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Agora

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I am briefly in the Arabian Gulf. The sky is cloudless today. The sun bright and clear as it can be in Southern Europe. An artist’s kind of light. One that renders the world sharp in outline, although it can also bleach the colours. Leaves having an impoverished green that is closer to grey than it is to lush impenetrable green. There is a slight taint of dust, of sand in the air too. This can give a feeling of dilapidation to the most pristine of scenes.

From my vantage point, cars and buses are speeding past on the vast motorways. There are hardly any walkers. Perhaps the temperature is far too forbidding. Perhaps there is no tradition of walking if you don’t have to. The consequence is that the streets are deserted and empty of people. Where are the people?

Swallows dart from the eaves of the numerous towers and then slowly skate and glide down towards the tops of the palm trees. These are date palms, I think. I am reminded of my grandmother’s house in the evening. Swallows angle their wings and black against the dusk half-light seem to emerge from a dreamland beyond memory. The swallows skim the air like a stone thrown with precision that travels, picking up speed as it touches the skin of the sea, curving back upwards before sinking, disappearing forever.  African dusks can be like that. The swallows merging with the memory of a boy who throws a stone, the stone and air and the splash of sea spray all part of a dusk that is readying to close shop.

If you sit long enough on the ledge outside my grandmother’s window you will imagine that you can see in the distance, in that reddish half darkness, when the sun is setting and before the new moon is out, a procession of ethereal beings, sometimes in ghostly unreality, sometimes in shadowy figuration, but always graceful, always moving swiftly and elegantly. You will know that you have seen what is usually unseen, spirits, wraiths, in the interstices of life. Maybe even an intercession. Their processing is their manner of praying.

That is why the world of the living and the dead is so closely connected in Africa. You sense the presence, the palpable interconnection between us and the invisible. And the swallows in their diving and rapturous skating of the air seem also like a form of speaking, a vernacular that is verse and poetic. A language in need of an interpreter. But you also feel very human and vulnerable. What if these figures were malign? What if the swallows were not birds at all but bats taking the form of birds, witches? What if life is itself already seeping out from your own entrails, unseen, a miasma that gaseous and without odour, leaks out and enfeebles you?

These questions reveal the essential weakness of the human condition in a world that is untrustworthy, unreliable, and liable to fracture, to coalesce against our interests. That is the beginning of superstition, maybe even of religion.

The track past my grandmother’s house leads in one direction to the King’s precinct. This is the space for ritual, a communal space. In the other direction, it leads slightly uphill to the market where my aunt Alice has a stall. The market is the centre of life. The goods are excuses for human intercourse. Not like supermarkets where the goods displace courtesy, the exchange of gossip, preclude flirtation and chill the warmth that is the glue of society. The marketplace is more than all this. It is the arena where the human comes to be scrutinized, where social conventions gather in the robes of men and the wrappers of the women, where conformity sits under umbrellas, and social judgment whispers or shouts its opinion. Mores are here to be reinforced. Shame hangs out waiting to be painted, nailed, or handcuffed unto someone or some family.

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You must not imagine that I think of Shame as something we can do without. We are in need of it, perhaps in small measure. Take these two recent experiences on trains.

You could tell that they were tough, easily. The young woman was already prematurely aged. Her skin was coarse, thickened both by excessive exposure to the cold and to cigarette smoke. She was ugly. Her nose, lips and jaw seemed unrelated, as if swiftly and without much thought thrown together. Her two male companions were loud and insensitive to the feelings of others in the quiet coach, swearing indiscriminately.

The most unusual aspect was their blatant, public use of crack cocaine. They had brought the paraphernalia with them: silver foil, water filled bottle covered with silver foil, and the brownish rock-like pieces of cocaine. There was a need, apparently, for ‘ash’. The woman went into the loo to smoke in order to produce the necessary ash. In the process she set off the smoke alarm. In their search for the crack cocaine, the shorter of the two men, excused himself and took off his baggy tracksuit trousers, to search in his dirty underwear, for the crack cocaine, retrieving it and then placing it on the table. The word ‘crack’ cocaine really did mean something then!

Then they proceeded to prepare and to use the cocaine, in public, casting furtive glances about, huddling together, guiltily but also brazenly ignoring all social strictures against the use of drugs. But why come to hide in the quiet coach to use drugs? Why not an empty building, a derelict canal side, an out of the way park venue in the dark?

It was a day of the utmost derogation of social conventions. Another young man on another train, and once again in broad inescapable daylight. This time, wearing a pair of dirty, soiled tracksuit trousers (are tracksuit trousers a sign of some undefined dereliction of morality?), sat at the end of the carriage with his hand in his trousers, stroking his penis, seemly unaware that this was a public space. How impoverished does the inner life have to be to need instant self-pleasuring to stoke its fire? And shame, has that become such a rare commodity?

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As the day draws to a close on a cool Spring day in the Arabian Gulf, the dust haze and the swallows diving and climbing prompt memories of other swallows in another life. This imaginative capacity to represent, to re-present, what is past and to reflect, well that is also the marketplace judging and condemning, within the self. Shame turning into guilt as we climb out of the pit of moral darkness.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

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