Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 December 2005
Issue No. 773
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ibrahim al-Koni

Miracles of regeneration

The address of Ibrahim al-Koni to the International Conference on Desert Literature delivered at the University of Sebha, Libya, on 26 November, 2005

"It is a dot that lives within itself, self-sufficient, desiring nothing... it contains everything!" -- Dionysius Andreas Freher

Desert passions


I

In the Book of Exodus the Lord addresses the Pharaoh with this strict command: "Let my people go, that they may worship me in the wilderness." This means allegorically that the curse of 40 years in the Diaspora was not a punishment for a sin, but a message! It is a metaphoric message that can be interpreted as the search for the Lord -- a search that cannot be fulfilled without worship, that is, without prayer. Prayer, here, does not mean a religious performance where the corporal rite plays a principal role. Prayer, here, means only the spiritual experience which we call, in our worldly discourse, meditation -- and which is considered by a seminal mind like Hegel's as the essence of prayer, the source of genuine worship and the measure of authenticity of the religious man, homo religiosus.

This also signifies -- if we were to go on using metaphoric language -- that the promised land to which Moses led his people was not a worldly homeland. Rather it is a symbolic homeland, a sacred homeland, as long as Exodus is conditioned by worship, that is by prayer -- prayer in its quality as the principle of meditation which cannot take place except in the wilderness. Wilderness in this sense is sanctimonious space: it is the temple; it is the holy homeland.

We will not understand the mystery of prophecy (for which the desert has always been a cradle) unless, on one hand, we grasp the essence of prayer as meditative practice that can only take place on the desert stage; and, on the other, we grasp the essence of the ambiguous relationship between divinity, as an absolute truth, and absolute truth as an eternal synonym of the desert principle symbolised as ever in the notion of freedom.

If the goal of Exodus (which is the destiny of every human being) is to go to the Kingdom of the Lord through prayer in His sacred space, that is, in the wilderness, then the journey of our life is nothing but alienation. It is alienation unless our wayfaring ends in reaching the oasis of redemption, reaching the mihrab that takes the shape of the desert.

For this reason the desert was always (and remains) the homeland of heavenly visions as described by Robert Musil in his epic, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften ( The Man Without Qualities ). This explains to us the secret behind the intimate affinity between prophecy and desert. The creative writer obsessed with freedom -- his core shaped by it -- will necessarily search for his desert as long as the desert-qua-homeland is conditioned by freedom as a goal, and as long as attaining freedom is a condition of grasping truth. When the creative writer is unable to find his desert (which is also his prayer), then he has to create it. If he is unable to create it, he will not find redemption except in one of two possibilities: either he stops creating, but if he is unable to do so, there is no other way for him but suicide! The history of world literature provides us with many examples of creative writers who met such a tragic end.

If ignorant people find in the desert a curse synonymous with nothingness, the creative writer -- for whom the desert had been once a cradle -- finds in it perforce booty. Providence has chosen him from all other creative writers to put in his hands, ready-made, the homeland of heavenly visions, to put in his hands the whole sacred space of the divine. This, of course, does not mean that destiny has put paradise between his hands. But the booty here, like all treasures, is a dangerous gift. Why? It is because the divine gift is not offered without sacrifice. Because agitation is the price that we pay for being granted a vocation, even if the vocation is no more than praising the homeland. Because the gift will necessarily bind us to a debt called duty. The reality of such duty does not dwell in seeking worldly happiness but in sacrificing happiness in order to fulfil one's duty. Thus the homeland is transformed from a mere homeland to a value. And values marked by the spirit of certainty are transformed in the end to divinities.

This means that the truth which is the goal of every creative work is a double-edged sword since the truth that we seek is the same truth that gets hold of us when we get hold of it. And because truth is beloved, it has to seek revenge from its lovers. Truth is a bloody divinity that imposes perforce blood-letting on its admirers. This blood-letting is called creativity in the first stage, madness in the second stage and in the last stage the rush towards the lap of death to fulfil eternal salvation. Creative writers do so usually not in order to defy truth but to please truth. Creative writers do this usually as a way to repay debts and not in order to avoid truth and its afflictions.

Admirers of truth do this willingly because they are genuine admirers and not simply amateurs or worldly people. They do so following the saying that he who knows truth in the morning is bound to die in the evening. In the end, they must do so -- not because dashing into the lap of death is a form of heroism -- as we might see it through our worldly eyes. But they do it because they are certain that the day of death is better than the day of birth (as the saying of Solomon in Ecclesiastes asserts). They do so, too, following another and harsher dictum with which the same truth addressed them, using the tongue of the satyr Silenus when he announced that it is by far the best for man not so much to die as not to be born at all. This dictum is not praising a truth latent in death that we do not want to admit. Rather, we are certain that what we cultivate will not live unless it dies, as Saint Paul states.

II

The creative discourse in the desert was born poetically. In fact the birth of this discourse was a necessity imposed by the desert's metaphysical nature, borrowed from the meditative spirit which brought prophecy out of its latency to create an earthly law.

What I mean is that creativity in its very beginning was born as poetry. Such poetry is tied to the laconic vision of a metaphorically condensed phrase that has more than one interpretation in the mode we inherited from the sibyls of Delphi's temple. Verbal condensation is the cunning device used by the priests of the ancient world to enrich the verse with multiple hermeneutic possibilities, and not in order to avoid errors in the prophetic text as some may believe. It was in order to contain the inclination of worldly life whose law teaches us that what is asserted today will be refuted tomorrow. The power of the talisman (or the hidden prophecy in every talisman) lies in protecting its content from the trivialities of worldly vanities and the realisation of the Ideal in immortality. It is a gesture borrowed originally from the kingdom that denies all but eternity as a homeland. Thus it had to contain necessarily in its essence the element that negates it so it can become the righteous law for every time and place, and so it can attain, as well as deserve, the epithet of proverbial wisdom. This is what happened with the poems of al-Mutanabbi in classical Arabic poetry, with the Book of Metamorphosis in the even earlier Chinese poetry, with the yet earlier texts of the Upanishads in the Indian sacred tradition, and with the prophecies of the priestesses of Delphi's temple in the religious legacy of the Greeks.

The fate of poetry has been to lose poetic virginity as man became alienated from his spiritual truth, embodied in what might be called the spirit of genesis. Thus with this loss, man has mislaid prophecy. Man lost paradise when he lost the homeland of heavenly visions. Man lost God in the deal he made with the powers of worldly vanities. Man sank from the kingdom of poetry, kneaded with the spirit of certainty, to that of prose confined to worldly dispositions.

Poetry was the language of the desert because simplicity is its nature, just as simplicity is the nature of every noble principle, and just as it is the nature of divinity itself. But poetry in the domain of creativity has to be alienated since the fall is its language. The fall has another language distinct from that of the language of the spirit. The fall has a worldly language called prose. In the deal in which the seeker of truth lost, there must be a contrived discourse in another language since it is a worldly experience; since, in fact, it is a sensual experience. Thus the creative discourse lost its spirit when it lost its innocence. The creative discourse lost its identity when it mislaid in the deal its poetics. In fact, it lost its divinity once it lost its visionary tongue that speaks only obliquely, and expresses only through symbols, and demonstrates only in paradoxes. As a result of this reversal the desert became alienated from the arena of creativity for a long time. The desert was alienated from literature because it was too proud to descend to the expression that belittles the Ideal, rejects metaphor, and is satisfied only by raising honourific titles.

Thus it was natural that the city would pounce on the role of the desert in the new worldly experience, which we call civilisation in today's language. It was also natural for it to find its tongue in prose discourse. This expressive mode had dominated the world for a very long time until the day came when man was shaken up by a sickness -- as old as man -- namely, nostalgia. Man was rocked through nostalgia into longing for his lost paradise. He was shaken up by longings for prophecy, by nostalgia for the Lord. Then man could find nothing to help him but poetry. But the calamity was in poetry's alienation from the world of man forever. Poetry departed with primal innocence, as befits every noble principle that refuses to be bitten twice in the same den. Poetry departed because the law of departure decrees the impossibility of having virginity twice unless we accomplish the miracle of being twice-born. In as much as the second birth is a miracle that parallels the entry of a camel in the eye of a needle, there is nothing left for the nostalgic except to create a new mode of creativity where all literary genres fuse. Perhaps the fusion of poetry with prose was like a revolution that shook up the creative discourse. It infused it with life that was about to be lost because of worldly blandness, kneaded with the spirit of a deadly commercial deal. This fusion saved the creative discourse in its prose mode more than it saved poetry that was never in need of a saviour. This did not only save the prosaic discourse, but enriched it as well and elevated it so it could explore new horizons; it returned to it its lost spirit.

As a result of this shaking up, the desert returned to the arena of creativity to articulate in a way never done before. The shaking up returned to the homeland of heavenly visions its lost status; prophecy once again was enthroned.

III

We do not celebrate the desert because it is the only spot in the kingdom of Nature that has not had a chance to say its word to the world through literature, as other spots of Nature have.

We have to celebrate this spot of Nature because it is the noblest space in the kingdom of Nature that was able with its nobility to transform Nature from a mere kingdom into the Kingdom of Heaven. As to how the desert managed to accomplish such a miracle, it is enough to recall the three fundamental conditions that were instituted by religions, and then by philosophies, as touchstones for constructing Being. They are truth in the absolute (that is divinity), freedom in its metaphysical dimension, and finally persistence in time that can only be achieved by losing oneself in space. The desert was never such a space, but a shadow of space, a shadow of an anonymous space, a shadow of non-space, a shadow of an impossible principle that is Metaphysics. The heroism of the desert lies in its embodiment of this impossible dimension that we call Metaphysics. The experience of embodying metaphysics in space has accomplished for the desert another heroic act: the embodiment of time that cannot be embodied usually except at the expense of space, its double; in other words, by the annihilation of its double, the space. The embodiment of time in the desert lies in our perception of mythological time. In the desert alone we can distance ourselves from temporal time to live in timelessness, to live as time ceases to be, to live that sublime experience which was the dream of Faust and the cause of his ruin.

Experiencing desert time will necessarily accomplish another dream that Faust lost as well, in his heroic struggle to achieve immortality, namely freedom. The perception of immortal time is not a matter of forsaking. Forsaking in its extreme is but the opening practice of freedom's paradox -- not in its worldly dimension but in its metaphysical reality. The ultimate essence of forsaking is nothing but existing experientially with the Heraclitean dictum: only in emaciated (or lean or sun-washed) bodies does the divine spark live.

This experience alludes to the last element in the majestic and lofty trinity of existence, namely truth. We all know that such truth cannot take place if the desert were not a stage of solitude. This solitude transformed the desert into a meditative oasis. As we know, meditation is the condition of homo religiosus. For true faith has never been the practice of rites but a matter of intention; that is, the contemplation of God's Kingdom and exploring the things that no eye hath seen, nor ear heard, and neither have entered into the heart of man. This brave prayer has deservedly appropriated the testament from the palm of the impossible in order to produce the miracle of prophecy, thus accomplishing glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and planting good will in the hearts of men.

IV

I believe the awareness of this monumental event is what made my loved ones celebrate in the oasis the second birth of the desert through a person descendent from the desert. They did so not because he loved the desert and not because he devoted his life to rehabilitate this continent -- distanced from the brink of its existence in the world. But because he succeeded, in one way or another, in liberating the tied tongue of the desert -- which is synonymous with the tongue of freedom -- in order to deliver the desert's testament to the world at large.

I would not miss to hoist tokens of esteem to my loved ones in the world who have come from all continents to get to know in the desert, and at close range, the quiddity of the desert, after having discovered it when it spoke out in my writings.

Translated by Ferial J Ghazoul

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