by Peter Fortunato
Nine years since I left Doha, the capital of Qatar, where I lived and worked for four years, the experience in retrospect conflating to become one continuous heated day and night in the desert—only it’s not only a desert, and, also, like the sea, the desert is never the same desert from one day to the next. Didn’t Heraclitus say something like that—he was talking about never stepping into the same river twice, but you take my point. You can’t go back—and I haven’t been back to Doha, and yet, and yet, it also seems as if Doha has never left me.
OOOFrom a distance, sitting at my computer in Ithaca, I’ve kept abreast of all the obvious developments, including, of course, the recent saga that’s daily unfolding around the embargo imposed on tiny Qatar by its large and powerful Gulf neighbors in an attempt to bend that sovereign state to their will. The New York Times just did a long front page spread on this mess, which incidentally, seems to have been urged along by some comments the resident of the US White House made while he was in Saudi Arabia last year. So far, Qatar has been able to resist and even to continue to prosper thanks to the strength of their economy and their ingenuity at circumventing the impediments their formerly friendly neighbors have imposed.
OOOMy contacts at Weill Cornell Medical College (where I taught writing to Pre-Med students from all over the world) have ratified that the Times’s reporting is a fair summary of things, insofar as things can be “known” to outsiders. And outsiders aren’t just people living abroad, but include anyone in-country who is not a Qatari national, and, actually, among the nationals, only the inner circle of the autocracy probably know what’s what. Yes, it is an Islamic state, a kingdom or emirate, whose legal system, the sharia, is based on the local interpretation of the Quran. No, it’s not a dictatorship, and in fact relatively liberal by the standards of other Islamic states such as Saudi or Abu Dhabi. Maybe its government will someday be more democratically representative. Maybe, someday. Inshallah—if God wills it.
OOOQatar has around 313,000 citizens, or nationals, the rest of the population being comprised of around 2.3 million expat workers, white collar and blue collar foreigners, most of whom work in Doha, the capital city. A peninsula poking its finger off of the larger Arabian peninsula into the Persian Gulf, its total area is more or less equal to that of Connecticut. Only two generations ago, Qatari tribes-people walked sandal-strapped through the dust of a small port town, but today, thanks to their natural gas reserves, among the nationals, per capita, Qatar is the richest country in the world. That’ surreal.
OOONowadays, people tend to use the word “surreal” rather loosely, to denote anything that seems so “super real” as to be out of the ordinary. Basically, surreal has come to mean extraordinary—yet because of the way we live now, driven by the latest technological or medical advances, instantly absorbing tragic news from around the globe even as the stories unfold amid ads, say, for chocolate candy and cosmetics, interrupted and distracted by handheld devices whose powers surpass those of a room-sized computer two decades old, because of the way we live in the 21
Century, the extraordinary has begun to seem commonplace. Because of this, I would argue that our imaginations and capacities for wonder are being anesthetized, and that among other things, the wonders of the natural world, our home, our planet, are to many people more “virtual” than actual.
OOOIronically, our imaginations are failing us because of the astounding feats we have trained our silicon chips and microcircuits to accomplish. How else to explain the dreary repetitions of capitalist hegemonies the world over? How else to explain the failure to imagine and feel others’ pain amid the numbing continuation of business as usual? New computer applications abound, but have they as yet radically altered the global perspective so as to free us from corporate tyrannies? Since we can’t as yet imagine and actualize on a global scale better alternatives to consumerism, our home planet is steadily being degraded, its resources squandered, spoiled not only for humans, but also for all other forms of life. A further irony is that we’ve heard this complaint so often, that, alas, it too fails to rouse us: ecological disaster comes to sound ordinary and unavoidable. Some futurist thinkers have begun to hypothesize off-world migrations and in particular Martian colonization as the best solution to the problems we’ve caused by soiling our nest. Absurd! We’d probably do the same to Mars! What a surreal proposition!
OOOBut why do I use the word surreal so often with regard to my experiences in Qatar? For starters, I witnessed “the world’s fastest growing economy” first-hand, participated in it while being regarded as “capital” because of my professional value to that economy. I watched Doha rising from the gypsum flats of the Qatari desert to become a futuristic city on the waterfront of a one-time fishing village. All this is a result of a breakthrough process some thirty years ago that allows the liquefaction of natural gas so that it can be shipped through the Persian Gulf and out the Straits of Hormuz to any port in the world. Surreal: I could watch on an international television station a government sponsored advert soliciting global investments in Qatar, a British inflected voiceover touting the economic boom while the visual imagery featured the Qatar Financial Center, a building I’d watched growing from the desert floor outside my apartment window.
OOOYet Doha is more than a marvel in steel, glass and marble: in its replication of more developed urban centers, it is also incurring their problems. Air pollution is a big one. I found it was inescapable: indoors because of the reliance on air cooling and the resultant molds to which I am often allergic; outdoors because of the dust and sand on the wind sometimes carried here from hundreds of miles away, or else due to the latest nearest desert excavation. Eye problems were common long before the present day pollution, but today’s air quality is further compromised by the ever increasing traffic choking the motorways, as well as by the toxic byproducts of the petroleum industry. Flared off gases, for example, lace the hot air with odors that were to me the scent of modern Qatar.
OOOAnd what about labor practices, specifically those concerning the guest workers who have built all the shining towers? Their employers in white thobes might have willed a modern society into being, but it is the labor force at the bottom of this pyramid that literally supports it: anonymous guys in blue coveralls imported mostly from impoverished villages in Pakistan, India, or Nepal. House maids and nannies come here from those countries too, and from Malaysia and the Philippines—preferably Muslims, but if the price is right, sure, Christians and Hindus and a few Buddhists too. Slavery was made illegal in Qatar only during the 1950’s—that’s a shocking fact, but at least slavery is technically illegal nowadays. Unfortunately, what is no longer shocking is the way that all the wealthy Global Cooperation Council States tend to treat the scads of foreign workers on whom they depend. These millions, mostly single men under contract to large companies, comprise an under-class, practically a serving class, usually bound in place by contracts whose hidden clauses prevent them from easily leaving. Segregated from the rest of the populace because of economic status or ethnic identity, they are often disparaged, feared, or ignored.
OOOI remember one English language newspaper story that ran in installments several times until it disappeared from sight (not uncommon, as it was not complementary to the Qataris) about a Hindu housemaid whose mistress accused her of worshipping a cow and repeatedly beat her for these acts of idolatry. Reading between the lines, I could only imagine the nature of the misunderstanding—but I also heard worse stories about maids who’d been raped and had to have emergency abortions at a facility known for doing this discreetly in order to protect persons of influence. Stories. I had no way to verify them, but such stories circulated often enough to lend them credibility. I myself was warned by an American friend who’d been in the country longer than I not to advertise my political viewpoints or the fact that I am a shaman, and to remember always that persons with “clout”—it’s called wasta in Arabic—might be watching, and could easily have me deported. Even within the classrooms of Weill Cornell, we were careful in choosing our readings and topics of discussions and visual content, as did colleagues at the other American universities the Qataris also host, for fear of inadvertently offending the sensibilities of students from powerful conservative families.
OOOLet me give you a more complete definition of the surreal: it is the quality of imagination that allows supposedly ordinary perceptions to resonate more deeply within. A surreal event or object of art does not depend on spectacle or on the extraordinary, per se. The intention of the surreal event or object is to surpass the rational mind and evoke the powers of the unconscious mind. For this reason, objects and images not usually found together often comprise Surrealist artworks. Dreams and taboo-breaking fantasies were central to the original Surrealists, European artists in the early 20
Century. As the art critic Celia Rabinovitch puts it, a surreal work is intent on jarring its viewer in order to cause a moment of epiphany; that is, a moment of revelation or insight.
OOOMy life in Doha continually supplied me with such experiences. Most importantly, and perhaps least surprisingly, at this international crossroads I came to see how much like me other human beings truly are, especially as we seek a balance between the inner life and the outer one.
OOOI would say that during my first year in Qatar I was probably enduring a condition of “culture shock,” largely due to the ubiquitous contradictions in so rapidly altering a society. And yet, because there were so many disconcerting aspects about the place, I looked at everything closely, marveling at the rearrangement of a traditional Bedouin culture to accommodate lavish 21
Century life styles. The rate of change was continually dazzling, often humorous, often tedious: to give you one example, throughout the country, roads might literally appear or else disappear overnight, and one morning I lost my way on my morning drive to work, meandering along a dusty track through a village I hadn’t previously known to exist so near to Education City! That was surreal.
Just after my arrival in 2005, during my first free moments to explore the gigantic City Center shopping mall across the street from my home, I went looking for books and periodicals to help ground myself. There were almost no English language bookstores in Qatar at that time, but in the supermarket of this mall, at a French Carrefour store reminiscent of Walmart back in the States, at a paperback rack, among the other sanitized novels permitted for sale, I spotted Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. This young adult novel about a boy who is shipwrecked on an island with an Arabian horse was a childhood favorite of mine, an early link to the world of horses and also to the Arabic World. Immediately I pulled it from the shelf, opened at random and read. I knew exactly where I was in the story.
The next day, having given a second thought to the symbolic value of that cheap paperback, I returned to Carrefour wishing to purchase it, but it was gone. Throughout four subsequent years, I would never again see an edition of The Black Stallion, nor spy any other of Walter Farley’s many books about horses, despite the eventual appearance of actual bookshops in Doha, despite the plethora of publications devoted to Arabian horses and equestrianism.
Here was my epiphany: standing in that busy supermarket while reading words so precious to my childhood gave me a sense of the soul’s power to draw into reach the sustenance it requires. Soul, psyche, mind: whatever you call it, we have this capacity by the power of Imagination (I capitalize the term, as William Blake does) to link disparate things and events into meaningful patterns. As a result, we feel more alive, more animated. You can argue that the brain is hard-wired to search for ways that objective events might be connected to each other and to us, and that it’s an evolutionary advantage perhaps, and that the mind will probably find some kind of relationship to exist between almost any experiences juxtaposed in time or space because we so desire to perceive patterns and connections. Fine. What I’m talking about is the quality of the felt experience, and about the power inherent to subjectivity. I call it Imagination or Wonder. Referring to my Black Stallion moment as “coincidence” is so paltry in comparison.
We are always in contact with other kinds of energies that we hardly comprehend at a rational level, and so attention to what our “magnetic fields” attract—i.e., our perceptivity—can reveal truths at first hidden but ultimately satisfying to both our rational sense and our poetic sensibility. The recognition of these patterns helps to remind us that without meaningful relationships, we are pretty much lost souls. Then too there are the sudden flashes of insight, the epiphanies, the illuminations that are sparked off from the thoroughly unexpected contacts between disparate elements: like a torch lit by flint striking steel, by this light we might glimpse something of the extraordinary reality that is always dwelling within the “ordinary.” This is the spiritual dimension of everyday life.
These shocks can impart a sense of the “super realism” that the Surrealist artists working in Europe during the early 20th
century sought to induce. All of the strange sights and experiences about which we nowadays exclaim, “That was surreal,” are precisely those moments when something out of the ordinary breaks suddenly into the field of consciousness. Before the flash subsides to become nothing more than a memory of a peculiar moment, there is the possibility of recognizing that reality is actually always like this, that we ourselves are always like this: bothextraordinary and ephemeral. Without the felt presence of Spirit, without Soul in the World—your own psyche reflected back to you—the world and everything in it can feel lifeless and incapable of touching us emotionally. Doha becomes just another petroleum fueled collection of architectural wonders, not so different from Dubai or Riyadh, not so different from Las Vegas or Miami.
In Qatar, a place that seemed for so long alien to me—and worse, sterile, boring, repressed, “soulless”—I learned again and again that what my spirit hungers for cannot be acquired “out there,” as if it were a commodity stocked in an aisle of Carrefour. Gold might be said to be wherever you can find it, but prospecting is also its own kind of reward.
Here’s something from my journal, dated September 2007:
“First day of autumn: weather clear, sun hot, low humidity. Yesterday I'm sure the temp reached 104 F, and poolside, despite the seasonal changes—fewer tanning rays in the angled light—one hour of sunbathing and dunking was quite enough. Especially since it’s Ramadan, I must be sure my quasi-nakedness is concealed from observant Muslim eyes. Behind our walled-off living quarters, we expats are more or less allowed to carry on as we like. And I for one like the sun.
“In my tiny bathing suit I am true to my Italian heritage as I lounge among other males, mostly pink-skinned Brits in baggy trunks who take the sun in sips like tea. There is rarely a woman to be seen here, although sometimes, like a bright migratory bird, for a few minutes a bikini-clad lovely, one of those temporarily housed in my apartment tower, does alight. This is inevitably eye-popping in a country where so many of the women—who are in fact a minority of the total population—are “covered.” In public, the Qatari women wear long black cloaks called abayas and swath their heads with hijabs and shalas. The most conservative wear face coverings of various kinds called niqabs. The Qatari men meanwhile are all in white, but they too are extremely modest about their bodies, and I’ve even seen a sign in a men’s locker room asking that people avoid complete nudity if possible.
“I am 100 % Italian by genotype: dark complexion, dark hair. In Naples, on the island of Sicily my ancestors’ blood might well have mixed in Arabic genes, and as a result, I’ve been mistaken for a Jordanian, a Lebanese. Once, when my students insisted on dressing me up in traditional Qatari garb I was told by them appreciatively that I might pass for a local so long as I didn’t try to speak Arabic! My salt-and-pepper beard is also a plus because it earns me respect as an elder. Out-of-place though I often feel in Qatar—indeed, because I have no place in public, not even at the college, to be completely my uninhibited self—I have found new strength within. My private life is turned deeply inward toward the spiritual. This includes my curiosity about Islam.”
The Quran says, “The soul is the concern of my Lord, and you have been given of knowledge but a little.” That might be interpreted to mean: do not concern yourself too much with your essence, since you can’t grasp it, and besides, God has told you all you need to know about your place in the universe; rest assured that he loves you and takes good care of you. The implication for Muslims— literally those who submit to the will of God—seems to be that since you can’t know God directly or communicate with God personally, you should faithfully follow the sunna, the tradition established by the Prophet Mohammed. God will judge after death if you are worthy of eternal reward.
By contrast, practitioners of esoteric Islam, the Sufis, who also study the Quran closely, turn directly toward the experience of the Divine. Because of their thirst for God’s love and their ecstatic celebration of it, like the mystics of many traditions, they sometimes behave in ways that shock ordinary people, for example, by dressing rather haphazardly, or by indulging in spontaneous, sometimes outrageous behaviors, or by espousing religious views that go beyond those typical of Islam. Many Sufi teaching stories satirize human folly and hypocrisy, especially among the so-called religious, because for the Sufis the most essential elements of the spiritual life are self-reflection and a deep yearning for union with the Divine, poetically conceived of as the Beloved. When their way goes beyond the constraints of Islamic law, sharia, they might suffer terribly at the hands of conservatives. Where Sunni Islam is at its most conservative, for example in Saudi Arabia, and to some extent in Qatar, Sufi teachings and practices are largely secretive because they are misunderstood, dismissed as aberrant, or reviled as heretical and therefore punishable. Others’ ignorance and hatred are not obstacles to a true Sufi or dervish.
Arabic language television at night live from Mecca during the month of Ramadan connects viewers with thousands in prayer at the Great Mosque in Mecca, many of them circling the Kaaba, the most sacred shrine of Islam, while verses of the Quran are soulfully chanted. It’s very moving, very meditative, even if like me you don’t understand much Arabic. In general, during the Holy Month, the programming on all the Arabic language stations is toned down, and on the English language stations, there are fewer of the usual action-adventure movies intended for male viewers and fewer soppy, censored love stories aimed at female audiences. However, this year, 2007, I sense another sort of difference on all the TV channels.
The programming seems less focused on the religious dimension of Ramadan than in the past, with more emphasis on the family pleasures of the season. Also, there is more commercial advertising for the consumer goods that symbolize home comfort, as well as for numerous holiday shopping deals. There is one commercial I see over and over, a bizarre ad in Arabic, for "gold" Chevrolet SUV’s available in Dubai—perhaps it’s only a gold car key, but still. . . . The Dubai stations also seem to be broadcasting a lot of reruns of American TV shows that feature Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes. The target audience is obviously Western non-Muslim expats, and I wonder if perhaps this scheduling is supposed to be a way to help us relate to the family flavors of Ramadan? None of these shows features anything whatsoever about religion, but perhaps they are intended also as a way for Muslims to relate to the popular culture of the West? All the shows have Arabic subtitles, and they intersperse adverts in Arabic for local favorite products like that creamy cheese spread so popular in the Middle East, lebenah.
Across the street from my apartment, City Center during this particular Ramadan is decked with strings of lights and large attractive banners, red and gold drapery hanging on high from the glass dome four stories over the ice skating rink. (At Christmas time there are also some seasonal decorations here, a big tree, for example, but never a sign of the baby Jesus and his family, or of angels and shepherds.) The foyer of this shopping mall is quite literally the coolest place in the country, because of the central ice rink, and I have often joked that the Qataris will eventually put a dome over the entire peninsula and refrigerate it. What they have focused on so far are larger and larger interiors of all kinds—indeed, later tonight, I will go to one of the most unusual, the Italianate Villaggio shopping mall. And I shall be in the company of my dear Italian friend, Dr. D.
D is two decades younger than I, (it seems that almost everybody in Doha is younger than I am), a 35 year old bachelor, a colleague at Weill Cornell, a professor of physics, an assistant dean, and a fellow horse lover with whom I have formed one of my deepest friendships in Qatar. He is from a little town outside Turin in the North of Italy, although he has family roots in the South, which must account for his warmth, I think, and his lack of pretentiousness. He did his PhD in theoretical physics at Cornell in Ithaca, and then a post-doc at the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Munich. M is an agnostic in the best sense: while he has no special interest in organized religion, he is fundamentally curious about life, and as a physicist, he looks always for the relationships among life’s parts. A native Italian, he is steeped in the cultural heritage of the Church of Rome, and, like me, finds many similarities between it and Islam.
Dr. D is fair skinned, avoids the sun, suffers from the heat, and as far as I know does not swim. He has a high forehead, and while his auburn hair is these days parting wider and wider across his pate, he has a thick mustache that is always precisely trimmed. He dresses with true Italian panache; however, since he has partial color-blindness, some of his combinations are perhaps more striking than he might have intended. Also, he sometimes wears a bowtie, and in the entire country, I have seen only one other person, our Argentine colleague Dr. L, wear a bowtie regularly to work.
D’s eyes glitter with excitement behind his shining spectacles whenever he has had some wonderful new idea or has experienced a breakthrough in solving a difficult equation—and yet he is anything but pedantic: D is passionate about knowledge, it’s what makes him such a beloved teacher at WCMC-Q, and he has retained real intellectual curiosity about many different subjects.
A brilliant student his whole life, Dr. D also spent years in his youth practicing to become a concert pianist before deciding he would never be among the greatest; he then withdrew from competition to play solely for the love of music. He loves literature as well as music, and he has memorized long portions of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, as well as parts of Goethe’s Faust in German (which he also speaks rather well), and even some Russian love poetry that he once memorized in order to impress a girlfriend. He speaks quite a bit of Arabic and is teaching himself Farsi, the language of Iran, which he has not been able to convince me to take up. I think that because M is such a generalist it would be difficult for him ever to find a home as a tenured professor in a university physics department.
So why does so interesting a person remain in Doha, hardly the most fun-loving place on the planet or the most interesting culture of the Arabic World? His love of teaching is of course the main reason—it was for me also the primary reason I stayed four years. And it’s not for the lucre, the “golden handcuffs” as the hefty salaries here are sometimes called by expat professionals. I suspect that the reasons D has stayed so long (and he’s there still) also have to do with the ease of life that’s possible in this controlled society. Whatever its disadvantages, life in Qatar can be very comfortable for the well-off. And there’s this too: time slows down in the desert as it does in the tropics because the seasons are less distinguishable from one another; inertia sets in; years flow by. If you’re among the professional class, there are various perks, for example regular and much anticipated flights away to more interesting places for holidays and on company funded business trips to the world’s capitals.
When my wife Mary visits from the States (I am in Doha something of a “forced bachelor,” living apart from my wife like thousands of other male expats), Dr. D always greets her with a warm hello, bows slightly from the waist, taps his heels together in a form of salute, and then seemingly drops out of sight. Accordingly, when he is smitten and in pursuit of a particular innamorata, I will wait on the sidelines until he calls me with an update on his progress. D has a great interest in feminine beauty, but finding a steady relationship has proven to be a continuing challenge because of his reserve around women, his high standards, and Doha’s limited possibilities. Despite various platonic friendships and infatuations he has never yet found her. We have spent many nights together on this quest. In our continual conversations, D and I are as much interested in women as in the origins of the universe—I hear him now: “Ooh, you mean they’re not the same thing?”
Dr. D pulls up in a cloud of dust outside the gate of my tower, having phoned me on my mobile ahead of time so that I can emerge from the chilled air of the lobby and cross the broken open street in front of my home just as his car appears.
“Buona sera, bouna sera, professore!” he says, as I open the door and slide into his air-conditioned Camry. “Buona sera, dottore. Come si va?” I reply. It is our familiar greeting on these nights out, but henceforth we will converse primarily in English, except for certain choice exchanges, usually having to do with women.
Because we’re on our way tonight to the Villaggio, we are both somewhat giddy, feeling as we always do how positively mad it would seem to people actually living in Italy to hear about this fantasy land in the Qatari desert. “Extraordinary as it is, a singular form of experience in so many of its aspects, of course we could never do it justice!” he pronounces, thus setting the tone for our evening. In truth, we will enjoy various kinds of pleasure at the Villaggio, primarily in each other’s company, as we wander among the shops and sights almost never purchasing anything besides coffee, cake or ice cream.
Tuscan inspired, the Villaggio—“the Village”— has no individual buildings per se, and from the outside looks to be a kind of continuous movie set forming the outline of palazzi, bell towers, domes (no cathedrals or basilicas, of course) and roofs painted in pastel colors and earth tones. Indoors, the surreal quality is accentuated: two long marble-floored parallel avenues completely lined with shops on the ground level of the Italianesque "buildings." Overhead, there is a continuous blue painted sky replete with billowing white clouds, softly lit to suggest sundown all through the day and all through the night. There is almost no natural light, by the way, and therefore time as well as space soon loses its ordinary coordinates.
And then there’s the water filled canal complete with motorized gondolas and European guys (Bulgarians? Romanians?) dressed as Venetian gondoliers pretending to pole you along, for about $3.00 US a ride. And beyond the boutiques and typical mall stores, there are numerous restaurants, a rather expensive Café Paul imported from France, and an extremely pricey Italian café we tend to avoid. No alcohol is served anywhere, but the best bookstore in the country has opened here: a Virgin Megastore that actually has books you want to browse and perhaps purchase, as well as some CD’s and DVD's of interest now that many of the country’s censorship controls have been lifted.
There is also an indoor ice-skating rink here, less extravagant than the one in City Center, surrounded by fast-food joints, a neighborhood favored by little kids and parents who watch from Formica-topped tables, as the little ones bend their ankles, step, glide, and plop. At certain hours on the weekends, slightly older adolescents, many of them Qatari, in separate packs of boys and girls—thobes and abayas, usually, but not always, I’ve noticed—wander around until maybe 10:00 p.m. The place stays open until 1:00 a.m. every night.
This is “international mall life,” is it not? Ultimately boring, it is a systematic disjunction from all that is specifically local; a recombination of disparate parts appropriated from afar; a grand imitation that becomes a destination in itself, and all under one roof. Despite its predictability, or because of it, a shining shopping mall is a temple of commerce, and surely something you or your children want or will want is waiting here at a reasonable price. And if you can’t find what you came for, why not just buy something else?
“Look over there. At the door of that shop. It could be Omar Sharif.”
“Does he drive a motorcycle?”
“Maybe. Maybe he just likes to wear the leather clothes.”
“It’s not him.”
“No. But it could be.”
“Yes, it could be.”
“In the Villaggio it could be.”
“In the Villaggio it could be—poor guy!”
Surrealism: originally an aesthetic movement and philosophical outlook that sought to represent the spontaneous functioning of the mind through its unconscious contents unmediated by reason: a "super realism," whose mode of operation places priority on the irrational in human life, arguing that it has far more influence on human experience than the rational mind likes to admit.
Hence, the emphasis on dreams in the works of artists such as Salvador Dali and Georgio de Chirico (who also founded an art movement called the scuola metafisica, the metaphysical school): the sovereignty of unfettered Imagination, provocative, witty, often hilarious, and sometimes frightening. This art naturally moves through the provinces of the Greek god Hermes, the trickster and shape shifter, with works that feature weird juxtapositions of objects and the depiction of characters traversing dreamscapes that haunt us down the decades. The significance of the movement’s influence upon the modern intellect practically goes without saying, but it is worth noting that Surrealism came into being at about the same time as Psychoanalysis.
Whatever its particular content, a work of surrealist art seems to beg the question, why not? It demands that the authentic products of the unconscious, even when they appear nightmarish, be regarded as potential sources of liberation from past assumptions and received meanings. No wonder the contemporary poet Adonis, perhaps the most important living Arabic language poet, an expatriate Syrian who has lived for years in Paris, wrote a book of essays titled Sufism and Surrealism.
In this respect, although the Villaggio at first feels totally out of context in the midst of the Qatari desert, like a recurring dream, it soon becomes strangely familiar—as do so many of our era’s disjunctions and re-combinations. Because of continual exposure to it, even the “super real” can seem commonplace (and, ironically, a painting such as Dali’s The Persistence of Memory becomes difficult to view as anything other than a “Surrealist masterpiece.”) Meanwhile, the desire for novelty is such a feature of the modern zeitgeist that we have come to demand it constantly and always at a faster pace. There is something frightening in this, yet so habituated are moderns to their distracted, adrenaline driven ways of life, so used are they to their dependence on novel sensations, that the accompanying tensions are often ignored or actually accepted as simply another price to pay for the way we live now. (Who dreams of slowing down, of simplifying, of dangling their feet in cool water—well, actually, quite a few. . .)
Because of the ease with which it seems that everything, anywhere can be accessed electronically, purchased and then physically shipped to us on demand, we ourselves are, metaphysically speaking, delivered to no specific place at all. Globalization sacrifices the “local” for an illusion of the “international,” with the result, it seems to me, that few persons ever know where they actually stand in relation to the Planet beneath their feet. Our moment is populated by alienated and sad souls, victims of materialism, manipulated by economic and social forces far beyond their command. And so, shopping for familiar products becomes ever more important under these circumstances, because, oddly, this activity reassures us about “reality.” How can the word “surreal” be applied any longer to this pervasive condition?
Even if you do accept the architecture and the contents of the Villagio as transparent folly, the fantasies of a fantasyland labeled Fantasyland, and recognize that as with Disney World, nobody can actually live here, still, well, it looks like they could—and maybe the glittery shopping mall’s significance is in this: the objects of your desire actually do “live” here. Join us, they seem to plead, as in a dream. Consume us. You too can become shiny, fashionable, creamy, sheer. . .
And ultimately boring, I reply.
Ah, but you are here, are you not? whispers Hermes the trickster into my ear. He is as much at home in the Villaggio as in any other dreamscape. Surprise yourself, he prods me.
I look up from a bowl of ice cream at Doctor D’s twinkling eyes, and we launch into another cycle of disquisitions.
Are the Qataris merely moving fast-forward, seeming to have skipped over the 20
Century into the 21
, acquiring its problems along with its benefits? They say they want to build “a knowledge based economy”—hence all the branch campuses of American universities, and the terrific investments in scientific research and cutting edge technology projects; hence all the international conferences they have hosted (at least until the June 2017 embargo began.) But here as elsewhere, the engines of capitalism rarely pause to address the problems that quickly appear alongside the benefits. "Let the people choose what they want!" the daemon of the Free Market bellows, as if the freedom to choose among largely unnecessary objects and activities were the highest form of democracy in action, and as if there will always be a technological fix tomorrow for the mess we’ve created today.
“Freedom to choose luxury condos and brands of shampoo and diamond wristwatch bands for a people whose religion and cultural traditions are so bare of iconography!” I muse aloud to my friend who is sipping the last of his coffee.
What other kinds of visions might all of these glittering baubles crowd out? I wonder if the boredom I see already among the privileged youth, who have never worked for their purchasing power, will result in a debilitating ennui before long, and if this will lead to despair that might erupt with even worse consequences than the lamentable incidents of “chicken” played out to the death on deserted highways or the gunfire between rivals at midnight roundabouts. Writing this in 2018, I wonder if, ironically, the embargo will inspire these youths to a healthy patriotism and a willingness to work harder on behalf of their country? Inshallah.
At our café, preparing to call it a night, 11:00 p.m. and ready to leave the Villagio, I let my eyes follow a pair of ample hips swinging under a passing skirt. To Dr. D I say: “At a roundabout this morning, stopped in a Ramadan morning prayer traffic jam, I was face to face with a billboard showing a young blond couple, he and she dangling their bare feet off the deck of a yacht, with the subtitle in English and Arabic, Glamour. Background: waterside condominiums, probably those being built right now out on the Pearl archipelago. Honestly, I was scandalized, scandalized!”
D follows my eyes out into the flow of human desiring.
“I’m glad to know they’re making such progress,” he chuckles.
Peter Fortunato lived and worked in Qatar from 2005-2009, teaching at Weill Cornell Medical College. There, his writing seminars focused on such topics as world literature, psychology and literature, and narrative medicine. This is the third of his essays about his experiences in the Middle East to appear in Metaphysical Times. His web site is www.peterfortunato.wordpress.com.
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IN THIS ISSUE–––
• David S. Warren -
OOO Editor's Notes
• Georgia E. Warren -
• Sue Ryn -
I Never Imagined This
• Mary Gilliland -
• David S. Warren -
Poem to Archie
• Don Brennan -
Take Me To the River
• Peter Fortunato -
• Peter Wetherbee -
Sinister Ballad of a
David S.Warren -
We are Nuts
• Rhian Ellis -
• Garriel Orgrease -
• Daniel Lovell -
One for Miriam
• Nancy Viera Couto -
and the Queen
• David Rollow -
• Franklin Crawford -
When I Have Thoughts
That I May Cease to Pee
• David Rollow -
Review: A. R. Ammons
• Chris MacCormack -
Packages (an excerpt)
The running joke had become that I was being passed off as Billy Gibbons from Zee Zee Top. I wandered the streets of the French Quarter with family and friends of family. Whenever anyone of the group shouted, “Billy Gibbons, everyone, Billy Gibbons!” I was to go “Har har har.” (go to story)
When I Have Thoughts That I May Cease to Pee
by Franklin Crawford
My brain, which I am very attached to even though we’ve never met, is doomed to liquefy and bubble out of my ears, nose and mouth, shortly after I am as dead as the DNC.
It’s not the most pleasant thought my mind ever conjured, given that I suspect my brain doesn’t like to imagine its post-mortem condition any more than whatever this self – this symbiont with whom I share my weathered hide – wishes to dwell upon. (go to story)
by Georgia E. Warren
As soon as I got back to my dorm room I remembered. There was no textbook, we were supposed to research the famous artwork of Milan. The test was to identify and discuss the Italian Renaissance art was located in Milan. It was late. The library was closed. I decided I should go to bed and try to get to the library before class.
But I was exhausted: I sat on my bed ready to take my shoes off and fell asleep in my clothes.
Within a minute a very nice Catholic Nun shook my shoulder and told me I should not sleep in the pews of the sanctuary. I told her the problem about my class. I did not tell her it was thousands of miles away
(go to article)________________________
Reiki: Just The Facts
"Take Me To The River"
by Don Brennan
“Whoa! Where did you come from?’’ I set it down on the picnic table as fragments of memories washed over me. It was an old friend that I had found as a child, on a family vacation, somewhere one summer. Even though it was still covered with bits of soil, it was easy to see that it was loaded with interesting minerals. “I’m going to have to hose you off.”
The next two mornings, I spent more time staring at the stone than reading my book. The words were creating images not from The Celestine Prophecy, but from the day this stone first came into my life.
I had glimpses of it sparkling
in a shallow pool of water at
the bottom of a riverbed.
(go to article)
by David Rollow
The Muse came knocking at the writer’s window on a night of wild weather. Her skin seen through the windowpanes was luminous and pale, except for her flushed cheeks. Her green eyes glistened. Never had she looked more beautiful. Gladdened by this unexpected visit--for the page lay empty on his table and the pen lay untouched by the page--the writer stood and unlocked the window, his heart surging against his ribs as if they, too, somehow, were to be unlocked and his heart set free. (go to story)
by Mary Gilliland
Myth is longing. I lose myself in myth. When I would re-read the texts, or re-imagine them, myth led me out of family problems I could do nothing about. It contextualized the martyred strivings of Roman Catholic indoctrination. (excerpt, go to full story)
Margarida, José, and the Queen
by by Nancy Vieira Couto
Margarida saw the Queen in that summer of 1901 when all the days were damp and filled with the smell of salt. She couldn’t see the future through the fog, but she imagined machines, money, and motion, a city crammed with tenement houses and streetcars. She was fourteen years old. She and her mother, Maria Julia, had just arrived in Ponta Delgada, having said good-bye forever to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, the living and the dead.
(go to story)
The focus of our next Metaphysical Times will be "Memory." (see full size)
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