Dark As Watchmaker

This blog post, a couple of years old, is a tribute to Alan Moore’s genius story-telling technique in the graphic novel, The Watchmen, and its contemplation of  fate, lost time, perception, and the question of who makes the world.

It’s all written in the present tense, mainly because time, past, present and future, run parallel to each other as they do in one of the character’s head, Dr Manhattan’s, so ‘tense’ becomes obsolete. What was is still is and still will be.

The post was previously password-protected but now I’m ready to publish it.

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The cell phone is in my hand.

It’s ringing, he’s calling me, I’m in Beirut, it’s a cold evening in early February 2010.

In twelve seconds time, I answer the phone. I already picked up twelve seconds into the future. Ten seconds now.

The phone is in my hand.

I rediscovered this memory a night earlier, eyes landing on my phone as it lay quietly on the desk, while I was sitting in bed, having trouble sleeping, staring at a glaring laptop screen, sixteen hours ago.

It’s still there, sixteen hours into the past, on the desk, in my room. I’m still there looking at it.

The phone is in my hand. His name, followed by the word “Sweetheart”, appears on the screen, it’s ringing. Seven seconds now.

It’s 14 June 2010, I’m in Cairo. It’s February 2010, I’m in Beirut. Four seconds. Three. I’m tired of looking at his name as the phone rings. I press the “Yes” button to take the call. The memory fades.

I’m now looking at his photograph, the one taken in Siwa, beneath the stars. The stars are so far away, and their light takes so long to reach us. All we ever see of stars are their old photographs.

I’m two hundred and twenty-seven million kilometers from the sun. Its light is already ten minutes old. It will not reach Pluto for another two hours. Two hours into my future, I’m watching a movie with friends, thinking about my lost dreams and tomorrow’s work deadline. Twelve seconds into my past, I’m looking at his photograph, taken beneath the stars.

My father didn’t repair watches. No one in my family did. If anyone had done, we would perhaps appreciate precision, found in clockwork, in the sky. In the year 2000, I sit in the American University in Cairo’s library, fascinated by a psychology book I’m reading. I’m 19 years old.

It is 2010. I’m in my house. I’m 29 years old.

His photograph is in my hand, he sits beneath the stars. He liked watching the stars admiring their complex trajectories, through space, through time.

As if he was trying to give a name to the force that set them in motion

It’s the fall of 2000, it’s cold in the library, and I’m holding a book, “Theories of Personality”, a classmate stops to say hello. A conversation ensues, and he sits down. He complains about English class, then asks for help in brainstorming for his next essay. I offer help but we end up talking, not about his essay, but religion, martial arts, horseback riding, my dream of flying planes on my own and his philosophy of life. I note his dark skin, his ripped arms bronze and glowing, his eyes dark brown. Two months after that encounter, I start falling in love with him. Two months before I fall in love, it starts raining in downtown, on the American University in Cairo, I can see the raindrops through the library glass as I talk to him. Ten years ago.

One hundred and fifteen minutes into the future, the sun starts setting and it’s still scorching hot. In 2010 I’m at Guildhall in London throwing my cap in the air, celebrating my graduation. Anna’s father flashes his camera to capture the moment. In 2000, I’m at the American University in Cairo, in the library.

The rain is falling.

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I’m 28 years old. It’s October 2009. I sit with him talking, about religion, atheism, God, the desert, dentists, Lord of the Rings, Communism, British comedies and the joys of living in Europe. My head is crowded with things to say. The conversation flows like a river, fascinating me one drop at a time. There’s a sudden sensation of Deja Vu: I’ve had this conversation before … except that I was innocent back then, and there was rain pouring on the glass windows of the library, in downtown AUC. The illusion vanishes, almost before it has registered.

It’s February 2010, we buy a Fairouz CD and as we reach for the CD player our fingers touch. It’s January 2010, and I’m sleeping as he’s driving around with his car around Maadi. He didn’t want to wake me up, he says I looked so peaceful as I slept. He says he was happy watching me sleep.

It’s March 2010, he’s holding my hands tightly, consoling me, after an argument, our tenderness in direct proportion to its violence. It’s late January 2010, we’re in the desert, he’s climbing a mountain, higher and higher up and I couldn’t follow; I was too afraid. I wish I did. It’s June 2010, I’m tearful as I write him an email saying it’s over, that even our friendship cannot be saved. I’m thinking perhaps I will find no one as good, or perhaps I’ll die of heartbreak.

Two years later I genuinely wonder why he ever caught my attention in the first place. And why the love was gone.

It’s December 2010, I’m swearing I’m not the same person he loved and lost a few years back. I’m promising him, “I’m a different person now. I’ve changed. And I will never cut you off again.” It’s May 2010, a Saturday, my phone is ringing and I’m not answering his calls.

It’s February 2010, he’s telling me of big plans that may make him travel for months and I worry because life will be hard without him. Again. It’s March 2010, and I’m sobbing on the phone as I tell him I’m lonely even when he’s around, that he doesn’t know how to make me happy. It’s January 2010, and I joked that if he leaves, “I’ll just cry my eyes out continuously for a couple of months, then die of depression a few years later.”

He laughs. And as he does, I can hear him shouting at me in April 2010, pressing his foot on the accelerator as he drove, threatening, “you want to go home and end it now? Fine. I’ll take you home. And it’s over” as I weep. In February 2010, I confess to him that I love him.

Again

It’s 2000, and it’s the first time we tell each other we have feelings, confess that we’re more than just friends. Our fingers interlock. Three years later he marries another woman, and smiles beautifully for the wedding pictures as he holds her hands. In 2000, he told me we will live on his farm together, forever. In 2003, I kissed his forehead, during his wedding party, smiled big and told him, “Don’t worry. I have moved on too.” Forget me, I said then walked away.

In 2006, I still hadn’t moved on. 2007. 2008. 2009.

Ten.

It’s 14 June 2010.

My fingers are frozen.

His photograph, in Siwa, taken beneath the stars, is in my hands.

And I was gone. Gone back to my lonely world. Gone to the desert. Gone to a place without clocks, without seasons, without hour glasses, to trap the shifting golden sands. Below me, in the sand, the secret shape of my creation is concealed, buried in the sand’s future. My mind rises into thin air.

A world grows up around me. Am I shaping it, or do its predetermined contours guide my hand?

In 2000, love was blossoming in my heart for the first time, the rain was falling on downtown carelessly … In 2010, I’m looking at his photograph, in Siwa, taken beneath the stars, wishing we could be friends again.

Or that we’d never met.

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Without me, things would have been different. If I hadn’t told him about my psychology book “Theories of Personality” and asked him to elaborate more on his dream of setting up a farm, if I hadn’t randomly asked him if he wanted to borrow my filmmaking books on Twitter 10 years later.

Am I to blame then? Or him? Or the Psychology Book, “Theories of Personality”? Or Twitter for brining us together?

Which of us is responsible?

Who makes the world?

Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there. I’m sitting at my computer, typing, as a glass of milk rests on the desk nearby.

The light of two hours past will just be reaching Pluto

If they have strong telescopes there, they can see me. The photograph, taken beneath the stars, in Siwa, in my hand.

It’s February 2010, I’m standing in a hotel room in Beirut, answering the phone, but I let it ring for too long, he has hung up, I have no credit to call him back. I want to hear his voice. But it’s too late, always has been, always will be too late.

Above the Gilf El Kebir, jewels in a makerless mechanism, the first stars are starting to fall.

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Listening to: No Cars Go, Maxence Cyrin,
and parts of the The Fountain soundtrack
and Society, Eddie Vedder
and Une Chanson pour tout dire, Eli et Pappilon
and Time after Time, Eva Cassidy
Mood:  indifferent, a little nostalgic, calm 

**Note: This is inspired by the graphic novel The Watchmen, and takes many of its words from Chapter IV titled Watchmaker, where Dr Manhattan meditates on time, and memory. Some of those lines are copied word by word from the book. Some are made up or altered to fit my story. It’s a tribute to Alain Moore’s genius story-telling techniques and to Watchmen’s contemplation of fate, lost time, and the question of “who makes the world?” And what makes things as they are. It is all written in the present tense, mainly because time, past, present and future, run parallel to each other in Dr Manhattan’s head, so tense is obsolete. What was is still is and still will be. Moore jumps between years in the telling, and in my case, I’m jumping back and forth between months and years, so I go from February to March, back to January again, jumping next to May, on and so forth. I hope it’s not confusing to the reader (and perhaps it should be confusing … as time is, as memories are). Hope you enjoyed it! Beware of one thing though, Dr Manhattan writes this as he sits on Mars, not Earth, so the time calculations of how many hours it takes for light of sun to reach us, and all that, reflects his position in space not mine.

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The Buddha: The State Before an Explosion

Some books recounting the life of Buddha, especially of Western origin, tell the story of Prince Siddharta Guatama like a fairy tale, a myth.

Not this play, by Paul Carus.

It thoroughly dwells on the mood and the state of mind of Buddha before the enlightenment, before the mystical transformation, the crossing of man from the realm of humans to the realm of gods.

Art source: interactive.wxxi.org

Art source: interactive.wxxi.org

In some tales, Buddha is depicted as a one-dimensional character, shielded from the idea of suffering. His predicament begins after he accidently witnesses a funeral, signs of old age, and a sick man, all in one day, in additiong to glimpsing a monk, a man of God who seemed detached from the world, after which he decides to leave the palace of his father (the King) in search for answers.

But Carus takes us into the mind of the Buddha, before he became one, and hints that his journey had started long before that fated encounter with death, sickness, and decay. It started when Buddha became disenchanted with the old gods, realizing they brought him no peace, when his mind started to wander outside of the walls of the palace, long before his body did.

Carus puts it simply, speaking of Buddha’s first step on the path, he says “He ponders on the problems of the world. He ponders on life’s meaning much, investigates the origin of things.”

But those around Buddha were worried; they didn’t understand what burdened his heart. He had a wife, riches, a new-born son, and a “religion” that should save him. In vain, they tried to pull him back into their world.

But apart from spiritual and mental burdens, on the personal level, I find great signficance in the fact that we get to see through this play that enlightnment does not begin with a desire for knowing but begins with character.

One needs to carry certain attributes … before God or the Light could ever enter him or her, before they ever decide that departure from their old world is essential.

Enlightened beings are not born in piety but in revolution; awakening comes first in recognizing one’s need to stray from the crowd, come what may. Enlightenment begins with a measure of indepenence, and a fierceness in refusing false security and authority.

And as we see, social norms and the powers that be, embodied in Visakha the minister of state in this play, fights this blossoming independence with all their might.

Why?

Because free thought is “dangerous,” because in Visakha’s words, it’s a threat to “the sanctioned order of our institutions,” says he, who is at once a man of state and a man appointed to guard the religious institution of the time.

A man, like Buddha, who rejects the socially accepted, government-sanctioned godly “practices” and views of the time is bound above all, to leave “the Brahman ritual in deep contempt.” The Brahmans were the priests of the ancient Hindu/Vedic religion, who were responsible for ritualistic sacrifice. They were the first to fight Buddha tooth and nail post-enlightenment.

God has no place in Visakha’s arguments, or the Brahmans’. It’s order that concerns them; mainting the distinction between ranks of this Hindu echelon. It’s about running a tight ship; it is as simple as that.

Those who have not experienced such turmoil that Carus speaks of when he speaks of Buddha––the God-shaped void and the need for answers, or more likely the right questions––or never faced such resistance by the Visakhas of the world may never know how it feels.

For those who do or did, the following may be relatable.

From the play “Buddha: A Drama in Five Acts” by Paul Carus:

Suddhodana, the king [Buddha’s father]: My son Siddhartha [Buddha’s name before enlightenment] truly loves his wife,

And since their wedlock has been blessed by this

Sweet, promising, this hale and healthy child,

His melancholy will give way to joy,

And we reclaim his noble energies

To do good service for our race and state.

New interests and new duties give new courage

And thus this babe will prove his father’s saviour

For he will tie his soul to life again.

Pajapati, the queen [the King’s wife but not Sidharta’s mother]: I fear his grief lies deeper than you think

Suddhodana, the king: What sayest thou, my trusty counselor?

Visakha, the minister of state: This is the last hope which I have for him,

I followed your advise and tried all means

To cure Siddhartha of his pensive mood.

I taught him all that will appeal to man:

The sports of youth, the joy of poetry

And art, the grandeur of our ancient lore,

The pleasures even of wanton sense; but naught

Would satisfy the yearnings of his heart.

Suddhodana, the king: Yet for religion he shows interest: He ponders on the problems of the world.

Visakha, the minister of state: Indeed he ponders on life’s meaning much,

Investigates the origin of things.

But irreligious are his ways of thought.

He shows no reverence for Issara,

And Indra is to him a fairy tale.

He grudgeth to the gods a sacrifice.

And sheddeth tears at immolated lambs.

Oh no! he’s not religious. If he were,

His ills could easily be cured by faith,

By confidence in Issara, the Lord.

Suddhodana, the king: What then is your opinion of the case?

Visakha, the minister of state: Siddhartha is a youth of rarest worth,

And he surpasseth men in every virtue

Except in one. ––He is too independent:

He recognizeth no authority,

Neither of men nor gods.

He suffereth

[More and more impressively]

From the incurable disease of thought.

Suddhodana, the king: Cure thought with thought, teach him philosophy,

Show him the purpose of our holy writ.

Instruct him in the meaning of the Vedas,

Reveal to him their esoteric sense.

Visakha, the minister of state: My lord, I did, but he is critical,

He makes objections and will not believe.

He raises questions which I cannot answer,

And his conclusions are most dangerous.

Pajapati, the queen: It seems to me that you exaggerate;

Siddartha is not dangerous.

He is As gentle as my sister was, his mother,

And almost overkind to ever one.

Visakha, the minister of state: I know, my gracious lady, but even kindness

May harmful be, if it is out of place.

Suddhodana, the king: I see no danger in his gentle nature.

Visakha, the minister of state: But he lacks strength, decision, warlike spirit.

Suddhodana, the king: That cometh with maturer years.

Visakha, the minister of state: I doubt it ––

Your so, my Lord, not only hath no faith In holy writ, neither does he believe

In caste-distinction, and he would upset

The sanctioned order of our institutions.

He would abolish sacrifice and holdeth

The Brahman ritual in deep contempt.

Suddhodana, the king: Your words alarm me.

Visakha, the minister of state: Rightly so; I fear

That he will stir the people to rebellion;

But since a child is born to him, his mind

May turn from dreams to practical affairs.

There are some men who care not for themselves,

Who scorn high caste, position, wealth and honor,

So far as they themselves may be concerned,

But they are anxious for their children’s fortune,

And so Siddhartha soon may change his views.

Suddhodana, the king: Let us be patient for a while yet longer.

Keep everything unpleasant out of sight,

Invite him merry company. Remove

His gloomy cousin Devadatta. He tries

To reach a state of bliss by fasts,

His very play is penance and contrition.

……….

I leave you with this thought. Peace and Amituofo.

Note: According to lore, Buddha lost his mother either in childbirth or when he was a week old, and was raised by his aunt. So the queen in this play is his father’s wife or his aunt, but not this mother.

This is the second post in a series by yours truly meditating on the life of Buddha. The first is right here.

The memory of the intellect & the eyes

“Voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect and the eyes, [gives] us only imprecise facsimiles of the past which no more resemble it than pictures by bad painters resemble the spring … So we don’t believe that life is beautiful because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.”

— Marcel Proust

Listening to … nothing, cos I’m in a hurry and I have to head out
Mood: refreshed thanks to a cold shower

Decoding suffering

If you suffer, and you will (because who doesn’t?), then do it successfully, according to both Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. Drenched in sorrows, it’s easier of course to stay in bed, jump off a bridge than write a philosophy book. If you plan on ending your suffering once and for all (through say, setting yourself on fire, or drowning yourself in the bath tub), then fine, don’t try and get creative with how to ache. But if you’re not, you might as well use suffering to your benefit, either by creating a blog to tell about your experience, writing songs that breaks people’s hearts as yours have once been broken, becoming a motivational speaker, researching your pain and what it means, being inquisitive about life and the ‘big questions,’ whatever, the choices are endless. Proust chose to write books.

Proust was often sick, was unlucky in love and romantically pessimistic, un-comprehended by friends, over-protected by his mother, ignored by his father, had a failed career in theatre, but all this, if anything, has made him sensitive to the pains of others, and most importantly creative. He wrote: “A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to study the phenomenon of memory.” According to de Botton, “Proust’s suggestion is that we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. It follows that ideas that have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation.”

Proust says, “Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” He adds: “A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.”

I know what he means. During a bout of depression, I wrote a short screenplay that I still think could be developed and could perhaps stand a chance on screen in one of those days. When I’m grieving, my head is usually full of ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise crossed my mind. I can guarantee that most stories, poetry and songs that touched us hide wells of pain.

But what a price!

And this comes to mind when I remember tales of genius marred by conflict, manic-depression, drug use, unhealthy obsessions, suicide, heart-break and chronic grief. Virginia Woolfe, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (without his explosive on-again-off-again relationship with Consuelo, world war, loneliness, perhaps the Little Prince would not have come out), Hemingway, Picasso, Mozart, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and if you will, Kurt Cobain and Eminem (sorry, but his songs get to me).

This leads me to a question that I have asked many times before: do we have to suffer in order to rise? Is it the old story of dying on the cross in order to transcend our ego and flesh, and become gods?

But that’s not what de Botton means of course. I’ve strayed a bit here. I believe his argument is, if you’re suffering anyway, you might as well learn, grow and create as you do. He says, “The moral? To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals.”

In addition, now in the words of Proust himself, “Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart.”

Listening to Abbady Al Johar here (not for the broken-hearted or the distraught, lyrics beautiful tho) there, there, and there. This too (lyrics here) and finally this very heartfelt song (and words).
Mood: sombre

Recommended:
Alain de Botton’s On Love/Essays In Love
Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life

Of finger-placing & the consolation of words

“I never expressed a desire to break up with her except when I was unable to do without her,” Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time.

I came across this quote in Alain de Botton‘s book How Proust Can Change You Life which I’d just begun reading. In the second chapter, titled How to Read for Yourself, the author talks about how literature can make us feel at home everywhere, and cure us from loneliness if we find shades of ourselves and those we know in the characters we read about. His argument is, it expresses our deepest desires and our feelings far better than we would have, and it makes our antics and suppressed thoughts and unmentioned emotions more human. It teaches us we’re not alone in feeling or thinking this or that.

I related, finishing On Love only a couple of days earlier, I knew exactly what both Proust and de Botton meant.

Immediately, it brought to my memory a scene from the British play turned film The History Boys, when one of the professors explains to his student the value in reading about a similar experience:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

Going back to the friends who’re here to stay, which are my books, I’ve felt exactly that at times, that a hand was taking mine and squeezing it tightly, telling me I’m after all normal.

Listening to A Mansion Has Many Rooms, by Grail
and Bright, Bright, Bright by Dark, Dark, Dark
Mood: Pensive

From Robert Twigger’s Lost Oasis

I typed up here the bits that touched or inspired me when I read them. I have only just started the book, so I suspect I’ll be updating this post as I read more.

“The desert was about the void, the zero point, shrinking yourself and your concerns in the immensity and emptiness of it all. The desert was about a definite psychological need for vastness in the face of human confusion, brain fatigue. Mind-bothered Western man can take drugs, alter his lifestyle, turn off the television, pierce his body or run a marathon, it all amounts to just so much therapy to keep him loping along the same track towards the inevitable finishing post. I saw the desert as a huge right turn, a different path, another way out of what everyone was into, the money, goods and attention conflicts of the current century. The desert cured the malaise, not just the symptoms. Somehow the vastness of the desert signalled the infinite present, nowness, headspace, instant immortality.”

“When the wind is low the desert is especially quiet. Noise, especially when you live somewhere constantly noisy like Cairo (it’s a gripe of filmmakers that Cairo is bad for filming because of the constant hum, whatever time of early morning you try to film you can never be rid of that deep city resonance, sixteen million people, the biggest city in Africa, just humming, humans making a noise like a giant hive; it was the reason I heard the English Patient wasn’t filmed in Egypt, the Cairo hum, always there, ruining any direct sound recording) you get so used to noise that when it’s not there you feel your body starting to expand, as if gravity is weaker, as if the lack of noise is causing your body parts, no, your very cells, to fly apart. It’s almost unbearable, just for a moment, before you get a grip and relabel it ‘relaxing’ or ‘absence of tension’, but the first few minutes when it hits you it’s terrifying, you begin to doubt that you’ll hold together. If feels as if without noise we will perish and expand, with the pressure off we’ll be like astronauts in punctured suits.”

“Now I was safe I could reflect on the intense burst of loneliness I’d felt, like the distilled essence of loneliness … Did I want to continue with this game? People who hate the desert – and there are plenty – must intuit this feeling before even visiting the place and, knowing it, leave well alone. But I was glad. It meant the desert, however man tamed it with cars and cool-boxes and GPS machines, still had teeth, was still a wild place where man went at his peril, had to have his wits about him. Man’s instinct is to diminish the desert, reduce its dangers, build a town at the oasis and connect it by phone, rail, air and truck to the next oasis. I wanted to reduce its dangers too, but only so far. In the past you’d be limited by what was available — camels and leaky water skins. Desert dwellers, the tebu, Bedouin and Tuareg, had all learnt to live with this fear. You would be judged irresponsible, by modern standards, if you wanted to recreate that danger, that balance of fear and possibility.”

The book itself can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Oasis-Adventures-Egyptian-Desert/dp/0753824051/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274553100&sr=8-1

And this is Twigger’s Explorer’s School: http://www.theexplorerschool.com/