Sunday, November 14, 2004

Overcoming Tourism

by Hakim Bey

The modest goal of this little essay is to address the individual traveler who has decided to resist tourism.

Even though we may find it impossible in the end to purify ourselves and our travel from every last taint and trace of tourism, we still feel that improvement may be possible.

Not only do we disdain tourism for its vulgarity and its injustice, and therefore wish to avoid any contamination (conscious or unconscious) by its viral virulency-- we also lavish to understand travel as an act of reciprocity rather than alienation. In other words, we don't wish merely to avoid the negativities of tourism, but even more to achieve positive travel, which we envision as a productive and mutually enhancing relation between self and other, guest and host -- a form of cross cultural synergy in which the whole exceeds the sum of parts.

We'd like to know if travel can be carried out according to a secret economy of baraka (blessing), whereby not only the shrine but also the pilgrims themselves have blessings to bestow.

Before the Age of the Commodity, we know, there was an Age of the Gift, of reciprocity, of giving and receiving. We learned this from the tales of certain travelers, who found remnants of the world of the Gift among certain tribes, in the form of potlach or ritual exchange, and recorded their observations of such strange practises.

Not long ago there still existed a custom among South Sea islanders of travelling vast distances by outrigger canoe, without compass or sextant, in order to exchange valuable and useless presents (ceremonial artt objects rich in mana) from island to island in a complex pattern of overlapping reciprocities.

We suspect that even though travel in the modern world seems to have been taken over by the Commodity - even though the networks of convivial reciprocity seem to have vanished from the map - even though tourism seems to have triumphed - even so - we continue to suspect that other pathways still persist, other tracks, unofficial, not noted on the map, perhaps even secret pathways still linked to the possibility of an economy of the Gift, smugglers' routes for freespirits, known only to the geomantic guerillas of the art of travel.

As a matter of fact, we don't just suspectit. We know it. We know there exists an art of travel.

Perhaps the greatest and subtlest practitioners of the art of travel were the sufis, the mystics of Islam. Before the age of passports, immunisations, airlines and other impediments to free travel, the sufis wandered footloose in a world where borders tended to be more permeable than nowadays, thanks to the transnationalism of Islam and the cultural unity of Dar al-Islam, the Islamic world.

The great medieval Moslem travelers, like Ibn Battuta and Naser Khusraw, have left accounts of vast journies - Persia to Egypt, or even Morocco to China-which never set foot outside a landscape of deserts, camels, caravanserais, bazaars, and piety. Someone always spoke Arabic, however badly, and Islamic culture permeated the remotest backwaters, however superficially. Reading the tales of Sinbad the sailor (from the 1001 Nights) gives us the impression of a world where even the terra incognita was still despite all marvels and oddities - somehow familiar, somehow Islamic. Within this unity, which was not yet a uniformity, the sufis formed a special class of travelers. Not warriors, not merchants, and not quite ordinary pilgrims either, the dervishes represent a spiritualization of pure nomadism.

According to the Koran, God's Wide Earth and everything in it are sacred not only as divine creations but also because the material world is full of waymarks or signs of divine reality, Moreover, Islam itself is born between two journies, Mohammad's hijra or flight from Mecca to Medina, and his hajj, or return voyage. The hajj is the movement toward the origin and center for every Moslem even today, and the annual Pilgrimage has played a vital role not just in the religious unity of Islam but also in its cultural unity.

Mohammad himself exemplifies every kind of travel in Islam: - his youth with the Meccan caravans of Summer and Winter, as a merchant; his campaigns as a warrior his triumph as a humble pilgrim. Although an urban leader he is also the prophet of the Bedouin and himself a kind of nomad, a sojourner- an orphan. From this perspective travel can almost be seen as a sacrament. Every religion sanctifies travel to some degree, but Islam is virtually unimaginable without it.

The Prophet said, seek knowledge, even as far as China? From the beginning Islam lifts travel above all mundane utilitarianism and gives it an epistemological or even gnostic dimension. The jewel that never leaves the mine is never polished, says the sufi Saadi. To educate is to lead outside- to give the pupil a perspective beyond parochiality and mere subjectivity.

Some sufis may have done all their traveling in the Imaginal World of archetypal dreams and visions, but vast numbers of them took the Prophet's exhortations quite literally. Even today dervishes wander over the entire Islamic world-but as late as the 19th century they wandered in veritable hordes, hundreds or even thousands at a time, and covered vast distances. All in search of knowledge.

Unofficially there existed two basic types of wandering sufi: the gentleman scholar type, and the mendicant dervish. The former category includes Ibn Battuta (who collected sufi initiations the way some occidental gentlemen once collected masonic degrees); and on a much more serious level - the greatest Shaykh, Ibn Arabi, who meandered slowly through the 13th century from his native Spain, across North Africa through Egypt to Mecca, and finally to Damascus.

Ibn Arabi actually left accounts of his search for saints and adventures on the road, which could be pieced together from his voluminous writings to form a kind of rihla or travel text (a recognised genre of Islamic literature) or autobiography. Ordinary scholars travelled in search of rare texts on theology or jurisprudence, but Ibn Arabi sought only the highest secrets of esotericism and the loftiest openings into the world of divine illumination, for him every journey to the outer horizons was also a journey to the inner horizons of spiritual psychology and gnosis.

On the visions he experienced in Mecca alone he wrote a 12 volume work (The Meccan Revelations), and he has also left us precious sketches of hundreds of his contemporaries, from the greatest philosophers of the age to humble dervishes and madmen to anonymous women saints and Hidden Masters. Ibn Arabi enjoyed a special relation with Khezr, the immortal and unknown prophet, the Green Man who sometimes appears to wandering sufis in distress, to rescue them from the desert, or to initiate them. Khezr, in a sense, can be called the patron saint of the travelling dervishes - and the prototype. (He first appears in the Koran as a mysterious wanderer and companion of Moses in the desert.)

Christianity once included a few orders of wandering mendicants (in fact St. Francis organised one after meeting with dervishes in the Holy Land, who may have bestowed upon him a cloak of initiation- the famous patchwork robe he was wearing when he returned to Italy) - but Islam spawned dozens, perhaps hundreds of such orders.

As Sufism crystallised from the loose spontaneity of early days to an institution with rules and grades, travel for knowledge was also regularised and organised. Elaborate handbooks of duties for dervishes were produced which included methods for turning travel into a very specific form of meditation. The whole Sufi faith itself was symbolised in terms of intentional travel.

In some cases itineraries were fixed (e.g.,the Hajj); other involved waiting for signs to appear, coincidences, intuitions, adventures such as those which inspired the travels of the Arthurian knights. Some orders limited the time spent in any one place to 40 days; others made a rule of never sleeping twice in the same place. The strict orders, such as the Naqshbandis, turned travel into a kind of fulltime choreography, in which every movement was pre-ordained and designed to enhance consciousness.

By contrast, the more heterodox orders (such as the Qalandars) adopted a rule of total spontaneity and abandon -permanent unemployment one of them called it - an insouciance of bohemian proportions - a dropping ou ?at once both scandalous and completely traditional. Colorfully dressed, carrying their begging bowls, axes, and standards, addicted to music and dance, carefree and cheerful (sometimes to the point of blameworthiness?), orders such as the Nematollahis of 19th century Persia grew to proportions that alarmed both sultans and theologians - many dervishes were executed for heresy. Today the true Qalandars survive mostly in India, where their lapses from orthodoxy include a fondness for hemp and a sincere hatred of work. Some are charlatans, some are simply bums - but a suprizing number of them seem to be people of attainment .... how can I put it? .... people of self-realization, marked by a distinct aura of grace, or baraka.

All the different types of sub travel we've described are united by certain shared vital structural forces. One such force might be called a magical worldview, a sense of life that rejects the merely random for a reality of signs and wonders, of meaningful coincidences and unveilings? As anyone who's ever tried it will testify, intentional travel immediately opens one up to this magical influence.

A psychologist might explain this phenomenon (either with awe or with reductionist disdain) as subjective; while the pious believer would take it quite literally. From the sufi point of view neither interpretation rules out the other, nor suffices in itself, to explain away the marvels of the Path. In sufism, the objective and the subjective are not considered opposites, but complements. From the point of view of the two-dimensional thinker (whether scientific or religious) such paradoxology smacks of the forbidden.

Another force underlying all forms of intentional travel can be described by the Arabic word adab. On one level adab simply means good manners and in the case of travel these manners are based on the ancient customs of desert nomads, for whom both wandering and hospitality are sacred acts. In this sense the dervish shares both the privileges and the responsibilities of the guest.

Bedouin hospitality is a clear survival of the primordial economy of the Gift - a relation of reciprocity. The wanderer must be taken in (the dervish must be fed) - but thereby the wanderer assumes a role prescribed by ancient custom - and must give back something to the host. For the bedouin this relation is almost a form of clientage: - the breaking of bread and sharing of salt constitute a sort of kinship. Gratitude is not a sufficient response to such generosity. The traveler must consent to a temporary adoption -anything less would offend against adab.

Islamic society retains at least a sentimental attachment to these rules, and thus creates a special niche for the dervish, that of the full-time guest. The dervish returns the gifts of society with the gift of baraka (blessing). In ordinary pilgrimage the traveler receives baraka from a place, but the dervish reverses the flow and brings baraka to a place. The sufi may think of himself (or herself) as a permanent pilgrim - but to the ordinary stay-at-home people of the mundane world the sufi is a kind of perambulatory shrine.

Now tourism in its very structure breaks the reciprocity of host and guest. In English, a host may have either guests or parasites. The tourist is a parasite -- for no amount of money can pay for hospitality. The true traveler is a guest and thus serves a very real function, even today, in societies where the ideals of hospitality have not yet faded from the collective mentality To be a host, in such societies, is a meritorious act. Therefore, to be a guest is also to give merit.

The modern traveler who grasps the simple spirit of this relation will be forgiven many lapses in the intricate ritual of adab (how many cups of coffee? Where to put one's feet? How to be entertaining? How to show gratitude? etc.) peculiar to a specific culture. And if one bothers to master a few of the traditional forms of adab, and to deploy them with heartfelt sincerity, then both guest and host will gain more than they put into the relation and this more is the unmistakable sign of the presence of the Gift.

Another level of meaning of the word adab connects it with culture (since culture can be seen as the sum of all manners and customs); in modern usage the Department of Arts and Letters at a University would be called Adabiyyat. To have adab in this sense is to be polished (like that well-traveled gem) - but this has nothing necessarily to do with fine arts or literacy or being a city-slicker or even being cultured. It is a matter of the heart.

The true guest and host never make an obvious effort to fulfil the rules of reciprocity - they may follow the ritual scrupulously, or they many bend the forms creatively, but in either case they will give their actions a depth of sincerity that manifests as natural grace. Adab is a kind of love.

A complement of this technique (or Zen) of human relations can be found in the sufi manner of relating to the world in general. The mundane world - of social deceit and negativity, of usurious emotions inauthentic consciousness (boorishness, ill will, inattention, blind reaction, false spectacle, empty discourse, etc. etc.-all this no longer holds any interest for the traveling dervish). But those who say that the dervish has abandoned this world for God's Wide Earth- would be mistaken.

The wandering dervish manifests a state more typical of Islam in its most exuberant energies. He indeed seeks Expansion, spiritual joy based on the sheer multiplicity of the divine generosity in material creation. (Ibn Arabi has an amusing proof that this world is the best world - for, if it were not, then God would be ungenerous - which is absurd. Q.E.D.) In order to appreciate the multiple waymarks of the Wide Earth precisely as the unfolding of this generosity, the sufi cultivates what might be called the theophanic gaze : - the opening of the Eye of the Heart to the experience of certain places, objects people, events as locations of the shining-through of divine Light.

The dervish travels, so to speak, both in the material world and in the world of Imagination simultaneously. But for the eye of the heart these worlds interpenetrate at certain points. One might say that they mutually reveal or unveil each other. Ultimately, they are one and only our state of tranced inattention, our mundane consciousness, prevents us from experiencing this deep identity at every moment. The purpose of intentional travel, with its adventures and its uprooting of habits, is to shake loose the dervish from all the trance effects of ordinariness. Travel, in other words, is meant to induce a certain state of consciousness or spiritual state- that of Expansion.

For the wanderer, each person one meets might act as an angel, each shrine one visits may unlock some initiatic dream, each experience of Nature may vibrate with the presence of some spirit of place. Indeed, even the mundane and ordinary may suddenly be seen as numinous (as in the great travel haiku of the Japanese Zen poet Basho) - a face in the crowd at a railway station, crows on telephone wires, sunlight in a puddle....

Obviously one doesn't need to travel to experience this state. But travel can be used - that is, an art of travel can be acquired - to maximise the chances for attaining such a state. It is a moving meditation, like the Taoist martial arts. The Caravan of Summer moved outward, out of Mecca, to the rich trading lands of Syria and Yemen. Likewise the dervish is moving out (it's always moving day, heading forth, taking off, on perpetual holiday) as one poet expressed it, with an open Heart, an attentive eye (and other senses), and a yearning for Meaning, a thirst for knowledge. One must remain alert, since anything might suddenly unveil itself as a sign. This sounds like a kind of paranoia- although metanoia might be a better term -- and indeed one finds madmen amongst the dervishes, attracted ones overpowered by divine influxions, lost in the Light. In the Orient the insane are often cared for and admired as helpless saints, because mental illness may sometimes appear as a symptom of too much holiness rather than too little reason. Hemp's popularity amongst the dervishes can be attributed to its power to induce a kind of intuitive attentiveness which constitutes a controllable insanity: - herbal metanoia. But travel in itself can intoxicate the heart with the beauty of theophanic presence. It's a question of practise - the polishing of the jewel - removal of moss from the rolling stone.

In the old days (which are still going on in some remote parts of the East) Islam thought of itself as a whole world, a wide world, a space with great latitude within which Islam embraced the whole of society and nature. This latitude appeared on the social level as tolerance. There was room enough, even for such marginal groups as mad wandering dervishes. Sufism itself, or at least its austere orthodox and sober aspect-occupied a central position in the cultural discourse. Everyone understood intentional travel by analogy with the Hajj - everyone understood the dervishes, even if they disapproved.

And here is the flip side of the problem of tourism -the problem of the disappearance of aimless wandering. Possibly the two are directly related, so that the more tourism becomes possible, the more dervishism becomes impossible. In fact, we might well ask if this little essay on the delightful life of the dervish possesses the least bit of relevance for the contemporary world. Can this knowledge help us to overcome tourism, even within our own consciousness and life? Or is it merely an exercize in nostalgia for lost possibilities - a futile indulgence in romanticism?

Well, yes and no. Sure, I confess I'm hopelessly romantic about the form of the dervish life, to the extent that for a while I turned my back on the mundane world and followed it myself. Because of course, it hasn't really disappeared. Decadent yes - but not gone forever. What little I know about travel I learned in those few years - I owe a debt to medieval accretions I can never pay - and I'll never regret my escapism for a single moment. BUT - I don't consider the form of dervishism to be the answer to the problem of tourism. The form has lost most of its efficacy. There's no point in trying to preserve it (as if it were a pickle, or a lab specimen)-there's nothing quite so pathetic as mere survival.

But: beneath the charming outer forms of dervishism lies the conceptual matrix, so to speak, which we've called intentional travel. On this point we should suffer no embarrassment about nostalgia. We have asked ourselves whether or not we desire a means to discover the art of travel, whether we want and will to overcome the inner tourist- the false consciousness which screens us from the experience of the Wide World's waymarks. The way of the dervish (or of the Taoist, the Franciscan, etc.) interests us - finally - only to the extent that it can provide us with a key - not THE Key, perhaps - but . . . . a key. And of course - it does.

One fundamental key to success in Travel is of course attentiveness. We call it paying attention.

But what if we treated our perceptions as gifts rather than payments? What if we gave our attention instead of paying it? According to the law of reciprocity, the gift is returned with a gift - there is no expenditure, no scarcity, no debt against Capital, no penury, no punishment for giving our attention away, and no end to the potentiality of attentiveness.

Our consciousness is not a commodity.

If we picture ourselves as shallow coin purses - if we barricade the doors of perception like fearful peasants at the howling of boreal wolves - if we never pay attention- how will we recognise the approach and advent of those precious moments, those openings?

We need a model of cognition that emphasises the magic of reciprocity: - to give attention is to receive attention, as if the universe in some mysterious way responds to our cognition with an influx of effortless grace. If we convinced ourselves that attentiveness follows a rule of synergy rather than a law of depletion, we might begin to overcome in ourselves the banal mundanity of quotidian inattention, and open ourselves to higher states.

In any case, the fact remains that unless we learn to cultivate such states, travel will never amount to more than tourism. And for those of us who are not already adepts at the Zen of travel, the cultivation of these states does indeed demand an initial expenditure of energy. We have inhibitions to repress, hesitations to conquer, habits of introversion or bookishness to break, anxieties to sublimate. Our third rate stay-at-home consciousness seems safe and cozy compared to the dangers and discomforts of the Road with its eternal novelty, its constant demands on our attention. Fear of freedom poisons our unconscious, despite our conscious desire for freedom in travel. The art we're seeking seldom occurs as a natural talent. It must be cultivated practised perfected. We must summon up the will for intentional travel.

It's a truism to complain that difference is disappearing from the world - and it's true, too. But it's sometimes amazing to discover how resilient and organic the different can be. Even in America, land of Malls and tv's, regional differences not only survive but mutate and thrive in the interstices, in the cracks that criss-cross the monolith, beneath the notice of the Media Gaze, invisible even to the local bourgeoisie. If all the world is becoming one-dimensional, we need to look between the dimensions.

I think of travel as fractal in nature. It takes place off the map's text, outside the official Consensus, like those hidden and embedded patterns that nestle within the infinite bifurcations of non-linear equations in the strange world of chaos mathematics. In truth the world has not been completely mapped, because people and their everyday lives have been excluded from the map, or treated as faceless statistics, or forgotten. In the fractal dimensions of unofficial reality all human beings - and even a great many places- remain unique and different. Pure and Unspoiled? Maybe not. Maybe nobody and nowhere was ever really pure. Purity is a will-o-wisp, and perhaps even a dangerous form of totalitarianism. Life is gloriously impure. Life drifts.

In the 1950's the French Situationists developed a technique for travel which they called the derive, the drift.They were disgusted with themselves for never leaving the usual ruts and pathways of their habit-driven lives; they realised they'd never even seen Paris. They began to carry out structureless random expeditions through the city, hiking or sauntering by day, drinking by night, opening up their own tight little world into a terra incognita of slums, suburbs, gardens, and adventures. They became revolutionary versions of Baudelaire's famous flaneur, the idle stroller, the displaced subject of urban capitalism. Their aimless wandering became insurrectionary praxis.

And now, something remains possible - aimless wandering, the sacred drift. Travel cannot be confined to the permissable (and deadening) gaze of the tourist, for whom the whole world is inert, a lump of picturesqueness, waiting to be consumed - because the whole question of permission is an illusion. We can issue our own travel permits. We can allow ourselves to participate, to experience the world as a living relation not as a themepark. We carry within ourselves the hearts of travelers, and we don't need any experts to define and limit our more than fractal complexities, to interpret for us, to guide us, to mediate our experience for us, to sell us back the images of our desires.

The sacred drift is born again. Keep it secret.