Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation. Tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego.

– Jean Arp (1887-1947)


As my right hand is out of commission for the month of March, here are some fragments from the left:

Went to the desert to be saved. From noise, from sickness.

Dreams of climbing a dune at the edge of the Sahara, sitting and twirling the beads of my tulsi mala, praying for peace and wellbeing. 

Dreams of a “khalwa,” a retreat into self. Like a Sufi wrapped in wool, sitting alone. At the very least, it sounds more inspiring than “social distance.”

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Rachid the Gnawi, my host

But it didn’t really happen, save on the buses and trains, so I came home two days early. The winds were not favorable. Now I’m back in the land of noise where we have “military confinement,” the worldwide khalwa of 2020. On my couch, wrapped in wool, sitting alone.

I arrived just an hour before Ken departed, hamdullilah. My roommate, my homie, he’s going all the way back. The change hasn’t set in yet, and maybe it never will, such is Absence.

The journey to and from Merzouga was nerve-wracking, and I sometimes teetered over the abyss of fear, imagining myself stricken with a dry cough and fever. Or worse, Mr. Asymptomatic come to infect a far-flung village and then leave as discretely as he coughs into his left elbow.

If my life parallels that of Port’s from The Sheltering Sky (highly recommend it!), then I hope the similarities end here. 

Greetings! Marhabanaiis (in local Tashelhit)! Fist bumps, no kissing, forgive me. The dehumanization of the virus and the loss of Human Touch. And aren’t those strange humans indeed who don’t proffer their hello’s with two hands and two kisses, humans who don’t dance. Off we go on an ATV, bouncing past the low, mud-colored buildings, roadless. Already I hear the music.

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Near the edge of Merzouga

The power of the virus lies in its obscurity. It is this same obscurity that trounces human ego as it attacks our species and leaves us standing naked beside our mortality and, on the bright side, our unity. Confronting the virus as an idea has the same effect in me as when I read Darwin’s Origin of Species sophomore year of college. In that book, unlike in the high-minded philosophizing that came before it, you begin to conceive of humanity as a species among others, not as fragments of divinity come to rule over all that crawls on earth because our forbears wrote that it was so. (The powerful always write the books, and the first to publish tend to be the Chosen Ones). As humans, now, we experience our mortality more clearly than ever; we move within the natural world which we’ve connected so thoroughly and so perilously. Suddenly, in the frantic rush of grocery stores, we glimpse the so-called “state of nature” mentioned in another text from that same class in sophomore year. From that state we see how “temporal and vacuous” all our institutions are, as my friend Gabe so nicely put it. Institutions like Nationality, Title, and Creed that sell us a cheap sense of Self with their noise, meaning and (mis)direction, they wither like store-bought flowers in a vase, severed. 

How dare we be powerless to save ourselves this time?

Luckily you don’t need a global pandemic to know this; the adhan does not penetrate between the dunes of the Sahara and an American passport only looks like kindling for a small fire, and a shitty one at that! 

You don’t even need to be in nature, far from some capital city. You just need some silence. Or the works of those who knew silence before we chased it off.

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(from left) Ali and Rachid

“Life is like a cow…,” says Rachid, and a knowing smile spreads on Ali’s face as the fire he made illuminates them both. 

“Sometimes it gives milk, and sometimes it gives shit!” they burst out laughing.

Do you think you can choose what the cow gives you, can you choose to have milk? He could see my thoughts had drifted back to the turmoil of 2020. Yes, you can choose, just live in the present moment. So cliché, maybe that’s why we wandered from its truth, Live in the Present Moment.

I attached my best wishes for Ken’s safe return home on a shooting star, and we walked back with the lights off, back across the desert.

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Next day, too windy to move anywhere. English lady newly named Aishah came for tea. The family gathers around talking, laughing, hugging, blood lines as indistinct as the form of the sun in the dusty sky. Refugees of modernity, the two of us recall friends back home sitting around the table, each one staring at their phone. A disturbed silence.

Monotonous red buildings of uniform architecture speed past as palm trees cast slim, but lengthening shadows. The bus climbed out of the arid plain in darkness, it’s headlights briefly sketching the outline of rock faces and precipices. As I slipped in and out of consciousness, the forms of the dream world mingled with those of “waking life,” clinking their glasses and chatting absurdly.

Nothing could be more dreamlike than rain, but on the other side of the Atlas Mountains the squeak of the windshield wipers woke me up. The trees lining the road looked for all the world like they were dancing with joy. 

You might imagine that after a drought, water restores sentience. But anyone coming from the Sahara knows this is untrue.

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One thought on “Refugees of Modernity

  1. Really captivating, illustrative writing. A+

    Sometimes the cow gives milk, sometimes it gives shit. Stay in the present moment and react from there, love it. I figured too, the milk can be drunk and the shit can be burned for fuel or flung at your best friend. All good either way.

    Like

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