Many moons ago, I set out to explore the desert regions of the United States and its bordering territories. Weeks turned into months as I drove through the otherworldly Death Valley in the Mojave Desert, the majestic Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California marked by giant rock formations, and the sprawling Sonoran desert in Southern Arizona, Southeastern California, Sonora, Mexico.
Laying on my blanket and gazing at the cloudless, star-studded desert sky, all sorts of epiphanies and submerged feelings came bubbling up to the surface of my mind. The desert was nature in its purest and most intense form, stripped of all pretense and artifice. In the desert, there was nowhere to hide and no reassurance that humanity is not alone.
Perhaps it is this very quality that has drawn seers and prophets through the ages to its vast emptiness. The Egyptian-American poet Yahia Lababidi has said that “the desert is a state of being. A space of stillness where we go to empty ourselves and confront death in life … If we listen, faithfully, and honor extremity, we are inspired and transformed somehow, by this encounter. Since like much else in the spiritual realm, this is experiential, it does not withstand much translation into words. I hope my desert poems might take readers there: outside space and time…”
Lababidi is referring to his new book of poetry, Desert Songs (Rowayat, 2022), inspired by his travels across the sweeping Sahara Desert, which covers a large swathe of his country. Lababidi has authored ten critically-acclaimed poetry and prose books. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times. His writing has been translated into several languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Slovak, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch and Swedish.
Desert Songs was translated into Arabic by Syrian poet and translator, Osama Esber and is accompanied by stunning chiaroscuro images by Moroccan photographer, Zakaria Wakrim.Esber says, “In the poems of Desert Songs, the poet is a mystic traveling in the worlds of infinity, in the desert, naked, face to face with existence and with language at the beginning of its creation.”
In the poem “Desert Revisited”, Lababidi renders images of the earth and sky using letters and vowels which generate an enigmatic, unknowable universe. The poet plumbs the depths of existence to produce images that evoke eternity, emptiness and the yearning to return to the source of all things:
under a whirling skirt of sky
streaming light and stars
groping for that tremendous hem
gingerly over quicksand
as though steadied
beneath some tongue and dissolving
not the absence of sound
but the presence of silence
or, as if transfixed
by a gaze, stern-serene
surveying a dream
incorruptible starting point
where eye and mind are free
to meditate perfection
there, begin to uncover
buried in dust and disinterest
the immutable letter
(first of the alphabet) Alif
under the ever watchful eye:
fearsome sun, forgiving moon
bless the magnificent hand
all else is blasphemy, a lie
the maturity of ecstasy
longing to utter
the unutterable Name
only striving supreme or pure
can ever hope to endure
the absolute face
the awesome embrace.
Back to His Roots
Lababidi’s early influences included Khalil Gibran, T.S Eliot and William Blake. As he grew older, he was drawn to the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, for the spiritual dimension of his work as well as the beauty of his language. Recently, it’s Sufi mystics who keep him company, like Rumi and Ibn Ata’Allah, the renowned Egyptian aphorist and moralist.
His admiration of the aforementioned philosophers may be for their shared love: “I did not know it at the time, but it was a kind of homecoming that has taken me decades to understand,” he says, describing his enchantment with the desert. “There is no arriving, there, as the horizon is always receding as we approach. We begin by surrendering, and are carried along the Way.”
It is important to note that poetry is the earliest form of literature in the Arabic language. Per the historical record, Arabic poetry can be traced back to the 6th century CE. However, as in most pre-modern cultures, the oral tradition goes much further back. The lusty warrior-poet, Imru al-Qays (died 550 CE) was one of the most distinguished poets of pre-Islamic Arabia and has been called “the father of Arabic poetry.”
The verses of Imru al-Qays most famous poem “Stop and We Will Weep,” more commonly known as the Mu’ allaqah or “hanging odes,” were said to be inscribed in gold and hung on the Ka’aba, the now-holiest site of Islam. The poetry of Imru al-Qays is the most venerated of pre-Islamic Arabic period. The flamboyant myth of Imru al-Qays provided later Arab Islamic society with a vivid portrait of its tribal-pagan past. I see Lababidi’s poetry as part of this longstanding and rich tradition.
In addition to philosophical musing, Desert Songs is infused with mystery, addressing the inadequacy of language to articulate what the spirit experiences. In the concluding verses of “Eternity Beckons”, he writes about the futility of attempting to describe the indescribable:
Safeguarding her Secret
the Muse makes a mockery of words —
meaningless, words disperse
with a piercing glance.
Every thing is born, suffers and perishes
the belly of Being rumbles.
Lababidi observes that in the desert, life and death are locked in a never-ending cycle. Consequently, we look for meaning where there is none to be found. Only death and the mortality of the flesh are certain—all else is the chatter of anxious minds. The desert is where the notions of mind and matter come to die and where our smug certainties dissolve into nothingness.
In the opening verses of “Solitude and the Proximity of Infinite Things”, Lababidi writes,
The Desert is a cemetery
picking its teeth with bones
littered with brittle stones
marked by a grave air.
Mourning its myriad souls
it murmurs threnodies, while
winds scatter desert lament.
Guarded, hostile growths
defensive and aggressive
martyrs to their desert mother
they all wear crowns of thorns.
Later, our conversation meandered towards ancient Egypt. I wondered if it was possible that latter-day mystics had inherited parts of the ancient Egyptian traditions. Lababidi told me about experiencing an electric thrill when he first laid eyes on the inscriptions etched on the outer and inner walls of the holy temples of Luxor.
The Luxor temple is a large Egyptian temple complex located on the east bank of the Nile River, in the city that was known as Thebes approximately 3400 years ago. Different parts of the sprawling complex were built variously by the Pharaohs Amenhotep the third, Tutankhamen, and Ramesses the second.
The aphorisms that resonated with him, as they have for countless others, speak of masters and disciples, the quest for true knowledge, the need to look within for answers to the big questions, and the cosmic harmony underlying all of Creation – universal truths common to all the great faith traditions of the world:
- “The greatest Master cannot even take one step for his disciple.”
- “The disciple must experience each stage of developing consciousness. Therefore, he will know nothing for which he is not ripe.”
- “An answer brings no illumination unless the question has matured to a point where it gives rise to this answer, which thus becomes its fruit. Therefore learn how to put a question.”
- “The kingdom of heaven is within you, and whosoever shall know himself shall find it.”
- “While searching the laws of harmony, we will discover knowledge.”
- “Nature is the best and the shortest route towards knowledge.”
- “The inner light glows in peace and meditation.”
- “Every man is rich in excuses to safeguard his prejudices, his instincts, and his opinions.”
Ultimately, what the artist as mystic can offer the world is vision, beyond the material world, by reminding us of what is Indestructible, timeless and unchangeable. He helps us realize that amid the maddening chaos of the world, there lies an oasis of calm and serenity available to all.
[Bella Bible edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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