DAY 169: What it’s all about

May 24th, 2016 § 0 comments

DitchI think this is our team in the ditch, though the enlargement has made the focus so crap that it’s hard to say.

I was back in Calais on Sunday. Don’t expect me as a result to launch into an account of the indescribable filth and misery, the enthusiasm of the volunteers who cleared tons of garbage – dead tents, beer cans, cigarette packets, nameless unspecifiable objects out of dank stagnant ditches and by diligent gouging out of sludge – thanks Hala – made the ditches flow if a bit feebly, so probably stemming the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, Zika fever, chikugunya et al. (But she comes from Iraq, where they’ve been into irrigation since the third millennium BCE.) You’ll no doubt find an account of what all my friends, with a little feeble contribution from myself, made to what’s been grandly called the Big Clean-Up on the relevant facebook pages. Nor will I mention our contribution to  holding off (partially)the constant risk of starvation in the camp by transporting 300 litres of milk, 89 litres of oil, 5 kg of Palestinian dates and much else to the warehouse. Why go on about these things and needlessly seek for self-aggrandisement? Let others dwell on these achievements. In any case (to stay with the refugees for a brief instant more of your time), they continue to arrive, at the rate of 100 a day in Calais where the warehouse is constantly running out of supplies; and the governments across Europe are constantly increasing their efforts to clamp down on refugees and close borders . A report from Greece, as attempts to close Idomeni go ahead (Guardian of May 24th):

‘Thousands are stuck in wretched conditions in detention centres on the Greek islands, where dozens are on hunger strike to protest at their treatment. “This is my seventh day on hunger strike,” said Wassim Omar, a Syrian teacher detained on the island of Chios. “We don’t want to spend our lives here.”

Some are still attempting to reach Germany with the help of smugglers. “We hear that tomorrow we will all go to camps,” Abdo Raja, a 22-year-old Syrian at Idomeni, told the Associated Press on the eve of Idomeni’s clearance. “I don’t mind, but my aim is not reach the camps but to go Germany.”’

We – that’s you and me and several thousands of our comrades, reader, are going to have to rally for la lutte finale if we can hope to get anything done in these increasingly desperate conditions. The mud at Calais, you might say if you wanted to get metaphorical, is the tip of the iceberg.

Luckily for me, in any case what one seeks from a superior blog post such as I hope mine will be is not so much an update on the day’s events, but more a deeper understanding of human nature, particularly one’s own; so, say, that one emerges from ploughing through it feeling in some way enriched. To contribute some of this kind of material – as opposed to random facts like the population of Grenada, [which by a startling coincidence is at 100,000 roughly the same as that of Nablus] – I’d like to contribute some of the insights I had yesterday; after the usual cup of Syrian tea in a Syrian tent.



To begin with a bit of reflection on what preoccupies us: it’s easy to get interested in the life stories and struggles of refugees, as it is in the daily conditions of life of (say) students at an-Najah university – see earlier posts. As my friend Cleopatra movingly put it: ‘While we were in Calais over the weekend doing the Big Clean Up Event, I was walking with a friend of mine who is 77 who had come to help along. He suddenly lost his balance and while I tried to stop him falling a group of Syrian refugees came running over to offer us support, they then walked us and invited us to their shelter for tea so that our friend could rest. While we spent an hour with them talking and sharing stories, the kindness and love they offered us remains with me today, they take us with them in their journeys through the deep human connections made during the friendship formed. When all you have to get know people by, is their immediate presence, their eyes, smiles and solidarity you find something which is extremely rare in this current society when most people are worried about possessions and social status. You find true beauty in humans, you encounter the beauty of the universe in one of the most desolate places I have been to in Europe. You realise that humans, stars and the sun and one and the same thing. That the most beautiful things we find in nature outside of the body should also be found in people, and while I was confronted with this raw aspect of humanity I saw clearly the beauty of being alive.’

How true! But what is more likely to stay embedded in the consciousness, as you might say, are the position of the Afghan cricket team in world rankings (number 9, if you didn’t know – information from a guy, inevitably, in a café in Calais). And, on the  bus going home, I gradually became aware  of what, for want of a better word we could call my ‘mind’ – the way I focus on things; as I and one of my fellow-passengers (lets call her Fidelio) discovered that we shared an interest in: a) the Vandals and the Roman Empire after 476 in general; b) Algeria at almost any period, particularly the present, the 19th century, the war of liberation, etc etc; c) the hit parade during the 1990s… (e.g. ‘Mr. Vain’), (d) the dance sequence in ‘Pulp Fiction’,… It became clear that this was either a case of our being attuned to each other at some deep level, or that one or – more likely – both of us was more or less completely indiscriminate in our interests, so that by elementary probability theory we were almost bound to be interested in the same things 90% of the time.

Socrates, of course, told us that our best source of knowledge was to know ourselves; while Husserl (I hope I’ve got this right, it’s a while since I looked at Ideas I) would say that there isn’t anything much else we can know. This leaves quite a décalage, as you might say, between different kinds of knowledge – the level at which we know what song was number 1 in June 1995, or how you tell an Anopheles from an Aedes when it’s on the wall, and the level at which we know why we should care about this information so obsessively. But hell, if philosophy can’t tell the difference between levels of knowledge after all these years, what’s it for? We might as well be stuck in Plato’splatoscave cave, confusing shadows and realities. And how would that apply to 1990s music? But I digress. I must move on to my blinding insight, which you probably had years ago: Knowledge is not about things, it’s a relation between people. The bad cases (we know them) are those where it’s used for exclusion, so e.g. that you can make a killing by knowing that one of the horses in the Cheltenham Gold Cup has a dodgy knee. The good cases, as in my example, is where you can use it to build friendships: ‘Yeah, isn’t that panning sequence from Weekend with the grand piano the most total?’ ”Oh my God! I completely insanely love that!’

So (to moralize, and to go on with friendships, which if you can remember that far back were the theme of the last post), while we all agree that friendship is all-important in the desolate places on this earth where we find ourselves, it is also built on the sharing not only (of course) of kindness, on picking up rickety old men, but also on shared enthusiasms, whether for the ending of all border controls or for Fairouz (here singing ‘Watani’). I think I’ll stop here., as Andrew Wiles said famously when, lecturing in Cambridge, he thought (incorrectly as it turned out) that he’d proved Fermat’s Last Theorem.

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