What we have become

In a world that tends to become more materialistic with each passing day, poverty is often defined and understood as an economic and financial state in which a person or an entity survives with limited resources. Keeping this definition in mind, it becomes relatively easy to define who is poor and who it not. Thresholds are set and people are put into categories according to their socioeconomic background. From an ethical and philosophical perspective, I don’t see anything wrong in that. In order to better understand a population, statistical tools are often necessary to gauge the well being of a given society and wealth is an obvious factor in the better understanding of how a population is striving.

The real problem arises when material wealth becomes a synonym of well being and happiness. Unfortunately, this association now finds firm foundations in people’s minds and the concept of a perfect life is often defined according to materialistic standards. Learning from lessons life has taught me, I now have a different idea of what poverty actually is. Far from being understood in economical terms, I define poverty as the absence of what is dear to you.  Within the scope of this definition, a wealthy man can be poor if things he desires cannot be bought or owned. Furthermore, in such a setting, it is also possible that a poor man could have access to what a wealthy man is after and therefore be ‘richer’ from a non-materialistic perspective.

The reason why I have come to this realization is because I’ve never felt ‘poorer’ in my life than now. Since this new low point of poverty I have hit is not reflected from my socioeconomic situation, I had to add other dimensions to the concept of poverty in order for it to reflect my reality. In essence, my poverty arises from the same conflict defined above. It arises from being deprived from what is dearest to me: my time.

I have been working seven days a week for the past couple of semesters. This unprecedented workload meant that time spent reading and writing on weekends was no more. My mind was constantly used for tasks it had to do. It kept running back and forth on paths it didn’t always want to visit and stopped wandering in colorful alleys of discovery. This new schedule also meant that little distractions that often unknowingly brought peace in my life had become rarer. There were no late night walks, no more sketching, no more culinary discoveries. All the ways in which I used to express my creativity were taken away from me. My mind had become a caged animal, merely repeating the words it was given. I was afraid it would forget what it was destined to be. I was afraid it would forget Iqbal’s eagle it so wanted to emulate.

This period of life made me realize that death the way we know is just the physical disappearance of one’s existence.  There are other forms of deaths in life. Forms, which seem less violent, perhaps because you can experience them and still come back to life. In my case, the constant suppression of my creativity was the closest encounter I had with death. I had not died physically, but my mind was momentarily deprived of it’s own soul: it’s capacity to think.

Now that I have started to come back to life again, I often think about a saying attributed to the holy Prophet (s) that says: “Die, before you die.” [1] I have often read commentators (2) referring to this hadith, or tradition, as an invitation to voluntarily kill one’s ego [3] in order attain new realms of spirituality before physical death would come. In my case, I think of this tradition in a different way. My death was not so much of a voluntarily act of refraining myself from what is forbidden. It was actually the contrary. I had experienced death by getting away from the world I was destined to discover. I had killed my intellect rather than my ego–which in a way, is one in the same.

Perhaps, the greatest lessons I learnt from this period of time is that life is not worth living if one cannot be intellectually free. This realization made me think of a famous saying attributed to a man that best symbolizes freedom in my mind: Imam Hussain (a), who has famously said “Death with dignity is better than life with humiliation.” Surely, the context in which these words were pronounced by the grandson of the Prophet (s) was slightly different. But in essence, these words still resonate in my mind and I find them to be more relevant than ever. Unlike Imam Hussain (a), humiliation in my case is not so much the inability to act upon what I believe in, religiously speaking. Humiliation in my case has been my mind’s inability to realize it’s true potential and fulfill it’s own destiny. In other words, humiliation for me was not much the absence of acting upon one’s free will, rather it was the process of being stripped from something even greater: the ability to have a will itself.

What is then the link between the death of the intellect and poverty? I had previously defined how modern denomination define poverty and explained how I thought this definition didn’t tackle philosophical and metaphysical aspects of our existence. Bringing the ideas of death and poverty together, I feel the absolute and most detestable form of poverty in life is being deprived from the ability to use your own intellect.

I have witnessed a lot of people whose minds have been stripped away from them. It is a sad reality. Even more depressing is the fact that most are not even aware of it. These thoughts often remind of a famous couplet by Josh Malihabadi [4]  that says:

“Let humanity awaken, and each tribe will claim Hussain as their own.”

Perhaps, it is when we will stop living a life of humiliation and gain consciousness again that we will come to terms with our own existence. Perhaps, this is exactly what Imam Mahdi (aj) is waiting for. Alone, in absolute darkness, the Imam of our time is waiting. The realization that a single man’s patience has, by far, constantly exceeded that of billions of people who claim to follow him is a heartbreaking one.

A number that once seemed so modest to me, 313 now seems like a far cry.  So many yet so few. This is what we have become–impoverished of the one thing our soul needs most: the awaited one.

[1] Allamah Majlisi, Biharul-Anwar, vol. 69, pg. 57.
[2] Hasanzadeh Amoli, Sharh Uyun Masa’il Al-Nafs, pg. 154
[3] Light Within me, Shaheed Mutahari, Ayatullah Tabatabaei, Ayatullah Khomeini, Part 2.3 Rules of Attaining Spiritual Perfection
[4] Poem : Hussain aur Inqilab (Hussain and revolution), Josh Malihabadi

From Islamic Insights (link)

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The Miracle of Teaching.

One of the most critical aspect of teaching, around which the relationship between teachers and students is built is the ability to maintain this notion of ‘Intelectual harmony’. By intelectual harmony, I refer to a state of mind in which a student is mentally comfortable enough to express his ideas, expose its questions and share its doubts. Yet, despite being at ease communicating with its tutor/teacher, the intelectual harmony I am refering too wouldn’t allow the student to express every single thought poping out of his mind. That harmony would imply that the student would be concerned about the validity and relevance of it’s own cognitive processes. In such a setting, a student is as eager to learn and ask questions as he is to impress his teacher by replying eloquently and refraining from irrelvant questions.

The question one might ask is, how is such an intelectual ‘homeostasis’ reached? How does one create an environment suitable for a student to develop both its intelect and personality? I guess this question can have different answers depending on the level of maturity of the students your teaching. You cannot expect a 10 year old student to be aware of such a balance between curiosity and self restraint, but for teaching experiences involving mature individuals, It often comes down to a collaboration from the teacher and the student. I’ve realized this duality while teaching myself. When lecturing at university, I never consciously had to make an effort to maintain a suitable athmosphere of learning. It came very naturally. The maturity level of students I was teaching was such that almost immediately after having started the class, an  unspoken, unthaught, almost instinctive tranquility was established between us, one that was exactly the definition of the so called ‘intelectual harmony’.

This harmony is not as easily and effortlessly attained while teaching younger students. I’ve been tutoring a 12 year old boy for few months now and I have to admit that while teaching him, I have to get hold of a significant amount of resilience just to maintain some sort of positivity. Those who have thaught to younger students know that one tends to osscillate between two very distinct states of mind. The first one is a state of frustration, and sometimes anger. These particular emotions rise when you are explaining something that either seems trivial to you and hence, you expect your student to understand it instantly, or when you have to explain a notion that had already been covered and understood. During those moments, the anger is not just directed at the student. Some negative energy also arises when you realize that your efforts, time and energy did not bear fruits. Not only did the student fail at understanding a concept that once was understood, your time spent teaching him became meaningless, and you have to start all over again. As soon as this frustration takes over your intelect, your negativity is palpable. You sigh, you become more serious and show signs of annoyance. At this point, another realization strikes : you are dealing with a kid. And having to explain again a notion once learnt but forgotten is very much a part of a natural process of learning. At this point, another state of mind takes over. A state in which the student is again at the center of the discussion. But this time, you realize that your student reacts to your exasparation. When you sigh, he becomes nervous. When your face becomes serious, he becomes insecure. Once so approachable, you become inaccessible in his eyes.

It is at this point, that the shift happens. In order to reclaim the positive athmosphere that is needed to foster a students intelect, you become gentle and patient again. You take into account the young students reality, you remind your self that you were once in the shoes of the child sitting in front of you. Your voice softens and your eyes shine again. When teaching with younger kids, the intelectual harmony is attained when a balance is reached between a natural frustation rising from a teachers disapointment when it’s student fails, and a characteristcal patience needed for every teacher to convey complex thoughts. When you can be firm enough to make your student realize that he has disapointed you, yet patient enough to allow him time to learn, only then will you reach that ‘intelectual harmony’.

Often, when I try to visualize how this harmony is expressed in different spheres of life, I end up thinking about the meeting point between the ocean’s might and the rivers patience. I’ve often associated the ocean’s strenght and depth with that of an almighty and infinite knowledge, which would inavitably come with demanding and stringent expectations. At its opposite, you have a patient river, wearing a much more gentle flow, and speaking in a soft and appeasing voice. The Quran mentions this meeting of these two opposite forces in Surah Rahman as a miracle and a sign of God’s existence. When you think about it, teaching is no less a miracle than other marvelous phenomenon described in the Quran. Since education has become such a trivialised concept, a right more than a privilege, one tends to forget that pragmatically speaking, teaching is nothing else than a miraculous transfer of knolwedge from a mind to another, whithout the use of any physical connection. Whenever I come to this realization, soft and subtle whispers of a familiar quranic passage find refuge on my lips: So which of the favors of your Lord would you deny?

The Alchemist. Past and present

Perceptions have always fascinated me. They are so intricately complex, unique and dynamic that it seems nearly impossible to accurately understand or study what an individual is truly feeling at a given time. What is even more so fascinating is that individual themselves might not be able to precisely say what it is that they are perceiving right when a sensation occurs. Keeping in mind the fact that how we react to different events is highly influenced by our state of mind, our past experiences, our memories, I wanted to perform a simple experiment in which I would be my only participant. The idea was to pick a book I read years ago (preferably a book that would have moved me enough for me to roughly remember what I had felt while reading it) and to read it again in order to compare it’s effect on me. Quite a few books met those criterias and I decided to choose a book that would most likely deliver insightful reflections on my changing personality. I therefore chose The Alchemist.

I don’t remember everything about my first reading of the Alchemist but I do remember the circumstances in which I read it. I had bought the book in London on a rainy summer day and had started it once I came back home to Paris. I remember having started the book the very night I had reached home.

During those days, I had just gone through my first year at university. My personality was evolving every day. I had encountered new friends, was studying in a new neighourhood, and was going through a perpetual re-discovery of my own faith and principles. I was interested in almost everything at that time. I was born in a traditional Muslim family. My parents used to visit the same mosque every week and I had grown up knowing the same people. That year though, I remember having discovered new places of worship and met people who followed different schools of thought within the islamic faith. I had visited churches and various other places of worship. At that time, I was seeking knowledge in whatever form I could. I was so curious and eager to learn that anything I was exposed to for a long enough time was either learnt or assimilated. I was exposed to photography and It led to me buying myself a camera and learning that art. I was introduced to the persian language by some Iranians friends, and having fallen in love with its sound, I started learning immediately. Come to think of it, that time was perhaps the most appropriate for me to have read the alchemist.

For a long time I remember The Alchemist being the only book that actually made me travel physically. Many of it’s passages struck the deepest chords within me and I remember having experienced something quite unique while absorbing each and every sentence Coelho had wrriten. The Alchemist had become my favorite book. I used to praise it’s genius wherever I could. I used to quote it’s passages in casual conversations. I used to offer this book on birthdays and special occasions. If The Alchemist was a religion and Coelho it’s prophet, I had become it’s most ardent believer.

The book wasn’t loved by everyone. I don’t know whether there is any link between the two, but most people who didn’t feel the same way about it were older and more mature people. I remember telling myself that their pessimism was the reason behind themselves not enjoying the magic of it’s writing. At that time, I thought you could only appreciate The Alchemist as an adult if you kept a positive outlook towards life.

Few weeks ago, I started reading the book again. My encounter with the book was a mere coincidence. I had started following someone on Instagram and that person had a picture of the Alchemist with a famous quote (‘Maktub)’. Close to 10 years separate my first reading of the book from the current one. A lot has changed. I have changed. The world has changed. And it would have been foolish to think that I would have appreciated the book the same way I did the first time.

Upon re-reading this novel from the very copy I bought in London, memories of my first reading emerged very vividly. I could sense the same thrill I had felt when I had first read the famous Maktub passage. Other conversations were still able to move me and to make fly to distant lands. Although I did experience similar feelings and emotions to those I felt when I had read it the first time, I could feel a distinct taste of bitterness that wasn’t present when I had first read it. It’s as if the Chemistry with the Alchemist was still there. But some other ingredients made if to taste slightly different. It now tasted just different enough to know it wasnt exactly the same. True it is that the book still made me fly. But I wasn’t flying very high. Perhaps, years lived constantly surrounded by adults who do not always say what they mean and do not always mean what they had hardened my mind, making it less suitable for flying.

I have also appreciated re-reading the book for it made nostalgic. Regardless of it’s ability to generate mature and distinct feelings I could appreciate within me as an adult reader, I could always enjoy the book for the way it reminded me of what I had felt back then. In other words, I also enjoyed re-reading the book for it reminded me of who I was. I reconnected with my lost innocence. I bonded again with a familar unfading positivity. I met a young and shy teenager, always eager to learn and to discover. At times, instead of appreciating each sentence I was reading, my mind was busy trying to remember what it was thinking when it had first read the very sentences it was looking at. Although our emotions often go back to valleys they once knew by heart, our intellect does not often consciously wander in their own previously perfomed cognitive processes. Perhaps, the awareness required to understand how an emotion rises is a demanding task and often a superficial one. Most of the time, what matters to us is what that emotion was able to trigger at that given moment. In my case, a great deal of pleasure experienced upon re-reading the Alchemist came from recalling each sentences that had made me fly. Some sentences had made my heart to beat faster back then and it was literally a thrilling experience to feel my heart reacting the same way upon re-reading them.

I have to admit I did not read the entire book this time. But I have read enough to feel satisfied. I am glad I re-read it. Although it is always a tough realization to come to terms with its own changing personality, I obviously was aware of not being the teenageer I once was. The question that comes to my mind, is whether I would have liked the book today if I had read it for the first time. If I were to discard the nostalgic pleasure that was partly the reason behind me appreciating this second reading, would I still apprecaite The Alchemist?

I would like to think that it would. Perhaps not in the same way. If I were to appreciate a book the same way I had when I was 10 years younger, that would possibly be problematic as it would mean that none of my previous experiences, travels, friends had an impact on my personality and life.

I am sure it wasn’t the last time I read The Alchemist. In few years, I will grab the same book I had bought in London on a rainy summer day 10 years ago and start reading it again passionately. If not for the thrill of flying high like I did the first time, I will read it to entertain whatever part of innocence there will be left in me. For you need some innocence to appreciate The Alchemist. Without it, Maktub will still sound like a foreign word. But it will fail to make you travel to foreign lands.

Look into those curious eyes.

I have been tutoring Mathematics to a 12-year old kid for two months now. I never thought I would be the one benefiting the most from this experience. I have developped a very friendly relationship with my student. He got attached to me and I also look forward to meeting him every week. He is always eager to tell me how his week was and I often enjoy our conversation more than our geometrical problems. He now knows that I like espressos for coffee and often greets me in his room with a cup ready on the side. Whenever I see him reasoning and learning, I try to remember if there has ever been a more meaningful moment in my life. I often find myself not being able to come up with anything that would even come to close to the truth I experience while teaching. If one was to ask me to describe feelings and emotions I go through while looking at my student’s curious eyes every time he asks me a question, I would probably sum up those moments with one sentence : ‘Every time a kid asks me a question and I succeed at quenching his curiosity, I feel I have given him a part of my soul that will live on as long as he does, even after I no longer exist.