I am writing in bed at five in the morning. I don't know what I'm writing about yet, but I'm hoping I'll find out. I think we live only that we may find out what death is, and then compare it to the life we have now. And so when I write or perform, I think it is only to find out what the story is and then compare it to what I had actually done. Which is why both life and art never get any easier. Or less frustrating. Both of them are a kind of purgatory which I can get quite comfortable with. For now.
Like my art, my ancestors have always existed in a kind of earthly purgatory. Forever isolated and yet inherently linked with each other and other peoples. They were (are) everyone and no one at all. Forever trapped on a rock fending off lions; at any given moment those lions may be larger forces, or simply ourselves--whatever "ourselves" happens to be at the time. This tumultuously unformed, unattached, and uncompromising quality about us has given us a developed ear and tongue for the truth--simply because we are not defined by any sense of ethnic or imperial loyalty, and the range of our motion has granted us a distaste for the heavy pretensions of status and hierarchical accomplishment. It is only what one says, and more importantly, how one says it, that counts. That is what makes someone who they are.
I attribute my perpetually self-sabotaging nature to this quality. Self-sabotage might actually be the most consistent quality of my people as a whole anyway. But it is not so much an intrinsic or existentially personal self-sabotage as it is a sabotage in direct relation to the pretensions of others. In my personal case, I simply don't care how other people think I should speak, think, or behave regardless of the supposed moral authority their own identity might grant them. Which might be another way of saying that what these supposed authorities think is all I really do care about. And here we have reached an example of the necessarily eloquent yet maddeningly circular logic that is the bedrock of my people's language, legacy--and perhaps most violently--their politics.
We are and we are not. To quote the Bible's full description of our forefather, Ishmael, we are "a wild ass of (a people). (Our) hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against (us), and we will live in hostility toward all (the people)." We are defined by our negation of the thing and perpetually dependent on the existence of the thing for our own definition in the first place.
Then again, my immediate family hails from Egypt--who knows who my real "forefather" is. I think one of the biggest lies in the history of humankind is that genealogy is traceable. It is not just a lie but a deadly lie that has created a lot of pretense for legalized ethnic cleansing. Ancestor worship is more about what one attaches meaning to then actual connections of blood.
I do not wish to worship my ancestors, for I don't actually know who they are and they are dead and cannot help me. I'm merely piecing together whatever is going to get me on with my work.
And yet here I am, rambling on about my ancestors.
Besides my self-sabotage, I also attribute my survival to this quality I supposedly inherit from Ishmael. I am not too humble to admit that others have reluctantly conceded that there is a certain frustrating charm to the whole thing.
All this might be what the Eurocentric narrative attributes to a well-meaning yet still unrefined "masculinity," but believe me when I say that both our men and our women and all that are around and between those labels are like this. How you (as Eurocentrics, or otherwise any Imperialists) choose to illustrate and generalize your gender narratives (and for that matter, any kind of narrative) is your business. Leave us out of the swallowing throat of your prejudice and condescension. We are fine squabbling on our own without your obnoxiously suffocating presence. I'm writing only to shut you all up and to get my own people to stand up and disagree with me vehemently. Which I know they will never fail to do.
Every sense of self is defined by its own restrictions. Our sense of self is defined by its lack of restriction all together. This quality reflects superficially in the extraordinarily broad range of our phenotypes, and more intrinsically in our inability to agree on anything except our love of prose and poetry and our hatred of anyone and everyone who tries to keep us stuck on that rock surrounded by lions--whether by force, politics, or philosophy.
Indeed, the vehemence against those last two modes of influence is reflected in the fact that we overlooked to invent words that create any modern sense of those concepts in the first place. The Arabic word siyasa, for politics, means something like "a herding of horses." And our falsafa is a consciously cheeky bastardization of the Greek philosophy--which gives one a hint of how deprecating our appropriation of the Greek thinkers must have actually been. Not that the invaders who came at us from the North were any wise to this, since this falsafa has become more or less the bedrock of how they would ideally like to approach their own lives.
Joke's on you, Europe.
I love being Arab. And an African Arab at that. The only real advantage to being an American with a disgusting lack of familiarity with Arabic prose and poetry in comparison to English is that had I written this piece for a primarily Arab and/or Arabic-speaking audience, I would have either been laughed into my grave or dashed to pieces. If anyone would have paid attention in the first place.
What an honor that would have been.
My people are the earth's perpetual wretches. The consummate outsiders. To survive, we raid each other and those who perpetually salivate their imperial pretensions upon us.
We gather only by enduring camels, fast horses, strong words, and sharp swords--and would rather be split down the middle by one of those swords than kneel before anything that sounded like less than the truth. And even if we hear it as the truth, the whole idea of kneeling is probably out of the question all together.
Rest assured, what the truth sounds like is what really counts. As the legendary orator Taryfa declaimed, as she led her tribe in a migration after foreseeing the destruction of a nearby dam, in a mode of speech known as Bayan--or high Arabic that is considered to illuminate the power of the unseen--"By the truth of my knowledge of the eloquent speech that is alighted on me and of my tongue and what is recited by me..." The impenetrably circular logic being that the truth of what is said relies solely on how one says it. That isn't to say that there isn't inherent truth in what is being said, but that the inherent truth is a by-product of the form. No doubt, Shakespeare stole this quality from us--his sordidly nonsensical narratives only heighten the sonic ecstasy of his verses. Still Shakespeare, being an English speaker, could not quite reach the height of the gathered word in much of the same thrill that a line from my people's language could. But perhaps the idea is in how Shakespeare thought, which was undoubtedly like an arab--a fact which gives a little extra meaning to the playful arabization of his name into Sheikh Speare.
The language has been more of a curse than a gift for me personally--my tongue can never grasp it, though my heart bears it like a scorched medal. I read and hear English as if I were thinking in Arabic. My conscience clings to the immediate sounds of the words, not to where those words seem to be going. I approach literature (if I do approach it at all) like my people approached their terrain--a vast and straining desert filled with mirage and pockets of ecstasy. At least, that is the narrative imposed on us.
I did not understand a lick of the plot in either The Sun Also Rises or in Go Tell it on the Mountain. But how could I ever forget a sentence like "It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing." Or "I don't care how many times you change your ways, what's in you is in you, and it's got to come out."
Both Hemingway and Baldwin capture the haughty simplicity of their nation. The later happened to be called "black" with all the glory and horror that comes with that label and the former was occasionally, at least in his writing, a racist. American pretentiousness exists everywhere except in their words--they seem to use up all their self-importance in every other matter known to human-kind. And this brings me to the one thing my people are pretentious about--our words, and our ability to use them to inspire diverse peoples into a sense of oneness. As evidenced by even these early efforts in my very own blog.
This is why all Americans despise my kind. They do not understand our respect for the elaborate eloquence in language--the literary slur for this is "flowery"--and they consider it an assault when we act brashly or speak our minds in direct disregard to whatever individual status they project into the world.
We do not look down upon you because of your supposed race, your economic status, or because of a supposed ignorance of your social position or job title. We simply don't care. And this is a constant whether or not we are working to advance in "industries" where you might consider yourself a "big name." Furthermore, we don't care about the fact that you already look down upon us.
We define ourselves by telling the truth--and the truth is in the quality of the telling itself--and we are constantly exploring how to do this. People who have roamed deserts know that anyone who says they've mapped out the journey before they've actually traversed it is laughably delusional. That is why our lives and our art are much messier, much more unformed, and ultimately more truthful than yours. At least, that's how I see it.
Of course, we have our obvious exceptions to this in both past and present--literal sell outs who sell the spirit of our prose and poetry (which is really a metaphor for all the vitality of our existence) to imperial powers. They are poets and guns for hire--both tools remain part of a powerful campaign to suppress self-determination in the lands of our ancestors. The United States and Europe finance our autocrats and plutocrats in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; this practice goes back to our very beginnings--when say, a Roman or Persian ruler would name one of our own a "king" in order to keep the rest of us in line. And Israel is not so much a country as it is an off-shore military base for the United States, designed to cleanse the land of our people; a somewhat historically novel enterprise and all the more grotesque for it. But now is not the time to address those self-degrading power brokers.
In America, I am forever caught between "black" and "white" (really who isn't, to varying levels of consequence?) not because I'm mixed race (what is race to begin with?). I am caught because both ends of the spectrum have commandeered the legacy of my ancestors in order to bolster their own narratives. Were the Egyptians "black" or "white?" And in the answer to that question, would one be referring to general phenotype or a certain value system or mode of existence? In any case, both "black" and "white" claim the civilization as their own. Egypt, Ethiopia, Persia, Rome, and Greece were all large imperial powers vying for control of that irascible, perpetually annoying, and occasionally useful "other" stuck on the rock between them all through the ages. No surprise, here I am in 2020 A.D.--an American in both the largest and smallest sense of that word--and still in the same place. Caught between two or three or four races (really, the number is arbitrary). People trying to escape the legacy of their own falsely imposed labels while simultaneously attempting to stuff me into an entirely new label all together.
For anyone else, this might be cause for unbearable confusion, but luckily my people have never not been defined in this way. We are the perpetual victims of a multitude of much larger and much more defined entities, and simultaneously the assailants of those entities' very integrity. Whether it be the ancient empires I mentioned earlier, or the new ones of today that are based in Europe and America--who's influence upon us is now causing several of the world's worst humanitarian crises' and the world's single largest refugee crisis.
The exception to this "stuck on a rock" metaphor of course might seem to be the advent of Islam in the sixth century A.D. and its miraculous rise through what was at the time considered the "known" world--but even Islam was a purely Arab enterprise only up to at most forty years after the Prophet's death, at which point it became the shared bounty among a multitude of ethnic and globalizing forces--and the sense of an "arab" continued thereafter to feed into the narrative of perpetual "otherness" and unity defined only by perpetual disunity. And even my use of the phrase "purely arab" can't be accurate since Islam as a distinct community emerged in a South Arabian context which at the time put itself at contrast to who they considered as the arabs, and who held fast to their spiritual and ethnic roots in Africa.
Muhammad Ibn Abdullah was not a personality created in a vacuum, his claim to prophet-hood is built on millennia of an East African and Arabian incubation of a developing monotheistic tradition. Of course he is known to be the Arabic speaker par excellence, but it is less known that he also spoke Ethiopic. Sadly, I find conversations in my life around this are not as rich as they can be--simply because those of us educated in a Platonic, Eurosized context are robbed of this history's much more thrilling context. When I'm talking to Christians and Jews, and even other Muslims, people who I'd think would be equally inspired by this context, I don't feel like I'm talking to Christians and Jews--I feel like I'm talking to people with a white/european mindset. Maybe I should try discussing with a Hanif, or authentic monotheist, but sadly they are now virtually non existent. The best analogy I can think of at the moment is the fact that most of our mainstream enshrining of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the "leader" of the Civil Rights movement is clearly a fallacy. No doubt, Dr. King was an essential and magnetic figure--as Muhammad was certainly the figure and indisputably the founder and leader of an organized sociopolitical as well as spiritual legacy--though he and Dr. King only exist because so many other activists and thinkers created a context in which they can emerge.
In his magnificent new historical account of three thousand years of Arab history, Tim Mackintosh Smith observes that after the Hijra from Mecca to Medina--the first major event in the Muslim calendar, epochal both in an Arab and a world wide sense--the phrase ta-arab (literally meaning "arabization") after the Hijra was synonymous with a return to Mecca and/or the values of the merchant plutocracy that muhammad had initially begun dissenting from--which is to say that arabization was synonymous with apostasy; then of course, the community of Islam set its intentions to re-arabize (and eventually globalize) once the prophet stopped directing prayers towards Jerusalem--literally turning his back on Zion and directing attention to that more personal and more ancient sacred monument--the Ka'bah, back in Mecca from whence they came.
So here you have a community literally defined by its radically dissident non-arabness and simultaneous reclamation of what an arab actually is. A community built within an archipelago of ethnicities, cultures, and religious practices. Hence the diametric opposition the mainstream tradition of Islam has to ethnocentrism and bloodlines. The division of community in any sense was synonymous with the division of the supreme sustaining force of the universe (or "god")--which is of course antithetical to the fundamental oneness of that sustaining force that is the bedrock of Islam... Indeed, the Meccan leader Abu Jahal--now epitomized as the greatest enemy of the Prophet Muhammad, prayed to the supreme creator against Muhammad by observing that "no one had severed ties of blood more than he." Abu Jahal was right: the closest relatives of the Muslim dissenters were fighting and killing and being killed by them in battle.
The most astonishing moment in arab history, one of the most astonishing in the earth's collective history, is defined precisely by its non-arabness (indeed today, less than 10% of muslims are arab); it was a monumental call to unification so powerful it resulted in utter disunity; it really can't get more arab than that.
Islam in Medina is history's clearest example of a functioning community that consolidated over values alone. Of course, the practice of that principle is not as clean as Muslim purists would like to imagine it to be. But I dare anyone to bring forth a more striking example of a functioning community that abandoned the pretensions of ethnic or familial loyalty and ancestor worship. By ancestor worship I mean any idea that a practice has value simply because that is what one's parents or grandparents or great grandparents did. We cannot know what our great grandparents actually did or who they were--it can be a fun self-coddling exercise, but sadly some of us have been severed from that privilege all together. Or perhaps, those of us who have been severed, have the clearest example of a truly authentic ancestor.
The ironic thing about James Baldwin's ambivalence towards Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam in his magnificent meditations in The Fire Next Time is that by virtue of his observation that people should only "consolidate on the basis of love" is that had he been around for the Muslim community in Medina, he may have very well recognized it as his dream.
That community, for all of its growing pains, made room for men and women--dark and light--to thrive spiritually and intellectually. No other world wide spiritual tradition has had greater direct and authoritative contributions from women or people who's skin would be called dark.
Khadija was the first believer in Muhammad, and almost single-handedly financed the Muslim social justice project during its first ten years in Mecca up until her death.
Aisha is one of the most cited authorities on ahadith and led an army that would have ended the entire Muslim venture all together had she not chosen to take Ali, the fourth and last of the so-called "rightly guided" caliphs, at his word. Which is to say he would work to uphold Muslim principles and not his own blood connection to the prophet.
The caliph was a public servant not a person of royal status. Caliph Abu Bakr milked cows for extra money while in office. Caliph Omar knitted his own clothes during meetings and was mistaken for a beggar when a messenger came to report to him from a battlefront.
Muhammad himself told people to say that there is no god but god and muhammad is god's slave and messenger.
This is the bedrock of the muslim narrative:
A spiritual leader who identified first and foremost as a slave.
Women who outwardly controlled the fate of a community.
Men with no entitlement, no pretensions, and who did things that the Eurocentric view wouldn't call manly; like knitting, and the prophet is repeatedly quoted about the virtues of openly crying.
I don't want to be a king, that's a European thing. Most kings were shit anyway.
I don't care about bloodlines, that's a European thing.
I don't care for color or gender.
I care about values.
The European interpretation of status is what most of us have internalized.
It's not about the reverence you receive.
It's about the reverence you give.
The ethereal call to prayer that every single person, muslim or not, is so familiar with, is the invention of a slave (who's skin color was indisputably "black" or as dark as human skin can be) who became a Muslim despite being owned by a Meccan plutocrat who tortured him for his beliefs. This Muslim's name was Bilal, and he was freed by Abu Bakr and joined the growing community of believers.
These examples were not exceptions but the rule that the whole Muslim dissident socio-political philosophy in Mecca made possible.
The centuries later pressures of colonial land appropriation, cleansing, and enslavement has caused this beauty to implode and stain this legacy with the reactionary violence of those who's only motivation is their own unbearable pain, or actual backing from the colonial powers wishing to suppress their people's future and legacy.
Not that anti-colonialist violence is never justified.
But that is a discussion for another time.
Mackintosh-Smith also observes that the globalization of Islam had more to do with the spread of language and writing than anything else... Islam developed in Mecca and Medina, urban settings that were not void of violence but nonetheless fostered a rich intersection of cultural high mindedness. Islam is not the way of life of the desert nomad. It is the way of life of those who must embrace and challenge a sophisticated society.
I say way of life as opposed to religion--because again, our Platonic, Eurocentric context has warped our understanding of what religion actually is. It is a word that takes away from the more thrilling discussion, which is about how people deal with the question--what must I do? The idea of religion as "dogma" comes from an orientalist view fostered in a place so void of purpose that it developed no true popular spiritual legacy of its own. Europe. They project their own secular, racist, and hateful dogma unto us and then brand us as the perpetrators. I consider the Spanish Inquisition a tragedy not because it was (false) Christians forcing Muslims and Jews out of their European stronghold, but because ten years later--Christopher Columbus reached the Americas and set the course for the cleansing and enslavement of Indigenous peoples and the grotesque human trafficking of West Africans across the Atlantic. In the words of the late and still vital El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), "They accuse us of that which they themselves are guilty of."
The Qur'an was not a supernatural miracle, and never announced itself as such. It is a super-linguistic miracle; hence its miraculous achievement as an Arabic book aimed initially at arabs--whose union and disunion had always been about language. The word arab itself is a double entendre meaning something like "to come closer" but it also refers to a nomadic tendency to travel away--the more specific word for the actual arab nomads was the arabi (ironically, one colloquial word for a car is arabiya). Again, a people paradoxically defined by their utter disunity and the intrinsic desire for oneness. As the old joke has it--every arabic word means three things: itself, it's opposite, and camel.
Another truism that is often cheekily accepted by the muslim community is that the Qur'an is "the best book revealed to the worst people." People who would not respond to a book that was constructed in a sequential narrative, or one that was a mere exercise in linear perspective; but one that is astoundingly visual, addresses themes and variations from multiple angles, and takes a synoptic view of a cosmic subject with an astonishingly unapologetic awareness of its own infinitude. Capturing the mystery around the perfect oneness of the divine cannot happen cleanly--but disturbingly, inexplicably, and majestically. What better example for the kind of art I'd like to strive for?
The Qur'an refers to itself as the Bayinna (the apparent or given thing). People accepted it not because someone else told them to--not something an arab would ever do--but because it simply struck them as the truth. Their truth. A truth that asserted connection to the divine but proclaimed its proof to be evident only in its mode of expression. Moses came with Magic. Jesus came with Healing. Muhammad came with Language.
The greatest piece of white male american writing, the Declaration of Independence, referred to its own truths as self-evident as well. The Qur'an is vastly more inclusive and prescient than the Declaration, but I doubt the intentions of neither document. I only doubt my own and other's abilities to live up to them.
Indeed the Qur'an not only inspired centuries of poets and literature, but also astronomers and medics, philosophers and mathematicians, historiographers and physicists. And as always, revolutionaries. All throughout Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean; and quite possibly, as scholars such as Barry Fell are increasingly suspecting, in the Americas--through passing cultural contact between Muslim seafarers and Indigenous Americans before the European genocides. And then of course, indisputably, in interactions between Indigenous Populations and Muslim Slaves brought across the Atlantic.
That wasn't a clash with civilization, that was civilization. It still is, despite immense pressure to have it all destroyed and erased.
Even at the end of the first world war, when Europe's dominance--at least in relation to the rest of the world--was indisputable, Prince Faisal--an arab nationalist in the true sense of the phrase--was still building a platform for unity based on muslim egalitarian principles, and granted genuine refuge to Armenians. He was ultimately sabotaged by Imperial powers.
But you won't learn that from "Lawrence of Arabia."
I said earlier that I am an American in the largest and smallest sense of that word. Perhaps in order to be truly American, I must (perhaps all of us must) embrace a kind of Hijra, or severance from being American at all. American society is plutocratic, terrorizing, and oppressive of the vulnerable. And that is nothing new. The severance will have to include a de-americanization and a long period of shunning American pretense all together. We must not ta'arab. Once we pass through this severance and discover our own values, then perhaps we can turn back around and direct our attention to what it truly means to be American. If calling ourselves American still remains possible. Or meaningful.
But at some point after this period of severance we will have to turn back, as the Muslims had done it, from delusions of Zion to a reinvention of who we are. Turn back from delusions of being saved from the persecutions of the unfaithful and come back around to change the world that had led to that persecution in the first place. A far more achievable yet also far more painful enterprise.
I have faith. Inshallah.
This is what I was taught my place as an actor is. Not speaking or behaving in order to find escape--but speaking and acting in order to change the other.
Why do we have to reserve this for the stage or the screen? All of experience is one, and part of our lives.
"The world's a stage" as Sheikh Speare put it.
In conclusion, what this seems to suggest to me is that my ancestors (or at least some of them as far as I know) are at most akin to rogue bandits or pirates. Ones that, prophet or not, might be occasionally enraptured by otherworldly insight and become--say--an artist or a revolutionary. And anything spoken in Bayan almost always signaled need for physical and spiritual migration. Whether or not it came across, in one form or another, as an attack--which it almost certainly did.
And in a way I am continuing the legacy of my ancestors by assailing the American consciousness by addressing the fact that their narratives are not as neat and secure as they would like them to be. And by simply being who I am. This, of course, is probably just my arab pretensions. But who knows? At this point by arab you may or may not have realized I am referring mostly to a state of mind. Of course, I follow (or try to follow) in the tradition of those who's state of mind I admire--arab or not, black or white. Which is to say that my real people are those whom I choose to follow. And it can be hard to choose. Very hard. Assailant though I may be, I still suffer from the constant reminder that this is the only quality that, for now, gives me any sort of identity to begin with.
Perhaps the closest analogy to my true ideals for the moment exists in the Prophet Muhammad's account of the creation of the horse. When Allah wished to create the horse, Allah sent word to the South Wind saying, "Gather yourself together for I shall create from you a creature," and the wind gathered itself together. Then the angel Gabriel was commanded to take a handful of the gathered wind and Allah said, "This is my handful," and created from it a horse--a bay with a dark coat. And Allah said, "I have created you as a horse and made you Arab, and I have favored you above all the other beasts that I have created--granting you breath of livelihood."
I, and my people--if I have a people--are that vast, breathing, and inexplicable south wind that may at some point or another gather itself into that dark, strong, fast and beautiful horse.
And then become the wind once more.
I think I've found out what I'm writing about.
Photo: Edmund in Lear, by Young Jean Lee at UC San Diego. Photo Credit: Jim Carmody.