Monday, March 12, 2012

Of Memorials


There are many troubling feelings you experience when attending someone's memorial. One might think that none amounts to the bitterness of remembering the loved one who passed and knowing he will not be here anymore or, if you were not so close with him, in seeing his memory in the eyes of other people. This is bearable or, in the least, manageable and one might think that the cliche is right on the mark with that one: time does heal such wounds.

There is, however, an unsurpassed desperation when attending memorial services: That you see none of that. To witness the formality of death in the eyes of the waiters who wait on tables, busily pouring water and black coffee. To see the Qura'n reciter arrive to the destination and leave when he has done his part, to see the indifference in the eyes of the attendees. It is the tragedy of being a corpse tended to by living corpses. To be a corpse among people who are incapable of remembering who you were because all the ones who do are either dead, or simply led lives where you were not of fundamental importance. And, though the word corpse sounds cruel, whoever died is just that at that moment: a corpse. There is no particular value to the formality, there is an almost mechanical quality to it: It has to be done because it has to be done. And there is no love, no emotion, no affection. Pure mechanical social convention set into action.

This is a thought that time will not heal or manage. It is an image you cannot forget once you have seen. It is hauntingly brutal and it is the reason I do not plan on having people throwing me a memorial service when I die. Get rid of me in peace; do not force me on the world when the world no longer recognizes me. Do not push me down the throats of people I do not know for reasons I do not care for. And most of all: Do not turn me into a sign on an Events Hall to be taken down at the end of the evening when the chairs are dusted off and the tables are stained with coffee. Oh please, God, do not make me a sign on a hall.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Defending Deism

I have made it a habit for myself, when reading philosophy, to never stop at views that I am interested in but to always search for counter-views and counter-arguments and attempt, in my own silly little way, to reply to them. My arguments are mostly sufficient for myself but often I read objections to my objections and I have to re-think my position again. And I think that this thinking and re-thinking, making way for your mind to go past the barriers of tradition and one-dimensional-thought; I think that is something that I will continue to do mainly for how much I have learned following that particular paradigm than any other paradigm. I guess Alija Izetbegović says it best in his Notes from Prison: 

Only he who asks gets the answer. 

So in this particular post; I'll be viewing some arguments, or bits of arguments, attacking Deism. Deism is the philosophical view that admits God to exist but only as a First Cause for the Universe and does not intervene in our personal lives in any way or form. The classic analogy for Deism is that God is much like a Divine Watchmaker who, having made the watch, then let it run on its own. Deism admits God and the human ability to reason but rejects all forms of organized religion.

Though I have not seen it demonstrated yet, mainly due to my limited reading, I believe arguments for God often cited by Biblical theists can be made in the same vein to a Deistic, non-interventionist God. I am talking of course about arguments like the cosmological argument from contingency, the Kalam cosmological argument, the moral argument, etc. I think it's self-evident that these arguments are rather agnostic about the interventionism of God and therefore pose no particular problem to the Deistic worldview. It's also note-worthy that, of all forms of theism, Deism is the only one that seems a little less repulsive to some of the 'New Atheists', most prominently Dawkins who, when debating John Lennox, said that:
a serious case could be made for a deistic God 
Similarly problems that are posed to such arguments can also be posed to a Deistic God. So an argument from moral evil can be met with Plantinga's free-will response as well as rejections based on infinite regress that are raised due to the cosmological argument. In this post, however, I'll review only three simpler objections found from random writers on the web (atheists and theists alike). I'll then narrate my brief thought process about those arguments. The simple replies I mention are simply springboards for you to build your own arguments, or counter-arguments, and are not ripe arguments, per se.


Objection 1: God Intervenes With Miracles: 
God seems to limit His intervention in the universe to creation miracles and miracles that demonstrate His power and love
Full article here.

I think a lot of miracle claims, like the one above, usually have no basis in empirical evidence or in the arguments of logic and are, ultimately, unfalisfiable.

For the sake of argument, let's suppose God does allow miracles to be performed. Why does this eliminate the possibility of a non-interventionist God? It could well be the case that God created the universe with the tendency towards miracles that arise and that God has no immediate involvement in any miracle as the miracle happens.

Under this particular paradigm, the miracle is not unlike an 'Easter egg' in a piece of software. You don't see people proclaiming that the extra feature they found is proof that the programmer intervened directly with them while the program was running. But rather this 'Easter egg', this software miracle, was really part of the system all along. A special and seemingly strange part on first sight but yet, it was there all along waiting to be found and discovered. So my proposition, regardless of whether or not miracles can be based in empirical evidence, they are compatible with the image of a non-interventionist God that deism proposes. Deists, like Paine, however, do admit to the greatest 'miracle' of all: that of the very existence of man and nature.


Objection 2: The Fine Tuning Objection:
Yet, for a personal Being to so powerfully and meticulously formulate such a finely-tuned universe for the preponderance of Human life, it would follow that He would also have significant interest in humanity's existence
Full article here.

This is an interesting claim and it is the first time that I see the argument from fine-tuning twisted around to justify a personal God. First of all, I am not a fan of any argument from fine-tuning mainly because most arguments of this form are easily dismissed with the much more logical alternative of the anthropic principle or the modern cosmological idea of a multiverse or both of these concepts combined. The anthropic principle is a simple, but elegant, principle of cosmology that tells us that the Universe is not fine-tuned for the universe; the universe does not "fit" us, but rather we fit the Universe. Douglas Adams put it quite well in his 'sentient puddle' analogy:
  ... imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. 
Even if we do admit the Universe is fine-tuned for us existing in it; why does it naturally follow that God must have some significant interest in who we are, what we believe in, what we eat or drink, etc. which are ideas exclusively dictated by the theism proposed by most forms of organized religion.

Objection 3: Deism = Atheism:

So for any practical purposes, deism is indistinguishable from atheism. An entirely non-interventionist god -- one who doesn't intervene even with any afterlife we might or might not have, much less with this life -- is, in any useful day-to-day sense, utterly indistinguishable from no god at all.
Full article here.

This is an interesting objection but the trouble is that it assumes too much about deism and its proponents throughout history. Modern-day deists are, at best, agnostics when it comes to the afterlife, the nature of human existence, the existence of the soul and its immortality, etc. The only two ideas that deists confirm beyond any reasonable doubt are the existence of God and human reason which is most definitely not atheism.

It's also, I think, a very superficial idea to limit God to a 'day-to-day' God. Why is that assumed to be an essential idea for God? Isn't that begging the question against deism?

As I said before, my thoughts here are just springboards for you to try and think over these objections and over Deism in general.

Until we meet again,
Take care.  




Friday, February 3, 2012

A God of Good


“Hypa, be reasonable…I am the justification of evil, evil causes me”
-- Azazel, from Azazel by Dr. Youssef Zidan.

Note: I am not an academic philosopher so I beg you excuse and point out any mistakes in my thought process. These are mere musings and thoughts. They do not attempt to answer but merely provide an invitation to think.

The questions we struggle with are uncountable. What is reality? How can we define reality? Is reality subjective or outside of us, independent of our senses? What is it that makes our consciousness subjective to each one of us? How can we ground such subjectivity to the tiny neurons that constitute our brain? How is it that a bunch of electrical signals pulsating in a lump of flesh and blood residing in our heads can turn out to be responsible for this amazing amount of sensory experience, including clearly subjective qualitative experience...Tasting an apple, hearing Beethoven's 5th symphony or seeing the color red? It seems bizarre. After all, a brain is an ugly little thing!

These fascinating questions have boggled philosophers of mind for centuries and several of them continue to be the cause of much controversy and they remain my personal and central interest as a hobbyist of philosophy.

But they are not my concern today. My concern today is a question that is, perhaps, as hard to answer as the others: If we assume an omnibenevolent (all-loving), omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) God or Creator; why is it that natural evil exists? The earthquakes, the tsunamis, the forest fires, the tornados, the floods that have killed millions since the beginning of time...Why does God seem to intend, or at least allow, such evils?

Celebrated philosopher of mind John R. Searle wrote that one of the best ways of answering a philosophical question is not to rush to answer but to analyze the question. On analysis, we are brought to three main objections to the question itself. All of these objections attempt to dismiss the question as, essentially, a non-question.

Objection 1: Not Evil:

The first is shocking at face-value, "Those aren't evil! Only moral evil is what we can term evil. There is no such thing as natural evil".

But what does that even mean!

Of course, it's evil! Assuming some objective measure of meta-ethics (something common in all central mainstream beliefs of God) evil is, technically, the opposite of good and good is what we can roughly define as whatever maximizes human well-being. So, yes, a child drowning in a flood is evil. It strikes a family at its heart. It can drive people insane with depression. It can drive people to end their own lives. These things are certainly not maximizing human well-being. 

Furthermore, we can easily label the death of a child as an "evil" act on part of whoever did if it was moral (and not natural) evil we were talking about (for example: if the child was killed by a fellow human being). So why is it that when a "natural" cause is involved, such as flood or AIDS or cancer, why is that not evil? To me, it seems a logical contradiction to label it as any possible shade of "good".

Clarifying his position, a person purporting this objection will tell you that you got him all wrong. He wasn't redefining the meaning of evil, merely, redefining the meaning of natural evil. The form of the objection, in this case, is that natural evils are, themselves, moral evils caused by free agents, possessing free will like ourselves. Creatures like the devil, fallen angels, demons, etc.

But we are brought to a dead-end if we admit God yet do not admit the existence of such creatures. Furthermore, if we are to include such creatures in our initial premises, the burden of proof lies on whoever’s proposing the objection to tell us why we should logically believe these beings exist. Furthermore, we are discussing under specific premises and those premises simply do not include the presumption that supernatural beings, other than God, exist. Due to that, I feel this is a weak objection at heart.   

Objection 2: For the Greater Good:

There is a second, smarter objection, "Perhaps these evils, though at their face-value seem evil, work to form some sort of ultimate good. Perhaps the best, clearly good, qualities in us (courage, heroism, etc.) can only be brought about in a world where natural evil and good both exist".

This is, at face-value, simply a restatement of Objection 1. It attempts to rename natural evil as a constituent 
of “greater good” in the same way Objection 1 aimed to rename natural evil to “moral evil”.  We have assumed that God is all-good, all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing. This is our initial premise. By what rule of inference can we jump to the idea that this allows for evils, of any size, that can form a greater good? One would think an all-good God is exactly that: an all-good God; a God who does not intend evil for human beings, of any possible size or for any possible purpose. This is merely a shift of the burden of proof designed specifically to set us away from the main idea.  

The second part of the objection is interesting yet does not seem compelling. It is, essentially, an argument of semantics. “Up can’t exist without a down. Good can’t exist without evil”. Why is that presumed axiomatic? Furthermore, this argument cannot be correspondingly used to justify moral evil. In other words, can we really say that a moral evil like war ought to exist because otherwise there would be no way in which a soldier would save his comrade in a heroic act of courage? That sounds preposterous. And therefore, the argument applied to natural evil should be dismissed in the same vein.  

Many of us are then forced into coming up with certain weak excuses like, "We don't know how God thinks" or "How do we expect to understand?". But that strikes me as overly ignorant: We started with the premise that one got the idea of God, grand as it is, and one was capable of wrapping one’s mind about that. One was, further, capable of wrapping one’s mind about the different qualities of God (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.). Determining why natural evil exists given God exists seems like a comparatively minor task.

If we had put a limit to our thought process, if we had determined that we "could never understand", how did we arrive at our current conclusions of God when they seem comparatively more complex?

Objection 3: The Scientific Objection:

This objection tells us the world would suck if there was no natural evil because there wouldn’t be a world to start with. In other words: Earthquakes kill, yes, but they were also responsible for forming continents and raising civilizations. So with every natural evil, there is evidentially some hidden scientifically plausible good.

This is all acceptable if we did not admit to God’s omnipotence with our initial premises. We can safely assume God cannot create a world of married bachelors; such a world is illogical and cannot exist and therefore even an omnipotent God is incapable of creating it. But what plausible reason can we give for God not creating a world where continents are formed by a process other than earthquakes? Or where tsunamis never occur? Or where the water level never rises to cause deadly floods? How would a world like this be worse than a world where every possible “good” outcome of natural disasters is accompanied by an equally evil outcome? To add a final blow to this objection, one would also think an all-loving God would be willing to create such a world.          
***
So once we are past these objections, we are back to square one. I think to answer the question of natural evil we are in desperate need of reshaping our entire understanding of God. Our understanding of God as a force external to us; a force outside of us, too perfect for sorrow or for happiness, above feelings of human emotion has to be broken down for us to construct a renewed understanding of God.

We can also note that, from an emotional standpoint, any of those previous objections is worth zilch to a husband widowed by a hurricane or a child orphaned by tsunami or a mother who loses her child trapped in the rubbles of an earthquake.  How can we explain to that mother why God allowed her son to die? Why did God sacrifice this tiny creature, incapable of sin, incapable of inflicting evil to any type of “greater good”? Such questions are so suffocating and thought-provoking that we often brush them aside with our justification being that such times are no times to justify or understand. They are times to cry.  

And my belief is that in order to justify an all-good God, we simply cannot limit God to the rigid logical master of the Universe; omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. God cannot be placed as a force external to ourselves entirely but as a force within us. God would be, in this context, capable and willing to feel our pain, of being compassionate and to suffer with us the immeasurable pain of loss.

Can a case for such a perception of God be made without falling into traps of circular reasoning and without giving up God’s omnipotence? My current answer is: I don’t know. And I invite you to share your views to that question, and any other views you might have over these musings, through the comments.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Worth Pondering


 A few words from philosopher Shelly Kagan's tenth lecture in the online Yale course on Death. Complete course material found here.

The commentary here is on the soul theory of personal identity: can we use the soul to explain personal identity?

Come back to the soul view. It's me as long as it's the same soul. It's not me if it's a different soul. Now consider the following possibility. Suppose that over the weekend, at 3:00 a.m., Saturday night, Sunday morning, while I'm asleep, God replaces my soul with a different soul, hooks it up to the body, gives that soul, that replacement soul, all of my memories, all of my beliefs, all of my desires, all of my intentions. Somebody wakes up Sunday morning and says, "Hey, it's a great day. Wonderful to be alive. I'm Shelly Kagan. Got to get to work." Whatever it is. Says "I'm Shelly Kagan"; but he's not. According to the soul view, he's not. Because according to the soul theory of personal identity, to be me that person's got to have my soul. And in this story, he doesn't have my soul. My soul got destroyed, let's suppose, 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning. A new soul got created. It's not me. There's a person there, all right. It's a person that doesn't have a very long history. Maybe he'll go on to have a long history. But it's a different extended through space and time person than the one you're thinking about right now. Because, according to the soul view, to be me it's got to have the same soul and we just stipulated, not the same soul.
Think about what that means. If God were to replace my soul Saturday night, I die. And the thing that wakes up Sunday isn't me. Of course, he'd think he was me. He'd think to himself, "I'm the very same person who was lecturing about philosophy last week." But he'd be wrong. It isn't the same person, because it's not the same soul. He'd be wrong and — notice this — there'd be no way at all he could tell. He could check his beliefs. He can check his desires. He can check his memories. But that's not the key to personal identity, according to the soul view. The key to personal identity, according to the soul view, is having the very same soul. You can't check that. You can't see the soul to see if it's the same one. So if this were to happen to him, he wouldn't be Shelly Kagan, the person who'd been lecturing last week. But there'd be no way at all he could know that.

And now the question you would need to ask yourself is, how do you know this didn't happen to you last night? You woke up this morning thinking, I'm the very same person — Joe, Linda, Sally, whatever it is — the very same person who was in class yesterday. How do you know? How could you possibly know? If God replaced your soul with a new one, destroyed the old one, gave the new one all the old memories, beliefs, desires, goals, and so forth, that person who was in class last week, yesterday, died. The person who's here now hasn't been around 10 years, 20 years, what have you. You were born a few hours ago. And there'd be no way at all that you could possibly tell.
How do you know, not only that it didn't happen to you last night, how do you know something like this doesn't happen every single night, every hour on the hour, every minute, every second? God whips out the old soul, destroys it, puts in a new one with — Maybe souls only last for a minute and a half. If that was happening, then people don't last very long. Bodies may last 20 years, 50 years, 80 years, 100 years, but people would only last an hour or, if it's every minute substitution, a minute. And you'd never possibly be able to tell.
Now these worries were raised by John Locke, the great British philosopher, and he thought, this is too big a pill to swallow. This is too big a bullet to bite. We can't take seriously the suggestion that there's no way at all to tell whether it was still me from the one day to the next, from one hour to the next, from one minute to the next, just not plausible. It's not that there's anything incoherent about this view. It doesn't say anything logically contradictory about this view. You just have to ask yourself, "Could this really be what personal identity is all about? That there'd be no way at all to tell whether I've survived from one minute to the next, from one hour to the next?" Locke thought no, you couldn't possibly take this view seriously if you thought about what it meant.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Do You Have A Soul? [Part 1]

[This series is written by an amateur hobbyist of philosophy and psychology. I record what I come to know here mainly for the purposes of archiving and for the reading pleasure of those interested. That said, enjoy!]



Introduction:

The apparent answer is: yes! Of course I have a soul!

And souls are funny in that way.

Psychologist (and professor at Yale) Paul Bloom was once putting one of his children to bed when the child quipped:
"You can put me to bed, but you can't make me go to sleep. It's my brain!"
Professor Bloom got interested and later wrote a book entitled Wired for Creationism, where he arrived at the conclusion that we are somehow wired for the dualist view no matter what we grow to think later on in life.

Now before I start to be too confusing (and trust me, there is a lot of confusion ahead of us); let's just review: Physicalism (sometimes also referred to as materialism) and dualism are the two main worldviews that are in current contention to solve what is commonly known as the mind/body problem.

The mind/body problem, one of the most ancient unsolved problems of philosophy of mind, has two concerns [as Scott D. Brisbane puts them]:
"The first concern is whether a human is made of only one component, such as matter, or two components, such as mind and matter. The second is, if there are two components and they affect each other, then how do they interact?"
Now, the first worldview on the problem is physicalism: The human person is made of only matter. As cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky once put it, "we are machines made of meat". Therefore, under this worldview, we can account for all our mental phenomena in purely physical (or materialist) terms.

The next view is dualism. As the name implies, under this worldview a human is dual in nature; composed of a material and immaterial part (sometimes called the soul). The nature of the interaction of these parts is then immediately called into the question.

This area is a huge one in the study of philosophy of mind and it attempts to answer one of the most interesting questions about ourselves: what we truly are.

How We'll Go About This:

Now while you may already have a certain belief about the matter (let's say from a religious background), what I'll be attempting here is to present cases for the existence of the soul and cases against the existence of the soul.

We'll be all Cartesian about it!

We'll put all our beliefs in the soul, no matter what they are, into direct questioning and we'll try to follow the evidence where it leads. I think that will be quite fair to the rationality of both of us!

So let's start with the worldview I currently hold. I am very much a dualist. But let's see if I'll still be one by the end of this!

I'll present two arguments, one for dualism, and one against computationalism that I find rather compelling on this post. These aren't the only reasons I believe in the soul. Philosopher of religion and theologian William Lane Craig was once asked if he thought his faith would be destroyed if someone destroyed the arguments for God. His reply was quite witty and it's the view I hold while presenting my case for the soul
"No. Partly because my faith does not rest on arguments but mainly because I have other arguments!"
Similarly, my belief in the soul is based on faith in the truth of a particular religion, namely Islam, that dictates the existence of the soul and the body as separate entities. My rationale however is not based on my faith at all. Rather my rationale for explaining why the soul exists is entirely independent of my faith. So, without further ado, let's start with our first argument!

The Arguments:

One last thing: The correct form of putting forth arguments is via, usually, numbered premises and conclusions. For ease of reading though; we'll keep things simple and basically talk ourselves through the arguments.

The Argument from Intentionality:
The beautiful bit about the argument from intentionality is simplicity. First, let's find out what intentionality is!
the distinguishing property of mental phenomena of being necessarily directed upon an object, whether real or imaginary
What we mean when we say "intentionality" is really the "about-ness" or "of-ness" of mental thoughts. Every thought you think about is always "about" or "of" something.

When I look at a beautiful painting and I think "How beautiful", my thought is entirely about the painting.

This interesting property, you can easily find, is very much a distinguishing property of mental phenomena. No physical object can really be "about" any other physical object. There is no meaning to such a statement though we will raise an objection to this particular conclusion on upcoming posts as this particular issue of what exactly can we call "meaningless" is not exactly the easiest thing to conclude.

Simply put, however, "about-ness" and "of-ness" are simply not within the language of the material. You can't reduce it to anything that relates to our brain and central nervous system. It follows, therefore, that since mental phenomena are always "about" something, these mental phenomena must be non-physical or controlled by something non-physical.

Note how this argument simply points out a flaw in the claim that "every mental phenomenon can be explained in physical terms". This claim is what's referred to as a universal quantification; to disprove it you simply need to find something within mental phenomena that is not explained or reducible to physical terms, a counterexample. In our case, that something was the property of intentionality.

The next argument we'll view is not so much a case for dualism as it is a case against what is referred to as computationalism or the computational theory of mind ( i.e: that thought is a form of computation and that our mind (if we define mind as our ability to think, have ideas, etc.) is basically a very awesome information processing system).

John Searle's Chinese Room Thought Experiment:
The cool thing about thought experiments is that they usually speak for themselves! This one here is no exception! So, faced with the computational theory of mind, philosopher John Searle proposed this thought experiment in 1980 [copied from Wikipedia; whoever wrote it there made it quite understandable!]:

Searle's thought experiment begins with this hypothetical premise: suppose that artificial intelligence research has succeeded in constructing a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. It takes Chinese characters as input and, by following the instructions of a computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose, says Searle, that this computer performs its task so convincingly that it comfortably passes the Turing test: it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a live Chinese speaker. To all of the questions that the person asks, it makes appropriate responses, such that any Chinese speaker would be convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese-speaking human being.
The question Searle wants to answer is this: does the machine literally "understand" Chinese? Or is it merely simulating the ability to understand Chinese? Searle calls the first position "strong AI" and the latter "weak AI".

Searle then supposes that he is in a closed room and has a book with an English version of the computer program, along with sufficient paper, pencils, erasers, and filing cabinets. Searle could receive Chinese characters through a slot in the door, process them according to the program's instructions, and produce Chinese characters as output. As the computer had passed the Turing test this way, it is fair, says Searle, to deduce that he would be able to do so as well, simply by running the program manually.
Searle asserts that there is no essential difference between the role the computer plays in the first case and the role he plays in the latter. Each is simply following a program, step-by-step, which simulates intelligent behavior. And yet, Searle points out, "I don't speak a word of Chinese." Since he does not understand Chinese, Searle argues, we must infer that the computer does not understand Chinese either.
Searle argues that without "understanding" (what philosophers call "intentionality"), we cannot describe what the machine is doing as "thinking". Because it does not think, it does not have a "mind" in anything like the normal sense of the word, according to Searle. Therefore, he concludes, "strong AI" is mistaken.
Note how Searle's thought experiment has potential for providing some strong philosophical support to the argument from intentionality. It's one of the reasons why I find it very cool!

On upcoming posts we'll be reviewing objections to both of this post's arguments, viewing the argument from phenomenal qualia as a case for the dualist view as well as going through some arguments in favor of physicalism.

Take care,

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Lying Dawn [الفجــــر الكاذب - مجموعة قصصية] [Short Stories] - Naguib Mahfooz


Two days without a laptop meant at last my return to a good old paperback for companionship.

This short story collection by the master of modern Arabic litearture provides yet another window into the human perception of Death. Most stories in the collection revolve around the concepts of death, redemption and (very Greek) suffering of the human soul. We see questions asked that are so purely agonizing, that you read them once and cannot help but relate:

"Why does every taste lose its succulence? Why the moaning of pain when there is no cause for pain?"

In the first, and titular story, we see Death personified. Mahfooz presents Death as an unnamed assailant chasing the hero of the story. And through the hero's journey, it progresses eventually into the bizarre and insane. We see his anguish, his attempt to escape from something he can only identify by scent. And there are so many symbols to behold. We see Death given the scent of musk. This scent is then linked with fear, suffering and shock instead of the beauty and elegance it is often associated with. This is Mahfooz taking you out of your comfort zone with a very simple, yet effective, touch.

We see the ultimate question where the hero, at the end of the story, dismisses his fears as "daydreams" and that they are "useless". And this was the part that truly left me so hooked with the story because Mahfooz seems to subtly ask a heavily interesting question: Is it madness to run away from Death? But then again, isn't it purely the instinct of man to run away from Death? Aren't we meant to be in constant escape? And the genius of the author shines incredibly through: It would have been so easy for him to state the moral value of "you cannot run away from Death" by killing away our hero but, through the bizarre, he finds a way around that and asks the much more complex question we discussed which is much, much deeper and more courageous than a simple moral statement.

And then there is an equally interesting symbol: We find that the hero discovers his "madness" on his way back from his marriage. Although this seems subtle and merely an excuse to start the conclusion, I think one could read deeper and we can find another question: Is love an awakening from the madness of the obsession of constantly running away from Death? Is love merely a distraction away from Death?

And aside from all these deep existential questions, we find, of course, the linguistic beauty of Mahfooz soaring through the roof with heavy characterization and feel for words and we see characters react to other character's mere glances.

Then he jumps at us with entertaining, satirical, yet interesting, ideas including mental patients having to pick the biggest local and global problems and attempt to solve them as part of their therapy; the logic being "if you can solve the world's problems, surely you can solve your own". And the mad solutions that the hero arrives at are so bizarrely entertaining, they are, by themselves, a joy to read. This story, alone, is worth the whole book.

The next story I wanted to explore is, again, very close to the Greek concept of suffering we mentioned earlier where human suffering is not a means to the dramatic climax but its end. And the tragedy is not in the death of the character but in the death of every possible hope or dream of the character. The death is not bodily as it is a true ending of the soul. We meet a character in "A Far-sighted Plan" who is a nobody in his society. He lived for over fifty years in sarcasm and laughter at his own stupidity, ignorance, negativity and lack of luck. And when sudden wealth at last arrives, he dies at the moment of his euphoria. The narrator exclaims in heart-breaking anguish at the moment of death:

"He called in his fevered thoughts upon the manager...Nooh...Othman...The wealth...The bride...The woman...The dream...Nothing wants to respond. Why was the miracle, then? Impossible...God! Impossible..."

When I read this, I immediately recalled the famous Tantalus (whose story inspired the English verb, tantalize) : the Greek son of Zeus who offered his own son as sacrifice for the gods (to actually eat him!) and was punished for his human sacrifice by being placed in a pool of water under a fruit tree with low branches. When he tilted his head up, the fruit would move away. When he went down for a drink, the water level would drop. And he would stay in this eternal suffering forever. This infinite temptation, though classic in its immense evil, presents a parable about the nature of temptation. The metaphor is clear and very expressive of human nature: Suffering and death of the soul lies in unsatisfied temptation.

The hero of "A Far-sighted Plan" is not nearly close to the crime of the mythical Tantalus but he lives the eventual fate of Tantalus and we can easily draw parallels: He is in a state of constant, unsatisfied temptation and need. His suffering is met eventually with a glimpse of hope. And the hope immediately fades away, stolen by Death in a moment of stark anguish and yearning for an excruciatingly close, yet infinitely unreachable, happiness. He experiences superficial happiness and even though he is brought to light as an unlovable character, in his last moments we are forced to sympathize with the human condition.

Mahfooz presents Death in this story as a thief of the happiness of a simple, unlucky and dull man. And in a previous story of the same collection, "Whispers", he presents Death as a fatherly figure. A constant annoyance and a reminder to "take care" and "be organized" who is, however, met with genuine affection and yearning at the end of life. It is Mahfooz's fascination with the concept and manipulation of the symbol (culminating in his epic and most poignant work, Children of the Alley [أولاد حارتـــنا]) that makes of his work a truly satisfying experience on every new read. It is this that gives genuine meaning to his words and makes his entire body of work, and in particular his explorations of the short story genre, undeniably timeless.

Until we meet later,
Ramadan Kareem!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)



WARNING: Heavy spoilers involved.

There is an intrinsic way in which this last Harry Potter movie works that is almost inexpressible in words. There is a way in which the actors seem to fit and the dialogue seems to flow. The visual effects seem effortless. Something...different. Unusual. Almost magical.

It is this trait, this "it", this "touch" if I may call it, that occupies the essence of every great movie that ever resonated with me. I knew, quite literally, everything that was going to happen in this movie, yet, I was at the edge of my seat at points. I was intrigued, touched and affected by this movie. It is simply put: The Harry Potter movie. As it should be. As its fans wanted and expected it to be.

So where do we start? As James Lipton likes to say, "Let us begin, as we always do, at the beginning". And for every Harry Potter movie, the beginning is always with the director!

David Yates, who seems to have grown a particular experience in Potter film-making over the years since his first Potter movie (Order of the Phoenix), directs with an eye for style and cinematography that would have, I think, not been possible except with someone like him behind the camera. Perhaps only Peter Jackson, director of the modern Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, would have managed something as simultaneously emotional and grand.

Leaving aside the huge improvements in the acting performances of the starring trio (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), I think this movie, acting-wise, survives mainly on Alan Rickman's role as Severus Snape. Rickman has a way of attracting attention and generating emotion without even having a line to say. It is this remarkable talent that Yates puts to exquisite use in a sequence of scenes (entitled The Prince's Tale in the book) that is the strongest in all the movie series. Rickman need only a few lines to express himself verbally; the rest flows effortlessly from him. I think the entire Potter series served as a rediscovery of Rickman's acting talent who, according to Rowling, was one of the few actors who knew everything about his character from the beginning.

Alexandre Desplat's soundtrack revisits the unforgettable Hedwig's Theme (first composed by John Williams for the very first Harry Potter movie) at several points during the course of the film and makes use of very grand music, that is reminiscent of Howard Shore's work on The Lord of the Rings, during the battle scenes.

There are occasions where I felt the movie did not do the book justice (I was not too happy with Dumbledore's past being addressed on such a superficial level and, of course, the King's Cross scene obviously deserved more time and thought than what it eventually got). Certain sequences deviated from the book entirely; Voldemort's death being completely changed was most probably a really big decision by the crew. A bold decision but something I found personally unsatisfying. I remember the words Rowling used to describe Voldemort's final fall (they are quite memorable!) : that Tom Riddle fell with a "mundane finality". I waited for finality on that scene and got none! Just a daze of special effects. Good for the average moviegoer, unsatisfying for a fan who stuck with the series for nearly a decade.

As Roger Ebert already remarked, the movie takes place almost completely in very dim lighting. So the added dimness of 3D makes for just an added annoyance. Again, something I did not much like. But leave all of this aside: All of this was compensated by the sequence of scenes I talked about earlier. That was it, for me.

The books and movies have ended. But the fandom continues. The thing about fantasy is: There is always an untold story. This is the beauty of it. This is its magic. Rowling told her story. And every fan can always have his own.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Referendum Day [يوم الاستفتـــــاء] - Faculty of Agriculture, Alexandria University


بدأت اليوم بصلاة الاستخارة قبل ما أنزل

دبابة أدام اللجنة

طابور أدام مدخل كلية زراعة

ضابط شرطة كان واقف عالناحية التانية من الكلية

صوت لأول مرة في حياتي في استفتاء لمصر...صوتي ممكن يعمل فرق...تحيا مصر


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dr. Mohammed Seleem El-Awwa's Lecture [ندوة د. محمد سليم العوا] - Faculty of Engineering, Alexandria University

Dr. Mohammed Seleem El-Awwa (old photo, not mine)

At 9.45 A.M today I left home and headed straight to my faculty for Dr. Mohammed Seleem El-Awwa's lecture (my second ever politically-oriented lecture). Before I delve into the interesting details, I should make one thing clear: I, and many others like me, am a huge fan of Dr. El-Awwa who is one of the foremost Islamic thinkers of the century (in my opinion) and a leading figure in Egyptian and Islamic law. I have read for him frequently and listened and watched him more often. I find his opinions and views not only both intelligent and insightful, but usually backed up by either hard facts, history or a combination of the two.

Today's lecture, as I expected, was no exception.

Dr. El-Awwa's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of history, poetry and law is unsurpassed in any speaker I have heard. Add to that his mastery of the intricacies and beauty of the Arabic language and you get a lecture you simply cannot stop concentrating on and indeed I found myself shutting people up if they talked to me and people shutting me up if I talked to them. He was delayed an hour on the way but the entire Hall burst into applause as he entered. We started with some verses of the Qura'n and then a word from the H.O.D of the Mechanical Engineering Department followed by Dr. El-Awwa's lecture.

What follows is a summary of the main points in the lecture. I found it much harder to stop and take notes; there was just so much (interesting) stuff being said! So my notes may not be as complete as yesterday's but I will try to work a little from my memory. Where I will do that, I will indicate it by wrapping the text with asterisks so that you know that this is a personal account and not strictly a quotation.
  • Dr.El-Awwa started by reminding the audience members that silence had led us to 30 years of humiliation and dictatorship and that much more important than voting Yes or No is the idea of going on and giving your vote with whatever you think is best for the country.
  • Dr.El-Awwa then started immediately going into the issue of the Constitutional changes. He started by saying that, according to the most recent announcements from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (who currently lead the country), we can safely think that the Constitutional changes (accepted or not) are a "bridge" to a new Constitution. Whether the majority is Yes or No, therefore, will not imply a revival of what Dr.El-Awwa called, "the corpse we now know as the 1971 Constitution".

  • Dr.El-Awwa then went into a full-scale analysis of the amendments. He started by mentioning the fact that the amendments are full of what he translated to English as "legal technicalities" and he made the argument that such technicalities make the amendments, basically, foolproof. He then responded to some of the criticisms to the changes:

    1) On the new text of Article 75 where it is stated that the President or his parents should not have held any other nationality: Dr.El-Awwa argued that this is in relation to the loyalty of the President. There are existing Egyptian laws that ban people with dual nationality to be judges, soldiers in the army, ministers or parliament members, so how can we expect the Constitution to allow the President to be of dual nationality? (*Dr.El-Awwa says he is aware that this may lose the country certain brilliant minds but that the loss is not so great that it cannot be compensated by others on whom the conditions apply*). [On a previous lecture, I watched Dr. El-Awwa making this argument and mentioning the fact that certain nationalities (like the English one, for example) require that the person takes an oath to himself to be loyal to certain people/governments/countries. This, he says, goes against the claim that such a person will have his full loyalty to Egypt].

    2) On the same Article there were claims that the condition of having an "Egyptian wife" was unfair: Dr. El-Awwa mentioned that we must agree that the role the wife plays in a man's life is huge. And the role a woman's cultural and national background also plays a part in her character and thus, indirectly, in her husband's character. He then referred to the fact that we saw two First Ladies in the time of President Sadat (Jihann El-Sadat, who was born to an English mother and Egyptian father) and in Mubarak's time (Suzanne Mubarak who was born to an English mother and Egyptian father) who came from different national backgrounds and we saw how much effect they had on their husbands' characters in formulating crucial and vital national decisions.

    3) On Article 76: Dr. El-Awwa mentions that the extremely long previous text of Article 76 has been greatly shortened to simplify the conditions of running for president and not just have what he called "beautiful playthings" running against a dictator.

    4) Again on Article 76 there were criticisms due to the fact that the Committee of Presidential Elections to be formed cannot have its decisions appealed or revoked: Dr. El-Awwa argued that the Committee has the four highest figures of the Egyptian judicial system (President of the Supreme Constitutional Court as president of the Committee, and membership of the President of the Court of Appeal and the oldest Vice Presidents of the Court of Cassation, Supreme Constitutional Court and the State Council) and so it is only logical to say that their decisions should be final. If you want to appeal or revoke such decisions, who do you appeal them to when all the supreme judges are taken?

    5) Certain criticisms were raised against whether or not Article 189 forms an obligation towards a new Constitution: Dr. El-Awwa argued that every present continuous tense verb [فعل مضارع] in the Arabic language (when used in law) implies obligation and that, therefore, Article 189 in its current form, forms an obligation towards a new Constitution. He cited several examples from common university laws to express that point.
  • Dr. El-Awwa then explored the Yes and No (basic) scenarios. In case of Yes:
    1) We expect a limitation on the transitional period where the Supreme Council of Armed Forces holds the leadership of the country.
    2) We expect parliamentary elections followed by presidential elections..

    In case of No:
    Dr. El-Awwa expresses his concerns in this case that we should expect an extension of the limitation period. Dr. El-Awwa expressed the fact that he estimates the extension for, at the least, three years, subject to possible extensions that we cannot, currently, estimate the length of.
  • In response to several questions asked to him by his audience Dr. El-Awwa replied:

    1) That he does not at all recommend the elimination of the National Democratic Party with the help of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. He cited the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood were "too happy" with the elimination of political life (excepting them) in the early 50's and they were later in the 50's subjected to prosecution and several of their members were executed. So his conclusion was: Asking for the elimination of a particular party means asking for the possible elimination of your party in the future. He then sarcastically said, "Let the National Party's members head to the elections and lose rather than allowing them to play the victim card".

    2) Dr. El-Awwa expressed his concerns over presidential elections that proceed parliamentary elections, rhetorically asking, "How can you ask for a president to come forward without having anyone question his actions? That is building a dictator".

    3) Dr. El-Awwa responded that there is no such thing as an "Islamic state" and that Islam and Shariah did not put proper guides to the method of choosing a ruler of the state. He stated that a 'civil' [and I am roughly translating the word [مدنــية] here] state is one that is ruled by the people while a 'religious' one is one that is led by religious clerics (the only two examples of which are Iran and the Vatican). He also stated that he is all for a civil state and against a religious or so-called Islamic one.

    4) Finally, Dr. El-Awwa was asked on his association with the MB. He stated that he is not, and never was, a member of any political party although he has "thousands of friends" who are related and associated with the MB but that he has no political affiliation with the MB or with any other party, stating that his memberships are only in cultural organizations.
And that's about it! That's all I managed to take notes of, really, and my memory is not so good with the quotations so most of the ones up there are rough translations. It was a beautiful lecture and apart from the interesting points that I tried to convey above, there was a lot of history, stories, incidents and poetry verses that Dr. El-Awwa used to express his points and that remain a trademark of his breathtaking style and charisma.

Take care,

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dr. Amr Hamzawi's Lecture [ندوة د. عمرو حمزاوي] - Bibilioetheca Alexandrina

Some of the attendees of the lecture while leaving after the lecture

Today was my first ever politically-oriented lecture with Dr. Amr Hamzawi (at the Bibilioetheca Alexandrina) who spoke about and discussed his views and visions over many, very Egyptian, issues in the course of his lecture.

We started with a minute's stand over the souls of the fallen warriors of the Revolution (if you are reading this now, please take a moment to pray for them). We then moved on to an introduction on Dr. Hamzawi who is a research director at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and a leading figure in Middle Eastern political analysis.

In this post, I attempt to summarize his very interesting two-hour lecture where he spoke for many points including:
1) The vision of Egypt after the Revolution and what changes the Revolution had made until now.
2) How long will Egypt take to pass the period after which it will move to being a powerful democracy.
3) His opinion of the Constitutional changes (subject to a public referendum this Saturday).
4) The expected scenarios if 'Yes' and 'No' are the majority votes in the referendum.
5) The role of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic organizations in Egyptian politics and political life.

Among many other interesting points that I took over two pages worth of notes about. What follows is a summary in bullet points! Please note that, while I organized them in chronological order, the bullet points may be exact but unorganized and not arranged in a particular subject.
  • The 25th of January Revolution had managed to topple the system but, contrary to certain beliefs, the Revolution had not managed to completely topple the system. There still remains organizations, unfair laws and an unfair Constitution remaining to go.
  • Changes in the constitution are "an attempt to trick the Revolution". The Constitution cannot stay in a state where unfair laws, emergency laws still remain. Dr. Amr also suggested that a new Constitution should be formulated that understands and expresses the Revolution.
  • Dr. Amr sarcastically asked where the four million members of the (toppled) National Democratic Party were at the moment!
  • The Egyptian state should be unbiased and secular (I'm not sure that is the word but he did mean that religion should not be one of the preferences in front of the state) where the law gets the highest word. The only way to bring life back to the organizations of the state is through reviving the word of the law and giving it the highest regard again. Dr. Amr said something that I think speaks a lot of truth, "In Egypt we have a problem that the laws are written beautifully but rarely applied".
  • Dr. Amr then spoke of some very interesting statistics and studies.
    1) Between the 70's elections and the last (parlimentary) ones in 2010, there is scarcely 20% of the eligible Egyptian votes who took part in the elections. He expressed the extreme need for every eligible Egyptian voter to vote in the upcoming referendum.
    2) There is a third of the Egyptian population that is uneducated.
    3) There is a 40% slice of the Egyptian population that earns between $1 and $2 a day.
    4) The regular Egyptian citizen spends approximately two thirds of his yearly income into his medications and general healthcare.
  • Dr. Amr spoke of the way the deformed system had managed to deform the political scene in Egypt, including the parties of the opposition. The opposition parties, he continued, were reduced to parties that fought and asked over, "How many seats can we get in the parliment?". He mentioned that, far from having effective roles, they simply wanted to have a chance to have a role.
  • Dr. Amr spoke of the challenges we have facing us towards democracy. Those include:
    1) The fact that there are many societies that, like us, wanted their way into democracy and failed and how we should learn from their experiment to avoid them.
    2) The fact that it is not a matter of 'months' and then a 'jump' into democracy.
    3) The fact that it is unaccepted for anyone to deny anyone the right to peaceful protest and expression of their opinion, provided they are not harming anyone or preventing them from their rights.
    4) The fact that we have to get rid of the fact that we 'await orders' from the top of the executive pyramid. The Egyptian people, he said, are their own masters now. They make their decisions and opinions and they are not dictated what they think or waiting for 'higher orders' to make decisions for them.
    5) The fact that nobody, including any opposition party, has the right to tell you what the 'public good' is. No one, simply, has that authority.
    6) The fact that you cannot divide democracy. You cannot keep your right to an opinion while calling for a denial of someone else's. You either allow everyone their right to an opinion, in which case you achieve democracy, or you do not.
    7) The fact that we have an oncoming challenge of keeping up a balanced society (that fights against its own divisions and differences) in the absence of a Revolution.
  • Dr. Amr then expressed several concerns over the Constitutional changes, although he did mention that he cannot speak his full argument because the other side is not with him on the stage to reply and it would be unfair to the audience listening:
    1) Dr. Amr believes that it is an 'oncoming disaster' if we have the current regulations of parliamentary elections based on single membership system [النظام الفرديs] in the upcoming parliamentary elections (parliamentary elections are an expected consequence of the acceptance of the Constitutional changes).
    2) The span of time given for people to think over the Constitutional changes is extremely small.
    3) How can we have fair and transparent parliamentary elections within a very ill political society that has been systematically deformed over 30 years.
  • Dr. Amr expressed that he is not with the notion of a 'presidential council' and believes that the best way to go is election of a single president of the country. He also believes that the matter of whether Egypt should be a presidential or parliamentary state is 'a major issue to whoever will be responsible for writing the next Constitution'.
  • Dr. Amr then expressed his own expected scenarios of what will happen if the majority votes go to 'Yes' and if they go to 'No'. So let's start with if we go for 'Yes':
    1) The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the current leading executive force of the country, will lead a Constitutional Announcement [اعلان دستوري] that includes the publicly approved Constitutional changes.
    2) Parliamentary elections to be held no later than September.
    3) A reminder in the Announcement of Article 189 in the suggested amendment and its insistence on a new constitution.
    4) There will be no disastrous consequences.

    And then the 'No' scenario:
    1) The suggested ammendments are considered canceled.
    2) Supreme Council issues a Constitution Annoucnement that includes the texts of the suggested changes.
    3) Parliamentary elections followed by presidential elections.
    OR
    1) Constitutional Annoucnement that is followed with presidential elections.
    2) The Annoucnement includes the formation of a committee to construct the new Constitution [هيئة تأسيســية].
    -In this scenario, Dr. Amr does not think that the Supreme Council will stay in charge for too long (nor do they desire it). Dr. Amr also mentioned that there are no disastrous consequences for this scenario, either.
  • When asked over the toppled Egyptian State Security, Dr. Amr suggested a formation of of a legal committee to question the violation of human rights that occurred over the years in the State Security and that transformed the Egyptian State Security into the Egyptian Presidential Security.
  • Over the course of his lecture, Dr. Amr kept mentioning that no one can tell any Egyptian where the 'public good' is anymore and that we are all judges of our own country. He included parties and people that claim there are 'external forces' awaiting to pounce on Egypt which (the parties and such people), he says, use the tone of the toppled system.
Wow, that is one long summary but it cannot do the lecture justice! It was very interesting and Dr. Amr is an engaging and witty speaker! I'm glad I took the time to go and see him at the B.A!

Tomorrow, insha-Allah, I am attending a lecture for Dr. Mohammed Saleem El-Awwa (a professor of law, practicing lawyer, author of tens of books on law and crucial Islamic matters and member of the International Association of Muslim Scholars) who will speak for an acceptance of the suggested changes in Constitution and I will try to blog about it too, so stay tuned!

Take care,

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Because I Have Nothing New To Say

...I decided to share something I wrote long before the Egyptian Revolution. If you're not aware of the Revolution, then I suggest moving to Planet Earth or, for a simpler alternative, check the Wiki link that details its events.

I was not a part of it except as a rather late online voice (took me a week to figure out what I thought). I supported it in my heart which is, as Prophet Mohammed PBUH, would say, 'the weakest effort'. This piece you see before you is something I wrote before the Revolution (I think everybody should capitalize the R, by the way!). And it was one of my efforts to understand why we (as Arabs and Egyptians) were lagging behind and how we should move forward, individually.

When I wrote it, I meant for it to speak, sarcastically at times and bleakly on others, to individuals. I intended for it to ignite the spark in them to change themselves rather than try to change what's around them. And I was also thinking of so many things (some unrelated to the purpose of the essay) at the time and they somehow managed to find a way into the writing.

So, without further ado, here it goes. It's entitled: Of Rabbits and Egyptians and I present it to you in its final form, I didn't even edit it to fit post-Revolution spirits. But I must say that post-Revolution, you would have to have the emotional range of a teaspoon (see how I, casually and geek-ily, quote Hermione Granger?) if you don't feel pride in the fact that you are an Egyptian.

Before you read though, because I know you might not hang on until the end of this, please take a moment to pray for the martyrs of the Revolution. If you're a Muslim, read the Fatiha and pray for patience to their families. If you're Egyptian, especially if you're Egyptian, try to make it your habit to pray for them and their families daily.

***
“My heart's so heavy,
My heart's so sore,
How can ever my heart
Be at peace any more?”
--Goethe, Faust.

***
Vanity…Satan’s favorite little sin. It’s born with man, lives with man and man seems to be about the only creature to possess it. A vain assumption? Perhaps. What is vanity, really? And how different is it from pride? Pride is a feeling that often accompanies accomplishment...An ideal feeling of the victorious, the successful and the magnificently innovative. It is what Abbas Ibn Firnas probably felt when he made man's first flight, what Edison felt when he lit the world and what Einstein probably felt as he put down the last set of equations in his general theory of relativity. It is the feeling that you cannot help but feel if you have just finished doing something good; either for the world or for yourself and your community.

But it is not what we Egyptians feel.

Most Egyptians claim they are 'proud' to be Egyptian. In fact, I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that almost everyone who will read this article will feel that exact same feeling about being Egyptian…pride.

So let's start by breaking this down a little: From our previous explanation of the word 'pride', it follows that to be proud, you must have done something positive to the world or the society. A good and positive action is the feeling that sprouts pride. That feeds it until it fattens up and turns into vanity. Before it does, though, you are in a very blissful state of happiness and, if this is community pride, your community will enjoy its golden ages. So if you’re wondering about that feeling deep down in your gut that tells you you’re fine just the way you are right now; it's not pride. It's just vanity. We, Egyptians, are vain creatures. We are positive that the world will never surpass us when it already flew past us. At light speed.

In a sense, we are like the rabbit in that rabbit and turtle story except we don't sit around eating carrots all the time; at least the rabbit walked a little while he did that. At least in the end he gave it a shot and eventually tried showing that turtle what a fine rabbit he was. He didn’t just sit and talk of how proud he was to be such a fast rabbit and how proud he was that he had the greatest fur in the world that could surpass (in greatness) even the hardest of turtle shells. And how his ancestors passed it to him over generations and generations of rabbits. No, the rabbit wasn’t vain…A little too self-confident but you can’t help being self-confident when you’re the fastest furry ball around.

Which is interesting in itself, isn’t it? If the rabbit was not that fast, would we have, really, ever considered sympathizing with him in the story? He was already fast, ergo, nobody really thought much of him. The story makes perfect sense because the rabbit was already the best at what he did and, therefore, it seemed reasonable he would be proud of his accomplishments. If it was the other way around though…If the turtle was the one sitting down eating cucumbers while the rabbit raced by…Well, first of all; the story would have had quite a fast ending and secondly; not so many kids would get why such an already slow creature would sit around and boast its slowness. A slow creature, boasting its slowness…Where did I hear that one before?

Perhaps rabbits and turtles seem like oversimplification. Perhaps I’m being too silly comparing the state of mind of a nation to the most famous children’s tale of all. So let’s get a little more complex. Let’s talk about bourgeois, aristocracy, democracy and anarchy…and all the other words you’d need a spell-checker to spell right. Perhaps the two most interesting words up on that list are democracy and anarchy. In Machiavelli’s The Discourses, the author makes one of his points by mentioning that there are three perfect systems to rule a country; yet all of them are liable to slip into three other apocalyptic systems to rule a country. As you may have rightly guessed; democracy, being one of the perfect systems, usually slips into anarchy. And it does not take the brightest of minds to note that we are, indeed, living anarchy. Anarchy, in essence, is the misrepresentation of the rule of chaos as the rule of the people. When people lose morality, ideals and do not even care for a punishment of the law; that is a form of anarchy.

So what does it take to raise yourself from anarchy? It takes thought…And heart. Tawfik Al-Hakeem, one of Egypt’s foremost philosophers, can say it better: In the same way man can breathe perfectly through the balanced processes of inhaling and exhaling, man can only survive perfectly through a perfect balance of thought and heart. The only way to raise ourselves from anarchy, therefore, is to understand that heart and thought can work together, that they are equivalent forces of mankind, and to arrive at the peak of our faith through the perfectionism we exemplify in our work. To understand that prayer, in its most elevated form, can only be an emotional fuel towards thought and work; that faith is the most suitable spark that can ignite the fire of renaissance within us and within the piece of land we have occupied for thousands of years.

And how many praying people have you seen taking bribes? How many bearded people have you seen being rude? Perhaps what I’m really asking is: How much effort does it take to crush down religious appearance and see how far the religious spirit actually goes? In our day and age, a lot of effort. And it would be hard to find any religious spirit once you’re done breaking the outer shell. The idea that you can substitute your religious core for a religious shell is what’s widening the gap and disturbing the balance we had spoken of before (and that Al-Hakim had adapted as his lifestyle); that balance of thought and heart that can bring about true and valuable change.

I can find no better words to describe our current state, or our current vanity, than the words said to Mohammed XII, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, from his mother, as he stood and wept over the sight of his beautiful lost city: “You weep the weeping worthy of women, over a kingdom you could not protect the protection worthy of men”. We weep the weeping of women now…For a 4000-year-old civilization that scarcely anyone of the 80 million walking the roads of this country ever thought of educating themselves about. We weep the weeping of women now…For a 1400-year-old Islamic civilization that barely anyone, that you and I have ever met, can form a few simple sentences about. In fact, I challenge you this: Go out on the streets and ask people to name you ten singers, ten actors and ten Muslim scientists from the Abbasid age. I think we both know which ten will seem the hardest to most, if not all, your contestants.

We are uneducated about our past, yet yearning and weeping for it. We are unsure about our future, yet awaiting it with baited breath. And we are disgusted, almost disgraced, by our present, but never able to find the courage in us, or the passion, to attempt and change it. We stand in the mystified status quo, a dignified stance that foolishly attempts to challenge the natural course of things, a purposeless and unsure existence; like a mentally ill man standing at the bus stop waiting for the next sailing ship. And that, constant reader, is not a turtle going slow and steady to win the race, or a rabbit too self-confident to try hard enough. It’s, perhaps, a lot like a third contestant, the sloth, who said: ‘Races are boring!’ As you may well recall; he doesn’t get a part in the story.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Top 5 Ultimate Movie Scenes of All Time That

...Did Not Make It to the First List.

So, based on my fellow movie-buff and friend Waleed, I decided to share 5 more of the most interesting moments in film.

5: Don't Interrupt Me from American Beauty:
Acted with stark honesty and true anger, this scene remains one of my favorites.

4: Heeeere's Johnny from The Shining:
Kubrick's The Shining is a movie that remains a horror classic. It's creative, new, haunting and dark. To me, it defines the horror genre, and this scene here with Jack Nicholson's masterful acting provides one of the most interesting scenes of horror history:


3: You Can't Handle the Truth from A Few Good Men:
Jack Nicholson cracks down, Jack Nicholson style, from A Few Good Men. A scene worthy of the Oscar he received for the role:


2: Larry Gopnik's Question from A Serious Man:
A scene that is comic, dark, desperate and sad. Performed with sincerity and mastery and directed by masters Ethan and Joel Coen.


1: Malkovich-Malkovich Scene from Being John Malkovich:
This Charlie Kaufman masterpiece is everything a movie should be. It is the reason I still watch movies. This scene here is one of the most creative scenes in movie history and depicts John Malkovich walking into his own mind. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Until we meet later, take care and check this if you have not already.

God bless!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 [2010]


There's a scene in this adaptation of the seventh installment of J.K Rowling's hit series, Harry Potter, that sort of defined the whole movie for me. It is the one scene I felt Dan Radcliffe (who is at his normal; bad to horrible actor) actually act, and Emma Watson (who is, as usual, the only person in the whole starring trio capable of expressing real emotion and character development and/or depth) display true and visible talent. The scene does not include dialogue, lasts for roughly less than three minutes but is populated with emotion and poignancy that is new to the film adaptations of the previous Harry Potter books. It's so definitive of the hope vs. despair theme commonly found in the books that it just sends chills up your spine as it progresses.

I thought of so many things when I saw that scene. I thought of the young, eleven-year-old trio. I thought of reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (a tattered and worn copy, at that, brought to me by my elder sister) when I was just 12...I thought of writing fan-fiction for upcoming Harry Potter books (I was never right...on anything.) And now, seven years later, at 19 years of age, I feel like Harry Potter, in defining a part of my childhood, had defined a part of me. I have lived, laughed and cried with Harry for so long of my childhood. And when the going got tough; I'd sit back and dream I was a student at Hogwarts. At 12 years of age, convincing yourself that your pencil was a magic wand and then chasing after a non-existent Basilisk (don't ask, long story) in your room...Well, let's just say it's not so tough a task.

And I guess that's the feeling I felt right after finishing this movie...A lot of nostalgia. I felt no thrill; I know how part 2 next summer will end. I didn't even like the visuals much...I did like the fact that a lot of it came very close to what I was imagining when I was reading the book. That was pretty neat. But otherwise, the visuals were the regular for every Potter movie. I would have loved Alfonso Cuarón for one last go after Prisoner of Azkaban, my all-time favorite Harry Potter movie and, to me, the most stylish. But alas; the current mindset of direction is not so far from what an old, hardcore, top-notch Harry Potter geek would like to see.

The story progresses smoothly, usually from the events depicted in the book; details are carefully placed, lots of good people die, lots of people you don't really care about die, and the role of Voldemort is played by the ever-evil Ralph Fiennes with depth, caution and a voice so menacing it seems more evil than that of the hare-lipped serial killer from Red Dragon. The ending is set well for the finale in part 2 and, to those who did not read the books, I'm betting it was quite a thrilling experience to watch. The costumes were, as ever, designed to perfection and the art direction and cinematography flawless (well, there are never really any epic, Lord-of-the-Rings-style battles, but the small 'wand duels' and chases are always well-paced, well-placed and realistic). The score was rather a disappointment; I don't recall any Harry Potter score from any movie feeling so dead and out of synchronization with the action of the film.

It's hard to dislike Harry's adventure, to me, even at my age...Because it was such a long part of my life. Such a significant part of my life. And forgetting that would mean forgetting how much joy I had when my brother surprised me with a collection of the first four Harry Potter books when I was about 13. Not only was I thrilled, I think that kind of happiness I felt was something I had not felt in years since then. And now, as the Harry Potter saga nears its end in the movies after it already hit its end in the books, it feels quite hard to say goodbye to all of it. I think it would require decades for us to ever again, find a story so enchanting and imaginative, to children and adults alike, as Harry Potter's.

Until we meet later, take care and check this if you haven't seen it already.

God bless!

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Top 5 Ultimate Movie Scenes of All Time

So since I'm in the mood for this; I thought I should share here some of my 'movie expertise' and share what I deemed, in my opinion, the five ultimate movie scenes of all time...

5: Al Pacino's Rant To Kevin Spacey from Glengarry Glen Ross:
This ultimate scene where Al Pacino wipes the floor with Kevin Spacey in the classic Glengarry Glen Ross signifies everything you love about the Al Pacino characters...The blatant outrage, the bad-mouthing, the raised eyebrows...This is it. Ladies and gentlemen, Al Pacino going apeshit on Kevin Spacey:

"What are you going to do about it...asshole?"...Epic.

4: The Brief History of America from Bowling for Columbine:
This genius piece of animation was a sequence in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine (yes, that's the win where he flamed Bush when he had the Oscar in one hand). It's told with such sarcasm and wit that you can't help but laugh and nod. And I'm not even American! Done in South Park style, it still remains a pretty good piece of work on the tenth watch:

"I loves my gun...loves my gun"...Again, epic.

3: Al Pacino's epic speech from ...And Justice For All:
This has to be a milestone in Al Pacino's acting career. The soul and passion with which this scene was executed, the mastery of emotion and tone of voice, the ability to literally morph himself into the character he plays; all became traits of the standard Al Pacino performance.

"I'M OUT OF ORDER? YOU'RE OUT OF ORDER! THIS WHOLE COURTROOM IS OUT OF ORDER!"...An epic peak of epic-ness.

2: The Marriage Sequence from Up:
I just can't comment on the warmth and beauty of this scene...If you haven't watched it yet; you're missing a beautiful bit of film-making and possibly some of the most amazing moments in the history of animation. Michael Giacchino, who provided the score for Up, is at his best on this particular master-scene.


1: The Train Sequence from Spirited Away:
Miyazaki's Spirited Away is one of the most beautiful and most imaginative movies I have ever watched in my life. It's like a dream, that was then put on film and pumped up until you cannot recognize it except as a piece of art from a mind like no other.

This movie captures that mind's (Miyazaki's) peak of creativity and maturity. In Spirited Away, the premise is simple, but the movie puts so much in thought along with the visual genius it brings to the viewer. This scene here is so poignant; it's almost philosophical. There are so many things to see in those few moments: the enduring sense (throughout the scene) that time is so meaningless, the struggle we can see in Chihiro's simple eyes, the feeling that everything else but Chihiro is dead and without identity or voice, and then to top it off; those mysterious spirits on their way to nowhere. The music, a track called The Sixth Station by Joe Hisaishi, is almost a narrative. A beautiful, beautiful scene that I never tire of; definitely worth the top spot on my list.


Until we meet later,
Take care and check this if you have not already!

God bless!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Thinking and Un-thinking [Part 2]

A continuation on the essay from where we left off last time. This is the final part!

***

This question of infinite-within-finite is something that had boggled me…It is something that mathematics had explored through the elementary concept of integration (summing up an infinite number of parts to arrive at a finite value rather than an infinite one). Thinking un-mathematically about the idea, however, is one way that one can easily hit the idea of God; borrowing from the spirit of the First Cause argument or (its derivative) the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Consider this: If we are to assume that there is an infinite number of experiences available in the universe, and if we follow the definition of ‘mind’ as a finite concept capable of understanding and evaluating an infinite number of possibilities for thought and feeling, then it follows that there must be one mind capable of registering all those experiences. In other words, it is logical to conclude that all the possible thoughts and experiences can be put in one particular mindset. And if we are ever to find a human with such a mind, it would follow that this human’s mind is infinite. The premise we’re making here is that it’s impossible to find a human with such a nature, since human minds are finite (as previously proven). Therefore, such a being would not be human. If that being exists, that being is God.

Which brings us to another question: Does God approve of cogito, ergo sum? In other words; is God’s existence similar to our limited understanding of ourselves; as beings with certainty in existence of our own minds, and uncertainty in our conceptions of ourselves and our physical appearance? To put it in more simpler terms, I guess the question we should ask for is: How does God see Himself? Such a perception is more religious than theological; it is something we should consider in the context of one’s own belief system. For example; Catholics will tell you that God (the Father) perceives of Himself and that perception is the Son; the love and connection between the Son and the Father is the Holy Spirit. Which would naturally give God a Trinitarian nature; a fundamental theological movement of mainstream Christianity. Muslims will tell you God perceives of Himself as the ultimate existence. By ‘ultimate existence’ we mean the only certain existence in mindset and physicality. Any other being is incapable of having such a certainty in both elements of mindset and physicality; according to the infamous cogito, ergo sum.

So it would be interesting to explore this Muslim side of things and allow the reader to observe how it can differ from other theological approaches in different religions in substance and thought. The Qura’n states in its Arabic form:
وسع كل شيئ علما
“..all things He comprehends in His knowledge.”
God’s omniscience is stressed on many other locations in the Qura’n including in Surat Al-Ana’am [Cattle / Chapter 6] verse 59:
وَعِنْدَهُ مَفَاتِحُ الْغَيْبِ لا يَعْلَمُهَا إِلَّا هُوَ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ وَمَا تَسْقُطُ مِنْ وَرَقَةٍ إِلَّا يَعْلَمُهَا وَلا حَبَّةٍ فِي ظُلُمَاتِ الأَرْضِ وَلا رَطْبٍ وَلا يَابِسٍ إِلَّا فِي كِتَابٍ مُبِينٍ
With Him are the keys of the unseen, the treasures that none knoweth but He. He knoweth whatever there is on the earth and in the sea. Not a leaf doth fall but with His knowledge: there is not a grain in the darkness (or depths) of the earth, nor anything fresh or dry (green or withered), but is (inscribed) in a record clear (to those who can read).”
…and in Surat Taha [Ta-Ha / Chapter 20] in verse 7:
يعلم السر و أخفى
“…He knoweth what is secret and what is yet more hidden.

A central part of the Islamic perception of God would be the question: Is God’s omniscience a condition for his omnipotence? In other words, does God have to know how to be omnipotent in order to be omnipotent or do we have to consider these two attributes on completely different grounds? We can say that God’s omnipotence depends on His knowledge of how to be omnipotent. However, we are forced to equally say that God’s omniscience depends on His power to become omniscient. It would seem that the two arguments circulate around themselves, which is true. It, therefore, follows that God is omnipotent if and only if He is omniscient; each implies the other from the pair of arguments we just talked about.

The moral of the story would be that, in terms of the Islamic perception of God, a question of ‘how’ or ‘what’ with a being with omnipotence and omniscience would be redundant. The omniscience answers the ‘what’ and the omnipotence answers the ‘how’. However, neither attributes fully describe the ‘why’. This is the most meaningful question of all. As Stephen Hawking would put it; if we somehow reach a complete theory of physical sciences, we would be able to take part in answering a question that had only been answered by religious belief: why is it that we and the universe exist. And, still quoting Hawking here, if we can answer that question, we would have reached the mind of God. This is true in every sense; it is only through omniscience of all physical sciences (through the complete theory proposed by Hawking and, before him, Albert Einstein) of the world around us that we can ever hope to comprehend the reasons the Creator would offer for His choices.

I say, ‘hope to comprehend’, because, even then, we would not be as sure. As you can see, cogito, ergo sum goes in and spoils all the fun! The complete theory would be our basis of understanding the physical world around us; a world of which we are philosophically unsure of even existing in its current physical form. So, modestly adding to Professor Hawking’s thoughts, we can say that a complete theory would give us a complete perception of our physical world and why it exists as we currently perceive it. We would know a little bit about how God thinks, yes. It still remains open to debate whether another perception of the world exists or not; and until all questions of different perceptions are covered through a complete theory; it would seem rather snobbish to say that we would know the mind of God any time before that. In fact, saying that we will never reach the mind of God is optimistic when compared to the reality of the matter: that we are logically incapable of understanding the mind of God. Our mind is bound, as we explored before, incapable of picturing another perception than what it receives from external stimuli. This idea, seemingly dark and almost illogical to the atheist is a source of hope and peace to the religious in its inherent simplicity. And while the atheist may call it madness; the religious preserve another word for it: belief.