Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Tragedy in Syria and the Blindness of all Actors

The ongoing tragedy in Syria speaks to the failure of the international system and today's politics. There is a reality and a cause behind this debacle.

All the major actors at play in the Syrian drama are somehow blind to their own motives, and to other key dynamics around them, i.e. they have an inability to see beyond their own nose while dealing with complexity. This context blindness has been given a name by psychologists, 'Caetextia', and it may be to blame for the inability to find solutions.

All sides are acting like conflicting vectors without reference to one another; the result is tragedy, death and destruction for millions of Syrians and potentially for surrounding countries. The recognition of this blindness - this inability to read context - is a first step in finding answers. The full article on this matter can be found on The Planisphere.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

'The Sufis' by Idries Shah

Years ago, while living in Cairo, I was invited by some friends to a poor corner of the city to watch a weekly performance of “Sufi musicians”. The no-frills, nighttime shows were set in a dusty, open-air courtyard deep in a maze-like neighbourhood and were frequented mostly by Egyptians.

At that time I held the all-too-conventional notion of the Sufis as the reveler-mystics of Islam. Previously, I'd visited the much-touted (and touristed) "whirling dervishes" across from Khan al-Khalili bazaar who entrance visitors by drumming and spinning their conical skirts about like tilt-a-whirl rides at an amusement park (their Turkish counterparts have achieved global fame with their own version of the same show). I’d also read about other permutations of the sect worldwide defying nature by eating glass, walking on hot coals and piercing their cheeks with shish-kebab skewers. 

These exotic stunts were doable, its performers said, by virtue of sheer faith and the divinely inspired powers, which were its fruits.

As it turned out, the show in the dusty courtyard was in much the same vein as the others, replete with pendular motions, gyrations and rolling eyeballs. Though mildly entertaining (the music was good), it didn’t do much to add to, or dispel from the idea that Sufis were soft religionists expressing their love of God through frenetic personal rapture.

Later that same year, I stumbled across a book which was written, in part, to shatter those prevailing notions and to set the record straight about what Sufism is – and isn’t. 

In the appropriately titled, The Sufis, author Idries Shah argues that the West, lacking information known in the East for centuries, has cultivated an incomplete and distorted picture of Sufism - and of spirituality and mysticism in general. What we tend to call Sufism, he says, are the outdated forms of that movement, or amalgams of those forms, repackaged to appeal to our emotions. 

Genuine Sufis, the booked asserts, are followers of an age-old tradition of experiential knowledge, that is flexible and ever evolving, and which aims to bring its adherents to a true understanding of the nature of reality – which the biological brain, operating in a certain mode, cannot ascertain on its own. Sufis, Shah says, far from necessarily being members of an Islamic sect, have always existed within different faiths and cultures, including those of early antiquity that predated Islam. 

If we find it hard to resist the reflex to associate Sufism with anything other than Islam, it’s because it was in those Muslim regions, during the Middle Ages, that Sufism saw its most rapid flowering. The artistic and intellectual achievements of that period are not only too numerous to catalogue (encompassing every known discipline from chemistry to cartography to psychiatry), but are also difficult to overstate in terms of their importance for humanity. Those high pinnacles of achievement that was Sufi knowledge constituted the very foundations upon which succesive civilizations would rest. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Troubadours, the Knights Templar and Freemasonry are just a few of the numerous examples of Sufic influence upon the West.

Shah, who was part of a long lineage of savants (he died in 1996), also tried to emphasize in The Sufis that the West still had a great to learn about the process of learning higher things. 

For one thing, many people still tend to confuse emotionalism (feeling) with real spirituality (higher perception). It's partly because of this that people continue to be drawn to the more colourful trappings of traditional eastern religions (and their cultic offshoots), with their chants, costumes, gurus, symbols, and feel-good rituals.  Excessive emotion, like that seen among the Sufi musicians in Cairo, for instance, rather than being a true refining quality as is generally still believed, can instead be a blunting instrument.

There is a real path of inner development, say the Sufis, but it does not appeal to or feed that part of the self that seeks the lower gratifications on offer from cults. Real knowledge is said to come experientially, and in a prescribed fashion. Much of that process involves taming our blinding animal nature – an entity described by the Sufis as “The Commanding Self” - whose fundamental purpose is its own unrelenting aggrandizement and survival.

These, plus many other fascinating revelations abound in The Sufis, helping to propel the book into a classic; one which has been described as “a seminal book of the century.”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Joy and Pain of Beirut

Tom Young is a British painter who has developed a fascination for Beirut and Lebanon and depicted it in his work. He points out that the city provided him with the symbols of both 'joy and pain' and their co-existence. No doubt, there is little shortage of either in Beirut and Lebanon.

Tom Young's attitude and craft are discussed in this pleasant video that also depicts photographs of a Lebanon long-gone, one that will be hauntingly familiar to anyone who lived there during that era.

Young states that his work focuses on memory and longing, as well as rebirth and recovery. Lebanon is indeed penetrated with sentiment and melancholia; the people's faces, and often their taste in music, reflect these longings. Their actions do also speak to the patch-up and the constant recovery from war.  

The video also has a quote which may be relevant in these circumstances: "There is a circle called sentiment and there is the compulsion to break free of it. In the negative space between contraries we learn to venture."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Egyptian People

Once, while having coffee at the Shepherd´s Hotel in Cairo, I was told that Egypt had never had more than 2-3 million people until the early 20th century when the population exploded reaching the 80-90 million people of today. Disease and child mortality had kept Um Eddunya (¨The Mother of the World¨) to an organic size until modern sanitation and medicine arrived from the West, bringing with them longer and healthier lives and a massive population explosion.

Cairo, and other places in Egypt, are a testament today to this overpopulation. High density streets, noise pollution, miasmic air, more suggestive of a gas chamber than an atmosphere, and a murky Nile all speak to this reality. And yet, a walk through Cairo remains a window onto the unique beauty of the Egyptian people, despite their vast and considerable tribulations.

A cripple with crutches clambers on to a Vespa and putters off into the crowded streets. A stranger helps two ladies, old and young, cross the maniacal traffic (the way they relate suggests long term intimacy rather than the distance common to strangers in the West's public space). Taxi drivers outside the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel dance to Arabic tunes beside their empty cars even though tourism and their revenues are very much down.

The Egyptian people demonstate warmth, humour and resilience where many others would be be wallowing in a somber depression. There is also a sense that all individual Egyptians belong to one human organism stretching from Alexandria to Aswan. From Nasser´s state socialism, to Sadat´s private sector experiments, to Mubarak´s oligarchy, to today´s amateurish rise of the Muslim Brothers, Egyptians have not been well served by their governments. Differences of economic class and political views now abound, especially after the Pandora´s box was opened through the revolution. But the hand -  and what is in it - remains outstretched from Egyptian to Egyptian, helping all manage from day to day.

Of course, this is also partly the problem. The country needs a long term economic plan and new social mechanisms to compete and thrive in the 21st century, not just this organic form of care. Poverty, ignorance, and many archaic and oppressive norms continue to plague the country and thwart new development.

Despite this harsh reality, there remain lessons to be learned for the rest of us. Unlike in the West, and even in some Middle Eastern countries, many basic emotional needs are met in Egypt day-to-day. The once-powerful civilization has also left its distant imprint in the sense of belonging to greater context, and to each other. These are two golden strands of human potential amidst Cairo´s brown and dusty chaos. Somehow it still seems more fundamentally human than the cold towers and technological efficiencies of more modern realms.