Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Once upon a time: Dream living


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Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Since time immemorial, the world of dreams has fascinated mankind. The imagery, intensity and sheer oddity of what goes on in our dreams enticed the ancients to think of worlds other than the immediate, physical ones, worlds in which magic is common and fantasies are true.

In his book, The Best Known Dreams in History (Ashhar Al-Ahlam Fil Tarikh) Mamdouh Al-Sheikh tells us that the ancient Egyptians were the first to construe dreams as revelations from other worlds, messages which we can only ignore at our own risk. In the Chester Beaty Papyri, there is one document, dated to the 12th Dynasty (1990-1786 BC) which lists dreams and their various interpretations.

The Greeks, famous for weaving history and myth in sagas of astounding beauty, elaborated on the theme of debates. In the Iliad, there is mention of the two gates of ivory and horn. If our dreams arrived through the gate of ivory, they are lies and illusions, but dreams that come through the gate of horn must be heeded, as they are true foretelling of our future. The Iliad remains silent, however, on how to distinguish the two types of dreams.

In India, manuscripts from the fifth century BC offer ample details on dreams, their interpretation and the divine world from which they come.

Muslim historians took interest in the same topic. Ibn Khaldun says that our dreams come from three sources: God, angels and the devil. Dreams that come from God hardly need any interpretation, because they are unambiguous in their content and purpose. Dreams emanating from the angels tend to be symbolic, and would need interpretation. As for the devil, he gives us nothing but nightmares.

Socrates regarded all dreams as messages from the unseen world, and thus worthy of attention and interpretation. Aristotle disagrees, saying that dreams are not messages from another world, but a fantastical projection of the human mind.

Professor Said Abdu from Cairo University believes that our dreams are the culmination of our experiences, memories, and impressions, processed by our minds and stamped with our personality.

Surrealists, such as Salvador Dali, whose favourite book was Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, went a step further, creating on canvas imagery that match, if not surpass, the world of dreams.

As the French author La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), tells us, savour our dreams, pursue them, and believe in ourselves. If you cannot find happiness inside yourself, it is useless to seek it elsewhere, he says.

In his book, Dream and Reality, the Russian philosopher Nicolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) says that the ability to dream is what motivates us to rise above our surroundings and aspire for great things.

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