"Do you know what an aphorism is? It’s not exactly a Haiku, a proverb, an axiom, nor a poem, yet it harnesses the power of all these. Aphorisms are an ancient form, but its current-day master is Yahia Lababidi.
Like a sip of wine, a wave just as it breaks, a sliver of the moon, or a drop of rain, each of Yahia’s aphorisms appear as simple, natural gestures, that in fact hold multitudes of meaning rooted in the eternal.
See for yourself what I mean in this video of his most recent book which he hopes to publish through an innovative crowd-sourcing publisher, Unbound, in partnership with Penguin Random House." —Richard Blanco, Barack Obama's inaugural poet
Long before Twitter, Yahia Lababidi began writing aphorisms as a teenager in Egypt, more than twenty years ago. Featured in Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, alongside the likes of Voltaire, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, Lababidi’s first book of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere, was selected for Books of the Year, by The Independent. Signposts went on to be translated into Arabic, with a generous introduction by the late, celebrated Egyptian writer, Ahmed Ragab.
Since then, Lababidi aphorisms have gone viral online, been translated
internationally and used in classrooms (even religious services). Ken
Rodgers, of Kyoto Journal (Japan) wrote: “Lababidi's meditative
formulations echo the inquiries of the early Greeks, Confucius, de La
Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche, Pascal and Lao Tzu.”
Nearly 10 years in the making, Lababidi returns with Where Epics Fail: a new book of his latest, concise meditations. As novelist Kris Saknussemm writes in Epics’ Introduction: “The aphorism may well be regarded as one of the oldest literary forms, and yet, in this age of Facebook memes, text messages, and sound bites, it may be the most accessible and relevant form of literary expression there is.” As further testament to the Aphorism Renaissance currently underway, Lababidi was recently included in the first anthology of its kind, Short Flights, featuring 32 modern masters of the short form.
Aimed at general readers and lovers of language, aphorisms specifically resonate with those who appreciate wit and wisdom: pithy sayings, inspirational or spiritual sustenance in a sentence. The author defines his aphorisms as “what is worth quoting from the soul’s dialogue with itself.”
But, as an immigrant, Muslim and writer living in Trump’s alarming America, and a citizen of our increasingly divided world, Lababidi also views his work as more than a series of personal reflections. In the Foreword, Dr Mathew Staunton puts it thus:
“a collection of Yahia Lababidi’s aphorisms is like an atlas of tiny maps, each one guiding us calmly through a network of possibilities to a bright and often unexpected vista. Gem-like… we are confronted with his thinking on silence, pain, forgiveness… love.”
In that sense, this collection of over 800 new aphorisms is a kind of peace offering, addressing our shared humanity, and an attempt, through art, to gently alleviate the mounting fear and loathing, directed at those of different backgrounds/faith traditions.
“In Where Epics Fail , Lababidi is an aphorist of the spirit. While his aphorisms have his personal stamp on them, they also transcend him to speak of timeless truths within the timely. They create microsms that teach us how to inhabit them. His aphorisms could form a new gnostic religion, and I could dwell a long while inside them. Yahia Lababidi may be our greatest living aphorist.”—Sharon Dolin, poet
“Where Epics Fail”: Yahia Lababidi’s Magnum Opus (So Far) - The Huffington Post. Read here
"Where Epics Fail"– Yahia Lababidi’s New Aphorisms Collection on Unbound - 2paragraphs. Read here
What these humble one-liners can teach us about the times we live in - PBS. Read here
Meet the Egyptian-American Writer Whose Work Was Priased by Barack Obama's Inaugral Poet - Cairo Scene. Read here
Yahia on the The Visionary Activist Radio Show - Coyote Network News. Listen here
Welcoming Back Yahia Lababidi on the The Visionary Activist Radio Show - Coyote Network News. Listen here
The saga of aphorisms - New Indian Express. Read here
Where Epics Fail: On the enduring power, and beauty, of aphorisms - Ceasefire Magazine. Read here
An interview with Yahia Lababidi - The Idries Shah Foundation. Read here
Growing up in Egypt, surrounded by Wit
Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. Wit and verse were always sport, and a kind of national pastime, during the three decades I lived there. Never mind that around 50 percent of the population were actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. “Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks” an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).
Which is to say, proverbs were always our street poetry as well as philosophy. They were our oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insights from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observations. Proverbs can be like coral reef, that way, fossils of ancient philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this type of wisdom literature, as well.
Collage of author in the White Dessert, Egypt
Only recently, am I beginning to fully realize what it means to have been raised in this culture where aphorisms were viewed as both common utterance and a sort of magical invocation. I grew up with grandmothers, both maternal and paternal who, at times, spoke almost exclusively in such sayings - a string of proverbs, sing-songy, witty-wise remarks, for every occasion.
Also, being half-Lebanese myself, meant that Gibran Khalil Gibran, popular poet and philosopher, was an early and inescapable influence. I even suspect such matters of stylistic heritage might have been written in blood. I was named after my paternal grandfather (Yahia Lababidi), a musician and poet, who passed away long before I was born, yet passed on to me a love of song, intravenously. When, in my late teens, I found that I could unburden myself in verse and aphorism I felt that, for the first time, I was beginning to earn my Name.
Lately, in the United States at least, there seems to be an Aphoristic Renaissance - something I would never have imagined when first I started practicing this deceptively slight art (anachronistically, I felt) over 2 decades ago. The practitioners of the contemporary aphorism tend to be poets, and bring to them a poetic sensibility. Recently, for example, I’m pleased to be part of an anthology, Short Flights , which draws together the work and musings of 32 leading pioneers of short-form writing.
Sentenced to Silence, Liberated by Aphorisms
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 space 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.
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 felt like 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. Unaware of it, at the time, 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 talking back in the margins of my books, transcribing the heady conversations that I was having with myself and the authors. 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 would feverishly scribble it down in the dark, without my glasses — out of the same superstitious cautiousness of scaring off the ideas.
These aphorisms were to reveal me to myself and served as a biography of my mental, emotional and spiritual life. I wrote as I read, 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.
Remarkable, now, to consider that 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. Mysteriously, after a decade or so of aphoristic silence, I’m secreting them through the pores, again, and I find myself with a new collection of over 800 of these brief arts, Where Epics Fail.
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 that it’s thin and flat and I’m standing at the edge of it. 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 before 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. Whereas when I started, precious few knew what an aphorism was, nowadays, it seems everyone on Twitter suspects they might be an aphorist.
I'm thrilled to learn, over the weekend, that a short selection of my aphorisms from Where Epics Fail has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, by Tiferet Journal.
Tiferet publishes high-quality poetry, prose and art that further meaningful dialogue about what it is to be humane and conscious in today's often divisive world.
It's gratifying that excerpts from 'Epics' are receiving such recognition…
By way of background, Idries Shah was my first proper introduction to Sufism — not as an art form (think of the great Persian poets, Rumi and Hafez), but as an art of living.
So, it’s especially humbling, now, to be invited by Shah's foundation to submit aphorisms from 'Where Epics Fail' and do this short interview.
I hope you enjoy the read,
Nearly 5 months later, I return to talk on the radio with the seriously playful Caroline Casey, of The Mythological News Service :)
In this zany, hour-long conversation, we discuss: my visit to Egypt (after nearly 12 years away), the art of aphorisms, as well as the role of belief and literature in an Age of Intolerance.
I also read an excerpt from my cover story for the November issue of…
First of all, thanks, for your patience! Work on the book cover begins next month and I will make sure to share that once it’s ready.
Meantime, here’s a book reading from Where Epics Fail, in Austin, where I was recently invited to take part in the Texas Book Festival:
I hope you enjoy it and wish you well with your own adventures, Yahia
I hope you've been doing well and enjoying the summer.
A belated, hearty welcome to new book supporters, since last I posted, and here's latest press coverage to share with you:
Among film and sport achievements making Egyptians proud, in 2017, I'm honored to see my 'Epics' included: http://m.cairoscene.com/Buzz/15-Achievements-Egyptians-Have-Made-in-2017-Thus-Far
"Lababidi's soon-to-be published aphorisms may prove to be the most relevant literature of our generation... His Egyptian upbringing exposed him to our timeless and pervasive 'amsal shaabiyya' (proverbs and sayings), which spurred his interest in a very social form of poetry and philosophy. It is well known that Arabs, and Egyptians especially, can be very clever with language...
Passed down from…
Deeply grateful for this great coverage of my new book, by PBS NewsHour's Elizabeth Flock:
"The aphorisms in “Where Epics Fail” exhort us to pay attention, believe we can make a difference, keep our hearts open in the face of pain, take responsibility for our actions, avoid ego and do the hard work that comes with sticking to ideals."
Here, is the link to read the full article:
A short press piece on why I chose my new book title, Where Epics Fail, and what I hope to achieve through it:
I hope you enjoy this little article, dear book backers (last I checked, around 170 souls!) and, if so, that you might share the link with folks you know who might appreciate …
1st Book Review of "Where Epics Fail" in HuffPost =)
May 8: HuffPost are promoting 1st book review of *Where Epics Fail* in their books section! Read, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/where-epics-fail-yahia-lababidis-magnum-opus-so_us_5908af86e4b05279d4edc003
We did it, 100% of funding reached!
My book, Where Epics Fail, will be published, thanks to all 112 backers who…
These people are helping to fund Where Epics Fail: Aphorisms on Art, Morality and Spirit.