Volkskrant journalist Fokke Obbema wrote an interview series about the meaning of life. At the end of this series, he called on readers to write a 'self-interview' with the main question 'What is the meaning of our life?' Saeed Al-Gariri took the challenge and wrote a reflection on his own life and the lessons he has learned.
By Saeed Al-Gariri
In the mid-1970s, when I was 16, I read The Woman and the Sex by the Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi, one of the most important and well-known feminists in the Arab world. In her book she breaks through many political, religious and sexual taboos, and is an opponent of those in power and their abuse of religion - all those in power, all religions. This important book opened my mind to forbidden questions about the existence, religion, afterlife and life of my conservative society. It also determined my intellectual direction. I went to university to study, majoring in literature and criticism. Later I became a writer, poet and professor at the university for more than twenty years. I was then one of the leaders of the peaceful national resistance.
In 1981 I spent almost a week clinically death in intensive care in the Educational Hospital of the Republic in the city of Aden (South Yemen). I was a conscript soldier, training in a camp in a very hot desert area. The drills were intense and tiring, at temperatures above 45° C. Our skin was burning and it was not surprising that I contracted malaria fever.
On the eighth day I opened my eyes for the first time. I saw only white: bed, blanket, sheet, walls, nurses with white clothes and girls, interns, with white smiles, like angels of grace. Since this date, November 13, 1981, I realized that my life was a gift. I felt I was living on borrowed time. This special, near death experience gave sense to my life.
Life was like a dream. As the Turkish poet, Nazem Hikmat, wrote: "Our best days: we haven't seen them yet." This idea of the continuation of life in the afterlife is neither new, nor strange. I learned this at a young age in the village mosque in Hadramaut, according to the Sufi faith. "If the resurrection were on one of you with a sapling in his hand, let him plant it," said the Prophet Mohammed.
What is the meaning of our life?
"Searching for the meaning of life or a meaningful life is the dominant concern for human thinking; but that life flows in the gruesome and dark divide of death,” wrote the German philosopher, Heidegger, in a meditation on the inevitable end.
Religions state that the ideal life will take place in the hereafter. But I think the best life should start now. Between the squares of life and the gate to death that all people must enter is a distance comparable to a marathon. The winner is the one who is fit enough. The key of the gate is in the hands of God.
It is said that death is a sleep without dreams, or a journey without return. Thinking back to my near death during that week in 1981, I feel happy. In the forty years since, I have dreamed a lot, without that never-ending sleep. I came back without making the trip to the afterlife.
Death is an eternal problem for man. It raises sharp questions. But the rhythm of life is louder than death. In this sense, we can say that death is a drum beat. Death focuses not only on people, but on all living things: trees, plants, cats, dogs, cows, horses and even ideas and theories. There are even philosophical sayings such as "The death of the author" (Roland Barth), "The death of God" (Friedrich Nietzsche) and "The death of conscience."
The word as a sanctuary
Writing is part of the meaning of life, I think. All things seem like words. Life, death, joy, sorrow, happiness, misery, existence, nothing, justice, injustice, equality, discrimination, love, hate. In the beginning there was the word, and the word will always be a new and unlimited beginning; it multiplies all beings, as a creative and vital vector of new ideas. A great tool for change.
When I came to the Netherlands as a refugee, the word was my sanctuary. During the first three weeks, I wrote a collection of poems. In the new country I was alone, strange. My life in my own country had ended. So I had to start all over again. Through writing, I regained an existence. I created a world of my own, in which I lived with a number of friendly poets and painters. I shared a common language with them.
In my homeland, it would have been my destiny to die from a bullet, a car accident or something similar. It would have been a cursed death. This is how thousands of people die in wars and unstable areas such as Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, the Middle East and Africa.
It was one of the situations that really worried me in my time as a leader of peaceful resistance. We organized demonstrations against the dictatorship in Yemen. The army confronted young people, students and thousands of civilians with bullets. I have seen the dead and wounded. According to religious beliefs, the dead are martyrs, they will go to paradise. But I loved their life in today's reality. Caution forced these people to stop the protests. Confrontation meant death, but without confrontation there will be no change!
Life between two cultures
The cultural differences between East and West are perhaps the most manifest in the culture surrounding life and death. In the east, death is omnipresent. Death is glorified as the great transition to the hereafter. The culture of life is therefore marginal. In this world, joy is in the margins of life. Cheerfulness is a dream. Happiness is a dream. Safety is a dream. Life itself is also a dream. These dreams are only fulfilled after death. Only if the person is a believer, and his mind is not concerned with this world, because here he is only a passer-by. He finds ultimate stability in paradise if he is a true believer.
One of the problems: the best centuries are in the past and the most beautiful days are yet to come. The present - the real life of man - is completely absent. The absence of freedom of thought and expression makes it even more complicated. The search for the meaning of life is like the search for a griffin.
In societies with a political, religious, intellectual and social dictatorship, no one can answer a question about the meaning of life outside the prevailing stereotype. And if we try to answer that question, self-censorship remains vigilant. "This word is not allowed, this sentence should be lighter so others don't get upset."
In our Arab and Islamic culture, people are glorified and feared death. It is seen as the beginning of a terrible journey, of which one does not know what will happen next. Religious political speeches say, "We love death, just as our enemies love life." However, how can we view death from the gate of love? Does this declaration of love to death represent death itself, as a kind of symbolic suicide? Why don't they say, "We love life more than our enemies?"
How do the questions about the meaning of life come to fruition in this reality?
I usually try to make life meaningful for myself. However simple this meaning may be. In one of my poems from the time of my asylum application, I wrote about an old, depressed man and how he made a special dictionary for himself. It contained words with special meanings so that he could laugh despite his depressed feelings. I borrowed the idea from a story by the Swiss writer, Peter Bichsel. It then expressed my own feelings, which prevented me from succumbing to alienation and depression. I created my own sentence from a simple idea.
Photo: © Kareni / Pixabay
RFG Magazine is a Dutch non-profit organisation for media professionals with a refugee background. RFG wants to help exiled journalists gain a foothold in Dutch media. RFG has a mentoring programme, offers career coaching and organises workshops and internships. Its most visible activity is the online magazine, where its members publish articles and other (multi-)media productions. In some cases these are syndicated to other media.
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