I first began experimenting with silence in university. I would go on silent fasts for days at a time, rationing words, and speaking only when I must – perhaps a mouthful in class, or even less if someone were in my face and absolutely needed to hear from me. Otherwise, friends understood that I’d ‘gone under’ and only the very committed continued leaving voice messages on my answering machine (or, braver still, tagging along, noiselessly - as was the case with my wife-to-be).
The idea at the time –more inner imperative, really, than any sort of formulated thought- was to sound my depths and think things through. This was my first taste of freedom as an adult, and that was how I chose to exercise it. It was as though, suddenly and without explanation, I was taken in for questioning, and I had to play both parts: officer and suspect. Who was I, What did I know, Why am I here, and Do I have an alibi?
Typically, I’d walk around all day in a semi-trance talking back to the books I’d read, lost in the echo chamber of my head. I read a great deal more those days, again out of an inner imperative, but hardly the assigned material. My self-imposed reading list was a volatile cocktail, unequal parts literature / philosophy, and the discovery of those great contrarians, Wilde and Nietzsche, made my world spin faster. Unaware of it then, this obsessive reading was in fact teaching me how to write. The rhythms and cadences of my Masters insinuated themselves into my style, just as their stances and daring were persuading me to distrust ready-made ideas and try to formulate better questions.
It was out of these silences and attendant solitude that I began writing what would become a book of aphorisms – by transcribing the heady conversations that I was having with myself at the time. My ‘method’ in writing these aphorisms was simply to jot down on a scrap of paper (the back of a napkin, receipt, or whatever else was handy) what I thought was worth quoting from my soul’s dialogue with itself.
If ever I tried keeping a notebook, the thoughts would hesitate leaving their cave – sensing ambush. So, by night I kept bits of paper and a pencil by my side, just in case. When something did occur to me, I feverishly scribbled it down in the dark, without my glasses, out of the same superstitious cautiousness of scaring ideas off.
These aphorisms were to reveal me to myself and served as a biography of my mental, spiritual and emotional life. I read as I wrote, helplessly, in a state of emergency; and, in my youthful fanaticism, I was convinced I was squeezing existence for answers, no less. I felt that one should only read on a need-to-know basis, and write discriminatingly, with the sole purpose of intensifying consciousness.
Strangely, during these years of white-hot inspiration, I discovered that when I returned home to Egypt (for the summer, Christmas, and eventually following graduation) I was unable to write aphorisms. No longer the master of my environment, and forced to accommodate the myriad interruptions that make a life I gradually realized that, because I had lost my silences, I had lost my voice… Which is to say, as remarkable as it is for me to consider, now, I managed to compose the bulk of the aphorisms in my first book, Signposts to Elsewhere , before turning 22 years old!
It would take me several years to begin writing again after that great surge and, out of this unsettling and involuntary silence, would be born two new forms: poetry and eventually essays. Now, after a decade or so of aphoristic silence, I'm secreting them through the pores once more and I find myself with a new collection of over 800 of these brief arts, in search of an intrepid publisher to set them free.
Since last I aphorized, I observe that something is taking place within me, a shift as decisive and imperceptible as a continental drift. I, who once identified with my mind, nay, worshiped at its altar, have come to feel I'm standing at the edge of it, and find that it’s thin and flat. The time came to leap. My way into the life of the spirit began, unwittingly, when I first began experimenting with silence, in university. Yet, after decades of intellectual exploration I am humbled to discover that, spiritually, I still stand on the shore of a vast and limitless sea…
Meanwhile, I see I’m not the only one that’s changing. Times are changing, too, and aphorisms are no longer regarded as an archaic form. On the contrary, in the age of Twitter quips and Facebook status updates, it seems everyone now thinks that they are an aphorist!