Issue 2: Feminisms

Charles Bronson Is Ibn Arabi (Excerpts)

Dalia Neis

“The reason which has led me to utter poetry is that I saw in a dream an angel who was bringing me a piece of white light; as if it were a piece of the sun’s light. ‘What is that?’, I asked. ‘It is sura al-shu’arâ’ (the song of the poets), was the reply. I swallowed it, and felt a hair stretching from my chest up to my throat, and then into my mouth. It was an animal with a head, a tongue, eyes, and lips. It stretched forth until its head reached the two horizons, that of the East and that of the West. After that, it shrank back and returned to my chest; at that moment I realized that my words would reach the East and the West. When I came back to myself, I uttered verses that came forth from no reflection and no intellectual process whatsoever. Since that time, this inspiration has never ceased; and it is because of this sublime contemplation that I have collected all the poetry that I can remember.”

Ibn Arabi, Dîwân al-ma’ârif

The Dreamtime

There is an unbounded vastness to Ibn Arabi’s vision. It conjures up the dreaming currents that stretch back and forth from the Iberian Peninsula right through to the Maghreb; the frontier zone between desert and sea across the edge of North Africa and the tip of Southeast Spain; the crossroads where he stood with visions of white light radiating with divine sparks.

Ibn Arabi — the twelfth century Andalusian scholar and poet — recounts his creative inspiration and dreams, and within those dreams reside an eternal poem whose landscapes breathe out verse and visions that haunt the air of the Andalusian-Maghreb imaginary.

There exist singular landscapes charged with vibrating currents, landscapes that draw in communities, individuals, and species both living and dead. Operating like a magnet, these currents saturate the initiated with a dreaming that hearkens back to primeval times. The air itself becomes a molecular force of the dreaming body; one that is infused with subtle spirals of infinite awareness. Cultural artefacts produced in this space have no choice but to be suffused by this dreaming.

It is this stream of thought which takes me back to the first time that I watched Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West on a banged up VHS tape in my attic room one cold winter’s night in South London. Nothing prepared me for this solar trance-encounter; outside, there was torrential rain, and the darkness of the Equinox. Inside, I was transported to a world embalmed by intense midday heat, one that induced another way of being, and another way of seeing; where time is stretched, dilated, and ritualised; where warriors of cool audacity roam. I became transported to a transitional era where one golden age was about to be crushed by an emerging dark age: a small-time furiously expanding proto-capitalist system, a grey territorial entity that slowly pushed out the communities, landscapes, and dreams of its indigenous inhabitants. Once Upon a Time in the West preserves the last gasp of this warrior battle. The new world, along with its patriarchal pioneer settlers — with its brothels and banks, entrepreneurs and bandits, encroaching on the world of open desert plain and ancient rock formations, alongside its inhabitants of animals, plants, and people — who collectively straddle the ever expanding and collapsible stage-set of a frontier.

It was while watching the penultimate duel sequence that I became struck by the dreamings of the Iberian Peninsula terrain — the terrain in which the majority of the scenes were filmed and located. It seemed to vibrate in the celluloid strip like glimmers of lost jewels. As I continued to watch Once Upon a Time in the West, a storm raged outside, and the rain pelting down my window pane became a collective, invisible applause for the final breath of resistance towards the encroaching New World. The entire film’s sweeping rhythmic movement enacted a parallel storm current effect, in the process, blowing out dust devils from other times.

Behind the no-named and many-named warrior — performed by Charles Bronson — was the memory of the West before America, and the memory of the golden age of Andalusia before Spain. Between the glance of Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson was the glance of death, but also the intensity of a sacred dance. Within the tale of Once Upon a Time in the West there is an alchemical unravelling of many tales, marking an indelible rupture in the original landscape and its spectral other, evoking a West that once was.

The End of the Golden Age

Dihya al Kahina, a Berber warrior-herbalist from the Awras mountains, crosses North to South to reunite with her cousins in Andalusia, after a battle in which she defeats the invading Muslim Arabs. Along the way, she meets a man named Ibn Arabi. He notices that she is carrying a bundle of herbs in her arms, and that her eyes are unusually clear and bright. Greeting the woman, Ibn Arabi calls out, “Kind woman, gladly tell me the secret to your dancing eyes.” She hands him an herb and tells him to drink it as a tea the following night when the moon rises, “It’s spring now and the grass is fertile on the mountains. There will be an abundance of movement up there. Watch this carefully, and let your eye dissolve its normal tendency to see clearly and distinctly. Scan the entire landscape, taking in its peripheral details, and observe until your vision blurs, and you will begin to merge with the vegetation of the surrounding area.”

Puzzled, Ibn Arabi agrees and thanks the woman. He walks away with the herb, and observes how the encounter had the curious and dizzying effect of stopping and reversing time.

Ibn Arabi was a highly respected scholar; he was developing a new way out of the sober Aristotelian-Judeo- Islamic movements of thought: “I am beginning to think more about the dreaming self, that if you allow yourself, and train your thoughts while dreaming, you will arrive at a place quicker than that of conscious perception and rational deduction alone. In fact, this is the best short cut you can have!” Chuckling to himself, he climbs the mountain, the Northernmost mountain on the Rif, close to the port town of Tangier, overlooking Andalusia, his homeland.

Sitting himself under an olive tree he makes a fire as the sun goes down. As the moon rises above him, he drinks the herb tea. Everything is still, and he feels sleepy after a long day of walking through uneven ground. He begins to notice the smell of lavender and eucalyptus, their scents merge and create a wondrous fusion that he until now was unfamiliar with. “What a fantastic new idea for a spice!”, he once more chuckles to himself, and begins to laugh so euphorically that he names it “Cosmic Laughter”. He thinks, “It’s not when you laugh at the cosmos, but when you laugh from the point of view of the cosmos. Then everything becomes ecstatically funny.” Even the thought of his own death makes him chuckle, and with that thought, he laughs a cosmic laugh, becoming elated to the point of feeling a peculiar sensation throbbing around his abdomen area, causing his penis to swell.

At that moment, he thinks about the woman who gave him the herbs the afternoon before last, “She had such beautiful shiny eyes, and I looked at them for so long and she didn’t even turn away, but returned my gaze with strength and openness. I love this woman. I will call her herb lady from now on.” Ibn Arabi called out to the stars, “Herb lady! Herb Lady!”. And with that utterance, he feels the pulsating sensation from the reveberative impact of a mini whirlwind that emerged out of the dust from the neighbouring Andalusian desert a shore’s distance away. And this whirlwind marked the beginning of the end of a golden age.

The Cinema Rif

While lying stretched out on the shore-front of Cadiz in the midday heat, I drifted into a vivid reverie. It was almost midnight, and I was gazing out at the horizon beyond the port, and in the distance, I could see Tangier’s port, and beyond that, the Cinema Rif of Morocco.

The Cinema Rif’s electric blue neon sign flashes silently over the port town of Tangier. Most of the town’s inhabitants are in the auditorium watching a dubbed version of Once Upon a Time in the West. It is the third of August, the anniversary of the death of the fallen warrior-sorceress, Dihya al Kahina. Her shrine takes the form of the ritual viewing of the Spaghetti Western on this date, followed by a solemn procession through the old town square medina. A lavish feast is prepared for after the screening and procession. Scents of lavender and eucalyptus waft through the streets as herbal tea fusions are mixed in alchemical form, from the premises of an old family-run Berber pharmacy. The audience in the cinema are fasting on this festivity, and have drunk vasts amount of the herbal infusion as they sit restlessly in their seats awaiting the penultimate duel scene. Some members of the audience drift in and out of the cinema, smoking cigarettes on the balcony terrace, watching the silent port, their gaze drifting and expanding to the hazy horizon of the Andalusian frontier. I am a part of this festive audience, and sit in between an old man and his wife. Their arms are stretched out, with their hands locked tightly together behind me.

Two hours have passed, hours filled with endless drifting in and out of the movie theater. The seats start to slowly fill up again. The man and wife seated on either side of me are now whispering a refrain that I do not understand. The entire audience begins to amplify this whispering until it fills the auditorium. (I discover that the refrain is one version of the warrior’s name, a kind of prayer chant that invokes the spirits of dead saints.) We have come to the scene of Harmonica and Frank’s first encounter by the newly built up railroad. A sparse dialogue breaks out between them, and the heavy silence of the landscape is interrupted sporadically by the whistling wind, and the sounds of workers’ tools tapping and hammering the metal tracks, forming a minimal yet polypercussive soundtrack to the words uttered on-screen, in turn merging into the audience’s whispering refrain of the warrior sorceress’s name:

Frank: Surprised to see me here?

Harmonica: I knew that you’d come

Frank: Morton once told me that I would never be like him. Now I understand why. Wouldn’t have bothered him knowin’ you were somewhere alive.

Harmonica: So you found out you’re not a business man after all?

Frank: Just a man.

Harmonica: An ancient race. Other Mortons will be along and they’ll kill it off.

Frank: The future don’t matter to us. Nothing matters now. Not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. ‘Cause I know that now you’ll tell me what you’re after.

Harmonica: Only at the point of dyin’…

Silence again, save for the whistling wind, as the camera forms a consciousness of its own, enacting a vision of the spectators’ prayers, lifting us up from the two men’s parting words, their figures left poised like ants in a twilight field as we soar high above the railway track into the sky with the Blue Thrush onto the edge of the sea. We are like Turtle Doves, diving and gliding across the frontier world across time and space. All the imperceptible elements emerge in our field of vision; the sounds that no one ordinarily hears, and the flashes of the dead join us in this final ceremonial embrace. The panoramic scale of the Iberian Peninsula and the entire Maghreb spans out, encompassing the Rif Mountains, the Atlas Mountains, slowly panning out sideways to expose the port town of Tangier and the Tabernas region of Almeria, frozen now under its former foaming seabed. We see the entire region in fossil form glittering like shrines underneath the surface of the sea: cities, animals, flowers and plant species, communities of people recognised as living signs in ordinary perception, now not surfacing beyond the sea, there mute and frozen under the seabed, forming diagrammatic maps of their future selves. What emerges is a vision of this particular terrain, with its interwoven histories, tales, and future dreams, unravelling like a spectacular map in front of our eyes.

A cool, poised silence spreads throughout the auditorium. Silence reigns on-screen too, as the two men encounter each other in the long awaited duel scene. We are now brought back to ground level, and see the particles of sand teeming with life beneath their sturdy feet. The whistling wind continues to blow dust devils around them. They stand still for a while, and then walk slowly towards each other. Walking round and round in circles, the dust spiraling around them, opening a vortex of abstract worlds. Their circular walk becomes a spiraling dance. They twirl around each other like a dove and peacock about to mate. They are dove and peacock in courtship, and scholar/sorcerer betwixt sacred embrace. I see more than what’s on-screen, as do my neighbours sitting beside me, as do the rest of the spectators in the auditorium. We see more than what’s presented onscreen, and yet it all begins there — in the dust particles bathed in solar desert heat — and ends in a place and space that bears no direct relation to the events in the narrative.

We begin to see a third being between the two warrior/protagonists onscreen. This being is initially invoked as a flickering halo, a transparent superimposition on the original duel scene. It seems that we have summoned this mysterious presence through the alchemical consequence of watching this film within a framework of ritual, festivity, and chant utterance. We see Her as she hovers across the screen, first as a trace of flowing red light, then later in human form, gliding in between the two men. Beyond their glance, we see a woman’s presence binding them together into an abstract yet charged embrace, and it this woman that navigates their moves and gestures as a choreographed sequence of an erotic dance.

The Glance

Time is turned back one thousand years. We find ourselves amidst a white-hot desert in Al-Andalus. The year is 1190, and the shadow of the upcoming catastrophe haunts the fabric of this land. Two figures roam the desert; two minds of opposite demeanors and contrasting belief systems.

Ibn Arabi and Moses ben Maimon walk under the great white arch, a monumental edifice built on the premise of their brotherly love, they begin to argue about matters of worldly concern.

Ibn Arabi speaks, “A person must control his thoughts in a dream, the training of this alertness will produce an awareness of the intermediate dimension. It will produce great benefits for the individual.”

Moses ben Maimon replies, “I Rambam, Moses ben Maimon, your cousin, and fellow philosopher, have with my cousin, your brother Ibn Rushd, reached an enlightened path, and paved the way for Aristotle in our brotherly religions. You write your ideas based on dreams and visions. I write mine based on the scholarly texts that have come before me, and have traced a line back all the way to the Greeks, to Aristotle, blessed be his Name. Do you oppose these advancements?”

For a moment Ibn Arabi pauses and turns around. His silvery turban falls to the floor. And lo and behold, honey coloured locks fall to his shoulders. Moses ben Maimon, transfixed by the beauty of his friend, moves towards him, and offers his hands in a gesture of a caress.

“I have become Woman,” Ibn Arabi declares.

Moses ben Maimon, torn between his beauty and shocked by his words, glances at Ibn Arabi as he continues: “One morning, my teacher, Dihya al Kahina, handed me a cup of bitter weeds. A soon as I had consumed the tea, I fell into a deep trance, and saw Dihya’s eyes, and began to see the stars of the cosmos dancing inside them. Then I found myself gliding across the desertscapes of Andalusia. Andalusia took on a certain kind of beauty, a terrifying luminosity. It was as if past, present, and future had given way to an ever deeper present, and that I was part of it, and it was part of a dream that was dreamt by others before and after me. The sun turned a strange blue, and the animals that I previously feared came towards me. And with that thought in mind, I saw that I had indeed turned into a large turtle. And all the irritations of the human mind left me, and I became Pure Turtle, and the joy that built within me had an intense warmth and deliberation, and I named it Cosmic Laughter.”