Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. So, it came as no surprise to me, for example, when our Revolution erupted in 2011 that masses of peaceful protesters chose to express their dissent and dreams in poetry, chanted jubilantly from Tahrir Square. Wit and verse were always sport, and a kind of national pastime, during the three decades I lived in Egypt. Never mind that around 50 percent of the population were actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. “Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks” an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).
Which is to say, proverbs were always our street poetry as well as philosophy. They were our oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insights from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observations. Proverbs can be like coral reef, that way, fossils of ancient philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this type of wisdom literature, as well.
Only recently, am I beginning to fully realize what it means to have been raised in this culture where aphorisms were viewed as both common utterance and a sort of magical invocation. I grew up with grandmothers, both maternal and paternal who, at times, spoke almost exclusively in such sayings - a string of proverbs, sing-songy, witty-wise remarks, for every occasion. Also, being half-Lebanese myself, meant that Gibran Khalil Gibran, popular poet and philosopher, was an early and inescapable influence. I even suspect such matters of stylistic heritage might have been written in blood, since I was named after my paternal grandfather (Yahia Lababidi), a musician and poet, who passed away long before I was born, yet passed onto me a love of song, intravenously. When, in my late teens, I found that I could unburden myself in verse and aphorism I felt that, for the first time, I was beginning to earn my name.
Lately, in the United States at least, there seems to be an Aphoristic Renaissance - something I would never have imagined when I first started writing them (anachronistically, I felt) over 20 years ago. The practitioners of the contemporary American aphorism tend to be poets, and bring to them a poetic sensibility. This November, I’m pleased to be part of an anthology, Short Flights (Schaffner Press), which draws together the work and musings of 32 leading pioneers of short-form writing. I’m especially proud to be in the company of writers I respect and admire, many of whom have become friends and helped me take my first literary steps, such as: James Richardson, James Geary, Alfred Corn, H.L. Hix - as well as the editors of this exciting project, Alex Stein (with whom I’ve also collaborated on a book of ecstatic conversations, The Artist as Mystic) and James Lough, both fine aphorists in their own right.