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The Weird Dreams of a More Real World
On the need for myth, the roots of desert stories, and drifting toward the sublime
The following is an excerpt from my new book Drifts:
The silence of the jebels is a Friday occassion. Before Jummah, before the jets begin, before the panting of wayward dogs and the puffing of their red-faced owners, the early Friday silence of the jebels is a magisterial event, a rousing elemental thunder behind the lids. When I open my eyes, the world is still there, startling and wide and waiting.
The silence of the jebels on a Friday morning isn’t silent, though. There are constant eruptions of small birds from windblown bushes – the sleek brown darting of desert finches, the gaiety of bulbuls, and the ghostly whistle of the hoopoe. There is also the wind, the scuttle of rocks underfoot, and the laconic see-saw buzz of some kind of insect I can always hear but never quite see. The silence, then, is only of the human variety, a specific texture of stillness that feels like it adds space and depth to the immensity of landscape.
There is a rough track that runs away from the road and the parking lot to scoop around the smaller jebels and ravel up the biggest – a narrow path defined by it having slightly fewer rocks than the surrounding land. Along each side are thorn bushes, acacia trees, and gatherings of spiky desert hyacinth. I make my way along this track until I reach the jebel I have told myself I will climb.
I am halfway up, my fingers dusted by the sharp rocks I grab to hold myself steady, before I realize it is too hot to be out here today. Already my heart is pounding and my skin feels tight as a drum; if I am not careful I know I will have a headache later.
Quick then, I’ll be quick. I move faster, pushing off of rocks that aren’t entirely steady, scrabbling up the jebel’s patient face. All I want, all I need, is a few minutes at the top, a few minutes to sit and see the world spread out beneath me, because this is a day of spinning words and sunbeams like scalpels, a day for making sense of journeys.
When I do reach the top, a flat expanse of wind- bedraggled bushes and canting, crumbling boulders, I walk the circumference of the jebel’s edge, catching my breath. From a sky drained of color by the fierce heat the sun beats down on me and beads of sweat roll down my forehead and into
my eyes. Out of the corner of my vision, I catch sight of the frantic scramble of a lizard darting for cover beneath rocks, his pale, translucent body vanishing the moment I turn to follow his path. There are, in the jebels, countless places for soft bodies to hide. Sometimes, when I’m out here walking, I find the skeletal remains of cats and tiny desert mice, their bones
sharply white in the desert haze.
I am nowhere near the true wild – from the top of this jebel in one direction I can see the square green stamp of a soccer field, where occasionally the local Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops set up Bedouin tents and camp for the weekend. Beyond the soccer field are miles of red-roofed neighborhoods with
their frangipani-lined streets. In the other direction, there are office buildings and industrial lots where cranes and bulldozers are stabled. If I squint, on a clear day, I can see in the far distance the tricky mirror-like sheen of the sea.
Immediately to my right is a sprawling jebel where a keen- eyed, golden-faced trickster lives. This fox often watches me walk past from his high perch, trotting around the jebel after me with his plume of a tail trailing him like a shadow, keeping abreast of my comings and goings. He has stories to tell, and
I believe the jebels listen. The stray dogs that sometimes make their way through here, scared and hungry, have their stories to tell, too. The honey buzzards that circle up against the face of the sky, dipping their golden wings left and right to soar or sink, I know they, too, have their stories. The nimble hedgehogs, the bright sweet acacia, the scudding dragonflies, the wadi waiting half a year for rain – stories, all of them. As mythologist Martin Shaw suggests, the stories we humans tell are not just for human ears; indeed, many of them did not even arise just from human minds. Some stories, Shaw contends, are not told by humans but through humans.
Amid the towering grandeur of the jebels I feel inconsequentially small, a fleeting animal presence in the shadow of their eon-spanning gaze. This awareness brings with it a wild wonder so potent that it fills my body like the
frothing edge of a curling wave. I am not as singular or unique as I sometimes think I am – and how wonderful it is to know that. The stories I want to tell are informed by this awareness, by this need to outline the mercurial and the transient so that I can more clearly see the eternal. There have been an
immeasurable number of stories before mine and there will surely be an immeasurable number of stories after. Feeling like a curling wave here, like one aspect of an unthinkable multitude, feels apt. In the desert, I am always confronted with the truth that there is no certain way for the finite to express
the infinite; there is only sitting down at the edge of a jebel to rest in this particular moment and feel its reverberations.
When I listen closely here, among the jebels, I often think I can hear whispers of other ways of knowing. I like to think that stories are rooted in place, in the way that dandelions are rooted: they grow up from the soil, saturated with the essence of their native land, but once they have fully bloomed, their seeds scatter and travel for miles on the wind. In this view, stories have a way of defying borders that feels verdant with possibility. Of course, I like this notion because it makes space for someone like me to feel a kinship to the place I call home, a kinship that goes deeper than nationality, language, or human-made culture.
I often wonder what it means that I belong to places I can never fully claim. Even after all this time I’m not sure I know with any certainty. It has been fifteen years since I last visited the United States – my passport country – and when I was there it never did manage to feel like home. Yet here in the
Gulf, where I do feel a sense of belonging, I have no centuries of ancestors to call upon who knew this land, and therefore I know there are those who would say I have no right to call it home. But I do sometimes get a sense of being recognized here in the jebels, as if the jebels themselves know that I have been seeking refuge in their shadows for the last forty years. As if
maybe they somehow understand what it is they mean to me. In the scope of their existence, sixty-three million years and counting, forty years isn’t much, just the merest blink of time, but I know how meaningful blinks can be and I hope that just as the jebels mean so much to me, that, in turn, it might be possible that I mean something to them.
In recent years, I have spent more time than ever here in the desert, scrambling up and down the dusty tracks of these jebels, often alone but never lonely. The stories still told about autism say that it causes profound isolation, which, considering the many ways in which society is still unwelcoming to those who are autistic, is true for many. But, for some, autism can, at the very same time, also feel like a vast, turbulent awareness
of the self ’s essential connection to everyone and everything – a sense of connection that can fly in the face of what we are told is proper. Too often we are encouraged to wallow in the kind of solipsism that I would argue is the opposite of autistic consciousness, the kind that does not see the self as a doorway to the all, but the kind that sees the self as the all.
We modern humans long ago stamped out the crackling, luminous campfires of myth, telling ourselves that without these ‘superstitions’ we would finally know the clean peace of rational thought. Instead, with nothing to light the way for our deeper selves, we now fumble through self-inflicted darkness. In the resulting sterile isolation we are unable to imagine other minds, other ways of being in this world, and we make up smaller stories, meager tales that cannot bear the weight we need them to bear, that in their very telling dismiss
our aching need for meaning. Eventually, with nothing left to believe in, we are left with only the self, and so we make an eternal project of parsing our differences and determining our supposed separation from others. But, the further I have gone toward trying to understand the new story of autism and
the way it makes sense of my life, the more the self seems a nebulous thing, something to pass beyond rather than linger permanently within. Maybe we are meant to learn the ways that we are different so that we may ultimately better learn the ways in which we can come together.
Learning that I am autistic, which is perhaps one of the stories that can today be said to describe me, has helped me to understand some of the more difficult aspects of my life, but I am aware of the sticky allure of hardship. I want to retain my awareness that there are any number of paths to take,
horizons to seek, stories to tell. I used to think skoliogeography could help me to write these new stories that could make sense of these thoughts, but, increasingly, skoliogeography guides me back to some of the oldest stories of all, revealing that whatever supposedly new thing I wanted to say has been said before, again and again, in a myriad of ways.
Shaw writes that the stories that we need arrived thousands of years ago, and
I find myself heart-pulled by the truth of that notion.
both fearfully and wonderfully made, embedded in a cosmos resplendent with meaning. There is beauty, these stories teach, wild beauty, in the world as it is right now all around us. The miraculous alongside the mundane, meaning in every motion.
There are some stories that, once you hear them, change the way you see the world, like a smear of enchanted earth thumbed across your eye by one of the fair folk. These stories are often about slipping beyond the bounds of what
we thought we knew, venturing into the perilous realm, and returning, mussed and scarred, clutching tightly to our hard- won boon. Once you have experienced the world from a storied perspective, it is impossible to forget. You can never again see a street as only a street; it will forever be a site suffused with the most marvelous apprehension of meaning. Because, for all
my veering, I do believe there is a truth and that perhaps it can best be found in the weird dreams of a more real world and the knowledge that the closer we are to paradox, the closer we may be to revelation. There is a street beyond the street and on it we may drift toward the sublime.
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Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness, White Cloud Press: Ashland, 2011, p.xx