The British Council, God bless them, hosted a free concert in their lovely garden yesterday as part of a season called ‘Ramadan Nights’ which when you see it written down actually sounds rather like the name of an American person who has converted to Islam, and is possibly a wrestler. We were treated to everyone’s favourite clappers, Black Thema, who have a ditty whose lyrics read roughly as follows:
Ana 3andy sirr/3andy sirr 7’ateer/el 7ayat lazem tet3aash/welly yekraaha mayestahelhaash* (I have a secret/a dangerous secret/life has to be lived/and he who hates life doesn’t deserve it)
Now amongst our party was Sharshar, and upon hearing these lyrics all of us immediately turned to him and gave him a pointed look. For Sharshar – while he is fun and lovely and impossible not to like – has views on life which make Ingmar Bergman productions look like Carry On films, and which are the product of reading books on Gnosticism and spending a year in the Egyptian army and frankly thinking too much. It’s not that he mopes, or spends his days lying down in a darkened room with his arm over his eyes or doodles coffins while at work – in fact quite the opposite, cos he’s a right laugh. His is a highly-detached, peculiarly cerebral type of misery which is almost scientific in nature. As far as I can make out what happened is that he read about the lost scrolls found in Nag Hamadi, became at loggerheads with God and then declared himself Gnostic/absurdist, to the general apathy of the world. Now every time one of life’s routine mishap happens he seizes upon it as evidence supporting his theory, for example:
Hubcap falls off while Sharshar is parking = life is an impenetrable maze of absurd delusions.
Sharshar is drafted into the Egyptian army = life is a series of foregone conclusions and minor tragedies, and the agony we endure is the warp to the weft of fleeting happiness in the cloth of life. (That he is amongst zillions of other young Egyptian men with brothers also drafted into the army is neither here nor there).
Sharshar sees a pretty girl for five seconds in City Stars but she does not notice him because he was in fact 800 metres away on the other side of the shopping centre = life’s sole objective is to make us taste its exquisite cruelty, to slowly burn in the flames of its bleak passions, to spin on the kebab of a celestial plot to grill me alive, oh, cruel mistress! etc etc. (He will in addition immediately go home and begin writing a diwan of poetry for her and their lost love, a project which will last for ten years).
The burden of this immutable truth does not appear to weigh heavily on Sharshar at all, but rather acts as a sort of ballast preventing his ship from tipping over into the playful but treacherous waves of unmitigated joy. It centres him.
After the hormonal turbulence of my teenage years I have largely concluded that introspective self-interrogation about the point of the existence of the universe should remain the purview of philosophy students and Oprah’s Book Club, since no good can possibly come of it. I am in any case satisfied if I have at least one reason to get out of bed every day, and mostly confine explorations of identity to Googling myself.
Having said all that, I am not a turnip, and there is alas an irresistible draw towards rumination about the point of life not in broad terms, but rather the purpose of individual existence. This draw has become slightly more powerful recently because my elderly grandmother, now in her 80s, who was widowed in the sixties and has lived happily on her own for the last thirty-odd years, is finally succumbing to old age.
There is something spectacularly cruel about old age, not because it is mortality made incarnate or even because it portends death, but rather because it has the potential to nullify everything and anything that has preceded it. My gran has had what I suppose would be considered an ordinary life with the usual allotment of good and bad and had five children along the way. But sickness and debilitation and their psychological effects are so overwhelming as to almost obliterate the past: it’s like spending 50 years painfully writing out a manuscript by hand only for a drop of water to fall on the page and for it to spread throughout the whole bloody thing, making an inky, illegible mess.
It is perhaps this which explains why the elderly are so often focused inwards on their infirmities, infuriating those around them with a litany of never-ending physical complaints. It isn’t merely that they feel unwell, because younger people in more pain do not complain in the same fashion. In the absence of the mundane pursuits of earlier days (work, kids etc) this obsession with their physical malaise seems to ground them in temporal matters, preventing the mind from wandering into a contemplation of what has, and hasn’t been, and of past events which once seemed so momentous but have now been rendered miniscule by the passage of time – and which by extension risk exposing the fatuousness of their entire lives. And there is a strange and terrible logic in these endless reports by the elderly about their physical ailments, since growing old is inevitable and natural and expected. Old people seem to relay details about a painful knee or a dodgy bladder in much the same way that new parents share news of a child’s first step or words: they are all marks of progress, or at least of advancement.
Old age renders the most brilliant of individuals at best cantankerous, at worst, self-obsessed bores, bringing into relief characteristics which were always present, but tempered by a sense of perspective which is obliterated once the body begins its steady decline. Exacerbating this in the UK is the way that old age is treated there: there is no established tradition of generations of the same family living together and property sizes and prices would in any case render this infeasible in the majority of cases. While it is incorrect to say that the British value the elderly less than in other cultures, shunting old people off to homes like lepers to a colony is not the healthiest of practices, even if it is borne of necessity, and must induce feelings of resigned guilt in those forced to do it. It is a strange irony that in Egypt, where lives are often so cheap, the twilight years are afforded an unusual respect.
* Please feel free to correct my feeble transliteration liberally.