christians and Post-Confucianists. Whether a philosophical brainchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment we call free will is no more than a pleasant self-deception, or at worst, a mirage, most feel no abiding need to abdicate control of their lives, or the appearance of self-control. But with pressures mounting on an ecological world in peril, the millions of inchoate dreams existing in aspirational societies that are grounded in the cult of individualism (this is the very guiding light of the West) are becoming ever more unattainable. Blame heaped on oneself, as well as feelings of failure, will balloon in future. Individuals marooned on a desert island of their own making. And sadly, it will be the West – that vanguard of progressive ideas – that will need the anti-depressants while the Arabs will continue to find amusement in the smallest things, such as death.

In Praise of Persia

Arabia, Bedouin, Caliphate, civilisation, desert, Empire, history, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Muslim, Persia, philosophy, Political Culture, Religion, thoughts, Travel, Tribes

I watched a riveting BBC4 documentary last night called ‘The Art of Persia’. Contained within that visual treasure trove were cultural jewels of incalculable worth. The West might look on with a mixture of bemusement and disdain at the black chadors, the mass weepings, the ceremonial burnings of Imperialist flags of red, white and blue, and the tales of woe spun by Persia’s disgruntled diaspora everywhere from Tehr-Angeles to London, but that’s not the half of it. The country known since 1935 as Iran is arguably as great a continuous civilisation as there has even been, anywhere. But what makes Iran so interesting is how its personality traits reveal a duality deep in its cultural psyche.

To the Persians, who live either in wealthy North Tehran or else abroad, the name Iran is anathema to them because of its proximity to all that is humiliating to a once insuperable civilisation. To them Iran equals the puppet Shah. Iran equals fanaticism. Iran equals paranoid pride. Iran equals vice and virtue and blasphemy and stoning and vicious assaults on the freedom to think out loud. Iran equals secret shindigs with homemade grog. Iran equals ousted premiers. Iran equals the Ayatollahs. Iran equals political prisoners. Iran equals implacable hostility to nearly everyone except fellow villains, Russia and Syria. The name Persia, on the other hand, conjures nothing but antiquarian admirers. The Iran we know today, in stark contrast, has nothing but perceived enemies. On top of this litany of woes, for Persians the name Iran strikes fear into the heart because it equals Islam in its most austere form of submission and at its most fervent. To those Persians who see themselves as secular patriots – defenders of 4,000 years of unique culture, rather than defenders of a faith imported from impoverished desert lands – Iran in its present state will eventually be consumed by the larger meaning of Persia. For everyone, including Orientalists like me, Persia denotes the literary romance of Sheherezade in the 1001 Persian Nights and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Persia is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; of intoxicating poetry recited in a garden of red roses, crocuses and pomegranate trees; of revelling in the NOW instead of waiting on God, as is the wont of modern Islam. Persia is the Sufi mysticism of Rumi as opposed to the stripped-down demystification of latter-day political Shi’ism.

To the Iranians, who live everywhere else in Iran’s hinterland, Persia is something to be taken, if not lightly, then with a degree of scepticism. Persia equals complicity with the predatory West. Persia equals lingering resentment of being conquered by an inferior culture who brought a book – the Qur’an – which changed everything. Persia equals ambivalence, at best, toward the idea of Islamic piety. Persia equals antiquity, an age that’s gone forever. Persia equals wine and hedonism from the quills of drunken poets who saw things very differently from the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs. Persia equals Zoroastrianism and the fire temples of old. Contrarily, Iran equals Shi’a, a tough, oppressed, self-flagellating branch of Islam. Persia equals all that is effete: of brocades and silken rugs; of grand viziers in courtly costume; of silver filigree and lapiz lazuli glaze on priceless urns; and, of artistic depictions too close to iconoclastic for comfort. In short, for Iranians, nostalgia for old Persia is the antithesis of political Islam. It is a weak underbelly that allows outsiders to enter the forbidden gates on the pretext of weakening the present land by exalting its past.

The BBC documentary highlighted this duality as such. Uncovering the many layers of Persian culture we learn that when it comes to a civilisation that stretches back to the Elamites at Susa 4,500 years ago, an empire that during the reign of the Achaemenids under Cyrus stretched from Greece to Afghanistan, a simple either/or will not do. When something is that old and that far-reaching, dichotomies are rarely that simple. The BBC4 series taught us that even the political Islam of the 21st century Republic can not wash away that feeling of distinction held by so many Iranians. Their exceptionalism chimes with similar exceptionalism experienced by Brexit Britain and the Trumpite United States. It is this analogue with great Western powers that plunges modern Iran into a state of competitive hostility with them. It is the similarities therefore, and not the differences, that explain the fraught relations between the anglo-American West and the new Persia.

Eternally unknowable and all-mighty for being so is what makes Iran so much like the God of Islam it has worshipped for nearly 1,400 years. A bruised civilisation in such a battle for true identity on the shifting game board of power politics is what makes Iran the Persia it truly is to this day, and likewise what makes Persia the true Iran it has become. Its place at the head of the table of nation states has become problematic, none more so than within Iran itself. This was the first civilisation to claim the one true god, Ahura Mazda. Its official state religion of Zoroastrianism was as long-established as Persia itself. But all changed so suddenly. Zoroaster’s fires were extinguished by the Arab Conquest of 637AD. In many respects, an inferior culture usurped one whose deeds it could never match. A tribe tamed a civilisation, and I don’t think Iran has ever come to grips with that. Alexander sacked Persepolis in 330BC, but he razed it to the ground supposedly in the name of Hellenic Civilisation. The Arabs who swept into Sassanid Persia on the command of the Caliph Umar just four years after the death of the prophet Muhammed were a tribe of tribes with all the ostentatiousness of a Glastonbury festival-goer. They came unadorned and, other than tax and sovereignty, demanded little else. These bedouin Arabs were no Islamic State. Their relative tolerance was their enduring power. As the documentary states, Islam was adopted in Persia at a rate that Arabisation never ever was. The Persians took the commandments of Muhammed readily enough, though it was the language and cultural traits of the invaders from the Arabian Peninsula that had little staying power in the eyes of a people who believed, rightly of wrongly, that they had nothing to learn (other than the revelations in the Qur’an) from these usurpers in their raggedy clothing.

I taught a bunch of Iranians about ten years ago, all of whom had come to the West not so much for a taste of cultivated learning, which of course they could have delved into at home. They came, rather, to throw off their chadors and to relive the secular freedoms their parents had enjoyed under the Pahlavi dynasty. They came to change Iran not from within, which was too dangerous, but from without. Away from the Iran of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard they could embrace the Persian in themselves, throwing off the shackles of the Iranian who boarded the aircraft in Tehran. In our ignorance, some locals asked if, being Muslim and existing in the heart of the Middle East, they were Arabs. The Iranian reaction was prompt and dismissive to say the least. You could actually see them wince at the mere suggestion. In my classroom there they sat together, far from the ethnic Arabs who were seated at the other end of the room. They looked and spoke different. They carried themselves differently, for unlike the Arabs in the room, the Persians had a dual identity: the one Iran foisted upon them at birth, and the Ferdowsi-reading Persian residing permanently in their heart. 

 

A Bear Necessity

#adventure, America, Britain, California, forest, giant trees, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, nature, Psychology, redwoods, Reflections, trees, Uncategorized, United States

In Disney’s Jungle Book, Baloo sung that Bear Necessities were simple. But who was Baloo trying to kid, other than a clueless Mowgli? There is nothing simple, psychologically-speaking, about what a bear necessitates. When you are deep in the back country of, say, North America, what the bear necessitates in the human mind is a whole lot of panic and angst. Yet, is the anxiety that the wild things exert on the fragile human – the same human who is primordially at home and at the same time disturbingly out of place in her ancestral canopy home – confined to the prospect of coming upon an irate mother bear? Or are anxieties little knots made into strings we wear around our necks through life? The Inca people had their quipu, or talking knots, to record the particulars of their life. Equally, do postmodern humans have this string of knots in their psyche (or possibly even lodged their panic-rising breast) where something angst-inducing must reside just to remind us of our all-too humanness?

Walking through these American woods in all their dizzying expanse, I used to think that’s where the nagging feeling of anxiety permeated, and it was there that we urbanites would add another string to our quipu of worries. Streetwise and untroubled, enter the forest alone. Once there, duly adorn the knotted string around the neck. Venture ever deeper in and feel as the string pulls heavier on the neck. Watch as our quipu of worries keeps adding knots to its length with every snap of bone-dry twig. With each falling shadow forming grasping arms from tree limbs, feel our own limbs stiffen as another knot miraculously appears on the anxiety string. Stare into the multidimensional wall – for that is what the forest is when you are in it – and feel unease as is stares back at you. They say it’s the people roaming the woods you need to worry about in America, and not the black bears. And yet, fear being irrational – and that fear extends to fear of cougars, too – we don’t see it that way. We see the ancient brain kick into gear, the one that offers only binary choice: fight or flight. The subconscious gallery of wild, wicked animals, whom we used to prey on when we were not busy running from them, revolves at a pace matched only by the quickening of the human heart. But, it might not be as simple as bear panic anxiety existing only in the deepest reaches of the American woodlands. Fear of what’s in them-there woods might be a bare necessity for us in order to function out here in the societies we made from the ruins of the mesolithic world of cave bears, sabre tooth cats, and aurochs. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Bears don’t instil fear in the woods; fear instills fear because anxiety is what we had to nurse just to leave that wild world behind to become the worrywarts we did.

Later, I told others i was suffering a newly-diagnosed condition: bear panic anxiety. I even slept in the car out there in the woods lest i end up a snack wrapped in tent canvas. Others laughed mockingly, never stopping to think about how their own predatory instincts would dissolve in the midst of aloneness in a vast sea of trunks. When i returned to the American West the following year, i traded experience for caution. The anxiety held firm as it had the year before, as it had when i was young and terrified of the deep. And then, leaving it again to rejoin my tamed world, I realised that anxiety is a shapeshifting form within each of us that needs filling with something, anything that is, unless we happen to have trained the mind to excise those knotted worry beads from deep within our psyche into our fingertips where we may toy with them and master them. And what triggered that realisation? It was going to live on a riverboat that hammered the point home. Now, instead of feeling bear panic anxiety in America, i was growing demented from feeling boat panic anxiety. Boats and bears? Is this merely alliteration disguised as a tenuous link? Tame English canals versus American wilderness? Well, the connection is not as stretched as you might think. The boat, built long and wide and stocky for a river, was squeezed into a narrow, shallow and popular canal in a picturesque corner of olde England. For every holiday boat that inched past mine (and they were legion, depressingly so), the same set of psychological conditions i felt in the American wilderness came back to haunt me. In short, the inbuilt worry space was occupied again. The canal seemed to grow narrower and the passing boaters more intrusive. Wave after wave of prying eyes, faces moving past the portholes so close I could plant a kiss on them. For every time i raised my head above the parapet, another narrowboat would come into view. Privacy on short notice; another holidaymaker enjoying me as a caged novelty item. Anxiety filled the space the bear had hibernated in. Panic rose in the breast and i thought to myself, Here we go again. Not another one! It’s gonna hit. No way can it pass.’  How can the mind be stilled when the water on which the riverboat sits is rippling with excitement at yet another boat brushing millimetres by?

Bear and boats, Inca knots recording the state of our psychology, and of course worry beads. I know now why Muslims the world over run the beads between their thumb and forefinger. While the rest of us internalise ours, those carefree Muslims have externalised theirs. They’ve taken each knot of anxiety and locked it in an onyx bead where these worries can be controlled in those all-conquering fingers. The bear might thankfully still live in the woods where it belongs. The boats still squeeze between the shrinking width of the canals. And you? Where does your anxiety live? Or have you managed banish the knots into your fingers where they don’t loom so large?

 

 

 

Barons of a Barren Land

Arabia, Bedouin, desert, Emirates, Islam, Landscape Photography, People, Photography, Portraits, Travel, Travel Photography, Uncategorized
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This Is How we Are, This is How we Have always Been, This is How we Shall always Be.

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When it’s Gone, it’s Gone, Until it Returns at the Break 0f Day. 

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Flaming Eyes of Amber Blue Give the World a Solemn Hue. 

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Old Friends Cast Long Shadows. 

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A Night on The Town, Except There Is No Town, Only Night.