In the Eye of the Storm The origin of existence is movement. Immobility can have no part in it, for if existence was immobile it would return to its source, which is the Void. That is why the voyaging never stops, in this world or in the hereafter." These words, by the twelfth--century Arabian philosopher Ibn al-Arabi, are from his detailed tract on traveling, the Kitâb al-isfâr, The Book of Revelations on the Effects of Voyaging, a mystical and deeply religious piece of writing, in which everything—God, the universe, the soul—is viewed through the prism of movement, and throughout the entire book this movement is invariably referred to as voyaging. I am neither Muslim nor religious, I bought the book in Paris some time ago because it contained the word voyage (safar in Arabic, plural asfâr), because it was a dual-language edition and I love the beauty of Arabic script, and also because, when I flipped through it in that Parisian bookshop, I noticed a couple of things in the introduction that preoccupy all genuine travelers, be they from the twelfth century or the twentieth. The translator and writer of the introduction, Denis Gril, points out that he could have translated the word "effects" with "fruits"—on the one hand to underline the positive outcome of traveling, on the other hand because, due to its origin, the Arabic word for fruit, natâ’ij, makes one think of "to give birth," with its evocation of the intellectual, spiritual fruits of traveling. A voyage, says the text, is thus named because it reveals a person’s character, or, put more simply, for the benefit of those who travel alone: on a journey you get to know yourself.
Yet another word, siyâha, pilgrimage, catches my attention in that introduction, possibly due to my fascination with Santiago de Compostela. Its de?nition reads: "parcourir la terre pour pratiquer la méditation—i’tibâr—et se rapprocher de Dieu." Traveling around the world, meditating and drawing nearer to God. The latter would be a pretension for me, but substitute the word God with mystery and I do feel able to subscribe to it. For how do these things come about? One fine day, and I know how romantic and old-fashioned that sounds, but it is what happened in my case, I packed a rucksack, took leave of my mother, and caught the train to Breda. An hour later—you know how small the Netherlands is—I was standing at the side of the road on the Belgian border sticking my thumb in the air, and I have never really stopped since. At that time any meditative thought, any metaphysical pretension was foreign to me, those sorts of things only come later, rather in the way a Tibetan prayer wheel functions in fact, with the movement preceding the thought. To put it in a different way, I never again stopped moving around, and gradually I began to think while doing it, and you could, if you wished, call this thinking meditation.
Two things are significant here: anyone who is constantly traveling is always somewhere else, and therefore always absent. This holds good for oneself, and it holds good for the others, the friends; for although it is true that you are "somewhere else," and that, consequently, there is somewhere you are not, there is one place where you are constantly, all the time, namely with "yourself." And no matter how simple it sounds, it does take a long time before you become fully aware of this. For there is always the incomprehension of the "others" to contend with. How many times did I have to hear Pascal’s dictum, "the root of the world’s misfortune lies in the fact that human beings are unable to remain in one room for twenty-four hours," before it began to dawn on me that, on the contrary, I was the one who was always at home, namely with myself. But that traveling self was repeatedly confronted by the stay-at-homes’ questions, with one question recurring with monotonous regularity at each interview, so much so that I have lost count of all the fabrications with which I replied. "Why do you travel, why do you travel so much?," followed by (accusingly), "Are you running away from something?," by which they meant and mean, running away from yourself, which for me conjures up visions of a demonic, pathetic, tortured self, forever driving me back into the desert or on to the high seas. The true answer, having to do with learning and contemplation, with curiosity and perplexity, is just not spectacular enough. In 1993 I wrote an introduction to a little book called De Koning van Suriname (The King of Surinam). It contains my earliest traveler’s tales, written in the 1950s, when I was a seaman, plying the route to Surinam, on the north-east cost of South America. My introduction begins. "Traveling, too, is something . . ."
Traveling, too, is something you have to learn. It is a constant transaction with others in the course of which you are simultaneously alone. And therein lies the paradox: you journey alone in a world that is controlled by others. It is they who own the boarding house where you want a room, they who decide whether there is space for you on the plane that only goes once a week, it is they who are poorer than you and can benefit from you, they who are more powerful because they can refuse a stamp or document. They speak in tongues you cannot comprehend, stand next to you on a ferry or sit next to you on the bus, they sell you food at the market and send you in the right or wrong direction, sometimes they are dangerous, but usually they are not, and all this has to be learned: what you should do, what you should not do, and what you should never do. You have to learn how to deal with their drunkenness and yours; you have to be able to recognise a gesture and a glance, for no matter how solitary a traveler you are you will always be surrounded by others; by their expressions, their overtures, their disdain, their expectations. And every place is different, and nowhere does it resemble what you were accustomed to in the country you come from. That slow process of learning the things I would need later on, in Burma and Mali, Iran and Peru, began then. Not that I was aware of it in those days, I was far too busy keeping myself afloat in a sea of new impressions. I had no time to think about myself, I traveled and wrote like someone who could not yet travel and write. All I could do was observe, and then attempt to circle around what I saw with words. I had no theories about the world with which to test the confusing reality all about me, and everything I could not yet do is manifest in these stories.
Maybe the genuine traveler is always positioned in the eye of the storm. The storm being the world, the eye that with which he views it. Meteorologists tell us that within this eye all is silent, perhaps as silent as a monk’s cell. Whoever learns how to see with this eye might also learn how to distinguish between what is real and what is not, if only by observing the ways in which things and people differ, and the ways in which they are the same.
Baudelaire wrote that travelers leave in order to depart, and he also wrote about the spurious notions they take with them, and about the "bitter knowledge" their travels provide them with, about "the petty, monotonous world that allows us to glimpse ourselves, yesterday, today, and tomorrow: an oasis of horror in a desert of tedium." Looked at from this point of view, perhaps it is he who stays at home among the familiar anecdotage of daily life who is running scared, being unable to stomach this bitter knowl...