The Man in the Bookstore

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You hear about it sometimes.  You see it in movies, read about it in works of fiction.

You never thought it would happen to you.

You never imagined you would walk into a bookstore, browse languorously in the poetry section and end up having an hour long conversation with a total stranger about the kind of words you both love.  You didn’t think instances like this existed outside of anecdotes.  But they do, and now you have one to share too.

You can now tell people how, while holding on to a Lorrie Moore novel you’ve been meaning to read, you were tapped on the shoulder gently and told, ‘You’re going to love that book. It’s one of my favourites.’  You can reminisce on how you responded with surprised but suppressed glee and told this man that Moore is one of your favourite writers, one that has greatly influenced your own writing style.  You can recount how you both then stood in the poetry aisle in companionable silence, which was soon broken by him picking out a slim anthology from the racks and asking you if you’ve ever read anything like it.

You can narrate then how responded in the negative but launched into a tirade about the kind of poetry you do enjoy, about how Zbigniew Herbert gives you goosebumps and Jack Gilbert makes you want to sit on a bench under a tree and weep.  You can tell people about the stories this man told you, about the poetry festival he organises and the many great writers and poets he’s interacted with.  You can smilingly share with them what you shared with him, that words will always be your first love, no matter where you go or what you do; that even though your career path has nothing to do with stanzas and plots, it’s what you think about and indulge in on your daily commute across the Charles and the small hazy window of time right before you fall asleep every night.

You can elaborate on the characters he told you about, the Moroccan store-owner who speaks a new language every time they meet or the owner of a Central Square tavern who happily displays this man’s artwork, the artwork you were amazed to hear about because of its sheer simplicity of it being a collection of pieces made up of broken and discarded bits of picture frames.  You can tell people of how stunned you were to hear about this, and how it only added to the beauty of the strange but welcome encounter.  If you are interrupted, you can veer the conversation back with another quiet but simple story he shared with you about one of his favourite poets, who writes about a refugee who, at displacement, took his house door off its hinges to take it with himself to wherever he was going next.  You can go into detail the way this man did about how this refugee, if he ever returns, will reattach the withered door to his old home to solidify his return; or will place this old door to wherever he settles next and will build his new home around it, to remember the foundation of where he came from.

You can muse on how this stunning story touched you because you could relate, because you have been displaced your whole life and have no doors to carry, only the idea of something that could feel like home but has yet to be discovered.  You can tell people how you asked this man more about this poet he loves, and in return, told him about a poet you love, a poet whose writing is so frenzied and manic you feel like you’re helplessly dancing along to a rhythm so remarkably fast your feet ache to catch up.

You could go on. But you won’t. You don’t need to tell anyone you bought all the books he pointed to, including one by the poet he loves.  You don’t need to tell them how you walked into this bookstore because your soul was down and the only thing that could revive it was some old-fashioned make-believe. You experienced something sacred today, something that added a bounce back into your step, something that made you grateful for who you are and where you are, something that reminded you that there is still magic in the world, even if it is just in a bookstore around the corner.

 

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‘Do Tell’ by Richard Hoffman

 

 

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No Culture in Dubai? Come to Emirates Lit Fest. For Ben Okri.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve been a bit starved for intellectual conversation in Dubai.

Since moving back here 7 months ago, I’ve been on the lookout for anything that can get me cerebrally turned on.  There are some great folks in the city, certainly, but most events in Dubai labelled as ‘cultural’ or ‘artistic’ attract the same type of footfall.  There are only so many vapid, self-involved people you can meet before you decide to give up and just stay in and watch re-runs of Friends.

All hope, however, is not lost. Lo and behold the Emirates Lit Fest!

Granted, I don’t think all the authors invited for it (and the list is rather long) are the cat’s pajamas but I’ll stop nitpicking long enough to rejoice that YES, THERE IS CULTURE IN DUBAI (…only when it is imported, but it’s a start).

Today was the 4th day of the festival.  The venue was crowded, lots of bookworms milling about, hoping to find a last-minute ticket to the Jeffrey Archer session, which was sold out soon after it went on sale. Thankfully, I didn’t even dream of wanting to attend that one.

What I was looking forward to was catching the talk and reading by Ben Okri, and oh, what a delight it was!  The man is a wonderful speaker: soft, thoughtful, and eloquent with words that seem to just glide into the ether and linger there for a while so you can savour them before digesting what they are trying to convey.

His bio is impressive: a Booker prize, novels, short-story/poetry collections, books of essays, even a comparison that denotes him the African counterpart of Marquez and Rushdie.  His demeanor, however, was absent of any grandeur and he spoke about some truly wonderful notions surrounding literature.  From five pages of notes that I was compulsively scribbling down, there are a plethora of things that really stuck with me.

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On being called an ‘African’ writer, Okri shook his head and commented that a people and what they mean cannot be confined to simply one place. With literature, geography becomes transnational.  As a teenager, he would devour Plato while his father would often gesture around him with his hands and comment ‘We have our own Platos.’ (Isn’t that just the loveliest image/line?)

The African (and here I could easily insert Pakistani or South Asian, and it would make just as much sense) philosophy and way of seeing reality are in the air.  The spirit of a place and its people are not separate from the way in which we live our lives.  Thus, writers who write only of where they are from, or who are labelled as where they are from, pose a severe limitation to the scope of what is being written.  Where you are from is already implied in your writing as a default, there is no need to make a deliberate effort.

This particular idea really resonated with me.  It’s something we often debated in Bilal Tanweer’s workshops at LUMS, the concept of writing ‘ethnic lit’ and representing Pakistan. Making an effort gives you prose that is exoticizing and simply trying too hard, with long English descriptions of the simplest of things such as a paratha (“round, flat bread, fried to a rich golden brown”?) sounding like a justification or an over-explanation for what is normally just a part of your culture that you don’t think twice about. A paratha is a paratha.

Expanding on the burden of representing Africa in his writing, Okri used a great little analogy.  We do not find Shakespeare interesting because of his English-ness, we read him because of his humanity.  When you read a writer, think beyond their identity and their labels. To approach a piece of writing with a set prejudice in mind is to do it a great disservice.  “One of the most effective ways of overcoming prejudice is to write well.  Conflicts of the world would be so much easier to deal with if we just read each other.”

Okri also spoke at length about childhood.  He described that phase of time as an unusual way of seeing significance in insignificance, a teacher of openness. “If you want to know what a nation is like, look at how they treat their children.”  As we grow older, this is what we lose. It becomes difficult to see.

This reminded me a lot of what William Wordsworth puts forth in his poems (Tintern Abbey, and Ode to Intimations of Immortality).  He explores childhood as a time when our connection to nature is at its most pristine.  Equating Nature with the divine also implies that in childhood, our connection to that which is beyond us is unblemished.  Childhood is that idealized state in which a simple sight such as that of a rainbow can excite the mind in wondrous ways.  We lose that sense of awe and wonder as we grow older.  There was this beautiful moment in the Q&A after the talk when a young girl asked Okri, “What advice would you give to children about writing?”  He was flummoxed into silence fro a few minutes before thoughtfully responding, “Read.  Read as much and as often as you can. Write, of course, write but read because that comes first.” He paused to ponder before continuing on, “There are moments when Mom or Dad say something amazing. Remember them.” He settled back in his seat and the audience began to applaud.  He sat up again and interrupted the moderator to continue, with widened eyes and a feigned look of wonder, “You know that feeling when you see something or someone for the first time? Never lose that.”  Needless to say, the entire audience aww-ed and sighed in pleasure.

I also really liked what Okri had to say on ideas.  He likened an idea to a seed, it may be small but it contains the potential to be an oak tree. (A lot like Shariati’s idea of the 0 and the 1.) The logic of your idea pours out once you start writing and that is the best kind of writing, that which calls forth out of your soul.  A novel doesn’t just happen all at once.  “A novel visits you, in a glimpse.  Maybe it’s just a glimpse of a woman walking down the street, but what a woman and what a street!”

He described himself as an obsessive re-writer.  You cannot know, he said, if a sentence works unless you literally and with full consciousness go over every single word.  “The process is sickening.” It requires what Chekhov called the “coldness of the eye”, a sort of distancing yourself from your creation in order to critique it.  But this is far from easy.

Personally, I abhor going back to stuff I’ve written in order to edit or re-write.  What you write is like your baby, you;re protective of it, you’re halfway in love with it, and incredibly resistant to altering it in any way but it’s necessary.  Being secure as a writer is impossible. How can you be secure in a way of being that deals with the most intangible of things? As Okri put it, “Insecurity is a punishment from the gods for the effrontery you commit for wanting to create.”

How gorgeous is that line? Soak it in.

Needless to say, the session was exactly what my soul needed.  There are not a whole of other writers I’m particularly looking forward to meeting and hearing, but Ben Okri was definitely one of the highlights.  Here are a few bit from some of his poems:

We have broken the night.

The night yields in the rock.

Night leaps out from our hands.

The night has left the sky

As fire and power in our hands.

As a strong shape.

The world is ours at last.

 

We are as the gods dream.

Haven’t we broken the mountain

And shaped the world

In our own hands, to bend and crack

And change it into form and dream?

 

We have become more than we seem.

 

Not sure which poem this was from, but I loved this particular stanza.  Made me think of Karachi:

Our future.

Who can read it,

save the Gods.

But they are quiet now.

They are quiet

now.

 

And this one:

I held you in the square

and felt the evening

re-order itself around

your smile.

 

I could keep gushing about Okri. So I’ll stop now and start reading the collection of his essays that I bought today, ‘A Time for New Dreams’. Indeed.

Writing, my coy mistress

I haven’t done any writing in a while.  And by writing, I mean fiction, creative writing, the field that is supposed to be my vocation in life, the thought of which should be governing my career.

Sure, I work as a content writer, so it’s not like I’m completely cut-off from words, but really, to define describing shoes, clothes and jewelry as ‘writing’ would be sacrilege.

I feel horribly guilty about it.  I can picture myself, just a few months ago, reassuring my Professors that, of course, I wouldn’t stop writing, of course I’ll always take out time for it, of course I won’t get distracted by the pressures of a working life in Dubai.  But it happened.  Between commuting to/from work, getting some exercise in and trying to have a semblance of a good night’s sleep, I’m left with very little time, which I like to utilize by watching some trash tv which simply requires a bit effort from just my eyes and not from my brain.  My social, physical, and literary lives have all taken a nasty hit from employment. Boo for jobs, boo for having to be an adult, hurrah for paychecks!

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It’s not like it hasn’t occurred to me that I should just shut up and write.  It has.  Plenty of times.  But every time, my mind conjures up an excuse on its own, usually something along the lines of “Oh, you’ve been up since 6 am, you’re mentally exhausted, how can you focus on anything right now?’  What I always seem to forget is that, this precisely is the condition in which I’ve gotten some of my best writing done.  Flashback: 5 am on the terrace of the dorms, pacing back and forth, and trying to come up with a good enough reason for why exactly a man in his red underwear is standing in front of the children’s room.  Few minutes later, excitedly typing.  An hour later, 1500 words churned out and proofread.

There is really no feeling that compares to the satisfaction and relief you feel after you’ve finished a piece of writing.  Before you start, you’re mostly hopeful and have some sort of vague idea about what you’ll pen down.  During the process, your anxiety levels rocket up, you’re flailing about, trying to piece together a narrative and feeling a little ridiculous that you have the responsibility of charting out a character’s life when your own is like an emotional war zone. If you’re a nail-biter, you can say goodbye to manicures for at least 3 months.  But after, right after you’ve typed the last letter, your body literally sighs.  It goes a bit lax and the frantic, demonic energy that was fueling you all night long peters out into a puff of smoke, and you feel satiated.  It’s kind of like taking a sip of Coke after you haven’t had it for a while.  Almost, but not really.  Of course, you realize you have to proofread and maybe shift some sentences around, tweak the structure a bit, but that’s a bit like putting blush on.  It’s juts a small, almost frivolous step, an easy-peasy finishing touch to the smokey-eye dewy-skin look you’ve spent the past half an hour trying to create for yourself.

God, I miss that high.

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Ah, the pretension of aspiring authors. I used to roll my eyes at them, and now I crave their company!

Dubai, the weather, and the slothful life

I am FINALLY back in Dubai again.  I don’t think I had ever been so homesick as I had been the past couple of months.  I am just really relieved that the summer semesteris over and that I finally have some free time to spend doing anything, or nothing at all.  Note to self: do not unnecessarily take an extra semester when you have no practical need to do so. 

It’s funny but I never thought I would actually ever acceot the idea of Dubai being ‘home’ but I guess that is what its become.  I can keep denying it, but it’s where my family is, where I went to high-school, and where I have about a million memories of doing all sorts ofthings all across the city.  I will always still think of Toronto as a hometown but perhaps it’s time Dubai got a small sliver of space as well, eh?  Plus, it just makes me sound oh so global to have two cosmopolitans as my hometowns 😛  A citizen of the world, indeed!

I think the stifling heat of Lahore really got to me.  Sure, it’s hot in Dubai too but at least here, I don’t need to walk under the scorching sun across and all over campus to get to classes or go to the store.  Plus, there’s that main advantage of being in an air-conditioned environment without having to worry about power shortages.  So yea, Dubai heat is bearable mostly because I don’t have to deal with it, unlike that of Lahore, which hits me in thefaceand pretty much just stays there all day, every day.

Now I know I sound like a broken record, and I am sure there are about 15 different entries on this blog that can prove this, but I WILL get some writing done this time around.  The shopping goes on non-stop anyway so there’s really no need to plan that but I do definitely aim to continue work on my story and hopefully either get another chapter done or atleast a dozen pages more so that it finally has some plot direction.  I shall not be a slacker or a bum, or at least not all the time; my PJ’s are just too comfy to deny the possibility of not lounging around in them indefinitely.  But NO! I shall do what I aim to, it WILL happen…starting tomorrow…as soon as I Google strategies to stay motivated…right after I check out the sales again…after watching all the movies stored in my laptop.  See, I do have a plan after all!

What is to be done?

The title of this post comes from a novel written by Nikolai Chernyshevky, a Russian philosopher who idealistically proposed in the 1860’s that educational reforms in Russia driven by the new-fangled intellectual ideas of the Western Europe, which emphasized science and secularism, would help to alleviate the mainly agricultural and Orthodox country’s economic and social problems.  Obviously this triggered the reactions of many conservative Russians, including Dostoyevsky, whose outstanding work Notes fron the Underground, can be seen as a retort to Chernyshevsky.  I love the fact that I know this and I miss being in a classroom or even social environment where I could learn more about this.

There is this dark dejection brewing inside of me.  I am not sure what caused it, but  its effects are not pretty.  Being around people annoys me, and yet I have nothing to do in my room.  There’s nothing to study and I’ll go blind if I watch any more tv shows or movies on my laptop.  I am not being intellectually stimulated at all nowadays, I feel like after the last semester there’s been a lull not only in my mind but in life in general over here.  It is summer after all, and the heat evokes lethargy and disinterest but that’s hardly a good enough excuse for not wanting to do ANYTHING.

I want to write, but nothing is really coming to me.  Before starting this post, I thought I might discuss Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and how his theory is really applicable to expats, specifically Pakistanis living abroad in the States or Europe.  I also thought I might talk about the shortstory I wrote last year and brainstorm on how to develop more characters and subplots so as to expand it into a novella.  I even started Googling stuff related to all this but I just can’t see the point. 

I wish I could take a Creative Writing workshop or something, but unfortunately, this city doesn’t have anything to offer in that department.  It’s a sad state of affairs that I hardly know anyone here who has any interest in creative writing, and it’s sadder still that the university hasn’t bothered yet to pay any attention towards increasing its Literature faculty beyond one or two members so far. 

There are a couple of books I could read but when I open to a page, the words get all muddled up in my head and I become resentful.  The sentences are well-crafted and the plot is intriguinging and it all just reinforces this nagging idea in my head that I will never be able to create something like this.  I have become insecure about my fiction writing, mostly because I haven’t worked on it in almost a year, and this doubt just makes me less inclined towards doing anything to solve this dilemma of mine.  I feel like writing because I miss the adrenaline rush that I would get after typing out page after page of something that had the potential to be something really great but at the same time, I also feel like I don’t have it in me anymore, that all I can produce now is mediocrity.  Such a paradox.

Nature vs Nurture: is a skill acquired or inherent?

It’s an infamously controversial topic that’s been debated upon by a plethora of thinkers, philosophers and just people in general. 

In some way or another, we’ve all thought about this.  How often have you wondered about a certain skill you possess, whether you were born with it or if you acquired it through learning and practice?  For me, I always thought whether writing was something that naturally just came to me or whether I developed a knack for it because of the amount of reading I began to do at a young age.

Although many people claim that geniuses like Mozart or Michaelangelo were born with the innate ability to create musical and artistic masterpieces, it turns out that neither one of them would have been able to do so had they not gone through rigorous training and practice of that specific skill.  I mean, if Michaelangelo had instead been forced to become a clergyman by his father and not allowed to do apprenticeships with established artists, then it is very likely that many of his works would have never come into existence at all.

A skill is acquired, it is developed through the interaction with people and an environment that provides the opportunities for the cultivation of that skill.  It is not innate or contained within the genetic code of man, for if that were the case, there would be no such thing as the downfall or decline of empires and civilizations because progress and development would be neverending.  Certainly, the genetic code of a person may play a partial role, but the dominant position is taken up by that of practice.  It is not simply within the NATURE of man to become accomplished at something, but mostly through the process of NURTURE in a specific environment that enables him to do so.

In that case then, it seems that it could be possible for every single person to become a great singer if given the right amount of vocal training.  There are, of course, exceptions in the form of those who have physical impairments, but every single person definitely possess the potential to become a singer.  Each individual has a unique set of vocal chords and, if developed properly, they can enable a person to become the next Madonna.

I realise that writing was not something I was born to do, it’s not an ability that is inherent in me.  It did not naturally come to me, but it was a skill that I learned through practice.  I used to read A LOT as a kid, whether its a 300-page novel or a magazine or the daily newspaper, and this exposure to words and sentences became embedded in my mind so that when the time came to me form sentences myself, I was able to do so in a manner that surpassed the level I should have been at for my age. 

I remember being really interested in science and specifically chemistry when I was in grade 8, but in grade 9, I had a fantastic English teacher who appreciated my essays and my stories and made sure I knew that I definitely contained the potential to become a great writer.  She made me rethink my choices and made me aware of an alternative path that was available to me.  Had it not been for that, I think I probably would’ve continued on with my interest in chemistry. 

I made my decision then to study Art and Literature rather than the natural sciences and I have never looked back since.  Writing is something I enjoy doing and I definitely love it alot more than learning the chemical compounds of different substances.

Love, life and the meaning of it all

So the semester’s almost over and it marks the end of one of the most amazing courses I’ve had the opportunity to take at university so far.  A brilliant 4 months of intense philosophy with one of the most brilliant and maverick professors here, and I feel like nothing I could say would do justice to everything that I’ve learnt thus far.

From Viktor Frankl, al-Ghazali and St Augustine to Descartes, Tolstoy and the daddy of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, we’ve covered a little fraction of all the big names, just enough to get an idea of how they viewed life and the legacy they left behind for those who choose to adhere to their views. 

Despite their big names and even bigger controversial ideas or reputations, what’s really surprising is that there’s one thing that plagues them all: philosophers always require you to CHOOSE, and make an either/or distinction between 2 opposites.  It begs the question, why must that be the case? Utilitarianism or Kant-ianism, utopia or reality, faith or rationality: its either one or the other, but why?  Why is it that an individual HAS to choose to adopt one specific extreme and not in any way be within the ambit of another?

I suppose it’s also quite relatable to the dischotomous bond shared by science and religion: either you’re a man or reason and science and objectivity or you’re a ‘mullah’, who believes in revelation and all the ‘irrationality’ of the scriptures.  I don’t see how one can’t strike a balance between the two and maintain both positions.  Ibn Khaldun certainly managed to do so, he transformed the realm of historiography, was one of the founders of sociology and a presursor to many of the ideas propounded by Adam Smith, Marx and Durkheim 5 centuries after his death.  Yet, at the same time, he was a religious man, not a fundamentalist as we would call him today, but a man of firm faith who believed in prophetic wisdom and the omniscient power of the Divine. 

The meaning of life is also another subject that’s dominated much of this course.  It seems that the common conclusion between all the thinkers has been this: in order to find a ‘why’ for your existence, you must submit to the something larger than yourself.

Nietzsche talks about this in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ when he describes that the TRUE philosopher is one that trailblazes through the terrain of thoughts, constantly risking himself and upholding a principle that goes beyond just the man; in a sense, this is the ubermensch.   He also relates this to artists who become completely submissive to their creative side, they let themselves flow out in order to create something and do something that surpasses their own selves. Frankl discusses this as well in Man’s Search for Meaning, and that’s something I’ve already discussed before on here in detail.

But there is something that’s actually been bothering me, it has to do with Leo Tolstoy.  He was an artist, in the true sense of the word, because his writing was his art.  He’s written masterpieces, Anna Karenina and War and Peace and absolute tomes brimming with brilliance.  Yet, it wasn’t enough for him, it didn’t quite add meaning to his life the way one would expect.  In Confession, he admits that he did it simply to earn more money, garner more fame, etc. but surely it meant more to him than that?  I find it really difficult to believe that a writer like Tolstoy could not find satisfactory prupose in his writing, and this puzzles me, because if it wasnt enough for Tolstoy, then what chance does someone like me have?

Sure, Tolstoy went through a great conversion, and became a preachy-preachy Orthodox Christian, and much of his writing was affected by his austere religious views, but his words have a point.  If things like art and family are merely distractions that keep you from realising the true reason for your existence, then it’s a pretty miserable state we all live in because for most of us, those 2 things really are what life is all about.

Last but certainly not least: love.  This topic was one that evoked A LOT of giggles in the class, but it’s one that is universal and truly about everyone.  Many of us have Disney-inspired notions of love or we talk about love as if we really know what it’s all about, but in actuality, it’s something that’s completely beyond a layman’s comprehension.

For Frankl, love was the source of salvation; for St Augustine and Tolstoy, there was a difference in worldly love and divine love, with the latter outweighing the former; for Nietzsche, love is something a man could not do justice to, it is only a woman whose love is what love is meant to be. 

We’ve all said ‘I love you’ at some point of our lives, but what we fail to realise is what we really mean is ‘I want to possess you’.  This is not love as love should be. 

‘I allow you to possess me’ is love.  This is the selfless, the brave, the kamikaze, the absolutely absolute form of love that (if you listen to Nietzsche) only a woman can give.  In the absence of such love, there is no submission, no passion of struggle, and certainly no greatness.