Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you
~ T.S. Eliot, “Death by Water“, The Waste Land
Lately I’ve been considering Phlebas, the Phoenician mariner and merchant of the clairvoyant Madam Sosostris’s tarot reading, and how handsome and tall he might have been to those around him. I envision him embodying everything Phoenician society would have considered laudable and attractive. The women must have considered him a desirable specimen of man and all the men must have been envious of how women longed for him. Everything he could every want or need must have been within his reach. He turned the Great Wheel and he found the fame, fortune, and favor of the gods therein.
From inside the confines of my room, I can hear my new roommate f*cking his – well – f*ck buddy. I apologize for the profane candor. It’s only way I could think to convey the situation in all its gravity to you, O reader.
The scene has become quite common over the past couple of months since his arrival: an attractive young woman knocks on the door to our graduate housing apartment; me curiously opening the door, finding this comely girl on the other side of the threshold, wondering if she has the wrong address or something, and, upon finding out that she in fact has the correct address, inviting her inside; me, being the hospitable Southern and Muslim that I am, offering her something from my half of the refrigerator; and me, fleeing to my room as our guest and my roommate proceed to have their liaison. Sometimes, it’s the same woman; sometimes, it’s a different one. Always, there’s panting and moaning and slapping. That’s what one can expect when you’re randomly assigned a roommate through a lottery system with no possible screening mechanism to vet the inconsiderate and cavalier. Now I can see why games of chances are forbidden: you can never really know what you sign up for and what you’re going to get: even if you win, you more or less lose; and if you lose, then, well, in some sense you win, but you most definitely lose.
One might be inclined to the think – one might even very well hope – shutting the door to one’s room and jamming those small, white, over-priced Apple ear buds with the dangling transmitter into the ear and repeatedly clicking the “+” end of said dangling transmitter to increase the volume to maximum output would succeed in drowning out the gasps, squeaks, moans, and collisions of flesh all but necessary for a tryst between amorous students. If this is the inclination or hope, dispense with it: for they can still be heard, loud and clear, as if no doors nor walls nor expensive ear buds were present to attenuate their sound waves. Perchance my senses are too keen for my own good.
What I find most interesting about these scenarios isn’t so much the people involved or their actions but rather the dynamic, psycho-spiritual relationships I have with the decor of my living room, as strange as it may sound. The main wall of the living room which forms the major barrier of my roommate’s private living space has an Arabic scroll of Surah al-Fatiha hanging on it, with golden calligraphies of “Allah” (“God”) and the Prophet Muhammad’s name flanking either side on conveniently place stands, one of which is cloaked with a prayer rug. Both the calligraphies have two ninety-nine bead tasbih rosaries draped on them. On the floor lies my place prayer rug awkwardly slanted 24° NE, which I sincerely pray is the direction of the Kaaba. Adjacent to my prayer is another stand that house my video games, DVDs, and Blu rays and on top of which sits my massive translation of the Qur’an by Muhammad Assad, my incense holder, and shrink wrapped copy of Sheikh Hamza Yusuf‘s twelve CD set of The Life of the Prophet Muhammad that I have yet to hear in its entirety. Needless to say, my living room is very – for lack of a better word – Muslim, maybe even too much so. Yet, even with all the religious symbols suffocating my living room and even with me sometimes being engaged with those religious symbols in his presence, my roommate can still take a casual acquaintance of the opposite gender to his room and do the nasty without even considering how I might be affected. The symbols that move one man to tears and reverie and prayer can for another man have absolutely no effect whatsoever, as if they weren’t all even there to start.
I find this difference utterly fascinating…
…because I hear the result. And not only do I hear it, I hear about it. The only thing more abhorrent than hearing the male conquest of the female body is hearing men talk about it. The conversations I overhear are quite telling. One in particular comes to mind:
My roommate (talking with one of his friends on the phone, rather boisterously): “Yeah, I had sex with three different girls in – like – three days. Bro, it was SO sick. I met this slutty White girl at the club on Saturday and we hooked up that night. Then Melissa came over on Sunday and he hooked up. THEN, this one fine-ass Persian undergrad chick I met studying came over on Monday and we f*cked. So, like, in the past three days I’ve jizzed on two sets of titties and an ass.”
Yeah, it was sick alright – sick to my stomach. I might be a bad Muslim for eavesdropping and for remembering these details and maybe an even worse one for relaying them in such explicit detail. Again, I beg your pardon. I do have a reason though, so bear with me. I think this conversation and all its vulgarity is illustrative of something quite profound: this man, my roommate, is young, handsome, fit, comes from upper-middle class family at the very least, and attends a world class institution. Seemingly, he’s on top of the world. So far as I can see very little seems to be outside his grasps. But, based on his commentary of his sexual exploits, he appears to have no regard for women whatsoever and hence has no regard for himself since it was a woman who brought him into the world and hence has no regard for anything greater than himself for it was surely something greater than him that ultimately brought women into being. And what good is it to be on top of the world without an awareness of who or what brought it into being in the first place?
Forgive me if I sound pedantic: trust me when I say I’m not the preachy type. I’m not one to shove my religious predilections down someone’s throat. Although I don’t intend to engage in casual sex due to a religious commitment among other things, I don’t necessarily see it as my business to come in between the bed sheets of another. I do think, however, that my role as a person of consciousness necessitates that I discuss matters like this with the frankness its due.
Shouldn’t it be on me? I am a man after all, aren’t I?
Lately I’ve been considering Phlebas and what must have been running through his mind before he was tossed overboard to meet his fate. Maybe an upcoming business transaction. Or maybe dinner. Or maybe he thought himself immune to death, like so many youths. Or maybe what was running through his mind was anything and everything but death. Or maybe, like many, he didn’t think much of anything: maybe he just went along with the flow, never stopping to think to steer his sail in a different direction.
Go to any club or bar on a Saturday night in Beverly Hills and you’re bound to see a plethora of Persian, Arab, and Armenian men, usually coquetting with Russian women. You’ll know some of them by their apparel, which resembles one another in some way: either tight V-neck shirts exposing chest hair accompanied with a blazer or button down shirts, buttoned in such a way as to expose some chest hair. Regardless of the top, expectation of visible chest hair is a must. And they are either in decent shape or no shape at all – nothing in the middle. Conjure a picture of the stereotypical, sleazy Middle Eastern man in your mind and you might have an idea of what I’m attempting to describe. At first, I didn’t think there was any truth to the stereotype, but I’ve frequented enough of these places since I’ve been in Los Angeles to have been disabused of my naiveté. Of course, they’re not all like this. But many are. It’s predictable like clock-work. I’ve come to just to expect it, almost like breathing.
What is a quiet, shy, reserved, teetotaler Muslim (not all Muslims are teetotalers) doing in such establishments, you might ask? Enter my Persian, Shi’a Muslim friend, whom I’ll call Cyrus the Great.
Cyrus and I met a couple of months back at a Muslim socialite event at a rich, old Pakistani guy’s mansion in Santa Monica. (To have a small house anyway near let alone in Santa Monica cost a fortune, to put things in perspective). He’s a middle-aged, magnanimous, extraverted businessman with penchant for dapper dress and fast talking. At the event, I was repulse to socialize, as I generally am, so he, being the more gregarious sort, picked me out of the bustling crowd of beards and headscarves, sparked a conversation with me, and took me under his wing. I honestly can’t remember what we discussed. I only recall that the night ended with his phone number in my contacts list and with promises of getting together in the not-to-distant future. I didn’t know it then, but he would become one of the closest Muslim friends in all of Los Angeles.
We kept our promises. Our outings happened sporadically and sometimes included jaunts to some of the hot spots in greater Los Angeles area. Normally, I would never even think to spend a Saturday night in such venues, not purely for religious reasons per se but more so because my psychology constitution can’t process the stimulation from such locations for very long without getting extremely bored, extremely exasperated, extremely exhausted, or extremely all of the above. It’s just not my scene and never has been. They drain me of my covetous mental energy. I derive very little, if any, pleasure from visiting these places. I am, however, a little more comfortable going with Cyrus as he knows how to navigate these strange and muddy waters far better. A little more. These places aren’t the best for Muslims for sure. Despite this, I feel it’s important that I go every now and then so as not to get completely out of touch with elements of the culture here in America, specifically in Los Angeles in my case. Somethings just need to be seen in order to gain perspective. They might go against your principles. Yet I think sometimes it’s crucial to see those things so that you can affirm and solidify your own principles.
At these establishments we would normally meet up with some of his fellow Persians friends, all middle-aged or older men, all either not religious or areligious. On one such occasion, a couple of nights back, we met up with Cyrus’s friend Afsheen at a small, restaurant/bar called SUR. It’s my experiences at this place that I wish to relate to you, O reader.
The setting gets its appellation from an acronym consisting of two pretentious adjectives and a banal noun, Sexy Unique Restaurant. (Just so you know, most of everything in Los Angeles claims to be sexy and unique). Dim, dark orchid lighting accompanied bombastic electronica in the form of either European, American, or Persian techno as I entered. The waitresses walked around in matching, tight, dark orchid mini dresses. Patrons lined the bar, hailing the bartenders in a cacophony rivaling the blaring music. Cyrus inserted himself into an opening to the bar and ordered a club soda and lime for us both. He’s a teetotaler Muslim as well. The bartender tried to charge him six bucks a piece, to which Cyrus gave him the “Are you outta your damn mind?” look. The bartender yielded and gave us our carbonated beverages free of charge. What else are teetotaler Muslims suppose to drink at a bar?
After waiting for what seemed an eternity but was probably in fact only twenty minutes, Cyrus’s friend Afsheen arrived with his date, a tall, blond, White, non-Russian woman named Catherine. In my mind, Afsheen epitomizes both the stereotypical, sleazy Middle Eastern man I referred to earlier and most of everything that is grotesquely awry with the sexual mores of our society today. It’s as if he was a dog in heat but with the body of a middle-aged human being. Not to mention the fact that he’s a textbook case of a narcissist. I’m not deriding him. I mean it literally. Cyrus told me Afsheen once dated a trained psychiatrist. After a couple of dates, this woman broke up with him and informed Cyrus that she had diagnosed Afsheen as suffering from a textbook example of narcissism. No wonder.
The woman attached to his arm wasn’t too much better: her face looked like she had gotten into a scuffle with a Botox injection needle and lost. Moreover, her visage seemed to be an unwillingly canvas for the sheer amount of make-up plastered on it, so much so I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what she might have actually looked underneath it all, almost tantamount to a Halloween mask. The Arabs say the face is a metaphor for one’s entire being. If this is so, then her entire being was the result of some extreme processes of chemical engineering that night. Don’t get me wrong. She was indeed gorgeous…in a manufactured, chemically altered, superficial sort of way.
Anyway, Catherine’s friends showed up a little later, three young Russian women. Afsheen, as if on cue, eyes glazed, began chatting up all four women at once. And was failing miserably. All four women, even his date, started bringing down his advances like the legendary Hindenburg disaster. Crash and burn in fires of a million degrees. This went for the better portion of an hour and each passing minute grew more painful and embarrassing to watch.
At some point I had had my fill of loud music, drunk people, and horny, old, Persian men, so I went outside and began reading some Qur’an on my smartphone, hoping the verses would replenish some of my depleted psychic energy and hoping to make taubah for even stepping foot in the establishment. I was few verse into Surah al-Baqarah when Afsheen joined me, drink in hand. We began conserving and it went as follows:
Afsheen: “You have a girl?”
Afsheen (taking a swig of his drink): “Is she here?”
Me: “Nah. She lives in Atlanta.”
Afsheen: “What?! Are you f*cking kidding man! You should cheat on her.” (Takes another swig of his drink). Why don’t you cheat on her?”
Me (looking askance at him): “Cause she’s a good woman, and good women are hard to come by these days. And I’m…just not that kind of man.”
Afsheen (in a somber, conciliatory tone): “No, no. You’re right, you’re right. This woman – is she educated?”
Afsheen: “And you said she was older than you right?”
Me (nodding my head): “Yes”
Afsheen: “By how many years?”
Me: “Umm. Around five.”
Afsheen (nodding approving): “That’s not too bad. I tell you, my friend, you found a catch. Never mind – don’t cheat on her. Otherwise, you might end up like me, forty-five years old with nothing to show for it. I have everybody and I have nobody.”
Me (taken aback): “Wow. That was rather deep.”
Afsheen (finishing his drink): “What can I say, buddy? It’s my destiny to die alone.”
Afsheen’s candid admission of the state of his life was, to me, worth the entire evening. Alcohol is often called “liquid courage.” Apparently, it has the ability to bring out the philosopher in some people, which I assume must take some degree of courage, as the process of questioning and analyzing the world and oneself is a painful one.
(Exeunt Afsheen back into the club to chat up more Russian girls)
…so much for courage and philosophy…
Lately I’ve been considering the fate of Phlebas, who drowned at sea two weeks ago. I imagine him falling over board in tempestuous seas, the sorts that give rise to whirlpools and water spouts, his lungs filling up with water as he chokes and struggles in vain to remain afloat; but the current is much too strong, so it pulls his body this way and way, as if it were merely froth. Ere he meets his inevitable fate of being sucked into a vortex and dragged into the abyss, his entire life flashes before his eyes, and in that instant of waning consciousness, he comes to the realization that his life, from wanton youth to physical maturity, and his life’s pursuits and pleasures – the cry of the gulls, the vicissitudes of wealth and loss – were devoid of spiritual substance, barren and desiccated like the waste land. His lifeless body ebbs with the caprices of the waters, the current underneath eats his flesh, picks at his bones. “Fear death by water,” the clairvoyant admonishes. Who, though, in their right mind, would pay heed to a soothsayer, even if she is the wisest sage Europe has to offer? Who, in fact, listens to sages these days anyway? Their words billow in the wind and find only death and dumb ears when they land.
Lately I’ve also been considering Phoenician society and how it’s been extinct for almost two millennia. So technically, he’s been dead for far longer than two weeks. One day I too will meet my fate, as will my society. I turn the Wheel like any other man alive. I wonder what it will bring me. And I wonder what will be the state of my mind and heart. Will I be in a state of heedlessness or remembrance? Will let myself be lost to the affairs of the world?
(MANY) WAYS of life have passed away before your time. Go, then, about the earth and behold what happened in the end to those who gave the lie to the truth: this (should be) a clear lesson unto all men, and a guidance and an admonition unto the God-conscious.
YOU ARE OBSESSED by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves. Nay, in time you will come to understand! And once again: Nay, in time you will come to understand!
Poor Phlebas. I pray I avoid your fate. Amen.