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Yahia Lababidi
Washington, D.C.
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American aphorist, poet, essayist and conversationalist:
Interests: Poetry, Aphorisms, Philosophy, Literature, Spirituality, Mysticism
Recent Activity
"The Questioner of the Sphinx" by Elihu Vedder (1863) The guardian of the riddle must speak in riddles. * Logical interpretations are the Miracle’s modesty. * So long as you trust in anything else, the miracle shall be withheld. * To acquire a third eye, one cannot blink. * Trust in longing to sing itself. * One definition of success might be: refining our appetites, while deepening our hunger. * Fear of success betrays a greater self-mistrust than fear of failure. * It’s easier to be fearless, when we remember that we are deathless. * The great whale hunt of the spirit life is also pursued in our dreams. * We must try to carefully guard our thoughts, for they might be secreted to others in dreams. * For those who discount dreams, consider this: relationships might start, or falter, while we sleep. * As we make ‪peace with ourselves, we become more ‪tolerant of our faults — in others. * All who are tormented by an Ideal must learn to make an ally of failure. * Our salvation lies on the other side of our gravest danger. * Where there are demons, there is something precious worth fighting for. * Poor rational mind, it would sooner accept a believable lie than an incredible truth. * Every Messiah is reluctant - at least, initially. * Intuition asks: what use are two open eyes when you're in the dark? * All languages are rough translations of our native tongue: the Spirit. * Poems are like bodies—a fraction of their power resides in their skin. The rest belongs to the spirit that swims through them * And when we think we are stealing from life's fleeting pleasures, we are stealing from our own Eternal Joy. * The ascetic does not deny pleasure; he shuns the coarse, in favor of the refined and exalted. (Art by Agostino Arrivabenne) * The ascetic ideal speaks, thus: indulge, and forego Vision. * Spiritual fast food leads to spiritual indigestion. * Said a poem to a poet: Can I trust you? Is your heart pure to carry me, are your hands clean to pass me on? * For the sake of a good line a poet, like a comedian, must be willing to risk everything. * From what you have, create what you have not—the poem teaches the poet. * When the life of a poet is a poem, the poet becomes a mystic. * Numbness is a spiritual malady, true detachment its opposite. * You can't bury pain and not expect it to grow roots. * If we care for ourselves, we may turn our pain into gifts for others. If we do not care for our souls, we become a burden for others. (Photograph by Zakaria Wakrim) * If there is someone we might ask forgiveness of, then there is no one we can deny forgiveness to. * We steal from ourselves when we share an idea, or a feeling, before it has ripened. *... Continue reading
Posted May 15, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I thought I was immune to culture shock. Attending American schools, K-12 (albeit in Kuwait and Egypt) meant I was familiar with the lingo. Even though I spoke some Arabic at home, I never formally studied it at school, which translated into reading, writing, and dreaming, in English. What’s more, I had gone to college in the United States - so I didn't really expect much of an adjustment period when, around ten years ago, I made the US my home. But, my college years in (in Washington, DC) were a kind of reactionary blur, where I’d spent most of the time with my nose buried in a book, experimenting with things like philosophy and silent fasts instead of taking in the New World around me. Seasons came and passed without my noticing, and I would go back home anyway at the end of each semester. So, when I decided to move stateside I was, for all practical purposes, living in America for the first time - the same way they say that you never know someone till you live with them. Thus, in spite of all my early Americanization, landing in Miami airport, in early 2006, I felt like an untitled and near penniless version of Eddie Murphy’s African prince character in the 1988 hit comedy, Coming to America. A series of cultural confusions during my first year of disorientation, featuring my then-college-crush and soon-to-become wife, convinced me I was still “off the boat” and that Project Integration was very much underway. Coming to America, Eddie Murphy Sure, America had changed, and I had too, since those college years (this was the tail end of the Bush Years, and pre-financial crisis) but somehow I had not wrapped my mind around the basics last time I was here: like the credit system. So, when Diana(my spouse-to-be) disclosed to me the amount of her mortgage ($115K) I was genuinely scandalized. After I candidly told her I thought such debt was criminal and she should do time for it, I gave her another piece of my overwhelmed mind. “In Egypt, we have a saying” I volunteered: 'extend your legs to the extent of your blanket.' Meaning if your blanket/means are limited, no need to stretch/splurge.” She heard me out, patiently, and brushed the whole thing off, assuring me I was over-reacting. As a fledgling poet, I used to send out countless packets of my work to magazines across the country, like quivering arrows, in hopes a lucky few might hit their target. One day, Diana brought back an envelope to me. “You need to include the state and zipcode,” she said. “I did,” I replied. “No, you didn’t,” she continued matter-of-factly, “you just wrote Portland.” “Oh no,” I shot back, rather smugly. “I read that one very closely, my dear. It clearly stated either Portland or the zipcode; and the ‘or’ was even written in caps!” Very slowly, as though addressing a small (dim-witted) child, she let me know that OR stood... Continue reading
Posted Oct 2, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Art by Junghee Sohn Poetry is how we pray, now. In these skeptical times, poets are Caedmon and poems hymns. Past the personal, poets sing for those who cannot – registering our awe, making sense of our anguish, and harnessing the inchoate longing of countless souls. Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets - deepening our silences, so that we might overhear ourselves. Poetry, also, can restore our sight, helping us to bear better witness to Now and, past that, calmly gaze over the head of our harried times. By lending us this third (metaphysical) eye which collapses distances, poetry can act as a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life. After all this, too, is what prayer can do: serving as our conscience, and reminding us in times of (personal or political) duress of our essential selves, or who we might become: ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Thus, poetry reconciles false distinctions between vita active and vita contemplativa – demonstrating how words are also actions. I pray by admiring a rose, Persian poet Omar Khayyam once said. In contemplating poetry’s rose – its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we’re made finer morally, able to conceive of a greater reality. Art by Agostino Arrivabene Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, seeing through the apparent to the infinite. Lately, I’m consumed with the idea of the artist as mystic, and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, in Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance (prayerful admiration of a rose) one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic, Al Ghazali, puts it thus: This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow." One year before his death, Rilke is meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds, in these memorable words: "It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible." Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body we access the life of the spirit. Remembering we are "bees of the invisible," sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a Here and There. Bodies are like poems that way, only a fraction of their power resides in the skin of things. The remainder belongs to the spirit... Continue reading
Posted Oct 1, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
"Monkey With Mask" by Albert Watson I held out as long as I could before signing up for an email account. At the time, I viewed the idea of electronic mail as invasive, and unnecessary; far preferring the romance and torture of letter-writing which took days or weeks to compose and send. But at the repeated entreaties of a dear friend (and early adopter of new technologies), I caved in. I remember pressing the “send” button on that first email felt like diving off a cliff —as terrifying, as exhilarating. My threatened, and admittedly precious, terms of agreement in those heady days were that I would not report on my outer life, or any daily activities, but rather share glimpses of my mental diary. For more or less the same reasons (perhaps, out of a writerly fear of being consumed?) I never owned a mobile phone, until I moved to the US nearly ten years ago. Why willingly carry a tracer, I thought, shrilly interrupting my inner dialogue at any moment? If someone needed to contact me, urgently, they could reach me at home or work. But, the rest of the time was mine: to dream, to escape, to slip between the gaps. Now, I confess, my Iphone serves as a kind of life-support machine, and I suspect I am not alone. I’m still not overly fond of speaking on it, but think of texting as a kind of telepathy and do share, through the pores, on Facebook and Twitter (after, you guessed it, also fighting them off for as long as I could, in hopes social media would go away). (Unofficial) Banksy Instead, what does seem to be going away to my dismay, and those of my ilk, is the so-called real world, specifically the print world. As a writer, it fills me with dread to see independent publishers endangered, actual bookstores going out of business, book review sections in esteemed newspapers folding and, subsequently, the newspapers and magazines themselves struggling to maintain a physical presence. As I put it in a short poem “Shuttered Windows”: “To speak of the smell and feel / of books, the erotics of the text, / has begun to sound perverse. / One by one, the old places of worship/ become quaint and are vacated/ In their stead a gleaming, ambitious screen”. Yet, I am beginning to see the error of my ways, and realize the patent folly in being a self-defeating Luddite. I don’t read on Kindle, but four of my books are available, electronically, and I hope that others do! I do read, rabidly, articles, essays, reviews, you name it, on my smart phone and computer, and even wrote my first i-phone poem not too long ago – when forced to check in my bag at New York’s MET museum, and left only with “a gleaming, ambitious screen” to record my impressions. Which is to say that, as I gingerly enter my fifth (!) decade, I am making a kind of... Continue reading
Posted Sep 30, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I first began experimenting with silence in university. I would go on silent fasts for days at a time, rationing words, and speaking only when I must – perhaps a mouthful in class, or even less if someone were in my face and absolutely needed to hear from me. Otherwise, friends understood that I’d ‘gone under’ and only the very committed continued leaving voice messages on my answering machine (or, braver still, tagging along, noiselessly - as was the case with my wife-to-be). The idea at the time –more inner imperative, really, than any sort of formulated thought- was to sound my depths and think things through. This was my first taste of freedom as an adult, and that was how I chose to exercise it. It was as though, suddenly and without explanation, I was taken in for questioning, and I had to play both parts: officer and suspect. Who was I, What did I know, Why am I here, and Do I have an alibi? Typically, I’d walk around all day in a semi-trance talking back to the books I’d read, lost in the echo chamber of my head. I read a great deal more those days, again out of an inner imperative, but hardly the assigned material. My self-imposed reading list was a volatile cocktail, unequal parts literature / philosophy, and the discovery of those great contrarians, Wilde and Nietzsche, made my world spin faster. Unaware of it then, this obsessive reading was in fact teaching me how to write. The rhythms and cadences of my Masters insinuated themselves into my style, just as their stances and daring were persuading me to distrust ready-made ideas and try to formulate better questions. It was out of these silences and attendant solitude that I began writing what would become a book of aphorisms – by transcribing the heady conversations that I was having with myself at the time. My ‘method’ in writing these aphorisms was simply to jot down on a scrap of paper (the back of a napkin, receipt, or whatever else was handy) what I thought was worth quoting from my soul’s dialogue with itself. If ever I tried keeping a notebook, the thoughts would hesitate leaving their cave – sensing ambush. So, by night I kept bits of paper and a pencil by my side, just in case. When something did occur to me, I feverishly scribbled it down in the dark, without my glasses, out of the same superstitious cautiousness of scaring ideas off. These aphorisms were to reveal me to myself and served as a biography of my mental, spiritual and emotional life. I read as I wrote, helplessly, in a state of emergency; and, in my youthful fanaticism, I was convinced I was squeezing existence for answers, no less. I felt that one should only read on a need-to-know basis, and write discriminatingly, with the sole purpose of intensifying consciousness. Strangely, during these years of white-hot inspiration, I discovered that when I returned... Continue reading
Posted Sep 29, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Superman bares his chest to show the Egyptian Revolution Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. So, it came as no surprise to me, for example, when our Revolution erupted in 2011 that masses of peaceful protesters chose to express their dissent and dreams in poetry, chanted jubilantly from Tahrir Square. Wit and verse were always sport, and a kind of national pastime, during the three decades I lived in Egypt. Never mind that around 50 percent of the population were actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. “Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks” an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras). Which is to say, proverbs were always our street poetry as well as philosophy. They were our oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insights from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observations. Proverbs can be like coral reef, that way, fossils of ancient philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this type of wisdom literature, as well. Collage of the author in the White Dessert, Egypt Only recently, am I beginning to fully realize what it means to have been raised in this culture where aphorisms were viewed as both common utterance and a sort of magical invocation. I grew up with grandmothers, both maternal and paternal who, at times, spoke almost exclusively in such sayings - a string of proverbs, sing-songy, witty-wise remarks, for every occasion. Also, being half-Lebanese myself, meant that Gibran Khalil Gibran, popular poet and philosopher, was an early and inescapable influence. I even suspect such matters of stylistic heritage might have been written in blood, since I was named after my paternal grandfather (Yahia Lababidi), a musician and poet, who passed away long before I was born, yet passed onto me a love of song, intravenously. When, in my late teens, I found that I could unburden myself in verse and aphorism I felt that, for the first time, I was beginning to earn my name. Lately, in the United States at least, there seems to be an Aphoristic Renaissance - something I would never have imagined when I first started writing them (anachronistically, I felt) over 20 years ago. The practitioners of the contemporary American aphorism tend to be poets, and bring to them a poetic sensibility. This November, I’m pleased to be part of an anthology, Short Flights (Schaffner Press), which draws together the work and musings of 32 leading pioneers of short-form writing. I’m especially proud to be in the company of writers I respect and admire, many of whom have become friends and helped me take my first literary steps, such as: James Richardson, James Geary, Alfred Corn, H.L. Hix - as well as the editors of this exciting project, Alex Stein (with whom I’ve also collaborated on a book of ecstatic conversations, The Artist as Mystic) and... Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Sep 24, 2015