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Interpretation of “The mystics of the desert” by Ioulia Karapataki

The song I have picked for this entry was originally performed by Socratis Malamas (Σωκράτης Μάλαμας), whom I have mentioned in previous entries to this series:

I have chosen the version which is performed by Ioulia Karapataki (Ιουλία Καραπατάκη), with Socratis on the guitar, because I like her voice and how it helps us travel to otherworldly places through the words of this insightful song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqGUlgjrtwU. For context, here is Socratis being effortlessly wonderful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzr_WIUkq-U.

Below are the lyrics, my translation of them, and subsequent philosophical commentary.

Οι μύστες της ερήμου

Εμρηνεία:  Ιουλία Καραπατάκη (πρώτη εκτέλεση του Σωκράτη Μάλαμα)
Στίχοι:    Άλκης Αλκαίος
Μουσική:   Σωκράτης Μάλαμας


Θαμπώσαν οι ανάσες μας στο τζάμι
κι εσύ μιλάς για χρόνια της αρμύρας
μπροστά σε αδειανά μπουκάλια μπύρας
με βλέμμα καρφωμένο στο ταβάνι

Έξω κυλάει της πόλης το ποτάμι
δε μου 'πες στα ταξίδια σου τι είδες
αν όπως πήγες γύρισες, δεν πήγες
στου κόσμου το πολύχρωμο χαρμάνι

Δώσε μου την αρμύρα σου και πάρε τη βροχή μου
κι άκου τα λόγια που έλεγαν οι μύστες της ερήμου
φωτιά γυρεύει η φωτιά και η αγάπη πόνο
τον εαυτό σου δε θα βρεις αν δε χαθείς στον κόσμο

Θαμπώσαν οι ανάσες μας το τζάμι
κι εσύ μ' ένα δαφνόφυλλο στα χείλη
πώς θα 'σαι πάντα λες σκιά μου φίλη
και στρίβεις μ' ένα αντίο στο λιμάνι

Έξω κυλάει της πόλης το ποτάμι
δε μου 'πες στα ταξίδια σου τι είδες
αν όπως πήγες γύρισες, δεν πήγες
στου κόσμου το πολύχρωμο χαρμάνι

Δώσε μου την αρμύρα σου και πάρε τη βροχή μου
κι άκου τα λόγια που έλεγαν οι μύστες της ερήμου
φωτιά γυρεύει η φωτιά και η αγάπη πόνο
τον εαυτό σου δε θα βρεις αν δε χαθείς στον κόσμο
The mystics of the desert

Singer:  Ioulia Karapataki (first performance by Socratis Malamas)
Lyrics:  Alkis Alkaios
Music:   Socratis Malamas


Our breath has blurred the glass
and you talk about the years of saltiness
in front of empty beer bottles
with the sight pinned to the ceiling

Outside the city's river flows
you didn't tell me what you saw in your journeys
if you returned as you went, you did not go
to the world's colourful mixture

Give me your saltiness and take my rain
and listen to the words spoken by the mystics of the desert
fire seeks fire and love [seeks] pain
you won't find yourself if you don't get lost in the world

Our breath has blurred the glass
and you with a bay leaf in the lips
say you'll always be my shadow friend
and turn with a farewell towards the port

Outside the city's river flows
you didn't tell me what you saw in your journeys
if you returned as you went, you did not go
to the world's colourful mixture

Give me your saltiness and take my rain
and listen to the words spoken by the mystics of the desert
fire seeks fire and love [seeks] pain
you won't find yourself if you don't get lost in the world

To my mind, this song talks about authenticity. Being genuine presupposes speaking and behaving in honesty. Honesty is not the same as the age-old exhortation parents have for their kids to not tell lies. It is, above all, a matter of self-reflection, of recognising what the case is and how one operates within or due to it.

I have experienced people in different situations. For example, a heterosexual male acquaintance would be funny and relaxed while with me, but would act all serious and alpha-male-like in the midst of females. Why? Because being relaxed and funny is “childish” while conforming with the chimera of the “alpha male” is supposed to be what “real men” do. Such a person needs to reflect on their reflexive behaviour. Why does the presence of the gender they are attracted to cause this change in disposition? Will they keep this charade forever or will they eventually tell the women how they were acting this whole time? And who is the “real” person, anyway? My funny and relaxed acquaintance or the sociopathic “macho man” made out of him?

Honesty has to involve awareness of one’s condition. It needs to be conducted consistently, in a spirit of dubitativeness and inquisitiveness. It does not remain at the level of appearances; at the stage of not “telling lies”. Instead, it delves into the specifics to inquire about the underpinnings of phenomena.

[ Read/watch: Who can be a philosopher ]

Honesty involves discipline. There isn’t a boss that compels one into action, forces specific conditions, and sets clear targets. Rigour has to come from within. In one’s private world, honesty can only reveal what the person is willing to discover and what is rendered perceptible by their current attitude.

One may be formally honest, in the sense of not telling any lies, yet still withhold the truth from their self. A way this can happen is by never exiting one’s comfort zone. The person always does what has worked for them and never challenges their subjective narrative of selfhood. As such, their behaviour is conditioned by their comfort zone. In turn, the feedback of those actions serves as validation for—and rationalisation of—the comfort zone’s presumed significance. Too much comfort may be the sign of complacency, else a sweet delusion.

[ Read/watch: On insecurity, confidence, and aloofness ]

To be honest with consistency, one must be prepared to disturb their own truths. Inspect them again, put them to the test, and check whether they still stand. Through life experiences we learn that what we once took for granted is now exposed as a falsehood. Oh, how many lies I used to consider as self-evident truths!

Returning to the lyrics of the song, we learn how the poetic “journey” has the potential to remake the person. Those who travel only to return unaltered never experienced the “journey”. Perhaps they were not paying attention to their surroundings. Maybe they were invested in notions they had already established and had grown attached to. Or they simply got stuck in a snapshot of the past or an aspiration for the future, unwilling to let go and to simply experience the here-and-now.

[ Read/watch: On learning and being present ]

The reason one can find their self once they get lost in the world is because only such a sense of loss triggers an escape from one’s comfort zone. The truth is not always pleasant: it comes with great costs and requires sacrifices.

Who are the mystics of the desert? “Mystic”, “mysticism”, and related terms denote initiation in a school of thought or discipline. This involves knowledge: the mystic is profoundly knowledgeable, while mysterious is that which we lack knowledge of—it is not inherently unintelligible. And what about the desert? It is a metaphor for the loneliness that defines the mystic’s life. The mystic is alone. Not because they dislike society or think that having company is somehow bad. Not because they have an inflated sense of importance and are arrogant about it. The mystic is lonely due to their quality as a mystic: others simply do not understand what the mystic has to offer and/or are intimidated to go beyond the formalities with them.

The mystic is essentially invisible to the inattentive eye: too basic and unimpressive in their appearance and too subtle in terms of substance. Alone then.

One may find the truth in this “desert”, in this state of being where they can no longer rely on conventional truths and such conveniences. Are they ready for it? Do they understand how that feels?