Last Friday I attended a diwaniya. This was a male only gathering. My host, Ahmed, held irregular diwaniyas, inviting his friends round to his home. He told me that diwaniyas can be political but his were social in nature.
When I arrived there were already 6 or 7 men there. I took my shoes off and went into the diwan. The seats were against three sides of the wall of the room. I was introduced to each person, in turn, and shook hands with them. I noticed that when other guests arrived depending, I suppose, on the closeness or depth of friendship there was an exchange of kissing on each side and once again as appropriate.
Arabic coffee was served by an elderly Pakistani or Indian servant, a small man with greying hair, oiled and smoothed back. He sat with an impassive face, avoiding any direct eye contact, showing an inscrutability that spoke either of an indifference to the subject matter being discussed or perhaps pretended to an absence of spirit. First dates, then the most sparing of coffee, tribute to the toxicity of the drink. The usual manners were waived for me. I did not have to wiggle the top of the cup to indicate that I no longer wished for further cups! I simply cut through the air emphatically, as if saying off with his head! That seemed to say it clearly enough.
Then tea. Not mint tea but just tea in another small cup. This was sipped leisurely. Afterwards we were invited to join our host on the floor for fruits displayed in two bowls: oranges, tangerines, bananas, grapes and plums. More people arrived but now we did not stand up to greet them, it was not the order of things. My ageing joints had enough trouble sitting crossed legged on the floor, it would have been trying to keep standing and sitting.
Diwaniyas are banned in the Empty Quarter, for fear that they would turn into political events. Apparently they have been preserved at their purest form here. Every district, tribe, etc have their own diwans and hold regular diwaniyas. Sometimes the topics are strictly set as in an agenda and adhered to. Politics happens in these settings.
One of the guests, a young medical student talked about how he had lost interest in studying, in reading. He had decided to seek an administrative post once his medical studies were over. I had never met such loss of drive and enthusiasm. Apparently a lot of the youngsters feel this way. To be burnt out even before you’ve really embarked on life. To be bored, indifferent, without ambition, was this ennui?
Russian novels of the late 19th century have characters like this. Chekhov is full of these men from the gentry who lead dissolute lives, who have no ambition, no beliefs, no desire to achieve anything. I had imagined that it was a symptom of a serf economy. But maybe the the Empty Quarter has a serf economy, tremendously undeserved wealth and dependence upon an army of servants.
This ostentatious wealth coupled with the absence of need to work in order to live well probably serves as the ground for listlessness. A pernicious disease of be spirit that strikes at the core of the person, killing off the spring well of desire and resourcefulness. This young man’s revelation troubled me for a few days afterwards. It seemed to say our environments determine our inner spirit!
In Chekhov’s The Story of a Nobody, this young man reminded me most of Gruzin
a long-haired blond with bad eyesight who wore gold spectacles. I can remember his long, pale fingers, like those of a pianist; and in his figure as a whole there was something of the musician, of the virtuoso. In orchestras such figures play the first violin. He had a cough and suffered from migraines and generally seemed sickly and weak. At home he was probably undressed and dressed like a child…His attitude to work and to his moves from one post to another was exceptionally frivolous, and when people talked in his presence about ranks, awards, salaries, he would give a good-natured smile…He was a flaccid character, lazy to the point of indifference to himself, drifting with the current who knows where and why. Wherever he was led he would go.
I hadn’t thought that I would ever meet a Gruzin in real life or Ulrich from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Musil’s Ulrich was like my young man too-
”Give a fellow a totally free hand and he will soon run his head into a wall out of sheer confusion.” Or this: “A man who can have anything he wants will soon be at a loss as to what to wish for.” Ulrich repeated these sayings to himself with great enjoyment. Their hoary wisdom appeared to him as an extraordinary new thought. For a man’s possibilities, plans, and feelings must first be hedged in by prejudices, traditions, obstacles, and barriers of all sorts, like a lunatic in his straightjacket, and only then can whatever he is capable of doing have perhaps some value, substance and staying power.
Yet, I was surrounded by conviviality at the diwaniya. Even my young man without qualities took his estrangement seriously, examined it like a newly discovered archaeological object that had landed at his feet, prodded it and measured it, took a scan of its dimensions and inner structure but remained baffled, thinking ‘How have I come to this?’
Might the diwaniya not simply be ‘the impractical room that’s devoid of content’ that modernity fashions everywhere to be occupied by the emptiness lurking beneath the weave of clothing that masquerades as man?
Photos by Femi Oyebode