Monday, November 8, 2010

Rumi 1

I stepped out of my house and encountered one who was crazed,
and in whose every look could be glimpsed a hundred worlds.
Like a boat in a storm, he twisted this way and that,
and all who saw him were transfixed by his presence.
"Where are you from?" I asked. He laughed and said, "My friend,
I am half from Turkestan and half from Ferghaneh;
I am half earth and water; half heart and soul;
half at the ocean's shore; half the pearl (that lies hidden in it)."
I said, "Befriend me, for I am your kin."
He said, "I do not distinguish between kin and stranger.
I am heartbroken and bereft in the wine-maker's house,
all I have is a word in my heart. Shall I speak it or not?
Shall one drunk on such beauty be less eloquent than a piece of wood?
Even the pillar of Hannaneh cried out at last!"

Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 - 1273)

(Translated from Persian by Ali Minai)

The pillar of Hannaneh refers to an apocryphal story about the Prophet Muhammad. It is said that during his sermons in the mosque of Hannana, he would lean against a wooden pillar. One day, he moved his pulpit away from the pillar, and the pillar cried out in grief. For Sufis, the event symbolizes separation from the Beloved and the grief it engenders.

Celebrating Complexity .....

We humans have always lived with complexity. Indeed, religion, science, philosophy, law and ethics can all be seen as human attempts to deal with the complexity of the world around us. Our greatest works of art illuminate this complexity by making unexpected connections and discovering mysterious relationships between things. All of us have an instinctive understanding of - and respect for - complexity. And yet there is an equally powerful urge that drives us towards simple explanations, pat answers and easy solutions. This desire for simplification has served us well, and human society has generally been content to leave the task of dealing with complexity to a designated few - priests and scientists, shamans and statesmen, artists and poets, and - when all else fails - lawyers. For the rest, it has been assumed that "honest common sense" suffices well enough. We try to live by simple creeds and follow simple rules, punishing deviation from these by social and legal sanctions. Indeed, most of us believe in eternal truths, unchanging values and immutable facts, seldom acknowledging that the "truths", "values" and "facts" we hold to be self-evident may trap us in rigid mindsets that are inconsistent with success in a complex world. Never has this been more true than today, as we discover much more of the world's complexity and also make it more complex by our own actions. Unlike our ancestors even a few generations ago, we live in environments whose complexity cannot be ignored or obviated by following a few simple tropes. Some among us find this disconcerting, and hanker for that simpler world of our forebears. The terrible consequences of this delusional hankering are all around us - wrought in the name of patriotism, faith, tradition or a "way of life". Life, in fact, has only one way, and it is the way of change! We may value stability as a sign of strength, but the strength of life arises from flexibility, adaptivity and mutability. Life - the most complex of all complex things - persists through movement, and if we are to deal with our complex world, we must learn from its success.

The science of complex systems has begun to explain many aspects of complexity in physical, biological and artificial systems. However, thinking in terms of complexity has not penetrated either our discourse or our worldview to the degree that it must if we are to cope with the challenges we face. Our environment still encourages us to think in "common sense" ways, and to mistrust complex ideas. Our political system, our media, and our societal norms, all reinforce the lethal message of faith and country even as the reality we inhabit no longer recognizes the boundaries of either one. We are still trapped in a discourse of simple causality, traditional ways and fixed meanings. This needs to change. We must move on to a style of thinking that acknowledges complexity and seeks to work with it, a style that is nonlinear, a style that has room for counter-intuitive ideas and complicated explanations.

The time has come to move past just common sense to a more complex sensibility.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What is Barbarikon?

Barbarikon was the name of an ancient seaport situated near the modern city of Karachi - probably to the southeast and further inland. It is mentioned in the 1st Century AD text "Periplus of the Erythraean Sea"  as a port at the "middle" mouth of the Indus delta.The importance of the port can be judged by the following description from Periplus:

"The ships lie at anchor at Barbaricum, but all their cargoes are carried up to the metropolis by the river, to the King. There are imported into this market a great deal of thin clothing, and a little spurious; figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine. On the other hand there are exported costus, bdellium,lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric, skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo. And sailors set out thither with the Indian Etesian winds, about the, month of July, that is Epiphi: it is more dangerous then, but through these winds the voyage is more direct, and sooner completed."

(ref Wikipedia:

The word "Barbarikon" corresponds to the Latin "Barbaricum", meaning regions beyond the pale of the established order - the land of Barbarians, so to speak. Its application to the port city on the Indus was probably just a coincidental corruption of a local name.

There has been some debate about the exact location of the city. Initial conjectures identified it with Gharo or Bhambore, but Maj. Gen. M.R. Haig, writing in his "Indus Delta Country: A Memoir Chiefly on Its Ancient Geography and History" (London: 1894), proposes that the city lay further south and east. It is interesting to note that the Indus followed a very different course 2000 years ago, and that the river's mouth was much further inland than it is today (as a result of extensive silting since that time). Indeed, the entire area around Karachi has an extremely rich history going back to pre-Alexanderian times - a fact of which almost all current inhabitants of the city are entirely unaware.

This blog has been named "Barbarikon" for two reasons: First, because I wanted to celebrate an interesting ancient link to my native city, Karachi; and second, because a lot of this blog's content will, I hope, challenge conventional wisdom - much as wild ideas (and people!) from Barbaricum challenged the settled conventions of Rome and Byzantium.