TOMBEAU OF IBN ARABI AND WHITE TRAVERSES
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 Tombeau Of Ibn Arabi And White Traverses
  • Book Author:
Abdelwahab MeddebCharlotte MandelCharlotte MandellIbn al-'ArabiJean-Luc Nancy
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129
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Tombeau of Ibn Arabi and White Traverses – Book Sample

Preface On Tombeau of Ibn Arabi and White Traverses

This Tombeau is not a question of praise or homage. It means to show how a text that maintains a link with the dead can be written at the present day. Of those dead, the living remember Ibn Arabi, who has never stopped speaking to us through the words that weave his phrases. From this privilege I draw an- other: his surprising closeness to Dante.

They are the two symbolic figures who through history confirm my twofold spiritual genealogy, Arab and European, Eastern-Western. This duality requires going beyond creeds and polarities so that one ceases to be only from the West or only from the East (like the Koranic olive tree).

What becomes evident upon reading Ibn Arabi’s Tarjuman al-Ashwaq1 and Dante’s Vita Nuova is the poet as interpreter of his own text, a text that places at the center of the poem the love inspired by the Lady: Niz’aˆm for one poet, Beatrice for the other.

With them is linked the name Aya, enriched by the long history of the exaltation of women by men, where the plurality of experiences remains marked by the singleness of the Name.

My own experiences are channeled by all this po- etic memory into a singularity where certain pilgrim- age sites between Paris and Carthage should be recognized, along with Italian (Siena, Florence, Rome), Andalusian (Ronda, Almeria), and Moroccan (the High Atlas) places, and other locations about which I will have to remain silent to preserve a mea- sure of secrecy, mentioning only in passing the many deserts that appear throughout the stanzas—real de- serts in Africa and Asia, the conventional desert brought to us by the first impressions of the early poetry of the Arabs before Islam, the desert of the room wherein the Mallarme´an artifact gleams.

What else can I say about the foregrounding of the irregular (inherited both from Ibn Arabi and from Dante)? This irregularity becomes manifest through a prose haunted by alexandrines hidden between commas: in the flow of prose is hidden the elusive scansion of syllables. The twelve syllables that form the alexandrine get thrown off track, going under or over, for no other reason than to outwit the fixed count of syllables and to welcome the rule of the odd number.

In this rhythmic scansion lives one of the mysteries of the comma, which has an unexpected usage, here deliberately rebellious to syntactic order, as if to signal by its mark the presence of a voice intended to give life to the poem.

So the comma is the sign that, in the heart of the written text, there sounds the phantom of the spoken word. Know then that, from contraction to dilation, the breath, in its movements and its rest, will overflow grammatical logic. So the reader should know that these pages, in their fullness and their emptiness, ought to be heard according to listening to the discontinuous and to the discordant, as if to keep from glossing over whatever does not run smoothly in this world that absorbs us. Here, evil and sickness are portrayed in all the theatricality of love.

They nourish the attributes of beauty according to the role assigned to them by re- ality. And they are present only in themselves, with- out being driven away by the good. The duality of good and evil is here interlinked, with no loopholes or evasions. Here contraries are united according to a tension that varies from maximum to minimum.

Such a disposition is not the exclusive privilege of our orphan era, which, after Ho¨lderlin, after Nietz- sche, builds a tomb even for God. I see it even in the heart of previous eras. In truth, it remains lurking in the Unconscious of space and time. Revealed to me by frequent visits to the actual tomb of Ibn Arabi, a monument that still houses the ashes of the one who was born in Murcia in 1165  and died in Damascus in 1240.

Situated in the Ayyubid neighborhood of Salihiyya, at the foot of Mount Qasyun, this Dama- scene tomb was rebuilt in the sixteenth century; in Ottoman fashion, its walls are decorated with glossy ceramic tiles where vegetal motifs drawn in blue stand out from a white background; but such suppos- edly floral motifs are transformed into masks of dev- ils,  surprisingly  calling  to  mind  the  mannerist aesthetic called ‘‘grotesque.’’ It is as if the eye ema- nating from the tomb were ordering us never to lose sight of the duty of looking evil in the face and con- verting it into what is peaceful. The serenity brought by laughter after the purification of tears.

And in the climate where I was born and grew up, on the African coast that looks toward Europe while being lapped by the waves of the Mediterranean, it is white that is dreamed pure. So it was necessary to short-circuit the current that feeds the myth. In the heart of this crossroads were captured the effluvia that inspired White Traverses. Here again contraries were confirmed by the truth of their coincidence. From the primeval scene appeared visions teaching us that the impure lodges in the pure.

Another poetic horizon welcomed the thought emanating from experiences in the century that ancient writings corrobo- rate through an ethics that can take the negative into account without ever needing to abolish it.

This is the good fortune of one who has been able to take hold of the course of things by experimenting with two sequences of history animated by conjunc- tures quite far apart, at two very different speeds.

This is because my childhood in Tunis in the 1950s authorized me to frequent a world that still bore within it archaic vestiges that resonate with what I chance to grasp from ancient or medieval texts. On our African shore, we were anthropologically the contemporaries of Euripides, of Raymond Lull. A decade later, a sidereal time carried us far away, as if to discover ourselves entirely in what migrated from

America to reconfigure all the lands of the Earth.

Tombeau of Ibn Arabi

Ruins, remember, neglected grounds, dust, wander- ers’ refuge, the voice blends with its echo, look at the man in the cave, the rock is a mirror, everything is deserted, I wait for the clouds to shed their tears, I wait for the flowers to speak, I call out, no one an- swers, the stone hears my excitement, how many moons thrown in the well, how many suns come out of oblivion, the tree touches the sky, and the spark spells out a star, lightning flashes a carpet in the shadows,

on the headlands in the south, winds brush against the thunder, on the path, I say a rosary of pearls, black camels double the mounts and hills, sand covers my tracks in the dunes, seers wandering in the shade of gardens, the summer heat is a woman’s smile that unearths the custom of the dolls, so many vague paths, oh memory, oh mystery, the light appears fleeting, inside the heart an ancient feeling is engraved, which separates. With what words to say, in what bush to set foot, in peace, in danger, overwhelmed with love, to run back in one’s tracks.

She withdrew as soon as she appeared, she brought with her her perfumes and her spices, at the dawn of peacocks, forget the hour, the throne in the vision is dazzling, sashay the lady on a crystal floor, she lifts up her dress, she is a sun that revives the colors of the day, her fragrance brings joy, her ankle jingles with silver, her legs tremble with each step, she sends missives to thirsting peoples, mount of the nomad, home of the passerby, when she offers you intimacy, she opens herself up to your memory, and snatches you from the law, in one night, she initiates into the hidden, and abolishes the rites that check desire, in every famous court, in every temple, she is the glory of every book, in vain I called at her leaving, pile after pile, my patience runs dry, I preserve her beauty, which blazes at the most extravagant of my travels, and in me the angel’s shiver spreads.

Hello nostalgic one, orphan, friend buried in the fab- ric of pain, come back to the resonant light which, from its source, gushes forth, you, the recluse, who consecrate your fasting, your penitence, your effort, your seasons, now you leave the hermitage, you emerge from your wintering, don’t back away on the day of the meeting, don’t skirt round the canopy bed, where the curtains fall soft, altar that smells of the entrails, near the lake that mirrors the blue of the sky,

your heart is a burning lamp, you throw a handful of live coals, your throat cadences the pulsing water that, out of rock, rises up, and you who lead the docile camels, lower the flag next to the stela, there, at the crossroads, stop at the bend in the road, rest an hour and say hello, before you go toward the red domes that appear in the distance, on the horizon of fever, hello nostalgic one, orphan, tearful one, if they answer your greeting, may your gift be of beauty, if they say nothing, continue on your journey,

cross the river, don’t speak to the group, to the tribe, pass through the white tents that throw their shadows on salty lips, and hail the lovers all, Judith and Aya, Hind or Hera, ask them to show you the way, bril- liant white, sparkling between the peaks.

Welcome her who descends among you, whom fine gold dust blinds, which she scatters in passing, she stops, before she opens the closed door, while the night drops her black veils, and you say to her, wel- come, elegant one, stranger, subtle in love, in your name, I enter into bliss, captive in the fortress of your desire, I am your target, your arrows puncture me, on the smooth stone I shine my hands, she shows her bare arms, lightning splits the deepest part of the night, she says, what more does he want, am I not the icon that never deserts his heart, isn’t it enough to contemplate me, in any place, at any hour?

She interrogates me in the knot of desire, and accuses me, homeless, from desert to desert, scattered, I go from one extreme to its opposite, strewn scraps, time doesn’t put me back together, what’s to be done, without harmony, show the way, you who magnetize me, don’t saturate me with reproaches, tall flames rear up, tears course down my cheeks, the exile is different when he comes back, he has trouble walking in an empty labyrinth, no home will stay inhabited, when it is seized, in the revolution of dark nullity.

At night you see sorrow sting, it lives at the very bottom of the heart, I said to them, where can one find the ones who’ve left, they answered, they have chosen to stay, there where the emanations of infinity smell sweet, I tell the wind, go join them where they rest, in the shade of that tree, the one that is neither east nor west, bring them the thought of the discon- solate one, carrying the tatters of separation.

And I was jostled by some ladies, come from far away to visit the holy places, they encircled me, they shaded me from the sun, they told me, be ready, take off your shoes, learn to live the second that your breath leaves your body, how many men have they made holy this way, by suggesting that they run, on a field of coals, joining the branches of the valley, reeling in the shimmering noon, crossing the huge swarm of insects, that cover the hillsides with their hordes, you know don’t you, that beauty ravishes man, and carries him off in the tornado, that despoils,

I would find you at the destined time, beyond the infernal valley, there, behind the mausoleum, whose high dome defies the arid chaos, there where they keep watch, the ones who have tasted ecstasy, close to women, who exude ambergris and musk, and who, shy, free their hair, somber drapes, behind which they hide their faces.

Their youth is no more, their tracks have been erased, their site deserted, but their passion, inside their bodies, stays new forever, such are their traces, such are their regrets, in their memory, hearts melt, I cried out to her while she strutted about, you whose beauty is the only good, see how I have nothing left, I’ve stained my face with black spots, do not despair of love, when he might stop breathing, he who is drowning in his word, and who burns in the fire of exile, you who stir up the flames, don’t lose patience, our bodies will learn how to cross the devouring furnace.

White Traverses – Tombeau of Ibn Arabi and White Traverses

The washerwomen came to the house every Wednes- day, the day of the week for the big wash, Bedouins from the plains and Berbers from the mountains, women with brown chins or with tattooed foreheads, crosses or brooches as if drawn with a stick of graph- ite, marks that didn’t fade, didn’t even trickle in the dewy flush of sweat: indelible, they folded into the tics and wrinkles that work inscribed on their skin, taut or flabby depending on age and the structure of the face.

Facing huge copper vats arranged on the paved area bordering the garden, between the washhouse and the shed, the washerwomen let themselves fall with all their weight, throwing their arms forward, then pulling them back: repeating their motions till they were in a trance, they kneaded the wash, beat it, rubbed it, twisted it, pulled it out, plunged it back into the sudsy liquid, activated by the dissolution of a royal-blue cube, foaming azure water that ran toward the drain later, after the rinsing and drying, when the vats were emptied.

Like boas curled at the bottom of these vessels with their tinned interiors, the pieces of laundry were brought out to dry in the area behind the house, the patio as adapted to the modern villa. Sheets, veils, shirts, jebbas1 were spread, stretched before being fas- tened with wooden clothespins, hung from wire: ex- panses of white that the wind billowed out, made float, clatter: immaculate white, in the bright sunlight, where the spectrum made rainbows, evanescence of yellow and red flames, haunted by blue and green sparkles, immaterial debris where the mind could get lost.

Such visions I’m left with of all this white that came from the hands of the laundresses to dress the charac- ters who peopled the scene of rituals in the city, like silhouettes of the veiled women on their way Fridays to visit the dead, scattering among the white patches of the tombs, punctuating as they moved, south out of Tunis, the many-colored hill in springtime, among the overgrown grasses and the sheaves of flowers, a dialogue that brings together the moving white of the veils and the fixed white of the tombs: intimate invocations, wordy confessions, women talking and singing, chased by the winged white of gulls escaped from the harbor, from the canal, or from the lake to perch on the crenellations of the Spanish fort that interrupts the harmony of white, an ocher crown where gray sparkles, set firmly on the crest of the hill, between sky and earth.

Or again in summer, at Mahdia, after twilight, on the esplanade that stretches past the quays, when there appeared to me as if by accident a troupe of men crowding out of the upper-class club, all dressed in jebbas blazing with whiteness, colony of seagulls, swarm of giant wood doves, moon banners bellied out by a favorable wind, sails scudding toward fresh watering holes, without hindrance or constraint, lu- minaries that lit up the night, whose rule was just beginning, ample whitenesses that let the air circulate in the intimacy of the body, ventilation that reverber- ated on the white of walls, white on white that soft- ened the stay during the dog days’ heat.

Should I add the hospitable whiteness of sheets that welcomed lovers during summer in the alcove of siesta? Salty bodies, tanned by the sun and the sea, burrowed beneath the profound penumbra of the white cave, delight sharpened in the multiplication of white: from top to bottom, from the curve to the right angle, from rigidity to suppleness, from the rough to the smooth, from the stucco to the weft, from stone to cloth.

Evening, between the visible and the tactile, be- tween the eye and the touch, the smell of jasmines has insinuated itself, flowers gathered when the sun was starting its decline, in the last quarter of its course, closed petals whose undersides, Indian pink, tint of a fingernail, sealed the secret whiteness that illuminated the night with the addition of drunken- ness, which it offered to lovers carried very high, toward their port of call on the moon.

In other seasons, other flowers wafted fragrance toward the opiated frontiers of the absolute, perhaps because of their whiteness, I think of orange blos- soms, the flowers of citron, lemon trees, which dif- fused through the spring garden mute nighttime sonorities, which I caught and translated in my ado- lescent sleep into a psalm that drove my dream toward transgression, imagining myself in the act of violating my family’s prohibition by manipulating the alembic that collected drop by drop the volatile spirit of the flowers in their evaporated whiteness, before I had to pass through anguish, expecting that family superstition would be confirmed and that death would pierce the walls of the house and come to inhale the soul of one of its residents.

I could recall other great washing sequences, in search of whiteness, feverish activity that would last for days picked during the hot season, almost at its peak, two or three weeks before Awissou, the month of the Julian calendar, the memory of whose Latin name was preserved in popular imagination, days spent in washing the newly gathered wool, undoing bundles of jute, bales larger than men, new wool arranged in heaps, sorted through in search of the prickly grains hidden there, wool from sheep that had just been shorn, not to be mixed up with wool that had already been used and that came from the un- stitched and emptied-out mattresses, cushions, and pillows, yarn stuck together,

tassels and fluff flattened and soaked in water, that the women trampled, collective dance increasing the intense animal smell, a choreography presented to me again outside, by the sea: at each strike of a heel, the peasant women’s hips quivered under their turquoise me´lias,2  and their ankle bracelets jingled in the play of the rippling waves in which the sparkling of silver and foam was mixed, lunar gleams in the fiery noon, axis of day brought to the white heat they sometimes talk about in other idioms.

And I wonder: where should I wander to let the resonance of white resound in the endless progres- sion of images I leaf through in the album of my memory?

‘‘Whitening the wool,’’ the washerwomen said, knowing that never would this substance attain im- maculate whiteness, reflections of ivory veering to yellow that I found again with the animal smell in the burnous that the people of the Sahara wore indif- ferently summer and winter, half-white color that protected them from the sun in cold and warm months alike; that I found also in the robes of the Sufis, called libden (‘‘body’’) and that disciples wore over their bare skin, so they could experience the Other body to body, electrified by the coarse wool, wool that absorbed the profuse sweat that practitioners and novices produced during their vaticina- tions in these sessions of dhikr,

exercise that maintained awareness by means of chant and dance, to acquire His Presence by repeating Huwa till sati- ety, the two syllables of the third person pronoun that open onto the esplanade of Being, scansion of the loss of self, in the hope that by surprise the Ab- sent might seize you by the tuft of hair that covered the nape of your neck, a knot called by metaphor sufa, signifying tuft of wool.

Thus lapses into ambiguity the etymology of the word Sufi, which wavers between Greek wisdom (so- phia) and the reference to the Companions of the veranda (soffa)—the poor men who haunted the ve- randa onto which the house of the Prophet opened in Medina and who were raised to the status of founding heroes by the first Sufi generations—and between the wool of their robes (suf ) or the tuft of hair (sufa) and the quest for purity (safa).

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