Iskandar Ding

Souhaib Ayoub, Untitled, watercolor. 2019

By the time this piece of writing is ready for submission, London, where I reside, will hopefully be slowly dragging itself out of a year of endless restrictions and lockdowns, with the promise of the UK’s ambitious vaccination program and Boris Johnson’s grandiloquent determination to follow his ‘roadmap to freedom’. We sit in the post-Brexit mess, watching – not without a bit of Schadenfreude, to be honest – the fluctuating COVID statistics in the continent, holding onto a wry optimism that, finally, the end of the tunnel is near on our side of the Channel. The angel of doom a year ago and the herald of freedom right now both timed their arrival at around Nawroz – the Iranian New Year celebrated by a multitude of peoples and nations across the Eastern Islamic space. New year, new beginning, but full of hope?

We have learnt many things over the course of a year, one of them being the ability to keep our hopes in check. We are so conditioned to be pampered by hope when greeted by a new era that not having this warm feeling inside us is unsettling. It started with delayed plans. With fellow members of my university’s Iranian society, we lamented the cancellation of a planned Nawroz celebration but remained cheerful at the prospect of hosting an end-of-academic-year summer gathering just ahead of Tīrgan, confident that the pandemic would be but a temporary inconvenience. As time moved on, it became creepingly clear to me and everyone around me that we had better aim at doubling the fun when the colder seasons came along. When they did, however, it was evident that one would be better off not thinking about the near future, at all. 

The year-long Beckettian wait has forced many of us to seek self-improvement. The global lockdown was quickly followed by an explosion of ‘discounted’ online courses on a variety of topics ranging from Egyptian papyrus to Vedic meditation. Human resistance to Fate, so often mocked in ancient Greek tragedies, was incisively represented by this search for the remedy for altered lives. Whether it was a decision to seize the rare opportunity to catch up on long-delayed projects or a desire to pre-empt wasted time, hidden behind the acts that we suddenly realized we should or could do during our involuntary isolation was a deep, ineffable angst – قلق (qalaq). 

As a student of Arabic, قلق is usually among one of the first words you learn in your introductory textbook. I myself clearly remember when and where and in which textbook I first encountered this triliteral root. It stood out – at least for me – among all the other abstractly presented triliteral roots on which the Arabic language is so concretely woven, for the mere fact that, to articulate قلق, the tongue has to start from the very bottom of my throat, then charge forth to touch the front of my palate, only to retreat back to its starting position. The movement, I thought, was admirable, and the symmetry across the span of the human oral cavity extraordinary. The plosive q, to my sensory perception, always sounds confident, resolute, and above all, rational, whereas the liquid l tends to feel hesitant, mellow, and sentimental. As a beginner, I almost did not need the prompt of translation in order to understand it, and the usual translation, ‘worry’, I instinctively realized, was rather pale and bland compared to the feeling that the mere phonology of the word could convey. Later, I was to learn that قلق belongs in fact to the minority of Arabic words in which the first and third root letters are identical, and is likely to be a derivative of an earlier biliteral root consisting solely of q and l

Arabic is a rich language that abounds in synonyms (or, I should say, near synonyms). There are many other words which interpret the state described by قلق, such as اضطراب , تشويش, and بلبلة. Yet none of these are quite like قلق, for the mere fact that they are either derived from other roots or make you think of other roots. اضطراب and تشویش are both the masdar forms of verbs derived from other roots and are therefore ‘morphologically overloaded’, whereas بلبلة makes you think of the crazed lover, symbolized by the nightingale (بلبل), in so much of Islamic literature. قلق, on the other hand, is a root that refers solely to itself. This semantic ‘absoluteness’ makes me think of why the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa prefers the river in his village to the grand waterway of the Tagus – 

O rio da minha aldeia não faz pensar em nada.

Quem está ao pé dele está só ao pé dele.

‘The river of my village doesn’t make you think of anything.

Whoever is next to it, is merely next to it.’

قلق is also different from the other words in its ability to form a ‘static’ adjective, قلقان, in colloquial Arabic, on the same pattern as جوعان ‘hungry’ and عطشان ‘thirsty’ – adjectives that denote physical conditions and their psychological consequences. Therefore, قلق is this visceral, existential state that is at once independent from other semantic interferences and inclusive of an array of its semantic associates: worry, anxiety, unsettledness, restlessness, apprehension, fear, etc, etc., brilliantly and minimalistically wrought by the dance of the human tongue. My linguist’s curiosity led me to search for cognates of قلق in other Semitic languages, only for my efforts to be frustrated – the Arabic قلق, as it so appears, is a unique lexical existence in the ocean of Semitic languages, and its etymology defiantly unclear. It does seem to have a possible derivative, though, in Arabic – the verb قلقل, which vividly depicts the act of ‘shaking’ and ‘agitation’ in the same onomatopoeic manner as قلق. Although it is unclear if قلقل is related to قلق, I do like the idea of the word for mental agitation giving rise to the word for physical agitation through phonetic intensification. The etymological ambiguity gives قلق a certain lexical absoluteness that makes it a unique semantic presence in the Arabic language.

We as humans are in constant search for stability. The yearning for a place to feel safe and comfortable in is encoded in our DNA and goes back to our most primitive existence tens and thousands of years ago. Zoroastrians believe that the one and only, eternal God, Ahura Mazdā, or the ‘Wise Lord’, created the world by setting everything – the stars, the flora and fauna, humanity and animals, etc. – in good, almost motionless order. The in the name of the Wise Lord, in fact, comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning ‘to set, to put’, with the extended meaning of ‘to create’. The motion of the universe, which produces chaos and misery faced by humanity, is the direct result of the devil Ahriman’s relentless attempts to disrupt and confound the good order created by Ahura Mazdā.

In the Persianate world, i.e. the Eastern Islamic sphere dominated and influenced by the Perso-Islamic civilization, the concept of stability is poetically interpreted by the commonly employed word, قرار, which is largely used in modern Arabic in the sense of ‘decision’. Many Arabic borrowings into Persian and subsequently other languages influenced by Persian have retained in these languages their etymological meanings, whereas in modern Arabic, their extended meanings have become more common. قرار is one of these words. The root q-r-r is everything that قلق is not – constancy, assurance, a feeling of being firmly grounded in a situation, in other words, the ideal cosmic order that the Zoroastrian Wise Lord created, or the Abrahamic paradisiac existence of humanity before the devilish interference. In Persian Sufi poetry, human existence exiled from God’s presence is compared to a pining lover languishing in endless separation from his beloved. Interestingly, قرار also starts with the confident, solid q; like in قلق, the tongue also moves to the front of the mouth, but this time, instead of retreating, it repeats what it sets out to accomplish – the consonant r – as if to signal its determination, proclaim its settlement, and firmly take hold of its مَقرّ – or قرارگاه in Persian and other Eastern Islamic languages. 

To suggest that there is an intrinsic link between sound and meaning is, of course, linguistically untenable, but there is a certain poeticness to such musings. Here, the Portuguese word sossego, which designates a state of calm and peace within and without – what many of us find hard to obtain during these trying times – also comes to mind. Sossego ultimately comes from the Latin word sessus ‘to be seated’ and is therefore tell-tale of an instinctive semantic association between the static position and the peace of mind, recalling the meaning of قرار. The alliteration of the sibilant s echoes the churning of a small stream by which you are sitting in contemplation or the rustling of leaves in a tree on a warm, breezy night: quietude – a word that has eluded our existence for long.

There is ineffable happiness in quietude. Happiness is different from joy, which is often conferred by noise and agitation and is therefore ephemeral. Happiness is static. This is perhaps why happiness can be a goal to be pursued and lived ‘ever after’. In fact, the English word quiet, from Latin quietus, originated from the same Indo-European root as the Persian word shād ‘happy’. It is no surprise that, in Persian, we say روحشان شاد ‘May his/her soul be happy’ when someone passes away. Shād in Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenids, meant ‘rested’ before evolving into the modern meaning ‘happy’. In the West, this is requiescat in pace – ‘rest in peace’, in the unspoiled heavenly existence that humanity on earth has lost. 

السلام عليكم, שלום עליכם, ܫܠܡܐ ܥܠܘܟܘܢ – ‘peace be upon you’. This expression, so prevalent in the Semitic linguistic sphere as a formula of greeting, tells exactly of humanity’s deep anxiety over instability. The ancient triliteral root سلم has the meaning of ‘to be intact, secure, to remain in safety’ and constituted the name of a deity, called none other than سلام, worshipped by Assyrians and pre-Islamic Arabs. The deity سلام represented all that was beautiful and good, echoing the pre-motion ideal world, masterfully fashioned by the Zoroastrian Wise Lord whose light stands in absolute contrast with the darkness of the devil Ahriman. After the advent of Islam, the One and Only God, الله, was also attributed this name as one of His ninety-nine names. 

Πάντα ῥεῖ pánta rheî ‘everything flows’, as Heraclitus told us more than two millennia ago. In many cultures, the cosmos that contains the world of the living is compared to a turning wheel which the Persians call چرخ فلک charkh-i falak, whose wanton motions are a constant source of قلق. This imagery is not as esoteric as we think, as the alteration of day and night as well as the change of seasons must have also been observable by our ancestors who decided on it. The silver lining to the constant lack of قرار is that no reality lasts forever – who knows if at the next turning of the wheel, the adverse situation you are facing will become favorable? On the side of the coin, who may promise that your euphoria of present will not turn into misery of future? Who knows? – good question. We desire to know, particularly about the future, about which the more trustworthy information we have, the more reassured we are and the less قلق we have in life. We fear the unknown precisely because we dread the agitation it will bring us. Yet we cannot know. We are humans, and الله أعلم. The last resort for us to find security and peace, the ultimate delivery of our existence from قلق, is to be united with العليم and السلام, the All-Knowing Bestower of Tranquility at the end of our days, and obtain بقاء ‘eternity.’ 

Sufis have forever yearned to return to the serene presence of the Creator from whom humanity was exiled to this wild world of chaos.. Sufi poetry often has an overwhelmingly sorrowful tone that may or may not be conducive to peace of mind, depending on your taste. However, what is universal is the teaching that we must relinquish worldly attachments in order to be reunited with the Absolute, الحق. Mawlānā of Balkh, better known as Rūmī, instructs everyone who wishes to be on the right spiritual path:

هم خویش را بیگانه کن هم خانه را ویرانه کن

ham khēsh rā bēgāna kun ham khāna rā vayrāna kun

‘Make your ego a stranger and your house ruins.’

These words are strikingly similar to what Krishna, the Hindu Supreme God’s major avatar, advises Arjuna, the symbol of all mortals, in Bhagavad Gītā:


निर्द्वन्द्वो नित्यसत्त्वस्थो

निर्योगक्षेम आत्मवान्


nirdvandvo nityasattvastho

niryogakṣema ātmavān

‘Be… free from the dualities, stand firm in harmony, without acquisition and possession, and established in the self.’

قلق is the state of being trapped between dualities: the known and the unknown, the acquired and the unacquired, the present and the absent, the past and the future… We feel helpless as our minds and bodies wander between remorse and hope, nostalgia and expectation, compensation and resolution. To this effect, the Zoroastrians of pre-Islamic Iran have a succinct yet profound piece of advice for us in the Handarz ī Āturpāt Mahrspandān ‘Wise Counsel of Āturpāt, Son of Mahrspand’:

ān uzīd framōš kun ud ān nē mad ēstēd rāy tēmār bēš ma bar.

‘Forget that which has gone, and do not worry about that which has not come.’

Centuries later, Omar Khayyam would repeat this timeless ideal of existence in many of his rubāʿiyāt (quatrains), such as:

هرگز غم دو روز را نباید خوردن
روزی که نیامده و روزی که گذشت

Hargiz gham-i dū rōz rā nabāyad khurdan
Rōz-ē ki nayāmada u rōz-ē ki guzašt

‘Never should one worry about two days:
The day which has not come and the day which has passed’

This, perhaps, is the essence of stoicism which frees us from the chains of the past and the future and restores our agency over what we can and do know – the present moment, constantly reminding us that our inner peace (قرار) ultimately depends on our decision (قرار) vis-à-vis our outer circumstances. How we perceive ourselves and our lives does not solely depend on our interaction with the outside world but also on our interaction with ourselves. The source of the stability we pursue as humans is best found, or created, within ourselves. It is the only sort of stability that no external force is able to compromise and the only sort of stability that adapts to external circumstances and keeps our cognition of our selves stable, intact, happy – سالم, مقرر, شاد, or in Sanskrit, आत्मवान ātmavān