“A Brief History of Nonduality Studies” by Sofia Samatar
The study of nonduality as we know it can be traced to the sixth century A.H., when the griot Balla Fasseke, the Bard Without Longing, adjured his pupils to “study the After which is not after the Before.” The melodic information service of the griot’s apprentices carried this doctrine into the most far-flung reaches of the Sahel, until even the bats of Khufu, as reported by Ibn Abu Hamran, the Stretched Scribe, could repeat it with perfect clarity, although in Dyula. The bat-speech, which took place in a curious register, so that it made a sound like a thousand knights simultaneously scratching under their greaves, was interpreted for Ibn Abu Hamran by a lone traveler called Aminata, who was making her way eastward in the company of her goats. “Knifed by the winds,” wrote the scribe in his compendious work, The Anklets of Obsolescence, “dried to a husk, glittering with forty layers of sand, this indomitable shaykha delivered me from separation and initiated me into the Before of After.” Overcome with gratitude, he offered to spend what little he had—a sleeping-mat and two plates of beans a day at the door of a mosque—to reunite the elderly oracle with her family. Aminata recoiled in horror. “God save you! I’ve come all this way to escape those sons of bitches.”
The Stretched Scribe, so called because his striking emaciation made him a familiar figure in the streets of Cairo, was responsible for the growth of the eastern branch of Nonduality Studies, a school preoccupied with the problem of time. “Was time created before or after creation, or simultaneously with it?” was the question he most often put to his students. The relentless heat or cold of the porch where he sat and the empty bellies of those he addressed ensured that their answers were listless and few. (I am reminded of poor Sylvia’s lectures, conducted in a graveyard.) Without the patronage of a certain Ibn Barzakh, known to his intimates as Frog-Eyes, it is doubtful whether the Eastern School would have survived the scribe’s premature death of the hacking cough known as “the Claw.” Fortunately, Ibn Barzakh was the son of a wealthy merchant. His elegant topknot was decorated with pendants of green jasper, and his waistcoat had been so thickly embroidered by his sister Radwa, “the Snub-Nosed Beauty,” that it could stand up by itself. Ibn Barzakh opened his home to students of nonduality theory, and his sister served cakes soaked in enough honey to make a buffalo dizzy. If only they had known that some two months’ journey to the south, Deng Machar Deng had solved all their problems with the dictum: “Creation is Time!”
It was in the marshy country of Deng Machar Deng and in the forests south of it that Nonduality Studies flourished most vigorously. (We would argue about this later: you maintained that the Eastern School was more inventive and lively, while I cited the vast gains of the Southern School. Our sincerity was equal; the shop windows reflected us both.) Deng Machar Deng, who encouraged his disciples to fish while he lectured, was most often to be found in water up to his lanky thigh, perhaps bending down to retrieve his net, perhaps singing, at all times carrying in his eyes the reflected radiance of the wetlands. Adherents of the philosophy spread by the griots traveled for months to hear him speak. “Creation is Time” was repeated as far as the Maghrebi coast. In the Congo River forests the musician class habitually inserted his lyrics into their songs, which made the trees grow faster. At his death, he was mourned all the way to Zimbabwe. A group of forest musicians appeared at his funeral, bearing a straw litter on their shoulders. On this conveyance tossed an old man, lashed by fevers and grotesquely swollen with mosquito bites. It was Ibn Barzakh, who had come too late.
(Later, you would weep over this tragic misstep of history. A single tear, like a tapioca bead. Afterward you laughed. I was proud of your fortitude: Sylvia had taught us to suspect that such accidents, failures and losses composed our true field of inquiry.)
Now came the golden age of Nonduality Studies, a period of such richness that it could not be fully explored in a single lifetime. In Cairo, Radwa bint Barzakh, “the Snub-Nosed Beauty,” now over eighty years old, continued to support the Eastern School. She reportedly slept on a copy of The Anklets of Obsolescence, which she kept in a padded case covered with her inimitable embroidery. Tita, King of the Azande, sent her leather bottles of shea butter by carrier pigeon, and she sent him philosophical lyrics in exchange. These notes were interpreted for him by an Arabic-speaking retainer, known as the Lost Turk, who was neither. Scores of Azande youth, fired by the promise of Radwa’s wisdom, traveled north in hopes of gaining an audience with her. At the end of her life her skin became so fragile that she had to be turned over every half hour, like a bird in the oven. This service was performed by her lifelong companion, a woman called Khayriyyeh, who could slice offending glances to pieces with her steel-colored eyebrows. Although few of Khayriyyeh’s sayings have been preserved, she is credited with the words that secured Radwa’s immortality on earth.
“Oh God!” cried a visitor on the day of Radwa’s death. “She’s smiling! Is she alive?”
“Who’s smiling?” Khayriyyeh snapped. “Radwa or the lips of Radwa?”
“Radwa or the Lips of Radwa” became the rallying-cry of the Eastern School, while the Western School, building on the cryptic love lyrics of Deng Machar Deng, burst into life simultaneously in Dakar and Dar al-Baydaa, which would be known ever afterward as the Twin Cities.
(“These are the Twin Cities too,” you muttered the night we met. Muffled in greatcoats and scarves, we flipped through albums in a near-defunct record store. “Who the hell listens to records anyway?” you said, accusing.
“You’re here too,” I said.
You didn’t blink. “I just like the pictures.”)
A golden age. And the King of Mali in his gold bracelets observed, among the venerable trees of his courtyard, the shades of unknown philosophers. “I know not whether they are living or dead,” he said, according to Seti’s Lives of the Saints, “but they are my kindred. For this reason I fear neither knife nor poison.” Two minutes later he was, in fact, poisoned to death. I told you this as if it was a funny story, but you didn’t laugh. Ashamed, I offered to buy you a hamburger at a nearby restaurant or, if you were a vegetarian, some French fries.
That was afterward—after the record store. In the record store, where through a mysterious legal oversight one could still smoke cigarettes, I asked you: “Why did you say ‘too’?”
“I didn’t; you did.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You did,” you insisted in some irritation. “You said: ‘You’re here too.’”
I was already talking more softly, as if dreams, like the smaller animals, could be frightened away. “You said, ‘These are the Twin Cities too.’ What are the other ones?”
In Assyrian sculpture, eyes like yours, with the white showing all the way around the iris, connote mystic vision. “Dakar and Dar al-Baydaa, of course,” you said.
Having stumbled onto such a revelation, how could I let you go? I wheedled you into the restaurant’s glare and drank you with my eyes. You licked each of your fingers with equal deliberation. I asked who your teacher was; you claimed to have none. I have no way of knowing if this is true.
“Who’s yours?” you asked with a guarded look.
“Sylvia Fazakas. You must come to her lectures.” (In the Abyssinian highlands, Azazet the Hesitant, one of our discipline’s splendid cranks, greeted her students: “Good-not-meaning-opposed-to-bad, morning-not-meaning-opposed-to-evening…”)
Sylvia, looking half-drowned as always, trailing hair and skirts, welcomed you with a languid gesture. Unaware of her own perfection, she wore high heels because she thought she was too short. You squirmed uneasily onto the bench beside me, chin sunk deep in the lumps of your homemade scarf. The other members of what I cheerfully referred to as the Minnesota School—a medical student and a reformed gangster called Forehead—blew on their hands and slurped hot tea to prepare for the cold night ahead while a fuzzy Qur’anic recitation blared from the speakers of the café.
Sylvia rested her cheek on her hand. “Why are you here?”
“It’s a free country,” you said.
“All right,” you admitted. “I want to see God.”
“That has been deemed impossible.”
“Is she really the teacher?” you asked me. The medical student snickered; Forehead examined the tabletop graffiti.
“You will agree that you can only see what you are not.”
“I can see myself in a mirror.”
“All right. Show me God’s reflection.”
“God’s reflection is not God,” said Sylvia, with what you would later call her Queen-of-the-Fairies smile.
“Christ, lady,” you said. “It’s better than nothing.”
(“To see God,” sang the great San philosopher known as the Child of Moonrise, while the Blue Scribe of Timbuktu transcribed the words with a reed pen, “one would need eyes, but one has no eyes, for one is not a thing, but an act. For we are not the knowledge of God, but the Knowing.” Crickets studded the grass; the Blue Scribe wept indigo tears and dipped her pen in them. In truth, our theory is nothing more than the history of sadness. “We might have eyes, if we were the Nouns of God,” sang the Child. “Perhaps the Nouns are the angels. We are among the Verbs.”)
I never thought you’d follow me home. I talked the whole way, hoping, but I didn’t believe it until your sneakers were trudging up my stairs. Panic struck: the apartment was hardly neat. Later, after you disappeared, it was worse: blood and ashes everywhere.
You threw down your bag in a corner. Of course, I thought, gleeful: That bag. It’s a homeless bag. And it was, shapeless and mended with silver tape. You sat on the couch and picked your chapped lip. “It’s freezing in here.” I clashed about in the kitchen, in plain view of the couch, sweeping the counter clean.
When I turned around, you had fallen asleep.
(A brief flowering in Moorish Spain. Gone in an instant, like the apricot harvest. Ibn Zahir said: “If creation is time, then creation is a constant. The world is recreated every day.”)
Every day you awoke on my couch, miraculous. Recreated. Would it have been so hard to go on repeating this? Cabdi Xasan, jailed by the British, held that we reassemble ourselves every day from the stuff of nonduality, until our strength runs out. I thought this a beautiful idea; you said it was depressing. You seemed to disagree with me whenever you could. Unlike most people, you never asked where I was from. In an inexplicable lapse of intuition, you thought I was in love with Sylvia.
“And that is where we stand now,” Sylvia said, having skipped over the decline of Nonduality Studies as she had elided its heyday, to arrive at our present moment when the investigation of unity is stifled and decayed, a theory in exile. Strands of mouse-gray hair, escaped from her hat, blew about her cheeks. She was lecturing on Ramadhani’s concept of the Transcendental No. “What he saw,” she said, “as the school at Malindi burned, and nonduality scholars were hounded out of their profession, was that the profession itself was an error. In constructing these schools, we were guilty of separation. The events of history, to his mind, constituted a No spoken by nonduality itself. Recall his prophecy: From now on it will be our destiny to arrive everywhere, only one step behind our enemies.”
“What are we doing here then?” you said.
“We are seekers,” Sylvia answered.
Later you said: “She never misses a beat, does she?” But I saw that although she could answer all your questions, she was disturbed, her eyes shifting toward the traffic beyond the graveyard’s blackened fence. When she picked up her snow-damp bag—which was very nearly a homeless bag—settled the strap on her shoulder, and trotted off between the icy gravestones, headed for the home she shared with her daughter, a brusque dog-beautician burdened by the duty of “watching Mom,” my heart ached.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” you said.
Your eyes startled me. Enraged.
Our fellow students had left us. The wind sang in the trees.
“We can do more,” you said, and there was an echo of Radwa’s lyrics in my head, and then your kiss like a window breaking.
Who were you? You never wanted to know what I had left behind, and you never told me anything about your former life. I wanted to search your bag, but I was afraid, afraid I’d find something there, conclusive evidence that you would not stay. The scholar Lukhele, known to the history books as “Crazy Niklaas,” lectured from the edge of a bore-hole in a country that was now called South Africa, but his words were not collected, only his story, the image of madness like a closed door or a Transcendental No. What might we have learned from him? What might he have given us? Could he, or one of the countless practitioners of our shattered philosophy, have passed on a word that would turn you from your path?
“I’m the next level,” you said, tapping your chest. I have no way of knowing that this is not true.
You didn’t work. When I was out you practiced boxing and Tae Kwon Do. You kicked a hole in one of my living-room chairs. As for me, I changed for work in the restroom of the convenience store, not wanting you to see me in the hideous red shirt.
I brought you pretzels. You ate them from the bag, staring at the wall. You cried one tear for the fate of Ibn Barzakh.
“If we can close the distance between the two of us,” you said, “then we can close the distance between ourselves and God.”
Ghada Mallasi, known as “the Ibis,” was stopped on the way to Qena. She had no pass. She sat by the road for two days, hoping the guards would have mercy. In her bag were a dozen layers of peanut candy and the manuscript of her masterpiece, The Meadows of Happenstance. When she understood that she would never get through, she put her bag on her head and returned to Omdurman. “Roads, roads!” she wrote in her little apartment, which was sinking deeper into the sand each year. “The more there are, the more beautifully kept they are, the harder it is to go anywhere.”
You sat on the broken chair, and I stood before you. The room was dark, but the glow of the kitchen in the next apartment fell on your upturned face. Your look of appeal went through me, not like an icicle or a blade but like the memory of the past, terrible and swift.
I knelt and kissed your smooth cold hands. “Tell me what to do.”
Your courage was boundless. We tried everything: meditation, hunger, dance. Forehead obliged us with a supply of qaat: under its influence we stayed awake for three days, chewing mindlessly. On the last day I saw an angel fluttering on the wall. “Look,” I said, “it’s one of the Nouns of God.” We experimented with matches, bleach fumes, buckets of icy water. The staple-gun, I now see, represented a turning point.
“We’re almost there,” you insisted every time. You could feel it hovering just beyond the pain, a clear space, like the sea.
Onesimo Bondo, attempting to get to Abidjan, where he hoped to perform his verse meditation, What the Thunder Knows, was seized for the mines.
I wish to be fair. I will not omit the contributions of the wider world to our philosophy: the Shoemaker of Bali whose shoes could be worn on either foot, the punk rock band in 1970’s Prague who were called “The Lips of Radwa.” I will not omit your orange laughter after consuming a Slushie. Once you showed me some grainy old-fashioned photographs from your bag: “That’s me,” you said, pointing to an iridescence seated on a tricycle. The closer I looked, the more the dots that formed you drifted apart, dissolving into a vast and alien constellation. Nonduality Studies, it must be admitted, is largely a hidden field, a discipline discredited and in mourning, practiced in graveyards, airports, alleys smelling of “ethnic” foods, video arcades. For a moment, I thought this was going to change.
Then you stood before me, gasping, blood streaming from the cut on your head.
“Did you feel it?”
“Yes,” I sobbed.
You raised the iron again.
“Stop! Stop! I feel it!”
You brought the heavy iron down, this time on your hand… but it is not my habit to dwell on evil memories.
Afterward, the medical student visited my apartment. She brought food and injections, and made a splint for my hand. “Don’t cry,” she said in our mutual, rarely-spoken language, as she completed the sutures. “You’re better off this way.”
She was right, of course. I should have rejoiced when I saw your bag was missing. You were dangerous, toxic. Your presence in the city was like a plague. You wrecked my apartment and nearly killed me. You made me lose my job. You stole my electric razor. When are you coming back?
I wrote these notes only for Sylvia, and she asked me to write them, I think, only for me, in the hope that they would lead me back into the world. “It will help you to dream of the future,” she said, but I don’t. I dream of the present, of the now. Otherwise, what’s the point of being a nondualist? I open the window and press my nose to the screen and smell the spring, exhaust and magnolia trees, and I never dream about you. Like the King of Mali I dream of others, beloved unknown colleagues, a twelve-year-old girl from Rambling, Michigan called Eugenia Czechowicz.
Eugenia is a family name; she dislikes it. She goes by Jenny. She has just understood, in a radiant whoosh of cognitive effervescence, that her best friend forever, a gifted ice-skater, both is and is not herself. In defiance of her parents’ rules, she is riding her ten-speed bicycle over the bridge.
Sofia Samatar (@SofiaSamatar) is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria and winner of the John W. Campbell Award, the Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She co-edits the online journal Interfictions.
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