The Bleeding
Of the Stone

Ibrahim Al-Koni
Translated by
May Jayyusi and
Christopher Tingley

(Interlink)
As his father before him, Asouf is a herdsman living in the desert in a corner of Libya. He tends his goats, meets occasional caravans, lives in a world of hot, dry isolation.

One day, two visitors arrive, Cain and Masoud, seeking the waddan, a wild sheep reputed to have magical powers. Cain carries a pistol, brags about all the gazelles he has slaughtered, ("I personally ate the last gazelle to the north"). He says, repeatedly, that he must have meat. He grew up eating raw meat, goes into withdrawal pangs without it.

Asouf, the shy and simple naïf, doesn't know what to make of these two, but they know what to make of him: he has the secret of the location of the waddan --- which the glossary tells us is also called "moufflon,"

    a kind of wild mountain sheep, is the oldest animal in the Sahara. It became extinct in Europe as early as the 17th Century.

    Since Asouf holds the waddan to be sacred, he's not about to tell these two creeps about the secret mountain where it lives. So of course, they badger him, and finally tie him down in the desert sun, arms in the cross position, leaving him there until he is ready to 'fess up --- tell them where they might find their lunch.

    Cain Adam and Masoud go off and connect with John Parker, a graduate of the University of California --- where he had studied "Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Islamic Sufi thought." Parker has gotten close to an old Sufi there in Libya, seems entranced by the parallels between Buddhism and Sufism --- but because of the old American poison, and despite his exotic pursuits, he turns out to be another Bad Sort.

    Parker gets the two ruffians into an American military helicopter so they can take off for the desert, to maim and murder the last remaining wildlife. They encounter a gazelle, who, in the style of Chaunticleer and Pertolete, has been having a fairly serious discussion with the other gazelles about whether man is to be trusted or not. Says one --- with eyes like a human --- yes. Says another, absolutely not,

      I asked heaven to curse them all for the pain they'd caused me, and, whenever I remembered my slain mother, I felt the poisoned arrow pierce my heart once more. My poor mother!

    The one with the pretty eyes gets it in the gut from Cain's rifle, dies with her gazelle child looking on.

    §     §     §

    Meanwhile, Cain and Masouf take a truck back in the desert to find Asouf there where they've tied him down They discover that a day in the broiling sun still will not loosen his tongue. Cain the meat-nut begins

      laughing again, more spittle began to drip in thin threads. And each time he broke into fresh shrieks of laughter, further shining threats would spew out.

    He takes his knife and beheads our simple humble herdsman, and, in the last words of the novel,

      Masoud leaped into the truck and switched on the engine. At the same moment great drops of rain began to beat on its windows, washing away, too, the blood of the man crucified on the face of the rock.

    §     §     §

    The phrase that reappears in the poop-pieces for new emerging writers is, "magical realism." That was, as you recall, the one that some reviewer laid on A Hundred Years of Solitude, and now, whenever they pop another obscure writer from another obscure country, it's our label --- ignoring the fact that Magical Realism has been around ever since the days of the Furies, Chaucer, Shakespeare's witches, Don Quixote, Scheherazade, and Dickens' spooks.

    The Bleeding of the Stone has a fair dose of it, whatever it is, and, as desert lore, it is not without interest what with talking gazelles and ghostly waddan. But the symbolism is heavy-handed: "Cain Adam," the crucifixion of poor old Asouf, the Sufis and their chants. Then there's the gazelle itself,

      You dreamed of stroking his graceful neck, touching his golden hair, looking into his sad, intelligent eyes, kissing him on the forehead and clutching him to your heart. In this beast was the magic of a woman and the innocence of a child, the resolution of a man and the nobility of a horseman, the shyness of a maiden, the gracefulness of a bird, and the secret of the broad expanses.

    Ibrahim Al-Koni's nice people are too nice; his villains too villainous. One gets restless with this stacking of the literary cards. Asouf is pure simple folk, steeped in desert lore. You know he's going to be chewed up and spit out by this meat-nut and all those Americans with their helicopters and rifles. The rapine of the wilderness by them and their ilk, we all agree, is no joke; but, as with most angry writers, our author overwhelms us with spleen, and --- thereby --- engenders no little ennui.

    --- Al Hefid


    Between 1 and 3 billion tons of desert dust fly up into the sky annually. One billion tons would fill 14 million boxcars, in a train that would wrap six times around the Earth's equator.

    That's desert dust. How about "dusts of life?" An unknown quantity are floating around,

      fungi, viruses, diatoms, bacteria, pollen, fibers of rotting leaves, eyes of flies and legs of spiders, scales from the wings of butterflies, hair fragments from polar bears, skins flakes from elephants...

    Fossil fuels? We get 90 - 100 million tons of sulfur a year delivered to us --- air mail --- along with 100 million tons of nitrogen oxides. Coal fires? They offer up to the skies 8 million tons of black soot annually. And the really scary ones:

      Nerve-wracking mercury and stupefying lead; carcinogens from dioxin to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); the radioactive dusts of nuclear disasters, pesticides, asbestos, and poisonous smokes --- how many tons of these roam the skies each year? That is unknown.

    Where to get away from all this trash in the air? How about the cool Pacific Northwest, with its fresh clean mornings? Ulp, well --- you have to deal with the Chinese. It seems that they are shipping over plumes of coal fires and industrial poisons that float from the east coast of China, using the prevailing winds, to appear on or above your doorstep just as you are sipping your tea, observing the lovely dawn.

    A storm in the Gobi in April of 1998 filled the sky with rock dust and other bits and pieces of desert, which then passed over Chinese factories and cities where it picked up "sulfur dust and diesel soot, gases and toxic metals."

      Two days later this sprawling, spinning cloud obliterates Alaska and crosses high above Cheeka Peak. Over the next five days, the thinning river undulates across nearly every state in the Union...In Washington and Oregon the dust levels suddenly hit two-thirds of the federal limit set to protect human lungs.

    What amazed the scientists was the fact that the pollution was "fresh" --- that is, "it had suffered very little dilution en route."

    The price? How can we ever know? Pollution kills 60,000 people in the United States each year. That's more than died in Vietnam during the entire course of the war, it's well over twice the number that die annually in urban violence. But for China, the figure is far more appalling. It is estimated that "about a million Chinese people die each year from the deadly dust in the air."

      It's as though the entire population of Maine died of dust poisoning year after year after year.

    §     §     §

    Clearly, The Secret Life of Dust on your bedtable isn't going to contribute to a restful sleep. Especially with a creepy-crawly chapter on the chemicals and the trash and the creepy-crawlies not only in the dust under your bed, but in your bed with you, at this very moment, as you are trying to drift off. Ought you worry? Well, those creatures they call dust mites

      are too big to sail through the air and up the nose. But their manure and their decomposing body parts are not. The manure exits the mite as brown balls one-sixth of a hair's width in diameter. The balls consist of digestive enzymes plus digested remnants of all the things a mite might eat. One investigation of the contents of dust-mite tummies found that they seem to swallow everything from pollen to fungi, bacteria, plant fibers, moth and butterfly scales, bird-skin scales, and yeast scales.

    Great. You're trying to drift off to sleep and at the same time, you're sniffing mite shit up your nose.

    Ms. Holmes' book would be unreadable if it were all bad news, but dust has been with us since the beginning of time, and it does bring certain benefits, like the fertile earth arriving in places that were, before, nothing but barren rock. The Barbados, the Florida Keys and much of South America have been, for millions of years, regularly peppered by dust from the Sahara, which dust acts as a "gentle fertilizer."

      Precipitation is so high in the rain forests that the nutrients get leached out very quickly...how can you sustain a forest for millions of years? It's quite possible that Saharan dust supplies a large component of the nutrients in northern South American soils.

    §     §     §

    After all is said and done, what and who are the bad guys? How about the carcinogenic droplets of unrefined canola oil, traditionally favored for frying in China, usually over a soft coal fire, which with all the soot will end up in the lungs of the people who live in some of the dirtiest air on the planet.

    Then there's quartz dust, the effects of which are embedded in medical nomenclature: "Grinder's rot, stonemason's disease, miner's asthma, potter's rot, rock tuberculosis." Then there are those dusts that are creating a whole new medical vocabulary: "Mill fever. Fly-ash lung. Wood-pulp-worker's disease. Aluminum lung. Bakelite pneumoconiosis. Detergent-worker's lung. Meat-wrapper's asthma. Air-conditioner lung."

    And, worst of all, there are those creeps who make and sell tobacco products. 4,000 chemicals have been identified in tobacco smoke --- four thousand, of which, so far, fifty have been identified as carcinogenic --- continually screwing up the bodies of those who smoke, and those who live with them. Says Holmes, who should know: "No dust can compete with tobacco smoke for deadliness: this dust kills almost half a million smokers in the United States every year."

    Holmes is a good and patient writer. She knows how to build a case and, more importantly for us, how to build a book. Like that plume they ship over twice a year from China, each part of The Secret Life of Dustflows seamlessly into the next; like a good scientific writer, she gives us the facts, lets us do with them as we will. Although, there are times when, obviously, the menace of it all exasperates her, turns her writing a bit wry:

      A few centuries ago a European worker who keeled over with his lungs jammed with dust seems to have raised a minimum of scientific interest. Laborers may have been viewed --- when they were viewed at all --- as expendable. These days workers in the United States are so well protected by antidust regulations that ... well, actually, thousands of them still keel over every year, their lungs jammed with dust.


    --- Margot W. K. Renner


    The Rise
    And Fall
    Of Synanon

    Rod Janzen
    (Johns Hopkins)
    I suspect that none of us who came of age in the 60s will forget Synanon. Here was a bunch of ex-dope-addicts who were living together, getting clean, starting businesses --- peers caring for peers in a living situation. And with what they called The Game, they showed that therapy could be practiced by all.

    You didn't need a psychotherapist or a PhD or an "expert." If ex-heroin addicts could use the group to stay clean and honest, then any of us could use it --- on our own --- to, in the lingo of the day, "facilitate change."

    The revolutionary work of Charles Dederich was an inspiration to all. Here was an alcoholic who had gone through the AA experience and then, with a few "dopefiends" --- the word they used on themselves --- had moved into a storefront in Santa Monica, creating a new and highly successful environment for cure.

    They policed themselves, they welcomed newcomers, showed them how to go straight, and then, out of this supportive environment, they went out and hustled business. Outside mental institutions, it was the only place that hard-core addicts could go to get cured.

    It pulled from AA (and the earlier "Oxford Group") techniques of co-counseling, with the gifted amateur --- those who had been there before --- showing others how to kick the habit. Those who came to experience Synanon and praise it were legion: jazz musician Art Pepper, psychologist Abraham Maslow, inventor Buckminster Fuller, actor Steve Allen, guru Tim Leary, Governor Jerry Brown, activist Caesar Chavez.

    Dederich was fat, and not very pretty, but he was smart, good with his words, wily, and playful. His history was the history of a poorly educated drunk who single-handedly created a new non-bull-shit movement. He spouted Zen, Lao T'se. Ralph Waldo Emerson, and S. I. Hayakawa. He built a working institution in record time, and got the attention of prison authorities, legislators --- Senator Thomas Dodd was an early supporter --- and the police.

    The unlikely influence of Hayakawa was key, for Language and Thought was a classic of its time, showed how we used language not only to express ourselves, but to hide ourselves. And in The Game --- and the multitudes of Games that the rest of us set up in imitation of Dederich's Big One --- words were the key: what we said with words, what we hid with them, how we used them to fool others.

    Thousands of us started our own Games all over the country: artists, hippies, teachers, professionals, peaceniks, people who were disgusted with the lies of Modern America. We would get together --- six or eight or ten of us on a Saturday night, and, instead of smoking dope or getting drunk, we would start right in, attacking each other mercilessly, exposing fears and hates and prejudices. There were only two rules: no physical violence, and no running out the door.

    I well remember my first one. One of my friends invited me over to his house. "I think you are going to be interested," he said. "It's just a few of us, being perfectly honest with each other." I was intrigued.

    It started in the early evening. No one was privileged --- there were no "trained" specialists. It was freedom of speech in personal discourse. If we suspected a lie, we said so. Small talk and commonplaces were laughed out of existence. Playacting was encouraged.

    Sometimes a couple of the members of the group would gang up (accusations, irony, shouting) on someone. There would be outbursts, confessions; at times, tears; at others, uncontrollable laughter. Then suddenly one of the perpetuators would become "it" --- and all would jump on him or her.

    There were brutal revelations (it's amazing how much we know people just by observing them, hearing them speak), many of which were triggered by statements like: "I think you are lying." Or: "How can you say such shit and expect anyone to believe you?" Or: "When you say that, I keep hearing a sad little child speaking." The world of that room with its players was charged; each moment could create an explosion.

    And when we finally broke up (at four or so in the morning), it was as if we had been taking some super-charged drug that kept us at it for so long, with such passionate emotions. We were wrung out. Most often, too, we found ourselves in a strange ecstasy, the ecstasy of being relieved of the restraints of "normal" human discourse.

    No wonder Dederich was so successful: he had taken psychotherapy out of the hands of the icy professionals, and by using their best techniques, empowered thousands of others. We were free to plunge into the hearts of others, to see the lies, to expose them noisily --- and come out feeling love. It was a win-win: we could pride ourselves on being searingly honest, and emerge a better (or at least a more truthful, insightful) person in the process.

    §     §     §

    Janzen has done a fine job of pulling together the facts about the rise and fall of Synanon (in truth, the rise and fall of Dederich). In thirty-three years, Dederich had managed to pull off a revolution in treatment of addicts; changed the way people communicated; created a bustling and successful business run mostly by ex-junkies. And then, starting around the mid-seventies, shortly after his wife died, he began to murder his own baby.

    Those who dissented were cold-shouldered, asked to leave. Newspapers and magazines that published critical articles --- as well as individual reporters who wrote them --- were sued. Those outside Synanon who made too much trouble were roughed up. A lawyer by the name of Paul Morantz, who represented parents who wanted their children "deprogrammed," was presented with a rattlesnake in his mailbox. (He was severely bitten, and, according to Janzen, it took eighteen vials of antivenin to save his life.)

    In contrast to the previous fifteen years, Dederich and some of his closest associates began to give themselves hefty salaries. But the most controversial change --- outside of trying to nail dissenters --- was the decision to allow weapons. Dederich had built much of his support on the non-violent nature of Synanon. Reverence for Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez came from their pacifist stance, and Dederich fed off this, especially since he was dealing with tough ex-cons.

    Over the next ten years, all fell apart. Federal agents began to examine the books; state agencies looked into the treatment of children; newspapers --- fed on the Jim Jones horror --- turned hostile; Dederich himself started boozing again. The final blow was the loss of tax-exempt status in 1989 --- at which time Synanon was, to all intents and purposes, a goner.

    §     §     §

    The author begins with a quote from V. S. Naipaul's Journey to Nowhere,

      In California one constantly had the feeling of being trapped, of endlessly crawling along the surface of an outsized Möbius strip. No wonder there was so much frenzy, so many promiscuous couplings of ideas...these people had nowhere to go, nothing left to do.

    His treatment of Dederich and his followers --- and those who finally rose up to put Synanon out of business --- is just, even-handed, and bemused. One comes away with a picture of a troubled man who people saw as a savior --- and perhaps his fall came from that. He was authoritarian, but at first, his power was always tempered by The Game. Anyone was free to criticize him and his decisions...at least until the big change around 1975. As Janzen says,

      Alterations in the Game had a major impact on the functioning of the entire commune. Although it is true that in many ways the Game's brutal honesty upheld for a long time the highest standards of morality, when it became difficult for members to disagree with Chuck Dederich and other leaders in game formats a significant part of Synanon's system of checks and balances was lost.

    He made the rules and the rules worked until the world as he saw it began to close down on him. The last few years were classically tragic. He had --- to the end --- a few followers, but they were yes-men; he rambled and drank himself into stupors; his public appearances were painful. Once he appeared on television to say that Col. Oliver North

      was a "hero" and that if North every decided to run for president, Dederich would make sure that the entire Synanon community voted for him.

    Still, he could and did say wonderful things, like this, a cross between W. C. Fields and Suzuki:

      Childhood is convalescence from being dead for all eternity and for this reason should be gotten over as soon as possible...

    But, tragically, he, like so many charismatics, envenomed the very baby he had engendered.


    --- Ignacio Schwartz
    Send us e-mail

    Subscribe

    Go Home

    Go to the most recent RALPH