Roadside Thoughts

»The path is lined with ideas,« said al-Jahiz a thousand years ago, and it’s a flawless fact. But – and how repulsive are the things we say after »but,« how they spoil the fun of reveling in the poetry that preceded them – those notions strewn along the roadside of which al-Jahiz talked were the prevailing ideas, the easy pickings, like flower pots by the door of a house or an Arabesque carving on a window frame. They were the scents that everyone inhales, the beautiful aromas that effortlessly intoxicate even bored tyrants and politicians, who first slander these ideas with their despicable tongues and their wretched brains and their hearts so empty of love, and then go on to distort them until their meaning gets lost along with the unique blueprint of their beauty. In other words, they rush to make the ideas fat-free and flavorless.

As for the truly great ideas, the really magnificent ones, they are also along the roadside, but they might be tucked away inside the heart of an exhausted man standing at a bus stop and coughing as if he’s about to die in an hour’s time, waiting to get to his workplace. If you want to glean this idea from him you’ll have to get on the overcrowded bus when he does, and stand with him in the throng – even if it’s so packed on there that you can only stand on one leg – and observe his presence in the crush. Maybe he’ll be suffocated by this idea of his, and he’ll die, and then you’ll have to follow him to the hospital or to his funeral and sit for long hours at his wake and compliment this person and frown at that person, until night falls and everyone sleeps and you’re able to go back to the cemetery and open the tomb to split the corpse’s chest open and get the idea out before it dies too, buried alive under the soil of the grave. For ideas die, and they rust away, they’re not gemstones or hidden pearls or precious metal. Ideas are born of their time and their circumstances, a product of life and its flareups, and also of its routine.

Walk a long way and you will find a lot of ideas – don’t forget to look out for them – strewn along the roadside.

My father and mother began their lives in a village near Deir Ez-Zor, in the east of Syria, and they spent their youth there too, in the 1930s and forties. The village was without electricity, as the electrical current had not yet spread beyond the cities and big residential settlements at that time. My father was lucky enough to get into the school that had recently been established, but my mother didn’t access her share of education. When they moved to the city at the end of the 1960s, their lives changed: technology and all the other products of modernity immediately began entering their life one after the other, and this has continued to this day. Nowadays they have smart phones and apps, and use social media to stay in touch with their children, who have been scattered by the war all over the world. So in this way, in just 65 years, my father and mother have moved from a life without electricity to a life with smart phones. My mother, who is illiterate, has begun not only sending pictures but audio messages to my phone, in which she recounts her memories, and tells stories from her life, even from her childhood. She also records songs (at my request, both for emotional reasons and for the sake of documentation) sung in her exquisite voice.

This is today’s world, a world in which time has become concentrated with such awesome and immense speed that it’s made the boundaries of time and space invisible, or let’s say not clearly delineated – wait, am I talking here about geography and the boundaries of place? Definitely, but that’s another more complicated story; what’s more important are the other boundaries, the boundaries of time, which have blurred, as each moment comes and annuls the moment before it, takes over the whole scene at great speed and occupies it completely before it too vanishes, giving its place over to the next moment. The boundary between knowledge and art has blurred, and the boundary between knowledge and its users has all but disappeared – it’s now possible for anyone with electricity and an Internet connection to search for and find whatever they want and make of it what they will. They can forget about it, if they want, or they can make use of it at some point in a piece of work: perhaps a book, a documentary film, comedy act, installation, or a visual or audio artwork. Their social media accounts will guarantee the work they produce spreads and is exhibited, reaching people as part of the formidable daily tsunami of productions displayed to us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Perhaps the word »disappeared« is a little extreme. Let’s just say that the boundaries have become less strict, and that shifting between one art form and another (or between one literary genre and another) has become more common. There is no longer a clear division between what is artistic and what is not, as everything has merged and drifted into in some vast barzakh – that mystical limbo between heaven and hell where we await judgment. In there you can no longer find the traditional views of art and literature clearly delineated in order to distinguish between them. Stuff that was not traditionally seen as artistic can now be worked on and presented as artistic output; it is now easy to transform short texts or diary entries composed in haste and published instantaneously on Facebook or Twitter into a book, and short video clips filmed on a mobile phone can be compiled and edited together into a full length cinema film. This is what the Italian novelist Umberto Eco called »the invasion of the idiots.« For him, tools such as Twitter and Facebook give »legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.«

I definitely don’t agree with him. This access is certainly a key characteristic of our era, and we might like it or we might not; but regardless of how it makes us feel, it is surely forcing unprecedented challenges on creatives and artists that should be the subject of careful scrutiny and real deliberation. These are challenges that strike right at the core of art’s meaning and function, not just its form or genre or structure. Everything is up for grabs now, but the questions are still the same: what are you offering now? How will you present it? Will the art I present live on and endure, or will it be swept away and lost in this raging current?

So the creative people face the same questions they always have. But what’s changed is that the criteria for evaluating artistic and creative output have become harsher, more stringent, in the light of the loss of boundaries and the intensification of competition over who is to lead the scene and grab the current moment by the collar.

The hardest thing about all this is that the task of criticizing, controlling, and censoring artistic production no longer only falls to the traditional cultural and media institutions and structures. To a great extent this role is now on the artist or creative’s own shoulders. This is the new compromise, and the new equation.

O artist, it’s all up to you now: You are the case on trial, and you are the defendant, and you are the judge. So what are you doing?

Translated by Alice Guthrie, January 2018