Sunday, September 30, 2007

No Beach

I never got to visit the sea in Lattakia, even though the Mediterranean was one of the major reasons for my visit. If I'd taken a taxi further north, I'd have found a beach but didn't fancy leaving town again.

As it was I was confused. The logic for my confusion was unassailable. Lattakia was on the sea side. They even had the requisite palmtrees lining the coast. I couldn't understand why I couldn't find a beach, so I caved into accepting what I'd begun to suspect.
The port, with all its cranes and cargo containers, boats, fences and general port paraphenalia - all of which had been annoyingly placed opposite my hostel - stretched along the entirety of Lattakia's coast, and blocked all access to the sea. Whoever was responsible for the planning of this city obviously didn't care much for sunbathing or sand. Nor did he recognise that he had the power to make the dream real and allow people to have a beer at one of Lattakia's lovely bars before rushing into the sea, as any sane being would want to do in this heat. Why didn't he put the port a bit further up the coast, where there wasn't a town, and fewer would be swimmers like me to frustrate? Very odd.

So I loafed around and had more coffee. Muhammad had lent me an English language academic manual from Damascus University so I read that, much absorbed. If this and other literary works I've browsed are at all representative of Arabic discourse, it seems the Arabic mind shares the Slovak love of the long sentence. Maybe Arabic thought is different when not translated, but in English a full army of subclauses and spiralling devices are employed. Personally I've always rather liked long, windy sentences but I know they're pretty unfashionable in the West.

The prose style, even in translation, was beautiful and hypnotic. It had a gracious subtlety that made me think of the moon, like so much does in Islam. Why that is and how that is I'm not quite sure, but that the crescent is a symbol of Islam must mean I'm not saying anything too controversial.

An overriding sense I get when I read Islamic authors is the presumption of the existence of a shared set of commonly held fundamental perspectives between writer and reader. Relativism, the chaotic multifacetedness of the Western post-modern condition, is not even glimpsed at, not reckoned a remote possibility. Not for Muslims has Thomas Carlyle's Sea of Faith begun to recede. Is this good, is this bad, is the Pope a Catholic, is Mecca the centre of the universe? Am I entitled to say? I see advantages and disadvantages. I see how those elements of Islam which I appreciate can be traced to its resolute defence of the homogeneity of its collective psychic, emotional and spiritual life. People in Islam know who they are, where they come from, where they're going. They know what life means, what death means, how the sun, the sea and the land fit together; they know exactly, in precise detail, what the relationships should be between subjectivity and objectivity, the private and the public, freedom and responsibility, men and woman, Man and God. It used to be like this in the West too, though differently I grant.

This gets to the heart of what I dislike about my own culture. No, not that we have the freedom to criticise and reject the package that those in authority establish for us to understand life and the universe by. On the contrary, I love and adore this freedom. This is why I could never be a Muslim incidentally- since at heart in so many ways I'm wild and anarchic. Just as I hate telling others what to do, I resent receiving commands and instructions I'm not allowed to question.

What I object to about my culture is its lack of any deeply felt set of ideas that can enable people to feel they're part of a transcendent, unified community - and not just individuals set adrift with their friends and families only, in a desparate drive to accumulate wealth and pleasurable experiences for no reason other than that accumulation.

Much can be argued against Islam being such a culture. But it is more of one than ours is. And I'm sure this is why Muslims are so much more friendly to strangers, which they certainly seem to be. A cynic might want to add they're like this only so they call sell us their carpets and other produce, but in my experience it goes deeper than that. It has to do with the fact that as individuals they feel their connection with other individuals more keenly than we do. This I'm sure is because their egos are less well fortified and demarcated. Their belief system, and cultural practice perpetually grounds them as individuals in the context of the larger world and universe. Obviously, Islam is not the only belief system to do this. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and other traditional systems of collectivist, inter-relational thought do the same - in their own particular ways. But ours does this significantly less so, and that is our sadness. Herein lies our inner emptiness, since as the existentialists correctly say the life of the self is only felt to be truly real, truly vivid, truly substantial in its genuine heartfelt interations with others. The Cartesian identity we've been persuaded to assume, that disemebodied phantom in the mind, which equates subjective thought with ultimate reality, can only lead us away from each other to a panoply of variously diverging privatised mythologies of our own devising. Yes, we can forge workable connections with each other, one universe to another, and we do so; but our unique reliance on linguistic utterances and humour to do so, our energetic search for people with similar interests and ideas, reveals that the connection is something that always has to be fought for, might at any time be lost and isn't just there as a de facto fact.

But that's me being hard on the West. I exclude everything that's wonderful about the utterly vast possibilites for tremendous good our highly individualistic culture allows for. It seems, in our current world system, we're faced with a choice between two options, both of which are imperfect, both of which cry out for synthesis with the other, both of which wait to be surpassed. On the one hand you have, putting it simply, coherence and belonging without individual freedom of behaviour and thought. On the other you have this in reverse.

Anyway, the instincts of defence for my intellectual tradition were raised when I read an article in the academic manual about Muhammad. At the end of this informative, albeit Islamically nuanced, piece about his life, it listed as a study aid a set of questions about what had been written. One question explored the possibility that Muhammad is the greatest man that's ever lived. But whereas in the west, if this question were asked at all, we'd ask something like 'Do you think Muhammad is the greatest man who's ever lived. If so, why?', this question leapt a step and just wanted to know 'Why is Muhammad the greatest man who's ever lived?' In that simple difference, I felt, lay so much about what differentiates us.

In Islam there is a presumption that the universe just is the way it is. Within that, rationality wants to understand how it's the way it is. Asking why might be perilous, however. You'd be examining God's motives which could question the whole construction. In the West we basically haven't got a clue. We just like to ask questions. Muslims know where they are and who they are, even though they might be living in a dream world. We don't know where we are, or even who we are, and satisfy ourselves with the consolation, conceivably very well grounded, that we're the less deceived. Whether that satisfaction is worth the disadvantages of a deracinated, fragmented collective psyche, however, is debatable. Especially since we might be wrong about the non-existence of transcendent truth, even if we're right to question, as I'm sure we are, the certain answers of Islam.

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