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A Review of: The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool
by Asa Boxer

Douglas Adams once said something about the nature of the universe being such that it is impossible to figure out, and if someone were to stumble upon an understanding, the universe would change at that very instant. As a satirist, Adams is especially appropriate here, because at the centre of Marius Kociejowski's superb The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool-with its collection of ideas regarding irony, satire, simplicity, idiocy, and madness-stands the Fool. Kociejowski's story takes place in Damascus, Syria over a period of about five years, and focuses on three central characters and their interactions, excursions, mishaps, short-lived successes, miserable failures, and disagreements. The book represents Abed the street philosopher, Sulayman the holy fool, and Marius the poet (as well as lover of philosophy and seeker of fools). Each is deeply engrossed in the idiosyncrasies that determine his preferred discipline, and each is, in memorable ways, at variance with the other. Yet, each manages to show a high level of patience and respect for the crazy activities and preoccupations that obsessively drive the other along his destined route. Like other autobiographical books of travels and journeys, this one supplements the plot with information about local architecture, anthropology, poetry, Western metaphysics, Sufism, and alchemical texts.
Kociejowski's mode, however, unlike that of Douglas Adams, is not classic satire; it's not based on imaginary journeys to strange islands, lost continents, or other planets-or other outrageous metaphors for whatever culture is under satirical attack. Kociejowski's book belongs primarily to the genre of travel literature W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn seems to have influenced: that is to say, the author allows himself certain privileges with tone. Where Sebald's desire is to convey a morbid sense of the universe as chaos and desolation, Kociejowski wants to convey a sense of wonder and folly. Both books are real life accounts, but they are heavily thematised and socio-historically organised perspectives that awaken a sense of the bizarre, or of uncanny resemblances, relations, and serendipitous occurrences. As Mikhail Bakhtin indicates, such is the nature of stories that are based on the road archetype: the road is a place in which fate plays an important time-role; it is a place of adventurous suddenly's and coincidental simultaneities, and also a place of missed opportunities. If The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool seems to laugh at western culture, it is by virtue of the sensitive way it presents everything from the prejudiced perspective of the fool, who treats the apparent and the absurd as one, and thus reduces them both to folly. Here is Kociejowski's describing Abu al'Talib, The Prince of Fools:

Al'Talib has, if not exactly a mistrust of books, a deep scepticism in the faith other people place in them. A dismissive wave of the hand puts centuries of learning in the shade. There is a side to him that is quite unreasonable, but if we measure a man not by what he says but by what he does then al'Talib is indeed wise.

Kociejowski tells us of Ibn Khaldun, a fourteenth century scholar who wrote that: "Statements concerning supernatural things are also placed upon the tongues of the insane who are thus able to give information about [supernatural things]." Kociejowski then adds the following:

Such perception as they have are a mixture of truth and falsehood. The old proverb, "If you want to know the truth ask a child or a fool," remains true to this very day amongst certain people of Damascus, Sufis especially. The Persian mystical poet Atar, whose verses are filled with madmen communing with God, spoke of there being a special relationship between the madman and God, and that one should strive to understand the talk between them.

Shakespeare's fools also speak wisely and often shame the sage. In As You Like It, a fool tells us that "all the world's a stage." After abdicating his throne and transferring power to his daughters, and following a series of filial betrayals and abandonments, King Lear stands stripped of power and dignity baffled at the heartlessness of his own children. And it is his fool who asks Lear to consider who, in fact, is the greater fool. The Fool, of course, knows his costume is a kind of stage-prop; the King, however, has mistaken his title and regalia for inner selfhood. The target is always the same: ego. Similarly, Kociejowski's book presents a challenge to western civilisation. It challenges the cult of logic and reason. It asks us to reconsider orthodox doctrines, such as the right to ownership, to individual happiness, and requirements of political correctness. And it also challenges the current hack-journalistic representations of the middle-east with a ground level, multi-valenced personal experience of a place (Damascus) and some of its people. Here's a brief dialogue between Kaciejowski and a local terrorist:

"So how would you feel about the creation of an independent Palestinian state?"
"Yes, that would be fine with me!"
"And if so, an Israel that you would recognise?"
"Yes, because once such a step has been taken Israel would disappear of its own accord. It would cease to be of substance not only to itself but its American paymasters too."

This dialogue conveys a solid sense of the motivations that underlie the rhetoric that drives an enemy. Annihilation. Dissolution. These are the desired goals of a terrorist. This street level perspective of the neighbourhood terrorist is precisely the kind of thing left out of the media. The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool, then, can come across as a highly relevant critique of liberal western doctrines. The author even quotes Corinthians: "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise." But this assessment of the book would be unfair to its actual intent; there is nothing negative to Kociejowski's approach: "I understood that sometimes, just occasionally, it indeed is better to follow a good idea than to fight a bad one." This idea comes up in different ways throughout the book; in one passage, for instance, The holy fool himself, Sulayman-engaged in the practice of alchemy, something we consider a ridiculous, occult art today-explains that, in truth, his art isn't any more foolish than western science:

"Even if you had all the right measures you would not be able to make anything of them because unless it is in your destiny, unless you have spiritual permission, you will never convert the image of the metal. In Europe they are playing with DNA. Cloning is evil, of course. So what's so strange about alchemy? If you look at the universe realistically you will see it being born all the time."

Regarding alchemy, the author explains, "if it is the domain of fools, then their company includes Roger Bacon, Raymond Lully, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Sir Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz and Robert Boyle." These arguments seem tenuous to a western mind, but the crux of the argument, I believe, rests on a question posed by Kociejowski about half way through the book: "What precisely is the nature of happiness? Was not the great error of this century to believe that happiness may be grasped and held on to?" Father Paolo Dall'Oglio at the Deir Mar Musa monastery answers, "I think the big misunderstanding of this age is the urge to realise yourself. the answer [is to] express the desire of God."
You don't have to agree with Dall'Oglio. You don't have to agree with Sulayman. Kociejowski's book is not about proselytising. As Abed, the street philosopher, explains, "I benefit from listening to contrary opinions, which is also the method of the Qur'an where there is much use of contrast in order to make one understand better. There, every time hell is mentioned heaven is too." William Blake expresses the western equivalent of this when he writes, in his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "Without Contraries there is no progression" and "Opposition is true Friendship."
Some readers, I fear, will find The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool cloyingly concerned with religious and spiritual matters. Some, I venture, will dislike the main characters, wondering who could care less about the lives and the misguided ideas that drive these poor, lost idiots. Certainly, Kociejowski's account of a couple of nuts from the fringes of Syrian society can bear no significant or relevant insights into Islam, Sufism, or the middle-east. Some may find his "human message" rather mundane. It is not a text that will please the politically engaged or those Sulayman and Abed call "mainstreamers"; such readers will think it muddies waters. What Kociejowski's book demands is an understanding that not all can be grasped within the scope of "reason". Instead, Kociejowski hopes the book will act like the alchemical elixir, to show us that we are all confused, that the universe is always new, and that it is only arrogance and folly that allow us the luxurious delusion of believing we understand better than they.
The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool offers a wonderful experience to those with an affinity for spiritual matters, those seeking a balance between mind and heart. It's a shame to think that it is consigned to those who already agree with the message. The greatness of Jonathan Swift and Douglas Adams is that any fool can love their work. It is unfortunate that the same cannot be said of The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool.

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