Transcendent Narratives that Bind Us All
Our times today, I believe are defined by angst. It is a time of insecurity, eroding trust in institutions and misinformation around the present and the future, whether it be surrounding the climate, employment, markets and super power trade wars, culture wars, mass migration, fake news or living post-truth.
And it is all unfolding at a seemingly rapid pace.
And to me, this angst, this nervous energy is the strange fruit of a now widespread sense of disconnection, displacement and othering.
And what do I mean by “othering”? Othering is a shrinking sense of “we” – a smaller group of those who belong, and an increasingly dominant voice deciding who constitutes the “we”.
And on the topic of othering, I recently was at a conference in San Francisco organised by UC Berkley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and heard the head of that Institute, Dr john powell speak, and he said “The problem of othering is the problem of the 21st century. And the possible demise of the nation state and the planet as we know it”
So it is defining our times. One facet of othering is about creating marginalised and dehumanised groups of people, so that a smaller ‘we’ continues to centralise wealth and power, but it is also about a disconnection from our own humanness and from the natural universe we are a part of – and the interaction of these three things.
And in such times, as a first-generation migrant, sitting outside this smaller sense of “we”, you become very tuned in to the tide of othering that seems to be engulfing us all.
This is a photo of my family when we first migrated to Australia in 1987 from Afghanistan during the height of the Cold War. It is taken in St Kilda in the 80s – which was not as gentrified then as it is now I can tell you. Very early on, the lens of my world was tinted with displacement – from my own ancestral lands, where upon our departure, there was a severance in energy for the first time.
Even before this physical displacement, in Afghanistan, there had been an intellectual and spiritual hijacking of culture and people's spirits through the two-headed beast of violent communism on the one side and the beginnings of depraved Islamic extremism on the other – both very foreign and disruptive to the spirit of the region, leading to a mass exodus of its population. Later, as I grew up, I realised the layer of displacement created in my life by being a migrant in a land which itself was brewing with the deafening silence of the un-had conversations surrounding colonisation and its grievances against Indigenous Australia.
Because of these levels and layers of displacement, the arc of the aura of my life tended towards questions of identity and belonging:
How was identity defined? Why did external layers of it seem to matter so much? Why could it so easily be hijacked and turned into a moral claim to exert power? I have been displaced, but what is home?
The way in which othering manifests is through its direct message that you either don’t belong, or if you want to be included, it comes at a price: you must erase all difference and be the same. These insidious demands of othering are infused into and normalised through certain ideologies, which are playing out all around us, and which are having an enormous impact on our lives.
Just a few of these frames and what they justify, which I will go through today, are things that, by virtue of my life, I have become highly aware of, but there are no doubt many others.
Imperialism: an ethno-centric exceptionalism which leads to war, and dispossession from land (including Indigenous peoples’ globally) for the extraction of resources and to justify the bloody process of drawing national boundaries
Nationalism: a systemised racism leading to the rise (and acceptance) of white extremism all over the world, laying the groundwork for the subsequent unfolding of horrors like Manus Island and Nauru
Capitalism: a normalisation of the centralisation of wealth and prevalence of unsustainable practices that lead to irreversible climate feedback loops
Terrorism: Islamic extremism based on the idea of the west as the source of all ills and an idea of religion and god that justifies mass violence and killing
Islamophobia: xenophobia justifying legally, politically, socially normalised fear/hatred of Muslims
Patriarchy: present across east and west, in different ways, but always about normalising the control of women and their bodies and telling them how they can be seen and/or heard
A few things to note about these ways of othering – they are are all interconnected and can fuel one another – for example, terrorism leads to Islamophobia and vice versa. And what they have in common is that they all erase our humanity. And further, there is a huge dynamic of power that is at play. When this othering is incorporated into the norms and practices of the institutions that govern our lives - governments, police forces, corporations, media – it becomes most dangerous and most weaponised.
So why does othering matter? Apart from the primary violence it causes, because it has trapped even our solutions.
For me, the challenge to us today is not necessarily about defining the problems anymore – that is the work of the past, and our problems have presented themselves to us in no uncertain terms. And I also note that, yes, just like people, society will never be problem-free. We will always have our shared tribulations and wounds – these are our spaces for evolution and growth.
What does concern me, is that even our solutions – our spaces for growth – seem presently to be hijacked by the parasite of othering. And like unwitting hosts, our solutions, too often, either emulate or amplify the disconnection, or cease to be effective because of it. We are left distracted, pouring resources and energy into futile acts, and filled with disillusionment when our solutions hold no sway.
Examples of these trapped solutions include:
Response to climate change – expressed within a frame of ego, capitalism and nationalism: trapped in a fear of losing lifestyles, seen in the fact that richer and more powerful nations (and the biggest polluters) matter a lot more than poor ones (who are left literally to sink). And meanwhile the ultra-rich are looking for an escape clause – Mars or the moon?? They’ll build Noah’s spaceship and put themselves on it, and wave goodbye to the rest of us as they blast off.
Feminism in response to patriarchy, too often emulates it – I have seen the concept of imperial feminism everywhere, which is the idea that for Eastern or coloured women to be liberated, they must conform to ideologies of the West. Too often these are ideologies of discrimination – on the eve of invading Afghanistan in 2001 Bush said, “TODAY WOMEN ARE LIBERATED”, and they have been bombed into freedom ever since. And the #metoo movement – well it mattered only when brought forth by certain bodies that count for more, it was wrapped in the cult of celebrity.
Our solution to disparity in power is digital global connectivity - the internet was to be the tool of democratisation, and is instead a potent tool for centralisation and the creation of monopolies over our lives (e.g. facebook, google, Amazon). And on top of this, it has eroded the relevance of some of our best narratives, like democracy – with foreign election interference – and raises huge unresolved questions of privacy, the limits of free speech, data ownership and identity and how any of this will be regulated aside from by the invisible, and incidentally also blind, hand of the market.
Response to Wealth centralisation – we are currently registering little irony in letting the self-proclaimed Gods of silicon-valley, the billionaires, decide the answers to important social questions, including alleviating poverty.
Artificial intelligence/technology – at the moment, this is exponentially replicating our bias and embedding it into the algorithms which are increasingly dictating the outcomes of our lives.
And this all reminds me of a profoundly prescient line by Malwanah Jalaludin Balkhi – whom many of you would know as Rumi, and in his epic poem Spiritual Verses, in the 13th century, he writes:
“Man worked things out and his devices trapped him, and what he took for life, would suck his blood”.
So in all of this, my sense of self has crystallised through the heat of my circumstances as
an Eastern born migrant on Western colonised land, in a post 9/11 world. And I’ve internalised the deep contradictions these frames of othering create, and view these contradictions, which have helped me become a sensor to injustice as a gift.
The deep contradictions, to me, undid their validity. Meanwhile, I had a first-hand grasp of the narrative of East and West, and the often conflicting layers of expectation and othering exerted by both societies, which brought to light - actually the similarity in the depravity either sought to normalise, irrespective of the cultural framework from which it started.
In all of this, my reality was one which knew that I was not a victim that needs saving or civilising, or the villain that needs blaming and controlling. These dominant narratives that sought to dehumanise were unnatural to my spirit and to that of those who had gone before me.
My grandmother, Bibi Hamida (pictured above) was a feminist poet in 1940s Afghanistan, writing then about why women must emancipate themselves. My Uncle, Bahauddin Majrooh – a philosopher and scholar published in several languages, established the Afghan Information Centre during the Cold War, when the propaganda machine of both the Soviets and the United States was in full swing, so that he could release information that was real. Journalists from papers all over the world – in New York and through Europe – would come to him for information. He had proposed a third way – outside the reorientation of Afghanistan’s spirit by competing foreign influences, and that was the return of the King from exile in Italy – a man who represented the hopes of many Afghan people. In 1987 he released a survey titled “What do the Afghan Refugees Think?”, which showed that an overwhelming majority of them wanted the King back, but alongside democratic institutions. It was powerful and simple, and inconvenient to the agenda of the superpower rivalry unfolding with Afghanistan as the canvas. In February 1988, he answered a knock at his door, and was killed at close range by religious extremists, most likely under the direction of the CIA, who saw his simple way as a threat.
And I also knew my family and I were expressing and living a narrative outside of the boundaries of othering, through the food we shared every day which was built in an ethos of food as a teller of story, as an anchor to our past in order to know ourselves and move forward well. And built to through the beauty, generosity and richness of Afghan cuisine, prompt people on their own terms to peak behind the heavy curtain of a now normalised narrative of violence into a rich history of a great exchange of culture and ideas from Ancient Greece through to the Far East. Our work is an acknowledgement of how we are all interlinked together in this intricate dance of life, inviting people to engage in this narrative - through the simple gesture of sitting together to share some food.
So the stories normalised by othering seemed small and confining, and the contradictions they elicited were the clues that I pried open, and it became my gift, because this was where I grew. It led me to ask myself...what transcends it all?
Beyond the superficial costumes and outer layers of identity, who are we when stripped bare? Beyond the violations and the disconnects, what transcends into our depths to connect us all?
And it turns out that the thing that connects us all, the thing that underpins the human story of growth, is narratives. These are the shared stories we agree to as a society.
Narratives fuelled our survival as Homo sapiens beyond all other human species, who all died out between 25-40,000 years ago. Through our complex language, we came to dominate the planet beyond all others. And as it turns out, to me, amazingly, narratives are a function of our intelligence, and intelligence in turn is our evolutionary solution to the unique environmental conditions in the Great African Rift (where our ancestors evolved) which amplified the response to a rapidly fluctuating climate.
To survive this evolutionary pressure, we developed intelligence – our brains literally grew – and our intelligence gave us the language we needed to cooperate in groups.
Our ability to grow from small hunter-gatherer tribes to groups of 50-150 (the limit of the number of people we can form deep connections with), was based on the stories our ancestors told. Yuval Noah Harari (author and professor of history at Oxford) theorises that through these stories our early ancestors figured out who they could trust, and which friendships/relationships to build, which facilitated the social coordination needed to cooperate and survive.
Our ability to grow into more complex societies sat alongside our development of overarching narratives, or mythologies, which acted as a glue to bind a larger and larger number of strangers together – this includes narratives in today’s world like the trust placed in the concept of money that makes it work, law and order, and human rights.
So how have our mythologies evolved? They have always closely aligned with our understanding of the natural world, and we have always emulated what we see the greatest mystery in. We went from hunter-gatherer animists, to plant-based cultures which emulated cycles of rebirth to looking to cosmos for our divine inspiration, as we figured out the mathematical relationship between the sun, moon and visible planets. Importantly, divinity, nature, humans, and the universe were all connected, the breath that animates life was dispersed through it all.
But the advent of complex civilisations also marked the beginning of a disconnection.
Long before the industrial revolution and capitalism, which seems to be the vogueish place to mark as the beginning of our present decline, millennia before - as early as 2,000 BC in Mesopotamian texts, we were beginning to see the separation of humans from the concept of divinity and nature. The earth became just clay, and we were subscribing to a master and slave notion.
We were living in exile from nature and transforming into a command and control, authoritarian vision, where nature has been condemned and we are disparate from the natural universe around us.
And where have our stories brought us?
Today, we have demythologised to the extent that there is no mystery left in much but ourselves, and even that is being eroded through advances in artificial intelligence and biotechnology which are challenging the concept of life and death as we know it.
Capturing this, 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared “God is dead and we have killed him” and it was no coincidence that this sentiment ran alongside the birth of the industrial revolution and the consequent explosion in the evolution and power of our devices and technologies it aroused.
Nietzsche was capturing a sentiment, that our power had grown to the extent that we were doing away with the need for a sense of mystery, to the extent that we were positioning ourselves – humans and ego alone – as heir of the ethereal throne of the universe, viewing ourselves as the ultimate divinity.
And we are also re-oriented: “economics are the method. The object is to re-orient the soul" Margaret Thatcher 1981.
By now, in the 21st century, we seem to have been totally reoriented, and with intent.
In 2018, 26 people owned the same amount of wealth as half of the world’s population – 26 billionaires own the same amount of money as 3.8 billion people combined. This extreme centralisation of wealth is a natural conclusion of the trajectory set in motion by our reoriented souls, triggered by the neoliberalism of the Thatcher/Regan era, itself in turn preceded by millennia of a gradual dissociation from the natural world around us – millennia of othering.
And so today, the time is ripe for humanism. Our predominant narrative is today about humans first, not humanity, but humanism, where the human experience is the supreme source of authority and meaning. Even our best narratives have been tainted and undermined: Magna Carta, human rights, rule of law, democracy, UN charters, redistribution of wealth from monarchs to peasants, and improved living conditions and life expectancies – all have been corrupted.
Without reverence to nature as a bulwark, ego and an unbridled human freedom have allowed for the justification of atrocity by a smaller group of “we” – living out the simplistic and totally flawed ideas of a clash of civilisations – whether it be East/West, Islam/Christianity, women/men, black/white.
Othering is in full swing.
But, the narratives are crumbling. Crumbling under the weight of their own inequity and irrationality. The real clash, is with reality, and the fact that the localised and fearful boundaries set by the imagination of othering, are redundant.
In today’s world, we exchange ourselves, our ideas and goods with unprecedented speed and scale. Likewise, our challenges transcend or totally neutralise the nationalistic and localised boundaries we are captured in: climate change, infectious disease, cyber/nuclear warfare, artificial intelligence, global market crashes, mass movement of people – all of these things pay no heed to national boundaries.
This is a NASA image, of the earth from the moon, an earthrise. There are no boundaries on our planet from here.
The centre of our vision has shifted, the panorama of our horizons has broadened, but our narratives are yet to catch up. They are still speaking a language of isolated tribalism, as if the boundaries drawn by our imagination of othering hold any real weight in the sublime vision and language of the universe.
And Harari describes this as: “We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories, but before they have embraced a new one”.
I believe the call of our time is to find narratives that fit.
To me, the question is, can we morph into a narrative that reflects our potential for boundless horizons?
Without an overarching narrative that can do so, then anything we come up with, “our solutions” mean little – they are tainted, ineffective and out of step with what is required of us at this moment in the field of time.
And I do not believe we need to be overwhelmed, we need to remember there are no special revelations from elsewhere and nor is this necessary, because our mind is sufficiently capable of this knowledge of ourselves, it is only a matter of reawakening our latent potential, becoming fluent once more in the primal language of our soul.
And when we do transform, it must be planetary...
“Our mythology now is one of infinite space and its light, which is outside and inside. On our planet itself, all dividing horizons have been shattered. We can no longer hold our loves at home and project our aggressions elsewhere, for on this Earth flying through space, there is no “elsewhere” anymore. And no mythology that continues to speak or to teach of “elsewhere” and “outsiders” meets the requirement of this hour” Joseph Campbell.
It is important to note that a planetary consciousness does not mean relinquishing ‘self’ or individuality rather, the opposite.
It asks us to understand self in a far deeper and unobscured way - a way that sees how the rivers of self, empty into the ocean of all, which laps against the shores of the universe.
It means knowing that starting with a concept of self – through a deep self-awareness – we build neurological pathways of empathy in our brain.
Which connects us to others.
And when we are connected from this space of empathy, we know that we need not be the same, but we are one. We are all pieces of the one whole. We remember the science – that the amount of genetic diversity in the DNA of the 7.5 billion humans that live today is astonishingly low.
And we see this oneness is also expressed through the monomyth, Campbell’s work, which shows that there is a recurring symbolism through history and geography between otherwise disparate cultures: virgin births, the tree of life, snake and apple, resurrection, rebirth, and more. And these all reveal an expression of a singularity that is known by our deeper faculties, without being taught, and which connects us to all to one another and to our universe, which we are literally made of:
“the water in your body once flowed down the Nile, fell as monsoon rain onto India, and swirled around the Pacific. The carbon in the organic molecules of your cells was mined from the atmosphere by the plants that we eat. The salt in your sweat and tears, the calcium of your bones, and the iron in your blood all eroded out of the rocks of the Earth’s crust; and the Sulphur of the protein molecules in your hair and muscles was spewed out by volcanoes”. Dartnell Origins
And nor is a reconnection to a long-drowned out nature, about a regression. We must know that there is no utopian past. In fact this is what nationalist, demagogic leaders would have us believe – that there was a time when Islam was pure, or that there was a time when whiteness was not sullied by any other colour, that it is the fast forward button of globalisation that has destroyed dreams and created the thick cloud of angst (i.e. Make America Great Again, or Australian jobs first). Well, the trajectory of the world, the march of time, is not to retreat into the shell a utopian and fictitious past.
And any such messaging, in the long run, will be a footnote in history, one way or another. The essence of being human is to be flawed, not to be perfect or utopian. And the essence of the human experience (individual and collective) includes suffering, but to me, it is about whether or not we can acknowledge and accept our limits with grace, and continue forward nonetheless, morphing into kinder and broader iterations of ourselves every time we heal our inevitable and recurring wounds.
So it is not about rejecting technology or stifling our human intelligence, but recognising that we have arrived in this moment in time, beckoning us forward to transfigure, precisely because of our science, technology and intelligence.
We need it all, but paired with transcendent narrative that bind us, instead of with an angst- ridden othering that breaks us.
We must use the devices we have figured out, but not allow them to suck our blood like Rumi foresaw, but to become our life blood.
We must think about things like how we embed ethics into algorithms, hold big tech to account, remembering and knowing the value of our data, and use climate change to help us transfigure, as it has in the past.
So to me, today, a leader is first a follower and then a weaver.
A follower of the rivers of their own heartlines, that leads them to the well spring of empathy which connects us all – clearing the heavy boulders of disconnection now long littered along our path.
A leader then returns, to share the boons of their experience with all as a weaver – knowing we are each a strand in the web of life, and that we can weave together a shared and transcendent narrative, that can be expressed through all we create. A leader knows we can all contribute, strand by strand, in shifting our narratives, through shifting our definition of ourselves by our ego-encased outward journey, into defining ourselves by the inner journey above our own internal skies.
To me, true leadership is merely a symptom of an affair of the heart, and in this way, I believe that we can all be leaders – and that in fact, our deepest nature requires it.
Which brings me to my heartlines. In all that I do, in everything I create, I see it as a chance to shift the narratives that have imprisoned our imaginations and that have long subdued our potential. At the moment this is expressed through my role as an Atlantic Fellow for Social Equity, in the book I am writing and in the restaurants my family and I run.
As an Atlantic Fellow for Social Equity, I have had an almost other worldly experience which I have used as time and space to steep myself in deep learning and to connect with Fellows from all over the globe. With 5 other fellows from around the world, we have created a Consortium on Displacement – looking at how we can shift the markers of the narrative around forced displacement from a place of fear and xenophobia, into one which acknowledges the potent and interconnected forces of othering (economic, climate, conflict) at play.
I want to create a transcendent narrative around displacement, which will allow for more emancipated responses to the over 70 million people who currently have no home.
The book I am writing alongside my family is a recipe and narrative book about Parwana, but I am moved to write the story of my heartlines in connection to the long and glorious history of us all – it explains how Afghan cuisine is a shared story – a strand in the narrative of human culture.
I want people to know that our history is shared, that for millennia it was the East that was the jewel in the crown of the story of our shared culture – with its architecture, scholars, poets, artists, resources, ideas – and that instead of a narrative exclusively of domination – that our human story evolved as a bricolage of philosophies and ideas. It is contrary to our present fiction of a deep and ever-present schism between East and West, which currently traps us in so many ways – we are bigger, more intuitive, more interesting and more complex than this fiction, and I want that in writing.
There are also going to be recipes and beautiful photos in there.
And in my family restaurants, well, to us food is not just food. It is a latent narrative, waiting to be heard. It is the story of our earth and its geography, mixed in with the shared evolution of human civilisation – an edible and non-verbal rebuttal to the opponent of othering. All of this is underpinned by a ferocious devotion to hospitality in Afghan culture, which sees the guest as sacred – as an embodiment of ourselves.
To me our food and sitting together to share a meal, are an extension of the invitation from the deepest parts of our nature – an expression of our oneness.
So finally, I have come to believe, that with othering as the problem of our time...
we stand at the cusp of a precipice,
with the long chain of the human story behind us, watching;
beckoning us to bound forth
in answer to the call of our time –
knowing that we are each notes
in a grand and primal symphony,
and that we must find a way to harmonise.
Tashakor, thank you.