9. The Stranger

9. The Stranger



بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم




Title: The Stranger

Author: Abdalhamid Evans FFAS

Publication date: 2/11/2013


Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation and Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the ninth of 12 sessions which make up the Society through Literature module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 


The Stranger


The world is full of people we do not know. We will never know them. The vast majority we will never see or hear about. Other pass us by on the road and through the air. We walk among them on our way to work, and on our way home again, and they remain unknown.


The stranger is something else. The stranger is one of these unknown people who gets close enough to us, for us to recognise them as a stranger. Here they are, in front of us, and we realise that we do not know them. We do not know where they are from or where they are going. We do not know their tribe or family, what motivates them, or what they might do.


By our natures, the stranger stands before us and elicits two primary responses: fear and hope.


What have we somehow always known about strangers? 

Don’t talk to strangers. Every child knows this, and now more than ever. We are taught to mistrust the stranger. He makes us slightly fearful just by being there.


However, we all have a natural anticipation, slight but compelling, that the stranger might bring something good and unexpected.

You will meet a tall dark handsome stranger. Love at first sight only happens with a stranger. The stranger may turn out to be the best thing that ever happens to you…or so you can’t help but hope.


Walt Whitman wrote an ode to the passing stranger, reflecting on that what-if fantasy moment experienced with a passer by…


Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you, 

You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,) 

I have somewhere, surely lived a life of joy with you, 

All is recall'd as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured, 

You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me, 

I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only,

nor left my body mine only, 

You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return, 

I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone, 

I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again, 

I am to see to it that I do not lose you. 


So perhaps, many times our response to the stranger just reflects our own hopes and fears.


Literature, in its broad scope, is full of references to the Stranger. The most famous is probably Camus’ L’Etranger, as much as essay on nihilism as a novel. Indeed, as Camus stated, ‘A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images.’ His protagonist, Mersault, is a French Algerian who has little in the way of cultural references of either place, people or even family. ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure.’ This is a journey into meaninglessness. Convicted of murder, an act of revenge for an injustice that was not done to him in the first place, he reflects on his impending death, ‘I had only a little time left and I didn't want to waste it on God.’ He finally finds some kind of inverted solace in his recognition of the complete meaninglessness of life, and only hopes that perhaps his execution will be met by cheers of derision. This is the stranger as dark, existential nihilist.


We fear the stranger because we do not know what he might be capable of.

In Kipling’s poem, The Stranger, he writes:

“The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk—
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.”


Here we see that there is a threshold that the stranger must cross; it is once the stranger is within the gate that we take notice. When he is further way he is just someone we do not know. He is simply unknown. When he gets within the gate, he can be recognised as a stranger; and then he makes us nervous, for so often he is from the shadow lands.


Perhaps the entire genre of crime novels is an exploration of the dark side of the stranger, the one who is driven by something we do not know …and even when we do we cannot quite comprehend…his values, his motivation remain alien to us, or at least beyond the pale of our accepted social norms. He invites us into a fearful place, or threatens to invade our secure normality.


From the almost gentlemanly crimes of the previous century, where the stranger is revealed to be a rotter and a cad, he has darkened and become more extreme with each passing decade. John Buchan could not have imagined Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter. Even Conan Doyle would have struggled to conjure up such darkness. 


But art follows life and vice versa, so crime gives way to horror, Edgar Allen Poe’s strangers shocked at the time, but not in the way that Hitchcock’s did, with Psycho for example, as he sent another kind of shiver up our spines. His stranger was in a different league…


Cormack McCarthy brought us another set of strangers, men who did not fit into their times, as in The Border trilogy, men more at home on a horse than behind the wheel, searching for a way to live an authentic life. Old values dying away, pushed off the road, men going to the far remote regions, the plains and mountain passes on the edge of their beings in an attempt to find meaning, often returning empty, ragged, weary and worn out as an old pair of boots. 


He wrote also of times that were simply not fit for mankind, as in The Road, a father and son at the end of the ash-covered world, where every stranger is presumed hostile; rightly so…you might be his next dinner. He leaves us at the end of the road with a slight ray of hope, a small upbeat, but hopeful nonetheless. 


We never get to really know his characters, but we do find a resonance with their alienation. We are all strangers from time to time, and we are all familiar with that sense that comes over us that the world has become a strange place, and getting stranger all the time, less and less accommodating for Human Being.


Reality warps, and so do our characters.


The stranger who is revealed as psychopath or sociopath becomes increasingly common. The ragged band of drifters in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian wander across a vast wasteland uncharted by any moral compass, like spooks from some dark hallucination, devoid of human warmth or kindness, Indian scalps hanging from their greasy saddles, mercenaries without a cause. They dreadful deeds echo the native massacres from the western plains, the hills and the jungle of Southeast Asia.


Years later, his hired assassin in No Country for Old Men, armed with a canister of compressed air, a vacant smile and an absolute lack of humanity would have been a match for any of them.


As our collective known territory becomes more extreme, the stranger has to come from a place that is even further way. 


And then there is the other side, a kind of mirror image. The one who is already close, the one we think we know is revealed to have been a total stranger all along. As the plot unfolds, our hero or heroine turns to expose a dark side. They break bad, as circumstance gives way to opportunity…do they choose?...are they compelled…? Is there a difference, and where is the line…?


You think you know me…..but really I am a killer, an adulterer, a thief, a liar, a man/woman, your mother/father, I am a replicant, a monster from another planet, a dream inside a dream, maybe I am actually you. 


The Stranger is also a formula. Tick the appropriate box, publish, sign autographs, sell screen rights, take to the box office. Rinse and repeat.


There are central characters who somehow manage to remain strangers to us, even though we know more and more about them as the plot unfolds. The stranger as Spy is a perfect example, perhaps none better than Le Carre’s character Smiley. We follow him for years, in different scenarios and under different titles, but by his very nature he remains a stranger. He must get close to his asset, closer still to his target, but never to another person. He must remain distant. Unattached. Remote. Controlled. Doing bad things for good reasons in that long hall of mirrors where values flip into their opposite and the wrong thing becomes right, the right becomes wrong, and even relativity becomes relative. Hero and villain swap hats with such speed we lose track…where is the centre…I thought I saw it there…but now?…I am not so sure. 


You choose, says the writer….


Or the stranger as the ordinary man in an unusual situation, pushed by forces within his cells, pulled by ego and circumstance, he makes choices that make him a stranger to his family and friends, and, of course, finally, even to himself.


Like Walter White, breaking bad and badder still, he mesmerised the viewing world by his metamorphosis from Walt the wimpy kid teacher to broken bad-ass drug kingpin empire builder Heisenberg. The latest in a long line of black hats. His fight against cancer and poverty became a gauntlet-slap challenge to overcome everything and everyone in his path, as if who or whatever tried to control him was like the cancer itself. Kill or be killed. Is that death coming to knock on your door…or are you death knocking? 


It’s all for my family, he repeatedly told himself and us, and maybe it started out being true, and we wanted to believe him, even when the balance had tipped so far over that the family he was doing it for was tossed aside, crushed, broken, burned and buried. 


‘Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive’, as another Walter, Sir Walter Scott warned us long ago.


With Walt, we know for a long, long time that this cannot possibly end well. There are too many disasters poised at the tipping point. Yet the world watched, compelled, almost against its collective better judgement as things broke from bad to worse. Why was it so compelling…was there a single character you would have actually wanted to know? Not really…actually, not on your life! 


One explanation for the resonance of the plot was that Walter shared so many characteristics with the archetypal ruthless corporate CEO, whose cry of ‘It is all for the shareholders!’ leads him to justify the rape and plunder of the earth and the people and creatures that live on it as he pursues the path to Empire. Whatever it takes to keep the oil/gas/soda/product/money flowing, it is always worth it.


Tick the appropriate box, package, promote, sell, and take to the bank. Rinse and repeat.


But the stranger need not be so bad. The bad ones are just popular in these dark days.


Many a love story or moral tale has the good stranger as a key component. Romance is filled with strangers who do the right thing. From the Sleepless in Seattle scenario where the bad stranger turns out to have a heart after all, to the fuzzy warmth of ET, these strangers come good in the end, and oh how we enjoy it, with our slippers and a mug of cocoa in the warmth of our sitting rooms. Life’s tough, sometimes we just need a good rom-com to keep us sane enough to face tomorrow.


The genre of the Western is again continually populated by strangers, those Lone Rangers who come to the rescue, riding away in a plume of dust, leaving them asking: ‘Who was that masked man…?’  Tonto never spills the beans, and it never really gets stale.


None were more iconic than The Man with No Name as portrayed by the young Clint Eastwood. With his roots in the Samurai classics of Kurosawa, such as Yojimo and Sanjuro, which in turn owed more than a passing tip of the hatbrim to Dashiel Hammett, our hero, near silent, always moody, hands hidden, playing both sides against the middle, both for his own ends and for the greater good, he remains a stranger throughout. He captivates us with his presence; less is so much more.


Whether wielding a katana or a revolver, he is the brooding master of his craft, taking on both the bad and the ugly. Eastwood took the concept further with such films as The High Plains Drifter and the Pale Rider, where the stranger plays the role of the gun-toting preacher, or the avenging angel who brings justice, even from beyond the grave, painting the town red, literally, dropping a farewell clue on the outskirts as he rides away, melting into the shimmering heat haze. He disappears without a trace, and we miss him immediately, we long for his return.


Music too is full of strangers. Perhaps most famously, Frank Sinatra’s 1966 song Strangers in the Night, his first number one hit after eleven years of trying. It stayed on the charts for fifteen weeks, and delivered wealth and fame to his door. Despite its success, Sinatra was heard to call it ‘a piece of shit’ and ‘the worst f***ing song that I have ever heard.’ Things turned out so right for strangers in the night…but I guess you can’t please everyone.


Billy Joel also had a major hit in 1977 with The Stranger. He is said to have gone to his producer Phil Ramone, and whistled the main theme to him, saying that he just needed to find the right instrument to play it. Ramone replied: ‘No, no you don't. That's 'The Stranger’, the whistling.’


The lyrics got under the skin of many a lover…


Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever,
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone…
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather,
They're the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on.

Well, we all fall in love
But we disregard the danger.
Though we share so many secrets
There are some we never tell.
Why were you so surprised
That you never saw the stranger…?
Did you ever let your lover see
The stranger in yourself?


The theme of the Stranger had already embedded itself into the sixties and seventies as the heady cocktail of social unrest, civil rights, psychedelics and spirituality gave birth to a generation who felt that either the world was going mad, or that they already had. Alienation from the default social norms of a steady job, a mortgage, a car on HP and 2.5 kids was no longer a goal…and for many, it was not even an option.


Robert Heinlein’s 1961 cult classic sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land, the tale of Michael Valentine Smith, a human being who comes to earth after being raised on Mars by Martians, and with a combination of psychic abilities, super intelligence and childlike naiveté has a profound impact on earthly culture and religious belief. It was required reading on the road, and it was not uncommon to see a dog-eared copy in the hip pocket of a pair of patched jeans. The word ‘grok’ briefly entered the vocabulary of the time, meaning to understand/be totally aware. God is ultimately the One Who Groks.


In 2012, in a classic example of how the dominant culture expertly stirs the edges into the middle, the US Library of Congress named the book as one of the 88 books that shaped America. 


For those who wore alienation and otherness as a badge of honour that separated them from the Vietnam war, racial inequality and the grey straight and narrowness of normal life, the notion of being a stranger in a strange land made them, strangely enough, feel more at home. It was a theme tune for anyone who felt like a bit of a freak.


Leon Russell, in the rolling company of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, wrote a song of the same name, with the line:


When the baby looks around him,

Such a sight to see,

Shares a simple secret with the wise man

He’s a stranger in a strange land


…………


If we dig a little further into the word itself, we find that the stranger has deep roots, connecting us to the Greek barbarous, the stranger or enemy, to the Latin extraneus, the person outside, the old French estrangier, the foreigner, and again to the Latin peregrinium, the homeless wanderer, the pilgrim. 


The pilgrim is indeed another kind of stranger. He bids farewell to home and family, he settles his affairs, sheds his clothes, his habits, his personality even…and sets out on a quest that is as much an inward journey as an outward one. He is a stranger indeed.


A Lutheran hymn from 1666…

A Pilgrim and a Stranger,
I journey here below;
Far distant is my country,
The home to which I go.
Here I must toil and travail,
Oft weary and opprest;
But there my God shall lead me
To everlasting rest.

Who would share Abraham's blessing
Must Abraham's path pursue,
A stranger and a pilgrim,
Like him, must journey through.
The foes must be encountered,
The dangers must be passed;
A faithful soldier only
Receives the crown at last.


Christian literature is filled with references to the stranger and the pilgrim, life itself is pilgrimage to the Hereafter, or for the one with a deeper inner core, from a state of wretchedness to a state of grace.


From Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a story-telling contest between a group of pilgrims, to John Bunyan’s morality tale of Pilgrims Progress, the theme has universal human appeal. We all have our own ‘slough of despond’ to cross.


Islam, of course, brings us the hadith, from al Bukhari:

On the authority of Ibn Umar, who said: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) took hold of my shoulder and said, ‘Be in the world as if you were a stranger or a traveller along the path.” 


And ibn Umar would say, “If you survive till late afternoon, do not expect the morning. If you survive till morning, do not expect the late afternoon. Take from your health before your sickness and your life before you death.”


The Messenger of Allah is also reported to have said (from the Sunan of Ibn Majah), ‘What is there between myself and the world? This world and I are just like a rider who stops to rest beneath the shade of a tree, then goes and leaves it.’


The resonance of this statement is profound, it strikes a deep chord within us…at times unsettling as we reflect on our attachments to the comfort of places and things, and at times reassuring, a reminder that we are indeed journeying to an abode of delight beyond time and space…if we keep up our end of the transaction.


Abû Hurayrah relates that the Prophet said: “Islam began as something strange, and it will become strange again, as it was at the beginning, so blessed are the strangers.” Sahîh Muslim


Perhaps, for us as Muslims living in the western world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, this statement more than any other has sent roots deep into the soil of our collective beings.


Taken by our teacher, Shaykh Dr Abdalqadir as-Sufi, as the leitmotif for his first book after accepting Islam in the 60’s, it became a doorway for many a wandering soul on a journey through their own urban wasteland, with a promised land glimpsed but as yet uncharted, and the road to it still unclear.


The Book of Strangers was for many a first introduction to the words of the Prophet of Islam, that brought with them an overwhelming sense of relief that that our own feeling of being a Stranger was something foretold by the best of creation, a confirmation that our gut navigation, our reliance on a faculty of fitra that we could not even have named, was in fact a blessing that was guiding us home. 


What a sweet relief, what sweet surrender!


And as we looked deeper, we saw that the words, ‘so blessed are the strangers’ is more literally, ‘so tooba for the strangers’, ie glad tidings. And we look further and we find that Tooba is the name of one of the trees of Paradise, that final abode for the traveller, the pilgrim, the stranger, that place without location that God has described with the words “I have prepared for My righteous slaves what no eye has ever seen, nor ear has ever heard, and that which has never occurred in a human heart.”


…..


It has been narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, when asked about the tree of Tooba: ‘In Paradise there is a tree in whose shade a rider could travel for a hundred years without crossing it….The clothes of the people of Paradise are made from the outer casing of its flowers.’


And in another narration, a simple Bedouin asked him about Paradise…


 ‘Is there fruit there?’ He said, ‘Yes, and there is a tree called Tooba.’ The Bedouin asked, ‘and what tree of this world does it resemble?’ He said, ‘It does not resemble any tree of your land. Have you been to Syria?’ He said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘It resembles a tree in Syria called al-Jawzah (walnut) which grows on one trunk then spreads its branches higher up.’ The Bedouin asked, ‘How big is its trunk?’ He said, ‘If one of the camels of your people were to go around it, it would not complete one circuit before its neck broke of old age and exhaustion.’ The Bedouin asked, ‘Are there grapes there?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He asked, ‘How big is a bunch?’ He said, ‘The distance a crow could fly without stopping in a month.’ He asked, ‘How big is one grape?’ He said, ‘Does your father ever slaughter a he-goat from his flocks?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘And does he skin it and give the hide to your mother, and say, "Make me a bucket"?’ The bedouin said, ‘Yes,’ and asked, ‘Is one grape big enough to satisfy me and my family?’ The Prophet said, ‘Yes, and your whole tribe.’" 


For many of us, this everyday description that was within the grasp of the Bedouin, that indicates that which no eye has seen and which no heart has ever imagined, was further confirmation of our past inner experiences that were part of our journey. If time and space collapse and dissolve, this gives way to the scent of the meaning of ‘beyond time and space’, or ‘first without beginning’, or ‘last without end’, and of a Oneness that has no partner, no second, in spite of the apparent experience of duality.


And so we recognised that all along we were indeed pilgrims, without fully realising that we had ever set out. Before we knew it, we were on the road home, map in hand.


Perhaps the highest and most sublime encounter with a stranger is the one recounted in what is commonly referred to as the Hadith of Jibril. Here is a translation of it, as reported by Sayyedina Umar:


"While we were sitting with the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless with him and grant him peace, one day a man came up to us whose clothes were extremely white, whose hair was extremely black, upon whom traces of travelling could not be seen, and whom none of us knew. He sat down close to the Prophet, may Allah bless with him and grant him peace, so that he rested his knees upon his knees and placed his two hands upon his thighs and said, 'Muhammad, tell me about Islam.' The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless with him and grant him peace, said, 'Islam is that you witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and you establish the prayer, and you give the Zakat, and you fast Ramadan, and you perform the hajj of the House if you are able to take a way to it.' He said, 'You have told the truth,' and we were amazed at him asking him and [then] telling him that he told the truth. He said, 'Tell me about iman.' He said, 'That you affirm Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you affirm the Decree, the good of it and the bad of it.' He said, 'You have told the truth.' He said, 'Tell me about ihsan.' He said, 'That you worship Allah as if you see Him, for if you don't see Him then truly He sees you.' He said, 'Tell me about the Hour.' He said, 'The one asked about it knows no more than the one asking.' He said, 'Then tell me about its signs.' He said, 'That the female slave should give birth to her mistress, and you see poor, naked, barefoot shepherds of sheep and goats competing in making tall buildings.' He went away, and I remained some time. Then he asked, 'Umar, do you know who the questioner was?' I said, 'Allah and His Messenger know best.' He said, 'He was Jibril who came to you to teach you your deen'." 


This is the way that we are on.


But let us circle back…


Back onto the street, into the marketplace, through the hills and valleys, into the home and family, back into the world that we are travelling through. We stop for a moment in the cafes, at the train stations and the departure gates, in all the waiting rooms to see if there are flickers of recognition from across the crowded room. We keep a look out to recognise those other strangers, that like reeds cut from the reed-bed, murmur softly, or cry out loud for reunion as the winds of time blow through them.


We keep our eyes and ears open for the writers, the poets and singers, for those strangers that we recognise and who recognise us, who hold their hands out to us, who catch our eye, take our hand, and guide us on our way.


Like Richard Yahya Thompson…


This is a strange affair
The time has come to travel but the road is filled with fear
This is a strange affair
My youth has all been wasted and I'm bent and grey with years
And all my companions are taken away
And who will provide for me against my dying day
I took my own provision, but it fooled me and wasted away

Oh where are my companions?
My mother, father, lover, friend, and enemy
Where are my companions?
They're prisoners of death now, and taken far from me
And where are the dreams I dreamed in the days of my youth
They took me to illusion when they promised me the truth
And what do sleepers need to make them listen,
Why do they need more proof?
This is a strange, this is a strange affair

Won't you give me an answer?
Why is your heart so hard towards the one who loves you best?
When the man with the answer
Has wakened you, and warned you, and called you to the test.
Wake up from your sleep that builds like clouds upon your eyes,
And win back the life you had, that's now a dream of lies.
Turn your back on yourself, and if you follow,
You'll win the lover's prize.
This is a strange, this is a strange affair.


And lastly, like Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, who wrote:


For me the province of poetry is a private ecstasy made public, and the social role of the poet is to display moments of shared universal epiphanies, capable of healing our sense of mortal estrangement—from ourselves, from each other, from our source, from our destiny, from The Divine.


Indeed our mortal estrangement…it will be over some day….some day in the not so distant future, as he wrote recently in a poem entitled The Jaws of Death:


I looked in at the jaws of death the other day
and found they're still full of teeth.


Bouquets of roses don't impress it, nor delicate sentiments.


They're more like amphibious snake jaws, that unhinge

to take in the whole body, head to toe in one gulp,

and then some.


No one's ever tossed a note out, or car keys,

at least to let us know what's going on.


Ghosts appear, but they tend to be unreliable witnesses
since peevishness often seems to characterize them
,
or some unfinished agenda.


The stable of ghost horses is always full of restive beasts,

saddled for use,
knocking the wooden floors and whinnying menacingly.


I would reach in with a puppet and
see if death gives it eyes to see with,
but I fear it might take off my arm in the process.


Longboats full of ghostly serenaders by moonlight
come out to meet our colonial ship,
but none dare dive in the waters for the coins that are tossed there.

 

Death's archipelago extends out farther than life's
and every language ever known to mankind is spoken there.

 

No king presides there, except the king of the
One Day and every day before it and after it.
All other kings find themselves elbow to elbow with
osslers and looselers, hustlers and losers of every livelihood
whistling Dixie and hoping for the best.

 

Only sanctity rings a golden bell whose reverberations
are heard in this world, one wave at a time.


“Nothing to fear” says the stranger on horseback
and the stranger sitting in the doorway
our only trustworthy informants.

 

God bless every one of us born
that we have eyes to see where we are 

and a nose for truth 

and a tongue for love in the instant of its telling.



That brings us to the end of today’s lecture… [recommend further reading etc., if any]. The subject of our next lecture is… [title]… [recommend preparatory reading, etc., if any]. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.