Sunday, September 7, 2008
A Fictional Account of the Arabian Gulf’s Exodus from Reality
“Do they not ponder over the Qur’an in order to understand its deep meaning, or is it that their minds are locked up from within?” – Qur’an 47: 24
The first thing, well, the only thing people ever notice about Sci-Fi Wahabi at first meeting is her eyes. They are wide and clear, the poetically inclined might call her sloe-eyed, the less flowery would deem them ‘bulgy’. These “kohl-rimmed”, “volume-speaking” eyes as hackneyed Orientalist adages would dub them, voice “her plurality without suppressing her singularity” So of course it’s no surprise that these glittering orbs are her defining trait because she is after all little more than eyes-without-a-face, a one-way consuming portal of spectatorship, a kafir, a fraud.
You see, SFW is in some ways me. She is my gaze. She is a lens through which you can see this project. She holds a steadying stance for us to take up on the insecure theoretical foundations of this projected survey of the Arabian Gulf’s public inner spaces. SFW is an attempt at the leveling of a dogmatic, genderless gaze through which to view the Gulf’s uncharted expanses and bizarre output after its crash landing in the future.
I have named her in order to redepart from my person, nation and race all of which are undergoing a reversal of values brought on by the jawal.
I have also masked her in science fiction in order to create a pure screen of identity in order to ‘rearrive’ at the place of critical engagement unrecognized and uninhibited. The third person is a useful tool.
A tool to protect the paranoid. A tool to exploit while “…cameras, microphones and reporters are stationed on every block, providing live feeds to the Net. The delirium of advanced technology has been entirely woven into the texture of everyday life. This is what a fully networked, ‘post human’ existence might be like.”
And SFW is ridiculous, ironical and her mask looks a little bit like Michael Jackson (the ultimate in post-human projects). But The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi needs an individual to bridge the yawning heterology between cultures, technologies and time. It needs a figure to absorb the networks and translate. It needs a native informant.
The naming of SFW is an act I consider a declaration of solidarity with those threshold figures (ala Joseph Campbell’s mythos) who exist at the passage from time to eternity, the plane of metaphor and myth. The threshold figure cannot lose herself ‘together with the world’ in a movement from one plane to another. Our story opens with SFW alone in the post-apocalyptic present tense. Although she herself is stuck (without exit) in the abandoned physical/fictional world of the early 21st century Arabian Gulf, for us she is a portal. SFW is “of two worlds at once: temporal in the human appeal of their (her) pictured denotations, while by connotation opening to eternity.” Just as Sun Ra (a mythical threshold figure in his own right) suggested transporting all black people on earth to his paradisiacal planet of resonant sound bubbles and champagne flute flowers via teleportation and music, SFW’s people were vaulted onto an alternate plane of existence via their fetishized, mobilized, omnipresent jawals. The difference is that SFW missed her own escape while Ra’s spaceship escaped earth’s demise.
Although Joseph Campbell’s arguments are tainted by the cheapening presence of ‘new age’ philosophy, SFW’s lineage is cheap and therefore perfectly compatible with such ‘low-brow’ reference. Her pedigree is more pulp than Pulitzer, more gutter than glamour, and she is certainly more comfortable with the afro-futurism of spangle-hatted new gods in Sun Ra’s Space is the Place than with the cerebral sci-fi parlor games of Tarkovsky’s sleek Solaris.
Trinh T. Minh-Ha describes the challenge/role of the threshold figure/bi-cultural spectator as being a duty which consists of “modifying frontiers to produce a situated, shifting and contingent difference in which the only constant is the emphasis on the irresistible to-and-fro movement across (sexual and political) boundaries: margins and centers.” And we might infer: the real and unreal.
We first meet our narrator trudging (rhythmlessly) along receding sand banks, circling empty skyscraping follies and tracking barren roads of the post-Gulf imaginary, she exists as pure-gaze wrapped in Muslim gauze. From her lonely perch at the edge of our perception/existence she sifts (Sisyphus-style) through an interminable pile of jawals, checking each cracked and flickering LCD screen for clues to where everybody went. She thinks she must be a kafir (infidel) to have her dunya (“inner reality” as described by Sheik As-Sufi) engulf her as the rest of the Gulf moved to the akhira (the next world). She listens to MP3s of Sheik As-Sufi as he barks that “We are continually passing out of this world and into the next.” That “this world is a constant diminishment and the next a drawing-near .” She feels impoverished having filled her inner reality with invention and thought rather than the beautiful landscape of akhira.
When the end of cultures occurred and left her trapped here at the apex, her leisure time engulfed her like an empty terrain and her quest was rendered futile by the sheer number of miniature screens left to scrutinize.
You see, SFW has been left ahead. She knows she missed a metaphysical leap that is beyond her, a rapture-like occurrence that left her stuck between the past and the future, the real or unreal.
Without hyper-drive to jump the light or sound or history barrier into the after-space the Gulf disappeared into, SFW spends a lonely forever.
The strangest thing is that there was no prelude to the disappearance. When it happened she was sitting alone, outside on her roof reading this from The Islamic Book of the Dead:
“The question and the answer are the vibrating stir or secret at the heart of the human creature. It is this primal question that re-echoes in the human heart causing the tremendous restlessness on which all culture, human creativity and inner quest are based. From this initial encounter the human self journeys a sevenfold journey –from before endless time to post-endless-time. The next stage is in the world of arwah (plural of soul) – from there we pass to the realm of the womb. Then comes the middle of the journey – life on earth, solid, actual, time-bound, a locus for action and intention, a meaning projected into an image. Then comes death which brings the next phase, the Barzakh, the interspace between the two great realms. “
After finishing her book, SFW descended the dust-covered stairwell into the ladies living room to find the mothers and maids and daughters and babies all disappeared. The TV was left on ‘Iqra’ and the floor was littered with Nokias, Samsungs and Sony-Erikksons all of them running out of battery and letting out plaintive ‘bleep’s before dying with down-tone ‘blu-urk’s.
SFW counted the times she blinked, standing in the middle of the empty room. Had she lost touch with reality? She had certainly lost touch with her people. The vanished women were her only connection with the world outside of the static mode of her books. While they interacted constantly with one another at the mosque, on the phone and over the internet, SFW had retreated to the roof to read al-Ghazali. She took up exile at comfortable distance: pathetic, dramatic and overly critical from her perch on the roof of her familial home. But as the last phone died and the television screen eventually zapped to white noise she realized the fact that she was left ahead in an elsewhere.
The elsewhere SFW found herself in was a non-pure elsewhere: the Barzakh (limbo-like place). A threshold figure in a no-escape-elsewhere, an elsewhere-within-here that entered in at the same time as it broke the circle of omnispectatorship she had been privy to but not a part of. SFW had been a non-owning member of an all-owning society. This was why she was alone in a room/reality full of dead mobile phones without a marked exit or a trace of her loved ones. Reeling from the implications of the dimensional trap she found herself in, SFW stalked back up to her roof and held a vigil for what seems like years though she had no way of telling how or where time was passing. The sun never seemed to set and the moon never really rose and she was never hungry or tired at all. It was on a windless day just like the countless others that she left the abandoned abode and her library of books to save herself from the fatal blows of boredom and to find a jawal that wasn’t dead.
Had all this happened because their intellects were confined to the study of shapes of things and their imaginative forms? Was it because her consideration was not extended like her people, past the spirit but to the realities of things? Could it be possible that she did not understand the parallelism between the visible world and the invisible?
In the unknown time since she had been left ahead, thought had eroded her body, her lips had cracked and the corners of her mouth had laddered like nylon and flaked away. Her hands had scaled and then shed before her fingertips ceased to feel anything under their modesty-gloves. She had become weightless (albeit lifeless), wrapped in the black of her abaya (cloak) and shala (headcovering) edge of the latter tufted down under her chin and pulled over the bridge of what had once been her nose. All that remained were two large, brown eyes, permanently rimmed in kohl, specs of black clumped to the spider-leg lashes. She brought nothing with her but a thin gold necklace, engraved with Aya’t al-Korsi (The Verse of the Throne) and a hand-powered phone charger. Thus equipped, she clamored over the locked gates of her empty home and headed in the direction of the ghost-city and towards her the place where the sea met the land in the long, paved border of the korniche.
SFW’s gaze was remarkably steady as she approached the waterfront from under the blue-green shadows of the city’s great towers. Her abaya had been snagged to shreds as her coast-bound trajectory had been held up and sometimes halted by the sun-bleached carcasses of abandoned jawals that lay melting along the route. They glinted as they welded to the ground in the heat along with the gold tooth-fillings and diamond cufflinks of their vanished owners. The dust of the city road glittered with the priceless detritus of those who had ascended. But SFW paid no attention to the casings of the macabre jewels. Had she been a greedier creature, one of those who Al-Ghazali revered as “wading through the waves to gain red brimstone, diving into the depths and drawing out red corundum, shining pearls and green chrysolite, traveling along the coasts to gather grey ambergris and fresh blooming aloe-wood” she would have never made it to the coast. Instead she only collected what was left of the glimmering information she could retrieve from off the dead screens and batteries of the jawals, leaving the handsets to crack and warp in the road giving off a plasticine musk that held no value to her at all.
Here at last she stood on the korniche. It had once been a manicured stretch of marble pavement and date palms where the youth of the city and the suburbs came to cruise the well-lit street of downtown and trawl the wireless circuits of the city’s PANs. The cyber-traffic lived out in real-traffic on the korniche had formed an invisible landmass of information and communication upon which the looming skyscrapers and looming change had been built. . The city itself had begun to sink as history and memory receded into the shark-infested waters as loose and fast as quicksand. The flowerbeds along the boardwalk buckled and left the roots of parched and dying plants exposed to SFW’s tread. The marble tiles lurched and crumbled as she approached. The spectacular 21st century Gulf society had thawed too quickly while other ‘frozen societies’ of Debord’s east “slowed down their historical activity to the limit and maintain a constant equilibrium with their internal oppositions.” The extremity of the Arabian Gulf had only been visible to the external observer until now, having returned from historical time on her roof, with her book, SFW really saw the absurdity and impossibility of the already resolved situation.
Shaky, SFW picked up a crusty Nokia N95 from the curb and ground the little gears of her manual charger as she looked out to the manmade islands stretching four kilometers off the coast. Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas were all reduced to gravel pits, facsimiles of the globe and the sky barely above sea level, their engineers had collapsed the entire world into a miniature and a joke. As the cloyingly familiar Nokia tune chimed on, SFW glanced down at the liquid crystal display as it wound itself up to full brightness on a blank screen. Then, in her first bout of existential vertigo, her abaya and shala blew away. Without even a single bar of network on the screen, she understood that the jawal was the portal. She turned to the memory-siphoning sea and understood that the World Archipelago was a Bermuda triangle. She ran the phone over her chest and belly and understood that she was naked and floodlit on the stage of history, the catastrophe behind her, free of any Last Judgment.
“It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?”