Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tests for serenity

A test for inner serenity is remaining calm in the back of a taxi in Tunis as its driver imparts a nearing death experience. Fascinating that the white lines in the road do not appear to be seen as markers of separation but as things to drive down: dead centre.

The city bears signs of continuing political nervousness as it moves towards elections for its constituent assembly: the hundred chosen to write the country's new constitution. Many public buildings are closely guarded and have spread around them rather decayed razor wire but otherwise on the surface all appears quiet and normal (indeed overt political activity, like posters, for example, were noticeable for their absence). All the kamikaze taxi drivers I spoke to were happy that Ben Ali had been deposed but the future sounded a mix of exhilaration and wishful thinking. They also were of one accord in thinking Gaddafi was mad.

The city was, in fact, full of Libyans displaced by or sheltering from conflict - and this had made a major contribution to the Tunisian economy (affected by the deep fall in tourism post-revolution). Apparently it was difficult to buy bottled water after 10am in the morning, as supplies were bought up in bulk and transported to the Libyan border.

The hotel lobby was well sprinkled with people drawn to these events - news crews, election monitors, 'frontier' businessmen and people staring into their laptops of maps of Libya with un-ascertainable intentions!

Tunis, on the whole, was an unprepossessing city, sprawling with either a decaying or unfinished air. French colonial buildings fading, alongside later editions of crumbling sixties concrete jostling with newer unattractive office blocks. Everywhere cafes with men predominantly drinking coffee, smoking bubble pipes and greeting friends (while the women presumably worked)!

The sea was a respite from this - needless to say it is where the richer elements of the population lives in white villas perched on neighbouring hills. It was serenely beautiful last night watching the full moon send silvery light across Mediterranean waters.

This scene was beautifully evocative (in a different key) of the book I was reading: John Blofeld's 'Taoism: The Road to Immortality". This was the first book I read on Taoism when I was at university. Like all Blofeld's books it manages to encapsulate both enduring scholarship, lightly worn, 'a perfume of books' (to use the Taoist phrase), a deep respect for all levels of understanding from the simplest faith in folk religion to the most sublime philosophy; and, striking, illuminating personal anecdote.

The last chapter is an account of his visit to a Taoist hermitage in 1935. His sadness (the book was written in the 1970s) was it was of a life no more, eliminated by the red tide, but subsequent events have happily disproved this. The tradition endures. What is so delightful about it, is the absence of any solemnity - these are adepts but they carry their attainment with lightness and grace. The hermitage is a place of simple and serene pleasures - of the practice of silence, the performance of the arts and of hospitality.  Everything that you have learnt of the tradition - philosophy, poetry, yoga and meditation - is given  compelling form (including the humour).

I did want to slip onto a dragon's back, aloft into the mist shrouded hills and join them.

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