Biography of My Childhood Imagination

Children’s bedtime stories are the best stimulus of imagination, for what children learn is permanent and solid, like a stone carving. Jean Piaget, one of the experts who support this claim, has demonstrated the significance of children’s reception of stories and their ability to recount and to exchange them with their peers, without the mediation of adults. Children recreate this imaginary universe as it creates them.

Some also claim that the accuracy of the words constructing the narrative is key to evoking deeper worlds that may come to fruition. It is a celebration of language and an acknowledgement that words have shades of meaning and embankments within them, as well as contradictions that often reside in the space of a single idea. Albert Einstein’s opinion on this matter is well known: “If you want your children to be brilliant, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more brilliant, read them more fairy tales.”

I, for one, was deprived of these opportunities and the promises of brilliance. In my early childhood, I never heard stories from my grandmother to help develop the machine we call the imagination. True, she would spend hours talking while I listened, at the expense of doing chores, while perhaps ignoring the pains that plagued her. However, the majority of my grandmother’s tales were narrative poems that all had happy endings. And when my bedtime story was not a poem, it was a thread of Arab or Islamic history, where fact and fiction fused like the night I was prepared to sleep through, interwoven with snippets from One Thousand and One Nights.

I fell asleep to the dust devils blowing across the Arabian desert sky, to the tune of rhyme and meter, and of course to the sound of clanging swords to uphold “chivalry” that has become, according to my grandmother, a rare commodity. With these elements were scattered, in all directions, the tears of lovers who dueled with their foes until death, or who, because of embarrassing circumstances, had to hide in wooden boxes for fear that a cruel and nasty spouse might return without warning.

I believe it is these tales that forged my early imagination. However, it was an imagination where males dominate females, where opinions supersede the narrative, and where conclusions precede introductions. The colors of this imagination were fainter than rhymes and were limited to black and white. Dust does not have much color, and the same goes for the sword. Only dark colors were fit for the celebration of chivalry and machismo.

Later on, I learned that our culture was short on epics and mythology. With the exception of what has come through to us from One Thousand and One Nights, our forefathers were not expert in creating images. But imagination must be colorful and full of imagery. This is what English and other European languages intended perhaps, when they linked “image” and “imagination,” as if the latter were an extension of the former.

Since Plato and the dialogue he imagined between his brother Glaucon and Socrates, ideas have become images. For instance, the famous metaphor of the cave envisaged people chained to and facing a dead, colorless wall. Plato’s heroes observed the shadows of things reflected on the wall by a fire blazing behind them, and they began envisioning shapes for these shadows. Nevertheless, the Greek philosopher, who was fascinated by form, did not like poetry, which he considered flowery and tautological. This is something that my grandmother agreed with but did not admit, and the contagion soon spread to me. I thus became more loyal to our longstanding rhetorical tradition.

If imagination is built on perceiving the world without the senses, then in Arabic, we mean the real world – not the imaginative one – when we refer to “the mind’s eye.” That we linked “sight” to “insight,” for example, did not preclude the fact that Abu Al Alaa Al Maari was one of our greatest cultural symbols, a philosopher and a sage, even though he had lost his sight in his early childhood years. Shadow puppetry performance was widespread in the Islamic world, especially during the Mamluk era. It adopted stories and scenes that were performed physically and theatrically. The word “see,” not “contemplate” or “imagine,” is central.

I, for one, saw and watched. But it was cinema that gave color to my poor imagination. Unlike shadow puppetry, it contains elements that encourage contemplation and stimulates a separate track of imagination connected to its imagery. When I was twelve years old or so, I went to a movie theater in Tripoli, Lebanon to see a new movie about Maciste, the mythical Italian hero who resembled Hercules and matched his strength. Indeed, in films about both heroes, I would elaborately employ the contentious background that I received from my grandmother. However, I would add to it bridges for the hero to destroy and thousands of Roman soldiers in colorful uniforms with feathers in their helmets, who would die after a single blow by the hero.

Once, while I waited in line to buy my ticket to a film about the terrible Roman Empire and its fictitious destruction repeated in film after film, I saw a friend, one or two years older, heading towards the adjacent movie theater. As we debated our choices, Ghassan really confused me: he said that the film he was about to watch showed a vagina in unequivocal clarity.

A vagina! Dear Lord!

When I asked him about the accuracy of his information, he said with unshakable confidence that a classmate of his had seen the film and told him that he saw a vagina with his own eyes. This was an astonishing transformation in my imagination, a transformation that took me away from the empires where the flesh of thousands was being scattered, to a very small area of precious flesh with a forbidden hair here and a cursed hair there.

At that moment, the vagina came to occupy a central role in my mind. This continued and enthralled me even more until I left the film as empty-handed as when I entered the cinema. True, I saw an entire thigh until the very top and had the chance to see up close the underwear of the actress. But Martha, or me in this situation, imagined many things when only a few things were needed – or indeed only one.

But as I return to the subject of cinema, I do not mean this as Giuseppe Tornatore meant it, when he returned to his Sicilian hometown to bring us his sentimental Cinema Paradiso. I do not seek more than a testimony about myself, not about cinema, to which I owe a debt that cannot be repaid. In a subsequent phase, and through the Egyptian celebrities Abdel Halim Hafez and Shadia, I came to shed a few tears that even The Passion of the Christ had not managed to lure out of me. More importantly, the films about miserable romance diminished my eagerness to find the vagina and pursue the incredible mysteries of that image.

However, the Westerns that I saw next created a sense of virility that erased the sorrow of the tortured love of Egyptian divas. I encountered vibrant saloons and colorful scarves sported by cowboys. Sunrises and sunsets figured in all these films, where the sounds of nature synchronized precisely with the changing hues of the sky, such that sunrises in sound and image were sunrises as sunsets were indeed sunsets. Even the dust was scenic and direct, unlike the desert sand fashioned out of big words. And unlike the mythical Maciste and the thousands of nameless Roman soldiers, the hero in Westerns was an individual like us, and the villains were individuals too. The music in Westerns had the amazing ability not only to bring the scenes to life, but to break them up into moments that could be predicted one by one. For example, one tune would suggest that the hero was about to make an entrance, another would see him separated from his love interest or entering a risky situation with unpredictable consequences. In truth, breaking down scenes through music has the opposite effect on imagination that poetry does: it makes color and motion inform and reflect one another, resulting in artistic parity.

However, the battles between cowboys and Indians created a dichotomy in the vast universe of the Westerns. Here, everything seemed new and fascinating: the costumes, the colored feathers, the names, the war cries, the names of the tribes, the herbal medicine, the strange language, and the crossbows. While dozens of nameless Indians were killed, the massive number of deaths was not accompanied by the epic atmosphere from the films about the Romans.

There resided in those scenes a playfulness and lightheartedness that were not seen in the films about the mighty Romans. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Indians would later become action figures for children to play with, unlike the titans Maciste or Hercules. This playfulness and lightheartedness helped me a great deal back then. When I would return to my village from Beirut, I would tell my friends about the films I had seen with a sense of exaggeration that Jean Piaget perhaps assumed did not exist in his children. They would gather around me, and I would tell them about Victor Mature, Tony Curtis, and John Wayne. From what I remember, I was creative in telling the story of the villain Burt Lancaster, who was killed at the hands of the Sheriff Gary Cooper, rolling down the saloon’s staircase and dying a remorseless death! I don’t remember whether I would also mix the stories about the American West with what my grandmother told me about the pre-Islamic poet and hero Antar Ibn Shaddad in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the end, all I wanted was to intrigue my friends and then use that intrigue as a stepping-stone to lead them and ensure my popularity among them. Anything was permitted to achieve that noble goal, and I was unshaken by the pitiful commandment “Thou Shalt Not Lie.” Sometimes, we would enact the films ourselves, but we would play only by my rules, for I was the only one who had actually seen the film and could thus become a second, and exclusive, author. By virtue of such exclusivity, I would monopolize the role of the hero and his name for myself. Mondays I was Robert, and Tuesdays I was Roger. In this manner, I continued dauntless, breaking their ennui and my ennui with myself.

The fact of the matter is that the fantasy of these reenactments, both as a game and as a performance, makes the task of imagination a responsibility to the public, one that is further challenged by the act of performance. I no longer had only to head to Beirut, something that the parents would not allow, but on top of this, I had to watch new films and then recount them in a manner to make them more interesting and exciting. While transforming a scene into an oral account threatened its richness, the Arab tradition of exaggeration guaranteed that some losses could indeed be offset.

My childhood friends soon moved on from their infatuation with heroes, whom I had taken great liberty to reproduce, toward a sense of a vague cinematic identity that challenged the isolation of the village and gave it some color. In his famous book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson applies imagination to the field of political science and history, and concludes that a community, as it grows larger in a manner that precludes personal acquaintance among its individual members, becomes an imagined community, or a nation, an idea that people would come to die for. It was thus that my friends’ cinematic identity, which they had no proof of, was worth the sacrifice of going all the way to Tripoli or Beirut against the will of their parents.

Today, I believe that one of the things that weakened my imagination was its lack of religion, particularly Judeo-Christian monotheism. Noah survives the flood, Joshua stops the sun, Jesus is crucified then resurrected, the serpent hisses in hell, the dragon is slain on earth – here, there is a theatre of supernatural and terrifying creatures, a theatre that I had never set foot into. Since the mid-seventies, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has reassured us in saying that we must not fear these stories. For the myths that frighten children, threaten them, or warn them against leaving and abandoning parents allow them to control their terror and thus to better equip themselves for the future.

One result of this deficiency of religion was that the pictures in my imagination remained, at best, the equivalent of paintings, never murals. Freedom from the otherworld has the single flaw of leading to a modest or minimalist imagination. Most probably, politics played some of the roles that religion did not.

Politics is a source of imaginative thinking because reality is always a reason for protest. Since ancient Greek history, things have not been what they seem, and appearances are always deceptive. This fact leads to the pursuit of alternative images and will also lead to an aversion towards the readily available interpretations of the given world. The metaphor of the cave itself suggests that this world – our reality – as we perceive it is nothing but shadows drafted by artificial hands, shadows that are poor reflections of the forms of things. Even Marxism, despite its foundations in materialism, acknowledged how perception, or the “false consciousness,” was an obstacle to the struggle against exploitation and the transition from “class in itself” to “class for itself.” More than a century after the death of Marx, his student Jean Baudrillard warned us, in Simulacra and Simulation, that we have gone too far and that consumerism has engendered representations of reality that are even more realistic than reality itself.

We must not perceive reality in a simple manner that relies on superficial appearances. Because things are not what they seem, insight – exasperated by what we perceive – always clashes with sight.

In my politics, Gamal Abdel Nasser was a hero who marched alongside the likes of Antara, Maciste, and John Wayne, and he surpassed them and sat on a higher throne. Politics as an imaginary realm is not the art of the possible but rather is much closer to the art of the difficult and even the impossible. So just imagine what it would be like if politics were to fall on childish minds in young communities, still puzzled by how they came to be communities.

For me, the Egyptian leader was a hero who brought us victory after victory, crushing one enemy after another. He was also the orator with the bombastic voice, the handsome face that men coveted and women loved, the man of towering height who became a pillar from which our temple arose, without which our temple crumbled. Nasser was also an explorer of continents, bringing back treasures and spices that we never knew: with Nasser, I would learn the names of new personalities, countries, and exotic cities, names like Tito, Nehru, Zhou Enlai, Sukarno, and Nkrumah, places like Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Bandung, Zagreb, and many more. When he received prominent friends, I would see them in pictures as they were in Egypt, yellow and black faces, strange attire and clothes, all alien to the reality that I was accustomed to.

Nasser the Explorer – the African, Cuban, Indian, and Yugoslavian all at once – had a body that transcended his physical self, morphing into a mythological figure. The Arab Colossus would cross continents, taking me with him in his pocket to wherever he went. This was kind of like a film, a film that broadened knowledge and expanded the world, enabling broadening minds to play in an expanding world.

In truth, travel is requisite for imagination. The knowledge, peace, and persistence of a journey and the suffering, achievement, and dedication of a quest are enriching. Crossing deserts, rivers, and bridges and reaching faraway islands has long signified a form of transformation that only supernatural bodies can undertake, bodies like the Arab Colossus’s.

Take for instance the fictional philosopher Raphael Hythloday, who narrates to his friends Thomas More and Peter Gilles in More’s Utopia his vision of an explorer who traveled with Amerigo Vespucci to the New World. In ancient history, Trojan War heroism was not enough to make Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, husband of Penelope, and Homer’s protagonist, a true hero. It took, above and beyond this, a journey that lasted ten years full of challenges and extraordinary suffering. Likewise, Moses crossed the desert, and Jesus ventured all the way up to Qana near Tyre, then south to near Madaba in Jordan – and those were considerable distances in that pre-modern era. Meanwhile Mohammad journeyed, when he was married to Khadija, through the countries of the Christians and Jews. In his famous night journey, he traveled on the steed Buraq with Gabriel and reached Jerusalem and Sidrat Al Muntaha, the Lote Tree in heaven.

From Abu Al Alaa and his hero Ibn Al Qarih in the tenth and eleventh centuries – in the text Risalat Al Ghufran (Letter of Forgiveness) – to Dante’s Divine Comedy in the fourteenth century, Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel in the sixteenth century, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels two hundred years later, journeys became an integral part of imagination, an aspect that – through exhaustion – mobilized and inspired these heroes’ greatest struggles.

Nasser, in a sense, was like these heroes. In our local history, Nasser was the heir to that sailor from Basra in the Abbasid era named Sindbad. But Nasser’s travels were closer to the kind that went beyond space into time. I only had to hear Mohammad Abdel Wahab sing “O You Who Ask about Our Banners, They Are Still Fluttering High in the Sky” to imagine the glorious Arab empires I was told were annihilated by a mean Maciste called colonialism. To the tune of caravan music, inspired by prominent Russian composers, Abdel Wahab in particular would place me in a saddle on the back of a camel traveling the Muslim world from one end to the other, or at least across the “Greater Arab Homeland,” as the title of one of his songs goes, which is festooned by Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Fez, and even dips its toes into Andalusia. For Nasser’s travels pushed our imaginations towards the past as an alternative route to what we thought was the future. The Egyptian leader took a contradictory approach to that of many heroes like General Utopos, the founder of Thomas More’s Utopia, who headed only to the future and built their cities on islands isolated from any landmass or in the middle of nowhere. Nasser built his places here, a solid land with firm roots, even as he expanded this “here” until it almost encompassed all of “there.”

But the city, too, had its role in the realm of imagination. When I was young, Tripoli – and later Beirut – seemed like they would be constructed and reconstructed many times over, unlike the village, built only once. In the village, the land is flat. From any spot you can see everything in the village. It does not require a big imagination to guess what Umm Elias is doing in her home at any given moment, or to hear Ramez snoring in his bedroom, especially when the gardens, the open doors, and loud voices reveal half of the secrets about the intimate happenings inside homes.

The city, on the contrary, evokes the imagination in its immediacy and nuances. When, I wonder, did those high-rise buildings emerge, and what resides behind those many windows, and what happens inside that closed world? There, we hear unfamiliar sounds and apprehend never-before-seen sights. The café, the cinema, the library, and the heavy traffic, as well as a thousand other details, become mysteries and riddles that stimulate imagination. A hundred years ago, art in Italy was mesmerized by the extravagance and speed of movement, of cars for example, and the dynamism and strength of machinery and the vitality of modern life, reflecting European urbanization back then.

Filippo Marinetti coined the term Futurism and published the “The Futurist Manifesto,” glorifying the technology of cars and the beauty of their speed and strength. At the same time, Umberto Boccioni and his peers published a manifesto on painting, and their favorite themes were fast trains, speeding bikes, and astonished urban crowds.

In my experience, one of the wonders of the city was its school. In Rawda High School in the Beirut neighborhood of Verdun, I was surrounded by unfamiliar faces and names. There, in the classroom, we had Artin the Armenian, Wafiq the Sunni Beiruti, Majed the Druze, and Samir the Palestinian. There were an infinite number of hairstyles, skin colors, and accents in contrast with my classmates at the village school, who all had almost the same face. In the city, the school encouraged me to learn and imagine at the same time. The teachers came from various towns and backgrounds. Our teacher in the village used to live a stone’s throw from our home and knew us as we knew him, generation after generation.

I remember that in the beginning of the first year in Beirut, I suffered because of the difference between my home and the world of the school. When I became acquainted with sandwiches, I started avoiding home-cooked meals so that I could go to the sandwich place. Sandwiches had vast powers of emancipation. In the sandwich place, I could stand in line with strangers and pay for what I wanted to eat. My order would come wrapped in paper, its taste differing greatly from the food we ate at home. The options were also infinite, unlike the predetermined nature of food prepared in advance. In the sandwich place, we could control the taste, asking for certain types of seasoning or ordering more pickles. Whereas the home-cooked meal arrived complete and ready, the sandwich customer could follow the process of sandwich formation, as its components came together over a loaf, open before our eyes.

The city has boosted our confidence in the creative capacity of the imagination. This capacity emerged from industrialization, urbanization, and institutionalized education as reflected in the writings of Jules Verne in the second half of the nineteenth century. Not a century later, flying to the moon became a possibility, and what was once imagined became a probable adventure. The technologies resulting from globalization in the past quarter-century are the equivalent of everything produced in previous centuries. How can we live now without Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” without John Lennon’s “Imagine,” without the Invisible Cities of Italo Calvino, the book which presents a debate between of the Venetian Marco Polo and the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan? How can we overlook magical realism in Latin America, where reality appears fundamentally incomplete and where stories extend into the hereafter?

Hazem Saghieh is a Lebanese writer and journalist, and his latest book is Al Baath Al Souree: Tareekh Moujaz (The Syrian Baath: A Brief History) (Saqi).
The Predicament of the Individual in the Middle East
Killer Issues
Theatre Beyrouth by Hanane Hajj Ali
Little America
"Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood" by Jean Piaget
Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
Critical Writing

All Stories
All Critical Writing
The Square
Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
The Imagined
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